Friday, January 31, 2014
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Tuesday, January 28, 2014
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Wednesday, January 22, 2014
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Thursday, January 16, 2014
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, by Lynne Olson
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 1/16/2014 03:56:00 PM
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
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Monday, January 13, 2014
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Sunday, January 12, 2014
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Friday, January 10, 2014
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Monday, January 06, 2014
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Friday, December 27, 2013
A romantic melodrama about brain tumors and death, Dark Victory (1939; dir. Edmund Goulding) gives us fatal illness in a vein that makes it a welcome opportunity for proving one’s nobility. With George Brent as a brain surgeon, a young Ronald Reagan as a perpetually drunk young friend, Humphrey Bogart as a horse trainer with an Irish brogue, and Bette Davis as the doomed young woman Judith Traherne, Dark Victory gives us death as only the rich can know it. It’s a good death, too, one that involves no suffering, only a few hours of blindness until the final moment comes. And it’s a kind and redemptive death too because Judy has the chance to win riding competitions, drink and smoke with abandon, offend all the people she doesn’t like, find love with the man she loves (not, surprisingly, the brain surgeon) and then to dump him bitterly only to seek his forgiveness and then to have a big wedding and then to run off to New Hampshire with him so they can live in a country cottage while he does brain research in an out building and she keeps house with servants and waits to die.
Davis apparently considered this film her favorite. It was a great commercial success. It’s not her best, however much money it might have made. An actor is not always the best judge of her best work.
A few random thoughts: the notion that a young woman can die happy and fulfilled with no pain and suffering from a brain tumor is offensively sappy. When Judy realizes that her last moments are approaching, she hides her condition from her husband, who is about to leave for New York to present his research. She tells him that she wishes to remain at home with her friend Ann, who has come to visit. I don’t believe this. So her husband leaves, and Judy lets him go, and Ann doesn’t let on that anything is amiss. I don’t believe this either. Then Judy orders Ann to leave too, so that she can show her courage and strength by dying alone. But before she dismisses her, Judy orders Ann never to leave her husband’s side after she is gone, obviously setting her up for matrimony on the rebound. Ann weeps and runs hysterically away down the road, flapping her arms like a suffering bird (or so I imagined it). What a friend.
Davis’ acting is frenetic, nervous, and rapid delivery throughout. Even when she isn’t insulting friends and behaving like a bitter doomed heroine, she isn’t particularly sympathetic. This film was made in the days when doctors and patients could smoke together in medical offices, when everyone admired heavy drinking, when dying patients weren’t told of their condition, when the poor didn’t matter except as props for the rich, or as servants.
The lesson here is that everyone is going to die, some sooner than others, and that we all must use well the time we have remaining, so that we can die a good and noble death in the end. We all should live the best we can. No doubt there. But if there is a good and noble death, I’d like to see it.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 12/27/2013 12:44:00 PM
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, like all novels, is a work of imagination. One reads it and creates within one’spersonal imagination a series of images that represent characters and places and events it contains. Often these images may not connect with those provided by the writer, if indeed he has provided them (Tolkien did not, except in some maps of Middle Earth and surroundings). I first read Tolkien in college. On the wall of the places where I lived I kept a colorful and overactive map of Middle Earth, loosely based on Tolkien’s writings and his maps. I no longer have the map, but it still colors my imagination when I read the books.
The appearance of the Peter Jackson films based on The Lord of the Rings and on The Hobbit, for those readers who were serious admirers of these works as novels, created a challenge. Do we give up our personal images in favor of the film versions, or do we hold to our own vision and avoid the films entirely? I was unwilling to miss the films, so I attempted a middle ground. In many cases this was easy because of the inferiority of some of the films’ images, particularly of the orcs and trolls (who seemed cast-off monsters from Lost in Space or The Outer Limits television series). But the powerfully evocative images of the hobbits and of the elves overrode whatever images I had developed of them. In the case of the hobbits, I think Tolkien’s books and the films were fairly much in accord.
If we’re going to be purists, we have to be purists and hew entirely to the books or to the films. I’m no purist. I need both.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films have the disadvantage of coming out after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first. It was a much simpler, more elementary, even more juvenile venture than the trilogy that followed it. Moreover, the events that it narrated precede and lead up to the events in the trilogy. It was thus natural that one would first read The Hobbit and then move on to The Lord of the Rings. The case is reversed for the films of these works. Jackson’s trilogy preceded his Hobbit films. And, of course, he decided to make The Hobbit a trilogy as well. We will have to see what difference this makes. It’s certainly clear from the first installment in the Hobbit trilogy that he has inserted a lot of extra story, much of it from The Silmarillion, some of his own creation. The film is much darker than the book, and part of the reason may be that the LOR trilogy itself was so dark—it’s difficult put aside that darkness and go back to the relative light and innocence of The Hobbit.
So it’s unfortunate that the Hobbit films were made after the Lord of the Rings films. It would have been better if the Hobbit films had been made first. It would have been better to move forward from innocence and light to darkness and evil. The finding of the ring, and Bilbo’s decision to hold on to it, is the Fall that makes the latter three novels inevitable.
Yet it’s fortunate the films were made, and we have to live with the order of their creation. I’ve noted the many reviewer comments about the slowness of the first Hobbit installment (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012; dir. Peter Jackson). Yes, it is a bit slow. Yes, it departs considerably from the monolithic plot of Tolkien’s novel. But it many ways it preserves the basic events and spirit of the novel and embellishes and adds to them. I look forward to the second installment.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 12/15/2013 12:53:00 PM
Monday, November 11, 2013
Among the wretched films I’ve seen in the last six months, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013; dir. John Moore) is astounding in its cartoon exploitation of a worn out formula that was exhausted in the first three installments of the Die Hard series. Here Bruce Willis seems to go through the motions. We hear jokes about his age and about his bad relationship with his son. Throughout the film, even at times of greatest peril, father and son argue with one another, hurling insults and jabs left and right.
Pay no attention to laws of physics in this film. What is good about it? Loud explosions, helicopter crashes, fire, and cars hurling through the air. And, oh yes, the shooting. This is an NRA joyride.
Let us now consider Jack Reacher (2012; dir. Christopher McQuarrie. Its hero (played by Tom Cruise) is interesting, but there is really not much of a plot.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013; dir. Tommy Wirkola)—instead of guns, there are flaming swords, or spells, or something. The fact that Hansel and Gretel are siblings removes most of the sexual tension from the film, except for those viewers who are truly perverse. Given the premise, which involves how Hansel and Gretel take revenge on witches because some old witch in the past tried to have them both for lunch, there’s not much of a place for this film to go. As a child I was always bothered by how the parents in the fairy tale abandoned their children in the woods. How cruel! I could empathize with the abandonment the children must have felt. My parents were good parents, they never abandoned me in the woods, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t worry about abandonment. This film ends up explaining too much about that abandonment in the fairy tale. In the film, it turns out that the children’s mother was a white witch, which means a good one, and that as a result all the other witches wanted to kill her. So she gets burned at the stake, and her husband dies, but not before they take their children deep into the woods to ensure the bad witches don’t find them. There’s not much imagination here. It’s predictable and prosaic and pretty dumb. Why would Jeremy Renner, the main actor in The Hurt Locker (2008; dir. Kathryn Bigelow), agree to appear in this one? Maybe he was desperate.
If we don’t praise Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who played a racist African American stereotype in the figure of Stepin Fetchit through many films of the 1930s and 40s, or James Baskett, who played a lovable if stereotyped Uncle Remus in Song of the South (1946), why do we praise Melissa McCarthy for her comic portrayal of a bumbling, dysfunctional, sociopathic overweight woman in Identity Theif (2013; dir. Seth Gordon)?
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013; dir. Sam Raimi) features several well-known and even respected actors, including James Franco as the Oz character. It’s produced by Disney Studios, renowned for achievements in animation and for a string of creative animated films running from Fantasia (1940) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Finding Nemo (2003). Why, then, is this film such a travesty? The story is lame, the acting is embarrassing, the special effects and animation are impressive, but they have no story to carry, and after a while they grow tiresome. Were Baum’s novels as wretched as this film?
Jack the Giant Killer (2013; dir. Mark Atkins) was actually entertaining. Its wit and inventiveness raised it well above the level of the films mentioned above. It had action, interesting characters, wit, and, most of all, big, dumb giants.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 11/11/2013 01:24:00 PM
Sunday, October 20, 2013
When things start going wrong in Gravity (2013; dir. Alfonso Cuarón), one hardly feels capable of watching the screen. There’s an awful inevitability to what occurs, brought on by the laws of physics and of, well, of course, gravity. Every 90 minutes the heroine must face another onslaught of orbiting debris that has knocked out communications with earth, killed her coworkers, and made the prospects of her survival dim.
I am sure there are many elements that Gravity gets wrong, but the verisimilitude, the appearance of realism, the fine attention to detail, the effort to be real, can give one the sense of watching a live-action news report rather than a movie-created illusion.
Against the stunning backdrop of the earth, of the international space station, Gravity offers especially insipid dialog. George Clooney, who plays a senior astronaut on the verge of retirement, is especially irritating as a somewhat self-absorbed space wrangler who’s convinced that romance with his colleague Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) is a great conversational topic during a spacewalk. And there are elements of Gravity that seem entirely predictable—one catastrophe followed by another, survival and recovery and then more danger. But Sandra Bullock’s character, who in her first time in space, sent to reprogram the Hubble telescope, must fight nausea throughout, not to mention fear and horror), carries the film. The acting Bullock must do is not physically demanding--it manifests in how she reads her lines, the tones of her voice, her facial expressions)—mostly we see her face inside a space suit, in various stages of alarm and distress. But she enacts her role deeply and empathetically, especially in an extended scene inside a Russian space station, as she thinks about her situation, her life, and the unlikelihood that she’ll ever return to earth. Her character is introspective and wounded, and there’s a meditative, even spiritual quality to her that many reviews have missed.
Bullock’s character Ryan Stone reminded me especially of Tom Hanks as the man lost on an island in Cast Away (2000; dir. Robert Zemeckis).
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) presented humankind as a species evolving forward into the future through technology, and Gravity offers a similar theme. In both films technology goes awry, and human beings are thrown back entirely on the naked reality of human experience, human consciousness. In Kubrick’s film technology develops its own agency and threatens to take over. In Gravity disaster happens as an unpredictable manifestation of chance, and of the bad planning of nations that never stop to consider the consequences of throwing more and more junk into orbit over the earth. In Kubrick’s film, technology is potentially transformative, even as it threatens to erase the humanness of its creators. In Gravity, technology has the power to kill the humans who employ it, but even to the last moment something fundamentally human and self-sustaining persists.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 10/20/2013 01:13:00 PM
Monday, September 23, 2013
Filmed in and around Athens, Ga., but not necessarily set in Athens, The Spectacular Now (2013) creates a paradoxical tension for the viewer who knows and lives in the places the film displays. We want on the one hand to connect the events and people of the film with those places, but the film doesn’t necessarily encourage connections. And although, according to director James Ponsoldt, filming in Athens allowed him to make use of emotional resonances stirred up by the images of his childhood and adolescence, the film isn’t really about his hometown. It’s about a small and not always charming small town where the characters live and which most of them want to escape.
Ponsoldt has an impressive ability to create characters who don’t come across as Hollywood actors pretending to be normal people. We saw this clearly in one of his earlier films, Smashed (2012), and there is little that is glamorous about the two main characters in this newer film. Sutter (Miles Teller) has scars on his neck. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) has bumps on her face, and she’s slender without the emaciation of a starlet model. Neither is heavily made up. Allie lives in a small, nondescript home. Ponsoldt, in an after-film question and answer session, credited the intelligence of the actors in understanding their characters and the importance of making them “normal.” However, he clearly insisted on their normalcy, so that his film would give us characters we could be interested in, even identify with, not on a wish fulfillment level but on that of personal experience.
Let me be clear. The main characters Sutter and Aimee are eighteen-year-old graduating high school seniors. It’s been a long, long time since I was their age, or lived through the kinds of experiences they have. I don’t automatically identify with them, especially Sutter, who’s conflicted and complicated. Amy’s innocence, her willingness to overlook Sutter’s failings (except, perhaps, in the film’s final moment) seemed to me a bit much. But Ponsoldt makes these characters credible, and in the end you care about them because he’s made it possible on some level for you to understand and empathize with them as real human individuals.
Characters drive this film, just as they drove Smashed. Ponsoldt is a gifted filmmaker. His comments following the showing of The Spectacular Now at Athens Ciné (Athens, GA) made clear how steeped he is in film tradition. He is highly articulate and his intelligence certainly comes across in the film. Yet his background and training are not a hindrance in the film. The only direct influence I saw in The Specatcular Now was Say Anything (1989, dir. Cameron Crowe). Its two main characters—a goofball, directionless male and an intelligent, high-achieving young woman—are similar to Aimee and Sutter in this film. Sutter resembled John Cusack of Say Anything in both appearance and personality.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 9/23/2013 02:57:00 PM
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Juicy and Delicious (New York: Diversion Books, 2012) by Lucy Alibar is the play that inspired the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Alibar knew director Benh Zeitlin, and years after she wrote the play, he approached her about adapting it as a film. Together they wrote the screenplay. There are several major differences between play and film. One is the gender of Hushpuppy, who was male in the play and female in the film. Another is the setting—Georgia in the play and Louisiana in the film. The play is impressionistic, in the fashion of what we might call magical realism. Certainly it is told from the child’s viewpoint. It has the same sort of whacky, off-beat, fanciful humor as the film. The film uses much of the dialogue in the play, some of it nearly verbatim, some of it changed. The fact that Hushpuppy becomes a girl in the film creates an additional level of humor and irony, especially in the scene where the father tells Hushpuppy that “you are the man.” The play creates the story in the child’s imagination, and uses the aurochs as well as the approaching “end of the world” presaged by Hushpuppy’s schoolteacher Joy as a metaphor or representation of how the child is working his way towards acceptance of his father’s impending death. The storm (considerably more of an event in the film) and the boat on which Hushpuppy embarks after the storm, and after his father’s death, are also part of the play. Essentially, the film fills in details of plot and character without significantly reducing the fanciful nature of the play. And while the play probably didn’t work very well in performance—it is too slight (and too short)—the film works very well. What is surprising is how fully the film incorporates the essence of the play, its underlying issues and images and characters and motifs, but most of all its tone and atmosphere.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 9/17/2013 04:08:00 PM
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Look Away, Look Away! (St. Martin's Press, 2013), by Wilton Barnhardt) offers perhaps the most comical and painful account of a nightmarish Christmas dinner ever in American fiction. A family undergoes a general breakdown and chaos erupts. And if Barnhardt's account of sorority and fraternity life at UNC Chapel Hill in the early 2000s is remotely true, the NC governor ought to call out the state National Guard to subdue the depravity.
This novel about the decline of a Charlotte, NC family in the early 2000s, prior to the Great Recession, includes a vacuous college girl whose goal is to go to college and find a husband; her sister, of many appetites, especially gustatory and sexual, who against all expectations makes a killing in real estate; her brother, who hides his gayness from his parents by bringing his African American lesbian partner to family gatherings as proof of his heterosexuality; his oldest brother, a Presbyterian minister; their parents, a conniving and ruthless mother who resorts to every imaginable stratagem to maintain her place in the upper-crust social structure of the Charlotte community; her husband, a lawyer whose prospects as a political candidate inexplicably tanked some years before, and who spends his time puttering with his civil war relics; and his brother in law, a successful writer with real talent who squandered a promising career by turning to the writing of potboilers to make money, and who’s bitter that critics no longer show him respect, and so on.
This satiric novel traces the decline of the genteel Old South through the misfortunes of this self-absorbed family. Barnhardt is never sure of his own attitudes towards his characters. Early in the novel he treats them with merciless scorn, but as the narrative progresses his attitude softens, as if he feels sorry for them. His targets are too easy and obvious—the vapor headed sorority girl, the puttering Civil War buff, the real estate maven, the brother who hides his gayness, the would-be Scarlet O’Hara. It’s too easy to make fun of these figures, and because it’s easy, the satire often seems superficial.
Too often Barnhardt's characters provide long histories of society in Charlotte or the real estate market. In such moments the novel grinds to a halt.
Look Away, Look Away! is a comic melodrama that in the end shows too much fondness for its own characters, even as it lambasts them.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 9/15/2013 02:51:00 PM
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
The stories in George Saunders’ Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella (Random House, 1996) are set in an indistinct future, a time advanced in technology, but in many ways as full of human difficulties as our own. One long story involves a time in which mutant humans, apparently the result of environmental pollution, are the victims of relocation camps and general discrimination. The story especially connects to contemporary issues regarding undocumented aliens and other marginal groups, and it summons up recollections of Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the American South pre-civil rights era. (Is there a connection between this story and the X-Men?—the mutants in this story do not have special powers—they suffer physical malformations--for instance, misshapen toes). Saunders takes a wry, disconnected yet engaged attitude towards his characters, for whom he expresses pity, empathy, and a certain I told you so attitude. But the autobiographical essay at the end of the volume invested the stories, with their concerns about people struggling against unhappiness and economic hardship and personal failure, with a specific poignancy. Saunders recounts his years of struggle to find a style and an approach that would work for him as a writer. He says he often tried to imitate Hemingway. But he discovered his true identity as a writer by channeling his own personal anxieties about failure and disruption in his family life—he had a good marriage, a family he loved, children he cherished, and though he was not financially secure at least in the early years of his career he had these things. His worry about what it would be like to lose these reasons for happiness energized him, gave him a subject, and presumably led to the stories in this volume.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 8/20/2013 11:45:00 AM
As a child I read science fiction constantly. In the third grade the first adult novel I checked out from the library was Clifford Simak’s Step to the Stars, and for the next six or seven years I read as much sci-fi as I could find, before drifting on to other kinds of writing. Recently, on the Facebook recommendation of Georgia science fiction writer Michael Bishop, I read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection (ed. Gardner Dozois; St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013). It was interesting to find that in some basic ways sci-fi had changed very little over the five decades, and that in others it had advanced and matured significantly. As standards of comparison, I should add that I have few, not having read widely in sci-fi for 45 years. Maybe what seems significant progress to me is no surprise at all to other readers. By matured and advanced I probably mean in prose style and quality. Many of the stories in the anthology at least had literary qualities—strong prose, characterization, plotting, and themes. But many of the scenarios in the stories seem similar, and they tend to replicate one another. Many of the stories concern far-advanced civilizations, some human and some not, completely removed in time and space from earthly origins. Writers go to extremes to describe the ecosystems of alien worlds, and the results are fascinating if sometimes not quite convincing menageries of creatures. The stories have in common a concern with technology and how it can transform if not entirely distort or destroy the humans who create it. Technology in many of these stories means bio-technology, or the fusion of silicate and bio-technology. Writers imagine self-healing, genetically engineered humans who live for thousands of years, living starships, robots, androids, and so on. Many of the stories reflect concern with the environment and with the ecology of alien worlds. Most describe worlds in which attitudes towards sex, gender, and human relations have changed considerably. A number of the stories seem to come to no particular end. One of the most fascinating, the final story, “Eater of Bones,” by Robert Reed, goes on for too long. Among my favorites was Michael Bishop’s “Twenty Lights to the ‘Land of Snow’,” about the settlement of a New Tibet on a distant planet. “Old Paint,” by Megan Lindholm, is a humorous story about a family car that takes on a life of its own. “In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns,” by Elizabeth Burns, is a murder mystery set in a futuristic India in which a hybrid cat-parrot with amnesia plays a significant part. Christopher Barzak in “Invisible Men” retells the famous H. G. Wells story from the point of view of a chamber maid who herself feels invisible. I was interested in how many of the writers had day jobs in physics, and how many had studied Elizabethan literature in graduate school. Women and writers from places other than the United States were well represented. These stories were entertaining and diverting. The best of them were intelligent and evocative.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 8/20/2013 11:38:00 AM
Monday, August 19, 2013
A paranoid, right-wing fantasy thriller, Olympus Has Fallen (2013; dir. Antoine Fuqua) imagines what might happen if a North Korean terrorist attacked the White House, killed virtually everyone in it, and took the president hostage. Well, the terrorist is not precisely North Korean—his family was expelled from North Korea, and his mother was killed by an American mine in the DMZ, and he’s angry that North Koreans don’t eat well. It’s difficult to make out the logic of his motives, but then, hey, so what, he’s a crazed maniac. What this film imagines is a highly adept group of North Koreans who have compromised all the nation’s security systems, stolen secret American weapons, and have a plan for blowing up all American ICBMs in their siloes, thereby causing the nuclear incineration of the nation. They have the cooperation of an American accomplice.
Why is the film rightwing? Because it glories in imagining what the evil North Koreans would do if only they had a chance. It relishes images of American soldiers and diplomats and government officials being gunned down. It trembles at the image of the top of the Washington monument crumbling, and the bullet marked White House in flames, and so on. All of this is causes by nasty foreigners, evil Asians intent on mayhem. (Recall George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil speech). The xenophobic implication being that we should adopt militaristic, hyper-aggressive strategies to keep those verminous enemies out. This is a parable of sorts, another version of September 11, 2001, a call for vigilance along with a dimwitted, heavy-handed, jingoistic, self-aggrandizing approach to foreign policy abroad and security at home. Shades of the NSA.
The film takes its title at face value. Washington DC, especially the White House, is Olympus. Stirring music with a hushed chorus accompanies each iconic image. When the President is wounded, the music suggests that Christ’s side has been pierced.
Despite all the hoopla, this is just another action movie about people (the President) rescued from a tight spot by an unlikely hero (the disgraced Secret Service agent), with empathy and pathos delivered by the president’s young son, hiding in the captured White House, wanted by the hostage-takers who believe that by threatening his life they can force the President to give up a secret code. The boy is saved, but for reasons I couldn’t discern the President gives up the code anyway. The Americans win out in this conflict by brute strength rather than intelligence, and the evil Asians lose through their greed, lust for power and wanton destruction, and madness. There’s no distinction in the action or the story or the scenario. The film is mildly entertaining—you can sleep through half of up yet be caught up on the action as soon as you awake, because there is not much to catch up with--it’s got a lot of shootings and explosions and noise.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 8/19/2013 04:25:00 PM
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Spike Lee’s second film School Daze (1988) is set in a large Southern town recognizable as Atlanta, though it is never named. It’s set on the campus of a historically black university, Mission University, a place like Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Lee studied. On the one hand, this is an African American version of any number of mainly white films devoted to campus life, such as Animal House (1978) or Back to School (1988) or PCU (1994) or of those awful college films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s (Knute Rockne All American, 1940, comes to mind). On the other hand, with its many comic moments, School Daze has a serious purpose: to explore political and cultural divisions in African American life by focusing on a college that is educating future African American leaders. The film begins with a montage of images from the Civil Rights movement. They connect the college campus the film portrays with African American history.
The “Daze” of the title suggests the unreality of college life, and the film spends a good bit of time showing us college students engaged in meaningless chatter about relationships, sex, fraternities, skin color, and hair style. A central musical number is about a dispute between two groups of women who style their hair in different fashions—the light-skinned group favors 80s style hair and the darker skinned group prefers hair in a more revolutionary vein.
The film presents more a pastiche, a montage of scenes from college life, than a coherent plot. A character named Half-pint (Spike Lee) wants to pledge a popular fraternity. He also wants to lose his virginity. His cousin, Dap (Laurence Fishburne), is a would-be revolutionary who wants Mission College to disinvest all its funds from South Africa. Dap hates fraternities and has a serious rivalry with Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), president of Gamma Phi Gamma, the fraternity Half-Pint wants to join. School Daze sees fraternities as irrelevant and destructive. Pledges undergo silly rituals. They are encouraged to feel superior to other students, to abuse women, to feel contempt for people like Dap who want to change the world. You can imagine many of these fraternity members headed for a conformist career in business. It’s not in their interests to seek change in a world that they want to join.
Dap is loud and obnoxious in his ever-present advocacy for the causes he supports and in his hatred of the fraternity Dap wants to join. He is not especially effective as an activist, but Spike Lee as director makes clear that Dap believes fervently in what he believes, and that he, as opposed to Julian or Half-Pint, recognizes that in a world where everyone’s attention is diverted by disagreements over affluence and skin color and hair styles and fraternity memberships, progress won’t occur.
On the night Half-Pint is initiated into Gamma Phi Gamma, Julian orders his girlfriend to sleep with Half-Pint because he can’t have a virgin in his fraternity. She follows his command. When Dap finds out what has happened, he is outraged at his cousin and at Julian. The film ends with his commanding question “Why?” which seems to imply that while these students are whiling away their time on trivial, narcissistic irrelevancies, the world is suffering. Dap’s “Why?” is a call for change of directions and for political action, both in the world at large, but on the campuses of places like Mission College, where future citizens are being educated.
Spike Lee’s method of introducing an array of characters and situations that he gradually interweaves through the course of the film is evident here. School Daze is a major step towards one of his great films, Do the Right Thing (1989). It also paves the way for a number of other films about African American college life, all centered in Atlanta. Drumline (2002; dir. Charles Stone III), ATL (2006; dir. Chris Robinson) and Stomp the Yard (2007; dir. Sylvain White) are examples.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 7/31/2013 11:07:00 PM
One memorable scene in La Grande Illusion, (1937; dir. Jean Renoir) comes when inmates of a German prison camp are rehearsing for a skit they will perform before other prisoners and German officers. They are trying on costumes they will wear as they portray women dancing and singing on stage. The slightest of them, who plays some sort of ingénue, puts on an attractive dress and blonde wig. When he walks out in front of the other men, they suddenly fall silent, gazing at him in the dress and blonde wig with wistful regret for the women they miss at home, desire, and shame for the desire they feel for another man. The scene is comic but moving, as this slender man in a dress and wig arouses conflicting emotions in his fellow prisoners.
In another scene the commanding officer of the French prisoners of war, Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) talks with the commanding German officer of the prison, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim). They are friendly acquaintances from past days; they both remember the same prostitute and the same restaurants in Paris. They both feel trapped by circumstance and their class—both are members of a vanishing class of upper class nobility that will pass away along with the end of the war.
The scenes of this film are carefully photographed, full of authentic details, so that if any of them actually are filed on a set, it is impossible to tell. Renoir, the son of the famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, composes many scenes as if they are paintings. I especially liked the indoor shots of people in the immediate foreground, set against an open window that reveals another scene outside, in the background. This is more sophisticated cinematography than we are used to in most American films of the 1930s.
La Grande Illusion directly addresses anti-semitism and German hatred of Jews. Although it is set in World War I, it clearly is responding to contemporary events of the late 1930s, including the movement of Nazi Germany to go to war with the rest of the world. Yet this film does not demonize the Germans. Rather it emphasizes the arbitrariness of boundaries between individuals, social classes, and nations.
This must be the archetypal prisoner of war film. Both Stalag 17 (1953; dir. Billy Wilder) and The Great Escape (1963; dir. John Sturges) echo it in different ways. The film Casablanca (1942; dir. Michael Curtiz), with its scene of French patriots breaking into “Le Marseilles” in front of German officers in Rick’s Café, was probably inspired by a similar scene in La Grand Illusion, when French prisoners begin singing the same song in front of German officers when they learn of a French victory over the Germans.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 7/31/2013 03:16:00 PM
Friday, July 26, 2013
The Dictator (2012; dir. Larry Charles) observes few boundaries of political or moral correctness. Its satiric story of a middle-eastern dictator who comes to New York to address the United Nations takes middle eastern politics and Muslim culture as its main targets—there is no doubt about this. In the course of this exercise, Dictator levels its aim at Jews, African Americans, Asians, middle-class white America, women, feminists, and probably other groups and categories I haven’t thought of yet. The main character, Admiral General Aladeen Aladeen (Sasha Baron Cohen) is an utterly ruthless dictator who orders anyone who disagrees with him executed. He hates Jews, women, and anyone who opposes him. The wealth of his nation, Wadiya, what there is of it, goes towards maintenance of his opulent palace and lifestyle. His nation is rich in oil, but because he promised his father that he would never sell it to outsiders, he remains true to that promise (one of the only promises he keeps). His dying father appointed him dictator despite the older brother (Ben Kingsley) who was first in line of succession. His brother is constantly plotting to assassinate or overthrow him so he can take control of the country and sell its oil resources to foreign oil interests (BP, Exxon, and so on).
As with Cohen’s two previous films—Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), both directed by Larry Charles—this one skirts a fine line between satire and intolerance. Is it attacking western stereotypes about the Muslim world, or exploiting them for comedy? It’s both, I think, and these opposites aren’t always compatible. Cohen rarely misses the opportunity for an outrageously inappropriate joke: when he delivers a baby at the food collective, he is genuinely moved, yet when he sees that the baby is a girl, he wants to throw it out with the trash. When his new wife tells him that she is pregnant, he asks her whether the child will be “a boy or an abortion.”
In the course of this film, Aladeen falls in love with the owner of an organic food collective—she’s whole earth in every way, Jewish, and feminist—everything he hates. He declares at the UN, after he sees her watching him, that he will restore real democracy to his country and not sell out to international oil conglomerates. Yet the film makes clear, in the typical eye-winking, ear-pulling way of Cohen, that he’s not really serious.
While Arabic culture and politics suffer the main brunt of this film’s satiric attack, in his speech to the UN, Aladeenn outlines what he believes are the benefits dictatorships can bring—and they are all practices and acts that have characterized American democracy over the last 25 years. The point is not to let Arabic culture off the hook, but to make clear that U. S. capitalism is guilty of sins and injustices of its own.
Cohen may seek to soften somewhat the depravity that Aladeen represents by portraying him as an inept, incompetent, ignorant, and not very smart buffoon (every time he orders someone executed, his executioner helps the condemned victim escape to a Wadiyan refugee community in New York) who can’t open his mouth without making outrageous and offensive statements. This in part may be a nod to another film called The Great Dictator (1940; dir. Charlie Chaplain) with Charlie Chaplain playing a clear parody of Hitler. But Chaplain’s political and humanistic message in his film isn’t as compromised as it is in this one.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 7/26/2013 02:08:00 PM
I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for many of the characters in James Salter’s stories in Last Night (Knopf, 2005). They seemed steeped in privilege, wealth, affluence, narcissistic self-absorption. I’m not bothered by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wealthy coterie of characters, maybe because most of them come from humble origins (Gatsby, Dick Diver) or because Fitzgerald himself holds them at an ironic distance. There’s not much sense in Salter’s collection of the history or background of his characters. Some of these stories are maudlin: three women gather to discuss sex and romance past and present. One of them listens but has nothing to contribute to the conversation. She feels she has lived an unfulfilled life, a feeling encouraged by the stage four cancer diagnosis she had received earlier in the day. She leaves the gathering and takes a taxi home, weeping in the backseat. In another story, a husband assists his wife in committing suicide, then goes downstairs to have sex with his paramour. The next morning his wife wakes up and wants to know why she didn’t die. In still another story, a man’s wife asks him to stop having sex with his best friend—a relationship he hasn’t acknowledged to his wife for the ten years of their marriage. Salter writes very well. He knows and understands his characters. But he doesn’t always succeed in making their problems interesting or representative of a wider experience. Some of these stories seemed slight to me, or unbalanced, or unfinished. The collection as a whole centered on people disappointed in their lives, guilty over their betrayals of others, bitter over how they have been betrayed. There is adultery and sex or the promise of it throughout the volume, but mostly the promise leads to misery. There are no fulfilled lives in these stories, and maybe that is Salter’s point.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 7/26/2013 01:42:00 PM
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Morrow, 2013), by Neil Gaiman, may be a classic of its type. I just finished it, and don’t have much objective distance from it yet. It impressed me with its originality, especially in passages that described fantastic events, and in its use of a seven year old’s perspective for telling the story.
This must be an autobiographical allegory of a memoir. Comments Gaiman has made in interviews suggest as much. He’s not telling the facts of his own life, but he admits to using recollections from childhood and family life to build the narrative. Emotionally, the story seems intensely personal and important, as if it comes from the early time in Gaiman’s life when he had no sense of the enormity of the seen and unseen world around him, of the problems and difficulties he would have to face. But I shouldn’t use the book to speculate about his intentions.
The seven-year-old who narrates doesn’t understand much that happens around him. His innocence gives him a certain invulnerability to dark events, but also mark him as a potential victim, which indeed he becomes.
The premise is that beyond the seen world there is an unseen one that rarely interacts with the real one. Sometimes, rarely, the unseen world can be the source of disastrous events. One such event occurs in the novel, in the form of a governess who comes to care for the narrator and his older sister while their parents, who have suffered financial setbacks, work. When a boarder commits suicide in the family car, the boy is befriended by a somewhat older girl who lives with her family down a narrow lane. She becomes his friend, protector, and entry into another world.
Events happen all the time in and around the lives of children that they cannot understand. They have no way to apprehend the future that is coming for them. It’s all just a big unknown, and occasionally it abrupts into their lives before they’re old enough to understand.—deaths, sex, unhappiness, hardship, calamities. Parents divorce. Friends move away. The novel is full of metaphors, allegoric representations of such events.
This is the best book I’ve read in a while.
Posted by Hugh Ruppersburg at 7/26/2013 12:02:00 PM