Monday, May 28, 2007

Carmen Jones

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger in 1954, Carmen Jones was based on a 1943 Broadway musical that in turn was based on the Bizet opera Carmen. The cast is entirely African American; the setting has been moved to the United States and set during World War II, in or near an army training base and in Chicago. The first two-thirds of the film appear to take place in the American South, although the evidence for this is faint and subtle—one character says he does not want to return to working on a farm after the war, the setting is generally rural, with a few small towns. And the film is about African Americans—or at least it features an entirely African American cast.

One has to question why it was necessary to update Carmen. The film follows the plot of the opera loosely but relatively faithfully. The opera's matador becomes a prizefighter in the film. The military officer becomes a corporal in the army who has just been accepted to flight training school. Carmen in the film is much like Carmen from the opera—passionate, headstrong, flinging men this way and that once she is done with them. She works in a parachute factory rather than a tobacco warehouse. And the military officer is as much a foolish victim in the film as in the opera.

The film exchanges the setting of Spain for the setting of African America. Instead of passionate, impetuous Spaniards, we have impetuous, passionate African Americans.

The film doesn't explore any theme that could be identified as "Southern" or as "racial" or as "African American." Rather it takes a Bizet opera and updates it with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. The characters sing in a light African American dialect, but for the most part they could be singing the same songs that Shirley Jones sings in Oklahoma, or she could be singing them herself. That is, the performers bring nothing of themselves to the music, other than their talent.

The film was a genuine attempt to highlight African American talent—Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and others. It is a genuine attempt to celebrate and appreciate African American culture. But the film insists on accomplishing these admirable goals using definitions and conventions entirely imposed and defined by white American and European culture—the American musical, the European opera. Maybe part of the point is that music and opera are supposed to be universal languages through which anyone can express the universal emotions of love and jealousy and passion. Little that we associate with African American culture finds its way into the film—there is some wild dancing, some jazzy singing, but one senses that these are all permitted and defined and constrained by the white filmmakers.

World War II had a tremendous consequence for African Americans. Their role in the war provided support and justification for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s--how can you deny rights to people who fought and sacrificed in a national war effort. Joe himself, as we are told, has been accepted into flight school—a landmark achievement for an African American in World War II. Yet by showing how he throws away this opportunity by giving up everything to chase after Carmen, the film seems to argue that blacks are, after all, too unreliable and irresponsible to fly planes in the war effort. Since the Broadway play premiered in 1943, one can understand why it showed no awareness of the significance of World War II for African American citizens, but no such excuse can be made for the 1954 film. Evidence of what the war meant was already available and apparent, but the film exists in a social vacuum as far as such issues go.

By limiting the world of the film entirely to African Americans, so that whites or other ethnic categories play no role, Preminger avoids all the sticky and complicated issues of race. The civil rights movement was about to burst forth in America in 1954, the year of the Brown vs. the Kansas Board of Education decision, and clearly much tension was in the air. Preminger avoids the tension by simply omitting any concern with relations between different races. His focus on a single group of people, allows him to appear to be taking sides with an oppressed group without really taking a stand. Thus he offends no significant portion of the audience and even receives praise for his liberal mindedness. During the 50s, such evasive stands of liberal broadmindedness were not uncommon in film.

The film certainly invokes its share of stereotypes and racial characteristics. Pearl Bailey sings at one point of tom-toms ("Beat Out dat Rhythm on a Drum"). Song lyrics are littered with "dese" and "dats." A woman speaks disdainfully of how a man smells. But the film's treatment of sexuality and moral license is a major way in which it makes racial assumptions. Are there any other Rogers and Hammerstein films in which a scene begins by showing a man in an under-shirt fastening his trousers—the clear statement here is that the man and a woman have just had sex—there's no doubt about it. In Chicago, Carmen and Joe share a one-room apartment in which the bed is the center of the room. Though they are not married, the clear implication is that the bed is the center of much activity. Dorothy Dandridge parades around in bra and underwear in one scene. Three women are enticed to accompany a group of men to Chicago in return for promises of diamonds, minks, and a good time. You wouldn't see such details in a predominantly white film, especially one with lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein. The assumption here is that African Americans are passionate, sexually free, and open folks who don't see moral compunctions as a hindrance to sexual expression. Perhaps Preminger thought that using an all African American cast would allow him to present Carmen as he really thought it should be produced and at the same time pay tribute to African American talents and culture. In retrospect, certainly from the vantage point of 53 years later, the decision to make this film seems to have been a bad one.

This is supposed to be the way of black people, right—sexual libertinism. Sex between whites was verboten on screen in the 1950s. A predominantly white audience would be offended by open sexuality among white actors on screen, but by black actors it is more acceptable because that is what white audiences and filmmakers expect of blacks.

Carmen Jones occupies the same territory as Porgy and Bess (1959), The Green Pastures (1936), and Cabin in the Sky (1943), which use all-black casts to celebrate (and satirize and ridicule) black culture without really seeking to explore or understand it. It's tempting to view these films as Margaret-Mead type anthropological explorations of primitive culture. In celebrating the free passions of African Americans in 1954, Carmen Jones is really trying to make its mostly white audience happy for their more upright whiteness.

In general the African Americans in the film provide a vehicle for updating a story of love and passion in a way that wouldn't have been possible for a film populated mainly by whites. I wonder how comfortable Dandridge and Belafonte and Bailey felt in these roles. For the most part the scenes and dancing are competent and entertaining but executed with little excitement or passion—an irony in a film based on an opera about love and passion.



Recently released on DVD, Wanda (1971) is the only film directed by Barbara Loden, wife of director Elia Kazan. A review extolled the film's realism and called it a forgotten American classic. On the basis of this praise, I bought and watched the film. It is an experiment in realism that deliberately flattens any evidence of style or perspective. It follows the experiences of a young woman (played by Loden) whose life is falling apart. Her name is Wanda. She is separated and then divorced from her husband, is unemployed, gives up her children to her husband with nary a complaint, and turns tricks when she needs income. She comes across in the film as profoundly depressed, if not worse, and the film's method is to take every opportunity to focus on that depression. In one scene the camera follows Wanda from a great distance as she walks through what appears to be a strip mining area. (She is on her way to ask her father or grandfather for money). Without apparent edits, the camera follows the small figure of Wanda for much longer than one would anticipate, until the effect becomes uncomfortable if not irritating. The result is a sense of the ennui and despair that this woman feels. Stylistically, the film seems amateurish, though apparently this was Loden's intention.

Loden's acting style complements the style of the film. She rarely shows any expression or emotion. Usually her face seems frozen in a paralyzed rictus. Only as she becomes involved with a supposedly notorious bank robber and finds herself given a purpose does she show expression. Others in the film seem to have been pulled off the streets, chosen for their complete ordinariness. When the bank robber (known in the film only as Mr. Dennis) takes a banker's family hostage, his wife and two daughters look as if they have just escaped from a Laundromat or bowling alley.

Loden's method of direction seems to be to give her actors a general sense of what she wants them to do and then to have them improvise. Nothing seems deliberately scripted or determined. In a strange sense the film seems not to care about itself, to suffer from the same despair and ennui as its main character.

The bank robber Mr. Dennis dresses in business clothes and initially treats Wanda with cruelty and contempt. Only gradually does he seem to come to like her. He shows few of the stereotypical characteristics one would associate with a ruthless criminal. He is more reminiscent of a sit-com dad from the 1950s, with a smidgen of Peter Parker's editor thrown in for good measure, than he is a lowdown criminal. He enjoys reading accounts of his exploits in the newspaper. He seethes with constant exasperation. He is always on the lookout for the police. He seems to choose his targets at random, though the climactic bank robbery he plans out with some care. (It is climactic only in comparison to the rest of the film and is presented with the same indifference and lack of tension as every other scene). Mr. Dennis speaks with a heavy Wisconsin type of accent, and it is difficult to place the film geographically. Given the strip mines and the banjo music at the end of the film, it must be placed somewhere in northern Appalachia.

Wanda is completely flat, so much so that you long for it to end. It shows us a woman completely a victim of environment and circumstance. She takes the one opportunity she finds to escape, to find some purpose or meaning for her life, and when it fails she sinks back into the same wallow of despair in which the film began.

Is this film a landmark, an influential but forgotten classic? These are big claims for a film that struggles so incessantly to minimize and deaden its subject. Yet in the final scene, with its emphasis on Wanda's once again expressionless and empty face, the film offers one of the darkest cinematic conclusions imaginable. It is an early feminist film and, obviously, a film made by a woman director in a time when there were virtually no women directors at work anywhere.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, by David Lindley

Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, by David Lindley (Doubleday, 2007), is as much a history as an explanation. It recounts events and individuals involved in the discovery of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics, known otherwise as the Heisenberg principle. The book is a relatively short (some 240 pages) and cogent narrative of the history of physics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mainly from around 1820 to 1935. It illustrates the collaborative nature of science, especially of physics, and how major discoveries are usually the result of contributions over time by many individuals, with one or two leading figures providing the key insights that bring clarity to a particular issue. In this regard the book is similar to the much longer, more complicated, but still excellent Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy, by physicist Kip Thorne.

Uncertainty primarily concerns the development of quantum physics and more specifically of the uncertainty principle. This principle made clear the true nature of the quantum world and its distinctiveness from the world of Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics holds that the universe must function according to strict laws and principles that enable scientists to predict with precision the movements and behaviors of objects as small as atoms and as large as planets, stars, and galaxies. Quantum physics, informed by the uncertainty principle, views the universe as subject at a subatomic level to a certain unpredictability. The behavior of subatomic particles becomes a matter of statistical probability, not of exact behavior and measurement. Certain seemingly impossible and paradoxical principles come into play. For instance, science can measure the velocity of a photon but not its exact location. Or, science can measure the location of a photon but not its velocity. Newtonian physics would argue that it should be possible to measure both, while quantum physics argues that it is impossible to measure both. There are other aspects of unpredictability: for instance, science can explain the process of radioactivity, how an atom splits and emits particles that are detected as radiation. However, it cannot predict when a particular atom will split or why it splits at a particular moment. This apparent randomness and unpredictability are characteristics of the quantum world.

Some predicted that science would end when Heisenberg and others defined a principle that described the limitations of science's ability to measure and define precisely certain basic phenomena. Einstein in particular was deeply bothered and could never accept uncertainty, though he could see the sense of it. One of the purposes of this book is to show how the Heisenberg principle did not bring an end to science at all.

Uncertainty also discusses the lives and contributions of a number of mainly German scientists in the first three decades of the 20th century. Lindley is especially interested in these men as individuals, often very different individuals, of various political and religious and cultural persuasions, who argued over and ultimately contributed to the discovery of the Heisenberg principle. The three main players according to Lindley were Neils Bohr (not a German but a Dane), Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg, from southern Germany. (Lindley discusses many others as well). Einstein was renowned as the genius whose special and general theories of relativity changed modern concepts of the universe, and whose theory that light could be described as tiny packets of energy (quanta) was crucial to the development of quantum theory. Even so, Einstein in this book becomes the conservative elder doubter who believes that classical physics—its ability to predict with utter precision how the world must operate—must not be undermined by a theory holding that at a certain level there is no precision or certainty. Neils Bohr is the elder pontifical theorist, the philosophizing egoist, who eschews mathematical calculations for insights and enigmatic pronouncements couched in such difficult and obtuse language that few really understand them. Heisenberg is the quiet genius whom many are suspicious of but whose insights and mathematical skills allow him to discover and understand the uncertainty principle. Bohr and Heisenberg argue over the meaning and nature of uncertainty, and it is Bohr who finally provides the vocabulary through which the world has come to understand the principle. But it is Heisenberg who emerges from the book as the great genius and visionary. Lindley describes the scientists in his narrative with great effect—he presents them as characters in a fascinating story, as human personalities, and the result is a deeper appreciation of the interests and issues that engaged them than discussions of the physical concepts alone would have allowed.

The great drama of this book comes in the description of the "insight" that leads Heisenberg to the understanding of uncertainty, and the months-long arguments and debates that he and Bohr held about the principle, debates that began in friendship but ended with a personal distance that never closed. Moreover, Einstein made a number of attempts in the 1920s and 1930s to refute the uncertainty principle, but never succeeded. To the end of his life he refused to accept it and increasingly spoke of it in terms that seemed almost theological. He could not believe that "God" or "the Old One" would create a universe that was not entirely predictable. It is ironic that one of the great revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century is left an increasingly irrelevant bystander in the development of quantum theory, whose validity experiments and observations continue to confirm to this day. Great genius that he was, Einstein had his limitations.

Lindley presents all of these men as flawed, human, diverse, and interesting—some are conservative, some verge on Marxism, many left Germany when Hitler came to power (Heisenberg did not), some were womanizers, others were conservative, upright men, some were outspoken and others were reticent. All were participants in one of the great periods of scientific discovery in modern history.

In later chapters, Lindley explains the significance of the uncertainty principle to modern science—scientists use it routinely in their research, even if they don't wholly understand it. Science, that is, did not end as a result of uncertainty, as some feared. He also argues that the popularity of modern cultural, philosophical, and literary theories that depend on the notion of uncertainty, randomness, and unpredictability really have no real connection to Heisenberg's principle, other than the fact that it helped popularize the notion of uncertainty in the 20th century. Heisenberg provided a metaphor for these theorists, nothing more. (I especially enjoyed Lindley's discussion of British novelist's D. H. Lawrence's reaction to uncertainty and to modern science in general). Lindley also refutes the argument that the willingness of German scientists to accept a theory of uncertainty was their unconscious reaction to the unsettlement and change rampant in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. Uncertainty was a principle developed as a result of mathematics, scientific inquiry, and thought, not as the result of cultural influences.

David Lindley's Uncertainty provides a clear, accessible, and highly readable account of how quantum physics developed, of the uncertainty principle, and of the various scientists who were part of its discovery.

Originally published at Blogcritics,

Monday, May 14, 2007

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries is a collection of columns written for Natural History magazine between 1995 and 2005 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who hosted the PBS series Origins and who directs the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Writing for an intelligent but general audience, Tyson explains in clear, lucid prose various physical and astronomical principles. He has a particular ability to explain difficult ideas. His explanation of the special theory of relativity is especially good. The most impressive aspect of the book, in terms of lucidness, comes when Tyson explains the crucial role of supernovas in the creation of heavy metals and other molecules that play an essential role in the creation of life. Although I had understood that clouds of interstellar molecules gradually coalesced into heavier molecules and later into stars and their planets, Tyson makes clear the link between the cooling temperature of the interstellar clouds and the clumping of atoms into heavier elements.

The book's title comes from a chapter in which Tyson explains what would happen if the reader fell into a black hole—he discusses black holes large and small—and in the fanciful process of doing so manages to explain the essential nature and physics of the black hole phenomenon.

Tyson recounts in a chapter entitled "Footprints in the Sands of Science" how the cutting edge in science over the decades and centuries has moved from one county to another, from England and Germany in the 20th century to the United States. He argues that the unwillingness of the U. S. government to complete funding for the particle collider that would have been located in Texas allowed the United States to lose its leadership in particle physics. One could make a similar argument about U. S. prohibitions against stem cell research and cloning, which have allowed countries such as Korea and Great Britain and other nations to take the lead in that area. Clearly this issue bothers Tyson (and many other scientists).

Like many scientists, Tyson is interested in the relationship of religion and science. Although he accepts the role of religion in providing moral principles by which to live, he does not accept the role of religion—or the existence of a Deity—as necessary for any explanation of how the Universe came to be. God is necessary, he suggests, only when there is no other rational, scientific explanation for natural phenomenon. Gradually, he suggests, as the ability of science to provide rational explanations expands, the need for supernatural explanation—the need for God--will disappear.

Tyson sees science and God as antithetical. I am not a believer. But I have never understood why many scientists insist that science and God are contradictory. If God did exist, science would simply be how He/She/It makes the universe work. Science is God's language. Some scientists go to great lengths to point out physical principles that make God's existence unnecessary or an afterlife impossible. If God did exist, at least a God in the Judaeo-Christian sense, He/She/It would exist outside the realm of space and time—not subject to physical principles or laws, but the creator of them.

The science/religion conflict is damaging to science and damaging to our educational system's attempts to educate citizens. It is bad enough that small-minded religious authorities insist on the rivalry of science and religion and try to prevent the teaching of such well accepted concepts as evolution and the big bang in schools. It is equally bad that scientists must participate in the argument. They really have no choice, of course. Constantly under attack, dependent on funds from a government that threatens to withhold funding or to enact restrictive legislation as soon as the religious right threatens to withhold votes, scientists have to participate in the argument in order to survive. Nonetheless, it is a damaging argument.

Let religious people believe what they want. Let science continue to explore and explain the universe. Let teachers of science teach the discoveries of science without restraint of any sort from preachers, parents, and politicians.

Tyson exposes his irritation with science illiteracy in several discussions of scientific errors in films. He believes that filmmakers and even the actors who appear in them are responsible for conveying accurate science to the audience. In an interesting anecdote, He discusses how he once explained to director James Cameron an inaccurate depiction of the night sky in the film Titanic. Tyson thought Cameron seemed irritated after his explanation of the error in the film but learned later that the director had corrected the error in a DVD version of the film.

Tyson is an affable narrator and essayist willing to go to whatever lengths to make difficult concepts clear. Like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Timothy Ferris, and others, he carries the importance of science to the general reader.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

Sheba Hart is a new art teacher at a private school in London. She has an affair with a fifteen-year-old student and is discovered in the act by an older teacher, Barbara Covett, who has befriended her. Covett, it appears, is interested in Hart, and she uses her knowledge of the affair to manipulate and pressure the younger teacher into a closer relationship. This is a form of extortion, of blackmail, and it is what this film is about.

Notes on a Scandal (2006) is an intense British melodrama based on a novel by Zoe Heller. The interest in the film comes from its study of the characters of Sheba and Barbara. Dench and Blanchett are excellent actors, and it is difficult to think of a film in which either has been better. Dench is a physical actor whose use of facial mannerisms, expressions, twitches, twinges becomes its own language. Her eyes alone speak millions of words—they practically allow us to read her thoughts. Blanchett acts through more conventional but nonetheless effective means. Hers is the more conflicted character, though it is easier to understand her than the character played by Dench.

In the film, Sheba is married to an older man, a former teacher whom she married when she was around twenty. Her husband later links this fact to her affair with the student, as if she is in some way responding to the initial circumstances of their marriage by replicating them. Theirs is a marriage in crises—of boredom, ennui—long before the affair with the student begins, and indeed her desire for release, for return to her younger days, may be the catalyst that leads to the affair. Sheba has two children—a disaffected adolescent daughter and a boy of around twelve, afflicted with Down's Syndrome. They are two of the victims of the mess the film portrays. But the affair with a student, the marriage in crisis, the wounded son and daughter, are not really the film's subject, though they do draw our attention.

Barbara Covett is an old-fashioned, high-toned high school teacher who is a year from retirement. When she first befriends Sheba, it all seems innocent enough. She is the older, more experienced teacher who breaks up a fight that Sheba is incapable of stopping. She gives advice to Sheba about how to handle students. At first Barbara behaves in a motherly way to Sheba. Gradually it becomes clear that she is interested in a different kind of relationship.

The film suggests that Barbara is a lesbian who insinuates herself into the lives of younger women whom she is attracted to. She writes about her infatuations and attractions in her diary—where the notes of the title are recorded. Her diary is the record of an imagined fantasy life where she describes what she plans to do, comments on her plans, speculates about the future. It would be simple enough if Barbara announced her interests to the woman whom she is attracted to. Then the younger woman could either accept or reject her, and the narrative would develop accordingly. But this she does not do. Instead by subtle insinuations she manipulates the situation, causing serious damage to the lives of the women who interest her. When Sheba makes clear she is not interested in a life with Barbara, by indirect means the older woman spreads the news of the affair with the student. As a result Sheba is arrested, loses her job, and is thrown out by her husband. Ultimately, the principal learns that Barbara knew of the affair but did nothing about it, and she is fired too.

Barbara presents herself as (and believes herself to be) a person of upright probity. She is outraged by Sheba's affair with the student and demands that the relationship end immediately. Yet she also uses her knowledge of the relationship, and her promise to Sheba that she will reveal it to no one, as a way to bring the younger woman closer. She plots to destroy Sheba's marriage, just as she plotted to destroy the marriage of an earlier love interest. (That woman, we learn, took out a restraining order against Barbara). Barbara writes in her diary of the life she plans to have with Sheba, who comes to stay with her after her husband forces her to leave their home. Barbara seems wholly unaware of, or indifferent to, the contradictions in her character and behavior.

Does this film demonize lesbians as obsessive, evil, plotting stalkers? (Basic Instinct may be a distant relative). On the one hand it's possible to see Barbara as an individual, not as a stereotype. Sheba herself calls Barbara a vampire, and there is truth to the charge, for Barbara sucks the lifeblood, metaphorically, out of those younger women who interest her. At the end of the film, Barbara meets another young woman in a park and begins a conversation. The cycle seems to begin again.

On the other hand, casual viewers will probably not make these distinctions and may see Barbara as representative of a larger group of women. To these viewers Barbara confirms everything they already believe about lesbians. She is the corrupt older woman, preying on the life of the younger woman she is attracted to, plotting to destroy her marriage, unconcerned with the children she is injuring. Barbara to them is a threat to marriage and morality.

This is a consummately acted film. The characterizations are excellent, and the acting is consistently good, from major characters to minor ones. But this is a confused film too—about an older woman who exploits a younger woman who in turn is exploiting the boy she is sleeping. By titillating us with a student-teacher love affair and a ruthless, destructive older woman willing to do anything to get the woman she loves, it avoids any real issue, even that of the exploited student—he breaks off the relationship with his teacher—he says that he cannot do anything to help her, now that the scandal has come out. As if, after all, Sheba is the victim. She is a victim, but she is also a victimizer, as is the woman who victimizes her. The film cannot make sense of this. It invites us to stare and gawk at the disaster that ensues.

What is the point of this film, other than scandalizing our sensibilities?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Field of Dreams

Contradictions afflict Field of Dreams (1989). The writer Terrence Mann stands in that fabled baseball field and intones about the wonders of American baseball, assuring the farmer Ray Kinsella, who built the field, that people will come to see it: "People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh . . . people will come Ray. People will most definitely come." Terrence, of course, is African American, and his mournful recollection of "all that was once good and . . . could be again" simply doesn't make sense to me. At the very same moment he makes this speech, he is surrounded by white baseball players from an era when he wouldn't have been allowed on the field. More than that, they're all standing in a baseball field surrounded by miles of corn (cornfield in the middle of Iowa, a home of the Aryan brotherhood). Should these issues bother me?

I always find the film moving (above and beyond the fact that it's a moving picture) because of the father-son theme, the focus on having a chance at recovering lost dreams or fixing past mistakes. I resent the way it compels my emotional reactions. All of us would love to recall the past, say things to those we loved that we never said, undo mistakes, take back intended or unintended injuries—the film exploits this desire. It makes us weep over impossibilities, and in this I find it incredibly dishonest.

The film is open enough about the fact that it is a fantasy: it is Field of Dreams, after all. It is in some way supposed to be a film about the 60s—the writer Mann was an iconic hero of that decade, and Ray and his wife Annie apparently met then—they both idolized Mann. They have come to a point in their lives when they need to recover purpose and hope, so building a baseball field in the middle of the cornfield they rely on to keep their farm afloat, and chasing down the highway for a long lost writer, is how they regain their directions. The same holds true for Mann, embittered and cynical, who needs to regain the passion that made him a great writer. And finally there is Moonlight Graham, played effectively by Burt Lancaster, who played one inning in baseball and never got a chance at bat. And of course the Chicago Black Sox themselves, who want another chance to play baseball, the film's ultimate dream, symbolic of the lost hope and chances that this film pretends can be recovered. Just for the record: the 60s are far better as an idealized memory than as a reality. I'd rather remember them then return to them.

I hated the film What Dreams May Come (1998), a DGI recreation of heaven that covers some of the same turf as this film. What Dreams May Come shows an afterlife where we can reunite with dead family members and undo our mistakes, where all our bad decisions and misbehavior in this world of sin and pain don't really matter. Field of Dreams is more imaginative, more interesting, and it does offer characters we can care about. But ultimately it offers the same lie.

Monday, May 07, 2007


Focusing on a small town in the Colorado Rockies called Radiator Springs, Cars (2006) taps into American nostalgia for a lost, pre-interstate past. Once a thriving town on Route 66, where every cross-country tourist stopped for a meal or a stay at a hotel, Radiator Springs was left high and dry when Interstate 40 opened. Everyone is in a hurry to arrive at their destinations, so they bypass the mountain roads that lead to Radiator Springs and instead take the interstate. The once thriving town is left to languish in isolation. The notion here is that modern times of interstates and high speeds come at the price of traditional values and a slower, more fulfilling pace of life—the kind of nostalgia that so appealed to Americans during the Reagan years. Part of the point of the film is to bemoan the loss of those traditional values and so-called better times. The film also builds on the fundamental American fascination with automobiles, highways, travel, and the American Dream. What would Carlo Marx from On the Road make of this film: "Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?"

Cars is a Disney/Pixar film. The animation is impressive. It creates the illusion that what you are watching is not an animated film but instead a film of an animated world. That said, as good as the animation is, technically, the film does not take much advantage of it and instead is fairly conventional. The characters and the plot are the typical Disney fare. There is a romance, an array of comic ethnic characters, some lessons in character building and American values, a lot of fast action, and a farting tow truck. What more could one ask?

Ethnic and cultural stereotypes abound in this film: an Italian tire salesman, a hippie from the 60s, a right-wing veteran, a Mexican, a redneck, an African American, and so on. The fact that there are no humans in the film, that all the characters are cars, does not camouflage the stereotypes. Another familiar pattern is of the old athlete who longs to return to his sport for one last fling. Finally there is the hero of the film, basically decent but self-absorbed and in need of value adjustment. We've seen him before too.

In the film, a famous race car, Lightening McQueen, is on his way to California to race in the final competition of the season, where he has a chance at the championship. He finds himself in Radiator Springs and is arrested for various acts of unintended mayhem. He is sentenced to repair the decaying road that runs through the town, and he makes friends with the various residents. His crew discovers him and takes him on to California to compete in the final race. Will he win? Will he put the lessons he learned in Radiator Springs to work? Will he leave his new friends behind? If you have seen many of these animated Disney/Pixar films, you can predict how things will turn out.

This is an entertaining film. The characters are voiced by various well known actors, such as Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, George Carlin, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Larry the Cable Guy, and so on. They give individual identities to the various characters. To a limited extent the characters and the animation make up for the predictable plot.

Despite its entertainment value, the film as a whole is hollow: no vision, no comprehension, no real imagination.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Neil Young—Heart of Gold

Jonathan Demme' film Neil Young--Heart of Gold (2005) is one of the best concert fields I have seen. One reason is that it makes no claims for itself or its subject. It begins with little exposition. We see people arriving at a concert, and the concert commences. The film spends little time dwelling on the rapt faces of people in the audience. The focus is almost entirely on the stage and the music, on Neil Young. That is another reason for the success of the film—it documents a concert, and the concert is excellent. Finally, the subject of this film, Neil Young, is at his best in this film as he sings songs from two of the richest periods of his career—the early 1970s and the 2000s. The band that backs him up is well suited for the task, and a few well chosen guests, such as Emmy Lou Harris, are appropriate to the occasion. The sound quality and camera work are highly effective.

Most of the songs Young sings in this film come from his 2005 album Prairie Wind, with a selection of songs from the early 1970s album Harvest. These are two of the best albums he has recorded. Young sings nearly as well in 2005 as he did in 1972.

There is a winsome poignancy to this concert that stems from the fact that it was filmed shortly after Young suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. This encounter with mortality deeply influenced the songs on Prairie Wind, many of which contemplate the passage of time, the loss of friends and relatives, the nature of one's transient existence.

Young is a fine song writer—this is something I've not really noticed, though I've enjoyed his music for thirty-five years. He is a deeply introspective writer without being self-absorbed, and his lyrics are often emotional and poetic. Of course, his recent album Living With War makes clear that he remains fiercely political .

Two recent albums of early 1970s concerts by Young—Live at Massey Hall and Live at the Fillmore East--are shockingly good. They remind us of what a remarkable musician and song writer Neil Young has been, and continues to be.

Glorious Failures: The Mountaineers Anthology Series, v. 1

This series of excerpts from books and articles about mountaineering records some of the most famous or notorious mountain climbing “failures” of the 20th-century. Most of the pieces are written by the climbers themselves, a few by journalists. The writing is generally sound, but not often very literary. Instead I would say that the focus is technical more than anything else, and the intended readers of these pieces are other climbers. Rarely do we receive descriptions of glorious vistas and mountainscapes. Nor do we read how climbers take stock of themselves, contemplate their situations, their mortality, when they find themselves in tight spots. Instead we receive accounts of climbing skills and strategies, of what goes wrong, of problems with supplies, of relationships with fellow climbers, of mundane particulars, and so on. I suppose the reason is that in life-threatening situations one does not have the time to be philosophical and instead must focus on surviving. One of my favorite entries involved two climbers stuck for days on end in a tent on a high mountain in the Himalayas, waiting for the weather to clear. They irritate and drive each other to distraction, like a bickering married couple. Many if not most of these accounts center on climbing expeditions in the Himalayas, on such peaks as K2, Annapurna, and Everest. Many of the climbers are British and American, some European, especially Germans. Readers familiar with mountaineering lore would recognize many of the names mentioned in these pieces—they are among the most famous mountain climbers of modern times, though I recognized only Mallory’s name—I am not a mountain climber nor a fan thereof. Most of the failures involve men in extreme situations at high altitudes that very few people ever experience—hence the title glorious failures.

The most famous climber chronicled in these excerpts is George Mallory, who disappeared with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine at 26,000 feet on Mount Everest in 1924. One of the final accounts in the volume describes the discovery of Mallory’s body on a climbing expedition in 1999.

This book was entertaining and instructive, partially because of the novelty—the exposure to a subject about which I have little knowledge (though as a boy I was fascinated with Mallory’s disappearance)—and partially also because these pieces are written from the viewpoints of climbers, so that you learn about what matters to them, of how they think an respond in perilous situations.

If I had to offer one sentence that summed up the essence of this book, it would go like this: “Lars leaned backwards and fell three thousand feet to his death, taking the rope and the last of the crampons with him.”

Friday, May 04, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower

Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) is directed by Yimou Zhang, who also directed Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). It is similar to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Those preceding films used cinematography, music, and Chinese legend in the same way a poet uses language. They were compelling and beautiful works. You could sense the traditions they were working in even if you could not define or understand them. Visually, Curse of the Golden Flower is an impressive film. The interior sets of the imperial palace change from scene to scene, and it's possible just to watch the colors and the visual imagery in this film without thinking about the characters or the plot. There are rich and intricate color combinations never seen in American or European films. The sets, the beautiful tapestries and costumes, the music—these are all part of the spectacle, and spectacle in this film becomes a substitute for the subtlety and the nuances of Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Those films were romantic histories with interesting characters. Curse of the Golden Flower is like an overblown King Lear—cold, severe, sometimes wooden. King Lear earns its place as a great play through stunning language and compelling characters. Does Golden Flowers offer the same?

The basic plot involves the emperor, his consort, and their three sons, one of whom was borne by another woman long ago banished. Out of jealousy, she has returned for revenge. Her son, out of ambition, plots to overthrow his father. Another son loves the daughter of the court doctor, whose wife lives in a far away village. A third son is the youngest—overlooked and secretly jealous. The Emperor forces his wife to take a special medicine every two hours. She is periodically afflicted by mysterious seizures of some sort—they seem to be getting worse. By the end of the film, only the emperor and his consort remain, and she is insane or headed in that direction. These characters are bound up and inter-related in ways barely hinted at here. The revelation of these relationships is bound up with the many turns of plot.

Excess is the hallmark of this film—an excess of color, of costume, of intrigue, of violence, of grief, and ambition. Impossible situations abound, though usually there is some way out of them. In several scenes, we see soldiers who have massed to invade the palace and overthrow the emperor. It is not enough that there must be several hundred or a thousand of them—no, there are thousands on thousands. They fill the screen, shouting and stamping their feet on the ground, moving fiercely towards their chosen victim. Zhang claimed he hired a thousand extras to film these scenes, and if that is the case, he must have relied on digital effects to increase their numbers. This is the kind of overwhelming excess that is meant to divert your attention from more important elements missing from the film. It is the kind of excess too often seen in Western films, and from which Zhang's earlier films—as spectacular as they could be--were such a relief.

Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li are excellent in their roles as the Emperor and his consort, though Yun-Fat's role allows him little opportunity for acting outside of a narrow range of bombast and authoritarian gestures. Gong-Li vacillates between being the suffering victim of her tyrannical husband and a scheming betrayer. Basic and fundamental inconsistencies in how characters behave and think are fundamental weaknesses in the film as a whole, which tends to meander rather than move in any particular narrative direction. When it does arrive at a conclusion, you don't care. You're exhausted, and the film does not repay your efforts.

Curse of the Golden Flower attempts to compensate for a turgid revenge plot with an excess of spectacle. Assaulted by it, you forget, or overlook, the absence of the finely drawn characters and romance and legend that made Hero and House of Flying Daggers remarkably better films.

The Queen

The Queen (2006) dramatizes a domestic and political conflict within the British Royal family and government during the days following the death of Princess Diana. Tony Blaire has just been elected to the position of Prime Minister from the Labor party. His politics are progressive and his staff talks a lot about modernization and revolution and ending the monarchy. The Royal Family is as dour and out of touch as ever. The isolation in which they live may be self-willed, but it is a source of their incomprehension about modern England and its people. Elizabeth at one point assures Tony Blair that no one understands the British people as well as she does, but the film is her lesson in the realities that she does not understand.

The basic conflict concerns how the Royal Family should react to Diana's death. Elizabeth announces that her family will make no public statements about the death and that there will be a private funeral—she assures Tony Blair that this is what Diana's family wants. Privately, Elizabeth and her kin see Diana's death as another way their former in-law has embarrassed and inconvenienced them. They make no public announcements, stay at their estate to the north of London, and seem wholly unaware of the national waves of mourning that occur in response to Diana's passing. Elizabeth believes the British people will quickly quiet down and mourn for a few weeks in private. She is shocked when she discovers that her family's lack of a response has angered the British people. She realizes that she has become an object of hatred. Tony Blair is not a supporter of the monarchy, but over the course of the week leading to Diana's funeral he finds himself in the position of having to be concerned for the Royal Family's welfare and even for the monarchy's survival.

Gradually Blair and Elizabeth forge a cautious alliance. By speaking for the grief of the British people, Blair makes the statements that the people want to hear and enhances his popularity as the new prime minister. The film leaves ambiguous the issue of whether he knows that his statements are strengthening his own political position, or whether he is consciously seizing the moment to improve his own political position. Even his wife is surprised by his sympathy for the royals. Gradually, through repeated phone calls to Elizabeth, he convinces her that the lack of response from the royal family is damaging the monarchy. This is what convinces Elizabeth—her dawning awareness that times have changed, that things are not as she thought they were in Britain, that the people of England may well hate her, and that she must take steps to protect the monarchy. What she does is clearly motivated by self-interest and a desire to preserve her political position, though at the same time she acts out of genuine concern for the monarchy and for her country. We are told that she believes her position as Queen is the result of divine will. She takes her position seriously. At one point, while she is trailing her husband and grandsons, who are out hunting, the truck she is driving breaks down in the middle of a shallow stream and she waits to be rescued. She sees the huge stag that her husband and grandsons are tracking. It is a beautiful and impressive animal, and from her reaction it is clear that she sees the animal, in a sense, as a symbol of herself, of the monarchy, hunted and besieged.

The Royal Family has plenty of internal conflict. Prince Philip is basically a blubbering and flummoxed loose appendage. He reacts with outrage to everything that happens. To console his grandsons in the days after their mother's death, he takes them hunting. The doddering Queen Mother is a royal version of Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith Show. Only Charles appears to have some sense of the modern world, yet he seems fearful of his mother, sometimes expressing his opinions to her but never trying to convince her to change her mind. His ways of handling matters are indirect: when he wants to tell Tony Blair that he agrees with his point of view, he does so through an intermediary. When he wants to upbraid his mother for her lack of parenting skills, he does so by telling her what a good mother Diana was (Elizabeth does get the point). Even though Charles thinks his family should travel to London to pay respects to Diana and talk to the mourning crowds, his lack of will prevents him from going until Elizabeth approves the idea. Her misapprehensions about England and its people appear to be a crucial factor in her decision late in the film to take the advice of Tony Blair.

Blair, in his most important call to Elizabeth, tells her that he feels it his constitutional responsibility to inform her that her actions (or lack thereof) have endangered the monarchy.

As a result of the events dramatized in the film, Blair comes to a new respect for the monarchy, while Elizabeth comes to a begrudging recognition of how she must function in a government that is, despite its royal family, democratic in form. The film argues for the monarchy without making clear its importance or value, though it also argues for a monarchy that is part of rather than separate from the modern world.

The Queen is a political domestic melodrama, though the stakes are greater than they usually prove to be in such films. It is also a character study, of the Royal Family in general, but of Elizabeth in particular, and of Tony Blair to a lesser extent. Helen Mirren is excellent in her role as Elizabeth. Other actors portraying various members of the Royal Family are effective too, but Mirren stands out. The casting agent deserves praise for finding actors fwho resemble in a general way the members of the Royal Family without possessing their remarkable ugliness. Michael Sheen is effective as Tony Blair, though somewhat more sallow and seedy than Blair. Stephen Frears, who in The Grifters and Hero reflected a fundamental pessimism about human nature, shows a nuanced talent for bringing out the essential elements of his characters. His greatest achievement may have been in allowing Helen Mirren to develop her role. She makes Elizabeth into a far more interesting and intelligent character than her public image suggests that she really is, and in this Mirren may have done the Queen a favor that she deserved, or did not deserve. Who knows?

Who knows what Elizabeth thought of this film, or even if she ever saw it, but for the 97 minutes that comprise this film Mirren fully and convincingly occupies her character in such a way that you forget Helen Mirren is there.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Flags of our Fathers

Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers (2006) is conventional in form but innovative in its treatment of its subject. This may be one reason why conservative critics criticized the film. The title refers both to the flags that were raised on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during the United States invasion of the island in World War II, and to the confusion surrounding the identity of the soldiers who did and did not raise the flags. The "fathers" are our own fathers, those fathers who fought in the war and who raised the flags—the fathers who made our modern lives possible, and to whom we owe enormous gratitude. The film is told from the present time viewpoint of a son whose father, one of the flag raisers, is dying. The son wants to know more about his father's involvement in the flag raising, so he investigates and talks to others who took part. This frame is an awkward contrivance (we saw something similar in the less ambitious Saving Private Ryan) but it works well enough. In fact, the frame is the result of the 2000 book Flags of Our Fathers by New York Times journalist James Bradley, about the men involved in the flag raising. One of those men was Bradley's father John. A character based on Bradley's father appears in the film.

The film deconstructs the story of an iconic image, the famous photograph of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The first flag was raised on the fifth day of the thirty-five day battle for the island. U. S. forces had captured Mount Suribachi, and a flag raising was a natural conclusion to the event. When commanding officers and publicity men recognize the potential value of the image of the flag raising, they conduct a second flag raising, using some of the men who raised the first flag but using others as well (some of the original flag raisers were elsewhere or had already died in battle). Many pictures are taken of the second raising, including the photograph that made the event famous. The film shows how the U. S. war office exploits the famous photograph by sending several of the men involved in the flag raisings on a publicity tour to bolster national resolve and inspire patriotism.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the film is its portrayal of how the men involved in the flag raising were pawns in the political games of politicians and commanding officers. The most recognizable of these flag raisers was the Native American soldier Ira Hayes. Ill suited for publicity tours, he suffered from battle fatigue and depression, and the film suggests that he drank in order to be able to tolerate the public attention. In fact, the film suggests that organizers of the tour events supplied him with alcohol so that he would participate. Hayes became a severe alcoholic and ultimately died of the disease.

The film shows that after the war the men involved in the Suribachi flag raisings were abandoned and forgotten. They had played their roles and served their purpose. Thus what was initially presented as an act of heroic and natural patriotism, the raising of the flag over Suribachi, was in fact at least a partial fraud and deception, a staged event perpetrated by men who conduct wars without regard for the individual lives that wars destroy.

The flags of the film's title were in fact symbols of the exploitation that at least some of our fathers suffered at the hands of those who conducted the war.