Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cosmopolis (film)

Don Delillo’s novel Underworld in my estimation is one of the great American novels of the 20th century.  His novels White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), and Mao II (1991) are also important works.  His follow-ups to Underworld have been more modest efforts, with his novel Cosmopolis (2003) perhaps the least of them.  It never sparked my interest, though The Falling Man (2007) and Point Omega (2010) were much better.  But I was interested in David Cronenberg’s film based on the novel.  Its first half occurs almost entirely inside a stretch limousine equipped with the ultra high-tech technology and the highest level of security measures.  Its occupant, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) spends most of his life (apparently) inside.  We see him eat, sleep, have business conferences, have sex, urinate, you name it.  The limo is the symbol of his power as one of the richest men in the world—a multibillionaire.  He has little interest in the rest of the world, in other people, even in his wife, to whom he is clearly attracted, but with whom he discusses sex as if it is a medical procedure for which one makes an appointment (she is a poet and shows the same attitude—they have been married for three weeks in the film without having had sex).  The film stresses the absolutely sterile, lifeless nature of his existence.  The characters in the film speak like characters from a Delillo novel, often in a kind of stylized stream of consciousness, artificial repartee carried out on a high level of intellect and abstraction.  Such speech works better in print than on film.  As Packer’s identity gradually dissolves, as his financial empire crumbles and the capitalist edifice he embodies verges on collapse (his limo is engulfed by a mob of protestors who hate what he is) and as his life is threatened by an unknown assailant, I found myself mouthing “So what”?

A last-minute appearance by Paul Giammatti made the end of the film interesting.

Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) was more satisfying.  In general, his avant gardism has not often made for good film.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) displays many of the stylistic flourishes of the director’s later films.  There is the flair for unusual and eccentric minor characters.  My favorite scene comes when the two main characters, a factory worker named Barry Kane and a young woman named Pat Martin, catch a ride in a circus car full of sideshow attractions—a skeleton man, bearded woman, fat lady, Siamese twins, and a midget.  There are moments of witty dialogue, especially involving the lead actor Robert Cummings.  There are iconic American sites—the Hoover Dam, New York City, western landscapes.  The final scene takes place in the crown of the Statue of Liberty, with Cummings attempting to prevent the villain from falling to his death.  And there is the expected beautiful blonde, played in this film by Priscilla Lane, who takes an active role in pursuing the villains.

What most interested me about this film was its wartime character.  It makes numerous references to America and democracy and patriotism.  Those who first set a munitions plant on fire in California and then plot to blow up a new battleship in New York City are clearly allied with totalitarianism.  There is no mention of the Nazis, but the evildoers enjoy singing a popular song written to the tune of Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” which I guess shows their love of German culture (who wouldn’t love that tune?).   One of the conspirators speaks with contempt of Americans: “I hate to use the word stupid, but it seems to be the only one that applies. The great masses, the moron millions.”

The film is full of plot holes and non-sequiturs, of instances that I would call poor writing.  For example, although Cummings’ character is suspected of causing the munitions plant fire and is a wanted criminal, he enjoys considerable freedom of movement while in custody.  At another point, Pat Martin is being held by the saboteurs, but she orders a sandwich and pays the man who brings it to her.  Having never been a hostage, perhaps I’m unfamiliar with the protocol, but the idea of ordering a sandwich for delivery while in the grips of the enemy seemed odd.  Three writers are credited for the script—one of them is Dorothy Parker, who may be responsible for the witty dialogue  Hitchcock was apparently an uncredited writer as well.  Such a plenitude of writers suggests there were problems with the script.

Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil is aptly represented here.  Villains and saboteurs are for the most part difficult to distinguish from normal people—there’s a socialite, a rich businessman, an agent who speaks lovingly of his children.  They speak without accents.  The point may be that although these people come from all walks of life and look like the rest of us, we’d better watch out, because any of our friends and neighbors might among them.  (A decade later, a similar argument focused specifically on suspected Communists, the Red Menace).  However, to make clear that the bad guys in Saboteur are evil doers, they are supported by a cast of goon-like henchmen who seem more like reptiles than mammals. 


Friday, January 18, 2013

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski’s languid The Ghost Writer (2010) is a political intrigue and melodrama about a retired British prime minister, political rivalries, the CIA, and a mysterious murder.  Nothing in the film sees real—especially not the way people speak to and treat one another.  Not much is at stake here—sure the CIA may or may not be controlling the British government, certain British politicians may or not be conniving to suppress terrorism or promote waterboarding or otherwise foment corruption in government.  The entire film seems generic, and nothing points this out more than the casting of Pierce Brosnan in the retired prime minister’s role.

The idea of the ghostwriter is the most intriguing aspect of this film.  The ghostwriter for all practical purposes doesn’t exist—he’s hired to edit and rewrite and reshape the prime minister’s memoir, which by all accounts is deadly dull.  He takes no stand and has no voice of his own. His job is to make the manuscript coherent and marketable (what political memoirs have ever been marketable?), and all within a short time span.  The ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor, convinces himself that the death by drowning of his predecessor was not a suicide but a murder, and he devotes himself to determining who the killers and what the motives were.  Instead of making palatable the story the prime minister wrote, the ghost writer then sets out to discover the truth, which apparently no one wants told.  The development of the ghostwriter’s moral identity and conscience, when in the beginning he didn’t have either, is the real interest of the film.  But it's not sufficient.  I overlooked until the closing credits that this is a Roman Polanski film, and that it was much praised when it was released.  Too bad.  It’s not one of his best. 

Big Bad Love, by Larry Brown

Larry Brown’s ten stories in Big Bad Love (Shannon Ravenel, 1990) 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 insensitive 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.  Women come in for particularly bad treatment—maybe we’re supposed to believe that is how working class alcoholic men disenchanted with their wives behave, and that Brown himself disapproves of such attitudes, but I don’t believe it.  Most of the stories have different figures as their main characters, but in fact they all seem indistinguishable—are they all Larry Brown avatars?

These stories on occasion have flair and skill.  They are written with a certain rustic elegance.  The interior narrations that characterize most of them, always from the male point of view, are flowing and liquid and rhythmic.  But they seem to exult in misery and alcohol and misogyny.  They’re so repetitive in subject and tone that they ultimately leave one numb.  Part 2 is an exception.  A short play rather than a story, it describes a surrealistic concentration camp trial in which two male writers are accused of plagiarism and bad writing.  They’re forced to have sex with fat women as punishment.   The final story, “92 Days,” is a more developed narrative about a struggling writer, Leon, recovering from divorce through excessive drink and truck driving.  He receives numerous rejection notices and imbibes multiple cases of beer and a promising young poet is killed in a drunken truck wreck and then his young daughter dies.   He suffers a lot.  When a publisher’s letter offers hope that one of his stories may be published, his life begins to look up.  If only life were so simple.  At the heart of all these stories is a self-obsessed, maudlin bubba sentimentality.

Is every working class man in Mississippi an unappreciated truck-driving alcoholic looking for a chance to cheat on his whining wife?

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2012) is a spaghetti western about slavery. Set in Texas and Mississippi in 1858, it follows the trail of a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and his associate Django (Jamie Foxx) as they hunt wanted outlaws.  Dr. Schultz’s basic operating procedure is to identify the outlaws and then to shoot them dead, taking their bodies back to the local sheriff to claim the bounties.  To justify his methods, he always points to the wanted poster that says “Wanted Dead or Alive.”  After they dispense with a particularly nasty gang, he gives Foxx his freedom, and together they set out to find Foxx’s wife, who has been sold to a particularly nasty plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) of the plantation Candieland.

This film has all the distinguishing marks of a Tarantino film--moments of comedy followed by scenes of extreme violence. The funniest scene (there aren’t many) comes when a band of hooded men headed to attack the bounty hunters stop to argue about their masks, which do not fit.  The man whose wife made the masks is offended by their discussion and rides off in a huff.  Shortly afterwards most of the masked men die in a bomb blast rigged by the bounty hunters.  Such scenes juxtaposing the comic or bizarre alongside violence are traits of the spaghetti westerns and B-level films Tarantino takes as his models.  Schultz himself drives a closed wagon with a large tooth mounted on a spring on its roof—it wobbles back and forth as he drives—he was once a dentist—the tooth is an ever-present mark of absurdity that would fit right into any number of Sergio Leone films.

Tarantino’s main method in Django and other films is to show horrible scenes of racism, brutality, and suffering that are followed by scenes in which those responsible for the racism, brutality, and suffering receive their violent comeuppance.  Moments of inhumanity followed by violent retribution.  “There is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood.” These scenes provide catharsis, or so I think Tarantino intends, that allow the viewer release from whatever the brutality might be.  This was his approach in Inglourious Basterds (2009).  I didn’t like that film’s heavy-handed distortion of history (all the high command of the Third Reich, including Hitler, are killed in a bomb blast and fire at a movie theater). But here it doesn’t bother me that much.  There is a deliberate broadness to this film’s portrayal of plantation owners, slaves, and lower class whites.  One reviewer noted that it is the broadness one finds in a comic book—there are few if any gradations between good and bad.  Only in the two main characters do we find complexity.

Christoph Waltz creates a truly unusual, distinctive character in Schultz.  He is affable, always calm and sociable, never out of sorts.  He seems to fear nothing.  In his cart with the wobbling tooth, he at first seems a foolish figure, but when he begins to shoot down people in his way we realize he is someone to take seriously.  He decides what he needs to do to achieve his goals, and he does it.  From the earliest moment he makes clear his aversion to slavery, although slavery is not his main concern.  Bounties are.  Moral compunctions don’t slow him down when it comes to killing wanted men.  Finding outlaws and bringing their bodies in for the bounty is what he does.  He agrees to help Django find his wife out of friendship. 

Django begins the film as a beaten-down man in a coffle of slaves being led towards auction.  When Schultz frees Django because he knows what several men Schultz is hunting look like.  The film shows Django’s gradual transformation from oppressed victim to agent of retribution.  Schultz lures him into the bounty hunting business both by the offer of freedom and by the opportunity to shoot white people.  Schultz asks him, after one successful episode, how he likes bounty hunting, and Django answers, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?” After Schultz frees him, they set out to find his missing wife.  But the search for his wife, and the desire to punish those who mistreated her, gradually becomes a quest to punish those who practice slavery.

The final scene in the film, in which Django slaughters every member and worker of Candieland and then blows the plantation house up in a tremendous explosion is the expected cathartic moment.  But what does it accomplish?  It does away with the bad guys (and woman).  It allows Django to ride away with his wife.  In reality, it’s not likely they would have survived long into the night, given the historical place and time of the action.  But the film doesn’t show reality.

Perhaps the most unsettling character in the film is Stephen, the head slave of Calvin Candie.  Played by an almost unrecognizable Samuel K. Jackson, the character seems to have been designed to resemble the bug-eyed stereotypes of slavery.  He shucks and jives, speaks in a heavy dialect (of the sort that whites would imagine for him), and is wholly devoted both to his master and to slavery in general.  Any challenge to that Institution enrages him.  Slavery gives him his position of power and influence as the head slave of Candie’s plantation.  He is the incarnation of what slavery in one sense sought to accomplish—the complete deformation of a human individual.  Stephen has no sense of himself as a slave, as a person of color, as someone who shares in common certain social and ethnic realities with other slaves on the plantation.  He embodies the stereotype Slave, the iron jockey figure that used to appear on so many Southern lawns. In fact, he seems to run the plantation on an equal basis with his owner.  When he recognizes that Django and his wife Broomhilda know each other, he summons Calvin into another room and informs him, speaking without dialect, sipping on a bourbon and sitting in a comfortable chair, in the iconography of the patriarch.  The racist type that he embodies is a conscious and voluntary identity he assumes for himself.

Even though the film attacks slavery and racism, it certainly uses racist stereotypes.  Stephen is an example.  The first time Schultz gives Django the chance to choose clothing, he dresses up like little Boy Blue.  Django’s wife is named Broomhilda.  Django loves to kill white people.  And of course the whites are stereotyped as well—no graduations of moral virtue at all.  It’s beyond Calvin Candie’s range to be anything other than the stereotyped slave owner that he is. 

The film’s final violent scene of retribution towards which everything has moved reminded me of any number of video games that allow the player to slaughter hordes of evildoers.  It reminded me of similar scenes in numerous films of the last fifty years, including many of the films that Tarantino is emulating here.  And it reminded me of nothing so much as the school house in Connecticut where a deranged killer with an automatic weapon slaughtered 20 little children.  Is there a connection—between the video games, the movie violence, and the savagely slaughtered children?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

In Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura the “swerve” is an irregularity in the movement of atoms that compose the universe.  That small irregularity gives rise to the variety and shape of the universe as well as to free will in humans.  The swerve is analogous to the irregularities in the background radiation left over from the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago—the same irregularities that gave rise to galaxies, stars, plants, and us.  Lucretius had a somewhat different notion of atoms, and of universal laws, than do scientists today.  But the congruence between Lucretius and modern science on this and other points is remarkable.  There are plenty of differences, however. By modern terms, Lucretius was not a scientist.  He was an observer and Epicurean philosopher, and his poem is all the more remarkable as a result.

In his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (Norton, 2012) Stephen Greenblatt narrates the history of the recovery of Lucretius’ poem, hidden away in a monastery library for eight hundred or so years, recovered by a scribe named Pollius Bracciolini, famous for his beautiful handwriting and for his recovery of ancient texts on the verge of being lost.  Greenblatt’s account of the world of Pollius, his involvement as a high-ranking official in the Vatican, as apostolic secretary to several Popes, and as someone who helped develop not only modern cursive script but also the concept of libraries, of the humanities in general, of the preservation of culture and history, is fascinating.  Greenblatt summarizes the important points in Lucretius poem and argues that its reintroduction to the intellectual world in the 14th century worked a major influence on the development of the Renaissance and of western world thinking.  It was a highly controversial poem when it was written, and even more so when it was recovered.  It argues that the Universe operates according to natural laws, that there is no life after death, that individuals should seek to enjoy their lives while they are able.  It undermined Roman and Christian religion by its insistence that, although allowing that the gods do exist, they had no interest or role in human affairs.  Greenblatt’s book is highly readable.  Its argument for the poem’s influence seems to be less compelling than the account of Pollius and the poem itself, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Man from Earth

As a college professor, I’ve never felt that films get college professors right.  Sometimes we’re eccentric and quirky, or egotistical, or venal, or somehow out of touch with the world.  Often we’re shown having relationships with students, or as burned out, or as super-intelligent., or as excessively privileged, or as bitter failures.  In reality, college faculty vary widely in personality and type and basic characteristics. All of them are human beings.  It’s difficult to identify a stereotype.  We get an array of professor types in The Man from Earth (2009, dir. Richard Schenkman): one man is having an affair with a student, another is a burned out biologist, another a Bible-thumping literalist, another an anthropologist interested in the deeper questions of human existence, another a senior psychologist at the end of his career.  They all behave in a goofy, artificial way, not as I’ve seen my own colleagues behave (most of the time), but not necessarily in a way fundamentally unbelievable.

What I like about these professors is their interest in, and fascination with, ideas.  The whole film takes place in a rustic small cabin that belongs to a colleague, John Oldman, who has announced, unexpectedly, after ten years of teaching, that he is leaving for parts unknown.  His colleagues and friends come over to check on his well bring, to dissuade him from his decision.

He tells them an incredible story—he claims to be 14,000 years old, a surviving Cro-Magnon man, who by some quirk of biology and genetics has never aged beyond his 35th year.  He spends much of the film convincing his friends of the truth of his story.  He recalls an astonishing number of historical details, claims to have studied with Buddha, and describes his wandering back and forth across Asia and Europe and finally to North America.  He makes one astonishing revelation.  His friends spend much of the film in varying stages of disbelief and outrage, but they also plunge into the discussion he invites them to have—on the implications of life and its meaning for a man who never grows old, on the possibility that he story he tells them may be true.

I enjoyed listening to the ideas and questions bandied about in this film.  They cover everything from the meaning of identity and memory and love to time and death and belief.  Unfortunately, these professors talk on the level of somewhat intelligent and extremely stoned college students.  The script is written on the same level.

This film interested me for its willingness to dramatize the exchange of ideas, for its concern with deeply profound questions, and for its failure to be more than it is.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson

The Family Fang (Kevin Wilson, Ecco, 2012) is not a big book—a little over three hundred pages.  But it attempts to be something more than it what it is, and the basic conceit—of two parents who use and thereby damage their children in their performance art exhibitions—becomes repetitive and tiresome.  Halfway through, I was ready for it to end.  When it did end, I was irritated at its predictable outcome.

The Family Fang argues that the evil parents do lives after them. Whatever good there might have been is overridden by the damage.  For the Fang parents, Caleb and Camille, every real situation is one to be exploited, manipulated, and transformed into an artistic event by staging a stunt or a trick or a subterfuge of some sort that throws unwitting participants for a loop.  As a result, their two children, Annie and Buster, lose their grip on reality and their own respective identities.  When we encounter them in the novel, their lives are breaking down, and they return to live temporarily with their parents—a return that precipitates the central crisis of the novel.

So the message here is that you have to escape the influence of mater and paterfamilias, you have to grow up and live on your own.  You can’t live as if at any moment your parents might step in and alter things, as if they might step in and save you. 

The most interesting aspect of the book for me was its structure.  It is set in the present, when the grownup children’s lives are collapsing.  Alternating chapters are told from Annie’s and Buster’s point of view, followed by a chapter that returns to one of the parents’ “performances” at some time in the past.  Gradually these narratives coalesce.  But the thinness of the plot and the characters themselves hang weakly on that structure, flapping in the doo-diddledy-doo wind.

The Fangs reminded me of the family in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, one of his weaker novels.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008) evoked a country menaced by social collapse and anarchy.  A film of the post-2001 era, when external conflicts and internal dissension challenged the nation’s stability, the film touched on concerns about security measures adopted by the U. S. Congress that, in the name of public safety, gave the government access to the private lives of individuals in a way more intrusive than before.  The film ended with a paradox: a public servant named Harvey Dent, heralded for his civic virtues, had gone over to the dark side.  He conspired with the Joker to kidnap Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend and the police commissioner’s son.  Batman rescues the boy, but the girlfriend dies.  The city is saved.  But because Batman believes the city needs someone positive to believe in, he allows the people to believe that Harvey Dent died a hero, and he is blamed for killing him.  The logic of that decision never quite made sense to me.

Eight years later crime has largely disappeared in Gotham City, owing mainly to the Harvey Dent law, which gave law enforcement new rights and powers to deal with lawbreakers.  In The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012) we move beyond 2001 to the post-2008, Great Recession, Occupy Wallstreet period.  The conflict is defined in terms of the haves vs. have nots, those in power who clawed their way to positions of prominence by exploiting the weak and the dispossessed.  The villain is a man named Bain, who wears a metal mask over his jaw to reduce debilitating pain, who himself grew up in a Middle Eastern prison to which the weak and dispossessed are condemned by their oppressors. 

One would expect the numerous twists and turns in this sort of film, but director Nolan imbues the narrative with ambiguity from beginning to end.  The wealthy businessmen and company owners are among the villains too.  Wealthy philanthropist Bruce Wayne, who spends much of the film a recluse or prisoner, is himself one of those who hold power and money, and though he uses his position to support charities and philanthropic causes and serve the public good, there is no missing the fact that he is one of those whom Bain seeks to overturn.  Some of Bain’s allies, until he manages to kill them, are among the movers and shakers of America’s corporate and economic power structure (some of the movers and shakers oppose Bain too, so this is not a black and white treatment).  Wayne himself is a torn and conflicted character—grieving for eight years over a dead girlfriend, selfish, hell-bent on violent retribution, party to deception, self-destructive, interweaving his own personal torments with those of his world.  The film to its credit never resolves his character.

Despite all this, the film does side with Batman and with Bruce Wayne, with an orderly society even if it is one that includes social and economic inequities.  By making the point that some of Bain’s complaints may have validity, the film plants the notion that change is needed, that the problems of the nation can’t be reduced to binary distinctions of good and evil, of criminal and law-abiding behavior.  There’s no doubt about Bain, however.  He exploits and terrorizes and deceives everyone, kills without regard for his victims, unleashes anarchy and mayhem, seeks the total destruction of Gotham City by a nuclear blast, so that however you might feel about our problems there’s no doubt as to how you should feel about Bain, unless you are, like he, a psychopathic monster.

The film riffs on themes of sacrifice, of overcoming one’s moral failings to assert virtue, of truth vs. falsehood.  It shows a revolution in which the dispossessed overthrow the power structure and place former public servants, police officers, and corporate owners on trial and then execute them.  There are shades here of the French Revolution, and of more recent movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wallstreet.  As evil and misanthropic as Bain is, the wrongs of which he complains, or that at the least he uses as excuses for his misdeeds, are no doubt just complaints.  What is service to the public good, this film asks?  Who defines the meaning of right and wrong?  When does a government reach such a point of falsehood and corruption that it loses its right to govern, or to define what is good and right and what is not?

The film drags in its concluding scenes, and in the scenes that show Bruce Wayne in prison.  And it also, at the very end, blinks. But for the most part it’s a somber, bleak, fast-moving film that may be the best of the Dark Knight trilogy.  Anne Hathaway, despite all contrary expectations, is quite good as Catwoman, as is Michael Caine as the Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, and Joseph Gordon Leavitt as a policeman and detective who becomes Batman’s close ally.

In general, Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy offers us the most complex, nuanced, ambiguous, and morally compelling portrayal of a comic book hero that any of the super hero films have thus far managed.

One misstep: as Batman and Catwoman and the police commissioner rush to deactivate a nuclear bomb whose timer is ticking down towards detonation (less than five minutes to go), everyone suddenly stops and listens in a casual way to one of the villains (Marion Cotilliard) speak her dying words.  It’s as if time has stopped, and the bomb is no longer ticking down, but time moves on, and the timer counts down.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright, 2012) is too much enthralled by its stylistic premise: that of a play within a play, of an audience watching the story on a stage, as if the audience members are the bystanders who observe the actions of the characters working out their fates.  The film begins by showing us the story through the window of the stage, a proscenium.  Characters behave in stylized fashion, and the acting even seems stilted.  Gradually this melds into the real-time action of the story itself, but even then we frequently find ourselves limited to the physical location of the stage.  Characters go back stage and come on stage.  They climb up into the upper story, or they descend below stage.  Often we’re aware of the artificial appearance of a stage, and other times we seem to be in the real, unmediated world.

Tolstoy’s novel is some 1000 pages long.  Although the film for the most part seems to have the basic details of the plot right (it’s been 45 years since I read the novel, and I can’t remember anything other than the basic outline of the plot), it lacks depth of detail and feeling.  I never engaged emotionally with the film at all.  I understood what was going on, understood what Anna or her husband or Count Vronsky were feeling in a particular scene, but my emotions never engaged.  Is this because a film in 2 hours and 10 minutes cannot come close to achieving what a novel in 1000 pages can do?

Joe Wright gives us a passion play of sorts, a pantomime of Tolstoy’s great novel, one of the truly great novels of the western world. In fact there are tableau-like scenes, pantomime scenes, where the action seems to freeze, background characters are frozen in motion, while the principals continue to focus on one another.  Thus our attention is directed.

This film forces us to see the characters as characters, artificial constructs in an artificial narrative, when in fact we are supposed to see them as themselves, as real, not as artificial.  To see them otherwise is to destroy and violate the narrative illusion.  What we have in place of that illusion is an aesthetic construct.  We know we’re seeing something contrived, constructed, built.  We appreciate its artifice, its cleverness, its genius, perhaps, but not its art.  Because it isn’t art.  It’s artifice.

Certain symbols emerge early, especially that of the train, the massive steam engine that powers the train.  It’s a symbol of sexual passion, of male dominance, and also of the state that can crush individual citizens, especially laborers and powerless individuals, under its heels.  An early glimpse of the mangled body of a worker who has fallen under the wheels of a locomotive drives this point home.  Social gatherings at balls and at the opera show how upper-class society functions—casting judgment on what individual members do, valuing or devaluing their importance, ultimately casting them out when transgressions occur.  In one scene at the opera, the reactions of audience members to an individual who has transgressed function much like the crushing wheels of the locomotive. 

The masculine connotations of the locomotive imply that society is male dominated, that women occupy roles defined by that society, and that there is no place for them outside those roles.  It is thus better, according to one argument in the film, to remain in a bad marriage than to give up everything that marriage entitles one to: privilege, wealth, children, social position.  From another viewpoint marriage is a social pretense that gives one social definition but that also imprisons. Women are little better than serfs, personal property.  We see Count Vronsky caress his prized horse in the same way he caresses Anna, for instance.

I’m interested in rereading the novel to see whether it contains the feminist energy that drives the film and its definitions of the individual’s place in society.

Keira Knightley is effective as Karenina, but she often seems to do little more than hold a pose, with her lower lip prominently puffed out.  Jude Law as Alexy, her husband, is the most interesting and credible character in the film.  When he sees his wife falling into the affair that will ruin their marriage and her life in particular, he tries to save her.  But he recognizes finally that Anna is “irretrievably lost.”  From her point of view, she is at last a free soul, but she lives in a society that does not recognize her freedom.

Anna Karenina is consistently interesting, both the story itself and the means by which it is told.  But it holds its audience, or at least this audience member, at a distance.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


Hitchcock (2012; dir. Sacha Gervasi) proposes that the violence against women, the murder, and the obsessive fascination with the grotesque in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961) are reflections of the director’s turmoil over fear that his career is over, that he has lost his touch as a director, that his wife is having an affair, that those whom he has befriended have betrayed him, and so on. The basic suggestion is that Hitchcock’s own near nervous breakdown helped form his most terrifying of films.  Hitchcock does a fine job of proving the proposition, at least speculatively.

Portions of the film are narrated from within Hitchcock’s mind, as if he is the protagonist of one of his own films, such as Spellbound or Vertigo.  His age is a constant concern, as is his weight—his wife Alma has him on a diet.  His fear that she may be on the verge of having an affair drives the rage he expresses when he demonstrates how Norman Bates would slash a woman to death in the famous shower scene.  It also drives him to eat prodigious amounts of food late one night in a frenzied binge of frustration and unhappiness. Alma herself is bothered by her husband’s fascination with the young blonde actresses he casts in his films..

The credits tell us that Hitchcock is based on a book about the making of PsychoAlfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello—but I suspect the filmmakers inserted some of their own inventive speculations into the story.  Hitchcock is obsessed with the real killer on whom Norman Bates was based—a serial killer who mutilated women and shared a bed with his mother, who had been dead for ten years.  Hitchcock fantasizes that the killer sometimes speaks to him and advises him about Alma. 

Hitchcock chooses his actors on the basis of their own psychological traits.  Anthony Perkins, for instance, he found suitable to play Norman Bates because of his obsession with his mother and guilt over his father’s death, which he felt he had caused by wishing for it to happen. James D’Arcy, who portrays Perkins, is good in the role.

One may say that Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho,  but it’s actually about the marriage and partnership of Hitchcock and Alma.  Although he is the credited director in all of his films, she is always deeply involved, providing ideas and suggestions that her husband frequently adapts.  She revises scripts, assists in the editing, and when her husband is ill, directs in his place.  They had a close and creative partnership.

Hitchcock is highly entertaining.  It’s a small film—its focus is narrow.  But each element fits.  Anthony Hopkins is so effective that he simply seemed to become Hitchcock.  Scarlet Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jennifer Biel as Vera Miles, and Helen Mirren as Alma are excellent.  Its psychological intrigue, suspense, mystery, and empathetic character portrayals make it a gripping and informative study in filmmaking.

A caveat: the film allowed Hitchcock’s own psychological issues to overshadow his deliberate intentions as a director.  It is not as if, even in his most stressed moments, he was not making choices, shaping the film, developing his original vision.  Undoubtedly trauma and personal crises helped direct those choices, but the making of Psycho was not an involuntary act.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Les Misérables

“You are a saint,” Marius tells Jean Valjean as he lies dying in the penultimate scene of the film Les Misérables (dir. Tom Hooper, 2012).  This is a tale about redemption and love, and Jean Valjean comes nearer to the definition of sainthood than most protagonists in literature and film I can think of.  Most saints are, I think, not particular interesting.  Goodness is not a virtue that makes for entertainment.  Jean Vanjean doesn’t aspire to be a saint, but he does struggle to be a good man.  After ninteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, he seizes the chance to reinvent himself, to live a good life and to do good for others.  And he looks, as do others in the film, for love.  He finds it in the young daughter of a dying prostitute, whom he raises as his own, and whose wounded beloved he rescues from the barricades of the June Rebellion of 1832.

Les Misérables as a musical production, conceived in France, staged in English in London, then imported to the United States, has become its own cliché.  People speak with disdain of the music, the lyrics, the excessive passions.  The Irish film The Commitments made fun of it, in a short scene.  Whether one likes it or not is a matter of personal taste.  I have to admit I’ve always been seduced by the music, the story of Valjean, and the emotional excess of the play.  The film adaptation is faithful to the musical, reconfiguring many of the scenes on the broader stage of 19th-century Paris, but leaving the story and music intact.  It’s long, but then so is the play.  The lead actors are all strong and effective, especially Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, and, dare I say, Russell Crowe as Javert.  Crowe has been ridiculed for his singing in the film, but he sang well enough and I thought did a fine job as the villain of the piece.

Les Misérables honors the musical’s fusion of romance and redemption with a social message timely for today’s audience.  The oppressed and poverty-stricken are beaten down by the wealthy and powerful.  For a brief moment they seem to chafe against their bondage, but the June Rebellion is short-lived, and all the young revolutionaries are killed, with the exception of Marius.  If social movements fail, as the film suggests they will, it is the quest to live a life well, to love others, that brings one satisfaction.  “To love another person is to see the face of God,” Valjean sings at one point.

Most of the women in this musical and film are, in one way or the other, victims, while most of the men are victimizers.  Most of the women are important only in their roles as romantic partners, and in their longings for a partner.  Only Éponine, after she realizes that Marius does not love her, assumes some agency by joining the rebels at the barricade, where she dies with them.  Cosette achieves the happiness her mother never had when she marries Marius.  She is protected from the truth about her mother’s victimization, about her own disappointment in love.  The romantic subplots in this film, then, are highly conventional.  Women are weak romantic objects.  The story strays from convention in its portrayal of a world of predatory men preying on women.  Predation in a general sense, sexual predation, economic predation, predation on the lower classes by the upper class, is an important underlying theme.