Movie Songs

An Extraordinary Documentary About the Most Precious of Lives

May 24, 20244 Mins Read

It’s rare to see a film that feels not just poetic in nature, but like actual poetry. The rhythm and cadence, the imagery and metaphor, even the sense of movement and time that often accompany a great poem don’t translate easily to the screen. Filmmakers need a light touch and trust in the viewer to lean in and let their work wash over them, rather than trying to decode everything.

Margreth Olin somehow pulled it off — and in a documentary, no less. Her “Songs of Earth” (in theaters) is tough to categorize as anything other than poetry, though there are elements of nature photography and personal narrative woven throughout.

At the center of “Songs of Earth” are the relationship between Olin’s parents, Jorgen and Magnhild Mykloen, as they age, and the spectacular landscapes of her native Norway. The film moves through a cycle of seasons, during which the terrain changes from green to brown to white and back again. At the center of that terrain is Olin’s 84-year-old father, who returns repeatedly to the Oldedalen valley, in the western part of the country.

Olin’s father tells her stories of his life and their ancestors. She learns about tragedies, about surgery he underwent when he was young, about the way the world has shaped him and his life. Both of her parents — who have been married for 55 years — talk about their relationship and what the future may hold for them, with grief inevitably on the horizon.

The gentle stories are marked by periods of silence that are never silent: The earth produces its own noises of ripples and blusters and crackling, melting ice, sometimes harmonizing with a gorgeous score by Rebekka Karijord. It’s really quite an experience to watch, and what might tie it all together is Olin’s decision to film her father’s skin at very close range. There’s a point being made there: His wrinkles and crevasses echo the landscape, which has also been shaped by time and forces of nature. In the span of the earth’s life, an individual human’s time is minuscule, yet precious — we are the planet in microcosm.

It’s an altogether extraordinary film, one I’ve thought about often since I first saw it, and I’m delighted that it’s playing in theaters — the immersive nature of the sounds, music and landscapes are worth experiencing with the full concentration a cinema affords. But even if you can’t see it that way, it’s worth watching whenever it’s available digitally. Just make sure you close the door, dim the lights and give yourself the gift of being immersed in it fully.

Queen of the Deuce” (in theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms) is a curiously flat recounting of the life and titillating times of the adult-theater entrepreneur Chelly Wilson, one of the most vividly eccentric characters in the history of New York City.

A Greek Jew who snagged one of the last boats to New York in 1939, a whisker ahead of the Nazi occupation, Wilson wasted no time transforming her hot-dog stand into a thriving pornography empire. From the late 1960s to the ’80s, she played a pivotal role as the owner of multiple theaters, an importer of pornographic films and, eventually, a founder of her own production company.

Ensconced in her apartment above the all-male Adonis Theater, Wilson, who died in 1994, held court among entertainers, Mafia dons, a roster of possible female lovers and shopping bags stuffed with cash. (Her Mob connections are as politely glossed over as her intriguing private life.) Cozy interviews with her children and grandchildren reveal a woman who rarely spoke of her past, including an arranged marriage to a man who repulsed her.

Tastefully directed by Valerie Kontakos, “Queen of the Deuce” is the story of a shape-shifter: a twice-married gay woman, a Sephardic Jew who celebrated Christmas. The style is stilted, the look rudimentary, with Abhilasha Dewan’s cheeky animation supplying an occasional visual lift. — JEANNETTE CATSOULIS

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