Martha Bayles: August 2005 Archives
Thank you for your very thoughtful response to my cultural diplomacy piece and discussion (see Rachel's comments and links below). You raise the essential and most vexed issue of all, which is the use and abuse of liberty in a supposedly self-governing regime. I offer some general comments on this below.
But since this is a film blog, let me first mention a movie that for me captures this issue in an incredibly timely way: My Son the Fanatic (1997), based on the novel and screenplay by Hanif Kureishi. It is about an Indian taxi driver (played brilliantly by Om Purim) in the north of England, whose son is so offended by his father’s assimilation to decadent British society that he joins a fundamentalist Islamist group.
The father’s decadence consists of having a crush on a hooker whom he drives around the city, and at the end of the workday, drinking a scotch and listening to his beloved jazz records. But to the son's new mentors, the old man might just as well be a violent rapist shooting heroin and listening to death metal. Fanatics don't make distinctions.
But distinctions must be made: first, between ordinary mortals struggling to behave decently and perfectionists who seek to reconstruct human nature by any means necessary; and second, between the humane loosening of puritanical constraint and the out-of-control indulgence of appetite.
As you so wisely note, people around the world are drawn to the freedoms enjoyed in America. But they are also repulsed by the abuse of these freedoms - and this is true of ordinary mortals, not just fanatics. When people in traditional societies look at us, what they see most glaringly is what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty,” or freedom from tradition, religion, family, restraint of all kinds. As Berlin argued, this contrasts with the “positive liberty” to participate in the governing of one's country - and oneself.
Right now our public diplomacy (such as it is) touts "freedom" as our highest ideal, meaning self-government. But our popular culture often (not always) touts negative liberty. It would be nice to think we could craft a cultural diplomacy that conveys this distinction. But first we must remind ourselves that it exists.
This summer I've spent a fair amount of time gazing gloomily at the mountain of pony manure that comprises the movies, and feeling like laying down my shovel. Then I watch a DVD interview with the British writer-director Anthony Minghella, and suddenly I'm digging again.
The interview is on the DVD of Minghella's directorial debut, Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), a low-bucks, high-bang portrait of a woman grieving for her husband after his sudden death from a sore throat. If that sounds a bit odd, the film is odder still, ranging from twee comedy (don't you just love foreign words?) to Sophoclean tragedy, all effortlessly brought off by the superb Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman (as the grief-summoned ghost of the husband).
A successful playwright and screenwriter, Minghella turned down a chance to start directing with an episode of Inspector Morse (where he was a regular writer), because as he says, if he was going to screw up, he preferred to do so on an obscure film rather than on the top-rated TV show in Britian.
He didn't screw up: Truly won several prizes and launched his directing career, which now includes The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient, and Cold Mountain.
All three are literary adaptations, and it's interesting to read Minghella's comments about the process in a recent online interview.
In that interview he talks about two of the authors, Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), as though they were Tolstoy and Turgenev. He is being too modest. Both films are a bit on the precision-tooled, precious side, like the novels. But they are also livelier and more robust than the novels, and surely Minghella knows that.
Which way will Minghella jump now? Into the manure, it would seem from his recent venture into executive producing: the vacuous dud The Interpreter. Personally, I wish he'd go back to writing original screeplays for ponies like Juliet Stevenson.
The saga of the dying movie theater continues...
In today's NY Times, Bruce Weber reports on the latest attempt of the theater chains to lure adults out of their homes to watch movies: "luxury" theater accommodations.
One megaplex is described as "an ornate, Mediterranean style" temple suggesting "the ambience of a las Vegas hotel." Another pays "homage to the faux-Mediterranean" look of Boca Raton. Several boast baby-sitting services (don't ask), cash bars, and full course meals - all before the happy patrons sink into their "plush wide seats" next to "small tables with sunken cup holders" to watch ... The Dukes of Hazzard.
Where to begin? First, "homage to the faux" sounds a tad too authentic for me - better to wait for the next generation: perhaps the sand-castle imitation of the papier mache version of the virtual hologram copy?
Second, the luxuries on offer sound suspiciously like those of old-fashioned dinner theater, only without the thrill of a semi-live performance.
Third, do they really expect to sell all that booze and then show a two-hour movie without what the Germans call "eine pinkel Pause"?
And fourth ... The Dukes of Hazzard?
David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the powerful HBO series The Wire, has strong political views. For example, he told Reason magazine that he regards the war on drugs as pointless:
A guy said, "Well, what is the solution? Give me the paragraph; give me the lede. What’s the solution, if not drug prohibition?" I very painstakingly said: "Look. For 35 years, you’ve systematically deindustrialized these cities. You’ve rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you’ve alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say ‘What’s the solution?’ and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse." And the guy looked at me and went, "But what’s the solution?"
Yet at the same time, Simon made it clear that he did not intend The Wire to be protest art:
The Wire will have an effect on the way a certain number of thoughtful people look at the drug war. It will not have the slightest effect on the way the nation as a whole does business. Nor is that my intent in doing the show. My intent is to tell a good story that matters to myself and the other writers -- to tell the best story we can about what it feels like to live in the American city.
And indeed, the entire first season unfolds without a single reference to the loss of jobs in America's inner cities. Instead, it dramatizes how disconnected the residents of West Baltimore housing projects are from the rest of society. The only man with a job is a janitor who, having turned state's witness, is shot to death in the first episode.
It's disappointing, therefore, to encounter a bunch of political speeches in the second season of The Wire. This time, the police are investigating links between a Greek crime syndicate and the stevedores' union, whose Polish-American boss, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) needs cash not to line his pocket but to grease the palms of politicians willing to vote for improvements in the city's dying port.
Like the drug kingpins in the projects, Frank is a vivid and convincing character. And here, too, the economic plight of the city is made abundantly clear through the unfolding of a well designed plot. So it's a real flaw to have Frank spend so much time on his proletarian soapbox. This sort of thing rang hollow back in the 1930s, and today it rings both hollow and weirdly antique. The point is, we get the point!
Fellow AJ blogger Drew McManus writes: "I wonder if David Carr has some strategy for the movie business to improve?" Good question. In the immortal words of Sol Hurok: "If people don't want to come, nothing will stop them."
In the Business section of today's New York Times, David Carr reports that the "boomer moguls" (Spielberg, Geffen, et al) never achieved the total control of the movie-making process enjoyed by the first generation of studio bosses.
Stay awake, it gets better. The article's conclusion is worth quoting for the sheer beauty of its illogic:
The people who built the current version of Hollywood did so by coming up with movies that people felt compelled to see - not as a matter of marketing, but as a matter of taste. What was once magic, creating other worlds in darkened rooms, has become just one more revenue stream. The movies have been commoditized [sic] to even more lucrative ends, and the men who made it so will shift in their seats as the credits roll.
Now we know. The movies are losing money because thay have become "commoditized," and if they would just quit being so damn "lucrative," the audience would return. OK, it's a slow news day in August. But even the crickets work harder than this.
Here's what I had to say about the first great HBO series...
Most fans of the 3-year-old HBO series The Wire started out sniffing and skin-popping: one hour-long episode a week, with the habit building up slowly over time. Me, I went straight to mainlining the stuff: over the last several days I've watched the whole first season, and until the next batch of DVDs arrives, I'm stuck here with a severe jones, craving my next dose of sorry-ass Baltimore cops, drug dealers, mixed-up kids, and cynical city officials.
Thanks to rap, movies, and video games, the hardcore urban setting of this show feels familiar to millions of viewers who have never been anywhere near places like the projects of West Baltimore. But here's the amazing thing about The Wire: unlike most of the entertainments that trade in what hip-hop pioneer Bill Stephney calls "the ghetto orthodoxy," it doesn't sensationalize the place or the people. Rather it humanizes them.
To appreciate this, you have to get past the language, which (as was once said about the British Army) uses "fuckin'" to indicate the approach of a noun. Even the middle-class characters talk like this, and after a while, it has the same effect as the childhood game of repeating a word until it loses all meaning.
But that's my only complaint. The point of comparison here is The Sopranos, a show I would admire more, were it not for its juvenile compulsion to push out what's left of my envelope. The Wire couldn't care less about my envelope. In this first season, the drug kingpins meet in a "gentleman's club," but the camera doesn't ogle the bobbling silicone. People get killed, but there aren't any Tarantinoesque scenes of inept gangsters chopping up a body in a bathtub.
Instead, The Wire is about something truly shocking: power and politics, especially as played out within small organizations (the drug ring) and large bureaucracies (the police department). If you start tracing the parallels between these two worlds, and noting the similar ways they exploit and then stifle what's best in human nature, then you'll be getting the point of The Wire. But I warn you: it's addictive!