Archive for the ‘Film Review’ Category

Willful Blindness, 2012


A film by James Higginson

Unlike all other art forms invented out of modern technology, film has remained stubbornly entrenched in its pre-industrial heritage. Even though the technology of “moving images” allowed for a wide range of artistic experimentation, early “movies” re-presented the theatrical experience and borrowed from painting gestures, postures and poses, the vocabulary of visual communication. Trained on the familiar, movie audiences expect to have their belief suspended and that suspension rests upon the ability of directors and actors to create a new reality. Given that making movies is a business, those demands have shaped the history of film, preventing the kind of growth and development that has changed other art forms.  The “movies” have been mired in the late nineteenth century and it is now the beginning of the twentieth first century and still mainstream film stays the same.  If film is to “progress” or change, any experimentation must take place outside of the commercial world and any advance if film as an art form rests in the hands of artists.

Crafted by Berlin-based photographer and filmmaker, James Higginson, Willful Blindness is part of the sub-culture of “art films” where the “consumer” does not exist and where the art audience wants change and innovation. Higginson comes out of a history of experimental art films in the tradition of Bruce Connor’s A Movie and Andy Warhol’s Empire. Connor started with the idea that a strip of film has rows of cels or square pictorial units, each of which is filled with or contains a single image.  But Connor challenged the assumption that these strips had to flow seamlessly from one segment to another, and he took the concept of montage or editing and spliced together found footage to subvert and disrupt the needs of movie audiences to have a “story.” Warhol, conversely, eschewed editing altogether in Empire by reducing “filming” to its most basic essence—pointing the camera at an object—in this case the Empire State Building—and turning the camera on. For eight hours the camera hummed, the sun traversed the skies, weather arrived and departed and the building remained unmoved. Like Connor, Warhol was also playing with attention span and the process of looking, seeing and watching, in at attempt to reinvent or de-invent “film.” This de-invention, or deconstruction of film, means to strip the moving image of its overgrowths of “movie” conventions.

Like these artistic pioneers, Higginson starts with the premise that the medium of recording movement has its own inherent (but changing) properties and that the “movies” have ignored the possibilities of what can be done with camera and film. One of the tropes of “going to the movies” is the dream.  When entering the theater, we leave the real world of sunlight behind and enter into a cave where flickering images are projected onto a screen. As if frozen in a private dream, we sit and gaze raptly, as if watching our own dream.  Afterwards, we wake up, walk out of the dark, and reemerge into the ordinary, which announces itself as a place of light. An award winning film, Willful Blindness moves back and forth between dream and reality, between the present and the past, by borrowing the semiotics of light and dark—that which is well-lit is the outside of the Real and that which is dark is the inside of Desire.

A canny and aware filmmaker, James Higginson deploys his film tools with the mastery of a mature artist. While Connor and Warhol used black and white film in their classic experiments, Higginson works with color, but his color pays homage to the black and white history of movie making with a bleached and grayed out tones intercut with slashes of jarring red color.  These are the main contrivances that Higginson wields—the unparalleled ability of the camera to stare, the post filming intervention of montage—cutting and pasting—and the historical role of color.  In using color as mood and atmosphere, Higginson evokes other film artists, who somehow ventured into the mainstream, using color artistically, such as Todd Haynes in his homage film, Far From Heaven (2002).

To concentrate on the plot of Willful Blindness is to miss the point of this film. The story and the action is really a conceptual play with the properties of film.  Higginson plays with two elements of filmmaking, both often overlooked: the fact that one looks at a movie and conversely the fact that the film conceals as much as it reveals. Willful Blindness begins with an act of enforced watching, deliberately suggestive of the determined ennui of Empire except that something is actually happening or unfolding in successive waves. The viewer is brought to earth, forced the pavement as the camera drags along the ground. Someone—male or female—is crawling, putting one hand in front of another, dragging an unseen body along behind. All we see are the hands, reaching outward for purchase.

Here, Higginson takes up one of the single most overlooked characteristics of the movies—the ellipses—or that, which is left out and not seen. Usually the ellipse is used to move the story forward: rather than showing the character walking from one place to another, the director will end the scene and will begin a new one. The significance of this lack or empty space in the action is that the viewer mentally fills in this gap. When the viewer sees the grasping reaching hands, s/he enters empathetically into the action, even inhabiting the invisible body of the actor who is an obvious victim of some terrible event.  Higginson takes the notion of “economy” in art to extremes, showing a difficult and complex set of actions, dragging oneself along a city sidewalk, with only the barest of suggestions.

Conveying extreme effort, Higginson works against the forward movement, however, labored and difficult, not by looping the film but by seeming to overlap the progress: one step forward, two steps back.  The great effort of the crawler is repeatedly impeded but not prevented, adding layers of frustration on the viewer. Higginson makes the watcher watch. There is no way to intervene or help.  He makes the viewer suffer along with the wounded protagonist; the film deliberately drags, mimicking the painful scraping of the hands on the rough pavement. The   irritation at this prolonged scene counters the way in which mainstream movies quickly “establish” the first act for the impatient audience.

Playing with the conventions of slow motion and the undeniable advance of a strip of film through the sprocket, Higginson considers the very concept of “pace” in a movie. In contrast to the slow sequence, are the recurring brisk and rapid actions of a woman walking in bright red very high heels—pace personified. Once again we are on the ground, once again we cannot see the body, only the feet and those shoes, moving fast with purpose.  And these red shoes—baleful and malevolent, intimating violence—are the mirror images of the victim’s slow hurt hands.  These are perpetrator shoes, quickening the processional pace of the film, reassuring the viewer that a story has a beginning, middle, and end that it moves forward and comes to a terminus.  The engine of the film is the determined red heels, but where are we going?

Early on, Higginson warns the viewer: he will give color and he will take it away.  Color, for this filmmaker, conveys both life and death. Full of vibrancy, the red heels are full of life but they are as red as blood and predict and forebode. The hands are drained of color and the environment is emptied of life as if by a vampire. Willful Blindness is a dark and black film without daylight, without bright color. Often the viewer is blind in that it is difficult to see, thwarting the very purpose of the movies, watching and looking. The movie lights turn on only when the red heels appear. But Higginson not only keeps the viewer in the dark, so to speak, but also refuses to bow to the main demand of movie making—explain to the viewer what is going on.  He keeps us willfully blind and pertinaciously mires us in the dark as if to trap us in a nightmare.

The red heels are the parentheses of Willful Blindness the film’s alpha and omega—its beginning and the end.  They belong to a traveling woman. At its heart, Willful Blindness is a canonical road movie in which the main character travels. This journey into darkness is punctuated with a series of incidents, which occur along the way, perhaps connected or perhaps not. In between, Higginson investigates the most compelling aspect of the camera vision: voyeurism. Movie-making essentially splits between what society allows us to see, what is deemed desirable, and what society thinks we should be sheltered from, that which is forbidden. People come to the movies to see the forbidden—sex and violence, which always hover on the edge of pornography and unbridled bloodthirstiness. We enter into an imaginative place to give way to our most unsocial instincts, which are also our most basic and that, therefore, must be the most rigorously suppressed.

Higginson serves up hints of pornography and unsavory sex, but his real theme, resonating throughout his photographic work, is violence. Violence, in Willful Blindness, is private, closed and secretive, taking place in some sort of twisted domestic setting. Willful Blindness is an excruciating journey into extremity, filling the viewer with dread. Along the journey, Higginson picks up and discards the old dead languages of traditional film—the German Expressionist style, the film noir of the crime story, pornography and gratuitous violence, as if searching for the right way to detonate an act of retribution. His reanimation of these old allegories is where the practical practice of editing or cutting unwanted or unnecessary scenes—becomes an act of slashing and hacking, and the film reaches its denouement.

The editing style, which deservedly won a prize, the cropping of fragments, the slicing into slivers of film, mimics Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in Psycho with its eighty odd cuts.  Higginson has moved beyond the literal metaphors of the master and dwells in the conceptual: he cuts the film—rapidly and repeatedly, implying and indicating terrible acts of violence.  Suddenly color bleeds into the film, drenching it. For the viewer, dragged hand over hand into a nightmare composed of a web of image that is both beautiful and dreadful, this explosion of horror is a cathartic relief. We leave the cave of sublimated Desire, our need for revenge satiated.

Higginson was not content with deconstructing the givens of filmmaking; he rethought the role of sound as well. Sound, in a visual medium, is by definition an invasion of an alien other. In fact when “talkies” took the place of silent movies, the purists objected. The technology of sound—talking, ambient noise and music—totally changed the way in which movies functioned. The broad gestures inherited from painting disappeared and pantomime was replaced by dialogue. Interestingly, early silent movies were much more oriented towards action and activity compared to the films of the thirties and forties which relied much more on actors talking to each other to move the plot along. But dialogue along with the sound effects are “natural,” lifelike, an enhancement of the “reality effect.”  But music is inherently unnatural.

It is with the music and the editing of sound that the viewer, who has been intensely interacting with the fabula, becomes most aware of Higginson as the orchestrator of the syuzhet. Suddenly, one is jolted into realizing that, contrary to mainstream film; there is no dialogue, no voice over, not even subtitles.  But not no sound. Once again the artist has pushed filmmaking back in time, to an era when the images had to stand on their own, but the music stood in for human speech. All silent films were, in fact, not “silent” but were designed to have music accompany them. If the theater venue could afford it, an entire orchestra would do the accompaniment, if, if the theater were in a small town, then a simple piano player pounding out the film score would suffice.

Although the sound design is by Higginson himself, working under the alias “Roberto Pelligrini,” with his assistant Maik Wolf, the music for Willful Blindness is a totally original score by Roland Hackl. Hackl is part of the European tradition of contemporary film music, for like his colleagues and predecessors, Daft Punk and Tangerine Dream, he comes out of the techno music scene. Once on the fringes of the music scene, techno is now mainstream but is far more flexible in format and sound than established forms of popular music, such as rock ‘n’ roll and blues.  Techno has no history, it comes from machines that are also without history; it is electronically generated artificial sounds that are mimickeries of a new kind of “music.” Hackl has skillfully explored the in-between-ness of techno/music and its split personality and its greatly expanded abilities to evoke emotions within the audience and to intervene with the diegesis. In the hands of Hackl, the absence of the naturalizing effects of dialogue becomes an asset to be exploited and music re-takes its traditional original role in the film as a stand-alone experience, quick-marching the viewer to the determined denouement.

At the end is a reentry into the light of reality and the woman in the red heels strides purposefully towards her appointed task—something must be buried. Bizarrely, the world ignores all this activity, suggesting that, contrary to what we believed, we are still trapped in a bad dream. James Higginson takes the concept of film to its final limits—that it is not the camera that is the projector, it is us, our minds, reaching out of the depths of the repressed impulses who streams our darkest fears onto a helpless blank white screen. The screen is the world itself, the passive recipient of what the ancient Greeks feared most—the beast within all of us.  We sleep, we eat, we mate and we kill, there is nothing else.


Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

The Big Fix (2012)


The Big Fix opens with the poignant observation that Louisiana is not a state; it is a colony of Big Oil. For over a century, Louisiana, an oil-rich territory, has been raped and pillaged and looted for its natural resources. Nothing is safe from the avarice of multinational corporations, not the land, which is a pincushion for oil derricks, not the sea, which is peppered with oil rigs.

Those natural resources include the Gulf of Mexico, which supports a huge fishing “industry”—a dangerous oxymoron if there ever was one. Louisiana provides one third of the nation’s seafood and, after the oil companies, fishing is the second source of employment in the state/colony.  The third employer is the tourist industry.  Fishing and tourism depend upon good weather and upon a natural environment that is pristine and respected. But the oil industry cares nothing about nature or human beings.  The coexistence of fishing and tourism and oil depends entirely upon luck…and the competency of the oil companies and their commitment to public safety…which is to say, the citizens of Louisiana are gambling.

When that luck runs out, nature ultimately loses.  Overfishing can force fisher folk to pull up their nets; tourists can carelessly toss their trash and deface scenic beauty, but oil is inherently poisonous and dangerous. Only oil can destroy nature, probably permanently. On April 20, 2010, ironically on Earth Day, an oil rig, rented by the oil giant BP from Transocean, exploded, killing eleven workers. The resulting oil gush of oil, unchecked for three months, destroyed the fishing community, polluted the Gulf of Mexico, and contaminated the local seafood. But not to worry. The pirates and parasites, also known as the corporate colonizers, were also the masters of the Big Fix, also known as the Big Payoff.

Everyone’s palm was greased, everyone grabbed at the cash, everyone took the silence money and everyone agreed to be paid off. The punch line of this sad tale of a Lost Colony is that the colonists really do not want to be fixed.  The inhabitants of the oil territory demand more drilling and the fisher folk are willing to distribute poisoned fish and shrimp to unsuspecting Americans.

Profit for the corporate colonizers and financial survival for the colonists trumps any moral or ethical concern for innocent fish, fowl, dolphins, wildlife and people.  The Big Fix was result was a complete lack of values of any kind on the part of all the participants and the protests of the righteous victims of the oil spill were drowned out and the world moved on. By any standards what happened in the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day was an American Tragedy.

A tragedy is like a crisis, and in the case of the BP oil spill, crisis and tragedy came together.  Like a crisis, a tragedy is a long time in the making and lies in wait and eventually all the parts come together in a sort of cosmic inevitability. Like a junkie on heroin, for a hundred years, Louisiana has been dependent upon oil. Only Huey Long understood that the oil companies are also dependent upon the state and demanded that they pay the residents for the resources that bring so much profit.  The Big Fix pointed out that Huey Long was assassinated in 1935. To this day this murder has never been solved. His death ended whatever resistance could be mustered against Big Oil and the state simply swooned into the arms of the oil companies.

In return for the privilege of raping Louisiana and sucking it dry of oil, these corporations offered blue-collar jobs to the workers while paying off the state government and the elected politicians to leave them alone and the federal government to not regulate them. The people of Louisiana passively accepted their oppressed condition and that generational passivity is part of their tragedy. But the explosion on April 20th awakened them to their own situation and the citizens of the Gulf demanded some kind of compensation.

Filmmakers, Rebecca and Josh Tickell, enter this theater of venality and victimization with the innocent aplomb of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: they are small players in a larger drama; they are witnesses who, unlike Shakespeare’s’ bit players, live to tell their tale but the story literally makes them sick.  As the creators of Fuel, 2008, this husband-and-wife documentary team were the likely candidates who could expose the duplicity of government and corporations. As efforts on the part of federal and state government progressed throughout the summer to cover-up the exposed incompetence and irresponsibility of an oil company, BP (British Petroleum or Beyond Petroleum, as they like to be called), the Tickells went to Louisiana to find the truth. They headed South, leaving Los Angeles behind, and brought Peter Fonda with them. (Fonda, along with Tim Robbins was one of the executive producers.) After making some public feel-good appearances and doing his well-meaning star turn, Fonda went home and the real work of the Tickells could begin. The Big Fix, which will appear in theaters in limited release in June of 2012, is the result of their quest to document the aftermath.

Like fellow documentarian, Michael Moore, the Tickells are actors in their own documentary and they rest their case on the investigative reports of the Obama administration of the Gulf Oil Spill. Indeed most of the facts presented in the film are in the public domain and are well known. What is remarkable about the events of the summer of 2010 is that the whole world was watching—-literally viewing the oil pumping out of a ruptured underground pipe—and yet there was a determined attempt on the part of the oil company to silence the effected community and to impose a black out on its ongoing attempts at a highly toxic cleanup. We, of the television audience, watched as the community was paid off with a “settlement” that remains to this day an abstract sum of money out of reach of the victims.  Once you become a claimant, you become a “defendant” and must prove that you deserve it.  Once it offers a settlement, the oil company is back in command. The movie pointed out that BP has paid only one claim.

One would expect that the oil company would want the public to watch their penance and their amends to the Gulf but, after a few months of being televised, BP began to work at night under the cover of darkness. The Tickells could only challenge the BP guards but they could not take their cameras into the beaches being cleaned. Careful to film only on public land, they could document the daytime activities of BP. Under the quiet lens of the camera, the corporation deliberately plowed the oil and tar balls under the white sand in full view of the people sunbathing and swimming in the Gulf. The Tickells reported that the swimmers were coming out of the Gulf waves covered in a itchy rash.  Some of the inhabitants suffered from boils and welts and open sores from the toxins used to “absorb” the oil.

BP is not so much cleaning up the oil spill as hiding it. The term “cleanup” is misleading for BP is not so much “cleaning” the water and land of the leaked oil as relocating the oil.  The relocation is possible only if the oil is reconstituted into heavy nodules, which sink to the bottom of the ocean.  Once so dispersed, the measurable amount of oil spilled is reduced and so too is the amount of restitution paid by BP.

The problem is not just the fact that BP is cheating, not just that huge lakes of submerged oil wallow at the bottom of the Gulf, not just that the poisonous brew could very well kill the body of water, it is also that the agent used to change the oil is extremely toxic.  The cute name of the so-called anti-toxin is “Corexit,” an invention of Exxon and the company developed it to “correct” the spill of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. According to experts who testify in the film, Corexit mixed with oil produces an artificial element that is far more toxic than the original oil. Given that the federal government is in the clutches of the oil companies, the mere fact that the EPA (funded by the oil companies) politely protested over the use of Corexit was nothing short of amazing.  BP of course responded to the admonishment by “correcting” at night, spewing the white fumes from silent crop duster airplanes to squelch the oil plumes.

The toxins hover invisibly in the air, float lazily in the water, and seep into the seafood like a slow poison. Although the Tickells went to no more risk than that experienced by those who lived adjacent to the impact zone of the spill, they ultimately suffered physically from their investigation of the cover-up.  The permanent damage to Rebecca Tickell’s health, after only one day’s exposure to the toxicity of the BP “cleanup,”can be the measure of the extent of the sufferings of the past two years and the future pain  for the Gulf residents. Ultimately, like the many victims of the greed of a large and well-protected corporation, the couple must take care of themselves. But other victims are simply helpless. Dolphins gave expelled stillborn babies, which drifted in the poisoned waters and washed up on the shores. The herons and cranes and pelicans may look clean and fresh, but probe inside the fish and shrimp and the oil they have ingested lies black against the white flesh.

The fish with the dark insides are a metaphor for the dark heart of corruption that stains the colonized state.  The state university climbed in bed with the corporation whose activities bordered on the criminal and accepted millions of dollars in “donations.” In return all the local scientists had to do was to spout the company line.  The cleanup, Corexit, would eat up the oil in the proper biological fashion.  The fish that we are asked to eat is safe because it passes the “smell test.”  The state hired a herd of “sniffers” who apparently have various levels of smell aptitude to smell fish.  Of course smelling the outside of a shrimp tells the sniffer nothing of the interior state of the shrimp. Watching a chirpy, cheerful woman in a bright patriotic red suit describing the process, I thought that she was mocking the very idea but later I learned that she was dead serious; she was selling the efficacy of “the smell test.

For BP, the “big fix” for a tragedy was a public relations campaign that compromised all those involved. During a photo op, Obama and Sasha swam in the Gulf to advertise the cleanliness of the Louisiana beaches.  What the public did not know was that the father and daughter were swimming in a protected and unaffected bay.

In the end the Tickells looked like Diogenes with his lamp searching for an honest man.  The university was compromised; its experts are not to be believed. The governments, both state and federal, wanted to appease BP as urgently as the oil company needed to turn off the spigot. The so-called “little people” rushed to take jobs and seize the bribes offered by BP and allowed their silence to be purchased for a very few dollars.  The innocent could protest and complain but there was no public will to help them gain justice. As in the aftermath of Katrina, the attention of the public moved on.

Although the Big Spill was two years ago, the use social media and its various technologies has exploded and the Tickells are the kind of savvy filmmakers who rely on the public to publicize social problems. Today society communicates through an informal citizens network operating through Facebook and Twitter and e-mail and Internet postings (such as this review).  This is how change can take place. Social change is moved because of the public’s perception of a fundamental injustice.  The American public has little stake in the corporate economy and views big businesses with suspicion. Increasingly disenfranchised by corporate “contributions” to elections, sophisticated enough to know that politicians are purchased and  laws are bought and paid for, the public trusts blogs more than ballots, public activists more than the government.


The Big Fix reveals how the system works, or to put it in another way, The Big Fix lays out in an easy to understand package how the fix worked.  The Tickells explain to us, the citizens of this nation, what happened to Louisiana while we all watched and wondered but did nothing.

The couple appeared at a small local showing at the Otis College of Art and Design on April 19 and engaged in a genial question and answer session with the students and faculty.  They urged the audience to not buy seafood because we will not be correctly told whether or not it comes from the Gulf. They told us to simply not buy the products of Big Oil: use public transportation, ride bikes, car pool, walk—all alien concepts in Los Angeles.  But the purpose of the Tickells in coming to Otis was to remind the students that, as artists of the new generation, they are potentially very powerful actors.  Bad outcomes can be changed only by the power of social media putting public pressure upon politicians. Although the Tickells did not mention it, the case of Trayvon Martin comes to mind as an example of what happens when the public will demand justice.

Time ran out and the hour was late and I did not get a chance to ask the couple my question. As I sat in the college auditorium as part of a small select group watching The Big Fix and viewed the parade of “fixers” go by, nodding their talking heads and lying, I wondered what kind of people are these?  University professors betraying public trust, experts misleading the people, bland-faced corporate executives, double-talking politicians—who are they? Are they genuinely delusional? Are they sociopaths?  Josh Tickell recounted how he had a “lucid dream” of showing Obama all the facts of the Big Fix and stated that the President was stunned that he did not know the truth until Tickell told him what had really happened. Rebecca Tickell stated that the representatives of BP were nice people with families.  I though that this charming and optimistic couple doth protest too much.  I wondered if these excellent and talented people were not projecting their own inherently moral qualities upon those who do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. No these corporate people cannot be “nice.” Cheating innocent victims, refusing to pay those whom you wrong—-the perpetrators may smile but they are not ethical or honorable and they have no right to look their children in the eye.

The night I saw the film, I also read an article by Richard Cohen in The Washington Post.  Written on April 16, the column was discussing a current political candidate for high office who has a career in business.  Noting this candidate’s uncanny ability to lie at will, Cohen explained, “…what his career has given him is the businessman’s concept of self — that what he does is not who he is.” This is what is called compartmentalization. You can do foul deeds, you can lie and cheat and steal as the oil companies do; you can lie with impunity and go home to your children and to your mate and sleep well at night.  It is not you who has done the illegal and immoral things; it is the corporation.  You are only following orders.

How banal.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Game Change, 2012



HBO Spring 2012

Political cynicism is rarely rebuked.  Seasoned operatives play the game to win by fair means or foul and apparently never consider the long-term consequences.  When their glory days are long over, some, like Lee Atwater and Robert McNamara, recant their tactics and their lies. Game Change, an HBO special movie based on the well-received book of the same name, is a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of a half-baked political strategy that revealed the “dark side” of populism.  Four long years have come and gone since the memorable and frightening 2008 Republican primary which revealed the fecklessness of a Presidential candidate, John McCain, who selected as a running mate, Sarah Palin, a neophyte governor utterly unfit for public office.

Sadly, the movie is slack and soggy, as half-baked as the plan to make Sarah Palin into viable vice-presidential material.  This is a compelling true story that we all saw unfold in real time.  Those of us wedded to the notion that a politician should be at least competent felt alarm and consternation at the rise of Sarah Palin.  It would be hard to say which was more frightening—her supreme ignorance or her supreme raw political talents. The sheer terror of the thought of Sarah Palin as second in line to the Presidency, the shudder that ran across the body politic, is strangely subdued in this account of one of the most unforgivable insults handed to the American people.  And yet, after watching this sympathetic account of a badly handled candidate, I came away with a new respect and empathy for Sarah Palin.

The real villains of the piece are Steve Schmidt and John McCain who needed a “game change” to confront and counteract the charisma of Barack Obama.  Gently played by an amiable Ed Harris, John McCain is given an Easy Pass in this account of his catastrophic campaign.  The John McCain of today is an angry man, still smarting over his humiliation at the hands of Barack Obama.   Defeat has not sat well with him and he has shown none of the graciousness of a vanquished John Kerry or Jimmy Carter.  Ed Harris makes John McCain seem like a doting and absent-minded grandfather, rather than a candidate wounded from the campaign against George Bush and determined to find redemption.  There is no trace of his trade-mark hot temper, impulsiveness, and volatility.

That said, the movie clearly shows McCain as being reckless and irresponsible. On one hand, he casually used Sarah Palin to boost his percentage points; on the other hand, he abandoned her to his campaign staff, who came to hate her.  Chief hater was Steve Schmidt, well played by Woody Harrelson, who really steals the movie.  Schmidt rather liked Palin in the beginning but when the governor did not respond well to his wishes, he learned to fear and loathe his recalcitrant candidate.  Unfortunately, Julianne Moore’s performance is thin and bloodless.  Yes, she imitated Sarah Palin very well, but it is as if the imitation overwhelmed Moore’s ability to act and give power to what history suggests were a very real rage at what was being done to her.  In the face of Harrelson’s Emmy worth performance, Moore almost recedes and we are never given a convincing emotional connection to how Sarah Palin broke away from her captors and went “rogue.”

The film obscures the fact that Sarah Palin had actively campaigned for a larger role in Republican politics, courting susceptible neo-conservatives such as Bill Kristol, who pushed John McCain to select her as a running mate.  Kristol seems to have had a crush on the beautiful governor of Alaska and played a partial and outsider role to the campaign that gave his voice a significant weight with McCain.   Doubtless, Palin also enchanted McCain who, in the beginning (in real life), was visibly besotted with her.  By not making the connection between Palin’s active ambition and the thwarting of her fantasy of political stardom, her rise and rebirth after weeks of humiliation at the hands of the press has no foundation.

Game Change asserts that Palin was located through Google—an odd elision of known facts that makes the campaign look even more lacking in judgment that it was in real life. The criteria were few: the vice president must be a woman, to  counter the Republican deficit with women, and she must be pro-choice, to inspire the listless Republican base.  Given that America is behind Afghanistan in the percentage of women we have in public office, finding a Republican woman with the kind of political experience routinely granted to men was a difficult task.  Most Republican women active in politics at that time were pro-choice, narrowing the field significantly, almost guaranteeing a Sarah Palin-type—lightly educated and living in an isolated area outside the mainstream.

All Sarah Palin had to offer was ambition, the skills of a performance artist, and a taste for public adoration.  Sadly, from the very start, the McCain campaign mishandled a very viable politician who proved to be a game changer—if not in the way anyone had imagined.  What Schmidt utterly failed to see, even after her acceptance speech at the Republican politician, was that Palin could not and should not be prepped into sophisticated knowledge of world affairs. It was the intention of the McCain people that their boss should have a running “mate,” or a political wife who would “support” his positions.  Apparently assuming that a woman would be less ambitious than a man selected as vice president, the team did not consider the fact that the nation would view her the same way as a male candidate: as the proverbial “heartbeat” away from the Presidency.

Palin understood not only her expected role but also saw her nomination as a path to her own political future, and it is this ambition that Game Change failed to grapple with.  Julianne Moore is never allowed to fully show the driving ambition that led to the eventual success of Palin and is forced to spend most of the movie in a state of shamed failure.  True, Palin, as would anyone funning for office, needed to be “prepped.”  However, her needs went beyond an updating or a boning up on obscure aspects of foreign policy: Palin had to be taught or educated at a high school or college level, but the film shows that she was prepared for press interviews with condescension bordering on contempt.  In the process, the army of managers, consumed by concerns with her weaknesses, failed to see Sarah Palin herself and neglected to determine her strengths. The campaign proceeded to remake her in their own image.

The result was an artificial creation, an attempt to turn an ordinary Alaskan wife and mother who also happened to be a governor into a well informed chicly dressed talking head stuffed with undigested factoids.  The problem was that political operatives were not trained as teachers and did not have a clue as to how to educate a human being.  No one can learn disparate bits of information given without an intellectual context.  In a reflection of No Child Left Behind, Schmidt and Wallace, tried to teach Sarah Palin for the test—interviews with the press.  When confronted with this well dressed, sleekly made up vision political acumen, the press reacted accordingly, asking Palin the kinds of questions any run of the mill politician familiar with Washington D. C. could answer.  What was seen, what we all experienced, live on television, was a person stricken by a panic attack when asked about the “Bush Doctrine”—-“In what respect, Charlie?” And her inability to think when asked about which newspapers she read—“All of them.”

Oddly, given the amount of time the film gave to the teaching of Sarah Palin, little time is given to the interviews, which were sheer agony to watch in real life.  Nothing is more painful that witnessing a complete failure to construct a coherent thought but there is almost nothing in Game Change of Palin’s mangled syntax, twisted by what must have been her sheer terror.  After the interview with Charlie Gibson, the campaign owed her an apology but instead the operatives blamed her and redoubled their efforts to cram facts down her throat as if she were a Strasbourg goose.  No wonder, the poor woman became catatonic and rebellious.

Perhaps because the people who worked for McCain had ulterior motives concerning their own futures in politics, McCain is absolved and Palin takes all the blame.  Nicole Wallace flatly refused to work with her (and ultimately to vote for her) after Palin bombed the Katie Couric interview, leaving the governor to the irritated mercies of Steve Schmidt. Lower placed operatives in the campaign clearly leaked their dissatisfaction with Palin to the press and undermined her during the campaign with the presumed effect of letting McCain off the hook and shifting the blame from themselves to an inexperienced candidate.  In hindsight, everyone claimed that 2008 was a “Democratic year,” and the the McCain candidacy was doomed, particularly in the turbulent wake of the Bush presidency.  Palin, then, was a “Hail Mary” attempt at a three-pointer.

If there is, as Palin claims today, a “false narrative” to Game Change it lies in the refusal to take responsibility on the part of the major players. Why did Schmidt and Wallace not see who and what they were dealing with—the real Sarah Palin? Was it unconscious sexism? Was it failure to recognize the capacities of a person so different from themselves? Was it their own blind loyalty to John McCain?  This blind spot, whatever it was, blurs the heart of this narrative and, in the end, the film rushed past the most significant part—how Sarah Palin, possibly encouraged by her husband Todd, shook off her handlers and found herself, her own voice and reached past the campaign to the voters. In the process, she eclipsed McCain.

To this day McCain remains circumspect about Palin’s rise to fame and glory.  After all, it was this very rise of Palin’s popularity that not only surely bruised his ego but also wrecked his candidacy by unsettling the balance of the campaign.  And herein lies one of the great “what ifs” of 2008.  What if Schmidt and Wallace had recognized the potential of Sarah Palin?  What if they had allowed her to use the interviews with the press to reach out to the voters who had felt ignored and talked down to—the voters who adored her?  What if the campaign had used Palin to reach the very groups they hired her to represent—conservative women and base voters? What if they had allowed her to be herself?  No doubt Palin would have stumbled and made mistakes, but with proper guidance, perhaps she could have learned how to be a populist candidate with the heart she obviously had.

Instead, at the end of the campaign, what we saw was an angry mishandled woman on the loose, seething with resentment over the “lamestream media,” those very television journalists who had revealed her deficiencies and held her ignorance up to public ridicule.  Although there the movie is far too lax in covering Palin’s self-redemption, the candidate struck out on her own and began to campaign her own way.  Now that she drew huge and rapturous crowds, the campaign seemed to be unable to “handle” or contain her energies.  According to Game Change, her populism disinterred the “dark,” racist, xenophobic side of American life.  The audience to the film must fill in blanks that should have been edifyingly filled, showing us only a John McCain losing control of the narrative, horrified at the sight of the ugly underbelly of America and overwhelmed on Election Day by the public alarm over what had been unleashed.

In another area of fuzziness, both in chronology and agency, Game Change appears to blame Palin for linking Obama to a “terrorist” and to an America-damning pastor.  But this kind of dirty guilt by association game had been part of the Republican playbook since Lee Atwater and remains fully operative today.  In the end of the film, McCain warns Palin to beware of the “extremists,” such as the Limbaughs, of the Republican party.  This brief scene appears too self-serving, too pat to be genuine, a much too obvious attempt to make McCain appear to be blameless for what Sarah Palin had supposedly revealed about the Republican “base,” no pun intended.  But blaming Sarah Palin is another Easy Pass for the part Republican master-minds played in devising the infamous divisive “Southern Strategy”—divide and conquer through racism.  Palin did nothing but take advantage of an already ready well-worn set of tactics and rode to glory on behalf of the “Real” America.

A year ago this month, Bill Kristol bemoaned the failure of Sarah Palin to take advantage of the (unearned) opportunity that was given to her.  Like many of Palin’s  former defenders and supporters, Kristol jumped ship after Game Change the book was published.  It seems that they were disappointed that Palin’s reach towards fame exceeded her desire to do the hard work of growing into a viable politician.  Instead of going back to being a governor of Alaska, gaining experience and preparing to take on the role of heir apparent in 2012, Palin compounded the impression she did not want to work by resigning half way through her term and becoming a television personality on a boring reality show.  Instead of growing her candidacy for President into an aura of inevitability, Palin became an inarticulate talking head on Fox News, an embittered mockery of her former self, using self-righteous religion as a cudgel against liberals.

Rising from the ruins of the failed McCain campaign, a year later Steve Schmidt gave an timely interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes and indicated that, although Palin “helped” more than “hurt” the campaign, he would not chose her again.  In clearing the ground just before Game Change was published, Schmidt sought redemption and exoneration for his part in what author John Heilemann termed an “irresponsible” action of foisting a “dangerous” candidate upon America.  Schmidt’s mea culpa worked and, thanks to an excellent book and to this television movie, Schmidt has cleansed himself and continues to do penance on MSNBC.

Game Change the movie benefited from additional interviews and from reading Palin’s book, Going Rogue, and the new perspectives from her book clearly added to the “empathy” angle, as the screenwriters stated.  One does feel sorry for Palin and it seem clear—book or no book, movie or no movie—that the McCain campaign let Sarah Palin down badly.  But Palin herself profited only monetarily, not politically, from those intense months.  One wonders…what if Sarah Palin had learned from her experience on the McCain campaign and surrounded herself with serious and sympathetic advisors?  She could have molded her very real strengths as a devoted wife and mother and shaped her image as a normal person called to a higher office.  She could have honed her formidable talents as a communicator.

But like a minor character in a Shakespearean tragedy—a Rosencrantz—Sarah Palin thrust herself to the fringes of history, a fleeting novelty, discredited by her own roiling resentment.  Too bad.  What if she had allowed herself to try to be better than she was, to learn?  Imagine the Republican primary today with Sarah Palin on the debate stage.  Her natural running mate: he whose name cannot be Googled. Now that would have been a real Game Change.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


Young Adult (2011)



 The “unreliable narrator” is a literary device, or concept if you will, that is rarely used.  The device is difficult to use effectively, because readers expect narrators to be reliable; they assume that the story being told is, at least, straightforward.  Grumpier readers of Agatha Christie mystery novels would complain that the dear lady would hide clues and suddenly solve the puzzle by producing the final inexplicable piece.  Readers felt cheated that Christie, who was often too clever by half, had not allowed them to participate in the solution.  On a much higher level on the literary scale was Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the narrator, a writer, obsessively wrote and rewrote a story from her childhood in a futile attempt to make it turn out right.  In McEwan’s deft hands, the tripartite telling could enrage some readers (my friend David) and intrigue others (me) who interpreted the unreliable narrator as the author/s’ way of saying that our lives are merely constructed fictions, rewritten by us.

What can one say about the unreliable narrator of Young Adult? My first thought was that the writer for this aggravating film was a man who did not comprehend women; but the writer is a female, Diablo Cody.  Cody wrote Juno, another film I truly disliked, but for other reasons.  In Young Adult, Cody pulled an Agatha Christie on the viewer, revealing, at the very end, a secret  that upended the entire premise of the plot. My next thought was that all the critics were, for some reason, mis-representing the story or mis-understanding the story or mis-telling the story or simply missing the story.  Cody bears a great deal of the responsibility for insisting that the leading character, played by Charlize Theron, is “unsympathetic” and spends “ninety minutes trying to steal another woman’s husband.”

In almost every film review (I have read most of them but not all), the reviewers repeat the standard line—-Mavis Gary is a horrible character, a former high school beauty queen, who returns to a hometown for which she feels nothing but contempt, intending to ruin the marriage of her former boyfriend. The impetus for this journey of (self)destruction appears to be a message from Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) that he and his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) have just had a baby girl.  From the very beginning of the movie, it is clear that Mavis is a deeply depressed angry alcoholic who can barely get dressed in the morning.  She lives a half-life as a ghost-writer of novels for young adult girls.  Pressed by her editor for the last book of the series, she diverts herself by going on a quest fueled by sheer meanness, to snatch her old boyfriend back after nearly twenty years at the very moment of the peak of his happiness.

How could the average movie-goer like such a character?  At every turn, we are lured into accepting the judgment of the town’s middle-aged women who remember her from high school—a “psycho bitch.”   Reviewers have made much of the odd pairing between the beautiful Theron and the lumpy Patton Oswalt.  But no one explores why the two, one a popular and beautiful girl and the other a misfit, find an emotional connection at a local bar in the dreaded Mercury, Minnesota.  “Matt Freehauf” has never left the small town, the place where he was beaten by high school jocks who thought he was gay.  He lives with his naïve sister and paints hybrid hero figures.  At first it is hard to tell who is more mentally ill: the man who never left the site of his torment and humiliation or the woman who came back to relive her glory days.  Something is broken within both souls of this non-couple.  The dysfunctional metaphor is very clumsily made with the gratuitous and literal crippling of Matt who walks with a cane.

But there are strange inconsistencies in the film that might—in the hands of a better writer—pass for clues.  There are inconsistencies and inexplicable actions on the part of the characters.  Why, one might ask, does “Buddy” agree to meet his former girlfriend at a local “restaurant” (I use quotation marks as a comment on the food on the menu) without bringing his wife along?  Why do Mavis’s parents (Jill Eikenberry and Richard Bekins) brush her aside when she reaches out for help by telling them that she thinks she is an alcoholic?  Why is she so alienated from these seemingly nice people?

At every turn, we are lead to blame Mavis—-she has discarded her parents like she discarded her home town—she has put on the red-light clothes: she is trying to wreck a home. But we should be asking other questions: why does “Buddy,” who, we are repeatedly told is a loving husband and father, keep putting himself in her path?  Why, given that Mavis has made her intentions to rekindle their relationship clear, did he then invite her to his child’s “naming ceremony?”  What kind of man would act in such as way—encourage an obviously troubled woman who is trying to seduce him? What is the significance of “Matt” telling Mavis that “down south” things don’t work very well since his beating?

This is where the unreliable narrator comes in.  The unreliable narrator appears to be doubled in this film: Mavis is writing her latest novel and the viewer follows the teenage story as a counterpoint for the actual plot of the movie. Diablo Cody puts Mavis in one humiliating situation after another, leading the viewer to believe that this woman is responsible for all the consequences that befall her.  The character is torn down not just by the writer but also by the audience who always hated the pretty and popular girl in high school.

We secretly dream of going to  our high school reunion and seeing the blond and bouncy head cheerleader as a gray haired hag.  The writer uses the worst instincts of the audience—blame the victim.  Everyone condemns Mavis and takes some sly satisfaction in enjoying the come-uppance of a former prom queen.  In one strange scene, Mavis asks Buddy’s wife, who works with special needs children, about a chart of expressions used for teaching her students.  Where, Mavis inquires, is the neutral expression that does not show emotion?  We are thus led to believe that she has no feelings.

But there is a scene in which Mavis has a public outburst and a long suppressed grief comes out suggesting that she dare not feel, that she numbs herself in order to not break in two.  Mavis carefully dresses in a very conservative fashion for the “naming ceremony.”   With his wife in another part of their home,  Buddy agrees to talk with Mavis alone and then, after leading her on for days, rejects her.  His wife later accidentally spills a drink on Mavis’s white blouse and Mavis blows up and calls her a “bitch.”

And, suddenly, out of the blue, comes a revelation that explains her depression, her self-destructive behavior and makes her a completely sympathetic character—-when she was twenty, Mavis was pregnant with “Buddy’s” child and lost the baby in a miscarriage.  The young couple had been planning marriage and was expecting to make a family when suddenly this sad event occurred.

Keep in mind that this truth comes out at the “naming ceremony” to which this nice husband has lured her.  Mavis reveals her story to the silent contempt of the invited guests. Buddy’s wife has no reaction to this news that he fathered another child.  The crowd, including her parents, blame Mavis.  Although no explanation is ever given for how Mavis got from the miscarriage in Mercury to a writing career in Minneapolis, it is clear that this woman has been suffering for almost two decades from melancholia, from the unresolved loss and grief of the end of youth and hope.

Now Buddy’s actions seem positively sadistic—to send his former girlfriend who lost his child a birth announcement is nothing short of viscous and cruel.  To invite her to one event after another, lead her on, to keep her on the hook is a reprehensible betrayal of his wife.  Mavis read Buddy quite well from a distance—he did indeed panic over the baby, he did indeed want to be liberated—-so he summoned her to free him.  Then he lost his nerve and we are left with the impression that when she needed him most, twenty years ago, he must have let her down.  This supposedly nice guy deliberately draws a lonely, damaged and vulnerable woman into an agonizing situation of a “naming ceremony” and blames her for breaking apart—we included you, he tells her, because it is clear that you are so sad and needy and depressed—-we all feel sorry for you—and now look at what a bad girl you are.

No wonder Mavis writes novels for young adults.  She is trying to rewrite her own life.  No wonder Mavis is an alcoholic, no wonder she is depressed, no wonder she is angry.  It is not that she hasn’t grown up; she became an adult out of sorrow…long ago.  It is Buddy who doesn’t want to grow up—-in the most hurtful way he can imagine, he calls out for his old love.  It is Buddy’s wife who escapes the baby—-she plays in a rock band.  But the film is unmoved by Mavis’s true story. We assumed that she was so unloving that she hated children, but we now know why she was so numb and unmoved by the child that Buddy forced her to confront.  Her announcement that the happy event at the “naming ceremony” could have been for her child passes without making a ripple, not in the town, not in the script, and the writer, the unreliable narrator, pulls back and moves on without pausing to consider what such a revelation might mean to her characters.

The real unsympathetic character is not Mavis but Buddy who is a passive aggressive good old by in a frumpy plaid shirt.  He is one of the nastiest perpetrators of a supposedly comedic film in a long time.  The viewer looks back on the earlier parts of the film—–Buddy and Mavis meet after many years and do not mention the shared sadness that parted them?  Mavis’s parents keep her old room in its teenage state?  The unreliable narrator leads the reader on, creating and building on false assumptions.  A good writer would have allowed the characters to make a feint or a move that would allow the reader to make the connection later.  Yes, poor Mavis does not work very well “down south” either.  A bad writer simply yanks a rabbit out of the hat and then throws it away—Mavis is haunted by an old wound—-so what?

Alone and abandoned again, Mavis ends her last Young Adult novel by killing off her character’s old boyfriend and his new girlfriend.  One of the narrators in this story within a story is perfectly honest and true and that narrator is Mavis.  Yes, the small town did not suit her, yes the girls were jealous of her, yes, she had talents that needed to be developed, and yes, the boyfriend got the ending he deserved.  The Young Adult series comes to a close when the protagonist finally graduates from high school and leaves home for good.

I wondered when Juno came out what kind of message a “successful” teen pregnancy sent to young women.  In real life such an event is a traumatic disruption.  Often the young woman is not supported by the father or by her family.  Usually, having a child throws a young girl’s life off course and there are grave consequences—education delayed or ended, career plans put on hold or given up, years of maturation denied by premature responsibility.  Juno was a fantasy that a teenage pregnancy is a blessed event enriching the lives of all involved.  Life simply isn’t like that.  A young woman is such a situation is faced with  terrible choices—-who will pay the price? Who will sacrifice?  In Young Adult, as in life, it is the woman who bears the consequences.  Buddy has clearly shrugged off his past while, at the same time, he has engaged in an act of unwarranted revenge towards a woman who has done him no harm.

Young Adult is even more deeply cynical and more deeply hurtful towards women than Juno.  The movie begins and ends blaming Mavis for the cruelty of her old boyfriend.  She is punished throughout the film and is not allowed even a moment of understanding or sympathy.  Man after man takes advantage of a helpless self-loathing that has forced her to disassociate herself from her own body.  I have written elsewhere of female film writers, Nancy Meyers is a prime offender, who create female protagonists only to tear them down and to put them in their rightful place.  Young Adult is another such film by a woman writer.

Young Adult is particularly cruel and nasty towards women. The current social wars going on against women in state after state, the political attempts to take rights away from women across the nation are based upon an unprecedented plan to control women’s behavior at the expense of their freedom.  Young Adult seems to reflect the cultural desire to blame women for what is an act between two people and to punish women for a natural human impulse.   The lack of support for “Mavis” is indicative of the lack of support for the aspirations and dreams of  young women who must struggle to take care of themselves in a world that is increasingly hostile to their hopes.

It is a shame that the film missed an opportunity to take a serious look at the damage done when women are blamed for falling in love with a boy and getting pregnant.  It is a shame that the film declined to examine what happens when women must carry the social burden of the consequences of being a young adult.  Imagine how the film could have developed if Mavis had called out Buddy and his behavior.  But this is a lazy and disingenuous film.  It is easier to blame the victim and move on.  Too bad.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Margin Call (2011)


Margin Call took my money, not once, but twice.  It is rare that a movie can separate me from cold hard cash and it is even rarer that I will pay to watch it again in a real movie theater, rather than a year later in the comfort of my own condo.  But Margin Call is that kind of a film—you need to see it twice for the details and the nuances of human behavior.  It’s that good.

As someone who donated hard earned tax dollars to the very bad people who live on Wall Street, I have followed the sad fate of my money with obsessive interest.   Every book that has been published on the debacle of 2008 is on my Kindle app.  Some of these books are very good, such as Michael Lewis’s Boomerang, and others are simply horribly written, such as Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail.  In contrast to the terrible truth of these books, Margin Call is a terrible fiction about terrible people who have done terrible things.

The historical background of Margin Call is too well known for the film to even mention.  As the director, J. C. Chandor, stated, the plot could have been placed at any point in time during the period leading up to the Crash of 2008. For years, experts and people with common sense knew that the Wall Street bubble would burst.  The smart ones, as Michael Lewis reported in The Big Short, betted on the crash and made money.  The protagonists of Margin Call are merely the first out of the door to screw their clients. The firm gets out of the very crooked game they are running on the suckers and runs off with enough money to make a profit out of the nefarious enterprise.

Like other financial enterprises, called “banks” or “investment firms” or “hedge funds,” the company imagined by Chandor, is a thinly veiled version of Merrill Lynch where his father once worked.  These “businesses” are simply casinos that are accidentally located on Wall Street and run, not by the official Mob, but by people with MBAs or others with number-based degrees from Ivy League schools, the “legal” mob, in other words.  Stocks and bonds are like casino chips or the little balls that rattle around the roulette wheel or cards flipped over by a dealer.  These abstract entities, call them what you will, have an equally abstract monetary value and they are deployed in a rigged game where the house always wins.  Except, as Margin Call makes clear, the Wall Street “business people” are not nearly as smart as the mob.

The “firm” at the center of Margin Call has no name or perhaps it is the firm that is dares not to speak its name, out of shame.  But shame is not present in this perverse universe.  Remorse, morality, ethics, introspection, self-awareness, honor, honesty—-all those homey virtues—hover around the edges of the characters in this film, but fail to materialize.  All live in fear of the outcome of situations that they themselves have created.  The viewer cannot muster much sympathy for these benighted beings, but the film reveals the ruthlessness of the finance business in the opening minutes that demonstrate the heartlessness and lack of “the social contract,” for lack of a better word, that rules Wall Street.

Margin Call opens with a mass firing.  An army of those in charge of severance—we saw the cutting ceremonies in George Clooney’s Up in the Air (2009)—files in, carrying bankers’ boxes and marching orders.  The reasons for the firing of large numbers of people are vague—“cutting back” and what have you—-and the selection is just as arbitrary.  The lesson is that there are winners and losers, just as there are in Las Vegas, but here on Wall Street, losing more personal.  In Vegas, you at least get a hotel room and Elvis impersonators; here you get severance pay and the right to leave the building with a box filled with your desk paraphernalia.  For those of us who work in the real world, it is not clear why anyone would work in such an environment.  The money may be good but what an awful way to make a living: watching computers that show nothing but graphs in nice colors…until the Cutting Crew marches in.

The survivors politely avert their eyes, not to spare the victims but to protect themselves against the inevitable—-whoever you are, you are next.  And that is what the rest of the movie is about: who’s next?

Margin Call has an excellent ensemble cast—astonishing, in fact, for a twenty-six year old first time director—and these pros resist the temptation to chew up the scenery.  These are a buttoned down macho bunch in coats and ties and the women are especially hard-bitten.  No emotions here but watch the excellent acting for the small tell tale signs of who will be sacrificed, who cannot survive and who will thrive and rise.  No feelings on display here but listen to the dialogue for the moment when someone gets thrown under the bus and someone moves to the head of the pack.  The young survivors of the first firing, Zachery Qunito (Peter Sullivan) and Penn Badgley (Seth Bergman), seem equal at first: they are both quite capable to making sense of the complicated equations bequeathed by the Risk Manager, Stanley Tucci (Eric Dale).  But, take note of “Seth’s” white socks and his overgrown out of control hair and then compare him to “Peter’s” perfectly waxed brows and guess who survives the next cut.

At every turn, Paul Bettany (Will Emerson) reveals that his days too are numbered. He is Kevin Spacey’s (Sam Rogers) assistant but he wastes his high salary on hookers and booze and he is past his shelf life, post forty and still holding, still running in place.  One more Cut and he will be gone.

“Sam” is a character that passes for “moral” in this world but he needs the money, because, he too, has wasted his salary.  “Sam” will do what his masters tell him.  It is no accident that Sam spends the film weeping over the death of his dog.  These characters are mere underlings who summon up their Overlords when “Eric Dale” is fired and leaves behind a time bomb of an investment scheme, rotten at the heart, on the verge of exploding.  And now it is every man (and woman) for him or herself.




Playing the part of Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers, the place where the Meltdown started in 2008, Jeremy Irons is “John Tuld” who oversees a meeting of the Board in the wee hours of the morning.  It is here that the real decisions are made.  The two executives who have apparently masterminded the now disastrous scheme are Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson) and Simon Baker (Jared Cohen).

On leave from The Daily Show, Aasif Mandvi (Ramesh Shah) runs the numbers and confirms that “Eric Dale,” who, having been summarily fired, is now understandably missing, is correct in his calculations.  The sky is falling.  But “Tuld” asks Peter Sullivan to explain the situation.  The ball is in his court and the young analyst—awed but poised and certain—rises to the occasion and makes it clear to Jeremy Irons that “the music has stopped.”  Paul Bettany and Penn Badgley are silent and have nothing of value to contribute to the meeting.  The viewer realizes that Quinto is now a rising star and that Badgley’s character will be fired, long before “Will Emerson” warns him that the axe is falling.

But bigger heads must roll.  When Irons turns to the culprits—Moore and Baker—he is not ascribing blame—-not yet—he is demanding solutions.  It is Moore who freezes and it is Baker who steps up and recommends a ruthless move—sell everything—that is also the only way of surviving.  Although Baker warned her that he was going to double-cross her, Demi Moore made the fatal mistake of believing that this man, known as the “snake,” would stand by her and take the blame with her.  The meeting is hardly open before Irons tells Moore that he will have to show her “head” to Wall Street: she will have to take the blame.  Why because she lacked the nerve to dump toxic stocks on her colleagues on the Street.

In contrast to Too Big to Fail (2011), which clumsily “explained” the Crash to the audience, Margin Call “explains” the financial crisis in dialogue that is casual and pops up here and there as characters carry on conversations.  The gullible public is named and blamed and the Wall Street bankers excuse themselves for their recognized but uncontrollable greed.  They are like addicts who won’t stop gobbling up ridiculous salaries for contributing nothing but misery to society until some higher power stops them.  There are no higher powers.  With all its failings, Too Big to Fail was very accurate in showing that the “Fed” bailout of Wall Street was really the New York Fed saving its cronies by stampeding Congress while the Bush Administration absented itself from the flim-flam job.

Margin Call, based on the experiences that Chandor’s father had working on Wall Street, ends without redemption.  “Eric Dale” is finally found and corralled only in order to sweeten his severance package to silence him.  He and “Sarah Robertson” end up in a quiet room together, chatting in their foxhole, waiting for their payoffs.

When the character played by Simon Baker came onscreen, in close up, there was a murmur of female appreciation throughout the theater; but, in contrast to his genial and whimsical character on The Mentalist or in Something New (2006), this man never cracks a smile or changes his expression. Gesticulation, wit, vocal gymnastics, imposition of personality—-all of that is the privilege of one man, the boss, Jeremy Irons, who rules through seer force of will.

In the end, the dirty deed is done and done quick.  Innocent people are screwed.  The nameless firm is now known on the Street as a ruthless player.  But it is doubtful that, in this world, the competitors will do anything other than copy the playbook.  Margin Call makes it clear that the only rule is that there are no rules.

The Arts Blogger

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

Mélancholia (2011)


Lars von Trier is our modern melancholy Dane. And yes, this film is a play within a play. The first play is the play on words.  The name of the movie is Mélancolia but the spelling makes it clear that the pronunciation is not “mel”—-as in Mel Gibson—oncholia, but is, because of the accent grave, French.  One says “mal” as in the French word “mal,” meaning “evil.”  The Derridian game become clear when “Justine,” played by Kristen Dunst, says, “We are alone.  The earth is evil.  No one will miss us.”  The actual French word is mélancolie, so von Trier has rammed two spellings—French and English—together to warn us of a mash-up among references and between planets.

Mélancolia begins with a plethora of art historical references.  The Dead Birds  of Ross Bleckner fall from the sky, the landscape is Marienbad crossed with Magritte, Dunst floats like Ophelia (another reference to another melancholy Dane) in a John Millais painting, then, in her wedding dress, she drags the strange apparatus seen in Un Chien Andalou behind her, and the leaves fall from the trees of Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.  Then we see Charlotte Gainsborough, carrying Cameron Spurr, her film son, through a hailstorm, and she sinks into the green grass as the hunters feet are buried in the snow. We are about to witness a work of art, not a work of reality.  What follows is an allegory of a metaphor of a mental state—the condition of melancholia.

Visual Reference to Un Chien Andalou

After hiding behind the sun (Hamlet: “I am too much in the sun.”), the planet Mélancolia emerges and goes rogue.  According to the astronomers, earth and the new planet are now in a Totenfuge, a dance of death.  There is no escape from the onslaught of melancholia.  Early in his career Sigmund Freud wrote a definitive and influential essay on Mourning and Melancholia (1917) in which he stated,

The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.

In 1967, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich wrote Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior and used Freud’s ideas to explain the extended melancholia of Germany after the Holocaust.  The nation, they concluded, was unable (or unwilling) to mourn the loss of the Jews.  Freud continued,

…melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.  In mourning we found that the inhibition and loss of interest are fully accounted for by the work of mourning in which the ego is absorbed. In melancholia, the unknown loss will result in a similar internal work and will therefore be responsible for the melancholic inhibition. The difference is that the inhibition of the melancholic seems puzzling to us because we cannot see what it is that is absorbing him so entirely. The melancholic displays something else besides which is lacking in mourning—an extraordinary diminution in his self- regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world, which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.

In other words, unless the individual can identify the nature of the loss, she is doomed to an unrelenting state of melancholia that seems to have no proximate cause.  For Germany, it is impossible to acknowledge the loss/lack of the Jews because the Jews are “withdrawn from consciousness.”  Likewise in the von Trier film, it is never clear why “Justine” is so deeply sad.  Her mental state can be best expressed through images; words will not suffice unless they are distended into poetry.  After a long eight minute prologue/prelude in which the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde warns the listener of doom, the kind of doom that is an inversion of the young couple who loved too much, for “Justine” cannot love at all.  Her ego is insufficient.

The inability to love (to mourn) is revealed when Mélancolia starts the story with a long white wedding limousine attempting to navigate a road that is too narrow, too winding.  The road leads to a huge house/castle on an island and the bride and groom are forced to walk to their own reception to which they arrive two hours late.  The reception is an elaborate deception on the part of “Justine’s” sister, “Claire” (Charlotte Gainsborough).  A play within a play, the party is the attempt on the part of both sisters to perform normalcy.  The long slow dragged out first act of the production is an agonizing downward spiral from pretense to intense despair.  Drowning in successive waves of alienation, “Justine” systematically destroys everything and everyone—her job, her minute marriage and then the groom and the guests and her parents drive away.

The strange inability of “Justine” to pretend to be happy is the onset of a serious breakdown from which there can be no recovery.  There are indications that the mental illness might be a family affliction.  Charlotte Rampling plays “Gaby” the vindictively angry mother of the bride and John Hurt plays “Dexter,” the father that runs away from his daughters.  The first act ends as “Justine’s” performance concludes and the audience takes flight.  That the end is coming is made clear when the reluctant bride scans the skies and sees that the stars are out of place.  A new planet is approaching: Mélancolia and there is no escaping its path of destruction.

The second act centers on “Claire” and her futile attempt to save her sister.  As anyone who has watched a loved one succumb to mental illness knows there is nothing to be done but watch.  The giant planet, Mélancolia, comes closer and closer.  “Clarie’s” husband, “John,” Kiefer Sutherland, attempts to keep his wife and child safe but he too is helpless in the face of “Justine’s” all consuming collapse.  The planet is a metaphor as is the fact that the family is isolated on an island.  Designed by Margitte, the island would have been inundated by a tidal wave had the planet been real, but instead the seas that surround it remain calm and unruffled, serene while Earth gasps its last indrawn breaths.

The isolation of the island symbolizes the isolation that overwhelms any family struggling with a loved one in danger. The family carefully measures the scope of Mélancolia through a homemade wire circle.  Presumably if they take care of “Justine” her illness will recede, but like the baleful blue planet, her illness only grows larger and absorbs the entire family, destroying them one by one.  The theme of “inability” runs like a connecting thread throughout the acts: “Justine” is unable to love, her sister is unable to save her, “Justine’s” horse is unable to cross a bridge, and the passive husband is trampled to death by that same horse and is unable to save his family.  In the end, as “Justine’s” illness looms ever larger, she becomes, like Mélancolia ever stronger and acts to build a “cave” out of long sharpened sticks.  Here beneath the peaked triangle of careful wood, the last three people on the island take refuge and, holding hands, the two sisters and “Claire’s” little boy who closes his eyes, wait.

The prelude tells it all: in its last moments, the tiny planet we call home is absorbed by the large planet of all encompassing sadness. Lars von Trier draws out the second act as he drew out the prelude and the first act, as slowly but surely the end of life comes to Earth.  The movie audience is forced to concentrate on each moment and contemplate the suffocation to come.  The viewer suffers the agony of waiting as the sound of the approaching planet rumbles ever forward.  There is a sense of magical suspension as if the film were a Gregory Crewdson photograph come alive.  The light used by the directorial photographer is always other worldly.  And so this other world falls to Earth. The end comes in a blast, subcumbing to the total darkness that is a madness that swallows all that touches it.

Lars von Trier has never just made movies; he has always made film according to concepts wrapped around his philosophy of filmmaking.  Twenty-five years ago, he and Thomas Vinterberg founded Dogma 95 and established a new set of rules for cinema.  The Vows of Chastity were stern and austere.  Based on the rejection of artifice in favor of authenticity, the rules of Dogma 95 reigned in the early years of von Trier’s career.   In Celebration the camera is hand held, the light is ambient and the result is naturalistic, making the revelations of the film all the more intense.  Over time, perhaps with Dogville (?) von Trier began to move away from the Vows and he  decisively does so in this film.

1. Filming must be done on location.  Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.  In Mélancolia the sets are deliberately theatrical.

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed. In Mélancolia the music is borrowed, like the art historical images.  The use of music by von Trier references Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 and the Danish director uses Richard Wagner as the British director used Richard Strauss to displace the film in time and space.

3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.  In Mélancolia these rules are not violated and there is a strong sense of an inquiring camera following the action, but the editing is more conventional that in his earlier work.

4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).  In Mélancolia virtually all the lighting is artificial or strange as the island is bathed in moonlight and planet light and the grounds are theatrically lit with electric floodlights.  Imagine Crewdson advising Magritte.

5. Optical work and filters are forbiddenIn Mélancolia the use of day-for-night is part of the stylistic play, indicating that the film is a play within a play, melancholy Danes in a theatrical production with all the actors famously dead by the last act. Unfortunately there is no Laertes to say “Good night, Sweet Prince.”

6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)   In Mélancolia the action is internal, in the minds of the victim and those in her orbit.

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).   In Mélancolia the action is divided clearly into two acts, or two states of mind, Julianne and Claire, and there is a strong sense of real time deterioration.

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.   Mélancolia is a disaster movie, crossed with a dysfunctional family movie, crossed with intimations of suicide, self-destruction, and Hamlet’s inability to act.  Like Hamlet, “Julianne” nurtures her loss and her lack.  Just as Hamlet cannot admit that he is suffering from the loss of his mother, “Julianne” cannot locate the source of her pain.  While one might not want to mention Another Earth, this film, while not strictly speaking a science fiction movie, is an example of Surrealism.  

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.   In Mélancolia the format is full of digital special effects and Magic Reality.

10.         The director must not be credited.   Well, Mélancolia is a “Lars von Trier” film.

For those of an artistic bent, for those with patience and dedication, this is a rewarding film.  A true work of art in every respect, Mélancolia  was made by a great director who continues to evolve.  Sadly, Lars von Trier has also behaved in such a way as to discredit and to isolate himself, making one wonder if he, too, isn’t suffering from some kind of mental condition.  It would be too cute by half to connect von Trier’s Nazi references to Inability to Mourn, but the director’s use of Wagner does not come out of nowhere.  Nevertheless, I feel that is important to separate the maker from the work of art, which should be allowed to stand on its own.  Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her work as “Justine” and it’s a rare film that provides a good role for one actress. let alone two.   For the reader who has reached the end of a nearly 2000 word review, my thanks and apologies, but I was concerned that other reviewers have written of this film is shallow and superficial ways and a complex film demands a complementary discussion.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


The Help (2011)


It was one-thirty in the afternoon.  On a Wednesday.  It was Orange County.  South Orange County, one of the most white and most Republican sections of California.  Who but me, I thought, would be in the theater to see a movie about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi?  In 1963?  To my shock, the theater was packed, floor to ceiling, stem to stern.  All white people to be sure, but they—mostly middle-aged and young, a few oldsters—were there.  The OC represented.  The audience laughed and cried and applauded in the end.  Despite the reviews, which have been mixed and cautious, this film may be a nice little hit at the end of the summer.

Then I came home and watched Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word and heard a commentator I respect, Melissa Harris-Perry, lambast the movie.  Her distaste for the film was tweeted regular intervals while she watched it.  I have no intention of debating or disagreeing with Dr. Harris-Perry, but I would like to present a different viewpoint.  I understand her objections and, as I drove to the theater this afternoon, I, too, sighed and said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice for once for a story about black people be told from the perspective of black people by black people?”  “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a film about the Civil Rights movement that didn’t have a white person as the spokesperson for or the rescuer of black people?”  I had the same qualms when writing about The Blind Side. I had already read some reviews on The Help that called attention to the way in which the black maids were asked to speak in “dialect.”  I was braced for the patronizing white-centric inevitability, but I am a huge Viola Davis fan and had been waiting for this film for months.  Therefore, I went to The Help on the first day it opened, so what did I think? Attack or support the film?

I come back to my original point:  Wednesday, one-thirty, Orange County, many white people in the theater.  Good Job.

Like Dr. Harris-Perry, I am an educator and a professional public speaker.  I know, first hand, what happens when, if that audience is a general audience with a general education, you approach an audience on a scholarly level.  And it’s not good. You sound patronizing and the audience justifiably reacts to you with hostility. You lose your opportunity to do what you were hired to do: teach. You have to start with where your audience is.  You don’t talk down; you talk with.  You don’t lecture, you use humor and pathos and facts to get your point across and listen to the people who have come to see you. I always say, I teach only to learn.

I live in an educated neighborhood, University of California, Irvine is five minutes away, but I would guess that I was among the few in the audience who had watched the wonderful PBS special on the American Experience series, Freedom Riders, this past MayNot everyone is interested in history or in politics.  I know few people who match the total geekiness that is me.  And, it is surprising how little Americans know of their own history.  Many people have heard of “Kent State,”  but, how many people have heard of “Jackson State?” Same year, 1970.  My point is that The Help is another Hollywood attempt to teach history through a human-interest story.  It’s what I call “infotainment,” the film informs and it entertains; otherwise no one would watch.  “Real” history belongs on PBS.

The definitive Civil Rights movie along the lines I outlined, with black characters telling the story from the black point of view, has yet to be made.  Mississippi Burning reduced African-Americans to extras, Ghosts of Mississippi did a bit better, and the only film I can think of, structured from the black point of view, that I have seen is Rosewood, a wonderful movie by John Singleton, who kept the white presence in its historical place.  This last was a film almost no one went to see, black or white.  Rosewood, a horrific true story of the destruction of a prosperous middle class African American community named “Rosewood”  in North Florida in 1923, was a powerful and moving film—I have shown it to some of my classes—but it came and went without causing much of a ripple.  But people will go and see The Help.  Why? Because, as a Southern woman would say, “you catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar.”

Not that The Help is sugar; it is not.  Yes, there are places to laugh, just as there are places to cry.  And yet, this is a serious movie that comes out of a real history of a real place.  If you were “a Negro” in the 1960s and you lived in Jackson, Mississippi, you lived in one of the most dangerous places in America.  The movie captures some of the very real fear of white backlash experienced by the black maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) who talked to a young white woman (Emma Stone) about what it was like to be in bondage as maids to the white women of the Junior League.  Those who have read Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, one of the best books about the black experience in the South…ever, know that if you were black and lived in the South, you experienced a constant and unmitigated reign of terror.  Talking to a white person as an equal, like “Aibileen” and “Minnie” talked to “Skeeter,” was a death sentence, never mind that the maids were talking about their “betters,” the white women who exploited and humiliated and terrorized them.

The book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, was fiction, or so the author says.  Stockett, who is being sued by her family’s maid, was born too late (1969) to have any authentic experience of those terrible years of the Civil Rights movement, especially in the early sixties.  Her distance from history might account for the lack of weight and urgency in this film, but, as a native of Mississippi, Stockett should be commended for paying some sort of penance in her quasi-confessional story that is a tribute to the endurance of generations of oppressed African-American women.

Those who feel that the character of “Hilly Holbrook,” played by Bryce Dallas Howard, was an exaggeration or a caricature or was overplayed by the actor, should watch the news footage of attempts to integrate public schools in the South and look at the faces of the white protestors and listen to the voices of the women in the mobs.  True, there is what Harris-Perry called “mean girl” atmosphere among the Southern women who played bridge to pass the heavy time but women like that were genuinely mean, cruel and racist in real life.  People like that, women like that, still exist today, to be sure, but today’s culture does not countenance that kind of behavior.  In 1963, these women would have had no shame in their actions and no understanding that they were monsters.

In the presentation of the matriarchy, the film lets the men of Jackson off easily.  “Skeeter” falls briefly for the unlikely wooing of a frat boy-alcoholic in the oil business (Chris Lowell), but otherwise the males leave the home front and the running of the maids to their wives.  The men had other things to do, such as enforcing the iron laws of Jim Crow and the terror atmosphere of segregation through insanely unconstitutional laws and plain old brutality. The wives are the second line of offense against the black citizens of Jackson who are not allowed to vote or eat at local restaurants or sit in the main auditorium of the movie theater or sit in the front of the bus or try on clothes in the department store or use the restroom in the houses they cleaned.  My mother spent her entire life in the South and there was a mysterious toilet in her basement.  Its presence was incomprehensible to me, for like Kathryn Stockett, I left the South early and never looked back. Why was there a toilet in the basement, sitting exposed without any kind of privacy?  My mother never confessed or explained.  I was an adult before I caught on: it was the maid’s toilet.

The Help starts with the toilet issue.  Maids were expected to work twelve or fourteen hour days in a white home without using the toilet.  That is what segregation meant.  The line between black and white had to be held at all times and in all places.  The space—and it was a wide space—and unbridgeable gulf—between maid and employer could never be bridged. One slip, one acknowledgement that your black maid was also a human being, and the entire edifice of inequality would come tumbling down.  It was a strange system in which white women entrusted their children to black maids and yet could not share the toilet with them.

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina, 1955

The Help does make clear that, like slavery, segregation of the races was a social system that poisoned the souls of the perpetrators.  Like slavery, segregation was a kind of psychological illness that dehumanized the enforcers who thought they were dehumanizing those whom they abused. Make no mistake; the housewives in The Help were very dangerous to the black maids.  The South had spent millions of dollars duplicating public facilities so that blacks and whites would never come into physical contact.  This region of the county was the poorest but no amount of money was too much to keep “our way of life” intact.

"Colored Waiting Room," Jackson, Mississippi

One of the blessings of the Civil Rights era was the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, who taught non-violence, love and forgiveness.  All the violence of the sixties came from one side, the white side, the side that had the most to lose.  And here is where The Help reads false: that black maids would never trust a white person with their lives.  In Mississippi, a black person was not allowed to look into the eyes of a white person. “Aibileen” had raised seventeen white children and every one of these children repudiated her as adults and did not think twice about reinforcing a shameful social situation of unconscionable injustice.  The white child was not allowed to use the word “Mrs.” when addressing the maid, she would be permitted to employ only first names, and the child was taught  not to shake hands with a black person.

This is the region of the nation where a thirteen-year old boy was beaten to death because he spoke to a white woman, where three Civil Rights workers were murdered because they tried to register blacks to vote, where blacks were trapped inside a bus that was then set on fire by a white mob because the Freedom Riders wanted to use a white waiting room.  Under no circumstances would a black woman (“Minnie”) serve a white woman (“Hilly”) a pie make of her poo and then admit it.  Serve the poo pie, yes, admit it, never.  The film burdens one character, “Hilly,” with almost all the racism of the region and carefully presents a number of “good” white people who are “enlightened” about race.  But these white characters are without power or leadership.  Allison Janney plays “Skeeter’s” mother who regrets she fired the family maid but she is dying, and the young couple, “Celia and Johnny Foote” (Jessica Chastain and Mike Vogel), who are finally nice to “Minnie,” are social outcasts.  Despite the good feelings, no one ever thinks to offer Social Security to The Help.

But it’s 1963 and the conversation on race is not quite ten years old and Mississippi is getting ready to experience its close up on national television.  The Help sketches a glimpse of a precarious culture about to be visited by the conscience of the Twentieth Century, a culture on the edge of violent change.

So The Help is a sweet gentle film, a fragile fantasy, but it is a teachable moment.  The audience is led to identify, not with Skeeter who isn’t particularly interesting, but with the victimized and proud black maids in their gray and white uniforms.   The acting, especially that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, is worthy of Oscars.

One can justly complain that black women should have better roles in Hollywood and that Davis, who is beautiful and luminously talented is way over due for her star turn, and one can argue that it is a questionable decision to ask these women to speak as if they were characters in Uncle Remus—but they shine and out perform everyone else on the screen.  It would have been nice to have the maids speak dialect in the homes of white people and communicate among themselves in normal dialogue, a device that worked so well in Skin Game.

I think the film’s merits outweigh its faults and that what it has something very valuable to offer to people who are too young to remember the Civil Rights era and to those who have never lived in the South. The Help is not just a watch and learn film; it is a watch and enjoy movie; it is laugh and cry movie.  Do Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer a favor, honor their performances and see this movie.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


Sarah’s Key (2011)


The deportation of French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps raises questions similar to those asked of the Germans—how could such supposedly “civilized” peoples enter into a cold-blooded program of mass extermination?  Sarah’s Key puts the question squarely to the people of France who took decades to acknowledge their complicity and participation in the roundup of French citizens during the German occupation of France.  In May of 2010, the British magazine The Economist  summed up the rather sorry record,

The French have tended to confront their record under Nazi occupation with a mixture of denial, silence and myth. The second world war was not on the school curriculum until 1962. Textbooks scarcely mentioned the Holocaust. No French leader from de Gaulle to Mitterrand acknowledged the state’s part in deporting Jews to Nazi death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, prompting much soul-searching over collaboration, memory and guilt.

As the film shows, some of the French participated with gusto while others were reluctant and even defiant heroes who tried to help the Jews.  Despite individual acts of mercy or heroism, it is clear that without the passivity of the majority of the French, the deportations could not have happened.  Denmark sheltered and protected its Jewish population but the French did not.  In contrast, trains full of French Jews bound for death, left for concentration camps year after year, up to three days before the Allies marched into a liberated Paris.  The maniacal determination to continue to slaughter up to the last minute, even when it was clear that the Germans had lost the war, was unprecedented—even soldiers surrender when they are defeated.

Sarah’s Key, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s 2007 book, is the story of the infamous Raid or Rafle on French Jews who were then deposited in the Vélodrome d’hiver (Winter Cycling Station).  This sports arena, once the site of bicycle races, was the holding pen for these tragic people, mostly women and children.  After five days without food or water or sanitation, the Jews were sent to interim camps in France.  There, mothers were separated from their children and sent on their final destination in concentration camps in Poland.  The children spent weeks in camps such as the one at Drancy before they too were shipped to the gas chambers.

The French demolished the bicycle stadium after the war and this site of such suffering and other sites of infamy have been thoroughly obliterated.  Under contract from the Gestapo, French moving companies would follow a Nazi sweep through a Jewish neighborhoods, gather up the contents of vacated Jewish flats and take clothing, furniture and personal items to sorting sites all over Paris.  These buildings for the “appropriations” have all disappeared and the sites now have a new identity—an advertising agency and a haute couture fashion house and a construction site.

A few memorials for the victims exist but it was not until 1993 that the French finally came to grips with their role in the extermination when the President Chirac gave a speech that pleased no one but began the process of healing a long-festering wound. ” These dark hours will stain our history forever, and are an insult to our history and tradition. Yes, the criminal insanity of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state,” Chirac said.

In 2010, despite the recent release of a French film about the Vél d’hiv’, The Round Up (Le Rafle), which focused on the fate of the Jewish children left behind, President Sarkozy refused to add anything to these original comments. Indeed, the wonderful films, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), directed by Marcel Ophüls was an early and isolated effort, followed two decades later by Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Louis Malle’s Au revoir les Enfants (1987) are among the most powerful and earliest tellings of the Holocaust by French artists.  Slowly, books have emerged on this traumatic  period of history that the French want to forget.  A quick glance at the publications makes it clear that there was silence until a new generation began to re-write French history in the 1990s, a full decade after the Germans began to take serious steps at atonement. Sarah’s Key is the story of how history has an uncomfortable way of not dying.

Starring Kristin Scott Thomas as an investigative journalist, Sarah’s Key, is a fiction that is also an allegory of guilt and shame.  “Julia Jarmond” works for a not-so-well known news magazine and snags the assignment of doing a substantive story on the roundup at the “Vél’ d’hiv’” as the French refer to this racial crime.  “Julia” is an American married to a successful French businessman, “Bertrand Tézac” (Frédéric Pierrot) who takes over an apartment in the Marais that has belonged to his family for a long time.  When the couple and their young teenage daughter decide to remodel and move in, “Julia” is in the midst of working up her story on Vél’ d’hiv’ and the film proceeds to tell two stories, one of the contemporary investigation about the Deportation and the other of the original Jewish inhabitants of the flat. Shortly after the Vél’ d’hiv’, the Tézac family acquired the flat and generations of guilt by complicity.  The movie is a study of how evil lives long and thrives, spreading out to ensnare innocent people who become stained, if only through association.

The first family who lived in the apartment, the Jewish family, were the ideal family: two parents, two children, a boy and a girl and a cat.  As soon as the German occupation of France began in 1940, Jews were marked and forced to wear the dreaded yellow star.  And then the French launched the poetically named “Operation Spring Wind,” the round up of 12,800 Jews on 16, 1942.  When the Nazis arrive at the door of the  Starzynski family to take the mother and her children away, the quick-witted “Sarah” (Mélusine Mayance) locks her little brother, “Michel” (Paul Mercier), in a large closet and carries the key with her to the Vél’ d’hiv’. It is here that the father reunites with this wife and child but he blames the little girl for leaving her brother behind.  The child who sensed the danger could have no way of comprehending the true fate awaiting her—she assumed she would return to her brother. There is no way to give the key to anyone; there are no kind souls to trust, and the Starzynski family is shipped to the Beaune-la-Rolande, where the parents are taken away and “Sarah,” ill and feverish, is left behind on her own.

When Sarah recovers, she manages to escape with a friend through the kindness of a French guard.  Haunted by the driving desire to unlock Michel from the closet, she and the other little girl run for their lives and escape the certain death at Auschwitz.  They find refuge with a kindly couple (Niles Arestrup and Dominique Frot) in a small town, but the other little girl dies of diphtheria.  The couple hides Sarah from the Nazis and disguises her as a young boy.  This masquerade allows the trio to travel to Paris and here is where the Tézac family encounters the Starzynski family, or what’s left of it.  The Tézac father and son are the only ones present in the flat when Sarah bursts into the apartment on a hot August day and unlocks the door to free her brother.  Of course Michel is dead.  The Tézac family, the males, now have a secret which they keep to themselves: a dead Jewish child who obeyed his sister and waited for her to come home and let him out.

It is into this Tézac family that “Julia” has married.  Of course, it is a bit of a coincidence that an investigative journalist would be married to the grandson of the man who took over an empty apartment “abandoned” by a Jewish family; but the film is really an allegory of loss and memory and the determination to not look back.  Sarah’s Key is not only about the personal memory of the traumatic discovery of the body of a child, whose presence was known only through its death scent in the Paris summer, it is also about the will of an entire nation to forget and to put a twin humiliation behind it: the humiliation of occupation and the humiliation of liberation.  True, the French hated the Germans but they also  cohabitated and collaborated  with them for four years.  All over France, there are clear signs of denial of the complicity and participation of the ordinary French people in the persecution of the Jews. (For a more complete discussion of  French ambiguity, read Holocaust Monuments and National Memory Cultures in Germany and France by Peter Carrier, published in 2005.)

The Deportation Memorial, of which I have written elsewhere, appears in this film as a background for “Julia’s” growing knowledge about the legacy of the deportations.  Designed by Georges-Henri Pingusson in 1962, the memorial consists of white walls carved with the names of 200,000 French deported by the Nazis.  The effect is to include the names of the 76,000 Jews without admitting that the French themselves were in charge of the operation and to obscure the French participation in the Holocaust.  The memorial alphabetizes the victims, unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed twenty years later by Maya Lin who organized the names of the dead chronologically.  If this chronological arrangement had been followed by Pingusson, the day of July 16 would have been an entire section of Jewish names, overwhelming all the other non-Jewish names and indicating a systematic round up of Jews. As in Germany, it was not just what Daniel Goldhagen called “ordinary Germans,” but  the ordinary French and  the corporations and businesses who were also culpable. (One of the best books written about the process of “coming to terms with the past” is Coming to Terms with the Nazi Past by Philip Gassert and Alan E. Steinweis was published in 2006.)

SNCF, the French national railway, so adept at building and operating a superb rails system, was also adept at keeping its silence over its role in  transporting 76,000 Jews to concentration camps.  Then SNCF bid for a now-defunct (killed by a Republican governor) high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando and ran into the wrath of Holocaust Survivors in Florida.  After seventy years of silence, SNCF finally apologized in 2010…sort of…to the victims, less than 3,000 of whom returned home.

The SNCF had long maintained that it was “owned” and controlled by the Germans and that the company and the employees were “under orders.”  In addition, the railway did not, it claimed, profit from the deportation “business.”  Historians have refuted each of these claims but the SNCF outlines its familiar self-defense on the English language website put up by the company in the fall of 2010.  During the Deportations, each train car carried over Jewish 2,000 souls and the casualty rate was usually around 500 people on the way to Auschwitz.  The employees of the SNCF dutifully cleaned out the cars and returned to France for their next “cargo.”

The American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was well aware of the active participation of he SNCF and he stated in 1944, “All who knowingly take part in deportation of Jews to their death in Poland or Norwegians and French to their death in Germany are equally guilty with the executioner. All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.”  In their 1981 book, Vichy France and the Jews, (one of the earlier French books on the topic) Michael Robert Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, write of the constant demands the Nazis made upon the railroad that complex deportation schedules be kept or else, Eichmann warned, the French would be “denied the privilege of participating in the Final Solution.”  SNCF quickly fell in line.

Until the corporation met the Survivors of Florida, SNCF managed to escape responsibility but, with an eye to contracts for high speed rail systems in Florida and California, both states with large Jewish populations, SNCF apologized. “In the name of the S.N.C.F., I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported, and before the suffering that still lives,” said Guillaume Pepy, who is the chair of the corporation.  Denying that there is any connection between their desire to secure lucrative contracts in America, the SNCF is donating a train station at Bobigny as a memorial to the victims of the deportations of Jews between 1943 and 1944 from that site.

Sarah’s Key tells a small but painful story, not of heroic resistance, but of coming to terms with indifference and blindness on the part of one French family who belatedly tried to do the right thing.  Sarah and her family symbolize all the innocent lives snuffed out by one of the purest examples of evil that has ever existed.  Sarah makes that evil become achingly real.  The Tézac family never acknowledges Sarah’s rightful ownership of the flat or her right to be compensated for their uncontested occupancy: their guilt will never take them that far.  But the film does not condemn all the French.  The family who rescued Sarah raised her, sheltered her and loved her but knew that she would never be whole, she would never get over her guilt over the death of her brother.  These “righteous Gentiles” were wise enough to let Sarah go and the young woman vanishes from France.  The journalist tracks down the fate of Sarah and her brother, and in the course of her journey into the past, she parts with her husband.  “Julia” is trying to put things right but although she can bring some comfort to the Tézac family who learn that the head of the family had faithfully sent money to Sarah’s new family, that is not enough recompense for her husband.  But there are some graves that should not be disturbed.

Eventually, “Julia” follows the trail of Sarah to New York where she married an American named “Richard Rainsferd.” But having committed suicide, Sarah is long dead, leaving behind her husband and a son, played by Aiden Quinn.  Even in New York, the truth is obscured.  It was not uncommon for a Holocaust Survivor to die of Survivor’s Guilt and the Rainsferd family closes the door on Sarah’s sad past and moves to the future.  When “Julia” finds “William Rainsferd,” he is unaware that his mother was Jewish, because she insisted on protecting him by baptizing him a Christian.  It is with “William” that the circle closes as he rediscovers his mother’s past and is finally able to understand and to grieve over her death, and the death of his uncle in a locked closet and the death of his grandparents in Auschwitz.

In the end, with the investigation over and her long article published, “Julia” leaves Paris and returns to her homeland, New York, where she raises her unexpected child, Sarah, all alone.  The film ends with “Julia” and “William” and little “Sarah,” in a New York restaurant.  The final moments of the film show “Julia” and “William” going over Sarah’s memorabilia and finding a peace with a past that is and is not theirs.  The message is not uplifting but a heartfelt, “never again.”  This is a wonderful movie, far and away one of the best films of 2011.  See it.

For my readers who would like to learn more of this historical period, the most recent book on the subject is And the Show Went On. Cultural LIfe in Nazi-Occupited Paris by Alan Riding, published in 2011.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger




The Names of Love (2010)


For some strange reason, the American title of this film was weirdly translated from the more apt Les Noms des gens or People’s Names.  And people’s names are what identify people as “French” and favored or as Jewish or Arab or outsiders and “not French.”  Although the subject matter is very serious, this Mary Poppins of a movie serves the discussion of nationality with a spoonful of sugar and a heaping helping of female nudity to make the message/medicine go down.  Given the tension in France today regarding the wave of immigrants “coming home” to the mother country, a light-hearted response was probably a wise one.  Obviously the production was impactful for the screenplay by Michel Leclerc and Baya Kasmi won a César as did the leading actress, Sara Forestier.  The way a society copes with change in the twenty first century is through popular culture.

Like Great Britain, France has been coping with the blowback of Empire and with the consequences of colonialism for at least fifty years.  The last of the French colonies,  Algeria finally won its independence in 1962 after decades of shameful repression. Perhaps the best-known film depicting this grotesque struggle of a colonial power to hold on to an empire is The Battle of Algiers, an even-handed film made by the Algerian government in 1966.  More recently American audiences have seen Of Gods and Men, (2010), another painful account of atrocities on both sides.  Les Noms des Gens makes the very good point that the modern nation of France must come to terms with its own past.  The movie proposes that individuals move beyond their “names” and fixed identities and to merge separate entities labeled “Jewish” or “Arab” or “French” into new, perhaps nameless, people for a new era in the name of love.

Baya Benmahmoud is a later day hippie, a free spirit who makes love not war on right wing “fascists” and bigots who are male.  She leaves the female fascists alone and directs her efforts to the male of the species who are “converted” into left-wing liberalism through having sex with her.  She is a Lysistrata in reverse who sees fascism everywhere even in a veterinarian (Jacques Gamblin), who specializes in dead birds.  While Baya celebrates her identity as an assimilated Frenchwoman with an Algerian father and a French mother, her newest target, Albert Martin, is hiding a half-Jewish identity.  Between the two of them, this unlikely couple embodies two sensitive points on the French body politic—what the French did to the Jews during the Nazi occupation and what the French did to the Algerians during the post-war period.

Critics have complained, rightly, that the movie is a superficial treatment of a serious topic, but it is perhaps all the more effective for that.  The great Louis Malle produced a masterpiece of anguish, Au Revoir les Enfants in 1987, which unflinchingly examines the scar of the Holocaust on the French conscience. The intention of Les Noms des Gens is simpler than that of films, such as Malle’s, which take a historical approach, but with a light touch, it makes its point. Arthur’s parents are still haunted by the feeling of being hunted by the Nazis and his mother’s lost Jewish identity eventually comes back to her and drives her to suicide.

There is an interesting scene where Arthur and Baya visit the “Deportation Memorial” on the Île de Cité to find the names of his Cohen relatives.  Because there were so many “Cohens,” listed in alphabetical order, their search is futile.  Dedicated by Charles de Gaulle, this memorial was designed by the architect Georges-Henri Pingusson for the purpose of honoring the French “martyrs” of deportation to Nazi camps. What the film does not say is that this memorial is not an official “Holocaust” memorial and it lumps the Jewish victims in with other political enemies of the Nazis, whitewashing (the memorial is white) French culpability in the death of 200, 000 French citizens, 76,000 people including 11,000 children who just happened to be Jewish.

In fact Les Noms des Gens passes over the ugly past in Algeria lightly and approaches the recent debate over whether or not French Muslim women can legally be veiled or not a bit more directly.  Without getting into the controversy, the film follows Baya to her latest conquest, a traditional Muslim man, who, unlike her father, veils his women.  The shock of seeing this beautiful free wheeling woman shrouded by black garments says it all. The question of whether the veil is a suppression of the humanity of women or is an assertion of Muslim identity is asked and answered in a few minutes. Baya, whose mother is French,  asserts that in the veil she is seen as a Muslim woman for the first time.

Of course, when her work is done, Baya leaves her Muslim fascist, jettisons the veil, and marries Arthur, two halves making a new whole and creating a child who is beyond “names” or the labels that tear societies apart.  Les Noms des Gens predicts that names will not matter in the new society that is in the process of re-identifying and redefining what is “French” in the twenty first century.  The message, amusingly and deftly delivered is a hopeful one of global peace through love and marriage and children.  We can only hope.

Oh and by the way, we Americans are not as ignorant as the French seem to think: we don’t need to have “Bernard Henri-Lévy” translated into “Woody Allen” on the subtitles.  We know who Bernard-Henri Lévy is, thank you very much.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Beginners (2011)


The passage of the “Marriage Equity Act” in New York in the early summer of 2011 gives Beginners a special resonance.  The story is a simple but painful one: after a lifetime of living in the closet, an elderly man reveals that he is gay. Based on a true story, Beginners refers to the well-known museum director, Paul Mills who died in 2004.  Mills was very important in the art circles of northern California.  It was he who realized in the early 1950s that the Bay Area was the site of an independent response to Abstract Expressionism in New York City.  It was he who brought together the Bay Area painters in 1957 at the Oakland Museum exhibition’s “New Bay Area Figurative Painting.”  Spotting and creating a new art movement became an important role for museum directors and curators and the show that Mills put together was of historical significance.

In 1970 he moved to the museum in Santa Barbara and continued his concentration on California art.  The museum website states that Mills was “a flag designer and enthusiast who initiated the Breakwater Flag Project for the harbor in Santa Barbara.  Who knew?  Upon the death of his wife, Jan, Mills started a new life as a gay man in 1999.   Sadly he died of cancer four years later.  Beginners begins with the brief life and sad death of “Hal,” the surrogate for the real life museum director.  The highly fictionalized story of a son supporting his father’s new life as an authentic person stars two of the best actors from England, Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, who are, as always, excellent in their roles.

I do not approve critics who criticize art for not being what s/he wants it to be.  I feel that art should be judged on its own merits, in its own terms, as it stands.  That said, despite the presence of a sexy French love interest and a talking dog, the film is boring.  I sat through the entire movie because I paid for it and wanted to get my money’s worth.  Sadly, in pursuit of exploring the gaiety of being gay, this film took a slightly patronizing approach to an older man re-entering the contemporary world of gay life and discovering the joys of “house music.” Like Lady Chatterley, “Hal” finds a younger lower class man to awaken him into his true nature and the old man seems to have been able to make the transition from straight to gay without any psychological turmoil.  True, northern California at the Millennium had no issues with gay people, which brings us to an unanswered question—-why was this man in the closet so long.

“Oliver’s” parents were married in the dark decade of the 1950s, in the shadow of the poison of the McCarthy hearings and witch hunts against homosexuals.  The fifties was also a decade of conformity by a culture that wanted to get back to “normal” and to stay out of trouble.  For a gay man, the closet was the only choice for a safe life and many women married these men, knowingly—in the case of Oliver’s mother—-or unknowingly.  For a woman the fate of being single, an “old maid” was as socially reprehensible as it would have been for a man to admit he was gay.  For these couples, marriage was an arrangement.  Whatever children that resulted from these unions of convenience stood as guarantees that the secrets of the family were safe.  It is still widely believed, even today, that if a man is married and has children he is not gay.

These marriages could be respectful and affectionate and practical, but they would also be empty of what people, men and women, had come to expect—romantic love and passion.  One can understand, given the political and social climate of the fifties and sixties, why Oliver’s parents remained married.  But by the 1970s gay men, in and out of California, were eyewitnesses to the liberation of gays and lesbians.  True, in the eighties, there was regression and suppression of the rights of all and any minorities, including the rights of the majority—women—but in California being gay was accepted.  In real life Paul Mills was living in the arts community, a community that was and is full of successful and openly gay people in the university town of Santa Barbara.  One of the mysteries that the film does not answer is why did the marriage, so obviously unhappy, drag on long after the need to live in the closet had passes?   The only answer can be the psychological closet that kept the generation of the fifties trapped, in denial, in unhappiness, in emptiness.

The strength of social prejudices against gay men persists, and there are countless men who disguise themselves as “straight” and, like the former governor of New Jersey, do real harm to other innocent people in the process.  The film shows the wife’s aching unhappiness and her empty existence but “Hal” takes no responsibility. He merely says blithely that the wife was are that Hal was gay and she wanted to marry him.  So the victim is blamed for her fate—being trapped in a marriage of deprivation that she willfully chose.  Not a word is said of why Hal should agree to such an arrangement, but it is clear that marriage to a woman who was his “beard” would give him cover in a period of prejudice.  One can only imagine that the wife could not have born the shame of revelations and the humiliation of the divorce.

And here is where I think the movie missed the opportunity to explore some powerful issues that are still painfully pertinent in American life.  California (where there is widespread acceptance of the GLBT community) and New York (where the right to marry is recognized as a civil right) are not the rest of America.  We are living in a nation where an apparent candidate for president spies on gay people, runs screaming from lesbians and who has a husband who uses federal money to “cure” gays who he perceives to be “barbarians” who must be “disciplined.”  We are also a nation where one of the most popular sit-coms, Modern Family, features a gay couple who as adopted a child. Despite the vital role popular culture has played widening the acceptance of gay people, there are places in America where gay men and women life in the closet.

To live in the closet is to live an unauthentic life, dedicated to appeasing the bigotry and inhumanity of a group of people who are increasing looked at askance.  The anti-gay forces resent being referred to as “haters” and have seen their organizations recognized as “hate groups” on par with the Klu Klux Klan.  The tragedy is that an uncounted number of men and women are forced to live in shame and fear, trapped by the ugly bigotry of self-righteous and cruel forces.  If Beginners can join the ranks of a growing number of films that present gays and lesbians as spouses and parents who love and care for each other and their children, then this film will have done a good thing.  The Kids are Alright was not shown in certain parts of the country and was, undoubtedly, not shown on local cable channels lest local sensibilities be disturbed by seeing gays portrayed as human beings.  Beginners is a feel-good film that skims over the dark and disturbing discrimination that was so powerful that a good and decent man had only four years to live his real life.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Midnight in Paris (2011)


Not to read too much into Woody Allen’s latest amuse bouche, but the movie does look like a witty mise-en-abyme, an endless regression back in time.  Midnight in Paris proposes a witching hour when one can step into a Peugeot and drive into one man’s lost Golden Age and then climb into a carriage and enter a woman’s idea of what the perfect time would be.  Gil, Woody Allen’s alter ego (younger and better looking) is a successful Hollywood writer who thinks that he could write the great American novel if only it were the 1920s.  Stranded in the wrong time, Gil (Owen Wilson) is marooned in the right place—Paris—with his fiancée’s rich Republican parents.  Inez and her obnoxious mother and father, defend the Tea Party (the current one) and like Gil’s money and his Hollywood success but not him.  The absurd unsuitability of Inez (Rachel McAdams) for Gil, the incurable romantic, is our clue that the film is an allegory.

Allen draws the audience into the philosophical fantasy by forcing us to assume the role of the most obnoxious character in the film.  Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend of Inez, is a typical pedantic academic—the kind that is compelled to lecture to all within earshot about matters clearly not in his realm of expertise.  Any art lover with even a bare minimum of knowledge knows that the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, was never married to the sculptor, Camille Claudel, but Paul gets in an argument with the guide at the Rodin Museum.  And it is here, at this unfortunate juncture, that we become Paul the Pedantic, for those of us in the know immediately spot Carla Bruni, who makes the American Inez look lumpy and badly dressed.

The fun for the effete truly begins when the magic Peugeot comes around a dark curve of a quiet Parisian back street as the midnight hour chimes.  Who should pop out of the Peugeot and beckon Gil to join to get in but Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald?

The glamorous pair whisk the bemused American in Paris away to an elegant soirée held by Jean Cocteau, where he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) the current mistress of Picasso.  We all know that Picasso was entangled with a wife he couldn’t divorce, Olga, and was enthralled with Marie Thérèse, so Adriana is another clue that we are in fantasyland.  And then Scott and Zelda take Gil away to another party and we are so pleased that we know where they are going: Bricktop’s and we know who Bricktop was. And when we get there, we immediately see Josephine Baker, clothed, dancing the Charleston in her off time.  We, in our erudition, also wonder why Cole Porter was at the first party instead of playing the piano for Bricktop, which was more to his habit.  And then at the end of the evening, we finish off our entrée with a large helping of Ernest Hemingway.

Corey Stoll (Law and Order, L.A.) does a great job of playing Hemingway who is self-important and pompous, obsessed with manhood, and spouts his own spare and lean “masculine” prose, learned from Gertrude Stein. Hemingway tells Gil that he has published only one novel, presumably The Sun Also Rises, meaning that, in time, we are in 1926.  It cannot be any later than that year because after 1926, the Fitzgeralds left Paris. Francis Scott Fitzgerald had already published This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, and, of course, Hemmingway was passive aggressive and jealous of the more successful writer.  Having deduced with year we are in, the next night we get to meet Gertrude Stein (Kathy Baker)  herself, holding court under the portrait Picasso did of her in 1906 (and yes, that is Alice B. Toklas who opens the door for Gil).

Naturally, Picasso is in Gertrude’s salon with a painting that is anachronistically out of place for a decade during which he was in his classical conservative period.  The faux painting looks a bit like Large Nude in a Red Armchair (1929), which signals a change to his flirtation with Surrealism.

Speaking of Surrealism, the film is full of Surrealist artists, also a bit out of time. Surrealism proper does not begin until 1924 when André Breton issued his Manifesto and the movement was a movement of poets, not artists.  The main artists associated with Surrealism were those who were once Dadaists.  Having just painted Harlequin’s Carnival, only Joan Miro, who was careful to keep his distance from the French group, was the most fully developed surrealist painter in the twenties.

But here is Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody) having a drink with Gil three years before he became a Surrealist.  And later, the pair is joined by Man Ray (much taller than he was in real life) and Luis Bunuel, with whom Dali would make Un chien andalou in 1928.  We miss seeing Lee Miller who could have been either at the Cocteau party or with Man Ray—after all, she was the muse for both men.  But for Gil, his muse is Adriana who takes him on a trip to the Belle Epoch where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.  No sooner do they start chatting with the Count, then they are joined by Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, who must have been in town between his journeys to the South Pacific.  For Adriana, this is her Golden Age, not the Twenties of the Lost Generation.  She could be right; these are the last years before a century of war and loss and disillusionment.  Gil, however, needs the inspiration the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein in order to come into his own and to “find himself” as a writer and he leaves the woman he loves behind in the 1890s.

Before Gil rejoins the land of the present and the unsatisfactory, he delivers a bit of advice to Bunuel, to create a scene of a dinner party that no one can leave.  The New York Times informs us that the film in question would be The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The film ends with Gil finally ridding himself of Inez who has been dallying with the insufferable Paul, our own muse and inspiration in our personal history test.  Of course, the ideal lady is already waiting, selling Cole Porter records in the flea market (Les Puces) of Porte de Clignancourt.  We see immediately that she is perfect for Gil and an appropriate end to the fantasy of a middle aged man having a mid life crisis.  Of course she is half his age: what better way to start a new life with a sweet young thing who doesn’t wear make up and likes to walk in the rain?  Meanwhile the private detective who has been following Gil takes a wrong turn and winds up running for his live down the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

But one more thing, as Columbo would have said: the last snobbish satisfaction we feel before the end of Midnight in Paris is when we see Gil walk out of Shakespeare and Company. We are smugly pleased that we know the entire story of this establishment and are sorry we did not visit in the 1920s and run into James Joyce…in the afternoon.  Oh, we are so smart.  Woody Allen is so laughing at us. And by the way, Francis Scott Fitzgerald was named after Francis Scott Key.  Had to get that in.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)



Thirty thousand years ago.  This is when art began.  Chauvet Cave. This is where art began.  Southern France near the Pont d-arc formation.  This is where the first art was made.  This is the oldest and the best art.  Art never got any better than this.

Chauvet Cave Wall

And the German film director, Werner Herzog, was given special permission to visit this spectacular cave with a small film crew to photograph the marks on the walls made by prehistoric artists.  Unfortunately, this film will be shown in only a few art houses, almost none of which are equipped to show the movie as it was shot in 3D. The loss of dimensionality is a genuine one in this case for the artists made use of the convex swellings and the concave niches, which are the natural contours of the walls.

Chauvet Cave Wall Contours

Older but less well known than the caves of Altamira and Lascaux, Chauvet is significant because of the great age of the paintings.   Imagine drawings are so old that when the lines were drawn, homo sapiens coexisted with Neanderthals.  But Neanderthals do not draw.  Neanderthals do not make art.  With elegant strokes depicting the animals familiar to the Ice Age inhabitants the two species would be divided between human and not-quite human.  Such is the power of art.

“They were here!” Éliette Brunel shouted when she and Jean-Marie Chauvet and Christian Hillaire discovered Chauvet Cave in 1994.  Although Brunel was the first to see the paintings on the walls, it was her colleague, Jean-Marie Chauvet, the leader of the exhibition, who would give his name to this unusually large cave.  The cave was immediately sealed to the public and only scientific teams were allowed inside.  The cave has been mapped with lasers, which are able to draw a three dimensional picture of a long and irregular shaped opening into the limestone cliffs above the Ardèche River.

Chauvet Map

An iron door has closed the opening originally made by the explorers who sensed the faint whiff of cave air wafting from a slight crack in the cliff face.  A narrow metal pathway wends its way along the cave floor, carefully skirting animal bones and the fragile footprints of a child and a wolf and bears.

“Papa, look, oxen.”  Like the caves in the Pyrenees, Chauvet Cave had been kept sealed and safe  by a rockslide, which covered the original opening where the earliest artists entered.  Interestingly enough, Chauvet was the first cave with prehistoric art to be discovered by an adult.  The cave of Altamira was discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuloa, a nobleman and amateur archaeologist (the only kind of archaeologist at that time), who was excavating near the mouth of the cave when his eight year old daughter, Maria, went deeper into the cavern to take a look.  She is reported to have called out to her father when she saw what she though were drawings of oxen which we now know as an extinct version called “auroches.”  Like her father, many people assumed that prehistoric people were primitive brutes, incapable of making art, and the cave paintings were presumed to be forgeries or modern day graffiti.  It would take seventy years before the paintings would be proved authentic.

Altamira Ceiling

A little girl then was the first human to set eyes upon these paintings made 17,500 years ago, but the next cave paintings were discovered by a little boy and his dog.   In 1940, Marcel Ravidat and his dog, Robot, found a narrow opening, and he returned with his friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas to explore.  This cave had been sealed up to the extent that it was accessible only by small curious boys, and, this time, there could be no doubt that the paintings they discovered were authentic.  These paintings were about the same age as those of Altamira and perhaps a bit younger.  But the way in which the artists painted these caves was quite different from those of the Chauvet Cave, which are, incredibly, twice as old.   The artists of Altamira and Lascaux used more color—ochers, burnt sienna, black and red.  In contrast to the more austere monochromes of the Chauvet artists, they filled in the shapes of the animals with these natural colors that enhanced the naturalistic effects.

Bulls of Lascaux

Lascuax and Altamira are both closed to the pubic and both sites have created virtual recreations of the caves.  Lascaux has a personal tour.  One can visit Lascaux via a video, which takes you inside the cave, providing an idea of the ruggedness of the surfaces of the walls.  Altamira has a doppelganger, a duplicate cave that is an exact replica that can be visited by the public, whose moist humid breath cause mildew and mold to threaten the irreplaceable paintings of both caves.  Chauvet has the Herzog film, a remarkable accomplishment for the director and his colleagues and those who are the keepers of the cave.

Werner Herzog and His Crew

These Ur-artists entered Chauvet via a frontal opening in the cliff wall, but at some point thousands of years ago, the overhang above the cave collapsed and buried the mouth.  Like Lascaux, the contemporary entrance is a narrow side passage that is a vertical drop into the cavern.  Once inside, deep in the darkness, one encounters, not so much the art, but the sheer effort expended by humans to make art.  Clearly, art was so important to the tribes of southern France that individuals were willing to go deep underground with torches to draw on the walls.  In Lascaux and Altamira, the artists used small primitive lamps, but, in Chauvet, fires on the floor or torches held aloft had to light the impenetrable blackness.  As the torch burned down, the person who held it scraped the tip against the wall to lop off the dead end so that the torch could be reignited.  Carbon dating suggests that these black streaks are some twenty thousand years old.

Cave Bear

Although the carbon dating has been controversial, it seems that some thirty two thousand years ago, the artists scrapped the wall surfaces to provide themselves with a blanched wall, a clean ground to work upon.  They drew the animals they knew—long extinct cave bears (whose bones and skulls are everywhere), maneless lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, reindeer, horses, deer, ibexes, even owls and yes, the auroches.   At the beginning of the cave, we see the first sign of what would prove to be the very sign of humanity—the urge to put marks on the wall—a series of palm red prints arranged in a circle by the same artist.  This artist appeared to be concerned with making a personal history in the cave, for, further down the passageway, his distinctive hand, with its crooked little finger, reappears.  His is one of the few bursts of color in an otherwise cool palette that is enhanced by the diamond-like sparkles of the mineral deposits on the cave floor.

Hand of the Artist

The artists made cunning use of the undulating shapes along the surface of the cave wall to mimic bulging bodies of the animals, their thighs, their bellies.  Oddly—and I have seen this effect in no other cave paintings—these artists give their animals multiple legs, as though they were running.   The cinematic illusion is similar to Giacomo Balla’s famous the Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912).

Chauvet Wall Drawings

As in most of the caves of the prehistoric times, there are few humans, and in Chauvet, there is only one, a partial torso of a woman drawn on a hanging pendulous rock.  The filmmakers were not allowed to approach on foot to examine the drawing, much less to view the far side of the rock and the rest of the drawing.  Herzog’s crew put a camera on a pole and was able to get a shot of the entire torso.  The emphasis on the vulva of the female is reminiscent of the numerous “Venuses” found as small figurines all over northern Europe.  Like the animals this piece of a woman is a line drawing, free of color.

Chauvet Venus

The narrator contended that the drawing was a combination of a woman and a bull or a union of a woman and a bull.   I say “contended” only because the drawing is very difficult to read but I take him at his word.  What interests me is that this theme of the woman and the bull floats though history to emerge mysteriously in the Minoan art of Crete and in the myths of ancient Greece: the story of the bestial coupling of the wife of King Minos with a bull, resulting in a monstrous minotaur.  Although he was long dead when this cave drawing was discovered, the art historian, Aby Warburg, who wrote of how the deep psychology of humanity moved like an undertext or subtext throughout the history of art, would have been enthralled.

The contributors to Cave of Forgotten Dreams had what I consider to be a problematic tendency to speculate about why the drawings were done.  Most assume that “religion” had something to do with the intention of the artists.   Although I can only respect the expertise of these scholars, I feel that speculation can be anachronistic and that the truth of the art can only be far more mysterious than anything we can imagine.   It is impossible to put ourselves into the minds of our ancient prehistoric fore bearers.  All we can ever know is what we see.

These drawings are strange to us in deep and powerful ways.  The approach of the artists remains the same over thousands of years.  The idea of “new” or “novel” or avant-garde or rebellion against what ere obviously deeply rooted traditions simply does not exist.  Fifteen thousand years separate Chauvet from Lascaux and yet both caves are instantly identifiable as “prehistoric” as “cave art.” The consistency of the aesthetics of the drawings and paintings suggests that art-making may have been connected to ritual, making the “style” impervious to change.  But we do not know if the art is ritualistic.


There is some indication that the artists put certain animals together in what we would call “narration.”  Two lions, a male and a female, seem to hunt, side by side.  Two rhinos clash in combat, tangling their long curved tusks, probably to win a mate.  A group of horses run together as a herd, one with its mouth open as though it is breathing, panting or neighing.  But we cannot always read the overlapping as an attempt to link animals with each other for one overlapping was clearly a superimposition.  Remarkably this over-drawing was done five thousands years after the original rendering.

Claw Marks Left by a Bear

Superimpositions are common in other caves.  So are the handprints, so are the “dots” but we have no idea what these marks mean.  Are the superimpositions a form of tagging, a sign of ownership, a record of a changing of generations?  What are the drawings?  Reportage of a hunt?  Prayers for a kill?  Worship of the beasts?  We will never know the answers but we do know that these drawings are stunning in their blunt simplicity, amazing in their elegance of line.  A lion was drawn with a single stroke measuring six feet long.  Imagine the confidence of the artist to make such an elegant assured gesture.  What are we seeing?  “Natural” talent?  Frequent practice?  An apprenticeship with a “Master/Mistress” artist?   The “style,” if one could use such a word, is comparable to a supremely arrogant Picasso or the deft hand of Matisse.  The Chauvet drawings are so basic, so primal, so primary and so complete that we have been struggling to return to our atavistic selves, to redeem ourselves as artists.



Werner Herzog and his remarkable movie has allowed us a privileged look at some of the greatest art in the world.  He takes us to a place we can never go.  We are enchanted witnesses to his journey into the bowels of the earth where the art is secreted.  At some point in time, Chauvet will probably be closed in by the innumerable stalagmites and stalactites that are forming even as I write from the relentless drip, drip, drip of water leaking into the cave.  The formations seem to take the place of the living breathing humans who once visited here, compelled by the inexplicable need to make art.  Rearing from the floor like sentinels, hanging from the ceiling like hovering guardians, these pale shapes are ghosts of artists past, transfixed like Lot’s wife, into pillars, watching over the art.

Chauvet Valley, Pont d'arc

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Jane Eyre (2011)

Who was Jane Eyre?

On the surface what we have here is the classic Cinderella story: poor, plain girl meets ugly rich man with a secret wife hidden in the attic of his old dark house and their grand romance is thwarted by the revelation of “the madwoman in the attic.” Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic novel, Jane Eyre, is usually thought of as a romantic story of a man and a woman, who are soul mates, mysteriously connected by the heartstrings.  But to understand Jane Eyre as a love story is to entirely miss the point.  The latest rendition, starring Mia Wasikowska as “Jane” and Michael Fassbender as the brooding “Mr. Rochester,” is a good movie, better than some of the earlier versions, but it will never surpass the original 1943 film with Orson Wells as the best “Rochester” ever.  If you have never seen the classic black and white original then by all means, go see this film by Cary Fukunage. This new Jane Eyre is certainly the best version since 1943…and it’s in color.  But why is Jane Eyre still being made and remade seventy years later?

The screenwriter, Moira Buffini wrote this film as pure romance, passing over its obvious political themes quite lightly, and playing to the audience’s expectations.  From the time of its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre was understood as a “Gothic” novel, a tale of mystery typical of the Romantic era.  Easily reduced to tropes, the novel and its characters have been copied, remixed, and mashed up, but the essential ingredients remained the same: the gloomy mansion, the master of the manor who has a dark secret and the plucky young woman who pokes around the house, intent upon solving the mystery. The warnings are the same: “Pay no attention to the noises in the attic.”  “Don’t go in the locked room.”  The “meet cute” when the master’s horse falls, tossing Rochester at the feet of Jane Eyre has been done and redone—remember how Jane Fonda met Jon Voigt in Coming Home? The first version of Jane Eyre could be Bluebeard and his many wives, a cautionary tale for unwary women, suggesting, not that she should be careful of the man she marries but that she should mind her own business.

Indeed, Charlotte Brontë’s novel was directed to a female audience.  Denied entrance to any intellectually satisfying and fulfilling fields, middle class women were avid readers of novels, especially those written by women about women. Men disapproved of women reading women and especially of women writing and being published.  This communication among women was dangerous, but writing was one of the few areas of professional behavior that could not be totally closed to women.   Long before women managed to become successful visual and musical and theatrical artists, women such as Jane Austen, managed to write and were widely read.  Even so, due to the disapproval of male publishers, Jane Austen published all but one book, Pride and Prejudice, on her own. We are the ones who appreciate the Nineteenth Century novels of these women, Austen and the Brontë sisters, and we are the ones who have told and retold their stories.

Men were correct to be wary of women writing, for many of these novels are critical of male privileges and unchecked male power.  Women began to become novelists literally on the heels of two political revolutions, one in America and one in France, both of which had utterly excluded women. The first and the greatest Gothic novel ever written came from a very young woman, Mary Shelly, the daughter of a famous feminist.   Frankenstein is a warning to those (men) who would think that, through technology, they had become God.  The “Frankenstein” theme comes up again and again, from Metropolis to Blade Runner: don’t attempt to manipulate nature.  All of Jane Austen’s novels are social commentaries on the social plight of women who are not allowed to have access to money.  Although Austen could be criticized for ignoring lower class women, but without money such women were not impacted by a loss of money the way upper income women could be.  All of Austen’s books are on the same theme: how can women reconcile economic dependency and the necessity of marriage with their desire for “romantic” love?  The social messages in novels by women are inescapable, especially today when we are alert for such things.

“Romantic Love” was an invention of the Nineteenth Century, in order, I believe, to compensate women for their loss of political freedom and to reconcile them to their economic dependence.  “Romantic Love” in all its improbably glory is the engine of Jane Eyre. One of the best analyses of Jane Eyre was made thirty years ago by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination. The title comes from the character of “Bertha,” Mr. Rochester’s Caribbean wife, imprisoned in the attic.  The literary professors, Gilbert and Gubar, suggested that “Bertha” is a metaphor for all the rage and discontent felt by women in the Nineteenth Century.  Women at that time were not allowed to express their feelings or complain about their social condition and when they did they were often declared “mad” and punished in some way.  “Bertha” is more than a character in a novel; she is the key that explains the lives of women who are shut up in lives that allow them no freedom.  “Bertha” is the counterpoint of “Jane” who has learned to restrain herself and to be careful about what she said. “Bertha” is all the unexpressed pain of women locked up in the “attic’” of the subconscious, rattling and banging about, starting fires and screaming in the night.  “Jane” has retained her sanity, even after an abusive childhood, because she wanted to survive and has learned to move and to act with humility, eyes downcast.

Jane Eyre is a feminist novel and film if only because it was told from the point of view of a woman.  Like all the protagonists in Austen’s novels, Jane is adrift in patriarchal world, run by men for the benefit of men. From the beginning of their meeting, “Rochester” makes it clear that she must exist for his benefit, act in accordance to his need and wants.  Today, most women would steer clear of such an egoist, but for centuries this kind of character was presented to female readers in countless Romance Novels, the kind with lavender covers, as the Broken Man who needed only the Love of a Good Woman to be fixed.  One can only assume that, in Brontë’s time, “Rochester” was probably typical of wealthy and powerful men in a time when such men had nearly unchecked privileges.  Indeed, he almost gets away with a bigamist marriage to Jane.  Jane is warned by “Mrs. Fairfax,” played by Judy Dench, that men like Mr. Rochester didn’t marry governesses but she is too naïve to understand what the older woman is telling her: something is very wrong.

The novel never fully explains why Rochester attempts to marry Jane and offers only love as an explanation for his courtship.  One suspects that the romantic reason, a Prince Charming falling in love with a Cinderella, is a fantasy solution devised by Brontë to nurture the flicker of hope in her female readers.  Austen also devised romantic solutions in her novels: no matter how isolated the marriageable young women were, suitable young men (usually rich) somehow came into “the neighborhood” and the pairing off ensues.  But Austen’s ladies are always the social equals of her gentlemen.  The strange dialogue about gender equality that passes between Rochester and Jane  underscores the improbability of the romance between them.  In the novel, Jane is eighteen years old and Rochester is about double her age, she is poor and he is rich and it’s the Nineteenth Century—they can never be equals.  In “real life,” he would not have known of her existence, but the novel uses the myth of “love” to force this unlikely pair together.  But there is another approach to Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre is, in it’s own way, a spiritual coming of age story.  The novel is also a religious pilgrimage, for both Jane and Rochester.  Both must do penance, Rochester for being “deceitful” and Jane for believing in miracles.  For the couple to be together, Jane must complete what Gilbert and Gubar called a “pilgrim’s progress,” which began at “Gateshead” and ends at “Ferndean,” the couple’s forest retreat.  Only when the novel is read as a religious allegory does the story begin to make sense.  The story is about “Jane Eyre” whose very name indicates spirituality and her ability to float away from her adversaries.  “Rochester” is not so much a real character as he is an obstacle in her journey towards fulfillment—he is something that Jane cannot have, not until she completes her tasks.  Jane travels from the prison of the Red Room to imprisonment in the school for girls who have been thrown away, Lowood, to the trap of Thornfield whose name alone would enough to make any self-respecting girl to run for her life.

The last station of Jane’s journey is a resting place with the aptly named Moor House, a lonely house in the middle of the English version of a desert, the moors. Like Mary Magdalene, she goes into exile to grieve. On the run from Rochester, Jane is rescued by “St. John Rivers” (Jamie Bell).  It is in this bleak and sanctimonious place of crossing that she recovers her sense of self; but, perhaps to satisfy the reader’s need for a happy ending, the author sends Jane back to Rochester.  She rejects the offer of marriage from “Rivers,” because she has been rewarded with a large inheritance, and because she mysteriously hears the voice of Rochester calling her back. In modern terms we would call this device of one lover hearing the pain of the other as a voice on the wind an example of a “plot creaking” under the weight of contrivance, but in the 1840s, it’s that new-fangled “Romantic Love” asserting itself.

It is incomprehensible that in any reality Jane could love such a man, someone who had lied to her, betrayed his wife, deceived his friends and then claimed victimhood to explain his behavior.  Jane Austen, an austerely Classical novelist who distrusted Romantic fantasies, would have profoundly disapproved of Jane’s actions.  Over and over Austen punished such men and wrote them into miserable lives.  Even Brontë had to smite Rochester to make him acceptable to her readers.  Rochester is an unsympathetic character but in her own way Jane is as weak and as flawed as he and gives in to temptation—running back to a married man.  When she returns, Thornfield is rightly burned down by the vengeful Bertha who had had enough of her prison.  Rochester lost his sight and the use of one of his hands, but, far from being impotent, he gains Jane Eyre, who has inherited a fortune from an uncle she never met.  One assumes, incorrectly, that this was her money, but as soon as she married Rochester, every penny went to him and his control.  They disappear into “happily ever after” in a quick ending that concludes Jane’s journey to her destiny: a caretaker of a broken and disgraced man.

Gilbert and Gubar assume that the couple, a blind and physically challenged man and a woman with enough money to make her acceptable to society, are now equal.  If Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, it is because it is a more or less accurate account of the lives of women, particularly of surplus and dependent women and their very real sufferings, but few of them had a benevolent uncle.  But there is allegorical truth in the novel.  “Bertha Mason” is the expression of the oppressed woman and “Jane Eyre” is the portrait of a suppressed woman.   They are mirror images of one another: both imprisoned and both unable to escape.  “Bertha” is the far more interesting character, so much so that she inspired Jean Rhys to write Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. Rhys imagined the Jamaican prequel to Jane Eyre.  The novel is full of foreshadowings for the Brontë novel and suggests that Rochester was at first sexually enchanted with Bertha then, overwhelmed with sexual guilt, was repulsed by her and by the alien culture of the Caribbean.  As if in revenge, Bertha went slowly mad over her husband’s rejection.  Rather than abandon her on the island, Rochester took Bertha to a lifetime of confinement in the attic of his English home.

Rhys stripped the Rochester character of his romantic trappings and explained why he was the sort of man who would be repulsed by “Blanche Ingram’s” self-assurance—too much like his wife—and comforted by Jane’s submissiveness and her virginity and inexperience.  She is everything his wife was not, controllable and ignorant of all things sexual.  Wide Sargasso Sea makes Jane Eyre more understandable because it focuses on Rochester and makes his character comprehensible.  So who is Jane Eyre?  Ultimately this character and her motivations remain obscure, despite the fact that the novel is told in her voice.  One wonders if she is not typical of women of her time. Self-knowledge would have been hard to come by in a time when men wrote about women and told them what they were and who they had to be.  Jane becomes understandable only if one assumes that she internalized the myth of “Romantic Love” and the myth of women’s inferiority overlaid with a veneer of self-possession.

Jane Eyre is an abused woman who identified with her abuser, Mr. Rochester, and did not have the vocabulary to understand co-dependence. Only a woman of the nineteenth century would force a female character through such trials and subjected her to such sufferings with so little payoff.  Charlotte Brontë was a woman of little experience and much imagination and a great deal of insight for someone who lived such a limited and isolated life.  Her life resembled Jane’s to a certain extent in that she, too, had been sent away to a pitiless school for girls after her mother died.  She too had taught at a girls’ school, Roe Wood, and she was tethered to a difficult alcoholic brother, Bramwell, who was undoubtedly the model for “Rochester.”  The siblings and their father lived in the moors of Yorkshire where Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, published under a male pseudonym, “Currier Bell.”  For a brief time, she enjoyed some acclaim in London literary circles, she even married, but whatever happiness Brontë had was brief.  She died in 1855 of “exhaustion.”  Jane Eyre was the only notable book she wrote.  A long journey for not very much…for her, but for us, two centuries of Jane Eyre. She speaks to us still.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Battle L. A. (2011)

Searching for Los Angeles in Baton Rouge

Battle L. A. starts out like bad sex: hard, fast, and then rolls over and snores.  But do not despair, a Latina techie saves the world, so you go, girl.   Between the beginning and the end of the movie, I was completely distracted by the undeniable fact that Baton Rouge in is Louisiana and that Sherveport does not even remotely resemble Los Angeles.  It’s one thing to have Battle Duluth because few people live in Duluth and even fewer plan to visit, therefore, you could film Battle Duluth in Des Moines and no one would know the difference. But millions and millions of people live in the clutches of the sprawl of Los Angeles and we all know that Baton Rouge is no Los Angeles. So don’t make a movie titled Battle L. A. and film it in Louisiana.  Just sayin’.

I find movies that show aliens invading Los Angeles very disturbing.  After all, I live in Orange County and work in Los Angeles and anxiously look for landmarks that I know and love come under threat.  That is why in 2012, watching the Randy’s donut rolling down Manchester Boulevard is so agonizing—Randy’s is so close to where I work. But in Battle L. A., aliens land practically in my backyard and the college where I teach, Otis College of Art and Design, was at ground zero.  The Marines were moving down Lincoln Boulevard, evacuating the inhabitants of Santa Monica, including, supposedly me, my colleagues and all the art students.  I could just imagine all of us, fleeing the latest invasion of aliens and saying, “Didn’t we just see the same aliens in District 9?” and why are the special effects so bad?”

Leaving aside the disconcerting fact that aliens seem to be fixated on Los Angeles—I mean in War of the Worlds (1953), Gene Barry fought the machines in Puente Hills—I have to ask, since the filmmakers are from Hollywood, why can’t the get the geography of Los Angeles straight?  In 1996, aliens loomed above us in Independence Day and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum (whose sister is a very fine L. A. artist) saved the world.  In 1996, I was living in Laguna Hills a few miles from the El Toro, the site of the Marine Corps Air Station.  In one of its last missions before the base was closed, the Marine pilots were scrambled to shoot at the aliens.  So far, so good.  What confused me was the escape route taken by Will Smiths’ S. O., Vivica Fox: she took herself, her son, and her dog from Laguna Hills into Los Angeles where she managed to find one of the few traffic tunnels in the city.  Why, I kept asking myself, didn’t she just drive to Palm Springs instead of towards and into what would have to be the world’s greatest traffic jams?

In Battle L. A., I was puzzled at why the Marines from Camp Pendleton left their base to safeguard Los Angeles.  Why didn’t they go to San Diego where America’s Pacific fleet is based?  But noooo, as the late great John Belushi would say, they went to Shreveport so they could fight in Los Angeles.  For the entire film, I was trying to figure out where Aaron Eckhart and his manly men landed.  Now Santa Monica is a very posh little city.  Strung out along the Pacific Coast, the town boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world—million dollar cottages, prestige shopping, gourmet restaurants, bright blue skies, golden beaches, and lots and lots of pretty people driving fancy cars.


Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica

I did not see one building that looked like something built in L. A.  No distinctive landmarks were shown and I could not situate myself.  Where were these Marines?  The small heroic band appeared to be inland, but Santa Monica is a beach community.  They were fighting house-to-house in a run down neighborhood, but there are few houses under a million in Santa Monica.  Eventually I figured out that they must have started somewhere to the north or the south of the world-famous Jonathan Club on PCH.


Pacific Coast Highway

I came to that conclusion because they wanted to drive the bus they found—not one of the local Blue Buses so beloved in Santa Monica but a weird orange one—to a pickup point located at the Airport.  To do so they consulted a map, a paper map—who has those things any more?—and decided to drive on the 10 Freeway and go East. East on the 10 to the Santa Monica Airport?  They planned to exit on Robertson Boulevard, which is the location of  the diamond district in the heart of L. A.’s Orthodox neighborhood.  The Airport is in Santa Monica, that’s why they call it the Santa Monica Airport.  And it’s a couple of miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Oh well, never mind. Battle L. A. is a perfectly predictable movie. Watch it, but wait until it comes on cable.  And break out your map quest and see if you can help these lost Marines find the “Command and Control Center” hidden underneath Santa Monica? Under? There’s no “under” in L. A.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


Unknown (2011)

Unknown has no Unknowns

Any film that makes me think about Donald Rumsfeld is just bad to the bone.

As our late great Secretary of Defense once said…famously,

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

The only thing unknown about the horrible film is why Liam Neeson agreed to waste his time making this horrible movie. Rather than getting involved in peripheral issues, like whether or not January Jones was miscast, I want to explain why everything about this movie was known in the first five minutes.  There were no unknowns in Unknown.

The film begins with Liam Neeson, playing a botany professor, arriving at the airport in Berlin with his wife, January Jones.  He is coming to attend a prestigious conference and to meet with his colleagues and, most importantly, to give a paper.  First, he tells passport control that he is going to give a paper, something no self-respecting academic would do.  We are very modest people.  Second, he places his briefcase with his presentation on a luggage cart at the airport, and third, he leaves his briefcase with his presentation on said luggage cart at the airport and gets in a taxi and off he goes.  Now a real academic would never, never, never let anyone else touch his or her case, brief or otherwise, especially if it had a presentation in it.  Also a real academic would have the presentation on a backup CD, on a backup USB port, and on an e-mail sent to one’s account.  We are a very neurotic people.   Fourth, and last, a real academic would have to have a writing and publishing career stretching back twenty or thirty years and everyone in the field would know him or her by sight.

Any smart person would immediately know, therefore, that Liam Neeson was a fake and that he was really someone else, not the person he says he is.  Also I have seen this plot before, but I can’t remember the movie—where the protagonist gets amnesia and thinks he is the person he was supposed to play.  Therefore, the only unknown element in this dreadful two hours is why didn’t the filmmakers do their basic research and, like, talk to a real academic, you know?

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger





The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Free Will Hunting

Although Philip K. Dick is a writer who is also a philosopher pondering the meaning of existence, he has been a rich source for science fiction material.  The original material for The Adjustment Bureau was about a shiver in the universe as a seemingly meaningless event was “adjusted.” The only witness to the adjustment simply went home and got on with his life.  But the greatness of the existential story by Dick rests within the reader who wonders, once again, why life turns out the way it does.  Is there a master plan for all of us? Is there anyone in charge?

Such a question is naïve and immature, a child’s need for reassurance that there reasons for the world being the way it is.  The fact is that there is no master plan, we don’t learn from our mistakes or from history, and the universe is pitiless and arbitrary.  I prefer the philosophy of Terminator: “The only fate is the one you make.”  The Adjustment Bureau attempts to be as gutsy as Terminator as the protagonist tries to make his own fate but all it has going for it is the lovely pairing of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and hats, lots of hats.  Magic hats, magic hats that open doors.

Need I say more?

Not really, but I just want to add that this could have been an interesting movie. Many people have life changing and life altering decisions to make and one of the most fateful decisions is marriage.  In the film, Matt Damon, a possible President in the making, learns from his new friend at the Adjustment Bureau that he will never want political power again if he marries the woman he loves.  Unilaterally, he decides to pursue love but he never tells Emily Blunt that, if she stays with him, she will not become the “most famous choreographer in the world.”  He takes for himself all the free will he wants but grants her none of it.  Just come with me he says, and she follows along, thanks to the magic hat, through magic doors.  And, of course, at the end of the journey, yes, Virginia, there is a Magic Man Upstairs.  Each one of us has a little book with a plan in it. How comforting.

But why not let the couple just talk about their choices? Fame, fortune or marriage?  The movie stated that Damon would have been so happy that he would have lost the desire to be president in his marriage.  However, it was made clear that Blunt would see all her dreams and ambitions thwarted and no one mentions happiness for her.  Damon seems to assume that she would be wiling to forego all her dreams for him.  What a great twist the film could have had if she had been apprised of her choices and if she decided, no, I need to dance for the rest of my life more than I need you.  The movie could have ended there, the universe shuttered and time reshuffled back to the launching of Damon’s presidential career.  The end.

As the presence of Mad Men’s John Slattery warns us, The Adjustment Bureau is an old-fashioned romance.  Love is more important than a career.  Now that’s a Fifties idea.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


The King’s Speech (2010)

The Kings of 1937

The King’s Speech is the true story of the struggle of Albert, the Duke of York, to overcome his stuttering.  Stuttering, often a problem for males, is connected to the boy’s conflict with his father, a literalized expression of the oppression of an abusive parent.  The parent in question was George V, King of England, who eerily resembled his cousin, Nicholas, Czar of Russia.  For all his faults, Nicholas appears to have been a devoted parent, but George did something quite dreadful to his sons, David and Albert. His dark and difficult presence lurks around the edges of The King’s Speech.  The King, played by Michael Gambon,  ruined the one son who would briefly become the King and nearly destroyed the younger one, who, in his turn, would also become the sovereign who won the love of the British public.  Colin Firth, who will always be “Mr. Darcy,” won an Academy Award for his performance, revealing how a tormented Duke rose above his handicap and grew into his role as King.  The metamorphosis of a man who dared not speak into the leader of a nation at war became a fulfilling film, well written and well acted by the pros, Helen Boham Carter, and the remarkable Geoffrey Rush.

Although The King’s Speech is generally uplifting and inspiring, winning Best Picture and Best Director, it suggests that there is still another movie to be made, much darker but more intriguing, about the uneasy characters seen only around the edges, David Windsor, played by Guy Pearce, and his paramour, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).  To a certain extent, this corrupt couple acted as a foil to Albert and Elizabeth’s wholesomeness, their determined ordinariness and their good hearts.  While Albert works with his speech coach, Lionel Lougue, played by Geoffrey Rush, and give himself permission to simply speak and overcome his internalized feelings of shame and inadequacy, his playboy brother cavorted with nefarious characters and carried on a serious flirtation with the fascists in England and Germany.

Although the timing was bad and the ruler of Germany was a monster, the loyalty of the Prince of Wales toward Germany was a perfectly natural one.  One tends to forget that the British Royal Family has not had English or Scottish roots since George I from Hanover was offered the throne in 1714.  Although George spent most of his time in Germany, spoke German and was surrounded by German advisors, he had the saving grace of being a Protestant.  After “Bloody Mary,” no one in England wanted a Catholic on the throne. Anyone else would do.  Not until George III, who gets rather bad press in America, did these German kings become British.  It is this King, mad for part of his life, who began the British Empire, ironically by losing the American colonies, turning the attention of the imperialists elsewhere.  Queen Victoria, the last of the Hanoverians,  married another German, Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha.

The family remained thoroughly German, through Edward VII and his son, the future King of England, Albert. Albert was ready to marry a German princess, Mary of Teck, when he died of pneumonia.  But Mary, considered a valuable alliance, was passed on to the younger son, George, who became King George V.  With a German mother, both sons, David and Albert, grew up speaking German. However, during the Great War, King George V changed the family name from “Saxe-Coburg Gotha” to “Windsor.”  Although the film mentions that young Albert, the future George VI, was forced to use his right hand (Prince William is allowed to be left handed) and had to wear painful braces to correct his walk, it is unclear who was in charge of the children.  Given their duties as King and Queen, it is likely that his parents merely neglected their sons, particularly the younger one, and abandoned him to severe minders and nannies. For whatever reasons, both David and Albert, both reacted strongly to their childhood and to their parents.

Often a young boy, in rebelling against his father, will develop an attachment to his mother that manifests itself in interesting ways.  Young David grew up to be a playboy, rejecting a serious role as the future ruler and developing a penchant for older married women as his lovers.  The fact that he was conflicted about sex is borne out by the many tales of his complicated relationship with Wallis Simpson. This twice-married woman from Baltimore with a drawling southern accent seemed to understand that abused people identify with an abuser and that this co-dependent relationship, unhealthy as it is, is also very powerful.  Apparently, she was a dominatrix and satisfied the otherwise impotent Prince through humiliation.  Her reputation was so bad that the government kept Mrs. Simpson a secret from the British public, which docilely endured censorship and even put up with bits and pieces sissored out of foreign media entering the country.  The British government knew exactly who she was: a woman who collected men and had connections to Nazis in Germany.

The King’s Speech doesn’t go into what the British government did and did not do about this unsavory situation between the future king and his unacceptable mistress, but the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (played by Anthony Andrews, looking old and awful), did not want this man to be King.  Coincidentally or not, it is at the point that the romance has taken hold and looks permanent that Albert the shy Duke of York comes to Lionel Logue to learn how to talk. The film suggests that his wife, Elizabeth, urged him to seek help from the Australian but there is also no question that the eyes of the government were upon him as a far better candidate for King.  When Albert’s father died, David was deeply involved with Mrs. Simpson who certainly had dreams of becoming Queen or gaining a position similar to Camilla’s today.  The new King, now Edward VIII, also certainly assumed that some sort of arrangement for Mrs. Simpson could be made.

But the government was having none of it: Baldwin wanted both of these people gone; Roosevelt wanted both of these people gone.  The King and his mistress were Nazi sympathizers but why?  Despite the fact that the Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s grandson, the British had gone to war with the Germans from 1914 to 1918 and, for two decades, had harbored deep suspicions about the intentions of the defeated nation.  Edward VIII may have invented the Windsor Knot, now the standard tie for most men, but, in his heart, he was as German as his mother.  It seems that what little judgment he had was overwhelmed by his need to be his own man and to defy his father, who had changed the family name.  Unfortunately, in the thirties, having cultural German sympathies meant being connected to Hitler.

Based on recently revealed F.B. I. files, new evidence of American and British investigations of the Nazi sympathies of the couple were revealed two years ago on British television. The National Geographic Channel picked up the program.  But what is  not given is a historical context for their involvement.  In the thirties, fascism was favored by many people, particularly those in the ruling classes who feared communism.  Wallis was more typical of many people in Europe and America in the 1930s in a time when political extremes were torn between communism and fascism.  After the Wall Street crash, capitalism seemed an unstable system and any other system was perhaps preferable.  In America, Roosevelt made a conscious effort to save capitalism and, along with it, democracy.  Hitler who was elected in the same year as Roosevelt made another choice—fascism, an extreme right wing style of nationalism allied with corporation powers.

Many people, if not outright fascists, had fascist-like sympathies.  After all, Mussolini made the trains run on time.  Wallis seems to have been as naïve as her consort about the Nazis and blind to the underlying philosophy of horror that would sweep Germany into a decade of darkness.  But Hitler had apparently spotted the couple as easily manipulated.  One remembers how deeply Hitler was convinced that Germany and England were natural allies and that he waited a long time before attacking the British Isles.  One could ask if Hitler had been equally naïve, thinking that the former King had more power than he actually had.

Reading between the lines of the brief rule of Edward VIII, it appears that while Albert was taking speech lessons, Baldwin and the government were cornering the King.  He was given a choice give up Mrs. Simpson or abdicate.  To everyone’s relief, he abdicated in 1937 to “marry the woman I love.”  How romantic.  Albert became King George VI.  David became the Duke of Windsor and married Wallis Simpson in France.  The modest wedding was quite rightly boycotted by the Royal Family. The Duke alternately raged at his brother the King and at the new Queen, but, in reality, the new prime minister, Churchill, was now in charge of the difficult Duke.   It is at this point that the film ends with Edward VIII making his abdication speech with perfect diction.  In a moving counterpoint, King George VI makes the triumphal and climatic speech without stuttering, introducing himself to the English people as their new King.

For an American audience, The King’s Speech is a story of how one man overcame an impediment with the help of a gifted and inventive and insightful teacher.  But to those who heard that historic speech, there must have been a great sense of relief.  They were in good hands.  Surely the public did not know, until much later, what a narrow escape they had from a King who indeed wanted to surrender England to Hitler.  Instead, they got a good King and Queen and their lovely daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, all steadfast in their defiance of Germany.  Rather than a King cavorting with Hitler, as David actually did when he became the Duke of Windsor, newspapers printed images of a truly English King in uniform walking the ruins of bombed out London.  The public would not know, until much later, that the Duke had actually recommended that Hitler bomb England to bring the nation to its knees…so he could be restored to the throne.

The King’s Speech is correctly the story of Lionel Logue and Albert Windsor but it is interesting to think of the story that is played out in the background: the King that didn’t happen.  Guy Pearce had a small role but the brief appearance of “David and Wallis” is a reminder that the real story of this insidious couple has yet to be made into a movie.  The twin stories, of the Good Brother and the Bad Brother, is one of the rare instances in history when Good wins out and Bad is sent into a purgatory of wandering the world in a semi-pariah state.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger




The Tourist (2010)


If The Tourist was a novel, it would be fitted into a paper cover colored in pinks and lavender.  Pure silly fun, sheer soft-core girl porn, The Tourist is a romance novel, the escapist fare of house-bound wives.  There is a beautiful woman (Angelina Jolie), a handsome man (Johnny Depp), a relentless detective (Paul Bettany) and his boss (former Bond, Timothy Dalton) and Rufus Sewell as The Red Herring, all gathered together on a Venice vacation.  Gondolas, speedboats, fancy dress balls, and elegant hotels abound with gunplay and chase scenes silhouetted against beautiful scenery.  The Tourist has an absurd plot with an improbable twist at the end, demanding that you believe in everlasting love and the fable of “Brazilian plastic surgery” that cost $20 million.  Can a serious-minded critic dismiss such a candy-box film?  Not me.  I ate the bon-bons, thank you very much.

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

True Grit (2010)


Despite all the good and glowing reviews of the Coen Brothers latest film, I did  not like True Grit. I was bored.

So what bothered me?

Why did I leave feeling unsatisfied and irritated?

But a few words before I diagnose.  First, let me disclose my intellectual failings: I do not read fiction; I read only non-fiction.  Therefore, I have never read the Charles Portis book.  Second, Westerns died and were decently buried in the Sixties.  The only good westerns after the Fifties were the “Spaghetti Westerns” and other Clint Eastwood films, especially the truly great Unforgiven. Third, the Coen Brothers have already done their western. It was called No Country for Old Men and it was as great as Unforgiven, and, yes, I actually read the Cormac McCarthy book.  Which brings me to True Grit…

True Grit, 2010

For any director, writer, or actor, the “Western” is a minefield of dangers.  In the Twenty-first century, we are too well-educated to accept the Cold War myth of the West as the symbol of America, a nation founded on individual enterprise and, of course, “true grit.”  The real facts have been thoroughly revealed since John Wayne and Kim Darby made the clean and shiny film of 1969.  The West was a place where misfits washed up on the plains, a site where sociopaths and post-war drifters, whores and prostitutes, and opportunists created an out-of-control society we called “wild.”

The period of True Grit is the opening years of the Wild West when Arkansas was still the frontier, a time when the West was suddenly up for grabs and the place where the East sent its worst citizens and its sorriest losers.  We can measure the depths of the desperation and perversity of the West by the wild and immoral scramble for “free land” and the willingness of the American government, brutalized by four years of war, to countenance genocide of the Native Americans.  The West can no longer be mythologized.  There is no reason to feel sentimental about one of the most shameful periods in American history, much less to celebrate its passing in an “elegic” tone, to use one of the words written by many critics in relation to this film.



The best path of a Twenty-first Century Western is to humanize the inhabitants and to tell the truth about how the West was really “won.”  The reluctance to deal with the West as it really was only continues to hide a story that is truly compelling—how people discarded from the East built an entirely new political and social system that rose out of the ashes of crimes of theft and killing and inhumanity.  To be fair, truth was not the purpose of the Portis novel, and the Coen Brothers seem to have had modest goals: to give a “straight-up” account of the original novel.  The book is a more elegant and formal retelling of turn of the century pulp fiction.  I suspect that in this day and age such a re-telling would be difficult to recapture, even in the inspired hands of the Coens.

How could the tone of the past be recreated?  From the first time we see the town in the opening scenes—an Arkansas frontier town—the film looks false.  The buildings look like Hollywood sets on a back lot in the Fifties.  Now, this too-clean too-fake appearance may be intentional on the part of the Coens, and, if so, I applaud their intentions.  Too pristine, neat and tidy, the town of True Grit has the look and the feel of a simulacra—a copy of a copy of a copy, a free-floating signifier of a “reality” that was never real.  Simulacra work best as stilled images and are extremely difficult to pull off in a film.  In his early days, Quentin Tarentino was the master at activating simulacra, especially in Reservoir Dogs, one of the best film noir movies of the neo-noir period.  That said, True Grit is, at its heart, as the Coen Brothers indicated on Charlie Rose, a “young adult” novel.  True Grit is not a road movie, not a quest movie, not a journey into adulthood movie, not a redemption movie.   It is much more simple: it is about a young girl who leaves home, a remarkable event in the 1870s.  But the film turns into a male-oriented ham fest with a plucky young girl as spectator to the antics of lost and broken men in simulacra of a “western.”

Charles Portis novel

If the Coen Brothers were aiming for simulacra, then the acting let them down.  Once the plot leaves the fake town and moves out into the hardscrabble frontier of Choctaw Country, the look becomes more authentic and bleak.  The original Portis plot is fine but the characters are difficult to translate from the printed page to live action.  The actors are trapped—or trapped themselves—into characterizations, which lead them to hamming it up.  Each character is an archetype of the Old West, but what emerges is a stereotype—-the plucky little girl of the west, the old man who has become a professional killer, a Buffalo Bill Bounty Hunter, the sociopathic gunslinger and outlaw, and assorted colorful characters that come and go with little effect.  It’s a dangerous mix of the familiar, and Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin put on their Wild West costumes, climb on their horses, and go over the top.

The “Rooster Cogburn” character is unfortunately played for comic effect by a self-indulgent Jeff Bridges.   While Bridges is a much finer actor than John Wayne, he comes across like “The Dude” who has wandered into a Western   movie.  Brolin, also a fine actor, turns Tom Chaney into a moronic killer, hardly worthy of a quest, much less relentless pursuit.  One wonders how such a mouth breather—mere debris—could have eluded the bounty hunter, Le Boeuf, aka “Le Beef.”  Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon are the only actors in this film whose performances are centered and grounded and should be given credit for holding the storyline together.  I believe that Brolin and Bridges should have followed the lead of Steinfeld and Damon and played their roles straight.  Instead of being so self-consciously “in a movie,” the bounty hunter and the outlaw could have been authentic, played like a pair of damaged men leading deranged lives.  They were two sides of the same coin; the same trained killer split into two paths.  One man found his humanity and the other lost his.

It remains to be seen if I am right about this film—that the audience will be bored.  I will be watching the numbers on the attendance, instead of reading the reviews.   That said, I would be surprised if Jeff Bridges does not get nominated for an Academy Award, like John Wayne.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Tron: Legacy (2010)

WE ARE TRON (2010)

Tron: Legacy is the movie of the year.  Tron: Legacy makes Avatar look like Walt Disney’s Cinderella from 1950.  Many critics have complained that Tron: Legacy is a film for “fan boys” only.  They are wrong. Roger Ebert pondered the probability of the physics of being sucked into a computer.  He is old.  For people of all genders and ages who love art and computers and video games—and that’s a lot of us—Tron: Legacy is simply an amazing and enthralling experience.  I am a girl and I went with a girlfriend and we went to IMAX 3D—we went all out—spent all our girl dollars—and I would go again.  If you are looking for a story, look elsewhere: this film is an allegory of the Internet.  If you are looking for plausibility, move on: this movie is a purely optical event.  Just open your eyes and allow yourself to be drawn into the world of “Tron” and “Clu.”

Discussing the Making  of Tron: Legacy,

tron poster


Steven Lisberger commented that it was as if the original fans of the first Tron had to grow up and become executives at Disney for the sequel to be made.  But, more importantly, as Lisberger pointed out, we understand the basic concepts about computers much better.  We entered into the arcade game via an “avatar,” a vague term then, but now we all have avatars on the Internet, either through our logos or by playing Second Life.  Although inspired by the game “Pong,” the games in Tron were played by two humanoid figures rather than by bouncing white dots and the action took place over a flat grid that, like a Flat Earth, had ends and edges and one could fall off or out.

Today, we think of the Grid as the Internet, which is a verbalization of the Grid, which looks like, of course, a net.  This net, imagined by “Kevin Flynn,” is endless and self-evolving, propelled by the will of “Clu” the avatar and doppelganger of the CEO of Encon.  Clu was programmed to find perfection, but in his quest towards purity and logic—sought after by all programmers—he has committed genocide against the innocent ISOs.  Quorra (Olivia Wilde) is the only survivor of the spontaneously generated creatures and is sheltered by “Kevin Flynn.”  “Clu2” summons the son of “Flynn,” young “Sam,” (Garrett Hedlund) now in his late twenties and lures him back into the game.  Father and son are reunited, father sacrifices himself to save the son and the ISO so that the two can head towards the light and escape back to the real world.  The story is a mere armature for the art.   But this is postmodern art, a hybrid of quotations from twentieth century art, a true bricoulage.

This Tron is dark, shades of blacks and grays, slivered with streaks of light.  The key colors (like my website) are black and Tiffany blue. Unlike the original, which was an arcade game come to life, the technology of today allows the film to become a work of art.  The director, Joseph Kosinski, was very frank about the fact that the new Tron with its new grid, its new server, was built from the ground up.  He storyboarded each shot, thinking in terms of choreography—the placement of the characters within the Grid like three-dimensional chess.  The built environment was an art project.  “If you’re not interested in design,” Kosinski said, “you wouldn’t be interested in working with this film.”  The fabled Grid has grown over the past twenty-eight years and the rather sparse landscape of the original quadrille has developed beyond the old office-like cubicles into a city with a mountainous landscape beyond.  Indeed, the entire world had to be designed by Ben Procter, the art director, and stretched out in a map.  A moat or an Infinite Void, lurks for those who fall off the connecting bridges, and surrounds the Downtown City.  The Safe House where the older and wiser “Kevin Flynn” hides is in the mountains and the Outlands stretch out to the Sea of Simulation (Baudrillard would love this film).

The Safe House is one of the few places in the film where actual sets could exist.  Designed by Darren Gilford who described the futuristic home as a “hideout,” the House has the ethos of the love child of Charles Eames and Philippe Starck crossed with the refuge of Dr. Dave Bowman from 2001. The original Rococo furniture was a reimagining by Lin McDonald who lit the chairs from the inside with rope lights.  Indeed the entire glass floor, which had to hold the weight of the actors and the equipment, was uplit. All the furniture, the Eames armchair and ottoman, the Mies chaise longue (the 670) and Barcelona chair, the Arco lamp by Achille Castiglioni, were white and silver.  The pale fire in the white fireplace was a silver waterfall.  Olivia Wilde pointed out that these sets, which created an alternative world, were a welcome surprise in a film that could have been mostly green screen.  But nothing in the architecture of the Safe House, designed by Kevin Ishioka (who was the supervising art director) and Jan Kobylka, was precisely otherworldly—it was the blacks, grays and whites that gave the set its spectral look, reminding the viewer that this world had no natural light.

Light in furniture and costumes

Olivia Wilde lounging on a luminous Rococo sofa

If we take this concept of being literally within the computer, the logic of the set design and the costumes become clear.  The computer has its own internal light system.  The screen is lit from within; the keyboard will light up when you are typing in the dark.  This is the light that substitutes for the sun in the land of The Grid.  People, or humanoid computer programs, are dressed all in black or white in skin-tight suits of neoprene.  These suits are “electro-luminous,” meaning that flexible lamps are inserted into channels on the sides of the rubber like costumes.  The light literally outlines the body’s shape, making the wearer visible.  According to Wilde, it took months of training to look good in the suit and hours every day to get into the outfit.  She was “proud” to wear the suit, which made her feel like a “warrior.”  Christine Clark, who designed the costumes with Michael Wilkinson, explained that the tight-fitting suits were based on the actors’ actual bodies and were kitted out with flexible lighting that had never been used on such a large scale before.   The light in the suits acts like the characters—the typed numbers and letters—on a monitor, one of those old fashioned Eighties screens that were backlit in green.  The skeletal outlines also link the humans to the machines, because the people and the machines they make are psychically connected—they have become us.  And we have become them.

For those of us who saw the original Tron—-the few of us—-in 1982, the old familiar leads are back, Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, but other characters are missing.  Sark (David Warner) and Yori (Cindy Morgan) are gone.  Gone as well are all the array of Eighties pastels as are the complex designs on the body suits.

Yori and Clu

complex suit design

However, the 1950s grids on glass by Irene Pereira of the original Tron survived and can be seen in the film’s theme song video, “Derezzed” by Daft Punk.

painting on glass by Irene Pereria

Night by Irene Pereria

The current Tron is cleaned up and the colors are carefully and judiciously deployed and separated to indicate the worlds of good (the forces of “Kevin Flynn”)—blue—and evil (the forces of his evil twin, “Clu2”)—orange.  They fight each other by slinging the deadly identity discs that are magnetized to the back of the black suit and with the Light Cycles.  To mount a Light Cycle, one has merely to assume the position and the Light Cycle will manifest itself under you and off you go.  In the original Tron, the contests were rather staid versions of throwing the disc or catching it with a jai alai stick and the motorcycle races were strictly on a grid of straight lines.  Like the Grid, in Tron: Legacy, the Light Cycles have evolved into longer leaner and meaner machines, less blunt-nosed and utilitarian than their grandfathers.  The Light Cycles swoop and soar and leave trails of light like exhaust.  Unlike the straight-edged and geometric predecessor, this Tron is feminine and curvilinear, taking its cues, like the earlier version, from Star Wars: The New Hope. There are the aerodynamic dog-fights and the panoramic shots of marching soldiers, gathered together for war by “Clu2” and even the bar scene, one of the most awful and copied scenes in the history of film.

original tron

1982 version of the Grid

The bar cum disco and nightclub is where we meet the last and strangest character of the film, Michael Sheen’s white clad “Castor/Zuse.  Although it is a relief to see Michael Sheen play someone other than Tony Blair, his character is such a flaming hodge-podge of previous characters, from Ziggy Stardust to Gary Oldman’s “Dracula” to Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies in Cabaret, that I will lie awake many nights trying to figure out all the references.  The real fun of the End of the Line club scene is the brief appearance of the Daft Punk as helmeted DJs, head bobbing to their own music.  The heroes of French electronica, Daft Punk, aka Guy-Manuel de Homen-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, never really “appear” and they always wear disguises.  Best known for “One More Time,” Daft Punk are more like Street Artists in that they prefer to keep their real appearance on the down low.  We see them in Tron: The Legacy but only in passing, performing “Derezzed,” which is what happens to you when you lose the game in Tron Land: you are shattered into millions of tiny splinters and, like your computer, you crash.

Daft Punk had to be persuaded to take on the project of doing the sound track for Tron: Legacy.  For the highly successful musicians, working on the film meant taking two years off from touring.  However, as the video of “One More Time” suggests, Daft Punk is interested in filmmaking.  The team worked with a full orchestra, fusing electronic music with classical instruments, from flutes to French horns to Bassoons.  The result is a sound track that is somewhat reminiscent of the work of the German group, Tangerine Dream, on the soundtrack of Risky Business, but unlike Tangerine Dream, Daft Punk can go harder and grittier and there are tracks on the sound track album (number eight) that have the hard grinding sound that sometimes comes out of Digweed.  The soundtrack makes the movie take off like the Light Cycles.

Notice I have paid little attention to the story, for I consider the plot incidental to the special effects, the artistry and the new form of making art.  Although it is nice to see Bruce Boxleitner holding up better than Jeff Bridges after twenty eight years, the real miracle is the remarkable way in which the old Jeff Bridges is transformed into the young Jeff Bridges through digital effects.  I am aware that other reviewers have made snide commends about Botox and plastic surgery, but, in my opinion, the transformation of the actor works in the film. “Clu2” is a perfectly acceptable digital character because the entire movie takes place inside a computer; therefore, everyone has to look like the computer version of oneself.  “Clu” is an avatar, as are all the other programs in the film.  Their bodily perfection, their agelessness is not about computer programs which age quickly and are outdated and discarded without remorse but more about us and what we would like our lives to be, how we would like to always look, what we “really” are in our own minds.

What is nice is that “Clu” does not look like the young Jeff Bridges but like the old one without the aging—the bags under the eyes, the wrinkles, the shaggy gray beard, the thinning hair, etc.  The women, by comparison, all look frozen in the prime time of models, which is about seventeen.  Their makeup is flawless and will, I predict, set some new styles along with the costumes.  Already there are Tron platform heels coming to a store near you any day now.  The point is that these avatars are who we could become if only…we could find the time to exercise, the time to diet, the time to ride around on cool looking motor cycles or wear those terribly uncomfortable platform heels.  The avatars are allegories of our fantasy selves. Computer games are places we enter into to escape the real world of pending unemployment, of disappointment in real life human relations, of financial peril, and all the other Shakespearean “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  We want to be like “Clu2” in looks but like “Kevin Flynn” in wisdom.  We want to be like “Quorra” in her innocence and her untroubled perfection.  We want to be like “Sam Flynn” who is a young hero on a quest who must pass mythic tests and perform great deeds before he can become a man.

original suits

1980s colors

So disregard the lame reviews.  Also ignore the Disney merchandising.  But buy the soundtrack.  Awesome.  Tron: Legacy is a prime example of a phenomenon I have been observing for some time now—the flow of cultural capital and creative energy away from “high” art and into popular culture.  The leap from Avatar to Tron: Legacy is enormous but it measures the speed of the drive to create art inside the matrix of the computer, the new art world.   The computer is the site of the new avant-garde.

We are the users.

Oh, and the avatar, “Tron,” barely appears in Tron: Legacy. Who fights for the users now?

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger