Om Shanti Om — Addendum
Don't know if there's anything to this but I found it interesting that Om Prakash was only able to achieve his goal of reaching a new level of society, a new class, through reincarnation. He had to be reborn into the upper strata. Hollywood films usually allow class-jumping to occur in a single lifetime. The original moguls of Hollywood, with their lower-class, eastern European origins, certainly understood this dynamic.
Also, when the villain, Mukesh Mehra, recognized the reincarnated Om as the original Om, and laughed because he knew Om's evidence, based upon his reincarnation, would never stand in a court of law, Om should've laughed back and said, “Don't you get it? I'm reincarnated. That means you're going to be reincarnated, too. And, given the way you've lived your life, what will you be reincarnated into? I don't care about the courts here but you should certainly care about the courts there.” Might've turned the movie into more than a reincarnation-revenge flick.
Om Shanti Om
The biggest distributor of Indian films, Eros International, recently announced a distribution deal with Lions Gate, in which Lions Gate will handle many of Eros’ films in the states. May they do as well. Last year Eros distributed 13 Indian films here, and, though 12 of the 13 never played on more than 100 screens at a time, seven still made over $1 million. Salaam-E-Ishq, which played for three weeks last January and February, still made more money ($1.7 million) than many U.S. films that played in six times as many theaters.
But their biggest success, in both the U.S. and abroad, not to mention back home in India, was Om Shanti Om. It played for five weeks in November and December and still made more money ($3.5 million) than Sony Classic’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Paramount’s Things We Lost in the Fire and Picturehouse’s Gracie, despite playing in a fracture of their total theaters (570 theaters vs. 2,674, 2,615 and 2,524 respectively). It nearly made as much money as Warner Bros.’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a good, atmospheric western with a huge international star (Brad Pitt) and a great supporting performance (Casey Affleck), which is just another of the many recent and shameful mishandlings by that studio. Remember Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?
Anyway, curious, I watched Om Shanti Om last night. It’s only my second Bollywood film and it made me wish I’d seen more. Not because the film was great, although it was fun, but because — besides being a reincarnation-revenge flick, a romance and a musical all rolled into one — the movie is, one suspects, an homage to the Bollywood of both the 1970s and today, and I had no point of reference. Jokes, both visual and verbal, flew by and I had no clue. Interesting situation to be in.
The plot? Get ready. Om Prakash (Shahrukh Khan), a “junior artiste” (extra?) in Bollywood in the 1970s, who wishes to be a “hero” (star?), falls in love with a true star, Shanti Priya (newcomer Deepika Padukone). After he rescues her from burning fields, they become friends; then he discovers she’s already married, secretly, to the producer Mukesh Mehra (Arjun Rampal), who, when he finds out she’s pregnant, leaves her in a burning building to die. (Somehow, public knowledge of the marriage/pregnancy will ruin both their careers.) Om tries to save her, dies, and is reincarnated. Thirty years later he’s what he always wanted to be — a movie star — but slowly he begins to realize who he was and how he died.
Shahrukh Khan, particularly in his first, more comedic self, reminds me a little of Jackie Chan, while Deepika Padukone is deeply deeply gorgeous. The film is silly, melodramatic and lavish in the way of Cinemascope films of the 1950s. Some of the songs I can't get out of my head, particularly “Dhoom Taana,” which you can see here, and which shows off nicely: 1) her beauty, 2) his comedic talents and 3) the whole Bollywood homage.
Web-head vs. Shell-head
Update on that Michael Cieply article. Two weeks ago he wrote that “As hot as ‘Iron Man’ is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year’s summer season kick-off movie, ‘Spider Man 3,’ by about 25 percent in the same time.”
Now it's about 16 percent. Iron Man is at $258 million while at this time last year Spider-Man 3 was at $307 million. And this isn't just the shortening shadow of percentages: Iron Man is also closing the gap in gross numbers. While Spider-Man 3 outperformed Iron Man during the first two weeks ($240M to $177M), Shell-head has outperformed Web-head during the next two weekends ($31 and $26M vs. $29 and $18M).
What's the point of this superhero horserace? Just this: In the long run, in some small way, quality matters. People seem to forget this when discussing movie box office.
Memorial Day weekend
This weekend, between moving down the hallway and going to a friend's dinner party on Saturday night, Patricia and I watched two films, both of which surprised.
The surprise in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was just how good Ethan Hawke was. I'd never been much of a fan. He always seemed a little too sure of himself without having reason to be. Here he goes opposite, playing a loser, a man without many choices left in life who nevertheless keeps choosing the wrong path. There's no even keel to his character. He's desperate in his sadness and desperate in his happiness: eyes a little too wide, smile a little too quick. There's nothing comfortable about him at all. I remember when the movie came out last fall but I don't remember Hawke getting much of a write-up. He deserved it. Great cast, of course (I'd watch Albert Finney anywhere, anytime), in a good, painful movie that loses a little something in the end.
The other surprise was less welcome. I assumed Le Souffle au coeur would be a good film — Louis Malle, coming-of-age, sex — but it was made in 1971 and it's set in 1954 and they do nothing nothing nothing to reflect this difference. The haircuts, the styles, the attitudes, all feel like 1971. The haircuts are floppy sixties haircuts, the rebellion has the anti-authority bent of the late 1960s. Seventeen-year gaps are pretty hard to bridge anyway but this one, from uptight to anarchic, close-cropped to free-flowing, is particularly wide. Wish I could've gotten past it but it bugged me every second I was watching.
On the other hand: What's interesting about the film is that it sets up a tension and keeps teasing you with it until you want that tension resolved. Even though the resolution is immoral. In this way it's a little like Paradise Now.
Time flies. Seems like only yesterday I was saying it was a great day to hate the New York Yankees and now it's five days later and they've won five in a row. They won close games and blow outs. They came from behind. Their record is now even (.500) and their run differential is now even (222-223). They're only five games back of the leader of the AL East, which is Tampa Bay, the feel-good story in baseball this year.
But I wouldn't feel too smug if I were a Yankees fan because most of this was accomplished on the backs of the Seattle Mariners, tthe worst team in the American League. By far. The Yankees have faced the M's six times this year and are 6-0 against them. They've scored 50 runs and given up 17. What success they appear to have is partially due to these six games. Without them, the Yankees would look pretty crappy. And, sure, you have to beat the bad teams with the good ones but if I were a Yankees fan here's what I'd worry about: The Yanks only have three more games against the M's this year. After that, they're on their own.
And if I were a Mariners fan — which I kind of am — what would I be worried about? That the firings will stop in the dugout and won't reach the front office: specifically Billy Bavasi and/or Howard Lincoln.
It's Sunday and I love George Packer
If you don't get The New Yorker — and you should: it's the best general interest magazine in a world where general interest magazines are dying — you should at least check out George Packer's article on the death of modern conservatism. Or possible death. To me, conservatives are like Jason in the "Friday the 13th" movies: I never truly believe they're dead; they always seem to come back in the next reel. Both also seem to feed off of fright. A highlight:
Buchanan gave me a copy of a seven-page confidential memorandum—“A little raw for today,” he warned—that he had written for Nixon in 1971, under the heading “Dividing the Democrats.” Drawn up with an acute understanding of the fragilities and fault lines in “the Old Roosevelt Coalition,” it recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”
The Nixon White House didn’t enact all of these recommendations, but it would be hard to find a more succinct and unapologetic blueprint for Republican success in the conservative era.
I also like this synopsis:
The fact that the least conservative, least divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing—despite being despised by significant voices on the right—shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces.
But for all the talk, back and forth, about the death of this and that, I still believe the success of modern conservatism is the direct result of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That's it. "We just lost the south for a generation," LBJ supposedly said upon signing the former, and he may have been optimistic. With the state of the economy, the state of the world, this should be the Democrats' year for the White House, but they are offering the unprecedented. Hell, not just the unprecedented. They are offering in direct form what the Republicans have been using for a generation, via code ("law and order") or symbol (Willie Horton), to beat the Democrats. What delicious irony if Barack Obama is what the Democrats need to finally beat the Republicans.
I don’t know about the rest of the season but this day anyway is a great day to hate the New York Yankees. Yeah, sure, everyday is a great day to hate the Yankees, but it’s been awhile since their woes have been so numerous: a 20-25 record, last place in their division by two games, out of first by 7 ½, and without the positive run differential they had last season that indicated they’d probably turn things around. (They did.) After yesterday’s 12-2 drubbing by the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees have now given up almost 30 more runs than they’ve scored.
I don’t know what’s better: that Mike Mussina got chased with only two outs in the first inning by a team who’s best hitter (Luke Scott) is batting .278, or that Mussina would’ve gotten out of the inning fairly unscathed — only one run — but for a Derek Jeter throwing error that set up a bases-loaded walk, a bases-clearing double, a run-scoring single and then a run-scoring triple. Highlights please.
That bases-clearing double, by the way, came from former Mariners prospect Adam Jones, who’s having a pretty good season with the O’s. Meanwhile, several publciations have run articles on Jason Veritek, the Red Sox catcher, who just caught his record-breaking fourth no-hitter on Monday, and who, once upon a time, had been a Mariners prospect as well. In other words, it may be a good day to hate the Yankees, but it's still not a good day to be a Mariners fan.
Quick Quiz: Baseball
Name the five active pitchers with the most career wins.
I was checking out the numbers recently at baseball-reference.com. Greg Maddux just got his 350th career victory, so there’s been a lot of talk lately about his place in history, and, indeed, if you look at the guys ahead of him, it’s rarefied company:
- Cy Young: 511
- Walter Johnson: 417
- Christy Mathewson: 373
- Grover Cleveland Alexander: 373
- Pud Gavin: 364
- Warren Spahn: 363
- Kid Nichols: 361
- Roger Clemens:
- Greg Maddux: 350
Once Maddux passes Clemens, the only pitchers ahead of him, chronologically, are two from the 19th century (Nichols and Galvin), a pitcher who straddled the centuries (Young), the three greatest pitchers from the early days of modern baseball (Johnson, Mathewson and Alexander), and one, from the middle of the century, who kept pitching and pitching and pitching (Spahn), and who, lest we forget, still retired over 40 years ago.
So I wondered “After Maddux, who?” and scrolled down.
I found the usual suspects: Tom Glavine at 304, Randy Johnson at 288, Mike Mussina at 256. Mussina, at 39, is having a good year. Could he make it to 300?
The next guy on the list is the name that blew me away: Jamie Moyer at 233.
Moyer pitched for the Seattle Mariners most of his career, and, back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, I wrote the player profiles for The Grand Salami, an alternative fan publication in Seattle. Here’s something I wrote about Jamie in June 2001:
When Jamie Moyer wins his 10th game this season he'll pass Mark Langston for second on the all-time Mariner win list with 75. If there's one thing Jamie Moyer knows how to do, it's win games. Since he arrived in our evergreen state in the middle of the 1996 season he's gone 6-2, 17-5, 15-9, 14-8, and 13-10. Even this season, with his strikeout-walk ratio a not-so-hot 23-14, and his ERA an unhealthy 5.28, and the ball flying out of the yard at an alarming rate (11 dingers in 44+ innings pitched), he's still standing tall at 6-1. Which is fine, but we fear some of the other numbers might catch up to him. Has he healed completely from his shoulder injury last April? Is it age? He still worries us. As for becoming the winningest pitcher in Mariner history, well, that'll take some work yet: Randy Johnson holds the mark with 130.
Sure, I may have written that Moyer knows how to win games, but, you can tell, I didn’t think he had a chance at RJ’s mark. Yet, in 2005, when I was living in Minneapolis, he passed it. Halfway through the 2006 season he was traded to the Phillies. He’s still there. He's still winning games with his smarts and that tantalizing change-up.
But fifth on the active list? Here's what's so incredible. By the time Jamie turned 30, which is generally midpoint in a pitcher's career, he’d notched only 34 career wins and was being groomed for a coaching job. Only he thought he still had something left.
Apparently he did: 200 more wins.
Why is the New York Times encouraging Hollywood's myopia?
When I began reading Michael Cieply’s article in yesterday’s New York Times, “For Movies, A Summer That’s Shy on Sequels,” this was my main thought: “What’s the point?”
A year ago, the headline would’ve read, “For Movies, A Summer That’s Full of Sequels,” which, it turns out, is exactly their point. Last summer, three sequels (Spider-Man, Shrek and Pirates) and one movie based on a toy/TV show (Transformers) each took in over $300 million at the domestic box office, leading to one of Hollywood’s best summers. This summer, insiders believe only Raiders can reach the $300 million mark. They’re bracing for an off-summer.
Even so: What’s the point? Or better: How is this news? It’s prognostication. It’s a kind of vague economic hand-wringing over something that hasn’t occurred. Cieply uses the conditional or tentative form of “could” five times in a pretty short article. He uses “may” five times. He writes:
- “…that could be a problem for an industry that has done well lately by peddling the familiar.”
- “‘Hancock’...could match [Will Smith’s] recent hit ‘I Am Legend,’ and still fall short of the $319 million in ticket sales for ‘Transformers’…”
- “‘Kung Fu Panda,’ from DreamWorks Animation, could do as well as ‘Madagascar’…”
- “[‘Sex and the City’] could become a hit on the order, of, say, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’…”
- “With a little luck and a few crowd pleasers, the business could look good, by comparison, at year’s end.”
With all the rules the New York Times has in its style guide, you’d think they’d have some limits on conditionals or hypotheticals in a non-Op-Ed article.
Still, if you're going to write about this kind of non-news, at least be imaginative with your use of box office stats. Cieply isn't. He writes: “As hot as ‘Iron Man’ is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year’s summer season kick-off movie, ‘Spider Man 3,’ by about 25 percent in the same time.”
Well, of course. Spider-Man 3 set a box office record, grossing over $150 million in its opening weekend. But if you keep following the stats you’ll find that Spider-Man 3’s take the following weekend dropped by 61.5 percent while Iron Man’s dropped by only 48.1 percent. You’ll find that while no movie was faster than Spider-Man 3 to the $100 million mark, three movies were faster to the $200 million mark and five movies were faster to the $300 million mark. You’ll also find that of all the Spider-Man movies, the third grossed the least. Even with inflation.
Similarly, of the other two big sequels last summer — Shrek 3 and Pirates 3 — each grossed $100 million less than their previous sequel.
In other words, for all of their supposed success last summer, these films really weren’t that successful. It was summer, people went to see them, but... They didn’t keep returning. On IMDb.com, each film has the lowest user rating in its series. In the long run, they probably weren’t good for the business.
I know: “the long run.” Something Hollywood doesn’t pay much attention to. But why does the New York Times, the paper of record, have to share, even encourage, their myopia?
The Ten-Cent Plague and the ebb and flow of culture
Hajdu’s also adept at our cultural ebb and flow: how and why the focus of comic books became superheroes, then crime, then romance, then horror, then Mad and all of its imitators; how comic books nearly went down in flames in 1954 after often going up in flames in comic-book burnings in isolated spots around the country in the late 1940s.
The general historical overview of this period tends to focus on Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent, and Hadju shows not only how Wertham was deeper — he opened the first mental health clinic, the Lafargue Clinic, in Harlem — but how the scare went wider, encompassing the rise of juvenile delinquency as far back as the early 1940s. Comic books were an easy scapegoat, the quick fix we’re forever looking for. Even if delinquency wasn’t necessarily on the rise, our concern about it was. One of my favorite bits, from pg. 213:
In the spring of 1953, juvenile crime showed no signs of worsening: to the contrary, on April 16, a headline in The New York Times announced “Youth Delinquency Down”...Eleven days later, the United States Senate approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the causes and effects of juvenile delinquency...Those televised subcommittee hearings seem a staple of the 1950s — Army-McCarthy, etc. — but what I didn’t know, what Hajdu lets me know, was how popular they were. Sen. Estes Kerfauver’s earlier hearings on organized crime, which traveled around the country, from New Orleans to Detroit to St. Louis and onto the west coast, before landing in New York in March 1951, produced gigantic ratings for the period:
Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings — seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television... Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens... Homemakers had “Kefauver parties”...Several schools dismissed students early so they could watch the hearings at home...I’m reminded of the discussion here a few months back on the fragmentation of our society and our current lack of a national meeting place; these hearings were obviously one such place. I’m also impressed that there was a time when Americans would rather be informed than entertained — or, at least, they found information, this information anyway, entertaining. Not sure how our culture flowed away from that dynamic.
El Orfanato and the power of women
I keep going back to that Manohla Dargis article from last Sunday’s NY Times. Sure, she conflates two issues — “Where are the women in movies?” and “Why are the women in movies so unrepresentative?” — but her complaints raise a good question. The unrepresentative man, the fantasy man, in popcorn movies is the superstrong man — Iron Man, Batman, the Hulk — because power for men manifests itself in physical strength. But what’s power for women? How does that manifest itself?
You could argue sex appeal. It’s why women in those aspirational comedies Ms. Dargis dislikes (Legally Blonde, Pretty Woman) get their hair and nails done: they’re strapping up for battle. But there’s another, more obvious answer, and I didn’t think of it until I watched El Orfanato (The Orphanage) the other night.
The Orphanage, directed by first-time director Juan Antonio Boyano, is a beautiful Spanish horror film that’s super-spooky in the way of The Others and The Changeling: not a lot of gore, just a lot of creep. Laura (Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) are raising their adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep), in the orphanage where Laura grew up, and where she plans to open a school for children with special needs. On the very day they’re opening the school, Laura fights with her son, slaps him (she’s horrified with herself before the slap is even through), and he runs away. Or disappears. Or... It’s a horror film. Anything’s possible.
Earlier, he and his mother had a conversation about Peter Pan, which references his imaginary friends. (Exactly: Beware any imaginary friends in a horror story.) It’s a great conversation in that it feels like a real mother-son conversation — both for what she says and what she avoids saying — while it encompasses most of the themes of the movie. In fact, it prefigures the rest of the movie. And it creeps you out:
Simon: Wendy grows old and dies?
Laura: Wendy grows old but Peter Pan takes her daughter to Neverland every year.
Simon: Why doesn’t Wendy go, too?
Simon: If Peter Pan came to get me, would you come, too?
Laura: No, I’m too old to go to Neverland, darling.
Simon: How old are you?
Simon: When will you die?
Laura: What kind of question is that? Not for a long time, until you’re very old.
Simon: I won’t grow old. I’m not going to grow up.
Laura: Will you be like Peter Pan?
Simon (smiles): Like my new friends.
Laura: There’s more than one?
Laura: They won’t grow up either?
Simon: They can’t.
Months after Simon’s disappearance the police are clueless, the husband is helpless (he’s got the thankless Joseph role — not even contributing his seed) and Laura is more desperate than ever. Eventually she consults a kind of seer, Aurora, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who tells her, among other things, “My dear, you are a good mother. Your pain gives you strength. It will guide you. But only you know how far you are willing to go to find your son.”
That’s when I began to think of the Dargis article again. What is a woman’s power? Her strength?
It’s not very 21st century to say this, but... What’s the most fierce animal in the animal kingdom? Isn’t it a momma bear whose cubs are threatened? And who is the most successful action heroine in movie history? Isn’t it Lt. Ripley in Aliens, with a big gun in one arm and a little girl in the other? One matriarch battling another matriarch. You could say The Orphanage is also a battle between two matriarchs.
A man gets super powers and does what? Protects society. These guys are usually single and childless and protect society against all the baddies. Attempts to slip women into this formula have been critical and box-office disasters. Nice girls like Supergirl and vixens like Elektra and Catwoman just come off as dopey. Maybe, deep down, we just don’t think it’s the job of women to protect society.
But a mother whose children are threatened? She doesn’t even need super powers. As in The Orphanage, her pain is her strength.
It’s just a happy coincidence, by the way, that this is being posted on Mother’s Day. Have a good one.
Movie Review: Sansho Dayu (1954)
Early in Sansho the Bailiff, which is filmed so beautifully and hauntingly that it feels like a ghost, Zushio, the 14-year-old son of an exiled governor in the late Heian period of Japan (794-1192), walks and plays through the forests, leading his mother, sister and servant as the four head to Tsukushi to join their father after many years apart. The father was exiled to Tsukushi because he refused a superior’s demands for greater taxes on the peasants, and for more peasants to fight his wars. The father was a benevolent governor, and as his son, Zushio, walks through the woods, he recalls his father’s wisdom: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” Some combination of the boy’s youth, solemnity, and the woods made me think: Mercy, by its nature, is a quality of the privileged — the powerless cannot grant it, only the powerful — and Zushio, a boy leading women through woods, is not powerful. He thinks he can grant what is no longer his to grant.
Indeed. The four, en route, are betrayed, separated and sold into slavery — the mother as a courtesan on the island of Sado, the children to Sansho the Bailiff, a domineering lord and the richest man in Tango. The world, a beast, is without mercy. Even the sympathetic son of Sansho, Taro, who cannot bear to brand with a hot iron the foreheads of runaway slaves, can do little to help the two children.
Ten years pass. Zushio grows to be not brutal but pragmatic. He forgets his father’s lessons — which caused the family nothing but harm — and is able, without much concern, to brand the runaway slaves for Sansho. His sister, Anju, is appalled by what he’s become. Without mercy he is a beast — in that he acts without thought. But a momentary reminder of happier times re-awakens him and he escapes to a temple, where he encounters Taro, now a monk, who shields him from slavehunters. Zushio plans to go to Kyoto to attempt to right the wrongs done to his family. Taro attempted the same on his behalf years earlier and warns him: “I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don’t directly concern them.”
At first Zushio’s supplicating petitition doesn’t go well — the chief advisor to the emperor doesn’t even listen to him — and he’s tossed in jail. A keepsake of his father’s, which he kept all those years as a slave, is taken from him, and here I thought, “The world will take everything, piece by piece, until he has nothing.” But the opposite occurs: The keepsake is recognized, and he is recognized as the son of a former governor and reinstated to his rightful position in the world. He becomes governor. Now the big question. Would he remember his father’s lessons? Or would he guard his position, knowing how tenuous it is, at all costs? Would he become merciful, pragmatic or cruel?
At one point Taro says to Zushio that “Unless [ruthless] hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot be true,” and an argument can be made that this film, by breaking our hearts, is an attempt to change our hearts. But it’s also more ambiguous. Early on, an uncle chastises the father for his benevolence, and the two have the following exchange:
Uncle: You’ve caused pain for your family.
Father: The peasants are in pain, too.
Uncle: Nonsense! You can’t compare us to peasants!
The father’s quality of mercy is profound, Christ-like, evolved, but, given what happens, you wonder how evolved a man can be in our world. How can anyone be for all mankind? Mustn’t your loyalties lie with a smaller group? Father and uncle, above, are simply arguing over the size of the group, and most of us, even in this more benevolent age, would side with the uncle. Hell, most of us are loyal to an even smaller group: a group of one.
The text at the beginning of the film tells us that this tale is from a time “when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings,” and we can argue forever on how, or if, we have awakened as human beings, but at least there’s this. The first words we hear are probably more relevant today. A mother’s voice to her child: “Zushio, be careful.”
It's Sunday and I'm a little disappointed in Manohla Dargis
The questions Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott ask on page 3 of the New York Times Summer Movies section — respectively, “Where are the women in movies?” and “Why are the men in movies just overgrown boys?” — are answered on page 6 of the New York Times Summer Movies section. Michel Cieply writes, not very interestingly, about Hancock, a movie about a bum of a superhero, a guy with superpowers who drinks too much and crashes on park benches and goes to prison. The movie stars Will Smith and opens July 4th weekend and the studio is nervous because the subject matter is considered edgy. They feel like they’re breaking the box. That’s what writer-producer Akiva Goldsmith says in the article’s last line. “Everybody knows that you want to break the box. It’s just that the act of breaking the box is really frightening.”
So if a summer movie starring Will Smith as a superhero is considered “breaking the box,” what chances do movies about real women and men have?
To be honest, I was a little disappointed in Ms. Dargis. She’s sharp but this time she conflates two issues: “Where are the women?” and “Why are the few women here so unrepresentative?” The first issue is true and undisputed: the second isn’t limited by gender, as A.O. Scott’s article shows. Hell, the photo accompanying her article shows it, too. It’s the Incredible Hulk in low growl. Ms. Dargis complains that the new Anna Faris movie, The House Bunny, about a Playboy Bunny kicked out of the Playboy Mansion because, at 27, she’s too old, will be another Legally Blonde: “...one of those aspirational comedies in which women empower themselves by havng their hair and nails done.” I looked at that line, looked at the Hulk again, and wondered, “And how are boys empowering themselves? What is their fantasy?"
The issue of representation onscreen is a sticky one. Most of what we see onscreen is some combination of identification and wish-fulfillment. Action movies tend to be mostly wish-fulfillment, comedies mostly identification. Or are comedies anti-wish-fulfillment? You feel superior to the main characters: the 40-year-old virgin; the chubby slacker living with his loser stoner-friends; the chubby schlub who can’t stop crying. You see some possible version of yourself and think, “There but for the grace of God...” But there’s still wish-fulfillment, because these guys get girls they couldn’t possibly get: Katherine Heigl and Catherine Keener and Mila Kunis.
Men aren’t hard to figure out. We thrill at super versions of ourselves and laugh at lame versions of ourselves and in either version we get the girl.
As for women? Who is their identification and what is their wish-fulfillment?
Answer these questions and you’ll render Ms. Dargis’ first question moot.
Nuit et Brouillard (1955)
A few years ago somebody urged Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) on me and I finally got around to it. Now I’m urging it on you.
It’s a 31-minute, 1955 French documentary on the Holocaust — one of the first — and it intersperses black-and-white footage of the Nazi era with color footage of the then-present day. We see, for example, those familiar shots of Jewish citizens being loaded into cattle cars for the camps; then we cut to those same railroad tracks in 1955. They look unused, grass grows in patches, and Michel Bouquet, the narrator, intones (in French), “The sun shines. We go slowly along them. Looking for what?” Footage of Himmler and the crematoriums leads to the empty camps of 1955. “A crematorium from the outside can look like a picture postcard,” Bouquet says. “Today tourists have their snapshots taken in front of them.”
The 1955 color footage is still bleak. The sky is overcast and autumnal, the grass sparse, the people… You quickly realize there are no people. Not one person is shown in the present day. All empty.
The narration, beautifully understated and matter-of-fact, was written by poet Jean Cayrol, a resistance fighter who was betrayed, arrested and sent to Gusen concentration camp in 1943, where he nearly died:
A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or hotel is built, with businessmen, estimates, competitive bids, and no doubt a bribe or two... Architects calmly designed the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Berger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away. One day their quarters are finished. All that’s missing is them.
How many books have I read now, movies and documentaries and mini-series seen, about the Holocaust? I should be inured. Yet it still has the power to horrify. Lessons are still imparted. Art Spiegelman’s Maus made me realize I never would have survived it, while Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz taught me that the system was set up for you not to survive it — i.e., follow the rules, do the work they tell you, eat what they give you, and you die. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist reinforced the sudden, by-the-way violence and degradation of it all without even getting into the camps.
And Nuit et Brouillard? In some ways the world recoiled from the Holocaust because they saw their own anti-Semitism taken to its logical extreme. Each of the Allies had its fascist, anti-Semitic wing. The Nazis just kept going.
But in Night and Fog I felt something else being taken to its logical extreme — and, unlike anti-Semitism, it’s something generally viewed positively. It’s heard in the above narration about competitive bids. It’s in Himmler’s line in 1942 when he told the camp commanders, “We must destroy, but productively.” You see it in the piles of eyeglasses and combs, of shaving brushes and shoes, and in that infamous, impossible pile of human hair. The hair becomes cloth, we are told, and the camera focuses on a rolled-up version of same, with stray threads resembling stray hairs. The animate has become inanimate.
“From the bones, fertilizer,” Bouquet tells us. “From the bodies, they make soap. As for the skin…?” Cut to: sheets of paper.
It’s the production line. It’s human resources taken to its final solution. After we strip you of your identity, your individuality, your personality, after we work what’s left until it can hardly work, what else? How much can we take from you? The answer is everything.
I already knew the assembly-line aspect of the Holocaust — truly, it’s what distinguishes this particular horror from the many horrors of human history — but Nuit et Brouillard made me feel it on a deeper level.
Something else you take away from this documentary: a sense of the arbitrariness of borders. Out there you can be a person, but in here, no. The 1955 footage accentuates this disconnect because the arbitrary borders of the Nazis have disappeared with the Nazis. Now we can film along the tracks that once transported us. Now we can film outside the camps that once held us. There’s been no horror like the Holocaust, but other horrors continue; and other borders, just as arbitrary, dehumanize the people within.