I’ve never understood the whole Marlon Brando thing. Granted, until recently, I’d only seen him in the movie version of Guys and Dolls(which pales in comparison to the stage version) and uttering grandiose, pseudo-biblical phrases at the beginning of Superman. But within the past month I’ve finally seen both On the Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and I have to say, I still don’t get it. Is it really acting to play the same character in every single movie? I suppose that’s why we remember him as “Brando,” more than as any of his characters.
I still enjoyed seeing the movies, though. Both were directed by Elia Kazan, and both featured Karl Malden as well as Marlon Brando. His button-nosed face appears as Stanley Kowalski’s working-class, card-playing friend in Streetcar and as the justice-driven, speechifying Father Barry in On the Waterfront. Interestingly, Malden won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Streetcar, and the film would have had a complete sweep of all four acting awards (Vivien Leigh won Best Actress and Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress) if Brando hadn’t lost Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart. Somehow that makes me want to snicker. Anyway, Brando did win three years later for On the Waterfront.
Enough Oscar trivia. Let’s start with Streetcar. How perfect is it that “fading” Southern belle Blanche DuBois is played by Vivien Leigh, a.k.a. Scarlett O’Hara of twelve years prior ( . . . even if she was British)? She’s fabulous.
Until seeing the film of Streetcar, I wasn’t aware that it revised the play’s ending. In the play, despite the fact that Stanley abuses his wife (Stella) when he gets drunk, despite the fact that he raped her sister Blanche, Stella goes back to Stanley when he calls her name. She’s trapped in their cycle of animalistic passion. The very last line of the play goes to one of the minor characters, announcing the status of the men’s card game. It emphasizes their callousness toward everything Blanche has just gone through (she’s been carted away to a mental asylum earlier in the scene).
In the film, however, after Blanche is taken away, Stella announces that she will never go back to Stanley, and she runs up to the neighbor’s apartment, carrying her baby. The last line we hear is Brando doing his “Stel-LA!!!!” thing, futilely this time.
The play’s ending is certainly more in line with its Southern Grotesque genre. I’m certainly more pleased, emotionally and psychologically (even though I realize it doesn’t have the same tragic effect), with the movie’s ending. I’m surprised that it was altered, and I wonder why. After all, it’s only five years later, in 1956, that Carouseltells us that a man can hit a woman without her even feeling it all, ‘cause she’s so dopily in love with him. Yuckiest movie line ever.
Anyway, I wonder how playwright Tennessee Williams felt about the movie ending. Too bad we can’t ask him: he died about twenty-five years ago when he choked to death on a bottle cap. I am not making this up.
I found it a little harder to follow On the Waterfront, possibly because there’s no play version I know inside and out, but also possibly because it was hard to decipher the whole corrupt union set-up. But I was a sucker for Father Barry’s speech over the dead body of a mob-killed man: “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!” Seriously, I thought it was a lot more memorable than Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech.
Speaking of which, I didn’t recognize Rod Steiger (playing Brando/Terry Malloy’s brother Charley) until he tried to hand Terry a gun and said “You’re gonna need it real bad.” That’s exactly the same line he says to Curley a year later in the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! Was the line added to Oklahoma! as some sort of inside joke?
On the Waterfront was also a bit marred for me by Leonard Bernstein’s schizophrenic score. I’m just not used to Bernstein’s jarring dissonance when it occurs during the most insignificant moments of the film. Sure, there’s such a thing as not over-emphasizing the dramatic moment, but his score went so far in the other direction that it sounded like the music randomly popped up every once in a while just to say, “I’m still here! I’m the composer, and I’m still here!”
It’s now well-known movie lore that On the Waterfront was Elia Kazan’s attempt to make “snitching” (he had given names of his possibly Communist colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee) honorable. Whatever the political context, however, the end of the movie, with the beaten, bloody Terry Malloy rising to lead the men to work, is still moving. My favorite Brando? The one with his face bashed in.
I dare you to look at this video without singing. “Otters, happy otters . . .” These happy little nappers live at the Vancouver Aquarium. Make sure to stick around until the end of the video. Thanks to Cute Overload for spreading the shininess!
There’s a scene towards the end of the recent documentary Jesus Camp in which one of the Pentecostal families we’ve been following throughout the film pays a visit to New Life Church, the Colorado Springs congregation where, until last fall’s scandal, Ted Haggard was pastor. He comes across as kind of weird, directly addressing the documentary camera during his sermon. And, yes, in a moment of unsurpassed irony-in-hindsight, he talks about how Christians all know that homosexuality is wrong.
Haggard has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of the film, which is a group of kids who attend a Pentecostal youth camp in North Dakota. However, he has everything to do with what, unfortunately, becomes the subject of the film: namely, the influence of the Christian Right in U.S. politics, most particularly in the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Alito.
Jesus Camp never tells us why the Pentecostal family is visiting New Life Church, which is not Pentecostal (typically lower or lower-middle class, often either urban or rural, but not in-between, ecstatic in manifestations of the Holy Spirit), but rather comfy and suburban, upper-middle class evangelical. The biggest problem with the film is that it conflates these different religious traditions and social classes into one Republican evangelical lump. It may not be inaccurate that they all have contributed to the most recent resurgence of the Religious Right, which used to be more the domain of the suburban evangelicals. But what I want to know is why. How were these very different groups of people able to put aside the issues and backgrounds that divide them and unite around common political causes? What made it possible now, as opposed to any other time?
A friend suggests that abortion is the one issue holding the Religious Right together, that otherwise factions would break off over differences in prioritizing issues (as in, “Should we tackle gay marriage or evolution first?”). Certainly abortion is the issue we hear most about in Jesus Camp. But, again, there’s no analysis of why.
I find the whole political framework of Jesus Camp very sloppy, but the portions that are shot at the camp are genuinely interesting. Youth pastor Becky Fischer, who runs the camp, genuinely cares about the kids, though sometimes her language about “using” them for a cause is troubling. She also genuinely believes that children are significant in God’s work, and you can see the kids glowing in this affirmation of their importance.
Some reviews have spoken of Jesus Camp as the scariest movie of the year; I can imagine how it would be terrifying for people who haven’t seen charismatic expressions of faith. Yup, there’s some speaking in tongues, some slaying in the Spirit—and it can be rather startling to see a nine-year-old with tears flowing down her face as she repents of her sin. I’ve certainly seen the former, and so it doesn’t really bother me, but the latter . . . . I mean, I believe in original sin and all, but it is disheartening how much emphasis the camp puts on sin and repentance and how little they talk about the goodness of God’s creation and the wonder of Christ’s Incarnation. Again, though, that could simply be how it’s been edited. At least I didn’t get a sense that the filmmakers were exoticizing or criticizing the charismatic behavior.
Anyway, I think Jesus Camp tells us more about the filmmakers’ interests than about evangelicals in America. It was an interesting film, but not one that shed new light on anything for me.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really work. I haven’t read the novel (which was published as Vile Bodies, though Waugh’s original title was in fact Bright Young Things), so I can’t make my own comparisons between the two: for an extensive and interesting commentary along those lines, check out an article by Alan Dale on BlogCritics.
Internal to the movie itself, there are some big tone problems. First of all, from what I read, it looks like Waugh’s novel is pretty pure satire; Fry’s movie seems to expect us to have sympathy for these vapid, decadent, aristocratic characters, but it doesn’t give us any reason to do so. Adam, the protagonist, does extraordinarily stupid things that you wouldn’t be surprised to see coming from Bertie Wooster (e.g., “let me turn over the 1,000 pounds I’ve just won to a drunken stranger, on his promise that he’ll place the money on a winning horse), but which really don’t work for this supposedly intelligent, though somewhat lost, young writer.
(By the way, for those who don’t know, I should mention that Fry played Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s Wooster in the great 1990s BBC show “Jeeves and Wooster.” Fry is clearly familiar with portrayals of the between-the-wars decadence of British youth.)
In some ways, once the “bright young things” of society begin dropping like flies to suicide, mental illness, and arrest for “indecency” (i.e., homosexuality), the movie picks up steam. But, again, we’re confused about whether we should feel sorry for them. The music and the screenplay tell us to sniffle a bit—but we’ve been given no previous reason to like them.
Once everyone else drops out, we’re left with penniless Adam and his hopeless love for Nina, who by now is engaged to the much richer Ginger Littlejohn (David Tennant, in a moustache. A moustache! Why? The moustaching of David Tennant may be the greatest of this movie’s sins. Ahem.) But, fortunately, World War II starts, so Adam can go off and shoot people rather than mope. It seems like at this point we’re to think, “Aha! War is a force that gives us meaning,” but it doesn’t really work that way in the movie—or in life, I might add, though the decadent British aristocracy did sort of vanish after the war years.
War doesn’t really seem to change Adam or anyone else, and then he gets to come home and have a happy ending. It’s all wrong. He should either have an absolutely pointless ending (as befitting a satire) or a redemptive one (like in Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s 1945 novel)—none of this undeserved happiness business!
Since Waugh published Vile Bodies in 1930, the movie’s ending is quite obviously different from the book’s. Apparently the book does also end with Adam on a battlefield in an apocalyptic sort of war, but it seems like the book sticks to the “pointless” angle rather than mucking about with genres.
Interestingly, 1930 was a huge turning point in Waugh’s life. His cheating wife divorced him—and he converted to the Catholic church. He was certainly already thinking in spiritual terms when he wrote Vile Bodies, though, for the title comes from Philippians 3:20-21 (in the King James Version): “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
The title may be the only hint of redemption present in the novel, but I’m guessing that’s preferable to the alternately sentimental and satirical muddle of the movie. But, hey, the movie made me want to read the book! And it’s making me wonder how pure, harsh satire functions in our culture’s spirituality. Does it exist today in Christian writing? If so, where?
P.S. The movie’s rather flamboyant homosexual is played by Michael Sheen, most recently seen on big screens as Tony Blair in The Queen. Since that’s the only other role I’ve seen him in, I have to admit, I spent much of the movie thinking, “Tony Blair, why are you wearing eyeliner?” And, of course, “David Tennant, WHY are you wearing a MOUSTACHE?”
P.P.S. Fry’s movie may not be great, but his recent book The Ode Less Travelled is the funniest (and therefore most helpful) guide to reading and writing poetry that I’ve ever encountered.
I have another movie to add to my “Top 10 Films of 2006” (list forthcoming once I see a few more DVDs): Neil Burger’s The Illusionist. I liked it tremendously—so much so that I even listened to the whole commentary track (featuring Burger, who both wrote and directed the film) right after watching the movie.
The Illusionist reminds me in tone of an Isak Dinesen story: it’s sumptuous, romantic, and yet raises key philosophical and spiritual questions. Most of all, it addresses the power and mystery of stories—and stories within stories—as a kind of magic.
In his commentary, Burger reveals that the short story (“Eisenheim the Illusionist”) on which the film is based is much more philosophical in tone: Eisenheim, a conjurer in Vienna around 1900, is arrested for blurring the distinction between reality/truth and fiction/illusion. Burger wanted to keep that thematic element, but he also wanted a more cinematic story, and so he added the central political (and philosophical and personal) conflict with Crown Prince Leopold, as well as the romantic interest with Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen (which, when pronounced with a Viennese accent, sounds a lot like “Duchess Fantasia”). Leopold, played by my dear favorite Rufus Sewell (who always seems to land Hollywood roles as jealous villains or revolutionary radicals), is really central to this treatment of the story, because he is a worthy intellectual adversary for Eisenheim. He’s a lout and a boor, but he’s a highly intelligent lout and boor. He, as the rationalist foil to Eisenheim’s man of mystery, can’t stand not knowing the mechanics of how Eisenheim’s “tricks” are accomplished.
Burger also beefed up the character of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who is mentioned only in passing in the short story. He’s Crown Prince Leopold’s flunky, but he demonstrates a childlike enthusiasm for learning the inner workings of magic. And sometimes, unlike Leopold, he would prefer to suspend disbelief and enjoy the illusion. Since he narrates the story, this feature of his personality is really important.
Edward Norton, as Eisenheim, does an incredible job of acting in this movie. Throughout the entire thing, he has to allow for two simultaneous readings of what’s going on: is his magic real, or is it all a trick? He (and Burger’s screenplay) leaves room to come down on either side—which, in part, he accomplishes by not showing any of his cards, so to speak. And whichever side we, as the audience, end up believing, we have to admit that there’s truth in illusion.
That’s all I’m going to say without spoiling the movie. DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU EVER PLAN TO SEE THE ILLUSIONIST. Trust me: even if you don’t usually mind spoilers, you will here. MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
Okay, so, if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen the movie. Hurrah for you. You know that the central plot point of Sophie’s death may be all an illusion. But is it? Most reviewers seem to think so, that we’re supposed to trust Uhl’s version of the story at the end. And, if they gave the movie a less than stellar review, it’s often because they wanted the end to be “darker.” They seem to have forgotten that the faked death and the Eisenheim-Sophie reunion are all in Uhl’s mind! It may be true, but it may just be an illusion he himself has conjured because it’s what he would prefer to believe. I love the ambiguity of the ending. It makes me happy in a very nerdy way.
It’s funny—when I first saw the movie, I noticed Eisenheim putting a vial of liquid in the suitcase that he gave to Sophie, and I thought at the time, “Either they’re going to drug Prince Leopold or they’re going to fake Sophie’s death.” Both turned out to be right (well, in one reading). But, in the drama of Eisenheim’s apparent grief and the increasing darkness of his shows, I sort of forgot about what I’d seen. That’s what a magician does: shows you the clues, but then makes you forget about them in the spectacle that follows. It wasn’t until Eisenheim arrived at the train station for the second time that I remembered the vial, and, just a couple of minutes before Uhl, considered the possibility that Sophie could be well and alive, hiding away somewhere. I tend to be the sort who suspends disbelief extremely well, and without intention, so it’s possible that I was a little slower than some viewers to follow where the clues were leading Uhl, but, still, I think the film’s timing was effective. And I love the bit at the end where Uhl takes off his hat, delighted that Eisenheim found a way to hoodwink them all (or at least that’s what Uhl chooses to believe at this point).
Oh, here’s a random interesting fact from the DVD commentary: the hall with all the antlers on the walls is actually in Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s castle. “Bad karma?” says Burger. You better believe it. Burger says that Franz Ferdinand’s own death mask is actually at the end of the hall, placed there after his death (and presumably sometime after World War I settled down a bit). Ooh, the irony.
It’s been a few days since I saw Amazing Grace, the new film about William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery in Britain, but with all the post-Oscar craziness (in addition to the actual work I have to do), I haven’t had a chance to blog about it until now.
It’s good. Go see it. Promote it to other folks you know, ‘cause I’m afraid the word isn’t getting out. Plus, there are stupid reviewers out there (Manohla Dargis, my nemesis, that means you!) who are pooh-poohing the film on account of its “strong whiff of piety.” Um, maybe that’s because William Wilberforce was a PIETIST! Look it up, people. That’s what the Internet is for.
Anyway, I thought Amazing Grace did a good job of showing the connection between Wilberforce’s faith and his moral and political convictions, without being preachy. Director Michael Apted is a self-described agnostic, but he clearly viewed religious belief as an important component of Wilberforce’s character. Like Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire’s Scottish runner) before him, Amazing Grace’s Wilberforce struggles with how to best serve God, and he seeks counsel from his childhood pastor, John Newton, the former slave-ship captain whose repentance and conversion led him to write the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
This part of the story, however, is told in flashback. I think one of the strengths of the film is that it places the main narrative during a time when Wilberforce is at his most broken, both in health and in his hopes for ending slavery. His abolition bill has been defeated multiple times, and he suffers greatly from colitis (as well as from the laudanum prescribed for it). He’s certainly not a shiny, happy Christian, and hurrah for that.
But he does love bunnies. Or, more accurately, hares, which occupy armchairs in his chaotic, pet-overrun household (there’s a border collie, too!). Though he may not be “happy,” he has a quirky joy that runs deeper. He struggles with failure and guilt and deep empathy for his suffering fellow human beings, but he’s also a eccentric who wishes he could spend more time contemplating spiderwebs.
Some reviewers have criticized Amazing Grace for being “dull,” and I’m not sure why. I was caught up in the political maneuvering throughout the film. Of course, it helped that some of my favorite British actors (Ciarán Hinds and Rufus Sewell) got in on the legislative battles. But I learned a lot about the reasons for abolition’s delay: besides the more obvious economic reasons, there were fears that abolitionists were somehow undercover populist revolutionaries trying to overthrow the monarchy (given the recent revolutions in America and France). I’d never considered how that played in.
And then there’s Manohla Dargis again, who lambastes Wilberforce for not adhering to contemporary standards of a liberal reformer. She criticizes the film for not dealing with the less appealing causes Wilberforce stood for (she cites the suppression of labor unions—I don’t know anything about this, so I won’t argue one way or another). The question I want to ask is, would the movie have really been better if it had abandoned its focus on the anti-slavery campaign and sought to portray Wilberforce as a muddled man with mixed motives? Amazing Grace shows him in despair, apparently defeated, but it keeps its eyes on what, for Wilberforce, was his driving concern—as great biographical movies from the past have typically done. Mohandas Gandhi was really something of a classist snob, but that doesn’t mean I would want the film Gandhi to have portrayed that. It wasn’t that kind of movie.
Some have called Amazing Grace “hagiographic.” But don’t we need some hagiography? Sometimes Jesus seems far too distant and foreign and we need someone to show us what Jesus “would have done” in a time and place closer to our own. That’s why we have saints. Saints have dysentery. Saints collapse in pain from colitis. Saints give seats of honor to hares. Saints have flaws. But saints change the world. And they change us.
P.S. Other random things I’d like to note about Amazing Grace:
1. William Pitt, Wilberforce’s more pragmatically minded friend and prime minister, is played very well by a young actor named Benedict Cumberbatch. I think that’s one of the best names I’ve ever heard.
2. The movie made me cry. Kind of like that moment when everyone in Middle Earth bows to four little hobbits: I’m a sucker for a hard-won victory at the hands of an unlikely hero.
3. There are bagpipes at the end of the movie, and Porpoise didn’t mind them. This is a day that should go down in history. I think it may be a testimony to the emotional resonance of the film.