Sunday, October 15, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Most of the time when we are following a story, even though we know it is fiction, we want to feel grounded that within the context of the narrative, we can accept what is depicted is true. This 1950 film by director Akira Kurosawa is one of the first movies to challenge objective presentation, and to emphasize the subjective nature of perceiving reality, to the point of deceiving others and even ourselves.
The story starts in a driving rainstorm. The bleak atmosphere is reflected in the faces of two silent, inert characters, in a tableau shot, looking dejected, taking shelter under the city gate of Rashomon. The structure is falling apart, also symbolic of the psychological state of these men, and, perhaps, the world at large. The Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) repeats “I don’t understand.” This statement is his commentary on the events that have occurred recently, but will eventually refer to himself, and possibly, to humans living in this world. The other man is the Priest (Minoru Chiaki). The Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda), arrives on the scene. He functions as the reason for the other two to tell their “horrible” story about a murder, but who also adds his own cynical commentary. Indeed, he says that people are killed all the time, to the point where he says he “heard that the demon living here in Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.” So nasty are people that he suggests that humans scare supernatural forces. The Priest admits that there has been so much agony caused by natural phenomena, such as plagues, earthquakes, fires, and pain inflicted by humans, such as bandits and soldiers in wars, but the present tale seems more personal and causes the Priest to question his faith in the human soul.

The Commoner doesn’t mind hearing a story, even if it isn’t a true one, and it’s not a sermon, to pass the time while the rain continues to fall. He is like the movie audience, which doesn’t want to hear a “message” that preaches, but which doesn’t mind suspending disbelief in order to be entertained. So, in a sense at one time or another, we engage in deceiving ourselves, pretending that what we see is real, even if it may not be. The Woodcutter tells what happened by relating what he saw and what others said at the hearing. He says that three days prior he was out in the forest to gather wood. In literature, the forest is the absence of civilization, and it is a place where transgressions occur (Deliverance anyone?). Also, Kurosawa is one of the pioneers in using hand held camera shots to present the perspective of the individual walking through the foliage, emphasizing personal, subjective viewpoints. There are shots upward at the sun, but it is diffused by the leaves, almost implying that the truth can be somewhat hidden. As the Woodcutter relates what he saw, we see a woman’s hat, a piece of rope, and a Samurai cap. The music accompanying his discoveries contains percussive poundings, presenting a foreboding sound that culminates in the Woodcutter’s finding of a dead man. He ran to the police, and today is the day he gave his testimony.

In flashback, we see the Woodcutter, seated in the courthouse garden, telling his version of what happened to him. He faces the camera. We do not see any magistrate. We also do not hear an inquisitor’s voice, only the witness repeating questions asked. In a sense, we, the audience, take the place of an official, and we are to judge what may or may not be true. Director Robert Altman, talking about this film, said art consists of the what is created and how people react to what they perceive. It is possible that Kurosawa is addressing the artistic experience by allowing for different interpretations as to what is happening in this story. The Priest then adds that he saw the man, who would become the victim, earlier walking and leading his horse with his wife riding the animal. She wears the hat the Woodcutter mentioned, which has a veil, covering her face, adding to the mystery of the story.
We next have the Policeman (Daisuke Kato) who has the notorious thief, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) next to him with his hands bound. The Policeman says he captured Tajomaru who had fallen off of his horse, which belonged to the dead Samurai. The dead man’s weapons were also in the thief’s possession. We have the first discrepancy in testimony, as Tajomaru says he did not fall off of his horse, and we see him riding quickly and expertly in his flashback. While the Policeman is talking, Tajomaru looks up at the sky, squinting, almost as if he is trying to figure out what is going on, and possibly trying to understand his fate. He actually says that if it hadn’t been for a breeze that woke him as the Samurai and the woman passed him, he wouldn’t have killed the man. This statement sounds like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel, where the random acts of a sheepdog or meeting a stranger on a road change characters’ destinies.

The bandit said he saw the man and his wife on the road as he tried to sleep off the effects of drinking some tainted water from a stream. (It appears the environment is toxic in this world literally and figuratively). He caught a glimpse of the young woman’s beauty and immediately wanted her. He said he hoped he did not have to kill the man to get her. Tajomaru, in the Woodcutter’s recounting, laughed inappropriately, made sudden movements, and constantly was swatting at bugs, as if vexed by his surroundings. The thief made up a story that he had artifacts, including weapons, that he would sell to the samurai, Takehiro Kanazawa (Masayuki Mori) (A lie within a possibly untruthful account?). After leading him to where he said he had the goods for sale, he ambushed the samurai and tied him up with the rope. He lured the wife, Masako (Machiko Kyo) to where he had bound the samurai, saying her husband took ill (more deception). She lost her hat, as did the samurai his cap. Tajomaru said that the wife fought fiercely, trying to stab him with her expensive-looking dagger. He overpowered her, but she succumbed to his kiss and willingly surrendered sexually. She said that because she couldn’t stand to have two men know of her shame, she wanted the two men to fight to the death, and she would go with the victor. Tajomaru cut the samurai loose, fought him, whom he said was a worthy adversary, and, he said, killed him honorably. He said the wife, however, ran away, turning to the police to offer her version of what happened. He can’t account for not taking the dagger, which was valuable. The objects of the hat, cap, rope, and sword are real, definite items, but the story around them changes, depending on human perceptions.
The Woodcutter says that he felt that the story told by the bandit was a lie. The Commoner expresses his acceptance of human frailty when he says, “It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” So, not only are people not honest with others, but they also deceive to themselves. He later tells the priest that maybe there is no such thing as “goodness.” He says, “Man just wants to forget the bad stuff, and believe in the made-up good stuff. It’s easier that way.” The Priest says Tajomaru’s description of the fierceness of the wife doesn’t jive with what he saw at the hearing. He says she she was docile and crying. She said that the bandit raped her and mocked her and her husband. She said her husband looked at her with cold disdain and loathing after the assault. She cut him loose, and told him to kill her. She then said she must have fainted. After that she only remembers trying to drown herself in a pond, and failing at other attempts at suicide. Since the wife’s story differs so much from that of Tajomaru, the skeptical Commoner says that “Women use their tears to fool everyone.” They are so good at deception that “They even fool themselves.” He again is stressing the human propensity to be dishonest, and warp the truth to such an extent, they can’t even discern what is accurate.

The Priest says there is still the testimony of the husband, who, even though he is dead, spoke through a medium at the courthouse garden. The Woodcutter says all the testimonies are full of falsehoods, but the Priest says, “Dead men tell no lies.” However, the Commoner doesn’t trust even testimony from beyond the grave. The movie seems to imply that human mendacity even survives death. The Priest then relates the medium’s testimony, which she gives in the samurai’s voice, as if possessed. He says Tajomaru was cunning, telling his wife he loved her after he raped her. She said that she would go wherever he wanted her to go. She then astounded the bandit by asking him to kill her husband. Tajomaru was so repulsed by her, he asked the husband if he wanted the thief to kill her. She was able to run off. Tajomaru then freed the husband and left. The samurai found his wife’s dagger and killed himself with it.

The Woodcutter says that even this supernatural testimony is wrong, because the samurai was killed with a sword, not a dagger. The suspicious Commoner asks the Woodcutter how would he know that? He then accuses the Woodcutter of false testimony, saying he did not come across the body of the samurai. He must know more about what happened. The Woodcutter says he didn’t want to get involved, so he lied. He says he came across the wife sobbing and the bandit begging forgiveness for having assaulted her. She then cut her husband’s bonds, but he refused to fight for her, saying he wouldn’t risk his life “for such a woman.” His wife then laughed derisively at the men, accusing them of not being manly enough to fight. Her goading pushed them to fight, but it was not a skillful display of swordsmanship, as the samurai crawled around trying to escape Tajomaru. He finally speared the husband, the wife ran off, and the bandit walked away.
The Commoner even doubts that the Woodcutter’s account of the crime is accurate. The Priest says this world is a kind of hell if people don’t trust each other. To which, the Commoner says life is, indeed, a hell. The Priest doesn’t want to give up on his faith. He says, “I believe in men. I don’t want this place to be hell.” They then hear a baby crying. They discover an abandoned child at the gate house. The Commoner steals the kimono wrapped around the baby, and the Woodcutter tries to stop him. But, the Commoner says blame the parents for giving up the baby. The Woodcutter says they probably agonized over the decision, but the Commoner has no time in his basic drive to survive to care about others. He also accuses the Woodcutter of being dishonest, since he was probably the one who stole the dagger; thus, he shouldn’t judge him.
The Woodcutter and the Priest look as they did at the beginning of the film, and the Woodcutter adds to his comment about not understanding by saying, “I don’t understand my own soul.” He, too, has lied, and may be a thief, so he questions his own morality. The Priest holds the child, and is reluctant to give it up to the reaching Woodcutter after all that has happened. The Woodcutter says he already has six children and one more won’t make any difference. The Priest, wanting to renew his faith in humanity, decides that the Woodcutter, after seeming contrite about his transgressions, may be a decent man after all. He hands him the baby and they bow to each other respectfully.
The Woodcutter walks off with the baby as the rain has stopped, and the sun begins to shine again. Perhaps the ending offers a hope that, despite the world’s horrors, the next generation is redeemable.

The next film is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Contender

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

On one level, this 2000 film, written and directed by Rod Lurie, is a liberal argument for the acceptance of a woman in one of the highest offices in the United States government. But, it doesn’t depict its characters as being totally good and bad, since it deals with the nature of politics, and the liberals here also have their flaws. In addition, the film is a mystery, as the plot not only entertains, but also plays with the audience, making it culpable by allowing prejudices against women lead the viewer to possibly wrong conclusions.
The opening of the film shows Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) fishing while being interviewed. A speeding car then crashes over the side of the bridge above Hathaway’s boat. The governor immediately dives into the water and attempts to rescue the female driver, but he is unsuccessful, and the young woman drowns. The general response is that Hathaway has the heart of a hero. But, we are already led into the stereotypical viewpoint of seeing the man in the role of saving a woman. Many in the Democratic Party consider Hathaway a rising political star, and assume the president will nominate him to fill the vacancy of the recently deceased vice-president.
Hathaway meets with President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) and his adviser, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott). The president is a quirky fellow who is always either asking people if they want to eat something, ordering food, or is eating himself. He appears to be complimentary in a folksy and friendly way, but many times his engaging manner is just a diversion to put his opponents at ease while he undermines them. Evans praises Hathaway for his heroism, but then says he can’t give him the vice-presidency because he actually didn’t save the woman. Kermit says it looks like he let the woman die. The president and Kermit appear cold in their assessment of Hathaway, who looks like a decent man who Evans unfairly dismissed from consideration. We have a scene between Hathaway and his wife, Fiona (Kristen Shaw), which demonstrates that the movie is not just a feminist manifesto. Yes, Fiona does not play the role of the smiling, supportive wife. But, she is overcompensating in an almost too masculine way by being brutal as she questions her husband’s masculinity in not being more aggressive in trying to claim his right to the vice-presidency. She tells him not to act like a little girl, which shows Fiona stereotyping her own gender as fearful. She says he needs to grow a pair of “balls,” and might as well bend over, since he was “screwed.” Her recounting of their plans for success reveals a bit of a Lady MacBeth personality.
As the president confers with his staff, he shows that he has his own agenda where he wants a vice-president who will continue his policies. He doesn’t want someone who is ambitious and will try to overshadow Evans as his presidency winds down. He chooses Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Kermit questions her ability to be loyal, since she switched from being a Republican to being a Democrat, but Evans is not dissuaded. The idea of loyalty comes up several times in the movie, and Hanson seems the better person for switching parties because her loyalty to principles is more important than fidelity to a political party. She says her party has strayed from its original principles that freed slaves and gained the right to vote for women. Her father, Oscar Billings (Philip Baker Hall), a former governor, is a Republican, but he does not follow a straight party line. He hates the press, as do many current Republicans for slanted reporting, but also believes in the separation of church and state, and says that schools are there to teach, “not to preach.”

When Hanson gets the call from the White House, she is about to have sex right in her office with her husband, William Hanson (Robin Thomas). The fact that the first shot of her is a sexual one shows her to be a person who enjoys physical pleasure. In the history of film, there aren’t many instances where women can be as sexual as men. The movie plays with our prejudices that women who enjoy sex are sluts, and in the end, reveals preconceived notions about women and sexuality, and questions them. The film shows the overemphasis on a woman’s appearance because men have viewed females as sex objects for so long. The White House staff notes that Hanson looks good, and even the president makes this observation. One of the staff, Jerry Tolliver (Saul Rubinek) questions Hanson’s wearing a red dress at the press announcement. This objection refers to the prejudicial association of the color with prostitutes working the “red light” district. Kermit dismisses the issue, and Hanson does not back down, saying the dress “works.” Hermit also points out another gender double standard in the political process. He says that Hanson’s husband must be invisible during the hearings, because a woman’s presence is seen as supportive if her husband is the nominee, but in this case the man is considered the one with power, and would be perceived as a “puppeteer.”
The main opposition to Hanson’s appointment comes from the head of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman). He accurately states the prejudice against women when he says that a woman has to look good and have perfect credentials to compete against a man. He says that the only reason Margaret Thatcher was successful was because she answered to a man, in her case, Ronald Reagan. When Kermit goes to him to seek a smooth confirmation, Runyon calls Hanson the White House’s “girl,” which is derogatory and is like calling an African American adult male a “boy.” Runyon also shows his sexism by suggesting a man, Governor Hathaway, as a person worthy of a quick approval.
Runyon promises to have Democrats represented on his committee, so a Democrat from Delaware named Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) asks Runyon to be part of the review process. At first Webster just wants the exposure, since he is ambitious, and says he is one hundred percent objective. Runyon says constituents want him for his subjectivity. When Webster again approaches Runyon he says he believes Hanson is not right for the position, also thinks Hathaway the better choice, and promises discretion in the committee’s dealings. There is a meeting with others, including Hathaway, who appears to be a gentler conspirator when it comes to the tactics Runyon wants to employ. Runyon again references Hanson’s appearance, calling her a “looker,” and she has the advantage of being a governor’s daughter. The fact that she was once a Republican makes her look not too liberal. He says they have to defeat her by depicting her as being the wrong person. They will have to “destroy” her. One man there says, in a brutally misogynistic way, that they have to “gut the bitch.” Runyon says that they should show her to be as ruthless as a man, which ironically criticizes males, but also shows that women acting in the same arena as men have difficulty being accepted.

A member of Runyan’s camp meets with one of Hanson’s, Lewis Hollis (Mike Binder) to leak what he considers objectionable material that the Republican leader has obtained. However, we are in the world of Washington politics, so nobody comes off totally noble. He hopes that he will get a job at the White House as a reward for the disclosure. Where is his “loyalty?” Is he a traitor to his party but loyal to a higher good, or just loyal to his own ambitions?  In any case, he shares photos of a college girl who looks like Hanson while she was in college involved in a sexual encounter with multiple males. Runyon also has a deposition from a woman who says she was there, and saw Hanson drunk and engaged in group sex (Is this female informer disloyal to her gender here?) Hollis shares the information with Hanson’s husband, who then shows it to his wife. Before the president even hears of the story, Kermit asks Hanson to remove her name for consideration for the vice presidency out of, yes that word again, loyalty for her party and the president. If she doesn’t withdraw, then he wants her to deny the allegations. But, Hanson’s loyalty is to her principles, and she says she will not address the issue because it would be beneath her dignity to do so. She disagrees with Kermit’s desire to get depraved evidence on Runyon because she believes that makes them no better than he is. Unfortunately, Kermit says they are no better than Runyon. This observation seems to suggest that the nature of politics in the past, and also today, entails getting in the gutter with one's opponent and using the same dirty tools to defend oneself.
According to tradition, Hanson must meet Runyon for lunch as part of the confirmation process. He exhibits his propensity for male dominance by already ordering her a steak (a “manly” choice) before she arrives, making the decision for her, regardless of her wishes. She is a vegetarian, and orders spicy penne (which is what the president previously ordered, and which implies her connection to the chief executive). Runyon says circumstances bring out the greatness (another word that is repeated in the script) in some presidents, which can’t be seen before hand. But, what he wants in a vice president who can possibly become the leader, is the “promise of greatness,” which he says Hanson does not have. However, he does not say why he does not see that greatness in her. Could it be that it is because she is a woman? He probably would attribute her lack of presidential potential to her past. He says that he has the evidence that shows she engaged in “deviant sex.” Hanson says who determines that it was deviant, and Runyon quickly answers, “I do. What I say the American believe. And do you know why? Because I have a very big microphone in front of me.” And there it is, the danger in a democracy which allows freedom of expression, but requires responsibility on what is said, especially by its leaders, because they are in a position of status and can use their fame to be either good or dangerous role models. Hanson turns the argument around on Runyon, saying that if he states that a woman being too sexual invalidates her won’t work because if she were in power, and wasn’t “getting laid,” you wouldn’t want to have her finger on the nuclear trigger. The title of the movie becomes more relevant as Hanson is tested, since she must show she can fight in order to show she has a shot at winning the title she seeks.
Webster is invited to the White House by the president who wants to persuade him, as a member of the Democratic Party, to not break ranks on Hanson’s nomination. Before Evans shows up, we can plainly see on Webster’s face that he enjoys being in the president’s home. He wraps his arms around himself, imitating the portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which communicates his own ambitions to possibly live at this residence. The president enters, again offering some food to ease his way into getting what he wants. It is interesting that he brings a shark steak sandwich, which possibly implies you have to be a predator to survive playing big stakes politics. Webster says he must follow his heart and that he can’t vote for Hanson just because she is a woman. A reasonable statement, but it also follows that one shouldn’t vote against a person just because she is a woman. The real question is whether Hanson is an excellent candidate whose qualities should not be dismissed for being a female. The president again seems to admire Webster for taking a stand, but undermines that praise by saying the congressman will feel good even though his position will destroy his political career. Evans sarcastically says you have to follow one's heart, because the heart is “never wrong,” the absolutist statement actually implying that sometimes it is. Yet, those on both sides announce that they are acting out of some higher good, which is, in a sense, following one’s heart. What we discover is that some justify twisted means to reach their ends.
We know that there must be a background investigation of Hanson. It is here where the mystery aspect of the movie comes into play, along with its associated red herrings to lead the audience astray. Agent Paige Willomina (Kathryn Morris) meets with Governor Hathaway. One should ask why? He admits that he doesn’t know Hanson, after deceptively acting like he knows what an admirable person she is (don’t forget he was in on the Hanson attack meeting with Runyon, so his shiny reputation has already been tarnished). Or, is he being checked out as the possible replacement for Hanson by the president? To add to his diminishment, Hathaway asks Willomina if his “girl” (that condescending word again) offered her some coffee. Willomina picks up on the negative term, saying, yes she met his “girl.” Like the president, Willomina disarms the person she encounters by acting as if she is praising him. She talks about Hathaway’s heroics, then wonders why he was in the crabbing section of the waters when he was bass fishing. She assumed given his expensive fishing equipment he fished a great deal, but he seems to be backpedaling, saying he would like to fish  more, but doesn’t have the time.

After the president finds out about Hanson’s supposed past, he is actually on the same page as her when it comes to not caving into the sexual double standard. He says that he doesn’t care if she was involved with one guy or the whole football team while in college. Their opponents want to embarrass her, and, if approved, send her into the administration as a “virus” to infect his presidency with negativity. He tells her the best way to fight the attacks is not to be embarrassed because she has no reason to be ashamed of her sexual past. Also, he actually sees something of himself in Webster, and tells Kermit not to go after the young congressman.

We also get a clue as to why Runyon is being so combative. Runyon may be claiming it is based on ideology, and politics is war, and the saying goes that all is fair in war (a questionable tenet). In fact, he tells his staff that Hanson represents a cancer “of liberalism, of affirmative action,” and is disloyal to her country because she questions the established order. He says he wants to paint Hanson as the portrait of someone who represents the “decay of virtue.” But, Evans deprived Runyon of the presidency, so there is an element of revenge in trying to deny Evans his legacy of elevating a woman into the position of possibly succeeding to the presidency. However, director Lurie gives us shots of Hanson running, pushing herself to excel, and she finishes her run in Arlington Cemetery, showing she knows how to fight in a war, even unto death.

It doesn’t mean that Hanson isn’t shaky at the beginning of the Congressional hearing. She is awkward using the microphone, and she raises her left hand at first instead of her right when being sworn in. Runyon, too, is effective in first acting like he is on her side, when he actually is there to undercut. Webster at first is one of Runyon’s operatives, and points out that Hanson is an atheist, so she swore an oath to an entity in which she does not believe. Runyon says she has a constitutional right to show her “disdain” for God. In one sentence he seems to be acting fairly, but actually is condemning her beliefs through his word usage.

We shift back to the mystery as Agent Willomina interviews a woman who talks about her “pretty wild” sorority sister with whom she has kept in touch and who offered to treat her to a stay in Las Vegas. It sounds like she might be talking about Hanson, because we, the audience, are seduced into the scandalous news stories about the senator’s past. But, if we use our reason instead of giving into our baser impulses, we would ask why is Hanson, while in the middle of an intense confirmation battle, going off to Vegas to party with an old college friend, spreading money around?

The focus then moves to a scene with Runyon and his wife Maggie (Irene Ziegler). She talks about how she gave up her dreams of having a family to pursue his desire to do good in the world. But, she sees his character assassination of Hanson based on suspected sexual misconduct as disgusting. She says she was proud of him when he passed legislation involving hate crimes. She now says he will go down as a second-rate Joe McCarthy (which is a pretty low level of notoriety). He says Hanson is “no good,” but we know from his previous statements that his definition of no good is based on his own belief in the double sexual standard. So, Runyon has stood for certain principles in the past, but at the same time he, as a man, placed his career above a woman’s wishes, his wife, by denying her children.

The attacks against Hanson begin to intensify. While she is interviewed on a TV program, the host ambushes her with a call from a guy who said he was one of the men who had sex with Hanson at the frat party. Hanson, again not wanting to address the allegation, walks off. Runyon, at the hearing, pretending to push for internet slander laws, actually provides the name of the web site that contains the college sex story. He implies that if the story is true then her actions were pornographic and deviant. In private, he also fosters unverified stories that Hanson received money for sexual favors while in college, basically labeling her as a prostitute. (It is telling that during the hearing, Runyon, who is perpetuating lies, asks if Hanson understands that she is under oath to tell the truth, and she says that, “Yes, I understand that, between the two of us, I am the one under oath”). Webster, becoming indignant, questions the veracity of the articles. Runyon (employing what we would today label “fake news”) says he wants to put Hanson in the position to have to defend herself against phony accusations that have been planted in the public consciousness to raise doubts about her character.

At the hearing, Runyon’s sexism is obvious. He notes that Hanson took a period of absence when having a child in the past. Runyon emphasizes that she had paid leave during this time, and Hanson shoots back that we shouldn’t punish workers  for having children. Her statement unknowingly is an indictment of Runyon who believed he couldn’t have a career and also be a parent. He asks if she were to have a child if she became president, would she have to relinquish her position to her vice president? Of course this attitude presupposes the old fashioned idea that a woman has to be the one to stay home to take care of the baby, not the man. At this point, Webster, starting to get fed up with Runyon, interrupts and asks if Runyon would require that Hanson have her “tubes tied” in order to qualify for the position. Webster exposes Runyon’s double standard ideas and propensity for male domination over the most private aspects of a woman’s life.

Hanson is flawed, however, since she had an affair with her current husband while he was still married and he was running Hanson’s senatorial campaign. But, even in this instance, male bullying is evident, as the all-male committee forces the ex-wife, Cynthia (Mariel Hemingway), who was Hanson’s friend, to testify about this personal and embarrassing event in her life. The representatives say she is “among friends” but friends don’t exploit one’s past for political advantage. During this interview, Webster looks disgusted by the proceedings, showing his alienation from the process. Runyon, a strong “pro-life” advocate, drops all pretense of civility as he attacks Hanson’s “pro-choice” stance, saying she has a “propensity” for abortion, which is a slanted overemphasis of her views. He calls abortion the murder of a baby as it grows in the womb, and abortion rights are a “holocaust” against the unborn. However, Runyon’s wife goes to Hanson, and tells her that her husband’s actions are an “ideological rape of women,” and informs Hanson that when he calls Hanson a murderer of babies, ask Runyon if his wife was a murderer when she had an abortion. Runyon didn’t know of this fact, but his domineering control of his marriage and refusal to have children pushed his wife into that decision. (Getting back to the loyalty theme, is Mrs. Runyon being disloyal, or is she right in thinking her loyalty to her gender is more elevated than loyalty to her husband?) Hanson, however, doesn’t bring this fact up at the hearing, preferring to take the high road, unlike Runyon.

Webster meets privately with Hanson. He is moving further away from his initial stance, and, asks why she isn’t fighting back in the presence of what has become bullying. When she says it isn’t anybody’s business about her sexual past, he says the American people think it is their business because leaders should stand for a moral code, and she should do so for young girls. Even though he appears to be helping here, he is actually still presenting the double standard by saying that “young girls” have a separate rule book. Hanson says she shouldn’t have to say it, but states the obvious in her mind when she tells him that if it’s not relevant to ask about a man’s sexual history in college, then it’s not relevant to ask about a woman’s past.

The president has been publicly supportive of Hanson, telling reporters that people shouldn’t judge unless they don’t mind being judged, and he wouldn’t mind having the support in an election of all those who had sexual issues in their past, because he would win by a landslide. He isn’t differentiating between male and females, but puts all under one standard. However, when he meets with Kermit and Hanson privately, his frustration is growing because Hanson is not fighting back. He says she appears to be a sex-crazed home-wrecker in the way Runyon is portraying her. But in terms of her affair with her future husband, he says that all the committee did was catch her “being human.” It is important here that the president did not say being a flawed woman, but instead put her in the same category as men. Evans and Kermit say it is okay to confess to the past, to show that there shouldn't be a double standard, and maybe to show how indulgence in alcohol can lead to lapses in judgment. But sexism even appears here, as Kermit says, like Webster, that she should warn girls of what can happen if not careful. Hanson says she will step down if the president wants, but she sticks to her guns that the sexual issue is not anybody’s business. Evans continues to support her, but urges a strong closing statement at the hearing.

Hanson finishes with a speech that emphasizes the issues. She believes in a basically liberal agenda: insure a woman’s right to choose; eliminate the death penalty; get rid of privately owned guns; maintain a strong military to fight genocide; make selling cigarettes to minors a Federal offense; institute campaign reforms and term limits. She goes on to say that she believes in the separation of church and state to protect the state from religious fanaticism. She says she may be an atheist, but she has faith in freedom and attends the church of democracy.

We have another bit of red herring flung our way as Webster again meets with Hanson and gives her Runyon’s file which contains a letter from someone who has come forth concerning the college scandal. He tells her she must publicly address the issue. (Once again, we have an act that one could say is disloyal as Webster becomes an informant, and again, the question arises is it possible that immediate allegiances must be put aside for the greater good?) The mystery is heightened when Willomina hands her report to the director of the FBI, but then also gives it to Kermit, who insures that no one else be informed of her findings. What is her assignment? Willomina pleads that Kermit not dump Hanson. Has she dug up dirt on her, and she doesn’t want it used?

The president meets with Runyon for dinner. (Runyon eats his masculine dish - steak). Runyon seems to have the upper hand, and tells Evans that a vote will just embarrass his presidency. He should just move on and pick someone else. Evans says he may have denied Runyon the chance to be president, but Runyon took away Evans’ legacy. Evans asks who would get a smooth confirmation, and Runyon says Hathaway. Evans says to ensure that Runyon won’t double-cross him, he says Runyon must come out ahead of time for Hathaway, and stake his reputation on supporting him. Runyon agrees, and the president says they will meet with Hathaway and Hanson before a state dinner. Runyon tells the press that he stakes his reputation on Hathaway being the best person for the job.
We now find out what has been really going on, and we are given a quick hint it isn’t good for Hathaway, since Kermit escorts his wife out of the meeting room. The president is still being disarming as he again orders food, and this time succeeds in his game of catching the chef unprepared because there is no muenster cheese for a sandwich. Evans drops a file which shows that Willomina’s investigation found that Hathaway had advertised in a magazine called Soldier of Fortune for someone to help him. He hired the woman, who was ex-military, to drive off of the bridge so he would be a hero when he saved her. Of course, the plan went wrong. He had placed sums of money for her in Las Vegas, and Willomina was investigating the drowned woman and Hathaway, not Hanson. The FBI director arrests Hathaway for negligent homicide. Runyon now realizes the president set him up. At the end of the scene, Evans comically says, “It’s a goddamn shame - about the muenster.”
After the dinner, the president and Hanson walk on the White House lawn in private as they share cigars, symbolic of accepting a woman on equal footing with a man. Evans says he would like to know, off the record, what really happened in college. Hanson admits that she was lonely in college and was willing to be recruited by the sorority. The initiation was to have sex with two frat brothers. She at first refused, but after some beers thought if men were supposed to have a sexual ritual to join a fraternity, why not the same for a woman. But, when she got there, she didn’t go through with it, and the naked woman in the photos couldn’t be her because she has a large birthmark on her thigh which was absent on the female in the pictures. Webster gave a copy of the same letter that he gave to Hanson to Evans. It contains a statement from a male who was there on the night of the sexual encounter which states that Hanson was not the woman involved. The president says that Webster may not know his right from his left (referring to political party allegiance), but he knows right from wrong, which again supports the film’s plea for allegiance to ideals that transcend party lines. Evans wants Hanson to use the evidence to refute Runyon’s allegations. But, Hanson continues to refuse to address the claims. She says that if it is okay for her to answer the questions of her sexual past, then it makes it okay for them to have raised the issue in the first place, and that would justify the double standard. It would be easier to get out of the situation if she refuted their claims, but she says that “Principles only mean something when you stick to them when it’s inconvenient.” One could argue that to really push the argument for obliteration of the double standard, the film could have made the allegations true and held that her past did not disqualify her from being vice president even in the audience’s mind.
Since Hanson will not prove publicly that the sex story was not true, Evans addresses a joint session of Congress. He knows that Runyon has the same letter as he does, and is thus, being deceitful. Runyon may be thinking that he is adhering to his principles, but the bad guys here are those whose ends do not justify their nasty means. Evans publicly calls out Runyon, who walks out, saying “have you no decency,” which was the accusation made against Joe McCarthy. The president says (and he could be addressing our situation today) that Congress was a traitor (disloyalty?) to truth, and allowed the possibility of making it difficult to “separate the demagogue from the truly inspired.” Runyon had said that Hanson did not show greatness. Evans now quotes Napoleon who said that “to get power you need to display absolute pettiness; to exercise power, you need to show true greatness.” He says that Hanson asked that her name be withdrawn, “not because she isn’t great, but because she isn’t petty.” He goes on to say that greatness sometimes “comes in the form of sacrifice.” That sacrifice is what Hanson is willing to endure. He says that there is no ego or hate in her, as opposed to those who would try to bring her down, and Evans can’t accept her withdrawal. He says nothing can stop an idea whose time has come, and it is time for a woman to reside in the executive branch of the the government. He says he should have exerted his will before, but now he asks for a roll call vote to confirm his nominee, whose acceptance is no longer in doubt.

The film ends with Hanson jogging at top speed, showing her will to succeed. In order to fight bigotry, you need a contender.

The next film is Rashomon.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Deer Hunter

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

This 1978 Oscar winner for Best Picture is not a traditional war movie. It spends little of its over three hour running time depicting battles. It primarily shows the effects of war on individuals by layering in details about the soldiers’ lives and how their experiences in Vietnam affect them and those around them. Many have criticized the film for not being a realistic representation of actual events. However, its purpose in not to present reality, but instead to provide a cautionary tale to Americans about the damage war can inflict on its own people.

The credits are accompanied by the musical score which is spare (a single acoustic guitar providing the major contribution), but full of feeling, like the lives of the characters. The opening shots establish that the people live in a steel mill town in western Pennsylvania. There are shots of the hot steel furnace that forges the material with which the country is built (the flames being a foreshadowing of the converse destructive nature of fire shown later ). The plant’s male workers share a camaraderie that leans toward a kind of blue-collar heaven. They joke, drink beer together at the local bar, and go hunting together. Although they live modest financial lives, their friendships are rewarding, and they are truly happy.

But, this is the last day of work for Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken, an Oscar winner here for Best Supporting Actor), and Steven (John Savage). They will be heading to Vietnam to fulfill their patriotic duty. It is also Steven’s wedding day. We see his bride, Angela (Rutanya Alda) getting ready for the wedding. The movie uses image and few words to establish character and situation. Angela (maybe she is an “angel” because her love is vital to Steven’s survival?) keeps rehearsing the the simple words, “I do,” which is humorous, but also shows her nervousness. Her sideways stance in front of the mirror in her room, and her dismay at the bulge in the middle of her wedding dress tells us that she is pregnant. We later learn that Steven is a good guy, enduring a disapproving mother and the taunts of others, marrying the girl he loves even though he has never slept with her, and, is willing to raise the child that is not his.

This world here has its negative side. Linda (Meryl Streep), the maid-of-honor, is hit by her abusive alcoholic father as she readies herself for the wedding ceremony. Michael and Nick live in an old, decrepit trailer, and although Michael’s car is a Cadillac, it is from the year 1959, and the trunk can only be opened by kicking it a certain way. Nick says that Michael’s car makes him feel safe. Michael also lets Steven use his car for leaving the reception. Is Michael also an angel, suggesting the Archangel Michael? But, there is irony here, because in the end he can’t save his comrades from harm. There are trophies inside the run down trailer, which suggest a combination of success and failure. It also contains mounted deer heads, (as does the bar that belongs to their friend, John, played by George Dzundza) which show accomplished hunting but also foreshadow what will happen to Nick. The opulence of the town church, which reflects the richness of the community’s Russian Orthodox religion, contrasts with the homeless alcoholic next to the building, who drinks booze out of a brown bag. The wedding ritual, however, includes a section where royal crowns are held over the heads of the bride and groom, symbolizing how their love and faith raise them above the limitations of the material world.
Michael lives by a code that sets him apart from his pals. When they leave work after their shift, Michael comments on the cloud and sun formations, saying, “Those are sun dogs. It means a blessing on the hunter sent by the Great Wolf to his children. It’s an old Indian thing.” Stan (John Cazale, who was Streep’s romantic interest at the time, and was ill and died soon after the completion of the film) scoffs at Michael’s ways, not understanding what Michael is talking about, and does not have his friend’s focus and discipline. Michael drives his car in what seems like a dangerous manner between a wall and a truck, but he is really a cold calculator of the odds of the success of an action. He tells Nick he likes a sure thing, and doesn’t like surprises. But Nick admonishes him, telling him there is no “sure thing,” and both men’s words are relevant as the narrative unfolds.

The men (except for Steven) plan on going hunting, along with John and their friend Axel (Chuck Aspegren, who was a steel works foreman and was recruited for the role) after the wedding reception as a last bonding event before going into the military. Michael shakes his head in disapproval when he sees that Nick “forgot” about something in preparation for the hunt. Nick calls his friend a control freak. Michael says he loves their friends, but calls them “assholes” who don’t appreciate the need for precision in life. He talks about his rule of the “one shot” to take down a deer. It is Michel’s way of showing how to exert total control over something. Nick says he doesn’t think about “one shot” much anymore. Of course, their words will carry extra meaning at the end of the movie. Nick does admit he likes being among the trees while hunting. Michael says it would be okay with him if his life ended in the mountains. His statements show how he is in some ways a loner.
Even at the wedding reception, Michael stays near the bar, away from the center of the celebration, until he is dragged out by his friends. The reception runs long, but is essential in showing the passion for living that the people there possess, and there are elements which foreshadow the future events. The citizens show warmth and humor, while devoting themselves to hard work. The Russian background of the inhabitants stresses that the United States consists of a diverse population, but that the different groups, while embracing their origins, see themselves as Americans first. (Indeed, when asked in Vietnam what is the derivation of his name, Nick says it’s “American”). Also, it is ironic that Russia was the American Cold War nemesis at the time and was an ally of the communist North Vietnamese regime. There is a shot of Stan, looking stylish in his tuxedo, but he sees his reflection in a cracked window, the film again showing the yin and yang of this world. (Stan is angry that the man dancing with his girl of the moment is grabbing her behind. He says he has to get his gun. Stan’s cavalier attitude concerning his small, personal gun, repeated later, symbolizes his immature manliness, and reckless attitude toward violence).

Although Linda is Nick’s girlfriend (and even promises to marry Nick during the reception), Michael’s looks at her, and his aborted attempt at a kiss while inebriated, show he has affection for her. There is almost a menage a trois feel about them. Michael and Nick are as close as two men can be without being gay, and Nick smiles as he offers Linda to Michael for a dance. Linda leaves her father’s house and asks to stay in the men’s trailer while they are gone, emphasizing how she is part of their lives. During the festivities, a member of the elite military Green Beret force comes in for a drink. He is solemn, aloof, avoiding eye contact, and saying little. Michael, Nick and Steven acknowledge his patriotic efforts, and buy him a drink, toasting him. Nick says he hopes they will be sending him and his pals “where the bullets are flying,” and the fighting is the “worst.” The film’s attitude is “be careful what you wish for.” All the soldier says, as he raises his drink, is “Fuck it.” The men take offense, but the scene shows the contrast between naive romanticized attitudes toward combat and the disillusionment that comes from experiencing the brutality of war. The bride and groom follow a tradition of drinking wine from a vessel that splits in half, offering two separate drinking spouts. If they can sip the wine without spilling any, they will have good luck. A close-up shows a few red drops, resembling blood, soiling the wedding dress, a definite omen of what is to occur. After the celebration is over, a drunk Michael runs through town, stripping off his clothes. It may indicate that he is shedding his delineated ways, too, for a bit. However, he almost feels guilty about his actions, since he tells Nick, who catches up with him and throws a jacket over his lower body, that he “must be going out of my mind.” Nick, showing affection for his home town, says, “The whole thing. It’s right here.” He makes Mike promise that no matter what happens in Vietnam, he won’t leave Nick there. Mike must uphold this promise, one way or another.

In the mountains (these scenes were actually shot in Washington state - no mountains like these exist in Pennsylvania, nor does the elk, standing in for a deer), Michael is back in control mode. He is dressed and ready for the hunt, unlike his friends, who are still wearing their wedding clothes, and must change, while they joke around. Stan apparently is never prepared for these expeditions, and this time he forgot his boots. Michael is tired of his lack of readiness, and refuses to give Stan his extra pair. The others are agreeable, and Nick throws Stan the boots. Michael, angry, fires off a round from his rifle, like a warning shot, startling the men. In the mountains, we hear symphonic religious music, echoing that which accompanied the nuptials. This place is Michael’s church which merges him with nature in a primal religious rite, where there must be the sacrifice of the deer. Michael, according to his rules, takes the animal with one shot. The men return to town and go to John’s bar and drink a bit and act rowdy. They shake the beer cans, and spray the foam, imitating the flames of the steel mill before and the napalm to come. They then settle down and show their quiet side as they listen in silence to John’s melancholy piano playing.
Compared to the slow and expository pace of the first part of the movie, the beginning of the next section which occurs in Vietnam is quick and disorienting. Director Michael Cimino is making us feel that we are not in the comfort of home anymore. The controlled fires of the steel plant turn into an inferno of destruction as an area is bombed. We do not see how the men train or how they became separated. We only see Michael, apparently wounded, rising up from the ground to use his flamethrower to incinerate enemy soldiers who are killing villagers, including women and children. Helicopters land, and among the soldiers deployed are Nick and Steven, who are surprised to catch up with Michael. Then there is a lot of enemy troops approaching. The story quickly jumps to a prisoner-of-war hut, where the three men are now held. The pace slows to show the famous intense and violent Russian roulette sequence, where the North Vietnamese soldiers force Asians and Americans to play their deadly game while the guards bet on the outcome. This part of the movie came under criticism at the time of its release by some who called it racist. It is true that the film does portray the Vietnamese in the scenes as barbaric, but it also shows the plight of how the South Vietnamese had to experience devastating chaos. However, the focus of the movie was not to take sides in a political argument, but instead to illustrate how war perverts human decency, and to present how the horrors of this conflict impacted average Americans.

Steven is hysterical as the captors dump the bodies from the elevated floor into the area of water below the hut. He plays the game, but swerves the gun away so he is only grazed when it discharges. The guards throw him into a cage with rats where he can barely get his face above the water level. Even amid this devastating situation, Michael is the calm, calculating one. He coldly writes off Steven. He tells the terrified Nick, already showing signs of withdrawal from reality in his eyes, that they must play each other using three bullets, and convinces the enemy soldiers to use the three rounds. After inflicting almost unbearable suspense on the audience as Michael and Nick play the game, Michael uses the pistol to kill the guards, along with the help of Nick who grabs a weapon. They free Steven and drift downstream on a large tree branch. An American helicopter attempts to rescue the men, but only can retrieve Nick, as Michael and Steven fall after grabbing onto the bottom of the aircraft. Steven falls on rocks, and shatters his legs. Michael, still trying to be the savior, carries Steven on his back until they meet up with a South Vietnamese convoy. Michael leaves Steven with the soldiers. The three friends are again separated.

Back in Saigon, we find a broken Nick at a military hospital. He pulls out a picture of Linda from his wallet, trying to hang onto the world he is drifting away from. All around him are maimed soldiers and bodies waiting to be put into coffins. When an insensitive bureaucrat questions him, he says his dog tags belong to the man next to him who has lost his arms. His response shows how he is losing his individuality as he identifies with the horrors around him. He can’t even provide the names of his parents, and he cries because he is drifting away from the memories that connect him to the past that he so loved. Later, when he is released, he tries to make a phone call home, but he can’t go through with it. He becomes a ghost of his former self, caught between this world and the next, losing that which tethered him to his previous life. He tries to recreate intimacy by calling a prostitute Linda, but the scene is a depraved version of what he had with his girlfriend. He sees a man he thinks is Mike, as he is still looking for his guardian angel to possibly save him, but it is not his old friend.
While wandering the streets of Saigon a single gunshot startles him. He gravitates toward the noise and encounters a Frenchman named Julien (Pierre Segui) who is sort of a demonic talent agent for lost souls who will do dangerous things since they no longer feel alive in this world. The French were occupiers in Vietnam before the United States, and Julien’s presence indicates how the country has defeated western nations before. Nick at first resists viewing the Russian roulette game inside. Here, hopeless men play the deadly game as others bet on their survival or death. Nick picks up the gun on the table between the two players, points it at himself, and pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. Julien knows he has his new client. The devastated Nick finds himself trapped in a repetitive hell which destroyed him and from which he can’t break free. What is strange is that we see Michael among those present (all men, by the way, indicating women are not participants in this self-destructive activity). Although not as damaged as Nick, Michael, too, can’t turn away from the perverse fascination with the horrors of war, and has become a dark voyeur who, as a paying spectator, enables the perverted game to happen. He sees Nick, but can’t catch up to him before Julien drives him away.
The movie returns to America. Linda, Stan, Axel, and John prepare a party at the trailer to welcome Michael home. But, Michael tells the taxi driver to pass the trailer, and take him to a motel. He is a visitor in his own town where he lived his once happy life. He does go to the trailer and reunites with Linda the next day, but the loss of Nick, who is AWOL, is palpable. That Linda views Michael as her connection to Nick can be seen as they kiss, and she holds up a sweater she has been knitting across Michael’s chest, as if trying to recreate her fiancee. Mike has Nick’s wallet somehow, and he previously looked at Linda’s photo, which stresses how he is Nick’s surrogate. Michael says his wounds are nothing to worry about and he is fine. Linda says she has a million things to do and her job at the market is great. But, then she breaks down and starts to cry, as she later does at the back of the market, hidden away from others. There is an attempt to put on a strong face among these people, but underneath they are shaken, the people at home representing the collateral damage connected to the casualties of war.

Michael reunites with Axel and Stan after their shift at the steel mill, but Stan’s asking Michael how it feels to be shot shows how those who have not experienced the real terror of combat act like tourists, only vicariously making a connection to soldiers. At John’s bar, Michael learns that Steven is home, but the men don’t know where he is. Only his wife Angela does, and she is a homeland casualty, uncommunicative and practically catatonic, staying in bed. Michael visits her. Her son, now a couple of years old, holds a toy gun and points it at Michael. The image implies that the violence never ends, being passed down through generations. Michael does not give the boy a smile, but instead his worried look seems to show recognition of mankind’s fate. After pressing Angela, she silently writes down a phone number. Since he probably feels guilty that he did not bring home Nick, and couldn’t protect Steven, Michael can’t find it in himself to reach out to Steven right away.
Back at the trailer, Linda asks Michael to go to bed with her so they can comfort each other in the absence of Nick. But, he can’t stay at the trailer at this point, probably because it reminds him of his past life with Nick, and says he feels too much “distance.” However, she follows him to the motel, and sleeps next to him. In a sense, she tries to bring the warmth of his prior life to him in his psychological exile, so that he may be able to eventually return emotionally to his home.
The men go hunting again. There is the holy music in the mountains playing as Michael has a deer in his sights. But, he no longer can shoot the animal, and fires a shot into the air, saying, and then shouting, to the animal, “Okay?” He breaks his own ritual, having seen how violence leads to the atrocities of war, and how his personal code was insufficient to save his comrades. When he returns to the hunting cabin, he finds Stan pointing his gun at Axel after the latter mocks Stan’s macho posturing. Michael, outraged at Stan’s lack of understanding the impact of violence, takes Stan’s gun, leaves only one bullet in a chamber, and pulls the trigger as he point it at Stan. There is no discharge, but Michael is recreating the Russian roulette game again, not only because he can’t escape its terrible hold on him, but because he wants Stan to feel what Michael had to actually go through. The distance between Michael and his friends is stressed as they drive home and part in silence after Michael’s extreme behavior.
Mike is now able to be with Linda at the trailer, but he looks at the mounted deer head, and thinks of what his friends had to endure in Vietnam. He calls Steven and then goes to the VA hospital where Steven is staying. It is a depressing place, where the men play bingo while the number caller offers hollow words of encouragement, such as, “I’m still satisfied with what I’ve got. That wonderful life I’ve lived.” Steven has both legs amputated, and tells Michael he doesn’t want to go home, because, he, too, doesn’t “fit.” There is a dark humor to Angela’s sad denial of reality by sending Steven socks, and the wheelchair confined Steven saying being at the VA is great because they have basketball and bowling there. Steven shows Michael multiple hundred dollar bills that keep arriving from Saigon. Michael realizes that it comes from Nick, who is still alive, and who set up a means of automatically sending his earnings from playing Russian roulette to Steven. Michael feels compelled to help Steven and Angela by taking Steven back to his home.

The failure of the United States’ protracted war in South Vietnam is evident as the Asian country falls apart, and refugees flee. In the midst of the American defeat resulting from participation in a disastrous and pointless war, we have the metaphor of Russian roulette symbolizing that self-inflicted harm to itself. In addition, the Russian-named deadly game is particularly ironic for Michael and his pals, given that they share a Russian heritage. Michael returns to Vietnam,trying to find Nick. He encounters Julien, and buys into the chance of playing against Nick. When he sees his old friend, Nick doesn’t even recognize him. He has track marks on his arms, so his addiction to drugs further shows his alienation from his former self. Michael tries to pull Nick mentally out of this hellish life, talking about Nick’s beloved trees that were in the mountains where they hunted. He tells Nick that he loves him. Nick shows some emotion, like he is starting to remember. But, when the gun is placed in his hand, he looks robotic again, the connection to the violence blocking any remaining humanity. He says, “One shot,” and Michael takes these words as encouragement that Nick is remembering. But, instead, Nick points the gun to his head, and this time the gun fires, killing Nick as Michael breaks down in loud crying while holding his friend. The “one shot” has turned outward violence into a suicidal act. Nick takes the place of the deer, symbolizing how the war has pointlessly sacrificed America’s own people.
The film ends with Nick’s funeral and a joining of friends, including Angela and Steven, at John’s bar following the sad ceremony. Michael fulfilled his promise to Nick, not leaving him in Vietnam, but not in the way Michael had intended. Not much is said, as Michael keeps looking at Linda for signs of any help she may need to endure the ordeal. They try to be strong, focusing on making eggs and coffee. But, a sobbing John starts to hum and sing “God Bless America.” Then Linda picks up the song, and the others join in. It is an appropriate song, since it contains the words, “guide her,” indicating the need to steer the country on a safe path, a need as relevant as ever today.

Linda says at one point to Michael, “Did you ever think life would turn out like this?” He, the man who does not like surprises and wants to bet on a sure thing, says “no.” War changes everything.

The next film is The Contender.