Listening to Marlon

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The puzzle that is Marlon Brando’s ireedemable sadness, in the face of every possible success, is only partially explained in “Listen to Me Marlon”. Stephen Riley’s recent documentary constructed from Brando’s long-running audio diary.

Richard Brody pointed out that this amazing source of material – right from the horse’s mouth – is diluted by an overbearing score and pointless audiovisual effects. I think the larger problem is what has been left out, rather than the annoying technique for what was left in.

The origin of Brando as a tragic figure, depicted so unerringly in “Last Tango in Paris,” is explored through clips of his childhood: a voiceover where he explains how his mother was “the town drunk” and his father was a cruel barroom brawler and philanderer. He describes an inability to escape the feeling that his inner nature was simply wrong.

That began to change after moving to New York, where Brando took Method acting lessons and lived with Stella Adler, who turned out to be something of a surrogate mother. This may have been the happiest time of his life.

Success and its discontents followed. On some level he did not feel he deserved the adulation. On another he overindulged in it, in order to make up for a lifetime of deprivation. It’s chilling to see interviews with the young star, awkwardly hitting on attractive female interviewers.

From this point on Brando feels increasing hounded, and disillusioned with a society he feels is obsessed with acquisition. He buys a Tahitian Island to escape and be in the company of people who don’t care that he is a movie star. Later he endures the tragedies of his daughter’s suicide, and his imprisonment (for killing his daughter’s boyfriend).

So what was left out? One subject is his relationship, possibly intimate, with early roommate Wally Cox. There was also no mention about his late-in-life friendship with talent-giant and fellow-weirdo Michael Jackson. His battles with food addiction are also barely touched upon.

But what I missed the most was Brando turning the mirror on himself. Riley focuses on the external influences that injured him: the rapacious Hollywood execs, the press, his awful early family. I keep a diary, and one of the reasons I keep it is to have a safe area where I can explore my shortcomings and any contributions I make to unhappiness in my life. The ineluctable force that was Brando as an actor – riveting despite his mush-mouthed enunciation and improbably voice – was grounded by the rare combination of knowingness combined with a deep vulnerability. In his best performances it felt like a privilege to watch him. To explore this self-awareness, it’s torments and liberations, would have made this a much better work.

Japanese honey bees answer question, “How do you stop Lebron James”?

In last night’s NBA Final Game 5 loss to the Golden State Warriors, mega-superstar and mega-flopper LeBron James was directly involved with 70 of the Cavaliers 90 points (scored 40, assisted on 30 others).  To opposing teams, LeBrron is the human equivalent of Vespa mandarinia, the Asian giant hornet, a.k.a. the “Hornet from Hell”:

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This beast is 1.4 to 1.5 inches long with a 1/4″ stinger which it can use repeatedly. It kills 40 people a year in Japan.  One of it’s favorite snacks is honeybee larvae.  A single Giant Asian hornet can kill 40 honeybees per minute, and a few of them can wipe out an entire honeybee nest.

Sort of like this guy:

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While European honeybees are at the mercy of the Asian Giant hornet, Japanese honeybees have evolved an ingenious defense mechanism:  they swarm an invading hornet and begin vibrating their bodies in order to generate heat (their stingers can’t penetrate the hornet’s tough body).

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Japanese honeybees can survive a top temperatture of 119 degrees Farenheit.  Giant hornets die at 115 degrees.   You can see it all here:

The Golden State Warriors have learned from these humble bees.  They know they are “too little” (LeBron’s dis on Draymond Green) to guard him one-on-one, so their goal is to swarm him, put bodies on him, and wear him down.

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Unlike the Asian giant hornet, LeBron cannot be fully contained.  But like many bees and wasps, he’s extremely skilled at “wagging” when barely brushed by an opponent.

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If his fellow teammates don’t step up though, his quest to be the greatest of all-time will soon be cooked.

Has success ruined Marc Maron?

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Marc Maron’s redemption from life in the lower-middle tiers of the comedy world began in 2009 with his podcast, “WTF”, done from his garage in Highland Park, a hipster-friendly neighborhood in Los Angeles.

“WTF” features a musical intro that features the sound clip “Call off your dogs!” which is, I think, originally shouted by Heathcliff, the tortured hero Wuthering Heights, although of course the idiom goes back further than that.   Maron like Heathcliff feels continuously under attack, by the memories of his own neglectful upbringing, by his own demons, but mainly by the successes of others.

As a showbiz professional Maron had the role of the ultimate “Insider’s outsider”, eclipsed by the good fortune accorded to his peers: Louie CK, Sarah Silverman, Denis Leary, and anyone who made it into the cast of Saturday Night Live.  But unlike most carefully-calibrated celebrities, he was mad as hell and going to tell you about how angry and jealous he was –  an extremely compelling point of view in a society that says that as long as you pursue your dream, you will end up a winner (see blog post “Not tickled by the magic feather“).

Here then was the worst nightmare of our national myth:  that you can try your best, be pure of heart, but due to bad luck fail miserably as you watch others, perhaps less talented and dedicates, succeed.  Maron feels instead the more ancient truth of Psalm 73:3 “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

Who wouldn’t feel sympathy hearing about his struggles to understand being rejected by the pasha-like Lorne Michaels in favor of the lesser lights that have made up the cast of late-stage Saturday Night Live?

Marc Maron shared the struggles in his personal life as well: his difficulty maintaining relationships, his lack of male friendship, a certain weirdness with food, and loneliness on the road.

But his fortune slowly started to change.  The podcast caught on.  He hosted, and often reconciled with, many of his former comedy buddies who had since become luminaries.  This made for dramatic “podio”.

More success followed, spots on NPR and a development deal that resulted in his show “Maron” on IFC and Netflix.  the series follows his own life: Maron lives in a little house in Highland Park, with cats, doing podcasts and kvetching. His character is  entertainingly unapologetic about not living up to the mainstream requirement of being an “alpha male”, and there are some funny moments when he makes a go and fails at doing traditionally male activities: retrieving a dead raccoon from a crawlspace (he doesn’t know what a crawlspace is), and dressing up in a gaudy Los Angeles Kings jersey in an attempt to get into the spirity of watching a hockey game with Ray Romano.

As the show develops we begin to see something different from the rough-edged persona from the “WTF” podcast, instead a carefully-curated character who is not only quite successful but fiercely competent, a bit prissy, and perhaps a little entitled.  Maron lives in a beautifully-appointed, carefully-landscaped house, with tastfull mid-century furniture and Pottery-Barn-style paint jobs.  His wardrobe changes frequently and would make Ira Glass jealous: hipsteresque Western shirts with pearl buttons, up-market boots and jackets, and designer jeans (see his New York Times article “My Desperate, Stupid, Emotional Hunt for the Perfect Pants“).

Maron’s social life becomes lavish as well.  An attractive woman 19 years younger sends him a fan email with a photo of her vagina, she then picks him up at the airport for a “sex-fest” and later becomes his girlfriend.  A pretty single mom picks him up in a coffee shop when his much younger barista sex-buddy is too busy for him.  A realtor insists on being “taken” up against a grand piano in the  empty house she is showing.  And Maron is often accompanied by a coterie of less-successful male comedians.  He hires a very funny, Maronesque young assistant (Josh Brener) who worships him and wants to be him.

This is a very different dynamic than the disheveled man we imagined behind the mic, doing his podcasts after a cat food run.  The factors that made the podcasts interesting (and they weren’t always, there are plenty of boring ones) began to become less apparent on the t.v. show Things like figuring out the degree to which his lack of success was due to personality flaws versus bad luck or fate; enjoying see the example of another man, my age, dealt with loneliness and a feeling of “not fitting in”;  and finally seeing how someone who was in the popular culture navigated how his personal life should be integrated into that culture.

The last issue as an example, the interplay between his personal life and his onstage performances,  became reduced in the t.v. show to a plot-advancing devices with little nuance, e.g.,  Maron alienating his new girlfriend by revealing aspects of their relationship in public.  This may have indeed occured, but it’s treated in such a broad comic way that seems very different from his more confessional radio style.

As this interesting outsider voice becomes muted, there becomes less to talk about and the episodes become more confabulated:  there is a pot-smoking sequence with David Cross (whom I love) where he gets Marc’s parents high, resulting in a sodium pentathol-like effect where they reveal their caring side to the tune of a sitar playing in the background.

To his credit the issue of success is occasionally addressed through interplay with his less-successful buddy comedians (Andy Kimmler and Dave Anthony).  There’s a revealing episode at the end of Season 2, where Marc and his friends make a trip to a trailer park in the desert to check on an older hack comedian who has stopped answering texts.   It turns out he has suffered a heart attack and died in his trailer, after writing the setup – but not the punchline to the joke “I can’t stand magicians.You know what would be a real trick?”.  The comedians struggle with how to finish the joke (my favorite punch line “You know what would be a good trick? If someone could stop this crushing pain in my chest”.) just as much or more than they struggle with their feelings about his death.  During the long period while they wait for an ambulance Marc is ribbed about an upcoming appearance on the Charlie Rose show and is forced to admit that he is now a cut above, but insisting he has not become arrogant about it.

Inevitably the show is going to have to explore whether Maron’s success, getting what he wants, makes him happy.  It’s easy to say that it won’t, that he’ll be like Karl Knausgaard, grumblingly collecting accolades. That would certainly be in-character, however the degree to which the show can honestly address this issue, even if it means exposing artifice in his previous “pure” persona, will determine whether the show stays interesting.

 

 

Ape is killing ape

1-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-review-jpg-20140714 You would think that the decline in quality of the original 5 “Apes” movies, each one lower-budget and worse quality than the one that preceded it, would give filmmakers pause, but since 2001 we have endured 3 awful s/prequel/remakes.   And yet these films do well at the box office, and are generally well-reviewed.

If this were the “Transformers” series I would care that much, but the original “Planet of the Apes” is indeed brilliant. Based on Rod Serling’s adaptation of  Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des singes , it was released in 1968, and features zero CGI.  Instead it featured real actors doing “acting” while wearing make-up and simian-looking prosthetics.  These devices were considered advanced at the time, but now appear rather primitive: article-2150936-135482EB000005DC-726_634x455   Still how scary-looking is that?  Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans used their costumes to enhance their performances, to give them an “otherness” that they employed, but also had to overcome in order to create full characters. This is the opposite of what Jack Nicholson said about his role as The Joker in 1989’s “Batman”, essentially to “let the costume do the work”.

The tension between artifice and reality is something CGI erases.  While this makes for more realism, it also seems to infect movies with a slackness when it comes to developing stories and characters.  Critics praise CGI and forget that a realistic wink or tear does not a character make. This was the case for the second remake of King Kong, of which A.O. Scott said:

The sheer audacious novelty of the first “King Kong” is not something that can be replicated, but in throwing every available imaginative and technological resource into the effort, Mr. Jackson comes pretty close.

Novelty and technology can’t sustain a movie for 3 hours, characters and narrative can.  Inexplicably Roger Ebert called Kong II “A stupendous cliffhanger, a glorious adventure, a shameless celebration of every single resource of the blockbuster, told in a film of visual beauty and surprising emotional impact.”   Roger Ebert is a wonderful human being, but I find his writing unmemorable.  A.O. Scott seems to specialize in plot summaries.  Plot summary + apologia that this is a “spirited” movie that isn’t perfect = A.O. Scott review. 

Despite my griping, I too wanted to see chimpanzees on horseback firing machine guns (I’m only human).  I found that it was just not as thrilling as what the original “Apes” movie did for me: imagine a world where humans are no longer the pre-eminent species, where it’s payback time for the creatures we have abused for millenia.   Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie modernist score helped create this sense of unease – so different from the crash, boom, bang of near-constant violence in “Dawn”, which has a strange calming effect on me because it seems to be in almost every movie now, and signifies that the good guy is going to win.  The other parts of the score could have been used in a life insurance commercial.

Speaking of good guys, did Director Matt Reeves have to make ape-leader Caesar into an absolute saint?  Consider the strategy in the original “Apes” franchise.  Caesar is a killer, but you understand his rage as he sees his enslaved ape-brothers stun-gunned, and watches his kindly guardian, played by Ricardo Montalban, die in order to protect him.    I go to movies to see people who are worse than me, not better.

The final visual in “Dawn” is another capitulation to feel-good non-reality: caesarclarke

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recall the harrowing last scene in “Planet of the Apes” with Taylor and Nova about to enter into the Forbidden Zone after seeing the ruined Statue of Liberty: liberty3 Final verdict on “The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”: mqdefault

“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

 

 

 

 

Postscript:   “Planet of the Apes” features one of my favorite opening scenes in movies, Charlton Heston, the spaceship captain is smoking a cigar on the bridge, recording into his log before he goes into suspended animation:

Tell me, though, does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother…keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

charlton_heston                                 Post-postscript: Really getting tired of seeing Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors, trotting out his American accent in these trumped-up, square-spectacled Commissioner-Gordon-type roles.

Not tickled by the magic feather

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From the movie “Barfly”:

Jim: “You worked last year?”

Chinaski: “Six months in a toy factory. You don’t know how men suffer for children.”

Recent movies return the favor, according to Luke Epplin in his excellent Atlantic article You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?.   Children’s movies now rely on “magic feather syndrome”: the plotline where a misfit child/toy/anthropomorphized animal ends up triumphing in the end by merely believing in themselves, often utilizing the very “defect” that caused them to be an outcast.

A prime example of this (which he doesn’t mention) is when Rudolph is welcomed back into two-faced Santa’s fold after successfully saving Christmas by guiding the sleigh with his formerly-hideous nose.  Epplin cites many other examples: Dumbo and his ears, a garden snail winning a race in “Turbo”, a rat cooking in “Ratatouille”, a crop-dusting plane in “Planes”.  It goes on an on.

He contrasts these with the 1969 animated film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”, where Charlie LOSES the big spelling bee on the word “beagle” no less.  Charlie returns home and takes to his bed for days.  Linus consoles him by saying that despite losing, the world didn’t come to an end.   Charlie slowly returns to daily life, nobody pays much attention to his failure, and in the final scene he takes a kick at the football Lucy is holding.  In any animated kids movie today he’d kick the ball a mile.  Instead Lucy pulls the ball away, as always, and he ends up flat on his back.   The redemption is in not needing redemption, for this is how LIFE REALLY WORKS, and kids are actually smart enough to appreciate this.

As sleazy as Charlez Schulz has been made out to be in his personal life, “Peanuts” was a gift:  a very sophisticated, humane comic.    I’m reminded also of the”The Muppets”, who also weren’t afraid to make a difficult emotional point (“It’s not easy being green”) but who now have been sold to Disney in order to sell SUV’s and fast food (“It’s not easy being a delicious Subway sandwich in less than 5 minutes!!!!!!!!!”)

Pauline Kael in her review of “The Little Mermaid” makes the point that children don’t need to be spoon-fed,  they thrill to darker elements:

Are we trying to put kids into some sort of moral-aesthetic safe house? Parents seem desperate for harmless family entertainment. Probably they don’t mind this movie’s being vapid, because the whole family can share it, and no one is offended. We’re caught in a culture warp. Our children are flushed with pleasure when we read them ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ or Roald Dahl’s sinister stories. Kids are ecstatic watching videos of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ and ‘The Dark Crystal.’ 

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The question I’m left with is why are “magic feather” movies so ubiquitous today?   Disney fare from the 30’s and 40’s was significantly more nuanced.   One commentator to the Atlantic article suggests that it’s the stress of a post 9-11 downwardly-mobile world which encourages escapism. For all who feel uniquely stressed, remember that back in the 1960’s the Cold War was going full force and the threat of nuclear war was real. It almost happened with the Cuban Missile Crisis, 7 years before Charlie Brown was shown in theaters.

My guess is that it’s more related to the always-on-yet-emotionally-disconnected nature of e-connected life today.   When you have to be able to respond at any time, you seek refuge, and the only refuge in a competitive world is being the winner.  There is no Charlie Brown in his bed anymore, quietly getting up and putting his clothes on.

Cabaret Revival? – “Nein danke”

Here’s a short list of actors who have reprised Joel Grey’s role as the emcee in “Cabaret”: Alan Cumming, John Stamos, Michael C. Hall, Doogie Howser, and now Alan Cumming II.  They do a version of this:

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A louche, drippy, supposed sensuality.   What the role calls for is more of this:

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Grey’s manic clown-from-hell, who takes you places you-know-not-where.

This is because the parts of “Cabaret” that take place outside of the KitKat Klub are ominous and depressing.  They include the strangulation of Weimar Germany by creeping Naziism and a doomed romance between a Jewish greengrocer and the landlady Fraulein Schneider.

Alan Cumming seemed tired and disengaged at the matinee performance I saw recently.   Part of this is just style, watch the energy level change when Joel Grey takes over in this performance at the Kennedy Center in 1998:

The only way to counter the heavy tediousness of the main story, is to witness the spectacle of this talented freak-pixie and his bawdy backup group.

From what I can tell Alan Cumming’s performance was  was exactly the same down to the gesture as in the 1998 show.  I was also inordinately bothered by his pronunciation in the song “Money”, he says “Money makes DE world go around…” when all German speakers that I know would say “Money makes ZE world go around”.  Seems minor but nobody caught that?

At the Roundabout theater, you are seated in a replica of the Kit Kat Klub, which is fun.  Michele Williams hit the notes but was shrill.  My recommendation is to see the 1972 film “Cabaret”, for which Joel Grey rightfully won an Oscar for  Best Supporting Actor.

 

 

20 Feet from Stardom

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" Portraits - 2013 Sundance Film Festival

20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary by Morgan Neville, opens with an oddly wooden Bruce Springsteen (botox, plastic surgery?) explaining how rock-and-roll backup singers have to be even better than the headliner.  Other rock demi-gods agree, but by the end of the movie we become aware that despite legions of praise by the headliners, it’s only on these special occasions where backup singers get their due.

Neville circles around this theme, suggesting that the lack of recognition stems from factors such as racism, record company politics, lack of ego in the singers, “fate” (a reason offered by the wizened Sting), and finally a healthy lack of ambition.   While it’s helpful to present options, the lack of a central point-of-view made this film less successful than it could have been for me.  In the meantime though we get to see and hear some great unheralded performances.

Just how vital backup singers are to a song is demonstrated in one of the first sequences, the Talking Heads “Slippery People”, where, perhaps on purspose the backup vocals are muted:slippery

The backup singers add variety, dynamics, call-and-response, support, and in this particular case, some fantastic dancing.

“20 Feet” then delves into the history of background singing, back to the tame, white-girl singers who would accompany crooners like Perry Como.

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The film then wisely focuses on some of the pioneer female black singers, including Darlene Love, who resorted to cleaning houses after he contract was manipulated by Phil Spector:

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We see a scene where she does a  duet with Tom Jones  and he does not benefit from the comparison.

Merry Clayton’s star turn in the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” is played in isolation, and it gave me chills.  She did the takes while pregnant and in curlers, called out of her bed to a late-night recording session.

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Clayton’s solo career was short-lived.  Above we see her belting out a version of Neal Young’s “Southern Man” that knocks your socks off.

“Gimme Shelter” has been sung live since 1989 by Lisa Fischer.  I found her to be the most gifted of the featured artists.  Here’s her one hit as a solo artist:

The explanation given is that she did not want to, it was not in her personality not everybody needs to grab the spotlight.  Yet with all of these singers there is a wistfulness and sadness about not being able to step out of the shadows.

Finally we see the up-and-comer Judith Hill:

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Will she make it?  The film stops short of casting her as a redeeming figure, ending on an uncertain note when it comes to her solo career.  After watching 2014 Winter Olympic coverage, and sitting through countless exhortative “follow your dream” big corporation commercials, I took this as a welcome grace note.

The Lady from Shanghai

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Despite all mirrors, sharp angles and Expressionistic undertones, I found Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” to be lurching and vague.   Most of the reviews I’ve read on it are  heavy on context: Welles and Rita Hayworth were in the midst of a divorce be because of his philandering, Welles was considered “finished” in Hollywood after the movie failed at the box office.  But for once I’ll take a movie on it’s face: I did not care about the characters, I thought the plot overcomplicated, and I did not find Welles at all convincing as a romantic lead or a tough guy,

Supporting actors Glen Anders and Everett Sloane are terrific; Rita Hayworth is luminous though simple (she lip-synchs wonderfully).   Since it’s a murder mystery from the same era, I kept thinking about how the film would have been different if Alfred Hitchcock directed it.   More shock, more icy energy, less of the romantic triangle.

Welles’ vaunted visual effects such as sea creatures magnified in aquarium tanks, and the famous “hall of mirrors” finale, didn’t do much for me, especially when paired with the relatively conventional and boring courtroom scenes.   Welles’ Irish brogue was unconvincing, even distracting, and I found his delivery to be “stagey”, even when delivering the most off-hand of lines.

It’s not a complete clunker, the cinematography during the yachting scenes is fluid in a way you don’t expect from a film made in 1948, and supporting performances are good – Glen Anders, as the half-crazy business partner adds some energy.  When the closing credits rolled though, I felt I had shanghai’d MYSELF by committing the time to see this movie.

Pleasing our mothers, our fathers

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— SPOILER ALERT.  There are spoilers in this review.  —

“Generation War” is a 5 hour epic that follows the lives of 5 young Germans throughout the course of World War II. Originally titled “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”, it had a successful run as a miniseries on German t.v.

Reviews in the U.S. have been mixed.  David Denby in The New Yorker says “…it may be clunky, even embarrassing, but it’s certainly never dull.”  I’ve seen this same line of exculpation so many times in reviews, perhaps resulting from the desire by the reviewer not to come across as too negative.  Rarely are movies described in the opposite way “….graceful and meaningful but certainly quite dull”.

The main knock on “Generation War” in the U.S. has been that it sanitizes the German war experience avoiding difficult questions about what level of culpability ordinary German citizens had in the rise of Hitler and the atrocities that followed.

This criticism has been less apparent in Germany.  “Der Spiegel” magazine described it as “a turning point in German television”, and claims:

“Germany apparently remains eternally wounded, dependent upon the healing power of remembrance. Germans must live with their trauma and occasionally reopen the wound to prevent it from festering.”

“Generation War” does everything it can to avoid reopening the wound.    It focuses on the collective conscience of a group of 5 tolerant, young, liberal friends, while ignoring the national conscience and the national character that lead to the ascendence of the Third Reich.   The film uses the trope of good Germans versus bad Germans, creating sympathy for these ordinary people against whom so much is happening.

Here is our wacky, close-knit group of protagonists:

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Remind you of anyone?

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The level of character development remains on a “t.v.” level as well, as if there were just half an hour to get to know them rather than 5.  They fall into conventional types: the responsible upstanding one, the sensitive poet, the chanteuse, the “good girl”.   Yes, there is even a Jew.   To be played by David Schwimmer, perhaps, in the American version.

What follows is fairly predictable.  The sensitive one becomes a stone-cold killer (because of his sensitivity) ,  the good girl hardens, the chanteuse sells out, the responsible one becomes disillusioned, and the Jew survives (this is not “Shoah” after all).   In the end the remaining survivors gather at the bar where we met them in the opening scene, to toast their fallen friends.  Unlike “The Deer Hunter” they do not break out into patriotic song.

It’s a near-impossible task to capture the German experience of WWII.  The most successful German war film that I’ve seen is Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot”, precisely because its scope is limited to the experience of life onboard a German submarine.  It should be noted that “Das Boot” too, pits “good” German protagonists against evil Nazis, the difference is that the characters in “Das Boot” begin disillusioned by war.   The opening scene also takes place in a bar, with nervous submariners drinking to the point of vomiting, not innocently clowning and posing for group pictures.   

“Generation War”, if done correctly, would evince a greater tragedy than “Das Boot”, look how far the characters fall, they are all compromised and disillusioned by the end.  But the script is so hackneyed, the direction so obvious (long draw on a cigarette = deep thinking) that we see the end hours before it arrives. The final scene in “Das Boot”, on the other hand, is truly shocking, and we empathize with the characters, despite their mordancy, partially because of the extraordinary plot device of being trapped in a submarine with them (just as being trapped in a stuck elevator would encourage commonality) but also because we have seen them be brave while knowing they are both doomed and compromised and so is everyone else.  There is an unforgettable scene where we witness the German sailors watching men jump from a ship they have just torpedoed, on fire and begging for help.   No one is innocent, and a redemptive story about the perpetrators of the second Great War must proceed from this fact as a starting point in order to be taken seriously.

“Generation War” has been praised for its war scenes: typically shakey-cam speeded-up jittery cuts.  These seemed to be done by a different director, not so of course, and while riveting (“certainly never dull”) this technique evoked that “Sopranos” strategy  of interjecting bursts of violence to “juice” the audience when things were getting heavy or dull.   It also reminded me of U.S. war movies – “Generation War” has been described as a German “Band of Brothers” – which function as action movies, shocking the moral reflection out of the viewer and pouring in platitudes about cameraderie.  The message is always “bad things happen to good people, but at least we have each other”.

In “Generation War” there is a sense that those “bad things” which “happen” include the protagonists own moral failings.  These are limited to a personal rather than societal scale.  When the good-girl nurse turns in her Jewish assistant we have no sense that she was capable of the betrayal,  that she had become morally compromised and had lost the memory of her Jewish friend, Ross, uh, Viktor.  Instead the focus is on how badly she feels afterwards.  The deed is later forgiven in one of the final scenes where the Jewish nurse’s aide  returns, improbably, as a Russian commanding officer, who not only conveniently spares the nurse from rape by the advancing Stalinist troops (something I don’t think the filmmakers wanted to address) but also provides the film’s redemptive dollop by stating, in effect, “this must end somewhere”.

With all its flaws, the best legacy “Generation War” can provide is to encourage us to look at the compartmentalization and moral relativism in our own war films.  Critical praise for movies like “Zero-Dark Thirty” demonstrate how difficult it is to come to terms with the moral failings of our own society.  As it stands “Generation War” is a slick apologia, an immaculately-wrapped present by dutiful German children to their (grand)mothers and (grand)fathers.

 

 

Expectation Breakers

james-franco-alien-spring-breakers

Who would have thought that Harmony Korine’s candy-colored fleshfest “Spring Breakers” would be so unsatisfying?  But that seems to be the point.  While watching the movie I kept searching for ways to “make it work” but couldn’t.  Not as a bacchanal – I found the quick cuts clinical and unsexy.  Not as a gangster movie – James Franco was more clown than crime boss.  Not as a parody – it’s too dreamlike and not funny enough. Not even as Korine’s standard detached documentary – the characters have no depth, there are no real connections.

“Julien Donkey-Boy”, a previous Korine film also featuring dysfunctional weirdos,  offers moments of real emotional connection.  There’s a touching scene where Chloe Sevigny is pretending to channel the deceased mother of Julien (Ewen Bremner).   But in “Spring Breakers” everything is detached and suspect, you can never quite believe what is happening onscreen.  Would four naive-seeming co-eds don ski masks and rob a restaurant with squirtguns and a mallet?  Would they exalt afterwards?

Throughout the film Korine has you asking such questions.  Every time you think the film is hewing to a narrative type (coming-of-age, redemption, documentary) you are thrown off base.  So James Franco’s “Alien” character initially seems ridiculous, then briefly menacing.  The next time you see him he’s jumping up and down on a bed while holding on to two machine guns saying “Look at my shit!” in a very non-menacing, non-gangster way.  This is not an organic change, it’s just an inconsistency.

Motion in this movie is created by the scrambling of these filmic conventions, rather than through character development.  This feels unsatisfying, and throws into relief the tacit agreement we ordinarily make with films: a willingness to trade the enjoyment that comes from having unspoken conventions met – for example the revenge narrative – in exchange for accepting poor writing, no semblance of real life, and a conventional, cowardly point-of-view.

Other disruptive films, for some reason I think of atmospheric French films, simply deny the viewer the usual pleasurable sign-posts.  Spring Breakers shows them in brightly-colored glory, only to have them fade and blur in close-up.