Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, is about the multicultural United States after September 11. Memories of that day are often present in the novel. The main character Hans lived with his wife and child near the World Trade Center. They were unable to move back to their apartment for six months after the disaster. His wife is so afraid of another attack, and so enraged at the war in Iraq, that she leaves her husband and moves with their son to England. The ruins where the towers once rose stand in some sort of deliberate relationship to the devastated life of the narrator following her departure.

I found it almost impossible to continue reading this novel when at an early point the narrator discussed the several million dollars he and his wife had squirreled away in investments and bank accounts. How normal and typical are these characters? Hans works in an investment firm. Rachel has some other sort of job. Their lives seem ordinary, typical enough, yet the fact that financial difficulties are not among the challenges they face does make it easier for the author of this novel to focus on personal and multicultural relationships. Life is considerably less complicated when finances are not an issue.

A major element that held my interest, nursed me past my irritation with the affluence of these typical characters, was the narrative voice itself. It's a fluid, natural, engaging voice. The prose style is strong and relaxed, descriptive, introspective, humorous, human. It is one of the main attributes of the novel.

The United States—specifically New York City--in Netherland is portrayed as a center of multicultural life, as the focus of international conflicts (the September 11 attacks and the war in Iraq). It's a life where everything is on the line. Hans' wife decides she cannot countenance living in a nation responsible for the war in Iraq, so she takes their child and moves to England. While the United States stands on the ragged cultural edge of things, England is a safer place. It is where one goes when the battle to survive in the contemporary world becomes too difficult. England is a place of retreat, personal surrender, prepackaged identities, a place where you go when you're old and no longer willing to live on the edge. Hans talks about how Americans move to England and quickly begin adopting British customs and traits, as if they cannot be done too quickly with their other national identity.

Implicit throughout Netherland is the meaning of personal, cultural, and national identity. Hans' friend Chuck Ramkissoon believes his mission is to start an American cricket league. He and the narrator are both cricket fans, and they see the sport as a way of bringing to America some of their own experience. Cricket is a means towards identity for them, especially for Chuck. He is a naturalized U. S. citizen, an avid patriot, a lover of all things American. He sees cricket as a contribution he can make. At the same time, he is a gangster of sorts who collects the proceeds of gaming wagers from various patrons and roughs up those unwilling to pay. Ultimately, he becomes the victim of his double life. This is not giving anything away, as the opening pages of the novel inform us that his body has been identified, washed up in the Hudson River.

Hans himself, along with Chuck Ramkissoon, is a prime expression of this theme of identity. He has moved to the United States from the Netherlands. He becomes a well established and respected financial advisor on Wall Street. He feels a strong kinship with the third world citizens who play cricket in New York. He flies back and forth between New York and London. Finally, he moves to England permanently. He's always shifting identities, nationalities. The game of cricket itself came to many of the countries whose former residents Hans plays it with by England, a colonial power. It's an expression of British colonialism, of the British imperial world. It's a point of irony that Chuck, from Trinidad, and Hans, from the Netherlands, want to bring cricket, a British sport, to the United States as a way of holding on to their own national and cultural pasts.

James Wood in the New York Times Book Review compared Netherland to The Great Gatsby. There are connections. Chuck Ramkissoon himself is much like Gatsby. When he moves to the United States and becomes a citizen, he becomes an American patriot and a protector of tradition. He is a connoisseur of trivial and meaningless information, which he is quick to share. He sees cricket as a service he can do for his adopted nation. Yet under his surface there is another corrupt self that is equally American. Chuck doesn't really see a contradiction between the two personalities he contains, and he expects Hans to accept those divergent selves, once he reveals them. In fact, it is almost as if Chuck reveals his gangster self as a way of threatening Hans after they have had a disagreement. England for Hans is like the Midwest for Nick Carraway, a place to retreat to, a place of surrender.

It's not really clear what this novel is about. After Hans and his wife separate, and their marriage is presumably over, he remains in New York, living at the Chelsea Hotel, continuing to work at his job with the brokerage firm, talking cricket with Chuck. Every second weekend he flies to London to visit his wife and son, but these visits accomplish little. One topic of the novel: what it means to be American. The answer is never clear, and that in itself is the answer—being American is what one understands that term to mean—it's a place to make one's fortune, to live one's life, to make an impact by starting cricket leagues or whatever.

The Chelsea Hotel, where Hans at first lives with his family and then by himself, still exists in the shadow of its famous past. Its tenants are a motley assemblage. Hans befriends a man there who always dresses as an angel. The Chelsea Hotel is a microcosm of the United States, a place where you can make your own identity, be the person you want to be, a place that exists in isolation and separateness from the rest of the world, that infects the world with its ideals and corruption.

Down by Law

In Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law we follow the adventures of three down and out men in New Orleans. The black and white film falls neatly into three parts. In the first we meet the three main characters, Zack (played by Tom Waits), Jack (John Lurie), and Roberto (Roberto Benigni). Lurie and Waits we see in arguments with their girl friends, who find various ways to explain to their lovers what losers they are. Benigni is visiting from Italy. He can't speak English and keeps a notebook in which he writes down idiosyncratic English expressions, such as "not enough room to swing a cat in." The three men end up in prison, Lurie and Waits accused of doing things they didn't do. We don't see why Benigni ends up in prison, though he later tells Waits and Lurie that he is there for killing a man by hitting him with an eight ball. The middle section of the film takes place entirely in the New Orleans prison. Lurie and Waits are sharing a cell when Benigni is put in with them. They try to ignore him, but gradually he charms his way into their graces. This section for me was the most entertaining part of the film as we see the gradual chemistry developing between the cell mates. There are several comic scenes, including one in which Benigni incites everyone in the prison block to shout "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." The prison cell scenes suggest the Marx Brothers or even the Three Stooges, though Jarmusch's characters are far more understated and subtle that these predecessors. In one scene the three cell mates hang on the bars of their cell, gazing outwards, as if there is something to see other than a cell on the other side of the walkway. The scene is as hilarious as it is confining and oppressive. The faces of the three cell mates, staring through the bars, tell the whole story.

Benigni tells Waits and Lurie that he knows a way to escape. We don't see exactly how the escape occurs—we simply see the three running down an underground culvert, laughing. The third section of the film follows the convicts as they flee their pursuers through the swamps and forests surrounding New Orleans.

There is no plot to this film, which simply follows the path of the three companions. Jack, Zack, and Roberto are introduced individually early in the film, and it's only in the prison section that we realize their fates will intertwine. Fates is not the best term to use. There is no fate per se in this film—nothing final happens to the three characters. They just make their way through the various situations that confront them, and we wait to see what happens. Despite the absence of conventional plot, the film is entertaining and Jarmusch wins our attention by his attention to the three characters and the excellent actors he has chosen to portray them. Waits plays a character that might have come straight out of one of his songs, while Benigni seems to play himself, or at least a character that incorporates many of the manic and comic elements of other roles he has played, such as the father in Life is Beautiful.

Jarmusch says in the commentary that accompanies the DVD version of the film that he had never been to New Orleans when he decided to write a script set in the city. He compares New Orleans to New York and says that both are like other countries separate from the United States. The film is shot in beautiful black and white, and images of architecture from some of the more weathered and run down districts of New Orleans predominate in the first part of the film. In the DVD commentary Jarmusch explains that he doesn't like to use the stock iconic images to characterize a place like New Orleans. He doesn't do that in Down By Law, but the buildings he does show are easily recognized as part of the city. I don't know exactly where Jarmusch managed to film the middle portion, but he contrives to present a run down and dreary prison. The film is not really about Louisiana or New Orleans—it's just set there—the film's real interest is in the three main characters. New Orleans and the sections of the city Jarmusch uses in the film provide a context of decay and hard times that are appropriate backdrops for the three down and out main characters.

Roberto talks constantly, even though he can hardly speak English. He manages to tell Jack and Zack that he likes the poetry of Walt Whitman, and later he mentions Robert Frost, whom Jack refers to as Bob Frost. The Frost reference provides a context of sorts for the closing image of the film, where Jack and Zack wander town two diverging roads, headed off towards separate future adventures.

The title would seem to suggest the film's interest in three characters who for various reasons have fallen on hard times because of real or fictional conflicts with the law. We would consider them "oppressed by the Law," as Jarmusch explains in the commentary. But he suggests that the real meaning of the title comes from its use as prison jargon that describes friends who are dependent on each other. The dependency of the three characters on each other in the film gradually grows and then wanes, as they go their separate ways.

One of the most unlikely elements in the film comes in the third section when the three convicts stumble on an Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere in the Louisiana swamps. A young Italian woman lives and works there and takes the three men in, feeding and clothing them and giving them a place to sleep. Roberto ends up staying with her.

The film ends without warning, though given the logic it follows one can sense the ending coming at the fork in the road which the restaurant owner Nicoletta describes to Jack and Zack. Nothing is resolved, and everything is resolved.


In Atonement (2007) a young girl's lie has consequences that reverberate throughout the entire film. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, the film is a narrative about a narrative. Which narrative is the more important to you depends on how you view the story. The main character could be the young girl who tells the lie. Or the main characters could be two lovers separated by class, mischance, and war.

The film spans the years between 1935 and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. One could call Atonement a period piece, and it is certainly that, but it focuses our attention not on costumes or the artifacts of a particular era but on characters and the circumstances they find themselves in. Even so, the first half of the film is a brilliant evocation of the middle 1930s in England. You feel you are there, that what you are seeing is real. We see most of this part of the film through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl named Brionny Tallis, beautifully and creepily played by Saoirse Ronan. She wants to be a writer. She has written a play that she tries to get family members to rehearse for her. She is highly imaginative, always observing and thinking about what she observes, and herein lies the source of her error. She sees something she does not understand, a scene between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of a servant whom the family has put through college. The film makes clear that some misunderstanding has occurred by repeating several key scenes, once from Brionny's point of view, and once from a more objective viewpoint. The scenes involve a tense encounter at a fountain and two instances of lovemaking. The differences between the two perspectives are subtle, but they are sufficient to let us know that perspective, context, and a child's limited understanding are crucial factors in the developing story.

As a result of Brionny's lie, Robbie is accused of a crime and sent to prison and later given the choice of remaining in prison or joining the British army. Cecilia is estranged from her family and goes to work as a nurse in London. She is apparently angry with her family for believing Brionny's story.

Atonement is beautifully photographed. The early portions, set on an estate in the English countryside, seem nearly flawless. Beauty is the film's downfall, at least in the later sections, which occur around 1940 on the battlefront in France as the British forces retreat in response to the German invasion and on the home front in London, where Cecilia and Brionny work as nurses.

The film follows Robbie and two other soldiers who have become separated from their unit and are wandering through the countryside, hoping to meet up with British forces before the invading Germans arrive. They sleep in the loft of a barn; they walk through immense expanses of landscape. In an orchard, Robbie comes across a group of young school girls, all shot to death in their school uniforms, lying placidly on the ground. When the three men at last are reunited with the British army on the beach at Dunkirk, total chaos reigns, and the effect is a strange mixture of carnival and nightmare and dream. Soldiers are drunk and milling around, singing in groups, wandering aimlessly. Horses that cannot be evacuated are shot. Equipment that cannot be taken back to England is destroyed. Chaos and disorder are rampant. One unbroken camera sequence moves for five minutes back and forth across the varied activities and events taking place on the beach. The result is impressive and often stunning. At the same time, it is too much a sensation—there's no point to it, except for the fact that Robbie and his mates are part of it all. The scene in which Robbie finds the slaughtered school girls leaves one numb. Robbie responds with a sort of mute horror, and the various elements of the scene certainly do contrast and contradict one another—the dead young girls in their neat uniforms, the holes in their heads or other parts of their body, the strange absence of blood. But to what end?

The later scenes in the film follow Brionny in her work as a nurse in a military hospital. She continues to write, late at night. She's come to realize the terrible error she committed five years before and attempts to contact her sister, who never responds to her letters. She wants to correct her mistake, to atone for her sin. We see one scene in which she does go to visit Cecilia and discovers her living with Robbie, who is briefly home from the battlefront.

In a final scene, many years later, Brionny is 77 years old and being interviewed about her 21st and what she describes as her last novel, which is about Cecilia and Robbie and the lie told at the start of the film.

As I said at the start, Atonement is a story about a story, and there are significant differences between the stories told. There is the story that Brionny is an actual part of, along with the other characters, and there is the story that she tells in her novel, the story that is, presumably, the substance of the film.

Brionny's novel is an attempt at atonement for her sin and the ruined lives it caused. But does it make for a successful film? Well, yes, on a certain level Atonement is well made, moving, intellectually engaging. Brionny herself is the most interesting of the characters, not only for how she imaginatively immerses herself in all aspects of the narrative, but also for the developing nature of her character. She is self-reflexive, hyper-conscious, in the extreme. She is the mind of the film, essentially, and in her we see how from strange and perverse admixtures of life and imagination and personal complications art is made.

But for me, the film's ultimate disposition of its story is a sentimental surrender—another lie, a distortion of truth and reality--rather than a real gesture of expiation. The film doesn't want us to see it that way, but I do nonetheless.

Atonement was directed by Joe Wright, who also directed Pride & Prejudice in 2005.

Jules et Jim

It's a delight to encounter in Jules et Jim (1962) the absence of the typical patterns and rhythms of American cinema. This early Truffaut traces the friendship of two men—one German and one French—starting before the first World War through the early 1930s. They become fast friends and spend much time together, so much so that some question the nature of their relationship. They meet a woman named Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a free spirit in every sense of the word. They fall in love with her and Jules begins a relationship with her, but Jules remains friends with Jim. The film shows scene after scene of the idyllic times the three spend together. When war is declared, both Jules and Jim are called to duty by their countries. Catherine is pregnant and decides to marry Jules.

During the war, both Jules and Jim worry that one will kill the other. Jules is glad to be assigned to the Russian front, where he knows Jim is unlikely to be.

When the war ends, Jim and Jules resume their friendship. Catherine has given birth to a beautiful child, a girl. When Jim visits, both Jules and Catherine confide in him that their relationship has soured. Catherine says she can no longer be a wife to Jules, and Jules says he is resigned to the end of their relationship, and that he will do anything to avoid losing Catherine, who has had affairs with at least three other men. Jim finds himself attracted to Catherine, and she feels a similar attraction. Jules tells Jim that he can accept the possibility of a relationship between Jim and Catherine and even hopes that it may prevent him from losing her. Jim moves in, and the three begin a life together.

Jules et Jim chronicles the ups and downs of this unconventional relationship. The tone is casual and lighthearted. The sequence of events seems to build towards nothing. Catherine's changeable personality, her shifting relationship with Jules and then with Jim (as well as other men), determines the course of the film. Eventually, Jim decides that he cannot put up with Catherine and decides to marry a girl in the city. They all meet in a movie theater, which is playing newsreels of the 1933 book burning by the German Student Association. Jules and Catherine invite Jim to visit. Catherine asks to speak to Jim privately in her car. She drives it off a bridge and they both die.

What begins as a film about an unusual relationship ends in a tragedy caused by a woman who is probably a psychopath. Although Catherine's emotional problems deepen as the film progresses—Jules is afraid she will kill herself, and at one point she threatens Jim with a pistol—the carefree tone never really changes. Is Catherine simply a free spirit, a woman who doesn't feel restrained by conventional morality, who feels free to seek happiness and fulfillment without regard for the reactions of others, or is she mentally ill? The possibility that she has a psychopathic personality is never raised until the final scenes of the film, and even then it isn't clear that we are not supposed to think she has acted impulsively out of her desire not to lose someone she loves.

The ending seemed out of synch with the rest of the film.

Kung Fu Panda

The fun of Kung Fu Panda (2008) is the animation and the palette of colors used to depict the stylized Chinese landscape where the story takes place. There is nothing remarkable about the story itself, which involves a panda bear named Po (voiced by Jack Black) who has always dreamed of becoming a kung fu master. (His father, a duck, wants him to take over the family noodle business). Through an improbable series of events, Po is anointed as the next Master of the Golden Scroll, and he is trained for the role by Master Shifu (a red panda voiced by Dustin Hoffman). Five kung fu warriors—a tiger, snake, praying mantis, crane, and monkey—all trained by Master Shifu—also figure into the tale. Together with Po they must defeat an evil kung fu warrior, a leopard named Tai Lung who is intent on destroying the Valley of Peace in which the characters live. TaI Lung also wants to find the secret of the Dragon Scroll, which is supposed to give him universal powers.

The secret of the Dragon Scroll is simple: you have to believe in yourself. This seems to be the standard theme in many animated Dreamworks and Disney features—believe in yourself and everything will work out. The theme works well enough here.

Kung Fu Panda might be criticized for its appropriation of Chinese legend and its depiction of racial stereotypes. But the stereotypes are hardly there, and if anything the film pays tribute to the tradition it borrows from. The animation is beautiful and creative, and the film is a pleasure to watch.

Monday, December 29, 2008


The two personalities of the schizophrenic Hancock (2008) prevent the film from being better than it is. But they don't prevent it from being entertaining, and from having at least some substance. One personality focuses on Will Smith, an alcoholic vagrant who also happens to have super powers. He can stop speeding trains, prevent bank robberies, foil disasters, but he's usually drunk when he does so, and as a result often leaves a wake of destruction behind. He's wanted for numerous crimes by local law enforcement. Hancock hates being a super hero. When he saves an idealistic publicist named Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from being run over by a speeding locomotive, the publicist offers to help him change his image. This involves getting a spiffy costume, accepting a prison sentence for his misdeeds, thanking the local police for their good work, and not wreaking havoc. Hancock actually wants a better public image, and when the publicist's advice begins to pay off, he is happy.

What makes Hancock an interesting character is Will Smith's acting. Smith brings the character to life as a real individual rather than as a flat comic book stereotype. Hancock has a genuine personality, and he's more recognizable as an individual than most other cinematic superheroes.

Of course, there has to be an explanation for Hancock—where did he come from, where did he get his powers? All he can remember is waking up in a Miami hospital some eighty years before—with amnesia and super powers.

Here's where the film's second personality comes in. It turns out that when the publicist takes Hancock home for dinner and introduces his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), strange things happen. She behaves in a cold and hostile manner towards Hancock. When they are alone in the kitchen, they're drawn to each other. They find themselves embracing. Suddenly, she throws Hancock through the kitchen wall. She too has super powers, unbeknownst to her husband. Now the film becomes a tad prosaic and literal. We get a long explanation of how, thousands of years before, teams of super heroes were created to protect the human race. (Who created them we are not told, but there's some suggestion that these super-hero teams might have been the basis of Greek mythology). Hancock and Mary are the last surviving pair, and they were engineered always to be drawn to each other. Unfortunately, as soon as they're together for any length of time, they begin to lose their powers.

The idea of a lonely and depressed super hero lost and isolated on a planet full of unremarkable humans is interesting. There's a strongly humanistic quality in the film's portrayal of Hancock. He suggests Prometheus or Milton's Satan in hell. Smith makes this part of the film interesting. But when Hancock and Mary begin wrestling with their attraction to each other and combating a criminal who wants to destroy them, the film takes on the quality of a comic book narrative and becomes less interesting. But it remains entertaining.

The coincidence that the film's second personality hinges on—that Ray Embrey happens to be married to Hancock's partner—does strain one's credulity.


To appreciate Wanted (2008), one must first get past the opening scene, which violates in fundamental ways the basic laws of physics, especially ballistics. The scene is patently absurd and absolutely riveting. The entire film is absurd, and if you judge it by conventional standards there is no hope that you will enjoy it. A reviewer for Salon referred to it in a digest of the best films of 2008 as "unwatchable."

Wanted is eminently watchable. It is highly entertaining. The pace never flags. You just have to take it on its own terms.

A young accountant named Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), bullied by his supervisor and often ridiculed by co-workers, receives word that his father, whom he never knew and who abandoned him seven days after his birth, has been killed. Later that day, a beautiful young woman taps his shoulder in a grocery store and informs him that he's about to be killed. Wanted takes off from there. The young woman is named Fox, gamely played by Angelina Jolie.

Gibson discovers that his father belonged to a thousand-year-old cult of assassins whose mission is to eliminate evil men and women and to keep the world "in balance." The cult's leader is named Sloan (Morgan Freeman—is there a film out there in which Freeman doesn't appear?). Gibson is recruited to the cult so that he can assassinate the man who killed his father—we're told that only Gibson will be able to do this.

Gibson undergoes a brutal training session and learns the ways of the assassins' cult. Of course, there are numerous complications, especially as the film drives towards its conclusion. I make no claim for this film as a work of art. But it was certainly fun to watch.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Scent of a Woman

Scent of a Woman (1992) has never quite worked for me. First and foremost, Al Pacino overacts shamelessly throughout the whole film. His character, Colonel Frank Slade, is a loud braggart and vainglorious man who by nature needs to dominate every situation he is part of. Blind and alone, he is ready to end his life, and he is full of self-pity and obvious misery. For one last weekend of life, he hires a prep school student, Charlie Sims (Chris O'Donnell), who is on the verge of getting himself expelled from school because he will not give up the names of three students responsible for vandalism. Both individuals believe, for different reasons, that their lives have come to an end. Through the weekend they spend together, as Charlie guides Colonel Slade around the city, helping him enjoy fine food, dance the tango with a beautiful young girl, drive an expensive car at breakneck speed, and so on, they come to like and respect one another. Each saves the other's life. I have over-simplified, but it is important to make the essential pattern, the formula, clear.

Pacino's character doesn't make sense to me. He admits he has always made bad choices. He is quick to announce that he once served on Lyndon Johnson's staff. He alienates his relatives and has no real friends. He spends money as if he has a limitless supply—hiring limousines and prostitutes without regard for cost. He rants and bellows his way through the film, bullying everyone in sight. We are supposed to pity him for his isolation even as we are repulsed by his crude loudness. Why is he like this? The film and, more to the point, Pacino don't make the answer clear.

The film's title alludes to how Pacino's character in several scenes identifies the perfume that a woman is wearing. He is a connoisseur of women, as if they are bottles of fine wine. His love of beautiful women is part of his love of life. This is one of the archaic qualities of the film. Pacino's character is to women as Caesar Milan is to dogs.

There is in all this dross one scene of pure magic. It is the scene in which Pacino senses the presence of a beautiful young woman in a restaurant where he and Charlie are dining. He offers to teach her to tango. Pacino carries off this scene with power and grace. You're convinced for the moment that he is blind and also capable of leading a woman across the restaurant floor in an elegant, complicated dance with beauty and grace. The look of rapt concentration on Pacino's face in this scene is worth the entire film.

Point Break

In Point Break (1991) surfer dudes disguise themselves as ex-American presidents and rob banks. Their leader is played by Patrick Swayze. A young FBI agent, Johnny Utah, played by Keanu Reeves, is assigned to go undercover and infiltrate the group. In doing so, he falls in love with a girl who hangs with the surfers. He also bonds with the surfers. Swayze explains to his group at one point that they don't rob banks because they are greedy but because they are making a statement against the system—they're being individuals, rebels. Surfing is also a way they express their rebellious individualism.

Although the surfing sequences in the film aren't particularly exciting, two sequences involving sky diving are. In the second, Keanu dives from an airplane without a parachute, in pursuit of Swayze, who has kidnapped his girlfriend.

Just about everything in this movie is improbable. The main feature Swayze has going for him is his hair, and that isn't enough. Keanu Reeves shows more emotion in this film that in his later work, where catatonia seems to be his primary mode. When the surfer dudes discover he is an undercover FBI agent, instead of killing him or refusing to have anything to do with him they take him skydiving. Bad judgment on Reeves' part gets him into all sorts of trouble. The film doesn't intend that its audience apply firm rules of logic to the viewing experience.

The film wants us to admire the surfer dudes and their rebellious individualism, their revolt against the system, even at the same time it is careful to show the dudes getting their comeuppance.

Gary Busey plays a wild-eyed FBI agent to whom Reeves is assigned as his partner. Busey's character brings some life to an otherwise deadening film, though it is clear more or less from his first appearance that he will not survive.

Surfing, bank robberies, skydiving, the rubbery masks of ex-presidents, Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, lots of gunfire—what more can be said?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mr. Woodcock

Mr. Woodcock (2007) is so half-hearted that I really wonder why anyone bothered to make it. The film is about John Farley (Seann William Scott), a young author of a best-selling self-help book who returns home after some years to discover that his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon) is involved with the hated gym teacher, Mr. Woodcock, who was the bane of his adolescence. Farley remembers Woodcock as a cruel, brutal man who abused and mistreated students. In fact, he remembers Woodcock as one of the reasons why he became a self-help author—to urge people to forget about their pasts and to look forward to the future.

The only element I at all liked in this film was Billy Bob Thornton, who played Mr. Woodcock with a ruthless and one-dimensional consistency. We've seen him in this sort of role before—in the remake of Bad News Bears and in the Bad Santa films, although those roles had some flesh to them. As Woodcock, Thornton doesn't have much to work with. There's nothing much below the surface of his character, or at least the film doesn't give us much. Farley decides that he must prevent his mother's marriage to Woodcock, and the two go at it in an increasingly intense and juvenile competition. It's interesting to see Thornton play the one-dimensional Woodcock with such relentless drive—as if the film is so boring to him that he makes that boredom and what may be self-disgust at having to play the role part of the motivating force in his character.

There's much in the film that doesn't ring true. It's difficult to believe that Farley's mother, who is warm and loving, would fall for a cold character like Woodcock. And towards the end of the film, when Farley seems to lose his cool in a fundamental way and nearly kills Woodcock, his behavior is totally illogical and out of character.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

The photographs of what appears to be the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq raised many questions. At the least, they suggested a breakdown at the level of the soldiers directly overseeing the inmates, flaws in the command structure of the U. S. military, fundamental problems with military interrogation procedures. They raised moral and ethical questions focused on our presence in Iraq and whether our own announced intention to bring democracy, law, and order to Iraq needed to include our own government and military policy. And they raised questions about context: do the photographs truly show what they appear to show, or are there mitigating circumstances?

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) relies on a series of interviews with the American military personnel involved in the events at Abu Ghraib prison, from the individual prison guards and soldiers to their commanding officers. There is almost without exception a lot of defensive blaming. Few are willing to take responsibility for what happened. Some were too young. Some thought they were carrying out orders. Some didn't know what was going on. Some felt they were made scapegoats.

Context is a crucial element in all of Errol Morris' documentaries. Documentary films purport to show reality. They function with an illusion of objectivity even when they take a strong point of view. They seek to adhere—or are supposed to—to the laws of logic, fact, credibility. Morris is a filmmaker with a particular point of view. It was clear enough in his documentary The Fog of War (2003), where he basically allowed Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Vietnam years in the 1960s, to do most of the talking, with the exception of a few questions we hear Morris ask off-camera. (Whether there were other questions asked off-camera we do not know. We have to assume there were). The result was that McNamara managed to make all the critical points that one would wish to make in a film about American foreign policy during those years.

Context is an explicit subject in parts of Standard Operating Procedure. One interviewer talks about a photograph in which she is shown next to a nude prisoner crouched on all fours. She points out that the way the picture has been cropped makes it appear that she is the only military person in the image and therefore the person responsible for what is going on. She notes that in an uncropped version of the image another American is standing nearby, watching. In general the film argues that the tight focus on the guards and personnel at Abu Ghraib prison tended to deny a larger web of responsibility for the events—a web in which, to an extent, the Americans at Abu Ghraib were hapless pawns rather than independent agents.

Morris is a reputable filmmaker. Unlike Michael Moore, he is not a propagandist. Although we may assume he knows where he is headed in his films before he begins, he likes to investigate, examine, interrogate, and let the answers and evidence that accumulate make their own statements. Of course, as the filmmaker he's in the ideal position to determine what those statements will be. But his films do admit to the complexity of the subjects he examines. In this one Morris employs a number of reenactments to illustrate the points being made in the interviews. There is a certain coercive effect in the reenactments, the accompanying music, the editing, and the juxtaposition of actual photographs alongside the faces of interviewees and images from the reenactments.

It's clear that Morris doesn't place primary blame on the American soldiers who served as guards in the prison. Many of them were fairly young. One was barely 21. They had little experience in wartime situations, and even when they objected to what was going on they felt they had no recourse but to follow orders. The film does draw distinctions between actions that were clearly in violation of law and procedure—for instance, forcing inmates to pose naked, allowing guards to take photographs of prisoners in humiliating positions—and there were others that were simply standard operating procedure—the film suggests that even those procedures were objectionable.

I think Morris is right to place blame on the military hierarchy that allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib to occur. Yet the soldiers themselves cannot be excused either. The film as a whole raises questions about whether the civilized, democratic values we pride ourselves on as a nation extend to the citizens of the nations we invade and occupy, even when they might be hostile combatants.

Standard Operating Procedure is not as compelling as some of Morris' other films. It lacks the suspense and complexity of Thin Blue Line (1988). It doesn't have a central personality as its focus, as in The Fog of War. There is no real mystery to be revealed, other than the answer to the question of how such lapses in judgment and morality could happen in the first place.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

What impresses me about Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) is the strong, confident narrative voice of Barack Obama. He wrote this memoir well before becoming president ever seemed a real possibility. It is not a campaign biography, nor is it written to present a prospective leader to the American public. Instead it seems a book of personal explanation and self-assessment in which Obama recounts the progress of his life from his birth until his enrollment in Harvard Law School. The book is honest and forthright without being self-promotional. It is refreshingly self-deprecating without false modesty. Since he first announced for the presidency, the facts of Obama's early life have taken on a nearly mythic aura, subject to much accidental and intentional distortion. In this impressive book Obama tells the story of his life as he remembers it.

Obama describes his unconventional mother, Ann Dunham, her marriage to the Kenyan man who becomes his father, and later her marriage to the Indonesian Lolo Soetoro who through an important part of his childhood is his step-father. Obama's maternal grandparents are also important characters in the story, the parents who accept and support their daughter's unconventional ways, including her marriage to an African, and their love and care for their bi-racial grandson. Obama expresses regret in the preface (written ten years after the memoir) that he doesn't pay more attention to his mother in the memoir, whom he credits as the central formative force in his life. She died after he finished writing the book. Yet she is present throughout, balancing her desire to follow her own path with her strong sense of responsibility as a parent. She was, by her son's account, a loving and stern woman.

The ostensible theme of the book is Obama's real and metaphoric search for his biological father, the man who disappeared from his life when he was three and who resurfaced for a short time only once more when he was twelve. The search for a father is not only an effort to come to understanding of and terms with his parentage, but also an effort to understand his African ancestry, and his place in a racially divided America.

Obama's bi-racial parentage and identity give him both involvement in and separation from the nation's complex racial character. The result is what often seems to be a relatively objective ability to examine these problems with analytical understanding. This ability served him well in his recent campaign for the presidency.

In the book's final chapters Obama describes his trip to Africa, where he meets his half-sister and other members of his father's family. This family is large and complex and riven with various alliances and rivalries. Obama discovers that his father is remembered as a warm and promising man who (in the eyes of some) didn't live up to his potential. He also discovers that his African family knows much more about him than he does of them. Although his father is dead by the time he travels to Africa, the trip helps him to understand his father, and his own place in the scheme of things, better than he did before.

In this memoir Obama makes clear his awareness that he had an unusual and remarkable upbringing. He is grateful and unapologetic for the breaks and assistance he enjoyed along with way. His awareness that he belongs to a family whose filaments extend far beyond the boundaries of the United States—from Ohio and Hawaii and Kansas to Africa and Indonesia--gives him a global perspective and awareness that is one of the most attractive elements of his character.

I rate this book along with Jimmy Carter's Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age (1992) as the best political memoir I have read.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) is an animated feature that belongs somewhere in between the second and third episodes in the Star Wars series. I didn't feel the need for this additional episode after the sixth Star Wars film (which is really the third episode) concluded: I'd had enough. As fun as the original Star Wars film and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back might have been, the others were mostly disappointing. Although The Revenge of the Sith had good moments, they weren't frequent. The highpoint for me in the recent three Star Wars films was the infamous request uttered by Princess Padme Amidala to Anakin Skywalker: "Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo," or some such cosmic nonsense.

In The Clone Wars the separatists attack and the Jedi lead the clones in fighting back. Jabba the Hut's infant son is kidnapped by separatist forces under the leadership of the evil Count Dokku, and in order to win Jabba's support in an alliance against the separatists, the Jedi Knights undertake to get him back. The animation is good and stylish but not groundbreaking or even impressive. The action moves along, but not at breakneck speed and everything more or less seems to move in a predictable way. Because we've already seen the films, we know that the principal characters will survive the film to fight on in the next episode. There is a mildly interesting wrinkle involving Anakin Skywalker and his paduwan, Ahsoka Tano, an apprentice Jedi. She's female, and he doesn't want a paduwan, certainly not a female paduwan, but gradually she earns his respect with her derring do and courage. Together they succeed in retrieving the slug-like son of Jabba. But this is exactly what one would expect.

The Clone Wars seems mostly an excuse for an animated television series on the Cartoon Network.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Charlie Wilson’s War

Tom Hanks is a good actor. His face is so pleasantly recognizable that one is sometimes tempted not to take him seriously—as the stranded traveler in The Terminal (2004) or the lost man on an island in Cast Away (2000) or the dying AIDS victim in Philadelphia (1993) or, as in Charlie Wilson's War (2007), the happy-go-lucky congressman who discovers that he really cares about the cause of the resistance fighters in Afghanistan during their 1980s struggle against Soviet occupiers. Although Hanks is a bit more handsome than the actual Charlie Wilson (not much more), he is fine in the role. He is, as I say, a good actor. He's a modern-day Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States chose for various reasons (Watergate, Vietnam) not to do much more openly in terms of opposition than to complain. The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics games in Moscow. Behind the scenes, some wanted the US to support the resistance. Charlie Wilson's War explains how a Dallas socialite (played by Julia Roberts) and a CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) convince Wilson to use his influence on a congressional committee to direct funds towards support for Afghani freedom fighters.

This film does seem aware of the deeper issues, especially when the Afghani resistance ends in the defeat of the Soviets. Wilson is lauded for his good deeds, but when he goes to Congress for more support, this time to rebuild Afghanistan, he meets with resistance. In the resulting void, the Taliban move in. The film doesn't explicitly state this, but anyone with a basic command of the facts knows what happened. This is, the film indirectly implies (along with decades of history), a pattern in U. S, foreign policy: support for weapons but not for reconstruction. Another pattern is that we don't always choose our allies carefully—some resistance fighters funded by Charlie Wilson's efforts went on to join up with certain well known terrorists. The film doesn't neglect these facts, but it doesn't explore them deeply either.

For me, the main problem with this film is that it is too casual and light. It spends considerable footage on scenes of Wilson with his beautiful staff, with beautiful companions, with liquor bottles. We see him worrying about U. S. attorney Rudy Giuliani's investigation into his alleged drug use. The film makes Charlie Wilson likeable and therefore relevant to the audience through its portrayal of these foibles. It's a lot of fun being a congressman with a bevy of beautiful young female staffers. It's a lot of fun deceiving the commies and one's colleagues. It's a lot of fun discovering that you might do something worthy to redeem your lackluster congressional record, especially when it serves the cause of freedom and of sleeping with a beautiful socialite. Wilson jokingly comments in the film that the congressional committee that commits funds to his cause does so knowing that the public, and most of Congress, will never know where the money is going. How surprised should Charlie Wilson be, in the end, when the committee won't support his request for funds to rebuild schools in Afghanistan? No one will know about that decision either.

Lust, Caution

Set in World War II Hong Kong and Shanghai, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution (2007) is a restrained (up to a point) study of a romance between a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese and the resistance agent trying to set him up for assassination. The collaborator is Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who oversees a secret police unit that ferrets out resistance fighters and other dissenters, and Wei Tang (Wong Chia Chi), who as a first-year college student joins a student resistance group. She is young and inexperienced, but she joins the group because she is attracted to its leader. At first the students demonstrate their resistance by putting on patriotic plays. After their first production is a success, they decide to take more serious action by plotting to assassinate Mr. Yee. The film details the efforts of the group to set Yee up for murder. They notice he is attracted to the young Wei Tang, so they set her up impersonating the wife of an importer. She uses the name Mak Tai Tai, and she insinuates her way into the social group of Mr. Yee's wife, Yee Tai Tai, with whom she is soon playing mahjong on a regular basis. Her plan is to entice Mr. Yee into an affair.

"Caution" in the title refers both to the precautions that the student take in their plotting against Mr. Yee and also to Mr. Yee himself, who worries about assassination and has numerous bodyguards protecting him. He tells Wei Tang that he doesn't go to the movies (a favorite activity for her) because he doesn't like the dark.

From their first meeting there is a real attraction between Wei Tang and Mr. Yee, but it takes three years for an affair to begin. When it does begin, the "Lust" aspect of the title comes into play. The love scenes are graphic and intensely erotic. While Mr. Yee at first begins the affair as an aggressive and even abusive lover, he is soon fully in love with Wei Tang. She reciprocates, even while she continues to plot with her fellow resistance fighters his assassination. When he buys her a beautiful and expensive ring, a gesture which both of them seem to recognize as a more formal and serious profession of his love for her, she has the opportunity to set up his murder. Then she must decide whether to be faithful to her comrades or to her lover.

In such films as The Ice Storm (1997) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) Ang Lee has shown his ability to dramatize repressed tension and desire. He uses that tension to great effect here—sexual tension, suspense. He also illuminates an aspect of Chinese society just before the Second World War that is largely unknown to many westerners. Shanghai, like Hong Kong, is a British colony, and there are a number of scenes when Westerners appear in various roles, especially as waiters at a restaurant. Many affluent Chinese people are shown living what appears to be a western lifestyle. Wei Tang speaks several dialects of Chinese as well as some English.

One can sense early in the film the tragic course the plot will follow. The interest of the film stems from the two main characters, their love affair, and the way in which events work themselves out. The film's plot—about a love affair between bitter enemies—is not that novel, but Ang Lee's treatment of it is successful nonetheless.

The Happening

Where did M. Knight Shyamalan go? What happened to the director who made The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), and Signs (2002)? In The Village Shyamalan seemed to wander, Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne leading him astray. In The Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) he seems completely to have lost his senses.

The Happening centers on an at first unexplainable phenomenon that begins in Central Park when people suddenly begin killing themselves—jumping off buildings, stabbing themselves with knitting needles, shooting themselves, you name it. The phenomenon spreads throughout the Northeastern states, and at first the assumption is that the phenomenon is the result of a terrorist attack using toxic gas. Through the conjectures of high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and other characters, it soon seems likely that the disaster is the result of toxins produced by vegetation, trees, and bushes, defending themselves against the threat they feel from human kind.

The solution of Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) is to run away. Everyone runs away, as if they have all recently seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and taken to heart its injunction to "run away." They fall in with a group of people fleeing from the cities and small towns and villages where the toxin has done its work, and gradually they are picked off, one by one, or should I say, they pick themselves off, since the toxin makes everyone it afflicts want to commit suicide immediately.

Elliot and Alma are suffering a crisis in their marriage, though neither of them wants to talk about it. She has gone so far as to have dessert with a colleague in her office, without her husband's knowledge, for which she feels guilt. Of course, in the process of running away from the vegetation-produced toxins, they discover they love one another after all. (Just as Mel Gibson in Signs recovers his faith after he saves his son from a menacing alien).

Nothing in this film makes sense. Wahlberg and Deschanel don't make sense. Neither of their roles seems well developed, and it's difficult to believe they're actually married. They relate to each other as if they're both heavily medicated.

The scenes in which people kill themselves are necessary to the story but still unpleasant. Especially unnecessary and gratuitous, I thought, was a scene in which two young boys, teenagers, are skilled by shotgun blasts fired from within a house they are trying to enter. This scene is followed soon after by another set in the mid-west showing survivalist types—possibly Aryan nation members—loading their guns in preparation for the coming apocalypse. In other scenes we see panic and mayhem and numerous examples of people declining to help each other in a moment of peril. Late in the film, Elliot and Emma run across an apparently abandoned farm house where they discover an old woman living alone. She invites them in, offers them dinner and a place to sleep, and at first they think they've found a haven, though soon they learn otherwise. I suppose the point is that humankind is especially brutal and that when the restraining threads of civilization are cut, savage behavior breaks out.

The famous Shyamalan motifs are here. Every time the wind blows and the bushes and trees sway menacingly, we know the toxin is about to strike. There are the expected color motifs too (mainly green ones). There is the now almost obligatory theme of a family that finds the importance of love and togetherness in a moment of crisis. There is a scene late in the film in which Wahlberg and Zooey are hiding from the toxins in separate buildings on the old woman's farm (she has conveniently killed herself). They communicate their love to each other through a pipe hidden underground, a relic of the underground railroad days, and this leads them to leave their hiding places and to run outside and embrace for a final moment of togetherness before they die—you can almost hear the strains of the Beatles singing "Love, Love, Love" in the background. You can also envision a Lady Clairol hair product commercial.

There is, of course, a Gaia message here. Mess around with Mother Earth, and she'll whack you. But Shyamalan develops this message in such a hackneyed, half-wit manner that calls logic and common sense constantly into question, with poorly developed characters and situations, with special effects that involve swaying branches and obvious dummies being thrown from rooftops that are supposed to represent people leaping to their deaths, that it's simply not possible to take this film seriously on any grounds—as entertainment, as social message, as environmental warning.

Most of all it's not possible to take it seriously as a film. There's a failure of imagination here, and The Happening comes across more as a high school film project than as a production by the director of The Sixth Sense.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) documents the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). For any admirer of the film, for anyone remotely interested in how films are made, this documentary is essential. Not only does it chronicle the production of the film—how Coppola decided to make it, the actors he hired (and fired), the script he helped write, his decision to shoot in the Philippines, the rapidly ballooning budget, the numerous pitfalls and hazards along the way—but it also records the gradual transformations of members of the cast and crew, especially of Martin Sheen, who played the intelligence officer Willard, ordered to hunt down and "terminate with extreme prejudice" the renegade Col. Kurtz, and of Coppola himself, who as the film began to careen out of control placed his career and personal resources at risk to get his project made. At the beginning of this film we see a Coppola who is enthusiastic and ambitious and a bit over-confident, who wants to make an epic film about a terrible war based on a favorite novel. By the end of the film he is convinced he has failed and cannot even decide how the film should end. Sheen was mainly known in 1977 for his roles in such small films as Badlands (also monument of the 1970s). He describes himself at the time of the making of Apocalypse Now as a heavy drinker and smoker, a man not in good health. In one scene, he portrays a drunken Willard in a Saigon hotel room. He was, in fact, actually drunk in the scene, in which he suffers what appears to be a emotional breakdown. He eventually suffers a major heart attack and has to leave the film for six weeks to recover.

Coppola's wife Eleanor is a frequent presence in the documentary. She accompanied her husband to the Philippines, with their two young children. She herself is a documentary film maker, and as her husband filmed Apocalypse Now she recorded (sometimes without his knowledge) interviews with him. His gradual descent into uncertainty, self-doubt, and despair is disturbing—he's not performing for a camera, for another director, he's talking directly to his wife, and the candor of his comments is compelling. The documentary shifts back and forth between the actual time of the film's production and fourteen years later, mainly through retrospective interviews with members of the cast and crew. Hearts of Darkness leaves one impressed that Apocalypse Now was completed in any form. For those who sometimes feel that Apocalypse Now on occasion strains more towards sensation than substance, it offers some evidence. For those who believe that works of art are the product of firm planning and deliberation, it provides much evidence to the contrary. For those who want to understand how a monumental film came to be, it offers explanations that in themselves are only partially satisfactory.

Dennis Hopper plays a reporter in Apocalypse Now whom Willard meets near the Kurtz encampment. Hopper himself at the time of the film was deeply involved in drugs and alcohol—as he says, he was at a low point in his career, and he was grateful that someone of Coppola's stature would hire him. Hopper was a method actor. He had to understand the motives and reasons for the lines he was asked to speak in the film. Coppola didn't always know the reasons and motives behind the dialogue, and it's funny to see Coppola grow increasingly frustrated as he tries to explain things to Hopper. In the film, Hopper' s character often seems to talk a stream of consciousness half-nonsense dialogue—it's exactly the way he talked in reality in 1979, as footage of Coppola trying to talk to the actor makes clear. Much of Hopper's dialogue in the film is his own drug-crazed improvisation.

Marlon Brando agreed to play the character of Kurtz in the film, for a fee of one million dollars per week. He proved difficult. When the production schedule had to be changed, he balked. When he arrived on set, he was significantly overweight—much heavier than Kurtz was supposed to be. Brando complained about various details of the story, and Coppola realized he hadn't read the script or the novel on which it was based. Brando too wanted to understand the reasons behind the lines he was to read.

For Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now became a personal apocalypse from which he never professionally recovered, although there is little doubt that Godfather I, Godfather II, and Apocalypse Now rank among the great films of the 20th century.

Apocalypse Now is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's 1898 novel Heart of Darkness. The novel is about the impact of imperialism on the African jungle. It's also, among other things, about obsession. Hearts of Darkness is about a director's obsession to make his greatest film.

Tropic Thunder

One of the several virtues of Tropic Thunder (2008) is that it rarely falters or drags. Directed by Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of the lead actors, this film is about five Hollywood stars making a Vietnam war film. None of them served in or knows much about the conflict, other than what they have seen in other films. The novice director doesn't know much about Vietnam either, and his production rapidly sinks towards catastrophe, especially after his cameramen fail to record an expensive special effects sequence involving actual military jets. Thus when his technical advisor suggests that he take his actors deep into the jungle and make them think they are really in wartime conditions, he jumps at the chance to save the film. Unfortunately, as soon as he and his crew land in the jungle, and he finishes explaining to the actors what is about to happen, he steps on a land mine and is blown up. The actors think he has contrived to disappear, even after they discover his head, which they misrecognize as a prop.

Misrecognition is a major trope in this film. No one understands what anyone else is doing. The actors think their rifles are loaded with bullets, when in fact they are loaded with blanks. They think the guerillas who attack them with real guns and bullets are actors. Tropic Thunder alludes to virtually every other Vietnam film imaginable, from Platoon to Apocalypse Now to Forrest Gump to Who'll Stop the Rain to The Deerhunter to Rambo. By alluding to these films in a film that itself is about the making of a Hollywood war film, Tropic Thunder points out the significant differences between actual war and the films that portray war. It's also a deliberate and self-conscious study in cinematic intertextuality.

Which is not to say that Tropic Thunder is not funny. It is quite funny, and I often laughed. The film offers an array of characters who themselves are Hollywood stereotypes: the fading action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), the drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) who stars in films about fat people passing gas, the Brando-esque method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey) who becomes the characters he plays (in this case, since he is portraying an African American sergeant, he has his skin permanently dyed black), the macho young black actor with gender identity issues (his name is Alpa Chino—say it aloud—a joke that becomes funnier each time it's repeated), the young and intelligent teenage rising star Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) who is the only one of the cast who bothered to read the script. And then there is the technical advisor, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), one of four survivors of a disastrous battle in Vietnam decades before. His book is the basis of the movie the actors are filming. He has hooks where his hands are supposed to be, purportedly blown off in the battle, though we eventually learn that his hands are intact—the hooks are a prop, and he's a fraud.

Although Tropic Thunder never stops being funny, it does undergo at least one if not more than one transmutation. It begins as a film making fun of bumbling Hollywood actors trying to make a war film. When one of the cast members is captured by a group of drug smugglers (their boss is a 12-year old boy), the other cast members decide to rescue him. Then the film transmutes into a Rambo-esque rescue film. Yet the characters remain the same inept bumblers.

Films like this one—films that parody other films--are often one-note wonders. After the first twenty minutes or so, because the basic premise grows stale, the film does too. But in Tropic Thunder because of the hilarious characters, the effective script, the constant exploration in every possible way of improvising on the theme of a film about a film, this one never gets tiresome.

An interesting secondary role in the film is the Hollywood producer Les Grossman, played by a bald and semi-recognizable Tom Cruise. This portrayal is a vicious and even disturbing parody of a Hollywood producer willing to sacrifice human lives for financial gain. Clearly Stiller (and Cruise) had a real producer in mind. Cruise is fine in this role—it's not at all like the more sanitized, homogeneous, roles he has recently played. It reminded me of his portrayal as the radio sex counselor in Magnolia.

Tropic Thunder makes comedy out of the artifice and fakery of the film industry.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) is the first of the three autobiographical accounts by Douglass. It has much of the quality of a Victorian novel, such as Dickens' David Copperfield, which begins with the announcement "I am born." Douglass' account begins in much the same way. The narrative focuses on Douglass' early life as a slave. It is, in essence, a bildungsroman about the education of Douglass both in the ways of slavery as well as of freedom. The narrative is structured around Douglass' experiences with a succession of masters, some of them cruel and severe, others kinder and more moderate, at least in comparison. Douglass eventually came to realize that even the kindest, most enlightened of owners does not mitigate the pain of enslavement. The narrative offers a succession of episodes, many of them violent and brutal, that detail Douglass' own experiences as well as those of other slaves he knew. His relationship with his mother, whom he met only four or five times, was practically non-existent, as was his relationship with several brothers and sisters. He did not know his father, though it is possible (and Douglass suspected as much) that his father was one of his owners. The wife of one of his owners began teaching him his alphabet. When her husband warns her against teaching slaves to read, she stops, but Douglass resolves to learn how to read on his own. He also taught himself to write. He otherwise educated himself through surreptitious reading and through conversation with white boys his own age whom he met on the streets of Baltimore. He taught groups of slave how to read. He organized one group of fellow slaves in an escape attempt that failed when another slave betrayed them. A second attempt to escape was successful, and he made his way first to New York City and then, with the assistance of a New York lawyer, to Massachusetts, where he learned that being a freedman did not mean freedom from racism. In Massachusetts he discovered his abilities as a speaker at an abolitionist's meeting. To ensure he would not be captured and returned to slavery, a group of abolitionists bought his freedom.

The narrative is vigorously and earnestly written, replete with details, fully dimensional characterizations, and moral fervor. It became an important document in the history of American abolitionism and helped inform Americans about the conditions of slavery. It is one of the leading American slave narratives.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph Ellis

In American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (2007) historian Joseph Ellis studies the thirty years following the American Revolution. He does so by focusing on discrete episodes, each of which had significant consequences for the new republic. These consequences included the development of a strong central government, the institution of slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the creation of a two-party system, and the Louisiana Purchase. We meet again in each of these episodes the esteemed personages we know so well—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and others. Ellis takes pains to portray the revolutionary period and the decades following as a crucial period during which the course and future of the nation were set. Good decisions were made, often by accident, or without foresight of their consequences. Bad decisions were made as well, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes through weakness of character.

Among the fortuitous results of this period were the development of the two-party system, which provided a way for disputes and disagreement to be aired and negotiated without violence. The institution of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans were considerably less desirable consequences. Although the Founders initially planned to treat the Indians in a decent manner, their plans soon foundered. Land set aside for the Indians was invaded by white settlers, and no one had any intention of pushing the white settlers off the land.

The penultimate episode of this period was the Louisiana Purchase, which converted the struggling colonies on the eastern side of the continent into an incipient national empire. The Louisiana Purchase had the effect of rendering null and void any imperial intentions of the French and the Spanish (whose fortunes were in decline anyway). And it provided territory for American expansion—nowhere else on the earth, Ellis points out, was there an expanse of land so rich and fertile.

Ellis does not treat the Founders as legendary heroes but instead as flawed men of flesh and blood who were sometimes inspired by their nobler selves and sometimes the victim of baser natures. Ellis has a real fondness for Washington, whose story he told elsewhere in a long and brilliant biography His Excellency George Washington (2004). He is fond as well of the ambitious and self-important John Adams, in many ways the engineer of the new nation. He admired the political expertise of James Madison. It's clear that he has problems with Thomas Jefferson, who despite his ideals was capable of self-deception, duplicity, and driving ambition.

When the revolution ended, the future of the nation was by no means certain. The loose confederation of states that formed after the revolution struggled on for a few years and then appeared on the verge of dissolution. No one expected it to survive. Washington's intervention led to the Constitutional Convention of 1788. A majority of the delegates there did not favor the kind of government the few proposed, a government whose authority would supersede that of the individual states. But by happenstance and deft maneuvering, the Constitution was approved.

In the nation's early years political candidates never ran for office or campaigned or admitted they desired to serve. To campaign, to express ambition, was to betray a character flaw that would disqualify one from eligibility to serve—ambition was not regarded as a noble trait. Therefore, Washington never left Mount Vernon when he was nominated to be president. When Madison plotted to get Jefferson elected in the 1800 election, he contrived not to tell Jefferson that he was a candidate—Jefferson may have known, of course, but the easiest way to circumvent the issue of the candidate who claims that he isn't interested in being a candidate was simply not to tell him. Jefferson lost to Adams in the 1800 election and became vice president. The stage was set for Jefferson to defeat Adams in the election of 1804.

The Year of Our Revolution: New and Selected Stories and Poems, by Judith Ortiz Cofer

The Year of Our Revolution: New and Selected Stories and Poems (1998) is a collection of stories and poems in which writer Judith Ortiz Cofer describes growing up in Puerto Rico and Paterson, New Jersey, during the 1950s and 60s. Although the narratives seem loosely based on her own life and family, her main character is named Mary Ellen, or Maria Elenita. Cofer has often written about her childhood in Puerto Rico and New Jersey, about her sometimes difficult experiences living and adjusting to a bi-cultural life, moving back and forth between "the Island" and New Jersey, of the father who is firmly committed to staying in the States (but who never quite says so) and the mother who dreams of returning to the island. Cofer's most distinctive treatments of this subject are her 1989 novel The Line of the Sun and the stories and essays of Silent Dancing (1990) and The Latin Deli (1993). It is also a central theme of her poetry.

What sets this collection off from her other work is Cofer's placement of the coming of age experience during the decade of the 1960s. The 60s was a decade of popular culture, music, revolutionary fervor, sexual awakening, and a deepening rift between older and younger generations. Cofer interweaves all these themes into the life and experiences the book records. Mary Ellen's coming of age involves not only a growing assertion of independence from her parents, a gradually developing assertion of identity as an individual, but a gradual movement towards American selfhood and a loss of Puerto Rican culture.

This book seems written for a young adult audience—Cofer relates in these stories the experiences of a young girl ranging in age from four or five to late adolescence. As a result the stories offer much that many adolescents would identify with.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) takes up where The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) left off, with a similar group of characters (differently named) and many of the same actors. It's another Wes Anderson story about a lovably depressive and dysfunctional family. The father died in an accident a year before the story begins. The mother has retreated to a monastery on a mountain top in India. Three brothers—Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman—haven't spoken since the funeral. They unite for a "spiritual journey" that will eventually take them to their mother. They leave a moody sister back home. Angelica Huston, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and others from the Tenenbaums film make appearances here. Adrian Brody also appears as one of the brothers.

Much of the film takes place on a train making its slow and painful way across the Indian landscape. We spend a lot of time watching the brothers interact in their train compartment and outside the train as well. Francis , who organized the trip, is the controlling brother who passes out agendas for their trip. He tells his brothers where to sleep, asks to keep their passports, suggests what they may say and do. They chafe against his low-key controlling nature.

A lot of nothing happens. If you need a firmly defined plot, if you expect characters who confront specific challenges and difficulties, this film won't work for you. If you're comfortable with slowly developing scenes in which three unexpressive and off-kilter characters spend a lot of time walking around, saying a few words, smoking cigarettes or chugging cough syrup, having vague disagreements, bumping into one another, then this film will work.

The plot, such as it is, is considerably less obvious than it was in Tenenbaums or in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). For me, the lack of a plot, the formlessness, is the film's charm. It's difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional group of individuals than these three brothers. It's difficult to imagine their surviving in the real world. Yet we identify with them. Their dysfunctional natures are ones we connect with our own.

A key moment comes when the brothers see three boys on a raft use a rope to try to pull their way across a river. Their raft overturns and the boys fall in the water. The three brothers spring into action, each of them going after one of the struggling boys. Two of the boys are rescued, but one is swept away and killed. The brothers take the surviving boys and their dead brother to their home village. They take part in the funeral for the dead boy. This experience somehow becomes the basis of a transformation, though it is difficult to see exactly what the transformation is.

The brothers at last reach a kind of understanding with one another when they meet their mother at the mountain retreat. The conclusion of this film is similar to that in The Life Aquatic. You know something has happened, but you're not exactly sure what. In The Life Aquatic, Zissou has lost his son and in what amounts to a communal mourning he and his crew take their submarine deep into the ocean in search of the fabled jaguar shark. Their encounter with the shark is a kind of emotional resolution. In Darjeeling perhaps it is the young boy's death, and the brothers' participation in his funeral, that prepares them for their reunion with their mother, but the focus of the film's conclusion is vague, and you know only that the film is approaching an end because in some indefinable way it feels that way. The presence of a man-eating tiger nearby may also be involved, though we never encounter it. We only hear about it.

India provides an unconventional backdrop. The problems the brothers have with one another have little to do with the setting. But India provides an unusual kind of visual and cultural counterpoint to the self-absorbed brothers. They make little notice of the people and countryside around them. One of them has a brief encounter with a hostess in her compartment. Another has difficulties with the conductor, who finally throws the brothers off the train. He's especially upset when he discovers that one of them is carrying with him a poisonous snake—for reasons never explained. He forbids them to smoke on the train, and they keep ignoring him.

The death of the boy in the river is a tragic, disturbing moment. But the film underplays the episode in a flat, unsentimental, almost cinematically comatose way. We can tell only that the boy's father is grief-stricken. One might argue that the inexpressive reaction of the brothers constitutes in itself some kind of reaction. Or one might argue that their self-absorption is merely that—self-absorption, cultural narcissism, beyond which they cannot see.

I enjoyed this film, but Anderson has carried his lovable, dysfunctional families about as far as they can go.

Monday, October 27, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) moves along with the steady pace of a metronome. You know what's coming every step of the way, no surprises, no revelations, just one stunt and effect and clue after another. This sequel features virtually all the same characters played by the same actors
as its predecessor National Treasure (2004). Both films are heavily influenced by the faux-thriller The Da Vinci Code and any number of much better films and novels of the 20th century that use paranoid conspiracy narratives. The main character Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) is told that his grandfather, whom he had long believed a patriot of the Civil War, was involved in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. Determined to vindicate family history, he sets out to discover the truth. He discovers a secret Confederate cabal that plotted the assassination and planned to start a second civil war funded with treasures hidden away in the deep recesses of Mt. Rushmore. Somehow the Masons are involved. The treasure consists of golden relics and Mayan temples somehow transported from Central America to South Dakota. Oh, and there's also a book of secrets, passed down from one president to the next, containing the truth about all the mysteries you ever wanted to know the truth of—flying saucers and Roswell, NM, Kennedy's assassination, etc. This film has the credibility of a third-rate comic book. The mystery behind the conspiracy unravels in a complicated and arbitrary way as Gates deciphers clues and puzzles and inscriptions—one of them on the desk of the president in the Oval Office of the White House. Gates even has to kidnap the President, briefly, who doesn't seem to mind. Everyone here seems to be going through the motions, even Ed Harris, who somehow made his way into the story as the villain. It's as if history itself isn't enough, and it's necessary to invent stories about Masonic conspiracies and hidden clues and hidden treasure. It's easy to sleep through long stretches of this film, rousing occasionally to check on the action, missing nothing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Civilization: A New History of the Western World

Civilization: A New History of the Western World (2006) by Roger Osborne is a 500-page tour de force account of human history in the western hemisphere. Osborne regards his story not as a series of separate episodes but rather as a continuous narrative. There are obvious highpoints, here and there—the Roman Empire, for instance—but Osborne gives an impressively full account. A pervasive theme is the tendency of western nations to attempt to impose themselves—their values and cultures—on nations they conquer or influence. This tendency accounts for the success of many western states and at the same time explains such atrocities as the murder of native inhabitants of the two American continents and the extermination of Jews and others prior to and during the Second World War.

This well written book covers not merely political and military developments but cultural and artistic ones as well.

Among the more interesting arguments advanced by Osborne are his contentions that the middle ages were never really dark at all but a period of significant human activity. Only in the last half of the medieval period do we find reason for any of the notions associated with the so-called Dark Ages. He also suggests that western civilization is primarily a Germanic affair, not a Greco-Roman one. Osborne's account of the history and influence of the Christian church, and of the influence of philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Hegel, Kant, and others on the evolution of the Western mind, are particularly interesting.

As he moves towards the present day, Osborne's account becomes increasingly grim. With its rationalist tendency towards self-justifications, with the rise of modern capitalism and the nationalist ideologies that fueled it, the West in his eyes seems bound towards some future apocalyptic moment of self-immolation, a moment somewhere just beyond Osborne's grasp, which at last comes to rest as he approaches the present moment.

Under Osborne's gaze, under the gaze of any historian taking such a broad and comprehensive view, history seems not so much a human story as a relentless natural force in which the lives and fates of millions of individuals seem to matter not much at all. Great leaders rule for a time and then pass from the scene. Nations rise and fall. Multitudes are born and live their lives and die. Under this force, the notion that individuals can have a role in determining the course of events seems fatuous.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Incest, bloody fights, hangings, sex, rape, whippings, miscarriage, alcohol, prostitutes, a man boiled alive, sexual repression, adultery, slave rebellion, depravity, decadence, cruelty, racism, decaying old mansions, mint juleps.

Mandingo (1975) is the obverse of Gone with the Wind (1939). In one Southern plantation family it embeds the whole of the institution of slavery, both as it was and as people believe it was. Mandingo serves as antidote to decades of films that extol the virtues of the Old South and ignore the dark realities of slavery. Yet as a portrait of history, it is no more reliable and accurate than the views it seeks to correct. The real intent of Mandingo is not corrective. It is prurient, sensationalist, and exploitative. Within a two-hour span, it manages to include every fact and myth imaginable about slavery and the Old South. Who knows what to believe when this film is over?

Mandingo presents a world in which plantation owners regard slaves as animals without souls. They discuss slaves as they would discuss sheep or cattle. They talk about how to breed slaves—the woman are called "breeders." Slave children are "suckers." They execute slaves who run away too often and poison those too old to work. The white male owners exercise total control over the lives and bodies of slaves. They have sex with the women whenever they like, and in fact Hammond's father (played by James Mason) explains to a young slave girl that she should feel honored to have her first sexual experience with her owner's son: "It's Master's duty to pleasure the wenches first time!" Men have "bed wenches" who give them the kind of sex their white wives are supposedly too frail and innocent to offer. Yet white women are shown as sexually repressed too.

Falconhurst is the plantation where much of the film occurs. It is located in Louisiana, somewhere between Memphis and New Orleans. Compared to other plantations, it's a pretty run-down affair, and perhaps this is supposed to imply that the Maxwells are an exception to the mythic Southern rule of leisure and gentility and beauty. Mrs. Maxwell died years before, and the place has lacked a mistress as a result. The implication is that when a new young mistress comes on the scene, she will motivate Hammond and his father to fix the place up. To do that, they will need money, and to get money they will have to sell slaves, which they never hesitate to do.

Hammond Maxwell, the son at Falconhurst, the plantation in this film, has a game leg. He is portrayed as a kind exception to the norm among slave owners. He dislikes the mistreatment of slaves. He truly loves the slave girl Blanche who becomes his "bed wench" after he buys her in New Orleans. He tells her that she will always belong to him, that no one can take her away from him. He promises that when their child grows up he will set him free. He disapproves when his cousin spanks the slave girl he has been given by a host to spend the night with. He treasures and respects Mede, the husky male slave he buys in New Orleans and who proves to be a vigorous fighter. He doesn't like to see families broken up at slave auctions. Despite all these exceptions, Hammond believes in slavery, is upset when he discovers that one of the house slaves can read, happily leads slaves off to be sold in Memphis, is enraged to the point of madness when he discovers that his wife has had sex with and become pregnant by Mede (she does this to get revenge on her husband and his bed-wench), whom he does not hesitate to murder.

Not surprisingly, slaves in the film lead a double-life. They have no choice but to accept the sexual exploitation the women suffer. They are subservient in front of whites, and more assertive, more "normal" among themselves. Out of hearing of the whites, they argue with each other as to how subservient they should be. Moke in particular is accused of trying to ingratiate himself to Hammond for his willing participation in arranged fights. He is accused by another slave, the rebellious Cicero, of turning against his "black brother." On the other hand, no one blames Blanche for loving Hammond. The movie doesn't explicitly address the fact that she has no choice but to submit to him. He tells her that he will leave her alone if that is what she wants--she responds that she wants to give him pleasure. That Hammond doesn't want to force Blanche to have sex does not mitigate the fact that as her owner he can do with her as he likes—he has the power, whether or not he uses it.

Mandingo pays much attention to racial and sexual double standards among white characters. Hammond becomes upset on his wedding night when he discovers that his wife has already had sex—she is not a virgin (at the age of 13, she later tells him, she had sex with her brother). Yet Hammond himself has been having sex with black women for years. He tells his wife, before they have sex for the first time, that he does not know how to behave with a white woman—he has only been with black women. His father has warned him that white women don't like sex and won't do for their husbands what black women are willing to do. (Black women are invariably referred to as "wenches.") In the world of Mandingo, it is accepted and expected that white men will have sex with prostitutes and with black women, that black women will have sex with the white men who own them, but that white women will have sex (infrequently) only with their husbands and only after marriage. Hammond's father tells him that he will need his "bed wench" after he marries because the black woman will relieve the white wife of having to "submit." White women, of course, cannot have sex with black men.

The primary white woman in the film is Blanche, Hammond's cousin, whom his father more or less arranges for him to marry. Once he discovers she is not a virgin, he wants nothing to do with her. She grows increasingly frustrated, especially as he continues to spend time with Blanche. At one point, while Hammond is away, she whips Blanche and pushes her down the stairs, resulting in the loss of the child Blanche is carrying. Ultimately, she forces Mede to have sex with her by telling him that if he refuses she will tell Hammond that he raped her. This is her way of getting revenge on Hammond.

At the end of the film, Hammond is forced to confront the fact that whether or not he has been a less abusive and oppressive slave master than others, he is still a slave master and capable of committing all the atrocities the role implies. Just before Hammond shoots him, Mede tells him, "I thought you was better than the white man, Masta. But you is just white!"    

One problem with this film (among the many) is historical accuracy. I do not doubt that in the abstract everything this film argues about slavery is true—that it places white owners in a position of total control over the slaves they owned. Slaves had no freedom, no control over their own lives. Many were mistreated and suffered horribly. Many slave owners took advantage of their position and had sex with and children by their female slaves. There is no doubt that slavery dehumanized both the owners and the enslaved. But did all slave-owners--or even most of them--behave as the Maxwells behave in this film? Is there any evidence that slave owners openly bragged about their relationships and offspring with slave women? Would their wives have tolerated such discussion? Would gentlemanly rules of decorum have permitted such discussion? We have ample historical evidence to document that many slave owners did sleep with their slaves, including the DNA evidence that shows Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemming, whom he may or may not have loved, and who may or may not have loved him. But Jefferson left no written comments on this relationship. There is ample evidence of such relationships throughout the slave-owning South. But to what extent is Mandingo a representative portrait of the peculiar institution? And how many white women in the 1840s—the wives of plantation owners—would try to seduce male slaves? There is certainly no evidence this was a common occurrence. Once again, when a film attempts to portray history or to correct inaccurate portrayals of history, should there be an obligation to portray fact? Or should filmmakers have license to give any version of events they want, in order to serve a particular political bias or to satisfy the sensationalist desires of their audience? Any discussion of the weaknesses and flaws in this film—the excessive melodrama, the unremarkable plot, the poor acting—must include the issue of historical inauthenticity.

Mandingo is beautifully filmed. The music is written by Maurice Jarré. The music is particularly tender in the scenes between Blanche and Hammond, suggesting that what we are seeing is a romantic relationship between two lovers--an oversimplification and distortion of the true situation. Music and visual beauty simply contribute to the overall distortions that the film presents.

The Neon Bible

The Neon Bible (1995), loosely based on a novel written by John Kennedy Toole when he was 16 years old, is a stagey, doleful, impressionistic account of a young boy's life in a torn and eccentric family in the early 1940s. If Toole is in any sense identifiable with the young protagonist of the story, then perhaps we can infer that the novel and film tell us something about the nature of his life with his own mother. But that is speculation at best.

Placed in Georgia (the credits say it was filmed on location in Madison, Crawfordville, and Atlanta), the film is contrived and artificial. It lacks life, has little to say, other than implying that life in the 1940s South was repressive. We see the boy's father (played by an unrecognizable Dennis Leary) take him to a lynching. There are several scenes involving church and revival services where the emphasis falls on sin and hellfire damnation. In one voiceover that accompanies a scene of people sitting in church, the protagonist explains that in his town you had to be like everyone else or you had to leave town—there was no alternative. The film's title is perhaps suggests the repressive atmosphere of the world in which the boy grew up.

The scenes seem to shift back and forth in time, to some extent, although the overall movement of the narrative is chronologically forward. Ostensibly, the film focuses on the arrival in the family of Aunt Mae, the older sister of the boy's mother. She is played by Gene Rowlands, who is too old for the part, but who nonetheless plays it well. Mae is a singer and performer who left the stage for reasons unspecified. She spends much of the film reminiscing about her days on the stage and the men who courted her. As the boy's mother sinks deeper and deeper into mental illness, Mae is the boy's confidante and companion. Her departure towards the end of the film traps him, since his mother has to be watched on a 24-hour basis, forcing him to quit his job as a drugstore clerk.

There are some contrived set pieces in the film, one at a revival service and another at a World War II-era fundraiser where Mae sings. There are scenes in which the camera lingers for long seconds and perhaps minutes on random images—for instance, the dark, cavernous entrance to the tent where a revival is taking place. These scenes suggest the impact of the past, of the boy's memories, perhaps, but they add to the awkward, pretentious character of the film. They seem purposeless. They take up time rather than move the film forward or somehow enhance the portrayal of a character or the evocation of a mood,.

The film is slow and melodramatic. The boy's parents argue and fight. His father doesn't want Aunt Mae in the house. They have no money. We watch the mother gradually lose her mind—we see several scenes of her suffering, mainly evinced by her tendency to cry at revivals and public gatherings. Does she go mad because of a repressive family life, because of her husband's death in the war, because of competition with the more outgoing Mae? The movie doesn't suggest a reason—it simply illustrates. The boy makes tentative but unsuccessful attempts to be friends with girls. Finally, when Mae announces she is leaving to take what she hopes will be a job in Nashville, the boy is trapped. He returns home from the train station where he has told Mae goodbye to find his mother collapsed and bleeding on the upper store of their house. Instead of calling for a doctor, he drags her into the bedroom and puts her on a bed, where he lovingly embraces her while she goes about dying. Is this intentional, his failure to seek medical help? In the novel, the boy kills his mother. In the film, after the mother dies and while he is burying her, a local preacher arrives to cart his mother off to the mental asylum. The boy kills him with a shot gun.

The whole film is told retrospectively, as the boy sits in a train car riding towards an undetermined destination. He looks out an empty dark window and remembers the scenes that the film dramatizes. To my knowledge, this film was never released in wide distribution. The New York Times review describes the film's British director Terence Davies as "a gifted cinematic poet whose semi-autobiographical films 'Distant Voices, Still Lives' and 'The Long Day Closes' present a child's-eye view of growing up in Liverpool in the late 1940s and 50s, Davies uses film like Proust's madeleine to recapture the past. Storytelling is wound around a montage of images and songs that have a mystical personal resonance." The same method seems evident here, but for whatever reason—the fact that Davies is not working with his own life, the tentativeness of the novel, his own unfamiliarity with the setting of the story, it doesn't work.