Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Syriana complements but does not overlap with Munich. It’s an ensemble movie of interwoven plots, in the style of Crash, Traffic, Magnolia, and others—though its range of characters is narrower. It focuses on Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a U. S. operative who tends to be something of a maverick; a mid-level financial analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon); Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a lawyer investigating corruption in two oil companies seeking to merge; and two young Palestinians being courted by radical Islam. In the background are the oil companies and the Arab nation (much like Saudi Arabia) and peoples whose lives and welfare are at issue.
The thesis is that oil companies, nations, and individual whose careers are on the rise are all in bed with each other, that national agendas are being set not by what is right but rather by what is profitable.
The presence of Bob Barnes reminds us that there was once a time when such an arrangement was not in place. He began his career at a time when espionage was based more on issues of national security, and of doing the right thing, than of making money. Or at least he probably likes to believe. Barnes has long hoped to rise in the espionage establishment and is dissatisfied with the state of his career, but there is the clear implication that once upon a time he actually acted on the basis of patriotism, of morality and ethics. Few others in the film do the same.
The unifying link in the film is two brothers who hope when their father dies or retires to become Emir of their sheikdom. The older brother is shallow and corrupt and is clearly willing to do whatever his father and the oil companies and the nations behind them want. The younger brother, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai, well played by Alexander Siddig, is branded a communist and terrorist by the CIA for not wanting to cooperate with the oil companies; he wants instead to build his nation’s economy, prepare for a time when oil will not be in high supply, and in general apply civilized ideas to improve the welfare of his country. The film suggests that such altruistic motives are not the concern of western or middle-eastern governments. When the older brother is chosen Emir, Nasir decides to depose him.
The film explores the efforts of various individuals, governments, companies to support and oppose the two brothers and their objectives.
I liked Syriana, but I had difficulty with its use of fictional nations and companies and issues rather than factual ones. The themes of Syriana directly link to the fictional scenarios it presents. The underlying premises of the film are that oil companies and national governments—specifically the U. S. government, but also Arab governments and other western governments—will bribe, cheat, and kill in order the keep oil flowing from the Middle East to the West. These premises may be true. But in the film they’re grounded in fictional scenarios, albeit scenarios grounded in the factual realities of the present day. The writers of Syriana were able to make these fictional scenarios fit the ideas they wished to convey. We don’t live in a fictional world. We live in a real world, and we have to deal with the real problems the real world presents. People might want to believe in the scenarios and conclusions of Syriana, but they need accuracy and truth rather than fictional assumptions. I would have been more comfortable with a documentary that presented these conclusions using the historical facts that are available. But the film is intelligent and compelling nonetheless.
Clooney is the outstanding actor in the film, as the CIA operative who finds himself displaced and scapegoated when an operation he has been asked to carry out goes awry. Also effective is Chris Cooper as oilman Jimmy Pope, who tells the lawyer investigating corruption in his oil firm, “Dig six feet, find three bodies. But dig twelve feet, you find forty.” But what is remarkable about the film is how strong and well portrayed are all the characters. There is hardly a weak link in the large cast.
Syriana is less willing than Munich to recognize the ambiguities surrounding its subject. Many of the characters are easily identifiable as “good” or “bad.” But there are a significant number of characters who traverse the territory in between. Syriana explores more directly than Munich the idea that governments often sell out their own cherished principles for the sake of expediency and money.
Cinematography in Syriana is excellent. It at first reminded me of the washed out tones of Traffic, but I did realize that because the film largely takes place in the arid middle east, the many shadings and tones of white and brown are not the washed out colors of digital enhancement but the actual colors of the Middle East.
Both Syriana and Munich offer pessimistic views of human nature, of governments, and of global capitalism. But Munich seems to suggest, in an oblique way, that a different approach to foreign policy and to terrorism may bring about better results. Syriana ends in a darker, grimmer way. Bryan Woodman, like Avner, returns to his family, but he goes back because his efforts are defeated—his family is his last resort. In Munich the family is where Avner seeks to start his life over—it is where he wanted and intended to end up from the start of the film. In a general way, their endings may not be much different, but Munich offers a subtle, muted hope for change while in Syriana there is only despair
Monday, June 26, 2006
There was Fellini’s Casanova, starring Donald Sutherland. There was Casanova’s Big Night, starring Bob Hope. There were and have been many others, one of which is the recent Casanova, starring Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller. This one is dumb but entertaining and often funny.
The film credits say that Casanova was filmed on location in Venice, and there are numerous shots of the city up close and from a distance. But there is much digital enhancement in evidence, and it is often difficult to tell the real from the illusion. That is the nature of Venice, a city that would have died 400 years ago were it not for tourists. Venice today is as convincing as Frontierland, but more visually compelling. Much of the film appears to have been shot on set, though perhaps the set was in Venice.
Heath Ledger, who plays the title character, was the stunningly inarticulate Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. Here he has a quite different part and is almost unrecognizable as the actor who played Ennis. He does a good job here, but the part was probably not much of a challenge.
My favorite character is the pope’s inquisitor, Pucci, played by Jeremy Irons. He is impressively ominous and dimwitted.
Also effective was Casanova’s sidekick, Lupo, played by Omid Djalili, who was the doorman Nassim in the short-lived Whoopie television series. Oliver Platt plays the role of Paprizzio, a hog fat dealer. At first he seems simply a big, narcissistic hog fat dealer (you know the type), but his part gradually develops in a comic and surprising way.
This film may entertain and amuse, but if you nap here and there you won’t miss much.
Friday, June 23, 2006
Despite the focus on action and what may amount to a revenge plot, Munich is a film of ideas and issues, and it is easily the most cerebral film Steven Spielberg has made. But its cerebral nature is tied up with the action, and with the reasons underlying the action. It is also an genuinely engaging film that draws one into the lives and situations of the characters. Munich is a fictional film based on the premise that the Israeli government sought to assassinate 11 conspirators involved in the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. According to the film, the Israeli government hires a Mossad agent and former bodyguard of Prime Minister Golda Meier to lead a small team of assassins. His name is Avner. Over a period of several years he and his team kill seven of the conspirators along with a number of collateral victims.
The film traces the efforts of the team to carry out its mission. But the real focus falls on Avner and his team—how they respond as a group and as individuals to their mission, how they are individually affected by the acts they commit.
Although the main characters are Israelis, whom we follow as they carry out their mission, Munich for the most part takes a neutral point of view. It narrates the story from neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian point of view, though it is sympathetic to both. It shows the leaders of Israel trying to decide how to respond to the murder of the athletes. They conclude that they must violate their own fundamental principles in order to protect their nation. It suggests that violence in the cause of national defense or retribution may have consequences as undesirable as the crimes that are being answered. It does not excuse terrorism and murder at the Munich Olympics, but it does try to explain them. It also views the members of Black September and other terrorists as human beings, not as villainous stereotypes, but as individuals who feel compelled to take certain measures in defense of their beliefs. In presenting the Israelis and the terrorists in this way, the film is distinctively daring and confronts the viewer with his own prejudices and preconceptions.
I must restate the previous paragraph. The film is told from the viewpoint of Avner and is focused on the operations of his team. But the assignment he is given is cast in doubt from the start. Golda Meier's government is uncomfortable with it and even as Avner is given the assignment he is told that the Israeli government will not acknowledge his team in any way. So even as the film explains the assignment and why it is necessary it raises questions about the legal, moral, ethical issues involved. The film never loses sight of these questions and issues. At the same time, it makes a point of treating both the Israelis and the Palestinians, including the terrorists, as human beings--in assuming this neutral position the film takes a controversial and daring treatment of its topic. It is daring because it is so at odds with what one would expect--it refusaes to accept the usual stereotypes and political attitudes one would expect from an American film about Israel and its response to terrorism. The film is never hostile to Israel--it simply seeks to consider whether the response Israel takes to terrorism in the film is the right response.
Munich takes as its text the maxim that no hand lifted in violence remains unbloodied, that every violent act has consequences. This is a text of particular relevance for our times. (Manohla Dargis writes in her New York Times review: “Only this matters: blood has its costs, even blood shed in righteous defense.”)
Key words in the film are family and home. We first see Avner as a family man, married to a beautiful wife whom he loves and who loves him. She is pregnant, and there is the clear glowing promise of the child she will bear and the family life they all will share together. In service of his nation, Avner sacrifices all of this, at least for a time. At one moment, midway through the mission and far from home, he calls his wife and their child, now a year old, says a word to him over the phone. He weeps, and the moment is heart wrenching.
The members of Black September are defending home as well. In a somewhat incredible scene, the Israeli team finds itself sharing a “safe house” in Greece with a group of Palestinians. Neither group knows who the other really is, though they recognize each other as Israelis and Palestinians. One of the Palestinians tells Avner that “Home is everything,” and this becomes a justifying principle for both the terrorists and the Israelis who are trying to kill them. The Palestinians blame the Israelis for the loss of their homeland and for every misfortune that has happened to them. The Israelis answer every act of Palestinian violence with a swift and brutal response. The cycle seems endless.
The film expresses a pervasive distrust of organized governments, of nations. It makes clear that there is a marked difference between homeland and nation. Governments pursue their own goals and exploit individuals such as Avner to do so. Individuals don’t matter. Despite the fact that the Israeli government believes that killing the terrorists is essential for national security, it does not want to be associated with the killings—they are being carried out covertly, beyond the pale of international law. It therefore enlists Avner and his group to do the killings and then severs all connections with them--as far as the government is concerned, they don’t exist. Avner’s contact with the Israeli government (played by Geoffrey Rush) tells him as much. When Avner returns from his mission, a government official gleefully tells him that “Of course, there is no award for this.” Governments don’t want to be associated with the violence they commission. For the sake of self-preservation, governments resort to brutal acts of violence, of immorality, they would never publically condone, that blot out the identities of those who are commissioned to commit them.
Violent acts have consequences. One violent act begets another. This Old Testament adage of an “Eye for an eye” has a self-contained quality that seems to suggest that a retributive act cancels out the original act of violence. Instead, as Munich suggests, one violent act begets another violent act that begets still another; the cycle perpetuates itself endlessly. In Munich characters often talk about how acts of violence make murder necessary. Whether the violence is committed by Israelis, or by Palestinians, the meaning is essentially the same. The controversial and unusual position the film takes is that the Israelis have made their own beds, by their own brutal retaliations against Palestinian acts of violence, and now they have to reap what they have sown. The Palestinians are not exempt from this vicious cycle—they too have made their beds and are equally implicated.
Nations are implicated as well. At one point Avner learns that the CIA is making payments to one of the Black September terrorists so that Americans will not be targeted. American money helped fund the Israeli team. At the end of the film, the twin towers in the background of the final scene put an additional touch on the notion of violence begetting violence, implying that the U. S. was involved in that sequence of events leading up to the apocalyptic culmination on September 11.
The film questions whether issues of right and wrong, morality and immorality, have meaning anymore. Avner somehow comes into contact with an information agent, a man whose family sells information for an appropriate price. The family claims to have no political motives and in fact says it will refuse to do business with Avner if they learn he is working for a government. For four to eight hundred thousand dollars each, the agent sells Avner the name and whereabouts of the terrorists. The first time Avner visits the family (they seem to live either in France or northern Italy), he finds them having a picnic, with children running to and fro. It is an idyllic, warm, comfortable family setting. The agent’s father expresses fondness for Avner and wants Avner to call him father. Yet later in the film it becomes apparent or at least likely that this family is selling information about Avner in return for money as well. Their loyalty is to money, nothing else. This is the film’s supreme emblem of corruption and perversion.
The final issue is the decay of Avner as a human being, his growing immunity to the acts of violence he commits. He becomes, in a sense, what he is seeking to kill.
In the film’s penultimate scene Avner makes passionate love to his wife. At first he doesn’t respond to her, but in his mind he begins to envision the murder of the Israeli hostages at the 1972 Olympics. He is aroused. The point here is complicated. On the one hand, murderous passion replaces love. On the other, Avner will never be able to rid himself of the violence in which he has become mired—the violent deaths of the Israeli athletes, his violent killings of the terrorists. This man who began this film as a family man, looking forward to fatherhood and a family life, ends the film paranoid that his family is being targeted for death and unable to think of anything but death.
The film implies that in the modern world everything is decentered. Traditional values are meaningless, though we still invoke them. Nations function independent of their citizenry, which they manipulate in pursuit of their own ends. Vengeance no longer belongs to God but becomes a weapon of justification. Civilized individuals are reduced to brutal killers, and brutal killers are also seen for what they are, civilized men. It’s a world where the civil, domestic existence that Avner and his wife hoped for is an illusion, a chimera. It’s a world where the motivating concept of home loses its meaning in the wake of what must be done to defend it. We may think we are acting on the basis of principle, in carrying out whatever acts of warfare we find necessary, but Spielberg suggests that in the end principles are hollow, or perhaps that principles are nullified by the acts carried out to defend them.
Spielberg’s film does not in any sense ignore or justify the Munich murders. They are horrible—physically and morally repugnant. But by trying to see them in a context larger than one of political or national rivalries, it seeks to make a statement about violence and retribution in the modern world. The film’s failure to view the events in Munich from one nation’s point of view, its willingness to question the Israeli government’s way of dealing with terrorism and its enemies, its exploration of the terrorists’ point of view, undoubtedly made it a challenging experience for many viewers. I suspect this accounts for many of the equivocal and negative reviews the film received, and for its failure to garner many major award nominations.
Munich is too long. It loses focus and momentum in the last thirty minutes, and it wanders around trying to come to a resolution, trying to show how Avner attempts to deal with himself and his family in Brooklyn. All of this seems an afterthought that lacks dramatic tension, but it does effectively show how Avner has become a tormented shadow, imprisoned by the memory of actions he carried out because he believed they were necessary, which he still believes were necessary, but which have distorted and wrenched him so that he has become a wraith.
This is a powerful film, both emotionally and intellectually. It is the best film Spielberg has made.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
In The Ancestor’s Tale Richard Dawkins narrates human evolution backwards, from the current point in time into the past, stopping at each point where the line of evolution converges with another line in a common ancestor, which Dawkins calls a concestor. Dawkins pretends that he is organizing the book in the same way as Chaucer organized his Canterbury Tales, but in fact this is just a pretense. With a few minor exceptions, Dawkins tells the concestral stories in his own voice. He moves backwards, systematically, through 36 or so points of convergence, until finally he reaches the starting point, the origin of life, which for Dawkins means the moment, some one billion or two billion or three billion years in the past, when a complicated set of chemical molecules developed the capacity to replicate themselves, and to pass their basic characteristics on to their replicated offspring.
This organizational pattern at first seemed perverse, but finally it worked. Dawkins uses the opportunity posed by each concestor to discuss the species, phyla, and specific evolutionary issues the concestor raises. By the end of the book, he has covered most of the major and many of the minor forms of life on the earth. Not surprisingly, mammals get a lot of emphasis.
Dawkins is the author of the The Selfish Gene, an influential and well known book that I found harder going than this one, though the length of The Ancestor’s Tale, 614 pages of text, not counting notes and bibliography, was a challenge. He is one of the leading geneticists in the world, and well known as an arch evolutionist, an opponent of all who would substitute supernatural explanations for science. He does not hesitate to admit points where science as yet remains uncertain. A primary example is the presence of “wheels” that spin on a central hub inside a large number of microorganisms. Advocates of intelligent design point to this element as proof of a Creator—they believe it represents too complicated a feature for evolution to produce alone. Dawkins, though he does not know how to explain the presence of these wheels, is confident there is a scientific explanation. He bases this confidence on the fact that for so many other aspects of life there are logical, scientific explanations. He doesn’t discount the existence of a supreme being, but he doesn’t accept any such being’s role as necessary in the process of evolution.
Dawkins can be cranky. He stops now and then to complain about George Bush or war policy. He takes potshots as the opportunities come along at creationists and others who reject evolution. This adds flavor and vigor to the book. But these are minor undercurrents. His main focus is on evolutionary processes and the development of life.
My favorite chapters were the early ones in which he discussed recent evolutionary developments leading up to modern humans. His discussion of our shared common ancestry with chimpanzees, and the divergence of our two evolutionary paths some seven million years in the past, is fascinating. The further back in time he moves, the more challenging the book becomes. It is easier to identify with a gibbon than it is with a shrew or a sponge. He often stops along the way to talk about various scientific concepts, such as continental drift and its effect on human evolution, or about dating techniques used by biologists in speculating when certain events occurred, and so on. He is always willing to consider various scientific explanations for why certain things happened. He is never willing to accept supernatural explanations. He has a passionate faith in the power of science to explain, a passionate faith in the all-encompassing power of evolution.
I especially enjoyed the chapter on the development of eukaryotic cells, that is, cells that incorporated bacteria in their structure to accomplish various purposes. Their development made the development of more complex life forms, such as our own, possible. I also enjoyed the discussion of the development of multi-cellular organisms. I was particular interested in Dawkins’ insistence that evolution is not necessarily a process of improvement. Rather, it is a process of development, from point A to point B. Creatures that exist today—bacteria, sponges, elephants, people—do not represent organisms that are necessarily more “advanced” than organisms from the past—they are merely evolved. They represent another step in the evolutionary process. Late in the book, Dawkins does talk about the notion of progress, and how it can, in a sense, happen as a result of evolution.
A major development in evolutionary biology since I began to study it in high school in the 1960s is the use of molecular analysis. Rather than relying on morphological similarities in fossilized bones, scientists can analyze with relative certainty the DNA and other organics properties of organisms and determine how closely they are related to each other. This process of analysis is in fact what makes this book possible: it enables Dawkins’ effort to trace human evolution, and the development of life itself, back some billion years and further.
What the backwards narrative structure of The Ancestor’s Tale allows Dawkins to do is discuss the development of life, the process of evolution, and the great biological diversity that has developed on this planet over the past four billion years.
For those of us schooled in the humanities, conditioned to anthropomorphize, to view the human being as the center of all things, Dawkins' method can be unsettling. Humans from his point of view are simply organisms; their distinguishing characteristics are their large brains, their use of language (unique among animals) and their capacity for self-reflection and abstract thought. Life for Dawkins is a series of chemical reactions and biological processes. He is confident they can be explained in a cold, rational, logical way, using the scientific process. One may at first resist this way of looking at life and our existence on earth, but Dawkins is confident, logical, and informed, and he gradually wins you over.
In the final chapter, Dawkins grows reverential. There is a clear sense of piety, but it is piety for the diversity and complexity of life on earth, and of the human mind’s ability to study, appreciate, and ultimately to understand it. Concluding, he writes:
“Pilgrimage” implies piety and reverence. I have not had occasion here to mention my impatience with traditional piety, and my disdain for reverence where the object is anything supernatural. But I make no secret of them. It is not because I wish to limit or circumscribe reverence; not because I want to reduce or downgrade the true reverence with which we are moved to celebrate the universe, once we understand it properly. “On the contrary” would be an understatement. My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They represent a narrowing down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer. 
Monday, June 19, 2006
The 1938 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood is always fun to watch, but it does raise the question of how long such films will retain their venerated status as classics. This film represented the state of the art in filmmaking when it was released. It was one of the first color films, and the costumes are bright, often primary colors and even garish by modern standards. The red hat worn by Robin’s sidekick is astonishing. The sets are well designed and painted. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s soundtrack still stands up as one of the best examples of music composed for film. The film is undeniably exciting and entertaining. The action rarely falters. My 16-year-old son watched it with me last night, and he admitted to liking it, despite the fact that I virtually commanded him to sit through it with me.
The overacting in the film, especially by Errol Flynn, who at times seems fueled by too much coffee, is part of the fun. His eyes, in particular, whether they are shiftily squinting or wide open in surprise or ironic glee, are fun. But they’re also laughable—we laughed several times last evening at moments when the film didn’t aim for laughter. Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian is good, and in fact I much prefer her performance in this film to the weepy and saintly Melanie of Gone with the Wind. The characterizations are broadly drawn—there is little nuance or depth to them. Basil Rathbone is adequately snarly as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, requisite villain and ally of Prince John, evil brother of the absent Richard the Lion Heart. Robin himself is full of swagger and energy, but the only way we know he is not simply a braggart and blowhard is through his actions--defending the poor and opposing tyranny. Our modern sensibilities expect heroic characters to act the part, rather than merely to act it out. In this regard, of course, Robin’s two-dimensional character looks forward to Hans Solo in the Star Wars series and to Indiana Jones in that eponymously titled series as well.
Film is a medium that relies to a great extent on technology. Film technology has advanced remarkably since 1938. As good as Robin Hood is, it often shows its age. My son noticed one of the spears flexing like rubber when it hit a wall. The filmmakers did their best to overcome the technical limitations they faced. The acting, the characters, the imaginatively conceived setting may overcome these limitations much of the time. The final sword fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy is still impressive and exciting. The cinematography is soft and tends to romanticize the landscape and setting. The look of the film is specifically reminiscent of N. C. Wyeth’s book illustrations for the Robin Hood story. Modern cinematography would probably treat the landscape more realistically, but in this case the 1938 technology serves the storytelling better.
To what extent does Robin Hood’s heroic defense of the poor and opposition to tyranny reflect the conditions of the American Depression and the menace of Nazism on the rise in Europe?
I can imagine a time when this film may cease to impress contemporary audiences, when it might become more of an anachronism and a joke than an entertainment, when the melodrama and the formulaic array of secondary characters who trample on one’s cultural or political sensibilities in one way or the other sap the film of its vitality. For now, The Adventures of Robin Hood still puts later film versions of the story to shame.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Filmed in black and white, Festival is a time capsule of those years during the 60s before Woodstock and before the counter culture had reached full flower. But you can see it coming in the film, both in the performers and the people in the audience. The film is at its weakest in the interviews it features with performers and audience members who are asked to talk about folk music, social protest, and problems in contemporary America. Most of the comments are foolish and uninteresting and, from the 2006 perspective, dated, even anachronistic. Son House’s comments on the meaning of the blues, and Michael Bloomfield’s comments on Son House, are exceptions.
The music is not dated at all and gives this film its power. One wishes only for more of it, and that the film did not cut many of the performances short. Among the best performances are those by Odetta, Son House, Howling Wolf, Joan Baez, and Dylan. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band gives an outstanding performance, as do the Freedom Singers, the Staple Singers, and many of the others. There is a short but remarkable performance of “Walk the Line” by a young and probably under the influence Johnny Cash. All of the performances are good. It is wrong to single any of them out.
The film features the first number in Dylan’s famous 1965 electric set, “Maggie’s Farm.” I had heard the performance was weak, the music sloppy, but if the film is any indication it was quite good. Elsewhere in the film he performs “All I Really Want to Do,” part of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and rehearses “Like a Rolling Stone”—his real break with the folk movement. Each time Dylan ends his performance, the audience chants, almost desperately, “More, more!”
By the performers it presents, and the order in which it presents them, Festival explores the relationship of the American folk revival in the 1950s to traditional folk music, to the blues, to Appalachian and country music, and to the civil rights movement. Despite the many famous African American performers who appear, only a few African Americans are in the audience. At this point in its history the Newport Folk Festival was mostly for white people. When Howling Wolf performs, you do see a small group of African Americans enjoying his singing--but everyone in the audience enjoys him. He may give what amounts to the most astounding performance in the film. The audience listens respectfully to most of the performers. For Howling Wolf, there is astonishment and an intense visceral reaction—everyone sways and swings.
The movie was made at a time when for white audiences African American performers represented victimization, suffering, and authenticity. There were not yet accepted on equal ground and were instead regarded to an extent as case studies, as symbols of a problem. There is a certain patronization, and the film tends to present the African Americans as a group, one after the other, rather than spreading them out in the film. But the fact they are there at all is significant and evidence of how music, especially the blues and the folk traditions, helped begin bridging racial divides in America. The performances by Howling Wolf, Son House, the Staple Singers, Fred McDowell, the Freedom Singers, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others, alone, make the film worth seeing.
Festival reminds you of the importance of Pete Seeger, of the fact that Joan Baez sang beautifully. It reminds you that Peter, Paul, and Mary, despite their commercial origins, were really good singers and an important part of the music scene during the 1960s. Mary Travers was a dynamic presence whose face and body language expressed her moral and emotional commitment to the words she sang. Her swaying blonde hair is an instrument of power and commitment. My discovery from this film was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which I shall now go listen to, along with the many Appalachian and blues musicians featured.
I never attended the Newport Folk Festival, but as I watched this film I kept looking for myself in the audience.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Hustle & Flow is difficult to categorize because it seems so different from many other films. With its focus on the Memphis ghettoes and a man trying to break out of the life his circumstances, and his own inclinations, have forced him to, it is like such films as Rocky and Working Girl and many others—though in its details it is decidedly unlike these films. In its story about the struggle to write and record a song (which becomes a metaphor for transformative change) it is like any number of serious and silly films about celebrity and the quest for fame—here the focus is more on transformation and escape—we see little of what happens after the song is recorded, and a great deal of what happens as the characters work to write and record the song and find a way to bring it to public attention. As I struggled to make connections with this film, I was reminded of any number of analogues, some of them far removed—the old Andy Hardy films of the 30s and 40s often included a subplot about putting on a show and earning money for whatever reason. That Thing You Do, about a one-hit wonder group, is another connection.
But I found it most satisfying to view Hustle & Flow on its own grounds, as the story of the main character Djay’s life as a pimp and his struggle for self-expression. All of the primary characters in this film are distinctive, and above everything else, including the music, they make this film memorable. Foremost among them is Terrence Howard as Djay. He is the film’s center and heart, and he brings the main character to life and gives this film much of its energy. The film begins as he is monologuing to one of his prostitutes about the meaning of mankind and his lot in life. I was immediately reminded of the monologues in Terrence Malick’s films as well as the intense apocalyptic monologues of Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, though Djay’s monologues seem always intended as a means of exploring and presenting his sense of his own situation.
Although Djay apparently has a number of whores working for him, his favorite, the one he refers to as his partner (meaning his business partner), is Nola (Taryn Manning) a truly skanky blonde white girl whom he apparently picked up at a truck stop. She grows and develops throughout the film—she catches the enthusiasm of his desire to record a song and wants to be a part of it all. She hates being hot and longs for air conditioning. At the end of the film she has become his obsessive promoter, using her own skills to ensure that Djay’s song gets the airplay she believes it deserves. Djay’s love interest is Shug (Taraji P. Henson). She comes across as extremely pregnant and frightened, in general, but perhaps frightened of Djay in particular. Whether she is pregnant with his child is unclear. He pays her little attention early in the film and begins to appreciate her only as she helps contribute to the recording session by providing background vocals for the song. As she realizes her own potential as a singer, she comes to life. She is a powerful and poignant presence. Also effective is Key (Anthony Anderson), who produces and helps write Djay’s song. Key like Djay finds himself living a life he didn’t plan for, and Djay’s desire to rap becomes his own opportunity for escape. D. J. Qualls is a white drug salesman and sound engineer who brings humor to the film.
The film doesn’t glorify or romanticize pimps and whores and their lives. But it does not spend time condemning them either. It helps us understand them and what they experience. It is difficult to watch the film and come away with any sense that it approves of the lives it portrays. There is clear sympathy, empathy. It does strongly suggest that many of the people who live these lives have no alternatives. In Djay and Nola there is a strong longing for another kind of life. Djay’s mid-life crisis is not different from that of many men in their 30s and 40s. His sense of entrapment and failure, his desire to justify himself and to do something that matters, gives the film a universalizing interest. So too does the gradual transformation he undergoes, from a selfish and self-absorbed man who often mistreats the women who work for him, to a man who appreciates generosity and kindness and learns to embody these qualities himself. Such a transformation may seem trite, but in the context of the film and especially of Djay’s character it is convincing. Also convincing is the way he bungles (a major bungle) his meeting with a popular rap artist whom he hopes will help find an audience for his song.
Having never visited Memphis, the home of the blues and of Sam Philips (to whom the film is dedicated) and of course of the King Elvis, I cannot assess the film’s accuracy. But the speech of the characters seems distinctive and convincing, and the settings, with dilapidated low-rent row houses that may be in bad shape but that people do live in and care about, seem real. And although the film give quiet homage to the musical heritage of Memphis, that heritage is present in the film more by implication than by outright fact. When Djay and friends record their first song, they have to build their own recording studio and beg radio disk jockeys and others to give it airplay. The establishment music industry of Memphis is nowhere to be seen.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
In this film, set in northern Mexico and released in 1956, an American and Mexican cattle rancher compete for business in a small country town. The American rancher is about to make a big sale, and the Mexican rancher is jealous. His pretty fiancé is attracted to the American, which doesn't help matters. As a result he plots to run the American out of business and out of town. As a complication, a tyrannosaur lives in the nearby swamp and emerges in times of drought to eat cattle and people who happen to be in the way. Frankly, the tyrannosaur is the most interesting element in the film, which is too bad since the tyrannosaur is really a bore.
The beast is a combination of floppy rubber feet and stop-action photography. The film was billed as the first to combine color photography and stop-action special effects. Unfortunately, the special effects are fairly primitive and not up to the standards set in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen. (It Came from Beneath the Sea, 1955, is a much better film). They're not even up to the standards of the Godzilla movies. These filmmakers didn't know how to integrate special effects and live photography. The creature seems constantly to shift in size against the background. There is a lot of dead time as it walks back and forth and as the live actors appear to stare at it with no particular concern.
Although everyone seems to agree the creature has to be killed, no one seems surprised that it is there.
The film portrays the usual Mexican stereotypes and at the same time portrays some strong Mexican characters. Stereotypes are a source of comedy (a bumbling old drunkard, for instance) and of pathos (the little boy whose father--the bumbling drunkard--happens to become the tyrannosaur's first victim). There are some efforts to show Mexican culture--a colorful festival is taking place in the town. Unfortunately, a cattle stampede interrupts it. And then there is the quicksand.
The mountainous background scenery is beautiful. Scenery isn't enough. Because the story and acting are weak (Guy Madison, later to star in the Lost in Space television series, is a lead actor), and the creature is laughable, there are no real redeeming values in this film.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) may be what amounts to a B-level Japanese action film. It’s directed by Takeshi Kitano, who also plays the lead role. The basic premise centers on a blind masseur who wanders the countryside. He also happens to be an extraordinary swordsman, and at occasional moments (say, every 3 or 4 moments) he battles evildoers of one sort or the other, often in protection of the weak or vulnerable. There are plenty of evildoers around.
Two subplots involve a independent ronin warrior, Hattori, who is seeking to regain his standing after losing it in some unspecified incident, and two geishas who overheard the slaughter of their family by a gang and vowed to avenge the crime. Oh, yeah, one of the geishas is really a man. He never appears out of costume.
Comedy, action, pathos, surrealism and madness all intermix in this film. One scene seems borrowed straight from Bollywood cinema. The film is a kind of character study of the characters at the center of the three main plots, which is not to say that it goes very far in explaining them, especially the blind swordsman. We know more about the past of the geishas than we do about Zatoichi or Hattori. Zatoichi in particular remains inscrutable to the end. We know little of his past. He is self-effacing, quiet, almost elderly in his demeanor, until confronted with the necessity to fight. He seems to suffer over having killed the people he kills, but if he does suffer he does not hesitate to bring out the sword again when necessity requires it. The film often switches to scenes from the past of these characters—past battles of Zatoichi, the geishas struggling to survive on the road after their parents’ murders, Hattori in battle or with his dying wife. These scenes provide an explanation for the events of the film’s present time—explaining how the past and the present link up in a consequential way governing the actions of the characters. But we never know enough about Zatoichi to do more than speculate about the events or forces that govern him.
Violent swordplay abounds in this films, with blood splashing everywhere during the battle scenes – digital blood as well as blatantly obvious fake blood, though it’s not particularly gory. You see the blood, but no open wounds or severed heads and only a few severed limbs, caterwauling through the air in slow motion. The speed and ruthlessness with which the gang members and evildoers are dispatched is astounding and brutal.
The best analogy I can think of for this film is the American western—many others have drawn the same analogy with Japanese samurai and swordplay films. Zatoichi involves rival gangs trying to take over a town and trying to destroy each other. It is set in a non-descript time from the past, in the Japanese countryside. The small Japanese village where it is set has much in common with the towns in High Noon and Gunsmoke. The vanquishing of the rival gangs and their members is seen as a major step towards bringing order and law to the surrounding areas. The characters at the center of the three interwoven subplots occasionally interact or encounter one another, and there is a final battle between the ronin and Zatoichi, to which the film spends some time building.
There are moments of whimsy in the film—an overly large man in his teens or 20s, dressed in a sumo loin cloth, occasionally runs through a scene, screaming and waving a sword. We are told that he is a crazy boy who wants to be a samurai. He has no link to anything else in the film. At several moments the sounds of people working in a field or building a bridge take on a distinctive rhythm that must be associated with the themes and the pace of the film.
Ignorant of the traditions and conventions of this film, I watched it through my own American lens. Even without knowing much about the context, I enjoyed and admired it.
“She won’t understand the house,” moans Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), the matriarch of the old plantation house to which Caroline Ellis (Hudson) goes to take a job nursing a dying old man. The meaning of this ominous pronouncement is really a red herring, but it grips our attention for a while. Ellis is from Hoboken, New Jersey, and, yes, like Shreve McCannon, she doesn’t understand the South, at least not the South of this film. Nor would anyone else, probably. Caroline is an adventurous soul. There isn’t a single locked door or darkened passageway or ominous attic into which she doesn’t venture. The old adage of where there’s smoke there’s fire apparently never dawns on Ellis. The most ridiculous moment comes when she is in the darkened attic and there is a small locked room which her key (the “skeleton key”) won’t open. Moreover, something seems to be IN that room, rattling the locks and banging on the door to get out. Is it the mad woman in the attic? Is it Frankenstein’s monster? Is it Jimmy Hoffa? Like every good horror movie heroine, unarmed and dimly lit, Caroline Ellis enthusiastically attacks the door, trying to let out whatever is banging around in there. In a later scene she succeeds in getting into the room.
The centerpiece of the film is the 30-room Devereaux mansion. Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner knew how to use old Southern mansions, and their influence is faintly evident here. At least I wanted to think so. This old Gothic Southern mansion holds a hidden secret, it’s in that room in the attic, and you know it’s going to find its way out. It’s all tied up with magic and human depravity and evil and the history of the place. Part of the secret harkens back to a party at the turn of the century that ended in a lynching. The lynching is supposed to remind you that this story takes place in the South where every black tie dinner ends in a ritualistic murder of servants. By this point in the film, things are rapidly falling apart—not so much the events in the film as the film itself.
The first 45 minutes or so of this film were bad but tolerable. At least you had some interest in how the plot was going to play itself out, how all the ominous premonitions and foreboding hints and foreshadowings would congeal in whatever horrific consummation the film would offer. But in the last half the momentum builds and you know where the film is going, you know exactly where it is going, even if you don’t have the details.
The Skeleton Key would have you believe that every African American in Louisiana is somehow involved in dark magic. One black character, Caroline’s friend Jill, says she does not believe in hoodoo, but she is clearly afraid of it. Superstition and the occult are part of the ambience associated with the Louisiana setting of the film. Yet there is a kind of racism here that broadly indicts virtually every person of color in the film.
I was reminded of The Vanishing, a 1988 French and Belgian film directed by George Sluizer, in which events come to a conclusion remotely similar to the one in The Skeleton Key. Both films build a thick and moody atmosphere of ominous dread, but The Vanishing has an intelligent script, is well made, and offers an interesting psychological understory. I was also reminded of a 1987 film directed by Alan Parker, Angel Heart, also set partially near New Orleans and concerned with voodoo and the occult. It too builds to an ending with a dark if predictable twist.
The Skeleton Key will raise the hairs on your arm. It may also make you yawn. And if you’re from Hoboken, you may think you’ve learned something.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
It’s difficult to tell at any given time and place what factors conspire to influence and determine my critical judgments. Certainly personal issues come to bear, but so also does one's physical and emotional sense of being—how I feel, whether I’m hungry, my blood sugar and hormonal levels, the clothes I’m wearing, the person I've just argued with—all of these come to bear. I certainly do apply critical standards, consciously and unconsciously, when I judge a film or book. But these other factors apply as well, and they may be more powerful than any critical standards I apply.
I remember with pain and sorrow various moments of despair and aimlessness from my 20s. I enrolled in graduate school immediately after graduating college. This delayed the onset of adult reality. (For many people in my line of work, university teaching, the onset of adult reality is still waiting to happen). I remember one Friday evening, sitting alone in my apartment, elbows canted on a rickety metal desk in my bedroom, studying. In the dark outside, dogs were howling, children were yelling at one another, a cat yowled. I had nothing to do, nothing in the social sense—I didn’t have a date, hadn’t had one in months, had no prospect of having one for months more. I could imagine my life drifting on like this, endlessly, as I grew older and then died. This is how I remember my graduate school years—alone, in despair, no future. The few friends I had did make a difference.
I am not of the same gender as the main character in Shopgirl, and my circumstances were significantly different from hers, but it is from this remembered perspective of mid-20s despair that I watched and immensely enjoyed this film about a young woman waiting for her life to begin and not convinced that it ever will.
Steve Martin wrote the screenplay for this film, based on his short novel of the same title. Martin has written several fine small novels. He’s an intelligent, ironic writer with a canny sense of whimsy that one can associate with his comic stand-up routines. Roxanne (1987) was another fine film scripted by Martin. It is more exuberant and outright comic than this subdued and poignant film. Martin has appeared in films of wildly varying quality. Recently he starred in the unfortunate and unnecessary Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, and well as in the recent remake The Pink Panther, by all accounts a bad film. Is the problem that good film roles aren’t available for Martin? Or is it his own poor judgment—he did write the screenplay for The Pink Panther. But Shopgirl is quite good. Martin plays one of three main characters, but the lead character is Mirabelle Buttersfield, a salesgirl in her mid-20s at Sax 5th Avenue, played by Claire Danes, who underplays her role to just the right extent. The film is about her struggle to connect—she is lonely and reticent. She is waiting for something to happen, and it is just possible for her to imagine that something will not happen at all.
Shopgirl is about Mirabelle's romantic encounters with a young man who specializes in stenciling and with a wealthy and much older man, Ray Porter, played by Martin. While he is basically just out for a romantic relationship and for sex, with no permanent strings, she falls in love with him.
There is much one might find to criticize in the film—inconsistencies in character and in plot—but the film as a whole seduces you into overlooking those flaws and into falling under the thrall of the movie’s charm and its wonderful study of the characters played by Martin and Danes.
Cinematography is a noteworthy element. It transforms the landscape of Los Angeles into a dynamic setting against which the characters play out their lives. There are a number of distant shots of the unremarkable and nondescript apartment in which Mirabelle lives. The perspective emphasizes that she is one small part of a much larger scene, that she is a small speck in the urban sprawl. Much of the film takes place at night, and the lights of the city are always flickering in the distance. Los Angeles comes across as beautiful, huge, and impersonal.
The music is a strange combination of neo-romantic and minimalist. It works well and the film is edited in such a way that cinematography and music fuse to create the overall ambiance of the film and the internal rhythms of a number of scenes.
Surely many of the virtues of the film can be attributed to director Anand Tucker, whose previous major work was Hillary and Jackie (1998).
As Ray Porter, Martin plays the older man who picks out Mirabelle to befriend. He invites her to dinner, seemingly out of the blue, charms her with his courtliness, and it does not take long for them to become lovers. Although he is initially a likeable character, his desire to have a relationship with no future—a desire he does not effectively communicate to Mirabelle—and his inability to read her emotionally—or himself—gradually makes him less sympathetic. He is nice enough to her, but the more deeply she falls for him, the more he backs off. In many ways, she is little more than his mistress, though she never seems to think off herself in that way, and one can certainly argue that Mirabelle doesn’t think carefully about the nature of the relationship and some of the “no commitments” comments Ray makes to her. Some of the inconsistencies in characterization center on his character—who at one moment seems genuinely in love with Mirabelle and at the next moment is cold and unresponsive.
Part of the problem lies in the age difference between the two characters. Mirabelle is young and looking for companionship, for someone to connect to in a lasting way. Ray is thirty years older than she, and, we can assume, has been through at least one marriage (we see his ex-wife, briefly). He is not comfortable with intimacy, and relationships work best for him if he can periodically withdraw, as he does when he goes to Seattle, where he has a home and where his ex-wife lives. One might say that Mirabelle and Ray simply meet at the wrong time.
Jason Schwartzman plays Mirabelle’s other love interest, Jeremy Kraft. He is a gangly, silly, awkward figure and at points he seems more a caricature than a real human being. But he grows and changes more than any other character in the film, and though at the end he remains goofy, he has matured and offers an alternative for Mirabelle.
Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) offered a similar treatment of the patterns of love and romance, but Martin does not imitate Allen in his screenplay and instead goes his own way. I actually prefer this film to Annie Hall, which has not aged well, and whose immature one-liners have become over the years more and more painful. This film actually has more in common with Allen’s film Manhattan (1979)—his real masterpiece from the 1970s.
Shopgirl is a quiet film and perhaps a small one, but it is moving, sweet, and poignant. It has a deep understanding and appreciation of human character, especially of Mirabelle Buttersfield. This fine film makes up for any number of the clinkers in which Steve Martin has recently appeared.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Memoirs of a Geisha narrates the experiences of a young girl sold by her father to a geisha house. The film is an adaptation of the Arthur Golden novel of the same title.
This is a costume drama set in Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. It has most of the virtues and defects associated with costume films. Although the subject, setting, and characters are almost exclusively Japanese, the movie was made almost exclusively by Americans—the actors being the only exception. In exploring the geisha tradition, the film addresses a mainly American audience, which may explain the fundamentally romantic plot that frames the story—a young girl is befriended by a handsome older man and immediately decides to dedicate herself to becoming a geisha and finding a way to serve him.
Because Memoirs of a Geisha targets an American audience, I am curious to know how accurately it portrays geishas. To what extent do American preconceptions and stereotypes shape it? How did this film fare in Japan, if it fared there at all? It certainly seems to pay careful attention to details—costumes, setting, architecture—but are these details accurate? In particular it portrays often vicious rivalries and jealousies that govern relations between different geishas and geisha houses. Did such rivalries really occur? There is a documentary quality to much of the film, though this is faux documentary.
The film suggests that women who become geishas often do so because they have no alternative, that geishas have no identity of their own and instead take their identity from the men they serve. One would expect this focus to be reflected in the plot, that at some point the main character might break out and assert herself. Instead the film settles for a conventionally romantic conclusion. The film’s poorly hidden feminism turns out to be water, like the main character.
There is good acting. Ziyi Zhang (2046, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) plays the central character Sayuri (I disagree with Manohla Dargis’ criticism of her acting in the New York Times review) while the excellent Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) plays the older geisha who befriends and teaches her. Li Gong (2046, Eros) plays an older geisha jealous of Sayuri and determined to disgrace her. The setting is well exploited. The cinematography is beautiful. Rob Marshall is the director, and this film is by far the most challenging work he has tackled. The film and the characters are interesting, and in general the film is entertaining. But it lacks energy and keeps you at a distance.
The ending seems wholly at odds with what the film has seemed to argue about geishas and about Japanese culture.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Thursday, June 1, was Andy Griffith’s 80th birthday. I decided to commemorate this day by watching the 1958 film No Time for Sergeants. I first watched this film when I was about 10 years old. At the time I thought Griffith’s hillbilly act was hilarious and was especially amused by the latrine scene where Griffith, as Private Stockdale, causes the toilet seats to “salute” the inspecting colonel.
This film was based on the novel No Time for Sergeants by Georgia writer Mac Hyman. The novel was adopted for Broadway, where Griffith played the part he later recreated for the film.
Mervyn Leroy, a director of note in the 1930s and 40s, directed this film. He was in his final years as a director. This film shows none of the skill Leroy brought to bear on such earlier films as I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Mister Roberts.
Griffith made his film debut in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd (directed by Elia Kazan), a fascinating film about power, ambition, and the media. Griffith played “Larry ‘Lonesome’ Roads,” a bucolic Southern n’eer-do-well whose good looks and singing talent win him a place as a radio disk jockey and ultimately as a political candidate with national aspirations. Griffith’s performance as a deceptive, ambitious, ruthless individual is nuanced and complex. Ultimately, it becomes too over-wrought, but this first film shows that Griffith had real talent and promise.
In No Time for Sergeants he squanders that talent in a way that may have typecast him and cost him the opportunity to play more varied roles. As Will Stockdale he plays a good-hearted, naïve, uneducated hillbilly who is loyal to his friends and who dislikes bullies. When he is drafted, he goes willingly (even though his father has hidden the draft notices) because he believes serving his country is the right thing to do. He is a combination of Jethro Bodine from The Beverley Hillbillies, L’il Abner from the comic strip, and Huck Finn. He plays a simple but good-hearted bucolic Southerner, uncorrupted, a role that we have seen in any number of films about the South—especially some of the early Elvis films.
The script is poorly written and poorly paced—on a level with the Sergeant Bilko television series. No Time for Sergeants is one of a number of films made in the first two decades after World War II that address a viewing audience of former American GIs still interested in seeing films about the military. Told from the viewpoint of enlisted men, it shows the officers as distant, apathetic, and obsessed with maintaining rank and power.
(Curiously, the barracks where Stockdale and his fellow enlistees stay are integrated—there are several black enlistees living there with the white enlistees—but they are always in the background, always almost out of view. This may be a faint if half-hearted acknowledgement of the civil rights movement then underway).
Stockdale remains uncorrupted throughout this film, wholly unaffected and unenlightened by the experiences he goes through, which include parachuting out of a burning plane into a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb test. Everything in this film is played for laughs, but the humor is weak and strained, at least from 2006 standards. In A Face in the Crowd Griffith’s acting was over the top. Here he just seems to be occupying the role.
In The Andy Griffith Show Griffith played Sheriff Andy Taylor in the quaint and mild North Carolina town of Mayberry. Andy Taylor is considerably more domesticated than Will Stockdale. In Andy Taylor we see another kind of good-hearted, good-natured Southerner--a role that in one form or another Griffith played for most of the rest of his career.
Friday, June 02, 2006
This triptych of films by three master filmmakers is a disappointment. Supposedly an exploration of love—erotic love, desire—Eros (2004) is neither erotic nor interesting. The opening segment, “The Hand,” directed by Wong Kar Wai, narrates the life-long relationship of a modern-day courtesan and the tailor who makes her clothes. He is dedicated to her for a favor she did for him (alluded to in the title) when they first met. He is obsessed with her, despite her disdain for him and her general arrogance and cruelty. The obsession is difficult to understand. This is the best-made segment in the film.
Next is Steven Soderbergh’s “Equilibrium,” set in 1955, in which Robert Downey seeks help from psychoanalyst Alan Arkin for his recurrent dreams about a beautiful woman whom he is sleeping with in the dream but whom he cannot identify. The segment takes place almost entirely in he psychoanalyst’s office, and throughout much of the session, while Downey lies on the couch, Arkin stares out the window, often with a pair of binoculars, apparently at a woman whom he knows in a nearby building. This is one of those narratives where you’re never certain of the difference between the dream world and the real one—elements of each keep invading the other. If anything, this segment satirizes the age of psychoanalysis, when the psychoanalyst was the potential solution to all problems. This piece is interesting and fun to watch but ultimately of little consequence, though Arkin was excellent.
Finally there is Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” about a young couple in the process of breaking up. The poetry of Antonioni’s greatest films is barely evident here. On the one hand this segment comes the closest of the three to fulfilling the promise of the title—in the sense that it does directly concern love and sex--but on the other it is turgid, meandering, and meaninglessly portentous.
Films like this one rarely work. The whole is usually less than the sum of its parts, or one part so wholly overshadows the others that imbalance and asymmetry result.
Eros in our society has been reduced and trivialized. The mythos is gone. This film and its three distinguished directors do not restore it.