LOL (2006)

If I’m in the mood for a Western, I want horses. If I’m in the mood for explosions, I go to a Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay movie. In either case, I don’t want, say, Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death in some black-and-white hovel on the rocky shores of Sturnnveggloven. In the same way, if I’m in the mood to watch echo-boomer twenty-somethings filming their friends hanging out with each other in small apartments and on the urban stoop and in the homes and basements of their parents and grandparents, none of whom will ever appear onscreen, then for those of you who haven’t seen one such film before, this would be mumblecore.

I mention this in case you’re confronted with the movie LOL on one of those evenings when you in fact don’t want an unscripted little semi-plotless handheld film, but instead crave a Hollywood-du-jour mind-destroying offering like those which are currently available at the Metroplex. No sense wasting a tasty little morsel like this one when you really want a Big Mac, to torture the metaphor.

***SPOILERS***

But no, actually, I don’t think that I can spoil LOL for you just by writing about it. On the contrary, I’m guessing that the more you know about this movie before you watch it – the more prepared you are for it – the more you’ll appreciate it. But if you’re the type that likes to screen a movie cold, sans preconception and foreknowledge, then stop reading now and go do something else. Thank you.

Meanwhile, from Joe Swanberg the director: “LOL more than any other movie I’ve shot was a process of throwing things into the pot and seeing what comes out.”

Out of the pot this time came three young men, Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf), Chris (C. Mason Wells), and Tim (Swanberg himself). The conceit here was meant to be that cell phones, PCs, and other electronic means of communication would interfere, ironically, with the boys’ relationships with women – Alex with Walter (Tipper Newton), Chris with Greta (Greta Gerwig), and Tim with Ada (Brigid Reagan). Modest underlying plot points and arcs to the three stories are provided, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, and still don’t understand at least one of the climatic moments at the end of the film. In this respect, I treated the movie in the same way that I treat those complicated action flicks with convoluted plots. That is, I ignored the details and trusted that if I ever did take the trouble to pay attention, if I ever did truly make a study of the film, then all would in fact make sense to me in the end. But I didn’t.

In my defense on this point, it seems ok to me to watch the movie in the same way that it was made, which is to say, incrementally. Swanberg started out working on a little two-week to one-month film. Bewersdorf was back from Germany for his sister’s wedding and signed up to do the music for the film. Tipper Newton agreed to come over to Chicago for a month. Wells was going to be leaving the city but had some time before he did. So forth. Without a script or shooting schedule, Swanberg went out every day, camera in hand (Panasonic DVX 100, 24p mode, 16×9, standard definition video because this was pre-HD, but nobody at the time was shooting with this except for documentaries, because it wasn’t considered a narrative camera. And at least five guys handled it, depending upon who was in the scene), to see what would develop. So that instead of visiting Beversdorf’s grandmother’s basement once to shoot everything that they needed, for example, they ended up going back ten times. Then Swanberg looked up one day and eight months had passed and he was scratching his head and asking himself how this had happened. Ideas, bits, plot points, and the next thing he knew, he was wrestling with a feature film. Not to say that the results aren’t worthy, but as a viewer I’m ok with letting the finer points of the interior story slide by the first time while I lounge back and take in what bits of invention, inspiration, and invention I can.

I’ve seen the movie labeled by some a comedy, and Swanberg himself refers to hilarious scenes and the laughter of audiences at different spots in it. Although I liked the movie, I never smiled once. I know that LOL was filmed in the summer of ’05, and Swanberg meant for the boys’ techie behavior in the movie to be over-the-top comedic (e.g., video clips and pics transferred between phones, online stripper webcam, beatbox videos, etc.). But that’s all normal behavior now.

Anyway, Swanberg planned to put the three geeky guys in motion and, as they made a mess of their personal relationships, to follow along and record the hilarity that ensued. The movie gods, however, intervened.

Alex, geeky guy number one, misses out on the girl in front of his eyes, the 19-year-old Walter, because, ironically, he is obsessed with Tessa, an online webcam suicide girl. ($5/mo. subscription)

But wait. Alex’s obsession with Tessa and his hopes for meeting up with her are not believable. Not these days. Swanberg says that back in the summer of ’05, such naivete was still possible. No it wasn’t. The immediate effect of this weak setup is to free us from the plot and allow us to pay more attention to the Alex onscreen in front of us.

Or, no, hang on. When I was in college, I myself was obsessing over Freda, a young woman who sat 15 feet away from me in orchestra, holding a cello between her legs. I gave her a lot of thought, way too much thought, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually approach her. Meanwhile, Sophie was stopping by my dormroom every couple of days to hang out and get high and talk about her boyfriend in Spain. Finally, after orchestra rehearsal one day, our conductor asked Freda and me to go out and put up some concert posters around the campus. We had just started and I was just warming up to finally ask her for a date when somebody ran by shouting that President Kennedy had just been shot. We split up to go watch the TV broadcasts from Dallas and I never did ask her out. Instead, she just kept soaking up my dating psychic energy. I now realize that Sophie and I… Well… She never did get back together with her boyfriend. And there she was, stretched out on my bed night after night smoking dope and eating Ho-Ho’s. What the hell was I thinking? So maybe Alex’s behavior with Tessa and Tipper isn’t so unbelievable after all.

But nevertheless, as for Alex being a geeky loser: first of all, Bewersdorf wrote all the music in the movie and it’s not bad. I knew that up front and for me that knowledge manufactured some serious Alex aura onscreen. Plus, secondly, he had been living and working in Germany, which for me enhanced the aura. Thirdly, he did the A/V beatbox-type montage clips that divide up the movie and they’re pretty neat. Fourthly, his dog Button is present. Alex feeds Button cookies. Must love dogs. Aura builder. Fifthly, Tipper Newton is right there next to him throughout the film and she obviously likes him. Chemistry. Sixthly, he’s got a little Tim Roth vibe going up there. Seventhly, yes he obsesses over the webcam stripper, but she’s Kate Winterich from “Kissing On the Mouth” and I was starting to obsess over her a little myself.

(And, btw, speaking of how the movie evolved, Swanberg called Newton and described the project and invited her to Chicago to meet Bewersdorf and see what she thought about working with him. She flew out and showed up at a party where Bewersdorf was performing. Swanberg filmed her watching Bewersdorf, whom she hadn’t met yet, and then her talking to him, and decided that the vibe was right, so he put that film in the movie as Alex and Walter’s first meeting. If the vibe hadn’t been right for him, Tipper would have gone back to school (she was 19 and in college and can be seen doing her homework onscreen in the St. Louis scenes) and the whole thread would have been dropped.)

So in the event, Alex, the supposedly hopeless geek, builds a screen presence that might not equal Brando in “On the Waterfront,” but ain’t too shabby, either. By the time the credits roll, he’s the man in this film. The way I read it, he wises up on his way back to Chicago from St. Louis, calls Walter, and they push the reset button.

Geeky guy number two is Tim. Tim spends all of his time on his PC and cell phone. His woman fumes. He’s hopeless! What a loser!

But hang on again. This Tim happens to be Joe Swanberg. Of course the dude is working on his PC. Of course he’s on the phone. His woman? Hell, he hired her to be in the movie. You’re telling me that he’s a hopeless geek because he’s acting like Joe Swanberg probably acts at home? Let’s ask Swanberg’s wife what she thinks of the movie. Or go ask Kevin Smith’s wife about husbands online. (Actually, listen to Smodcast and she’ll tell you direct.)

For example, there is a scene at the beach, with Swanberg working on his PC while his girlfriend flirts with a surfer dude. “You don’t look too comfortable out there,” somebody says to Swanberg on the commentary track. “Well,” he says. “I hadn’t been outside in three weeks.”

In other words, Tim and Ada aren’t right for each other. If she was right for him, he’d log off/hang up more often. No way his phone and PC take the rap for the couple’s problems in the sack.

Speaking of which, I’ve had a Blackberry in my back pocket since March ’01. Initially it was a litte thing powered by a single AA battery, with my corporate Exchange account on it and nothing else. Now it’s been replaced by a PPC, a Treo, and a SmartPhone, all of them running browsers, media players, with phones, recorders, cameras, and other options I don’t even know about. In bed before lights out at night, while the spousal unit reads a book, I’m surfing. And who’s on the cell more during the day, my SU or me? Her. Swanberg says that he filmed the Tim/Ada relationship with the idea that the two were almost through with each other anyway, so how to blame the electronics? The two could be any everyday modern couple.

So Tim, the supposedly hapless geek who loses his girlfriend at the end? He’ll find a better fit next time. Or the time after that.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Geek number three, Chris, is winding down his relationship with his girlfriend over the phone. He’s in Chicago and she’s in New York. Greta never actually appears live in the film. Instead, we hear her voice and see pictures of her that she sends over the phone. As the movie progresses, Chris and Greta, onscreen and in real life, spiral downward, relationship-wise. (Swanberg, because he uses non-actors and no script, frequently employs the technique of filming real-life situations.) Meanwhile, Chris gets lucky at a party. I’m not casting the first stone here about that. Chris and Greta are essentially separated. The phone is the only thing left keeping them in contact.

So yes, Chris does ask Greta for some naked pictures. Greta (the real-life Greta) was studying for finals and when Swanberg nudged her to produce, she closed her notebook, went into the college library bathroom, stripped in a stall, adopted a wide stance, took a set of photos, sent them to Swanberg on the spot, got dressed again, and went back to the books – in case you parents are wondering what your kids are doing at school this semester.

Post-movie, I see Chris, like Tim, meeting somebody new, whom he can spend time with in the flesh.

So this result in LOL – that the protagonists grow stronger in the face of Swanberg’s efforts to render them helpless – reminds us that for the millennial generation, so called, as for most kids in their 20s over the years, it’s the time of first experiencing true social connections and intimacy as an adult – life’s greatest adventure, not to get sappy about it. In LOL, the actors and their characters are left free at the end to move on and seek out whatever and whomever comes next for them. In the meantime, if you’re in the mood for it, spending 81 minutes with these young people could be a great idea. It was for me.

A Peck on the Cheek (2002)

Spoilers: This review contains spoilers.

I like movies that immerse me in a foreign culture. I’m a stay-at home vicarious traveler and I depend upon cinema to transport me from my couch to unfamiliar lands and introduce me to new cultures. “A Peck On the Cheek” fills the screen with 136 minutes of scenery, music, culture, drama, and life in southern India and Sri Lanka. I returned from my trip well satisfied.

The film tells the story of nine-year-old T. Amudha and her search for her real mother. On her ninth birthday her father tells her that she is adopted. Shocked, upset, disbelieving, she decides on the spot to find her birth mother, no matter what. When her adoptive parents are slow to cooperate, she runs away from home to search on her own. Then does it again. With this, her parents relent and agree to go with her and help her on her quest. Their search takes the three of them from their home in Chennai (the former Madras) south to Rameswaram, a coastal town in southern India just across the straights from Sri Lanka, and thence over to Sri Lanka and the Tamil provinces of the island itself.

“A Peck On the Cheek” is a regional film made in the Tamil language, but it is replete with Bollywood characteristics. That is, it’s completely melodramatic, romantic, and sentimental, without containing a hint of irony. As a Western viewer, I needed to keep checking that last fact, to confirm that everything I was seeing was as straight-ahead as it appeared to be; it was. The acting is solid, the visuals are arresting, and if you wear your heart on your sleeve, the movie should work for you. In the same way that you don’t go to a Marx Brothers movie expecting subtle humor, you don’t watch a Bollywood movie if you crave an exercise in understated angst. These characters do not spend much time staring off into space.

The film’s title comes from a line by the nationalist Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyar (d 1921). I found the poem, but not in English, so I can only surmise whose cheek is referenced and who is doing the pecking.

And just to note here that Tamils are a Dravidian racial group located in southern India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, and in northern Sri Lanka. Because a civil war has been fought between the majority Sinhalise and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka for the past 25 years, and is still being fought, many Tamils have been displaced and fled the country. There are Tamil expatriot communities in countries around the world, including Malaysia, South Africa, and Singapore. In addition, a diaspora of 77 million Tamils to every continent has been caused by the socio-economic pressures typical in many third-world societies in modern times.

The Tamils occupied and controlled areas of southern India before the Aryan invasions from the north that occurred millenia ago. The desire of some Tamils in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in India to form a separate state has something in common with the current situation of the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

During the movie’s opening credits, I was surprised that all of the actors used a single name. The adoptive father and mother, named G. Thiruchelvan and T. Indra in the movie, are played by Madhaven and Simran respectively. Is Madhaven the only Indian actor with that name? My friends tell me that he’s a big star who has made more than 1,200 TV episodes and 10 films, and no other “Madhaven” actors come up in IMDB, but still, with an Indian population of one billion, I didn’t expect single names to be common, but so it is. In any event, the Tamil naming convention is to use a single name with one or two initials prepended as necessary for further identification. The initials can represent town or region of origin, or father’s name, or other indentifier. So that, as Amudha searches for her mother, she asks for “Shyama” and then “M.D. Shyama.” (In the movie, her birth mother is known to be from Mankulam.)

The movie begins with an arranged marriage. The bride and groom meet for the first time at the wedding ceremony. I have four or five friends whose marriages were arranged and the marriages have all worked out nicely so far. “When eyes meet, words are not needed” goes an ancient saying. The usual explanation for the high success rate is that the parents of the prospective husband and wife know their children well and so are able to make a good choice for them. In “A Peck on the Cheek,” the arrangement is accomplished by Shyama’s brother.

In the bedroom on the wedding night, the groom teases the bride about her skin color, darker than his own. He tells her that he could rub her cheek and use the color that came off as kohl for her eyeshadow, and that her name means “black.” She replies that she’s as light-skinned as he is. I wondered, first, whether this signaled that the groom was to be an abusive husband, and second, what role skin color plays in Indian cultural life. Turns out that the groom wasn’t being abusive; he was just doing a little light courtship teasing. In the end, he says “Well, a dark skin hides a pure heart.” (There are no bad guys in the movie.)

The complete range of Indian skin color is present in the movie: ebony black, tawny brown, olive, honey gold, wheat, pale tan, golden copper, almost-white. Polling ten or twenty Indian acquaintances here, I am told that lighter is considered more attractive than darker, but that there are no racial overtones involved with skin color. Color consciousness, yes, but racism, no. For example, kids may nickname the darkest in their group “blackie,” regardless of his standing otherwise. “I had to come to the U.S. to learn about the racial significance of skin color,” one friend told me. In the U.S. we have tanning salons and creams; in India it’s “fair and lovely” soaps and “return to whiteness” skin-lightening creams. “If the skin is white, it is love at first sight” as another old saying has it. Someone did tell me that light color symbolizes status and success. One Indian man told me that most of the personal ads in the newspapers and online in India specify a requirement for a “fair” or “wheatish” woman.

A Tamil friend did disagree about the racism, saying that the matter was not so cut-and-dried. He pointed out that in this movie, for example, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are depicted as much darker than those of southern India, and that some viewers take this as a negative statement about the Tamil insurgent movement.

Anyway, at some point following the wedding, M.D. Shyama tells her husband that she wants seven or eight children. He replies seriously that he doesn’t want any children at all until peace comes. Of course, anyone watching the movie in India would understand this sentiment immediately, being well familiar with the relentless suicide bombings, assassinations, and massacres of the past several decades. In a night scene with thunder and lightning foreshadowing the bomb blasts to come, the husband hears or imagines troops marching past. But since no conflict has been shown yet onscreen, his feelings caught me a little by surprise, even though I knew about the civil war in an abstract way. In the event, his resolve notwithstanding, Shyama becomes pregnant. It is while a refugee, separated from her husband, following a sea crossing in a storm that’s staged at the highest possible pitch of visual drama, that Shyama gives birth and loses the baby to adoption – exactly why, I don’t know.

With this, Amudha is introduced in Chennai on her ninth birthday. She tells us that she wants to be a dancer when she grows up, or a famous space scientist. We meet her family: her father, a mechanical engineer and well-known writer with a short temper; her mother, a TV broadcaster who does the morning news in Chennai; two younger brothers whom she teases; her grandfather; and her father’s sister and the sister’s husband. A happy, modern, extended family.

Amudha is quickly established as an independent, spunky young woman and, at fifteen minutes into the movie, I experience my first Indian-movie musical segment. Just minutes before, Shyama has been carried into a decrepit building, screaming in pain, to deliver her baby. Cut to the introduction of Amudha and her family a few years later, followed immediately by what seemed to me to be an MTV song-and-scenery montage, dropped into the movie from some other movie universe. (A.M.Rahman has done the music for all of director Mani Ratnam’s movies.) One reviewer suggests that the musical segments in the movie (there are three of them) are Amudha’s fantasies. Since she’s featured in all of them, this could be so. More likely, the first is point-of-view for Amudha, the second point of view for her mother, and the third for her father.

The first segment runs eight minutes and features a bright and perky song about Amudha and what she is like. As the song is sung, we see her at school with her chums. The school appears to be Catholic parochial, like the Sacred Heart schools around the world, with the children in a uniform of red-checked shirt and gray short pants or skirt. The kids run, wrestle, march, and play in quick scenes as Amudha is described:

Can you drive a nail into a cloud?
Can you shut Amudha up in a bottle?
Sundari, my little twin-tailed beauty!
Naughty Sparrow.
Waterfall on wings.
She can melt a stare and make it laugh.
She plans impish little acts.
She wipes away your anger with a smile.
She tucks sorrow deep into her dimples.
She traps the sky in her hair.
She is the peak of happiness and of trouble too.
She is a breeze with nails tearing into you.
Cah you catch a wave and bind it with a rope?
Isn’t she a wave born only to dance?
A butterfly with teeth, she bites your cheek and then kisses it.
She’s a mother to me and a mother-in-law too, in a daughter’s guise.
She’s the villain of the classroom.
A heroine at studies.
She’ll ask 1000 questions that only she can answer.
She’ll take classes for the teacher.
The poor fool who marries her, what won’t he endure?
He’ll have to cook in the water she washes her foot in.

So that’s Amudha in a nutshell. To reiterate, emotion is not hidden or buried in this film. It’s up there on the screen for all to see. If there is subtlety present, it does not involve the characters keeping their own counsel. They say what they think, in short scenes. The bright, upbeat musical segments, juxtaposed with issues of adoption and war, set up a certain dissonance, which, for me at least, heightened the feeling and impact of both the music and the scenes of conflict and violence.

During the Amudha song/montage, my head was still in narrative mode, back with the storm at sea and the screaming woman. By the time I started to pay attention to the music, the segment was over. I made a note to pay better attention when the next such segment arrived.

And now it is Amudha’s birthday. Her mother Indra applies a red mark to her forehead between the eyebrows. I asked my Indian friends if the ninth birthday has any particular significance, but was told no. I’m thinking, though, that her mother applying the mark was meant to be symbolic of her growing up, because at the same time her father decided to tell her the truth about her birth. In southern India, unmarried women choose to wear the mark (called a vermillion, or pinjar) between the eyebrows. In other areas, it’s the prerogative of married women to do so. In the south, married women wear the mark up near the hairline. It has been a tradition over the ages for Indian women to wear this dot. However, its actual meaning has been lost. One explanation is that it was a symbol indicating that the woman was married. Now, though, unmarried girls also wear the mark. In some cases, it’s treated as a fashion mark and anything goes. Widows don’t wear it. One interesting explanation of the mark is that in the past, women were not allowed to be in the presence of the elders of the house or to participate in anything that the men did. As an Indian woman says, “This led to tension in the minds of these women and application of pressure at the point between the eyes to relieve the tension. The use of saffron before applying the colourful kumkum would have been for its antiseptic effect.”

The mark is also sometimes used in religious observance. In the U.S., the woman might wear the mark in the household, but remove it in public. A male Tamil friend of mine had such a mark the other day made of ashes, applied in the course of a Hindu religious ceremony earlier that day.

Although her father has determined that Amudha is old enough to know that she was adopted at birth, his wife and her father don’t agree. He tells her anyway. When Amudha learns the truth, naughty sparrow that she is, she runs away from home and her father must retrieve her from the train station. This incident is the occasion for a great deal of brow-knitting by all concerned.

Next Amudha enlists a friend, borrows money from her grandfather, and catches a bus with her friend to the port city of Rameswaram, where she was born and where she hopes to find her mother. Scenery galore but no luck in Rameswaram. Her parents retrieve her again. Madhaven, playing the father, has the strong, charismatic screen presence of a major star, and Simran (Indra) and P.S. Keerthana (Amudha) stand up to him admirably throughout the film. (Or perhaps I’ve got this backwards: http://inadeeptrance.blogspot.com/2007/09/mani-ratnam-top-10-part-2.html.)

Aumdha is struggling here with her confused feelings about Indra. Does this woman who is not her true mother even love her? Does Indra love her as much as she loves her two real sons? Deeply upset, Amudha notes that her skin is darker than her mother’s. “Did you find me in a dust bin?” she asks unhappily.

Indra’s feelings are expressed in the second musical montage:

There is a throbbing in my chest
and a thudding in my ears
when you kiss me so tenderly.
Oh flower that God gave me
What are you looking for in my eyes?
You are the spot where our life begins.
You are the spot where the sky ends.
You came like the gentlest of breezes
…then stayed on as my breath.
You’re the life that takes its source in my heart.
You are the one that is close to me.
You are my foe as well.
You are the flower of love.
You are the thorn in my womb.
You are the beloved rain.
You are the small burst of thunder.
You are the newborn and the life that departs.
You are the birth that is born in death.

The song is accompanied by upbeat images of mother and daughter together on a vast beach of white sand, with the wooden bones of an ancient shipwreck, the couple splashing in shallow water, and much more, all in white and blue with vivid color in the clothing of mother and daughter. Not something that you’ll see and hear in a Hollywood film.

In spite of these strong maternal feelings that Indra has for her, Amudha remains concerned. From time to time, she stops talking to Indra entirely, as if she were fourteen or fifteen, not nine.

Here we get some extended backstory about how Thiruchelvan and Indra met and married and how they came to adopt Amudha. Back in the present, Amudha’s father realizes that she will not give up until she finds her mother. He promises her that he will help her do so and the movie breaks for an intermission at the one hour and fifteen minute mark.

INTERMISSION

The movie was made by Mani Ratnam, credited as the man who revolutionized Tamil-language cinema. Ratnam (54), has made many hit movies and is arguably the most important director in south India, with 22 films to his credit. He is known for making movies with style but also substance, movies that deal with personal and political issues of the day, both in north and south India, and in Tamil, Hindi, and other languages. “A Peck on the Cheek” is a product of the “Madras Talkies” studio.

After the intermission, mother, father, and daughter fly to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where a friend takes them in hand. This half of the movie is filled with a mix of the ancient and the modern, sacred ruins and new buildings that were run-down before they were finished. Jungle and town. The poor and the very poor. Birdsong and birds, insects, green vegetation, running water, elephants. Black children with guns. War and armed conflict.

Part of the fun of watching this movie, by the way, is listening to the language. Tamil is designed to run very fast over the tongue and out of the mouth. No glottals or plosives to slow things down (I don’t know what I’m talking about, but one does wonder how the syllables can flow so quickly). Tamil is pre-Indo European, spoken by the Dravidians who inhabited India before the Aryans showed up. It’s one of the world’s ancient languages. It’s agglutinative, meaning that it starts with a root and adds bits in front of and after the root to designate noun class, number, and case, verb tense, and other grammatical categories. English does a little of this, such as adding an s for a plural; an extreme example in English would be “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Words like this are the norm in Tamil. Listening to the dialog is like listening to a brook in the forest – a rapid dahdtity dahdtity dahdtity candence that seems almost impossible to articulate or understand, like a continuous string of tongue-twisters. Amudha notices a difference in the Sri Lankan Tamil and comments on it immediately.

English words like “sorry,” “happy birthday,” “selfish,” “OK,” “intentions,” “conditions,” “honorable,” “please,” and “promise” have been absorbed into Tamil, so that the flow of dialog is punctuated by little dots of English.

While in the northern, principally Tamil, capitol of Jaffna, Amudha’s father Thiruchelvan gives a speech on writing to a hall full of appreciative listeners. Outside, Amudha wanders across to a park and chats with a man in a wheelchair. Shortly thereafter, a scene of violence occurs that truly surprised and shocked me. If I had been watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster aimed at the teenage male demographic, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I’ve seen much, much worse. But here it happened after an hour and twenty minutes of mother-daughter conflict, father-daughter discussions, music, color, and birdsong. Before I had quite recovered from it, a third musical segment presented itself.

One sense of the foreign in this movie comes from the film’s lack of conformance with any single Western plot template, as with this sudden, unexpected act of extreme violence followed by a pleasant musical interlude. The power of the music is multiplied by its position just after the explosive moment. Of course, Hollywood makes frequent use of soft following loud, quiet following violent and vice versa, and the principle is the same here, I suppose. But I don’t recall a Hollywood film in which, for example, Bruce Willis blows up a building and then Doris Day comes out and warbles.

The third musical segment, the most visually arresting of the three, features Amudha and her father. He sings to her but to my great annoyance the song isn’t subtitled. Father and daughter are happy and the screen is full of waterfalls, mist, steep rock cliffs, statues of the Buddha, monks, elephants, white flags, and innumerable picturesquevistas. I assume that the song and montage are to take some of the sting out of the preceding violence, and to provide a respite before continuing into the civil war while describing the father’s feelings and hopes for his daughter. Or something similar. Perhaps the father is waxing philosophical. By now I was able to sit back and enjoy the music and visuals without pondering the meaning of it all.

And now, as the trio makes contact with the insurgents, they are warned that the army is nearby, and wherever the army is congregating, they should avoid. Amudha refuses to stop her search. The tension builds, because we know that the trio is not going to make it out of harm’s way. A firefight suddenly erupts between insurgents and the army, with flying bodies, a flaming helmet, and death all around as parents and daughter hide behind a bench. As my friend mentioned, the insurgents were noticeably darker than the soldiers.

Then on to the birth mother’s town, Mankulam, and more army activity. The townspeople are evacuating, explosions are heard. During the evacuation scene in the countryside, I had the thought “cast of thousands” because it approached spectacle class. And at the conclusion of quite a battle scene, in a clunky twist, the searchers learn that there is a second Mankulam, to which they must now make their way.

The civil war is taken to have started in Sri Lanka in 1983. A group named LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) had been assassinating moderate Tamils up to then and then attacked in the north and killed 13 soldiers from the majority Sinhalese army. In the resulting riots, up to 300 Tamils were killed in Sinhalese areas. The LTTE gradually absorbed or eliminated all the other rebel (or freedom-fighting) Tamil groups, or drove them over to the other side. So that in additional to the largely Sinhalese army, there have been Tamil paramilitaries and political groups opposing the LTTE as well. Over the years, the insurgents and army have been involved in various offensives and massacres against each other, with civilians in the crossfire or used as targets. The LTTE carried out its first suicide bombing in 1987. (Anyone who somehow has the idea that suicide bombing is peculiar to Muslims, can note the fact here that it is a prominent tool of the Tamil Hindu insurgents as well.)

For more on the war, refer to, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Civil_War.

I wondered if the movie was making a statement about the civil war – whether it was taking sides. After all, Mani Ratnam is Tamil and the war has been going on for half his life. To me, the uninformed viewer, it seemed that the Sri Lankan army was portrayed as sinister, in the sense that it wasn’t wise to stick around anytime they were seen to be arriving in force, whereas the LTTE rebels were made more sympathetic, struggling in the jungle and prey to the army, with Shyama caring for lots of little kids. On the other hand, the first violent act in the movie was a rebel blowing himself up along with numerous members of the military. A Tamil friend of mine from Chennai who saw the movie felt that the conflict was simply meant to be a backdrop for Amudha’s personal struggle, and that Ratnam did not take sides. I asked my friend if he, himself, personally leaned one way or the other and he said that after the Tigers assassinated Rajiv Ghandi, the Indian Prime Minister, the popularity of the LTTE and its struggle dropped precipitously in southern India. For my friend, the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka seem culturally very similar, although the Tamils are Hindu and the Sinhalese Buddhist with some Muslims and Christians. As in Northern Ireland and Iraq, cultural brothers or cousins can fight each other as brutally as strangers ever could.

The movie dialog, at any rate, simply asks why peace can’t come, when it might come, or if it ever will come. “When will we live in peace?” “It’s the commercial interest of the weapons makers,” comes the reply, “to try out their weapons in undeveloped countries.”

Reading the history of the last 25 years – each massacre remembered, each bombing detailed, the maneuvering between and within sides, the deals with India and, according to most Indians I talked to, with the CIA, displaced population all over the island and the world, the compounding of misery caused by the tsunami and subsequent conflict over the administration of tsunami aid, the seesaw over decades of military force, conquest, loss, always accompanied by and causing the death and suffering of the innocent – Iraq at its worst, but stretched over decades, intractable, with only the total exhaustion of the people able to stem the tide of violence even for a little while – the questions raised – when peace, how, if – are in themselves a cry against war.

In the end, Shyama (Nandita Das, another famous actress) and Amudha – birth mother and her daughter – come face to face, as the adopted parents look on. The scene, the climax of the movie, does not disappoint. The situation itself, mother and daughter reunited in a war-torn country, two good actresses, the embrace of pure unironic melodrama, and the mother’s need to choose between her daughter and her cause, is a combination, after two hours of spectacle and histrionics, that is bound to jerk some tears from you if you’ve got any to be jerked.

Amudha and her adoptive parents can go home to a normal, productive life, but Shyama is caught in an unending conflict that she can’t hope to escape, one of the many wars around the world that grind on, unstoppable and remorseless, with the outside world doing nothing to intervene.

This film won nine awards, including the Silver Lotus at the National Film Awards, India.

The DVD was provided by Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”

IMDB rating – 8.2.

Clean (2004)

Dedicated to reviewers who recognize and appreciate a real star when they see one. Now back off!

At the outset, Maggie Cheung is clean but she’s not “clean.” A friend of mine saw the movie and all he could talk about was Maggie. This is a guy who’ll watch a flick with Michelle Yeoh in it, or Sandra Oh or Lucy Liu or Gong Li or ZiYi Zhang, no matter what it’s about, him just sitting there taking in the sight of Maggie or Michelle or Ziyi onscreen in all her Asian-ness, Sandra in “Last Night” living up in Canada and working in indies long before becoming a doctor on TV, or Lucy slicing and dicing in “Kill Bill” with that Siamese-cat crossed-eyes thing she does, or Michelle the quiet, reserved, classy force in “Crouching Tiger” as opposed to her glamorized American persona when she does those interviews on DVD. Or Margaret Cho, if that’s your thing, popping up for a quick turn in “Lost Room,” strapped. And then my friend will say, oh, she was soooo wonderful, she’s soooo beautiful, blah, blah, got her up on a pedestal, the guy’s yellow fever running wild irregardless of the woman. What’s wrong with these men? Are they afraid to commit?

When Angelina Jolie (not interested!) starred in A Mighty Heart, the question that arose was whether she could disappear into her role in spite of her celebrity. With Maggie in Clean, it’s can she wrap up the role into her own selfness and walk through the movie without my friend jumping off the couch shouting That’s not you Maggie get ahold of yourself for the love of God! Because he’s used to all those Hong Kong action flicks she’s made, and then Kar Wai Wang. Now in Clean she has to be a 2nd-rate faded rock star junkie. Anybody who’s watched “Behind the Music” on VH1 knows what that’s all about. In other words, can we stay with her at least till she gets to her epiphany at 52 minutes into the film where she lowers a window in the subway train (which right there is why we should all move to Paris) and throws all her methadone and her methadone prescription out onto the tracks because she’s just tired of waitressing, arguing with her father, getting stood up at job interviews, working in a department store, and what else, oh yeah, her partner OD’ing on the stuff she brought him and then some other guy OD’ing shortly thereafter? And by the way, is it so wrong for her to look so good even if she’s supposedly using, because for a 43-year-old singer with a bad habit, she looks better than most ladies do on their best days, not like Courtney or a young kid like Lindsay Lohan, at 21 already showing major signs of wear and tear. More like Jennifer Connelly in “Requiem,” who even at the bottom of the barrel, hard used and I do mean hard used, is still looking pretty sharp. Let the Burstyns of this world take their parts over the edge using the Method or whatever. Maggie, getting out of a car in Canada at sunrise, down from a high: lookin good. Then out on the street after six months in prison, still heavily on methadone, with the hair intact just begging you to run your fingers through it: lookin good. But I will say, her so imposing onscreen, it’s shocking to see her standing next to Nolte and her ex in a publicity shot, looking as small as she does. But that’s good too. She’s delicate. They’re all delicate. Delicate fighting machines. Except Margaret. So anyway, just to have Maggie up there onscreen with that low, breathy, English accent, talkin oh so low, or easin along in Frenchy, or rating her papa in Cantonese. That’s what I’m talking about. Commit to a woman! Throw Nolte up next to her for the contrast. He’s the big dog in this production. Assayas and Maggie both were shy and in awe when he showed up. He’s got that Smoking-Gun mugshot look down pat, but he’ll always be Thomas Jefferson to me, scoring with Gwyneth and Thandie (not interested!) in Paris. (That’s Thandie before the eating disorder.) Btw, Maggie claims to do everything, be everything, make every sacrifice, all for Hong Kong, just for the Hong Kong fans. She says that. You could look it up. Not for Hollywood. Not for Europe or anyplace else in the world. Just Hong Kong. And me taking Cantonese classes like mad for her. And THEN she goes and marries a Frenchy.

Olivier Assayas, namely. That lout. Get a shave, Skinny! Are Asian women all attracted to hairy white males? Give some love to the man of color! Ass-ayas makes a couple of movies and thinks he’s God’s gift to women. Maggie’s well off without him. I don’t see that he’s remarried or has any children. Is he still carrying a torch for Maggie? Pray God he’s not. He treats her like a queen in this movie, even as she was signing the final divorce papers. The camera moons over her. He said that he just wants to allow her to be herself, show herself on screen. I’m not complaining! She dropped him; he didn’t drop her. I don’t know that for a fact but I hope it. I surmise it. “In the few years that we were together,” she says, not sadly. I definitely don’t think about the time they spent together, if you know what I mean. That’s water under the bridge, the time they spent together. He says he’s imagining her as a widow in this movie. You wish! Feel sorry for yourself, Olivier! In the movie, she doesn’t like any of the guys that much. You know she’s hanging out on the set with Emily Haine and the rest of Metric, and Tricky (who blows her off in the movie but as soon as the cameras stop, he’s back there, I guarantee), and David Roback, who wrote her songs for the movie, and James Johnson, who plays her partner. Johnson’s not even a real actor; it’s his first movie. He has a band and also sings with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Maggie argues with him in the movie and I didn’t buy that for a minute. It wasn’t bad acting on her part! She just doesn’t really care about the guy. I’m definitely not threatened by the Indie rock scene of the 80s; it’s extinct. The kids in Metric enthusing about staying in a nice hotel for a change during the shoot, and riding in a van that doesn’t smoke, whereas they’re used to rolling up to the gym to play for 40 minutes at a dance in Indiana. And btw, in their interviews, neither Metric nor Tricky nor Nolte ever MENTIONS Maggie. Why? Because Assayas cut it out. Jealous.

Just to say about Assayas: Maggie’s not goofy or all existential or mailing it in in Clean. Assayas lets her be herself, WANTS her to be herself, not some crazy sidekick to Jackie Chan or moonbat for Kar Kai Wong. That’s how I know Maggie dropped him, not the other way around. If you were in love with her but you could only, you know, film her, then you’d want it to be HER you were filming, right? In the same way, if you were in love with her but could only WATCH her movies, not really be with her live in person but only vicariously? Well, she’s been in more than 800 movies, believe it or not, so if you just ran two movies a day, that would be 730 movies a year, so you could spread out her other 70 or 100 movies over the year, maybe one extra movie every third or fourth day. Would that be enough to sustain your romance? No, but you’d also have her 358 YouTube entries. And you could go Google Maggie Cheung images. And you could also read reviews of her movies, but every clown out there has an opinion, knuckleheads trying to suck up to her and soreheads ragging on her. Speaking of YouTube, you can see the tribute clip I put together with shots of her and me getting together. It took me weeks to make it, especially using a handheld to get those shots of myself in action. [Rats they took it down.]

Maggie doesn’t get to interact with her son until we’re 60+ minutes into the movie. And by the way, if you’re the president of the oldest, most exclusive Maggie Cheung fan club in the U.S., shouldn’t you be entitled to at least a personal interview with her? Dinner together while we discuss her life and her work? She’s got this child in the movie whom she apparently doesn’t see much for his first seven or eight years, and then when she does, she’s pretty remote, like you’d expect, but does she have any children of her own? I’m trying to imagine her pregnant. Forget I said that. I think she’d be a good mother. I can imagine her being my mother. I’d run home and fly into her arms and bury my face… Aw what’s the use? And by the way, how seriously should we take the lesbian/bisexual aspects of this movie with reference to Maggie’s aspirations toward motherhood? What’s the cultural take on an individual’s casual liaisons with beautiful people of both sexes in the context of family values these days? I’m sensitive to any untoward discoveries that I might make if she and I would actually form a relationship. She’s used the name “Man-Yuk Cheung” in some of her billings. Not a good sign? But what if her “special friend” were Michelle or Lucy or Sandra? Man. Not much to go on in the film, though – she just admits it; it’s actually just a little distraction, but you know why Assayas put it in, the dog. Anyway, she’s an addict, she’s bisexual in a somewhat uncommitted way, she drinks and smokes a lot, but she looks great. A Maggie quote: “Because I’ve done so many different roles, I don’t want to repeat myself. It’s getting harder and harder to find something interesting.” This after only the first movie where she plays a normal human being? She says she’s not a lonely woman, which means she is. She should try hanging out with one of her greatest fans ha ha. Same as with her son, we don’t get her dealing with Nolte much till 60+ minutes into the movie. I’m like Nolte, sort of, under the skin, all wise and practical and whiskey-voiced. If she liked him, she’ll love me. If she does have kids, they could visit every once in a while. I could handle that. But I would tell her one thing: no singing. She wants to sing. She says so. But no. Talk, Maggie, in any of your various lingos. Just don’t sing.

Is it really so wrong to stalk a movie star? Folks are watching them all the time anyway. As long as you don’t bother her or do something inappropriate, why not? Join the paparazzi! Assayas is practically stalking her with his camera in Clean anyway. It’s a Vogue shoot. He’s not over her, is why. In the movie she’s running around Canada and Paris like she owns the place, just at home anywhere in the world. (What about those Canadian police, eh?) Assayas says it’s because she was born and raised in London, spent so many years in Hong Kong, and now in France. She doesn’t know where her roots are, so she takes them with her whereever she goes. One little stalker like me isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference.

My interview with Maggie: Finally caught up with Maggie last night at Mr. Chow on North Camden just off Wilshire in Beverly Hills. She was eating rabbit. A glass of red wine, high-gloss lipstick (she doesn’t need it), and a B. Romanek Crocodile Rockstar Clutch on the table next to her plate. Those dark, dark eyes, my God. I only had a second to ask her some questions about Clean, so I went with that scene in Paris: How do you lock somebody INTO a bathroom – is that a French thing? And how come Nolte’s son in the movie had such a thick English accent? And that final shot in the movie – Is that taken from Marin? Reversed? Doesn’t seem right to me. They were on location in S.F., but is it a Vancouver shot stuck in there? Anyway, Maggie answered me in Cantonese. I should have worked harder in that Chinese language class! The only word I caught before I had to leave was “rabid.” Must ask her to use English next time.

Paths of Glory

This Stanley Kubrick film (1957) is listed in AFI’s top 200 movies of all time. Paths of Glory tells the story of a company of World War I French soldiers accused of cowardice after the men refuse to advance during an attack on the German lines. Three soldiers chosen at random from the ranks are court martialed, tried, and shot, to provide a warning and example to the rest of the men.

In WWI, following an initial burst of enthusiasm and optimism on both sides, a static front of trenches developed, stretching unbroken from the Atlantic to Switzerland. Soldiers from Germany, France, and England populated these trenches from 1914 to 1918. Periodically, one side or the other would send forth a wave of men to be slaughtered while attempting a breakthrough. Casualty numbers ran higher, far higher, than had ever been seen before in human history (although the patterns of battle and loss reflected those of the US Civil War, with respect to death vs the development of new weaponry). The lines hardly moved over the entire course of the war.

The action in Paths of Glory occurs halfway through the war. It could have been set anywhere on the line, on either side of the line. Kubrick lays out the basics with a nighttime reconnaissance sequence, scenes of the general officers planning the next attack, a fruitless assault, the trial of the three men for cowardice, the executions.

I watched this movie again several weeks ago and asked myself, does it deserve its stellar reputation as an effective antiwar movie?

The question occurred to me because I was in a contrarian mode, having just written a review (q.v.) of 2001, explaining why I thought the movie was not as good as advertised. If Kubrick could win accolades with 2001, could it be that Paths of Glory was similarly defective? The generals behave badly. Death is a statistic. The war, it is clear, is symmetrical, meaning that right and wrong do not apply when weighing the reasons to fight. Some die and the rest move on. Meaningless. In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the protagonist returns home from the lines for a visit and finds the old men in the tavern arguing over the war as if it were a soccer match. In Paths of Glory, we are not even provided the neocons’ cold-blooded, realpolitick, simple-minded explanations of the benefits of political change by force.

The moral, ethical, non-cynical man’s view is provided in the film by Kirk Douglas, who might as well be living on another planet for all the good he does here. Idealism can only be used as contrast by Kubrick here, can only be grand and shining but febrile in effect, if war is to remain absurd, mechanical, final.

A soldier is killed because of an officer’s criminal malfeasance; ironically, the officer is spared retribution by having a witness to the killing executed. A soldier is near death from a head injury incurred in a fight; ironically, he is saved so that he can be shot. A young German woman sings to the French troops and ironically brings them to tears. Kirk gives up at the end, with that Kirk look on his face, and ironically, I find myself grinning.

Be With Me (2005)

Directed by Eric Khoo.
Starring Theresa Chan, Ng Sway Ah, Seet King Yew, Exann Lee
93 minutes. Unrated.

In English, Cantonese, Hakkim, and Mandarin, with English subtitles.

“Be With Me” weaves three fictional romances around the true story of Theresa Chan, a deaf and blind woman living in Singapore.

Sometime during the first half of this film, I decided that director Eric Khoo must be a talented novice, in need of guidance but possessed of real film-making skill. I reined in some of my negative critical reactions because of this. However, I have since learned that Khoo was credited with reviving the Singapore movie industry ten years ago with “Mee Pok Man” (1995), and that after a silence of 7 years, he has recently directed three new films, one of them “Be With Me.” Which means that everything I saw onscreen, Khoo put there on purpose. What market and/or financial pressures and/or cultural perspectives caused him to make the peculiar choices he made, I can’t say, so I’ll simply report my viewing experience without feathers.

In the film, an old man loses his wife and learns to live without her; a social misfit stalks a beautiful woman and writes her a love letter; a teenager falls in love with a girl she meets on the internet, and then is jilted by her. Khoo cuts between these stories quickly, taking time out periodically to insert documentary-style film and exposition about Theresa Chan, who lost her hearing and then her sight when she was fourteen, to diseases that remain nameless in the film (meningitis, in fact).

The stalking and teen-love stories, although beautifully shot, are dramatically appropriate for no more than after-school TV; they don’t belong anywhere near Theresa Chan. There is a place for schoolgirls in bed together, don’t get me wrong, with urgent soapy music welling up in the background, and a place as well for failed suicide, and for death via getting hit on the noggin by a falling body, but these matters do not comport well with footage of an energetic sixty-year-old deaf and blind woman teaching eight-year-olds to knit. At least, not where I come from.

The third fictional segment of the movie is another matter. In long, composed, static shots with an an ambient soundtrack and subdued colors, an old man (Ng Sway Ah) is followed by the camera and studied as he closes his small shop in the city, shops for food, cooks at home, and lies in bed alone. The years of his long life are etched into his face and we’re given plenty of time to contemplate the rhythms of his day and the ravages of time on his body, and to compare him and his daily life with ourselves, with all the attendant intimations of mortality that this kind of mediation triggers in us. Rare opportunity, and a blessing.

In the film, the old man’s wife appears in many scenes with him, sitting or standing wordlessly by. I thought that she had some plot-driven, Alzheimer-like malady that caused her to behave this way. Turns out that she was a ghost. Don’t know why I didn’t get that, but in the end, as she faded away, it didn’t make any difference one way or the other. Similarly, I had trouble keeping track of which teenage girl was which, and whether either was related to the stalker, so forth. Again, in the end it didn’t matter.

And speaking of ambient sound, by muting the movie I could differentiate the cricket chirps in my backyard from those on the sound track. Counting chirps per minute, dividing by 4, and adding 40, I deduced that I was watching the movie at 75F, while in Singapore it was 88F while the night scenes were being shot.

Which brings us to Theresa Chan. Director/writer Khoo would have done well to toss out all of the film I’ve described so far, regardless of any poetry contained in it, and replace the lot with more footage of Chan. After a period of complete isolation within herself, sight and hearing gone, by a series of lucky chances Chan found herself enrolled in the Perkins School in Boston. She lived in the U.S. for ten years, learning to knit, ride horses, understand and speak English, and otherwise engage life and the world directly. We watch her type, cook, teach, and talk while we read her written words, expository and philosophical, in subtitles.

But how did she learn, starting alone, with only her sense of touch? Not to lower the tenor of this review, but I’m reminded of a recent podcast by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. These two knuckleheads spent thirty minutes debating the proposition that the Helen Keller story was an elaborate hoax, since in Smith’s estimation it would have been impossible for her to learn 90% of what she claimed to know, given her condition. (“SMODCAST” is available on Itunes. IT IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.) Smith and Mosier had seen both versions of “The Miracle Worker,” but perhaps because they make movies themselves, they didn’t believe anything in either movie, Anne Bancroft or no Anne Bancroft. Anyway, the point is, Khoo would have been well advised to skip the three fictional tales and invest his production money in a ticket to Boston, for a visit and some interviews at Perkins.

Again, how was Theresa Chan able to maintain the lively spirit she exhibits? We want to learn more. It isn’t all good news. She lost her one true love and we read parts of her letters to him. She isn’t interviewed because the conceit of the movie is that hers is the fourth story, and that the old man’s eventual connection to her helps him to overcome his own loss and move on.

In the event, “Be With Me” is the film that got made. It’s message – and it definitely has one – is… well, Theresa Chan’s written words in the subtitles are about the importance of love. The three fictional stories are all about the rough edges of love. So perhaps the message is that love is important. (Theresa’s one true love died of cancer on Christmas Day, just before their wedding.) Love…is…important…

On the other hand, there is virtually no dialog in the film – ironic since four languages, plus braille, plus a sort of sign language on the hand, plus cell phone texting and internet email, are all employed – so maybe there is a message here about communication. As in, a deaf and blind woman can communicate better than all these other folks, and maybe better than YOU, so… communication…is…important…

Khoo’s artistic enterprise, then, is to cause me to cogitate on love and the importance thereof, or find inspiration in love, or just learn to communicate better with those I do love, or, wait, perhaps just to keep hope alive. There was something in there about how there is always hope. Never give up. So forth.

So, put aside for now my questions about how a person can learn when deaf and blind. Put aside my resonance with the everyday rhythms of an old man’s life.

Come to think of it, I did learn one thing from this movie: Teresa Chan is not a cynic, and neither is Eric Khoo. There is no cynicism or irony in this quiet, graceful movie. After watching it, I was, in fact, briefly, not cynical myself.

This film won five international film festival awards and was nominated for three others.

The DVD was provided by Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) – “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”

Summer Palace (2008)

Spoiler Alert: If you want the ending of Summer Palace to be a surprise, read no further.

After watching two hours and twenty minutes of cigarette smoking in yet another Asian movie (see also my comments on the subject in my review of Drifters), I finally bestirred myself long enough to fish up the following news bites:

“Guiyang, China — Here’s some exciting medical news from the Chinese government: Smoking is great for your health. Cigarettes, according to China’s tobacco authorities, are an excellent way to prevent ulcers. They also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency.”

“With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is responsible for almost one-third of all cigarettes smoked on the planet today. Two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers, and surveys show that as many as 90 per cent believe their habit has little effect on their health, or is good for them. Even in China’s medical community, 60 per cent of male doctors are smokers. Few are aware of the studies forecasting that cigarettes will soon be responsible for one-third of all premature deaths among Chinese men.”

“There is no market more important to the tobacco industry and no nation posing more challenges to tobacco control than China. With 350 million smokers and 1 million tobacco-caused deaths annually, China is the biggest challenge in international tobacco control.”

Summer Palace begins with its heroine Yu Hong (Lei Huo) at home in her village. Her boyfriend doesn’t have much to say to her, but he does urge her to try his imported cigarettes. Now I know why; he’s concerned about her health.

Anyway.

As much as I admire and respect Pauline Kael’s reviews, which appeared in the New Yorker for years, nevertheless, I began to take some of them with a grain of salt as she approached the end of her career, because I had the feeling that by then she had simply seen too many movies. She began to dismiss the familiar too quickly, or so it seemed to me, and began taking an interest in the unusual instead, whether the unusual in question merited her interest or not. I was thinking about this while watching Summer Palace because the film is a staring-off-into-space-athon and I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m in the same boat as Pauline – seen too many – at least as far as this type of dialog-eschewing personal-interaction film is concerned. Have I seen too many anguished protagonists gazing moodily into the middle distance to react to the heroine Yu Hong as director Ye Lou would have me react? What is Yu Hong thinking, up there on the screen? Which way will she jump?

Why the pain? Is that the thousand-yard stare of a stunned brain I’m seeing, or a portal into her seething emotions? Can I apprehend and empathize with and finally appreciate her internal struggles or will I just shrug them off, always assuming that I can figure out what they are in the first place?

In American movies these days, the strong silent type is typically a man with limited acting skills who ends up pulling and using a gun or otherwise kicking major ass after being pushed too far. The problem with the silent stare in a movie with intellectual pretensions like Summer Palace is that as the film wears on, the protagonist can literally do or say anything and we’re obliged to take it and like it. Consistency cannot be an issue, since we can’t know for sure what the character has been thinking. The consequent action is the result of deep thought, we presume, or mental instability, or, as they say, whatnot. Or perchance the character will do nothing in the end, just continue to stare.

I watched an episode of The Wire just before watching Summer Palace.
Dense dialog, dense narrative. Corruption in a city where in the final analysis nothing is going to change. Meanwhile, in Summer Palace, one billion people undergo a decade of profound and radical change as the regime gradually opens into an authoritarian economic system. Scant dialog, scant narrative. Ironic.

And speaking of not talking to each other – during sex, Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), Yu Hong’s main squeeze in the movie, wears earphones. Call me old-fashioned!

Non-dialog reaches new heights in a scene where the lovers are floating on a lake in a rowboat. This is one of those couples-in-a-boat-wordless-montage scenes, only this time, after stretching out interminably, the scene goes no-dialog time-lapse into the night with a full moon rising. Yu Hong will probably tell her diary that she
and Zhou Wei were talking into the night, after watching Zhou Wei rest on his oars for eight hours, smoking.

And then, back at the hotel after languishing in the boat, sex. And then, “Zhou Wei? I think we should break up.” “Why?” “Because I can’t leave you.” This is the signal to us that whenever things seem to be going well in the movie, Yu Hong will turn away and step off the curb into traffic, metaphorically speaking. An example of the viewer not knowing what is coming, not being a mind reader.

I believe that Yu Hong was still a frosh at this point. When I was a frosh, I had a couple of painful wordless dates but they didn’t end with me wearing headphones. Or not wearing them, either.

Waiting for the dialog in a film like Summer Palace is like reading a Henry James novel. He doles out the spoken words most sparingly – dialog was the crest of the wave, I think he said – but most of the time I was deep under water, longing for any sign of a set of quotation marks, on pages of solid print often missing even a paragraph break. I’m speaking of his late novels.

If director Ye Lou were making Casablanca here instead of Summer Palace, Ingrid Bergman would step into Rick’s Cafe with her husband, sit down at a table, and smoke and drink beer without speaking to Paul Henreid or anybody else, while Bogart stood at the back of the room, alternately staring at her and looking away, smoking, wordless. Their eyes would meet once. Later, at the end of the movie, after a clinch, Bogart would stare into her eyes and say “What next?” and Bergman would drag on her cigarette and look away, and he’d look away, and she’d look back but he wouldn’t, and she’d reply, “What next?” Then she’d look at him looking away some more and then one or both of them would turn and walk away. Lights up.

Lei Huo does a nice French inhale or two (or Irish waterfall, if you prefer) in the movie, while not talking, I’ll give her that. And there is a scene in a car where she and Zhou Wei drive, with lots of staring. He stares ahead. She stares ahead. Then she stares at him while he stares ahead, and that was good, her staring at him. That scene had some juice, wordless or not. Plus, they were filmed dead-on from in front of the windshield with the car vibrating from its motion, the most realistic such scene that I can remember seeing.

Director Ye Lou, a 43-year-old from Shanghai, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy as one of its “Sixth Generation” or “Urban Generation” group of directors (the Fifth Generation, growing up during the Cultural
Revolution, was more familiar with the rural than the urban), which also includes, for example, Jia Zhangke (Platform, 2000), Xiaoshuai Wang (Drifters, 2003), and Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years, 1999). There is a definite trend in many Chinese Sixth Generation movies to skate over narrative and dialog (see, for example, The Wayward Cloud). Obviously, I need to be in the mood for this.

In Ye Lou’s case, the lack of dialog seems to grow out of his philosophy of film.

“I want Lei Huo to be the character, not pretend to be the character. If she’s just pretending, even if she’s a very competent actor, she’ll still harm the character, because the audience will just see her as a very good actor.”

Not so.

That’s why they’re called actors.

This reminds me of Olivier’s reply to Hoffman, who was using The Method in Marathon Man to get into character and asked Olivier about the technique that he used to do the same. “Dear boy,” Sir Lawrence replied. “It’s called acting.”

Because to ensure that Lei Huo will “be the character,” Ye Lou provides her with virtually no dialog – he can’t presume, you see – and, unlike in a Mike Leigh film, she doesn’t trouble herself to develop any herself. Which
leaves us to divine what’s going on in her noggin by the expression on her purposely expressionless face. Lei Huo says “the character is like me in real life. She’s going to break my heart” but this doesn’t help me, since
I don’t happen to know Lei Huo personally. She’s a force though, with her nose often a little red.

But. Having said all that. It’s true that throughout the movie, once she gets to university, Yu Hong tells us what she is thinking by reading excerpts from her diary in voice-over. However, her thoughts as verbalized do
not illuminate; they merely reiterate the non-look on her face. Viz, after meeting her one true love for the
first time and dancing with him to “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat” (neither of them speaking, needless to say):

“Had I not viewed my life in the light of the ideal, its mediocrity would have been unbearable. That’s how I saw things when we met. You came into my life. You are my most refined friend. It’s very simple. I knew the
moment I saw you that we were standing on the same side of the world. And then we talked the whole night long. For all that, there are troubling aspects to our relationship which can’t be reduced simply to pleasure or lack of it. I want to live more and more intensely. It’s clear to me, nowhere more so than in our relationship, because there are times when I’m clearly imposing my will on you. If one takes desire lightly, action will be
constricted. It was through love that I understood this. There’s no getting around it. There are only illusions. Illusions. Those lethal things.”

This load is dropped on us at one go, intercut with tracking shots of Yu Hong and Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo), her new university lover, walking and gazing but not speaking. Perhaps they talked the night away and we never saw it, but more likely all the talking is being done directly into the diary. The message: the course of love never did run smooth. I think I can say with assurance that I never dated and danced and talked the night away
with a girl who had these thoughts running through her mind.

The dictum is “Show, don’t tell.” Here we have the opposite. The silence doesn’t show and the voice-over diary reading tells constantly.

Later from the diary, we get the likes of:

“As soon as love touches you, life is knocked off balance.”

“True love can only appear at the most intense moments of anguish and suffering.”

Later one of Yu Hong’s lovers says, “You’re so simple. You’re different from other women. You’re simple and straightforward.” He obviously did not get his hands on the diary.

Of course, there are language and cultural issues here. In the absence of a gloss for the subtitles, this is where you pause the movie and turn to your spouse or significant other, if he or she happens to be from China,
to solicit some cultural and linguistic input that might help you pick up on the nuances in those diary entries and in the dialog and action in general. Because these are our fundamental hints about what is going on in the
minds of the characters and the hints are just enough but not more than enough to mute any surprise we might feel when, at the apparent height of their happiness, as they lie full-frontal (a Chinese first. Fifteen years
ago, kissing was hardly allowed), staring up at the ceiling with the camera aimed down at them, Yu Hong suggests that Xhou Wei get circumcised. Why? he asks. (Xiaodong Guo speaks as quietly throughout this movie as
anyone I can remember speaking on film without actually whispering.) Yu Hong replies, Because it would be less painful. Who told you that? he asks. My professor, she says. Why did he tell you that? Because, she says, we were making love. This puts an immediate damper on the couple’s romantic outing. Yu Hong follows an old romantic convention and walks away from happiness whenever she chances to encounter it.

Another quick scene that might benefit from a little cultural interpretation: Yu Hong is sitting in a public park next to a basketball court, waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. He’s late. She’s watching some young men play a pickup game. Her boyfriend rides up on his motorcycle, hops off, and apologizes for being late. Suddenly, an outcry. He’s parked on the court or on a part of the street serving as the court. Immediately there is a struggle and he gets a shiner and scraped cheeks. The young woman joins in the fracas. The problem is, the conflict is instantaneous and obliquely shot, so that it is impossible to tell what’s happening, exactly. The scene feels clunky and staged, which is strange considering that it follows several quiet and evocative scenes that open the movie. Surely this doesn’t mean that Ye Lou doesn’t have the chops to handle a little action, action as majorly simple as this? He obviously isn’t a fan of Hong Kong movie brawls, but I’m thinking that I’ve missed some cultural nuance in the scene that might help account for its amateur feeling.

And one more word about taciturn actors: we don’t even get diary entries from Zhou Wei. He drives away from Yu Hong at the end of the movie without a word but with, we presume, extreme regret (though his face doesn’t show it). Who knows why?

Earlier, hanging out in Berlin because that is what the director did after he got out of school, separated now from Yu Hong, his true love, Zhou Wei sits next to a young Polish woman. The two are gazing out at a Berlin
wasteland. One presumes, on the evidence of the movie so far, that they are casually intimate, perhaps lovers.

“What is Warsaw like?” Zhou Wei says.

Pause for some gazing and brow-wrinkling by the girl.

“It’s ok,” she says.

Mutual space-gazing.

“And Beijing?” she says back.

Gazing in tandem. I like it that the man from China and the woman from Poland are conversing quietly in German. Xiaodong Guo continues to speaks in a too-cool quiet voice.

“It’s ok,” he says.

I figured that that was going to be it for the scene but after another bit of gazing, she asks him if he has a girlfriend. He says that he does. We feel the painful significance of this terse reply. Where is she? the girl asks. Somber piano notes.

“Very far away,” he says in German with a Beijing accent.

“In China?”

“Perhaps.”

“Where are we right now?” the girl asks. Zhou Wei exhales cigarette smoke. She says, “In Berlin?”

What she means by this, I have no idea. The first time I watched the scene I rolled my eyes. By the fifth time I was liking it. At least they were saying something to each other, even if it didn’t make any sense.

The director wanted to make an organic movie that grew, as if alive, and that involved the actors. What are the implications of this for the movie’s story? Is “organic” code here for “no plot,” or “no narrative,” or
“juryrigged narrative arc”? The makers of Manda Bala, which I just reviewed, went on a five-year hunt for a story with limited success. Ye Lou didn’t take that long, unless you count the fact that he’s been thinking about this film since his graduation from film school in 1989. His struggle is evident, though, in the same way that Jason Kohn’s was in Manda Bala – nurturing a hope that something will crop up. A failure of ability or imagination or no failure, but simply the constrictions on storytelling imposed by the original vision. The suicide in Summer Palace (wordless), and its wordless aftermath (serious staring off), and the abortion (wordless), and Yu Hong getting hit by a car, and some of the sex, and most of the rest of the staring-off-into-space in this film could have been eliminated, to the film’s benefit, by replacing it all with a little sharp dialog. Having said that, the movie never dragged for me; the two hours and twenty minutes it ran felt like less.

“I don’t want a construction, with a clear beginning, middle, and end,” says the director. In his opinion, the story would naturally end with the events in Tiananmen Square in ’89, which occur halfway through, but he must
show the consequences of Chinese economic and political development with respect to the students during the ten years that follow. He wants his film to live and it appears that in his view, forcing it into the straightjacket of a story would kill it. “One of the challenges in the narrative is that the climax of the story is actually in the middle of the film and not at the end. But it wasn’t possible for the story to end there. That moment had to be in the middle of the film.” I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m oblivious to
metaphor in film. To the extent that the lives of the students in the decade after Tiananmen stand in for the economic and political developments in the country, the film doesn’t work for me. The director says that it’s a
melodrama, not a political statement; some commentators think that Western viewers will take the movie as a melodrama while Chinese viewers will react to the representation of China ten years ago. I got the melodrama and not so much the mood of that country in the 90s.

Regardless of my issues about dialog and narrative, I have nothing but respect for Ye Lou as a maker of movies. He made Weekend Lover in 1995 and then Suzhou River without permission, in 2002. Suzhou River won prizes and was praised as “exhibiting the most eloquent and
effortless command of the post-Wong Kar-wai pop idiom yet.” The Chinese government then put him out of business for two years. Ye Lou takes his movies seriously. After making Purple Butterfly in 2003, he did Summer Palace and was hit with another suspension by the government in 2006, for five years this time, because he entered the movie at Cannes
without permission. A sacrifice like that requires us to take second and third looks at his filmmaking philosophy. As does the praise for Summer Palace from the likes of A.O. Scott and David Denby.

“I’m just a director. I’m not a politician. I don’t want to get into boring politics in my films. Many Chinese directors practice self-censorship because of the tight controls. But I think this is fatal. Directors must be free. So I say to everyone when we are working, ‘Let’s forget censorship.’ That’s why there are always so many troubles after the film. But while I am shooting, I am very happy… In my opinion, in its current condition, we still have a lot of problems. First and foremost, Chinese cinema still isn’t free, either in terms of creativity, management, or regulations. If you can’t express your opinions freely, you can’t accurately judge the value of other people’s words. We need to be able to express what we really think before we can judge the form or soundness of another expression.” Summer Palace was withdrawn by the producers at Cannes after the Chinese government’s reaction to its release.

The movie had more film-making resources available to it than most Chinese films. Scenes were shot in six different cities, through four seasons, with rain, wind, and summer heat. (Do Asian movies do rain best? It can come down in buckets. Rashomon – now that was rain.) To make this romance about the youth of his generation, Ye Lou returned to the same dorm rooms he had lived in at university. If I returned to the dorm rooms that I lived in at Occidental and Tufts and dressed them to match the time that I was there, and then filmed moments of political, cultural, and physical awakening in them that matched my own, I expect that the results would resonate powerfully with me. Wow. But probably not with anybody else. Would this cloud my judgment around the dramatic and esthetic issues that arise while making a film? I know nothing about Beijing University and the Summer Palace next door to it, other than that the school’s interior looks a lot like a hard-used middle school I used to know in the toughest neighborhood in Detroit.

Similarly, after college the peregrinations of the students reflect the director’s own post-graduate travels. Zhou Wei hies off to Germany (Ye Lou met his wife in Berlin), Dong Dong to the U.S., the others to large cities in south China. We see the wall in Berlin coming down, Gorby, Hong Kong reverting to china. But there are two hundred cities in China with a population over one million and I can’t name three of them; the director’s
scheme of moving south city by city to indicate, metaphorically, the opening of Chinese economic policy in the 90s (it having always been easier to operate in China the farther south you went) was lost on me. Perhaps if these students had started in Detroit and headed down to St. Louis, and then Nashville, Texarkana, Santa Fe, and Venice Beach, and Italy instead of Germany, I might have registered more fully the zeitgeist presented in the movie. I was talking to a couple of young people the other day who are working in online data acquisition in Boston. They’ve been having the feeling lately, after a couple of years in private industry following a lifetime in school, of “This is it? This is what it means to finally be an adult?” Questions which anyone in this movie would understand. At university in Beijing in ’89, everything seemed possible. The world could be changed. In the second half of Summer Palace, the former students learn that this feeling was an illusion, something that Yu Hong realized much sooner.

The ’90s were a time of confusion for many twenty-somethings in China. The characters in Summer Palace spend a lot of time acting confused. I take the point. There is old China here but there is also Coca Cola in the big red bottle on the ferry, and this is the first time I recall seeing a mainland China gas station. It wasn’t self-serve. Just off the freeway. Had a mini-mart. The thing about character confusion is that, in the absence
of dialog, it can edge into boredom, aimlessness, and ennui, which can then translate into boredom for the viewer, especially if the viewer doesn’t knit. It occurred to me to wonder at one point about the difference, if any, between the boredom of childhood, the boredom of adolescence, that of young adults, of parents, of the middle-aged, of seniors, and of pet dogs. And whether the boredom engendered by a bad action flick is the same as or different than the boredom caused by an art movie with a bad case of the longeures. These are questions to pursue in a later review, when a truly boring movie comes along.

Mick LaSalle in his podcast the other day said that the key to an effective romantic sex scene (as opposed to the other types of sex scene) is to make sure that longing precedes it. This is a forte of current Chinese
filmmakers. They tell love stories, with all the difficulties so often attendant to them, and they seem to specialize in longing. Consider the movies I’ve mentioned above, or any movie by Wong Kar-Wai, or Ang Lee’s
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain. Summer Palace begins with an entry in Yu Hong’s diary:

“There is something that comes suddenly like a wind on a warm summer’s evening. It takes you off guard and leaves you without peace. It follows you like a shadow and it’s impossible to shake. I don’t know what it is, so I can only call it love.” Love blows in like a wind, and it’s an ill wind that blows no good. With fifteen minutes left in the movie, Zhou Wei learns that Yu Hong is married. The longing on his part takes a final, major step up.

You’ve got to look long and hard to find this kind of movie in the West. Romantic comedies, sexual-attraction movies, historical romances like The Age of Innocence from time to time, but modern longing and romance? Not so much. This is not to say that most of Yu Hong’s sexual activity is meant to be romantic. Instead, she says in her diary, “It’s only when we’re making love that you
realize that I’m gentle.” She teaches a number of men that she’s gentle by using this direct method. She has tried countless other ways but has chosen this special direct method as the most efficacious. I have a feeling
that the word “gentle” does not do justice to Yu Hong’s original conception, but one way or another, it’s all about her trying to be accepted as good and tender. Thinking back, I’m wondering if any of those women I knew
were just trying to show me that they were gentle. Question: Does longing for one person make sex scenes with someone else work? Yu Hong, for example, while longing for Zhou Wei, finds love with Wu Gang (at least until “material poverty can only lead to resentment”). Hmm, now that I think of it, most of the sex in the movie involves longing for someone absent.

Li Ti (the suicide) wouldn’t allow anyone to love her for fear of hurting them. “Love is like a wound in the heart. When it heals, love disappears. Or never existed.”

Ye Lou calls Summer Palace a melodrama, not a historical study. Most of its two-and-a-half hours is spent examining love, watching young men and women in love, trying to explain love.

Ye Lou: “Then love is like a leaf in the universe. if the universe were a tree, love would be a leaf on the tree. And we can glimpse at the shape of the universe by looking at just one leaf. So I can just depict the love. Once I’ve protrayed the love, I’ve portrayed the universe.”

Well, if I see an elm leaf, I can’t tell you what the trunk of the tree looks like. Does Ye Lou succeed in explaining love, or are we simply peppered with notions?

“Why was it that nothing he had said to me or done to me could prevent my heart from going out to him,” Yu Hongs says. I never spotted Zhou Wei actually saying or doing anything in particular to her, so I take the
question to actually be a statement. The director has said that love is uncontrollable, that is goes beyond events, that it can’t be restrained, that we can’t demand anything of it. We can’t expect it to bring happiness, or marriage, or a long and happy life together. He says that emotional torment takes time, a lot of time, to resolve. For Ye Hong and Zhou Wei to come back together and stay together, the director says, would have taken them another decade of longing and would have taken him another hour of screen time. Now I don’t feel so bad that they didn’t get back together.

So, a movie about love. What do I take away from it? If you’re in love and you have sex repeatedly, it doesn’t lead to boredom, as in real life, but to unhappy longing for your absent partner. Or vice versa. I hope the director has had better luck with love than his characters in Summer Place, because, in this movie, not to lower the tenor of the review, if love strikes, you’re f**ked.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

*** This is mostly not about the heart, but that other place ***

Directed by and starring Asia Argento.

A mother (prostitute, substance-abuser, stripper, so forth) regains custody of her 7-year-old son, wrenching him from the arms of his loving foster parents. (If I were Knoxville, Tenn., I’d protest the representation of Child Protective Services in this movie.) Road trip ensues, with predictable results: boy sleeps in bathtub; boy doesn’t eat nourishing meals; boy does drugs; boy sees mom on the pot; on the couch in undignified poses; doing it in bed with various johns; boy is molested; made to dress in girl’s clothing and then re-molested; runs away; is brought back; sees low-budget dream visions, as Argento appears to be carrying some heavy Mediterranean Catholic baggage; interacts with name actors in bit parts; shows some acting chops; so forth. Amy Sidaris was born to play this mom in an over-the-top, campy, tasteless indie. “The Heart is Deceitful” could have been that movie – almost is, in fact, though not on purpose. But here we’re stuck with Argento instead of Sidaris

From the first shot of Argento I’m asking myself, is he supposed to be the boy’s mother for real and he’s going to do the whole movie in drag, or is he the boy’s transgendered father, or what? Too much lipstick, ridiculous fifties John Waters outfits, male-style fluffy armpits, shaved shanks, vascular hands. My gender speculations last through the whole movie because even after it becomes clear that Asia is going to go all the way as a woman, there are lots of scenes where lowlife guys tell him how beautiful he is and then show him that they mean it, the guy-on-guy action adding texture to the film.

When Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti and Jeremy Sisto (Rachel Griffiths’ crazy younger brother in Six Feet Under) show up in a flick like this, are they just doing somebody a favor or do they need a little work, or what? Sisto gets to rage and shout for 30 seconds, but then the meth lab blows up. Please tell me that they used a stunt double in burnt-flesh makeup to do the part where he stumbles out of the wreckage, smoldering, and stands in the road with his arms up a la Platoon and then drops to his knees and then keels over onto his face on the pavement. Ouch. Needing a little work is one thing, but dude, this is debasing. (Do meth labs in movies ever not blow up?)

Warning: We are teased with interior shots of a totally tricked-out, pimped-up 18-wheeler and Asia might have saved the movie right there by pausing the narrative and taking us all on a detailed tour of the rig. But no. Probably saving it for the sequel.

Checking my notes for the moments where I laughed out loud: guy holding cowboy hat over parts before whipping boy unmercifully; gratutious thumb-sucking by mother and son; red rubber crows; West Virginia House of the Lord; Asia Argento, Rome-born scriptwriter, saying “I’ll have another, I reckon”; John Robinson’s accent; scrubbing “down there” with a big scrub brush; huge pile of potatoes to be peeled; the market that in a later scene becomes a hospital.

Things to like: Tennessee locations; a decent rain scene; great tattoos all around; Ornella Muti.

After watching the movie, I checked IMDB and discovered to my amazement that Asia Argento is actually a woman.

Regarding the title, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” (Jeremiah 17:9) – better would have been Lamentations 2:11, “Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people; because the children and the sucklings swoon in the streets of the city.”

Watch it drunk.

The Invention of Lying (2009). I liked it. What does that prove?

I was on Ricky Gervais’ wavelength from frame one to fadeout of this film. I laughed when I was meant to laugh, I teared up when cued by the score. I sat imagining a movie starring Jennifer Garner and Hilary Swank playing sisters, but that’s just a jaw thing. I enjoyed the movie.

When it was over, it occurred to me to wonder whether there was any connection between my enjoyment of it and its artistic merit, if any. Does liking something make it art? Of course not. So is artistic merit 100% orthogonal to enjoyment? Or can there be some relative connection? If, for example, I like a movie but 99 others don’t, does that lessen the possibility that cinematic art has been created? What if all 100 of us like it? I mean, the director sets out, in many cases, to make something we’ll like; if he succeeds, doesn’t art play a part?

I suppose that questions like these reflect aspects of the larger “What is art?” question. I remember nothing from my art-history and aesthetics courses. A visit to Wikipedia would probably provide me with lots of answers, but I’d rather just think about it for a couple of minutes and then move on.

Because it does bother me a little that I could watch, laugh, cry, enjoy, knowing that my reactions may have nothing to do, probably have nothing to do, absolutely have nothing to do (which is it?) with the artishness of the thing. Doesn’t seem right.

I mean, could I love a movie that is absolutely devoid of artistic merit of any kind?

Later: ok, after a lot of thought on the matter, I have concluded that if I like a movie, it automatically has artistic merit, even if I watched it in an impaired state or at a time of severe mental disequilibrium. This would include Norbit and The Love Guru. If I don’t like a movie, I allow that it might still contain some artistic merit. This would include Metropolis and Sunrise. As I said to Roger Ebert the other night while explaining how all this works, if you like a movie and I don’t, then artistic merit is not automatically conferred upon it. Who knows what weird stuff you’re liable to like? But now if you can explain to me why a movie that I don’t like has artistic merit, and I buy your explanation, no matter how wrong-headed and tinfoil-hatted it may be, then that’s ok, unless I change my mind later and decide that your explanation is actually rubbish. I feel a lot better having cleared this up for myself.

You ask, what if I (me, not you) love a movie but decide in my heart and mind that it is trash, or at least trashy? Doesn’t matter. In that case it has artistic merit that I can’t see right off the bat, or I wouldn’t have loved it in the first place.

What if I have a love/hate thing going with some movie? That means artistic merit. Probably even more than I would ever be able to know.

Finally, if a movie has twelve tons of artistic merit but I’d hate it if I watched it, then you go watch it and report back. You’ll probably love it.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

21 questions I asked myself during this movie:

1. Who’s going to get shot? Every man in the movie is wearing a gun. There are no bad guys, no violence, no threats of violence. Sure, they’re down there in lawless Peru, but nowhere do guns figure in the action. Yet it’s inconceivable that they’ll get through the movie without somebody shooting somebody. A: Somebody got shot.

2. Say, this being a ’30s movie, will the characters in it begin a lot of sentences with “Say”? A: Say, yes!

3. Why do I like black-and-white movies? I remember thinking, during, for example, Dead Man, and Manhattan, and this movie, how glad I was that they weren’t in color. Color would have diminished them. But I don’t watch color movies wishing that they were in black-and-white. What gives? A: I don’t know, but I do know that cigarette smoke is much cooler, and much more dramatic, in black-and-white.

4. How wrong can Hawks go with the one black guy he puts in the movie? A: Very wrong. This being 1939, Charles R. Moore must have drifted over from Gone With the Wind, where he was playing Butterfly McQueen’s brother.

5. A plane full of nitro and a flock of condors below – what to do? A: Drop the nitro on them. “That ought to move ’em!”

6. That boat coming into port – familiar? A: I just watched King Kong. Those ’30s movies were great with the boats in the harbor mist.

7. How have line readings changed since the ’30s? Turning on English subtitles calls attention to line readings and one current vogue has the actor pausing before ending a sentence. Think Michael Emerson in Lost: “You’re going to have to kill me… John.” A: Next ’30s movie, I’ll pay attention to this.

8. Kid Dabb says, “I’ve been doing this 22 years.” Is that a big deal? A: Not when you’re my age.

9. You know somebody is going to get killed. Can you guess who? A: I couldn’t. It had nothing to do with the guns.

10. McPherson lands a plane on a short runway that ends at a cliff. Why is this familiar to me? A: Similar to landing in Los Alamos on a DC3. Except that the runway in Los Alamos is not on Barranca Mesa, but one mesa over from there (the movie is set in Barranca).

11. Can it be that for once a crashed plane on fire won’t blow up? A: Wow. It’s not blowing up. It’s just burning, not bl… Oops, there it goes.

12. Does Jean Arthur have twice the normal number of teeth? A: I need to go back, pause the movie, and count them.

13. Who wrote this? I wondered, because of the bananas in the Andes. Peru joined the banana market only recently. I’m thinking that the writer assumed that any country south of Mexico is a banana republic. But wait, the NYT reviewer back in 1939 thought that the movie was set in Equador, which does export bananas. Peru or Equador, which is it? A: Howard Hawks himself wrote the story. The Corvallis-Benton County Public Library has a copy of “Plane From Barranca.” Maybe I should call up there, and ask the librarian to take the book off the shelf and read the first few pages of it to me, to see if Hawks specifies a country.

14. Is Dimitri Tiomkin going to drive me crazy again, like he did in The Fall of the Roman Empire? A: No. His score is absolutely unobtrusive.

15. Does Grant say “Judy, Judy, Judy…”? A: No.

16. The movie was filmed in Hollywood but what about those tropical airplane sequences (not with the obvious little model, but the other ones)? A: Don’t know how they were done, but the picture was nominated for the first-ever Special Effects Oscar. Didn’t win it, and neither did GWTW or The Wizard of Oz. The Rains Came won it; now I want to see those rains; must have been really something.

17. Pilot wears a white shirt and tie, leather jacket, and snap-brim fedora – cool or not cool? A: Hayworth went for it. Whereas Cary Grant’s Panama was just plain silly.

18. Jean Arthur or Rita Hayworth? Arthur is the romantic lead and Cary Grant tells her that she and Hayworth, his former girlfriend or ex, I forget which, are very much alike. Perhaps so, but there are a couple of big differences, which are obvious from the start. A: I’ll take Arthur. Maybe Grant could handle Hayworth, but I couldn’t.

19. Is Arthur quite a bit shorter than Grant, or not? A: She = 5′ 3″ He = 6′ 1.5″ The difference is only apparent every so often. Richard Barthelmess, on the other hand, looked shorter than Arthur and he = 5′ 8″.

20. Kid and Bat, the deadly adversaries – are they going to end up in a deadly situation that recapitulates their antagonistic backstory? A: Three guesses, and the first two don’t count (that expression was fresh in the ’30s; now, 23,800,000 Google hits.) A line in the movie that I was surprised to hear: “I’ve always preferred a bath to a shower.” Somehow I don’t picture a lot of showers in the ’30s.

21. Are these guys all supposed to be angels, because they’re pilots flying dangerous missions? Is that the message of the movie, encapsulated in its title? A: Yes. They are manly men, by God, and Howard Hawks wants you to know it.

Doubt: a Parable (2008)

*** COMPLETE AND THROUGHGOING SPOILERS ***

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t begin a review with an adverb. Ordinarily, I would watch a movie, share my thoughts, and walk on. In the case of Doubt, however, I missed the movie in the theater and now, weeks later, I’m still waiting for the DVD. The rips I’ve downloaded from the internets aren’t of any use. Why did AXXO pass on Doubt while ripping Drillbit Taylor? It is not given to me to know. [Much later: it’s all over the web now.]

In the meantime, I read John Patrick Shanley’s Miramax screenplay for the film version of Doubt.  Having watched a trailer before reading the script, I did have La Streep and PSH acting the roles in my head, but acting them my way, perhaps not theirs. The script seemed a little thin to me, for a play that won the drama Pulitzer and a Tony in 2005.

What I know about the drama Pulitzer:

1. They can’t just give it to Angels in America every year, over and over.
2. Seemingly thin scripts can in fact hide greatness, q.v., Our Town.
3. Roxanne Pulitzer posed for Playboy; I liked Paloma Picasso better. Such was the cultural training of my youth.
7. It took four years for Doubt to catch up with Proof.
8. Shaley received the prize but Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne knocking heads might have won it for him.
5. “Doubt” shares its honor with, among others, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” In the same way, Mike Tyson shares his former title with, among others, Joe Lewis, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali.
4. The prize isn’t awarded every year. Looking for a book idea? Write one explaining why the award was withheld in the years 1919, 1942, 1944, 1947, 1951, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1986, 1997, and 2006.*

* Of course, in my conception, the book would be as catty as possible. Politics, rumors, scandalous rumors, and rumors that are god-damned lies welcomed.

The drama-prize candidate is selected each year by a jury of five, one academic and four critics, based upon their reading of the script, or so I have always understood it. The Pulitzer Committee must then approve the jury’s choice. In 1963, the Committee declined to approve Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because of the play’s sex and cussing. In 1986, the Committee overruled the jury’s choice of the CIVIL warS, which as far as I know has never been performed in full (your homework: find out why). From these two examples, we can infer that the Pulitzer Committee’s overrulings are generally wrongheaded. The year after Doubt, no Pulitzer was awarded. Ongoing controversy over these awards led to the creation of The New York Drama Critics’ Circle, which, as it happens, also awarded Doubt the prize in 2006, and also did not award an American prize the following year. 2006 is taken by many as a lackluster year, but I’ve also heard more than one playgoer complain that if it isn’t a New York production with Big Names in it, it won’t be picked and may not even be considered. 27 plays were considered in ’06 and of the three finalists chosen from these, none received a majority of votes from the 17 committee members. So maybe your no-prize book will turn out to be a bust, due to a surfeit of no-prize plays over the years; but don’t let mere facts stop you, not in the weedy garden of the arts.

The drama jury members who picked Doubt in 2005: Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune—chair), Fran Dorn (University of Texas—Austin), Robert Hurwitt (San Francisco Chronicle), Charles Isherwood (New York Times), and Wendy Wasserstein (playwright). I wrote Phillips, Dorn, Hurwitt, and Isherwood, asking them an assortment of questions about their choice. (Wasserstein died of cancer in 2006.)

Shanley added “a Parable” to the play’s title, “Doubt, a Parable,” after its introduction. My first thought was that once he had let his play cool a bit after baking, he too felt that it was thin (or short on filling under the crust, to continue the baking metaphor), and everybody knows that a parable can skimp on characterization and plot in the service of loftier goals. Just a thought. A parable is “a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters.” Do we need a parable Pulitzer? Puts me in mind of that famously short-lived category, the haiku Pulitzer. Jonathon Livingston Seagull for fable Pulitzer! 38 weeks on the NTY Best Seller list and still in print! But I digress.

What do I mean by “thin”? Print out the script and read the climatic scene, pages 81 to 94. OK, wait. Let me back up and summarize the plot, in case you haven’t been out of your cave since the weather turned cold. The Bronx. 1964. Catholic School. Not like Sacred Heart, where my kids went. Old School. The NBs still wear their habits. But Vatican II has happened. Some younger priests are leaning new-school; the school principal, Sister Aloyisius (Aloyisius, the patron saint of students) is old school. Father Flynn is the friendly young chaplain. He is or is not molesting the only African-American (male) student in the school, the population of which is otherwise exclusively Irish/Italian. Come to think of it, though the years have passed, Sacred Heart did recently give the boot to its own chaplain, who looked like the popular graphic version of Jesus Christ and acted a bit too much like him as well.

Sister A gets on Father F’s case. Shanley: “I was very interested in having a powerful character who was certain she was right chasing down a course of action that was going to do a lot of harm if she was wrong and investigating what it was to live in a world that was a clash between certainty and ambiguity.” Sister Aloyisius knows that Father Flynn has abused the boy, though she has no proof. Shanley: “Oh, I do not profess to know the end of the play. The end of the play takes place after the play is over, when you go out and have a drink and you have a fight with your wife about what happened.” (Schwarzenegger to his wife in Raw Deal: “You should not drink and bake.”) The author has said a lot more than this, in numerous interviews.

Shanley has set himself the task here of walking the line between hints of Flynn’s guilt and hints of his innocence, so that we the audience might lean one way or the other but cannot ever know the truth, because the truth isn’t included in this, Shanley’s creation – a creation that he ends with several ambiguous flourishes. Get it? It’s a whirligig. It goes round and round and it’s fun to watch for a while and then it stops where it started and you go do something else. It’s a gizmo. It’s a construction, and the key problems in it and Shanley’s solutions to those problems are to be found in the pages of the script, and they are mechanical. The Rubik’s Cube Pulitzer.

I also took strong exception on first reading to pages 65 through 78 – that is, to the scene in which Sister A meets with the boy’s mother and in which the mother, hearing that her son is most probably being buggered by his priest, accepts the fact as she keeps her eyes on the prize, a good high school for the boy upon his graduation from St. Nicholas. Shanley the Irishman writes a black family into his play. Limns the family: physically abusive, dangerous father not to be reasoned with or disobeyed; hard-working, saintly but morally primitive mother; bent, wine-drinking son. If Shanley had been black, writing the boy and his mom as Irish, would we then instead have here a drunken, violent, bog-trotting dad; religious, potato-cooking mom with a straw broom in her hand and a sheepy look in her eyes; boy ready to break your knee with a stick? And how does an actress come to deserve an Oscar nomination for 13 pages of work in a film? Parable Oscar. (Well, the part did win Adriane Lenox a Tony.) Reality check: This is it? The best drama 2005 had to offer? Is culture zero-sum? If so, where went the talent that would allow a total equal to that of Tennessee Williams? YouTube?

Whoa! Dude! Why the hate? Vitriol! Is it a Hitler speech I’m readin? Are ye turnin on yer own kind then, ladee? Buck up, boyo. Go pull yer Finnegan’s Wake back out of the firegrate. Sober up. You’re worse than himself this way.

Maybe so, but Pineapple Express had nine times the plot that Doubt does.

Ye could use a little less Pineapple Express yerself, at that, at that. Write JMJ at the top of every page of this review, with a fountain pen. What said the jury, boyo?

Answering my questions about script vs staging, Michael Phillips’ response included:  “I’ve happily done jury duty for the Pulitzers four different times, and I must say, it stunned me to realize how the various jurors approached the commitment differently. One made it a point never, ever to read the scripts–for him, if he couldn’t see it on stage, in New York, in time for the voting, it wasn’t eligible. (Ridiculous. A New Yorker, needless to say.) Others believed differently. And yet the overseers, the members of the Pulitzer board to whom the individual juries report to, are the ones making the final decision, and there’s a pretty clear pattern of awards (in two out of three cases) going to plays currently or recently on view in New York. Such was the case with “Doubt.” But I have to say, that year, nothing else came close.”

Unlike me with my script, Charles Isherwood picked up some big ideas in Doubt as he sat in the playgoing audience, ideas conjured into being by the story and its dialog, ideas more profound than most that he had encountered in that theater seat through many a previous year, ideas, Isherwood said, hinted at by that “a Parable” in the title, ideas about taking refuge in certainty when reality is too complicated. Or, as I like to think of it, Bush vs Obama. Isherwood took Sister A’s final moment quite seriously. He also detected no irony in the play. From this I deduce that Cherry Jones and Bri­an F. O’Byrne battled to a draw in the performance that he attended.

Fran Dorn told me that she went strictly by the script. Some of the other things she said put the idea of writing a book about Pulitzer politics into my head.

Robert Hurwitt loved the play in its original staging, but when he saw it again in a larger theater, it lost some of its depth for him. Is this an argument against the script on the page, or for it, or neither? Don’t stage a close argument between four individuals on a stage at the 50-yard line of Brillo Coliseum?

So I went back and read the play again. 94 pages. 90 minutes on the boards with no intermission. The movie runs 104 minutes. This time I picked up a sweet spirit present in the thing. Nobody gets hurt here. No violence. No evil or despicable characters. What was eating me when I read Doubt the first time? Shanley is writing from the heart. He dedicated the play to the Sisters of Charity and in particular to his first-grade teacher, Sister Margaret McEntee, who was the model for the young nun in the movie and who acted as a consultant on the film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins used the Sisters’ school, the College of Mount Saint Vincent, and St. Anthony in the Bronx, to stand in for the play’s St. Nicholas. “I’ve met many nuns as a result of writing this play,” says Shanley. “And my first grade teacher, Sister James, who is still alive and still teaching, was my guest for the opening night, and she’s just a doll and incredibly intelligent, and one of many invisible women out there living a life of service to others and they deserve to have our acknowledgement and our thanks.” Nun love.

However, a pure heart in the writer does not guarantee the strength of ten in the script, even if the writer is aiming higher than the construction of a gizmo. Also, let’s stamp out the use of “purposefully” to mean “purposely.” And, to maintain perspective, let’s remember that Shanley in his career also wrote the screenplay for Crichton’s Congo. My daughter came back from that one and said only, “Heads roll.”

The sweetness-of-spirit thing did remind me of Moonstruck (1987), for which Shanley won a screenplay Oscar. I watched Moonstruck again last night and, for me, it holds up, but for the fact that we now know where Cher was heading when she made the movie, her arc over the following 20 years, so that her Oscar performance then loses some of its magic now, even though at the time she  really was young, instead of just trying to look that way. Moonstruck. Shanley writing Italian. What is it with this guy? A couple of minor twists in the movie, but again, simple. No irony. Straight down the rails. I’m thinking that with the Oscars and Tony and Pulitzer, Shanley is blessed with the luck of the Irish. Moonstruck’s screenplay beat out “Au Revoir les Enfants.” Is that luck, or the work of Satan paying for a purchased soul? Perhaps the seeming simplicity of Moonstruck and Doubt is a product or an artifact of that lack of irony in both works, irony often passing for moral depth and complexity these days.

Doubt begins with Father Flynn speaking to the congregation: “What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. I want to say to you: Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.” And this applies to the movie how? I don’t notice any comity between doubters in the script. Sister A, of course, is not one of the community of doubters, being consistently certain, although she does provide an antithetical doubter’s bookend to Father F’s opening remarks in the last sentence of the play. Perhaps, as Shanley says somewhere, the principal object of the play is to demonstrate that doubt allows for growth and change while premature certainty leads only to a dead end, with his parable directed not at the church but at those who insist on absolutes in society at large. And this applies to the movie how? What growth and change as a consequence of doubt is he referring to? Ours? Doesn’t doubt vis a vis Father F’s culpability lead to the possibility not of growth but of continued sodomy? Isn’t Shanley’s argument in favor of doubt here, against right-wing Bushian certainty, rather like sending Linus over to argue with Rush Limbaugh?. There is a legitimate dialectic at play, traditional Church observance vs Vatican II, but Shanley marries the former to spinsterhood and blind unreasoning faith, and the latter, even more unhappily, to pedophilia and pederasty gone wild. I must have been absent from the rectory the day that that particular memo was delivered.

Now hang on. Let’s think this through. We don’t have our arms around this thing yet. The play was written in 2005. From the comments of others and of Shanley himself, yes, I assume, as many do, that the play is political. In a simple interpretation, Sister A = George Bush and the Right Wing. This does not mean that PSH = the Left Wing. Rather, Father F represents, for example, the Iraq situation – that is, the problem with which certainty is confronted. So that if Sister A turns out to be correct, proof or no proof, the play must tend to validate her position. But Shanley is on record to the contrary, and structures his play so as to maintain an ambiguity in the situation from start to finish, with the denouement functioning as a criticism of Sister A and her certainty. That is, because of Sister A’s actions, Father F’s innocence or guilt is allowed to continue unresolved. If innocent, he then suffers from the unfair turmoil and suspicion that Sister A has created in his life; if guilty, he remains unchastised for his behavior and free to continue his misdeeds. Had Sister A been in doubt, even a little bit, she would have proceeded differently, more carefully, more politically, perhaps to a place of resolution. Or, more probably, given the mores of that day, her suspicions, delivered up the chain of command, would have been buried. With our present-day knowledge, we know that this did in fact happen over and over again.

Since Sister A was not burdened by doubt, however, we don’t need to contemplate the historical record. And the play is written to minimize the fact that none of us choose what we know and what we don’t know. Knowing is not volitional; we know some things; we don’t know other things; it’s automatic. Sister A knows this particular thing. In TV and media today, we’ve been trained to accept the fact that protagonists frequently know things without reason or proof. Characters spring into action even as their sergeant in the precinct or the mayor in his office at City Hall hectors and threatens them. They have precognitive talents, they see the future. “He’s lying,” they say, and they ain’t lying. But Shanley as writer and director can’t allow Sister A to prevail in our minds, and neither can the actors, because if so, then the fact that Father F slips away in the end becomes ironic, a miscarriage of justice, an indictment of priests and their sexual predations. And Sister A can easily prevail in this play. If La Streep convinces us, with our viewer’s training acting as a handicap in her favor, that she does know what she knows, or if Father F acts his part a little lightly on his feet, or if the boy (the boy in the movie – he isn’t seen in the play) appears, well, somewhat used (which we might expect, to justify his mother’s acceptance of the situation and fears for his safety at public school or with his father), the goose of the play is cooked. Doubt becomes a simple tale of moral corruption. On the other hand, if La Streep comes across as crazy or embittered and out for blood, the movie might strike us as similar to that scene that has become common in movies: someone, in this case PSH, steps off the curb, usually in the middle of a sentence, and is struck and carried offscreen to the right (or to the left in England) in the blink of a frame by a passing bus or taxi, which in this case would be La Streep.

We can think of the core of the play as a balance scale, with Shanley adding a bit of guilt to one pan and then a bit of innocence to the other, then more guilt, then more innocence, keeping the loads equal, with Amy Adams present onscreen to instantiate the instrument in her performance.  The strategy has something in common with the avoidance of the “reveal” in a romantic comedy, which if known by the protagonists would settle all issues prematurely. For this reader, Shanley made a major misstep in the script during this doling-out. There is a moment in the climatic argument when Sister A says “I’ll hound you” and Father F, rather than defending himself with specifics, plays the “You have no right to exceed your authority” card. To me this jumped off the page at me like a confession of guilt on the priest’s part. I’m looking forward to seeing how PSH sells me on that line. Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne, and director Doug Hughes, walked the line and managed to leave the issue of guilt in doubt; will La Streep and PSH, directed by Shanly himself, do so as well? Shanley has said that La Streep approached every argument in the movie as if it were a grudge match; La Streep demurs and may bear a grudge against Shanley for saying so. It seems to me that both actors and the director would need to work closely together on a strategy that leaves the audience situated in incertitude when the house lights come up.

Now the Doubt trailer has just reappeared on the front page of YouTube. I’ve watched it again. PSH doing the “You have no right” line is in it; it’s obvious, as I mentioned above, that playing Father F as effeminate would be deadly to the balance of the movie, but watching PSH erupt onscreen, doing that anger thing that he does, I realize that there are a lot of other ways to go wrong with this parable, and protesting too much might be one of them. The balance is all in the Sister A/Father F chemistry. For example, every so often, the spouse here gets some notion and confronts me with it and, in the case of my innocence, I defend myself, but often have the feeling that I’m defending myself so badly that an audience would never believe me, much less the spouse; but that might be one clever way to sell Father F’s innocence – the weak-and-unable-to-defend-myself ploy. Not PLH in this movie, though, not with his neck veins standing out as he verges on apoplexy. It’s some other actor who would work it by holding back the anger.

Another word on this doubt thing. In a film review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat: “The drama challenges us to take more seriously both the mysteries of the human personality and the uncertainty which lies at the core of our days and doings. Love and doubt converge in the practice of not knowing. And that is the true spiritual path. The world is drenched in mystery and no matter what we do, we can never cut through it all and grab hold of the answer, the one explanation. “X” factors abound, upsetting our rational conclusions. Best to just say “I don’t know” and take comfort in the reality that you are not alone.” Huh? The issue here is one of potential child abuse. Where does the “practice of not knowing” take us? We can never grab hold of the answer? What if somebody is grabbing hold of something that he oughtn’t? How many of us think, or feel, that uncertainty lies at the core of our days and doings? Most of my doings are based on the certainties of heavy traffic at 8 in the morning, movement in my lower regions before lunch, and all local teams missing the playoffs yet again this year. Love and doubt don’t converge in the practice of not knowing but in the practice of jealousy, stress, and boredom. On the other hand, asking a priest, at least in the 50s and early 60s, why this and why that got you the response that faith was the answer, faith was required, answers to the questions would not otherwise be forthcoming. Faith was the motive force leading to salvation. Doesn’t faith require doubt? Someone somewhere commented that faith and doubt are opposites, but if you know, you don’t need faith, do you? I’m asking you, which is why I’m using “you.” Asking you rhetorically; no need to write me. What is the opposite of doubt? Not-doubt. Certainty? Can you have faith in your certainty? Can you be certain about a fact but doubt that certainty, if not the fact? Can you feel certain but have no faith in your certainty, so that you believe what God wants you to believe, but without faith? Are questions like these connected to my absence of faith, or my doubt, or my certainty in my non-belief?

Sister A has an aphorism for every occasion. One of these that raises questions: “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.” Since Sister A is full of aphorisms, is this just a throwaway line to keep the young Sister in line? Or is Sister A saying that as a warrior for God, it is sometimes necessary to step away from the peace, enlightenment, and forgiveness of the Trinity and take up Satan’s weapons, anger and aggression, to put down the evildoers, as a Michael of the Faith? That is, the ends justify the means? Or what?

I was listening to Mick LaSalle (S.F. Chronicle’s lead reviewer) in a modest podcast rant about the evils of comparing book to movie; he was saying something to the effect that the movie in your head will always be better than the movie on the screen. Comparing the two in a review is a waste of time, though it felt clever to him while he was doing it. So forth. I suddenly wondered if reading a script and then going to its movie might have something in common with comparing book to movie, and I called up to ask him. In retrospect, reading a script is quite different from reading a book that is later made into a movie. I was surprised when LaSalle replied that he could only recall two times when he read a screenplay before seeing the movie. Especially considering that his wife is a playwright, I expected him to be a frequent reader of scripts and screen plays. The two that he named were Ninotchka and Pulp Fiction. He was familiar with Ninotchka simply because it had been written up with a shot-by-shot commentary frequently used in film classes, and when he saw the movie he found himself bemused as the figures onscreen actually moved. He read Pulp Fiction because he was to interview QT before seeing the movie. He knew the cast list but as he watched the movie, he discovered that he had assigned all the actors to the wrong parts as he read the screenplay; plus, scenes in the screenplay that seemed to him integral to the movie were cut in the theatrical release. In sum, nothing here to inform me about Doubt, as I was unlikely to confuse the parts assigned to La Streep and PSH as I read the script.

Hmm. I see that Doubt has returned to the metroplex. Must be back for Oscar season. Off I go to watch it! And not to lower the tenor of the discussion, but speaking of nuns and Amy Adams, see page 10 of the script:

INT. THE BEDROOM – DAWN
Sister James has bathed. She’s partially dressed but still
working on her bonnet. She puts on her rosary.

Satan tempts me with expectations even as I head for the cineplex.

Note that nobody says “You’re off to see Hamlet? Don’t bother. You’ve already ruined it by reading the script. You should have just let the actors bring the pages to life on your blank slate of a brainpan.” I’m treating Doubt as if it were a work that is worth something, not as if it were mere entertainment. My regret is that I’ll post this before listening to Shanley’s own commentary.

At this point, imagine Bach’s Mass No. 1 in F Major, BWV 233, while you wait. Ba ba dum! Dum deedle doo deedle dum, ba dum! Baaa ba dum!

OK, I’m back.

What a pleasure to just settle into my seat in an almost-empty brand-new theater and finally watch the damn movie. I enjoyed it from start to finish. Lots to look at and listen to. The movie felt a little earlier than ’64 to me, but not by much, and so what? Back in the day, 90% of Catholic school faculty and staff consisted of men and women in the orders; at present, 95% of the staff is lay, which means that they need to be paid. There used to be 12,000 Catholic schools, a large percentage of them catering to lower- and lower-middle-class populations. Now more and more of them are converting to charter, privitizing, going forward with the moral but not the financial support of the Church.

Hoffman and Streep and Adams and Davis put on an acting class; let me at that community stage – I want to act! Just in the beginning I noticed that I was focusing a bit on the unlikely babealiciousness of Adams, but my companion murmured to me that there were plenty of cute nuns back then, something that I must have forgotten. Then too, Adams laid on the simpiness pretty thick, but hell, she’s a beautiful young woman smothered in a habit; doesn’t that automatically signify that she’s a raving neurotic? It appears that Adams thought so. Hoffman was born three years after the year in which the play is set. Holy cow, he’s forty-one already. Makes a perfect priest. Streep was Streep being Streep and relishing it. Unless I was imagining it when I wrote the fact in my notes, her enjoyment tempered her angst, so I was not surprised when Viola Davis said in her Filmspotting #246 interview how much fun Streep had on set. Streep launched the part playing Sister Mary Stigmata but became increasingly human as the movie wore on. Davis I’ve seen in 14 movies; she sure got this one right; refer to the interview for her thoughts on preparing for the role. Shanley took a chance writing that scene but it worked for me; the crucial interchange happens fast in an overlapping back and forth between Streep and Davis, emotion dialled up all the way, the scene over too quick for us viewers to start asking questions.

I was wondering on the way over to the plex whether Streep and Hoffman are currently so overexposed for me that they wouldn’t be able to disappear into their parts no matter what they did. As Streep exchanged her Prada for a dowdy habit and her Cle de Peau Beaute for ELF,  could she submerge herself in the part enough to prevent me from watching Streep the actress assaying a new accent, recently arrived from Madison County, say, not some nun I don’t know? Well, in the event she remained Streep for me, Streep in person onscreen, apotheosis Streep, but lo also became Sister A as well. No holding back; make em laugh, make em cry, make em shake their heads and come back for more. I’ve watched so much Hoffman lately, the mind reels. He’s a national treasure, or am I just invoking Nicholas Cage when I say that? Watching Hoffman in his Roman collar, I realized that I never quite bought Crosby as Father O’Malley, much as I loved his movies. Shanley’s intent, when he set out to write Doubt, was to begin with the Nun and Priest stereotypes and then gradually real the real people beneath. Cherry Jones played sister A as physically weak but spiritually strong. No weakness in the 59-year-old Streep; I kept noticing how strong her wrists looked. Before watching the movie, I had the notion that as a play, Doubt begs for restraint, for cool. So that briefly, in the theater, i wondered what Streep was thinking? Shanley as director wouldn’t know any better, but Streep could have grabbed Hoffman by the nape and ordered him to throttle it back and then done the same herself, but no, this Sister A onscreen – who is supposed to be a woman who has spent her life devoted to denial, denial of love, denial of pleasure, denial of coughdrops – show me steel, show me ice, show me the cold vacuum of deep space, not Miss Muffet chewing the carpet. Shanley also takes the tether off Hoffman and we wind up with two overheated actors who know they’re delivering Pulitzer lines that, with enough heat, perhaps can be transmuted into Oscar gold (didn’t happen). You want certainty? Picture John Wayne as Sister A. Montgomery Clift as Father F – sure he’s crazy, tortured, sweating, bug-eyed, but innocent. Or Bing Crosby as Father F. Innocent. Audrey Hepburn or Katherine Hepburn as Sister A, vs der Bingle? How do you pick a winner in an argument between two screen gods?

But this movie wasn’t about that. This movie was about Shanley’s youth, the Bronx, the Sisters and Mothers and Fathers. This was about winter color, grays but somehow still warm with memory, warm wtih nostalgia and love and, by God, entertainment.

I also wondered whether opening out the play on the big screen would help it, harm it, or have no effect. Neighborhood, kids, weather, church and school. The play consists of four individuals talking to each other for an hour and a half. In the original production, the sets are small and close. No children are seen, so that there is a certain problem-play, abstract quality to the proceedings. In the film, the protagonists are dropped into a bustling Bronx school full of children. The abuse issue is no longer academic. A specific child’s welfare is at issue. The child does some mooning (not that kind) around the priest. This coming-to-life of the situation affects the artificial parableness of the play; without the movie’s constant reminder of children qua children, the proceedings onstage were better able to remain an exercise in thought.

Anyway, do we the audience know for sure, or think that we know for sure, after watching this film incarnation of Doubt, that Father F is or is not guilty? If so, the dynamics of the play are altered, displaced from the consequences of ambiguity in the face of certainty to questions of moral justice and the consequences of the priest’s behavior. The whistle-blower in the case, Sister A, is dismissed from consideration, regardless of the original baselessness of her accusations. When the script presents the wine and locker accusations and the priest’s verbal reactions, does Hoffman clothe those reactions in ambiguous anger or innocent surprise or one of a hundred other takes that swing the balance back from guilt? Yes, he does indeed. Clever writing by Shanley. Does the kid have to show gay for his mom’s stance to be effective? Well, he doesn’t and didn’t have to. Was there too much focus on suspect Father F traits like, for example, his thoughts and feelings re long fingernails? So that Doubt morphs into a movie in the genre that includes films like Shadow of a Doubt and The Interview – man seems innocent, isn’t? No. Someone complained to me that Father F was made to seem more guilty because when Sister A tells him that she saw him grab William London’s arm, he doesn’t defend himself. In the play he explains his action, because the action is never shown, but in the film we see him do it, to check the boy’s fingernails, and his silence on the matter later with Sister A seems to me to strengthen him, not weaken him. Shanley knew that the final confrontation between Sister A and Father F was his last chance (almost) to make things come out even. He used 31 camera setups. In the scene, we know that Mrs. Miller has told Sister A that her son is gay, but Father F does not know this. We also know that the boy probably confessed to Father F this fact, but Father F is constrained to keep the fact to himself. Forces swirling. Father F no longer able to step into Sister A’s office and sit casually in her chair as if he belonged there, as her natural superior.

I heard more than once from others that the movie ended with the issue of guilt/innocence resolved for them. Not for me. For me, Shanley and his cast did not fall off the tightrope. There was smoke, perhaps there was fire, perhaps not. My bet: Father F had misbehaved in the past but not in the current situation.

Last word re Sister A’s last words: “I have doubts! I have such doubts!” (1) I take this to be Shanley’s last-minute buckling to the pressures of public taste in drama in the modern sensibility – that is, the mandatory inclusion of irony as a base element in any concoction, which is what this play is. Or, (2)these last words are an author’s last-minute bright idea, a cry to the prize board, pleading for forgiveness for the thinness of the material but asking for the prize anyway. Or, (3) Shanley is telling us here that Sister A has been on a journey throughout this movie, a journey that has taken her from a desert of self-indulgent, selfish abnegation and selflessness of certainty to an uncomfortable paradise of doubt in the closer presence of God. A final message of hope. Shanley’s gift to the Sisters of his youth. Or, (4) Sister A has lied, blackmailed, and bullied, and this final wracking doubt is her punishment for her actions. Or, (5) perhaps this is the last bit of weight Shanley drops into the balance on the innocence side, in case you’re leaning toward Father F.’s guilt. In any case, Streep has caught some critical flak for not adumbrating this outburst, even in the smallest way. But I think that in fact she did, especially when she agreed with Father F. that she had sinned mightily in the past. That confession entered into the guilt/innocence calculus going forward. For these last words, did Shanley just refuse to put down the pen in time? Did Hannibal Lector apologize for his diet at the fadeout?

Am I crazy or is Doubt an old-fashioned feelgood movie?