July 2004 Archives
"Super Size Me" is better than any Micheal Moore film, for the simple reason that it was made by a better human being. Morgan Spurlock, a thirty-something filmmaker with one previous production credit, attacks McDonald's with the same aggressive glee that Moore showed when going after General Motors ("Roger and Me"). the gun lobby ("Bowling for Columbine"), and President Bush ("Fahrenheit 9/11"). But while Moore is a carpet bomb blasting everyone who wanders into his viewfinder, Spurlock is a smart bomb hitting only his chosen target.
It's no fun deliberately ruining your health by adopting the sedentary lifestyle and fast food diet that are turning so many Americans into human Humvees, but that is what Spurlock does. Cheerfully making himself the guinea pig, he starts his experiment with a complete medical exam, in which three different doctors declare him to be in "perfect" shape.
Then, after enjoying a healthy "last supper" cooked by his vegan girlfriend, he spends a painful and hilarious 30 days sitting on his behind and scarfing down everything on the McDonald's menu, from Sausage McGriddles to Chicken McNuggets to Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese, accompanied by Super Size French Fries and gallons of Coke, and finished off with horrors like Baked Apple Pie Triple Thick Shakes.
After three weeks the doctors are advising him to stop, and at the end of the month, he has gained 40 pounds and developed something like an addiction to the rush caused by massive amounts of fat, sugar, starch, and sodium. After four weeks the doctors are telling him to quit or suffer alcoholic-like cirrhosis of the liver.
Spurlock uses some Moore tricks: the sarcastic voice-over that doesn't even pretend to be objective; the ironic editing that makes you laugh out loud; the campy use of old ads and TV; and the interview-ambush. The object of the latter is a General Foods spokesman who, in the middle of expressing corporate concern about the obesity epidemic, blurts out, "We're part of the problem." The poor guy is instantly freeze-framed and plastered with the logos of General Foods subsidiaries, while his words are re-played for the movie-going millions. At the end we learn that he no longer works for the company.
But this is Spurlock's sole victim. To everyone else, from McDonald's employees to pudgy consumers who admit to gobbling fast food several times a week, Spurlock is unfailingly sympathetic and polite. One way of measuring the difference between him and Moore is to ask yourself: Who would you rather be attacked by, an unpleasant egomaniac who enjoys making other people look foolish, or a sweet-faced fellow who just grins, rubs his belly, and delivers a knockout punch?
How much did I enjoy Troy? This much: In the big-screen theater where I watched it, the film caught fire, literally, during the final sequence depicting the burning of Troy. (How's that for versimilitude?) The manager handed out free re-admits, and I walked into the adjoining theater and watched it all over again, without being in the least bored.
It helped a lot that I had recently spent a month teaching The Iliad. When your head is clanging with Homer's poetry (or at least with a decent translation, my favorite being Robert Fitzgerald's), and your imagination has been straining to grasp the utter strangeness of Homer's universe, the movie is a treat.
Frank Virga, one of my students, put it this way: "Even though I felt the movie failed at times to present the true story of the Iliad, the set did an excellent job of portraying the look of the battles, the atmospheres of the cities, and the look of the warriors." I agree. For all its defects, this film contains moments of breathtaking beauty -- for example, the night scenes when battle is suspended and "they piled dead bodies on their pyre, sick at heart, and burned it down." [Iliad VII 514-16]
Troy does something else right -- and here the comparison is not with Homer but with other screen epics like The Fellowship of the Ring. One of the hardest things for students to grasp about Homer's war is that, unlike most of the blockbuster wars they've seen, it does not pit the Bright Side (sweetness, bravery, loyalty, clean hair) against the Dark (bile, cowardice, treachery, bad teeth). There are heroes on both sides, human frailties on both sides. And when a hero has a glorious day, the enemies he kills are not mouth-breathing subhumans (as in The Two Towers) but real men (and occasional women) with real names, tribes, and life stories.
Whether the medium is great poetry or state-of-the-art digital animation, this is a lesson worth teaching.
The readers of ArtsJournal do not fool around. They know Aristotle, and they know Dorothy Fields -- the "too-little-appreciated lyricist" who wrote the lyrics I quoted in my posting about "De-Lovely" (below). With all due respect to Jerome Kern, let me compensate for my own "too little appreciation" by quoting reader Chris Schneider:
"Fields is the same woman who wrote words for 'I Must Have That Man' and 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' (composer for both: Jimmy McHugh); 'Make The Man Love Me' (composer: Arthur Schwartz); and 'Big Spender' (composer: Cy Coleman)."
Kevin Kline and Cole Porter are both the top. Kline is that rare thing, a graceful comic; and Porter is simply the gold standard of 20th-century song. But this movie disappoints, for two reasons: music and sex.
First music. The reviewers seem to fall into two camps, those who get a kick out of the songs as performed here, and those who don't. My guess is that the first haven't heard many Cole Porter songs before, so renditions by Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and others sound pretty good. Curiously, the most accomplished vocalists on the soundtrack, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall, are played down, while the lesser lights – most egregiously Alanis Morissette meowing “Let’s Fall in Love” – get the full spotlight.
Still, these songs can take a licking and keep on ticking, and some are done imaginatively. For example, “So In Love,” the great torcher from Cole's Broadway classic, “Kiss Me Kate,” is croaked by Kline in a whisper to his dying wife at home, then smoothly interspersed with a full-throated version on stage.
Now for the sex. In a self-conscious improvement over the 1946 biopic “Night and Day,” this film portrays Porter as two things he wasn't: bisexual and nice. By all accounts, he was not at all interested in women (he treated Linda, who was eight years older than he, as a mother figure).
Nor was he all that nice. This film makes him nice when wooing socialite Linda Lee (Ashley Judd) and explaining that he wants a beard, not a bride; nice when leaving the bed of ballet dancer Boris Kochno and explaining that during the day his heart belongs to Linda; and nice when helping a strapping young singer to learn “Night and Day” then accepting his overtures.
Please, listen to Cole Porter's voice. Look at Cole Porter’s photograph. This wasn't a bad man, but not such a bloody nice one, either. Tom Hulce (wherever he is) could play Porter, or Robert Downey, or (don't laugh) Jack Black. The role needs someone who can do the imp, rascal, throughgoing decadent Porter was. For all his talent, Kline just isn't the rapscallion type.
Porter was madly in love his whole life, but not with Linda. His passionate affairs with other men -- Kuchno, Howard Sturges, Ed Tauch, Nelson Barclift, John Wilson, Ray Kelly -- were the smoldering fuel of his songs. His erotic life was crowded, back-biting, steamy, and amazingly uncloseted for its time. It was not a Sunday School picnic with the parsons holding hands.
How quickly the mainstream depiction of gay life has become...well, mainstream. Porter didn't write these lines, Jerome Kern did; but they capture perfectly what is wrong with this movie: "True love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has / But we don't have the thrills that the March of Dimes has."
Next time I will quote Aristotle with a bit more care. Here is a recent exchange with Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Greek, Hebrew and Roman Classics at Temple University:
Your blog comments on Aristotle left me scratching my head a bit. Aristotle never pitches epic and tragedy against one another, and certainly doesn't demean one in order to exalt the other. I can't find the remarks about cultivated epics anyplace in the Poetics. I hope that doesn't sound too pedantic, because you're absolutely dead right that the growing predominance in film of spectacle at the expense of plot and characterization is a HUGE problem (though nothing worse than the Romans experienced, or perhaps even some Greek audiences).
Maybe it's a question of translation? I find the discussion at the very end of the "Poetics" (pp 137-141 in the Loeb Classical Library edition; pp. 116-118 in the translation I quoted, Francis Fergusson's, published by Hill and Wang). I did not say "demean" or "exalt," I said that Aristotle was weighing what one does vs. what the other does. Maybe both translations have it wrong? If so, I would be most interested to learn that!
Luckily, I have the Fergusson (though I never use it). Note that Aristotle stresses that "WE ARE TOLD that epic poetry is addressed to a cultivated audience." This implies that the supposition is false. Aristotle would have known about epic in performance, and Homeric rhapsodes were notoriously flamboyant and emotional (see Plato's "Ion," a text that Aristotle would have known as well." As that chapter progresses, Aristotle narrows his focus to unity of the plot of tragedy. His interest really is plot types and forms. Elsewhere in the "Poetics," he dismisses the "Odyssey"'s ending as, essentially, pandering to its audience.
Like most people who saw "The Day After Tomorrow," I found the special effects brilliant. And eerie: the tidal wave rolling through Manhattan recalled the dust-and-debris one of 9/11. Spectacle is spectacle, and computer-imaging whiz kids can't be blamed, I guess, for cannibalizing a big one. More fun, and less troubling, were the mega-storms that freeze-dried El Norte and (in the film's only comic sequence) sent frantic gringos scurrying illegally into sunny Mexico.
But this particular blockbuster also widened the usual gulf between the brilliance of the special effects and inanity of the plot and characters. Here, that gulf became an abyss. Happy ending: neglectful dad learns to say "I love you" to son, and son learns to say "I love you" to girl. Backdrop to happy ending: destruction of all life in the Northern Hemisphere.
Which brings me to Aristotle's Poetics. At the end of that short treatise, after dissecting classical Greek tragedy, Aristotle asks whether this relatively new art form is better or worse than the older, more revered epic poetry of Homer. The main difference, he says, is that "Epic poetry is addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture," while ragedy appeals to "an inferior public" by combining poetry with gesture, music, dance, and "spectacular effects."
His conclusion? That tragedy is superior precisely because of these add-ons, which "produce the most vivid of pleasures." In other words, it's fine to listen to a rhapsode pluck the lyre and sing the Iliad, but it's even finer to watch actors strut across a stage whose scenery can be raised and lowered by hidden water pumps, while gods in gilded costumes sweep overhead suspended from cranes.
This conclusion comes with a caveat, though. Tragedy cannot succeed on "spectacular effects" alone. They are "important accessories," but the play must also possess "all the epic elements," meaning plot, character, and thought -- in that order. It is wonderful, is it not, that just about every moviegoer over the age of 12 would agree with Aristotle's priorities?
One of 2002's best movies was Catch Me If You Can, a scrumptious creamsicle of a movie. From the delicious opening credits to the heart-warming surprise ending, it burst with the seductive, manipulative charm we've come to expect from director Steven Spielberg, not to mention star Leonardo diCaprio.
But Catch Me If You Can is based on the true story of a teenage con artist who flummoxed then joined the FBI -- in other words, it's ABOUT seduction, manipulation, and charm. The thicker diCaprio shines it on, the wiser we feel for not succumbing to his scam...while, of course, succumbing totally.
The Terminal draws on some of the same talent. The eye-candy direction is by Spielberg, the ear-candy score by John Williams, and everyone's favorite ur-American, Tom Hanks, plays Viktor Navorski, a visitor to New York who because of a coup in his fictional Eastern European country becomes a transient without legal status, compelled by the bumbling Department of Homeland Security to live in the International Terminal at JFK for several months.
The Terminal isn't terrible. It's funny at times, and visually delicious. But it wants to be more than empty calories. It wants to be a Frank Capra classic about the little guy winning against all odds. That's why it borrows such Capraesque touches as the fancy dinner improvised for Viktor and a pretty flight attendant by the ramp rats, janitors, and other working folk at the airport -- lifted from It's a Wonderful Life.
But Spielberg does not succeed in borrowing what Graham Greene saw as Capra's main theme: "goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world."
Capra's genius was to know exactly how much selfishness and brutality the market will bear. Spielberg must think it will bear very little, because while The Terminal is supposed to be about immigration and uprootedness in an age of terrorism, the worst that befalls Viktor is his stomach rumbles for a while before he can figure out how to collect quarters from a luggage cart machine in order to buy a Whopper.
Would Capra have told a better story? For example, would he have dramatized a case like that of Purna Raj Bajracharya, a 47-year-old visitor from Nepal who in October 2001 was arrested by the FBI and placed in a secret detention facility in Brooklyn, because he had been videotaping a tall building that, unbeknownst to him, contained an FBI office?
Within a week, the arresting agent, James P. Wynne, concluded that Bajracharya was innocent of any crime beyond over-staying his work visa. But Bajracharya was not deported for three months, during which time he was kept in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep, stripped, mocked, and manhandled. The Capraesque part is that throughout this ordeal, Bajracharya's only friend, the one who kept appealing for his release and finally enlisted the help of Legal Aid, was Agent Wynne.
Strong stuff, but affirmative in the end, and certainly not more brutal than the market will bear. What Spielberg does best is wrap smooth, tasty technique around the wooden stick of a good story. There is no such stick holding up The Terminal, so it melts into a smooth, tasty puddle.
Thank you, Kit Baker, for your thoughtful comments. I will try to address a couple of your points. First, about the curious fact that "Fahrenheit 9/11" contains no reference to Israel. "Since the Bush administration has hardly mentioned Israel in its pronouncements on the Iraq war," you write, "why should we fault Moore for doing the same?" Well, because Moore is trading in every other coin of the conspiratorial realm. Why not this one?
Second, about oil. To anyone who can remember the ideological battles of the post-Vietnam era, Moore's caricature of America as a greedy imperialist power out to exploit the world's resources must feel as comfy and familiar as an old pair of slippers. Unfortunately it's also about as sturdy. It does not even come close to describing the complex geopolitics of oil in the 21st century. For a sense of this complexity, see "Saving Iraq From Its Oil," by Nancy Birdsall and Arvind Subramanian, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
Moore is shocked, shocked, that economic self-interest was part of the reason why the U.S. invaded Iraq. But isn't he the one who worries about the prosperity of working Americans? Didn't every politician, Democrat and Republican, pro and con, refer to "America's vital interests in the region?" What did Moore think they were all talking about? If he sees something illegitimate about being interested in oil, then by all means follow through, and say why America, alone among all the countries of the world, should not be so interested. But Moore deals in innuendos, not real questions.
Consider: what if Al Gore had been president on 9/11? What would he have done differently? If Moore is serious about wanting to elect a Democrat, as opposed to, say, lead a socialist revolution, then this is the narrow space where he ought to be aiming his barbs. Scattershot is OK, but in troubled times like these, precision is preferable.
The pundits have been intoning that Fahrenheit 9/11 will not change any minds. But they are not taking into consideration the outlook of someone like Nick Anderson, a 22-year-old resident of New York who told the Times that he "wanted to see it as soon as possible. This is easier for people to understand than reading books, reading newspapers or watching C-Span."
Michael Moore is a master rhetorician, in the ancient and not flattering sense. But his rhetorical language is not English. It is film – not narrative film, but the information-imparting kind known as documentary. There is no point in accusing Moore, as some have, of not being a documentarian because he’s dishonest and manipulative. That’s like saying Hitler wasn’t an orator because his speeches told lies. The test of rhetorical skill is not truth but persuasion. Just ask Plato.
And Moore is persuasive. As a polemicist of film he is witty, inventive, messy in just the right way, and a master at three essential skills: timing, segue, and (not least) ironic juxtaposition. For example, he uses music brilliantly. Over a sequence of two spiffed-up Marine recruiters cruising a run-down shopping mall, he runs bright, effervescent disco. When a pumped GI says combat is more fun "with a good song playing in the background," Moore plays the soldier’s favorite, "Burn" by the punk band Rancid ("We don’t need no water / Let the motherfucker burn") over footage of an Iraqi man fleeing with a bloody child in his arms.
So here’s a tip for pundits and (especially) politicians: Don’t underestimate the power of rhetoric delivered in the crowd’s native tongue, just because you can’t speak it.
But Moore is a lazy thinker. Look for the ideas behind the polemic, and you will find a mind as flabby and inert as the body. Fahrenheit 9/11 contains a total of one idea and eight-tenths of a conspiracy theory.
First, the idea. It is fixed, unmovable, a regular North Star: The rich are out to screw the poor. There’s a lot to be said for this idea (as perhaps Moore understands, now that he’s rich). But usually it’s better to combine one idea with another, and this Moore seems incapable of doing.
Once you figure out what Moore’s fixed idea is, you can negotiate what to a normal mind seems inconsistent. Take the American soldiers in Iraq. When Moore sees them as poor, hailing from economically depressed places like Flint, Michigan, then they are the ones getting screwed. But when he sees them as rich, riding around in fancy tanks and shooting at ragged Iraqis, they are the ones doing the screwing. Really, it’s no more complicated than that.
This simplistic worldview causes some weird effects. For example, the sequence in which several African-American members of the House of Representatives register objections to the outcome of the 2000 election, only to be told by the Rich White Dude on the podium that without the support of at least one senator, their objections don’t count. In a voice-over oozing with sympathy for the underdog. Moore sums up what the Rich White Dude is really saying: "Shut up and sit down!" The only problem is, the Rich White Dude is Al Gore.
Now consider Moore’s conspiracy theory. Eight-tenths of it are the same as the conspiracy theory held by millions around the world, from European leftists to angry Muslims, who see Bush as the clueless but conniving head of a gigantic imperialist plot to take over the Middle East (not to mention the rest of the globe). But Moore’s version is missing two key elements.
First, Israel. In this entire frenzied centrifuge of a movie, in which no corrupt, finagling, behind-the-scenes, back-scratching connection among presidents, princes, CEOs, sheiks, and terrorists is too tenuous to be credited, there is not one single mention of Israel. Given that millions of Moore admirers around the world believe that the rich Americans are in cahoots with the rich Israelis, why does he focus on rich Americans in cahoots with rich Saudis?
The answer is simple. Moore can do without the added PR boost that comes with being called an anti-Semite. Earlier this spring, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ got just such a boost, but with it came widespread opprobrium. If Moore were desperate for box-office tinder, he’d probably light this match. But he’s got plenty of other matches to light. Indeed, he does something very clever: he trades on both anti-Semitism and anti-Arab prejudice by casting the Saudis in the role typically reserved for the Israelis.
Still, in a film about terrorism and the Middle East, the omission of any mention of American support for Israel is not just glaring, it is (to judge from the lack of comment about it) blinding.
The second missing element is the link that, if made explicit, would complete Moore’s paranoid logic: George W. Bush is responsible for 9/11. Think about it. Without this conclusion, the film’s critique (if you can call it that) is strangely attentuated and unresolved. With it, everything falls into place. The Bush family, the bin Laden family, Halliburton, the Carlyle Group, the Unocal company and the rest of corporate America worked together to kill over 3,000 people on September 11, in order to provide a pretext for cracking down on civil liberties, sweeping the poor off the streets to serve as cannon fodder, and in general creating the conditions for what George Orwell called "perpetual war." All for the sake of greater profits.
If this is Moore’s message, then he ought to come out and say it, instead of relying on innuendo. But that would require guts, as opposed to a big gut.
Mel Gibson is the most powerful celebrity in the country, says Forbes magazine. He is also the head of a production company, Icon, rolling in filthy lucre ($608 million) earned worldwide by The Passion of the Christ. He is involved in several new projects, from family-friendly TV shows to historical action features. And he is the world's leading conceptual artist.
What? Mel Gibson a conceptual artist? Aren't conceptual artists supposed to do things like talk to dead animals (Joseph Beuys) and cover billboards with obscure theoretical statements (Joseph Kosuth)? Isn't the whole purpose of conceptual art to "make us think"?
Well, yes. Which is why Gibson qualifies.
What's the first thing a conceptual artist must do? Attract attention. This is harder today than back in the 1960s, when all Lawrence Weiner had to do was light a flare outside an Amsterdam museum and call it The Residue of a Flare Ignited Upon a Boundary. Today the would-be conceptual artist has to light a pre-release media firestorm, which Gibson did by lacing his film with anti-Semitic tropes from medieval art, Passion Plays, and the visions of the 18th-century German stigmatic, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich.
Most of this furor died down when the movie was released, perhaps because most Americans didn't notice such anti-Semitic tropes as demon Jewish children throwing rocks, Jewish crowds baying for Jesus' blood, and donkey-riding Sadducees gloating at the cross. They didn't notice because the popular imagination in this country associates anti-Semitism with Nazis, not medieval iconography. As one of my colleagues at Boston College quipped after we led a student discussion on the topic, "If they don’t know it’s anti-Semitic, should we be telling them?"
Whether or not he meant to, Gibson also satisfied the most important requirement of conceptual art: He made us think.
First, he made us think about truth. To a remarkable degree, The Passion galvanized two groups who process truth for a living: academics and religious leaders. During the controversy I dove into several scholarly and religious websites and immediately hit the rapids of historical, philosophical, linguistic, theological, pastoral debate over the nature of biblical truth. Before going under, I wondered: When was the last time thousands of teachers and preachers got so worked up over a movie?
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that a movie should be truthful. Then by what standard of truth do we judge The Passion? Here Gibson pulled off another feat: he got biblical scholars using the Gospels as a standard. For example, Paula Frederikson in The New Republic objected to the presence of Satan and of a "post-crucifixion Mary-and-Jesus pieta" on the grounds that "No such scenes exist in the Gospels."
Hmm. Does this mean we should cut all those Satan bits from Milton's Paradise Lost? Toss a tarp over Michaelangelo's Pieta?
And whether or not our idea of truth is Gospel, why are we suddenly using truth as an aesthetic standard? Aren't artists supposed to create their own truth? Isn't it dangerous, potentially censorious, to make them toe the line of some externally defined truth? The flap over The Passion reveals a sobering fact: When people become exercised about matters of truth, they become less forgiving of art.
The other topic stirred up was violence. Many critics accused Gibson of turning Jesus' last hours into a big-screen bloodfest, like Braveheart and Lethal Weapon. I confess to not liking designer violence, but it was strange to see it embraced by people who normally share my dislike.
For example, most Protestant denominations have prayed for generations before a bare cross, in principled rejection of what their forefathers saw as an unhealthy Catholic obsession with Christ's blood and suffering. Yet according to a number of reports, many evangelical Christians found themselves deeply engrossed in every spurt, splash, smear, and spatter of blood in The Passion.
Finally, Gibson is a conceptual artist if we define the term broadly enough to include the century-old desire of artists to gain instant notoriety through mass media. Filippo Martinetti was one of the first, publishing his Futurist Manifesto on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909.
Today this impulse is so mainstream, we half expect media feeding frenzies to be deliberate, the work of clever prestidigitators for whom publicity is in itself an artistic medium. Deliberate or not, Gibson's media blitz went far beyond the stale formulae of sex and violence. And he provoked millions of conversations about art, truth, faith, history, and freedom of expression. As provocations go, that's pretty impressive.