Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 Films

With 2016 drawing to a close, I thought I would mention some noteworthy films that I saw this past year.
I found The Lobster, an uncomfortable movie to watch, to be an accomplished satire on the dehumanization of people. The characters appear to move and sometimes speak in robotic ways. They sometimes aren’t called by their given names, but instead receive nicknames, as people seem to be unable to know and relate to each other. Yet, being alone is condemned in a society that has forgotten how to be social. So, coupling with another is enforced, and if one fails, the dehumanization becomes complete, as individuals devolve, literally, into animals.
Captain Fantastic offers up excellent acting all around, headed up by the paternal figure played by Viggo Mortensen. The story explores what it would be like for a family to try to live completely off the grid, and whether that attempt is a positive choice, or if it is even possible in modern society. The premise allows for observations about the American way of living, and in particular, parenting.
Manchester by the Sea is a heartbreaking tale of a man so traumatized by a personal tragedy, that he has become completely alienated to the point that he is unable to communicate except through anger. He haunts his world like a ghost, and is unable to call any place his home, especially the town where his trauma took place. The death of his brother forces him to confront family responsibility, but his pain is a barrier to any success in this endeavor. His inability to connect with others manifests itself in other characters as well, resulting in an observation of society as a whole. It’s easy to see why Casey Affleck’s performance may be recognized at Oscar time.
An almost unseen, but excellent film, is The Confirmation. This movie, starring Clive Owen, explores the plight of the working class who were evicted from the American Dream following the recession of 2008 in the United States. Owen plays a struggling carpenter with a drinking problem as well as a cash-flow one. He also is divorced and has a shaky relationship with his son. The movie deals not only with the “confirmation” of religious beliefs, but also the ties between father and son, and with one’s own self-worth. Owen’s craftsman character tries to rebuild his life as he seeks gainful employment.
And of course, there is La La Land. This movie transcends the musical genre as it zeroes in on the struggle, the imagination, the thrill, and the heartache of success and failure in the dream factory that is Hollywood. With references to many actors and films, especially An American in Paris and Rebel Without a Cause, this wonderfully directed, scored, and photographed work celebrates and skewers the world of show business. Ryan Gosling is great, singing, dancing, and playing the piano. But, Emily Stone is transcendent. Look for this film to get the Best Picture nod at the Academy Awards.

Other films that dealt successfully with family relationships are Hell or High Water (great writing and terrific acting), a modern Western, and The Meddler, which uses symbolic elements to show people struggling to leave the past behind in an attempt to forge new bonds with estranged relatives and develop new connections to others.

If you enjoy scary, unsettling movies, check out the claustrophobic thrillers Green Room and Don’t Breathe.

And, if you’re going to make a superhero movie, make it super funny. Deadpool had more funny lines than any film in recent memory.

Have a cinematic Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

American History X

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

This 1998 film pulls no punches, in its violence, its political incorrectness, and in its language, which I will be quoting, despite my aversion for the “f” and “n” words, because the movie’s R-rated script fits the ferociousness of this story. It is a tale, primarily, about the influence of fathers, and father figures, on young, impressionable minds, and how that impact has the power to sway future generations toward anger and hate or peace and acceptance.
The plot here is not linear as there are times that the film, such as in the narrations of both Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) and his brother Danny (Edward Furlong), provides backstory to throw light on how past experiences molded future attitudes and behavior. The first image we see is that of the ocean’s waves breaking on the beach. It presents the location, which is Venice, California, but it also implies that there is ebb and flow in life, that there is change, in nature, and which can also occur in humans as they add new experiences onto old ones. Derek’s last name is “Vinyard,” which can imply that there is the possibility of growth, but that the right seeds must be planted to reap a good harvest.

The first scene we witness is in the past, and is a pivotal one in the life of Derek. He is having sex with his girlfriend, Stacey (Fairuza Balk), when Danny interrupts them because some African American youths are breaking into his brother’s truck while carrying guns. The sex scene allows the audience to see Derek’s naked chest, which sports a Nazi swastika tattoo. This image reveals his aversion for black people, and thus, we expect violence from him toward those outside. Because we don’t know the whole story, we can only suspect why the black youths target him. That is the point of the film. If a person only has incomplete information, and is not willing to hear the whole story, one acts out of ignorance. Derek has a gun and shoots one of the intruders to death and wounds another. Some may say he should have called the police, but others may argue that he had a right to defend his home and property, and if he delayed, the young men may have escaped. But, he then forces the wounded man to place his mouth on the curb, and then stomps down on his head, breaking the neck, and thus, killing his victim. This action is no longer self-defense, it is murder, but, because Danny does not testify to what has happened, Derek goes to jail for manslaughter, and does not receive a life sentence for murder. His incarceration affects his family, and causes him, as he later tells Danny, to change his outlook on life.
We later have a flashback which indicates one reason why Derek became a Neo-Nazi. When he was younger, his father, a firefighter, was shot to death by an African American junkie while he was on the job. Shortly after the death, he rants to a TV reporter, saying, “this country is becoming a haven for criminals so what do you expect? You know, decent, hard-working Americans like my dad are getting rubbed out by social parasites.” And he elaborates by saying those “parasites” consist of people with black, brown, and yellow skin. He is not only indicting African Americans who were born here, but also non-white immigrants. His selective reasoning, which ignores any crimes committed by white people, in only blaming certain ethnic groups for problems, shows when he says that his father’s death was race related: “Every problem in this country is race related, not just crime. It’s like immigration, AIDS, welfare, those are problems in them.” He goes on to say that, “They’re not white problems.” He dismisses the argument that these non-white people are victims of their environment. He says that minorities have come here to “exploit” this country, not to “embrace,” a slap to all those hard-working individuals who journeyed to America and love and serve it. He says that white Europeans flourished within a generation, and that hasn’t happened with black people, who continually blame their past. One character, a failed father figure, Murray (Elliott Gould), says that Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years, and it doesn’t mean they should forget about that part of their history. Of course, Derek doesn’t take into account that blacks didn’t come here of their own accord, as did European immigrants, but that white men kidnapped them so that they and their offspring would serve as slaves, He fails to mention that black people were also persecuted after the Civil War, and that those of color, because they appear different than whites, can easily be the recipients of bigotry continuously, as opposed to those white Europeans, who blended into the mainstream. But, the truck those black youths were breaking into that night belonged to Derek’s father who was killed by a drug dealing African American, and that individual horror drives his anger toward a generalized blaming of all blacks.
His attitudes are shared by others, then and now, and sometimes understandable given the parameters of certain experiences. Derek talks about how Venice was once a safe, respectable community. But, ethnic gangs arrived, and white kids became victims of violence. The film reveals how a white audience can identify with Derek and his white supremacist friends when they beat black youths on the basketball court, winning a bet that means that the blacks must now never return to that piece of turf. The music, the depiction of athletic moves, have us, ironically, routing for the white boys. Then the guilt kicks in, realizing we wanted these Neo-Nazis to win. This scene also fleshes out the bigger picture shown in the first scene, which without context, looks like some random black boys attacked white people. Those young men turn out to be the losers in the basketball game who were deluged with racial slurs and humiliated by the bigots on the court, and who, then, unfortunately, seek illegal reprisal.
The first scene depicted in the present shows a controversy over a paper that Danny has written for Murray’s English class. The teacher assigned the topic of writing about a civil rights activist. Danny wrote about Hitler and Mein Kompf. Murray is outraged, but Principal Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), an African American, and an exemplary father figure, sees beyond what Murray is unable to do, that the boy is bright like his brother, who Sweeney taught and considered a brilliant English Honors student. He says Danny learned hatred, so he can “unlearn it.” He also objectively points out that the teacher gave the students free reign to write on the topic, so he shouldn’t shut it down once he established the rules. While Danny is waiting outside as the two men talk, he picks up a tiny American flag sitting on the receptionist’s desk, and waves it. The symbol here signifies the American right of freedom of speech, and, thus, freedom of thought, but it also illustrates how, with that freedom, comes responsibility, and how that freedom can be exploited to propagate fear.

Sweeney tells Danny that he will be his English teacher in an independent study format, and says their course will not deal with the past, but with current events. He calls the class “American History X,” which reminds one of what Black Muslims, such as Malcolm X, used to show how white men stripped their background from them, and they needed to reconstruct their heritage. Sweeney wants Danny to explore his past by assigning him a paper that he must complete by the next morning on his brother Derek, and how his life has affected his family. The principal at this point knows that the older brother, who became Danny’s primary father figure after the death of their dad, has gone through changes, and he hopes that Danny will discover what his brother has learned, and will do likewise.

Because this film is not a one-sided argument, it presents a scene where a group of black boys intimidate a timid white student in the school bathroom. Danny happens to be in the stall, and comes out staring down the leader of the bullies, blowing cigarette smoke into his face. But, the two exchange hostile looks later at a playing field, and someone tells the black student about Danny’s white supremacist ties. That, together with the earlier scene, sets up the final confrontation of the movie. Sweeney, who does outreach work in the community, meets with the local police because he knows that Derek is being released this same day, and he briefs them on a man named Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), who preys on vulnerable kids looking for direction, and turns them into Neo-Nazis. He lets his recruits do all the overt activity, which insulates him from legal prosecution.
Derek comes home from prison with his hair grown out. He is concerned about his mother’s health, and doesn’t want Danny going to a fascist rally that evening. He gets a call from Sweeney who tells him of Danny’s controversial English paper, so we know he has been in contact with his ex-teacher, and we see that he is a different person from the one in the earlier flashback scenes. He tells Danny that Sweeney is a good teacher and should complete his assignments. Then there is a visitor in the huge form of Seth (Ethan Suplee). He wears an insect exterminator uniform. His profession mirrors his desire to treat non-white Protestant Americans the same way he deals with bugs. In the previously mentioned basketball game, he wears the number “88,” the eighth letter of the alphabet being “H,” and doubled here means “Heil Hitler” (thank you IMDB). His obesity here is placed in a context that shows him to be a creature who will devour anything in his self-centered path, oblivious to the needs or viewpoints of others. His size makes him appear threatening. He is a demonic father figure, as he interrupts Danny’s legitimate studying, and goads him to spout fascist anger as he films him (later Cameron talks about the beginning power of the Internet, and Seth’s video is probably headed there to influence those beyond the local neighborhood). He says to the boy he wants to know “what you have learned,” echoing Sweeney’s words about learning Nazi propaganda as a student. (Derek says to the black youth just before he kills him, “I’m gonna’ teach you a real lesson now,” showing how learning can have a demonic side if infested with hate). When Danny says that some ethnic types make be okay, Seth shuts him down, going to the extreme by saying they are all bad. He says that Cameron says that they don’t want to know “others,” as if it will pollute their way of thinking by associating with anyone who is not like them. His way of reinforcing compliance with his teaching is with the threat that Danny will be “pistol-whipped” if he doesn’t cooperate. While being recorded, Danny says about the possibly na├»ve belief that everyone should get along, “Save the rhetorical bullshit, Hillary Rodham Clinton, ‘cause it ain’t gonna fuckin’ happen.” Some may say that this line is a foretelling of the recent election.
Danny begins his paper by saying, “People look at me and see my brother.” This sentence shows the influence of older generations on the nurturing younger ones. He then recounts Cameron sending Derek out on a mission to rouse up the neighborhood malcontents. The young man’s speech warns against past, and as it turns out, current fears about letting unscreened illegal aliens into the United States who may cause citizens to lose their jobs, draw benefits from taxpayers, and possibly be a threat to national security. He tells the listeners that there are millions of illegal aliens in California, and that they receive billions of dollars in aid to which they have no legal right. He also says that the government spends millions locking up immigrant criminals that they should have screened out in the first place. He says instead of caring about “the tired, poor, and hungry” (which are noted on the Statue of Liberty) of other countries, we should concentrate on American citizens coming under those categories. But, he does not say vote, get elected, or demonstrate to change the system. Instead, he incites them to attack a grocery store run by Koreans who hired Mexicans, and which caused a couple of the youths to lose their jobs. They beat, vandalize, and terrorize those in the store. The youths undermine their own beliefs when they cover one Hispanic female with milk, saying sarcastically if they turn her white, she might be able to move up in life and get a better job. Ironically, this actually reveals that discrimination because of the color of her skin alone prevents her from becoming accepted and successful.

Danny relates a scene at a dinner with his family and the teacher, Murray, who at the time briefly dated their mother, Doris (Beverly D’Angelo). Derek makes an argument against the riots that occurred after the police incident in Los Angeles with African American Rodney King. He argues that the looting that took place was not politically or economically motivated, just an excuse to steal, and that the police had the right to do what they did because King acted criminally. But, again he pushes his arguments to extremes, shutting down all counter arguments raised by his sister, Davina (Jennifer Lien), telling her to “shut up” and knocking her around. He uses racial slurs against Murray, saying there is no way the teacher is going to have sex with his mother, and threatens him by saying he will cut off his “Shylock nose.” Murray doesn’t get what’s really going on with Derek, and thus isn’t able to reach him or later his brother. Doris sums it up by saying, “He’s just a boy. Without a father.” And, he has such anger because of how his dad died violently at a young age that he feels he needs to blame someone for that loss, and he is fertile ground for someone to exploit that hostility and point it toward someone to blame.
Back in current time, Derek finds Danny at the white supremacist rally, and hears Cameron continuing his indoctrination of his brother. He sends Danny out of the room and confronts Cameron, saying he is out of the movement, warns Cameron to leave his family alone, and that he is on to his lies. But Cameron says Danny will come to him, he won’t have to pursue him, because, he tells Derek, “I’m more important to him than you’ll ever be.” Again, Cameron is a negative father figure who children will seek out for guidance in the absence of other authority figures. Derek is so angry at Cameron trying to take over the parental role that he beats him up. He is able to escape Seth and the others. Danny confronts him, loudly banging his brother against a metal garage door which echoes the clash of loyalties he is experiencing.

Here is where Derek tells his brother of his imprisonment. Because his skinhead look and tattoos showed him to be a Nazi sympathizer, he was a target for the imprisoned blacks. He sought protection among the Neo-Nazis in jail. But he found friendship with a black inmate named Lamont (Guy Torry), who clowned around with him. Derek saw what it is like to be the minority person in prison. As Lamont told him, “You better watch your ass ‘cause you’re in the joint. You the nigger, not me.” When he is gets to know an individual, instead of a stereotype, an intelligent person such as Derek can open his mind to perceiving people differently. Lamont was serving six years for assault of a police officer because after stealing a TV, he accidentally dropped it on a policeman’s foot. Derek now realizes that there may be two kinds of justice for white people and non-whites. He had a shorter term for killing people than the black man for unarmed theft. He also sees his fellow Nazi inmates making drug deals with non-white convicts, and he questions their hypocrisy in their beliefs. His antagonism brings retribution. The skinheads rape and bang his head against the tie in the showers. He says to Danny that he thought he was unprotected, but he realized that Lamont told his black brothers to lay off. When he left, he said to Lamont he owed him, so he decides to cooperate with the police in a possible suicide mission to try and convince Cameron’s followers to end their ways. 

After Danny hears his brother’s story, they go back to their home and strip off the Nazi posters on the bedroom walls. It is like trying to “unlearn” the past and start new. This feeling is reflected in Derek’s taking a shower, trying to wash away in a baptismal act the sins he has committed. He looks in the mirror at his new self, and covers the swastika printed on his chest, trying to block out his past mistakes. He takes a legless teddy bear and gives it to his little sister while tucking her in at night, and then takes the leg and puts it under her pillow, symbolic of his wanting to restore the ripped apart pieces of his family. Danny says in his paper that the seeds of hate were planted before their father’s death. He relates a dinner conversation where their dad, legitimately upset about Affirmative Action causing the hiring of two black men who didn’t score as well as white ones, generalizes his anger against the Ph.D. educated Sweeney, saying he should be assigning “black” books instead of great traditional ones, assuming that neglected works by African American writers can’t be great.  He tells his son to watch out for “nigger bullshit.” It is here that Danny realizes that even the father you love can poison your future with hate.

 But, despite Derek’s current efforts, sometimes what people set in motion cannot be stopped. Derek leaves Danny off at school and he goes into that same bathroom where he confronted the young black boy. He is the one who comes out of the stall this time and commits an excremental act, shooting Danny dead. The sins of the fathers, and would-be parents, do often visit the children, and here the violence of an older generation is perpetuated by the younger ones.
While Derek is in prison, Sweeney visits him after his attack and tells Derek that he used to blame everybody else for his problems. He hated God, society, white people, but his hate gave him no answers to his problems. He was asking the wrong question, he says, and asks Derek “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” Derek tearfully shakes his head and says “No.” Danny at the end of his paper says he has learned that “Hate is baggage. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time.” He says that Derek said to him to end a paper with a quote because there was always somebody who said something better in the past. So, I’ll end with Danny’s last quotation which is from Abraham Lincoln:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The next film is The Hospital, after a two-week holiday break.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Shakespeare in Love

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

The famous playwright Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman wrote the screenplay for this film. In my opinion, it is nothing short of brilliant. They deservedly won the Oscar for their writing, as did the movie for Best Picture. The story addresses many themes, including the difficulties in presenting a play, the author’s sources of inspiration, and the role of women in society.
The film takes place in London in 1593, and we immediately discover that, just as now, the elevated goal of presenting great art must take into account its cost. So, there is competition for the audience’s patronage. We have two theaters vying for the population’s attendance – The Curtain, where England’s most famous actor, Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes) resides, and The Rose, built by Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), who, has “a cash flow problem.” The person he owes money to is Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson), who literally lights a fire under him until Henslowe promises the lender proceeds from William Shakespeare’s new comedy. According to the business reality of the time, Henslowe wants to give the masses the simple escapism that they (and many still do) desire, which is “comedy, love, and a bit with a dog.” At the time, despite the poetry delivered by Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare, the theater was considered a place of low morals. As one protester says, “Licentiousness is made a show! Vanity and Pride are likewise made a show! This is the very business of show!” the last words, of course, are a play on “show business,” and the implication is not a complimentary one. For example, Henslowe gives a part to his stuttering tailor just because he owes the man money. The artist, without whom there would be nothing to “show,” is dismissed as unimportant in the world of financial reality. When Fennyman asks who is Shakespeare, Henslowe replies, “Nobody, the author.” In the beginning, Fennyman wants his money up front. When Henslowe mentions that he must pay the actors and the author, Fennyman says they will get a share of the profits after his expenses are met. Henslowe says there are never any profits, and he realizes that the money man has “hit upon something,” that is, business comes first, art, second. Henslowe does offer enigmatic hope about the theater experience working out, despite being an endeavor “of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” He says, “Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” When asked how, he says, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” As we see, magically, he is right.
Even the poet himself, Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes – how he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination is beyond me), tries to wrangle money from both companies for the same play, a comedy that would follow Henslowe’s recipe, entitled, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” But, he wants fifty pounds so he can be in partnership with Burbage so he won’t have to eke out a living as a hired actor. The mercenary environment, perhaps, has sapped him of his creative juices. The script makes the metaphorical connection between the sexual procreative act and birth of art through imagination. He seeks a “muse” which for him is a woman. He says he desires “Aphrodite,” which in mythology is the Goddess of Love, but whom Henslowe points out is really “Aphrodite Baggett, who does it behind the Dog and Crumpet.” So, in the past he has received his inspiration through lust, not love. Shakespeare goes to an apothecary (which appears in the final version of the play), and uses him as a therapist. The writers have fun with the playwright’s reputation for the ease with which he wrote, here showing his writer’s block. He confesses to Dr. Moth (Antony Sher) that “my quill is broken. As if the organ of imagination has dried up. As if the proud tower of my genius has collapsed.” Impotence metaphors abound here, and he admits to Moth that he has been “humbled in the act of love.”

He starts off his talk with Moth by saying “Words, words, words,” the line eventually finding its way into Hamlet. There are many instances where the movie suggests the great writer came upon his words and stories from circumstances or from others. The protester, who condemns the world of the theater, refers to The Rose being closed due to the plague by hoping for the same fate to fall on The Curtain, thus causing “a plague on both your houses.” This line Mercutio utters concerning the Capulets and the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet after Tybalt mortally wounds him with a sword. And, it is Marlowe (Rupert Everett) who suggests the basic plot of the play and provides the name of Mercutio. The actor, Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck), says there must be a scene “between marriage and death,” which Shakespeare turns into the one depicting the marriage night.

The film throughout deals with how life may inspire art, and then how art, though a fiction, provides insight into life. Shakespeare thinks his muse is a woman named Rosaline, but it turns out that she is an object of lust, not only for the playwright, but also for Burbage and Tilney (Simon Callow), the Master of Revels, a sort of morals policeman for the stage, who in his own life has no problem with fornication. In the eventual play, the unseen Rosaline plays a similar role for Romeo. In the film, Shakespeare meets the woman with whom he will share true love, and be his genuine muse, at a family party at the home of the woman’s parents, just as Romeo meets Juliet. He pursues her while under her balcony, which of course, finds its way into the play. His lady has a nurse, who facilitates the carnal machinations of the lovers, as does the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. And, when the lovers cannot be permanently joined, because Shakespeare, although estranged from his wife, is still married, and has no title or wealth to offer to Viola’s privileged family, and she is betrothed through an arranged marriage to another, he exclaims “I am fortune’s fool!” as will Romeo, bemoaning the circumstances beyond their control.

The lady Shakespeare loves is Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow, winner of the Best Actress Oscar for this role). We see her love of poetry and plays when she attends one, and recites the dialogue word-for-word. She tells her nurse (Imelda Staunton) that “I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all.” She doesn’t want what has passed for love in plays before, “not the artful posture of love.” She wants “love that overthrows life. Undbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart.” She feels that a play about love cannot be true if a young boy and not a girl plays the female role. Her desire is for a life of love that breaks all bounds and rules. She publicly disagrees with Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress), who believes that plays just show love as pretty, comical or lustful, but can’t make it true. Viola says there is one who can show the true nature of love (although she does not name Shakespeare). It is funny that when they meet, he is so overwhelmed by his love at first sight, that he when she says she heard he was a poet, he can only nod, causing her to say, “But, a poet of no words?” In the play, Shakespeare has his characters have no such problem, as his art soars above reality, as the two lovers improvise a sonnet together.
When told that she needs to get some sleep, Viola says, “I would stay asleep my whole life, if I could dream myself into a company of players.” But, in 16th Century England, she almost might as well have to escape the real world to make her dreams a reality. Women associated with the theater were considered those of ill repute. Young boys whose high voices had not been metamorphized into deeper tones by puberty played young girls. Shakespeare’s works have a great deal of fun with this practice, with male youths playing females in roles where the women characters pretend to be men. This film alters the charade by having a woman pretending to be a man who eventually pretends to be a woman. Viola wears a wig and binds her breasts because she can’t audition for a part as a woman, and pretends to be a male, Thomas Kent. She is so good at it, that Shakespeare wants her to play Romeo. As Kent, Viola pretends to be visiting Viola’s house as the nephew of one of the servants. The writer gives a letter to Kent professing his love for Viola, which he reads to him, who is really her. In a line that rivals the great playwright’s own talent, Shakespeare describes his love “Like a sickness and its cure together,” revealing the true nature of love, which the writer of Romeo and Juliet and the playwrights of this film can both boast to understand. She is his true inspiration (the word meaning “to blow life into,”) and he now not only can write his play, but also maybe his most famous sonnet, the one that begins with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” After Kent/Viola kisses him, he learns the truth of her identity from the boatman. It is a witty and ironic exchange the two have when she says, “I have never undressed a man before,” and he comments, “It is strange for me, too,” as he takes off her manly disguise. As they undress, he unwinds the cloth that that has bound her breasts, freeing her of society’s restraints, and allowing her to be herself in true love.

But outside of her bedroom, society will not allow such freedom. The marriage contract with Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) is all business. He bestows a title and her father provides the money. Love is not part of the transaction. Wessex at one point calls Viola his “property.” When asking the father about her, it’s as if he is taking an unemotional inventory of what he has acquired. He asks if she is fertile. The father (Nicholas Le Prevost) is no better, saying “She will bear. If not, send her back,” as if his daughter can be returned like a damaged parcel. The father is demeaning when he compares his child to an animal and her sexuality as an object to covet by saying she is as obedient “As any mule in Christendom, but if you are the man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag.” Wessex presents the marriage arrangement to Viola as a done deal, and that she should be grateful, giving a command by saying she may now show her appreciation. She says that she does not love him, which is the most important aspect of a relationship to her, and which is inconsequential to him. Since he now owns her, he forces a kiss on her, to which she responds with a slap. But, the Queen has given her approval, and he now will take her to Virginia where he owns tobacco fields (or, in The Godfather terminology, it’s business, not personal). On the day of the wedding, Viola comes down from her room to see her father doling out money to Wessex. Her scorn, and the irony of mixing profit with the spiritual vows of a marriage, is demonstrated in her words: “I see you are open for business. So, let’s to church.”
Before the wedding takes place, as they prepare for the opening of the play, we see Viola pretending to be Romeo on the stage, and then reading Juliet’s part (for Shakespeare has changed the character’s name) in her bedroom with the writer, where she can more truly enact a person in love drawing on her feminine self. Their desire for the night to continue and their denial of the breaking day finds its way into the play. Although Shakespeare declares that “Love knows nothing of rank or river bank,” they realize that they only have this short time together, what Viola calls “a stolen season,” while her parents are away and before the nuptials. Shakespeare says that “family, duty, and fate” will divide the lovers, and that is what happens to Romeo and Juliet, too. He announces to the acting troupe that he is no longer writing a comedy. She says to him, “As Thomas Kent, my heart belongs to you. But, as Viola, I must marry Wessex.” It is ironic that she can love him only while disguised as a man in a make-believe fantasy, but in the real world their love is prohibited. Even Shakespeare must switch gender roles to hide their relationship when Wessex makes a surprise visit to Viola’s house, and the writer pretends to be a female visitor acting as Viola’s chaperone.
 At one point, while Henslowe reassures Shakespeare about the production, the theater owner says, “The show must … you know …” And, Shakespeare urges more by saying, “Go on.” And so it does. The skirmish between the warring play companies is resolved as Burbage rises above the pettiness to champion their profession. He offers The Curtain for the production, saying they must stick together after Tilney discovers that Kent is played by a woman and closes The Rose. The tailor overcomes his stutter. But, the voice of the youth playing Juliet has deepened due to his advancing adolescence. Viola, who has escaped from Wessex right after taking her vows in order to see the performance, is recruited by Henslowe. She now is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. But, as a woman playing a woman in love, which she really is, she can bring genuine feelings to her performance as Juliet. And, since Kent/Viola could no longer be Romeo, Shakespeare plays Romeo. The two can show their true love to the public, but only in the outward form of a fiction. The play is a rousing success. But, Tilden comes in at the end to say all are in contempt. He points to Viola and says, “That woman is a woman!” Such a simple statement, but it conveys the misogyny that a woman must keep her assigned place according to society’s dictates. However, The Queen, also in disguise so she can view the show as a common audience member, reveals herself. She knows who Viola is, but she continues the fiction, accepting the illusion that she is a man playing a woman as the reality because she respects Viola’s desire as a woman to be free to express herself. She says that Juliet is played by a man, but reveals her sympathies for Viola’s plight by saying, “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know something about that.” She acknowledges the artistic success of the play by declaring that it has shown the true nature of love, and orders Wessex, who sought Viola after her escape, to pay the fifty pounds he wagered. Elizabeth tells Viola/Kent/Juliet to tell Shakespeare to write a comedy next, something for Twelfth Night. She will now be his patron. But, she cannot prevent Viola from going off with Wessex. “Those whom God has joined in marriage, not even I can put asunder.”

While saying goodbye, Shakespeare and Viola brainstorm the elements of the play ordered by the Queen. The main character will be called Viola, and the play will become Twelfth Night. At least in the world of art, she will survive the shipwreck of her life to have a marvelous adventure, and find true love. In his imagination, Shakespeare tells his love, “You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die.”
Despite the length of this post, there is so much more marvelous language and plot complexities that could be explored:

          For never was such a love story
          That brought both a laugh and a tear,
          Than this of Viola
          And her Shakespeare.

The next film is American History X.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Full Metal Jacket

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

I believe an important point to remember about director Stanley Kubrick is that his best work is satiric. Sometimes it is laugh-out-loud funny as in Dr. Strangelove, or more thoughtful, as in Paths of Glory. The first is a look at the danger of nuclear escalation during the Cold War, the second an examination of the betrayal of soldiers by those higher up in the military hierarchy (similar to what happens in the recently discussed Breaker Morant).
 In Full Metal Jacket (1987), Kubrick again takes on the subject of fighting a war, this time centering on the Vietnam conflict, and he mixes together the absurd with the thoughtful in one work here. Some may say that this movie’s style is uneven, and that may be a valid critique. But, the thrust of Kubrick’s theme remains consistent throughout. He is exploring what the American military machine, in this case the Marine Corps, feels it must do in order to transform individual young men into killers. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (an ironic name since the man has no warmth associated with the organ of life), played by Lee Ermey, says, “If you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war.” Kubrick hired Ermey, a former drill instructor, as a technical adviser. But, the ex-military man was so good at improvising the numerous insulting profanities that he made his taking on the role of Hartman an inevitability.
The first forty-five minutes of this film take place in the boot training camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. This section is an amazing accomplishment of combining humor with barbarity, and it is because of Ermey’s performance. His insults are numerous and devastating, and he unleashes them like shells from a tank. For example, he says to one recruit, “Did your parents have any children that lived?” Homophobically, he says to Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard), who comes from Texas, “Only steers and queers come from Texas, Private Cowboy, and you don’t look much like a steer to me, so that kinda narrows it down.” He says there is no prejudice at the camp, as he universally spews out ethnic slurs toward all social and religious types.

But let’s get back to the words “minister” and “praying” that he uses in the quote above. He often joins the religious and the profane in his remarks. It is an ironic contrast, since one usually associates religion with peace and brotherhood. But, as history has shown, people can warp that message to fit a political agenda. Hartman says, after ordering the bathroom cleaned, “I want the head so sanitary and squared-away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in and take a dump.” At Christmas, he tells the men, “Chaplain Charlie will tell you about how the free world will conquer Communism with the aid of God and a few Marines. God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see … we keep heaven packed with fresh souls.” Notice how the comic “Charlie Chaplain” is turned into something deadly, a priest who urges destruction of the enemy. And, the Corps is so lethal, only a “few” Marines are necessary to get the job done. These words are an incredible mixture of blasphemy, humor, and horror. What it amounts to is an exhortation to wholeheartedly fight a holy war.
At the opening of the film, we hear a song with the lyrics, “Goodbye sweetheart, hello Vietnam.” In essence, these youths must let go of who they were, by bidding farewell to all aspects of their past, including anyone they loved. As the song plays, we see their hair being sheared off, like sheep (some might say, “to the slaughter.”) This act symbolizes the discarding of individual characteristics, as they are made to look alike, and of course, dress in identical uniforms. They must follow orders to the point that “Marines are not allowed to die without permission.” They lose their names, a further disintegration of identity, and take on new ones in the form of nicknames. They must substitute flesh-and-blood lovers with their rifles. Hartman says, “you pukes will sleep with your rifles. You will give your rifles a girl’s name … You’re married to this piece. This weapon of iron and wood. And you will be faithful.” The soldiers, again mixing religion with violence, pray: “My rifle is my best friend … Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless … Before God, I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of our enemy, and we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.” They are being conditioned to see themselves as “useless” unless they are performing the act of killing. The ending of this “prayer,” however, suggests that once turned into a killer, “peace” is an enemy, because a destroyer of life can’t live in a world without killing. Later they chant in their underwear that the rifle is for killing, and their penises, which are called “guns,” because they also are made to discharge, are for “fun.” The comparing of the male organ with a gun is made obvious here, and emphasizes how men have equated their male sexuality with how well they can use a gun. In a sense, the symbolism suggests masturbation, with the male cut off from others, and only needing himself for satisfaction. In a way, the soldier here is joined to an inanimate destructive tool. He is supposed to transform into an unstoppable force that wears a deadly “full metal jacket” loaded with bullets.

The film does present the counter argument for the need to turn men into a community that transcends individuality. Hartman says at graduation, “Today, you are Marines. You’re part of a brotherhood. From now on until the day you die, wherever you are, every Marine is your brother. Most of you will go to Vietnam. Some of you will not come back. But always remember this: Marines die. That’s what we’re here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means you live forever.” The main character, Joker (Matthew Modine), the journalist who occasionally provides a narrative voice, also talks about transcendence when he says, “The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear.”

 Joker is a character who shows conflicting sides. He says he joined the Marines to be a killer, but makes fun of the gung-ho mentality of Hartman, doing a John Wayne impression. He stands up to the drill instructor, and Hartman says, “Joker is silly and ignorant, but he has guts, and guts is enough.” So, Hartman assigns him the task of training Leonard, whose name the drill instructor has changed to Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), the silly Marine character in the TV show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Pyle is overweight and has a childlike aspect to him, sporting an innocent grin. There are some men who should not be turned into a killer because it is too traumatic a metamorphosis. Pyle is such a person. Besides heaping insults on him, Hartman makes him march with his pants down while sucking his thumb. As a punishment, he forces Pyle to fall forward on his knees into the Marine’s hands so he can be choked. This image is a forceful one, showing the self-destructive side of this brutal training. This aspect comes to full fruition later. Hartman punishes the rest of the unit for Pyle’s failures, emphasizing in a way how the weakest link undermines the group. So, the men hold a “sock party” where they wrap bars of soap around towels and beat Pyle at bedtime. The scene shows how the sadism flows downward through the ranks. But, Joker’s compassionate side is disgusted with the attack since he covers his ears because he doesn’t want to hear Pyle’s painful crying.
Pyle starts to get with the program, but he is now damaged goods. The most ironic scene in the movie occurs when Hartman talks about the shooting ability of ex-Marine mass murderer Charles Whitman and President Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. He says, “Those individuals showed what one motivated marine and his rifle can do. And before you ladies leave my island, you will be able to do the same thing.” With those words, we hear the danger of creating deadly men of war, who are so cut off from their humanity that they become suicidal weapons which aim themselves at their own citizens. After hearing Hartman’s words, Pyle looks battered. A foreshadowing of what is to come occurs when Pyle shows promise on the firing range and Hartman says, “Outstanding, Private Pyle. I think we finally found something that you do well.” On the last night of basic training, Joker finds Pyle in the head, loading his “full metal jacket.” When Joker warns him that they will be in a “world of shit” if they are found there, Pyle responds by saying, “I am in a world of shit.” The fact that he is in the bathroom just stresses the image. He no longer has that innocent grin. His mouth is in a snarl, his eyes look demonic. After loudly calling out rifle drill commands, Hartman shows up, so much the military man that while in his underwear he still wears his drill instructor hat. His demeaning yelling just provokes Pyle, who shoots Hartman dead, and then turns the rifle on himself, providing a climax for the images of self-destruction.

The story shifts to Vietnam, where Joker works as a journalist for Stars and Stripes with a photographer, Rafterman (Kevin Major Howard). Joker continues his cynical humor when confronting his superior officer, Lt. Lockhart (another unfeeling symbolic name) (John Terry), who ignores his warning about the upcoming Tet Offensive by the enemy. There is a 1984 revamping of facts feel to Lockhart as he uses euphemisms to describe wartime activities. For example, the term “search and destroy” becomes “sweep and clear.” He wants a war story about death to be re-written with a “happy ending.” Joker says sarcastically that he came to Vietnam, “to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture … and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill.” Notice the ironic juxtaposition of the child toward a hopeful aspiration that turns out to be an act of destruction. After the Tet Offensive, Joker and Rafterman leave Da Nang to cover the action near the city of Hue. On the helicopter ride, they encounter a door gunner who illustrates the barbarity of war as he gleefully and indiscriminately kills civilians and Viet Cong, because in modern war it is difficult to tell who is the enemy. But, he also has no problem killing women and children. This a prescient scene, because, as we see in American Sniper, sometimes some women and children can also be a threat.
 The two hook up with Cowboy’s platoon. In interviews, we get the grunts’ impressions of the war. Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), who has written on his helmet “I Become Death,” basically echoing Hartman’s motto for the Marines, says, in response to the question about what he thinks of the war, “I think we ought to win it.” But, he also sees the absurdity of the politics of battle and reduces the fighting to the personal desire of getting laid. There are a few racial slurs against African American soldiers, which are tough to hear, but the point is that black soldiers are fighting a war supposedly for the freedom of this Asian country when they do not have total liberty in their own nation. There is also resentment that the Vietnamese people are not grateful for what the soldiers are doing, and actually resent them being in their country. Rafterman films the men and they mockingly talk about the idealized bravado shown in old Western movies, which Joker has already satirically alluded to with his John Wayne impression. In those films, there were good guys and bad one, and the righteous were always triumphant. As the camera rolls, they say the title of their film will be “Vietnam – The Movie,” with someone playing the horse, another will be the buffalo, and another will be General Custer. And, the Vietnamese are the Indians. Kubrick is showing how his film is the realistic answer to these deceptively morally simple motion pictures.
 There is a scene which exemplifies the imperialism and self-righteous attitude of America in this war. A colonel tells Joker that “all I’ve ever asked of my marines is that they obey my orders as if they would the word of God.” This statement is revealing here, because it shows the military man’s assumption that accepting his arrogant equating of himself with God is no big request. He then says, “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook is an American trying to get out … We gotta keep our heads until this peace phase blows over.” The bigoted and presumptive belief here is that the whole Asian world is just an aberration, a disease that, once cured, will allow that the only true healthy way to live is the one prescribed by the United States. The idea of waiting for the “peace phase” to blow over echoes the earlier statement by Hartman that for soldiers made to become killers, peace itself, ironically, is the enemy.
We do have a scene of a grave containing twenty civilians who were killed by the Viet Cong, showing the barbarity of the enemy. So, in the final sequence we see the war from a soldier’s point of view, where these men have to deal with the deadly shots of a sniper who tries to draw them out by killing individual soldiers as they try to rescue injured comrades. The sniper picks off some of the men, including Cowboy, with deadly precision. The men finally corner the killer, who turns out to be a teenage girl. This fact undercuts ironically Hartman’s speech about how deadly one well-trained Marine can be. Here, the enemy can be just as lethal, and all it takes is a motivated female child. Rafterman wounds her. Animal Mother just wants to leave her in her writhing agony. In an act of both mercy and cruelty, Joker kills her.
 On Joker’s helmet is written, “Born to Kill,” but he also wears a peace symbol button. He told the colonel that for him these conflicting expressions represent the duality of man. But, after his “confirmed kill,” he has transformed into what it takes to survive as a Marine. His last words are, “I am happy that I am alive … I’m in a world of shit, yes. But, I am alive. And I am not afraid.” The soldiers, joined by many other comrades, sing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. The words and music ironically harken back to the innocence of their youth which they have had to abandon in order to accept the violence which has become the focus of their lives. As the image fades to black, the film’s credits roll, appropriately, to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” Kubrick has, indeed, depicted a dark chapter in American history.
The next film is Shakespeare in Love.