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Overlooked masterpiece bucked trends of the time
11 December 2003
Warning: Spoilers
It used to baffle me why this film hasn't been held in greater esteem. I was blown away by this film when I first saw it, and knew quite a few people who snuck back to the theater several times for more. The beautiful and harsh scenery, dreamlike photography, sudden explosions of bloody violence, and raging, over-the-top passion amid a collapsing world create a pure emotional rush. This is melodrama at its best, which means that it can really stir your emotions if you let it.

After reading a recent review of Ron Howard's "The Missing" by Steve Sailer (Washington Times) I think I know why "Last of the Mohicans" was overlooked. No matter how good this film was, it bucked the dominant trend in pop-culture perceptions of Native Americans at the time - a trend, according to Sailer, that might be reversing. Here's a historical breakdown of trends in similar films:

1. 1950-1970 - Native Americans are one-dimensional, easily killed, comic-book villians. No religious elements appear. There are only a few exceptions to this rule (e.g. John Ford's "The Searchers").

2. 1970s - Native American violence becomes brutal and real - but we also get rising sensitivity to Native Anericans without much sappy-ness. To quote Sailer:

"'The Missing' resembles 'Ulzana's Raid,' the 1972 Burt Lancaster film that was one of several brutal but realistic films (such as 1970's 'A Man Called Horse') made during a brief period of balance in the depiction of Native Americans, falling between the earlier era's anti-Indian prejudice and the present day's happy-clappy New Age nonsense."

In other words, if "Last of the Mohicans" had been released in 1970 it might have been hailed as "progressive."

3. 1980s and 1990s - Religious/spiritual interpretations of Native Americans become dominant but are just as comic-book as the old 1950s violence. Native Americans are cute New Age "Dances With Wolves" icons that sit around and act wise. "Native American" becames an always-good point of reference in the Culture Wars. Classic example from South Park: an old hippie screams in front of a new Starbuck's

" many Native Americans did you slaughter to make that coffee shop?"

Michael Mann's "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) clearly ran counter to the 1990s trend - it was trashed by critics at the time but I've always felt it was a much better film than it is given credit for, even a classic. But it bucks the New Age image of Native Americans so popular in 1992. For example, the old chief at the end uses his spiritual authority to make a brutal, violent decision for death so that justice is served. The Native American father Chingagchook kills the revenge and power-mad Magua without pity. And as for Magua's own behavior...nobody on either side is asking "...can't we all just get along?"

In other words, Mann picked the exact wrong time to make this film. In the 1970s it might have been properly recognized, but by 1992 it was out of step with the touchy-feely image of Native Americans. Coupled with its obvious melodrama and action-film hype, the film became too much of a "guilty pleasure" to win praise (but don't let that stop you now).

Movies are changing again, and that might be a good reason to go out and rent "Last of the Mohicans." According to Sailer, "the dark side of Native American spiritualism" is now being seen in "Missing". Like "Mohicans", Howard's new film loses the New Age stuff for a dreamlike action/horror state. The scenes below have their obvious parallels in "Mohicans":

Blanchett finds her boyfriend's charred corpse strung up over a campfire where the Indians slowly roasted him to death. Later, when a photographer snaps the Apache leader's picture, the shaman gets his soul back by tearing out the man's heart.

The other problem with "Mohicans" was that it is too "manly." There's a very strong female lead, but the men are also real, lusty, nasty men. By including this brand of passion, "Mohicans" conflicted directly with the "girl power" pop culture trend of the mid-1990s. Admitting you liked the film made you anti-woman as well as anti Native American.

In this light, consider Sailer's comments on "Missing" - they apply equally to "Mohicans:"

"Still, I have to admire Howard for ignoring the bogus and condescending fantasies about American Indian culture rampant in our society today. Native Americans have suffered enough without having the memory of their warriors emasculated by self-absorbed eco-feminists into sappy symbols. Geronimo was a cruel man, but he was every inch a man."

We may be on the edge of a revival of films which are capable of mixing Native Americans, violence, and romance in a good way. If so, the underappreciated "Last of the Mohicans" is a place to start.
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A 'real' film in very interesting ways...
9 September 2003
Warning: Spoilers
[MINOR SPOILERS] The novel this movie was based on fanned my imagination as a kid - I read and re-read it several times. Hadn't seen the movie in over 30 years until the DVD came out, and was delighted that my long-ago passion was justified - this is a great film. Well-plotted, good suspense, good cinematography, great attention to how people really react under extreme stress. In addition, the physical action is 'real' in a way no CGI film of today ever could be.

Compared to the disaster films of the 1970s, the theme of the film is Promethean - instead of simply trying to escape, the characters do something fantastic - they come up with a way to survive that practically amounts to stealing fire from heaven. Gazing at a wrecked plane lying in the desert, Dorfman ("Stringer" in the novel) sees a new plane rising from the ashes, couched in the new language of math and aerodynamics. The rest of the film seesaws between who has the power of the future - analytic, engineer-style dreamers like Dorfman versus seat of the pants Stewart's pilot character. In the end, both are vindicated - only Dorfman can envision the Phoenix, but the Phoenix can't fly without Stewart the "outstanding" pilot.

There's a moment of Christian symbolism (common in films of this vintage) when, after a night of exhausting work, one of the characters gazes at their work and comments "it looks like an airplane." Actually, the Phoenix looks like a cross with the sun behind it, in contrast to the crosses marking the dead on a nearby dune. Cool. This motif is repeated as the engine of the Phoenix powers up on the last day - a thrilling scene. There's even a Calvary reference where the half-dead survivors drag the cross-shaped plane to its launching place - if they endure this last trial, they will be reborn.

But the most amazing thing for me is that the Phoenix was actually built for the film. The original author of the novel worked hard to make sure that the story was possible. The movie producers went further - they built the actual, physical Phoenix and flew it. One stuntman died, but it flew. Other scenes have the same reality that no longer exists in film - for example, A-list actors standing a few feet in front of an unshielded, roaring propeller. Wouldn't happen now.

What would we have done today making this film? We would have hired a computer graphics company create an overhyped, impossible plane, that could only fly on their monitors. Not the same. In this film's climax we see a real plane flying. The film shares a common mood of the era seen in the real desert of "Lawrence of Arabia" and the real bridge in "Bridge on the River Kwai."

Since film today seems destined to go 100% CGI in the future we won't be making films like "Flight of the Phoenix". Is this a loss? Whatever you think of the culture of the early 1960s, their entertainment had a "reality check" that has vanished.
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Tillsammans (2000)
Families are made by emotion, not ideology
26 September 2001
Warning: Spoilers
__MINOR SPOILERS__ Directed by Lukas Moodysson, Together shows the experience of a mother and her two kids (boy 9?, girl 12) when she leaves their alcoholic father in 1975 and goes to a classic alternative lifestyle commune. This is consistent with Europe lagging a few years behind the US in the various phases of the 60s' "Consciousness Revolution" -- the filmmaker indicates that this was not a played-out concept in Sweden at the time.

The people living in the commune are very believable and well-acted, but they are also classic Awakening-era stereotypes -- the radical Communist, the Mother Earth hippies, the newly Liberated Lesbian, the Open Marriage couple, the Gay Man and so on.

People are saying this is a comedy, and that is not quite true. There are funny scenes and the end is uplifting, but for the most part this is a film about the dark side of the Consciousness Revolution. The Swedish Boomers are slammed big time -- not for their beliefs, but for the way they treat their children.

Again and again the filmmaker shows how the adult's lifestyle experimentation causes them to ignore and even abuse the kids. There are several scenes that brought me to tears involving the girl. The chief form of abuse is emotional neglect. Everyone gets enough to eat and a place to sleep, but the kids are secondary and even a hinderance to the great experiment.

At the same time, the kids constantly "see through" the foolishness going on around them.

A third boy, "Tet" was born in the commune. He seems to expect nothing from the adults and is casual about sucking up beer lying around after their parties. Fortunately, his dad -- a cynic who frequently needles the other adults -- seems to care about him.

Again and again the filmmaker pounds home that the commune is not a good environment for kids. In other words, he is showing us the genesis of Generation X, Sweden-style. It is not great for all the adults, but the kids don't have any choice about being there. In many ways this film reminded me of a Judy Blume story.

The filmmaker is not simply telling us that communes were bad -- he insists that families have to be 'real' in some way to provide love and support. One of the main characters is a 14-year old boy who visits the girl from across the street. His parents are just as toxic as the free-thinkers, despite their traditional family structure. Just like the commune, they have substituted rule-based ideology for emotion.

Just when you think the kids are going to be ruined, things change for the better. People leave and join the commune, and the mood alters. By the end we no longer have an ideology-inspired alternative lifestyle, but a true extended family -- not traditional, but loving and supportive. A very powerful and hopeful film.
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The Prisoner (1967–1968)
The best series to understand what the 60s were about...
31 August 2001
The Prisoner is a masterpiece that can give you insight into what the whole "consciousness revolution" of the 1960s was about. Patrick McGoohan, a former secret agent, resigns in a huff. He is spirited away and taken to a mysterious "Village" where there is one objective only -- to find out why he resigned. One suspects that is less a search for important information than an Orwell-style attempt to prove the unlimited power of "the system".

As the series progresses, The Prisoner is subjected to ever more devious attempts to learn his secret. No physical violence is involved -- it is all classic 60s head trips designed to blow his mind. Friends are really foes, fantasy becomes reality, and identities reverse.

At the end of the series, the viewer is left with even more questions. Why, for example is The Prisoner "Number Six" -- one of the highest ranking people in the entire Village? And who is Number One, really? I suspect that Boomers may have an easier time figuring this one out than more recent generations.
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Election (1999)
Great film, predicted our current generation transition
30 August 2001
Warning: Spoilers
__MINOR SPOILERS___ If you haven't seen Election yet, go for it. This film is more than a great, biting story with lots of insight into people, politics and rejection -- it's a dead-on depiction of the current generational shift from Gen-X to the GenY/Millennial group (those born after 1982).

Reese Witherspoon is great at displaying the 'dark side' of Millies -- confidence and faith in authority mutated into absolute assurance that she will get what she wants. Why? Her mom told her so. People have been predicting that the new generation will be more 'civic minded' than Xers, and the film examines the consequences.

Matthew Broderick is also great as the alienated, cynical Xer teacher. What makes him hate Witherspoon so much? I think he sees himself as having been ignored at her age. Now he sees a new generation coming in to finish him off. The final scene confirms this. The young Millie zooms off with the old (Boomer) Congressman, leaving Xer Broderick in the dust. Compare to Dr. Evil's rejection of his Xer son for 'Mini-Me'. A parable of the ongoing shift in our culture.
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The end of the Frankenstein myth?
10 July 2001
Warning: Spoilers
___SPOILERS____ In 'A.I' Spielberg manages to overturn almost 70 years of filmmaking centered around the Frankenstein myth. In the Hollywood version of Frankenstein, man tampers with nature and a monster appears to punish him. In 'A.I.', man tampers with nature and creates a race of angelic beings -- which bring out the monster in him. This film may mark a major turning point in cinema plotlines. Could this be the end of 'Frankenstein' as an adequate storytelling myth?

The reason I point this out is that the most angry people I've run into who have seen this film are in the film industry. This film was meant (among other things) to kick them hard in the butt. One reviewer commented that Spielberg failed to show us what is *really* evil about technology. That wasn't his purpose. He wanted to show that people are where the evil lies...even within his own Boomer peer group. That has to stick in the craw of creative folks who've spent their lives warning us about the dangers of science and technology in film -- while using the same high tech (CGI, indie DV) to make these very same films. It is no fun being called a hypocrite. A great slap in the face, hopefully a wakeup call.

If you assume that David is really alive in some sense the interpretation is simple: the first child of a new golden age struggles with wicked elders who created him for the most callous of reasons. Only in the future (when his kind inherit the earth) does he find peace.

But...even if we assume that David's love is in some sense not real this film has a powerful message. Assume he is a stand-in, symbol, an image for a real boy. He is treated horribly. Other symbols of goodness (maids, workers) are savaged before our eyes. This peaks in the relentless confrontation of the 'Flesh Fair' in which quietly protesting robots are destroyed for sport. Spielberg's message is clear: we don't have the right to evil behavior, even if it is directed at something that may be no more than a hunk of metal. This is an astonishing reversal of the usual Hollywood message about the evils of technology.

This directly attacks the Hollywood Frankenstein myth appearing in indie and studio films alike. For example, in Jurassic Park (a franchise originally created by Spielberg) we have a short religious opening telling us of the perils of messing with nature. However this is like a prayer before gluttony -- the tampering releases a truckload of screaming dino action which is the main reason for seeing the film. The Frankenstein prophecy exists solely to relieve our guilty pleasure at seeing totally cool dinos charge around. Thousands of studio and indie filmmakers have used similar storylines without further reflection.

In 'A.I'. Spielberg has called their entire mindset into question at a deep level. Is it ethical to vent our worst emotions on something even if it isn't real? Spielberg says no. If so, is it legit to create movies with 'enjoyable evil' simply because they're not real? Spielberg implies that it is wrong - evil acts performed with a facsimile are just as evil as with the real thing. And movies have no more reality than any robot. Definitely a major work that has the potential to redefine cinema storytelling. This is perfectly channeled Kubrick.
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Mimic (1997)
Cryptic 'Demon Child' film
1 July 2001
In Mimic, every child ultimately causes death and suffering for adults -- and are themselves unpleasant people. Kids haven't been attached like this in film for quite a while. In the first segment, the adults are forced to tamper with nature to save some ugly, silent children. No personality, just need. Later, we meet two ugly criminal street kids dressed like 1890's newsies -- one even has fake buck teeth to make him uglier. Both kids are killed on-screen -- an extremely rare event in any kind of film. Next, the idiot child (with the same makeup as the sick kids at the beginning) leads his guardian to this death. Finally, the heroine is childless. Would you want any of these kids in your family? This is the most negative portrayal of children since the demon child films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, The Brood, It's Alive, etc. Compare the third Die Hard -- the bad guy leaves a phony bomb in a school -- and makes sure the authorities evacuate the school as well!
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