Monday, November 29, 2010

THE YOUNG VICTORIA (2009): “We are Not Amused!”

The Young Victoria is another expensive looking movie.  Without the pageantry, colorful wardrobe, the pomp and circumstances and the royal setting, it would be a dull piece of historical revisionism.  Thankfully, at 105 minutes it’s rather short for a modern film.  Sadly, there’s little enough substance as it is even for that short space of time.  There are many, many period pieces that have been shown in the cinema and most of them fail in the same manner as Young Victoria (think of Out of Africa or Amadeus).  Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago succeeded in part because you had either the American Civil War or the Russian Revolution as backdrops.  Maybe one shouldn’t ask why the story of a queen, that reigned during the greatest imperialistic expansion in British Empire history and who was so inhibited that she refused to recognize that such a phenomena as lesbianism even existed, is transformed in Young Victoria into Queen Victoria's quest for passionate romance.  The typical admirers of this movie are by no means young teenagers but rather college educated individuals that perceive themselves as being sophisticated viewers.  We complain about high school pupils not receiving an adequate education, but what about those that graduated from college some twenty or thirty years ago?  How can they not at least recall enough about Queen Victoria to avoid getting sucked into this portrayal?   I could blame it on the filmmakers that refuse to deliver anything better.  But really it is in most part due to the fact that moviegoers in general - be it at the art houses or the theatre at the mall - want to be swept away by illusory charm depicted as historical fact.  These same audience members are grown people that continue to rapt nostalgic with childhood memories of Cinderella.

To be fair, there is at least a skeleton of truth in the events portrayed in Young Victoria.  Victoria without a doubt was subjected to an extremely sheltered childhood that she grew to resent, and this played a part in her refusal to allow Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) to become her Personal Secretary and also led to the banishment of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), to the far end of Buckingham Palace after Victoria became Queen.  And yes, despite Victoria’s rather austere reputation, she probably was somewhat smitten by her husband-to-be, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) from the House of Saxe Coburg and Gotha in Germany.  And Albert was the father of all nine of her children.  So it would be unfair to suggest that their marriage was completely arranged for little more than political purposes.  Nevertheless, Victoria was not quite the fairy tale princess as portrayed by Emily Blunt.  Even popular image denotes Victoria to have been a bit of a prude.  Nor was her love for the people probably so pronounced as shown here, though Prince Albert was known as a progressive thinker that sought reforms in education.  There were reasons why there were a number of assassination attempts upon her life (only one of which is depicted in the film and for which Prince Albert suffers a fictional wound).   At the end of Young Victoria we root for Victoria and Albert as they attempt to transfer the nation’s welfare system into one that will give the poor at least a chance to survive.  Probably, those in Ireland and India that were subjected to British rule would suggest that her concern for poverty did not extend beyond the borders of England (if that).  And, as we are told, she dressed in black after Albert’s death in 1861 and continued in mourning until her own death in 1901 thus suggesting she never loved another man.  (The movie never addresses the mysterious Mr. Brown that became the subject of another movie about the older Victoria called Mrs. Brown.)

Emily Blunt plays the part of a stubborn and determined young woman convincingly when considering that the character (and appearance) in no way resembles that of the real Victoria.  Rupert Friend projects almost no charisma as the husband of Victoria, but then I suppose this was somewhat intentional.  The other gadflies in the film add little other than to make us understand there was much intrigue surrounding the royal setting.   Emily Blunt provides the character of Victoria with the right amount of sensuousness for a mini-series appearing on public television and probably more passion than what the royal family in England would be comfortable with.  In actuality, Ms. Blunt provided too much of either quality for a portrayal of Victoria and too little of either quality for smoldering romance.

We are reminded again and again in the film that we need to feel sorry for this woman who otherwise lacked for nothing.  “Pity the rich” is a common theme in Hollywood, despite all of the so-called populist leanings of most actors and directors.  For those that only like to look at movies and never pay much attention to the story or what the dialogue consists of (outside of listening to scandalous gossip), Young Victoria will make for enjoyable viewing.   It’s directed by Jean-Marc Valée who is now in the process of directing a film entitled Lost Girls and Love Hotels.  His direction doesn’t add a great deal of vibrancy to Young Victoria.  The movie is not a controversial one and certainly could have been improved upon with some biting commentary or even humor.   The film does not even come close to being compelling.  Perhaps the real life Victoria was not interesting enough that we can make a full featured film about her without lying.  (But if I was to complain about that too much I would be forced to disqualify more than ninety percent of all bi-op pieces released by the film studios.)  Victoria’s legacy was probably due to her strict sense of protocol and the fact that her descendents would populate most of Europe (with many of them as royalty playing a great role in misunderstandings that led to World War I).  However, even a character study portraying this legacy or one showing a powerful figure easily alarmed by any impropriety or indiscretion would be more interesting than the one that we are provided with in Young Victoria.

January 26, 2010 
© Robert S. Miller 2010

YEAR OF THE DRAGON (1985): Aftermath of the Vietnam War

With dialogue that often seems like it was borrowed from a cheap detective novel and overdone violence, I still consider Year of the Dragon to be an extremely thought provoking movie.  The movie begins and ends with funerals of two consecutive Chinese Mafia chiefdoms (neither of whom died a natural death).  In between the funerals and intermixed with all of the violence, we have a character study of an obsessed and slightly crazed police captain and crusader by the name of Stanley White (Mickey Rourke).  Captain White, a former Vietnam vet and highly decorated police officer, is assigned the impossible task of cleaning up Chinatown in New York City.  The difference between White and all of his predecessors is that he is actually determined to make a change.  He begins his introduction to the Chinese community by barging into a meeting between various crime figures and insulting the rising star, Joey Tai (John Lone).  Joey Tai is impatient with the older syndicate heads and feels a more aggressive approach to making profits is in order.  His idea for raising revenue is to replace opium that first needs to be routed through Toronto by instead importing heroin directly into New York.  The New York police department, having become complacent and tolerant towards the goings on in the Chinese community (so long as it does not affect the white population), cannot comprehend that a Chinese crime leader would be bold enough to actually implement such a tactic.  Only Stanley White, waging his own private war (that has been going on since the fall of Saigon), is willing to give credence to the rumors and even do something about it.  Stanley enlists the help of a local media celebrity of Chinese descent by the name of Tracy Tzu (Ariane).  Stanley fills her with information concerning the next busts that are to take place and also informs her of the comings and goings of Joey Tai.  (Stanley also seduces her.)  He also enlists the aide of another Chinese descendent as an undercover cop, Herbert Wong, to infiltrate Joey Tai’s businesses. 
Now however good Stanley might be at being a cop, nothing much else goes well in his life.  His marriage to Connie (Caroline Kava) is in shambles because he is unable to concentrate on anything else but his job (and occasional nights in bed with Tracy).  In fact, for many years Connie and her brother Lou (Ray Barry), who also happens to be on the police force, have been the only ones who even have had any positive feelings for Stanley.  Stanley, if not an outright racist, is at least racially insensitive to the point that he even changes his last name to avoid being associated with his Polish ancestors.  He especially has a love-hate relationship with those of Oriental descent.  He knows their history and even the reasons for their plight.  He understands their resentment towards America beginning with the hard labor that the Chinese had to endure in the building of the railways.  Yet he cannot sympathize with them because in their culture everything remains unspoken.  For someone as brash as Stanley, there is nothing on earth that could be more alien to him than this particular type of behavior.  And Stanley is a bit too sure of himself – too certain that he does have all of the answers.
Joey Tai, by outward appearances, is the wise young man slowly coming into his own.  He is the immigrant who through hard work and ingenuity is rising to the top.  He always looks and talks the part of a professional (even when making a trip to Thailand to meet with the top Asian drug lords).  He contributes to charities and helps young Chinese immigrants attend college in America.  Behind the scenes, however, he orders the murders of whoever may get in his way.  (He is even willing to use the assistance of young Chinese gang members – the type of youth who would kill their own parents with glee.)  In one particular scene, Joey proves this point by producing the literal head of a rival drug dealer in Thailand.  And Joey Tai, though not understanding what he is up against, does what he can to stop Stanley.  In an attempt to murder Stanley at Joey’s bequest, Connie ends up getting killed.  Joey Tai, sensing that Herbert Wong is an infiltrator, has Herbert killed.  Joey even has a few of his young admirers rape Tracy in hopes of shutting her up.
Joey’s efforts are all for naught.  Stanley is especially hurt by the death of Connie.  He knows that he never gave her the happiness that she deserved.  Stanley also has great admiration for Herbert who lost his life by actually doing his job.  And Stanley does feel something for Tracy, who inexplicitly has fallen in love with him.  But rather than slow him down, Joey’s orders to injure or kill everyone around Stanley only make Stanley more determined to bring the Chinese mafia down.  After Herbert is killed, Stanley walks right into Joey’s restaurant and bar and pummels Joey in the restroom.   When Stanley finds out what boat the heroin shipment is to come in on, Stanley ends up meeting Joey in the boatyard and they have a gunfight that brings an end to Joey’s life.  In the final scene, Stanley almost breaks up the funeral of Joey by attempting to arrest various crime figures in the funeral procession.
Director Michael Cimino was criticized for the way he portrayed the Viet Cong in the Academy Award Winning movie, The Deer Hunter, which was released in 1978.  But criticism of The Deer Hunter was mild compared to what was said about Year of the Dragon, which was released in 1985 and was a companion piece to the earlier movie.  Whereas The Deer Hunter ends with the Vietnam War, Year of the Dragon begins in the postwar years with veterans blaming the politicians for America’s defeat.  The film has at times been labeled xenophobic and even racist in its conception because the protagonist in the film happens to be xenophobic and racist in a conflicted sort of way.  Cimino is somewhat responsible for the reception by disclaiming before the movie even begins that the movie was ever meant as a slur upon the honorable achievements of the Asian-American community.  Yet unnoted was Cimino’s implication that the crime wave in Chinatown was a result of the separation of the races, and that such segregation was merely a continuation of more than a century of discrimination against Chinese immigrants.  The immigrants were so thwarted in their desire to achieve the American Dream that the only solution seemed to be through resorting to violent crime.  Joe Tai, at least in appearance, did everything that was to be expected of a good executive.  He was polite in manner, dressed conventionally and conservatively, was a good family man, and tried to put an American face upon Chinatown.  Behind all of the silky smoothness, of course, he was a murderer and a thug.  The triads that he ran used the young and suggestible to do his killings and to ultimately be his “fall-guys.”
Stanley White was never intended to represent Cimino’s own opinions of the Chinese people, but Cimino does allow Stanley to see a more noble side of the Chinese culture than he’s used to experiencing while on the beat.  Stanley grows in his appreciation of the Chinese descendents as the movie progresses.  He admires the Chinese worker who risks his life to provide information to the police concerning the location of two dead bodies that were discovered at his work place.  He respects Herbert for his decency in taking on a dangerous mission to eliminate crime from Chinatown.  And Stanley allows a Chinese businessman to grieve beside him at Connie’s funeral. 
In many ways, Year of the Dragon is a parody of The Godfather.  We accept an Italian or Sicilian Mafioso in American Cinema as if by proxy, yet a Chinese Mafia in existence is not credible.  The crime figures in Year of the Dragon mimic the underworld figures in The Godfather.  As in The Godfather, gambling and prostitution are understood to be harmless vices whereas the drug trade was a true matter of concern.  Yet drugs were ultimately what built up the business and destroyed the personal lives of those pushing the substance.    The Corleone family lost its innocence and even turned upon its own members when the drug trafficking gave them great wealth.  And Joey Tai was forced to rely upon more brutal and less cultured individuals when converting from the age-old opium trade to an opium derivative called heroin.
Yet Year of the Dragon is not a movie about a crime syndicate or drug trafficking.  It is a movie about new practices achieving the same result as age old practices - when in either case a civilization is built upon the exploitation of others.  As Stanley White points out several times in the movie, the Chinese use of Triads to maintain power is a practice that goes back thousands of years.  The killings did not change with the coming of new regimes.  And, unfortunately, the killings did not stop with the arrival of Stanley White who understood culture and history more than any previous police chief.  His attempts at reform in crime control did not stop anything.  Nor could it ever have stopped anything so long as so many different groups of people were separated by nothing else than hatred for each other.
Unless Michael Cimino happened to be as doltish as some of his critics, Stanley White was never intended as a heroic figure.  Like others before and after him, Stanley believed that Vietnam could have been won given the right politicians in Washington.  It wasn’t as simple as Stanley wanted to believe.  In the Vietnam War, as in Year of the Dragon, the enemy was not so easy to locate or to eradicate.  If one leader fell, another came up to replace him.  In the jungles, gorilla troops blended in with the rest of society and made it impossible for American intelligence to infiltrate the enemies’ camps.  The same was true in Chinatown.  The youth, who followed the gang leadership, were so intent on changing the status quo that no methods to bring about the change in leadership went unheeded.  Yet white society’s ignorance of the Asian culture in both situations was so deep that even if one or two men like Stanley White could see somewhat more clearly than the rest, they could never garner the support behind them to accomplish their aims.  Thus in Vietnam, as in Year of the Dragon, all of the carnage accomplished nothing.  The war was lost even before it was begun.
So what do we make of this movie that takes the kind of chances that critics seldom appreciate?  The acting in the entire movie is uneven.  Mickey Rourke comes dangerously close to hamming it up a bit too much, yet he always seems real to me both in his actions and his emotions.  Caroline Kava is excellent as the lonely and frustrated ex-wife as is Ray Barry as the brother-in-law – a decent man who lacks Stanley’s passion for caring about his job.  John Lone comes close to being the stereotypical Chinese mobster, but redeems himself during his last scene in the movie where he understandably snaps under the pressure exerted by Stanley.  Unfortunately, Ariane as the reporter can’t act and only makes an impression in the movie by setting up Mickey Rourke for some of the movie's best lines.  So the movie has many faults, but none that ever make it less than one of the best movies filmed in the 1980s.
Rather than attack Asian culture as the movie is sometimes accused, Year of the Dragon was aimed at the complacency of Americans who do not take the time to understand the rest of the world.  The United States contains far too many people who take the Asian society, or any other society for that matter, for granted.  Yet while acknowledging the limitations of characters such as Stanley White, the director of this movie was not about to admit that those who spoke against Stanley were in anyway his superiors.  Stanley was not ashamed if he cared “too much” (as his brother-in-law ascertained).  Stanley understood that those who wanted him out of a job badly underestimated the problems in Chinatown - just as these same individuals probably also underestimated what would happen with the defeat of American troops in Southeast Asia.  (Many of those who called for a troop withdrawal in Vietnam did not then, and still do not, have a conception of how bad Southeast Asia would become under Communist regimes.)  Stanley White’s critics did not have a clue what a time bomb they had on hand by looking askance at the growing crime problem in Chinatown.  The bloodshed continued in any case with or without the Stanley Whites of the world – in Chinatown and Southeast Asia in general.  While perhaps making a stretch in drawing a comparison between fighting crime in Chinatown and fighting Communism during the Vietnam War, Year of the Dragon is at least honest in emphasizing that the correct answer to what would have been appropriate action in either case has not yet been found.
September 10, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

WINDWALKER (1980): The Magic of the Cheyenne

Mormons can be commended for a couple of quaint ideas.  They believe that revelation is continuous, and they hold that the American Indian is a member of a lost tribe from Israel.  Mainstream Christians have criticized the “strangeness” of Mormon beliefs, but I don’t think doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection or the Apocalypse are any less peculiar.  Whether Joseph Smith did or did not translate some tablets into English while authoring the Book of Mormon will always be a matter of controversy.  Yet the point of Smith that religious magic, if it indeed exists, should not be confined to a period of two to three thousand years ago seems valid.  And if it’s farfetched that the ancestors of Jacob somehow ended up on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean, at least it prompted some Mormons in the west to treat the American Indian with decency.  That’s more than can be said of most Americans.*
The author of the novel, Windwalker, is Blaine M. Yorgason, and the director is Keith Merrill, who happens to be a Mormon.  Merrill’s Mormonism, however, rather than impart the typical puerile message that the American Indian is little more than a child of nature without the depth (or even vices) of contemporary man, helped present a fictional elderly Cheyenne Warrior in some of his glory.  Mounted on a pyre and attended to by one of his twin sons (Nick Ramus) and family, Windwalker (Trevor Howard) lays down to die.  “It is a good day to die,” he says to himself quoting a Cheyenne saying.  However, it wasn’t such a good day to die.  Lying on the pyre while his family left to head south, he cannot leave this life yet because he’s still haunted by the existence of his second twin son.  The Crow Indians kidnapped the lost son (also played by Nick Ramus) while the son was still a child, and Windwalker’s wife Tashina (Serene Hedin) was at that same time murdered by the Crows.
Windwalker, instead of dying, arises from the pyre and also wanders south.  He finds his daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren fleeing from the Crow.  (Windwalker’s first son has been wounded and is now also separated from his family.)  Windwalker then guides the three through many adventures and does what he can to keep them out of danger.  He prevents the rape of his daughter-in-law at the hands of the Crow, and he kills a bear that is stalking them – the same bear which years before killed another one of Windwalker’s infant sons.  And all along, the elderly Windwalker sees visions of his young bride signaling for him to join her at the top of a hill.  When they have time to rest, Windwalker tells his grandchildren and daughter-in-law about his life.  (In the flashback sequences the young Windwalker is played by James Remar.)
One of the Crow warriors they encounter is somehow familiar to Windwalker.  Though disguised by feathers and war paint, Windwalker intuitively understands this to be his long lost son.  When the son is made to understand his connection with Windwalker, a heartfelt reunion takes place.  Windwalker then returns his grandchildren and daughter-in-law to his first son, and with nothing left undone Windwalker joins his deceased bride on the top of the hill and once again is a young man.
There are many people who dislike this movie.  Some individuals place incredible stress upon the fact that Trevor Howard, an Englishman, was not well suited to play a Cheyenne Warrior.  Considering what has gone down in the past as Hollywood depictions of the American Indian, I don’t consider this to be much of an objection.  At one time, it was not atypical to see Indians in movies played by Italian actors such as Ricardo Montalban.  And remember that as late as 1990 in Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner, who wanted so much to honor the American Indian, did not dare depict a romantic relationship between a white man and an Indian woman.  (The woman his character instead falls in love with is a white woman taken in by Indians.)  Howard, in my opinion, plays the part of Windwalker convincingly, and actual Indians played almost every other member of the cast.
Like the movie, The Bear, filmed in Canada and released in 1989, or March of the Penguins, filmed in Antarctica and released just a couple of years ago, Windwalker, which first came out in the theatres in 1980, does at times seem too “adorable.”  Though all three of these movies come very close to being children’s movies, the departure from conventional storytelling add a dimension to these movies that Disney films never have.  Windwalker is filmed in the Cheyenne and Crow dialects and is shown with English subtitles.  There are enough adult themes to make the movie unsuitable for some children and to make it satisfying viewing for intelligent adults.  Probably, elements of sentiment were added in hopes that it would pull in more of an audience.  (Unfortunately, that never happened.  I first watched this in college with three or four friends while there was nobody else in the theatre.)  However, the sentiment of the movie never overwhelms us.  The mysterious beauty of the story along with the striking scenery was more than enough to impress the moviegoer.  The depth of the character of Windwalker made what otherwise would have appeared a fable into a story of realism.
The most troubling criticism of Windwalker comes from those who see in this movie a sinister liberal agenda brought forth by Indian lobbying groups.  This actually speaks more to these individuals than it does to the merits of the movie.**  This movie is not a romanticizing of the American Indian, and it never decries the treatment of the American Indian by white Americans.  What it does do is tell a story without cynicism.  If anything, the movie is too innocent.  Yes, it tells a story about an astonishing man, but it does not tell it while at the same time trying to create the impression that this man was living in a paradise that would no longer exist for his ancestors.  It probably does tell of a mysterious world that no longer can exist with property fenced off and with people no longer free to roam the earth.  Windwalker was a deeply religious man in the best sense of the word.  Like all great religious man, he never quit searching for answers.  At most, the movie suggests that his quest would have been limited if he was forced to live in current society.
It’s difficult to believe that a people who fought so hard to hold onto a land that was taken away from them and who are now seeing such hard times did not at one time possess something better.  But if the movie Windwalker seems to make that suggestion, it does not at the same time claim that the American Indian never struggled before the white man arrived.  Windwalker never even addresses the onslaught of the white man.  (Outside of the movie, Little Big Man, to the best of my recollection, the relationship of the American Indian to the white man has never been addressed intelligently in Hollywood.)  Windwalker was never intended to tell the entire story.  However, it is one of the few movies with the American Indian as a subject that tells an authentic story.  Whether we quibble over Trevor Howard not actually being a full-blooded Indian in his role, only the most narrow minded of viewers would dismiss his character as a fraud.
* Mel Brooks spoofs the Mormon belief about the American Indian in Blazing Saddles when he has the Indian characters out west speaking in Yiddish.  That was a joke that probably has gone over the head of most moviegoers.
** A number of years ago I took a vacation in Alaska.  The airplane in which I was a passenger was flown by a white pilot and hosted by white stewardesses.  When the plane landed in Anchorage, I had the opportunity to observe the cleaning crew coming on board before I had a chance to leave the plane.  The cleaning crew was made up completely of Native Americans.  There’s some truth in it when people suggest that sympathy is caused by distance.  People who live far away both literally and figuratively from a situation often are the first to condemn others for the way they treated a suffering people.  Nobody living was actually there in the 1800s when the wars against the Indians took place.  And many now who comment upon our great shame for the way the American Indian was treated are so far removed from the Indian reservations that their sympathy rings extremely hollow.  But paradoxically, the condemnation by some individuals that the American Indian brought many of its problems upon itself generally also comes from a great distance.  The suggestion is that discrimination against the American Indian, if it ever occurred at all (which many still deny), was in the distant past and the native people need to now bring themselves into the present.  Unfortunately, when you see more than half of the Indian people not receiving a proper education, when you see many of the older adults ravaged by alcoholism, and when you see many of the reservations located in the poorest counties in the United States, a problem that so many deny responsibility for still very much exists.
July 17, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

WISE BLOOD (1979): "The Church of Christ Without Christ"

Flannery O’Connor would have to be considered one of the most perceptive (and peculiar) American writers of her generation.  J.D. Salinger, Ken Kesey or Norman Mailer wrote isolated works that were equally stunning, but the astounding lapses of judgment of these three writers makes it difficult to trust their assessment on most anything.*  O’Connor was far from being the perfect artist.  The characters in her stories seem wooden, and the endings often farfetched.  Yet the letters she wrote that were posthumously published in The Habit of Being show an astuteness that is remarkable for someone who was forced into isolation because of her physical disabilities.  O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39 from Lupus, and she spent most of her life staying with her mother who ultimately became her caregiver.  Unlike John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, intelligent writers whose observations are confined to the college campuses in which they teach, O’Connor’s violent, darkly comic and passionate works indicate to us a writer that has a pulse.  Outside of Dostoyevsky, I can’t think of another novelist who wrote so intently about religious faith.  Somewhere along the line, the fire and brimstone sermons from her rural Georgia began echoing in her head.  She wrestled with the extreme Protestantism of the South, and the smug Secularism of the North.  She never provided an easy alternative for either one of these phenomena.
And so we have Wise Blood, a novel that was improved upon in a movie by the same name through the direction of John Huston.    Hazel Motes is played by Brad Dourif (most famous for his role as Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest).  He has just returned from the war (either the Korean War or World War II) to his home in Tennessee and would like to make sense out of what he’s just experienced.  Hazel exudes no joy whatsoever, and this probably didn’t just start with his experiences in the military.  Hazel undoubtedly was given a religious upbringing that he has never stopped resenting.  Probably it was the kind of religious training where the rod was never spared.  Shortly after returning home, Hazel becomes acquainted with a preacher on the streets by the name of Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton).  Asa proclaims that he blinded himself to show his devotion to Christ.  As Hazel is later to discover, Asa did no such thing.  What Asa really was doing was pretend to be blind to get people to contribute more money.  Asa also has a fifteen-year old daughter named Sabbath Lilly (Amy Wright).  Sabbath is an awkward adolescent with a severe hunger for boys.  So desperate is she in her hunger that she even shows a fascination for Hazel.  Hazel is put-off by the antics of Asa (and what’s happened to Sabbath), so he’s determined to do something about it.  Rather than give into the religious hucksterism that is going on around him, he is determined to gather in his own congregation for the “Church of Christ without Christ.”  Hazel buys a dilapidated car upon which he stands to give his sermons, puts on his suit and hat, and goes to town with his message of contrariness.  Hazel refers to Jesus as a liar and purveyor of evil, and proclaims that he’d rather be converted to “nothing instead of evil.”
Ironically, instead of separating himself from the preachers of Christ’s message that he grew up with, Hazel is mistaken as a preacher by almost everyone he meets.  Though the message Hazel delivered may have sounded different, Hazel’s demeanor and dogma of his message are identical to that of the most puritanical of ministers.  And while accusing the other churches of being filled with hypocrites, swindlers and frauds, Hazel’s own congregation – however small it may be – is made up of the same kind of characters.  (One character played by Ned Beatty wants to be Hazel’s promoter obviously to make money on the side.)  And the ones that do buy into Hazel’s message are the most demented and troubled of souls.  One is so desperate for attention that he wears a gorilla suit to frighten people in public; this same person steals a mummy on display in a museum because he’s convinced it is the next “Jesus.”  Hazel, in an effort to escape even more madness, tries to flee the city but is stopped by the local Sheriff.  The Sheriff, a corrupt local official, who is none too fond of Hazel’s rabble-rousing, ends up pushing Hazel’s car into the lake.  Thus, Hazel is forced to remain where he is.
From this point on, Hazel’s behavior (never what one would call typical) becomes even more bizarre.  Hazel proclaims that he is “not clean” with regards to the message that he has been preaching.  He lacerates himself with glass and barbed wire.  To prove his real devotion and to repent for the clumsy way in which he has presented his message, Hazel does what Asa only pretended to do – he blinds himself.  Having done this, and now in his twisted mind achieving the grace that he always claimed did not exist, Hazel soon after dies.  No one watching this movie could imagine Hazel dying other than pathetically.
John Huston again proves in Wise Blood his greatness as a movie director.  As he had done so many times in his career, he was able to take a book with a difficult message or plot and make it discernible on the screen.  The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett would only be remembered as an overly complex detective story if Huston had not turned Bogart into Sam Spade.  B. Traven, known mostly for his leftist sympathies, wrote novels that were mostly political propaganda.  Huston turned Traven’s novel, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, into a compelling story about greed.  Late in his career, Huston turned an audacious story like The Man Who Would be King by Kipling into a film that I think the author would even have enjoyed.  And though I’ve never seen the film, James Joyce’s story, The Dead - the filming of which does not seem possible - is supposed to be incredibly viewable.  In Wise Blood, everyone and especially Brad Dourif, were excellently cast.  Dourif is able to flesh out the utter strangeness of Hazel.**  And Huston gives the entire story the intensity and comic touches needed to bring O’Connor’s message out.
Wise Blood makes the point that a dogmatic religion and a secular society that mocks all religious belief are both responsible for depriving religion and life of all of its joyousness.  Both sides are convinced that they, and only they, are correct.  O’Connor, who is often described as a devout Christian (which often led some to summarily dismiss everything she had to say), was convinced that the Southern Protestants believed no more in Christ’s message than did the most entrenched atheist.  Yet at least without what Christ’s message entailed, these same so-called believers deprived life of everything that was worthy.  That O’Connor would present such a message in a tale so filled with violence and horror showed that she wanted to cover everything and leave nothing out.  It also proved that she could not be so easily labeled.  O’Connor, too, was probably exposed to the same religious teachings as Hazel and was herself trying to work her way through to find a message that she could live with.  With such a vision as she presents in Wise Blood and in so many of her short stories, her struggle must have been a difficult one. 
Only O’Connor could ever have said for sure whether she found the beauty at the end of her short life to replace the religion of her youth.  However, Flannery O’Connor was right in her mystical vision where so many 20th Century Rationalists were wrong.  Bertrand “Lord” Russell’s brand of rationalism contained socialist leanings, while Ayn Rand’s epistemological objectivism led her to embrace capitalism of the most cutthroat kind – both claimed only to believe in the power of reason.  (Actually, both of these writer’s favorite subjects were themselves.  Russell’s three-volume autobiography on his long life could easily have been condensed to fifty pages; and the novel, Atlas Shrugged, which is almost fifteen hundred pages in repetitious length, describes fifteen or twenty superior individuals who all speak like Ayn Rand.  Rand and Russell’s self-romanticization was the one real thing that they had in common with each other.)  O’Connor’s idea that liberation is not so simple, and that arrogance can undo the believer and unbeliever alike seems more accurate.  However offensive Wise Blood may be to the viewer or reader, the story is never complacent or dull. 
* J.D. Salinger wrote the phenomenal Catcher in the Rye, published some average short stories called Franny and Zooey in 1961, and has not been heard from since.  Kesey followed up his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest, with an even better work called Sometimes a Great Notion, but then his “Merry Pranksters” spiked some Kool-Aid with LSD and Kesey was forced to flee the country.  Kesey’s next published work, Demon Box, though well written, testified as to what a pathetic mess Kesey had made of his life.  And Norman Mailer never lived up to the expectation that he would be the heir to Hemingway.  Mailer wrote Naked and the Dead at the age of 26, but he then let the fame go to his head.  Mailer’s pronouncements on race, feminism and drug use have almost always made him seem harebrained.  His stabbing of his wife in a domestic dispute and his campaigning for the release of Jack Abbott from prison (the violent felon and author who was to murder again once he was paroled) attest to the proposition that Mailer does not understand the consequences of his own actions.
** Kramer vs. Kramer won most of the Oscars in 1979.  John Huston or Francis Ford Coppola could have been selected as Best Director instead of Robert Benton; Brad Dourif could have won an Oscar as best actor instead of Dustin Hoffman (for one of Hoffman's less impressive roles); and Wise Blood or Apocalypse Now could have won Best Picture instead of Kramer vs. KramerWise Blood was probably too depressing for the Academy to present it with any award, so instead they awarded a soap opera portraying two parents fighting over a kid in a divorce action.  I guess that’s entertainment.

July 3, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957): Ingmar Bergman and Loneliness

It is too bad reviewers have done such a wonderful job of making Bergman’s movies incomprehensible to the rest of us.  The attention paid to the symbolism and allegories woven into the movie leaves the impression that reviews were meant for insertion in a college text.  Almost every review, regardless of the movie, mentions Bergman’s existential motif and social realism.  Since even a philosopher like Albert Camus had problems defining what existentialism actually was, most reviewers throw the concept in to gain brownie points with their intellectual readership and hope that no one ever challenges them on it.  Bergman, himself, was somewhat to blame.  He piled the symbolism in so deeply that most viewers almost drown in it.  Yet his movies convey emotion.  If they did not, it would be best to leave them for college professors and other intellectual pretenders.  When reading a review, replace existentialism with the terms loneliness or alienation, and the phrase social realism with disillusion and disappointment - then maybe the critique will make more sense.
Wild Strawberries is about an elderly doctor who, while about to receive recognition for his lifetime of service, realizes he’s received no joy out of life.  From his Swedish home, Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) decides to drive to the Lund Cathedral to pick up his honorary degree rather than take a train.  His devoted housekeeper of forty years, Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl), is completely disconcerted by this change of plans.  Miss Agda is so accustomed to planning everything out in great detail that this sudden act of spontaneity causes her to quarrel with her employer.  Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), Isak’s daughter-in-law, is separated from her husband, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), and staying with Isak.  Probably because Marianne was so startled by Isak’s sudden whim to drive, she decides to accompany Isak on his trip to Lund.  While driving to Lund, Isak picks up three young adults (two boys and a girl, probably about college age) who then accompany Isak and Marianne for the remainder of their journey.  And after a car accident involving a bickering married couple, for a short time, this married couple accompanies them in the car ride as well – until Marianne becomes so tired of the bickering and orders them out of the car on the behalf of the “children.”
So through flashback sequences, horrific nightmares on the part of Isak, and a visit to Isak’s mother and boyhood home, we find out that Isak’s entire life since childhood has been one of rejection, formality and rigidity.  Isak’s mother is an extremely cold and practical person.  Isak’s engagement with a girl named Sara (Bibi Andersson) ended because Sara was in love with Isak’s wild and irresponsible brother, Sigfrid.  (We learn that Sigfrid and Sara are to have six children together.)  Isak marries, but learns one day that his wife is having an affair.  Isak, by then so used to not feeling anything, does not even care.  And Isak’s son, Evald, has become just like Isak causing Marianne to separate from him.
Of the three young adults, the young girl also goes by the name of Sara (and also happens to be played by Bibi Andersson).  She’s a passionate young woman who is torn between her infatuation with the two boys she’s with, Anders (Folke Sundquist) and Viktor (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam).  Anders wants to be a minister, and Victor (always the rationalist) wants to be a doctor.  The two young men constantly argue over the existence of God and even get into a fight over this (showing they are still young and excitable).  Isak is so taken by the three (and especially the young Sara) that for the first time in years he begins to have hope.  That, and through conversations he has with both Marianne and Evald, Isak is able to make amends and bring to life the marriage that Marianne and Evald have for each other.  Evald finally understands that he cannot live without Marianne or the child that she reveals she is carrying.  After the ceremony and the awarding of the honorary degree, the three young adults serenade Isak, and the young Sara confesses that it is he and not the two boys she is with that she will always love.
I haven’t mentioned in any detail the nightmare sequences.  In Isak’s dreams, he sees clocks without hands, a horse drawn hearse where a clone of Isak tries to drag him into the coffin, and episodes of his wife mocking him at the moments that he is trying to show her passion.  The dreams are disturbing and a bit too easy to interpret.  It wouldn’t take Freud to interpret their significance.  The importance of the dreams is in making Isak understand how unhappy he has become, and how this unhappiness is still preferable to the indifference he has become so accustomed to feeling.  Both Isak and Evald had described themselves as being more dead than alive.  It doesn’t matter what the cause of this indifference is.  What is important is that the father and son become alive before it is too late.
This year, Wild Strawberries will be fifty years old, so it is safe to suggest that it has survived the “test of time.”  And so has Bergman.  Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister, and we can guess that the mother in this film was Bergman’s real father in disguise.  Bergman’s evocation of Sweden as an almost soulless land where affection and fervor are unknown made him for a number of years unwelcome in his homeland.  If Sweden did attempt to welcome him back, it’s been surmised that this only occurred because he became one of the most critically acclaimed directors ever in movies.  Bergman, with his desire to be a joyous eccentric after years of being barely able to smile, was not comfortable with the perceived Swedish way of life.  Whether this perception of Sweden is legitimate or was conveyed to others in movies like the ones made by Ingmar Bergman is hard to know.  My exposure to Swedes (and other Scandinavians) has been strictly limited to those I’ve met that immigrated to America.  Bergman saw those from his homeland as a people that insisted on tradition and living by the clock – which resulted in an unstated authoritarianism.  The resistance to change and unwillingness to accept others different than themselves was what Bergman satirized.  In Wild Strawberries, he further suggested that only by throwing off such practices could happiness be found.
With Bergman’s recent death the usual tributes in the obituaries have been printed, and his career has been praised in the most eloquent phraseology.  Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, in which Bergman released at about the same time, are one or the other often hailed as the greatest movie of all time.  So is Wild Strawberries the greatest movie ever made as has often been claimed?  Probably not: we are never swept away by the epic qualities of the film like we would in watching Gone With the Wind or The Godfather, and it certainly does not have the more universal appeal of a movie like Casablanca.  Sometimes the expressions of the actors or actresses seem a bit too pronounced like we were seeing a silent movie where the message of the characters is conveyed by gestures alone rather than words.  And the innocence of the young Sara and her two cohorts is overstated.  Still, if one is in a thoughtful mood and fed up with the crassness of movies that evoke no emotion at all, Wild Strawberries makes one feel sadness and also some relief that there maybe an answer.  Bergman’s dark story has in the end an element of hope.
August 8, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

WALL STREET (1987): Oliver Stone, Greed and More Greed

“Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.”
                                                    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy

Oliver Stone’s father was a stockbroker and that seemed like a sufficient enough excuse for him to make a movie called Wall Street.  Stone always makes movies that are in some way autobiographical.  He was an infantry soldier in Viet Nam, so he understandably directed Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.  He was addicted to drugs, so he was involved with movies such as Scarface and Natural Born Killers.  He liked the music of Jim Morrison so he made The Doors.  His favorite President was John Kennedy, so he created (and “created” in the most literal sense of the word) a movie called JFK, and his least favorite President was George W. Bush, so he directed W.  Over the last ten years or so his movies that he has brought out have been safer, less controversial and therefore less interesting.  And unfortunately, these later efforts were a great deal more honest than what he used to produce and direct.

Wall Street was probably Stone’s best effort at directing, but that’s not to say the movie lacks a number of flaws.  The movie’s significance was in that it came out shortly after the insider trading scandal involving Drexel Corporation, and it is again receiving some passing interest because of recent events bringing the real Wall Street into disrepute.  The character, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) was probably based upon Michael Milken, and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) I suppose could have been a young Ivan Boesky.  At the beginning of the film, Bud is the young ambitious stockbroker that would do anything to break away from his working class roots.  Gekko already has broken from his roots and, we are to understand, almost singlehandedly runs Wall Street.  Bud spends something like two months trying to bring himself to the attention of Gekko and finally succeeds by delivering Gekko some Havana cigars on Gekko’s birthday.  After a few failed attempts to impress his idol, Bud finally gets Gekko’s attention by providing some inside information about Bluestar Airlines safety violation that is about to be cleared up.  This information was provided to Bud in confidence by his father, Carl Fox (Martin Sheen), who had no idea about Bud’s association with Gekko.  Gekko then buys out Bluestar with the hopes of great savings by forcing the union to lower its concession demands.  Unfortunately for Bud, his father, Carl, who has strong sway with the union, does not trust Gekko.  Bud nevertheless gets Carl to persuade the union to go along with Gekko.  Only later does Carl and Bud discover that Gekko plans on selling off Bluestar’s assets which would essentially leave Carl and many others out of work.  Bud manages to temporarily outsmart Gekko by creating a plan that will cause Bluestar’s stock price to plunge and thus manipulates Gekko into selling the stock at a much lower price to a rival businessman that will keep Bluestar in business.  Gekko, finding out about Bud’s role in forcing Gekko to sell the stock off, arranges for Bud to be arrested for security violations.  Bud, as a wired informant in return for a lighter sentence, has one last conversation with Gekko (while being pummeled by Gekko’s fists) where Gekko boasts about many other illegal transactions he has been involved in.  Bud is being taken to the court when the film ends, so we are never sure what kind of punishment will be dealt out to either Bud or to Gekko.

We also have a few side stories.  Carl, a chain-smoking mechanic with great integrity, suffers a heart attack probably brought on by many things – not the least of which is his son Bud’s disapproval.  A contrite Bud then tries to make it up with his father as Carl is nursed back to health.  We learn that Bud’s girlfriend, Darianne (Daryl Hannah), was a former lover of Gekko and would sell her soul to anyone for a few extra dollars.  She parts ways with Bud when she learns he values other things more than money.  And Gekko has surrounded himself with some of the most opportunistic bootlickers that must ever have existed.  The moral is fairly obvious: Gekko’s “greed is good” motto comes with the price of not having any worthwhile friends.

I can’t say I’m all that impressed with the acting in this 126 minute film.  Daryl Hannah was uniformly criticized for playing the part of a manikin, but I’m not sure why Michael Douglas should receive that much more credit for completely overacting.  There is probably not a single scene in the movie where Douglas ever exudes anything resembling human warmth, though the script does deserve some of the blame for this.  Charlie Sheen is still a bit too young to play the part.  Probably he would have been more effectively brash if he was five years older.  Martin Sheen perhaps did the best job of acting in the entire film and ends up closest to not being typecast for his role.

Director Oliver Stone is not known for subtlety, and Wall Street is probably his least subtle movie.  That’s not the worst criticism.  It has become fashionable for movie directors to believe in nothing and then pass it off as substance.  At least Stone was trying to say something.  We know Gekko’s motives.  He wants money, and he’s certainly not alone in the world wishing for that.  And Gekko’s interesting.  As in most movies, the evil character is the most interesting, but here Carl also shows some personality and backbone.  The problem is this: with Stone’s absolute insistence that this is a realistic depiction of America’s financial district, the only viewers that will actually share in Stone’s convictions are those convinced that there is a bogeyman behind every corner in America.   These individuals believe there really is a great deal of difference in the spiritual makeup of those that are very rich and those that are poor.  If Stone believes that there is such thing as a soul, it is only possessed by male blue collar workers that actually get their hands dirty with something other than money.  

I strongly agree with Stone that it would be best that we made our livings by other means than moving money from one person’s hands into the hands of someone else.  For many employed on Wall Street, money is a plaything rather than something one had to struggle to obtain.  Greed is destructive.  That’s the point that Carl makes to his son after his son’s arrest.  If money says anything about the value of a person it only demonstrates it in the way we’ve made our money – not in how much money we actually have.  Yet if money is used by some as a tool to belittle others, self-righteousness can also accomplish the same end.  Stone is often guilty of such self-righteousness.  Stone grew up affluent, so perhaps Bud is a somewhat fictionalized prototype of the director.  But Stone’s criticism is so heavy-handed that many of the chief characters in Wall Street come off as parodies, and Bud comes close to being a whiny little jerk. 

There probably are men like Gekko in the world that tone it down a bit because they are not grandstanding for a Hollywood film.  Bernard Madoff for example.  And though these individuals can inflict a great deal of damage, what is probably worse is the unconscious indifference that most of us every day show towards the poor.  For whatever he was, Gekko was upfront about his designs and is easily recognizable.  The other sort of damage that the rest of us afflict is not analyzed by anyone like Oliver Stone because it would require a great deal more thought.

August 28, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

Friday, November 26, 2010

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999): Yuppie Angst

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who narrates to us that he will be dead within a year, is going through a terrible mid-life crisis.  While most middle-aged men respond to this by buying a motorcycle, Lester quits his job as a lowly journalist (though he still has plenty of money to live in an affluent suburb), takes on a job as cashier in a fast food joint, starts smoking dope, and makes plans to seduce a sixteen-year old cheerleader.  His good-looking wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), who apparently is no longer good enough looking for Lester, we are led to believe is a shrew.  She matches the color of her shoes with her gardening supplies showing her obsessive compulsiveness, works hard to be a successful real estate agent, considers her husband a failure and decides to have an affair of her own.  Their sixteen-year old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) feels neglected by her father, wants to have breast implants, and occasionally talks out loud about having her father killed.  Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the teenage boy who lives next door, who is abused by his father and shows about as much expression as a deer that has died with his eyes open, is in love with Jane.  He shows his love for her by secretly videotaping her from his bedroom window while she’s up in her room.  Ricky sells drugs to Lester on the side.  Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), is the cheerleader that Lester would like to seduce.  Angela, apparently ashamed of her own virginity, brags to her friends about all of the boys she has been with and encourages Lester to sleep with her.  By the way, Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), a marine who happens to be a latent homosexual, also has some feelings for Lester.

 It’s fortunate for Lester that he has so much wealth to indulge himself in his vices.  It affords him the opportunity to buy a new Firebird, to exercise by lifting weights, to take any job he pleases, to buy his drugs, and to pursue every passion.  Lester’s also glib enough to sass his way through every uncomfortable situation.  Witness the scripted lines he recites to his wife when he catches her in bed with her new lover.  Only one time does he ever seem to be concerned about anyone but himself, and he shows his concern in such a manner that he cannot be accused of committing statutory rape.  Lester gets Angela into bed, and we get to see him feel her up right before she tells him that she has never been with anyone before.  Then Lester decides that he’s no longer in the mood to have sex with her.  Granted, this is a rather dubious way to express one’s own sense of decency.  Lester’s decision not to sleep with Angela is unrelated to the fact that she is sixteen.  He simply has no desire to deflower a virgin.

But though there are no consequences for any of Lester’s actual acts, there does happen to be consequences for imagined acts that Lester performed.  The Colonel, while spying on Lester and Ricky involved in a drug transaction, misinterprets what they are doing together as a homosexual encounter.  Instead of calling the police, the Colonel decides to deliver a kiss to Lester to let him know that he is also interested.  However, when Lester tells the Colonel that he’s really not into guys, the Colonel disappears only to later return with a pistol that he uses to blow off the back of Lester’s head.  Ricky, who has now made preparations to run away with Jane, wanders in, discovers Lester’s body and somehow almost manages a smile.  The smile we are to assume is Ricky showing his admiration for what Lester attempted to accomplish at the end of his life (not quite like the pained expression I had on my face when this movie finally ended).

One movie critic called American Beauty the worst choice for best picture since Titanic.  Such talk is meaningless because, with all that’s been said about Academy Award Winning Material, it’s hard to explain what Academy Award Winning material truly is.  I can think of twenty-five or thirty movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture that were less deserving of its Oscar than Titanic.  There may have been five or six films less deserving than American Beauty.  Winning an Oscar should stand for little in any case.  If a movie is good, people will still care to watch it ten or twenty years from now.  Maybe a movie should aspire to do that rather than just appeal to a limited audience.

Director Sam Mendes aspirations could not have been lofty in making American Beauty.  This movie presumably was made by Yuppies for Yuppies, and it is about Yuppies growing old.  I kept hoping that at some point there would be some kind of revelation.  Undoubtedly it was meant as a black comedy, though the critics have tripped all over themselves trying to sanitize Lester’s behavior.  Lester, they reason, was so desperate for the experience of freedom that he must be forgiven for making a few unfortunate choices.  Yet, outside of an unlikely misunderstanding, Lester was absolutely free to make his choices without any cost to himself.  How else could he have behaved?  Lester could have given all of his money away or simply blown it and lived on the streets.  He could have met with Angela’s parents and have explained his honest intentions for their daughter (thus risking a bullet from them).  He could have talked out his problems with his wife, and let her take leave to pursue the same freedom that he craved.   Any of this would have made him a more noble character than what comes across in the movie.  Or if he really objected to the moral code that prevents a man over forty from sleeping with an adolescent girl, he could have just slept with her and shown himself for the dirty old man that he was (and then served his time in jail).  The farce we are instead presented with that magically resolves their tryst only provides the illusion that Lester really cared about the well being of this emotionally brittle girl.  If Lester really did care he wouldn’t have messed with her head to begin with (virgin or not), and I’m not sure why director Sam Mendes lacks the comprehension to see this.

Now if this movie was meant solely as ribald lampooning, why do we care if Lester refrains from sleeping with Angela, does not return the kiss to the Colonel, or happens to win all verbal exchanges with Carolyn by insulting her?  For sheer antics, this movie is not even close to being as outrageously entertaining as movies, or even the Cheech and Chong recordings, made twenty-five years before this movie was filmed.  This movie does not stretch the boundaries of conventional morality because Lester always becomes conveniently insecure (not to mention inhibited) right when he’s on the verge of doing something more than today’s Hollywood can accept.  All the talk about this movie’s realism (naïve and imagined that it is) is too horribly in earnest as to allow one to believe that this movie was intended as a pleasurable comedy.  This movie has been sold to us as a drama – or to some as an important cultural statement.  Ultimately what it ends up being is cynicism.  Lester is a financially rich man who feels sorry for his self and believes in nothing but Lester.

Having said all of this, American Beauty still tells us nothing about ourselves.  It shows us bored characters but never explains in depth why their lives are so dysfunctional.  Also, it offers no suggestions to relieve the tedium outside of temporary fixes.  It gives us no reason to care what anyone else thinks or feels.  With the portrayal of a character that lacks moral accountability, it gives us no reason to behave with dignity - or with real joy or hope.  If the awards of freedom mean little more than voyeurism, drug-use and borderline pedophilia, we have set our standards for freedom extremely low.

September 1, 2006
©  Robert S. Miller 2006

ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002): About Happiness

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Tolstoy
I generally do not care for movies like About Schmidt.  Unhappy characters in movies are often glamorous people in glamorous professions who are married to glamorous spouses, and live in glamorous homes.  If they happen to be poor or alone, feel assured that their situation will predictably change by the movie’s end.  Or, in the case of Titanic, the poor boy will end up on the bottom of the ocean and live on in the dreams of the rich girl he loved.  Anyway, the cause of the person’s unhappiness in a movie is usually a desire that is thwarted by some evil or anally retentive individual.  Abusive or fanatically strict parents (the evil step-mother) in movies are generally the cause of all neurosis.  The shrill and insensitive or neglectful spouse is the second leading cause.  And evil employers who don’t give a damn about their workers, or appreciate the tremendous contribution that the star of the movie usually makes towards his occupation, are almost as common as the evil parent or evil spouse.  About Schmidt is different.  Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is so much like a thousand other people I’ve known that for once I can almost identify with the lead character in a movie.
 On the day of his retirement, Schmidt sits in his office among all of his boxes of documents he has prepared for his replacement and watches the clock.  Schmidt has worked as an insurance actuary in Nebraska for most of his life and apparently he was quite good at it.  A retirement party is held in his honor, and his replacement assures him that he will still have plenty of questions for Schmidt as he becomes accustomed to the new position.  Schmidt’s wife, Helen (June Squibb), looks on proudly, though she probably has never understood exactly what it was that Schmidt did for a living.  Schmidt leaves work with Helen and returns to his nice suburban home that has an RV parked in the driveway.  Schmidt shuffles around the house, eats dinner and lunch with Helen, and we understand that he doesn’t have a clue what to do with his life.
 In response to a television add, he decides to sponsor a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu for just twenty-two dollars a month. Schmidt sends Ndugu a number of letters where for some reason he expressed everything that he was feeling.  Most of these letters Ndugu would be incapable of understanding.  Also, after some hesitation, Schmidt decides to go back and visit where he worked.  The replacement, upon seeing Schmidt at the office so soon after the retirement, is taken aback and not so subtly suggests that Schmidt go back home; he does assure Schmidt that he will contact him with any questions.  Schmidt takes the elevator down, exits outside close to where the garbage dumpsters are located, and Schmidt notices that all the boxes of documents that he had organized for his replacement have now been thrown in the trash.  Schmidt returns home only to find his wife Helen lying dead on the floor after she had been performing some cleaning chores.
 At Helen’s funeral, we meet Schmidt’s only daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis).  Jeannie berates Schmidt for not spending more money on the casket, and we get the feeling right away that she’s not extremely fond of her father.  Jeannie is to be married in the near future to a sales man in Denver, and we can guess right away that he’s not much of a match.  Shortly after Helen’s funeral, Schmidt takes off in his RV in order, so he says, to help Jeannie out with the wedding arrangements.  Jeannie is not pleased with this offer of assistance and orders her father to return back to Nebraska until the time that the wedding is actually to take place.  However, rather than return to his boring existence, Schmidt decides to drive his RV around for a few days and take in the sights.  He stops at an RV camp and encounters an almost unbearably upbeat couple there.  At one point, while alone with the wife while the husband is off buying beer, he talks to her about his life and finds solace.  Unfortunately, he misinterprets her sympathy to be affection, gives her a kiss, and she loses her temper and tells him to get out.
 Schmidt finally goes back to Denver for the wedding and stays at Randall’s mother’s home.  Randall’s mother (Kathy Bates) jumps into the hot tub with him while she’s nude.  This understandably scares Schmidt away.  Schmidt also meets Randall’s father, his father’s new wife, and Randall’s brother.  Neither Randall nor the rest of his family are exactly what Schmidt had in mind for his daughter.  However, when Schmidt broaches the idea with Jeannie that she might be making a mistake marrying this “nincompoop,” Jeannie tells him to either act like a proud father or else go back to Omaha and stay out of her life.  She feels that her father, who for so many years had been emotionally absent from her life, was now in no position to give her advice.  Schmidt honors her wish and does behave, and he gives a toast at the wedding where he praises all of the new family members that truly horrify him.
 Schmidt returns to Denver and finds a letter from the orphanage where Ndugu has been staying.  The letter is written by a Catholic Nun, and it explains how Ndugu has been doing and about his recent recovery from an illness.  It also contains a picture that Ndugu has drawn in crayon.  Schmidt is so moved  by the colorful drawing that he breaks into tears.  Probably, he comprehends that Ndugu with so little at his disposal has created a drawing with more life in it than anything Schmidt had created in his sixty-five years.
 Socialist movie critic, Joanne Laurier, refers to this movie as honest criticism and satire (which it is).  The depressing sights and information that Schmidt is exposed to during his pilgrimage point to a depersonalized and sometime sick culture.  However, Ms. Laurier feels that the film is weak because the problems presented tend to be more blamed on personal failings “rather than on a failed society and failed culture.”  This seems to be a mantra with her.  In reviewing the movie Kinsey, she suggested that it was misguided to assume liberation through the elimination of “sexual ignorance,” and instead suggested “liberation is first and foremost a political and economic act.”  Without meaning to take Ms. Laurier’s words out of context, About Schmidt demonstrates that political and economic liberation in itself does not bring fulfillment.  Schmidt was for all practical purposes politically and economically liberated.  Through this capitalistic system that Ms Laurier would undoubtedly assail, he now had enough money to see and learn anything that he wanted.  He could financially assist his daughter if necessary and, more importantly, he had enough money to contribute to a private charity that had meaning to both Schmidt and to Ndugu.  As far as political liberation, the RV he owned was a symbol of a freedom as he could travel to anywhere he wanted with it.  Yes, there is irony in Schmidt being an actuary.  However, in Socialist countries where 80 percent or more of one’s income goes to the government, I’m guessing they would be in need of actuaries as well – and the need for truck drivers, warehouse men, bureaucrats, union members, etc.  It’s unfair to view the problems presented in this film specifically as an American phenomena because characters like Schmidt can be found elsewhere as well.  And it speaks extremely little of men to suggest that their problems are a product of a “failed society and failed culture” because we have the capability of being so much more than automations manipulated easily by outside forces.
 I admit that Hollywood is generally at its worst when it portrays the differences of rich and poor people.  In a Hollywood fantasy lack of money accounts for little.  Poverty seems to make the poor virtuous.  Rich people in Hollywood movies are often troubled, and we are supposed to feel sorry for those idle rich who have nothing else to do but travel the world and seek adventure and lurid romance.  But as dishonest as this portrayal of society can be, it is even more dishonest to blame class differences for every failing.  It’s a failure to achieve personal rather than economic or political liberation that has made Schmidt so unhappy.  A little more money or a little less money would have done nothing to bring him serenity.  It is his attempt at personal liberation through the speech he made at his daughter’s wedding and through his letters and contributions to a charity that have given Schmidt his first chance at happiness he probably never before had.   No system of government could have dictated this outcome for him.  This may be the saddest movie that I have ever seen because it is so real.  I know many people, rich and poor, in the same situation as Schmidt.  Yet it gives a key to a man who in the end understands how terrible and ordinary his life has been.
September 1, 2006 
©  Robert S. Miller 2006

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

United 93: An Open Letter to a Critic

I watched United 93 the first week after it was released.  I was interested in seeing what other movie critics thought of it, so I read a large number of them.  Most reviewers portrayed it favorably.  Richard Roeper went so far as to call it the best movie so far in 2006.  A couple of reviewers had more neutral responses.  They felt that the movie was well done technically, but that the director of the movie took few chances because he did want to risk offending any group involved in the 9/11 tragedies.  One reviewer gave a negative review because he did not think we were yet ready for a movie on the subject.  This, of course, is absurd.  You either make a well thought out movie or you do not, and the time of release will not affect the quality of the movie either way.  And then there was the review of Keith Ulrich of Slant Magazine.  I think he saw a different movie than anyone of us in the theatre happened to see.  He hated it.
A copy of his review can be found at:
I thought United 93 was a well-done movie that I have no desire to see again.  I wasn’t put off by the topic or the style.  I knew what the movie was going to be about when I went into it.  I tend to agree with the more neutral reviewers.  The movie was not offensive to anyone and that I felt was its shortcoming.  It didn’t change my mind about anything concerning the events that happened back in 2001.
Still, the movie deserved more than what Mr. Urlich was willing to give it credit for.  He gave it one-half star out of five.  I didn’t care if he was overly critical.  I’m picky, too.   What I saw in his movie review was a dishonest attempt to bring credit to himself.  Thus, on May 4, 2006, I sent him the following e-mail:
 Dear Mr. Urlich:
 As acknowledged in your review of United 93, you certainly do as a viewer respond to the work in any way you “deem fit.” Maybe you should be less proud of this.  You are being disingenuous if you believe this purely negative review is more than a need to bring attention to yourself.  Peppering your review with terminology such as synergy, hagiographic, or clusterf**k, makes your review feel “hopelessly bogus” and “thrown in” to create a “dishonest sense” of your own pretended superiority.

 You say there is “no moral center” to the movie, and yet you make frequent references to the manipulations and bias of the moviemaker (by the way, a movie far less manipulative than Academy nominated movies such as Munich and Crash).  I’m guessing it was because the movie was not obviously manipulative that you claim that a moral center was lacking.  As evidence of a “contrived and utterly offensive dramatic hand” you reference the hanging of a picture of the Capitol on the cockpit controls.  You fail to mention that the viewer would have missed that scene if he happened to take even two seconds to grab a handful of popcorn.  I’m curious about what kind of mental process you needed to engage to convince yourself that this movie turned “victims into heroes and adversaries into monsters.”  The names of the victims are never uttered once during the entire movie, and the director bent over backwards to portray at least one of the hijackers as a human being.  Even you would have to acknowledge that terrible things did occur during the hijacking.  This movie did show that the “adversaries” took the lives of certain passengers, but it would be difficult to dispute that this was not factual.  Nor do I remember any member of the audience exiting the theatre in anything resembling a “Pavlovian sort of rage.”  Thoughtful movie goers (the type generally in attendance at a movie such as this) are not prone to such reactions.

 The movie was not a masterpiece, but I’d give it three out of four stars.  I agree that some of the scenes on the ground were not artistically polished as compared to the scenes on the plane, but this does not mean that those scenes were inappropriate.  You were wrong about Ben Sliney’s acting performance since he did come close to conveying the same emotion he probably would have felt back on 9/11.  From reading your review, I feel you are either expecting perfection from a movie or else are trying to make a name for yourself by penning a rejection of a picture that most people felt was worth while seeing.  Since the last paragraph of your review was emotionally overwrought, and since you piously lament the fact that only 10 percent of the opening week proceeds are going to the United 93 Memorial fund (a fact irrelevant to the quality of the111 minutes of film content), I’d have to go with the later conclusion.

Hopefully, you will write more genuine reviews in the future.


Robert S. Miller
 For some reason, I have not heard back from the gentleman.
 July 13, 2006 
 © Robert S. Miller     2006

TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE (1987): Modern Tale of Morality

Norman Mailer’s bravado marred almost everything he wrote.  Judging by his essays on the space program or the presidential campaigns, Mailer can be brilliant when writing about man’s intellectual pursuits.  Unfortunately, he can be insulting when writing about instinctive behavior such as violence or sexuality.  He refuses to identify with women or with homosexuals.  And when he praises black males, it’s usually reserved for pimps, drug addicts, gamblers or felons.  Gerald Early, a black sports writer, once complained about how little Mailer had grown in his understanding of race relations between the time that he wrote The White Negro during the 1950s and The Fight (concerning the Ali/Foreman match) in the 1970s.  In the earlier work, Mailer states that it was “no accident that psychopathy is most prevalent with the Negro.”  In the latter work, he speaks of the “pride Blacks took in their skill as pimps.”  Mailer was once arrested for stabbing his second wife.  When assisting Jack Abbot, the author of The Belly of the Beast, to get out of jail on parole, Abbot was once again arrested – this time for murder.  Mailer has also praised the intellect of mass killers such as Gary Gilmore and Charles Manson.
Mailer is a publicity hound that, in the past, desperately wanted to be identified as the greatest writer of his generation.  As an insecure twenty-six year old, he penned the novel Naked and the Dead.  As uneven as that novel was, he has not been able to write one since that was nearly as good.  The Deer Park, The Executioner’s Song and Ancient Evenings were Mailer’s attempt to write that epic novel, but in all three cases he failed.  Mailer has a terrific feel for the small nuances.  He generally has no feeling whatsoever for the big picture.  Mailer is now in his mid-eighties and there’s no reason to believe that the great novel he wished to write will ever be forthcoming.  So why take the man seriously at all?  For one, despite all of the hallucinogens that he ingested, his mind is still in tact and he can speak from an incredible breadth of experience.  For two, Mailer has always had the courage to not shy away from controversy.  And three, he is so uncomfortably aware of his own limitations that he is forthright about the struggles he has had to go through to keep himself from shattering to pieces.  Because of this, Mailer is the only one who could have written Tough Guys Don’t Dance.  And he’s the only one audacious enough to think he could actually direct the movie himself.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance starts out strange enough.  A loser named Tim Madden (Ryan O’Neal), after binging on some concoction of drugs, wakes up in his ex-wife’s house with a new tattoo on his arm and finds his girlfriend’s head wrapped up in his stash of marijuana beside his car that is parked outside.  This creates quite the dilemma for him because he can’t remember if he was the one that actually decapitated her.  Along the way we discover that there are more heads.  This is both a relief and a problem for Tim.  Though Tim was never quite convinced that he committed any murder, he couldn’t give a plausible alibi even to himself.  Thus he feels less guilty knowing there were too many heads that had no connection to his person.  Unfortunately, he has no way to prove that he’s not the murderer so it really looks like he’s on the rap for all of the heads.  For the remainder of the movie, he plays the part of private investigator (for himself) to discover what actually happened. 
Meanwhile, his father, Dougy Madden (Lawrence Tierney), is a bit concerned about him.  His father is a tough man and been through a large number of scrapes.  He’s a bartender who has associated with professional fighters and mobsters.  The only thing that was ever going to stop him was the cancer he was now dying from.  The father does not understand his flaky son, but he would do anything he could to straighten him out.
We also have a number of flashbacks, the most important concerning Tim’s ex-wife, Patty (Debra Sandlund).  Patty was rich and not too particular about people she slept with either before or after the marriage.  Patty’s previous husband, Wardley (John Bedford Lloyd), was completely odious to her and at one point she asked Tim to murder him.  (Since Tim couldn’t even commit a murder under these circumstances, it stands to reason that he probably could not have committed any later murders.)  There are so many other flashbacks wrapped in subplots (adding up to several murders and at least two suicides) that it would be impossible to mention them all.
Finally, we have the Chief of Police, Regency (Wings Hauser), who is not your normal law and order man.  Regency is involved in wife swapping, various big time drug deals and a number of sex parties.  He also appears to be a serial killer.  Let’s just say that, though the plot does get confusing at times, he is probably the one responsible for all of the heads.  When things are looking bad for the sheriff, he simply takes himself out.  With no one to point the finger at and with Tim potentially facing the charges for several murders, Tim and Dougy decide to (as in Dougy’s words) “deep six the heads” to destroy all of the evidence.  (Tim and Dougy take a boat out into the ocean and dump all of the heads there.)
Mailer is, of course, open to criticism for all of his lunacy, but this time he has shown that many of his critics are in a rut.  Movie critics may decry cliché-ridden plots and storylines (something this movie defies in everyway), but they secretly disdain anything that departs from the Hollywood script and will nitpick about a movie that does just that.  Most movie reviewers say that the production of Tough Guys Don’t Dance looks amateurish.  They will acknowledge that the acting of Tierney and Sandlund and Hauser is magnificent (O’Neal comes across almost strangely conventional).  However, they will criticize the confusing plot, the poor use of camera angles, the violence and the number of characters that just disappear - only to hide the fact that these same critics don’t know what to make of this movie.  Mailer and the cast poke fun at the pansy critics.  Long accused of being a Hemingway clone, the bluster that Mailer brings to the screen is so vital and rare that the so-called macho posturing seems fresh.  This is an old fashioned detective movie - with most of the characters on drugs.  This movie is also a coming of age story for a messed up young man under the tutelage of his tough and immaculate father.  The father could just as well have been Detective Phillip Marlowe (played perfectly by Bogart in The Big Sleep) - now grown old and who is coping with his cancer stoically.  There is an actual connection between the father and son that is personal and real.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance, released in 1987, even makes the Tarentino movies seem tame.  Mailer, of course, is not known as a filmmaker and it does show in this unpolished movie.  But without all of the imperfections, the singular storyline, and the sheer nuttiness, this movie would never have been so fascinating.  It’s the energy and the fact it contained a couple of characters I liked that gives it an appeal that most similar and later movies completely lacked.
January 24, 2007 
© Robert S. Miller 2007