Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe

June 29, 2017

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian writer who was enormously popular in the first half of the twentieth century, although his writings have since fallen out of fashion. A Jew, he fled his native Austria after the Nazis came to power in Germany. He went first to Britain, then to the United States, and finally to Brazil. He was impressed by what he saw as a lack of racism in that country. He believed that Brazil represented the future of humanity. In 1942, depressed over the success of the Axis forces, he killed himself.

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, directed by Maria Schrader, based upon a screenplay by Schrader and Jan Schomburg, depicts the final years of Zweig’s life. What is refreshing about this film is that, unlike most biopics, it doesn’t try to impose a story arc on the subject’s life. Instead, we are simply shown scenes from Zweig’s life. We learn about Zweig’s relations with his family and about his deeply conflicted feelings about his role as a public intellectual. We get a sense of Zweig’s deep humanity and his consideration for other people. The final scene dealing with his death is understated and profoundly moving. This is one of the best films that I have seen so far this year.

A Quiet Passion

May 24, 2017

A Quiet Passion, written and directed by Terence Davies, tells the story of the life of the poet, Emily Dickinson (played by Cynthia Nixon). It follows her from her early years through to her death from Bright’s disease at the age of 56. It combines scenes from her life with voice-overs of her poetry. It is a subtle and understated film, but ultimately emotionally powerful.

One of the things I found interesting about this film is that it subtly implied that Americans became less religious and more secular after the Civil War. The first half of the film is filled with talk about religion, yet it’s barely mentioned in the second half. When, for example, Emily criticizes her brother for cheating on his wife, she does so in non-religious terms.

A Quiet Passion is a great work of art.

The Lost City of Z

April 30, 2017

The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer of the early twentieth century, who believed that there had once been a large civilization in the pre-Colombian Amazon Basin. Fawcett and his son, Jack, disappeared while looking for the ruins of a city that Fawcett called “Z”.

This film is ostensibly based on the book, The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. (I haven’t read Grann’s book, but I did read a lengthy excerpt from it in The New Yorker.) Yet it actually has little to do with the book. Grann’s story is an account of his attempts to find out what happened to Fawcett, as well as to to ascertain whether there is any truth to his notion of Z. The film, however, is basically just a biopic about Fawcett. Which is OK, but it would have been better if the film had followed Grann’s narrative combined with scenes from Fawcett’s life. (Embrace of the Serpent, which also happens to be set in the Amazon, shows how effective a dual narrative can be.) Also, the film departs from Grann’s version of Fawcett’s disappearence.

Aside from that, I mostly enjoyed this film, although it dragged in some places. The scenes of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) arguing with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) and his son, Jack (Tom Holland) are unconvincing, and they should have been left out. (Also, Holland is miscast as Jack. He looks and sounds like a teenager. It’s impossible to believe that he would have been allowed to follow his father into the jungle.)

The Lost City of Z is worth seeing, but it could have been a better film.

Get Out

February 28, 2017

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Get Out is a comedy/horror film that is written and directed by Justin Peele. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black, is engaged to Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who is white. They go to visit Rose’s parents. While they are staying with them, Rose’s parents throw a party. at which many people show up. The behavior of the people at this party strike Chris as increasingly creepy.

Get Out is that rare film that manages to successfully balance comedy and horror. I have been told that some people have claimed that this film is “anti-white”. Seriously? I saw this film with a mostly white audience, and people were laughing, and they applauded at the end. It seems to me that only someone who is actually a racist would think this film is anti-white.

The Founder

January 31, 2017

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The Founder, written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, tells the story of the creation of the McDonald’s fast food chain and how it was eventually taken over by Ray Kroc.

The film begins in 1954. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle-aged salesman trying to sell five-spindle milkshake mixers to drive-ins, without much luck. One day he receives an order for six mixers from a restaurant in San Bernadino, California. His curiosity piqued by this, Kroc goes to see what this place is like. It turns out to be a burger stand called McDonald’s, owned and operated by the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Frustrated with the hassle of running of a conventional drive-in, the McDonalds have developed a factory-like approach to making hamburgers and fries. Kroc senses a potential gold mine here. He tries to persuade the brothers to let him franchise their business. However, the McDonalds are obsessive perfectionists. They don’t want to franchise because they won’t be able to control the quality of the product.

In the film’s best scene, Kroc manages to win the brothers over by making a patriotic speech. Sounding like a preacher, he says he envisions a day when McDonald’s restaurants will be found from coast to coast, and each place will be an “American church” where families can come together to enjoy good food. This is a striking depiction of the peculiar American tendency to combine hucksterism with idealism. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Kroc’s idealism is shallow. As the McDonald’s chain takes off, Kroc becomes more and more ruthless. “If one of my competitors was drowning, I would put a hose in his mouth,” he says to a shocked Mac McDonald, not long before he manages to wrest ownership of the company away from the brothers.

The Founder tells a tale that is a subtle variation of the Faust story, with Kroc as an evolving Mephistopheles, but which is nonetheless quintessentially American, with its depiction of the conflict between the desire to be principled and the urge to succeed .

Manchester by the Sea

December 27, 2016

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Having grown up in Massachusetts, I have fond memories of Cape Anne. So I forward to seeing Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, which is set there.

Lee (Casey Affleck) works as a janitor. He is a sullen and withdrawn person, who is not well liked by his building’s tenants. One day, Lee gets a phone call saying that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has had a heart attack. When he arrives at the hospital, he learns that Joe has died. Lee goes to Manchester-by-the-Sea, the town where he grew up, to put Joe’s affairs in order. He learns, to his dismay, that Joe has appointed him as the guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). We learn through a series of flashbacks that Lee’s own children were killed in a fire that he accidentally started. Lee doesn’t want to move back to the town because of the bad memories he has associated with it. He also has differences with Patrick, who wants to keep his father’s fishing boat, even though it is badly in need of repair. He also has encounters with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee has to take on the burden of responsibility for Patrick while struggling with his personal demons.

Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally honest film. I like the fact that the main character is never completely redeemed. This is not one of those “feel good” movies in which the crusty outsider is suddenly revealed to be some sort of hero. Lonergan has too much respect for the audience to play that sort of trick. Although Lee ends up helping Patrick to keep his father’s boat, he does so partly out of self-interest.

Manchester by the Sea is the best film I’ve seen this year.

The Stench of Corruption

December 13, 2016

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I think it’s possible to make too big of a deal about the revelation that Putin tried to meddle in the presidential contest. I think it should be clear that Russian interference was not the decisive factor in the election, rather the fact that Clinton didn’t run a very good campaign. A better candidate would have beaten Trump regardless of any Russian interference. However, I disagree with some of my leftist friends that this is no big deal. Trump has just appointed the CEO of Exxon, who has no political experience and who has business ties to Russia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. There is more than a whiff of corruption about this. The Trump administration is already set to become the most corrupt administration since Harding’s. And it looks as though Russia is going to play a big role in this.

Two Art Films: ‘The Love Witch’ and ‘Nocturnal Animals’

December 4, 2016

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The Love Witch, written and directed by Anna Biller, tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a woman who practices witchcraft. She entices men to fall in love with her, and they all end up dying in one way or another. This film reproduces the look and feel of a 1960’s low-budget horror film.

The critics have been awfully kind to this film. It received a 95% “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website. (It received only a 66% audience score.) I honestly can’t see why. Yes, the film’s evocation of 1960’s kitsch is amusing – at first. And there are some funny moments. However, there are too many scenes that are pointless and uninteresting. The numerous witch coven scenes are banal and add nothing to the story. Furthermore, the deliberately stilted dialogue makes it impossible to care about any of the characters. The man sitting behind me in the theatre got up and left in the middle of it, and I was tempted to join him. To me, there is something incestuous about this idea that merely imitating an earlier style of film is somehow an achievement.

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Nocturnal Animals, written and directed by Tom Ford, is based on a novel by Austin Wright. Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery director who is emotionally estranged from her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day she receives in the mail a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It is dedicated to her. The novel tells a story about a family being attacked by a gang of hoodlums. The film alternates between scenes from the novel and scenes from Susan’s life.

Nocturnal Animals basically consists of a violent story about rape and murder embedded within a muted and unresolved story about a woman going through a mid-life crisis. The fact that Edward would dedicate such a violent novel to his ex-wife is apparently meant to be seen as psychologically significant, but this idea is never developed, because Edward never appears except in flashback scenes from twenty years earlier. Indeed, the lurid story-within-a-story doesn’t illuminate the outer story in any way. (Contrast this with a film like The Clouds of Sils Maria, in which the inner story deepens the outer one.) At times, this film seems to be criticizing the contemporary art scene, although this idea is never really developed either.

The total of Nocturnal Animals is less than the sum of its parts.

Trumped

November 29, 2016

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I’ve been trying to find some sort of silver lining in this election, but I can’t. This election has been a disaster on every level. We will be living with the consequences of this election for decades to come.

Last summer I expressed incredulity at the idea that the Clinton campaign would win the election by appealing to “moderate” Republicans – you know, the same moderate Republicans who failed to stop Trump from getting the nomination. Well, it appears that was actually their strategy. Sen. Chuck Schumer explained the idea: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. What is odd about Schumer’s argument is that he seems to assume that suburban Republicans are socially liberal. That sure as hell wasn’t true of the suburban Republicans that I grew up with. Such people vote Republican precisely because they are not socially liberal. The notion that they would choose Clinton over Trump was simply delusional.

I’m told that during the final weeks of the election, Bill Clinton vainly urged the campaign to reach out to working class voters – you know, the party’s actual voter base.

One can only shake one’s head.

The Principled Vote

October 31, 2016

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Eugene Debs

From time to time, I have heard a quote attributed to Eugene Debs: “I would rather vote for what I want and not get it, than vote for what I don’t want and get it.” Now, Debs happens to be one of my favorite historical figures. I think, however, it should be pointed out here that Debs lived in a political environment very different from our own. Let me give an example of what I’m talking about.

During the 1912 presidential election, there were actually four major candidates: William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eugene Debs. Of these four candidates, three could be considered progressive (at least in terms of economic issues): Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs. Now, with the progressive vote split three ways, the conservative incumbent, Taft, still ended up losing the election. He came in third. America really was a different place in those days.

Now we have an election in which one of the major candidates is clearly mentally ill. I can’t be sure what Debs would do in this situation, but I think he would know better than to commit suicide.