Sunday, January 31, 2016

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

We all are familiar with The Hunger Games. A futuristic deadly reality show with competing individuals displayed for the amusement of society’s spectators, offering the audience an escape from their daily situation and a taste of hope for the vast majority of suffering citizens. Well, this 1969 film from director Sidney Pollack pretty much follows that basic narrative, without the element of fantasy, which makes it even more chilling.
The movie opens with the credits displayed as we see a horse running freely in a field, and a youth watching in happy observation. The music playing is serene, comforting. We then hear the crashing sound of waves on a beach, which resembles the noise made by a gunshot. We have an early foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. Robert (Michael Sarrazin) is the boy in the field who has grown up, and who, as we learn, drifts like those ocean waves through life. We have a voice-over from Rocky (Gig Young, in an Oscar-winning supporting actor performance), the master-of-ceremonies, saying they will fix a broken leg (which indicates that something dangerous is about to happen) or provide aspirin, but that there will be no liability on the management’s part. We immediately know that those in charge care little for the people involved. We cut back to the field and a man with a gun appears. We then go back to the beach and we see a sign that indicates that a dance marathon will be held. These forms of “entertainment” occurred in the 1930’s after the stock market crash in 1929 and during The Great Depression years. Rocky says that the contest will run around the clock, implying that this contest, which is presented as a metaphor for life, is a never-ending endurance test, with no escape. We then see the horse again, who falls and is injured, as we hear Rocky say, “When you’re out, you’re out,” connecting the fate of the horse to those of the losing contestants. There is a cut back to the man with a gun shooting the horse, and the viewers are again provided with another omen of the inevitability of the narrative. The film returns to Robert entering the dance arena, crashing into signs, the resultant noise again discordant, and connecting him to the sound resembling the discharge of a gun.

Among the dance contestants is Gloria (Jane Fonda), a bitter, cynical woman, who has had bad relationships with men. After someone says that they are like cattle led to the slaughter (a connection to the fate of humans to another animal other than a horse), Gloria says that the cattle are one up on humans since they are blissfully unaware of their imminent demise. Her inability to see anything positive in life is reflected in other statements. She says after Robert asks her what she would do if she wins, “Maybe I’d buy some good rat poison.” When a nurse asks if she can get Gloria something for her sore feet after many hours on the dance floor, she responds by saying, “How about a saw.” When she hears about someone being sixty-five years old, she says she hopes she never lives that long, indicating that to her life is just suffering. These lines show a desire to do harm to herself. She even sees the act of birth not as a blessed event, but a cruel act, as she tells the pregnant Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), who has the name of an expensive gem but who is dirt poor, “Yeah, why not drop another sucker into this mess.”
 Gloria’s initial coughing partner is disqualified by Rocky, not out of concern for the man’s health, but because he does not want any infection spreading to the other dancers, thus limiting the success of the “show,” which is what he calls the proceedings. The outward appearance of the spectacle is all that matters to this businessman. He allows Ruby into the marathon, even though she is well into her pregnancy, because he says it gives the audience someone to root for. His repetition of “Yowza, yowza, yowza,” is an attempt to stir the dancers and the audience into a frenzy of mob emotion and participation. He echoes President Herbert Hoover’s line of “Prosperity is just around the corner,” and says that one couple will triumph ‘over the broken bodies” of the others. These lines are meant to offer a sliver of hope to the downtrodden, but which also epitomize the worst aspects of capitalism, where many must be defeated for a very few to succeed. Lies are necessary to maintain the sham show, so Rocky spins a tale about the Sailor (Red Buttons) having been a war hero who carries 32 shrapnel pieces in his body. Again, the idea is to give the audience someone to cheer on. It conjures up a person of heroism and patriotism, who continues to fight even in civilian life. He talks about how he feels” sincerely’ about the Navy man, an ironic statement, since there is nothing sincere about the man, but he knows that is what the audience wants to hear. As he says, there must be a battle to win, because “isn’t that the American way?” Which means true Americans selfishly try to win no matter the cost to themselves or others.
But, Rocky, just like President Snow in The Hunger Games, knows that there must be a bit of hope to keep people playing the game. (These contestants, just like the ones in The Hunger Games, need sponsors who use them as dancing advertisements as the contestants wear sweatshirts plugging businesses). So, when the Sailor’s partner is having a psychotic break, thinking she is covered in bugs, Rocky uses his smooth manipulation to buy into the fantasy, and pretends to rid her of the insects. When Gloria shows surprise that he didn’t include the scene into the act on the floor, he responds by saying no, “It’s too real.” As Rocky tells Robert, the people “want to see a little misery out there so they can feel a little better” about their plight. If the reality show becomes “too real” it becomes scary, and instead of the audience being entertained, they will leave their seats, trying to escape the realization of how dire the situation truly is. Rocky learned the tricks of his phony trade from his father, a fake faith healer, who employed his son as a shill. As a child, Rocky pretended to be a cripple who the healer made walk again. Hope, even if unfounded, in the presence of misery, closes the deal. That is why he lets Ruby sing the song, ironic given the desperate times, “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”
The movie also associates the tiny hope for Hollywood stardom with the minuscule possibility of winning in the staged marathon dance, and in American society as a whole. Rocky introduces a couple of movie types in the audience, offering up the possibility that some of the dancers will be “discovered.” Gloria is a woman who came to Los Angeles wishing to become a successful actress, but as was the case for most hopefuls, her dreams were dashed, and she later says life is like “central casting: They got it all rigged before you ever show up.” She hooks up with the just-passing-through Robert since Gloria’s partner was eliminated. When Robert says to Gloria that another contestant doesn’t appear to have a brain tumor because the symptoms aren’t the way it was depicted in a film, Gloria comments that if there was no pain depicted, then it wasn’t real. For Gloria, life is equated with pain, and the movies are a lie. The audience on the surface sees Robert’s liking of the beach, his enjoying sunsets and the light shining through the window on his head raised toward the heavens, as someone whose optimism and innocence may redeem Gloria, maybe causing her to live up to her worshipful name. But, he says he, too, dabbled in show business, playing the part of a dead French villager in a movie entitled Fallen Angels. So, in effect, Gloria has come to the City of Angels, and encountered Robert who is an Angel of Death. He is the one who finds the ripped dress which Rocky took from another actress down on her luck, Alice (Susannah York) because he wanted to bring her down a peg to make her someone the audience might empathize with. Robert later rips Gloria’s stockings. Perhaps he is associated with torn dreams. He is almost seduced by Alice who is looking for a connection and acceptance. However, when Gloria sees him coming out of an alcove with Alice, Robert becomes the instrument for Gloria losing all hope for a redeeming relationship, and she gives into sex with Rocky, basically selling her soul to the devil. The stylized flash-forwards showing Robert arrested, incarcerated, and sentenced prepare the audience for the violence at the end of the film. There is a cut between one of these scenes and Rocky firing a gun for one of the marathon’s events, solidifying pictorially the connection between Robert (the “robber” of life?) and the killing at the end.

One of the eliminating events performed at the marathon is “The Derby.” The seasoned contestants know how devastating this part of the tournament is because it forces the dancers to walk quickly, heel-to-toe, after many hours of being on their feet, around a track to a finish line after a ten-minute period. The last three couples are eliminated. This competition occurs twice in the marathon. In the second one, the Sailor has a heart attack and dies. But, of course, that would be too real, so Rocky just says he has heat prostration, and can’t continue. The title of the event sounds like a horse race, as in The Kentucky Derby, and connects the competition to the horse seen at the beginning. It also shows how people are treated the way animals are in a race, for the amusement of paying customers. The dance marathon is also a race, and if horses that are losers are injured, and are put out of their misery, so why not people, too. The film satirizes the fact that the capitalist system failed people in the early part of the 20th Century, and then tried to make money off of the misery of those that were left with nothing. The contest diverts anger away from the ruling class by putting on a show. By seeing others suffer, it makes the masses feel better about their lot. The marathon is used as a carrot for a couple to regain some of their wealth, and the spectators participate vicariously. The contestants compete against each other instead of fighting against the privileged.
 At the end of the film, when Gloria learns from Rocky that the winners have their share drastically reduced by expenses charged by management, she wants to leave. But, not just leave this contest, but the game of life itself. She says to Robert “I’m gonna get off this merry-go-around.” An interesting comparison, and an ironic one, since she refers to an amusement ride, featuring fake horses. As a child’s ride it is fun for a time. But, if all of life is this way, with just an eternal return to the same misery, where we are “right back where we stared from,” as the words form “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” says earlier in the film, then life is depressing. Gloria pulls out a gun and asks Robert to end her suffering. Robert learned from his father, as did Rocky. He shoots Gloria, and we see an image of her falling in the pasture as she now takes the place of the horse at the beginning of the film. When asked why he did it, Robert tells the policeman, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

The next movie will be The Godfather.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

All the President's Men

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The opening of this movie starts with a white background. The audience then realizes that they are looking at an extreme close-up of a page of paper inserted into a typewriter (the film is set in the pre-PC age of 1972) when the keys strike the paper with a resulting booming sound. In this opening we are told that this story revolves around the power of the printed word and the importance of the American protection provided in the Constitution to the right to free speech and with it a free press.

Alan J. Pakula’s direction (along with the Oscar winning screenplay adaptation by William Goldman, based on the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein book) uses darkness and light to emphasize the battle between opposing factions at the time of the break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.  Right after the brightness of the opening we revert to the nighttime burglary at the hotel. The Cubans along with James W. McCord, Jr., are shot in in a dimly lit scene which mirrors their clandestine activities. Criminals want to hide their devious actions from the exposing light of the law and the public.

The perpetrators are caught because an alert guard, Frank Wills (playing himself), notes a door held open by tape over the lock. When the burglars are arraigned, we start to see the type of deception involved in the crime, and the fringe element that attaches to unlawful activities. As an example of this extremist element, one of the Cubans identifies his profession as an “anti-communist,” which the judge says is not your typical job title. Another warped individual is Charles Colson, the President’s special counsel, who has a saying on his desk that reads ‘If you got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” We also find out that covert operative Gordon Liddy is a bit of a strange person, since he put his hand in a fire at a party and let it burn, saying the trick is “not minding.” At the arraignment, McCord admits to having worked for the CIA. Woodward (Robert Redford) assigned to the story, now is very interested in how deep down the rabbit hole the break-in may lead him. In addition, there is a high society lawyer present at the courtroom, who says he is “not here,” again indicating the desire for evasion. Woodward shows his reporter’s smarts, and his insight that something bigger is going on than meets the eye, by commenting to the lawyer that the burglars have top notch attorneys assigned to them and they didn’t even make a phone call. Also, he points out there must be someone else involved who was outside the hotel because the crooks carried walkie-talkies.

This sniffing out of clues lends a thriller/mystery feel to the film, building suspense, as do the scenes at the remote parking lots where Woodward meets his White House source, “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), who is also filmed in shadows to mirror his role as a hidden informant, but which reflects the dark deeds he is exposing. These scenes at night also accentuate the scary atmosphere surrounding the conspiracy to conceal the crimes. The sound of Woodward’s solitary echoing footsteps at the parking garages stresses how alone and vulnerable he is. Jane Alexander’s bookkeeper for the Committee to Re-elect the President (with the appropriate acronymic name CREEP), is first seen in shadows in her home when Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) visits her. He draws her out by calmly sitting on her couch, hinting that he knows how she must feel threatened. She then emerges into the light of the room, as she moves toward wanting to reveal the hidden unlawful actions of people she at one time admired working for. The dark scenes are also contrasted with the bright scenes in the Washington Post newsroom, the place which wants to shine an exposing light on the covert goings-on with its reporting of the truth.

The two reporters encounter other evasions that indicate that there is a conspiracy at work. As they try to interview people, doors are slammed in their faces, and some individuals say that they have been threatened and are being watched. Woodward and Bernstein find out that ex-CIA operative, E. Howard Hunt, whose name was found in the burglars’ address book, and who works for the President’s special counsel, was trying to undermine Ted Kennedy, who the White House felt was a political threat. The White House librarian first admits to Bernstein that Hunt took out books on Kennedy in a phone call, and within minutes denies she even had the conversation. Pakula uses camera shots to show us the David versus Goliath task in which the two reporters are involved. When they go to the Library of Congress, the camera pulls away toward the ceiling as Woodward and Bernstein go through stacks of library slips to see what Hunt may have been up to. They appear to be the size of mice stuck in an enormous maze of government bureaucracy as they try to discover the truth. A similar shot occurs in another scene as we hear their voice-overs while they drive in a car the size of a speck as we are given an aerial view of Washington. It appears that they are dwarfed by the enormity of the power structure they are combating.

Bernstein has less of a problem manipulating other people to get the information they need. However, Woodward is bothered by some questionable ethical actions. He backs off asking a fellow female reporter, Kay Eddy (Lindsay Crouse) to get the names of CREEP workers from her ex-fiancé (she does it anyway).  When they approach Treasurer Hugh Sloan’s wife, Debbie (Meredith Baxter Birney), Woodward at first says it is for Sloan’s benefit. She says, “No, it’s not,” and he admits “No. it’s not.” The reporters however do play deceptive games, fighting fire with fire, when they approach witnesses to extract information. They start to realize that a legitimate surface is no indication of what illegal activities are actually going on underneath. When they approach one interview, they walk along a lovely suburban street. Bernstein says, “It’s hard to believe that something’s wrong with some of those little houses.” To which Woodward, who has become a cynic after what they have gone through, replies, “No it isn’t.”

The reporters eventually discover that CREEP issued huge amounts of money to the burglars. They work hard to connect the break-in to the White House. Finally, Woodward gets tired of the evasive “games” being played and forces Deep Throat to give him the whole story, which ties the break-in and subsequent cover-up to White House Chief-of-Staff Bob Haldeman and the former Attorney General, John Mitchell (ironic, since he was the head of the country’s justice system). But, Watergate was just the tip of the iceberg, as there were covert subversive operations much earlier to undermine those opposing President Nixon’s administration, primarily Democratic candidates, by using false press releases, fake letters, electronic bugging, and stolen documents. They learn tht the whole U. S. intelligence community could be involved. Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, in a supporting Oscar-winning performance), is hard on the young reporters, but stands by them in the midst of adversity, and the story is published.

The film ends in the bright newsroom as Woodward and Bernstein are typing, bringing the truth to light, showing the pen is mightier than the sword. In the foreground is President Nixon on a TV being administered the oath of office at his re-election inauguration. He takes the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, an ironic scene, considering how his administration undermined that cherished document. But, as the reporters continue typing their revelations, their images come to the foreground and Nixon fades to the background, symbolizing his fall from power. The film ends as it began, with a typewriter hammering out words on clean, white paper, detailing the fall of the conspirators, and the resignation of the most powerful man in the world brought down by the freedom of the press he was supposed to defend.

The next movie will be They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Subject was Roses

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

At one point in this 1968 film, Patricia Neal’s Nettie Cleary asks her son, Timmy (Martin Sheen), “What can I say that will make you believe me?” Given the amount of mistrust among the family members in this story, it is a difficult question to answer. The story, based on Frank D. Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize - winning play, is full of emotional avoidance, manipulations to gain affection, and jealousy stirring up the Oedipal stew.

The movie opens with an already awake Nettie, looking sad, apparently just waiting for the appropriate time to get out of bed and start her day. She looks over at her still sleeping husband, John (Jack Albertson in a supporting actor Oscar-winning role). We know right away that there are intimacy problems, since they sleep in separate beds, and Nettie’s nightgown shows less than if she were wearing sheet metal armor. As we follow her through the apartment, we get information through the images shown us. There is a banner that reads “Welcome Home Timmy.” We see a military uniform on a hanger. There are remnants of a party. But, we are not shown the celebration. We are introduced not to the joy of the homecoming, but to trying to deal with the hangover feelings of the day after the party. Thus, the mood has been set.

When John does get up he is alone for a bit, looks at his son’s uniform and touches it, looking proud. But then he does something curious – he tries on the Army jacket. We immediately sense that there is some jealousy about not having had the chance to be in uniform himself. So, there is this mixture of affection and envy involving his feelings for his son. Later, John, on the ride to the family lake house, admits that he regrets that he was never tested on the field of battle, and so he will never know if he would have met that challenge. He was not free to pursue a military career because he had to take care of his impoverished family. This admission shows a bit of insecurity which the audience would not otherwise suspect existed in his bombastic character.

Nettie and John immediately exhibit the tension between them, but not by talking directly about their relationship problems. They instead exhibit their anger by arguing about how to treat Timmy (a name that sounds like what you would call a child, which is what Nettie wants to have her son remain, needing his mommy). He says he has to leave for a business meeting. She chastises him for abandoning their son the day after his return from service. John says that he and his son hit off so well at the party that there is nothing wrong with him leaving for a bit. She then blames her Irish husband for allowing Timmy to drink too much, and that the result was that he was sick during the night. She emphasizes that it was she who held his head while he had to vomit. Again, by indirection, she is saying that it was John’s fault that Timmy was sick, and it was his mother who has to sacrifice sleep to clean up after the mess John caused. This idea of self-sacrifice at the expense of self-enjoyment is key to understanding Nettie’s character. John then counters by saying that she stunted his development by doting on him, never allowing Timmy to grow into a man. John basically accuses her of keeping him a boy, and it was leaving her for the Army which was the best thing for him. His jealousy of her relationship with Timmy is shown when he says that she criticizes him for leaving, but she really wants time alone with their son. In essence, Nettie has a double-win – she can accuse her husband of being unfeeling about leaving for work, and also have Timmy to herself. He reveals his resentment of the mother-son relationship when he says that she can’t wait so that she and Timmy can talk about him behind his back.

When Timmy wakes up he starts to say in the three years since he has been away, his father has changed. He wonders what has caused him to look older. Nettie dismisses talk about John, wanting to make the most of her breakfast time with her son. But, she feels crestfallen when he forgets that the waffles she is making is his favorite dish, and starts to cry when the batter sticks to the grill. She becomes angry at Timmy when he repeats one of her husband’s saying, “Bless and save us, said Mrs. O’Davis.” She is horrified that he is acting like John, who she does not want to see her son turn into. She laments that “Nothing is right.” On the surface she is talking about the breakfast, but is actually referring to their lives. When she holds onto his hand too long, Timmy recoils at the inappropriateness of it, but then covers up his aversion with a joke. Timmy tries to cheer her up by saying he was looking forward to having a dance with her the day after he came home. He puts on some music and they dance. This scene definitely Oedipal, as they talk like two people meeting at an impromptu date. Nettie stumbles while dancing, and quickly pulls down her skirt that rode up a bit. John, changing his mind, enters the apartment, like a husband finding his wife cheating on him.

John decides to take a ride with Timmy to the lake house which he promised to do earlier. Of course, this spoils Nettie’s plans, and she and John, again using Timmy as a way to battle each other, jockey over whom will have custody over him for the day. Nettie says that their son is expected to visit her mother, and the disabled cousin, Willis. When his name was brought up earlier by his mother, the audience could see dislike for such a visit on Timmy’s face. The son decides to take the ride with his dad, adding symmetry to the story as Timmy is first given time with his mother, and now with his father. John shows himself to be a complex character here. He praises his son for his service, but is also disappointed to hear that he did not do anything heroic. But, he admits that given Timmy’s unpromising childhood, he underestimated his ability to get through his hitch in the military. He also shows his generosity to his son (which contrasts with his penny-pinching when it comes to his wife) by offering to help pay for his college education. Timmy kids with him, pushing him to reveal how much money he has. Here we see John’s not being upfront about his assets, as he becomes upset by his son’s probing, which emphasizes the lack of familial trust. But then his softer side is seen when he waxes romantic, remembering how taken he was when he met his future wife. She looked refined, and his less fortunate family contemptuously called her “The Lady.” He smiles as he remembers her dressed all in blue. But, the color evokes sadness, undermining the memory.

John says that Nettie’s father, now deceased, would always buy her roses for her birthday. Timmy buys roses, and then tells his dad to say the flowers were from him. Here Timmy, like his parents, although well intentioned, is being manipulative and deceptive. He does the same when he tells his mother what a great dancer she is after her disappointment about his lack of enthusiasm for breakfast, and when he keeps reassuring his father that he would have been a great soldier. When Nettie returns from her visit to her mother’s, she is overwhelmed by the gift. Instead of just being happy for the roses making his wife feel good, John gets a gleam in his eye that indicates he hopes Nettie may be willing to have sex with him. Nettie distances herself when she sees how he is looking at her, not able to consider the enjoyment that intimacy might bring, but also seeing the look of selfishness in John’s eyes.

The family goes out on the town to celebrate Timmy’s homecoming. They go to a club, and John is persuaded to sing a song. When Timmy says that his dad connects with an audience, his mother takes it as a criticism of her for not allowing him to pursue his performing dreams. Again there is mistrust seen behind every statement, as if one family member is always trying to undermine another. These people are so used to not communicating that they misinterpret innocent statements. Nettie goes to the restroom, and John is not sure why she looks upset. He asks Timmy, who again obscures the truth, just saying she had to go to the bathroom. Then a woman with whom John was seeing on the side approaches them. She leaves once he introduces his son. He covers it up by saying she was someone he once knew and couldn’t even remember her name. Timmy, realizing what’s going on, makes an attempt at honesty by saying, “I understand.” But, his father won’t be forthright with him and says he doesn’t know what Timmy is talking about.

When they return home and Timmy goes to bed, Nettie goes on again about the roses. Her mistrust of John comes out because she continues to question what would make him do such a sweet thing. He now applies more pressure about wanting sex, grabbing her from behind and pawing her body. She is outraged, and confronts him this time without evasion about his “whores.” He grabs her in a sexually assaultive manner. Again, she is honest when she says that what is wrong with the two of them can’t be fixed by Timmy being at home. She continues this change to frankness by saying that when she saw the roses it stirred something inside her that she thought long dead. For her, it is a loving affection for her husband. But, he turned it into lust. Here we have the stereotypical portrayal of the male as only interested in sex, and the woman wanting romance, but it does fit this story since it deals with Nettie’s lack of being able to enjoy herself. John, guilty about saying that the roses were his idea, and probably also because he now wants to hurt his wife for her rejection of him, admits that the roses were Timmy’s idea. Nettie is so upset, she throws the vase holding the flowers onto the ground, shattering the possibility of romance. But, it also symbolically means smashing the lie on which the phony attempt at intimacy was based.

The next morning, John resumes the pattern of evasion by directing the anger for his wife toward his son. He verbally assaults him by saying he didn’t accomplish much as a soldier and really had it easy with his veteran’s benefits. He berates him for not practicing his Catholicism, demands that he accompany John to mass, and after Timmy agrees to go, says God doesn’t want someone that has to be dragged to church. He deliberately tries to get a rise about him by using an ethnic slur about Jews, which almost causes Timmy to hit his dad. Of course, John is angry at his son for having convinced him to say the roses were his idea, given the disastrous results of the night before. Nettie uses the situation to gain favor with Timmy by saying that he is a grown man and has the right to make his own decisions about religion.

But after John leaves for mass, Timmy acts like a true Christian as he voices his understanding of his father’s behavior. He is now willing to face the truth about his family. He tells his mother that they have to stop the alliance they have forged for years of “always ganging up on him.” He asks her if she ever saw things through her husband’s eyes. She fought John about the lake house and going to Brazil for a great business opportunity. Nettie scoffs at these acts, and keeps talking about the need to help her mother take care of Willis, who she calls a cripple, but who, as Timmy points out, seeking to have his mother confront the truth, has mental problems. He also admits a truth about himself, which is that he resented her taking him every Sunday to spend a depressing day with his disabled cousin. He basically tells her that, unlike her, he won’t now sacrifice himself for “the cause.” He realizes he may have gone too far, and apologizes for being cruel.

But, his words cause Nettie to seek time alone for herself. She leaves the apartment with the coins she has been saving, her monetary independence which she finally cashes in. Before she goes, she says to Timmy, “Thank you for the roses,” revealing her knowledge of the truth about the gift and laying blame at her son’s feet for creating a deception that avoided dealing with her marital problems. She goes to the beach and has dinner by herself in a musical interlude that, unlike the rest of the film, is devoid of dialogue, as Nettie finds time away from family too seek peace finally just for herself.

John is distraught that his wife has been missing for twelve hours. He paces as Timmy sits inebriated on the couch. John frets about the situation while Timmy talks about the past. There is no communication between them still, as the father does not respond to his son’s references about the family. When Timmy presses his father about what happened between him and his wife, he says, “Stop pushing, or I’ll tell you.” He finally says, “The humping I’m getting isn’t worth the humping I’m getting.” Timmy’s reaction to his father’s ugly, crude response is to call him a pig. He wanted honesty, but sometimes the truth can be brutal. When Nettie returns, she utters the line I mentioned at the beginning of the post about not being believed as to where she has been and what she has been doing. Timmy gives her a story to say about going down town, walking around, and seeing a movie. Nettie adopts the tale because she doesn’t believe that John can understand the truth about her journey out of the home. When she is alone with John she says that she left after she and Timmy had a fight, which surprises John. He is startled when she reveals the truth that Timmy said that the two of them should stop ganging up on his father, and that he thinks John is quite a guy. She also says that the twelve hours away were “the only real freedom I ever had.” She was free of her family’s needs, her self-enforced abstinence from self-fulfillment. When Timmy asks her why she came back, she say, “I’m a coward.” Nettie, like most of us, are not so bold as to permanently throw off the responsibilities that bind us, but which also provide us with order, security, and familiarity

That night, Timmy joins his mother on the roof (a place outside of the apartment where truth is not confronted, and a place above the confusion caused by selfishness and conflict). Nettie now is devoid of guile as she admits that a baker she knew when she was younger couldn’t give her the things his father could. John was full of promise, but the stock market crash in 1929 changed him. She now can admit that her husband was great with others in impersonal situations, in bars, meeting people, but emotionally he was not good in the intimacy of a home. The baker, who would get tongue-tied in public, “would have been beautiful in the home.” Nettie has confronted the true reality of her life. She also understands that Timmy will be leaving them. The next morning Timmy tells his dad that he will be moving out that day. The father tries to persuade him to stay, saying he can have full independence when it comes to religion and women. Timmy says that if he doesn’t leave now, he’ll stay forever, and that would mean that he will never be his own person.

The family has breakfast, and Timmy capitulates and says that he will stay. John says he can’t, he has painters coming in to paint his room, and he can’t reschedule. Again it is not the truth, but this time they all know it is just an unselfish act to give the son the enduring freedom the parents did not have. Earlier Timmy said that before his service he blamed his dad for what was wrong with their family. When he returned, he blamed his mother. He says now he realizes no one is to blame, not even himself. Blaming others is just a way to avoid the truth about our problems. Truth leads to understanding and the trust of others needed to overcome those problems.

The next movie is All the President's Men.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bonnie and Clyde

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I would like to announce the publication of my new novel, The Bigger Picture. The link to Amazon is:

All of my earnings will be donated to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It is a mystery for movie lovers, like its prequel, Out of the Picture. The new story deals with the double sexual standard and sexual abuse of women.

The beginning of this film is seductive, as we are drawn into the world of its two main characters. We see Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) looking into a mirror, like Alice wanting to escape her world and enter a new life full of, well, wonder. As we follow her with her guide, Clyde (Warren Beatty), who, if we follow the metaphor, is the White Rabbit, we go down the rabbit hole with them. The audience is, in the early going of the film, held captive by their adventure, and suffers from Stockholm syndrome, as it sympathizes with the criminals’ activities.

We can understand why these two want something different out of life, given the poverty and decrepit living conditions of the Depression era. The civilized, law-abiding world had failed most of the country. Banks appear to be the enemy, because they are foreclosing on the widespread misfortunes of poor people. When Clyde asks a customer whose money he has, he says his own. Clyde won’t take money from the farmer, and this act makes him likable. (But stealing money from the bank was stealing from everyday people, since there was no insurance backing deposits at the time.) And, at least at the beginning, they seem harmless. Clyde can’t even steal Bonnie’s mother’s car without her seeing him sizing up the vehicle. After she goes with him, Clyde looks like a Keystone Cop, as he picks a bank to rob that has failed and has no money left. In a scene out of a screwball comedy, he tries to rob a grocery store, almost acting polite about the heist, and is confronted by a manic meat cleaver wielding grocer. They recruit C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) as their wheel man, who wedges himself into a tight parking space, making a quick getaway impossible. But, at the end of that scene, the tone turns dark, as a bank guard jumps onto the car and Clyde shoots him in the face. The audience now realizes that these reality escape artists can’t avoid the real world of law and order without violently tearing themselves away from it. In the beginning, Clyde says he cut off some toes to avoid a work detail when he was in prison. The violence he used on himself is now aimed at others in his rebellion against society’s laws. We start to sober up, shaking off the intoxication of their no longer fun-filled ride.

There is a great deal of glass breaking in this film. Clyde is first inspired to call himself a bank robber when he encounters a farmer at the house that the bank has forced him out of. They throw rocks at the building, breaking the windows. Symbolically, the glass can represent the established order, and the breaking shows how the economic system is also broken. The throwing of the rocks can also be an act of anger against the financial institutions that have compounded the misery of the poor. This glass breaking is repeated with similar effect by Clyde when he shoots out the window of the failed bank. But the integrity of the glass can represent any system, including the gangster family of Bonnie and Clyde, which includes Moss and Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman) and his new wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons). The windows of the rooms they rent on their crime spree are sometimes shot up by the authorities in various shootouts. They at first seem safe in the cars they steal, they being movable means of transportation, and which echo their rootless existence divorced from restraining, fixed buildings and homes of society. But, eventually, as their crimes include murder of policemen, the windows of the cars are also shattered, as is their crime family, and the massacre at the end is also a symbolic killing of the vehicle that allowed them to escape the controlling arm of the law.

The film extends the window metaphor to eyes, as they have often been likened to “windows to the soul.” The shooting near the eyes of the bank guard on the car shows how Clyde’s vision of their future is not clear as to the consequences of his actions. Toward the end, Clyde rides to his death with broken sunglasses, also reflecting his failed moral vision. His inability to see the reality of his situation is shown when he says all he was trying to do was get something to eat when he was robbing the grocery store. and he was attacked by the grocer. He leaves out the part that he was breaking the law, stealing from the man.  Their self-delusion is symbolized early in the film when they hide from the police in a movie theater, and the musical number “We’re in the Money” is being played. This scene shows how we, the audience, also try not to see the reality of our situation, “escaping” into a fantasy when we go to the movies. Clyde’s shooting of the bank guard comes back to haunt the gang as Buck is killed by a gunshot to the temporal area, his eyes seen as bloody, clouding his vision. And, Blanche is also wounded in the eyes, which are bandaged, blocking out her actual sight and moral insight when she reveals the identity of C. W. which allows the authorities to track down Bonnie and Clyde. Here the human windows, the eye, are broken, and mirror the destruction of the criminal family which was doomed from the start due to their lack of clear thinking.

Even when we are being seduced into the bank robbers’ world, there are several foreshadowings of the how the path they have chosen will not be a happy one. At the very beginning when we see Bonnie, naked in her room, like a baby ready to be reborn into a new life, she grabs hold of the bed frame which seems to imprison her. She looks like she wants to break free of her dead end old life, but the bars also tell us that society will imprison those that break its rules. When the gang takes Eugene Grizzard (Gene Wilder) for a joy ride, Bonnie kicks him and his girlfriend out when she learns that he is an undertaker. She is in denial about the consequences of her new life, and doesn’t want any reminders, at least not at this point, that they are on the rode to their demise. When Bonnie visits her mother, a young boy plays on a mound of dirt, and rolls down it in slow motion. The action is repeated by Clyde’s body as it rolls on the ground after he is killed in the ambush at the end of the story.

The relationship between Bonnie and Clyde is a complicated one. The association between guns and sex is shown right at the beginning. When Clyde shows Bonnie his gun, she strokes it like it’s a male organ. Clyde emphasizes the connection by flipping the toothpick in his mouth, suggesting a throbbing phallus. Later, Bonnie has her picture taken holding a gun and smoking a cigar, suggesting the sexuality aspect of the criminal life she has chosen, unchecked by prudishness. (Of course when she mockingly kisses the lawman they have captured, he spits at her, showing the reaction of a restrictive society to her uninhibited sexuality). But, Clyde is “not much of a lover boy.” Perhaps the limp associated with the loss of his toes refers to more than one appendage, since he is impotent. He wants more than just a sexual encounter – he wants a partner. Together he wants them to rise above the dreary, impoverished world they inhabit. He says to her “Bet you are a movie star.” He says that she deserves so much more than what she has, and they go about making themselves celebrities, even contacting the newspapers themselves. But, the press prints deceptions, assigning crimes to them in which they were not involved. When they write that Clyde betrayed Buck and left him for dead, the celebrity they attained turns around and bites the hand that feeds it, tearing the gang apart, as their notoriety makes them prime targets for the police and leads to the betrayals at the hands of Blanche and C. W.

Clyde is impotent until Bonnie empowers him in her poem sent to the newspapers. He says “You told my story, right there, right there. One time I told you I was gonna make you somebody. That’s what you done for me. You made me somebody they’re gonna remember.” He then is able finally to consummate his love for Bonnie, and they become true partners. They have become successful in the only way they knew how given the circumstances of their time. But, that way will not be tolerated by society, as Bonnie now realizes, when she ends her poem by saying the price for their type of notoriety is, “death for Bonnie and Clyde.”

The next film discussed will be The Subject was Roses.

Sunday, January 3, 2016


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

At one point in this film, a character, in response to a question, says, “It’s complicated.” That remark sums up the characters’ attitudes and personalities in this Oscar winning movie. People tend to dislike things being complicated. They prefer the simple, easy way out when dealing with others. That is why prejudicial thinking is easy to give into; when one can quickly place those encountered into categories sorted by preconceived criteria, no more work is necessary, and a feeling of relief is felt.

Don Cheadle’s Detective Graham Waters announces the reason for the title of the film in a voice over right at the start. He says that in other places, people experience touching, sometimes by only brushing past a person and bumping into each other. But, in a big city like Los Angeles, “nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other. Just so we can feel something.” People in this film do collide with each other, sometimes literally in car accidents, but many times they interact in aggressive and violent ways when responding to their fear and anger about what is happening in the world, because their prejudices have kept them from really understanding those around them and connecting emotionally with others. The audience, almost in a Hitchcockian way, are made complicit in the workings of bigotry. At first glance the audience makes assumptions about the people presented based on our nature to expeditiously sum up others on a superficial assessment, and then the story undermines those assumptions.

We see Jean Cabot (Sandra Bullock) walking with her husband, Rick (Brendan Fraser), and she leans against him, in a fearful way when she sees two Africa American males walking near them. One of the black men, Anthony (Ludacris) notes her action and comments to his pal, Peter (Larenz Tate), that they are in the whitest part of town, and they could be two college students, yet Jean’s reaction is “blind fear.” He attributes her response to bigotry. He says they are the only two black faces on the block guarded by the LA police, who are trigger happy. He asks Peter, how come they’re not the ones who should be afraid. Peter says, “Because we have guns.” And they proceed to carjack the Cabot’s Lincoln Navigator. Jean’s bigoted reaction and Anthony’s keen observations automatically make the audience think that Jean is a bad person and the black guys are the victims. Then the tables are turned, and, we realize that although her reaction came out of prejudice, nevertheless, there are some black males who commit crimes. Anthony goes through the film justifying his criminal actions against white people based on bigotry against African Americans. He is bigoted in his own way, making generalizations about how black women treat black men, and thinking Peter can’t possibly like hockey and country music because he is black. His prejudice warps his reasoning when he says that the windows on public transportation are large so as to embarrass those less fortunate who are riding by exposing them to the richer members of society. When he hijacks a different Lincoln Navigator, this time driven by a black male, Cameron Thayer (Terence Howard), he hesitates, because of the color of his skin. After an encounter with the police which is defused, Cameron criticizes Anthony by saying “You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself.” These words indict Anthony’s way of thinking, and the violent actions which flow from it. In a way, Cameron is condemning everyone in the audience who gives into prejudicial thinking. But, the film shows, again, that individuals are complicated. Anthony soon after comes across Asians held captive in a van who were brought into the country illegally, probably to be used as slave labor. Instead of selling them for profit, he frees them, and in a sense liberates himself from his narrow-minded anger, by doing a humanitarian act.

Let’s get back to Bullock’s Jean. She eventually admits that she is angry all of the time. She rants at her husband and the Latino house help, assuming that the Hispanic male changing her house locks after the carjacking will sell the keys to the house to one of his gangbanger friends. (We later see that this man, Daniel (Michael Peña), is a caring father and husband, looking to protect his family in his own way. He can’t afford a rich person’s security system, so he gives his daughter a pretend invisible bulletproof cape after a shot was fired through their previous home.) Toward the end of the movie, Jean understands that she has nobody in her “white” world on whom to rely. When she falls down the stairs and injures her leg, the only one who cares for her immediately is her Latino housekeeper, Maria (Yomi Perry), whom she hugs and calls her best friend. Again, we see a character who is not simply a bigot, but someone who has different facets to her personality, and one who is capable of change.

Another character who the audience quickly sums up as a bigot and worthy of scorn is the policeman John Ryan (Matt Dillon). His father is ill and the officer is angry and frustrated after unsuccessfully dealing with an African American woman on the phone in an attempt to get health care for his dad. He takes out his anger on other African Americans when he stops Cameron while driving in his car. The latter’s wife, Christine (Thandie Newton), was seen by Ryan performing oral sex on her husband while he is driving. The officer sexually gropes Christine on the pretense of frisking her, thus humiliating Cameron in the process. However, when he goes to confront the health care representative, Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine), we see two sides of Ryan. He apologizes for his previous phone encounter, and pleads that she help him out, because even if he is basically a jerk, his father deserves better. We see here a Ryan who can be contrite and who cares about his father. He says he needs a different physician under his father’s HMO, because he considers the current one to be incompetent. When Johnson refuses, his anger returns him to his bigoted thinking, as he says that his father had a business who hired many black employees whom he cared for very much, but he went out of business after his contract was lost based on affirmative action. Later, his humanity is again shown as he heroically rescues Catherine from the wreckage of her burning vehicle just as it is about to explode following her crashing the car. She at first recoils at seeing him again, but during this scene, they are just two people, relinquishing their prejudices, seeking and receiving help as fellow human beings.

Ryan’s partner, Tom Hansen (Ryan Phillippe) is new to the force and is appalled by his fellow officer’s molestation and harassment of the Thayers. He asks for a reassignment. When he encounters the angry Cameron later, who feels that he has had enough of knuckling under to white people in power, in a confrontation with police following the attempted hijacking of Cameron’s SUV, Hansen prevents the situation from becoming violent. We believe Hansen is a “good guy” who is trying in his own way to fight bigotry. But, he too is a complex character, with flaws, like the rest of the human race. While off duty he picks up the hitchhiking Peter. As they talk, Hansen believes Peter is mocking him about his attitudes toward black people when Peter says he likes the country western music on the radio. Hansen buys into the same prejudice that Anthony annunciated earlier about African Americans. He tells Peter to get out of the car. Peter starts laughing about something he observes and attempts to take something out of his pocket. Hansen assumes the worst, thinking it is a gun, and shoots and kills Peter. What Peter was reaching for was a St. Christopher’s statuette. This is truly ironic, because St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers. Obviously, his blessings do not work in this film, based on all of the car accidents that occur. Also, there is irony in the fact that Peter was reaching for something that linked the two men, since Hansen also has a St. Christopher’s icon in his car, but which in actuality tears the two apart, bringing suspicion and the resulting violence. The not-so-good guy Hansen then covers up his crime, pushing Peter’s body out onto an isolated road, and taking his car to a remote location, and then burning it in a scene which evokes that of a car crash. Earlier, after Ryan confronts Hansen following the latter’s request for a reassignment, he says to Hansen, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.” He was talking about himself, but he was also providing the audience with a foreboding, as we eventually see that Hansen is not who we or he thinks he is.

At the beginning of the movie we see Cheadle’s Detective Waters with his girlfriend, a Latino police detective named Ria (Jennifer Esposito), following a car accident in which they have been rear-ended. The other driver is Asian, and the two women, in their anger, try to explain who is at fault by drawing on racial stereotyping to justify their arguments. These minorities, thus, are shown to be just as capable of narrow-minded thinking in certain threatening situations as are Caucasians. (We also view this observation when the Middle Eastern shop owner, himself a victim of racial profiling when a gun seller wrongfully labels him an Arab, thinks the Latino locksmith is cheating him.) Waters is also susceptible to this way of thinking when he is criticized later by Ria by calling her a Mexican. She corrects him, saying that her parents were from Puerto Rico and El Salvador. Angry at the criticism, Waters says how come all these diverse civilizations park their cars on their lawns. Here he refuses to make the effort to acknowledge the cultural differences between a variety of backgrounds.

Waters’ investigation into a case shows how the use of political correctness can sometimes obscure the truth by fostering narrow-minded thinking in its own way.  Waters and Ria find out that two men were killed in a shootout, both of the victims being policemen. One, an undercover white racist cop named Conklin, has killed black men in the past. The other policeman, named Lewis, is black. Again, we first think that the white cop is the only wrongdoer. But, it turns out that Lewis has $300,000 hidden inside a fake spare tire in a Mercedes. Lewis was obviously involved in an illegal activity. Flanagan (William Fichtner), who is District Attorney Rick Cabot’s campaign manager, wants Waters to quash the possible corruption of Lewis, and place the total blame of the shooting on the white Conklin. He says that is what Cabot wants, because the candidate wants the black vote, and doesn’t desire to be seen as someone accusing a black cop of wrongdoing, especially following an incident where he was shot by a white racist policeman. Flanagan persuades Waters to go along by promising to drop criminal charges against Waters’ brother (who turns out to be Anthony’s partner, Peter). The same type of covering up happens when Hansen’s boss doesn’t want to rock the boat by disciplining Ryan, since he is a black Captain who doesn’t want to jeopardize his career by appearing to be calling white cops, with good records otherwise, bigots. In both these cases political correctness in its own way can facilitate the urge to fit people easily into preconceived ways of thinking at the expense of accuracy.

Toward the end of the movie, the story again targets the audience’s expected assumptions. Earlier in the story, the SUV with Anthony and Peter in it, strikes an Asian man next to a white van. Not wanting to get into trouble, the two partners drag the man from under the car and speed off. We automatically conclude, based on a surface observation, that the Asian man is an innocent victim. However, when we see the Asian male later in the hospital, he tells his visiting wife to quickly cash a check. The white van is the one Anthony later acquires containing the Asians he subsequently frees. So, the victim turns out to be a criminal dealing in illegal alien slave labor.

The movie ends with an automobile accident, just as it began with one. The various stories of the narrative, which “crash” into each other, show that no matter the race or ethnic background of people, they will exhibit decent and harmful behavior at various times. Trying to reduce humans into stereotypes, although easy, doesn’t work, because we are complicated. The film ends with snow falling on everyone, illustrating that despite our surface differences, we share the same planet, and to live together, we must make the effort to reach out and understand each other.

The next movie will be Bonnie and Clyde.