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Why in 1973 did Chile's democracy, long considered the crown jewel of Latin America, turn into Augusto Pinochet's murderous regime? Why did the United States, which helped Pinochet seize power from Salvador Allende, support the violent dictator for nearly two decades? Scholars answering these questions have usually focused on the threat posed by Allende, the first elected Marxist head of state, to Chilean and US business interests and to the cold war foreign policy of the United States. But recently declassified documents, along with the reissue of Patricia Politzer's Fear in Chile: Lives Under Pinochet, suggest that the Chilean counterrevolution, however much shaped by immediate economic and political causes, was infused with a much older, more revanchist political spirit, one stretching as far back as the French Revolution.
Edward Korry, who served as US ambassador to Chile between 1967 and 1971, greeted Allende's election in 1970 as if the sans-culottes were at the gate. Before all the votes were in, he smelled the "stink of defeat" and could hear "the mounting roar of Allendistas acclaiming their victory" arising "from the street below." Although no guillotine blade had yet dropped, material declassified by the United States over the past couple of years shows that Korry fired cable after cable back to Washington, warning of "the terror" to come and citing Baudelaire to brand Allende a "devil."
It may seem bizarre that an LBJ-appointed Democrat would pepper his diplomatic missives with the overheated prose of French romanticism. After all, critics have charged cold war liberals, such as Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, with employing a dry calculus in deciding the number of casualties needed to defeat Communism. But Korry was no bloodless bureaucrat. In fact, in both tone and content, his writings were remarkably similar to those of the illiberal Joseph de Maistre, the arch-Catholic reactionary who launched violent, intoxicated attacks on the French Revolution. By injecting medieval Catholic orgiastic mysticism with the revolutionary zealotry of his contemporaries, Maistre offered a compelling alternative to earthly promises of secular justice and political participation. He was the first who understood that if a counterrevolution was to be won, it would be necessary to win the "hearts and minds" of what would come to be known as the masses.
As fervidly as Maistre hated la secte of Jacobins and eighteenth-century rationalists, Korry disdained Allende and his Popular Unity followers, and largely for the same reason: Where Maistre rejected the idea that people could be governed by enlightened principles, Korry dismissed as "dogmatic and eschatological" those who believed that "society can be structured to create paradise on earth." And both men reserved their strongest scorn for the pillars of the old regime--church, army and state--because, either for reasons of ineptitude or corruption, they had failed to see and to confront the evil before them. Lost in a "myopia of arrogant stupidity," the elites and officials who had allowed Allende to come to power were a "troupe of fools and knaves" leading Chile to the "marxist slaughter-house." It is as if Korry saw the revolution as divine retribution against a decaying polity. "They should be given neither sympathy nor salvation," he said of the weak-willed ruling party.
Echoing Maistre's observation that republican rule is ill suited to protect society against revolutionary fanaticism, Korry complains in his cables about a gracious political culture that places no brake on Allende's determination: "Civility is the dominant characteristic of Chilean life. Civility is what controls aggressiveness, and civility is what makes almost certain the triumph of the very uncivil Allende." Neither the military nor the outgoing president, Eduardo Frei, "have the stomach for the violence they fear would be the consequence of intervention," Korry wrote to Washington. The Communist Party, in contrast, Korry warned, was "that most clear-minded and cohesive force in Chile.... Allende is their masterwork in Latin America and they do not lack for purpose or will."
Korry worked to strengthen domestic opposition to Allende's Popular Unity coalition, yet he also opposed Henry Kissinger's plot to provoke a military coup (which led to the murder of Chilean Gen. René Schneider). Instead, he advocated patience, confident that, with encouragement, internal dissent would eventually oust Allende. Again, remarkably akin to Maistre, Korry felt that restoration had to come from within rather than be imposed from without. He had faith that time favored his position; that the revolutionaries, in their effort to build a society that ran against human nature, would soon exhaust themselves; that rumor and chaos, unavoidable spawns of popular rule, would fuel an irresistible counterwave that would sweep them from power.
In fact, CIA destabilization strategies, both in Chile and in other Latin American nations, seem to draw directly from Maistre's restoration scenario, which relied on counterrevolutionary determination to generate dissension. Rumor acts as the cat's-paw for fear, poisoning commitment, corroding solidarity and forcing an acceptance of inevitable reaction. In Chile the CIA, in a cable dated September 17, 1970, set out a plan to
create the conviction that Allende must be stopped.... discredit parliamentary solution as unworkable...surface ineluctable conclusion that military coup is the only answer. This is to be carried forward until it takes place. However, we must hold firmly to the outlines or our production will be diffuse, denatured, and ineffective, not leaving the indelible residue in the mind that an accumulation of arsenic does. The key is psych war within Chile. We cannot endeavor to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come within Chile. Therefore, the station should employ every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre, to create this internal resistance.
After the end of World War II, when demands for social democratic reform swept the continent, a series of coups and political betrayals successively radicalized and polarized social movements. The Old Left gave way to the New, and calls for reform climaxed into cries for revolution. By the late 1960s, Latin American military elites and their US allies knew, as Maistre knew two centuries earlier, that a simple changing of the guard would no longer be enough to contain this rising tide: "We are talking about mass public feeling as opposed to the private feeling of the elite," wrote the CIA about the intended audience of its "psych war" in Chile. The Latin American military regimes that came into power starting in the late 1960s combined terror and anti-Communist Catholic nationalism to silence this revolutionary roar. As Gen. Oscar Bonilla, who helped Pinochet install his seventeen-year dictatorship, put it, "What this country needs is political silence. We'll return to the barracks when we have changed the mentality of the people."
Patricia Politzer's Fear in Chile: Lives Under Pinochet recounts, through fifteen first-person testimonies gathered in the mid-1980s, while Pinochet was still in power, how his dictatorship did just that. By 1973, the United States had succeeded in its stated goal of extinguishing Chilean civility and igniting political passions. It seemed to many that their country had become ungovernable. Chronic shortages of basic goods, violent conflicts, political impasses and swirling rumors of coups and invasions wore Chileans down.
Nearly all of Fear in Chile's witnesses begin their accounts with the coup, and they all convey the exhaustion and confusion of the moment. Andrés Chadwick Piñera recounts his lonely sadness at hearing of Allende's death while his middle-class family, wife and neighbors celebrated. Sympathetic to the revolution, he burned his books and eventually made peace with the regime. Even the most committed became disoriented. Raquel, a student member of the Communist Party, recalls the uncertainty of revolutionary leadership, which told members to first do one thing, then another. Blanca Ibarra Abarca, a shantytown community leader, became "furious" after listening to Allende's radio message broadcasting news of the coup. She wanted "to do something, to fight," but was paralyzed by "pain and impotence." Manuel Bustos Huerta, president of his union, called a meeting but "no one knew anything...some people said we should go home, and others said we should take over the factory. Finally, after much discussion, we decided that people should go home." (Maistre wrote, nearly 200 years earlier, of how confusion would replace revolutionary resolve with resignation: "Everywhere prudence inhibits audacity.... On the one side there are terrible risks, on the other certain amnesty and probable favors. In addition, where are the means to resist? And where are the leaders to be trusted? There is no danger in repose.")
At times the polarization described by Politzer's witnesses seems absolute. While many wept upon hearing news of Allende's death, others bonded in anti-Communist solidarity: "Everyone from the block got together in a neighbor's house to celebrate.... Everyone brought something and it was a very joyous occasion."
But it is where the testimonies intersect, often at unexpected junctures, that Fear in Chile reveals just how deep and popular both the revolution and counterrevolution were. Blanca Ester Valderas and Elena Tesser de Villaseca recount radically different experiences and backgrounds. Valderas is a poorly educated rural woman whose husband was murdered in Pinochet's coup. Under Allende, after growing weary of following her husband through a series of dead-end jobs, Valderas joined the Socialist Party and was appointed mayor of her town. Even after the coup, when she was forced to change her name and go into hiding, she continued in politics, working with Chile's nascent human rights organizations. Tesser de Villaseca is a well-to-do "Pinochet diehard" who untiringly organized women to bring Allende down, even though she denies that either she or her husband is "political." Nor did she return home after Pinochet took power; instead Tesser de Villaseca and her friends threw themselves into myriad social welfare organizations aimed at making Chileans "a sound race again, to make the country healthy." Despite the different historical consequences of their actions, both women used politics as an avenue of upward human mobility, to escape the restraints of family and to influence civic life.
In Costa-Gavras's movie Missing, which, while not mentioning Chile specifically, depicts Pinochet's coup, the first repressive act shown is of soldiers pulling a woman off a bus queue and cutting off her slacks, warning her that in the new nation, women do not wear pants. Many of the voices in Fear in Chile recall similar acts of violence: men who had their long hair shorn; women who were ordered to wear skirts; a worker who was arrested and tortured for being "an asshole" and not acting sufficiently submissive to authority. Notwithstanding Allende's supposed alignment with the Soviet Union and his threat to economic interests, acts like these illustrate that the real danger of the Chilean left was not that it undermined secular liberal democracy but that it promised to fulfill it, to sweep away the privilege and deference of patriarchy and class. "It was as if we had suddenly returned to a past era," recalls the wife of an Allende functionary in recounting her dealings with male military officers who, prior to the coup, she'd treated as friends and equals.
For many, Pinochet realigned a world that had spun out of control, and the power of Politzer's book is that it takes seriously the concerns of his supporters. Pinochet remained popular because he satiated the desire of many Chileans for both order and freedom. He haunts the pages of Fear in Chile like Maistre's powerful but distant sovereign, who "restrains without enslaving." As one of Pinochet's supporters put it, "I believe in a democracy in which certain general objectives are submitted to a vote; after that, each matter should be handed over to experts capable of realizing those objectives. In a family, for instance, where there is a health problem, you don't have a democratic vote about what steps to take."
It is this image of a family that is constantly invoked by followers of the regime to symbolize a just society, a family with Pinochet as the wise and strong father ("I adore Pinochet," says Tesser de Villaseca. "I adore him because he is a superhuman person who is also sensible and worthy") and his wife, Lucía, as the empathetic mother ("an extraordinary woman," says a Pinochet colonel, "who has created a volunteer corps in Chile that should be an example to the world. She's like a diligent little ant who works in different areas and also collaborates well with her husband").
Pinochet's success in generating a degree of popular legitimacy ultimately rested on violence and terror. By the time he left office, in 1990, his regime had arrested 130,000 people, tortured 20,000 others and, if the killing that took place during the coup is included, murdered between 5,000 and 10,000 Chileans. Fear not only led people to burn their books, drop out of politics, go into hiding and exile and switch allegiances, but allowed those who supported the government and dreaded a return to anarchy and conflict to justify murder: "I don't have any special knowledge about DINA [Pinochet's intelligence agency, responsible for a good deal of the terror], but if they were really out to find people working against democracy, people who didn't hesitate to kill to achieve their goals, I think what they were doing was good. I'm not one of those who don't believe that there were disappeared persons," says Carlos Paut Ugarte, an economist who returned to Chile following Allende's overthrow to work in Pinochet's government.
From Edmund Burke to Jeane Kirkpatrick, it has been the lie of modern counterrevolutionary thinkers that, against totalitarian abstractions, they defended historical actuality. The status quo is what should be, they say, and any effort otherwise leads straight to the guillotine or the gulag. But Pinochet's god, father and homeland were no less utopian and intangible than the just nation that Allende and Popular Unity hoped to build--the difference being that Pinochet had guns and the United States.
In his day Maistre was optimistic that restoration could be brought about with little violence. "Would it be argued," he asked, "that the return from sickness to health must be as painful as the passage from health to sickness?" Writing before the great counterinsurgency terrors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he can be excused his sanguinity. But Korry, too, liked to draw on historical analogies to make his case, and he has no such excuse. "There is a graveyard smell to Chile," he wrote immediately after Allende's election, "the fumes of a democracy in decomposition. They stank in my nostrils in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and they are no less sickening today."
It is too bad Korry couldn't escape the prison of his own abstractions and draw a lesson from a more relevant historical referent: Indonesia in 1965, where anti-Communist government agents slaughtered, as the United States watched, hundreds of thousands of its citizens. After all, the analogy was not lost on the CIA, which dubbed Pinochet's coup "Operation Jakarta."
At work recently, I went to get a ham sandwich from the university cafeteria. I discovered, to my vocal dismay, that the well-loved food counter offering homemade fare had been torn out and replaced by a Burger King franchise. Questioned about this innovation, the head of "food services" insisted that
it had been implemented in response to consumer demand. An exhaustive series of polls, surveys and questionnaires had revealed, apparently, that students and faculty were strongly in favor of a more "branded feel" to their dining environment.
It is worth pausing over the term "branded feel." It represents, I think, something profound: The presence of Burger King in the lunchroom is claimed to be a matter of affect. It addresses itself to "feelings," it meets a need that is more emotional than economic. This need has been identified, I was informed, by scientific and therefore inarguable means. The food-services honcho produced statistics that clearly indicated a compelling customer desire for bad, expensive food. According to his methodology, my protests were demonstrably elitist and undemocratic.
It is hardly news that opinion polls are frequently used to bolster the interests of those who commission them. But in recent years the notion that opinion can be measured in quantifiable terms has achieved unprecedented power and influence over public policy. The American penal system, for instance, has been rendered increasingly violent and sadistic as a direct response to opinion polls, which inform politicians that inhumane conditions are what voters desire. The thoughts and emotions of human beings are regarded as mathematically measurable, and the practical effects of this notion are now perceptible in the most mundane transactions of daily life.
This quantified approach to human nature is the result of the importation of theoretical economics into the general culture. Since the marginalist revolution of the late nineteenth century, neoclassical economists have rigidly confined their investigations within the methodological paradigm of positivist science, and they aspire in particular to the model of mathematics. Economists seek to produce empirically verifiable, statistical patterns of human behavior. They regard such studies as objective, unbiased and free of value-laden, superstitious presuppositions. The principle of "consumer sovereignty" hails this mode of procedure as the sociological arm of democracy, and it has made economics the most prestigious of the human sciences.
As David Throsby's Economics and Culture and Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss's Market Society show, the procedures of academic economists are now being further exalted to a position of dominant influence over everyday experience. Homo economicus is fast becoming equated with Homo sapiens. When airlines refer to passengers as "customers" and advise them to be "conservative with your space management," this development may seem trivial or comic. But in their very different ways, these books suggest that beneath such incremental cultural mutations there lurks an iceberg of titanic dimensions.
The Australian academic David Throsby is about as enlightened and humanistic as it is possible for a professional economist to be. He is also an accomplished playwright, and his influence on the political culture of his native land has been extensive and unvaryingly benign. He begins from the accurate supposition that "public policy and economic policy have become almost synonymous," and his intention is to rescue culture from the philistinism of businessmen and politicians who are incapable of lifting their eyes above the bottom line. It is a lamentable sign of the times, however, that he sees no other means of doing so than by translating aesthetic endeavor into quantifiable, economic terms. As he puts it, "If culture in general and the arts in particular are to be seen as important, especially in policy terms in a world where economists are kings, they need to establish economic credentials; what better way to do this than by cultivating the image of art as industry."
In order to cultivate this image, Throsby makes extensive if ambivalent use of the "rational-choice theory" derived from the work of Gary Becker. In Becker's opinion, the kinds of decision-making that economists contrive to abstract from the actions of people conceived as economic agents can be extrapolated to explain their behavior in areas of life that were once, romantically and unscientifically, thought of as lying beyond the arid terrain of rational calculation: love, for example, or aesthetic endeavor. This emboldens Throsby to ask whether we "might envisage creativity as a process of constrained optimisation, where the artist is seen as a rational maximizer of individual utility subject to both internally and externally imposed constraints," and to postulate "a measure...of difference in creativity (or 'talent'), in much the same way as in microeconomic analysis differences between production functions in input-output space measures differences in technology."
There are enough caveats in Throsby's book to indicate a laudable reluctance to engage in this project; however, he evidently feels that the current climate of opinion leaves him no other choice. He is thus driven to apply the economic understanding of "value" to cultural phenomena, and to engage in a "consideration of culture as capital...in the economic sense of a stock of capital assets giving rise over time to a flow of capital services." Much of this book consists of a monomaniacal reinscription of life itself into the technical discourse of neoclassical economics. We are therefore subjected to lengthy discussions of "cultural capital" (formerly known as "culture"), "social capital" (a k a "society"), "physical capital" (née "buildings"), "natural capital" (alias "nature") and of course "human capital" (once referred to as "people"). There is, it seems, no limit to the colonizing potential of economics: "If broader cultural phenomena, such as traditions, language, customs, etc. are thought of as intangible assets in the possession of the group to which they refer, they too can be brought into the same framework."
We are faced here, essentially, with the quantification of all human experience. Not merely economic behavior but every aspect of life and thought can be expressed under the statistical rubric and studied in mathematical form. The notion of the "stakeholder," dear to Tony Blair, whose ambition to create a "stakeholder society" is overt and unapologetic, is fundamental to this project.
A stakeholder stands in relation to the world as a shareholder does to a corporation. He (or she) casts a cold eye on his surroundings and perceives only his "stake" in them; he rationally considers the means by which he may optimally maximize their benefits. The stakeholder, then, is not human. He is rather a quantified abstraction from humanity, a machine designed for the calculation of marginal utility. Good-hearted economists such as Throsby would retort that the stakeholder does not enjoy an empirical existence; he is merely a useful theoretical construct. Would that it were so. But in fact, as Hannah Arendt said of neoclassical economics' cousin, behavioral psychology: "The problem...is not that it is false but that it is becoming true."
There is an interesting convergence between rational-choice theory and the venerable tradition of socialist materialism. Both approaches insist that the real factor motivating human behavior is economic self-interest: that of an individual in the former case, and that of a social class in the latter. The British sociologists Don Slater and Fran Tonkiss address many of the same questions as Throsby in their book Market Society, but they view the conquest of intellectual and social life by economics from a more traditionally leftist perspective. Like Throsby, Slater and Tonkiss acknowledge that "market logic has come to provide a means of thinking about social institutions and individuals more generally," but instead of concluding that students of aesthetics must therefore incorporate economic concepts into their practice, they envisage a movement in the other direction. Today, they claim, "the economist's task of explanation is as much interpretive or hermeneutic as it is mathematical."
Slater and Tonkiss are influenced here by the "rhetorical turn" that economists such as Deirdre McCloskey have recently attempted to introduce into their discipline. The increasingly abstract nature of money, it is claimed, lays bare the fact that financial value, like semiotic meaning, is an imaginary and therefore arbitrary mode of signification. As such, money can be studied using terms and concepts drawn from rhetoric and literary criticism. (An amusing parody of this idea occurs in Will Self's novel My Idea of Fun, which features a "money critic" whose job is to pontificate about the aesthetic qualities of various forms of finance.) Slater and Tonkiss present this as an appealing reversal of intellectual roles: "Whereas the central preoccupation of critical social analysis has traditionally been the way in which economic rationality dominates culture, contemporary social theory has been increasingly concerned with the central role of cultural processes and institutions in organizing and controlling the economic."
Although their emphasis is different, Slater and Tonkiss's argument leads to the same essential conclusion as Throsby's: It no longer makes sense to distinguish between "economics" and "culture," or between "the market" and "society." In practice, it makes little difference whether one regards this as an incursion of aesthetics into economics or vice versa. Indeed, Slater and Tonkiss are a good deal more pessimistic than Throsby about the consequences of this development. To their credit, they are willing and able to introduce into the discussion concepts like "commodification" and "alienation," from which even liberal economists like Throsby recoil in horror. But they stop well short of the bleak dystopianism of Adorno, and their slightly anodyne conclusion is that "markets are not simply good or bad, because they are highly variable." This pluralism is forced upon them, because their book is intended as a historical survey of various theoretical approaches to the market: Market Society provides admirably lucid and meticulously fair readings of Smith, Ricardo, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber and Polanyi. Despite its historical approach, the most beguiling feature of the book is that its treatment of such past thinkers is undertaken with a prominent sense of our present predicament.
Discussing the economist whose theories have had the greatest influence on that predicament, Slater and Tonkiss remind us that "Hayek held that ultimately there were no economic ends as such; economic action always served ends that were non-economic in character because needs and desires are exogenous (or external) to the market setting." But to say that there are no economic ends is the same as to say that there are only economic ends. It is, in other words, to abolish any distinction between the economic and the noneconomic. Toward the end of Economics and Culture, Throsby observes that "in primitive societies...culture and economy are to a considerable degree one and the same thing." By this definition, as each of these important and timely books suggests, our society may be the most primitive of all. Can anyone, today, escape the "branded feel"?
Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.
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Once confined to the closet, gays are now making headway in mainstream society.
Mergers and the Internet are changing the publishing industry. What lies ahead?
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