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Da Vinci Code et al  Jan 2007      Recent        Joshua         Old Stuff

Wonder Boys and Return to Peyton Place, in the same review???

Senseless Acts of American Beauty     Nihilism and Chicago

Interesting family movies:

Be-Sure-to-Miss-It-If-You-Can Department 

In a Class by Itself

Nuclear Fight Club

Coming Soon: "Ajama" and "A Serious Man"

 

In death, a member of Project Mayhem has a name! 

 

Project Mayhem was the coordinated acts of disruption and destruction carried out by the followers of Tyler Durden, in Fight Club; the statement was by one of those followers who exemplified the  militaristic obedience of the group; when one of them died (the only death in this very violent movie), their leader called him by his name, Bob Paulson, and the followers reminded him that in Project Mayhem no one has a name; but the man objected strongly, and then there was the wide-eyed realization: In death, a member of Project Mayhem has a name! His Name was Bob Paulson became a chant or cheer in the movement. 

 

 I watch films sometimes to learn how people unlike me--different age and different worldview--are feeling.  Fight Club was recommended by students with more enthusiasm than any other movie, but I sensed I didnt want to see it, that it would be too violent for me, that it would offend my taste and moral sense.  But my plan in general is to see such a movie anyway, for the learning experience, for background as a college professor.

 

I did find it hard to watch, but I respected it.  It offended my sensibilities in ways I expected, and I chose rather to read about it than to watch it again.  I learned that it has a cult following, which explains the extreme enthusiasm I heard in my students.  I was told by a female student the book is better, and the man who lent me the film said his copy of the book was ragged from rereading.  So what is the power of this book and film?

 

I respected Fight Club because it was intelligent and had a daring thesis, and it was not obnoxious or annoying, not stupid in the way that I find hard to take in films, although it did have a faintly flat-footed campiness.  It was bizarre, but thats not a mark against it.  In this respect it reminded me of a favorite of mine, Brazil, a Monty Python-like dystopia where a world one has never seen appears realistically before your eyes and does highly unexpected things.  Fight Club also reminded me of the worst movie ever made, Nothing but Trouble,  but only because of the physical setting, the house where Tyler Durden lived with his new friend (the unnamed main character, obscurely linked with Jack).   The place was ugly, unredeemedly ugly and dysfunctional. Nothing but Trouble put us in a bizarre and ugly castle with people we didnt want to see, and for no reason, and there were no redeeming qualities; this movie put us into a house we didnt want to be in, but with purposes.  Yet the house and other settings were not aestheticized into a beautiful ugliness, like the dusty-trashy whirlwind in American Beauty, nor transformed by a surreal quality, as with Brazil.  One could fault the filmmaker for not producing beauty at all costs, as art generally does, but I dont think he wanted to give us any way out of the ugliness . Sex was ugly, too.  Not pornographic, just slightly explicit, and loud.  Extreme passion without any passion, you might say.  There was a love story, too, and in the end the boy gets the girl, but most of the time you dont know who the boy really is, and no one is sweet to anyone.  Thus I hint at what is daring in the thesis of the movie, which I wont reveal.  It is daring enough that the two characters mix the ashes of their pyromaniacal fixation with human fat from liposuction clinics, stolen in drippy bags from the dark dumpsters, to make soap, which they sell to upscale boutiques. 

 

Fight Club was not filled with gratuitous violence.  (We only use that word in this way when we use it in this clichi, and I guess it means the filmmaker throws in lots of free violence to keep our base instincts aroused.)  I believe there is only one death, as mentioned above, and we do not see it happen.  So this is not Lost Ark, with the airplane propeller spewing blood, or Total Recall  or Lethal Weapon  or any other movie with cannon fodder as a main theme.  But the fights are brutal.  They are the diametrical opposite of the stylized martial arts films, which cheapen death as much as the cannon-fodder films.  If Crouching Tiger and Fight Club were ever run together in the same theater some afternoon, the walls would collapse. 

 

                

 

This is probably the most important quality of this film, that the fights are real, physically real, viscerally brutal.  This apparently is their appeal: that the violence within is allowed to wreak havoc in the real world, on the basement floor, so to speak.  My wifes response was that the extreme attraction comes from the indulgence of sadistic and masochistic impulses.  My student friend who lent it to me responded that it is sadism, because the characters "get pleasure out of causing pain, and feel most free when they are fighting.  He added these pieces of the script: "I wanted to destroy something beautiful." "After fight club everything else gets turned down. You are never as alive as you are in fight club." But for him that is not a diagnosis that dismisses the movie as an unhealthy thing, just a fact about what works in the actual psyche of men, the notion of masculinity that draws both men and women.   The film is a definition of masculinity under attack.  It begins with a support group for men with testicular cancer; The Bob Paulson who died is of that group; it continues with the fact that the insomniac Narrator visits all kinds of support groups surreptitiously, pretending to be a variety of harmed people, as does the girl in the story.

 

I am poised between dismissing it as the indulgence of a pathological tendency, as if it were a porn flick or of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre genre, and embracing it as the articulation of a world view--but clearly this phrase suggests everything of order and control that Fight Club does not believe in.  It is a world view, a generational identity piece, but the tortured identity of the X and Millenial generations has a pathology within it, I am afraid, reflecting cultural realities that are not a happy story.  So I do not dismiss it, as a mental health practitioner would not say that his client on the couch should not have those sorts of dreams.  This is a dream that someone had and that millions of young people found tugging strongly at something within themselves.  The fighting might not be a good thing, but it is about something.

 

Tyler and his friend were the middle children of God.  They were fighting mad about a neglect that was an actual fact about them and their fathers, which we know through their muttered reminiscences, but also a manifestation of a larger nihilism in which society fails to find a caring Father or any moral structure that can be trusted.  And, worse, the moral structure and fatherhood that exist are perceived to be corrupt, a deception, a sham.  This perception is a profound self-doubt of our society.  Not to be angry would be a deeper nihilism, a hopelessness become more total for not being allowed to show its face.  This is why, I think, the brutal realism of fists and bruises is the key to the movie.  It is the point of contact with a very real problem.

 

Fight Club has a political side, and the fight clubs themselves proliferated and erupted into Project Mayhem, which was a form of incendiary terrorism aimed at the system while avoiding loss of life.  I felt the political thrust was shallow, too nice.  It was not about real terrorism, although finding ones name in death leans in that direction.  It was more psychological than political, about who our fathers were more than about the power structure.  Of course, who our fathers were is connected to the power structure, and the system reflects choices made by our fathers and forebears. 

 

In this regard, I found myself connecting this movie with the fact that my father died about the same time I watched it, and with a book I took from his shelf and read, which was _American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer_.   Oppenheimer was the Father of the atomic bomb, and my father built bombs.  When I was 19 this fact settled on me, not with bitterness or protest, but just as a fact.  Early in his career he  worked for Linde Air Products, a contractor in the Manhattan Project, and on the wall of his office, as we packed it up forever, I found a certificate from the War Department recognizing his contribution to the war effort.  Late in his career he was the head of Sandia Corporation at its Amarillo office within the Pantex Plant, where all the United States nuclear armaments of the cold war were assembled.  

 

Being anti-nuclear was somewhat obligatory for a college student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the sixties, but in the long run it was not a moral issue with me, because the real problems of humanity lie deeper than our technological choices, which only reflect what lies beneath.  But in the Oppenheimer story the ambivalence of the human race over its Promethean achievements is written deeply, and the drama that thick book develops around Oppenheimers life is about how scientists can see the unfolding horror of the nuclear age but have no choice but to propel it forward.  They had to get this power, perhaps to defeat Nazi Germany with it, but more importantly to get it before the Germans did.  And yet the war in Europe was won without it, and in the Pacific it sealed and crowned a victory that was well underway already.  I had never been told that Japan was putting out feelers for terms of surrender and that Russia was pledged to declare war on Japan after the Germans guns were silenced.  I was told that it ended the war and saved countless American lives, but the scientists knew they had unleashed an inevitability: the weapon had to be built, and it had to be tried on a real city.

 

Oppenheimer did not work against the use of the bomb in Japan, but beyond that point he and others believed that complete openness among scientists and international control of the bomb were the only alternative to a nuclear  arms race.   And Oppenheimer believed that tactical atomic weapons had their place in national defense but that the hydrogen bomb should never be built because it could only be used against civilization itself.  Yet all of this happened, Hiroshima, Nagasaki,  thermonuclear weapons, Russian weapons, ICBMs with 20 megaton warheads, 50 years of being armed to the teeth against ourselves. 

 

The scientists could not stop that.  Immediately after the war Russia became the enemy, and all the hopeful intellectuals with their sympathies for the idealistic intentions of early Communism (which fought fascism in Spain and Germany) became the enemy, too.  Thus Oppenheimer, a national hero, was subjected to the humiliations of the House Unamerican Activities Committee  and lost his security clearance and the greater part of his national honor.  He died of throat cancer about the time I was realizing that my father built bombs.

 

The generals mightily prevailed over the scientists, and fear was prevailing over hopeful intentions.  Mutual fear and defensive self-interest  ran the world for 50 years, or perhaps always have .  It was only because the reasonable scientists glimpsed a rational alternative that the logical dysfunction becomes visible: one man fears what the other does because that man fears what the first man does because he fears...and so on.   Enemy becomes a value judgment that is totally relative.  The real problem is the fear-filled interaction. Anyone can see how absurd it is, and yet all the power of the world is caught up in it. 

 

I actually believe this is not the final analysis of the situation, and if the scientists had their way a deeper threat would still be among us, because even their best-laid plans would succumb to the self-righteousness of the human spirit.  But it was painful to watch the military and political powers right and left march heedlessly into the arms race, driven by their perception of their rightness, which defines itself in the mirror of the enemys wrongness.

 

Perhaps the most intense kernel of meaning in Fight Club is that humans find meaning in the battles they fight.  This could be a critical claim, lamenting that the generals in their Nuclear Fight Club are so foolishly pitted against each other.  But to criticize in that way might lead into the nihilism that says, We are all the same, really, so lets just be nice.  It could be the scientists solution of rational globalism, which could turn oppressive quickly, like the ideals of the Communists.  The simple formula for peace is not so simple.

 

I prefer to think that Fight Club finds meaning in the battles we fight and does not turn that to a be-nice criticism.  Rather, it is a cry for meaning and reality  On the surface it is dysfunctional, but under the skin it is more like the immune system producing awful symptoms while fighting the greater menace of meaninglessness.  If so, it is not a nihilistic story but counter-nihilism.  And I think this is true because of the power that it has with its readers and viewers.  If it were a preachy movie about how we ought to act, there might be smug satisfaction with it and it might win some awards.  Clearest case of that, I think, is The English Patient, which was nihilistic and beautiful and full of politically correct attitudes. Those people were in the War but opted out and believed in nothing.*  The same year, The Devils Advocate roared through the theatres and had us trembling as we walked out into the afternoon sunshine of normal American-shopping-center life, but the Academy at Hollywood looked nervously in the other direction.  Some movies leave you comfortable, but Fight Club does not.  Instead, it stirs up a deep response.  There is a passion there that preachy, be-nice movies do not create. 

 

The other day I told a new philosophy class that I used to think the answer to life was be nice, but that equipped me for divorce from my first wife. From a song lyric I got, Heres my simple plan: You be my loving woman, Ill be your loving man.  That plan does not work.   My father was good at being nice, but that was not his gift to me.  Oppenheimer was a powerful leader due to his expansive intelligence, but he was a pleaser of men, too, and he and his cohorts hoped the whole world could be nice together, which means he never penetrated to the real issues with which we have to deal.

 

One part of _American Prometheus_ stood out for me as revealing, though uncharacteristic of the book as a whole, which did not try too hard to look beneath the covers at psychological secrets.

 

To the readers of Life, Time, and other popular magazines, Roberts family life may have seemed idyllic.  Photographs depicted a pipe-smoking father reading a book to his two young children as his pretty wife looked over his shoulder and the familys German Shepherd, Buddy, lay at his feet.  He is warmly affectionate, wrote a reporter for a cover story on Oppenheimer for Life magazine, with his wife and children (who are well fed and very fond of him), and attentively polite to everybody. . . .  According to Life, Oppenheimer walked home each evening at 6:30 p.m. to play with the children.  Each Sunday, they took Peter and Toni out to hunt for four-leaf clovers. Mrs. Oppenheimer, whose thinking is also direct, keeps her children from cluttering the house with four-leaf clovers by making they eat all they find right on the spot. (p. 405)

 

The title of the chapter where this slice of Life appears is a quotation (they all are), and it reads, I Am Sure That Is Why She Threw Things at Him.  In reality, the marriage was difficult, though it lasted, and the children had troubled parenting. A neighbor observed, His family relationships seemed to be so terrible, and yet you never would have known it from Robert. You would never have known it from Robert, or from Life magazine.  So what is truly bizarre? Fight Club?  Or is it the Life magazine vignette with the four-leaf clovers and the uncluttered house and well fed wife and children so fond of him, or Robert Oppenheimer himself, attentively polite to his neighbors across the wide, green lawn?

 

 I know that the realistic and rebellious hearts of these last two generations have surmised that Ward Cleaver of Father Knows Best was probably beating his kids.  It is a bitter exaggeration, I suppose, but the suspicion that lies upon these past fifty years is worth listening to.  On the other hand, so is the counter-claim that in the mid-century we had a vision of family and fatherhood, institutions that are the cement of society, without which we cannot survive, but which are being whittled away by forces determined to undermine and destroy us.

 

The really hard question is whether fatherly authority and righteous leadership are missing in action because our society will not tolerate them, or whether our society does not tolerate the images of what is in fact corrupt.  Ward Cleaver is fiction, and to call  him a child beater is to make an editorial point; Oppenheimer was real, and for Life to paint him as it did is to show that everything good and noble could be a sham.

 

Yet Oppenheimer was no villain.  Our fathers for the most part meant well.  The generations of this past century are spelled out as the Builders, the Silent Generation the Baby Boomers, and then Generation X or Y or Millennial. Oppenheimer and my father were in the Builders, although my father was closer to the Silent Generation.  The Silent ones fought the Depression and the War or lived through it as children and gave birth to us Babies and raised us on Spock and inadvertently lit the fire of the Sixties, and then our children revolted quietly deep within, as revealed in their response to art like Fight Club: by the deep sense of an answered quest.  Their fathers and grandfathers lived in a world deeply intolerable, possibly because it was thought to be fighting the wrong battle, and probably mostly because of the silence.  All is well.  We are on the right side, fighting the enemy who is on the wrong side.  Thus we have our meaning.  All is well.  Have a four-leaf clover. Be nice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The English Patient example points to a whole other side to this essay.  Possibly we are at a time when we are ready to learn that buying into causes for which we fight wars is the worse thing we humans do.  Maybe the purposes and pleasures of war are played up in a huge, false image, and we ought to see through that image and recognize that desperate men full of selfishness and fear fight wars against their wills because of systems put in place by unthinking men.  When I was a Sixties college student we asked, What if they gave a war and nobody came?  I am not ready to say that there is nothing to be gained  by looking in this direction. But Fight Club is fighting a different battle.

 

 

 

January 07:  Well, now that Ebert and Roeper (but where is Roger Ebert?) have given their WORST MOVIES for 2006, putting The DaVinci Code in 2nd place, I can speak up.  The night before Thanksgiving my World Religions class watched it and a 60 Minutes video that shows how badly it messes with the truth.  We didn't expect good attendance, so we had this optional class and watched it, and then Sylvia and I did, too.  Bad.  Bad intentions.  Bad acting.  Bad hair.  The reviewers focused on the bad hair problem, but my problem was that Tom Hanks was catatonic and frozen-faced.  I thought since he secretly hated the movie so much he was not able to get his face to work, so they decided to write it into the script that he was traumatized.  But a student told me it is in the book, so I guess he was supposed to not act in this movie.  But a smile would have helped.  Bad acting, bad script, bad intentions, bad factual connections, bad view of religion, bad view of Catholicism, bad view of Christianity, bad view of Jesus.  I have to say, though, the movie did not shock me.  I was glad to see how bad it was.  Being shocked is giving a movie too much credit. 

Some Christian movies have been good, which is not always the case.  We loved "One Night with the King" and "The Nativity Story."

Trying to decide if I will love or hate "Little Miss Sunshine" . . .

The other day we rented "Jesus Camp."  I had no idea what to expect.   I learned it exists from a note I saw at school and thought it had to be Christian bashing, if anyone there was thinking to show it.   Then I read the cover at the rental store and was mystified about the point of view.   If Ebert et al liked it that can't be good.  But we watched it and found it hard to put in a box.  It was not Christian bashing that brays heedlessly at a caricature.  It was a film documentary of the religious right made with their cooperation and not edited prejudiciously.  Ted Haggerd was in it, but I don't know the timing of the movie with respect to his fall, and the film didn't bear down on him.  He looked silly, but it felt like acting silly is part of what he does in public life.  So this movie was an objective look at a ministry--a remarkable lady and  some amazing kids growing up in her influence.  But apparently we were supposed to be alarmed.  The soundtrack was pure ominousity, if there were such a word.  Animosity was hidden in the music. 

 

The actual comment was from a radio host who earnestly implored that we come to our senses.  He seems a Christian who thinks this is not the real thing.  I was not totally comfortable with what was shown, because the RR seems too political, and my end-times thinking doesnt have us reclaiming America for God.  People can be in the flesh, and even those who use those words knowingly, like the amazingly well-taught kids in this film, can be doing it anyway.  But I was surprised how my mild concern for the excesses of the religious right (labeled here as Evangelicals but really charismatics) was superseded by my rejoicing at what I was seeing.  My main response to the expectation that I should be alarmed was one Ive been thinking all year:  why is it alarming if Christian conservatives are gaining in the political process?  Its called democracy.  Their influence is growing, and it shows in the political process. The kids we saw were warriors of the Kingdom, but also smart, well-taught, personable, friendly, and cheerful. The talk show host was alarmed that they were warriors for Bush, but they were just from families whose values are better supported by Republicans, and, again, isnt this just democracy? 

 

We were supposed to be alarmed at these kids, but I read in the paper that night about the kids from a high school here who followed the cheerleaders from Santa Fe High School after a basketball game and wanted to beat up the guys who were with them.  The police intervened, but it was looking ugly.  That, and runaway divorce, ineffective schools, sexually active preteens, drugs, drive-by shootingstwo girls injured at their birthday partyand a swirl of horrible, meaningless messages in the music and the movies and the games. . .  isnt that better stuff to be alarmed about? 

 

The credit to the movie is that it was edited neutrally enough that those so inclined can be alarmed while those leaning the other way can rejoice.  But that shows the width of the gap in our culture. 

 

 

Two years ago .  .  .

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- If I ever get a chance to work on this page, I will write about this movie, which is, in my opinion, totally cool.  Best Movie of 2004 -- well, Roeper said it was #2, and the Academy did not respond except by nominating  Kate Winslett for best actress.  She and Carey were both great.


Nihilism 2002

"When I can't find a single star to hang my wish upon,
 I just move on"
(sung to the credits of "Chicago")


Thinking about what I would write about "Chicago" and other 2002 movies with Oscar nominations and wins, it occurs to me that I am in danger of being the heavy.  But what is a "heavy," really?  It is someone who takes things more seriously than they should be taken.  But there are obviously huge differences of opinion about what should be taken seriously, or about how seriously anything should be taken.  So a "heavy" could be someone carrying a burden that humans really don't need to carry, or he could be an earnest person as viewed by a cynic.  Recently I notice that cynicism wins the day often, but without any merit, without any real recommendation except the interior imperviousness it affords one.  It is a self-sealing point of view on almost anything.  Along with this I've decided that the most relevant fallacy in the logic books is the horse laugh.  How does it prove or disprove anything to ridicule a point of view?    Ridicule as a kind of argumentation is ridiculous itself, but those employing it will not see that it is.   On the other hand, satire is a form of ridicule, and "Chicago" has been called a satire, but satire has a more elevated purpose.  It pokes fun at something that needs to be ridiculed.  So maybe whether it is ridiculous or effective depends on how much you value the thing being
lampooned.  What makes "Chicago" different and interesting is that it lampoons itself.  More, below.


"About Schmidt"?  Scary.  This was not a best movie nomination, but Jack Nicholson got best actor nominations and awards.   What is scarier than a movie with Jack Nicholson as the bad guy?   A movie in which he is the nice guy, the normal one!  He's meek in this role.  But around him lurk some awful people, awfully normal and real.  And it is scary for a director to touch upon the problem of boredom. He won't be allowed to bore the audience, but he can make them squirm.  It's a good movie, if you're willing to see a little of the real world, but caution is advised.

We tried "The Pianist."  He did get Best Actor.  Still, the movie did not click for Linda or me.  It had all the right ingredients, War, the Holocaust, Music, a love interest.  But the ingredients never got stirred.  We never got stirred, anyway, and I am not sure why.  Probably I should try it again.

Then we tried "Gangs of New York."  We found it brutal and did not finish it.  It was not because we won't watch violence as part of a strong story line, but because, for some reason, neither of us cared to see the brutal story reach its conclusion.  Everything and Everyone in the story failed to get our sympathy.  It was visually garish and dramatically unappealing.  I found myself wondering if it was genuinely historical, or another example of editorial anachronisms in film. (making them think the way we think they should have thought).   Possibly I missed this movie because of my own mood, but we stopped near the end and never went back to it.

There were a few other minor players I paid attention to, like "The Life of David Gayle," which I found interesting in the complexity of its plot but a little annoying (Kate Winslett) and ultimately contrived.  "Catch Me if You Can," was fun and interesting. There were chick flicks that the girls helped us relax in and enjoy.  "Legally Blonde" has a great title. This is a celebration of femininity that feminists might miss.  It was watched again in the waning hours of 2003 by two blondes and two brunettes and, sometimes, me.  In the other room, Linda and her blonde friend Marty and I watched "Antwone Fisher," which is an effective drama for which the title character and lead deserves recognition.  We also watched "The In-Laws," which I thought was about the stupidest movie I've ever seen.  But Linda is rewatching it now and thinks it is great.  High-Tech Spy-Thriller Action-Wedding Family-Issues drama . . . you know the genre.  I guess this is the risk with movies, that one will seem terrible and someone else will find it great.  I love "Brazil," but Linda calls it bizarre.  In a class by itself in this regard is "The Royal Tennenbaums," in which no one smiles.  (Has Trinity smiled yet? Well, that gets into 2003.)  And there was "Moulin Rouge," which the girls and I tried to watch last summer but could not.  What am I missing?  That question could be asked of Picasso and Bob Dylan and a few dozen others, and in some cases time will tell.  But most of these judgments will fall indecisively by the wayside of public opinion, and everyone will say that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, anyway. 

The film that really got my attention was "Adaptation," which I wrote about at Father's Day this year.  If you've seen it or read about it, you know it is a kind of screen writer's marvel.  It was nominated at the Oscars for the best adapted screenplay, but didn't win, although it did win at other film awards.  The nomination and awards were given to Charlie Kaufman and his brother Donald Kaufman, his twin. (I find myself singing, "Genghis Khan and his brother, Don, could not keep on keeping on," from Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere.")   But Donald Kaufman does not exist.  It is the mix of real life and writing that makes this film so interesting.  The film is the story of the writing of the screenplay for this film.  It is the story of its own writing.  Is that possible?  When it is over, you look back and think, yes, all of this could have happened, even though you know it is partly fictional.  It is a coherent story of what could have happened in the writing of this story.  But I find myself asking, At what point did he stop writing and start having the experiences that were part of the writing?  What events happened to him, as opposed to being written by him?  As soon as I ask that question I find that the story to be truthfully told has become different, and I am thrown into a self-referential paradox again. Someone in class said you can tell the story of the writing of the story, but only in the present tense, which is how the film ends.  Anyway, it is a clever script that leaves these things in a nether world.  The intrigue is increased by the presence of a screenwriting seminar teacher who tells the writer what he needs and what he must not do. Later you wonder if that is exactly what he did.  But these technical and metaphysical tricks make the movie 'interesting', not necessarily good; what makes it good is descriptions of nihilism that are in it.  Philosophy is largely the study of nihilism in the human condition and the consideration of possible solutions to it.  What this film offers as a remedy is not profound, but the description of the problem is apt.

 "Adaptation" is the story of the writing of a film adaptation of a book about a man who studies and steals orchids.  _The Orchid Thief_ by Susan Orlean is a real book, and the 'thief', John LaRoche, is a real person.   The movie shows us people searching in swamps for a rare and other-worldy orchid, the Ghost. Unreachable, glorious beauty hidden away in the swamp of . . . well, let me not get melodramatic with thoughts of swamps of this or swamps of that.  Hidden away in the swamp.   The nihilism-aestheticism theme is a thing of beauty in itself.  However, there were no answers in the film, except for the one that Kaufman found from his invented twin brother, which wrapped up the story nicely and made it work, which was the only task of the whole thing.  But it is not the best or truest story, I don't think. You don't solve life's problems by realizing that, "It's not what loves you, but what you love," which was Donald Kaufman's parting wisdom.

The movie that surprised me most was "Frida," which I thought would be too serious on the nudity scale, because her artist husband, Diego Rivera, used nude models in more ways than one, and she was highly charged herself.  Well, it was serious that way, but it was a beautiful movie, too.  It was nihilistic; her surrealistic art was all about pain.  But I found I loved the characters in it, and I loved the love they had for each other in the long run.  I also found it visually and musically beautiful, a trip to a new land, connecting with our visits to Mexico this year.

But when one speaks of a trip to a new land, "Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers" takes center stage.  This was the only of these movies we saw during 2002,  right before Christmas.  Linda was barely healthy enough to go, and we struggled into the theater on the afternoon of opening day.   I wrote about it before.  It is not subtle, not nuanced, not dramatically deep, but it carries you off to a land so visually rich and gloriously realistic that you know you have been somewhere, which is what entertainment is for, and especially so because the story is a clear battle between good and evil.  This is the opposite of nihilism.  You care, you are excited, you see victories and defeats, and you await the outcome.  I am hearing now that the finale is everything we have hoped for it, and my guess is it will win the Oscar this year.  Why give it to the middle one?  But that does not mean there is no discussion about why "Chicago" was  named Best Motion Picture over "The Two Towers." 

My procedure has been to ask what it means when Americans, or at least their cultural leaders in Hollywood, choose a movie for Best Picture. A few years back I compared "The Devil's Advocate," which was not nominated, with "The English Patient," which won.  And I despaired of the fact that the nihilism in that film was so roundly approved.  They fought in the war but believed in nothing; they broke their marriage vows, she died, the Patient lives on, the nurse loves him.  It is beautifully shown, but hauntingly empty.  But "Devil's Advocate" had my heart thumping clear across the parking lot as we left: it mattered!  Evil was evil, and Good overcame it, but the temptation goes on.  Hollywood did not like it!  I am no insider, but I suspect I would be on target in saying they met it with embarrassed silence.

2002 was different, more encouraging, in a way.  Again, "Two Towers" was full of meaning and value, while "Chicago" was profoundly nihilistic.  I suspected this and expected to hate the movie or at least the fact that it was chosen, but in the end I loved it.  Yes, it was utter nihilism, but the profundity of it becomes its meaning.  It is a profoundly drawn picture of despair.  Now, that might mean only that it is another example of aestheticism, which seeks to redeem life through art. So you show a pointless life beautifully, and your art redeems the pointlessness.  With "The English Patient" and many others, the trick requires also a good measure of pleasure thrown in, sexual adventure and other kinds.  But "Chicago" went in a different direction.

Its drama and acting were about as non-nuanced as "Two Towers"; both movies lacked character depth and dramatic subtlety.  "Towers" was doing something else, playing out a great epic struggle in which the characters were valiant participants, but with the meaning coming from the struggle itself.  The psychological meat of "Two Towers" is with Golom, who I think deserves the supporting role award over Catherine Zeta-Jones.  I am waiting to see (and wondering what Tolkien said about) whether he can be redeemed from his duplicity.  "Chicago" didn't really have any psychological meat to tug on.  It has shallow characters throughout and a silly plot about how six women killed nine husbands or lovers or lovers of husbands. There was only one good person in the story, and he was stupid and despised by his wife. Their slick lawyer got most of them off,  and their notoriety became an asset for them in show business. But when another woman killed her lawyer, she stole the show, and they became unimportant.  In the end, two of these murderesses come together to do an act, even though they hate each other, because only in their business is such a thing possible.  Now, can dancing and music and the spectacle of the stage turn this emptiness to something profound?  No, I think, if it only laughs it away.  We have had a century of scorning the realities we once trusted, and a movie which mocks them and laughs away our need of them is no longer radical, thus neither refreshing nor true.  But if such a movie could somehow show the plastic quality of everything, instead of flavoring it with false hopes, and do this without becoming ugly, then it would be memorable.  The cardboard characters of "Chicago" were glazed over with unreality, and it was not because these people could not act.  Their job was to act unreal. (Still, best actors and actresses aren't likely to be found here, and Zellweger lost out to Nicole Kidman, whose job was to be dreadfully real.)  This film knew about its unreality, and we saw this in the scene where all of them were turned to puppets.  It was a vivid picture of what show business is, and a dark testimonial to the poverty of its attempt to cover over the nothingness.

As such, "Chicago" was not just aestheticism but about aestheticism.  It was art showing what art can never do.  Many of my kindred who believe in Truth and Goodness will say that the movie is false to say there are no such realities, but it is a true picture of the inner life of those who not only claim that but begin to see there are no substitutes.  Evangelistically, it is good news that Hollywood sees through its own veneer. 

And, yes, it was beautiful.

Well, that is almost my 2002 tour of cinematic nihilism.  Until the very end of 2003 I did not see "The Hours," because I heard it was too disturbing.  But we got it last week.  Linda did not love it, because she does not study nihilism as I do. To her, it is a lot of unhappiness for nothing.  That is what nihilism is about, of course, but not too many people choose to reflect so much on it.  "The Hours" is another one that messes with your mind a little by having the story include the writing of the story, and by bringing the same person to life in three different times and places.  The author of The Hours  does this, based on a Virginia Wolfe novel. I didn't  quite know who Virginia Wolfe was, or why we should not fear her ideas (as implied by the play and film, "Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?").  Now I know she is about despair.  Her character is always putting on parties, but, in the words of Richard Brown, the poet about to die of Aids, she does so just "to hide the silence."  So this, too, is aestheticism unveiling itself, art seeing its poverty.  Here the dramatic roles are deep and profound, and while some characters play the game others see through it.  "Chicago" was about a very noisy party, a stage extravaganza, that was "to hide the silence," but it knew it was not working, and behind the scenes the presenters worked hard to show us the silence. 

I can only hope that not too many see "Chicago" and walk away tittering like its protagonists, for that would be like the nobility in France who laughed at "The Bourgeois Gentleman" for trying to be like them, but who never saw their own follies as the object of the portrayal.  And I can hope that the truly bleak messages like "The Hours" and "Pollack" and "The Man Who Was not There" do not lead many to suicide. It is good that the art world is seeing its poverty, but it is also good news that there is real Meaning and Truth.

January 1, 2004
                               

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RECENT MOVIES - - - -for better or worse (recent in this context has very little meaning, now that 2007 is almost over.)

I did not see Waiting to Exhale.  I just borrowed the title for my complaint/theory about Vista. Return to the Garage?


  Joshua  below

We at our house  are starting earlier on the 2003 movies of note than with the 2002 ones seen last year,  but still a number are awaiting comment, like The Return of the King, which we still hope to see on the big screen, Bruce Almighty, Matrix 2 and 3, and the ones really left in the wake, that is, forgotten.   This is not to mention the one getting all the attention right now, "The Passion of the Christ."

Recently viewed, for better or worse:
The Others  - very well done ghost story
In America -   wonderful family drama, worthy of several essays.

Second Hand Lions.  If all's well that ends well, then this movie succeeds, but it look pretty desperate for a long time as it tries to get rolling.  We warmed up to it and found the ending cool.  The ending, by the way, said that what is true is not whatever we decide to believe, but what is actually true.  A little philosophical realism can be refreshing, especially if it supports our romantic hopes, rather than squashing them, as realism tends to do.

Bend it Like Beckham.   Heartwarming.  Highly recommended.  If you are over 30 and not from England, get the DVD for subtitles.  It is a language barrier, but not just geographical; our young lady daughters could understand most of it the first time, but we grownups had to get the DVD and the subtitles and try it again. 

Whale Rider.  This is like "Bend it like Beckham" in showing the love of a father and the struggle of letting a daugher become who she really is.  Fiddler on the Roof is the template for this pattern.  Whale Rider and Bend It Like Beckham both let us glimpse another culture through acting and script so real this seems not to be a movie at all.  (For the opposite of this, see "Network," below. ) 

Alex and Emma.  I'm a sucker for movies where the character is a writer and he (or she) has to write the story in order to keep on living it.  "The Hours" and "Adaptation" are a  heavyweight examples, while this one is clearly a lightweight, but pleasant.

Seabiscuit.  I'm confused.  This is nominated for Best Film, on Ebert or Roeper's 10 Best list, etc., and since it is a horse movie we expected to love it.  But the story unfolded so slowly and with so little explanation of where it was going that I found myself crying out for a screenwriter, a director, or an editor.  I read some more reviews, and two from NY Times saw what I am talking about, but I listened to Ebert and Roeper again, and they were enthusiastic about the strengths of this movie.  It apparently touches a lot of the right buttons.  My sister and dad just discussed it in email. The book is excellent, I guess; the movie acceptably good.  I think perhaps I watch movies too late at night. 

On that note . . .       January 7, 2004            "Network" (1976)

************
I had a bizarre aesthetic experience during the night.  We went to bed fairly late and watched "Bonanza" for a while, knowing that a nearby channel was playing "Network," which I figured would be another professional workplace drama like "Wall Street" or "The Paper," with interesting issues but subject to possible mediocrity.  I fell asleep and woke up with a fearful groan that had more to do with indigestion than anything I knowingly dreamed about.  Then, somehow, "Network" was playing on the television, and Robert Duvall was waving his arms and shouting in a way that made me think, "Why does Duvall embarrass himself with poorly written roles like this?  Does he need the money?"  Then some network mogul had a slipping network anchorman by the ear.  I say "slipping," not "fallen," because the tussle was about ratings, not moral behavior.  The boss sat him down at the end of a huge banquet table in a cavernous ballroom and assaulted him with a tirade about the fact that there are no nations, no democratic processes, no individual decisions, only Business. Business runs the world! It is a worthy topic, and I thought this melodramatic over-exposure,  similar to a scene I saw of a James Bond super-criminal, might be useful in the classroom to raise a question, but something not so campy would be better.  When the hair-raising speech was over, the cowed anchorman looked up in awe and said, "I have seen the face of God!"  Then he began preaching that message in the bizarre sets of his network news show.  Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway was some kind of a behind-the-scenes manager totally obsessed with  the fact that ratings were slipping, and she was breaking up with her short-term partner,??? , insulting him grossly about their sexual life.  The two of them made up a new word, I think, if I was hearing correctly, an unpleasant term that meant the woman was trying to make the man feel bad about his sexual equipment. (Fortunately, I've forgotten it.)  Their parting was carried out at the same high-volume, super-dramatic tone as the speeches I had already heard.  I thought, "Hmm?  Faye Dunaway.  Has she done anything since 'Bonnie and Clyde'?  Did she wake up from a long sleep and find out in her second movie that she could not act?  Or is she under instructions not to act?"   Then I began to entertain thoughts of "Worst Screen Writer" and "Worst Director" awards for this movie.

Of course, by now it is obvious it has to be satire, but satire can fail!  You can't take a horrible movie and declare it satire or parody or spoof or farce.  It has to work, on some level.  I recall that "Princess Bride" switched suddenly for me from bad acting and bad writing to not-taking-itself-seriously and doing it with aplomb.  But that is not an instant fix.  Satire, yes, with a point to make yes, but satire is intelligent and has a light touch. 

 By then we were near the end.  Robert Duvall was running a meeting of higher-ups and discussing calmly whether to kill the anchor man.  "Kill him?" I thought.  "Do they mean fire him?  Probably not, in this movie.  They probably mean kill him.  They were discussing the fact that this could happen live, before a studio audience and national viewership, but the Network must not look bad.  And then the weird, bizarre  news show opened up, and soon the anchorman began to preach, and then he was shot through the head.   A narrator who had been piping up now and then said, "And this is the first time in history that a newsman was killed for poor ratings."  And the credits (if that word can be used) began to role.

I saw all of this in disbelief, and then I thought, "Well, that nice man who introduces the Turner Classic Movies films will appear-- Robert Osborne -- and explain all of this to me, and I can go to sleep." He did appear, and he said that "Network" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenwriting (won) and four acting awards (best actor twice, one posthumous) and was the second film in Academy Awards history to win three of the four acting awards.  

Applied Aesthetics has become a vicious science.  Someone is trying to rearrange my neurons in a grotesque pattern.  Then I begin to think that there parallel universes interlacing themselves among the past seasons of the Academy awards.  When I read somewhere that a movie I knew little about was  named Best Picture or something like that, I sometimes ask myself, "When?  Where was I?"  I have been following the awards for a few years, but they seem in retrospect to sneak in extra years that I never knew about.  Maybe this is how they reward people who are well liked but have never won anything and make bad directors feel successful.  They create a false past, as in 1984, and let almost everyone win there.  In that parallel universe, the aesthetics are reversed, so bad is good and good is bad.  Then movies like "The Royal Tennenbaums" and "The In-Laws" and "Moulin Rouge" have their moment in the sun.  But to have this parallel universe show up in my bedroom at 2:00 a.m. is very disconcerting.  It took me another hour to mentally write this essay and then drift off into laborious dreams.

**********\

Maybe "Seabiscut" is nominated for Best Picture to be nice to someone, in a year when it can't possibly win (against "Return of the King").  If it did win, we'd all slide away in spiraling universes of aesthetic chaos. 

**********
I watched Seabiscuit and Network again.  Seabiscuit got to my heart, the second time;
Network left me feeling sorry for the world that had to make such a depressing movie about itself.

Most recently, we watched a movie not widely known and maybe not released in the normal channels,

"Joshua"

I saw it was about a man in a small town doing miracles.  I was in the middle of reading a novel about the same thing, Peace Like a River.  I hypothesized that the movie would be different in one way, due to the medium and possibly due to the source, which I did not know.  I supposed that the man doing miracles in "Joshua" would be a politically correct and popular guy, while the man doing  miracles in Peace Like a River (Jeremiah Land) is known to his town as different but strange and possibly crazy.   He has huge problems and prays and gets amazing answers, but no one is gathered around.  In fact, the teller of the story, his 11 year old son, Reuben,  begins by saying the reason he is alive (a miracle) is perhaps just to be witness to these events that few others see.  The kids and I had surmised also that if the movie is truly Christian (thus not humanistic and not politically correct), then it might be "cheesy" ( a word used often in our household and well understood, although I suppose we could use a thesaurus). 

Well, we were partly right.  It was a little cheesy as it began, but it succeeded well enough, dramatically, to be worth viewing.  And it was true that Joshua had almost no enemies.  Only an uptight Catholic priest resisted him, and he was won over, too.  But the film actually transcended both of our categorizations.  It turned out to be the playing out of a simple premise: what if Jesus came to town?  A very challenging assignment for a film, I admit.  It worked pretty well.

Of course people may argue fiercely over what is the true picture of Jesus.  And I'm not going to argue that no one should argue about that, because even though we could easily be jerks doing so, we could be nihilists if we don't worry about it at all.  So I return to my original point: the film saw that religion will often oppose Christ, as it did in the real thing (which makes me want to begin to comment, prematurely, on Gibson's film, though I won't). But it does not recognized the "religion" that is in all of us, the humanism that could be secular or religious and that would ultimately find Him hard to accept.

The novel, by the way, is wonderful.  I am near the end and have no idea how it will end.  It is a happy story, and yet a fully happy ending seems impossible.  That's the miracle, I guess.  But I can't think of one that won't be either semi-tragic or unbelievable. 

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  Be-Sure-and-Miss-it-if-You-Can Department

bad movies: The DaVinci Code (see above)

comment:

Mummy, Speed, (their sequels) Heartburn, Nothing but Trouble, Vertical Limit,  Armageddon, Independence Day, Best of Show, Out of Time,

If you want words to say how bad a movie is, try this link.  But otherwise don't; there are  more worthwhile things to do read user reviews of bad movies, and, besides, one guy liked it!

Worst Title:  Pokeman: the first movie    (and last, we can hope!) (did I mispell it?  good!)

 

 

Best Title:  Legally Blonde

they say the sequel sucks

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a Class by Itself: 

In a Class by Itself  Movies are not necessarily excellent movies, though many are. They are simply movies that are different from almost any other movie.  

Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers.  Bill and I think this is about as good as it gets.  Some comment in Aug 2003 comment
Adaptation -- the most interesting movie ever made, and also excellent in many ways. 

Babe
The Gods Must Be Crazy 
Princess Bride 
Brazil 
Fargo
Forrest Gump
Oh Brother Where Art Thou?  The link to imdb.com is not current
The Royal Tennenbaums  (??????????) (Bad?  Or did I miss something?)
Moulin Rouge   (??????????????????????????????????????????????) 
These may require a new class, the "What-did-I-miss?" category.
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Interesting family movies:

"When a Man Loves a Woman "
"The Substance of Fire "
"Before and After"
"A Family Thing
"
"Antwone Fisher"

 BELATED REVIEWS (getting more belated all the time): 

"Love Stories Then and Now"  (on "Love Story" (1970) and "Shadowlands" and "Bounce")(but I forgot what "Bounce" was about!)

"Two Evil Movies"  (on "The Devil's Advocate" and "The English Patient") (I haven't written it, but I make the comparison often in other contexts.)
 
"Senseless Acts of American Beauty"  (How the bumper sticker about "senseless acts of beauty" relates to "American Beauty" and to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."  It is about aestheticism, and, in this case, a deadly case of it.)  This review will probably never get written, but I do mention in class very often that  American Beauty is a clear and  extreme case of aestheticism as a world view.
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Old Stuff, receding into the past, soon to be deleted, 

Summer 2002: 

Message in a Bottle - (on TV)  A review prejudiced me, and I found it boring, though it has potential as a love story, and I love the sea and boats.   Maybe it is Kevin Costner I find boring.  The girl, Theresa, reminded me of someone, but I had to look it up to be sure.  She is the Princess Bride and Jenny in "Forrest Gump." 
The Wedding Planner -
Cute, fun.  I spent most of my time wondering if that really was Pete Sampras's girlfriend, playing Fran, the bride. Seems I'd watched her watching tennis a lot.  It  turns out she's his wife.   
Pay it Forward -
people are calling this the best movie you ever saw.  I need to watch it again, staying fully awake.  I don't think I'm going to call it the best movie ever, but I am very curious about what it is that causes such a response. (More later . . . maybe)
The Three Musketeers - too silly for me, but not for the kids.  The king and queen appear 13 years old. 
Dune -  the four hour plus version, which Linda says is the only movie doing justice to the books.  She and the girls watched it twice,  8.5 hrs.  I got sleepy both times and never got into the drama. 

August-September 2001 (excerpted from a family letter) 
 I guess the movies is the other main thing about my vacation and this summer. We read about how many lousy movies just got made, and we saw a few, but some excellent ones, too, going to a few afternoon shows and renting others. This afternoon we saw Jurassic Park III, which is considerably better than II, though undeveloped and unbelievable in places. The action scenes and the visuals seemed improved over the original, and the plot, though unbelievable, set up a good situation to escape from. But it was confused. We were told they were not back on the original island, with its wrecked hi-tech facility, but on the other, alternative site, also a wrecked couldn't arrange to shoot the sequel where they shot the movie (and thought we'd notice).

I was interested with the first movie in its view of human technology, the "Jurassic Park Syndrome," as I call it, in which we see that we cannot control nature as we thought we could. "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!" (For you oldies who remember when margarine first began to taste good.) In the first Jurassic Park, they got the computer online after a great struggle, and it operated the door locks, but in a minute the beasts just broke through the doors anyway. In this one the dinosoars were just as mean and powerful and made quick work of human contrivances. If technology was out of control in the first movie, it was on a rampage here. But the new twist is that the critters are smart, and they communicate. They even set traps for humans! In the end, the humans come to terms with them through communication, both submitting to them and fooling them. Then the humans skedaddle off the island once again. Three Pterodactyl's fly away over the ocean, off to set the stage for the next sequel. (Speaking of sequels, we can't get over the idea that "Planet of the Apes" is another sequel. It is a remake, a new one, and, we hope, much better than the original and its sequels. But we are leery and afraid to try it.) We saw "A Knight's Tale," which was a groaner with respect to anachronisms. Rock Music in King Arthur's court, almost. Corny lines. But the story took a good turn at the end. We came home that afternoon and watched "Speed!" (not the newer "Speed II")-- more badly written material, and, in this case, not much of a story. At the theatre we saw "Princess Diaries," which is a little light, but pleasant; now I'm inclined to rent "Legally Blonde," which has a good title. The girls saw several of these in California and want to share them with us. The last thing we rented was "Vertical Limit," which is supposed to be a thriller but has the dramatic finesse of a disaster movie. (Troubled relationship with a history gets worked out while everything is going wrong.) Between "Speed" and "Jurassic Park III" and "Vertical Limit," my ability to believe things in movies was worn thin, and action sequences were getting pretty boring. Ideas, anyone? However, "Proof of Life" is a good action thriller. And "Finding Forrester" was good.


The really good movies? I mentioned a while back "Traffic" and "Cast Away" and "Almost Famous." We saw "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" again, at home, and I started to get impatient with it. It's lovely enough, but what is it about? A rebel without a cause? We talked about that classic and its title, and the girls observed that James Dean was not a rebel with no reason, because his parents gave him reason to be angry. He was a rebel with "no cause," nothing to believe in. That's what made him the icon of the coming generation, because the rebellion of the sixties generation was not against something and for something, as with a Marxist or some other politico, but against the fact of there not being a purpose. But, anyway, I don't know what the girl in "Crouching Tiger" was trying to do other than angrily express self-will. In the end, she sleeps with her boyfriend and then dives off the cliff into an unnamed oblivion. My recommendation? Don't watch it twice. I also though, the first time, that this was an amazingly generic movie, culturally. That will sound strange, as it was clearly Chinese and 19th century and connected with the world view of those times and of the martial arts. But it struck me as the world-wide culture of the video game more than anything else, including the physics of it. When the man was dying, his girlfriend urged him to face his death as the religious liberation that it would be, but Romanticism won out over religion, and he declared, "I'd rather be a ghost, drifting by your side as a condemned soul, then enter heaven without you."

Well, the Good movies? "Chocolat" was lovely and had a nice touch in the end, but it struck us as dangerous. Legalistic religion can be deadly ... that's true enough, but is that what we need to hear today? The implication was that after the religious people fell and proved themselves human, then the people who always were human, the humanistic pagans, would be able to live their trouble-free lives. So, that movie didn't win the day, either, for our household. Right now I am looking at "Pay it Forward," which has been denounced by some people I know but gets high praise in my classrooms and in the aisle of the video store: "the best movie you'll ever see!" I heard last night, and my students are saying the same. I'll have to watch it and figure out why.

I seem to have trouble coming up with the good movies I saw.  But that is because I have not mentioned  "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"   This goes on my In-a-class-by-itself  list.  

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Wonder Boys  (early 2000)

After getting the soundtrack from my sister, I wanted to see Wonder Boys. With four Bob Dylan songs and other stuff of our era on the soundtrack, and being a story about a professor who is a writer, it seemed to have great potential for me. But it didnt quite fly. (By the way, Roger Ebert loved this movie and tried to talk it into the  2000 Oscars.  It did get an award through Dylan's song, "Things have changed." 

The acting is fine. It took us a few moments to recognize Marge, our favorite Marge (see Fargo in the Class by Itself category), but when I did recognize her it was by her voice, her Swedish Minnesotan voice, so if shes an Oscar winning performer, maybe I shouldnt have heard Marge in her. But everyone did well enough in their roles. Michael Douglas was good, but we didnt end up caring as much for this professor as we needed to. Linda found him too scroungy. My problem had more to do with the story.

The plot worked, a kind of black comedy, because I wondered how the professor could ever extricate himself from the impossibly long weekend that makes up this story, and it had an interesting post-sixties twist (post in the sense of wiser than, or critical of-- thoughts of those no longer enamored with our favorite decade). He cant write his second novel because he has 2700 pages and cant make any decisions about anything, nor about his personal life, and this has to do with dope. He passes his stash, finally, to a student janitor who says he gets high only when working. So its post-dope, and post-non-commitment. But though the movie had relevant messages, it didnt have a moral edge. Homosexuality was laughingly abided, and we were supposed to believe that the young new writers talent would set aside all the dangers he was wading into in this story. The hero and heroine kept their baby and got married (maybe), and their spouses stayed away or disappeared painlessly, along with, we are meant to presume, all the problems those relationships must have had. Of course, I dont expect movies today to operate by the same moral sights I do. Others may feel neutral about homosexuality and wouldnt be put off by it. I did find the people in those roles likeable and interesting. But when a film does purport to have a message, then it bothers me that it does not go deep enough and does not address the real issues, or that it throws me confusing curves. It is because the college girl preaches to the professor that the movie has moral intent. But she may have been wanting to seduce him, too; the story was unclear. Other minor roles were bizarre and hard to place into the current of the story.

If all the sexual matters can truly be handled so innocently, then perhaps this story works. But I still see it as a moral message that overlooks almost everything important. Ultimately it says that whoever can live decisively enough to write well can have all the human happiness there is to have. The professor gets past that hurdle and goes on to successfully tell us this story of his, which I cant quite believe. He had complained himself about the multitude of lies told by the newly discovered young novelist, the rich young man/street person with parents/ogres who love/beat him. But the young man can tell a story, and that seems in the end to be all that matters. He goes smilingly off into his future, which, as far as I can see, will only repeat the professors follies.

2003 -  I saw this again and give it a little more credit than I did before. 
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Return to Peyton Place

Peyton Place?? Tuesday Weld?? Do I really intend to write about such inane relics on the heels of a Wonder Boys, which is, if nothing else, a with-it movie worthy of the new millennium? Well, call this a study in contingency: it just happened that we saw this today on AMC, a week after seeing Wonder Boys, and I sat down to write about it but decided to deal with my thoughts about Wonder Boys first, and the two movies began to mix in my mind. And this is because of a strange tendency I have to find things too interesting. I mean, there must be something seriously wrong with me if I found Return to Peyton Place profound . But I did. It is a simple morality play, where the good wins out, which often cant be said of movies, today. Wonder Boys was moral, to a point, but kind of fractured, too, as I wrote above. But the thing that strikes me about the two of them is that Return to Peyton Place is pre-sixties instead of post-sixties. It has an innocence that is really not innocence at all; you can see the sixties coming, and to be critical of such attitudes is not even being considered. The other thing that struck me is that the movie, which is about being misunderstood, is itself the object of huge cultural misunderstanding. Or at least that is the way it looks from here.

I never read Peyton Place, nor did I see the movie, nor did I see this movie until now, nor any episodes of the soap opera it engendered, which I understand was the first prime-time soap, the heir of Dallas and such shows. When this came on today, I found Tuesday Weld very cute but didnt know it was her, and when I found out the title I groaned and tried to read my book. This is because I assumed immediately this was a cheap, made-for-TV movie with a trite plot, poor acting, and a decadent message. Some of that is true. You have to take it as an ingenuous little morality play that will give you the satisfaction of having seen the wicked mother-in-law and town tyrant cut down a notch. Taken as such, it works pretty well. It gets the story told, and the story has meaning. What surprised me was that I knew Peyton Place only as an allusion, a reference to a sordid small-town culture rank with adultery and other sexual sin. This is what my culture transmitted to me as an adolescent, as one who never read or watched anything about Peyton Place. Peyton Place is a small town where the adults all jump in bed with each other at a whim. But that is hardly what the story is about! It is about suspicion, even the suspicion that people are jumping into bed with each other when they are not. So while the movies tried to warn me about being suspicious, I got only this phrase, Peyton Place, which expresses nothing but the very suspicion the movie was about.

Peyton Place was a Best Picture nominee, so I may try it one of these days and see if it was mainly about misconduct or suspicion. For now I get the story through the sequel, which retells it in a novel. In that original story, a girl was beaten and raped by her stepfather, and she killed him. She was acquitted of murder, but the town never forgave her. Other kids in the town were mercilessly accused of wrongdoing they hadnt performed. I dont know how that story resolved itself, but in this sequel one of those young people has written much of this into a novel, and it is very successful. Now the town must face itself, and the wicked mother and mother-in-law, who plants seeds of division and strife at every opportunity, fires the principal of the school because he will not remove the novel from the school library. He is the authors stepfather, but he objectively decides this story is not at all obscene, now matter how embarrassing it may be to this particular town. A town meeting is held, and various people speak out, including the girl who killed her stepfather, who makes it clear this is her story in the novel, and that she is finally not ashamed. The timid son of the wicked mother-figure finds his courage, and the authors mother escapes the grip of her mistakes and allows her daughter to be her adult self. The town rallies behind the principal and the young woman and her book. The town tyrant skulks off, muttering a warning about the dangerous future consequences of this choice.

At this point, my wife said, When was this? and added, She was right. The sixties are coming; things are going to fall apart! We smiled together about this while the final scene appeared. Here the young woman and author speaks with her publisher, who had brought her to town and spoken on her behalf. He says she has now been brought into what was up until then a private club, the secret world of the adults. She agrees. I remembered the amazement my first wife and I and our friends felt in our early twenties (in the late sixties) when we learned that life is like a soap opera. That was my initiation into the secret club of the adults: realization that we actually will do these things they show in those soap operas on TV, which I had hardly watched. I thought before then that we would all pretty much succeed at the things we set out to do. I did not expect the couple who were our closest friends to split up and then that he would fall in love with her recently widowed mother and they would get married. Nor that another friend would be silently raped in her guest bed while children slept, by her host, her best friends husband. Coming of age was to see soap opera coming to life in our lives.

The young author in Return to Peyton Place was totally sure that youth could cast off the suspicion of this town. She had argued the point in radio interviews, and she preached it before her own town when she stood there as teller and victim of the towns crimes. Evil lay completely in the pointing of the finger. This was pre-sixties because all the optimism of youth was there: we would cast off an authority structure that was bent on nothing but accusation, and then all would be well.

But in this final scene we wonder what she will do, because we know she has fallen in love with her publisher and editor, a married man, in fulfillment of the fears of her mother, who had done just that and produced an illegitimate daughter, this young woman. She says goodbye to him, and you get the impression she is free of her mothers accusation and thereby freed from the power of the sin. Such was the hope of those who would write the script for the sixties.

She does say goodbye but whispers, Darling, as he walks away. She turns away, but a passion grips her yet. Thus an enterprising script writer plants a seed for the forthcoming series, which will in fact be a soap opera. And thus the writer lets it slip that that the proto-sixties faith, that the only sin problem we have is accusation, will turn out not to have been the truth. Of course some will say Im just accusing now. Cant she say Darling if she wants? Okay, but her faith in the moral excellence of youth will be more difficult to maintain when soap opera things start happening in her life.

Both movies send a mixed message, but I prefer that of Return to Peyton Place, because it says the truth will set us free. The therapeutic story that must be told is about wrongdoing. The movie just underestimates how much we have to learn about that. But Wonder Boys tells us that decisive choice is the sole redeeming quality one needs in life.

Double Jeopardy (frivolous review of unimportant movie) 

I told my daughters we saw a new twist on plots while browsing at the movie store: man commits suicide and frames his wife for the death . . . Why? This has to be the ultimate bitterness movie. The next day I realized that was the movie we picked, Double Jeopardy, with Tommy Lee Jones. And the impression I got from the cover was not quite right. You learn pretty quickly that the man is still alive. Shes in prison and learns hes with their son and her best friend. Now what he did makes a little sense: because he has the son he has the insurance money that was so incriminating for her. But there are plausibility problems. I am a nagging realist and have trouble with plots that are hard to believe. But its carried off pretty well. She stops denying the crime and gets herself paroled, and you think shes on a revenge trip. If she would just get a private detective, maybe Tommy Lee Jones, who is going to be in the movie, and prove hes alive, she could be exonerated. But she take matters into her own hands; she violates parole in serious ways, and Tommy Lee Jones is her parole officer, hunting her while she hunts the husband. She has a gun, but shes not totally murderous. She mainly wants her kid back. It all ends up in suitably dramatic way, and I enjoyed it. But I thought if it were up to me Id rewrite the ending and expand on the dramatic element that is his explanations about what he did, and Id have them address my plot plausibility questions.

He told her he would have killed himself, but he lacked courage. That was really in the movie. Id branch out from there:
    Why would you kill yourself and frame me to solve a financial problem? Thats overkill, isnt it? I mean . . .  
    I didnt do that. Thats just what the cover implied. 
    Ok, Sorry. But why would you disappear and frame me? Why not just either kill yourself, so Id get the money, or ... 
    I didnt want you to have the money. Im one of those totally selfish characters you see in the movies sometimes, always men. 
    Okay. Im starting to get the picture. But still, why didnt you kill me? Its not hard to fake an accident when just the two of us are in a sailboat far from shore, is it? We were both insured; youd get the money, that way, but the way you did it was so risky and circuitous. What if I woke up while you were spreading blood around, you and and your accomplice, Angela--which by the way proves your relationship with her did not start only after I was in prison, as you claim-- 
    Of course I was lying about that! 
    Okay, but if I woke up while you and she were spreading blood around, what would I have thought? Then youd have had to kill me, but with all that blood it would be hard to make it look like an accident. People in oceans can just drown. No mess. 
    We thought about that. But I could never bring myself to kill anyone, so I had to take the risk. 
    And what about the fact that in order for you to get the money after you 'died' you had to have our kid--and how do you buy a hotel with money in a trust fund, by the way? Anyway, you could have lost big, because my choice to have Angela, your girlfriend, adopt my child was not in your control, and you could have just ended up with a rich kid waiting for his mother to get out of prison. It still seems like you should have killed me. 
    Well, maybe I should have. But what about you? Why did you say your were guilty just to look normal and get paroled and then go off on your own, breaking parole? Why didnt you get a detective to prove I was alive, which would have gotten you off the hook entirely? 
    So how does a convicted felon with no money get a private detective? I tried to get the insurance company to listen, but they ignored me even though their own two million dollars was at stake. 
    But you took an awful lot of risks! Whats really involved here is whether or not Im alive, not your ability to make me give you our kid. 
    Are you trying to pull your macho rationality on me again? Lay off!

These two could have gone long into the night in this way, much like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By the small hours of the morning the plot would be suitably revised, and one of them could then have shot the other.

can I get any smaller?