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Nirgendwo in Afrika (2001)
A different view of racism
When it comes to films about the Nazi racism, Nowhere in Africa is in a class by itself. Unlike Schindler's List and a plethora of screenplays on the subject, all of which confine the drama to the morality of good and evil, some with didactic overtones, others with pure shock value, or both, this movie illuminates, both with a spotlight, and a microscope, the social origins of racism. Here's the problem: The very institutions that teach right from wrong, that inculcate tribal loyalty, patriotism, and social identity, that teach us to pledge allegiance and follow the golden rule, have also quietly inferred, or noisily demanded, that the `other,' the `alien amongst us' in Biblical terms, is both different, and inferior. Every culture, Herodotus observed, thinks its own system of values superior to the values of others. If this is true (and I think it is), the subtext is clear: `others' are inferior. Which leads one to ask: Is it possible to have a moral, socialized populace without racism, or, at least, ethnocentrism?
Set in Kenya during World War II, the drama devolves around the struggles of an expatriate family of German Jews. Culturally, intellectually, and socially, they are Germans, not Jews, which is both fascinating, and historically accurate. Like many other Jews of their generation, the expatriate family viewed their Jewish heritage with both skepticism, and as a sentimental indulgence. Unable to come to grips with the events in Europe, reeling from and their new social status of being nobodies in the middle of nowhere, they struggle as social nomads, stuck between their privileged position as white overlords of the native Blacks, and their fallen, uncertain status as guests without rights. We watch the internal dynamics of a Jewish expatriate family through the prism of its own internalized assumptions, both as highly cultured Germans, and increasingly as Jews. And what they discover about their own hidden assumptions, their ethnocentrism and European sense of privilege and superiority, becomes as shocking to them as Hitler's Germany.
Like every other archetypal hero, being nobody in the middle of nowhere is the crucible that produces the Hero's special character, where he or she eventually returns home, in the end, bearing gifts, wisdom, and a healing balm. In the end, they emerge with real gem of a prize: they understand, both intellectually and emotionally, the comparative advantage of other cultures and societies.
What I especially loved about this film is its emotional tone. It's an emotionally evocative film, though not with the mawkish, childish paroxysms of a Disney flick. We watch adults dealing with culturally layered adult emotions, unwrapping and examining each layer as one peels an onion. Their collective emotional journey is as rich and textured and subtly presented as any I've seen.
The Hours (2002)
Film as Literature, Portraiture, and Poetry
There are two themes of The Hours that seem to oppose each other, like the constantly reversing polarity of electrical alternating current.
On the one hand, there's the admonition to `look life in the face, and know it for what it is.' It's Luther's stubborn refusal to budge in the face of adversity, the `here I stand; I can do no other.' Mrs. Dalloway, a `monster' in the eyes of some, whose monstrous deed was to have chosen life over death, exemplifies this virtue. Having abandoned her children to save herself from the despair of an inauthentic life, she exemplifies the willingness to accept life as it is.
On the other hand, there is the last refuge of the despairing soul, the knowledge that `It is possible to die.' Deeply ironical, the person who exemplifies this type of despair is the one who has lived the fully authentic life. Richard found the courage and freedom to explore the entire world, inside and out, and take from his exploration only what resonated with himself. And yet, as a social icon of sorts, Richard finds himself living for others, like Prometheus bound, except that the ravens eating his flesh are his friends and companions. Richard tells Clarissa, `I think I'm staying alive to satisfy you.' To which Clarissa replies, `That's what people do: they stay alive for each other.' Richard escapes this last falsehood of the spirit the only way he can, by choosing death.
The Hours is almost completely bereft of metaphor, analogy, or syllogism that might be construed as an attempt to point to a meaning or lesson or didactic purpose. Like really good art, it points to something ineffable, to feelings with which we can all identify, the feelings of despair we all feel when trapped, either by ourselves, or others, in a false existence.
But to choose life it to also choose death. Every beginning is an ending. And just like singing the blues, one feels strangely uplifted after dwelling on such an apparently depressing subject. One comes away from the film with the feeling that, as Richard put it, everything's in the world is all wrong, all mixed up, but that it's also possible, and necessary, to look life in the face, and to accept it for what it is.
The Emperor's Club (2002)
Mental masturbation -- a complete waste of time
Once again, I find myself in the awkward position of being forced to disagree with Ebert and Roeper, who inexplicably gave this 150 minute exercise in gum-beating prattle two thumbs up. I think this film is fatuous, bloated, constipated mawkish nonsense. If I had a dollar for every cheap cliché that fills the silver screen, I'd be a rich man. If I had been hired to play in the film, I wouldn't have been able to throw a rock without hitting someone doing a worn out caricature. If you've already seen Dead Poets Society, you've already seen it. Only this one really sucks.
Kevin Kline plays a professor of the classics (William Hundert) at an upscale prep school for the east coast elite, the rich and powerful moguls of the media, the captains of industry, and the political cognoscenti. So it's a striking irony that, as head of the schoolboys, Kline plays an archetypal schoolboy himself, a man who remains perennially confined in a schoolboy's world-view, in which dutiful, obedient children literally fear to tread off the paved paths set before them, where they memorize their lessons with the reverence of Mullah's memorizing the Koran, and where they all strive for vaulted honor of being `Mr. Caesar,' winner of a quiz-show type contest on Roman history.
What really galls me about this film is its irresponsible worship of classical history, especially the Romans. An unabashed didactic on the importance of morals and virtue, Mr. Principled Professor (Kline) is continually holding them up as exemplars. Which makes me wonder if the authors of this script ever really studied ancient history. Caesar, their archetypal man of virtue, overthrew republican Roman government in a military junta of the same ilk as Crassus, Sulla, and Pompey. Caesar loved power. What a strange lesson in civic humanism.
About Schmidt (2002)
An American Ulysses
Schmidt is an exemplar of American middle class virtue. When he retires, his many friends and colleagues gather to wish him a fond farewell. A successful VP of actuarial science in a large Omaha Nebraska corporation, his golden years before him, he looks forward to a life of adventure in his new Winnebago. At first, the process of defining himself without reference to his career is predictably tough; but then, when his wife dies, he's forced to look at himself without any of the socially constructed icons that he's used as a crutch for over forty years.
Like Jack Kerouac, he goes searching for himself on the road. And mad Captain Ahab on the maiden voyage of his Winnebago has no shortage of lunatic first mates to offer their advice always wrong, always genuine American kitsch. The situations in which Schmidt finds himself are darkly comical.
About Schmidt is a film devoted to the problem of kitsch, particularly its emotional and intellectual manifestations. There's kitsch on the left, and kitsch on the right. There's an economy based on its production, and an economy based on its avoidance. And this film finds kitsch everywhere, in modern evangelical churches, in New Age practitioners of lovey-dovey touchy-feely instant familiarity, in the mobile home parks along the road to the American Dream, in the `Precious Moments' figurines that are so nice; worthless, but nice.
I came away from the film thinking of Schmidt as an American Ulysses, of sorts, a hero forced to negate everything he'd learned to value in order to overcome the curse of kitsch. In the end, he succeeds.
The Believer (2001)
Absolutely brilliant filmmaking
He destroys the both the blameless and the wicked. When a scourge brings sudden death, he mocks the despair of the innocent. When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he blindfolds its judges. If it is not He, then who is it? Job 9: 22-24
Danny Balint is Jew who hates Jews. Why? He claims that there's no reason. Like Catullus, he says, `I hate and I love. Who can tell me why?' And just as he says that it's in the very nature of things to hate Jews, at the very moment he insists that the id rules the ego, he goes ahead and tells us why. The Jews, he believes, `love to separate things.' They're wanderers, universalists without life-affirming ties to the soil. They're obsessed, he argues, with giving pleasure, an inherent weakness that ultimately deracinates civil society. Marx, Freud, and Einstein, he believes, gave us communism, infantile sexuality, and the atom bomb.
But that's not the worst of it. These are only symptoms of the disease, which boils down to this: Jewish people don't understand the true nature of their faith. Sure, they love and obey God. That's not the issue. The issue is the character (or lack thereof) of the God they believe in. Like Job, Danny thinks that the Almighty is wantonly cruel, given to unchecked paroxysms of jealous anger, and certainly not a creature of reason or justice or his well publicized love. And so Danny says that he's the only one who *does* believe in God. He's the only true believer, because he sees him for the `powerful madman that he is,' a deity who turned Abraham into a `quivering putz' by commanding him to sacrifice his own son. `And we're supposed to worship such a deity?' he asks. He hates Jews because they supposedly love this deity, this destructive madman.
This film is so deep, so layered, so rich and provocative, due in part to Ryan Gosling's amazing performance, I believe this is one of the finest films ever made. Ever.
Y tu mamá también (2001)
Childish "coming of age" bilge water
Spoiler!! I rented this video because Ebert and Roeper gave it two `big' thumbs up. But I think they must have been smoking the wacky tobaccy, because one should be stoned to make it through this adolescent crap. To be blunt, it's like soaking your feet in battery acid.
Y Tu Mama Tambien is your typical teenage `sexual maturity' flick, which has been totally cliché ever since The Summer of '42. The two young men, one from a socially prominent family, the other from a working class background, are both good-looking, and indescribably horny. Like most young men in their late teens, all they think about is getting laid. Boring, ain't it? But then they meet a mysterious Spanish woman, the kind that Dylan Thomas wrote about when he said that, `if the gods would love, they'd see with eyes like mine, but should not touch like I, your sweet inductive thighs, and raven hair.' She's a real no-s*** goddess. So, they set about the arduous task of seducing her. By the end of the film, they've achieved their purpose, though not without the gracious condescension of the goddess. Asleep yet?
What really galls me about this film is the way their relationship with the goddess, who initiates them into the pleasures of the flesh, descends into being decadently, indulgently sentimental. At the beginning of the film, we see her gleefully screwing the two young men, apparently for revenge against her unfaithful husband. At the same time, we see her grieving, apparently, over her failed marriage. For a woman of strong desire, she's such a delicate flower! But it's not until the very end of the film that we understand the real reason for giving her husband his freedom, for being a sexual goddess to the two young men: all the while, she was dying of cancer. She was selflessly giving herself to everyone! How generous, how noble!
Let me tell you, when comes to tear-jerking prattle of this sort, give my portion to someone else.
Only what is heavy has value
Imagine you're at the theater attending a live performance, a truly living performance in which both axioms and mythological truths are entered into and shared by actors and audience alike. Now suppose that the backdrop for all the action is dark, oppressive, and heavy, while all that transpires before it is light, glib, and ineffectual. Now consider that, through the course of the play, all that is bouncy and trivial becomes overwhelmed and absorbed by the gravity of the background, like light being sucked into the gravity of a black hole, so that what was once meaningless and unimportant and even silly becomes increasingly momentous and important and valuable as the play progresses. If you can see this outline in your mind's eye, you have a good idea about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera's novel by the same name brought to life as a movie. The film, like the novel, declares one thing: `only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value.' I so love this idea, this earth shattering insight: it effortlessly capsizes our Postmodern zeitgeist in one innocuous little phrase. And the film expresses it beautifully.
Set in the Prague Spring of 1968, when the Soviets put down Dubcek's `Socialism with a Human Face,' the weight of these events draws the lives of a Czech doctor, his wife, and his lovers, into its orbit. And instead of crushing them, as one might assume, it becomes the fire that purifies gold. Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), for example, had previously written a treatise on Oedipus, a witty exercise in sophistry aimed at the Communist regime as a provocative analogy, nothing more. But as the essay becomes an object of obsession to the Communists, we see Kundera's definition of vertigo come into play. It is not the fear of falling, but the soul's defense against the desire to fall. Tomas wanted to fall. Why? Watch the movie, and find out for yourself.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
The same as you learned in Sunday School, only the exemplars are different
Sex, Lies and Videotape will probably strike the average viewer as irredeemably degenerate, maybe even perverted, since voyeurism is still considered aberrant behavior. But as far as this film is concerned, that's the appearance, not the reality. Whereas the drama revolves to a certain extent around the voyeuristic masturbation of an impotent man, the heart and soul of the film is an unrelenting, hard driving psychological siege on the biggest erogenous zone of all: the brain.
This film is about sex. But it's not about the frothy swapping of fluids and feelings. It's about honesty, without which one can't have intimacy, which is to sexual stimulation what the water valve is to the hydrant. From beginning to end, we see this theme brought into focus by the dramatic contrast between two different relationships the one based on lies and deceit, the other based upon honesty. And guess which one wins out in the long run?
In a sense, it's what your mother and Sunday school teacher taught you all along. But what makes this movie way more interesting than your mother or Sunday school teacher is the level of honesty it suggests is necessary as the basis of a healthy relationship. Ann (Andy McDowell), for example, an acceptably moral person tells the voyeuristic masturbator `You got a problem.' He replies by adding that he has a lot of problems. But, he says, `They belong to me.'
Somehow, the openness about one's problems renders their bile and poison ineffective. `Lilies that fester,' said Shakespeare, `smell far worse than weeds.'
Phone Booth (2002)
Nothing as troublesome as conscience
For once, here's an edge-of-your-seat action film that's viscerally lean, symbolically rich (perhaps even stunning), and uncluttered by visual noise (a cheap substitute for content), or absurd, `deus ex machina' twists and turns of fate and fortune. This film goes straight to the heart of the problem of conscience, right from the opening song, an old gospel tune that whimsically asks the operator to `give me Jesus on the line.' Every one of who watches this film will identify with the man in the phone booth, because every one of us is guilty of some kind of shortcoming or another. The really fascinating, and groundbreaking, thing about this film is this: it's not clear whether the accusatory voice of conscience is good, or evil, or both; furthermore, it's not clear whether conscience is innate (natural), or conventional (a matter of upbringing, a social construct), or both. The viewer has to make up his or her own mind!
When Stu picks up the phone, he does so by duty, by compunction, by social convention. `A ringing phone has to be answered, Doesn't it?' the caller taunts. He's gained control of Stu by manipulating Stu's innate sense of moral obligation. And like the voice of conscience, the phone booth is `the last vestige of privacy,' in New York, reminiscent of the `my own mind is my church' idea of American individualism, also on the `innate' side of the coin. Then again, on the `conventional' side, the man at the other end spends all his time watching Stu an envious, spiteful person who is, like Stu, a `walking cliché.' His ethical stance is about as nuanced (and deadly) as PTL's Jim Bakker, and just about as compelling. Coward that he is, he attacks Stu at a time of weakness, playing God with unearned entitlement and capriciousness. `If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than conscience,' Huck Finn mused, `I'd pison it.'
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
It's a curious fact about Darwinism that it was once thought to have eliminated an end purpose or outcome of human history, a belief inherited from Christianity's prediction of the thousand-year reign of Christ. Instead, Christian teleology took a new direction from Darwinism: throughout the western world, scholars believed that they had found the holy grail of human progress in Herbert Spencer's notion of the `survival of the fittest,' an idea adopted without restraint by Darwin, in which various varieties of the same species compete for dominance. The `superior' would win out over the `inferior,' purifying the human race. The Third Reich believed it had ushered in the millennium in precisely this manner; likewise, Ellis Island phrenologists rejected or accepted immigrants based on prominent racial characteristics, while William Graham Sumner of Yale, one of the fathers of American sociology, espoused an economic and social doctrine that literally produced the squalor of New York's infamous East Side.
Rabbit Proof Fence is a heartrending tale about how these ideas played out in Australia. Shot from a native's point of view, the film simply resonates with the trance-like vibrations of their ancestral chants, the intimate attachment to land, family, and tribe, the spiritual aspirations of a people who reverenced the spirit bird, not as something to manipulate with prayers and incantations, but to look after as a source of wonder and inspiration.
Believe me, I'm not an overly sentimental person. I hate the cute and the mawkish. But this film is constructed with sinews of emotional intensity that you won't leave the theater but in tears.