Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Michael Ruppersburg, and Me

When my children were young, I told them a lot of stories. Some were about things that had happened to me. Others I just made up. My oldest son Michael developed a propensity for yarn-spinning at an early age. I would tell him stories late at night, getting him ready for sleep, and then he’d tell his own tales.

When Michael was four and five, he went to pre-school at Athens Montessori School. Michael Jackson in those years was at the height of his popularity. His album Thriller was selling millions. His music videos, which were truly innovative, and which brought to the music video format the imagination and energy of the best Hollywood musicals, were making a terrific impact. I remember watching Michael and his friends trying to do the moonwalk, the dance step that Jackson popularized. I tried it myself, with no success. Michael and his cousin Bill would sing the lyrics to “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” over and over. They had no idea what the words meant. They just liked the way they sounded.

Every afternoon I’d drive to Montessori to pick Michael up. One afternoon I drove over and got out of my car and headed for the building where I knew Michael would be. I soon found myself surrounded by a group of perplexed little children, starring up at me with looks that combined idolatry, disbelief, and confusion. I wasn’t sure what was going on. I saw those children every day, and they knew me. What was up? Finally one little boy walked up to me and asked, “Are you really Michael Jackson?” No, I assured him, I was not. Michael came around the corner. The boy turned to him, protesting, “But you said your dad was Michael Jackson . . . “

I liked to kid my children. When Michael was barely a year old, I trained him to respond to my question “Where’s Elvis?” by craning his head upwards and pointing to the sky. This was a parlor trick. I regretted doing this to Michael in later years, just as I regretted telling him one day when he had misbehaved about Hell (in which I don’t believe) and about how the sun would eventually burn out. Five year olds don’t need such knowledge. This is the kind of information that terrorized me as a little boy. I’d lie awake at night for hours worrying about tornadoes, earthquakes, meteors.

I used to tell my sons a lot of stories and jokes about Elvis in those years. He had been dead only a few years, and he was still prominent in the popular imagination. Everyone talked about Elvis as the King of Rock and Roll. “Elvis the King” was a phrase heard often in my house, and Michael knew it as well as I did.

When he turned six, it was time for Michael to enroll in first grade. We enrolled him at St. Joseph’s School near downtown Athens, conveniently located close by to where my wife and I work. Michael had a problematic relationship with the head nun at St. Joe’s, a forbidding woman named Sister Ignatia. She was a stern and unforgiving nun of the old school. She didn’t tolerate nonsense. Michael, like many of the children at St. Joe’s, had some run-ins with her, and had some stories to tell. One afternoon I went to pick him up. He climbed in the car and sat down in the seat next to me and sat there, silent, as we headed home. He seemed a little quieter and more thoughtful than usual. Finally he turned to me and said, “Dad, Sister Ignatia says Elvis is not the King. He is an earthly entertainer. She says Jesus is the King.”

In my imagination, I pieced together the encounter between Michael and Sister Ignatia concerning Elvis the King. She would know well enough where Michael got his information. I decided to avoid Sister Ignatia and the judgment she might render on me at all costs.

The Reivers

The Reivers (1969, dir. Mark Rydell) was filmed while the Civil Rights movement was still making inroads in American culture. Although important civil rights legislation had been passed, although barriers were coming down and people’s attitudes were beginning, slowly, to change, the notion of racial equality with all its implications was still fresh and even controversial in the viewing public’s mind. Yet in 1969 the strictures of political correctness had not yet taken hold, and in some ways it was easier to have open discussions about race and ethnicity than it is today. The use of the “N” word in The Reivers is an example. Some characters in the film (for example, Sheriff Butch Lovemaiden) use the term as a racist and hateful expression. Others simply use it as a common term that refers to a black person. Undoubtedly the term carried negative connotations. Although its use did not necessarily connote deliberate racism, when a white man used the word to address or refer to a black man, it clearly carried negative meanings. But it could also be used simply as a vernacular way of naming what a black man was. The use of this word today is far more sensitive and charged than it was when this film was made. To give a historically accurate depiction of life in the South in the early 1900s—a time when the “N” word was in common use, and when not every person using it was a villain deserving of castigation—is a more difficult and risky undertaking today than it would have been in 1969. At the same time, we have a more informed perspective about race and racism today, perhaps, than we had forty years ago. The Reivers as a film tends to camouflage or underemphasize issues of race in order to focus on other aspects of the story it tells, and in order to avoid the controversy that accompanies the issue.

When some characters in The Reivers use the “N” word, the film is accurately reflecting how people in Mississippi and Tennessee of 1905 might have talked. But the film is not an accurate depiction (as best I can tell) of how the white and black races in the American South of that time interacted. The Reivers makes clear that the South is a place of racism where there are clearly demarcated boundaries between black and white people. Typically in the film, blacks are shown working as servants or at menial labor or in the fields. In rare moments, white characters such as Sheriff Lovemaiden threaten black characters—as when he suggests that he if townspeople hear that Uncle Possum is alone with a white woman on his farm, there will be trouble. The character Ned McCaslin is not allowed to accompany Lucius and Boon into the white whorehouse, and he always sleeps separately from the white characters (although Uncle Possum shares a bed with Lucius when the latter spends the night at his house).

The film implies two different kinds of white Southerners. “The Bad Whites” are racist in behavior and attitude—Lovemaiden is an example. The “Good Whites” may do little to change the racial separatism of the times, but they treat black Southerners in a kind and respectful way. What’s more, the film often shows blacks and whites interacting on a more or less equal level when, for example, the train arrives in town carrying Boss McCaslin’s car—everyone rushes to the train station and exhibits a common enthusiasm for the newfangled contraption. (The absolute absence of any consciousness of race in some of these scenes is suspicious and unrealistic). Blacks do tend to group together. Ned McCaslin, who is apparently known for his outspoken and aggressive ways (though he always seems to know when to back off) speaks to Lucius and Boon on an equal basis. The film portrays Ned as a character who keeps his own counsel, who knows when to speak and to remain silent. That is, he is shown as an intelligent black man who for his own well being stays in his place, though he does push the boundaries. Part of his assertiveness, as he takes pain on two occasions to explain, is that he is descended from Lucius Carothers McCaslin, the patriarch of the white McCaslin clan, who had a child by Ned’s great grandmother.

In reality, in 1905, there would have been considerably less interaction between whites and blacks than The Reivers portrays, than even Faulkner’s 1962 novel The Reivers, portrays. In that novel, and in reality, the division in racial attitudes between “good” and “bad” Southerners was considerably less clear than the film would have it. The film wants to ensure comfort in its audience by portraying a society in which racism is not as pervasive and obvious as it in fact was. In doing so, it allows focus on the main story, that of Boon and Lucius and their illicit trip to Memphis, and of Lucius’ initiation into the complex ambiguities of adult manhood. But in doing so it also gives a historically inaccurate view of life in the South in the early 1900s—Faulkner’s novel gives a more accurate view.

When I studied Faulkner in graduate school and in later years, almost everyone dismissed The Reivers as a film. It was generally regarded as having smoothed over and simplified the nuances of Faulkner’s final novel. Undoubtedly, the film does that. It also gives Hollywood treatment to Faulkner’s characters, who are not as glamorous or as easy to pigeonhole in the novel as they are in the film. Ned McCaslin is more of a clown in the novel, while the film portrays him as a more assertive and substantial person. The film also ignores the history of Boon Hogganbeck, his mixed race ancestry and his occasional wild recklessness (the film shows us that Boon is a bad shot—an important aspect of his character in The Reivers and Go Down, Moses—but it does not dwell on the fact. In fact, Boon’s mixed ancestry helps explain his relationship with Ned). The film gives us a considerably sanitized Boon, played in uproarious mode by Steve McQueen.

The film preserves the basic outlines of the novel’s plot and the essence of its themes. Narrated by Burgess Meredith, an elderly Lucius McCaslin who tells the story of his boyhood escapade with Boon, it focuses on the grandfather, Boss McCaslin (wonderfully played by Will Geer) as a source of probity and moral rectitude. While the world portrayed in the film is more like the world of a Disney film than of a Faulkner novel, while the tone of the film is substantially different from that of the novel, the theme of a young man’s education in what it means to be a gentleman, in the ambiguity of truth and virtue, is retained.

See Jonathan Yardley’s column on Faulkner’s novel The Reivers

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008, dir. Bharat Nalluri) feels like a throwaway stage play adapted without much change for the screen. In fact, it’s based on a novel, not a play, but it feels like a play. It’s about a governess, Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), who has had a long series of unsuccessful appointments and secretary or head housekeeper. She is apparently rigid, stubborn, and puritanical enough that employer after employer finds her unacceptable. After her most recent employer throws her out, her employment agency decides to have nothing more to do with her and tells her to go away. She overhears a conversation about an available position and surreptitiously picks up the address card and goes to the address. There she meets a young woman, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) living the high life, sleeping with three different men, casting about for her best option in life. She is a nightclub owner’s mistress, she is sleeping with a young producer in hopes that she will get a part in his play, and she sings with a pianist who loves her and has proposed. This is exactly the kind of woman Miss Pettigrew is most unsuited to work for, but she is desperate. She somehow finds herself working for the woman as a personal secretary. She comes to like her. The film follows the developing situation. Miss Pettigrew gradually relaxes and lightens up. She buys new clothes and suddenly looks attractive. She meets a man, a fashion designer, her own age, and he’s interested in her. She helps Delysia make some important decisions.

The whole situation is improbable. In one day Miss Pettigrew goes from being a homeless person sleeping on the bench in the train station to living the high life and accepting a marriage proposal. Her change in character is the most unlikely aspect of the film for me. I do not doubt that a person can change attitudes, personality, lifestyle, but such transformations usually take place within a longer span of time than 24 hours.

Amy Adams is an attractive, vivacious actress whose fresh appearance and ebullient personality have made her a rising star. In such films as Junebug (2005), Doubt (2008), and Enchanted (2007) she has proven the depth and range of her talents. In this film she is playing a kind of cartoon stick figure, a flighty, disorganized, wholly amoral flapper (though the film is set in the Depression, right before World War II begins) who feels no compunction about using sex to get what she wants. But her mission is survival—she has no wealth of her own, and without the men she relies on and tries to exploit (and who exploit her), she would be out on the streets with people like Miss Pettigrew. Adams is as good in the role as it allows her to be, which means that she mainly has to simper and flirt and cavort and look confused. This is not one of her better roles.

Frances McDormand is a wonderful actress. This is an odd role for her, but she plays it well enough. She knows woebegone.

This film is entertaining, but you know from the start how it all will go. I didn’t like the film. It seemed half-hearted, from the obvious use of sets to the shallow characterizations to the trite and hackneyed script. Most of all it seemed pointless and insulting. Why sympathize with insipid souls like Delysia Lafosse or the three men who pursue her? The problems of these people seem wholly at odds with the environment of depression and war that looms menacingly in the background of the film. There are numerous mindless, empty, vacuous films coming out every month. Why do they get made? Who bothers to watch them? Who cares about or remembers them?

Song of the South

It is never quite clear whether Song of the South (1945, dir. Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson) takes place before or after the Civil War. We can guess that it occurs after the war, since the young boy’s father is a newspaper writer in Atlanta whose editorials are not popular among many readers. This may have something to do with why the boy and his mother go to live with the grandmother—to escape the unpleasantness of their lives in Atlanta. (It may also have to do with the fact that Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales, was a post-Civil War Atlanta newspaper writer). Walt Disney himself claimed the film was about the time following the Civil War. However, if we base the time of the film on the behavior of the African American characters, who work in the fields and at menial jobs and who show fawning respect and deference to the white characters, and who sing contentedly on their way to and from work in the fields, the time could just as well be before the Civil War. Oddly, the film never mentions the Civil War. It might well have never occurred. The film occurs in a sort of alternative universe. This ambiguity about when it is actually set, the absence of references to important events in the outside world, suggests that the makers of Song of the South were uncomfortable with their subject.

Song of the South mentions the city of Atlanta a few times—it is where the father works, where he is going after leaving his unhappy wife and son on the plantation, where Uncle Remus plans to go after being ordered not to have anything to do with the boy. That is, Atlanta is the modern world, the place of controversy, discontentment, dispossession, broken homes, endangered marriages, unhappy families. When the father comes back to the plantation at the end of the field and announces that he plans to stay, the family is reunited and we know where the film’s heart lies—on the plantation, where the darkies sing and Uncle Remus tells his stories, the opposite of everything that big cities represent.

Because it was last available for sale in the 1980s, and last shown on television in the early 1970s, many people have never seen Song of the South and know about it only by reputation, by what others report about it. The film’s reputation as a racist encomium to the Old South has prevented its release in DVD. It is an important document in the response of American films to history, slavery, and to race relations in the 20th century. Unlike Birth of a Nation, which is an impressive film, and a racist one, Song of the South is not especially distinguished, but it deserves to be seen so that viewers can judge for themselves the film’s reputation and can appreciate how far American race relations and the filmmaking industry have come in the last 60 or more years.

If this film were more tightly focused on the friendship of the boy and Uncle Remus, if the timing of events in the film were clearer, it might be more difficult (though not impossible) to accuse it of racism and racial stereotyping. Remus and the boy are individuals. Individuals have specific and distinctive personalities. Individual relationships can occur in any form and fashion. There is no reason why an elderly black man and a young white boy should not strike up a friendship, especially when the black man is naturally inclined to like children, and when the young boy needs a father figure. If the film does occur shortly after the Civil War, during Reconstruction (of which the film gives barely a hint), and since it is set in the rural South, then certain elements of Remus’ dress, speech, behavior, and living habits make more sense—they reflect the particularities of place and time and economic status. From this point of view, Remus and the boy stand only for themselves, not for anything larger.

It is the larger context of this film that makes it what it is: an apology for racial paternalism and the Old South. In the larger context, Remus is the focus of a film that argues for the good old simplicity of slavery times. Song of the South in this regard is a latter-day version of the 19th-century apologist stories of Thomas Nelson Page (“Marse Chan”) and others. It invokes all the sacred icons of the venerated Old South, the white columned plantation house foremost among them. The white inhabitants of the house dress in elegance, have swank parties, live a life of leisure. The black servants (or slaves, depending on when the film takes place) love their white masters, regard themselves as members of the family (though they understand the limits of their membership). Uncle Remus himself gives advice to his mistress but knows when to back off. She understands the wisdom of his words but at the same time calls him “an old rascal.” As if to make clear its position, the film trots out Hattie McDaniel, the actress who portrayed Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1938). She plays almost exactly the same character.

Many plantation films focus visually on the plantation house. In this one the columned front of the house is frequently shown, but it is often seen from the perspective of the slave quarters nearby. Thus we see the house not only up close but also in the distance with the slave cabins on the left and the fields of the farm on the right. This is an unusual perspective, one that emphasizes the size of the farm and that perhaps is meant to reflect the importance of the African Americans in the film. When Uncle Remus addresses the boy’s mother or grandmother in front of the house, he always stands at the bottom of the steps, she on the upper steps, looking down at him. He enters the house only when invited to enter.

An underlying premise of the film is that modern times bring family discord and disunity. In the opening scene, when we first see the boy and his parents, as they are headed towards the plantation where the boy and his mother are to stay while the father returns to the city, we can see something is wrong between the father and mother. The nature of their problem is not clear. Although they embrace with passion as the father is about to leave, there is coldness and tension between them. This is about as clear as a children’s film made in 1945 could ever be about the marital problems of parents. The boy isn’t old enough to understand what is wrong, but he senses the discord and is heartbroken when his father leaves. Later that night he tries to run away, intent on going back to Atlanta to be with his father. This is when he happens on Uncle Remus, telling Brer Rabbit stories to a group of black children. The boy has heard about Uncle Remus and has looked forward to meeting him. Remus becomes the boy’s substitute father. Remus is portrayed as a compassionate old man who understands the boy’s unhappiness and is pleased enough to spend time with him.

Song of the South is another film in which an insightful black character helps the hapless white folks solve their problems (a standard stereotype of race relations in film and literature—we see it even in the recent films Black Snake Moan—2006--and in The Secret Life of Bees--2008). The only insight the film offers into Remus’ own personal situation, his possible loneliness and suffering, comes in a few thrown-away comments he makes as he is getting ready to go away to Atlanta.

Uncle Remus as a character symbolizes all the purported virtues of the mythical Old South, especially as compared to the problems and coldness of the modern world. The film clearly endorses the virtues of elegance and entitlement, rigid social and racial hierarchy, white racism, and so on associated with the Old South. It may use the Old South as a vehicle for expressing more general discontent and unhappiness with the state of things in the modern world, it may not even be that interested in the Old South as a real time and place, but even so what it yearns for nostalgically is a past of racist agrarian pastoralism.

In line with the portrayal of older women in such Disney films as Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty, The Littlest Mermaid, and others, Song of the South offers in the boy’s mother (played by Ruth Warrick) one of the coldest characters imaginable. She believes Uncle Remus has a bad influence on her son and ultimately forbids him from seeing the boy. She makes her son dress in Little Lord Fauntleroy-type clothing that embarrasses him, and in general doesn’t seem to recognize his needs as a young child who misses his father. The film implies that she is uncomfortable with the controversy caused by her husband’s unpopular newspaper articles, and that her unhappiness is part of the reason for their separation. She seems more interested in maintaining social status and propriety than in the problems of her son and duties of her husband. Of course, Uncle Remus helps her see things in a proper light.

See my entry on this film in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Bubba Ho-tep

The term Southern Gothic vaguely refers to the supposed prominence of violence, the grotesque, and (sometimes) the supernatural in Southern culture. We find early elements of the Southern Gothic in Edgar Allan Poe and in the Southern humorists. The proximity of the frontier in the Deep South for a much longer time than in the northeastern part of the nation may account for these elements, along with the South’s loss of the Civil War, and external perceptions about its languishing condition for nearly a century, with family fortunes lost, family lines burned out, depressed economic conditions, inbreeding, and so on. The decaying ancestral and columned family mansion as a symbol and relic of the dead family fortune and the South’s loss in the Civil War neatly serves the Gothic formula; consider the houses in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! In Bubba Ho-tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli) that mansion becomes an old folks home. The creeping Gothic horror is the ancient Egyptian mummy. In the traditional Gothic the creeping horror is often a reflection of family sin and decay. The old folks’ home enshrines the mythology of American cultural icons, especially those connected with the American South.

Bubba Ho-Tep is about an old folks home whose inhabitants include a man who believes he is Elvis Presley and another man who believes he is John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The film allows that these men may be deluded, but it also allows, and depends on, the assumption that they may well be who they think they are—Elvis himself (Bruce Campbell) narrates the film. With J. F. K. (Ossie Davis) he mounts an attack on the ancient Egyptian mummy that is attacking residents of the home and sucking out their souls.

The old folks’ home as a setting symbolizes the distant and irrelevant presence of the mythic Southern past and comments on the more immediate relevance and irrelevance of the myths and symbols that Elvis Presley and J. F. K. signify.

The film builds on the mythology of Presley and of J. F. K. Presley is the modern American hero, idolized and misunderstood, mythologized and ridiculed. His is a Southern Horatio Alger story on the one hand, a Southern Gatsby on the other, destroyed by his own excess and greed and by the greed of others, specifically Colonel Tom Parker, whom Elvis mentions disdainfully in the film. Bubba Ho-Tep exploits our knowledge of Elvis, depends on our familiarity with his life and career, enforces the idea that he was exploited by Colonel Tom Parker and others, that he threw his talent and success away. Elvis in the film clearly believes so. He often mentions with regret his former wife and his daughter. The film depends on our sympathy, and on the idea that we might desire an alternative life for Elvis where things would have gone better. In the decade following Presley’s death, rumors, stories, and folk legends about his survival—in disguise, with another name, in another country—were widely current in American popular culture. (In the film, Elvis tells us that he traded places with the best of the Elvis imitators, Sebastian Haff, who subsequently died of heart disease and drug abuse, while the contract that he and Elvis signed to cement the exchange was destroyed in a trailer fire, so that the real Elvis has no way of proving who he is). The Elvis of the film is the mythologized Elvis—we never go beyond that popular iconic image--what the narration tells us is what we wanted to believe to begin with.

We have another kind of myth-making with J. F. K. We might think of his assassination in a Southern city, Dallas, Texas, as the family sin at the center of the plot, but the film doesn’t go in that direction. Rather through J. F. K. it invokes the conspiracy theories and general paranoia surrounding his assassination and its aftermath. In the film J. F. K. is convinced he was the victim of a vast government conspiracy involving every conceivable person imaginable (including, perhaps, Elvis himself), and that the conspirators are still out to get him. He believes his skin was dyed to make him an African American to hide his true identity. To an extent we might see in Ossie Davis, himself a kind of Southern icon, a commentary on J. F. K. and race. Of all the white people a black man might want to identify with, J. F. K. is a logical choice because of his advocacy of the civil rights bill, not to mention that he is also a symbol of prestige, nobility, popularity, and power, all that we might imagine the character Ossie Davis plays in the film did not have. Davis’ character fantasizes himself into this role--that is, if indeed he is not the actual J. F. K. (Novels by Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer dealt with the mythologizing aspects of the assassination, as does the Oliver Stone film J. F. K. Consider as well the rumors that abounded in the 1960s and 1970s about J. F. K.’s survival of the assassination, his comatose body maintained on the fifth floor of a hospital somewhere near Washington, D. C. A story in a popular scandal magazine described how, after the comatose J. F. K. died, his widow Jackie buried his body in the Aegean Sea during her marriage to Aristotle Onassis.)

The film is infused with major intertextual references to American culture and popular iconography. It especially makes reference to other films: to Ben Hur (in the opening title sequence), Barton Fink (the bug on the wall), The Shining (the hallway scenes), spaghetti westerns, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.

What is significant, literally and symbolically, about mummies that waken from the dead and that must destroy the living to survive? This is certainly the underlying logic of Bubba Ho-tep. Some reviewer I read suggested that in battling the mummy, Elvis is battling himself, and there is sense in that notion—resisting the mummy that would suck out his soul and reduce him to nothingness (a person whose soul has been sucked away by the mummy, the film tells us, has no prospect of a life after death—the soul simply ceases to exist). Elvis and J. F. K. are battling their aged, infirm physical selves. They are resisting mortality. Elvis is also resisting the caricatured image of himself that he left behind—he’s proving that he is, in the end, a person who can “take care of business.” When, after he sets the mummy afire and pushes its burning carcass into the river, he himself lies on the bank of the river, gasping his last breaths. A message appears in the sky: “All is well.”

In Bubba Ho-Tep the mummy is a caricature of an old West gunslinger, a gambling sharpie, and a geek. The feather in his hat perhaps suggests a Native American connection. But the assemblage of cultural references that he incorporates makes him all the more macabre as well as ridiculous.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Quantum of Solace

The most substantial element in this 2008 film is the title, taken from an otherwise unrelated Ian Fleming short story. The plot here is one of revenge—James Bond’s quest for vengeance against the individual responsible for the death of his lover Vesper in the predecessor to this film, Casino Royale (2006). To say that this film lacks substance is not a complaint. This is an action film centered on exotic European and South American locales, constant travel and action and suspense, and the acting of Daniel Craig.

Let’s be clear: never has there been in the long series of films based on the Fleming novels a James Bond as persuasive, well-rounded, and enigmatic as Daniel Craig. He is the definitive James Bond. In Casino Royale he reinvented and resurrected the failing series. In A Quantum of Solace he carries it forward. Craig is an excellent actor, and the two scripts for him thus far have been effective vehicles for his talents. No predecessor—most decidedly including Sean Connery—is his equal. A Quantum of Solace is well made, beautifully photographed, tightly edited, aptly paced. If there is a weakness, it is the script, which is not as carefully or deeply developed as it was for Casino Royale, which was about the first assignment in the young James Bond’s career. But those weaknesses are lost in the energy and furor of the action.

Fleming’s Bond novels were premised on the intrigue of cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the absence of that tension, the new Bond films focus on international crime syndicates, eco-terrorists, global criminals. In this film, the bad guy is stealing water and hording it in caverns beneath the Bolivian desert. He plans to sell it back to the Bolivian government at a high price. Various shots of suffering and thirsty Bolivian Indians make clear the damage he is doing. We know that he is evil, not only because of the sneer on his craven, rat-like face, not only because he helps overthrow governments hostile to his interests, but because he killed Bond’s woman.

If production values this high can be sustained, and if Daniel Craig remains interested, all the James Bond novels should be re-filmed.

The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit (2007, dir. Eran Kolirin) is a small, modest film that gradually and unexpectedly flowers as you view it. With subtitles in both Hebrew and Arabic, it records the visit of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra to a small Israeli settlement. When one of the band members attempts to get directions to the settlement at an Israeli airport, a difficulty in pronouncing the town’s name results in his receiving directions to a different town, an isolated settlement in the middle of the desert, a place clearly not expecting or prepared for a visit from an Egyptian police band.

Every character in this film is an individual, from the sober, tired looking bandleader Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabi) to a young recruit, Haled (Saleh Bakri), who clearly irritates the bandleader at every turn, to the attractive and hungry-for-male-companionship proprietress of the restaurant, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), whom the band members ask for assistance, to the young Israeli man stuck in an unhappy marriage. The film spends more time with some of these characters than with others. It is quiet and respectful of these individuals—it stands back, in effect, and allows their gestures, their facial expressions, their at first uncomfortable interactions to tell the tale.

At heart, The Band’s Visit is a gentle, compassionate comedy. It shows us how cultural differences and wariness break down as human individuals recognize what they hold in common. The most interesting character of all is the band leader Tawfiq. His wife is dead, we learn, as the result of heartbreak over their son’s suicide, for which he feels responsible. Tawfiq also feels responsible for the fate of the band, whose value has apparently been called into question. Gabi portrays Tawfiq in a wholly understated way. At first we see him as prim and Muslim proper, unwilling to interact on any but the most formal and reserved levels with the Israeli characters to whom he turns for assistance. Gradually we see him relax and emerge, tentatively, from his shell, and then we see him retreat back into it again.

One would expect, in this film about an orchestra (which is really only a small ensemble, a band of eight members), that we would hear the group play. Finally, ultimately, almost as a kind of afterthought, they do play, in a revelatory scene that resonates deeply.

Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons (2009, dir. Ron Howard) is based on the 2000 novel of the same title by Dan Brown, who knows just enough about art history, the city of Rome, and the hierarchy and rituals of the Catholic Church to write an entertaining suspense story about someone who is murdering cardinals, all of whom are candidates to become the next Pope. This novel preceded The Da Vinci Code by three years and features the same protagonist, Robert Langdon (played again by Tom Hanks), an expert on ancient codes and the like. The film follows the novel closely, with the one significant difference that the events in the film Angels and Demons follow, rather than precede, the events in The Da Vinci Code. As in the novel, Langdon is summoned to help find the murder of the cardinals. One clue leads to another. Mostly the clues have to do with ancient paintings and sculptures, many of which involve statues or figures who seem to be pointing conveniently in the direction of the next clue. Langdon has little difficulty deciphering the clues, but he and the crack Vatican security agents tend to arrive just a moment or two after the most recent murder has occurred.

Like the novel, the film highlights the intricate rituals of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, especially concerning the selection of a new pope. The film would have us know that these rituals are obscure and arcane and replete with pointless elements that no one understands but that everyone feels obliged to follow carefully. Like the novel, the film attempts to highlight a struggle between science and faith, with Langdon representing science and the Church representing faith. Like the novel, and like The Da Vinci Code, the film focuses on a secret group that has existed for centuries. In Angels and Demons, this group is the Illuminati, a cabal of scientists who have banded together to resist the efforts of the Church to suppress learning and reason. The film and book make these matters out to be far more straightforward and simplistic and mysterious than they are (if they are at all) in reality. One could imagine an intelligent and interesting film that seriously considers the faith vs. science controversy. This film gives serious lip service to the issue, but little of substance.

The Da Vinci Code featured Audrey Tatou, portraying the beautiful descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdelene. Angels and Demons features Ayelet Zurer, playing a beautiful particle physicist involved in the efforts of the CERN laboratory in Switzerland to study antimatter and to identify the Higgs Boson, the so-called “God Particle.” She is brilliant and somehow becomes Langdon’s sidekick, which means mainly that she uses her intellect to follow him around in high heels—she doesn’t have much to do.

And, oh, yes, someone has stolen antimatter from the CERN laboratory and is threatening to use it to blow up the Vatican.

Most of all, and again like the novel, Angels and Demons is entertaining and unimaginative.


Although Up (2009) is not the best film of the year, as some have suggested, it is well made and entertaining. The film begins with a maudlin review of the main character Carl’s life—his yen for adventure, his meeting as a young boy the girl who would become his wife (she too loves adventure and idolizes the same explorer he does). They marry and discover they cannot have children. As solace they plan to travel, to live that adventurous life they had imagined as children, but one thing happens and then another and their plans never get off the ground. They grow old, she sickens and dies, and he is left alone in the house they shared for all their lives. Once in the country, now it is surrounded by skyscrapers. A soulless developer (he looks almost like an alien) wants to take it over and raze it for another skyscraper. Carl has a run in with construction workers, and a judge orders him to move to a retirement home, where he can be looked after.

This is heavy stuff for a film aimed (at least in part) at children. It made me long for a cup of the old hemlock. People near me were weeping by the time we reached the death of Carl’s wife.

But the tone quickly and abruptly changes. Carl has rigged his house with thousands of helium balloons. He inflates them, the house breaks free, and he is off on a quest to find Paradise Falls, the remote South American location that he and his wife had dreamed of visiting. Along the way we encounter a rotund and irritating cub scout, a talking dog (a pack of talking dogs, in fact), a zeppelin, a famous lost explorer, a thunderstorm, a fabled bird the size of a giant ostrich, and so on. The remainder of the film is replete with the action and dangerous moments and hairbreadth escapes you would escape from this kind of entertainment. The old man bonds with the Cub Scout (abandoned by his parents) and with the talking dog and with the giant colorful bird. Despite old age and infirmity, Carl becomes remarkably energetic and agile, running and jumping, and in general acting half his age. He has his great adventure. He learns that his life isn’t over yet, and he finds reason to go on.

The trouble with this film is, of course, that things are not so simple. Old people left alone by death and poverty and time’s passage and infirmity can’t easily find escape through fantasies and floating houses and adventure. Most of them remain alone. Most abandoned or ignored children don’t find elderly substitutes.

With its sudden and dramatic change in tone, with its shallow solution to the problems of the old, Up is a bit dishonest. At the same time, the animation is stunning (in the conventional fashion of Disney/Pixar), and the film is a pleasure to watch. I saw it in 3-D—the effects were impressive for the first five minutes, after which I didn’t notice them.

Forrest Gump

Late in this 1994 film Forrest Gump speaks to the grave of his dead friend Jenny and tells her that he has always wondered whether we just drift accidentally through life or whether we have a destiny. He says that he has decided that maybe the answer is both. The wafting feather that floats down and alights on Forrest’s shoe at the start of the film, and that wafts away in the final scene, embodies this question. Does it float by accident, or is there a purpose, an intent, to where it lands?

Forrest’s life is a series of fortuitous, accidental coincidences that taken altogether would seem incredible were this film not so obviously the fable that it is. He is at the right place and the right time repeatedly in his life, from teaching Elvis how to swivel his hips to playing football for Bear Bryant to winning the Medal of Honor for valor in Vietnam to playing ping-pong with the Chinese. The film is a summary of events in American history from the 1950s through the 80s, a survey of the Civil Rights era, Viet Nam, the tumultuous 60s, and the AIDs epidemic.

What ties the film together is the character of Forrest himself and his love for Jenny. Forrest is slightly below average in intelligence, and his flat, inexpressive reaction to almost everything is his characteristic demeanor throughout the film. He acts on command. When Jenny tells him to “run” to escape from boys who are throwing rocks at him, he does so, and he remembers that command throughout his life. He fits so well into the military because he can follow commands easily and effectively. He takes events one at a time, without fear or prejudice or concern for his own well being. His mother (Sally Fields) tells him he can do anything he wants, and he pretty much proves the truth of her statement throughout the film.

The optimism of Forrest’s mother, her certainty in the promise of her son, belies a selfless ruthlessness. She will do anything it takes to help him, even if this means sleeping with the superintendent of education to ensure that Forrest can attend a regular school.

The poignancy of the film resides in Forrest’s innate goodness, his innocence, and his love for Jenny. These carry him through all the events he experiences. Some might regard him as a kind of saint. He clearly possesses a strong sense of right, of morality and virtue. But to what extent does he choose to be good and virtuous? To what extent is he simply obeying an injunctive command: run?

Why is the film set in the South, specifically in Alabama? Once again, the South offers a natural, bucolic setting for a set of sometimes eccentric characters—although the main such figure is Forrest himself. The setting contributes to the fabulist nature of the story, a story that seems to take place in our own time but that in some other sense seems to be another place and time. The old plantation house in which Forrest lives with his mother and later with Jenny and their son contributes to this atmosphere. Much of the narrative moves from one episode to another of American history, especially the civil rights movement, and the South is the natural setting for those events.

It is odd that although the film makes note of the deaths of the two Kennedy’s and of John Lennon, it does not mention the death of Martin Luther King. The film does not foreground issues of race, but they are present. At the start of the film Forrest is sitting on a bench in Savannah, and a young black woman sits on the other end of the bench, waiting for a bus. He begins to talk to her, and it is clear that she isn’t initially interested—the image of Forrest on one end of the bench and the young woman on the other end, her clear attempts not to be engaged in conversation, is an image of racial division. The film makes a point of showing how Bubba Gump’s mother and her ancestors have served shrimp to generations of white men—when Forrest makes money out of his investments in the stock market, he gives a share of the money to Bubba’s mother, and the film makes a point of showing her seated at a table, being served shrimp by a white woman. Black Panthers whom Forrest meets at a demonstration in Washington, DC, reflect the racial turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s—the film is neither sympathetic to nor critical of the strident statements their leader makes—Forrest is wholly unresponsive. So we know in the film that racial issues and turmoil are going on around Forrest even if he is largely unaware of them. Forrest himself seems to be wholly color blind.

In a sense, the South in Forrest Gump is an enclave away from the real world. It’s a place of isolation, a backwater, and so Forrest’s rise to prominence is all the more remarkable.

Forrest Gump is a fable of late 20th-century American life. Forrest is an American Everyman, prominently present in a series of significant and major events—always present to observe, sometimes present as a catalyst. He’s like all us who lived through that era. It happened to us, we had no control over it, we participated in a minor way, and now it has all passed us by.

Forrest’s life-long love affair with Jenny gives the film special poignancy. His love for her is constant and unwavering. Her love for him changes and wavers a good bit, but in the end she comes back to him, both because of his constancy and because she knows he will be a good father to their son. Forrest does his duty, throughout his life, because he knows it is expected of him, because he doesn’t know of an alternative. Once again, with his constancy, his love for those he has lost, his adherence to family roles and obligations, he is like many of us.