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Friday, Sept. 26, 2008
For you, two secret nightmares
Boston's Gardner Museum is one of the city's hidden gems, tucked away in the Fenway near a quiet expanse of park, just a Hulk-sized home run's distance from where the Red Sox play, yet seemingly a world away from the sports bars and peanut vendors. Walk a block in either direction and you'll hit a few cautious drug dealers lolling about, or a gay cruising zone, but on the Gardner's stretch at least, an Old World dignity prevails.
The Gardner was always a joy to visit; despite a bland exterior, entry into the museum revealed a large garden courtyard modelled on the Palazzo Barbaro's exterior. Wandering through the museum itself was a singular experience: there was no "theme" per se, just an idiosyncratic collection of European fine art and bric-a-brac — from stained glass to statues — that spanned centuries, enlivened by the fact that every now and then you'd step into a room and discover a Rembrandt or a Vermeer.
The museum was bequeathed to the public by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1865-1920), who demanded that it be left untouched after her death; the museum itself was her artwork. And so it continued in its casual, unpretentious way until March 18, 1990, when thieves gained entry to the museum at night, bound the guards, and made off with the museum's most impressive paintings: Vermeer's "The Concert," three by Rembrandt, a Flinck, five by Degas, and a Monet.
"Stolen" is a documentary by Rebecca Dreyfus that looks into the history of the Gardner, the crime, and the efforts to nab the thives. Dreyfus is fortunate in that she has a hero better than any screenwriter could dream up: Harold Smith, the world's top "fine-art detective," an anachronistic old gentleman, like William Burroughs without the profanity. With his eye patch, bowler hat, and severe skin condition, he seems like someone who would step out of the shadows in a David Lynch movie.
The film follows Smith in his investigation, while also interviewing reporters and cops who attempted to solve the crime. The trail leads deep into a shady underworld involving South Boston's Irish mob (last seen on-screen in "The Departed"), and the IRA, with FBI informants and a cabal of ex-con art dealers thrown into the mix. Like Morgan Spurlock's recent "Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?", "Stolen" stakes a lot on solving the mystery, but comes up short. Despite this failure, it still offers a fascinating glimpse into a world usually cloaked in secrecy.
The same could be said of "China Blue" a documentary on a Shaxi factory making blue jeans for export. Director Micha X. Peled spent many weeks filming within the Li Feng Clothes Ltd. factory — with the cooperation of management, who seem to regard themselves as a model operation — until his actions came to the attention of the authorities; his crew was arrested and interrogated, for the crime of reporting on something as mundane as labor conditions.
Why is that? Well, the one essential truth that nobody can say these days is that China's economic success — and that of the many Western companies subcontracting there — is based on the most heinous exploitation of its workers. Peled could have made an overtly political film on this, but instead he just focuses on the young women who work at one factory. And they are all women, for — as the factory's gormless owner Mr. Lam points out — they are "docile" and easily controlled.
We meet Jasmine, just out of high school, and her friends Orchid, Jade and 14-year-old Lee Pin, who work on a line cutting loose threads, attaching zippers, and stitching up waistlines too big for them to comprehend. (Jordache is one label glimpsed in the film.) They live in company dorms, 12 to a room, with no lives outside of work. They're paid pennies an hour, and often work marathon shifts until they're literally collapsing at the tables.
Lam practices the time-honored scam of all shifty bosses: always be late paying and hold several months' worth of your workers' salaries; that way, no matter how lousy the job, people hang in there because they don't want to lose what they've already earned. Of course, in a country with workers' rights, this is harder to do. But that's why everyone loves doing business in China.
Jasmine is a bright teenager, who keeps a diary that is heart-rending in the gap between her dreams and the reality she finds herself in. Of her friends, only Orchid — who enjoys being a vamp and dancing to pop tunes — seems to have the drive and vision to imagine a way out of her dead-end job.
"China Blue" will make you despair, and the factory being documented isn't even one of the worst. This is the way the world is run, Peled shows us, a throwback to Dickensian conditions and pitiless exploitation. It will also make you very pissed off. In a week where we've been asked to cry for those laid-off Wall St. brokers who can't afford their private jets or Prada any more, save your tears instead for Jasmine and her friends.