Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Keith Olbermann's Editorial

Tonight on his MSNBC news show, Keith Olbermann presented one of the most powerful and incisive video commentaries I've heard in years. His target was Donald Rumsfeld, who in a recent speech at an American Legion convention accused opponents of the war in Iraq of disloyalty and moral turpitude. Rumsfeld argued that opponents of the war are seeking to appease a "new type of fascism" and that they suffer from "moral or intellectual confusion." Olbermann suggests that the "new fascists" are in the top echelons of our own government: Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush. Fascism is a much abused and misused term, and all of us are too quick to level it towards those we disagree with. Nonetheless, Olbermann makes a powerful case that the time has come to use the word. In a time when journalists of whatever medium flinch from putting themselves and their reputations on the line, Olbermann speaks with a welcome ferocity.

See for the text of Olbermann's commentary.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Final Cut

In The Final Cut (2004) Robin Williams plays Alan W. Hackman, a “cutter.” In the futuristic world of the film, people who can afford it have implants inserted in their brains at birth. The implants record every moment of their lives. When they die, “cutters” harvest and edit their memories into a video summary of their lives. Friends and family members attend a rememory service and watch the video. Hackman is widely regarded as the best in his profession.

This plot allows for sentimental platitudes about the unique and individual nature of human lives. It also provides the context for a more personal plot focused on Williams’ character.

The heart of this film is Robin Williams’ face. Williams’ character is crippled by his memory of a childhood incident. He believes his failure to act caused a friend’s death. As an adult he lives alone. He immerses himself in the lives of others because he has no life of his own. Despite a brief affair with a woman played by Mia Sorvino, he insulates himself from the world.

Hackman’s self-imposed isolation manifests in the dead, emotionless, expressionless face that he wears throughout the film. It is a mask of despair that conveys the tragedy of his life. It’s a haunting, painful image. It can’t redeem the film, but it is what you take away from the film.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Songcatcher (2000) is worth watching (and listening to) for the Appalachian music alone. As much as there is to admire about this film, there is much to question and criticize as well. It comes across as the rough draft of a film rather than as a finished product. It is heavily thesis ridden, and the only times when it really seems to come alive are when characters sing or play—Iris Dement sings a ballad in one memorable scene, Taj Mahal (in a minor role as a visiting African American guitarist) plays a duet with another character, and in another scene, following a nighttime dance, three mountain people sing about death in haunting, dirge-like performances.

There is too much that is obvious and forced about the film. Clearly it is about women struggling to prevail or at least survive in a male-centered world. Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) leaves her position as associate professor at a small college when she is denied promotion to full professor by a group of male faculty. A male expert in her field (folk musicology) is hired in her place. Her lover, a ridiculously timid and mouse-like music professor, even votes against her. She moves to the Appalachian mountains to teach in a school run by her younger sister. For much of the film McTeer’s performance is wooden, and she portrays Penleric in a shallow, one-dimensional way. Virtually everything she says and does is predictable, and it becomes clear from an early moment that her character is going to be a main focus. But there will be many other points of focus as well.

All the women in the hill country are oppressed by men in some way. While the women characters are individuals with many redeeming qualities, the men are mostly animalistic dolts. They get drunk and beat one another up and get their women pregnant and make jokes about the schoolmarmish doctor who is stealing their music, according to Tom Bledsoe, played by Aidan Quinn. One theme focuses on women struggling against male patriarchy. Another focuses on the invading agents of civilization and progress, which threaten to wipe out or exploit the hill culture. (Presumably, Penleric is one of these agents, thought the film makes little notice of this fact). Another theme celebrates the rich musical culture of the hill people. Another theme seeks to dispel stereotypes about mountain people. Another theme highlights the lesbian relationship that Penleric discovers between her sister and a partner teacher at the school. Still another focuses on the gradual development of Penleric’s character, as she relaxes and drops her preconceptions and her stiff demeanor and discovers the humanity and cultural wealth of the hill people. And finally there is her developing relationship with Tom Bledsoe. Some of these themes are not developed in much depth. The lesbian relationship of the two schoolteachers is not very pertinent—though like everything else it falls victim to male intolerance.

Director/screenwriter Maggie Greenwald has embedded so many themes and agendas in the film that none is fully developed. The result is a disjointed, scatter-shot effect, and the film never fully congeals. Only the music, and the developing relationship of Penleric and Bledsoe, holds one’s interest. So too does the character of Viney Butler, grandmother of Bledsoe and an old mountain matriarch, played by Pat Carroll. Her encyclopedic knowledge of mountain music initially draws Penleric to her, and Viney undertakes to loosen Penleric up. Viney is the most vital character in the film.

The film constantly reminds us that Appalachian culture is in danger of being wiped out by invading outsiders who want to buy up the land, excavate coal, and bring progress. But it never resolves this theme or even makes its own stand on the matter clear. Should the hill people be left alone, their culture and way of life unmarked by the civilized world? Or should progress and coal mines and educated ways be encouraged?

At the end of the film, Lily Penleric has lost most of her notes and recordings of the music she went to record in the mountains. They were destroyed when the school burned down—the result of arson committed after some of the men discover the lesbian relationship of the teachers. Rather than start over, she decides to leave the mountains and invites Bledsoe to go with her. Although he has been wailing throughout the film about the horrors of the outside world, and about how the mountain people just need to be left alone, he decides to go with her. They are apparently going to earn their living by selling recordings of mountain music—a specific kind of exploitation, though also a means of preserving it. So this woman who struggled throughout the film to make her way in a world of men in the end backs down from her chosen career and goes back to civilization with her man. This doesn’t make full sense.

All these themes make the film stiff and shallow and give it the sanitized quality of a Hallmark Hall of Fame television drama.

The film indulges in its own stereotyping as it celebrates the culture and people of the Appalachians and their preservation of Scotch-Irish ballads for hundred off years. Yet the sentimental, nostalgic stereotypes of the film are certainly preferable to the hillbilly stereotyping we find in No Time for Sergeants and Deliverance.

One example of carelessness: Penleric and two others are struggling to haul her recording device up a nearly perpendicular mountain side so that she can record mountain ballads. The climb is nearly impossible, and her device is destroyed as a result. When they reach their destination, they find someone else—a land agent—already there at a fully developed homestead. Is there another way to reach the place? Is there a road? Why did Penleric have to climb up such a steep mountain approach when easier ways were apparently available?

Having stated all these reservations, I found Songcatcher enjoyable and, in its subject matter, unusual and original. I recommend it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

This Island Earth

The best element in This Island Earth (1955) is the evocative title. I’ve always liked that title and last night had a chance to see the film for the first time. In part I was encouraged by an August 22 New York Times review of the newly released DVD that called the film “among the most poetic and dreamlike of 50’s fantasies, full of imagery both wonderfully inventive (the matte paintings that represent the surface of the planet Metalluna, under constant asteroid attack) and pointedly banal (the flying saucer has a polished wooden floor)."

Like most science fiction films of that decade, This Island Earth reflects growing awareness of and concern about science, cosmology, nuclear power, war, and our place in the universe. It shows the obvious mark of the UFO paranoia of those years.

This film is one of the first, if not the first, science fiction films to have a plot that does not involve alien monsters terrorizing earthlings. The plot centers on an alien laboratory hidden in Georgia that recruits earth scientists to conduct research into nuclear energy. The home planet of the aliens is about to run out of energy, most of the alien scientists have been killed in an interstellar war, and the earth scientists are the planet’s last hope.

In the film, the lead alien is named Exeter (Jeff Morrow). He has snow-white hair and an elongated and distorted forehead. He talks like a fusion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, an insurance salesman, and a motivational speaker.

The two best science fiction films from the 1950s in my mind are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951—one of the best science fiction films ever) and Forbidden Planet (1956). Both are inventive, well made, and highly intelligent. They were clearly groundbreaking films, along with Destination Moon (1950). This Island Earth doesn’t measure up—the special effects are dated, the script weak, the overall tone of the film banal. The acting is poor, and the dialogue is poorly paced. In one scene the lead characters are informed that their brains must be erased—they seem totally unfazed. It's simply a dated film, and the virtues that it does have do not overcome the pervasive flaws.

This Island Earth was based on a novel by Raymond F. Jones, a largely forgotten science fiction writer of the 1950s and 1960s. I don't know his work, but based on what I have read about him, especially his interest in genuine scientific problems, I may have a look at this novel.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Cemetery Man

I've never liked zombie movies. It’s not that they give me the creeps. They just don’t interest me. While I’m willing to concede the possibility of ghosts, though I doubt they exist, zombies are not possible. All I see in zombie films are badly made up actors who can’t get better parts.

Cemetery Man (1994) is a zombie movie that tries to be campy, as if zombie films aren’t that already. It also tries to be a satire, as if George Romero films weren’t satirical from the get go. Cemetery Man makes fun of boy scouts, bikers, politicians, village idiots, bus wrecks, headless accident victims, large-breasted women, and introspective, self-absorbed protagonists—Rupert Everett plays that role here, as Francesco Dellamorte. And, of course, it satirizes zombie films, even as it tries to be one.

Everett, who took this role before he began playing Oscar Wilde characters, spends most of the film overseeing the cemetery where he works and shooting zombies in the head or hitting them with shovels. For reasons never made clear, zombies are rising out of their graves and stalking around. If a zombie bites you, you die.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, Dellamorte seems to tire of killing zombies. Every possible plot permutation has been exhausted. So the film veers off in the David Lynch direction. The figure of death suggests that Dellamorte kill living people, so he does that for a while. Then he and his sidekick drive through a long and endless tunnel that ends on the verge of a precipice that seems almost infinitely deep. Then the credits roll.

Low-budget, pretentious, wandering, incoherent, and enlightened with all too infrequent moments of wit and inventiveness and small moments of intelligence, Cemetery Man is an idea stillborn. It should have been buried in the dead of night, quietly, the raw dirt quickly covered over, a gardenia planted there to hide the spot.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Libertine

The Libertine (2004) never caught my interest, so I can give only inchoate impressions. Perhaps I should have paid more attention. It is a latter-day version of the Rake’s Progress, and its makers do their best to give graphic, gritty Hogarthian impressions of Restoration England. Johnny Depp plays John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, famous poet and womanizer who by the age of 33 had died of syphilis.

Depp’s acting is, as usual, excellent. The film is stagey, based as it is on the play of the same title by Stephen Jeffries (who also wrote the film’s screenplay). It strives with due diligence to portray the libertine sexuality of Restoration England, and sometimes it does so with the exhibitionist fervor of a 14 year old trying to embarrass his parents. In one scene Wilmot is riding to London with his wife in a carriage. He inserts his hand between his wife's legs and brings her to orgasm. The motions of Wilmot’s hand and the expressions on his wife’s face and her breathing make clear what is happening. But just to make sure that the audience has no doubts, the camera provides close-up shots of her modestly covered crotch, with Wilmot’s hand at work. At first Wilmot's wife doesn't welcome his ministrations, but then she responds, involuntarily.

Is the scene gratuitous? It does give us a particular perspective on this husband and wife relationship. It shows how Wilmot expresses and asserts himself, how he controls women with his sexual magnetism (whatever that is). The scene is too long and not especially pertinent to the subject at hand (no pun intended): it establishes an essentially prurient tone that carries through for the entirety of the film. I'm not a prude about these matters, but it's clear enough when a film is pandering.

The film itself is a kind of play within a play. In the first scene, after a series of screens provide historical information about Wilmot and Restoration England, Wilmot emerges from the void and begins to speak of his life, promising the audience that it won’t like him. He returns at the end of the film to remind the audience of his prediction. In the film his friend George Etherege is writing a play about him. (In reality, the play was titled The Man of Mode, 1676). There is therefore much self-reflexivity here.

The film focuses on the rise and fall of Wilmot’s career, his relationship with his wife, who loves him dearly despite everything about him, and his relationship with the actress Elizabeth Barry, whom he rescues from an un[promising career as an actress by teaching her to act. He loves her with a passion, but ultimately he serves merely as a stepping stone as she rises to fame on the London stage. The film is also about Wilmot’s friendship with Charles II, son of the murdered Charles I. Charles II rises to the throne with the restoration of the monarchy. He returns artistic and personal freedoms to England, but things go too far and in the film he is constantly at odds with Wilmot and other artists, writers, and actors who are pushing the bounds of public decency both in their personal lives and their art.

Despite all its visual profligacy, we’re asked to believe this is a moral tale. Wilmot is redeemed by love—his wife’s love and his love for Elizabeth Barry, by his friendship with Charles II, always willing in the end to forgive Wilmot’s insults and insolence. Disfigured and crippled near the end of his life, he gives a speech in Parliament that helps defeat legislation that would have impeached the brother of Charles II for being a Catholic. This is seen as a redemptive act of friendship. At the end of the film Wilmot dies in his wife’s arms.

Depp is impressive in the film, which itself overall is sterile and lifeless. What redeems it is his acting. This is, after all, and despite itself, a film about redemption.

Monday, August 21, 2006

V for Vendetta

Comic book narratives, at least of the super-hero type, make up in operatic spectacle what they lack in depth. There’s a formulaic, ritualistic quality to them, as super-heroes go through the motions of defeating their foes, in episode after episode. In recent years comic book artists and writers have mixed up the formula. Modern super heroes are afflicted with angst and self-doubt (they have issues) and are more complex. Some even die. But in the new world of the comic book narrative, heralded by some as a new literature, the pantomime, the masque, is still often there.

This is certainly the case with V for Vendetta, based on the comic book novel of the same name. This film has a highly ritualistic quality, and from an early point you sense how it is going to end. Even the main character V forecasts the ending, and some of the tension in the film (there isn’t much) comes from uncertainty as to whether things will play out as he suggests.

What is most interesting to me about this film is the parallel it establishes between contemporary America and Britain (mainly America) and the futuristic world of London in 2026 or whatever year the film takes place. The film’s world is the literal successor of the world we live in today: religious zealots who hate homosexuals and free thought take over after a horrible plague kills more than a hundred thousand people. It turns out the plague was cooked up by the dictator himself, Chancellor Adam Sutler, played by John Hurt in a one-note performance of anger and noise—he never stops shouting. He uses the plague, caused by a virus developed under his supervision, to terrorize the populace into electing him as leader. The film’s fear of religious extremism on the one hand and genetic engineering on the other is not entirely coherent, but no matter.

In V for Vendetta governments terrorize citizens into believing that they need governments to protect them (a point particularly pertinent to our present situation and the War on Terrorism). The film suggests that by blowing up Parliament and other buildings, thereby removing the government that terrorizes and oppresses, oppression and repression can be defeated. It does not suggest what fills the void after governments disappear, and in fact by celebrating the masked hero V, who admits that he is a monster, it suggests that one bad government may replace another. By having V die in one of the final scenes, the film avoids confronting this point, but the contradiction is still there.

V is another version of Batman, a superhero traumatized by a painful childhood experience. In V’s case, he suffered as a youth in a secret science laboratory, just as Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), was traumatized by the murder of her parents by the oppressive government, and her brother’s death in the viral epidemic. Given the mask V wears, the connections to the Phantom of the Opera are obvious as well.

There is much spectacle in V for Vendetta, but it needs even more. V himself is the center of the film, but after the novelty wears off, there is not much for him to do but feel sorry for himself (he really does feel sorry for himself, and he does not act out of noble motives--he’s more intent on exacting revenge than on removing an oppressive government). He never appears without his mask. The film suggests that his face has been horribly scarred, or even that he doesn’t have a face. Because of the mask he shows no facial expression, little emotion (even in the tone of his voice), and this limits what Hugo Weaving, who plays V, can do with the character. The one time he does show emotion comes when Evey, whom he has fallen in love with, leaves him, and he throws his mask to the floor, shattering it (we still don’t see his face). At first he comes on the scene as an enigmatic, mysterious superhero, but ultimately he becomes too self-absorbed, a tiresome and one-dimensional posturer. His philosophical musings go nowhere.

I enjoyed V for Vendetta but would have liked less talking and more explosions.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Mrs. Henderson Presents

Who is the audience for this film, Mrs. Henderson Presents, directed by Stephen Frears? It's the BBC equivalent of a PBS film: civilized, witty, stale. Not that this was a BBC production, but it could have been. The intended audience I assume is middle-aged, upper middle-class, a group that thinks of itself as appreciative of high-toned entertainment. With Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in the lead roles, the audience gets what it wants.

The film feels like a stage play. It takes place during the 1930s and 40s in London. When Laura Henderson's husband dies, she buys a dilapidated theatre in Soho and opens a stage review. She hires Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins ) to direct the reviews. After initial success, their reviews begin to lose money, and Mrs. Henderson decides to stage nude reviews, with attractive naked women posed like statues to avoid censure by the Lord Chamberlain. The reviews are highly successful, and the theatre stays open through the Second World War, even during the blitz. "We Never Closed" is the review's motto.

This film's subplots are fortunate since the main plot is thin and the novelty of musical numbers staged around nude women posed as statues quickly wears thin. Van Damm is a solicitous father figure to the girls in the review. Reluctant at first to pose nude, they are convinced by his argument that he is asking them to take part in the creation of art. Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm have a fiery working relationship, especially after she learns he is married--she thought he was single and was attracted. Because she is lonely, she lives vicariously through the performers on stage and the soldiers who come to see the show. She arranges one particularly tragic relationship between one of the performers and a soldier. This is supposed to be sad and poignant but is really more creepy than anything else.

Towards the end of the film , when the Lord Chamberlain moves to close down the theater, Mrs. Henderson gives a speech to gathered soldiers in which she explains that after her son died in France in World War I, she found a French postcard in his bedroom and realized that he had never seen a nude woman. Because she felt this was sad, she decided to stage the nude reviews so soldiers about to go to the battlefront in Europe will have the opportunity to see nude women before they risk and maybe lose their lives. This explanation struck me as disingenuous, but the movie doesn’t sustain much close interrogation, so it is better not to worry.

This film reminds me of Topsy Turvy, or the film about the British men who strip on stage for charity (The Full Monty), and the subsequent film about middle-aged British women who do the same (Calendar Girls).

There is much wit and comic repartee here. In my favorite scene, Laura Henderson talks with the Lord Chamberlain about what to call female genitals: he wishes to call them "the midlands" or "the pudendum" while Mrs. Henderson prefers street terminology. A number of such scenes, along with the acting of Dench and Hoskins, carry the film. Without Dench, in fact, the film would be considerably less than what it is.

The fact that the film largely occurs during the London blitz enables it to capitalize on World War II nostalgia in those who remember or who would like to remember those now very distant years. The nudity of this film is neither erotic nor shocking, and the movie devotes far more time to the musical reviews surrounding the nudes than to the nudes themselves. What I didn’t find in the film was some explanation for why the women who posed nude—we are told they are good and innocent girls—actually did so. Hard economic times are cited as one reason, but that hardly seems sufficient.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is a latter-day return to World War II films, films about the home front, how people muddled through and did their parts to carry on, stiff upper lip, and all that, good fellow, yes, yes.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, by Daniel Wallace

In Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998), by Daniel Wallace, a son tries to make sense of his father in the waning days and moments of the older man’s life. The novel is a shifting, flowing narrative of episodes, some told by the father, some told or imagined by the son, that yearn towards explaining and mythologizing the father’s life and character.

The father is Edward Bloom, and the last name is a clear reference to Leopold Bloom of Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce makes his Bloom an archetypal Everyman and embeds in the activities of his life a set of mythic correspondences and references that link him to Odysseus, the wandering hero of Homer. Stephen Dedalus in that novel plays Telemachus to the Odyssean Leopold.

In Big Fish, the links to myth and epic legends are more explicit. Magic events and people shift in and out of the narrative, and even when William acknowledges them as imaginary, fabricated, they nonetheless enter into the story of Edward’s life, as much metaphor as fact.

This is a short and slight novel. There is much to like about it, though it flags towards the end. The 2003 film Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton, actually does a better job of executing the concept of the novel—a son imagining and coming to terms with his father, by retelling and remembering his father’s own tall tales and stories—than the novel does.

Big Fish is set in Alabama, and the tall-tale narrative tradition of Southern culture and literature stretch out behind the novel. So too does the convention of a son trying to come to terms with a father who was often absent and not always the best of parents. For William, the events of his father’s life, however he might have heard of them, take on the power and numinous aspects of myth, of a heroic chronicle of Herculean tasks and Odyssean journeys.

The first half of the novel works with a flowing, shifting rhythm, like that of sleep and wakefulness, of dreams, of ocean currents. If the novel falters slightly in the end, it concludes soon enough that the lapse can be forgiven. This is a good and promising first novel for Daniel Wallace.

Monday, August 14, 2006

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone’s new film World Trade Center is not really about the September 11 attacks on the twin towers in New York City. It focuses narrowly on two men trapped in the rubble of one of the towers. It moves back and forth from the plight of the buried men and the anguish of the families uncertain of their fates. These two men survived the collapse, along with a few others. They were the exceptions in the World Trade Center collapse, not the rule. Their experience was not typical or representative. Virtually all of those in the towers who were trapped or unable to escape in time died. These qualifications need to be made. World Trade Center does not attend to the many who died, only the few who lived.

This is a well made film but it lacks the energy, passion, and recklessness of Oliver Stone’s best films. It’s cautious and conservative, and it feels like what it is: a film directed by Stone based on someone else’s script, a film made for hire -- but a film with many merits nonetheless.

World Trade Center closely follows journalistic accounts of the rescue of the two men. Both of them, with their families, advised Stone as he made the film. Out of respect for the subject and the victims of that day, he probably felt compelled to adhere to the facts. He did make minor changes, but not sweeping ones. His commitment to fact may have fettered his filmmaking talents. A documentary account of the rescue, with the same actors and settings, could possibly have worked better, but who knows? I do not agree with those who say that the WTC disaster is not appropriate subject matter for film or literature. We’ll never come to terms with it if we don’t think and talk about it -- art and literature offer legitimate and useful means of understanding the event.

World Trade Center effectively uses audience knowledge about the events of September 11. The contradiction between what the trapped men don’t know and what we in the audience do know is always at work, and there is a constantly developing dramatic irony that gives the film some of its energy. Neither trapped man realizes, for instance, that the buildings have collapsed until he has been rescued. Early in the film, the impact of falling bodies on the roof of the building where the port authority officers have gathered is horribly disturbing. The film never explains these noises, but the audience knows what they are. Although we know the trapped men will survive, that the families will be reunited, the film maintains our interest by chronicling the rescue and the individuals who brought it about.

Audience knowledge and memory of the events of that day do not always work to the film’s advantage, however. We all remember the images of the day -- the impact of the planes, the burning buildings, the falling bodies, the smoking, burning ruins. Probably no visual images in our national history have so indelibly marked our consciousness. They are difficult to put out of mind, and their effect still lingers. No recreated image could match their power. For the film, Stone’s crew built a set to replicate the World Trade Center ruins. They don’t look authentic. And when the port authority officers first drive up to the trade center buildings and see sheets of paper wafting down from the sky, as they did after the plane impacts, the scene looks staged, not real. The scenes beneath the rubble seem realistic because we don’t have those images in our minds.

The film does a good job portraying what it might have been like for the two families who don’t know whether their husbands and sons and fathers are dead.

The most overtly political moment in the film -- a brief and not at all obvious moment -- comes when one of the characters speaks of taking revenge for the World Trade Center attacks. The moment is entirely understated and disappears almost immediately. But it is a tantalizing link to subsequent events outside the film’s purview -- the war on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq, our crisis in national leadership, the latest terrorist threats. Does this comment suggest that vengeance is justified? Or does it suggest that revenge is not the best grounds for designing a national foreign policy?

Much has been made of the absence of a political slant in the film. It’s fairly patriotic in tone, especially in its portrayal of Marine Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes who voluntarily comes to the collapsed twin towers to search for victims and discovers the trapped men. Unlike some others who examined the tragedy, such as William Langewiesche in American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, Stone does not critically examine or subvert the popular notion of the heroism of the various law enforcement groups involved in the WTC events. Nor does the film reflect the considerable chaos and discord and poor coordination among the various law enforcement agencies at work that day -- conflicting radio systems, miscommunications, some bad decisions -- documented in 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, by Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer. (This is the best account I’ve read of the events transpiring in the minutes between the impact of the planes and the collapse of the towers). Langewiesche does not disagree that many acts of heroism occurred that day and afterwards, but he does argue that a range of behaviors were involved, some of them self-serving. Stone’s goal is to portray the heroic story of the two men’s survival and of the heroic efforts of their rescuers. In this sense, he contributes in the film to a national mythology through which the audience can relate to the events of the day. Evil persons -- terrorists -- committed horrible deeds on that day -- but American courage and bravery rise to the moment and redeem the crime. Such a perspective is not incorrect, but myths can blind us to ways of understanding the WTC events that ground us in reality. Sentimental 9/11 commemorations, teary romanticisms, and mythic distortions do not tell the tale. We need reality to understand the WTC events and their causes.

Stone has done an admirable job with this film. It is a tightly focused and compassionate look at the experience of two fortunate men caught in the events of that day, and of their rescuers. By not dwelling on those who perished, by focusing on survival instead, it suggests that a new perspective, a new national solidarity, may rise from those ashes. For a time, in the weeks immediately following the attacks, such a perspective seemed possible. But five years have passed, and much has happened. World Trade Center does not acknowledge the events that intervened between then and now that shattered the national consensus, manipulated and abused the horrors and heroisms of September 11, and brought us to a worse dilemma than crazed Al Qaeda terrorists alone could have managed. Others close to home must also share blame for our current state of affairs.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Baby Doll

A central image in Elia Kazan’s film Baby Doll (1956) is the decaying plantation mansion that belongs to Archie Lee Meighan. He bought the mansion intending to restore it and therefore to please his adolescent wife, Baby Doll, whom he also bought after a fashion from her father. The mansion signifies power, wealth, affluence, respectability, none of which Archie seems to have in the nearby town. Its decay signifies the general atmosphere of decadence that pervades the film and that Kazan, using Tennessee Williams’ screenplay, presents as the environment of the American South. The mansion is an empty relic, literally empty for most of the film, with most of the furniture repossessed.

Archie is not a descendant of the planter family that once owned the mansion. He aspires to better than middle class respectability, to wealth, to his wife’s sexual appeal, to everything he cannot have. There is some hint in the film that Baby Doll’s family was once wealthy and respectable, and during the first half of the film she often plays the role of the put-upon and dispossessed Southern belle, condemned to a miserable existence by declining family fortunes and bad luck.

The basic premise of the film is that Archie married Baby Doll after acquiring her from her father. He promises not to sleep with her until she turns 20. He keeps trying and failing to earn enough money to buy furniture and to restore the plantation to a state that will suit Baby Doll. She is young and irresistible and he fetishizes her. He wants to possess her sexually—this is the goal of all his efforts. To possess her will put the final brick in the wall of power, wealth, and masculine authority that he attempts to build and that collapses throughout the film. The film is about the collapse of Archie’s ambitions and dreams. Everyone in town thinks he is a joke. He is a big man only in his own imagination. He is a man held victim by his own wife, a nineteen year old who constantly berates and insults him and whom he hides his drinking from (he does a lot of furtive drinking).

Archie is not the only person who fetishizes Baby Doll. Her father apparently did the same, as her name suggests—she is never called anything else in the film. The film fetishizes her too. Our first image of her is of her sleeping in a baby doll nightgown in an undersized baby bed. Archie has bored a tiny hole in the wall so that, from the room next door, he can peer through the wall and watch her sleep. It is an incredibly bizarre and fascinating image, and, along with one other scene, it largely helps explain the uproar that the film provoked in some quarters on its release.

Baby Doll was released during the same decade as Nabokov’s novel Lolita, another story of fetishization.

As a drama, Baby Doll is full of bizarre and interesting characters but it is also a turgid mess. The appearance of the Sicilian cotton gin owner Silva Vacarro inserts an alien element into the film. As a man he is attractive to Baby Doll, and he awakens her sexually, the film suggests, though they never have sex—he takes a nap in her baby bed while she sings to him—this is the closest they come to sex. In another scene he talks quietly to her, flirting with her, seducing her with his voice and his manner, and the scene is intensely sexual. One would never expect to see such a scene in a film of the mid-1950s.

Silva represents a syndicate—whether this is an allusion to organized crime is unclear—the word syndicate certainly does represent corporations and industry, which is moving in to push out the traditional ways of earning money that threaten the traditional South in the film.

As the ultimate object of masculine desire, Baby Doll is also the ultimate victim, the superb male possession. Even Vacarro, who offers her satisfaction and escape, is really only interested in using her to get revenge on Archie, who apparently burned down his cotton gin.

The film offers numerous clues to the decline of the world of the film. The decrepit mansion is one clue, of course. In one scene, a black man who lives on or near Archie's plantation asks him when they can begin to plant cotton again. Archie doesn’t want to grow cotton. He probably doesn’t know how. But he does own a cotton gin from which he earns (or once earned) money for ginning the cotton of farmers. When the foreign syndicate moves into the town and opens a gin that charges lower rates, Archie and others in the town are put out of business. Resentment against foreigners, outsiders, is the result. When Vacarro’s gin is burned, many people in the town express approval.

Vacarro is not only resented because he is an successful outsider but also because his identity as a Sicilian, an Italian, what Archie calls a “greasy faced wop,” makes him racially ambiguous.

Another way the film demonstrates the decline of the region is the behavior of the black men and women who live around Archie’s mansion. They are always present, sitting around, doing very little at all, occupying every conceivable racial and racist stereotype. They laugh at Archie because they understand the deal he has contracted with his juvenile wife. (Everyone laughs at Archie—they see him as a sort of sexual joke, the old man who will never be able to satisfy his young wife if he ever gets the chance to try). On the one hand the film’s portrayal of blacks seems racist and stereotypical. On the other hand they are a sort of mute chorus that understands and fully appreciates the folly of the man on whose land they live. Is there any nod of recognition to the incipient civil rights movement? An old black woman sings “We Shall Not Be Moved” in a scene where it appears to have absolutely no significance.

Karl Malden as Archie at first is reminiscent of the character Mitch he played in A Streetcar Named Desire, another Kazan directed film based on a Williams script. But as the film develops he changes. The film actually has Malden repeatedly bellow his wife’s name, “Baby Doll,” just as Marlon Brando so memorably bellowed for Stella in Streetcar. But while Stanley Kowalski is a brutal, self-centered man like Archie, he is also a genuine masculine force, while Archie is failing physically. The film is about male authority, male possessiveness, and the ultimate victim is Baby Doll herself.

This was the first film Carroll Baker ever made, and certainly the most memorable. Her performance is remarkable, and even though the acting by Malden and Eli Wallach (who plays Vacarro) is strong, she is the center of the film. Wallach as Vacarro is grating and disturbing—he comes across as vaguely ethnic when he first appears (the pencil moustache and the little round hat are a dead giveaway) I thought he was supposed to be a Mexican. Eventually he reveals that he is Sicilian. He is like an infernal imp, tormenting and taunting and enticing Baby Doll, confusing and playing with her, finally trapping her on a rotting rafter in the mansion attic and forcing her to sign an affidavit that her husband burned down his cotton gin. The scene in which he chases Baby Doll through the second floor of the house and up into the attic is manic and bizarre. It was like Satan tempting the virtuous young woman to sin, to sex.

As a setting the South (apparently Mississippi) is a world of decay, moral and economic decay and depression, social upheaval, racism and racial suspicion, and change. It is also a place where attempts to aspire to long lost aristocratic prestige and position are bound to fail.

Aunt Rose is Baby Doll’s maiden aunt. She was passed on to Archie as part of the deal which brought him the girl. He hates and despises her and at the end of the film he tries to kick her out of the house. At the end of the film, as Archie is carted off to a night in jail, and as Vacarro leaves with the dubious promise of returning for Baby Doll the next day, Rose calls Baby Doll into the house. Both are victims, and the question with which Baby Doll ends the film is one of ambiguity—will she be remembered, or will she be left behind like Aunt Rose?: “Well, let's go in now. We got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we're remembered or forgotten.”

Archie is carted off to jail just as Blanche at the end of Streetcar is taken off to the sanatorium. It’s the state hospital in Baby Doll. Rose goes there to eat the chocolate the attendants give her. Archie, given his alcoholism and the fact that everyone more or less thinks he is crazy (the sheriff makes clear that Archie has had to be arrested repeatedly), will ultimately probably end up there as well.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Response to AJC Column

As a former teacher of Mary Grabar, I was disappointed to read her column "Colleges' open minds close door on sense," attacking UGA professor Betty Jean Craige's column on the importance of teaching new ideas in colleges and universities. My first thought was that she had not read Dr. Craige's column because she hardly seemed to understand or even to respond to its argument. My second thought was that I and others had failed to teach Mary Grabar the importance of logic, fairness, and critical thinking: her column is the worst sort of one-sided, manipulative writing. She resorts to selective anecdotes and personal attacks rather than fact and sound argument. The examples of paper topics and course titles she cites in her column are unrepresentative. The curricula of most major colleges and universities offer students a sound, stable, and wide-ranging course of study. Dr. Craige is one of our best faculty members at UGA. Any student--conservative, moderate, liberal--would be privileged to have her as a teacher. Further, the often-heard notion that our colleges and universities are overrun with radical left wingers is a preposterous myth propagated by people who oppose reason, open thought, and the free exchange of ideas.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Soldier's Story

A Soldier’s Story (1984), directed by Norman Jewison, is a typical kind of lawyer/crime film where a crime is committed in the first scene, and the rest of the film shows how the lawyer interviews witnesses and suspects and gradually figures out who the murderer is. The lawyer hears various accounts of how the crime was committed. He pieces the evidence together, and gradually the facts become clear. The narrative in effect works its way backwards towards the discovery of the evildoer, and in the process offers insights and various points of view into the characters involved.

In this case, practically the entire cast of the film is black. The action occurs at a army base in Louisiana in 1944 where African American soldiers are trained. Although they’ve been told they may see time in battle, in fact they spend most of their time working, cleaning, digging ditches, for the white officers and white troops. The film is based on Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play. Fuller wrote the screenplay for the film. Denzel Washington acted in both the play and film, though he did not have the leading role.

The lawyer assigned by the military to investigate the crime—the murder of a black sergeant—is African American. He’s the first black officer many of the black soldiers or their white officers have seen. There is some suggestion that he was assigned to the case so that the murderers—ostensibly two white soldiers—could not be arrested—no black man in 1944 in Louisiana could accuse white men of murdering a black man and get away with it. A further complication is that the murdered sergeant, Sergeant Waters, played by Adolphe Caesar, treated many of the black recruits cruelly. He is especially prejudiced against Southern blacks and went out of his way to torment them. He believes they impede the possibility of progress for other black soldiers. He is an assimilationist—he believes the time is coming when black men will be allowed to adopt the ways of white men and thereby find financial success and equal justice. He is trapped by his own racial attitudes, and in the scene where he is murdered—revealed in fragments as the film develops—it’s clear that he is full of anguish and guilt over some of his actions. Waters is not a particularly likeable man, and any number of the soldiers—white or black—could have killed him.

The film takes place at a time when the civil rights movement is a decade away. Everyone can feel it coming. The racial dynamics of the time are dramatized through the various characters and their interactions with one another. Howard Rollins plays the role of Captain Davenport, the investigating lawyer. Colonel Nivens, commanding officer of the base, is a native Southerner and not sympathetic to Davenport’s mission—he apparently believes two white soldiers killed Sergeant Waters and does not want them arrested. Scott Paulin plays Captain Wilcox. He is a good-hearted and paternalistic moderate. He is sympathetic to the soldiers and to Captain Davenport, but at the same time he constantly stereotypes them and makes assumptions based on race. Davenport himself makes assumptions—it takes him a while to realize that in Nivens he has an ally, in spite of Nivens’ shortcomings. Davenport comes to the base believing the murderer is a white Southerners, perhaps a Klansman. Sergeant Waters himself is full of racist assumptions. All these characters, but especially Nivens and Davenport, struggle against their own racial preconceptions, and this struggle fuels the dramatic tensions that drive the film, along with the unraveling of the mystery of who killed Sergeant Waters.

All the actors in the film do a credible job, but the entire film has an artificial feeling to it. It’s thesis driven: everything is directed towards the lesson the film seeks to teach about the importance of believing in the humanity of others. It’s formulaic both in the numerous lawyer films it emulates, and in the way it works as a film about life in the barracks—every soldier has his own story, his own personality, and these come out as Davenport moves forward with his investigation. It’s also a film that shows the marks of the play on which it is based. It never gets out of the box in which the play takes place, and even though we know there is a Southern town nearby the base, a town the soldiers are forbidden to visit after the murder, we don’t see much of it and we don’t learn much about how the soldiers feel about the town or how the town feels about them—we see the townspeople briefly, in two clichéd scenes that betray all the usual stereotypes about white racist small Southern towns. This is a shortcoming given that one of the main points of interest in the film is to watch characters discovering the limitations of their own racial assumptions—does this discovery limited to the army base? Or are we to see in some sense the army base and what happens there as a microcosm of the larger society in which it exists? The film has a slight claustrophobic quality to it.

I felt uncomfortable watching the film. It seemed artificial to me. Despite the fact of its mostly African American ensemble cast and the screenplay written by an African American dramatist, it often seemed to be working from a white director’s point of view—everything was too peachy clean, too neat, too washed and starched, too sanitized. It was too easy to read the characters. The lessons and discoveries in the film are too simple and straightforward. In this sense it reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, made only a year after this Jewison film. Despite the fact of the African American authored novel on which that novel is based, it seems to be set in a racial fantasy land. The army base and racial environment surrounding the soldiers in A Soldier’s Story are no fantasy. We just don’t experience enough of it, and as a result the film’s ability to drive home its message is weakened.

Even so, A Soldier’s Story dramatizes an important moment in American civil rights history. The movement itself was accelerated by the involvement of African American soldiers in the second world war, and by the gradual if slow willingness of the American military to treat them fairly. The lessons of the film are important, and for that reason A Soldier’s Story would make a good educational experience for high school students studying the civil rights movement and race relations in the United States.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Miami Vice

I watched Michael Mann’s Miami Vice and then went home to watch Wong Kar Wai’s 1991 Days of Being Wild. The films of both directors are infused with intense atmosphere. While for Wong atmosphere more often than not is contained within closed spaces, such as rooms and apartments, Mann chooses sprawling cityscapes. Both directors explore the interactions of their characters within and against these settings. While in Wong the result can be a liberating claustrophobia, in Mann the result is a kind of agoraphobic entrapment, where the horizon, ground, and sky gradually close in.

Miami Vice is an entertaining film and in every way superior to the television series. There was a mannered and vacuous superficiality to the television show. I never managed to sit through an episode, though what I did see of the show made me wonder whether the two main actors were sampling the narcotics of the smugglers they sought to capture. The effect was of an over-long rock video, shiny, soporific, and deadening.

Unlike many films based on television shows, this one does not depend on its source. It is so unlike the show that you hardly think of it. The fact that Mann directed both the TV series and the film makes this all the more remarkable and certainly gives him the authority to make the considerable changes that he makes. He shows no particular reverence or respect for the source. He takes the scenario of two undercover officers on the Miami vice squad and completely reinvents it. One review I read suggested that this film expected viewers to have the television series in mind as they watched, and that the shock they experience as they encounter the disjuncture between TV show and film become part of the text of the film. This may be so, but the film works entirely well on its own.

Cinematography is a major element in Miami Vice, as it is in most Mann films. But in this one Miami is filmed in washed out colors, as if to remove any semblance of glitz and glamour.

Miami Vice the film is always interesting but often only casually so. Tension doesn’t begin to build until the final confrontation between cops and smugglers, and then the film really takes fire. But it takes an hour and forty-five minutes to get there. Jaime Foxx as Tubbs seems often merely to be reading his lines, and though he is effective enough in his role he’s not committed to it with much passion (certainly not with the passion and accuracy we saw in Ray or even in Collateral). Colin Farrell as Crockett often seems unfocused if not constipated, but he too carries out his role well enough. Both are preferable to, and more effective than, the originals.

In this film, the Russian Mafia, Aryan Nation, and drug lords from various South American nations conspire as the villains, and they are formidable if mechanical. Why do movie villains often seem more intelligent, evil, and technologically savvy than they are in reality?

In the end, Crockett and Tubbs survive and leave room for a sequel, if Mann is foolish enough to undertake one. Not as sharp as Collateral or as operatically full as Heat, Miami Vice is still a successful effort by one of the better commercial directors at work today.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Days of Being Wild

Kar Wai Wong’s 1991 Days of Being Wild is quickly recognizable as a forerunner of such later films as In the Mood for Love and 2046. The cinematography is arresting and highly effective. Much of the film takes place in the apartment of the main character, Yuddy (Leslie Cheug). The film is structured around interwoven relationships of three men and three women. One of the women is the adoptive mother of one of the men, Yuddy, who searches for and finds but does not ever actually see his real mother in the latter portion of the film. Clocks and time, a legless bird that never lands, and travel are motifs. The film takes place over a year’s time, in 1960, and the last scene returns in a cryptic, tantalizing way to the earliest scenes in the film. Parts of the film are difficult to follow, but as with other Kar Wai Wong films the parts that make sense and the parts that don't are still fascinating.

As in the two most recent films, love lost is a major theme. The film makes effective use of music. There is a certain incoherence in the film that also looks forward to in the Mood for Love and 2046, but those later films constructed a compelling rhythm and narrative logic that this film strains towards but never quite achieves.

This is the sort of film that would bear rewatching. I dozed through brief moments of it and lost track of the narrative. I should watch it again. Does everything that this film portrays really happen? I don’t think so. Does the main character ever realize who the woman he really loves is? Does he ever find her, or she him? Kar Wai Wong doesn’t offer answers, and they don’t really matter.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Fastest Indian in the World

The Fastest Indian in the World is entirely predictable. An eccentric old man wants to set a world record at Bonneville Flats in Utah with the Indian motorcycle he has been working on for twenty-five years. He lives in a concrete shed. Everyone loves him. He urinates on a lemon tree every morning. He has prostate and heart troubles. He’s befriended the cute little boy next door. He has an affair with a middle-aged blonde woman (she tells the neighbors, “Even dirty old men need love.”). He is bullied by the local motorcycle gang, which ends up giving him money for his trip to America. In America, he is befriended by a transsexual who works at a sleazy Hollywood hotel. An old Indian gives him a special herb for his prostate. He gives a ride to a young GI on his way to Viet Nam. And then the Bonneville Flats officials tell him he’s not registered for the race. Will they clear him to ride his bike? Will he set the record? Will his heart hold out? You already know the answers.

Almost all the actors in the film are B and C grade and largely unknown, with the exception of course of Anthony Hopkins, and also of Diane Ladd and Paul Rodriguez, who have small roles. Hopkins is a fine actor but he can go into automatic some time, as he did in Hearts of Atlantis. In this film, however, he gives a very successful performance as Burt Munro, the aging New Zealander who wants to set a world record.

As one of the extras the DVD contains a documentary about the real Burt Munro. Entitled "Offerings to the God of Speed," it was directed and produced by Roger Donaldson in 1971—the same Donaldson who directed the 2005 film. Donaldson obviously has a long-standing interest in Munro, and he brings it to bear in both the documentary and the feature-length film. The documentary confirms that Munro was a genuine individual, a character in the real sense of the word as one of his friends affirms. Many of Munro’s own words from the documentary find their way into the 2005 film and give it a certain authenticity. It’s clear that Hopkins studied this documentary carefully. Under Donaldson’s direction, he adopts many of Munro’s mannerisms and ways of speaking. But he also reconceives Munro to a certain extent, makes him more isolated and eccentric, more self-absorbed, more obviously obsessed with the motorcycle, more bothered by age and heart troubles than the real Munro. Although I know virtually nothing about the real Burt Munro beyond this film and the documentary, I suspect that Hopkins and Donaldson sentimentalize him to a slight extent. But in general Hopkins gives an outstanding performance that is the center and substance of the film.

The Fastest Indian appears to be a relatively low-budget effort, and on occasion you can tell. But it is mostly about character, and Hopkins gives us a fully involved and illuminated performance. The Fastest Indian in the World may be predictable. And it may be predictably heart-warming. But warmed hearts never hurt anyone. I wasn’t prepared to like this film, but I did.

Hopkins at 68 continues as one of the best actors working in film today. What he may lack in range (and his range is fairly impressive) he makes up for in depth and humanity.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Transamerica is a road movie with a twist contained in the first syllable of the title. Two remotely linked individuals start out on a trip across America mainly as a matter of convenience. One of them, Bree, is a transsexual who has had hormone therapy but who still must have the crucial surgery than will make gender transformation complete. Just as she prepares to leave for California where she will have the procedure, she receives a phone call from someone who claims to be her son. He is, in fact, her son, Toby, conceived in a short-lived college relationship years before, and whose existence she was wholly unaware of. Thus one product of her existence as a male will not disappear with the operation. Pretending to be a Christian welfare worker, Bree visits her son and learns that he wants to go to Hollywood to work in films. One thing leads to another, and Bree proposes that he ride with her across the continent to Hollywood. And, yes, the boy doesn’t know that Bree is her father.

This is not really a film that attempts to show that transsexuals are human beings like the rest of us, though it does make that point. Rather it is a film about about an individual seeking to become herself—to become a self--seeking identity and self-satisfaction, struggling to be at ease with herself and everyone else.

Transamerica is a comedy, and Bree is the object of much of the satire. It’s almost always mild and gentle humor, rarely biting. Much of the humor stems from the fact that she doesn’t know how to be a woman, and apparently didn’t succeed as a man either. Throughout the film we watch as she struggles to adopt a way of talking, of dressing, of acting and thinking that will suit her. She’s oddly affected and awkward, and while at first her discomposure comes across as unsettling, it ultimately becomes part of her individuality. Her growing relationship with Toby, her paternal/maternal feelings towards him, the inescapable concern she feels for his well being, iare the catalyst in her transformation.

In many ways Transamerica is not particularly remarkable. There are predictable moments of satire and comedy, most notably the party of transsexuals that Bree and Toby attend midway through their journey. There are odd moments of melodrama as well, not always successful or effectively integrated. Toby himself is a male prostitute, and in one scene he closes a deal with a truck driver. He ends up acting in gay porn films, though it’s clear than these are not the kinds of films he wanted to work in. Toby is less well adjusted than Bree, and whether he is gay (or even transsexual) or not, he’s a mess. His maladjustment worsens when he discovers who Bree is. I thought Toby over-complicated, over problematized, the film.

What rescues the film and makes it remarkable is Felicity Huffman’s portrayal of Bree. It’s a remarkable performance. It’s convincing even early in the film when Bree is awkward and affected. Gradually she changes, relaxes, deepens, but the transformation is so nuanced and subtle that, even after the surgery, she never ceases to be the person we found her to be in the film’s early moments. There is no parody or mimicry in her performance. She takes her character with utter seriousnss and with considerable understanding as well. Like Anthony Hopkins in The Fastest Indian in the World (which I just saw), she thoroughly inhabits her character.

The significance of this film lies in Huffman’s portrayal of Bree, and in Bree’s struggle for personhood. I don’t like that word, personhood, but it’s fitting here because it is not so much Bree’s transformation into a woman that fulfills her as it is her assumption of full humanity, regardless of gender.

Transamerica is a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile film.