Monday, December 31, 2012


To say that a film is reverent in its portrayal of a historical character is usually a criticism.  Stephen Spielberg’s great film Lincoln (2012) is reverent in its treatment of the nation’s 16th president.  But its reverence is embedded in a relatively careful and accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s character and times, specifically in its depiction of his interactions with his family and with members of the House of Representatives as he campaigns for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States.

Lincoln is the great national hero.  One can find other great figures from our history worthy of regard, but Lincoln stands above all.  As a film Lincoln does what every other portrayal of Lincoln has attempted—to give a realistic, compelling portrayal of the man.  No representation of a historic figure such as Lincoln can be wholly or mostly accurate.  Who knows what the man was really like?  We have no recordings of his voice, no video records, only written descriptions of him, opinions, his writings, accounts of what he said and did.  Spielberg’s film, and Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the title character, takes to heart descriptions of Lincoln’s voice as high-pitched.  Such a voice runs counter to what we typically expect of our heroes—we need them to speak in booming basso profundo.  But Spielberg’s and Lewis’ Lincoln is absolutely believable.  Cinematic and speculative portrayal though he may be, this Lincoln is the One. 

It is not so much what Lincoln actually was, what he actually believed and said, how he behaved.  It is what we project through him about ourselves and our nation.  Lincoln incorporates our own views of the ideals and virtues that animate the nation, at least the nation as we’d like it to be.  Spielberg and Lewis give us that Lincoln.

Spielberg at least twice in the film uses indirection to present several of the most famous events of Lincoln’s life.  One of these is the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln gives more than two years before the time span of the film (January to April 1865).  We experience it through Union solders who recite the speech back to Lincoln while he’s visiting a battlefield.  Another such incident is the assassination.  Rather than dramatizing it directly, Spielberg shows us another theatre, where an opera is playing, attended by the young Lincoln son Tad.  A stage manager runs on stage to announce that the president has been shot, and we experience the announcement and its meaning through the reaction on the boy’s face, and through the reactions of the people in the audience.

As radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as one of the film’s two best supporting actors.  I could never quite grow comfortable with him in the role, but his cranky version of the aging senator who was a master at invective and insult and who throughout his life was an ardent supporter of rights for American blacks—and who regarded Lincoln as too cautious and conservative—is very fine.  Sally Fields, as the depressive, sometimes histrionic Mary Todd, is good as well.  Her Mary Todd Lincoln understands how the public views her, and sometimes believes her husband feels that way as well.  On occasion she is completely irrational.  Despite her apparent illness and ill manners (she lambasts Stevens at a White House party for daring to investigate her spending habits), despite her excessive worry about the oldest son Robert’ desire to enlist in the Union Army, the film shows her as a devoted supporter of her husband, especially of his desire to pass the 13th Amendment, which will, if passed, she believes justify placing her son at risk.

Spielberg gives us a Lincoln with blemishes.  He yells at his wife in one scene, slaps his son after an insulting remark in another, is willing to offer federal appointments to House members in return for their votes.  He is so fast to tell homespun tales during tense moments that sometimes the irritation on the faces of the people around him is clear.  But overriding these negatives is the figure of the man who believed in the nation, in the Union, in freedom for the slaves, who took upon himself the weight and suffering of the thousands who died in the Civil War, North and South, fighting for what they believed.  This is the Nation’s Lincoln, the man of national legend and myth, however true or not he may be, and this is the Lincoln at the heart of Spielberg’s film.  In our own time of crisis, when everything seems in danger of tumbling down, this is a compelling figure indeed.

Big Bad Love


A moody tone piece about a man mired in despair and alcohol over his failure as a writer, a husband, a father, and a friend, Big Bad Love is full of misery. Filmed in the purlieus of Oxford and Mt. Holly, Mississippi, it shows us the South through dirt roads, rundown gas stations, bars, crazy behavior, and eccentric characters.  Its main character, Leon, is drunk through much of the film, and so depressed that he can’t distinguish his own fantasies from reality. Ostensibly he is struggling to succeed as a writer, and we often watch him opening returned manuscript and reading rejection letters, which he posts on a bulletin board over the desk where he writes on his old manual typewriter.  He’s a lover of language and of writing.  He reads the dictionary, remembers strange words, mounts words on the wall above his writing desk.  He declaims poems aloud, when he’s sober enough to remember them.  He does write, some, but mostly he drinks and gets into trouble.

Big Bad Love gives us the South of Mississippi writer Larry Brown, whose 1990 story collection of the same title is its source.  The film is based mainly on the third section of that collection, a long story entitled “92 Days,” about an unpublished and struggling writer confronting the same problems Leon in the movie deals with.  Brown’s stories in Big Bad Love are mainly about working class alcoholic men in their 30s on the verge of divorce, or recently divorced.  They’re lonely for love after deserting, or being deserted by, aging and incentive wives.  They’re like country music songs of a certain type—the George Jones type—that visit and revisit the same self-pitying and self-destructive themes from different angles over and over and over.  The film is loosely faithful to the story, but considerably less woman-hating.  My guess is that there is much of Brown in Leon (well played by Arliss Howard). 

Leon is more a struggling man than a struggling writer, and much of the film is made up of his memories, or himself and his wife (Debra Winger) early in their failed marriage, of their children at a younger age, of his childhood and especially his mother, of his apparently dead father (played in brief appearances by Larry Brown himself).  Memories and dreams interweave with a hallucinatory reality.  The film sometimes verges on making fun of Leon’s drunkenness, and indeed a mild patina of romantic admiration for his excessive living and suffering suffuses the story.

As much as this film’s moody nostalgia (for what?) entranced, it did seem to be working the old cliché that you have to suffer to succeed as a writer, and you also have to make people around you suffer and nearly drink yourself to death and wreak havoc in many other ways.  Everything that could go wrong does.  His daughter dies, his ex-wife reminds him about her restraining order, and he discovers that the brain injury his brother suffered while they were out together on a drunken spree left him nearly a vegetable. He spends two weeks in prison, but when his first story is accepted, and his novel is solicited with the promise of publication, everything turns rosy.  This change seemed too easy.

All the actors, especially Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Rosanna Arquette, and even Angie Dickinson are good.  My old teacher and friend Coleman Barks was moving and darkly funny as the preacher who gives the eulogy at the funeral.  The soundtrack, a collection of Mississippi blues and John Hiatt and Tom Waits and others, is finely tuned to the film.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Good-bye, My Lady

Good-bye, My Lady (dir. William A. Weltman, 1956) follows up on the formula of The Yearling (1946)—a boy moving towards adolescence bonds with an unusual pet, in this case a dog, a rare African Basenji that laughs, weeps, cleans itself like a cat, and hunts with unusual skill.  This film lacks the lyricism and subtlety of The Yearling.  It announces its themes ahead of time, through a deep-voiced singer announcing through song that it’s sad and hard when a boy grows up to be a man--with a harmonica wistfully making wistful music in the background.  (Both the man’s voice and the song are, for lack of a better word, creepy).  The twelve-year-old Skeeter (Brandon deWilde) and his Uncle Jesse Jackson (Walter Brennan) are the primary characters. I liked Brennan in Swamp Water (1941), but here he plays a bumbling, fairly inept, lazy, but kind old man we later came to know as Gramps in the TV series “The Real McCoys.”  One scene in particular is worth the entire film—Brennan’s character stopping and starting, trying to decide what to do, his feet dancing this way and that, as if he’s deep into some sort of country jig, except that he’s just supposed to be bumbling around in a comical way.  We typically see him dozing on the front porch of his shack when he is supposed to be cutting firewood.  His major virtue is his love for his nephew, entrusted to his care after his mother’s death.  (The father is nowhere to be seen, and Uncle Jesse refuses to talk about him, as if to suggest he was some sort of scoundrel who deserted mother and child).

The film purports to show us what life in the Southern backwoods swamps was like for people in the mid-20th century and earlier.  Skeeter and his uncle live in a ramshackle one-room shack, deep in the woods at the end of a long dirt road.  They eke out an existence selling firewood, mainly to their friend Cash Evans, who owns a store in the nearby town and is something of a friend and rival to Uncle Jesse.  Jesse is illiterate, though the boy is learning to read.  In fact, the stylized depictions of the cabin and its inhabitants probably have a limited basis in reality.  Poverty and good-heartedness are the main qualities of the poor in this film, while the more affluent Cash lives in town (Phil Harris plays this role in a peculiarly loud and wooden way).

Suffice it to state that the film revolves around how Skeeter finds the Basenji dog, names it Lady, loves it and trains it to hunt, and then gives it up when Cash shows him a newspaper ad placed by the owner, looking for the lost dog.  Skeeter decides he must give up Lady, and this is supposed to mark his coming manhood, his recognition that he must give up the dog that isn’t his.  Unfortunately, this message, fairly blunt to begin with, is blunted even more when Skeeter takes great pleasure in $100 reward money the dog’s owner gives him.  The loss of the dog hardly seems to matter.

The boy and his uncle are friends with a kind, hardworking black man who lives nearby, Gates, played by Sidney Poitier.  His wife is played by Louise Beavers, who starred for two years in the first TV show centered on black characters. It aired in the early1950s.  Gates and his wife are good-hearted, hard-working, extremely blessed with progeny.  Although both Gates and his wife are portrayed in a positive way, the film can’t quite escape the stereotype of the wise and kindhearted black folks who give advice to the whites.

The film makes a few jokes, mainly through Uncle Jesse, about the character of Yankees.  He tells a tale about how after a visiting Yankee got snake-bit the snake died.  The kindness of the man sent by the dog’s owner convinces Jesse and his nephew that all Yankees might not be so bad after all.

A few scenes of Good-bye, My Lady seem to have been shot on location, but most of the film looks like it was shot on a set, in black and white, on a small budget.

If this film aspired to be another The Yearling, it didn’t succeed.


Monday, December 17, 2012


Norman, the boy at the center of this film, sees ghosts all around him.  He’s like the Haley Joel Osment character in The Sixth Sense, except here he’s animated and the film is about how he must save the world from a witch wrongly executed two hundred years before.  There’s nothing remarkable about Paranorman (dir. Chris Butler, Sam Fell, 2012), but it’s entertaining.  Norman has clueless parents—his father is particularly irritated about his son’s psychic abilities—a sister who can’t stand him, a clumsy pudgy friend, and he’s bullied at school.  Various hijinks and adventures, a buildup to the appearance of the witch, and her defeat (by Norman, of course).  It’s really just a hi-tech Scooby-Doo episode.

I’m not a child, of course.  But how do children feel about this little boy surrounded by the ghosts of dead people?  How do they feel about the implication—that ghosts surround them as well?  I don’t believe in ghosts.  Nonetheless, the idea of them bothers me, especially when I’m in a dark house late at night, or when the floors creak, or some uncanny sound comes out of the woods.  I can’t quite reason myself out of apprehensions of the unreal.  But at the age of 8 or so, the age towards which this film is aimed, I would have been traumatized by this film or its adult ancestors such as The Sixth Sense and the Paranormal Activities series. Such films both animated and live action inundate today’s entertainment industry, and numerous 8 year olds are watching.  Do films like these desensitize their viewers about the supernatural, death, and violence, or do they simply suggest that illogic and nonsense are not that foreign to begin with? Everything in Paranorman is intended for children—everything comes out right.  No dogs or people are harmed.  But the more adult versions of films like these—films that obsess over violence and horror and random suffering—what about them? 


Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) is a loosely wrought and meandering (in the best sense of the word) fable about cultural interrelationships, mutual dependencies, and barriers.  It’s also about the initiation of three young individuals—a 17 year old girl, her little brother, and an aboriginal adolescent—into both the natural and human worlds.  The girl and her brother live in a posh apartment building in a large Australian city.  When they’re waylaid in the outback—their father takes them along when he goes to look at geological formations, he tries to shoot them, and then sets his car afire and shoots himself (the reasons are unclear)—they begin wandering in the desert. The aboriginal boy, on his walkabout, falls in with them and shows them how to find water, to kill prey for food, and to survive.  The film often contrasts the divergent backgrounds of the white children and the aboriginal boy.  He’s aware of the differences, as are they.  The plot is so loose that often consecutive scenes do not entirely follow logically on each other.  The children simply wander.  They develop a friendship.  They become more comfortable, more able to make their ways in the outback.  Then they stumble across a white settlement, and it’s over.  The white children survive.  The aboriginal boy does not. 

There’s little dialogue in this film, which relies mostly on visual images of the children wandering, of the aboriginal boy hunting animals, of their time together in the darkness.  A relationship seems to develop between the boy and the girl, but it ultimately goes nowhere.  When she fails to respond to his advances late in the film, he commits suicide.  The girl and her brother return to life in the city.  The cultural divide that seemed to have been bridged collapses.

I find Roeg’s style as a director in Walkabout self-indulgent.  Random shots of nature, of wilderness, of wildlife, signify the immersion of the city children in the natural world, suggesting a return to a primal environment where the distinctions of race and class and culture fall away.  The white children cross empty barren wastes, clamber up steep cliffs, stare off into the vast distances.  They are profoundly lost, isolated, these scenes suggest.  Cut-in shots of images from the city, or of their father’s burning car—remind us who they are.  The girl often listens to her radio, and the aboriginal boy learns to listen too.  Sometimes these moments seem random, and I can’t entirely say that they work.  They create a sense of disconnection, an unsettling rhythm that interferes with the otherwise pastoral tone.  But that may be their purpose.

My feeling that the film depends a bit too much on beautiful images culminates in a prolonged scene in which the girl swims naked in an isolated pool.  The aboriginal boy does not spy on her (though her brother does), and in fact the real voyeurs in the scene are those of us watching the film.  What does it accomplish?—it shows the girl’s comfort in an entirely natural setting, her symbolic immersion in the natural world, where she sheds all the trappings of her civilized background (her clothes, her modesty) but mostly it shows us her beautiful naked body, in a tasteful way, of course.

Walkabout almost seems to suggest that the white children are unaffected by their outback experience.  The aboriginal boy shows some signs of absorbing, adjusting to, white culture, while the white children seem to absorb very little of his culture.  The final scene, however, leaves us wondering how untouched the girl and her brother really were.

Cinematography is supposed to be one of the strengths of this film, but the colors seemed washed out in the version I watched.  I’d like to see a restored print.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott

Discussions of the economy, especially by all-knowing gurus like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, can be fascinating, or grimly unbearable.  The economy, the nation’s economic health, moves in ways that directly affect our lives, jobs, and national welfare, yet often the economy seems to function like some mystical force beyond the ken of mortal individuals.  Is it some globally based ecological force, like the weather, that moves with Nature’s intricate whims, or is it the manifestation of millions of individual wills that purchase, buy, sell, invest, save, earn, and squander, like a beehive?  Is the economy beyond the control of governments and economic experts, or can it be manipulated by controlling taxes and deficits and large-scale governmental surges of support?

Such questions have been debated for years, and they have certainly been at the fore since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, and during the recent presidential election.

The economy is mystifying to me, and, frankly, not the most gripping of subjects, but the recent book Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott, on the career-long debate between two rival economists, John Maynard Keynes and Freidrich Hayek, undertakes to offer some insight.  Keynes, a British economist, came to believe that governments could direct the flow of the economy, while Hayek, of the Austrian economic school, believed that governments could do only damage by such efforts.  Keynes believed that governments could protect the lives of citizens through active economic manipulation of the economy while Hayek believed in minimal government controls.  Hayek believed in balanced budgets while Keynes believed that governments could live with deficit spending as long as they could afford to pay the interest on their loans.  For much of the mid-twentieth century, from Roosevelt through Carter, we lived in a Keynesian economy.  Under Reagan, the first Bush, Clinton, and well into years of the second Bush, Hayek was in the ascendant.  But when the Great Recession began, Bush fils became a Keynesian, along with Obama, pumping billions of federal dollars into the economy, significantly increasing the national deficit, and probably saving the nation from a major depression.  We’re living now under economic controls and principles that combine aspects of both Keynes and Hayek’s thinking. 

As a person who tends to think in humanistic terms, I found the accounts of Keynes and Hayek as human personalities fascinating, perhaps more so than their economic theories.  Bitter rivals throughout their careers, they became friends and colleagues in their later years.  Wapshott’s accounts of the last thirty years in American politics and economics were especially illuminating.  In explaining finer points of economic theory, Wapshott is not always clear, but who could be? 


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) is full of post-World War II optimism, yet it’s dark too—dark in its portrayals of big landlord banking moguls such as Henry F. Potter (effusively overplayed by Lionel Barrymore), and dark in what it shows happening to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) when he thinks his life is about to crash and burn in the worst of ways.

In films like this one and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), director Frank Capra dramatizes his belief that the virtues and essential goodness of the common man (or woman) will inevitably prevail against evil.  We see here the stereotypical but well intended portrayals of ethnic groups such as the Italians and Irish (as well as a few glimpses of African Americans).  Capra gives us his idealized and earnest views of young love, family life, and the American Dream.  The film almost overwhelms itself with ebullient views of human character. 

Although the film for me has aged very well, I wonder how younger generations view it.  Last night at a local showing at the local arts cinema, Cine, I saw many parents and grandparents escorting their not entirely unwilling but not necessarily overenthusiastic children and grandchildren to see the film.  How did they view its portrait of marriage, with Donna Reed’s character submitting willingly and without question to Georgie Bailey’s job and to his sour disposition when things go bad?  How do they react to the patronizing view of immigrants like the Italians, or its notion that banks can serve the poor by playing fast and loose with their money?  Do they take seriously George Bailey’s telling his customers that if they trust him with their money (which has temporarily disappeared) things will come out right in the end? 

How do they reconcile the spirit of the season with this venerated holiday film in which a man so depressed and horrified by the apparent failure of his life that he mistreats his wife and children, drinks himself into a stupor at a local bar, and then tries to commit suicide? 

These are interesting questions, but the possible answers don’t overwehelm the good-heartedness and innocence and wonderful human force of the film.  George Bailey is the American hero who fails to achieve his life’s ambitions (traveling the world, building magnificent projects, escaping the provincial and limiting confines of Bedford Falls) and who allows himself to be retained by the small town savings and loan founded by his father, by the love of Mary, and the admiration of his townspeople—they admire him because he is at the heart of it as good a man as one might find—and that is all one might ask for in what may well be the greatest American Christmas film of all.

When I first showed this film to my children some years ago, they were captivated not by George Bailey’s character or his rowdy household or the lively array of comic characters, but by the angels discoursing in the firmament about his life and fate.  In a way, this film that pivots on the notion that a man can view his world as it might have been had he never been born really does examine the most cosmic, nay, existential of issues.

Without Mr. Potter, we would never have had Montgomery Burns.

Men in Black 3

Here we are in Men in Black 3 (2012; dir. Barry Sonnenfeld) with two familiar partners back in action.  The chemistry surrounding Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, as Agents J and K, helped propel the first two installments of the Men in Black series. Even their chemistry, and the special insights afforded by what amounts to an origins story, can’t quite energize installment three.  We encounter the same familiar aliens. The same situations in sordid New York dives and shops and cafes, the same hi-tech gizmos and special effects.  It just don’t quite work.  The film resorts to a time-travel gimmick, wherein one of the agents travels back to 1969 to save the other’s life.  It just so happens that the first American moon landing is involved, and there are the expected scenes of people in 1969 with 60s hairdos and dress.  Andy Warhol makes an appearance, as does, briefly, Howard Stern.  The time travel plot has a special twist that is actually quite poignant, and that casts new light on the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones partnership, but not enough to save the film.  The film is fun to watch, and does offer some ingenious moments, perhapos thinks to the script co-written by Etan Coen.

The Men in Black films are satirical and comic, so perhaps it is not fair to complain that many of the aliens are invested with certain recognizably ethnic features, or that when Will Smith travels back to 1969 there are predictable scenes involving his skin color and 1960s racism.  And the aliens themselves, many of them in gowns and armor and looking like refugees from a He-Man cartoon or a Battle of the Titans movie or a Lost in Space episode, are not convincing—they’re tired and hackneyed.  Should I expect them to be otherwise?

The funniest scene comes when the villain, Boris the Animal, travels back in time to commit mayhem and gets into an argument with his younger self about which of them is the meaner dude.  This is a hilarious parody of a so-called time-travel paradox that holds that if one could travel back (or forward) in time he couldn’t occupy the same space with his former or future self.  This is supposedly (I say supposedly because it’s never been tested) a physical impossibility.

The standout character is Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an alien who can foresee and experience every possible permutation of events in the space-time continuum.  He’s essential to the plot, and the one true burst of imaginative and creative thinking in a film that needs both badly, despite the surprising moment of true human emotion in the penultimate scene.

And then there is Josh Brolin, wholly convincing as a younger version of the Tommy Lee Jones character.  He shares much the same chemistry with Agent J, and actually spends more time on screen than Jones.