Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The American Lawyer has a Tony Mauro piece on The Institute for Justice.

Via Volokh.
Movie Review

Marc Forster's Finding Neverland: 2004 Cross-Dressing as 1904

Marc Forster's Finding Neverland retraces the inspiration for Peter Pan to the friendship of its author, Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), with the rambunctious, fatherless Llewelyn Davies boys whom he meets one day in London's Kensington Gardens. To me the movie engages in this work of literary history with an intellectually soporific reverence for its subject. I don't care about Peter Pan that much, but I'd find the movie's awe tedious even if it were retracing the inspiration for A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest.

The script engages in the most tiresome form of dramatic irony, when Dustin Hoffman as Charles Frohman, the theatrical producer Barrie works with, voices serious reservations about the new play manuscript both on artistic and commercial grounds. It's tiresome because the moviemakers so clearly believe the audience will "know" Frohman was wrong. His harumphing during rehearsals constitutes what I think of as the "Rembrandt, this is madness!" aspect of artist biographies (after a bad moment in the 1936 British biopic starring Charles Laughton). The artist is busy on a work the audience knows is a masterpiece and someone tells him that the innovations we now prize him for are "madness." This turns biography into hagiography: the subject isn't a mere artist working through his aesthetic ideas, he's Christ among the doubters and Pharisees. (As if the canon of great art were a matter of revelation transmitted across the generations rather than a neverending communal exercise of discrimination. This isn't limited to artist biographies: the entire plot of The Miracle Worker involves Annie Sullivan producing a miracle to convince Helen's unbelieving father of the rightness of her educational approach.)

But it's fundamentally false in another way as well. Artists adapt the traditions at hand to their expressive needs, and this process is more interesting to contemplate--in no small part because it's pretty much always the truth--than thinking of them as creating a wholly original work out of nothing. (Such contemplation is one of the less immediate, conceptual benefits of a blockbuster retrospective of an idiosyncratic stylist like Piet Mondrian or Jackson Pollock.)

In the case of Barrie and Peter Pan, even a glancing survey of the history of the English theater will tell you that, however imaginative, Barrie's play falls within the conventions of Christmas pantomime, starting with the cross-dressing Principal Boy fighting the forces of evil and including the audience participation to revive Tinker Bell. (Click here for a discussion of whether Peter Pan, which opened at the end of December in 1904, is technically a Christmas pantomime, as some hold.) The way Barrie drew inspiration from the Llewelyn Davies boys appears to be accurate enough in Finding Neverland, allowing for some major modifications. For example, their father was alive when Barrie befriended the family. (Click here for Terry Windling's article in The Endicott Studio about Barrie and the "lost" Llewelyn Davies boys.) But in the movie Barrie's transformation of their inspiration into a theatrical offering is far more myth than history.

As for the rest--Barrie's longing for Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the boys' widowed mother, despite his own marriage, her mother's determination to get her remarried respectably, and her terminal illness--such pleasure as this material gives comes from the actors. Johnny Depp as Barrie, Kate Winslet as Sylvia, Radha Mitchell as Barrie's wife, and Julie Christie as Sylvia's mother are highly skilled, and surprisingly nuanced. Nothing is ascetically underdone or coarsely overdone.

Depp's performance is, for him, unusually attuned to the details of the text, especially in Barrie's careful interactions with his wife. I say "unusually" because, as What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and Donnie Brasco show, naturalistic character delineation is not generally his forte. Not that he's bad in those movies. He has too much delicacy to be bad bad, although he was pretty hopeless as the macho lieutenant in Before Night Falls and really weak as the homicidal writer in Secret Window. Unlike that other "face" Billy Crudup he's not a technical wiz, but he's probably too fastidious to get down with that proud amateur John Waters, to judge from Cry-Baby. Which is not to say he's too vain to go skanky. He does some truly memorable sketch acting as the transvestite Bon Bon in Before Night Falls, preserving his moue and barely fluttering his fake eyelashes as he removes the hero's five-part manuscript from his rectum.

Altogether Depp has been most memorable in puppety roles, whether grave like Edward Scissorhands or manic like Ed Wood. But even in Ed Wood and, though this is apparently a lonely opinion, in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Depp doesn't reveal a distinctive high comic style. His popularity in Pirates just shows that likeability and a fun-dad willingness to play the clown, which Finding Neverland similarly relies on, can serve in the place of timing and delivery.

Depp always gives his beautifully broad, angular face and an unblinking commitment to his roles, but the conception, not to say the costuming, does a lot of the work for him. His judiciousness in selecting roles isn't in finding challenges as an actor but in finding catchy roles suited to his limitations. You could say his range is limited but it's really his approach. Which is fine. He seems aware of, and comfortable with, his limitations, and because he chooses offbeat projects there's usually something besides the acting to pay attention to anyway. As an additional benefit, since his pictures tend to play into his pantomimic reserve, even when they're arty misfires the embarrassment doesn't stick to him, as it does, or should, to Sean Penn giving his earnest all to the purposely, torturously drab 21 Grams or The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

Still, Depp's limitations are limitations. I have no problem looking at him for two hours, but there's no conflict, suspense, or threat when he looks back because he doesn't have depths as an actor to draw on. (He's never done anything that felt as dangerous as Javier Bardem's campfire flirtation with the soldiers in Before Night Falls, although I believe he'd be willing to give it a go.) In the end, Depp doesn't seem fully animate, which may be why we can take so much winsomeness from a grown man (though not as much as he hawks in Benny & Joon). He lets us play with him like a doll.

The acting honors thus go to Winslet, fully intuitive in a way Depp isn't. Her forthright, appraising gaze framed in that handsome face suggests, as it did in Iris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both an openness to experience and a definite, personal way of taking it in.

It just seems a little late in the day to be lamenting Edwardian repression. As adeptly and tastefully as the emotions are elicited, they're conceived of in a way that constantly threatens to revert from naturalism to melodrama. (Possibly the result of the movie's having been adapted from a play, Allan Knee's The Man Who Was Peter Pan.) Would anybody in the audience second the icy Mrs. Barrie's social ambitions? One of the picture's best fantastic touches comes when the Barries open the doors of their adjacent bedrooms--hers onto a void and his onto a sunlit garden. Unfortunately this touch also reinforces the melodrama: good husband, bad wife. (Why should modern audiences be pushed like in-laws to take sides in a dissolving marriage? Failed marriages aren't referendums on the spouses' personalities, with a winner and a loser. From a disinterested point-of-view the problem isn't what the wife cares about but that she and her husband care about different things.)

As for that crisply domineering mother, Christie now has a theatrical command that she didn't when she was young, but we're not asked to respect the mother's power that the actress can now quite regally display. Nor are the moviemakers able to imagine what value there would be in having a maternal guarddog at the gate. In fact, the mother is granted entrance to our good graces only when she apologizes for her formidable personality at the end. This frees us to dismiss her intentions for her widowed daughter and fatherless grandsons, from the perspective of our "correct" 2004 convictions about marriage and love and family and money.

Finding Neverland thus bemoans the falseness and stiffness of Edwardian family life without capturing it authentically. There's a lot of talk about grieving that sounds pretty contemporary, for instance, just as Mitchell is too thin to have been considered beautiful in 1904. Which is to say, the script doesn't work through the tensions between 1904 desires and propriety in 1904 terms (as Henry James's The Golden Bowl does so magnificently).

Some of this may be quibbling, especially since the movie can't help but be affecting in the passages dealing with the two-stage orphaning of the boys, and it will probably function in a straightforwardly representative way for people who are fond of Peter Pan and even for people who just like playing with kids and dogs. But it doesn't do well by its more complex ambitions: it needs to nail down the corseted, parched rigidity of the era's bourgeois mores in order to show how strong the pressure is in the direction of imaginative release for a well-behaved fantasist like Barrie.

Perhaps the moviemakers approach the subject too literally. It may be that connecting the familiar characters and props from the play to situations in Barrie's life at the time, in essence decrypting the play for us, isn't the best way to dramatize Barrie's need to transform the too-real into the unreal. This detective-like approach can be rewarding in literary criticism, although it requires an unwavering fidelity to facts and a familiarity with the tradition the artist worked within that Finding Neverland lacks. (The approach also seems to bait our attention with will-o'-the-wispy Peter Pan and then switch him for his mortal author and his unrequited love story.) As drama, the movie offers only clichés about Barrie's creative gift and its sources, which presumably preceded his acquaintance with the Llewelyn Davies family and existed apart from Peter Pan. Finding Neverland moved me at times but didn't transport me, either to Edwardian London in the first instance, or from there to Neverland.

For a less literal-minded approach to literary historic anecdote, watch Gavin Millar's Dreamchild (1985), from a script by Dennis Potter. In Dreamchild the aged Alice Liddell comes to realize the emotion the Reverend Charles Dodgson had invested in telling stories to amuse her and her sisters some seventy years earlier (which he developed and published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll). Like Finding Neverland it lays its foundation over literary excavations into the origins of a famous work of fantasy; unlike Finding Neverland, however, it erects a new structure of its own atop that foundation. Dreamchild stands intriguingly to the side of Carroll's Alice books and works of psychosexual speculation about the author. Finding Neverland overvalues Peter Pan as a flight of fancy but would never itself be mistaken for one, even though it's as much romance as fact.

A last note on Finding Neverland's failure to recreate reality circa 1904: A friend repeats to Barrie the town gossip that he's sexually interested in the Llewelyn Davies boys (all of whom are underaged) and Barrie's response struck me as the reaction a man would have to a general discussion of the topic (Who could do such a thing to innocent children?) not the reaction of an innocent man to an accusation of what, at the time, would have been almost literally unspeakable. Click here to read a current assessment of the truth of the charge on The Straight Dope.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Is there some sort of brain enzyme that kicks in in your early twenties and makes you start enjoying musicals? I remember hating them when I was younger. I caught Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on TMC over the weekend. It's so un-PC but so much fun.
Life update: Bleh. It's January in Washington, and I've added Lands' End long underwear to my commuting gear.

Saturday's projected snowstorm was a bust down here, dropping only four inches. Still, Metro is a mess. The ride this morning took over an hour.

They're taking down the stands in Lafayette Park. I didn't go into town for the Inauguration, preferring instead to delight in Chris Matthews' ramblings from Kate's couch. Laura's winter white was elegant. Highlight of the morning was CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin mistaking Justice Kennedy for Justice Rehnquist.

College basketball perks up the dreary winter, though it can't be the distraction it once was because I can only afford so many distractions and there are now three different CSIs.

I never feel like I do much other than work, but the free time always seems to fill up, too. The other day someone wanted to schedule dinner and the earliest I could manage was March 13th.

Bring on the spring.
Jonathan Rauch says the current Social Security debate is about conservative social counter-engineering:

Government should help provide for unforeseeable contingencies: tsunamis, unemployment, open-heart surgery. But if there is one event in all of human life that is wholly foreseeable, it is the advent of old age. Why, then, shouldn't people save for their own retirement, instead of relying on welfare from the government -- which is what Social Security, as currently constituted, really is?
Rauch calls Social Security reform "a moral issue with economic overtones."
If this makes you want to shake these people till their teeth rattle, just think how poor Karl Rove must feel:

A coalition of major conservative Christian groups is threatening to withhold support for President Bush's plans to remake Social Security unless Mr. Bush vigorously champions a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

In a confidential letter to Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, the group said it was disappointed with the White House's decision to put Social Security and other economic issues ahead of its paramount interest: opposition to same-sex marriage.
The group says its "level of discontent" with Bush is at an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, which leads me to wonder what's up with their scale. If Kerry had won, they could have been -- at most -- only 20 percent more discontented with him than they are now with Bush. Or maybe they would have made it go to 11.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The art of the acceptance speech, including a swipe at the "dewey self-regard" of Julia Roberts. Nice.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

A tidbit in a Jay Nordlinger piece on West Virginia's tort-mad legal system sheds light on an element of the state's culture exacerbating the problem:

One close observer calls it, with a bit of a twinge, the "Appalachian mentality." As he explains, "This is a culture that does not look kindly on success," a culture not likely to be sympathetic to doctors or other relatively high-earners, a culture of resentment, blame, and entitlement. ... As this observer puts it, "It's hard to win a case if you drive a Mercedes to it."
I have noticed this for a long time. It fascinates me that some of the reddest parts of America can also be the most contemptuous of people who have achieved financial success through hard work. But I don't think a sense of entitlement really has much to do with it. It's more the opposite: the idea that nobody in the community is entitled to have noticeably more money than everybody else, and that any relatively high-earning, well-educated professional is a materialistic, too-big-for-his-britches slickster.

The doctors and lawyers in small towns can be quietly resented -- even by their patients and clients -- as slick yuppies because their houses are a little bigger and their cars a little more expensive than is typical around town. Their wives are disliked because they wear nice clothes and push their children to do well in school.

Result: juries who give mega-yachts to out-of-state trial lawyers at the expense of the gynecologist down the street who happens to drive a Mercedes.
Movie Review

Ray, Kinsey, The Aviator: Life Stories

It's easy to understand why biographical movies were made about Ray Charles, Alfred Kinsey, and Howard Hughes, and I was looking forward to all of them. But despite fascinating central figures the movies don't hold together because like almost all biopics they're an oil-and-water blend of the genres of romance and naturalism. Nowadays audiences expect the famous subject's motives and experiences to be addressed with naturalistic frankness but apparently still want the movie to be shaped as heroic romance in which the "knight's" quest is to become the artist, scientist, mogul we want to see a movie about. (Back in the '30s before unflinching naturalism was possible the romance approach to biography in American movies like The Story of Louis Pasteur made more sense.) In Ray, for example, we are not put off to learn that Ray Charles was a womanizing junkie. The problem is how to work that in with his heroic quest to become the (alternately moody and roof-raising) synthesizer of root musical styles familiar to us.

To deal with this issue Beyond the Sea features imaginary dialogues in which the young Bobby Darin chides the adult he's grown into for gussying up "their" childhood in the movie we're watching. But Beyond the Sea is such a pedestrian amalgam of Brecht and "This Is Your Life" that these attempts to address the contradiction between naturalism and romance just make you wince. (Click here for my review.)

Most biopics, of course, aren't even this self-aware and romance simply wins out despite the facts. According to this article by David Ritz in Slate, Ray misleadingly implies that when Charles kicked his heroin habit in 1965 he permanently recovered from his addiction. In reality, he drank gin daily and smoked pot nightly thereafter until diagnosed with alcoholic liver disease and hepatitis C. Unheroic facts like that don't fit the biopic romance and so must go. (Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as the Algonquin wit and underachieving alcoholic writer Dorothy Parker, is the only American biopic I can think of that gives its subject's debilitating problems their due. The movie has the same bracing canniness and candidness about Parker's circle as Ann Douglas's work of literary history Terrible Honesty.)

Heroic romance is loosely structured as a series of adventures leading to the hero's climactic victory over the forces of evil. But biopics are generally about the subject's working life and the person we want to see a movie about is the person who came up with distinctive solutions (in a notable personal style) to specific problems. (With entertainers the personal style may in reality have been the solution, but the movies rarely show the development of that. Instead they focus on the entertainers' uphill struggle for headline opportunities to show their stuff, which is recognizably theirs from the start.) Unfortunately, nobody's working life is very dramatic (as opposed to pictorial): the process by which anybody solves problems does not generally lend itself to minute depiction or extended discussion of a kind that general audiences will find interesting.

For instance, audiences at The Aviator would probably not care to hear Howard Hughes talk through the thoughts that led to his decision to countersink the rivets on the body of an airplane. They will sit through a scene of Hughes ordering his designer to countersink them, and they may like the high-gloss shot of him caressing the fuselage to make sure that his orders have been carried out. But what audiences really want is for Hughes to get up in the plane, especially if they've read about the movie's recreations of his crash landings. Ray takes an even shorter cut to Charles's discovery of his musical style. When he steps in for an absent musician in Seattle he plays for about ten seconds before the woman who owns the joint announces that he's saved the day. Later, he's told by record producers that they don't want to record him if he's going to imitate Nat King Cole so he stops immediately.

Even if the moviemakers could figure out a way to film the subject's working processes in a naturalistic documentary style that audiences would enjoy--and the sequences in Kinsey that explain the professor's interviewing techniques by showing him train his assistants to more effectively ask him probing questions about his own sexual activity are surprisingly snappy--that's still a different matter from presenting a dramatic character. Worse, the fact that biopics are structured as heroic romance makes the possibility of dramatic interpretation of character more remote: the knights of romance embody noble ideals and elicit only unmixed reactions. Their temptations, and hence their complexity, tend to be allegorically externalized. But you can't create complexity merely by setting the character flaws next to the heroic accomplishments.

In this one respect Kinsey is easily the best of the recent batch of biopics. Writer-director Bill Condon has come up with a nifty ironic conception of Alfred Kinsey, his sex-researcher hero. The thing that makes Kinsey so unlikely as the front man for a sexual revolution--the fact that he's a socially ungainly, obsessively methodical entomologist--is also what makes him perfect for the job. Kinsey's reaction against the vigilant Puritanism of his Methodist father (who fulminates against zippers as tools of modern depravity) has not made the son a libertine but a man who approaches everything with scientific objectivity, even his own sexual difficulties on his wedding night. What a relief it is to him as a man of science to learn it's because his penis is so large. Kinsey's peculiar detachment is a plus once he turns to "collecting" the sexual habits of his fellow Americans, the way he had collected hundreds of thousands of samples of the gall wasp, because it gives him respectability as well as methodological rigor. And it prevents him from getting emotionally unbalanced even when he and his wife start generating some sexual statistics of their own (together and separately, with the same man).

The problem with Kinsey is that Condon tells Kinsey's story, from childhood to the mushroom-cloud impact of his research, as a romance in which he overcomes his oppressive father. On the one hand the father-son scenes are sub-analytically banal, and on the other there's no dramatic connection between the brilliantly ironic character Condon has formulated and Kinsey's achievement of his quest. The movie de-evolves into a melodramatic romance in which the dark forces of repression and ignorance amass to cut the funding for Kinsey's work. Uncomprehending "fathers" spring up on all sides. (Read this article by Christina Larson, reprinted from the Washington Monthly, for more about Kinsey's character and the controversies surrounding his work.)

Ray has a more basic, and usual, problem: the telling bits of Charles's character never come together interpretively. One of the first things we see the adult Charles do before he's become famous is to get past a racist cross-country bus driver by claiming to have been in Normandy on D-Day. Later when we see him cheating on his wife and telling her that his heroin habit isn't a problem, we are able to think for ourselves that the conman always ends up conning himself, but the movie doesn't put two and two together. I don't think you can justify it by saying that Ray has too much on its mind--not just Ray Charles's story but the progress of African-American music as the epic of African-Americans generally--because it doesn't have much mind at all.

Yet because it's about a musical performer, Ray comes across at its best moments in a way the more intelligently even Kinsey never quite manages to. Some of the performances of Ray Charles's greatest hits send you right over the void at the center of the movie. One extended sequence, which is like a mini-musical about Charles's transition from an affair with backup singer Mary Ann Fisher to one with Margie Hendricks, is the most skillful the director Taylor Hackford has ever put on film.

The childhood flashback scenes in Ray, showing how Charles's dirt-poor mother relentlessly trained him to be self-reliant after he went blind as a boy, are also far more effective than the childhood scenes in Kinsey. They are not entirely unobjectionable. As an adult Charles always credits his mother with his independence but it's kind of silly to make every word out of her mouth an exhortation. Mother and son have no casual moments together and he has no random memories of her. But the material is primally moving in a way few people will be able to resist, and the specifics just give it more grip--as if going blind as a child weren't challenge enough, Charles is also black, poor, and country in the Depression-era American South. (Sharon Warren who plays the mother also deserves a lot of the credit: she's pretty fierce. But if you want to see the romance of the African-American son of the South given a fuller naturalistic treatment catch Martin Ritt's Sounder (1972), with Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, and Kevin Hooks, on TCM on February 25 at 4:00 pm.)

As Ray makes clear, thrillingly at times, the subject's working life gives the biopic something to show, at any rate, but not necessarily a way to bring out character explicitly, in dialogue. And no Hollywood biopic can resist stating its ideas about the character in unambiguous prose, whether or not those ideas have been interestingly developed. In Ray, Kinsey, and the Cole Porter movie De-Lovely (click here for my review), much of this work is left to the subjects' wives (making the movies partial allegories).

It works best for Ashley Judd in De-Lovely because Linda Porter's growing dissatisfaction with her husband's indifference to consequences increasingly merges with Judd's slightly melancholy star persona. Laura Linney as Kinsey's wife Mac isn't as lucky because Condon hasn't come up with a concise character to match her husband's. Mostly Mac is as matter-of-fact about sex as her husband but later she also feels the social disapproval of people in Bloomington, Indiana, where Kinsey teaches at IU, and the two sides of her character never quite adhere. (They're like two sides of different coins.) Mac's most successful function is to see, when Kinsey cannot, how much he has become like his father, especially in his relationship with their son. But this just saddles her with responsibility for the least interesting element of the movie. Kerry Washington as Ray Charles's wife (his first wife, though their divorce has been cosmetically eliminated from the movie) has the most thankless variation of this role: nagging. She shades his character for us at the expense of her own.

Because biopics are shaped as romance, the hero must be faced with internal temptation that threatens his quest as well as external opposition to it. And since they do it without a sophisticated sense of how allegory works they mostly turn into melodrama. The temptation and opposition are typically the elements most clumsily adapted from the life story to the romance form, to boot. Ray has an advantage in that Charles's temptations--heroin and women--actually are temptations. But his opposition takes the standard form of people telling him that he can't do artistically what he wants to do, and then in the '60s it takes the form of prosecution for drugs as payback for his refusal to play in segregated musical venues. (He makes this decision after about five seconds' deliberation in what is arguably the least dramatic treatment of the Civil Rights Movement on film.) Charles is thus shown as kicking heroin in order to defeat the forces of racism. To treat anything to do with addiction as heroic is to be truly lost in the romance of your subject.

The irony of Kinsey's character is that he isn't given to temptation in the usual sense (except to be as uncompromising as his priggish father). My favorite moment uses this for comedy when Kinsey goes to an underground gay bar in Chicago to interview "subjects." He explains what he's after to one queen who turns to his companion and says something like, "Mary here's a professor and wants to talk to us about sex." We know we've been in the realm of romance, however, when Lynn Redgrave faces the camera in the last minutes to tell Kinsey how reading his book enabled her to express her lesbian love for a co-worker, and to thank him for saving her life. This contradicts Kinsey's own professed impartiality in talking about sex and is just Condon's way of assuring the liberal audience for this movie that Kinsey's romance is their romance.

Amusingly, Howard Hughes's taste for dating Hollywood actresses is not seen as a temptation in The Aviator. It's presented as heroic. Instead, his temptation takes the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which the movie utterly fails to incorporate coherently into the romance of the daring industrial outsider who transforms aviation and moviemaking. Forget about whether Hughes actually did transform aviation (he certainly was not an important moviemaker) and focus on the generic structure of the movie. I'd prefer greater naturalism in biographical movies generally, so this is an odd complaint, but Hughes's obsessive-compulsive disorder seems to have been included in the script simply because it was true. The problem is that it doesn't fit with the rest of the movie, which is consciously romanticized, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as a blazing tungsten wire of a hero who, in the twenty years covered by the script, occasionally goes dark but doesn't seem to get any older (Hollywood's ultimate dream).

The Aviator decomposes into a predictable melodrama in which Juan Trippe, head of Pan Am, conspires with Maine senator Owen Brewster to get a state monopoly on international flights. Hughes, owner of TWA, battles his way out of his (tackily photogenic) psychotic funk to face them down with quips and facts and counter-accusations at Senate hearings. I also found the attention to Hughes's working life more scattered than in Ray or Kinsey. In addition, the flight sequences not only look computer-generated but the synthetic swooping camerawork is so disorienting the planes don't even look as if they're flying forward. (No movie directed by Martin Scorsese has ever felt more like work for hire. Scorsese was brought in by DiCaprio after Michael Mann dropped out so it's not surprising that it feels impersonal. All the same I can't believe another director would have got such enthusiastic reviews for the same quality of work. Once seasonal awards fever has abated, I doubt anyone will think of The Aviator as a pendant to Raging Bull, his blood-and-torment biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta.)

One of the obvious reasons biopics get made is the opportunity for one icon to step into another's shoes. Liam Neeson securely embodies the brain-tickling combination in Kinsey of singlemindedness and obliviousness, but it isn't hooked up to the movie's belief in the researcher's heroism. As a result, the outsized romance framework progressively makes Neeson seem smaller, paler, and squeakier, especially as he loses control over his researchers and influence with his patrons.

Jamie Foxx replicates Ray Charles's body language spectacularly, and avoids making the man too likable. Foxx seems as if he's able, and willing, to depict any characteristic with total honesty. But he doesn't have the dramatic authority or, given the need to be recognizable as Ray Charles, the freedom to fill in the character where it hasn't been written. He's more than respectable as Charles but finally his hilarious performance in Booty Call (1997) is more fully achieved. (In Ray Foxx is as ideally cast, and nearly as limited by the deficiencies of the movie, as Donald O'Connor in the infinitely more fraudulent Buster Keaton Story (1957).)

In The Aviator Leonardo DiCaprio is at a huge disadvantage because of how wide the gap is between the Hughes romance and the buggily prosaic obsessive-compulsive disorder. His performance has two modes, burning and burnt-out. The men's room scene in which Hughes is so paralyzed by his fear of contamination he can't hand a towel to a man on crutches makes the hopelessness of the movie's conception plain. How can they not play this for comedy of some sort? But they'd never dare to because that might make Hughes seem merely human which would really deflate the romance blimp.

The Aviator is certainly lively, with guest-star villains Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe and Alan Alda in impressively unemphatic form as Senator Brewster, and a number of Hughes's famous squeezes, including Cate Blanchett overdoing it as a Katharine Hepburn who is too constantly being "Katharine Hepburn." Among the ladies, I preferred Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, who comes across as a character first and the identifiable celebrity only incidentally. When she rejects Hughes's marriage proposal by purring, "You're too crazy for me," I knew just how she felt. He's too crazy for everybody connected with the movie.

To be fair, the triumph of conventional romance over naturalism may be unavoidable in biopics because we want to see the "inspiring" life story of someone only if we've romanticized him as the vessel of his achievements. We may not want the facts to be misrepresented but we don't want the glory to be dimmed, either. (Read Stanley Crouch's obituary for Ray Charles in Slate to see what I mean: "Charles was one of those special few who expands the democratic experience by proving that neither color nor a handicap mean that one is less a man…." How do you dramatize that sort of reverence?) The day-to-day man, on the other hand, was a real person and can be recreated only with the detail-by-detail approach of naturalism.

The generic challenge, then, is always to see the flawed human in the hero and vice versa and to acknowledge his achievements while keeping them in perspective. Of course, it's extremely hard for a movie structured as romance to present what we would think of as a psychologically accurate portrait, no matter how many factual details are included. Pictures like Ray and Kinsey and The Aviator give us too much reality for the hagiographic approach to function but aren't truly committed to replicating what actually was, either. They don't lie about their heroes' well-publicized warts but they present a softened view of the warty men in the glow of their accomplishments, as if actual men could be synonymous with what they have come to mean to us. (I think a better approach would have to be much more offhanded about the subject's talent and fame, without the storybook sense of awe. Kinsey comes closest.)

The rare script, such as Robert Getchell's for the Patsy Cline story Sweet Dreams (1985), starring Jessica Lange, strings together the biographical events in a way that not only gives the star a coherent character to play but brings that character out in the romance episodes. Cline's ascent to stardom while battling with her mother and her husband intensifies without distorting the conception of the character. The character and the life story become two terms for the same fact, which feels undisguisedly factual. You cannot say as much of De-Lovely, Ray, Kinsey, Beyond the Sea, or The Aviator. A bumper crop is not always a good thing.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Lyric of the Day:
"Sometimes I fantasize
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars they burn below me..."
~ The Stone Roses, "Made Of Stone"

Happy Birthday:
Kirstie Alley
Jeff Bezos
Rush Limbaugh
Jack London
Howard Stern
Rob Zombie

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Lyric of the Day:
"I'm so glad it's today
And you're here."
~ Yes, "Sweetness"

Happy Birthday:
Mary J. Blige
Alexander Hamilton
Ashley Judd
Richard Posner
The Spotsylvania County (Virginia) School Board has reversed a policy requiring all students to stand and salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance (they didn't have to recite the words).

But there were objections to the change:

"It's disrespectful to those who are fighting and those who have died,'' Spotsylvania resident Angela Litton said. "Please stand for our soldiers who are fighting.''
In other words, Please force people to stand in a demonstration of respect they do not feel, thereby devaluing all genuine demonstrations of respect. Please, in the name of freedom, use the awesome power of the state to compel a trivial act of political expression.

Who are these people who show up at meetings and say things like this? Angela presumably went out of her way to get in her car and drive to this meeting to say the above. Even worse, she no doubt drove away feeling quite patriotic. Whoever taught her civics should be weeping.
The KC dined in style at Citronelle tonight in celebration of Richard Posner's birthday. We enjoyed our meal very much. Though I flinched when my entree arrived with Brussels sprouts, the cursed things were somewhat edible. (And that is absolutely the highest praise you will ever wrench from me for Brussels sprouts.)

UPDATE: Just received the wonderful news that a KC cousin was born this afternoon. Welcome to the world, little Joseph [middle name not yet determined]. May you live a life worthy of your illustrious birthday.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Judge Posner has published another book. Some might say he is the Stephen King of the legal world so far as volume and frequency of publication is concerned. This latest tome is about disasters. The Washington Post reports:
Horrific as the tsunamis that ravaged South Asia were, Richard A. Posner is worried about calamities many thousand times worse. Finding the puzzles presented by his day job on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit insufficiently challenging, Posner has seized upon the risk of mega-catastrophes, particularly events that threaten to extinguish all human life on Earth. His central question in Catastrophe is: How should society respond to the possibility of global warming, nuclear terrorist attacks, planet-obliterating asteroids and similar disasters?
What I am most tickled by is the second sentence above. Perhaps if Judge Posner were more concerned about following legal precedent, he would be busier with his day job. (Said the New Yorker a few years back in a profile of Judge Posner: "Posner delights in the brinksmanship of clever rhetoric. The trick, he feels, is to be as frank as possible about the pragmatic motives behind a decision, while clothing them in just enough formalist legal language to enable the decision to pass as a legitimate judicial move.")
Something that I meant to post about a few weeks ago...

A group of former Office of Legal Counsel attorneys wrote a memo to Attorney General Ashcroft and others, criticizing the role that OLC has played during the Bush Administration. What undermines the memo, however, is a close look at the signatories. All 19 of them served under the Clinton (Reno) Justice Department. Two also served under Reagan.

To me, the memo thus becomes as meaningless as the letter sent by a group of former USSC clerks, criticizing the October 2000 term Supreme Court clerks that spoke to Vanity Fair about Bush v. Gore. Nomination Nation found this to be true upon a closer look at the signatories to that letter:
Of the 96 signatories (9 of which were never SCOTUS clerks), 65 of them clerked for one of the "five friends of Bush" -- the conservative majority in Bush v. Gore. 4 clerked for minority justices, and the rest of the ex-clerks' justices have retired or passed away, most if not all of which were conservatives (e.g. Chief Justice Burger, Justice White). Perhaps less surprising, the most common justice was Justice Kennedy, who coincidentally takes the hardest hits from the article.

Of those who were not ex-SCOTUS clerks, all are prominent conservatives. Among the signatories: former RNC General Counsel Jan Baran; Bush I Attorney General William Barr; Reagan and Bush I Attorney General Dick Thornburgh; Bush I White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray; Judge Kenneth Starr, who impeached President Clinton; former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who argued Bush v. Gore before the Court; and several high-ranking attorneys from the Office of Legal Counsel and Office of the Solicitor General in the Nixon, Reagan and Bush I administrations.
The breakdown of the list is here.

I'm sure this is not a very original observation now (although I haven't looked around much -- if you haven't picked up on it from my lack of blogging, I don't read much on the internet these days), it seemed like a glaring omission a few weeks ago when this memo first hit the headlines.
China Watch

John Tkacik Jr. from The Heritage Foundation reports on China's recent move to shore up their "legal" "right" to invade Taiwan.

The Chinese government seeks to put in place a "Anti-Secession Law," which they would call upon as a legal basis for invading Taiwan. Except, as Tkacik points out, they already have laws that give them a basis for invading Taiwan. But the interesting aspects of the article are not Tkacik's picking apart of Chinese policy -- for, seriously, does it really take much candlepower to do that? -- but rather his call on the U.S. to speak frankly in defense of Taiwan, a multi-party democracy, and be open in its commitment to democracy.

Says Tkacik:
[A]bove all, the United States must be candid with the American people, with our democratic allies and friends in Asia, and above all with the Chinese dictatorship, about the American commitment to help Taiwan defend itself. Although the State Department seems abashed that the U.S. helps defend democratic Taiwan, it could find an eloquent statement of U.S. policy over at the Defense Department. Last April 21, Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman explained to the House International Relations Committee that "the President's National Security Strategy, published in September 2002, calls for 'building a balance of power that favors freedom.' Taiwan's evolution into a true multi-party democracy over the past decade is proof of the importance of America's commitment to Taiwan's defense. It strengthens American resolve to see Taiwan's democracy grow and prosper." That sums it up nicely.
A good column. Go read the rest of it.
Quote of the Day:
"I base my fashion taste on what doesn't itch."
~ Gilda Radner

Song of the Day:
Duncan Sheik, "Half-Life"

Happy Birthday:
Pat Benetar
George Foreman
Rod Stewart

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist."
~ Richard Nixon

Song of the Day:
La Caution, "The a la Menthe"

Happy Birthday:
Joan Baez
Dave Matthews
Richard Nixon
Jimmy Page
Norm Ornstein says a presidential inauguration is a logical time for a terrorist strike on Washington:

Here is the nightmare scenario: Right at noon, a suitcase nuclear bomb goes off somewhere on the Mall--a bomb small enough to fit in a satchel but powerful enough to devastate six to ten square city blocks, or most of the area between the Capitol and the White House. (Such a bomb could easily wreak havoc even if outside the zone of protection contemplated by security authorities this year.)

The result would be mass chaos in Washington. There is no president to be sworn in at noon. The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 says that, after the president and vice president, next in line is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, followed by the Cabinet in order of the creation of each office. But there is no vice president, speaker, or president pro tempore; all are dead.
Ornstein says we haven't done enough to prevent this.

On a personal note, this adds a new element to my decision about whether to attend the inauguration party at my place of employment, which is two blocks from the White House.
The was-Lincoln-gay debate continues.

In unrelated news, the KC is settling down to watch football for the afternoon.
Mini Movie Review

Kate and I saw Ocean's 12 on Friday night. Kate thought it didn't make any sense, and I was too busy being sick from the jerky camera work to follow the plot. Two thumbs down.
"The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" -- in which it is revealed that white Southern Baptists are more likely than any other group to object to having black neighbors.
Bad tsunami quotes. Like "Indonesia tsunami victims hunt food, flood hospital."
Movie Review

Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda: A View from the West

Writer-director Terry George's Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of how Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the luxury Hotel des Milles Collines in the Rwandan capital Kigali, used the skills of negotiation and bribery necessary to keep the hotel supplied and operating to save over a thousand members of the Tutsi minority from the Hutu majority's genocidal attacks in 1994. This historic episode can't help but be moving as Tutsis, including Paul's wife, converge on the hotel for safety, which depends increasingly on Paul's machinations as the UN forces pull out and leave them to the ruthless Hutu-controlled army, gendarmerie, and militias.

The movie would have greater effect by far, however, if it had been developed as a work of naturalism, that is, if the story's structure grew out of historical reportage and analysis. Instead, George shapes the story as heroic romance in which Paul is the knight whose quest is forced on him by political events. His spirit expands as the threat to the Tutsis increases and it's one of those movies that's intended to make audiences' spirits "soar." But when, during a break in the massacres, Paul's wife tells him he's a good man, you realize that the thoroughly conventional question of whether Paul will brave all dangers to embrace virtue or not is the center of the movie, just as it is in any other chivalric romance. As good a man as circumstances appear to have made of Paul Rusesabagina, treating his story as heroic romance makes it less distinctive than a fuller attention to those world-stage circumstances would have.

As a result of the focus on Paul you won't learn much about the historic forces that produced the genocide, which was catalyzed by fascist exhortations over the radio by Hutu hardliners after the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana's jet was shot down. The movie couldn't tell you much about the genocide without expanding the focus beyond Paul and the hotel. And a further reason it does not do this is because its political vision focuses not on what the Africans did to each other but on the western forces' failure to intervene. But you don't learn much about that, either, because the bad international decisionmakers aren't characters in the movie at all.

Nick Nolte does play a UN military peacekeeper who's ordered not to let his armed men use their guns to protect the Tutsis. When he learns that the UN has decided to abandon the Tutsis to their fate he is given a bizarre speech to Paul: "The West, all the superpowers, they think you're dirt. They think you're dung. You're not even a nigger. You're African." This is the voice of a westerner venting about western attitudes toward Africans. It's spoken directly to Paul and yet it's a sign that although the moviemakers have fashioned the story as Paul's heroic romance their political attitudes aren't really focused on these Africans, either. No, Paul and his fellow Rwandans aren't "niggers," they're victims of our geopolitical maneuvering, they're the nameless dead we--meaning, of course, westerners--should feel guilty about.

This isn't to say that horror and disgust at the departure of the armed peacekeepers aren't appropriate, but the movie generates those emotions in the most routine way. Compare it to this searching, balanced essay by Charles Peña on the Cato Institute website. Peña is aware of the degree to which U.S. intervention may exacerbate international crises and is opposed on principle to our acting as the world's policeman. He further notes the recent debacle in Somalia that led to the decision not to intervene in Rwanda. In addition, he points out that even someone in favor of stopping genocide faces the difficulty of deciding when a specific situation constitutes genocide and in Rwanda the possible futility of any intervention because of the rapidity of the killing ("intervention would not have averted genocide, though it could have saved a great many lives"). Nonetheless, Peña feels that "Rwanda presented an unambiguous moral imperative," and it's only when someone has offered you this breadth of information and analysis that you feel he's justified in saying, as Peña does: "The sad and shameful truth is that American politics and policy would allow the U.S. to become engaged in Bosnia-Herzegovina because it was in Europe, but not in Rwanda because it was in Africa."

The most interesting conceptual aspect of Hotel Rwanda is the irony that it's Paul's semi-corrupt business practices that (like Oskar Schindler's) save the day when there's nothing between the intended Tutsi victims and death. But George implements that irony very clumsily. It's painful to watch the opening scenes of Paul's palm-greasing and glad-handing because there's nothing else to look at as each piece is snapped into place. We understand we're witnessing Paul's daily practice but it doesn't feel in the least like something that occurs so regularly it's taken for granted. (And the movie isn't interested in irony, anyway. It's all about the romance of virtue.) George has nothing like the fluidity that Chris Menges showed in A World Apart (1988), his spectacularly well shot movie about a white anti-apartheid activist and her daughter in South Africa in the 1960s. (Menges is the peerless cinematographer of Neal Jordan's The Good Thief (2003), Jim Sheridan's The Boxer (1997), Clare Peploe's High Season (1988), Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields (1984), and Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983).)

And not all of Hotel Rwanda is so very high-minded. The suspense is numbingly predictable even before it becomes repetitious, and the sequence in which Paul thinks his wife and children have jumped from the roof gives you the kind of hyped-up work-over you'd expect from an Alan Parker movie. George co-wrote the scripts for In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer with Jim Sheridan, but writing here with Keir Pearson and directing himself he hasn't summoned the world-encompassing naturalism that is Sheridan's great, novelistic gift.

Given the movie's subject it seems trivial to say so, but the best reason to see Hotel Rwanda is to watch Don Cheadle as Paul and Sophie Okonedo as his wife Tatiana. Okonedo was the standout in Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things last year (click here for my review), but Cheadle has been around for a decade without landing a role that built on his exciting breakthrough performance in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). He may get his due now. Cheadle and Okonedo's faces are so sensitively mobile as they play off each other that the pleasure they give you as actors is almost comic. Which, oddly, rounds out the movie more than George, with his limited world view and his reliance on heroic romance, is able to do. The only part of the historical recreation that worked for me worked at a pretty low level--it's hard not to choke up when you see children threatened with machetes. But Paul and Tatiana's alertness to each other, their palpable interreliance, don't seem as if they could possible have resulted merely from rehearsals. When I say that I would happily watch Cheadle and Okonedo in anything, however, I don't mean more movies like Hotel Rwanda.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Movie Review

Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education: Collage

In Pedro Almodóvar's new movie Bad Education the successful young movie director Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is clipping bizarre news items for inspiration for his next project when a young man claiming to be Ignacio Rodríguez (Gael García Bernal), a friend of his from parochial school, walks in with a story based on their experiences there. That story, which we see dramatized as Enrique reads it, shows how Enrique and Ignacio, who had fallen in love with each other, were separated by the dominating headmaster Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Father Manolo's objections were not truly moral or spiritual: he had himself been molesting Ignacio and believed he was in love with the boy. In the story Ignacio has become a transvestite junkie and petty criminal and returns to the school where Father Manolo still exerts his iron grip to blackmail him for the cost of a sex-change operation.

As we go back and forth between reality and the story several twists develop involving the identity of the man who says he's Ignacio (but insists on being called Ángel) and Father Manolo's current life, but the story holds together in a tight little package. Almodóvar fashions the movie as a film noir, with the requisite illicit sex, betrayal, drug addiction, blackmail, and murder, but while the story is intricately worked out, we're never quite in it. The plot of a film noir, generically speaking, is an ironic romance in which the knight's quest is driven by vice instead of virtue. What makes film noir so compulsively watchable is that the morally inverted romance puts us in the position of rooting for the technically dark knight to get away with his vicious quest just as we normally root for a white knight to achieve his virtuous quest. The dark-knight protagonist of film noir presents us with a temptation that we're free to indulge without consequences because the plot isn't really happening to us.

The problem with Bad Education, then, is that Enrique's is the central perspective but the story isn't exactly happening to him, either. I don't mean to say that we can't eventually tell which episodes are meant to be "real," but that Enrique is as much an observer as a participant, if not more. Enrique is stirred, in a fairly quiet way, when Ignacio apparently re-enters his life, but he manages to get what he wants from the eye-scorching rough trade pretending to be Ignacio--sex as well as the story--while retaining his emotional control. He receives the story relatively passively, as the inspiration he's been waiting for.

One thing you can say for Bad Education is that Bernal, who plays both the tranny Ignacio in the dramatized story and the man who says he wrote the story, has never had such impact onscreen. With those gorgeous metallic-green eyes he makes a plausible if not beautiful woman (he looks like a Juliette Lewis incapable of walking gracefully in heels), but it's as the sexually ambiguous and parasitic Ángel that he's really a cork-popper. (He does some motion-of-the-ocean push-ups that made my boyfriend wobble on his axis.) Bernal presents the hard surface of self-interest with amazing variety--it's always a good thing when he appears because the movie's mischief level goes way up. It's thus doubly disappointing that Almodóvar's over-complicated storytelling diffuses the jolts Bernal sends through us.

Bernal plays the tempter whose duplicitous schemes should lead should Enrique astray. But Enrique also represents Almodóvar, the man very much in control of this story, and that cools everything down. In fact, Almodóvar seems purposely to keep the fragments from fusing, the better to contemplate them. This makes Bad Education the best-plotted film noir with the least degree of compulsiveness. By contrast, something borderline amateurish like Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) has far more of the nightmarish inevitability, that snapping down of the cookie jar on the protagonist's fingers, that makes film noir almost sickeningly fascinating. (The cookie jar is often between someone else's legs: e.g., Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).)

The single biggest difference between me and other critics is that they think of movies as being about their subjects. With the exception of naturalism (the purest form being documentary) I think it's analytically more precise to think of movies as dramatizing their subjects. That is, movies don't make statements about topics (not even the movies that attempt to) but conform the elements of their subject matter to the mechanics of genre. Thus, it seems totally misplaced, as well as cuckoo, for David Denby in The New Yorker to opine that Bad Education "asks: Is love possible between men, or is it possible only between innocent boys?" Quite apart from how peculiar a question that would be if anyone asked it, this comment tells you that critics not only don't know their field--narrative aesthetics--they don't even know it is their field.

Bad Education doesn't "ask" anything; it tracks the effects of contending vices. The problem is that the movie adopts the perspective of the most detached character. I'm actually glad Almodóvar pulls back from Ignacio's version of the priest's story, which tends toward melodrama. Father Manolo's life after leaving the school (when he's played by Lluís Homar) is more interesting. But I wonder if Almodóvar didn't hesitate to pluck and let resonate the nightmarish strings of the story for fear of losing control of the audience's reactions (and possibly triggering some form of homophobia?).

Father Manolo represents both a sadistic fantasy of the daddy-rapist and then later the masochistic fantasy of the older man being gamed by the amoral, insouciant hottie hustler. As the latter figure he suffers the downtrending results of giving in to temptation that Almodóvar spares Enrique. (Enrique, the Almodóvar figure, outplays Ángel and isn't much older or less attractive; the lithely muscular Martínez as Enrique is plainly a fantasy identification for Almodóvar, though not for us.) Almodóvar has thus divided the film noir protagonist into two characters, the older Father Manolo and Enrique, neither of whom pulls us in.

Finally, we're not expected to indulge any of these fantasies, from either the top's or the bottom's perspective. And Almodóvar seems more comfortable as Enrique piecing the story together with relative impassiveness because it keeps the movie from turning us on. It's hard to make a good film noir if you're uncomfortable with your audience's corruptibility. The true film noir romancer is entirely devoted to dangling temptations in front of us and then hooking us through our lolling, drooling tongues. Making Enrique the dominant figure has the effect on Bad Education that making Edward G. Robinson's incorruptible insurance adjustor the main character would have had on Double Indemnity. With film noir you want to feel sucked into the story.

Last year François Ozon's Swimming Pool managed to put an emotionally detached writer figure at the center of a black little crime story and still be totally absorbing. In Swimming Pool reality, fantasy, and fiction likewise converge in the wake of the bad end of a relationship, but it's a much better marriage of perspectives inside and outside the plot. We see the story from the point-of-view of the novelist played by Charlotte Rampling, who manages to maintain control and come out on top, but we also see her objectively for what she is. And unlike Almodóvar's Enrique she has her vices, as a woman and as a writer, to go alongside those of the amoral girl she's spying on and writing into her new novel. In Bad Education Enrique is just the collage artist, and his sexual exploitation of "Ignacio" isn't even treated as a vice but as something more along the lines of research. Bad Education is never as involving as Swimming Pool--there's too much of the Almodóvar figure and at the same time too little of Almodóvar the free-associative artist.

Bad Education isn't insipid the way Almodóvar's All About My Mother was, attempting too hard to make happy elective families out of drug addicts, transvestites, prostitutes, and the HIV infected. Talk to Her was a lot better, in no small part because the compulsive sexual malfeasance was at the heart of the movie, unlike Father Manolo's in Bad Education. (Priests molesting altar boys may be scissored from the news like the dead motorcyclist and the suicide-by-crocodiles that intrigue Enrique but it's a fairly arbitrary aspect of the movie.) Though it's been shot, edited, and released, to overwhelmingly positive reviews, Bad Education is still no more than a great idea for a movie.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.