June 2005 Archives
In a fine piece outlining all the reasons why movie theaters are hemorrhaging money these days, the Baltimore Sun quotes the upbeat projection of Dan Fellman, president of Warner Bros. distribution: "We could still have that surprise this year."
What surprise? "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" in July, and "The Dukes of Hazzard" in August. And if these fail to reverse the tide (perish the thought), other industry spokesmen predict a really big summer next year, when millions of excitement-starved theatergoers will flock to blockbuster sequels like "Mission: Impossible 3," "X-Men 3," "Superman Returns," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," and "Indiana Jones 4."
Usually I am the child who believes that with all this crap, there must be a pony in there somewhere. But even I get tired of digging when the pile just keeps getting higher.
Neither István Szabó nor Ronald Harwood are getting any younger, and it has been a long time since W. Somerset Maugham topped the bestseller list. Maybe that's why several critics praised Annette Bening's performance in "Being Julia" but disparaged the film itself, adapted from Maugham's 1937 novel, "Theatre," about a 40-something actress in 1930s London trying to stay in the game.
Roger Ebert described the "basic material" as "wheezy melodrama"; Mark Kermode of the Guardian called the film "contrived fluff"; and Slate's David Edelstein found aspects of it "shopworn" and "old-fashioned." These comments are surprising, given the perennial appeal of the 1930s and 40s in films of all kinds.Why pick on "Being Julia"? The answer, I fear, is that it is about a theme most film critics do not find interesting: how a woman of a certain age needs just the right mixture of defiance and resignation.
In the few films that bother to treat women over 40 as people rather than stock characters or props, defiance is the preferred mode, because the assumption is that (to quote Cole Porter) the gals who are no longer hot tomatoes are yesterday's mashed potatoes. If Stella Can't Get Her Groove Back, why go on living? This is why, when Julia starts an affair with a much younger man, Tom (Shaun Evans), we are supposed to applaud her brave, futile gesture but then wait for her to lose him and then fade bitterly away.
She doesn't, of course, which is why so many women admire this film. But here's where the resignation comes in, because defiance only takes Julia so far. She cannot be hotter than Avice (Lucy Punch), the gangly blonde who seduces both Tom and her husband (Jeremy Irons). But she can be cooler. After gloriously upstaging Avice, and everyone else, Julia does something women in movies rarely do: she dines alone, content to be in her own company. If this is wheezy, contrived, shopworn, and old-fashioned, please tell me what other movies made it so.
Are the American occupation forces in Afghanistan and Iraq heroes or villains? The world is full of righteous souls who know the answer and will brook no argument. But to anyone who reflects on what those forces have been asked to do, the answer looks grey.
That is why, when the time comes to make a meaningful film about America's war on terror, I nominate a South African, Ronald Harwood, to write the screenplay, and a Hungarian, István Szabó, to direct. Harwood's credits include "The Pianist" (2002), "Cry, the Beloved Country" (1995), "The Browning Version" (1994), "The Dresser" (1983), and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1970); while Szabó's include "Sunshine" (1999) and "Mephisto" (1981).
Harwood and Szabó recently collaborated on "Being Julia" (2004), about an aging actress in 1930s London. But more pertinent to today's distressing headlines is "Taking Sides" (2001), a remarkable film about the interrogation of the eminent German conductor, Wilhelm Fürtwangler, by U.S. occupation authorities right after the war.
Set amid the rubble of bombed-out Berlin, "Taking Sides" stars Stellan Skarsgård as Fürtwangler, a proud, weary highbrow who served but also defied the Nazi regime; and Harvey Keitel as Major Steve Arnold, an edgy, aggressive lowbrow who takes very much to heart the de-nazification directive not to be fooled by German charm or intelligence.
Already you can see the difference between "Taking Sides" and the long line of Hollywood flicks stretching back to "Judgment at Nuremberg." In most of those films, the victorious Yanks have all the advantages, not just the obvious moral one but civilizational ones, as well. With the possible exception of Jimmy Cagney hamming it up as a Coca-Cola carpetbagger in Billy Wilder's hilarious "One, Two, Three" (1961), victorious Yanks in Hollywood movies tend to be just as cultivated as the Germans, only much nicer about it.
Not Major Arnold. He doesn't know Beethoven from Brückner, and he could give a flying fig. What he cares about is screwing any sonofabitch who played footsie with the bastards responsible for Bergen-Belsen. He is a combination rare in the movies: a crude bully who also happens to be right. And the only reason we applaud his bullying is because it is in service to a political system that (most of the time) places curbs on the freedom of bullies. By making the victor a worse man than the vanquished, this film achieves a tragic sense that is unusual, to say the least, in this genre.
The tragic sense is heightened by terrific performances by two young actors playing Major Arnold's assistants: Birgit Minichmayr as Emmi Straube, the daughter of one of the officers who plotted to kill Hitler; and Moritz Bleibtreu as Lt. David Wills, a German-born Jew whose parents sent him to America just before the rest of the family were engulfed. Although "Taking Sides" errs in not emphasizing fully the evidence that led to Fürtwangler's eventual acquittal, it more than makes up for that by revealing the deep grey depths where justice is never more than an approximation.