Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Dixiana (1930) is a vaudevillian series of acts and skits set in the iconographic context of the Old South. The film brings almost every conceivable stereotype to bear on the evocation of its setting. It opens with images of slaves working in the fields and of the multi-columned plantation house that is one of the main locations. An early scene shows a man who appears to be the plantation patriarch sitting on the porch of the house, sipping a drink served by a house servant (anticipating one of the opening images of So Red the Rose). Two other locations are a playhouse and a gambling house in New Orleans. Mardi Gras celebrations are important in the film's latter half. In one scene a black actor dances to banjo music. African Americans are rarely anything more that clowns. The possibility of a duel is ever-present and provides the climactic scene, to the extent there is one.

The plot basically involves a young man, Carl Van Horn, who falls in love with a circus performer named Dixiana. He takes her home to introduce to her father and step-mother. The father is thrilled at his son's fiancé but the stepmother is horrified at the presence of a circus performer in her house and orders Dixiana to leave. The film follows the wandering fortunes of these two lovers who are separated after Dixiana's rejection from the plantation house.

What passes for comic relief comes in the form of Dixiana's two partners in the circus. They are played by Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsley, comedians from the 1930s who made a series of popular films for RKO Studios. Woolsley brandishes a cigar and glasses in a way that may have inspired the comedian George Burns. Woolsley and Wheeler perform as a comedy team, mimicking the behavior and actions of other characters in the film. Their comic shticks have virtually nothing to do with anything else in the film, although as the possibility of a duel between Van Horn and a corrupt gambler becomes increasingly likely (due to their competing interest in Dixiana), the two comic performers challenge one another to a duel for similar reasons.

The South in Dixiana is a place of exotic intrigue, fawning house servants, Mardi Gras celebrations, singing slaves, plantation houses, duels, romance, and cotton fields. With the exception of the duel, the South really has little to do with the plot of this film. The Van Horns themselves are from Pennsylvania; they moved to Louisiana when the father married his second wife. Few people in the film, excepting the African Americans, speak with a Southern accent. The numerous song and dance numbers that punctuate the film are typical Broadway-style performances—there is nothing Southern about them.

Interestingly, Carl jokes with his father about how the old man is always freeing the slaves. This is the only indication that the film does not accept slavery as normal. Perhaps the old man's desire to free slaves is meant to be seen as a sign of his weakness and old age.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Like the novels on which they are based, the Harry Potter films have grown increasingly dark and complex with each installment. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) follows up on Harry's encounter with Voldermort in the last competition of the Tri-Wizards Tournament, an encounter that ended with the death of Harry's friend and rival Cedric Diggory. In the new film Harry finds himself increasingly isolated and confused. His mentor Dumbledore seems to ignore him, his fame and false rumors cause schoolmates to view him with suspicion, and he is visited only infrequently by his godfather Sirius Black, one of the only people whom he trusts. Voldemort has reappeared in the world and is gradually infiltrating the Ministry of Magic and even Hogworts itself with his agents. Dumbledore is deposed as headmaster of the school, and a new headmaster, Delores Umbridge, an agent of the Ministry of Magic and even, we suspect, of Voldermort himself, is installed in his place. She institutes repressive new measures to prevent Harry and other students from learning new skills that will enable them to resist the rise of the dark wizard.

The fifth novel describes all these events in detail, and the film does a good job of presenting and embellishing the novel. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix may not be the best film in the series. I would give that distinction, so far, to the third film, with the fourth film in second place. But Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a good film nonetheless, and in many ways it is the film that comes closest to presenting the spirit and the details of its source. It has been interesting to watch Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grow and mature along with the characters they are portraying. Though the novels and the films based on the novels do differ from each other in various ways, it is difficult to separate Harry, Hermione, and Ron from the actors who portray them. The fit is good indeed.

Along with the underlying theme of Harry's gradual preparation to meet his destiny and to take on the responsibility he was born to, revolt is the basic theme of the fifth film. (Rowling has asserted that she chose the name Harry for her main character to emphasize his ordinariness. However, it is difficult not to connect his first name with the unwilling prince Hal of Shakespeare's plays Henry IV parts one and two. There are significant parallels between the characters, whether Rowling intended them or not). To rebel, one must have rebel leaders strong in character, and that is what we have in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry agrees to instruct students in the various arts of wizardry, even though these students have been forbidden to study such subjects. Rebels must have a strong adversary, and that is what Delores Umbridge (played to formidable yet comic effect by Imelda Staunton) provides. The way in which the students who make up "Dumbledore's Army" learn their skills and grow in certainty and confidence provides much of the pleasure of this film.

Director David Yates is not well known for his films, but he rises to the occasion in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This must have been a difficult story to film because it has less action than the preceding films. It relies more heavily on character development than the others. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix moves the story bravely forward and leaves us waiting impatiently for the next installment even if, having read the next novel, we know what it will bring. Each film in the series has had a different director, yet they fit together as tightly unified and distinctive episodes in the Harry Potter saga. Here's hoping that the sixth and seventh installments maintain the levels of quality established in the third, fourth, and fifth installments.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows J. K. Rowling brings to a close her seven-book saga about the young wizard at Hogwarts and his developing rivalry with the evil dark lord Voldermort. What makes the Potter books distinctive and unusual is how they grow in complexity and maturity with each volume. As the boy Potter matures and grows older, the level of the books advances with him. The story told through the perceptions of Potter advances in complexity as the boy grows older. This may be a deliberate strategy of Rowling’s but in part it is simply a reflection of her developing abilities as a writer.

Rowling is a highly effective storyteller. She can be a clumsy writer. Her prose can be wooden. She plays fast and easy with her story lines, and one is almost always certain that when Harry or one of his friends gets into a tight situation, some unexpected turn of plot or deus ex machina will bring about a rescue. Because the Potter books are about a magical world where surprising things often happen, Rowling does not have to follow the usual principles of narrative that require a logical plot that develops in a logical way. But this is not to disparage her achievement, only to point out that she takes full advantage of the magical world she has created, thereby successfully evading (when she needs to) laws of nature and probability,.

Rowling succeeds for a number of reasons. She creates a fully if not over-imagined world constructed out of the elements of various mythologies, folklores, traditions, literary traditions, and so on. One might argue that there is an incoherence to this world of centaurs and dementors and Death Eaters and wizards, but it is a fascinating, enthralling incoherence. Rowling’s characters—especially Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley (and his extended family), the teachers at Hogworts—carry the story. We like and care about them. Even minor characters are fully drawn and realized—the half-giant Hagrid and Potter’s classmate Neville Longbottom are among my favorite. One of the most important events in the Potter story—the murder of Potter’s parents by Voldemort, and young Potter’s mysterious survival—takes place well before the first page of the first novel. All the novels reflect back on it, in one way or the other. Their deaths haunt Potter, who doesn’t understand his survival. The absence of his parents contributes to his loneliness and isolation, which deepens as the story progresses. He becomes increasingly aware that he will one day have to face the murderer of his parents in an apocalyptic battle. Uncertainty about Harry’s fate binds the seven novels.

Another virtue is that the novels really do fit together as a unified, larger work. Elements from the earlier novels play significant roles in the later ones. Information and details that may have seemed unimportant in earlier books take on great meaning in later ones. The mysteries and suspense that Rowling builds really does sustain and unify the novels. The best chapters in the novel are those with the most action. Early in the novel Potter and crew leave for a hiding place and are ambushed by Voldermort and his supporters. Later, Potter and friends are captured at Lucius Malfoy’s house and must struggle to escape. Finally, in the last chapters, there is the showdown with Voldermort and his forces. These are very exciting chapters, especially because Rowling leaves the fates of her main characters in doubt. Characters do die in these novels.

There are certainly flaws in the final novel. There are long stretches of dead writing, where little happens, or where Rowling along with Potter seems merely to be marking time. There are some inconsistencies as well. In several late chapters Rowling uses contrived devices to present important plot details—one of these involves the use of a pensieve, a kind of well that holds the memories of various characters both alive and dead. The penultimate chapter also seems an artificial way of resolving and answering some of the issues in the novels. It would have been better had Rowling revealed this information through the interaction of characters and events, rather than releasing it in what amounts to a narrative voiceover. But these are minor quibbles.

The Harry Potter novels are not the equal of the Tolkien trilogy. However, they are a significant achievement, and they constitute a genuine monument that readers will continue to read with pleasure for years to come. I read all seven novels, enjoyed them, and regret that the Potter saga has now ended.

Rowling did plant some clues that might lead towards some sort of sequel. There is a locket left in the forest near Hogworts that Potter and everyone else agree not to look for. What powers does it hold, and what if the wrong person finds it? The last sentence of the novel carries a certain ambiguity, as if to suggest the faint possibility that everything is fine now, but perhaps not forever. Rowling insists there will be no sequel.

Nothing is left hanging in this final novel. It brings the Potter story to a close in a way that most Potter fans should find gratifying.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


ATL (2006) is a stylish film with a firm sense of place centered on the city of Atlanta. Place means the geographical location itself—the cityscape, the MARTA rail line, schools such as Spelman, the economic differences that distinguish various sections of the city, the Cascade Family Skating Rink, which in the film is simply Cascade Skating Rink. Though it takes up less space than one might expect, it is the film's heart, where the four friends and main characters gather every Sunday night to skate and socialize with others and to work on their skating routines. The Cascade is important as a melting pot for African American Atlanta as well. Skaters come from all over the city, from as far South as College Park, and from elsewhere as well. Where one comes from in the sprawling city of Atlanta determines both a particular skating style as well as other more general aspects of identity. The Cascade provides a concrete way of focusing important themes and conflicts of this film.

In the "making of "commentary on the DVD, director Chris Robinson describes Atlanta as a city struggling to recover from its history. It is, he says, a city in transition, and for that and other reasons he sought to make it a literal character in the film. He accomplishes that goal. Well known for his music videos (I haven't seen them, but then I don't watch music videos), Robinson is clearly influenced by Spike Lee, who like Woody Allen has consciously made New York a vibrant presence in many of his films. Cinematographically, ATL also shows the influence of Michael Mann. Some dramatic night shots of the Atlanta skyline in particular suggest Mann. Stomp the Yard, made around the same time as ATL, also uses Atlanta as a setting, but it is a more generic, less recognizable city than the one we see in ATL. Anyone who has been to Atlanta, and especially anyone who has lived there, will easily recognize the city in ATL.

Atlanta as a character emerges clearly enough as a visual element of the film's mise en scene. More deeply embedded are the economic, historical, and ideological tensions and paradoxes surrounding African American history in Atlanta. From the center of the city to its Southern edges, the city is mostly African American, with a large middle class and significant areas of poverty. (Most of the characters in ATL come at least from the lower middle-class). The Northern areas of the city are predominantly white and more affluent. New New Garnett (Lauren London) in the film is the daughter of John Garnett, a wealthy African American businessman who has moved to the north side, has joined a country club, and in a general sense has left many of his African American origins behind him. When he learns that his daughter is dating a boy from the ghetto Rashad (Tim Harris), he is enraged because he wants his daughter to have an affluent, privileged life. He wants her to attend a prestigious college, not Spelman, the college she wants to attend. New New knows from the beginning that her father will disapprove of her friendship with Rashad, so she hides it. And she suspects that Rashad will not be comfortable once he learns who she is and where she lives, so she hides that too. This conflict between social and economic classes is one of the major interests of the film. It's a conflict also explored in Stomp the Yard.

Historically, Atlanta has been an important center of African American political and economic development. The success of John Garnett (Keith David) is an example of that development. One issue the film explores concerns what African Americans must do to get ahead in a predominantly white world. Here again is a theme we saw explored in Stomp the Yard. One of Rashad's friends is Esquire, who caddies at the country club to which Garnett belongs. Esquire is ambitious and wants a head start in life. When he is introduced to Garnett, he sees someone who can help him out and eventually asks for a letter of recommendation. The question here is whether one must sell out, do what Garnett has done, in order to succeed in life, or whether there is another way that doesn't involve rejection of one's ethnic and cultural roots. Rashad's younger brother Ant explores still another route to wealth: under the tutelage of a character named Big Boi (played by Antwan A. Patton of Outkast), he begins selling drugs.

Although virtually all of the characters in this film are African American, race is not the dominating issue. Clearly it is an issue, and Atlanta is presented as a city in which racism and civil rights struggles have played an important role. The characters do not have lives that are necessarily easy ones: Rashad and Ant lost their parents several years before in a car accident. They live with their inattentive and often bitter uncle, and Rashad feels responsible for the welfare of his younger brother. But these circumstances are not necessarily determined by matters of race. Struggles with racism and with the white community are not the main concern here. Rather the struggles the main characters engage in among themselves and within their own community are the main concerns. The white world hardly exists in this film, except as a faint and not entirely hostile presence at its outer edges. The four main characters stand on the verge of adult life and must decide how to move forward. Issues of family, friendship, and individual and group identity must be resolved. These are the issues that most young people have to address as they move into adulthood, and they are the primary issues in this film, though influenced and determined by the environment in which the characters live.

This is a successful film. It idealizes the world it portrays, to an extent. And it ensures a happy ending for all. Its strength is its characters, their warm interactions, the effective direction, the cinematography, and the music. Along with Stomp the Yard, ATL provides a variation on such predominantly white urban coming-of-age films as Diner and American Graffiti and shows the commonality of experience between the different racial groups they portray.

After thoughts: Apart from the characters and plot of the film, ATL is fascinating simply for reasons of style. Chris Robinson has a fondness for bright primary colors. They characterize ATL. Sometimes within a single scene a color will predominate, such as the color green. At other points a competing group of bright primary and secondary compete for dominance. Scene after scene captures your attention. Another distinguishing device: the film is divided into sections, each one labeled with a title. Although the film is not especially episodic, this device also gives the film a stylistic identity of its own.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Fountain

The Fountain (2006) is visually stunning. Its narrative is a post-modern montage that interweaves three plotlines: in one, a Spanish explorer encounters Mayans while searching for the Tree of Life, whose bark will grant immortality; in another, a doctor struggles to come to grips with his lover's death; in a third, the doctor voyages in a bubble to a distant location in the universe, associated with a star which Mayans believe is the home of souls after death.

One may argue that the space voyage is real, that the main character, after eating of the Tree of Life, lives forever, and that he is the same character in 16th century Spain as he is in the present-time and the distant future. This is certainly possible, as the film offers little assistance in deciphering the puzzles it creates. I believe that the film presents alternative views of a man's struggle to come to terms with death—death in the personal form of the woman he loves, death in the more general form of the fate that awaits every human being. The film in this line of thinking is a tone poem, a sustained mediation (not at all placid or calming) on the nature of death and life and their intertwined nature. Of the three interwoven narratives, the one that is "real" is the present-time narrative about the doctor and his struggles with the notion of death. The Mayan narrative is a story the dying woman writes and which the doctor reads. The space voyage is a metaphoric presentation of the doctor's struggle.

The film begins with the an epigram from Genesis about the Tree of Life, which God hides away from Adam and Eve after they violate his prohibition and eat the apple. In the Genesis narrative, death becomes a basic part of human existence because of this transgression. The Mayans viewed death, according to the dying woman who is writing a novel about them, as a necessary component of life: one has to die in order to live, and so on. This is not a Christian view of death but rather one that finds encouragement in the decomposition of one's corporeal body after death, allowing its elements to be absorbed back into the natural world.

Science views death as genetically and chemically mandated; genes become damaged over time, biological processes become mired in their own effluvium. The doctor who is attempting both to find a cure for death (he regards it as a disease) and for cancer (he wants to prevent his lover's death) intends to alter this mandate. On the same day his lover dies, the doctor realizes that a compound he has manufactured from the bark of a South American tree may accomplish those two goals, but too late to save the woman he loves.

In the third narrative, the main character is voyaging in what can best be termed a space bubble towards a remote location in the galaxy. The bubble's origin is never explained. Perhaps it is a product of highly advanced human technology; perhaps it is a figment of the character's imagination. He is accompanied on this voyage by a tree that looks much like the Tree of Life discovered in the first narrative, although the Tree in the bubble seems to possess the essence of his wife's existence—it responds to his touch, for instance.

These three narratives are presented in sections throughout the film, in non-sequential order. One can sometimes discern logic in how the film transitions from one narrative to another, and it is clear that there is a relationship among them all, though in no literal fashion does the film ever explain what it is. At the end of the film, the doctor does come to terms with death, a point towards which he struggles in different ways in all three narratives. We also witness a nova, the explosion of the star towards which the main character is headed. The film makes clear that through the death of the star the requisite elements of life and the rest of the universe are created. (This is a given of modern cosmology—that the elements of the present-day universe were created in the explosions of stars billions of years in the past). The nova offers confirmation of the Mayan attitudes towards death—one must die in order to live.

I liked this film when I was able to view it in this way—not as a science fiction film, not as a film about a man who discovers how to live forever, not as a New Age film for the brain dead, but as a film that meditates on some of the most basic principles of human existence, on the fact that as human beings we are bound by mortality, that as human beings we are the only creatures on our planet that can actively and self-consciously contemplate the inevitability of their own non-existence.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace

Jim Crace can be a perverse writer. In Being Dead the two main characters are dead and decomposing. In Quarantine a young, half-addled man around 30 AD irritates pilgrims in the desert. His name is Jesus. So I expected something of the same perversity in his latest novel, The Pesthouse. Instead, Crace surprises. This is a surprisingly warm and human story about two people, Franklin and Margaret, falling in love and struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic America.

The novel is not entirely without the character of the earlier books. The first several chapters describe with fond attentiveness how the population of a small settlement, Ferrytown, dies when overcome by lake gas stirred up by a landslide. And there is no shortage of corpses elsewhere in the novel. But for the most part the focus falls on Margaret, a young woman in her 30s, and Franklin, who is around 20. Franklin and his brother Jackson are making their way to the coast, hoping to take passage to another country across the sea where they plan to find work. When an injury forces Franklin to rest for several days, his brother goes on to the nearby town and succumbs to the gas along with everyone else. Franklin comes across Margaret in a small broken-down shack (the "pest house") where she was taken by her family when she showed symptoms of a disease they call the "flux." They take her there so she can recover or die—they don't want her to spread the illness to others; they also don't want potential ferry customers (the town's main livelihood) frightened away by disease. Once they discover what has happened in the town, Franklin and Margaret decide to travel together to the shore, where they hope to find passage like everyone else.

Although this is a post-apocalyptic story that takes place in an indeterminate future, it often seems like a medieval narrative. The culture and technology of the ruined nation is forgotten. People cannot read, they live in small communities isolated from other communities, and they fall periodically victim to whatever marauders happens to be passing by. Communication is by word of mouth. Transportation is by foot, horse-drawn carts, or boat. Society has collapsed. Most people who are able are traveling towards the shore, hoping to escape to another country. America is becoming increasingly depopulated. It is a broken, abandoned land.

The Pesthouse never explains the cause of the apocalypse that destroyed America. It was probably a nuclear war, but there is no evidence of radioactivity. Whatever the event might have been, it probably occurred at least a century or more in the past, judging by the state of the ruined cities and the general lack of information about or memory of the past. Margaret and Franklin travel through an empty land. Everyone is trying to leave. Cities lie in ruins. Marauding gangs murder, rape, kidnap, and lay waste. On the coast, a large settlement has grown up around the shipping industry. It teems with those who are trying to leave. No one remembers the past—faint shreds of memories, rumors, legends, stories. Margaret treasures a few Lincoln-head pennies, though she doesn't know who Lincoln was. Franklin and his brother Jackson carry the names of famous American heroes that no one remembers; Margaret's family had a dog named Jefferson. These relics are all that remain of the past, and other than describing the ruins through which the pilgrims pass, Crace spends little time musing over or providing information about the lost republic. What is most clear is that it is lost.

Especially with the marauding gangs that appear periodically to kill or kidnap travelers, forcing some into slave labor, one thinks occasionally of the Mad Max films here. But Crace doesn't overwhelm us with exaggerated descriptions of human depravity and decay, not to mention souped-up post apocalyptic dune buggies. His focus is on Franklin and Margaret, and an elegiac, pastoral tone envelops much of the book . We become increasingly concerned with two questions: when will Margaret and Franklin act on their love for each other (they think about it a lot), and what will ultimately happen to them? To express this point in another way: the novel has a powerful narrative force. Not the force of a story full of thrills and sudden surprises, not the force of a detective story or murder mystery, but the force of a story where the experiences and the ultimate welfare of the main characters are the center of interest. Margaret and Franklin in this regard remind me of Lena Grove and Byron Bunch in Faulkner's Light in August, which ends with their love for one another still unconsummated, though headed in that direction.

Narrative momentum lapses midway through the novel, when Franklin and Margaret are separated and we do not know whether they will find each other again. Margaret makes her way to the coastal city and joins up with a group of "Finger Baptists" for the winter. The Finger Baptists have built an "ark" in which members live and are sheltered from the outside world. They are forbidden to possess any form of metal, which they associate with technology and with evil. They're a bizarre cult whose revered leaders never exert any energy, relying on others to carry out necessary tasks for them. Rather than confront the problems of their world, the Finger Baptists simply hide. They are an interesting subplot that contributes little to the novel, and it is fortunate that Margaret does not remain with them. Crace's opinion of them is clear enough in the fate they ultimately suffer.

Given the subject and scenario, The Pesthouse is surprisingly upbeat. Although there is no rescue for Margaret and Franklin, there is finally a future--both for them and by implication for the land they decide not to abandon. At the end of the book they are headed back into the immense and empty interior of the American land, intent on making a life for themselves.

The Pesthouse is also a novel in which Crace seems to belie his own tendency towards uncompromising naturalism without illusions. We see evidence of that naturalism in the opening chapter descriptions of the deaths of the people of Ferrytown. We see it as well in his descriptions of the desolate fallen cities, the collapsed vestiges of human society, the brutality of humans towards one another. Where he confounds himself is in his treatment of Margaret and Franklin. He seems to like them. He can't bring himself to kill them off.

The immediate comparison for this novel is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Both books describe a post-apocalyptic world. McCarthy describes a world that is dying out both culturally and ecologically. Most life has disappeared. In the waning days of the human race, two individuals struggle to retain vestiges of civilization and morality. In The Pesthouse there has been a war and terrific changes have occurred as a result, but life continues in altered fashion. What once was known as America has disappeared, modern civilization has collapsed, but humanity goes on. The Road is a tragedy while The Pesthouse is a celebration of the human will in the worst of circumstances to persevere.

Originally published in Blogcritics: The Pesthouse

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Good German

Steven Soderbergh's The Good German (2006) is a film noir set in Berlin during the months immediately following the surrender in 1945. The film mainly occurs in July and August. Soderbergh makes excellent use of documentary footage from Berlin in those months. The setting is one of complete devastation, of chaos and disorder. The Potsdam Conference is about to occur, and uncertainty about how Germany will be reorganized, and about how many Germans will be indicted for war crimes, is a constant subtext. Other themes in the film have to do with the tensions that characterized international relations for the latter half of the twentieth century: especially impending the cold war and nuclear competition between the U. S. and U. S. S. R. A basic question, investigated from numerous vantage points, is one of responsibility: who is responsible, who must bear blame?—for the War, for the atrocities against the Jews and other groups, for the nuclear threat, for a developing schism between East and West, for a general breakdown in fundamental human decency. The film's black and white cinematography creates continuity between the documentary footage and the fictional portions of the film—it's difficult to distinguish them.

The Good German is about the efforts of American and Soviet officials to locate a missing man named Emil Brandt. He was supposedly the secretary of a German rocket scientist whom both the Americans and Soviets want to enlist to build weapons for them. In fact, the Americans already have him in secret custody. We are told that he wants his secretary to accompany him to America, and that for this reasons the Americans want to find him. Although Brandt was reported to have died in the war, he may still be alive. And there may be other reasons why the Americans want him. The film centers on efforts to locate Brandt, and on the characters involved in the search. Like many film noirs, the motivations and the credibility of characters constantly shift throughout the film.

With Tobey McGuire, George Clooney, Beau Bridges, and Cate Blanchett among the leading cast members, The Good German offers good acting. McGuire does present difficulties. Sincerity and good old American boyishness are basic traits of the McGuire persona. In this film he plays a driver, Patrick Tully, who is exploiting the chaotic post-war situation to his own benefit. He makes clear that money is all that matters to him—the measure of all things. He sells counterfeit goods to the highest bidder and attempts to sell to the Russians the husband of the woman who is his mistress. She is Lena (Blanchett), the wife of Emil Brandt. Tully is nothing more than a gangster who abuses Lena and viciously beats up Clooney, whom he serves as a driver. Yet at a moment's notice he can transform into the mid-western American boy-soldier, innocent, wide-eyed, and eager to get back to his family and his girl. The fact that he doesn't know where Brandt is doesn't matter to Tully. He ends up dead half-way through the film. It's difficult to divorce the characters McGuire usually plays from this one. With his boyish high-pitched voice, sometimes his character doesn't seem real; at other times he seems all the more sordid and evil.

When Tully's body washes up on the bank of a river, Clooney investigates the murder. He's a military reporter, Jake Geismar, who had an affair with Lena before the war and who now wants to help her, or he wants to restart the affair, or he has some other reason—his motives are not entirely clear, but he does come to realize that the Americans assigned Tully to be his driver because they knew of his affair with Lena and wanted Geismar to help them find her husband. Clooney basically plays the same character in every movie he is in, but his persona—that of the manly, easy-going, sometimes brash American—serves him well. There is a caustic edge to his character here. He's irritated with the military bureaucracy, especially when he begins to believe it is assisting in the cover up of a murder it may have instigated. He's also bothered that the Americans are attempting to enlist the services of a Nazi rocket scientists (similar to Von Braun). Both the Americans and the Russians seem willing to do anything necessary to win this scientist's services, and this includes covering up crimes more horrendous than one man's murder. It is, in fact, the nature of these crimes that make the Americans want to find Brandt—to go further would ruin the film, but the outcome is hardly as straightforward as I suggest here. Clooney sometimes seems to be mimicking Humphrey Bogart, especially when he continually insists that it was his stringer he was sleeping with before the war, not his secretary.

The film's title resonates with several levels of irony that change in meaning at key points. There is probably not a single good German, or any other kind of person, in the film.

The final scene seems a direct replication of the ending of Casablanca (with a few minor notes from The Maltese Falcon thrown in for good measure). Yet there is a difference. In the Bogart film Rick gives up the woman he loves for the larger sake of the allied cause in the war. In The Good German, Clooney gives up the woman he loves because he can't accept her behavior during the war, and because he wants to avoid dirtying himself by association. He's guilty enough as it is, along with every other character, along with the Americans and the Soviets and the Germans.

In the end, The Good German criticizes American willingness to hire ex-Nazis to design and build its weapons following the end of the war. The criticism is valid, of course, but one might well ask what alternative was there. If the Americans didn't recruit German scientists, they would have gone over to the Soviet side, and in fact both sides did more than their share of welcoming former Nazi scientists to their weapons building efforts. An alternative would have been placing the scientists on trial for their war crimes. And of course the Russians and Americans could have decided not to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems, but this film concerns the realities of the 1940s, not should-have-been fantasies. The Russian and American emphasis following the war's end, sharpened by the double nuclear bombing in Japan, was on preparing for the new world order. In this regard The Good German is glib and simplistic in its indictment of American willingness to employ Nazi scientists and (by extension) to develop a nuclear weapons program. Or maybe not. Maybe it is simply calling for recognition that American actions following the war's end implicated us in some of the worst crimes associated with the conflict.

The fact that one director could make this film and Oceans 13 within a single year is a tribute to Soderbergh's versatility.

Originally published in Blogcritics: The Good German.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hunk City, by James Wilcox

James Wilcox is a fine novelist whose books deserve a wide and appreciative audience.

In Modern Baptists Wilcox explored the lives of Southern small-town characters who at first seemed two-dimensional stereotypes. Gradually, as the novel developed, they emerged as three-dimensional human beings who suffer the same problems and neuroses as other inhabitants of the modern world. The protagonist of Modern Baptists, Bobby Carl Pickens, was in my mind the equal of Updike’s Rabbit in this regard. In Hunk City, his most recent novel, Wilcox revives these characters and examines their affairs 25 years later. In his early 60s, Bobby Pickens is now the superintendant of sanitation in the small town of Tula Springs, though midway through the novel he is impeached and removed from office. Burma LaSteele still loves Bobby, but her love remains unrequited. Before the novel begins, she was briefly married to an elderly man who won the lottery and then died, leaving her a rich widow. She lives in a giant replica of the Presley mansion Graceland outside of Tula Springs. Burma is still doing her best to champion liberal causes, never fully understanding what she champions. Her mother, now 88, is as vital as ever, still concerned with finding a husband for her sixtyish daughter. The lawyer Donna Lee Keely remains devoted in all her ineffectual ways to various progressive and liberal causes. Wilcox introduces several new characters, most notably Iman, a large young black woman with five or six children who has devoted herself to a cult of chastity in a semi-Catholic sect.

Burma LaStreele is the protagonist of Hunk City. She faces numerous challenges and ordeals: from her mother’s meddling, the born-again Christian who erects a large cross on her property and who sues her after contracting an amoebic infection from a broken sewer, the libidinous judge whom her mother tries to set her up with, her gay supervisor whom she falls in love with, to her always failing efforts to win Bobbie Pickens’ attention, to her efforts to rid herself of the burden of Graceland II.

I enjoyed reading this book but it it never moves beyond the two-dimensional. Although Burma is recognizable from her appearances in the earlier novels, Bobby is not. He is difficult to like or sympathize with or even to find interesting. The novel is full of one-liners, jabs against Republicans, conservatives, gay-bashers, provincials, and so on, but these never weave themselves into a more substantial narrative. There is much humor in Hunk City, but it’s never as effective or incisive as Modern Baptists or North Gladiola or Miss Undine’s Living Room. This new novel lacks depth—it’s all a comic, slapstick surface. We never develop the empathy for the characters in this novel as we did in Wilcox’s earlier novels. His characters constantly undercut and betray themselves. This is what I like about them. It’s one of the major ways in which they show their humanity. Unfortunately, in Hunk City, they rarely seem more than stereotypical, one-dimensional lampoons, and the novel generally falls flat.

All the President’s Men

Watching Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976) in 2007 you notice first the changes in technology. One of the central symbols in the film is the typewriter. The first image in the film is the explosive impact of a typewriter key on a sheet of paper. Clattering typewriters echo throughout the film. In a final scene, the increasingly loud typing of Woodward and Bernstein competes with the 21 gun salute commemorating President Nixon's inauguration to a second term in office. The press room bereft of computers and full of brightly colored furniture and typewriters and fluorescent lighting seems from some alternative universe, or reminds you of a Kubrick vision of the future, now anachronistically false and quaint.

Rotary phones—Woodward and Bernstein use them throughout the film to talk with one another and with sources, to gather information. When they're out on the street and need to communicate, they use pay phone booths. Cell phones are absent. The technology clearly places this film in its time. How strange that this dramatization of an event that I witnessed now seems a period piece.

The plot of this film gradually accumulates, accretes, one bit of information at a time, exactly as Woodward and Bernstein gathered information about the Watergate break-in and began linking apparently disparate bits of data together. Dramatic irony plays a major role: we in the audience, especially those of us who lived through the 1970s, read the Washington Post accounts of the break-in and cover up, and watched the Watergate hearings on television, we know the plot and the historical reality of the story being told. The building excitement and tension are palpable in the film.

The entirety of the film occurs between the June 17, 1972, break in at the National Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and Nixon's second inauguration on January 20, 1973. In a matter of thirty seconds at the end of the film, clattering teletype images of words clattering on to a page reveal the successive indictments and convictions of the president's men for their involvement in various aspects of the conspiracy. The last release is, of course, the announcement of Nixon's resignation.

I don't know of a better film about journalism and newspapers, especially a better film that links the fate of democracy and the nation with freedom of the press and the press itself.

Hoffman and Redford are excellent as Bernstein and Woodward. Redford was never better in a film, as the hard-working, straight-laced counterpart to Hoffman's shaggy-headed Bernstein, a better writer than Woodward but not as industrious. Bernstein's brash intrusiveness as he literally inserts his foot in the door of potential source after source is both humorous and slightly off-putting, yet without it the story wouldn't have come out in the way it did.

This is an important film to watch in 2007, given the sorry state of affairs in the U. S. government. There are many differences between the 1970s and the present decade, but there are distinct and disturbing parallels.

Stomp the Yard

In Stomp the Yard (2007) DJ is a college freshman at Truth University in Atlanta, Georgia. In ATL Atlanta is always in the foreground, a luminescent postmodern city whose history has clear significance for the main characters. The director and cinematographer of ATL were clearly influenced by the films of Michael Mann, for whom the city becomes almost a character. In Stomp the Yard Atlanta as a visual presence is more subdued and in the background, though several scenes in a museum of black social organizations make clear its significance as a place of important events in the civil rights movement and as the home of such leaders in the movement as Martin Luther King.

Although we see little of DJ's home life, it's clear early in the film that he comes from the lower economic class. Students at Truth U speak of him, disparagingly, as having come from the ghetto. Most of the students at Truth are middle or upper class African American students, and those who belong to the fraternities that play such an important role in the film are clearly among the elite. DJ at first refrains from joining a fraternity because he believes that all the brothers see in him is a step dancer. Even after he joins a fraternity, he often feels that he doesn't belong. Of all the characters in the film he has much to prove, and more to lose.

Stomp the Yard takes the position that African American fraternities are positive sources of brotherhood, character, and service. They possess many of the same traits in the film as white fraternities, and there are clearly "good" fraternities and "bad" ones. DJ is invited to join both types. Fortunately he chooses a "good" fraternity, Theta Nu Theta.

Class conflict is a major issue. So too is the issue of ambition, of getting ahead—of what one must do to get ahead, and of whether getting ahead is worth the compromises one may be asked to make. This is true for both male and female characters. When DJ is invited to join the most popular fraternity on campus, Mu Gamma Xi, one of the members tells him that if he joins he will be able to get any job he wants when he graduates without any difficulty—all he will have to do is say that he is a Gamma. (Interesting that the Good Old Boy network thrives in HBCUs just as elsewhere). The fraternity he finally does join tells him that it fosters brotherhood, and this is in the end a more lofty quality that that of mere ambition.

The main female character in the film, April Palmer, knows she will have and a high-class lifestyle if she remains engaged to Grant, a member of the Gamma fraternity. He treats her as a lapdog. She chooses DJ instead (though it takes her half the film to do so).

The class and ethical conflicts are complicated by the fact that April's father is the provost of Truth University. He believes she will ruin her life by associating with DJ. He prefers Grant for his daughter and makes his feelings known to both. DJ spends time with his aunt and uncle, who live near Truth. His uncle is in charge of the ground crew at Truth. It turns out that Dr. Palmer loved DJ's uncle when they were both in college at Truth, but that she chose her husband over Dr. Palmer, who has nursed resentment over the fact ever since. There is an underlying theme here: that of the existing power structure that will take all necessary steps to preserve and bolster its position, and to cast out those whom it sees as a threat. Dr. Palmer, Grant, and Gamma fraternity are part of this structure. DJ and his uncle are not.

The basic plot in this film is two-fold: DJ must lead his fraternity to victory in a national step-dancing competition. He must also come to grips with the guilt he feels for his brother's death, with his own sense of social inadequacy, his own insecurities. At the start of the film DJ and friends are taking part in a step dance competition which his team wins. Afterwards, a fight breaks out, gunfire erupts, and DJ's brother is killed. Throughout much of the film he feels responsible for his brother's death and comes to college only because that is what his brother wanted for himself. Stomp the Yard sense is thus a coming of age story whose unwilling hero must step up and shoulder the burdens of responsibility and history and enter into life as a mature adult.

There are holes in the script, and some unlikely coincidental connections—the link between Dr. Palmer and DJ's aunt, for instance. When an ethics panel suspends DJ from school (someone from Gamma passed on information that DJ has a criminal record he did not reveal on his college application), Dr. Palmer declines to uphold the suspension because he does not want his daughter to be with DJ. She tells him that if he does not overturn the suspension, she will never have anything to do with him again. He quickly capitulates and revokes the suspension.

DJ's character is well drawn and interesting. Columbus Short does an excellent job in the role. The dancing in the film at its best is truly exciting and impressive. Another underlying theme (it's part of the focus on class conflict) is the distinction between street dancing and step dancing. These two forms of dance are clearly related. Step dancing is more conventional and traditional, associated with initiation ceremonies and competitions in African American fraternities. It's practiced by the middle- and upper-class students who attend Truth University and other similar schools. Although Stomp the Yard treats step dancing with due respect, it suggests there's more vitality and force in street dancing, DJ's kind of dancing. I suppose the underlying premise here is that street dancing is a more immediate reflection of real African American culture than is step dancing. DJ's enrollment at Truth University, his talent as a dancer, and his ghetto background force the middle and upper class students to acknowledge the energy of street dancing and of the culture that produces it. Not only does Theta incorporate this style of dance into its step-dancing routines. So does Gamma, whose members spy on the practice sessions of the Theta team. Therefore everyone emerges from the film strengthened and vitalized by DJ's presence at Truth University. The film benefits from his presence as well—Columbus Short is the strongest element in Stomp the Yard.

Oceans 13

Oceans 13 (2007) requires no exertion of intellect by the audience. It is an entertaining film. It is fun to watch the plot unfold, to see the cast members interact, to witness the mugging exaggeration of Al Pacino, who seemed as serious as ever even though he must have been aware of the self-parody in which he engaged. Technically, the film is smooth and seamless. Director Stephen Soderbergh moves it along inexorably and steadily. It rarely flags. The Las Vegas setting is exploited to good effect. All the actors are more than up to the parts they play. This is the best installment in the Oceans series.

The plot is simple. Al Pacino's character, Willie Bank, a ruthless Las Vegas developer, basically cheats Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) out of his money. Tishkoff has a stroke and lies in a coma for much of the film. The gang (Don Cheadle, Bradd Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, et al) plot revenge, and we watch as the movie unfolds. There's pleasure in the watching, though little suspense and tension. It's like one of those old episodes of Mission Impossible, where everything goes like clockwork. There's never any doubt that the boys will succeed in their plot. And as Gould's character becomes aware of the progress of the revenge plot, he gradually recovers.

That this film is able to do what it does so well, with little effort, and absolutely no substance, is partially due to the skill of Soderbergh and crew. It's also due to the American fascination with celebrity. The subtext of this film is the celebrity of the actors. The audience knows the actors so well that the parts they play hardly seem to matter. We recognize the in-jokes, and we understand that when they make fun of one another they are doing so both as characters in the film and actors in real life.

Watching this film is like watching a rerun of Hollywood Squares. The answer doesn't matter. The jokes and jibes of Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly do.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Searchers

In John Ford's The Searchers (1956) Ethan Edwards is a Confederate Civil War veteran who returns home several years after the war's end. Although we do not know where he has been or what he has been doing since the end of the war, the look on his sister-in-law's face suggests that she believes he has been up to no good. He does have suspicious gold coins in his possession. The implication is that he has been involved in robberies or other criminal behavior. Ethan's identity as a Confederate war veteran is crucial to the film. First and foremost it makes him an outsider, like a man without a country. He no longer has anything to swear allegiance to, so he is a man out for himself and his own goals. Now that the North has won the war and is the source of legal authority, it makes him as well a person who resists and distrusts authority—in fact, a man who distrusts any form of organized authority, be it the Texas Rangers or the federal cavalry. Thus he is the quintessential individual.

A second element of Ethan's Confederate identity is of course his racism. Since we do not have African Americans in this film, racism is aimed at the Native Americans, whom I hereafter refer to as Indians because that is what they are called in the film—they are mainly Comanches. Although the exact cause of this racism is not made clear, it is easy enough to believe in because many people in Ethan's time hated Indians (remember Sherman, who thought they should be exterminated) and also because early in the film Comanches raid the farm of Ethan's brother, killing him, his wife, their son, and kidnapping two daughters, one of whom is later found dead and scalped. The other daughter, of course, is the object of the title search.

Ethan hates Indians not merely because they killed his relatives and in general (in this film) exhibit brutal behavior towards whites. He hates them in a basic, fundamental way—he does not see them as human and speaks of them as if they are a species apart from the whites. That is, he is a racist. Although at first the search for Debbie is a rescue mission, it gradually becomes Ethan's obsessive quest to find and kill Debbie. By living too long with the Comanches, she has, he believes, becomes one of them and therefore must be killed out of deference to who she once was, and to the fact that as a woman presumably befouled sexually by Indians (the film does not imply one way or the other whether Debbie was sexually molested by the Comanches) she deserves killing. (Underneath Ethan's hatred of Indians, and its focus on their sexual defilement of white women, is a basic revulsion against female sexuality). Martin Pawley, whom Ethan's brother adopted as his own son after his parents were killed, is 1/4 Indian, and Ethan refuses to accept him as a member of the family. At the same time, they become friends during the five years they spend searching for Debbie, and when Ethan thinks he is going to die he writes a will leaving all his possessions to Martin (part of the reason he does this is his belief that since Debbie has "been with" Comanches too long she is no longer his relative). Martin follows Ethan partially because he wants to find his sister but also because he wants to prevent Ethan from killing her.

We should consider the extent to which the film itself in its treatment of Indians parallels the racism of Ethan. On the one hand it attempts to portray the Comanches and other native Americans as human beings, not simply as savages. Clearly the band led by the chief known as Scar is a renegade band—everyone thinks of it in that way. Other Indians are apparently afraid of Scar and for that reason refuse to tell what they know about him. Indians are portrayed as intelligent and wily—they often outwit the white men who are pursuing them. On the other hand the Indians are shown as capable of much savagery, which they fully exhibit in their attack on the farm of Ethan's brother. Of course, there is ample record of Indian raids and brutality against white settlers. What The Searchers fails to make clear (few films of its time made this clear) is that there was a full record of similar atrocities committed by white settlers against Indians, not to mention the fact that Indians regarded the whites as encroaching on their land. To the Indians, the whites were invaders.

I believe Ford was attempting to do justice to the Indians even as he was portraying the racism of the whites. Debbie and Martin are key characters here. Martin has a small portion of Indian blood running in his veins, while Debbie has lived with the Indians long enough that she has, in Ethan's eyes, become an Indian. Ethan does accept Martin as his partner and even the inheritor of his worldly possessions. Although Ethan intends to shoot Debbie and at one point moves tries to do just that, in the end he embraces her and brings her back to her family. Roger Ebert in his excellent discussion of the film and its racism wonders whether this scene is enough by itself to redeem the rest of the film from its racism, and whether the film's anti-racist sentiments were too subtle for audiences in 1956, which would have been more inclined than audiences a half century later to share Ethan's racism. This is an important point to consider, whether the film is as racist as Ethan is even as it attempts to back off from that position. Click here to read Ebert's review.

Thus it is interesting in this film regarded as a study in racism that the main racist is a Southerner. It is somewhat paradoxical as well since many Indian haters were non-Southerners—hatred of Indians was not a regional attitude. But of course The Searchers was made at the beginning of the modern civil rights era in America, so Ethan as an Indian hater becomes an emblem of American racism and the challenges it pose.

John Wayne's persona doesn't vary much from one film to the next, at least in the ones I have seen. But however limited his talents may have been, within those limits he fully inhabited the persona. He has never been better than he is in this film—the rugged individual, masculine, resistant to authority and romance, single-minded in his goals, unwilling to deviate from his principles and beliefs. I do not know whether the film was written with Wayne in mind (it probably was, since Wayne was a leading actor in other Ford films), but it was an ideal vehicle for his persona. Wayne's acting in this film is three-dimensional, multi-faceted, credible.

John Ford is often mentioned as a director whose love of landscape, especially the landscape of the American West, is a leading characteristic in his filmmaking. This film may be in part responsible for that aspect of his reputation, but the landscape in The Searchers helps to make the search itself and Wayne's struggle with his hatred of Indians the epic challenges that they are. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times review of The Searchers appropriately criticizes it for having too many scenes shot on sets. Next to the beautiful landscape scenes, they seem half-hearted and cheesy, However, they don't bring the film down. In general, the landscape cinematography in this film is spectacular.

This film certainly deserves the high reputation it holds. It's a full, rich, wonderfully complex film, highly entertaining, beautifully filmed, well acted, and a pleasure to watch.

Tarnished Angels

The title of Faulkner's 1935 novel Pylon refers to the markers that form the three points around which pilots fly in races at air shows. The title has certain phallic meanings attached to the male obsession with technology and speed in the novel, and to Laverne Shumann's passion for her husband Roger. Douglas Sirk's adaptation Tarnished Angels (1958) replaces the phallic imagery with a reference to Laverne herself, a reference that creates a more moralistic story that the one Faulkner wrote. Nonetheless, Tarnished Angels is a fairly successful adaptation that captures many of the basic elements of the novel as well as some of its nuances—the ever-present voice of the announcer at the air show, the flicking beacon light in the scenes where rescuers search for Shumann's body, Jiggs' obsession with boots, the boy Jack's enraged reactions to taunts about his uncertain paternity.

Where the film falters as an adaptation is in its moralistic and sentimentalizing treatment of Laverne. In both the novel and the film we learn that Laverne was born in the Midwest and that after meeting Shumann at an air show when she was 16 she runs away with him. Faulkner uses the idea of the Midwest to signify where Laverne came from, but not where she wants to return—Faulkner portrays the aviators as essentially homeless, a peculiarly modern breed who have moved beyond, transcended, the need for place, home, and so on. Although there are suggestions that Laverne longs for home and place, she always moves on, and the end of the novel is a dark conclusion. No return to Kansas (or Ohio ) for her. In the film, the Reporter finds Laverne in his apartment reading his copy of My Antonia, by Willa Cather, a novel that celebrates the value of patria. At the end of the novel we see her with the novel again—the Reporter has loaned it to her and asked her to return it to him personally at some time in the future. This is the film's dunderheaded way of making clear that Laverne after all is a good girl associated with the values of patria and who doesn't really want to live the life she has been living, that she wants something simpler and more conventional and more virtuous. Moreover, at the end of the film the Reporter has talked Laverne out of allowing Matt Ord to keep her as his mistress and instead convinced her to go home to Ohio and start a new life with her son. This is a dramatically different conclusion than the one we get in the novel, where she leaves her son with Roger Shumann's parents and goes off with Jack (who has virtually no role in the film—his character is largely subsumed into that of Jiggs). Therefore the film sentimentalizes Pylon and turns it into the story of how Laverne, the tarnished angel of the title, resolves to return to the American Midwest of her birth and to a conventional family life, even if without Roger. (A female Nick Carroway).

Rock Hudson's portrayal of the Reporter (who in the film is named Burke Devlin) is fairly effective. Hardly as complex or bizarre as the Reporter is in the novel, considerably more benign, nonetheless his fascination with the aviators and especially with Laverne clouds his judgment. Largely through him the film tells its story. In one of the final scenes in the film, Devlin goes to the newspaper room where he used to work and tells the story of the Shumanns that his editor did not allow him to write. There is a parallel scene in the novel, but there are significant differences between the two stories.

Shumann in the novel does not have much of a past. In the film, he is a former World War I ace aviator (many stunt pilots were former military pilots). When he dies, he is hailed as a hero who directed his plane into the lake rather than risk injuring spectators by a crash landing on the shore. In the film, before his final race, Shumann apparently tells Laverne that he loves her and wants to settle down. There is no such sentimentalizing moment in the novel. Shumann dies untamed and undomesticated, and Laverne exits the novel in much the same way as well.

In both the film and the novel New Orleans is an important setting—Mardi Gras and the airport where the air races take place. Faulkner invests the novel with an atmosphere of the surreal and the bizarre. The effect is disorienting and in part is meant to convey the very different world of the aviators that the Reporter is encountering. It is not only what Faulkner describes that creates this effect as it is his method of description. The distinctive idiosyncratic language of the novel—the coining of words, the run-on sentences, the piling of adjective on adjective, the highly subordinated sentences—place the reader in the Reporter's perspective, to an extent. The film doesn't have the advantage of language, except that spoken by characters, but it manages to capture some of the effect of Faulkner's language by having characters—especially the Reporter—speak it, sometimes almost line by line.

Pylon did not seem a "Southern" novel in any traditional sense of the word. One of the points of the novel was that it was describing a "new" South, one of technology and cities and new kinds of human relationships. We can say the same about Tarnished Angels. There are few if any Southern accents in the novel, and the only way we can identify it with the American South is through our knowledge that New Orleans is the setting.

Faulkner novels are difficult to film because they so often are narrated from within the consciousness of one or more of his characters. This is certainly the case in Pylon, where the Reporter is the focus of the narration almost exclusively throughout. It is both the story that he tells as well as the way he tells it. The state of his consciousness is as much a part of the story as is the story itself. Tarnished Angels doesn't go nearly as far as the novel does in inhabiting the consciousness of the Reporter and conveying it to the audience. The Reporter in the novel is an emotional cripple who wreaks damage on the aviators through his self-absorbed meddling and voyeurism. In Tarnished Angels he is merely a romantic who allows his fascination with a beautiful woman to cloud his judgment, and in the end he behaves in a moral and conventional way by giving her money and arranging for her to return to a respectable life in the mid-west. In the novel, the Reporter and Jiggs secretly send money with the boy, stashed in his toy airplane. One of Shumann's parents, enraged by the plane and what it represents, and wanting to wipe out entirely the boy's memory of that part of his life, throws it into the fire.


Peter O'Toole was nominated for the Oscar for best actor for his performance in Venus (2006). It is amazing that he has never won the award, though he has certainly been recognized in other ways. Venus is a character study of an elderly actor, Maurice, approaching the end of his days, who falls in love with a young woman, Jessie, who wants to be a model. She and he are of entirely different generations and have virtually nothing in common. She is indifferent to him as an old man, and all she has that he is attracted to is her youth and sexuality. He recites Shakespeare to her when she doesn't even know who Shakespeare was. In part, the film is about how she comes to accept and understand the humanity of an older man. In part, it is about how he exploits her in a certain way to gain her affections. All that she offers him is the opportunity to kiss her neck or touch her fingers, though late in the film, attempting to get him to rouse from what appears to be a coma, she bares her breasts to him (he does not respond).

The film never suggests that there is any real possibility of a physical relationship between them. In fact, midway through he undergoes prostate surgery and is left impotent. The real question is whether there can be some kind of other understanding between them. The girl reminds O'Toole's character of his youth, his own romantic life, his love of art and beauty. She becomes interested in him when she realizes that he really was a person of substance, a celebrity of sorts, and also a potential source of money when she wants a dress or a gift. Gradually she begins to exploit him, allowing him those glancing caresses in return for money or an item of jewelry. Things come to a final head when Maurice discovers her in his apartment having sex with her boyfriend .

Will Maurice come to accept his old age and the approaching end of his life? Will Jessie learn that life is not only for the young? Will she ever move outside her own selfish self-absorption? Will her uncle, and Maurice's friend Ian, ever cease to be a doddering, semi-senile, inflexible, unresponsive old codger? These questions are answered as one would expect them to be in such a film. O'Toole's acting does deserve an award. With a slight turn of his head, a subtly upturned lip, just the way he glances or breathes, the way he hesitates before he delivers line, he shows an incredible talent. Most of all it is the sadness in his eyes, a sadness that suggests that in his performance here he brings to bear more than a little of his own situation in life—that of an aging, elderly actor near the end of his career.

In one scene in a church, O'Toole and Ian dance comically together to chamber music and then gaze on the memorial plaques of other actors who died before them. They bear the names of real actors—Laurence Harvey and Robert Shaw, for example—that O'Toole himself knew and worked with.

This movie is sweet, charming, gently comic, and sad. It is not for anyone who has recently had prostate surgery or who faces the same shortening prospects in life as O'Toole's character.


One must totally forget and ignore that Apocalypto (2006) was made by Mel Gibson, whose anti-Semitic ravings have of late made him a pariah in the popular press and elsewhere. One must also forget that the director of this film is the same director who made The Passion. So much controversy and furor swirl around Gibson and The Passion that they might well prevent us from seeing Apocalypto on its own grounds. At some point, of course, we must bring the issues of biography and of other films to bear on this one, but not too soon.

The title Apocaypto obviously implies a story about apocalypse, and as the opening scenes suggest it applies to the small settlement of apparently Mayan villagers who live in idyllic simplicity in the middle of the central or South American jungle. They are overrun by a murderous and more powerful tribe of Mayans. Some are killed and others are taken captive, intended either for slavery or for sacrifice.

The film begins with a quote from Will Durant, the popular historian: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." The quote apparently has little to do with the tribe of villagers whose life is upturned by the murderous Aztecs. It may apply, however, to the Mayans themselves, so overwhelmed as they are by the need for blood sacrifice, the tyranny of a few members of a ruling class that holds power and wealth and that enslaves a multitude of others to do their bidding. Their inner corruption may well bring them down.

The plot of this film, despite all the pretense, is simple. A man named Jaguar Paw is kidnapped away from his family. He must escape his captors and return to save his family whom he has left, perhaps without thinking things out too carefully, in a deep pit. His wife is nine-months pregnant, his son is five years old and unable to help her. In the climactic scenes of the film, it is raining, the pit is filling with water, the wife is in the final stages of labor, and the man must get to them in time. Clearly one basic theme is this film is family, and the notion that numerous external forces threaten its existence. Saving his wife and child is Jaguar Paw's sole motivating goal. A corollary theme is that of place—when Jaguar Paw leads his pursuers back to the forest of his village, he then feels he is on home grounds, where he and his father hunted, and he is empowered as a result to bring those hunting skills to bear on his pursuers.

The scenes that show the idyllic lives of the villagers early in the film are so reminiscent of similar scenes early in Gibson's Braveheart that one must wonder whether Apocalypto is another version of that film. A key character in each scene dies from having his or her jugular vein sliced through. And in fact the two films have much in common. I see less of a connection with The Passion, though clearly there are links. Much has been made of the brutal violence of Apocalypto, though in compassion to many other recent films it doesn't seem excessive.

The second apocalypse in this film comes into view when Jaguar Paw and the last two surviving pursuers run onto the beach and see Spanish vessels that have just arrived. They are the agents of an apocalypse that will change everything for all these Mayans. Jaguar Paw and his family flee into the jungle, and, everything considered, including what we know as modern viewers about what will soon happens to the Mayan culture because of these new arrivals, that is probably the best place for them to head.

Ultimately one has to wonder whether the philosophical and political trappings of this film, that make it out to be a commentary on history and culture and the events that cause civilizations to pass away, really matter in the face of the blood, the violence, and the family theme. After all is said and done, the only important question in the film and its focus on the suspenseful efforts of Jaguar Paw to escape his pursuers is whether he does succeed in escaping and rescuing his family. The arrival of the Spaniards, the Mayan blood fest that forms the central and excessive heart of the spectacle in this film, are all really secondary and irrelevant to Jaguar and his family.