UPDATE - Kind reader and fellow film critic Douglas LeBlanc has generously offered to buy a copy of Kim Jung-Il's On The Art of the Cinema from amazon.com for me, in response to my (rather undignified) pleading earlier this week. I will, in a couple of weeks, be revelling in the Dear Leader's juche thought on the motion picture arts, and will share my discoveries with all of you. Once again, thank you Douglas - now, there's this little house up the street that looks like it'll hold a growing family, if anyone else is moved by the concept of cyberpatronage...
Also, there are some new DVD reviews up, including a look at the Criterion re-release of one of my favorite drug movies - Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
#0123 - DOING BATTLE - I decided to read Lillian Ross' Picture again when I was sent a copy of Time-Warner's DVD reissue of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage. I'd read the book a couple of years ago and loved it, but had never seen the picture that Ross followed from pre-production to a sputtering death at the box office; Ross did such a marvellous job of describing how a basically unfilmable property was shot by a distracted director, manhandled by a panicking studio, then dumped on an unsympathetic public, that you end up siding with the unsentimental MGM marketing director who gets the last word: "The Red Badge of Courage was not a whole motion picture. It was a fragment. It wasn't a good picture."
Sure enough, the film I watched over the weekend wasn't a good movie. It was, as an artifact in cinema history, interesting, probably as much because of Ross' book as anything Huston, producer Gottfried Reinhardt, or studio head Dore Schary did to it. At barely seventy minutes, however, it looked and felt like the sort of "quality" television that would be made a few years later, by the same directors, actors and technicians who worked on studio films in the insecure early 50s. The high-contrast black and white cinematography, inconsistent acting, looming close-ups and rural Southern California locations reminded me of old episodes of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone and, especially, Vic Morrow's Combat!.
In 1951, when the movie was released, memories of WW2 were fresh in everyone's minds, and the US was at war in Korea, a new, confusing sort of war whose objective was never as clear as in the last war. As a result, a film whose high points were a pair of battle sequences was lost on audiences who were more primed for escapism, like the Arthur Freed musicals being made by MGM at the same time.
One anecdote - one of hundreds of priceless, telling moments captures by Ross - has producer Reinhardt marvelling at the explosions and controlled mayhem on the day when one such battle is being filmed. "It looks like the Civil War," he remarks, from his vantage point next to one of the cameras.
"You mean the War Between the States," says Albert Band, Huston's assistant. "The studio says you can't call it the Civil War in pictures."
For anyone predisposed to dismissing the 50s as a sorry era of political paranoia and fearful conformity, this is the kind of thing that resonates with sinister, censorious menace. For a pessimist like myself, it's just the kind of thing that makes the 50s such a rich study if you want to understand the dubious ways that political fashion forces its way into every corner of our lives.
So far, we can say with certainty that, in recent memory, only one Civil War movie - Gone With The Wind - has ever been truly, undeniably popular, and it's telling that the film was made at a pregnant moment between the darkest moments of an economic depression and an imminent world war. That it's larded with at least two great star turns and a potboiler story probably helped. Of course, D.W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation was also a huge success, but the movie world before sound is an ancient one, like the millenia before Christ, a place different laws and rules applied and water ran uphill.
When Reinhardt and Huston were fighting off studio opposition to making The Red Badge of Courage, they consoled themselves with the legendary popularity of Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind, proof, against all apparent logic, that audiences as a rule loved Civil War pictures. With another fifty years of hindsight, it's plain that no such thing is true. The notable flop of Huston's film is more the rule than the exception and, largely thanks to The Red Badge of Courage, no one in Hollywood today will presume any popular longing for Civil War films.
Perfectly decent recent films - Glory and Andersonville and, most notably, Ang Lee's underrated Ride With The Devil - have either been flops or unremarkable break-evens. The Civil War has fared better on television, with a miniseries like North and South, an epic melodrama as blowsy and puffed-up as one of its stars, Elizabeth Taylor, a gaudy, three-tier flashback to a fantasy war composed entirely of Rhett Butlers and Scarlett O'Haras.
Ken Burns' epochal 1990 documentary series, The Civil War, solemn and reverent, aimed for and squarely hit the only demographic that was naturally receptive to the sort of gruelling, forced march through the war that the subject requires - the myth-hungry viewers of public television and the education industry, avidly searching for "definitive" teaching aids. Their enthusiasm spilled over into the culture at large, giving birth to the Ken Burns industry, producer of everything from decent documentary product like The Way West and Baseball to agenda-ridden mistakes like Jazz and a monumentally (and criminally) boring take on Mark Twain.
Ronald Maxwell's 1993 Gettysburg stepped squarely into the ripe moment created by Burns' series, and there are enough people who consider that film a qualified success that a prequel was made - the four-hour Gods and Generals, produced by Ted Turner and released last week to an almost unanimous chorus of critical dismissal and avid vitriol. "Gods and Generals is the kind of movie beloved by people who never go to the movies," wrote Roger Ebert, "because they are primarily interested in something else - the Civil War, for example - and think historical accuracy is a virtue instead of an attribute. The films plays like a special issue of American Heritage."
Ebert was relatively kind. "Ballooning, jingoistic goat spoor," writes Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice, who sees Gods and Generals as part of a "maniacal American zeal for reliving and remapping our own civil war", a "mass psychosis" for which the film is a reading of "the national delirium's EEG." "Devoid of any political realities," John Anderson writes in Newsday. "The dialogue is numbingly noble, the direction lumpen... the movie may seem longer than the war itself". Most reviewers were far less articulate and, if it were possible, more pointedly hostile.
My own review was a bit more forgiving, if only because, like Ebert's un-ideal moviegoer, the history buff in me was able to reach a grudging standoff with the movie critic, who sat through more than a few scenes - long, painful scenes, like the winsome, awful musical number in the rebel camp - with disbelief. As when I watched Huston's Red Badge of Courage, I marvelled that obviously talented people - Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Mia Dillon and Stephen Lang - could so avidly persevere with a project so full of missteps and headlong blunders.
With Huston's film, it was obvious that making a film of Stephen Crane's book was mistake number one, a well-intentioned, even artistically-inspired mistake that no amount of spurious, hokey narration or merciless cutting could erase. Gods and Generals, however, is based on the sort of bulging historical novel - written by Jeffrey M. Shaara, son of the late Michael Shaara, who wrote the book that inspired Maxwell's Gettysburg - that any smart writer or director will mercilessly stripmine and "improve", carving away at the fat to find the hard bones of the story.
Apparently, Maxwell felt no compulsion to do so, with the result that two whole battle sequences (including the pivotal Antietam) were cut to make room for more scenes of generals, tearful separations, letters home, joyous reunions, deathbeds, painful musical interludes, and the sentimental longeurs of officer's life in winter bivouac, snug at the bosom of noble southern womanhood. For those happy few who can stand revisiting Gods and Generals, the DVD will apparently restore those missing scenes, and run nearly six hours. (With some small measure of shame, I have to admit that I'm looking forward to watching the disc, if only because I'll have a remote control in my hand this time.)
Maxwell was probably lucky with Gettysburg, a film fully as long as Gods and Generals, but which felt shorter (which is to say that it actually felt four-plus hours long) thanks to being strictly limited to the historical record of the order of battle. Much was made of the film's faithfulness to details of location, action, and even uniforms, and that was probably what endeared it to its primary audience - Civil War buffs and the legions of re-enactors who helped make the vast battle scenes in both films possible by acting as extras.
The history buff watching Gods and Generals couldn't help but be impressed by the attention to detail - like the way that the Confederate forces, drawn from militias and regular army forces as much as civilian volunteers, marched into their first battles wearing outlandish "colonial" costumes with tricornered hats and breeches, as well as the same blue serge as the Union forces. Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and others are all first seen wearing blue, not gray uniforms, the sort of detail that, once observed, underlines better than a hundred lines of speechifying that this was a civil war, fought by people who were, and would always be, bound together as a nation, making the ensuing five years of carnage seem even more pointedly absurd and suicidal.
At the battle of Fredericksburg, once the camera shifts from (mysteriously) confusing establishing shots and moves close to the action, the awful machinery of pre-modern warfare is put on display to devastating effect. Stephen Holden of the NY Times was, like myself, one of the few critics who felt that this, if nothing else, needed to be praised:
"The populous, precisely choreographed battle scenes, which use 7,500 Civil War re-enactors, transport you directly to the front lines of a conflict whose mid-19th-century rules of combat bring an antiquated code of manners to a barbaric enterprise. Back in the era when soldiers faced each other eye to eye, you are reminded, war could still be viewed as a gloriously heroic blood sport."
"War may be hell," Holden writes earlier in his review, "but Gods and Generals makes going to war feel like going to church." I suppose it was Shaara and Maxwell's intention to make this connection explicit - the title alone is all the hint you need - but Maxwell's film, if not the book, is fantastically less than successful at selling this idea. His primary vessel is Stephen Lang's performance as Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the film's protagonist, a skilled general who was also possessed by a fanatically devout religious conviction, the sort of man who makes the essentially self-effacing ritual of prayer into a demonstration of his special relationship with God.
To Holden, Lang's Jackson "comes across as a bully and a religious fanatic prating endlessly about 'God's will'." His sole moment of weakness and despair, brought on by a plot device as hackneyed as Little Nell's death, while "intended to humanize the character, comes across as a grandstanding gesture of imperial self-pity."
The Village Voice, staking out the heights of the irreligious left, is more pointedly hostile to Lang's performance. "Doing a Stonewall Jackson as given to biblical speechifying and heavenward beseechment as Horace Greeley with a head full of bad corn whiskey, Lang thick-cuts his own brand of smoked ham, and at least it musters a unique stink."
To John Anderson in Newsday, "the character is crazy, as crazy as the movie itself." The Jackson of Gods and Generals - and I'd still like to find some proof of this - was apparently that rarest of things: an abolitionist rebel. Maxwell weaves a bulging knot into his story by introducing two black characters, a slave woman and a free man, both in the service of the South. They are treated with conspicuous kindness by their masters and "betters", and reward them with quixotic loyalty. While it's curiously true that there were blacks who supported, and even fought, for the Confederacy, Maxwell paints himself in a precarious corner by ignoring the vast mass of blacks, free and slave, whose feelings for the rebel cause were much less sympathetic.
The film is set almost totally in the vicinity of Jackson, and is at such pains to make us sympathize with the aims of the rebels, tirelessly excavating the tiniest hints of nobility, idealism and virtue from their history, that, as Anderson says, it becomes "a shameless apologia for the Confederacy as a divinely inspired crusade for faith, home and slave labor." Jackson's nonpareil devoutness, and the prayerful attitudes of almost every rebel officer with which he serves, presents us with the essentially immoral spectacle of "a religious society with an economy based on inhumanity."
Personally, I had no problem with the prolix rhetoric of the script. In Ride With The Devil, Ang Lee's characters speak with a similar sort of baroque formality that you find all over the newspapers, periodicals, sermons and speeches of the day; once you adjust yourself to its rhythm, it gives Lee's characters a courtliness that contrasts painfully with the bloody guerilla war in which they're fighting. Maxwell's script is, alas, far less skillful, but it rings truer than an attempt to "update" the period with modern colloquialisms.
There's no fault in the tendency of almost every character to spout scripture at the drop of a hat. In 19th-century Protestant America, the bible was read and re-read throughout most people's lives; it was often the only book in the house, and rare indeed was the intellectual or politician who valued any other worldview above the one contained in the Old Testament. Understanding that is the only way to understand the outrage that met Darwin's theories, and the persistence of creationism. particularly in the United States.
But there's something troubling about taking the religious sentiments of the South at their face value, a decision that obliges Maxwell to - perhaps even unconsciously - construct a fascinating parallel between the Civil War and our own, still unnamed war. "The religiosity of the rhetoric may be authentic," as Stephen Holden writes in the NY Times, "but its relentlessness portrays the Confederate cause as a holy war."
The idea of Stonewall Jackson as jihadi suggests itself every time - and there are many, many times - that Lang talks about God's will, and meditates on his own, anticipated death in what he regards as a just cause, a fanatic's fatalism expressed in one particular line, about how he wouldn't like to live in a country where the South had lost.
A country, in other words, that learned - painfully, and only after another century's struggle - to take the Declaration of Independence at its word, that all men were truly created equal, and to value that moral precept over menial political concepts of states' rights or the petty political demands of regional social inertia. The South, despite the cost, had to lose if America was ever going to have the moral clarity necessary to fight - and win - future, more horrible wars.
Jeff Daniels' role as a recognizably liberal Northern officer, who leadenly chastises his brother for using words like "darkie", is introduced whenever Maxwell wants to, in Holden's words, "balance the moral ledger". He's a pale figure, though, next to Robert Duvall's quietly tortured Lee, or Lang's charismatic Jackson, and it's hard to deny that Maxwell, along with most of his cast and crew and even producer Ted Turner, made Gods and Generals under the spell of some fantasy of the noble, doomed South.
Of all the Northern characters, only Brian Mallon as General Winfield Hancock and Mira Sorvino as Daniels' wife exhibit any hint of a backbone. In Sorvino's case, she's helped by the fact that her rebel counterparts are portrayed, according to Kevin Thomas in the LA Times, as "largely insufferable caricatures, flowers of Southern womanhood so pure and noble as to make Olivia de Havilland's Melanie in Gone With The Wind seem a slacker in comparison." Mia Dillon in particular dithers and coos her way straight to the nerve endings, while the rest of the film's belles stare wide- and wet-eyed into the distance. You find yourself longing for Sherman's terrible march to schedule a stop in their parlours and music rooms, to force them to stop looking so damply into dark mists of the struggle ahead and instead confront the institutionally dehumanizing servitude that staffs their kitchens, scullerys, nurseries and fields.
At the end of the film, as the credits roll and Bob Dylan's theme song, "Cross the Green Mountain" plays, there's a hopeful announcement of a third film, The Last Full Measure, to bring the trilogy - and the war - to a close. Right now, it's doubtful that the response to Gods and Generals will make that happen. Ted Turner admitted in an LA Times feature that he'll complete the trilogy only "if the movie is financially successful and AOL Time Warner stock doesn't collapse." Neither scenario seems likely as I write this but, just as I'll sit through the extended DVD version of Gods and Generals, I'd like to see The Last Full Measure made, if only to remind us of the necessity of Union victory, and to diminish some of the hagiographic fantasy that a film like Gods and Generals allows a morally disastrous cause like the Confederacy.
It would be nice, however, if it stood a chance of being a watchable film from beginning to end, something that Gods and Generals, like The Red Badge of Courage fifty years before, can't honestly claim, but at least John Huston's film had the merciful advantage of being much, much shorter.
(posted 01:44pm | 02.26.03)
#0122 - YOU MEAN PEOPLE WILL ACTUALLY PAY YOU TO DO THIS? - Hollywood has discovered blogs, or at least that's what this article by Alisa Weinstein on everybody's favorite deathwatch webmag (Salon) tells us, with a scintilla of trepidation. A young blogger and graphic designer, 27-year old Helen Jane Yeager, was hired to write a blog on the making of I Love Your Work, a job that mostly seems to involve hanging around the fringes of the set like an autograph hound.
"Yeager's gig is a clear sign that bogging is becoming more mainstream than ever," Weinstein writes, as a preface to a canned history of blogging, the one that assumes that it's software - Blogger or Movable Type or UserLand - that's made blogging happen. (For the record, this blog is built entirely with my own mediocre HTML skills, though, back when I started this thing, the nice people at Blogger were apparently fooled by the spoof button up at the top left column to list movieblog as a "hot new blog", giving me my first traffic spike. Thanks, folks.)
Weinstein is concerned that gigs like Yeager's are a sign of the apocalypse, or at least the commercial disembowlment of the weblog community - if such a thing exists - by the entertainment industry. According to Blogger co-founder Meg Hourihan: "If everything that is interesting about a weblog is stripped away, or put in P.R. speak, there will be anger on the part of webloggers for the commercialization of something they hold pretty dear."
"So what kind of weblog can come out of an industry notorious for controlling, packaging and airbrushing every ounce of information fed to the public?" Weinstein asks, before turning her attention to Yeager's efforts. The I Love Your Work blog was apparently the brainstorm of Joshua Newman, one of the film's producers, an "avid blogger" himself, who discovered that he didn't have the time to blog while a film was in production, and decided to hire someone to do the job.
"We were like, let's hire someone who doesn't seem mean and vindictive enough to destroy us all," said Newman, "but then following that, let's give her as much autonomy as possible." A few years ago, websites for movies were novelties, but the artistic success of sites for movies like Pi, and the marketing success of the now-legenday Blair Witch Project site, have made movie sites obligatory. A blog, after all, is just a website, isn't it? And so the idea was sold - with conditions.
There were rules for Yeager's participation: "Behave, stay out of the way, don't mess with the actors in between takes, be quiet, and turn off your cellphone during filming... But most sacred is the no-gossip rule. Torrid love affairs, bickering producers and on-set temper tantrums are not to be reported..."
Which basically boils down to one rule: Don't write anything interesting. "She has shared her lighter with actor Giovanni Ribisi, talked about her wedding plans with Christina Ricci, and assessed the quality of the catering company's salads with model Shalom Harlow." Logging on to the site yesterday, readers would have been treated to fly-on-the-wall gems like this:
Normally Mondays and Tuesdays are our days off. Wednesday through Sunday is the work week. But this is Tuesday, everyone is anxious to see the progress of the movie so far.
Christina Ricci arrives in her envy inspiring Porsche; Franka Potente is already there, sitting on the deck. The cameramen and first assistants are here. Adrienne the Co-Producer and Michael the Line Producer are talking on their phones.
Wait, there's more...
We've read the script and we've envisioned it.
We've seen scenes being filmed and we've imagined them turning out differently than we've envisioned.
And then we see the dailies and realize that neither of those visions were correct.
We watch Vince Vaughn improvise and embellish each scene. We watched Eric Siegel make us laugh take after take after take. We watch Giovanni Ribisi jump off the step he has to stand on to kiss supermodel Shalom Harlow.
And it is magical. The dailies look very, very good.
After watching Shalom and Giovanni kiss over and over and over again, Franka hollers out, "What's this? I only get to kiss Vince for two takes! And Giovanni gets to kiss Shalom for nine! This is unfair!"
And I totally have to agree.
Apparently, even with the rules and limitations in place, there was a real lack of enthusiasm for the blog on the part of key crew members, like the director, who insisted on approval, as did the producers, and Christina Ricci's publicist, resulting in "a long list of people who all had to read (and be able to edit) the blog content." Which meant that the blog launched three weeks after shooting began, neutralizing the "seat of the pants" immediacy that was, supposedly, part of the charm of blogging.
For her part, Yeager has no regrets. "You get sent on a crazy adventure and you get to write about it," she said. "How cool is that?"
Totally cool. Really. Except for one or two - probably nitpicking - criticisms.
First of all, it's been done before, and much better, fifty years ago. Lillian Ross' Picture, a record of the making of John Huston's Civil War flop The Red Badge of Courage, where Ross was allowed unprecedented access to Huston, the cast and crew, the producers, studio executives and shareholders, writing a depressing record of just how poor movies are made. The book is, half a century later, still the last word on how Hollywood eternally marches forward while hacking furiously at its own limbs.
Picture was, famously, one of the first, probably unconscious rumblings of the "new journalism", a movement which would encourage magazines to demand total access and disdain any interference from flacks or producers over the finished product. With a bit of chutzpah - and a willingness to move on to covering men's fashion or the securities industry after any future hope of celebrity access has been destroyed - writers can still manage to write critical features on the movie industry. In this light, Yeager's blog is a step backward, to the days of studio-approved and flack-authored copy, puff pieces written with a breathless fanclub tone, the crudest sort of preemptive spin.
Which is, as Weinstein's "blog authorities" have worried, utterly contrary to the spirit of blogs. But let's be a bit cruel, and admit that this forthright, nonconformist spirit probably wouldn't stand up to a stiff breeze, especially where money is involved.
This site is less than a year old, yet it's one of the oldest movie blogs on the net. Nobody, except for a few eager souls working on the farthest fringes of the movie business, has attempted to co-opt me for the purposes of publicity, which is sort of a shame since, as a man with a child on the way and ever-distant dreams of home ownership, I can definitely be bought. Provided the price is right.
But it'll probably never happen. I've spent too much time on movie sets to be able to manage thrilling descriptions of what has to be the most ultimately boring activity imaginable, next to ditch-digging or envelope-stuffing; it's been years since I could share Yeager's eagerness to hold the lowest position on the movie set's endless pecking order - the official bystander, a role even more vestigial than stills photographer.
"As long as it's honest and articulate, whatever type of blog comes out of the Hollywood machine will be cause for excitement among bloggers," Weinstein quotes Meg Hourihan as suggesting, perhaps more motivated by her investment in the phenomenon of blogging than any consideration of the diminishing, reductive, controlling nature of Hollywood's P.R. arm. "People are going to talk about it, certainly for being first," Hourihan says, about Yeager's blog, which may be true - the I Love Your Work blog is already attracting attention, pulling in 3,800 readers after a week, not all of them, perhaps, looking for nude pictures of Potente, Harlow, or even Yeager.
(posted 10:38am | 02.25.03)
NEW REVIEWS - Fat Girl: Banned in Ontario for over a year, it's finally showing after a court challenge by the distributor. Lucky us - probably the most disturbing ending I've seen in a movie in years. I'll be writing more about this later. Daredevil: Okay, basically a sack of crap. Who knew CGI could look so fake so fast? And NEW DVD REVIEWS: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, All or Nothing, X-Men 1.5 and The Gathering Storm. Feel free to nose around the DVD section for a bit - there are a lot of new things there.
#0121 - WASN'T IT HITCHCOCK WHO SAID ALL ACTORS ARE CATTLE? - Well, here's a guy who's gone one step better and treats a whole country like cattle. For those few of us who've bothered to find out a bit more about North Korean dictator Kim "Dear Leader" Jong-Il, it's known that he shares an obsession with the movies with other famous dictators like Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. It turns out (thanks Damian Penny) that the Light of Asia has written a book on the cinema, apparently available through Amazon.com.
Here's the thing - I don't have a credit card, and thus have no access to PayPal or any other online "tip jar", so the only vague form of remuneration this sight affords me is an Amazon.com Associates affiliation. Simply put, whenever you click on and buy a book or disc from this site, I get a percentage. Sweet, but I don't see that money for months, and now that they've upped the minimum total before they send you your money to a hundred bucks, I may not see it for a year. So here I am, asking if someone will buy me a copy of this book for my collection. I don't imagine that any decent bookstore in this city will carry it (the Communist party bookshop at College and Ossington went out of business years ago, just after the fall of the Wall), and a lack of plastic means that I can't buy on Amazon, so here I am, begging for the generosity of one devoted reader: Please, I really want to read what Kim Jong-Il has to say about the movies.
I'll read it as soon as it arrives, and post a review on this site, but I can't do that without the book. I don't think it'll be an Agee on Film, but my sense of curiosity is itching like a poison ivy rash; how often do you get the chance to explore a genocidal autocrat's opinions on moviemaking? As any longtime movieblog reader knows by now, I'm more interested in the political than the aesthetic side of moviemaking, so what could be more perfect?
I'll stop now, while I still have some dignity. I really want this book, and I'll find a way to get it, no doubt, but here's a chance to make the day of a poor, credit-deprived soul. Thank you for your time; regularly-scheduled posting will resume tomorrow.
(posted 11:16pm | 02.19.03)
#0120 - CLASS CLOWNS - We are, it's generally acknowledged, living through an insecure patch of history; one of many, to be sure, which is doubtless reassuring if you view the world with the panoramic disinterest of a history textbook, but cold comfort to most of us, living day to day. No doubt Saddam Hussein is feeling particularly insecure these days, which is all well and good, but then so is everyone else living in Baghdad, Tikrit, and any other city in Mesopatamia; it's sympathy for them, no doubt, that motivates the rush to war, and the "peace movement" rallying against it. The sooner this is over, war or no war, the sooner we'll arrive in the fields of smooth-browed tranquility somewhere on the other side, or at least that's the tacit assumption.
Everyone is anxious these days, including, we are told with a curiously reassuring tone, the millionaires, multi-millionaires, billionaires and megabillionaries nervously eyeing shrunken stock portfolios, precariously valued real estate, and the unsteady economic near future, shrouded in the speculative whitenoise of inevitable war. The idea that Gordon Getty, the Hunts and the Cullens and the sundry lesser Rockefeller and Mellon-Scaife progeny are sleeping uneasily is somehow comforting, like the scene in a movie where the polished, haughty tycoon is shown suddenly wild-eyed and desperate, pleading with some once-scorned number cruncher or a lapdog politician or thug he once thought he owned to help him save his millions.
The truth, we all suspect, is a bit less satisfying, but thanks to the movies, we have these ready-made scenarios to help us equalize our anxieties as we peer uneasily up the class ladder. For most of us, the movies are where we learn about the rich, at least if you don't work as a caddy, a waiter in an upscale restaurant, or a salesclerk in a decent jewellery or couture clothing shop. In a NY Times article, Caryn James writes about three recent movies set on various steps of the supposedly moving staircase of class mobility - Sweet Home Alabama, Real Women Have Curves, and Maid in Manhattan. The protagonists-in-motion in each of these films are women, all of whom are bestowed with the privilege of living or working in close proximity to the rich of Manhattan - as an upcoming fashion designer, as a student at a good east coast college, and as a chamber maid at a four-star hotel.
Maid in Manhattan is the least complex of the three - not much more than a rollercoaster ride that aims chambermaid Jennifer Lopez at rich senator's son Ralph Fiennes with the tacit assumption that all will end well. At the inevitable moment, that breathless pause when it looks like Lopez has lost Fiennes, her mother warns her darkly: "You want to end up back in the projects? Keep dreaming dreams that'll never happen", a statement that James calls the "anti-moral" of the story, and one which we all know won't prevail: "We know that Marisa the maid's dreams will come true because she is Jennifer Lopez, because the trajectory of the film is obvious from the first two minutes, and because in old-fashioned Hollywood movies like this, character always transcends class, and class itself is no more than a tiny speed bump that good-hearted people can hop over."
A mother is also the obstacle in Real Women Have Curves, where working-class Ana's "complicated, resentful mother" stubbornly opposes her daughter's dreams of college; somehow, she's a more considerable obstacle than the awesome tuition costs at decent, out-of-state colleges. No matter, since the film - which James calls otherwise "shrewdly observed" - "invents a fairy tale to catapult her upward." To wit, Ana's supportive high school teacher is friends with the dean of admissions of Columbia University, "who magically admits Ana with a full scholarship." Having spent nearly two hours with Ana, we are meant to believe that she will ascend the next few rungs of the ladder, pulling her family up with her, a worthy beneficiary of the American Dream.
In Sweet Home Alabama, designer Reese Witherspoon is introduced to us, triumphant at Fashion Week, then poleaxed by joy in the aisles at Tiffany's, where her boyfriend, the rich son of the mayor, dreamily proposes to her. Ana and Marisa are Latina, visible minorities, while Melanie Carmichael is a white, working-class Southerner - an "invisible" but nevertheless popular minority in Hollywood ethnographies. While she can't hide her accent, she's manufactured a genteel, antebellum persona for herself, to hide the fact of her doublewide trailer-trash past. To marry the mayor's son, she has to finally rid herself of her sole legal and emotional encumbrance - the redneck husband she fled after she lost a baby years earlier.
James briefly touches on other recent movies and TV shows that make an issue of class - 8 Mile, "The Sopranos", John Q - and notes how, in star vehicles like 8 Mile and Maid in Manhattan, "the stars never entirely disappear into their characters. Eminem deliberately echoes his real-life story, in which rapping becomes his escape from Detroit's factories and trailer parks. Maid is built around Ms. Lopez's glamorous presence. She came from a lower middle class family but her upward mobility has been especially spectacular. When her maid character puts on borrowed jewels and clothes, she does not look like a dressed-up version of Marisa but like Jennifer Lopez, the woman with the flashing rings and designer clothes and trophy fiancÚ, Ben Affleck. And although she does not sing on the movie's soundtrack, her recording "Jenny From the Block" bluntly expresses the film's message, conflating J. Lo and Marisa: 'Don't be fooled by the rocks I got. I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block.'"
Ironically, wherever I go these days, the chorus of "Jenny From the Block" is met with snorts of derision, and acid singsong chanting of the refrain, especially when prompted by the song's video, a particularly narcissistic and unsubtle manufactured "snapshot" of the singer's life at this moment in her career. No one really believes that Jenny would survive a week on "the block", unless that block were a stretch of Park Avenue in the 70s; even in a ski resort town like Park City, Utah, Jen and Ben apparently need to have the block closed down to do a bit of shopping.
There are a lot of confused messages in movies about class, probably because there are a lot of illusions that Hollywood, in particular, is loathe to discard, even after almost a century. Most of these cherished fantasies of romantic social mobility are as old as the Victorian romances and 18th-century bodice-rippers where they have their origin. Philosophically, they draw from the Calvinist Protestant ethic of wealth as divine reward; God's bounty accruing to the virtuous and worthy, a conceit as hardy as it is logically indefensible.
Maid in Manhattan sells the idea in its simplest form, taking pains to portray Fiennes' wealthy son as unspoiled by privilege - he walks his own dog! - and Lopez as beautiful (read: virtuous) both inside and out. He deserves the wealth he inherits, and she deserves to share it. She's a distant cousin to Jean Arthur's character in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You, the pretty daughter of a poor but eccentric family, who wins over Jimmy Stewart's grasping, plutocrat father only after his family's humiliation at the hands of Capra's socially-conscious screwball plot.
Movies about class were staples of the Great Depression, a far more anxious time, and they enjoyed a revival of sorts in the social upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s. In her classic but dated study of the American middle class, Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich identifies a deep unease about the working class in movies and TV shows from this supposedly enlightened period. I've always thought arch-liberal Norman Lear's Archie Bunker to be a peculiarly toxic caricature of the blue-collar male, a straw man who lacks any kind of religious, ethnic, or trade-union identity, and whose bigotry, comic malaprops, and grudging expression of sentimental decency - embodied in his wife, the "dingbat" Edith - is contemptuously meant to comprise a whole persona. It's a testament to Carroll O'Connor's skill that he was able to make so much of so little.
Peter Boyle's hard-hat killer in John Avildsen's Joe - released the year before "All in the Family" debuted - was "Archie Bunker with an armory", as Ehrenrich puts it, a murderously alienated bigot without a television-friendly sentimental streak, "barely kept in line by his pallid marriage and dull job." The film was a sensation in the summer of 1970, when protest and rioting seemed to have spilled over from the student left to the workingman right, and Boyle's character "was the literal-minded infantryman of that Emerging Republican Majority that the political analyst Kevin Phillips detailed during the 1968 campaign," according to J. Hoberman's look back at the Joe phenomenon in a July, 2000 NY Times article.
Boyle - then a 34-year old actor with all the usual "right-on" leftist sympathies - spent the summer of 1970 "afraid for his life", and recalled how kids would stand up at the end of the film and shout "I'm going to shoot back, Joe!" Like Straw Dogs, which would come out a year later, Joe frightened and titillated the liberal left with a new enemy: the proletarian bullyboy, whose inability to act according to what Marx had told them was his enlightened self-interest - alongside the students at the barricades of the revolution - made his psycopathic rage even more terrifying. In the culture of paranoia that came out of the 60s, the essentially middle-class nature of the counterculture was defined by the threat they felt both from the wealthy "establishment" above and their hard-hatted shock troops below.
In the critically-lauded renaissance of American filmmaking that blossomed in the 70s, there's an undeniable vein of fear and hostility toward working-class characters, even in movies set in their world. In movies like Blue Collar, working-class men are emotionally arrested in a jocky, adolescent mentality; in The Deer Hunter, they're avid participants in brutal, dangerous rituals; in Taxi Driver and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they're vengeful, psycopathic ciphers; in Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Cruising, they're homicidal rough trade; in Assault on Precinct 13, a zombie-like but "refreshingly interracial blue-collar army". (Ehrenreich's own basic liberalism is occasionally expressed in Fear of Falling, with an only occasional patronizing tone that has, alas, become more pronounced in recent books like Nickel and Dimed.)
In Saturday Night Fever, the outer-borough culture of young working-class males is lethal, a place from which escape - to the egalitarian paradise of Manhattan - is the only sane option. In The Godfather, Michael's embrace of his family - where ethnicity inherently implies working-class status as much as in Maid in Manhattan or Real Women Have Curves - and rejection of Kay's genteel, WASP world, is the cue for his descent into murder, fratricide, and self-destruction, his criminal nature aiding, then destroying, an ambition to make his family "legitimate" that might have been easier had he stuck with trying to infiltrate Kay's class as a lawyer or broker.
As much as you or I may love some of these films, it's not hard to read a not-so-subtle rejection of the concept of "blue-collar nobility", a fearful demonization of the working class, in an body of films of a supposedly liberal ideological bent. "The 'worker' was both a throwback to childish, outmoded values," Ehrenreich writes, "and he was a collective superego, holding out for hard work, tract houses, and processed food against the mad drift of the psychedelicized culture at large. It helped, of course, that he himself was never invited to participate in the great middle-class enterprise of image-making and social 'discovery'." The recalcitrant working class, according to these films, were stubbornly resisting the promise of abundance and social mobility, mired in a sullen but threatening social stasis, constantly lurking in the sidelines and threatening to destroy the bracing pleasures of social progress, like the inbred, murderous, sodomizing hicks of Deliverance.
The films of the 70s were, in so many ways, an anomaly, and in many ways we've returned to the comic and romantic treatment of class popular in the 30s. In Depression-era movies, the striped-pants-and-waistcoat Monopoly-mascot tycoons of Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You, Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town were guilty of having lost contact with the simple, workingman virtue that they, or their ancestors, once possessed, insulated from the hard-luck masses by not only money but also by snobbery and its anxious tonic note, fear. If the rich could only be stripped of their pretension and reminded of the simple pleasures and essential virtue of working-class life, their soul - and the nation - might recover.
Today, a transformation has taken place, and virtue has been replaced by the less morally definable concept of "realness". In a NY Times opinion piece published in the same issue as Caryn James' article, David "Bobos in Paradise" Brooks writes about the inability of Democrats and the political left to sell Americans on a populist rejection of Republican tax cuts. It's easy enough to demonstrate in verifiable figures how the benefits of these cuts go to a tiny, wealthy percentile, but it seems almost impossible to summon popular outrage these days, and "with some trims and amendments", the tax cuts inevitably get passed.
Brooks quotes a Time magazine survey where 19% of Americans said that they considered themselves part of the one percent that benefit from the tax cuts, and another 20% said that they thought that they'd be there someday. "So right away you have 30 percent of Americans who thought that when Mr. Gore savaged a plan that favored the top 1 percent, he was taking a direct shot at them."
"It's not hard to see why they think this way," Brooks writes. "Americans live in a culture of abundance. They have always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing. None of us is really poor; we're just pre-rich."
I grew up in a neighbourhood of working-class homeowners, lifelong employees who had left behind rented homes and bought their own, modest houses thanks to the post-war boom. It wasn't a suburban Levittown, but an older, unplanned suburb in what would be Toronto's older boroughs; Staten Island, not Long Island. Until the layoffs and recessions of the 70s, anyone who had paid off their mortgage assumed they had entered the middle classes. They might have hated politicians or cutback-inflicting bosses or suddenly weak union officials, but they never gave much of a thought to the rich, much as in America, where "income resentment is not a strong emotion," as Brooks writes.
Living in Manhattan or on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, in the service industries that cater to the rich or in the universities where scholarships and block grants put kids in the same classes as third- and fourth-generation legacies, class resentment takes hold and thrives. This would explain its abiding popularity in the arts and the media, especially, where lower-middle class salaries are often unhappily stretched to try to conform to "leisure class" expectations and consumption habits - "quality" goods, spacious homes, "fine" cuisine, "good" schools and exotic vacations.
In the rest of the country - a vast region that starts where Bulgari and Bentleys are rarely seen - "you are not brought into incessant contact with things you can't afford," Brooks writes. "There aren't Lexus dealerships on every corner. There are no snooty restaurants with water sommeliers to help you sort through the bottled eau selections. You can afford most of the things at Wal-Mart or Kohl's and the occasional meal at the Macaroni Grill. Moreover, it would be socially unacceptable for you to pull up to church in a Jaguar or to hire a caterer for your dinner party anyway. You are not plagued by a nagging feeling of doing without."
Out here, the truly, fabulously rich are invisible, a rumour read about in magazines where, more often than not, they're celebrities, not oil or manufacturing heirs, models of social mobility like Jennifer Lopez, whose "Jenny From the Block" chorus Brooks quotes, without an ironic sneer. "As long as rich people 'stay real', in Ms. Lopez' formulation, they are admired," Brooks writes. "Meanwhile, middle-class journalists and academics who seem to look down on megachurches, suburbia and hunters are resented."
In her NY Times article, Caryn James sees all this talk of "realness" as a distraction, and boils star vehicles like Maid in Manhattan and 8 Mile down to being "shadow stories", thinly-disguised tales of their stars' rise to fame: "When films persist in seeing social mobility as an issue of money, they are looking in the wrong direction. The real moral of these fairy tales is that Americans can vault out of one class into another; what does it is that great equalizer, show-business fame."
A film James conspicuously overlooks is one of the year's biggest hits - Nia Vardalos' assimilation comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. While neither particularly original nor technically interesting, the film does rely on a less common archetype from the class film arsenal - the "downwardly mobile" child of the well-off, a paragon of "realness" escaping from the straightjacket of money and privilege into the world of workers and ethnics.
Ian Miller (John Corbett) is the only son of a family of lawyers, a laid-back free spirit who left law school to teach high school, and whose attraction to Toula (Vardalos) is played in Joel Zwick's film and Vardalos' script as an unstoppable physical reaction, as elemental as the pull of two magnetic poles. Her family is a broad ethnic caricature, loud, vulgar and charming, while his is as broad a caricature of cosseted, clueless white professionals, living in an ice world of tasteful, underfurnished beige rooms and uncomfortable silences, people so uptight that they have what looks like a hallucinogenic experience drinking ouzo.
His eagerness to lose himself in Toula's raucous family is a mark of his "realness" as well as theirs, and it infects his parents, who finally fling themselves with abandon into the ethnic whirlpool of the climactic wedding festivities. The American Dream thrives here, where Toula's immigrant parents present the newlyweds with the gift of a house - a modest bungalow, mind you, next door to their own monstrous, overdecorated temple. The Millers, no doubt, presented the couple with a tasteful set of knives.
Like Jimmy Stewart in You Can't Take It With You, or Ralph Fiennes, drawn like a moth to the flame of Jennifer Lopez' realness, Ian is a cinematic symptom for a venerable trend in class drama - the overburdened son of privilege, rejecting his hypertrophied patrimony for much-needed reinvigoration in the embrace of the striving, hopeful lower classes. In the recent book Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips - the same writer who identified the "literal-minded infantrymen of the Emerging Republican Majority" back in 1968 - described the stresses under which the American middle class lives today:
"Back in the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. workers had put in shorter hours than similar employees elsewhere. By 1999, over one decade, the average work year had expanded by 184 hours... Wage earners in the United States collectively ended the decade with less pension and health coverage as well as the Industrial West's least amount of vacation time, shortest maternity leaves, and shortest average notice of termination. Small wonder the United States had one of the world's highest death rates from hypertension."
While Toula's family - who collectively seem to own half a dozen different businesses - are working hard and climbing the economic ladder, Ian has gone AWOL, no doubt intuitively aware of her family's greater earning potential in the long run, as well as the benefits of a large extended family when raising children. The little house next door, glimpsed in the film's last shot, is far more convenient than we suspect once the laughs die down, and Ian's downward mobility seems more like a strategic retreat from the logistic poverty of his own family.
Class is a topic no one seems to like, or know how, to talk about these days. The right don't want to acknowledge its existence, while the left can only approach it with the most hackneyed, dried-out Marxist rhetoric. You could, without much effort, analyze almost any American film through the lens of class, and find a new interpretation every time. It might wane as an issue, but it's so embedded in the plots, characterizations, and moral architecture of American cinema - which is the literature, theatre and popular memory of the American Dream, after all - that it's always there, running under the surface like a throbbing engine or a beating heart. Ignore it at your peril.
(posted 11:50am | 02.17.03)
#0119 - HOLLYWOOD FOREIGN POLICY REVIEW - This is pretty damn funny. The way things are going lately, I wouldn't be surprised if someone hasn't already started working on the thing. Maybe they can get whoever designed this spoof to design it - they did a pretty good job, don't you think?
I'm not kidding, though - Hollywood has always had something to say about how the world is run, and has a strange, frightening ability to shape the way events are discussed and history is remembered. It would be nice if the folks active in making movies had a place where they could lay out their thoughts and opinions. If nothing else, it would make for entertaining reading.
(posted 11:45am | 02.17.03)