STUDIES IN COMMAND ON FILM (A Handy Ten)

These were harder to choose than I thought. I could easily have come up with another ten and covered several new angles. But I wanted a mix of good commanders and bad, intimate situations and world-shaping ones–or sometimes both. If you watch these ten, you can get a good sense of just how difficult it is to lead under pressure…and perhaps intuit why we are no longer good at it. It might even be a decent guide to answering whether we ever will be good at it again.

Me, I dunno. When we no longer have actors who can even imagine how to play these parts in a movie, I would say the signs aren’t good…but history exists to surprise us. I left aside such magnificent portraits as Herbert Lom’s definitive Napoleon in King Vidor’s War and Peace and George C. Scott’s Patton to focus on small unit command: the ship’s crew, the wagon train, the cavalry patrol, the lonely outpost. Mastery of such things is the root of Western Civilization’s military success and relentless civilizational advance for three thousand years. Any other sort of progress, real or imagined, that has been made the meanwhile is because people like these won the space for it when they succeeded and were punished by God and the courts of law when they failed.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
D. Frank Lloyd

Like most of the films here Bounty‘s story was based on a real incident. Pure fictions involving small unit command are usually adventure stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, wonderful films that alas, can do no more than reflect the qualities that shape the real world. The Nordhoff-Hall novel upon which this and the several remakes are based was already famous. But if we ponder the miracle of its two iconic characters–the able but sadistic sea captain William Bligh and the reluctant leader of his crew’s resistance, Fletcher Christian–being so definitively portrayed in the same movie, it becomes a little less miraculous when we consider that, at least outside Great Britain, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable helped make them iconic. The Bligh/Christian template–a vicious leader driving his men to the brink of mutiny by insisting on the letter of the law transcending its spirit to appease his own cramped soul–has found its way into a lot more than Bounty remakes…as we shall see. In any case, this is the exemplar in how not to lead free men. The refusal of the British Admiralty’s judges to shake Bligh’s hand after they, too, have followed the letter of the law and upheld his conduct, is a great lesson in the power of unspoken honor codes to rule men’s thoughts, irrespective of what the law demands of their actions.

Northwest Passage (1940)
D: King Vidor

A fictionalized account of Rogers’ Rangers, the famous militia who performed miracles on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers had a checkered career afterwards, descending into alcoholism, fighting for England in the American Revolution he had done as much as any man to make possible if not inevitable, and being exiled for his troubles. But, as portrayed by Spencer Tracy during the Rangers’ glory days, this is a finely etched character study of the kind of man needed to both drive and inspire men to the very limits of their capacities and perhaps a bit beyond. By the end, you can understand why such a man comes to need conflict and why, so often, only his kind can ensure victory. Always assuming they don’t turn into Captain Bligh. Vidor was one of the great, under-sung period directors who, especially with the aid of glorious Technicolor, can make you feel the sheer physical effort and sacrifice required of anyone who served under a man like Rogers and why those who survived took exceptional pride in being one of his men. It wouldn’t surprise me if George C. Scott, or George Patton himself, learned a thing or two by studying Rogers or Tracy or both.

Wing and a Prayer (1944)
D. Henry Hathaway

Of course, World War II brought many studies in command to the screen. Few were better than this relatively forgotten film which loosely re-creates the Bounty triad on an aircraft carrier preparing for Midway, with Charles Bickford’s captain serving as a stand-in for English sea law, Don Ameche’s second-in-command serving as Bligh and Dana Andrews serving as Christian. Except Ameche, in the performance of his career, is a better man than Bligh, able to play the hard-ass who stands between order and chaos, make the brutally hard decisions about life and death that are required for the mission to succeed, and take the slings and arrows that come with it, without losing himself. His satisfying but lonely walk in the rain at film’s end speaks quiet volumes about the emotional cost of middle command. (A good companion piece is 1948’s Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck playing a similar role to perfection.)

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Of course John Ford made a career of studying small group command. His films could make up the whole Handy Ten and then some. But I’ll confine myself to this one and the next as they represent the extremes of effective and ineffective leadership. The quality of the times brought out a new level of seriousness in actors usually associated with lighter fare. Like Don Ameche in Wing and a Prayer, Robert Montgomery, who had served as a naval officer, gave the performance of a lifetime in Ford’s even greater film, perhaps the finest ever made on the subject and certainly the best-titled. He’s bolstered by an excellent John Wayne, bringing unusual depth to the standard role of the hot-headed second, and Ford’s usual superb stock company, some playing men who are forced into command themselves as Montgomery’s PT unit is whittled down, down and further down under the withering Japanese assault on the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this film is that it captures the demands of leadership in war–most of which are boring and mundane and as likely to be made in the service of managing defeat as of procuring victory–as opposed to combat, where heroes are made.

Fort Apache (1948)
D. John Ford

And on the flip side, there’s Henry Fonda as the disgruntled, glory-seeking colonel of an outpost contending with renegade Apaches in the desolate southwest of the late nineteenth century. His unwillingness to learn from more experienced, but lower-ranking (and, as he sees it, ethnically inferior) men, ultimately dooms himself and his command. It might be Fonda’s very best performance as a man who is thoroughly professional, a loving father (to a luminous, teenage Shirley Temple), brave to a fault…and completely unlikeable. The ending is still controversial. Has John Wayne, again playing a strong second, except this time he’s the level-headed one, accepted Fonda’s example…or only seemed to? I’ll tackle all that some day when I write about the film in the depth it deserves, but as a study in how to destroy your command despite doing everything “by the book” this could hardy be bettered.

Little Big Horn (1951)
D. Charles Marquis Warren

This one features Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland leading, and competing for the heart of, a small squadron assigned to ride through Indian Country and warn George Armstrong Custer that he is about to be ambushed at the Little Big Horn. Of course you know going in their mission will fail–but just how it fails is compelling from beginning to end and holds up on repeated viewings. Bridges and Ireland were outstanding second-line stars who rarely got the chance to shine as they do here, playing tough men who are learning on the job while carrying out what they don’t know is a doomed mission. The film’s claim to historical accuracy may be dubious but as a study in not just command–but the competition the desire for command is bound to engender (especially when the ghost of Marie Windsor is lurking in the shadows)–this is one of a kind.

Westward the Women (1951)
D. William Wellman

A unique film on every level. This one isn’t based on any specific event but on a plausible summary of an aspect of frontier experience dreamed up by Frank Capra. When Capra himself, post-war, was deemed insufficiently credible or commercially viable to be entrusted with directing it, he passed it to his good friend, Wild Bill Wellman, who toughened the script and made a masterpiece. As a wagon train movie it might be matched by John Ford’s Wagon Master or Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. But as a study in the vicissitudes of running a wagon train it has no equals. That it involves Robert Taylor reluctantly accepting the job of leading a hundred and fifty mail order brides through the toughest part of the American frontier, and then seeing it through, is an unusual twist that puts the icing on the cake. Not recommended for anyone who accepts the modern idea that men and women don’t really need or want each other. For everyone else, a great film waiting to be rediscovered.

Zulu (1964)
D. Cy Endfield

Less than three years after George Custer’s cavalry command was wiped out at Little Big Horn in the American west, a couple of green lieutenants were faced with similar odds at a mission post they had little choice but to defend in South Africa at a place called Rorke’s Drift. They were leading about a hundred and fifty men, nearly a third of them sick or wounded, against four thousand Zulus who had broken off from an even larger force which had annihilated 1,300 British troops at Islawanda earlier in the day. While it’s superb on every level, with some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Zulu rises highest when viewed as a study in improvisation of the sort that western armies have excelled at for several millennia. As a heroic military feat, the stand at Rorke’s Drift is on a par with the Spartans’ delaying action against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a tactical defeat that may have nonetheless prevented Western Civilization from being snuffed in the cradle. And if you think the Brits losing the land they fought for to the Boers a few decades later, and the Boers losing it back to the natives within a century, makes the historical importance of Rorke’s Drift less monumental, you might be right. Then again, if you accept that the spirit of Rorke’s Drift had more than a little to do with the spirit of the Battle of Britain, fought sixty years hence and without which the history of everything would probably look very different today, you might be righter. In any case Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his star-making role) give unbeatable performances as men who don’t particularly like each other showing grace under pressure over a twenty-four-hour period in 1879 when nearly one man of every ten they commanded earned a Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

I’ve sung the praises of Ron Maxwell’s film about the most important battle ever fought on American soil several times here. But, in addition to being one of the great war films, and, in my opinion, the greatest battle film ever made, it’s also a detailed portrait of several levels of command: watch it for Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, Stephen Lang’s George Pickett, Richard Jordan’s Lo Armisted, Andrew Prine’s stinging, poignant cameo as Dick Garnett, Sam Elliot’s John Buford (who may have saved the war on the battle’s first day) and, especially, Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain (who almost certainly saved the Union army on the second day). There may have been a few better films on small unit command and a very few better films on command at Robert E. Lee’s level. But there has never been a film to equal it as a study in command at all levels during an existential battle in an existential war. Please don’t call yourself informed about American history if you haven’t seen this one.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
D. Kelly Reichardt

Not strictly speaking a film about command but a great look at how force of personality can trump all previous presumptions about who is fit to lead when everyone’s life is at stake. Michelle Williams gives another of her eerily natural performances as Emily Tetherow, a woman travelling with Stephen Meek’s half of a wagon train that has split in two along the Oregon Trail in 1845, who gradually takes on the role of leader and decision maker as the group loses confidence in Meek himself. Calling this film nuanced is an understatement. It moves at a glacial pace and Reichardt takes “realism” to such extremes it is often hard to follow the muffled talk or read the characters’ expressions in night scenes lit only by the tiny flames of candlelight available to pioneers of the period. And the film reaches no conclusions on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in transferring allegiance from Meek to Tetherow. But it makes you understand why the switch takes place–and why you might have cast aside your own assumptions in their place. The underlying message is that humans gravitate towards natural leaders and if the circumstances are desperate enough, all other presumptions grounded in nature will be cast aside. You make enough right decisions and people will follow you anywhere. Whether in war, commerce or adventure, it’s the first lesson of command: The strongest lead. Whether to success or disaster depends on what else they bring.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2018 Edition)

Nov. 25-Henry V (1944, d. Laurence Olivier, Third Viewing)

Because I like Olivier doing Shakespeare better than I like him doing anything else even if he doesn’t break the droning mold the Brits have carved out for Shakespeare’s impossibly alive language. Everything is read like a sacred text (Renee Asherson, allowed to speak mostly French, comes off loosest and best). But the play-within-a-play narrative is ingenious and Olivier the director gave Olivier the actor a great stage with his stirring reenactment of Agincourt. Except for John Sturges in Escape From Fort Bravo, no one has ever caught the terror and excitement of a fleet of deadly arrows better. I’d be surprised if Sturges, one of the very greatest action directors, didn’t learn a thing or two from this one.

Nov. 26-Three Days of the Condor (1975, d. Sydney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the great cast and tick-tock plot, of course. But, these days, mostly because I don’t want those evil bastards in the shadows to think getting away with it is the same as me not knowing they are there. Here of late, I try to watch either this or Wag the Dog at least once a month.

Dec. 2-El Dorado (1966, d. Howard Hawks, Umpteenth Viewing)

Heck, who doesn’t want to spend two hours with these guys, even if it’s to mark Michele Carey’s passing? Especially the “badge with a drunk pinned on it.” You can tell which one he is if you look close enough. Robert Mitchum was interviewed on late night TV years later and told the story of how he came to be hired. “Howard” he said, “What’s the story?” “Oh, no story Bob, just character.” I watched this with my Dad once and, when ithe credits rolled, he said: “What the hell was that supposed to be about?” I mumbled something that didn’t mean much. I forgot Mitchum’s story. It would have been the perfect answer. No story, Dad….just character. I guess where he is now, they’ve explained it all. ‘Cause I know they’re watching El Dorado.

Dec. 3-Live a Little, Love a Little (1968, d. Norman Taurog, Third Viewing)

While I was in a Michele Carey mood, I thought I might as well keep it going. She’s highly entertaining and Elvis seems to realize he might be on to something. Also better than usual music, including “A Little Less Conversation” which had to wait several decades for its time to come around. Dated, like all Sixties-Elvis movies, but fun.

Dec. 3-Girl Happy (1965, d. Boris Sagal, Umpteenth Viewing)

Maybe because it was the first Elvis movie I saw (on a black and white television, in 1976, after the lights were out), I have fond memories of this one. It was also the only Elvis movie I ever saw without being at all aware of any connotations that might come with the term “Elvis movie.”  That might be why it has held up whenever I’ve watched it on a semi-regular basis ever since. Elvis might have had better leading ladies than Shelley Fabares or Mary Ann Mobley…but he never had a better double-team. And I stand by “Wolf Call,” “The Meanest Girl in Town” and the title track as seductive, Devil’s Island pop-and-roll, I don’t care what anybody says!

Dec. 3-A Walk on the Moon (1999, d. Tony Goldwyn, First Viewing)

Because it was recommended over at Greil Marcus’s mailbag a while back and Diane Lane is a pretty good bet anytime. Diane Lane and Woodstock seemed an irresistible combination and it pays off in a lovely look at the limits of traditional family life colliding with the emerging counterculture. The best scene in the movie barely involves the fine cast. It’s a shot of nude bathers wandering into the upstate New York mountain not-exactly-resort lake where nice, working class Jewish families go to get away from the city. The director doesn’t overplay his hand. There’s a confrontation, but no “big scene.” Lane’s face is shown in reaction as she stands on the near shore, swathed in  safety. No dialogue. Just a glimpse of her face that says I wish I was over there. The implications of taking that step are the whole movie. It’s not a classic, but it’s a good film, and a rare look at what a revolution in mores really costs.

Dec. 4-Me Without You (2001, d. Sandra Goldbacher, Second Viewing)

Because it was time to revisit the lacerating performances by Anna Friel and, especially, Michelle Williams, as they come of age in end-of-the-century Britain. Williams was such an unknown (to me at least) and overpowering presence when I first saw this shortly after its release to video, that I didn’t fully appreciate Friel’s equally great performance, though I was aware it must have been better than good to have simply kept up. From this distance, I could see some of the plot machinations working themselves out, but it didn’t really matter. Once the characters are fully integrated into their own lives–and each other’s–the question of whether and how they can possibly remain friends is as fraught with peril as any “real” lives could be. Knowing how it ended did not make it less destabilizing. It was Goldbacher’s third feature. She’s made only one since. If making them takes as much out of her as watching this one does out of me, I’m not surprised.

Dec. 4-The Day of the Jackal (1973, d. Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Edward Fox’s chilly and chilling performance as an assassin on the trail of Charles DeGaulle. I finally got around to reading the book in the last year or two and it proved even better–the question of whether “The Jackal” is a sociopath is held much longer, almost to the very end. But the suspense here–built by Fred Zinnemann’s docu-drama style–is real. Watching this always reminds me how little any of us know about what’s really going on. And you know how that twists my guts.

Dec. 5-I Know Where I’m Going (1945, d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Third Viewing)

To watch Wendy Hillerman and Roger Livesey play out one of the screen’s most realistically prosaic–and, paradoxically, hopelessly romantic–love stories. We know they’re meant for each other almost from the moment they meet. But do they know? Even on repeated viewings it’s not a settled question, perhaps because the evocation of the wild Scottish north country permits nothing to be taken for granted. Among the finest films in the English language, even if a fair bit of it is spoken in Gaelic.

Dec. 6-The Man From the Alamo (1953, d. Budd Boetticher, Fourth Viewing)

For another of Glenn Ford’s terse, un-heroic western heroes. Years before his collaborations with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott, Budd Beotticher proves he can get along without them (even if Kennedy is missed–there’s way too much exposition at the beginning). This one also shows he was a master of big action scenes before they gave way to the intimate, almost unbearably tense gunfights that were a staple of the films that later made his reputation. The story–of a man who leaves the Alamo in order to save his family, only to be branded a coward–is a good one and the climax is nearly as exciting as the best of John Ford or Anthony Mann. A good one to close the cycle on after subjecting myself to a more-than-usual amount of modern angst!

…Til next time!

‘TIS THE SEASON….OF TRUMP (At the Multiplex: December, 2017)

I ventured out more than usual in December…mostly I just didn’t feel like staying home. But–and this is my idea of cheerful–you can learn things from watching the world die.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
D. Rian Johnson

I don’t remember this shot from the movie, so it might be a publicity still. Either way, I’d say it’s a problem when the Wookie has more charisma than the human. Doubly so if the human is supposed to be the center of the new galaxy far-far-away’s multi-culti dynamic.

Given the size of that central problem–assuming any under-forties can still radiate star power (I don’t get out nearly enough to make a final judgment but, based on what I have seen, the signs aren’t good), it isn’t the under-forties who are now expected to carry the central franchise of the modern world, the one which, imagination having gone the way of all flesh, all others must extend or debunk the way mold either feeds on or destroys what it attaches to–it’s amazing that the Star Wars franchise still entertains, even if I can’t imagine wanting to see anything but the original trilogy again before I die.

And it does entertain. At least if you’ve become as good at turning your brain off as I have.

Since this is the only movie here that isn’t specifically about Donald Trump–or at very least Trumpism–I blame him for lowering our expectations. Seems to be the going thing.

Catch it in the theaters. On the small screen the effects won’t be nearly as overwhelming and you’ll be stuck with the actors, none of whom are named Harrison Ford (for that, you’ll need to catch the Blade Runner update, which is incomprehensible and fantastic). Carrie Fisher, in her last role, is reduced to Earth Mother status, the very ethos she shook off like dead skin in her life and the original Star Wars movies. Mark Hamill is fine and, except for a brief appearance by Benecio Del Toro, the only point of strictly human contact to be found. Laura Dern, playing Earth Mother to the thousandth power, and against whom I held no previous grudge, actually performs a miracle of physics by creating film history’s first Black Hole right there on the screen where her character should be.

Make that to the minus thousandth power.

If only I could make myself believe anyone involved took the whole “long time ago” part seriously and was issuing this as a warning….

Like I say, catch it in the theater if you can. Unless you have more money than Donald Trump, your television’s not big enough to overpower the senses and achieve the benumbed state where this works just fine.

The Greatest Showman (2017)
D. Michael Gracey

Featuring P.T. Barnum as…..Donald Trump.

Whenever I see Michelle Williams’ name in the credits of a mainstream movie, I hold out hope that she’ll find a way to blitz the thing, the way she does with nearly all her indie performances.

There was never a chance of that happening here. Though Wiliams gets to display her warm and lovely side this is strictly a showcase for Hugh Jackman’s Barnum. He’s in fine form and the movie’s theme is hardly without contemporary relevance. This is a shallow but effective portrait of a man’s dream and a land where bunkum is all. Master it, and it will get you all: women, money, fame, the love of the common people. Really, you could walk out of this and contemplate the century-and-a-half between our consummate national huckster’s prime and the new occupant of the White House’s ascendance and be truly bedazzled that it took so long for someone to take the final, logical step.

Big drawback: They went with period music.

Our period.

(NOTE: For an odd but possibly compelling double-bill, I recommend pairing this with Jackman and Williams’ other outing, an interesting little thriller called Deception, where he plays a manipulative terrorizer of women (and others) whose hand is bigger than her head. You don’t notice until he has to drop the mask of mere avarice and actually take hold of her. Ewan McGregor’s around, but, even at the center of the thing as the yob we’re supposed to identify with, he’s not too terrible a distraction.)

All the Money in the World (2017)
D. Ridley Scott

Christopher Plummer’s gotten most of the attention for stepping in to play J. Paul Getty, the oiliest oily capitalist in the history of oily capitalism, a part Ridley Scott supposedly wanted him for the begin with, when Kevin Spacey–for whom the part was clearly made and which it’s hardly a stretch to imagine he was born to play–was instantly Stalinized for being an accused pederast in this moment when any gambit that might bring down Donald Trump (no pederast, but he has bragged–on tape no less–about “pussy grabbing”….or hadn’t you heard?) is deemed worth deploying and talent be damned.

It’s not  a disaster. Plummer’s fine even though you can literally hear the lines he sort of mumbles snapping out of Spacey’s absent mouth and smile your way through the whole thing.

The real problem–and it’s not insurmountable either–is that the other actors, especially Michelle Williams, had to re-shoot scenes which had clearly been written with Spacey’s particular charm (the oiliest actorly smarm in the history of smarm…or acting) in mind. Worse, they likely didn’t re-shoot scenes where the Getty character isn’t present. So you have to assume that Williams (and others) spent half the movie we actually see acting against the absence of Kevin Spacey’s J. Paul Getty and half acting with Plummer’s bound to be antithetical take on the same man (or, if you prefer, character).

It shows.

But you know….it still works–as both thriller and character study.

The real tension isn’t in whether Getty’s kidnapped grandson is finally freed (and I was one of the millions who didn’t have a memory of how that all worked out, so the ending was news to me), but in whether Williams’ character (Getty’s estranged ex-daughter-in-law and the kidnap victim’s mother) will ever act out.

This is Michelle Williams, after all, the only working actor who knows what to do with that very kind of scene, or at least the only one who is willing to risk going there, time and again. And I was a coiled spring, waiting to see if she would, just once, get to turn the anger she usually directs at herself (and whether it’s the characters self-immolating, time and again, or the actress herself, time and again, is a mystery that wants solving), against an object worthy of her disgust.

And….

Well, it’s worth seeing the movie to find out, so I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say watching Michelle Williams work these kind of things out for two hours is never going to be a waste of time, even if it leaves you wondering if she will ever achieve the kind of stardom that would prove the world is better than me, Donald Trump or J. Paul Getty think it can be.

Darkest Hour (2017)
D. Joe Wright

In which Gary Oldman plays an aging, crotchety leader of a fractured party, out of step with his colleagues and every aspect of their shrewd statesman-like sense of decorum, but with an uncommon feel for the common man they can but envy and behold.

Winston Churchill keeps getting mentioned, along with contemporary phenomena like abdicating kings and Dunkirk and what not. But this is clearly the first high class movie (maybe the first period, I don’t do a good job of keeping up) about Donald Trump. I mean it could be a little bit about Harvey Weinstein–old Winnie did like to go about in his bathrobe and little else whilst dictating to comely young secretaries. But Harvey’s old news now, just another of Trump’s useful footwipes and hardly better off than Kevin Spacey or J. Paul Getty (who probably finds being dead and consumed by hell fire only a slight disadvantage over having to endure the presence of humans).

It’s a fine performance. If you accept that it’s this historical fellow Churchill Oldman is after, he’s got him dead to rights. He’s the spitting image. Sounds like him too. Nothing like Richard Burton on television way back, neither looking nor sounding much like the historical fellow at all.

Odd thing, though. You could watch and listen to Burton and imagine a despondent country hearing him say “Our policy will be to WAGE WAR!” and committing on the spot to doing just that, even, as actually happened, to the point of self-extinction. And you could imagine him–and them–understanding that the only choice left was already not between survival in any meaningful sense and extinction, but between extinction with honor or subservience in disgrace.

None of that here. The England this barely worthy Trump stand-in speaks to and for is hardly worth saving and it’s an even bet whether the filmmakers meant this England to stand for 1940 or 2017.

Fine job by the makeup department, though. And good work on the accent. Who needs thunder and lighting when you’ve got all that going for you?

Bravo!

STORM BREWING…AND NOT ONLY IN THIS HEART OF MINE (Segue of the Day: 10/19/17)

I was just reminded (by one of those random accidents that are the Internet’s true reason for being) that Michelle Williams has been signed to play Janis Joplin.

It might not happen. The idea of a Janis biopic has been around forever and this particular one has been bobbing up here and there for nearly a decade (this is the second time Williams’ has her name attached, but this time she seems to have actually been cast after a grueling audition). But it’s farther along than any previous attempt.

If it does come to pass, all I can say is Williams is the one actress most likely to connect with Joplin’s unique ethos (and certainly the only actress who could pull off the Marilyn Monroe/Janis Joplin Daily Double).

And it will mean this…

may very well meet this…

Bear in mind that’s not even in extremis….for either of them.

The mind reels.

Much as I want Michelle Williams to be in every movie that matters, I’m not even sure I want this to happen. The concept is frightening and I’m already certain if it ends up a scintilla less terrifying in reality than it already is in my imagination, I won’t know whether to be gut-punched or relieved.

Either way, I can imagine myself running out of the theater yelling “I can’t bear it” with an English accent.

But one thing’s sure. If it does come to pass, I’ll be there.

I might even watch the Oscars that year.

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE TEENS

And so we come to the end of the story thus far. Here I have to confess that I haven’t kept up very well. There could be some gems out there from the current decade that I haven’t even heard of, let alone watched. But if we’ve come this far….again, the links are to posts where I’ve done a deeper take on that particular film.

2010 True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen) (over Winter’s Bone, which operates as a kind of sequel, and a measure of our collapse)

2011 The Lincoln Lawyer  (Brad Furman) (over My Week With Marilyn…the only thing I remember about either movie is that Marisa Tomei and Michelle Williams were even sexier than usual…giving Ms. Tomei the edge here because Ms. Williams was channeling Marilyn Monroe and so didn’t have to generate all her own heat…Though Ms. Tomei did have the advantage of an actual leading man…so maybe I better not think about this too much….let’s just go with that first judgment).

2012 Men in Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld) (over Zero Dark Thirty, which was admittedly funnier, but lacked that scene from Cape Kennedy which recreated a moment for which I was present and did it well enough to put a hole in my heart and a smile on my face….you never know what will get to you in this world)

2013 Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) (slick but engaging….is that now all we can expect?…see 2015, 2016…and every year after?)

2014 Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad) (but NOT 2014…over Get On Up, in the hardest call since 1962)

2015 Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg) (oy vey)

2016 Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) (ditto…good luck and good night)

 

 

YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE (At the Multiplex: December, 2016)

New category…where I write about new movies I actually see in the theater.

Hell or High Water
(D. David Mackenzie, 2016)

and…

Manchester By the Sea
(D. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams are pretty much the only two working actors I’ll pay full price to see act in a theater anymore. (I’ll pay to see Jennifer Aniston, but that’s mostly to see what she’s doing with her persona, of which being even a very good actress is not the most essential part). Especially since Williams tends to make the kind of movies that rarely play around here, I don’t expect to get many chances to see them both in the same month. Some day they should do a movie together. Maybe he could play her dad. I’d pay to see that.

Bridges saves Hell or High Water even though he’s coasting. He hasn’t reached the state of post-Lonesome Dove Robert Duval yet, where he just plays the same guy over and over and looks sleepier and cootier every time out, but there’s a lot of his Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) in his Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, here. And, though I’ve only seen clips of it, I suspect a lot of his Bad Blake (Crazy Heart) as well. In theory, the movie should have a lot of other things going for it. The plot is a nice twist on the Robin Hood theme, the writing and directing are efficient, if hardly inspired, and the rest of the cast is good enough to get by, with Gil Birmingham a standout as Bridges’s Half-Indian/Half-Mexican partner.

There’s fun to be had. It didn’t bore me, a quality which, at today’s prices, I don’t take for granted.

It didn’t grab me either, hard as it kept trying. The best chance it had at pulling me in was with a soundtrack that tried a little too hard to match the desolation of its West Texas setting. The comparisons to The Last Picture Show, noted by a number of critics as a nice metaphor for our current bleak state of the national heart, are not entirely off base.

The problem is, it stays metaphorical. The connection never hurts and that’s where I know the right soundtrack could have helped because the one selection that strikes all the way home–the one that plays out with Texas losers Chris Pine and Ben Foster (the Howard brothers…nice joke for the Jesse James crowd) running down the dusty roads listening to a radio that, for once, plays something that sounds like it came from that dust–is so perfect it throws the rest of the movie off stride.

I don’t usually concede that anything Elvis did so well was done better elsewhere and I don’t concede it here. But it does fit the setting better. There’s a quality in Waylon’s voice–and Waylon’s alone–that nails the wasteland spirit of the new Texas dirt the way Al Green’s voice once nailed Black America’s Crack Epidemic, and Patty Loveless’s voice nailed Hillbilly America’s Meth-driven White Death, years before they actually happened.

Anybody who knew enough to put one Waylon song in this should have known enough to give him the whole show.

If they couldn’t do that, they should have hired Michelle Williams and given her one big scene. That’s just about what she gets in Manchester By the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s drearily well-made chamber piece set on the other side of the country in contemporary New England.

It’s not the first time she’s blown the nihilism clean out of a movie. She did it in a better movie called Me Without You as far back as 2001, and, more recently, in 2008’s Incendiary, which was not as good.

She does it again here and could have probably done it for Hell and High Water if somebody had just asked.

I imagine she has done it in a few other movies I haven’t seen–much as I admire her for taking this task on, and much as I believe it’s necessary for somebody to take it on, I really have to be in the mood for this stuff. When she picks up her Oscar next spring it will be for blowing nihilism out of whatever movie she’s been in for fifteen years running and because it’s her turn. God bless her for that. The best thing about that, if it happens, is that it will just be possible the thing is being done in time to save her sanity. I can’t believe she can take much more of this.

She’s so good in that one big scene that she actually allows Casey Affleck’s previously bewildered performance to finally come together–to merge the ruined man he’s become in the movie’s present with the vibrant man we’ve seen in the movie’s flashbacks.

And when he wins his Oscar this spring (assuming his alleged tendency to abuse women doesn’t catch up with him first) he should really thank Michelle Williams.

Because, without changing a single thing more, his performance stays together the rest of the way. By the end, I almost liked a couple of the people I was supposed to like. I even almost liked him. The only thing lacking by then was nerve.

What it needed, as the last scene played and gave way, yet again, to the dreary score, was one perfect kick in the modern gut. One song that nailed everything in place and turned the whole thing from a chamber piece into something worthy of Michelle Williams showing up, yet again, to save the day.

What it needed was something to reestablish the filmmaker’s true fake vision, to show that he didn’t really believe everything would be alright in the godforsaken land he had just gone to such mighty lengths to portray in so much excruciating detail.

Of course, the song that would have nailed it all in place came straight into my head. They really should call me in to help out with this stuff.

Since they don’t, sometimes I just have to turn the sound off in the movie theater behind my bloodshot eyes and let the right song play in there and walk out with a grim smile on my face.

I was never more right than I was this time. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had convinced myself I had almost been in the presence of greatness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDNazviNExU

 

PAST AS NOT SO OBVIOUS PRELUDE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Second Feature)

All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan Pakula

allpresidentcover2I’m not sure how many people have viewed the straightforward screen adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of how they broke open the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon as noir (as opposed noir-ish, which can be stretched to include almost anything that isn’t an MGM musical). From that contemporary Czech poster above, I’d say the commies, at least, had a notion.

But if noir is defined by a film’s relationship to, as Edmund Wilson might have put it, the specifically American Jitters, then All the President’s Men isn’t just noir but near-definitive. If it happens to also be quite faithful to history, as no one has ever credibly denied, then it’s all the more remarkable.

It’s worth remembering that noir at its best is never invested in civilization. Most of the black-and-white killer-dillers from the classic period (Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle) are fundamentally pre-civilizational, man stripped bare, deprived of any but the basest aspirations (lust, greed, survival, revenge). That’s why the ones that worked at all worked extremely well, and also why even the very best of them tended to sell out at the end. They didn’t always, or often, end happily, but they nearly always ended romantically. How else to cut the darkness?

On that score, All the President’s Men has a seemingly insurmountable problem. The romance seems built in. Heroic journalists trying to bring down the king yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

But, given the source and the times that produced both the history and the movie, no amount of star power or studio gloss could keep it from being ultra-realistic, too. Somebody realized that and doubled down. Almost no film from the ultra-realistic seventies feels as much like a period documentary as this one, and that’s despite the presence of heavy duty stars and top flight character actors, the kind with personas attached, popping up throughout.

You could argue (I wouldn’t), that Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Jason Robards have been better elsewhere, but, despite the near-ubiquitous presence of their real-life counterparts (Bernstein, Woodward and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, respectively) in our lives for four decades running (even Bradlee’s death only slowed him down a little), the actors still seem more like those men than they’ve ever seemed liked themselves. I see Carl Bernstein on CNN, bloviating on yet another topic he clearly can’t be bothered to know anything about, and all I think is “Too bad he’s not really Dustin Hoffman.” I see Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and all I think is “too bad he not really Carl Bernstein.”

And that’s the easy one…the one who probably didn’t work for the CIA.

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None of which makes ATPM either great or noir. It wasn’t really meant to be great, I don’t think, except maybe in the way earlier classy commercial properties like The Ten Commandments or My Fair Lady were. Great in the grand old Hollywood style of radiating a certain stiff-necked significance, a film the whole family should see.

And I certainly don’t think it was meant to be noir.

But put a bunch of talented people together with an indelible moment and you never know what might happen.

For one thing, it might actually work on the “significance'”level, as ATPM did and does.

But then it might also, over time, leap the trace.

As ATPM certainly is doing now, in this turbulent month when, on a hunch, I left Medium Cool and A Face in the Crowd to the liberal twitter crowd and pulled this off the shelf instead.

Dutifully or not, ATPM gives us a worm’s eye view of the process of catching rats in high places. Consciously or not, its obvious message is that the only people really qualified to do the job are other rats.

You don’t need to buy Ben Bradlee as a lifelong CIA asset–or someone who would have snuffed the story of the century in the cradle if it had been likely to bring down somebody he liked–to get that from the movie.

And that’s what makes it great.

And that’s what makes it noir.

Maybe just because the heroes involved were more transparent than they knew, even in the moment (forget the long aftermath), it’s possible to be grateful for what Woodward/Redford, Bernstein/Hoffman and Bradlee/Robards did without liking them even a little bit. Against all odds, the movie resists heroism. It just sets you down in soulless “news rooms,” shadowy parking garages, wet city streets, sunlit suburbs, some “ratfucker’s”  apartment….and then lets you work out the moral logistics for yourself.

Sure, Woodward/Redfern occasionally shows a touch of remorse or honesty or self-reflection–or at least seems to. But, real or faked, it never lasts. You can never be sure that these things, too, aren’t calculated as a price well worth what was then merely a potential payoff.

Brave? Prescient? Pure Fluke?

Who knows?

But as we enter our post-civilizational phase, where no secret is so dark it could ever possibly bring anybody down (what Donald Trump really meant when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make any difference)–a phase that surely began when the half of the “establishment” that had driven Nixon from office for the one truly unpardonable sin of attacking them, decided early retirement was punishment enough–it feels odd to watch a film that captured that moment a little too perfectly. It comes uncomfortably close to proving noir‘s unspoken pre- and post-civilizational premise: The darkness is all there is.

Ever.

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(NOTE: As I  pretty much always do, I watched All the President’s Men in tandem with Dick, Andrew Fleming’s 1999 duck-and-cover satire of same. I was reminded, yet again, that even the most brilliant satire runs up against limits. I was also reminded, yet again, that those limits can be transcended if you manage to weave “You’re So Vain” into a realistic depiction (beautifully played by an up-until-that-very-moment-gloriously-over-the-top Dan Hedaya) of Nixon departing the White House while Betsy and Arlene cut up some American flags which they intend to put to very good use. I’ll probably have more to say about Dick, which also happens to be one of the two or three greatest movies about the seventies, a decade that arguably could only be understood satirically, some other time, but for those interested, this lovely reminiscence is highly recommended, not least because it reveals how disastrously close “You’re So Vain” came to being….something else!)

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #5: Grace of My Heart)

Grace of My Heart
Allison Anders, director (1996)

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(Warning: As usual for my reviews there are SPOILERS! so please beware if you haven’t seen it.)

Having not seen Grace of My Heart in seventeen years, what I carried with me was one scene and Illeana Douglas’ smile, which managed to be both sly and vulnerable in a self-reinforcing manner that was unlike anyone else’s slyness or vulnerability.

I first saw the movie a couple of years after it was released, so, back then, I already knew it wasn’t going to make her a star. I also knew if that role didn’t make her a star, nothing could.

Our loss.

The common line on Douglas in Grace of My Heart is that she’s playing a version of Carole King and that’s certainly true. But, watching the movie from this distance, it’s a little clearer that she’s also playing something like the secret spirit of the sixties, the lynch-pin of an era as re-imagined by director Allison Anders, who, being a decade older than Douglas herself, could work at least partly from memory.

Fortunately, neither woman restricted herself to the memory of what actually happened, interesting as that might have been. Grace of My Heart is more like the memory of what might have been. Hence its unique ability to slip the bounds of docudrama or even film a clef and cast a warm glow that lingers even through the scene I remembered and which I’ll get to directly.

“Might have been” works so well here in part because it’s not really an escape.

Carole King really did survive and triumph in much the same way Douglas’ “Denise Waverly” does here (the name is made up on the spot in a recording studio by John Turturro’s Joel Millner, a Phil Spector-like hustler/producer, and serves to conceal the character’s “Edna-Buxton-of -Buxton-Steel” ruling class background). So that part’s both true and more or less factual.

Phil Spector, on the other hand, did not turn out to be a hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold, as the movie imagines, but a twisted sociopath.

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Taken only as a clef, then, the movie can throw you. It certainly threw me the first time around,  mostly because I was seeing it only as “The Carole King Story,” on which level, thanks to lots of genuine love for the period exhibited all around and Douglas’ mesmerizing performance (not to mention presence, that indefinable quality which even Hollywood can’t quite kill in the very few people who really have it), it worked.

It just didn’t quite work all the way.

I mean, it got saved in the end. It got saved by that scene I mentioned and which I’m still gonna get to. But I kept thinking it might have been better if it had stuck closer to the facts.

Well, things change.

In the years since, Phil Spector–the one we have, not the one we wish we had–actually killed somebody and went to jail for it.

In the years since, Brian Wilson has had a career resurgence and a lovely, mostly factual, movie made about him.

In the years since, Carol King has become a well-feted institution and Illeana Douglas has become a character actress on television.

Suddenly this thing looks more like a miracle and the choices Anders made with her vision (a vision that started out as an attempt to do a film about the Shangri-Las, which we can all still dream she, or somebody, gets to do some day before all the dreams fade) have been validated.

The movie was/is really not so much about King or Spector or Wilson (or Eric Stolz’s Howard Cazsatt, standing in for Gerry Goffin, or Bridget Fonda’s Kelly Porter, standing in for Lesley Gore or any number of other stand-ins you might have fun spotting) as about the dreams the audience once shared with the people who ended up defining those dreams, definitions no audience has really shared with any dreamers since (given that having enough bling to look good at the club and surviving the work week aren’t really dreams, just impulses).

I mean, somebody might be living this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this (where, let me just say, appropos of nothing, Douglas does more for hip-huggers and bare midriffs than anyone since Helen Reddy pulled it off singing “I Am Woman” on The Midnight Special in the dream-clinging seventies)….

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or this…

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or this…

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They might even be living this…

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or this….

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or this…

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or this….

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Or, at long last, making the complete journey from this…

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to this…

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…Yes indeed, somebody might be living some or all of that. Every bit. Taylor Swift, maybe, God love her.

But wanting and dreaming are not the same thing and, whoever’s wanting and getting some or all of those things now, they’re not really dreaming it.

Neither are we.

And, even if we are or they are, we’re not dreaming it together and nobody’s dreaming it with us.

There’s a reason there have probably been more biopics, clef and otherwise, about rock and rollers than all other musicians (and maybe all other entertainers) combined. And it’s not because boomers rule the box office. That hasn’t been true for a long time. It wasn’t true when Grace of My Heart was in theaters, which is why even some cinephiles haven’t seen it. And yet they keep coming, good, bad and indifferent.

Hard to let go of an old dream when there are no new ones.

Which leads me, finally, to the scene I remembered.

It’s near the end and it’s completely fake and completely real.

“Denise” has taken to some sort of communal living. Evidently, it’s the sort that isn’t entirely resistant to royalty money (or maybe Buxton Steel money) because she’s got a really nice pool to mope by while she’s communing with her lost soul mate (the dream Brian Wilson having done the decent thing and offed himself, leaving the dream Carole King to contemplate the cosmos and dig turnips when the California sun is out).

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It’s that digging turnips that gets to Phil Spector in this particular dream, and instead of holing up in his mansion and watching Citizen Kane every night with his imprisoned wife, he comes to comfort the grieving and the lost, to do, in person, what the real Phil Spector’s music once did.

The scene is beautifully played by two exceptionally fine actors. But it’s also far beyond craft.

He kneels down, pointedly, almost monk-like, refusing the lotus position or any other comfort.

Then he starts jabbing her.

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The real Phil Spector might have done God knows what. Pushed her in the pool? Stabbed her with a lit cigarette? Who knows?

But the dream Phil Spector can settle for talking it out. As long as he gets to keep jabbing. What’re ya’ doin’ with yourself? Why are you throwing your talent away? The guy’s dead. Move on. Like that. The exact dialogue hardly matters. It’s the tones that are really clashing. She’s Zen. He’s New Yawk, come to the coast just for her, even if he knows there might be something in it for him, too.

And, finally, he jabs once too many, and she lets loose.

Not just with what “Denise Waverly” or Edna Buxton has been holding in the whole movie, though, or with whatever Illeana Douglas might have been holding in her whole life, but everything the distaff dreamers had held in for the entire rock and roll era until somebody named Carole King sold ten million copies of an album called Tapestry and stepped out of the shadows.

And then kept right on holding in.

Right up until the moment the dream Carole King, who has smiled through everything, death, betrayal, dreams broken and fulfilled, lets loose on the dream Phil Spector and burns a hole in the movie and the dreams…

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It’s the strongest scene I’ve seen in any movie made in the last twenty-five years (a shade stronger than Michelle Williams’ truly frightening “I can’t bear it” moment in Me Without You, because it’s just as raw and connected to something much larger than any individual performance or film or even life, something that stretches straight back to whatever Arlene Smith and Darlene Love and Mary Weiss and a hundred others had tried to let out, sometimes with the real Carole King’s help, in the years just after Anders was born and just before Douglas was, and for which those singers-in-the-shadows had long since paid every kind of price, dream-wise).

“FUCK YOU!” she screams, over and over, and for the only time in the strictly narrative history of the modern collapse, it actually means something.

There was a reason the scene stayed with me for seventeen years, you see.

The same reason it took me seventeen years to watch it again and to actually get it this time around. To have the rest finally sink in while I was just waiting for that scene where the movie doesn’t end, just the common dreams.

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In the dream, we should be just about ready for life to begin by now.

Wonder how long before that part happens.