September 2004 Archives
The critics have been spooning over "We Don't Live Here Any More," a new film adapted from two 1970s novellas by Andre Dubus. Dubus's fine-tuned fiction was also the basis for "In the Bedroom," one of the most remarkable films made in the last decade. This time, though, his art is not so well served.
The problem is partly the material. Instead of murder, grief, and revenge, the weighty subjects of "In the Bedroom," the topic here is wife-swapping 1970s-style. I'm tempted to add "pre-feminist 1970s-style," since both husbands are youngish academics married to women who never utter a peep about doing anything more interesting than keep house. The acting is OK (I rarely blame actors for anything). But the story is thin, the sexual equivalent of watching somebody decide not to have a cookie, then decide to have one, then decide not to have another. John Updike did it better in "Couples."
The real problem, though, is a distracting linattention to what film makers call continuity. That usually means keeping details consistent from scene to scene - for example, if a character is riding a green bicycle in the beginning of a scene, he or she should not be riding a blue one a minute later.
The continuity problem here is a bit more serious. Let me quote from the New Yorker's rave review: "The lovely cinematography of Maryse Alberti ... creates a canopy of nature over the characters, season after season, which tells us that life will go on for these four - they may not find happiness, but they will survive. Scene by scene, the movie is precise, vibrant, and, for all its turmoil, moving."
Huh? Watch the scenes unfurl, and you will witness what can only be called season-swapping. One moment it is summer, then fall, then spring, then winter, and so on. Maybe I should give the film the benefit of the doubt and take this as a cinematic metaphor suggesting the frustration of these four individuals whose relationships with one another don't seem to be getting anywhere? Nahh.
If you liked "Yes, Minister," the brilliant BBC series about a newly elected Member of Parliament wandering Alice-like in the Wonderland of a government run by Her Majesty's civil service, then Virgil says rush out and rent the sequel: "Yes, Prime Minister." It is even funnier.
The first series depicts the antagonistic relationship between Jim Hacker, M.P. (Paul Eddington) and his slithery civil service handler, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne in his prime). Also present is Sir Humphrey's apprentice, the overeducated Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds, master of the slow burn).
By the end of the first series, Hacker still doesn't know how to get the better of Sir Humphrey, although he's learning. You get the feeling that no politician in this system is any match for the careerists whose whole purpose in life is to keep the pols from doing anything that would upset their bureaucratic apple-cart.
In the second series, Hacker is chosen as Prime Minister because the Party cannot decide between two powerful men and sees Hacker as ineffectual and therefore safe. But such is the satisfying comedy of the thing: Hacker rises to the occasion, and relishing his new power starts giving it back to Sir Humphrey in ways that will make you laugh out loud.
Again, who would have thought so much comedy could be wrested from the spectacle of close associates vying for power? My political friends tell me that this is what Tip O'Neill really meant by his famous remark, "All politics is local." The question is, why are we Americans so incapable of seeing the humor of it?
Winner of this year's Oscar, "Mystic River" has been compared with Greek tragedy. This intrigued me at first, because most Hollywood films treat of tragedy in the spirit described by William Dean Howells: "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."
"Mystic River" does not have a happy ending, which makes its Oscar win all the more impressive. But because it screws up the tragic ending it could have had, "Mystic River" wouldn't have won any prizes in Athens.
The three main characters, Irish-American boys from a fictional blue-collar section of Boston, are as happy as they're ever going to be on the day when one of them, Dave, gets abducted by a pair of pedophiles pretending to be cops. After several horrific days locked in a cellar and roughly abused, Dave escapes. But he is never the same, and neither are his two friends, Jimmy and Sean.
The film opens with Dave's ordeal, but in keeping with Greek unity of time, place, and action, that ordeal is implied more than shown. A purist might set up a chorus -- five guys in the Purple Shamrock bar? -- but director Clint Eastwood is not a purist. He's a master of film, and it is through film that he achieves the emotional tone, searing yet detached, of the tragic chorus.
Then commences the main plot. On the same street, in the same weather, we see the three boys grown up: Dave (Tim Robbins) is a lost soul barely held together by his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con with a second wife who walks the straight and narrow as proprietor of a mom-and-pop grocery. Sean (Kevin Baker) is a police detective who has split from the neighborhood.
For a while, the plot unfolds with Sophoclean swiftness. Jimmy's beloved daughter by his first wife, a mercurial beauty named Katie (Emmy Rossum), is murdered late one night and dumped in a park. Jimmy is frantic. Sean warily shows up to investigate, and Dave spooks Celeste by coming home that night with blood on his clothes and a not very credible story about having beaten and possibly killed a mugger.
And the tragic elements are all in place. A sense of foreboding, of deadly fate set in motion long ago, hangs over the proceedings, mixed with suspense: Did Dave kill Katie? Will Jimmy seek revenge before the facts are in? Will Sean's guilty loyalty cause him to blow the case? Then a series of interlocking recognitions and reversals culminates in a harrowing sequence: Jimmy's gangster-style execution of Dave, followed by the revelation that Dave was innocent, and Sean's decision to let Jimmy walk, his rage and sorrow at having killed his unhappy friend punishment enough.
So why not give "Mystic River" the prize? Because instead of stopping there, Eastwood adds four or five extraneous scenes, tying up loose ends that do not need tying up, and in general draining off all the tragic emotion that the film has successfully evoked. This ending-after-the-ending is so bad, I can't thinking that it was tacked on after the movie was market-tested on the same American public that Howells knew so well. If this is the case, then all I can do is thank Zeus that the theater of Dionysus didn't go in for such foolishness.
Sorry for the hiatus. It was unavoidable.
Some thoughts prompted by the news that Warner Brothers has canceled its distribution of David O. Russell's anti-Iraq war documentary made to accompany the re-release of his 1999 film, "Three Kings."
I haven't seen the documentary, but I am curious about it, because Russell is a figure to be reckoned with. "Three Kings" is a flawed but fascinating film about the 1991 Gulf War, which begins with a scene of self-indulgent chaos on the part of American soldiers that is not unlike the opening sequences in "Apocalypse Now."
Amid drunken celebrations of victory in Kuwait, a band of cynical G.I.'s decide to venture into Iraq to steal some gold. But unlike the Americans in "Apocalypse Now," who descend into the heart of their own darkness, these adventurers encounter a group of desperate Shi'ites involved in the thwarted uprising against Saddam Hussein. By helping them to escape, the Americans ascend to a state of surprisingly convincing moral clarity. The film is full of black humor and graphic violence, but at the end it achieves something like a modern vision of democratic honor.
This stands in sharp contrast with more popular and commercially successful war films like "Black Hawk Down" (2002). Directed by Ridley Scott, "Black Hawk Down" is about the Delta Force and Ranger soldiers who battled to save a helicopter crew stranded in the streets of Mogadishu. As sheer spectacle it is ear-splitting and eye-popping, and it brilliantly evokes the physical aspect of modern high-tech warfare. But unfortunately, "Black Hawk Down" goes out of its way to avoid showing WHY its fresh-faced, all-American heroes, who as characters are as interchangeable as avatars in a video game, are in Somalia in the first place.
This is typical of today's war movies. Some attract a loyal following among veterans and other people familiar with the situations they depict. For example, a veteran friend of mine is a great fan of Mel Gibson's revisionist Vietnam movie, "We Were Soldiers" (2002), for the uncontestable reason that he fought in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley back in 1965. At a recent reunion with his unit, he and his former buddies reconstructed the battle with the aid of the film -- an exercise that clearly meant a lot.
Nonetheless, "We Were Soldiers" is a mediocre movie, in part because it, too, avoids saying WHY the battle is being fought. The first American casualty moans, “I am glad to die for my country,” but by the end, even patriotism is muted, as a voice-over attributed to the film's hero, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, says that the men of the Seventh Air Cavalry “went to war because their country asked them to, but in the end they fought not for their country or their flag. They fought for each other."
This is the mantra nowadays: "Forget cause - leave that to the politicians. Real men fight for comradeship, period." It makes a lot of sense, as originally defined by psychologists studying the behavior of men in combat. In the heat of battle, many studies have found, soldiers risk their lives not for the sake of abstract ideals but for their friends. The term for this is "unit cohesion," and story-tellers have long understood it. Ever since Achilles rode into battle to avenge his beloved Patroclus, comradeship, not cause, has been the source of drama in all war stories worth telling.
But great story-tellers also understand that cause must be addressed. Yes, comradeship rules while the bullets (or flaming arrows) are flying. But at some point the shooting stops, soldiers ponder why they fight, and if no adequate reason presents itself, they grow less willing to re-enter hell. This is what happened in Vietnam, and this could happen in Iraq.
So what are we left with? Incredibly vivid war movies that drift away from meaning and toward violence for its own sake. "Black Hawk Down" mounts a mighty assault on the senses, but because the thrill is vicarious, it makes war look more exciting than horrible, closer to a video game than to a deadly serious undertaking. Such richly produced, poorly scripted spectacles ignore the bitterest but most important lesson of war – namely, that the willingness of one soldier to sacrifice for another, however potent in the short run, depends in the long run on his knowing why he fights. When the cause is perceived as meaningless or unjust, unit cohesion dissolves and battle spirals into a dishonorable nightmare of every man for himself. Surely that is not a movie that any human being wishes to see.