Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jesus Camp

The documentary Jesus Camp offers a minimum of instruction in how to view its subject. The film is framed by a radio talk show host who appears in an early scene, in a few subsequent scenes, and at the end. He is apparently a former evangelical, and as he talks to callers on his radio show, he rails against the dangers of right-wing evangelical Christianity. His admonitions and comments are the only self-conscious hints this film offers about its point of view.

Of course, there are other more subtle clues: what the filmmakers choose to film, how they edit, and so on. But in general Jesus Camp is a remarkable example of a objectivity in documentary filmmaking.

Jesus Camp focuses on a few individuals and their lives as evangelicals. One of the primary figures is an ardent and in ways charming older woman who ministers to children. She runs the summer camp that gives this film its title. One of the children is a boy of perhaps 13 or 14 years. He has a closely cropped haircut except for a swath of hair that hangs down his back. He is bright, eager, open eyed, and wholly brainwashed. We see much of him in the film. The woman teaches the boy and his friends to speak in tongues, to praise Jesus, to convert unbelievers. The world of reason and rationality, where people think and develop their own ideas, is alien to this woman and her students. They are taught to believe what they are told, to have faith, never to question. They are taught that the world of reason is evil and that those who think for themselves, who have an open mind, are damned.

Jesus Camp doesn't show evangelical Christians as oppressed and unhappy. To the contrary, through much of the film we see them full of joy, enjoying their lives, celebrating their faith, expressing love for their savior and for one another. Only gradually, as the film progresses, does it become obvious that theirs is an existence of benighted ignorance and prejudice.

I expected this film to be funny. In fact there was little humor in it. One of the only moments of humor comes when a group of evangelical children approach several black men sitting in a park. The children have been taught how to speak with the unconverted, and they try their new skills out on these men. One of the children asks the men, "Where do you think you'll go when you die?" One of the men answers, "Heaven." The children are not prepared for this answer, which floors them, and they turn and leave, walking rapidly across the street away from the park. One of them exclaims, after a pause, "They must be Muslims."

A few scenes concern a mother who is homeschooling her children. The film notes that two-thirds of the children home schooled in America are evangelical Christians. Her bias against science, reason, and open thought as she speaks to the interviewer and to her son is chilling.

In another scene, the evangelical teacher talks to the radio show host about the dangers of democracy.

Democracy depends on an enlightened, educated, intelligent electorate. If the people about whom this film is made ever get the upper hand, democracy and reason will vanish. Jesus Camp is a frightening film.

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Jesus Camp was produced and directed by a group of women filmmakers who have mastered the art of expressing a point of view by allowing their subject to speak for itself.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Sunset Limited, by Cormac McCarthy

In The Sunset Limited: A Novel in Dramatic Form (2006), a white man and black man (named in the text simply as "White" and "Black") argue about whether life has meaning. The white man is a college professor who has just been prevented from throwing himself in front of a subway train by the black man, a reformed ex-convict. The white man believes life has no meaning and wants to die. The black man is a converted Christian who says that Jesus often talks to him. He feels responsible for the white man he has rescued, responsible not only for preventing him from another suicide attempt but also for the salvation of his soul.

The train which the white man attempted to use as the means of his extinction is the Sunset Limited, and this name becomes in this dramatic debate a label for the end of all human life—human mortality, death. Does life mean anything in the face of inevitable extinction? Is death the end of things? These issues this play explores.

Racial considerations do not seem an issue here. Still, the two characters represent some uncomfortable distinctions. The white man is the voice of despair, nihilism, rationalism. The black man is the voice of hope, belief, faith. He also talks in an ungrammatical dialect that occasionally verges on a stereotype, though he is intelligent and articulate. The play refers to him as "the black." What are these distinctions supposed to imply? The play might not directly address issues of race and racism in the interplay of its two characters, but it does raise and suggest them. The true focus lies elsewhere.

These two men are like good and bad angels for the writer of this play which, though it has been staged, is more like a closet drama than a work intended for performance. Cormac McCarthy is the writer, of course, the author of such dark novels as Outer Dark, Child of God, Blood Meridian, and The Road. One of the central issues in The Road is whether, in a world that has essentially come to an end and that is doomed to darkness and lifelessness, there is any reason for the few survivors to struggle on. In that novel, a dying father's love for his young son is the sole justification for that struggle, and even then the father wonders whether killing his son would be more an act of love than dying and leaving him alone in a dead world.

McCarthy often verges on nihilism. In All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, he allows his leading characters to survive, though they must live with the knowledge of all they have lost—a stoic and highly compromised survival, such as the one allowed Harry Wilbourne at the end of Faulkner's novel The Wild Palms—"between grief and nothingness, I'll take grief."

The Sunset Limited comes to no real conclusion. The two men talk and argue and debate, and on several occasions one seems on the verge of winning over or at least of outtalking the other. This is especially true when the black man serves the white man food and they eat together. Finally, however, neither convinces the other. Although the black man rarely seems at a loss for words, at the end the white man explains to him how he is in love with the prospect of death and then walks out the door. The black man calls him back, but receives no response. The play ends. It would be the conventional ending to have the unbeliever tempted towards belief, but here the opposite seems the case—the believer shaken in his own certain convictions.

Why does this debate matter to McCarthy? He seems to have made his choice—for rationalism, darkness. He is in his 70s now, and in The Road he made clear how he was thinking about the prospects of death. Here, In the Sunset Limited, he offers further thoughts on the subject. It is tempting to see in the white character of this play McCarthy's own projection of himself, and in the black man a representation of the compulsions towards faith that, in the face of one's own inevitable end, may act more strongly than they have before. Yet he still rejects them.

One point this play makes clearly: though the voices of faith and rationalism may attempt to converse, in the end there is no possibility of agreement. They are divided by an irreconcilable difference of conviction, a gap that cannot be closed.

Despite the claim in the subtitle, The Sunset Limited is not a novel. It is a play and a philosophical debate. It is longer than it needs to be. McCarthy's tendency towards philosophizing has occasionally been a weakness in his novels—I think especially of The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, both of which contain overlong moments of philosophical discussion. Here the main points of the disagreement between the two characters are expressed repeatedly in a way that doesn't seem to advance the plot in any particular direction, leaving us at the end where we were at the beginning. Perhaps this is one of the points.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Pleasantville is the New York town where, supposedly, the Reader’s Digest is published. I’ve always pictured the place as bland, unremarkable, and inoffensive. Pleasantville is also the title of a 1998 film starring Tobey McGuire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniel, William H. Macy and others. The film uses the town’s bland name as an emblem of an equally bland American ideal: down home values, conformity, community cooperation, universal subscription to common political and moral principles, conservative lifestyles, and so on. It is the kind of life we like to think (incorrectly) characterized America during the 1950s.

Pleasantville uses the bland ideal of America in the 1950s as imposed on the public by such situation family comedies as Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show. The film begins with the following improbable premise: When two modern-day American teenagers fight over the remote control, it malfunctions and they are sucked into the world of 1950s black-and-white television—a world much like that of the sit-com they were watching, a sit-com named Pleasantville. The town they find themselves embodies the ideal described above. It is also a black and white world, devoid of color, characterized by blandness and conformity. Gradually, as the brother and sister upset the order of things, color comes to the small town.

The film wants the audience to equate color with life, with individualism and creativity and passion. In a very general way it uses as a framework the beginning of the shift in the late 1950s from black and white to color television. It relies on two historical movements of the 1950s to create a context in its depiction of the battle between conformity and individuals. One is McCarthyism, and the other is the Civil Rights movement. (As people gradually change from, black and white to natural colors in the film, the townspeople who have not changed yet refer to them as “colored.” Several stores in the town display signs that say “No Coloreds.”) The film doesn’t take this particular parallel very far, but it does make the point that the world depicted in the film (and the mythic ideal it embodies) depends on the suppression of anything that diverges from the norm. The parallel with the greatest force in the film is that of McCarthyism, but even this one is only generally present. The film doesn’t work in terms of specific political issues or struggles. It explores broad, abstract issues of free expression, individualism vs. conformity, repression vs. passion and freedom of thought, etc. In this way the film manages to make its point without offering controversy. Since the world of Pleasantville is an imagined fantasy world, one that we all know doesn’t exist, and one whose blandness virtually none of us would countenance, the film’s argument for free expression and individualism is one virtually none of us would disagree with. We all want to be like the “coloreds.”

Another way to look at the film is the fact that in many ways the divisions in the town are not merely between the “coloreds” and the “black and white” folks, but also between the young and the old. With some notable exceptions (the malt shop owner played by Jeff Daniels—an artist—and the oppressed house wife played by Joan Allen), the young people in the town revel in the openness and free expression of the dawning world of color while the older people favor colorless conformity. The notion here is that while the young are just beginning to discover life, the old are forgetting it. Exploiting generational divisions in this way, the film appeals to its mostly young audience, who believe that the adult world is repressive and dead to begin with.

Pleasantville is superficial in its treatment of such basic issues as individualism and conformity, the needs of the community balanced against the yearning urges of the self, and in its allegorical dramatization of movements at work in America during the 1950s and 60s. That being said, Pleasantville is diverting entertainment. It’s a true feel-good film, effectively directed and produced, with good acting and strong production values. It is easy to be caught up in the its celebration of art and openness and love and personal development. This film is eponymously self-confirming—pleasant.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

North Toward Home, by Willie Morris

Willie Morris takes us through three stages of his early life in his memoir North Toward Home (1967). The title is ironic in a mild sense. Though it might seem to express a rejection of the South and the land of his youth, instead it recognizes that in his adult life the North where he works and lives is the modern world and his present time, whereas Yazoo City, the place of his birth and youth, is the past.

Three sections organize the book: Morris' memories of his early days and adolescence in Yazoo City; his days as a student at the University of Texas followed by his work as an editor for the Texas Observer and his take on Texas politics (including LBJ); and finally his work in New York City as an editor for Harpers Magazine. The last section of the book is the least detailed and specific, and the least satisfying, and in it Morris takes every opportunity to editorialize on the harsh impersonality of life in "the Cave," the Big Northern City.

A Southern defensiveness pervades the book. Partially the result of when it was written—the late 1960s—Morris is careful to insist that the old South he describes is one he no longer is a part of, that he has grown beyond. This is especially the case in his treatment of racism and racial issues. On occasion, on a New York commuter train, he assures the person sitting next to him that he is not only a Democrat but a liberal Democrat. If he admits he is a Southerner, he is careful to make clear the kind of Southerner he is.

The best part of the book is the first section, where he describes growing up in Yazoo City, the people he knew, life with his parents, girls he dated, teams he played for, a radio station he broadcast for, and the rise of the civil rights movement. It is difficult to know how to read this section. Morris clearly presents himself as a racial liberal, someone who embraces racial equality and civil rights, yet he writes about his early life--how he and other boys played tricks on black people, for instance, and his interactions with various black residents of the town--without apologizing for his actions. I think he feels the fact that he grew up, changed his ways and attitudes, makes the difference. Morris describes his early life the way it was, the way he lived it, so as to place his development as an adult, a white Southern liberal, in contrast.

Many modern Southerners have had no experience living in a small Southern town, and Morris's recollections of his youth in Yazoo City give a vivid picture of the life in the 1930s—the racial divisions, the social strata, those days before television and the advent of the modern. His account of how the town reacts when a group of African Americans circulates a petition is especially interesting—the townspeople meet together and decide to fire all the people who signed the petition. Most of the fired people leave town to find work elsewhere.

The most interesting elements of the middle section, which concerns Morris' college days at the University of Texas and his early experiences as a journalist, are his descriptions of Texas politics. This section is marked by humor and satire, and some of the descriptions of Texas legislators are outright hilarious.

Morris is at his best when he is describing rather than sermonizing. He is intent on demonstrating his own progressivism. This is not something a Southern journalist would feel a need to do in 2007, but perhaps Morris felt the need in 1967—to justify himself, to make clear his own position in contrast to the rest of the South. The defensiveness at times is a bit smug. Morris' ability to dredge up precise details and descriptions from his early days in Yazoo City provoked my skepticism—there may be some invention going on in this book. It is probably invention that leads to a treatment of his subject that is more or less true in spirit if not in the precise details.

Morris often mentions Thomas Wolfe in this book. He clearly admires the North Carolina writer, and the admiration shows in his prose, which, though not as florid as Wolfe's, does have an over-exuberance.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

February 20, 1962

On February 20, 1962, I sat staring at the television screen in the 6th grade classroom of Helen Babb Avery, a teacher at Longino Elementary School in College Park, Georgia. After ten false starts, John Glenn was going to become the first American to orbit the earth. The early days of the American space program involved many stops and starts, holds, scrubs, cancellations. But on this day it was going to happen, at last. We all waited to witness the historic moment of America's entry into orbit. Mrs. Avery was an excellent teacher, but I suspect she welcomed these times when she could put lessons aside and let the students watch history unfold on the television.

When Glenn was lifted aloft by the Atlas missile, we cheered and clapped. We were giddy with America's victory—no matter that Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov had already orbited the earth. Ours was a victory for the free world, broadcast as it was on national television, for all to watch. Thinking about it in this way, we could view Glenn's flight as a victory.

As a sixth grader I thought John Glenn was a great hero. At 39, he was the oldest of the original seven astronauts, and there was concern that his age would put him at risk. He ran 2 miles a day. His wife Annie did not like the public spotlight and avoided interviews. Glenn relished the role of hero, and according to Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff his insistence on proper behavior and all-American values caused the other astronauts to resent and make fun of him. After he left the space program, Glenn was often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, but at the 1976 Democratic convention he gave a keynote speech so dull that, along with other factors, it killed his chances in the national arena. As a senator from Ohio from 1974 to 1998, he served dutifully and well but not remarkably. He was only a man after all.

Walter Brennan was a professional old man. He played an old man in a number of films, and in the television series "The Real McCoys." His voice squeaked and cracked like an old man's. He recorded a song that enjoyed much air play in 1962 called "Old Rivers," about a man he remembered from his youth. He didn't sing the song. He just croaked it, in a plaintive, pathetic, and gruesomely sentimental way. On the opposite side of the single was a song entitled "The Epic Ride of John H. Glenn." It was corn and camp, and I listened to it over and over.


Infamous is more a study of Truman Capote and his relationship with the two men who murdered the Clutter family than of his writing of In Cold Blood. The film Capote focused more narrowly on the character of the author and his deepening involvement in the writing of the book. It argued that Capote exploited the two murderers, and others, so that he could produce the book—the notion was that he ruthlessly used other people’s lives, and deaths, to feather his own fame and success as an author. Both films suggest that the experience of writing In Cold Blood transformed Capote and damaged him as well. Capote suggested a gradual corruptive transformation in the writer, while Infamous offers another explanation.

Infamous followed Capote by a year, though both films were made around the same time. This is unusual, to have two films made more or less simultaneously, on the same subject, with many of the same characters. The two films complement one another rather than cove the same precise territory. Capote offers a sometimes cold and clinical analysis of the author, while Infamous is more humane and compassionate in its treatment. It also seems to be more speculative.

Infamous begins and ends with Capote writing down the title of his novel Answered Prayers, which he was beginning to write before he learned of the Clutter murders, and which he struggled to finish through the remainder of his life after the publication of In Cold Blood. The title carries a certain irony—irony that Capote’s chance reading of the short newspaper article on the murders led to his discovery of the subject for his greatest work, irony that he never finished the book called Answered Prayers—not finishing the book was the price he paid for In Cold Blood.

Infamous begins by showing us the social gadfly Truman Capote and his circle of women friends in New York—Diana Vreeland, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and others. We see how he loves hearing the details of their private lives and how he gleefully violates their confidences by passing on their secrets to others. He feeds on their love affairs and disappointments. He charms and insinuates himself into their lives. He begs them for news about scandals. Later, as he gathers information about the Clutter murders, he shares his discoveries with these same women—in a sense, another kind of gossip.

This same kind of charm ultimately enables Capote to win his way into the graces of the Dewey family and other residents of the small Kansas town with his gossipy stories about Humphey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Jennifer Jones, John Huston, and other actors.

Infamous hypothesizes that Perry Smith and Capote developed a close relationship, that Smith fell in love with Capote, who may have Capote reciprocated, at least emotionally. The film thereby sidesteps (though not entirely) the idea that Capote exploited Smith and Hitchcock in the writing of In Cold Blood. Capote is torn in Infamous by his realization that his great work cannot be published until the murderers are executed and by the fact that when the book is published, it will be at the price of Perry’s death. Both films show Capote distancing himself from the murderers, refusing to answer their calls and letters, though Infamous implies this is because he felt helpless rather than because he had finished with them, or at least finished with Perry.

The film emphasizes how Capote and Perry Miller felt of abandoned by their parents, especially their fathers. This draws them together. Similarly, Harper Lee and Capote are connected by their efforts to finish novels—Lee has already finished To Kill a Mockingbird by the time the film begins, and she is struggling to write another novel—one she never finished—throughout the film. She talks about how writing takes a lot out of a writer, quoting Frank Sinatra on how every time Judy Garland sang a part of her died. She suggests that the same can be true for writers and that when Smith and Hickock were executed, Capote in a sense died with them. There is an implication in some abstract sense that Lee’s inability to finish her book, which at one point she tells Capote “won’t come together,” is connected to Capote’s failure to finish Answered Prayers, or at least in some sense explained by it. It is Lee in Infamous, as it was Lee in Capote, who tries to reason with Capote about the difference between fact and fiction and who confronts him with the suggestion that he might be toying with the lives of his subjects. In Capote it is this exploitation that leads to Capote’s corruption—his purported indifference to the lives of the people he writes about; in Infamous this blurring of truth and fiction leads Capote to involve himself in the life of one of the murderers to such an extent that he becomes, in a sense, his own victim.

Capote tells his editor that he wants to write an article about the town where the murders occurred so that he can examine the loss of trust in a small town—a topic that ties him to the small town of the South where he lived and grew up.

Infamous makes good use of Kansas as a setting. There are numerous shots of people standing in relief against the Kansas sky, especially at sunset, and the film therefore gives a sense of what it is that Capote is learning about the town and the people who live in it. It’s surprising that a man as openly gap and effeminate as Capote—the film suggests that he reveled in his effeminacy, laughing when townspeople mistake him for a “strange woman.”

There is a documentary frame to the film, where a series of interviews apparently conducted after Capote’s death with the various people he knew—Vreeland, Lee, Alvin Dewey, and others—talk about him and the experience of writing In Cold Blood.

The actor who plays Capote is excellent. He captures the exuberance of the young and wild Capote, though at times he seems more of an caricature than an accurate portrait. I preferred the acting of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, whose study of the writer was less mannered and more insightful, but the main character in Infamous was nonetheless excellent, as was Daniel Craige as Perry Smith.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Eat the Document

Eat the Document is a rarely seen 1972 follow-up documentary to D. A. Pennebaker’s 1965 film Don’t Look Back. Pennebaker shot the footage for Eat the Document but Bob Dylan and associate Howard Alk did the editing. Pennebaker intended to direct the film, but when Dylan took over, Pennebaker backed away. Eat the Document records the frenetic, disjointed pace of Dylan’s controversial 1966 concert tour in England. It contains impressive excerpts from some of the performances, but only one or two complete performances. This is an irritation—most of the performances are cut short, interrupted. Someone should go through the footage used to make Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document and reconstruct the complete performances that are there. (According to The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, Pennebaker owns unreleased footage of a number of complete performances). At no time in his career did Dylan perform more evocatively and powerfully than he did on this tour—his singing seems almost otherworldly. Look at the performance of “Desolation Row” in the Scorsese documentary as an example. There needs to be a more complete public record of these performances.

Eat the Document also contains a number of segments in which Dylan plays guitar or piano and sings in his hotel room and other private settings. These are some of the most interesting scenes in the film because, although this is the period when Dylan was outraging audiences with his rock and roll electronic performances, on his own he was often still playing acoustic folk music. Dylan’s skill as a guitarist has occasionally been disparaged, but in these scenes he plays guitar and piano with much ease.

This film has never been released in any format. The copy I managed to see was purchased on the web. I have no idea whether it actually is the Eat the Document film I have read about. The camerawork is choppy and full of jerky movement. It’s difficult to tell whether some of the amateurish moments in the film—the occasional frozen images, the scenes of static, the gaps--are the result of the haphazard way in which the copy I watched was recorded, or of how the film itself was made. Few scenes develop at much length. In general, based on descriptions I have read, I think I saw the fabled film. The film’s highlight is “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the best performance ever of this song by Dylan or anyone else.

While Pennebaker preferred a measure of coherence in Don’t Look Back, in Eat the Document coherence is not a particular goal. This may well be a reflection of how Dylan edited the film, and of its editor’s disdain for conventional narrative. He may have shaped the film in this way to illustrate how he experienced the constant movement, travel, unsettlement, uproar, confusion, and rare moments of quiet solitude during the 1966 tour. This was a period when the old Dylan was reconstructing a new Dylan, but what one mainly finds in this film is a process of self-deconstruction, with nothing left in the void of the old Dylan except the words and the music. What the new Dylan will be remains unresolved. The main focus seems not to be on telling the story of the 1966 tour, but instead on evoking in pastiche form what the tour was like, the ambience of the concerts, the sometimes hostile atmosphere, the disappointment and anger of fans who came to see one Dylan and got another, quite different person in his place.

The film also suggests, especially in the prolonged and painful sequence with Dylan and John Lennon in the backseat of a limousine, laughing and talking, Dylan so high on drugs and/or alcohol that he seems miserable and often unable to hold his head up, that this was a period in his career when Dylan was running so close to the edge that he could have easily fallen over and been lost forever. The danger, the risk, the willful momentum towards self-immolation and destruction we see in this film is probably why Dylan’s work from this period is so powerful and even haunting.

For Dylan fanatics the film is important as a document of a particular moment from his career, and for the sequences where Dylan sings. But Eat the Document is not a successful or effective film. Some have called it daring and experimental. To me it’s self-indulgent and clumsy. Still, it should be restored and released. And someone should compile and commercially release a video record of Dylan’s performances during the 1960s.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


The central structural device in Hollywoodland involves the two characters played by Ben Affleck and Aiden Brody. Affleck plays the actor George Reeves, who in the 1950s became famous, briefly, as the lead in the Superman television series. Brody plays private detective Louis Simo. Reeves is dead, an apparent suicide, before Simo becomes interested in him. The lives of these characters are closely intertwined.

Reeves is portrayed as an ambitious but modestly talented actor. He has high aspirations but his career in the 1950s is faltering. He lands a role in From Here to Eternity, but his acting is so wooden that his scene is edited out of the film. When he lands the lead in the Superman television series, he is embarrassed and disdainful of the opportunity, but it does make him famous for three years. When the show is canceled, he tries to start his own production company, but this effort falters. Finally, after a small party in his house, he goes upstairs, a gunshot echoes, and he is found dead, apparently a suicide. His is the narrative of a disappointed life, someone who cannot live with the reality of his own limitations. Paralleled with Reeves is Louis Simo, whose marriage has collapsed and whose seven-year-old son has been so affected by the suicide of his television hero that he develops serious behavior problems. He sets his Superman costume afire on the family sofa. (Later we see Reeves doing the same on his outdoor grill, after the series is cancelled).

Just as Hollywoodland traces the gradual decline of Reeves’ hopes as an actor, so too does it trace Simo’s decline. When Simo is hired by George Reeves' mother to investigate her son’s death, he becomes fascinated with the event. At first he sees his investigation as an opportunity to get publicity. Later he becomes convinced that suicide was not the cause of Reeves’ death—that it was an accidental or intentional murder.

Like any good postmodern movie, Hollywoodland asks questions that it does not answer. It offers several plausible scenarios for Reeves’ death. Told largely from Brody’s point of view, the film switches back and forth from the present time of Brody to the past tense of George Reeves' life, beginning with the investigation of his death. While at first the film seems mainly concerned with Reeves, it increasingly focuses on Brody, his fascination with the actor’s death, his need to prove himself and gain publicity, his difficulty with his faltering family circumstances. His most significant moments in the film come when he stands outside Reeves' house and envisions how the death might have occurred. Finally, armed with the facts of Reeves' faltering career and disappointments, he seems to come to understand how suicide might be a reasonable explanation after all.

Hollywoodland is a faux film noir. It is preoccupied with its own sense of depression, moodiness, gloom, and corruption. Its premise is that in Hollywood only the strong survive, while the weak and ill-equipped are cannibalized, reviled, laughed at, and forgotten. This premise is not exactly novel. But Hollywoodland does a convincing job of exploring it by focusing on the specific characters of Reeves and Simo. Ultimately as a noir the film falters, for it leaves a glimmer of hope at the end for Brody.

A veneer of inauthenticity pervades the film. The setting is done up in what is probably more or less accurate 1950s Hollywood detail. The characters dress and act like people from the 50s. There is constant cigarette smoking—this little flourish, especially in Reeves' character (he smokes excessively) is supposed to mean a lot. But maybe the problem is that the clothes are too new and starched, the hairdos too perfect, the swagger and glamor of the characters too manufactured. Maybe the problem too is that my sense of Hollywood in the 50s comes from years of watching films that show in black and white what this one shows in color.

Affleck is excellent as George Reeves—an affable, hopeful, vacuous soul. Brody never struck me as an actor who could play a depressed, dissipated, sleazy private eye. But his performance as Louis Simo is Hollywoodland ’s darkly glowing heart.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2006) is a tribute film featuring songs by Leonard Cohen performed by an array of singers who are known in folk and alternative adult music circles but not in the pop music world. The most prominent performers featured are Linda Thompson (former wife of Richard Thompson), Nick Cave, and Rufus Wainwright. Their performances are interspersed with interviews with Cohen, commentaries by others (especially Bono), film clips, and photographs from Cohen’s career.

For the most part, the performances are strong and highlight Cohen’s brilliance as a lyricist in particular but also as an accomplished melodist. Some of the most effective performances are “The Traitor,” by Martha Wainwright; “If I Be Your Will” by the brilliant and strange Anthony of Anthony and the Johnsons; “Sisters of Mercy,” by Beth Orton; and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” about Cohen’s relationship with Janice Joplin, sung by Rufus Wainwright. I have admired this song for 35 years without knowing that it is about Joplin. Rufus Wainwright is especially good as an interpreter of Cohen’s songs. The musicians and singers are well rehearsed. The music is beautiful. My one complaint is that several of the singers kept looking down at a podium to read the words they are singing. This was a distraction. The weakest performances were by Nick Cave, who seemed mannered and distracted. The McGarrigle Sisters and Teddy Thompson were impressive. The film ends with Cohen himself performing “Tower of Song” with U2.

Cohen is a strange man who has lived long periods of his life in a Buddhist monastery and who portrays himself as a reticent and content iconoclast. The documentary portions of this film recall some of the 1965 film Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Leonard Cohen, filmed in Montreal while Cohen was an aspiring poet and before his career as a singer began. In that film, as this one, there is much insistence on his genius, his unique character, and his art. Both films use some of the same images and film clips to illustrate his life. I am not sure that Cohen is or ever has been a great poet. His poems are certainly interesting. I did believe that his songs are so unusual and specific to his voice that only he can perform them properly. This film proves me wrong on that point. But I’m Your Man in general seems to overreach in its claims for Cohen as a universal genius. One commentator (was he a member of U2?) characterizes Cohen as a man who has come down from the mountain with golden tablets of wisdom. This seems a bit much.

As much as I admire Cohen as a lyricist, singer, and songwriter, I suspect he is a distant and unapproachable man. He always seems—both in the music and in the two films from different parts of his life—self-consumed and preoccupied, not as an egomaniac, but rather as a man whose thoughts always turn inward, in the form of contemplation, self-scrutiny. This would make sense given his devotion to Buddhism and (I assume) meditation of some form. He is able in the calmest and most articulate ways to express his own ideas, but how difficult would it be to break through that wall of self-absorption to get him to listen to others? This would be a challenge.

The inwardness of Leonard Cohen comes out in the intelligent beauty of his lyrics, his quiet manner of singing, his romanticism.

Despite the hagiographic exaggeration (for which Cohen should be embarrassed), this is a fine film of its type.


Flyboys (2006) is about young American men who go to France in 1916 to train and fly with the Lafayette Escadrille. The movie reeks of DGI even in scenes where digital effects aren’t needed—in wheat fields, for instance. The only parts of the film where it seems to work are the aerial battle scenes. These scenes bring welcome respite in this over long film from the pervasive and predictable drudgery that otherwise prevails.

This is not a very original or creative film. It begins with brief scenes showing young Americans preparing to travel to France—one goes because the town sheriff tells him to get out of town; another goes because his rich father shames him into going; a third goes for the fun and glory, and so on. There’s a black American prize fighter in Paris who decides to enlist in the Escadrille out of gratitude to France for its kind treatment of him.

Once the boys arrive at training camp, the inevitable conflicts and challenges occur. They form friendships. One of them asks not to room with the black man but later becomes his friend. They meet the grizzled and bitter pilot who has lost all his friends in battle. They are told that the average life of an Escadrille pilot is six weeks. Two go up in a plane to practice flying and crash land in a field and then wake up in a whorehouse. One falls in love with a French farm girl. We know that as soon as they have their first taste of battle, they will start dying, one by one. Who will die and who will survive?

One of the boys, a devout Christian who prays before each mission, sings “Onward Christian Soldiers” at the top of his lungs as he shoots at Germans. His piety doesn’t help him in the end.

In a highly unlikely scene, one of the pilots crashes his plane in the no-man’s land between French and German trenches. The plane overturns and he is trapped underneath. His friend lands his plans somewhere nearby and runs through heavy fusillades of artillery and gunfire to rescue him, sawing off his hand to free him from the plane. They run for the French trench and live. Later in the film, the handless pilot fits himself with a hook and continues flying. My guess is that this film stretches or ignores the historical facts often.

Some of the air battle scenes look impossible, though they are apparently modeled on actual films of World War I aerial combat.

Aerial combat in World War I is a natural subject for film, especially given the possibilities that modern special effects provide for portraying spectacular air battles. It’s surprising no one has thought to make a film on the subject for decades. Flyboys is long enough and dull enough to ensure that no one will do so again for at least another several decades.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lady in the Water

The title Lady in the Water (2006) suggests the more allusive and poetic The Lady in the Lake, a Raymond Chandler novel as well as figure in Arthurian legend. But in the case of this film, the water is in a swimming pool with a hidden chamber that extends from its drainpipe deep into the ground.

To watch this film properly, you must accept that it has no connection to reality. It is not like M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier films, which toyed with the audience’s perceptions about what was real and what was not. In The Sixth Sense (1999) the character from whose viewpoint we see the entire film does not know that he is dead. In Unbreakable (2000), the main character does not realize he is a comic book super-hero. Our understanding of these stories depends on what these characters do and do not know, and how well we can read between the cinematic lines.

In his later films Shyamalan dispenses with these deceptive points of view. In Signs (2002) aliens really do invade the earth—no doubt about it. The film builds a semi-Christian set of metaphoric connections concerning love and family and loss of faith as a way of combating, after a certain fashion, those aliens who want to get into the house.

What The Village (2004) is about, frankly, I don’t know. It suggests Joseph McCarthy and Shirley Jackson and Rod Serling. It is a singularly lifeless film, though in it Shyamalan returns once again to his original ploy of toying with perceptions—our own in the audience, as well as those of the villagers.

Lady in the Water involves a number of characters, most especially a apartment complex custodian named Cleveland Heep, played by Paul Giamatti, and their gradual discovery that a mythic creature, a Narf, and not just any Narf, lives amongst them and has a destiny to fulfill, with their assistance. Names in the film have portentous significance. The Narf is named Story, and isn’t it surprising that a struggling writer who lives in the apartment building is suffering from writer’s block? The writer (played by Shyamalan) and Story are linked in a significant way, but so is Heep linked with Story, and with others.

Lady in the Water is a filmic comic book, and as a comic book one should experience it. Rules of logic are loosely applied. It has no link to the real world. It’s difficult to imagine the world of this film extending beyond the borders of the apartment complex. The people in it are flat, two-dimensional shapes, no ciphers or symbols, just flat characters in a flat story. A hidden story, unknown to the entire human race, but preserved in a children’s story that was told by a Japanese grandmother to her grandchildren, gradually becomes clear. (An short documentary on the DVD claims that this story is actually one that Shyamalan wrote and tells to his own children, and in fact his book of the same title for children has been published by Little Brown Young Readers.) If you take the film on these grounds, it is entertaining and it makes sense, though in the end the film lacks the skill and the artistry (or what we thought was artistry) in the earliest films by Shyamalan. There are the usual twists and turns in the plot of this film, but not very surprising ones.

Giamatti is effective in his part, though it lacks much depth. He is a medical doctor who has quit his practice following the deaths of his family several years in the past--just as Mel Gibson in Signs is the minister who has given up his calling after his wife’s death in an accident several years before. In Signs, the Gibson character recovers his sense of self and his faith and at the end of the film is, after a fashion, reborn. But Lady in the Water leaves us with the somewhat shocked and ashen face of Giamatti after the Narf meets her destiny. We assume he too is redeemed, able to cope in the real world and recover from the death of his family. But we don’t know that for sure. It’s difficult to imagine how he will go on, what life or reason for living is left to him. All we know is his numbed and shocked visage. And then the film ends.

But this is a comic book, after all.