Saturday, December 30, 2006

Al Gore: The Inconvenient Truth

It is difficult to imagine a more persuasive, lucid, and well constructed presentation than is found in An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary featuring Al Gore’s campaign to alert the public to the dangers of global warming. It has been released on DVD, and I recently took the opportunity to see it. Using well chosen scientific data presented in a highly accessible and visually appealing set of graphics, Gore builds the case for the reality of global warming (does anyone truly continue to doubt that it’s happening?) and the necessity of taking steps to address it. Rarely have I seen graphs and statistics used so effectively. Much has been made of Gore’s stiff, stentorian manner, his tendency to lecture, but in this film, though he does lecture, his style is relaxed, personal, and informal. He makes an engaging teacher, with a sincere and humorously self-deprecating manner.

Although most of the film focuses on the subject of the title, we never lose sight of the narrator Al Gore. He jokes about his defeat in the 2000 elections and discusses how he first learned of global warming from a college teacher. He explains that a life-threatening injury suffered by his son at the age of six convinced him that he needed to do something to change and improve the world. He gets in a few jabs at the Bush administration. Clearly the subject has personal meaning for him. But for the most part he keeps us focused on the science of global warming, the causes and potential effects. The message is compelling and disturbing, but the film never allows us to forget the messenger.

It is difficult not to see An Inconvenient Truth as a kind of campaign film in sheep’s clothing. That it may be such does not invalidate its message. But the film does return Gore to the public eye. It’s been tempting to forget Al Gore. After 9/11 and the Afghani and Iraqi wars, the 2000 campaign became a distant and in ways irrelevant event. Although many persist in believing that the Presidency was stolen from Gore, the facts suggest that he lost Florida by a small margin. He won the popular vote nationally, but lost the electoral vote, and though the logic of the Electoral College has never been fully clear to me, it’s in the Constitution. The bungled embarrassment of the Kerry/Edwards campaign of 2004 moved us even further away from the Gore candidacy. He was an awkward memory from a lost century, the lead participant in a series of baffling and irrefutable events. And he was too easily lampooned--the Saturday Night Live "lock box" sketches were hilarious and accurate. Gore himself participated in one of them. What could he possibly contribute to the current mess we’re in? Banish him to the past. At least so that line of thought runs.

(We should stop to consider why, given the reality of George W. Bush, Al Gore should seem “awkward.” Our current President endows the term with new and unexplored meanings. It’s also difficult to conceive that Al Gore couldn’t have offered better leadership in domestic and foreign affairs than George Bush, who has created profound problems for our nation and left it considerably weakened as a result.)

An Inconvenient Truth reminds us of the great intelligence and imagination Gore could bring to the Presidency. Obviously, the ability to talk well about global warming is hardly the only talent we should look for in our next president. But Al Gore, stiff and uncomfortable as he may sometimes seem, is a person of substance with considerable experience in national leadership. As various Democratic candidates for the office emerge—John Edwards, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others—the inconvenient truth is that we should not rule Al Gore out.

Little Big Man

Little Big Man (1970) was director Arthur Penn’s adaptation of the 1964 novel of the same name by Thomas Berger. Georgia writer Calder Willingham wrote the screenplay—he also wrote the script for The Graduate (1967) and for Rambling Rose (1991—he also wrote the novel on which he based the script). It has been thirty years since I read Berger’s novel, and probably thirty-six years since I first saw the film, though I watched it again today for the first time. When it was released a friend of mine was contemptuous of it and felt that it did not do justice to Berger’s novel. I cannot say myself, without rereading the novel, which I remember as somewhat more complex and rich than the film. I also remember that Walt Whitman appeared as a minor character in the novel, as a suitor to Jack Crabbe’s sister. It’s an ill-fated match, since in the novel she is a lesbian and Walt, of course, is homosexual. In the film, her sexual preference is mildly implied but not stated, and Whitman is nowhere to be seen.

The film is the picaresque tale of Jack Crabbe’s life, told by Crabbe at the age of 121. In the nursing home where he lives he speaks into a historian’s tape recorder, telling how his family was slaughtered by Pawnee Indians when he was a boy, how only he and his sister surviving. They are adopted by Cheyenne Indians. Jack in the early course of his life lives as an Indian, is adopted by a missionary, misidentified as a muleskinner by General George R. Custer, runs a store and marries a Swedish woman, marries an Indian woman, serves as a tracker for Custer, is a drunk, a flimflam artist, and so on. He’s also present for the Battle of the Little Big Horn, which he helps cause, and which he survives. The film really covers only the first 30 years or so of his life—the last 90 years it doesn’t deal with at all. Crabbe’s narration is a wonderful exercise in self-invention, confabulation, embellishment, and fictional autobiography. The film is loosely narrated. It does not take on much energy or momentum until mid-way through, though it is always interesting. Its characters are its center—Crabbe himself, along with many others, including his adoptive grandfather Old Lodge Skins, his falsely pious adoptive mother Louise Pendrake, Wild Bill Hickock, General Custer, and a snake oil salesman played by Martin Balsam. Although most of these characters appear prominently in individual episodes, they drift in and out of other episodes and compose the shape-shifting, dreamlike nature of Crabbe’s life story. My recollection is that the film far more explicitly than the novel concerns itself with the attacks of the white American settlers against the Native Americans, and the gradual loss of their culture, but I cannot be sure.

What the film possesses that the novel lacks is the Dustin Hoffman persona. He is a fine actor and is in top form in the film, in which he appeared only three years after The Graduate. As you watch Little Big Man you can’t help thinking that Jack Crabbe is really Benjamin Braddock of the earlier film, and vice versa. You view Jack through the lens of Ben, and through the Jewish New York persona and accent of Hoffman. This gives the film a satiric edge that even the novel lacks, though the novel offers ample satire of its own. Yet this is a dimension of satire that the film doesn’t really need—it’s false satire that doesn’t contribute to the story—Hoffman as Ben as Crabbe. The narration of the story—Crabbe’s narrative voice as interpreted by Hoffman both as an old man and as a much younger one—comes to us through this voice and for me it was disconcerting, though you accept it as one of the conventions of the film.

Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, the adoptive Cheyenne grandfather of Jack Crabbe, is an outstanding feature of the film. Nearly every scene in which he appears is a gem, and his death scene is a classic moment. Yet he is, after all, a stereotype. One can easily see how the film might be criticized for its stereotyping of Native Americans, even at the same time that it romanticizes them. Yet the film also portrays the Indians with respect and shows them as victims of American expansionism. It might not accurately portray them, but at least it does not demonize them nor does it pretend that the westward expansion was some sort of heroic epic process.

Little Big Man was one of a number of revisionist films from the 1960s and 70s that sought to reinvent and reinterpret American history, especially the 19th century westward expansion and the relationship of the white settlers to the Indians. The revisionist account itself is as far off the mark as the account it replaces, but at least it restores balance.

When I first saw this film in 1970 it absolutely bowled me over. Crabbe’s narration of his early life from his distant vantage point as an old man—isolated from the time and place and people who had once given his life meaning—along with the character of Old Lodge Skins, whom I failed to recognize as a stereotype and instead saw as an embattled and endangered fount of authentic humor and natural wisdom—these were the heart of the film for me. My reaction today was less intense, but the film is still affecting, and with all its faults and contrivances, Hoffman’s narration and his portrayal of Jack Crabbe remain an impressive achievement.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Next, by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton’s latest novel Next visits the dangers of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering and cloning are subjects he examined previously in the Jurassic Park novels. Crichton’s typical approach in a novel is to take a group of unrelated characters and to trace, chapter by chapter, their gradual involvement in whatever subject it is he happens to be investigating. That is his approach in Next, though it is not until close to the end of the novel that the plotlines of various characters finally conjoin.

There is not really a plot in Next. Rather there are a number of inter-related subplots—some more prominent than others. They involve a cursing orangutan in Borneo, a human-chimpanzee hybrid named Dave, a talking parrot named Gerard, a woman and her son pursued by a bounty hunter who wants to take a sample of her organs, a pederast, corporate sabotage, several ruthless CEOs, and so on. Some of these subplots never amount to anything. Some are present merely to afford Crichton the opportunity to sermonize about the dangerous course that genetic engineering has taken. Others come together, finally.

The interest of Crichton’s novels has always lain in his fairly deep knowledge of science and his ability to write about it in a convincing way. He knows enough science to convince his readers that he knows what he is talking about, though scientists whom I know are quick to point out his shortcomings. He offers intriguing topics—space-borne plagues, cloned dinosaurs, time travel, nanotechnology, international conspiracy, sexual harassment, and so on. He footnotes his novels and includes a list of sources at the end. All of this gives him and his work a certain gravitas. He writes from an assumed position of knowing authority which most of his readers lack. They therefore do not recognize the flaws in his use of science, his frequent manipulation of information and theories and data in support of his particular attitude towards a topic. Of course, Michael Crichton is writing fiction, after all--not science--and is free to invent, distort, and manipulate at will. As a fiction writer he falls short. His characters are shallow and formulaic stick figures, his plots (stripped of the trappings of science) conventional.

This is certainly the case in Next, the least satisfying book by Crichton that I have read. The subject of genetic engineering is interesting. The examples Crichton cites of how it has gone wrong—some of which he seems to have based on actual cases—are compelling. He has clearly thought through and identified many of the ethical, moral, and political issues that surround genetic research. His knowledge of corporate and legal issues that complicate and influence scientific research is impressive—at least, his ability to write persuasively about the issues, whether or not he is inventing or writing fact. But there is no real tension or energy in the narrative. It plods and meanders on and seems to be going nowhere.

In a sense, what we really have here is a prolonged editorial criticizing how genetic engineering is being handled. In his “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, he sums up his attitudes in a series of conclusions. He doesn’t for instance, believe that it should be possible to patent genes, he doesn’t believe that research of any kind should be banned, he believes there should be careful laws passed governing genetic research, and he believes that information about genetic research should be widely shared, and so on. In effect, the various plot lines in the novel illustrate and embody these conclusions.

What we also have here is what may be Crichton’s attempt at a satiric comedy of errors. The talking parrot, an African grey parrot who possesses human speech genes, is easily the best character in the book—a multi-lingual creature who sings and talks and torments whoever happens to be in his presence, and who has a key role in the working out of the plot once the plot actually does become apparent. He is truly comic. The talking parrot reminded me of some of the talking animals in Thomas Pynchon’s novels, such as the talking dog in Mason & Dixon. The human-chimp hybrid Dave is also an effective character through which Crichton illustrates the ethical dilemmas inherent in the creation of such a creature.

Crichton is especially concerned (with good reason) over the involvement of corporations in scientific research and seems to believe that this more than anything else has led to a dangerous situation where perspective has been lost. His low opinion of the media, politicians, federal agencies, corporate moguls, and the higher education science establishment is frequently evident in Next. The book is full of cynicism, skepticism, and attacks on the various elements of our culture that irritate him. Next is an especially curmudgeonly and cranky book.

Crichton’s career-long concern has been with the place of the sciences in the human world—how they affect and determine the nature and quality of the lives we lead. He raises crucial and central questions about ethics, morality, the scientific process, and the involvement of government and business in research. These are questions that need asking. But the right-wing slant that has become increasingly evident in Crichton's work, especially in the 2004 novel State of Fear, which sought to discount the reality of global warming, detracts from his credibility.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote

Letter reading is a form of voyeurism, at least when the letters are intended for an audience other than oneself. Yet there are times when the historical interest of the letters may raise them beyond the level of personal intrusion. The reading of another person’s letters may also be a way of bringing the letter writer to life. Such is the case in the letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke under the title Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 2004). As literary documents, his letters are not particularly significant. He doesn’t use letter writing as an opportunity to express his attitudes towards his writing or towards the writing of others (although he does pass much judgment on the work of others). Reading them, you don’t learn much about Truman Capote the writer, the novelist, but you do come directly in contact with Capote the human being, and understanding the human being is means of understanding the writer.

These letters range from the 1940s through 1982. Most of them are from the 1950s and 1960s. The early letters quickly give expression to Capote’s brilliant and eccentric personality. Many of them are written to his close intimate friends whom he addresses flirtatiously and with much tenderness. These are his gay friends, and he had a wide circle of friends in this category, many of them leading names in the arts and letters of the day. Letters written to straight friends and associates are more formal but still often quite friendly and intimate. Capote loved the people he considered his friends, whether they were gay or straight, but he was quick to take offense at personal slights, and he did not hesitate to take up his pen with vengeful motives if the opportunity presented itself. The most notable example is a letter he wrote to the wife of William Goyen.

From a literary standpoint, the most interesting of these letters, written mainly during the 1960s, chronicle his interest in the Clutter murders in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas and his work on the book that became his masterpiece. Many of his letters from this period are written to Alvin and Marie Dewey. Alvin Dewey was a detective whose family Capote became friends with and who provided him with much information about the murders. The film Capote portrays the writer as impatient that the murderers Hickok and Smith are not speedily executed. Capote felt he could not finish the book without being able to write the final chapter, and that chapter covered the executions. These letters bear out the accuracy of the film in that aspect. For Capote, the Clutter murders were important for the chance they gave him to write his greatest book—the human tragedy involved was secondary, though the book itself does confirm his ability to recognize and convey it. A friend of mine has suggested that Capote was a “prime piece of human shit who could write really, really well, and then stopped doing even that.” It is possible to come away from these letters with that opinion.

After In Cold Blood the letters diminish in number and interest. He writes about work on his unfinished novel Answered Prayers and describes what he is doing and who he is seeing. But they lack the excitement of the earlier letters, whether he was writing members of his wide social set or talking about his works in progress. After In Cold Blood, he was expended.

These letters would lead to the conclusion that Capote was more a person of surfaces than of substance. Only by reading his fiction and nonfiction, especially In Cold Blood, do you discover otherwise.

Ice Age: The Meltdown

In Ice Age (2002) prehistoric animals—a saber-tooth tiger, mastodon, and several unidentifiable rodents—band together to protect a lost child and return it to its own kind. What poignancy there is in the film derives from the fact that all the animals—save the child—are headed for ultimate extinction as the ice age comes to an end and the human race takes hold. Ice Age is mainly a slapstick film, played for laughs and excitement, and there is not much of an underlying message.

In the sequel, Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), any pretense of poignancy is abandoned. All the characters from the first film reappear (save the child), and they struggle to escape the floodwaters released from the melting of the ice caps. This film was louder and more active than the first one, more intensely full of slapstick and one-liners, right on the level of a lesser Three Stooges episode. Digital animation is amazing, but if it is to work it needs a story and imagination.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

La Dolce Vita

Writing to film costume designer Cecil Beaton in 1961, Truman Capote reported that he had seen La Dolce Vita and could not understand how Beaton could have liked it: “So pretentious, fake arty and BORING!” Capote saw many films and commented on them in letters to friends and associates. He tried his hand at screenwriting, most notably in an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw entitled The Innocents, which he cowrote with William Archibald in 1960. An attempt at a screenplay for The Great Gatsby was rejected by Paramount Pictures in 1971. This is an aspect of Capote’s writing career of which I was unaware.

It was interesting to read Capote’s brief comment on Fellini’s breakthrough film from 1960 and compare it to my own reaction when I saw it for the first time in 2006. In some ways the film seems dated and possessed of a self-willed passion and frenzy that sometimes seems self-indulgent. In other ways the film seems prescient, predicting, setting the scene for, the revolutionary spirit and self-destructiveness of the decade of the 1960s.

The main character is the reporter Marcello, superbly played by Marcello Mastroianni. In a sense the film is about Marcello’s struggle to find his course in life, to sort out his relationships with various women, to decide on a vocation. Although he seems to want to be a writer, to grapple with subjects of significance, he is drawn to a life of libertine self-indulgence—drinking, carousing, partying with the rich and famous, doing nothing of importance at all. Ultimately this life seems to seize hold of him permanently.

There are a number of interesting set pieces in the film, several of them focused on Bacchanalian parties, one on the frenzy that surrounds two children who have supposedly had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The later surreal Fellini is becoming evident in this film, especially in some of the party scenes, where excess energy and chaos and celebration of decadence for its own sake has become the film’s center.

There is no standard plot structure in this film. It simply follows the wanderings of Marcello over a period of several days. We see him carousing with his friends, reassuring his jealous (and apparently pregnant) lover, played by Anouk Aimee, romancing another lover played by Anita Ekberg, driving here and there. The pace and plotting of the film reminded me of Robert Altman films, and it may be that Fellini was an influence on Altman.

For me the most moving part of the film concerned a visit from Marcello’s father, played by Annibale Ninchi. The older man comes down from the country town where he lives ostensibly for business reasons, but in fact to visit his son and to carouse. For a time he seems capable of keeping pace with, even outpacing his son, but ultimately exhaustion overtakes him and he becomes ill, leaving to return to the country. There is a strange and poignant distance between father and son. Both strain to overcome it, and when the older man leaves, Marcello is sorrowful that he is leaving. One senses his desire for a more solid connection.

The serious life that for a time Marcello flirts with is embodied in the film by his older friend and mentor Steiner, a writer and philosopher whose success inspires Marcello. Steiner encourages Marcello to pursue the higher life, but when the older man kills his children and then himself (apparently out of despair over the world in which he lives) Marcello’s pursuit of a life of meaning and significance founders.

Ultimately superficiality, love of excess and hedonism, overcome Marcello.

The film itself is nearly three hours long. The black and white cinematography is excellent. A strong American jazz-based soundtrack accompanies the sometimes frenetic pace and action.

I should have seen this film decades ago, when I might have felt and participated in the subversive passion that made La Dolce Vita important to so many. Today it seems an important monument from Fellini’s career, an artifact that is impressive and compelling in ways but that in others seems contrived and too insistent on the decadence and carefree rejection of traditional ways and mores that it seeks to celebrate.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers

In The Echo Maker Richard Powers interweaves the migratory habits of cranes, neuroscience, and science writing in the story of a man’s struggle to regain his identity set against the struggle of others around him to avoid losing theirs. It is also a mystery story in which a man who has literally lost his mind must struggle to recover it along with the facts surrounding the incident that caused him to lose his mind to begin with. Powers is an intelligent and passionate writer. I don’t know of a more intelligent writer, and intelligence is the driving force in his two best novels, Galatea 2.2 and The Goldbug Variations, the latter of which mixes genetics, Bach, Glenn Gould, Poe, and parallel love stories separated by three decades.

Powers is a novelist who tells and explains rather than dramatizes. He is D. H. Lawrence rather than Henry James, although he explores the social and cultural matrices of science in the same detailed way that James explored the social networks of the American upper crust. He typically narrates in a third-person fashion through his main characters, sometimes relying on internal monologues. Some of his earlier novels used first person. For me, the way in which Powers narrated The Echo Maker was at times problematic and a source of obscurity.

I believe but cannot be certain that the title of The Echo Maker alludes to one of the ways in which human beings learn to speak—by imitating the sounds they hear around them-- and perhaps also some of the social and mating habits of cranes.

Mark is a 26 year old man who is in a terrible accident that leaves him severely brain damaged. His sister Karin comes to be with him during his recovery. Powers has carefully studied neuroscience and uses his knowledge of the subject to illuminate Mark’s recovery. When he does regain his ability to speak and ultimately his physical abilities, he discovers, or believes that he discovers, that Karin is not really his sister but someone who is pretending to be his sister. This is the result of his brain injury. It is called Capgras Syndrome, where the patient is unable to recognize those closest to him, members of the family. He also does not recognize his dog or house—he believes that replicas of his sister, dog, and house were created to deceive him by a sinister government conspiracy. Karin writer Dr. Weber, a renowned psychologist whose books about the human brain and about brain injured individuals have brought him considerable popularity and success, for help. Because of the rare nature of Mark’s injury and the resulting Capgras syndrome, Weber comes to visit Mark. Karin finds her own mental stability wavering when her brother fails to recognize her. Dr. Weber suffers a similar instability when negative reviews of his most recent book convince him that everything he has written is without worth.

One of the real subjects is the relationship of the mind and the brain, the nature of human consciousness, of identity, how the people and the world around us define who we are, how we define them.

Powers is very effective at characterization. Karin is fully developed in The Echo Maker. Other characters are also well drawn but not always well convincing. Mark and his friends Dwayne and Rupp work at a meat processing plant. Mark repairs machinery used n the slaughtering process, while Dwayne and Rupp do the actual slaughtering. These are supposed to be hard-living guys, and I’m not sure that Powers quite pulls off their characters. But he still takes them seriously. Powers’ characters are three-dimensional. They live and think and are not stereotypes. They’re also biological creatures. Powers pays much attention to the physiology, the biology of his characters. He keeps us aware both of Mark as a character struggling to recover his identity as well as a biological organism recovering from a serious injury. In The Gold Bug Variations he parallels the love story of two geneticists with accounts of evolutionary theory in which human love, the reproductive urge, is explained as a process necessary to the transmission of genetic codes from one generation to the next. Strangely, this does not subvert the romance of the love story. If anything, it makes the romance more poignant since the woman has had herself sterilized and can’t transmit the genetic codes.

In The Echo Maker human consciousness is reduced to a series of neural transmissions. Powers does not consistently succeed in explaining the complex ideas he is exploring in the novel. There is a level of abstraction than never quite resolves itself. I often found myself, especially in the latter half of the novel, struggling to understand what was going on, as Powers explained the feelings and mental states and motivations and thoughts of his characters, rarely allowing them to speak outright, except to each other.

I enjoyed, admired, and was moved by this novel. For Powers, the science of the human mind, of genetics, of human life, is as mysterious and wonderful as any religions moment of transfiguration could be. Yet there are moments in the novel where Powers fails in some basic way to be clear about the science that underlies his book. I reread the last fifty pages of the book to be clear on what was happening. I was especially interested in how the cranes were involved in the conclusion of the novel. On rereading, the details were much clearer, but the conclusion of the book seems worked out in a way that is more evident in the emotional progress of the characters than in an intellectual one.

The cranes migrate in huge flocks and in most ways are unlike humans. They are creatures of instinct. They lack in any conventional meaning a personal identity or consciousness. They are organisms rather than individuals. Individuality for cranes means nothing. Yet like human beings they are the product of evolution and are this novel’s confirmation of the miracle of life, which for Richard Powers is not a matter of the spirit but of the chemical and biological processes that produce life. They also play a significant role in the struggle of various characters surrounding Mark to recover their mental stability. Mark himself in one of his more paranoiac delusions wonders whether scientists transplanted a portion of the brain of a crane into his head to replace an injured portion of his own brain. Powers uses this delusion as one basis for demonstrating the evolutionary relationship of cranes and human beings.

One unifying thread in the novel concerns the details of Mark’s accident, which he cannot remember except for a vague image of something vertical and white standing in the road at the scene of his accident. Mark’s desire to know the circumstances of the accident grows more intense as his recovery progresses. Soon after the accident, someone visits him in the hospital, and he discovers a cryptically worded note sitting on his bedside table. Mark wonders whether he has a guardian angel, whether his friends Dwayne and Rupp were involved in the accident, whether the accident was the result of his suicide attempt. The facts are revealed at the end of the novel in a way that seems contrived and artificial, more Spielbergian than literary. I’m not certain this novel really ends in a conventional way, but it is a satisfying and impressive achievement.

The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

My Fair Lady

I first saw My Fair Lady (the film) in 1965. It was a work of grace and beauty and flowers and elegant dress. Rex Harrison’s wit and Audrey Hepburn’s emaciated beauty. There was much about the film that I did not notice in 1965 that is glaringly evident today. The lip-synching, for one. Audrey Hepburn lip-synched to someone else’s singing, and she never quite managed to pull the illusion off. Freddy who sings “The Street Where You Live” also can’t lip-synch.

Then there is the class conflict—the lower class of Eliza Doolittle vs. the elite and educated upper class of Henry Higgins. The film is clearly told from that upper-class point of view. We laugh at Eliza’s cockney speech, her faulty mannerisms, her limited knowledge, and her father’s self-posturing antics.

It’s also told from a male point of view. A number of songs in the film (e.g., “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man”) complain of how exasperating women are. They recall the incredible “How to Handle a Woman” of Camelot.

It has been quite a while since I read Shaw’s Pygmalion, but my sense is that the musical wholly overlooks many of the issues the play examines.

In what may be the central scene of the film, the breakthrough scene where Eliza learns to pronounce English correctly, she behaves like a marionette. The same is true in the horse race scene and at the ball where Higgins wins his bet. Clearly, the director intends for her actions to come across in this way, though Hepburn’s acting style is inclined in this direction to begin with.

Musicals are difficult to translate to screen. They are rhetorical conventions. They make no pretense of simulating reality and instead create opportunity after opportunity for characters to break into song. Because of the tradition of musical reviews, musical drama works better on stage than in film. The film My Fair Lady musical is over long and stiff. Rex Harrison is loud and overbearing as Henry Higgins—as he is supposed to be. Hepburn does as well as could be expected given her lip-synching and her characteristic frozen demeanor. The musical numbers—some of them—are good. But the film really grinds to a halt in the last forty minutes.

Eliza’s decision to return to Henry Higgins was probably a much desired outcome when the film first appeared in 1964, and when the play on which it was based premiered in 1956. Today it no longer makes sense, especially given her final argument with Higgins. The ending certainly flies in the face of what Shaw intended in Pygmalion.

The film as a whole is an irrelevant archaism.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

It is difficult now to watch A Prairie Home Companion without seeing in it presentiments of Robert Altman’s death. Undoubtedly he brought to the film his own sense of impending mortality, his awareness of his own cancer, but he did not believe it would be his last film and was at work on another at the time of his death. Critical reaction to A Prairie Home Companion was fairly positive, and this may have represented a sentimental desire to pay homage to the aging director. The film is entertaining and full of the animated randomness and humanity that is characteristic of Altman’s best films, but this one is not among his best, though it’s certainly noteworthy.

A Prairie Home Companion follows in what appears to be real time the last installment of a long-time radio show in Wisconsin or, judging by the accents, some state nearby. The theater that hosted the show for years is closing down and slated to be razed and replaced by a parking lot. The radio show must close with it. A detached and cold Tommy Lee Jones plays a representative of the corporate entity responsible for this turn of events. He appears on the scene to watch the show with no evidence of emotion—he remains unmoved; the bottom line for him is the only line.

The radio show in the film is, not surprisingly, much like the one that Garrison Keillor hosts every week on National Public Radio. Keillor plays a character like himself, a character bearing his own initials “G. K.” but who is, one hopes (though genial enough, he is surprisingly indifferent and lacking in sentiment), also distinct from the real Keillor. (Keillor wrote the screenplay). The film is narrated from the point of view of Guy Noir, the fictional detective featured on the NPR radio show.

There is a randomness to this film that seems unfocused and random even for Robert Altman. What focus there is comes from the radio show itself and its limited cast of performers. The scenes switch from one set of characters to another—the Johnson Sisters (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) who have performed together for years as the last surviving members of a larger group of family performers; Dusty and Lefty, two quarrelsome cowhands played by Woody Harrelson and John Reilly)—and we overhear them both as they react to news of the end of their radio show and as they continue to work through conflicts that have been going on for literal decades. There is thus both a sense that we are viewing a film in the middle of things as well as a film about endings. (Altman’s films often give a brilliant sense of beginning and functioning in medias res). These actors are excellent in their roles, especially Tomlin and Streep. Lindsay Lohan is good as the daughter of Streep’s character. She gets her first chance to perform on the last radio show—she loses the lyrics and has to make them up as she goes. The various characters talk about continuing to perform after the show ends, but there is a strong implication in the film that the radio show itself if the last of its kind. It’s an outmoded, outdated form of entertainment, and one can imagine that there will be few if any venues for its performers once the show has ended.

One sign of the randomness that characterizes the film is the appearance of a character named Asphodel, played by Virginia Madsen. She is dressed in a white raincoat and moves in a beatific, distracted, desultory fashion through the film. Only Guy Noir can see her (why only he can see her is not explained). She is the angel of death who has come to escort one of the performers into the afterlife. He is a minor character, but his death underlines the eulogistic tone of the film and gives the characters something else to feel sad and wistful about. In general the film seems to express nostalgia and regret over the passing of an era, over the onslaught of a new era of impersonality where the characters of the radio show, not to mention the show itself, lack identity or relevance or any meaningful function.

Keillor’s character declines to acknowledge the performer’s death or the end of the radio show on the air. He says that radio is all about what is going to happen, not about the past. Keillor is very good in his role, but exasperating. He’s difficult to figure.

This film would work at least as well as it does without the distracting and illogical presence of the angel of death. At most she invests the film with a metaphysical, supernatural dimension, suggesting that the end of a radio show is part of a cycle of life and death that characterizes all of creation.

Altman was at his best in films such as Mash, Nashville, The Player, and Gosford Park. There his inclination towards chaos and randomness was reigned in by a strong script or literary source whose narrative held him creatively in check. In A Prairie Home Companion he depends on an array of eccentric and likeable characters and the pathos inherent in the end of a longstanding tradition to provide the anchor, and it doesn’t consistently work.

Robert Altman was a truly great and unique director. Even his unsuccessful films are interesting. A Prairie Home Companion is not a failure. It is just not a great film, certainly not one that approaches the artistry and genius in Nashville, one of the greatest of American films.

Nonetheless, A Prairie Home Companion is interesting and entertaining. And now that Altman is dead, it is filled with poignancy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen is a British comedian whose film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan targets an American audience. Americans are an eager audience--they’ve made Cohen’s The Ali G Show a popular success on HBO. As Ali G, Cohen plays an ignorant hipster journalist who interviews unsuspecting luminaries such as Andy Rooney, C. Everett Koop, Gore Vidal, and others. The subjects of these interviews don't realize that they're being lampooned. Most of them are easy targets. Americans in general are easy targets, apparently, as the film Borat repeatedly demonstrates.

Borat exults in perverse violation of all standards of political correctness. It exploits American xenophobia, especially concerning the Middle East—Kazakhstan is, after all, a Middle Eastern nation. The tenuous plot concerns Borat’s assignment by the television station he works for to travel to America to make a documentary about the American lifestyle that will educate and uplift his countrymen. In fact, this plot becomes the pretense for a series of sketches in which Cohen sets up various unsuspecting victims—mostly he just encourages his victims to be themselves. He does this by playing the foreigner ignorant of American ways--constantly committing faux pas and indecencies (he defecates in shrubbery on the side of a New York City street and masturbates in front of a billboard), asking inappropriate questions, misunderstanding basic facts (he thinks an elevator is his hotel room, he washes his face in a toilet). Most of the characters in these sketches are real and unsuspecting people, not actors—they do not realize they have been set up. Only Cohen/Borat knows what is going on. Thus while the plot is fiction, the individual episodes, most of them at least, are real.

The true plot of the film is set in motion when Borat sees an episode of Baywatch on his hotel television. Falling in love with Pamela Anderson, he vows to meet and marry her and sets out for California. Borat thus becomes a hilarious perversion of an American road film.

Throughout Borat we laugh at Cohen’s character for his foreign ignorance and his inability to understand how to act in America. This means we laugh at his comments about rape, prostitution, and women in Kazakhstan (he brags that his sister is “number four prostitute" in Kazakhstan; he is shocked to learn that woman in America cannot be forced to have sex), and we laugh as well at reactions he prompts in the Americans he encounters. Borat’s fundamental anti-Semitism is a constant subject. The film begins with a report on the annual “Running of the Jews” in Borat’s hometown. Stopping for the night at a bed-and-breakfast owned by an elderly Jewish couple, Borat and his manager are terrified that they will be killed and eaten. In an American gun shop, Borat asks the proprietor to recommend a gun that will protect him against Jews. With no hesitation, the proprietor makes a recommendation. Thus on the one hand while Borat invites us to laugh at anti-Semitism and other primitive practices in Kazakhstan, it also manages to identify those same traits in America. As a fundamental matter of the film’s style and point of view, there is never any editorial intrusion to make clear that the viewer is supposed to react to these scenes in a particular way. The film depends on the audience to react in the appropriate way—with laughter but also with repugnance. But it cannot prevent other reactions—that is, it cannot prevent the audience from concluding that in some way it is endorsing anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. Moreover, there is an ethical question to consider here. By inviting us to laugh at anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism, is Borat criticizing those traits in American society, or is it exploiting them for comic effect, thereby perpetuating them? The fact that Cohen himself is Jewish complicates everything.

There are many anarchistic moments in Borat where the intent is not to make some political or cultural statement but instead simply to create disorder and comedy. One such moment comes in an antiques shop where Borat manages through a series of pratfalls to destroy a collection of china.

In its attention to the travails of Borat as he wanders across the American landscape in search of enlightenment, self-knowledge, and Pamela Anderson, Borat is portrayed as a kind of Adam Sandler character—essentially good and simple, put-upon and taken advantage of, ultimately victorious. (Before Sandler, I would have called him “Everyman”). In both the Sandler and Borat characters, an underlying moralistic perversity often takes aim at the hypocritical and mean spirited. Sandler’s characters take action to punish these individuals. Borat simply finds a way to film them. The most obvious example comes in a scene where Borat while hitchhiking is picked up by a group of fraternity boys from the University of South Carolina. They are drunk and in the course of the scene become drunker. Though they befriend Borat, they also make numerous comments of the sort that Borat seeks to satirize, especially comments about women and minorities. One boy complains that white men have no power in America any more, that minorities are in control. It doesn’t take long for these boys to tighten the noose and spring the trapdoor. In a lawsuit, they are claiming that the Borat film crew set them up: invited into a trailer, asked to sign consent forms, and plied with liquor, these hapless waifs had no idea what was going to happen. This does not mitigate their behavior: it is contemptible. But it does suggest that this film engages in a certain amount of manipulation.

In another scene Borat goes to see an “etiquette counselor” for advice on how to behave in America. She is patient and understanding and apparently does not have any sense that Cohen is tricking her, even when Borat shows her pictures of his son’s genitals. Her forbearance is considerable: she gently explains that it would not be appropriate in America to show these pictures. The etiquette counselor is now also suing Cohen, claiming that she was deceived by the filmmakers and made to look ridiculous. In fact, she emerges from the scene unscarred. Not everyone in the film can make the same claim.

There are numerous moments of mean spiritedness in Borat. One comes during a dinner with a group of conservative white Southerners. Despite Borat’s supposedly unwitting insults and embarrassing comments and actions, these people try to be patient with him. One woman even takes him aside and calmly explains various steps involved in using an American bathroom, including the function of toilet paper. The scene falls apart when an obese, grey-haired African American prostitute in hot pants appears whom Borat has invited to dinner without consulting his hosts. They realize they've been duped and call the police. Is the point here that the prostitute’s arrival exposes the limits of tolerance in the people at the dinner—tolerance that extends only to people with white skin--or is the point that they don't want uninvited prostitutes at their private dinner party--or is the point that they realize they've been exploited? The answer is not as easy as Borat might have it. These people are easy and helpless targets.

In another scene, Borat attends a Pentecostal worship service where people are speaking in tongues, shouting and dancing ecstatically, and otherwise emoting in the typical way of Pentecostal worship services. Borat allows himself to be “converted” and then announces that he is “going to California with my new friend Mr. Jesus to find Pamela Anderson” (my favorite line in the film). The service appears to be a genuine worship service. The worshippers do not know that Borat is feigning his salvation. They treat him with respect and compassion, and he never breaks character. The scene is amazing in a number of ways. I was moved by it. Yet Borat includes it in the film as a way of satirizing and ridiculing the worshippers simply for being themselves. I disagree with Pentecostalism on practically every level. Yet why does the Pentecostal worship service merit ridicule? If the film truly means to attack those who hate Jews, why does it invite us to laugh at Pentecostals?

A scene in which Borat tries to kidnap Pamela Anderson at a book signing also seems to be genuine, though she was apparently in on the joke. When she declines his request that she marry him, he answers that “Consent is not necessary” and pulls a “wedding bag” over her head. She runs out of the bookstore into the parking lot, in hysterics, while Borat is waylaid and arrested. By this point in the film, the joke has grown tiresome.

One might argue that this anarchistic, pseudo-improvisational film is a latter-day version of the 1960s television show Candid Camera, which made fun in a gentle way of people being themselves. There is precious little gentleness in Borat, whose tricks, jokes, impostures, and deceptions are fraught with meanness. Ultimately Borat/Cohen always makes himself the center of attention. With all the pretense of attacks on prejudice and racism, the point of the film is making people seem ridiculous.

While Borat satirizes xenophobia and racism and sexism and other American cultural failings, it also exploits and profits from them. It becomes what it is making fun of. In the anarchistic, guerilla-style comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen, this inconsistency perhaps does not matter. Whether it should matter to those of us in the audience is another question.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

Two alternating parallel narratives over the course of 436 pages gradually converge without ever quite meeting. In one of them a 15-year-old boy estranged from his father runs away from home. In the other an elderly man, who can talk to cats, goes on a strange quest to a distant city. Early in the novel Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, we read of an incident that occurred in 1943 at the height of the Second World War. A teacher takes her young students on a hike in the hills to hunt for mushrooms. She sees a small object glinting metallically in the distant sky. Suddenly, the children fall to the ground, unconscious. Gradually all but one wake up and appear unharmed. The one who does not awaken is taken to a hospital. The teacher never sees him again. We eventually infer that this strange event has a connection to one of the narrative strands. We infer as well that this event has a connection to other concerns in the novel. In a novel such as this, with interwoven narratives, strange happenings, portentous events, we expect at some point an explanation. Murakami tantalizes us with the possibility of an explanation, but it never comes. Instead we get something quite different, something frustrating, perhaps, but something more than satisfying.

One might argue that there is a strong supernatural dimension in this novel or a dimension of science fiction or of fantasy or folklore or a combination of all four. In American novels these genres might provide appropriate ways to categorize Kafka on the Shore. In particular, the style of this novel might be described as magical realism. But this is not an American novel—neither North nor South American--and the mythic traditions it incorporates are not American either. The sense of fantasy that underlies this novel is Japanese, and therefore unfamiliar to a Western reader. But the frustration and the unfamiliarity are part of the pleasure of this book.

Kafka on the Shore offers two main characters, each inhabiting one of the two narratives. One is the 15-year-old teenager who calls himself Kafka: that is not his real name. He is estranged from his father, a famous sculptor, and they have no real relationship at all. Kafka has problems at school, and one day he decides to run away. He is precocious and well read, and he makes his way to a distant city. He finds a job in a library and becomes friends with a man named Oshima, who turns out to be a woman -- a kind of androgyne -- who simply lacks a specific gender. Oshima is a good friend and mentor to Kafka; there is no sexual relationship or potential for one between them. Kafka also becomes friends with a much older woman named Miss Saeki. She has a tragic and romantic background and maybe as well a connection to Kafka.

In the other narrative the main character is Nakata, an old man who describes himself as simple and stupid. He talks about himself in the third person as if he cannot speak in the first person (very rarely he does). He cannot read. He doesn't have a job, although he used to have one, and he spends most of his time hunting for lost cats, for which he is paid by their owners. He remembers that as a little boy he was much smarter and that he could read but that at some point he became ill and lost his ability to read along with much of his intelligence.

There are also characters named Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders. They are not only named after the name brands: they are those brands incarnate.

To go far in discussing the plot of this novel would be to ruin the experience of the book. Even as the reading of it proves to be confusing, it's also pleasurable. One hopes for an explanation, a resolution, for some sort of tying together on a literal level of the disparate strands of this novel. One can't really say that resolution ever occurs. But on a metaphoric level and certainly in terms of characters, there is resolution of a sort. Once again, it's difficult to categorize this resolution in the traditional terms of Western literature. But it's a resolution nonetheless.

In ways, this is a coming-of-age novel for the character Kafka, but it's clearly not a coming-of-age novel for Nakata, who has come to the end of his life or close to it and who carries out in the course of the narrative certain tasks for which his life has apparently been destined. This is also a novel about memory, though the memories are not always ones of which the characters consciously are aware. It is also a novel about synchronicity, about how events come together either by accident or by intention, events seemingly unrelated in space and time and in their very nature. This is part of the confusion of the novel. Yet it's an entrancing confusion.

There's a particular moment in the novel that recalls William Faulkner's story "The Bear," a chapter in his 1941 novel Go Down, Moses. Kafka is staying for a few days in a cabin deep in an isolated woods. He has been taken there by Oshima, who shares ownership of the cabin with his brother. Kafka has been warned not to go into the woods because they are extremely thick and it is easy to become lost in them. He hears a story about Japanese soldiers on training exercises in these woods before World War II: they become lost and were never seen again. Kafka, who does not lack self-assurance, goes into the woods on several occasions. On the last occasion he goes very deep. He marks his way with paint he sprays on the trunks of trees, but he comes to a point where he knows that truly to enter the woods, he'll have to put aside the paint and the other articles of civilization that he's brought along with him, and he does so. (This echoes Isaac McCaslin in "The Bear" when he tracking the bear and realizes that his compass, rifle, and his snake stick are preventing him from truly entering into the wilderness. He puts them down and walks on and immediately sees the bear for the first time).

Perhaps it's at this point in the novel, when Kafka wanders deep into the woods and comes to a strange village, that we truly enter the realm of fantasy. At least this scene more than any other challenges our sense of reality. What transpires here is not at all out of sync with the rest of the novel. It’s consistent with the logic of the novel, yet at the same time it exceeds the boundaries of what we are prepared to accept in a novel. Nonetheless, it's an important part of the resolution and of Kafka’s movement towards full assumption of his identity and his destiny.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Nacho Libre

Nacho Libre failed to meet box-office expectations. Who determines those expectations, I don’t know. But they do suggest that the film was mismarketed.

I found myself thinking of Tim Burton as I watched Nacho Libre. In Edward Scissorhands, the original Batman, Nightmare Before Christmas, and Big Fish, Burton creates fully realized worlds parallel to but separate from our real one. I was also reminded of Napoleon Dynamite, where the alternative world rests more in the bizarre and nerdy array of characters than in physical setting. Not surprisingly, Nacho Libre was co-written by Jerusha and Jared Hess, co-screenwriters for Napoleon Dynamite. Jared Hess directed.

Nacho Libre takes the concept of a Mexican priest who wants to be a professional wrestler and fully and imaginatively develops it. The result is an extremely detailed, nuanced comic film. The comedy derives from setting, characters, plot. A rich array of characters populate the foreground and background of the story. Many of the wrestlers who Jack Black’s character Nacho faces are authentic Mexican wrestlers.

The basic plot follows Nacho’s life as an orphan in a Mexican monastery. When he reaches adulthood, he becomes a friar whose main job is to cook and serve food to the orphans, priests, and nuns. Around the same time he decides to try to become a wrestler, he falls in love with a beautiful nun, Sister Encarnacion. His quest to wrestle is tied to his desire to impress her and to escape his demeaning work in the monastery. Yet even as he wrestles, he remains a faithful friar, frequently showing concern for the spiritual welfare of his sidekick Esqueleto, a street person he has recruited as his partner from a nearby town.

The setting of this film contributes significantly to the overall fantasy. The Mexican countryside is depicted with soft pastel colors, and the overall effect is both exotic and beautiful.

Most of the actors are Mexican or Hispanic. The film is full of the usual stereotypes, though each character is an individual, and there is no real effort to create humor or satire by making fun of or ridiculing these characters. Instead the film treats them with affection, humor, and respect. And it portrays in simple and straightforward terms professional wrestling in Mexico.

Nacho Libre brims with whimsy and fantasy. To an extent these elements are of a piece with the subject of wrestling in Mexico, which is different from but parallel to the largely fake and staged industry of professional wrestling in the United States.

Jack Black fully inhabits Nacho. He creates a character who is part comic book figure and part human. As in The School of Rock he creates a character who is warm, believable, and fully human—not a caricature. Nacho Libre gives Black full opportunity to exercise his considerable skills as a slapstick comic actor, though slapstick is not a major element in the film. He succeeds in his role because he is, within bounds, a talented actor.

Part of the film’s whimsy is reflected in the fact that a priest and a nun are not supposed to fall in love with each other. But the film is full of such whimsical discrepancies. This small but excellent comic film was a pleasure to watch.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mission: Impossible III

Franchise films usually are bad films. By franchise films, I mean a series of films that become in effect a brand name, spinning off novelizations, advertising campaigns for non-film related products, sequels, toys, clothing, and so on. The Star Wars films became a franchise. Franchise films must self-perpetuate in order to keep the franchise and the economy that surrounds it alive. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were the first and second installments in the Star Wars franchise and the only films in the series worth seeing. (Yes, I know, some would argue for including Revenge of the Sith in the list of worthies). When a film series becomes a franchise, the quality level usually declines. This certainly happened with the Superman and Batman films, though the recent Batman Begins and Superman Returns suggest the possibility of a resurgence. Spiderman is a franchise now: what will part 3 be? The trailers don’t inspire hope.

The Mission: Impossible films give every indication of franchise status. The first film was entertaining if only because it brought the series from the 1960s back to life, and it was good to hear the old musical theme again. The plot of intrigue, deception, and espionage certainly made for a suspenseful and exciting entertainment. Tom Cruise as the lead character Ethan Hunt seemed fully up to the task of filling and updating the old Peter Graves shoes. As the Hollywood Acting Icon, he alone held the power to sustain the franchise. Where it will go now that his star has fallen we will have to see.

The television series (1966-73) was built around the Cold War. By the year 1996, when the first film was made, the Cold War was over, history had ended (according to one scholar, much deluded), and the filmmakers had to turn for their subject to global conspiracies, mega-mafias, and terrorism. It was obvious enough what was at stake in the television series—the free world’s survival. In the three recent Mission: Impossible films, the stakes are always high, but the unifying metaphor of east vs. west, democracy vs. totalitarianism, is absent. In general, the unifying issue is good vs. evil, and almost always some characters who appear to be good in fact hail from the other side.

Mission: Impossible II was a disappointment, and the series gave signs of beginning to imitate and parody itself. My hopes for Mission: Impossible III were not high.

Surprisingly, Mission: Impossible III was an improvement over its predecessor. Two main factors explain why: One was the creation of a love interest for Ethan. He’s about to marry her when the film begins, and complications ensue in which she is ultimately caught up. Therefore it’s not merely Ethan’s success in capturing an evildoer that matters: it’s true love. The second reason is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Owen Davian, the super criminal seeking to sell to terrorists a secret so terrible than no one will even say what it is. Hoffman alone is worth the price of a ticket to this film.

Mission: Impossible III is competently made and entertaining, full of action and thrills. The editing stands out. It’s not a great film, but it does its job. And it’s as superficial, as hollow, as they come.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand is the third of three films based on the popular comic book series about mutant superheroes. The first two films built effectively on the mythology established in the comic book story. They featured a varied array of characters. The important characters continue from one film to the next, but other characters--some of them mutants, some of them humans--drift in and out of the films. This allowed for considerable flexibility in character and plot development. We don't find such flexibility in the Superman, Batman, and Spiderman films, which focus on a single superhero. The X-Men films as well as the comic book series explore interesting themes such as genetic engineering, government’s involvement in the private lives of individuals, and the persecution of minority groups. There is a clear analogy established in the films between the mutants, who are threatened with persecution by the government, and Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews and others. Although I have a fondness for the Superman films, especially the first two, and the more recent Superman Returns, there are limitations to what the Superman mythology can allow in a film. The plot lines are fairly narrow in the Superman films, but that's not the case with the X-Men movies. There are conflicts among the mutants, conflicts between mutants and non-mutants, and a variety of opportunities for interesting developments.

The first two films featured such good actors as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen. They are present in the third film, but they're not exploited effectively. Several characters who gave the first two films interest are killed fairly early. We have the addition of a new character, Dr. Hank McCoy ("Beast"), portrayed by Kelsey Grammer, of all people. He plays the United States Secretary of Mutants. When I saw his bright blue face and bright blue hair, I knew we were in for trouble. The nature of his mutant powers is not quite clear. They have something to do with roaring like a lion and engaging in acrobatics as he kicks and punches his victims. He occasionally sounds like his TV character Frasier, which provides some slight comic relief. Special effects were brought to bear in a mighty way on Kelsey Grammer, who is past the age of action heroism.

The proliferation of special effects in this film may be intended to compensate for the shallow plot and characterization. The intelligence, the interesting characterizations, the humanity of the various superheroes in the first two films are absent here. Everyone seems to be going through the motions. The plot centers on the discovery of a "cure" for the mutants. The cure is first made available on a voluntary basis, but eventually is used as a weapon: instead of shooting bullets at the mutants, U. S. soldiers shoot needles full of serum that "cure" their targets. The cure precipitates the final battle alluded to in the title. The persecution theme of the second film was more interesting, and the analogy it allowed one to draw with present-day situations was apt. A final scene in the film, after the credits end, sets up a possible sequel. I hope a sequel doesn't happen. The series has run out of steam.

Monster House

Monster House is a children's movie, the kind of movie I used to see quite often when my own children were younger. As the youngest of them now is 16 and Monster House is a kind of film for which he has no tolerance, I therefore have to watch it alone if I want to see it at all. So last night I watched Monster House.

I still have a taste for these movies. Maybe it's a sign of immaturity or some sort of essential superficiality of being. But when I see the trailers for these films on television, my interest is sometimes provoked. I wanted to see Monster House because it riffs on the notion of a haunted house, which is very compelling to children, very frightening. I remember in my childhood neighborhood several houses that we spoke of as haunted, if not by actual ghosts then by dangerous people. In one of them lived an old woman who would chase us away when we entered her yard. At another there was a young man reputed to be a child molester. We didn't go near him at all. A mile away, on the top of a hill by itself, stood a forbidding stone house in which there was said to be, in the main room, a large rug that hid a bloodstain left by the murder of the man who once lived there. My grandmother, an inveterate liar, claimed to have seen the stain.

It is the notion of the haunted house, the fear of entering, the compulsion to enter it against all better considerations, that this movie plays upon.

Monster House is digitally animated. The animation is not cutting edge or particularly imaginative. The animation style reminds me of the Jimmy Neutron cartoon series on Nickelodeon--stylized human beings, thinner, taller than they ought to be, rubbery in appearance. Monster House has a formulaic array of characters: a 10 or 11-year-old boy named D. J., about to enter puberty, his fat best friend Chowder, full of jokes and occasional vulgarities, and an entrepreneurial young girl selling candy. Her name is Jennie. When she tries to sell to the D. J. and Chowder, they both predictably fall for her. The parents in the film are clueless and totally unaware of the lives of their children. The film suggests, subtly, that Chowder's mother is having an affair. Across the street from where D. J. lives is a mysterious old house. Any time children walk into the yard, old Mr. Nebbercracker comes out to chase them away and confiscate their tricycles or their balls or whatever toys they happen to be playing with. When the old man is injured and taken to a hospital, the house begins to act strangely, as if it is alive. It consumes a dog and two policemen, and it tries to consume our three heroes. Because it's Halloween, they are afraid that the house will eat trick-or-treating children, and they set out to defeat it.

Like many cartoons and films aimed at children, this one has an array of stereotypes. Of course there is the fat boy. There is a young black policeman, the incarnated stereotype of J. J. Walker from the Good Times television series. And there is a stereotype associated with the house itself. One may argue that all stereotypes are damaging and offensive. Given the nature of this film, and the fact that these stereotypes will mostly be over or under the heads of the children watching, I don't think they're a matter of concern.

Most haunted houses have stories behind them. The one in Monster House is no exception. The explanation for the house is really more complicated than it ought to be, and even somewhat out of tune with the movie as a whole, but the average children in the audience will not notice or care.

Monster House is aimed at 10-year-olds. It doesn't have much scatological humor at all, unlike many of the current animated films aimed at kids. When I was a kid, I remember, there were seemingly hundreds if not thousands of books aimed at the age group to which this film caters. We checked them out from the library, ordered them from the elementary school paperback book club, and borrowed them from friends. Beverly Cleary was one author whose name I remember. That's the kind of film Monster House is -- not particularly remarkable, not particularly good, but well tuned for its audience. It has its mildly frightening moments, but in the end nobody is harmed. If I had children of the right age, I would certainly take them to see this film. I would not enjoy it much myself, because there's not much in it for adults, even for adults with a nostalgic desire to relive childhood through books or films or memory, but I would enjoy the children's enjoyment of it.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Departed

In the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, we see the golden dome of the State House of Massachusetts, from the living room of a swank penthouse apartment formerly occupied by one of the characters in the film. In the background we hear strains of the Patsy Cline tune “Sweet Dreams.” This particular song is an important musical theme in the film. It often plays, sung by Cline herself or by others, and in one instance only the melody plays—though the lyrics of the song, with their depressive, melancholy words of forlorn hope, desire, and despair are important to the film. In The Departed, all dreams come to naught. As we gaze out the window towards the golden dome of law and order, we see a large rat creeping across the porch rail outside the apartment. On this juxtaposition of the rat against the golden dome of law, order, morality (and dreams), the film ends. The screen fades to black and credits roll.

Rats are important in The Departed. The presence of rats—human rats, informers, undercover men—in the Boston Police Department and in the gang of mobster Frank Costello, is crucial to the film’s plot. They are ratting out the plots and plans of the people they pretend to work with. Human rats in a larger sense—rats who cheat on one another, who plot and connive and deceive, who steal and kill, who feel jealousy and ambition, who are easily corrupted by the lure of money and power and ambition in any combination—are everywhere apparent in this film, which has been hailed as a return to classic form for director Scorsese.

The Departed doesn’t really expand or reinvent the Scorsese formula so much as it provides a kind of update. The venue is Irish Catholic Boston rather than Italian New York. We see clergymen, policemen, and mobsters, most of them of Irish ancestry. The film gives a sense of the cultural context of Irish Boston, but its real focus is the story of intrigue, deception, and labyrinthine plot twists. The plot concerns the efforts of the Boston Police to build a case against the mobster Frank Costello (other than his name, he has no connection to the real Costello). It also follows the ascending careers of two young Irish Catholic detectives, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, both connected in different ways to Costello, who sees himself as a kind of father figure to these and other protégés. In ways this film is predictable, but it is so well acted and written that following these characters and the twisting and turning plot to their ultimate conclusions is wholly satisfying.

DiCaprio portrayed a lead character in The Gangs of New York and starred as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He also plays a lead role as undercover detective Billy Costigan in The Departed. This may be DiCaprio’s best performance in any film. It’s nuanced, powerful, understated, and convincing. But there are plenty of other good performances, from Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin as Boston detectives to Ray Winstone and, of course, Jack Nicholson as gang members. Nicholson plays Costello. He’s great in the role, though it’s one he has played on and off throughout his career. Nicholson has some of the best lines in the film, which is full of good lines, many of them clearly written with Nicholson in mind, though Mark Wahlberg as director of the undercover division has his share of good lines as well. My favorite Nicholson line: “I don't wanna be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”

Martin Scorsese has a dark view of human nature. He believes with a vengeance in Original Sin. His Roman Catholic upbringing (as a young man he considered the priesthood) is a powerful presence in his work. He’s like a latter-day version of Jonathan Edwards melded to Jean Paul Sartre and Cormac McCarthy. Nearly every character in The Departed is corrupt or inept or both. Even the virtuous come to bad ends. As in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, there is redemption through violence, though in this film so many have died when the credits begin to roll (they are all among “the departed) that redemption hardly seems worth the effort. Redemption in Scorsese’s film is not salvation but purgation of sin and moral recrimination.

There are a few loose ends in The Departed. One example occurs towards the end, when an undercover cop about to go into hiding gives a psychologist a mysterious envelope that she is to open only if he calls and says that he needs it. We never learn the nature of the envelope. Another example concerns one of the lead detectives. Although he is actually working undercover for Costello, who has paid his way through the police academy and has a long history with him, background checks and other security measures never reveal the link. This is difficult to believe. In general, however, the intricately convoluted storyline is one of the strongest elements in the film, along with the acting.

Scorsese’s reputation as one of the major filmmakers of the last forty years mainly rests on a series of films that began with Mean Streets in 1973 and continued with Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Good Fellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), and Gangs of New York (2002). In one sense or another these are all crime films in which violence is a fundamental force. Along the way there have been notable forays in other directions: the musical New York, New York, with Robert DeNiro in 1977; The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Age of Innocence (1993), based on the Edith Wharton novel, and the dramatized biography of the Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997). He’s also made a name for himself through widely regarded musical documentaries such as The Last Waltz in 1978 and recent films about the American blues and the early career of Bob Dylan (he has even directed Michael Jackson music videos). But Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and (now) The Departed are the kind of films we associate with the Scorsese name.

These films share in common such characteristics as detailed portraitures of hard-bitten characters (usually Italian), vivid evocations of ethnic urban landscapes, a deep belief in the corruptibility of human nature, and the notion that violence can be redemptive. Violence in his films is precisely and artfully orchestrated: it’s powerful and sudden and brutal. Unlike Peckinpah, Scorsese never shows violence as beautiful—it’s always shocking and terrible. His skill in portraying these scenes is unquestionable. He is an excellent filmmaker—the editing in The Departed is superb and contributes directly to the power of the film. Scorsese’s technical expertise at setting up and portraying violence has much to do with his success and reputation as a director. In films without violence, such as The Aviator, Scorsese’s distinctive style is less evident.

If violence is the distinguishing condition of humanity, of modern America, and if Scorsese seeks in his best films to discover its power and corrosive and destructive force, it’s also one of the elements that makes him the filmmaker he is. Without violence, where would Scorsese be?

At the end of this film, we learn that Madelyn, a police psychologist and fiancé of one of the detectives, is pregnant. We assume the father is the detective she was planning to marry, but there is a possibility, clearly suggested by a scene in the film, that someone else may be the father. The possibility is important. This unborn child may be the survivor, but in the world of The Departed, surviving has questionable value.


The cops and criminals in this film are a well read bunch. They refer to Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and others. They talk a lot about human nature and the mistakes they have made and what they’ve learned. They all have a philosophical dimension. Costello may be the most introspective of them all.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

4 Little Girls

Spike Lee filmed the HBO documentary 4 Little Girls thirty-four years after the event that it chronicles—the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young girls getting ready for Sunday morning church service died. Their names were Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins. They ranged from eleven to fifteen years in age. The film is basically a series of interviews with members of the families of the girls, leaders of the local and southern Civil Rights movement, and white leaders of the town, including the attorney who defended the accused bomber Robert Edward Chambliss in the 1974 trial and the district attorney, Bill Baxley, who successfully prosecuted him in 1977. 4 Little Girls presents the events in chronological order. It first describes the girls themselves, mainly through the words and memories of their parents and close relatives. It presents a general overview of the racial environment in Birmingham in the 1950s and early 1960s and the development of the local civil rights movement, whose activities centered in the bombed church. The film’s focus gradually widens, but it never wavers from the primary subject of the girls.

Lee pursues the telling o this story in a highly objective manner. He interviews one subject after another, often filming them at close range, so that their faces fill the screen as they talk. Their expressions and tones of voice, the glistening tears that often gather in the family members’ eyes, are effective in conveying the emotions and the grief that more than three decades later continue to well up. Although clearly there are historical and political dimensions to the bombing of the church, dimensions that link the event to the larger context of the civil rights movement in the South and the rest of the United States, Lee does not make this context the focus of the film. Instead he focuses on the family members, the surviving parents, the brothers and sisters, the friends, who knew the dead girls and grieved most deeply for them. As a result 4 Little Girls is above all about a personal and private tragedy that took on wider significance because of the time and place in which it occurred.

The style and method of Four Little Girls is similar to that of When the Levees Break: A Tragedy in Four Acts, Lee's 2006 HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans residents.

Lee’s artful editing, his deft use of a subtle and sometimes hardly apparent musical score, his willingness to let people talk, his careful selection of photographs, newsreel footage, and interview subjects enable him to create a fascinating and emotionally powerful documentary that brings the history alive by never allowing polemic, propaganda, or political agendas to overwhelm the personal and private dimensions of the story. There are a few moments of awkwardness in the film, the main ones being scenes in which an elderly and frail George Wallace attempts to prove his progressive racial views by arguing that he provided free school books for poor black children and that his best friend, Ed, is a black man. Ed, who was apparently a hired companion for the frail Wallace, is summoned on camera twice by Wallace, and the result is embarrassing both for Wallace (who is incapable of seeming anything other than foolish) and for the film. Lee apparently wants to present Wallace both as one of the fundamental forces behind the racist environment that led to the church bombing and also as an aging relic of an old dispensation soon to pass from the scene. The scene seems to take advantage of Wallace's age and frailty, and it should have been omitted or at least significantly abridged. It is similar to Michael Moore’s similarly exploitative interview with a slightly addled Charleton Heston in the film Bowling for Columbine (2002).

Other scenes are more artful, and as a whole the film is skillfully and artfully made. It is far more artful and effective than any film Michael Moore ever made.

The film illustrates the importance of the family and the church as the sustaining center of African American life in Birmingham, as the heart of the civil rights movement, and therefore as the logical target of the bombers. Lee devotes significant time to interviews with the mothers of the dead girls, and with the father of Denise McNair, and these scenes drive home the sad and painful impact of the murders. Mr. McNair narrates an especially poignant scene in which he remembers having to explain to his daughter during the 1950s why she cannot eat at the lunch counter of a segregated Birmingham department store. The eyes of the mothers who still grieve over their daughters, dead more than thirty years, say as much as any number of other scenes in the film.

Contrasted against the family members are the religious and movement leaders—Fred Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, Martin Luther King—whose decisions inadvertently pulled the girls and their families into martyrdom and history. Lee is careful not to pass judgment in an overt fashion. Often the words of the people he interviews accomplish this. And of course images, photographs, film clips that Lee places on screen while interviewees talk do this too. When the attorney for the bomber talks about how Birmingham in the 1950s was a nice place to live, Lee projects images of lynched black men and of Klansmen on the screen to suggest a different story.

Above and beyond being a film about victims of a tragic incident from the civil rights movement, this film is about the intersection of private lives with a regional and national history. It is about how all of us participate in the making of history and how, sometimes, we pay for participation with our lives, or with the lives of those closest to us.

Is the title of the film a play on the title of the surrealistic play by Picasso, Four Little Girls, written during the 1940s? This is the kind of allusion that Lee would make.