Rightwing Film Geek

Separating the artist from the art

Oliver Stone’s WORLD TRADE CENTER opened today. And I’ll be honest, when I saw the trailer, I was ready to stick my finger down my throat. The “start of the day” shots felt like the sarcastic BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY overture; slow-motion and heavy scoring is a standard trailer-baiting effect, but it brought to mind that same film’s beginning. It looked like a manipulative soap opera, done by someone I have no reason to think wouldn’t be hiding Conspiracy Theories behind the trailer.

But from conservatives who have seen WORLD TRADE CENTER — the prebuzz was been unanimously favorable — Cliff May, John Miller, and Kathryn Lopez at National Review Online; Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center; Cal Thomas, the former No.2 at the Moral Majority; Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard; Ivy Sellers at Human Events; and Michael Medved. And the reaction at places such as Free Republic was more positive than negative. But in reviews published today, Peter Suderman at National Review and Christian Toto at the Washington Times were mixed or slightly-negative on WORLD TRADE CENTER.

As of my writing this (I will certainly see WORLD TRADE CENTER, but probably not until the weekend), I think JFK is easily Stone’s best film, because it’s his most paranoid and nonsensical. It’s so bizarre that the text cannot be taken seriously, except as the occasion for Stone’s virtuoso style — which is dazzling (Christian complained in TWT that there wasn’t enough of that in WTC). It’s the film equivalent of coloratura opera, or listening to one of the drug-addled conversations in A SCANNER DARKLY. But I couldn’t persuade conservative friends back in 1991/92 to see it.

But this is the latest example of how political/religious conservatives are so much better at separating our reaction to a work of art from the artist. We have to be. With a handful of notable exceptions — Jane Fonda, Michael Moore and (until now) Stone but no others that immediately come to mind — we generally patronize the films of artists that we despise politically or make fun of. Oh sure, we’ll ridicule Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn and the rest of the Film Actors Guild. But the much common attitude seems to be the line that I started this review of THERESE and CELSIUS 41.11:

In THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS … the French colonel in charge of the anti-terrorism unit is read a Jean-Paul Sartre quote denouncing French rule in Algeria. In response, he asks aloud: “why are all the Sartres on the other side?”

No conservative of my acquaintance seriously doubts that many bone-headed liberals are in fact great actors, singers, etc. In fact, it’s even common for conservatives to see brilliance in works that are unquestionably propaganda for despicable ideas. I could cite my own Top 10 lists, which has THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST below VERA DRAKE¹ and HERO² for 2004, and has annual #1 slots occupied by THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS³ and EARTH⁴.

It’s not just me. At the Washington Times newsroom, I AM CUBA has been a bit of a hit. A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a senior manager at work — a Cuban-born woman — and I said “Soy Cuba” in some context that made the title of Mikhail Kalatozov’s famed 1964 Cuban-Soviet propaganda film a funny punchline. She responded in a way that indicated she knew what I was referring to. I told her that I AM CUBA had recently run on the Sundance Channel and I had burned a Tivo’d DVD of it onto two discs. She said she had never seen it and jumped at the chance to borrow the film. When she returned the discs, she was rapturous about how visually stunning was the style and gorgeous were the images. Her favorite moments included the student on the steps, walking through billows of smoke up to an assassination attempt; images of the farmer burning his cane fields; the famous early swimming-pool shot; long shots of people in the distance marching through streets, and it turns out to be a funeral, which the camera hovers over like an angel.

A couple of days after she returned the disc, the managing editor came to my desk, told me he had heard the Cuban lady rave about I AM CUBA and asked if he could borrow my discs. On returning them, he was just as impressed, calling it “a great propaganda film” (he also noted the involvement of Yevtushenko, who later became a bit of a dissident in the Soviet Union). He noted not just the cinematography but also the faces in the film, and how “great to look at” the film was. “And very timely,” he joked, given Castro’s stepping down just days before. We agreed that the images in the film are so sensual — the high-contrast black-and-white, the lengthy takes, the dramatic compositions, the aura of smoke, the feel of heat — that you just want to caress them.

Perhaps the difference from their own homeland inspired Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky to capture so completely the “feel” of the sun-soaked tropical country where they were working, making the film a giddy romp on summer holiday.

Though not blind to the Batista regime’s faults, none of the three of us are Fidelistas by any definition (and Castro himself doesn’t appear in the movie, like Lenin used to in the Soviet classics of the 20s). Still, none of the three of us were seriously put off by the Fidelism of I AM CUBA. When a film is this gorgeous, the style makes everything else irrelevant (this is, approximately, how I’d defend the awesomeness of HERO). I’d say the style even makes the film’s points — though I AM CUBA is nobody’s idea of intellectually-subtle or well-acted. But Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s great style, the overwhelming style, stamps itself so firmly onto the sometimes clumsy performances that it turns these “bad” actors into icons or types — persons who stand less for than themselves than for the image of Revolutionary Hero. Like a Communist “Lives of the Saints” picture book.
¹ about a saintly abortionist, though I think the film ultimately is more complicated than that.
² a full-throated Chinese nationalist apologia for tyranny.
³ I saw ALGIERS just a block from Pennsylvania Avenue and within walking distance of the White House and Congress just as the Iraq insurgency was getting seriously under way.
⁴The Ukrainian Embassy had a ceremonial person introduce EARTH at the National Gallery of Art’s Dovzhenko retro. Another Ukrainian official, a cultural attache (though I wouldn’t swear to that), participated in a post-film roundtable that never, to my recollection, touched on the issue of making a film in Ukraine in 1930 about the peasants’ glorious struggle against the Kulaks.

August 8, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment