By Daniel Garrett
“Every genius is at once extraordinary and banal. He is nothing if he is only one or the other. We must remember this when thinking of rebellion. It has its dandies and its menials, but it does not recognize its legitimate sons.”
—Albert Camus, “Metaphysical Rebellion” in The Rebel
Each of us inherits conflicts and contradictions—perceptions, principles, and practices—that can confuse and conquer us, or which we can learn to live with, master, and reconcile. What does it mean to be a human being, alone and with others? Does one want to live an intellectual life or a sensual life; a life of individual purpose or social sacrifice? Does one want to be true to local roots, or international facts and possibilities? If one looks at the African-American intellectual and political traditions, one sees that W.E.B. Du Bois advocated that blacks be educated broadly, including classical literature and philosophy, so that whole citizens, able to fully participate in a democracy, would result, whereas Booker T. Washington advocated vocational training, instruction that would result in paid work. Martin Luther King Jr advocated Christianity, democratic participation and voting, civil disobedience as protest, and peace, whereas Malcolm X advocated Islam, ethnic separatism, and liberty and self-defense achieved by any means necessary. Those were perspectives put forth in particular times, and they inspired fervent debate and disagreement. However, we, in successive generations, do not have to take sides for or against any man: we can look at their reasons and their results and take what is useful as the changing times demand. We can affirm classical studies and vocational training, democratic participation in the larger world and attention to particular communities, and nonviolence when it is sensible and violent self-defense when it is necessary. We can attempt to reconcile differences.
Does the individual matter? Do our individual choices matter? They can: if we seek to fulfill our potential. “The mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the example of individuals whose genius was so adapted to receptivities of the moment,” wrote philosopher William James in “Great Men and Their Environment,” with James continuing to say that those individuals who were sensitive “or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, centres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose gifts, had they had free play, would have led society in another direction” (Writings 1878–1899, The Library of America; 1992; page 626).
When I saw the film Cloud Atlas, a work that contains several narratives of differing genres—comedy, history, mystery, and science fiction—it struck me as a multicultural tale of freedom; and I began to wonder what other films might be included in that category: and, then, I thought of Matewan and Grand Canyon, the first about labor union organizing among American, Italian, and Negro coal miners in early twentieth century America, and the second about an interracial friendship in contemporary Los Angeles. For the most part, we as citizens and filmgoers have to see different films with distinct populations regarding class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, and perform the comparisons and contrasts for ourselves. However, with Cloud Atlas, the writer David Mitchell has created a vision that includes all, and the film directors, the Wachowski siblings with Tom Tykwer, have interpreted that vision.
In Cloud Atlas (2012), one of the most unusual films ever, the characters exist in different historical periods and social situations, as incarnations of stages of consciousness and freedom. Jim Sturgess is a go-between for plantation business who finds himself poisoned by a gregarious doctor friend until his life is saved by an escaped slave. The young businessman’s journal of sea travel and illness is later read by Ben Wishaw as a homosexual composer who acts as an assistant to an established figure before writing his own masterpiece, which his employer tries to steal, using homosexuality for blackmail. The young composer’s aging lover, in a subsequent time, is a male scientist who knows the truth about an energy facility that journalist Halle Berry starts to investigate. These and other actors have various roles in the diverse but interlocking stories. In one scene set in the future Sturgess is a freedom fighter in Korea; and in another Berry is a sensitive person with scientific resources who visits a post-apocalyptic village and befriends a distrusting Tom Hanks. The film is fascinating for how it draws the viewer into a mood, into an illumination, and then frees him, or her, from them: it demonstrates that there are many perspectives, varied ways of organizing experience—and affirms that awareness, liberty, and moral choice are important in every age.
Other films of experience and thought:
The Apu Trilogy – The Asian film master Satyajit Ray’s gorgeous black-and-white film trilogy seems so natural that we bring to it our common senses, our ordinary appreciation and understanding of human complexity and difficulty. The Indian director Satyajit Ray shows fundamental aspects of human experience: the relationship of people to wilderness and city, the concern of parents for children, the loyalty between siblings, the fear of neighborhood disapproval, the importance of education, the refreshing resource of friendship, the sudden sprouting of romance, the threat of death and the danger of grief, and the continuing cycle of life. Focusing on an Indian boy and his family, education, and marriage, Ray’s three films—Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), The World of Apu (1958)—are notable and strong for the melodramatic contrivances, the falsity, they leave out. The Ray films are as true as light and water; and in them time—time, the judge; time, the punishment—heals too.
Betty & Coretta – “Everyone has basic emotions of hate, fear, and love, and I think the whites in this country have used the machinery of propaganda very skillfully. You find blacks who want to know something about their history and you find whites who don’t understand or who are fearful. They will publicize this sort of thing as a hate gathering and a hate meeting, when actually it could possibly be a historical meeting that whites and blacks could learn from,” said Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz as part of her testimony, in attendance with writer James Baldwin, before a U.S. House of Representatives 1969 panel in New York on behalf of a bill on “Negro History and Culture” (James Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption, Pantheon, 2010; page 97). The friendship of educator Betty Shabazz and Martin Luther King’s Jr’s widow, opera singer and activist Coretta Scott King, is the subject of Yves Simoneau’s Betty & Coretta (2012), a factual and intelligent but stiffly awkward sepia film. Mary J. Blige plays Betty Shabazz, and Angela Bassett is Coretta Scott King. Their husbands were admirable men, legendary, but not perfect: Malcolm was an open male chauvinist and Martin a secret philanderer; and, while paying tribute to the work of their husbands, the women evolve past them. Mary J. Blige is not bad, but I would not say she is good—she is adequate, fine with the moments of worry or anger but less sure with the moments of confidence or joy; and sometimes her clothes seem too large for her. Malik Yoba as the minister and political leader King captures the inspiring man’s dignity and sonorous tones, but not his ebullience; and the pleasant young actor, Lindsay Owen Pierre, playing the fiery political organizer Malcolm does not have his cunning or disarming charm, his self-generating power. It is Angela Basset who—confident, free, joyful, masterful—moves most smoothly through all her scenes, despite carrying the film on her beautiful back: she is confiding and supportive with Martin, wary when she meets Malcolm, sisterly with Betty, and a sure spokeswoman in public. The depiction of significant history and a special friendship has value, but Angela Bassett’s performance gives the film grace.
Billy Budd – In Herman Melville’s story Billy Budd (1891), as interpreted by film actor-director Peter Ustinov in 1962, there are clashes of good and evil, and of the rule of law with the spirit of justice: the central encounter in the film is an elemental one; and one sees it and recalls when we ourselves were suspicious of someone’s innocent appearance and tone—and when we were treated unfairly. The innocent person seems without experience, and beyond temptation, and that defies belief. Something inside of the ordinary observer protests, rages, at that innocence: unless one feels relieved, charmed, by the presence of someone or something so remarkably virtuous. It is often people who have had the hardest lives or whose dreams have faced the most resistance that tend to be most hateful in the presence of someone who does not promise to hurt them. It would be funny, if it were not quite dangerous. In Billy Budd (1965), Terence Stamp is the bright, angelic sailor Billy Budd and Robert Ryan is the dark, punishing master-of-arms Claggart, and Peter Ustinov the presiding Captain Vere. Billy Budd is a temptation and a rebuke for Claggart; and Claggart is a hypocrite, his standards high but his methods low—and yet, for one instant, Claggart rises to Billy Budd’s level, before, in another instant, bringing the younger man down to his. Everything in the film is positively remarkable: it is, like its source, a masterpiece.
The Company You Keep – Robert Redford, a man of beauty, intelligence, and political awareness, has had one of the great film careers: as an actor, director, and producer, his career has been long and significant—with the films Inside Daisy Clover, This Property is Condemned, Barefoot in the Park, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Candidate, The Sting, The Way We Were, All the President’s Men, Ordinary People, The Natural, Out of Africa, The Milagro Beanfield War, Lions for Lambs, The Conspirator, All is Lost and many more. Robert Redford’s film The Company You Keep (2012) is about the latter life of 1970s American political radicals, and their taking responsibility for youthful, well-intentioned but fatal transgressions. As young bright adults, they saw a country at war, a country resisting social progress; and they decided to do something about that: on behalf of the people of their country, they fought the policies of their country. Susan Sarandon opens the film as a suburban mother who is ready to come in from the cold, giving herself up to the law, something that triggers the identification of her long-ago comrade, a do-good lawyer and father of a young girl, played by Redford, as a one-time fugitive. Terrence Howard is a federal agent tracking him, with Anna Kendrick an intelligence colleague, and Shia LeBeouf a sharp journalist covering the events. One can interpret the film as being about how life—that is, family and love—complicates adherence to political ideology; and about the limited life of those who refuse to give up extreme ideas. Julie Christie as a woman whose ideas have not changed has little commitment to other people as individuals, and her life has had no stability. Her resolute sensibility is the kind that can be responsible for great progress or endless death (she is both admirable and at least a little dislikable). The Redford character tracks her down to get her to tell the truth about the facts of a bank robbery in which someone died, something that would free him and imprison her. Is she—a woman who wants to change the world—willing to make a personal sacrifice for one person?
Detour – The struggling New York musician as vulnerable man is the subject of this film noir, Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945): riding and walking to find his girlfriend, a singer, who has moved to California, the pianist Al (Tom Neal) meets a brash, friendly man who gives him a ride, and when that man dies suddenly, the musician—nervously—hides the body and takes the driver’s car and clothes, assuming his identity, but the musician has the misfortune of picking up an angry young woman whom the dead man had picked up and mauled hours before: that means she, Vera (Ann Savage), knows the musician is not who he claims to be, and can blackmail him. The film Detour is like a nightmare in which all one’s impulses are weak and all one’s fears come true. Character is fate. The musician becomes entangled with someone he realizes he does not like—she is manipulative and mean, and he likes her less and less the more time he spends with her. She pays for her cruelty, and that just makes him all the more vulnerable.
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino has taken the historical drama and crossed it with fire-first Italian interpretations of American westerns, a shrewd mixture, as history lessons can be smart but dreary and those spaghetti westerns can be mindless fun. (I thought Sergio Lione’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a beautiful, dumb, and violent film, but do not recall seeing any of the old Django films.) Quentin Tarantino is a creature of cinema, and his Django Unchained (2012) is remarkably well-conceived: a witty German-American bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), hires a formerly enslaved man to help Schultz track down some criminals and promises to help that black man, Django (Jamie Foxx), to find and free Django’s beloved, beautiful wife (Kerry Washington). Waltz handles the language beautifully, and Foxx—very impressive in Ray and The Soloist—is able to hold together a character that is assured and inexperienced, moral and tough. Together, the bounty hunter and his guide kill white rascals, and meet and outwit devious plantation owners (Don Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio), as they search for Django’s lost wife (Washington). It is a funny, brutal film that respects the humanity and relationship of a black man and woman; and its tone frees history from the usual rhetoric and obliterating pain. The basic facts are not denied, but they are observed—and resonate—differently. Speculations about the fundamental nature of blacks and the possibility of an exceptional Negro are here. The chains and the whips are here. The threat of the head-crushing hammer and the hot castrating knife are here. The sexual exploitation of black women is here. Here, also, is how some black people managed to occupy positions of relative liberty and power and pleasure. The film is an accomplishment; and an instructive lesson for other artists.
Flight – There are not many films about African-Americans and the civil war and the period of Reconstruction, or about the Harlem Renaissance, colored World War II soldiers, and the civil rights movement, or about the more interesting artistic and intellectual possibilities that exist today—however Denzel Washington, charming, intelligent, steely, has starred in some of the more heroic films that exist. In three motion pictures, Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight, however, the great actor Denzel Washington plays very flawed men, a corrupt cop, a gang leader, an alcoholic air pilot, a divergence from the more complicated and respectable men he usually plays. Complexity has little to do with men who enthusiastically pursue evil: rather, complexity is the pursuit of good and the encounter of obstacles, within and without. In popular culture, the display of personal flaw has been welcomed and rewarded, almost as if it were an actual form of courage and transgression: but in a culture in which garbage is king, in which nihilism reigns, it is braver to be intelligent, strong, and virtuous. (Film director Charles Burnett: “Why do blacks make so many violent films?” he asks. “Because that’s the kind that sells. You can’t talk about integrating black folklore and oral traditions and jazz when you’re in a pitch meeting.” Charles Burnett Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2011; page 96). Denzel Washington is one of the rare African-American artists who is perceived as transcendent, able to represent humanity; and it is interesting that he is choosing—for variety, for the exercise of his talent—to re-inscribe himself with the usual negative limitations. The pilot in Flight (2012), directed by Robert Zemeckis, has hidden his substance abuse—alcohol and cocaine—while maintaining his reputation as a great pilot, as a skilled and imaginative man, but when the pilot and most of a plane’s occupants survive a crash, his appearance of personal control—which his diastrous family life contradicts—begins to come apart in the world of work, under public scrutiny. Did the pilot’s inebriation affect his decisions? Was his survival due only to himself, or to divine providence? Is his survival part of a divine plan for his personal salvation? Flight shows the pilot’s relationship with professional defenders and colleagues, and with a new acquaintance, a woman drug addict; and he has a hospital encounter with his co-pilot, a religious man; and the film becomes, surprisingly, and to the discomfort of some viewers, something of a spiritual tale.
Grand Canyon – In Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1991), an executive and a tow truck driver meet on a dangerous night and become friends. When Danny Glover as a tower helps Kevin Kline’s executive to make his way safely out of a violent neighborhood, the white executive admires how the soft-spoken black man functioned during a tense exchange with hostile young black men. The two men share a meal, talk, and the married executive introduces the driver to a fellow office worker (Alfre Woodard); and eventually the two men and their women take a trip to the Grand Canyon. There is a gap between the mostly small but significant perceptions the film wants to present and its Hollywood visual gloss: its ideas—the accidental nature of experience, the commonality of human concerns, the aimless drift of life, the need for moral guidance in the lives of black male youth, the prevalence of violence in popular culture, the ability of people to help each other, and the awesome fact of nature—are dwarfed by the large, colorful but arid palette of the film. A small, darker look for the film might have helped, might have increased its intimacy and power. As it is, one has to respect what the film is attempting to say, speaking against the system from within the system. One of the characters in the film is a film producer of violent films who is held at gunpoint for his watch, offers his fancy car, and is shot for his withholding what was of value to his assailant, the watch: that film producer’s relation to violence changes only briefly (he fails to learn any lesson).
The Guilt Trip – Streisand, a woman of emotion and strength, was the dynamic and driven ballad singer, the melancholy comedienne, in Funny Girl; the loving but doubtful, imaginative housewife in Up the Sandbox; the faithful, passionate political activist and admiring lover in The Way We Were; the devout but adventurous intellectual daughter in Yentl; and the doctor as wounded healer in The Prince of Tides. Here in Anne Fletcher’s 2012 comedy The Guilt Trip, after Streisand’s long absence from cinema broken only by her appearances in Ben Stillers’ movies about the fictional Fockers, is Streisand as an obsessive widowed mother to Seth Rogen’s inventor-salesman son. Seth Rogen, an ambivalent, cuddly young man with an edge, makes a good match with a strong woman. His character is an innovative inventor but a bad salesman who does better when he takes on some of his mother’s suggestions. Their cross-country trip together has two purposes, one unknown to her: to sell his cleaning product, and to reunite her with an early love. The film has a decent, intelligent, warm tone and does not quite fit with the more scatological comedy—full of vulgar body humor—that has become very popular, but it is worth a look.
The Happy Poet – In Paul Gordon’s The Happy Poet (2010), a sad sack office worker rents a mobile hot dog cart and transforms it into a sales truck for healthy sandwiches: a figure that combines Chaplin, Woody Allen, the intellectual, the poet, and the hippy, the film’s sandwich seller still seems a unique personality for Austin, Texas, a locale that has its own urban counterculture: a complex of people, values, and habits that embody a different way of being—aware, critical, and organic, an alternative to the mainstream. The sandwiches, full of vegetables and natural ingredients, take time to develop appreciation, a reputation and clientele, but they do; and the poet-salesman meets a couple of men who become engaged by his business, each with his own agenda, and a woman the poet asks out on a date to a rock music club. It is amusing, even intriguing, to see how Austin becomes every city in this film (the town is a resource of imagination and political consciousness for the American south, but it suggests something, too, about the increasing homogeneity of American cities). However, the pacing of the film The Happy Poet is slow, and while the culmination of its actions is satisfying in conventional terms—love and money—one’s appreciation for the film seems a bit esoteric, having more to do with ideas than pleasures.
Imitation of Life – Lana Turner is a unique creature, artificial and rare, in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), a film about class and race tensions and the attempt to live within and beyond those tensions. Lana Turner’s beauty can appear perfect in one scene, and haggard in another (she is almost laughably impressive in what seems a queenly blue lace dress, but crumbles during a funeral scene). Turner plays an aspiring actress who befriends a black woman and that woman’s light-skinned daughter, a girl who refuses to accept her racial classification and the expectations that go with it. The woman Turner plays may face critique but she defends her ambition and finds professional support for it, whereas the biracial girl is isolated (she pretends to be white and is beaten for her trouble). It is illuminating and painful to see how social standards and strata established before one’s birth can be a trap—one’s emotions and ideas and actions do not matter much. Capitulation to the dominant view, rather than an attempt to transform it, is no protection. The film, a dated but still effective melodrama, shows that we all are playing roles, and some roles bring reward and some roles hurt.
Inescapable – This dark, beautiful drama of a Canadian father trying to find his abducted photographer daughter in the country of his birth, Syria, draws appeal from its locale and power from its performances. Alexander Siddig is the exasperated, suspicious father, whose military intelligence training confirms that he has reason to worry, while also giving him skills to face some of the opposition. Marisa Tomei is the Syrian woman he loved once, whom he goes to for help; and her dark-eyed look, throaty speech, and soulful gestures create a vivid character. Joshua Jackson is a baby-faced western diplomat who has been enjoying the Syrian nightlife and the women. The film Inescapable (2012), directed by the woman director Ruba Nadda, is a well-paced thriller with enough facts about Syria—the thorough surveillance of citizens, the rarity of free speech, the irrelevance of truth—to be illuminating about the subsequent political turmoil, the quest for opportunity, liberty, and benefits that became a civil war then a religious war.
Inherit the Wind – A liberal lawyer and a crowd-pandering politician face off in the trial of a teacher who dares to teach the facts of science and history in a religious small town, and is arrested and jailed for his competence. The motion picture, inspired by fact (the 1925 John T. Scopes trial), may have seemed no more than well-intentioned progressive melodrama once, but it has lost none of its applicability—and it has gained power by that fact. Spencer Tracy is the liberal lawyer, Fredric March the politician, and Gene Kelly is a cynical journalist covering the trial. Dick York is the prosecuted teacher. The town’s people are passionately ignorant; and a town minister is willing to judge and condemn his own daughter for a difference of opinion. Where are the understanding, the compassion, and the love of an enlightened person? The court trial is a tragic farce, with expert witnesses denied a hearing. Time has taught some people nothing; thus, this 1960 Stanley Kramer film provides a frighteningly timeless warning and discussion. Most of the world’s great religions were created in primitive times by primitive peoples—knowing little about the real nature of the world, they were stuck with belief, shared belief, rather than fact. There is nothing to buttress that belief but conviction, personal insistence. What was once sacred knowledge is now merely superstition, viciously and violently held superstition.
The Last of the Mohicans – Daniel Day-Lewis is a Native American warrior and Madeleine Stowe is a spirited woman, the daughter of an important military man that he meets, in the 1992 Michael Mann painterly film of James Fenimore Cooper’s book The Last of the Mohicans. The natives are brave and inventive when facing a foreign army, surpassing the prejudiced expectations and the valor of white men who think of themselves as gentlemen and military strategists. Madeleine Stowe is a woman of haunting and haunted beauty, and one wonders why she did not have a more prominent cinema career: she is more interesting to watch than most actresses. Did she suffer because of the paucity of good roles for women, with most roles making them supportive wives and mothers, rather than forces of thought or power? Stowe is memorable in Mohicans, as she was in Twelve Monkeys.
Lawless – Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain are fascinating as an earthily sensual but cautious moonshiner and the elegant but tense city girl who finds refuge working in his little restaurant during the days of prohibition, when ordinary men could become gangsters, in John Hillcoat’s Lawless (2012). The human appetite for pleasure defies personal discipline and public law; and the forbidden desire for alcohol embroils everyone in law-breaking, including policemen, who take their share of drink and profits. The film’s rural Virginia country setting and intelligent script and great cast make this a film that one can watch many times, with no flagging attention. Three brothers (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and Shia LeBeouf) and their new acquaintance (Jessica Chastain) are investigated by a rude, smart detective (Guy Pearce). Love is made, whiskey is drunk, and blood is shed.
Lean On Me – Morgan Freeman is a dedicated teacher and a stern disciplinarian, Joe Clark, in the 1989 John Avildsen film of a man working against the worst aspects of the school system and the community, against bad habits and low standards, and for the benefit of the students, their intelligence and self-esteem and futures. How does one intervene in a culture that respects instinct more than intelligence, that uses deprivation as an excuse, not merely an explanation, for mediocrity, and which does not see career criminals as villains, but rather treats certain individuals—the atheist, the artist, the feminist, the homosexual, and the intellectual—as the scapegoats to be despised and sacrificed, suggesting it is individuality, not character or personal practice, that is disrespected? Finding a school culture in which drugs are dealt in the halls and cafeteria, decent students are harassed, and the worst students create the tone, with many teachers counting the minutes until day’s end, Joe Clark as principal sets authoritarian standards, academic and personal. Clark raises his voice and carries a baseball bat (Freeman, a man of dignity and humor, does not seem like a natural shouter). Clark locks the door against criminals, demands more from teachers and students, and achieves results. It would be greatly interesting actually to see the kind of knowledge that students are gaining and how vital the discovery is: the intellectual realm remains a mystery in much of popular American culture, whether film, literature, or music. Yet, in Clark’s intercession in a mother-daughter conflict, the vexed past and continuing damage of certain parents, their insecurity and bad present decisions regarding their children, and the practical and spiritual vulnerability of those children, are made vivid.
Lincoln – Steven Spielberg’s most entertaining work for many people may be Jaws, E.T., the Jurassic Park movies and the like, but Spielberg’s dramas are usually significant stories that corroborate his status as a great American director, someone whose work explains the country to itself. I know that I did not take the full measure of his Amistad (1997) when I first saw it, but on subsequent screenings I appreciated all that Spielberg had invested in it, a film that presents diverse African and African-American men and women operative in a dynamic American context: captured Africans, after defeating their captors on the ship La Amistad in 1839, are picked up by the American navy and brought to trial, defended by abolitionists, white and black. The founding of America with its principles of liberty and justice and the discussion of whom to include as a citizen with rights—discussion that continues today—were a fundamental part of the film Amistad, as it is a part of Spielberg’s Lincoln. In Lincoln (2012), the work to extend a participatory and respected citizenship to African-Americans, through constitutional amendment, is work that involves philosophy and prejudice, maneuvering and the exchange of favors, courage and sacrifice. It pleases the viewer to see competent, decent African-American humanity embodied by soldiers, a butler, a dressmaker, and a common-law wife. Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent as Abraham Lincoln, as are Sally Field as his wife Mary and the rest of the cast. Adrian Moat’s 2012 narrated docu-drama Killing Lincoln, about the conspiracy to kill Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth and his associates, is a useful companion piece to Spielberg’s film, further illuminating the political controversies.
Love & Other Drugs – Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway were a couple in the cowboy-love film Brokeback Mountain, and they are a couple here in Ed Zwick’s 2010 Love & Other Drugs, as a drug salesman and a young woman with a debilitating disease. Anne Hathaway is a beautiful girl with a mouthy charm, and there is something boyish in an old-fashion way about Jake Gyllenhaal, though his performances can and do embrace whatever traits—shyness or seduction, rage or repose—his characters require. Here, Hathaway is open to sex but resists a serious relationship, and he, a playboy, tries to achieve a new intimacy with her. The film—like Lone Scherfig’s 2011 One Day, in which a plump Hathaway pines for a more ideal Jim Sturgess—is an attempt to reinvent the love story; and it has its awkward moments and its inexact fulfillments but it is more entertaining than what is typical.
Matewan – Labor unions have given us a shorter work day and safer working conditions and fairer wages, something many have found convenient to forget; although others have worked to get us to remember that “unions make life better for workers: where they have economic and political power, unions make work safer, improve workers’ benefits, equalize pay, and protect employees from arbitrary managers and employment discrimination,” as Charles Noble wrote in his concise and useful book The Collapse of Liberalism: Why America Needs a New Left (Rowman and Littlefied, 2004; page 135-136). No matter what kind of work we have done, we can recall or imagine immoral managerial power—dishonest, exploitive, and incompetent; and—if we are honest—we might recall our own shortcomings too: late arrivals, divided loyalties, an inclination to find offense, the preference for speed before accuracy. Independent director John Sayles’s film of labor history, Matewan (1987), with photography by Haskell Wexler, looks great; and its story is about the attempt to build a labor union movement among miners in West Virginia hill country, men who do body-destroying work for little money. How many people remember how desolate the lives of many Americans have been during much of the country’s history? Matewan’s inclusion of men of different ethnicities—white American, Italian, and Negro—makes the motion picture a vision of a small but growing and vibrant progressive democracy. We see their developing trust, their musical collaboration, and their sharing of food. More of the personalities and private lives of the men would enrich the film. Chris Cooper plays a radical organizer, a young but dedicated man of ideals, who arrives to encourage and unify the working men into a formidable force. James Earl Jones is a Negro worker with union experience, a leader to other Negroes and a man who gives the Italian immigrants practical mining advice that helps more of the men to survive in a new field. The labor collective faces well-moneyed opposition, given to false propaganda and violence: the mining company is willing to kill. Director John Sayles in Matewan is offering a dramatic lesson in American labor and social history that is rarely presented or discussed, something that affects ideas about opportunity and justice in America: liberty has had to be fought for again and again.
Mirror, Mirror – Beauty, malice, and power are a lethal combination, and not as unusual as one would like, and the fairy tale of Snow White might help children to prepare for a chilling experience. Snow White’s tale is both bleak and cheery in Mirror, Mirror, the experimental Tarsem’s 2012 motion picture, whereas director Rupert Sanders’s cinematic treatment may be more elegant in Snow White & the Huntsman (2012): both are distinct visions, the first starring Lily Collins as Snow White and Julie Roberts as her wicked stepmother, and the second featuring Kristin Stewart as Snow White and Charlize Theron as the murderous queen. It is always interesting how much of the truth of life—challenge, terror, courage, love, and triumph—that fairy tales contain.
No – One of the more interesting and necessary films, Pablo Larrain’s No (2012) stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a marketing executive who helps to create a campaign that defeats Chilean dictator General Pinochet, a true story. The dark, small, short, big-headed Gael Garcia Bernal is a strangely attractive presence, intelligent, sensual, and funny; and, somehow, possibly thanks to his range of past parts (Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Science of Sleep), one intuits his comprehensive and contemporary awareness and good intentions. His marketer character is smart but arrogant, sometimes a jerk; and his relation to a former wife and the custody of his son fill out who he is. The campaign constructed by the man Bernal plays is one that offers the hope of happiness as the alternative to the dictator: say no to Pinochet, and yes to happiness. Other campaigners want to express their repressed and turbulent historical consciousness. A simple message of happiness as an ideal at first is not promising or threatening but its potency grows and deepens until it is finally irresistible. The film is photographed like a documentary, and it utilizes old footage of the actual campaign against Pinochet, sometimes—and very smoothly—mixing old photographed shots of participants in current scenes.
Oblivion – Tom Cruise appeared in two significant science fiction films, both directed by Steven Spielberg: Minority Report (2002), with its vision of a future society in which people are arrested for crimes they have yet to commit, and War of the Worlds (2005), about a long-planned invasion from Mars, in which destructive long-buried machines emerge from deep within the earth. Oblivion (2013), directed by Joseph Kosinski, is Tom Cruise’s first science fiction since then, and though one can find its influences in Kubrick’s 2001 and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, Oblivion offers aspects that are new in its devastated world, with its elemental elegance. Oblivion focuses on love, time, and memory—and how longings inspired by a remembered love can subvert present time and its responsibilities; and on the prospect that if we find that we are not unique, not who we think we are, we can achieve distinction by being brave and responsible. In Oblivion, following a world cataclysm, are a male/female team securing huge drills, and a hovering space station, killer drones, and a mysterious armed band roaming amid the earthly ruins. With Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough is a colleague, Olga Kurylenko a love, and Morgan Freeman a rebel leader. Tom Cruise as a pilot and technician is agile, aging handsomely, and the beautifully austere film is entertaining, though not joyful; and Cruise’s conversation with the director Joseph Kosinski about the craft of storytelling is a nice special feature.
Open Road – I am not as familiar with Andy Garcia’s early work as many others are, but I have liked some of what he has done as a mature man, especially his acting as the great poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I like some of Andy Garcia’s recent films, City Island, For Greater Glory, and Open Road, in which it is easy to see the actor is trying to do significant work: in Raymond DeFelitta’s 2009 comedy City Island, Garcia is a prison guard who finds he is the father of one of the inmates, a curly-haired, sensuous young man the guard takes home, where his argumentative wife, stripper daughter, and fatgirl-obsessed son respond to the parolee; and in Dean Wright’s 2012 historical drama For Greater Glory, about the attempt of the Mexican government to repress the Catholic religion, Garcia is an agnostic general hired to defend the Catholics; and in Marcio Garcia’s 2012 Open Road, Andy Garcia is a friendly homeless man who looks out for a young woman artist—it is a story about love, misunderstanding, loss, and second and third chances, with time revealing a hidden connection between the two. The likable Open Road (2012) is a film that can seem predictable as it has a classical dimension: a young woman artist from a broken home leaves her Latin country for what seems the American southwest, on a personal and spiritual quest, and she takes to sleeping in tents and taking short-term jobs, before meeting an interested young policeman and having an art show, which features a painted portrait of the homeless man (Garcia) who defended her against an aggressive, deranged admirer.
Parker – The singer-actress Jennifer Lopez, whose filmography includes Selena, Out of Sight, The Cell, Maid in Manhattan, and the Hector Lavoe biography El Cantante (The Singer), played a diligent reporter in Gregory Nava’s troubling Bordertown (2006), starring opposite Antonio Banderas as an editor, a film about the murder of many young women in Juarez, Mexico; and in Taylor Hackford’s comic crime thriller Parker (2012), a very different kind of film, Jennifer Lopez is a real estate agent who becomes involved with a career criminal, played by Jason Statham, who has been the victim of a double-cross and intends to get his money back as well as vengeance. Her performance in Parker is sweetly charming, although one intuits Lopez is too large for the role.
Playing for Keeps – Gerard Butler is a sports star trying to make the transition to adult life in this film: he is charming, impulsive, and self-centered, and that shift is a challenge, but his ex-wife (Jessica Biel) and young son inspire him. The sportsman, at the end of one career and before the beginning of another, begins to coach his son’s soccer team, while looking for work. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a journalist who gives Gerard Butler a professional and personal opportunity, and Dennis Quaid is a rich, overbearing father interfering with the children’s soccer team and Uma Thurman is Quaid’s lonely wife. Such lovely women. The 2012 Gabriele Muccino film Playing for Keeps balances scenes with different kinds of content and tones, scenes of isolation and community, ambition and failure, paternalism and eroticism. Its gloss softens some of its more pointed possibilities.
Safety Last! – Harold Lloyd seems a more modern, normal, and attractive figure than Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, his predicaments and responses easily recognizable, believable—except when they are not: in Safety Last! (1923), directed by Newmeyer and Taylor, Harold Lloyd is a man who leaves his country girl to go to the city to make good, and they both expect great success but he is able to get a job only as a clerk in a department store. He has ideas, and once seeing a man climb the side of a building, he thinks of a way to get attention for the store and receive a financial commission. As the scenario develops in this old, sumptuous black-and-white silent film, the clerk must himself scale the building, a dangerous, exhilarating comic feat.
Shadow Dancer – It is always good to see Clive Owen (and Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Terrence Howard, Jude Law, Sallie Richardson-Whitfield, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, and Kate Winslet—but they are not in this film). In James Marsh’s rhythmical Shadow Dancer (2012), Clive Owen is a British intelligence officer encouraged to bring in the sister of an Irish activist as an informer, a woman played by Andrea Riseborough, but once Owen does that he begins to see how cavalierly she is treated and realizes he has not been told why she has been wanted. No one is to be trusted in this film, one of history, mystery, and thrills. Ireland is one of those countries in which terrorism became common; and what that means is that courage, danger, pain, secrets, and betrayal were common too. Shadow Dancer does not tell or show us anything new, but it is still like a splash of cold water to the face.
Shutter Island – Martin Scorsese’s 2009 Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 Inception are examples of dream life and its roots—anxiety, fear, pain, and the desire for escape or transformation—used as inspiration for cinema, an art form often compared to dreams. The tug of feelings in dreams can be so intense that dreams feel real—and their imagery and paths are so intricate they mesmerize: that is a terrible power. In Shutter Island and Inception, the male lead characters, both played by Leonardo DiCaprio, are positioned as heroes but each has a trauma that he is haunted by, trying to evade: a fact is buried and must be faced if the man is to be free. The once androgynous and transparently sensitive DiCaprio looks now almost impenetrably sturdy, yet registers torment. Both films are imaginative, and each can seem deep or shallow in a single viewing: the meaning depends on our perspective, on our willingness to discern and interpret details. The films embody spiritual experience, and intellectual process, things of special aesthetic value in popular culture, though not required by mass taste.
Snows of Kilimanjaro – Ernest Hemingway’s work contained more modernism, more sophistication, than he is given credit for: modernism is not the obvious subject of his work, but it is there in the details of his work (the ambivalence of mind, the different cultures, the liberal sexual ethics, the jazz music, the visual art, and the untrustworthy politics). In this 1952 Henry King film of a Hemingway story, a man (Gregory Peck) on an African safari with a woman (Susan Heyward) whom he has trained to his habits of adventure and travel, a woman who is not sure how much she is loved, remembers his other loves and the course of his writing career. That a man can cherish the presence of more than one woman and see disappointment in his own famous success are facts Hemingway’s story and the film readily accepts.
Strangers on a Train – What does it mean to arouse the attention of someone you cannot trust? That is what happens in Strangers on a Train, a 1951 Alfred Hitchcock film in which two men meet, complain of their associations, and entertain the idea of murder—with the possibility of each committing the other’s murder to escape detection. The problem is that one of the men (Robert Walker as Bruno) is crazy, pampered and harassed by his wealthy family, a narcissistic fantasist, and infatuated with the other man (Farley Granger as Guy). It seems a portrait of a certain kind of homosexual: one of those people so alienated from the world, so dependent on fantasy for the survival of his psyche, that he insists that his fantasies—bizarre, destructive, and self-serving—are real. Film noir as psychological study. The film is frightening as one does not know how far the entanglement of the two men will go, what crimes might be committed, who might be implicated, or what others might believe. Desire, transgression, and suspicion are part of the script, giving the film a still subversive energy. Yet, how does one read this film decades after its making, in light of the greater integration of homosexuals in social life, with normalization, a change anticipated by many later films—My Beautiful Laundrette, My Own Private Idaho, Happy Together, and Brokeback Mountain among them: does Stranger on a Train become merely a view of madness?
Temptation – Reaching for obvious, vulgar laughs and blatant pathos, Tyler Perry is a crowd-pleasing writer and director, but one has to give him credit for some growth; and I think it is definite growth that he displays in For Colored Girls (2010), his interpretation of Ntozake Shange, and also in Temptation (2013), his rather convoluted if not complicated tale of a country girl’s dangerous infatuation with the big city and a glamorous man—she sacrifices a decent, dull man devoted to her and puts her life at stake. Tyler Perry’s story in Temptation is both old and new—Perry gets at social details and moods that others miss in Temptation. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays the newcomer, and in her we see the confident decency of country life and the excitement at meeting someone who seems to have fulfilled his dreams and appreciates her. They are part of a world that is more fleshed out—with a cast of convincing characters—than in many contemporary films. It would be easier to dismiss Tyler Perry if better and more film artists were paying attention to the African-American audience he is and giving them work that attempts to be both entertaining and instructive. Tyler Perry knows that personal ambition and spiritual faith matter in ways that are very specific. Perry knows that both humor and sensuality are part of the daily life of his people, who juggle responsibility and pleasure: past pain and the promise and threat of the future deepen the value of all experience. Tyler Perry, whatever one assumes or suspects regarding the crudeness of his technique or the philosophical limits of his vision, respects his characters and his audience; and that gives his work a power that some enthusiastically reviewed art films do not have.
To the Wonder – It is hard to remember there may have been a time when romantic love was a rare and wondrous thing, as it has become the principal symbol of passion or transcendence. That is a problem for film aesthete Terrence Malick, whose commitment to beauty, nature, thought, and transcendence actually makes the love between two people—and the revelation they might bring to each other—an inevitable subject. Terrence Malick uses his technique in To the Wonder (2012): long, slow scenes, attention to human movement and the objects that surround people, a celebration of nature, and poetically spiritual narration, but they are not enough to animate the story, that of a man who falls in love with a woman in Paris and brings her and her daughter to America, separates, becomes involved with another woman, then reconciles for a time with the first woman. Malick’s film, featuring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams, brings us luminous images of human existence and contemplation, and may be more beautiful than those of most directors, but here his work is less resonant, less satisfying, than in Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick can be considered a phenomenologist; and “phenomenology, properly understood, as the logos of the phenomenon, is the disciplined attempt to open to sight that which shows itself, and to let it be seen as it is. In using the phenomenological method, one must therefore discard all preconceived logical and epistemological constructions and seek to examine and describe the phenomena as they show themselves” (Philosophy, edited by Frank N. Magill, on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, Salem Press, 1961; page 887). Unfortunately, and possibly ironically, with his greater productivity and speed in producing films, we can make more comparisons—and now find the conversations in To the Wonder too whispery, the film’s relationships too vague, the scenario too whimsical, and the ultimate meaning opaque—and the sum of it all not fresh enough.
Upside Down – Two worlds, very different but interconnected: one world exploits and damages the other. Juan Solanas’s Upside Down (2011), which appeared on film screens in late 2012, is a bluesy science fiction fairy tale of transcendent love. Kirsten Dunst plays the privileged girl and Jim Sturgess the poor boy trying to maintain their friendship after childhood and an accident that has left her amnesiac. He has an idea the bright, rich world wants to implement in business, and thus has an opportunity to renew acquaintance with the young woman, though doing so could bring the law down on him. “Love will make men dare to die for their beloved—love alone; and women as well as men,” we are reminded in Plato’s ambisexual Symposium (The Heritage Press, 1968; page 66). It is easy to call the film visionary, containing as it does things we have not seen before: the contrast of worlds with two forms of gravity, in which the matter from one world can begin to burn when it is long in the other world. The film’s landscapes in its contrasting worlds—urban or wild, luxurious or grimy, safe or poisonous—are memorable, proof of cinema’s ability to embody imagination. I suspect appreciation for the film will increase with time’s passage.
Wendy and Lucy – It is rare that one gets a picture so intimate and true of a young white woman living on the margins, her body, mind, and spirit vulnerable to the elements. Wendy’s transport and home is an old car, and with Wendy (Michelle Williams) is her dog Lucy, who may be her only friend, in this bitter, crusty slice of life. As with Kelly Reichardt’s subsequent Meek’s Cutoff (2010), featuring frontier travelers who capture an attacking Native American for a guide, it is hard to doubt the sense that that this, Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), is a chapter from a longer, true story: a certain integrity is suggested, knowledge gained, sympathy inspired, but there is no transformative joy.
Wuthering Heights – One has to see Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff—a feral, passionate young man; an embittered, stern middle-aged man—in William Wyler’s 1939 interpretation of Emily Bronte’s 1847 fiction Wuthering Heights to know what all the fuss was about. Laurence Olivier is handsome, brooding, and his acting is full of shifting inflections. The actor, who began life as the talented son of a minister father would become an English lord, after achieving great acclaim as a Shakespearean stage actor and international film star. In Wuthering Heights, the dark-skinned orphan Heathcliff is brought by a man, Mr. Earnshaw, to live with his family at his rustic estate Wuthering Heights in the English countryside, and the boy is befriended by the man’s daughter Cathy, but loathed by his son, Hindley; and Heathcliff is treated like a son and brother until the father’s death, at which time Heathcliff becomes a servant. Cathy (Merle Oberon) becomes infatuated with a wealthy neighbor, Edgar Linton (David Niven), and makes nasty comparisons to Heathcliff—and hurt, Heathcliff leaves, to return years later a man of means. Edgar’s sister Isabella (an excellent Geraldine Fitzgerald) is infatuated with the well-dressed Heathcliff, though Cathy tries to warn her away from him. Wuthering Heights is a story of love and money, of bitterness and vengeance. That other cinema artists have chosen to tell the same story is no mystery: Luis Bunuel’s early 1950s Spanish-language version was known for its eroticism and spiritual intensity. Andrea Arnold’s recent film interpretation of Wuthering Heights, opening in late 2012, featuring young men of African descent, handsome and mysterious males, as the boy Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and the man Heathcliff (James Howson), is a compelling, fragmented, earthy, intelligent work with the resonances of history.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, 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, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.