Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Revenant

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

I decided to discuss a more recent film for a change. This 2015 movie, which won director Alejandro G. Iñάrritu his second consecutive Oscar, and Leonardo DiCaprio his first, for Best Actor, presents many themes, including loss, love of family, but especially humankind’s place in this world and its relationship to a higher power.
The first scene is a dreamy shot showing us the family of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who sleeps beside his resting Pawnee spouse and his son. The peaceful shot switches to the violent one of the burning image of their teepee and Glass holding the body of his wife. We hear Glass’ words to his son which are repeated in the movie and which convey the basic survival instinct of all animals in in their pure, primitive state: “You don’t give up, you hear me? As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe … keep breathing.”
We then come out of the dream and we see and hear the flow of a river, the water being the source of all life on earth. But then we see a man’s footsteps, making its imprint on creation, and he carries a gun, a weapon of extreme destruction, making its impact on nature. The man carrying the gun is Glass and he is hunting with his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Native Americans many times have names which show their connection to the natural environment, as is the case here. And, despite the use of a gun, Glass is only trying to do what all animals do, which is acquire food to live. But then we have an escalation of humans out-of-sync with nature in the form of the group of trappers who kill animals not for survival, but for their pelts, for profit. There follows an ambush on their camp by Indians known as the Ree, and we see that Glass is actually working with the trappers as a guide. He goes to the camp and helps fight off the attackers. He is almost killed himself, but one of the trappers saves him. Those who survive take the pelts they can gather and escape on a boat.

First off, the remarkable cinematography of this fight scene should be noted. The camera is right in the middle of the action, and the audience feels as if it is literally one of the participants, spinning around and being part of the battle. Another point is that Glass is a man moving between worlds, and goes back and from one to the other, similar to Dustin Hoffman’s character in Little Big Man. He is a white man who had a Native American wife, and has a son with her, who has, in a way, been dragged into his father’s situation. Later when asked why he left the Native American world, he says he became tired of the quiet, which shows how he doesn’t seem to fit in well in that life. Or, possibly it was too difficult for him to be in a culture that reminded him of the loss of his wife. From the start, Glass inhabits a magical realism type of space between dreams and reality. And, as we see later, he goes between the realm of the living and that of the dead. He is a character who transcends narrow boundaries of perceiving the world. His character is based on a real person named Hugh Glass, but it is interesting that the name is appropriate for the story, since he reflects the various facets of life around him. Ironically, despite his name, he certainly is not breakable.

The chief of the Native Americans who attacked the trappers is named Elk Dog (Duane Howard). White men have taken his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) and he is searching for her. The importance of family that is essential to Glass is mirrored here in the Native American people. Elk Dog wants the pelts so he can trade them for horses to find his child. He goes to a camp of Frenchmen to trade for the horses. The French are just as unscrupulous as the other white men. They put on a pretense of being religious by praying, but they are there to plunder the land, and, hypocritically call the Indians savages. They originally do not want to live up to their exchange with the Ree, but relent. The whites call the Indians “savages,” but the Ree violence is a reaction to what the whites have initiated. Elk Dog says they may have taken the pelts, but they are not like the Americans, who “have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.” One of the Frenchmen admits, in a way vocalizing a theme of the movie, that when it comes to survival and protecting one’s family, “We are all savages.”

The character of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is Glass’ nemesis. When Glass returns to the camp to help fight off the Ree, he shouts out that they should forget the pelts and just leave. His attitude is one of basic survival for his comrades. But, Fitzgerald’s priority is protecting the pelts, not the men. His selfishness is immediately evident. He is at odds with Glass on how they should continue, wanting to stay on the river, while Glass knows that the Ree are more dangerous there, and wants to go on land. Their leader is Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who sides with the experienced Glass. Fitzgerald also has suffered a loss, which is not that of the loss of others. His animosity to Indians comes from his being partially scalped once. So, his loss is restricted to himself. He accuses Glass, having been married to a Pawnee, of tipping off the Ree, and suggests Hawk, being a “savage,” may have conspired against the white trappers. Fitzgerald brings up a rumor that Glass once killed an Army officer. In a later dream flashback, we realize that it was American soldiers that killed Glass’ wife and threatened his son. He tells Henry at that point in the story when, again, asked if he killed an officer, that “I just killed a man who was trying to kill my son.” For Glass, the distinctions between the two worlds do not matter, since he deals with individuals, not groups, based on the immediate situations, and therefore, prejudicial thinking is alien to him. After Henry orders Fitzgerald to cease his accusations, Glass rebukes Hawk for speaking up against Fitzgerald’s words. He says, “They don’t hear your voice. They just see the color of your face.” Glass wants his son to understand how to exist in the place he finds himself, and among the whites, that environment is one where bigotry lives.
While in the woods hunting, a bear attacks Glass, clawing and biting him. Gravely wounded, he shoots it, which does not stop the grizzly, but he still has the stamina to knife the creature, finally killing the animal. Yes, humans in the wild (it’s called that for a reason – it is not basically a tame environment) many times have to fight to continue living. But, let’s not forget that the bear had its cubs nearby, and rightly saw the human as a predatory threat. Doesn’t the animal have as much right to fight for survival? And, the idea of caring for a family is an inter-species concern, not just a human one.
Hearing the gunshot brings the other men. Fitzgerald, again only thinking of himself, says Glass shouldn’t have fired the weapon, since it would bring more predators. Henry knows a bit about medical treatment since his father was a doctor, and he does his best to patch up Glass, who is close to death. Henry attempts to carry Glass back to an outpost, but the trail is too arduous. Urged on by Fitzgerald, the captain almost decides to put Glass out of his misery, but relents. He promises a reward for those who stay behind with the wounded man until the others can send help. Hawk and a young man named Bridger (Will Poulter) volunteer and forfeit their share of the reward. Fitzgerald wants his share and those of the other two men for him to stay behind. Bridger (whose name suggests he is like Glass, living between two places) wants to protect Glass. He gives him his canteen which has a spiral drawn on it. Later, he leaves food for an Indian woman, which shows his sense of caring for humanity as a whole. When Fitzgerald is alone with Glass, he says that he should let Fitzgerald put him down for the sake of Hawk. He tells Glass to blink his eyes if he agrees. Glass holds his eyes open as long as he can, and when he closes them, Fitzgerald allows his conscience to try to suffocate Glass. Hawk comes by and tried to stop him, but Fitzgerald stabs him to death as Glass grunts in outrage, since his wounds prevent him from speaking. Fitzgerald hauls Hawk’s body off into the woods, and convinces Bridger that he saw Ree braves close by, that they probably killed Hawk, and that they have to leave Glass behind and quickly escape. Fitzgerald pulls Glass into a shallow grave he had been digging already to dispose of Glass’ body.
As was mentioned above, Glass travels between the world of the living and the dead. The title of the film refers to someone who comes back from the dead as a ghost or spirit. His wounds should have killed him, but Glass pulls himself out of his grave, resurrecting himself, and drags himself along. He finds Hawk’s body, and says he is with him, which are the first words of the story. It’s possible it is his desire for revenge against Fitzgerald that keeps him going against all odds. He uses his skills to keep alive. He finds a bear pelt for warmth. He uses brush and sparks from striking rocks to start a fire. He ignites gunpowder to seal a neck wound. He catches and eats raw fish, and consumes a tiny bit of meat off of an animal’s skeletal carcass. He then encounters a Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud) who has killed some buffalo. Since in his condition Glass is not a threat, speaks Pawnee, and tells Hikuc that men have killed his son and left him to die, the Native American gives him food.  Hikuc, too, has lost his family, to a rival Sioux tribe. But, he says, “My heart bleeds. But revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” He allows Glass to ride on his horse with him. As they sit together, catching nature’s nourishing moisture on their tongues, they seem at peace and one with their surroundings for a brief time. Hikuc applies Native American medicine to Glass’ wounds and builds him a sweat lodge.

When Glass emerges from the womb-like shelter, again it is like he is reborn, leaving death behind once again. The Indian is not there but left him provisions. He starts to travel, and comes across the body of Hikuc, who has been hanged by French fur trappers. He has a sign hung on him that ironically labels him a savage. The man who has mercifully helped Glass, was killed savagely by so-called civilized men. Glass comes across the Frenchmen’s camp. They are the ones who have abducted Powaqa, who Glass sees is being raped by one of the Frenchmen. Glass helps her escape, takes a horse, and rides off. After setting up camp, he is attacked, ironically, by the Ree, who are searching for Powaqa. He rides over a ledge. Again, he survives by having his fall broken by trees, but his horse dies. Glass cuts open the dead horse, removes its organs, and climbs inside (remember Han saving Luke in The Empire Strikes Back?) so he can weather the blizzard around him. So, we have another womb symbol here, and Glass emerges resurrected here, too. He also has visions of his wife and his son. In a sense, they are also revenants, experienced by Glass as he travels between the living and the dead. That is why Glass says he is with Hawk, because for him the dead are always with him. His state of being does not restrict him into only one state of being, and that way of existence makes him strong. The dream spirit of his wife urges him with her words that his son repeated to him and which Glass has said to Hawk: “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”
On their journey to the fort outpost, Bridger discovers that Fitzgerald lied about Ree closing in on them, justifying leaving Glass behind. Fitzgerald talks about his father: “He weren’t a religious man, you know? If you couldn’t grow it, kill it, or eat it, he just old didn’t believe in it.” He says after a hunting trip went wrong, and Comanche attacked his group, he was alone and told his son he found God, who for his dad, was in the form of a fat squirrel. For him, the animal represented the “glory and sublimity of mercy.” He killed and ate the animal. Fitzgerald inherited this limited vision of the universe, which Glass, Bridger, and Hikuc transcend because they look beyond basic selfish wants to the need to care for others. 

Bridger feels guilty about leaving Glass behind, and goes along with his companion’s story about moving on after Glass died when the two arrive at the fort outpost. A French fur trapper from the camp Glass attacked shows up at the fort and has the canteen Bridger gave Glass, and which Glass lost at the French camp. Captain Henry now knows Fitzgerald lied about Glass, and uses the Frenchmen’s directions to search for Glass, who his men find, bring back to camp, and have the doctor tend to. Fitzgerald has escaped with money from the fort’s safe. Glass backs up Bridger’s story, saying the young man didn’t know about Hawk or Fitzgerald’s deception about the Ree. Glass wants to go after Fitzgerald. He likens him to an animal, not a man, because he is afraid and will, like a scared elk, run deep into the woods. “I got him trapped, he just doesn’t know it yet,” he says.
Glass and Captain Henry go looking for Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, the fugitive kills Henry, and Glass comes across his body. We now have another example of a type of resurrection. Glass cuts off a large split branch of tree and uses it to prop up Henry on his horse. It makes it look as if he is alive. In a way, Glass symbolically brings him back to life in order to fulfill the destiny of these characters. Glass, looking dead, lies astride his horse, pretending to be Henry. When Fitzgerald shoots at the already dead Henry, and approaches, Glass, again coming back to life, shoots and wounds Fitzgerald. A brutal fight ensues between the two, with Glass poised to end Fitzgerald’s life. The latter says, “You came all this way for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it Glass? ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon and bring your boy back.” At this point, Glass seems to understand what Hikuc said. Glass answers, “No. Revenge is in God’s hands. Not mine.” He then throws Fitzgerald’s wounded body into the river, as if leaving it up to God to exert his will. Which He seems to do, as Elk Dog and his men come along with his daughter, Powaqa. The chief grabs Fitzgerald’s body and he finishes the scalping on him, killing him. Glass is spared for doing his good deed of rescuing the chief’s daughter.

Earlier there is a shot of an immense stretch of snow-covered plains bordered by giant mountains. Glass is just a speck moving along, as are we all, on creation’s giant canvass. There are many camera views from the ground up toward the treetops and the vast sky above. It’s as if this film is reminding us of the small parts we play in an unfathomable interlocking story.

The next film is Full Metal Jacket.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Breaker Morant

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

Can a government wage war to kill the enemy while at the same time enforce laws against murder? The quick answer is “yes,” a soldier should not kill civilians or prisoners. But, what happens when the enemy is not wearing a uniform, and the adversary could be anyone? And, can a soldier, who is supposed to take orders, defy those orders and act on his own? (Think A Few Good Men). This 1980 film directed by Australian Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) poses these questions in this story of three Australian soldiers on trial in 1902 for murder while fighting for the British in South Africa during the Boer War. This movie actually goes beyond the questions noted above. It really explores human nature’s dual inclinations to be civilized and also to be destructive.

The title character is Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward). He received his nickname for “breaking” horses. So, he takes a wild animal and domesticates it, his name indicating his desire to turn chaos into order. We learn through the course of the story that he is a poet who uses rhymes to bring structure and related patterns to word usage. He is also a singer, (symbolically showing the desire for harmony), and this fact, along with his being a poet, shows his connection to a civilized society which values art. However, during the course of the trial, we learn that he is not above the urge for vengeance. He complies with the violence inherent in war, including executing prisoners, especially after the Boers savagely kill his friend and future father-in-law. This ironic divergence in one person shows the conflicting drives in humans between barbarism and civilized behavior, which is especially tested in times of war.
Morant along with Lt. Peter Hancock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are on trial in Pretoria South Africa for murdering captured Boers and a German missionary. We already know that the international situation has influenced the legal proceedings because the British Lord Kitchener (Allan Cassell) has told the prosecutor, Major Charles Bolton (Rod Mullinar), that the German Kaiser has protested the killing of his country’s citizen. The government has sent any possible soldiers to testify for the defense to India. Later, when Witton asks Morant  why is the army prosecuting them, Morant says, “They have to apologize for their damned war. They’re trying to end it now, so they need scapegoats.” Lord Kitchener puts the blame for this rigged action on the Germans, saying, “Needless to say, the Germans couldn’t give a damn about the Boers. The diamonds and gold of South Africa they’re after.” The prosecutor sarcastically observes this rationalization of thwarting justice when he says, “They lack our altruism, sir.” In addition, they have assigned as defense attorney Major J. F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), an attorney with no experience in these matters. The gallows humor appears in the film when Thomas says he dealt with wills, to which Hancock says, “Might come in handy.”
Through rituals and scene placement the film highlights the ironic contrast between the desire for order and culture in the midst of a wartime environment. The killing of a scout is placed in counterpoint to a band playing music in the town square, again echoing the harmony of music and thus civilization at the time of the death which disrupts the local world order. When the soldiers in the battlefield settle in for the night in their tents they sing out the daily chant of “hip, hip hooray,” an ironic celebratory salute given the dire situation in which they find themselves. The troops marching into the courtroom, as well as the prisoners moving in formation back and forth into their cells, the saluting, along with the laws espoused in the courtroom are all undercut by the security-threatening violence of war waged around the participants. A truly ironic scene occurs when the Boers attack the camp. The command releases the Australian prisoners, who are charged with murdering Boers, to kill the attacking enemy, which they do with massacre-like precision using a Gatling gun, and then locks them back up for killing that same enemy.

One can argue that killing someone shooting at you is self-defense and that shooting unarmed prisoners is another matter entirely. However, in this story that differentiation is blurred. The events are told in flashback. The Boers kill and mutilate the body of Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), Morant’s best friend, introducing the idea that Morant acted in revenge. (Is the killing of Hunt acceptable since he was the enemy, but is then mutilating him on the battlefield a war crime?) Morant says that Hunt previously killed prisoners in front of him based on the orders of Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball), (which originated from Lord Kitchener) who told Hunt “the gentleman’s war is over,” raising the question can there even be such a thing as a “gentleman’s war?” Bolton, the prosecutor asks Morant under what “rules of engagement” did he act under when shooting an unarmed prisoner. Again, we see the introduction of the idea of “rules” in the midst of barbaric acts. Morant’s response shows his disdain for the hypocrisy of decorum in a war zone when he says he acted under “Rule 303,” which is the caliber of his rifle.
 The prosecution however continues to argue the fine lines of behavior. For instance, one prisoner, lined up in front of a firing squad ordered by Morant, breaks away from the formation, and attacks one of the men on trial, Witton, who shoots the Boer. This act of violence is considered acceptable, because the man, who ironically was about to be executed anyway by the firing squad, now is killed by reason of self-defense. Here, the rules change within a matter of seconds. According to the other defendant, Hancock, he feels he had to adapt to the changing landscape of war in order to perform his duties as a soldier. In the instance of the killing of the German missionary, the Reverend Heese, Hancock says he has an alibi since he was with two Afrikaner women at the time of the clergyman’s death, and the defense enters into evidence two affidavits from the women verifying the testimony. But, later Hancock admits to his fellow outraged inmate, Witton, that it was a lie, and he did kill Heese. The cleric was told not to speak with the other prisoners for security reasons, but did so anyway, claiming they sought religious comfort. Morant believed Heese to be a Boer spy and ordered Hancock to kill him. Morant says, “It’s a new kind of war, George. A new war for a new century. I suppose this is the first time the enemy hasn’t been in uniform. They’re farmers. They come from small villages, and they shoot from behind walls and from farmhouses. Some of them are women, some of them are children, and some of them … are missionaries, George.” Morant’s chilling words speak to us today, being relevant to the war in Vietnam and the one against terrorists, raising the question, how can one be sure who the real enemy is?

In a private conversation, we hear that Kitchener did in fact tell Hamilton to issue the order to shoot all prisoners in order to break the Boers. But since the war is reaching an end, the politics, and the rules, have changed. England has to make peace with the Afrikaners and keep the Germans out of the war on the side of the Dutch South Africans. So, he basically orders Hamilton to lie on the stand, which he does, saying that he had never issued such orders to Captain Hunt. The lengths to which England goes to sacrifice the accused topples George Witton’s passion for the British Empire. He comes to feel that the British government forces Australians to fight its imperialist war and then treats them as criminals. The defense attorney Thomas, stressing the backstabbing nature of what has happened to the defendants, says, “I do know that orders that one would consider barbarous have been issued in this war. Before I was asked to defend these soldiers, I spent some months destroying Boer farmhouses, burning their crops, herding their women and children into stinking refugee camps where thousands of them have already died from disease … And soldiers like myself and these men have had to carry them out however damned reluctantly.”
In the end, the three soldiers are found guilty and sentenced to death. Witton’s sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, probably because of his “self-defense” killing of the man from in front of the firing squad. Interestingly, they are found not guilty of the death of the missionary, the one truly questionable act performed, and exonerated based on perjury. In a magnificently ironic scene, Morant and Hancock walk up a hill, briefly in brotherly hand-in-hand, with the backdrop of a beautiful sunrise behind them. They sit in chairs, as if waiting to be served some tea at a mannerly British get-together, and then are killed by a firing squad which lawfully executes them for ordering the same act that the squad is directed to carry out. Morant, expressing the betrayal he feels he has endured, and which suggests he may have ironically been fighting for his real enemy, recites the phrase from the bible which reads, “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
At one point, the condemned men’s lawyer, Thomas, comments on the confounding essence of war: “The fact of the matter is that war changes men’s natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations. Situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.”

Perhaps the only way to avoid having to wrestle with the difficult questions that war forces us to confront is to avoid waging it in the first place.

The next film is The Revenant.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


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

Yes, I’m writing about another Alfred Hitchcock directed film. But, even here, in this 1942 effort, where the dialogue is a bit corny and the plotting is not up to the suspense level of other Hitchcock movies, there are still interesting aspects to consider.
 The title refers primarily to the character Fry played by Norma Lloyd, who is the operative used by a subversive group who hope to eventually topple the American democracy and replace it with a totalitarian one. But, Fry frames the story’s hero, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), and the authorities believe him to be the saboteur who set a U. S. Air Force plant on fire. (Is “Kane” an ironic play on the biblical Cain, who killed his brother, and this Kane must now do penance by setting things right?)  The opening credits show a large shadow of a person projected onto the outside walls of the plant. Later, a concessions person waiting for the workers to come out for lunch, says, “Here come the walls,” as they open. Could the shadowy figure represent a foreign threat to the country, possibly fascism (considering that the film was released at the time of the Nazis)? The shadow could symbolize how the enemy is disguised, among us, but passing as a respectable countryman. The doors opening could also indicate that the nation dropped its guard and let the attacker inside. (The concession person is accompanied by a woman putting on lipstick, a small tip to the idea of disguising oneself?)

The “appearances are deceiving” theme plays out in the film. Fry pretends to be a worker at the plant. When the blaze that he set breaks out, he hands the unsuspecting Barry a fire extinguisher, on the surface a fire fighting tool, but which Fry filled with gasoline. Barry hands it to his friend to stop the fire, but the worker becomes engulfed in flames. When the authorities discover that Barry handed the deadly extinguisher to the man, they pursue Barry, who is tipped off by the mother of the dead employee. Barry, an innocent man who appears to be guilty, is on the run (a recurring Hitchcock theme – The 39 Steps, North by Northwest). He hitches a ride with a truck driver, a complete stranger, from whom one would not expect help, who seems to take a liking to Barry, and later helps him escape the authorities.

At the plant, before the fire, Fry dropped an envelope with money, which we later realize is payment for his sabotage, and Barry finds out that Fry works at Deep Springs Ranch. The truck driver drops him off there. The place appears beautifully scenic and non-threatening, but again, the surface look is deceptive. The owner, Tobin (Otto Kruger) says he doesn’t know Fry. While he excuses himself, the man’s toddler grandchild pulls letters out of a pocket that has Fry’s name on it, saying he is going to Soda City. There is more deception here, since Tobin cloaks himself with the innocence of the child, whose pure nature contrasts with how she ironically reveals the sinister workings of the older man. Tobin returns, reveals that he recognized Barry, and called the police. The villain states that his deception will be believed because he is the one who comes off as respectable. He says “I am a prominent citizen, widely respected. You are an obscure workman wanted for committing an extremely unpopular crime. Now which of us do you think the police will believe?” Barry holds the child in front of him to shield him as he escapes. This action may seem dangerously manipulative toward the infant, but, symbolically, it implies that he, unlike Tobin, deserves being protected by a shield of innocence. He gets caught by police who put handcuffs on him, but he gets away.

After his escape from Deep Springs Ranch, Barry arrives at the home of Philip Martin (Vaughan Glaser), who is also not what he seems at first. He is blind, but as he tells Barry, “Don’t you know I can see a great deal farther than you can? I can see intangible things. For example, innocence.” He tries to get his relative, the model Patricia (Priscilla Lane) to help Barry. She also appears to be someone who will turn Barry in, but eventually is won over to his fight to clear himself and stop further attacks. When she changes her mind about Barry, she says “it’s a free country,” which emphasizes the virtue of a democracy versus a fascist country.
He cuts the handcuffs on a car radiator fan and its belt, and the two hook up with a circus train. The movie again presents the appearance versus reality theme. The odd looking and possibly scary Bones (Pedro De Cordoba), the Human Skeleton, and other performers, turn out to be helpful, and protect them from the police. Bones, emphasizing democracy as opposed to the totalitarian-loving Tobin, puts helping the strangers to a vote. He also says that good people stick with other good people when they are in trouble. The little person (Billy Curtis), who does not on the surface seem imposing, surprisingly, is the mean one. And, there is a pair of Siamese twins (Jeanne and Lynn Romer), one of which is nice, the other, nasty, perhaps, again, signifying the double nature of good and evil in the world.
The circus train drops them off at Soda City, something else that pretends to be something it is not. It looks like a ghost town, but they find a room that is a hideout for the bad guys. The stove in the place deceptively hides a communication device. They find a telescope which focuses on the Hoover Dam, the next target. Two men approach, and Pat escapes while Barry, now taking a page from his adversaries, pretends to be working for Tobin, since Barry’s face is in the news as the one suspected of setting the fire. The outfit that runs the espionage activity is in New York, and they bring Barry there. The duality in human nature is illustrated by one of these conspirators, the ironically named Freeman (Allen Baxter). He says he admires Tobin because of his love for his grandchild, and he tells a story about how he, as a child, had golden curls, which implies that there was once innocence in this man.
 Pat went to the local sheriff, a person who you would think you can trust and who should abide by the law. Not in this story. He works for the saboteurs, and Pat is picked up and brought to New York, too. They find themselves in the mansion of Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger). Here is a woman who on the surface appears to be, like Tobin, a respected and charity-giving person, but who works with the villains as she fools the rich American citizens who attend her parties. Philip, based on what Barry had told him, exposed Tobin, so the Hoover Dam attack was out of the picture, so he fled to New York. He tells the others at Sutton’s home that Barry is not working for him. But, he says he makes a good patsy because, “He’s noble and fine and pure. So he pays the penalty that the noble and the fine and the pure must pay in this world: he’s misjudged by everyone.” The truly good person is not putting on any deceptive cover – he is what he appears to be. Tobin’s cynical statement argues that members of the public project their own failings onto a decent person, invalidating him, possibly out of envy for the qualities they can’t live up to. Tobin gives his critique on democracy when it is run by a passive, uninformed population when he says to Barry that he’s “a good American. Oh, there are millions like you. People who play along without asking questions. I hate to use the word stupid, but it seems to be the only one that applies. The great masses, the moron millions. Well there are a few of us unwilling to troop along, a few of us who are clever enough to see that there’s much more to be done than just live small, complacent lives, a few of us in America who desire a more profitable government. When you think about it, Mr. Kane, the competence of totalitarian nations is much higher than ours. They get things done.” Barry counters with his recent experiences with the decent people who helped him, and how they are the backbone of the country.

Barry escapes from the Sutton house when he sets off a fire alarm. The conspirators took Pat to an office building in Manhattan. To emphasize the evil intent of the villains contrasting with their surface respectability, one of the bad guys says that he hopes that the can get rid of Pat soon, because he has to take a relative to the philharmonic. Pat constructs a sign and drops it out of the window, alerting people on the ground that she needs help. In the meantime, Barry, having figured out that the next attack is at the Navy yard, goes there and encounters Fry, with whom he fights, but cannot stop from setting off a bomb which knocks the battleship on its side. Fry escapes. But, the other conspirators are apprehended at the office building where Pat dropped her sign. Hitchcock, as he will do in the scene at Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest, places dangerous action ironically at a place that symbolizes security and democracy. Here, Fry, the saboteur, tries to hide his republic-threatening self among the unsuspecting crowds at the Statue of Liberty. The “noble and fine and pure” Barry tries to save him as he hangs from the lamp of freedom, but Fry plunges to his death.

The dual nature of people is reinforced by how the film uses “fire” as a motif. It is destructive in the opening blaze that destroys the airplane plant. Again, Barry thinks he is fighting the flames when he hands the extinguisher to his friend, but instead he contributes to the man’s death with the gasoline filled tank. When Barry rides with the truck driver, the latter tells his passenger that he carries a fire extinguisher because he knows of someone who saved a friend in a car accident. This tale shows how fires can be put out with the right tool, and makes Barry feel even more guilty that in his case he inadvertently helped end his friend’s life by increasing, not putting out, a fire because of a deception. When he is held by the conspirators, one of his captors uses a fire-related term to imply inflicting duress on Barry when he says he wants to give him “time to roast.” Also, the supposedly benevolent warming stove in Soda City is a sham, containing the enemy radio inside of it. Of course, the saboteur’s name is Fry, echoing his destructive pyrotechnic bombs. But, the friendly truck driver smokes a cigarette, and in this pre-cancer awareness time, the fire here provides pleasure. Also, Barry asks for a cigarette which allows him to use the distraction to escape at one point. At Philip’s home, the heat from the fireplace dries out the rain-soaked Barry, and warms him. In this case, the fire is comforting, and Pat cuddles up to Barry when they are on the run outside to seek relief from the night’s cold air. And, Barry escapes the Sutton house by faking a fire, ironically using the fear of its danger for beneficial purposes.

The movie, despite its speechifying, corny love lines and abrupt ending, successfully develops the theme about the possibility of treachery hidden behind a seemingly benign appearance, and the need to consider innocence before assuming guilt.

The next film is Breaker Morant.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Good Will Hunting

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

This 1997 film, which won Oscars for its screenplay (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck), and for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams), poses several questions: What is success and what is failure?; Can one overcome the suffering experienced in life, and move forward?; What constitutes an intimate relationship?; How do we get to really know one another instead of relying on superficial assumptions? Why is experiencing the world necessary as opposed to thinking you can understand it by being detached? Pretty large issues to tackle in a two-hour movie. But, by focusing on a limited number of personal interactions, this story addresses these topics.
The primary way the film takes on these issues is by focusing on one complex individual and those few persons surrounding him. The title of the movie is, obviously, a play on words. Will Hunting (Damon) is the main character, but is he “good,” or at least can he find the good inside of him and what’s good for him? Is he capable of hunting for the “good will” he may achieve? I know, more questions. Over the opening credits, there are multiple simultaneous reduced shots of Will, which look like facets of a diamond, as if to imply he is as precious as a rare gem. It also suggests that there are many aspects of his personality, and resulting possibilities that can occur in his life. We soon find out why he is a man of many parts. He works as a janitor, a necessary job, but one which many people can perform. However, he cleans floors in the mathematics building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the top tech university in the United States, and is able to solve (when no one is looking), amazingly complex proofs Professor Gerald (Gerry) Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) posts on the board in the hallway.

The blue-collar life he enjoys, but also in which he hides out, consists of best friend Chuckie (Affleck), along with Morgan (Casey Affleck), and Billy (Cole Hauser). The film plays into our prejudices, because we first assume that these fellows, chasing after girls and drinking at bars is wasteful, unaccomplished activity. But, Will’s genius aside, they engage in smart, witty banter. And, they are good friends. As psychologist Sean Maguire (Williams) later says to his ex-college roommate, Gerry, who calls Will’s pals “retarded gorillas,” any one of them “would, if he asked them to, would take a fucking bat to your head, okay? It’s called loyalty.” For Will, the safety he feels among his friends, in the tough neighborhood of South Boston, known as Southie, is important because, as we later learn, he was an orphan who was brutalized by his foster father.
But, Will carries a great deal of anger because of his past. He attacks a young man in a schoolyard, an appropriate place since the bully beat him up as a child. When the police come to break up the brawl, Will’s anger is uncontrolled and spills over to others, and he hits a cop. He defends himself in court, quite articulately since he has read so many law books, along with volumes of others at lightning speed in many areas. The judge reads a list of prior offenses, including theft, mayhem, and assault, attesting to how his wounded rage threatens and subverts his Southie life. In the past, he argued his way out of prison, but the judge says he hit a policeman, and sentences him to jail time.
 Gerry saw Will writing on the hallway blackboard, wrongly concludes through preconceived beliefs that he is scrawling graffiti, but realizes that the young man is the math genius who solves proofs who had not revealed himself. He goes to the university custodial office to find out Will’s identity. There, we see some prejudicial social antagonism. Gerry comes off a bit stuffy saying he was looking for someone who worked in “my building,” as if it belonged to him. The workers, demonstrating some class hostility, ask which is “your building,” and give themselves the title of “Dr.” to show contempt for the designation. (Contrasting sequential scenes showing Gerry at a snooty intellectual gathering and the youths playing and watching baseball also emphasize class distinctions). Gerry is able to work a deal with the judge so that he can have Will work on math problems, but he also has to see a therapist. Will dismisses the therapy part, but must play along to keep out of jail. His way of not dealing with his problems, or anybody who tries to penetrate his emotional defenses, is to go on the offensive. The first psychologist (played by writer George Plimpton) is a stuffy academic type, an obvious target for the smart but working class Will, who undermines the therapist by insinuating he is a covert homosexual with designs on the patient. The second tries hypnosis, which seems ludicrous to the brainy, strong-willed Will, who breaks into the song, “Afternoon Delight,” supposedly under a trance. In these scenes, we witness Will’s rebelliousness against any authority that tries to force him into what he considers a submissive state, a situation he associates with his foster father.

Out of desperation, Gerry approaches Sean because he also grew up in Southie. Sean appears to be aiming lower in his professional life than his intellect would warrant as he taches psychotherapy to bored community college students. His relationship with Gerry is an echo of Will’s situation, in that the former practicing therapist is caught between a life for which he has settled and one which challenges and can possibly satisfy him more. There is an emotional reason why Sean has withdrawn to a degree from his former life. He lost his wife, who he saw as his soul mate, to cancer. But, the film, through Sean, questions what is success. Gerry later says that Will has an incredible talent, and he doesn’t want Sean to let the young man think that it is okay to fail. But that failure is measured by Gerry’s rat race of a life where he feels he must constantly show he is the best in his field. Sean says to him “That’s why I don’t come to the goddamned reunions, ‘cause I can’t stand that look in your eye. Ya know, that condescending, embarrassed look. You think I’m a failure. I know who I am, and I’m proud of what I do. It was a conscious choice. I didn’t fuck up. And you and your cronies think I’m some sort of pity case.” In one scene he points out that just because somebody is famous in his field, it doesn’t guarantee that he is a successful human being. He brings up Ted Kaczynski, who did “brilliant work in mathematics. Specifically bounded harmonic functions.” The man turned into the Unabomber.

Because Will feels that everyone except his best friends are out to attack him, his default mode is to attack. When he meets Sean, he pseudo-analyzes him by concluding that a painting done by Sean shows he married the wrong woman. Sean shows his insecurity and makes the matter worse by also being hostile, and threatens to “end” the youth if he “disrespects” his wife again. Sean, however, agrees to meet Will for another session, after a period of contemplation. The speech he gives to Will in the park shows a wisdom in a script far beyond Damon and Affleck’s age at the time. It illustrates the inadequacy of book learning divorced from experience, and argues for the complexity of humans that we must work to understand, instead of summing them up in a superficial pigeon hole. He says Will can quote Shakespeare on the topic of war, but has not been in one, and doesn’t know what it’s like to have your friend “gasp his last breath looking to you for help.” He may quote a sonnet about love, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to care for someone so much, that it meant being there for her forever, “through anything. Through cancer.” He never experienced “sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors can see in your eyes that the terms ‘visiting hours’ don’t apply to you.” He drives home how disrespectful it is to superficially judge another when he says to Will, “you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine.” That would be as erroneous as Sean saying he understood Will’s life as an orphan because he had read Oliver Twist. Sean correctly tells Will that he can’t understand him from a book, but Will doesn’t want to talk about who he is, because he is “terrified” of what he might say.
The therapy does progress, as Sean presents a model of a healthy, intimate relationship when talking about his life with his wife. He says that he didn’t go to an important Boston Red Sox game because, as he told his friends, “I gotta go see about a girl.” Will met a girl, Skylar (someone Will should reach for, like the “sky?”), who is down-to-earth despite the fact that she inherited money to attend Harvard, and plans on going soon to California to study medicine at Stanford. They get along well, and joke a lot. For example, they share a first kiss while eating burgers, and Skylar makes a sexual innuendo by saying, “I think I may have gotten some of your pickle.” But, Will is not used to trusting others, always expecting something bad will happen to spoil things. He tells Sean why should he continue to see Skylar because she is smart and beautiful and perfect now, before he gets to know her; but, what if he sees her more, and she becomes a disappointment to him, and vice versa. Sean says that neither of them is perfect, but the real “question is whether or not you are perfect for each other?” Sean argues that Will needs a soul mate, that he can’t have a dialogue with the dead people who wrote great books. He needs to have intimacy and that won’t happen if he’s “always afraid to take the first step because all you see is every negative thing ten miles down the road.” He tells the youth that his current philosophy means “that way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know anybody. (But, Will throws those words back at Sean when the latter won’t discuss getting remarried because his wife is dead. He is trying to get the therapist to practice what he preaches).

Even though Skylar gets along well with Will’s friends, he can’t get over a feeling of insecurity, which ignites anger at the idea that his upbringing doesn’t make him good enough to be with her. He shields his orphan past by saying he has twelve brothers, and refuses to bring Skylar to his seedy home. When Skylar asks him to come to go to California with her, the fear of abandonment is too much a threat to Will, and he provokes an argument with Skylar. He says she will eventually marry a rich guy and tell the other trust fund girls how she went slumming once with him. Skylar questions his fixation on money, and shows how he has, again, not taken the time to dig below the surface to understand her. She reveals that she lost her father at age thirteen, and wishes she could give up any inheritance just to be with her dad for one more day. She tells him that she is just as afraid as he is that it might not work out between them, but she is willing to give it a chance. She criticizes him about not being honest about his past. He then hysterically tells her that she doesn’t want to know the truth about how his foster father put out cigarettes on his skin, and stabbed him with a knife. She cries hearing these facts, and says she wants to help him, which he twists into feeling pity for him. His shame is too great and tells her he doesn’t love her.
Will’s rebelliousness carries over to how he deals with the possible job offers that Gerry lines up for him. He has his friend Chuckie pretend to be him at an interview in a scene that satirizes how the lower-class Southie boy can get the corporate heads to pull two hundred dollars out of their pockets in order to retain the man they believe will use his brains to get them more wealth. Another example of how the film questions preconceived notions of success occurs in the interview at the NSA. The agency’s representative boasts how the outfit is the best at breaking codes, and says to Will why wouldn’t someone want to work for the NSA. Will’s great satirical speech shows the extent of collateral damage that occurs when greedy interests intervene under the guise of protecting the safety of the country. He says suppose he breaks a code and a village gets bombed killing “fifteen hundred people I never met, never had a problem with.” The politicians, who avoided combat in the past by joining the National Guard, send poor young guys to fight their war, and maybe one of them is his friend and he takes some “shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ‘cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks.” The war doesn’t lower gasoline prices, but instead the oil companies raise the cost of the fuel and his buddy can’t afford to drive to a job interview. Oil tankers spring leaks, killing sea life in the North Atlantic. So, Will says why not cut to the chase, and “shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe, and join the National Guard. I could be elected president.” So, he says, he’ll hold out for something better.

In a confrontation with Gerry, Will urges the professor not to push Will into Gerry’s version of accomplishment. He tells him there is a difference between providing direction and manipulating him. He says that Will as a child was damaged by the very people that were supposed to protect him, so he pushes others away as an adult before they will hurt him. In a session with Sean, Will argues there is honor in being a bricklayer and in being a janitor. Sean does not disagree, but wants Will to confront what he wants. He could have been a janitor anywhere, but he chose MIT, and secretly hides his true ambitions by solving mathematical problems, and then lies about not having done it. When Sean asks him what he wants out of life, the usually quick-answering Will has nothing to say. At a construction site where Will works with his friend, he tells Chuckie that he isn’t going to take any of the jobs offered because his plan is to stay where he is for the rest of his life and they’ll have kids who will play with each other. Chuckie says Will is his best friend, but if in twenty years, “You’re still livin’ here, comin’ over to my house, watchin’ the Patriots games, workin’ construction, I’ll fuckin’ kill ya.” When Will says that he doesn’t want to hear again about how he owes it to himself to get out, Chuckie counters with, “you owe it to me. Cuz tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50, and I’ll still be doin’ this shit. And that’s all right. That’s fine. I mean you’re sittin’ on a winnin’ lottery ticket. And you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit.” He tells Will that hanging around there is a “waste of your time.” Chuckie basically is telling Will that he isn’t being genuine when he says he doesn’t want something different in his life based on his talents. (It is interesting that Sean keeps buying lottery tickets because he has hope that winning will get him what he wants, despite the odds that the practical Gerry points out to him, but Will already has the winning ticket, but has to realize what his hopes are.)
In one of their last sessions, Will is able to confront his past abuse as he realizes that Sean also experienced beatings at the hands of his alcoholic father. The therapist finally gets Will to understand that he did not do anything wrong to warrant such torture, and tells him, “It’s not your fault.” He eventually tells Sean that he is taking one of the jobs Gerry set up, and feels that it is what he wants. Sean also learns from the experience with Will what he needs, and will be traveling, interacting with the world again, and maybe doing some writing. Will’s friends give him a beat up old car for his twenty-first birthday, which signifies that he is ready to move on. But, he tells Sean in a note that the job has to wait, because what he really is passionate about is Skylar, and he is going to California to “go see about a girl.”

The movie suggests that the key to dealing with the questions raised above relies on overcoming fears about what we may find when seeking what makes us who we are, what we want, and what is the true nature of others.

The next film is Saboteur.