An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman – A Review

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War
J. Hoberman
The New Press, 2011, pg 383

I once proposed in an massive paper of 120 pages written during my third year of college that you could see a causal relationship in American attitudes towards the Cold War and the Military Industrial Complex by looking at the films of World War II. For a third year paper the oversimplification of the thesis is forgivable. But ever since the months of wading through the ins and outs of the Office of War Information and its film unit, the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), I have been interested in the shaping of not only those wartime films with their BMP approved messages, but the post war period where the films reflected not only attitudes that were shaped during the war but also reflect those of the dark period the second great Red Scare. J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War investigates just that topic, mixing film history and American history as a method to look not only at the culture of the 1940s and 1950s, but the development of Cold War and how movies and the people who made movies were part of the political intrigues that mark the times.

The book opens with a quick summary of wartime movies and politics which were shaped by new dealers and the necessity to sell Russia as a ally. These two narratives would become create troubles once the war was over. The New Deal had stressed the idea of the common man and many of the movies from the war stressed these themes, usually by highlighting the heterogeneous nature of the soldiers fighting and praising the common soldier. These ideas, straight out of the BMP guidelines, show up in all manner of films, particularly the combat films such as Back to Bataan or Sahara. Films like Mission to Moscow or the North Star, focused on the Russians and painted a sentimental picture of a reliable ally who could be relied on after the war. Many of those involved in the production were either Communist Party members or belonged to the Popular Front, which was an anti-fascist group that was not communist, but had a certain taint as Moscow had directed party members to ally with it starting with the Spanish Civil War. It isn’t the most thorough introduction and one would do well to read Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black’s Hollywood goes to war : how politics, profits and propaganda shaped Word War II movies. The other issue that will plague the book is his writing style is his strange associative writing style, where he drops seemingly unrelated names and events in the same paragraph without explaining what they are doing together, other than quite often the simple coincidence of taking place on the same day.

Once Hoberman moves into the post war period the book moves a long much better. He describes of the immediate post war period as it became obvious that the Soviets would not be long term allies as one of turmoil. The members of the Hollywood left who expected that the political climate that had taken shape during the New Deal would continue, were slow to see the changes of the coming Red Scare and its often hysterical reaction. For example, the movie Crossfire which dealt with antisemitism was considered suspiciously red, because those involved making the film had left and communist associations, the Daily Worker praised the film, and the film posited a fascist threat from within the US (criticizing fascism was often used as an indicator of communist sympathies ever since the Spanish Civil War). As in the so many cases, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI were suspicious of anything that even slightly criticized the US. With Crossfire it was the suggestion that American soldiers could hate and kill anther soldier because he was Jewish.

Initially, left leaning Hollywood put up a defense with big fundraisers and assemblies, but soon dissent and the weight of the US government lead to the splintering of resolve. Some of those with Communist party links, whether real or not, went to jail, some became friendly witnesses, and others left the country. Those on the right such as John Wayne and Robert Taylor were only to do their part to counter the menace, lending their support to the Republican party. And the studios? They tried to make a fast buck as always and came out with movies like My Son John, I Married a Communist, and The Next Voice You Hear, all of which contrasted the comically evil red conformity against American virtue.

With the coming of communist China and the Korean war Hollywood found itself under even more attack and it turned to the western and the sci-fi movie as allegory. Hooberman is best here, giving a detailed read of the movies Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and High Noon. While they have come down as classics Rio Grande can be read as a fascistic allegory, and High Noon an attack on the cowardice of the American people, which even in its day raised eyebrows and angered John Wayne intensely (he does not come off particularly well in the book). The preoccupation with communism led the studios to create the biblical epics that were so popular in the 50’s. They were partly designed to battle with television, but they were also an attempt by Hollywood to inject romance and adventure into what otherwise might have been tame biblical history. As in so many cases, Hollywood took advantage of what ever cover they could to make entertainment. Which doesn’t mean people like Cecil B. DeMille were not earnest in their faith, attaching written or spoken prologues to their movies to let moviegoers know how important the film was.

It is this kind of detail placed along side the politics of the time that make the book so interesting. However, as I mentioned earlier he tends to drop little facts into the midst of otherwise well written sections. For example, writing about Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments comes the following paragraph.

Even as Hollywood projects Egyptian splendor, wondrous new pleasure domes are under construction. The Nevada desert has already been transformed into an air-conditioned mirage of Babylonian hanging gardens and Roman bathtubs, while in the sleepy town of Anaheim, Walt Disney is building a $17 million wonderland, ballyhooed by Life as the “most Lavish amusement park on earth.”

While that is all true, it breaks up the flow and doesn’t really say anything specific. Is he trying to say Vegas and Disney Land doomed movies? Or did he just find something interesting to tell us? Except for these strange interludes and his occasional switch to present tense, the book is a welcome addition to the film studies.

No One Knows About Persian Cats – A Review

No One Knows About Persian Cats Poster In FrenchNo One Knows About Persian Cats is a delightful film about musicians in Iran just trying to play music they like, mostly rock, and a totalitarian state that refuses to let them. The film is ostensibly about two indie-rock musicians who are trying to put together a concert for their friends and family, and also get fake passports so they can flee the country to play a show in London. They travel around Tehran trying to put together a band and talking with different musicians in Tehran’s underground music scene. Accompanying them is a promoter who is the ultimate wheeler-dealer with a fast tongue that makes his living bootlegging alcohol, selling pirated and forbidden CDs and DVDs, and otherwise brining his black market sensibilities to the music world. The quest allows the film makers to show the great lengths the musicians have to go to play. Every time they go to a new space it is down a warren of staircases to a forgotten basement that will muffle the music and keep the police away. One metal band even plays at a dairy farm amongst the cows and hay bales. Despite these great lengths it is a world of fear and every musician has been jailed at least once for playing music. All the musicians, except for the rapper, play music that is completely apolitical and in a few cases lacks words, yet the government will not allow almost any form of rock to be played. It is the tension between the musicians simple desire and the politics is one of the primary things that makes the movie compelling.

The other thing that makes the movie so interesting is the music. Sure it is all infuenced by American and European rock and hip-hop, but that is part of the fun. And all of it is very good. There are 2 blues rock bands, one with a female singer with an great voice; 2 metal like bands that are full on hard-core with double bass drums and chorused guitars; a couple jazz jam bands; an indie-rock band; a folk singer; and a hip-hop group. All of these get a couple of minutes to play a song and while they play the film becomes a kind of rock video showing montages of Tehran and its street life. The best performance is from the rap group which performs a great song that indicts the state for the disparities in wealth in Tehran while the montage show scenes of people living on the streets. The raping style and the music are aggressive and underscore the seriousness of their critique. The female fronted blues band was also very good, but what made it even more compelling is everyone in the band was filmed out of focus, mostly likely for their own protection. It was a haunting song set to night scenes of Tehran.

The film might have a bit of the Andy Hardy series of films where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a musical in a barn, if it weren’t for the political consequences of what they are doing. It is in the political tension and the liveliness of the music that the film is at its best a is a fascinating look at Iran. Definitely worth watching, especially if you like music.

The White Ribbon – A Review

The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke’s austere look at a German village on the eve of World War I. The austerity is not only in the composition, but the lives of the villagers, a place ruled by fear, strict obedience, piety and corruption. The village is a symbol of all that is to come in the twentieth century, a place where the inhabitants are the cowed participants of orders that lead them to their own destruction.

As the White Ribbon opens the village doctor is coming home from riding his horse and he suddenly felled by a thin wire that is strung across his path. It is a suspicious event because he has ridden that same path time daily. When it is investigated, the wires are suddenly missing. The accident is one of many mysterious events that occurs in the village and gives the movie a fearful sensibility.

While the mysterious events occur, the film examines the lives of the villagers. There is the baron, a man who thinks nothing of firing a family from his farm if one member is disobedient. In one particular example, the wife of a farm worker dies in an accident in the Barron’s mill. The oldest son of a family destroys the Barron’s cabbage patch as revenge and as punishment the father is let go. All this time the father, instead of blaming the Barron for not keeping his mill working, he accepts what comes to him as a matter of course.

The village minister is the embodiment of austerity and discipline whose sense of righteousness is unshakable. He believes in tying white ribbons to his children to remind them of the goodness that they should strive for. His punishments are strict, a moral discipline he expects from everyone.

As the incidents continue, it becomes more and more obvious that the village is filled with secrets that show the powerful can get away with anything and the weak have no way to resist and go along with the whatever they are told. Only the school teacher and the Baroness can see these problems. The Baroness tries to leave the village, saying that she is tired of the brutality that is everywhere in the village. The school teacher, as an outsider, has not been worn down by fear and is willing, within the limits the German society allowed, to investigate and not let things lay as they are. But then the war comes. The last scene is of the village gathering in the church after Austria and German have declared war. It is a kind of righteous farewell to a world that is about to change.

The White Ribbon is a dark film with cruel mysteries that indite a certain way of life with its obedience and brutality. The movie is not a hopeful one, except, perhaps, in that the world of the village no longer exists. Haneke does not spare anyone from his indictment and White Ribbon is sure to leave one wondering how the people could endure such things, but just watch how the inhabitants keep their heads bowed in fear and you will know.

The Trailer:

(500) Days of Summer – A Review

Romantic comedies are formulaic—boy meets girl, or some variation therein—and so it is a welcome change when a film can use those elements and tell an interesting story and even better, do it with a style that that is fresh and adds to the story telling. (500) Days of Summer is the story of a short relationship, 500 days, between Summer and Tom, two people who seem to share all the same interests—The Smiths, the Pixies—and get along so well, yet the relationship doesn’t work, and Tom is left wondering why.

What sets the film apart is how it goes about telling that story. The film is constructed around a non-liner plot where Tom tries to understand what went wrong. The non-linear structure allows the film makers to mix the happy scenes with the ones that show the problems, but also include commentaries from his 13 year-old sister who gives him dating advice, and his friends who know nothing. These elements allow the story to underscore not only his confusion, but Summer’s seemingly contradictory stance on relationships: shed doesn’t want a boyfriend, and yet instigates the relationship with Tom. Overlaying all of this is an occasional narrator who helps transition certain scenes and introduce the fundamental elements of the characters: Tom likes 80’s bands; Summer’s parents got divorced when she was a child and she said she would never make that mistake. Through these elements the story bounces between the idyllic and the disappointing and one is left to make sense of what really happened. In one effective use of split screen which seems influenced by Amelie, the director shows what Tom wanted to happen at a party and what really happened. It is a cleaver technique which illustrates well what Tom is thinking.  The film also relies heavily on musical montages to convey mood, rather than heavy expressions of dialog and it gives the film an impressionistic quality.

The characters, too, are a welcome change. Summer and Tom are both a bit quirky. He wears retro 60s suits with skinny ties, listens to alternative music from the 80s and dreams about changing the downtown LA architectural plan (Downtown LA’s classic architecture is a bit player in this film). She listens to the same music, thinks Ringo Starr was the best Beatle and dresses in 60s retro clothes, too. From the outset they play against romantic stereotypes, and the relationship seems marked more by what it isn’t, a couple looking for the wedding and children, then what it is a boy who wants a relationship with someone who says that will never happen. In this sense, the movie is much more interesting than most romantic comedies because it asks the question: if you don’t want to be tied down by a relationship, why are you in one? Summer instigates the relationship, so it seems she wants one, but them is to cynical, or afraid, or something to admit she wants one. If a relationship is confining, what is the alternative. For Summer it will be exactly what she claims it isn’t.

(500) Days of Summer is the right blend of style and reworking of the genre and shows that the romantic comedy (although there is a fair amount of drama, too) doesn’t have to be insipid.

Up In the Air – A Review

Ryan Bingham is the perfect symbol of the corporate world—a detached, almost faceless man whose two purposes in life are to fire people and get air miles. He cares little for relationships, considering them an encumbrance that one should work to dispense with. He believes it so much he gives a seminar where he tells the attendees this with a perfectly straight face.  Perhaps, in his line of work it makes the most sense to be detached, unafraid of becoming emotionally evolved in each layoff victim’s problems. Whatever his reasoning, he is so detached as to be almost soulless and incapable of intimacies.

At the beginning of the movie his one great love is getting to 10 million air miles. It is the replacement for human relationships with a corporate relationship. It is also one that while not particularly fulfilling, gives Ryan a sense of his importance in the world he inhabits. Like human relationships, he also knows that the corporate relationships he has are artificial, but he accepts that as just the way things are. He posits a way of life that is solitary, but connected through commercial bonds. In an age of constant marketing it makes perfect sense.

The isolation changes when he meets two women: Alix, a frequent traveler like him, and Natalie, a young up and comer at the company he works with. They represent two sides of the relationship question. Alix believes in casual acquaintances; Natalie the longterm. For Ryan, Alix’s detachment is the perfect accompaniment to his. Natalie, on the other hand, is an anathema and is everything that is wrong in a world that believes in love, marriage, and family. Except that Ryan doesn’t exactly believe it. While the corporate relationships he has sustain him, he finds that they are not enough. There is something to human relationships, something that a membership card can never give. The problem, though, is corporate cards, as long as you meet your obligations, rarely lie or cheat. Ryan can choose between the smooth and impersonal corporate relationships he has, or he can risk the something else.

In the end Ryan finds he wants the other, but that it is seldom as one would like, but messy and given to failing apart. One could say the film suggest that the only human relationships that succeed are those where they are suffused with the same detachment Ryan first espouses. A better read might be that the more detached the more lonely, the more attached the more the risk, something Ryan has studiously tried to avoid. However, a little skepticism when approaching Natalie’s idea that marriage always equals eternal happiness, is perhaps not a bad thing. One just needs to come to some compromise between the two. Up in the Air doesn’t answer the questions, as it shouldn’t, but leaves Ryan up in the air, knowing that there can be, at times, more, but it doesn’t always work. Perhaps, he will go back to the old life, perhaps change. The cynic and the optimist each have their choice, the film is open to either.

Crazy Heart – A Review

Crazy Heart is one of those films that relies on one’s ability to add the back story. For Crazy Heart this is all the broken lives and self-destruction that has marked country music greats like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Collins (Merle Haggard’s Leonard) and Lefty Frizzell, all who problems with drugs and most died early, their careers long since over. The back story fills every moment of Crazy Heart as Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) stumbles along in irrelevance, going from small city to city, playing in small bars or even bowling alleys, a bottle of whiskey always at hand, always asking his manager for a better gig, but unwilling to understand he’s an alcoholic, albeit a functioning one who has “never missed a gig.” His journey through the small clubs is a good picture of what happens to musicians when the market has long since left them behind. The fans are still there (and country fans are very dedicated) but you make little money and it can hardly seem worth driving 500 miles or more between gigs.

Eventually, Bad Blake meets a younger woman begins a somewhat improbable romance. What could make a broken down country singer 20 years your elder seems so interesting is a little hard to understand. Nonetheless, Blake sees in the woman and her 4 year-old son a past he lost, a past he destroyed with his career. In the relationship he wants as much to recapture the past as start something new. When he breaks his leg he has the chance to move in with them for a while and his better side comes out and he seems like a relatively responsible man.

Once his leg heals he heads back to his home in Texas, which is 800 miles from his girl friend. In Texas he returns to his ways and although he is trying to write new songs he can only drink. His girlfriend visits and it is going well until he loses the boy in a mall and she blames it on his drunkenness and leaves. It sends him into a tail spin of drinking. Yet unlike so many stories of this kind, he actually get sober. It was a refreshing change. How many times does addiction lead to some sort of destruction? This is where the movie leaves the back story. But Crazy Heart isn’t a recovery story, either and the sobriety story is almost nothing. As the movie ends, it is clear he has been sober for sometime and has gotten his career back together and is opening for a major star.

Crazy Heart is a movie that loves its subject: the country musician. It is filled with good live performances by Jeff Bridges and Collin Farrell and celebrates the music as much as the story. You are meant to want him to succeed, and by extension have his music continue. At times, though, it makes the story seem a little bereft of content. On the one had, you know what made him a good singer, on the other you only see the bullet points of his troubles. At the end of the movie, you may be left with the sensation that it was entertaining, but it seemed so easy. That said, Bridges is excellent as a likable looser who you want to win, but whose bad habits keep him from getting close to what he wants. And the film doesn’t dwell in the deep anguish of addiction and loss, so even its darkest moments it isn’t overwhelming. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it makes the film seem as if it never really hit its stride. Ultimately, Crazy Heart is a heart-felt mix of country, addiction, and Americana that is happiest when the music is playing.

A Single Man – A Review

A Single Man
A Single Man

It is a rare movie that can use style as a character, but Tom Ford’s A Single Man with its sparse dialog and rich cinematography uses that to its full power. Perhaps it is fitting that a fashion designer would use the perfection of one’s suits to signify a fastidiousness, yet it is more than just a movie the revels in the style of the early sixties, although with its nod to Mad Men it certainly does. It lets the physical describe the emotional, lets it be a mirror for the character’s emotional state.

The story is simple enough: a gay professor, George Falconer, spends the day preparing for his suicide while he flashes back at the life he led with his lover who was killed in a car crash. So overwhelmed with grief and isolated by the secretive live he has to lead he wants to die. It is almost comical when he finally tires to shoot himself and cannot because of the mess it will make.

All through the movie, though, what he finds though is not a uninterested world, but one that exists even in spite of his grief and which he can find something redeeming in. Which is not to say he is free to live an open life, but there is the suggestion that he is not isolated both in grief and socially. What makes the isolation even more stark is not just emotional, but the almost perfect world he inhabits: perfectly pressed suits; a glass house that is kept perfectly; a car without the least spot. He has ensconced himself in a perfection that he did not have when he met his departed lover at the end of WWII. Everything is so perfect that there is no room anything else. He has to either carry on or give up, since all he has is a perfection that cannot change. And it is in this sense that style becomes such a strong presence that it demands a certain response, a certain immobility. Ultimately, it is youth that saves and while it might be a cliche the young student is not as enamored with the fastidious life and can do without his suits and other things. Yet one has to wonder as the camera longingly gazes on the student can George break free of such hard worn habits.

A Single Man is a refreshingly gorgeous film that doesn’t waste its style on the fallacious, and its emotional depths will stay with one as long as the visual style.

Broken Embraces – A Review

Almodóvar’s latest work is pure melodrama that is luscious in color and style, but is neither comedic, transgressive nor compelling. What remains without any of those elements is a more or less simple story of a love affair, the jealous lover, and regret. While all of those elements have and will continue to be the basis of movies, Broken Embraces doesn’t so much use them for something new, but perfunctorily lays them out in less than compelling twists that end with the final and over the top realization that the character of the young production assistant who assists the  character of the director is his son. The noirish elements in the story don’t really add anything, either. The jealous lover is a stock character in noir, but again in Broken Embraces there is nothing memorable about the character: it is what you have to have for these kind of stories. Moreover, one could see the jealousies and deaths coming, because the film is like other noirs. Part of Almodóvar’s problem is he places the story telling amongst the survivors, and though they haven’t completely come to terms with the events, they more or less know them and are at peace with them. This removes the narrative urgency of the story and so when the film ends the characters and audience are left with the feeling, well that was too bad, but oh well life goes on; thus, the resolution, which in many ways happened earlier in the audience’s mind, is stripped of any power it could have. In addition, since Almodóvar had concluded the movie with such a pat ending, he needs to do something in the middle of the movie to shake it up. Unfortunately, he chooses a typical noir-melodrama that while not painful to watch, is one of his lesser works. While I’m not one to say he hasn’t been good since x movie, he has done better work and hopefully he will in the future.

A plot summary is available at Wikipedia (I just don’t have time to write them, myself and why bother when someone else has done it already).

Flame and Citron – A Review

World War II is more than the savagery of armies and its layers of inhumanity provides an endless source of stories and meditations on the goodness or its lack in man. It is also a place to celebrate national resistance to such evil, which can have the effect of both celebrating the nation, obscuring the questionable.  Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008)  enters this area with the true story of two assassins in the Danish resistance. They are efficient killers who assassinate Danes who collaborate with the Germans, showing little mercy when they strike. They seem to enjoy the life of the spy and get a rush from it. They are also motivated by a hatred for the Germans and a national pride. In one scene, Flame (the code name of one of the killers) recounts the day the Germans marched into Denmark and how sick he felt watching them march in. Eventually, it all comes to an end as the intrigues become more and more complicated and Flame and Citron do not know who to trust and the members of their group begin to be arrested by the Gestapo.The movie is an excellent thriller, although it is never clear how Flame and Citron could meet with their group in the same bar time after time, nor how they can just take of to Sweden so easily, but those are small quibbles. The film is solid and the tension of the occupied is palpable; in other words, a good World War II film with a web of complexities that go beyond the war.

The more interesting question is what happens after the movie, when the text that explains what happened after the war begins appearing on-screen. It turns out that Flame and Citron were national heroes, they were given a national funeral and buried with honors, and they were even awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US in the early 50s. These details are historical, but they are also about national pride. It is a pride that comes from defeating a great evil. Yet at the same time in a war that was, among other things, a war of extreme nationalism, it seems a little off-putting. The film doesn’t celebrate taking a page from the Nazi’s and there isn’t a moral equivalence between the two sides, but there is that hint. But what are war movies for? occasionally testaments, sometimes opposition, but often a source of pride, even in those that were meant to be in the first two camps.

No, Flame and Citron isn’t Danish propaganda; it is a spy movie, complete with shifting allegiances and a femme fatal who out lives everyone, showing the justice, even when one is victorious, is not always served. At its best it is a reminder of war’s brutality, but also its intoxicating effects.

More publishers put the brakes on electronic books – According to Tech Flash

It looks like there is some push back on the e-readers from publishers. According to TechFlash publishers think e-reader sales should come between hard backs and paper backs. We will see how this works out. The film industry is fighting this battle right now with studios wanting simultaneous release on all channels. Will there be someone who blinks first and goes simultaious?

It’s a sign that parts of the book publishing industry are hardening their opposition to the widespread retailer practice — spearheaded by — of selling electronic versions of new release books at a heavily discounted $9.99.

Simon & Schuster and Hachette Book Group are the two publishers delaying more titles. Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy told the Journal that the “right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” acknowledging that some readers will be “disappointed” by that timeline. Upcoming Simon & Schuster titles affected by the new policy include Don DeLillo’s “Point Omega” and the Karl Rove memoir “Courage and Consequence.”

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music – A Review

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

Elijah Wald, 336 pg.

The title is inflammatory and in many ways does the book a disservice because most of the book has little to do with the Beatles, or even Rock and Roll. The title after the colon is really what the book is about and for anyone interested in
American popular music from the late 1800’s to through the Jazz era and up to the birth of Rock and Roll the book is an excellent resource. Wald has done an amazing job at exploring the how American music developed and what the people at the time thought of the music, not what latter critics have said about the music.

One of his main themes is that popular music until quite recently was about dancing and that most musicians would have played dance music if not exclusively, then at many times during their career. The demand for dance music, therefore, kept music less segregated. Since people did not have ways to listen to music at home they would go out and would dance. And since the lack of music affected everyone, a broader range of people would go out to dance. The dancers, then, would be diverse and request from musicians not only current songs or dances, but older ones too. Even musicians whose primary music was not the dance hits of the day would know some dance songs. For example, when John Lomax recorded Muddy Waters in Mississippi he was not only playing his blues numbers, but hits like The Chattanooga Choo Choo. Nothing remains, though, of this music because when critics and writers discovered musicians they were looking for what set them apart from other musicians, not what made them similar. The need to create differences continues throughout the book so that many musicians such as Elvis rose to stardom on their differences, but were great fans of the popular music of the day even though they never performed it in public.

Wald continues to point out these connections throughout the book in part to make the case that the history of music has not been by those who listened to it, but those who wrote about it, namely the critics. The critics, according to Wald, are more focused on the artistic aspects of the music, and perhaps the historical, but not on what they meant for the listener. The result is often dismissive treatment of pop hits, which leads latter listeners who use the critics as a guide to older music to take misunderstand the role of the music the critics praise and what was popular. Jazz is particularly prone to this phenomena. For example, the Jazz that Louis Armstrong is most known for is the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, but those were groups formed only for the recordings which were limited to 3 minutes max, and what Armstrong was really playing had a wider range of influences, was dance-able, and had a slower tempo. Like Muddy Waters, none of the more audience oriented music survives.

Jazz is the strength of the book and he details how when Jazz began to sweep the country it wasn’t the improvisational centered music we know now, nor the Hot Fives and Sevens music either, but something people could dance to, and that was assumed to be new and free. However, most musicians could read music and often if they made up the work “faked it” they would play it over and over as it created.  Long solos and fast tempos did not work for those who came to the shows to dance. There were other opportunities for people like Duke Ellington later to break free of the dancers, because they were playing for professionals at the Cotton Club and were not quite as constrained. Wald also does not think the history of white musicians robbing blacks of ideas is exactly accurate. Racism prevented many musicians from succeeding like white musicians, but a figure like Paul Whiteman has is responsible some developments in Jazz that he is often not credited with, namely the introduction of the arrangement styles that latter grew into Swing. There were better arrangers, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, but Whiteman was the most popular Jazz musician and Wald believes that even if his music is to sweet now, he is relevant.

All of this underlies Wald’s idea that what we claim is great now, is really transitory and as the music changes so does the interpretation of its relevance. This may be a novel insight in music criticism, but in other fields such as literature and film this isn’t exactly new. One gets the impression that he sees The Beatles loosing their throne; at this date I don’t see it. The title, which I have yet to explain, refers to how Rock and Roll which had been more dance oriented and coming out of a mix of country and rhythm and blues was change into a more pop sensibility that was made more for listening and less for dancing. It wouldn’t be until Disco that dance would really be part of a musical trend.

Ultimately, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll is a good history of American Popular music, but once it gets to the Rock and Roll era it begins to loose a little steam. His insistence that popular music is dance based muddies the story once Rock and Roll comes along. He is correct, though, in noting how American Popular music has gone from a more cross cultural and cross generational music to a very niche based music, much to its detriment.

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice – A Review

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is one of those films which is both an obvious product of the time it was made and a criticism of those times. It is a difficult feat to be both and despite its humor and cutting critiques of the 60’s it can’t hep to fall prey to some of those same excesses and dated elements.

What makes the film a smart critique is the juxtaposition of the free-love-do-what-ever-feels-good ethic against real life.  Culp and Wood’s characters attempt to live the life of complete openness, taking from a group therapy session, the idea that complete honesty always works. Yet they quickly learn that completeness isn’t everything and that emotion and the history of one’s life leads to reactions that no matter how open and honest, perhaps are best left unsaid. Moreover, when one takes that ethic outside to the wider world, it is easy to find that those ideas are yet just another way of being.

When Bob and Carol try to have the open relationship, most of it is a matter of convincing themselves that what they are doing is right. And when they take those ideas to Ted and Alice they find that not everyone is capable of an open relationship. It is those realities that make the film still interesting, not only taking to task some of the excesses of the 60’s but showing just how hard it is to live by those ideals.

For Ted and Alice the idea is not one they can truly even contemplate. Even when they get drunk enough to contemplate it, they can’t. Ted who was at first titillated by Bob’s extra marital affairs, is the shiest of all when it comes to getting in bed with everyone. Ultimately, they all realize the idea of sleep together is not what they are, but what they think they want to be now that society has become so permissive. It is that final criticism of trying to become something you are not, something that the kids are doing even though you are middle age, that makes the film still relevant today.

At times, though, the film is pure 60s. Some of the camera angles for sure, but most telling is the end of the film when the four of them leave the hotel in Las Vegas after failing to sleep together and in the street they walk around in a big circle staring at themselves and strangers up close. The behavior, first shown in the EST-like retreat Bob and Carol had attended, is supposed to be away of truly getting to understand another person’s soul. The use of the scene suggests the film makers do believe in some of what they have shown. Unfortunately, it is such a dated and over the top way of highlighting the good in expressing one’s self that it makes the ending laughable.

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is a fun jab at the 60’s even though it believes a little too strongly in some of what it criticizes.

Bright Star – A Review

Bright Star is a quiet film, which is fitting the early 19th century, before music and industrial noise became ever present. Why should a love scene between Keats and Brwane swell with what was not possible? The silence, too, is befitting the romantic contemplation, a quiet amongst nature. With the panoramic beauty, the flowers blooming in the the meadows, the winds amongst the reeds as the only sounds, Bright Star is a Romantic film that not only quotes Keats, but wants to be Keats, or at least his representation, a poem. And in this sense the film succeeds, though the contemplation and lack of music can be as jarring as if the music were playing at twice the usual volume: absence can be as powerful as presence.

Bright Star is also a romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne and the film navigates the early 19th century’s formality and class structures with the same contemplation that places a flower as the object of affection, but one that is inquiry and strangely requires a distance to fully enjoy it. The scenes between the two characters build as the romance grows and the distance of affection dissipates, but between those moments of affection the stiffness in manners reappears.

The effect, then, is a film that is at once Romantic, celebrating the power in nature to animate the spirit, and yet lives in a world of distances both in terms of the characters, and those of an audience used to the sounds of modern films. It is those distances that make the film feel slow. What is really in play, though, is not plot or charter development, of which there is ample, but the closest attempt to make a bio-pic not only tell the story, but reflect the essence of the are those characters represent. Bright Star clearly reaches that level and it doesn’t really matter what the verisimilitude of the film is, which is a refreshing thing since so often bio-pics are little more than a TV movie of the week.

The Baader Meinhof Complex – A Review

The Baader Meinhof Complex
The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Baader Meinhof Complex as the name implies is as much about the psychology of the Baader Meinhof Group as it is about the events. Not knowing much about the time it is hard to say how accurate the film is to the events. It does portray the unrest in West Germany of the late 60’s and early 70’s well and which is reflected in some of Fassbinder’s films, especially in The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum. The more interesting take of the film, though, is not the historic, but the motivations of the group. What was it that drove them and how did it manifest itself if their actions?

The film makers make clear that they see the group as well intentioned ideologues who could not control what they were: free loving anarchists from the 1960’s. The anarchism in their personal lives leads to mistakes in their actions. They are undisciplined terrorists and while they can plan out bank robberies well, they can’t plan out the next steps. And when they are arrested those who follow cannot plan any better. It doesn’t mean they are the Three Stooges of terrorism, because they managed hijackings and the German Embassy raid in Stockholm. It means they had no plan after the action. What happens when you reach your tactical objective?

The Badder Meinhof was good at achieving the tactical, but not the strategic and eventually the movement died out. However, it was not because the police were particularly cleaver. They caught group members, but were not able to stop new members from starting following after the group. Badder Meinhof dissipated as the times dissipated, as the politics that drove the original members changed.

It was also the seeming patience of the police that stopped the gang. The film makers show a scene where the head of the terrorism squad says, we must understand their motivations. It doesn’t make those motivations right, but it is the only way to defeat them. When he says it those in the meeting with him are resistant and it is an obvious criticism on the American War on Terror, which has posited a with us or against us mentality that has seemed to block analysis the movie posits. Yet the film also makes it clear that the German legal system was not able to handle the group adequately, since its processes were based on the idea that the accused will want to fight their charges. Instead the group makes fun of the case and spends time in their prison cell planning escapes.

Ultimately the questions The Baader Meinhof Complex grapple with is how do you stop terrorists? And how do you do it without destroying your society or creating more terrorists. The movie has no answers, but the skilled acting and film making make this and excellent film.

Il Divo – A Review

Il Divo
Il Divo

The Italian film Il Divo is one of those films where not knowing the history behind the story makes it difficult to understand what is going on. The need for background knowledge makes an already cryptic movie even more cryptic and though not impossible to understand it leaves one, despite the informative title cards interspersed through out the story, puzzled at best.

Il Divo is the story of Giulio Andreotti who was the Italian Prime Minister several times between the 70’s and the early 90’s and whose links to corruption and organized crime lead to his mafia trial in 1992, where he was found not guilty. The film covers all of those things, but in atemporal snipits so that it is hard to know what happened when and why. Il Divo is not a movie that tries to explain what he did, but suggest what he did. It is a movie that looks on the events from the outside, as might a reporter. Events, then, if unknown, stay unknown. For the outsider to Italian history the collection of characters who meet, but don’t seem to incriminate themselves leaves one uncertain as to the point of showing the characters. While the technique of showing what is only known make reportorial sense, that when it comes with so few explanations, the film looses some of its impact. Which is not to say the film is bad, just that without the backgrounding one is bound to be confused.

Toni Servillo who plays Andreotti is one of the bright spots of the movie, even for one who knows nothing about Italy. He walks like a nerdy Nosferatu, shoulders hunched, taking small gliding steps, backing out of rooms and turning on his heals to change direction. Apparently this is an accurate portrayal of Andreotti and it is fascinating to watch him inhabit the character. The way he speaks, too, is strange: not a dominator, but strategizer.

What one comes away with after watching the film is a complete amazement that Italy functions at all. There is scene after scene of corrupt meetings, politicians giving away things to voters, and, of course, assignations. You don’t have to know Andreotti to know something is wrong with all of that.

Il Divo is a mixed movie, one that doesn’t require a specialist’s knowledge to enjoy, but it sure will help.

Inglorious Bastards – A Review

Along with John Woo, Quentin Tarentino made violence chic. Sure there was graphic violence in film, just watch some Peckinpah. The difference is with Tarentino the scenes of violence are dovetailed with the humorous insider jokes, the one who understands that the song playing in the background signifies something and that the composition of the scene is from this movie, all of it more concerned with style. Which is not to say that re-imagining style creates new ways of looking at a genre or an aesthetic. However, with Tarentino style is the aesthetic and violence is the tool. A movie like Kill Bill is the perfect format for such re-imagining because it plays on already generic conventions of the samurai and cowboy. Each genre uses violence as primary element and re-imagining them slightly, but still squarely withing the genre at the same time making fun of the genre and celebrating it.

With Inglorious Bastards, though, Tarentino moves into the war movie genre. Again he attempts to rework a genre but this time his efforts are misplaced because instead of reworking the tropes of war films such as the green solder or the selfless soldier who jumps on the grenade, he injects the sadistic violence of Reservoir Dogs into World War II. Even within the work of Tarentino that kind of violence is not light hearted, but in Inglorious Bastards it is and it lends a certain approval of violence as fun. Granted the targets are Nazis and the perpetrators are Jewish, but even as Tarentino shows in Kill Bill, vengeance is complicated, filled with conflicting emotions. While Tarentino captures the cinematic sense of a group of soldiers, each with his own heterogeneous personality, any complexity he may have shown in Kill Bill is missing. Instead, the film is more like Dusk Till Dawn: pure shock for shock’s sake.  In a zombie movie that doesn’t matter, but in a war film it isn’t enough.

Tarentino brings a righteous indignation to the war against Germany, something that is often missing unless the film focuses on the Holocaust. Yet the complexity of it is lost and instead of looking at the violence in its starkest terms, as one might in looking at the war against Japan with all its savagery, the Nazis are either brilliantly cruel or just willing fools and the American soldiers are more or less untouchable. The result is a film that places the savagery in the hands of the good—the Americans—and places all questions of methods outside review. Tarentino has created a very black and white view of the war, albeit graphic and witty, which has more in common with the Sands of Iwo Jima than Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima, two films that show the savagery not as a game, but something troubling.

Ultimately, Inglorious Bastards, with its re-imagining of the end of World War II is  pure Tarentino: style as substance. Inglorious Bastards is more concerned with the fun of vengeance than saying anything that we haven’t already seen in other war films.

Julie and Julia – Hagiography Sauteed in Butter – A Review

I love to eat and to cook. I’ve got chef skills with the knife, can cut a mound of paper thin onion slices quickly, and think it is fun to spend a half hour sieving a sauce so that it is ever so smooth. So Julie and Julia was fun, if for no other reason than it was about food. To watch a Julia Child bio-pic was a delight: who knew that to learn to cut onions like a chef she stood in her Paris kitchen practicing until no one could enter the kitchen; or a sexual being and not just a strange older woman on TV. Meryl Streep’s performance is certainly what makes the film fun, bringing to the film a liveliness and exploratory a joy as Julia first finds French food and then strives to master it. And the food looks good…if only one could eat like that more often.

The film is more than a joyous ode to the joys of French cooking, though. There is still Julie. If Julia makes one want to eat French food or at least watch a rerun of her cooking show, Julie drags the film down with pedantic problems and frustrations that grow tiresome quickly. When she cooks things are going just fine. I want to see how she fails or succeeds (at least during the film, after I could careless). It is when she leaves the kitchen and the fights with the husband and the souless work and 9-11 intrude that the film is just banal. What is worse Julia is always there: “Julia wouldn’t have done this. How would Julia have done it? Julia was perfect.” Anyone watching it will understand she is overdoing her love of Julia, but it still isn’t that interesting to watch.

Unfortunately, Julie’s hagiography taints the Julia story. Although I know they are from different sources, the Julia story now seems too perfect and despite the fun it feels uncomfortable as if one is being feed something artificial, something other than the pure butter Julia and Julie both fetish over. As a light move, Julie and Julia succeeds, and even Julie can be funny, but Julie feels as passing as the millions of blog posts that are generated daily. I’m not sure if there is a digital equivalent of 5 seconds on the lips, 5 years on the hips, but Julie is certainly not worth the indulgence that Julia is.

$9.99 – A Review of Animated Etgar Keret

At first it would seem difficult to make a film from the stories of Etgar Keret or at least difficult to make a film with a narrative thread that spanned the film and was not a series of little vignettes. Keret is known for ultra short stories, most under 3000 words, and they are usually not linked together in any discernible way. Instead, they form a chaotic reflection of the sometimes unexplainable in our lives, not a what could happen, but how you react if something similar were to occur. These reactions to things that most likely couldn’t occur—a man with wings, for instance—but illuminate emotions that are otherwise buried by the often tired social realism.

In $9.99 the film makers have continued with Keret’s focus on the unexpected, but have joined many of the stories to create several narrative threads that run throughout the film and smooth what otherwise might have been a choppy film. Even though the stories have been reworked they still contain the element of the unexpected that most manifests itself in this film as a counterweight to the dull, the weight of loneliness in modern life. One thread follows an old man who has lost his wife and is lonely, trying to talk with who ever passes by. One day he meets a man with wings who he takes for an angel. This angel is not angelic, though, but a bum who scrounges money off the old man. While it might seem like a story of a helpless old man, when the old man pushes the angel off the roof to see if he flies the story moves from the melancholy to a rejection of the simple salve the angel represents and at the same time a freedom for the old man.

The stories are always funny, if touched with melancholy and despite the dark ending of the old man and the angel the story is much lighter than it seems. It is the interplay between melancholy and humor, loneliness and hope, that makes the film good. When the unemployed son of a business man buys a book that explains the meaning of life for $9.99, the disappointment isn’t expressed in shouting, but a sadness that expresses affection and as the story of the father and son continues it isn’t the strangeness of the events but how they find release from all their disappointments that makes the film interesting. $9.99 is a great introduction to the world of Etgar Keret and the movie will surprise anyone who has not read his works with its inventiveness.

Whatever Works – A Review

I like Larry David and have long found Curb Your Enthusiasm quite funny if painfully acerbic; I used to like Woody Allen’s films and wait for the new mix of comedy and ideas. And there in lies the problem: this is neither Curb Your Enthusiasm nor one of Allen’s sharper comedies from the past. Instead, it is a soft flow of stereotypes that have their moments and are good for a some laughs, but it is really a flat movie that David isn’t quite capable of pulling off. While he is an acerbic misanthrope, there never seems to be any dynamics to the misanthropy and though that might be David’s natural state, it doesn’t make for the most interesting watching. If comedy is timing, it is also dynamics, the interplay between mania and normalcy. I also found the dimwitted Southerner a little tedious and an overblown stereotype only topped by the stereotype of the bible toting Southerner. While it may be a delicious send up of the religious right to have the bible toting Southerners either come out of the closet or begin a mange-a-tois when they get to the big city (yet another cliché), it just seemed to be a piling on of absurd scenes all to make his point: you have to do what ever works to find love. While this might be a little simplistic, it does have possibilities, it just too bad Allen had to string to together so many scenes that were neither funny, nor insightful. When the title explains the move, perhaps there isn’t much reason to go.

Captain Abu Raed – A Review

Abu Raed is a janitor at the Aman airport who lives a quiet life of a widower but is a respected man in his neighborhood. Behind his humble job and quiet life is a man whose life has not gone as he wanted, beyond the death of his wife and son, it is not clear what other tragedies have brought him to work as a janitor. What is clear is he doesn’t belong as a janitor, he is a highly educated man who spends his spare time reading such works as A Season of Migration to the North. One day he brings home a captain’s hat he finds in the garbage at the airport. One of the neighborhood children sees him and insists he is a captain and despite his reservations he begins to play the role, telling the children stories he has picked up in his readings.

The relationship with the children is what animates the movie. At first it seems he is just a kindly old man who entertains the children, but when one boy, whose father beats him, seeks to unmask him as a fraud, Abu Raed begins to draw closer to their lives. He finds, much to his disappointment, that the children are succumbing to hardships of poverty. One child is beaten by his father, another who is very smart cannot go to school because his dad makes him him sell candy on the street. Abu Raed wants to help, but he is powerless. What can a janitor do? He has been freed by what he reads, but is trapped by circumstance. He knows the two boys have no future if they continue on the way they are. He tries to help one by buying all his candy, but that just makes his father want him to sell more. His best intentions go astray.

Contrasting with the boys is Nour, a woman of thirty and a pilot for Royal Jordanian airlines. She is everything the Abu Raed is not: wealthy, young, free to travel, and very westernized. Yet she finds in him an understanding and refuge from her family whose sole goal is to marry her off. In her he sees the life he couldn’t have and through her travels, he travels.

Nour, too, becomes the means for Abu Raed to finally do something to save one of the boys and finally make up for his son who he lost at the age of four. He gets Nour to take the boy’s family in as they make a midnight escape from their home and abusive father. Abu Raed, though, does not flee with them. Instead, he meets with the father, a drunk who likes to use his fists, and tries to talk to him, help him. It is a useless gesture, more a sacrifice, but Abu Raed is a man who believes in peace and the family. It would be impossible for him to send the family into hiding if he did not try and help.

Captain Abu Raed is a movie that at its core is about family and the search for meaning without one. Both Nour and Abu Raed really don’t have one, at least one they want. For them to take in the boy and his family is a way of saving what they don’t have, but value most. While these elements make for a good film, I can’t help but wonder what happens now, after the family flees and the father is on trial for murder? Will this nicely tied up ending really hold in the end? Perhaps not, but at least while the family is safe the idea that one can save a life even when you are an old janitor is still possible.