Sunday, December 10, 2017

MovieMonday: Novitiate

"Novitiate" is a deeply flawed movie.  It is well-written and nicely filmed, and its actors are convincing.  I went to see it because it is about Catholicism and because it was filmed in Nashville, where I spend several months each year.  

The location shots, unrecognizable to me, were still fine.  There were lots of women in black-and-white habits, which ratified my personal theme that there are more Catholic sisters and nuns (there's a difference, BTW) in film than in real life.  

The only problem here is that the film pretends to be a Catholic story.

The premise is this: Cathleen, a young woman, decides to join a cloistered nunnery, apparently in search of meaning in her life.  Her reasoning:  "I want an ideal love that I have to give everything to."

You can see why.  The 17-year-old's mother is a divorced, angry smoker with a randy sex life.  "I don't believe in religion," says the mother.  "Actually I think it's kind of a waste of time."

On the other hand, the girl has attended a Catholic school and been treated kindly by a teaching sister who seems to have been an inspiration. 

So Cathleen goes to the Sisters of Blessed Rose monastery for postulancy and her novitiate, the steps that will prepare her ("train" her in the film's lingo) for a life of prayer secluded entirely from secular society.

During the same period, Roman Catholic bishops are meeting at the Second Vatican Council in Rome; its purpose is to open the church to greater participation by lay persons and to greater respect for and cooperation with people of other religions.  

The monastery's Mother Superior hates the idea of church reform.  She has ruled her institution with an iron fist for many years, and she has no plan to change.  

"When you hear me speak," she says, "I am the voice of God speaking on behalf of his wishes."  (This is not Catholic, by the way.  Catholics are admonished to practice humility.)

There is a lot of talk -- too much of it -- about each nun being a bride of Christ.  Instead of perfecting their souls, the nuns-in-training wonder constantly about whether they are worthy of His love.  (In Catholicism, the religious think less about themselves and their fears; they focus instead on the works and prayer that earn God's love.)

There is a weekly Chapter of Force session in which the Mother Superior orders the new crop of postulants to kneel in a circle, then singles one out and directs her to "List every single fault that you're aware of in yourself."  Then the other postulants are told to pile on, naming other faults of the woman under attack.  After the abuse, the victim is ordered to reform by saying prayers.

Also at the monastery, uppity postulants are assigned to pray silently while crawling around the convent on hands and knees.  

Ultimately, the nasty atmosphere of the place causes an older nun to act out in an extremely strange and vulgar way.  And a kind and generous young nun flees entirely. 

Cathleen obeys but is stressed.  She withdraws into a tension that is manifested in fasting and then serious weight loss.  When her mother visits, she notices this and confronts the Mother Superior, who of course asserts her authority.  

"Lady, I am not calling you Mother!" Cathleen's mom shoots back, a line that drew the expected laughs and applause from the movie audience.

On and on it goes.  

The movie is absorbed with the emotional and sensual needs of the young women; these are not the focus of any monastic experience, in any religion.  The film also categorizes the personal depredations young women suffered at the hands of a rigid, unfeeling, authoritarian and fictional Catholic institution.  

Unfortunately, the film was made by non-religious people who know nothing about Catholicism -- not its history, its teachings, its values, its sacraments, its gospels or its rituals.  

I'm Catholic, born and raised.  I know nothing about cloistered nunneries, but I call foul. 

A few points:

-- In Catholicism, an unbaptized person would not have been admitted to a convent.  Postulants in 1962 would arrive knowing that the Mass was said in Latin and that the altar faced the crucifix and not the congregants.  The movie is unaware of these basic facts.

-- In the days of large Catholic families, it was common for parents to hope that one child would have a "vocation," effectively a calling to become a sister or brother or nun or priest.  The movie says families regarded this as a "sacrifice" when in fact it was a point of pride.

-- Catholics did not and do not sponsor brutal group discussions of individuals'  "flaws."  They confessed their "sins" privately with priests in the sacrament now known as reconciliation.  Nuns, including mother superiors, did not assign penances or offer forgiveness.  The practices in the movie have more in common with those of the nastier late-20th century New Age cults, which themselves were adapted from tactics employed by totalitarian regimes to break down egos and enforce submission.


The Second Vatican Council did indeed change the experience of Catholicism.  The screenwriter/director of this film consulted an minor vein of memoir written by former cloistered nuns, whose previous purpose in life -- prayer and prayer only -- came to seem irrelevant in the larger scheme of a world of poverty and suffering.

In addition, the Vatican Council's reforms came to fruition as a new wave of feminism offered more opportunities to ambitious women. The church lost many religious women -- sisters and nuns -- while those who remained have become more influential. 

At the same time, many priests left their vocations. And, among the secular, many people left their marriages.  It's a mixed picture, and the effects are only now beginning to be understood.

As a Catholic, I can name experiences when I was disappointed by individual religious figures, but the rigor and values I learned in my childhood continue to inform my personal ethics and standards of honorable behavior.  I have no regrets. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Art + Fashion + Commerce = Kitsch

Here are some famous European paintings.

Mona Lisa, 1503, Leonardo Da Vinci

The Tiger Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens, 1616

Wheatfield with Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

And here is an advertisement that ran on at least one billboard in Paris this spring.  Do you see some similarities?  

These handbags are not subtle:  In addition to gold plates naming the original artists of the featured designs, they have LV logos for the fashion house and cute little bunny-shaped bag charms, the emblem of Jeff Koons, the artist who collaborated with Vuitton on the collection.

The new bags were dreamed up by LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and his daughter, who know the artist and have bought some of his work.  They discussed the idea, called the Masters Collection, with Koons during a lunch meeting. 

What are we to make of this?

Jeff Koons

If you have heard of this artist, it is probably because of his balloon dogs.  

Above is Balloon Dog (Orange), one of several great big stainless steel likenesses of the sorts of prizes children used to get at carnivals or birthday parties.  This one holds the record for the highest price ever paid for an artwork by a living artist -- $54.8 million.

A few years ago, I saw a Koons retrospective at the Whitney in New York.  The show featured many works made over many years, but the one that got the most attention by far was the balloon dog.  

I attended the exhibit with a young friend who is a serious artist in the Cy Twombly mode.  When I asked his reaction, he said, diplomatically, "I think the artist is having a little bit of fun with his investors."

And what's not to like?  You see a balloon dog, and you know what it is.  It is shiny and perfectly made.  It may remind you of a happy moment in your childhood.

Since then, Koons has moved on.  In recent years, he has been creating his Gazing Ball series, which consists of large large copies of classical paintings and statues that have blue reflective balls attached. Here is one.  

Not everyone is enchanted with the concept.  Koons has had a good long career, but among art cognoscenti, skepticism has been growing over time.  Here is a reaction to a Los Angeles showing of the recent stuff:

  "Koons appropriated famous artworks, had them repainted in oil on canvas, and affixed a gazing ball — a blue glass globe with a highly reflective finish — on each. 'This experience is about you,' Koons has said, 'your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image.' Similarly, if there is lasting interest in ... Koons’s new projects, it will derive from the moment they reflect rather than any quality inherent in the art itself."

Natasha Degan and Kibum Kim
"The Kitsch Gazes Back"
LA Review of Books
July 2, 2017

I don't know what to make of that, but you definitely can see how the Gazing Ball series led to the Louis Vuitton Masters collection.

More Handbags

In October, a new set of art-themed bags was released.  

I'm not the first person to observe that these bags look like the sort of thing you'd find in a museum shop.  They're pretentious and derivative.   If I were the sort of person who spent $3,000 or more on handbags, I wouldn't buy one.

In fact, this isn't the first Koons handbag.  Back in the peak balloon dog years, the artist partnered with the fast-fashion H&M chain, which put balloon dog replicas in its shop windows and sold balloon dog handbags priced at $50.  Here is one.

If I had a personal wayback machine, I'd take one of these and a new LV Mona Lisa bag and pay a call on Leonardo.  I'd ask what he thought of the use -- call it cultural appropriation -- of his work for a commercial venture.  

I'm guessing the painter would be amused to hear that Koons once threatened to sue a company for making balloon dog bookends -- as if Koons himself had copyrighted the idea of balloon animals.  My bet is the conversation would be full of mirth.

Other Reactions

"The issue here is not exactly a mystery. On one hand, Vuitton is exploiting art for its own gain. On the other, an artist is selling out. In the middle, consumers are being introduced to great art as if it is disposable.

"In part to counter this, Vuitton and Mr. Koons have added a subnarrative to the project that spins it as an effort to address the falling profile of classical art — a civic service, if you will. Inside each bag, for example, is a little description of the artist, like a hidden history lesson for the Twitter generation."

Vanessa Friedman
Jeff Koons's New Line
New York Times
April 11, 2017

"They're bad. They're, like, disaster-level bad. They're bad in a way that feels pointedly contemptuous of Louis Vuitton's customers."

Amanda Mull
April 13, 2017 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

MovieMonday: The Man Who Invented Christmas

Here's a story about Charles Dickens during the the last couple of months of 1843, the period when he wrote "A Christmas Carol," his most loved book.

The source material is a history that has the same title, but the film includes some imaginative bits -- it has been compared to "Shakespeare in Love" -- that reward those  who are familiar with the story.  

The plot is this:  Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), the superstar author of his day, is strapped for cash after his most recent novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit," has not earned out.  He's overextended financially, and he needs money soon. 

Dickens hears the name Marley, observes his family's Irish maid telling his children a Christmas fantasy story, thinks a little and decides to write a book about a Christmas ghost.  He tells his publishers it will be a comedy.  For this he is all but laughed out of the room.  

Even his boon friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards), is skeptical.  "Why throw everything away over a minor holiday?"  he asks.  (The thesis of the source book is that "A Christmas Carol" changed the way the holiday was viewed, imbuing it with themes of generosity and kindness.) 

With a six-week deadline, Dickens sets to work, drawing inspiration from everything around him.  He meets or imagines his lead character, later named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), at a dismal funeral and asks the dour man a few questions.

"What do you think of children?" 





A pause ensues, and then comes the answer:  "Humbug."

From then on, Dickens' imagined Scrooge walks with him.  Other characters emerge, drawn from and played by the same actors as Dickens' relatives and friends.  (Think of the buddies Dorothy meets on the yellow brick road.)  They join the troupe in Dickens' head and, in the movie's telling, in his office.

As his deadline nears, Dickens is frustrated by family interruptions, consumed by unpleasant childhood memories and puzzled as to how to end his book.  This is not suspenseful because we know how the story ends, but its resolution is enlarged by the suggestion that every one of us may have a bit of an inner Scrooge who could use reforming.

I liked the movie.  Go see it with children over the age of eight who know the the story.  Take your parents too.  You'll all have a good time.  


Audiences generally like this movie, but there are Ebenezers out there too.  The main critical complaints are that the story is saccharine and too much like a TV movie.  I didn't find the film cloying, and I did like the energy Stevens brought to the Dickens role. (Plummer also does an excellent Scrooge, and the script and directing are crisp.)  To be fair, though, we are  bombarded with months of Christmas promotions every year, and there may be fatigue with the Dickens story and lines like, "God bless us, every one."   

One trailer before the film, about a cartoon or CGI piece called, "Sherlock Gnomes," looked pretty bad. The Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes, and the gnomes are those kitschy garden figures.  The target demo seems to be young viewers, and the result may be a mashup of saccharine and pop-culture cynicism.  Two moments from the preview:  A gnome saying, "No ship, Sherlock," and a gnome twerking in a mankini.  Kids deserve better.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

MovieMonday: Coco

There is much to admire in this latest children's movie from Pixar. 

Its young hero, Miguel, wants to be a musician.  In the style of all heroic stories, he must prevail against one barrier after another to achieve this goal.  

One big hurdle is Miguel's family.  His older relatives love him dearly, but they hate -- really hate -- music, and they expect him to join the family shoemaking business.  His tough-minded abuelita (grandmother) even smashes Miguel's home-made guitar, which causes him to search for a replacement.  

By some magical sleight of hand, this search transports Miguel to the land of the dead just before the Día de los Muertos, the day when Mexicans celebrate symbolic reunions with friends and family members who have died.  

It takes a brave children's movie to tackle the topic of death, a matter of great concern to the very young.  Here the dread is ameliorated by an afterworld where the dead live a parallel existence for as long as their relatives remember them.  

In the land of the dead, Miguel meets lost relatives and spirit animals, and he faces a deadline to get back to his home and family. New, disturbing information is revealed, and battles are fought.  It's a children's movie, however, and so things work out in the end. 

Personally, I thought the "Coco" plot was too complicated and pulled too many figurative rabbits out of hats.  Still, the family love theme connected the story, and the children in the theater audience seemed untroubled by its awkwardness.  So what do I know?  

On the plus side, it's nice to have a children's movie with a Mexican setting, Mexican characters and Mexican cultural references.  There's a big world out there, and kids deserve more than stories about suburban families, Lego superheroes and cute animals.  

As we have come to expect from Pixar, "Coco" is sincere, rich with creative detail and not stuffed with silly pop references to appeal to the cheap seats.  The colorful CGI imagery is particularly well done.  There also is nice Mexican music and a particular song, "Remember Me," that is sweet, but not cloyingly so, and is central to the plot resolution.


If you go to a theater to see "Coco," consider arriving a half hour late.  In addition to previews of other films, the movie is preceded by a lame 20-minute Disney cartoon, "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," which apparently aims to keep interest alive for a sequel to "Frozen."  

Together, these make the "Coco" experience a longer one than fidgety children will appreciate. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Philip Larkin and 20th Century Alienation

This poem, from 1971, is probably the most famous ever written by Englishman Philip Larkin, who was born in 1922 and died in 1985.

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,

And don't have any kids yourself.

Scholars suggest, seriously, that Larkin wrote this after spending several weeks with his mother, who outlived his Nazi-sympathizing father by many years and who was a difficult and needy person herself.  The poem's sentiment is harrowing, but he is said to have treated her kindly. She died the next year.

Larkin understood himself as a damaged individual.  As might be surmised, he never married and never procreated, frustrating the women who over the years were partners of some sort to him.  He was mostly asexual but keen for pornography, a lover of the natural beauty of the countryside but disinterested in the outer world of civilization.  He worked as a librarian and wrote poetry of steadily growing acclaim.  

Larkin's title comes from the first line in the second stanza of a less downcast poem by another Englishman, Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived a century earlier. 


Under the wide and starry sky  
  Dig the grave and let me lie:  
Glad did I live and gladly die,  
  And I laid me down with a will.  
This be the verse you 'grave for me:
  Here he lies where he long'd to be;  
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,  
  And the hunter home from the hill.

The contrast between the two works could hardly be greater.  In essence, Larkin offered his personal correction to the more romantically inclined Stevenson, who was "glad" in his life and wanted his gravestone to say that he had been buried "where he long'd to be."

There is no reconciling these two poets' outlooks, but each is true to its moment.  Larkin denied sometimes that his work could be defined as modern, but the moderns admired his bleak and unsparing honesty.   The 20th century and its two world wars took their huge toll on Western sensibilities and confidence.  The period also gave us film noirabstract impressionist art, atonal music and Brutalist architecture -- all reactions against traditional norms.  

We don't know yet what conclusions the 21st century generation, millennials, will draw of the world as they found it.  There are good signs and bad signs.

One of the bad ones is the disconnection of so many people in the wealthiest country in world history.  Coming soon:  The Kids Are Not All Right.  Other posts may follow.

More Larkin

Below is a morning song, the 1977 Larkin poem most admired by literary critics.  It is beautifully written, but its attitude is consistent with the cold eye cast in the work above. 


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   

—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being 
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   

A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

MovieMonday: Mudbound

The title of this film suggests its thesis: that black and white families are stuck in their moment in the post-war Mississippi Delta.  

Its opening scene, the burial of a white family's elderly father, is the same as the final scene.  It is not giving away too much to say that what happens in the interim suggests that change may come to the Jim Crow south, but not soon. 

The story contrasts two families.  

The first is the McAllans, Henry and Laura.  Henry, an engineer, announces one day that he has bought a farm and they are leaving Laura's hometown.  When they arrive, they move with Henry's difficult father and Laura's piano into a shack without indoor plumbing.

The other family are Hap and Florence Jackson, black sharecroppers and their children, all descendants of generations who have worked cotton fields with never a chance to own land themselves.  

Laura and Henry MacAllan try to get along, but they are not well-met and the household tension is palpable, particularly as Henry becomes frustrated by the challenges of farming.  

The Jacksons face much more external peril but have responded with deep commitment to each other and their children, and with lived Christian belief that offers solace and the promise of eventual justice.

This background is sketched efficiently in the film's early scenes, which are beautifully filmed and enhanced with off-stage narratives by the characters.

Then comes World War II.  Henry McAllan's younger brother, Jamie, goes to Europe and is a bomber pilot.  The Jacksons' oldest son, Ronsel, rises to become a battalion sergeant in George Patton's army.  Both survive, but each is a changed man when he gets back to Mississippi.  

The two veterans find they have much in common, and they form a friendship that is both guarded and not received well in the unchanged community.  Local suspicion and a perhaps too convenient plot point provoke an event of Southern Gothic horror that I found painful to watch.  (And yes, my discomfort must have been less than that of black audience members.) 

Eventually the sun rises, sort of, but the two veterans have learned that, in the late 1940s American South, Thomas Wolfe was right:  You can't go home again.  


Much is being made of the casting of hip hop artist Mary J. Blige as Florence Jackson, and Blige's performance here is excellent.  But, to be fair, all the acting in this movie is excellent.  Blige also wrote and sings a beautiful song, "Mighty River," that runs as the film's credits roll.

Dee Rees, the director of the movie, is a Nashville native of considerable talent.  She's also a great interview subject.  

Netflix funded the movie, which is getting a brief theatrical run, presumably to qualify for Oscar consideration.  Soon you will be able to stream it at home.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Land on Fire

"The closer we look, the clearer it's becoming that wildfire -- 

which has long exerted an enormous impact on western lands -- 

is becoming a bigger force than ever before."

Above is the opening observation of an interesting new book that gives perspective on last month's fires in Northern California and the puzzlement I described in a September post about the smoke I had seen in my native Pacific Northwest.

People who live and work near the western forests are well aware that there have been more fires, and more really big fires, in recent years. For the rest of us, author Gary Ferguson, a Montanan, provides a thoughtful, well-written study of the phenomenon in a handsome book full of great illustrations. 

The story starts in 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt established national forests by executive order and the US Forest Service to manage those properties.

In those days, forests were national treasures, and the plan for dealing with fires was to Put Them Out.  Over time, foresters learned that fire had its purposes, including clearing dead vegetation and allowing for forest regeneration.

Before people came along, fires were set by lightning.  But today, most fires are caused by unintended human action -- power tools, dropped cigarettes, contained burns swept along by wind -- and a few by arson.  In fact, more Americans than ever live near western forests in what is called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) of small-density housing developments that make forest management, and fire management, more challenging.

Climate change factors include rising temperatures and variations in rainfall and snow accumulations.  These have led to shorter winters, longer burning seasons and more really big fires, which Ferguson describes generally as ones that consume 100,000 acres or more.  He emphasizes his point when he notes that fire containment costs rose from $600 million in 1995 to $3 billion in 2015.

Other associated costs are replacement of structures, lost timber, reduced water storage and electrical grid repair.  And then there is the accumulating damage to forests, from which we derive half our water and whose trees absorb a significant amount of carbon dioxide.  

By way of example, the author discusses the healthy regeneration of a lodgepole pine forest in Yellowstone National Park following a big 1988 fire, and then a different case in Colorado, where a 2001 fire destroyed a Ponderosa pine forest that had not even begun to recover 14 years later.  The book includes photographs and information about other major fires from across the region.

Two essential points are that many factors are at work and that much research is being done. Ferguson discusses what has been learned from tree rings, satellite photographs, patterns of pine bark beetle infestations, the movement of fire based on wind and leaf observations, the changing composition of post-fire understory and the vulnerability of dry and dead trees following years of drought.  The more that is learned, the more the process of fire management seems to become one of micromanagement.

But there is always more to know.  The author quotes plant ecologist Frank Egler, who said this in the 1980s:  "Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think.  They are more complex than we can think."

Sunday, November 12, 2017

MovieMonday: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Call this a horror movie for the art film crowd.  It takes its title from a now-obscure Euripides play, "Iphigenia at Aulis," that even I have not read.  In that piece, King Agamemnon has offended the gods by, yes, killing a deer; as compensation he is required to kill his own daughter, Iphigenia.

Here, the Agamemnon character is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a heart surgeon with a nice family and a professional/personal manner that could be described as cold and detached.  The same can be said of his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), another physician, and also of their intimate moments.  (Interestingly, ancient Greek actors wore masks for their performances.)  

When we learn that Murphy has been seeing a 16-year-old named Martin (Barry Keoghan) and giving the boy expensive presents, we wonder why.  Over time, we learn that the doctor botched an operation that led to the early death of Martin's father.  

Martin visits the Murphy home, befriends the two children and invites the doctor to dinner at his mother's house.  His mother makes a pass at Murphy, which he rejects.  Later Martin explains that he wants the doctor to marry his mother -- effectively, to replace the husband and father Murphy took from them. Murphy says no.

Shortly afterward, the Murphys' son loses the ability to move his legs, a development that medical specialists cannot explain.  Then their daughter loses her mobility.  

The doctor confronts Martin, who explains in a matter-of-fact way that Murphy must kill either his wife or one of his children -- the doctor's choice -- or all will die of the same progressive, mysterious condition.  

Martin's ability to wreak what he calls "a sort of justice" is never explained, either as dark arts or Greek mythology or surrealism.  The movie operates in a parallel world that looks just like our own.  

Eventually Murphy gets angry at Martin, but his wife does not lose her temper at her husband or at Martin. (More oddly, to me, she does not do what any mother would in such an admittedly artificial circumstance.) The Murphys are a passionless team in a seemingly impossible situation.

And so the thing plays out.

The film opens and closes with somber religious music, and clashing metallic sounds punctuate the creepiness of the plot.   The acting is good, if fiercely restrained, and the script and cinematography harmonize with the worsening situation. 

When you leave the theater, the movie's sinister reality sticks with you for a while.   It's effective as horror and maybe intends us to reflect on how we should atone for the wrongs we have committed.  

On the other hand -- nah.  


Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ other projects also have dealt with unreal situations.  The most recent, "The Lobster," featured a bulked-up Colin Farrell as a young man who is moved into a hotel and told to find his life's mate within 45 days -- if not, he will be turned into the animal of his choice.  The movie has a bit more humor than "The Killing ..." and seeks to make viewers think about customs observed in relationships, but it offers little in the way of practical advice.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

High Noon, Harvey Weinstein, and Modern Culture

There is a classic Western film called "High Noon" that was very popular in the days before most of us were born.  Like others of its genre, it was a story that pitted the decent and honorable against the forces of chaos and evil. 

Here's the plot:

Marshal Will Kane, who is much admired for having brought order and justice to Hadleyville, has just married his Quaker sweetheart and, at her request, resigned his position.  As they prepare to leave town, Kane learns that Frank Miller, a murderer arrested five years earlier, has been pardoned and released from prison.

Miller is set on vengeance and traveling to Hadleyville on the noon train.  Three fellow outlaws are waiting for him at the station, and other malefactors are celebrating in the local saloon.

The town's new marshal has not arrived, and so Kane decides to stay.  He asks for help, and is turned down by everyone:  the judge who sentenced Miller to hang, Kane's deputy lawman, the former town marshal, Kane's best friend, the mayor, the congregants at the town church and even Kane's new wife, who says she's leaving on the train, with or without him.

Kane finally recruits one man to help, but even he backs out as Miller's train approaches and Kane is writing his will in the marshal's office. 

When the train arrives, Kane stands alone on Hadleyville's empty main street to face his enemies and protect the town.  He succeeds, aided only by his new wife, who has changed her mind. 

The movie ends with townspeople gathering to thank Kane and praise him.  Disgusted, he drops his badge on the ground; he and his wife leave Hadleyville forever. 

Then and Now

This is a classic film, but it has become an artifact from history. We're more cynical now, and we have developed an appetite for Tarantino-style battles among assorted bad guys.  We have superhero movies that derive their conflict from two-dimensional characters in old comic books.  We have online "communities" where people never meet each other as human beings. 

The effects of these changes become more obvious with time.  

What we don't see much and certainly have not observed in the last month or so is a single prominent person who has confronted run-of-the-mill everyday evil, no matter the personal cost.

Harvey Weinstein, et al

This is a man who has done terrible things for more than 30 years.  He also is rich, influential in a self-regarding community and a lavish funder of that community's favorite pet projects.

His life is coming apart now, and there is no reason to feel sympathy for him or triumphal about his downfall.  What he leaves behind is the recognition that there are many others like him -- people, mostly men, who will do any rotten thing they can get away with and who will bully and attack anyone who tries to stop them.

We have police forces to keep a lid on the most obvious public outrages, but the mundane bad guys are more often encountered in day-to-day interactions.  The only deterrents to these are people who practice good values and raise honorable children. Without them, we get schoolhouse bullies, scary neighborhoods and workplace squalor.

Cases like Weinstein's fester when people lack the courage to speak the truth, which in fact is much easier than being a single lawman facing a squad of armed bad guys.  We used to watch movies like "High Noon" for a reason.

There seems to have been no Weinstein Company executive, no co-producer, no director and no talent agent who knew the "open secret" about Harvey Weinstein's piggery and stopped dealing with the man because of it.  (I hold out hope that there was at least one executive assistant in the organization who, after escorting a third ingenue to meet bathrobe-clad Harvey in his hotel suite, protested loudly and then quit in protest.)   

There apparently was not a single actress or model who called the police to report that Harvey Weinstein had raped her.  Not one of them seems to have said, "Nope, I'm not signing a non-disclosure agreement even if it means I don't get my six-figure settlement money."  

Many have explained to us that they believed they had to put up with Weinstein because their careers were at stake, but still:  These people's voices, in aggregate, could have stopped his abuses many years ago.   

Now that the danger has passed, the female claimants and their male enablers are singing like songbirds.  Many, many other people are stepping up to say that they too have been abused by other famous men.   They are being lauded as victims. 

I do feel sorrow when people have been victimized, but I'm getting a little tired of being expected to regard victims as the noblest persons among us all.  

(This reached its grotesque apex for me a couple weeks ago when a bunch of new self-styled victims staged a White Lives Matter rally outside Nashville.  My only consolations were that they were vastly outnumbered by counter-demonstraters and also by religious opponents who participated in prayer vigils in churches across the region.)

When did we last admire a person for doing the right thing, even when it involved personal cost?  Except for the occasional Tom Hanks nice-guy movie, I can't think of much in popular entertainment.  

The country could use an outbreak of good character right now.  Maybe we all should stream "High Noon" at home tonight on our big-screen televisions.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

MovieMonday: Thor: Ragnarok

This is the third Thor superhero movie featuring beefcake actor Chris Hemsworth as the title character.  It has been better received than its predecessors, which also came from Disney's Marvel Studios.  

In this outing, Thor has been away from his homeland, Asgard -- a long story -- and returns to find that his sister, Hela, the Goddess of Death, is wreaking havoc on the peace-loving human population.  (Hela is played by Cate Blanchett in goth eye makeup and with a 12-point rack of black horns.)  

 Before he can deal with the home-front problem, Thor is kidnapped, taken to another planet and sold to its Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum with a blue stripe on his chin and black liner under his eyes.)  The GM puts Thor to work as a gladiator in public entertainments where, with his magic hammer destroyed, Thor finds his powers limited.

After a lot of fighting (during which I nodded off for a bit) Thor plans an escape with the aid of a hard-drinking Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson, fellow gladiator Hulk/Bruce Banner played by Mark Ruffalo, and Thor's brother/frenemy Loki played by Tom Hiddleston.  The team returns to Asgard for the battle to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesied destruction of its people.

One unusual aspect of this movie is that it includes light touches.  Thor, the God of Thunder, gets tetchy when he is referred to as merely the Lord of Thunder.  "GOD of thunder!" he yells back.  

There's much more of the same, which could be taken one of two ways.  Either it ratifies the effectiveness of last year's "Deadpool," which was funny (and raunchy) and very popular, or reacts to very serious good-bad stories like the one in 2016's "Batman vs. Superman," which was not as popular as had been hoped.  

This was my first Thor movie, and perhaps for that reason some of the references to its backstory missed me.  Still, the general themes are clear enough, as are the usual plot holes.  


Other supporting actors in Thor 3 are Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba.  The movie's U.S. gross was more than $120 million in its opening weekend.   

Meanwhile "Suburbicon," which stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore and was directed by George Clooney from a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, has made $5 million in two weeks.  

It's tempting to conclude that movie stars don't drive movie attendance as they used to do and that serious actors will take superhero roles for the money if not the dramatic challenge.


Yes, the music in the preview above and during the movie's biggest battle scene is Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," which just happens to be about ancient Norse raids on what are now the British Isles.  The lyrics:

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
>From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying:
Valhalla, I am coming!
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.
Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
>From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
How soft your fields so green,
Can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war.
We are your overlords.
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.
So now you'd better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day
Despite of all your losing.