Monday, August 17, 2020

Buckle Up and Stay Home

Robert Duvall - MASH | Robert Duvall Picture #94859242 - 454 x 239 ...

Way back in 2009, writer-director Jody Hill’s black comedy Observe and Report rode a wave of controversy to modest box office success and, perhaps better in the long term, notoriety. The deeply imperfect film is awfully enamored with its own ostensible subversiveness, confusing self-flattery for gimlet-eyed realism. If it sounds like I’m kind of down on the movie, I kind of am, except for one aspect of it that actually is subversive, that actually does buck against the status quo of Hollywood and film culture, and the arts in America as a whole: its portrayal of Nell (Collette Wolfe), a character who is not merely a Christian but a born-again Christian, as a genuinely kind person who is not hiding darkness and hypocrisy within her. Hill’s attitude to pretty much everyone else in the film is bilious, but in this instance he refuses to construct the easy villain that will flatter his audience’s worldview. (I suspect Born Again Christians did not make up a large percentage of Observe and Report’s audience.) She held one of a handful of character traits that more often than not, in American films, signal that This Person Is Not To Be Trusted: active Christianity, military authority (grunts are sometimes fine, though certainly not always), political views that are to the right of Jane Fonda. That sort of thing. For decades, this has been part of our storytelling tradition — one that filmmakers and critics alike are inured to thanks to the privilege that accompanies being a liberal working in the arts — and it allows the audience to easily identify a villain, or a potential villain, before they’ve even had a chance to do anything wrong.

Consider M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s 1970 breakout film, in which we are introduced to the character Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) when the film’s main protagonist Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) joins the unit and is shown by Capt. Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to the tent he’ll be sharing with Burns. The two men find Burns in the tent, teaching Ho-Jon (Kim Atwood), who works as a mess-boy on the grounds of this particular mobile Army hospital, to read English using the Bible. Burns is a Christian, and Hawkeye and Forrest regard the situation with a smirking cynicism, offering the boy a nudie magazine as a better way to learn the language than the Bible. On one level, fine, objecting to missionary conversion, which is the subtext here, makes sense and is a defensible moral stance. But Burns treats Ho-Jon very kindly in this scene. Whether or not a given audience member views the religious tradition in which he is engaging here as ultimately damaging (never mind the charitable aspects of missionary work), Burns himself appears to be a very nice and moral person. One may disagree with him, but perhaps one can respect his decency at the same time.

Or maybe not. Shortly after we’re introduced to Frank Burns, there’s another scene where he enters the same tent. Hawkeye and Forrest are already there, being served martinis by Ho-Jon. (One might say the two white men are both condescending to and exploiting the Korean boy, but never mind.) Soon after Burns arrives, Ho-Jon leaves. Hawkeye and Forrest offer Burns a martini, which he declines, saying he doesn’t drink. Hawkeye makes fun of him for that. Burns then kneels at his cot and begins praying. The whole time he does this, Forrest and Hawkeye mock him (“You ever encountered this syndrome before?” “Not with anyone over the age of eight years old”). Not because he’s doing anything wrong, but because he’s praying. Of course, it eventually turns out that Frank Burns is one of the film’s villains when he blames someone else for the death of a patient that he caused. No matter: we’re already supposed to hate him. His (eventual) villainy is merely confirmation of what his Christianity ostensibly communicated to us: he is bad, because our prejudices are correct.

Now, M*A*S*H being a Robert Altman film, things are a tiny bit more complicated than that (though I’d argue the film is still among his worst), as there is another Christian character, Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois), whose ineffective faith in the face of human horror renders him merely pathetic rather than actively vile.

 ‍Shape of Water, The - Internet Movie Firearms Database - Guns in ...

But this sort of thing needn’t be complicated at all! Look at Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which won the 2017 Best Picture Oscar. In that film, about a janitor (Sally Hawkins) who works at a top-secret military lab in the 1950s and falls in love with a humanoid amphibious creature (Doug Jones), it’s established early on that the men who run this lab, led by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), are small-minded, mean, cruel, in some cases racist. If there’s a shining moral light in the lab, apart from the cleaning staff and the sea creature, it’s the scientist Hofstettler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who we eventually learn is a Soviet spy. Del Toro doesn’t seem especially enamored by the other Soviet agents who appear in the film – they’re among the film’s many villains, in large part because they have succumbed to decadent American bourgeois living – but Hofstettler’s commitment to science and humanity means he is basically good.

The same can’t be said of the American military in the movie. So much so that when we get to the part of the story where our motley crew of heroes carries out their plan to free the amphibian humanoid from the lab, Hofstettler, a willing participant in this plan, uses a syringe of poison to, well, let’s not mince words here, murder an MP who stopped the van the film’s heroes were using to commit their act of sabotage.

It should be noted here that we have not seen this MP in the film before. He’s a grunt. Not particularly important. We just know that he’s a member of the American military, which has been depicted throughout as racist, cruel, et cetera. Because this young man chose to join the Army, he must be those things, too. Of course, if del Toro wanted to complicate things and make his film interesting (which it is not, and I say this as a del Toro fan), this murder would reverberate among our heroes. Some rumination might occur: “We have done this good thing, freeing an innocent creature who was being tortured, but in doing so we have also done this evil thing.” But no, after the MP is killed, Giles (Richard Jenkins), the driver of the van who saw Hofstettler commit that murder, says, in a humorously trembling voice “I think he just killed that man!” This is meant to be funny, because part of Giles’s deal is that he’s usually not the kind of guy to take big chances or do things that scare him, but gee oh boy, look at him now! This is the only acknowledgment, apart from the audience’s own eyes, that the death even occurred.

That American soldier is never shown doing anything wrong, but the audience is meant to be happy that he’s taken out. At least Charlie Peck, Dennis Quaid’s character from this year’s The Intruder, eventually murders somebody. But of course, that is simple plot mechanics; by the time of his misdeed the audience already dislikes him intensely because when we first meet him he is doing something legal and civically responsible, and this we cannot have. At the beginning of the film, Scott and Annie (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good) are shopping for a house. They find one they like tucked away in a nice, secluded, woodsy area, and while looking around they see a deer, who, despite the enchantment the couple feel in their hearts, is immediately shot down by Peck. Peck is the former owner of the house, and has been maintaining the place while it’s on the market. He tells the horrified couple that it’s important to keep the deer population down (which in many parts of the country is true!) and in any case, that’s why he was on the property — to hunt legally — and he didn’t see the couple before he fired. But he shot a deer and, worse, owns a gun. The murder he eventually commits is, in terms of audience manipulation, merely a formality.

There’s a scene later in The Intruder that is instructive. Charlie has been invited by Scott and Annie to a dinner party (despite Scott’s insistence that anyone participating in gun ownership and legal hunting is a dangerous psychopath). At one point, one of the other guests (the eventual murder victim, in fact) disagrees with something Charlie says. It’s a minor point, but the film suddenly changes its point of view from Scott and Annie to Charlie, and we see a fantasy: Charlie standing up and violently attacking the man who challenged him. Again, this didn’t actually happen in the world of the film, it’s in Charlie’s mind, but director Deon Taylor and/or writer David Loughery felt it necessary to briefly up-end their film’s whole structure so that the audience could see the violent thoughts in Charlie’s mind. Perhaps because they realized they hadn’t laid the necessary groundwork to justify Scott’s paranoia, which is essential? Or because they think passing fantasies are the same as action? It can’t possibly be both, can it? Surely when casting those with whom you disagree as the villain, more thought is put into it than that.


It’s all a matter of empathy, an emotional and intellectual state that demands you try to understand the feelings of everyone, especially those with whom you might not side with in a given situation. (If you’re already prone to siding with someone, it’s not really empathy when you agree with them.) Films that are truly empathetic can pose a challenge for the audience (not to mention the filmmaker) and are therefore best left unproduced. Usually, anyway.  In Debra Granik’s 2010 film Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a young woman living in Appalachia. Due to her missing father, sick mother, and the secluded criminal environment she was born into, Ree must raise her two young siblings; out of desperation, she decides to join the Army, because she heard that by doing so a person is guaranteed $40,000.

She meets the Army recruiter at the local high school, and I, when I first saw the film, habituated as I’ve become to the very idea of military recruitment of young people being presented in modern American films as anything other than insidious and exploitative, was somewhat shocked by the scene as it unfolded. The recruiter (Russell Schalk) doesn’t try to fool Ree, doesn’t try to entice her into giving up her life and family just so he can throw her into machine gun fire. No, he actually talks her out of it. The recruiter sees how difficult her life is, sees her bruises, and teases out of her the fact that she’s raising her brother and sister alone. He tells her that she needs a better reason to join the Army during wartime than $40,000, and that she’d be doing more good back home.

I was quite unprepared for Debra Granik’s actual empathy. The cinema could use more of it.

He's Talking and Talking and Talking

Review: In 'American Dharma,' Steve Bannon takes credit for Trump ...

In the late 1990s, Errol Morris screened a cut — what he believed would be the final cut — of his documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. to a film class at Harvard University. In this version of the film, Leuchter, a designer and builder of electric chairs and later lethal injection machines, is presented alone, explaining why he would go on to a career of writing “scientific” papers denying that gas chambers were ever used by the Nazis in World War II to execute Jews. These papers were used, and even commissioned, by the neo-Nazi Ernst Zündel at his trial in Canada, on charges that his publications denying the Holocaust criminally spread false information. Morris’ original intention was to focus solely on Leuchter: There would be no experts or historians present in the film to refute Leuchter’s blatant nonsense. Morris wanted to understand how this man, seemingly free of anti-Semitic beliefs, could believe something not only so vile, but so easily disproved. To do that, Morris felt no need to hear from anyone but Leuchter. In the Leuchter material present in the final, quite different, 1999 picture, Leuchter refers to a time in his life when he was contacted by a state prison system about designing a gas chamber for their executions. Leuchter himself says that this made no sense, as his expertise was only in electric chairs and lethal injection machines — that knowledge does not translate to an understanding of gas chambers simply because each device is used in executions. Nothing else in Mr. Death so precisely illustrates the man’s lack of self-awareness and intellectual shallowness better than that moment.

However, the Harvard film class disagreed. According to Morris, in an interview with Ron Rosenbaum, roughly half the class bought into Leuchter’s theories, and the other half saw Morris himself as a Holocaust denier:

Well, it shocked me. I guess it's little bit like the Stockholm syndrome. You're trapped in a room with this one man — namely, Leuchter. He's talking and talking and talking and talking. There is no one in the movie to grab you by the shoulders and say, "You know, this is, of course, nonsense."

It's a scary thought. What if there is no one (or not enough people) in a society to say a man like Leuchter is crazy . . . or wrong . . . or evil . . . isn't there enough stuff inside ourselves . . . an insanity detector . . . something. Well, in this Harvard class, there wasn't.

Morris ultimately decided that the class’ professor, who questioned how Morris could not call Leuchter to task, was correct, and so he, Morris, did interviews with experts and cut them into the film. Expertly, it must be said, and for all I know the version of Mr. Death most people know is better than what he showed to that class. But I’m not convinced that Morris actually agreed with that professor, because in his next film, 2003’s The Fog of War, Morris stuck to his moral and aesthetic philosophy. The subject of The Fog of War, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, truly is the only person on screen. We hear only him speak (barring a rare example of Morris interjecting), and outside of stock footage and news footage cut in, he is all we see. The Fog of War is McNamara telling his story about 20th century American wars, focusing ultimately on Vietnam, the war he controlled. Morris does not attack, or directly refute, anything that McNamara says, but instead contrasts the man’s words with images of World War II and Vietnam bombing campaigns, for example, as a way of injecting his own anti-war (a simplification, but anyway) philosophy into the film. This, combined with McNamara’s own moral ambivalence about his place in the history of the 20th century, makes The Fog of War’s point of view, finally, unmistakable. Somehow — and I’ll confess that I don’t have a theory as to why this turned out to be the case — no one mistook Morris this time. He, in fact, won the Best Documentary Oscar for that film. Everybody got it. Four years after being pressured into changing his aesthetic for Mr. Death, Morris took another swing at it and everybody said, “Yes, okay, this makes sense.”

Errol Morris began his career making documentaries about “unusual” people. Look at the scientists and lion tamers and gardeners in Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, or the pet cemeterians in Gates of Heaven. His career blew up with the true-crime film The Thin Blue Line, a landmark documentary that changed the course of a man’s life. None of this is to say that before The Fog of War and Mr. Death that Morris’ films were apolitical, but rather his politics were either subtextual or buried under layers of things that interested him more, such as human behavior, motivation and psychology. But after The Fog of War (barring digressions into tabloid insanity in Tabloid and his fascination with photography in The B-Sides), Morris’ films skewed into the overtly political. First, there was Standard Operating Procedures, his brilliant, dispiriting, yet coldly empathetic film about Abu Ghraib, and 2013’s The Unknown Known, his Fog of War-esque documentary about another Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Though he once seemed to seek out obscure stories that could illustrate his philosophy of human existence, the very specific, front-page news stories of modern times seemed now to obsess Morris.

Most recently, we have American Dharma, Morris’ documentary about Steve Bannon, the film producer/director/political strategist/alt-right manipulator who, more than anyone, structured the political campaign that ultimately succeeded in pouring Donald Trump into the Oval Office. In this film, Morris has dispensed with his Interrotron, a camera device he invented that allows his interview subjects to address his questions directly, meaning they appear to be looking directly into the camera (which they are). Morris has used this to great effect for years, but with Bannon he chose to sit across the table from his subject (in a studio constructed to look like the air hangar in 12 O’Clock High). It’s more intimate: You can see Morris (or his back anyway), and you hear him more often having at times a straight, fairly genial conversation with a man whose politics and philosophy he abhors.

You can imagine what happened. When American Dharma was playing festivals, critical reactions were not unlike those that Morris received from that Harvard class that saw the original cut of Mr. Death. In his review for rogerebert.com, critic Peter Sobczynski calls American Dharma “fan service,” because Bannon is familiar with Morris’ work, and goes on to say:

The closest the film ever gets to this point comes when Morris admits that he voted for Clinton over Trump and Bannon seems genuinely baffled that someone who he considered to be on his wavelength would even consider doing such a thing.

This is, in fact, wildly inaccurate. Morris admits to voting for Clinton out of fear in the primary, and in the context of the conversation it’s quite clear that both Morris and Bannon can’t quite believe that he, Morris, didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders. There is no question that Morris would have ever voted for Trump, and the fear he felt that led him to vote for Clinton, came from Trump (as well as Bannon). It’s a disingenuous, or at least thoughtless, review.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody understands the film better, while still disliking the results:

At another moment, after Bannon has emphasized his harnessing of the “angry voices” that filled the comment sections of Breitbart News (of which he was formerly executive chairman) and declared that Trump’s electorate was telling “the establishment, ‘go fuck yourself'," Morris turns the tables on Bannon, calling Trump the “fuck you” President: “You want health care? Fuck you. You want clean drinking water? Fuck you.” Bannon’s momentary silences in the face of such remarks seem like an onscreen scorekeeping (chalk one up for Morris), but it is far less satisfying than a further, confrontational follow-up question might be. Many of Morris’ challenges to Bannon’s assertions come not in discussion but in a sort of cinematic esprit de l’escalier, by presenting (with a variety of effects) headlines, tweets, quotes and clips that undercut or contradict some of Bannon’s claims.

American Dharma - Webster University: Worldwide Events

At other times in the film Morris, for example, calls Bannon crazy and pushes him on the basic racism of his politics. While Bannon is allowed to defend those politics, Morris runs across the screen one headline after another, making explicit the racist consequences of Bannon’s rhetoric. If Morris doesn’t call Bannon an asshole to his face, it’s because he wants to hear him, and understand why we’re here. He calls Bannon an asshole with his film. It also ends with a prophecy of Bannon’s own philosophy of apocalyptic change. Brody writes: “The symbolic apocalypse [that Morris depicts] is, among other things, victimless, even self-sacrificing.” Forgetting, apparently, that the film ends with a blasted landscape (Morris’ own set has gone up in flames) leaving only Bannon. If that’s an image of self-sacrifice, then I’m John Robert Fox.

Morris has a distinct aesthetic and moral philosophy: When confronting someone he disagrees with, even hates, he would rather understand than attack. This strikes me as noble and intelligent. But even though he still criticizes the likes of Leuchter and Bannon throughout those respective films, many audiences and critics would rather he blast them with a metaphorical shotgun, thereby winning points for one side or another, with nothing to hold onto afterward.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Just Close Friends and Family

True Crime (1999)

When Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven came out in 1992, many critics noted, as they could hardly do otherwise, that in this film — which regards the idea of violent retribution with a somewhat jaundiced eye — the legendary actor/director appeared to be looking back on a long career spent making movies that often featured Eastwood using violence for somewhat less morally ambiguous purposes. That last bit, about what kind of films Eastwood made before 1992, is arguable, but in any case that Unforgiven was a work of self-reflection seems undeniable. Eastwood would go on to make other films like this: If anything, 2008’s Gran Torino is even more explicit in its intentions than Unforgiven, as Eastwood’s character deliberately refuses to close the film with the kind of violence everyone in the audience was expecting to see (I know I was).

And in 1999, Eastwood released True Crime, a sort of investigative journalism thriller that has gone almost completely unremarked upon since its release. While I wouldn’t argue it’s better than the other films I’ve mentioned, it is in its way an even more personal work for the director and a more striking example of art as an act of self-examination.

There are a couple of things that Eastwood’s detractors often bring up when trying to make the argument that he is a Bad Person (and this may or may not be hitched to an argument about his actual cinematic work). One is his politics, as he has the temerity to be right-of-center when they would rather he not be, but that doesn’t concern us here. The second is his history with women, which is not exactly admirable. It’s unnecessary to provide a detailed breakdown (these can easily be found online if you’re interested), but suffice it to say that Eastwood’s many infidelities are notorious as are his often neglectful attitude towards some of the children that occasionally resulted from these affairs. I remember reading an interview with Eastwood in which he said that he never had a problem with drugs or alcohol; rather, he said, his problem was women. It could perhaps be more accurately said that Eastwood was a problem for many women.

This is exactly what Eastwood wrestles with in True Crime. As a thriller, the film is fairly engaging, while being fairly loose and casual, as is typical of the director. Eastwood, in his late 60s at the time, plays Steve Everett, a veteran crime reporter at a newspaper in, as his young colleague played by Mary McCormack describes it, “bumfuck California.” When that colleague, with whom he’d been successfully flirting earlier, dies in a car accident, Everett is given the story she’d been assigned: Go to the local prison and interview Frank Beechum (Isaiah Washington), a prisoner set to be executed that night for the murder of a pregnant convenience store employee years before. The assignment is given to Everett by his editor, Bob Findley (Denis Leary). Everett has been having an affair with Findley’s wife (Laila Robins). This fact is known not just by Findley, but apparently by everyone else, including Alan Mann (James Woods), the paper’s managing editor. In addition to all this, Everett is married to Barbara (Diane Venora), with whom he has a young daughter (played by Eastwood’s own young daughter, Francesca). Barbara is the one person ignorant of Everett’s affair.

Jugé Coupable (True Crime) de Clint Eastwood - 1999 - Shangols

Apart from the first and last scenes, True Crime takes place over the course of a single day. Much of that day is given over to Everett’s quest to prove Beechum’s innocence before he’s executed, but his mess of a personal life, his legitimate shittiness as a husband, and his almost smirking disregard for Bob Findley’s pain and anger, doesn’t complicate his noble pursuit to free an innocent man — that obviously remains noble — but it does complicate the audience’s feelings about the man doing the pursuing. At one point, Findley confronts Everett about the affair, and Everett says “I’m sorry, Bob. I really am sorry.” Findley doesn’t accept the apology. “I don’t think you are,” he says. “I don’t think you’re capable of feeling anything for other people.” By the end of this scene, Findley’s sorrow and helplessness (beautifully played, it must be said, by Leary) are plain; the damage Everett has done to him is clear. The possibility of regret is in Eastwood’s eyes.

And yet, later, when the two men clash in Mann’s office over Everett’s approach to the Beechum story — Findley neither likes nor trusts Everett, and wants him to do only the job Findley assigned him to do; Everett knows he’s on to something bigger and to abandon it now would be immoral — Everett has no problem kicking Findley when he’s down. Interpreting Findley’s obstinacy as revenge for the affair, Everett snaps “Hit me, I deserve it. Then go home and hit your wife, she likes it.” (One of the high points of James Woods’ career is the stunned-into-laughter reaction he has to that line.) But Everett is the only person who believes Beechum is innocent — why should Findley’s rejection of the theory make him deserving of that kind of cruelty? Of course it doesn’t, but there is something deeply thoughtless and mean about Everett, something that, as he fades into old age, he’s just becoming aware of. Notice, also, the scene where Everett takes his daughter to the zoo and is so reckless (in fairness, in his attempt to show her a good time) that she’s injured. Everett is not merely a terrible husband, he’s also a thoughtless father. One might consider the casting of his own daughter in this role as significant.

Was Eastwood having a similar moment of clarity in the late 90s? It has to mean something that the key scene of the film, the most memorable and filmically precise, has nothing to do with the Beechum plot at all. Towards the end of the film, Everett comes home and finds his wife Barbara sitting quietly in their dimly lit living room. He sits next to her, and she puts her wedding ring on the coffee table in front of them. “If this were a bullet,” she says, “you’d be dead.” She’s found out about the affair, and it has destroyed her. He begs for forgiveness, and promises to change, and she sobs and isn’t having any of it. “I packed all your stuff,” she says. “You can take it now, you can come back later, just please go now.” It’s a remarkable performance from Venora, who also played a put-upon wife in Heat, a far superior film, but in which, it must be admitted, she plays a bit of a construction, a character who exists to show how fucked up Pacino’s Vincent Hannah is. In True Crime, she’s playing a person who is being fucked up by her husband. One gets the sense that there’s a whole movie about Barbara out there somewhere. Everett, who Eastwood plays as a kind of oblivious goof in most situations unless it pertains to his job, is shocked by the devastation he’s left in his wake and also by the realization that he can’t fix it.

Also remarkable is how the film depicts the three men in the earlier scene, the showdown between Everett and Findley in Mann’s office, in such contrast to Venora’s genuine anguish. It’s an honest depiction of a certain type of men, which is to say, in this case, assholes. At one point, Findley says “I can’t work like this; this environment has become intolerable.” Mann replies “’Intolerable environment,’ what are you like some fuckin’ Feminist? Are you a cooze??” Everett’s scene with Barbara is less than 15 minutes later.

Denis Leary – STEVE ALDOUS

If anyone imagines that Eastwood is oblivious to this contrast, or to the unpleasant irony, I feel confident that they are mistaken. It’s kind of amazing how subtly True Crime sketches out Everett’s failures as a man, while foregrounding his heroism. On one hand, you can’t miss it, but on the other, the extent of the damage isn’t truly felt until Eastwood shows you what his character has done to Barbara. Forget about the exoneration of Beechum: That feels like the real climax of the movie.

Clint Eastwood has never written a film in his life. He has produced, acted, directed, even scored dozens of films, but he’s never written the screenplay for a single one. And he is, by my reckoning, the current living definition of the auteur theory, in that solely, or primarily, as a director, he has pursued themes through various projects, even those that might seem unrelated on the surface. In this way, the auteur, classically, makes a project they did not originate personal to them. True Crime is based on a novel by Andrew Klavan (also right-of-center politically, if that matters) and has three credited screenwriters. Eastwood came in late. But he chose the project, and put himself into it. Laying his flaws bare does not excuse them, of course — no woman hurt by Eastwood in his actual personal life watched True Crime and thought “All right, well, I guess it’s okay, then.” But it is, at least, a film that acknowledges “This is me.” I’m not sure what more an artist can do.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

And the Light From You


When Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs landed in theaters in 1991, and went on to become one of that year’s biggest hits and pick up a shovelful of Oscars, many in the audience didn’t realize that it was, in essence, a sequel. Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal serial killer who has become a somewhat troubling cultural touchstone, was introduced by writer Thomas Harris in his 1981 novel Red Dragon, which he followed up with The Silence of the Lambs in 1988. In between those books, in 1986, Red Dragon was adapted by Michael Mann into a film called Manhunter. By then Mann was deep into his day job as executive producer of Miami Vice, but that show’s success didn’t seem to help Manhunter: it failed at the box office, and reviews were not entirely kind. I, on the other hand, have always loved the film, which I first saw in the late ’80s on VHS. In fact, apart from a brief period of confusion when I labored under the delusion that The Silence of the Lambs was superior, I’ve long understood (note that I didn’t say “believed”) that Manhunter is the best Lecter film, and indeed the best thing to ever come out of the career of Thomas Harris. It achieves emotional and cinematic peaks with this material I’ve seen from no other film.

The plot of Manhunter is a lot like the plot of The Silence of the Lambs: an FBI agent sorta-kinda joins minds with an incarcerated Hannibal Lecter to catch an active and particularly brutal serial killer. Lecter couldn’t care less about innocent people being murdered, but his arrogance, and genius, and love of fucking with the minds of those who hope to understand and cage him, compels him to answer the questions the agents put to him. That’s the simple version of both stories. In Manhunter, the FBI agent is Will Graham (played by William L. Petersen), who when we meet him seems to be retired after several harrowing cases, including the one that brought down Lecter, during which Graham was nearly killed. Jack Crawford, played here by Dennis Farina, wants Graham to come back to stop a killer (Tom Noonan) dubbed The Tooth Fairy by the press because of the bite marks he leaves on some of his victims. The Tooth Fairy baffled the FBI in the course of killing entire families in their homes. Graham, of course, agrees to try to take down The Tooth Fairy.

Apart from Michael Mann’s considerable achievements here, about which more in a bit, it’s hard to imagine Manhunter being as bracing, troubling, and emotionally exciting if William Petersen hadn’t played Graham. In 1986, Petersen didn’t exactly get rave reviews for his performance; Dave Kehr wrote he’d been “saddled” with a “whispery monotone,” and the Los Angeles Times’s Sheila Benson suggested that “although he’s good enough in the role, Petersen is less than charismatic. The camera doesn’t much love him and neither, I fear, do we.” First of all, what’s this “we” jazz? Second, it seems to me that “charisma” is kind of beside the point when considering Will Graham, and Petersen’s performance. As Mann says in his commentary track for the director’s cut of Manhunter on the Scream Factory Blu-ray, “there is a killer inside Graham.” In other words, the reason Graham is so good at his job is because he has been suppressing his own violent urges, possibly his whole life. Lecter knows it, too. When Graham first visits him in prison, Lecter (an absolutely brilliant Bryan Cox, and we’re going to stick with Lecter despite Manhunter’s odd decision to brand him “Lecktor”), Lecter intuits that Graham doesn’t really care what he thinks about The Tooth Fairy: “You came here to get a look at me, to get the old scent back again, didn’t you? Would you like to leave me your home phone number? Do you know how you caught me? The reason you caught me, Will, is we’re just alike. Do you understand? Smell yourself.” It should be pointed out that while Lecter is saying all this, Graham is pounding furiously on the locked door to signal the guard that he wants to leave. There is a snake in Graham’s brain. It would be a mistake to play such a character with a spark, a twinkle. Petersen plays him as a sentient thundercloud, and that strikes me as exactly right.

Of course, Peterson could light up the screen like no actor before him, but it wouldn’t make any difference if Michael Mann didn’t also step up to the plate. Again, at the time Mann was steeped in Miami Vice (though strictly speaking, it wasn’t his show; he didn’t create it, and he’s not credited with directing a single episode), and his aesthetic as a filmmaker has long been compared to that show, both favorably and unfavorably. As far as I’m concerned, it pays off swimmingly in Manhunter. Look at Petersen’s Graham: thundercloud though he may be, his clothes could not be more fashionable, his facial hair any more finely trimmed. This suggests not the blind following of a pre-selected aesthetic, but rather a precision in the mind of the character. Look at the all-white, brutalist prison housing Lecter, or the aggressive, even unnatural blue of Graham’s sanctuary, the beach home he shares with his wife (Kim Greist) and son. Blue is probably Mann’s defining color; it practically envelops Heat and The Insider, bathing each, and Manhunter as well, in an oceanic wash that can feel, depending on the film, cold and isolating or, counterintuitively, warm and welcoming. Mann is able to twist colors to his will.



Part of Manhunter’s power derives from how it comes off as both of the 1980s and against the 1980s. The scenes with Graham and Crawford working with their task force in a blindingly lit conference room seem to exist in a world that could have never imagined Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. They are plain in a deliberate sense, stark, conversational, professional, in a way that reflects Mann’s deep understanding of his subject.

Where Michael Mann is perhaps most distinguished, however, in the sense that his talents in this area become almost alchemical in nature, is in his use of incidental pop music. I’m not alone among fans of this director’s work in thinking that, not infrequently, Mann will use a song in one of his films that I would never listen to under any other circumstance, but which in the context of a particular Mann film absolutely soars. This is all in the ear of the beholder, of course, but consider “Heartbeat” by Red 7, which closes out Manhunter. I can’t imagine reaching a point in my life when I would actively choose to listen to this song, yet Michael Mann, because of the mood and vibe he has meticulously constructed, makes it seem, if not quite triumphant, than at least a signal of positive transition.

See also “Strong as I Am” by the Prime Movers, played here in the moment that The Tooth Fairy — real name Francis Dolarhyde (a character name so perfect you can’t even explain why, and full credit to Thomas Harris) — mistakenly decides that his blind girlfriend Reba (Joan Allen) has been unfaithful. Francis’s mind, which had possibly been repairing itself in the wake of Reba’s sincere affection, snaps anew, resulting in a new spasm of violence. It’s a big song, all breathlessly operatic vocals and blamming drums that somehow drown out the demurely screeching guitars, but it comes off like a recording of Dolarhyde’s psyche in that moment — his ability to murder gives him strength over everybody. Listening to the song just now, it didn’t do a hell of a lot for me. But I can’t imagine Manhunter without it.

Then again, musically speaking, it’s not always so complicated with Mann. Most obviously, the original score to 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman is world-class, one of the great film scores period; and then also, more relevantly, his application of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” at Manhunter’s climax, which cannot be described, but only experienced. But the most powerful use of music, at least of incidental rock music, in a Michael Mann film may well be Shriekback’s “This Big Hush.” More even than “Strong as I Am,” this is Francis Dolarhyde’s song. As played by the great Tom Noonan, in a towering performance, Dolarhyde is one of the most terrifying human beings ever put on screen. We’ve seen him inflict pure horror on another person (specifically Lounds, the tabloid asshole, played by Stephen Lang who is twitchy, sweaty, awful, great) in a scene that is almost cosmic in its psychotic grandeur (“Here I … am.”). And we will hear Graham sum up his position on men like Dolarhyde in a way that I, at least, find it difficult to argue with: “My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.”

But crucially, Mann shows you that the monster was manufactured. After his first night with Reba, the painfully self-conscious Dolarhyde lies awake in bed, Reba asleep beside him, and he pulls her hand over his mouth and sets it there, and he begins to weep. This is a man who has probably been happy only one time in his entire life, and that was last night. Now he’s already beginning to disbelieve it, as Shriekback plays: “The ashes and the fire/Turning this night inside/And the light from you.” This is the power and humanity of Manhunter. If this is style over substance, I’ll take it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Human Spirograph


In 1988, Bob Hoskins starred in the Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a massive, effects-heavy Hollywood blockbuster directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg. As down-on-his-luck private eye Eddie Valiant, Hoskins acted opposite cartoon characters like the titular rabbit, the rabbit's wife Jessica, and several nefarious weasels, as well as more famous creations like Betty Boop, Yosemite Sam, and so on. Hoskins made what must have been rather difficult look effortless. The film was an enormous success, boosting Hoskins’ profile in Hollywood, and remains a pretty delightful piece of work. He worked steadily in America thereafter. To this day, it seems like a small miracle that Hoskins (by no means Spielberg or Zemeckis’ first choice) got the part, not least because in one of the films he appeared in the previous year, Mike Hodges’ A Prayer for the Dying, Bob Hoskins plays a priest in Northern Ireland battling with a troubled past (while trying to help remorseful, yet nihilistic, IRA terrorist Mickey Rourke find redemption) who at one point beats in the face of a gangster with the lid of a garbage can.

Hoskins could successfully embody both characters thanks to his very specific look: Short in stature, compact in build, constantly in the process of balding, he was like an ambulatory, unpredictable fire hydrant. His gruff, cracked voice and thick Cockney accent could be made to sound incredulous, or innocent, or malevolent. His eyes could make him look naive, or like he had murder in his heart. The most remarkable thing about this range is that Hoskins, either by chance or because he sought out these parts, could often do all of this in the same movie. A Prayer for the Dying is a decent case in point: His Father De Costa wants only to see the end of violence in Ireland but has a clenched fist inside him aching to be swung. But Hoskins made a clutch of British crime films in the 1980s from which this idea emerges almost as a connective theme.

An even better example is 1980s The Long Good Friday, one of the defining, and best, films of Hoskins’ career. Directed by David McKenzie and written by Barrie Keeffe, it’s arguably the true epitome of the British crime film. (Its stiffest competition is likely Get Carter directed by, hey look at that, Mike Hodges.) One thing that distinguishes The Long Good Friday is its fairly ingenious premise: British gangster Harold Shand (Hoskins) is working on an important deal that will at least partially legitimize him (at least in his own mind) as a businessman, but on the day — which happens to be Good Friday — that the deal is to be solidified, the murders of his confederates destabilize everything. Who is behind these killings? How can they be stopped? The film, which takes place over the course of that one long Good Friday, mercilessly puts the screws to Shand until everything explodes.

Hoskins’ approach to the role is surprising. Looking out from Hoskins’ eyes, Shand can, for long stretches of the film, seem like a fairly normal, even friendly person. But he wields as a weapon a brutality equal to whatever group is apparently stalking him. In one scene, he has members of rival gangs brought to a meat locker, hung upside down by their ankles, and threatens to freeze them to death if they don’t tell him who’s behind the murders. Later, when he discovers that his right-hand man (Derek Thomson) stupidly set into the motion the chain of events that led to this mess, Shand goes from anger to a sudden, untethered rage, which he uses a broken bottle to express. It’s sudden, and terrifying. This confused little bulldog has just turned psychotic.

But it’s that confusion that is the key to Hoskins’ genius. In a scene late in the film, Hoskins and his girlfriend Victoria (Helen Mirren) are at home, each at a loss about what to do next. Running his hand over his head, sitting down numbly, Shand says “What’s happening to it? … For 10 years, it’s been calm. Now this.” Victoria breaks down and the two embrace on the couch, weeping. “I don’t want to die,” Victoria sobs. “Don’t let them kill us.” Shand says he won’t let that happen, but in Hoskins’ face you see he is just as terrified. And of course, in The Long Good Friday’s famous last shot, all the viewer gets is his face again, for minutes on end, Hoskins as a powerful mob boss, now completely helpless and terrified. It’s among the most pure, expressive, and chilling pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.

Five years later, Hoskins would star in a film that would earn him Best Actor at Cannes, an Academy Award nomination, and would change his career: Mona Lisa. Written and directed by Neil Jordan (who would later go on to make The Crying Game, a film that is essentially a reworking of Mona Lisa), it’s a British crime film done as a romance. Hoskins stars as George, a low-level member of a criminal organization run by Michael Caine. George was recently released from prison, and has re-entered the gang as a kind of chauffeur. The audience knows that George did his time without giving up anyone else; given this, he thinks he should be treated with more respect. But he’s too meek, too naive, and has too much misplaced respect for Caine’s Denny to be very aggressive about it. So he earns his living driving around a prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson) to visit her rich clients. George and Simone initially butt heads, eventually become friends, and finally George falls in love with her. Crucially — and the audience can see this before George can — Simone does not fall in love with George. The reason why a romantic relationship is impossible will become clear in time, and leave George furious, alone, feeling disrespected and impotent. His anger at Simone is both just and unjust, and he knows that, and so his frustration builds.

George, though the lead of the film, never becomes the hero. Nor does he ever descend into villainy. His wish is merely to free Simone from Denny’s clutches (he wants this before and after she rejects him). However, while he has the necessary bravery, he never has the cunning. If Simone’s going to be free, someone else will have to take charge. Mona Lisa, like The Long Good Friday, has its own eruption of impulsive violence, but this time Hoskins’ character has nothing to do with it. In fact, he cries out for it to stop. The whole film, George is in over his head, and Hoskins plays him at first with a certain warmth  and eagerness. Hoskins had a big smile, and his George seems like the friendliest gangster you could ever meet. It’s that friendliness that gets him in trouble. Hoskins plays George as someone who was not cut out for the world of crime. He’s used by Denny, and he’s used by Simone, and so really what he should do is just leave and spend time with his daughter and his best friend (Robbie Coltrane). There is ultimately a sweetness to Mona Lisa that suits Hoskins. The fact that the nihilism of The Long Good Friday also suited him is why we remember him.

Bob Hoskins passed away in 2014, less than two years after announcing his retirement from acting after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The hole in world cinema caused by his absence is considerable; not only is his marvelously unique talent and presence gone, but gone, too, is the era when someone like him could be cast as the lead in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I even doubt, were Hoskins still alive and Jordan making Mona Lisa today, that Jordan would be able to get the film financed with Hoskins attached. Jordan would still want to, of course, but the market wouldn’t permit it. Or so the argument would go. Fortunately for us, his filmography is extensive and varied: One random six-year span of his career includes roles in Atom Egoyan’s weird and sinister Felicia’s Journey, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates, in which he plays Nikita Krushchev, Stephen Frear’s light ribald comedy Mrs. Henderson Presents, and an episode of Frasier. He was, in the end, an actor everyone loved. Charming, funny, endearing, whose mere presence in a film immediately improved it.

But speaking for myself, I will never forget that mad dog impulsiveness, or that broken bottle.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Our Brief College Days



When David Mamet’s play Oleanna premiered on Broadway in 1992, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings were less than a year in the past. Perhaps – or even more than likely – as a result, Oleanna, which is about, let us say, escalating tensions between a male professor at an upscale but unnamed college and a shy, struggling female student, became in the eyes of critics and audiences an acerbic examination of sexual harassment and political correctness. Much controversy ensued, leading in some cases to actual protests, and threats made against William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon, the stars of the play. Though it would be disingenuous to claim the Hill-Thomas case played no part in inspiring Mamet to write Oleanna, his insistence at the time that power, not sexual harassment, was his subject, is impossible to refute when you look at the play or the subsequent film that Mamet himself directed just two years later. A film made, maybe, in the hopes that people would get it this time.

That film was provided, by some marketing department somewhere, with the tagline “Whatever side you take, you’re wrong.” This has the whiff of empty provocation about it, and doubtless that was the spirit in which it was written, but it’s also fundamentally accurate. However, before going any further, the basics of Oleanna should be laid out. John is a professor at what one might take to be an Ivy League university, who, as the story begins, is in his office, talking on the phone with his wife, discussing the house they’re trying to buy. The audience can assume this is after his normal office hours, but also present is one of his students, Carol (this time played by Deborah Eisenstadt), who has come to talk to John about the failing grade she received on a paper she wrote for his class. When the two are finally able to talk, Carol, who is in a panic about failing the class, practically begs John to help her because she sits in class and doesn’t understand a word anyone is saying. John, not unwilling to help but also in a hurry and kind of, let’s face it, a prick, at first dismisses her as someone who knew the rules of grading when she came to college. Gradually, however, her fear and vulnerability break through and he does attempt, sincerely, to help her. Over the course of the remaining, say, 70 minutes of the film, this goes increasingly poorly.

In the final scene, we see that Carol has completed her journey from mousey and skittish to angry and confident in her own righteousness, while John has spiraled into near-hopelessness. In addition to being fired (they’re meeting again in his office, maybe during his last week there), we’re about to learn, at the same time John does, that Carol has formally accused him of attempted rape, a crime of which we know he is entirely innocent. Added to this is Carol saying to John, while he, furiously dismissing her from his office and back on the phone with his wife, to whom he says “I can’t talk right now, baby, “Don’t call your wife baby.” Which I hope we can all agree is none of her business. Though perhaps we can’t. Oleanna’s not controversial for nothin’. In any event, this tears it, as far as John is concerned, and he begins to viciously beat Carol.

I can imagine there are some people in the audience, both of the play and the film, who, when this happens, were at minimum inwardly gleeful over this release of violence. I can imagine with similar ease that there are people who flinch from it but believe the intent is to excite those vile pigs elsewhere in the theater. Well, whatever side you take you’re wrong. At the end, John, about to batter (kill?) Carol with a heavy wooden chair, freezes, a look of dawning horror coming over his face. “Oh my God,” he says, and then repeats it. A tearful, cowering Carol replies “Yes, that’s right.” Down goes the curtain and/or up comes the lights.

In an interview with John Lahr for The Paris Review, some years after the film came out, David Mamet said John, in that moment, “realizes that he is perhaps the cause of the plague on Thebes.” If you know your Sophocles, you’ll recall that in Oedipus Rex it is revealed that Thebes has been ravaged by a terrible pestilence due to a curse that Oedipus, the Theban king, inadvertently brought upon the city himself by, as a result of a complicated mix-up, killing his father and sleeping with his mother. He didn’t mean to do it, but he still did it.

But if John didn’t attempt to rape Carol – and he didn’t – and he if Carol should keep her nose out of the terms of endearment used between John and his wife – and she should – then what did John do? Well, let me tell you what he did. And it’s interesting, when you consider that as divisive a figure as Mamet already was, how he only became more infuriating (to some) when in 2008 he declared that he was “no longer a brain-dead liberal” (his work subsequent to that announcement was declared, and not unreasonably, by many of those who were newly infuriated to be not much different in theme or tone to what had preceded it), to look at Oleanna in 2020 and ask (rhetorically and in one’s own head) the people outraged by the play and the film, and by Mamet in general, “But wait, don’t you agree with almost everything he’s saying here?”

The key moment comes after John has warmed to Carol and decided he genuinely wants to help her (but also after she has snapped at him for interrupting her, which both of them do to each other constantly anyway) and she asks him about his apparent disdain for higher education. Carol quotes him: “You said that education was ‘prolonged and systematic hazing.’” John says “Yes, it can be so.” Carol, naturally enough, wants to know if this is the case, why does he teach? To which John replies “I do it because I love it.”

At this point in the film, Mamet cuts to Carol for a beat. What John meant by “I do it because I love it” can be reasonably interpreted as “I love to teach, I love to impart my knowledge onto the youth of America” or something like that. But in the context of their exchange, and in the context of their relationship, Carol is wondering, and not unreasonably, if he might actually mean “I do it because I love prolonged and systematic hazing.” Add this on to John agreeing to wipe out her failing grade and give her an A for the whole class if she will agree to meet with him for private instruction (something he seems sincere about, with no ulterior motive, but, I mean…) because, as he tells her, “I like you,” and who can really blame Carol for suddenly feeling immense, if confusing, pressure?

And while she wants help, and wants to pass, John’s solution to simply give her an A, however generous his motives, she takes as an insult. As she says in the second scene:

“And you think it’s charming to ‘question’ in yourself this taste to mock and destroy. But you should question it. Professor. And you pick those things which you feel advance you: publication, tenure, and the steps to get them you call “harmless rituals.” And you perform those steps. Although you say it is hypocrisy. But to the aspirations of your students. Of hardworking students, who come here, who slave to come here – you have no idea what it cost me to come to this school – you mock us. You call education “hazing,” and from your so-protected, so-elitist seat you hold our confusion as a joke, and our hopes and efforts with it.”

It would be unreasonable, I suppose, to write anything about Oleanna in 2020 and not make some kind of joke about William H. Macy, and the college admissions scandal he and his wife Felicity Huffman found themselves embroiled in last year, but please, I beg you, let my bringing it up at all count as that joke. On the other hand, when that story broke, of course somebody went to David Mamet for a statement on the matter. His response was published by The Hollywood Reporter. I’m not going to quote it at length, but the opening sentence should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Oleanna: “I worked for very many years in and around our Elite Universities. I am able to report that their admissions policies are an unfortunate and corrupt joke.” Oleanna is not about college admissions, at least not explicitly, but it’s also not not about that (“you have no idea what it cost me to come to this school”). The whole idea of Oleanna is the ruthless power that Mamet believes colleges wield, however unconsciously on the individual level of professors like John, over their students. As Carol gains strength from her sense of righteousness (fueled by a vague “group” she says she’s joined, and which is often interpreted as radical feminists but which, in the film, is much more clearly a student’s rights advocacy group), she lectures John about his privilege that lets him feel so casual and entitled about his place in the university in relation to hers. And Mamet means this. He’s not taking down “political correctness” when he has Carol say “Do you know what you’ve worked for? Power. For power…And you sit there, and you tell me stories. About your house, about all the private schools, and about privilege, and how your are entitled. To buy, to spend, to mock, to summon.” The height of John’s lack of self-awareness comes when, after smugly denouncing higher education, he mentions the frustrations inherent in trying to get his son into private school.

But John did not try to rape Carol. He didn’t. He does, at the end of the second scene, put his hands on her in an attempt to get her to stay and listen to him because he’s desperate that they should work out their differences. But he doesn’t try to rape her. The fact that by the end of Oleanna her assertion that he did has gained traction at least within the university, thereby destroying his career, only strengthens Mamet’s claim that this is about power, not harassment or political correctness. When John had power, which he gained by Carol choosing to take his class, his attempts to educate her come with smug condescension, self-regarding generosity, and a complete ignorance of the sacrifices Carol and her family had to make to put her in his office in the first place. When Carol takes power for herself, which she obtains merely by accusing John of an awful crime he didn’t commit, she takes the opportunity to lecture him about everything wrong he’s done in his life and career, from regarding education with a cynical eye to calling his wife “Baby.” They're both only trying to help. But you can't help if you don't have power.

Edited by Sonny Bunch

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Where I've Been

No photo description available.

Hey everybody! If you don't follow me on Twitter, but read this blog, you should know two things: one is that this blog is not dead! Second, lately I've been writing about films over at Rebeller. I keep mean to mention that here and then I forget, so I'm doing it now while it's still fresh in my mind. There have been four pieces so far. Please see the links below!

(By the way, it's a subscription site, but it's only a couple bucks a month. Also I believe there is a free option, where you get a certain number of articles free per month. You can learn more on the main page.)

An essay about how some films try to make the audience hate their villains before the villain has done anything wrong, through political and cultural signifiers.

A look at the self-criticism that's right out in the open in Clint Eastwood's True Crime.

A celebration of Bob Hoskins, mainly via The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa.

And finally, hot of the presses, this piece about the many bad faith criticisms of the work of Wes Anderson, which always ramp up when he has a new movie coming out.

Read them all! Please and thank you.

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