Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 5

CLIENT 9 (Alex Gibney, USA, 1)

Apologies for the length of what follows, but it takes a special kind of movie to make me like Eliot Spitzer more than its director. But daggum, this tendentious piece of absurd conspiratorialism, of intellectually sloppiness, of self-contradictory double standards and of ignorance of how law-enforcement and the press both work is a 90-minute swig of 190-proof mendacity watered down only by Spitzer’s own moral rectitude (I am not kidding, folks).

Let me just cite 10 examples of some of those substantives (I actually counted 26 “bullshit” moments when I combed through my viewing notes shortly after the film). The only reason this film is not a “0” is Spitzer’s own manfulness, the tremendously entertaining character of Cecil Juwal (the Emperor’s Club CEO), the voice of sanity from 80s chocolate-sauce lady Karen Finley (yes … I’m still not kidding) and the fact the film includes some of its own refutations, though that may just be its own sloppiness.

  1. Does Gibney really believe any cause and effect relationship between Spitzer’s fall and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, in any terms more specific than Oliver Stonesque “Wall Street Greed.” If so, why had Spitzer not acted against the proximate fuse (the housing bubble and/or its bursting) in all his years as NY attoney general? And if not, then why the juxtaposition in the early line “a few months after his resignation, the big banks he had been policing brought the economy down”?
  2. Why does Gibney spend any time at all on GOP operative Roger Stone’s “Spitzer’s doing whores” memo when (1) Stone says he didn’t know what all else the FBI may have had and (2) FBI said it never received it. In other words — there is no evidence, bar insinuation. Let me repeat. There. Is. No. Evidence. Why did Gibney pursue all the naked conpiracy whispers when Spitzer himself says it doesn’t matter (“I brought myself down … and if my enemies were involved in unearthing some of it, so be it”)? Grownup politicians like Spitzer understand, even if adolescent artists like Gibney do not, that politics involves the other side fighting back.
  3. If we get apologists saying prostitution should be legal, it’s not that big a deal, it’s better that Spitzer went to a whore rather than break up his marriage if his manly needs weren’t being fulfilled, etc., why does Gibney lovingly detail, with beefcake pictures, Stone’s involvement in swinging (which unlike prostitution, actually IS consensual)? Is it only a sexual sin if Republicans do it?
  4. If “Troopergate” in Albany was an irrelevant distraction about the source of a leak rather than the leak’s substance (though what would that make of liberal wallow in the St. Valerie Plame furor), why does Gibney spend any time at all, much less 15 minutes or so, trying to figure out how the FBI’s interest in the Emperor’s Club started and then more time on how a Spitzer enemy knew about postal orders, the basis for the federal charges?
  5. Why is it relevant that the Mann Act, on immoral transportation across state lines, generally isn’t used against customers — if no criminal charges were ever brought against Spitzer? And doesn’t the fact that criminal charges only were brought against Emperor’s Club officials suggest that Spitzer was never the feds’ quarry, only a lobster that swam it way into a shrimp net?
  6. Even if an unprecedented use of the Mann Act did happen or was seriously contemplated, how does the caterwauling over that fact square with the applause given Spitzer for “innovative” uses of state law to “go after” Wall Street as part of a social crusade, i.e., an effort to make the law serve ideological ends?
  7. In what possible sense are Hank Greenberg and Ken Langone people “with unlimited resources,” as Gibney says, that Spitzer’s previous scalps were not?
  8. Why would it be surprising that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York would tell state law-enforcement to back off on a matter of regulating interstate commerce based in New York (interstate commerce is one of the federal government’s enumerated powers, like immigration; at least Bush didn’t pre-emptively sue New York). Or that the same person holding the same office would play the lead in a criminal case involving a New-York based prostitution ring and (at least potentially) involving the governor of New York. The word is j-u-r-i-s-d-i-c-t-i-o-n.
  9. Why does Gibney let a talking head get away with the lie, as part of the “partisan conspiracymongering” section that “they” went after Spitzer because he was a Democrat while “they” didn’t go after Republican lawmakers. Gibney **even cites** the ur-refutation of this conspiracy nonsense — the DC Madam case, which he even says snared two Republicans (curiously only David Vitter is named, and my memory and the Wikipedia page both tell me he was the only elected official). And BTW … the DC Madam case was also federal and also focused on mail- and wire-related services, proving that federal investigations of escort services on these grounds is common and nonpartisan. And when Gibney darkly notes that no charges were brought against Vitter and that what followed the Pelfrey indictment was press reporting that outed him and created a political problem. Exactly. What. Happened. To. Spitzer. Is Gibney so glib, or slobbering critics so forgetful as not to remember that no charges were brought against Spitzer?
  10. Why are headlines of Goldman Sachs and banks’ post-bailout profitability an indictment of anything? If Gibney has something crooked, he should say so. If not, all he is doing is playing the ressentiment card. Do we or do we not want profitable banks? (I genuinely don’t believe most liberals seriously do operationally, though they will say they do abstractly.) One sure way not to get them is to make “profit headlines” shameful.

There is nothing to CLIENT 9 other than “Democrats are good and for everyone; Republicans are evil and for the greedy.” And what does it say about our film-making culture that a movie like this can get financed, can get made and be taken seriously by people who don’t drool?

TAMARA DREWE (Steven Frears, Britain, 8)

The first thing we see is a shirtless young farmhand, well-built but not “modern musclebound,” as he works the bucolic English countryside. Obviously, one of those British period pieces. Then he picks up a serving of plastic-bottled water. I snickered a bit. What? You mean, this is now? Or did they have bottled water in Hardy’s time. This is far from a comic highlight in this very funny film, but it’s emblematic of the strange space TAMARA DREWE occupies — fully in today’s world, but somehow … not really.

Let me fess up to something that my Twitter feed may have possibly misled on. I skimmed “Far from the Madding Crowd” more than 20 years ago as Thomas Hardy is not a favorite. Leaving the theater I “knew” I’d seen some kind of modernization of it (Frears practically tells us that much in the opening moments, which quotes the poem from which Hardy took his title), but I really didn’t know more than that. The themes were similar, there were common updated class elements, a rich heroine and a poor farmhand, and obviously a lot of town gossip. But the plot points I remembered from “Madding” (the timing of the livestock stampede, say) weren’t mapping onto TAMARA DREWE as cleanly as I had remembered those of “Emma” had done onto CLUELESS, a fact I just dismissed as a function of having read the Austen just a year before seeing its updating. Well, I now realize that this film is twice-removed from Hardy — an adaptation of a serial comic strip based on modernized versions of “Far from the Madding Crowd” characters — and bares very little resemblance to his story. Nevertheless, I still think the points I was making in my Twitter feed were accurate — that it was much more of a comedy than “Far from the Madding Crowd” and that it was a mistake for Frears to include diegetic references to Hardy and set the film among a literary set including a Hardy scholar. You’re thinking, “don’t they notice that these events are like a Hardy novel.”

But to TAMARA DREWE … this is a wonderfully zippy little film, fast-paced, spryly scored and you can easily imagine, even if you didn’t know, this being a 19th-century novel — the seasonal titles, the shift in romantic alignments, the misunderstandings based on communications (e-mail here, rather than diaries), and above all what defines Hardy’s country-life dramas — boredom leading to gossip and sex from some people having nothing better to do (“I know it’s boring around here, but for fuck’s sake,” one person exasperatedly says). The performances among the cast (none major stars, other than Gemma Arterton as the title character) are all finely balanced between absurdity and self-regard. Except for the two excellent teenage girls (particularly the more-extroverted Jessica Barden) who takes things over the top in their eager desire to bring to the small Dorset town the fantasy lives of the rich and famous that Madame Bovary learned about from novels they get from reading teen mags.

ANOTHER YEAR (Mike Leigh, Britain, 9)

Has Mike Leigh given up on the working class?

There’s always been a little of the “health scold” about some of Leigh’s films (the doctor and Rory near the end of ALL OR NOTHING, some asides at the barbecue in SECRETS AND LIES, the way the “helping professions” are always lionized). But this movie takes that to a new level, and may even conclude that the working classes may be irredeemably booze-cigarette- and badfood-sodden. It begins with Imelda Staunton, playing a dead ringer for Vera Drake, even though she herself needn’t and though this movie is set today, 60 years later. She just wants some pills for her insomnia and stoutly resists any form of intervention and “psychology” from one of ANOTHER DAY’s two central characters, a counselor played by Ruth Sheen. She says the only thing that could make things better would be “a different life” and leaves Sheen’s office without saying goodbye. She never appears again, and the movie ends (and this is not a spoiler) on a lengthy closeup of someone trapped in a different kind of misery.

In ANOTHER YEAR, the second consecutive British film I saw that takes place over one year and is segmented into four seasonal sequences, social mobility has happened. This is the first movie you’ll see in which sympathetic Mike Leigh characters are playing golf. Sheen is married to Jim Broadbent, a university graduate who works as an engineering geologist (“you dig holes in the ground,” he’s reminded), and the couple and their son are the only really happy people in the film. They also don’t allow smoking in the house and tend to a garden that grows their own vegetables. They are drawn in sharp contrast to two characters in particular — Lesley Manville as an alcoholic and Peter Wight as Broadbent’s boyhood friend from out of town, both of whom are really over the top (the characters, that is; not the actors, who are both perfect) in portraying a sort of nakedly sensualist British lumpen-proletarian, whose only pointedly-drawn interests are smoking and drinking and overeating (for him) or obsessing over weight (for her). Their son is also reasonably normal, drawing a contrast again with Broadbent’s brother, whose son has abandoned them and, it is implied, is living some sort of dissolute life. I initially thought ANOTHER YEAR had nothing more on its mind than “marriage is good, especially for the old.” There’s no cathartic (usually a quarrel) last scene in ANOTHER YEAR, instead just that lengthy closeup. Which leaves me convinced (and I have accordingly raised the grade) that Leigh is contrasting lifestyle particulars as well and may have soured on the working class’s stubborn embrace of “eat, drink and be miserable.”

Oh … and this is a Mike Leigh film, so the acting is sensationally good, and unlike often happens in Leigh, there is no bad, one-scene wtf? turn. (No, Mike, Manville is not telegraphing any more than drunks often unintentionally do, and a non-drunk non-proletarian role like Anthony Hopkins in REMAINS OF THE DAY is a ridiculous contrast.) My favorite was Karina Fernandez, not because of what she does exactly, but because of the contrast with the only role I’d seen her in previously — a hilarious character turn as the tango teacher in Leigh’s HAPPY GO-LUCKY, which led me to take her, especially given her name, to be a Spanish actress Leigh happened to find/like. Here, she’s playing someone more … ahem … happy go-lucky in a perfect London accent without a trace of the Spanish caricature. And a relatively sane and bright person.

September 16, 2010 Posted by | Alex Gibney, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, TIFF 2010 | 3 Comments

New York openings

Abel Ferrara’s MARY, which I saw … gulp … back in 2005, is opening today in New York. It’s a meta-film about the problems making of a Jesus movie in which Matthew Modine was the director and Star, and Juliette Binoche played Mary Magdelene. Forrest Whitaker plays a New York talk-show host who wants Binoche on his program. I didn’t care for the film at the time and I’ve hardly thought about it since I posted the following quick inadequate thoughts at Amy Welborn’s combox (slightly changed here) a couple of years ago:

As for MARY, the less said, the better. I have no doubt that the prize it won at Venice was an f-you to Mel Gibson. It is not worthy of a prize at the world second-most-prestigious juried festival (and there’s lots of films I don’t like that I realize are aesthetically distinguished and “prize-worthy”. MARY is not. It is lazy, padded, unfocused and just felt unfinished and phoned-in.

For example, if you know anything about movie editing techniques (I don’t mean by that you have to be able to write about them — I mean **know anything**), you realize that apart from a brief opening scene, Juliette Binoche, probably the picture’s biggest “name” thespian plays her entire role alone. Never sharing a frame with any other name actor — her role consists mostly of phone conversations and phone messages. Some shots of her are by herself. But basically she is like something stitched in, only you can still see all the seams and the grafts that didn’t quite take. Having your lead actors almost never in the same world tends to underline a stitch job.

And then there’s huge chunks — and I mean several minutes at a time, which feels much longer than it is — of the film literally given over to monologs of talking-head theologians spouting on this and that in re their views on Christianity, straight from the “a minister, priest and a rabbi” school of religious diversity. Except for their views. Elaine Pagels was among them, there were no representatives of religious orthodoxy I recognized, and the one obvious Catholic set off some of my alarm bells.

When director Abel Ferrara gave his post-film Q-and-A when I saw MARY at the Toronto Film Festival (he insisted on doing it sitting on the stage and not using a microphone), he said he had been to Catholic schools but never heard of Mary Magdelene. I’m thinking … whaaaaaa….?????

On a happier and better note, here’s a link to my Toronto review of Mike Leigh’s HAPPY GO-LUCKY, an excellent film which opened last week in the Big Apple and is starting to make its way around the country today, including Washington.

October 17, 2008 Posted by | Abel Ferrara, Mike Leigh | 1 Comment

Toronto 08 — Day 7 capsules (part 1)

(Because Day 7’s six capsules included the two longest and most involved by far, I decided to break the day into two parts for blog readability’s sake.)

HAPPY GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2008) — 8

Very early on, central character “Poppy” gets the ultimate symbol of cinematic misery imposed on her — her bicycle is stolen. But her only visible reaction is to make Italian lemonade, saying she “didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to it.” And the title sequence — both in its choice of music and its frame-shifting strategies — put me in mind of one of those Doris Day romantic comedies from the early-60s. So, Sally Hawkins as the titular HG-L High-On-Life heroine Poppy is a bit of a “dafty” or a “doo-lally-sally” who speaks without thinking (a type I was quite familiar with among working-class Britons). Mike says his reaction was repulsion at her relentless chipperness followed by an exercise in Leigh chastising his audience for being so repulsed. I had the almost perfectly 180-degree reaction — that we don’t find her offputting so much as unrealistic and un-grown-up (more on all that shortly), and that the film is about pushing her to the point where she finally has to … I will speak vaguely … use force, impose herself and act like an adult.

The central relationship in the film turns out to be between Poppy and her driving instructor Scott, played by Eddie Marsan, and I think one’s reaction to HAPPY GO-LUCKY turns on how one reacts to this character. Four or five lengthy scenes in this episodic movie involving Poppy and him in the car. Scott is a boor in many respects, and by the end he’s completely gone off the rails, partially as a result of starting to fall in love with Poppy, who represents everything he detests. But mixed in with some of the bizarre rants (my favorite involved tinfoil-hat talk about the height of the Washington Monument), he says some uncomfortably true things about Poppy — the only character in HAPPY GO-LUCKY to do so, in fact: “all I ask is that you behave like an adult,” he rants at her after one of her do-lally jokes while driving. And by the end of HAPPY GO-LUCKY, Poppy has had to use force and threat against him, had to act in the “toughlove” way the therapeutic society rejects as patriarchal violence. I think Leigh has made a movie about the damage from the collapse of patriarchy (though as I acknowledged to Mike in a personal discussion, if he did so, he did so almost certainly inadvertantly). There is a discussion involving Poppy and her girlfriends in which they note there are no good men around, or if they are they’re hiding or “haven’t got the balls” to appear. And indeed, there is not an attractively effectual male in this movie — Marsan’s anger representing pre-therapy masculinity in a post-therapy world; Poppy’s brother-in-law, a childlike father-to-be who seeks or subverts his wife’s permission to play video games; Popp’s pupil who bullies the other kids because he’s abused at home by his mother’s live-in boyfriend; that (offscreen) boyfriend, who is not the child’s father, natch; the (offscreen) lover of the flamenco dancer. The only possibly attractive male character is Poppy’s late-acquired boyfriend Tim. The problem dramatically is that Samuel Roukin’s performance and/or Leigh’s conception of the character, while not bad per se, is utterly bland and uninteresting in the presence of dynamos like Scott and Poppy. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a (kind of) romantic triangle, but with one iddy-biddy teeny-tiny leg (imagine a HIS GIRL FRIDAY in which Ralph Bellamy gets Roz Russell — only more so). On the other hand, if Tim is intended to represent a “happy ending” in this respect, then Leigh also badly miscalculated the ideas he was playing with. To put it simply and crudely, if traditional masculinity has collapsed, then a social worker who fornicates on the first date is only more of the same.

But there are flaws in this generally great film (I haven’t even mentioned the funniest scene — involving Poppy’s taking flamenco lessons from a dance instructor who really gets INTO the dance’s emotions), and they are Leigh returning to his some of the tics that drag down even his best films. After making the best-acted film of his career in VERA DRAKE, the one-scene really-overcooked wtf? performance makes its return — a rambling homeless man in this case, joining the guy who never opened his eyes in CAREER GIRLS at head of the Hall of Shame. And the anti-climactic coda that half-heartedly reconciles the last scene with the status quo antebellum (think LIFE IS SWEET, ALL OR NOTHING or SECRETS AND LIES) also makes a comeback. And while I think Marsan’s performance is brilliant, I well understand that some sane people (see Mike above but also Michael Sicinski) see the performance as way over-the-top. Which it is in a way, but does not account for how carefully it builds from one week’s lesson to the next, as his own motivation shifts. We’re seeing the all-heterosexual version of Gay Panic on display here, and subtlety is not what’s called for.

A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008) — 8

The actual title for this film could just as easily and accurately be translated “A Christmas Story,” but anybody who expects anything resembling Ralphie’s boyhood memories will be disappointed. This is the family gathering from hell. A passive-aggressive (but not too passive) matriarch with an anti-Semitic streak¹ to boot is dying of some form of cancer that requires a transplant, and the only compatible donor in the family is the semi-estranged son, until one of her grandchildren turns out to be compatible, too. That grandchild is of course the son of another sibling, a woman who despises her mom-compatible-in-this-way-only brother, and this is both a literal bone of contention and a metaphor for all the bones strewn about this graveyard of a family (and one of the most important characters in this family dynamic is in a literal graveyard.) There are other family members gathering for the Christmas reunion, all of whom resent the other family members (or hate one or two in particular), and lots of brittle bitchiness ensues. A CHRISTMAS TALE is enormously entertaining along those lines, like ALL ABOUT EVE or something by Baumbach or Stillman. But what keeps A CHRISTMAS TALE from greatness, though it is my favorite Desplechin so far and is superb in every aspect of execution, is that this is a family that fundamentally is happy in its unhappiness. It doesn’t really feel like much is at stake, as all the characters are content to go through their motions, having found their bitchiness groove. The punches don’t land or are soft, in other words. Leigh makes many more mistakes in HGL than Desplechin does, but despite the same 8-grade, I found his film more vital and intellectually arresting. And one late plot point is literally straight out of ST. ELMO’S FIRE and the reaction of [Ally Sheedy] is, though different here, scarcely more believable.

But this review is already sounding too negative, so let me backtrack to “superb in every aspect of execution.” Desplechin gives the film an elegiac feel with faded pictures and such old-time devices as iris shots, and with choices of details like a harpsichord on the score during a key make-out scene. He uses extra-cinematic devices like (1) family members reading letters to one another to the camera, as if they’re pleading for others (i.e., us) to side with them in family quarrels; (2) having the kids stage a Zorro play, during which every cut to the other family members in the audience draws blood; and most memorably (3) revealing the family backstory via a puppet show. And Desplechin may be inviting us to take a jaundiced view of the very “family reunion haunted by ghosts from the past” genre and narrative, through a character reading aloud from the preface of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals,” to the effect that seeking after oneself can get in the way of genuine knowledge (though Nietzsche was speaking of “we knowers,” which it’s not clear that anyone in A CHRISTMAS TALE or its audience would be).

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle, Britain/India, 2008) — 4

I dropped a couple of films (neither of which I was terribly interested in) for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE based on strong buzz from Telluride — and what a crushing disappointment, made more crushing in recent days by this film’s winning the Audience Favorite Award (since Toronto is not a juried fest, this is its biggest prize). The central character is poor Bombay slum kid Jamal, who manages to reach the final question on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” leading to suspicion he cheated. The movie cuts between his life story and that TV episode, which each biography chapter explaining how he came into possession of a certain bit of knowledge that enabled him to answer a Millionaire question. Of course, once you’re aware of this gimmick, the film becomes as predictable as a litany and about as entertaining. In fact … it’s worse. Lots of films begin with their conclusions, but (often) in order to lead us along a journey that is the real point of the picture. In the best such cases (my first viewing of SUNSET BOULEVARD), we even forget we’re watching flashbacks to a conclusion we already know. But the structure in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE spoils even that possibility, because every sequence along the way has to lead us back to the end, intermittently throughout. There are absurdities aplenty in the appearances and reapparances of The Girl and in the film’s never actually explaining HOW he got on the show in the first place (particularly if he is as uneducated as portrayed). Even as a picaresque, Jamal’s life story is absurdly … well … representative, as if Jamal is supposedly a cross-section signifier embodying everything important about India. His experience covers Bollywood, anti-Muslim pogroms, working at a call center, the Taj Mahal (though Agra is more than 700 miles from Bombay). And the final scenes had me spitting contempt at the screen — not because it ends happily (nobody could expect otherwise) but because, (1) I knew what the question would be right from the beginning of the film when it first comes up (and it is not believable that *this* question would be the final question on Millionaire; it’s at pre-32,000 level, even for India); (2) the plot twist that allows Jamal to answer the next-to-last question is completely, no-way-no-how-Im-buying-it unbelievable, and (3) even if it were to be the case, “Regis” would know better than to act as he does onscreen. It’s pure writerly contrivance from beginning to end. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE begins with the four-choice question something like “how did he get this far on MILLIONAIRE — he cheated, he was lucky, he was a genius, or it was written.” The answer the film gives us at the end is D, which is certainly true, but not quite in the sense that I think the film meant.
¹ Linguistic aside question #1: For anybody who speaks French — was “my little Jew” ever the ordinary French term for the elbow phenomenon we call a “funny bone” in English?

September 15, 2008 Posted by | Arnaud Desplechin, Danny Boyle, Mike Leigh, TIFF 2008 | 3 Comments

An abortion film and an abortion of a film


VERA DRAKE (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2004, 9)
PALINDROMES (Todd Solondz, USA, 2004, 1)

The lead description at the Internet Movie Database for this film says “abortionist Vera Drake finds her beliefs and practices clash with the mores of 1950s England.” That’s wrong on two counts — Vera Drake is not an abortionist (I’ll explain what I mean by that later) and she does not have “beliefs” on the subject. If those descriptions were true, VERA DRAKE might have been an unbearable piece of martyrdom, possibly as bad as PALINDROMES. Instead, it’s one of the best films of the year.

Like most of Mike Leigh’s films, VERA DRAKE is not heavy on plot points. It follows the kind-hearted titular character’s life (played by Imelda Staunton) as a working-class wife and mother of two in dingy 1950 north London. Who happens to perform abortions on the side. When VERA DRAKE is creating the daily life of post-war Britain, it is never anything short of superb — one of the best evocations of working-class life I have ever seen. Every detail is right, and every detail feels right. After dinner, the men in the Drake family discuss their experiences in what was still just called “the war” when I was a boy in the mid-1970s. Nobody maintains an ostentatious silence, nobody gives a great speech, nobody sheds a tear, even when saying he lost his mother in the Blitz. In fact, the German air raids are as much the occasion for trying to place what attack that was and who felt what bomb, the way people in another era might try to remember a rainstorm or blackout. When son Sid (Daniel Mays) mentions losing a mate in Palestine, he says he was ambushed by “a bunch of Pakis” — which isn’t correct of course, but is right artistically. Leigh brushes on the smallest details with the swiftness and confidence of a virtuoso — the pronunciation of CHOOZ-day; Vera’s constant refrain “I’ll make a cup of tea” or “I’ll put on the kettle”; the way Vera mashes potatoes (it’s some achievement to make me nostalgic for British “cuisine”); the son’s manner with his measuring tape at his job as a tailor’s fitter. We feel less like spectators and more like one of the family, we know these people and their world so well.

Scene after scene plays with perfect control. Even when Leigh gets schematic and manipulative with his plots — as he often does — every character is acted so perfectly and with such attention to the psychological truth of the moment that we forget the manipulations as we’re watching. For example, when police (led by a detective played by the burly Peter Wight) come to arrest Vera, her family is having a double nuptial celebration — one couple is engaged and another plans to announce a pregnancy. In lesser hands, the ironies probably would have been a bit much. But even in its implausability, the coincidence underlines that Vera has broken up her family’s happiness (that is *certainly* the point of the film’s last shot). And then the scene plays out perfectly. There’s a very lengthy, perfectly acted closeup of Staunton in which she realized her bungee cord has snapped. But can’t let anyone know. In fact, what’s so brilliant about the scene of the arrest of Vera is how as much time is devoted to appearances — going into rooms, asking who knows what, Vera answering police questions with “we’re having a party today,” Vera walking past her mystified family without a word.

VeraHusbandEven Leigh’s direction — usually tactfully functional; his films have always been actor showcases — gets better from film to film. The cinematography draws a clear contrast between the overcast grays, drab colors and cramped spaces of the working-class environs and the high-key bright lighting and open spaces of the upper-class environs that Vera cleans as a maid. But Leigh doesn’t push the contrast too hard into either miserabilism and fruity decadence. The scene where Vera finally tells her husband Stan (played by Phil Davis) is made by the way Leigh creeps his camera in ever so slowly to intimate distance as the couple supercede the police in the frame’s composition. And then it stops, as if discreetly standing by, when the unspeakable privileged secret is revealed. This tactfully intimate and no more.


In one important sense, this is the best-acted film Mike Leigh has ever made — which is saying something since the man is the best director of actors in the world. But the downside of the “actorly” performances he coaxes from his (always stellar) casts is that even in his best films, there’s usually been one performance that’s just a bit too *much* or off-key or one-note — Timothy Spall in LIFE IS SWEET; Claire Rushbrook in SECRETS & LIES; the mother in HIGH HOPES; the son in ALL OR NOTHING; Gilbert’s father in TOPSY-TURVY. But here in VERA DRAKE, for the first time, that doesn’t happen. Nobody overacts, and not from lack of opportunity. Lesley Manville is more restrained as a “toff” here than she was in a similar role in HIGH HOPES. As the daughter and her suitor, both of whom are a bit “slow” or “daft,” Alex Kelly and Eddie Marsen are note-perfect in the sort of role that Leigh sometimes fumbles (the aforementioned Spall role). Their tentative proposal is touching without being cloying. And Marsan’s delivery of the Christmas toast to Vera is probably the movie’s high point.

VERA DRAKE is studded with small diamonds in its performances. I mentioned Peter Wight as the lead police detective, and for all the (just) praise heaped on Staunton, he may actually give the movie’s best performance since it’s probably the most difficult balancing act. He has to play a 100 percent professional whose job it is to bring down the movie’s hero, and Wight does it without himself ever becoming an unsympathetic caricature. He conveys the discomfort of having to deal with a kindly old lady, without ever letting on as to whether he supports abortion law. He does so with his body language and voice (direct without being blunt), but without ever giving a speech about The Sanctity Of The Law, like say, Kevin Costner did as an enforcer of Prohibition in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Wight’s performance and some of the things his character does simply embody what it means to love the sinner and hate the sin.

Another of the great pleasures of Leigh’s films is that he’ll use an actor for a two- or three-scene small role — here Manville, Allan Corduner and Ruth Sheen, e.g. — even though they have been brilliant as leads in his other films. Corduner’s role, as a psychiatrist certifying an upper-class woman’s eligibility for an abortion, is the kind of one-scene role that in lesser films is often either sloughed off or turned into a “character” for comic relief. But Corduner, in his voice and eyes, masters his character’s delicate balance between asking leading questions and not seeming to ask leading questions. It’s the way his face lights up without smiling when he gets the answer to his question “did he force himself on you?” This is the kind of detail that gives Leigh’s films so much texture and depth.

VeraArrestThe film is so strong, so rich and so complex that you just want to sneak into the editing room and remove its few missteps. Like many great depictors of working-class life, Leigh has to resist shots at social climbers. But in VERA DRAKE, he’s hardly even trying in the character of Joyce, the wife of Stan’s brother, Frank. The scene when she sorta forces herself on him because it’s her time to conceive was too funny to really work, and then she tells Frank she’s pregnant … (pause) … “can I get a fridge now.” And when she’s at the Christmas party, her body language screams “I don’t want to be here” and she can’t even put on a show of considering the Dairy Box chocolates being passed around. It’s hard to credit materialism and snobbery this obvious — if there’s one thing upper-class Britons know how to do, it’s put on an appearance. And the film’s principal weakness is in its third act — there’s just too many noble closeups of Vera and some mournful music. It’s not bad in itself — Staunton is superb even when the script gets one-dimensional here and paints her in a bit, simply because she’s so successfully created a woman who cannot fathom the situation she’s in. But there’s just too much of it.

In an otherwise excellent review, James Bowman gets one significant thing about the VERA DRAKE wrong. He says “Everything about the film apart from the propaganda is done so well that the propaganda, when it comes, strikes a jarring note and sounds out of place.” I think there is little pro-choice propaganda at all in the film — apart from the basic dramatic situation of taking place at a time when abortion is generally illegal and following a character who breaks that law (which you knew going in, so there’s hardly a “when it comes”). Of course, we’re cued to sympathize with Vera, but what is significant here are the absences and, as Bowman DOES point out, the ways that Leigh and his actors so convincingly create the world of their characters that it won’t fit into propaganda categories.

I don’t know how attuned Leigh is to the abortion debate in the United States, but the film ducks some of the easiest pro-abortion talking points and makes many of the pro-life movement’s; (1) the abortion procedure Vera uses is basically injecting a soapy enema into the uterus in order to induce a miscarriage. But when asked by the police whether she ever used coat hangers or knitting needles, she blanches in horror at the thought; (2) nobody, including Vera herself, defends abortion in the abstract or utters a thought to the effect that abortion should be legal or displays any anachronistically-raised feminist consciousnesses (i.e., it is wrong to say Vera has any beliefs on the subject); (3) no legal consequences are ever threatened or even apparently contemplated for the mothers who abort, rebutting the most vicious boogie-man lie; (4) liberal film critics note (correctly as far as the point goes) that the film contrasts an upper-class woman’s getting medical exams to have what was then called a “therapeutic abortion” with Vera as abortionist to the working class. Or as Roger Ebert put it, “if you can afford a plane ticket and the medical bill you will always be able to obtain a competent abortion,” as if having to pay 50 times as much for a service is something good.

In fact, the only person to offer any abstract moral judgment is the son Sid, who says “it’s wrong though,” to his mother. She weakly says “I don’t think so,” and he angrily shoots back “of course it is. It’s little babies.” Sid is never rebutted, and his father eventually brings him back into the family fold by saying “she’s your mother. She’d forgive you anything” — a point which is perfectly true and perfectly valid for a son, but not for a citizen. Blood is thicker than water, but nobody even today thinks democratic republics operate on the basis of blood ties. Further, the father tells Sid, “I know you think she’s done bad things, but she’ll be punished enough for that.” That’s not the most-ringing endorsement of an abortionist one will hear today, and it points to how Leigh’s and his actors’ integrity in presenting the era prevents VERA DRAKE from being the pro-abortion propaganda film it’ll undoubtedly be unjustly loved and hated as. In fact, Sid’s blow-up at his mother is one of the movie’s only two or three moments of “authentic” feeling. In fact Sid explicitly plays to the contemporary choir by speaking in the name of today’s great value — authenticity. “Are we supposed to sit around, pretending to play Happy Families like nothing happened,” he asks.

VeraCloseupFinally, the relationship of Vera’s obvious sainthood and her abortions is complex. VERA DRAKE is helped in this sense by being set in another era, which emphasizes the distances from the particulars surrounding the abortion wars of today. Practically the first thing the film does is establish Vera’s goodness — the first thing we see her do is attend to a sick neighbor, then invite a lonely man to dinner, saying “you can’t be having bread and drippings every day.” (She’s also taking care of a sick, elderly mother.) And Vera’s care for the elderly and sick distance her from today’s abortion advocates, who also (virtually to a man) advocate euthanasia on the same “autonomous self” basis as they do abortion (in fact, I saw the trailer for the reputedly toxic THE SEA INSIDE before VERA DRAKE). While Vera is portrayed as a kind of saint in most of her life, she is not one *because* she’s an abortionist or *in explicit spite of* that fact. The film refuses to set the two in opposition, choosing instead to see Vera as she sees herself — as someone whose whole being is wrapped into helping people, acting in service of others.

It would not be wholly wrong to also note there are guilty consciences here. None of Vera’s patients are as calm as she is, and one, a West Indian woman, almost appears offended that the abortion is not more traumatic. It shouldn’t be that easy, she seems to think. Plus, every reference to abortion is couched in euphemism, like the very objectless term “pro-choice” itself. Vera only tells her patients that “I’m here to help you” and when asked, her unrehearsedly rehearsed bedside manner tells them “it’ll all go away.” The word “baby,” of course, is never used. Nor (and this is more surprising) does she use the perfectly-unloaded word “miscarriage” … the closest she comes is “start the bleeding,” as if she’s just correcting a menstrual problem. Even when arrested, she can’t bring herself to tell her family. And when the police detective uses the word “abortion” for the first time in the film, Vera says, irrelevantly under the circumstances but as if preserving a point of honor for her: “that’s not what I do. That’s what you call it.”

And that’s to me, the key in answering how should a pro-life person should react to VERA DRAKE, beyond its (to me indisputable) excellence as a movie? One of the things often discussed in pro-life activism and even noted to people who pray Rosaries outside abortion clinics (as I’ve done) is to emphasize how abortion victimizes women, pointing to (among many other things and with exceptions like Barbara Ehrenreich duly noted) how many regret their abortions to at least some degree. VERA DRAKE does not say abortion is something to be proud of, and it ultimately defends the abortionist primarily in terms of family duty and the effect her jailing has on her family. The movie clearly wants you to feel sorry for Vera, but if God calls us to love the sinner, there is nothing scandalous or immoral about what this movies tries to (and largely does) achieve. As Bowman point out, as bad as hating the sin can be and which VERA DRAKE emphasizes, it’s usually preferable to pretending that sin is not sin.


Fortunately for such complexities, this fall’s other prestigious film-festival abortion movie with a pro-abortion director and star is worthy of all the loathing and hate we can muster. PALINDROMES, which has yet to be released, is a truly hateful film. Not primarily because it’s pro-abortion, mind you. If it were merely propaganda, like what some will see VERA DRAKE as being, I’d still feel obliged at least to try to bracket that and judge its merits as a work of art, the same way I’d look at TRIUMPH OF THE WILL or BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN or BIRTH OF A NATION. But PALINDROMES’s problems are even more basic than that — it truly is one of the most unrelievedly misanthropic experiences I have ever had and, like A HOLE IN MY HEART, it is unpleasant to share the theater with it.

PALINDROMES follows a young girl Aviva, played by several different actresses (to no discernable effect or reason), who mindlessly sleeps with a boy, becomes pregnant, is forced to abort by her parents, runs away for a Candide-like picaresque through a fantasy world of various sexual depravities. The largest part of the running time covers Aviva’s experiences as she’s taken in by Mama Sunshine, an evangelical Christian who has adopted a score of unwanted children.

PALINDROMES caricatures the pro-life Christian “family” — quite viciously, quite untruthfully and worst of all, totally uninsightfully. (I love how this film makes such fun of a large family of adopted children when one of the standard pro-abortion talking points has long been “how many unwanted kids have YOU raised.” Damned if you do …) PALINDROMES would qualify as hate speech against Christians if the term “hate speech” were applied neutrally. Solondz plainly knows nothing about Christian culture — the family, which is coded as evangelical Protestant in a hundred ways from the decor and pictures to the theological terminology (“saved,” e.g.), but also recites the standard Catholic “Grace Before Meals” prayer. Everyone talks in a practicedly-happy sing-songy patter that the Von Trapp kids would have found too sugary. And this ignorance cripples Solondz’s ability to make even a good satirical point.

For example, after being taken in, Aviva is kicked out of Mama Sunshine’s family because of her sexual past. I’m sure that makes good cluck-cluck material for cocktail party gabbles at the Manhattan hen coop — “nasty Christians, being judgmental” and all that sniffing. Except that it’s 180 degrees from the truth or even anything believable. If anything, evangelical Protestants have a tendency to play UP their pre-conversion sins. Rather than ostracize someone over “a past,” they eagerly detail it during Revival Week as testimony to Christ’s power — “oh, was I ever a sinner until I was found by the Lord. Let me how tell you bad a sinner I was” … etc., etc. In fact, this kind of material can even be found in such gliterati-approved movies as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and ELMER GANTRY. What would have been truthful would have been if Aviva had been embraced for her past sins; what could have been funny was if she made up stuff to go along with (or even trying to one-up) “testimonies” from others; what could have been darkly satirical was if, having found her testimonies inadequate, she went out to commit more-outlandish sins in order to have something worthwhile to testify to or to win approval. Right there, are two more good comedy ideas than are found in PALINDROMES. Instead we get self-righteous snigger-at-flyover-Xtians cheap shots like kids saying “pass the Freedom Toast” in that annoying sing-songy timed-to-the-laugh-beat rhythm, a family contemporary-Christian song that plays like the songs sung by the Brady Bunch, the adding of “born and unborn” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and a REALLY over-the-top prayer graphically detailing every manner of abortion procedure. Said by a kid of about 7.

PalindromesDressThe tone of mockery without laughs is continual. One of the actresses playing Aviva is a very large woman, 300 pounds at least. And Solondz often dresses her in the tight-clinging, skimpy outfits of a Friday Night Disco Slut that she’s spilling out of and hanging over as if she doesn’t know how to dress “fat.” My complaint, I hasten to note, is not about sexiness or attractiveness per se, but about Solondz’s exploitation of this woman’s build and how his costume choices and the way he directs this woman are indistinguishable from an attempt to humiliate her (humiliate the actress that is, not the character she’s playing). When a shirtless Chris Farley does a Chippendale dance-off audition next to a bare-chested Patrick Swayze, that’s funny only because Farley camps it up and boogies as if he’s the sexiest man alive, born to be a Chippendale dancer. But Solondz directs Aviva, no matter who’s playing her, to play meek and depressed, the sort of person who always looks down and averts her eyes. And who speaks in a low monotone like a dog that’s been whipped once too often. Every moment looking at this 300-pound woman playing Aviva in this key, and dressed this deliberately-disgust-inducing way … you feel sorry for **the actress,** stuck in this geek show, and just want to avert your eyes from the screen.

PalindromesParentsBut what makes this movie absolutely irredeemable is that these portrayals (and, of course you know you will not see pro-life Christians in a Hollywood or Indiewood movie without some tie to the handful of people who have taken to murdering abortionists) are not worse than the way Ellen Barkin (Aviva’s mother) is caricatured. I even felt sorry for pro-choice people when a character presented the case for an abortion. She tells her daughter, that if she has the baby “you’ll have to go on Food Stamps.” (“And buy big jars of mayonnaise at a Costco on Staten Island,” I wanted to add.) But then I found out I didn’t have to. Barkin goes on to tell her daughter that she aborted her sibling and tells her that if she hadn’t done so, the family couldn’t have afforded “the N’Sync tickets,” “the Gap accounts” … “the Ben N Jerry’s” (the Toronto audience was yukking it up by this point, and I practically snapped). And I don’t know how to take the fact the audience also laughed at the “it’s just a tumor” line. Even beyond the inherent mockworthy facts of the lines is the way, typical for him, that Solondz directs Barkin’s delivery of her lines — delivered with a fake conviction so practiced that it can’t be believed for a second, and with the actress pausing for every unintentional potential punch line her character serves up to give the audience a chance to laugh at her. And then, a perfectly timed two beats after a moment of reconciliation, we get the father beating on the door and yelling “open the god-damn door.”

I can’t even give PALINDROMES credit for portraying the risks of abortion — hemorrhaging and an emergency hysterectomy (even for a safe, legal surgical abortion to which rich people had access for 50 times the cost 50 years ago). Partly because it’s softened by being shot in a soft white-frame and slow piano tinkles, with the focus so soft as to make the image incomprehensibly blurry like this was a Valentine’s Day douche commercial. But also partly because it’s not from any kind of pro-life conviction. Nor is it even from a pro-choice stances that feels self-conflicted, has room for tragedy or has intellectual integrity. It’s simply one more ranty verse in a “the world is shit” litany. The film looked as ugly as it felt — with the color recessive and grainy — and it probably was not a help that the audience was yukking it up throughout. Nothing is more alienating than seeing a movie with a big crowd that thinks it’s all SO funny when you don’t.

I watched PALINDROMES sitting next to a friend whom I call on my links to the right a “godless pinko.” Michael also hated the film (scroll down to 15 Sept.) and said as we left the theater, close as I can recall, “I felt insulted for you, Victor — that I was sitting next to a Christian who was being subjected to that film.” When a pro-life sniper who has attacked an abortionist’s home gets into a shootout with police, I saw Michael hit his head on the back of the (very comfortable stadium-theater) chair in frustration at the line “how many more times can I be born again.” To make me angry over the portrayal of an abortion-pusher and to get Waz angry over the portrayal of a Christian family and a pro-life murderer. That’s an achievement — I guess. What I will truly to my last breath hold against this film is that I thought Solondz’s earlier films were at least good, and I even named HAPPINESS best film of the year back in 1998. I’m now afraid to go back and look at that earlier work. So not only was PALINDROMES bad in itself, but it may have robbed my memory of a masterpiece — and that’s just unforgivable.

October 26, 2004 Posted by | Mike Leigh, Todd Solondz | 2 Comments