Sunday, May 25, 2014

PURE PROP FOR SHEEP PEOPLE

   

   Oh, to be young, hip and free now that murder is in the air.
   If, as I believe, George Orwell was correct when he wrote that all art is propaganda, then what is trash? After watching the movie Down 3 Dark Streets (1954), pure, unfettered propaganda smells like the answer.
   A few days after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as the Censor in Chief. Hoover teamed with popular "journalists" Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell, along with many Hollywood executives to overemphasize the victories of the Allies and send up the failures and incompetencies of the Axis. Well, if there has to be a bias, I'll likewise err in favor of killing Nazis. Unfortunately, Orwell was also correct in his various depictions of leaders as soulless individuals who misuse their power simply because they can. That leaves us with two types of fascism: one where jackbooted thugs stomp on the faces of their enemies for the good of the Volk, and another where guys in suits and ties scramble the minds of their followers for the good of the followers themselves. 
   It also gives us rather wretched art. They Came to Blow Up America (1943) and The House on 92nd Street (1945) were among the worst. But the immediate Cold War following World War II found Hollywood policing itself, churning out stench such as I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), Walk East on Beacon (1952), My Son John (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953) all of which painted the FBI in strokes of honor, efficiency and glory, as did tonight's giggle, Down 3 Dark Streets
   It may surprise the more cynically inclined among the readership to discover that the camera work in this film is very good. In addition to street scenes that capture the Los Angeles of the early 1950s with an awkward authenticity, we're also treated to a Hitchcock-style scene behind the giant Hollywood sign on the hills. Otherwise, of course, the movie is a pathetic attempt to glorify the brilliance and tenacity of the FBI, so much so that today's audiences rightly find it hilarious. 
   Of course. We are so young and hip and free these days. Anything out of time feels like such a charade. Being young, hip and free, we would never fall for such transparent nonsense. 
   Yet a twenty-two-year-old pampered and precious little shit fuck named Elliot Rodger bought into the current propaganda that his self worth was somehow connected to his socio-economic class, which in turn was dependent upon him getting laid by hot blondes from a specific sorority and being seen in the finest of cars. And even though this pusillanimous putz was bullied as a young teenager, that fact in no way mitigates his well-to-do parents enabling his moronic lifestyle choices, much less his easy access to expensive weaponry. He was a media junkie, as befits the spoiled offspring of the assistant director of The Hunger Games. He uploaded multiple videos of his planned escapades, the grizzly details of which need not be recited here. You see, Elliot Rodger understood that the only way you count in this world is if you have the acceptance and acknowledgement of rich white hemorrhoid breeders such as Mark Cuban and Donald Sterling and their supporters at ESPN. This twisted little smidgen of puked up worm snot knew in his elitist bones that he would only matter in this world if the future dental assistant blondes of his choosing fawned over him to distract him from his own creeping impotency. This reject from the Borderline Personality Disorder ward knew it was thrilling to use his intellect and unctuous charm to con the police into believing he was merely throwing a video tantrum rather than foreshadowing disaster when he ego-plotted his mission on the installment plan with YouTube. (There's a reason shrinks can't cure Borderline Personality Disorder. It is not a disorder at all. It is a complex series of character flaws, of which the vile Elliot Rodger had in abundance.) Rodger swallowed whole the lunatic propaganda of the National Rifle Association when he oozed with the temporary power of purchasing his Glock 34 semiautomatic. And he thoroughly absorbed the joy of contemporary dread when he blew away his roommates and others he sought out last Friday night in Isla Vista, California. 
   He was, in many ways, the best and the brightest of his generation, at least if by best and brightest we mean tipped in favor of digesting expectations set up by everyone from Beyonce to Larry Ellison regarding what it means to be of true value in our world today. The same people who would view a scrap of well-produced drivel such as Down 3 Dark Streets with contempt and sneers view the propaganda of their own age with the same opened-mouth drooling as the Cold War generation did its own Dragnet-style fixation on law and order. Therefore we risk much by scoffing down our own elitist cuffs at the trash of long ago. Today's garbage may be shinier, but the stench is just as lethal.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

CAN I GET A WITNESS?

   When we think of the great detective and mystery writers of our time, we could start with Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the genre stylistically, then move on to the great popularizer Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (the two finest classic hardboiled writers), the dime-store Dostoyevski Jim Thompson, the erudite Elmore Leonard, and of course John D and Ross MacDonald. Women have done equally well in the field, as proved by the works of Margery Allingham, Ruth Rendell, Frances Fyfield, Patricia Highsmith, Denise Mina, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie.
    That last name is, for me, the most uncomfortable inclusion here because I've always found that Christie's characterizations came through in wordiness rather than in behavior and thought, but maybe that's just my problem. Certainly the fans of Marple and Poirot would disagree. 

   All the same, I had resisted watching one of the most celebrated movies based on a Christie plot, that being director Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957). The loss was my own. The movie is amazing. It is also occasionally gasping for its own breath at one moment and lumbering up a flight of stairs at the next, but that's all right because the payoffs tip the scales of justice in favor of the viewer.
   Originally a stage play (a fact which is clear within the first few minutes--we can even tell when the acts begin and end), Wilder molded the screenplay into an infrequently stilted set of dialogues that remain charming, chilling and often hilarious. 
    Charles Laughton plays barrister Sir Wilfrid, an aging, feisty heart patient addicted to brandy, cigars and chicanery in the courtroom. Prim and proper loving servants surround him with protection which he resists with varying degrees of success. At a time when his health suggests he should be taking calcium shots and sponge baths, he insists on taking a case brought to him by a solicitor. We learn that Leonard Vole, a nasty American type played by Tyrone Powers, is about to be arrested for murdering his benefactor, the widowed Mrs. French. Vole's wife is played to devastating perfection by Marlene Dietrich. It is she--and only she--who can make or break the case for the defense. 
   So far this probably sounds hokey. And it is. You might also throw in the descriptors contrived, cliched, weary and predictable. You also may feel free to toss in the word "remarkable" because it is remarkable that Wilder and his cast were able to take this premise to the edge of the hole that leads to the center of the earth and then threaten to push us all inside. 
   The best way to describe Dietrich's performance is that she plays a cold-blooded Eva Braun type about whom we are stunned to find ourselves care deeply. Powers ricochets from over-acting to understated magnificence, often in the same scene. And Laughton's crestfallen manner near the conclusion is enough to distract you from an impending sentence for income tax evasion. The story itself has more twists than a desert rattler and fangs just as lethal. 
   Nothing in the cinematography will last the ages. The film work itself is so staid that it virtually called forth the French New Wave movement singlehandedly. 
   Yet I am certain you will enjoy this movie. You will never forget Marlene Dietrich as long as you live. You may even reconsider the value of the writings of Agatha Christie. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

   Note to the son I never had:

Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb - burn with a weak heart
(So I) guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It's ok I know nothing's wrong . . nothing

Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money
Always for love
Cover up say goodnight . . . say goodnight

           --David Byrne

   Not everyone will be ready for This Must Be the Place (2011). But if you are, other people's lack of ease may be among the reasons you will like it. 
   That and the fact of Sean Penn will turn the movie for you. You will like it because you like Sean and because you will know some other people will be incredibly annoyed with this movie, as well as because you will have a kind of sensitivity that not everyone else possesses. Or else you'll simply rock back on your heels from the majesty of director Paolo Sorrentino's vision of America and Ireland. Then again, you might thrill to the sight and feel of Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Joyce Van Patten and Eve Hewson cast in roles that freed them up in ways no one else ever dared provide them. You might even be happy to watch David Byrne singing.
    Mostly, though, I believe you'll stand up and cheer with the way Sean Penn explores the pores and molecules of his Cheyenne character, a retired rocker who lives off his musical proceeds and suffers the agony of having inadvertently inspired two young fans to commit suicide while he lives in a mansion he does not understand. His wife, played by McDormand, is a firefighter. He has a gothic groupie he tries to fix up with a young man from the mall. And when Cheyenne's father takes sick, he returns to New York just in time for the old man to die. 
   His father is a Holocaust survivor who spent the last years of his life trying to find the Nazi guard who humiliated him. Cheyenne picks up the search, in the process encountering a waitress with a curious son, a pair of ping pong wannabes, the man who invented rollers for luggage, a Nazi hunter, an aging tattoo artist, and that legion of fans he cannot quite let down. 
   To tell more of the plot would be stupid. I will reveal that the hook of this movie--aside from the acting, which is among the best I've ever seen anywhere--is the grandest twist of the "coming of age" theme ever made. Penn gets every last nuance of this transformation exactly right, mostly because he invents his character from the inside out. Just to give you a touch, imagine a former rocker worn so fragile that we actually ache when he encounters people who stand a chance of hurting him, only to find that he is more than capable of taking care of himself. When a skinhead in a bar asks Cheyenne if he likes his tattoos, Penn's character replies, "I was asking myself that same exact question."
   The temptation here is to quote you a hundred lines from this movie. But I won't. I'll just ask you to consider taking a trip with some fascinating people, none of whom will hurt you, at least not as bad as you have hurt yourself. 


Sean Penn
Sean Penn


Thursday, May 8, 2014

HANNAH ARENDT

   Not too many well-written books have earned such a disturbing a reputation that even fifty years after their publication one may still encounter people who will say, "Oh, that? No. I refuse to consider reading that vile stack of rubbish!" Yet there are people, even to this very day, for whom the suggestion that there might actually be some value in Eichmann in Jerusalem is not merely anathema; it is the exemplification of nausea. 
   That reaction to the compiled articles Hannah Arendt wrote for the New Yorker (along with her substantial and grisly historical narrative of the Holocaust) has been linked to the writer's purposeful flippancy, to her suggestion that certain Jewish leaders were passively complicit in the Shoah, and even to her earlier schooling by and relationship with Martin Heidegger. The real reason, I suspect, is that some people were distressed by the subtitle: A Report on the Banality of Evil
   After all the psychoanalysis and superlatives, what Arendt actually gets across in her beautiful book is that Adolf Eichmann could not think. His responses to the orders he was given at the time contained value only insofar as they pertained to his being employed so that he could receive additional orders and thereby go on being employed. Eichmann was responsible for the deportation of one-and-a-half million Jews to killing centers in Poland and the Soviet Union. His emotional attachment to this fact--during his trial--was bogged down in specificities. Was he here or there or a given day or at another time, rather than addressing the core issue. But even on that core issue--extermination--Eichmann clearly felt exasperated at the Israeli court's unwillingness or inability to see things from his point of view. 
   They hanged the bastard.
   But before that, before the trial, Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, or Mossad, captured (or kidnapped) him from the safety of post-war Buenos Aires, Argentina and smuggled him into Jerusalem. Because of the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust and of Eichmann's indisputable role in it, the world was supposed to understand and accept this action on the part of Mossad. 
   Again, though, the implication that the nation of Israel may have had a few flies in the ointment is not what some in the intellectual community rejected. What they disliked was the implication that the nature of Eichmann's fascism was mundane. For if that were true, could not even the best and brightest of us--if not checked and rechecked by other thinking and feeling people--be every bit as vile as Eichmann and his alleged superiors?
   Well, sure. There is more to fascism than Henry Ford, Prescott Bush and Charles Lindbergh doling out money and lending their faces to the flashbulbs. Any time we decide that one group of people are better than another, a kind of Nazi-like thinking has slipped in. Some people might argue that we even need a bit of that hierarchy stuff in the name of order. After all, they say, the policeman is presumed better than the suspect, just as the prisoner is thought to be non-entitled to freedom while his jailers walk among the rest of us. I use the criminal justice system as a working example here because one time period's administrators of law and order (Eichmann) may wind up another time period's criminal underclass (dead Eichmann). 
   The alleged ambiguity and its ultimate resolution is the subject matter of a very good film called Hannah Arendt (2012). Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, this movie sugarcoats nothing, giving us the self-satisfied Arendt, the humorous Arendt, the smoking, wisecracking, professorial and impassioned Arendt, played with a perfect balance of intensities by Barbara Sukowa. (Sukowa has worked with Trotta before, first as one of the leads in Marianne and Juliane and later in the title role of Rosa Luxemburg.) Everyone in this beautiful movie trembles with the magnitude of Hannah's recognition of this everyday evil. I especially liked Janet McTeer as writer, journalist and friend Mary McCarthy. 
   Good as both the film and Arendt's book are, I suspect that modern audiences may not necessarily gain from the material the full sense of "Good is the new Bad" (or vice versa) that seems to have come across in Eichmann's trial. If I am correct, that speaks not so much bad for the movie and book but rather very ill for current times. 
    Many years ago, while teaching an employee a moderately complex series of procedures based on a few contingencies, I remarked, more or less in a joking way, that rules were invented because people do not like to think. The employee roared with laughter, finally suggesting that that would be a good "rule" for the place where we worked. I had inadvertently stumbled upon the closest thing I've ever said that I would like engraved. When you strip away all the larceny, dehumanization, brutality, avarice and sadism of the Third Reich, what you find are people of moderate intelligence who were extraordinary in (a) the breadth of their ability to plan and carry out cruelty, and (b) their unwillingness to put themselves in the other person's shoes. The efficiency of any bureaucracy requires some degree of the latter. Yet without a sufficient number of people to step outside the social situations and peer in at themselves in those situations, the humanitarian aims of the bureaucracy--if any--can become quickly lost. If someone working intake at the local Department of Economic Security office stops to contemplate the monumental horror of the lives of each person she interviews, she will be unable to help any of them. And yet if that person is unable to think beyond the constrictions of forms and computer logins and neither mentally nor emotionally connects with her clientele, she will quickly become useless to the goals of her organization. In the Third Reich, of course, those aims were the complete and total elimination of a race of people from the Earth. Any deviationist thinking was considered a spanner in the works and in Germany between 1933 and 1945, such thinking could get a person shot. 
    The leadership of the Party were not idiots. They had been spoon-fed on Martin Luther and breastfed by Heidegger, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Malthus. This philosophy of Social Darwinism (which the real Charles Darwin would have despised) celebrated the victory of presumed strength over presumed weakness, manipulating a Europe already predisposed towards anti-Semitism onto its own "noble cause." But even moderately bright people can turn themselves into machines when they find it in their own interests to do so. Just as the end of the world felt very near from 1933 through 1945, today many people in positions of authority choose to ignore the facts of human control on the effects of global heating, yet convince themselves in the veracity of the twisted fairy tale that the Amazon rainforest creates air pollution. 
   The story of Hannah Arendt, then, remains vital, not only as a point of historical information or dramatic catharsis, but more importantly because, as thinking continues to be hard work, we may persevere and elect to draw some parallels between her time and our own.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE MANZONI FAMILY

   This movie comes so close to being passably 
good that to watch it fall short is more frustrating than seeing a good movie fail to be a great one. The Family (2013) was never going to be a great film. But it did stand a decent chance of being a good one, a movie that might be remembered over the duration of time passing between leaving the movie theatre and getting into one's automobile. 
   The upside of this movie, as you might expect, is the uses to which Robert DeNiro puts his talents in the fulfillment of the script by Luc Besson, who also directed. The screenplay has more than an ample amount of cleverness going for it. The real last name of the gangster clan being relocated through the witness protection plan is Manzoni--we are supposed to see this as a pun on Manson Family. Then there's the meta references in the film. What are meta references? Those are (again) clever references to other movies--in this case, other movies in which the actor Robert DeNiro has appeared. In a sense this is kind of cool because it sends up the typecasting of DeNiro as a perpetual hoodlum, just as he is in this movie. So we have him saying to himself, "Al Capone always said asking polite with a gun in your hand is always better than just asking polite," a line which anyone who watched The Untouchables will remember as being delivered by DeNiro in his role as Capone. We are also treated to a scene where Fred Blake (DeNiro) and his handler in the witness program, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), go to a movie theatre where about two hundred Normandie France locals are prepared to watch and discuss a movie. Everyone expects it to be an old Sinatra flick, but that movie doesn't get there and instead they will be watching Goodfellas, which just happens to be a film in which DeNiro played a Mafia guy. Where our movie slips into uncharted goodness is when Fred Blake goes up after the movie and tells old gangster stories. There is a nearly cosmic delight in watching this multi-leveled bit of surrealism and that one scene is enough to make us want the rest of the film to be good.
   Unfortunately, the attempts at humor fall flat. The efforts to humanize the characters are wasted. And the storyline is as predictable as the idea of having DeNiro play a gangster.
   The closest the film comes to funny is when the fourteen year old son Warren (John D'Leo) observes to his sister Belle (Dianna Agron from "Glee") that the way their father speaks a certain four-letter-word can encompass anything from admiration of the beauty of nature to the observation that the world is coming to an end. 
   Michelle Pfeiffer, as Maggie Blake, is largely and unfortunately wasted. She isn't given much to do, other than to take jingoistic umbrage at the snobbery of the people at a French grocery which she carefully blows up. The son gets picked on his first day of school but has learned enough from his father to turn the tables on everyone in junior high and quickly enough run the school. And Belle, the daughter, falls in love with her math teacher, a guy who has no personality whatsoever. We almost feel for her in this instance. Almost. More likely we identify with her other key performance: beating an overly amorous  boy to death with a tennis racket. 
    If all this sounds like a stale version of "The Sopranos," I suppose that might sum it up. Ultimately, the plot itself is covered with bread mold and crawling with bacteria. Manzoni has earned his witness protection status by ratting out his friends in organized crime. He and his family cannot quite change their evil ways and so they are constantly being relocated for their own protection. The mob boss, sitting in a comfortable prison, sends his coldblooded henchmen to do the family in. Oh--and we are supposed to be moderately aroused over Belle's use of weaponry. If everything else here weren't so hackneyed, that arousal might have actually worked. 
The Family