Legacy of Something
I've been reading Tim Weiner's book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA while on vacation in Vietnam (I know) and the big takeaway, for me, 100 pages in, reflecting the first 10 years of the agency's history, is this:
We were never as weak as we feared. Our enemies were never as strong as we feared. Our big mistake was our fear. It made us adopt a policy, chosen mostly in secret by a handful of men, that runs counter to an open democracy and that played to the strengths of our enemies: covert operations. They were better at this than we were because they lived in a closed, controlled society. We didn't fight from our strength but from our weakness. We tried to beat our enemy by becoming like our enemy, and in the process we weakened ourselves and strengthened them. And the only thing worse than our countless, bumbling failures was our few successes--not least because of the long-term consequences. Guatemala in 1954 became the blueprint for the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Iran in 1953 led to the Ayatollah in 1979... which led... which led...
And the press, in the golden age of journalism, was nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, today, the argument that we are weak, and that we need to become like our enemy to defeat our enemy, continues.
- Louie Psihoyos, the director of the Academy-Award-winning documentary, "The Cove," didn't get his 15 seconds on Oscar night—he didn't get any seconds—so here's what he would've said.
- Patrick Goldstein gives us a Hollywood ending to a Hollywood movie, "The Perfect Game," about Mexican little leaguers in 1957. It took two years but it's finally getting distributed, in April, to 500+ theaters. By Lionsgate. (And if you're keeping track, Summit has expanded Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" to 224 theaters, or less than 1/10th the theaters of "Sorority Row" or "Sex Drive.")
- But whatever you do, don't watch these films on your effin' phone! A public service annoucement from David Lynch.
- The 15th annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Series began in New York March 11th and runs through the 21st. Via The New York Times, here's a slideshow of 10 of the 20 features. And here's Stephen Holden's take. He's big on Lucas Belvaux's "Rapt."
- I'm not a Catholic, I'm a fundamentalist agnostic, but this clip of Andrew Sullivan, who is Catholic, and homosexual, speaking at Princeton University on the subject of gay marriage, is beautiful. He speaks from the heart, and with humor and honesty, about what it means to to be in love, and married, and above all what it means to be human.
- Finally, less than a week from the vernal equinox, here's Garrison Keillor, waxing, as only he can wax, about the tail-end of a Minnesota winter, the joys of public financing, and the stink some animals leave behind. I love his populism, and his adjectives, and the fact that he mentions in passing, to a national audience, "the statue of Killebrew," without further explanation. To which I add: 573 home runs during a pitcher's era. It makes me want to be in Minnesota this summer and take in a game with my father, and brothers, and nephews. But the quote I'll leave you with is how he begins. I think it's true and easily lost by both the left and right in our reductive culture. It's spring. Play ball.
We have a good guy in the White House, a smart man of judicious temperament and profound ideals, a man with a sweet private life, a man of dignity and good humor, whose enemies, waving their hairy arms and legs, woofing, yelling absurdities, only make him look taller. Washington, being a company town, feasts on gossip, but I think the Democratic Party, skittish as it is, full of happy blather, somehow has brought forth a champion. This should please anyone who loves this country, and as for the others, let them chew on carpets and get what nourishment they can.
I got this around 1970, the year after he won the AL MVP,
the year before he hit his 500th homerun.
Review: “Green Zone” (2010)
WARNING: SMD (SPOILERS OF MASS DESTRUCTION)
Because “Green Zone” is set in Baghdad in March, April and probably May of 2003, and that’s gonna be a sore subject for a while, we have to ask the question we don’t normally ask of an action-adventure movie: What does it get right?
Well, the U.S. Army can’t find WMD. That's a start. Various American agencies are working against each other rather than with each other. The press is duped by an unmentioned high-ranking official (Cheney!), while an unseen Paul Bremer disastrously disbands the Iraqi Army and more-or-less starts the Iraqi insurgency. Finally, it’s suggested that officials in D.C. believed the false intelligence about WMD because they wanted to believe the false intelligence about WMD; because they wanted war.
That’s not bad.
What does it get wrong? It doesn’t suggest this last item forcefully enough. It also implies a lowly Pentagon official was the source of the false intelligence. Basically it implies that a few bad apples spoiled the whole bunch, girl. I tend to agree. But my bad apples were cabinet officers and vice-presidents and presidents. “Green Zone” tries to avoid being overtly political, but you can’t do this shit without being overtly political.
Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, an Army captain whose team is sniffing for WMD a month after shock-and-awe, and at the start he’s perplexed, genuinely perplexed, that the intel he’s getting is leading to pigeon shit and toilet parts. He brings it up at a meeting, but is assured by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a Pentagon special intelligence officer, that the new intel is solid and current. Afterwards, a CIA officer, Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, doing a sometime-Chicago accent), buttonholes Miller. “Something’s wrong here and we’ve got to find out what it is,” Brown says.
At the next WMD site, Miller’s team is digging purposeless holes in the ground when a limping Iraqi named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla of “The Kite Runner”) tries to get through with real intel and has a knee put to his neck. But Miller reluctantly listens, then forcefully acts, and in the process gets a glimpse of a fleeing Iraqi general, Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, Saddam Hussein in “House of Saddam”), who, in those playing cards developed by the U.S. military, is the Jack of Clubs. He gets away, but Miller and company capture his assistant, Seyyed Hamza (Said Faraj), along with a small black book filled with safe-house locations. They’re just about to turn Hamza when special forces, led by the mustachioed Briggs (Jason Isaacs, Lucius Malfoy himself), swoop in, black-hood Hamza and take him away. They would’ve taken the notebook, too, if Miller, in the middle of getting his nose bloodied by Briggs, hadn’t planted it on Freddy, who flees. “Why are you running!” Miller demands when he catches up to him. “Why are you chasing me!” Freddy demands back. Freddy’s limp turns out to be the result of a prosthetic limb. “My leg is in Iran,” he says. “Since 1987.” He insists that Miller trust him. “Whatever you want here,” he says, “I want it more.” All good lines.
Because of its time and place, parts of “Green Zone” are inevitably roman a clef—or, I suppose, film a clef. Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a reporter who adds little besides hand-wringing over her pre-war WMD coverage, is obviously Judith Miller. An Iraqi politican returning to Baghdad to mostly U.S. fanfare is obviously Ahmed Chalabi. Since much of Dayne’s bad intel came from someone code-named “Magellan,” I immediately assumed Magellan was this Chalabi-type pol, since Chalabi himself, once dubbed the “George Washington of Iraq” by the neocons, was the source of so much of our bad pre-war intel.
Nope. Magellan is Gen. Al Rawi, who met with Poundstone in February 2003 in Jordan, and told him Iraq had no WMD, no programs. They’d dismantled everything in 1991.
And Poundstone went back to D.C. and lied about it.
Now Poundstone, via Briggs, wants to kill Al Rawi to cover this up. And so it’s a race between the two men, Briggs and Miller, to see who can get to Al Rawi first. Miller wins, but from a disadvantaged position. “Why are you here?” Al Rawi asks Miller, who’s tied to a chair. “I came to bring you in,” Miller says straight-faced. After Miller informs him that Poundstone lied to everyone about the meeting in Jordan, Al Rawi dismisses the excuse. “You’ve got to want to believe the lie, Mr. Miller,” he says.
This is a great line, a necessary line, but the film still lays too much blame at the feet of Poundstone. He lies, so we go to war. He covers up, so we get an insurgency. If it weren’t for little Greg Kinnear, the movie implies, the Bush years might not have been so bad.
And what’s with the leap in logic? So in February 2003 Al Rawi tells Poundstone there aren’t any WMD. Why, from that, assume Poundstone lied to officials in D.C.? Why not assume that Poundstone reported these very facts to his superiors, who decided not to believe in them or act on them? And why would they believe in them? Al Rawi tells them, just as they’re about to invade his country, that the reason they’re about to invade his country doesn’t exist. I’d have trouble believing him, too.
“Green Zone” makes it all about the conspiracy, all about the lie, but the problem isn’t the lie; it’s believing the facts you want to believe until they become the lie. The problem isn’t a cover-up; it’s the self-delusion and gross incompetence that make a cover-up necessary. Conspiracies generally aren’t born fully-formed and armed like Athena from the head of Zeus. They need time to mature.
Some critics have called the film “The Bourne Zone,” because it shares star and director and shaky camera movements with that series, but this is a misreading. Jason Bourne is three steps ahead of everyone. Roy Miller is three steps behind even us. He spends half the movie realizing what we know going in. Plus he gets his ass kicked in his one fight. This is not wish-fulfillment, kids. This is Iraq.
More verisimiltude. Director Paul Greengrass has real U.S. soldiers play U.S. soldiers, he gives us chilling hints of Abu Ghraib, and he doesn’t use the Iraqis merely for background music. Several Iraqis come to the forefront as main characters. In the end, Freddy gives Miller, and by extension us, the lesson every American generation apparently needs to re-learn. “It isn’t for you to decide what happens here,” he says. Not bad for an action-adventure movie.
Final thought: Since most of the movie takes place outside the green zone, why call it “Green Zone”? A possible answer, possibly in the source material—Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone”—is the idea that the green zone isn't just a location but a state of mind. It’s the safe place you go when unpleasant facts and realities become overwhelming; where you believe what you want to believe. Many Americans spent the eight years of the Bush administration there. Many haven’t left.
And Thus was the Taliban Created
"Smuggling narcotics [in Afghanistan in the spring of 1994] was just one among many criminal endeavors pursued by the warlords, whose entrepreneurial instincts had them constantly looking for ways to expand their sources of revenue. So-called checkpoints, for instance, sprouted like noxious weeds along every road in Afghanistan. The major thoroughfares—especially Highway A1, which formed a giant loop around the entire nation to link its principal cities—were plagued by hundreds if not thousands of such checkpoints, typically consisting of a chain or a log pulled across the road, attended by three or four bearded men brandishing AK-47s. Every time a trucker, farmer, or other traveler encountered one of these roadblocks, he would be asked at gunpoint to pay a 'road tax.' Refusal was not an option. Women were sometimes raped.
"Sanghisar is linked to Highway A1 via a two-mile maze of crude dirt lanes. After the junction with the paved highway, 23 additional miles of potholed macadam lead east to Kandahar City—the provincial capital and second-largest city in Afghanistan. In 1994, during a routine trip to Kandahar, Mullah Omar was stopped and shaken down for cash at five different checkpoints on this one short stretch of highway, which made him so angry that he organized a tribal council—a jirga—of more than 50 mullahs to eradicate the roadblocks and halt the extortion.
"The religious leaders decided to start small by pooling their weapons, forming a militia of their own, and forcefully removing a single checkpoint—the one nearest to Sanghisar. It was taken for granted that blood would be spilled, but they believed their cause was righteous and saw no other option, in any case. On the appointed day they approached the checkpoint warily with their rifles locked and loaded, prepared for a firefight, but as they drew near, a surprising thing happened: the hooligans manning the checkpoint fled without firing a shot. Encouraged, the mullahs turned their attention to the next checkpoint several miles down the road, and the outcome was similar. Before the week was out, they succeeded in removing every roadblock between Sanghisar and Kandahar. And thus was the Taliban created. The name—a Pashto word meanign "students of Islam"—was bestowed by Omar."
—from Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," pp. 48-49
Quote of the Day
“Freedom is moot if you waste it. If the internet is really destined to be no more than an ancillary medium, which I would view as a profound defeat, then it at least ought to do whatever it can not to bite the hand that feeds it—that is, it shouldn't starve the commercial media industries.”
—Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget”
Box Office Stat of the Day: Average Weekly Movie Attendance for the Last 100 Years
Via George Lucas's Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success: How much we loved movies (or not) in the first year of every decade:
|Year||U.S. Pop.*||Avg. Movie Att. (Weekly)**|
* in millions
I believe Edward Jay Epstein, in his book The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, said '46 or '47 was the big year in terms of weekly movie attendance. 95 million? Something like that? After the war people wanted to do nothing so much as go into a dark theater for 90 minutes. Similar to 1930, though, on this chart.
What's surprising is the reversal since George Lucas' 1970s. I didn't know that. As a percentage of population, weekly attendance hasn't risen much, going from 8% in 1970 to 9% in 2000. But percentage of populaton shouldn't matter as much as asses in the seats, which, despite TV and VHS and video games, has risen 62%. And that's not the volume of our asses, either. Plus, these are merely domestic figures. Imagine the global numbers.
- If you're in the Twin Cities today through Sunday, the Heights Theater, a beautifully refurbished 1920s theater in northeast Minneapolis, and one of my favorite theaters in the entire freakin' world, is hosting the Sixth Annual Arab Film Festival, with documentaries, comedies, etc. Here's a Star-Tribune piece on the festival by Erik McClanahan. No relation. If I were there (Mpls.), I'd be there (Heights).
- Obama's health care speech at a university in... Georgia? I love his aside about “when you hit 48... and things start breaking down...” From this 47-year-old: Amen, brother. As Sully says, start watching the clip at 9:30.
- I'm a long-time fan of Loudon Wainwright III so this video, via the New Yorker site, was fun: Wainwright singing “The Paul Krugman Blues.”
- Almost every Alfred Hitchock cameo in this 3:49 video homage.
- Nice thoughts from Alec Baldwin on hosting the Oscars.
- But the Academy didn't do anything in their three hours that demonstrated as much love for movies as Matt Shapiro does, in just over 4 minutes, in his 2009: The Cinemascape. And the kid's 17! Third time I've posted it, 20th time I've watched it.
- I don't know if I have 1,000 essential anythings, but here's a list from Bill White, late of the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer, on the 1,000 essential movies. It's an eclectic list. A personal list. No “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, for example. And he doesn't have half of my top 10 list: no “The Insider” or “All the President's Men” or... really?... no “The Godfather” or “Casbalanca” or “The Third Man”? But he does have “Watchmen” and “Julie and Julia” from last year???? Wow. I was going to say, “It's just a list, concentrate on what you have in common, not what you don't,” but... man, that is fucked.
- This photo from Baseball Researcher on a swastika-wearing Rabbit Maranville, circa 1914, reminded me of the 1931 James Cagney movie, “Blonde Crazy,” where a grifter-pal of Cagney's has a gig selling swastika charms. By the way: Baseball Researcher aptly named himself. Nice work on this post.
- The other day Peter Schmuck of The Baltimore Sun wrote a column about the unfairness of the imbalanced Major League Baseball schedule, particularly from the standpoint of the O's, J's and Rays, who have to play those money-laden monstrosities, the Yankees and Red Sox, a buttload of times. It's a good point. To which Rob Neyer, from whom I got the original article, more or less yawns. Major League Baseball has some major league problems, which I reiterated last November, and that they're seemingly intractable is no excuse not to address them, as Neyer, with one of the best baseball bully-pulpits on the Web, is not. It's the very reason to address them. Otherwise it's like writing about movies and not caring how studios distribute movies.
- Speaking of: I was recently introduced to Patrick Pacheco, a freelance writer out of New York, who has written a documentary, “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” about how the Disney animation studios turned themselves around in the years 1984 to 1994, that will get a limited released this month in four cities: New York, L.A., Chicago and San Francisco. Apparently those are the only four cities that care about animation. Hope Disney, which is distributing the doc, goes a little wider. Here's the trailer.
- Finally, via everyone's favorite uncle, Vinny, I present this Ted Rall cartoon that he's had on his refrigerator since the Bush tax cuts of 2001. To upend a cliche: It would be funny if it weren't true.
Quote of the Day
“Politically, these issues are poisonous. That’s what Rahm Emanuel is looking at. [But] you can’t finesse it, and you can’t spin it. The President just has to lead the American people away from fear.”
—Elisa Massimino, the president of Human Rights First, on civilian trials vs. military tribunals, Guantanamo, and what kind of war is the War on Terror, in Jane Mayer's New Yorker article, "The Trial: Eric Holder and the battle over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."
- The New York Times gives equal weight to all sides by letting five lawyers, including Andrew McCarthy, who led the prosecution in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and is now legal affairs editor of The National Review, have their say.
- Jon Stewart spars with conservative columnist and former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen on "The Daily Show."
- Scott Horton is less kind to Thiessen in this Harper's column.
- A letter from conservative lawyers, such as Ken Starr, coming to the defense of Dept. of Justice lawyers against the attacks of Liz Cheney's organization "Keep America Safe."
Three things about The New York Times post-Oscars article
Three things about The New York Times post-Oscars article: "Academy Smiles with Both Faces."
Missing for many industry insiders was the organic sense of drama that came with past shows in which a popular film like “Titanic” or “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” built to a climax by picking up prize after prize — or when “The Aviator” built momentum through the minor awards in 2005, only to see the major Oscars slip away as "Crash" claimed the top prize. In those shows the awards actually were the entertainment.
This obviously confuses 2004 ("Aviator") with 2005 ("Crash"), or 2005 with 2006, depending on how you're scoring. It's since been corrected online but it went out in the print edition and it highlights what's wrong with the sentiment. There's rarely any kind of entertainment in the awards themselves. There may be surprises and shocks and disgust but not entertainment. What is this asking anyway? That the giving of awards be constructed as well as a play or movie? That's absurd.
By contrast, Sunday’s entertainment value was in many ways grafted on in a process that could seem vaguely dishonest at times. If “Up in the Air” was so worthy of monologue attention, why was it snubbed in all six categories in which it was nominated?
This is similarly absurd. First, I don't remember too much attention being paid to "Up in the Air." And even if, so what? The show is the show and the awards are the awards. It would be nice if the twain met, but, ahem, that twain left the station a long time ago. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Spotlighting the incongruence, “The Hurt Locker,” the big winner with six trophies including best picture, was also one of the least-watched films in its theatrical run to ever win the top prize. It sold about $14.7 million in tickets in North America and about $6.7 million overseas. On its opening weekend in two theaters in New York, its screenwriter, Mark Boal — now an Oscar winner — stood on street corners with his teenage nephew handing out free tickets to passersby with the idea that if they could stack the house, perhaps the theater owners would book it for another week.
The bigger story is less "The Hurt Locker"'s box office than the role Summit Entertainment played in not getting it out there. The evidence is right there in the above graf: They did such a poor job that the screenwriter and his nephew were forced to market for them! What was the Summit marketing team doing at the time—gearing up for the Sept. release of "Sorority Row"? "The Hurt Locker" is a movie that basically played in select cities. Its widest release was 535 theaters. Half of the best picture nominees were released into more than 3,000 theaters. "Up in the Air" got more than 2,000 theaters, "Precious" more than 1,000. Even "An Education" managed 700+. Only "A Serious Man," among the nominees, had a more limited release than the eventual best picture of the year. Someone besides me needs to start trashing Summit for this.
Dead-blogging the Oscars
So what's it all mean?
For the first time since 1997 three films in the top 10 annual box office were nominated best picture, including the no. 1 movie of the year, and for the first time a movie that didn't even place in the top 100 annual box office won best picture. Don't know if the former explains the latter. I.e., we'll give you your blockbusters among the nominees, which allows us to choose small within the nominees. It'll be interesting to see if this becomes the new norm.
More likely it's indicative of what the studios think of quality movies these days. The heads-of-state at Summit Ent., I'm sure, are happy this morning, since their studio won twice as many Oscars as any other, but they should be shamefaced. They released nine pictures in 2009 and only one of them, "The Brothers Bloom," was released smaller, and more quietly, than the best picture of the year, "The Hurt Locker":
|Row||Movie Title (click to view)||Total Gross / Theaters||Opening / Theaters||Open|
|1||The Twilight Saga: New Moon||$296,307,000||4,124||$142,839,137||4,024||11/20/09|
|7||Next Day Air||$10,027,047||1,139||$4,111,043||1,138||5/8/09|
|8||The Hurt Locker||$14,700,000||535||$145,352||4||6/26/09|
|9||The Brothers Bloom||$3,531,756||209||$90,400||4||5/15/09|
Apparently they thought twice as much as "Next Day Air," which was released into twice as many theaters as "The Hurt Locker." They thought four times as much as "Bandslam," and five times as much as "Sorority Row," even though none of these films wound up making as much as "The Hurt Locker." They thought that quality didn't matter and suffered financially as a result. Now, for the moment, quality matters. They have a feather in their cap but their cap is ridiculous.
How much did Summit blow it with "Hurt Locker"? Jeff Wells had a good post last November indicating how clueless most people, most New Yorkers even, were about the movie. He writes:
It's one thing for these women not to have seen an Iraq War film, but to draw a total blank at a mention of the title? This obviously says nothing about the quality of the film, and almost everything about the lackluster marketing effort by Summit.
But in the end they got away with it. They let the Academy do their marketing for them and will now do well in the DVD rental market. If that's a market one wants to rule.
As for the show? Scattered thoughts from our crazy party.
- Guests started showing at 3 pm for the red carpet. We were watching E!, with Ryan Seacrest, whom I can barely stand to look at let alone listen to. I don't know how he doesn't die of embarassment from being Ryan Seacrest. The feelers he has out are so attuned to the slightest rise or fall of anyone within the show-business community and he responds accordingly: sucking up to the big boys, such as James Cameron, dismissing the lesser mortals, the mere artists. He almost condescends to them. I'll say this, though. I liked him when he was with Sandra Bullock. That's how good Sandra Bullock is. He should interview no one but Sandra Bullock:
Ryan: I don't where to start.
Sandra: Just stop.
- Everyone agreed Sandra looked beautiful. Everyone was aghast at Charlize Theron's dress—the roses over the boobs. Patricia: "That's not even a good color on her." I commented that J. Lo looked great. Jolie: "When doesn't she?"
- George Clooney is growing his hair out. Like me. Copycat.
- Vince on Miley Cyrus' posture: "Stand up, my dear. Stand up! My goodness." Jolie commented that Miley displays a lot of charisma on her show but having seen her on nothing but red carpets she feels like a Celebrity Apprentice waiting to happen.
- Innovation #1: The top 10 acting nominees introduced at the top of the show. Agin it.
- Innovation #2: A musical number by someone other than the host, or hosts, in this case by Neil Patrick Harris. It was a good-enough number whose theme fit the co-host format ("You can't do it alone"), and some of the lines were laugh-out loud ("I can't think of botox without you all..."), and the showgirls were, as Patricia said, showgirls, but it still felt light. Maybe it didn't celebrate THE MOVIES enough. The Academy is still looking for another Billy Crystal: someone who can be off-the-cuff funny, do musical numbers, and prick the sensibilities of Hollywood just so while celebrating what they do. No one's had that touch, or charm, since.
- Innovation #3: The co-hosts. Jeff: "I'm predicting this is not going to work." But it worked not badly. To Zac and Taylor: "This is you in five years." Loved the intro of Agnes Mishkin (i.e., Penelope Cruz) as much as I love Penelope Cruz. The most bizarre interlude was the funniest: the clip of Alec and Steve sleeping together. I roared because it was such a great parody of the way we sleep. Or maybe because it points out how unknowable we all are.
- Ryan Bingham looked good accepting his Oscar. T-Bone Burnett looked tall. He's the new Michael Jackson with his perpetual sunglasses.
- Line of the night? Robert Downey, Jr.: "...a collaboration of handsome gifted people and sickly little mole people."
- Interesting, unexpected tribute to John Hughes. Die young, get tribute.
- Line of the night? Ben Stiller: "It's amazing how far technology has come."
- Speech of the night? Geoffrey Fletcher, in a fairly big upset, winning best adapated screenplay for "Precious," and he feels the weight of the moment. "This is for everyone who works on a dream every day."
- Line of the night? Steve Martin a second later: "I wrote that speech for him."
- P.S. But what's up with showing every black person in the crowd for Fletcher's win? Morgan Freeman? He wasn't involved in "Precious." I know it was unprecedented, but still.
- OK, so what asshole, who won best supporting actor last year, is so self-involved he couldn't come back this year to present the award for best supporting actress? So they had to get Robin Williams to do it? Tim: "Wasn't it Heath Ledger?" Oops.
- We boo the lack of clips for cinematography. If there should be clips for any category, it's cinematography.
- Line of the night? From "Up"'s Michael Giacchino: "If you want to be creative, go out there and do it. It's not a waste of time." Nice.
- A shot of George Clooney, bobbing his head goofily to the soundtrack for "Up in the Air." Rico: "You know, I love that guy."
- Worst cutaway of the night: from Ric O'Barry and his mild proselytizing. C'mon, kids, it's for dolphins! And this is the guy who trained Flipper! By the way, Fisher Stevens may have produced "The Cove" but you get the feeling he didn't do a thousandth of the work as Louie Psihoyos. Yet he took all the credit. I agree with Jeff Wells here. Effin' actors.
- Innovation #4: Getting people who know the best actor/actress nominee to talk about their career, to talk about working with them, etc. An improvement over last year's innovation, in which it was former winners talking to current nominees. Makes it more personal. It worked as soon as Michelle Pfeiffer started talking about Jeff Bridges, how he was husband, father and actor on the set of "The Fabulous Baker Boys," and got him to tear up. BTW: When I die, I want Oprah to deliver the eulogy.
- Line of the night? Tim Robbins quoting Morgan Freeman on the set of "Shawshank": "You know what friendship is? Friendship is getting the other person a cup of coffee. Can you do that for me... Ted?"
- In the middle of Jeff Bridges' speech, Mr. B: "He's so high."
- At the end of Jeff Bridges' speech: Tim: "The Dude abides." Vinnie: "I don't know about you but I take comfort in that."
- "Meryl. What can I say?" Stanley Tucci gives Meryl great intro.
- Speech of the night? Sandra Bullock. Here. "We are all deserving of love." Very, very nice.
- How much is the Academy giving away these days? Coppola and Spielberg awarding best director to Scorsese? Barbra awarding best director to K. Bigelow? But Barbra couldn't fade into the background, could she? She held the answer, made us wait, said "The time has come." Could've done without that.
- Worst music of the evening: Kathyrn Bigelow becomes the first woman to win Best Director and the orchestra serenades her offstage with "I am Woman." Tacky.
- Best pic. "The Hurt Locker." So even with the innovation of 10 nominees and a new way of scoring, the insiders still knew. There are no surprises.
Me, I won our Oscar pool with 16 of 21 correct. (We don't do short subjects.) Then clean-up, sobering up, the icky feeling of the Barbara Walters special. Bed, bed, bed.
New day! New year! Pierce Brosnan for best supporting actor!
The Dude, more than abiding.
Oscars: Which are the Real Best Picture Nominees?
It's a shame A.O. Scott can't remember back to December. In his day-of-the-Oscars piece he writes:
By the time it opened in December, “Avatar” was the movie that everyone in the world had to see, as soon as possible, and it held on to that status week after week.
The second part is truer than any movie since "Titanic." The first part? I remember otherwise. It opened at no. 1, certainly, with $77 million for the weekend, which ain't bad, but it's hardly the movie that everyone in the world had to see as soon as possible. Here are "Avatar"'s various rankings. All Time Domestic: #1. All Time Worldwide: #1. Yearly 2009: #1. Yearly Opening Weekends 2009: #5. Five? Yep. The movie that has now grossed more than twice as much worldwide than any movie besides "Titanic" opened poorer than the following 2009 films: "New Moon," "Transformers 2," "Wolverine" and "Harry Potter." I know everyone didn't need to see it opening weekend because I was there and it was pretty easy to get a seat. What distinguished "Avatar" is what distinguished ol' man river: it just kept rolling along.
Then there's this:
The 10-film best picture list, while it was created in part to ensure the presence of hits, also makes room for more smaller-scale, artistically ambitious movies than before. And one of these, “The Hurt Locker,” has emerged as the main rival to “Avatar” — and even, in the view of some handicappers, the favorite.
I know Scott isn't implying this but it sounds like he's implying that "The Hurt Locker" wouldn't have been nominated if the best picture list hadn't been expanded (idiotically) to 10 pictures, but that's nonsense. In fact I'm not sure what the point of Scott's Oscar piece is. He talks up the big and small, the blockbuster and the long tail, and adds, "The money to produce and publicize the kind of middle-size movie that has dominated the Oscar slates in recent years is drying up." Which middle-size movie in what recent years? "The Departed"? "Million Dollar Baby"? "Juno"? Are these middle-sized movies? If anything, recent years have been dominated by the small and indie, haven't they? I guess I wouldn't appreciated greater clarification. If I were Scott's editor, I would've asked for it.
But the article does bring up an interesting point: Which five nominated movies wouldn't have been nominated if the best picture list hadn't been expanded (idiotically) to 10 pictures? This is what we've got (ranked by U.S. box office):
So which wouldn't the Academy have chosen? Starting up from 10, let's eliminate "A Serious Man," which not enough people took seriously (or saw), as well as "An Education," which is an impeccably done coming-of-age story but didn't make the impact, either critically or commercially, it needed to get Academy notice. "District 9"? The only sci-fi movies that get nom'ed are no. 1 at the box office for the year; this thing was no. 27. Pass. "Up," too. It's my favorite of 2009 but it's an animated feature, animated features rarely get nom'ed, and it has its own category now anyway. And if there's a God in heaven and sense in the Academy (not sure which is the greater likelihood), "Blind Side," an awfully mediocre movie, wouldn't have been part of the discussion.
Hey, that's five. Easier than I thought. So the nominees would've been:
- "Inglourious Bastards"
- "Up in the Air"
- "The Hurt Locker"
That wouldn't have been so bad, would it?
No live-blogging this evening. Hosting. Talking. Drinking. Groping. (That means you, Tommy.) For live-blogging go to Brother Nathaniel.
Dead-blogging tomorrow. Enjoy the show, everyone.
"The Hurt Locker" has the long tail? Has A.O. Scott even seen us?
The Ghost Release
...to 147 theaters. That's still 1/16th the number of theaters Summit gave to "Sex Drive" (which made $8 million total), or 1/18th the number of theaters Summit gave to "Sorority Row" (which made $11 million total). So: wide like Calista Flockhart.
Last Sunday I wrote:
Quality film, in other words, isn't just treated as its own genre. It's treated as a genre 50 times less important than the others.
It's actually worse than that. "The Ghost Writer" is a genre film. It's a thriller, and feels like a thriller, and is perfectly accessible as a thriller. Normally such a film would open in over 2,000 theaters. If it included cheap thrills and young bodies and blood. Moviegoers still might not go see it, as they didn't go see "Sex Drive" or "Sorority Row," but at least the movie would fit within the parameters that allow studios to open movies in 2,000+ theaters.
Unfortunately, Polanski made a good movie. So if you're in a part of the country that isn't showing "The Ghost Writer," this is why Summit isn't letting you to see it. Because Polanski made a good movie.
The Most Crucial Difference Between “Avatar” and “Hurt Locker”
Despite this year's best picture race being unprecedented—10 nominees, etc.—all of the prognosticators think we're down to a two-horse race, “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar,” and they all point out the obvious differences between the two: $2.5 billion worldwide (and counting) vs. $18 million worldwide (and not); sci-fi fantasy vs. gritty reality; Cameron vs. Bigelow. But everyone's ignoring the most crucial difference:
The sci-fi fantasy set on a moon in a far-off galaxy is a greater critique of the Bush administration than the gritty war film set in Baghdad in 2004.
Make of that what you will.
As for which will win? As I said, we're in unprecedented territory. But let me resurrect a chart from last June showing the annual box office rankings of the various best picture nominees for the last 18 years, with the eventual winner in red:
The Annual Box Office Rankings for Best Picture Nominees, 1991-2008*
* Best picture winner in red.
Even when the Academy went rogue in 2004 and stopped nominating any picture that was popular, they still went for the first- or second-highest-grossing film among the nominees. Only once in the last 18 years, in 1999, did they pick outside the top two: “American Beauty,” which was still third.
As for how the box-office rankings look this year?
|1||Avatar||9 noms; Golden Globe|
|5||Up||5 noms; most Best Animated Film awards|
|6||The Blind Side||2 noms|
|25||Inglourious Bastards||8 noms; SAG ensemble|
|27||District 9||4 noms|
|38||Up in the Air||6 noms; National Board of Review|
|65||Precious||6 noms; Indy Spirit|
|131||The Hurt Locker||9 noms; DGA; PGA; WGA; BAFTA; NY Film Critics; LA Film Critics; National Society of Film Critics; Most Film Critics|
|135||An Education||3 noms|
|145||A Serious Man||2 noms|
So “Hurt Locker” has all of those bonafides but...131st? That would be unprecedented. As would a sci-fi pic winning best pic. So pick your unprecedenteds.
The only other movie that seems to have a chance is “Inglourious Bastards.” Lotsa noms, did OK at the box office, beloved by critics, it's Holocausty-y, and, one imagines, it's getting the Harvey Weinstein push. Plus it won the SAG ensemble award, and there are more actors in the Academy than any other profession. It would be a good split-the-difference vote anyway.
My guess is “Avatar” but don't bet the house on it.
My choice is “Up.”
Review: “The Ghost Writer” (2010)
WARNING: THROWBACK SPOILERS
Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is an expert piece of filmmaking that doesn't matter. It’s fun, smart, adult, and certain shots are stunning, but it’s also a throwback, and the elements of its throwback don’t completely mesh. In tone it’s a throwback to the moody Hitchcockian thriller of the 1950s, in content it’s a throwback to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s, but in setting it’s a throwback to just a few years ago, to the suffocating stupidity of the George W. Bush years, and this is the part that doesn’t mesh. Or maybe nothing feels as old as that which has just left us—like Condoleezza Rice. Or maybe I was merely disappointed with the ending.
The film begins in the rain and never loses its chill. A ferry docks in a downpour and cars file out. Except one. It remains ominously unclaimed. Eventually, car alarm ringing in protest, it’s towed away. Great cinematic shorthand. Something’s amiss. Someone’s missing.
Turns out a writer has died and needs to be replaced. He’s been ghosting the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the Tony Blairish, former British prime minister who sided with the U.S. in all of its ill-conceived foreign adventures, and is now living out his days in disgrace in a Martha’s Vineyard-type island off the coast of Massachusetts. But he’s been paid $10 million for his memoirs, and the publishing house needs to get something out, and so another ghost, known in the credits simply as the Ghost (Ewan McGregor), is hired.
He takes the job reluctantly—because a slick publishing-house friend, Rick Ricardelli (John Bernthal), wants him to, and because an editor who rejected one of the Ghost’s previous books, doesn’t. But he gets the job, truly, because he’s an honest man in the dishonest world of business and politics. There’s a great, early scene where he tells the publishing house president, John Maddox (a shockingly good, shaved-bald Jim Belushi), that not only doesn’t he read political memoirs but no one reads political memoirs. Which is exactly why they need him: to appeal to all of those readers who don’t read political memoirs. Which is everyone.
Things go downhill quickly. Ten minutes after the meeting, he’s mugged. At Heathrow, still smarting, he watches news reports about how Lang, as prime minister, authorized the rendition of four British nationals, Muslims, who were subsequently tortured, and one of whom died, in U.S. custody. He phones Ricardelli: “What have you gotten me into?”
The Lang complex on the island, run by Lang’s assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), is gated and guarded. There are disapproving Asian housekeepers and an air of officiousness and unreality. The Writer is allowed this space. He must sign these NDAs. Then he’s placed into a room that includes, on the right half of its outer wall, a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over bleak, grassy dunes. It’s as if the room is half inside and half out. It’s like something out of a dream.
The Writer, poor bastard, groans over the 600-page manuscript his predecessor left him: its long, dull beginning on the history of the Langs in Scotland; its facile observations on recent, tragic events (“The American president was much taller than I expected.”). When Lang finally arrives, via private Hatherton (read: Halliburton) jet, the Writer tries to cut through the bullshit and make him understandable. At Cambridge, in the 1970s, Lang wanted to be an actor. Why suddenly politics? Because, Lang says, his future wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), appeared at his door one day, politicking, and he fell in love. Ah ha! The Writer has his lead. But Lang keeps shooing him away from more interesting areas of the story and back toward the bullshit. He wants the book to be noble and empty. Brosnan gives Lang the air of someone who was once important and respected, and is now unimportant and disgraced, and he doesn’t quite know why. He gives him the air of someone who has to pretend too much in public and too little in private.
Even as the Writer is trying to decide what Lang’s story is, the story keeps changing. A former British secretary, Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh), whom Lang once fired, is bringing charges against him before the Hague on the rendition matter, and the Writer is corralled into drafting a response, which, with a mixture of vanity and horror, he hears Lang repeat that night on TV. Protesters and picketers arrive outside the gates. The press descends and takes over the local Inn, where the Writer has been staying, and he is forced to take his predecessor’s room at the Lang estate.
All this time, in a nice touch, he’s been treating anything belonging to his predecessor with the held-in-breath of the hypochondriac. He doesn’t want to catch what his predecessor caught. But he does. He discovers photos indicating that Lang lied about when he entered politics. He discovers a phone number among his predecessor’s effects: Robert Rycart’s. An old timer on the island (a nearly 100-yearold Eli Wallach!) tells him that, given island currents, the original ghost writer’s body could never have washed up where it did. And, in one of the greatest uses of modern technology in a traditional genre, the Writer tracks his predecessor’s last visit via his car’s GPS. It takes him to the mainland and the home of a Harvard professor, Paul Emmett (a gloriously insufferable Tom Wilkinson), who knew Lang at Cambridge in the 1970s but denies he knew Lang at Cambridge. Online, he reads rumors that Emmett has ties to the CIA, and, coupled with Lang’s acquiescence to U.S. policy, he puts two and two together. The former British PM is a CIA mole! But where’s the evidence? In a clandestine meeting, Rycart tells him that the original ghost put the answer in the beginning of the memoir; the Writer can’t find it. Meanwhile, the closer he gets to an answer, the closer an answer gets to him.
This is a movie about as well-made as movies can be made. The script, by novelist Robert Harris and Polanski, is wonderful. At one point Amelia asks the Writer how the Inn is and he responds, “Monastic.” “That’s alright,” she says. “No distractions.” Then he follows her ass upstairs to his workroom. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment but this is an altogether unsexy film. Lang is obviously having an affair with Amelia, and everyone, particularly his long-suffering wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), who compares her husband’s banishment to Napoleon’s on Elba, knows it. One evening Ruth winds up in the Writer’s bed. It’s positively icky. It may be the least sexy affair between two good-looking actors in cinematic history.
Polanski, master of the off-kilter and unnerving, who partly edited the film from his prison in Switzerland, gets all of the details right. I’m still thinking about the sense of vulnerability McGregor displays as he’s being frisked by a government agent, ultimately benign, in a tiny hotel room. But the ending does disservice to the rest. The big reveal after Lang is assassinated by a protester? Prof. Emmett did recruit a mole at Cambridge in the 1970s: Lang’s wife, Ruth. The clues are in the first word of every chapter of the original manuscript, which the Writer figures out at the book party for his scaled-down version. And what does he do with this information? He tells Ruth, of course. Who, of course, tells Emmett. The Writer then walks outside, clutching the original manuscript, and can’t hail a cab. He walks out of frame and a car barrels by. Polanski holds the camera as we hear a crash, and, after a moment, papers, the last evidence of Ruth’s duplicity, and the real reason for Great Britain's poodleish behavior, flutter by like snowflakes and are scattered to the four winds.
That’s a great final shot. But how stupid can the Writer be? He tells Ruth? And no one else? And isn’t that reveal, via the first word in each chapter, rather facile?
In the 1970s, and in the political thrillers of the 1970s, such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got.
Here, the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. Thought becomes action. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.
Quote of the Day
"A little over a decade and a half ago, with the birth of the World Wide Web, a clock started. The old-media empires were put on a path of predictable obsolescence. But would a superior replacement arise in time? What we idealists said then was, 'Just wait! More opportunities will be created than destroyed.' Isn't fifteen years long enough to wait before we switch from hope to empiricism? The time has come to ask, 'Are we building the digital utopia for people or machines?' If it's for people, we have a problem."
—from "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier
Review: “Robin and Marian” (1976)
WARNING: REVISIONIST SPOILERS
As “Robin and Marian” opens we see two medieval knights digging in the French sand. “For treasure?” we wonder. “Oh, to get a large stone. Oh, for a catapult. Oh, to shoot at yon castle.” Which they do—to little effect. The stone crashes impotently halfway up the wall and Robin (Sean Connery), on horseback beside Little John (Nicol Williamson), sighs deeply. A minute in, and everything already feels purposeless and dissipated.
If “Robin and Marian” is the least traditional of the Robin Hood feature films, it has less to do with being set 20 years after the famed Sherwood-Forest events than with being written and directed in the 1970s. That was a dispiriting time for all of us: post-1968, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. Heroes weren’t believe in and authority was openly mocked. In both the 1938 “Adventures of Robin Hood” and the 1991 “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Richard the Lionheart makes an appearance at the end and is venerated. He stands tall, acts noble, everyone bows. (In the ’91 version, he’s even played by Connery.) Here he shows up at the beginning—played with glorious panache by Richard Harris—and he’s as mad as a hatter. The absent lord of the semi-besieged castle has a three-foot gold statue hidden somewhere, but the one-eyed man minding the store, and protecting the women and children within, yells out that there is no gold statue. It’s stone. That’s enough for Robin. He’s about to leave when Richard comes charging up on his horse and demands the castle be taken. They argue:
Robin: Your statue is a rock.
Richard: I want it done.
Robin: There is no treasure.
Richard: Do it.
Robin: There are no soldiers in there, just children and a mad old man.
Richard: And what is that to me?
So the castle is taken and burned. Afterwards Richard's foot pokes a three-foot statue. “So it was stone,” he says with mild interest, as one hears, in the background, the cries of dying women and children. But the one-eyed man lives. “I liked his eye,” Richard says, as if recalling a striking painting he saw at a gallery. A scene later, after some drunkenness, Richard’s dead, and Robin and John, with no one to follow, not even a crazy king to follow, head back to England.
The things he carries.
What becomes a legend most? At this point, Robin doesn’t even know he is a legend. He and John return to Sherwood the way one might return to a high school haunt. Isn’t that the place where...? Hey, remember this? They run into Tuck (Ronnie Barker) and Will (Denholm Elliott) and it’s the latter who tells him he’s revered, that there are ballads sung about him:
Follow him, follow him, bloody and brave
I’ll follow Sir Robin into the grave
“They’ve turned us into heroes, Johnny,” Robin says to Little John, amused. Then this key bit of dialogue:
Will: Everywhere we go, they want to hear the things that you did.
Robin: We didn’t do them!
Will: (laughs) I know that.
The heroes aren’t heroes. At the same time, we’re never really told what they never did. Rob from the rich and give to the poor? Split an arrow at an archery contest? Rescue Maid Marian from Sir Guy of Gisbourne?
It’s apparent, though, that they did live in Sherwood Forest and fight, in guerilla fashion, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw), who’s still in power. Marian (Audrey Hepburn), meanwhile, has become a nun (“Not my Marian,” Robin says, shocked), and the day they visit her at Kirkley Abbey is, nice coincidence, the day the Sheriff and his men come riding by to arrest her for maintaining allegiance to the Pope rather than King John.
The Sheriff of Nottingham has been portrayed a thousand different ways. In the Fairbanks silent version, he’s an afterthought; in the Flynn Technicolor version a buffoon. Alan Rickman played him with over-the-top malevolence in the ’91 Costner version, where he’s the chief villain with an eye on the throne. He’s none of the above here. He’s not even a villain, really. He’s had 20 years to figure out what he did wrong and it’s made him patient and crafty. One could even call him wise. He’s not only the smartest man onscreen but possibly its most interesting. When Robin and John try to sneak into Nottingham he sees through their disguise from the castle above. “Ah Robin,” he says. “Three horses but two to push? I almost feel sorry.” When his headstrong lieutenant demands the right to pursue Robin, and then insults the Sheriff—claiming he’ll succeed where the Sheriff failed—there’s no anger in his response. “Raise the gates,” he says wearily. He knows the lieutenant will fail. He also knows enough not to pursue Robin into Sherwood. Even after King John gives the headstrong lieutenant 100 soldiers to take Robin, the Sheriff merely camps them outside Sherwood. And waits. And waits. He knows he’s the bird hopping around before the cat. Sooner or later the cat will pounce.
But it’s called “Robin and Marian,” that’s the key relationship, and it’s in their conversations that screenwriter James Goldman, brother of William and author of “The Lion in Winter,” has fun. “What are you doing in that costume?” he says when he first sees her in nun’s habit. “Living in it,” she responds. Seeing the austerity of her quarters, he says, “I thought I knew you. What’s happened to you?” “Good things,” she responds. She’s haughty. She’d given up on Robin, and was ready to give herself up to the Sheriff, too. In fact Robin has to knock her out to take her away, and the shock is less seeing Robin slug Marian than seeing Sean Connery slug Audrey Hepburn. That’s like coldcocking a fawn. Other crimes seem minor in comparison.
Marian’s haughtiness, of course, is poor cover for 20 years of lost love and pain, which she eventually confesses. There are scars on her wrists from when she tried to kill herself. “You never wrote,” she says accusingly. “I don’t know how,” he answers honestly.
The things she carries.
He has scars, too, from his countless battles, which she sees when she takes off his shirt. “You had the sweetest body when you left,” she says sadly. “And you were mine.” But these scars are nothing compared to his spiritual scars. The Crusades were celebrated in the Fairbanks version, and glossed over—in an isolationist fashion—in the Flynn version. Here they’re horrific. When she asks if he’s sick of fighting and death, he tells her a story:
On the 12th of July, 1191, the mighty fortress of Acre fell to Richard. His one great victory in the whole campaign. He was sick in bed and never struck a blow. On the 20th of August, John and I were standing on a plain outside the city, watching, while every Muslim left alive was marched out in chains. King Richard spared the richest for ransoming, took the strong for slaves, and he took the children, all the children, and had them chopped apart. When that was done he had the mothers killed. When they were all dead, 3,000 bodies on the plain, he had them all opened up, so their guts could be explored for gold and precious stones. Our churchmen on the scene—and there were many—took it for a triumph. One bishop put on his mitre and led us all in prayer. (Pause) And you ask me if I’m sick of it.
But he’s not sick of it. That’s what Marian suspects and that’s what the Sheriff knows. There’s a great scene where Robin and John rescue several nuns from Nottingham Castle. It’s great because it’s not. Robin Hood is now an old man, and, rather than bouncing and leaping, he grimaces and pants. He moves in slow-motion. Part of the point of “Robin and Marian” is to explore the story after the story. What happens after the happily-ever-after? History doesn’t have to be a tragedy to be repeated as farce.
At times, the film, directed by Richard Lester of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” fame, is almost too farcical, as if it were dipping its toe into absurdist “Monty Python” territory. This absurd tone clashes with the bittersweetness of the overall tale. Robin keeps doing what he’s doing because he can’t do anything else. When the Sheriff succeeds in drawing him out, and they duel clumsily with broadswords, they’re like two old dinosaurs. Several of the men even have to turn away—as sportswriters had to turn away from watching the great Willie Mays, in his twilight, fall down in center field trying to catch a fly ball.
The Sheriff doesn’t get Robin here. Despite the Sheriff’s craftiness, Robin still wins. But he’s wounded and Marian takes him back to the Abbey, mixes a concoction and has him drink it. It’s poison. She wants a life with him, she deserves a life with him, but she knows she won’t get it because he won’t change. “I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat,” she confesses. “I love you more than God.” This is what her feistiness was hiding. Initially incensed, he comes to accept it. “I’d never have a day like this again, would I?” he says. with that Connery half-smile.
“Robin and Marian” comes close to being very, very good—the acting and dialogue in particular—but its tone is slightly off. Plus it has the worst riding music I’ve ever heard (imagine instrumental Christopher Cross, but somehow schmaltzier), and it’s a little precious with its withering-fruit symbolism. I’m also not sure if I don’t buy or merely don’t want this end, which ignores why this particular tale is bittersweet. Think of the withering fruit. We all age and wither and die, even legends. In his day Robin Hood was a great thief—robbing from the rich and giving to the poor—and he deserved to be taken by the greatest thief of all: Time.
The final shot.
Review: “The White Ribbon” (2009)
WARNING: ARE THERE SPOILERS IN A MICHAEL HANEKE FILM?
I should’ve known.
I saw the trailer with its exquisite black-and-white photography, beautiful, rising choir music, and the faces of serious children saying, in German, “Forgive us, father,” “Please forgive us,” all of it interspersed with Palme D’or awards and quotes from critics (“It feels like a classic even as you’re watching it for the first time.” — Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY), and I thought: “I gotta see this.”
Last Friday I finally got the chance. Five minutes in, I realized, “Oh, wait. This is a Michael Haneke film, isn’t it? Fuck.”
The choir music may rise, in other words, but nothing is uplifting.
Haneke’s films (“Cache,” “La pianiste,” “Le temps du loup,” “Funny Games”) don’t really educate so much as remind. They remind us of two things in particular: “People are brutal” and “You don’t know why.”
Those who agree with that first sentiment often make exceptions. They’ll say, “Well, people may be brutal but children aren’t.” They’ll say, “People are brutal now, but in the past, in a simpler time, we were better.”
To which Haneke replies, “Let them come to ‘Das weisse Bande: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’” (“The White Ribbon: A German children’s story”).
The film is set in a German village in the year before the Great War. The villagers are known by their occupations (The Farmer) or their relationship to someone with that occupation (The Farmer’s Wife). Only the children have names.
It’s basically a crime mystery in which we guess the criminals at the outset, have that guess strengthened throughout, then leave the theater without an answer. It’s wholly atmospheric, and the atmosphere is one of dread barely held in check. It’s one of tight-assed propriety masking something monstrous.
Our narrator is the School Teacher, voiced as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) but viewed as a young one (Christian Friedel). “It all began, I think,” he says, “with the Doctor’s accident.” He’s still using the language of the village, since the “accident” occurs when the Doctor (Rainer Bock), returning from an afternoon horseride, is cut down by a wire strung across the gate at knee length. The horse is killed, the Doctor goes to the hospital, the wire goes missing.
Village life centers around the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who owns more than 50 percent of the land and for whom many in the village work, but our village centers around the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and his family, particularly his children, particularly the eldest two: Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragas), an upright, handsome girl, with something like defiance in her seemingly respectful stance, and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), a striking boy with bags under his eyes and something like shame oozing from every pore. We first see them together the evening of the doctor’s accident when they face their father’s quiet wrath for being late for dinner. They ask for forgiveness, as in the trailer, and don’t get it. “I don’t know what’s worse: your absence or your coming back,” the Pastor says. He passes sentence—10 strokes of the cane the next evening—and they are made complicit in their punishment. “Do you agree?” the Pastor says. When the punishment comes, the boy is made to get the cane and the whipping occurs behind closed doors. This is a village where things occur behind closed doors.
As the summer progresses, things get worse. The Farmer’s wife dies, a victim of an accident at the Baron’s factory, and when we finally arrive we hear one man counsel another: “Careful, it’s all rotten.” What’s all rotten? Our mind is filled with the worst possible images until Haneke, taking his sweet time, pans over to the rotten wooden floorboards that gave way and ended a life.
But it is all rotten. Things are whispered and people’s minds are filled with the worst possible images. It’s said that the Baron is to blame for the accident, and during harvest celebration one of the Farmer’s sons takes revenge by destroying the Baron’s cabbage patch. It’s a clumsy, known event that shames the Farmer. Later that night, the Baron’s curly-headed son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), goes missing, and is found at 2:30 a.m., hanging upside-down in the barn, whipped and in a state of shock. Later still the barn is burned. What undercurrent, whose undercurrent, is controlling events in this village?
The following year, the Steward’s daughter confesses to the Teacher that she dreamed something horrible will happen to Karli, the mentally disabled son of the Midwife. Has she dreamed it? Or has she been told it? And why? Why would someone do such a thing to Karli? The Midwife, we know, has been having an affair with the Doctor—we see him schtupping her without pleasure upon his return from the hospital—but he ends their relationship brutally, telling her she’s ugly, old, flabby, has bad breath, and when she doesn’t get it, declares, “My God, why don’t you just die?” Shortly after, his son, Gustav (Thibault Sérié), four or five years old, wakens one evening to find his older, teenaged sister, Anna (Roxane Duran), gone from their bedroom. He goes downstairs, scared, calling her name. He opens doors. Behind one of them he finds his father and sister. Her nightgown is pushed up, exposing her thighs. She’s getting her ears pieced, she says. She doesn’t seem scared. Haneke is putting us in the position of the villagers. We just get glimpses behind closed doors. Our minds are filled with the worst possible images.
Eventually something horrible does happen to Karli. He’s tortured, blinded, tied to a tree, and a note is left behind quoting Biblical text about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children, even unto the third or fourth generation. One assumes the Pastor’s children are responsible, as one assumed from the beginning, with Klara the ringleader and Martin the reluctant participant. But why the Midwife’s son? Because of the Midwife’s affair with the Doctor? Because of the rumors that she and the Doctor killed the Doctor’s Wife five years earlier?
The Pastor keeps punishing his children by making them wear ribbons of white, the color of innocence, to remind them of the purity from which they came, but it hardly helps. We see Klara killing the Pastor’s favorite bird and leaving the evidence on his desk. He knows she did it. Or: We suspect greatly that he suspects greatly that she did it. But when the School Teacher comes to him with accusations of their crimes, the Pastor protects what’s his and threatens the School Teacher. By this point, the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated and the Great War begun. You could say we are unto the third or fourth generation still suffering from those 1914 sins.
Is there any innocence in Haneke’s vision? Any beauty beyond the cinematography? The School Teacher begins a relationship with Eva (Leonie Benesch), who’s working as a nanny, and they have a kind of halting, stammering sweetness together. But the relationship is mostly marked by its difficulties. This is a world where kindness is difficult, brutality easy and total.
Perhaps the most instructive scene occurs between Gustav and Anna at the breakfast nook after the death of the Farmer’s wife. Earlier Gustav had worried about their father’s absence and Anna had assured him he would return. Remember when you got sick last winter? Then you got better? It’s like that. But now he asks about death. She tries to explain it. “Does everyone die?” he asks. Yes. “Everyone really? But not you, Anni?” Me, too. “But not Dad.” Yes, Papa. Then he makes the big leap. “Me, too? It has to happen? ... And Mom? Is she dead, too?” Anna couches her answers with the comfort of time, which is actually the enemy. Mom died a long time ago, she says. He, Gustav, won’t die for a long time. But Gustav is making the connection all of us make, and that may mark the true end of innocence and the true beginning of brutality: the knowledge, which we carry all of our lives, that everyone and everything, including us, dies. And he angrily sweeps the dishes onto the floor. It’s a great scene.
If “The White Ribbon” sounds like an interesting film, it is. It’s interesting to write about, interesting to talk about, but less interesting to watch. It’s not that I disagree with Haneke’s vision, I merely think it’s devoid of light. He’s incomplete. What he's missing is a glimmer of anything that makes life worth living. He’s a child angrily sweeping the dishes onto the floor.
“Bitte verzeihen Sie.”
- “Un Prophete,” which is currently playing in nine theaters in New York and L.A., and which the rest of the us get to see who-knows-when (seriously, does anyone know when?), swept the Cesars on Sunday, winning nine of 13 awards, including best picture, director (Jacques Audiard) and actor (Tahar Rahim). Isabelle Adjani won best actress for “La journee de la jupe,” which is her fifth Cesar. Fifth! Makes Meryl Streep seem a piker. As for Meilleur Film Etranger (Best Foreign Film), the choices, for a film released in France in 2009, were: “Avatar,” “Gran Torino,” “Milk,” “J'ai tue ma mere,” “Panique au village,” “The White Ribbon” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” And the winner? My least favorite among the nominees.
- For yesterday's post I did a Google search on the phrase “Delicate, exotic flower, released into art houses“ (with quotes), so I could find the original A.O. Scott New York Times article that the phrase appeared in. Here's what I found. The first result was from theauteurs.com, quoting Scott. The second result was from The New Yorker, quoting Scott. Third and fourth? From lmagazine.com and smellytongues.com, quoting Scott. The fifth was my site. As for the original article by Scott? It doesn't appear among any of the results. Techies would argue that the Times needs to work on its search-engine optimization, and they do, but the bigger fault lies with the search engine, Google. The place where content originally appeared should be the no. 1 result when searching for that content. Not sure how you'd fix that (time stamp?) but it needs to be fixed. This isn't a feature. BTW: You add ”A.O. Scott (without quotes) to the search, and, bing, the Times article suddenly appears at no. 4. Odder and odder.
- I didn't compile a list of top 10 scenes of the 2009, as in years past, but if I did I would've included this scene. Or I might've gone for the expectations/reality scene from the same film.
- Want to be kept busy for the next year? Conor Friedersdorf of Metablog has compiled his list of the best journalism of 2009. I think I've read a quarter of the pieces he mentions, but that quarter is superlative so I can only imagine what the rest are like. I'm going to keep this page bookmarked and delve into it during free moments. Might finish it in time for the 2010 version.
- Apparently people are paying more for the first issue of Batman (Detective Comics no. 27) than for the first issue of Superman (Action Comics no. 1). Apparently they're confusing recent box office with historical importance. The invention of Superman more or less created the superhero genre. Batman came in his wake. So did many others, who faltered, including, oh you know, The Flame, The Blue Beetle, The Owl, Captain Future, Captain Flight, Bulletman, Doll Man and Air Man, so give the Caped Crusader credit for surviving. But there's no doubt which one I'd pay more for.
- Meant to post this a while ago: the dispossessed in Israel (and elsewhere) identifying with the Na'vi in “Avatar.” Pretty stunning what a movie can do.
- The Dude abides. By Manohla.
- “Avatar” has now grossed over $700 million domestically. It's also no. 15 on the all-time adjusted chart, and will pass no. 14, “Return of the Jedi” ($715 million) soon.
- Finally, Pete Hamill has a nice, personal review of the new Willie Mays biography in yesterday's New York Times. Hamill's sad close, along with the great Book Review cover illustration by Rodrigo Corral:
Hirsch has given us a book as valuable for the young as it is for the old. The young should know that there was once a time when Willie Mays lived among the people who came to the ballpark. That on Harlem summer days he would join the kids playing stickball on St. Nicholas Place in Sugar Hill and hold a broom-handle bat in his large hands, wait for the pink rubber spaldeen to be pitched, and routinely hit it four sewers. The book explains what that sentence means. Above all, the story of Willie Mays reminds us of a time when the only performance-enhancing drug was joy.