Saturday, April 17, 2004

HB 751 update: Warner the weasel

Governor Mark Warner is playing a game of chicken with the General Assembly, and if he doesn't win, Virginians could lose some very important legal rights.

A few days ago, Warner offered a last-minute "recommendation" to HB 751, the alleged "defense-of-marriage" bill that could nullify any private contract between two persons of the same sex. I've already written a short essay on HB 751 (short by my standards, anyway); click here to read it.

Here's the full text as approved by the General Assembly last month. Warner wants to strike all language not in boldface:

A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited. Any such civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction shall be void in all respects in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby shall be void and unenforceable.

In essence, the revised HB 751 -- the part in boldface -- would prohibit legal recognition of out-of-state civil unions, nothing more. But since Virginia law explicitly prohibits same-sex marriage and civil unions, out-of-state civil unions are already "void in all respects in Virginia," with or without this bill. Warner's new-and-improved HB 751 would simply leave things the way they are.

Now the General Assembly must choose between a useless law and a bad law, and Gay Virginians must pray that the useless one passes. If it does, we'll receive yet another slap in the face from our government. But we won't see another radical assault on individual liberty and contract law ... at least, until next year's legislative session.

Although I'm grateful that the governor has attempted to defang HB 751, I'm a bit disappointed at his sneaky political manuever. Frankly, I wish he would veto this awful thing outright and spare us the pain. Instead, he's triangulating, and I fear this time he may have triangulated himself into a corner. If the "recommendation" passes, Warner will have to sign the bill into law. But if a coalition of Democrats and Republicans can send it back to him unrevised, he may end up signing it anyway.

Ah, politics.

Update (4/18): I was talking with a friend yesterday afternoon, and he convinced me that I had overestimated the strength of the Far Right in Virginia. This is fairly easy to do: Virginia's religious fundamentalists can get measures passed with overwhelming margins of support in the General Assembly, especially if they're anti-abortion or anti-Gay. But they claim to possess far more power than they really have. At any rate, my friend assured me that a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans would probably support Warner's revisions. Though HB 751 will undoubtedly become law, it will probably do so in its ineffectual version.

An open letter to Steve Sailer

Dear Mr. Sailer:

Your review of The Alamo at contained the following statement: "Walking around downtown Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that Ben Franklin started more civic institutions than have all three million people of Mexican descent in Los Angeles County."

If by your remark you refer to Franklin's role in overturning a colonial government and eventually establishing a national one in its place, I think we may add that no current resident of Los Angeles County, Latino or non-Latino, has participated in the successful overthrow of any federal, state or local government within the borders of the United States.

If, however, you refer to Franklin's role in organizing libraries, newspapers and a fire department (all of which were technically "corporate" rather than "civic"), then the statement is irrelevant. Although Ben Franklin lived in the eighteenth century, when the idea of urban infrastructure was in its infancy, most of today's Americans have never lived without one. The Los Angeles Fire Department has been in existence since before the current residents of Los Angeles County were born, and the same could be said for city water, sewer, power, and public schools. I can't see why you would expect persons of Mexican descent -- or of Anglo descent, for that matter -- to reinvent a public infrastructure that was already in place when they arrived.

So I suspect the true meaning of your remark (and of your article in general) is that Mexican-Americans don't have a sense of social responsibility like their Anglo neighbors do, and that this is why they don't form grass-roots "civic institutions" as you call them. Yet in the category of "civic institutions," most people would include lobbying groups, community centers, arts collectives, AIDS outreach programs, soup kitchens, parent-teacher associations, safety groups like Neighborhood Watch, and other neighborhood-based efforts. It is well-known that "persons of Mexican descent" in the Los Angeles area establish, manage, volunteer for, and participate in all of the above. If, Mr. Sailer, you mean to imply that the three million Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles County have shown little or no interest in contributing to their own well-being or to the general social good, your remark has no basis in fact.

Worse than that, it is cruel. You claim, without exceptions or qualifications, that as a group, these "persons of Mexican descent" have failed to contribute -- or at least failed to contribute adequately -- to their nation and their neighborhood. In doing so, you've applied a blanket condemnation against these individuals, finding them inferior on the grounds of their ethnicity and country of origin. There is a word for this, Mr. Sailer: bigotry.

In the name of common decency, I ask you to make a public retraction on the website, and cease this ugly and gratuitous slander of your fellow Americans.


Timothy Hulsey

Friday, April 16, 2004

The Alamo: A patriotic film worth fighting for

The new Disney/Imagine co-production of The Alamo has received a lot of bad press. First, several big-name actors and directors (Ron Howard, Russell Crowe) passed on the script. Then the film's opening was postponed from mid-December to April. Director John Lee Hancock -- best known for Disney's modest, old-fashioned baseball flick The Rookie -- trimmed forty-five minutes from the final cut, reportedly at the producers' insistence. So there's blood in the water, and the critics are all too happy to pounce. The same guys who loved Hellboy attacked this film, and pundits have officially declared the film a box-office bomb.

Don't believe the buzz, gentle reader: We might still be able to turn this one around. The Alamo is the best conservative film to come from Hollywood in years. (And it's far superior to John Wayne's overblown 1960 version.)

Disney's marketing campaign for The Alamo has zigzagged wildly, touting the film's white-knuckle action on the one hand, and its multicultural history on the other. Not only does the marketing bear little resemblance to the film itself, but the inept promotion has managed to alienate both sides of the nation's infamous red-blue divide.

Blue-staters, especially urban Democrats, find Wild West stories of the Alamo too jingoistic for Americans' own good: They smack of mythic history, even hagiography, and we all know that such belief leads America into one horrible quagmire after another. Battles for freedom are perhaps acceptable in the fantasyland of Tolkien's Middle Earth, but they're just plain dangerous if they take place in a milieu as concrete as nineteenth-century Texas. After all, any history which stresses something as trifling and intangible as human liberty must be fatally simplistic. It lacks nuance, n'est-ce pas?

Meanwhile, Republican red-staters hear the filmmakers' statements about "historical accuracy," and grit their teeth: The left-wing revisionists are at it again. Allen Barra, writing for the online magazine Salon, expresses the hope that today's historical epics can take pesky pro-American sentiment down a peg: "The dark side of these cowboy heroes depicted in ... 'The Alamo' are [sic] just what America needs to see today." Conservatives hear those words and cringe: They know that a financially successful film which venerates General Santa Anna and execrates the historical Texians could ruin a vital American myth for an entire generation. Of course, a film that abandons history for mindless action violence would prove no less destructive to America's self-esteem.

Fortunately, we conservatives have every reason to rejoice at The Alamo. Unlike Disney's bewildered marketing department, this film knows precisely what it is and what it intends to do. Not for a single moment does it deviate from its course or pander to its audience. There are two brief, intense battle sequences -- one at the Alamo, one at San Jacinto -- in which the gore is almost entirely suggested. But for the most part, this particular epic is concerned with discussions, not concussions. We learn why the people of Texas went to war with Mexico, and their reasons should hearten today's conservatives: The Texians wish to force a sudden regime change on General Santa Anna, who has replaced Mexico's constitutional republic with a despotic tyranny. (Does this conflict sound at all familiar?)

As played by Emilio Echevarria (in an Oscar-worthy performance) Santa Anna is a petty dictator, disposed to massacre his own troops as well as his enemies. Echevarria humanizes this evil character without softening him; the result is a brilliant, subtle depiction of absolute power and the arrogance it breeds. If Santa Anna's mannerisms resemble a certain recently deposed Iraqi leader, it's not quite coincidence: Despots tend to act alike, regardless of time or place.

Yet The Alamo is no less frank when it comes to the Texians' faults. Sam Houston is portrayed as an abusive alcoholic, which to some degree he was. Jim Bowie is not only a slaveowner, but an unkind master. William Travis is a divorced rogue who abandons his wife and children. And Davy Crockett is the wildest and strangest of all -- Indian killer, American celebrity, and grandstanding politician.

Surprisingly, these characters' spotted reputations don't detract from their heroic last stand; in fact, the film's warts-and-all portrait of Alamo defenders only makes their valor that much greater. These people were far from perfect, and they might not have understood the implications of their actions. But at least they had the right idea: According to the film, a belief in basic human freedom inspired these deeply flawed human beings to history-making greatness. If such a belief can ennoble them, it can ennoble us as well.

Performances range from good to excellent: As Sam Houston, Dennis Quaid turns "Remember the Alamo!" from a cliche to a moving battle cry, and Billy Bob Thornton steals scene after scene as the colorful Crockett. John Lee Hancock's direction is more proficient than poetic, but it's always crisp and clean. And at a brisk two-and-a-quarter hours, the film is not a whit longer than it should be.

The Alamo is mainstream studio entertainment at its best -- thoughtful, profound and uplifting. Tell your friends about it; take a friend if you have to. But whatever you do, gentle reader, be sure not to miss this movie.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Two excellent movies you probably missed

The two best new releases I've seen so far this year are David Mamet's Spartan and Ernest Dickerson's Never Die Alone. Both films defy genre and soar above expectations, yet neither one has found the mass audience it deserves. If you're lucky enough to have one or both of these neglected gems playing at a theater near you, by all means rush out and see them now, before they go away.

Spartan: Woolly Mamet

Roughly two-thirds of the way through David Mamet's new film Spartan, I got the distinct feeling that I had seen it before: This was yet another spy thriller in which a CIA operative discovers institutional corruption, and decides he'd rather leave the team and do the right thing on his own. But the moment I thought I finally had the film pegged, it changed into something else altogether.

Mamet's latest movie is a farrago of genres -- part spy thriller, part domestic drama, part buddy flick, part crime caper, among others. Any film that constantly shuffles and reshuffles audience expectations in this way is likely to prove uneven; Spartan, too, has its sudden flashes of mediocrity. But the film holds together well, thanks to Mamet's writing, and remains taut and suspenseful, thanks to his direction.

It's best not to summarize the labyrinthine plot, which begins when the president's daughter is kidnapped and sold into Middle Eastern prostitution. From there, we have the usual array of double- and triple-crosses, surprising plot twists and sneak attacks. Death proves a respecter neither of persons nor of star power: One lead character's brutal, untimely demise earned audible gasps from an audience of jaded moviegoers. Mamet's denouement -- featuring what is either a deus ex machina or a lucky break -- comes like a thunderclap, and leaves no one unscathed.

Val Kilmer, Derek Luke and Tia Texada all give solid performances as government operatives; Kilmer, in particular, oozes professionalism and competence in the sort of heroic lead role once reserved for the likes of John Wayne and Randolph Scott. William Macy, one of Mamet's favorite actors, offers a predictably excellent supporting performance; Ed O'Neill (of "Married With Children" fame) surprises us with a chilling impersonation of Karl Rove. But Kristen Bell is the film's highlight: I won't give away the game by revealing her character, except to say that through her repressed anguish, Mamet reveals the terrible human cost of power. When Bell is onscreen, Spartan stops bending genres and starts breaking them.

Spartan is Mamet's harshest, most cynical film to date: It practically drips with contempt for politics and politicians, and creates a conspiracy theory that in its unabashed pettiness and cruelty makes left- and right-wing presidential detractors seem tame. What's more, the script feels like the sort of cutting-edge drama Mamet created in his heyday, with terse dialogue, frequent f-bombs, male bonding, and shocking violence. This is an alpha-male movie, albeit an uncommonly brainy, nasty one.

My only problem with this film is its mise-en-scene, which is too slick for its own good. As is true of many spy movies, Spartan is bathed in greys, blues and blacks, as if it were set inside a glacier. In keeping with another spy-movie cliche, Mamet backlights his actors, apparently oblivious to the fact that the long pseudo-expressionist shadows that occur would make any object visible from hundreds of yards away. I'll grant that Mamet's images are uncluttered, well-framed, and easy to read, which should prove an advantage when this film finds its audience on home video. Still, if these spies are smart enough to know when they're under hostile surveillance, they should also be smart enough to avoid brightly lit areas.

Minor quibbles notwithstanding, Spartan will likely prove one of the year's best films, and Kristen Bell gives an outstanding performance. Catch this one in a theater if you can.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Never Die Alone

Ernest Dickerson is best known as Spike Lee's cinematographer for Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. He's less well known as a director, though over the past decade he has helmed several low-budget flicks -- mostly in the genres of "gangsta" film (today's blaxploitation) and hack horror. His greatest box-office success, the Snoop Dogg gorefest Bones, blended the two genres by bringing a drug dealer back from the dead.

But with Never Die Alone Dickerson finally proves his mettle as a B-movie auteur. His blend of disparate styles (verite naturalism, classic Hollywood realism, extreme stylization) to suggest class strata, locations, even characters' internal states, could provide enough material for an entire course on filmmaking. Best of all, at only eighty-two minutes, it moves so rapidly that we never have time to consider how baroque, implausible or convoluted the story is.

Never Die Alone plays like the second coming of Sam Fuller, and has all the makings of a true cult classic.

The film is based on a 1970s crime novel by Donald Goines, an author I've never read and will never read. The book's greatest claim to fame is that its author was shot to death shortly after publication -- a human tragedy to be lamented, but probably not a great loss to the annals of literature. Given what his fans say about him, I suspect that genuine crime-fiction luminaries like James M. Cain, David Goodis and Patricia Highsmith needn't fear for their reputations. The snippets I've heard of Goines's prose sound like ersatz Hemingway, all hard-boiled posturing and tabloid luridness, never more than half a level deep. But that makes him a natural fit for the cinema.

Never Die Alone has been marketed as a vanity project for hardcore rapper and gansta-for-hire DMX. (I can't help wondering what the "X" stands for -- it seems rather like the "J" in Bullwinkle J. Moose.) Naturally, critics and audiences have assumed that DMX is playing a hero, or at least an admirable character, as is usually the case with star vehicles. So when they discover that DMX's character is stupid, self-absorbed, and wholly lacking in human decency, they suspect that the film itself is morally reprehensible. To my mind, however, the film's marketing has been deeply misleading: DMX may view the film as hero worship, but Dickerson clearly doesn't.

Never Die Alone demonstrates how a talented director can strip away the delusions and pretensions of his producer/star. DMX is far and away the film's weakest link: He's handsome and charismatic, but his acting skills lie closer to Vanilla Ice than Ice Cube. In this film, he plays a small-time drug dealer -- unfortunately named "King" David -- as if it were merely an offshoot of his stage persona. Of course, DMX is strictly a Johnny One-Note performer, delivering his dialogue in a raspy monotone (and his rapping in a hoarse scream). Still, Dickerson makes the star's lack of talent work to his advantage, keeping his screen time brief and his individual scenes quite short. Better still, Dickerson surrounds the rapper with talented actresses who know exactly what they're doing: In scene after scene, while these women offer vivid portrayals of pain, suffering and mindless desperation, DMX looks slightly confused, unable to react or connect with his co-stars. He gives a terrific bad performance.

The sublimely strange David Arquette pulls off a not-dissimilar coup, playing a sad-sack White writer who aspires to plumb society's lower (i.e., "Black") depths. Arquette is appropriately sweaty and ill-at-ease in the role -- as, to some extent, he is in every role -- and he conveys his character's increasing panic quite well. But like poor Tom Neal in Ulmer's Detour, Arquette gets every gesture and action just a tiny bit wrong. As the French would say, Il joue faux.

Arquette may think his performance is serious, but Dickerson's attitude toward it is deeply sardonic. It's impossible to feel for anyone who keeps doing risibly stupid things, whether in the plot or on the screen. In fact, of the major actors in this film, only Michael Ealy manages to evoke some degree of audience sympathy; as "Michael," whose quest for vengeance leave a trail of bodies in its wake, he provides a character we can root for, up to a point. At least we never laugh at him.

In true crime-thriller fashion, Never Die Alone contains about a dozen bloody murders, plenty of repulsive sex (none of it strictly consensual), and enough twists and turns for five movies of its ilk. The denouement provides vicious comeuppances for each lead character. DMX's "King" David receives a fate that could only be described as cosmically appropriate: Dickerson implies that God has rejected his half-assed attempt at redemption, sending the character to a literally fiery doom. The inept writer's bid for literary respectability is also rejected out of hand -- would you buy a used manuscript from this man? -- and the young killer, after losing his home and family, is destined to repeat the sins of his father. We cannot claim these characters have been unjustly condemned. Yet we can't exactly accept Fate's little jokes, either, because they seem so unrelentingly cruel and condescending.

In the end, Never Die Alone leaves us shaken, not stirred. But although it hits too hard and fast for a sense of tragedy to take hold, it certainly provides its share of shock and awe. This fast, furious neo-noir may be the most visually exuberant movie I've seen so far this year.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Rossellini's Il Messia: Personal Jesus

I'll admit I know relatively little about Roberto Rossellini, other that the standard factoids. Shortly after World War II he co-founded Italian neorealism with Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, and made several postwar films that are generally considered masterpieces: Open City is probably the best known of the lot. His affair with Ingrid Bergman a few years later scandalized both their reputations. Finally, in the early 1960s, he left the world of studio filmmaking to focus on educational and television projects. It's generally assumed that Rossellini had serious issues with the Catholic Church (as what successful Italian filmmaker did not?), and that his final film Il Messia -- made in 1975 for Italian television, but not released in the US until 1978 -- is his parting shot at Christian doctrine.

This film is Rossellini's retelling of the life of Jesus, and on first glance it doesn't seem like much of a swan song. The production is as low-budget as Gospel epics get: Most scenes are set in anonymous countryside, with extras in robes and occasionally a canvas tent. Semi-squalid Tunisian villages stand in, not very convincingly, for first-century Jerusalem. The writing is a bit dreary, in keeping with most filmic adaptations of the Gospel story, but so is the cinematography. The camera is static and distant; the zoom lens is deployed in almost every shot, to monotonous effect. Even the cheapest sandal epics look better than this.

Yet the same flaws are visible in the 1979 film Jesus, spearheaded by Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright. Compositions are framed poorly, the cinematography is washed-out, and the zoom lens is overused; the writing is flat, and the story never gains dramatic momentum. The problem couldn't have been the budget: With a $6 million price tag, the film should have had decent production values at least. No, the problem lay with the filmmakers themselves. Like many evangelicals, the makers of Jesus didn't seem to know how to make a motion picture.

Il Messia isn't a good movie either, at least by any of the usual criteria, but at least its limitations feel like conscious choices rather than bone-headed incompetence. Rossellini makes it clear that he knows the rules of film grammar well enough to break them, and he deliberately avoids the excesses and fetishes of Hollywood sandal epics. His film has little underscoring, and less spectacle. It substitutes grit for glitz, intimacy for crowds. More importantly, it interprets a fairly standard narrative of Jesus's life in an unusual, highly personalized manner. The film may not be successful, but at least it's thoughtful.

The strangeness begins with a prologue set a thousand years prior to Jesus's birth: Rossellini shows the Israelites arriving in the promised land, then flash-forwards a few hundred years to show the chosen people demanding a king to rule them. A narrator informs us that the history of kings involved injustice and horror, and the people started to look for a truly just king, the Messiah. Rossellini states that Jesus was this Messiah, which makes his film profoundly Christian. But the idea of Jesus as a "just king" raises more earthly questions about what sort of ruler could be considered "just."

Most critics claim that Rossellini's film leaves miracles out of the story to present a basically secular Jesus, but I think that makes the film seem more radical than it really is. True, save the "feeding of the five thousand," which is presented as matter-of-factly as possible, no miracles occur onscreen. But plenty of miracles occur offscreen. Characters testify that Jesus has healed them; though we never see these healings outright, we have no reason not to take them at their word. Even the Resurrection is implied rather than shown, though the film clearly indicates that something miraculous has occurred at the empty tomb. What Rossellini shows us, then, is a deliberately incomplete picture of Jesus. Perhaps he suspects his audience is already familiar with this story, or perhaps he figures that the more conspicuous signs of divinity are better believed than displayed.

So instead of presenting a miracle pageant or a passion play, he focuses on Jesus as a teacher. And this is precisely where the film runs into trouble. The teachings of Jesus are the most difficult portions of the Gospels to dramatize. Sermons and parables may be effective on the printed page. But they grow wearisome in drama or the cinema, where dialogue must either advance plot or reveals character. Most of what Jesus says accomplishes neither purpose, which may explain why no dramatic or cinematic adaptation to my knowledge has succeeded in making him a compelling, three-dimensional character in his own right.

Rossellini can't make Jesus compelling, either, but at least he works a novel variation on the role of wisdom teacher: He shows Jesus instructing his disciples, then shows these disciples speaking to people in other villages. The Gospels indicate that Jesus sent dozens of disciples throughout the land to spread his message, but Il Messia is the first film to show how the system could have worked. Strangely, in this film Jesus's followers espouse these teachings more enthusiastically than Jesus himself seems to: They preach with fervor and conviction, and we can see how these teachings develop into a mass movement. In short, this may be the only film I've seen to give not just the twelve apostles, but the many unnamed disciples, their due. Instead of being the cringing, cowering, undistinguished followers of God-on-earth, they go out and preach on their own.

In a way, this brings us back to the initial question: How can a king be truly just? Rossellini's implicit answer is that a perfect king tells you what to do, then lets you do it on your own. This Jesus is no control freak; he drops out of the film for long stretches, and allows the disciples to carry the ministry. He doesn't distinguish himself with ostentatious miracle-working. He prefers to be one man in a crowd, instead of a man alone. He reigns, but does not rule; he instructs, but does not order; he guides, but does not lead. Ideologically, Rossellini's Jesus may be something of an anarcho-socialist -- which, ironically, makes him (in Rossellini's eyes, at least) the perfect ruler.

But this decentered approach to Jesus creates a major problem at the film's climax. Because Jesus has become a supporting character, a cipher in the story of his own life, the scenes involving and surrounding his crucifixion lack emotional affect. They feel like non sequiturs, when they should deliver something like a payoff. In addition, they lead to a logistical problem: One never quite understands why the Romans would execute a talky, hands-off Saviour-administrator, while leaving his engaged, charismatic followers alone. More than anything else, Rossellini's failure to integrate crucifixion and sacrifice into his concept of Jesus makes Il Messia a failure. Still, it's no less interesting for that.

Artistically, neorealism had a limited range of possibilities, and so it's no surprise that most neorealists didn't age well. Federico Fellini fared best. He would hit his stride in the early '60s, once France had supplanted Italy as a leader of world cinema. But with the exception of his early masterpiece La Strada, most of his major work could never be classified as realistic (and some critics even have their doubts about La Strada). Visconti had paved the way for Fellini, in a way; he had abandoned realism for baroque spectacle by the early 1950s. Even though he directed several astonishing films during this period, his oeuvre would consist of one commercial flop after another until The Damned scorched audience sensibilities in 1969. De Sica's fate was saddest of all: After his masterpiece Umberto D., he went into a long steady decline, humiliating himself with substandard fare like the Peter Sellers vehicle After the Fox. He, too, made a brief comeback in the early 1970s; by then he had embraced Visconti's ironic, decadent glamour. Rossellini alone held on to his neorealist principles, and faded from sight.

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