Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Oscars and Straw Dogs

I am one of those movie masochists who have watched the entire Oscar program every year, like, forever. I’m going to start out with my picks, since today is the day:

Best Picture: The Revenant. Great cinematography, with shots from the ground to the sky, reminding us of how Nature dwarfs us. A primal story about family and tribes.

Best Actor: It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s year. He’ll get the award for career achievement, for his almost non-verbal portrayal in The Revenant, but was actually better in The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Best Actress: Brie Larson, in an authentic performance in an even more amazing film accomplishment, Room, which showed how imagination has no bounds, and how the world outside our homes can be very scary, too.

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, who I really liked as the robot in Ex Machina, a movie that I think was Oscar-worthy.

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone in Creed. Really. A solid performance in another film that was slighted in other Oscar categories.

Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñάrritu. Again. What a talent.

Now the movie analysis:

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The opening aerial shot in this 1971 Sam Peckinpah directed movie shows children scampering about in a cemetery. In this economical image is an ironic contrast between the vitality and innocence of youth and the loss of that innocence in the cold, static fact of death. A little girl carries a dog, for whom she probably has affection. But, the title of this film derives from the Chinese Tao Te Ching, which speaks of straw dogs being the semblance of living things, with no substance, which can be used in a sacrifice, since there is no feeling attached to them by those performing the sacrifice. In this movie, people become devoid of their humanity.
David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife, Amy (Susan George) have returned to the remote town of Wakely in England where Amy once lived. David is a mathematician, a non-imposing figure, who is used to using his brain and not his muscles. He mentions in town that his wife is a collector, and they have purchased a “mantrap,” a device once used to catch poachers. David reveals his passive propensity when he says all he wants to catch is some “peace and quiet.” The first view of the attractive Amy reveals that she does not wear a bra, her breasts prominent under her sweater top. We immediately see the contrast between the traditionally cerebral husband and his seductive, physically sensual spouse. She tries to “brain up” by playing chess with him, reading a book on the game.
The rural nature of the setting invites comparisons with the film Deliverance, which has Burt Reynolds’ character asking in such a place, “Where is the law?” There is a constable in Wakely, Major John Scott (T. P. McKenna), who has only one arm, symbolic of how damaged civilized law exists in this village. The couple encounter Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and his young cousin, Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett). When Charlie and Amy are alone, we learn that he is the wife’s ex-lover. He comes on to her, saying he was able to take care of her before, to which she replies that he never did. David goes into the pub, and encounters the barbaric Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughen), Amy’s father, who gets into a brawl with the bartender. Maj. Scott tells Tom that he should settle down or there will be “fresh charges,” which informs the audience that Tom is a habitual troublemaker. David refuses to have Tom pay for his cigarettes after the ruckus, showing his rejection of uncivilized behavior. The behavior of the men in this village seems tribal. Tom threatens John Niles, (Peter Arne) because his brother, Henry (David Warner), a disturbed man, is a threat to the young girls of the town due to some previous behavior. Tom, in this case, justifiably says that the law was inadequate in not putting Henry away. However, he shows no understanding of the man’s affliction.
The local men show their depravity by talking about what they can steal from the Sumners. One also takes a pair of Amy’s panties, and he and the others make lascivious references regarding their lust for her. They impugn David’s masculinity: they say he ran away from the violence going on in America in connection with the social unrest at the time; and, imply he is not a real man because instead of drinking beer out of a bottle, he prefers water. They laugh at him when he starts to sit on the wrong side of an English car and has trouble getting it to work. When driving, they almost cause him to get into an accident.
However, this crude world draws out the baser instincts in the lead characters. When heading back to their home, Amy drives recklessly. She complains about the locals hired to fix a building’s roof ogling her, but she is flirtatious with them, too. She becomes impatient with David’s ignoring her to do his work. She tells him that if he could fulfill manly duties, like fixing the roof, there wouldn’t be a need for the other men to be there. She accuses him of leaving America because he is hiding out, unwilling to commit to a cause. After refusing to stand up to the workers, she sexually teases the hired men, appearing topless in an upstairs window. David seems meek, but also starts to exhibit nasty behavior. He harshly says that Amy should answer him when he calls her, like the family cat. He also says that if the cat has gotten into his study, he will kill it (an omen, linking him later to the locals). He even throws grapefruit at the cat in the kitchen.
The dog, cat, and mantrap are just a few of the references to animals and hunting presented in the film. The local men sing a song and talk of bestiality with sheep, showing their crude ways. When David and Amy prepare to make love, he is almost dispassionate as he takes time to remove his watch and set the alarm, while she is sexually aggressive, at which point he calls her “an animal,” thus associating her with the lustful men of the town. Amy later reports that the cat is missing, and when David reaches into the bedroom closet to turn on the light, he discovers the cat was strangled and now hangs from the light chain. Amy is horrified by this event, and is enraged that David makes excuses for not confronting the workers for committing the atrocity. She says that it was an emasculating act by showing that they could get into his bedroom. She further undermines his masculinity when he invites the men in for a drink supposedly to, in a way, trap them (his version of hunting). But, he drops the ball, and she puts out a bowl of milk, of course meant for a cat, on the table. The men invite the gun-challenged David for some duck hunting, but they strand him out in the fields, again humiliating him. He eventually does assert his “manliness,” killing a bird, but then, almost out of guilt, gently leaves the carcass in the bushes. He fires the men because of their treating him badly. When he tells Amy about letting the workers go, she says sarcastically, “Hooray for you, Tiger,” implying that his action was a weak one. Later, in the confrontation at the end, Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton), the rat catcher, throws rodents through the broken windows of the Sumner house, which appears to mean that the residents cannot escape the law of the jungle. But, I think it is too simplistic to think that Peckinpah is equating animals with savagery. They do not engage in sexual perversion, or commit acts of torture, rape, and murder for revenge or exhilaration. Perhaps the director is saying that humans make the worst animals.
While David is out duck hunting, Charlie stalks his prey, Amy. He invades the house, and starts to act rough with her, demanding sexual surrender. She initially tries to resist, but having returned to her roots, and angered by David’s lack of “manliness,” she submits, with the image of David alternating with that of Charlie, indicating that she wished it was David who was possessing her. Charlie apologizes at one point, but then, his mate, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison) appears, brandishing his phallic rifle, and makes Charlie hold Amy down as he rapes her. She does not tell her husband of the violation.
What follows is a scene at the local church which mirrors the loss of innocence of the opening. Amy is in a place of worship, but finds her rapists there, defiling the sanctity of the place. Young Janice, who is starting to lose her virginal youth by wearing very short skirts and spying at the Sumners’ window while the couple make love, has a crush on David. She is attracted to him because he is “sweet.” In this way, she reflects Amy’s personality. Amy acts like a child, erasing and altering David’s blackboard calculations. She behaves like a little girl, wanting attention. As an adult, she wants sexual attention, despite her protestations concerning the local men. David, when alone, seemed to show his subconscious lust by smiling at Janice’s initial attention to him. Now, with his wife present, he ignores the young girl. Being hurt, she looks to another, somewhat like Amy has done. She turns to the damaged Henry. They go off, and she tries to seduce the man. When others alert Tom about the danger to his daughter, he and his relatives and mates go on a manhunt. Henry accidentally strangles Janice while trying to keep her quiet with the searching men close by. In this world, purity is soiled, and there are victims of violence, even when it is not intended.
Driving in the thick mist (suggestive of a moral fog?), David hits the wandering Henry. He takes him to his house, and refuses to give him up to the vigilante justice of Tom and his thugs. In a tussle with Maj. Scott, Tom shoots the constable, killing him. They are all accessories now, and the men terrorize and try to kill Henry and the Sumners. It is in this battle for his home that David turns into a warrior. He causes Tom to blow off his foot and beats another man to death. He scalds others with hot liquid. When Norman tries to rape Amy again, Charlie kills him, but is then killed by David who uses the mantrap on him. Almost thumping his chest, David boasts that he “got ‘em all.” But Phil (Donald Webster) surprises him and is ready to break David’s back when Amy fires a rifle killing Phil. The spouses are somehow united by way of the bloodbath.
The film ends with David driving Henry back to town. Henry says, “I don’t know my way home.” David replies by saying, “That’s okay. I don’t either.” With his former world stripped of the veneer of civilization, there is no going back for him.
The next film is The Departed.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey

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

I thought it would be a good time 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.

One thing that must be kept in mind when approaching this 1968 movie masterpiece is that director Stanley Kubrick is a satirist. He attacked the war machine and tyranny in Paths of Glory and Spartacus. In Dr. Strangelove, possibly the best film satire eve made, Kubrick not only skewers the male/sexual connection in waging war, but also goes after technology as something that facilitates the drive for destruction. It is in 2001 that the director takes on the idea of progress being measured only by technological achievement.
The opening sequence, “The Dawn of Man,” shows us earth’s beautiful, but imposing land vistas. These scenes dwarf the individual creature. In a way, this appears to be the first “space” humanoids encounter. Add the howling wind of the soundtrack to the intimidation of the size of the terrain depicted and Kubrick triggers the primal response of fear in the audience. The ape-like ancestors that we now encounter are also frightened by this environment. At one point a leopard leaps onto one of these unsuspecting creatures, emphasizing the danger in this prehistoric time. They huddle together at night, watchful of threatening surroundings.
When one group tries to drive away another from a watering hole, they scream, howl, and jump up and down. The scene is comical. But, isn’t Kubrick saying that things haven’t really changed over the millennia, since we still do a great deal of posing and threatening as we try to take over the land of others? Do these early humans remind us of today’s politicians? One of the ape-ancestors wakes up and sees a mysterious black monolith. He, as are his companions, is afraid to approach it at first, but then, human curiosity takes hold, and they all touch it. After that, the ape-man looks at the monolith, and we are given an upward shot of the object and the sky above it. He then realizes that he can use a bone as a tool. The irony here is that the first bit of mechanical advancement is a weapon. The ape people can now kill animals and those of other groups of their kind to take the land they want. After the conquest of the watering hole, the ape-man throws his bone/weapon into the air. We then jump centuries into the future as the bone segues into the image of a spacecraft. But, the appearance is similar to the bone, and thus Kubrick implies that we may not have advanced as much as we would like to think. We hear Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube as we see a variety of spacecraft move through the blackness. “Craft” is the operative word here, since we are talking about something made from a skill, but the music is art, which is an imaginative talent that transcends technological invention. Kubrick does not show us humans dancing to the waltz. Instead, it is our machines who have replaced us, and in a sense, we now have a world that is dehumanized.
Dr. Heywood Floyd arrives at the space station amid rumors that there is an epidemic at the Clavius colony on the moon. On his trip, a flight attendant wears grip shoes to deal with the lack of gravity. This footwear makes her lurch, and she appears to move like one of her ancient ape-like predecessors, again undermining human advancement. He has a short meeting with fellow scientists who press him about the true story concerning the outbreak. Floyd feigns ignorance and then says somewhat slyly that he can’t reveal anything. This scene is somewhat reminiscent of the watering hole episode in the first part. One of the scientists looks over his shoulder as someone passes by, appearing suspicious of a threat, like the ape-man. Heywood is the dominant creature here, as the others try to draw him out. In the background we see that there is a Hilton Hotel, and an AT&T logo, along with one for the restaurant chain Howard Johnson. Kubrick is saying that although this is supposed to be the “enlightened” future, corporate greed is forever, with the drive for profits advancing into outer space. Floyd makes a video phone call to his child, played by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. This new technologically advanced world has not brought people together. Floyd can’t even be home on his daughter’s birthday. He can only contact her through a technological instrument. When he asks his daughter what gift she would like to receive, she at first says a telephone. In a way that request makes sense because it is the only thing that lets her connect with her father. This scene shows that in this future all we have are tech gadgets, but no real closeness to others. One could say here that this film is quite prescient, given our current withdrawal into computerized social media. The accepted argument is that technology is supposed to make our lives easier. But Kubrick shows Heywood looking baffled by the numerous instructions on how to use the anti-gravity toilet. The more we move forward, it seems, the more our basic human drives and functions have become encumbered.
We hear at a briefing on the space station that the rumor of a contagious outbreak on the moon is a cover story. The truth is that another monolith was found on the moon, placed there about four million years in the past. Heywood visits the place where the monolith thrusts out of the surface of the moon. Kubrick mirrors the scene of the prehistoric human touching the object as we see Heywood do the same, and we are provided the same upward shot of the monolith and the sky above. We have different celestial bodies, but the same action, again shrinking the time difference and questioning the so-called progression of the species. Heywood and the others don’t have a clue as to the immense significance of the find, and instead use the moment for a photo-op. The monolith lets loose a high-pitched, pain-producing noise, almost like an angry alarm clock, telling the humans in front of it to pay attention to what they are experiencing.
We then skip ahead eighteen months, and we see the Discovery spaceship on its way to Jupiter. The spacecraft looks like the vertebrae of a spinal column with the brain at the front. This image reinforces the bone - to - tool connection made earlier, and also stresses that although we have advanced technically, our humanity has not moved that far forward. The film introduces the two crew members who are not in hibernation (three others have been placed in suspended animation). There is Commander Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). The nonhuman member is the HAL 9000 computer (the voice provided by Douglas Rain). (As Michael Benson points out in his book, Space Odyssey, Bowman's name refers to Odysseus who must bend a bow and shoot an arrow as a test to claim his wife after his travels). The movie again demonstrates our dwindling humanity when Kubrick echoes the happy birthday call via video phone, this time with Poole’s parents calling their son. They show him his special day cake, which he can’t consume because of the distance between them. We may feel revulsion at the ape-people eating raw meat, but it appears more like food than what these astronauts have on board the Discovery, which is pureed mush. When Heywood eats sandwiches with others on the moon shuttle, it is said that the food is something like chicken, and that they are working on the substances that substitute for real food. Obviously, in this future, culinary delights have not progressed. The gulf between Poole and his father and mother is not just physical, but is also emotional. Poole demonstrates no response to the communication from his parents, not a smile nor a tear. Actually, all of the dialogue by the so-called advanced humans in the film is lacking in any originality, humor, or wit.
The entity that sounds and acts more human that the real people is, ironically, the computer. HAL (you probably have heard that the letters are one position above the letters IBM in the alphabet) shows pride in his generation of computers. (Benson notes that HAL's camera eye is a nod to the cyclops, a monster, in  The Odyssey). He uses the evocative human word “silly,” and later says “he is afraid” and says, “I can feel it” when his higher functions must be deactivated. Unfortunately, his actions show the negative side of his human programming. His paranoia about people messing up the mission, for which he may be blamed, and which his pride cannot tolerate, causes him to lie about the malfunction of some equipment, and then uses the extravehicular space pod to kill Poole. (In Benson's book, he notes Kubrick's admiration for filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The chess game between Poole and HAL echoes the match between the knight and Death in Bergman's The Seventh Seal, and foreshadows Poole's demise at the hands of HAL Kubrick put in a false move in the game to hint at HAL's malfunctioning or deceptive strategy). The pod looks like a human turned into a high tech monster, with its mechanical arms reaching out menacingly at us as we view it from the victim’s position. It appears to be Kubrick’s way of saying that the machines we have produced can be our undoing. The people in hibernation are also killed. Bowman goes out to retrieve Poole’s body, but must abandon that plan because HAL tries to leave him stranded outside the ship. Bowman comes in through an emergency hatch, even without his helmet. While he renders HAL harmless, the computer sings the song “Daisy,” with the funny line, “I’m half crazy,” in it, reflecting its own mental state. But, the lyrics also talk of the nostalgic “bicycle built for two,” which refers to an antique, fun mode of transportation, again letting us know that our advanced spaceship takes us far away, but the technology is not the end-all of life.

As Bowman approaches his destination, the last segment is entitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” The satire part of the movie now ends. There is another monolith floating in the space near the large planet, and Bowman, in his space pod, enters what appears to be a wormhole. He (and we) experience a dazzling light show, as it appears we see the birth of star systems, and witness the grandeur of “the Infinite.” The monoliths can be evidence of a super extraterrestrial race, or as Benson says, substitutes for the gods in Greek mythology. They also may be symbolic evolutionary markers we must reach to move forward. But, technology can only take us so far. Bowman’s journey ends, in a surreal sequence, in a bright white bedroom with Louis XVI furniture. He has aged, and he sees himself in stages of aging, and becomes the elderly versions of himself. When he is in his death bed, the monolith appears at the foot of the bed. He reaches out his hand toward it, reminding one of the Sistine Chapel where God’s finger touches Adam. He is reborn as a star child, a heavenly fetus, who then floats by earth, contemplating his origins.
The movie starts and ends with Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. Of course this hearkens back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s work. If nothing else these allusions speak of transformation. For Kubrick, and his co-scripter, Arthur C. Clarke, true progress through evolution is not just by way of what is built, but in what is perceived and imagined. The star child at the end of the film may represent the hope for reaching a state of higher consciousness. Perhaps that is the real reason why the spaceship is named “Discovery.”
The next film is Straw Dogs.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Inherit the Wind

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

This 1960 film from producer/director Stanley Kramer based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial conveys its relevance to the present in the title, which comes from the Bible. In Proverbs, it basically says that he who troubles his own house shall inherit the wind – that is one gains nothing. The movie implies that the United States is the “house” in this story, and the trouble comes from the split between fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. The war between science and religion has been waged recently, with the attempt to place Creationism as an alternative to Darwinism in school science classrooms. This movie also echoes our current state of political polarization which springs from entrenched ways of thinking in both political camps.
The film is not subtle, but it is not as one-sided as it appears at first glance. It takes place in the community of Hillsboro, where teacher Bertrand Cates (Dick York) presents the theory of evolution to his high school students. Men walk to the school to arrest him for his educational actions. The audience sees the blurring of the separation of church and state immediately: one of those accompanying the legal authorities is Reverend Jerimiah Brown (Claude Akins). The law itself does not respect the Constitution’s separation of church and state because it prohibits teaching Darwin since it contradicts the words stated in Genesis about how man came to be on the earth. The Rev. Brown has no shades of gray – he is a fire and brimstone, scripture quoting cleric, who would even condemn his own daughter, Rachel (Donna Anderson), for being engaged to Cates. He says that he loves God and hates his enemies – not exactly what Jesus taught. He tells his daughter that Cates is dangerous, which she should know, being a teacher, because he says it is easy to mold young minds. Of course, because he sees his beliefs as the only true ones, he does not realize the irony in how he has shaped those same young minds into his way of thinking. Many of the townspeople share the reverend’s outlook. We see the force of the community on the noncompliant individual when one of the women of the town scowls at Rachel and gestures that she should join in with the singing of “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” which is the song which accompanies the opening arrest of Cates.
Reporter E, K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) now enters on the scene. He is modeled after the real journalist, H. L. Menken. Hornbeck is at the other extreme of the belief system. He believes in nothing, a cynic about any redeeming characteristics of the human race, who sarcastically skewers the bible-thumpers. He has some effective lines showing his disdain for Hillsboro, such as when he says it is “the buckle on the Bible belt.” He effectively sums himself up when he says, “I’m admired for my detestability,” concerning his fame as a newsman. He gives dubious support to Rachel when he says, “I may be rancid butter, but I’m on your side of the bread.” He makes a good argument for the role of a questioning free press in a democratic society when he says its job is “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted.” Hornbeck revels in his negativity. He secures Cates’ defense, bringing in lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy as a character based on Clarence Darrow), but it almost appears that he wants the man to lose so he can suck people into his black hole of hopelessness for humankind. He says at one point to Drummond, “Henry, why don’t you wake up. Darwin was wrong. Man is still an ape.” Drummond at the end pities him, saying, “When you go to your grave, there won’t be anybody to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you. Nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.”
There are characters who are not so one-sided. The sheriff lets Cates out of his jail, treats him respectfully, and good-naturedly plays cards with him. Cates’ students greet Drummond and offer their support of his defense of their teacher. Johns Stebbens (Noah Beery, Jr.) puts up his farm as collateral to get Drummond out of jail when the attorney is charged with contempt of court. He makes this offer because the drowning death of his son brought him and Cates to question the existence of horrible, unfair events under the watch of a supposedly benevolent God, and because Reverend Brown said the 13-year-old boy would burn in hell because he was not baptized before his death. Bertrand Cates, the defendant, appears to be an idealist when he says that he can agree to uphold what he considers an unjust law, but that would mean “I let my body out of jail if I lock up my mind.” But, he is also a pragmatist, because he sees that to Hornbeck he is a headline and to Drummond he is a cause. And, he realizes that his town’s version of religion isn’t the only viewpoint, and acknowledges that the Christian religion is without such extremism elsewhere. He also shows how rigid he can be because he gives Rachel an ultimatum when it comes to her father: “It’s your father’s church or our house, you can’t live in bother.” Even the prosecution’s main lawyer, Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March, playing the William Jennings Bryan character), despite his fundamentalist bombast, chides the Reverend Brown when he condemns his own daughter before a prayer meeting. It is Brady who delivers the “inherit the wind,” quote, saying that being overzealous can cause one to destroy what someone is trying to save. Drummond campaigned for Brady when he ran for President because the man championed suffrage for women and a better life for the common man. Kramer uses the camera to emphasize different points of view by focusing on a character at any given moment by placing him or her in the foreground, while others are in the background.
As for Drummond, he argues for the progress that science brings to our understanding of the world. He says that without new ideas to loosen up the stranglehold on the mind that comes from untested self-righteous beliefs, harm is inflicted on others with a different meaning system. As he tells Cates, the teacher is treated like a murderer because he is trying to kill one of the community’s ideas, and some people consider that a threat to their way of living. He worships the individual mind, and says that “an idea is a greater monument than a cathedral.” There is a scene where Brady and Drummond sit on a porch, each swaying back and forth in rocking chairs. It is significant that the two chairs do no go back and forth in tandem, stressing the different views of the two. Brady says that common people are “looking for something more perfect than they already have. Why do you want to take that away from them when that’s all they have?” Drummond tells a story about how much he wanted a hobby horse when he was young that was gleaming and fancy on the surface, but collapsed when he sat on it because it was poorly made. He makes the analogy to what Brady espouses. “As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate I say the hell with it.” However, in the courtroom he admits that there is a price to pay for progress, too: “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.” He admits that we lose the wonder of the birds when we fly in airplanes, and we fill the air with the smell of gasoline. He says we can have the telephone, but we sacrifice privacy. He also concedes that technological advances are not worth much if not used properly: he voices disdain for the radio microphone when what he wants to say into it will be censored.
Drummond appeals to Brady’s ego by getting him to take the stand as an authority on the Bible. It is in his grilling of Brady that the audience sees the danger of mixing religious belief with factual science. Brady, as do other fundamentalists, believe in so literal interpretation of the religious texts that they use it as a scientific instrument to measure the age of the earth, which totally contradicts how old fossils really are. Drummond eventually gets Brady to concede that the seven days that it took God to create the world were of indeterminate length. By so doing, he undermines a strict interpretation of scripture. Drummond warns of the dangers of rigid thinking when he says, “fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding.”

Drummond, unlike Hornbeck, doesn’t want to wipe out religious thought. He says Brady, who dies in the film right after the verdict and sentencing, had greatness in him, but sought God too far away. He argued that science, instead of destroying religion, could be used to better understand God’s creation. That is why he leaves the courtroom after holding both Darwin’s book and the Bible together. He earlier said that right and wrong have no meaning for him, because of their subjective absolute nature. But, he said that truth was important. It is significant that the song sung at the end of the movie is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and we hear the words, “His truth goes marching on.”
Perhaps the words of Brady’s wife, Sarah (Florence Eldridge), to Rachel sum up the need for not thinking in terms of absolutes. She says to her about Rachel’s impression of Brady at first as being a saint who can only do no wrong, and then as a devil, who can only do what is wrong. The truth lies in between, as in most things. All we can do is believe in something based on experience, and fight for it. But, first we must rely on ourselves, not others, for belief. She says to Rachel, but also to the audience, “What do you stand for? … What do you believe in?”

Next week’s movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Godfather

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.

I don't know if this 1972 film is the greatest American motion picture, but it is my favorite, so please excuse the length of this article. Being Italian American, I appreciate how Francis Ford Coppola captured with so much detail and, appropriately, flavor the ethnic culture in which I grew up. The world he presents to us in this movie is one of contrasts, and those contrasts create a great deal of irony in the way the individuals, and by extrapolation, American society, functions. (And, if I may, a theme I tried to explore in my novel, Feast or Famine).
The film sets up the analogy to the United States as a whole in the first words we hear uttered by the funeral director, Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in his plea to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for revenge for the assault on his daughter. He says, “I believe in America.” He is asking for what he considers justice from a powerful enforcer, just as an American citizen would ask the country’s legal system for punishment of a wrongdoer. But, Bonasera did not get his justice, because the so-called legitimate, overt system of jurisprudence has become a compromised disappointment, and his daughter’s attackers were set free by the issuance of a “suspended sentence,” an action which is not consummated. When he says he believes in America, he utters what most citizens feel, faith in a country of ideals. But, unfortunately, it is a land which falls short of those principles in practice many times. So, he seeks satisfaction in an alternate way, from his tribe, those with blood ties to himself. How many of us would like to seek a way around a nonresponsive system by way of vigilante justice?
The contrast between the bright surface reality and the dark underbelly of society is demonstrated many times in the setting, characters, and action of this film. The opening scene of the wedding of Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), on the Corleone estate is shot in the bright light of day, and has friends and family laughing, eating, and dancing in a joyful celebration. But, Coppola counters the shots of the happy occasion by cutting to The Don’s office, photographed in shadows, where The Godfather agrees to carry out unlawful activities because he must not deny requests on the day his daughter marries. He perverts a well-meaning cultural tradition by agreeing to physically harm Bonasera’s daughter’s attempted rapists. Bonasera wants the men involved in the assault killed. Vito lectures him by saying that is not justice, in the Biblical sense of an eye for an eye, because his daughter still lives. This statement makes The Don appear to be a person who understands fairness, but this outward appearance is undermined by his act of agreeing to take the law into his own hands. According to The Annotated Godfather, which contains the complete screenplay with background information, by Jenny M. Jones (Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, Inc, 2007), Coppola would communicate nonverbally with Brando, sometimes providing the actor with props. He placed the cat in the opening scenes in Brando’s lap. The playfulness between The Don and the kitten becomes symbolic. Vito Corleone on the surface appears to be a gentle senior citizen, but, just like the cuddly cat who has hidden claws and sharp teeth, The Don is really a predator. The cinematographer, Gordon Willis, known as “The Prince of Darkness,” made sure the lighting in the scenes left Brando’s eyes in shadows, producing a sinister look. Coppola also stresses the duality of other characters by showing the crime boss Barzini (Richard Conte) enjoying being a guest at the wedding, but also depicting him ripping film out of a camera from a photographer taking Barzini’s picture. This coupling of decorum and brutality is echoed when Sonny (James Caan) smashes the camera of a man taking pictures of cars parked at the wedding site, and then throws money at him to pay for the damage. He says that the “Goddamn FBI, don’t respect nothing,” a statement which turns the usual perception on its head, making it look as if the legitimate law enforcers are the bad guys, disrespecting the gangsters at a happy private family occasion.
Coppola emphasizes the disparity between the benign and malevolent aspects of the characters and their backgrounds by showing the way love of the family and cultural traditions contrasts with aggressive behavior against those they view as being in opposition to familial and business interests. In the same opening scenes in The Godfather’s office, we have The Don requiring respect and friendship from Bonasera, since Vito’s wife is godmother to the funeral director’s daughter, before complying with Bonasera’s violent request. Later, Vito at one moment seems serene, and then violently yells at singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), telling him “You can act like a man!” when the celebrity appears weak. The Don then lectures his philandering son, Sonny, indirectly, about how a man is not a real man unless he spends time with his family. He makes this upstanding point, ironically, just before telling Fontane that he will use violent intimidation to get the singer a film role by making the movie producer “an offer he can’t refuse.” (The infamous decapitated horse’s head scene which persuades film producer Woltz (John Marley) to give Fontane the part is symbolically a castration message sent to the movie mogul, since Woltz boasted about his sexual conquests, and the horse was scheduled to be put out to stud. In addition, the horse is a beautiful creature which is desecrated by the ugliness of the Corleone brutality. And, as Jones mentions in her book, the name of the horse, Khartoum, refers to a British commander of the city of that name who was decapitated by rebels when he tried to evacuate Egyptian forces from the area in 1885).
A couple of the best scenes that emphasize the irony in this contrast between the Italian American affection for the domestic and the propensity for violence involve Pete Clemenza (Richard Castellano), one of the high ranking men in the Corleone organization. He utters the famous line, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli,” right after the shooting of Paulie (John Martino) who betrayed The Don. This line and the subsequent scene where he shows Vito’s son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) how to prepare a meal for a large group perfectly show the marriage between the bringing together of loved ones with food, but how that sentiment is undermined by violence. During the dinner preparation scene, Clemenza is not making a meal for family members but instead for gangster soldiers. And, after stirring in his sausage and meatballs into his sauce, he informs Sonny that he won’t be seeing Paulie anymore. (When backing out of the driveway, on the way to killing Paulie, Clemenza warns the future victim to watch out for the kids. The killer is also a family man, worrying about children, which again shows the dual nature of the Italian American gangster world, and, by extrapolation American society. Coppola uses the innocent image of children in other scenes to contrast the two aspects of this culture: children run into The Don’s study while the hitman Brasi is there; Michael and his father plot against Barzini while talking about Michael’s son reading the “funny papers;” Michael reunites with Kay, desiring marriage and offspring, amid a group of children, appearing like a dark snake in a suburban Garden of Eden).
Coppola heightens the evil underlying society by inserting violence and fear against settings of benevolence. Gruesome and threatening action occurs at Christmas time, when there is supposed to be peace on earth. Michael and his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) carry Christmas gifts just before the audience watches scary Corleone thug Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) stabbed and garroted, and The Don peacefully buys some fruit from a vendor on a New York City street when thugs sent by Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) shoot him. (There is a quick foreshadowing of Brasi’s fate when he enters the club where he is killed: the glass doors of the establishment, a place where one enjoys life by eating seafood, has fishes swimming on it, linking the image to the later scene of fish in Brasi’s bullet-proof vest, and the line that he “sleeps with the fishes.” Also, the kissing of The Godfather’s hand, a sign of almost religious devotion, the way a Pope’s ring is kissed, can lead that loyalty here to death, symbolized by Sollozzo’s driving a knife into Brasi’s hand in a demonic version of crucifixion). Corleone family attorney Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) carries a child’s sled (a reference to Citizen Kane?), presumably a holiday gift for his child, when Sollozzo kidnaps him, interrupting his happy seasonal gift shopping, so he can negotiate business involving drugs with the Corleone family. While he enters Sollozzo’s car we see a dancing Santa in a store window, again providing an ironic contrast. Michael and Kay come out of a movie theater, after enjoying an escape into the joy of a holiday film (as we would try to do when we go to the movies?), and have their tranquility torn away when they see the newspaper headline informing them of the shooting of Michael’s father. Michael goes to visit his wounded father at the hospital, a place where we expect healing and protection. However, in this world, the medical facility seems all but abandoned except for one nurse, and Michael must use his wits to defend his father against criminals and the compromised police, who instead of shielding a citizen against harm, even though he is a gangster, are more dangerous threats since they pretend to be protectors.
Michael is the real main character in this tale, and it is through his story that we see the decline of idealism and the submergence into the dark side of the human soul. When we first encounter him, he is clothed in legitimacy in his military uniform at the wedding, a war hero. After relenting to Kay’s questions about the monster-like Luca Brasi, he relates the horrifying story of how his father, accompanied by Brasi, assured a band leader that his signature or his brains would be on the contract releasing Fontane. He then says to her, “That’s my family Kay; it’s not me.” No more ironic words have ever been spoken in film history. After he sees his father looking defenseless in the hospital bed he says to The Don, “I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now. I’m with you.” It is at this moment that Michael reverses his path away from his family and returns to its embrace. Blood is definitely the thicker liquid. When he is outside in front of the hospital, pretending to be a bodyguard as an ominous car rolls by, waiting for men to come and guard his father, he looks at his own hands holding a cigarette lighter. The hands are rock steady. At that moment, in this context, Michael realizes he can be cold-blooded, and he is his father’s son. We see Michael holding the lighter in his hands in scenes in the final third of the film, which reminds him, and us, of how dispassionate he can be. That is why the soldier, who killed defending his country in war, can now kill Sollozzo and the corrupt Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), another example of the inauthenticity of appearances, for his family at war on U. S. soil between competing business factions. After McCloskey breaks his jaw, a wound sustained in this new war, Pacino’s face swells, and he takes on some of his father's jowly appearance, and of Brasi’s, becoming more grotesque, revealing on the outside his uglier inner nature. Where does he murder his enemies? – in a seemingly sedate, safe family restaurant. Again, the setting, where food is served, a place which is supposed to sustain life, is the place where life violently ends.
Michael’s escape to Sicily is necessary until the family can manipulate the political system and have him return to America. But, it is also a symbolic interlude in the story. Michael returns to his Italian roots, and his marriage to the Sicilian Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) is also indicative of Michael joining with his Italian heritage. The beautiful land that we see has its negative connotations. In the town of Corleone Michael asks where are all the men, and he is told they are all dead from vendettas. The island’s inherent violence stands side by side with its surface beauty and family traditions. Visually, Coppola makes this point when he has Michael and Apollonia walking seemingly safe alone on a back road. But, then we see the people from her village following them like chaperones. After that, Michael’s bodyguards take up the rear of this Italian procession, their guns strapped over their shoulders. One of these men, Calo (Franco Citti), tells Michael that in Sicily, “women are more dangerous than shotguns.” So, underneath Apollonia’s outward beauty, just like the country she comes from, resides the threat of danger. Michael cannot escape that threat, and he has to be moved for protection, but treachery is everywhere. Fabrizio (Angelo Infanti), supposedly one of his bodyguards, betrays Michael, and puts a bomb in his car. But, Apollonia wants to drive the car, and is blown up, thus welding the contrasting aspects of love of family and culture with violence in one image.
When Michael returns to America, he brings this duality with him. He wants to be a family man, and he succeeds. He marries Kay and they have children. But, he now is the head of the criminal Corleone family, with his ailing father his counselor. When he goes to Las Vegas, he rejects the party girls offered to him by his brother Fredo (John Cazale), respecting his marriage to Kay. He must honor the pledge made by his father that there will be no breaking of the peace between the five gangster families in New York while The Don still lives. But then Vito dies, again in a very ironic scene. He is in his garden (references to Eden?), with his innocent young grandchild. Vito appears as a playful, doting grandfather. But what kind of game does he play? He puts an orange peel in his mouth, grunts like a monster, and scares the child, causing him to cry. Again, we see how his love of family and his threatening nature live side by side inside the man. After Vito dies, Michael carries out the executions of the heads of the family’s rivals in one of the most powerfully ironic pieces of film editing in motion picture history. The camera cuts back and forth as Michael renounces Satan, standing as the godfather for Connie’s baby (the infant Sofia Coppola playing the part) in church during the administering of the Catholic sacrament of baptism, and we see the murders he has ordered. The holy actions of the priest are placed in counterpoint to the killers going through their rituals of assembling their weapons and preparing for their deadly activities. There is irony within irony here, as Clemenza hides his lethal rifle inside a flower box. We again see the evil hiding underneath a benign exterior, as is the case with the lives of these people. The hit-man Neri (Richard Bright) dresses as a police officer, a symbol of law and justice, to get close to Barzini’s car, and then guns him down on the steps of what is actually the New York County Supreme Court building in Manhattan. The very symbols of what we call civilization turn out to be phony facades, like fake buildings on a movie back-lot. Even worse, they are propped up on a foundation of corruption and violence.
In addition to the above, the film employs other images and words to make its argument that what is going on here is not restricted to mobsters. The characters many times say that what they are doing is just what other businessmen do. Sollozzo tells Tom Hagen that he is a businessman and the violence part is really a big expense, sort of like a boss talking about the costs incurred by operating a company. Hagen and Michael talk about carrying out their affairs without passion, saying it’s not personal, “it’s strictly business.” When Vito Corleone meets with the other criminal leaders, it resembles a conference of corporate CEO’s (and in The Godfather, Part II, a similar scene takes place, only then it has evolved into a meeting of actual business heads gathering together, with Michael as one of them, reflecting by association their complicity in nefarious activity). When Tessio (Abe Vigoda) tells Hagen that his betrayal of Michael was only business, that he always liked him, the translation is that making money off of people trumps caring about them. The most damning statement of the trappings of legitimacy comes from Michael. Kay says he is naïve about comparing his father to men in high political office because a senator or a president doesn’t have men killed. His response is, “Oh, whose being naïve, Kay?”

In the scene where Paulie is shot in the car, the camera films the killing at a distance. In the upper left hand section of the screen is The Statue of Liberty. The shot recalls Bonasera’s believing in the idea of what America stands for. But the statue is way in the distance, implying that the ideals of the United States are receding into the background, and the unjust acts are now in the foreground. When Michael learns about the shooting of his father, he goes to a phone booth to contact Sonny. But, he shuts the booth’s door on Kay, cutting her off from knowing what is actually going on. When The Don comes home from the hospital, his subordinates close the door of his bedroom, isolating their mobster discussion from the family members preparing food to celebrate his return. The movie ends with Michael in his office as he accepts his ascension to power as the new Don Corleone. Neri closes the door on Kay, showing how the evil part of Michael creates a divide, cutting him off from the love of family that his father, and his heritage, supposedly cherished. In essence, he is shutting the door on the redeeming hope that America represents.

The next movie is Inherit the Wind.