This was an e-mail that a friend of mine at work received from Tammy Bruce, a libertarian lesbian and author of “The Death of Right and Wrong:”
“Wow, what a day. Jessica Lynch comes home, we nail [Saddam Hussein’s] two sadistic mutts, and the Eiffel Tower catches fire. I’ve been walking around with the silliest grin on my face all day long. ;-) “
There was a private screening in Washington last night for Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION. A few dozen conservative glitterati were there, and the first round of reviews is all positive. Gibson is showing the film around to build word-of-mouth before its planned release next year.
The film has come under attack for anti-Semitism and historical inaccuracy, including an article in the New Republic (not on the Web far as I can tell) for which I frankly didn’t much care — it takes higher Biblical criticism far more seriously than I think it should be, but [much more unforgivably] cites it as though it were as “scientific” or supersecessionist as Newton’s laws of gravity.
Though admitting she was bound by a secrecy deal, Kate O’Beirne of National Review said that “The movie is intense and riveting, and the time quickly passes as you are completely drawn into the events in biblical Jerusalem. Although Gibson hasn’t yet begun negotiating with distributors, it is intended for general, nationwide distribution … Some will unfairly use Gibson’s labor of love to create a controversy, which is wholly unjustified in the case of this masterful film, but hopefully Gibson realizes that this too shall pass.”
Matt Drudge was just as forthcoming, gushing on MSNBC’s Buchanan and Press show that: “this is the ultimate film. It’s magical. Best picture I have seen in quite some time, and even people like Jack Valenti were in the audience in tears at this screening … and speaking as a Jew, I thought it was a magical film.”
“Mel Gibson stood back at the end and took questions for about an hour, and he is — he told me he’s tired of Hollywood. That this is it. He’s going to do it. He’s going to do it his way, and this film, I tell you, is magic. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle,” he said.
Matt dismissed the charges of anti-Semitism, saying “They haven’t seen the darn film and those of us, every single person in there, and I’m not talking about tears, I’m talking total tears.”
Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA agreed about the anti-Semitism charges, saying that “I don’t see what the controversy is all about. This is a compelling piece of art.”
Now, none of these people are film critics or cinephiles and there’s often an element of “gee whiz, I saw the movie early” from audiences in such screenings. I don’t actually have the best track record with Jesus movies (upon reflection this morning, I realized I can’t say there’s a single one I’ve really flipped for and I haven’t seen even seen the most notorious — Scorsese’s LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Still, it’s looking better and better that THE PASSION might be the one.
NORTHFORK (Michael and Mark Polish, USA, 2003)
Though I’m unsure of my mixed reaction to LE CORBEAU, the other film I saw at the weekend, NORTHFORK, will not be the cause of a guilty “did I miss something?” second viewing. The latest film by brother auteurs Michael and Mark Polish has all the faults of TWIN FALLS IDAHO, compounded. It’s another Polish exercise in overwrought, portentous, obvious symbolism, only worsened here by attempts at deadpan comedy. It eventually becomes clear that it’s about a dying child (who, I think, sees angels) abandoned by his parents while six functionaries in drab black overcoats and hats make sure that a town about to be flooded for a lake has been completely evacuated. They see recalcitrants like a shotgun-armed man with his foot nailed to the floor, and another man who’s built an ark and has two wives (it feels like the Polishes tried to visualize the Police song “King of Pain”).
NORTHFORK combines an aggressively downbeat palette (if there was a single primary color in this movie, I missed it — all blacks, whites and sepias shot in a late-afternoon winter light) and attempts at comedy. but NORTHFORK is also the kind of movie where six characters will meet and say hello to all the other five by name. It’s aggravating as hell to hear “John, James, Bill, Mike, Willis,” followed by “John, James, Mike, Willis, Spike” [or whatever the exact names are]. For only about the fifth time in my life, I actually talked at the screen during a public theater performance, at the line where “Willis” says something inexplicable and then another character says … [maybe if you don’t know the punchline and didn’t see it coming, you won’t be as aggravated as I was, and say to the screen “oh, come on.”] It just throws you out of a movie to hear a 1970s sitcom line repeated in a portentous 40s allegory. Or for a character to obsess over a ding in his perfect car. It’s like throwing a jester onstage during OEDIPUS REX (gawd do these siblings make me appreciate the Coen Brothers more), and the film just finally drowns in its own arch … archness.
LE CORBEAU (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1943)
I saw this French film on Turner Classic Movies late last week, and I must say I was a bit underwhelmed. The film is about a series of anonymous poison-pen letters to some people in “a typical French town” threatening to out them for past sins (Otto Preminger remade it as THE THIRTEENTH LETTER). But LE CORBEAU just never really took off for me. I never found it either particularly funny (and I have a dark-enough sense of humor that I felt I *should* be finding this funny) nor did I find it especially threatening or suspenseful (the French Hitchcock and all that). There were so many characters getting letters and talking about their suspicions about one another, that keping up with it made it more of a chore than a pleasurably acidic black farce. I also saw the end coming (i.e. the fate of the titular “Raven” and who meted out that fate).
But I probably need to see it again, perhaps with adjusted expectations, to be sure that I didn’t simply miss the point or plain lost track. One of my all-time favorite films is Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME, made in France four years earlier. Now the two films could not be more different tonally — LE CORBEAU is ice-cold and cynical, while RULES generous and warm, but they have in common my not caring very much on first viewing, and for basically the same reason — there were so many comings-and-goings between so many characters that the films finally left poor little dumb me behind. Needless to say, RULES grew in my mind. Still, I’m now 0 for 2 on really being really sent by Clouzot’s 40s films (the other being QUAI DES ORFEVRES), and 2 for 2 on his 50s films (DIABOLIQUE and THE WAGES OF FEAR), and four films constitutes a trend in my opinion.
Here is the trailer for Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie on the Crucifixion.
I was initially a skeptic about this film, when Gibson was saying he wanted to release it in Latin and Aramaic without subtitles. That strikes me as wack, and I’m glad Gibson has relented. Also, from the looks of the trailer, Gibson has decided to portray the Crucifixion in terms rather like the climax of BRAVEHEART — which means that whatever else we’re gonna get, it’s not gonna be a watered-down bit of triumphalism. Two of my favorite religious films just about ever — THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and BREAKING THE WAVES — are both about [female] Christ figures that are quite heavy on the suffering, but even they didn’t get as bloody as THE PASSION looks to be (though Gibson as a director is in the league of neither Dreyer nor Von Trier). Cheap grace is such a pet peeve (a Resurrection and forgiveness without the gory execution is a contradiction in terms), but now that that is off the possibility charts, I’m genuinely psyched about this film’s 2004 release.
I already know what some of the reaction will be — Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Simon Wiesenthal Center already have attacked the film, based on a script draft, as anti-Semitic. The New York Times Magazine did a hatchet job on Gibson’s octogenarian father as an anti-Semite. And I can’t wait to see the reaction of the feminists to the portrayal of Satan as a woman. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver got the best line … in the Denver Catholic Register: “When the overtly provocative ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was released 15 years ago, movie critics piously lectured Catholics to be open-minded and tolerant. Surely that advice should apply equally for everyone.”
But bishop … you’re talking as though “tolerance” is actually a moral principle, rather than a political weapon. How naive can you get?
It was set to be a good summer for mystery buffs who get the Fox Movie Channel (both of them). The cable-movies network had planned the Charlie Chan Mystery Tour, a scheduled double feature of Chan films every Monday in June, July and August. But then the Fox got chicken. They got some letters from Asian pressure groups and cancelled the series, with a explanatory note on their Web site. Some uproar and letter-writing campaigns ensued on movies-discussion groups and the network kinda-sorta took it back later, changing the verb on the pop-up from “cancelled” to “suspended.”
In some ways, it would have been difficult to get very upset about the lack of a Charlie Chan movie marathon a couple of months ago. We are NOT talking about BIRTH OF A NATION, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL or BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN — films whose historical significance and dazzling artistry make them far too important to hold their repugnant (and explicit) politics too heavily against them. But we’re also not talking about agitprop here. The Charlie Chan movies are not the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF SIAM — they’re a B-program series of mystery stories, of which, full disclosure, I have seen only one (I actually saw more often the early 70s cartoon “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” and can still hum the chorus to its Archies-style pop song “No. 1 Son.”) Still, the Chan films’ general reputation is sufficiently low, though like everything it has its fans, that I am confident in saying that world is hardly much the poorer for their relative lack of prominence.
But everything changed once Fox programmed the marathon — in a way similar to how, in the field of employment law, a decision to fire (or revoke tenure) is reviewed by a different set of standards than a decision not to hire (or give tenure). It’s easy (too easy, in fact) to mock the Asian pressure groups for their basic cinematic and dramatic illiteracy, like seeing Chan’s meek and subservient demeanor as an Asian stereotype, when any fan of detective shows or stories knows that this is a common detective mask, playing “dumb like a fox” (oops!) to lure the quarry into giving himself away. You can see it in Columbo, in Hercule Poirot, in Father Brown, in DIABOLIQUE.
But I want to be harder on Fox Movie Channel for their pussilanimity. Is this kind of weakness and toeing the ethnic-lobby line that people expect from *Fox* — The Conservative Tool Of Rupert Murdoch’s Plan For World Domination? If *they* are not gonna tell some ethnic Jacobins to go stuff themselves, who will? The sentence in the statement on their Web site that most beggars belief is this one: “In the hope that this action will evoke discussion about the progress made in our modern, multicultural society, we invite you to please click CONTACT US to send us your thoughts on the matter.”
I guess I don’t see what kind of discussion one can have in “our modern, multicultural society” (good gawd … *this* is the language of The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy) when Fox has pulled an example of something made in “their premodern unicultural” society. If you never see anything from outside your own cave, how can even know that you are even *in* a cave much less know its contours, i.e. its virtue and vice (yes … that *is* a Plato reference … get used to them.) The only discussion I see being provoked by this action would be plenty of self-congratulation about how “modern” and “multicultural” we all are, patting ourselves on the back for all our “progress” (good gawd … *this* is the language of The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy).
I may have to take all of that back however, because I must say that I have some serious doubts about Fox’s honesty. The statement announcing the cancellation of the Chan marathon said that Fox “has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers.” Huh? Forget *may contain* (there’s no “may” about it … they do). What does *has been made aware* mean? Is there anybody alive and culturally awake who doesn’t know that many Asians, however rightly or wrongly, see Charlie Chan as an offensive stereotype. Or that the term “Charlie Chan” has been used a disparaging common noun or moniker for Asians in general — at the level of “chink” or “gook.” (truth be told, I think the experience of being disparagingly called a “charlie chan,” not the actual content of the films, is why Asians see these particular movies as a special red flag). Program the films ordon’t program them — but don’t pretend that their perceived offensiveness is something that Fox just “has been made aware of.”
So unbelievable is that particular construction that I’m tempted to agree with a silent-film scholar who said at a rountable discussion at a film convention in Arlington, Va., this weekend that he thinks that Fox might have planned on caving in upon the first receipt of protest letters and then planned the tentative reversal once the publicity had been generated. The use of the letters and the cave-in were just a way of ginning up publicity for their Charlie Chan series — a group of movies for which the public is not exactly beating down the door.
I suppose I should make clear that when I called the Asian groups Jacobins, I mean that in the cultural rather than head-chopping variety (a more-recent analogy would be the Taliban’s destroying the Buddha statues in the name of Islam — hey, let’s discuss the progress Islam has made over paganism). For one thing, these low-rent Robespierres have an one-dimensional, essentially propagandistic and self-centered approach to art. In his letter to Fox, Eddie Wong, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association executive director, explicitly set up this standard for representations in the following phrase — “humanistic, historically accurate, and empowering images.” Yikes. Doesn’t this “humanistic … empowering” talk sound like a schoolmarm addressing her charges? Anybody who uses the term “empowering” should be “empowered” all right — by the attachment of some jumper cables.
And then he complains that Chan’s behavior “did not resemble my parents, friends or any Chinese person I knew.” Double yikes. Can a human being be that narcissistic or is this “I don’t know anybody like this” seriously meant as an argument? Who started these humorless nursery games of “I have to see myself on the screen” and “Characters of my ethnicity have to resemble my life-memories.” I can recall seeing only one Scottish-born American resident in a noncomic U.S.-made movie — Ted Danson’s cop in THE ONION FIELD, and look what happened to him (but he wasn’t Catholic, so maybe he doesn’t count). Isn’t the point of art to see something other than yourself, or has reality TV changed all that?
While it is true that the Asian pressure groups are not calling for censorship in the formal sense, their efforts, if successful, would destroy the Charlie Chan movies just as effectively as (if more slowly and less self-consciously than) any fire lit in the name of destroying the offensive past that The New Revolutions (Revelations) Hath Made Obsolete. If the films’ are offensive, inaccurate, stereotypical and whatnot now — they will be that way forever. And if the Charlie Chan movies should not be shown now on those grounds, that argument will be just as persuasive until the lion lie down with the lamb. And there could never be any historical revisionism or rethinking about them — on two grounds.
First, because these ethnic pressure groups prevent them from being shown, they’ll eventually go down the flusher of social amnesia as they never get a chance to make the case for themselves. Second, film is fragile. Decent preservation costs money, and whoever owns the rights to the Charlie Chan series (or any other movie) needs to have some way of recouping the cost. A red-headed stepchild movie that essentially cannot be shown for any reason (ethnic protests in this case, but the point is generalizable) cannot recoup its preservation costs. The films will eventually fall apart, evaporate, explode, fade away, get lost or any of a number of other fates. Yes, the Charlie Chan movies also are readily available on tape now, but tape falls apart and fades as well.
One can say “no great loss” and he may very well be right. But let’s not kid ourselves about what the Asian groups want. They may not be government censors (and so the First Amendment Fundamentalists breathe easier) — but they will destroy these movies just as surely as any “censorship.”
There’s one other point that deserves some elaboration in the Charlie Chan controversy — and that centers on the Asian critics’ frequent use of the term “yellowface.”
Eddie Wong, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association executive director, wrote in his letter to Fox Movie Channel that “Asian Americans feel that Charlie Chan is a demeaning portrayal that is culturally inaccurate and ‘entertaining’ at our expense. Add to it the insult of ‘yellowface’.” The Asian lobby group’s release says an early 80s Chan film “featured Peter Ustinov in yellowface” and asked its recipients whether they were “offended by yellowface …”
Now, naive person that I am, I actually assumed that “yellowface” meant, by analogy with “blackface,” a kind of grossly-exaggerated skin-tone makeup used by a European to play an Asian. But on reflection, that didn’t make sense. Whatever the morality of “blackface,” if a white person is going to play a black person in a black-and-white film, he clearly has to use some kind of skin-tone makeup.
There also existed in the era of Charlie Chan other kinds of pancake makeup used to blanche actors’ faces, although often by a white actor for purposes other than racial identification (e.g. silent comedian Harry Langdon’s baby-face clown). Ironically, that same whitening makeup is widely used in Japanese period films (e.g., KWAIDAN and UGETSU MONOGATARI) to signify ghosts. And contemporary latex-prosthetic makeup allows any actor to play any skin tone (e.g. the memorable barber-shop scene between Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in COMING TO AMERICA).
But “yellowface”? In real life, Asians run along a similar pale-swarthy spectrum as whites (e.g., Ang Lee is very pale; Wong Kar-wai very swarthy). And I have seen enough Asian-made movies to know that the range of Asian skin tones — as captured by black-and-white film — isn’t *that* different from the range of European skin tones. Obviously things were done around a white actor’s eyes to make them look slanted and such costuming effects as mustaches, hairdos and clothes can be used to make a white person look “more Asian.” But “yellowface”? In films like Charlie Chan that weren’t in color? I solicited on a silent-movies newsgroup, where numerous historians and collectors post, for anyone to tell me whether there was such a thing as “yellowface” makeup. One person defended the Asian protests, but said the term “yellowface” was not strictly accurate, but merely an analogy (which he thought defensible in service of the larger point). The LA Times article, if one read carefully with this particular fact in mind, also showed that this wasn’t what the Asian groups meant. It uses the phrase “what they have dubbed ‘yellowface’ — Caucasian actors playing Asian characters.”
There is a question here of intellectual honesty and rhetorical probity. I’d hazard that 95 percent of the population, when asked to define “blackface” would say “a type of acting makeup and/or its use” rather than “any and every casting of a white actor in a black role.” And therefore, upon reading the NAATA statement and other quotes, think the Charlie Chan movies are like a Spike Lee fantasy, which isn’t only not true, but false in a particular way. To put it bluntly, whatever private language the Asian groups might think they’re using, they made-believe a lie for the purposes of producing a particular reaction in the ignorant. I include myself in the term “the ignorant” … while I never really believed there *was* such a thing as “yellowface” (and the NAATA press release’s inaccurate descriptions of the Charlie Chan character made me doubt their cinematic knowledge from the beginning), I felt sufficiently unsure to ask about it in public.
The LA Times article provides the key to understanding why make-believe *this* lie. It cites Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, as calling such images “no less hurtful and dehumanizing for us than blackface has been to African Americans.” And this is why I think this minor point about the term “yellowface” is worth chewing over. It is symptomatic of one of the laziest rhetorical tropes in political discourse, and one that pretty quickly causes me to lose regard for its maker. If SOUTH PARK’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone were to write a script about this brouhaha, they might call it “Operation Get Behind The Darkies.”
The rhetorical trope, an analogy with the black civil-rights movement, is common to many people other than the ethnic-grievance groups (or even to liberals). Homosexual advocates, especially Andrew Sullivan, campaign for homosexual “marriage” by trying to analogize the status quo to anti-miscenegation laws; for Jesse Jackson, everything, from the Juliette Binoche movie CHOCOLAT to the hiring of football coaches, is always “Selma”; even right-wing groups critical of affirmative action and abortion argue that they are upholding the civil-rights movement’s ideals of a color-blind society and equal protection.
People will find these various named causes’ similarity to the civil-rights moments varyingly persuasive (and I’ve named only a tiny sample). But what interests me here is why everything in American life has to find its comparison to the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, no matter how strained. It’s as if that’s the only way to get any moral traction with the broader public is to wrap yourself, not in the flag, but in “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This law, we might call it the Godwin’s Law of the Pre-Internet, may have something to do with the civil-rights movement being the last successful moral crusade before the 60s generation smashed the existing moral language and social structures and planted a global suspicion toward those very concepts.
But, regardless of its cause, this trope is intellectually impoverishing and lazy, the contemporary Political Cartesianism — “I’m offended, therefore I am.” Politics and cultural life get reduced to “my offense” and/or “your guilt.” It’s also false to the civil-rights movement, whose leaders become secular saints and objects of quasi-religious veneration rather than the complex and vibrant human beings they were.
No thanks to any of this.
Here are the links to the information cited in these Charlie Chan articles:
The LA Times news article
The discussions on the controversy among film buffs:
The leading Asian lobby group:
OK … you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So I won’t bore you with uninteresting biographical details, and instead give you my pitch:
Flaming Reactionary meets Geeky Cinephile.
Roger Ailes and Roger Ebert — in one body.
Imagine Lily Tomlin wanting to yak about Fellini’s camera movements, the Lubitsch touch, and the Dardenne Brothers’ focus puller, while Steve Martin talks about Hugo Black’s dissent in Griswold as the greatest judicial opinion of the 20th century, withdrawing from the United Nations and all international conventions, and the effect of reading Allen Bloom in college. (And if you perfectly understood every reference in that last sentence, plus the opening title, a marriage proposal may be in order.)
Anyway, what I found in about 15 years of cinephilia is that I may be the only person in the universe who’s both a political conservative and an obsessive film geek. Hopefully, I’m not — otherwise traffic here will be extremely low. I hope to have three types of content here.
First of all, my own reactions to the films I see or re-see. Second, my reactions to the reviews and criticism that I read. And lastly, some purely political commentary (hopefully with some film-related peg, but we’ll have to see how that works out). I also hope to learn some HTML in the coming months and build a Web site of which this Blog will be one feature and also have links, personal top 10 lists, some longer essays, my published film criticism (yes, I have some), etc.
But just as Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit has shown that any honest man can perform the Washington-pundit function to the limits of his knowledge and intellectual power, I believe the same thing about the film-critic function. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I believe all opinions are equal (not at all, as will become obvious soon) — simply that the knowledgeable amateur can be just as valuable as the professional.
Every year, I typically see about 80-90 new commercially-released; if you toss in repeat viewings, home video, revival screenings, film festivals and so on, I would estimate that I see a film about 180-200 times a year (don’t be impressed; I know people who can double that). My tastes would strike most people as fairly “arty,” though I don’t think so. I think there is more depth of feeling and intellect, more craftsmanship, more substance, more artistry in some “low” works than some “high” froufrou, and more joy and fun in some slowmoving foreign films than Hollywoof product. My critical idol (obviously) is Pauline Kael, and my favorite films from each of the years in the past decade or so are as follows:
2002 TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet, France)
2001 MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan, USA)
2000 DANCER IN THE DARK (Lars Von Trier, Denmark)
1999 THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Neil Jordan, Britain)
1998 THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (Whit Stillman, USA)
1997 BOOGIE NIGHTS (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
1996 HAMLET (Kenneth Branagh, Britain)
1995 BABE (Chris Noonan, Australia)
1994 BLUE / WHITE / RED trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski, France / Poland / Switzerland)
1993 MENACE II SOCIETY (The Hughes Brothers, USA)
1992 GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (James Foley, USA)
1991 BAXTER (Jerome Boivin, France)
1990 THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (Peter Greenaway, Britain)
The last of these choices will no doubt point out that at least one rightwing film geek, though he is a practicing Roman Catholic, has nothing in common tastewise with Michael Medved (a whole sequence of Hollywood vs. America is devoted to Greenaway’s film) or some of my ideological compatriots (and they *are* my compatriots) who simply have a revulsion for extreme subject matter and want a G-rated cinema. If your idea of film criticism is a Christianity compatability index, or a count of how many nude scenes or swear words are in a film, I’m not your guy. I don’t mind X-rated cinema at all — I just want good and moral X-rated films– and yes, there *are* such films — as the U.S. Catholic bishops recognize with their A-IV rating.
And away we go.