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Two worlds in black and white

click to enlarge Presley Chweneyagae is the hood in the hoodie in Tsotsi - COURTESY OF BLID ALSBIRK/MIRAMAX FILMS
  • Courtesy of Blid Alsbirk/Miramax Films
  • Presley Chweneyagae is the hood in the hoodie in Tsotsi
In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes the tsotsis, or thugs, that terrorized the populace of the black townships of his youth. "Life was cheap; the gun and the knife ruled at night. Gangsters--known as tsotsis--carrying flick-knives or switchblades were plentiful and prominent; in those days they emulated American movie stars and wore fedoras and double-breasted suits and wide, colourful ties."

Such hoodlums stand at the center of the new film Tsotsi, Gavin Hood's post-apartheid adaptation of South African playwright Athol Fugard's only novel. However, just about all political content has been bled from the story. What we have instead is a modern-day ghetto weepie in which our hero imitates the American hip-hop manner of holding his gun sideways, palm facing down. A character who was once Fugard's version of Bigger Thomas, the illiterate anti-hero of Richard Wright's Native Son, has become a contemporary thug who needs to learn to accept personal responsibility for escaping his predicament.

Hood's film is acted in the Tsotsi-Taal tongue, the patois heard on the streets of Soweto. It is also the name given to the film's anti-hero, an orphaned and illiterate street punk played by an amateur actor named Presley Chweneyagae. Tsotsi is the leader of a small gang of vicious thieves, a feral creature who lives only according to the fulfillment of his immediate needs. He has no family and no future, and he apparently has no other name.

The film's plot kicks into gear when Tsotsi makes a typically impulsive decision: One night, while standing in the rain in a posh neighborhood, he needs a car, so he carjacks a BMW and shoots the inconveniently protesting woman who owns the car. Naturally, there turns out to be a baby in the back seat. Although the cold, unsentimental Tsotsi is inclined to abandon the infant, he succumbs to the stirrings of paternal emotion and takes the baby home to the one-room shanty where he lives in Dostoevskian squalor.

While the central conflict is a promising subject for a drama, Gavin Hood's direction of the material is relentless in its underlining of the obvious and its avoidance of the social, economic and political conditions that condemn millions to live in misery. These conditions were noted in the considerably better City of God, an opera of the Brazilian slums that also managed to show its kids in possession of a sense of humor, funk and style (in addition to drugs and guns).

The main source of uplift in Tsotsi is the soundtrack of South African hip hop, a style known as kwaito. But that creative, defiant energy is in short supply in the world of Tsotsi, a world that is filmed in a brownish glow, almost as if the sun itself turns down its power for that part of the world.

Earlier this year, Tsotsi won the Oscar for best foreign film, beating out two other films that have been recently released in the Triangle: the somewhat less excruciating Joyeux Noël and the much superior Sophie Scholl. All these films pale next to the suicide bomber thriller Paradise Now, the Palestinian entrant that saw a Triangle release last year. It's not clear why the Academy judged Tsotsi to be the best of this crop, either on aesthetic or political grounds. One wonders if the same people who were turned on by the safely irrelevant treatment of race and class in Crash also responded to the phony grit of Tsotsi.

But the extent to which the Oscar-winning Tsotsi avoids politics--even though it's post-apartheid--is remarkable. Even racial conflict is airbrushed out: While it might be a sign of progress that the affluence of the baby's black parents is presented without comment, it also seems to deny some very basic tensions in South Africa. The novel, which I haven't read, sounds like a story that engaged directly with the economic and colonialist forces that were arrayed against South African blacks. It was, in fact, written in the darkest days of apartheid--the early 1960s, the era of the Sharpsville Massacre--by an earnest young Fugard, who abandoned the manuscript until it was discovered and published by scholars two decades later.

Despite the fact that the movie Tsotsi doesn't offer anything like a useful depiction of the conditions that turn humans into criminals, Athol Fugard has given the film his enthusiastic endorsement, calling it "one of the best films to ever come out of South Africa." Perhaps this is so, but it doesn't make Tsotsi any less leaden or lugubrious.

Ina galaxy far, far away from the Soweto township, there is a place called Los Angeles, a land of plenty where the crumbs that fall from the table are quite tasty. When the world of Tsotsi crosses the minds of the creative class there, a movie like Crash is the result. But Friends with Money, a new comedy from Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing), shows upper-class L.A. at its most self-absorbed, self-pitying and self-loving.

We're introduced to a small circle of friends, and most are in the midstream of successful lives. Anxiety is intruding, however, and the individuals have taken to comparing notes on each other, from the quality of their homes to the frequency of sex. Holofcener's smart but not showy dialogue is sharp as ever, but in this not terribly riveting slice of Beverly Hills angst, her subjects are less than sympathetic. While the women in the social network range from Catherine Keener's fragile and clueless screenwriter to Frances McDormand's depressed and angry couturier, the men are real pieces of work, failing to satisfy their women either from an excess of masculinity or a dearth of same. It's a final joke--or insult--of the film that the limpest, most pathetic and flaccid man ends up being the biggest catch of all.

The best reason to visit this particular vicious circle is the ultimate Friend herself, Jennifer Aniston. Her Olivia is the failure of the group, a woman who quit her job as a teacher to pursue the promises of housecleaning and heavy pot smoking. Olivia is the dropout that we can identify with, someone who finds posh charity events a scandalous waste of money and somehow can't seem to figure out how to make the money that her friends seem to make with so little effort. Passive but hardly harmless, Olivia does some kinky things like stalking a married ex-lover, sneaking rides on women's vibrators and trysting on the job with a temporary boyfriend (the hilariously loutish Scott Caan).

Aniston may be annoyingly ubiquitous on the supermarket checkout line, but she's a fine and sympathetic comic performer. Over the years, she's built up a formidable résumé playing dropouts and losers adrift in the service industry. Her role in Friends with Money is a worthy successor to the ones she played in Office Space and The Good Girl--as well as the TV show that started her career, Friends (Without Money). Aniston may be pushing 40, but here's one who wishes for her slacker years to last a little longer.

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