Perry Whites Ranked:
4. Lane Smith
Lex Luthors Ranked:
5. John Shea
4. Kevin Spacey
3. Clancy Brown
2. Gene Hackman
5. Alan Napier
3. Sean Pertwee
2. Jeremy Irons
7. Amy Adams
6. Noel Neill
5. Teri Hatcher
4. Dana Delaney
6. Val Kilmer
3. Ben Affleck
2. Kevin Conroy
1. Adam West
There’s nobody else, and all the other guys understand.
Fun movie trivia game is to list actors who turned down or lost out on roles in movies that turned out to be big hits, classics, and career-makers for whoever got the part instead and argue about how much they might still be kicking themselves over it. The problem with this game is an inherent misunderstanding of how movies work their magic. The premise assumes that the movie would have been the same movie with the disappointed not-the-star starring in it. In fact, it would have been a different movie with a different subsequent history.
Robert Redford as Michael Corleone? Jim Carrey as Edward Scissorhands? Tom Hanks as Jerry Maguire?
Actually, I’m not sure the last one wouldn’t have made the movie better.
But Ghosbusters wouldn’t have been Ghostbusters if John Belushi had starred in it as originally planned. Which is why I don’t care about the reboot. Ghostbusters is Bill Murray’s movie. You don’t have the thirty-four year old Murray playing Peter Venkman, you don’t have Ghostbusters.
All this adds up to something Warren Beatty told Mark Harris when Harris interviewed him for Harris' excellent book on the five movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967 Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood:
“Casting is destiny,” says [Beatty]. “Particularly in movies, because casting is character---and character is plot. Casting really controls story. One guy would do one thing, another guy wouldn’t. And if you’re the guy in the close-up, character acting isn’t going to help---you either are that guy or you aren’t.”
Beatty was talking to Harris about the making of Bonnie and Clyde, which Beatty produced, and Beatty wasn’t his own first choice to play Clyde.
He wanted Bob Dylan.
January 23, 2016.
Leonardo DiCaprio in what I think of as his first grown-up role even though he was playing a teenager, the brilliant and elusive young con artist Frank Abagnale Jr in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 true-life comedy caper Catch Me If You Can, the movie that, incidentally, made me think my thinking about Spielberg was all wrong.
There was never a time when I didn’t think Spielberg was a good director. Duel scared the willies out of me when I was a kid. But I didn't think he was one of film-making's great artists and for a while there I suspected he was a bit of a hack.
He'd certainly shown some hack-like propensities.
Whenever he didn’t know what to do or seemed to lose confidence he sentimentalized or reached for a visual cliche. In Amistad, not once, but twice, he poses Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in the company of a bust of Adams’ father John Adams as if in case we won’t get the connections and will fail to draw the right lessons from the history---”Hey, this guy’s old man helped get the American Revolution started!”--- and there’s a scene of the freed slaves dancing in celebration that’s cringe-inducing in how close it comes to crossing that line. And it didn’t just happen in some scenes in some movies. He made whole movies like that, cliched and sentimental from start to finish. That didn’t stop some of them from being good movies. Jurassic Park. E.T.! But it marred several and ruined more than one. A.I. is sentimental hogwash from start to finish.
And he’s made a couple that were pure hack work---Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, particularly. And, god help us, not having learned his lesson, he’s planning another Raiders sequel.---and a few that were out and out bad, although I’ve heard over the years that 1941 isn’t really as terrible as I and most everybody who saw thought when it came out. But all good directors have their failures.
There’s still no excuse for Hook.
But it was an interview I read in which he said that if he had Jaws to do over again, he’d take advantage of improvements in technology and computer graphics to show the shark more. I was dumbfounded. The shark's being an invisible monster for most of the movie is what made Jaws so frightening. I forget when this was. A good while ago, but after Jurassic Park. The reason the shark’s appearances are few and far between in Jaws is the special effects crew couldn’t get the mechanical shark to work right. It looked and moved like what it was, a machine. This turned out to be one of those lucky accidents that happen all the time in moviemaking and result in a shot, a scene, and even a whole movie turning out better than planned. Yet, instead of marveling gratefully at the serendipity, here he was seeming to wish he’d had better toys to play with.
I thought this showed a George Lucas-like tendency to think people came to the movies for the special effects.
Haven’t been able to turn up that interview online so it’s possible I’m misremembering it or misunderstood what Spielberg was saying---he may very well have meant that he was glad the technology wasn’t available to him at the time because if it had been, he’d have made use of it and that would have made Jaws a lesser film and kept him from learning an important lesson as a director. Here’s something I did turn up, in a story about the making of Jaws at Mental Floss:
When [special effects expert Bob Mattey] finally delivered Bruce [the mechanical shark], Spielberg began to panic. On its first day on the job, the shark promptly sank to the bottom of Nantucket Sound. Within a week, saltwater had eroded Bruce’s electric motor, and he had to be refitted with a system of pneumatic hoses. Every night, Bruce also had to be drained, scrubbed, and repainted. Even by diva standards, Bruce was high-maintenance.
“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ ... It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”
Seems unlikely a filmmaker as smart as Steven Spielberg would have unlearned a lesson from he took from Alfred Hitchcock.
The point is that at one time, for various reasons, I didn’t think as highly of his talents and abilities as I do now. Over time, despite the sentimentality and the cliches and the occasional bad movie, my appreciation for his craftsmanship grew, and there came a point when I began to think he might actually be a real artist and a pretty darn good one at that.. The movie that started me thinking along these lines wasn’t The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, or Saving Private Ryan. It was one that came after them and which I saw when it was in the theaters fourteen years ago and just saw again for the first time since, when we watched it here for Mannion Family Movie Night a couple of weeks back: Catch Me If You Can. A trifle of a film or it would be if Spielberg hadn’t gotten such fine performances out of Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, and in what I’d argue was his first truly adult role even though he was playing a character who for most of the movie is only nineteen years old, Leonardo DiCaprio.
You might think, how hard could it have been to get fine performances out of those three?
Countless directors have wasted the talents of their stars. Countless have not known how to harness their stars’ talents or to capture their best work on camera. Countless have simply been overawed or overwhelmed by a star’s determination to deliver a bad performance. (Again, there’s no excusing Hook.) But In Catch Me If You Can it’s not just that his stars perform well for him that impressed me. He’s always done well by his actors that way, and they’ve done well by him. It was the first I noticed that he does more than simply photograph them performing well. He uses their performances to create photographs. He uses them as bodies in motion or, often, not in motion, in suspended motion, to construct the imagery that makes up his visual storytelling.
When you admire a still from a movie that’s as beautifully lit and composed as a great photograph or painting, you can’t be sure whose work you’re actually admiring, the cinematographer’s, the designers’, the editor’s, director’s, all of the above? It’s only when as you watch the movie and see how the director moves the actors about within the frames that you can begin to judge how much the overall composition and visual effect are his doing and how well he’s done the job. And it’s only from watching him move the actors around can you appreciate how he’s using their movements to move the story along. And it’s only when you’re aware that the director is moving the actors around to a purpose beyond making things dramatic that you begin to think the purpose might be thematic.
In the climactic scene of Catch Me If You, FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) has tracked the brilliant and elusive teenage con artist he’s been chasing back and forth across the United States and now over to Europe, Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio), to the small village in France where Abagnale is hiding out and cornered him in the workshop he’s set up to print the counterfeit checks he needs to continue his increasing elaborate cons. The two men begin talking, like the almost friends they’ve become in the course of Hanratty’s cat and mouse pursuit, the cat being Tom and the mouse Jerry, as Hanratty tries to persuade Frank that the jig is at last up and he should surrender and come quietly. At first, we don’t see Frank. He’s hidden behind one of his absurdly many printing presses. Then Spielberg finds him for us and it’s a shock to see him.
Up till now, Frank has almost always appeared snappily and proudly dressed in the tailored suits and airline pilot uniforms that are the costumes of the various false identities he’s created for his schemes. But now he’s in work clothes, heavy baggy pants and a sleeveless undershirt, and he's sweaty and dirty and marked with ink and grease. His former confidence of body and manner are gone. He looks distraught, worn out, worried, and afraid, and not in reaction to Hanratty’s having caught up with him. This is what he’s like when he’s alone now. And he hates it. He wants Hanratty to save him. He wants to turn himself in but he can’t make himself step out from behind his machines. He’s trapped by them. He’s trapped inside the machinery of his own frauds and crimes and is in danger of being pulled in and becoming a human component in his own fraud-making machines like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.
It’s a terrific scene and it surprised and thrilled me when I first saw it, not least because I realized that Spielberg had built it not just out Hanks’ and DiCaprio’s performances but out of a series of brilliantly composed pictures. Moving pictures. Pictures that were dynamic because of how Spielberg moved the actors around in his frames.
Another way of putting this was when it dawned on me that Spielberg knows how to draw and paint himself. He doesn’t leave the imagery up to his cinematographer and designers, and he puts the imagery into motion on the set and not just in the camera and the editing room.
Something else surprised me about Catch Me If You Can.
The women in the movie.
It was a delight to see the number of actresses I didn’t know when the movie came out who have since gone on to have significant careers: Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Pompeo, Amy Acker all pop up in fun and interesting small parts. Only Adams has more than a cameo or a bit part, but Spielberg treats none of them as throwaways or mere sticks to beat the plot along. He gives each a moment in which their characters get to shine.
Leaving aside The Color Purple and the movie he’d started his big screen career with, Sugarland Express, still one of my favorites of his movies and of Goldie Hawn’s---when anyone gets around to assessing Hawn’s career as one of the great lead actresses of the last fifty years, Sugarland Express should be high on the list of her best performances---Spielberg wasn’t known for showing much interest in female characters who weren’t mothers, wives, or children. He still isn’t, although Sally Field might take issue with that. He’s still not known for his the attention he gives to his female characters. Many of his movies feature virtually no female characters at all. It’s a point in his favor that he doesn’t use starlets as eye candy. But he doesn’t often portray women as having any sexuality at all. Men either. His heroes have generally been overgrown boys or the kind of men ten year old boys imagine themselves growing up to be, which amounts to the same thing.
Karen Allen’s Marian Ravenwood is the exception to almost all that, but I can’t tell you if that’s Allen doing Spielberg the favor, the way Princess Leia was Carrie Fisher’s gift to George Lucas, or another lucky accident for Spielberg---of it’s just built into the material: Marian is an unavoidable artifact of the kinds of old movie serials and comic strip adventure tales Spielberg and Lucas were using as their template for Raiders. Marian is a spunky kid sister to Lois Lane and Dale Arden.
It’s disappointing to note that neither of the female leads in the sequels are anything more than cliches or played by actresses nearly as talented as Allen and that when Marian returns in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it’s as a wife and mother and not as an action-adventure heroine in her own right.
But while Adams, Garner, Banks, Pompeo, and Acker each play a stock character---Adams a variant on the Farmer’s Daughter, Garner the Vamp, Banks the Dumb Blonde, Pompeo the not so innocent Schoolgirl, and Acker the Beauty Contest Entrant fooled by her own vanity and ambition into thinking she has real talent and is on the road to stardom---it’s clear Spielberg cast them because he recognized them as smart actresses who could turn their stock characters into real people. They are all also sexualized.
I don’t mean they’re sex objects. Like I said, Spielberg has admirably refrained from treating starlets as eye candy. I mean that each has a healthy libidio and her own particular romantic feelings and desires. Each responds to Frank’s seductiveness in her own, independent way and it’s clear that in that in their eyes he’s the object of desire.
And then it seems the case that their being stock figures is partly his doing.
A great deal of Frank’s success is his ability to manipulate his marks into acting the roles he needs them to play. This goes for then he cons as well as the women.
Frank’s schemes and the movie’s plot depend on his manipulating a top-notch FBI agent into playing the role of dumb and blundering movie and TV cop. Hanratty’s never quite reduced to an Inspector Clouseau but in their first several encounters, Frank is Top Cat and Hanratty comes away feeling as though he’s been played for an Officer Dibble. That the movie gets away with this, convincing us that Frank can outwit Hanratty and that Hanratty or any character played by Tom Hanks can be outwitted, is a measure of DiCaprio’s and Hanks’ performances.
Hanratty’s considerable intelligence and his imagination are limited by his lack of a sense of humor and a spirit of playfulness. He’s all work, all the time. His Boston accent isn’t a connection to the Hub’s Irish spirit but an echo from Massachusett’s Puritan past.
So that was another surprise in Catch Me If You Can: Spielberg taking a more sophisticated, nuanced, and ironic approach to character development and storytelling than I’d seen him take before even in his best movies to date.
Spielberg’s directorial efforts since have not amounted to an unbroken string of ever-greater artistic achievements. But they’ve included Munich, Lincoln, and now Bridge of Spies.
We watched Catch Me If You Can for family movie night to gear up to see Bridge of Spies again which is playing at the local second-run movie theater. But now I’m thinking it might be fun to go back and re-watch some more of Spielberg’s earlier films, the good and the not-so-good, in light of what he’s done since Catch Me If You Can to see what I missed in them.
I still expect I’ll find no excuse for Hook.
Here's the link to the Mentalfloss article on the making of Jaws I mentioned,Bill DeMain's How Steven Spielberg's Malfunctioning Sharks Transformed the Movie Business.
Seeing The Big Short this afternoon. Looking forward to seeing how they adapted that book. Critic and author Mark Harris rates Adam McKay’s screenplay as one of the best of the year. I hope McKay found a way to work in one of my favorite short scenes from Michael Lewis’ book. It involves the character played by Brad Pitt---Ben Hockett in real life; for some reason, Ben Rickert in the movie. Ben Hockett was not inclined to look on the bright side. Pessimist doesn’t begin to describe the bleakness of his doom and gloom-ism. Worst case scenarios were to him far and away the likeliest case scenarios. This attitude helped make him a very successful financial analyst. It made him obsessive and paranoid in his personal life, as illustrated in this scene:
[Hockett’s business partners] Charlie and Jamie preferred Ben to keep his apocalyptic talk to himself. It made people uncomfortable. There was no reason anyone needed to know, for example, that Ben had bought a small farm in the country, north of San Francisco, in a remote place without road access, planted with fruit and vegetables sufficient to feed his family, on the off chance of the end of the world as we know it. It was hard for Ben to keep his worldview to himself, however, especially since it was the first cousin of their investment strategy: The possibility of accident and disaster was just never very far from their conversations. One day on the phone with Ben, Charlie said, You hate taking even remote risks, but you live in a house on top of a mountain that’s on a fault line, in a housing market that’s at an all-time high. “He just said, ‘I gotta go,’ and hung up,” recalled Charlie. “We had trouble getting hold of him for, like, two months.”
The reason they didn’t hear from him is that he was in the process of selling his house.
Stories within stories. That’s what I enjoy most about the Star Wars movies. The old stories. The kind Sam Gamgee likes.
…the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
And there’s another story that if it didn’t influence Lucas directly is still in Star Wars because it was influenced by the same old stories and those stories are in there.
In creating Star Wars, George Lucas was inspired by countless old swashbucklers, tales of chivalry and legends of derring-do, and boys’ (and girls’) own adventure stories. The ones that mean the most to me and so the ones I’m most on the watch for and am most thrilled by and moved by when they show up in the movies---the original trilogy, the prequels, and now The Force Awakens---are the tales of King Arthur and his knights. Obviously. But this time out I picked up on another favorite influence as well.
The Three Musketeers.
The connections aren’t thematic or directly plot related. They aren't matters of characterization,either, although they have to do with the characters. But it’s not that this or that character is Athos, Aramis, Porthos, or d’Artagnan. I could make the case that Han is a bit like Porthos, a showoff and braggart, but that would be beside the point, my point and the point of Han as a character. And, as far as it goes, when we first meet him, he’s like all three of the original musketeers rolled into one, a rogue and a scoundrel, in it for the fun and the money and the easy living, redeemed by the example of the noble and idealistic country bumpkin turned hero. The connection is in Poe’s and Finn’s relationship to Rey and their place in her story. And as things stand, in that story, they're secondary characters and their roles are similar to Aramis’ and Porthos’ in d’Artagnan’s story. They’re there to help out. Han takes Athos’ place as the older (much older; Athos, the Comte de le Fère, is around 30), wiser, because heartbroken and bitter, guide and steadying influence on our young and impulsive hero. Athos is interesting because of his backstory but he’s important to the main story because of his relationship with d’Artagnan’s chief adversary, Milady de Winter. Aramis and Porthos are likable and fun and they have lots to do, but nothing important of their own to do. They're supporting players and in their own different ways comic relief. In The Force Awakens, Poe and Finn are likable and fun and have lots to do---Finn a lot more than Poe---but they're still supporting players and in their different ways comic relief.
The Force Awakens sets up the new trilogy as Rey’s story the way the original trilogy was Luke’s story. The whole saga, however, is still Luke’s story. That’s one of the things I liked about The Force Awakens, that J.J. Abrams didn’t try to change that. And it looks as though Luke’s story will end the way the stories of so many legendary heroes’---Arthur, Robin Hood, d’Artagnan among them---stories end, with the hero’s final failure and death. (This suggests that over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe things do not bode well for Captain America.) Things will probably change, but the way they seem headed, Poe’s and Finn’s stories aren’t necessarily integral to Rey and Luke’s story. They don’t have to be and I think shouldn’t be. In fact, I’ll be disappointed if they’re made to be.
I'll be more than fine with it if their stories are nearly entirely separate and are used to expand the new expanded universe. What I’d really like would be if Poe’s and Finn’s stories become Poe and Finn’s story and the plot of that story is inspired by (that is, is swiped from) the plot of the first book of The Three Musketeers.
It wouldn’t need to be that Finn and Poe fit the roles of any of the Musketeers. As they are, Finn could be d’Artangan in that he’s young, naive, unschooled, and undisciplined but talented and a natural leader, but then Poe is the idealistic one. Finn wants out. Poe can't imagine being anything but in. And he's a natural leader too. Doesn’t matter. It’s the plot of "The Queen's Diamonds" I want to see them caught up in.
The problem with that, though, is sex.
There’s no place for a Milady de Winter in the Star Wars universe as Lucas created it. No place for any Constances either, and there’s no sign in The Force Awakens that Abrams intends to change that. In fact, Abrams seems to have more of a problem with grown-up women characters than Lucas had. Captain Phasma is likely going to turn out to be Rochefort to Finn’s d’Artagnan, to whatever degree Finn is d’Artagnan. A true femme fatale or a lusty love interest seem out of the question. But who knows. The next installment’s being written and directed by Rian Johnson, who has shown---in Looper and The Brothers Bloom, at any rate---that he’s not afraid of grown up persons of the female persuasion.
Other than that, though, Poe and Finn needing to join together to go on a rogue mission to steal something while both good guys and bad guys pursue them, with some intrigue, maybe some romance if not sex---that could make for a story interesting and thrilling in its own right, apart from any place it might have within the larger adventure.
As long as what they’re stealing aren’t plans for yet another Death Star.
Previous thought awakened: The once and future Jedi.
December 24, 2015.
Saw it tonight and my first thought was that the sequels are going to need prequels.
My second thought was how fun it was to get one more good Harrison Ford action-adventure movie. J.J. Abrams understands the story of Han Solo better than Lucas and Spielberg understand the story of Indiana Jones.
But that's another post. Back to The Force Awakens.
Episode VII is all fallout from a plotline that’s going to have to be explained in Episode VIII in order for the story to move on to Episode IX and the original saga’s proper conclusion. Most of what happens is a matter of raising questions that can only be answered by looking backwards. Where are we and how did we get here? Who are these people and why should we care about them? And I expect Abrams knows he can’t just exposition them away in a couple of speeches. It will have to be dealt with in an extended flashback. That is, I hope so. I hope that Abrams has set up the new trilogy as its own Machete version.
Not that I really care.
I’ve never really cared.
I’m too old.
And I don’t mean that like Obi-wan I’m getting too old for this sort of thing. I mean that when the original Star Wars came out in 1977 I wasn’t a little kid so it couldn’t become a constellating myth of my childhood. I enjoyed it immensely. I didn’t think of it as a kids’ movie. But it wasn’t new or revelatory to me. I’d heard that story---those stories. Lucas borrowed from multiple myths, legends, and adventure yarns---before, many times, in different versions, and those were the stories around which my imagination had cohered. Star Wars mattered to me because it reminded me of those stories and called up the feelings and dreams they had always inspired. What I loved about it was how it made me love those stories again---stories that included Treasure Island, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and especially The Knights of the Round Table---stories I knew and loved from books, by the way, before I ever saw them adapted into movies, and books have always been more important to me than movies. And that’s all Star Wars was to me, a movie that captured some of the fun and excitement of those books.
In no way is this meant as a dismissal of Star Wars. Like I said, I enjoyed it and I enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. I was impressed with them as moviemaking achievements. I was impressed and (moderately) thrilled that Lucas had managed to pull off setting a traditional swashbuckling adventure yarn in outer space, although I was aware that the old Flash Gordon serials he was paying homage to had already done that. The point is, though, that The Force Awakens was only going to matter to me to the degree it was able to do what the original had done, invoke those old stories in a heartfelt way. And to a degree, it succeeded.
But at more of a remove.
I think it's pretty well generally agreed that as a villain Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. That even seems to be the point of the character. But as a villain in his own right he’s not particularly formidable. That also seems to be the point. He’s not the villain. He’s a representative. He’s not what caused the problem Rey has to solve. He is, like her, what’s left over. They are both effects.
Presumably, over the next two movies, they will both grow. But as things stand, neither is as important as whoever brought about their current situations, and none of whoever they were plays a significant part in The Force Awakens.
What I’m hoping is that some of them aren’t even mentioned in The Force Awakens.
What I’m hoping is that they’ll be introduced in flashbacks in Episode VIII and we’ll get the story of their downfalls. And I’m further hoping that that story isn’t simply a retelling of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall. I’m hoping it’s a retelling of the story of the breaking of the Round Table.
And I’m really hoping the Force doesn’t have much to do with it.
In the story I’m hoping to see told, Kylo Ren is not a leading character. He’s not Mordred. He’s Agravaine, Gawaine’s other anti-heroic brother, the one who sides with Mordred out of jealousy of Gawain and of Lancelot because of their place in Arthur’s affections. (Luke, of course, is Arthur.) This would mean that in the story I want to see told, there are at least three more important characters to be introduced---possibly, four: a Launcelot, a Gawaine, a Mordred, and a Guinevere. (Probably too much to expect a fifth and the movie gets truly adult by including a Morgause.) And in the story I’m hoping to see told, the breaking of the Round Table---the dissolution of the new Jedi order Luke tried to establish---would be brought about by a falling out between Luke’s two favorites, his Gawaine and Lancelot, manipulated and exploited by his Mordred (not necessarily his son but that would be interesting) but caused by ordinary human needs and desires that aren’t in themselves wrong or result in either hero going over to the Dark Side. What I’m hoping for, basically, is a real tragedy arising from the conflict between two heroic characters who both have right on their side but who handle it badly, that is, humanly.
It would be up to Luke, then, to settle things but that would require him to take sides against one or the other of his best friends. Which would break his heart.
That’s a wound that won’t heal on its own and that would send him into self-imposed exile.
And in that story, Rey would be Percival.
Percival, you probably recall, is Arthur’s greatest knight. Well, technically, he’s the second greatest. Galahad is the greatest, but he barely counts because he only shows up for the Grail quest and almost immediately becomes one with the Force---he dies and goes right to heaven---when he finds it. So for all intents and purposes, Percival is number one. (Lancelot is third and Gawain is fourth.) But he comes late to the Round Table, when Arthur and the others are nearing old age. He is a knight’s son---in some versions a king’s son---but when he was a baby his mother took him into the woods far from Camelot where she raised him with no knowledge of his father or of knights in general because she was afraid of what would happen to him if he joined the Round Table. He grows up a rude and ignorant bumpkin but strong, clever, resourceful, and brave. Then one day some knights on a quest ride through the woods and as soon as he sees them, Percival becomes aware of the Force flowing through him---that is, he knows himself to be a true knight and is instantly not only capable but the most capable with sword and lance.
Sounds like a bit of a male Mary Sue, doesn’t he?
Sounds like somebody else who’s being called a Mary Sue, too.
There’s something else about Percival that might sound familiar if you’ve seen The Force Awakens.
In some retellings, he’s the one who finds the Grail and uses it to heal the Fisher King.
Maybe J.J. Abrams understands those old stories as well as he understands Han Solo's...or maybe it’s that he understands Star Wars.
We’re going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this afternoon. Don’t tell me! I don’t know what to expect. I said, don’t tell me! The internet has been pretty good about keeping the secrets and surprises, and I’ve been careful to avoid just about every possible avenue for a spoiler to sneak through. What did I say? I haven’t even seen the trailers or looked closely at the poster. I’m not listening! But still, some hints and clues have gotten past my defenses. Nothing specific. Just the sense that there are a number of tributes and allusions to the original. That should be fun, if it’s done right. But what I’d like is if it turns out that Luke hasn’t become a version of Obi-wan or of Yoda, he’s Mace Windu, the most badass Jedi ever---don’t forget. Mace had Darth Sidius whupped. It was only because Anakin ambushed him that Mace didn’t finish Sidius off and end the revenge of the Sith right there. I want Luke that powerful and that mean. So here’s the scene I’d like to see, an homage to Obi-wan and Vader’s duel aboard the Death Star, with Luke confronting whichever new character has turned out to be the one who’s gone over to the dark side and become the reboot’s new ultimate bad guy.
Bad Guy: I've been waiting for you, Luke Skywalker. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.
Luke: Only a master of evil, Bad Guy Whose Name I Can’t Say Because That Would Be A Spoiler.
They set to it. Light sabers clash. Luke seems to be getting the worst of it but he recovers and they fight to a standstill, their sabers locked, just as it was with Obi-wan and Vader.
Bad Guy: Your powers are weak, old man.
Luke: You can't win, Bad Guy. If you strike me down, I shall become more...Oh, fuck it. I’m Luke Skywalker. You strike me down, I become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. I strike you down, you’re just dead.
Bad Guy: Aaagh!
Luke: May the Force forget you.
Sunday morning. December 20, 2015.
Rachel McAdams as Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer realizes that a “retired” priest who’s admitted to molesting children lives unsupervised down the street from a school in Spotlight, the movie about the Globe’s investigation of the sex abuse scandal that should have brought about the collapse of the Catholic Church.
The last serious conversation I had with a priest was nearly fifteen years ago and it ended with him calling Mrs M and me bad parents and me telling him to go to hell.
That was the day I was done with the Catholic Church forever. And it broke my heart.
By that point in my life I wasn’t much of a Catholic. I was barely a believer. But I had been both whole-heartedly when I was young. I was proud of having been raised Catholic. I was grateful for my Catholic grade school education. I had nothing but fond memories of being an altar boy. The priests I served with were great guys. The nuns who taught me were smart, progressive, demanding, and kind. Over the years, my faith and the practice of it brought me mostly joy. I was a lazy CAPE Catholic by the time we became parents, but when Mrs M decided she wanted to raise the boys Catholic, I was glad. And when the time came I was happy and proud to send them off to Catholic school. Which is where the trouble began.
In first grade, Ken’s physical and emotional development problems started to show themselves, his several learning disabilities and blocks began to take their toll. And we had no idea what was happening to him. All we knew was that a very bright, imaginative, creative, happy, and kind little boy who wanted nothing so much as to please his parents and teachers and other kids suddenly couldn’t do anything right. With his friends and in class, it seemed to be always the case that whenever he should have turned left, he turned right, whenever he should have pushed the on button, he pushed off. He was constantly annoying the other kids, exasperating his teachers, and frustrating himself. He became anxious, fretful, lonely, and desperately unhappy. Predictably and understandably, he acted out by misbehaving. Not by being naughty and disobedient, exactly, at least not usually. By either refusing to participate, getting silly, or by melting down in tears.
Having no idea what was wrong and therefore no ideas about how to help him, Mrs M and I turned for guidance and advice to the people whose job, we thought, was to look out for the children in their professional care, his teachers, the principal, the pastor, and eventually the head of the diocesan schools.
That last person was the priest who called us bad parents and I told to go to hell.
We got no help or guidance. The pastor and the principal made it increasingly clear that Ken was our problem to solve and the way they thought we should solve it was by taking him off their hands. We should have done it right then. We might have if we weren’t afraid he’d get lost in the public schools---the public elementary school in our neighborhood was one of the most chaotic in the city, with a reputation for a lack of order and discipline, and one thing we knew was that Ken did best in quiet, structured, predictable situations---and if we weren’t such still-loyal Catholics. We thought it was important that he get a Catholic education because almost unconsciously we believed that was the only kind of real and complete education there was.
Mrs M and I weren’t helpless. We didn’t throw our hands up in despair. We sought out specialists and counselors on our own. But it was slow going and led to many dead ends. Eventually, our family doctor got Ken in to see the top child neuropsychologist in town and he made the diagnoses of Asperger’s, ADD, and dyscalculia that got Ken the IEP and the special education he needed and essentially saved his life. But by then he was in fourth grade and well and good out of Catholic school.
Two-thirds of his way through second grade, in the spring of 2001, our pastor told us Ken would not be welcomed back for third grade. Not only that, he would have to finish second grade at home or somewhere else.
That’s when we made one last appeal to the head of the diocesan schools. That’s when he called us bad parents. That’s when it finally dawned on me.
While Ken’s situation was coming to a head, the molestation scandal was breaking. The Boston Globe’s investigative series that’s at the center of the movie Spotlight hadn’t yet begun to run but there’d been enough stories in the news in the Globe and elsewhere and over a long enough period to realize, if you thought about it, something even more heinous was going on than that a few bad priests here and there were sexual predators.
There were too many for the church higher ups not to have known. There were too many who weren’t defrocked for it not to be a policy not to punish them as they deserved. There were too many put back into regular parish work after a year or so of “counseling” and “therapy” for it not to be the case that pastors and bishops cared more about the deviant priests than about their past and future victims. There were too many of these predator-priests and too much official looking the other way for all the other priests who weren’t idiots or predators themselves not to know what was going on and too few of them on record as having tried to put a stop to it even by complaining to church authorities, never mind going to the police, for it not to be the truth that just about every priest was to some degree complicit.
Even the rare bishops who policed their own dioceses and punished the predators and protected their flocks were guilty of not doing more to stop what they knew was going on in other dioceses.
The Church was rotten from top to bottom, and while it was desperately protecting and enabling child molesters, it was throwing our child to the wolves.
It was hand-feeding other people’s children to monsters.
That was it. I was done. It didn’t feel like a momentous decision at the time. For the past few years, I’d only been going through the motions of being a Catholic anyway, and I’d only been going through those motions for the sakes of Mrs M and Ken and his little brother. But something else had happened it took me a while to notice, something more wrenching when I finally realized it.
In going through the motions, I’d been keeping what residual faith I had alive. When I stopped going through the motions, that last bit of faith died.
Sadder to me than that, though, was that all my joyful memories of my life as a Catholic were tainted and made suspect. I couldn’t go back to church physically in the present and I couldn’t go back in the past by remembering without anger and without mourning. There were priests in the background and foreground of all my memories and I had to wonder. Those great guys I served with, was one of them…? The priest who married Mrs M and M, was he…? How about the priests who baptized Ken and Oliver and gave them their first communions? And what about all the other children, my fellow altar boys, my classmates, Ken and Oliver’s friends…?
And then all around them and through them was the Church itself and weren’t all of us foolish and to an extent complicit too by turning our lives over to an institution that demanded obedience and loyalty but didn’t care about us even enough to protect our children in return?
This is one of the reasons I was so impressed and moved by Spotlight. It’s a terrific film, beautifully directed by Tom McCarthy working in a minor key and with a muted palette to create a world that is somber and sad and fallen but lovely for the warmth of the good hearts beating at its center, and brilliantly acted by a cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Live Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci. But it’s the screenplay, by McCarthy and Josh Singer, I want to talk about here.
The dialog isn’t packed with snappy one-liners. There are few big and meaningful speeches. No angry confrontations. No pithy back and forths. It’s realistically conversational. Characters simply talk to each other. And they reveal themselves, their personalities, feelings, thoughts, experiences as people tend to do in conversations in real life, indirectly, off-handedly, often unintentionally, in asides, in lead ups to making a point, or in expressing a concern or working out an idea or asking a question, or wrapped up in their points, concerns, ideas, and questions so that nothing they say doesn’t tell us who and what they are. And who and what the four journalists working on the story---the movie’s four lead characters, editor Robby Robinson and his team of reporters, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll, played by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, and James---are all lifelong Catholics
All of them were raised Catholic and to varying degrees they’re believers, but none of them think of themselves as that connected to the Church anymore. Carroll attends his wife’s Protestant church. Pfeiffer regularly goes to mass but only as a favor to her grandmother who needs the ride and likes the company. Rezendes hasn’t been in years. And Robinson is more or less a social Catholic---he’s most Catholic when in the company of other Catholics and his ties to the Church are based on friendships, social connections, professional obligations, and nostalgia. And while of course as they investigate the story and uncover the breadth and depth of the scandal they are shocked, angered, and outraged, they are also...wounded.
To different degrees and in different ways they are shaken. Things they thought knew, things they thought they believed, their sense of who and what they are are called into question, become subject to doubt and rejection. Whatever pleasure, comfort, and joy they had gotten out of being Catholic is tainted, even lost, and it breaks their hearts.
Just as it did mine.
And Mrs M’s.
And millions of other Catholics’.
I can’t believe the scandal didn’t bring about the collapse of the Church.
Spotlight might not have been the best movie to see the weekend before Christmas.
I’m glad I did, though. I was forgetting how angry I was.
We’d never told our sons the story of my conversation with that priest. I finally did before we went to see the movie.
They wanted to know if I’d really said go to hell to a priest.
I told them no.
“I said, ‘Go to hell, Father.””
Once an altar boy...
And I have a little more hope for Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice, thanks to Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor.
Actually, Jesse Eisenberg may be having a little too much fun playing Lex, but it’s good to see somebody involved with the movie having fun. Maybe Zack Snyder relaxed and had some fun himself.
Can’t tell about Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman but she sure looks the part.
Affleck looks like he’ll be good as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. I won’t be surprised. His Daredevil’s best forgotten, but he’s always been a good actor and he understands superheroes---I think he showed that in Hollywoodland by showing how hard it was for George Reeves to live up to the superhero he played on TV.
He might have been drawing on experience.
And I like it that Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent seem to have each other figured out. Of course they would. One short night’s flight over Gotham and Superman would have Batman tracked back to the Batcave, if he didn’t use his X-ray vision to look through the mask. And figuring out Clark Kent’s Superman would take the World’s Greatest Detective maybe a minute’s thought.
But what really makes me hopeful is Henry Cavill as Superman. The one bright spot for me in Man of Steel was the last scene between Superman and the general trying to track him down. It was the one scene in which Cavill got to act the part of Superman.
Give him the lines and let him smile, I thought, and look! Up on the screen…!
Fortune Magazine profiles Lex Luthor: Lex Luthor Jr.: Not Just His Father’s LexCorp. Hat tip to Oliver Mannion. (I hope Eisenberg wrote this himself. He’s a good fiction writer. Published and everything.)
The walk in the woods Robert Redford as the real-life writer Bill Bryson takes in the movie A Walk in the Woods doesn’t begin outdoors when Bryson and his old boyhood friend Katz (Nick Nolte) step onto the Appalachian Trail to start their planned twenty-one hundred mile hike from Georgia to Maine. It begins in a funeral home when Bryson walks out on a friend’s wake. The symbolism is a little too pat, but this is what Bryson’s trying to do for the whole rest of the movie: walk away from death.
Of course this can’t be done, and in truth, Bryson is doing the opposite. A walk into the woods, in myth and fairy tale, is a walk into the the underworld. From the Grail legends to Dante to Hansel and Gretel to Hawthorne to Harry Potter, the woods are where heroes and heroines go to meet Death face to face.
To put it more psychoanalytically, the woods are where characters symbolically confront the fact of their own mortality and come to terms with it.
A Walk in the Woods is a rather cheerful movie considering it’s carrying the weight of that morbid theme in its pack.
You might think it’s also a rather too ordinarily realistic movie to be burdened with such heavy symbolism.
How, you might ask, did King Arthur and Young Goodman Brown get into a movie about a pair of irascible old coots walking themselves in and out of comedic mishaps and misadventures, the worst of which leaves them with some bumps and bruises?
Well, it’s a good bet they got in there by virtue of the movie’s being watched by a pretentious college instructor with a habit of letting his mind wander during the slow spots. But I don’t think that’s it.
The thing about myths is that they resonate with us because so many moments of our lives recapitulate them.
At one time or another, we all take that walk in the woods.
Going in, I was worried A Walk in the Woods would be a tedious series of “We’re too old for this” gags at Redford and Nolte’s expense. But there’s very little of that. That they are too old for this is a given. We know it. They know it. They don’t need that proved to them.
Bryson and Katz go into the woods to confront the fact of their mortality and come to terms with it. But they don’t do it by tumbling into ice cold streams and rolling off cliffs and facing down hungry black bears or running from irate jealous husbands and turning down offers of a night of romance with hotel operators who look like Mary Steenburgen.
They do it by unavoidably talking about it. All of their conversations along the trail are, one way or another, about aging and death. This is done matter of factly, often with humor, occasionally with sentimentality, now and again with accidental poetry. They don’t talk about it to dwell on it or to philosophize or to feel sorry for themselves (although that naturally happens, the dwelling, philosophizing, and self-pity). They talk about it because they talk about what’s going on and what’s going on is that two old men who used to be best friends are taking on an adventure that they’re both, well, too old for.
They also do it by slowly, and almost unconsciously forgiving each other for not having turned out to be the heroes they once thought themselves to be, each to himself and each to the other.
Redford and Nolte have a great time working together and it’s fun to watch them at it. They have the instinctive, easy-going camaraderie of old friends and play off each other beautifully. It’ll make you wish they’d made at least one other movie together back when both were in their primes. In fact, they make such a good team it’s hard to believe they haven’t made more movies together and not just one other, 2012’s The Company You Keep. (In that one, they established a lifelong friendship between their two characters in one, short nearly wordless scene at a counter in a diner.) Watching the two together is a good reason to see A Walk in the Woods. It’s not the only reason. Unfortunately, there aren’t many others.
Katz becomes Bryson hiking companion by a sad process of elimination. One by one, Bryson’s current friends turn down his invitation to join him on the trail, all of them because they don’t feel up to it. Katz isn’t up to it either, but he has nothing better to do except wait around at home for the police to come by to pick him up for a couple of outstanding warrants for drinking and drug related offenses. The two have more or less have lost touch since their one big adventure together back in their twenties when they backpacked around Europe. Something happened on that trip that convinced Bryson he needed to break off their friendship. We’re not told exactly what---and it may not have been one, single thing---but it probably involved Katz’s tendency to let his youthful indulgences get out of hand.
In the forty-odd years since, Katz hasn’t changed and Bryson has and one of the first things they discover on the trail, after it’s too late to turn back, is that neither one likes that fact about the other. But it’s also the case, to their own surprise, that neither likes that fact about himself. Bryson gets to wondering if he gave up his life of wild nights, wild nights too soon, while Katz begins to face the sad truth that he held onto his far too long.
What this means is that both Bryson and Katz have committed to spending months in the woods in the company of the ghosts of their young selves and the specters of the selves they might have been, each seeing in the other the path not chosen and the life he could have had.
Unavoidably, then, as the two get to know each other again and, inevitably, become friends again, their conversation includes outbursts of recrimination, resentment, regret, and relief of the “Thank God I’m not like you!” variety.
Again, this sounds awfully heavy and profound for what's really a lighthearted and pleasant little diversion of a movie whose main point of enjoyment is watching these two old stars having fun playing off each other. But comedy always implies tragedy and the film’s weakness isn’t its inclusion of such dark and gloomy themes but its failure to be funny enough about them.
There aren’t many good jokes in A Walk in the Woods. There aren’t many bad ones, either, which is a relief. But a lack of good jokes is a problem for a comedy. Not an unsolvable one. Wit and humor can be expressed in ways besides wisecracks. But it requires writers to be inventive and playful in their use of language and incident, and A Walk in the Wood’s screenwriters, Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman, aren’t notably either.
Bryson and Katz do a lot of talking---from Nolte’s entrance to his exit, the movie is pretty much a one long conversation interrupted now and then by bad weather and bears, and it could be titled A Talk in the Woods---and they say a lot of interesting things. They just don’t say it in interesting ways. They use a great many words but the words don’t sing.
This is true not just for Bryson and Katz but for just about every character.
None of them comes alive through the words they use.
The dialog is natural, conversational, occasionally witty, but never surprising. None of it is particularly revealing. Nobody tells us anything about themselves in a non-expository way. Nothing anyone says about who they are or what they think is news to us or to the characters saying it themselves. They're never carried away by a thought or forced to follow one in an unexpected direction. They don't find themselves forced to think back on something that just popped out. We don't get a sense of who they are by how they use words or how words use them.
The exception is Bryson’s wife Catherine who is played by the delightful and surprising as usual Emma Thompson. Catherine does seem to be making it up as she talks, possibly because Thompson was making it up as she went. You never can be sure with her. She can make Shakespeare sound like inspired improvisation. No other character, not even Bryson, and he’s a writer, uses words as creatively. Words just tumble out of her, playfully, intelligently, with true wit and purpose, and to telling effect.
Meanwhile, Arndt and Holderman don’t make up for what the dialog lacks by being creative and inventive with incident. Most of what they make happen is all too predictable.
These aren't really spoilers coming up because Bryson and Katz don’t make a move you can’t see coming a mile away. But...
If there's a stream to cross, they'll fall in. If there's mud to step in, they'll sink in up to their knees. If they hitch a ride, the driver of the car that picks them up will be a menace behind the wheel. If there's a storm warning, they'll ignore it to their immediate regret in the very next shot. If there’s a bunk bed they have to share, then the overweight Katz will heave himself into the top bunk and you can guess what happens next. And if someone joins them on their way, that someone will be someone they don't want with them for good reason and who will have to be ditched in a desperate, comedic gambit.
The predictability of incident isn't compensated for by an unpredictability of characters coming and going.
Bryson and Katz aren’t alone in the woods. The foot traffic on the trail is busy. But they don’t get to know many of the people they meet. In fact, most of the characters they encounter aren’t characters as much as they are messengers from the screenwriters. They show up to pass on information necessary to moving the story along and then quickly disappear. The very few who have stories of their own don’t add much to the main story or to our sense of what the character and culture of the community of hikers who populate the trail is like. The movie doesn’t try to answer the question “What eccentric cross-section of America is out there and why?” Ardnt and Holderman and director Ken Kwapis don’t even to seem to notice it’s a question to ask.
Which is a strange lapse of attention considering the real Bill Bryson has made his name visiting various places and reporting back on who’s out there and why.
Nick Offerman shows up too briefly as the sales clerk in the hiking and camping supply store to exhibit the kind of competence, knowledge, and obsessiveness Bryson should have if he’s serious about making the hike but also to exhibit it in a pompous and overbearing way that makes him hard to take seriously. Mary Steenburgen appears, also too briefly, as the lonely proprietress of a trailside motel mainly to exude and elicit longings that can’t be fulfilled. And Kristen Schaal comes along, unfortunately not briefly enough, to annoy the hell out of Bryson and Katz and us as a self-absorbed know-it-all and nonstop talker meant to be amusingly maddening but who is un-comedically pathetic---it’s actually a rather cruel piece of writing and Schaal plays it for all it’s worth, gleefully collaborating with the screenwriters to make a monster of vanity and obliviousness out of a type of person whom if we met in real life we’d feel sorry for, even if we couldn’t wait to escape her company.
Thompson isn’t met on the trail. She doesn’t come along. She’s left behind, too soon and for too long. But, as I said, she’s delightful and surprising as always and she’s given much more to do with her too brief screen time than stand around and be the wifely voice of doom, although that is part of her role. Which is fine, because that gives her the most opportunity to play with words.
Pauline Kael, who had an inexplicable bee in her bonnet when it came to writing about Redford, thought his characters were always too much in love with themselves to be in love with anyone else. I think it’s been more the case that he’s needed leading ladies who could draw him out and force him to pay attention. The only two of his past leading ladies who were better at this than Thompson is in A Walk in the Woods were Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand.
Some fans would argue to put Meryl Streep at the top of that short list but that whole movie left me cold.
Thompson and Redford work beautifully together to paint as near a perfect portrait of a happy marriage as I can remember seeing in a movie. The Brysons are one of those old married couples it’s impossible to imagine as a young couple in love because it’s impossible to imagine them as having been any different than they are now. They have been so good at working together to deal with whatever life’s thrown at them and adapting to changes in their situation and in each other that whatever they are at any given moment in time is just the right way for them to be. And it’s inadequate or somehow off the mark to say that after all this time they’re still in love. What they are more than anything is still in like.
The problem is that Bill has suddenly and inexplicably become hard to like. And that’s Thompson’s job in A Walk in the Woods, to make us see that as a problem needing a two hour movie to solve.
One of the better things about Arndt and Holderman’s script is that it doesn’t include long speeches filling us in on the backstory. It’s left to Thompson to make us realize that there’s been something wrong and that there’s been a change in Bryson. He’s not responding to her and to other people and situations the way he should and normally would have. This is a husband and wife who have always understood each other and with the slightest of passing frowns and startled glances Thompson conveys Catherine’s consternation at his suddenly not being understandable, which to her is as indicative and worrisome as a persistent cough. Her concern follows him out onto the trail where it becomes our concern and makes his progress through the landscape more than the landscape itself the thing to keep an eye on. We’re watching him and watching out for him on behalf of Catherine.
The landscape is worth keeping an eye on, though.
A Walk in the Woods is as pretty to look at as you'd expect. To their credit, director Ken Kwapis and his director of photography John Bailey don't overdo on the nature and landscape photography. The scenery is there to be looked at and admired because it's there and it's beautiful. But there are only a few moments when the storytelling pauses in its tracks so Kwapis and Bailey can send us a cinematic postcard with the note "Some view, huh?"
On the other hand, they don't make much use of the landscape to bring the Trail itself alive in the way director Jean-Marc Vallée and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger brought the Pacific Crest Trail to life in last year’s Academy Award nominee Reese Witherspoon vehicle Wild.
In Wild, the story of another writer taking on a grueling adventure of self-discovery, the PCT is practically the second main character, the some of the time antagonist, some of the time friend (a demanding friend) to Witherspoon’s character, author Cheryl Strayed. We’re made to consider the trail as a constant series of problems for Strayed to solve. We see and feel the changes in the terrain and the challenges they present and are made to think along with Strayed as she deals with them.
In A Walk in the Woods, the Appalachian Trail is just the setting. It’s there to provide obstacles for our heroes to get up, get over, get around, or get through in not particularly creative, surprising, suspenseful, thrilling, or funny ways.
Despite all this, A Walk in the Woods is an enjoyable movie, if you like Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson, and I happen to like Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson. Some movies are really only about watching their stars do their usual good jobs.
And Nolte, I think, does more than his usual good job.
Redford, who produced the film, originally intended direct it himself with the plan being he would star alongside his old friend Paul Newman. It was to be a last ride for Butch and Sundance, a final big score for Hooker and Gondorf. Sadly, Newman became too sick and frail before they could get the project got underway.
But while Newman would have had a grand time playing Katz and we’d have had a grand time watching him having a grand time, he would have been acting and his Katz would have been a character.
Nolte’s Katz is a self-portrait.
I’ve always thought of Nolte and Redford have had something more than parallel careers. Nolte’s screen persona has seemed to me to be an extension of Redford’s. It’s almost as if Nolte was invented to take on roles Redford could easily have played but was too busy as an actor, director, producer, or environmental and political activist to handle himself at the time. In fact, at one point Redford held the rights to the novel The Prince of Tides and was going to re-team with Streisand in the movie adaptation. Go through the list of Nolte’s credits from the late 70s through the 90s and it’s easy to pick out role after role you can imagine Redford fitting and handling just as well. The Deep, Cannery Row, Teachers, Weeds, Under Fire, Cape Fear (I really would have like to have seen that one), The Prince of Tides. Not North Dallas Forty, though. Redford’s too small to have played a professional football player. And not Down and Out in Beverly Hills, because he’d never have seen himself as that down and out. And that’s just it.
There’s a reason there’s nothing on the order of Affliction on Redford’s acting resume.
He was always a little too cool, too cautious, too calculated in his choice of parts and in his approach to playing them.
Nolte was edgier, more daring, more willing to take risks as an actor and with his image as a leading man. The result is that there is something on the order of Affliction on his acting resume.
But, by the same token, the result has been a career that’s added up to that of a great character actor. He’s never been the star and icon that Redford has. It’s not at all that next to Redford he’s a failure. It’s simply that as a star he’s far outshined.
And the risk-taking and reckless side of his nature that has served him well as an actor, if not as a star, has come close to ruining him as a person. And next to Redford, he is, if not a failure as a human being, he is a near complete wreck of one.
But Nolte’s willingness to put that wreck on display next to Redford, who, one year shy of eighty, is anything but a wreck, is not just admirable, it makes A Walk in the Woods worth taking seriously despite its mainly flaws and lapses.
Nolte lets his wild life and hard times inform his portrayal of Katz to the point that it’s impossible to tell where Nolte leaves off and Katz begins. His Katz is practically his infamous mug shot animated. And when Katz talks honestly about his many mistakes and misadventures, there’s a sense that it’s Nolte not Katz who is delivering an act of confession.
All those dark and heavy themes I mentioned at the top of this post are carried by Nolte, weighing him down more than all his extra poundage, but not stopping him or even seeming to slow him down. He’s red-faced, out of breath, hurting in every joint and limb, but he’s still exuberant, lustful, gluttonous, and determined to deny old age, time, and death have any claim on him.
Katz is Nolte’s Falstaff. And the thing to remember about Falstaff is that, even though he’s one of the greatest comic characters in the history of literature, he’s one of the greatest tragic characters, as well.
For further reading around the campfire:
Redford and Nolte together again for the first time in The Company You Keep.
Not that it's a crowded field, but here's my review of the best movie about an old coot on a hike, The Way: Martin Sheen hits his stride.
And my review of Wild: A very small person alone in a great big indifferent world.
A Walk in the Woods, directed by Ken Kwapis, screenplay by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman. Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman, and Kristen Schaal. Rated R. Still in theaters.
Ok, Woody Harrelson as LBJ is not one I saw coming.
Movie’s being directed by Rob Reiner. Jennifer Jason Leigh is playing Lady Bird. Jeffrey Donovan of Burn Notice is JFK. Doug McKeon, the kid from On Golden Pond, is Hubert Humphrey. I hope he’s proud, proud, proud and pleased as punch to have the part.
J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King do not appear to be characters in the movie.
Story at EW.
Family movie night. Saturday, September 19, 2015.
Pure mood piece. Visual equivalent of a tone poem. Barely a story or a plot. No real characters either. It’s a series of suggestions of the plots of countless noir films that came before and everyone on screen is a stand-in for every character like them in every other movie like this. Practically an allegory. Los Angeles might as well be called the Slough of Despond.
Brilliant, of course.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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.