By Daniel Garrett
“I know what you hate. You hate something in them you can’t understand. You don’t hate their evil. You hate the good in them you can’t get at. I wonder what you want, what final thing.”
—Adam to Kate, in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden
I do not think that I had heard or read anything about The Far Country, the Anthony Mann western film of the Yukon gold rush starring James Stewart as a man whose cattle are stolen by a dishonest lawman. I found the movie The Far Country in a small town library, the kind of place that features Christian and regional motion pictures as well as classic films, current popular favorites, and a few great foreign obscurities. Previously, I had seen James Stewart, a likable actor who had not been one of my favorites, in Destry Rides Again, The Philadelphia Story, Rear Window, Rope, and, I suppose among others, The Man Who Knew Too Much, but I think that I found his personality too passive, too slow—until seeing Anthony Mann’s The Far Country (Universal, 1954), in which I liked Jimmy Stewart very much. Stewart is a loner in the film, a man of action and self-reliance, and he is partnered with a somewhat irritating but sweet figure played by Walter Brennan, an older man who talks too much: Stewart is Jeff Webster and Brennan is Ben Tatum; and Ruth Roman plays an enterprising businesswoman, a tavern owner and gold dealer, a woman of experience, with Corinne Calvert as the more innocent yet adventurous daughter of a doctor. Jimmy Stewart’s performance in this story of individuality and community, of law and crime, of the wild frontier and the attempt to build civilization, is a reminder that there is always more to discover in any artist or art form.
There is a culture of the individual, a culture of the family, and a culture of school, business, and church, a culture of the city, of region, and of state; and the extent to which culture is comprehensive, creative, humane, and thoughtful, it contributes to civilization. It is interesting that in a world of ever increasing population and technology, we know more about different areas of the world, are more influenced by facts and ideas from beyond our borders—and, in many ways, can design our individual culture. Time and thought will determine what culture survives—that is, what culture deserves to survive. Yet, there is as much accident as luck, as well as genuine insight and use, in what survives. One takes a survey of the past and present at different times, trying to ascertain merit: and here, I consider Adam’s Rib, An American in Paris, Antony and Cleopatra, Argo, Bully, The Cabin in the Woods, A Clockwork Orange, The Dark Knight Rises, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, East of Eden, Farewell My Queen, Fur, Garden State, Killer Joe, King Creole, Liberal Arts, Midnight in Paris, Notorious, Our Beloved Month of August, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Portrait of a Lady, Rosewood, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Shawshank Redemption, Silent Souls, Sparkle, Splendor in the Grass, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, and Won’t Back Down and The Words…
Other works and their form, content, and power are worthy of comment: Apart from Bella, Daughters of the Dust, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Dogville, Don’t Let Me Drown, The Dry Land, The Fast Runner, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty, George Washington, Law of Desire, Losing Ground, A Mighty Heart, My Best Friend’s Wedding, My Favorite Season, Orlando, Oscar and Lucinda, Paper Moon, The Pillow Book, Rio Bravo, The Stoning of Soraya M., Sugar Cane Alley, Taboo, Time Regained, and To Kill a Mockingbird there is The Birds. The Birds has a meet cute/meet sexy introduction for its two leads, and a frightening suggestion of environmental rebellion, but it is as significant for the resource of imaginative film effects that Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) has been to other directors; and production design was a strong aesthetic quality, even a character, with the weirdly angular and bare modern sets in the perennial melodrama of Camille when the appealing Valentino appeared as the ardent lover to Nazimova as courtesan in Ray Smallwood’s Camille (1921), though I remain enthralled by the film version featuring the sensuous and spiritual Garbo, the transcendent Garbo; and, decades later in a different country and type of motion picture, the beauty of Moscow and the unusual electric aliens of sudden light and obliterating power magnified the appeal of The Darkest Hour (2011); but human emotion holds its own too—in the torment of a distrusting, impulsive and weak man and the recurrence of tragic accident and the threat of a willful woman in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945); and in the sentimental science fiction Spielberg fantasy E.T., in which the alienation and dullness of suburban life is the place of an otherworldly friendship; and in the balance of rigor and intensity in King Vidor’s (and Ayn Rand’s) original, beautiful, intellectual and crazy exploration of architecture, individuality, conformity, published criticism, and rough sex in The Fountainhead (1948); and in the still timely argument between evolution and creationism in Inherit the Wind (1960), with Spencer Tracy as a lawyer both committed and exhausted, and with a mockingly witty journalist played by an intellectual and darkly appealing Gene Kelly. As in life, character is the greatest provider of revelations. The coldly complicated space opera John Carter (2012) has a certain intelligence and vision, but its scenes did not sing nor stir the spirit, and while its details did not charm—those of others did: as in the mix of the primitive and the modern, involving a theater troupe and the sights of horse and buggy, bike, car, and walking in the Agatha Christie mystery thriller Murder Most Foul (1964); and the funny tone of the contemporary backwards romance—first sex then love—of No Strings Attached (2010); and in Vincent Minnelli’s beautiful yet disappointing film The Pirate (1948)—the Cole Porter songs did not help, though Gene Kelly did; as did the pretty, pouting actor Ryan Phillippe’s nasty strength as a betraying friend in the plot-thick and uneven crime heist picture Set Up (2011), increasing the value of that black comedy-thriller about friendship, schemes, disloyalty, and retribution; but neither did the craft of design, intense performance, or story redeem Spielberg’s War Horse (2011), which had enough syrup to drown in. The surprisingly entertaining West Point Story (1950) and the horror of mistaken identity in The Wrong Man (1951) are more proof that gems abound amid old Hollywood; and the beauty shots in the somewhat eccentric family and friendship story Who Loves the Sun (2006) suggest the lasting power of independent films. Is the significance of film delusion or fact? Each film is a possibility—aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual: a human possibility. Cinema and the other arts are forms of beauty, forms of experiment, forms of pleasure, and forms of wisdom. The lightness of art weighs more of value in time than the heaviness of daily duty. Yes, the lives of artists can be immeasurably difficult, but the remedy for that is immensely simple: respect artists, support art.
In looking at Adam’s Rib, An American in Paris, Antony and Cleopatra, Argo, Bully, The Cabin in the Woods, A Clockwork Orange, The Dark Knight Rises, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, East of Eden, Farewell My Queen, Fur, Garden State, Killer Joe, King Creole, Liberal Arts, Midnight in Paris, Notorious, Our Beloved Month of August, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Portrait of a Lady, Rosewood, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Shawshank Redemption, Silent Souls, Sparkle, Splendor in the Grass, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, and Won’t Back Down and The Words, I see the kind of films I want to talk to friends about, the kind of films I want to introduce strangers to, or mention, to gauge their responses and to see what we share in perceptions and ideals—and to enlarge our range of conversation: the films, for their craft, story, and performances, or impact, are hard to forget.
Adam’s Rib – The broad but light, fast-paced, intelligent, and very suggestive George Cukor comedy that is Adam’s Rib (1949) is amusing, thoughtfully and whimsically imaginative, presenting the situation of two lawyers, a prosecutor and defender, a husband and wife, who are involved in the juridical case of a jealous homemaker wife who follows her ill-mannered husband to the apartment of his mistress and there shoots him. The lawyer wife takes on the case as a chance to draw attention to how women are put upon by men, and are justified in their resentment, in their temporary madness, while the prosecutor husband insists on the rule of law. The film, co-starring Spencer Tracy, is one of several Katharine Hepburn films featuring a modern woman with an elevated consciousness, a feminist theme (George Stevens’1940 Woman of the Year is another), presenting a distinguished woman with admiration but also showing the questionable liberties and conflicts of her position. The legal proceedings offer opportunity to present female paragons: a greatly accomplished scientist, and a strong female giant (who lifts the prosecutor above her shoulders), among them. Gender expectations are subverted. The prosecutor’s male associates use terms that are somewhat campy, and the lawyer wife has a songwriter friend who is quite fey. The quality of the film’s conversations is impressive—infused with cultural awareness, personality, and wit. However, the husband thinks his wife is making a mockery of the law with her legal arguments—there is something to this, but at the same time his refusal to take the circumstances of women seriously can seem too conservative, insensitive, and ultimately ahistorical. The spirit of honest and mutual respect between the lawyers, the spirit antagonized and disrupted by their legal case, is one answer to history. The comic subversions in Adam’s Rib remain contemporary, even for us, decades after the film was made.
An American in Paris – An American male painter learning about art and romance and wealth in Paris, has a composer pal and gains the supportive attention of a rich and sophisticated woman patron while becoming enamored of a charming French girl who is the fiancée of one of his friends, a successful entertainer, in this, one of the most beautiful, entertaining musical films ever made. The atmosphere is more casual and relaxed than it is genuinely bohemian, but it does suggest the centrality of work to a painter or musician’s life; and it creates an engaging romance. Gene Kelly as the painter, and Oscar Levant as the composer, Nina Foch as the wealthy woman and Leslie Caron as the ingénue are quite good in this gorgeous and original film of music and dance. Gene Kelly, in look and energy and talent, was a distinct and inimitable American presence. Who could forget the earthily masculine and sensual Gene Kelly’s dancing with the neighborhood children; or Levant’s conducting and performing as the entire orchestra, or the conclusion, in which paintings come to life? The look of the film achieves a quality of expression that remains rare and rich, while expressing an accessible bohemian spirit (that becomes somewhat emphatic when director Vincente Minnelli tracks a male couple at the conclusive black-and-white ball—emphatic as the director seems to repeat an entrance by the two men, something that jars the timing in a film that otherwise seems perfect).
Antony and Cleopatra – Shakespeare is the kind of great writer whose work survives changes in custom and circumstance; and as long as producers and performers remain true to his language, the thought and passion and truth of that language comes through and has power. That fact alone can make it hard to know how well an actor or actress is at performing Shakespeare. Is the perceptible power that of the writer or the performer? Charlton Heston allows the sensuality and violence as well as thought of Shakespeare to manifest in Heston’s early 1970s film Antony and Cleopatra. I am not sure that I had heard of Charlton Heston’s directing of a film of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but having seen it, I like much of it—the general production design and the movement of the film are done well, whether in the selection of monumental locations, the choice of colors, the costuming, the employ of montages, or the amassing of armies of extras; and while some of the acting performances are very strong (especially in the role of the most prominent of men with whom the military leader Antony feels competition, wolf with wolf, the young Octavius Caesar, played by John Castle), I could not decide what I thought of Heston’s own Antony, a politician and warrior who has abandoned his wife and duties for the pleasures of a foreign queen, the Egyptian monarch Cleopatra (Hildegarde Neil), a woman of sensuality, doubt, and willful power—Heston did not have the charm I expected from a great lover. Heston is no longer young, and while not ravaged, he has only the remnants of his former handsomeness; and Heston, who speaks the language well, seems all craggy conviction. Where is his variety as a thinking man or a passionate personality? Yet, I must admit that I was not impressed by Laurence Olivier as Othello, a film performance that the great cinema critic Pauline Kael raved about, and that others considered a marvel: would a beautiful young woman, Ophelia, be attracted to that bulky middle-age man with the peevish emotional self-indulgence of a West Indian London grocer? It is a lack of artistic fortune that sometimes actors do not have the industry power to take on demanding, legendary and necessary roles until after the actors are long established. Charlton Heston is best when going through the scenes of political gamesmanship with other men in Antony and Cleopatra (1972), a film worth seeing and seeing again. It, too, would be great to know more of the queen’s governance. The great theatrical moments—the sea battle with Rome that Antony insists on despite better advice, a battle the queen leaves too soon, with Antony following to his shame and the resignation of many of his men, then the lovers quarrels, and the queen’s bringing a poisonous snake to her breast to escape submission to Rome—used to be part of common memory.
Argo – The story that Argo tells is simple: rebellious Iranians protest American intervention in their country’s history and allowing the Shah to come to the United States, and then the Iranians take American embassy employees hostage, with a few—six—escaping. The escapees are helped by the Canadian ambassador; and a Central Intelligence Agency operative devises a plan to go to Iran, pretending to be a film producer, and to extract the escaped embassy employees through subterfuge, with the escapees pretending to be part of the film crew for a science fiction work. Argo’s lead actor Ben Affleck directed the 2012 film to rather surprised acclaim and reward. The acting throughout the film is restrained, realistic as opposed to melodramatic, and its pace is brisk; and Argo, in its use of history and emblematic architecture, is in the tradition of All the President’s Men, the film about Nixon, the Watergate building burglary, and the subsequent press investigation. However, the misuse of presidential power and the integrity of the press are more illustrative and resonant as a subject than the rescue mission we see in Argo, which seems a thrilling short story rather than a masterwork.
Bully – The cruelty of children cannot be news to anyone; and that cruelty can come out of character, custom, ignorance, or strategy: whatever, it is no surprise. The attempt to control that cruelty can be inspired by decorum or kindness or morality or political correctness. The Lee Hirsch documentary Bully (2011) investigates instances of bullying—with most of the intimidation connected to perceptions of physical, sexual, or temperamental oddity—in different parts of the United States, but mostly in American small towns or suburbs. More might have been made of location. It is possible that the paucity of cultural diversity in certain regions contributes greatly to the cruelty? Is it possible that grade school education is not important to most children, and that the limited value of the actual content of education is a factor in how they behave—as they are refusing knowledge, refusing the ideals of civilization? Are ignorant people more likely to be blunt in their dislike than sophisticated people, or is bullying a fact of human nature? Both the bully and the victim may be limited by the lack of humane models. How does one enact, understand, or tolerate difference? Of course, it is important to remember that bullies are not confined to one region or class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation (I can think of gays, black and white, who have used victim status as justification for malice; and ethnic and religious minorities have done the same). Young people who have not been taught to be cruel, and do not have an instinct for it, are surprised and mystified by relentless cruelty; and those who are innocent of it are mostly likely to be its prey. They have not learned or accepted the social rules, the rituals of power and pain. Again and again, in the film Bully parents try to get the hurt of their children recognized by figures of authority who offer platitude and promises, making schools seem like facilities for conformity and the indoctrination of insensitivity.
The Cabin in the Woods – This satirical but sometimes genuinely scary 2011 film, written by director Drew Goddard with Joss Whedon, gives an explanation for the bizarre behavior of young people in horror films: in The Cabin in the Woods, young people are specially selected by a scientific crew for their relation to spiritual or mythic characters, and they are used as sacrifices in a ritual to pacify ancient gods. The scenario allows for a knowing perspective, as scientists use location and chemicals and feared monsters to defeat the young and thereby feed the gods. The sex-starved girl and the dumb jock and the nerd and the weed puffer and virgin are all here, at the mercy of a reanimated plot. The sweetest girl and most aware young man survive the longest, an affirmation of traditional values.
A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s large, comprehensive, and probing vision, his objectivity, allows more humanity into his films than more obviously sentimental directors: one watches his films, and simultaneously grasps a unique mind and a revelation of truth. Any one of his films—Dr. Strangelove or 2001 or Barry Lyndon—seems both unique and definitive. In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), a well-constructed film, one that moves by character, logic, and plot, the indulgently violent behavior of a young man is apprehended by first the social services system that tries to monitor him, although he continues to rape and attack; and then, after he kills a woman in a home invasion, the young man is imprisoned by the criminal justice system, and subjected to an experimental corrective drug that makes both sex and violence repulsive to him. Regimes of control, and individual liberty, and criminal impulses are under examination: how much control is possible, desirable, or just? What is the root of violence? How can violence be corrected? How much power does a society allow itself over an individual, no matter what provocation? Those are some of the deeper questions in a film of character and sensation. The film A Clockwork Orange shows the breakdown of power, its failure to fully execute its will—as art often does—but in daily life people always hope for, and try, control, making art prophesy and warning.
The Dark Knight Rises – A fearfully sensitive boy, Bruce Wayne, wants to leave a disturbing stage performance early, and when Bruce and his family do that, Bruce’s parents are killed by an armed vagrant, leaving Bruce angry, hurt, and guilty. Years later, as a young man Bruce Wayne (a lean, muscular, stern Christian Bale, a haunted and severe presence) wants revenge, but becomes a costumed crime fighter, his look inspired by the bats that used to frighten him, achieving a unique place in society, that of a helper and an outlaw, a vigilante, a myth. To the public, Bruce Wayne appears to be a self-indulgent playboy, but his dark, righteous heart keeps him meddling in the mundane affairs of men as the Batman. Bruce loses a young woman he loves to a district attorney who has a divided nature, Harvey Dent, a man whose rage at the death of his beloved releases his own shadow side. The new criminal is defeated at the cost of the Batman’s reputation, but more strict laws are passed. Ultimately, through changing times and better policing, the city needs the costumed figure less—and Bruce Wayne becomes a recluse and Batman is no longer seen. It is suggested to him that the multi-millionaire private figure as citizen and philanthropist, Bruce Wayne, would be more useful than the masked crime fighter Batman, but he has trouble accepting a new or different role. That is a rather complicated trajectory for what is a comic-strip story turned into a major movie franchise, an excuse for selling popcorn and sugary drinks, but it is in line with the resurgence of popular mythologies: The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter and even Twilight among them, stories that combine fantasy with genuine philosophical or social matters. The Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan starring Christian Bale has become a mass culture master text. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is the most compelling of Nolan’s three Batman films, and it has eruptions of feeling and observation and social critique that are nearly shocking in their applicability to recent events—such as the rise of a surveillance and computer records culture, in which transgressions become part of permanent files; and the financial recession and subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement. Selena Kyle, who seems a combination of Catwoman and Batgirl, is a practiced thief who says, “Once you’ve done what you had to do, they don’t let you do what you want to do.” Anne Hathaway is strong in the role, an actress with a real personality—expressive, intense (she was perfect in The Devil Wears Prada, and was vivid in Love and Other Drugs, and One Day, two recent films that attempted to be love stories for our time, the early twenty-first century). Morgan Freeman returns as the scientist and board director Lucius and Michael Caine as the butler Alfred; and the first name exchanges of the two men—a board member and a butler—struck me as a little odd when they keep referring to Bale’s Wayne as Mister.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Marriage is perpetually featured in many motion pictures, but this early twenty-first century Julian Schnabel film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a true story, presents the best marriage I have seen onscreen in a long time, but it is not an official marriage: a French fashion editor leaves the woman he has lived with, and had children by, for a sensual woman who loves him less, then the editor has a stroke and is paralyzed. His new lover abandons him but the mother of his children, his common law wife, remains true and learns the special language—involving eye blinks coordinated with alphabets on a chart—developed to communicate with him. The common-law wife’s acceptance of the editor’s disloyal behavior and of his diminished health condition, and her continuing attentive care and concern for him as the father of her children are fundamental, impressive, and beautiful to see. The film director, with camera placement and spoken narration, shows us the editor from the inside: through the eyes of the editor, through the thoughts of the editor; creating a realm of expression and perception for a man imprisoned in his own body, but who would write a book using the language created for his therapy. With every film, from Basquiat to Before Night Falls to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the painter Julian Schnabel has grown, becoming a great director of cinema.
East of Eden – James Dean is a figure of impulse, individuality, and soul in Elia Kazan’s 1955 film of a section of John Steinbeck’s fully imagined and impassioned epic of California, East of Eden, a film which appearance corresponded with a new phase in the American civil rights movement and the emergence of rock-and-roll, with the Brown versus the Board of Education case and the Montgomery bus boycott, and the galvanic careers of Elvis Presley and Little Richard. James Dean, an American midwestern boy, the well brought-up but mother-mourning and golden-haired small, short young man with the great head and great ass and almost no neck, has cast a very large shadow among generations of actors, from Montgomery Clift to Al Pacino on to River Phoenix and Johnny Depp to James Franco and Ryan Gosling. James Dean may have been influenced by other actors, with Marlon Brando and Clift at the top of that list, but watching James Dean it is hard to think of anyone but Dean. The film East of Eden grants Dean a role—Cal, that of a troublesome young man in a family of disciplined, moral people who may be genuinely good or simply sanctimonious—that allows for the film viewer’s understanding and sympathy. (Cal is given by the film viewer what he cannot get from his family, the triumph of art!) James Dean’s Cal seems one of those people intent on having his own genuine experience and ideas, rather than just taking on the attitudes and opinions of others. That is a role with social and philosophical implications; and done well, it would be impossible not for it to find admiring reflection in the hearts of others. James Dean, an artist of both instinct and technique, has more dimensions than the other actors playing opposite him (Julie Harris and Raymond Massey and Richard Davalos, no matter how good they are). Aware of the demands of being a man and an artist, James Dean was a disciplined thrill-seeker, but what Dean accomplished in his art—in East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, and Giant—survived his accidental death in a favorite fast car, and continues to thrill audiences.
Farewell, My Queen – There is always speculation about the private lives of the rich, the famous, and the powerful, and assumptions about how they use their liberty and privileges, assumptions of indulgence and even perversity; and this 2012 Benoit Jacquot film is based on such speculation about Marie Antoinette’s infatuation with a young woman, one of her favorites. In this film, there is a third woman, a woman assigned to read to the queen, someone who is little more than entertainment, but someone who will come to have grave responsibility. The young woman reader is passionate about the queen, feeling a sympathy that cannot be returned: for those few persons with that kind of royal power, almost everyone else is a servant or a tool. That perception of utility is revealed at the end of the film, when the queen asks the young woman reader to impersonate a favorite of the queen that the rebelling crowd would like to kill. In a subsequent carriage ride, the servant girl dressed as a lady has a more generous spirit than the vain lady she is impersonating: the servant, waving at those the carriage passes, demonstrates simple human grace. Until then, we, the film viewers, see some of the French palace intrigue, and while that is interesting—the lead performances are good, especially from Diane Kruger as the queen and Lea Seydoux as the reader—it is hard to believe that this film is a document of genuine history rather than the usual gossip. Bizarrely, there is even less sense of the poverty and suffering of the common people than in Sofia Coppola’s candy-colored teen dream, making Woody Van Dyke’s Marie Antoinette (1938) from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, featuring Norma Shearer and John Barrymore, of lasting value for its focus on the actual causes of the revolution. (The fawning interview with the director Benoit Jacquot of the film Farewell, My Queen by Kent Jones, included with the home screening film package, is embarrassing and funny for its revelation of the film commentator’s superficiality. While not as odious as the frivolity, malice, and groundless self-satisfaction to be found in the writing of Glenn Kenny, Jones here reminds me of Jump Cut’s Chuck Kleinhans—he is so drunk on pretty abstractions and the power of cinema he has lost all good sense. It makes one grateful for Pauline Kael and Jane Gaines, Richard A. Gilmore, Bell Hooks, Esther Iverem, Stanley Kauffmann, Stuart Klawans, Anthony Lane, Mick LaSalle, Wesley Morris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, James Snead, Susan Sontag, and Clyde Taylor.)
Fur – Fur, with the eccentric photographer Diane Arbus as its central figure, is not a strict biography full of facts and shaping life incidents: instead, it is an imaginary biography, a kind of parable, creating a story that suggests some of the ideas and images that attracted the idiosyncratic artist. In the 2007 Steven Shainberg film Fur, Diane Arbus, a wife, mother, and assistant to her photographer husband, and her family get a new neighbor, a strange man whose body is wholly covered by cloth; and the cloth hides the immense growth of hair all over his body—it turns out he was a circus performer, work exploiting his odd medical condition, exploiting him for entertainment dollars. Getting to know the hairy man, who makes wigs now, and preparing to take the man’s portrait, the beginning photographer Arbus is introduced to a world of freaks, people who are embodiments of the strangeness she feels in herself. There are tensions between individual curiosity and family routine, with betrayal leading to betrayal. Diane Arbus, a dark short daughter of privilege, is played by the tall, smooth Nicole Kidman, whose performance is sincere, committed; and the furry man is played by Robert Downey Jr., a master of transgression. Kidman and Downey seem odd together at first, but their collaboration grows on the viewer.
Garden State – Zach Braff’s appeal is constant and yet surprising: one expects Braff to be playing something of a shy, nervous young man, the kind of man whose intelligence or integrity is a redeeming factor, but in looks and personality—yes, basic charm—Braff is quite winning. Braff is a romantic figure rather than an image of a modern Jewish outcast. In Garden State, the young man Zach Braff plays, Andrew, is given the possibility of new friendship and love when he, Andrew, meets a fragile but vibrant girl, Natalie Portman’s Sam: and while Natalie Portman has given many good performances (in Black Swan, for one), the beautiful and delicate Portman has not been better than she is here, filling out the character completely, her gestures inflected by a particular locale and life. Zach Braff’s Garden State (2003) is a composed comedy-drama, about a young man, Andrew, who has been medicated most of his life and returns after nine years away to a New Jersey of natural and social range, of cool culture and personal dysfunction and green wilderness, for his mother’s funeral; and there, Andrew is with his estranged, professional father, and Andrew’s own motley group of friends, and the young woman he meets. The film surprises. There is a great amount of imitation in art and entertainment, mostly duplication of popular mediocrities, but it would be great if there were more films like Garden State. The movie looks very good and contains some bracing scenes: as when Braff’s character Andrew realizes his gravedigger friend is stealing from the dead—and must have stolen from Andrew’s own mother too.
Killer Joe – Matthew McConaughey gets one of his most iconic characters in Killer Joe (2011), a film written by Tracy Letts and directed by Billy Friedkin. McConaughey is the title character, a police detective who moonlights as a hired killer, a dark-suited, cowboy hat-wearing exploiter who insists on good manners, and who comes into the life of a not very bright young man (Emile Hirsch) who wants to have his mean-spirited, drug-using mother killed for her insurance policy. Not having the money for the hit, the young man, with his father’s approval, offers the young man’s sensual but virgin sister (a terrific Juno Temple) as a retainer to the hit man, Killer Joe. The sister is a sweet but perceptive girl in whom some corruption—or realism—has begun to bloom; and Joe introduces the sister to sex in a scene that has power, in this brutal black comedy of desperation, betrayal, and sexual indulgence. Thomas Haden Church is the father, and Gina Gershon the wanton stepmother. Everyone performs with skill and intensity; and the film is sometimes hilarious. The question about this film is whether the talents on view, that of actors and director, transform the situation from trash into something more.
King Creole – Elvis Presley is a good actor in the fictional King Creole, a 1958 Michael Curtiz black-and-white film set in New Orleans, and focused on a hard-working, well-intentioned young man who gets into trouble at school and cannot graduate and subsequently becomes a popular nightclub singer. The criminal elements in New Orleans are attracted to him (Presley), for his ability as a fighter and for his music, and they exploit his ambition and his anger. Two women—one dark, one light, one experienced, one innocent—vie for his attentions, as he fights and works. Walter Matthau is the charmlessly intimidating gangster boss, the owner of many New Orleans businesses and a resident in a garden apartment; and Dolores Hart is the singer’s department store good girl love (in life, the actress would give up art for being a nun); with Carolyn Jones as the bruised, possibly rotting good time girl the singer helps and carouses with. The drama is interesting enough but the film’s opening, featuring street vendors selling crawfish and gumbo and singing out the appeal of their food, is unique and charming. Elvis Presley joins in the singing; and he is a fresh, intriguing and sensuous presence throughout the film, whether being moral or amoral, sweet or tough: in the scenario, joking and trading smart lines with his sister, stacking chairs in a restaurant, hitting a rude high school student, having a confidential talk with a school principal, singing a brash, bluesy self-defining song, and shamed by his father’s submission to an employer, and miserable about his own participation in a vengeful robbery. The film viewer, like the music listener, never asks why Elvis Presley was famous: he was great! On the whole, it is sad that Presley did not keep his filmmaking at least at this level of quality. Presley, like other gifted music artists, attractive and responsive, had something to give even in a different medium.
Liberal Arts – Liberal Arts is a sweet film, full of love—and it is also serious. Sometimes what is good about a work is precisely what is used against it: say a film has intelligence and moral purpose, with cultural resonance, and these very terms might be used for mockery. Works that appeal to mind and spirit, that engage one’s sense of what is good and useful, recall too much school or church. Josh Radnor seems to be a young writer-director who has the courage of his convictions, evidence for that being perceptible in the very name of the film Liberal Arts (2011), which revolves around a young man who leaves New York and returns to the Ohio college from which he graduated, in order to pay tribute to a favorite male professor with progressive political sympathies; and the young man, Jesse, gets a chance to gauge how far he himself has grown since graduating, and how far he has to grow yet. Jesse sees his favorite professors, the retiring male professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins), whose rebellion cannot disguise from himself the fact that he has grown deeply comfortable with college life, fearful of going away; and a woman professor, Judith (Allison Janney), an embittered, slumming instructor of literature, who first does not recognize Jesse and then flirts with him but finds his enthusiasm startling: clearly, there are pitfalls in not leaving school. The boy he was, and the old man he may one day be, can be seen in the soulful and swarthy thirty-five years old Jesse (Radnor), who is sensitive and thoughtful, and attractive to a much younger woman student he meets, a pale, warm girl, the nineteen years old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a flirtatious and frank arts student and improvisational actress, someone who introduces Jesse to classical music—and Jesse considers a relationship with Zibby, despite their age differences. Jesse’s hesitance has been read as cowardice by amoral sex-driven male film viewers, and read as morality by more aware and implicated female film viewers—who appreciate not having their confusions or hopes exploited by men who promise a lot but do not stay. Of course, the friskily amusing and moodily smart film Liberal Arts is about cultural awareness and morality as well as the possibility of love and the responsibilities of adulthood: the purpose of education, and whether a man has learned what he was supposed to learn.
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen has admired foreign films, and thanks to the strange days and ways of film finance Allen has been compelled to make motion pictures in great foreign cities, London, Barcelona, Paris, and Rome. Woody Allen’s films have never looked better, and never been more easily likable, though they may not be as original, as imaginative, as they once were. In Midnight in Paris (2011), an American writer and his fiancée are in Paris, and while the man, a writer, roams around, gaining a rare view of a time past, an age when Fitzgerald and Hemingway walked the avenues and drank in the clubs, his fiancée becomes more involved with a distinguished cultural dilettante from her past. Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams are very attractive as the primary couple, but it is impossible not to hear the strong Woody Allen voice in their mouths and even to see him in their gestures: Allen is the shadow behind their performances, for better or worse. That gives the actors and their characters less independent life. The same is true of the subsequent To Rome with Love (2012), featuring another glorious Allen cast, with the Europeans being particularly good, and the American performers Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg doing well too as brainy types, possibly the same character at different ages.
Notorious – One of the great film couples, an incandescent lady of sensuous warmth and wise sympathy and a handsome gentleman of dark awareness and wit, Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, star as the fun-loving daughter of a Nazi and an American intelligence officer who gets her to infiltrate her dead father’s friends and get evidence that will circumvent their Nazi plans. Her involvement in the investigation means that her own personal morality will be compromised: she will have to seduce and even marry a man infatuated with her but whom she does not love. The irony is that the Bergman and Grant characters fall in love with each other but do not know how to stop the plot they have put into motion; and each feels hurt by the other for that fact: if he loves her, he would not ask her to make herself available to another man; and if she loves him, she would not make herself available—though it was he who first talked her into the project and she agreed partly because she trusted, and wanted to help, him. Meanwhile, the coldness of the Nazis remains chilling. Human confusions, our endless misunderstandings, are at the core of the 1946 Hitchcock film. The couple will have to accept painful facts if they are to be together, a sign of both love and maturity.
Our Beloved Month of August – The mix of documentary and fiction in Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August (2008) is an unusual yet natural concoction, registering the rituals of regional life, and how they engage different generations. The family and communal scenes, involving conversation and food and music, are particular to country life in Portugal but resonant with similar habits and rituals in other locations. The communal hog-killing and accordion music inclined me to think of both France and south Louisiana. It is interesting to think again that folk life has its own universality: in different parts of the globe, people have very similar practices of food and music and romance. The divergences are in details, in rhythms, in spices. Here, the drama is in organizing music performances, the flirtations of young love, and a daughter drawing demarcation lines in her relationship with her father.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Some of us are misfits, full of personality and ideas and quirks, who have not learned, or who are not inclined, to turn our quirks to the benefit of others in profit or praise: some of us are misfits at the age of ten, and fifteen, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty and onward. One of the most accurate, charming, truthful portraits of young people, most of them misfits, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the 2012 film by Stephen Chbosky, features Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, and Logan Lerman—and, while Watson as Sam is always likable, and Miller as Patrick a wild invention, it is Lerman as Charlie who is perfect as a troubled literary young man haunted by his relationship with a favorite aunt who died in an automobile accident. The young people give themselves the bounty of friendship, honesty, and trust, and their affection for each other is a genuine, healing wisdom, more wisdom than they would have otherwise at their age—but life goes on, with its possibilities and mistakes, and no wisdom is complete, nor does it always ensure bliss.
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James is one of the writers whose work is necessary to understand the United States of America, its history, conflicted philosophies, personalities, and possibilities; others include Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Wright, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Ellison, Bellow, Baldwin, Roth, and Morrison. Henry James’s work is built on language, imagination of character, and moral sense; and in filmmaker Jane Campion’s intelligent animation of this great James story of innocence and experience, of naive hope and calculated greed, is a great cast, and Nicole Kidman, Martin Donovan, Viggo Mortensen, and Richard E. Grant shine. The long, elegant, and speculative literary work The Portrait of a Lady, with The Golden Bowl, is one of the greatest novels by Henry James, a work of tragic vision. Jane Campion sees the Henry James story as a chapter in the female understanding of love, part of a sentimental education, and also as a chapter in a developing modernism: Campion begins with girls talking about kissing, and uses a travel trip as an opportunity for old film techniques (that is new film techniques, as of the late nineteenth century). In the novel and film, Isabel Archer, an American girl who travels to England and Italy, has youth, intelligence, friendship, and money on her side: what will she become? What kind of life and love will she have? Isabel Archer has several suitors; an English lord, and a forceful and sensual young American, and a poor aesthete: Lord Warburton (Grant) and Mr. Goodwood (Mortensen) and Gilbert Osmond (Malkovich). The aesthete may be the one Isabel knows and understands the least; and, of course, she chooses him—and Osmond is a man of selfish calculation. The actors Barbara Hershey and John Malkovich are challenging presences as old social-climbing lovers who, secretly, have made a child together and entangle themselves in Isabel’s life: Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) has no moral compass, with instances of generosity, exploitation, insensitivity, and pity; and Osmond is diabolical (though I read John Malkovich’s performance years ago as an embodiment of a sophisticated but willful man, his Osmond seems more transparently bad to me now—as it did to a complaining friend in that past time, when we first saw the 1990s motion picture). It turns out that Isabel makes a mistake, a bad marriage; and Isabel does not want to admit that mistake to her friends, including her cousin Ralph (Donovan), who had convinced his father to bequeath Isabel a fortune, a gift freeing her and making her prey for the ambitions of others. Isabel’s suffering gives her experience and knowledge of the world, but not the kind she wanted—she wanted to be adventurous, intelligent, good, and happy, as we all do. Isabel is memorable in literature and film for her potential, for her mind and spirit. Nicole Kidman as Isabel is a wonderful heroine, girlish, alert, cool, sad, and sympathetic. Jane Campion respects the story and the spirit of Henry James without turning The Portrait of a Lady into a museum piece: the little details—Isabel taking off a shoe and smelling it, Madame Merle sitting next to a male nude statue and blowing dust off a table, and a dog gobbling up a forgotten meal—keep the images, the situations, alive, recognizable.
Rosewood – The conversations and instruction of children, metal work, and agriculture, family dinners, communal dances, church gatherings, and welcome given a stranger are the respectable rudiments of civilization among Negroes in Rosewood. The historical film Rosewood (1997) presents a pastoral vision destroyed by ignorance and malicious evil, and it may be the best film director John Singleton has made: it is about a healthy, independent black community that aroused the resentment, suspicion, and wrath of a neighboring but less accomplished white community. It is an honest but rare view of how vicious Americans of European descent have been toward Americans of African descent in the early twentieth-century United States: blacks were the ritually sacrificed scapegoats for the agonies and hypocrisies and fears of whites. The film shows nature—a green, flowery land—and well-preserved homes splashed with fire and blood, a serenity broken by rage and violence. Rosewood is easily superior to John Singleton’s contemporary but sentimental depictions of quite ordinary black men in urban hood movies; films driven by a rhetoric of exaggerated masculinity, of violence and sex, of alcohol and drugs, a rhetoric rooted in a too simple view of humanity—sentimental for the falsity of perspective and proposal. The film Rosewood is based on a true story, one infrequently told; and it inspires thought and tears. Yet, for Singleton in Rosewood, the necessity of a muscular, gun-wielding hero figure (Ving Rhames as the mysterious man, a film invention) and a clichéd depiction of women—in bed, in the kitchen, in bed, and at the stove—are problems in the otherwise intelligent, entertaining cinematic account of history. John Singleton does not know, or has forgotten, that women living out in the country learn to use a gun and wield an ax and manage things almost as well as men do, if not equally well: they must, in order to survive the daily difficulties of the wilderness. Not to do so could mean starvation or being mauled by an animal or dying of cold. The women in Singleton’s Rosewood are vulnerable, no matter the age or experience or temperament: whether the woman is a grandmother or a store clerk or a teacher. (Even the sex-starved white girl, who gets the guns firing with a false accusation of an assault by a black man, is someone to whom things are done: we do not see her initiate sex, but, conversely, sex is something done to her; as it is to a young black woman at the beginning of the film.) That is more masculine perspective and prejudice than human nature or history. Ving Rhames is the invented war veteran with money and a desire to settle; and other actors portray figures based on real people, with Don Cheadle as a music teacher, and Esther Rolle a family matriarch who knows but, fearful, does not tell immediately the truth about an assault—by a white man—on a slutty young white woman. The meaning of John Singleton’s historical film Rosewood, in which Negro Americans, instead of accepting second class status or indulging dumb and fruitless rage and resentment, resolve some of the conflicts of American society for themselves by establishing a largely self-sufficient colored town, may be the recurring fact and idea that one person’s peaceful resolution can be another person’s incitement to violence. There are criticisms to be made of the motion picture Rosewood, but it is one of the few cinematic portraits that actually show the nature of white brutality toward blacks, making it a necessary work—and that it is a work of intelligence and passion means that the actors, for the most part, have the opportunity for dignity as well as the expression of their interpretive resources.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – It is rare that a contemporary romantic comedy seems genuine, imaginative, or interesting—seems good by almost any definition, according to common complaints. Here in Lasse Hallstrom’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), a male scientist is engaged by a young woman bureaucrat to become involved with a West-Middle East collaboration project. He is played by Ewan McGregor, and she by Emily Blunt, and their characters work with a devout Arab royal to bring salmon fishing to his dry land. The scientist is skeptical, the bureaucrat enthusiastic, and they argue but understand each other and develop affection as they work on the project. It is hard to know, at first, how to think of the film, as a comedy or a drama or a piece about multiculturalism, but as it goes on a persuasive engagement emerges. It is pleasing, without being stupid.
The Shawshank Redemption – Is the law anything but human belief, consensus, and self-righteous morality made into rules for obedience and punishment? Does the law have anything to do with justice and wisdom? The great actor Morgan Freeman is Red the narrator and shares the lead with Tim Robbins as Andy in this Stephen King story of human error, prison, friendship, and hope, directed for film by Frank Darabont, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Morgan Freeman as Red is a working man, a man of rough experience, and Tim Robbins as Andy is a suit-wearing banker, a smart man who looks boyishly innocent and is perceived as arrogantly cold. Each man is convicted of having killed a woman he loved, but only one is guilty; and their prison sentences promise to be endless. The simple things matter behind the bars of a prison that looks like a castle and a cathedral and a university, a great institution—the ability to get cigarettes or a hobby tool or a poster of a famous actress for a cell wall, things Red is good at acquiring; and, no matter what, whether time is spent in thought or trivia, there is little significance in one’s existence. Andy, a banker who claims to be innocent, spends time working in the prison library, trying to improve its quality, and finding and sculpting rocks. Andy tries to maintain a sense of his own humanity, and of hope—but Red thinks hope is dangerous, maddening. Yet, the two different men are able to talk, and to be of help to the other: they become friends. Theirs is a love story without sex in a place in which violence and insulting talk are common. (Is the fact that sex does not come up between them the sign of respect, or a fear of mutual degradation—complete capitulation to their environment?) There is dignity and respect and loyalty and kindness in the friendship of Red and Andy; and, in that great and miserable prison, their friendship has the implication of something spiritual, without the usual flaws or temptations—holy. Time is marked, apart from gray hair and wrinkles, by how Red responds to his parole hearings, his polite submission becoming outrageous truth-telling with the passage of years; and marked by the posters of actresses—Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Raquel Welch—that Andy puts on his wall, and by the growth of the prison library. The real changes occur within the human spirit. Hopes rise and fall, as when a new prisoner claims to having met someone who admitted to killing Andy’s wife, but the corrupt warden—who uses Andy’s bookkeeping ability to hide ill-gotten gains—refuses to support further investigation of Andy’s case. Is the film a fable of patience and wisdom, or a sentimental buddy movie? The film The Shawshank Redemption looks great, moves beautifully, and has as good a tone—and it becomes more exciting and interesting than one expects: it contains adventure and emotion and meaning. The Shawshank Redemption received some good reviews, but was neglected in theaters, and its audience of appreciators grew when they were able to see the film at home and to speak of it with friends and associates.
Silent Souls – Foreign films do not have the cachet they had in decades past. They used to represent culture, experiment, thought, and sex; and now some people simply refer to them as movies that you have to read. Those who love them see them with the regularity of an established habit; and those who do not see them usually do not give them a second thought. A film such as the eerie, melancholy Silent Souls, a story of love, death, grief, and possibly of transcendence, returns one to the sense of strange mystery in the world but also to the familiar things—desire, death, and grief, and also the power of place, the fields and waters and roads, on which we roam and find pleasure and danger—that is, familiar things that are shared across cultures. Human life may be full of seemingly inconsequential details, but the belief in life after death, or heaven, is the refusal to accept life’s end or insignificance; and, is there any sure immortality other than history, and art, the remnants of civilization? Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls (2010) is a Russian film that tracks an older man, a paper mill director Miron, preparing with his co-worker, the mill photographer (and a writer) Aist, the body of Miron’s deceased younger wife, Tanya, before they travel from Neya to Gorbatov for a traditional tribal—Merya—funeral ritual, during a warm November. Aist takes his new birds, buntings, with them. During their travels together, Miron performs as expected, sharing with Aist the secrets of marriage that could not be spoken while his wife Tanya was alive: desire, suspicion, washing his wife with vodka, watching her pleasure herself. Aist remembers being a boy, the son to a self-taught poet father and a mother who died young in childbirth and the funeral ritual for his mother; and the burying of Aist’s father’s typewriter beneath of the ice of the frozen Volga River. The intimate life in small places—regional life—is more alike in different parts of the world than it is like anything from Hollywood. Why are Hollywood’s visions vastly popular and folk visions less so—marketing and distribution; or the unquenchable desire for escape and fantasy? Silent Souls by Aleksei Fedorchenko was shown in America in 2011 and those who saw it were graced.
Sparkle – The strength of the mid-1970s musical film Sparkle is in performances by Lonette McKee, Philip Michael Thomas, Dorian Harewood, Irene Cara, and Mary Alice, directed by Sam O’Steen. Lonette McKee and Irene Cara are singing sisters in the film, with Mary Alice as their mother—and Philip Thomas and Dorian Harewood are the singing and romantic partners of the sisters; and together, for a brief time, all four receive the cheers of the crowd. In Sparkle, McKee’s glamorous, striving young woman—she is materialistic—becomes involved with a dangerous, violent man, a man with things. (McKee and Thomas are two particularly beautiful and charismatic performers, and should have gone further in the film industry.) The 1975 film Sparkle is about ambition, temptation, and personal betrayal: it is about how cruelty and decadence can destroy hope, and it has a persuasive grittiness and spirit. The 2012 remake of the film Sparkle by Salim Akil stars Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Omari Hardwick, and Whitney Houston (and the well-garbed but somewhat bloated Houston gives an earthily fierce performance). The Salim Akil film has its strength in the broadened aspects of the possibilities open to the characters, but it is more of a fantasy than the original. It is a more expensive and sprawling production with less grit—and it is likely to be less memorable. The saddest thing is the recognition that filmmakers do not know or respect that musicians think of anything but music, love, sex, and drugs or money; or that they sometimes use music to think about and comment on the complexities of human existence and society. (An exception in the Akil version is a confident, tough sister who wants to go on to higher education and is using music as a lucrative stepping stone.) The singing voice can be an echo of the sensitive individual’s spirit and thought. The inner voice of depth and truth is creative, intelligent, and spiritual; and, honest and speculative, the inner voice must be listened to, respected, or it will refuse to continue speaking. It can speak—or sing—as we sit alone with a musical instrument, or with a sheet of paper or camera, canvas, or clay. Disasters begin to happen when we stop listening to that voice of depth and truth: and the circumstances and facts of disaster can be observed by others, but not the why.
Splendor in the Grass – Warren Beatty, known for Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, and Reds, is an interesting figure, a traditional leading man, and an eccentric, a comedian, and a political artist; and Beatty is especially sensitive—where else are tears to be seen in his eyes?—in his debut in Elia Kazan’s 1961 motion picture presentation of a William Inge work focused on the dangers of sexual repression in early twentieth-century Kansas, in which a small community tries to hold on to old-fashioned values and dating habits. In Splendor in the Grass, Warren Beatty’s character Bud is a football hero and wealthy boy who likes ranching but whose father wants him to go to Yale, and Bud is in love with a grocer’s daughter, Deanie (Natalie Wood, never more alive, responsive, or believable, never lovelier, on film). Bud and Deanie want to have sex, but are warned against it by their parents and the example of his sister, who became pregnant and had to have “one of those operations.” Bud’s sister insists on an honesty and freedom that is miles, if not decades, away; and, in 1928 Kansas, she is angry and sensual to the point of hysteria. (There is a scene celebrating the New Year when she kisses her father on the mouth, before going on to flirt with young men, and the character and film seemed poised for the ugliest of revelations: incest as the root of the daughter’s hyper-sexuality, but that did not happen. Thus, the diagnosis: ordinary hormones, intolerable, dishonestly interpreted.) The film seems a good though slightly strange demonstration of what happens if you refuse to recognize modern knowledge of sexuality: the repression affects the nerves of Bud and Deanie and the quality of their decisions. (Someone—a mother—mentions Freud only to denounce Freud and his emphasis on sex, though Deanie’s mother admits that she only taught her daughter Deanie what her own mother had taught her—even though Deanie’s mother sometimes hated her own mother.) It is a strange film, strange for its quiet rationality and the discipline of most of its people: what was barely spoken of then in polite society is everywhere discussed now, what was forbidden is now done casually, mindlessly, as a matter of course. Yet, the sexual liberation that would follow the film’s making—thanks to better birth control methods and psychoanalysis and feminism and jazz and rock music and drugs—would be little palliative for nerves: young people would find other ways to be worked up and freaked out, illustrating that there are diverse ways of betraying youth. Splendor in the Grass is a beautiful time capsule of small-town life and the small minds that are mostly comfortable there. The film, which has good compositions, featuring rooms full of details, has a density of structure and social texture that makes it hard to dismiss: a supportive and convincing weight is given to what might be a typical young couple in 1928 America. It is fascinating to see Beatty and Wood, both so young, and to think that they, like their characters, might have become anything. The Wall Street crisis of 1929 is only one of the things that shake up the nation, the established certainties and order.
Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Parts 1 & 2 – The Twilight film series is more entertaining than its most skeptical detractors would allow and yet there are limits in story and execution that must be acknowledged. The film’s stars are very attractive but their characters are limited: a brooding young man, and a wily but shy girl, and their extended family and friends, who also embody only one or two traits. The acting has a unique style, with the young lovers perfecting a moody hesitance, and the adults being brusque or grandly supportive. The boy is a vampire and the girl loves him anyway, although hoping for her favor is an attractive Native American wolf boy; and, as there is no separating handsome vampire and pretty human, their romance, marriage, and the resulting pregnancy, and the young mother’s transformation into a vampire, form the basic plot of the series. It is hard to think of a young woman’s transformation into a vampire wife and integration into a family of vampires as an American ideal, even here, even now, where everyone is beautiful, gifted, and strong—but what do I know? Could the story be a social critique of genius—or is it just fantasy?
Won’t Back Down – Where are the films that offer language, opportunity, and vision that suggest a world that a complex and intelligent human being—who is African-American—can imagine living in? Viola Davis, who was in Antwone Fisher and Doubt and Knight and Day, plays in Won’t Back Down a good teacher whose deceased mother was a passionate teacher, and whose living but alienated husband is an architect, and whose sweet young son is having trouble in school. It is one of the better roles Viola Davis has been given. Davis as the hard-working but beleaguered teacher is sad but accepting about the deterioration of her marriage, but she would prefer the denouement appear less pathetic; and she is adamant that her young son is a boy who can become, with her effort and his, a good student, although he may have suffered a head injury when as a baby she was the driver in a car accident. With social, professional, and intimate concerns built into the role, this is more complexity than many African-American actresses get to work with. However, I wish that Viola Davis, a dark-skinned actress, were photographed better: though attractively dressed, she was not lit as well as possible, I thought. In Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down (2012), Davis as the teacher joins a fight to improve a school undertaken by the mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) of a dyslexic child, a white working class woman whose perseverance and zest make her an admirable figure—and the actress playing her is photographed beautifully. The solidarity of the two women makes their effort into the classic collaboration of an insider and an outsider, a formally educated woman and a didact, a black woman and a white. The difficulty of making change and its necessity are part of the story: the bureaucracy and laziness and differing personal agendas stand in the way. Yet need inspires perseverance and friendship and community. The problems with American education have been known for a long, long time, and are important, but that is not what is most remarkable about the Barnz film. Viola Davis’s character is a hero, someone of worth, not someone who expects to be admired or loved for her limitations; rather than being a witness to the lack of existence of meaning, she is someone with gifts and skills, someone who is a creator of meaning. Yet, Davis’s performance is interesting partly for what she does not do: as when she has speeches that are intended to convince others to believe or to act, and Davis performs them not as a great actress determined to prove her greatness—with self-dramatizing passion and soaring rhetoric—but as the sincerity of a woman who rarely has a public stage but can speak simply out of belief, thought, and feeling (appropriately, she performs the speeches as her character); and there is a shyness, a smallness, and a spontaneity that ring true. If there is justice in art, Davis will get more opportunities to demonstrate her craft in respectable stories.
The Words – A film with different but interrelated layers of reality, The Words (2012), written and directed by Klugman and Sternthal, two friends of actor Bradley Cooper, is about a middle-age writer (Dennis Quaid) who has invented two characters, a serious young man (Bradley Cooper as Rory) having trouble writing a publishable book and the sweet, tough, stylish young woman (Zoe Saldana) who loves him, and the event of a lost book that the young man finds and publishes as his own—and the now famous young man’s subsequent meeting with the real but obscure author of the stolen book (Jeremy Irons), a work infused with the old man’s own wartime biography in Paris (Ben Barnes appears as the Irons character when young, the young American soldier in France). The Words is a film about the relation of art to reality. The Words deserves the commendation and applause other films get for being imaginative and touching. It is a film about love and forgiveness. It is a film about morality. It is a film about time. The Words is a more dynamic and sensitive film than one usually sees.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. “One of the things art does is to model freedom of imagination and thought. It is a reminder that we do not have to think only one thing, or be only one thing. We can be complex, ambiguous, difficult, and new. We can be good in a way that is original and our own,” says Daniel Garrett, whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.