Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck

Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (2000) by Martin Geck, translated in 2006 by John Hargraves, with a forward by Kurt Masur, begins with a chapter describing the lives and careers of other Bach biographers. Then comes a chapter discussing where various Bach manuscripts are located. By the end of that chapter, with its wooden, deadening prose, its hyper-cautiousness, its overly speculative nature, its straining efforts to account for minute details, the book is off to a poor start. Relatively little is known of Bach's life. One hundred thirty pages into this book he is in his late 30s, and we have little sense of him as a living human being, the creator of masterworks. He remains a cipher, his face occasionally rising to the surface through his own letters or the letters and journals of others or through court documents. His first wife dies and no one takes notice—at least there is no record of the notice taken, though there were young children in the family. Geck makes nothing of this potentially tragic moment. He suggests that Bach continued on unperturbed. Little more than a year later he marries a 20-year-old girl, Anna Magdalena, a musician herself. He spends several days in jail for seeking release from a church where he serves as concertmaster. He runs up bar bills. He is argumentative and arrogant. During the first two decades of his career he moves often from one church to another, his fame gradually growing. A prince befriends him, but Geck does not explain what it means to have a prince as a patron. Bach's life might come more to life if Geck would do more to illuminate his world, but he can't manage that—we have page after page of bare facts, assumptions, speculations, hypotheticals, dry recitations of what was and might have been. This scholarship is too cautious. It kills interest in the figure it so lovingly and carefully seeks to portray. I give up. Perhaps this book was written for musicologists and not for lay readers. Perhaps it is Bach's poorly documented life that is to blame. Or perhaps a fundamental failure of imagination is to blame.

A few sentences I marked: "Bach was not a prolific composer; rather, he tended to concentrate on just a few projects and models over a period of time. Yet we wish we could form a picture of him as an orchestral composer as distinct as that of the composer of works for keyboard and organ or of cantatas. The fact that we cannot raises questions. It seems certain that not all of the orchestral compositions from Cöthen have survived, but it would be an anomaly in the history of Bach's works if the number of lost orchestral compositions was very large." The next few sentences contains such words and phrases as "conjecture," "reasons unknown," "contrary to some speculation," "seems far more likely," and so on. A biographer writing about an individual about whom little is known faces a real problem. Does one speculate and hedge and guess for page after page?

The titles of most of Bach's works are given in German: e.g., "Sei Solo senza Basso accompagnato" or Klavierbüchlein or "'Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,' BWV 13." I don't read German. I don't understand or recognize the notations (BWV 13). Even so, I am not an idiot. A translation for people such as me would not sully the writer's principles.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton (2007) examines the life of a compromised man wandering lost in a dark wood. He's been wandering long enough that he can hardly remember where the woods began. The main character Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is divorced. He picks his young son up each morning and drives him to school; there is, we learn, a distance growing between them. Clayton has worked for the same law firm for 18 years but hasn't been named a partner yet. Instead, he is a fixer, someone who solves other people's problems, who has a real knack for finding solutions. There's a certain shadiness to what he does. He describes himself as a "janitor." His self-image, if we want to use the term, is low. Does this mean that he lacks the legal skills that would allow him to become a partner? Or does his ability to stay below the line of visibility makes him more valuable to the firm than he would be as a partner? Or are his own flaws the obstacles? He has a gambling addiction, and though he tells someone in the film that he hasn't gambled for years, one of the first things we see him doing is play cards. His strong loyalty to his family, especially his wayward brother, forces him into difficult situations. Early in the film we learn that he has assumed a large debt incurred by his brother and that a loan shark is pressuring him, threatening him, for payment that he can't deliver. He also works for a law firm that specializes in defense work for a chemical company whose products have apparently caused hundreds of deaths. His firm is defending the company against a law suit that could cost billions of dollars in damages. Michael Clayton is a compromised man, damaged goods, and one of the questions explored by the film is whether he's content to stay that way, especially when confronted by the crisis of a best friend and close colleague.

Michael Clayton begins in medias res. We first see Clayton engaged in a series of actions that in and of themselves seem unimportant. We see him playing cards, taking his son to school, advising a man involved in a hit and run incident. Then something of importance happens that leads to the climactic event of the film. To explain what this means would deprive the film of its tension, interest, and suspense. This includes the most interesting, beautiful, and mysterious scene in the film. The opening scene lasts some fifteen minutes. Then the film shifts four days into the past, and begins moving forward in time towards the opening scenes (which it basically presents to us a second time), then moving past them. In that context, the opening scenes are suddenly fraught with meaning and importance. Events that meant nothing now have great significance. Films that begin in the middle of the action and then shift back to the past to trace events that lead up to the opening present moment are not that rare. What is rare is to find a film that uses this device so effectively as Michael Clayton.

In certain ways Michael Clayton is formulaic. It presents us a theme we have seen before, that of a compromised man faced with the question of whether to redeem, himself, even if at the cost of his career or his life. What makes this film successful is how creatively and thoughtfully it works out the formula. This is a film of characters—of Clayton himself, his colleague Don Jeffries (Ken Howard), whose breakdown during a deposition precipitates a crisis, of Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the hyper-anxious and competitive CEO of the chemical company who is willing to resort to any means, however drastic or contemptible, to defeat her adversaries, of Clayton's friend and colleague Marty Bach (Sidney Pollack), who may also be his worst enemy, of many others, including a performance by a barely recognizable Michael O'Keefe.

The world of this film, where lawyers who love their families and do their best to lead responsible lives defend chemical companies that pollute the air and water and cause people to die, where CEOs plot assassinations, where a man who suffers a breakdown out of guilt and self-loathing becomes a problem when he turns against the company he is supposed to be defending, when a man's desire to protect and aid his brother becomes the means by which he is sucked in to deeper and deeper transgression.

In Michael Clayton the means by which the title character seeks redemption is itself a betrayal of the men who have betrayed him. Michael Clayton is still in trouble at the end of the film. We can't know exactly how that trouble will manifest itself. He climbs into a taxi and gives the driver a fifty dollar bill and asks to be driven around for as long as the fifty dollars will last. As the taxi twists and turns its way through the streets of New York City, another taxi follows closely behind. Is someone following him? Is this a coincidence? Probably—New York City is full of yellow taxis. Still, the taxi that is following the one in which he is riding is an emblem of what will be following (or that he might imagine as following him) for the rest of his life, however much longer that life might be.

Michael Clayton encourages paranoid fantasies about evil polluting mega-corporations. It invokes ideas and images of the mystery beyond the reality we inhabit—the mystery that might in the end help us make sense of the broken and compromised lives we live—even Clayton's eight-year-old son feels this.

George Clooney was nominated for Best Actor for his work in this film. (He won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Syriana). It's easy to think of Clooney as an actor with two faces: the comic face (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Oceans 11, 12, and 13) and the serious face (Syriana, The Good German, Good Night, and Good Luck). These may indeed be the two faces he has to work with. They are sufficient. In Michael Clayton Clooney is an extremely effective and distinguished actor.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Smokey and the Bandit

When I first began teaching in my current position some 31 years ago, America's youth, or at least the youth of the American South, were entrenched in a country-western phase. Boys sported moustaches and wore wide brim Western hats and wide leather belts. Trans-Ams were the rage. Girls had big hair. Chewing tobacco, unfortunately, was in style. My wife and I attended a Doug Kershaw concert, and the "yee-haws" echoing back and forth across the coliseum were deafening. Partially responsible for this phase was the film Smokey and the Bandit (1977), starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields. My recollection, which admittedly might have become exaggerated over the years, is that the film played for at least a year in the town where we live. It was wildly popular.

Another cultural phenomenon from those years was Coors beer, manufactured in Colorado and not yet distributed east of the Mississippi River. Because of its unavailability in the eastern United States, Coors beer acquired a mythic reputation—manufactured from the pure clear waters of the Rocky Mountains, better tasting than any beer in the world, etc. People who traveled to Colorado would bring back cases of the beer for themselves and for friends. In Smokey and the Bandit, the Bandit is hired to transport four hundred crates of Coors back east. Supposedly such importation was illegal--at least in the film it was--but in reality such transporting of beer was entirely legal.

All of this is to suggest that in its day Smokey and the Bandit and its two lesser sequels were a cultural phenomenon in and of themselves, and part of a larger cultural phenomenon that had to do with the American South, the election of Jimmy Carter, the ascendancy into mythic realms of CB radios and truck drivers, and of course the career of Burt Reynolds, who during the 70s and 80s specialized in good ol' Southern boy roles in such films as Gator, White Lightning, The Longest Yard, W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, Deliverance, and others.

Early on Smokey and the Bandit establishes the main character's profession as a "bandit," one that exists outside the normal boundaries of law and order. Although his real name is "Bo Darville," he is hardly ever referred to as anything other than "Bandit" or "the Bandit"—his CB handle. The use of bandit—as opposed to criminal, outlaw, or crook—suggests facility of movement, a tendency to feint and parry, to flirt with lawlessness as opposed to rebelling against it, and as opposed to outright hoodlumism. This is banditry in the sense of Robin Hood, in the sense of moonshiners who insisted on breaking the law and manufacturing their product simply because they felt compelled to do so by the fact of the law that demanded they should not. We can recall here the specific example of the film Thunder Road (1958), where resistance to law and order becomes a matter of principle for the bootlegging character Lucas Doolin played by Robert Mitcham.

In Smokey and the Bandit, banditry has given the Bandit legendary status. He is known across the southern regions of the nation, at least among those who drive trucks and listen to CB radios, for his exploits—for the most part these exploits go unexplained, but we can guess what they were by what happens in this film. Of course, as the film begins, it appears that the Bandit has either retired or been co-opted or both. He is appearing as a paid attraction at a stock car fair, and we first see him lolling in a hammock, apparently sleeping beneath the western-style hat that covers his face. The film implies that the Bandit has given up his wild days, but the prospect of driving 1800 miles in 22 hours, hauling 400 crates of Coors beer back from Texas, and earning $80,000 for his efforts lures him from his lethargy.

Regardless of the mild and benign connotations of banditry, a bandit is still a bandit, a renegade individual at odds with the law. What defines this Bandit, making him both the hero and the erstwhile moral center of the film, is what he opposes. One aspect of the opposition is the law that forbids importation of Coors Beer. In fact, such a law did not exist when the film was made, or at any time before or after, but in the film the law helps place the Bandit in the same league as other purveyors of illegal goods that the general public desires: moonshine, tax-free tobacco, marijuana, other drugs. Even though these substances may be forbidden and even dangerous, they make the public happy, and the Bandit stands up for public gratification. A more obvious aspect of the opposition is Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice, played in the film by Jackie Gleason in an excessive and over-the-top example of flagrant overacting.

Although the Bandit is broadly portrayed by Bert Reynolds, he still seems an occupant of a real world. Justice, on the other hand, is a cartoon caricature on the same level as any number of characters from the Lil Abner comic strip, though less realistic. The ironically named Sheriff Justice is boorish, corrupt, racist, venal, vain, and wholly without scruples. His ineptness, along with that of others around him, especially his son, mitigates to an extent his numerous character flaws. Justice pursues the Bandit not because he is transporting illegal beer over the state border, or for reckless driving, but because the Bandit has picked up along the way the would-have-been bride of Justice's son. She has decided not to marry, and Justice intends not to allow her to get away with this affront to his honor. As the Bandit constantly outwits and outdrives Justice, the insult to his authority and character becomes all the more irksome, and Justice's resolve strengthens as a result.

Smokey and the Bandit operates within the Southern tradition of tall tales, ring-tailed roarers, and exaggerated humor. Old 19th century Southern humor emanated from the margins separating the frontier from more civilized regions—or from the memory of those regions, since much old Southern humor was written well after the frontier had receded. In 1977 the frontier is long gone. Highways, country roads, and rural areas in general have taken on the role of the vanished frontier. Instead of the hypocritical parsons and repressed elderly widows who populate old Southern humor, Smokey offers the character of Smokey himself—Sheriff Buford T. Justice--a corrupt law enforcement official. Two cultural and historical backgrounds affected the conception of Sheriff Justice's character. In 1977 the United States was still weathering the shock of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Georgia's former governor Jimmy Carter won election to the White House in part by appealing to the national desire for recovery and moral rectitude in the wake of the scandal. Politics in general was tainted with a fresh stench of corruption, and although the stench did not emanate from any specific geographical region, it was easy enough to focus on the American South as a place where corruption in law enforcement and government was more than familiar. The South's 20th century legacy of demagoguery and racist leaders helped encourage this tendency. The 1949 film All the King's Men focused on this very topic, and numerous films about the American South feature corrupt politicians and demagogues. In his novel The Mansion (1959) William Faulkner satirized Southern politicians in the character of Senator Clarence Snopes, a bombastic and compromised demagogue. Faulkner also named two characters in his novel As I Lay Dying (1931) for corrupt Mississippi politicians. Sheriff Justice is simply one in a long line of corrupt Southern politicos. The populist film drama Walking Tall (1973) works against type in its portrayal of a Tennessee sheriff who risks and ultimately loses his life in his effort to combat crime and corruption in a small Tennessee town. There the exception serves to confirm the rule in the linkage of corruption and the American South.

Smokey and the Bandit does not argue that all Southern policemen are corrupt. To the contrary. An Arkansas sheriff in the film is African American, highly competent, and more than capable of doing his job. Buford T. Justice wonders "what the world is coming to" when he encounters the black sheriff, and this racist questioning is one of the factors that distinguishes Justice from other good and capable Southern policeman. It is a particular kind of Southern sheriff at which the film takes aim.

At most, we see only small towns in Smokey. Much of the action takes place on the highway, on back country dirty roads, and in rural regions of the states through which the Bandit and Cledus drive. The big Southern or American city—such as Birmingham or Atlanta or Charlotte—is merely an implied potential in the film. We know that no one like the Bandit could drive like he drives in the big city. It is the presence of the rural regions—the Bandit's territory—that allow his existence to begin with. In the city he would be an anachronism, and he'd be arrested as well. Moreover, many of the people who live in the rural countryside are allied in values and basic beliefs with the Bandit—they idolize and mythologize the Bandit because he acts for their beliefs and values.

Smokey and the Bandit followed by nearly a decade another Southern film, Easy Rider. That film portrayed the South as a brutal place of racism and oppression. The South in that film is the obverse of the freedom the two bikers seek for themselves. Other films of the late 60s and 70s also gave expression to a revolt against authority. In those films authority was vested in the U. S. government, or in conventional and conservative aspects of American society—such as the Southern states—in which respect for authority resided. Smokey perpetuates this distrust for authority, but reconfigures it in a significant way—authority now resides not in just any faceless law enforcement official but in a corrupt policeman, Sheriff Buford T, Justice. The film's opposition to authority is not opposition to an unpopular war but instead is opposition to corrupt authority that can arbitrarily trammel on the rights of the individual, and against purported laws that forbid the importation of a particular brand of beer.

The film is at its least interesting when it focuses on Justice, who is too much of a buffoon. Frankly, the film is not very interesting when it focuses on the Bandit's developing interest in Carrie, the escaped bride of Justice's son. In 1977, Reynolds and Sallie Fields were a romantic item, but from the perspective of 2007, wherein Fields shills for osteoporosis medicine and Reynolds struggles to keep his hair piece on straight, the power of three-decade old gossip has diminished. The film is at its best when Reynolds and his sidekick Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed) joke around together, drive fast, and engage in carefully scripted one-liners.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

The first clue to the political stance of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) is the song with which the film opens: "The Glory of Love," written by Billy Hill in 1936. The key lyrics are

You've got to give a little, take a little,
And let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.

Giving and taking, the notion of mutual understanding and cooperation, are keys to the basic message of the film—we all need to learn to get along. And in the end, it's fun to try.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is dated and old-fashioned. It had good though cautious intentions. In attempting to promote its lessons of racial equality and harmony it didn't want to bruise anyone's sensibilities, nor did it want to offend. The result is a bland entertainment with good and bad moments.

Despite what people might argue in 2008, this film was probably more daring and controversial in 1967 than it seems today. Its message in 1967, when many Americans had reached the conclusion in principle at least that racial equality was a good thing, was that principles don't mean much if you can't apply them to real human situations. That is the challenge the parents in the film face when their beautiful and naïve young daughter comes home with a fiancé whom she met ten days before in Hawaii and who just happens to be black. His name is Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Hers is Joey Drayton (Katherine Houghton).

Joey's father, Matt Drayton, played by Spencer Tracy, is a well known San Francisco newspaper editor known for his crusading liberalism. He keeps a picture of Franklin Roosevelt on his desk. Although he believes in racial equality, he fears his daughter and her fiancé will face so many difficulties as a biracial couple that he opposes their marriage. On the other hand, his wife Christina (Katherine Hepburn), quickly concludes that love conquers all, and she supports the marriage. Prentice's parents take a similar position—the father (Roy Glenn) opposes the marriage, while the mother (Beah Richards) supports it. She suggests to Matt Drayton at one point that he is against the marriage because he has forgotten what it means to love a woman. Harsh words, these, and they inject an element of romanticism into a film that is already suffused with a romantic view of human relations. Women in this film represent romanticism while men stand for rational practicalities.

The film is full of contradictions. We understand well enough that the film really does promote the cause of racial equality and really does present the idea of marriage between John and Joey in a positive light. Yet there are caveats both obvious and not so obvious. Black people are both colored people and Negroes. Poitier plays not just any old black man. He is a wealthy and accomplished medical doctor known all over the world. He speaks with an articulate theatrical accent that makes him sound more like Rex Harrison than anyone else, and he scolds his father for being comfortable as a black man rather than as a "man." The only element that makes Poitier's character black is his skin. There's nothing average or typical about him. Although he and Joey clearly love each other, he tells Joey's father that he will not marry his daughter if her parents don't approve. Joey's parents—the white girl's parents--have to approve. What about his parents?—he doesn't show a similar concern for their wishes. We are also told that although Joey says she wanted to sleep with John, he refused her because "it wouldn't be right." Dr. Prentice is the ubermensch.

Tillie, the Drayton's black maid (Isabell Sanford), speaks with a heavy stereotypical African American accent. She sullenly disapproves of the match and says so whenever she has the opportunity. She believes Prentice is trying to rise above his place by marrying a white girl. Tillie behaves in a comical, stereotypical way that wouldn't be out of place in a film from the 1930s. Her daughter, on the other hand, is an attractive girl of the 1960s who accepts a ride with a delivery boy—they dance in what the film wants us to believe is an ultra cool and beat fashion out of the house and into a delivery truck. This is supposed to represent the youth generation of the 1960s—spontaneous and cool and full of free-form energy--whoever came up with the idea of having these characters dance out of the house had not spent much time with young people of the 1960s because that is not how young people of the 1960s acted—except maybe in films like this one or in Elvis movies or in Love American Style.

Of the characters with the strongest reservations about the marriage, two are black (Tillie and John Prentice's father) and one is white (Matt Drayton). Rather than either of the black characters, it is Drayton who comes to his senses and decides that the marriage must go forward, whatever the reservations. In his final speech, he speaks reprovingly to Tillie about her objections and suggests that John's father will eventually see the error of his thinking. A white man's enlightenment brings resolution to the film—not a black man's. This is, after all, essentially a film about white people reacting to and dealing with the reality of racial equality—it is about black people who have risen above their historically traditional station and are challenging the dominance of whites. It is not a film told from a black perspective, though, admittedly, we do hear the opinions of Tillie the maid (difficult to take seriously) and of Prentice's retired mail carrier father—both opinions are out of synch with the times.

The cinematic techniques in the film are old-fashioned: much of the film looks as if it were shot on a stage. When characters drive in a car, you recognize the artificial background moving behind the car.

Joey Drayton herself is not especially astute. Instead of a character whose personality and intellect reflect the strength of her convictions—her desire to marry a black man whatever others might think—she comes across as blithe and carefree, unaware of or indifferent to the controversy her marriage might create, indifferent to the fact that--her fiancé's race aside--she met him just ten days before the time of the film, unaware that her demand that her parents give their approval to the marriage in a matter of hours so that she can leave with Prentice for Europe might be impractical as well as insensitive. She's a dimwit ninny. Prentice himself actually expresses some reservations about the marriage, but they are lost in the hubbub and take us nowhere. He's fairly timid. His resolve becomes stronger only as he encounters opposition from Drayton and from his father and from Tillie. The only time he actually stands up for himself is in an argument with his father, where he criticizes his father for thinking of himself as a black man rather than as a man.

In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner youthful passion and love conquer all—parental opposition, social prejudice, poor timing, and so on. This film's heart is in the right place, but it's a film of no particular urgency or intelligence and it has a way of evading the real issues rather than confronting them. It suggests that both blacks and whites must recognize the need for change—this is a valid point. But it ignores the fact that racial problems in America have been generated mostly by the actions and attitudes of white people, who have helped create the environment that has traditionally made it difficult for people of different races who want to live their lives together.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris is a highly readable account of the making of the five films nominated for best picture in 1967: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Dr. Doolittle, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. Harris regards two of these films as groundbreaking: The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. The latter film in a sense is the centerpiece of the book.

The "new Hollywood" is characterized by a willingness to abandon old formulas and stereotypes, the collapse of the Production Code, the rise of a younger group of stars and directors whose careers did not develop under the studio system; the decline of old-fashioned studios and their all-powerful producers; the increasing willingness of filmmakers and actors to deal with controversial and political materials such as race and sex and other issues; the use of more sophisticated and artistic film techniques; the influence of European cinema, especially French New Wave.

Harris notes that of the five films, the most conventional, traditional film of the bunch, Dr. Doolittle, was the only one to lose money. It was the only one of the five films made with what was for the time a huge budget.

Regarded today as a classic film of the 1960s, it is amazing to read in this book the history of the film Bonnie and Clyde. Screenwriters David Newton and Robert Benton had never written a script before. They were writers for Esquire who with virtually no screenwriting experience decided to write a movie about the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. Over a five-year period they developed the script and contacted various studios in hopes of selling it and various directors in hopes of finding one to direct the picture. Studio after studio turned the idea down. Francois Truffaut was interested on and off for several years in directing the film. He also interested Jean Luc Goddard in directing the project. Warren Beatty, whose film career was beginning to stall in the early 1960s, became interested in the project and finally took on the role of producer as well as the lead male actor. He took on the task of getting the film made. After several failed attempts to persuade him, he finally convinced Arthur Penn (whom Truffaut admired) to direct. Bonnie and Clyde was made for what in 1967 passed for a very low budget: $2.5 million. The Warner Brothers studio chief Jack Warner considered it a 1930s-style gangster film revival and hated it. The antiestablishment bent of the film, along with what at the time seemed its portrayal of extreme violence, made Bonnie and Clyde a film that would have run afoul of the Production Code had the code itself not been collapsing. When the film was finally released, the studio was convinced it would make no money. It was initially shown in a limited number of movie houses. The first wave of reviews were largely negative. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther made attacking the film almost a personal mission and wrote about it on at least three different occasions (his opposition to Bonnie and Clyde and his general identification with old-style films helped paved the way for his departure as film reviewer at the Times; later in his life, he praised the film). Only over a period of time, as younger critics such as Pauline Kael chimed in on behalf of the film, did the critical tides turn. The movie was finally released to a much large number of theaters, and it was highly popular, though never a blockbuster commercially.

The first screenplay for The Graduate was the work of novelist Calder Willingham, who had done a lot of writing for films. Director Mike Nichols didn't like the screenplay and asked Buck Henry to try his hand at the story. Nichols used Henry's screenplay for the film. Calder Willingham protested that he should be given co-screenwriting credits, so the Academy Award for screenwriting went both to him and to Henry. Dustin Hoffman was an unlikely choice to play the lead character Ben Braddock. He was nearly eight years older than the 21-year-old character Ben Braddock. He was not especially attractive, had an unwieldy nose, didn't look like someone from Southern California, and had virtually no film-acting experience, though he was having some success with Broadway roles. After his first screen test, he was certain he wouldn't get the part, and even after the part was offered and he accepted it he didn't feel that he could measure up to the role. This film too, with its portrayal of an adulterous relationship between a 21-year-old man and an older woman, benefitted from the collapse of the Production Code.

Harris offers interesting comments on Sidney Poitier, who was a leading character in two of the nominated films: In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Poitier had established himself as the first mainstream African American actor in Hollywood by playing squeaky-clean, virtuous, noble roles that white viewers could be comfortable with. By the mid 1960s Poitier was beginning to receive criticism for not playing more aggressive roles, ones that an audience of color could identify with. While in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner he played the kind of role he had been criticized for, In the Heat of the Night offered him the opportunity to portray an independent, aggressive, and sharp-tongued police detective.

The two main stars in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Tracy from some viewpoints was the last of the big time Hollywood male actors. He was severely ill during the filming of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and died four days after the production ended. His death, and Katherine Hepburn, along with Poitier's increasing popularity, helped make this tame and safe film a box-office success. Production techniques in this film were old-fashioned. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, in contrast to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde was a conventional old-style Hollywood movie. Although it concerns the parents of a white girl meeting for the first time the black man she has decided to marry, its treatment of this topic is not especially daring. The girl herself (played by Hepburn's niece) is portrayed as largely unaware that her marriage to a black man might be controversial—she's not portrayed as very intelligent in the film—and Poitier himself plays a wealthy, highly successful medical doctor who seems almost entirely deracinated.

In the Heat of the Night at least confronts the problems of racism in a more direct way, though its conclusion that whites and blacks "just need to learn how to get along" obscures and smoothes over the genuine complexities of race relations in the United States, then and now.

The discussion of the making of Doctor Doolittle is entertaining mainly for its description of the egotistical and tyrannical Rex Harrison and for the misguided efforts of a studio to capitalize on the success of My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) by making a film about a doctor who talks to animals. While The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were produced with low budgets, Dr. Doolittle cost upwards of $16 million dollars
and was a box office and critical failure. It helped mark the end of the big-time Hollywood musical.

Pictures at a Revolution is a well-written and readable book. It illuminates how films get made, how studios in the 1960s worked, the issues that actors, directors, and producers must contend with as they strive to bring a new film to the screen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) is often witty and outright funny. Its problem is that it relies on wide-ranging pop cultural references from the 1960s and 1970s that would mean little to the age group towards which the film is aimed. Walk Hard is a satirical history of popular music—rock, folk, country, pop—in America since the 1950s. It's a send-up of rock-and-roll biographies and of the very nature of a pop music career. Dewey Cox is a country singer who gets incredible mileage out of his greatest hit, the eponymous "Walk Hard," and he spends much of his career riding the wave of whatever musical trend has recently crested. He always seems a few strokes behind the wave. Dewey is not particular intelligent, he's a bumbling screw-up, he's always succumbing to one temptation or another, and his inept drift through life makes for an often entertaining if occasionally tedious film.

Dewey goes through numerous phases: Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Johnny Cash (he is loosely modeled on Johnny Cash), and others. There's a brief reference to Jim Morrison and another to Conway Twitty. In one longer episode Dewey goes to Tibet to meditate with the Beatles. The trouble is that the audience towards which this film is aimed—the under-25 audience—doesn't have a particularly good memory of the figures and the decades to which the film refers. How many people in this age group know much about the history of the Beatles or recognize the style of Roy Orbison? Not many. Further, the comedy in this film is not particularly sophisticated, and one wonders how the audience in the age group that would recognize the cultural references—by this I mainly mean an over-50s audience--would respond to it.

I enjoyed the film, especially the musical sequences, which John C. Reilly, who plays Dewey, sings very well. The Bob Dylan parody is hilarious. But the narrative is thin and sometimes it founders. The musical numbers that tend to trace the development of pop music in America are not always presented in historical order, so that confusion results if you try to trace events too closely. Walk Hard in specific gets a lot of mileage out of satirizing the biographical pictures about pop music legends Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. The specific model is the recent Johnny Cash film Walk the Line (2005). Walk Hard satirizes the attempt of Walk the Line to explain Johnny Cash through traumatic events involving his brother's death and his difficult relationship with his father. There are numerous parallels between Dewey Cox and Johnny Cash. Like Cash, Dewey Cox abuses drugs, is unhappily married to an unsympathetic first wife, ignores his children, and has affairs. (Dewey is outrageously indifferent to his family. He loses count of how many children he has (22), and when his oldest son shows up at his beach house one day and asks him to play catch, Dewey asks the boy what his name is. At one point he's in a reverse custody battle—one of his ex-wives is trying to force him to take custody of his children. When his first wife finds out he has married a second wife and reminds him that marriage to more than one person at a time is a crime, he asks whether the fact that he is famous excuses him.)

Ray (2004) also seemed to suggest that the death of a younger sibling had an impact on the singer Ray Charles' talent. Instead of blindness, Dewey Cox is afflicted with an inability to smell.

Walk the Line and Ray are not bad films. They're entertaining, they have merits, and their attempts to link the careers of their main characters to events early in their lives are at the least reasonable. This is not to say that good films can't be satirized, and Walk Hard effectively uncovers the clichés and hackneyed formulas that govern how we think and talk about the lives of famous people.

Walk Hard makes fun of the very notion of a celebrity career—a famous singer's rise from obscurity to early fame and then the long slow decline punctuated by occasional comebacks and appearances on television shows and in the scandal sheets. Walk Hard shows us a parody of the famous 1968 Elvis Presley comeback special. (The special was in fact a genuine triumph for Presley that for a time revitalized his career). We see Dewey in his own generic 1970s era television show similar to ones that featured singers such as Glen Campbell and Sonny and Cher (together and separately) and the Everly Brothers and many others. Such shows took formerly stellar talents (and some less than stellar) and diluted and homogenized and commodified them for middle-brow audiences—often with the full cooperation of the stars themselves—this explains Elvis Presley's film career.

Towards the end of the film as Dewey Cox grows older the satire becomes gentler and at times seems almost to disappear. In a final scene, after a two decades absence from performing, Cox appears on a tribute show and performs his final song—a full orchestra and choir back him up. It's an absurdly beatific moment. The song is about how after a profligate life of misbehavior and drugs and women he has discovered the importance of family and friends. It's a deliberately saccharine song, and the first time I watched the scene I missed the fact that the intent is indeed satirical. Although the song is genuinely terrible, everyone seems to love it. Coming to the end of his life with an redemptive understanding about family and friends, Cox completes the arc of celebrity, corruption, and salvation that we all want to impose on celebrity careers. The fact that he dies on stage three minutes after completing the song just drives the point home.

In the tribute show, Lyle Lovett, Jewel, and Jackson Brown appear to sing a version of "Walk Hard"—their careers are not exactly flourishing either—is this irony?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Enchanted

Enchanted (2007) is a Disney film that makes fun of other Disney films and that itself remains a Disney film. For me the big question in the opening animated sequence is whether it's being played tongue in cheek. The answer is probably yes—the opening scenes are parodies of other animated Disney films, but they are so close to what they are making fun of that one could miss the point. The basic premise of Enchanted concerns a animated fantasy world in which a wicked step-mother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), fears her step-son will fall in love with a beautiful young girl, Giselle, and that if they marry she will lose her kingdom as a result. To prevent this, she casts Giselle into the real world, the world of reality, New York City. When her step-son Prince Edward finds out what his step-mother has done, he follows the girl to New York City to rescue her. The lawyer Robert Phillip (Patrick Dempsey) who befriends Giselle inserts a complicating turn into the plot. Much of the humor and fun in the film focuses on the similarities and differences between the real and animated worlds, the worlds (supposedly) of hard and cynical reality and of romantic fantasy.

The film parallels reality and fantasy in a number of ways. The lawyer is a practical man who buys his young daughter a book about famous women of the twentieth century rather than the book of fairy tales she wants. He also does not recognize the strong romantic streak in the woman he hopes to marry. And he cannot fathom Giselle at all. Giselle is played by Amy Adams (Junebug, 2005). Her over-the-top enthusiasm carries the film. Giselle, who is much like the leading female characters in the Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), begins to enjoy the real world. One can begin to guess where this is all headed.

Here is an example of satire in Enchanted: as Giselle wanders in a confused state down a New York sidewalk, she bumps into a little man: that is, a dwarf. She is overjoyed to see him, she addresses him as "Grumpy" (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937). Other connections between the real and fantastic words are not so satirical. The wicked stepmother in the film (Giselle is careful to explain that not all stepmothers are wicked), is an exact replica of the evil queen in Snow White. Like the evil queen, she can transform from her beautiful regal form into an old gap-toothed hag, complete with poisonous apple. When her defeat seems likely, she transforms into a giant dragon, just like the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Whatever satiric moments Enchanted may have, it ultimately does not fail to honor the Disney formula which usually involves a hero and heroine who live happily ever after. Indeed, Giselle believes in life happily ever after. The satire in the film is broad and general and not more than skin deep. The film doesn't seek to subvert the Disney formula nor the insistence on stereotypical characters and plots. Instead it affirms them.

Critics have attacked the Disney formula for the stereotypes it uses and for its portrayal of marriage as the ultimate aim of every beautiful young girl's dreams. Although I agree with the critics that there is much more to life than marriage, I think there is ample room for additional points of view. However schmaltzy Enchanted and other romantic Disney fantasies may be, let us allow for a range of choices and possibilities. This is in fact one of the points Enchanted is making.

The film includes several entertaining songs. As with the animated sequences, it is difficult to tell whether we are to take the songs seriously, satirically, or both. I favor the third option.

The Bourne Ultimatum

The first two Bourne films were action-suspense films with a modest intellectual dimension. They were studies in the character of a man who did not know who he was—he couldn't remember his origins, who he worked for, why he existed. He had no links to anyone in the world. He had forgotten everything. There was a strong existential quality to the first film, The Bourne Identity (2002), where a man without a name or identity begins to forge one for himself. Gradually he began to uncover clues about himself. He also becomes aware that someone is trying to kill him. This film and its sequel The Bourne Supremacy (2004) were entertaining. The production values were high, the editing fast-paced. Underlying all three films is the premise that any security agency can become overwhelmed by its own mission, by its need for security and secrecy, so that at some point it crosses the line between the rational and irrational, between the moral and immoral. To justify and preserve its existence, it becomes the kind of institution it was intended to destroy.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) is the third and final film in this series. The plot is the same as in the earlier films: Jason Bourne is trying to discover who he is and to take vengeance on the C. I. A. unit that is trying to kill him, that killed his girlfriend, that made him into the man he is. At some point Bourne has realized that he is an agent of the C. I. A. and that his assignment is to kill enemies of the state. In the absence of much of a plot, The Bourne Ultimatum substitutes an over-abundance of action—assassins, car chases, foot chases, bombings, leaping from one roof to another, hand-to-hand combat, running up and down stairs, up and down streets, and so on. A throbbing percussive soundtrack drives the film on. Jason meets a C. I. A. agent who should have turned him in but who decides to help him instead. She turns out to be a former lover whom Jason cannot remember. This is the only new twist in the plot, and not one that goes anywhere in particular. Despite the fact that this film is full of action and suspense it eventually becomes monotonous, and the climax seems unlikely, contrived, and a letdown. The aspects of character and theme that made the first film interesting are largely absent here. Matt Damon seems largely inexpressive in his role, and his former girlfriend, played by Julia Stiles, is only slightly more interesting.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Graduate

The greatest scene in The Graduate (1967) is the final scene. Elaine and Ben have escaped from the church where she has just gotten married. They run after a bus and board it. It looks like a school bus, clearly not the kind of transportation these upper middle-class white Californians would normally favor. The bus is full of laborers, Mexicans, lower-class whites. They are headed somewhere—some destination the film doesn't divulge. Ben and Elaine are flushed with excitement and victory. They have broken away from the lives their parents had planned for them, from the marriage Elaine's parents had forced her to. But as the final seconds of the scene pass, the mood subtly changes. The excitement fades. Ben and Elaine begin to look a bit uncertain, even regretful. The future is beginning to dawn, and what it holds we cannot know, but it certainly holds more difficulties and complexities that they had not begun to anticipate, until now. And then the film ends.

The fading looks on Ben and Elaine's faces speak volumes. What can they mean?

The Graduate is one of the five movies discussed in Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. It effectively represents the schism between generations that Harris is concerned with, though The Graduate in and of itself isn't concerned with Hollywood, it's concerned with the United States, with the developing culture wars, especially the generational conflicts for which the 60s are so notoriously famous. It's not that those conflicts developed in the 60s—they just became more evident.

Much of the film, especially the first half, is devoted to illustrating the gap between Ben Braddock and the generation of his parents. He returns home from college, newly graduated, a long list of campus achievements and awards trailing clouds of glory behind him, and he has no idea what he is going to do with himself. This in and of itself doesn't particularly concern him, though it certainly becomes a concern for his parents.

The future that Ben's parents envision for him is encapsulated in the most famous line (or what I recall as the most famous line, a one-word famous line) from this film: "Plastics." This is what a friend of Ben's father tells him is the future. "Plastics." What he means is that Ben should get involved in the field of plastics — there's money to be made there. From the film's viewpoint, "plastic" is a way of describing the entire generation of Ben's parents: their affluence, their swimming pools, their opulent and sprawling houses, their extravagant gifts (red sports cars, scuba gear), their bragging over the exploits of their offspring. One of the grotesque moments in the film is when Ben's mother demands that all the people at her party be quiet so that she can read from a list of Ben's achievements.

The Graduate strikes me as painfully dated. When I first saw it in 1967 I felt the excitement of the film. I knew what that word plastics signified. I certainly identified with Ben. I sat through the film twice the first time I saw it. Then I saw it again after I graduated from college, probably five years later. Suddenly it seemed not so current, and next to the film playing with it in a double-bill, Easy Rider (1969), it seemed even more out of date. Easy Rider still strikes me as a film that speaks with a kind of primal if contrived authenticity—it's about the failed American dream.

Probably the reason for the anachronistic quality of The Graduate is Ben and Elaine themselves and what they yearn for. They want each other, of course. They want marriage with each other—at least Ben wants to marry Elaine—it's not quite clear what she wants. Their entire drama is acted out in the context of their parents' wealthy lifestyles, without which the film could not exist. Elaine attends an affluent mostly white university. Ben graduated from such a school. For a graduation gift he receives a swank red sports car. Both of them apparently do not have to work. Ben travels to Berkeley to be near Elaine. His income source is unknown—it's probably his parents. All the faces we see in this film, especially the faces at the university Elaine attends, are white faces. Essentially this is a film about mid-twentieth century white early adulthood angst. It may also be, at least from the 2008 perspective, a film about how Ben and Elaine are going to end up like their parents.

In a certain way the film is aware of this fact. Ben is fascinated with the story of how Elaine's parents first met and had sex together—in the backseat of her father's car, when they were in college. He revels in this story. One reason must be because in the back of his mind he can see the possibility that this story could be his own story. Change a few details, the time and place, and it might be his story. Of course, he is wholly alienated from everything Elaine's parents signify—their wealth, their privileges, their swank lodgings, their dissipated sense of cultural and social fatigue. Sex with Mrs. Robinson for him is just another way he can make his alienation more complete. Shortly after the film was released, an interviewer asked Mike Nichols what happened to Elaine and Ben after the picture ended. His answer: "They grew up to be like their parents."

Has anyone ever noticed that although the music of Simon and Garfunkel helps to create the mood and tone of the film, it really has virtually no connection with the plot, with the story itself? As famous as the song "Mrs. Robinson" may be, the lyrics don't make a whole lot of sense, especially when they're set against the events in the film.

Technically, the film is fine. Mike Nichols as director is at his best in this film. He has never been better. Dustin Hoffman at the age of 29 gives an utterly brilliant and convincing performance as the 21-year old Ben Braddock. It's difficult to believe he made this film when he was on the verge of becoming 30. But separate the brilliance of his acting (and that of Anne Bancroft) from the film and separate Mike Nichol's excellent handling of characters and the technical and creative expertise he brings to the film, and what is left is a social melodrama that probably would not make sense to many 21 year olds these days, most of whom are running as fast as they can towards the lives that Mr. and Mr. Robinson embody.

Magnolia

One might say, "No film with a plague of frogs can be all bad." But in fact P. T. Anderson's Magnolia is is a good film. It is marked by its day, like any film, and its obsessive preoccupation with self seems dated now, given what has transpired since 1999.

Magnolia on the one hand illustrates the effects of serendipity, of seemingly random and unrelated acts that become related in an arbitrary way and have an impact on our lives. The effect is as if there is some divine hand out there, controlling events, shaping destinies. But I don't think divine intervention is what the film means to imply. On the other hand, one could argue that there is a strong religious or spiritual sentiment in the film.

Magnolia gives us an array of examples of human misery and suffering: incest, addiction, parent –child estrangement, disease, abuse, loneliness, suicide, adultery—especially loneliness. The characters as the film progresses appear increasingly desperate. In terms of the film's symbolism, Earl Partridge, an old and dying father played by Jason Robards, is a center. He suffers throughout the film, always on the verge of death. Everyone in the film, either actually or by implication, is somehow involved with him. He is the central image of human suffering, and of the possible redemptive or transformative effects suffering can bring.

At a key moment late in the film, the character Jimmy Kurring, a religious police officer, is driving down a city street and a large frog falls on the windshield of his car. Soon frogs seem to be falling everywhere, throughout the city—an unnatural, inexplicable event. A veritable plague of frogs. Once again, serendipity. One could speculate over the meteorological reasons for the event—and P. T. Anderson gives us a world in which there are always explanations, even if unlikely ones. But the plague of frogs in Magnolia functions as if it is God's judgment on the living and the dying, on all that suffer.

To confirm this effect, soon after the frogs stop falling all the main characters, individually, join in singing "Wise Up," a song written and sung by Amy Mann. It is as if to say, "We all suffer." The first time I saw this film, I was deeply moved by this scene. Now, it is still moving, though it also seems stale and slightly contrived.

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

Albert Einstein, as Walter Isaacson shows in his biography Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), was an individual, an iconoclast, all his life. He resisted authority in whatever form, resisted pressures to conform or to operate in any way other than according to his own sense of what he should do. This extended from his unconventional personal life, his relationship with his wives and children, to his relationships with colleagues and the public. His professors in undergraduate and graduate school did not like him especially—they found him diffident, arrogant, or just lazy--and this made it difficult for him to find work, even for several years after the great essays of 1905. Isaakson does a good job of separating Einstein myth from Einstein reality, especially the myth that Einstein was a failure as a student. His scholastic performance was uneven. He did well in the classes he enjoyed or that interested him, and average in other classes. Some of his early teachers recognized his potential brilliance, but based on his performance in school no one could have predicted what was to follow.

Isaakson also explains persuasively how Einstein's willingness to question the authority of the scientists and research that came before him was a key to his discoveries. Newtonian law was so firmly entrenched that it took someone willing to follow apparent inconsistencies and deviations to discover the reasons for them.

Einstein was an accomplished violinist. He played throughout his life. He had an especial fondness for Bach but wasn't so fond of Beethoven, whom he found excessively emotional.

Einstein from an early age preferred to think in visual rather than mathematical terms. That is, he used visual thought experiments rather than equations to develop his theories. An early thought experiment involved envisioning a man running down the road next to a beam of light. By contemplating this image, the relationship of the man to the light beam, he was able to formulate in his mind all the aspects and implications of his theory. Once he had worked out a particular theory, he enlisted friends to help him develop the equations that would explain it mathematically. Later in his life, especially as he began struggling to develop a unified field theory, he relied increasingly on mathematics. When he died, equations he was working on were found with him.

The two great years in Einstein's life were 1905, when he published four groundbreaking essays, one of them on the special theory of relativity. Another was about light as quanta, which became the basis for quantum theory. His next big year was 1916, when he concluded work on his general theory of relativity, which he had struggled with for nearly a decade. Although he made other contributions in his lifetime, they were mostly minor, building on his earlier work. He spent the rest of his life—39 years--in an increasingly quixotic effort to devise a unified field theory. Time after time he would think he was about to find the answers he sought and then for one reason or another they would slip away. Although his attempts to find a unified theory were not successful and did frustrate him, he did not seem so much frustrated by the fact that his greatest work came early in his career. Instead he felt bemused. He came to feel increasingly out of place and out of touch as his career progressed, and scientists who had committed to quantum theory found him increasingly a thorn in their sides. They respected him and his early work. But he resisted the full implications of quantum theory to the end of his life—even though he was partially responsible for the development of quantum physics. His efforts to discover a unified theory was based on his firm belief that the universe functions according to specific, concrete laws that are observable, verifiable, and predictable. If he could find such a theory, he thought, he would be able to discount the unpredictability that remains a basic principle of quantum theory.

Einstein used the metaphor of God or of "the Old One" to represent his belief in a logical universe, one that worked according to standard and predictable laws. His argument with quantum physics was a reflection of his belief in a predictable and logical Universe: "God does not play dice with the Universe" was his way of expressing his disbelief in the world of quantum physics, even though his work in 1905 was fundamental to its development.

Einstein's search for a unified field theory paralleled his support for a world governing body, to which nations would surrender a degree of sovereignty and, after the Second World War, their nuclear weapons. He lent his name to numerous causes, often without carefully considering them, which meant that in a few cases they had associations with communism that he did not know about. In fact, Einstein was always suspicious of the Russian government and even avoided visiting the Soviet Union because he feared that his name would be used in a political cause he did not agree with. He was a strong pacifist until the rise of Nazism and the Nazi persecution of the Jews, when he began to modify his pacifist views, recognizing that in some circumstances pacifism didn't work. Ultimately he helped make the U. S. government aware of the potential for a nuclear bomb. Later in his life he regretted that he had not done more to control its use, but he never returned to his earlier pacifism. He also early in his life avoided associating himself with Judaism, either as a faith or an ethnic identity. Although he never quite embraced it as a religious heritage, he did increasingly identify with Judaism as a cultural heritage. He was even offered the presidency of Israel in the early 1950s, but turned it down, much to the relief of David Ben-Gurion, who recognized after making it that the offer had been ill-considered.

Isaacson covers these and other aspects of Einstein's life in his biography. He is especially effective at explaining Einstein's theories. He makes a compelling and even moving case for the genius as well as the broadly based humanity of Einstein.