During the false calm that descends between the announcement of Oscar nominations and the bad-TV night of their awards, the smug nominees are routinely re-released to a presumably eager public in order to boost box-office returns and
build a swell of public opinion for their candidacy. Into this big-stakes arena this year ambled a little film, The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse), which launched its national release at New York's Film Forum. Nothing could be further from the bombast of Oscar contenders. Its director, Agnès Varda, is a veteran whose first film (La Pointe Courte, shot in 1954 when she was 26) predates the French New Wave, a movement she soon joined; today, she's its most tenacious and intrepid survivor.
The Film Forum has used the occasion to mount a retrospective of Varda's films, made over fifty years with considerable charm, occasional sentimentality and, in hindsight, historical acuity. My favorite is her 1961 classic Cleo From Five
to Seven, a prescient study of a young woman's wait for test results to determine whether she has breast cancer. For a hint of Varda's current interest, there's her 1985 hit Vagabond, with Sandrine Bonnaire as a homeless drifter whose brushes with society disturb the surface but cannot save her life.
Vagabond and The Gleaners and I both explore society's margins, but whereas Vagabond was an imaginative fiction, Varda's new film has the indelible urgency of documentary. It explores the world of "gleaners," by definition those people who harvest what others reject. In the countryside, that might mean potatoes too large or small for the market or grapes ripening in
untended vineyards. In cities and towns, it's a range of trash and discarded objects and leftover market produce, the kind of harvest derisively dismissed as "dumpster diving" on this side of the Atlantic.
No such judgment impedes Varda's research, as she refuses to separate out those who glean for food to survive from those who simply glean for fun: She levels the gleaning field. Varda interviews professional artists who recycle detritus in their studios; inspired amateurs who construct Watts-like towers; rural
poor who forage from trailers; urban poor who glean in trash bins; eccentrics who keep tabs on refuse-collection routes; even a celebrated chef who gleans herbs on the hillside. And there's no shortage of ordinary country folk who glean, indulging in a "field day" after the official harvest is done, simply because their grandparents taught them to do so.
Varda has always been very much of her moment, so it comes as no surprise that her film about waste is economical of means: a digital production--shot with a
Sony DV CAM DSR 300 and a Sony Mini DV DCR TRV 900 E, if you must know, given how quickly camera names are replacing genres as aesthetic signposts. More noteworthy than the equipment, however, is the response; The Gleaners and I has already spent more than eight months in French theaters. In addition to a clutch of festival awards, in February it was declared the best French film of 2000 by
the French Union of Film Critics, which broke with tradition by not
choosing a dramatic film.
Why has The Gleaners and I struck such a chord? I suspect it's due in considerable part to Agnès Varda's own presence. Her voice on the soundtrack supplies a kind of thinking motor to propel the audience along the
literal roadways of the French countryside, like an erudite travel guide who sees past the surface. She appears frequently in front of the camera, too, interacting with her subjects and whimsically posing with a sheaf of wheat. There are times when she's in front of and behind the camera simultaneously. Varda acknowledges her own habits of gleaning, too: souvenirs carried back from Japan or, well, the
footage of this film.
American films about the homeless--Dark Days, for instance, last year's chronicle of a subway-station encampment--tend to emphasize the distance between
"us" and "them," usually exoticizing their subjects into another species entirely. Varda tries for the opposite, throwing herself, on screen and soundtrack, into the breach. Indeed, the French title is an explicit recognition of this bond between director and subject, while its English translation creates a rupture. Such directorial presence is a violation, of course, of the "direct cinema" style of documentary that has so dominated US practice since the 1960s, but
Varda aligns herself with the "essay film" tradition of French
filmmakers like her old pal Chris Marker, or Latin Americans like
Patricio Guzman. This kind of film essay, which Varda calls
"cinécriture," opens documentary up beyond the limited frame
of the quotidian to allow space for analysis as well as
Varda provides back stories to grant a context to
her subjects and their way of life. She also ingeniously and movingly
illuminates their stories, enlisting history, poetry and even the
Bible to justify the practice of gleaning. Consider Deuteronomy
24:19: "When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast
forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it
shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the
To prove that French law agrees with Scripture,
Varda shoots French attorneys in formal black robes. Clutching red
volumes of the French Penal Code, they are incongruously posted in
fields and on street corners. One traces the right of rural gleaning
back to a 1554 statute, while another affirms the legality of urban
scavenging, for "these objects cannot be stolen since they have no
owner." Nonetheless, Varda witnesses gleaning's modern curtailment by
property owners' citing it as a violation of private property. Varda
not only charts gleaning's legal progression but, in one scene, tries
to reverse it: She notifies a food kitchen of potatoes dumped into a
field, then accompanies the group to "glean" hundreds of pounds to
feed the poor.
Another personal touch is Varda's emphasis
on nineteenth-century French paintings that celebrate gleaning as a
joyous activity: Jean-François Millet's Les Glaneuses,
Jules Breton's La Glaneuse and Le Retour de Glaneuses,
among others. One painting, Léon Lhermitte's Les
Glaneuses, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is
tempting to imagine its becoming an emblem for a US pro-gleaning
movement inspired by Varda's film. With the Girl Scouts updating
their image with hip new commercials, maybe they'll consider
instituting a merit badge in gleaning.
Since a few million
folks are less likely to see The Gleaners and I than to plunk
down hard cash for big-budget movies with platformed releases,
perhaps the opportunity to comment on the Oscar nominations should
not be, er, wasted. This is one of the better vintages, actually,
with less wincing than usual. It's a year in which Hollywood passed
over many of its own shiny releases (What Women Want, Cast
Away) for Best Picture and Best Director honors, in favor of
films and directors who started out looking like independents--Ang
Lee and Steven Soderbergh--but ended up right where they wanted to be
all along: at the helm of polished big-budget features (Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Lee's case, Traffic and Erin
Brockovich in the case of Soderbergh's double
Ang Lee has become the great synthesizer, capable
of transforming most any genre from melodrama (Sense and
Sensibility) to period action movie (Ride the Whirlwind)
into a polished evocation of love lost, honor gained and times gone
by. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he is happily
claiming his success in melding romance with action (the same trick,
by the way, James Cameron managed with Titanic). While a
recent succession of articles, including one by Lee's longtime
collaborator James Schamus, have kept busy by arguing the film's
relative success or failure with Asian audiences, its triumph in the
West is undisputed.
As for Soderbergh, he is less a
synthesizer of genres than the expert devotee of just one: a
clear-cut story stripped down to its formulaic essence, then deployed
in a contemporary setting, all visceral, fast-paced and
consequential. In effect, he's retooled the traditional studio
formula to fit contemporary themes, from sexual angst (sex, lies,
and videotape) to modern corruption (The Limey) and law
enforcement (Out of Sight, sort of). Soderbergh's most
appealing quirkiness is his recent emphasis on father-daughter ties,
a zone of affection too often left out of movies.
Soderbergh and Lee happily place women in the middle of their films,
making them central players even in stories that demand combat--with
firearms or swordplay. Like all real Hollywood movies (and unlike
indies, until recently), they also rely on star power to animate
their scripts and draw audiences to the product. With ever-larger
budgets, they're drawing bigger names and more freedom in deploying
them: In Lee's case, the power to cast Asian stars speaking Mandarin
instead of English; in Soderbergh's, the ease of piling star upon
star upon star.
Interestingly, the pre-awards commentary on
this year's nominations ranged beyond the usual movie writers. In the
New York Times, pundit Neal Gabler claimed that the
nominations of Gladiator and Traffic as Best Picture
constituted a Hollywood endorsement of family values. His article's
location in the Week in Review section instead of Arts and Leisure
signaled the paper's attachment to his position.
right? With crowd-pleasing spectacles like Gladiator, it's
best not to examine the narrative details--or sources--too closely. A
cursory reading of history reveals that Marcus Aurelius doted on his
son Commodus, who didn't kill him but did succeed him, with
eventually dire results. Historical texts note that leaving the
throne to his son was the one feat for which Marcus Aurelius remains
roundly criticized, and they further point out that Commodus was the
first emperor "born in the purple." Hmmm, a ruler who takes power
thanks to Daddy but is not up to the task? Sounds uncannily relevant,
but more to this nation-state than to any pro-family
Gabler left Erin Brockovich and
Crouching Tiger off his family report card, wisely enough,
since they don't remotely fit his argument in their shared selection
of crime-busters who have grander loyalties than mere blood ties. As
for Traffic, well, family man and drug czar Michael Douglas
does forsake power to try to "save" his daughter, but he's a failure
at both tasks. The film's clearly marked hero is Benicio Del Toro,
corrupt cop turned secret crusader. But family? The film's whole
point is that Del Toro has none. His cop does what he does (turn mole
for the DEA) for the good of community. Traffic's final scene
catches him relaxing his long-stoic features at last, as he happily
watches kids play baseball on the diamond he's made the DEA build in
the Mexican town that drugs once ruled. Kids, yes; family,
As for the final Best Picture contender,
Chocolat--the fluffy film that Miramax muscle and Juliette
Binoche charm propelled onto the slate--it delivers the most
resounding slap of all to the sanctity of the family. Binoche's
character, an all-knowing chocolatier who happens to be the daughter
of a runaway wife and mother of an illegitimate girl, is the only
force capable of healing the wounds wrought by church and family in a
French provincial town. It's too bad that Robert Nelson Jacobs's
screenplay (also nominated) removes the pro-witchcraft and
anti-clerical message of the original novel, though it's easy to
imagine Miramax's relief at avoiding Catholic rancor at the box
Family is an odd grid on which to try to place this
year's nominations, actually. Every category was filled with honorees
playing outside its bounds. There's Javier Bardem, for instance, in
Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, brilliantly embodying
the spirit, and not incidentally the body, of the notorious Reinaldo
Arenas. While he may have been a literary lion and martyr to a cause,
Arenas was nobody's idea of a family man. And Ellen Burstyn may
indeed play a mother in Requiem for a Dream, but she and her
son are hardly on the same page, once the drugs kick in, let alone in
the same family unit. Pollock explains family so little that
we never learn whether Ed Harris or Marcia Gay Harden, in their
scenery-chewing roles as glorious geniuses, even had fathers: we see
his monstrous mother and unhappy brothers without ever knowing the
first thing about them, while she seems to have dropped from the sky
The Gleaners and I did not make an
appearance in the still-troubled Foreign Film section, where national
politics still dominate the process. Happily, the directing debut of
Agnès Jaoui, The Taste of Others, did. It's not
incidental that the French nominated a woman, for women directors
have played a major role in the remarkable resurgence of the French cinema in recent years. Jaoui is an established actor and screenwriter i
n France, not yet well-known in the United States. Other French women
directors are, though: Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat, to name
two recent favorites. Nor have French male directors been slacking:
Olivier Assayas, Laurent Cantet and Bruno Dumont have attracted US
fans, and Patrice Chéreau is likely to follow.
events at the March 25 Oscar Awards won't change the fact that French
cinema will continue to demand our attention. Not since the days of
the French New Wave have so many exciting films emerged from its
industry, and not since the 1960s has it had so much to offer
audiences in the way of rethinking our cinematic expectations.
Nations go in and out of fashion, not just in terms of tourism or
trade agreements but in their cinemas as well. France, it's clear, is
When I taught at Ted Bundy's alma mater, one student wrote this report: "He was our babysitter. He was not a very nice babysitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games."
That's the kind of creepy mental peekaboo that made Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (whose saga is partly inspired by Bundy, who was convicted by teeth marks) immortal. But Ridley Scott's movie of the Thomas Harris novel Hannibal is not scary. It's just a game.
Twice, Hannibal's tale has risen to pulp tragedy on camera, in Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986, reissued on a director's-cut DVD) and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Demme made Hannibal a permanent pop phenom: dark father, demon lover, mind-reading puppetmaster, ruthless icon of will, intellect and appetite--he's a man for our time. Scott's Hannibal repeats pop-culture history as stylish farce. Not that the creator of Alien and Blade Runner has lost his voluptuous touch. There is much to admire in Hannibal, including the penultimate scene that reportedly made Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally and Jodie Foster (who played Hannibal's nemesis, FBI sleuth Clarice Starling, in The Silence of the Lambs) flee shrieking from the sequel project. (Spoiler alert: I'll describe this scene below.) Yet Scott's Hannibal is a diminished thing.
You can get at the heart of these films by comparing their snuff scenes. Manhunter boasts the most haunting opening scene: a killer's-eye view as he (the superb Tom Noonan, star of Buried Child on Broadway) ascends a stairway to a bedroom and shines a camcorder light on a woman's face until she awakens and sees her fate. Later, we see her as the madman himself does--with eerie lights in place of her eyes and mouth, as if she's lit from within by lust and magnesium. That's it--no gore, only horror. Horror is what you think, not what you see.
Demme's immensely humane, deeply moral, emotionally acute The Silence of the Lambs employs a like discretion. When Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) cuffs and clubs his cop captor, we don't see the biting and bludgeoning directly; we see the cop's face as he grasps what's about to happen, and we see Hannibal's face, spattered with blood and then blissed out on exquisite music. Later, we see a tableau of the crucified cop with angelic wings made from red, white and blue bunting (Demme associates violence with extremist Americanism). It's the idea that's horrific, not really the tastefully distanced atrocity itself.
Both scenes abduct the viewer--carry us into the psycho's world. Hannibal, however, occurs on familiar movie turf. In the spiffy opening sequence, Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Foster, acts like every plucky action heroine you ever saw) leads a stakeout at a drug drop in a fish market. The chief druggie pulls a gun from under the baby strapped to her chest and puts a bullet in Starling's leg; Starling puts one in the druggie's skull and rinses the HIV-infected blood off the otherwise unharmed baby on the fish market's cutting board. In the novel, the spray forms "a mocking rainbow of God's promise." Scott, who doesn't give a rip about that baby, focuses instead on the fascinating abstract pattern of the blood in the fish market ice cubes. He has aesthetics in place of the author's bitter religious ethics.
Starling gets blamed for the raid gone wrong, though it was really the sexist cop's fault for drawing his gun too soon. Starling's übersexist boss Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a churl she's spurned, exploits her disgrace. But Starling's downfall is a dramatic dead end--empty calories. (There's an almost identical hackneyed Starling-disgrace scene Demme shot and wisely deleted--it's instructive to watch it on The Silence of the Lambs Criterion DVD.) Scott conveys the FBI gal's resistance to sexism with dialogue Hannibal would term "ham-handed"; Demme did it in deft images--Foster entering an elevator of oglers--and smart dialogue that respected each character. Krendler, like lots of Scott villains, has obviousness problems. (If I'd been poor Joaquin Phoenix, forced to utter those lines while everybody else got the good bits in Scott's Gladiator, I'd have fed myself to the lions.) When Hannibal insults Starling in Demme's film, his skill is chilling: "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube.... You're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling?" It gets under her skin and yours. When Liotta's Krendler insults Starling, it's like watching Peter Boyle tapdance in Young Frankenstein. "Corn pone country pussy," Liotta mutters. "I wouldn't mind having a go at you right now." "In the gym, anytime," Moore tritely replies. "No pads." No more!
Things perk up when we hook up with Hannibal in Florence, where he's living la dolce in an authentic fifteenth-century palazzo, with the view he craved in his Silence of the Lambs dungeon. Boy, does Scott feast his eyes on Florence! Squares alive with wheeling birds, arcades that reach prayerfully to heaven, sunlight on water like molten precious metal, arias afloat in the open air. The quick-cut, jagged black-and-white scenes are still more glorious. He makes us share Hannibal's epicurean idyll, and his glee in killing people he deems "rude." It's not as good as making us sweat with Starling in Hannibal's hellish cell, feel the clamp of his mind-forged manacles, fear the rot of all that is good in us by his infectious nihilism, but it's something. Lecter at large is lesser than Lecter yearning in a cage for the same reason that the only good thing Tim Leary ever wrote was his jailbreak account: Escape gives pressure and structure to a narrative, while endless freedom leads to aimless partying.
There's a $3 million reward on Hannibal's head, which attracts an Italian cop, Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Scott adroitly stages Pazzi's Hannibal hunt, which is, of course, Hannibal's Pazzi hunt. The cop looks glum, as well he might, since he's descended from the historical Pazzi who got defenestrated and eviscerated in a way certain to appeal to Hannibal Lecter. When Pazzi goes splat outside the palazzo, it's gross but barely disturbing.
More disturbing is the mistake Scott makes in dramatizing the character who has offered that $3 million reward, the meatpacking billionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman). The best duo in the novel is not Starling and Hannibal, it's Verger and his militant sister (AWOL from the movie). Verger is like a Goofus to Hannibal's Gallant--instead of using his wealth to savor the best in life and kill the rude, Verger uses it to gobble drugs indiscriminately and rape children. In a flashback, a younger Verger invites his psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, home for sex, so he can blackmail him into concealing Verger's addictions. Lecter lets Verger tie himself up and offers a popper. Actually, it's speed, LSD and PCP, enabling Lecter to hypnotize Verger. When the good doctor advises Verger to slice his own face off with a mirror shard, Verger obeys; Lecter feeds Verger's face to his pooch.
Paralyzed yet all-powerful, a ghoul mouthing born-again cant, Verger should be a great monster, a fit antagonist for Hannibal. And he is on the novelistic page, with his hand that moves like a crab, his brutal moray eel and his videocamera trained on captive children whose tears he decants and drinks. On screen, he's just Gary Oldman, in scarface makeup resembling the hero of Sondra Locke's film Ratboy, and sounding like the unholy offspring of Andy Warhol and Jimmy Stewart with his teeth out. Oldman does a good acting job, but it's an impossible job, given the reduction of the role.
And it gets worse! Verger's plan is to nab Hannibal, drag him to his vast estate, Muskrat Farm, and feed him to big killer pigs. The problem: Pigs are adorable onscreen. They have these cute little snoots, and when they eat somebody, it may be formally gory but these creatures are about as scary as the carnivorous rabbits hippety-hopping to devour humanity in Night of the Lepus. The buildup to the showdown is very much akin to Dr. Evil's "unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism" in Austin Powers.
Did you forget about Starling? While all the above is going on, she is trying to stop Pazzi from hunting Hannibal, and then hunts Hannibal herself. Scott is a fine choreographer of actors; one extended sequence of Starling and Hannibal chatting on cell phones while he leads her a merry chase on a merry-go-round is bravura filmmaking. Their twosome, alas, is not toothsome. When at last they meet after unnecessarily slow exposition, the good doctor purrs, "Good evening, Clarice. Just like old times!" It most certainly is not. In Silence of the Lambs, Foster's and Hopkins's faces interacted elementally, like wind and waves, or like fencers' foils crossed, bent, quivering, threatening to snap. Moore and Hopkins get no such quality face time. The script forces them to phone most of it in.
Moore is the genuine article, ambitious, gifted, artistic promise personified. Nobody sounds deeper, darker notes than she has in Boogie Nights and Short Cuts and (heroically, riskily) in Safe. What's wrong with her Starling, then, besides the words? The girl is all class--she lacks trash. "Trailer-camp, tornado-bait white trash," Hannibal calls Starling. But Julianne Moore is nothing of the sort. She's patrician, elusive and otherworldly. Jodie Foster, for all her Francophone Phi Beta ways, convinces the camera she's down-home, earthy, vulnerable, earnest, as pure as the kid in the Coppertone ad grown up uncorrupted.
And Anthony Hopkins? He's still got those odd, hooded bedroom eyes, all twinkly yet somehow immobile as the dead. His vocal instrument still croons, but he's changed Lecter's key this time. Before, comedy was a palate cleanser; this time, it's the main course. Really, his latest Lecter, free to roam, is a lot like Anthony Hopkins is in person: witty, drifty, dreamy, delightful to talk with and remote as a hologram.
The climactic scene in Hannibal is a dream--don't listen to all those prissy critics who dissed it. Starling is stoned on opiates, and Lecter invites her through her wooze to have a friend for dinner. Or rather, an enemy: Krendler. Liotta, at a total loss for the rest of the movie, comes through in this moment of crisis (abetted by a $70,000 Ray Liotta robot doll indistinguishable from the real actor). He wears his baseball cap backwards, lending him an amusingly juvenile aspect. His speech, like HAL's in the last bit of 2001, reverts to childishness, peeling back his character, revealing his inner self, simple as it is. In a shocking shot I sincerely doubt you haven't heard about, Hannibal removes the top of his skull. There are many memorable effects in Ridley Scott's Hannibal: the miasmal mist over Verger's Muskrat Farm, the grain of wood inside Lecter's grandfather clock set against the ribbed pattern of the metal pendulum, the velvety sky enriching the lustrous blues of cop-car cherries crossing a bridge in funereal procession, the final image of the film, an iris shot of Lecter's red eye. But out of all the virtuoso moments, it's that dinner scene that sticks with you. Why? It's the one that plays for keeps.
With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.
Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.
The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.
For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.
An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.
In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."
Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.
Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.
Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."
But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.
Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.
SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.
The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.
Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.
Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.
I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?
I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.
In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
A director, now an old man, alone, sits in his tidy house by the sea, everything in its place, the notebooks piled in their drawer, the letter opener and pen neatly on the desk. He conjures up his dead lover, an attractive actress named Marianne. She settles into the window seat, or sits in a chair opposite him, or, more rarely, strolls briefly around the room as she flashes back through her life with him and without him, by turns caustically, tenderly, revealingly, angrily. Through watery, startled, wounded, even yearning eyes, he stares at her and at himself years earlier. For entr'acte punctuation, he stares out the window toward the rolling sea, and three or four times even walks toward it. That, and a couple of Paris-from-the-rooftops shots, are among the few shifts from this movie's claustrophobic interiors and tight head shots and static camera setups. Welcome to Faithless. Premiered at last fall's New York Film Festival, written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, the movie takes 150 minutes, more or less, to relive one extramarital affair and its aftermath.
The setup? Marianne (the beautiful and talented Lena Endre, whose performance is one of the film's best aspects) is married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a conductor who's rich, powerful and handsome. They have a daughter, the saucer-eyed preteen Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Markus's best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a pudgy, morose, egocentric, not-quite-unsuccessful director. One night David shows up when Markus is on tour, and asks Marianne to sleep with him. She is startled, then agrees to sleep--and only that--with him. And so she does, but the seed of adultery is planted. She fantasizes about David, approaches him and kisses him on the lips (his characteristic response: "This is serious") and decides to meet him in Paris while Markus is in Detroit at a recording session. They agree to "discover" they'll be in Paris at the same time during Markus's farewell dinner, and the affair begins.
Throughout its twists and turns, angst prevails, as steady and remorseless as the unwavering camera's medium-to-close-up range, through flickering moments of sex and happiness. For the older though not much wiser David has conjured a Marianne less Eurydice than Emma Bovary. She's ironic, introspective, optimistic, yet armed with an existentialist sensibility, although somehow--it's unclear whether this reflects the general human condition or whether Marianne is yet another woman in movie-love who pays the wages of sin--she never quite manages to understand why these things are happening to her. She stays almost willfully blind to probable chains of events even when she's set them in motion herself.
Watch how she persistently teases Markus on the eve of his departure about her being with David in Paris. She nudges him into suspicion without a clue that that's what she's done--until he shows up, months later, to confront her in David's bed. In one of the film's most human and effective scenes, she and David blur between laughter and tears while Markus rages and guilt-trips and swaggers and simply stares.
From there on, things unravel relentlessly. There are Isabelle's emotional traumas; an aborted death pact between Markus and Isabelle; David's calculated outbreaks of violent jealousy (in one scene, he asks Marianne about previous lovers, then throws her around after she tells of Markus's sexual power over her); Marianne's unconvincing analyses of herself and her world (she insists to David that she likes simplicity, where he insists things must always be more complicated than they seem); her abortion of David's child after she's screwed Markus several times in one night as part of a "deal" to get custody of Isabelle (all-powerful Social Services looks askance at her future with David); and the affair's last spasms and final collapse. Like a revenge tragedy, it ends with nearly everyone dead, and the old man once more walking toward the sea, meditating on drowning.
Even compared with Bergman's 1973 TV series Scenes From a Marriage, there's a remarkable amount of talk here, far outweighing action. Characters ponder the links, articulated and not, between sex and death, happiness and pain, and the guilt of the past unredeemed. What, Bergman seems to ask in Faithless, could be more human than to blunder or float from event to event as if this particular chain of them were wrapping its way around somebody else? Maybe nothing, but it's also a bit of a trick question: Bergman is no moral relativist. Time after time he's filmed his brooding sense that moral codes as rigid and predetermined as his camera angles underlie the apparent games of chance operating the universe. It's no mere conceit that Faithless is made from the voices of the dead in an old man's head.
Ullmann (who, in addition to her many deservedly praised starring roles in Bergman films, played the wife, also named Marianne, in Scenes) has praised Bergman's hard-won willingness to face himself in this script, mentioning its autobiographical genesis. Fair enough: The film doesn't spare middle-aged David, but it also makes him the center of Marianne's story. Here it's worth noting that Bergman is very much this movie's auteur, though he hasn't directed a feature film in eighteen years. Perhaps it's unintentional, perhaps it's a larger Bergmanesque irony, but Ullmann directs in Bergman's cinematic language in much the same way Marianne, his "muse," speaks his own thoughts.
In her fourth directorial effort (her previous film, Private Confessions, dutifullyshot another Bergman script, that one based on his parents' marriage and infidelities), Ullmann has clearly internalized her erstwhile friend and lover's deliberate, at times ponderous, pacing and pared-back camerawork, his tight shots, even his masterful flair for subtle signposts to mark a mood shift or plot turn, like changing the light or color of a scene. What is more typically Bergman than interrelations between macrocosm and microcosm?
But honesty? Aside from the nagging sense of loss that middle-aged and old David share, what does this self-described malcontent carry with him from all those grave trips down memory lane? The old man touches Marianne's face, and his own younger face too, in benediction, but it reads more like solipsism than real emotional connection.
For all its biting truths, this is a movie about talk whose talk meanders around self-examination without ever really striking self-awareness. Everyone in Faithless is trapped, by their creator's design, in a self-sealed world. Is this honesty about human reality or a kind of smug, bleak paternalism? That and its quaint take on infidelity explain why Faithless ultimately feels like a soap opera for highbrows. (Who else sits through movies with subtitles?) It lacquers an existentialist veneer onto Big Issues like Life and Love and Relationships and Death. But minus the larger framing issues that resonated through Scenes and that series' far more dramatic vicissitudes, in modern America--if not modern Scandinavia--Bergman's truths too often come off as melodramatic, heavy-handed and trite rather than timeless. We're left, in Faithless, with an almost medieval allegory that ultimately flattens human foibles into archetypal moral categories.
It's as if in his old age Bergman has forgotten his lessons from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House, where real, if inevitably frail, individuals are dramatically, provocatively shaped and bent by larger forces. Scenes worked best when it followed Ibsen's lead. In Faithless, however, Bergman, like the old David (Erland Josephson, who has played the movie Bergman before), spends a lot of time in front of the mirror. When does merciless self-examination slide imperceptibly into narcissism?
Here's my problem. If there's a line separating the later Bergman's existential dilemmas from daily infusions of TV soapsuds, Scenes From A Marriage helped confuse me about where that line might be. (PBS and BBC costume dramas, movies like The English Patient and My Dinner with André, Barbra Streisand, Tennessee Williams and Op-Ed pieces about media violence have the same effect on me.)
Until then, I knew I was supposed to be in awe of Bergman. I saw The Seventh Seal when I was a teenager, and like a good intellectual wannabe, entranced by Death the chess player, I voyaged through Bergman's oeuvre during high school and college. Scenes From A Marriage left me saying goodbye to all that. I guess I decided it was more fun, less patronizing and (in ways I didn't have to defend to myself anymore) more enlightening, even, to tune in to An American Family, the 1973 PBS foray into reality TV that aired at around the same time. Who remembers the Louds, Santa Barbara's favorite upper-middle-class real-life soap opera, who became inured to cameras following them through a year of their lives? One kid coming out of the closet, sex and drug problems for the others, a disintegrating marriage between the apparently sophisticated adults masquerading as parents and, through the bemusement and horror, some key issues of contemporary American life driving a cast of self-consciously avid talkers who grew remarkably sophisticated (if frequently self-contradictory), somehow conscious and unconscious about cameras and soundbites as their Andy Warhol moments of fame spun on and on and on...
A few years later, I was living in Italy when I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, his first overt homage to Bergman. My Italian was pretty good, but as I sat in the huge cold Roman theater with a smattering of chatting Italians watching the frozen, black-and-white anguish spread like molasses across the patched screen, I kept straining for punch lines that never came, making them up for myself when they didn't, finding ironies in the dubbed Italian voices emitted by actors whose accents I knew only too well. I left feeling as though I understood multiple-personality disorder from the inside--not because of the movie, exactly, but from my time in the dark spent in parallel with it.
The unintentional Brechtian effect that Interiors had on me extinguished whatever was left of my need or desire for Bergman's increasingly circumscribed world of angst and sin and guilt, even if filtered through Liv Ullmann's disciplined lens. That, of course, isn't their fault. But despite some fine moments, Faithless didn't convince me I was wrong.
A survey of films from this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Commenting on the German film Run Lola Run two years ago, The Nation's redoubtable film critic, Stuart Klawans, quoted a character speaking nominally of soccer: "The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes." He went on to write, "That's a good answer, if your head's filled with the same stuff as the ball.... Just don't forget which part of you is getting booted." Vintage Klawans, who gibed his fellow critics as well for decrying "the demise of movie culture--laments that have been sighed, paradoxically, over the living bodies of any number of vital but less fashionable films." Holiday moviegoers have doubtless missed Stuart's insight, grace and humor in recent weeks; we here report that after a dozen years spent in the dark so that the rest of us might see some light, he has decided to take a sabbatical. We'll miss his presence. In the interim, we hope you'll find the occasional film commentary by others in these pages to be very much in his spirit.
Long before Carrie-Anne Moss rips open Val Kilmer's shirt and begins pounding his chest, providing him with a version of CPR that she must have learned from a Japanese drum troupe, the makers of Red Planet have resorted to their own thumpings and flailings, as if to resuscitate a film that's gone limp. It's a panic response, coming from people who have realized too late that the hookup of a radio would be a high point of their picture.
Their script has stuck Moss in a stricken spaceship that's orbiting Mars; by this point, her comrades Kilmer and Tom Sizemore have been marooned, incommunicado, on the planet's surface. So when the boys stumble upon an old circuit board in the dust, it's time for high-energy drama. "Let's do it!" shrieks Sizemore, as if he were starting the Indy 500. With a roar, guitars and drums begin pounding away on the soundtrack. Kilmer, in closeup, damn well solders a wire, sending a meteor shower's worth of sparks across the screen--at which point, back on the spaceship, Moss decides to strip down to a sleeveless T-shirt, giving us a much better view of her breasts.
I'm really grateful for the breasts. If not for them, I might have fallen asleep and missed the climactic scene, in which Kilmer performs a diagnostic check on a computer.
If only the makers of Red Planet had trusted in their story's essential schleppiness! Then, instead of giving us this lumbering, expensive beast, they might have realized the small but halfway-clever idea that's still dimly visible within: a story about the heroism-by-default of a spaceship janitor.
The character in question, a fellow named Gallagher, holds the job title of mechanical systems engineer; but to the rest of the personnel on this flight to Mars, that's like saying he's the guy who fixes the toilets. "It's high school," he remarks to a fellow civilian in the crew, after being brushed back by a swaggering NASA pilot. "They're the jocks, and we're the nerds." Just so. When he bumps into Moss--the ship's commander--on her way out of the unisex shower, Gallagher can think of nothing better to do than fumble with his fingers and blush. Later, when the outcome of the mission comes to rest on him, Moss has to give him a pep talk before he'll even get to his feet. Yet he's the guy who must save Earth from destruction and consummate a rendezvous with those breasts. What a role for Steve Buscemi! How the hell did it go to Val Kilmer?
He's good, of course. Kilmer is always good--but he's a guy who previously played Jim Morrison, Elvis and Batman. The only thing that's nerdlike about him is the hairdo he's been given for this picture, which is brushy and yellow and makes him look as if he's in crying need of a conditioner. Mind you, the premise of Red Planet is that all of Earth needs a conditioner. After these many years of environmental degradation, we've burned out our world and must colonize someplace else. Hence the desperate and very expensive project, in the year 2057, of sending Moss and her crew to Mars. Wouldn't it have been cheaper, as well as more practical, to institute a few conservation measures instead? No doubt. But humans, according to this movie, lack much capacity for self-discipline and forethought, and so must splurge on stupid but spectacular stunts. As if to prove this point, the producers have done their own splurging and hired Kilmer--the actorly equivalent of a rocket to Mars, compared with Buscemi's compost heap.
As they cast the lead, so too did they decide to ladle on the excitement: pounding guitars, sleeveless T-shirts, unmotivated shrieks. How were these choices made? I can venture a guess. The credits for Red Planet list three producers and two executive producers. This is a fairly standard aggregation in today's movie business; and with so many big shots keeping themselves busy on the picture, how could a mere idea survive? The story, written by a lone guy named Chuck Pfarrer, was almost sure to be buried alive; and into the dirt with it went a few other notions.
One of them might have involved some sexual role-play, based on the fact that the only females in the story are Moss, the shipboard computer (named Lucille) and a navigation robot called Amee. "She's my kind of girl," Gallagher says of the robot, just before it goes into killer mode. (It was designed for the Marines.) Somebody, maybe Pfarrer, seems to have wanted the nerdy Gallagher to feel ambivalent toward strong women: attracted to them when they shower, threatened by them when they turn into whirring kung-fu machines.
But since the production is at war with its own screenplay--have I mentioned that Red Planet is directed, more or less, by Antony Hoffman?--this kinky little idea is no better realized than the movie's religiosity. As far as I'm concerned, it's just as well that this latter theme gets only lip service. Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earthlings in Outer Space have sought God, and found light shows. At least Red Planet spares us that final cliché--though it still makes us listen to a lot of spiritual blather.
Those Deep Thoughts are provided by Terence Stamp, who manages to be the crew's world-famous scientist despite having abandoned rationalism. Science cannot provide the answers he craves, Stamp explains to a sweetly patient Kilmer, and so he has turned to religion. Kilmer obligingly spends the rest of the picture looking for a divine purpose--which doesn't seem so misguided, considering the level of scientific expertise around him. When the crew's biologist (Sizemore) discovers a life form on Mars, he cries out, "Nematodes!" Either he's forgotten his Linnaeus--nematodes are worms--or else the solution to God's mysteries is to be found not in Outer Space but in the pages of old sci-fi magazines. These creatures are clearly arthropods: the genre's usual bugs.
Fans of the platoon-in-space movie will want to know that the Mars scenery is furnished with the necessary rocks, peaks and ravines. Fans of Carrie-Anne Moss--meaning the adolescent boys, of whatever age, who admired The Matrix--will want to know that here, too, she gets to fly around. Not every actress is suited to antigravity; and so, until such time as Moss gets the chance to deliver a performance, I will congratulate her on giving good float.
As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.
For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.
That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."
I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."
From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.
Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.
Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.
This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).
Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.
In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.
When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.
It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.
"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."
To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.
Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."
George Washington takes place in a small, weedy, rusty city in the American South, where children conduct their affairs with adult responsibility and adults behave like kids. The grown-ups had fought wars and built machines, explains Nasia (Candace Evanofski), the little girl who narrates the film in voiceover, so "it was hard for them to find their peace." By contrast, the children dwell on problems of friendship, love and the care of small animals. These subjects lead not to turmoil but to the contemplation of "mysteries...all the mistakes God had made."
Nasia doesn't name these errors; but a moviegoer might draw up quite a list. God has allowed George Washington to be set in a city of empty storefronts, derelict factories, junkyards, railyards and tumbledown houses: places of abandonment and failure, which are lovingly photographed in warm sunlight and deep colors. Presiding over this America (at least in Nasia's mind) is her friend George (Donald Holden), whose skull God forgot to fuse. George's brain lies so near the surface that he has to go about wearing a football helmet. But despite his vulnerability--or because of it--George wants to be a hero, and Nasia sees him as one. The marvel of the movie is that you see George almost as she does, even while knowing that he's a poor, scared, guilt-burdened kid.
On the level of knowledge--of meanings that can be paraphrased--George Washington is a mounting pile of disasters. Parents are dead, imprisoned or crazy; pets are candidates for slaughter; friends are one slip away from a violent end. The survivors, while not yet old enough for high school, ache with a secret conviction of sin, or else go numb and blame themselves for it.
But the movie doesn't play at the paraphrasable level. As written and directed by David Gordon Green in his remarkable feature debut, George Washington is a languid series of impressionistic glances, many of them cast at subjects that seem lovely or droll. Scenes often fade to black, so they occupy their own little space. The performers (all of them nonprofessional) play-act with a sincerity (sometimes an abandonment) that makes each moment a piece of eternity. Music is used sparingly; and when it does come up, it's generally in the form of a slow, two- or three-chord pattern that isn't planning to go anywhere. Maybe a couple of the children want to skip town after their friend Buddy abruptly dies; but the sounds are content to cycle in the air, as if they feel what George and Nasia feel. The goodness that the kids hope to find, the love and heroism they seek, must be present here and now, if they exist at all.
Do they exist? The answer might be yes, if you smile when George puts on his superhero outfit--the football helmet, a uniform from the school wrestling team and a white sheet, tied around his neck as a cape--and pretends to direct traffic. Never mind that the traffic doesn't need direction. George apparently believes he's saving lives; and though his need for this belief is terrible, though circumstances have made the wrestling uniform a token of guilt, the camera nevertheless gazes up at him, admiring rather than belittling his solemn arm-waving.
This is irony reversed: a demonstration of the moral and imaginative strength of a character who is, in his material condition, weaker than the viewer. I might even say (to compare small things with great) that George takes on the role of Father of His Country much as Leopold Bloom assumes the mantle of Ulysses. For all we know, George's ancestors were owned by the Father of His Country. (Like most of the film's characters, George has African blood.) But in his own eyes and Nasia's, there's still freedom and glory to be found on Independence Day--though the parade, to us, may look comically shabby, though the city's grown-ups doze off before the fireworks begin.
"Smile," someone says to George as the film concludes. When a picture's this good, that's easily done.
By coincidence, October has brought another outstanding first feature about the sudden death of children in a garbage-strewn city. The setting of this picture is a slum in Glasgow, where a foul canal runs past row houses of brick, near the concrete towers of a housing project. The period is the recent past, when Tom Jones was the latest singing sensation, and a garbage strike had left the streets and lots heaped with vermin-infested rubbish. The title of the film is Ratcatcher; and the writer-director, Lynne Ramsay, promises to be a major talent.
She's had the courage to make the worst happen within the first five minutes of the film. Young James (William Eadie) is tussling playfully with his friend Ryan Quinn when the latter goes down in the canal and doesn't come up. James runs off in fear; and from then through the end of the film, he lives with his secret. You might even say that he walks around in the secret. Ryan's mother gives him the shoes she'd been buying for her son at the very moment of his death. James accepts the gift, having no alternative, then slashes the uppers with broken glass.
As that action suggests, Ratcatcher is a far less dreamy film than George Washington. While Green chooses a vibrant rust as his predominant color, Ramsay calls up all the shades of mud. While George Washington takes place in sunshine--even the most awful setting is shot through with shafts of light--Ratcatcher is so muted that it might have been shot underwater. The world is drained of sensual pleasure; when James's father brings home a can of pale blue house paint, which seems to have fallen off a truck, closer inspection proves he's got industrial gray.
Don't even think about seeing Ratcatcher if you dislike knowing that the film conforms to its title. But don't stay away if the prospect of unrelieved grimness is what's putting you off. The good news is that Ramsay has the idiosyncratic eye and mind of a young Jane Campion. She's always picking out odd but telling details--a wedge of nylon stocking between the mother's toes, a trickle of saliva along the slumbering father's cheek--and showing them from punchy angles. She also has a talent for opening windows in the daily grind, to reveal sudden vistas of the wondrous. Ratcatcher is hardly the work of a whimsy merchant; and yet, at one point, James discovers a green field that's as perfect as a picture on the wall, and is framed like one. At another moment, while witnessing one of the film's many rodent deaths, he imagines a pet mouse's trip to the moon.
Most important of all, Ramsay chooses to dramatize characters who are loving as well as damaged. James may have the low, dark hairline and bat ears of Franz Kafka (perfect attributes for a lad serving time in this penal colony); the young girl he falls for, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), may be used as common property by a gang of toughs, whose preferred love nest is an outdoor privy; and yet, in a scene at the film's heart, James and Margaret Anne can share a frolic in the bath, innocently enjoying one another and a rare body of nonlethal water. Even the grown-ups are granted such a measure of grace. Mother (Mandy Matthews) is at wit's end, coping with the chaos and dangers of poverty; Father (Tommy Flanagan) is a philandering drunk. But late in the picture, after a rough night, they put on a Sinatra record and dance in a single shaft of light, surrounded by utter blackness; and for that long moment, while they clutch each other, the screen is suffused with unembarrassed warmth.
Ratcatcher is about the surprises that crop up and the hopes that remain alive after the worst has occurred. Tough, dour and open-spirited, it's a welcome new entry in the smallest genre of cinema: pictures that become more interesting as they go on.
Noted with pleasure: My colleagues say that Bedazzled--Harold Ramis's remake of the 1967 comedy--is not a masterpiece, and surely my colleagues are right. This tale of a sniveling schlep who sells his soul to the Devil, having despaired of getting laid in any other way, was far more theologically sound in the original. For one thing, the 1967 version was written by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were known to have read books, and starred the innately sadistic Cook as the Devil and the innately floundering Moore as the schlep. For another thing, the original included a full-scale parade of the seven deadly sins, featuring Raquel Welch as Lust.
The new version dispenses with such medieval apparatus and casts today's Raquel, Elizabeth Hurley, as the Devil. She's a sport (as you know if you've seen the first Austin Powers movie) and seems to enjoy wriggling all relevant parts of her anatomy; but once you get past the sight gag, you realize she does most of her acting with her teeth. Hurley is a great biter and clacker.
But then there's the schlep. He's played by Brendan Fraser, who has become the pre-eminent big lug of contemporary American comedy. Bedazzled gives him the opportunity to play a computer nerd (the basic character), a Colombian drug lord, a New Age California simp, a loofah-brained basketball star, a hyperarticulate novelist in a great tuxedo and Abraham Lincoln, all of which roles he carries off with the ease and aplomb of George of the Jungle swinging smack into a tree. No, Bedazzled isn't a masterpiece. But it's a Brendan Fraser vehicle, and for that I'm grateful.
Since Spike Lee begins his new picture, Bamboozled, by giving a dictionary definition of satire, the least a reviewer can do is to open with a proper critical definition. Strictly speaking, Bamboozled is a Menippean satire; and because I'm unqualified to describe that form, I will defer to Northrop Frye. A few lines from his Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus...differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.
Frye's catalogue of Menippean personages will serve nicely as a roll call for the characters in Bamboozled. "Rapacious and incompetent professional men"--those would be Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a full-throatedly boorish program executive at the CNS television network, and his underling Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the network's only African-American staff writer. The story's "virtuosi" are a pair of starving, scuffling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who at first want nothing more than a chance to do their act and get paid. In them, Delacroix sees a vehicle for escaping his job, while at the same time exacting revenge on Dunwitty for endless slights and slurs.
"Enthusiasts" are the American people, God bless them, who fall in love with the variety show that Delacroix dreams up. Manray, now called Mantan, and Womack, renamed Sleep 'n' Eat, become the stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program set in an Alabama watermelon patch, featuring a full cast of coons, Toms, mammies, pickaninnies and chain-gang prisoners. To Delacroix's horror, viewers do not rise up in fury against this spectacle. Instead, they adopt blackface as the nation's latest fad.
"Cranks"--these are the members of a would-be-revolutionary hip-hop collective called the Mau Maus, led by a man who has named himself Big Blak African (Mos Def). The Mau Maus conform to the most noxious stereotypes--they're unlettered, inarticulate, unemployed, slovenly and very fond of malt liquor--so of course they declare war on the minstrel show for perpetuating such images.
"Parvenus"--a term that applies to most of the major characters. Once the minstrel show turns into a huge success, misbehavior becomes general. "Pedant"--that would be Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix's young assistant and his uneasy but ineffective conscience. She's the one who insists that if Manray and Womack are to wear blackface, they must use authentic burnt cork. She's also the one who protests against the show by collecting hundreds of antique coon figures, with which she fills Delacroix's office and home. To these, Spike Lee adds a collection of his own, appending to the movie an entire gallery's worth of film clips of Toms, mammies, pickaninnies, etc. In such a manner, writes Frye, does the Menippean satirist demonstrate exuberance, "piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme."
Finally, we have the category of "bigots." It's enough to say that this is a Spike Lee movie.
And now, having anatomized Bamboozled, I must pass on to the tougher question: How good a Menippean satire is it? Or, to phrase the question more precisely: How does the movie play? To answer, I'd better begin again, starting this time with the bizarre figure of Delacroix.
Who is this man with the shaved head and pencil mustache, who keeps his voice locked in his sinus cavities and speaks English as if he'd learned it from 78 rpm records? (I mean, who is he other than another brilliant characterization by Damon Wayans?) We know that Delacroix is the narrator of Bamboozled and the instigator of its plot. We also discover, fairly quickly, that he's a postmodern, post-civil rights, post-affirmative action type, who calls himself a Negro and takes pride in dressing like Duke Ellington on a Savile Row spree. But behind all his preening and posing--pinching the air while he talks, pretending to believe that his co-workers respect him--who the hell is Delacroix?
Two aspects of his life--his apartment decor and the script for his TV show--combine to answer for him. The lavish apartment is located in a Manhattan tower, right behind the face of a giant clock. It's the perfect home for a man who, as they say, doesn't know what time it is. As for the TV show: One of the minstrel routines it revives is a doubletalk bit, spoken by a man whose family ties are so complicated that he seems to be his own grandfather. Says the minstrel, who might as well be speaking for Delacroix, "I don't know who I is!"
He's not the only one. The Mau Maus, too, live in a riot of self-misapprehension. Lee shows them in constant, jostling, purposeless motion; you get the impression of a many-headed, many-limbed being stuffed into a single baggy sweatshirt. "Know what I mean? Know what I'm sayin'?" they sputter at one another, without anyone's actually having said anything. They, too, seem to be echoed by the minstrels in an old routine--the one where two buddies converse unintelligibly because they never bother to complete a sentence.
Of course, the characters not of African descent have their own deficit of self-knowledge. Michael Rapaport, who has developed a specialty in playing big but sweet-natured imbeciles, here brings out a more bullying side of himself, making Dunwitty into a loud, tall, sputtering fount of vulgarities. "Yo! I'm the only black in this room!" he shouts at the grimly self-controlled Delacroix, before launching into a supposedly genial chant of "Nigger nigger nigger nigger!" But because of the privilege that comes with his pale skin, Dunwitty gets to enjoy his ignorance. The film's African characters suffer for theirs--and, in the end, make each other suffer.
This is hardly the first time that Lee has looked coldly at the popular culture of denigration (another word to look up in the dictionary), seeing in it a source of confusion and misery. His treatment of the subject has ranged from the rhetorical (in Malcolm X) to the intimately dramatic (in Crooklyn). But he's never before made this problem the main focus of a film--and when you think about it, you may realize that for all his coruscating wit, he's never before made a full-blown satire, either.
So how does Bamboozled play as a movie? I will cite, in descending order of merit, the performances, which are vivid; the themes, which are coherently developed (despite what you might have heard); the settings, which are reasonably varied but not strong in themselves (except for that clock tower); the videography, which is undistinguished; and the pacing and editing, which might have been improved had Lee emulated those minstrel routines he's revived.
The movie's dirty secret, which Lee has the courage to reveal, is that those bits really can be funny. You might expect to enjoy Bamboozled when Savion Glover gets to dance--how could a movie go wrong with him?--but the big surprise is to see how Tommy Davidson, as Womack, works those corny old jokes. Never in my life did I expect to hear an actor call out that legendary punch line, "Ain't nobody here but us chickens!" Is the moment humiliating for Womack? You bet. Did I laugh? You would, too.
Spike Lee has applied his erudition to this American tradition and discovered not just how it wounds but also how it entertains. With the intellectual acuity of the Menippean satirist, he's shown that the entertainment is the wound--the louder the laughter, the worse the damage. It's understandable, then, that he would want to drive home the lesson by strategically killing the fun for his own audience. I can imagine the gesture's being made swiftly, so that your throat would be slit in midlaugh. But Lee seems to lack the resolve for such savagery. Past a certain point in Bamboozled, when he might have declared a grand refusal, he instead falls into a semi-puritanical sulk, leaving the movie to clunk and clatter along. This is the satire of the passive-aggressive personality: someone who withdraws into a show of indifference, as if we should apologize to him and beg for a livelier picture.
I think of the sign that Delacroix places on top of his television set, to spur himself on in his work. Feed the Idiot Box, it says. How little regard the man must have for himself, when he feels such contempt for his job and his audience! Do I detect a touch of self-portraiture in Lee's picture of this fellow satirist? Would Bamboozled have been a better movie had Lee believed that we--and he--were worthy of it?
Short Take: Moviegoers who are willing to risk having their hearts warmed might take a look at Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a script by Lee Hall, it's an amiable example of the working-class-uplift picture--the uplift, in this case, involving the ability of a coal miner's son to execute a grand jeté.
In Durham, England, in 1984, young Billy sneaks off from his boxing class to study ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Bad enough that he's the only lad, amid all those tutus. Worse still, his father's union is in the process of being crushed by Mrs. Thatcher, so the 50 pence he misappropriates each week can be ill afforded. His dad (Gary Lewis) wants him to spend that money on learning to fight his way through a hard world--not on leaping about like a poofter.
I might have enjoyed Billy Elliot a bit more if the film hadn't insisted so often that Billy is not, I mean not, repeat not a poofter, just because he loves to dance. All right, back off. It also might have been useful to address the mineworkers' strike substantially, rather than use it as mere background, and to have made Billy's ultimate triumph something less of a foregone conclusion. Then again, Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a marvel. The kid knows how to dance; what's more, he knows how to pretend to dance less well than he really can, which is amazing in such a young actor. Let him and the character he plays have their triumph. It's harmless enough--and I'm pleased to say it's accomplished through public financing.