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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Holocaust Meditations (originally published 3/03)

Rarely, if ever, has a historical event burned its impression into our collective consciousness as forcefully as the Holocaust. Since that time, artists in virtually every medium have assumed the burden of keeping that memory fresh in our minds, lest we should ever be tempted to permit its like to happen again. This is a noble task. Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" (1997) was an inspiring, and inspired, fairy tale, but we do occasionally need to be reminded that its comparatively benign concentration camp was a drastically sanitized version of the actual horrors of which the Nazi regime was capable. In his recently released film "The Pianist," Roman Polanski has restored some perspective to that grisly topic, drawing upon Nazi atrocities he witnessed firsthand as a youth in his native Poland.

Needless to say, Hitler's Germany has figured into many, many motion pictures over the years. Most of them took the easy way out, using the Nazis as convenient heavies without giving them another thought. Still, there have been a few films that probed a bit deeper. These films take a more reflective look at the disease that afflicted Europe during those horrible years. For a sampling of some of world cinema's finest meditations on Nazism's causes and effects, look for these titles on home video.

"The Pawnbroker" (1965). Rod Steiger plays Sol Nazerman, a concentration camp survivor who operates a pawnshop in New York City. He is a deeply embittered man who refuses to reach out to others, and lashes out savagely at anyone who reaches out to him. As the film progresses, director Sidney Lumet shows us through flashbacks the horrendous experiences that transformed Nazerman into the wounded, sullen figure he has become.

"The Damned" (1969). Luchino Visconti was one of the memorable group of filmmakers who emerged from the post-World War II Italian film industry. This sprawling, operatic film is his interpretation of the rise of Nazism. He builds his film around the decline of a family of industrialists and their ill-fated dealings with the Nazis. Visconti's point is that the rise of Nazism would never have occurred without the complicity, tacit or explicit, of the industrialists. These characters are the dark counterparts of Oskar Schindler. Whereas "Schindler's List" (1993) showed us an industrialist who emerged from his Nazi dealings with a kind of moral victory, Visconti's industrialists can only sink deeper and deeper into the morass of depravity. Speaking of which, be aware that this film received an X rating when it was released in the United States. Visconti conceived of Nazism as an obscenity and its followers as perverts, and he isn't shy about illustrating the point.

"The Shop on Main Street" (1965). This outstanding Czechoslovakian film is set in a Czech ghetto during the German occupation. The main character is Tono Brtko, a gentile peasant who is appointed the "Aryan comptroller" of an elderly Jewish woman's button shop. The half deaf old woman, blissfully unaware of the occupation of the town, doesn't understand that Tono is there to take charge. She thinks he's there to work for her. Directors Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos delicately balance the humor of the situation with the horror of Nazi occupation to produce a moving and humane film. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"To Be or Not to Be" (1942). It may seem odd to include a comedy in this listing, but this vehicle for Jack Benny and Carole Lombard has earned its place among the classic cinematic studies of Nazi Germany. For one thing, it was made when the events were still current, making it a commentary rather than a retrospective. The brilliant director Ernst Lubitsch, a German expatriate, decided to go after the Nazis using the scalpel of satire rather than the blunt instrument of melodrama. No one was better at subtle, sophisticated satire than Lubitsch, and nowhere did his humor bite deeper than in this lampoon of the Nazis' vanity and self-importance.

Having shown some of these films to various groups over the years, I've noted that most audiences still come away from a really good Holocaust film slightly stunned, and unable to talk about the movie right away. Personally, I think that's the healthiest possible response. May we never recover from it.

Lumet's Cops (originally published 3/03)

In an uncertain and sometimes frightening world, we look to the police to shield us from those who would prey upon their fellow citizens. But what happens when the police themselves feel compelled to adopt the same practices as those whom they are paid to contain? Whether out of simple venality or out of a sincere desire to put the career criminals out of business in the most expeditious manner, criminal practices within the ranks of the police force pose a serious societal problem. Naturally, it therefore makes for good drama.

In the recently released "Dark Blue," director Ron Shelton successfully captializes on the theme of police malfeasance. Shelton is, however, by no means the first filmmaker to tap into this subject matter. In fact, there is one director who seems to return to it regularly. If you want to see how one of Hollywood's top talents has explored the theme over the last quarter century, look for these titles from the work of Sidney Lumet on home video.

"The Offence" (1973). Lumet's fascination with police corruption begins with this disturbing study of the moral collapse of a single cop. Sean Connery stars as London Detective Sergeant Johnson, a tortured man who has seen more human misery and depravity than he can bear. One day, while interrogating a suspected child molester, something snaps inside Johnson. He beats the man, savagely and mercilessly, nearly killing him. The departmental inquiry into this violent act reveals that Johnson was motivated as much by his own latent guilt feelings as by his conviction that the suspect was guilty. It's not an easy film to watch, but it lays an important foundation for Lumet's susequent police corruption dramas.

"Serpico" (1973). Al Pacino received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who bucked the trend of systemic corruption in the New York police force. The film follows Serpico's brief police career as he transfers from division to division like a modern day Diogenes looking for an honest man. In each case, when he is pressured to accept his cut of the precinct's bribe money, he goes to his superiors to report what he believes to be an aberration. Gradually he realizes that what he's seeing is not an aberration at all; it's standard operating procedure.

"Prince of the City" (1981). Lumet returned to the theme of police corruption with this exhaustive and exhausting drama. Like "Serpico," it is based on a true story, but it is bigger in almost every way than the earlier film. Its protagonist, Detective Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), is a narcotics cop, a member of the elite Special Investigation Unit. Because the S.I.U. regularly deals with some of society's worst vermin, they are given great latitude in their methods on the theory that the end justifies the means. The result is that they have become the very thing that they are supposedly working to clean up. They routinely break as many laws as the criminals they investigate, and with complete impunity. Detective Ciello allows himself to be persuaded to inform on some of these dirty cops, with the proviso that he will not rat on his own partners. Ciello, however, is no saintly innocent like Serpico. He has been a willing participant in the corrupt system for too long to stand apart from it at this late date.

"Q&A" (1990). Lumet's first American police corruption drama not based on factual material stars Nick Nolte as Lt. Mike Brennan. Despite his reputation on the force as one of the department's finest, Brennan is actually as dirty as they come. Lumet weaves an alarming tapestry of turpitude, casual racism, and general moral bankruptcy around Brennan's cold blooded murder of a Latino drug dealer. In an effort to whitewash the investigation of the killing, a green, inexperienced assistant District Attorney is assigned to question Brennan about the incident. By the time Lumet allows the doomed investigation to play itself out, you'll feel as if you need a bath.

Lumet's meditations on New York police corruption have followed an interesting trajectory. They began on a micro level, with the dissolution of a single troubled cop, and have progressed to a macro level, where the distinctions between the police force and the criminal subculture blur and vanish. We can only hope that real life police work is not following a similar progression.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Blue and Gray (originally published 2/03)

Like many of you, back in 1990 I sat entranced through Ken Burns's PBS documentary on the Civil War. The recent re-airing of a remastered version of the epic work demonstrated that it has lost none of its power and fascination. It's a great piece of filmmaking, drawing on one of the most compelling subjects ever.

Surely no other wound has cut quite so deeply into the American psyche as that horrendous fraternal bloodletting. It cuts to the core of our national identity, forcing us to acknowledge the terrifying fragility of the American experiment. Indeed, it compelled even the leader of our nation to admit publicly that it was far from a settled issue whether this nation, or any nation of its kind, could long endure.

Photography was born just in time to capture images of the war itself. Motion pictures, born just a bit too late, have been playing catch-up ever since. Civil War movies have never lacked for an audience, and I suspect that the recent release of "Gods and Generals" will be no exception.

I thought I would mention just a few favorite Civil War titles, but there are two I will pass over in semi-silence: "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), because its unfortunate choice of the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of its second half makes for unsavory viewing, and "Gone With the Wind" (1939), because it's just too obvious.

"The Red Badge of Courage" (1951). Of all the directors Hollywood ever produced, none was more adept than John Huston at tackling "unfilmable" literary classics and wrestling them to a draw - or better. His adaptation of Stephen Crane's immortal examination of cowardice and courage holds up extremely well in spite of the savage editing it received at the studio's hands. A couple of preview audiences apparently reacted negatively to the original cut. Studio executives, much like the boy in Crane's story, tucked tail and ran for cover, chopping the film down to about 70 minutes. We can only hope that the deleted footage still exists somewhere and will one day be restored.

"Raintree County" (1957). It was inevitable, I suppose, the MGM would eventually yield to the temptation to go back to the well and try to outdo "Gone With the Wind." This was the film in which they tried it. (Probably there was vanity at work as well. After all, "Gone With the Wind" had really been a Selznick picture, not an MGM picture. They only released it.) Here, as in the earlier film, the war serves as a backdrop for a story of unhappy marriage. Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor play the star-crossed couple. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is a behind the scenes promotional short on the making of the film.

"The Horse Soldiers" (1959). Director John Ford's only significant film touching on the Civil War was this dramatization of a Union raid during the Vicksburg campaign. John Wayne, Ford's favorite star, plays the Union colonel who leads a cavalry unit deep into Confederate territory to interfere with supply lines by sabotaging the railroads. As one would expect from Ford, the film presents a highly romanticized view of the war. Acts of gallantry and valor on both sides of the conflict are emphasized throughout.

"Shenandoah" (1965). James Stewart has a field day in the role of a Virginia widower trying to run his farm and raise a family with the war raging all around him. He wants no part of the war - he doesn't hold with slavery - but eventually it comes to his doorstep. When his youngest son is kidnapped by Yankees, the conflict at last becomes personal. If you're bothered by schmaltz, be warned that this is a very sentimental picture. Still, it was made by people who knew how to do sentiment well.

"The General" (1927). Buster Keaton's classic Civil War comedy is as fresh and entertaining today as it was three quarters of a century ago. It retells the true story of Union soldiers who stole the locomotive named the "General" and the Confederate engineer who gave chase in a locomotive called the "Texas." Keaton aimed for authenticity, excitement, and laughs, and scored a solid bull's eye on all counts.

"The General" may actually be the one you'll want to pick up on the way home from seeing "Gods and Generals." After wallowing in the brutality of Bull Run and Chancellorsville, you'll need Keaton's healing humor to weave laughter for you out of the blood-stained tatters of blue and gray.

Court Jesters (originally published 1/03)

Given that popular culture has generally assigned to lawyers a less than savory reputation, you might not expect to find much in the way of light-hearted movies featuring attorneys. In fact, there have been quite a few. "Two Weeks Notice," featuring Sandra Bullock as a crusading attorney who falls for a self-involved millionaire, is only the most recent in a long line of lawyer comedies. Here are a few more examples to look for on home video.

"Star of Midnight" (1935). William Powell's single greatest claim to fame is undoubtedly his role as Nick Charles in the "Thin Man" series. These classics of the comedy-mystery genre feature Nick and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) solving mysteries in high style, sipping champagne and trading bon mots all the while. "Star of Midnight" was an attempt to cash in on the success of the "Thin Man" films, with Powell cast as a wisecracking lawyer whose resemblance to Nick Charles is far from coincidental. Ginger Rogers stands in for Myrna Loy in a Nora-esque role.

"Adam's Rib" (1949). Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn star as a married couple, Adam and Amanda Bonner, both of whom happen to be attorneys. Adam is assigned to prosecute a woman for the attempted murder of her philandering husband. Amanda, unaware that Adam will be the prosecutor, volunteers to defend the woman. She's outraged by what she sees as a double standard, believing that a man who committed the same crime would be lionized for defending the sanctity of his marriage instead of being hauled into court. By the time Adam and Amanda realize that they will be opposing each other, each is too committed on principle to back out. The all-out gender warfare that ensues makes for some of Tracy and Hepburn's finest onscreen moments together. Scripted by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and directed by George Cukor, this film is a class act all the way.

"Brothers in Law" (1957). John and Roy Boulting were a pair of twin brothers who enlivened the British cinema by producing and directing a series of satirical comedies during the late fifties. Their targets included the British army ("Private's Progress"), higher education ("Lucky Jim"), and labor relations ("I'm All Right, Jack"). It was inevitable that they would sooner or later get around to lampooning the British courts, which is exactly what "Brothers in Law" does. As he did in many of the Boulting comedies, Ian Charmichael plays a wide eyed youngster thrown to the wolves, in this case a young apprentice barrister trying to learn the ropes without hanging himself in the process.

"Legal Eagles" (1986). Robert Redford plays a talented, ambitious district attorney opposite Debra Winger as an unconventional defense attorney in producer-director Ivan Reitman's tribute to the courtroom comedies of yesteryear. There's a mystery that the two stars must team up to solve, which places the film squarely in the "Thin Man" tradition, and therefore in the "Star of Midnight" tradition. At the same time, there's the gender warfare element that flows from casting the romantic leads as opposing counsel, placing it in the "Adam's Rib" tradition. That's a lot to live up to, so we can't be too hard on it for not doing so. Taken on its own merits, it's an entertaining diversion.

"And Justice For All" (1979). Al Pacino stars as attorney Arthur Kirkland in this early Barry Levinson screenplay, which was co-scripted by Valerie Curtin. The film walks a ragged edge between comedy and drama. Many of the scenes, to be sure, are quite grim indeed. The comic highlights, however, are extremely funny. Jack Warden, in particular, nearly steals the picture from Pacino with his hilarious portrayal of a sitting judge who's got more than a few screws loose.

You'll note that I haven't resorted to quoting the old Shakespeare line about killing all the lawyers. That's because, in the spirit of these courtroom comedies, I think it might be better if we all just had a good laugh together. Remind me sometime to tell you about the time I spent 80-plus hours over a period of six weeks cooped up with a couple hundred law students reviewing for their bar exam, and I'll explain to you just how desperately these folks need the solace of comedy.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Dystopias, part 2 (originally published 12/02)

What with the economy going down for the third time and ugly bigotry rearing its head in the high places of Washington, D.C., we might be forgiven for concluding that we are as far from achieving Thomas More's vision of a utopian society as it is possible to be. The recent release of "Equilibrium," however, reminds us that it could be worse. Its portrayal of a society that has outlawed both art and emotion belongs to a long tradition of "dystopian" fiction. These are stories that show us just how bad it could get if we aren't careful. We looked at a few examples last week. Here are a few more dystopian films to look for on home video.

"Metropolis" (1927). The earliest significant screen portrayal of a dystopian society is this German silent classic directed by Fritz Lang. Set in an enormous underground city of the future, it shows us the exploitation of the working class carried to its logical conclusion. This is a city in which most of the aristocracy are not even aware of the existence of the workers whose labor sustains their carefree lifestyle. This important and seminal film has recently received a long overdue restoration. The restored version is available on home video from Kino Video (

"Alphaville" (1965) Jean-Luc Godard, one of the icons of the French New Wave, loved to throw curveballs. Here, he plays fast and loose with genre conventions by blending the hard-boiled detective genre with science fiction to tell the story of a totalitarian society ruled by a supercomputer called Alpha 60. The hero of the story is Lemmy Caution, played by Eddie Constantine. Godard's joke here is that Constantine had already played Caution in a series of violent potboilers, very much in the standard detective film tradition. Imagine Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer being transplanted into a sophisticated science fiction film by, say, Steven Soderbergh and you'll get the idea.

"Zardoz" (1973). Writer-director John Boorman's version of a future society gone wrong is a cautionary tale about what can happen when religion becomes a tool of the political elites. The deity worshipped by this society is Zardoz, who appears in the form of a gigantic stone head. Zed (Sean Connery) is one of the exterminators who serve Zardoz by keeping the general rabble in line. To his dismay, Zed learns that Zardoz is actually nothing more than a figurehead used by a secret society of elites to impose their will on the populace.

"THX-1138" (1971). You might not find it surprising that the first Hollywood project directed by George Lucas was a science fiction film. If you're expecting "Star Wars," however, better think again. This was an expanded version of a short film produced by Lucas when he was still a film student at USC. Its narrative style is self-consciously arty and avant-garde, pushing the envelope of what a Hollywood studio can be persuaded to release. The society Lucas portrays is a world in which sexuality is strictly forbidden, such urges being suppressed through the enforced administration of sedative drugs. Although profoundly eclipsed by the massive shadow cast by the "Star Wars" series, this early Lucas effort lives on in the name he has given to his line of high end movie exhibition products and services: THX Ltd.

Dystopian films (and literature) are sometimes described as inherently pessimistic, predicting the worst for humanity instead of hoping for the best. Ray Bradbury disputes this view, however. He points out that in writing "Fahrenheit 451," he was not trying to predict the future. Instead, he was trying to prevent a future. He saw a dangerous trend developing and extrapolated it to its logical conclusion in order to suggest that we stop traveling down that road while there is still time. Seen in that light, such stories are, at their core, profoundly optimistic. Only an optimist would assume that we as a society can see the cliff coming and change directions before we go over it. If that's true, it may well be that films like "Minority Report" and "Equilibrium," along with the films we've been considering here, can lay claim to a significance far beyond the entertainment they provide.

The Dystopias, part 1 (originally published 12/02)

In 1515, Thomas More imagined an idealized society, a place populated by "citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws," where people "live together in a civil policy and good order." More's name for this civic paragon has entered the language as the word on which we hang our hopes for a better world. He called it "Utopia."

Some five centuries later, we are still struggling to realize that ideal. Indeed, it sometimes seems that we are moving away from the dream of Utopia, rather than closer to it. With that in mind, it is perhaps not so surprising that the more pessimistic strains of science fiction, both literary and cinematic, occasionally show us the other extreme of the continuum by imagining a future society in which good and wholesome laws have been entirely abandoned in favor of repressive and dehumanizing ones. This nightmare inversion of the utopian dream is generally referred to as "dystopian fiction."

A recent example is "Minority Report," adapted from the Philip K. Dick story in which people can be arrested for crimes that they haven't yet committed. The most recent dystopian film is the currently playing "Equilibrium," in which the possession of art and the manifestation of emotion are both capital crimes. For a sampling of how earlier films have portrayed possible nightmare societies, look for these titles on home video.

"Fahrenheit 451" (1966). Ray Bradbury's chilling cautionary tale reached the screen courtesy of renowned French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. In the world Bradbury postulates, all books have been banned on the grounds that it is virtually impossible to write anything without offending someone. All structures, by this time, have been made fireproof, so the function of firemen has evolved to meet the new societal need. Instead of putting out fires, fire trucks are dispatched for the purpose of burning books. Occasionally a die-hard book lover will have a cache of books squirreled away in defiance of the law. When their names are turned in, as they always are sooner or later, the fire engine rolls up to their house, uses the fire hose to douse the books with kerosene, and torches them.

"1984" (1984). The novel that has come to be the standard bearer for all dystopian fiction is George Orwell's grim tale of Winston Smith's fate after falling in love, and thereby committing a crime against the state. It's all here: Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth, the Thought Police, doublespeak - all the Orwellian touches that have entered our collective consciousness as the eternal symbols of totalitarianism writ large. Orwell's novel had been adapted for the screen once before, in 1956, but it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a version produced in 1984. This one features John Hurt as Smith and Richard Burton, in his last screen performance, as the mendacious O'Brien.

"Soylent Green" (1973). Based on Harry Harrison's novel "Make Room! Make Room!," the plot of this film is driven by the investigation of an industrialist's murder. The social backdrop, however, is what distinguishes it. Set in New York City in the year 2022, it offers a nightmarish vision of a world that has cast aside any pretense of ecological responsibility in the face of an overwhelming population explosion.

"Mad Max" (1979). One of the most popular subcategories of dystopian fiction is the "after the bomb" story, a vision of life after the world has been devastated by thermonuclear war. This Australian picture, starring Mel Gibson in the title role, caught on in a big way with audiences worldwide. It shows us how the rule of law has become a violent, brutal joke in the outback following the apocalypse. Max, a motorcycle cop charged with riding herd on the almost sub-human denizens of the outback's highways, turns his job into a vehicle for a personal vendetta after his own family is murdered by these same marauding gangs.

Next week we'll look at still more examples of dystopian cinema. In the meantime, if your morning newspaper should begin to seem disquietingly similar to Orwell's "1984," just keep reminding yourself that doublethink will liberate you from all such anxieties. Say it with me: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." There now. Feel better?

The Shrinks (originally published 12/02)

Movies were born right around the time when Sigmund Freud was turning the world of psychology on its ear. Ever since then, it seems that movies and psychology have maintained a special relationship. In fact, one of the earliest books of film theory was written in 1916 by Hugo Munsterberg, a Harvard professor of psychology. And even after film scholarship developed into a discipline in its own right, film theorists continued to point to the similarities between movie viewing and the dream state, which is the special province of psychoanalysts.

In light of all this, it is hardly surprising that psychiatrists turn up with great regularity as characters in movies. The analyst played for laughs by Billy Crystal in "Analyze This" (1999) and its currently playing sequel, "Analyze That," is only the most recent in a long line of movie shrinks, both dramatic and comic. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have portrayed practitioners of psychiatric medicine in all their aspects, look for these titles on home video.

"Spellbound" (1945). Alfred Hitchcock made a number of films in which a man is fatally attracted to a dangerous and/or disturbed woman, but here he reverses that formula. Gregory Peck plays a man posing as a psychiatrist. Ingrid Bergman, as a real psychiatrist, sees through his deception and probes for the psychological roots of his problems. Along the way, she rather unwisely falls in love with him. The film is especially notable because surrealist artist Salvador Dali was hired to design a dream sequence.

"Carefree" (1938). In this Irving Berlin musical, Fred Astaire plays a dancing psychiatrist with Ginger Rogers as his patient. Ginger can't make up her mind whether to marry her boyfriend (Ralph Bellamy), so she goes to Fred for analysis. As they dance their way through her dreams, she discovers (how'd you guess?) that it's Fred she really loves.

"Equus" (1977). By the time Peter Shaffer wrote the play on which this film is based, the range of movie portrayals of psychiatrists extended from the reverential to the satirical. The main character of "Equus" is presented in a way that falls somewhere in between these extremes. Richard Burton as Dr. Martin Dysart is both highly skilled and riddled with human frailty. His treatment of a boy who was mysteriously driven to blind a stable full of horses leads him to question the value of the work he does. Burton is brilliant; Shaffer's dialogue is written in just the sort of elevated style that seemed to put Burton on his mettle and call forth the best he had to offer.

"Still of the Night" (1982). This suspense film stars Roy Scheider as a psychiatrist whose patient is murdered. Soon after, he meets a woman (Meryl Streep) about whom the murdered man had spoken repeatedly in therapy sessions. Naturally, the doc falls for this mystery woman. But is she the murderer?

"Zelig" (1983). Woody Allen's enormously clever faux-documentary about an insecure human chameleon who takes on the attributes of whomever he is with features a wonderful performance by Mia Farrow as the psychiatrist who analyzes Leonard Zelig and falls in love with him. Additionally, there are scenes in which Zelig, true to form, morphs himself into a psychiatrist because he is with one. This allows Allen to do some broad burlesquing of the profession while Farrow's character remains more sympathetic and credible.

"They Might Be Giants" (1971). My own favorite psychiatrist movie is this delightful confection starring Joanne Woodward as a psychiatrist who is hired to examine a New York City judge (George C. Scott) who believes that he is Sherlock Holmes. The psychiatrist's name, inevitably, is Dr. Watson.

Finally, if you want a harrowing glimpse of real psychiatry, look for a documentary called "Let There Be Light" (1944). It deals with the phenomenon that is now known as post traumatic stress disorder, but in those days was simply called "shell shock." John Huston's chronicle of the emotionally wounded veterans of World War II doesn't have songs and dances, and none of the psychiatrists fall in love with their patients. But if Martin Dysart could have seen it, he might not have been so quick to doubt the worth of his chosen profession.