Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Man Who Would Be King

Watching The Man Who Would Be King (dir. John Huston, 1975) some forty years after its making was uncomfortable.  When I first saw the film, in the 1970s, it was an exciting tall-tale adventure about two down-and-out British army veterans who find a remote corner of Afghanistan and set themselves up as kings.  They go there intending to take advantage of the unsophisticated natives, to become wealthy, to achieve power and prominence when they can find it nowhere else.  Kipling’s story, written in 1888, the basis for the film, portrays the two men as far more ragged and scrofulous than they appear in the film, where Sean Connery and Michael Caine play the lead roles.
What has happened since 1976?  Thirty-five years of western involvement in Afghani wars that shows no sign of ending.  The rise of terrorism on a global scale.  A gradual shift in how westerners view their place in the middle and far east, and in the world in general.  A developing awareness on the part of westerners of their position in other parts of the world as outsiders, intruders, imperialists. 
What we didn’t see clearly in this film in the 1970s is the fundamental presence of western imperialism and colonialism.  Watching the film in 2016, that perspective is inescapable.  It renders the film almost impossible to sit through.  Dravot and Carnehan can aspire to take over the small kingdom of Kafiristan because of their belief in the ignorance of the easily misled natives.  They can spin lies and tell tales and be easily believed.  They have rifles when the natives do not.  As they mount their campaign, they can shoot down Kafiristanis, in large numbers, without any hesitation or compunction or regret afterward.  It’s a story told entirely from the western perspective, crafted entirely for a western audience.  We’re not asked to think about the victims of this enterprise.  We’re not asked to sympathize with the Kafiristanis or to consider the wrongheadedness of these two venal British adventurers.
Do the story and film express any awareness of the impact of the events they relate on the native Kafiristanis, who are bilked and tricked and murdered?  Not much.  The story and film work only because they expect the readers and audience to experience the story from the western, British, imperialist perspective.  Yes, as a reader of literature and viewer of films I am supposed to suspend my disbelief, my moral and political attitudes, and engage the work on its own terms—but that’s hardly possible. The discomfort I felt with this film also likely explains why Kipling is a writer of diminishing relevance.
At least Dravot goes to his death with a firm, imperturbable British resolve.  He’s not sorry for what he and Carnehan did.  He’s just sorry they got caught.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gods of Egypt

Why Gods of Egypt (dir. Alex Proyas, 2016)? This is not a film one should go to for knowledge of Egyptian history or mythology.  Nor should one expect to find in its 126-minute duration good acting, narrative skill or logic, interesting ideas, or much of anything else.  It is a celebration of DGI special effects rendered with limited imagination.  Somewhere deep in its foundation is the story of two brothers, one jealous of the other for the place of favor his father has given him.  Unhappy brother kills father, defeats other brother, takes over as king.  There’s something to be made from such a plot, but it’s not made here.  For the most part, the actors in this film are people whose names don’t ring a bell.  Exceptions are Gerard Butler (who plays Egyptian god Set) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays Egyptian god Horus). 
How do you get up each morning and look yourself in the mirror knowing that you appeared in a movie such as this one?  Is it the money?  Surely it’s not the privilege of appearing in a work of any merit. There’s none of that here. Does the attraction of appearing in any big money Hollywood production overbalance the shame and humiliation one ought to feel over an association with this work of inane and artless drivel?  Gerard Butler has appeared in some films of note.  What explains his presence here? 
Let's be honest: I am the one who should feel shame and humiliation over having paid money to rent this film, not to mention shame and humiliation for having wasted 126 eye-glazed, mind-numbing minutes watching it—and admitting to it here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Good Dinosaur


The strength of The Good Dinosaur (dir. Peter Sohn, 2015) is the setting: lush landscapes, towering mountains, sparkling sky.  It’s tempting to imagine that the background of the film was taken directly from natural scenes of the American west, adjusted appropriately for this animated feature.  The dinosaurs, however, make up for the realistic scenery.  They are big eyed and mostly non-threatening reptiles, and the main character, the good dinosaur of the title, is cute and doe-eyed.  They’re Disney dinosaurs. This is an alternative universe dinosaur film.  The huge asteroid missed the earth, and sixty-five million years later dinosaurs continue to thrive.  They have taken up farming and buffalo-herding. The film has a familiar plot: the little dinosaur is jealous of the achievements of his older siblings, so he must prove himself in order to leave his mark on the family silo as proof of his worthiness.  When his father is killed in a flood and the little dinosaur is swept downriver, he has his chance.  He makes friends with a childlike humanoid who begins to follow him around.  The humans aren’t highly evolved, at least yet, and they’re wary of the dinosaurs, who consider them pests.  Humans can’t talk, though the boy in this film seems capable of abstract thought, as they say.  So, this is a coming of age film, a buddy film, and a search for home film.  My favorite scenes involve the tyrannosaurs, who instead of eating other dinosaurs have become buffalo herders.  It’s the Jurassic American west, the search for a dinosaurian American dream.  Would I recommend this film for children?  In one scene a huge fly has his head bitten off, and in others the dinosaur or his human friend is threatened, and the overall separation of the dinosaur from his mother and siblings would disturb younger children, so I guess not.  But I liked it.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

Imagining the end of the world, or a post-apocalyptic existence, is too entrancing for many writers to resist. There is clearly a readership interested in the subject. I remember as a young reader feeling how brutally cold and dark H. G. Wells was in his portrayal of a post-human existence in his novel The Time Machine.  More recently, Cormac McCarthy has given us in The Road a sad and dreadful vision of what the end might be.  Too often, the lure of the subject is too much for human imagination, which can’t rise to the occasion.  I’ve been particularly amused by numerous accounts of an apocalyptic world in which a terrible virus wipes out humanity, converting everyone into ravenous zombies intent on devouring the few remaining survivors.  This is the scenario which Colson Whitehead offers in his novel Zone One (Doubleday, 2011), about a man who works with a team assigned to locate and destroy the remaining zombies of a plague that has wiped out most of humanity.  The first fifty pages regale us with ruminations on the post-apocalyptic world, of the empty streets and buildings of New York City, and so on.

Zombies are undoubtedly a metaphor, for something. In this and other books and films they are the contagious remnants of humanity, intent on killing and consuming the few who survive.  They are supposed to be the worst of horrors.  What do they signify?  They’re memories.  This is what memories of the lost past do to us.  The past we can’t recover, whose absence horrifies us. They terrify us, eat us up, fill us with despair, suck out our souls, kill us. They’re a terrifying and nightmarish dream of our own mortality.

Captain Fantastic

This film’s title bears little resemblance to its narrative.  Was the title a public relations decision?  Ostensibly it refers to the main character, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), but there’s not much in his character that would merit the title.
Captain Fantastic (2016, dir. Matt Ross) depends on the pathos of the central situation.  Ben, who is raising his children in the middle of the Colorado wilderness, learns that his wife has killed herself in the hospital where she has been under treatment for several months for depression.  How often Ben goes to see her, or thinks about her there, isn’t clear.  But early in the film one of the children asks when they will get to see their mother, and Ben answers that he’s going to call to find out.  Is this a matter of a half-baked script, or are we being invited to see problems in the marriage, in Ben and his relationship with his wife, before the film brings them out clearly?
After Ben learns of his wife’s death, he gather’s the children together and tells them in straightforward, relatively emotionless terms that their mother is dead, that she has killed himself.  The children start to cry.  This is a gut-wrenching scene, painful and difficult to watch, and it quickly bonds the viewer to the children. Wherever else the film might go wrong, the children are its heart and keep it going.
The children clearly love their father, though the film hints that maybe one of them hasn’t drunk the cool aid as deeply as the others.  What is equally clear is that they also fear him.  When he issues a command, they are quick to obey.  Ben and his wife Harper (played in flashbacks by Kathryn Hahn) retreated to the forest to raise their children so that they wouldn’t be tainted by American capitalism and popular culture.  They’ve been home schooled and (unlike many home-schooled students) are extremely intelligent, articulate, and educated.  Ben’s taught his children to be critical thinkers and independent spirits, and he’s proud of them.  The children, who read and think and can talk intelligently, are not products of modern theories and methods of education, which underestimate and undervalue the abilities of young people, a point this film argues persuasively. However, Ben’s respect for the independence of his children extends only so far.  When he learns that his oldest son has, without his knowledge, applied to the best colleges in the nation, and been accepted to all, his main reaction centers on the fact that his son went behind his back and deceived him.  His son later tells him that he applied to college with the knowledge and cooperation of his mother, Ben’s wife.  All of the children manifest their own forms of political radicalism, which is fine, though one increasingly suspects that if one of them began to express views that diverged significantly from  Ben’s, there would be problems.  He’s taught them survival skills as well, which include how to rob a store or to break and enter.
As much as anything, the film’s is about Ben’s gradual discovery of his own inconsistencies and blindness.  His wife’s psychological problems in part are (we’re encouraged to think) the result of his rigidities, his failure to pay attention, to think carefully about her problems, to listen to her arguments about how life in the isolated wilderness may not perhaps be the best for their children or for her.
At the end of the film, the children and their father have made adjustments. They’re now living in a small house, they have cars, they’ve converted the school bus that was formerly their main means of transportation into a greenhouse.  The children are attending school. But there are still questions—why does the oldest son decide to go to Namibia instead of one of the schools that accepted him?
The irony of this feel-good film is that it’s about a family trying to recover from the suicide of the mother and wife.
Frank Langella, as Ben’s outraged and angry father-in-law, is good.
All of that said, thank God Captain Fantastic didn’t center on super heroes, mercenaries, or mall-obsessed teeny boppers.  The children in this film are about as real as it gets.
I am tempted to call this the last hippy film.  Ben is fulfilling his back-to-nature hippy dream of living in the wilds, raising his own food, rearing his children righteously.  That’s what I once wanted.  But the film makes clear the injuries such a view in the post-modern world of western civilization can inflict.  It also makes clear the kinds of outrageous compromises families in the United States have been willing to accept, without even conceiving of them as compromises.
Viggo Mortenson plays his role with stolid indifference.  Maybe that’s his range.  Indifference served him well as Aragorn in The Lord of the Ring trilogy and earlier films, some of them, at least, but in this one it didn’t work.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger , by Stephen King

I’ve always refrained from novels of fantasy because their creators make up rules and facts to suit the needs of their stories, rather than vice versa.  There are some writers for whom the creation of those rules becomes part of the ingenuity of their novels.  Examples are Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  Often I’ve felt that Stephen King’s ingenuity outstripped his narrative ability.  In Dr. Sleep, for instance, a tribe of senior citizens ride around the country in travel vans kidnapping people off the streets.  I thought the concept was funny and wonderful at the same time, but, as in a number of his novels, King was unable to create a narrative that lived up to the strength of the concept.  The denouement fell flat.  But I credit King’s ingenuity.
With these caveats in mind, I began the first volume of The Dark Tower series, entitled The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (Grant, 1982).  Relatively short compared to the other books of the series, it sets up a story whose ambitions are immense.  I’ve sometimes felt that King could be a sloppy writer, but in this book his prose is strong and forward moving.  It avoids clichés.  The scenario of a Gunslinger travelling through a post-apocalyptic world (if that is what it is) in search of a Tower that may be, metaphorically or literally, the key to the meaning of life, or the abode of God, or something else, is at least tantalizing.  The novel is full of foreboding and menace.  The Gunslinger is a complicated, conflicted character.  The landscapes are compelling. There may be too many cheesy monsters (the Slow Mutants) and unlikely characters (Sister Sylvia Pittston).  It’s unclear what sort of world this narrative rests in—is it religious allegory, a supernatural tale that wrangles its own rules, or what?
With these caveats in mind, I beganThis first volume of a 7-volume series may prove to be an ingenious setup that King cannot ultimately make good on, but I’m convinced enough to move to volume 2.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

Beautifully written, Fates and Furies (2015), by Lauren Groff, is a self-consciously “literary novel” in the sense that characters are highly educated and often allude in their conversations to such subjects as Greek tragedy and opera; the novel also uses unusual narrative devices (stream of consciousness, contrasting narratives, interpolated authorial commentary).  The defining device of the novel is its division into two main sections: one devoted to Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite; the other to Mathilde Yoder.  They are married.

The first half of the novel (“Fates”) records the gradual development of a marriage over a 20-year period.  It’s told from the male point of view, mainly.  The second half (“Furies”) I expected to tell the same story from a female point of view.  It does that, but in a way different from what I anticipated.

Fates and Furies explores the idea that marriages can be based on deeply held perceptions each partner holds of the other, perceptions that can be totally or partially wrong.  The woman in this story at the age of four was part of a tragic event that led to her rejection by her parents and to her being raised over the next fifteen years by a succession of indifferent relatives.  The woman defines her whole self-image by this event, by her recollection and interpretation of what happened, by her guilt.  The book questions whether the life she lived (much of which her husband knew nothing about) was justified by the event that happened so long before.

The way the story is told, the nature of the characters, the surprising turns—these relieved to an extent the dread I felt at what I imagined might be the oncoming “fates” of the characters.  I was reminded in this sense of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, a novel I appreciated in many ways but which I also intensely disliked because the experience of reading it was painful.

Negative traits in both the main characters tend to balance out each other.  Lotto is a failed actor but successful dramatist whose bombast and narcissism weigh against Mathilde’s secretive inwardness.  While Lotto at least achieves some success in his career, the highly talented Mathilde (who has a role in the writing of her husband’s plays) suppresses entire dimensions of her being and devotes herself to what she regards as love for her husband.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts I & II, by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts I & II (J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany; Scholastic Press, 2016) is a time-travel novel, whose plot as a result follows a predictable arc. Characters go back in time (using a magic Time Turner) to change a crucial event (the murder of Cedric Diggory). When they return to the present they discover the unhappy consequences of their meddling. Then they have to return to the past again to try to set right their actions, and more unhappy consequences ensue, and so on. At a certain point, I suffered fatigue from this plot. However, I must say that the strength of the characters in the end overrode the fatigue. It was such a pleasure to reencounter the characters from the Harry Potter series, even if, in this narrative, they’re approaching middle age. Even if what we have here is a two-part play, not a novel. Even if J. K. Rowling shared writing credits with Thorne and Tiffany (the three of them wrote the story; Thorne scripted the play). Despite that fact, Rowling’s touch is evident throughout, partially because most of the characters are ones we already know. This makes it unnecessary for the writers of this new book to provide much exposition, which for the most part is already in our heads (if we read the Harry Potter novels, or saw the films). Here Harry Potter is, as usual, struggling with a challenge—not how and whether to accept his fate as the Boy who Lived, but rather with how to get along with his youngest son, Albus Severus. Albus feels that his father disapproves of him, feels unable to live up to his father’s example, and this become a motive in his decision to use the Time Turner to return to the past in order to prove his mettle. His best friend is, ironically, Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Draco, Harry Potter’s great nemesis. Draco is less an enemy and more an anguished man grieving for his dead wife and worried about the welfare of his only son. The characters here are convincing. They’re consistent with the characters of the earlier Potter novels, and though the story here uses and touches on aspects of the earlier novels, there’s no sense of recycling. The story is fresh and exciting, and I can imagine how well it comes across on stage (although the required special effects would be a challenge).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly the product of numerous forces: heredity, environment, books he read, friends and colleagues, historical and economic circumstances.  He’s commonly regarded as the greatest of American presidents, as one of the greatest of Americans from any walk of life. I certainly have admired him and his story all my life.  What would he have been had he not been elected president in 1860? What would he have been had the Civil War never occurred?  It’s the Civil War that formed Lincoln in the popular imagination.  Without it, we would likely never have known his name. Such speculation is pointless, of course.  I suspect many if not most Americans would name Lincoln as a great man, yet how many could explain his greatness? The Emancipation Proclamation was his greatest act, yet he came to favor emancipation only gradually.  When he began his campaign for the presidency, his main concern was seeing that slavery was not allowed to expand into western territories.  He was regarded as a moderate or even a conservative by abolitionists.  Only gradually did he come to embrace bringing an end to slavery as a prime goal, as the central reason for the Civil War.  Preservation of the Union was a prime goal as well—Lincoln famously said, shortly before he was elected president, that he regarded saving the Union more important than ending slavery.
Lincoln is the embodiment of the great American success story—a man born in a cabin who by hard work and study raised himself up to become a lawyer and then President, and who sacrificed himself for his country.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005) describes Lincoln and his rise to the Presidency and the three men who opposed him for the Republican nomination: Salmon P. Chase, Henry Seward, and Edward Bates.  Lincoln was the least known of the four contenders, yet in the end, on the third ballot at the Chicago convention, he emerged as the nominee.  Lincoln invited these three opponents, along with several others who didn’t respect or like him, to join his cabinet.  Most of these men came to admire him.  Seward, whom Lincoln appointed Secretary of State, became a close friends. Chase, appointed Secretary of the Treasury, sought to undermine him and even to replace him in the election of 1864. Yet Lincoln continued to recognize his abilities and eventually appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Edward Bates served as Attorney General. Lincoln’s use of the talents of these men in his efforts to save the Union, win the War, and to slavery is the great story this book tells.  Goodwin replaces myths about Lincoln with facts and details that in the end left me in greater awe of him than ever. Her book is a prodigious achievement.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Spectre

If I remember correctly, Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes, 2012) gave us a James Bond who had to consider the fact that he was growing older, and that perhaps his days as the world’s most famous secret agent were numbered.  The most recent entry in this long-running series, Spectre (dir. Sam Mendes, 2015), suggests that James Bond may be growing tired of his career and his license to kill.  The film is entertaining.  The settings, cinematography, music, and principal actors are spectacular.  But there is nothing new here, and that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as criticism of the film. Viewers who choose to watch this film do so because they are familiar with the James Bond formula and want to submit themselves to it.  They want the exotic locales, the beautiful women, the improbable and death-defying stunts, the mayhem, the evil villains with their absurd schemes to achieve some form of world domination.  In this film, the villain is a man named Spectre, who claims to have been the engineer of all the various evil plots James Bond has encountered.  He has conspired with the leaders of seven major world nations, including Britain, to create an Internet-based network that will give these nations (and Spectre) access to information about everything going on everywhere.  There are, I think, clear references to the US Homeland Security Act, Patriot Act, Freedom of Information Act, etc. post 9-11.

It’s fun in a way to watch this film knowing that although everything is at stake nothing is at stake. James Bond will prevail.  The fact that this film hints at Bond’s own moral fatigue, which this viewer shares, having watched over his lifetime most if not all of the James Bond films, is no surprise.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Genius

When I was a young reader, in high school and college, Thomas Wolfe was my favorite author.  I found Look Homeward, Angel an exciting and mysterious book, especially the penultimate chapter where Eugene Gant talks with his dead brother Ben.  I was entranced by the Wolfe legend, of the young writer from North Carolina, brimming with words and a compulsion to tell his story, who is discovered by a New York editor and whose first book becomes a best seller and an American classic.  I read everything by Wolfe, and everything I could find about him. I’m an older reader now, perhaps we should say, an old reader.  I don’t read Wolfe now and find him difficult to stomach when I try.  But as a writer who was once important to me, he holds a special place in my memory.
I found the film Genius (dir. Michael Grandage, 2016), about the relationship of Thomas Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins, jarring and inauthentic.  The image of Wolfe it presents—of a boorish, overbearing, narcissistic, hayseed young writer so fixated on publishing his work that he tramples on everyone around him—seemed to me entirely wrong.  Not that the basic outlines are wrong.  They’re just not right.  What we have in Jude Law’s portrayal of Wolfe is a caricature, a parody, including the fake Southern accent.  Law is actually good in the role.  He even manages to resemble Wolfe in a certain way (though Wolfe was actually a foot or so taller).  It’s the role itself that is flawed.  The film buys into the mythology of Wolfe, writing on the top of his refrigerator, drinking wildly, unable to curb and to bring into coherent form the outpouring of words he produces.  The film almost portrays Wolfe as a psychological case study—a writer who can produce torrents of words without being able to control them.
The film to me seems unaware of what it means to be a writer, of how a writer works, of the editing process itself.  It romanticizes, simplifies, obfuscates. And it seems uncertain what to make of the figure of Wolfe—was he a great writer helped by Perkins to bring his work to print, or was he a writer who needed an editor like Perkins to order and unify his inchoate (a word I associate with Wolfe) outpourings? 
Colin Firth makes Maxwell Perkins out to be an automaton.  He never quite divests himself of his British accent.  He makes Perkins a kind of cipher—attractive in ways, indifferent in others.
I didn’t care for this hyperbolic film.  But maybe I‘ll try to read Look Homeward, Angel again.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice

Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016) re-conceptualizes the mythologies of America’s two greatest superheroes.  The film early on announces this fact when an African warlord murders Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olson, who is really an undercover CIA agent.  In the film, Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis are neighboring cities, within uneasy sight of each other.  Superman has been in Metropolis only two years, and although he was initially greeted as a great hero, some now question how far he would or should go in exercising his powers.  Power corrupts is the idea they fear.  They see him as an alien being, not a welcome new US citizen.  In the course of defeating various menaces to the city, he has caused many deaths and considerable carnage.  Some blame him for not saving their cherished relatives. Superman himself is young and somewhat naïve, unable or unwilling to understand the fears that some express, not wholly aware of his flaws.  Batman, on the other hand, is a dark and anguished vigilante who has never recovered from the murders of his parents 35 years in the past.  He doesn’t merely stop criminals or rescue hapless victims.  He punishes evildoers by literally branding them with his bat symbol, which dooms them to murder in the Gotham City prison, where he has arranged for certain inmates to carry out his will. Even more so than in the Christopher Nolan films, Batman here verges on psychopathology, a dark and tormented figure tottering on the edge.  He is also jealous of the newcomer Superman.  Each finds it easy to believe in the potential dangers of the other.
I watched the “extended” three-hour version of the film.  I found it interesting and mostly entertaining throughout.  By questioning the nature of Superman’s limitless powers, it treads where earlier films have not gone. It shows these two superheroes in the context of the modern world—of terrorism, concerns about science, of social order, of immigrants.  It questions the very concept of a superhero, of how such a being might fit into our society.  Of course, the Christopher Nolan films gave a similar treatment to the Batman figure.
The first two-thirds of this film set up its raison d’être: the epic battle between Batman and Superman, both of whom through misunderstandings and the machinations of Lex Luthor (wonderfully played by Jesse Eisenberg—we can’t forget that he also played Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network (2010)—does this film suggest a connection?) have become convinced that the other is a profound threat.  The battle itself is long and bombastic but entertaining enough, especially when Wonder Woman shows up (her presence is hinted at throughout the film).  When the battle begins, the intellectual and philosophical pretensions of the first parts of the film fall away and we have what amounts to a prolonged encounter in semi-glorious DGI—all the rules of nature and physics and Batman’s physical fallibilities to the side. 
But I enjoyed the film, which was significantly better than most reviews allowed. My son asked me whether my judgment had lapsed when I told him my opinion.  It’s possible.  It’s also possible I don’t view this film from the perspective of younger viewers steeped in the lore of these fictional heroes and the new era comic books, that I was immune to or unaware of all its true badness.  It’s possible that the film’s focus on philosophical concerns put off some viewers and reviewers.  I’ve always been a Superman fan and have enjoyed the films (excluding Superman III, 1983).  I read the comic books as a child but as an adult haven’t paid much attention to the graphic novels about America’s super heroes.  It’s also possible that exposure to all the virulently negative reviews of this film stirred my contrarian inclinations.