Saturday, November 19, 2005

Movie Review

Charlize Theron in North Country: Over the Waterfall

Director Niki Caro's North Country is a fictionalized version of the sexual harassment suit brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act by Lois Jenson, Patricia Kosmach, and Kathleen O'Brien Anderson on behalf of themselves and their fellow women mineworkers at the Eveleth Taconite mine in the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. Jenson had originally filed a sex discrimination charge with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on 26 October 1984. Nearly four years later, with no effective action having been taken, Jenson and Kosmach filed their class action complaint on 15 August 1988, adding Anderson as a plaintiff on 14 March 1989. There's a book about the case, Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler's Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, and this article from the Fall 2003 issue of The Labor Lawyer, which summarizes both the facts and the law as it was eventually established in the District Court of Minnesota and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its decision certifying the class, reported at Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 139 F.R.D. 657, 663 (D. Minn. 1991), the District Court noted the following as "evidence of pervasive offensive conduct":

Sexually explicit graffiti and posters were found on the walls and in lunchroom areas, tool rooms, lockers, desks, and offices. Such material was found in women's vehicles, on elevators, in women's restrooms, in inter-office mail, and in locked company bulletin boards. [The sign inside the locked case read, "Sexual Harassment in this area will not be reported. However, it will be graded."]

Women reported incidents of unwelcome touching, including kissing, pinching, and grabbing. Women reported offensive language directed at individuals as well as frequent "generic" comments that women did not belong in the mines, kept jobs from men, and belonged home with their children.
In addition, as the Labor Lawyer article relates, "Although each worker had his or her own private locker, with a separate locker room for the women, one or more men would enter the women's locker room and ejaculate on the clothing in their lockers." Acquaintance with the facts makes it plain that the behavior the women were subjected to was so scurrilous that moviemakers wouldn't have to make anything up.

Discovery (i.e., requests for information by both parties to a suit in preparation for trial) was first overseen in the Jenson case by Magistrate Judge McNulty, who permitted defense attorneys to gather data for a "nuts-and-sluts defense." As the Eighth Circuit noted in its opinion, "Personal events [that the] defendants sought to discover included detailed medical histories, childhood experiences, domestic abuse, abortions, and sexual relationships, etc." (The Eighth Circuit's decision, reported at Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 130 F.3d 1287 (8th Cir. 1997), is available free online.) For instance, McNulty allowed the defense to depose the fathers of Jenson's two children, one of whom had gotten Jenson pregnant when he raped her. (Such overbroad investigation is one form of what is called "abusive discovery" or "discovery abuse.") The Eighth Circuit eventually agreed with the plaintiffs that "much of the discovery … was not relevant or was so remote in time, that it should not have been allowed." 130 F.3d at 1292-93.

The trial was bifurcated into successive liability and damages phases. The plaintiffs won on liability and then proposed that the damages phase be delegated to a Special Master. Unfortunately, the District Court appointed McNulty, who had once made a pass at a female attorney from the bench, and who permitted Eveleth's "nuts and sluts defense" to go ahead. The defense asked the plaintiffs about personal material revealed by discovery ostensibly to determine if something besides the harassment at work might have caused the emotional injuries they complained of. The more likely purpose, however, was to embarrass, intimidate, and discredit the plaintiffs with matter that was unrelated to the case. (As the Labor Lawyer article notes, one of the Jenson plaintiffs withdrew from the case "rather than disclose that her son had been convicted of murder.")

Special Master McNulty did not, however, allow the plaintiffs to introduce their own psychological experts to counter the implication that they had trouble at the mine because they were crazy whores. Then, in his Report and Recommendation, in which he blamed the plaintiffs for being histrionic and for misinterpreting "reasonably expectable interpersonal conflicts in sexual terms," McNulty discussed Jenson's rape although her testimony relating to it was under seal pursuant to his own discovery order. (As Bingham and Gansler write, "When the subject of rape came up in court, the courtroom was cleared of any extraneous people, and the testimony was marked as confidential in the transcript.")

This bizarre phase of the trial actually set the plaintiffs up for victory in the Eighth Circuit because McNulty made reversible errors of law. The Eighth Circuit's decision vacated the Special Master's Report and Recommendation and ordered the District Court to conduct a new trial on damages. The case was settled in early 1999, when Jenson and Anderson were on medical leave from Eveleth and Kosmach was dead of Lou Gehrig's disease. All told, the litigation had three important consequences, to quote again from The Labor Lawyer: "(1) limiting abusive discovery in sexual harassment litigation; (2) recognizing that sexual harassment can form the basis of a class action; and (3) making corporate America realize the importance of preventing sexual harassment."

North Country takes Jenson's case and transfigures it into the heroic crusade of one Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a battered wife who moves back in with her parents to figure out how to take care of herself and her two kids. She's scraping by washing hair at a salon when she recognizes Glory (Frances McDormand), a high school girlfriend who now drives truck at the mine and who recommends Josey get a (better-paying) job there, too. Glory warns Josey that it's rough for women at the mine—the men feel that women take jobs that properly belong to men, especially since the contraction of industrial production in the US is throwing a lot of men out of work. (The movie doesn't mention that Eveleth had begun hiring women in 1974 pursuant to a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Labor; Eveleth had agreed to guarantee 20 percent of new jobs to women and minorities.) But nothing could prepare Josey, or us, for what it's like for women at the mines.

The screenwriter Michael Seitzman has rearranged the facts and created connections that don't exist in the record in order to spread out before us an epic depiction of sexist behavior, covering everything from job discrimination to battery to rape, with every form of Stand-By-Your-Man and blaming-the-victim in between. Josey's father, for instance, is among the miners who believe that women don't belong in the mine (whereas, according to Bingham and Gansler, Jenson's father Joe "was all for his daughter working at the mine"); her supervisor is a guy she flirted with in high school and who witnessed the rape in which her older child was conceived; the lawyer she hires is a friend of Glory's that she's trying to set Josey up with. Meanwhile, her mother (Sissy Spacek) believes Josey's place is at home with her kids, and both her parents turn their backs when her husband shows up and starts manhandling Josey. Dad tells Josey that taking a job at the mine will just humiliate her out-of-work husband, as if that should be her first consideration.

Even the other female mineworkers think that Josey brings trouble on them all by speaking out against their demeaning treatment. Josey, like the Little Red Hen, can't get any of the other women to join in her class action suit, not even Glory who's too devoted to the union and her own sense of invulnerability. In the movie there are only four possible candidates, although the District Court stated, "Plaintiffs asserted that 65 women have been employed at Eveleth Mines since December 13, 1983, and at least 23 women have applied for employment." 139 F.R.D. at 664. And according to Bingham and Gansler, when their attorney said they would need a woman who worked in the pits to make the plaintiffs representative of the class on behalf of which they were suing, Pat Kosmach "chimed in" with, "I've heard a few tough stories out of the pit. I think I can help you find a gal over there who would join us."

North Country is thus not an epic of working-class life but of the various forms of sexual oppression to be encountered in it, and Josey is at the center of every one of them. This has the effect of turning a woman who battled for justice for well over a decade into a perpetual victim. (Even her son turns against her.) With her boo-hoo blue eyes, Theron's Josey is as put-upon as Anna Moore, the country maiden played by Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920). Anna is tricked into a fake wedding by a city slicker and then abandoned; the illegitimate child she gives birth to dies. She finds work on a farm but when the squire of the farmstead learns of her past he throws Anna out into the snow. His son, the sensitive hero, then rescues her from an ice floe as it's about to take her over a waterfall. North Country is Victorian melodrama in feminist workduds: the valiant hero is now Josey's lawyer and abusive discovery the waterfall.

The plot of Way Down East was antiquated upon its release but the movie still offers the inestimable compensation of Gish's utterly committed acting and Griffith's epochal filmmaking. North Country doesn't come close to Griffith's achievement as a piece of filmmaking, and draws no benefit from its real-life subject matter because it doesn't live up to the responsibility the subject matter imposes. Sadly, all North Country shows is how moviemakers habitually reconstitute reality as romance. Jenson may have planted the seed of corporate liability for sexual harassment, but what Caro and company harvest is tough, overgrown theatrical corn.

The movie can't even come together on these degraded terms because it's so divided. It operates on the assumption that the heroine has to be put-upon or we might not side with her, though if we really understand the situation that wouldn't be necessary. At the same time, however, Josey has to be triumphant, although by portraying her as put-upon they make her seem as if she wouldn't be hardy or practical enough to pull off what the actual Jenson did. Unlike Josey, who quits her job before suing the mine, the plaintiffs continued working at Eveleth and intelligently took photographs of the "escalating sexist and obscene graffiti, notes, and props that became ever more prevalent." When they decided to bring a private action against the company they hired a team of Minneapolis attorneys, including Paul Sprenger who had brought the first class action case under Title VII in the Eighth Circuit.

McDormand as Glory actually has the grit that Theron as Josey lacks. (Even Doris Day as the union seamstress being courted by the factory supervisor while preparing for a strike in the musical comedy The Pajama Game (1957) seems stronger-willed than Josey.) Of course, unlike her model Pat Kosmach, Glory isn't party to the suit from day one, but like Kosmach she is devoted to the union and she is dying. Despite this diminution, McDormand is so resilient, and salty, she instantly establishes a rapport with the restless audience, and if the moviemakers had made her the central figure they might have had a hit. As is, the pretty young thing out of virginal melodrama is too damn pitiful to carry a two-hour epic set in an iron ore mine.

The real peculiarity of the moviemakers' sympathy-at-all-costs approach, however, is that they take as the substance of Josey's story all the personal material that the plaintiffs' attorneys wanted to keep out and that the Eighth Circuit agreed was irrelevant. The Jenson case set a precedent limiting abusive discovery but such material is pretty much the entirety of the moviemakers' sense of drama. The courtroom scenes in particular are shaped around the abusive discovery, only seen sympathetically. In North Country it isn't irrelevant that Josey was raped, it's a central item in her favor. (This tack is the opposite of the one taken by the makers of the equally uninspired, "prestigious" feminist bomb The Contender (2000), which I wrote about here.)

The courtroom scenes in North Country, as is so often the case, really expose how shopworn the moviemakers' narrative artistry is. Jenson's attorneys wisely preserved the record of the damages phase of the suit in anticipation of their appeal to the Eighth Circuit. Josey's attorney, by contrast, tries to break one of the harassers on the stand, to make him admit Josey was raped as she claims. The dirty little sneak breaks, of course, turning this landmark suit into an episode of Perry Mason. There's no whisper of sealing Josey's rape testimony or of clearing the courtroom, of course, because the structure of melodrama demands that her humiliation and vindication be as public as possible. Josey's attorney then proceeds to give a speech during which Glory, apparently having heard it was open-mike night at the District Court, rolls in to croak her newfound faith in Josey's cause from her wheelchair. Finally, the crowd in the courtroom, having learned the same lesson at the same time in a pandemic of enlightenment, stands to show solidarity with Josey. Even if this stand-up climax were at all likely, it would be a bad thing—we don't want courts making decisions by reference to audience applause. (The staging is so ridiculous they might as well have done a sports-stadium wave.)

Naturalism is the narrative genre that describes what is. The extensive factual and legal record in the Jenson case would seem to make the moviemakers' work easy. But they don't just want to present Jenson's case, they want to put it over, and so they turn to romance, which, in stark contrast to naturalism, begins with an ideal and constructs a symbolic demonstration in which that ideal triumphs thanks to the "indomitable spirit" of the virtuous hero. (That's why Pat Kosmach ends up rechristened "Glory" and Lois Jenson ends up with the bull's-eye-seeking surname "Aimes.") In this way romance has something of a ritual effect—we come to witness the inevitable victory of good over evil. We're consoled by it precisely because it isn't like what we see in our daily experience, the way we might be consoled in church by the promise of the day of judgment. That's the theory, anyway, but romance lives up to this theory only to the extent it embodies commonly and deeply held spiritual values. Anything short of that reeks of complacent fantasizing.

The long, tortured, uncertain, and physically depleting course that Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. took through the judicial system over 14 years simply doesn't involve a situation conducive to romance storytelling. And at its core it's not about commonly held spiritual values, but just the opposite—it's about a shift in mores, both among the mineworkers and their families, and among the corporate management. If there's an epic subject, that would be it, and it's such a tricky one that even the federal courts got tangled up trying to sort it out. As Bingham and Gansler record, McNulty as Special Master in the damages phase of the trial was

untroubled by comments made by male coworkers suggesting that women belonged home and pregnant, not in the mines. Such statements, he said, were expressions of free speech and were made in the context of the free exchange of ideas. And McNulty clearly believed that Eveleth Mines should not be penalized for what was the cultural norm in the Iron Range. "We must also bear in mind," he wrote, "that for generations the iron mining industry on the Iron Range was dominated by males who were products of a culture which is reflected" in the sexual tensions that gave rise to the lawsuit. A restructuring of the culture, he wrote, could not be expected to happen "overnight." After all, he noted, the Civil Rights Act was only three decades old.
(Limits on expression in the workplace can indeed end up punishing sexual speech that is free of the intent to harass, as this 22 October 2003 Cato Institute article demonstrates. Keep in mind, however, that in the Jenson case the men's words and actions specifically expressed hostility to the presence of women in the workplace solely because they were women. The environment was thus literally hostile, and many of their actions were well over the line of sexual battery, in any event.) Bingham and Gansler are plainly disgusted by McNulty's comments, but they themselves establish a similar point—without justifying it, of course—at the beginning of their book:

"Females are there to be used and abused," said a [Mesabi Iron Range] male. "Take care of me, my kids, my family and don't bother me. I'm going fishing. Women are chattel." A classic Ranger bumper sticker reads: THE PERFECT WOMAN: A NYMPHOMANIAC WHO OWNS A LIQUOR STORE.
In vacating McNulty's opinion, the Eighth Circuit stated: "We emphatically reject the Special Master's conclusion … that the fact that the culture of the Iron Range mining industry allowed sexual harassment is a mitigating factor for Eveleth Mines…. Instead, we find this observation underscores the overall culpability of Eveleth Mines." It will probably seem clear to anyone likely to read this review that the Eighth Circuit was right, but the men who felt that women didn't belong in the mines were coming from somewhere, besides Mars.

Getting into this sex-role paradigm shift might well make for a great movie (though it's hard to think of a model for it), but the writer and director of that movie would have to have much more talent than Seitzman and Caro (i.e., any) for naturalistic reenactment and analysis. Instead, North Country is shaped much like Whale Rider (2003), Caro's international hit in which a little girl in New Zealand proves herself as a tribal leader despite her grandfather's insistence that it's not a role for a girl. Hopes dashed, tears, hugs, compromise, mutual respect, uptilted chins, more tears and hugs.

North Country similarly goes at a sociological topic emotionally, an approach that is undercut by the fact that nothing in North Country feels like lived experience. Certainly not the union meeting in which the miners first cheer for a hooligan denouncing Josey with obscene epithets; after Josey's union-veteran father, his sense of chivalry outraged, gets up and defends her right to speak, the same group then cheers for him. (The union audience has the firmness of conviction of the citizens at Springfield town meetings on The Simpsons.) Next in unbelievability would be the scene in which Josey is called a whore by her supervisor's wife at Josey's son's hockey game. The son, who's about 12, is so upset he decides to spend the night with his girlfriend's family. The girl's mother, vividly aware of the precariousness of a girl's reputation in their small town, nevertheless thinks it's a good plan.

You rarely feel you're seeing working-class life represented as it is, and similarly the role of class in general is left unexamined. For instance, the plaintiffs could not rely on their own union for support; as the District Court said in its opinion in the liability phase of the trial, reported at Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 824 F. Supp. 847, 879 (D. Minn. 1993):

Under the existing grievance process, were a female employee to bring a charge against a fellow bargaining unit employee, the Union would be required to simultaneously press the woman's claim and seek to avoid punishment for the alleged male perpetrator. The need to stand on both sides of a charge of sexual harassment presents a potential conflict of interest which reasonably renders the [Collective Bargaining Agreement's] grievance procedure ineffective as the primary mechanism for addressing complaints of sexual harassment brought by one bargaining unit member against another.
Instead, the plaintiffs received just treatment only by recourse to the jurisdiction of the professional class of jurists. (Even Special Master McNulty awarded them some money for damages.) The case thus reveals some unpleasant contradictions in union progressivism and working-class solidarity, as well as fair play and chivalry more generally, and corporate rationality and juristic wisdom, too, among other categories. The moviemakers, however, aren't interested in any aspect of the story beyond its ability to enhance the melodrama. They so totally lack interest in the assorted components of the Mesabi Iron Range mentality that they present Josey's view as if it were natural, which the movie's own epic-melodramatic structure contradicts in every scene. I assume this results from the fact that the movie was made by and for an educated audience who would, or like to think they would, have been sensitive to Josey's predicament when she first brought the grievance. Thus, apart from her bad shag hair-do, Josey becomes a working-class heroine that a female yuppie can identify.

Every fact, every condition, every basis for analysis that could have made North Country the complex and important work it is fairly hyperventilating to be taken for has been misjudged if not falsified outright. (One of the irritating historical distortions is to show Josey being inspired to sue by watching Anita Hill's October 1991 testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Lois Jenson and Pat Kosmach first sought redress in 1984 and, unlike Hill, they did so while still working with and under the men they were complaining about.) Read the court opinions, read Bingham and Gansler's book; if there's any problem for moviemakers it's that the facts are so extreme the audience might think they were exaggerating. Seitzman and Caro took truth that now seems stranger than fiction and simplified it into comfortingly predictable fable. How do you blow that kind of capital and end up with so little to show for it?

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

Friday, November 18, 2005

Over Breakfast

Charles Krauthammer on the evolution controversies in Dover and Kansas: "Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud."

Kaus says the press is only pretending to be shocked by Rep. John Murtha's withdraw-the-troops statement. And "NBC News, even more ludicrously, pretended to be surprised by professional GOP apostate Sen. Chuck Hagel's apostasy."
Quote of the Day:
"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
~ Thomas Mann

Song of the Day:
Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Give It Away"

Happy Birthday:
Linda Evans
Alan Shepard
Owen Wilson

Thursday, November 17, 2005

On Brit Hume's Special Report (FOX) just now, Hume talked briefly about a story I'd have thought was far too obscure to be covered on a nightly news program.

It's mentioned here, over halfway down. It's about a proposed accounting change that would change the way oil companies report the value of their inventories. This is effectively a big tax increase, so it's getting a lot of attention from lawyers. But I still wonder how it made Hume's lineup this evening. A totally uninformed guess: somebody with a lot at stake is pitching it hard to the press to try to get Congress to back down. (The measure currently has Republican support, which must be making some people pretty nervous).
Howard Bashman looks at anonymous blogging: "Is it even possible?"

He's right that a blogger were determined to hide his identity at all costs would have to be very careful, especially if other bloggers cared enough to play detective.

I do think that there's value to some bloggers in maintaining, if you will, a veneer of anonymity, even if their identity is known or knowable by a lot of people. I have no illusions about how easy it would be to figure out my real name, and I know some people have. But blogging "anonymously" puts some distance between the blog-me and the real-life-me. Not that they're different personas in the same way as Lat and A3G-- but it means, at least, that I don't have to answer for what I express here except when I want to. It also means that this blog isn't the first thing that pops up when somebody Googles me.

Incidentally, though, I don't plan to remain anonymous forever. Eventually the pros of using my own name will outweigh the cons. Stay tuned.

Harold Lloyd on DVD

Today Philip Kennicott published in the Washington Post this review of the new three-volume, seven-DVD set of the major works of silent slapstick star Harold Lloyd. While it's good to see the underappreciated Lloyd get some appreciation under almost any circumstances, I want to protest not so much Kennicott's overblown statement that Lloyd's movies epitomize "the last, regnant, unalloyed era of Whiteness" as the implications Kennicott draws from it.

Kennicott mentions the caricatural depictions of a Chinese man, a Jew, and blacks in Lloyd's movies and says that these stereotypes prevent Lloyd's films from being "universal." This strikes me as an extremely facile assessment. Why, for instance, did Kennicott choose only race as a category? ("Chinese" refers to nationality; Judaism is a religion.) And why not break it down further? Why not say that only white men can identify with Harold Lloyd? Or only white men born in Nebraska in 1893 and named Harold Lloyd? Why not keep going, in fact, until each of us can identify only with movies that are about us and which we ourselves write, direct, and star in? To be precise, the racial and ethnic caricatures in his movies suggest that Lloyd didn't think of these groups as members of his target audience. That's an entirely different matter from saying that members of those groups, as individuals, couldn't therefore identify with him. "Caricature" can't have anything to do with it—the frantic comic idiom of Lloyd's movies makes everyone (except "the girl") look ridiculous.

What makes Lloyd's films universal is primarily the slapstick itself (and secondarily the comic plots). The great African-American comedian Bert Williams said in 1918, "One of the funniest sights in the world is a man whose hat has been knocked in or ruined by being blown off—provided, of course, it be the other fellow's hat! . . . This is human nature." Williams didn't say, "This is African-American nature," he said "human nature," and he was right. The logical extension of Kennicott's comments would be a thoroughly committee-ized form of art (which would seek to represent among the characters every conceivable category in a way every member of that category would find inoffensive) premised on the total narcissistic solipsism of the audience. Clowns like Lloyd and Williams have always known better than this.

I devote a chapter to Lloyd and Buster Keaton jointly in my book Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies. The Introduction to the book is my attempt to explain the universality of slapstick. The cover illustration of the book is a still of Lloyd from my favorite of his features, Why Worry? (1923); click here for a Lloyd photo gallery.

You can find this comment and a lot more at Blogcritics.
George Will says the Kansas Board of Education is "controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people."
Quote of the Day:
"Some people are moulded by their admirations, others by their hostilities."
~ Elizabeth Bowen

Song of the Day:
Rob Thomas, "Lonely No More"

Happy Birthday:
Danny DeVito
Rock Hudson
Gordon Lightfoot
Lorne Michaels

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

In time for the release of the first Narnia movie, Adam Gopnik looks at C.S. Lewis in the New Yorker:

Is Narnia a place of Christian faith or a place to get away from it? As one reads the enormous literature on Lewis’s life and thought—there are at least five biographies, and now a complete, three-volume set of his letters—the picture that emerges is of a very odd kind of fantasist and a very odd kind of Christian. The hidden truth that his faith was really of a fable-first kind kept his writing forever in tension between his desire to imagine and his responsibility to dogmatize. His works are a record of a restless, intelligent man, pacing a cell of his own invention and staring through the barred windows at the stars beyond.
Gopnik describes Lewis after his time in boarding school as "[a] bright and sensitive British boy turned by public-school sadism into a warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert. It sounds like the usual story."
Duke 93, Seton Hall 40

Things are off to a good start.
Decoding Northwest DC:

1.) When a parent tells you that they think [exclusive private school X] "may not be a good fit" for their child, what they really mean is that they're applying, but they think the kid probably won't get in: "It's a great school, but she's so outgoing -- I'm worried it may be too stuffy for her" means "She's such an underachiever I doubt we'll even be able to buy her a spot."

2.) A diplomatic license plate means "Reckless foreign driver with no fear of prosecution. Keep your distance."
Quote of the Day:
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
~ Hunter S. Thompson

Song of the Day:
Erasure, "Oh l'Amour"

Happy Birthday:
Oksana Baiul
Lisa Bonet
Dwight Gooden
Under-commented-on aspect of the A3G unveiling controversy (see here and here for background): the letter A3G wrote Howard Bashman in June 2004 asking for linkage from How Appealling to the then-fledgling UTR.

If you do happen to find my site interesting, I would be eternally grateful if you might briefly mention it on "How Appealing." I am eager to increase traffic to my blog, and even the most fleeting reference on your site--the premier legal blogspot, with thousands of visitors each day--would work untold wonders for my humble site.

Once again, thank you so much for all of your wonderful work! "How Appealing" is a real treasure, and your devotion to it is a great public service to the legal community.
As David Lat might say, in character, Suck-up ipsa loquitur! (I hasten to add that we at the KC totally dig Bashman too. He linked to us a couple times, back in the day, and I don't even think we asked him to. At least I didn't. Kate? Kate?)

Also via the premier legal treasure that is Bashman, I notice this post from the Yale Federalist Society Blog citing A3G and John Lott as examples of a trend:

What is driving this conservative Yalie cyber-transvestitism? It's getting to the point that a conservative woman can't blog without being suspected of being a middle-aged man.

As I am a Yalie and usually right-leaning, I feel the need to affirm at this point that my femininity, unlike David Lat's, extends far, far beyond my blog persona. And if any federal judges need convincing of this, I'd be more than happy to prove it to them over dinner at the posh Washington eatery of my choice.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"There is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way."
~ Christopher Morley

Song of the Day:
Stacey Q., "Two Of Hearts"

Happy Birthday:
Louis Brandeis
Whoopi Goldberg
Chris Noth
Robert Louis Stevenson
The NYT has a story on Yale Law School's opposition to Samuel Alito, a YLS alumn.

There's a lot of talk in the article about the "disloyalty" the school showed to two other graduates -- Bork and Thomas -- in their confirmation hearings. I don't buy the notion that a law school should cheer for its graduates like the football team. Perhaps the Dean should keep a dignified silence, but I don't see anything unseemly about Bruce Ackerman and Owen Fiss speaking out against a nominee they oppose, even if he's a YLS grad.

On the other hand, Yale 3L Stephen Townley comes across as a bit of a twit, saying regarding student jokes about Thomas that "It's a question about intellectual rigor." I'm not surprised that Yale students consider themselves qualified to mock the intellect of a Supreme Court Justice in The New York Times, but obviously it says a lot about the students and very little about Thomas.

UPDATE: More thoughts here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Movie Review

George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck.: "The half truth was elevated to the position of a principle"

George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. is about Edward R. Murrow's 9 March 1954 episode of the CBS news-magazine program See It Now, "A Report on Joseph R. McCarthy." (Click here to read the transcript of the broadcast.) In that program, host Murrow challenged McCarthy simply by introducing clips of the junior Senator from Wisconsin and letting them play. Murrow then ended the program with commentary, but the basic idea was to use the Senator's own words against him, implicitly. McCarthy was then allowed a rebuttal on the 6 April 1954 episode of See It Now.

Good Night, and Good Luck. shows the CBS newsroom as altogether a tense place because of the political climate supposedly created by McCarthy. Staffmembers have been asked to sign loyalty oaths (one person amusingly asks if that means loyalty to CBS), and no one is allowed to work on the McCarthy story who has had even a glancing connection to a Communist organization. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his producer Fred W. Friendly (George Clooney) have to sell the subject matter and approach to CBS head William S. Paley (Frank Langella), who isn't impressed by the urgency that Murrow and Friendly see in the situation. Paley believes that business has to come first; Murrow and Friendly believe that news should come before business, and that journalistic neutrality is no longer appropriate. Their 20 October 1953 episode of See It Now, which questioned the cashiering of Lt. Milo Radulovich from the Air Force Reserve because of his father's and sister's alleged radical beliefs, had got Radulovich reinstated. Murrow and Friendly would like their broadcast on McCarthy to be equally effective.

All of which makes Good Night, and Good Luck. the most sedentary chivalric romance in movie history. Murrow is shown to take McCarthy down simply by letting the man speak for himself, while Murrow looks on, chain-smoking. Murrow is also among the weariest of knights. The movie takes its title from Murrow's sign-off to his broadcasts, and the way Strathairn delivers it, it's like the last gasp of air escaping from a balloon. The crusade against McCarthy itself is weary-making for the CBS newsroom, in part because it seems so obvious to them that they're right. They shouldn't have to fight their bosses, risk losing their jobs, and who knows what other persecution, just to make people aware of what anyone can see by watching and listening.

In essence the movie is all a lead-up to the moral and intellectual tourney between a white knight and a black knight. It's not more substantial than the average heroic romance because its attitude toward McCarthy is no more than what you'd expect out of Hollywood—the standard misconstruction. Clooney, who directed from a script he co-wrote with Grant Heslov, makes the mistake here of accepting McCarthy's assertion of his own significance. In the first place, as historian John Earl Haynes points out in "An Essay on Historical Writing on Domestic Communism and Anti-Communism":

[In] McCarthy's hands, anticommunism was a partisan weapon used to implicate the New Deal, liberals, and the Democratic Party in treason. Using evidence that was exaggerated, distorted, and in some cases utterly false, [McCarthy] accused hundreds of individuals of Communist activity, recklessly mixing the innocent with the assuredly guilty when it served his political purposes.
McCarthy's weapon was anti-communism, but his target was the Democratic Party, entrenched in power since the New Deal.

With respect to anti-communism, McCarthy was an opportunist who did permanent damage to the cause with his crude methods and disregard for the truth. As Haynes points out, it was "precisely because Senator McCarthy was reckless and made false charges[ that] actual Communists who engaged in and contemplated espionage sought to claim the status of victims." The damage to historical accounting persists, as historian Ronald Radosh stated in this 3 December 1990 National Review article:

One year ago, a minor imbroglio arose when columnist Tom Wicker objected to the categorization of Owen Lattimore as a pro-Communist and fellow-traveller, regarding such a depiction of the late professor's views as McCarthyism redux. After all, Lattimore is the archetypal victim of Joe McCarthy. Thus McCarthy's false assertion that Lattimore was a top Soviet agent makes irrelevant the fact that Lattimore did support Stalin's purge trials.
As Pauline Kael wrote in her February 1969 Harper's article "Trash, Art, and the Movies," The Manchurian Candidate "took off from a political double entendre that everybody had been thinking of ('Why, if Joe McCarthy were working for the Communists, he couldn't be doing them more good!')…."

For all these reasons, and more, McCarthy was not the animating spirit of the principled anti-communist movement, nor were his means its inevitable means. Haynes's 1996 book Red Scare or Red Menace? American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era reminds us that "rather than a single anticommunism, there have been a multitude, with different objections to communism," and "stresses the key role of liberal and labor anticommunism in defeating Popular Front liberalism in the late 1940s." Haynes further concludes that:

America's political system could not achieve the consensus needed for the cold war commitment while accommodating within that system a political movement that adhered to the ideology and promoted the interests of the cold war enemy. For all its sporadic ugliness, excesses, and silliness, the anticommunism of the 1940s and 1950s was an understandable and rational response to a real danger to American democracy.
McCarthy was a vicious blunderer; he was not, however, wrong that people actively and surreptitiously loyal to the Soviet Union had infiltrated the US government. Haynes, who in January of 1993 was the first American historian to examine the records of the CPUSA, an archive that had been secretly shipped to Moscow decades earlier, and whose frequent collaborator Harvey Klehr was in 1992 the first American scholar to examine thousands of pages of Comintern records of its activities in the US, writes that such research shows

a formidable Soviet espionage offensive against the United States, starting in the 1930s and reaching a peak during the final years of World War II. Hundreds of Americans, most Communists, assisted Soviet espionage, and Soviet intelligence sources included dozens of mid-level government officials but also impressively high level ones as well: not only Alger Hiss but also Laurence Duggan, long-time head of the State Department Division of the American Republics; Lauchlin Currie, a senior White House aide to President Roosevelt; Duncan Lee, a senior officer in the Office of Strategic Services; and, most significantly, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry [Dexter] White.
(Click here for more details from a review of Haynes and Klehr's Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, a book based in part on the Venona decrypts and other information recently made available.) This is in addition to all the people who worked secretly to put atomic weaponry in Stalin's hands. Nor was McCarthy on the wrong side of the Cold War generally speaking. McCarthy's lasting shame was to give Communist subversives and sympathizers, and their misguided liberal apologists, a PR victory that lasts to this day, as Good Night, and Good Luck. attests.

If Clooney were knowledgeable about the era he would know that McCarthy was not the face or the voice of American anti-communism. The ranks of anti-communists of the 1950s—Sidney Hook, Theodore Draper, Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, Robert Warshow, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to name just a few—include some of the most remarkable public intellectuals this country has ever produced. Hook is especially notable in this regard; he was the greatest, and most tireless, of the anti-communist polemicists, and wrote that loyalty oaths "were not only irrelevant to national security—no oaths ever stopped a traitor—but insulting to honest dissenters." Hook was also the principal organizer of the Freedom House conference as an anti-communist alternative to the infamous 1949 Waldorf Conference, secretly organized by the CPUSA, financed by Moscow, and burnished by the participation of such fellow travelers as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Dalton Trumbo. (The obscenity of the Waldorf Conference is suggested by this 29 October 1979 Time Magazine book review which describes composer Dmitri Shostakovich's forced participation in it. Click here for an August 2003 Policy Review article about Hook's move from Marxism to anti-communism; his memoir Out of Step also makes for compelling reading.)

But Clooney isn't truly interested in what McCarthy and anti-communism were about. Although Good Night, and Good Luck. is structured dramatically as an heroic venture against the hot-air-breathing dragon McCarthy, the point of the movie is to draw an analogy between the so-called McCarthy era and the present day. Clooney begins and ends the movie with Murrow's speech on 15 October 1958 at an RTNDA convention, in which he used his time at the podium to lecture his audience about the misuse of television for "decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live." In this framing scene Murrow is Clooney's hand-puppet but Clooney is not only lecturing us about what we as consumers demand, but even more so his fellow showmen about what they as producers supply. And what makes the Murrow-McCarthy TV face-off relevant to Clooney is his evident belief that the current era is as bad as the "McCarthy era."

When Murrow and Friendly have to cleanse the McCarthy broadcast team of anyone with the least fleck of pink in his past, Murrow is confirmed in his decision to go ahead with the project because he can feel the "terror" in the room. Clooney's ultimate point here is that the opponents of the current Bush administration are being subjected to similar "terror." Such overstatement is so fashionable as scarcely to require citation; its most respectable form would be something like this article by Georgetown University Law Center professor David Cole entitled "The New McCarthyism: Repeating History in the War on Terrorism" and published in the 2003 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

A truer analogy would cut the other way, however. In answer to his own question, "How bad was it, really, during the McCarthy years?" Irving Howe wrote in his autobiography A Margin of Hope:

It often seemed as if people talked about nothing else. At political gatherings, cocktail parties, academic sessions—McCarthyism, McCarthyism, until one grew sick of it. Yet the very prevalence of talk, ineffectual as it might be, undercut Bertrand Russell's charge that in the early fifties the United States was "subject to a reign of terror" .… In a reign of terror people turn silent, fear a knock on the door at four in the morning, flee in all directions; but they do not, because they cannot, talk endlessly in public about the outrage of terror.
Howe added:

When we printed violent denunciations of McCarthy in Dissent during these years, nothing happened to us. Perhaps we weren't important enough to bother with, but others were saying … much the same things. Later on, as "revisionist" historians turned to the McCarthy period, the Dissent group won praise for its stand against McCarthyism, but that has always struck me as rather silly. We had no sense we were taking any great risks in attacking McCarthy.
Similarly, as Eric Fettman points out in this 8 May 2003 New York Post article, Sidney Hook said that "all the great organs of public opinion … were hostile to McCarthy; all the Luce magazines with the fabulous circulation damned him for his demagogy…. To speak of a reign of terror, or a climate of fear, is to do the sort of thing which has come to be associated with McCarthy's name." The latter is borne out by this statement by Murrow himself about the See It Now program, made shortly after its broadcast: "I didn't do anything. [Times columnist] Scotty Reston and lot of guys have been writing like this, saying the same things, for months, for years. We're bringing up the rear." (This quotation can be found in this amazing 5 October 2005 article in two parts by Jack Shafer. Shafer debunks Clooney's romantic view of Murrow and thoroughly analyzes the movie's loose adherence to the truth and journalistic scrupulousness.)

Clooney may get away with this doubly causeless alarum because his movie is such a quiet piece of hysteria. Cinematographer Robert Elswit shot it in black-and-white, the action is mostly limited to the CBS offices and a bar where the newsmen congregate after work, it uses archival footage of McCarthy rather than having an actor play the barking villain, and at the margins it tries to be impartially true to the era (e.g., the nepotism rules at CBS that figure in a subplot are unconnected to McCarthy, and after the big broadcast the heroes think nothing of asking the "girl" to fetch papers for them while they drink and shoot the breeze). But the movie's view of McCarthy is an overblown cliché, and this isn't incidental. The analogy has power only if McCarthy is viewed in a simplistic way because what Clooney cares about is what's going on now. When he says, in effect, "Today is like back then," he needs us to have a single, indelible idea about what "back then" implies. In other words, he's not even trying to do the work of a historian; complexity would be counterproductive.

To Clooney's credit, he's put his money where his mouth is. The movie is not intellectually respectable but it's an honest attempt in terms Clooney understands at non-decadent, non-escapist entertainment. The problem is that Clooney's mentality is so thoroughly "show biz" he doesn't understand that no network news show is going to be where the ideological action is, then or now. When we see Murrow's team waiting for the print reviews after the first McCarthy broadcast, and then responding to a couple of columnists' write-ups, the scene is indistinguishable from movies that show actors waiting for reviews after opening night on Broadway. This makes sense, though, because the point of Good Night, and Good Luck. is to demonstrate what show people can do to make a difference in a time of "terror." (It is thus an example of heroic romance at its most didactic, like an episode out of the Quest of the Holy Grail.)

The real answer, of course, is, nothing beyond glamorizing their favored positions by association. Show folk spend their time learning the techniques of theater, television, movies, and music; why should anyone expect them to know anything substantive about politics? No sensible person would turn to Clooney, or Janeane Garofalo, or Jessica Lange, or Michael Moore, or Viggo Mortensen, or Sean Penn, or Martin Sheen, or Barbra Streisand, or any other member of what Victor Davis Hanson has referred to as "Hollywood's legions of college drop-outs, recovering bad boys, and self-praised autodidacts" for political insights.

Clooney may actually fall in all three of Hanson's categories, to judge from his comments in his July 2000 Playboy interview:

In college, I basically partied a lot. You gotta understand. We're a very strict Catholic family. Curfew was at nine P.M. when I was a senior in high school. So I got out of the house and thought, Oh my God! People don't ever really like to talk about this anymore, but there was a period of time when blow was considered OK, like it won't hurt you at all. It was almost mainstream. All the designer drugs were OK—Quaaludes and blow. So that was the time in college for me: Drugs and chasing girls. I came from a town of 1500 people to Cincinnati. I would visit class every once in a while and stop by and go, "How's everybody doing?" I was still a responsible kid, but I didn't take school seriously. I had jobs. I sold men's suits and shoes and worked in stockrooms of department stores, and I cut tobacco when it was the season. I was paying for my thing along the way. But I quit school.
Clooney is a great comic-romantic star, arguably the best since Cary Grant. His performance in the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty (click here for my review) is an outburst of manic invention that can hold its own with Grant's in His Girl Friday (1940). In fact, he's probably a greater actor than Grant, who wasn't memorable in the somber range; in Out of Sight (1998) Clooney displayed a totally natural-seeming variegation of moods. But do we want a history lesson from a man who claims that in the late '70s people thought cocaine couldn't hurt you? And what has he done since dropping out of college to gain an analytical grounding in the relevant subject matter for Good Night, and Good Luck.? Read a book or two? Or not? (Of course, the more research Clooney has done, the more culpable the movie's omissions and distortions.)

And what about newsmen? Analytical training comparable to that of a historian or a political scientist has never been required for a stellar career in journalism. (Murrow had a degree in speech from Washington State College; Walter Cronkite left the University of Texas at Austin after two years without graduating; Peter Jennings, also known in his early career as "Glamourcaster" and "Anchorboy," never graduated from high school or college. Tom Brokaw at least earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of South Dakota.) And the work these journalists do—gathering and disseminating information—doesn't supply the lack. Beyond that, they're entitled to their opinions like everyone else, but their analytical grounding is not meaningfully firmer than that of an undisguised purveyor of entertainment like Clooney. They may take themselves more seriously but that doesn't mean we have to.

Good Night, and Good Luck. isn't memorable, even in the short run, because it creates a desire for information that Clooney has no intention of fulfilling. (Shafer's article above is quite thorough on the movie's fudging of the facts and issues.) The movie is an elegantly and passionately designed—but empty—file cabinet. In a 25 March 2002 Weekly Standard review of Robert Warshow's critical writings, Terry Teachout quotes one of Warshow's "blunt" and "fearless" attacks on "the corrosive effects of 'the mass culture of Stalinist liberalism' on American intellectual life":

In the 1930s radicalism entered upon an age of organized mass disingenuousness, when every act and every idea had behind it some "larger consideration" which destroyed its honesty and its meaning. Everyone became a professional politician, acting within a framework of "realism" that tended to make political activity an end in itself. The half-truth was elevated to the position of a principle, and in the end the half-truth, in itself, became more desirable than the whole truth.
As Teachout then writes:

The insidious and inevitable result of such activity, Warshow argued, was to corrupt art as well as liberalism: "The whole level of thought and discussion, the level of culture itself, had been lowered…. The Grapes of Wrath was a great novel. Eventually, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was a serious movie and Ballad for Americans was an inspired song. The mass culture of the educated classes—the culture of the 'middle-brow,' as it has sometimes been called—had come into existence."
By such corrupted standards, which persist today in a form we call "political correctness," Good Night, and Good Luck. is an "inspired," "serious," and "great" movie.

The only element of Clooney's movie I found impressive was Frank Langella's performance as Paley. Langella has the considerable advantage that Paley stands apart from the romantic shaping of the Murrow-McCarthy jousting. He's not presented as a villain, or even as a waverer (like the Mike Wallace of The Insider (1999)), who comes to realize that if you don't fight the villain you are in effect his accomplice. For this very reason it's an even better performance than Alan Alda's Senator Brewster in The Aviator (2004) (click here for my review) because Langella gives Paley substantial presence without the boost that Alda got from playing a character deeply implicated in melodramatic machinations. The Paley of Good Night, and Good Luck. is a tough and perceptive man who respects Murrow's virtues but who also knows that the business can't be sustained on virtue. (The TV programming that in fact precipitated the end of McCarthy's career was the broadcasting over 36 days beginning in April 1954 by the then-struggling ABC of the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings; as Shafer reports, "CBS declined to air the complete hearings because they'd interfere with its lucrative daytime soap operas.") Practicality does not make a survivor like Paley a gentle man. The head of CBS doesn't have time to beat around the bush or to hold his employees' hands. But Langella makes Paley so at home with the power he has attained that he's not brutal, either. The way Langella plays him, Paley just is what he is, which is a feat in the midst of a highly factitious romance. In his negotiations with Paley, Murrow, the fatigued idealist, comes across as experienced in his own sinewy way, but Langella makes Paley seem at least as reasonable, maybe more so, and certainly solider. What Paley says you can take to the bank, as I'm sure he did.

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

Friday, November 11, 2005

Mary Mapes just did a live chat on

Emily Will, one of the document experts CBS paid to look at the memogate documents, responds to Mapes' book here.
Via Volokh, here's an account of Domino's Pizza mogul Tom Monagan's latest project. He's moving the Ave Maria School of Law from its current home in Ann Arbor, Michigan to rural Florida, to become part of "Ave Maria Town," which sounds like an ultra-Catholic Pleasantville:

"We'll own all commercial real estate," Mr. Monaghan declared, describing his vision. "That means we will be able to control what goes on there. You won't be able to buy a Playboy or Hustler magazine in Ave Maria Town. We're going to control the cable television that comes in the area. There is not going to be any pornographic television in Ave Maria Town. If you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won't be able to get that in Ave Maria Town."
Three cheers for federalism. But I share Ann Althouse's skepticism about whether it's likely to be a good move for the law school:

Obviously, Ave Maria is a school designed to attract Catholic students, but I should think a different sort of student is going to be attracted to this super-sanitized environment than would want to be in Ann Arbor.
The article notes that some alumni and at least one faculty member are opposed to the move.
The KC was in the house at the Federalist Society annual dinner last night, which featured Karl Rove as the speaker. There were lots of cameras there, but Rove didn't say much that was newsworthy. Harriet Miers was there, and when Rove mentioned her she got an ovation that a press account this morning described as merely "polite."

Tonight the KC will be at the Volokh Conspiracy Generally Pleased Hour following the day's Federalist goings-on.
I haven't been very good about following the McCain Amendment torture debate, but it seems to me that so-called "torture advocate" Andy McCarthy makes a valuable point:

None of the self-righteous bloviating against torture ever seems to have a satisfying answer to the ticking-bomb scenario. Is it wrong, say, to inflict non-lethal but extreme pain against a culpable terrorist who is aware of an imminent bombing that would kill tens of thousands of moral innocents but who is unwilling to provide life-saving information?

As I've recounted here, no less a doctrinaire torture opponent than Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh was forced to admit, in testimony at the confirmation hearings for AG Gonzales, that it would probably be necessary to get rough with a detainee in such circumstances. That’s not because he “advocates” torture; I assume it is because he grudgingly, soberly recognizes that there are some conceivable instances in which it is the lesser moral evil than idling by while thousands are slaughtered.

Enough with “the torture is despicable” line. We’ve got that; no one is saying it’s not. And we all understand the profound, slippery-slope dangers of legalizing any torture. That is a very serious concern for serious people. But please, as the price of admission, tell us outright that: You are prepared to let thousands of people be slaughtered before disturbing a hair on the head of a Khalid Sheik Mohammed-type who might be in a position to help you stop a plot you truly have good reason to think is underway.

If you can’t say that, then all you are really saying is that you’d draw the torture line in a different place.
Example of said self-righteous bloviating here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Movie Review: Flightplan and Proof: Blondes, Grim and Dreary

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Flightplan: What's a Mother To Do?

In Flightplan Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) boards a leviathan jet (that she helped design) to bring her husband's body back from Berlin to the US for burial. Having settled her traumatized young daughter into the window seat, Kyle falls asleep; when she wakes up the little girl is missing. Kyle enlists the help of the flight crew only to discover that no one else remembers seeing her daughter on the plane; eventually Kyle is presented with documentary evidence that her daughter, too, died in Berlin. A shrink tries to help Kyle "understand" how grief has induced her delusion, but during this conversation Kyle discovers what she takes to be irrefutable proof that her daughter was, in fact, on board. Sensing some kind of conspiracy, Kyle buttons her lip but is more determined than ever to battle against the stewardesses, the captain, an air marshal, and the other passengers who see her as an hysteric and even a criminal.

As Kyle, Foster functions as an action star to the extent possible given that the movie takes place almost entirely on the airplane. She sprints the length of the aisles, climbs and crawls through hatches into the luggage hold and some place referred to here as "avionics," coldcocks the bad guy. Thus, like last year's The Forgotten (click here for my review), Flightplan presents the mother as a chivalric hero, fighting the combined forces of evil, confusion, and indifference to recover her child.

Despite an Arab red herring, Flightplan draws no more than peripherally on the post September 11 fear of flying. (Though Victor Davis Hanson disagrees.) It is, rather, a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), which, along with The 39 Steps (1935), represents Hitchcock's work at its most charming. (Some people might add To Catch a Thief (1955), and it's in this spirit that Stanley Donen directed the wonderful Charade (1963).) In these older, less technocratic movies, the suspense is tonic rather than truly frightening, and almost comically glamorous.

In The Lady Vanishes, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), an attractive young Englishwoman, is going home by train from a winter vacation in a fictional central European country to marry a nobleman. While returning a pair of spectacles to an elderly woman on the platform she's conked on the head by a flowerpot. The old girl, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a briskly unfussy governess, takes charge of Iris on the train, gives her some tea, and settles her in a compartment across from her. When Iris wakes up from a doze, Miss Froy has vanished and the other people in the compartment claim she was never there.

The only passenger willing to help Iris is dashing, eccentric Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a folk musicologist she'd fought with at the hotel the night before. Even though he thinks Iris is a "stinker," and doesn't quite believe her story, she is awfully pretty, so he plays detective alongside her and is imaginative enough to be of considerable use. Indeed, together they foil the nefarious plot—without even knowing why anyone would kidnap the harmless old body in the first place—and in the process fall in love. When they reach London at last, Iris spots her fiancé on the platform and promptly dashes into Gilbert's taxi.

It doesn't feel as if the Flightplan team had remade The Lady Vanishes so much as scrubbed it of all extraneous material. It's the extraneous material, however, that makes the original so charming. The romantic comedy is entirely unconnected to the suspense and yet it sets the jaunty tone; it makes international intrigue seem like the kind of party game that's played in pairs to loosen inhibitions, encourage necking. (Like the orange-passing game that Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant play in the nightclub scene in Charade.) There's also a variety of humorous turns, by Dame May Whitty, who combines dottiness and wiliness as the mysterious Miss Froy, Paul Lukas as a maddeningly sympathetic doctor who finds Iris's case very "interesting" and who has an unsatisfactory explanation for everything, and Catherine Lacey as a sketchy nun.

Best of all are Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as cricket-mad Englishmen who refuse to corroborate Iris's story because they're afraid they'll miss an upcoming match in Manchester if the train is stopped. We see them at the hotel the night before as well, and throughout they are given the most accomplished vaudeville exchanges in all of Hitchcock. They're a comedy team made of two straight men and over half of what they say is mumbled in parody of the archetypal phlegmatic, sexless Englishman. Theirs is a vaudeville two-act with a matte finish rather than a high polish. On the more physical side, one of the conspirators is an Italian magician and in one sequence Iris and Gilbert poke about his props in the luggage compartment.

There's more, too, but this is enough to indicate that The Lady Vanishes is the strongest evidence that Hitchcock understood moviemaking as a composite entertainment, made up of suspense, of course, but also sex and comedy, and the trick was to keep all the Indian clubs in the air. Technically, it's a work of foreboding from the era of Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Pact, but it doesn't play that way. (Except perhaps in a scene that demonstrates the extent to which fascists respect white flags.) The Lady Vanishes is much less urgent than Foreign Correspondent, the sensationally kinetic anti-Nazi melodrama that Hitchcock made in the US in 1940, i.e., before we, in our turn, had inevitably got into the war, already underway in Europe. (Strangely, the only drawback to The Lady Vanishes is Michael Redgrave, for people who come to the movie knowing his later work in Dead of Night (1945), The Browning Version (1951), and The Quiet American (1958). He's a bit too flip, too lightweight here, more like Brian Aherne than himself.)

The makers of Flightplan have trimmed all the meat off The Lady Vanishes as if it were fat and served us the bone. There are leanings toward a more populated story—there's a stewardess who seems to want to help Kyle and one obstreperous passenger who makes sympathetic eyes, but neither possibility is developed. The movie is thus conceived with Foster as the entire show and no incidental amusements at all. It's a further mistake to make the missing "lady" the heroine's daughter because it intensifies the search beyond the bounds of inconsequential entertainment without giving it any greater substance. In The Lady Vanishes you feel that by searching for Miss Froy, Iris does what the idealized "anyone" would do in her place. In Flightplan nobody but Kyle could feel the same way about her fatherless daughter. Similarly, in The Lady Vanishes Miss Froy's helplessness is a decoy, whereas the helplessness of the little girl is not. And while I don't want to be stuffy, I don't find the helplessness of a little girl fun to fantasize about.

In addition, with no other characters on Kyle's side and her little girl out of the picture for most of the running time, we've no one to identify with but Foster as Kyle, up there alone, and she'd have to be a hell of a lot more amusing than she is in this movie to carry the picture. She does the trembly-but-tough number that impressed so many people in Silence of the Lambs (1991). Adding motherhood to the character doesn't broaden it, however, but makes her more monotonously "fierce." Foster sports a pinched bloodless expression through the entire movie—first as a sign of grief and incomprehension, then of panic and fear, then of vengeful anger. Foster is well over the threshold of believability, given the implausible premise, but I don't experience active pleasure watching her anymore. As Kyle, Foster faces off against the embodiment of evil, but of the two she's by far the grimmer figure.

Proof: Princesses

Like the protective mother-and-child romance, the father-daughter romance has a built-in primal emotionality. In a father-son romance, the proposition is whether the son will live up to, or perhaps exceed, his father's example, and the answer is always, eventually, yes. Too much emoting on the son's part would make us think his eventual success improbable, and we're not there for the emotions, anyway, but for the release of the final triumphant, and usually violent, act of justification. By contrast, in the father-daughter romance, the emphasis may be on the perceived) improbability of the daughter's achievement and how frustrating or infuriating it is to the daughter. (I wrote more extensively about father-daughter romance in my review of Million Dollar Baby.)

In Proof, based on David Auburn's Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning play and directed by John Madden, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the daughter of a great University of Chicago mathematician who had done all his best work by his mid-20s and later lost his mind. Catherine is the faithful daughter who gave up her own promising mathematical education to take care of him until his death. The heroine has inherited her father's talent for math, but having seen him lose his mind she's afraid she's too much like him, and this fear has cut her off from her sister, her career, and any possible friendships or relationships. When a groundbreaking mathematical proof turns up among her late father's notebooks, no one is close enough to Catherine to know if she's capable of having written it, as she claims. They think she's at best delusional.

The drama draws its tension from Catherine's fear that her inheritance from her father is not only a gift but possibly a curse as well. The story is not developed naturalistically, however—the proof at the heart of the piece, for instance, is not explained to us. (The uninitiated couldn't possibly know what is meant when a character refers to an element of a proof as "hip"). Instead, Auburn keeps the romance functioning by setting the plot up as a melodrama with two potential villains: Catherine's sister Claire (Hope Davis), an anal, pink-lady professional who wants to take Catherine back to New York and stash her in a mental institution, and the father's grad student Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), who romances Catherine but who may be exploiting her for the good that association with such a proof could do his career.

The play employs melodrama, but also tries to moderate it. Hal, for instance, turns out to be as nice a guy as his face tells us he is, he just has to learn to have faith in Catherine. Claire is more problematic because the script goes back and forth on an ad hoc basis: she became a currency trader in New York to support her demented father and she is genuinely concerned about Catherine; but she's also a shallow yuppie who cares about hair conditioner, nice clothes, and gourmet coffee, as well as a power freak who sells the house she paid for out from under her sister. Plus she has no faith.

Of course we're in no better position to judge Catherine's competence, and to me the heroine's insistence that she be trusted came off as pretty unreasonable. In the real world, her claim to have written the proof would as a matter of course be subject to verification; it's only in romance that you just know who's right and who's wrong. If you doubt, it's a sign there's something wrong with you. Thus, although mathematics provides the central symbol, the script is not a work of mind but of the theatrical craft involved in disguising Catherine as a loser as long as possible. The editing of the masterly Mick Audsley (My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Grifters (1990)) provides some cinematic enhancement to that craft, but he's a mosaicist not an alchemist.

At her father's memorial service Catherine stomps up to the church lectern and makes an unpardonable speech chastising all the other mourners for not having called or come around during the final five years of his decline. (She's Antigone, she's the Little Red Hen.) We're to think of Catherine as at least potentially mad, and certainly off-putting, yet in the absence of naturalistic character development, or even a modicum of ironic distance from her disheveled emotionality, the romance by default justifies all that she says and does. Catherine acts like a petulant adolescent but the movie sets her up as a noble caretaker and a genius, and also as a girl who's appealing in some way that's meant to be superior to mere social ingratiation.

But the fantasy embodied in the romance regresses even farther back than adolescence. It's an infantile fantasy, really, of not just being daddy's favorite but being chosen, by some mysterious power, to inherit his gift. Catherine ascends to her father's throne, abashing the ordinary, dim-sighted mortals who questioned the line of succession as unlikely. The proof thus identifies Catherine objectively as the "preferred" daughter—I bet a lot of rivalrous siblings would love to have something comparable found among their deceased parents' effects. However well educated the implied target audience for this play is, Proof is not at bottom an entertainment for adults.

Basically Catherine sulks and has tantrums until she gets what she wants. That might be fine if the play presented her as a "difficult" ironic protagonist who clearly made bad situations worse. On the contrary, the play regards her as a misunderstood heroine and this just isn't how a heroine behaves, not even a child heroine. Personally, I find the forgiveness of the outraged princess Ginevra in Händel's Ariodante far more moving—she expresses love for her obdurate royal father on her way to prison, before her honor is vindicated. (This might not be what you or I would do, but we're talking about romance heroines who are put forth as embodiments of certain ideals.) Catherine, by contrast, is so offended by Hal's doubt she doesn't even want the stinking proof. In a contemptibly clumsy bit of staging, Hal runs after the car taking Catherine to her new life with Claire in New York and flings the golden notebook through the window so that she'll have to take responsibility—and credit—for her work. (Lucky for her she hadn't developed a "hip" new waffle iron.)

There is some promise early on of more lively entertainment. Jake Gyllenhaal, for instance, shows a more alert vitality than he has before onscreen. In his first scenes he's not just batting his eyelashes at us, but working the dialogue. It actually helps that the movie plays like a stage piece because this imposes some discipline on Gyllenhaal. It requires him to exert more energy to hold his own because he senses, rightly, that he'll be judged by his delivery not by how photogenic he is. But once Hal is put in the position of repeatedly apologizing to the intransigent Catherine, Gyllenhaal can't save himself. Has any actor ever given a good performance when his material turned demeaning?

For her part Hope Davis brings welcome bursts of bright energy to the dismally prejudicial role of the yuppie sister. All the things that you might well appreciate at a tough time—the distraction of mundane chatter, the material generosity, the refusal to sink into despondency, the effort to connect with the larger community over the family's loss—are used against Claire. The script keeps backing away from melodrama as if to assure us that Claire's not entirely evil, as if that were a realistic possibility, but this doesn't create a complex, or even coherent, character. The fundamental contrast between the sisters is plain enough, however, and has to do with numbers: Catherine uses them for original creative work while Claire turns them to account as a currency trader. Catherine is thus the artist figure and her superiority to materialistic Claire is right at the fatuous heart of the piece. In sum, Davis, too, goes down to defeat, though after an even more resourceful struggle than Gyllenhaal's.

The movie belongs to Paltrow and she wrecks any chance it had of working on screen. First of all, just as a matter of public image, the last thing Paltrow needs is to play a princess (even a dowdy one). John Madden was quoted in the cover story of the October 2005 issue of VLife as saying, "It would embarrass her to hear it, but I think Gwyneth really knows [Catherine] because she has this sense of being slightly special…." (Paltrow named her baby Apple; the question is whether anything is capable of embarrassing her.) In the cover story of the October 2005 issue of Vogue, Paltrow is reported to be visibly unhappy with photographers snapping her picture at the Chanel runway show in Paris and sighs, "This might be my last round of fashion shows. I don't need to put myself through this anymore." As reported in This Is London, she does have fashion advice, however, this pearl, for instance, offered to women visiting England: "The best thing for London, even if you're going in the summer, is to bring a little cashmere sweater or a pashmina because it gets really cold unexpectedly." (Remember, ladies, she said a little one.))

The fact that Paltrow offers travel tips worthy of Marie Antoinette is perhaps not what the Vogue writer meant when he called her "aristocratic." Whatever he meant, such fawning press may prove a disaster. Especially if it leads to more quotations like this from VLife: "Paltrow says box-office number crunching means 'absolutely nothing' to her. She's just not interested in 'putting money in someone's pocket'." What can this schoolgirl inanity mean, finally, but that she doesn't care if audiences like her movies or not? Who is she acting for? A reader e-mailed me that Paltrow "repulses" him because of her "air of spoiled entitlement that many mistake for elegance." Every interview I've read corroborates him

Catherine is rumpled and unkempt, so Paltrow isn't getting by here on elegance, real or imagined. This time it's her plain assumption that she's a great actress that's so offensive. I always found Meryl Streep's work boringly immaculate, but she at least brought evident technique to bear in all those overly controlled "accent" performances. (The one thing you can say for the most deliberate of craftsmanlike actors—Streep, say, or Dustin Hoffman, or John Malkovich—is that you know exactly how many square feet of skill your ticket money has bought you.) Apart from some manipulative coquetting in (the otherwise grotesque) Great Expectations (1998), I've never seen what it is Paltrow brings to the party. The hurting expression over the mournful overbite is entirely too familiar by now, and Catherine's morose slugabed defensiveness just makes Paltrow more of a drag.

Paltrow played the role on stage in London but there's no theatrical stylization or snap to what she does. Mary Louise Parker created the role on Broadway, and I can imagine her sneaking something less readily digestible into this blandly "rousing" stuff; I also thought it might have been fun to see Hope Davis play both sisters, like in one of those old evil-twin movies—A Stolen Life (1946) with two Bette Davises, or The Dark Mirror (1946) with two Olivia de Havillands. It couldn't be less fun than having Paltrow in the lead. Even if Paltrow gave Catherine the flat, whiny voice she uses here on purpose, that artistic choice would hardly go in the asset column. Comparing Paltrow's drone to the syncopated, ringing effects Davis gets with her voice, I realized that if you didn't know and had to guess which of Gwyneth Paltrow or Hope Davis was Blythe Danner's daughter, the smart money would be on Hope Davis.

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