Monday, January 29, 2007

His Excellency: George Washington, by Joseph Ellis

Joseph Ellis in His Excellency: George Washington (2004) sets out to replace a mythic American hero with the flesh and blood of the actual man. He succeeds in doing so, but in the process finds another hero in the original’s place. Washington was not, unlike Jefferson and Adams, a formally educated individual. He was educated here and there, but was largely self- taught, and often in the course of his life relied on others to tell him what he needed to learn, to teach him the knowledge and skills he needed. Despite whatever insecurities Washington might have felt about his upbringing and education, he was willing to take the necessary steps to compensate for them. Pragmatism was one of his essential traits. He had many others, including ambition, sensitivity to criticism, sensitivity to his own awareness of the mistakes he made, overestimation on occasion of his own abilities, a willingness to cover up or “spin” the truth of a story or event so that his own role in the matter would be better served. But he was also a man who, once decided on a course of action, stuck to his decision. He believed in honor and in principle. Once he committed himself to the cause of Revolution against Britain, he did not waver. His steadfast command of the Continental Army in a war that lasted seven years and that involved numerous defeats and setbacks, incredible difficulties, and a few strategic victories, not to mention an American public largely indifferent to the cause of Revolution after the first year of war, was largely responsible for the final victory and American independence.

Ellis believes that whatever failings Washington might have had, his virtues were ultimately more important. The name Ellis more than once summons up to describe Washington is that of Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen-soldier who returns to farming after success in battle, only to answer the call to serve his nation when it came. Washington’s willingness to serve, his civic mindedness, his patriotism, these were among his defining traits.

Washington assumed this role at least twice in his public career. After the French-Indian Wars, he returned in 1759 to supervise his farms in Virginia and build his holdings as a plantation owner. When Revolutionary fervor began to stir in the late 1760s and early 1760s, he at first ignored or seemed indifferent to them but gradually was caught up in the momentum of resistance to Britain. At first his motives were private—he was irritated by the prices charges to colonials for British goods, and found himself in considerable debt, though his own careless spending was also to blame. (Many plantation owners faced similar debt.) Gradually he began to express solidarity with other like-minded colonials and committed himself to the cause of independence. He accepted election as a Virginia delegate to the first Continental Congress. When he was called to command the Continental Army, he agreed to do so and to accept no payment for his services, though he had been preparing to lead the army for months. Later, after the war against Britain was won, he returned to Mount Vernon again to farm in retirement, only to answer the call to chair the constitutional convention in 1787 and then to become the first president of the United States in 1789. Ellis even suggests that as crisis loomed in the late 1790s, Washington would have come out of retirement a third time had he been called on.

Ellis’s ability to distill a convincing image of the man Washington from the voluminous archive of papers surrounding him--private correspondence and statements as well as military and presidential letters--is a major key to the success of this book. It is one of the few biographies I have read that projects a convincing and human portrait of its subject. He evokes Washington as a real being, a man who walked and talked on the earth. Washington had a forceful but untrained writing style. He was capable of pandering to his superiors, those whom he wanted to impress, but for the most part his letters are free of florid rhetoric. They are written in a straightforward prose style that effectively expresses his personality and thinking. Through his own words we are exposed to Washington’s mind in a way far more direct than second-hand accounts could achieve. Ellis does not hesitate to interpret, second-guess, and analyze Washington, and by doing so he teases out the inner contradictions and motives of the man.

Ellis pays particular attention to Washington’s interest in his own public image. Even in his first two major military battles, one ending in the ignominious slaughter at Ft. Duquesne of a French emissary by one of Washington’s native American allies, and the other an outright defeat and surrender at Ft. Necessity, he was careful to present his own role so as to present himself in a favorable light. Washington lacked skill as a military strategist in his younger years, and even in the Revolutionary War his battle plans were often too complex and over-scripted. He never seemed to acknowledge his lack of experience or skill as a military strategist. Luck and circumstance and persistence served him well. He won the battles he needed to win, or that others won for him, as at Saratoga; he seized opportunity where he found it. He was unwilling to give up, both because of his commitment to winning the war, and also because he knew that defeat would bring dishonor to his name. Gradually the British were worn down.

Washington as an older man, especially after the Revolutionary War, began to think about his own mortality at what to modern readers may seem too early a point in his life. He began thinking about the eventuality of his own death a decade before it actually occurred. Ellis emphasizes that while others (such as Jefferson) wanted to think of Washington in the 1890s as a doddering old man he in fact remained intellectually sharp to the end. (He died while taking his pulse). As part of this concern with mortality and posterity, Washington thought much about slavery and about the slaves he owned. Ultimately, after years of inclining one way and another, he came to oppose slavery, but for various reasons, some altruistic and others self-serving, he could not or at least did not free them during his lifetime, choosing instead to liberate them in his will. But at least he did liberate them, an act which came as the result of years of thinking and worrying over slavery. Ellis suggests that Washington believed that if he did not free his slaves his reputation after death would suffer. At the same time Ellis makes clear that Washington freed his slaves because he really had come to believe that slavery was unjust. Unfortunately, many of his peers, including Jefferson, did not take the point.

Although Ellis does show Washington with all his warts and human imperfections, he makes clear the virtues and character traits that made him the great leader he became, the most venerated and respected leader in all of American history, excepting perhaps Lincoln. Washington was not just a figurehead. His service as general in the Revolutionary War did more or less automatically predestine him for election as the first president. But he was an instrumental force in chairing the Constitutional Convention and in forging the concept of a true federal government rather than a loose assemblage of states. This belief came directly from his experience as general of the continental army—in that role he had to beg a weak Continental Congress and an often unresponsive confederation of states for supplies, money, and soldiers. A confederation of states that would cooperate fitfully and undependably with one another would never work in the long run. Washington led the Continental Army to victory not because of the Continental Congress and the states it represented but despite them. Strength, he realized, comes from unity, not disunity. (Lincoln makes the same point in the Gettysburg Address.) As President he helped determine the future shape of the United States government. The decisions he made, and of which he was a part, set a course the nation would follow for decades if not centuries. Whatever he might not have been, Ellis’ well written, eminently readable biography ultimately demonstrates why (without explicitly saying so) Washington genuinely deserves the title of “father of our country.”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Art School Confidential

In Art School Confidential (2006) an ambitious, naive young man enrolls in an art institute planning to become the great artist of his century. His name is Jerome Platz. Picasso is his hero. He draws graphic and detailed portraits of his friends. Art school for him is a relentless series of disillusionments. Even though this film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be and isn’t really willing to decide, it is often humorous and entertaining. It is first of all a satire of college and art schools. Many of the teachers at the school are burned out and care about nothing. Others are too caught up in their own careers, or what pass for careers. One teacher tells his students that he doesn’t care whether they come to class. Another gives universal praise to whatever his students do, whether they are painting refrigerators, inchoate shapes, or human forms. Everyone gets an A. Another artist explains that the only way to succeed in the art world is to be good at fellatio. The students themselves are a motley assemblage of poseurs, pretenders, dunderheads, divorcees, and so on. The rare talented student such as Jerome is lost in the melee. The film implies that there are no standards in art school or the art world, that the students are exploited by their teachers who themselves are exploited by the school they work for, threatening them periodically with budget cuts and layoffs. (The teachers in the one school of art I am familiar with are not like the ones in this film).

Directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, 2001, and Bad Santa, 2003) Art School Confidential wanders among three or four separate but tenuously related plots. One focuses on Jerome’s experience and disillusionment in art school. Another involves his love for a model he meets in drawing class. Still another is a plot involving confused identities. And a fourth is a murder mystery--art school students are being strangled by a serial killer.

The film seems most interesting when it follows Jerome. Passionate about his work, he soon discovers that no one in art school cares about his art. He is attracted to a beautiful young woman, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who models for his drawing class. She has a full and beautiful, luminous face of the sort one sees in Vermeer and later in the pre-Raphaelites. She is impressed by his drawings of her but initially does not return his love. A scene late in the film shows her frantically digging through a dumpster full of discarded student art, looking for one of his paintings of her.

Jerome’s struggle to find an aesthetic style that will impress his teachers and fellow students, and his love for Audrey, brings about an identity crisis that dominates the second half of the film and loosely ties the various plot strands together. No need for spoilers here. The dark tone of despair that pervades Jerome and the film as a whole in its latter half I have seen in other films aimed mainly at the adolescent crowd—films like Brick and Donny Darko—films suggesting that life offers only entrapment, anonymity, doom.

The film offers an interesting assortment of characters. Max Minghella is effective as Jerome. John Malcovich plays Jerome’s drawing teacher, Professor Sandiford, an over developed egotist who enthusiastically explains to his students that only one in a hundred art students will ever make a living as an artist. He invites Jerome over to his house, shows him his paintings of triangles and other geometric shapes and explains that he was the first to begin painting triangles and that he has been doing so for twenty years. He offers to do anything he can to help Jerome and implies that they should have a sexual relationship. Anjelica Huston appears briefly as an art history teacher who talks to her indifferent students about the great works of art and literature. Joel Moore appears as a long-term student who changes his major once a semester. Jim Broadbent (the master of ceremonies in Moulin Rouge) is an alcoholic artist obsessed with the serial killings. Ethan Suplee (My Name is Earl) is great as a bumbling film student. Steve Buscemi appears in an uncredited role as a coffee shop/art gallery owner. I especially liked the undercover cop posing as an art student who begins to wonder whether his crude efforts at drawing might have some value.

The second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 provides especially effective background music for the film, especially as a musical theme for Jerome and his love for Audrey.

Ultimately, Art School Confidential is not successful. It feels incomplete, like a rough draft rather than a finished product. It moves from comic satire to tragic melodrama. It is alternately romantic and dark, and these oppositions are not organically justified by what happens to the characters. It resorts to a thin and glib nihilism. And ultimately the resolution simply isn’t convincing—especially the notion that an art dealer would want to keep an innocent man in prison so that his work will continue to sell--though this idea supports the film’s contention that the art world is based on fraud, entrapment, money, and cynicism.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Scanner Darkly

In A Waking Life (2001) Richard Linklater laid animation on top of scenes that he had filmed using live actors. Animation allowed him to control ambiance and tone and perception in unconventional and sometimes uncanny ways. The animation in A Waking Life caused the characters and the world of the film as a whole always to be shimmering, shifting slightly from one frame to another, as if to signify the shifting lives and attitudes of the characters and some barely glimpsed higher state of being.

Linklater uses the same basic technique in A Scanner Darkly, though in this film the world as depicted through animation is more fixed and does not shift and shimmer. Instead, it is what happens to the characters that alters and subverts any sense of reality we may have. The film is based on a Philip K. Dick novel, and thus not surprisingly it pits individuals against an authoritative law enforcement agency, representative of an even larger impersonal and authoritative government, waging war against illegal drugs, in particular the drug called substance D, to which 20% of the population is addicted. The film is set seven or so years in the future.

Keanu Reeves plays an undercover agent for the agency that is waging war against substance D. In the course of the film he loses his family (which he may not have ever had to begin with), his friends, and his grip on reality. Close friends and loved ones betray him, or seem to. He makes terrible mistakes, or maybe he simply thinks he makes them. At first the film suggests that this loose grip on reality is the result of the drug to which Reeves is addicted, but ultimately it seems that other explanations may better apply. Through what happens to him, the film argues that to governments the individual doesn’t matter and is merely a pawn, to be used in whatever expedient way the government finds necessary.

I slept through portions of this film, and so I must admit that perhaps I slept through the portions that would have allowed me to make sense of the portions I did not sleep through. I should watch the film again. But it was difficult to make sense of, even though the basic outlines of the plot ultimately come murkily apparent.

I reacted with ambiguity to the animation techniques in A Waking Life and have a similar reaction to the technique in A Scanner Darkly. The technique aims for animated realism. It’s usually easy to recognize the actors who are portraying the animated characters. There is no attempt to camouflage them, most of the time. The overall effect is one of unsettlement, estrangement from the plot and characters, irritation. In P. T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) I was irritated for the first few scenes by the disjunctive soundtrack, but finally it took hold and made sense and worked in a way that I have to say A Scanner Darkly never quite achieved. What does the technique achieve? Could a conventionally filmed version of this story have worked better than this animated version? If the point of the technique is to subvert one’s sense of reality, to suggest that what we think is real may be only an illusion or a supposition imposed on us by someone or something else, this does not come out from the animation. The characters themselves, their lives and what happens to them, brings the idea out.

The characters in this film are portrayed as aging members of the Generation X—aimless, hopeless, lost. I prefer the Linklater of Before Sunset (2004) and Before Sunrise (1995).

The Devil Wears Prada

The story here is familiar: an idealistic college graduate goes to the big city with dreams of becoming a writer or artist or designer or public servant or whatever and is waylaid, diverted, by ambition, power, wealth, sex. The graduate turns away from loved ones and friends, is caught up in the turmoil of ambition and greed, compromises personal standards, only to suffer some reversal or enlightenment that suddenly reveals the folly and error of the course taken. Just before it is too late, the errant traveler gives up errant ways and returns to the folds of friendship, family, and personal ideals.

This is the story in The Devil Wears Prada. The problem is that none of it seems to mean much. The figure of the prodigal wayfarer is really just an excuse for a film about the fashion industry, with beautiful models, swank clothing, and runaway egos. Ann Hathaway plays the errant idealist, Andy Sachs. Meryl Streep plays the arrogant, monomaniacal fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly, who with one upturned lip can make or break an entire line of clothing and its designer. She makes and destroys careers and treats everyone around her like serfs.

Streep is one of those rare actresses who can so fully and totally inhabit a role that her real self, her personality as Meryl Streep the human being—if she really has a personality—wholly fades away. When she appears on talk shows, or when she is interviewed, she comes across as unremarkable, somewhat awkward and goofy, articulate and intelligent, but untouched by genius or celebrity or ego or the star-studded atmosphere of Hollywood and the American film industry (this could well be an illusion, of course). I’ve often wondered whether her lack of effect is a consequence of how she inhabits her roles—she reserves her force of personality for those roles, not for herself, her own life.

In The Devil Wears Prada Streep is not challenged by a demanding role. She merely has to underplay the part, with contempt and sarcasm and Machiavellian ruthlessness. Sachs is sent by a talent agency to interview for the position of personal assistant to Miranda Priestly. Everyone at the magazine sneers at her—she dresses like a college student, wears the wrong sort of shoes, and is a size 6 rather than a size 3 or 2. When Priestly actually hires her, everyone is astonished and horrified. The focus of the film is on whether Sachs will succeed as Priestly’s assistant, and whether Priestly will ever show any vestiges of humanity.

There comes a moment of transformation in the film when Andy Sachs suddenly realizes what it will take for her to succeed in her job. The moment is sudden and inexplicable, really, and is mainly manifest in how she begins to dress fashionably. The fact that this transformation really didn’t make sense doesn’t matter because the film as a whole doesn’t matter.

The film works on the assumption that all of us will recognize the hollow egotism and shallowness of the fashion industry. It also works on the assumption that we’ll be fascinated by that industry and its beautiful emaciated models and their expensive clothing and lifestyle. Because that is, after all, what this film is all about. When Andy tells Priestly that she does not believe she wants the life of wealth and beauty and glamor that is associated with the fashion industry, Priestly scornfully admonishes her, “Oh, don't be silly - EVERYONE wants this. Everyone wants to be us.” The point of the film is Andy Sach’s realization that, after all, she doesn’t want that life. Once again, this moment of transformation, like the earlier one, is not quite credible. The notion that this film is about Andy Sach’s redemption as a human being is just not convincing.

I admired Streep’s acting in this film but really did not like the character she played (how could anyone like that character?). There are two brief moments—one a moment of personal distress for Miranda Priestly, another a moment when she glimpses and recognizes Andy Sachs across the street — where Streep though brief facial expression gives humanity and depth to her character. These moments, compelling as they are, don’t really make sense because they are basically inconsistent with the character established in the film. But thank God they are there!

Hathaway in her small role in Brokeback Mountain gave promise of becoming much more of an actress than the two-dimensional princess roles she played in such films as The Princess Diaries. Here she returns to that juvenile superficiality.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Illusionist

The slow pace of The Illusionist is actually a strong point. The moody, hypnotic music by Philip Glass works well with the pacing of the film. In every way the film is muted and low key. Ed Norton as the illusionist Emmerich underplays his role with a lack of expression that enhances the inscrutability of his character. The Illusionist is an interesting, well made romantic melodrama. Its title is the key to its plot, and if at some point you figure out how events are going to develop there is still interest in how they work themselves out.

There is an otherworldly ambiance to this film. It is a kind of “once upon a time” fairy tale. It begins with flashbacks to the early lives of the two principal characters, Sophie, the daughter of an aristocratic family, and Emmerich, the son of a cabinet maker. As children they remind us of Hansel and Gretel. These scenes are filmed in a hazy, unfocused and indistinct way that contributes to the slightly unreal and subtly stylized nature of the film as a whole. The boy has become fascinated with magic and is teaching himself tricks that he performs around town. The girl is entranced with him. Not surprisingly, they fall in love but are forced apart by her parents, who don’t want her consorting with peasants.

We move forward fifteen years, to the film’s present time. Emmerich has become a magician, or, in concert with the film’s title, an illusionist who performs incredible illusions before audiences. His reputation has attracted the interest of the Crown Prince, who one evening attends one of Emmerich’s performances with the woman he plans to marry. The Crown Prince sends her up to the stage to take part in one of Emmerich’s illusions. Not surprisingly (again), she turns out to be the girl from his youth. They still love each other. The problem which the film must therefore solve is how Emmerich and Sophie can find a way to be together and avoid being harassed and killed by the Crown Prince, who has a reputation for violence towards women and others, and who plans to overthrow his father and take the throne.

The Illusionist is set in Venice, Austria, at the turn of the 19th century, when Europe was overrun with fascination about the occult and spirit visitations, a historical circumstance that Emmerich exploits in his acts. When he begins to summon up apparitions—ghosts and images of the departed—he begins attracting large audiences who do not doubt that he has supernatural powers. The film only hints at how he might perform his feats, but to its credit we never receive an explanation of his abilities. His stage illusions are impressive, but they are a means to an end in the film rather than its point.

Paul Giamatti is the most impressive element in the film. I associate him with films and characters that allowed him to play a version of himself—Harvey Pekar in American Splendor or Miles in Sideways or even Joe Gould in Cinderella Man. In this film he plays the Chief Inspector, Uhl, a corrupt detective who does the bidding of the Crown Prince in hopes of being made chief of police or even mayor of Venice when the Prince becomes Emperor. Giamatti plays this role in a wholly convincing manner that bears no trace of what I have come to think of as the Giamatti persona. In spite of himself, the Chief Inspector becomes fascinated with Emmerich’s abilities. Though he is the Crown Prince’s agent, supposed to report the names of those who are subversives, he also explains to Emmerich in one scene that he does not want to arrest him, that he respects him too much.

In a sense, Uhl is the narrative focus of the film, regarding events from the same viewpoint as the audience. His interest in Emmerich leads him gradually to view the Crown Prince in a different light, and his ultimate realization about the film’s great illusion proves redemptive, after a fashion. Giamatti is excellent in this role.

The production values of The Illusionist are high. It is well directed by Neil Burger, who also wrote the screenplay. Ed Norton is effective as Emmerich, though his role doesn’t require much of him. Jessica Biel is beautiful, and that is the most that the film requires of her. Giamatti is outstanding.

The Illusionist is all surface. It is entertaining in the best sense of the word, but there is not much substance to it. The illusions Emmerich performs, the beauty of Biel, the excellent performance by Giamatti, and the ultimate illusion itself—perhaps predictable, but enjoyable nonetheless—make this a satisfying film.

Grandma’s Boy

My main concern about Grandma’s Boy (2006) is why my son wanted me to watch it. At first he said he would not enjoy the film if he watched it with me, though later he relented. It was apparently produced by a company associated with Adam Sandler--the company is called “Happy Madison.” In certain ways Grandma’s Boy reminds me of Billy Madison and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. More to the point, it seems in the same category as Clerks, Office Space, and the television series The Office, though Clerks is a much better and more interesting film. The plot involves a 35-year old man, Alex, forced to move out of his apartment after he fails to pay the rent for 6 months. He moves in with his grandmother and her two roommates but tells his coworkers that he is living with three hot women who enjoy group sex. His colleagues believe him—see following paragraph—though the deception is revealed when his grandmother and her roommates visit him at the office.

Alex works for a video game design company. His colleagues are a motley assemblage of geeks, freaks, and demented dorks, plus their beautiful blonde manager. As one character explains to her, there are a lot of virgins in the office. There are jokes about sex with old women, jokes about masturbation, jokes about zoo animals, jokes about yoga. There is a prolonged party scene in which Alex’s grandmother and her friends mistake his bag of pot for tea, and the resulting drink they brew offers numerous opportunities for drug jokes. There is an unusual amount of farting. Shirley Jones is funny as the lusty roommate of Alex’s grandmother, played by Doris Roberts from Everyone Loves Raymond.

This film is aimed at a teenage audience that loves the kind of humor summarized in the foregoing paragraph. In particular, this is an audience that believes that unemployment and video games after 30 are a higher state of nirvanic euphoria.

Will Alex prove his mettle? Will he prove that the video game his colleague stole from him is really one he designed? Will he sleep with the beautiful blonde?

I don’t know. The film isn’t over yet. Well, actually, it just ended. The answer to these questions: yes, yes, and eventually. Even compared to films like Billy Madison, this one is not very good.

Among the cameos are Kevin Nealon as the New Age owner of the video game company, Rob Schneider as Alex’s landlord, and David Spade as the waiter at a vegan restaurant.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Director Kevin Willmott’s faux documentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) considers what might have happened had the South won the Civil War. A parody in ways of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, complete with a wise, avuncular Shelby Foote-type commentator, the film uses actual and fabricated film clips, interviews, photographs, and narratives to tell its story. Historical figures such as Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Harriet Tubman, Walt Whitman are interspersed with figures invented for the documentary. (The actual footage is taken out of context, understandably). The film is presented as a BBC documentary about Confederate history, suppressed in America until the public demands to see it. It is periodically interrupted by commercials that make the effect of a documentary shown on American television more convincing.

According to the documentary, the tide turned for the South in the Civil War when Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin successfully negotiates with the British and French governments to bring their armies into the war on the Confederate side. As a result, the South wins the Battle of Gettysburg, takes Washington, sacks and burns Northern cities such as Boston and New York, and wins the war. Lincoln flees for his life with the assistance of Harriet Tubman, but they are captured before they can enter Canada. Lincoln is imprisoned and later exiled to Canada while Tubman is hanged. Jefferson Davis becomes the revered senior leader and conscience of the nation.

In this film, the Confederate victory leads the new government to mandate the institution of slavery throughout the United States. Northerners who do not purchase slaves are required to pay high taxes. Anyone who has black blood is legislatively declared a slave. Chinese workers in the West are enslaved by their employers, with government approval. Congress declares that America is a Christian nation, and non-Christians are expelled, except for a small number of Jewish Americans allowed to live on a “reservation” in Long Island. The Confederate America becomes a nation built on racial purity and white supremacy, and the notion many Southerners held before the Civil War that slavery was a benign and civilizing institution becomes widely accepted.

According to Willmott, American history would have developed in ways that are both different from and parallel to actual history. The Confederate States seek to expand into the South American continent. They win the war against Native Americans, who are essentially wiped out. American leaders and Adolf Hitler become allies, and the American nation does not enter the Second World War against Germany as a result. There is a war with Japan. Instead of a Cold War with the Soviet Union (hardly mentioned in the film), hostilities develop with Canada, where many former slaves and abolitionists settle. The C.S.A. erects a “cotton curtain” to prevent border crossing between Canada and the Confederacy, and abolitionist terrorist groups in Canada carry out attacks on the C.S.A. states.

In the 1950s and 1960s, sentiment arises in favor of emancipation, and when John F. Kennedy is elected as a Republican President in 1961, he seems likely to emancipate slaves, but he is assassinated. After a period of unrest and upheaval, most advocates for emancipation and for social change are imprisoned or exiled, and the Confederate nation settles back into stability and complacency.

As this summary suggests, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America offers a detailed and imaginative series of speculations as to what might have happened had the South won the Civil War. Some of the speculations seem likely and reasonable; others do not. One of Wilmott’s major objectives is to argue that although there would have been major differences in American history, many of the same developments would have occurred as well. A brief set of messages shown at the end of the film make clear that many of the products featured in the commercials that occur throughout the film—products with racist brand names like “Sambo”—are in fact the actual brand names of products sold in the United States until well into the 20th century. Some names still in use, Willmott notes—Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemimah—are camouflaged slave names. His point is that racism, concepts of racial supremacy and racial difference, are engrained in American culture.

In an interview included on the DVD of this film, Willmott states that one of his purposes in the film was to show how history would not have changed. He says that the South was “allowed not to change” after the end of the war—that the rest of the nation changed around it. Such a notion is at the least debatable and in fact is perversely wrongheaded.

Virtually all the actors in the film are unknown. This enhances the authenticity. The film employs a number of well done commercials and interviews—one is an interview with an elderly Lincoln in 1905 (it stretches one’s credulity to believe that Lincoln would have lived to the age of 96 and still been able to speak coherently). Another is a recreation of a D. W. Griffith short feature about the hunt for Lincoln following his flight from Washington. A parody of the Fox television show “Cops” is called “Runaway” and follows Confederate police as they seek to capture escaped slaves.

The low-budget nature of the film also imposes limitations. Many of the episodes or scenes in the film come across as Saturday Night Live sketches, played for laughs (largely based on racist jokes), and the film becomes repetitious and redundant in its continued insistence on the pervasive role of slavery and racism in American society under the C.S.A.

In fact, the film’s emphasis on slavery and racism—as crucial as these issues are in any version of American history—is myopic. According to Willmott, had the C.S.A. won the war and replaced the United States government, it would have devoted all its energies and resources in subsequent years to defending slavery, much as the American South did prior to the Civil War. In Willmott’s version of history, slavery becomes the main product that America markets to the rest of the world. This speculative view is plausible, but it has its flaws. It does not allow for the possibility of progress, change, evolution. Would the C.S.A. never have abolished slavery, especially after the advent of industrial farming equipment made the functions of field slaves unnecessary? The film actually denies the economic context of slavery, insisting instead that in the C.S.A. slavery was an institution necessary to the concept of racial purity. Slavery was a complex phenomenon. It can’t be oversimplified or reduced down to a few platitudes. Would social movements that succeeded in abolishing slavery never have arisen?

One point Willmott seems to be making is that although the Civil War in real American history did abolish slavery, race and issues of racial purity continued to play a crucial role in the national culture. In the DVD interview, he notes that Hurricane Katrina revealed the fact that poverty-stricken people are “invisible” in our culture. He suggests, with good reason, that the nation depends on the invisibility of the poor and on economic disparities that empower some and not others. But his film does not reflect these nuances.

To a certain extent, Willmott’s film also assumes that world history would have developed only in response to the power of the C.S.A. Communism does not arise in the film, and the C.S.A. has no apparent adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union.

Ultimately, Wilmott’s documentary comes across as a one-note effort. It makes some good and undeniably valid points. But it is also frequently shallow and superficial. Willmott receives plaudits for the originality of his efforts in this film, but not for the accuracy or acuity of his cultural and historical commentaries, though some of them do hit the mark.

Philip Roth’s The Plot against America gives a far more credible (up to a point) alternative history of America based on the idea that Charles Lindbergh runs for president, defeats Roosevelt, and institutes changes that take America to the far right—the nation does not enter WWII and adopts measures that seem aimed towards interning Jews and other minorities. Finally, even Roth cannot carry this speculative scenario through to a conclusion and instead has Lindberg disappear while flying his plane, so that sanity and order are restored to the American nation through what amounts to a deus ex machina device.

Early in the 1960s, the Saturday Evening Post featured a story entitled “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” by MacKinlay Cantor. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America reminded me of Cantor's story, though Willmott’s film is more inventive and creative in its portrayal of alternative history. It also has a sense of humor and wit, though as suggested above these extend only so far before they become repetitive. My recollection is that in the Saturday Evening Post alternative history the Confederate nation does finally abolish slavery.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Scoop is the comic obverse of Match Point (2005). It is a slight and ephemeral comedy that starts with the unlikely appearance of a ghost during the middle of a magician’s act and ends with the solution to a murder. Woody Allen must have conceived of these two films as a pair.

Everyone jokes about how Allen always places himself in his films in close proximity to beautiful young women. The accusation is not entirely fair, though it is not inaccurate either. He is hardly the only filmmaker or writer to imagine his aging self in the arms of youth. In Scoop, the young woman in question is the most fetching Scarlett Johansson, playing a student journalist named Sondra Pransky on holiday in England. Allen plays a whacked and eccentric aging magician named the Great Splendini, aka Sid Waterman. They first meet when she attends his magic show, and he chooses her from the audience to play a part in a disappearing trick. During the middle of the trick, while Sondra is hiding in a closet from which she is supposed to disappear, the ghost of a recently dead journalist appears and tells her that a rich aristocrat is a notorious serial killer. Sid sees the ghost as well, and as a result he and Sondra team up to investigate the ghost’s story. They make the kind of kooky detective team we saw played by Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993).

Scoop makes a great joke out of the age difference between Sondra and Sid, and though he may feel her attractions, she has no interest in him and instead masquerades for much of the film as his daughter.

As the foregoing summary suggests, just about everything in the film is silly and improbable, and every scene in which he appears gives Allen a chance to do his shtick as the doddering, semi-competent Splendini, who has memorized a limited set of lines which he repeats throughout the film as he performs bad magic tricks in one setting after another: “I love you, really. With all due respect, you're a beautiful person. You're a credit to your race.” Allen makes fun of himself throughout the film and has a great time doing it.

The film feels a lot like a stage play, and the action moves around from one physical setting to another in an arbitrary way, as if the intention is to provide the characters a varying backdrop as they read their lines. There is a certain claustrophobia to the film as a result—many of the scenes could take place anywhere. There is not much reason for the characters to move or travel around—the story comes out as they speak to each other. Most of the humor and interest in the film comes from the dialogue between Allen and Johansson.

Allen and Johansson don’t take their characters very seriously. Both characters are fairly dimwitted. They stumble around throughout the film, bumbling into each other and ultimately into the actual truth of the mystery they’re investigating. At one point Johansson jokes that “If we put our heads together, it would make a hollow sound.”

Match Point is one of the grimmest character studies imaginable, a noir study of ambition and greed and class privilege. In Scoop Hugh Jackman plays a wealthy, aristocratic character named Peter Lyman, who is similar in ways to the lead character Chris Wilton in Match Point, but the difference this time is that Lyman underestimates his intended victim. This is the comic outcome of Scoop, while Match Point offers the most tragic of denouements. In the penultimate scene of Match Point ghosts appear to confront the main character with his crimes. In Scoop the deceased journalist’s ghost appears early to assist in outing a murderer.

An atmosphere of improvisation pervades Scoop, as if scenes have been written just before they are performed. This is not the way Woody Allen writes and makes films but instead is probably a result of his directing style and how he works with his actors. Splendini in particularly seems a fully improvisational creation, and we can imagine Allen winging it with this character, whom he inhabits and seems to understand fairly well. The Great Splendini is, after all, another version of Woody Allen the director and actor and stand-up comedian, who has been doing this sort of thing for nearly fifty years now.

Allen relishes the small kind of drama he gives us in Scoop. The stakes are not large, but they are fully and engagingly illuminated. If Scoop is simply another vehicle that allows Woody Allen to do his thing, so be it. Though many of his recent films have been lackluster, Scoop is full of energy and vitality, the result not only of chemistry between Allen and Johansson but also of the fact that Allen still loves and enjoys what he does.

There is an interesting link connecting this film with Allen’s 1975 comedy Love and Death and, thereby, with Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman. Anyone who recognizes the connection between Love and Death and The Seventh Seal will recognize the link in Scoop.

The Natural

In The Natural (1984) Robert Redford’s usual woodenness works remarkably well. He plays Roy Hobbs, whose only ambition is to be the best baseball player who ever lived. Hobbs is not a complicated person. He has natural athletic talent and seems fated for greatness—we know this because of Hobbs’ own certainty that he will be great, and because of the lightning bolt that splits a tree in half and thereby provides the wood from which Hobbs carves his bat, “Wonderboy.” Failure never seems an option for Hobbs. He is on the verge of a great career. But a beautiful woman invites him to her room, shoots him in the gut with a silver bullet, and throws herself out the window. Hobbs disappears for sixteen years. He begins as a mid-American innocent, talented, handsome, and loved by an equally handsome and innocent young woman. Then sin and corruption seize him.

The point here seems to be that even the greatest natural talent can be corrupted or ruined by temptation—Hobbs at one time or the other is tempted by fame, money, and sex. These temptations lead him astray. He is like all of us in this respect—an Everyman. We all start out in youth eager and idealistic and convinced of our own inevitability. And we all fall victim to temptation, we all fall short, in some way. Like Hobbs, we all want and believe we deserve a Last Chance.

After sixteen years away from the game, Hobbs returns for a last chance with the New York Knights. In a movie such as this, a movie that bends over backwards to associate itself with the Great American Dream of fame and success and glory, when the hero faces impossible odds, the outcome is usually not in doubt. That is certainly the case in this film, though there was a different story in Malamud’s novel.

The Natural is not a great film because of its revolutionary cinematic techniques. It has a fine cast—Redford, Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley, Kim Basinger, Glenn Close, Richard Farnsworth—but acting hardly makes the film. This movie works to the extent that it does work because of the generic American and human themes that it embodies and that are inscribed on Redford’s handsome but inexpressive all-American face. Baseball itself is a great symbolic and allegorical emblem of the American experience, and the film pays homage and careful attention to the usual details—the tying down of the bases before the game, the quirky idiosyncrasies of the coaches and players, the way Roy Hobbs squares himself at home plate before he turns to face the pitcher, and so on. Innocence corrupted and redeemed is another theme—Hobbs’ struggle to redeem his own disillusionment. At one point Hobbs talks about a mistake he made years ago in the past that he never stops paying for. This is the great question of The Natural—can Roy Hobbs redeem himself? Can he play out his destiny?

The movie sets up an allegorical context of good and evil representing all the sins and temptations Hobbs faces: the newspaper cartoonist (Robert Duvall) who can make or break his career, the bookie who bets that Hobbs can’t throw three straight strikes (Darren McGavin), the baseball team owner (who is either Satan or God or both—it’s not clear—but he presides from a redly glowing office and watches the game through shuttered windows—he bets against his own team and tries to bribe Hobbs not to play in the championship game), the beautiful woman (Basinger) who seduces Hobbs, diverting his attention from the game, because she is paid to do so. Hobbs says he loves baseball. Will he sell it out? Will goodness and virtue prevail? Will he betray his teammates and the coach who gave him a chance? Will the silver bullet that has lain in his gut for sixteen years and eaten away at the lining of his stomach finally bring him down, or will he play in the final game even though he might die from the strain? Will he fail the woman who never abandoned him and who still believes in him? Will the note she passes to him before his last time at bat—a note telling him something he doesn’t know, but that will matter a great deal to him—make the difference? You can see where this is headed.

This is allegory and corn and schmaltz but it works because the film borrows and mines the themes from Malamud’s novel—themes Malamud did not invent but that he borrowed from American literature and culture and experience. They’re seared into us—dreams of redemption and glory and personal heroism—part of how we respond to and understand the world. It’s difficult not to respond to them. You can’t help yourself.

Afterwards, perhaps, you feel cheap and used. You want to smoke a cigarette. You want to take a shower. You want to get up and leave.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Walking into the Night, by Olaf Olafsson

I found this 2003 novel so dreary and self-absorbed that each time I picked it up again to continue reading I did so as the result of a painful act of will. I continued reading out of interest in how the story would resolve itself, out of inertia, no force intruding to prevent me. The narrator Christian Benediktsson is a man who deserted his family in Iceland some fifteen years before the present time of the novel and who, through a series of errors and misfortunes, improbably ends up working as the personal butler of William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon. Much of the novel is narrated as a series of unmailed letters to Christian’s wife. In them he attempts to explain himself and for a time it seems as if he is seeking her forgiveness. There are also chunks of narrative focused on Christian, and on those around him. The movement in time is between the present and the past as he traces the events that led him to where he is at the time of the novel. We begin with his first meetings with the girl who would become his wife, their marriage and the births of their children, the minor deceptions in which he engages, his affair with a close business associate’s fiancĂ©--deceptions that grow and multiply, until finally he loses control and falls totally.

Christian is full of self-pity and remorse, but more self-pity than remorse. He presents his story as a tragic series of events that he wishes he could undo, and initially he elicits sorrow and pity. Gradually, my attitude towards him changed. He seems to accept that he is responsible for the events that ruined his life, and at points guilt almost maddens him, but more often he seems able to regard himself and his errors from a distance. His first deceptions seem unimportant. Early in his relationship with his wife, he tells her that he graduated from a business school in Copenhagen. He feels inferior to her because he is working class and she is of a higher class, so he lies about business school to bolster his own sense of self. Later he lies to her about her father’s business dealings, then about his reasons for traveling to New York. Ultimately he seems almost to blame her for his lies, as if to suggest that she forced him to tell them. Finally I found him weak and repellent. The point of the story is not to pay homage to the wife he deceived and deserted, not to memorialize the idyllic past and the marriage and the family he betrayed, but instead is to attempt to justify himself.

At the end he has a chance to meet again with his son Einar, whom he hasn’t seen in more than fifteen years, since he was a young boy. Instead of seizing the opportunity, he flees, leaving everything behind once again, explaining to Hearst that it is “too late.” He comes to this conclusion after learning that his wife has been dead for five years, so maybe he believes that since she is dead he doesn’t deserve to be reunited with his family, doesn’t deserve an attempt to reconciliation. But instead I think he uses her death as a convenient excuse. He merely thinks about sending the letters he has written to his wife before he knows she has died—he never really means to send them.

The great problem with the novel is deciding how to read it, how to understand it, what perspective to take towards the narrator and main character Christian Benediktsson. Are we supposed to see him as a weak coward, or as a sensitive, suffering, pathetic soul?

How also are we to view his job with William Randolph Hearst? This is no kind of penance. It affords Christian anonymous security, free from the eyes of those who might recognize him and remind him of his past. He has a secure job of responsibility and authority, one that allows him a significant amount of free time. He is able to hide from the world without suffering, though he is constantly remembering, constantly finding new ways to summon up his own misery.

The novel does not offer a new perspective on Hearst or on his relationship with his mistress Marion Davies, who appears frequently. We see Hearst in his decline at San Simeon, as his empire and fortunes suffer from reversals brought on by the Depression and years of bad decisions and reckless spending. Hearst himself comes across as imperious, silly, and self-absorbed, a larger-than-life version of the narrator. Davies is a neurotic and modestly talented actress who is miserable when Hearst forces her to watch the bad films she has made, trying to convince her that they are good despite the negative reviews. She is trapped and miserable but not sympathetic.

The novel is well written to a fault. The prose is pristine, calculated, poetic, almost flawless. The first sentence: “The cypress rested in its shadow.” The last sentence: “When the horse had disappeared into a hollow, the bird began to sing.” The novel’s prose strains to reflect the tenor of its narrator’s sensitive, suffering, emotional soul. It is cold, pitiless, pointless.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Not a great film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) was at least entertaining and fun. The excitement and the plot were naturally intertwined, and the film built a certain pace and momentum. You knew where it was headed, roughly, but you enjoyed the ride. And there was the novelty of some state of the arts special effects. Above all, there was Johnny Depp with his dead-on impersonation of Keith Richards as Jack Sparrow, captain of the Black Pearl. He was worth everything else the film had to offer.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), we have the dreaded sequel. Jack Sparrow is back, and at least in the scenes in which he appears there is some interest, though the charm and novelty have worn off, somewhat. For the most part, this second installment is a muddy, sodden, plotless preparation for part three. In fact, the whole point becomes evident in the last thirty seconds. It wouldn’t have mattered what events preceded those final seconds, as long as the film brought us to them.

There is more action here than in the first film, but much of it doesn’t make any sense, and there is not much logic to the sequence of events either. They involve a much dreaded sea pirate with an octopus head named Davy Jones and his extremely unlikely crew—unlikely even by the logic of the first film. There are sword fights, stunts, sea battles, giant kraken, a mysterious key, a beating heart in a buried chest, evil British sailors, runaway waterwheels, and on and on. You don’t really need to understand what is going on in the film. All that it demands is that you watch it. The only guiding logic is the insistent, irresistible urge to arrive at the last thirty seconds. But it takes a long time getting there, and a lot of it hardly matters.