In the truest of mutual back-scratches (and maybe more), Salon interviewed (link requires that you look at an ad) an Episcopal clergyman from San Francisco who wrings his hands over how “an unsophisticated audience” might take THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
Or as Dale Price put it: “At this point, your septum should start deviating as a result of the derisive snorting. This is what the hoi polloi think of you, folks. They’re the sophisticates, you’re the extra y-chromosome types who blather on endlessly about your Bronze Age Palestinian sky god.”
For a sense of the article’s flavor (and a superhuman test of endurance), try to read this sentence from the Salon interviewer while holding down your last meal:
“Mel Gibson is a Catholic Traditionalist, an offshoot of Catholicism that rejected the papacy and the reforms of the Vatican II in 1965, which, among other things, repudiated the charge of deicide against the Jews.”
Let me count the mistakes and irrelevancies. 1) Gibson’s own affiliation is not definitively known, unlike his father’s; 2) no anti-V2 Catholic Traditionalist groups of my acquaintance “reject the papacy,” though some (but not all) reject the last several popes and believe Peter’s Seat is vacant; 3) V-2 did not repudiate the deicide charge in any sense that would necessarily bind a Gospel period piece; 4) in my experience of Catholic Tradionalism (which is limited, but I’m guessing is a bit greater than the Salon interviewer’s and interviewee’s put together), the Jewish deicide issue is about #186 in their list of (often reasonable) complaints, which much more commonly focus on liturgical issues, ecumenism, and authority within the Church. And that’s just one sentence.
I have a year-end ballot to finish filling out, so I can’t give this any more time than I already have. More-thorough dismantlings of this ridiculous love-in can be found here from Dale Price and here from Christopher Johnson. But the mother of all fiskings, as said by even Messrs. Price and Johnson, is by Secret Agent Man.
Father Sibley posted on his blog the link to a map that lets you see where Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST will be playing when it opens Ash Wednesday. A poster in his comment field then noted the lack of theaters in Manhattan booking the film, just one, with some in the other boroughs, but still a surprisingly small number for the nation’s cultural capital, considering that THE PASSION is getting the full 2,000-screen opening nationwide.
So I looked at my own metro area, and found the same pattern in the listings for DC, Virginia and Maryland. THE PASSION will only open in one theater in Washington DC and in one theater in the biggest and closest counties of Northern Virginia (Arlington and Fairfax). Offsetting that some is the fact it will open in 6 theaters in suburban Maryland (Prince George’s and Montgomery counties) and eight in the farther-out NoVa counties like Prince William, Loudon and Stafford. And there’s the possibility of multiple screens obviously — the particular DC theater is a 7-plex; the Arlington facility has 12 screens. But for comparison’s sake, here are some Virginia population sizes: 2 theaters in DC/Arlington/Fairfax — population of 1.7 million; 3 in Richmond — population of 200,000; 2 in Charlottesville — city proper, 45,000.
According to the same map, THE PASSION will open in 5 (five) theaters in Los Angeles (scroll down or use the search box above, on the PASSION site page) and also in 5 (five) theaters in … (drumroll, please) … Alaska. I didn’t search for any of the numerous LA suburbs (Adam?), but Los Angeles proper is still an awfully big city (3.7 million — almost six times the population of Alaska) and somewhat important in the film industry one would think, that the city itself suffices for the point of my comparison. I checked the listing for New York state and found 8 theaters in New York’s five boroughs (though I don’t know the region’s geography well enough to judge the number for NYC suburbs). Or exactly the number of theaters (8) as the Tidewater corner of Southeastern Virginia — Norfolk, Chesapeake, Newport News, Virginia Beach, Suffolk.
This is an unconventional booking strategy and is a clear indication of how Gibson plans to make a box-office hit — from red-state audiences with minimal reliance on the blue-state metro areas; hence the months of courting Christian preachers and cold-shouldering the ADL and the opinion-leaders in journalism and film criticism.
(Idle thought #1: Does the mass American moviegoing public realize that THE PASSION has subtitles, something they have hated and punished at the box office since the birth of the talkies?)
(Idle thought #2: Have there been any critics screenings yet, less than a month before opening? Enough pro critics read this blog that I know that if my guess that there have been none is wrong, I’ll be corrected).
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN used a not-dissimilar marketing strategy. It opened in late September on a few dozen screens in the South and Midwest, and concentrated on smaller and medium-sized cities for weeks before it played any of the country’s biggest Metro areas (Washington and Los Angeles got the film in mid-November; as far as I can tell, it has still never played New York or Chicago). But GOSPEL is a small film that has never played on more than 113 screens nationwide in any given week, so that was a traditional “rollout” strategy; it just reversed the customary order for the bigger and smaller cities. If GOSPEL were to have become a hit, it would have been in the MY BIG FAT JUDEAN EXECUTION mould. But dissing the biggest cities is just not done by a 2,000-screen-opening-week movie.
This booking strategy also tells me that Gibson’s distributors are preparing for a critical drubbing from the nation’s film-critic establishment, much of which is liberal or radical and based in New York, Los Angeles and a few other big metro areas. Playing THE PASSION relatively little in those cities seems like a way to immunize the film from their expected reaction. Or as making provision with defenses and barriers against fortuna, which I compare to one of those raging rivers …
A friend leaked to me this important letter, an example of the sort of support worthy of the Democratic National Committee and (most of) the party’s White House hopefuls:
Thank you for giving the opportunity to speak my mind.
I lost my job this past year. When Clinton was president, I worked in a prosperous enterprise. But in the last year, we had to close our operations. We simply could not compete with foreign labor. This foreign labor worked for low pay under very bad conditions. They worked very long shifts, and many even died on the job. This competition could hardly be called “fair.” I was forced out of the place where I had worked for 34 years. Not a single government program was there to help me. How can Bush call himself “compassionate?”
Far worse, I lost two of my sons in Bush’s evil war in Iraq. They gave their lives for their country, and for what? So that Bush’s oil buddies can get rich. My pain of losing my sons is indescribable. While it is trivial next to the loss of my sons, I regret to say that I also lost my home. I simply had nothing left. How can Bush call himself a Christian when he neglects people like me?
I am a senior citizen with various medical problems. I’m not in a position where I can begin a new career. I was reduced to the point where I was basically homeless, all because of President Bush.
Mr. Bush, I dare you to look me in the face and tell me you are a compassionate man! I dare you to look me in the face and tell me you are a Christian!
If I had any money left, I would donate it to the Democratic party. If Al Gore had been elected in 2000, I guarantee I would still have a job, a home, and most importantly, my dear sons!
Having trouble with my phone line at home (cursed ice storm), so I couldn’t write up my reaction to the Oscar nominations until now (the complete list is here.)
The year’s best film IMNHO was CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, which was unfortunately was a documentary and therefore in years past its quality and critical popularity would have guaranteed that it would not get a nomination as Best Documentary. But not this year. Not only was FRIEDMANS nominated, but the other candidate for the year’s most widely-praised documentary, THE FOG OF WAR, was picked too. Though I’ve expressed my doubts and crushed high expectations about FOG, it’s also good that finally the Academy acknowledges the existence of the country’s most important documentarian — Errol Morris. And all three of the others were films that I have heard of, that played in theaters, and that was generally well-liked by the few critics who saw them. The documentary branch for years had a nearly perfect record of ignoring the one film that year that *had* to be on the list — Morris’ own THE THIN BLUE LINE, ROGER & ME, CRUMB, HOOP DREAMS, HEARTS OF DARKNESS. But this year and last, they seem to have gotten their heads screwed on straight. Last year, four of the five nominees were BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, WINGED MIGRATION, SPELLBOUND and DAUGHTER FROM DANANG — all films that, regardless of my varied particular opinions of them, were strong enough *as films* to get substantial critical praise and to win (with the exception of DANANG) a very broad and hugely popular commercial release by documentary standards.
Some major nominations going to foreign films. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE scored a nomination for best animated feature nomination and one for best song. And then there was all the love for CITY OF GOD — four nominations, including two major ones (script and director). I’m under no illusions that either is likely to win anything — for a foreign film, it is really true that the honor is just being nominated (some exceptions duly noted, including last year’s script win for Almodovar’s excellent TALK TO HER). According to the Associated Press, when director Fernando Meirelles heard of the nominations, he asked “Has the Academy gone mad?” No, Fernando: you just did good. I’ll have more to say here about this great film, which will be out on home video in a couple of weeks, when I do my Top 10 essay this weekend.
The near-shutout suffered by COLD MOUNTAIN in the major categories — film, actress, director, script (yes … adapted script). I don’t begrudge Renee her nomination (and likely win), but what exactly was distinguished about Jude Law? Have I mentioned that I don’t care for this fantasy for the art-house audience? One Southerner of my acquaintance high-fived me, and told me that when he had heard of the film’s Oscar flop, he was dancing on the toilet bowl.
Finally, a Best Actor nomination for Bill Murray, and he might even win, though my money would be on Sean Penn (insert this rant from yesterday about the Academy giving short shrift to comedy and comic actors).
While I’m not crazy about most of the particular choices, it is good to note that the Academy actually acknowledged that films get released in the first 11 months of the year. Last year, all five nominees were released Dec. 18 or later. This year: LORD OF THE RINGS 3 on Dec. 17; MASTER AND COMMANDER on Nov. 14; MYSTIC RIVER on Oct. 8; LOST IN TRANSLATION on Sept. 12 and SEABISCUIT on July 25. Perhaps the shortened awards season this year (and the screener ban) made the end-of-year booking strategy not viable. Or maybe the voters just didn’t care for MONSTER, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, 21 GRAMS, THE COMPANY, COLD MOUNTAIN, IN AMERICA, BIG FISH, GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING and CALENDAR GIRLS.
The absolute shutout suffered by THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS. That’s not so much a surprise, I guess, as a disappointment about what I think was the best American fiction film of last year. I well realized it wasn’t gonna be a major player, since it was released in August and did poorly at the box office. But it still hurts that there was no room at the inn for its script and that Campbell Scott has nothing to show for the two of the best performances by an American male of recent years (this one and ROGER DODGER — so amazing because the characters in question are nothing like one another). Grrr … oh well: DENTISTS came out on home video last week and I heartily recommend it as one of the most realistic and dry-eyedly romantic depictions of family life I’ve ever seen.
The nomination of Tim Robbins and his collection of gestures masquerading as a performance in MYSTIC RIVER for anything other than a Razzie. Have I mentioned here before that I *hate* that performance. I suppose I can see the logic … that’s Acting. In fact I’ve never so *much* Acting in a noncomic performance in my life. You see every twitch and halt, and all the blood, sweat and tears that went into this, The Ultimate Performance. It’s discouraging that even professional actors are again mistaking playing a handicap (or someone of the opposite sex, who ages 100 years, etc.) as acting.
No Scarlett Johansson. She gives two of the year’s best lead female performances — in LOST IN TRANSLATION and GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING — and gets shut out. And not because neither film was up the Academy’s alley — LOST was one of the big winners and PEARL was a December prestige release that did get several (very deserved) nods in the technical categories. Maybe the two performances canceled each other out. Or maybe the Academy just prefers telegraphed collections of body-language tics to using your eyes and face and just *existing* on camera.
A three-judge panel in Atlanta Wednesday rejected a court challenge to Florida’s ban on adoption by homosexuals from four gay men, thus spoiling Fox’s sitcom lineup for next year. Here is the nut quote from the Associated Press account of the decision. Keep in mind this is a sitting federal judge talking:
“We exercise great caution when asked to take sides in an ongoing public policy debate,” Judge Stanley Birch wrote in the unanimous decision by the three-judge panel. “Any argument that the Florida Legislature was misguided in its decision is one of legislative policy, not constitutional law.”
What? *A sitting federal judge* says it’s not his role to pass judgment on every legislative judgment. How did this guy get through law school? How did he pass the ABA vetting? How did Charles Schumer and Patrick Leahy let him on the bench? Doesn’t Judge Birch know that letting the people’s legislatures decides moral issues is racist?
I propose therefore the following compromise on the deeply divisive issues of cloning and stem-cell research. Conservatives will drop our objections if we can clone 100 Judge Stanley Birches and put them on the federal bench. And his stem cells should be sold over-the-counter and, if necessary, forcibly implanted into all pregnancies in the Hamptons, Marin County and Malibu.
MONSTER (Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003, 7)
OK, Charlize Theron IS in full-beg “please give me an Oscar” mode, uglying herself up to play prostitute and serial-killer Aileen Wuornos. But just because you beg for something doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it (and I’ve thought Theron one of the better actresses among Hollywood hotties for some time; you can see behind her eyes).
This is a great performance, in no small part because it’s not all just Nervous Twitching Tics and Big Moments. Those tics becomes stronger later in the film, but by then her murder “career” is spinning out of control and the excuses Wuornos makes to herself for her murders are becoming thinner and thinner. She’s losing her grip, but in a believable arc.
But what makes the performance is how she inhabits the character’s body language earlier — Theron nails a certain sort of habitual swagger in the walk, and a bored look on her face while hooking. She’s just as believable sitting at a dive bar, soaked, drinking her last $5, and communicating one of the most difficult emotions to convey — dead-end tiredness. We don’t even need the line saying that she had decided to kill herself if God didn’t send her some future — in the person of lesbian Christina Ricci, who becomes her lover and eventually inspires her murder rampage. Ricci is … yawn … as terrific as always, though again in the underappreciated “straight man” … uh … role.
I do have one problem with this film though. In his panegyric to MONSTER (which he named the best film of the year), Roger Ebert says, “There are no excuses for what she does, but there are reasons, and the purpose of the movie is to make them visible.” I don’t agree. I think the film dances damn close to making excuses for Wuornos — not because reasons = excuses (clearly, that’s not necessarily so), but because MONSTER caricatures the messenger in the two or three places where it makes some pretty obvious moral points.
For example, there is a scene where Ricci’s custodian/aunt tells Ricci that lots of people have shit childhoods but don’t become hookers or junkies (amp that up quite a bit to apply to murder). But the aunt character is played throughout the movie as a hysterical, prudish harpie and this particular line comes 5 seconds after she uses the word “nigger” and immediately says “now, I’m not a racist.” Yeah, right.
Still, there’s too much to like here to dismiss the film. And one other thing — MONSTER does demonstrate definitively and unquestionably that Journey is awesome.
THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG — Vadim Perelman, USA, 2003, 8
Four Decembers ago, I walked without especially high expectations into THE END OF THE AFFAIR, a bit of Oscar-bait that was respectfully reviewed but was a box-office bust and did poorly at year-end awards. It’s now half-forgotten, I’d say, but I will take to my grave that experience of one of the best films of recent years, a film that had me in tears for the whole second half, which I’ve now seen about 12 times, and to which I responded as personally as if Neil Jordan had made it for me, and me alone.
THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is that same kind of movie — a stately, inevitable march through characters, neither good nor evil, but trapped by coincidence and circumstance until it spins into a fog-bound tragedy. HOUSE has a real novelistic quality — and I mean that as a compliment — like a Victorian gothic set in the present-day about the claims of two families on a house overlooking the sea.
Jennifer Connelly inherited the house from her father, but the county has repossessed it for delinquent taxes — a point she disputes. But while her appeal is pending, the house is purchased by Ben Kingsley, an Iranian Air Force colonel under the Shah. His assets and family’s ability to keep up appearances are dwindling and he buys the home at repossession prices as an investment. There is a sequence early when Kingsley is shown working two menial jobs in rags, changes into gentlemen’s clothes for home, and curtly tells off a swanky-hotel worker who questions him because of his appearance. This is the opposite of the general American custom (dress up at work and down at home) and is one of many ways Kingsley, in a brilliant performance, creates a man from an honor-based culture without making him a petty tyrant.
And that’s part of the other truly special feature of this film — that it caricatures nobody, despite ample “culture-clash” opportunity. I saw Jean Renoir’s masterpiece THE RULES OF THE GAME on TV again recently with its most famous line “That’s the truly horrible thing; that everybody has his reasons” — and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is a film entirely in that spirit. The film has no heroes or villains, and lets the conflict play itself out, and not in ways you can necessarily predict.
One of the great pleasures of this film is that, even though you know unspecifically that it ends tragically (think the flashback structure of SUNSET BOULEVARD), it is one of the increasingly-rare films where the first 10 minutes basically doesn’t set up everything else that happens. There. Is. A. Plot. To. Follow. Huzzah!!!!
And yet … still … it wasn’t made for me, and me alone. The oooomph I got for END OF THE AFFAIR was missing (and both films use a similar strategy of repeated scenes; once before you know everything and once after). I didn’t have the same personal connection to the material. Oh, I understand in the abstract the emotions HOUSE wants to tweak all right and this is unquestionably a very strong film. In fact, I’m sure there’s somebody out there, someone whose life story it tells and who will react to HOUSE as I did to AFFAIR. This film is for him, and him alone. But he’s not me.
The Golden Globes were handed out last night (a complete list of the winners is here), and the two films that won Best Picture (unlike the Oscars, the Globes divide some of the movie categories into comedy and drama) were THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (drama) and LOST IN TRANSLATION (comedy).
Other key winners were Sean Penn (MYSTIC RIVER) and Charlize Theron (MONSTER) for best drama lead performances, and Bill Murray (LOST IN TRANSLATION) and Diane Keaton (SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE) for best comic lead performances. Peter Jackson won best director for the third part of the Tolkien trilogy, and Sofia Coppola won best script for TRANSLATION. These are all pretty much locks for at least a nomination.
I do hope, though, the supporting actor award given to Tim Robbins for MYSTIC RIVER was the result of the ballots being sent by mistake to The Deaf and Blind Academy giving out their Braille novel awards and that “Tim Robbins” in Braille forms the shape of a Playboy centerfold. That’s the only acceptable excuse I can imagine.
The Oscars have a tradition of ignoring or downplaying comedies (and rewarding the tic-ridden handicapped role — have I mentioned that I HATE Tim Robbins in MYSTIC RIVER?). One fact suffices to prove this: Cary Grant was nominated just twice — for PENNY SERENADE and NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART. Yes, the greatest film comedian ever got nominated for an orphanage tear-jerker and a Clifford Odets bit of cockney social consciousness. So most of the time, the Golden Globe drama winner has the advantage over the Golden Globe comedy winner. So, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that LORD OF THE RINGS 3.0 will win the Best Picture. Unless there’s pictures of Peter Jackson with a dead girl or a live boy — only in Hollywood, that might even improve its chances.
More seriously, all the extracinematic reasons that films win Oscars are pointing LORD’s way — it was the capper to one of the most commercially successful series of all time, and, unlike say THE MATRIX movies, it was a succes d’estime as well. Neither of the first two films got much love from Oscar (the first got 13 nominations, but only four victories in minor categories; the second got just six nods and two minor victories) — so voting for it becomes a way both to salute the whole trilogy and to make up for past snubs. There’s also not a clear alternative front-runner right up Oscar-bait Alley, like there was with CHICAGO last year. So my Magic 8-ball sez the man who made HEAVENLY CREATURES takes home the gold in a month.
Now, I have to *see* the damn thing.
October 2007 update: Never did see LOTR3. Don’t feel the slightest bit unfulfilled.
Well, unless pictures show up within the next day of John Kerry in a state of undress in close proximity to a dead girl or a live boy, he’s gonna win New Hampshire. The various tracking polls have him anywhere from 13 to 23 points up, and in every one widening his lead over Howard Dean, not losing it. Two days before the primary, that’s close to bulletproof.
A Kerry win in the Granite State would change the historical calculus I relied on last week in saying “don’t count Dean out” — no candidate has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire and not received his party’s nomination. Pre-vote front-runners like Dean have stumbled in one and recovered, but never both. A New Hampshire win makes Kerry the front-runner and the nominee presumptive — unless and until he does something Deanesque to blow that Dauphin stature.
Dean took my advice: he appeared on Letterman doing (which was pretty daggum funny) a Top 10 list, and also began his debate presentation with a self-deprecating reference to The Yell Round The World. This is why I am not a political consultant in my opinion. The moves didn’t go badly, exactly, they just haven’t drowned out The Yell. Dean looks like he’ll have to settle for a poor second place in New Hampshire, and as long as he’s known to the apolitical public as The Nut Who Lost It In Iowa, he’s toast. For the Vermont governor to rally, Kerry needs to do something equally nutty (hey … those photos) at a time by which everybody but Dean has had to depart.
Perhaps unfortunately for Dean — he’d profit the most from a multi-party open race — Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman, who both decided to skip Iowa and concentrate on New Hampshire, aren’t picking up much, and the former is actually sinking, according to the polls linked to above. Maybe that appeal to the Michael Moore/”Bush is a deserter” bloc didn’t work for Clark. John Edwards is gaining some, but he’s still 10 points or so behind Dean. He’s not exactly skipping New Hampshire (to judge from his ad buys), but is trying to lie in wait to win in South Carolina and make it a Kerry-Edwards contest. It’s a gamble; it’s not a certainty that he wins South Carolina.
WARNING: All of this will be completely nonoperative within one week.
ADDENDUM: Or maybe it lasts less than a week. First of all, there was one factual error. Someone at work told me (and I confirmed it for a story) that in 1972 Democrat Edmund Muskie won both Iowa and New Hampshire, but the Mainer only won the latter by 9 points instead of the jillion points he was supposed to win by. Plus, the lasting image of Muskie in New Hampshire (the only thing *this* political junkie remembers about him certainly, 30 years later) became his breaking out in tears when discussing something or other. Not manly. Not presidential. And as close a precedent to the Dean yell as recent American politics offers. So I was wrong about “never,” but the overall point is unaffected (people who win both Iowa and New Hampshire have a stranglehold on the race.)
Second, there is one tracking poll (Zogby/MSNBC/Reuters) that has Kerry and Dean a statistically insignificant 3 points apart. Given Zogby’s very good track record, that would give one more pause than any other “outlying” poll. Still, robustness and consensus do matter in the very imprecise enterprise of polling. And the other tracking polls I know of (with one exception) have Dean gaining some Monday, but still leaving Kerry firmly ahead. UNH/Fox had Kerry’s lead at 11 points, down from 15 on Sunday; Suffolk/WHDH at 21, *up* from 16; Boston Globe/WBZ at 17, down from 20; American Research Group at 10, down from 18; and CNN-USA Today-Gallup at 11, down from 13. In addition, the new Marist survey (not a tracking poll) has Kerry up on Dean 37-24. So some pollsters will have egg on their face.
No … not the latest Bill Clinton rumination on sex and the English language, but a dispute between Mel Gibson’s producers and the Vatican on whether Pope John Paul II gave an endorsement to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (“It is as it was”), as reported by Peggy Noonan last month in the Wall Street Journal. Now the Vatican is denying it, including the Monsignor and friend of John Paul who was the original source of the quote. Mel’s company is standing by its claim.
But both Noonan and my friend Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News say they got the e-mails from the Vatican’s chief spokesman to prove that he did tell Gibson’s team that the quote was accurate and encouraged them to use it.
Rod’s column simply says he believes John Paul did say it but Vatican officials are trying to deny it, though his piece gives no motive. But Amy Welborn speculated (and I’m inclined to believe her) that because of Gibson’s reported involvement in some Ultra sects that are in dubious communion with the Church and/or believe the papacy is vacant, officials at the Vatican don’t want John Paul seen endorsing the film. So they’re lying and hanging Gibson, his distributors and some important Catholic journalists (Noonan, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter) out to dry. That is totally unbelievable in my opinion. There is absolutely zero chance that Church bureaucrats would ever lie or smear a Catholic layman in service of preserving an institutional image of the Church. Only a wacked-out conspiracy nut would believe that.
Despite his disappointing third-place show in Iowa, I’m not ready to write off Howard Dean. I still predict he wins the Democratic nomination, though I’m less sure than I was 10 days ago.
What really hurts Dean about the Iowa results is they killed his chance at at a first-round knockout — de facto wrapping up the race by next week (an opportunity he alone had) with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, the “inevitability” factor and choking the other candidates’ abilities to fund themselves and compete in the bigger states. It’s now a real fight, though one I still think he can win because he’s got the one thing no other candidate has — certain legs. Dean has the money, the 50-state organization, and the followers willing to take a bullet for him, that make it a given that he can stay in the race *as long as he wants.*
John Kerry and John Edwards have to rely entirely on the bandwagon, the bounce, the big Mo, positive free media, and all that. Like John McCain in 2000, they are basically riding a wave that can crash and could not stand a bad showing in New Hampshire or South Carolina. Dean can — he is not a prisoner of fortuna. I compare fortuna to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defenses and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. The candidate who relies entirely upon fortuna is lost when she changes.
A candidate can do well in the saturated “retail” politicking environments of Iowa and New Hampshire but, because of lack of funds, organization, and/or media charisma come a cropper when the states become bigger and the primaries come in faster clumps (a factor that will affect 2004 more than ever). These assets, these dams and dikes that Dean has built up against fortuna, his popularity among the party base, means he can he stay in as long as he wants, wait for the other candidates to exhaust themselves or drown in fortuna’s raging river.
The only way Dean loses is if the party base throws him overboard. I just don’t see that, though I admit there’s now a serious possibility; something I would have denied 10 days ago. I admit that I fantasize at nights about an Al Sharpton win and the resulting 50-state Bush landslide, but apparently Dean and his shouting act to his supporters last night, when he made Michael Moore on Oscar night look sane and reasonable, play well to the choir. No other candidate appeals like Dean to the Democrats’ id.
The outstanding examples of pre-voting favored candidates who survived early stumbles are Mondale 84, Dukakis 88, Bush 88, Clinton 92, Dole 96, and Bush 00. In practically every election since I’ve been in this country, a candidate in one of the two parties was the clear favorite before any votes were cast and had all the logistical advantages but lost in Iowa and/or New Hampshire to mostly-superior candidates who had virtue but no assets. They all eventally won because their “secular” advantages prove crucial in the bigger states. Victors in Iowa and New Hampshire in the “Where Are They Now” category from 1988 and 1992 include Paul Tsongas, Bob Dole, Tom Harkin, and Richard Gephardt, plus John McCain in 2000; and that “defy expectations” darlings have included Pat Buchanan in 92 (have I mentioned that I stumped for him in the runup to the 1992 Texas primary), Steve Forbes in 96, Gary Hart in 84 and Pat Robertson in 88.
I’m not a great Burton fan — in my annual Top 10s, there’s only one Honorable Mention (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS) among the eight films of his I’ve seen. So it means less from me than it might from others, but I think this is Burton’s best film. It’s a lovely, happy, whimsical dessert of a film. The opening voiceover, about an uncatchable fish, immediately announces BIG FISH as a film about legend-telling and myth-making. The narrator is up-front cagey in a very practiced manner about whether “this story,” meaning the film, really happened this way and whether it matters. “In my heart, I never lied,” Blanche DuBois says, and appropriately, this pastel-gothic fantasy tale where a boy sees his death in Boo Radley’s witch’s eye is set in Alabama. And when the fact becomes legend … well, go see LIBERTY VALANCE if y’all don’t know how the rest of that sentence turns out.
Storywise, BIG FISH centers on the relationship between tall-tale-telling father Ed Bloom, played as an old man by Albert Finney and a young man by Ewan MacGregor, and his down-to-Earth son Will (Billy Crudup). Will resents his father’s inability, in realistic terms, to communicate, and his being the star of the world, and overshadowing him with his tall tales and wants “the truth” and all of that.
But these flashbacks and myths portray Finney’s life, in a very stylized way, like FORREST GUMP without the silly, sophomoric political allegory. It’s like SOUTHERN-FRIED AMELIE, about someone who exists only to spread happiness … only I did not enjoy myself quite as much as I did at Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpiece (the only time I have ever shed tears from a film’s sheer, infectious happiness; coincidentally, AMELIE was also the last film I saw before September 11.) Like Audrey Tautou, MacGregor’s performance skirts the edge of annoyance in his perpetual over-the-top smile, but that’s who this man is — like his French counterpart, can only walk through the world trying to spread happiness, even in the presence of some of the dark undercurrents in this tale.
But those dark undercurrents surrender when Crudup and the present-day scenes finally hit their stride in the last 15 minutes and my realizing that the annoyance I had felt with Crudup’s pill-like character was the point (although I would have preferred this ending to have been the last 13 minutes … there is a funeral scene that I want deleted from the DVD Special Edition). Those two issues — the funeral and Crudup’s character for most of the film’s length — is why I don’t think BIG FISH a masterpiece. Well that, an inexplicably ungenerous and off-key portrayal of MacGregor’s rival.
But who cares about such quibbles — what tales Finney tells! And how Burton presents them! Love or hate this film — you will not see sheer, child-like wonder to match these Munchausen-like tales in a theater this year. It’s a kind of heightened offhand surrealism, where the details are exaggerated to the Nth degree, but the film never seems to notice this and so even the freakdom is lovable.
Innocent wonder is maintained even in the oddest circumstances — nobody considers it remarkable that all the shoes in the Eden town are on a clothes line and it’s filmed in a “just so” manner. These tales, or myths, are of a world where small towns have a 10-foot gentle giant (think Andre the Giant in THE PRINCESS BRIDE); where “Asian” (that’s what the passports say) troops are entertained by a pair of Siamese twins whose two upper bodies share two legs; where a route through the woods has a whole hidden perfect town; where men turn into werewolves or fish; where love at first sight stops the world and even leaves popcorn floating in the air while MacGregor brushes past it on his walk toward his eternally intended.
Like any flashback by The Teller of Tall Tales, the story gets shaped in retrospective. When telling the story of their lives, even more down-to-earth people tell it to give it an inevitable shape, a teleology or self-providence that things had to turn out as they did because they came out so much the better for the tale-teller. This is especially true in affairs of the heart. I don’t know exactly whether BIG FISH takes an especially polemic stance on this undeniable facet of the story-telling process, which it plainly does emphasize.
The film skirts around some of the darker subtexts surrounding, e.g., Helena Bonham-Carter as the one woman who wouldn’t sell her home in the Edenic town. Although maybe you have to know “Travelling Salesman” jokes from the 50s to really pick up on this. (Much as I love BIG FISH, it would be false to why I love it, if it really went for the jugular on this sort of self-deception, as Eric Rohmer does in CLAIRE’S KNEE, CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON and several others). Among much else, the contrast between the high-key lighting and hyper-real colors in the tales and the prosaic settings of the “realistic” present leave no doubt that Burton prefers the teleological fantasy to dull reality. And in a storyteller, if not a man, isn’t that what we want?
THE BIG ANIMAL (Jerzy Stuhr, Poland, 2000, 5)
I shoulda saw this one coming, the latest example of unfinished-early-screenplay-by-deceased-great-artist-itis (has this genre ever produced a great film — and no, the first 120 minutes of AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is not a film by itself).
Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski, THE BIG ANIMAL is a modestly diverting film about a Polish man, played by Kieslowski-in-life collaborator Stuhr, who adopts an abandoned two-hump camel abandoned by a circus. Camels are not accustomed to Poland though; nor Poles to camels. There’s some amusing bits of official pettifoggery about such matters as whether to classify it as a horse or a cow, since Poland doesn’t have a “camel tax.” But there’s no bite or anger as in the best Eastern European films about this subject — stuff like FIREMAN’S BALL or LARKS ON A STRING.
This film is light and good-natured as a feather, but only about that deep. There’s the predictable town’s rejection of the camel after Stuhr refuses to pay for the animal by commercializing it (a couple of schemes for which raised a chuckle or two). The novelty of the camel eventually wears out, for both the town and, honestly for me as well, though the final wordless sequence of the final fate of the camel is quietly moving. Not bad by any means, but it would have no interest at all today had its screenwriter not gone on to make THE DECALOGUE, THREE COLORS, CAMERA BUFF, etc., etc.
Ridley Scott’s upcoming film on the Crusades will probably not get 1/10th the criticism as anti-Christian that Mel Gibson’s got as anti-Semitic, but some British historians are at least fighting the good fight in warning that the film, at the basic plot level, is “rubbish”, “ridiculous”, “complete fiction” and a pander to Muslim self-glorification. And some Christians are refusing for whatever reason to cooperate with Scott in his effort to “hope that the Muslim world sees the rectification of history.”
Obviously “panders to Osama bin Laden” in the first Telegraph piece is a crude bit of oversimplification, but as crude bits of oversimplification go, it’s not inaccurate. Scott’s movie seems to accept the basic narrative of the jihadis (and much of Islam) about the Crusades — namely that they were an act of Christian aggression and a humiliation of Islam.
I wonder whether Scott will ever ask how the Muslims came to be in control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the first place (hint: Muhammad wasn’t born in Nazareth). Although the specific timing issues are more complex, in the broadest sweep of history, the Crusades were basically counterattacks against an Islam that had been expanding for 400 years, not Christian aggression — unless you subscribe to some al-Brezhnev Doctrine of permanent Muslim expansion and fated dhimmitude. And although the Christians were sometimes successful for a time, Islam emerged victorious in the end. It wasn’t for 300 or 400 years after the final Crusade (Lepanto 1571 and Vienna 1683) that Christendom no longer had to seriously fear conquest by Islam. The Holy Land itself was ruled by one or another Muslim group until the 20th century; the narrative of all-conquering Christian bullies and weak, peaceful Muslim victims only reaches the level of laughable in the past 200 years.
But as long as artists from the nations of Christendom present the Muslim view of history and show positive images of warriors for Islam, said artistes will be the happiest heathen Crusaders in the grave.
For the half of my readers who came here from film-criticism or entertainment sites, have fun with this — a picture of Father Bryce Sibley, for which the Good Padre asks us to come up with a caption.
My contributions were:
- “I’ll *show* you much I loved KILL BILL.”
- “Camille Paglia’s favorite priest describes what he did to Donny Cavazos.”
- “And if you don’t have a knife, sell your cloak and buy one.”
About 30 minutes into this big fat hunk of Miramax Bestseller-Adaptation Oscar-bait, I had completely lost interest in it as a work of art, as a movie in itself. But what makes COLD MOUNTAIN interesting, and not in a good way, is how I saw it from then on — as a collection of signifiers for modern audiences to pat themselves on the back about what a Much More Enlightened Time we live in and how the past was a collection of retrograde attitudes. Except for the characters who are Just Like Us.
Seven years ago, director Anthony Minghella hit Oscar gold with THE ENGLISH PATIENT, an overheated chick-flick romance for people who thought CASABLANCA should have ended with Rick turning Victor Laszlo over to the Germans and making off with Ilsa and the letters of transit to Lisbon. Lest anyone think that boinking Kristin Scott Thomas not a good worthy of turning a Resistance fighter over to the Nazis, since “we lovers are the only countries,” the film thoughtfully began with Victor Laszlo finding Rick in Lisbon, bent on revenge. But once he hears in flashback about What A Great And Beautiful Love existed between Rick and Ilsa, he overlooked his missing thumbs and smiled his benediction on This Great And Beautiful Love.
Minghella has done something similar here with the other contender for most famous American film ever made. COLD MOUNTAIN is basically GONE WITH THE WIND had Margaret Mitchell been a late-20th-century artist with An Appropriately Raised Consciousness — a white person’s WIND DONE GONE. If only there had been more Howell Raineses around, 19th century Southern literature and history would have been like this. Here, Scarlett (Nicole Kidman) makes it through the war by releasing Mammy and Miss Prissy, and hooking up with Rhett recast as a wisecracking butch woman (think Corky and Violet in BOUND … and insert subtext) who says “t’ain’t no man better than me” at labor. She/he, as lustily played by Renee Zellweger, teaches her practicality and They Build a Home together. But the Massachusetts Supreme Court comes to the rescue. (OK, *that* part I made up.) Ashley (Jude Law) becomes an abolitionist multiple-adulterer anti-hero who knows War Is Hell because “I lived it” … oh … and is kind to the African-Americans. He deserts the Army to be with Scarlett since “we lovers are the only countries.” Half the intercut scenes in the film come from his Odyssey-like picaresque to return to Penelope; the other half from the homefront, where the primary threat to Scarlett and Rhett (and Ashley too though in a different way) is the Racist Yahoos Who Want To Make Us Fight This War. The film finishes with a family-meal scene together, only it’s a matriarchal extended family, and the one husband-character ends it by leaving the table saying “I best fetch it. I got my orders.” Up and out, happily.
It’s not that anything in the movie is unthinkable or anachronistic, exactly. It’s more that the assignment of virtues and vices, *in terms of what appeals to modern audiences,* was so predictable and overdetermined that I stopped seeing human beings or even period characters, but instead registered bowling pins being set up for the movie to knock over later. Practically every scene has some element I saw in one or another way as a sop to the temporal chauvinists among us — which is to say, the American art-house audience and Oscar voter. I so often dislike Hollywood period pieces for this reason — i.e. they flatten conflicts into easily-digested contemporary categories. Comparison to a great film like GANGS OF NEW YORK, where the Irish immigrants led by Leo who have been the audience identification figures throughout, are shown to be racist, lynching draft-rioters, shows just how thoroughly COLD MOUNTAIN stacks the deck. Even opposition to the war and secession sounds like Alan Alda on MASH, with characters saying things like “I’m not gonna get shot again for some cause I don’t believe” and “every fool got sent off to fight with a flag and a lie.” There was opposition to the Confederacy and secession, certainly, particularly in the Appalachians (it’s why there is a state called West Virginia today). But a Confederate nostalgist friend told me that things were a little more complicated than that. Here’s what he wrote me:
“When the first Confederate conscription law was passed in 1862, it included a provision that any man with 20 slaves could be exempted from service. The idea being that someone had to supervise the slaves, who might otherwise run rampant. In the army, of course, some soldiers groused it was ‘a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,’ and this policy became known as ‘the 20 nigger rule.’ Anti-Confederate sentiment, you see, was just as racist as pro-Confederate sentiment.”
In other words, exactly as in GANGS OF NEW YORK and even (to an extent) the racist whites in GLORY. It’s THAT kind of complexity, ambivalence, and *serious* challenging of the contemporary audience is exactly what’s missing from COLD MOUNTAIN. Pauline Kael was complaining about art-house films stroking the prejudices of liberal, educated audiences before I was even born … plus ca change …
Even the things COLD MOUNTAIN does right are tainted by this rottenness in its soul. There’s a scene of singing in the church on the day secession is declared. (I couldn’t help but compare it to the barbecue scene in GONE WITH THE WIND). The church space is re-created lovingly and the actors sign authentic shape-note Gospel songs. But I noticed a circular establishing shot at the start of the scene, and it seemed to emphasize the way the church seating was segmented, and made me notice one other thing about how this segmentation was used — to segregate men and women (sexism … booooooo!!!). And much of the congregation leaves to celebrate the news of secession and hostilities (warmongering yahoos who’ll get theirs; wait till they bring back the bodybags from Iraq … er … Petersburg … booooooo!!!). I know the church layout is accurate and there are justifications for this or that particular detail. But COLD MOUNTAIN is so aggressively uninterested in period accuracy in terms of psychology and soulcraft that I don’t trust its intentions even when it gets right the details of the physical-plant.
For example, consider the two main preachers in the movie — the Good Fatherly Donald Sutherland and the Wicked Hypocrite Phillip Seymour Hoffman. They are viewable only as audience marketing packages. Not only is Sutherland the father of the heroine, but he sternly says that “I have no plays to preach war.” (War … booooooo!!!) His daughter’s gentleman caller — personified by Law — then says “the Almighty don’t like being called in on both sides of an argument.” Sutherland then nods in sage, avuncular agreement: “Why, I *don’t* think He does.” His owning slaves is played down, and we are shown how he has obviously taught his daughter to serve them traysful of iced tea during parties.
In contrast, virtually everything we learn about Hoffman is meant to show us, in one or other way, that he’s a hypocrite underneath his showy surface religiosity, a gap Hoffman’s overripe, hammy performance emphasizes. The very first time we see him, he’s getting ready to drown a slave girl whom he had made pregnant (just a double exercise of his Right to Choose in my opinion), but when Law stops him and sets him up for a lynching, he suddenly finds Jesus and talks forgiveness. Ho ho ho. When circumstance forces him to join Law later, he describes suddenly getting the shits as “the Israelites evacuating Egypt.” And a scene involving finding a saw unattended in the forest hacked me off no end. Asked by Law how could a Christian steal something, Hoffman says in his fruity, showy manner “the Bible is flexible in matters of property.” Big yucks from the packed Friday night art-house audience. Except … that … the Bible and the Church have always put limits, or as PSH puts it “been flexible,” on the right to property and in ways relevant to the context of that scene. Anyone with more than a smidgin of knowledge of Christianity knows that, so why did the audience find that line funny? And why did the director and actor play it to be funny? To ask the questions is to answer them.
UPDATE: I posted a comment at Barbara Nicolosi’s site, where she mentions another example of the film’s annoying presentism — in her words, “the ridiculous acrobatic sex that Nicole and Jude had to go through for the cameras … pulling a strip tease at their hardwon reunion just like they stumbled off the set of Sex in the City. Minghella obviously sensed that there would be nothing in the film for the viewers if he proceeded to kill off Jude Law’s character immediately after the reunion WITHOUT first letting his two leads demonstrate the most mind-blowing Kama Sutra techniques the planet has ever seen.”
But there was another element to the sex scene that annoyed me even more. Jude and Nicole are finally alone, while Corky sheds a few tears outside. They struggle against temptation manfully (if Wilt Chamberlain is your idea of “manful”) and whether they should wait until marriage or go ahead since, well, life is short during waw-uh. Nicole assures Jude that “my preacher father would understand.” We’re solemnly told by Nicole that in some religions, you just have to say you’re married three times. Jude goes ahead and says it. Then Nicole says “I’m not sure, that may have been divorce.” They snicker together. And fall into each other’s arms. (insert emoticon of Victor gagging).
I mean, how can one parody the shibboleths of the day when they’re presented this straight-facedly? A bit of half-understood anthropology used to justify sophomoric cultural relativism (nobody was *actually* thinking of converting to Islam and submitting to any of its other rules … Nicole in a burkha, hmmmm). Then the admission that the premised data might not be true, but the blunt admission that it doesn’t matter. Even if it’s false as Rigoberta Menchu’s biography, it’s still true because it justifies what they want to do anyway. So they go ahead without another thought. When Allen Bloom said American souls have no basements, this scene is what he meant.
Bring back the theologian, if this cheap imitation of Freud is the alternative. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Howard Dean said he admires President Bush’s father, the former president, but said the son has, as they say, daddy issues. Here are the money quotes:
“He’s interested in some complicated psychological situation that he has with his father.”
“I admire George Bush’s father. … He tried to be a good president. This president is not interested in being a good president.”
The amazing thing is that this kind of demagogic shit (CQ), reducing political disagreement to mental illness or neurosis (and bad faith to boot), really isn’t that unusual in the world that formed and shaped Howard Dean. It’s what passes for sophistication among people who consider Woody Allen’s onscreen character profound and George W. Bush stupid. At least Woody the director was, I think, satirizing this “understanding” of conservatism among the Vacation-in-the-Hamptons-set in EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU.
I have no patience for this sort of demagogic public discourse — cheap armchair psychiatric diagnoses, distinguishable only by degree from the Soviet application of psychiatry: “they must be insane because they don’t understand the benefits of socialism.” Dean may be a doctor, but he practiced in the field of internal medicine, not psychiatry. And at least Sigmund Freud, to his eternal credit over the high-rent-district witch-doctors that have succeeded him, actually spent hours per day for months with his patients before diagnosing them. I suppose it’s proof of how great a genius Dr. Dean must be — he performs a diagnosis after zero couch time. I wonder if followers of the Religion Of Therapy can even see their own self-righteousness and how it oozes out of them.
Then we get this little bon mot, when Rolling Stone asked the good doctor to diagnose what motivates Dubya: “George Bush’s philosophy is, ‘If you’re rich, you deserve it; and if you’re poor, you deserve it.’ That’s not my philosophy.” Talk about a bedside manner. What the colorful is Dean babbling about? Where has Bush ever said that, in any morally-deterministic sense? He’s an evangelical Methodist, not a Calvinist (surely a deep-thinking theologian like Dean grasps the difference). And Bush is too stupid to have read Max Weber anyway. On the other hand, if one can extrapolate and infer, then any statement to the effect that one’s material situation bears any relationship at all to one’s actions or efforts can be distorted into this sort of Reverend Ike Prosperity Gospel. Leaving Dean with only, logically speaking, the stance the people are utterly helpless to improve their material lives, lest they actually improve them and thus be able to take credit or think in terms of “deserve.”
If I thought like Dr. Sigmund Dean, I would ask myself how to consider this squeamishness about the morality of wealth (which of course could never, ever, ever be explained merely by reference to an understanding that the welfare state and government provision might serves the common good … we’re too intellectually sophisticated for that). I’d diagnose it, based on my vast number of billable hours listening to Dean on the couch, as unresolved guilt feelings over his New York/Yale/preppie upbringing and its manifest material and connections advantages. But I don’t.
UPDATE: The Deaniacs have just added the support and endorsement of that titanic force Carol Moseley-Braun, who will join the Dean team and bring along her legions of backers and the endorsement of the National Association of Gals, who speak for 51 percent of humanity. This makes Dean an irresistible force in my opinion.
The original comment is now way down at the bottom of the site, so I’m replying up here.
My review of THE BACKYARD (besides providing the basis for an article in the Matthew’s House project) won notice while I was absent from the film’s director Paul Hough in my comment field. Mr. Hough says in his note, contrary to my there-stated doubts involving a couple of scenes, that nothing in the film was faked besides the wrestling itself. I take his word for it and thank him for the information. But I stand by my opinion that if the “Three Stages of Death” story line and Bo were for real, it’s an attempt at pathos that falls flat from self-consciousness.
Still, I enjoyed the film enormously and look forward to Mr. Hough’s next project.
Certainly, this was a lot better than the last time I got input from a film director, based on this embarrassingly snarky little note I posted on Usenet almost … (gulp) … seven years ago about THE DAYTRIPPERS, a film I would have long ago forgotten about if I hadn’t gotten an e-mail from the film’s director, Greg Mottola. It was addressed “Dear Hater of My Film” and told me what a jerk I am (that’s the G-rated version) and how, I remember the exact quote, “AT LEAST I’M TRYING, rather than posting smug, self-important blather on the Internet.” Um …
I haven’t seen the Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick Broadway show of THE PRODUCERS, based on Mel Brooks’ film masterpiece of bad taste (but since when has that stopped me from commenting on movies involving people named “Mel”). So I have trepidation about the announcement of a film based on the record-setting musical. This remake had best be something completely different from the original movie. Or not.
THE PRODUCERS is only (*only*) my choice for 3rd-or-4th funniest movie of all time (the funniest is DR. STRANGELOVE — another pitch-black comedy), but it does have the funniest single scene — the debut of the play “Springtime for Hitler,” an attempt to make the worst play ever. The E! article I linked to says this is the only scene the play takes directly from the film, which is a bad sign, depending on what will surround it. A “vulgar” PRODUCERS has an impossible act to follow, so the easy temptation would be to surround “Springtime for Hitler” with (relatively speaking at least) “nice” material. But what made Brooks’ film great is that the logic of offense is built into its every fiber — the film wasn’t interested in “breaking taboos,” with all the pedagogical schoolmarm baggage that implies. Instead, it just amped the offense up to 12 to reflect how desperate and how unscrupulous were Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom — willing to do anything to get their way, whether it be mash with unnaturally randy little old ladies or to put Nazism on Broadway as kitsch.
When told THE PRODUCERS was vulgar, Brooks responded mock-pompously that “it rises below vulgarity.” But filmmakers now are reluctant to offend as bluntly and gleefully as Brooks, Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn would. Homosexuals, hippies, Jews (on other grounds even), women — every protected group today can find something to hate in Brooks’ film. I don’t see it happening again — and it’s not political correctness exactly. It’s just a generalized “niceness” and unwillingness in mass-entertainment to ridicule a potential audience segment. In other words, if the rest of the new film is as “nice” as I suspect, the “Springtime for Hitler” number would probably become a mere provocation — and thus unfunny and offensive. It was brilliant as the final capper in the “can-you-top-THIS” series of offense-givings that had preceded it.
Probably reacting to this article in the New Republic, Howard Dean last week played the God card. And God is not mocked.
- First of all, he says he leaves the Episcopal Church and becomes a Congregationalist over … I am not kidding … a zoning fight concerning a bike path.
- Then, the Boston Globe describes him as “a committed believer in Jesus Christ” — a man who married a non-Christian and who let his children choose their religion.
- Then, he describes Job as his favorite book of the New Testament (really) and also mangles a (perfectly legitimate in itself) issue of Job scholarship in trying to prove how smart he is.
- Then, when asked again about the New Testament, he says “anything from the Gospels” (like, he couldn’t cite a single verse).
- Then, he says God couldn’t possibly condemn homosexuality because homosexual persons exist. St. Blog’s parishioner David Morrison deserves time off in Purgatory for taking this on with a straight face.
- Then, in that selfsame planned interview, he cites God as one of the reasons he signed the Vermont gay-marriage-in-all-but-name bill. And not two days later, hold onto your hat, he attacks George Bush in a spontaneous forum for deciding as he did on stem-cell research for religious reasons.
Dean should just can this God-talk in my opinion. It’s not convincing anybody who’d give two hoots about his religious beliefs, because it’s so obviously a recent addition to his portfolio and the mask slips so easily.
I don’t think someone as obviously secular as Dean should be U.S. president (though my reasons for saying that ), but whatever my objections might be on that as such, last week was just aesthetically pathetic. I’d rather have Dean be Dean and then force a clear choice in November (we’ve had triangulation in the Oval Office for 12 of the last 16 years; clear choices are more aesthetically pleasing and have more civic virtue).
It’s clear that Dean understands religion only as a hobby, like restoring old cars on the weekend. As an interesting character quirk, he gets it. As the center of one’s being, as the defining feature of the universe, as something that might “inform my public policy” (in Dean’s own incredible phrase) or as something really true … you might as well be speaking Latin. But he’s trying so hard and the more he tries, the more pitiful and painful it becomes. It’s like watching the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit try to drag race with the Teddy Boys. Or the professor on the cabaret stage at the end of THE BLUE ANGEL. Or Al Gore trying do Al Sharpton in his 2000 campaign appearances in black churches.
Anybody who’s spent any time in academia, the media, or among blue-state professionals can type Dean in an instant — the secular, progressive, bourgeois man of science (M. Homais in MADAME BOVARY is an early example of the type). But because he has political ambitions in the United States, Dean cannot say what he actually thinks.
In fact, just for aesthetic reasons and basic honesty, he should just say something like:
“y’know, I’m just not a religious man. Belief in the Xtian god makes no more sense to me than belief in the Greek gods. I never think, speak or act with God on my mind. If you think it works for you, fine. And if you think your God is telling you to do something I think is good, I won’t reject your support (unless you have a Confederate flag on your pickup). But I think society is healthier the more secular it becomes, because faith is contrary to reason, and claims of absolute truth are divisive. I think ‘God’ is basically like ‘Santa Claus,’ both as regards individuals and societies. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.”
I’m not saying this is a theologically-coherent or -correct position mind you. Or that it would matter at the end of DOGVILLE. Or that he would necessarily gain politically (I think it’d be a wash because it would merely confirm what anyone who cares to think about it already knows). Or that he wouldn’t be blazing the trail for, 20 years down the road, a more aggressively atheistic Ayn Rand or Madalyn Murray O’Hair type, as opposed to the basically easygoing secular agnostic I’ve sketched above. But I could retain a minimal amount of respect for the guy. As it is, I’m salivating at pondering whether the landslide will be 40 states or 45.
According to a recent edition of Variety, Whit Stillman has his next project, cited here on this Stillman fan page (thanks, Mark). And it sounds like a doozy. Or a horrible idea.Variety sez:
“Five years after his last movie, ‘The Last Days of Disco,’ American writer-director Whit Stillman is developing a Jane Austen project with Brit producer Stephen Evans. Paris-based Stillman, who first found fame with his Austen-esque comedies of preppy manners ‘Metropolitan’ and ‘Barcelona,’ is adapting two unfinished Austen novels, ‘The Watsons’ and ‘Sanditon,’ into a single script, titled ‘Winchester Races.’
His script merges the character of Emma Watson, a girl returning to her family after a long absence being brought up by her aunt, and that of Charlotte Hayward from ‘Sanditon,’ an attractive country girl taken up by a family of comically optimistic real-estate speculators.”
I’m not sure this is a great idea, trying to combine two at-best rough drafts, but if it’s doable at all, Stillman is the man to do it. The three films he has made so far (METROPOLITAN in 1990; BARCELONA in 1994; and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO in 1998) are Austenian parables of character, in which people get the mates their virtue deserves, in which nobody is beyond redemption but not-messing-up-in-the-first-place is decidedly better. But even DISCO’s tart-tongued Charlotte and Des find each other. Indeed, Austen herself (“Mansfield Park” in particular) is even explicitly brought up in METROPOLITAN, partly to mock Tom for only reading criticism — in order to get both the writer and the critic, he says — but also to give Audrey a chance to recite the Greatest Conservative Line In a 90s Movie: “Wouldn’t we look just as ridiculous to Jane Austen.”
Stillman’s romantic sensibility also matches Austen’s, and both are zeitgeist-buckers. In both a Stillman movie and an Austen novel, and rarely among movie and TV protagonists today, being “a free spirit,” “following your heart” or “being true to your self” are often shown not to be such good ideas. Some things matter more than gratifying your desires, but neither Stillman nor Austen are ever explicitly moralistic, instead seeing the heart as dignified when the head reins it in. Not for them is the authenticity or daring of Lydia and Mr. Wickham, or of Alice and Tom (“Scrooge McDuck is really sexy”). Fanny Price in “Mansfield Park” does explicitly reject a marriage based on property alone, but does not run off with just anyone. As a result, she marries both reasonably well and reasonably happily. When Tom returns after learning of Alice having gotten VD from their one-night stand, the look on *her* face and *her* body language at his withering “is there no limit?” says everything about Alice’s shame, though Stillman doesn’t linger on it.
Stillman’s films are generally very strongly liked by the conservatives who know of them. I have watched LAST DAYS OF DISCO about six or seven times in the past few years, often with conservative friends who don’t watch very many movies, convinced Hollywoof is a den of pagan sin (which it often is, but there are exceptions, and part of why this site exists is to point them out). In those several viewings, the film has grown in my mind and I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that DISCO the most subtly conservative great film of recent years and the best film by Stillman, who was formerly on the masthead of The American Spectator. As James Bowman points out in the best review of the film I’ve read, DISCO (like Stillman’s other movies) is about the wreckage of the 60s sexual revolution without ever having that matter be the surface subject matter or ever descending into a reverse-PLEASANTVILLE polemic. And Stillman’s films are conservative in the sense that they’re about the next generation’s having to deal with the end of the rules of the game, the lack of expectations and romantic rites (presented as a godsend at the beginning by the amoral Charlotte). Like the great French director Eric Rohmer, Stillman’s films have secular and apolitical surfaces covering conservative and religious bones. None of the characters in DISCO “find God” exactly (that would be false to Stillman’s style and unconservative to boot), but there are subtle religious undertones and glancing references that point the right path to those who can see it.
I love Stillman’s films so much [in order: DISCO, METROPOLITAN, and BARCELONA -- though all three are in my Top 10s for their respective years] that I have been disappointed by … ahem … his recent inactivity. But if this is the right project, the one that he’s waiting to get his hands on, I guess it’s all for the best. True love waits and all that.
… sent me a link to this game, which I must denounce as being in inexcusably bad taste about Michael Jackson, making light of this deeply troubling situation. I’ve wasted hours with it already
David Klighoffer, a [political] conservative Jew, wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times (reserved here) attacking the notion, flung against Mel Gibson, that showing any Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus is anti-Semitism. What makes his column new and worth noting is that he details several Jewish sources, including the Talmud and Maimonides, that support the Gospels (though not modern biblical scholarship, which worships the god anti-anti-semitism or at least the god Getmel) in contending that the Jewish leaders of 1st century Jerusalem and some of their followers played a role in the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
I well understand, to a point, moral discomfort about this fact of history among both Christians and Jews, given what some Christians have done under the cry of “Christ-killer.” Certainly, in principle, Gibson *could* have used the Crucifixion narrative to make an anti-Semitic movie. The Times printed some letters to the editor in response, but I must say that I don’t think any really laid a glove on Klinghoffer. And how could they? I’ve said this here before, but I fail to see why the Jewish authorities of the time, or any Jew to this day thinking about truth rather than Christian anti-Semitism, shouldn’t or wouldn’t have sought the execution of such a rank blasphemer as someone who would claim to be the Son of God, but wasn’t; who would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey with his followers waving palms, but who wasn’t the King of the Jews.