Virginia Film Fest Day 4
GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (Gregory LaCava, 1933, USA, 8)
I’d never seen this movie before, and seeing it in the era of Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” is … instructive, particularly since for so long, if you’re not familiar with the actual politics of the 1930s, it would be very easy to find President Hammond an inspiring FDR prototype (reportedly, Roosevelt himself did find it inspiring). The first 30 minutes are mostly an attack on entrenched plutocrats and the heroism of a labor leader named Bronson and a march of the unemployed on Washington. One scene involves Hammond playing with his son while we hear Bronson’s speech and it was all I could do not to think of Michael Moore and W reading “My Pet Goat” on 9-11. But if liberals aren’t rebelling by the time we get to, say, martial law, emergency dictatorial powers and firing-squad executions of bootleggers … But this film was not intended ironically or as a cautionary tale.
Financier William Randolph Hearst had the film made as a straight-faced political fantasy of an ideal leader like later men made AN AMERICAN PRESIDENT or DAVE. It’s as straightforward an apologia for a right-wing dictatorship (yes, “fascism,” if we can use that term seriously rather than a political cuss word) as we ever have or ever will get from an American. And what’s so wickedly funny to me is that for so long it plays, in our current political environment, as a Progressive film — during one Hammond speech, I was mentally ticking off “health-care reform,” “banking takeover,” and “agriculture subsidies.” My point, like Goldberg’s, is not that Obama (or Hillary or any Democrat in 2009) is a closet Hitler, but to note that the commonest understandings we have of dictatorship, past politics and the current spectrum are really just the whitewashed self-aggrandizing demonology of a few post-war leftists that we now hardly know how to think outside of. And that the commonalities between fascism and progressivism are many — a point which we could, and I’d be happy to, relegate to academic and historical interest if liberals didn’t incessantly use the f-word against us. GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE is a bracing antidote to all that.
ps … I also didn’t realize that Goldberg had a section about this movie in “Liberal Fascism” (I had read his NR cover article and NRO blog, but not the book itself).
MONDOVINO (Jonathan Lassiter, 2005, USA, 7)
On a CSPAN morning show years ago, Christopher Hitchens said (from memory): “I am for free trade, as was Karl Marx, on the grounds that capitalism will destroy the atavistic, reactionary elements of insular societies.” I’d be curious what Hitchens would make of this film, given his known love of the finer things, since it clearly documents that capitalism’s rationalization of all economics and dismissal of all other terms of value besides money. MONDOVINO is about the wine industry and how it’s not only spreading worldwide but how this spread affects local markets. But only the proper nouns would need changing (Cinecitta for Tuscany; Europudding for Napaization, etc.) to make an identical movie about the film industry or the carpet/rug industry — anything where part of the value is artistic/aesthetic is threatened by capitalism (you can call it “globalization” if you like, but unless you ban immigration, the Internet, and international travel and communication, “globalization” is a fact).
I dialed back my enthusiasm for this film a little (the grade was 8 at first), because there’s go getting around that this shot-on-video feature just looks like ass and needlessly so (this wasn’t 97 or 98, plus Nossiter zooms needlessly and sometimes too close-up). I also wasn’t too keen with some of his (lily-gilding, given what IS there) “gotchas” about fascist ties. Does he really believe that a vigneron *selling* wine to the Germans in 1941-43 to be collaboration?
I said a few weeks ago that GOOD HAIR is the best Michael Moore movie in 20 years; MONDOVINO isn’t funny like Rock’s film, but it is a superb example of the other side of ROGER & ME — the polemical issue film that still has the tact and smarts not to make the film-maker a star or narrate our reactions. It’s a testament to MONDOVINO, and the broader applicability of it’s polemic, that it easily held my attention for 140 minutes despite my total lack of interest in wine (the film isn’t just a pander to wine snobs, in other words).
Indeed, I gave this movie the further compliment of, when I went to dinner right afterward, getting a glass of wine and choosing a locally-produced Virginia red wine (it tasted like grape juice spiked with whiskey, tequila or some other “kick-heavy” hard liquor — but you can’t have everything).
KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (Robert Hamer, 1949, Britain, 10)
Eve: Stay. The. Hell. Away. This is the most heartless movie ever — about a disinherited British aristocrat who murders his way to a dukedom. And it’s also one of the funniest — a parched-dry 2 hours of Wildean wit on the art of murder (“it is so hard to murder someone with whom one is not on friendly terms”; and the title of Louis memoirs — a perfect parody of the 18th century genre they are). The victims mostly aren’t even loathesome, they’re more like tenpins (identically formed in the image of Alec Guinness) that we positively enjoy seeing knocked down.
This may be the greatest film script ever, certainly in terms of words. But it’s not just the tune but also the playing. For one thing, Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood give shading and multiple meanings to just banal lines as “not at all,” “a matter of sone delicacy” and “my memoirs.” For another, Hamer does a better directing job than you might realize — touches like the stuffed polar bear on the floor next to Lionel, the framing of the “burning leaves,” and the timing and framing of the last D’Ascoyne funeral. And knowing when to pull back — the exchange about how boring Lionel is.
The thing that struck me more than I remembered previously about this film — in my 10th viewing of an all-time favorite — is how snobbish Louis’s mother is (or maybe a working-class Glaswegian just can’t tap into shame over a trade-vs.-a career) and then Louis himself is the same way — “that hideous suburban cemetery,” his angling for the priggish but classically aristocratic Edith. This movie is not, as the introducer said, an attack on the class system (certainly not in the name of the proletariat or even the bourgeoisie), but a fantasy of becoming part of it, by hook or … well … crook.
SOMERS TOWN (Shane Meadows, 2008, Britain, 4)
There’s no big existential or critical crisis here, despite how this “review” will read. But watching this film about the friendship between two loner kids in London — one a Nottingham runaway, the other a Polish emigrant — my mind kept drifting to this passage in Pauline Kael’s classic essay, “Trash, Art and the Movies”:
“When you’re young, the odds are very good that you’ll find something to enjoy in almost any movie. But as you grow more experienced, the odds change. I saw a picture a few years ago that was the sixth version of material that wasn’t that much to start with. Unless you’re feebleminded, the odds get worse and worse. We don’t go on reading the same kind of manufactured novels — pulp Westerns or detective thrillers, say — all our lives, and we don’t want to go on and on looking at movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs. The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again. Probably a large part of the older audience gives up movies for this reason — simply that they’ve seen it before. And probably this is why so many of the best movie critics quit. They’re wrong when they blame it on the movies going bad; it’s the odds becoming so bad, and they can no longer bear the many tedious movies for the few good moments and the tiny shocks of recognition. Some become too tired, too frozen in fatigue, to respond to what is new. Others who do stay awake may become too demanding for the young who are seeing it all for the first hundred times.”