NEW REVIEWS! - Far From Heaven: The best film of the year? Quite possibly. Naqoyqatsi: Very trippy, but hardly profound. Satin Rouge: A very unhysterical melodrama fron Tunisia. Why has Sirkian melodrama suddenly become a trend. Your comments are appreciated. Alice's Odyssey: Naughty re-telling of nursery rhymes for adults. Very Quebecois. And if you don't know what that means, you're not Canadian.
#0101 - GENERATION GAP - Movie attendance figures are at an all-time, record-breaking high, but that hasn't prevented - predictably, it's probably inspired - another outbreak of handwringing about the aesthetic health of the industry, according to at least two major pieces I've read this week. In the Sunday NY Times Magazine, A.O. Scott contrasts the solid returns from the box office with the dwindling take entertainment conglomerates are seeing from their television ("rallying behind every flimsy trend only to skittishly abandon it moments later...") and music divisions (suffering through "a period of creative stagnation as well as financial contraction..."). While they've been "floundering, throwing good money after bad in a battle for audience shares that seem to be inexorably splintering and diminishing", the studios have been awash in cash from expected (Attack of the Clones, Spider-Man) and unexpected (Sweet Home Alabama, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) hits, as well as the ongoing, seemingly endless cash cow of new release and reissue DVD sales. Clearly, dire predictions about the collapse of cinema audiences into Balkanized audience segments, and the "digital revolution" that never came, were perhaps premature.
While damning mainstream Hollywood product with the kind of dire statements that seem de rigeur for critics - "It seems inarguable that large scale commercial filmmaking has on the whole abandoned the craft of storytelling or the discipline of realism in favor of formula, fantasy and therapy..." - Scott takes a swipe at the "alarmist view of the current state of movies (that is) a variant of antiglobalist ideology". He points out that kvetching about Hollywood's erosion of often state-supported national cinemas usually ignores the fact that capital flows both ways, and that the image of American commercial cinema sitting astride the globe like a bloated colossus "might be met with raised eyebrows in Bombay or Seoul."
Cinema pessimists will always compare the present with monolithically great movie years like 1939, 1962, and 1971, an exercise that Scott calls "a new critical parlor game". It's a fun one to play, but calendar-oriented enthusiasts might want to dig up an exhibitor's catalogue from one of the years they revere to get some idea of the mountains of dross that their bellwether films were released alongside. 1939, for instance, saw the relase of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz, it's true, but they competed for audiences with Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever and Mesquite Buckaroo. Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill A Mockingbird were released in 1962, but they competed for Oscars with top-heavy monstrosities like The Longest Day and forgotten star vehicles like The Pigeon That Took Rome. 1971? The French Connection, The Last Picture Show and The Conformist, sure, but also The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Grissom Gang and Up The Chastity Belt. The present is constantly being compared unfavorably with the past, or as Scott says: "There has hardly been a moment of film history not tinged by nostalgia and regret, by a sense of lost possibility and squandered magic."
In Salon, Damien Cave follows up Andrew O'Hehir's list of
movie essentials with a piece on the changing tastes of young movie aficionados, beginning with the much-noted lament that the unassailable greats of a previous generation of critics - Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Resnais, Hawks, Ford, etc., - are being ignored in favor of cult faves, specialized tastes, and a more international concept of what "foreign film" might mean. It's hard to feel much sympathy for older generations of critics and cineastes who view the trend with alarm, like Boston University's Ray Carney, who thinks that the contemporary directors that his young students adore - Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Solondz - lack depth. "Magnolia is a better film than Titanic," Carney is willing to admit. "But it reveals an institutional bias to show films that pander to the youthful desire to drop out, or believe that the world is a load of crap." I had to read that line twice, since it seems that Carney wants to suggest that films like Storytelling, Waking Life and Rushmore are some kind of cynical industry grab at the youth market, made with the same expectation of profit and "audience share" as The Fast and the Furious and Blue Crush. I hope he's not serious.
All this generational sturm und drang put me in mind of an e-mail discussion inspired by this year's much-discussed Sight & Sound poll I read a couple of months ago, between Andrew Lapointe, a 17-year old film enthusiast from Ottawa, and my old friend/peer/sometime antagonist, Phil Dellio.
At one point in the exchange, Lapointe says that Cameron Crowe is one of his "all-time favorite directors", a preference that Phil seems to have a hard time digesting, though he tries to be polite - "I'm sort of in the middle with Cameron Crowe: I like parts of Say Anything and Almost Famous (that's all I've seen of his), but I don't think either of them is a match for his contribution to Fast Times at Ridgemont High." When Phil asks Lapointe to come up with a top ten of favorite films, Phil seems amazed at how contemporary it is, six out of the ten coming from the last decade: "I've always thought my own taste is relatively weighted towards the recent and near-recent, but I'm like William K. Everson next to you."
There's a generation gap happening, or rather several, as each demographic slice of movie writers, fans, and even filmmakers invest considerable emotional weight in the films that create their cultural context, films for the most part made within their lifetimes. You can dismiss it as a pre-emptive kind of nostalgia, or tunnel vision, or whatever, but it's just as applicable to older cineastes who pine for the golden age of the rep cinema as young film freaks who might profess to have outgrown Tarantino, but remain grateful that he introduced them to Takeshi Kitano and Tsui Hark. Young film fans have a much broader concept of "foreign" films, embracing Asian films well outside the Kurosawa/Ozu/Satyajit Ray canon that seemed to be the furthest geographical outposts of the "rep cinema" generation. They're also more comfortable with genre pictures, and less likely to demonize "commercial" films, leading to an openness to, say, Bollywood and Hong Kong cinema "product".
Young film fans, as Damien Cave writes in Salon, "simply connect more intensely, and prefer to focus on, their own discoveries." You only have to read something like Milkplus, the group "film blog", to get some idea of how vociferous their connection can be. There's no lack of passion, and in all likelihood this kind of critical impatience will probably lead many of them back to some of the venerable "classics" that someone like Ray Carney worries are being overlooked. Thanks to the current boom in DVD reissues, and anticipating whatever broadband-based "film on demand" future lies ahead of us, the films will be there, cleaned up and packaged with bonus features.
(posted 09:12pm | 10.44.02)
#0100 - THE CRITIC'S VICE - Andrew O'Hehir has made a list of the top 40 essential films for Salon, and you just know that every film critic and movie buff will go through it with all the reverence of a soldier in a wine cellar. It's only available as a Salon Premium story, so unless you've put your faith in Salon's business model and paid them for Premium access or, as I did, asked a paid-up friend to copy it for you - thanks again, John! - you'll just have to take my word about the list's contents. Okay, here's O'Hehir's forty, for everyone who thinks the net should always be free. (Cheapskates.)
All About Eve
The Big Sleep
The 400 Blows
The Godfather pts. 1 & 2
Lawrence of Arabia
Night of the Living Dead
The Seven Samurai
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu
The Bicycle Thief
Bride of Frankenstein
Children of Paradise
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
A Face in the Crowd
Fanny and Alexander
Nosferatu the Vampire
The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Red Shoes
Rules of the Game
Wings of Desire
O'Hehir foregrounds his list by describing the agonies of list-making - the "Solomon's choice" decisions you have to make when boiling down every film you've ever loved to two-score or so. Right off the bat, O'Hehir makes things easier for himself by making this a prescriptive list, "essential viewing for anybody who wants to understand, and discuss, the art of movies." It narrows down his choices considerably, putting idiosyncratic, personal favorites out of bounds. If I made a personal list of forty movies, films like Repo Man and Patton would doubtless appear, but I'm not fooling myself that either of them are canonical, or beloved by the broad spectrum of cineastes.
It reminds me of the choice I forced on myself years ago, when I bought my first TV set as an adult; I was going through a decade-long retro phase, and brought home a 1957 RCA Victor portable black and white set that looked like leftover set dressing from "The Jetsons", which I hooked up to a brand new VCR, no cable, no antenna, so no option for watching anything but what I could find on tape. Colour films were somehow pointless on what friends called "the cave monitor", and due to a quirk in the picture tube, subtitles tended to disappear below the bottom edge of the screen. So nothing new, nothing in colour, nothing foreign that wasn't dubbed, and since I hate dubbed films, nothing foreign at all, unless you consider Ealing comedies foreign.
It was my Hollywood Studio Golden Age TV time machine, an excuse to gorge exclusively on vintage black and white from the 20s to the 50s, and track down kinescopes of live television programs like "The Sound of Jazz" and "The Ernie Kovacs Show". I lasted almost two years before breaking down, buying a 27" colour set, and ending the retro phase, probably forever.
O'Hehir admits that he was forced to make some difficult decisions, some of them quite against his instincts as a critic: "These aren't necessarily all movies I love: Taxi Driver probably isn't Martin Scorsese's best work, and I'm not sure if Blade Runner is a good movie at all." I'd agree wholeheartedly with the former, and sympathize with the latter. In any case, neither would have made my list. Sometimes he makes decisions that I would never imagine - "On the first list, I ended up somehow trying to decide between Singin' in the Rain and Night of the Living Dead." I have never understood the appeal of George Romero's horror landmark though, yes, I can call it a landmark with a clean conscience, while acknowledging that I've never been able to see past a low-budget cheapness that feels nasty without being at all scary.
The first thing I did, of course, was tally up how many I'd actually seen. Off the "essentials" list, I score 18 out of 20, which is somewhat gratifying except when I remember that O'Hehir's inference is that his top twenty are essential ("movies you'd darn well better have seen already"), which any serious film person should have seen, probably more than once. I agree that not seeing All About Eve is a serious lapse for a Hollywood Golden Age freak, but I'm happy to mentally substitute Jules and Jim for The 400 Blows and call it even.
A list of "essential" films will always have a dour, prescriptive air, which the inclusion of Eisenstein's "crucial Soviet propaganda silent", Battleship Potemkin brings home for me. I can understand wanting every young student of film to see it once, twice, even three times, just to be able to connect all of those famous still images into a (relatively) coherent whole, but I've always thought Potemkin a chore, even overrated, as a film. It may have, in O'Hehir's words, "invented much of the language of modern cinema" - debatable, but I'll let that go - but it's certainly a sterling example of a great story poorly told, if you're looking for satisfying drama.
Actually, O'Hehir's essentials list is packed with toothsomely enjoyable films - The Big Sleep, Casablanca, Chinatown, Dr. Strangelove, the Godfather films, Lawrence, Jaws and Vertigo are all films no one would have to pay me to see over and over. It's his list of "Films You Might Never See (Without My Benevolent Guidance)" that might be a bit more of a chore. I've only seen 13 out of that 20, and some of them (Andrei Rublev, Bride of Frankenstein, The Passion of Joan of Arc) I could avoid with a clear conscience, though I'm sure someone out there is hissing "heresy!" to themselves.
Of those I've seen, at least three - Nosferatu the Vampire, The Red Shoes, Rules of the Game - would have been among my essentials, and another three - Persona, Breathless, Wings of Desire - never would have placed on either list, but isn't disagreeing really the fun part of making and reading lists? But in the end, as O'Hehir admits, your life isn't over if you haven't seen any of these films: "...you're much better off at this point spending the rest of your life climbing every peak in the eastern Sierras or rereading the novels of Trollope or something. Seriously, movies aren't that important."
(posted 09:12pm | 10.31.02)
#0099 - NO PLACE LIKE HOME - "If I had to describe myself in three words, I would say: A Failed Artist", Woody Allen told reporters in Rome late last week, according to Reuters. The director went on to disparage his acting skills, and his musical talent, concluding with a rather definitive statement: "I'm very, very mediocre. In fact, I'm less than mediocre."
But if Allen's opinion of himself was despairing, he had no kind words for Hollywood, and the European press lapped it up. "If I compare U.S. films to the European films I saw as a child, the European ones were so much more original, rich and imaginative, and they really contributed to the development of cinema as an art form." Hollywood, in Allen's view, "is a place where people spend a huge amount of money and yet make very few, if any, decent films." I'm not sure if Allen intended a comparison of his favorite Hollywood films - movies like Citizen Kane, Paths of Glory and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - to European classics like The Bicycle Thief, Grand Illusion and 8 1/2, to cast the American films in an unflattering light ("there's no question that they are deeper works of art"), but the Reuters piece makes the comparison explicit, so I'll have to assume that Allen was quoted accurately.
Asked if he would consider moving to Europe, Allen turned evasive, but said that his wife's decision would trump anything he, a lifelong New Yorker, wanted. "Whatever makes her happy makes me happy, so I'll do that."
I was frankly surprised. Allen's work has always seemed uniquely American, and its weaknesses - lapses of humour and eruptions of preciousness and po-faced dourness - have always been inspired by an unquestioning adoration of directors like Bergman and Fellini, resulting in career lowlights like Interiors and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. But then again, Allen has always had a hard time understanding just what works in classic Hollywood films. Despite Play It Again, Sam, his early expression of fealty to the golden age of the studio picture, his essays in Americana - The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Bullets Over Broadway - were even more dreadful than his europhilic work. It was only when he tried to imagine the American 1930s, away from the world of movies, with Sweet and Lowdown, that he managed to make something affecting and interesting. Looking back over his filmography, though, and wincing at the wasted hours I've spent trying remember just what I loved about Allen's early work, sitting through films like Broadway Danny Rose, Alice and Husbands and Wives, I thought that maybe Allen is right: he is a mediocrity.
As an exercise, I made a list of good American films made in the last two decades, the films of my adult years, released during the period of Allen's long, slow decline. It's not a bad bunch of films - Fargo, Se7en, The Ice Storm, Election, Big Night, Rushmore, Ghost World and Boogie Nights are just a few of the titles that come to mind without embarking on a really intense Google search. I don't know what Allen thinks of any of these films, but I know neither he, nor any European, could have made any of them, although one was made by a Taiwanese director, which would only disqualify it if you think that Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch's Hollywood films should be reclassified as "European". I'm fairly certain that some other favorites - Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, Dick, Alien 3 - would be what Allen called "silly pictures", the kind of thing he'd never pay to see, which is a shame, because the best of his early, funnier films - Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death - are very silly pictures.
Allen told the press in Rome that he has to "struggle to find something to watch on a Saturday night", but praised a Pedro Almodovar film he'd seen the week before. Never mind that some of Almodovar's films are also very silly pictures, regarded by Spanish audiences as fluffy, risque comedy. It's all a matter of context, and for Allen, a europhile, the grass is always greener. It's the same stance Susan Sontag took in her 1996 essay "A Century of Cinema", which was basically a eulogy for the art house heyday that lasted twenty years, from the 50s to the 70s. While films by directors like Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni, Fellini and Kurosawa were guaranteed receptive audiences and well-publicized North American releases, Hollywood was making films in Europe, and hiring European stars, directors and crews. Occasionally the two worlds would meet with films like Last Tango in Paris and The Passenger, and American films like The Conversation, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter were considered on par with the best European work. Sontag was right - it was a wonderful period.
But it ended, and for a lot of reasons that seem clear only in hindsight. Someone like Sontag or Allen will blame Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Jaws, Star Wars, and the Hollywood blockbuster economic model that swept everything before it. Fewer will admit that, at the same time, the European and Japanese film industries essentially collapsed. The star European directors were, by the dawn of the 80s, older men, and either began to die (Truffaut), become ill (Antonioni, Kurosawa), retire from films in disgust (Bergman), or produce distinctly mediocre work (Bertolucci). In the meantime, European producers, spoiled by the golden age just passed, and envious of Hollywood money, ushered in the era of the "euro-pudding" pictures that choked Cannes every year; glossy, nostalgic, sentimental films like Jean de Florette and Babette's Feast, and stylish, slick films like Diva and La Femme Nikita.
They weren't necessarily bad pictures - the best of them, like the ones I've named, were really quite enjoyable - but they didn't do much to make the case for an essentially superior European cinema. Art films became by definition heavy and ponderous, art house directors - Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Wajda - now came from Eastern Europe, and the French revealed that, far from preferring them, they had a taste for frothy entertainment like Three Men and a Cradle, films whose compatibility with Hollywood product were underlined by the fact that they were often remade by Hollywood.
I find it hard to sympathize with Allen's manichean view of cinema. Today's best directors, like Almodovar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ang Lee or the Coen Brothers, don't belong to any school, least of all any nation. A good director probably struggles to make a good film anywhere they live, and while I expect Allen can understand their dilemma as much as anyone, I'm disappointed that he's unable to recognize that good films are as rare in Europe as America these days, even more that he's willing to dismiss dozens of classic American films due to what sounds like a preference hardened into a prejudice. Allen seems the victim of a creeping self-loathing that's evolved from mere schtick into a hatred for everything he associates with his own failure.
(posted 11:12pm | 10.29.02)
#0098 - WHY WE FIGHT - War films, which had been predicted to find an avid market in the months after 9/11, have been in trouble, according to the NY Times. Initially, it was studio trepidation that delayed the release of terrorist-themed films like Collateral Damage and Big Trouble (a lacklustre comedy whose sole point of contention was a lame hijacking subplot), both of which did poorly when they finally hit the theatres. Other war films that saw release in the last year - The Sum of All Fears, Windtalkers, Behind Enemy Lines - were just as disappointing, mostly because they weren't very good. Only Black Hawk Down did decent box office, which hardly makes up for the whole underperforming genre.
A year later, the studios are still wary of "difficult" subject matter and storylines. The Beltway Sniper has put the release of Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth on indefinite hold, and Tim Blake Nelson's excellent but harrowing Holocaust drama The Grey Zone, completed before 9/11, is just seeing release this week.
There are even more casualties, like Buffalo Soldiers, a black comedy in the vein of M*A*S*H which was bought by Miramax on Sept. 10th, 2001, and Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American, an adaptation of Graham Greene's novel set in the early days of the Vietnam War, also bought by Miramax. The studio, like the business in general, seems to have feet of clay on how to deal with the "new situation" brought about over a year ago. Sydney Pollack, one of The Quiet American's producers, is certainly sounding doubtful: "There will be people who are sensitive about seeing the American point of view presented as less than sympathetic,", he told the Times.
They made a film of Greene's novel once before, with war hero Audie Murphy in the role played in the latest version by Brendan Fraser. I've never seen it, but it was directed by Joseph L. Manckiewicz, whose long and varied career included everything from classics like All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives to musicals like Guys and Dolls and Cleopatra, the bloated historical epic that killed bloated historical epics, at least for a decade or so. Like everything Manckiewicz did, it's probably interesting, at the very least, and considering that one of his last films was a documentary on Martin Luther King, it's to be assumed that he approached Greene's novel with the appropriate "liberal bias".
I always confuse The Quiet American with The Ugly
American, a Brando film set in the mythical Southeast Asian country of Sarkan, clearly meant to stand in for Vietnam, or Indonesia, or any other place where American diplomacy functioned more like a hamfist than a delicate instrument. Released in 1963, it was a major studio release that was clearly unsympathetic to the growing conflict in Vietnam, but not the first film about Vietnam made by Hollywood. (That would be Sam Fuller's 1957 China Gate, released a year before Manckiewicz' The Quiet American.) Looking back, it just seems that, even when the war in question was as patently problematic as Vietnam was, even from the beginning, Hollywood was once a bit more brave in addressing it on film.
According to Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, the decision to delay The Quiet American after 9/11 came from fears "that nobody had the stomach for a movie about bad Americans anymore." That the appetite for bad films about Americans was no greater obviously never occurred to anyone.
The Quiet American will be getting a brief, Oscar-qualifying opening in New York and L.A. on American Thanksgiving weekend while, the Beltway sniper having apparently been apprehended, Phone Booth might actually benefit from the brief, unhappy publicity, once the hysteria has given way to morbid curiosity. Timing, as always, is of the essence. The fate of Buffalo Soldiers remains unknown, however, and director Gregor Jordan is sure that the public is ready for it, even with a war against Iraq imminent: "Why do people want to keep killing each other? A big section of the world community is asking these questions. I think cinema audiences are getting a bit frustrated with the overwhelming political correctness going
Jordan's use of the term "political correctness" is interesting. It's usually used to disparage the institutional and academic left for legislating "sensitivity" at the expense of civil liberties, but Jordan seems to be implying that war fever, and a "top-down", unofficial attitude that criticism of the military is out of bounds, is stifling dissent, which would be frightening if it were true.
It would mean that the theatres were full of gung-ho pro-war films, enthusiastically attended, boosting enlistment figures.
Hardly. The sole attempt at overt, government-sanctioned propaganda so far - Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter, a US$1.2 million short, produced by the Navy and Marine Corps - was barely in theatres for two weeks before the Regal chain pulled it,
citing compaints from parents who didn't think their children should have to watch "the World Trade Center towers crashing down" before a screening of Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie.
(To see Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter for yourself, click here for Real Media and here for Windows Media. It's hardly WW2-style "Kill Japs. Kill more Japs" propaganda, but more of the "be all you can be" self-actualizing tone of recruitment that's been fashionable in defense department circles for years, albeit with more of a purpose than before. Still, corporate recruiters on college campuses use more bloodthirsty language.)
If recent news is any indicator, the opinions of politically-inclined movie stars these days have merged with the injured paranoia of the academic left. I've already noted Jessica Lange's outrage and dismay at the "poisonous, intolerable" atmosphere she feels at home. Famous pothead Woody Harrelson weighed in not long after with a jeremiad against Bush and the war in The Guardian: "I should just relax, be happy and talk about the weather, but the war is under my skin - it affects my sleep", Harrelson writes. What follows is a testament to the actor's gullibility - he's willing to believe everything that the antiwar left has written about the war, including the trope about a million Iraqis dying under sanctions, and the dubious "fact" that the CIA helped put the Taliban in power. A more thorough "fisking" of Harrelson's piece can be found here, if you're interested. It's a bit overstated, and descends in ad hominem attacks at certain points, but it does a good job of examining the way that unexamined, partisan logic is as prevalent coming from the left as it does from the right.
Harrelson gets one thing right when he writes that "in wartime people lose their senses." While it's plain enough that the Bush administration, the media, and doubtless millions of private citizens are running on fear, the antiwar left, and the celebrities whose sympathies gravitate there, are willing to endorse a frightened variation on American isolationism in response to a very definite, palpable threat. Harrelson, anticipating the charge that he has no solutions to offer, only protests, describes an "if I were President" program that's truly frightening in its utopianism:
"I'd honour Kyoto. Join the world court. I'd stop subsidising earth rapers like Monsanto, Dupont and Exxon. I'd shut down the nuclear power plants. So I already have $200bn saved from corporate welfare. I'd save another $100bn by stopping the war on non-corporate drugs. And I'd cut the defence budget in half so they'd have to get by on a measly $200bn a year. I've already saved half a trillion bucks by saying no to polluters and warmongers.
"Then I'd give $300bn back to the taxpayers. I'd take the rest and pay the people teaching our children what they deserve. I'd put $100bn into alternative fuels and renewable energy. I'd revive the Chemurgy movement, which made the farmer the root of the economy, and make paper and fuel from wheat straw, rice straw and hemp. Not only would I attend, I'd sponsor the next Earth Summit. And, of course, I'd give myself a fat raise."
Did I mention already that Mr. Harrelson is a well-known marijuana advocate? Okay, that's pretty ad hominem, too, but halving the defense budget after 3000 Americans were killed, on top of a farrago of unproven green pipe-dream policies makes me glad that Harrelson will probably never be president. Probably - I mean, there's no rule against actors - even ones whose grip on reality is known to be tenuous - becoming president, is there?
Sean Penn was the next Hollywood celebrity in line to chastise the Bush administration, with a $56,000 ad in the Washington Post. "I beg you, help save America before yours is a legacy of shame and horror," Penn wrote, going on to decry the "deconstruction of civil liberties" and the "attack on a separate sovereign nation". Penn and Harrelson were, by then, only the latest movie stars to voice their opinion on a war with Iraq. The Daily Telegraph reported on the "impassioned discussion" in Hollywood, with Harrison Ford defending the president, Liam Neeson accusing Bush of "behaving like a spoilt child", and John Travolta admitting "that he did not know what to think."
The by-then infamous story of Barbra Streisand chastising the administration at a Democratic fundraiser with a "quote" from Shakespeare - a rather purple piece of doggerel that turned out to be an internet parody - is repeated. One doesn't know what's more disturbing; Streisand's pompous assumption that her voice should be heeded, or her inability to recognize Shakespeare. For those of use who tend to fall in with the "South Park" view of Streisand, ex-marine R. Lee Ermey - famous for his psycho drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket - summed it up: "Once again, Barbra Streisand has opened her alligator-sized mouth wide before her humming-bird brain has had a chance to catch up."
While the Telegraph article reports support for the war from Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, while in Europe promoting Minority Report, a piece in the NY Times published the same day has Spielberg furiously backpedalling from his earlier statement: "I do not have access to information that only the president has which might cause me to take a different position. In any case, it was never my intention to give an endorsement of any kind." Spielberg, one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, sounds desperate, like he's actually afraid of being seen as hawkish, and that's a remarkable idea, especially given the deference to box-office clout in the industry.
It makes a bit more sense when you read a quote from Lara Bergthold - "former executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee and a political adviser to Norman Lear" - on Hollywood's "panicked concern" about the imminent war with Iraq: "Behind the scenes, there is a lot of conversation about what we in Hollywood can do, what's the antiwar response. But it's not appropriate for Hollywood to lead that conversation. That conversation should begin and take place in Washington."
It's nice, generous even, that Bergthold thinks that decisions about the war should take place in Washington, but it's telling that she assumes that Hollywood's response is, without notable exception, an "antiwar response". It's a high school sort of logic, that forms consensus from what the cool kids are saying. Across the continent, in New York city, the Guardian reviews a production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui" at Pace University's downtown theatre, "just a few blocks from Ground Zero". Brecht's play, a thinly-disguised allegory of Hitler's rise to power, retold as a gangster story. It stars Al Pacino as the dictator, reprising a role he had performed to considerable acclaim twenty-five years earlier, and a supporting cast that includes John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Billy Crudup and Chazz Palmintieri.
It's directed by Simon McBurney with an unmistakable political slant, which the Guardian reviewer applauds, since McBurney "dares to suggest that there is a comparison to be made between the leader of the Third Reich and the US president." It's the kind of comparison that might actually be considered daring in a graduate studies common room, but it's undercut by a fleeting fact that slips into the review: "Brecht wrote the play in three weeks in Finland in 1941, while awaiting a visa to the US. He took inspiration from Jimmy Cagney movies, and, like the best caricatures, Ui was born of the deepest outrage."
Brecht was a shrewd character, fleeing the Nazis for Hollywood where he wrote the anti-Nazi screenplay for a Fritz Lang film,
Hangmen Also Die, but nothing else. Fear of the blacklist sent him back to Europe, where he lived in considerable luxury in East Germany until his death, treated like a living saint, and one of the Warsaw Bloc's major weapons in the cultural cold war. The blacklist is an undeniable low point in Hollywood's political history, but it's notable that the US was where Brecht - and countless other European artists - fled to, escaping the Nazis.
At the end of the play, after a "Nuremberg-style address" that mentions "missile defense", Pacino rips off his moustache, and steps toward the audience, uttering Brecht's famous line: "Don't rejoice yet in his defeat, you men! The bitch who bore him is on heat again." There must be something appealing about the fantasy that George Bush and the Republican party are a more potent threat to freedom than a terrorist movement whose dream is a worldwide shari'a state, or a monstrous dictator who patterns himself after Stalin and whose commitment to building and using biological and nuclear weapons isn't seriously in doubt anywhere except at the UN and in the editorial pages of the Guardian.
Susan Sarandon at anti-war rally.
It's a powerful fantasy, though, and one apparently shared by the signatories of the "Not In Our Name" petition which has, as of this writing, over 28,000 signatures. Foremost among its principles is the belief that "questioning, criticism, and dissent must be valued and protected." It's context is a country where "Dissident artists, intellectuals, and professors find their views distorted, attacked, and suppressed", where "there were by definition no valid political or moral questions", where the government's only desire was "war abroad and repression at home." Now, the last time I looked Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, far from being locked up, had bestselling books. The Nation and Mother Jones are still being published, not censored, and until Barbra Streisand and Jessica Lange are on trial for treason, I'll regard any paranoid fantasies about nascent police states with a grain of salt.
Far from being suppressed, it would seem that dissenting views are simply being ignored, marginalized in the marketplace of ideas. It's not the spectacle of celebrities and public intellectuals wrapping themselves in a secondhand, unearned righteousness that's appalling; it's their palpable pique at not being listened to, at the stubborn resistance of the government and the population at large to sharing their outrage. Dissent is readily available, but while the enlightened signatories of "Not In Our Name" have overcome whatever fear and horror the past year has introduced into our lives, the public at large is seemingly unwilling to subside into a beatific attitude of hopeful indifference.
A scan down the list of signatures is unlikely to offer any surprises. There are the usual suspects, from the worlds of academia (Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, Fredric Jameson, Michael Paterniti), the arts (Laurie Anderson, John Ashberry, Ani Di Franco, Pauline Oliveros), and the Old Left (Angela Davis, Tom Hayden, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Pete Seeger). Jane Fonda is there - it wouldn't be a party without her, would it? - as well as Ed Asner, Ramsey Clark, Gore Vidal, Susan Sarandon, Edward Said and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Casey Kasem was a bit of a surprise - who knew? I shouldn't have been surprised to see Robert Altman's name, or John Sayles', but there's something depressing about finding myself so suddenly on the opposite side of the fence from people I've admired for years, like Brian Eno, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith, Art Spiegelman and Haskell Wexler. If the war with Islamic terrorism goes on, and public opinion continues to diverge, it's a feeling I'll no doubt experience more acutely with close
friends and family.
I had to laugh - a bit bitterly - when I read a quote from an unnamed Hollywood producer in the Telegraph article, about a growing pro-war sentiment in Hollywood: "This is not the same place as it was when Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam in 1972 to show solidarity with the Vietcong," he said. "Things have moved on since films like M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now. 9/11 has changed the mood forever." There is, undeniably, something amusing about using films as political landmarks, but his choice of films is interesting nonetheless.
Just as no sane person can be avidly, unquestioningly pro-war, there's no such thing as a good pro-war movie. Any film that tries to depict war as happy, sunny, hopeful, optimistic, imbued with a sense of forthright purpose that makes the fear, discomfort, terror and shame insignificant is a film created utterly in the service of a lie, the sort of distressingly amusing propaganda we watch as a curiosity. War is awful, an undeniably miserable sort of collective human endeavor, but it is occasionally necessary, even essential, which makes it the most tragic of events, and one of the ripest subjects for dramatic, narrative art. Every truly great war movie is, necessarily, anti-war, just as every sane person is, but that doesn't stop us from going to war, or making war movies, good and bad.
My great argument with the anti-war positions of certain celebrities, and the signatories of "Not In Our Name", is that pursuing a war against the Taliban, against Iraq, and against any state that works to attack the pluralist, enlightened western tradition is probably the sole thing I agree with in the whole of the Bush program. His economic policies are basketcase stuff, and his pursuit of Saddam Hussein is tainted by seeming a convenient distraction from the financial scandals - Enron, Worldcom, Global Crossing, etc., - that have been tacitly allowed to subside into benevolent neglect. Attorney-general John Ashcroft is a disaster, but what do you expect from an administration that arrived in office on the wings of dubious judicial precedents? On most days, I wish that John McCain had won the Republican primary. Prosecuting a war, pushing campaign finance reform, and the post-boom financial scandals would doubtless have killed him after one term, but it would be nice to see a president with a sense of purpose on all fronts.
I'm conflicted about everything but the conflict, in other words. I'd welcome a really good, honest war film from Hollywood's anti-war crowd - I'd welcome a good film, at any time, from anyone - but it would probably bomb, so I'm not expecting to see one for a long time. Almost every decent war film - All Quiet on the Western Front, The Best Years of Our Lives, Stalingrad, Das Boot, Kippur, to name a few personal favorites - was made after the conflict it addresses is over, and since this war, our war, will probably go on for a long time, I'm not holding my breath.
(posted 10:23pm | 10.28.02)