Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
This week the United States and China signed a landmark agreement to curb carbon emissions in an effort to get global warming under control. Though for years the warnings of scientists have fallen on the deaf ears of politicians, reason has finally broken though. We can only hope it is not too late, and that the anti-intellectualism of popular media news outlets who believe that ignorance deserves “equal time” does not derail the process. If we have waited too long, the scenario that begins Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar may prove all too prescient.
Unfortunately, the disaster that precipitated this blighted earth on which the former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is forced to attempt to scratch out a living for himself and his family—a world we are introduced to through an opening series of interviews with elderly folks who sound as if they are describing the dust bowl of the 1930s—is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Cooper must defend his daughter Murph (named for “Murphy’s Law”) against officials from her school who complain that she is discrediting the section in her history textbook that claims the Apollo moon landings were faked by the U.S. in order to drive the Soviet Union to collapse in trying to keep up in the “space race.” While the scene likely parodies the kind of rewriting of history demanded by school boards in certain benighted U.S. states, where books that don’t conform to the party line cannot be used in public schools, the implication that citizens of the U.S. blame scientists for the climate debacle is ludicrous: it is the debunkers of science, not the scientists, who have brought climate change upon us. So in this way the film is politically disingenuous.
To be fair, or at least a little bit more fair, the focus of the film is not on the cause of the disaster. It is focused on the desperate solution: Cooper and Murph are able to interpret a cryptic communication from what the girl thinks at first is a Poltergeist in her bedroom, which leads them to the secret underground headquarters of what remains of NASA, still covertly (and insufficiently) funded by the government despite the popular resentment of scientists. Here Cooper meets his former mentor, Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine, Nolan’s Dark Knight Alfred), who explains that years earlier NASA sent three individual astronauts through a wormhole discovered near Saturn into a planetary system in a galaxy millions of light years away, and is about to send a full crew on a larger mission to explore each of the previously earmarked planets in that system to find which is most suitable for human habitation. Finding the right world, Brand asserts, will allow NASA (if Brand himself can figure out the right formula that takes into account the “problem of gravity”) to launch a kind of spaceship ark to carry surviving earthlings to that planet and save them from the earth’s imminent demise (Plan A), or at least deliver a collection of human embryos to be born on the new planet and perpetuate the species (Plan B). Thus the implicit point of the movie is that space exploration is not only a worthwhile but possibly even a necessary investment for our future. The suggestion that the government’s downsizing of the NASA budget when public opinion saw no need for space travel any more once the practical political objective of whipping the Russkies was achieved was a mistake may well be accurate, and Cooper’s assertion that human beings have always been explorers appeals to an undeniable aspect of human nature: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down at our place in the dirt,” he argues convincingly at one point. But Nolan takes what seems to me an unsuccessful approach in having what apparently is the entire scientific community left in American working on a hugely expensive and almost certainly futile project of transporting huge populations over trillions of miles, while apparently no one at all is trying to figure out how to make things better on earth and save the planet. “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it,” says Brand at one point. Well, I have to reject his frame. How does he know what we are “meant” to do? And which course seems likelier to achieve some kind of success?
Former astronaut Cooper, who left NASA as a result of some debacle hinted at early in the movie but never clarified, is urged by Brand to pilot the Endurance, a large spinning vessel built to take a crew through the wormhole to the other galaxy. On board will be Brand’s own daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway), who it turns out has her own agenda, which I can’t say much about without spoiling the plot, and two other scientists, Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), who, if you’ve watched enough episodes of Star Trek, you must recognize as cannon fodder. And so Cooper must choose: he knows that a trip of this sort, in which at times he must be traveling close to the speed of light, time will pass more slowly for him than for his children, and that by the time he returns (if he returns) he may be the same age as his daughter. Brand must realize that he is not likely to live long enough to see his own daughter’s return. Cooper must make a parallel choice: to save the human race, he must sacrifice his relationship with his family. He makes the only choice he can, for the greater good, and the Endurance sets off for its interstellar journey.
Indeed at one point in the journey, the astronauts are compelled to make a landing on a world circling the edge of a black hole, and the extreme gravitational effects of the back hole (causing what physicists call “gravitational time dilation”) create a situation whereby a single hour on the planet’s surface is equal to seven years’ time on earth—ensuring that if Cooper does return to Murph, it will be far later than he had hoped. The science of the film is complex and some viewers may find it a bit of a slog, but it is legitimate science—respected theoretical physicist Kip Thorne worked with Nolan as consultant and executive producer. But on the human level, the wrenching misery of Cooper’s desire to make it back to Murph is one of the true and powerful aspects of the film.
For there are two poles around which this movie revolves. One of them is the repeated motto “Anything that can happen will happen,” which the film incorrectly identifies as “Murphy’s Law,” after which Cooper’s daughter Murph is named. In fact, of course, Murphy’s Law says that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”—a much different assertion, since it suggests the near-impossibility of anything turning out as planned. While in some ways that maxim may apply to the voyage of the Endurance, it is not the direction of Nolan’s plot. The film’s motto, “Anything that can happen will happen,” is in fact a truism of quantum physics, and underscores the surprising possibilities made manifest by quantum mechanics—possibilities that boggle the ordinary imagination. Such a maxim makes us believe that, far-fetched as it may be, the voyage of the Endurance is at least possible, and the success of that mission not inconceivable. But no one in the film has yet mtnioned an important qualifier of that maxim as usually expressed by physicists: given an infinite amount of time, anything that can happen will happen. The crew of the Endurance more than aware, however, that they so not have an infinite amount of time. For them time, like fuel, is a limited resource. And that severely limits the likelihood of their success.
The film’s other pole is the sentiment, first expressed by Amelia, that sometimes important decisions can’t be made based solely on logic alone, but we must listen to our heart as well as our head, and there are times when the heart must triumph. Apparently this applies particularly to making a determination, between two possible courses of action, as to which is more likely to save the human race. In her case, she is discussing romantic love, but the same principle must apply to Cooper’s love for Murph. It may seem as if the pole of scientific fact is irreconcilable with the pole of love conquering all, but in fact, if it is true that anything that can happen will happen, then the mysterious force of love may act as a force as powerful as gravity in determining the outcome of a situation, and the two poles may come together like the two ends of a wormhole.
There are laudable things going on in this movie. The science is fascinating and far more challenging than the run-of-the-mill science-fiction flick. The emphasis on the power of human love may seem a bit hokey but is actually welcome in this otherwise grim technological world. And the cinematography and special effects are generally up to the standard an audience has a right to expect with an epic science-fiction extravaganza like Interstellar: alien planetary landscapes are remarkably realistic, especially a tidal wave mistaken for a mountain range at one point. Performances are noteworthy: McConaughey is sympathetic as the reluctant and divided hero. Mackenzie Foy is very believable as the ten-year old Murph, and Jessica Chastain is remarkable playing the grown-up Murph, a chip off the old block who has in some ways replaced Amelia in Professor Brand’s life (not really a spoiler, since it’s easy to see coming). Michael Caine as Brand has sufficient gravity for the part (sorry about that pun), and in a small part as Cooper’s father-in-law, John Lithgow is suitably wise and cranky. In a surprise pivotal role that is nearly a cameo, Matt Damon manages to win our sympathy and our disdain at the same time.
But the talented Casey Affleck seems wasted in the role of Cooper’s embittered son. He’s given little to do. Anne Hathaway seems somewhat miscast, perhaps too vulnerable to be the super-rational, determined trailblazer off to save the world. At the same time her character makes some disastrous emotional decisions, so maybe it’s not Hathaway but the character who’s hard to believe.
I found some other aspects of the film unappealing and occasionally downright annoying. In a few spots, particularly toward the end of this nearly three-hour epic, the visuals were quite unremarkable. In scenes where characters are traveling through a black hole or spending time in another dimension, the cinematography seemed to lack imagination. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is filled with swelling crescendos at several points, sometimes at moments that are not particularly climactic, and sometimes, annoyingly, so loud that I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying. But maybe that’s just my age talking.
Interstellar is also a highly allusive film: Nolan is constantly channeling previous cinematic works, particularly in the sci-fi genre, but likes to reference literature as well. It may be that the surname of chief NASA scientist Brand is an allusion to the title character of Henrik Ibsen’s poetic drama of the same name. Ibsen’s Brand is a fanatical clergyman who sacrifices everything, including his own child, to his uncompromising vision. More conspicuous but less successful are the repeated voice-over repetitions of Dylan Thomas’s classic “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” dropped in at various points in the movie. The trouble with this is, of course, that the poem has nothing to do with what’s going on on the screen. The speaker of Thomas’s poem addresses his father, and urges him not to passively slip into death but to “rage against the dying of the light.” Are we supposed to think of the Endurance mission as humankind’s “raging” against their own demise? In the first place, they are not raging, and in the second place, they’re trying to prevent the extinction of the race, not fighting an impossible battle against individual mortality. The poem is distractingly misapplied.
There are reminders, as well, of earlier films like Steven Spielberg’sClose Encounters of the Third Kind, Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, andM. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. But the strongest allusions are to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the wisecracking computer TARS, who turns out to be more helpful and less malevolent that 2001’s HAL (but who looks in fact like one of Kubrick’s monoliths), to the revolving spaceships that in both films set out for Saturn and which both contain hibernating crew members, to the overall thematic concern for the evolution of the human race, this film constantly alludes to Kubrick’s. Even the ending of Interstellar—dealing like Kubrick’s with a return to earth—is reminiscent of 2001, but here is where Interstellar essentially falls short. Though deliberately less confusing than Kubrick’s ending, Nolan’s lacks the beauty, the wonder, and the mythic transcendence of 2001. Instead, for me, it was the most disappointing aspect of the film: I found the last twenty minutes or so to be, well, silly. It may be true that in a quantum universe, anything that can happen will happen, but I’m pretty sure that what happens in the end of this film is not something that can happen. Nothing really makes sense, not because the science is too complicated but because it involves no actual science at all. Rather than referencing 2001, the movie’s denouement draws, instead, on Disney’s far-fetched and unmemorably ludicrous The Black Hole.
Ultimately, though the film features some fine performances and occasionally remarkable cinematography, I was finally put off by too many aspects of the film to have any desire to see it again. Nolan is a first-rate director, for me Interstellar lacked both the adroitness of the nonlinear narratives of Memento or Inception, or the compelling atmosphere of the Dark Knight films. I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and incur the wrath of my wife, who enjoyed the film much more than I did.
In the opening credits to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film Birdman appear these lines, which form the epitaph on Raymond Carver’s tombstone at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The quotation serves as well as anything to describe the motivation of the film’s protagonist, the aging actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who twenty years before, after becoming a worldwide sensation playing the superhero Birdman in three films, walked away from the franchise and into acting obscurity. In the movie, he is putting Hollywood behind him and trying to come back repackaged as a serious artist on Broadway, directing and starring in his own adaptation of one of Carver’s best-known short stories, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”
Unless you’re six years old or have been living your life under a rock, you will likely recognize the deliberate irony in Iñárritu’s choice of Keaton as his leading man. Not only did Keaton rise to the height of popularity in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, but he also famously turned down a $15 million paycheck to make a third film in the series. Thus Keaton is playing himself to some extent, as his character tries to rise once more into the spotlight, “to feel himself beloved on earth,” but this time for something more artistically respected than playing a comic book hero.
This self-referentiality continues to spin out as the film advances. Riggan Thomson’s co-star, whom he refers to as “the world’s worst actor,” is accidentally but fortuitously struck by a falling light during rehearsal, and Riggan and his lawyer and agent Jake (played by the surprisingly slim Zach Galifianakis) discuss several other possible actors to bring in at the last minute, but all are currently committed to other superhero movies. Finally, leading lady and nervous first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts, whose first Oscar nomination came for Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams) volunteers her live-in boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton), a popular but notoriously difficult, yet extremely talented Broadway star.
In case you need reminding, Norton’s biggest blockbuster role was as The Incredible Hulk in 2008. And Norton, of course, did not play the Hulk again in the Avengers follow-up. Norton told NPR that he declined the role because “I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that’s hard to take off, in other people’s eyes.” The sentiment could apply just as well to Keaton’ case, but for Norton, there were also rumors that his own well-known obsessive perfectionism made him too difficult to work with, a trait that the actor also shares with his character of Mike in the film.
And just in case that is not enough, Iñárritu has also included Emma Stone, fresh from her role in the new Spiderman blockbuster, as Riggan’s troubled daughter Sam, just out of rehab and working as Riggan’s less than enthusiastic assistant.
The film’s self-reflexive theme is underscored by its imagery: Riggan is photographed only from behind until he looks in the mirror in his dressing room, where we first see his face. In a later scene, he has a discussion with his ex-wife in which he can be seen only in a mirror, and as the film draws toward its bewildering conclusion, we see Riggan’s face again in a mirror as if for the first time. It is as if Riggan only exists in his own reflection: if art, whether film or theater, holds a mirror up to nature, Riggan exists only in that mirror, only in the art through which he longs to be, as the film’s headnote says, beloved on earth. The popularity he seeks is scoffed at by his foil Mike, who tells Sam at one point that he really doesn’t care what people think of him. His kind of art exists for its own sake, to be admired rather than loved. “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” he tells Riggan at one point. At the other extreme is Sam, who in a long monologue midway through the film tells Riggan that his dream of theatrical prestige is pointless in today’s world—performing a thirty-year-old story by a dead white guy for a thousand “rich, old, white people” is meaningless in the face of today’s only real source of power, popularity, and prestige: social media, which can reach millions in the blink of an eye. His work just does not matter. As if to underscore Sam’s assessment, on the play’s second preview night, Riggan accidently locks himself out of the theater, catching his robe in the locked door, and has to dash through Times Square in his tidy whities to come into the theater’s front door and make his next entrance—a video of which is tweeted and reaches 300,000 people before the performance is over.
So the film questions the purposes and effects of art, creating a dichotomy of theater vs. film (and the more extreme case of social media), of popularity vs. prestige, of meaningfulness for the few vs. mattering to the millions. Against Sam’s lambasting of theater art at one end of the spectrum are balanced Mike’s Broadway snobbery against film acting, and the powerful New York critic Tabitha Duncan (played, in another self-referential casting decision, by the distinguished London and New York theater actress Lindsay Duncan), who plans to “kill” Riggan’s play before she has ever seen it because she resents popular, untrained film actors foisting their amateurish productions on legitimate theater.
But a major thrust of the self-reflexiveness of Birdman is to blur the distinctions between theater and film. First, of course, the film is about the production of a play, and in it we return to the same two scenes of the play on three consecutive nights, so that the recursive narrative form forces us as viewers to apply those scenes to new things we have learned about Riggan’s life in the interval.
Second, the film seems much like a play: filmed on location at Broadway’s historic St. James Theatre in just thirty days, the finite setting has the feel of a staged play, and—because the dialogue drives the plot from beginning to end in a way that reviewers of today’s visual-heavy movies are likely to call “talky”—Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo have created a script that seems much more like that of a theater drama than a film .
And most stunningly, Iñárritu’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose long shot that opened last year’s Gravity netted him an Oscar, has outdone even that tour de force in Birdman, creating a film that has the appearance of consisting of a single long continuous take, emulating Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope. Birdman does in fact contain some transitions and subtle cuts, but the overall effect is astounding in its breathless motion, and more than that, gives the film the continuous action of a play—forcing its actors to perform as they would in a stage production as well. Thus the film itself provides in its own form a reconciliation of the popular and the prestigious, of the high art of drama and the popular culture of cinema.
I realize I have made the film sound like an essay on critical theory and aesthetics. But it is also popular entertainment. There are moments of broad humor—as Riggan runs through Times Square in his underwear, for instance, he is stopped by fans who want his autograph, (which he gives them)—but also moments of high drama. Keaton is more than just convincing as a self-doubting actor worrying about his legacy. He is also a father worrying about his daughter and worrying that he was not there for her or for his ex-wife, and he seems unaware that he is repeating those same mistakes with his current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). But more disturbing than these things is the voice that he hears consistently inside his head: it is the voice of his former Birdman self (a hoarse croak reminiscent—in the film’s metafictional way—of one of Keaton’s successors, Christian Bale, in his turn as Batman) that speaks consistently to Riggan about his Broadway project’s likely failure and the past cinematic glories he wants him to return to. On top of that, Riggan seems to seriously believe that he has telekinetic powers, and that, for example, he caused the light to drop in his first co-star to eliminate him from the play. He also seems to believe that, like Birdman himself, he can fly.
As an audience, we are inclined to believe that these things are all within Riggan’s own mind—particularly since the rest of the movie, like Riggan’s play and Raymond Carver’s fiction, is starkly realistic. The opening shot of the film, however, showed a rear view of Riggan in a yoga pose, hovering in the air. So we need to remember that Iñárritu has stated his literary influences have been modern Latin American masters like Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. The latter is particular known for his use of “magical realism”—a style that blends magical or fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic narrative in a way that suggests a broadening of normal western conceptions of reality. Do these magical things really happen to Riggan? The film leaves the question open to interpretation, but Iñárritu definitely allows you to believe in them. After all, if we are going to have a film that blurs the distinctions between serious and popular culture, between high and low art, between drama and film, we need to include a blending of the cinematic magic of Birdman with the realism of Carver.
You shouldn’t miss this movie. Come Academy Award nomination time, expect Iñárritu to receive a Best Director nod. Lubezki is a shoe-in for a cinematography nomination, if not for the Oscar itself. Keaton’s performance is generating buzz for Best Actor nomination, and Norton and Stone could easily garner supporting nominations for themselves. This is an entertaining and an intelligent movie, well-acted and technically brilliant. Four Shakespeares for this one for sure.
“It is what it is,” a bank clerk tells Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray) early in Theodore Melfi’s new film St. Vincent. Vincent, who has been trying to get some kind of relief from the bank because of his severe financial problems, responds that everybody says that nowadays, and what it really means is “You’re screwed and you’re gonna stay screwed.” It’s a set up for a scene later in the film when a nursing home administrator repeats the “It is what it is” line and we can see in Murray’s eyes the feeling that, once again, he knows what the cliché really means.
In a sense, this is a microcosm of the entire film. For no one going to this movie will fail to recognize that to a large extent, the movie itself is one big cliché. In the grand tradition of Bad Santa and Gran Torino, the plot of St. Vincent revolves around a relationship between a curmudgeonly, profane, and unlikeable old man and a young, pre-teenaged boy who is in severe need of a father figure—in this case the boy is Oliver, played by the surprisingly genuine Jaeden Lieberher. The crotchety old man turns out, of course, to have a heart of gold and teaches the boy valuable lessons, in particular how to defend himself against the bullies who are making his life miserable since he has started at his new school after his suddenly-single mother (in this case Maggie, played with unlooked-for restraint by Melissa McCarthy) has moved him to this place (in this case, Brooklyn). Can anybody say Karate Kid?
But just as Vincent looks through the verbal clichés he is fed by authority figures in the film, so first-time writer-director Melfi takes us beyond the formulaic motifs in the plot to something much more real behind them. While some reviewers might complain that Vincent’s transformation from drunken, gambling lout to heart-of-gold “saint” at the end of the movie is banal and unrealistic, I’d suggest they look at his character again: the fact is there is no transformation at all. Vincent is precisely the same person at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. It is what it is. He was screwed at the beginning of the film, and he is similarly screwed at the end. In the beginning, he lives in a rundown house, is in deep financial trouble, drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, and owes a good deal of money to the bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard). Few people like him, except for two regulars at the bar he hangs out in, an attendant at the nursing home that he visits regularly, and Daka (Naomi Watts), the pregnant Russian immigrant stripper/hooker whom he sees once a week (and to whom he also owes money). At the end of the film, almost none of this has changed. We still don’t know how he’s going to pay his bills, and whether he will ever dig himself out of his situation with Zucko. He hasn’t quit drinking or smoking. He has had some losses that make his life even sadder than it was before. It’s true that he has gained two new friends in Maggie and Oliver, and Daka has moved in with her baby—at least for now. But Vincent is no different than he was. And his life has not really changed. He was screwed and he is going to stay screwed.
But the audience, by the end of the film, has learned a lot more about Vincent. Twice in the script—once in addressing Maggie and once Oliver—Vincent declares matter-of-factly “You don’t know me.” The line is also directed in part at the audience, as a kind of warning not to judge him until you know his whole story. Much of his story does come out in the movie—but not all of it. We are given enough, though, to see that his kindness toward Oliver is foreshadowed in his kind treatment of Daka as well as his nursing home visits, which I can’t get into without a spoiler alert. We know some of the things that have caused his downward spiral. We find out about his record in Vietnam. But these are all things that happened before the timeline of the film. They have made Vincent what he is at the beginning. They don’t change what he is at the end.
For ultimately, this is a movie about character, and the story is secondary. And so we can forgive some of the unrealistic plot elements: How believable is it that a mother, even one fairly desperate for childcare, would hire a fairly obvious derelict like Vincent to babysit? And how likely would Vincent be to think that babysitting for twelve dollars an hour would somehow help alleviate his money woes? And is it really likely that a hard-drinking retiree could drag a twelve-year old kid around to bars and to the racetrack without his mother’s knowledge and without raising the eyebrows of anyone in authority? Finally, how likely is it that Brooklyn would consistently enjoy southern California weather in the middle of Oliver’s school year?
But it is difficult not to care about the characters in this film. Bill Murray has become a remarkably nuanced actor in his roles of the past two decades, in films like Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and his Wes Anderson vehicles beginning with Rushmore, and his turn as Vincent McKenna is natural, believable, and manages to makes Vincent a character with whom we sympathize without drowning the role in sentiment or bathos. Newcomer Lieberher makes Oliver a regular nerdy kid, and manages to make the character uncannily perceptive without making him cloying, cute, or affected. McCarthy is refreshing playing against type in a “straight man” role, with none of the broad humor we are used to seeing in her performances. Like Vincent, her character is a cliché—the newly single mother battling to keep her child with her and working long hours because her cheating husband won’t pay her child support. But through the formula we do see her own mistakes and weaknesses: she is no saint, but she is also not in need of “rescuing” as so many single movie mothers are. As for Watts, she has less to work with and a role that is mainly caricature, but there are moments—sometimes only in a facial expression—when she becomes more multi-faceted than might be expected. I should also mention Chris O’Dowd (McCarthy’s co-star in Bridesmaids), who is likeable as ever playing a Catholic priest who is Oliver’s teacher.
The one exception is Howard as Zucko the bookie. He is given almost nothing to do, and nothing in the script allows us to see anything other than the one-dimensional heavy. One wonders why an actor of Howard’s caliber would have taken this role, unless of course a significant portion of his role was edited out of the film’s final cut.
Ultimately, though, this is Murray’s movie. Apparently Melfi, who has been peddling this script for years, was finally able to get a meeting with Murray and sell the notoriously reticent actor on taking a chance with this first-time filmmaker. Murray’s association with the film doubtlessly helped land other talent in the likes of McCarthy, Watts, Dowd and Howard. But Murray’s performance is a memorable one, and one that some are already touting for a possible second Oscar nomination for him. Though that seems unlikely, since such honors do not often go to comic roles like this one, the performance does make this movie worth watching, and convinces me to give it three Tennysons.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” the war-hardened Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) tells his tank crew’s young untested new forward gunner Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma) early in David Ayer’s new devastatingly brutal World War II combat film Fury. The film, which Ayer wrote as well as directed, goes on to illustrate that concept in scene after scene, until it is pretty convincingly driven home. History itself may not be exclusively violent, but war certainly is, and what Saving Private Ryan did to undercut the naïve pretensions of films like The Longest Day, Fury does while undermining chauvinistic Hollywood productions like 1949’s Sand of Iwo Jima. Indeed John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker is the spiritual forerunner of Pitt’s Sergeant Collier: the tough, no-nonsense veteran whose harsh tactics are resented by new recruits but who proves in the end to be right all along. But by the end of Fury, it’s hard for moviegoers to view Collier’s methods uncritically, and it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that these soldiers are motivated by the chance to make the world a better place.
They are motivated by two things: First, they have been given an assignment and they are going to complete it. “Do your job,” the crew members of the M4 Sherman tank (nicknamed “Fury”) tell Norman again and again. Second, they are fighting for each other—to stay alive and to keep one another alive—to make it through this war. These are realistic motivations, not the motivations of celluloid heroes in propaganda movies. Collier has been with three of his crew since northern Africa ca. 1943: Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña, who was in Ayer’s End of Watch), the blunt, hard-drinking, but sympathetic driver; Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal, The; Walking Dead), the vulgar, ill-tempered mechanic; and Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), the born-again, scripture-quoting gunner who moves through the film with moist eyes and a faith that God is directing him through all of this. Collier has sworn to get his crew through this war alive, and has managed to get them as far as April 1945, the final month of the war, as the allies pushing toward Berlin are fighting stubborn resistance from surviving SS troops, women, and Hitler youth who make American pay for every inch of the Fatherland they seek to gain. The Germans must eventually surrender, but when Collier’s commander asks rhetorically “Why don’t they just give up?” Pitt’s character answers, “Would you?”
Norman becomes the fifth member of the tank’s crew, pulled from a clerk-typist job after eight weeks in the army to replace a gunner who has just been annihilated in one of these vicious last battles, and Norman (the “Normal-man”) becomes the character with whom the audience identifies: like Charlie Sheen in Platoon, Norman knows nothing when he arrives, and like the audience must be taught about tank warfare, and more importantly must have his “normal” morality driven from him so that he, like the rest of his crew, can survive this war—and help them survive it. When he fails to machine-gun a pile of apparently dead Germans as he is ordered to do, Sergeant Collier wrestles him to the ground, forces a gun into his hand, and makes him execute a German prisoner who is begging for his life and displaying pictures of his wife and children. Collier and Norman’s relationship is not unlike that of Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Ayer’s earlier screenplay for Training Day, and has some of the moral ambiguity of that film.
As the somewhat episodic plot moves on, Norman develops a healthy hatred of the “damn Nazis” and has little compulsion in blowing them away. He has become one of the crew, and he is baptized into their fellowship when they give him the “war name” of “machine”—as if he has been transformed into a Nazi-killing automaton. This aspect of the film is somewhat clichéd, but unlike other war films, in this one that transformation does not seem an unquestionably positive thing. It is difficult not to like the earlier Norman better than this one.
For one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking film concerns the changes that must occur in a man with a conventional moral sense when he witnesses and takes part in the atrocities of war. Do those changes make him better somehow? Do they “make a man” out of him, as Norman sarcastically asks after his forced murder of the prisoner? Or by hardening him to endure war’s brutality do they change him into someone unfit for normal society? Pitt’s character seems to feel this dehumanizing effect more keenly than others, and he can be seen in contemplative moments breaking down in private, when his shell-like veneer is momentarily let down. In one of the film’s most inventive and original scenes, Collier and Norman enter the apartment of two German women in a town they have just “liberated.” It is a surprisingly domestic scene—though there is some tension as the women are terrified by these Americans with guns and Norman is unsure what Collier has in mind for these women. Collier produces half a dozen eggs, takes the opportunity to have a wash, and encourages Norman to have sex with the younger woman: that proves a tender scene, though the shadow over it is the fact that these men have entered the room with guns and the whole American army at their back. But a peaceful, homey breakfast is interrupted by Bible, Gordo and Coon-Ass, who drunkenly disrupt the humane idyll and bring the brutality of the war, and the brutality of what war has made of men, into the scene.
That brutality is palpable in this film. Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasyanov have created a barren landscape of grays and browns, in which mud-colored vehicles and mud-colored infantry move through a landscape that is essentially mud. It’s a landscape in which the seed of life can find no purchase, like the surface of the moon or hell itself.
This atmosphere all leads up to the final shot of the film: a gray scene, photographed from above as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape strewn with hundreds of dead and intertwined gray German soldiers, surrounding the tank.
A number of reviewers have criticized the film’s final thirty minutes as a machismo display inconsistent with the weighty pounding of the “war is hell” message in the rest of the film. It’s as if Ayers decided that he wanted to put something into the film for everyone in the audience, and elected to end it with a hackneyed “last stand” of five brave Americans against hordes of evil but faceless bad guys, sure to appeal to action-movie fans who might have been bored up to this point. But such a criticism is, I think, unfounded for two reasons: First, it has been set up well in advance by Collier’s “wouldn’t you?” answer to the question of why men keep fighting when they know they cannot win. And secondly, the fight sets up what may be the most important, and ironic, incident in the film, for which I must declare a spoiler alert: Norman, having escaped from the tank, is hiding beneath it covered with the ubiquitous mud. He is spared by an SS trooper who finds him but decides neither to kill nor arrest him, gives him a suppressed half smile, and moves on. It is ultimately not the conditioned toughness of Sergeant Collier that gets Norman through the war, but rather the humanity of a German “Norman” who, at least momentarily, refuses to allow the brutality of the war to destroy his fundamental moral code.
These final scenes create a morass of ambiguities and ironies surrounding the American “rescuers” who collect Norman and call him a hero right before that final shot of the field of the dead. One is reminded of nothing more vividly that Tacitus’s description of the Roman army: “They created a wasteland, and they called it peace.”
This is a difficult film to watch, and an even more difficult one to enjoy. Ayer has gone to unprecedented lengths to recreate meticulously the precise details of tank combat and of the situation in Germany that last month of the war. So much has gone into this that one wonders if that is the extent of what Ayers wanted to do with the movie: present combat more realistically than it has ever been produced on film. But that hardly seems enough to carry a two hour movie. And there are so many ambiguities that it is difficult to be sure where the filmmakers stand, or where they want the audience to stand. The audience-surrogate, Norman, seems unsure just how to feel at the end. That may be what Ayer intends. In view of that uncertainly, I’m going to give the film three Tennysons.
Gone Girl, David Fincher’s dramatization of the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn (who adapted her book for the film’s screenplay) opened on October 3, so this review is coming late to the party. But as might have been expected of a novel that has sold more than eight million copies since its release two years ago, people have been flocking to theaters to see it—fans of the book and others who have simply heard of it—and it has been the top-grossing box office film for two consecutive weeks. The movie, featuring Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher, The World’s End) as his wife Amy, chronicles a murder mystery that becomes stranger and stranger as the plot unfolds. The story is so full of twists and turns that it is difficult to summarize it without cautioning you all about possible “spoiler alerts” to come, but I shall attempt to do so without the need for such warnings:
The morning of his fifth wedding anniversary Nick Dunne leaves his home in the town of North Carthage, Missouri, and stops at a bar that he manages with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). Over an early-morning whiskey (it must be five o’clock somewhere) he vents to Carrie about the difficulties he has been having with his marriage of late. When he returns home, he finds his living room trashed and his wife missing. He calls the police, and Detectives Boney and Gilpin (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) visit the scene of the crime, where they find traces of what is apparently Amy’s blood on the scene.
Nick, who does not seem to be sufficiently distraught over his wife’s disappearance, becomes suspicious to both the police and the intrusive media, who are interested in the case particularly because Amy is something of a celebrity, having been the inspiration for a series of children’s books about a character called “Amazing Amy.”
As the film progresses, we are given alternate views of the events of the couple’s marriage, drawn from Nick’s statements to the detectives and contrasting entries from Amy’s diaries. Both seem to agree that after their meeting at a New York party and their whirlwind courtship and ideal early days of wedded bliss, things began to get more difficult for them when they lost their jobs in the publishing industry due to the recession, and when they moved to Missouri to be with Nick’s dying mother—and decided (well, Nick decided) that they would stay.
The accounts become skewed, though, after that, for whereas Nick cultivates the impression that the two were happily married (an impression we know to be false because of his previous conversation with his sister), Amy’s diary suggests a much darker relationship, one that involved incidents that have made her afraid of her own husband. Ultimately—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, since it is easily predictable from the beginning of the movie—Nick is arrested for Amy’s murder.
The charge may be a bit hard to prove without a body, but evidence does seem to point toward Nick’s guilt, and the media are particularly virulent in their treatment of him, turning him into “the most hated man in America.” Nick is essentially forced to hire celebrity attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who has made a career out of defending husbands afflicted with legal problems like his.
But this bare-bones synopsis cannot communicate the multi-layered texture of the film, which raises issues of marital fidelity, honesty, and trust (under what circumstances would one, or should one, choose to stay in a loveless relationship?); media involvement in high profile legal situations (what is the press’s responsibility to justice, fairness, and truth?); public persona vs. private character (to what extent might we manipulate our public image and thereby gain supports or rewards we may not in fact be entitled to?). In this way the film engages us on many levels.
On the other hand, there is a great deal in the plot of the film, particularly in the last half hour or so, that is hard for the viewer to accept. It is not simply that neither Nick nor Amy is particularly likeable—more to the point, they are both rather revolting, and in the end the audience ends up having to choose between the lesser of two pains in the ass. That is acceptable, because it is quite believable. The final plot twists ae so bizarre, though, that they strain credibility and audience sympathy.
Final plot twists aside, though, it must be stressed that Affleck, with his laconic presence and occasionally bland expression, is perfect for the part of Nick, who is hard to read and seems to investigators somewhat emotionless. Pike is also excellent in what may be a star-making role as a woman whose mendacity might make your blood boil. The rest of the cast is also excellent, in particular Perry who charmingly underplays his big-shot character; and Dickens (best-known for television work on shows like Treme, Friday Night Lights, and Deadwood) is memorable and—unusual for this film—sympathetic as the thorough and thoughtful local cop devoted to truth rather than public image. And then there is Neal Patrick Harris, who is incredibly creepy in a small role as one of Amy’s former lovers.
Fincher, known for his ability to build suspense and manipulate audience reactions in thrillers like Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac, does that here, especially though the alternation of narrative perspectives, using a he said/she said approach to move the audience’s sympathies between one character and the other until, of course, you don’t know who to trust, and the suspense is all that’s left. That and the rather extreme violence.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I have not read the book, but I understand that Flynn’s script is very faithful to her novel, and fans of the book do not seem disappointed in the film. For myself, I found some of the plot twists to be fairly predictable, though a couple did catch me by surprise. The film is suspenseful and thought provoking, but in the end I can’t say I was fond of this movie because I simply did not like the characters and ultimately (as Gene Siskel used to say) I did not care about them. However, I must admit that the story was interesting, the cast impressive, and the film well made. I’ll give it three Tennysons, but I probably won’t be watching it again when it comes out on DVD.
As of the writing of this column (Saturday, October 11, after having seen The Judge at our local theater), the Rotten Tomatoes rating of this film was at 47%. In contrast, the percentage of viewers who liked the film was listed as 77%. That kind of discrepancy is remarkable, and my first thought is, why such a difference between critics’ responses to the film and the general moviegoers’ reactions? It’s easy to imagine each side’s answer to the other: Critics might say, and do say, that the movie is a simple crowd-pleaser, telling a clichéd story in a way that makes viewers have a good cry and end up feeling good about the characters, themselves, and the whole world by feeding them sentimental drivel without serious exploration of characters or issues; or that director David Dobkin, best known for relatively mindless comedies like The Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights, has not been able to transcend that broad model in trying to make his first truly serious film. General moviegoers, on the other hand, might counter by saying that smug movie critics put too little stock in the emotional punch of a film, the profound effect that certain archetypal situations (in this case, the “prodigal son” story) have on audiences, or the valuable function of drama (whether live or recorded) to provide catharsis for its viewers at all levels. The critics want sophisticated art. The audience wants entertainment. Shakespeare demonstrated that a script can provide both, but unfortunately, everybody is not Shakespeare. And while it may be true (as H.L. Mencken said) that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” there is still a wide gap between The Judge and Duck Dynasty or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
The story of the film is this: hot-shot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), who has made his reputation and his fortune defending sleazy rich clients (“Innocent people can’t afford me,” he tells his rival attorney at one point) is suddenly called away from his current case—as well as his failing marriage—to return to his small hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for the funeral of his mother. After twenty years’ absence, he reconnects with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a one-time athlete whose dreams of major league baseball were ended after a car accident decades earlier, forcing him to stay on in Carlinville and run a tire shop; and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), an 8 MM film buff who is clearly somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum but whose old films serve to give us some sense of Hank’s childhood in Carlinville. Most importantly, Hank must endure his long-estranged father, the severe, autocratic and demanding Judge Palmer, played with remarkable insight and deftness by the 83-year-old Robert Duvall.
Hank, whose plan had been to slip into town, attend the funeral, and rush back to Chicago as quickly as possible, has to make new plans when the Judge is arrested for murder, having apparently run down a bicyclist in his Cadillac. The victim, it turns out, is a recent parolee whom the Judge had sentenced to prison for murder years before, and, to make matters worse, the Judge claims not to remember anything about the night of the accident. Hank feels compelled to defend his father, despite their mutual antipathy, and although the Judge at first tries to employ a local attorney, scorning Hank’s unsavory methods (“I want a decent attorney—and by decent, I mean honest” he tells Hank), eventually he accepts Hank’s offer to represent him, especially since the state has brought in its toughest prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) to conduct the murder case.
Predictably, the drama revolves around the relationship of Downey and Duvall’s characters, exploring the events that caused their estrangement, so that the murder case is a side issue of somewhat less importance than the familial ones. In the course of the film’s events, we learn the secrets of the Judge’s past, of Hank’s past, of Glen’s past. And revelations about the Judge’s health are not particularly surprising in this kind of film either. Predictably, as well, Hank reconnects with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga), now the owner of a local bar and eatery, and we learn how their high-school romance fits into Hank’s family history. And on top of all that, we learn that Dickham has his own axe to grind. I won’t reveal the ultimate verdict in the murder case, but I probably don’t have to reveal whether or not Hank and his father are reconciled in the end. But it may not be much of a surprise because, predictably, in a “crowd-pleaser,” things tend to work out well, even if they do so in a melodramatic fashion.
But leaving it at that does not do justice to the movie. Duvall is compelling and remarkable and sympathetic as the domineering Judge whose physical and mental powers are slipping from him. Downey demonstrates some of the boundless talent he displayed in his early roles, like Chaplin, though the glib, fast-talking, arrogant, amoral Hank of the movie’s opening scenes is no great stretch from Tony Stark of the Ironman series. Still, it’s a Tony Stark with an actual heart beneath his iron armor, and it is indeed a joy to see Downey in a role that gives him something more to do that merely dispense wisecracks and act cynical. His relationship with his daughter, played by the talented young Emma Tremblay, is believable and provides an interesting contrast of parent-child connections with his scenes with his own father.
There are some problems with the script, of course. For one thing, it’s too long. There is not enough here to sustain a 141 minute film. Some of the plot elements seem gratuitous and lead nowhere: The relationship between Hank and Samantha’s daughter, for example, is pointless and it takes attention away from the central concerns of the film. Hank’s relationship with his wife is undeveloped and we completely forget about it as the film goes on (and on, and on). Strong is given very little to do with the part of Dale, who seems to be nothing more than a generalized “mentally challenged” person without any truly distinguishing characteristics, except to present a problem that will need to be dealt with if the Judge is convicted and sent to prison. Also a bit annoying is the clichéd depiction of the small town life as idyllic compared with the evils of the big city—the cinematography makes Carlinville look like a Norman Rockwell painting (as my wife called it), but it’s actually pretty difficult to imagine why anyone would actually want to live there.
The worst part of the film occurs in the last fifteen minutes or so, when a climactic scene in court turns into a confessional of all kinds of family secrets from the witness stand, which is not only unrealistic in itself, but ties up the difficulties of the main characters’ relationships into a neat little box that makes everybody understand and, ultimately, leads to mutual forgiveness and blah, blah, blah. Prior to that scene, I was prepared to give the film a much higher rating, because it seemed to avoid the trap of simple solutions to very difficult relational problems, and to resist the easy sentimental reconciliation that so seldom actually takes place in real life. It’s the opting for the easy answer, not the clichés or sentiment, that bothers me most about this film. There are, I freely admit, some very nice parts of this movie, and I really wanted to like it, but it doesn’t all come together in a real way in the end, and I’m afraid that has to be put on the director. Sorry judge, I find you guilty of oversimplification. I’m going to have to go with two Jacqueline Susanns on this one.
This week, Cinemark and Turner Classic Movies began showing the classic film Gone With the Wind on the big screen across the country, in commemoration of the film’s 75th anniversary. The movie premiered in Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, and went on to become the top grossing film in history—a title it still holds, if the 1939 gross is adjusted for inflation. The film also won ten academy awards, a record for its day, and was named number four on the AFI list of the 100 greatest films of the twentieth century. In previous re-releases, the film had been shown in a converted Cinemascope projection, but for purposes of the 75th anniversary, the film was shown in its original projection, so that audiences could see it exactly as it was shown in 1939.
To write a review of a film that already has this kind of history seems an exercise in futility. But it does seem as if a revaluation of the film may be worth doing on the occasion of its reaching the three-quarters of a century mark. I was rather surprised to walk into the theater to find a completely full house, and the excitement of such a crowd and its reactions made the experience quite different than watching a DVD of the film, even the newly available 75th anniversary DVD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, with its eight hours of bonus materials.
I thought about reviewing the film as if it were a new release, and try to judge it accordingly, but I found this impossible because of this: the movie would never be made in today’s market. There are several reasons for this, the most practical one being the fact that no one today would make a four-hour film for popular consumption. Perhaps our attention spans are shorter than those of our grandparents in the ’30s. Nowadays, filmmakers are much more likely to take, say, a 280-page novel like The Hobbit (which, interestingly, came out the same year as Margaret Mitchell’s novel) and turn it into three two-hour movies, than to take a thousand page novel like Gone With the Wind and make it one very long movie. The cynic in me says that the contemporary way forces you to pay three times to see the whole story, while David O. Selznik, GWTW’s producer, only made you pay once. But then the even more cynical part of me answers that if Selznik had thought of it, he would have made his movie into a trilogy as well.
Other aspects of Gone With the Wind are equally archaic. Take, for example, the use of intertitles on which transitional language was placed in order to introduce new scenes. These text frames remind us as viewers that in 1939 Hollywood was only about a decade or so beyond the silent film era, and these intertitles are a holdover from that period. But more than the technical clunkiness of these, the language itself—full of overly sentimental, romanticized descriptions of the Old South—is offensive and laughable from a contemporary point of view. The opening scene of the film is introduced by these words:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…
The idealized image given here probably struck a chord among many 1939 viewers, especially in the South, but contemporary viewers would not stand for it. Slave-owners were not cavaliers, and though they may have talked about honor, their definition of honor in this film (with the exception of the romanticized Ashley Wilkes) has nothing to do with idealized chivalry but rather with hypersensitivity to personal insult. And to imply that the relationship of “Master and Slave” was part of an idealized world, as this does by putting it into this romanticized context, is nothing short of outrageous. This kind of flowery absurdity convinces me that one of the film’s ten Academy Awards—the one given to Sidney Howard for adapted screenplay—was quite undeserved (though since Howard had died in the interim, the award may have been a sentimental one—the first posthumous award in Oscar history).
Later in the film, at the end of the war, the intertitle continues its idealized view of the confederate soldier:
Home from their lost adventure came the tattered Cavaliers…Grimly they came hobbling back to the desolation that had once been a land of grace and plenty. And with them came another invader…more cruel and vicious than any they had fought…the Carpetbagger.
The implication, of course, is that the Union army was cruel and vicious—as is the Yankee deserter that Scarlett shoots when he invades Tara—so that the confederate army was fighting a kind of holy war against those evil powers, rather than a war to protect an immoral institution, and that even after the war that struggle had to continue against the evil carpetbaggers who invaded the land. It is no accident that the carpetbagger depicted in the film is an African American. Nor is it an accident that the action taken by the men in Scarlett’s circle to “clean out the shantytown” where Scarlett was accosted, in which Ashley Wilkes is wounded and Scarlett’s husband Frank Kennedy is killed, is (though the film glosses it over) a glorified Ku Klux Klan affair.
And speaking of Ashley Wilkes: could such a character ever be portrayed on screen in a contemporary film? He is not simply a less attractive character than he may have been in 1939—a brooding intellectual with no ambition or initiative, whose only concern seems to be dwelling on the beauty that has been lost to the world with the collapse of his way of life. In creating him Mitchell may have had in mind some of the characteristics of the romantic Byronic hero of the nineteenth century, a character type who was intelligent, depressive, emotionally and intellectually tortured, traumatized, highly emotional—but she failed to give Ashley some of the other Byronic characteristics—cunning, rebelliousness, recklessness—that might have made him more believable. I have no difficulty believing his leading Scarlett on while steadfastly standing by his wife—that is a very human thing to do. But his conversation with Scarlett after the war, when he tells her that it is only his way of life that he mourns, not the end of slavery, declaring he would have freed all his slaves after his father died, is pure self-deception: To imply that his lamented way of life could have been at all possible if it were not built on the backs of slaves is absurd, and if he actually believes that he is an imbecile. Yet it seems clear that Margaret Mitchell probably believed it. This is a character that could not possibly be portrayed in a contemporary film, unless it was done with a great deal of irony.
I have less of a problem with Melanie Wilkes. She is certainly idealized, but she seems more real than Ashley. I have known individuals of great kindness, who love their spouses and their close friends so deeply that nothing the other does can change their generous view of those people. Though Melanie is “too good to live,” something of a Hollywood archetype, she’s not too good to be believed.
But continuing the list of aspects of GWTW that could not fly in today’s world, consider for a moment the famous scene where the jealous and intoxicated Rhett seizes Scarlet and carries her, struggling, up that wide red-carpeted staircase toward her bedroom. The film cuts to the following morning, and a Scarlet who wakes up singing, dreamily content. Really? The woman is raped by her husband and, fulfilling every misogynist stereotype, is subdued and happy about it. That’s the way to handle your woman! If she’s cranky, she just needs to get laid, and then she’ll be submissive again, as God intended. Of course, the concept of marital rape is a relatively recent legal phenomenon, and perhaps the scene can be excused as a product of its time, when the medieval concept of the “marriage debt”—the tenet that the wife did not have the right to refuse sexual favors to her husband if he demanded them—was still in effect on most levels of American society.
Such an excuse cannot be made for positive portrayal of slavery as a benevolent institution in the film. That ship had long sailed, and it was anachronistic, and a kind of pandering to Southern sympathies, to depict the institution in such a way some 75 years after the Civil War. Yet Gone With the Wind does so. Big Sam, the foreman of Tara’s field hands, may be the most egregious example of this. Happy at one point to go and dig ditches for the Confederacy, Big Sam rescues Scarlett from an assault in Shantytown, and then agrees to go back to Tara, virtually eschewing his freedom and returning to the place he had been a slave, saying “I got enough of them carpetbaggers.”
Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy, a silly, lazy, irresponsible girl, is presented as the norm of the African American: someone who, like Big Sam, would be unable to survive in a world where she didn’t have benevolent white folks like Scarlett to look after her. But the fiction of benevolent slaveholders is belied vividly in Scarlett’s relationship with Prissy, as she threatens to “take a strap to her” at one point, and at another slaps the girl hard in the face. Of course, Scarlett slaps Ashley and Rhett in the film as well, but those are not slaps given to inferiors who cannot fight back, and the slap of Prissy caused a gasp among members of the audience when I watched the film.
It is certainly likely that some slave-owners were in fact benevolent and treated their slaves as well as they could under the circumstances, and it is certainly true that there may have been some slaves who saw freedom as a difficult challenge and had some affection for their masters. But this was certainly not the norm, as GWTW depicts it, and, more importantly, as last year’s Oscar winning Twelve Years a Slave (a healthy corrective to Gone With the Wind) demonstrated convincingly, even white masters whose intentions were essentially humane (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s character) were unavoidably cruel because of the inhumanity of the system itself. One cannot for long serve ice-water in Hell.
The single exception to this absurd depiction of slaves and slavery is the character of Mammy. Hattie McDaniel is able to take what could have been a stereotypical role of a black household servant and turn it into a memorable portrayal of a woman who knows her own worth, demands the respect of those around her, brooks no impertinence from anyone, white or black, is the closest confidante of her mistress and knows her well enough to be able to manipulate her, and provides the voice of reason to her often impetuous mistress and, in fact, to the rest of the cast. Mammy is in many ways the choral figure of the drama, the character in whom the audience recognizes the responses it should be having—in her comment to Scarlett when Melanie goes to meet Ashley upon his return from the war (“He’s her husband, ain’t he?”), or her reactions to Rhett and Scarlet’s shocking mutual accusations after the death of their daughter Bonnie, for example. When I watched the film this time, the audience’s strongest reactions were when Mammy was on the screen. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that in many ways, Hattie McDaniel’s performance redeems the film from its own unhealthy nostalgia.
For obvious reasons, the film was strongly censured in the African-American community, and, despite her Oscar win, McDaniel (the first black actor to be so honored) was roundly criticized. Walter Francis White, leader of the NAACP, called her an “Uncle Tom” for taking part in the movie, to which McDaniel is said to have responded, “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” In retrospect, it seems today that Hattie McDaniel was able to rise above the material Hollywood offered her and make it memorable, in the same way that Mammy rises above her position at Tara and earn the respect of all other characters in the story.
But it is in fact the performances that, taken together, save this movie. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is viewed by many as an iconic performance, and of course netted her the first of her two Oscars. I’m not sure it would play quite as well in today’s market: Leigh was, primarily, a classically trained British stage actress, and her acting style may be a bit mannered for contemporary film audiences. Still, her soliloquy at the end of Act I, with her powerful “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” remains one of the most memorable moments in American film. And her character’s story retains its original appeal: stripped of the trappings of its absurdly romanticized setting (and the uncomfortable rape scene with its aftermath), Scarlett’s drive, her refusal to be beaten by the powerful forces of her environment that contrive to keep her down, her canny business acumen and ability to go beyond the antebellum limits and expectations placed upon her sex as she faces the reality of the postbellum world, make her an early feminist poster-child, a role that certainly plays well to audiences today.
More amenable to contemporary tastes is surely Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler. With an ease and naturalness that enables him to smirk, scowl, and banter his way into the hearts of every woman in the audience (how can Scarlett seriously prefer Ashley to him?), Gable owns this part. In one of the great travesties of Academy Award history, Gable lost the Oscar to Robert Donat (for Goodbye Mr. Chips)—a worthy actor but, realistically, Gable’s performance is a timeless and indelible example of film acting and charisma. Donat’s is forgotten.
Beyond the brilliant cast, the technical aspects of the film are remarkable. Its brilliant use of Technicolor—it won a special Academy Award for its use of color “for the enhancement of the dramatic mood”—paved the way for more and more color films to be made. Its period costumes are lavish and authentic throughout. Max Steiner’s musical score is memorable, the use of the recurring “Tara’s theme” providing an inspiration for later film composers, notably Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score for Doctor Zhivago (with its recurring “Lara’s Theme”).
But more notably than all of these are the brilliant and sometimes revolutionary uses of the camera in the film. Cinematographers Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan were responsible for some of the most memorable shots in movie history: that passionate scene of Rhett carrying Scarlet up that wide red staircase into the shadows above; the shots of the hoop skirts in the dance scene in Savannah; the shadow of Melanie’s door as it closes in Scarlett’s face; and the shot that everyone remembers—the long crane shot which begins with Scarlett looking for Doctor Meade at the train station in Atlanta and then pulls the camera further and further back, showing a broader and broader area, covered with dozens, then hundreds, then what seems like thousands of wounded soldiers all lying in pain on the ground around her, finally moving back to reveal a tattered confederate flag flapping in the breeze over the scene of devastation. The film might be worth seeing for that scene alone. Well, that and Hattie McDaniel.
All of these things combine to make the film a great one despite its other shortcomings. Add to them the sheer scope of the production—Selznik used 2,400 extras, 1,100 horses, 375 other animals, and employed 50 actors with spoken parts for his four-hour epic. No, the film could not be made today, in part because of its objectionable world view, but in part also because of its sheer enormity. That such a project could be conceived and then completed is worthy of recognition. With some reservations, I need to give this film four Shakespeares.
Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale
This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.
This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.
2 Jacqueline Susanns
If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.
1 Robert Southey
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.