Bad in all the ways that’ll help win an Oscar
COLD MOUNTAIN (Anthony Minghella, USA, 2003, 3)
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.
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