Saturday, February 25, 2006
In her performance piece "Demonstration," Canadian artist Kelly Mark shows us what democracy really looks like.
Hat tip: The Stranger -- Slog.
Friday, February 24, 2006
At long last, Salon has a column defending the Jyllands-Posten. Pulitzer Priize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette is no mealy-mouthed apologist for religious fanaticism, let alone hooliganism and street violence -- and when it comes to criticizing the lassitude and complacency of mainstream print media, he's as consistently on target as any e-pundit in the blogosphere. Money quote:
We expect such bad thinking and Dilbertism from the corporate media culture, but when artists fear for their lives because of something they've drawn, where are the defenders of free expression among their fellow artists in this country? I understand why newspaper cartoonists, who have seen their jobs shrink from more than 200 only 20 years ago to fewer than 80 today, are reluctant to stick their necks out. Hence, no special day sponsored by the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists designated to drawing the Prophet Mohammed or, failing that, turning in blank cartoons in solidarity with our fellow Danish artists in hiding. But what about those artists who enjoy the immunity of celebrity? Earth to Barbra Streisand. Earth to Alec Baldwin.
Earth to George Clooney.
This gesture from the editors of Salon may be too little, too late, to salvage the e-zine's reputation as a defender of journalistic freedom. But at least it's something.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
New to DVD this week, Niki Caro's North Country and Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men turn on a fascinating paradox: They are political "message films" in which the political message is undermined. In the case of All the President's Men, history has caught up with -- and surpassed -- the film's basic premise. North Country, by contrast, is hardly a classic, and manages to undercut its message of sexual equality all by itself.
All the President's Men: George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck presents the ideals of journalism with all the passion and detail of a Gap fashion ad. (All it lacks is a caption: "Edward R. Murrow wore khakis.") All the President's Men, the story of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, comes much closer to the process -- and the sweaty, addictive glory -- of honest-to-God investigative legwork. These newspaper reporters do not arrive at deep philosophical insights as if by magic: They must figure out their story as they go, and they even make mistakes along the way.
It helps that the film began with a wry, intelligent script from William Goldman (for which he won an Oscar). Director Alan J. Pakula uses the screen deftly and confidently, employing a flattened, slightly faded image for newsroom interiors, and for outside moments, unsurpassed noirish night photography from cinematographer Gordon Willis (fresh off Coppola's Godfather and relishing his nickname "Prince of Darkness"). Black-and-white televisions scattered throughout the news office provide images within images: They give a sense of the media glow that always surrounds the American presidency, while implying that print journalism can dig into the meat of a story in ways that television cannot. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman generate dramatic tension as the famous reporting duo, while veteran thespians Hal Holbrook and Jason Robards, Jr. (another Oscar winner) envelop the proceedings in a miasma of bureaucratic menace. Although the actions against Woodward and Bernstein never go beyond an occasional verbal threat, the sense of personal danger is almost palpable.
Paranoia is the order of the day in Woodward and Bernstein's D.C.: Both book and film depict a secret American government that has lost its accountability to the American people. But for a contemporary viewer, the remarkable thing about the Nixon administration (as depicted here) is how comparatively open to scrutiny it is. In this film, reporters drive past the White House and the Lincoln Memorial; Redford walks up the front steps and inside the Capitol -- at night. These days, American citizens are no longer permitted inside their Capitol unless they're part of a guided tour, and the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue behind the White House is no longer open to vehicle traffic. As with access to government buildings, so with access to government documents: Woodward and Bernstein gain access to critical papers, albeit with some friction, while under the Bush administration, prompt and arbitrary classification measures can stymie any journalist's investigation. Even documents that have been in the public domain for decades have suddenly been labeled top secret. (Plus, more federal officials now have power to withhold information from the citizenry.)
It's tough to look at films about American government made prior to the mid-1980s -- even sinister ones, which insisted that dirty dealings were afoot -- without some twinge of nostalgia. Covering up dirty tricks during a presidential campaign seems positively innocent when compared to current allegations, now all but proven, of US torture and murder at Abu Ghraib prison, let alone the indefinite incarceration of American citizens at Guantanamo Bay. These days, the problem with All the President's Men is that its indictment of out-of-touch, irresponsible government doesn't go far enough.
North Country: Niki Caro's North Country achieves the impossible: It makes Norma Rae seem fresh. The 1979 Martin Ritt drama about labor unions in a textile factory (which won Sally Field her first Oscar) managed to invoke just about every degrading, bumpkinish cliche about the American South. But with nothing left to trash down in Dixie, this "Norma Redux" takes us to the land of ice and snow. It claims to be "based on a true story," one in which a group of women miners filed the first class-action sexual harassment suit in American history. But as E.J. Graff of the Washington Post has noted, the film trivializes what these women endured to receive basic workplace protections. In the end, this movie has something against everyone: It belittles women, demonizes men, and manages to slander the entire state of Minnesota. Only Frances McDormand, as a gruff, no-nonsense union member, manages to bring a fresh perspective on this tired material: She steals every scene she's in, and earned her Oscar nomination for this role.
Charlize Theron has also received an Oscar nod for being less than attractive before the camera, proving that ugliness is to actresses what disability (or homosexuality) is for actors. Since Theron does not portray an pug-nosed Lesbian murderess, I doubt she'll receive a second award: Her character, "Josey Aimes," is remarkably bland -- a single mother who simply wants to do her job and raise her children in peace, without her male coworkers' threatening to rape her at every opportunity. To prove that she's not "asking for" this constant humiliation, North Country effectively strips her character of sexual desire: Josey's aims all pertain to her career and her children (the latter more often than the former, just to emphasize her Victorian values), and she is permitted only the faintest whiff of romance. It's lonely being a feminist icon.
There is a deep and appalling contradiction at the heart of this film: Although North Country is ostensibly anti-rape and anti-harassment, it always tries to prove that the victims are really "good girls" at heart and therefore don't deserve such awful treatment. The implication, of course, is that "bad girls" might deserve to be sexually assaulted, or at least don't merit the sympathy and the legal protection that "good girls" do. Among the possible "bad girls" whom the film marginalizes (literally, placing them mostly in the background or on the edges of the frame) are two hefty, middle-aged women: They may be Lesbian lovers, but as far as North Country is concerned they're as sexless as Gay friends in a TV sitcom. Just to drive the film's anti-sex message home, nearly all onscreen heterosexuality takes the form of rape. One graphic sexual encounter between Theron's character and her high-school teacher -- which brands the woman with a "slutty" reputation -- turns out to be violent and non-consensual.
Naturally, the film cannot reach "closure" until the high-school rapist is exposed. The film's basic question of workplace harassment is thus displaced onto the public school system. Perhaps this shift in emphasis is meant to show that the problem of women's inequality is not limited to the workplace; that the evils of Patriarchy are everywhere, especially in education; and that the men who harass women in the iron mines aren't necessarily bad people, just misled by faulty male role models and patriarchal oppression. (It should be noted that the managers of the iron mine say precisely what boilerplate feminists would have them say: They deliberately and repeatedly admit their own guilt, not exactly the best P.R. move.) This focus on Patriarchy in general might explain why North Country is all in favor of punishing large corporations for sexual harassment, while leaving the criminal perpetrators (in other words, those who actually commit horrific acts of sexual assault) entirely off the hook. A crasser reason for this anti-corporate stance, which the film naturally does not mention, is that corporations have deep pockets, and a civil suit against a corporation is potentially far more remunerative (for plaintiffs and lawyers, at least) than several criminal prosecutions against individuals. Also, the standard of proof is lower in civil cases, which makes them the preferred choice of the litigious.
In any case, once Theron's inner chastity has been established beyond a reasonable doubt, her class-action suit can be filed, and her victory is guaranteed. The next scene shows her after she has received her settlement check. In North Country the court case is handled within a few weeks; in real life the case took more than two decades to resolve. Theron's "instant justice" isn't the only cliche in North Country, which also features a classic "Slow Clap" (in which one person's slow clapping promptly builds to thunderous applause), an "I Am Spartacus" climax, at least one "I'm-doing-this-for-the-kids" speech (and its counterpart, an "I'm-standing-up-for-my-daughter" speech), a Perry Mason confession, a musical flourish to announce that Justice Has Triumphed, and that standby of artsy left-wing movies, a soundtrack of classic Bob Dylan songs. It's all hooey, and disgusting hooey at that.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Along with the usual array of disposable extras, the new Criterion Collection DVD of Young Mr. Lincoln offers one of genuine value -- a 1945 essay by Sergei Eisenstein, who notes that "of all American films made up to now, this is the film that I would wish, most of all, to have made." Eisenstein, I think, cuts to the heart of the film's appeal when he mentions its "astonishing harmony," a quality he likens both to the ancient Greeks and to Soviet Communism:
I believe that our age yearns for harmony. We look back on the past with envy, and we've made the sunny harmony of the Greeks into an ideal. And our yearning already has brought us some result. Especially on one-sixth of the earth, our century has shaped positive ideals. And more: this is a century in which we have realized ideals.
Yet as a whole, our globe is experiencing a century of lost harmonies. And a world war that has crushed our gardens and monuments of culture is a most germane phenomenon of this age.
That is why a work of harmony is especially attractive to our epoch. Through such a creation can be expressed active opposition to our discordant times ....
Eisenstein wrote these words at the end of World War Two, looking back on a product released only months before Nazi Germany invaded Poland. It's easy to see where his nostalgia comes from. Young Mr. Lincoln is very much of its time -- a product not only of a film industry at its creative peak, but also of American socialism at its zenith.
One generally does not associate John Ford with film style -- indeed, in many respects, Ford's best-known films seem the very antithesis of it. Yet Young Mr. Lincoln comes across as the sort of stylistic exercise that Eisenstein himself had already pursued in Alexander Nevskii, and would develop to crystalline purity in his unfinished Ivan the Terrible project. The images here feel aesthetically and ideologically overdetermined; they seal the film against any unintended meaning that might leak from the outside. In Ford's hands as in Eisenstein's, the universe becomes a self-contained studio product, and within its confines American history can be refashioned in mythic, monumental terms.
Young Mr. Lincoln would be Ford's first and most earnest exploration of the "Great Man" theory of history. It contains none of the irony that would mark The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with its now-famous statement that "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." In Young Mr. Lincoln we are never permitted to notice any discrepancy between cinematic legend and historical fact, though obviously such discrepancies do exist -- to the point, it would seem, that any resemblance between this film and historical fact is largely accidental. The courtroom drama is based loosely on an 1858 murder case in which Lincoln used a farmer's almanac to cast doubts on a key witness; in Lamar Trotti's script, however, the trial takes place in the late 1830s, the plaintiffs and defendants are completely different, and the outcome comes straight out of a penny-dreadful novel. Inaccuracies don't end there: Lincoln plays "Dixie" on a jaw harp twenty years before the song was written, claiming that it sounds "kind of catchy"; the film even seems to imply that Lincoln wrote the song himself. (His riding companion notes, ominously, that it "makes you wanna march or somethin'," in one of the film's many references to the Civil War.)
The Lincoln of this film seems more a product of the 1930s than the 1830s -- and in that respect, more like the sainted Democrat FDR than his own Republican self. In Trotti's script, the rail-splitter has nothing whatsoever to say about race, arguably the most important issue in Lincoln's America, though all but buried in FDR's. The closest he comes to acknowledging the harsh reality of slavery is a not-quite throwaway line: Lincoln states that his family had to leave Kentucky because "with all the slaves comin' in, white folks had a hard time making a living." Class displaces race in the film's mythic universe -- to the point that when the title character, played by a startlingly young Henry Fonda, faces down an angry lynch mob, both participants and intended victims are White. Like Fritz Lang, who famously used lynch mobs as a metaphor for fascism in his film Fury, Ford suggests a parallel between thuggish leaders who goad a mob to violence and equally grotesque forces poised to plunge Europe into a second world war. That Lincoln is singlehandedly able to quell the angry mob points to one of the film's deepest contradictions: In Young Mr. Lincoln, democratic society is saved from fascist control through the actions of a single Great Leader. (Lang didn't let America off the hook so easily.)
This young Mr. Lincoln proves himself a class warrior par excellence, not merely a Perry Mason of the plains but an avenger of the poor, disenfranchised white farmer. The central trial establishes a basic class conflict between dandified plutocratic lawyers -- a foppish Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone) and an orotund prosecutor played by veteran character actor Donald Meek -- and Fonda's shabbily dressed, aw-shucks Lincoln. Witnesses for the prosecution, including Ford regular Ward Bond at his more brutish, are degenerate town folk; the defendants and their mother are simple people of the soil, representatives of authentic, wholesome American life. This iconography is all too typical of the Great Depression: Throughout the 1930s, American cinema depicted the country's various economic woes as the wages of urban sin. In the ultimate statement of Depression-era morality, Gone With the Wind, even wayward Scarlett O'Hara would see the light, abandoning the social, economic and moral instability of the big city for traditional values and the Old Plantation (not necessarily in that order). But Ford gives Lincoln a way to reconcile these opposing values, through a Hollywood courtship of the aristocrat Mary Todd. We know that the agrarian Lincoln will marry into Todd's high society, and the inference here is that he will democratize it by his very presence.
With a title like Young Mr. Lincoln, one might expect a bildungsroman of sorts, about how an ordinary, unformed man becomes the Great Leader of myth and story. But as played by Henry Fonda, the Lincoln of myth and legend springs full-grown from the prairie soil. If any development occurs in his character, it does so in the opening scenes -- in which a budding romance between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge is eclipsed by his more passionate romance with Blackstone's Commentaries. Even here, Lincoln's basic New Deal stance is clear: His brief opening speech tells us (truthfully, for once) that he supports economic protectionism and governmental interference. Of course, from the moment Fonda's Lincoln arrives in Springfield, his politics become irrelevant: He is now the Great Man, always set apart from society but destined to lead it. Ford never asks how Lincoln comes to be this Great Man, or, most important of all, whether the idea of a Great Man is compatible with American democratic ideals. The central question of Ford's film involves Lincoln's neighbors -- whether and when they will see the man's essential greatness, and how they will come to submit to it.
Eisenstein saw Young Mr. Lincoln as embodying the classical harmonies of ancient Greece, but its monumental approach to history contains something more sinister as well. Ford's camera serves as a Medusa, turning everyone within its gaze to stone. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final scene: Lincoln strides to the crest of a hill as rear-projected storm clouds darkly gather, then boldly strides forth into a thunderstorm (a metaphor for both the "coming storm" of civil war, and the upcoming storm of World War Two). A dissolve takes us instantly to Daniel French's sculpture of Lincoln, the centerpiece of D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial. Before our eyes, literally, Ford has transformed Lincoln from flesh and blood into stone. Of course, these transformations of Lincoln occurs throughout the film, albeit in a more subtle fashion: Ford frequently films Henry Fonda at floor-level angles, in well-chosen but static compositions, always isolating and aggrandizing the Great Man within the frame. Combined with the character's essential stasis, and Fonda's own performance (which seems more like architecture than acting), Lincoln comes across more as a monument than a being of flesh and blood. He is always experienced in totality, never in potential.
Ford applies this technique to other characters as well. As played by Alice Brady (in her final film role), Abigail Cary serves as a monument to the archetypal Pioneer Woman. She is filmed at low angles as well, especially during a traumatic courtroom interrogation in which she refuses to condemn her sons to death. Ford's fetishization of mother figures has been frequently discussed, but here it goes to untenable extremes. The image of Mother Cary/Alice Brady on the witness stand is as indelible as the closeups of Renee Falconetti in Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, another example (and perhaps the best one) a "monumental" film style in which faces and figures acquire an architectural significance. In like manner, other citizens of Springfield emerge as types -- not a drunken brute, but a type of the Drunken Brute; not a wheedling politician, but The Wheedling Politician; not a beleaguered farmer but the Agrarian Ideal Under Siege. All are frozen in Ford's social-realist tableaus.
Ultimately, Young Mr. Lincoln invokes the name of American republicanism while missing its point. Like Eisenstein's Nevskii, it shows an authoritarian leader in his resplendent glory, even though, unlike Eisenstein, Ford allows Lincoln to display some discomfort with his role. The unmistakable inference in both works is that leaders are somehow better than the rest of us -- not the sort of idea that, if openly expressed, most Americans would take lying down. Although fawning worship may befit a despot, it does not reflect well on the memory of an American president, who (in theory at least) has limited power and who therefore need be no more than human to manage it. We do no damage to Lincoln's reputation when we note that in Springfield he was a high-powered corporate railroad attorney, that he engaged in some truly vicious race-baiting during his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, that he suffered from crippling bouts of depression, or that his marriage to Mary Todd may not have been especially affectionate. Lincoln was only human, after all, and he presided over a limited government that made his flawed humanity an advantage. One might even claim that he could not have saved the Union without that flawed humanity.
But the creeping authoritarianism of the New Deal, combined with a vision of America that bordered on mysticism, may explain why Ford must offer us a Lincoln purified from all human imperfections. Friedrich Hayek noted that as a government grows larger and more centralized, its leaders must be infallible. In our society, we see this tendency magnified: Even a slight error in federal policy can instigate a disaster of Katrina-like proportions -- which means that American conservatives must line up to defend our president from even the slightest criticism, lest he become indecisive and permit such crises to occur. Of course, no amount of training could prepare a mere mortal to assume such awesome responsibility as the American presidency now entails: The Great Leader must emerge, fully formed and godlike, from the earth. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford attempts to provide us with the sort of mythic figure needed to run the New Deal (and post-New Deal) society. Instead, he gives us a plaster saint.
Oddly enough, Daniel French's sculpture within the Lincoln Memorial gives us a better image of Lincoln as a man -- seated in pensive thought, flanked on each side by his Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses. His careworn expression warns against the pursuit of power, for as French reminds us, with power comes not only responsibility, but deepest sorrow. Although French's statue is much larger than life, larger even than the movie screen could convey, it maintains a startlingly intimate scope; this Lincoln looks directly at visitors, engaging and challenging us, even observing the goings-on at his feet with wry bemusement (as if anyone were to think him that important). Even though the inscription above the statue proclaims his memorial a "temple," the figure of Lincoln does not inspire worship as such. We cannot imagine this Lincoln touting his own importance, or even objecting to the handful of pigeons that roost on his marble head.
The closing images of French's monument constitute a radical deviation from the film's otherwise classical "harmony." They suggest a reverse apotheosis -- moving from triumph (however ambivalent) to suffering, and from near-godhead to humanity. But more importantly, they show Lincoln in a light that is generally missing from the film proper. To say that French's statue is the way American presidents should be remembered, and by extension that Ford's film is one way they should not be, is perhaps too facile a conclusion: After all, if any American president deserves adulation, Lincoln does, both for his actions to preserve the Union and for his role in ending slavery. It might be more appropriate to say that as a film, Young Mr. Lincoln is as great as it is wrong-headed -- for it is indisputably great cinema, even though (or perhaps because) it misunderstands the nature of American democracy. John Ford drapes his young Lincoln in a mantle of greatness which the character will accept, however unwillingly. But as French's statue makes clear, no presidential figure resists that mantle, or the idea of inherent superiority which accompanies it, as thoroughly as Lincoln. Even today, more than seven score years after his death, Lincoln seems like the equal, not the master, of those who elected him.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
"OutRight" columnist Dale Carpenter has written a piece on the Gay conservative blogosphere in which he gives this blog a very nice plug. This sort of honor -- especially when it comes from someone like Carpenter -- makes me wish I posted more often, kept abreast of things a bit better, and didn't dawdle so much when I write.
To Mr. Carpenter, then, my sincere thanks. And gentle reader, if you like what you've read here, be sure to check out the other blogs on his list, too.
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