June 2006 Archives
"All my films, from the first to the most recent ones, are about individuals who can't quite find their bearings, who don't quite know how to live, who don't really know what's right or wrong and are desperately looking." These words do as good a job as any of summing up the career of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. But if you want to read more about him, see my recent essay ....
I steal a title from Miles Davis to highlight a fine essay by Jack Miles, one of my favorite writers on religious matters. If you have succumbed to the posters promising that if you see The Da Vinci Code you will "Know the Truth," then don't miss Miles's gentle but thorough post-mortem. It doesn't fulminate in the manner of a would-be censor, but neither does it shrug and say, "It's only a movie."
You don't need to study Kabbalah to enjoy The Bee Season, but it helps. At first, the film seems yet another tribute to the hearth gods of middle America: Family, Success, Competition, and (scheduled for worship this weekend) Caring Dads. Indeed, Saul (Richard Gere) seems the ultimate Caring Dad, a professor of Jewish philosophy who is devoted both to Family - he cooks a gourmet dinner every night for his scientist wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) - and to the Success of his two children, teenaged Aaron (Max Minghella) and nine-year-old Eliza (Flora Cross).
Unfortunately, only Aaron seems destined for Success. While he plays the cello and shines in every sort of Competition, little sister Eliza is distinctly ungifted. Now, the usual pattern for hearth-god flicks is for the ungifted sibling to discover a hidden talent that the parents don't notice at first, so focused are they on the gifted one. But then the hidden talent comes to light, preferably in a public Competition, one or both parents start to pay attention, making the gifted sibling jealous - and for one terrible moment it appears that Family, Competition, and Success will clash.
The next step, of course, is a therapeutic processing of negative emotion, followed by an even bigger public Competition in which the Family's future hinges on the Success of the previously ungifted sibling. Typically, the Competition starts before all the negative emotions have been processed. But then, at the crucial moment, the remaining bad feelings are dealt with, and with victory comes a great celebration of all the hearth gods together.
The Bee Season follows this formula to such a degree that if you listen to the insipid commentary on the DVD (and most reviews), you'll conclude it does nothing more. But as I say, it does do more, because the most important deity in this film is not a middle American hearth god but that other one, whose name is spelled with one capital letter in English and four in Hebrew.
I have not read the novel by Myla Goldberg on which this film is based, but I suspect it is the source of the film's extraordinary conclusion. Without giving away the ending of this Father's Day recommendation, let me just point out that the aptly named Saul is not the ultimate Caring Dad at all. Instead, he is a classic figure from the Hebrew Scriptures: pious, proud, and stiff-necked. And when he is rebuked, it is not really by the young daughter whom he has been pushing so hard, it is by a larger and sterner force rarely seen, or even hinted at, in what passes for "spiritual" entertainment these days.
This month I have some evening busy-work to do, so I scanned Netflix for something mildly diverting -- and long. Well, I am neglecting my busy-work, because the film I chose is a miniseries from the golden age: The Winds of War, based on Herman Wouk's beloved best-seller.
Poking about online, I find only one review of this film, a snarky one -- which doesn't surprise me, given what passes for criticism these days. This is not Shoah. Nor is it The Sorrow and the Pity. It's a TV miniseries in the populist, let's-make-this-easy-for-the-folks-back-home line. And it was made in 1983, so its production values do not compare with those of HBO's Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan . It contains nothing like Private Ryan's eye-and-ear-popping depiction of the landing at Normandy, for example. But given the limitations of the small screen and the network censors (still functioning back then), Winds does a remarkable job of evoking battle and danger, not to mention a variety of European and American landscapes, on its small canvas.
Most of all, Winds accomplishes its goal, which is to blend a foreground of watchable characters into an accurately painted background of world-historical events. This may be an inherently ridiculous undertaking, but that hasn't deterred a great many novelists, not to mention playwrights. The question is, does director Dan Curtis (who died this spring) make himself ridiculous? Not at all. Apart from a certain cheesiness in the depiction of the Nazi High Command (especially Hitler), The Winds of War blends charm, action, and gravitas in just the right proportions.
Of course, you have to give it the benefit of the doubt. First, you must believe that there is actually something going on behind the stone face of Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum), naval attache to the US Embassy in Berlin in 1936. Second, you must accept that the starry-eyed response of his wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen) to the blandishments of the Nazi leadership reflects not perfidy but vanity. Third, you must feel the chemistry between the Henrys' callow son Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Natalie (Ali McGraw), his razor-tongued sweetheart, who thinks nothing of going to visit her long-lost Jewish relatives in Poland during the late summer of 1939.
Perform these acts of faith, and I promise, you will be swept along. One of the virtues of art is economy of means: making do with what is available within the constraints of one's medium and the expectations of one's audience. In that sense, these fast-paced, deftly constructed fourteen hours of television deserve to be called classic
While browsing through the New Releases in the video store, don't neglect the recently released comedy, In Her Shoes. Probably there are multiple copies on the shelf, which usually means mindless fluff. But not in this case. This movie is that rare, wonderful thing: mindful fluff.
The story concerns two sisters: Maggie (Cameron Diaz), pretty and out of control; and Rose (Toni Collette), plain and in control (sort of). These differences drive the sisters apart and then, through some undistinguished plotting, bring them back together. There is no point in describing the plot or the characters any further, because they are formulaic. The charm lies in the execution: the screenplay, pacing, and acting, especially Diaz and Collette, who do a beautiful job of portraying the two sisters' complicated but powerful bond.
To judge by most Hollywood films, not to mention popular TV fare like Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives, women have no lives apart from their sex lives, and their relationships with one another are based solely on a neurotic need to process information about their sex lives. No amount of rhetorical prattle about "female empowerment" alters this dismally one-dimensional portrait. But in its light-handed way, In Her Shoes provides an alternative.
It's a comedy, of course, which means that the family conflict gets resolved at the end. This doesn't always happen in life, needless to say. But the best compliment I can give In Her Shoes is that it could have worked as a tragedy, in which the sisters never reconcile. Indeed, one reason why it succeeds as a comedy is that it allows tragic emotions to peek through the surface. In sum, fluff this good is hard to make and deserves at least as much respect as, say, mindless gloom.