Cuba, The Interview, and Freedom

My kid brother came to town and on top of it I have been a little under the weather with whatever cold is passing through town.  Because of this posting has been a little slow.  I’ve been paying attention to the news in bits and pieces.

I’m extremely happy that the U.S. establishing a diplomatic relationship with Cuba.  Our policy was outdated and clearly didn’t achieve anything anyway.  I think this is something that will be looked upon well in the history of the Obama Administration.  This is a victory for peace and sanity.  Anything that leads to a more open world where there is at least the chance that people can solve their differences through conversation is a good thing.

On the other end of the spectrum the whole thing surrounding the movie The Interview is mind boggling.  Did we really allow a movie to not be released because of fear of what might happen?  It kind of reminds me of the whole take your shoes off at the airport thing.  I have traveled a lot in recent years and we are the only country that I have been to that makes you take your shoes off at the airport.  One time someone had explosives in their shoes that didn’t even go off, and we are forever allowing ourselves to be hassled by it.  I think we need to have a serious conversation about freedom in this country.  The word freedom is too often a mask for allowing stupidity to run ramped.  If you want to live in a free and open society you have to allow for a certain manageable amount of risk.  We’ll allow ourselves to be scared into taking our shoes off at the airport when the odds of you dying in a suicide attack are slim and none.  We’ll allow ourselves to be scared into limiting free expression, yes even if it is goofy comedy.  Meanwhile we’ll shout freedom driving down the road in a giant vehicle while pumping pollutants into the air, which over the long run is proven to harm a lot more people in real and tangible ways.  We champion freedom when the results actually hurt other people and run scared when the things that actually constitute what freedom should be about are challenged.

The Transcendent Quality of Music

I have remarked before that 12 Years a Slave is one of the best movies that I have seen in awhile.  It is not only expertly crafted and conveys its central story with incredible emotional impact, but it also has lots of ideas and themes permeating its margins.  There is a scene in the movie that is of true power where the slaves on the plantation sing Roll Jordan Roll.  This comes at a particularly harrowing point in the movie.  In this scene, especially in the context of the movie, one is made to feel how music allows one to transcend suffering to a degree.  It does not negate suffering, but simply allows one to carry on in the face of it.  Music is not only a source of joy, but also, like all good art should do, allows one to spiritually transcend the human mud of life.  It can allow one to exorcise those emotions that would otherwise tear them apart from the inside.

Cheating With Strings

I’m watching the movie Amistad for the second night in a row.  I’m only about 90 minutes in, as I fell asleep the first night, and it is pretty slow going.  I can’t really critique a movie that I’ve only seen half of though.  It very well might have an excellent second half.  There have also been movies that I have found slow that come together magnificently in the end.

I think though that a movie’s first goal should be to entertain.  A song’s first goal should be to create great music.  No matter how noble an idea is, it needs to work as art first.  12 Years a Slave is incredible, because it manages to fire on all cylinders.  It is telling a story that needs to be told, but it is telling it in a way that is incredibly emotionally involving.  I think if you want to move minds you need to move the heart first.

Another thing I noticed while watching Amistad is there were several moments in the first half where the music tried to make you feel something that wasn’t earned.  One of the worst movies I have ever seen, Mr. Holland’s Opus, consistently tries to make melodrama mean more than it does by laying on syrupy strings.  In 12 Years a Slave, I am referencing that because I just saw it, the score is almost minimal.  When it does come in it deepens the emotion that you are already feeling because the storytelling and performances are already so powerful.  Too many times movies try to cheat with a score.

Anyway, again, I am not really trying to critique Amistad, because I haven’t finished it yet.  What I have seen isn’t horrible, it’s just merely average.  However, I wanted to touch on the above ideas while they were still fresh.

I never did end up finishing the movie last night as I was extremely tired.  I did find a section towards the middle of the movie highly compelling.  There is a scene that is largely wordless, aside from background dialogue, which documents the horrors on the slave ship.  This segues directly into a slave auction, again with very little foreground dialogue, where we watch dandy whites dressed in light colors bidding on slaves.  That section seemed to convey the whole horror and absurdity of slavery through mere images.  I only wished that what I had seen before that was orchestrated with such expertise.  

The Collector Review

The_collector_1965_film_poster

I saw a really great movie the other night called The Collector.  It was from 1965 and it starred Terrance Stamp and Samantha Eggar.  It was a psychological thriller about a man that kidnaps and imprisons a woman.

Terrance Stamp plays Frederick Clegg.  Clegg is seen collecting butterflies at the beginning of the movie.  He stumbles upon a house that has a large underground cellar.  He decides to take his collecting one step further and he kidnaps Miranda Grey, who is played by Eggar.  He has known Grey since they were young, but because he was of a lower class he felt inferior to her and was always afraid to approach her.  He has convinced himself that if he can keep her captive long enough eventually she will learn to love him.

It was directed by the great William Wyler that also directed Ben-Hur, among many other classic films.  Although the general story is quite simple, the movie is pregnant with ideas, features great performances by both its leads, and creates a good deal of suspense.  Aside from some brief intrusions by a couple other people, it is almost like a two person play.  Most of the action takes place in Clegg’s house.

Clegg is someone that wants to be understood and feels greatly inferior due to his class.  Class in England, where this movie takes place, is much more of an issue than in America, especially at the time of the film.  The movie also deals with the struggle of the sexes as Clegg wants to posses Grey.  There is even a seen where it looks as if he is carrying her across the threshold like they just got married, even though he has made her unconscious.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Clegg has a meltdown over not being able to understand the abstract art that the educated and more sophisticated Grey loves.

The power of this movie really comes from the main performances and the dialogue of these two characters.  (Apparently Stamp and Eggar dated at some point before this movie was made.  Stamp was also told by the director to not talk to Eggar during breaks between filming.  All of this adds to the tension that you see on screen.)  The characters are complex and the story is riveting.  This is an older movie that still holds up completely today.

Chris Rock Talks to Frank Rich About Ferguson, Cosby, and What ‘Racial Progress’ Really Means

Chris Rock Talks to Frank Rich About Ferguson, Cosby, and What ‘Racial Progress’ Really Means

http://www.vulture.com/2014/11/chris-rock-frank-rich-in-conversation.html

I’ll be back in the States Wednesday.   In the mean time this is an absolutely brilliant interview of Chris Rock by Frank Rich. 

The Civil War and Movies

As any of you that have been reading along know, the last two weeks I have been interested in the Civil War.  Last night I watched Lincoln.  It was the second time I have seen it and it is really an extraordinary film.  Although there are a few scenes that seem a little too symbolic, and because of this aren’t believable as reality, overall it is really well done.  Maybe its best attribute is it really makes one think about the nature of politics.

Anyway, I wanted to watch another movie on that time period tonight.  I was doing an internet search and the truth is there are very few excellent movies that deal in that historical period.  I find that very strange.  Is that because we are afraid of really exploring a war in which half of the country was on the wrong side of justice?  Is it just that it is too long ago and, unlike World War II and Vietnam, we are too far removed from it?

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that in order to understand modern America, one must be able to have some understanding of what happened during that time period.  Works of drama are more accessible than most history.  Good dramatizations can also often bring out certain truths, even if they contains slight elements of fiction, in ways that documentaries or even history books cannot.  They can connect people emotionally to something they might not otherwise understand or be interested in.

Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys

12-monkeys-tv-logo

I had one of those days where nothing seemed to go right.  I went to walk my dog around the lake and locked my keys in the car and so on.  I decided that it was best if I didn’t leave my house the rest of the day.  I figured if I went out I would end up driving my car into a bridge embankment like an unguided missile.  So tonight I’m staying in and watching the movie 12 Monkeys for the first time in years.  Although I have caught parts of it on TV, I haven’t watched it from start to finish since it was in the movies in 1995 when I was still in high school.  I’ve always been a big Terry Gilliam film, but I remembered this movie as more of a thriller than it being one of his signature pieces.  I thought it was the kind of movie that was totally entertaining, but once you knew the solution to its mysteries, that it didn’t have the multiple watch value of some of his other films.

My memory, as usual, was wrong.  The movie is another one of his sic-fi movies, as is The Zero Theorem that I just reviewed.  And although at the foreground of this movie is a highly entertaining mystery thriller, in the background is many of the themes that Gilliam delves into in other works.  In a world that is absurd, who is really crazy, and who is really insane?    Are those that believe put their faith in the order of the world, an order that was constructed by man, any more sane than those that question things?  The normal world, or sane one, is one that tortures animals, heavily medicates people that are outside of that norm, and that plays games with nature.

Gilliam, as usual, does an excellent job at creating an imagined future.  He does this by creating a future that looks lived in.  Even though this movie came out in 1995, his vision of the future doesn’t seem dated.  It is a future created by someone with a boundless imagination and true artistic ability.  It has an element of steampunk in its look.

However, most of the film takes place in 1990 and 1996.  He takes what was then roughly the present and disorients the viewer to it by using the weird angles and wide angle lenses that give the his films a distinctive look.  This not only helps to mirror the insanity of its characters, but also allows the viewer to view the everyday with a fresh perspective.  It is like we are seeing things that we see every day for the first time. Another way that he exposes the absurdity of our world is by combining things that exist in reality in unique ways.  Pink flamingos fly through a northeastern city.  In a hallway in the mental hospital early in the film a janitor stands on stilts.  All of these things exist in our world, but the way they are combined makes you realize the strangeness that is lurking just below the surface of our world.

Although I felt The Zero Theorem had more to say, and was therefor for me a better film, this movie is actually more accessible.  The narrative takes less work for the viewer.  Both are brilliant films, but in different ways.  The Zero Theorem and his movie Brazil are more heady and full of ideas, but 12 Monkeys has a more compelling narrative.  It really depends on what kind of scene you want to get into.  For the first time Gilliam viewer or the more casual movie fan I would probably recommend something like 12 Monkeys.  If someone was looking for a stranger and more intellectual, if you enjoy surrealism and philosophical underpinnings, then I would probably steer someone to Brazil or The Zero Theorem.