Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 September 2014

Two from Ingmar Bergman

The Virgin Spring is a gorgeous little film. It's early Bergman (1960), and it is in the Criterion Collection, so it is available in a sparkling print. I don't think I have much to say about the movie itself. though. The plot is a very straightforward narrative of violence, loss, revenge, and religion based on a medieval tale from the thirteenth century.

It has an infamous rape scene, but the film's violence is presented in a painful, anguished way. This is not done through sound information (the way Stephen Prince suggests that pain is best communicated on film), in fact the film has hardly any sound in it at all. Instead, the camera seems to feel with the characters, and the violence itself is almost always obstructed from view in some way.

The narrative on which the film is based is inherently religious, yet Bergman manages to make a film that – despite the obvious existence of god – questions the god's choices. Birgitta Valberg and Max Von Sydow as the young girl's parents are really quite excellent.

Bergman is a bleak filmmaker – not totally joyless, but definitely bleak. And his film from 1976, Face to Face (Ansikte mot Ansikte) is no exception to this. But Face to Face boasts an unbelievably amazing performance from Liv Ullman. Unlike The Virgin Spring, which is easy to get ahold of, it's pretty hard to find a copy of Face to Face. I've been trying for years. But now I'm at Dartmouth and they have everything, so I watched it two weeks ago.

Face to Faceis about a psychiatrist who has her shit together. As her daughter is off at camp and her husband in New York for work, she goes to stay with her grandparents for a month while some work is being done on her house. This return home opens up all sorts of things for the woman and she confronts her long-repressed fears and anxieties.

This is a hard film. First of all, it is dated by its interest in psychiatry and repressed memories, but the film itself is also a true challenge. The main character is truly fucking sad, and there doesn't seem to be much of a way out of the misery that she feels blanketing her put-together life. So this is hard to watch. Honestly, though, I spent a good portion of the film with my jaw dropped, disbelieving that Liv Ullman was as good as she is. Ullman is extraordinary in Face to Face. She tears into the role and is unrelenting. We get every confused, difficult moment of this woman's existential anguish. It is a performance that is so exquisitely crafted and so specific, that the audience is left as confused as the character about what is really wrong with the woman.

The trouble with the film itself, though, is that it doesn't have much of a solution to this anxiety, and frankly doesn't have much of a reason for displaying it all to us in cinematic form. Face to Face is enjoyable only for Ullman's virtuosity. The film itself is unrelentingly miserable.

27 September 2014

The Dardennes Do It Again

The final film that I was able to see from the Dartmouth version of Telluride was the Dardenne Brothers' Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit). The film is the kind of tense, emotional ride typical of the Dardennes' work, and I loved it.

The film is about a woman who works in a manufacturing plant. She has been on sick leave, but is recovered and has returned to work. At the plant (which has 16 workers plus her), the boss has decided that he can't afford to rehire her. He gives the other 16 employees the option to vote. Her coworkers must choose between getting a bonus or hiring the woman back.

She spends the titular two days and one night visiting each of her coworkers in turn to try to keep her job. The bonus is rather a lot of money, so this is an uphill battle and a very emotional one. The Dardennes always have the ability to raise the stakes on any plot. Their work is similar to the work of Asghar Farhadi in this way, except that the intensity of Farhadi's stories revolves around unfolding plot events. The Dardennes's stories just seem to unspool, to follow naturally from the initial event they've scripted.

Two Days, One Night is also very, very smart. It is an intelligent analysis and emotional representation of how capitalism works to divide people up, to teach us to see ourselves as individuals and understand the world as one where the choice is between our benefit and someone else's benefit. Two Days, One Night makes this crystal clear, and the journey of it is almost agonizing.

More than anything, though, this is a movie about very high stakes, about asking for assistance from the people in our lives and hoping that they will be willing to help us. In other words, it's about community, about nation, about working together at something in order to make the world better. Each time the film's main character has to ask for help, though, this prospect is absolutely terrifying. Two Days, One Night makes clear just how difficult community actually is.

Two Days, One Night is Belgium's official selection for the Foreign Language Picture Oscar. But the Dardennes have not been appreciated by the Academy, and Belgium has done better with Felix Van Groeningen and (surprisingly) Michaël R. Roskam. The last time Belgium submitted a Dardennes movie was in 2005 with L'Enfant. In the same year, Argentina submitted the last Fabián Belinsky film, El Aura, Canada submitted current Oscar darling Jean-Marc Vallée's excellent C.R.A.Z.Y., Hungary went with Lajos Koltai's gorgeous Fateless, and Romania selected Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The Academy's nominations weren't all terrible: Sophie Scholl: the Final Days and Gavin Hood's Tsotsi made the cut. But the category was filled with mostly bad films: Paradise Now, Don't Tell, and the truly terrible Joyeux Noël. I'm crossing my fingers for the Dardennes this year.

23 September 2014

The J.M.W. Turner Movie

Watching movies with all of the geriatrics of Hanover who have squeezed into the enormous Spaulding Theatre to see these Telluride movies has really started to mess with my head. First everyone loved The Imitation Game, then most people were grossed out or bored by Wild, and two nights ago the audience was openly hostile to Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh's film about the British painter J.M.W. Turner. But I was loving it.

I don't want to recommend Mr. Turner to folks, though. It's a tough film. Aren't all of Mike Leigh's films tough? Mr. Turner is tough in a different way than Another Year or Secrets & Lies or Vera Drake, though. Mr. Turner begins by being tough to understand. Like, what are those people actually saying? Turner's father speaks in an intensely thick dialect, and Turner himself (played by Harry Potter's über-creepy villain Timothy Spall) spends the majority of the film literally grunting. It becomes his way of speaking as he gets older, too, so that by film's end he responds to almost anything addressed to him with a pig-like grunt. At the end of the film this is quite amusing, but at the beginning it is frustrating and confusing. Thirty minutes into the movie, though, it all becomes fine, and one hasn't missed anything anyway.

The film is not a standard biopic, beginning when Turner is a young man and following him until his death. Instead, Leigh addresses Turner during his decline. He is an older man, set in his ways, stubborn, messy, disgruntled, hardened by years of neglect by the art establishment. For me this was a fascinating study. The film does not spend time flashing back to when he was young and beautiful and full of life or any such thing. Nor does the film locate the source of Turner's rebellious and outrageous behavior in some childhood trauma (à la Ray, The Imitation Game, Walk the Line). There is no explaining Turner. There is only dealing with him. 

But Mr. Turner is really funny. Leigh moves deftly between social satire that is uproariously funny and then very serious scenes in Turner's private life. Nearly every sequence in the art world is both a beautiful re-enactment of petty nineteenth-century artists' squabbles and a hilarious send-up of the same. There is an absolutely brilliant sequence in which art critic John Ruskin starts a discussion of how to paint the sea. Turner sits in the corner, grunts responses, and then asks the most important artistic question that can be asked: Do you prefer lamb and kidney pie or veal and ham pie?

And there are two genius scenes regarding the future of art. Turner sits in front of a daguerrotype machine and has his picture taken. It's a fascinating sequence about ways of behaving as one is confronted by new technologies. And then there is the future of painting. Turner observes the work of those who would come after him with curiosity, confusion, and (of course) disdain. But Mr. Turner doesn't weep for Turner, and it doesn't treat him as a saint. In many ways he is a grotesquerie, a ridiculous imp in the art world, a disgusting misogynist at home, a tender lover with his partner, a stubborn, difficult artist with his patrons, and a confused, awkward guest at parties.

Leigh's movie intercuts these sequences of private life and the social world of nineteenth-century England with the beautiful sunsets and sunrises Turner is known for painting, as well as images of trains, landscapes, and, of course, the roiling sea. Here, only, do we truly see the world from Turner's point of view. Leigh only allows us access to the artist in this oblique way, by showing us the paintings themselves in a new way. In many ways he gives us brief, cinematic versions of the paintings. Turner sees the world as fast, beautiful, and enormous, and his own position in that world is our position as we look at his paintings: we are so tiny. And the world itself majestically, terrifyingly, bustles right on by us.

I loved this movie.

22 September 2014


Wild is the story of a woman who has a lot of problems, and who – in order to find something out about herself, about the world, about who she wishes to be – hikes the Pacific Coast trail beginning in the California desert and ending way up north in Oregon. The movie is based on a memoir. It stars Reese Witherspoon, and it is really good.

I was totally skeptical of Wild. Mostly because I am skeptical of Reese Witherspoon and skeptical of Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the awesome C.R.A.Z.Y. but also directed the Dallas Buyers Club and The Young Victoria. These two most recent films are straightforward narratives, and I didn't care for either of them, but Vallée's newest film is about memory, longing, and desire in the way that C.R.A.Z.Y. was, and this is what the director does really, really well. Reese hikes the trail, but she flashes back to events in her past, some of which we get only in the briefest of glimpses. The character confronts her memories piece by piece, as her hike is a way to deal with the things she has done, to come to terms with her grief and her own outrageous behavior.

The film is, by turns, quite funny, really intense, and even suspenseful at times. But this is not a movie about hiking or the inspirational possibilities of nature or anything like that. This is a movie about a woman dealing with herself and her situation in life. The director of the film society here referred to it as a more realistic Eat, Pray, Love, and maybe the comparison is a good one. Unlike EPL, though, this is a story about pushing one's self to the limits of one's own abilities in order to see if one can handle both the past and the future.

I want to be sure to note, though, that what's on show here is really excellent storytelling, most importantly accomplished through editing and direction. Memories come at the main character quickly, and then they are quickly pushed back if she doesn't want to deal with them. We get inside the character's head, and this learning about her doesn't work to explain her behavior as much as it works to help us process these things along with the character. As the things in the past happen, they feel less like revelations or ways of understanding why this character has done what she has done, and more like things we begin to shoulder with her. There is no third-act aha! moment that makes it all clear and helps us understand her. Instead, slowly but surely, we confront her past the way she confronts her past.

I have to say one more thing about Wild. Laura Dern plays Reese Witherspoon's mother in this, and she is amazing. It is a beautiful, beautiful performance. Even if Wild weren't as good as it is, it would totally be worth checking out just for her. As it is, Wild is worth it all around.

The Bunch

Can we also note that there are a million movies with Wild in the title? I mention this because I recently (finally) saw Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and it is as awesome as everyone working on violence in cinema has been saying forever. (I would call it downright inspirational. It is just a genius film from start to finish.) But there's also Into the Wild, Wild Things, The Call of the Wild, The River Wild, as well as another famous movie starring Laura Dern: Wild at Heart. And I haven't even mentioned Wilde yet. There're a lot of Wilds, that's all I'm saying, and calling a movie simply Wild doesn't help things much; I'm also (to be honest) not sure what it has to do with the movie.

20 September 2014

The Imitation Game - A Beautiful Mind Lite

Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game is a real crowd-pleaser. It recently won the audience award at the Toronto Film festival, and both shows here at Dartmouth sold out quickly and easily – I know probably a dozen people who tried to get tickets and couldn't. I had to buy mine two weeks in advance in order to make sure I got one. The line was literally out the door. As I say, it's an intense crowd-pleaser, and the audience I was with just loved it; laughing at all the jokes; gasping at all the right moments; pretending to be surprised when something predictable happened; and clucking in a knowing and self-congratulatory way when the final title cards came up to tell us what happened after the events of the movie were over.

Ms. Knightley
But The Imitation Game is cheap, cynical Oscar bait through and through. It has a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat, a charming supporting performance by Keira Knightley, and a tic-filled teary-eyed central performance by everyone's favorite problem-solver Benedict Cumberbatch, but this is a movie that repeats to us a series of things that we already know so that we can feel good about knowing them. And the clichés! The one of these that stands out the most is the phrase It's the one no one imagines can do anything who can do the thing no one imagines or something like that. It is repeated no less than three times throughout the film, so often that I'm surprised the Weinstein Company isn't using the phrase in its marketing.

The film follows famed Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing, and it alternates between three time periods – the early 1940s, the early 1950s (after the war), and the 1920s when Turing is a young man. This is yet another film that intends to explain a character's interesting or seemingly inexplicable behavior through recourse to a past that is unfolded to the audience slowly. In Turing's case, he was in love as a very young man and this boyhood love somehow – well, the film doesn't really say, but it had a profound effect on him, and if The Imitation Game is not really clear about any concrete effects this young man had on Turing, the film makes us think that it has unlocked something deep about Turing and his (allegedly) mysterious life.

The sequences with Turing's fellow code-breakers are fun. And every scene with Keira Knightley is delightful, but the rest of the film is just one more narrative about a single-minded genius whom no one believed but who did his thing anyway, dammit, and turned out to be right, suckas. The film is ostensibly also about the persecution of homosexuality in the 1940s and '50s, but this is more an afterthought for the film than it is anything else. We never see Turing really as a homosexual. That is, he doesn't actually have sex with anyone in the film. He keeps saying he's a homosexual, and he's told that he needs to keep that a secret and all of that, but... legally, one isn't really a homosexual if one never has sex with anyone. I mean, how would anyone go about trying to prove it? The film's version of what a homosexual is is a person who knows a secret thing about himself – not a person who, you know, has sex with other men or even fantasizes about them.

And The Imitation Game goes further: everyone keeps secrets during the war. There are spies for the Soviets and secrets kept from the military and encoded messages from the Nazis. Being gay is just one more secret in a whole series of them – a comparison the film makes explicitly in a scene late in the film. In other words, the film doesn't explore the life of Alan Turing at all. Instead it explores what might have happened if a homosexual worked for MI6 during the Second World War. Everything in this film is approached generically.

Oh, but don't listen to me. I'm just a curmudgeon. The film comes out in late November, and most everyone will probably like it. Expect Oscar nominations for the writer, the composer, and the two main actors. That seems about right. It's a crowd-pleaser. It's about World War II. And it feels very important.

16 September 2014

Two with Marlon Brando

I loved Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! with Marlon Brando. Now, I know that Brando plays the Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata, and that, therefore, it is (yet another) instance of Hollywood casting a mostly white actor to play a person of color, but the film is still great. And it also boasts an awesome performance by Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn.

For me the greatest thing about Viva Zapata! was its cinematography. Everything in the film is sun-bleached, and the desert in this film is a stunning white. In fact, the way the film is shot, everything looks white. It's rather an extraordinary achievement of black-and-white photography to my mind (although, perhaps I don't really know what I am talking about).

Thematically, the film is sort of a reactionary, disillusioned, anti-revolutionary thing. The revolution, we find out, must continue purge those who wish to stop the revolution. The revolution eats its head off. The revolution is co-opted by those who wish only for the deaths of others and do not really care about others. All of this is true, of course, but for me that does not mean we ought to give up on the idea of revolution; Kazan, apparently, had given up.

But this is a very good film with some excellent performances and gorgeous photography. And now it is available on blu-ray, so that cinematography is on full display.

Bernhard Wicki's Morituri is also really good. It's much more of a melodramatic action-suspense film, with Brando as its disaffected center. I found it gripping and truly enjoyable. Wicki's film Die Brücke is one of the most pitiless of anti-Nazi films ever to be made. This one, too, is absolutely clear about the crimes the Nazis committed. At no point does this film – as so many do – allow Nazi Germany simply to become a backdrop for an action film. The atrocities of the twentieth century are always there for us to see. That Morituri can also be a tensely crafted suspense film is a testament to how good of a filmmaker Wicki was.

14 September 2014

Two Lives

We meet the main character of Georg Maas's Two Lives while she is doing a whole bunch of stuff we don't understand. I like spy games, and since the movie starts off as a spy game, I was very interested. But Two Lives is also an exploration of a historical event that I knew nothing about.

Apparently, during the occupation of Norway in the Second World War, children of Norwegian mothers and German soldiers were considered good Aryan stock, taken from their mothers, and transported to orphanages in Germany where they could be raised by Germans. After the war, the GDR decided it didn't want these children. Many of them were killed.

Two Lives is a tension-filled melodrama that is also somewhat of a thriller, but set in front of this historical background, Georg Maas's movie becomes richer than that. The story becomes devastating, an uncomfortable portrait of one of the forgotten stories of the war in Europe, and one that makes it clear that the War is still not over.

12 September 2014

Jude Law is Dom Hemingway and You're Not

In a lot of ways, Dom Hemingway, a film written and directed by Richard Shepard (who, as far as I can tell, was known before this only for a single episode of 30 Rock and the Pierce Brosnan film The Matador), is strikingly similar to a film I watched recently called Filth, by writer-director Jon S. Baird.

Both films are about reprehensible main characters who are almost completely unhinged. They are both crime films, filled with cocaine and prostitutes and lots and lots of drinking. Both films are also about traditional masculinity (this isn't just my read on them: they both want to be about masculinity) and its attendant components: heterosexuality, violence, futurity, impenetrability. I think, for the record, that I tend to dislike films that take traditional masculinity as a kind of uninterrogable given. Liam Neeson's revenge films (and before him: Mel Gibson's revenge films) tend to do this, for example. But I tend to be fascinated by films that specifically address masculinity, attempting to explore how it works emotionally, relationally, etc.

This poster is genius. Obviously. That ape!

So: if I liked Filth for its surrealism and its strangely shifting, drug-addled perspective, I loved Dom Hemingway. The reasons are several, but they have everything to do with Shepard's point of view about his main character. The film opens with Jude Law getting a blowjob from an unseen character, and Dom Hemingway talking about how amazing his penis is. He goes on and on in the opening monologue: it is a ridiculous, hilarious almost endless list of how his penis should win the Nobel Peace prize and can do laudable feats like rescue dying children and cure cancer. The absurdity of this is immediately clear, and that the person with whom Dom Hemingway is having sex with is a fellow inmate already signals that this film is an interrogation into traditional masculinity and not a simple celebration of its attributes.

Where Filth allowed its protagonist to talk to us directly, asking us to buy into his delusions of grandeur, Dom Hemingway always keeps a slight distance from its protagonist, treating him like the delusional relic of traditional masculinity that he is. Other men do not cower before Dom Hemingway; they are amused by him, but they think he's an asshole and no one in the film wishes he were Dom Hemingway.

Jordan A. Nash & Jude Law
The film is filled with Dom's angry, completely ludicrous outbursts and his outrageous, violent behavior. But the film never asks us to agree with Dom, to think him clever; one never really feels as though Dom is making the right decision. We get to enjoy his antics, to be sure, but he is never a model for behavior. And after the three opening sequences, the film shifts perspective from Dom himself. We see him from the perspective of his friend, from the perspective of his boss, from the perspective of his daughter, from the perspective of his son-in-law, and from the perspective of his grandson. Dom Hemingway says that masculinity is funny, sexy, even awesome, but then... one has to interact with other people, and the failings of traditional masculinity become all too clear when actual other humans are involved. Further, Dom himself understands his own limitations – he totally grasps his own problems with anger, and he even knows that he is usually the least intelligent person in the room. All of this manages to be, well, endearing, and keeps the exploration of masculinity a sincere one rather than Filth's ironic, half-hearted pseudo-exploration of the same thing. This is a rich, very funny film, with a fierce central performance from Jude Law. Great stuff.

11 September 2014

The Woman in Red

Have you seen Gene Wilder's The Woman in Red? If not, you're doing fine, although I will say that I found lots of it really funny. It's funny in that awkward kind of way where you just feel uncomfortable most of the time and then that super-awkward feeling is punctuated by laughs every once in a while.

There's also a rather fascinating gay thing. (The movie is from 1982.) Everyone in the group of friends in the movie is cheating. Gene Wilder is trying to cheat on his wife with the eponymous woman in red, Joseph Bologna cheats on his wife constantly, Michael Huddleston is sleeping with a colleague's wife, and Charles Grodin... well it turns out that Charles Grodin cheats on his boyfriend at one point during the film with a cute young blond boy named Erik (Thom Mathews, who would go on to act in The Return of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead II and Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI.)

Anyway, the film makes a big show of accepting Charles Grodin for being gay and Gene Wilder drives him home and gives him a hug but doesn't say anything – and then later they stay friends and nothing is strange.

Overall, the movie is one of these comedies-with-a-lesson-type movies that are more interested in sentimentality than in making their audiences laugh.

I should say that the woman in red herself is not just an object in the film, even if she obviously is on the poster. As it turns out, she is clever and fascinating, and way more interesting than any of the other characters in the film.

10 September 2014

Two Musical Biographies

My favorite thing about Igor Talankin's Tchaikovsky (Чайковский) was the stunning costume design by Lyudmila Kusakova. Otherwise, it is standard, late-1960s biographical fare – it was released in the U.S. in 1972. It also omits all mention of homosexual affairs, if there were any. (Were there any? Inquiring minds want to know.) I recently also watched a biographical film about Frédéric Chopin called A Song to Remember from 1945 that is a more poorly made film than Tchaikovsky. In a lot of ways, though, Charles Vidor's A Song to Remember is a more interesting film than Tchaikovsky because it is such blatant nationalist propaganda for World War II.

Both Chopin and Tchaikovsky had guarded, mysterious personal lives, and neither of them felt the need to share whatever demons they possessed with the rest of the world. But Tchaikovsky treats those secret demons as a mystery, presenting the things we don't know simply and without comment – without attempting to understand them, really: Here they are. Pyotr Ilyich had night terrors. He was tormented. He couldn't figure out how to be happy. And this is how it must be to be a genius. And in its way, this mode of treating the mysterious emptiness at the center of this man whom the film does not understand is simply a way of giving up. It reminds me a bit of the way that Clint Eastwood so boringly treated the life of J. Edgar Hoover (surely a fascinating man, in fact). Tchaikovsky is sumptuously filmed – the costumes, I am telling you, are phenomenal (unfortunately, Google Images is being decidedly unhelpful as I try to search for examples) – but the film has nothing to say about the mysteries at the heart of this man.

This isn't to say that I think all biographies ought to be along the lines of Ray or Walk the Line, films that purport to explain an entire man's life through access to some particularly traumatic or marking incident in the man's childhood. But a perspective of some kind is welcome. A Song to Remember, while being totally silly and '40s and (therefore) part of the big studio propaganda machine, still makes some propositions about Chopin's life and work and his mysteries. To be sure, it explains Chopin's life as one torn between Polish nationalism and the love of an (ahem) evil, pants-wearing woman – Merle Oberon at her iciest – but it is at least some kind of explanation or perspective. It is at least a theory. I think I will always prefer those kind of risky explanations to the "just the facts ma'am" way that so many people think biography ought to be done these days.

07 September 2014


This post is about Darren Aronofsky's bizarre religious film Noah. I decided to have a conversation about the movie with my buddy Rick. Our own religious backgrounds are slightly different (Rick was raised Catholic and I was raised Baptist), so we have different takes on the way the movie uses religion, but unsurprisingly the same take on the quality Aronofsky's film.

Aaron: First off, when you think of the Noah story, you think: rain, giant boat, animals, dove, rainbow. Those are the standard images, right? There is also this story in the bible where (after the flood) Noah gets drunk and his sons see him naked and cover him. (As a child I thought this part with the naked man was very important.)

Rick: The most fun part of the Noah story is obviously the animals! But Aronofsky makes the bizarre choice of not showing us one single moment with a real animal. Noah and his family don't even collect the animals; the animals, CGI all of them, come to Noah, quickly running into the ark where they're put to sleep by some kind of incense.

Aaron: Right. All CGI and all oddly napping.

Rick: This could have been hugely entertaining cinema, right here. You could have comic relief, obviously ("This one's definitely male"), but also a chance for real spiritual reflection. Maybe Japheth has a moment where he realizes, Hey, this aurochs is another living being, we're all part of God's creation, etc.

Aaron: But the film's version of the god's power is really one of violence and power, no? I mean, the god of the Old Testament is essentially vengeful and terrifying. The film gets that part right – although it is unmoored from any spiritual arrangement. The god in Noah is more like a king or a government.

Rick: In fact, Noah and his family have no agency at all, because not only do they not collect the animals, they don't actually build the ark! The ark is built by what I can only assume are the beings of Genesis 6:4: King James calls them "giants"; my Catholic bible calls them the Nephilim. Darren Aronofsky apparently thinks they're like the rock monster from The Neverending Story. In the movie, they tell Noah that they're fallen angels, but the bible says that they're the result of sexual intercourse between angels and humans, which aside from being biblically faithful, would have been a hell of a lot more interesting from a storytelling standpoint.

Aaron: The nephilim? Giants who are not fallen angels, as the film would have it, but (according to Genesis), the men of old, who were the children of (apparently male) angels and the "daughters of men". The way they worked in Noah made me think of a kind of Hebraic tradition of golems. That's how Aronofsky apparently saw them, but the way they are described in the film is a generic blending of the myth of the fall of Lucifer (who does not really appear in this film) and the Greek story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the humans. Aronofsky is Jewish anyway, right? He is not a Christian, so his relationship to the bible is going to be much different from ours (not that I'm a Christian either.)

Rick: But the film's relationship to morality and spirituality is what I'm interested in. Why does God bring the Flood? Because of the wickedness of man. But the movie never shows you in a concrete way just how wicked man has become. You see some men acting like douchebags, and the narrative text in the opening sequence tells you that the descendants of Cain created an "industrial" society. In this same vein, you never see why God loves Noah so much. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord, says Genesis 6:8. According to Aronofsky, he found this favor because he told his kid once, Hey, don't pick that flower if you don't need it. The thing is, the story in the bible is pretty short, and presented rather journalistically. But given the opportunity to flesh the whole story out, Aronofsky presents the events in the same way. The God of the Old Testament is a bastard. And a fascinating, complicated character! He's capricious, vengeful, loving; Moses even argues with him. But He's barely present in this movie.

Aaron: My favorite characters, for exactly this reason, were the Ray Winstone (descendant of Cain) and Logan Lerman (Ham) figures. Winstone's character understands that he is made in the god's image, right? And so this means that everything he does is justified. His decisions are reflections of the god's own decisions. He mirrors the god. He knows this. But still the god refuses to talk to the descendant of Cain. And he begs him: talk to me. Why won't you speak to me? The arbitrariness of the entirety of the god's decisions is so clear in these moments that we spend with Ray Winstone. The god doesn't like that guy, but - as you say - we never really are told why he should choose this guy over the other.

Rick: Probably the deepest problem with the whole movie is that at its heart is a contempt for humanity. There's never a moment where Noah displays uncommon kindness towards another person or even acts in a way that makes him particularly likeable. All he does is stoically look after his family, which is, as Chris Rock once said, what you're supposed to do, motherfucker! And aside from Ham's barely-sketched love interest in the latter half of the film, not one human being who is not a member of Noah's family is portrayed sympathetically. The movie never once encourages us to ask, Hey, maybe God's making a poor choice here, and Noah himself never questions humanity's fate. At the end of the film, Hermione tells Noah that he's a good person because he "chose love." This is a sort of vaguely Catholic-ish value, but the theological idea of love (based on my layman's understanding) is first of all, a New Testament concept, and secondly, not love for your family, but caritas, or love for humanity. Which this movie clearly does not have.

Aronofsky's The Fountain
Aaron:  I found the way that the film portrayed Noah's (not the film's) contempt for humanity strange. Noah totally goes off the deep end, right? I mean, he sincerely believes that humanity needs to end, and I am intrigued by this because there are these radical left-wing sects that believe that the planet would be better off without humanity. Anti-humanists and then other people who refuse to reproduce, who plan only to die out. The film rejects this as completely psychotic, of course, which is why it interests me – as a kind of rupture in a narrative that assumes we all are on the side of heterosexual reproductive futurity. (Which you might style as the vaguely Catholic-ish value "love"). As for Hermione's argument about "love" at the end of the film, the argument is identical to the one that the Descendant of Cain uses. I was made in the god's image, therefore everything that I do is a reflection of the god and, therefore, the right thing to do. This is, to my mind, identical to what she says at the end of the movie: The god chose you because it knew that you would do what is right, therefore, everything you've done is right. I am, I suppose, agreeing with you that the arguments for what is morally correct here are tortured beyond all sense and end up being just vaguely liberal.

Malick's The Tree of Life
Rick: It just seemed utterly drained of any theology or spirituality. I spent the entirety of the film wishing it had been directed by Terrence Malick, because he has a knack for making a scene seem suffused with spiritual meaning (Noah even has an "evolution" sequence somewhat like the one in Tree of Life).

Aaron: An odd thing, really, since Aronofsky's π as well as his later effort The Fountain (both of which I loved), both interrogate spirituality in rich, fascinating ways. But I for one am glad Malick isn't wasting his time on nonsense like this. I was initially interested in this movie because I am interested in revisioning Biblical mythology from modern points of view. I am interested in stories about old gods and our relationships with them. But, as you say, the god doesn't ever show up in Noah. He just flexes his muscles. For me the god was most present in the film when Ray Winstone was begging him to speak to him and he was answered only with silence. This, to me, is a much more modern understanding of how a person's relationship with god might work. Noah has it both ways – three ways, really. The god is an old man with white hair in the mountains, and the god is in the sky sending the rain, and the god is in your dreams at night. The whole thing was a big ol' mess.

Rick: A total mess, with too much CGI, crappy, ponderous writing, one-dimensional characters, and no moral message beyond Be a good person, and maybe don't eat so much meat. Oh, and every human being alive on Earth today is descended from white people.

02 September 2014


I've been watching Oscar-nominated movies for a lot of years, and I had seen all of the Best Picture winners except one... until last night. (I've also seen nearly all of the films nominated for Best Picture – 482 of the total 515, or 93.6%.) But last night I finally saw my one holdout: Frank Lloyd's Cavalcade, which is based on Noël Coward's 1931 play of the same name.

And I sort of hated it. It is indeed a cavalcade – a Forrest Gump-like parade of historical events from 1899 to 1933 from the perspective of two families – and all of them tied very much to a sense of British nationalism and (considering the time period, of course:) war. The first event in this history is the Boer War, and this means that as soon as we started I was already calling bullshit on colonization and angry about what the film wanted me to lionize. Apparently this was supposed to be an anti-war film (I surmise this from the performances in it), but Frank Lloyd appears to have split his budget between parade sequences and huge, beautiful sendoffs, and sincerely scrimped when it came to paying for war sequences. The pro-war pageant sequences look gorgeous, in other words, and the wars itself are given short shrift. There is one (overly long) sequence covering the 1914-1918 World War, but the film seems to object only to that conflict's duration rather than understanding war, world war, and, oh let's say chemical warfare and the decimation of an entire generation, as essentially problematic. Even the bombing of London is portrayed as a romantic bit of fun.

All of this is, frankly, just conservative filmmaking, and it didn't bother me too much, because I spent most of Cavalcade complaining not about the film's politics but about the film's star Diana Wynyard. When her husband goes off to the Boer war in 1900, she totally loses it. She's mean to the children, she can't seem to enjoy anything, and she moons at the camera as though he's already dead. Spoiler alert – he's in the rest of the movie. I don't object to this in theory, but the rest of the film is set around the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and the first World War, so Wynyard really hems herself in. If you totally lose it in the film's first act, there's usually nowhere to go. And indeed there is not in Cavalcade. We've seen everything Wynyard has to offer by way of emotion in the movie's first thirty minutes. And then...? Well more of the same. I haven't seen anyone mope through a movie this much since that Katniss Everdeen girl could only make one face throughout the entire Hunger Games. A little variation, please!

Well, after that, people fall in love, the Titanic sinks, kids go off to war. And I was sort of fine, if a little bored, by the movie's perspective on the new century, on British modernism and the feelings of the film's young adults about the future. It's been eighty years (and a pretty rough century), so even I was sentimental about all of this.

But then the last fifteen minutes of the film happened. Now, in the original Noël Coward play, the main characters have become quite old and toast to the new year, hoping that Britain can come to regain the dignity it once held. And then the scene changes to one that gradually becomes (as Coward puts it) chaos. This chaos is mostly achieved through the image of six "incurables" (not my word, obviously) making baskets, a lot of people dancing but not enjoying themselves, an awful lot of news bulletins, a bunch of discordant music, and the noise of industry. The twentieth century is not quite what everyone has imagined: things move faster, but no one is actually happier. Fine.

In the film, we get the blind men making baskets and the discordant music (it's actually a really fun Coward song called "Twentieth-century Blues". And we also get a lot of people yelling at the camera: a generic atheist tells us there is no god and then an Anglican minister yells his sermon about the godlessness of the world – pan out to the six people who comprise the congregation sitting in a nearly empty cathedral. My red flags went up at this point. Is the message of this film that we all need to go back to church? 

And then the news items look like this:
Vice orgies? The age of "unfaith"? Husband and wife murder? It's news to me, but apparently there are much worse things out there than the sixteen million deaths and 20 million wounded who were casualties of World War I. Oh yes. Much worse than all that: degeneracy and vice orgies.

And if you are wondering what a vice orgy looks like (perhaps you'd like to attend one?), wonder no further. The camera finds a white man and a white woman on a chaise longue. She's drinking out of a martini glass and giggling; he's groping her. The camera moves to a sexy dark-haired white woman who, it appears to me, is adjusting a radio. 

Then the camera moves between some dancers to find this:
I wasn't totally sure that this woman to the right was one of the evil lesbians that are so common in this period (The Children's Hour would appear on Broadway one year later), but then we move a little closer:

Only one of them is having fun here. Look at how miserable the sweet young thing on the left is! She doesn't want to be here! If only she had listened to her mother and gone to church instead of this vice orgy. And the lesbian's grip now appears to be something more akin to coercion or assault. I will say, though, that I bless this actress who has been cast as the lesbian. Lesbianism in this period is almost always framed as predatory, frequently as vampiric. Further, the lesbian herself is often creepy, mysterious, mystical (mysticism is usually attendant to vampirism), and almost always older than her young, white, innocent prey. The dark cape is intended to convey this mysticism/darkness to us. She also has strange motley make-up around her left eye. But at least this lesbian is loving life, even as she physically assaults her unhappy victim.

And just so we don't leave out the gays – the camera moves to our next couple. You guessed it!

I'll just leave that there. It doesn't need any comment, and the film doesn't make one anyway, except to include this image in the "parade of horribles" that is supposed to represent the twentieth century's degeneracy. The film doesn't tell us who any of these queer people are, or where the party is, or anything like that. In fact, the people in this den of vice have no relationship with the other characters in the film. This sequence is supposed, instead, to be a brief portrait of the world in 1933 and of the overwhelming speed with which the twentieth century moves.

Honestly, it did move quickly. I get that. And technologies developed with increasing rapidity, and, well, it's all a little scary. I get, too, the kind of disaffection expressed by the song "Twentieth-century Blues": a feeling, perhaps, of emptiness or of soullessness. But to place the blame for that anomie with sex or dancing or jazz rather than with industrialization, the Great Depression, or the literal deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians in one of the deadliest conflicts the world has ever seen is a profoundly conservative gesture and one motivated by the ideology that blames sex for the world's problems instead of the collusion of militarism and industry. Cavalcade is, finally, a film that considers "good morality" the invasion of other countries in order to steal their natural resources and "bad morality" not going to church. Give me a break. We could make a long list of what was wrong with the twentieth century, but getting laid and going to parties won't be on there.