Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Blood of Jesus (1941)
An Atheist's Confession
Perhaps it's best to think about "The Blood of Jesus" as a great piece of "naïve" art. The technique is primitive, but its content reveals to us the deep spirituality of the people portrayed--a kind of ethnographic study against a background of two contrasting (but maybe not so contrasting) musical forms: Negro Spirituals and swinging jive and blues.
The story plays out like a children's fairy tale, with the forces of righteousness and sinfulness given human form--and I must confess that,as an atheist, I sure dug the pleasures to be found at the night club more than the baptismal dunking in the river. Nonetheless, the feelings of rapture conveyed by the choir were so powerful that it had me and my atonal wife singing along with them and saying to myself: "Sinner Repent!." Ultimately deeply moving and strongly recommended.
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
A War-Time Movie That Breaks Your Heart (to a purpose): Spoiler
I can only imagine the impact this movie must have had on American audiences in 1942--the deep feelings of sympathy it aroused for the British people who were suffering under the incessant Nazi bombings. I'm guessing that it was this movie that made my mother say that her favorite male movie star was Walter Pidgeon (something I could never figure out till I saw "Mrs. Miniver" and realized how much she must have cried seeing it and knowing that my dad would soon be shipped out to England).
But in retrospect, the movie needs to be seen also in the context of war-time propaganda and its impact on British and American viewers. The biggest surprise in the movie is surely not that "Lady Beldon" renounces her claim to the village's rose of the year and shows her common cause with "the people". Rather, it was the designation of the Brit who was to be the symbol for all of Britain's war dead. From out of the blue, it turned out to be Lady Beldon's grand- daughter (and a more ethereal, tender and vulnerable creature couldn't have been chosen for the role than Teresa Wright).
The obvious choice, and the one everyone in the movie theater must have anticipated, was the Minivers' son as fighter-pilot destined to die in the Battle of Britain (and he almost certainly would have died if he had existed in real life--there were very few fighter pilots who survived from the beginning of war to the end). But the death of a beautiful, young woman, symbol of all the "innocent civilians" to die in the war, surely had a greater impact on the movie-goers. In a sense, it prepared Americans and Brits to understand and accept the logic of Total War, where there are no "innocent civilians".
And so it's a strange and sad irony that "Mrs. Miniver" plays a part (a small part, admittedly) in laying the groundwork for the legitimation of the firestorm in Dresden (1945) that killed in a few hours 25,000 Germans, more than half of all the Britons killed over the years of the Nazi bombing of Britain. Just one chapter in the story of the war-time bombing of civilians in the 20th century and beyond.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
Not a Hero's Tale
While Herzog provides his usual share of directorial novelties (including a "re-enactment" of Dieter's trek through the Laotian jungle with his captors--but not carried to the extent of re- enacting the tortures he went through), it's hard to see why this miraculous death-avoiding trek of Dieter's is any more worthy of a documentary than, say, a survivor's story of a Wehrmacht soldier walking his way back to Germany from the Russian front. In both instances, it's a tale of an individual surviving death at every turn--and not a tale of the slaughterhouse that dealt death to millions of people over the course of a war.
And while a Wehrmacht soldier's tale of survival might well include war crimes committed against civilians, Dieter's tale can hardly avoid that part of the tale--with the difference that the crimes committed by the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were never reported for the most part, whereas we have vivid technicolor imagery (incorporated into Herzog's film as well) of the horrors inflicted on the people of Vietnam.
Herzog's usage of historical footage of US bombing runs may indeed convey a deeply unsettling sensation of the contrast between the "glorious" technicolor pyrotechnics and the imaged horror felt by the people living the experience on the ground--and, I suppose, that's to Herzog's credit. But, in the end, this tale of an American pilot's escape from a POW camp--a tale that so defies credibility that it must be true--ends up endowing the protagonist with a hero's status. It's true enough that Dieter refuses the label "hero" (because "only the dead can be heroes"), but he also evidences not one iota of remorse for his participation in the war.
And this is the problem: A hero must be someone who embodies and realizes in his deeds the noblest virtues and values of our culture. Being a willing combatant in a war initiated by the US and that led to the deaths of between a million and a half and 4 million people for no good reason is not the stuff of heroes.
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Take it as a Black fantasy world without White folks
Once upon a time the colored folks were all smiles and jolly. Well, not really but what the hell, even if a caricature it was a reflection of a part, if only a part, of their reality. (Most objectionable to me was the religiosity bordering on crude superstition--but there too you gotta go with the fantasy side of this thing.) We laughed a lot and really got a kick out of the songs and singing (especially the great renditions given by Ethel Waters-- who even did a jitterbug number), as well as the over-the- top acting by "Rochester" and Rex Ingram.
Offensive to Black folks today? Sure, if they are totally invested in "presentism" (condemning people of the past with the standards of behavior we hold today). What would they want? To see more Black characters with a Ph.D. in hand? The manner of speech and social conditions in the movie depicted the life of the bulk of the Black masses at the time.
What's missing, of course, is the presence of Whites and signs of the oppressive power exercised by Whites over them--not a single White person to be seen anywhere. This is, after all, a comedic fantasy--a Black fantasy that perhaps expressed a not-so-repressed vision of paradise for Blacks, in which they would be free of White folks and be able to sort out their lives by themselves and for themselves.
Rang-e khoda (1999)
Bit Heavy-handed with the Religious Message
This film has a pretty heavy religious overtone (film begins with a dedication to "Allah") that seems to have been blurred and missed by the American audience who loved it--taken as they were with the sorrowful tale of a sensitive blind boy. It's really the story of Job told in an Islamic setting. The commandment that comes from on high is to acknowledge and submit to your lot in life--in the case of the father: to devote himself to his son and his well-being, despite the heavy burden that that imposes on him. There's also the message that, along life's way, we must always be attentive to the needs of others (as exemplified, in a positive way, by the blind boy's rescue of "animalitos" in distress; and, in a negative way, by the father's lack of attention to the turtle on its back and in distress). And the failure of the father to submit to the lot of Job means that he must suffer God's wrath and further punishment. "God's will be done", as they say.
Not a bad message coming from Islam in one sense: One should shoulder one's responsibilities towards others who are needy; but, do we need the threat of divine punishment to recognize this duty we all have to "do the right thing?" After all, a humanist doesn't need to read the Koran to know that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
For my taste, just too easy a play for and manipulation of our feelings with the use of a blind kid.
Una vita difficile (1961)
Much Neglected Gem from the Italian Golden Age of Cinema
In this heart-wrenching comedy directed by Italian cinema giant Dino Risi, Silvio Magnozzi's "difficult life" follows the trajectory of Italy from the proud moments of the Resistance movement's struggle against Nazi occupation to post-war domination by wealth and privilege. Magnozzi, a writer and journalist played by Alberto Sordi, does not give up the dream of an alternate future to capitalism and the extreme inequalities it engenders. He meets Elena, the love of his life, while he is fighting the Nazis; but after the war she is torn between his dreams and the petty social- climbing schemes of her mother. So while Magnozzi refuses to sell out, choosing to defy the fat cats and to write truthfully, Elena waivers.
The film is often classified with the New Italian Comedy, a genre that emerged from the hard-hitting political narratives of Italian Neo-realism and retained their critical edge while softening it with humor. "A Difficult Life" has a bitter tone compared to most of the films of the period; even in many very funny scenes the anger and defiance are never dispelled, and Magnozzi pays a heavy price for his heroism.
Sordi's performance is brilliant (Italians refer to him as "Albertone", perhaps best translated as "Albert the Great"). In his portrayal of the clown as hero, every gesture is meaningful and touching. Lea Massari, one of the great Italian divas of the period, also has a stand-out performance--and the supporting cast (including Claudio Gora as the boorish multi-millionaire) never misses a beat. The period details from the newsreel footage to the flashy cars, beach parties, and fur coats of the post-war boom-- are handled expertly. A must-see for any lover of Italian cinema. '
An Alternative Ending (Spoiler Alert)
So the ending is pretty much the classic one you'd expect from Hollywood (even if it ain't a Hollywood production). After all, who in her right mind would abandon her chance to live in the land of plenty versus a dreary, down-at-the-heels Irish village filled with petty-minded people? To his credit, the screenwriter kept the tension of the choice sustained, and did not present the alternative Irish lover with any obvious flaws--which would have made the choice self-evident. Indeed, for much of the visit interlude, "Eilis" seemed genuinely taken with "Jimmy Farrell"--and I have to admit that my wife and I were rooting for her to choose him--though we knew full well that "America" had to win out in the end (and we knew that because there are no "accidental encounters" in a "Hollywood" script: how else to account for the insertion of the scene at city hall with the "chance encounter" with a young woman from Eilis' town--who then "happens" to be related to Miss Kelly, the grocer?).
Wallace Stegner once remarked that America is divided between the "boomers" and the "stickers". The former are always prepared to move on to more promising territory (the next great "boom" in the roller- coaster economy), regardless of ties to family and place. The "stickers" are those who, despite tough times and a "hard-scrabble" life, try to make the best of it and stick it out because of the importance of place and kith and kin.
It would have been nice if just once we gave some credit to the "stickers" and had Eilis hanging in there with family, friends, and the town and the seashore she loved (despite all the flaws). That would have been too much to hope for, especially given the "inconvenience" of her marriage to "Tony". Nonetheless, I'd have opted for a toss-up that would have let the audience decide. After all, a civil marriage is not recognized by the Catholic Church as binding, so divorce is not out of the question for Eilis.
So here's an alternative ending: Eilis writes to Tony to say that she's fallen in love with another man and that she'd like Tony to agree to a divorce. Tony refuses to give her a divorce, and insists that she come back to Brooklyn to contest it in person, believing that he will succeed in making her fall back in love with him. As she wanders out to the Irish seashore and looks out over the sea, she contemplates her choices,.....FIN
None of the above takes away from the deeply moving and affecting performance of Saoirse Ronan, who had me tearful for much of the movie. And the movie does raise the interesting question as to whether a woman can love two men equally at the same time.
Dom över död man (2012)
The Judgment Made on a Dead Man
The key to this film lies, in part, in understanding the meaning of the title. "The Last Sentence" is an ambiguous translation of the Swedish because a "last sentence" might refer to the last words a man writes. Instead, "sentence" here means the "judgment" one passes on a man who has died--a judgment that endures longer than the judgments that were passed on a man while he was alive.
And this citation of the "Hávamál" (an Old Norse 13th-century poem) has a special resonance in light of a toast proposed by Torgny Segerstedt early in the film: Segerstedt remarks something to the effect that we have a sacred duty to tell the truth in public matters, but no such duty in our private affairs.
Jan Troell has thus given us a portrait of Torgny Segerstedt as a man who fiercely refused to say anything other than the truth about Hitler and Nazism, but who, at the same time, was incapable of acting in a truthful and caring fashion in his private life--a man who seemingly had a deeper attachment to his dogs than to any of the people who deeply loved him.
And Troell has perhaps highlighted the shortcomings in Segerstedt's personal relationships precisely because he wants the viewer to sense this tension in the final judgment we place on the life of a man. Do Segerstedt's attempts to stir the conscience of the Swedes through his writings on the horrors of Nazism cancel out whatever negative judgment we might pass on his conduct as a father, husband or lover?
Maybe Troell poses just such a question because he himself may sense that he's nearing the end of his own life. And so what Troell wants, perhaps, is for us to realize that we are all faced with the question of the measure of a person's life and the final judgment to be passed on that life: what weight to give to the life one has lived in public, visible to all, or to the life that one has lived in the shadows (filled with love and affection or not) of one's private life?
Last Days in Vietnam (2014)
Where's the Context?
This documentary gives us a lot of hand-wringing and conscience-searching about "doing the right thing" towards the thousands of southern Vietnamese who had collaborated with the American war effort. We are made to feel the gut-wrenching decisions made by Americans as to who would be evacuated and who would be left behind to face retaliation for their collaboration with the enemy. And, in the end, we are meant to feel re-assured that Americans are good people at heart, who "truly cared" about the fate of the inhabitants of southern Vietnam. But this story of the human tragedy that unfolded over a few days in late April 1975 is a deceptive snapshot of the big picture.
Vietnam had been a united country for centuries before the defeat of the French in 1954 (France had occupied Vietnam as a colony of the French Empire since 1887). The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended domination by the French, specified a temporary division of the country into a north and south--with the provision that elections would be held within 2 years to reunify the country. But Pres. Eisenhower admitted, "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, a possible 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader." And so the US and its puppet regime in the south saw to it that no elections were held.
The so-called Republic of South Vietnam was a corrupt regime that had virtually no legitimacy, even in the south. It was comprised of elites drawn from the very small Catholic minority (6-8%), collaborationists with the previous French colonial regime, high-ranking military officers, wealthy landowners, and the businessmen, large and small, who had contractual dealings with the US. Its narrow base of support in the population meant that sooner or later the US would have to intervene militarily in a massive way in order to prop it up--which is what Pres. Johnson ordered, beginning in 1963.
And so, for more than 10 years the US ravaged Vietnam to keep it from "going Communist". There are still people in the US who think we should have gone further in the carnage and devastation of that small country in order to "win the war" and "save Vietnam from the Communists"--though one wonders how many people would have been left to save and what would have been left of Vietnam as a habitable place if we had unleashed the full destructive force of the US military. As it was, nearly 3 million Vietnamese were killed, hundreds of thousands wounded and maimed for life, entire cities laid to waste, and a countryside left infested with toxic agents and land mines.
Once the US discovered that the Vietnam War was destroying morale and discipline among its own troops (who, finding themselves surrounded on all sides by "the enemy", lashed out by committing scores of war crimes against the civilian population of Vietnam--see the My Lai massacre as an example), even the war hawks of the Nixon administration realized it was time for an "exit strategy". But shortly after the US pull-out, the morale of the army of the so-called Republic of South Vietnam dropped through the floor--and that should have come as no surprise since most of its soldiers had either been press-ganged into service or were there just to collect their paycheck. That army simply disintegrated in the face of Vietnamese who knew what they were fighting for: to liberate their country from a foreign invader.
So now we can return to the meaning of those last days in April 1975. All of that hand-wringing and conscience-searching--a truly sincere desire on the part of Americans to "do the right thing" towards the Vietnamese whose lives we had compromised--falls terribly short of the mark. What is lacking is a recognition that we as Americans were responsible for that horror--and not just during the "last days in Vietnam". Both the director and the people she interviewed seemed oblivious to the fact that what happened in those last days was the playing-out of the final scene of more than 10 years of incalculable suffering and hardship we had inflicted on the people of Vietnam.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)
The Deep Paradox
There's a paradox or dissonance that lies at the core of this film: on the one hand, Didier is passionately in love with America's bluegrass music; but, on the other, that very same music is imbued with a religious fervor and vision of the world that he rejects equally passionately. Throughout the film we see him refusing to accept any interpretation of the happenings in the natural world (whether coming from his wife or his daughter) that has the odor of religiosity--only a non-sentimental, scientific explanation will satisfy him. And at the same time we see him singing with soulfulness the lyrics of songs sung by Bill Monroe and the Carter family, all of whom were deeply religious folks and whose songs expressed that religious devotion.
It's no coincidence that this dissonance is framed by a story of great personal loss and tragedy. The explanation given by science for why we suffer such loss is pale and offers little-to-no solace to the bereaved. This doesn't mean we must accept the tales religion tells us about such loss: "Such is God's inscrutable will and we can look forward to a day when we will be reunited again" (the family circle will be unbroken again).
When people are "wild with grief" and hunger emotionally for the kind of comfort only "the eternal" can bring (Thornton Wilder), our vocabulary shifts from rational, scientific discourse to the holy, a discourse better suited to what is ineffable in the human experience.
And so we see Didier turn to the religious vocabulary of discourse found in bluegrass lyrics as a kind of salve for his afflicted spirit--without, for all that, the suggestion that he has laid aside modern science.