Still catching up on notes from past family movie nights. August 21, 2015.
Two stories from the very good baseball book I’ve been reading, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse by Molly Knight. Both stories are about catcher A.J. Ellis and his different relationships with the Dodgers’ star pitchers, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
Ellis had caught Kershaw when he was working on a new pitch before, with mediocre results. At the beginning of the 2007 season, Kershaw skipped High-A ball and went from Low-A ball to Double-A Jacksonville. Because he didn’t yet have an effective changeup, the Dodgers wanted him to throw fifteen of them a game, no matter what, to try to develop one. They didn’t care if batters hammered it. Though Ellis and Kershaw would later become the best of friends, their first meeting was no lovefest. Ellis went to catch one of Kerhsaw’s bullpens in Jacksonville when Kershaw was working on his changeup. Frustrated by the pitch’s lack of deception, he kept throwing it high and away so the batter wouldn’t swing at it. Ellis called out to hi, “Hey! Get the ball down!” Annoyed, Kerhsaw looked back at Ellis and yelled: “Hey! Relax!”
“And that was when I realized it was better if I didn’t try to talk to him when he pitched,” said Ellis.
On the morning Greinke threw his first bullpen session for the Dodgers the following spring, Ellis approached him and asked him how he liked to warm up...Greinke smirked and stared at his feet. “I’m pretty easy,” he said. “You go over there and I’ll stand over here. I’ll throw the ball and you catch it. Then you throw it back to me.” Ellis couldn’t contain his laughter. He laughed again when, weeks into the season when the Dodgers were stuck in a painful slump, he asked Greinke what roster moves he might make to improve the team. Greinke considered the question carefully, as he always did, then came back to Ellis with his answer. “Well, the first thing I’d do is trade you because your value will never be higher,” Greinke said. And then I’d sign Brian McCann in the off-season to play catcher so we can upgrade the position offensively.” He was serious….
Greinke wasn’t trying to be rude. He just lacked the ability to sugarcoat words as they stumbled off his tongue. Once, after Greinke had been riding Elis hard for being so slow on the basepaths that Greinke’s bunts had to be perfect to sacrifice Ellis over, a teammate told Greinke that for every five mean things he said to someone he had to pay one compliment. He was half joking, but Greinke took it to heart. The next day, Greinke approached Ellis between innings and told him he’d done a nice job framing a low pitch. Ellis wondered what the hell he was talking about. Then he remembered Greinke’s new orders to be nice. He laughed again.
The point of the first story is that Ellis knew when to back off and defer to his pitcher’s judgment of his own wants and needs.
The point of the second story is that Ellis had enough understanding of how his pitcher ticked to know not to let the pitcher’s eccentricity get to him.
The point of both stories is that Ellis is a good catcher because he knows it’s not about him or about the pitcher. It’s about what works best to help the team win.
To do their jobs well, good catchers have to be all things to all men. They have to know the game better than anyone on the field. They have to be aware of everything that’s happening on the field. They have to know their own team’s strengths and weaknesses on defense. They have to know the opposing team’s just as well. And since they’re expected to hit with power and for average, they have to know themselves pretty well too. What’s more they have to be able to read minds. Their pitchers’, their managers’ and coaches, the opposing batters’, the umpires. They have to be able to negotiate, cajole, calm, encourage, inspire, and persuade. They have to be able to deal diplomatically with all sorts and conditions of difficult characters---eccentrics, egomaniacs, and nutcases---and other high-strung, proud, competitive, talented young men who because they are so talented and so young are often arrogant young men who for one reason or another don’t take kindly to criticism or even helpful advice. In order to handle all this, catchers have to be psychologically astute and, at least on the field, in command of their own egos and emotions. They have to be self-effacing and self-sacrificing. It’s not that they have to be lacking in ego and pride. They just have to be able to keep both in check. For the good of the team, and for the sake of their own sanity, they can’t take any of it personally.
All of this is why conventional baseball wisdom has it that catchers, when their playing days are over, make the best managers.
It’s also why two good baseball movies, both of which have been recent features of Mannion Family Movie Night, Bull Durham and A League of Their Own, have catchers as their protagonists. The stories of both films hinge on their catcher-hero/heroine submerging their egos and sacrificing their pride for the good of the team and to advance another player’s career.
Bull Durham holds up beautifully, thanks mainly to Susan Sarandon’s performance and the whole conception of her character, that worshipper at the Church of Baseball, Annie Savoy. But it tells a good baseball story that’s self-contained. Other sports movies depend on building to the Big Game for tension and suspense. Bull Durham is content to be about loving baseball for baseball's own sake.
A League of Their Own holds up less well, and I didn’t think it was all that good when it came out. I enjoyed it, and not only for Tom Hanks’ and Geena Davis’ performances, terrific as those were. And it’s still a fun and often funny film---though not as funny as I remembered it. It’s also not as well-made as I remembered it and it wasn’t on my list of potential Oscar-winners back then. In fact, it’s small in scale and artistic ambition, rather shoddily made, uninspired cinematically, and somewhat perfunctorily directed by Penny Marshall, who seems to have approached it as if she was shooting a three-camera sitcom on a studio sound sage. Long shot followed by medium shot followed by close up, again and again, with scene-setting cover shots interspersed as needed.
And it doesn’t look right.
That is, it doesn’t look like it’s taking place in the period.
The details are right. The costumes, the make-up, the sets including the color schemes, the props---they’re authentically 1940s America. But they don’t come together to give the film the feel of the times. The period and places don’t come to life because the things that are meant to tell us when and where we are aren’t used in a lively way. Marshall doesn’t put them to work (or play around with them) to add texture, add motion, or add visual or aural commentary. She doesn’t give them to her actors to use for character-defining business. She just photographs them. They’re statements of historical facts, items from a museum catalog, not indispensible tools of her storytelling kit.
Not only doesn’t it look like a glimpse into the past. It barely looks like a movie.
It looks more like a TV movie of the week from the 1970s doing its best on a low budget to suggest time and place than a Hollywood feature film---lit in a wash, with stodgy, uninspired camera work, lots of unutilized space within frames, little to look at in the foregrounds or backgrounds, most shots laid out along a single plane. I seem to remember that a critical complaint from the late 80s and early 90s was that movies were being made with the idea that they would be watched on more television screens than movie screens, thanks to the sudden ubiquity of VHRs. There were few widescreen TVs back then and a 27-inch screen was considered large. I can’t get into the problems with color and depth of focus because I don’t know the technical details. Everything had to be shrunk to fit and toned down to be visually comprehensible to audiences watching from their couches.
That’s what I remember, anyway. I don’t know if that’s what was at work here but it would explain Marshall’s by the numbers approach. Some of the same downsizing effects are evident in Bull Durham too, it turns out, but director Ron Shelton and his cinematographer, Bobby Byrne, and his designers were more skillful and inspired when it came to mixing things up, composing shots that filled in spaces without overcrowding them, keeping the focus on the actors, and giving the film its own look and sound.
Plus there’s Shelton’s wonderful script in which every exchange of dialog counts and most of the lines are gems or, at any rate, fastballs grooved right into Susan Sarandon’s, Kevin Costner’s, and Tim Robbins’ wheelhouses.
A League of Their Own has plenty of funny one-liners, some good speeches----and one great one. You know which one I mean.---but very little real dialog. Just about everything the characters say they say to the audience. It’s exposition. And the exchanges don’t fall flat just because of the weak writing.
The acting’s weak too.
Actors don’t talk to each other. They talk at each other. They seem to be listening only for their cues. “Are you done? Good. Now it’s my turn to tell the audience about my character.” The exceptions are Davis and Hanks but only in their scenes together.
Costner listens to the batboy in their two-line exchange with every bit as much attention as he does to Sarandon and Robbins.
I wonder how much I overlooked A League of Their Own’s weaknesses the first time I saw it because of the surprise of Hanks’ performance as the team’s reluctant manager Jimmy Dugan. I now take Hanks’ brilliance for granted but this was the first movie in which he proved that Big wasn’t a fluke and Bonfire of the Vanities wasn’t his fault. Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Toy Story---don’t underestimate how much Woody contributed to Hanks’ reputation and the establishment of his movie star persona---all followed one right after the other so closely that what he did as Dugan got folded into his growing legend fairly quickly and it’s hard to remember how new it seemed at the time.
But the main thing that diminishes A League of Their Own for me now is the same thing that disappointed me, in fact, infuriated me then.
It doesn’t take baseball seriously.
Despite its seeming dependence on its being based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, baseball is not intrinsic to the story. It’s colorful background for a domestic tale of two feuding sisters, to whom the beauties, intricacies, demands, and fun of the sport aren’t nearly as important to them as their personal drama.
Dottie Hinson, star catcher for the Dugan-managed Rockford Peaches (Davis) doesn’t even want to play baseball. Her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty), a talented pitcher with a big chip on her shoulder, plays only for herself---everything she does, on the field and off, is about proving she’s better than her kindly, self-sacrificing, much more talented big sister. And with that sibling rivalry centering the plot, everything that happens between the two leads could have been played out without their ever leaving the family farm where the movie finds them at the beginning and for all it matters what they compete at the climactic scene could be a milking contest or a bake off. Which is a way of saying that their particular skills, talents, and achievements aren’t really important. A very strange lapse of thematic focus for a movie that’s ostensibly celebrating women’s skills, talents, and achievements in a particular profession they were traditionally assumed not to be as capable as men at excelling in.
Just as strange is that it’s a baseball movie about a pair of ballplayers who don’t care about baseball and don’t get any enjoyment from it.
It doesn’t help that while the movie seems to expect us to be torn in our sympathies between Dottie and Kit, Kit is almost impossible to sympathize with. She’s selfish, self-centered, oblivious, unfeeling toward Dottie, and consequently, and almost invariably, wrong about everything. Basically, she’s an overgrown brat. Some of Kit’s lack of appeal is due to Petty’s not being a natural movie star. She can’t capture an audience’s attention and affection just by soaking up light. She’s a good actress playing the part as written but not a good enough actress to play against how it’s written.
But thanks to how it’s written, on top of everything else is that because Kit’s a selfish player who stubbornly refuses to be coached, she’s a bad ballplayer, despite her supposed talent, and doesn’t deserve to succeed. This puts the baseball fans like me in the position of rooting against her for the good of the game. That would be fine, in another movie. In this movie, though, we’re not only expected to root for her, we’re expected to think it’s a happy ending that she succeeds even though she doesn’t change her ways.
The worst part, though, is that in the end the movie betrays itself by betraying its characters and baseball.
Kit triumphs by being the bad ballplayer she’s been shown to be. This happens sometimes. Bad and selfish players get away with decisions that ought to have cost their team a run or the game. But not only is not supposed to happen, it usually doesn’t because bad play produces bad outcomes nearly 100 percent of the time and so a bad players manager and teammates don’t put up with a bad player’s bad play or bad attitude, at least not for long.
But Kit also gets away with it because Dottie seemingly helps her.
This might be the result of bad editing or a poor directing choice on Marshall’s part---she might not have trusted the audience to take in what happens---but it looked to me then and looks to me now like Dottie deliberately drops the ball.
Dottie, the ultimate team player lets her deserving teammates down---out and out betrays them---in order to make her spoiled brat of a baby sister feel better about herself.
It baffles me why the filmmakers chose to give their lead character the first name and reputation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s best player, Dottie Collins, but then gave Collins’ career to Kit. Leaving aside the unintended slur of Collins brought about by equating Collins with Kit, I understand why the movie’s Dottie is a catcher not a pitcher. I don’t understand why she isn’t allowed to have not just a career as stellar as Collins’ but any real baseball career at all and apparently it’s by her own choice.
In the end, Dottie, who knows how good a ballplayer she is, knows she could come back and lead the team to the championship next season, decides to give it all up to go back home to Nowheresville, Oregon for a life on the farm as Mrs Boring Despite His Being Played by Bill Pullman Wounded War Hero.
The heroine of a movie about how women can do anything men can do and often do it better is the least proto-feminist of the female characters and her happy ending is to watch her sister go on to have what would be if it had been possible a Hall of Fame type of career while she lives obscurely and self-effacingly but contentedly as a wife and mother.
When I tweeted about this back in July, my sister-in-law, Mrs Luke Mannion, stepped into the box to tell me I’d missed the point.
Dottie doesn’t get a happy ending.
Women of that era like Dottie didn’t.
Not that kind of happy ending, at any rate.
Mulling it over, I think I see Mrs Luke's point.
Crash Davis has a lot of pride and it’s been wounded again and again over time. And it takes another blow when the movie begins. In one way, his being given the job of teaching the feckless and selfish phenomenon Nuke LaLoosh how to be a good pitcher as a sign that the organization respects Crash's baseball intelligence and character and trusts him to handle what in their eyes is their major league teams future fortunes. But he's savvy enough to see that it's also a clear indication they have no use for him anymore as a player in his own right. He fairly certain that no matter how well things go with the education of Nuke, his own career is probably done. It's almost the last straw. He's already frustrated, disappointed, angry, and at the point of turning on himself, thinking that not only is he a failure, he's a fool for ever thinking he might have ever had a chance to make it to the majors.
It doesn't help that not only is Nuke as a person hardly worth the effort, he's a rival for Annie Savoy's affections, which Nuke doesn't deserve anymore than he deserves the talent the baseball gods have bestowed upon him.
What keeps Crash going is his love for the game and his faith. Like Annie, he's a believer who worships in the Church of Baseball. He only comes to grudgingly like Nuke. But he feels responsible for him. More specifically, he feels responsible for Nuke's becoming as good a player as his talent warrants. And taking this responsibility seriously becomes a point of pride with him.
Dottie has no pride, no vanity, and practically no ego. She isn’t a saint because she has no belief in anything. She’s self-sacrificing by reflex. Baseball is not her church or even at the top of the list of her interests. When we meet her she’s playing in a company league but it seems to be to giver her something to do while she’s waiting for her husband to come home from World War II and she can devote herself to the family they’ll start together and her farm work isn’t taking up enough of her free time. Baseball isn’t fun for her. As I said earlier, it’s not fun for Kit either. In fact the the only members of the team having fun playing the game are Madonna’s and Rosie O’Donnell’s which is why they are the most fun to watch when Tom Hanks isn’t on screen. But for Dottie baseball is more than not fun. It’s a painful obligation she can’t wait to be rid of because it does what she most hates---causes people to praise her and tempts her to put herself and her desires ahead of other people’s.
By training and upbringing (and by temperament), Dottie is in the habit of putting other people’s needs---particularly her family’s, which will come to include her husband and their children---ahead of her own wants, dreams, and desires. Women then were expected not to have any wants, dreams, and desires of their own. Still are, in some quarters. Dottie is a product of a time she helps to bring to an end through her self-sacrifice. She’s a heroine because she leads others to their individual and collective Promised Lands, but she doesn’t get to enter the land flowing with milk and honey herself. She ennobles Kit, redeems Dugan, and more or less saves the careers of all the Rockford Peaches by keeping the entire league in business through the popularity and respect she earns for herself and women ballplayers by being the best player in the league. But she’s denied any share of the credit and glory and isn’t even allowed to take satisfaction in what she’s accomplished.
At the end of Bull Durham, Crash winds up with Annie, a happy enough ending for anyone, but his playing days are over and his future in baseball far from guaranteed. The manager's job he's planning to apply for and is hoping will set him on a different sort of path to the major leagues may not even be open. When he shows up on Annie's front porch he's feeling heartbroken and defeated. And the movie allows him the dignity of his sadness. Before they start dancing in celebration of their romance, Annie joins him in grieving for his lost career and unfulfilled dreams.
I’m not convinced we're intended to see Dottie's story as having a less than happy ending, let alone see her as a tragic figure, but if we are, then not only does A League of Their Own betray baseball and its characters in the end, it betrays the feminist principles it otherwise congratulates itself for celebrating. The movie's final scene minimizes any lingering regret and resentment Dottie might feel and even attempts to wash it away with a gush of sentimentality and nostalgia. Dottie isn't allowed the dignity of her sadness. She isn't even given her due for the sacrifices she made. And she is shown to be still, nearly fifty years later, trying to make it up to Kit for being the better ballplayer and person and we're meant to find this amusing and endearing instead of perverse and pathetic..
It's debatable whether or not we're meant to see Dottie deliberately drop the ball. But either way it's still a question whether or not Kit is out anyway. It looks to me like the tag's put on before Kit reaches the plate and Dottie has control of the ball when she tags Kit and holds onto it well after an umpire who wasn't blind would have called Kit out. But what's your call? Here's the clip.
A League of Their Own capped a decade of good baseball movies, including, beside Bull Durham, The Natural, Eight Men Out, Major League, and Mr. Baseball. Of those others, I think Major League is the most fun for fans because it best captures the the rhythm of a season, the excitement of being at the ballpark watching your team win, and the importance to a community of a having a team to root for. But although it builds predictably to the Big Game, the most thrilling moment isn’t the play that wins it, but the moment that has become a matter of routine celebration for the fans---Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn’s coming in from the bullpen. And the thrill is in the fans’ communal enjoyment and our getting to share in their fun. We’re brought into the game too.
Also at Amazon, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse by Molly Knight, in hardcover and for kindle.
Catching up on more notes from Family Movie Nights. August 1, 2015.
Analyze This, the 1999 comedy directed by Harold Ramis and starring Robert De Niro as a mob boss suffering from depression and Billy Crystal as the psychiatrist forced at gunpoint, literally, to treat him, is set in the same universe as the Godfather movies, Goodfellas, Heat, A BronxTale, and other realistic gangster films of the last third of the 21st Century that the first Godfather begat. Crime is vicious and ugly, criminals are brutal and without conscience, violence causes suffering, pain, and death, and suffering, pain, and death are real.
The difference is that in Analyze This the potential pain, suffering, and death of innocents are the story’s main concern.
That’s what makes it a comedy.
In true comedies It’s possible that the hero will die.
The three types of comedies I tried to define in my review of Ant-Man, romantic comedy, farce, and what I call, for want of a better term, true comedy, aren’t the only types and they aren’t mutually exclusive. They get mixed in together all the time, especially in Hollywood movies.
There have been very good movies of all three forms, but as a form romantic comedy is the least, well, serious because it is the least consequential. All that’s at stake in a typical romantic comedy is the domestic happiness of the two lovers. Sometimes, depending on who’s starring, just one of the lovers. The other’s eventual happiness is taken as a given. As soon as the star ends up in the arms of his or her heart’s desire all will be well that end’s well, with the wants and desires of the love interest assumed to be the same as the main character’s, even if they don’t know it themselves, a typical plot device that’s infuriating because it becomes the main character’s job to convince her---it’s almost always a her---that he knows what’s best for her better than she does, which besides denying the woman agency over her own life and, essentially, body, presents what amounts to stalking as a romantic gesture.
Farce is the most common form because it offers the most opportunities for the kinds of jokes and gags that get the biggest laughs, the ones based on how ridiculous it is to be human. Lazy and desperate writers often reach into their joke writers toolkit for farcical tropes, even if they’re working in one of the other forms, thinking it’s easy laughs. Not if it’s good. When it’s good, the laughs only seem easy. The gags and jokes having been carefully and smartly set up and constructed. But it’s also demeaning and distancing, making its characters objects of derision and encouraging us to feel superior to them while reducing their pain and suffering to jokes.
True comedy treats its characters as realistically human and takes their pain and suffering as seriously as any tragedy. In fact, true comedies are tragedies in which through the efforts of the heroes and heroines the tragic ending is postponed and happiness, at least for now, regained.
Its heroes and heroines are concerned with more than their own individual happiness. They are heroic. Not necessarily in the sense of being of superior virtue, but in the sense that they are active and self-sacrificing in their roles as saviors of others’ lives and happiness. They are redemptive figures.
This is why the hero (and there’s a reason why I’ve switched to the gender-specific singular) can die and the story still be comic. His personal happiness isn’t what’s at stake or most at stake. It’s not important that he survives, only that he succeed.
So, Frodo could have died on Mount Doom---and symbolically he does. The eagles arrive to carry him off to heaven---because his work is done. But Bilbo has to live, and not just because he’s the hero of a children’s fairy tale. He has work left to do. He has to carry home the lesson and he has to keep the Ring safe until it’s time for Frodo to take over.
Similarly, Harry Potter could have died at the end of The Deathly Hallows---and like Frodo he symbolically does---because there’s nothing left for him to do once Voldemort is defeated. But Luke Skywalker has to live because he has to rebuild the Jedi Order and secure the future of the Republic. I hope The Force Awakens understands this and doesn’t turn him into a tall, pale Yoda, that is, doesn’t make him Merlin but leaves him Arthur, a lion in winter not an old sage retired to teaching.
Ok, Analyze This is not as grand and transcendent a story as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It’s not a myth. But it is an example of how myth manifests itself in real life. (See my yet to be written scholarly treatise on the subject.) Billy Crystal’s character, Dr Ben Sobel, is a redemptive figure, a hero who doesn’t know he’s a hero and wouldn’t want to be if Gandalf or Obi-wan appeared to tell him it was his time. He’s a better than averagely decent guy who happens to have chosen a profession that requires him to try to help other people be happy or, at any rate, less miserable. By nature and training, he’s inclined to put other people’s happiness ahead of his own. And this is what gets him into trouble.
At the beginning of the movie, Sobel’s personal happiness is already assured. He has his problems. Things could be better for him professionally. But his romantic comedy ended before the story starts. He’s won the heart of the woman he loves. The form of comedy he’s about to enter is the domestic farce of TV sitcom-land, with his kooky patients, his exasperating parents (Bill Macy and Rebecca Schull), his goodnatured but smartalecky teenage son (Michael Sabihy), and his loving but clear-eyed wife (Lisa Kudrow). The intrusion of De Niro’s character, mobster Paul Vitti, disrupts that, but more to the point it drags Sobel out his personal comedy and into Vitti’s tragedy.
What happens happens almost as it would if Analyze This was a Scorsese film---in fact, imdb tells me that Scorsese was asked to direct it---including the violent deaths of sympathetic characters. Ramis does his best to make the film look, sound, and feel like it was directed by Scorsese or Coppolla or at least one of their better imitators. If it doesn’t contain as many direct visual quotes from their movies as I think I caught, it definitely contains plenty of allusions. The difference is that the cast of characters features people in central roles who aren’t as mean, selfish, vicious, and violent as the usual suspects, the kind of people who are usually seen at the peripheries of those movies, Sobel and his family mainly, and with them as the focus, it’s the gangsters who are pushed to the edges of the story. Seen that way, at a distance from the point of view of normal human beings like Sobel, they’re still mean, selfish, vicious, and violent, but now also somewhat absurd. Their lives, their passions, their concerns, their codes and their dreams and desires make no sense. In short, there’s absolutely no romance to them and no allure.
Vitti’s “problem” is that that’s how he has begun to see himself and his life, at that distance and from the point of view of normal people. He’s becoming absurd to himself, and a mob boss who can’t take himself and what he does seriously is at a disadvantage in dealing with other mob bosses. What he wants Sobel to do is cure him of encroaching sanity so he can go back to being mean, vicious, selfish, and violent without qualm or scruple.
What he thinks he wants.
Sobel’s diagnosis is that what Vitti really wants is out.
At first, Sobel agrees to treat Vitti (perfunctorily) to get him out of his life as quickly as possible. But then he begins to realize that Vitti is in real distress. He’s suffering a crisis of conscience that’s causing him crippling emotional pain. Sobel starts to see Vitti as a patient. Which makes him his responsibility.
He also realizes that if he can cure Vitti he can save more lives than his own. Helping Vitti become the strong and effective mob boss he was will prevent a gang war that will probably end with a lot of bodies on their way to the morgue or hole in the ground in New Jersey and Vitti’s bloodthirsty rival (Chazz Palminteri) controlling organized crime in the city.
This presents another problem for Sobel.
By helping a criminal become a good criminal again he is aiding and abetting. He’s making himself a criminal. Which is how the FBI sees it.
The feds show up to put pressure on Sobel to help them nab Vitti and the other mob bosses.
Sobel finds himself torn every which way, between his ethical obligations to his patient, his legal obligations according to the law, his moral obligations to doing what’s right and honest and good for others, and his personal obligations to protect his family. And it seems that no matter which way he goes, it will lead to him getting killed.
This is the stuff of tragedy. That’s why it’s the stuff of true comedy. The stakes are real and high. And the hero has real work to do that may cost him everything.
Sobel is a true comic hero, which is funny because he’s not funny. I mean that Sobel, even though he’s played by a comic, is the movie’s straight man. The mugging and clowning is all De Niro’s (who of course underdoes it brilliantly). And the weakest scene in the whole movie is the one in which Crystal is allowed to play it for laughs.
Except for that scene, though, Crystal plays it pretty much as straight as if he was acting in a serious gangster film. So does most of the rest of the cast. The odd person out is De Niro, but he goes back and forth, almost as if he’s switching masks from Tragedy’s to Comedy’s, which is appropriate---Vitti’s tragedy is that he’s someone who not only longs to be in a comedy, he belongs in one.
Analyze This is a bigger film on the inside than it appears on the outside. Despite himself, Sobel is a redemptive figure, dedicated to bringing happiness to others and his job, the job of all comic heroes, is to rescue others from the tragedy in which they’ve gotten lost and and bring them home safe and sound back into the comedy, even if it costs him his own life.
Analyze This, directed by Harold Ramis, screenplay by Peter Tolan and Harold Ramis and Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow, Chazz Palminteri, Joe Viterelli, Bill Macy, Rebecca Schull, and Michael Sabihy. 1999. Rated R. Available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon. Also streaming on Netflix.
Saturday. August 8, 2015.
Tonight's feature for family movie night was Fruitvale Station, the winner of, among the many awards it and its director Ryan Coogler and leading man Michael B. Jordan garnered, the Sundance Festival's Grand Jury Prize for 2013. The film tells the story of the last day in the short, frustrated life of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two year old black man who was shot and fatally wounded in the back by a white transit police officer on a subway train platform in San Francisco on January 1, 2009 while not only unarmed but already under restraint by several cops and in the process of being arrested for his suspected part in a fight aboard one of the trains. I'm still mulling over what to say about it as a movie but for now: See it. See it right away. It's streaming on Netflix. But I've got a couple thoughts together on it is a documentation of a real life tragedy and a commentary on one of the most pressing issues of our time. Here's my first thought.
There's a scene, as the story closes on its climactic moments, when Oscar (Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), in San Francisco from their home across the bay in Oakland to celebrate New Year's, make a pit stop at a restaurant so Sophina can use the bathroom. The restaurant's closing for the night, the owner's about to lock up, but Oscar persuades him to let Sophina in. Oscar, however, has to wait outside. Fine with him. But while he's waiting another young couple walks up with the same urgent need.
Oscar prevails again on the owner, who again agrees to let the woman in but makes the guy wait outside. As it happens, this couple is white. They're married and she's pregnant. Oscar now finds himself waiting awkwardly with the other guy. But they start to make friendly small talk about their respective marital states. Oscar asks the guy, whose name is Peter, how long he's been married, and something in Oscar's tone alerts Peter to Oscar's doubts about getting married and after answering (eight years) he asks back You thinking about it and then to follow up with What's stopping you?
No money, Oscar says. He's out of work, having recently been fired from his job at a butcher's. The only money he has coming in is from dealing pot and he's not particularly good at that because he doesn't like to do it. He's basically an honest person and he wants a more stable and life for himself and Sophina and their daughter Tatiana.
Peter waves the lack of money away as a shitty reason to put off getting married. He didn't have any money when he got married.
Oscar perks up. If this guy managed things without money, maybe he can too. He asks Peter how he bought an engagement ring.
I stole it, Peter admits, sheepish but also a little proud, as if the fact marks him as a daring and clever outlaw and rebel in the cause of true love. Now Oscar is really intrigued. He's spent time in prison for dealing. Peter's a fellow outlaw who appears to have done what Oscar wants to do, leave that sort of life behind.
Peter's in a confessional mood now, and he tells Oscar how he stole the ring and at the same time how it happened he had no money so he needed to steal it.
"I used to be good with credit cards."
He means, of course, that he was bad with them. Lots of debt. Lots of bills he didn't pay off. He warns Oscar not to let that happen to him. Oscar assures him he knows better. But we can see from his expression that knowing better isn't the reason he won't get into trouble with credit cards. The reason is he knows, probably from bitter experience, no bank's going to give him one.
Peter goes on, not wanting Oscar to think he's still a loser but also wanting to encourage Oscar with his example. "But then I started my business," he says, implying he's done well for himself since. And this does give Oscar a moment of hope. Starting his own business? There's an idea. Wouldn't it be great to be his own boss. He asks Peter what he does.
Web design, Peter says matter-of-factly and he hands Oscar his card.
Oscar looks at it, crestfallen, his hopes already fading.
He'd thought he and Peter were kindred spirits, and in a way they are. But Peter has advantages Oscar can't see himself ever acquiring.
Credit. A college degree. And a marketable skill in a growing and lucrative field.
Sophina and Peter's wife come out of the restaurant and the couples part ways. Nothing comes of the scene. Oscar doesn't have a chance to think about it or tell Sophina because the very next scene is the one leading up to Oscar's death. But it doesn't matter, narratively, except in its being yet another seemingly minor incident that as part of a string of such incidents puts Oscar in the wrong place at the wrong time and leads to his death.
If Sophina hadn't had to use the bathroom, if the owner hadn't let her or if he'd taken less time to agree, if Peter and Oscar had talked longer, if, if, if...then maybe he wouldn't have been on that particular train in that particular car at that particular time.
But the scene matters more thematically. Oscar’s being on the train at that moment is simply a simple twist of fate. He’s there because one thing leads to another, yes, but those things happen because he is who is he is. And big part of who he is is a poor young black man living in an American city in the first decade of the 21st Century.
Things don’t just happen to Oscar. He does things. He makes choices. Some of those choices aren’t the wisest he could make. Most, though, make sense, given the circumstances and the options he has. And that’s the problem: his circumstances limit his options.
At no point does Coogler suggest that Oscar’s fate is determined by socio-economic forces over which he has no control. He isn’t a victim of those forces although he is a product of them. He doesn’t have control over that, but he has control of himself or, rather, he sometimes exercises self-control in a way that gives him some mastery over his own fate.
But then sometimes he doesn’t exercise that control and sometimes even when he does larger forces defeat him.
And that makes Oscar something of an everyman and not only an every poor young inner-city black man.
We are who we are and what happens to us happens to us, Coogler is saying, through a mix of character, circumstance, and accident.
Now that I think of it, I do have something to say about Fruitvale Station as a work of moviemaking art.
It’s a nearly perfect piece of naturalistic storytelling.
Every scene moves the plot along even the scenes that seem random and pointless. Every scene illustrates Coogler’s themes. No scene hits us over the head with the latter or seems forced in doing the former.
Coogler works his way subtly, patiently, and confidently to Fruitvale Station’s inevitable tragic conclusion using a cinematic verite style that doesn’t feel like an affectation or a gimmick or even visual commentary on the film’s being based on real events---it just seems like the right choice, as if this is the way this story had to be told.
Fruitvale Station is a tragedy before it is a social commentary.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t a social commentary. The social commentary is intrinsic to the tragedy.
It’s been the reflexive conservative position that poverty and the crime it engenders are not socio-economic problems. They are problems caused by individual failures of character.
If only those people would exercise self-control, behave, adopt better habits and values. If only they’d be more like us.
As if having been born white and middle class and into a stable, lucky family living in a good neighborhood was the result of choices they made and actions they took.
Conservatives seem to feel a desperate need to feel they have total control over their own fates---even the ones who claim that we are all pretty much God’s pawns and he moves us around the chessboard of life in accordance to his plans. Their hedge is that God’s moving them into advantageous positions is his way of rewarding them for being good people, so it’s not really the case that their fate is out of their control. There are a number of reasons behind their needing to feel this, but the point here is that one of the ways they make themselves feel it is to deny their own advantages. This is how we get the ludicrous phenomenon of someone like Paul Ryan talking as if he’d worked his way up from the gutter and lecturing people who weren’t born into a rich family and then married money on how to improve their lives. More generally, it’s how we get middle class and wealthy straight white American men talking about themselves as if they are an oppressed minority---the oppressed minority.
They refuse to acknowledge the advantages they were born with and refuse to acknowledge the disadvantages people who are not like them have to deal with from birth.
“It’s all your fault you are not safe, comfortable, prosperous, and successful like me. So stop asking me to care about you and your problems or do anything to help you solve them especially if what you’re asking me to do requires me to give up any of the advantages or privileges I refuse to admit I have.”
And this is one of the points Coogler’s making in the scene between Oscar and Peter outside the restaurant.
Oscar is far from a saint. But he is a bit of a hero. He has flaws and is given to vices. He’s impulsive, self-indulgent, arrogant (in the way most twenty-two year old men are, regardless of their virtues), entitled (again, in the way most twenty-two year old men are), thoughtless (again. But also a little more so), and he has a quick temper that he doesn’t feel a need to control. But he’s also tender and tender-hearted, generous, quick-witted, resourceful, charming, empathetic, and brave. His tragedy is that his virtues sometimes get him in more trouble than his vices---it’s even the case that if he wasn’t brave and generous and loyal and charming, he might not have wound up face down on that train platform with a cop’s gun to his back---and even when they don’t cause trouble they don’t earn him any rewards.
He can’t work his way out of his situation no matter how good his character if he doesn’t have the right skills or isn’t given the opportunities.
If society sees no use for people like Oscar---and it pretty much doesn’t---then his good character doesn’t matter. And if it does see a use for people like Peter, then his lack of good character doesn’t matter.
Peter likely has many virtues, but the only one we see is that he’s friendly. Otherwise all we know about him is that at one time he was a sneak, a cheat, a liar, and a thief. Just like Oscar. And, while one of the lessons we can draw from this, one Oscar tries at first to draw for himself, is that if Peter could save himself from his own screw-ups, then maybe Oscar can too, there’s the fact that Peter had and has advantages Oscar didn’t and doesn’t, possibly even more advantages than we can know from just this scene, like a family and friends who could help him pay off his debts and finance his start-up. Oscar’s family and friends are all as without money and connections as he is himself. In fact, he has to help them out of trouble as often as they help him, which sometimes means putting himself into more difficulties.
Like I said, sometimes his virtues cause more trouble than his vices.
But only to the degree it can overcome or at least survive the forces of bad luck and socio-economic conditions designed to keep people like Oscar from mattering, no matter what their character.
I feel like this needs to be stressed: Whatever Oscar Grant did or didn’t do that landed him face down and under arrest on that train platform that night, he should not have wound up dead. His death is entirely on the cop who shot him.
Boiled down, the conservative position on just about every socio-economic problem is “They aren’t like us and therefore we don’t owe them sympathy, pity, or aid.” This, of course, is heartless, inhumane, and un-Christian (and most conservatives in the United States boast of being good Christian), not to mention selfish and self-serving. Which is why they try to cover it with hypocritical sermons on values and character. They don’t want to be seen for what they are. So when it comes to discussing problems of the inner cities, they are quick to jump on evidence that those problems are all their own fault. For instance, they like to point to all the evidence of family dysfunction, particularly to the absence of fathers in the lives of their children. (This has the added benefit to the cause of male authoritarianism generally and denying women their rights to control their own bodies as well as their work and family lives.) They refuse to consider the possibility that they are reversing cause and effect. The toll the high rates of violence, crime, unemployment, and mass incarceration take on young men of prime parenting age includes removing those young men from their families and reducing their influence on the raising of their children.
Coogler doesn’t make much of this in Fruitvale Station, but it’s there to be seen if you're looking for it: in the various family arrangements among Oscar’s circle of friends and relatives shown in the course of the movie, there are no young adult men significantly involved in the family’s daily lives…except Oscar. And it’s no small part of the tragedy that Oscar’s death robs Tatiana of a loving and involved father.
Here’s a very good interview with Ryan Coogler by Benjamin Soloway at the Boston Globe that includes background on the making of the movie and the real life events surrounding Oscar Grant’s death: What happened at Fruitvale Station.
Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coolger. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer. Rated R. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon. Also streaming on Netflix.
Family movie night at the Mannion ranch has never been a strictly educational event. We don't watch movies as homework. Sometimes we'll watch a movie because it's related to something one or the other Mannion guys is studying in school. Sometimes because it's connected to a discussion of history or current events we had at dinner. But the point is to have a fun and relaxing time. We try to pick movies we know are good but that doesn't mean they have to be high art. We'll watch schlock, fluff, camp, schmaltz, doesn't matter. As long as it's competently and intelligently made. Tonight's feature, for example, The Ghost and the Darkness, isn't high art. It's not schlock, fluff, camp, or schmaltz, either, although it has moments of all four. It's a pretty good monster movie disguised as a period piece.
There are two monsters in The Ghost and the Darkness. A pair of man-eating lions that terrorize the work camp of British railroad company building a bridge across the Tsavo River in what is now Kenya in 1898. It's based on a true story and director Stephen Hopkins shot it as if it's a realistic historical drama, taking advantage of the African scenery---I don't think Out of Africa features as much pretty nature photography---both to distract us from implausibilities in the plot with the verisimilitude of breathtaking landscapes and to emphasize the horror by showing it as inseparable from the beauty of the place. Hopkins' cinematographer was multiple Oscar winner and nominee Vilmos Zsigmond who's worked with Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye), Steven Spielberg (Sugarland Express, Close Encounters), and, recently, Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra's Dream, and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). He also did the cinematography for Deer Hunter. But more tellingly, in relation to what he does with the camera in The Ghost and the Darkness, he shot Blow Out for Brian de Palma and Deliverance for John Boorman. Deliverance is still a master class on how to make the beauty of a place intrinsic to its violence and horror.
What this amounts to is The Ghost and the Darkness looks like a better movie than it is.
I don't mean it's all shiny on the outside and empty on the inside. I mean it's more enjoyable if you don't let yourself think too far ahead of where the camera's going or back on where it's been and just let your eyes carry you along. Even the performances are better seen than heard.
Except that they all have wonderful voices, Michael Douglas, John Kani, and Tom Wilkinson might as well be in a silent movie for all they say that needs to be listened to for us to understand their characters.
All three play men who are more than eccentrics. They're in different ways and to different degrees madmen.
Douglas' great white hunter is crazy like a fox crazy but still crazy.
Kani’s Samuel, the chief foreman on the construction site, is mad in a resigned, amused, giving into others’ madness way. His attitude is, the world is crazy, the white men I work for are the craziest part of it, so I might as well laugh as cry.
Wilkinson’s demanding, emotionally sadistic, and self-infatuated head of the railway is a cheerfully malevolent megalomaniac who just can't help admiring himself for what a dandy bully he is.
They tell us everything there is to know about these men through some high caliber mugging and with their great big individually styled smiles.
They are three of the smiling-est madmen you’ll ever see in the movies.
As the movie's hero, British Army officer John Henry Patterson, Val Kilmer doesn't do much smiling. He's not given much to smile about. He's not given much to do except hold the camera and be watched as he looks determined and stoic and somehow conveys that he's someone who can engineer and build bridges and hunt big game with skill and courage and come home and write a bestselling book about his adventures, all of which the real Patterson actually did.
Now here’s the thing.
The Ghost and the Darkness is what we Mannions want a family movie night feature to be, intelligently and competently made offering and a fun and relaxing night of movie-watching. It’s suspenseful, thrilling in spots, and even occasionally truly frightening. But for us it was something else that I said we aren’t actively seeking when we decide on a movie.
Like I said, The Ghost and the Darkness is based on a true story and while that means what it means about any movie making that claim, that the filmmakers are reserving the right to make things up as they see necessary to tell a rattling good yarn with pictures, it happens that the true story was written by Patterson himself and without any embellishment it is a rattling good yarn.
Hopkins and screenwriter William Goldman have made some things up. Douglas’s character, for instance. But, as Oliver Mannion discovered in doing a bit of research after the credits rolled, some of the more incredible moments in the film are toned down from even more incredible things that really happened.
Patterson himself was an incredible character. He was every bit the adventurer and hyper-competent overachiever he’s depicted as in the movie. His extraordinary career included service in World War I in then British Palestine where his successful command and organization of local forces there earned him credit as the father of the Israeli army. His wife, Frances, played by a luminous Emily Mortimer, who appears necessarily briefly in the movie, was herself an interesting and admirable character---one of the first women in Great Britain to earn a law degree.
And the lions, the real lions, whose articulated skins are now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, were every bit as frightening and deadly as the lions in the movie. They were intelligent and cunning and may not even have been man-eaters. As a rule, Lions don’t usually eat humans, and these two may have been killing their victims for sport. In other words, they may have been big game hunters themselves.
They didn’t look like the lions who play them in the movie though. The real Ghost and the Darkness didn’t have manes.
Tsavo males look different as well. The most vigorous Serengeti males sport large dark manes, while in Tsavo they have short, thin manes or none at all. “It’s all about water,” Patterson says. Tsavo is hotter and drier than the Serengeti, and a male with a heavy mane “would squander his daily water allowance simply panting under a bush, with none to spare for patrolling his territory, hunting or finding mates.”
That’s from an article by Paul Raffaele at Smithsonian. The Patterson quoted is Bruce Patterson, a contemporary zoologist at the Field Museum who is no relation to John Henry Patterson. Here’s the link, Man-Eaters of Tsavo.
And here’s the link to the website for the Field Museum’s Man Eater’s exhibit.
The movie is available to watch instantly on Netflix.
The Ghost and the Darkness, directed by Stephen Hopkins, screenplay by William Goldman. Starring Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Mortimer, Bernard Hill, Brian McArdle, and Om Puri. 1996. Rated R. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon, as well as on Netflix.
Photo of the Field Museum diorama by Jeffrey Jung via Wikipedia by way of a post by Ed Yong at Discover, How many people did the man-eating lions of Tsavo actually eat?
“America is a didactic country whose people always offer their personal experiences as a helpful lesson to the rest, hoping to hearten them and to do them good---an intensive sort of personal public relations project. There are times when I see this as idealism. There are other times when it looks to me like pure delirium.”---from Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow.
“This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.”---from “The Betrayed Kingdom” by Richard Brautigan.
I don’t get the point of Ashley Madison.
Isn’t half the fun of an affair that’s it’s an unplanned giant mess that ends in heartbreak, recrimination, the hiring of lawyers, the possibility of violence and bloodshed, and general humiliation for everyone involved?
Well, as it’s ending for Ashley Madison’s lovelorn clients exposed by the hack.
And as it did for those two state legislators up in Michigan.
I was saying the other day that one of the things I like about Twitter is how it sometimes surprises me with news and information I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Not every surprise is a nice one and there are things I would have been happier not knowing about and information I’d rather not have.
The story of those two state legislators is a case in point.
As usual, it’s not the sex that’s dirty. It’s the hypocrisy.
One of them boasts on her campaign website she's for "Strong Families!" You know, like people who don't cheat on their spouses are for weak families. Her thank you letter to her constituents ends with “With Firm Reliance on Divine Providence.”
The other one, the fake gay guy who likes to be tucked in for his nap, is quoting the bible on his Facebook page to explain it all away. He wants us to know he’s still a good Christian, God is still his pal, and we shouldn’t blame either Christianity or God for this.
Both feature lovely Sears Portrait Department quality photographs of them with their spouses and children. Together they sponsored a bundled set of bills designed to get around the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, legislation that would “would prohibit clerks, judges and other government officials from performing weddings. The legislation would require all marriage certificates to be signed by a religious leader.”
Neither one plans to resign from offices they won promising to force their right wing Christian values on everybody in Michigan.
Of course they’re Republicans. Of course they’re “Christians.” Of course they’re pro-life and pro-family which means anti-sex.
Of course, of course, of course.
And it is of course.
Right Wing Christians give themselves permission to sin.
Some of the worst behaved people are those who know they are going to heaven, and cheating on their spouses is among the least of their sins and crimes.
And it’s all ok because they are good. Being good means they don’t---can’t---do anything bad.
People are no good. One of the no good things about us is how good we think we are. We're always telling ourselves we're good.
Among the worst behaved among us are the ones who can tell you just what makes them so good and how they know they're going to heaven and YOU aren't.
Conservative rhetoric is all a matter of conservatives finding ways to tell themselves how good they are, how "we" are going to heaven and “those others” aren’t.
But I'm not just talking about Right Wingers. It’s an American affliction. We love to boast. About anything and everything. One of our best tricks is bragging about how modest we are. Another favorite trick is to put the bragging and boasting in the form of advice. “Let me tell you how you can be as wonderful as I am. That way you can get to heaven too.” Heaven, of course, can take many forms. There are plenty of liberals who apparently believe there's a liberal heaven and they can tell you exactly how they know they're going there and YOU aren't. They LIKE to tell you.
Generally, it's a pretty easy path to liberal heaven. You just have to vote for the right candidates and adopt the right attitudes.
There’s a difference, though, between sanctimonious liberal hypocrites and conservative self-elected members of the elect like these state legislators. But before I continue climbing up on my high horse about them and their ilk, three names.
Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton.
Just something to keep us from getting too full of ourselves.
The disgusting thing about the Right Wing hypocrites is their determination to police the bedrooms of people whose love lives are more respectful of self and partner, more faithful, more family supportive and supported, and generally healthier and happier than their own.
It’s not simply the hypocrisy. It’s the envy, malice, and spite. It’s their determination to make life a misery.
It’s happiness they hate. Their own as much as everyone else’s.
And it goes beyond attempts to deny people fun and happiness in bed. Look at how they set out to punish the poor. The worst thing poor people do in their eyes is use aid money to bring a little joy and comfort to their lives. The poor are supposed to be abject, miserable, and ashamed. That’s a religious tenet with many conservatives. But life for everybody is not meant to be enjoyed, merely suffered through on the way to heaven.
It comes very close to believing that being born human is a sin.
Things are predictably tawdry up in Michigan. Both lovers have “apologized” in ways that make clear they’re only sorry they got caught. Their families have been dragged into it. She has done what male politicians caught cheating do and made her husband stand next to her and look supportive while she confessed to TV cameras to how she had humiliated him. It’s already becoming more than a sex scandal as they both may have used state money to cover up their affair, a possible crime that the legislature has to investigate, meaning a headache for their colleagues and fellow Republicans and a bill charged to taxpayers who were promised they would save money if they voted Republican.
And now it turns out that the staffer who exposed their affair and the details of sex games they played in the office, claiming he was too morally offended to keep quiet, is a client of…Ashley Madison.
Now I’m the hypocrite. I said I wished I didn’t know about any of this. But I want to know. I want to know more. I just don’t want to know it from Twitter. Or Facebook. Or anywhere online. Or from newspapers or TV news.
They’d all just give me the facts. The facts are boring and tawdry and don’t tell me anything. They don’t tell the story. I want the story. The whole, true story.
I want to know what was going on in these people's heads.
For that, you need fiction.
Usually when I talk about why we need fiction, I’m looking for a short story or a novel to help make my case. This time, though, I’m thinking we need a movie.
And I have an idea who I’d like to write it and direct it.
In Election and Citizen Ruth, Payne showed that he can tell the stories of people who, knowing themselves to be on the side of righteousness, that is, people who know they are going to one form of heaven or another, give themselves permission to engage in all sorts of bad behavior. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Citizen Ruth and I should watch it again soon---it’s streaming on Netflix. So is Election but I don’t feel a need to re-watch that one because I’ve never been able to forget it since I saw it when it first came out. It was one of the most cringe-inducing movie-going experiences of my life, because I identified too closely with Matthew Broderick’s character, Jim McAllister, the nice guy high school civics teacher who humiliates and then destroys himself through vanity and self-deception.
I think when they think of the movie, most people focus on the student, Tracy Flick, and not without good reason. Tracy is a vividly drawn monster of ego and ambition brilliantly brought to life by Reese Witherspoon. At the time Election came out, national political reporters and pundits amused themselves comparing Tracy to Hillary Clinton, who was then caught up in her own election, running for the United States Senate. This was unfair and mean and dirty-minded, to boot, because no one except the most dirty-minded ever really thought Hillary got ahead by seducing her mentors. It was sexist, too, in that it was based on the assumption that the only real-life versions of Tracy Flick are female. But on top of everything else, the comparison missed an important point.
Tracy isn’t the main character.
She’s not even the movie’s villain.
She’s far from admirable, of course. But she is smart and hard-working and she has reason to believe deserves to be elected class president. She has good ideas she knows how to implement. She is competent and accomplished. She is, by her lights and by the lights of most adults, an ideal student.
It is the case that because she’s smart, accomplished, has good ideas she knows she can make work, and she normally follows the rules, she’s given herself permission to break rules that get in her way. Break is the wrong word. Ignore is too. She doesn’t see them. But that doesn’t make her the movie’s villainess. That makes her very much like Broderick’s character.
McAllister knows himself to be a good guy, a good husband, and a good teacher. And knowing all this about himself, being proud of it, and constantly congratulating himself on it, which means telling himself he’s going to nice liberal guy heaven, he sets out to do things he knows are wrong---or that he would have called wrong before he was tempted to do them---and wrecks his marriage, wrecks his career, and nearly ruins the lives of other students besides Tracy, and in the end he doesn’t learn anything from it. He’s still congratulating himself on what a good guy he is and telling us---as the narrator of his own downfall---how he knows he’s still going to heaven.
This will strike some classic movie buffs as a form of blasphemy, but sometimes William Powell could be a little too charming.
In The Heavenly Body, for instance, a 1944 screwball comedy starring Powell as astronomer Bill Whitley and Hedy Lamarr as his astrology-obsessed wife Vicky.
Get the subtly of the comic premise? He studies the stars for science and she consults the stars to plan the shopping!
Well, she doesn't plan the shopping. She hires the housekeepers who plan and do the shopping. This is practically a full time job for her as housekeepers come and go on what looks like a weekly rotation. I lost track of how many housekeepers, each of a different ethnic background and exhibiting individual degrees of eccentricity, the Whitleys go through in the course of the movie. In defense of the housekeepers, the fault lies with Bill. He's just too wacky to work for.
Inviting drunken Russians to dance in the living room and in the middle of the afternoon too! You can't pay anyone enough to clean up after that!
I was feeling under the weather this afternoon so I crawled under a blanket on the couch and watched TCM. Don't do that often enough, watch TCM.
Besides being good for morale, regular TCM viewing is a useful way to discover movies---and actors, directors, and other toilers in the moviemaking trade---that haven't made it onto popular best whatever lists.
If you'd ask me before today to, quick, no Googling, name five movies starring William Powell that don't have "The Thin Man" in the title---and here goes: My Man Godfrey, Life With Father, Mister Roberts, Libeled Lady, The Great Ziegfeld. Impressed? What if I throw in two more? Manhattan Melodrama and The Senator Was Indiscreet. I can also name all the Thin Man movies, but rules are rules.---The Heavenly Body wouldn't have made my list.
Watching TCM is also a way to get an idea about what movie audiences were like way back when, although you have to infer it from what the makers of the movies thought would go over big with the audience, inferences better drawn from lesser known films than from movies that have become classics, since the lesser known ones are probably more representative of what was standard for popular entertainment.
Classics become classics because they aren't as reductively representative of their original time and place and so can speak intimately to audiences apart from that particular time and place.
And what you discover watching movies like The Heavenly Body is that, although clearly they had different tastes in many small things, in some things moviegoers in 1944 were very much like us in what they wanted out of a movie, a pleasant and intellectually and emotionally undemanding evening's entertainment.
Movies were their television, and the conventions of present day sitcoms, cop shows, workplace and domestic dramas were conventions of the movies back then.
The Heavenly Body is a sitcom.
But not a very good one.
Something else you learn. Just like today, very talented people back then could turn out less than brilliant movies.
So, here’s the situation for the comedy: Powell's character, Professor Bill Whitley, has been tracking a comet on a collision course with the moon. This is fun stuff for him and his scientist pals. Whitley's apparently got it all figured out that there's nothing to worry about. No chance the comet will miss the moon and strike the earth or knock the moon out of orbit or throw up any rocks that will become meteors headed our way on impact. The only worrisome question is when it will hit?
Will it happen at night in the western hemisphere when Whitley and his colleagues can watch it?
Whitley has calculated it will. This doesn't seem like deep science to me, even for 1944, but what do I know? Just because out in New Mexico a whole bunch of geniuses are building the atom bomb doesn't mean any old university astronomy professor with his own Lowell sized observatory at his disposal knew what he was doing when he looked through a telescope. But Whitley's reputation depends on his being right about when the collision will occur.
Naturally, as an adoring movie comedy wife, Lamarr's character, Vicky, takes it for granted that her genius husband is right. In fact, she's so confident he's right she doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. If Bill says it's going to happen, it's going to happen, so there's no need for him to stay up nights watching for it and worrying about it.
Apparently it didn't occur to her before they got married that staying up at night to watch the sky for celestial objects doing unusual and scientifically interesting things is pretty much the job description for an astronomer.
Bill has been staying up all night and catching up on his sleep during the day for weeks now and Vicky has begun to feel lonesome and neglected and bored. And boring. She's started to worry that Bill cares more about his work than he does about her. To bring the subtext to the fore, she's resenting his being more interested in studying heavenly bodies than in paying attention to the body he's married to back here on earth. In short, she's wondering if he still loves her and if she should bother to continue to love him.
This strikes me as rather liberated sexual politics, not just for movies made in 1944, but for ones made now. Vicky has sexual agency. It's taken as a given that whether or not she will continue to love Bill---and all that implies about sex and marriage---is her choice. Bill has no say and no control. Her feelings and desires are her own. He can't demand her love and loyalty. He can't make her give them to her. He certainly can't just win her over with his charm. Part of the set up is that his charm isn't doing the trick anymore but he's too self-absorbed to notice until it's apparently too late. At that point, what drives the comedy is Bill's unraveling as he realizes that things are entirely out of his control. In other words, this isn't like a Judd Apatow movie in which what's inevitable in the inevitable romantic happy ending is the heroine's realizing what a lovable guy the hero is. There is a real question as to whether a romantic happy ending is inevitable because it's Vicky's choice and she will have to decide not if Bill's lovable---he is, of course, just not as lovable as he initially assumes he is---but whether or not it's in her best interest to continue to love him.
Bill's trouble is compounded and Vicky's dilemma complicated by a romantic rival for her affections' showing up who is not, like Cary Grant's rivals for Roz Russell in His Girl Friday and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, a priggish bore and a stiff. He's in key ways more suitable for Vicky and more sexually attractive than Bill. Younger, handsomer, taller, stronger, more physically competent, and not as insistently and cloyingly charming---he's willing to let Vicky's desire for him develop on its own without his pulling it like salt water taffy. He's confident of his own charms but not vain or presumptuous. Bill is vain and presumptuous to start and turns needy and insecure.
There's another radical element to the sexual politics. Powell was fifty-two in 1944. Lamarr was thirty. At first glance, this might seem a routine example of Hollywood's longstanding double-standard by which male stars get to have nubile young love interests even when they're old enough to be the fathers of the actresses playing those love interests while female stars are deemed too old at thirty-seven to be the objects of desire of men twenty years their senior. (See Maggie Gyllenhaal.) The script, however, makes Vicky even younger, twenty-six, probably so that the audience doesn’t wonder why a middle-aged (for the time) woman whose husband isn’t away at war isn’t a mother yet but possibly to emphasize the age difference.
It's never explicitly mentioned---except that Bill refers to himself as having been an old bachelor when he and Vicky met---but the fact that he may be too old for such a young and pretty wife seems to be implicit in both his rival's assessment of their competition and in Bill's own panic when it develops as he realizes he's losing that competition.
That would make it an important aspect of the overall joke that Bill can't satisfy Vicky in bed.
The trouble even starts with the fact he's not even trying.
He only goes into the bedroom to sleep alone.
Bill, then, is an ancient comedic type. The old cuckold. In a Restoration comedy, he would be the villain and his cuckolding would be the happy ending.
Might have been a better movie if the times had allowed more to have been made of that.
Anyway. Bored, lonely, probably sexually frustrated, and confused, Vicky allows her daffy neighbor to talk her into seeking advice from an astrologist.
Fay Bainter plays the astrologist as a no nonsense, all business professional operating out of a tastefully decorated home office as if she was a lawyer or financial advisor, which in a real way she is. Politicians and tycoons are among her clients and are often on the phone calling on her for advice that sounds, from the snatches of conversations we hear, practical, savvy, and smart. She's no kook and she's not a fraud or at least she doesn't know she's one. As far as she knows, astrology is a science and she approaches it like a researcher and writes up clients' horoscopes with the same attention and care for facts based on her "research" as Bill would bring to a paper he's writing for Scientific American.
Instead of suggesting the obvious, that Vicky give up spending all day at home pining for Bill and do something useful with her time, like get a job or volunteer at the USO or nearest veteran's hospital---There is a war on. Women are working and even children are volunteering in the war effort---she does her research, consults the stars, draws up Vicky's horoscope, and presents her findings.
Vicky and Bill's marriage is kaput.
Bill doesn't love her anymore so Vicky is under no obligation to continue to love him.
The astrologist doesn't stop there though.
She informs Vicky that not only is their marriage over, Vicky and Bill were never meant to be together, and, as a matter of fact, Vicky is about to meet her one, true love.
The astrologist doesn't say it but she might as well: You will meet a tall, dark stranger.
And she does.
At the astrologically appointed time, the tall, dark stranger shows up on her doorstep in the person of Lloyd Hunter, a war correspondent volunteering as an air raid warden while he’s back in the states recovering from an unspecified battlefield wound. He’s come to tell her she needs to draw the blackout curtains on a lighted bedroom window---an opportunity for some heavenly body watching the movie lets pass---and he’s immediately smitten.
Lloyd is played by James Craig, a tall, dark sort-of-Clark Gable-ish-looking actor I’d never heard of but turns out to have enough of a career in movies and on TV that Gore Vidal made him the favorite actor of his main character in Myra Breckenridge.
I think I just admitted I’ve never read Myra Breckenridge.
But there you go: the things you learn from watching TCM.
Back to the movie.
The Heavenly Body is feminist in accepting that Vicky has agency. It's decidedly unfeminist, however, in presenting us with something else.
Vicky's an idiot.
She doesn't believe she has agency. She believes everything in her life is controlled by the stars, including the direction of her feelings and desires.
If the stars say she doesn't love Bill, then she doesn't. If the stars say she's to fall in love with someone else, then she will.
So when she meets Lloyd, she falls in love with him on the spot.
Or she tells herself she has.
I don't know the cultural history well enough. According to the programming notes at TCM's website, The Heavenly Body was made to capitalize on a current fad for astrology. But a fad for psychoanalysis was taking hold at the same time so maybe people in the audience could be counted on to know their Freud well enough to get that Vicky isn't an idiot so much as she's acting on her unconscious desire to be rid of the boring old man she's married to and find sexual adventure and satisfaction with a more desirable, passionate, and sexually potent partner.
She comes across as just an idiot.
That might be Lamarr's fault. She was only a so-so actress to begin with---In fact, compared to many of her contemporaries, she was a bad one.---and I never thought she demonstrated much talent as a comedienne. It’s been a long time since I last saw My Favorite Spy but I barely remember her being in it. In Comrade X---another surprise gift from TCM. I'd never heard of Comrade X before stumbling across it one morning when I woke up way too early--- her stiffness and lack of range of facial and vocal expression works for the role of a humorless and sexually repressed Soviet military officer who needs to be unrepressed by Clark Gable. But in a minor role Eve Arden not only blows her off the screen comedically, she erases her sexually. Arden and Gable have so much comic and sexual rapport in one scene that the movie never recovers itself. The whole rest of the way I was thinking never mind this, let's see that movie where Arden's and Gable's characters meet and have the affair that breaks both their hearts. It would be a modern, Americanized Much Ado About Nothing.
Lamarr has no Eve Arden to compete with in The Heavenly Body but she still doesn't earn a lot of laughs. Or seem to be having much fun trying.
It's left up to Powell to bring the yuks.
He doesn't. But it's not for lack of trying. In fact, he tries too hard.
The Heavenly Body of the title is obviously Lamarr's. Bill spends his nights at the observatory watching a comet instead of watching the heavenly body he's married to at home and we're meant to wonder along with Vicky what's wrong with the big dope?
But the camera doesn't do much of a job watching Lamarr's body on our behalf. It seems only interested in it for how well clothes hang on it, which is very well. The focus of the lens' adoring gaze is her face.
Sign of the times, I suppose.
In the era of the production code, Clark Gable’s and Errol Flynn’s excepted, stars' bodies, male and female, were treated as attractive for how well they filled out their clothes and not for how they might look without them. That's what made Marilyn such a revelation when she came along. Her nudity was impossible not to imagine.
I'm not enough of a film scholar to make the case, but it’s been my sense that it was Gene Kelly who changed things for men by making the male body in forceful, physical play the object of the camera's gaze.
At any rate, Powell's body is the body to watch in The Heavenly Body
Not as an object of the longing gaze. I don't believe that even when he was a young leading man even his most adoring fans dreamed of him with his shirt off. His attractions were his eyes and his voice. Which, by the way, contemporary directors and actors should take note of.
Broad shoulders and ripped abs are good for a gasp, but you need the eyes and voice for the complete seductive follow through. Offhand I can think of only one contemporary male star who cultivates his voice and that's Clooney. Who also moves very well.
We’re meant to watch Powel’s body in the way Chaplin's and Keaton's are meant to be watched in their films.
Well, not exactly. We're not watching a gifted clown clowning around. (There are those who’d argue that that's not what we're watching with Keaton, or not all we're watching, and that's what made him the greater comic.) What we're watching in The Heavenly Body is a gifted comic actor known for his poise and self-command let go of both.
Powell doesn't have Bill fall to pieces. It's more a case of his gradually losing control of himself physically as he becomes more and more desperately aware he's lost---not that he ever really he had it---control of his married life.
He doesn't know where to turn emotionally and that's reflected in his not knowing which way to turn physically and doubting his every move in the middle of making it, so he goes right when he's thinking he'd be better off going left, sits down when he needs to be standing, and charges full ahead when a strategic retreat is called for.
What we're watching, then, is an intelligent, dignified, proud, and vain man feeling himself coming unglued and growing more and more afraid he's going to make a fool out of himself with his every next move.
It's amusing to watch. It would have been more amusing to watch if the situations Bill's forced into were as funny as Powell tries to suggest they are with his body language and if the dialog was as witty as Powell does his best to make it sound---this may be what makes him come across as too charming. He felt he had to charm the audience into laughing at gags that aren’t worth much more than a smile.
The Heavenly Body would probably have been funnier if something important was at stake in whether or not Bill wins Vicky back, if we had a rooting interest either way. But the Whitley’s marriage doesn’t seem consequential to either of them. It’s hard to imagine how either one would be worse off without the other.
Meanwhile, although Lloyd is meant to be seen as a sexual threat, he never actively threatens. He says he loves Vicky, but his love is practically as chaste as a knight-errant’s for his lady faire. His passions, if he is in fact at all passionate, are coolly in check almost to the point of his being cold. It’s hard to imagine that he would be all that bothered if Vicky decides to stay with Bill. Seems to me that it would have been a logical step in the storytelling for Lloyd to be as driven out of his mind with thwarted desire as Bill is being driven out of his. And besides giving us a reason to root for or against Lloyd, it would have created a problem for Vicky that could have driven her out of her mind too---do the stars say she has to do more than “love” Lloyd and if they say she should sleep with him, is it really the stars telling her to?
I think it’s a sign of the time that this dilemma can’t be made explicit. But The Heavenly Body’s not not just reticent on the matter of Vicky’s sexuality. It doesn’t even acknowledge it. Vicky is allowed agency over her desires. She just isn’t allowed to show she actually has any.
When Vicky is with either Bill or Lloyd, she seems as desire-less as she does in her scenes with the astrologist and the various housekeepers.
Bill’s sexual panic and Vicki’s boredom are issues but they never reach the point of becoming at issue. They’re subtext that never threatens to become text. Think of any of the great screwball comedies and you can pick out at least one scene in which the real action is the sex the characters aren’t having at the moment but that they either will or did. There are no scenes like that in The Heavenly Body.
And, as I suggested above, I think Bill is the real villain of the story and he’s the one we should be rooting against or, rather, rooting to see humiliated and made a fool of.
But that’s me. I’m a romantic. I believe in young love.
An irony: Hedy Lamarr may not have been one of the best actors of her generation of stars but she may have been the smartest. She was an inventor and at the time she was playing this chucklehead, she was at work in her home laboratory co-inventing a guidance system for torpedoes that became the basis for the spread-spectrum technology that supports, among other things, cell phones and WiFi. You can read about this side of her life story in Richard Rhodes’Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
Or you can just read my review of the book, A life spent doing anything but standing still and looking stupid.
The Heavenly Body directed by Alexander Hall, screenplay by Michael Arlen, Walter Reisch, Harry Kurnitz. Based on a story by Jacques Thery. Starring William Powell, Hedy Lamarr, James Craig, Fay Bainter , Henry O'Neill, Spring Byington, Morris Ankrum, and Connie Gilchrist.
Have a feeling the movie A Walk in the Woods is not going to be good. Lots of “We’re too old for this” gags and Redford and Nolte doing the kind of comic mugging both had gone their whole long, distinguished careers to this point without having been forced to resort to. But I’m still going to go see it and I bet I enjoy it immensely.
Once upon a time, Redford planned to direct this himself with Paul Newman as his co-star. I don’t know how that would have worked. Newman would have had a ball playing an old, drug-addled hippie, but there’d still have been all those geezer jokes. What I’d have liked to have seen is a a movie directed by Redford but starring the more age-appropriate (that is closer to the actual ages Bill Bryson and his friend Katz were when they hiked the Appalachian Trail) Matt Damon (as the requisite Redford stand-in) and Brad Pitt (because he’d have a ball playing a aging hippie and he owes Redford his career) or Will Ferrell. I also think it would have been interesting if Ferrell had been cast against type (See Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go bot be reminded Ferrell can do more than just clown around) as Bryson with, again, Pitt as Katz. Oh well.
The movie may not be good, but the book is. Very good.
Notes from the field: Unless the filmmakers were careless about these things, the brown bears in the trailer aren’t brown bears. They’re black bears, which can be brown and which, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s official website, are the bears that live along the trail. The site reports that hikers' main problem with bears is “they do not see them as often as they would like to.”
These days you’re almost as likely to see black bears in the suburbs of New Jersey as along the trail. I’ve never seen a bear in the wild, either in the woods or in the suburbs. Mrs M has. Back in her college days. She had an internship at a magazine in Knoxville, Tennessee one summer and she and some friends went camping over a weekend in the Smokeys. She woke up early one day, before everyone else, and slipped down to a secluded cove of a nearby lake for an early morning swim and when she was climbing out of the water, she looked across the cove and saw a bear wading along the not very distant shore. Nothing came of the encounter. The bear went its way and Mrs M gathered up her clothes and went hers.
Even though I wasn’t there, I was back in Boston working in the bookstore, this is one of my fondest memories from those days, for reasons you can guess if you read the story closely.
For longtime very good friend of the blog Tom S.
That's not a hard distinction to achieve. Hollywood makes very few pure comedies anymore. The studios turn out movies they call comedies, but they're mostly one of two different things.
Romantic comedies, which are really sentimental dramas about slightly eccentric or lovably quirky people who say a lot of funny things and do some goofy stuff on their way to mawkish and unearned happy endings, and farces, which are to true movie comedy what insult humor, whoopie cushions, sneezing powder, and open manholes are to wit.
Farces are about how ridiculous everybody is. The better of them are about that, anyway. The routine ones are about how ridiculous everybody else is. Comedies are about how people struggle to find joy in a tragic world. Farces make us laugh at their characters' pain and suffering. Comedies make us laugh in sympathy and recognition as we watch the characters triumph, at least momentarily, despite their pain and suffering.
Pain and suffering are key, along with sorrow, heartbreak, and death. They must be real and they must be a probable consequence for a movie to be a comedy. Farces make those things unreal. They distance us from them. In effect, they help us wish them away. The best farces make us uncomfortable by making it very hard if not impossible to laugh it all off. Comedies don't ask us to laugh it off, just to laugh to keep from crying.
By my definition, then, a movie doesn't have to be a jokefest be a comedy. It just needs to end with joy ascendant.
A comedy can be any sort of movie telling any sort of story.
The hero can even die at the end.
For the record, the best comedy I've seen since Stranger Than Fiction is The Grand Budapest Hotel.
One of Wes Anderson's career long themes has been how to find the humor in a life full of pain, disappointment, and death, which is why The Grand Budapest Hotel would be unbearably tragic if M. Gustave weren't such a witty hero.
Actually, why it almost is, even so. Gustave is defeated in the end, after all, or, at any rate, deprived of his own happy ending.
The second best comedy is Guardians of the Galaxy.
Rocket Raccoon isn't just being his hardboiled self when he tries to boo-hoo away Drax's grief with the line "Everybody's got dead people." The movie opens with a death that's never undone and the pain of which is never lessened. But just about every scene once the story gets us and Peter Quill into outer space contains at least one good laugh.
It's also thrilling, suspenseful, and exciting. Besides being a good comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy is also a good pirate movie.
Ant-Man is a good heist movie, and in outline a fairly typical one.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a computing, engineering, and technical genius, not to mention a skilled cat burglar, gets out of prison, determined to go straight, after serving time for a spectacular crime against a corrupt corporation. All he wants now is to reconnect with his seven year old daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) and contribute his fair share to her support and raising. His ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her police detective fiancé (Bobby Cannavale) are all for that. They both like him and believe it's a good thing for father and daughter to be part of each other's lives. But their tolerance goes only so far.
Scott has to prove he can be a responsible adult.
That means getting and holding an honest job, which, as an ex-con he has trouble doing.
He gets fired from the one job he manages to land, working the counter at a Baskin-Robbins, when it's discovered he lied about his record on his application. "Baskin-Robbins always find out," says his sympathetic manager as he reluctantly lets him go, as if Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins are still alive and personally keeping watchful eyes on each of their individual employees.
This puts Scott in the desperate situation the heroes of all heist movies find themselves in---the need for one final, big score.
Fortunately, his former cellmate Luis (effervescently played by Michael Peña) an unshakable and somewhat manic optimist with excellent taste in wines and modern art, presumably cultivated while stealing the stuff, "knows a guy."
Who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows...
Knowing a guy is a running gag that runs right through into the end-credit scene, so sit still and wait for it and don't be fooled by the mid-credit scene into thinking it's ok to leave right there.
Luis tells Scott a story, the first of several sequences director Peyton Reed uses to break the fourth wall with a visual cleverness that are as much graphically as cinematically artistic. In fact, these sequences are the most like comic books brought to life that I can remember from any superhero movie.
You can see the scenes drawn and colored and laid out over several pages in interlocking and overlapping frames.
The job is to break into the home of a reclusive millionaire who the guy Luis knows who knows a guy etc. says has a basement safe full of loot. The heist is on, and the heist movie begins to unfold.
A team is recruited---Dave, an unflappable getaway driver (played by rap star T.I.), and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), an equally unflappable Russian tech wizard with strong opinions on movies that lead to little Pulp Fiction-like exchanges on contemporary pop culture between him and Dave. Luis is, not improbably as it might first appear, the muscle.---the job is planned, although not as carefully as it could be, then the team goes to work. And thanks to Scott's resourcefulness and technological genius, they pull it off.
More or less.
They meet with a couple of problems.
First problem is there's no loot in the safe. Just a suitcase containing what looks like a spacesuit costume from an 1950s science fiction movie.
The second is Scott gets caught by the cops.
Did I mention they didn't plan as carefully as they could have?
Turns out, though, it wasn't just the lack of careful planning that caused the problem.
The job was a setup.
By the reclusive millionaire himself who turns out to be the genius billionaire scientist, engineer, and Stark rival---Howard Stark, that is, Tony Stark/Iron Man's father---Hank Pym.
And Pym (a stern and saturnine Michael Douglas) arranged the setup as a test for Scott.
He has a job for him. A real heist with a real payoff. A big one. But it's going to be very dangerous with life and death consequences, not just for Scott and the team but for the world, if they fail.
This is still a superhero movie along with being a comedy and a heist movie, after all.
So we go through the steps again. The plan is laid out, this time more carefully since Pym is in charge, the necessary equipment is assembled, the chief piece of which is that crazy spacesuit, which Scott has to be trained how to use by Pym with the help of his somewhat estranged daughter---because there has to be a love interest---who is a brilliant scientist in her own right but has good reason to resent and distrust her father---because there has to be a good guy with a dark past even if this wasn't a superhero movie---and which, as it happens, gives its wearer the power to shrink down to the size of an ant while obtaining super-strength and superspeed.
Thus, Ant-Man is born or reborn, as the case may be, and Ant-Man becomes mainly a superhero movie---without stopping to be either a comedy or a heist movie.
So, you might be asking at this point, as a superhero movie how does Ant-Man fit into the Avengers saga?
It's not made as if it does. There are references to the Avengers as people who are out there doing superheroic things but only two short scenes directly connecting Ant-Man the movie and Ant-Man the superhero to any of the other movies---one sets up the other which comes at the end of the credits, so, like I said earlier, sit still and don't be fooled by the mid-credit scene into thinking it's over. An indirect connection is made through a direct connection to the TV series Agent Carter, but you don't have to get that to follow what's going on here.
Ant-Man does two things aesthetically for the Avengers movies that might seem mutually exclusive at first glance: scales things down and opens up space.
With the stakes so much lower, the fights, stunts, and special effects can all be ratcheted down in speed, intensity, and duration. We're left more at ease to pay attention to just the actors and what they're doing, allowing us to remember that, more than anything else, the actors and what they're doing have been the keys to the artistic success of the other movies as well.
Agent Carter and Netlfix's Daredevil, as character-focused as opposed to special effects-dependent stories, have contributed to this too.
Reed deserves credit for not trying to overcompensate. In fact, instead of doing more to try to make up for Ant-Man's comparative triviality---I mean breaking into a place and stealing stuff compared to saving cities from complete destruction---he does less. Whatever can be downplayed, Reed doesn't just have downplayed, he calls attention to what he's not doing that he could have done instead by milking the contrast for a laugh.
Another good one is when Scott puts on the Ant-Man suit for the first time and, as one does, strikes a heroic pose or what would be a heroic pose if he wasn't standing in a bathtub.
My favorite, though, is when members of the team need to make a getaway the scene in their van if the heist without calling the cops attention. There are no screeching tires, there's no stunt driving. No high speed chase with multiple car crashes and bystanders diving out of the way ensues. They just put the van in reverse and back out of there, slowly, very slowly, in a long shot that Reed holds for what seems like a full minute.
Oliver Mannion reserves special praise for the way Reed handles what has unfortunately become the superhero movie requisite scene of mass urban destruction.
On the other hand, the way opens up space is by making more of less. Most of Ant-Man takes place indoors and in small rooms. Much of the wide open spaces in the other Avengers movies is filled with explosions, crumbling building, flying machinery often flying into many pieces, and armies of enemies. Reed leaves the little space he has around the characters he has to work with not empty exactly but neat and clean. He does fill in with lots of extra business, frenetic comings and goings, and other visual activity. In fact, often he has the action taking place off camera.
The result is the suggestion that the whole of the Marvel cinematic universe isn't completely crowded with superheroes in constant battle with alien invaders, demon robot armies, and battalions of supersoldiers equipped with weaponry so high tech they might as well be alien invaders or demon robots. There's room for ordinary people to go about their business without worrying about things falling down on them from the sky.
It happens that in Ant-Man people's ordinary business involves breaking into places and stealing stuff and, incidentally, shrinking down to the size of an ant.
This opens up the niche wider for future entries in the MCU in which the emphasis will be---or ought to be---on the heroes' personal struggles and not as much on their super-exploits as they save the world, like Black Panther, Doctor Strange, the third and counting Spider-Man, and possibly even Captain Marvel, who has that woman doing a man's job theme to work through both as a character and as a brand.
But it should, I hope, serve as a reminder to focus on the saner, calmer, and more character-driven and -centered aspects of all the movies as what makes them good and fun movies.
You don't have to be a fan of the other movies or have seen any of them to follow and enjoy Ant-Man. The movie works as what's known to readers of novel series as a stand-alone. And for fans, it might be even better if you don't think about the other movies and let it entertain you on its own separate merits.
Now, getting back to Ant-Man as a movie with its own separate merits, I'm going to bring back in Guardians of the Galaxy, with which it shares two virtues, besides being a comedy.
Both accept the ridiculousness of their premises without apology. In Guardians of the Galaxy we get a talking raccoon and a walking tree but so what? In Ant-Man we get a guy who can shrink down to the size of a bug and talk to ants and again, so what? Big deal. Or little deal. That is little deal is made of it. Reed knows it's ridiculous but he doesn't try to compensate with angst, drama, or attempting to overwhelm us by going overboard on the special effects and CGI. In fact, even when he's wearing the Ant-Man suit, Scott spends little time ant-sized, so there are few scenes of him running around Land of the Giants-like sets among oversized props, and most of those scenes are played for laughs.
And both feature fine casts of supporting, secondary, and minor characters who are interesting as characters in their own rights and not simply for their functions in the plot, starting with the perpetually smiling Pena, the very warm and winsome Greer, and the always dependable Cannavale, who once again demonstrates that the Bobby Cannavale type is an Everyman and can be any sort or condition of human being, blue collar or white collar, slob, schnook, schmuck, or mensch, loser or hardworking average Joe, idiot, smart guy, or wiseguy, good guy, bad guy, thief, thug, crook, or, as he plays here, decent, honest, well-meaning, and intelligent cop.
Too bad, though, that Evangeline Lilly and Corey Stall, as the little too reminiscent of Lex Luthor in more ways than just the absence of hair mad genius villain, have nothing much more to do than try to make their clichéd characters less obviously clichés.
Lilly, at least, has two clichés to work with and against: Rebellious because she's really desperate for parental approval daughter and love interest who starts off disliking the object of her desire but learns to see and appreciate his superior virtues (basically she plays the main character from a romantic comedy wandering in from another movie to where she's not really needed. But at least Reed doesn't use her as eye candy).
Stoll, however, just gets to play the jealous sorcerer's apprentice while barely repressing a maniacal laugh.
But then there’s T.I. and Dastmalchian giving matched hilariously deadpan performances as Dave the Driver and Kurt the tech wizard, and Stan Lee makes another fun and integral cameo while Garrett Morris---for you whippersnappers for whom Tina Fey and Will Farrell are grizzled veterans, Morris was one of the original members of the cast of Saturday Night Live---shows up to do that necessary work of reminding us that there's more to life in the Marvel Universe than superheroes battling to save the world.
And then there's Michael Douglas.
Another smart choice for Reed, which was actually made for him and which must have been so obvious to the producers at Marvel Studios that it wasn't really a choice, was to make Scott Lang, the current comic book Ant-Man, the hero and not Hank Pym, who was the original Ant-Man and, with his girlfriend and later emotionally and physically abused wife the Wasp, one of the founding members of the Avengers, along with Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man.
Cap came later.
If they'd gone with Pym, the movie would not be a comedy.
Pym is not a comic---as opposed to comic book---hero. He's practically not even a tragic hero. He's almost a tragic villain.
Pym has a past so dark and so many tragic flaws and character failings that it's almost as if he was created with the express purpose of making Tony Stark look like a saint. He's even more vain, more arrogant, more selfish and self-centered, and more mad scientist ambitious than Stark without any of Tony's compensating wit, charm, compassion, or self-doubt.
In the comics, Pym is the one who creates Ultron.
Very little of this backstory makes it into Ant-Man the movie, but there's enough that as it plays out it becomes clear that one of the characters, if not the most important one, Scott, our comic hero, is there to save by giving a happy ending to is Pym.
Michael Douglas is entering old age with the dignified portliness and sardonic gruffness of a John Housman with hair that makes it hard to imagine he was ever young. But he was. And he more or less started his career as a lean and athletic action-adventure hero on Streets of San Francisco and came to movie stardom as an Indiana Jones avatar swashbuckling to the rescue of Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone. But rather than conjuring up images of his own younger self, he seems to be channeling his father, Kirk Douglas, in the ambitious, arrogant, reckless, self-destructive and anti-heroic angry young men roles in the career-making movies from his early prime, Out of the Past, Champion, Young Man With a Horn, Detective Story, and, particularly, Ace in the Hole---we can see the young Hank Pym as that ruthless and amoral in the pursuit of his goals although able to tell himself those goals are lofty and noble.
He paid a terrible price for what he's come to regard as a tragic mistake and Douglas lets us feel the pain and regret he's carried ever since.
He also makes sure we see that Pym is repentant but not entirely reformed. He has one more step to go.
Even though he's set it up, he has to learn, as tragic as his past was, this isn't his story anymore and he's now in a comedy.
Enter Paul Rudd.
Rudd is probably best known to movie audiences as a star of romantic comedies and farces and his casting as a superhero surprised many fans of the Avengers movies and the comic books. But he's a classically trained actor with some Shakespeare on his resume and he knows how to play a character as well as how to play for a laugh. More key here is that he knoes how to play for a laugh by playing the character. His Ant-Man is at his funniest not when he's delivering a one-liner but when he's quietly reacting to the absurdities of his situation.
And he brings an essential and winning modesty to the part. At no point does Scott seem impressed with himself, either as a genius, a superhero, or a super-thief, which is right given that none of those are what he truly wants to be and because as far as he sees it the qualities that allow him to be those things have brought him pretty much nothing but trouble.
More than any other Marvel movie hero except Captain America, Scott is in the superhero business just to do the right thing. But his ambitions are far more modest than Cap's. For him, doing the right thing simply means making the people who are counting on him most, his friends and family, happy.
Cap's job, as uneasy as it makes him, is the grandly noble one of saving the world. Scott's job is saving the few people it's in his power to save from ending up in a tragedy.
That’s the main job of a comic hero. He or she can have other jobs. They can be agents of justice, they can be out to right wrongs and relieve suffering, they can save people, cities, and planets from a villain's dastardly deeds, they can even be on personal missions of vengeance or fight for truth, justice, and the American way. But ultimately what they must do is pull others away from the tragic abyss.
This, as true fans know, is the dynamic of the friendship between Batman and Superman. Clark Kent's job is to save Bruce Wayne from the Batman's tragedy. Judging by the gloomy and dreary trailer for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, it looks like once again director Zack Snyder is missing the point, but maybe an apparently tragic Superman is just a set up. We’ll see.
As for Ant-Man and future Avengers movies: Based on what I could tell from Avengers: Age of Ultron, in the now-filming Captain America: Civil War, Cap's mission is going to be saving himself and Iron Man from Tony Stark's tragedy. This will present a big problem because although Cap was born to be a comic hero sice waking up from his seventy year nap in the ice as a man out of tome and out of place he's become a potentially tragic hero.
To remain in a comedy, he's going to need help.
Fortunately---minor spoiler---his pal the Falcon knows a guy.
Again, more after-the-credits reading, because my movie reviews just aren’t long enough: My reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Of gods and monsters, and Guardians of the Galaxy, “Everybody’s got dead people.”
Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed, screenplay by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd. Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll , Michael Pena, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Hayley Atwell, John Slattery, T.I., David Dastmalchian, Martin Donovan, Garrett Morris, and Stan Lee
There’s a very simple story at the center of Avengers: Age of Ultron. A very simple and very old and very true story. The story of an idealistic but vain scientist who, seeking to conquer death, creates a monster in his own likeness whose monstrosity lies in its---his---being at the same time more than human, less than human, and all too human. The monster escapes his creator’s control and runs wild, revealing himself to be not a conquering of death but a bringer of it. But the real horror is in his having a mind of his own and desires of his own that mirror his creator’s. The creator is forced to look in that mirror and see himself for what he is, a monster of vanity and ego, who has unleashed his own evil and set it loose upon the world. It’s a story, then, about how what we take pride in as being the best in ourselves can turn out to be the very worst.
This re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Tony Stark as Doctor Frankenstein and Ultron as his monster---Did you think I meant Bruce Banner and the Hulk?---might be easy to lose track of in the noise and confusion of the overlong and repetitive battle scenes amidst crumbling cities, the irrelevant inclusion an underwritten subplot that amounts to little more than a set of teaser-trailers for the Not-Coming-To-A-Theater-Near-You-Until-November 2017 Thor: Ragnarok, the clumsy attempt to work in the Hulk and Black Widow movies that will never be made, and the overly-insisted upon group angst about whether or not the Avengers will ever be a true team---a question I thought got asked and satisfactorily answered in the first Avengers. When Age of Utron hit the theaters back in May, the whole movie and not just the Frankenstein story got a little lost for many fans in online arguments over whether or not director Joss Whedon had betrayed Black Widow as a character by making her sad about not being able to have babies and whether or not that’s actually what was making Black Widow sad and then by fan outrage when Whedon closed down his Twitter account in what they took as his response to their complaints and criticisms, followed by a further debate over whether or not that was in fact the reason he’d done it and, if it was, did he have the right to shut fans out that way. [Editor’s note: I revised this paragraph a bit after input from longtime reader and blogging comrade Gary Farber. See his comment.]
But I think the problem---which is probably only a problem for me---is caused by Age of Ultron’s having been mistitled as an Avengers movie and not as what it is.
Iron Man 4.
But then I don’t think Marvel Studios really has an Avengers series unfolding. They have two parallel stories of individual heroes that are on their way to merging in a dual tragedy. Steve Rogers’ and Tony Stark’s---Captain America’s and Iron Man’s.
Before I get into that…
Marvel has been either lucky or brilliant in the casting of its leads and supporting players in most of its productions, which now include Agent Carter, Daredevil, and Ant-Man, all three of which feature excellent leads and supporting players. (The less said about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the better.) I’m particularly (and sentimentally) impressed by Chris Evans as Captain America. I think he’s done a wonderful job of putting the lessons of Christopher Reeve’s Superman to work in playing a hero too good to true and making his goodness believable, likeable, sympathetic, attractive, and---the truly super feat---fun. But Robert Downey Jr is still the best of the lot. Evans is good in Age of Ultron and James Spader is better, stealing most of the showwith his amazing voice work as Ultron, but Downey is never blown off the screen---except when Iron Man is literally blown off the screen, which happens a lot, maybe too much. Like I said, the battle scenes get repetitive, but never mind. Spader has great fun with his monologs, making well-written lines sound like brilliant ones and brilliant ones sound like Shakespeare. (I think I’d better explain that below.) But Downey matches him easily, filling his every sentence with an essential Tony Stark-ness. Which is to say, that just about whatever he says, no matter how witty, charming, and smart is tinged with competitiveness, ego, jealousy, selfishness, and…insecurity.
A good example is in an apparent throw-away moment, Cobie Smulders as former S.H.I.E.L.D agent Maria Hill---who, unfortunately, is turning out to be the Avengers’ Girl Friday instead of Agent Coulson’s replacement as Nick Fury’s Right Hand and heir apparent---addresses Stark as “boss” and he immediately corrects her.
“He’s the boss,” he says, meaning Captain America, “I just pay for everything, design everything, make everyone look cooler.”
It’s beautifully delivered but a great deal of its beauty is that it contains all those qualities I mentioned: wit, charm, smarts, competitiveness, ego, jealousy, selfishness, and self-doubt.
Downey makes it plain that Stark accepts Cap as the team’s leader and knows that that’s how it ought be but also that he also help feeling that he could be the leader and can’t help letting Hill know that too and know why and know why she should be impressed with him, as if she wouldn’t be already and would be more if she didn’t also know what an overgrown brat he can be, a fact he knows and has come to dislike about himself but which he can’t seem to correct.
These qualities, with the emphasis on the wit, charm, and ego, have defined Downey's characterization of Tony Stark since the first Iron Man. And that characterization is thematic. Running through all three Iron Man movies and now both Avengers movies is the question Who is Tony Stark and what does he want? and all those qualities mixing up together make that a hard question to answer.
The first Iron Man ends with Tony announcing “I am Iron Man.” But that turns out to be a problematic statement because while it's true in the most obvious way, it's also a declaration that he’s a superhero and Iron Man 2 calls that into question. In fact, in Iron Man 2, Nick Fury decides Tony's not a superhero, or at least not up to being one of Earth's mightiest heroes, and although he doesn't kick him off the Avengers project, he demotes him, from hero to technical support. Tony earns a second chance, but in the first Avengers he has to prove he deserved it, that he is a hero and not, as Cap accuses him of being, just a big ego operating a suit of armor that does all the real work. Tony proves it---to the team, but apparently not to himself. That's what Iron Man 3 is about. Tony becoming a hero in his own eyes.
Now we find out that there's a problem with that.
Tony developed a real hero's heart. He did not lose any of his vanity. He did not learn, like Cap did long ago, humility.
It's not enough for him to be a hero. He has to be the hero.
Which brings me to the other part of the answer to who is Tony Stark and what does he want?
He's Howard Stark's son and he wants what he cannot have. His dead father's approval.
Specifically, he's the son of a brilliant and successful father who was, Tony feels, aloof, overly demanding, overly critical, and whom he has in significant ways surpassed. All his life he has been in a competition he can't win for a reward he can't have. Howard Stark wouldn't acknowledge his son's genius while he was alive and now he's not around to applaud his success and achievements---and admit he’s been bested. Add to this that Tony has given himself the mission of making up for his own and Howard's mistakes and sins, something that comes back to haunt him and the other Avengers in Age of Ultron, in the persons of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
If all that sounds neurotic and even juvenile, it's mitigated by Tony's having nobler ambitions. He sincerely wants to fix everything and save everybody.
Like I said, he wants to be a hero.
Unfortunately, like I also said, vanity is still a problem.
Tony wants to be the one who saves everybody and fixes everything.
He wants to be the hero.
He says he built Ultron so that the Avengers won't be needed anymore. But he does it in the belief that he doesn't need the other Avengers to help him. (He enlists Bruce Banner but pretty much relegates him to the role of Igor.) Basically, he believes that the world already doesn't need the Avengers. It just needs him.
In an argument with Cap, Tony defends what he was attempting to do in creating Ultron, prevent war forever or, as he says, thinking he’s being cute and ironic, bringing about “peace in our time.” Cap won’t buy it. “Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts,” he snaps. “Innocent people die. Every time.” A line that might inspire anti-war liberals with Iraq in mind to cheer, but which is really kind of a strange thing for a veteran of World War II to say. Wouldn't it have been a good thing if Hitler could have been stopped before? (Leaving aside the question of whether he actually could have been stopped.) But there's an answer, which Stark doesn't give, because this is an action-adventure movie not a novel by Tolstoy and there isn't time or space for philosophic and historical debates. Innocent people die in wars, many innocent people, so isn't trying worth it anyway, if only on the chance that maybe only fewer innocent people will die?
Again, no time or space in the movie or in a movie review even on this blog. But quickly. Stark's mistake is that he has already had this debate with himself and made decisions by himself, leaving everybody else out of it. He has assumed knowledge, wisdom, responsibilities, and power that Cap, a conventionally religious man of his bygone time, would probably say belong to God.
Like I said. Frankenstein.
This is where the stories of Iron Man and Captain America begin to converge in a way that, for me, turns the Avengers saga into a side story. The real story, now, is leading into the next Captain America movie, Civil War.
Of course I don't know what's coming. But this is what I see being set up. Tony Stark is going to bring about what he says he created Ultron to do, put an end to the Avengers.
To put it in mythological terms, he's going to bring about the breaking of the Round Table.
In my review of the first Avengers, The Romance of Tony Stark, I said that if you see the Avengers as having parallels to the stories of King Arthur and his knights, Tony is Lancelot. Not in personality but in the potential role of tragic traitor. He and Lancelot share the same tragic flaw, a willingness to put their own desires above what they know to be right. In Lancelot's case, it's his love for Guinevere that undoes him. In Tony's, it's his need to be the hero.
In my review, I said that I didn't see Captain America as King Arthur. But Winter Soldier changed my mind about that.
S.H.I.E.L.D. turned out to have been based on the premise that “Might Makes Right.” Cap doesn’t just believe like King Arthur in “Might for Right.” He believes that Right Makes Might. His ambition isn’t just to make the world safe. It’s to make it right.
He dreams of Camelot.
With this in mind, you can guess which scene in Age of Ultron I got the most kick out of: the scene at the party celebrating the Avengers' defeat of the last remnants of Hydra. The guys---Clint (Hawkeye) Tony, Rhodie ( who, thankfully, has given up calling himself the Iron Patriot and gone back to being War Machine), and Steve Rogers---take turns trying to lift Thor's hammer. Of course, they can't try as they might. As we know, only he---or she. I've been following what's going on in the comic books.---who is worthy can wield the hammer. The guys know this and they don't really expect to succeed. But they've had a few and they are guys, after all. They're showing off. But once they get going, Tony's competitive juices start flowing. He becomes determined to lift the hammer.
It's not to prove he's worthy. He doesn't take that part seriously. (Downey tosses off a couple of great one-liners on the subject of how he will treat his subjects when he takes Thor's place as ruler of Asgard, and, again, the lines are witty and charming but tinged with vanity. He's in effect telling Thor he's not impressed with his being a god and hero-king.) What he wants to show is that lifting the hammer doesn't prove anything except that you've mastered the trick of lifting it. And he's convinced there's a trick and equally convinced that if there is he's the one who can figure it out. That's his main job as an Avenger.
But when it's Cap's turn, we see Steve approach the task with a bit of reluctance. He's doing it mainly to be a good sport. But he gives it his all and...
The hammer moves.
To Thor's shock and consternation---Chris Hemsworth does a terrific double-take here.---and to Steve's own, well, fright.
He gives it one more mighty tug but his heart isn't in it and, as we know from The First Avenger, it's his heart that gives him his strength. The super soldier serum only worked on him because he had a good heart. Then he gives up and the implication is that he does because he doesn't want to know.
Not that he isn't worthy. He already knows he's worthy. That's what makes him Captain America. He doesn't want to know he's worthier. He doesn't like being as worthy as he is. He’s weighed down by the responsibilities and filled with self-doubt. He doesn't like what being worthy has made him. Sad and alone, out of time and out of place. A misfit. A freak. A monster, in fact. In yet anther Frankenstein story, one he explicitly tells about himself in this movie, the kindly Dr Erskine who invented the super-soldier serum is Frankenstein and he, Captain America, is the Creature.
Chris Evans, working with some beautifully understated dialog, makes Cap almost as witty and charming as Downey's Tony Stark, but he gives Cap a kind of reverse vanity. While just about everything Downey as Stark says is a form of boasting, just about everything Evans' Cap says is self-deprecation.
I don’t recall any specific moments when we see him reacting to Cap’s modesty, but it probably drives Tony nuts.
Here's where it gets messy.
Like it hasn't already, Lance?
If a big part of who Tony Stark is is Howard Stark’s son, then in his eyes Steve Rogers would naturally be something of a stand-in for his father.
That’s how Tony first came to know of him, as his father’s good friend and war buddy. He grew up listening to his father talk admiringly about Cap and from that he learned to resent him. Doesn't matter what Howard said or how often he said it, what Tony heard was an incessant criticism: Why can't you be more like him?
In other words, Tony would have grown up thinking of Captain America as the son his father wished he had instead of him.
It's no wonder that when he meets him in the flesh, Tony's filled with jealousy and an intense spirit of rivalry that would be hard to overcome even as the two became good friends.
Which they have. With not a whole lot of interaction, Downey and Evans make it clear Tony and Steve like each other, have fun together, and rely on each other. The spirit of rivalry never goes away, though, and it's felt on both sides, because more than they are friends, they are, spiritually, brothers.
We all know how things tend to go between brothers in literature. (And in movies. If you want to push it---and I'm always ready to push these things---there are parallels between Steve and Tony and Thor and Loki.) Steve, even though he's younger---discounting the seventy odd years he was frozen in the ice---is in temperament and in effect the older brother, as well as the favorite son.
All right, maybe all that's too mythological. But superheroes are often said to be our new myths---mostly it's said by fans of the comic books and the artists who make their livings creating them. If it's true, however, it's only when they've escaped the comics and other mass media where they have their origins and enter the collective unconscious to the point that they resonate with the very many people who don't read comic books, play video games, or watch the TV shows and go to the movies. That's happened with Superman and Batman. You can geek out for days debating which others have achieved Superman and Batman's mythological status.
Obviously, for me, Captain America is part of my personal mythologies.
But if these stories were truly myths, they would have endings. And the endings would all be the same. The heroes die.
That actually happens to the mythological Thor.
It can't happen to the comic book heroes.
Well, it does all the time. But I mean they die and stay dead. They don't, as Cap advises in Age of Ultron, walk it off.
Their stories have an end which no stories told about them can go past. As far as I know that's only happened to Barry Allen's Flash.
Don’t tell me…
At any rate, there’s too much money riding on the popular heroes’ immunity to mortality.
Now, the heroes of the movies can die and stay dead. And that could happen in the Avengers saga. If the twinned stories of Iron Man and Captain America are truly myths, Civil War will be a tragedy that ends with the breaking of the Round Table, Lancelot's self-imposed banishment, and the death of Arthur.
It could happen. It doesn't appear to be in the offing. Avengers 3 and 4: Infinity War I and II are in the works. The intriguing thing is that as things stand Downey won't be in them. I haven't heard for sure about Evans. He may not be.
That doesn't mean Iron Man and Captain America won't be.
There's precedent for recasting.
Look out! Here comes the pesky Spider-Man!
But to get down to it at last, this is why I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron as Iron Man 4 and why, as far as I was concerned, after the scene with Thor’s hammers all the Avengers except Iron Man and Cap could have disappeared from the movie until the inevitable climactic battle. Thor, for all intents and purposes, does.
Like I said, mostly what he does between the hammer scene and the final battle is show up in interpolated teasers for Thor: Ragnarok.
As for that final battle, and all the big battles, I could have done without them too. For one thing, the cgi work is too detailed. Watching all those buildings crumble into dust, all I was thinking was “Who’s going to clean up that mess?” (Note to stickler fans: I know who’s going to clean up that mess. The point is I was focused on the mess.) But mainly, what I wanted and what I think the story needed was a final confrontation between Iron Man and Ultron, and, even better than a good fight, a good scene between them like the one between Tony and Loki in the first Avengers.
As for watching a good fight, it’s interesting that the one good one between Ultron and an Avenger is between him and Captain America. I took that as symbolic.
The battles themselves are well staged. I’m sure Whedon had other things on his mind but they play like he was saying to Man of Steel’s director Zack Snyder, “This is how you do it.” Whedon keeps the focus on his characters as characters---that is, they are always being themselves as they run, jump, dodge, duck, fly, and fight. He doesn’t just use them as avatars in a video game. And he makes sure that we see that most of their efforts go into saving people. We see and feel that there are actual human lives in jeopardy and that it matters if even one person in the crowd dies.
And as for the characters…
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch aren't given much to do. He's cocky and she's angsty. As the movie goes along, he gets cockier, she gets angstier. But pretty much they're here to save on time spent on exposition in the next Avengers movies.
I'm glad Whedon let Paul Bettany, who's been doing charming work as the voice of Jarvis, Stark's computer sidekick since the first Iron Man, appear as another new Avenger, the Vision. He's a little too much of a vision for my taste, but he's a needed calming, civilizing, and distancing presence. It's a relief to have a character who has some perspective and who can think clearly about what is happening and what the Avengers ought to be up to. I don't expect that sanity to last. This is, after all, the Marvel cinematic universe.
Even though I didn't need to see them in this movie---as opposed to in those movies of their own that will never get made---it was good to see Jeremy Renner do more than take aim convincingly while cracking wise, Mark Ruffalo do something other than wrestle with his rage, although he still does a fair share of that, and Scarlett Johansson show yet another side of Black Widow, even if that side is that of the good-hearted bad girl who, to paraphrase Valerie Perrine as a variation of the type in Superman, doesn't get to get it on with the good guys.
Chris Hemsworth’s underused, again. Whedon gives a supporting female character a line that lets us know that he knows which of the Avengers most female fans---and gay male ones, I presume---want to see the most of and then doesn’t give it to them. Instead, proud and unabashed dork that he is, he lingers on Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and makes him the focus of the longing female gaze. Ruffalo’s good, of course, but he’s nowhere near as pretty as Hemsworth and Banner is, after all, a dork. Hemsworth, though, makes do with what’s given and it’s important to notice that most of his best work is silent. He’s a natural comic actor and all he needs is his eyes.
Spader, as everyone acknowledges, is the stand-out star. When I said he turns his dialog into Shakespeare, I didn’t mean flowery or poetic. I meant that he makes the words alive to the character saying them. Ultron’s listening to himself. Choosing the words carefully. Writing his own script. Writing himself into being. Hamlet does this. Falstaff does this. Iago and Rosalind do it. Ultron knows himself to be performing. He’s literally making himself up as he goes. And not only is he creating himself in his own eyes, he’s forcing others to think of him as he thinks of himself.
I probably need to come back and rewrite that.
That’s it. Time to wrap this up. But one more scene before the credits roll.
Whedon has been given a lot of credit for shaping the Avengers saga and giving the movies their tone and spirit. But I think what he deserves the real credit for is recognizing what was already going on, accepting it, liking it, and running with it. The first and most credit, I think, should go to Jon Favreau, and I was happy to his name show up in the credits of Avengers: Age of Ultron as an executive producer.
It was Favreau, as the director of the first Iron Man, who set the tone and gave the series its spirit and sensibility. And the best thing he did to do that was fight to get Robert Downey Jr cast as Tony Stark.
Because the running time of this review isn’t long enough: My reviews of the first Avengers, The Romance of Tony Stark; Iron Man 3, Big Man in a Suit of Armor; and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap being Cap, the goodest of good guys.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, written and directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Don Cheadle, James Spader, and Samuel L. Jackson. Rated PG-13. Still in some theaters.
Far as I’ll ever be concerned, the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is as much the Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as the female lead in the play Will Shakespeare tells Christopher Marlowe he's working on in Shakespeare in Love, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter,” is Juliet.
Writers routinely set out thinking they're going to write one thing and wind up writing something else.
All novels are palimpsests, but usually only the top layer exists to be read.
To be persnickety, it's a rough draft. A rejected rough draft. The author herself decided long ago it was a false start and, accordingly, she started over, taking a very different tack. We shouldn't have it. It's apparently an accident the draft survived. Publishing it as though it's a whole and complete book is something of a fraud. It might as well have a blue pencil line through every sentence.
Won't be read that way though.
Tell you what mainly concerns me---apart from the question of whether Harper Lee truly consented to publication---is that well-meaning high school teachers all over the country are going to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and start teaching the controversy, so to speak. Their students won't get the pleasure of reading Mockingbird as a story in its own right. They'll be forced to read it as a companion to Watchman, even if they won't be reading Watchman along with it. Of course some of them may be required to read both and I can imagine the exam questions.
Compare and contrast the two Atticus Finches.
Which one do you think is the more true to life?
Since she wrote the racist Atticus first, why do you think she changed his character when she sat down to write To Kill A Mockingbird? What do you think of her decision in terms of what it says about her integrity as a writer? Does it make her less of an artist in your view?
What do you think authors owe to historical and political and social realities?
Sheesh. I'm glad I never had me as a teacher.
The point is that for a great many people, To Kill a Mockingbird is the first "adult" novel they read and loved. For many of that many, it’s the only novel they ever read and loved. I don't think Go Set a Watchman will ruin To Kill a Mockingbird for those who've already taken it to heart. But I worry that a new generation of readers won't get to know it as anything more than another boring homework assignment.
It will be a shame, though, if thousands of adults who love and cherish To Kill a Mockingbird do have it ruined for them by having Go Set a Watchman rewrite it for them and they now see it as merely a prequel to the real story, the one in which the truth can finally be revealed. And going by the online discussion, there are a lot of people who already think that Go Set A Watchman is the true or, at any rate, the truer story and its Atticus is the real Atticus.
As if there is a “real” Atticus.
But the basis for thinking Watchman's the real or more realistic Atticus seems to be that in reality there were more racists in that time and place than there were white liberal heroes and that Go Set A Watchman is told from the adult Scout's point of view and as an adult she is ready to face and reveal the whole truth about her father.
As if To Kill a Mockingbird had been written by a nine year old.
As if adults are better at perceiving and handling the truth.
This, of course, means treating the two books as a series, as if Harper Lee had gotten the jump on John Updike with his Rabbit books or as if she was following in the footsteps of Louisa May Alcott. Maybe she was. I never heard that she was. Like almost everybody else, I hadn't heard that she'd written another novel until this past winter. But I'd have thought that somewhere along the line she'd have discussed her intentions. All I'd ever heard seemed to take it for granted that she was content to have written the one book and happy with it what it was.
If she intended to write a series and Go Set A Watchman isn't the rejected precursor of To Kill A Mockingbird it apparently is and is instead a draft of a a novel in its own right and a continuation of Scout's story, it seems to me that Lee's model would more likely have been Faulkner than Alcott. And if it was, then I suggest using Faulkner as a guide in how to deal with the two Atticus Finches.
All the many McCaslins, Compsons, and Snopeses who parade through Faulkner's stories and novels are variations on themes. Even when one appears to be a character from a previous book he or she will turn out to be a different person in the way a song played in a different key or at a different tempo is not the same song as the last time it was played. The Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom! is not quite the same Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury. The Temple Drake of Requiem for a Nun is not quite the same Temple Drake of Sanctuary even if you try to take into account how what happens to her in Sanctuary might have changed her. And you don't have to read them as if they are or read their books as if they're volumes in a series. Faulkner used them to tell us different truths about things other than themselves. We're free to prefer one version to another and to re-play that version over and over in our imaginations and never even hum a few bars of the other and just as free to like both either separate or together.
Dear To Kill A Mockingbird Fans,
You can always ignore the extra material you don't like.
Star Wars Fans
But here's an important question I haven't seen discussed online : never mind Atticus, is the Jean Louise who's at the center of Go Set a Watchman the same character as the Scout we know and love from To Kill A Mockingbird. Is that young woman the person our Scout would have grown up to be? Is she the "truer" character or is she also a betrayal? It is, after all her story. That is, it's not the story of Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson. It's the story of how Scout grows as she's watching Atticus take on Tom's defense. In dramatic terms, Atticus is the male lead, but he’s the second lead. In literary terms, he is the hero but Scout is the protagonist. And her story, her growth, involves more than her awakening to the evils of bigotry and segregation, important and profound as that is. She learns the evil of prejudice in general, of making judgments before you know who someone is and have heard their story. She learns to hear other’s stories and not treat people as if they’re merely characters in her own. And in her learning of that lesson the central figure is...
Mr Arthur Radley.
Is he in Go Set a Watchman?
Is that theme at work in Go Set a Watchman or any theme from To Kill a Mockingbird? That's what would make the one book a continuation of the other and the two Atticuses and two Jean Louises the same characters.
Finally, and perhaps most important, are either Go Set a Watchman's Atticus or Jean Louise as well-written? Are their stories as well-told? Are they well-written and well-told at all? In other words, is Go Set a Watchman a good book and worth reading for itself and not for its connection, whatever that is, To Kill A Mockingbird?
I probably won't be finding this out for myself. I have no desire to read it, even out of curiosity. And not because I don't want to have To Kill a Mockingbird ruined for me.
I won't be reading it for the same reason I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird since high school.
I remember enjoying reading To Kill A Mockingbird that one and only time I read it, back in ninth grade, and I'm still amazed by how much of it has stuck with me. But the truth is I wasn't much impressed at the time. I'd like to say that, precocious little snot that I was, I'd already moved past it. Flannery O'Connor's dismissed To Kill A Mockingbird as a children’s book. I didn’t know who Flannery O’Connor was (yet) but I had heard her judgment and if by children’s book she meant what are now called young adult novels I’d have agreed. My "grown up" reading had begun in fifth grade with Treasure Island, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and the plays of William Shakespeare, and next to those, To Kill a Mockingbird seemed a bit…juvenile.
By the time Mr Subramanian assigned us To Kill A Mockingbird, I'd already started reading or had read books like Great Expectations, Little Big Man, True Grit, Slaughterhouse Five, Pylon and The Reivers, Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, and Catch-22, along with a number of science fiction novels and mysteries by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie, plus some novels I thought of as very adult that I'd plucked off the New York Times Bestseller lists.
I figured that the New York Times, being the paper of choice for highbrows like Pop Mannion, would only allow highbrow literature on its bestseller lists.
Sue me. I was fourteen.
At any rate, reading To Kill a Mockingbird seemed a step backward. Not all the way back to Tom Sawyer and Little Women, but a step between them and Slaughterhouse Five that I'd jumped over.
There was something else, and please don't take this as a disparagement of Harper Lee, of her book, or of your love for either or both.
It's just a statement about where my tastes and interests were taking me at the time.
Somehow I knew that To Kill a Mockingbird was a lesser book in comparison to other books I'd read and that Harper Lee was a lesser writer.
Probably because some adult told me.
Though maybe it was an early informed literary judgment I came to on my own.
But that, in fact, is not why I've never re-read it.
I've never re-read To Kill a Mockingbird because whenever I've wanted to hear the story re-told, I've re-watched the movie.
I'd seen and fallen in love with the film long before I got to high school. I'm hardly alone on this, but to me To Kill A Mockingbird is the movie. Go Set a Watchman's Atticus Finch doesn't matter to me one way or the other because as far as I'm concerned Atticus Finch is and will always be what Gregory Peck made of him on the screen.
And, as I was more stubborn about these things when I was fourteen, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was interesting to me only as a very well written novelization of the film. I only cared about its version of Atticus to the degree it brought to mind Gregory Peck's version.
So, here’s the exam question with no right or wrong answer.
Is Atticus Finch like Captain Ahab, Hester Prynne, Natty Bumpo, and Jay Gatsby, iconic but most alive on the pages of the books that contain them, or has he escaped his book like Tom Sawyer and Dorothy and her friends to wander and adventure freely through our collective imaginations?
Or is he a literary character at all?
Isn’t he more like Ethan Edwards, Scarlett O'Hara, and Randle Patrick McMurphy, impossible to imagine apart from the actors who played them in movies that themselves have made the books they're adapted from impossible to imagine apart from those movies?
I know there are fans of Margaret Mitchell who'd disagree about Gone With the Wind, just as surely as I know there are fans of Harper Lee who'd disagree about To Kill a Mockingbird.
But there's no hope for me now. Ethan Edwards looks and sounds like John Wayne, Scarlett O'Hara like Vivian Leigh, and Atticus Finch like Gregory Peck and I don't want that changed. I don't want to hear any other voices saying, I can’t hear any other voices saying:
That'll be the day.
Fiddle dee dee
Some suggested summer reading: In case you don’t feel like reading Go Set a Watchman or re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird or if you have time to read a couple more books, I recommend another novel told from the point of view of a young girl and one about a white lawyer called upon to defend a black man charged with a crime he didn’t commit, Charles Portis’ True Grit and Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner.
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The teppanyaki room inside the Okada restaurant. Las Vegas. Group of Wall Street financial types having dinner after a conference. January, 2007.
When they saw that Lippman had seated Eisman right next to the sucker, both Danny and Vinny had the same thought: Oh no. This isn’t going to end well. Eisman couldn’t contain himself. He’d figure out the guy was a fuool , and let him know it, and then where would they be? They needed fools; only fools would take the other side of their trades. And they wanted to do more trades. “We didn’t want people to know what we were doing,” said Vinny. “We were spies, on a fact-finding mission.” They watched Eisman double-dip his edamame in the communal soy sauce---dip, suck, redip, resuck---and waited for the room to explode. There was nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the show. Eisman had a curious way of listening; he didn’t so much listen to what you were saying as subcontract to some remote region of his brain the task of deciding whether whatever you were saying was worth listening to, while his mind went off to play on its own. As a result, he never actually heard what you said to him the first time you said it. If his mental subcontractor detected a level of interest in what you had just said, it radioed a signal to the mother ship, which then wheeled around with the most intense focus. “Say that again,” he’d say. And you would! Because now Eisman was so obviously listening to you, and, as he listened so selectively, you felt flattered. “I keep looking over at them,” said Danny. “And I see Steve saying over and over, Say that again. Say that again.”
Later, whenever Eisman set out to explain to others the origins of the financial crisis, he’d start with [that dinner]…The soy sauce in which Eisman double-dipped his edamame was shared by a man who had made it possible for tens of thousands of actual human beings to be handed money they could never afford to repay.
That’s from The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. Steve Eisman was a hedge fund manager at FrontPoint Partners who figured out that the subprime mortgage bond market was full of worthless bonds built upon loans bound to go bad and saw that a critical mass of those loans were going to go bad at the same time which would cause a calamity in the bond and real estate markets. A guy with a hyperactive conscience and a passionate belief in fairness and fair play, he was convinced that a great many ordinary Americans were being screwed and that many, many more would get screwed when those bad loans collapsed the bond markets. And he knew who was to blame. Not those ordinary Americans. Greedy and dishonest mortgage brokers and greedy and dishonest and stupid Wall Street bankers and traders. He tried to warn people, alert journalists who covered Wall Street, call in the Feds. No one listened. So he decided he’d meet out his own form of justice by making a killing off those greedy and dishonest and stupid bankers and traders’ banks and investment firms when the collapse came. Michael Lewis’ The Big Short is about how Eisman and a few other smart, savvy, and basically honest traders did that.
Eisman’s going to be played by Steve Carell in the movie adaptation now being filmed. It also stars Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling. But Eisman is the main character and the closest the story has to hero, and I can’t wait to hear Carell deliver what’s got to be one of his lines:
All of them, including Eisman, thought Eisman was temperamentally less than perfectly suited to making short-term trading judgments. He was emotional, and he acted on his emotions. His bets against subprime mortgages were to him more than just bets; he intended them almost as insults. Whenever Wall Street people tried to argue---as they often did---that the subprime lending problem was caused by the mendacity and financial irresponsibility of ordinary Americans, he’d say, “What---the entire American population woke up one morning and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to lie on my loan application’? Yeah, people lied. They lied because they were told to lie.”
I hope the movie makes as clear as Lewis makes it in the book. Never mind CNBC’s Rick Santelli and the Tea Party. The financial crisis wasn’t caused by poor people buying houses they couldn’t afford. No one was forced to lend them the money. The banks and mortgage companies were eager to lend it. If anything, they practically forced the money on their customers without explaining---in fact, lying about---the actual terms of the loans. They treated their lower middle class and poor customers like marks in a giant con game, which it turned out was what the the housing bubble was, a big con. And this enraged Steve Eisman.
I’m also looking forward to seeing how the movie turns this into action:
From the social point of view the slow and possibly fraudulent unraveling of a multi-trillion-dollar U.S. bond market was a catastrophe. From the hedge fund trading point of view it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Steve Eisman had started out running a $60 million equity fund but was now short around 600 million dollars’ worth of various subprime-related securities [Note: “short” is good here. It basically means Eisman was betting the bonds weren’t worth what they were selling for. “Long” means betting they were worth more. Almost all of Wall Street was long on mortgage bonds.] and he wanted to short more. “Sometimes his ideas cannot be manifested in a trade,” said Vinny [one of Eisman’s right-hand men]. “This time they could.” Eisman was enchained, however, by FrontPoint Partners and, by extension, Morgan Stanley. As FrontPoint’s head trader, Danny Moses found himself caught in the middle, between Eisman and FrontPoint’s risk management people, who didn’t seem to completely understand what they were doing. “They’d call me and say, ‘Can you get Steve to take some of this off?’ I’d go to Steve and Steve would say, ‘Just tell them to fuck off.’ And I’d say ‘Fuck off.’” But risk management hounded them, and cramped Eisman’s style. “If risk had said to us, ‘We’re very comfortable with this and you can do ten times this amount,’” said Danny, “Steve would have done ten times the amount. Greg Lippmann [Gosling’s character] was now blasting Vinny and Danny with all sorts of negative information about the housing market, and, for the first time, Vinny and Danny began to hide information from Eisman. “We were worried he’d come out of his office and shout, ‘Do a trillion!’” said Danny.
I’m thinking a montage of Carell bursting out of his office and shouting at the actors playing Vinny and Danny to place higher and higher bets, a comic and more verbal variation on the montage of Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty writing the number of days passing on her boss’ office’s glass partition.
Oh, and as for Santelli and CNBC? Complicit in the con.
Amazingly, the stock market continued to soar, and the television over the FrontPoint trading desks emitted a ceaselessly bullish signal. “We turned of CNBC,” said Danny Moses. “It became very frustrating that they weren’t in touch with reality anymore. If something negative happened, they’d spin it positive. If something positive happened, they’d blow it out of proportion. It alters your mind. You can’t be clouded with shit like that.”
Paul Krugman on Rick Santelli: “He hates the poors.”
The 70s in a nutshell:
The [Young Directors Program] would be responsible for Diary of a Mad Housewife, American Graffiti, and the John Cassevetes film Minnie and Moskowitz. It also, however, funded Dennis Hopper’s ill-fated film The Last Movie, the tale of a stuntman who goes native while shooting a western on location in South America.
While filming The Last Movie in Peru, Hopper and crew landed knee-deep in some of the world’s finest cocaine and wound up going native themselves. The result was a drug-fueled sojourn that produced forty hours of film that took Hopper a year to edit down to an incomprehensible six-hour mess. Finally cut to a reasonable length, The Last Movie was released in 1971 and disappeared, along with the next decade of Hopper’s directorial career.
---from Orson Welles’s Last Movie by Josh Karp.
Updated below. Wednesday morning. May 27, 2015.
Came across this this afternoon while I was reading Mark Harris’ generally excellent chronicle of the adventures of a group famous Hollywood directors who put aside their moviemaking careers to enlist and go film World War II, Five Came Back:
In early 1944, after two years of war, the studios, which had become ever more deeply entangled with Washington, began, first gently and then forcefully, to reclaim their autonomy and to reassert themselves as servants of popular taste rather than of the national interest. In the months after Pearl Harbor, they had been quick to meet the government’s request for pictures about battlefield bravery and home-front sacrifice. But more and more, American moviegoers were turning away from war pictures and toward other genres for entertainment---musicals, comedies, religious epics like The Song of Bernadette, historical biographies like Madame Curie---or to pictures that exploited the war not as their primary subject but as a backdrop, at once topical and exotic, for foreign adventure or intrigue. In March 1944, the Best Picture Oscar went to Casablanca, in which the war was used to provide atmosphere and raise the stakes for romance. Some in the industry expressed surprise that a mere piece of genre entertainment could sweep past films that were thought to be either more hard-hitting or more high-minded, but the win for Casablanca reflected changing tastes both within the movie business and outside it; films that dealt directly with the realities of combat or global politics went home empty-handed, and were increasingly being ignored by audiences as well.
Don’t think I’ve ever thought of Casablanca this way. Using the war as “backdrop…for foreign adventure or intrigue” and to provide “atmosphere and raise the stakes for romance”? I know no one involved in making the movie thought they were making a “high-minded” masterpiece. But Casablanca is about more than whether or not Rick and Ilsa will get back together and I’d have thought that would have been clear to everyone involved and to audiences.
The question is will Rick save his soul by doing what needs to be done to help save the world from the Nazis.
“I’m no good at being noble but it doesn’t take much to see the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Ilsa also has put what’s right ahead of her personal happiness, although for her it’s not clear those two things are actually separate.
“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
Aw, you don’t want to sit here while I type quotes at you. Click on the photo to watch the scene.
The other movies Casablanca beat out for Best Picture that year included The Song of Bernadette and Madame Curie, but also The More the Merrier, which did use the war as a backdrop for romance and comedy, and The Human Comedy, a high-minded story about home-front sacrifice with a screenplay by William Saroyan. At the time of the Oscar ceremony Saroyan was overseas working with George Stevens, the Oscar-nominated director of The More the Merrier, filming the war in Europe as members of the Army Signal Corps, the both of them preparing to take cameras ashore at Normandy in June.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
Of all the news feeds in all the Facebook pages in all the world, he has to comment on mine: Posted the link to this post on Facebook where an SU colleague, Andrew W. Cohen, left this comment:
As screenwriter Julius Epstein observed, "Casablanca," featured "more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined. But when corn works, there's nothing better." Which is another way of saying that Nazism made all the tired genre conventions of melodrama entirely fitting and powerful. Strasser really is evil. Laszlo really is good. And Rick and Elsa have truly difficult choices.
I’m shocked, shocked, that I forgot to include this first go-round: In case you missed it, here’s the link to my post from a little while back on how I showed Casablanca to my students, none of whom had seen it before: “You must remember this…”
Last class meeting of the semester this afternoon and I did something that added to whatever little bit of good I've done in my time in front of a classroom beyond saving that marriage back in Indiana all those years ago.
I showed a movie.
"Of course you did, professor," I hear those of you who've been paying attention and taking notes chiming in. "Wasn't the course built around watching and writing about movies?"
Very good, class. Give yourself an A for the day. But the good was in the particular movie I showed.
Plan for today was pizza and Bringing Up Baby. That's what it says on the syllabus. Well, the pizza's not on the syllabus. But it's become a Professor Mannion tradition. Bringing Up Baby is on the syllabus and they'd been somewhat prepared for it by things Matt Zoller Seitz talked about during his visit to the class two weeks ago and other discussions we've had over the course of the semester. But, as I warned them, syllabi are subject to change, and about midway through the term I learned something that caused me to plan this change.
There was a movie none of them had seen.
There are a lot of movies none of them have seen. None of them had seen The Searchers. None of them have seen Bringing Up Baby. This is a matter of experience and opportunity, not another kids today harumph. That's a millennia old calumny anyway. Geezers going back to the Pharaohs forgetting what they were like when they were young themselves. The kids in my class are kids. They've been busy exploring what matters to their generation and have had little time to explore what mattered to their parents' and grandparents' generations, never mind what has mattered and what's likely to continue to matter to all generations. They're just beginning to get around to it. That's what college is for. These kids are a curious bunch. They want to know. That's how I found out that they hadn't seen today's feature presentation. One of them came across Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay online and wrote about it on our class' Facebook page, saying that it was a movie she'd always wanted to see and Ebert's essay made her want to see it even more. A few of her classmates chimed in expressing the same sentiments, which made me wonder about the rest. So I asked them at the start of the next class meeting.
Not a one had seen it.
I made up my mind on the spot.
All movies are meant to be seen on a big screen in a dark theater in the company of friends and many cheerful strangers. Trouble is that's not how these kids see most movies. They watch them on TV or on their computers, usually alone. They have subscriptions to Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime. This limits their viewing of classics. There's apparently no film society on campus that screens older or non-mainstream or foreign movies. There's not a good art house close to campus. This means there are a lot of great films they will never see. But it also means there are great movies they will see by accident while channel surfing or browsing the web. This can be a fun way to discover a movie or an actor or a director you'd never heard of or knew little about. It wouldn't be a bad way for them to see Bringing Up Baby for the first time. But this movie? Uh unh.
This one they had to see if not on a large screen than at least on one bigger than their laptop's. And they had to see it in the company of other movie lovers so they could walk out of the dark quoting lines back and forth, discussing favorite scenes and characters, and making plans to see it again soon this time with friends who had never seen it.
You're way ahead of me here, aren't you? You know what movie I showed them.
Some people who think they know how my devious mind works might tell you that the real reason I showed Casablanca, or, at any rate, a main reason was so I could do my Peter Lorre impression. I happen to do a pretty good Peter Lorre, as a matter of fact. To do it I have to do my Bogie impression and that's pretty bad, but it's only a couple of lines so it doesn't ruin it.
"You despise me, don't you?"
"If I gave you any thought I probably would."
"I have many friends in Casablanca, but somehow, because you despise me, you're the only one I trust."
How was that? Pretty good, right?
And I did do it for the class. After the movie was over and I'd let them sit there in the dark for a bit, reveling it what they'd just seen.
I think they were impressed.
But there were a couple of things more important I also wanted to say to them.
One was that now they needed to see The Maltese Falcon.
The other was this.
They have a personal connection to Casablanca.
Six degrees of separation.
Casablanca was written by the twin brother screenwriting team of Philip and Julius Epstein. Philip's son Leslie became a novelist and a professor at Boston University. He's still there, directing the creative writing program. He's been there a long time. Long enough that I was one of his students. I took two writing classes with him. Got an A in both. Leslie's recommendation got me into the Iowa Writers Workshop.
"What this means for you," I told my students, "Is that because of the way knowledge gets handed down, you've been getting writing tips from the writers of Casablanca."
After letting that sink in for a minute, I finally got to my real point. I told them this story that Leslie had told our class. You might have heard it before. It's part of Casablanca lore but I first heard it from Leslie.
Casablanca started shooting without a finished script. The Epstein brothers were writing at a furious pace trying to keep ahead of the filming. Sometimes they were turning in pages the night before the scenes were to be shot. Eventually things caught up to them. Because it was all shot on the lot the director Michael Curtiz was shooting in sequence and he reached the point when he was ready to shoot the final scene before the Epsteins had written it.
They didn't even know what would be in it.
They hadn't decided on the ending.
They didn't know how to write Rick out of the fix they'd written him into. They were even considering not writing him out of it. They thought thety were going to have to let Strasser shoot Rick at the same time Rick shot him.
Not something they wanted to do.
They wanted to write a happy ending but they were stuck.
After batting around a lot of what they decided were bad ideas, they decided to take a break. They went out to dinner, promising each other they weren't going to talk about the script. They were going to put it out of their minds at least for a couple of hours. And that's what they did.
But then, after dinner, as they slid into the back seat of the cab taking them back to their office at Warner Brothers, they suddenly turned to each other and said at the same instant, "Round up the usual suspects.
There it is, the good I did as a teacher today. Twenty-five to thirty years from now there are going to be thirteen middle-aged adults who from time to time will crack themselves up to the bafflement and chagrin of their college age children blurting for no apparent reason "Round up the usual suspects" and "We'll always have Paris" and "I am shocked! Shocked to find there's gambling going on in here!" and "Here's looking at you, kid"
So, we're done. They have a final paper to write and I'm holding individual editorial conferences with each of them next week. But the conferences will be virtual. By phone or via Skype. I'm on the road home and won't be going back to Syracuse until the fall. I'm feeling wistful about that. I'll miss teaching. I'll miss these kids. They were a good group. I had a lot of fun. I told them that. Without going into detail, I told them how I’d been having a rough time of things physically and it was wearing me down. Some weeks I was ready to throw in the towel but then this class kept me going. I thanked them for that. I didn't say what I should have said, though, by way of a goodbye, so I'll say it here in hopes they'll stumble across it sometime.
Here's looking at you, kids.
Leslie Epstein does a pretty good Peter Lorre impression too. But he does it on paper and over the course of 384 pages in his novel Pandaemonium.
April 9, 2015. Eleven p.m. On the road home from Syracuse.
Matt Zoller Seitz visited our Wired Critics class this afternoon and as you can guess he had a lot to say. But before I let him say anything I had something I wanted to say to the class, along with something to show them: a scene from the original Star Wars.
It was the scene of Luke rushing home to the moisture farm to find that stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle and left their burned bodies on the doorstep. The scene's modeled on a scene from The Searchers, John Ford's great Western starring John Wayne as the vengeance obsessed Confederate Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards: Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin return to the family's burning ranch and find that a Comanche raiding party has slaughtered Ethan's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, and carried off his nieces.
Here are the clips.
From The Searchers:
And Star Wars:
Reason I showed it was that last week we watched The Searchers. My students knew from their reading of Glenn Frankel's book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend that the movie has had a considerable influence on succeeding generations of filmmakers and I wanted them to see that influence at work in a movie they all knew well.
The students were all revved up to hear Matt talk about Wes Anderson. For the course, they've read his book The Wes Anderson Collection and watched---re-watched most of them, some for the third and fourth time---The Grand Budapest Hotel. But of course Matt had some things to say himself about The Searchers and its influence and he rattled off a long list of films that referenced, quoted, paid homage to, and out stole from The Searchers, including one I hadn't thought of in that light before, Taxi Driver.
Matt pointed out that Travis Bickle's self-appointed mission to rescue the twelve year old prostitute Iris from a life of sexual degradation mirrors Ethan Edwards' quest to rescue his niece Debbie from what he sees as her defilement by the Comanches, the difference being that Travis believes Iris can be restored to a life of purity and Ethan believes Debbie is ruined forever and better off dead.
You want to get picky about it, that scene is not from the original Star Wars. It's from the DVD version of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the one put out in 2007 that George Lucas monkeyed around with and had Han shooting first. One of the scenes beside the shootout with Greedo he monkeyed around with was this one. He made the skeletons more vivid and gruesome.
I pointed out that in The Searchers we're not shown the bodies. Ford leaves the horror for our imaginations to conjure up. The look on John Wayne's face when he approaches the shed is enough to tell us we don't want to see what he knows he's going to find in there. Now, there are two things to consider when thinking about how much better and affecting the scene in The Searchers is.
One is that Lucas probably didn't feel he had the time to devote to his scene. He had to get across what happened and Luke's grief and horror in a hurry in order to get on with telling his action-adventure story, while Ford's story is about Ethan's grief and horror and the hate and desire for revenge that follow.
The other is that Ford couldn't show the bodies. Not in a realistic way. The times wouldn’t allow it. But the point is that there's a lesson for aspiring filmmakers and student critics in that. It's wonderful how much Ford and other directors of his era managed to do because of what they couldn't do. Reticence and restraint are artistic virtues. Indirection and suggestion can often accomplish more than the most detailed and lifelike cgi.
I quoted W.C. Fields on a key to comedy that can be applied to most any art: Whenever you feel the need to do more, do less.
Matt had something to say about that too.
The reason filmmakers of Lucas' generation, particularly in their early movies, did more was that they could do it. The times didn’t just allow it. They reveled in it. More and more graphic violence, more swearing, nudity, explicit sex. The filmmakers were testing limits and finding that there weren't many. In the process, though, they overdid. That's why there's a messiness, sense of self-indulgence, superfluity, and an apparent lack of discipline in their movies that I said I think dates their movies.
I don't mean dates as in marks them as having been made at a certain time. I mean makes them look dated.
Matt is more forgiving and tolerant of that aspect of 1970s filmmaking than I am, but he did bring up a movie that exemplifies the giving in to the temptation to excess---just for starters, the bad guys shove the hero's hand down a garbage disposal--- Rolling Thunder, which had a screenplay by Paul Schrader who also wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver. Rolling Thunder features more obvious and extended borrowings from The Searchers. That doesn't help make it a great movie. In fact, I was surprised Matt remembered it or had even seen it. I only remember it because it played at the movie theater where I was working.
But Matt sees everything and remembers everything and he can talk about it all in depth, with wit, with energy and enthusiasm in a way that can carry away a seminar room full of curious honors students with great, gaping holes in their knowledge of movies and cinematic and cultural history. Which is what happened in class today. It was Matt's show and I turned things over to him and right away he and the students moved on to talking about all sorts of things and not only or even mainly things concerning Wes Anderson.
I knew that would be how it would go. It's why I invited Matt in. So I was pleased. A good time was had by all. But a part of me kept hoping the discussion would circle back to The Searchers and was hard at work concocting ways that would do that. There were some questions I wanted to ask my students, questions I didn't have a chance to ask them last week because the movie took up most of our class time and won't get to ask them next week because we're not meeting as a class. They've got individual appointments with me to discuss their upcoming final essays. Week after that is our last class meeting and the whole time will be devoted to their filling out course evaluations and our watching Bringing Up Baby and having pizza.
What I'd like to ask them is: What did they make of John Wayne? Not just in the role of Ethan Edwards but as an actor? And what did they make of The Searchers? Did they see it as a movie or did they see it as a Western?
Did they know what a Western looked like?
I know from the discussions we have had that they know who John Wayne was and are at least conversant with what's behind his status as a movie and cultural icon. But none of them could remember ever having seen even one of his films. And while all of them were pretty sure they'd seen some classic Westerns on TV when they were kids, the only Westerns any of them were sure they'd seen and could not just name but discuss in any detail were True Grit---the Coen Brothers' version---Django Unchained---I didn't dare get into it---The Lone Ranger, and Rango.
Rango is a good Western, in case you haven't seen it, in the way Galaxy Quest is a good Star Trek movie and Young Frankenstein's a great Frankenstein movie.
And of course you have to wonder how they would have seen any other Westerns. Most of their "old" movie watching is what streams on Netflix and Netflix is woefully lacking in pre-1980s classics of any kind. And the only good Westerns I can think of from the last 30 years are Silverado, Tombstone, Unforgiven, Wild Bill, 3:10 to Yuma, the Coens' True Grit, and a little-known, little-seen unpolished gem starring Pierce Bronson and Liam Neeson called Seraphim Falls.
What can I tell you. I really like that one.
I also liked The Lone Ranger, so you can't always go by me.
The best Westerns of the last thirty-odd years were all on television: Lonesome Dove, The Streets of Laredo, Deadwood, and Justified, which doesn't bother to hide the fact it's a Western with cars and cell phones. My students haven't seen any of them.
They're familiar with the tropes and clichés and recognize them when they see them in non-Western movies and TV shows, but I wonder if they truly know what they're seeing.
What imagery and memories are conjured up?
What would that be like?
Seeing The Searchers for the first time without that stuff cluttering up your imagination?
Did they even see it as a Western? Did it strike them as a any period piece might? And how about John Wayne? What was it like to see him for the first time as the great movie actor and star he was without having to look past all the prejudice, biases, politics, gossip, and jokes that got in the way when I was their age?
Is it even possible to see The Searchers and Wayne as Ethan Edwards this way?
Ford knew exactly what he was doing. He wasn't making an anti-Western or a revisionist one. He was making what he considered an essential one. The Searchers is a crash course in the Western both as a genre and as the story of the America's idea of itself at the middle of the 20th Century. He had to do that in order to question both the genre and the idea. And he knew what he was doing casting Wayne as Ethan instead of his other favorite leading man, Henry Fonda.
Fonda might have been too good in the part. He might have made Ethan too much himself---that is Ethan's self---and given us too few traces of Fonda the good guy's good guy. In short, Fonda's Ethan might have been too straight-forwardly and obviously an anti-hero, like his Colonel Owen Thursday in Ford's Fort Apache.
But with Wayne Ford could do something more daring and subversive. He could use Wayne himself to suggest that there was always something dark at the heart of Wayne's type of Western hero, which is to say at the heart of all Western heroes and so at the heart of America's sense of itself as a heroic nation. With Wayne in the part, Ford could make Ethan a hero while suggesting that a hero could also be a villain at the same time.
Anyway, the only way I can get my students' to answer my questions is to make them write about it, and they've already got enough to write about over the three and a half weeks that remain in the semester, starting with what single, specific thing Matt's visit got them really thinking. I'm looking forward to reading their answers to that. Be interesting to see what they each focused on. Lots to chose from. I filled up a dozen pages of my own notebook.
But I guess I just gave you my answer if I was a student in my own class.
Lots of assigned reading to go with this post. You have to work hard to get an A in this blog.
My reviews of the Coens’ True Grit, which is called True Grit and True Grit and…True Grit; The Lone Ranger, “There’s Something Very Right With That Horse”; and Seraphim Falls, Seraphim Falls and the better, and baser, angels of our nature.
Matt Zoller Seitz’s books The Wes Anderson Collection and The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel along with Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend are available from Amazon.
Early in Kingsman: The Secret Service, when Colin Firth as the movie’s super-secret agent hero, strolls into a pub where danger awaits, dapper, well-tailored, obviously possessed of impeccable manners and taste, his grip light but ready on his furled umbrella, I applauded inwardly. Firth plays Harry Hart, known by his aptly bestowed code name Galahad, the top agent of Kingsman, an elite and private organization of modern self-styled knights devoted to counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, and excellence in haberdashery. Firth doesn’t lean on the umbrella with one leg crossed in front at the ankle but the nod to Patrick Macnee as John Steed and the 1960s British TV spy series The Avengers was unmissable.
A little further on, I thought, “You know, someone really should cast Firth as Steed in a remake of The Avengers. Maybe with Emily Blunt as Mrs Peel.”
A little further on from that I thought, “Damn. Now they don’t need to do the remake. They’re doing it here.”
A little further on from that I began to wonder why it was taking so long for director Matthew Vaughn to introduce his nod to Diana Rigg and Mrs Peel.
And then, a little further on from that, about a third of the way through the movie when I realized there wasn’t going to be a Mrs Peel and that Firth’s nod to John Steed was amounting to that, no more than a nod, I thought, Ok, so we can still have an Avengers movie. Emily Blunt will look terrific in the cat suit she didn’t get to wear in the other Avengers franchise because she turned down the role of Black Widow and Firth can probably pull off wearing the bowler.
And about five minutes after that, I gave up imagining that Avengers movie and started thinking I couldn’t wait to get home to binge-watch a full season of the TV show just to wash this vulgar, witless, pointless mess of a movie out of my memory.
Kingsman sells itself as a homage to those spy caper movies and TV shows of the 1960s and early 70s and their heroes, Bond and his big and small screen imitators, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Napoleon Solo of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, John Drake of Secret Agent and, some would argue, its weird we’re-not-quite-sure-it’s-a-sequel sequel The Prisoner, and John Steed. But mainly Bond. I’m not sure who it’s selling itself to since the Bond movies Kingsman seems to be riffing on are Roger Moore’s and the movie’s target audience appears to be fifteen to thirty year old readers of comic books and players of video games who, if they know Bond, know him in a very different way than Galahad and Valentine, either as Daniel Craig or, either through Craig, their parents, or serendipity, as Sean Connery, the definer of the role whose Bond contained all the various aspects of the character emphasized by his successors, including the deadly earnestness of Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig.
In case we’ve been missing the obvious, about midway through Kingsman, long after I stopped caring, there’s a scene between Galahad and the villain, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson having a high old time not being Nick Fury of that other Avengers franchise), in which the two push hard against the fourth wall discussing the spy movies they both loved as kids and in the process tell us what kind of spy movie we’re meant to be watching.
Valentine and Galahad agree that what made those movie enjoyable was their light-heartedness. Their heroes always seemed to be in on the joke and didn’t take themselves or their movies’ outrageous plots and stunts too seriously, unlike the more earnest and, to them, boring heroes that came along later---presumably Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, and Daniel Craig’s Bond.
But that’s where director Galahad and Valentine and Matthew Vaughn make their bloomer.
The light-heartedness of even Roger Moore’s Bond movies (At least, the best of Moore’s Bonds) covered Bond’s essential seriousness, his coldhearted commitment to doing his job as a spy with a license to kill. To parody Bond---as opposed to lampooning him---you have to understand what made him serious and take him and his movies seriously.
The weakest of the Bond movies, which happen to be ones starring Roger Moore---Moonraker, Octopussy, and A View to a Kill---are the ones that are most mechanically imitative of previous Bond movies and least interested in Bond as a character. They reduce Moore to self-parody and treat his current adventure as merely providing bridges from one overly-elaborate stunt to the next.
There are high-concept movies. Then there are all-concept movies. Those bad Bond movies are all concept. And those are the Bond movies Kingsman is most like, except in not being as good or as fun.
In fact, next to Kingsman, Moonraker, which is basically Thunderball in space, is Thunderball.
Kingsman isn’t either lighthearted or coldhearted. It’s heartless. It doesn’t take itself too seriously because it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. If Vaughn had any fun making the movie or cared about the story or his characters it you can’t tell it from what’s up on the screen. The only aspect of making the movie that seems to have focused his attention and energies is the staging and editing of the very long and very brutal fight sequences. And the staging and editing are brilliant. It’s just that they owe more to Vaughn’s own Kick-Ass than to any Bond movie. As for that, you’d never know from Kingsman that Vaughn has directed any other movies besides Kick-Ass. Whatever heart and humor he was able to put in the making of X-Men: First Class appear to have been lost to him on the set of Kingsman.
That should be all I need to say about Kingsman---No heart. Some good jokes but no real wit or humor. Lots of concept. Not much suspense. Fairly routine adventure movie stunt work, except for the fight scenes which are mainly not routine in their appalling brutality. And barely enough plot to provide bridges between the stunts and the fights---but as regular readers know, it’s not like me to be content with saying all I need to say. I always need to say more than I need to say. This is why I warn my students not to use my reviews as models for their writing.
The minimal plot of Kingsman: The Secret Service, such as it is has the typically megalomaniacal billionaire villain Valentine atypically not trying to take over the world but actually save it. Unfortunately, it is the world he wants to save, the planetary entity, not the human beings who live on it, and the plan requires the deaths of a few billion or so people. Galahad’s mission is to expose and thwart this evil scheme, but first…
Kingsman is short-handed these days, due to the villain’s evil scheme requiring the kidnapping of scientist who fails to get rescued the way he should, and Galahad has to recruit a new knight.
Kingsman knights are more suave and sophisticated than James Bond at his most debonair and more efficiently and ruthlessly and over-the-top violent than Bond at his most deadly, and the aptly code-named Galahad is the best dressed, most well-mannered, and deadliest of the knights. Galahad is the ultimate gentleman and a gentleman is always in control of himself and a situation. He never loses his cool or his head or his temper or lets his manners slip. When it comes to matters of manners and taste, next to Galahad Bond is a vulgar slob and, when it comes to killing, next to Galahad Bond’s a pacifist.
Galahad’s choice for a new Kingsman comes as an unpleasant surprise to Kingsman’s snobbish director (played by an ironically cast Michael Caine) who is committed to the principle that the best gentlemen make the best spies and believes gentleman are born not made. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a working class twenty-something and an apparent ne-er-do-well with lots of potential but no direction, no ambition, and no purpose but to be on hand to get in the way when his abusive father-in-law gets in the mood to beat his mother. This last item on Eggsy’s short resume shows an inherent chivalrousness that Galahad recognizes and sets out to reward.
Told that his training as a secret agent will involve not just a change in direction but a character make-over, Eggsy professes bafflement. What does a spy need to know besides how to sneak in and out of places and occasionally kill people who try to stop him on his way in or out? How to walk, talk, and think like gentleman, Galahad informs him. How to double-knot a tie, not to drop his aitches, and what color and vintage of wine to order with what dish. Eggsy is still confused. Galahad tries to explain with references to movies. Has Eggsy seen Trading Places? Pretty Woman? No. But then a light dawns.
“Like My Fair Lady!”
And that’s it: Our first and last hope that Eggsy will turn out to be an interesting character and not just a trope---the sorcerer’s apprentice---and a part of the concept.
From there, the story continues along two threads, Galahad’s chasing after the villain and Eggsy’s training, which, disappointingly involves some perfunctory stuntwork, very little of Colin Firth acting as Henry Higgins to Egerton’s Eliza Dolittle, and an adorable little dog. Don’t ask.
The thing is, that side of Bond’s character, suave and sophisticated jetsetter and playboy, which gives him the ability to pass as a gentleman, is not just part of the concept or a conceit. And it isn’t simply his cover or a disguise. It’s intrinsic to his character because it’s the basis for his success as a spy. His epicureanism, his love for fast and expensive cars, his talent for picking up and speaking languages fluently, his instinctive grasp of local manners and customs, his appreciation for and ability to charm a certain type of aristocratic woman are all part of the same general and essential skill---infiltration.
Of course his job is to infiltrate bad guys’ hangouts and the evil mastermind’s lair and other places he needs to sneak into to look for clues. But he’s also an infiltrator of the exotic locales his adventures take him to. Bond’s not only an action hero on our behalf, he’s our surrogate traveler and explorer, at home and at ease the way we’d like to be in a Paris cafe, a Tokyo bathhouse, the bazaar in Istanbul, at a beach resort in the Caribbean, on a ski slope in Austria, at the baccarat table in a casino in Monte Carlo---whatever picture post card we might dream of entering Bond gets into and survives there in style.Eggsy’s newly-acquired sophistication doesn’t get him into or out of anything except out from under the ridiculous baseball cap he wears at a stupid angle in imitation of British white kids imitating other British white kids imitating American white kids imitating black kids imitating rap artists.
The conceit that a Kingsman knows his wines the way he knows his weapons is there because it’s a convention of the spy movies and shows being parodied. It’s homage that misses the point.
Eggsy’s newly-acquired sophistication doesn’t get him into or out of anything except out from under the ridiculous baseball cap he wears at a stupid angle in imitation of British white kids imitating other British white kids imitating American white kids imitating black kids imitating rap artists.
There’s another aspect of the Bond movies and their imitations and knock-offs that Kingsman doesn’t just get wrong but, weirdly, when you consider how important it is to those movies’ appeal, leaves out.
Actually, for all they matter to the plot or to the heroes, women.
It’s not simply that Kingsman, the organization, despite having two female recruits, appears to be even more of a boys club than MI-6 was before Judi Dench took over as M. It’s that Kingsman, the movie, and its heroes along with it are as oblivious to women, either as persons in their own right or as objects of desire, as an old-fashioned boys’ own adventure story like Treasure Island, in which the only female character is Jim Hawkins’ mother. In fact, the only girl in Eggsy’s life is his mother.
And Galahad appears to be celibate.
Like I said, this is weird considering how important his effect on women is to Bond’s mystique. But it’s also weird to be paying tribute to John Steed without even a glancing reference to Emma Peel.
Part of the joke behind The Avengers is the same one Kingsman draws on with Galahad, that Steed’s elegance, polish, and charm served him as well or better than Bond’s PPK served him, and in fact Steed was often at his most dangerous when he was at his most gentlemanly. But the other part of the joke was that the reason Steed could keep his head while all around were losing theirs and remain dispassionate, level-headed, detached, unperturbed and unruffled---and his suits unwrinkled---was that he had Mrs Peel by his side to handle the dirty work.
Steed couldn’t do his job without Mrs Peel which is a way of saying Steed couldn’t be Steed without Mrs Peel. It worked the other way round too. They were true partners. Equal partners. Complements. The perfect couple. The show regularly teased viewers with the possibility that the couple would couple. What kept them apart, ostensibly, was Mrs Peel’s missing husband. What really kept them apart was that they enjoyed working together more than they would have enjoyed sleeping together. This meant there was an essential seriousness to them and the show.
There’s no Mrs Peel in Kingsman.
There’s no female lead in any form at all, not even in the sexist form of one of the types of Bond Girls.
There are three popular types of Bond Girl. The damsel in distress, the evil temptress and assassin, and the cool but seducible aristocrat I mentioned above.
There’s a fourth. The independent and active heroine in her own right who’s able to fight alongside Bond, like Honey Ryder, Kissy Suzuki, and now, if Spectre continues what Skyfall started, Moneypenny. Her most fully-fledged incarnation, however, is Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, who, by the way, was played by Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg’s predecessor on The Avengers and first-wearer of the catsuit. But it’s mainly the first three types who dominate our imaginations when we think of Bond and his women.
And while the aristocrat is usually the dullest of the Bond Girls, she is equally important to the concept of Bond as the other three because what she is, basically, is a princess and Bond---the movie Bond, not Ian Fleming’s original---is the commoner of myth and fairy tale, like Aladdin, Simple, Jack, or the third brother, who by guile and pluck sneaks into the castle and finds himself at home. Winning the heart of the princess or at least her temporary sexual favors proves he belongs there. That the princess often ends up dead or, if she’s lucky, loved and left, is necessary to there being another movie. She doesn’t matter, anyway. Her role is symbolic. She’s there to to establish Bond as a born prince among men. He is natural royalty lifted above his station by talent, skill, grace, and virtue (not to be confused in Bond’s case with goodness and niceness).
There’s an actual princess in Kingsman but she’s quickly locked away in an actual dudgeon guarded by expendable henchmen who might as well be trolls or stormtroopers before she and Eggsy catch even a glimpse of each other. When they’re finally brought together it’s for an anal sex joke that isn’t funnier or less vulgar and debasing for its being delivered in a cute Swedish accent and Hanna Alström who plays the princess presenting the camera with one of the prettiest naked behinds in movie history.
Like I said, there’s no Mrs Peel in Kingsman, no female lead in any form at all, no truly significant female characters at all in that removing her from the story would leave a hole in the plot. Valentine’s chief assistant and bodyguard Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is a henchperson, pure and simple, a female Odd Job or Jaws except articulate and obviously smarter than her boss and allowed to demonstrate it. There’s Roxy (Sophie Cookson) a female Kingsman---not called a Kingswoman, for what that’s worth---but although she’s shown to be if not as good an agent as Eggsy then at least able to keep up, she’s basically a sidekick and not a particularly useful one. She’s barely on the scene for the final battle, relegated to a job that could have been done by a low-level technician back at headquarters pushing a button at Eggsy’s command. To the movie’s credit, I suppose, she and Eggsy aren’t made lovers or friends with benefits. They’re pals. But that serves to emphasize the fact that Eggsy’s only serious romantic attachments are to Galahad and his mother.
Vaughn, who wrote the screenplay with Jane Goldman, adapted Kingsman: The Secret Service from an ugly and disturbing mess of a comic book originally titled just The Secret Service by writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Gibbons. I read it. Don’t bother. Gazelle, Roxy, and the Princess are additions to the source material and represent a net gain of two female characters with something to do. The Princess is original. Gazelle and Roxy replace male characters with similar roles---in Gazelle’s case with the same name. Vaughn and Goldman have eliminated the villain’s girlfriend and replaced her with no one. They pretty much eliminated the villain too, but I’ll get to him in a minute. The point here is that the comic book, which is even more of an homage to Bond---although it’s hard to say which Bond. The grittier, bloodthirstier, more psychopathic aspects of all of them, maybe.---is weirdly even more male-centric. Slight and as nearly irrelevant as they are, the additions of Roxy, a female Gazelle, and the Princess are an improvement over the book by the movie.
Vaughn and Goldman have made many other significant changes, almost all of which are also improvements---although that’s not saying much. One of my favorites is the difference in cameos by Mark Hamill. Yes, he appears in the comic book too. And replacing the comic book’s bland villain with a character Samuel L. Jackson could have fun with was a smart decision. Jackson plays Valentine as an overgrown little boy with a childish lisp and an almost innocent certainty that his plan to save the world by arranging the deaths of billions of people is something all the grownups will approve of, as if he’s come up with a first prize winning project for the science fair. In some of his scenes he seems to have slipped into Kingsman through Dexter’s Laboratory rather than by way of Dr. No’s island, if you ignore the depraved indifference to pain and death shown both by Valentine and in Vaughn’s staging of the violent outcomes of Valentine’s scheming. But the most improving change, the one that could have made Kingsman a good movie if Vaughn had made more of it and that does give it something worth watching is the transformation of the hero from a stand-in for James Bond into a tribute to John Steed, allowing him to be played by Colin Firth, who is absolutely smashing in the part.
Too bad “smashing” doesn’t describe just his performance but also what he’s required to do too much of in his fight scenes.
Taron Egerton is likeable enough as Eggsy and when the time comes he wears his tailored suit well. Mark Strong as Merlin, who is sort of the Q of Kingsman and also its chief drill instructor, delivers another variation of what is becoming his expectation-subverting trademark shtick of playing good guys as if they’re bad guys and bad guys as if they’re good guys. I was thinking of saying Micheal Caine is wasted in the role of Kingman’s stodgy and snobbish spymaster but Michael Caine is never wasted in any movie because he won’t allow it. I read there were plans to do more with his character possibly based on his having starred in his own series of spy movies back in the day. The black plastic frame glasses Firth wears as Galahad instead of a Steed-esque bowler might be a tribute to Caine’s character in The Ipcress File and its sequels, the thinking-man and woman’s secret agent and anti-Bond Harry Palmer. That subplot was dropped. Probably for the best, considering how Kingsman misses the point of every other spy hero it pays tribute to.
And even though she has almost no character to play, Sofia Boutella has a ferociously compelling screen presence that has me convinced she can really act and wishing to see her in a movie that lets her prove it.
I wonder if, were he alive and reviewing, Roger Ebert would have been as hard on Kingsman as he was on Vaughn’s Kick-Ass:
Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.
I haven’t seen Kick-Ass and don’t ever plan to. I did like Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, which is why I was looking forward to Kingsman and was shocked by its heartlessness. Here’s my review from 2011: The superhero as the only adult in the room.
Kingsman: The Secret Service, directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, and Mark Hamill. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Chris Kyle’s first kill in American Sniper isn’t presented as a moment of heroism or of battlefield courage or even as a demonstration of superior skill. He and the Marines under his watchful protection aren’t under fire. He’s in no immediate personal danger. The target isn’t an enemy soldier and isn’t aware he’s a target. He’s walking down the middle of an open street, offering Kyle a clearer and easier shot than the deer we saw him kill early in the movie when he was around this target’s age, ten or twelve.
The target is a young boy.
He’s a dangerous boy. He’s carrying a grenade he intends to throw at the Marines.
He can’t see well enough to be sure that what the boy’s carrying is a grenade. He isn’t sure that even if it is the boy intends to throw it at the Marines. Kyle has to make a decision. One of those horrific damned if you do, dead if you don’t decisions war forces on the soldiers who fight it.
Kyle decides to take the shot.
It’s the “right” decision.
To his psyche.
It’s the first of the psychological wounds he’s going to suffer in the course of the movie.
He suffers the next one with his very next shot.
Also the “right” decision.
Kyle feels justified but he’s shaken. He doesn’t get his wounds treated, however. He denies they’re there. When he sets up to take his next shot he’s all business. Same with the next one. And the next one. And the next. In a quick montage we see Kyle make kill after kill. One right after another. We don’t see the circumstances of each shot. We only get glimpses of what he’s shooting at. None of these killings is presented as heroic. None of them appears to come in the nick of time. None of them appears to give him any satisfaction either as a soldier doing the job that needs to be done to defeat the enemy or as a skilled marksmen taking pride in a job well done. They’re just the job. Don’t hear that---“the job”---the way it sounds when it’s said by self-righteous characters on TV shows or even by real soldiers and marines forced into saying it by dumb questions from fatuous journalists. Hear it as simply the routine task at hand.
And with each kill we see Kyle become more and more used to the routine. He even begins to seem bored the way even people doing jobs they love and enjoy and take pride in can get bored with the routine. He becomes more detached, more unfeeling, to the point that he’s finally feeling nothing except physical relief when a shot’s taken. He has to hold a position for so long waiting for a clear shot that his muscles cramp up. After the final shot in the sequence, Bradley Cooper as Kyle simply relaxes his shoulders and rolls his neck to unkink it. It’s one of those small, perfect gestures that tell us everything all at once about a character and alert us to the actor’s brilliance, like the way Tommy Lee Jones sets his feet flat together on the floor as his character sits ramrod straight on a bench in the hall of the coroner’s office waiting to go in to identify his murdered son’s body in In the Valley of Elah or the way Sandra Bullock’s eyes widen just a fraction of a fraction of an inch when her character hears that the homeless young man her family’s taken in has never had a bed of his own to sleep in before in The Blind Side.
The roll of the neck is Cooper’s moment of brilliance. It tells us this is Chris Kyle’s moment of crisis.
Or rather it’s the moment when we should realize that Kyle is in crisis and American Sniper is going to be a movie about that crisis.
This isn’t the story of a war hero. It’s the story of a casualty of war.
From the discussions online, I take it that a lot of people who’ve seen the movie didn’t catch that moment or didn’t grasp its significance.
Let’s get this out of the way.
Clint Eastwood has directed a good war movie, taut, gripping, suspenseful, harrowing at times. But good war movies aren’t about battles and firefights and blood, guts, guts, and glory. They’re about men and women at war. They’re about people trying to remain human in the most inhuman conditions human beings devise. American Sniper focuses on one man and one woman at war: legendary Navy SEAL Chris Kyle---legendary for being the most lethal marksman in American military history---and his wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller) who, even though she never sets foot in Iraq, is forced to go to war along with him because combat zones are infinitely expandable and extend to include the families of the troops on the line no matter how far away from the fighting they are physically. Whatever wounds Kyle suffers, she and their children suffer. Taya and the kids are casualties of the war in Iraq too.
So American Sniper a war movie.
It is not a pro-war movie.
It’s not a particularly political movie.
The little politics Eastwood lets slip in are isolationist.
The only connection made between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq is chronological. The attacks happen and nineteen months later the war happens and Chris Kyle finds himself in Iraq. In between, he gets married. Eastwood makes no use of it for emotional effect, never mind using it to make a political point. It’s exposition. We don’t even see it happen. We see Kyle see it happen on TV.
Right Wingers who love American Sniper seem to think the movie vindicates and retroactively wins George W. Bush’s War in Iraq. Liberals who hate it seem to think Clint Eastwood remade The Green Berets.
Neither group seems to have seen the movie.
I’m sure they watched it. The Right Wingers, at any rate. Five or six times, many of them. The liberals talk more about what they’ve read about the movie than about the movie itself, so I don’t know their story. But I’m convinced that those people who did watch it didn’t see it. They sat in the theater, pointed their eyes at the screen, and then didn’t really take in what happens up there.
The war is never shown to be going well. It’s never shown to be doing any good. It’s not presented as serving any strategic purpose, never mind winning the war on terror. No Iraqis greet the troops as liberators. No schools get painted. No electricity is restored. No independent government is formed. No free elections are held. No one shows a purple finger. Nothing Kyle and the other Americans do is seen to advance the causes of justice, freedom for the Iraqis, or democracy in the Middle East. Nothing they do brings the defeat of Al Qaida closer or achieves even a modicum of revenge for 9/11. The Surge apparently happens but the result appears to be fewer Americans and more angry Iraqis with guns.
Kyle sees it as his responsibility to protect Iraqi civilians from “the savages.” But the Iraqi civilians he meets aren’t grateful for his protection. They don’t see him as protecting them at all. Just the opposite. They blame him and all the other Americans for making them targets for the savages. As far as they’re concerned, all the Americans are doing is getting them killed.
When we first see him in Iraq the country is clearly broken and nothing changes after that except that each time he returns for another of his four tours of duty the cities look more desolate, the troops more isolated, the streets and rooftops more crowded with people out to kill them.
All he manages to do is keep some of the Marines it’s his job to look out for alive to fight another day, which, we soon find out, means alive to die another day.
His most technically brilliant and remarkable shot is taken as a result of a mistake in judgment and brings about a near disaster.
With Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and now American Sniper on his transcript, Cooper is on his way to putting together a body of work that should rank him near the top of the current class of leading men straddling forty---Cooper, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, David Oyelowo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ryan Gosling (actually a punk kid at thirty-five), Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix. Matthew McConaughey. (Will Smith is forty-six. Robert Downey Jr. is forty-nine. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are fifty-two. George Clooney is fifty-three! How did that happen?) The clip shown at the Academy Awards meant to give an idea why Copper was nominated for Best Actor isn’t really a good example of his work in American Sniper. It’s the scene in which Kyle loses it in the hospital nursery after his daughter is born and starts pounding on the glass and shouting at the nurses on the other side to take care of his crying infant. Cooper delivers anything but a shouty performance. Except for that scene, he only raises his voice to be heard over the noise of the fighting and confusion taking place around him in Iraq.
At his most together Cooper’s Kyle is low-key, easy-going, and not particularly demonstrative, and when he begins to come unglued his---Kyle’s---way of acting like nothing’s wrong is to try to be more like his regular self. It doesn’t work. He doesn’t talk less but he says less. The going is not easy at all. Cooper lets us see the rage and frustration building inside him. But he makes sure we see that Kyle is trying hard not to see it. As for demonstrative, when pushed or pressured for an emotional reaction to a situation or to something another character says his most expressive response is to go still as a stone.
A more representative scene---maybe the key scene---is also set stateside when Kyle is between tours. He’s in a garage waiting with his little boy for their car to be done and a young veteran of the war in Iraq who’s waiting for his car too recognizes Kyle as “the Legend.” He starts to gush, thanking Kyle profusely for what he did over there, for all the American lives he saved, and telling Kyle’s son what a hero his daddy is. Kyle tries to be polite. He fixes a sort of smile on his face. But we can see him going colder and colder. He’s looking at the vet but his eyes aren’t focused on him. It’s as if he’s trying not to see him. The vet lost a leg in the war and he lifts his pants cuff to show Kyle his metal prosthesis, Kyle stares at it blankly as if he has no idea what it is or why the vet thinks he’d be interested in seeing it. He makes a couple of compassionate-sounding noises but he doesn’t ask how the vet lost the leg or how he’s coping or express his sympathy with any sincerity. He doesn’t want to hear about it. He doesn’t want to talk about the war or its costs. He just wants to be left alone to go about his business as if nothing else but this has been his business all along.
It’s a more excruciating and embarrassing moment than the one in the hospital because at least there Kyle’s over-reaction is a reaction. It’s human. Here his reaction is to not have one and if it’s not inhuman it’s inhumane. It’s a chilling scene, Cooper’s best in the movie, and he hardly strings two words together during it.
Even when he’s talkative, Kyle’s not eloquent, but as he grows more inward and evasive, he borders on inarticulate. Eventually he gives up trying to make sense. He speaks in rearrangements of stock phrases, clichés, and bombastic non-sequiturs, reflexively avoiding saying anything that might reveal what he’s feeling or, more to the point, not feeling. This presents a problem for Eastwood he doesn’t completely solve: how do you tell a story about a character who can’t---because he won’t---speak for himself?
You have other characters speak for him. Taya and Kyle’s buddies have to tell us what’s happening to him, which they do by telling him what’s happening to him.
Kyle’s rote reply to anyone who asks if he regrets all the killing he’s done is to say that what he regrets is all the killings he failed to prevent. This is one way of saying he wishes he killed more people, but that’s not what he means. He means that he feels personally responsible for bringing every Marine and SEAL home alive and that’s why he won’t come home to stay. He can’t leave while he still has a job there to do.
His buddies are skeptical. They all want to go home. They no longer see any point to what they’re doing. One of his fellow SEALs suggests Kyle’s becoming addicted to war. Himself too. He compares what’s happening to both of them to when he was a kid and used to give himself a thrill by putting his hands on the electrified mesh of a neighbor’s chicken coop. The shock was painful but as soon as he could pull his hands away he’d grab hold again. “I think war’s like that,” this SEAL worries, “It puts lightning in your bones and makes everything else hard to hold onto.”
Taya will have none of it either. She’s worried the war is consuming him. “How long can you keep circling the flames?” she asks. But she takes it further.
She thinks he’s betraying her and their children.
As far as she’s concerned, in marrying her he promised to put her and the family they were going to make together ahead of everything else. When he goes to Iraq the first time, she doesn’t like it but she understands he can’t disobey orders. But when he keeps going back, he’s breaking his promise again and again and again. Kyle claims as a motto “God, Country, Family.” Taya’s motto is “Family!” The other two are taken care of when he takes care of that. His main responsibility, his duty, his job, is to stay here and take care of things at home.
Kyle, she insists, belongs here not in Iraq.
The inference is there to be drawn. Eastwood doesn’t draw it for us, but it’s there. By Taya’s lights, all our troops belong here at home taking care of their own and not over there.
As I said, I suspect people who think American Sniper is a pro-war movie didn’t see it. I also suspect they didn’t hear it. At least, they didn’t hear her.
If they did, they didn’t realize that Taya’s speaking from the movie’s moral center. And I wonder if this is because she seems too ordinary to carry this much moral authority.
But I think Taya’s perfect ordinariness is what gives her that authority and that it’s the signature beauty of Miller’s performance.
Cooper does an excellent job of not being a movie star. He’s aged past his pretty boy phase and he’s now leading man handsome, but he knows how to downplay his looks, even work against them, even disguise them with his expressions. He reshapes his face with his muscles not make-up. For most of American Sniper he wears a beard but that’s not what does it. He’s bulked up all around for the part and his cheeks have that shiny beefiness you see in the faces of some ballplayers and cops who’ve spent too much unsupervised time in the weight room. He looks like somebody you might see in real life. But you wouldn’t take him for ordinary. He’s too big. Too imposing. You couldn’t pass by him without doing a doubletake. You couldn’t find yourself next to him without feeling you had to watch your step.
But Miller does an even more effective job of not being a movie star. She makes Taya someone you wouldn’t necessarily overlook but whose presence anywhere wouldn’t surprise you. In fact, someone you’d expect to see. She’s familiar in the sense that all the people we meet in our daily comings and goings are familiar. Even when they’re complete strangers we deal with them as if we’ve always known them because, in a sense, we have. They’re just like everybody else. Taya is just like anybody you’d meet on line at the supermarket, in the stands at your kids’ soccer game, coming out the door of the dentist’s office as we are going in.
You might notice she’s pretty but you wouldn’t do a doubletake. It’d just be one item in a list of things you’d notice about her and not necessarily the first item on the list. Before you’d call her pretty, you’d more likely say she was nice-looking. That is she looks like a nice person. Nice enough. But nobody special. Ordinary.
And what she asks of Kyle is ordinary.
Please listen to me. Pay attention to the kids. Chip in around the house. Be here when we need you.
Come home. Stay home.
Miller delivers her lines without sounding like a scold but without sounding like she’s mounting a soapbox either. She has Taya speaking with ordinary practicality. And it’s that practicality that makes her morally compelling.
The things she needs to be taken care need to be taken care of. They are the things Kyle needs to be taking care of. His thinking he needs to be in Iraq is his mistake. And it’s a mistake that amounts to a moral failure.
Now comes the spoiler that won’t be a spoiler if you know the real Chris Kyle’s story.
Kyle finally does come home to stay. He gets to spend a few years living an ordinary life---ordinary by Taya’s definition, being a loving husband and father, taking care of his own. Just before the war reaches over here to claim him at last, Taya tells him she’s proud of him and she doesn’t mean she’s proud of Chris Kyle the Legend. She means she’s proud of him as a husband and father. And that’s who the war claims, that’s what it takes away. Not a war hero. It takes an ordinary man away from his family.
That’s what war does in American Sniper.
All it does.
It takes away.
This has nothing to do with anything, and I’m sure other people have noticed it, but American Sniper starring Bradley Cooper is sort of our era’s Sergeant York, which, of course, starred Gary Cooper. Different times, different sensibilities, very different types of heroes, but I think our Cooper would have made their Cooper proud.
Extended tour: Goes without saying, the real Chris Kyle and the movie’s Chris Kyle are not the same person. And the real Kyle did not live an “ordinary” life after he left the Navy. From the June 3, 2013 issue of the New Yorker: “Chris Kyle, a decorated sniper, tried to help a troubled veteran. The result was tragic.” In The Crosshairs by Nicholas Schmidle.
American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Jason Hall. Based on the book by Chris Kyle and Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Kevin Lacz, Cory Hardrict, and Navid Negahban. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Editor's note, Monday morning, March 2: I don't really believe J.J. Abrams is plotting to ruin Star Trek. But I have issues. See the comments.
“Live long and prosper, Spock.”
“I shall do neither, for I have killed my captain and my friend.”
---Star Trek. Season 2, episode 1. “Amok Time.” Mr Spock’s and Leonard Nimoy’s best episode.
You probably don’t need me to tell you the news of Leonard Nimoy’s death. And there are plenty of tributes up all over the web already and there’s nothing meaningful I can add. But I do have a few thoughts, not so much about Nimoy himself or about Spock or even about Star Trek. More about what I think J.J. Abrams has been doing with Star Trek since he was handed the reboot, which is, basically, deliberately trying to ruin it for fans of the original series.
J.J. Abrams never liked the original Star Trek. He’s admitted this. He even seems proud of it.
But before we get to that, let’s star with Nimoy.
I imagine it’s a strange thing to be a famous actor, anyway. People love and admire you for your having impressed yourself on their imaginations as various someones who are not you. Must be stranger still to be famous for one particular not you. Everywhere you go people seem to think they know you intimately but the you they know is a character you played and that character is more real to them than the you standing right in front of them. And it must be terribly frustrating when one of those people to whom you are that character is someone you need to hire you to play a completely different character. That’s the whole premise of Birdman, isn’t it?
There were probably times when Nimoy felt like Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman and found himself in the same emotionally and psychologically confusing state of hating and resenting the character who made him famous---who gave him his life at the same time as taking it over----as if Spock was a real person who’d deliberately stolen his identity and any chance at having a different, more artistically satisfying career. I know there were times when Nimoy tried to be done with Spock once and for all.
Clearly, though, he came to terms with his predicament, the downside and the very considerable upside. It probably helped that he was able to have a serious actor’s career apart from playing Spock---not a star’s career but one that he could take professional pride in. (See Sheila O’Malley on his performance opposite Ingrid Bergman in the TV movie A Woman Named Golda, R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy.) He was never reduced to the plight of his fictional counterpart in Galaxy Quest of having to earn his living signing autographs at Star Trek conventions, answering questions about life on Vulcan, and having to listen to supposed grownups intone “Live long and prosper” at him and expecting his approval. Whatever the state of his fortunes on television at any given period of what should have been the prime of his career, he continued to act seriously onstage. He directed. He had a successful second career as a photographer. He lived long enough to see science fiction and fantasy develop a broader and more intellectually and artistically respectable appeal so that going to conventions and meeting fans became a very different and I expect more satisfying experience than the one parodied in Galaxy Quest. And at some point he realized that being Spock gave Leonard Nimoy an authority he would not otherwise have had and he made intelligent use of that.
And all the while he apparently managed to be a warm-hearted, generous, kind, and generous human being.
It’s also helpful that Star Trek has turned out to be a significant cultural achievement, boldly going where no television series had gone before or, arguably, has gone since, into the world of of popular myth and legend. Star Trek is a part of our collective conscious and unconscious, influencing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And Nimoy himself had a lot to do with that.
It’s something when the President of the United States feels called upon to deliver a statement on the death of an actor at all, but it says something wonderful about the actor and his most famous character that the President could put it in the form of a joke just about everybody will get.
And while it was what Nimoy did on TV that made Spock iconic, I think it’s the movies, two of which Nimoy directed, that have kept the series alive and vivid in the popular imagination. That’s a tricky case to make. You could argue that it’s worked the other way, that people care about the movies because of the TV show. At this point it’s hard to sort that out and I’m not going to try here. The main thing is that all the movies starring the original cast are good movies. As good or better than any of the best sci-fi movies of their time. Well, except for one. But really the worst that can be said of The Final Frontier is that it’s like watching a mini-marathon of the weakest episodes from the original TV series strung together except with higher production values, and nobody involved embarrassed themselves, unless it was Shatner as the director. But he didn’t as the star. The “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” singalong at the end is goofy but it’s also kind of sweet and it says something true and heartening about the three friends---Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and Shatner, Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley---as they approached old age and were reaching the end of their adventures. The other four films---or five. I’m never sure if the first movie counts as a real Star Trek movie.---need no apologies.
Especially not The Wrath of Khan.
Seemed a lot of people among my online circle of friends and acquaintances honored Nimoy’s memory last night by watching that one. Fitting and proper. (Best comment I saw came from Rob Farley of Lawyers, Guns & Money: “I've noticed, Chekov never really talks about the Putin period in Russian history.”) It contains Spock’s---and Nimoy’s---finest moment. It’s a heartbreaking scene, of course, and “I have been and always will be your friend” makes for a beautiful farewell from Spock to Kirk, from Spock to us fans---remember, Nimoy had announced he was not going to return for any more movies---and now, we like to imagine, from Nimoy himself to all he has left behind.
But that moment’s power depends on our understanding that Spock does die.
And not a comic book or TV show death.
And he doesn’t come back.
The resurrected Spock of the subsequent movies is a different person.
I don’t mean he’s been changed by the experience of dying---which he doesn’t remember. He plants his katra in McCoy’s head before he goes into the chamber---and rebirth. I mean he is somebody else. Somebody other. He’s Spock transfigured. And I think Nimoy plays him so, and not just in the seemingly addled way of The Voyage Home. I also think Shatner plays Kirk’s scenes with him with a sense of loss and a touch of loneliness: Kirk feels the absence of his old friend and misses him even while rejoicing at having “him” back. But that’s beside the point right now. The point is it’s a powerful scene that means an awful lot to Star Trek fans and J.J. Abrams went out of his way in Into Darkness to try to take it away from us.
I can’t remember for sure if at the outset of The Wrath of Khan David knows Kirk is his father. I think he doesn’t or at least he doesn’t let on to his mother that he knows. I am certain he doesn’t like him. Partly it’s the intellectual’s jealous contempt for the man of action. Really it’s the born rebel’s dislike and distrust for what he regards as the embodiment of an unthinking, unimaginative, reactionary authority bent on maintaining the status quo that gives it its authority. What he doesn’t know is how much he and Kirk are alike. The Genesis Project succeeds---and then fails---because David is a chip off the old block and like Kirk can’t accept there’s such a thing as a no-win scenario. He does to the project what Kirk did to the Kabayashi Maru test at the Academy. He defeats the problem by cheating. This makes him partly responsible for Spock’s death and the agent of his rebirth.
This is why David a very significant character in the Star Trek universe even if The Search for Spock did make short work of him.
The question is how did David get in the picture to begin with?
You have to figure that by the 23rd Century birth control’s one-hundred percent effective. David can’t have been an accident. His birth must have been planned. This suggests that Kirk and Carol Marcus were planning to have a family together. To be a family.
They might even have been married.
I’m sure their youthful romance has been dealt with in at least one of the many novel tie-ins. I know it’s been handled in a comic book, although I have no idea where the writers took it. But there must have been a couple of years when they were in their twenties when either Kirk tried to settle down and be a good family man or Marcus tried to live the life of the wife of a Starfleet officer and it made them miserable for a variety of reasons, mainly, I’d think, because it meant that either way both would have found themselves married to a person very different from the one they fell in love with.
Although it’s quick and easy to jump to the conclusion that Marcus fell for what females across the Star Trek universe fall for, Kirk the swashbuckler, it’s important to remember that Kirk was a nerd and a grind at the Academy and only got in touch with his inner pirate later. Marcus would have thought she was falling in love with a fellow science geek and have been surprised that he didn’t want to spend his days with her in the lab. He wanted to be “out there,” his guiding principle being “Second star to the right and straight on to morning.”
All of space was his lab.
But it’s also important to note that he would have had no doubt about what kind of person he was falling in love with. That’s why he fell in love with her. It’s established, first in the TV series and then in Wrath of Khan, that the two most important women in his romantic and erotic life were brilliant young scientists. Of course one of them turned out to be a mad scientist. But Marcus is serenely sane and sensible, responsible, diligent and dedicated but warm-hearted, self-aware, witty, and filled with and fueled by a generous sense of wonder. And whatever she might have thought Kirk was when they met, it probably didn’t take her long to figure him out. She knows what he and she were really like then and forgives them both for it, even likes them for it, and she knows exactly what he is now.
She has two key exchanges in The Wrath of Khan, one with David:
David: Remember that overgrown Boy Scout you used to hang around with? That's exactly the kind of guy...
Carol: Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things, but he was never a Boy Scout!
The other is with Kirk himself:
Carol: Please tell me what you're feeling.
Jim: There's a man out there I haven't seen in fifteen years who's trying to kill me. You show me a son that'd be happy to help. My son... my life that could have been... and wasn't. How do I feel? Old... worn out.
Carol: Let me show you something that will make you feel young as when the world was new.
In J.J. Abrams’ alternative timeline, Carol Marcus exchanges her scientific brilliance and interesting and likeable personality for sculpted abs. She also loses her independent spirit and becomes Daddy’s good little girl. And she bores Kirk.
The only time he notices her is when she strips down, that is, when she’s most like any of the hundreds of females of every variety of species he’s loved and left.
For all he’s interested in her, she might as well be Yeoman Rand.
Kirk doesn’t have the time this time. He takes a pass at making a pass and moves on to saving the galaxy yet again. So David doesn’t get born. Genesis never gets off the drawing board. Spock doesn’t die. And the best Star Trek movie is wiped out of the canon or, at any rate, stamped with a great big asterisk and a link to J.J. Abrams’ Wikipedia entry.
Did I mention that Abrams hates Star Trek?
I honestly think his object is to make Gene Roddenberry spin in his grave.
You can argue that what Abrams did with Khan accomplished this. But what the Khan plot of Into Darkness does is wipe out “Space Seed”, not incidentally one of the best episodes from the original series. As Abrams left things standing at the end of Into Darkness, Khan and his followers can still wind up marooned on Ceti Alpha V when its sister planet explodes laying waste to their home, bringing about the death of Marla McGivers who gets into the plot somehow, and setting Khan on his mission of vengeance. Possibly somewhere along the line Khan makes himself more interesting than Abrams made him---Carol Marcus isn’t the only character Abrams diminishes.---and memorizes Milton and Melville so if and when Abrams gets around to remaking The Wrath of Khan Benedict Cumberbatch can deliver the lines “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up!”
That’s presuming Abrams doesn’t blue pencil them out of the script for being “too cerebral.”
Abrams turned Carol Marcus into the babe and Khan into a standard issue action-adventure movie villain.
I thought that Abrams was going somewhere interesting with her in his first Star Trek movie, making her the one female in the galaxy who isn’t the least bit impressed or charmed by him. She’s immune to his roguish flirtations and annoyed by his swashbuckler’s devil-take-the-hindmost approach to life and command. She insists that he earn her respect by being every bit as good at his job as she is at hers, and she knows herself to be very, very good at whatever it is she actually does. That’s left a little vague, but gives her a lot more important work to do than Uhura had in the original series. It looks like she’s on her way to becoming Kirk’s Hermione Grainger and that the Big Three will be expanded to the Big Four.
But Abrams was working on something else at the same time and he dropped the Uhura as Hermione trope to make Uhura the girlfriend.
In Into Darkness that’s what she is and all she is.
She’s along for the ride, there to worry and scold and get into trouble she needs one of the boys to rescue her from, to be pretty to look at and prove that at least one of the nerdy boys is really a manly man smart popular girls secretly swoon over, and---her main job---to cheer the boys on.
Zoe Saldana is given more to do in any two minutes of Guardians of the Galaxy than Abrams has given her in his two Star Trek movies.
The Wrath of Khan came out in 1982, The Search for Spock in 1984, and The Voyage Home in 1986. But apparently the movie from that period that had the most significant influence on Abrams’ imagination as a budding filmmaker came out in 1985, The Goonies.
Abrams has a third Star Trek in the works but there’s hope. He’s not directing and he’s hired new writers. And maybe he’ll be too wrapped up in his Star Wars reboots, where his arrested-adolescent sensibility isn’t as much of a drawback.
And amazingly and fortunately, Abrams hasn’t been able to diminish any of the Big Three, although he tried with Spock by having him save the day with his fists instead of with logic. But I think Abrams has been defeated---so far---by forces beyond his ability to control. Chris Pine has tapped into the essential Jim Kirk. Karl Urban is channeling the ghost of DeForest Kelley. And Zachary Quinto is simply more loyal to his friend and mentor Leonard Nimoy.
So I think it’s probably a good place to leave off here, with Quinto’s farewell tweet.
But I can’t resist. I have to finish with this:
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Going by the online discussions I’ve seen, I can’t tell whose hearts were more thoroughly broken by their favorite movie’s not winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, the fans of Boyhood or the fans of American Sniper. They seem equally indignant on behalf of their movie, though, and equally certain that history will acknowledge that theirs is a cinematic masterpiece.
The American Sniper zealots, Right Wing conservatives to a man-boy, apparently, point to the amount of money it’s taken in at the box office to prove that it’s a great movie because, as we all know, mass popularity determines artistic achievement, which is why every Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Pollock has been replaced in museums by those big eyed children and Elvises on velvet. Being Right Wingers, of course, they aren’t logical thinkers and they can’t do the math anyway, so they haven’t thought about what it says about those box office numbers that they’ve seen the movie five times and so has “everybody I know”.
The ardent Boyhood fans are sure Boyhood’s a cinematic masterpiece because GENIUS!
Not just Richard Linklater’s genius. Their own as well. Boyhood must be a work of genius because geniuses like them know genius when they see it.
I’m not talking about you. I know you love Boyhood for all the right, non-egocentric reasons. I’m only going by what I’ve seen online.
But, again just going by what I’ve seen online, Boyhood fans have been consoling themselves with the fact that the Best Picture Award has often gone to forgettable and even terrible movies and that many losers have become classics watched and loved by generation after generation. This is true. But I noticed that some of the Best Picture winners they point to as forgettable and terrible are movies I thought were pretty good, like Forrest Gump and Shakespeare in Love, two movies that appeared on my students’ lists of their favorite movies. For the record, the oldest of my students was born in 1993. Forrest Gump came out in 1994, Shakespeare in Love in 1998. Seems to be taking a while for those movies to get forgotten. I’d say that movies loved by adults who were infants and pre-schoolers when they were first released are making a good case for themselves to be called classics. Anyway…
I haven’t seen Boyhood and I doubt I ever will. I’m sure it’s very good. Might even be a cinematic masterpiece. I just don’t have any interest in watching a movie about a fairly ordinary middle-class white kid growing from six to eighteen. I lived through that myself and then watched two now young men I know pretty well and several of their friends and cousins live through it pretty much concurrently with the kid in the movie. Who knows, though. Maybe if it does prove to be a classic and twenty years from now it and I are still around and being talked about I’ll give it a chance, although I’m hoping by that time I’ll be in the middle of watching some more boys and girls I know working their ways from boyhood and girlhood to adulthood and have more engaging and important things to do with my time.
The Best Picture loser I think will last is The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game might be remembered too, depending on the courses of Eddie Redmayne’s, Felicity Jones’, Benedict Cumberbatch’s, and Keira Knightley’s careers. American Sniper is part of Clint Eastwood’s legacy. Bradley Cooper’s too. Selma, I expect, will last but in an artistically dubious way by being a junior high and high school history class staple. Young people will come of age admiring, even loving the movie but not sure if they think it’s a good movie because it really is a good movie or if they think it is because they’ve been told it is, the way people are when it comes to the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
It’ll also depend on the course of David Oyelowo’s career.
But to the degree The Grand Budapest Hotel’s place in movie history depends on the course of anyone’s career, it’s on Wes Anderson’s and he’s already established himself as one of the best directors-auteurs of the last twenty years, so people will be watching The Grand Budapest Hotel for a long time because it’s one of his. I think it’s his best so far. (I know people who will go to the mat for Moonrise Kingdom.) It might turn out to be his masterpiece. But never mind its place in movie history as a Wes Anderson movie. I think it’s a great movie just for its own sake. Not only because it’s a visual delight and a brilliant work of visual storytelling. It’s the second most quotable movie I know that doesn’t star the Marx Brothers.
Quotability is one of the qualities of a movie that keep it alive generation after generation.
I’m not saying Birdman won’t hold up over time. I was rooting for Grand Budapest but I didn’t think it was robbed. More to the point, unlike those heartbroken and outraged fans of Boyhood and American Sniper, I didn’t feel robbed.
But who’s to say. Time will tell, and all that.
The folks at Rotten Tomatoes decided to see what time has told by applying “Tomatometer science” to all eighty-eight Best Picture winners since the first Academy Awards were handed out and ranking them from worst to best.
You’ll see that there are a few stinkers on the list, some mediocre movies, some that have been forgotten, deservedly and undeservedly, a few that probably will be forgotten before much longer, but that most of those are where they belong, fairly low down on the list. But you’ll also see something else. The majority of movies on the list aren’t just unforgotten, they’re unforgettable. That is, they’re classics. There really isn’t much consolation to be found in claiming that a Best Picture winner won’t stand up over the long haul the way your favorite will.
Something that is consoling is to remember that it’s often happened that the winner of the award for Best Picture isn’t the best picture among all the nominees. In fact, it sometimes happens that when there are several excellent movies up for the award, the weakest wins. Which doesn’t mean it was a bad movie. Of course, another thing to keep in mind is that even more often it’s happened that what time has revealed as the best movie of a given year wasn’t even nominated.
My personal and biased prediction: Not too many years from now people are going to look back at this crop of Best Picture nominees and say, “They didn’t nominate Guardians of the Galaxy? What was wrong with those people?”
So, the Rotten Tomatoes list? At the top? The most quotable movie ever made, and that’s even if you include movies starring the Marx Brothers.
This one. Best Picture. 1944.
The line popped right into your head, didn’t it?
Click on the link for Rotten Tomatoes’ whole list.
Hat tip to Oliver Mannion who was rooting for The Grand Budapest Hotel too but is cool with Birdman winning.