Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

America: bad film from the declining power – the Oscars

March 8, 2010
C'mon Hollywood, you can do better than that!  Source: Google Images
C’mon Hollywood, you can do better than that! Source: Google Images

A bad year for film in America.  The Hurt Locker was a good anti-war film, but c’mon, Best Picture!  The past year may have been a record year for Hollywood financially, but in terms of art, Tinseltown is in decline.  Bad film.  Bad TV.  Bad Late night.  What we badly need is some insight into the human condition in a compelling narrative.  Perhaps the examination of an individual’s simultaneous capacity for good and evil.  Remember that film, Crash, a few years back?  It won Best Picture — deservedly.  Give us some more of that, Hollywood!

Sure, The Hurt Locker was a compelling profile of a horrible, though heroic, job — dismantling bombs.  And more generally, fighting wars is a horrible, thankless occupation pushed on our young men and women.  But anything deeper on war and peace, Hollywood fails to provide.  Yes, the adrenaline rush and even addiction that war forces on young men is an interesting angle.  But, as one war veteran commented, he did no know anyone who preferred that addiction to wife and son. 

Hollywood never tackles war’s complexities, never attempts to inspire or inform policy makers (and voters) who have to make decisions on war and peace.  What about the numbers of war dead, the reasons for these numbers, and the implications for whether or not America should fight wars?  More than 58 ,000 Americans died in Vietnam, whereas just over 4,400 died in Iraq (and over 30,00o were wounded).  And civilian deaths?   Most estimates put Iraqi civilian deaths due to the war at around 100,000, though other estimates reach as high as 600,000 to 1 million, including in this the result of increased lawlessness since the ending of Saddam Hussein’s regime. 

What about a film of counter-history of what the world would be like with Saddam Hussein still in power?  How many dead then?  What about the fragile democracy slowly taking root in Iraq, what would oppression in Iraq look like today under Saddam by contrast?  What would the civil war in Germany have looked like if the allies had intervened in 1936 when Hitler re-militarized the Rhineland?  Maybe 100,000 Germans dead in a nasty civil war instead of the 60 million who died as a result of WWII, including the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of Gypsies and other enemies of the Reich.  What would that film have been like?  More fanciful than Avatar?  Certainly more interesting.

Estimates of the deaths in Rwanda where US intervention never took place range from 500,000 to 1 million.  In Darfur, where foreign intervention has been nearly non-existent, estimates of civilian deaths range from 50,000 to over 400,000.  The Congo has been a killing fields as well.  When is it right, or even necessary, to send young American men and women to war, to endure all the horrors shown in The Hurt Locker?  These are interesting questions — what is and what would have been — how much human suffering there has been and how much there might have been.  However, you will never get a deep probing of war and peace from Hollywood.  It is hard to write a narrative that deals with such issues.  Someone brave and creative should try.  If I were in the Academy, I’d take a long look.

Best Actor went to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.  I love Jeff Bridges, but a film about a drunken musician who abandons his family and can’t look after a kid in a shopping mall and the irresponsible single mother who loves him!  Just what everyone in countries not friendly to America believes American values are all about!  The music in the film was good, but that was about it.  What about a film about a musician who struggles to avoid addiction and lead a normal life in an environment of rampant substance abuse?  I guess that is boring story.

At least this year, gratuitous violence was not celebrated the way it has been in years past.  The Departed, that piece of trash given us a few years back by that overrated purveyor of violence, Martin Scorsese, was a travesty when it won Best Picture.  I wrote about that in a blog a while back.  Why can’t more films like Crash win?  That film is the epitome of what I am talking about in terms of delivering an interesting insight into the human condition in a compelling narrative.  Angry racist white cop shows his humanity in a car crash by risking his life to save a black woman from a burning vehicle.  That is what it means to be human.  To be complex.  To be simultaneously good and evil.  Friend and foe alike of America should know that the richness of America exists in our arts, in our film, and not just in the two-dimensional characters — usually violent dirtbags — that strut across so many a silver screen and the never-ending flow of rock-em-sock-em action films that reap millions for mediocre people in Lala-land who have the gall to call themselves artists.

The Russians are Coming…

August 4, 2009

Russian subs off East Coast echo 1960s Hollywood comedy...  Source:  Google Images

The NYTimes reported today that Russian subs were spotted nearly 200 miles off the East Coast of the United States, echoing the 1960s comedy, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, in which a Russian sub accidentally runs ashore off the coast of Massachusetts, causing an international incident and not a few laughs.  By the mid-1960s, lampooning the Cold War was acceptable and probably a good release for Americans, who only a few years before endured the war scare of the Cuban missile crisis.  The phrase — the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming — first attributed to Truman’s Secretary of Defense Forrestal in 1949, came into common U.S. usage to reflect the anxiety about the rise of the Soviet Union since WWII.

Now, the Russians are really coming, if not rising.  The Times article suggests that these Russian naval maneuvers could signal irritation with U.S. policy — U.S. duplicity, from the Russian point of view, speaking out of both sides of the mouth, with good cop Obama flying to Moscow to press the “reset” button, and bad cop Joe Biden running off his mouth in the Ukraine and Georgia.  Not only did the Vice Mouth compliment the beauty of Ukrainian women (who does he think he is, the Beatles?), he gave verbal support to these countries’ claims to joining Western institutions, including NATO.  This mischief-making in Russia’s near-abroad is no reset, especially in Russian eyes, even though Biden, with his gleaming pearly whites, is a more acceptable Cheney than Cheney.

Worries about Russia’s tightening relations with Venezuela, with arms and energy deals and Chavez due for a visit to Moscow in the near future, are well-founded and smack of the chess moves of the Cold War.

Corruption in China: Rio Tinto’s Turn

July 14, 2009

Claude Rains as Captain Renault and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca.  Source:

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

These were the words of Captain Renault, Vichy France’s chief gendarme in Casablanca (played by Claude Rains), when asked by Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart) why he was closing down Rick’s casino.  (See photo above.)  Shortly thereafter, the croupier hands Captain Renault his gambling winnings for the night.  In fact, Major Strasser of the Third Reich had ordered Renault to close the casino due to the boisterous singing of the “Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem.

This is the kind of cynical surprise one feels upon learning about the corrupt business relations between Chinese elites and executives of foreign mining companies.  The New York Times reported yesterday that Chinese authorities have widened the investigation into corrupt practices in the mining industry beyond the four employees of Anglo-Australian mining behemoth, Rio Tinto, detained last week.

Transparency International ranks 180 countries on perceptions of corruption,  i.e. business professionals are polled on how corrupt they believe these countries are.  China is tied for 72nd with seven other countries (Bulgaria, Macedonia, Mexico, Peru, Suriname, Swaziland and Trinidad & Tobago).  That is, seventy-one other countries are perceived as less corrupt than China.  One notch worse than China is Brazil; two notches worse is India; and thirteen notches worse is Russia, tied for 147th on the corruption scale with Syria, Bangladesh and Kenya (i.e. only 33 countries in the world are perceived as more corrupt than Russia).

This is all to say that China, though the least corrupt of its fellow BRICs, is still characterized by pervasive corruption.  Notwithstanding the executions of high-profile officials convicted of corruption, China remains challenged to reduce corruption in its society, which distorts its economy and restricts growth by allocating resources sub-optimally. Capital, labor and technology are directed not necessarily to sectors with the highest returns, but to those where connections and payoffs are made. 

One wonders why the Chinese authorities are singling out Rio Tinto?  Why not fellow Australian mining giant, BHP Billiton?  Why not Brazilian mining behemoth, Vale, aka Companhia Vale do Rio Doce or CVRD?  These firms have all pushed Chinese steel makers hard in the past by raising iron ore prices.  China is not only the world’s largest producer of steel, but also a huge consumer, fuelling its distorted capital-intensive, investment-intensive breakneck growth of the last two decades. 

What China needs in order to reduce corruption is not more high-profile capital punishment cases, but a free press and an independent, de-politicized judiciary and police force that will fairly implement and adjudicate the law.  Monopoly rule from the top makes it hard to develop such institutions.

Until and unless such institutions are allowed to flourish, we will continue to be “shocked” by the “gambling” going on in China.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

December 5, 2008

A Brief Discussion of the Tennessee Williams play in light of M. Bergmann’s paper, The Anatomy of Loving

            Bergmann in his wonderful work of 1987 culled insights into the nature of falling in love from the ideas of Freud and subsequent psychoanalytic thinkers.  He highlighted Freud’s famous statement in his 1905 paper, Three Essays on Sexuality, echoing Plato, that the “finding of a [love] object is in fact a refinding of it.” This compelling idea suggests that a person seeks throughout life to “refind” parental love.  Other psychoanalytic ideas raised in the Bergmann paper relevant to a discussion of love include narcissism, splitting, merger fantasies, and reality testing. 

            Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, explores a web of love relationships in the Pollitt family in mid-20th century Mississippi.  Although the centerpiece is the love between Brick Pollitt and his wife Maggie, the relationship Brick has with his authoritarian father and his psychically-weak best friend are critical to understanding his capacity to love.

            Early in the play, Brick and Maggie bicker, illustrating that Maggie’s love for her husband is not reciprocated.  Brick, a former football star, drinks bourbon all day in order to ease his nerves.  Brick’s parents, called Big Daddy and Big Mamma, return from a trip to a cancer clinic in the belief that Big Daddy has been given a clean bill of health.  A celebration at the sprawling Pollitt estate ensues. 

            Brick is contemptuous of Maggie, who attempts to coax her husband’s love back with her feminine charms.  The play climaxes as Big Daddy learns from Brick that he is in fact dying, and as Big Daddy’s curiosity about Brick and Maggie’s nonexistent sex life uncovers the story of the suicide of Brick’s best friend Skipper.  While Tennessee Williams, who was homosexual, arguably left it open as to whether Brick and Skipper had a homosexual relationship, homosexual feelings, and especially Brick’s unresolved oedipal feelings, clearly energized this relationship.

             Big Daddy was the son of a penniless hobo, a cause of great shame to this self-made millionaire.  Yet by the end of the play, Brick causes Big Daddy to admit that his father loved him and that he loved his father.  Big Daddy’s drive to hammer his way to success and to annul the shame of his father caused him to repress his love for his father and also for his wife and children.  Likewise Big Daddy never believed in his wife’s love.  He saw Big Mamma as nothing but a money-grubbing, controlling liar.  Tennessee Williams’s characters rail about the “mendacity” of the people around them, when the mendacity actually lies within themselves, i.e. the mendacity of the repression of their emotions, including love.

            Brick was never able to experience a non-traumatic separation from his mother, which the positive involvement of his father at an early age would have encouraged.  Merger fantasies likely persisted, underpinning his yearning for an exceptionally close relationship with Skipper.  Nor later in his childhood could Brick experience a healthy resolution of the Oedipus Conflict that would have involved his giving up his wishes for his mother and identifying in a positive way with his father.  Instead he identified with his father’s shame, his father’s anger, and his father’s rejection of love.  He witnessed his father’s rejection of his older brother Gooper and concluded that only by being better than Gooper, by being a football star, could he win his father’s love.  He became an overachiever.  He developed a strong, but rigid ego – arguably the definition of masculinity in the culture of the South of these times, conquering reality instead of enjoying it and possessing love objects, instead of experiencing love.

            In attempting to “refind” the pathological triad with his parents, he found Maggie.  Maggie adored her handsome, upper-crust football star, much like Big Mama adored Big Daddy.  Brick also found Skipper, a man with a fragile ego, who idolized Brick.  They played football together; however, one day when Brick wasn’t on the field, it became clear that Skipper had little skill to play professional football.   Brick idealized this weak man, who he believed was the only one in the world he could count on.  He deluded himself into believing he could experience the bliss of a passive male relationship with Skipper, the kind of non-traumatic yielding to one’s father that occurs in a healthy resolution of the Oedipus Conflict.  In fact, he chose Skipper in order to avoid closeness with a stronger male, whom he feared would be like his authoritarian, unloving father. And, Skipper chose Brick because Brick represented the archetype of manhood — strong, capable, hard.  Skipper killed himself after his failure on the football field, after Brick hung up the phone on Skipper because he had let him down.  The sudden realization that Skipper was not the strong male he could count on may have set Brick into a rage.  Maggie went up to Skipper’s hotel room before the suicide, circumstances that led Brick to believe she was unfaithful to him with Skipper.  We learn later that this was not true.  Brick Pollitt’s “compulsion to repeat” makes for dramatic theater in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. 

Freud posited that homosexuals often set themselves up as their mothers and their objects as themselves.  They identify with their mothers instead of their fathers, according to Freud.  In this case, however, it appears that Brick played the role of his father, projecting the unloved part of himself onto Skipper.  The climax of his rejection of himself came when he hung the phone up on Skipper.  Subsequently, he could not bear the thought of having been so cruel to Skipper, having acted out his father’s rage against this fragile man; so, he projected his unwanted aggressive self onto Maggie, turning her into the lying, money-grubbing cat his father believed his mother was, and Brick believed he himself was.  She was the one responsible for Skipper’s demise, not him.  This fantasy sustained Brick’s exhausted ego.  Only then was it safe for him to identify with his father; only then could he be the strong, upright man he believed his father was.  Brick’s loss of Skipper hewed more to “melancholia,” or the loss of an intrapsychic object, than to simple “mourning,” the pain of the loss of a real object.

Very compelling was the agreement that Brick and Maggie made after Skipper’s suicide.  They would remain together, but with no love, no physical intimacy, only psychic torture.  This way she could be with her ego ideal (her handsome husband) and he could hold his debased self at a safe, but close distance.  Brick had “refound” the triad of his youth. 

            A therapeutic episode ensues when Brick tells Big Daddy he is going to die.  Faced with the truth at last, Big Daddy realizes he loved his father, which brings into relief his love for Brick, Big Mamma, and the rest of his family.  This episode also causes Brick to accept that he had let down Skipper, but that Skipper was a weak man and that Brick therefore was not responsible for his suicide.  This enables him to see Maggie for what she really is.  A desirable woman who loves him.  She is not a liar; she is not money-grubbing; though she still is a little catty, a little seductive, and a little interested in moving up the socioeconomic ladder.

             Freud’s theory on narcissism also helps explain the love relationships in this play.  Freud suggested that the narcissist loves what he himself is or was or would like to be, or even a part of himself.  Maggie’s narcissism is a love of what she would like to be, her ego ideal as embodied in Brick.  Brick’s narcissism is the love (and often the hate) of a part of himself, the rejected part, the heartless, money-grubbing man his father was, his father believed his mother was, and he believed Maggie was.  He likewise loved in Skipper that despised, weak part of himself, rejected by his father.  At the same time, in his conscious thoughts, Brick turned Skipper into his ego ideal — a supportive, kind-hearted and strong man, albeit a distorted view of Skipper.  In the event, when Skipper failed him, he swung from idealization to devaluation in the nanosecond it took to hang up the phone.

            Freud also talks about how a strong, object-oriented love can impoverish the ego.  Clearly, this speaks to Skipper’s love of Brick.  Skipper leaned on Brick.  Brick was his ego ideal, the mirroring mother he probably never had.  All Skipper’s libidinal energy was directed at Brick, leaving little for his ego.  Once Brick withdrew his love, the selfobject representation that sustained Skipper’s self-esteem went from “good” to “bad,” making suicide the only option.

            The abrupt swings in this play from loving to hating and vice versa bring to mind the concept of splitting and Freud’s discussion of emotions as distinct from instincts.  The ego synthesizes all sexual instincts and libidinal energy into love and all aggressive energy into hate. A weak ego cannot integrate these opposing emotions, cannot see people for the gray characters they often are, resulting in splitting and in sharp mood swings.  Thus, the rage, and in the case of Skipper, suicide.

            The extreme emotional reactions experienced by Williams’s male characters, in comparison with his female characters, are consistent with Altman’s notion that it is easier for women to find an appropriate non-incestuous love object from the onset of adolescence than it is for men.  This is because girls have already renounced their first love object, their mother, during the oedipal stage, when they choose their father.  Boys have a greater tendency to remain fixated on their mothers, making it perhaps more challenging to find appropriate non-incestuous object choices later on.

            In ego psychological terms, it appears that Maggie the Cat may have been the character with the strongest ego.  Although in her compulsion to repeat, she may have clung to “the hot tin roof” as long as she could, she was always sure about Brick and loved him amid the storm.  She was the most capable of Tennessee Williams’s characters at enduring frustration, showing compassion, and performing reality testing by airing the truth and integrating contradictory material.

            Clearly, the love refound by Tennessee Williams’s characters one stormy night under a hot tin roof was a refinding of the lost love, or rather the incomplete love, of childhood.  But, it was a therapeutic refinding, flexible enough to allow the kindling of mature adult relationships, and the jettisoning of unwelcome patterns.

The Departed: What is wrong with America today…

February 1, 2008

Martin Scorcese’s The Departed won best picture, best director in the Academy Awards in 2007.   I saw the film.  It had me on the edge of my seat (actually the edge of my couch; I was in my living room).  My stomach was in knots.  It was suspenseful, riveting.  The beginning was well done, with Jack Nicholson expounding on his gangster philosophy.  The filming was at times artful.  Nevertheless, I believe that The Departed is what is wrong with America today.  I don’t want to pull punches, so let me say it plainly:  Martin Scorsese is what is wrong with America today.  The fact that we are celebrating this piece of crap as art suggests to me that a sickness is sucking away at our national spirit.  It is the sickness of American excess.  Polemical statement, yes.  Allow me to explain.

America’s Achille’s heel is its excess.  We produce too much crap.  And we consume even more crap than we produce.  Hence, the Chinese. We have created a way of life in which everyone wants more, no one is satisfied with what they have.  We all get caught up in this.  The American Dream.  We fought wars to force other nations to adopt this way of life; happily, yes, because other ways of life – fascism, communism – were worse than ours, no argument there.  Now that we’ve convinced the world to adopt liberal capitalism as its model, forced it down everyone’s throat, we watch as we ruin the planet.  You cannot blame 1.3 billion Chinese and 1.1 billion Indians for wanting what everybody in southern California has.  A big car, a big house, and lots of stuff.  Factories manufacturing this stuff spew carbon gases from their smokestacks.  In America, we’ve made it.  The rest of the world wants to make it too.

I was in Los Angeles in February 2007.  It seems everybody there has a Porsche SUV in the garage and a flat screen TV in every room of the house.  I drove through northwestern Connecticut this weekend.  People there are driving Nissans and Subarus, burning wood and wood pellets so they don’t have to pay high oil prices to heat their homes.  Hugo Chavez, the neo-fascist president of Venezuela, is offering home heating subsidies to poor people in this region (with Joe Kennedy, Jr. promoting this on TV).  What a difference from southern California.  In northwestern Connecticut, they’re waiting tables, plowing roads, fixing boilers, cleaning homes.  Meanwhile, people making crappy movies make millions, no, hundreds of millions; people running companies make billions; and, most of America’s leaders are filthy rich.  Talk show hosts like Leno and Letterman joke about how rich they are.  Okay, I know it’s not that simple, but the excess in this country is striking. 

Politicians too.  Bill Clinton bemoans the regressive tax system on the one hand, but points out on the other that somehow he, a lifelong politician, is in the top tier of holders of wealth.  Even our leaders who head or fund movements designed to save the planet, such as Al Gore, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are very, very rich. (These three heroes are responsible for, respectively, An Inconvenient Truth, the Gates Foundation which funds anti-poverty programs, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which seeks to prevent the spread of weapons grade nuclear material.)  How did Al Gore, also a lifelong politician, whose father was a lifelong politician, get rich? Serving on corporate boards such as Occidental Petroleum.  Having a cattle ranch that somehow sits atop a zinc mine in Tennessee.  Joining a hedge fund after losing the presidency.  Whenever it is convenient for him, maybe Al Gore could tell us the inconvenient truth about his millions.

Former Senator Sam Nunn who heads Buffett’s Nuclear Threat Initiative sits on the board of Coca Cola.  I guess that’s not so bad – keeping nukes out the hands of terrorists with one hand, selling sugar water to third world kids with the other.   And, to be Secretary of the Treasury in America, such as Hank Paulson and before him, Bob Rubin, you have to have made hundreds of millions – not millions, hundreds of millions – in the financial markets.

So, what does this have to do with the Scorsese film?  Lots.  Read on.

The Departed suffers from excess.  An excess of violence, blood and creepy people, an oversupply of top movie actors, especially of the hunk variety, an abundance of hype, but, unfortunately, a dearth of character, plot, and good dialogue.  And, to top it all off, a lack of a redeeming message.

What happened to tasteful films, nuanced art, and the critical ingredient to all human creativity, irony?  What happened to stories involving a single violent act that challenges human beings to be heroic or less-than-heroic?  Have they been replaced by the free-for-all, scumbags-shoot-scumbags-for-two-and-a-half-hours piece of celluloid?  Why do we have so many movies about scumbags in America?  What is the fascination?  Why do our best actors make it big playing depraved misogynist killers?  Nicholson, De Niro, Pitt, Damon, DiCaprio, Pacino, Gandalfini.  You mean you have to play a reptilian killer in order to make it in the American cinema? 

Why do we honor Scorsese when he makes such movies?  Why do Americans celebrate violence?  And then wonder why Columbine happens.  Export our violent culture, and then wonder why 9/11 happens.  We censor sex to protect our kids, but allow free reign when it comes to violence.  Films such as The Road to Perdition, Fight Club, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas are all hits?  Why does the Terminator – I’ll be back! – become the Governator of California?   American excess.

Freud explained violence as a result of mankind’s instinct for self-preservation and aggression.  The implication was that we shouldn’t repress this impulse, but rather should channel it into creative or productive endeavors.  Fargo, the Coen Brothers film, is a creative and productive endeavor.  The Departed is not.

George Kennan, the American diplomat who first warned the world about the rise of Soviet Communism in the nineteen forties, said in his second book of memoirs, sitting up there on his perch of East Coast elitism, that nothing good in our culture ever comes out of California.  Only the worst, newest trends do.  I believe he was a bit narrow-minded and reactionary in saying this, but when I see such films as The Departed win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and such Governors as the Governator running that state, I think back to that anti-California chapter that Kennan penned.

Good films depict a violent act or several violent acts and show how good people and not-so-good people are challenged, how they handle the stress.  Again, Fargo comes to mind.  Scorsese should be locked in a room with the Coen Brothers until either they are so disgusted with him that they leave or he learns something.  In Fargo, we see the Frances McDormand-character — simple, capable, good — juxtaposed against a broad array of weaker humans – the Scorsese-esque bleach-blond killer, the spineless evil of William H. Macy.  Fargo is deep, ironic, interesting, a real study in what it means to be human.  Likewise In the Heat of the Night, from 1967, with Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, explores hatred and racism in America.  The Poitier and Steiger characters change over the course of the film, they grow. That is the golden rule of fiction, characters must change.  Scorsese’s characters start out as depraved scumbags and die in a pool of blood as depraved scumbags.  Who changed, who developed, who grew in The Departed?  Tell me.  I’d like to learn.  Crash, which won Best Picture in 2006, was another great film.  Thank God the Academy had sense that year.

The characters in The Departed were flat, two-dimensional.  The relationships were contrived.  The plot predictable, deteriorating into about an hour of cell phone calls and text messages.  Is that what movies will be about in the latter part of this decade —  people on cell phones?  Furthermore, juxtapose the female characters in a Scorsese film with those in the ones I mentioned above.  In The Departed you’ve got this psychologist who likes bad boys, tortured violent men.  Can’t keep her pants on around them.  All the dialogue between her and Matt Damon and her and Leonardo was stilted and weird.  Dialogue simply to advance the plot.  I couldn’t write worse dialogue myself and I write pretty poor dialogue.  I think Scorsese must be a little misogynist to create such self-destructive, abuse-seeking female characters.  Compare Scorsese’s psychologist, who says she “believes in public service,” with the Frances McDormand-character in Fargo, who never has to say that because we have rarely seen a character more devoted to public service.  The theme of the female who loves the bad boy was treated better in that Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza tries to play the bad boy to win over a woman who works in Elaine’s office.  That was ironic and funny.

What’s more?  Everybody is in on this film!  It’s a goddamn Hollywood elite lovefest.  Scorsese, Nicholson, Damon, Leonardo, even Brad Pitt is one of the producers.  Martin, please, give me a piece of the action!  You need a little Brad Pitt in on a film like this one to take the violence up a few notches and make another hundred million.  Fight Club redux.

Now, I am not against suspense.  This film was suspenseful, no doubt about that.  But, my primary emotion was disgust.  Whatever happened to Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense?  The suspense of Rear Window.  Of North By Northwest.  Did Raymond Burr kill and cut up his wife?  Who is trying to frame Cary Grant and is Grace Kelly in love with him or is she an evil spy?  In The Departed, the murder that goes on seems more like a documentary about Darfur than art.

Not to minimize Darfur.  In fact, this is what a film such as The Departed does in the end.  It minimizes such reprehensible real-world violence.  I just read The Diary of Anne Frank.  This is the real world of violence and murder.  Here was a precious human being – a smart, precocious, talented, mischievous, loving, headstrong, sweet teenage girl, surviving and plying her art under the difficult conditions of being in hiding.  After you read her wonderful words, a work that reaches the pinnacle of literature if you ask me, you can find out on various web sites what happened to her from August 4, 1944, when she was arrested, until March 1945.  First, overnight in a Gestapo jail in Amsterdam.  Then, a month in a Dutch transit camp, head shaved, starving.  Then, aboard the last train from Holland to Auschwitz.  Three days in a cattle car, no food, nowhere to defecate.  Then, a couple of months in Auschwitz, as a slave laborer, barked at and whipped by female SS troopers of the Third Reich.  Then off to Bergen Belsen with tens of thousands of other women, crowded together in the most unsanitary conditions, only to contract typhus, as did her sister Margot, and die at the age of fifteen.  This precious, brilliant, sensitive, optimistic young girl, loving life and believing in the goodness of people, was killed by animals.  That, Mr. Scorsese, is violence.  That is true human cruelty.  The crap that Scorsese hawks demeans such stories.  Did I need to see that crazy finale of shooting in The Departed?  Absolutely not.

You can claim that Shakespearean tragedy features mass stabbings at the end.  Is this the way Scorsese is aspiring to be a modern-day Shakespeare?  To our modern eyes, Shakespearean killings seem almost comical.  And, each major character goes down with a soliloquy.  In a Scorsese film, they go down with a “fucking cocksucker!” and blood spurting out of their heads. 

America’s excess is at the heart of the success of The Departed. A film such as Volver or Little Miss Sunshine, which explore the nuance and irony of being human, should have won Best Picture this year.  Shame on you, Academy!  America’s excess is its Achille’s heel and is not a good sign for the future.  The irony of America is the fact that it is the promise of riches that drives the lower and middle classes to work hard.  These are the classes that are the engine of America’s renewal, in every age, not the upper classes.  Greater balance is needed in our society. Excess must be reined in.  Perhaps the excess of violence in our culture, in our art, emanates from our freedom, or perhaps it is a result of the frustration of competition – there are always losers – or of the lack of community, or of the veneration of celebrities who make it big playing violent criminals in the movies.

The Departed, to me, is a particularly revolting example of American excess.  It is a movie made by elites, for elites, and judged by elites.  Let us at least start controlling American excess in the cultural sphere, by choosing good art as our winners, such as Volver or Little Miss Sunshine, instead of Scorsese’s colossal crime of excess, The Departed. 

Thank you for indulging me this rant.  I obviously feel strongly about bad art, especially bad art that wins awards.  If you agree with what I’ve said here, please feel free to send this around.  Let’s start a campaign to reverse the Academy’s decision for the first time in history (joke).  But, then again, maybe you liked the movie.

Spielberg’s film, Munich…

January 25, 2008

An interesting, nuanced discussion of how the film potrays Jews, Israel and morality.  From January 2006:

Steven Spielberg’s unforgivable ‘sin’

In 1961 Leon Uris initiated a war of words with Philip Roth over the way Jews should be represented in popular culture. “These writers are professional apologists,” the author of Exodus told The New York Post, referring to Jewish writers who conceded weaknesses. “We Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be. In truth, we have been fighters.”

In response, Roth suggested Uris pick up a copy of Elie Wiesel’s Dawn, whose hero, a Jewish fighter in British Mandate Palestine, agonizes over his task of executing a British major who has been taken hostage. “I should like to tell Uris that Wiesel’s Jew is not so proud to discover himself in the role of a fighter,” Roth wrote, “nor is he able to find justification for himself in some traditional Jewish association with pugnacity or bloodletting… No matter how just he tells himself are the rights for which he murders, nothing in his or his people’s past is able to make firing a bullet into another man anything less ghastly than it is.”

Fast forward 45 years, to the current clamor over Munich, Steven Spielberg’s most complex and conflicted film to date, and the battle over Jewish representations is as fierce as ever. One of the more vociferous criticisms of the film is that Spielberg and his co-screenwriter, Tony Kushner, allowed the film’s protagonist, Mossad agent Avner, to be plagued by doubts about his mission. Months before the movie’s release, Michael B. Oren, author of Six Days of War, launched a preemptive strike against Munich when he told The New York Times: “I don’t know how many of them actually had ‘troubling doubts’ about what they were doing… I don’t see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden.”

True, one would be hard-pressed to imagine Clint Eastwood in an apron, as Spielberg depicts Avner in his first meeting with his team of assassins. One critic sniffed, “Real Mossad agents who hunted the terrorists… were not metrosexual sensitive guys.” Indeed, the film revises the myth of the Israeli warrior, described by Oz Almog in The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew as “the polar opposite of the Diaspora Jew: he was self-confident, proud, and brave, knowing what lay before him; a leader, not a subject.”

But what makes Munich a complex film – and a bane to its right-wing critics – is not that Spielberg has feminized the Mossad. The problem is that he has humanized it. Charges of “humanization” have dogged Munich from the start. The irony is that in this film Spielberg has gone to the greatest lengths in his career to create human beings as opposed to cardboard cutouts as characters. For this he has earned the wrath of those who refuse to concede ambiguities in Israel‘s history. The criticism of “humanization” is most often leveled at the film’s portrayal of Palestinian terrorists who, the critics claim, are given moral equivalency with the Mossad agents.

 BUT THERE are two meanings of “humanize” – “to represent as human” and “to make humane.” Munich does not portray its Palestinians as humane. Even the most well-developed Palestinian in the film is still portrayed as a butcher, and at no point does the film urge its audience to root for the terrorists over the Mossad agents. Rather than making them compassionate, Spielberg has portrayed terrorists as human beings who contemplate, argue and debate. But portraying human characters is not the same as taking their side.

But even the literal definition of “humanize” is insufficient for the film’s politically-minded opponents. To those who see the Middle East as an absolute struggle of Good versus Evil, it is inconceivable that terrorists might be rational, sentient beings. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any portrayal of terrorists, short of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the aliens in War of the Worlds, that would placate Spielberg’s most ardent critics.

BUT THE humanization that cuts to the heart of the critics’ outrage is arguably that of Munich‘s Mossad agents, specifically of Avner. Throughout the film, Avner – and, to varying degrees, each member of his team – vacillates between absolute conviction and paralyzing doubt. In his first job, Avner’s fingers are trembling; he insists on repeating the question “Do you know why we’re here?” before pulling the trigger.

In subsequent jobs Avner goes out of his way to ensure that innocent bystanders are not harmed. He and his comrades engage in heated, albeit sometimes hackneyed, debates about their mission and about Jewish identity and destiny. Finally, Avner is haunted and crippled by various forms of violence: by his obsessive fantasies of the Munich massacre, by his own acts as an assassin, and by the murders, ultimately, of two of his team members. In other words, Avner is a human being.

Spielberg and Kushner have advanced the apparently radical notion that an Israeli might possess a trait held by all humanity: doubt. It is this quality that forms a crux of the politically-based critiques of the film. David Brooks of The New York Times chides Spielberg because “the real Israeli fighters tend to be harder and less sympathetic [than Avner], and they are made that way by an awareness of the evil implacability of those who want to exterminate them.”

ONE IS left to wonder: Do we really want to glorify Mossad officers as unthinking automatons or trigger-happy Dirty Harrys? Are these the new Jewish ideals? What’s especially odd is that the same critics who defend Israel‘s army as the most moral fighting force in the world are shocked at the portrayal of a Mossad agent as morally conflicted. Among these filmgoers only a cartoonish representation of Jewish history, identity and existence will suffice. Just as terrorists must be portrayed as supernatural demons, Mossad agents must be otherworldly superheroes not bound by mortal (or, worse yet, Diaspora) emotions. In other words, their depictions should verge dangerously close to Socialist Realism.

The film’s greatest blow to Israeli mythology comes at the end: Avner is so haunted by his experience that he leaves his country, becoming a “descender,” or yored. With such an emphatic ending Spielberg dares to ask serious and often painful questions: Must devotion to the state take precedence over individual needs? How has the Jewish psyche been affected by decades of violence and war? It is not anti-Israel to ask these questions. In light of our collective history of debate and soul-searching it is anti-Jewish to deny that the questions should even be asked.

Although it is by no means an anti-Zionist film, Munich punctures the contention, popular in the Jewish community, that Israel has brought nothing but unadulterated goodness to the Jewish experience. While defending both Israel‘s right to exist and its response to terror, and while plainly indicating that violence has been thrust upon Israel by its enemies, the film nonetheless concedes the human toll that a lifetime of violence has begotten both on the individual and on the Jewish nation.

We are in a sad state of affairs if, almost 60 years after the creation of Israel, we must banish this topic as taboo and deny discussion of our all-too-human experiences of pain and moral doubt

Shawshank Redemption…

January 5, 2008

From a 2004 article: 

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) — With its unwieldy name and some high-profile competition from the likes of “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump,” “The Shawshank Redemption” kind of got lost in the shuffle in 1994.

But like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the film found new life after its original theatrical run. Although the prison drama underachieved at the box office, it found its own “redemption” on home video, fueled by critical acclaim and positive word of mouth.

Writer-director Frank Darabont certainly knows the debt “Shawshank” owes to home video: “Without that it would be a forgotten movie. Instead, it’s something that’s very beloved by people.”So beloved in fact, that the film — based on a Stephen King novella, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” — currently ranks No. 3 (behind only “The Godfather” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” with which it sometimes changes places) on the Internet Movie Database Web site’s user poll of the top 250 movies of all time.

For its 10th anniversary, Darabont has spearheaded a bonus feature-laden special edition DVD (which came out Tuesday) and a limited theatrical re-release. “It occurred to me last year that we were coming up on a 10-year anniversary, and I thought, I’ve been meaning to do a special edition DVD for some years anyway, what better time to do that,” Darabont said. “From there, kind of sprang the idea of doing a theatrical re-release.“You know, we’re opening in eight cities again, and it’s sort of a celebratory thing,” he added. “It’s also a chance to give some of the fans of the movie that have kind of built through the years, who discovered it on video, a chance to see it on the big screen, where it was really meant to be seen.”

‘A long shadow’

Darabont’s subsequent films — “The Green Mile” (also based on a King work) with Tom Hanks and “The Majestic” with Jim Carrey — haven’t been short on star power, but they have failed to find their way into the hearts of movie-lovers as “Shawshank” has.

Indeed, “Shawshank” has proven to be a tough film for Darabont to top.“Of course, you try to make a movie audiences will love. But when it becomes sort of like this, it happens by accident. So you can’t hold that over your own head the rest of your life, you gotta keep making, doing what you do,” he said. ” ‘Shawshank’ may cast a long shadow. If that’s what I’m remembered for, more than any other film I make, great. How many other people get that chance in life to have one thing that people really really love, that means something to them?”

Director Frank Darabont’s other films include “The Green Mile” and “The Majestic.”

Darabont’s no “prisoner” to the past, though. He’s busy writing the screenplay for “Mission Impossible 3,” and is slated to write and direct a new version of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic “Fahrenheit 451” — not to be confused with that OTHER film by Michael Moore.He even wrote an “Indiana Jones 4” screenplay for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but alas, ’twas not meant to be.

I wrote a script, Steven loved it, wanted to shoot it this year. George didn’t love it, it got sort of lost between two conflicting opinions and now I think they’re trying to figure out what, if anything, to do from here,” Darabont said.Which prompts the question, what didn’t Lucas like?“You know what, it’s a disappointment and not really worth getting into details on it. Suffice it to say, he didn’t like it nearly as much as Steven and I did. Sometimes it works that way,” he shrugged.

“As they say in ‘The Godfather,’ ‘This is the business we have chosen.’ Sometimes things go really well, sometimes things don’t go really well. I try to weather both successes and disappointments with equal grace.”Well, it’s easy to be graceful when you’ve got a little something called “The Shawshank Redemption” on your resume.