7th 04 - 2016 | 2 comments »

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town (Prometo um dia deixar essa cidade, 2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Daniel Aragão

32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival

Swear 2

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Chicago Latino Film Festival premiered in the meaning-loaded year of 1984, and numerous films it has presented over the years have turned the tables on the all-controlling Big Brother, as filmmakers cast a bright light on political, social, and economic realities all over Latin America, as well as communicate the unique cultures of Latino communities around the world for interested audiences. Brazil is a country that will get its glaring place in the sun with this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio; I Swear I’ll Leave This Town offers an indirect, but pungent look at the social and political shenanigans that likely are afoot at this very moment.


I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is set not in Rio, but in Renife, the home town of the film’s director and a big city that sounds like the Brazilian equivalent of Chicago. It has more than 3.7 million people in its metropolitan area and is a port city that gets its name from the stone reefs that line the city shores. Those reefs provide a metaphor for the stone wall the film’s main protagonist, Joli Dornelles (Bianca Joy Porte), hits up against as she tries to start her life over after a long stint in rehab for a severe cocaine addiction.

Swear 11

The film’s opening scene shows a nude Joli trying to escape from the hospital, fighting two guards, and eventually turning a fire extinguisher on them before being subdued. As he looks on a straitjacketed Joli, who insists she’s cured, the medical director (Luis Carlos Miéle) decides to curse her by granting her wish to leave and predicts that she’ll be back sooner rather than later. Like all addicts, the worst possible scenario for recovery is to return to the milieu in which they were using—and, of course, that’s exactly what happens to Joli.

Swear 4

Joli’s boyfriend, Hugo (Sérgio Marone), fetches her by private helicopter and returns her to her well-heeled politico father, Antonio (Zécarlos Machado). Even though he must have expected her arrival, Antonio and the throng of people gathered on the expansive lawn of his modernist estate for a party treat her like a pariah. He gives her the toughest-love greeting I’ve seen in many a day and orders her to be on call whenever needed to help his campaign to become mayor of Renife.

Swear 7

Every attempt Joli makes to start her life over outside the orbit of her father is dashed before it really starts. He makes sure she loses her job at a restaurant, and when he finds a spoon her friend Manuela (Ana Moreira) brought over to her apartment to cook crack in, he rejects her honest pleas of innocence and has a thug drug her with a tranquilizer. She wakes up in his house. From that moment on, virtually every move Joli makes is controlled by her father, from making commercials to support his candidacy, to accepting Hugo’s marriage proposal, to heading up a recovery program for drug addicts from poor neighborhoods.

Swear 10

Director Aragão has created a free-wheeling, hallucinatory tale that peers inside the kaleidoscope of corruption, sexism, hypocrisy, and classism that characterizes parts of Brazilian politics and society. In today’s atmosphere of celebrity confession and public absolution, Joli could be seen as an indulged brat whose every fall will be cushioned, but her only real privilege was to be shunted away for medical treatment instead of locked in prison when the pain of her life had her reaching for a coke spoon. The depths of her enslavement to her ambitious father are truly horrifying to witness from the inside. Antonio wouldn’t know what to do if she were ever really well, and his role as saboteur seems perfectly in character with his self-serving, snobbish attempts to solve Renife’s problems by obliterating the riff raff and building luxury condos and retail stores on top of their ashes. He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to undo a damaging remark Joli made on live television, nor does Hugo, when he punches her out after she starts laughing uncontrollably following a hand job she forces on him. Indeed Hugo’s engagement to Joli seems pretty darn close to a proxy marriage to Antonio. In the end, her only defense against her father and Hugo and is to slip their bonds by going insane. Joli descends into catatonia, and Antonio agrees to have her brought around through the barbarity of electroshock therapy. It would have been better for him if he’d left her staring mute and motionless into space, but what fun is it to torture someone who can’t react.

Swear 6

Aragão thoroughly scrambles Joli’s world, plunging the audience into her sense of disorientation along with her as his brilliantly variable camera roams freely and his narrative becomes unhinged. Joli’s sexual activities and provocations, including a lengthy masturbation scene and a humorous attempted seduction of her auto mechanic, are reminiscent of the anarchic sexual freedoms found in the Brazilian classic Macunaíma (1969). In general, the film seems energized in the same way as many of the politically and socially provocative films of the Cinema Novo movement that Aragão says influenced his approach to I Swear I’ll Leave This Town. Bianca Joy Porte does most of the heavy lifting in this film, and her magnetic performance deservedly won her a best actress award at the 2014 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.

Swear 5

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is a confusing and often disturbing experience, but it’s also a funny, exhilirating tribute to the power of the oppressed to survive. To those who break the rules for their own gain, be forewarned—what goes around comes around.

I Swear I’ll Leave This Town screens Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. and Monday, April 11 at 8 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

19th 04 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Waking the Dead (2000)

Director: Keith Gordon


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Writer Joyce Carol Oates called Scott Spencer, “the poet-celebrant of Eros.” As someone whose memory of his highly sensuous prose and love-mad teenagers is as vivid as it is some 30+ years after reading Endless Love, I couldn’t agree more. Spencer has written 12 novels in various genres—most recently, horror, under the pseudonym Chase Novak—but his elegant explorations into the depths of romantic love and obsession are nearly without peer. Even after two tries, Spencer’s celebrated vision of teen love hasn’t gotten the screen version it deserves yet, but his 1986 novel Waking the Dead is another matter. Keith Gordon, a director with a small, but impressive list of prestige television credits (“Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Dexter,” “Homeland”) and at least one film that deserves a better reputation than it’s got, The Singing Detective (2003), is a veteran surveyor of the depths of human emotion. With Waking the Dead, he must navigate emotional commitments both personal and global. In the process, he gives us a much larger picture of what it means to be a good person than most films care to approach.


The opening sequence immediately announces the field of action on which Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) has been sparring with his girlfriend, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), for the two tempestuous years of their love. Fielding watches the TV news in mounting horror as a report about a car bomb that killed two Chilean dissidents touring in Minnesota mentions that an American activist from Chicago was also killed in the blast. Sarah’s picture flashes on the screen, doubling the one on display near the television. Fielding squeezes his head as though to keep his skull from exploding and shrieks in jagged despair. From this point, the film toggles between 1972 through 1974, the years of Fielding and Sarah’s love affair, and 1984, when Fielding has taken his seat in the U.S. Congress.


Fielding and Sarah first meet at the office of his brother Danny (Paul Hipp), a counterculture publisher who hired her only the week before. Fielding’s attraction to her is immediate. When he asks her to dinner, she is a bit put off by his U.S. Coast Guard uniform, but agrees. At dinner, Sarah tells him she was educated at a Catholic convent school and is a committed activist for human rights. Fielding enlisted in the Coast Guard to build his resume as a patriot who has served his country; he intends to become a U.S. senator, though he confides to Sarah that he’d really like to be president. Fielding walks Sarah home, but she resists kissing him good night; however, moments after she enters her apartment, she opens her window and throws her keys down to him. Despite their unlikely pairing, their affair becomes a grand passion.


Leaving aside the chemistry between Fielding and Sarah, there is a sounder basis for their relationship. Both are dedicated to making the world a better place in part because of their early training. Fielding comes from a working-class family; his parents gave him a patrician name to match their hopes for his social mobility. His own observations of the needs of ordinary Americans drive him to become their representative in the halls of power. Sarah’s Catholic upbringing set her up for a life of service—indeed, she had ambitions to become a nun until puberty struck. When the pair met, American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down and the Watergate scandal was about to surface, leaving behind massive disillusionment and the widespread radicalization of youths like Sarah. At another point in time, she might have welcomed Fielding’s ambition to reform the system from within, but her distrust of conventional solutions brings her into regular conflict with Fielding, and her clandestine missions to Chile to help opponents of its dictatorship escape have him feeling fearful for her safety and frustrated at not being the center of her universe.


By 1983, Fielding seems to have picked up the pieces and gotten on with his life plan. He is running for Congress with the backing of powerful politico Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) and the support of politically savvy girlfriend Juliet Beck (Molly Parker). Fielding seems to be headed for a major power trip with all the trappings, but he starts seeing Sarah everywhere, imagining that she is speaking to him from beyond the grave or, perhaps, may have used the bombing to draw attention to the plight of oppressed Chileans and gone underground to continue her work. Has he finished grieving? Is Sarah the “Jiminy Cricket” on his shoulder to keep him in line as he ascends the staircase of influence? Is she alive?


What is great about Waking the Dead is that it places the mystery of love ahead of the mundane whodunit of Sarah’s fate. In Spencer’s world, the intensity of the feelings Fielding and Sarah shared transcends the grave. Fielding misses Sarah horribly and is honest—and cruel—enough to admit it to Juliet when he agrees with her that if she walked out the door and disappeared, he’d forget about her in a matter of days. The sticking point between Sarah and Fielding is a greater love than what they feel for each other—the love of humanity that Sarah ultimately chooses over the private happiness she has with Fielding. Waking the Dead does justice to the passion many activist boomers cling to from the time when they felt most alive and committed to public action, while honoring the private losses many of them faced as the war took its toll.

Waking party

Fielding proves to be the kind of boomer for whom private happiness tends to be more important, the kind who have taken over the country and given up the fight for the common good, if they ever had much fight in them to begin with. When his sister Caroline (Janet McTeer) and others suggest the Sarah would have been a liability to Fielding’s future, the careerist boomer priorities come plainly into focus, though, in fact, they’re right. Sarah is the braver of the two in recognizing that however she and Fielding differ in their approaches to helping others, humanitarian causes must be fought for on as many fronts as possible; she never discourages him from his path and tries to help him by attending networking cocktail parties with him—though she can’t help making a hash of them by insulting the influential businessmen and party functionaries he is trying to court.


The script by Robert Dillon, which preserves some of the best of Spencer’s writing, is smart and literate. The scrambled chronology isn’t really a problem, but Gordon may have been induced to dress his sets in clearly defined ways—warm hippie-style scored by Joni Mitchell for the early sequences and sleek modern scored to Brian Eno and David Byrne for the ’80s scenes. On the other hand, placing Connelly and Crudup naked in front of a roaring fire might signal it was the director’s lack of imagination that drew this overly defined line in time. Fielding’s visions tend to be fairly straightforward as well, with the repeat motif of a figure in a long tartan cape standing in the distance. One place where the hallucination is truly haunting is in an airport terminal—one Sarah becoming many Sarahs wearing capes and moving down a corridor like ghosts emerging from the other side.


This film could have been little more than a hectoring indictment of boomers—and maybe that’s just how it was seen by some audience members—if not for Jennifer Connelly, a gift to this movie almost as miraculous as Sarah herself. She hits every note right between the eyes, utterly convincing in her commitment to her cause and to Fielding, acting both completely vulnerable and strong with determination. Crudup nearly matches her, but he is somewhat hampered by having to portray a shallower individual. When her love reaches out to him with all the right words and feelings, he answers more often than not with a hungry sexuality. In their final scene together, tellingly, nothing but tears and touches pass between them, a sign of Fielding’s growth through great pain. This film, though fairly conventional in its attitudes, can awaken the romantic in all of us, but especially those of us who have lived in heady times and loved with all our hearts.

10th 02 - 2013 | 4 comments »

Lincoln (2012)

Director: Steven Spielberg


By Roderick Heath

Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.


Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.


The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.


This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.


Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.


Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.


Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.


Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.


Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.


Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.


Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.


War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.


Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.


One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.


A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.


A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.


In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.


Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.


The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.


If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.


It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.


There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.

24th 10 - 2008 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2008: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Director/Writer: Stefan Forbes

2008 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, nearly everyone agrees that the United States under Republican domination for most of the last 20 years has come as close as it gets to ideological, financial, civic, and social ruin. Who’s to blame? A lot of people say George W. Bush, the sitting president. Many more say Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice president, who many contend is running a shadow government that is subverting the Constitution.

I’m afraid you have to go back even farther, all the way back to 1980, when Ronald Reagan overtook John Connally, the favorite in the Republican presidential primaries, and went on to beat incumbent president Jimmy Carter. Was it Reagan’s Hollywood charm that won the day? No, it was a lie—that Connally was buying black votes—that sunk the heir apparent. That lie was spread by Lee Atwater.

Lee Atwater—the man who called Strom Thurmond his mentor and Karl Rove his protégé—gets a thorough going-over in Boogie Man as a win-at-all-costs political operative for the Republican Party until he died of brain cancer in 1991 at the age of 40. There didn’t seem to be anything Atwater wouldn’t do to win, yet he didn’t seem to come to character assassination from any ideological reference point. Atwater was from South Carolina, where everyone was a Democrat. A born rebel, he decided he would be a Republican—simple as that.

By the time Atwater had performed his dirty magic tricks on Reagan’s behalf, he had already ruined Democrats Tom Turnipseed’s and Max Heller’s bids for Congress by charging that the former was “hooked up to jumper cables” (mentally ill), and running a independent Christian candidate to slam Heller for being a Jew and having this straw candidate drop out after the damage was done, thereby leaving the door open for Republican candidate Carroll Campbell to win.


Atwater was so single-mindedly ambitious for fame, money, and power—and put in seven-day weeks to get them—that his colleagues in DC didn’t even know he was married and a father until he mentioned that his family was moving up from South Carolina. People who liked him—and that was just about everyone who wasn’t victimized by him, with the exception of RNC director Ed Rollins, whom Lee stabbed in the back with planted lies to gain the RNC leadership for himself—could look past his empty-hearted ambition. Atwater, a fervent blues fan and musician, endeared himself to his African-American band members despite his race-baiting Willie Horton commercial against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Bush Sr. never truly accepted Atwater, a Southern hick to this East Coast brahmin, but Bush used him and his tactics without compunction.

In one of the enlightening talking-heads interviews director Forbes conducted, so-called liberal journalist Eric Alterman remarks, “Imagine if he had chosen to be a Democrat!” This comment is an interesting “tell” on Alterman, and there will be more subtle, damning commentaries on the media in this film, particularly the Washington press corps, which one interviewee characterizes as lazy and looking for something juicy. Unlike his father, Bush Jr. hit it off famously with Atwater and certainly would have had Atwater ensure that his 2000 race against Al Gore was not so close had Atwater lived. As it is, the press corps did Atwater’s job for him, having learned how those well-chosen lies and steadfast adherence to a narrative can sell newspapers, make careers, and garner power. I was amused to see how Forbes set a camera angle for his interview with Sam Donaldson that repeatedly drew my eye to the journalist’s five Emmys on the bookshelves in the background. Donaldson lied on a 1999 broadcast of This Week in Washington that, “Al Gore does use fear. Remember 1988, it was Al Gore when he was running in the primaries for president who found Willie Horton, and he used Willie Horton against Dukakis.”

Among the interviews in Boogie Man are Tom Turnipseed, who laughs at the jumper cables line that destroyed his candidacy and then says, “It’s really not funny”; Michael and Kitty Dukakis, who ruefully say in unison, “always respond” as the 20-20 hindsight on their decision to take the high road; Republican political strategist Mary Matalin, who complains that the Democrats needed to make Atwater into their “boogie man” because he was “our leader”; and B.B. King, who rather like the voters who were willing to vote against their interests to support a belief, “if he’s for the blues, he’s my man.”

The film is short on psychological insight. We hear from Rollins that he saw the eyes of “a killer” when he looked at the rather unimpressive Lee. Joe Sligh, a musician who played with Atwater in their group, Upsetter’s Revue, said Atwater told him he heard the screams of his little brother Joe every day in his head; Joe was killed when a kettle of boiling oil tipped over on him. We hear about the humiliation of Southerners over their defeat in the “War of Northern Aggression.” Did these formative events and conditions make Lee Atwater what he was? Without interviews with his wife, his children, and other close relatives, it’s impossible to say. The very generous and judiciously chosen film excerpts that tell Atwater’s political story don’t provide a clue, but perhaps his political ambition is the most we need to know about Atwater.

Not a sports fan, Atwater loved wrestling, which he called the most “honest” sport, a comment that seemed to reveal his cynicism about the world. When he was dying of cancer, Atwater wrote about how he found out that the things he pursued weren’t really important. He searched for religious guidance. Yet, after his death, a bible he received as a gift near the end of his life was found unopened in its wrapper. It appears his cynicism remained intact right to the end. This is must-viewing for anyone with an interest in contemporary politics.

18th 12 - 2007 | 2 comments »

The Walker (2007)

TheWalker_468x643.jpgDirector/Screenwriter: Paul Schrader

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of my favorite movies of all time is Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000). This film, based on the wonderful Edith Wharton novel of the same name, shows the depths to which one can fall in American high society by being even slightly out of sync with the prevailing mood and manners of the day. The best way to remain in everyone’s good graces, therefore, is to be as superficial as possible so as not to betray an incorrect emotion or thought. The protagonist of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is ruined by seeming to criticize a powerful society doyen and then refusing to expose an indiscretion of someone she loves to save her own skin. It seems strange in this day and age of social voyeurism and self-exposure that anything as quaint as the notion of scandal could truly ruin a person’s life, but as The Walker illustrates, power at many levels is all about who is willing or unwilling to be seen with you.

The Walker focuses on an ethical dilemma faced by insider/outsider Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), an impeccably turned-out, discreet homosexual from a good Virginia family whose fortune was made in tobacco. Carr, as he is known, works one day a week at a realtor to the rich and mighty and spends the rest of his time socializing with several society matrons, escorting (“walking”) them to functions their husbands would rather not or cannot attend, helping them redecorate their homes, and gossiping with them at a weekly game of canasta at their exclusive club. The film opens with Carr entertaining Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall), Abby Delorean (Lily Tomlin), and Lynn Lochner (Kristin Scott Thomas) at the canasta table with the gossip of the day and joining in their conspiratorial delight in knowing that others fear what they say and panic when one of the group is seen whispering to another.


Lynn and Carr are especially close, sharing progressive political viewpoints and an odd sort of love—Carr once asked Lynn out before she was married (“the 70s were a confusing time” says Carr). His loyalty is tested when he drives her to the home of her lover, a lobbyist who has given him bad investment advice, and she returns to the car almost immediately and tells him that her lover is dead—murdered. She doesn’t want their affair to become public—it will mean her husband’s political ruin, and, she says, kill her. Carr sees her home and then returns to the scene of the crime, carefully observing the scene and wiping the door knob clean of Lynn’s prints. A neighbor sees him leaving. He is forced to sit down on the steps and phone the police.

Carr’s situation starts to strangle him bit by bit, as an overzealous FBI investigator (William Hope) decides to become a star ripe for promotion by burying one of his social betters. Lynn disappears, supposedly to tend to her sick mother, and Abby declines a luncheon invitation from Carr. “That is the sound of all the doors in Washington closing,” Carr muses to himself. Carr’s on-again/off-again lover Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), a photographer who creates lurid photos of naked men in Abu Ghraib torture poses, starts investigating the affairs of the murdered man. He and Carr are threatened and attacked, but in the end, the only thing destroyed is Carr’s comfortable berth in Washington society.

One would expect nothing less than a well-written script from Paul Schrader, and he delivers a very literate one indeed, one that forms, as Schrader says himself, a companion piece to his American Gigolo. He is grappling with some provocative ideas as well. For example, as the film unspools, it’s clear that the women relish their social power because, in fact, they are basically inconsequential in the lives of their rich and powerful husbands. Lynn says that she wanted a bit of happiness with her lover because the men don’t need them: “They fuck each other.” That is a swipe at the hypocrisy of Washington, DC, and its closeted gay men. Lynn’s husband (Willem Dafoe) confirms her view (or at least confirms their relationship) to Carr, who continues to shield her: “Lynn inflates her importance in the larger scheme of things.” From the look on his face, he really seems to mean it.


So why is this film so unsatisfying? I think the problem lies mainly in choosing to introduce a scandal that crosses from the private to the political. Comparisons are made constantly of Carr, an apolitical social creature, with his father, a senator who helped bring down Nixon during the Watergate scandal. By bringing in an informal investigation conducted mainly by Carr’s dark-haired lover, but also by the blonde-wigged Carr, the parallels The Walker perhaps unintentionally evoke are to All the President’s Men. The dirty politics of this dirty era get a clothesline airing, but the real story is Carr’s fall from society’s grace. Schrader’s polemical script doesn’t drill into the heart of that story; it doesn’t even sound like real people, not even cultured and educated people. Schrader’s focus is all over the place.

Worse, perhaps, by creating a social milieu composed entirely of people who live their lives so superficially that they can’t even explain their own actions to themselves, Schrader creates an emotionally vacuous story. All of the actors in the film are capable of depth, but Schrader directs them only as deep as the first circle of Hell. We can’t believe that any of them, perhaps with the exception of Emek, yearn for more, not even Lynn, who says she wants what every woman wants—love, family, home—and then rifles through her dead lover’s pockets to find an incriminating picture he might have had on him, a creaky plot device at best and a cynical repudiation of her declarations of love for him.


In this film, the one person who most understands this crowd is the art director, David Hindle. Why are these people the way they are? What do they want? What motivates them? Look around. The lavish, exquisitely tasteful interiors, the priceless art and artifacts, the gilt-dripped crystal goblets and Louis Quatorze office furniture—these are what make this world turn. These riches are the heartbeat underneath nearly every scene in this film and the only things that give the film life. Don’t listen to Bacall’s character when she says that marrying money is hard work because you can only look at it, you can’t touch it. She sits comfortably in her fourth row center seat at the opera and holds her lead-crystal old-fashioned glass steadily enough. She’s long, long past needing the touch of anyone. Ned Beatty, who plays Lily Tomlin’s industrialist husband, is being disingenuous when he says people only want a story, a good American story, they can believe in. What he really believes people want is what he wants—money, and lots of it.


Schrader, unfortunately, doesn’t really know this world. He wasn’t able to bring it to life in his screenplay or his direction. I admire his attempt to reach past his rough-and-tumble masterworks under Martin Scorsese, and The Walker does hold some interest. But in the end, it’s a lot less than the sum of its parts.

4th 07 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Silver City (2004)

Director: John Sayles

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today, on the 230th birthday of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America, I thought John Sayles’ state of the union address, Silver City, would be an appropriate film to review. I’m not a big fan of Sayles, whose films often seem like well-intentioned misfires. With this political satire, however, he shows that he can be an inspired cinematic force given the right motivation.

Silver City is a real place, but in this film it is a dream—a development for the well-heeled built on the slag heap of a silver mine closed down by federal regulators for safety and pollution violations. The developer is Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy), a man with a well-known record of failed enterprises, including his son Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), who is running to be the governor of Colorado. It is during the filming of a campaign commercial designed to show Dickie to be environmentally friendly that the movie begins.

Dickie’s campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) is rehearsing Dickie on one phrase he keeps getting wrong. Dickie is not the brightest bulb in the marquee. In fact, he bears a rather strong resemblance to someone currently taking up space in the Oval Office. When Dickie finally gets the line right, the commercial moves forward. On cue, Dickie casts a fishing line into a lake. When Raven yells cut, Dickie tries to retrieve the line, but he has landed something. As he reels the line in, a human hand breaks the surface of the water. Raven instantly closes down the set and moves the shoot to an alternate location. He suspects a conspiracy to label Dickie as the candidate “who landed a stiff” in the lake to reduce him to an also-ran novelty.

Raven engages a detective agency run by Senator Pilager’s wife Grace Seymour (Mary Kay Place) to intimidate three suspects in the supposed conspiracy. Grace reluctantly assigns the job to Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former newspaper reporter who went to work for her after he was set up to make a false accusation in a story and dismissed from his paper. Danny is a natural investigator, but he’s still a dreamer. Grace fears he will not be up to the goon work this important client wants done.

And so he is not. When he approaches the first suspected saboteur Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), a right-wing talk radio host, Danny’s “you’re being watched” sounds more like “nice shirt” than a threat. Castleton spits his venom, challenging Raven and Pilager to come and get him. Sayles reveals this Rush Limbaugh knock-off to be an angry bully more than spoiling for a fight. Anyone will do.

Dickie’s sister Maddy is another suspect. She is a dope-smoking Olympic hopeful in archery with a mixed-race son whose conception when Maddy was a teenager upset her father’s political ambitions. When Danny approaches her, she shoots an arrow alongside his head and otherwise acts like the hostile loose cannon she is—or pretends to be. She seduces Danny and then kicks him out. Later we will see her aiming at a target that has her brother’s picture on it.

It is when Danny approaches his last suspect, Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), that he finds out what really happened to the corpse on the end of Dickie’s fishing line. Lyle, a former federal regulator who went up against ruthless business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) over the Silver City site, tells a tale of buried toxins invading the watershed. Danny attempts to get the truth out through another former reporter, Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), who runs a website dedicated to exposing conservative corruption.

Sayles has fun playing with his stereotypes. Sheriff Joe Skaggs (Joe Gammon), who is investigating the death of the floating Mexican, is all gruff frontier lawman who shows his scorn for the sissified slickers around him at every opportunity, beginning by insulting the hook on Dickie Pilager’s line. He says the hook couldn’t catch anything (although clearly it has), but as a prop, it wasn’t meant to.

Benteen rides with Dickie through open land (“We’ll make a cowboy out of you yet!”), patting himself vigorously on the back for being a man of vision. He sees money on that land but is blind to the priceless natural vista that he could never create on his own. A view won’t make Benteen rich, and he sneers at the tree huggers. Skaggs and Benteen—indeed, most of the characters in this film—are misguided in their superior attitudes that actually reflect total self-absorption. His arrow aims true at these deserving targets.

He is way off the mark, however, in setting up the central romance between Danny and Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a reporter who disloyally did not quit the paper after Danny was dismissed. Nora ended their very serious affair and is now involved with a professional middleman (Billy Zane) whom she intends to marry. This mismatch makes no sense except as a desperate run to the opposite side of the room, away from anyone like Danny. She paints Danny as the Antichrist, but she also declares that he was the love of her life. Sayles perhaps was aiming for something like the Julie Christie/Warren Beatty romance in Shampoo, but Huston and Bello have no chemistry at all, and the dialogue he saddled Bello with is weak and unmotivated.

Sayles is such a humanist that he finds a heart in all but the most ridiculous of his characters. This is both a strength and a weakness in this film and in his film-making in general. It’s hard to pull off the biting satire Silver City aspires to be, as well as the serious social commentary of such films as Casa de los babys, with vaguely focused characters about whom Sayles wants us to care. His murder mystery is so convoluted that it got tedious to follow. He includes one kind-of action scene that ends up being a fizzle—action just isn’t his strong suit. His characters’ names are a bit too obvious. Nonetheless, Silver City succeeds as few films have in presenting the essence of our national scene today and in suggesting how poisonous that scene has become. You owe it to your country to see this film! l

7th 04 - 2006 | 5 comments »

Secret Honor (1984)

Director: Robert Altman

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The legacy of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, is a complicated one. Nixon was a ruthless, paranoid, relentless hunter and destroyer of perceived communists in the 1950s, but he actively courted the friendship of communist China, becoming the first U.S. president ever to visit the country, in 1972. He was revealed to be a savage bigot who threw around the words “kike,” “spic,” “nigger,” and “wop,” but his best friend, “Bebe” Rebozo, was Cuban. He employed future ultraconservatives Pat Buchanan and Dick Cheney on his administrative staff and nominated William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, but his policies on the environment, the social safety net, and nuclear arms limitations were quite liberal.

Nixon was the ultimate comeback kid in politics. He rose from several significant political defeats, including the loss of the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960, to being elected for a second term as president in 1972 by the widest margin in history. Only two years later, to avoid impeachment proceedings related to his role in the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., he became the only U.S. president to resign the office. At the time Secret Honor was made, Nixon appeared to be buried in shame forever, but he had already started to rehabilitate his image. By the time of his death in 1994, Nixon was admired by many as a wise elder statesman.

The purported last days of Nixon’s presidency seem to be the leaping-off place for Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s screenplay for Secret Honor, based on their play of the same name. Nixon was said to have gone quite mad at the end, talking to paintings of presidents past and raging at his persecutors, real or imagined. Although the film takes place at his New Jersey estate long after Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) has become a private citizen, Nixon’s mental deterioration seems to have progressed to an astonishing degree. Of course, his lunacy may have something to do with the decision he appears to have made to end his life. He sits down at his desk with a Chivas neat, places a revolver in front of him, and fumbles helplessly trying to get his tape recorder to record. An audience who knows of Nixon’s obsession with taping his conversations must certainly find his ineptitude with the machine hilariously ironic. I wondered whether he might shoot it instead of himself.

Eventually, the recorder is made to function, and Nixon launches into a long and harrowing rant about his life in the form of a lawyer presenting a case to a judge. He is the lawyer with his foolish self as the client. His envy of his golden-boy brother Harold, lost to TB at the age of 17, sets the stage for his escalating list of backstabbers and persecutors, ranging from Dwight Eisenhower, for whom he served as Vice President, to the Kennedys, to some of the players in the Watergate scandal. He muses about his White House counsel, John Dean, who testified against him in the Watergate hearings, saying, “If John Dean hadn’t existed, I would have had to invent him!”

Indeed, this Nixon has invented a lot of things to explain his actions over the course of his life. He claims to have been in league with a so-called Committee of 100, a business cabal that chose him as their man in Washington and backed his career. Their ultimate aim, Nixon says, was to usher in the new nexus of world power, the Pacific Rim countries, which they would do by having Nixon serve a third term as president so that he could continue the Vietnam War.

Nixon constantly rails against the Eastern establishment that treated him like a hick Quaker from the sticks. “The Founding Fathers were nothing more than a bunch of snobby English shits,” he spits. Nixon’s self-pity at the snubs he has received track perfectly with his weepy self-justifications in real life, including his declaration after losing the 1962 race for governor of California (“You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”) and his infamous 1952 Checkers speech to address questions about whether he was using political donations improperly ( “We did get something, a gift, after the election. …It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate … sent all the way from Texas, … and our little girl Tricia … named it Checkers. And you know, the kids … love the dog, and … regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”)

Philip Baker Hall gives what might be the performance of the century as he reprises his stage appearance for Robert Altman’s camera. I have read that because Secret Honor is almost a complete interpolation of the stage play to the screen that Hall’s seeming overacting is, in reality, an exercise in stage acting. I disagree with this assessment. Hall does not seem to be overacting to me. Nixon was a self-aggrandizing, grandstanding man in public and a foul-mouthed, paranoid bigot in private. I can well imagine Nixon in a frenzied stream-of-consciousness about every detail of his life, and I think Hall did a tremendous job of remaining absolutely objective toward his character.

There are moments when we can almost pity Nixon, such as when he opens his mother’s bible and lovingly gazes at the photos and remembrances pressed between its pages. But the scheming, grasping Nixon is always in plain view, Shakespeare’s Richard III in a red smoking jacket. His line about his motivation in life could be a line out of Shakespeare: “Resolve to win—period—because that is the American system. You take either side—it doesn’t even matter which one—and you go on the attack.”

Altman can’t really add much to this stagebound production, but his well-known technique of overlapping dialog seems to come into play here as Hall’s Nixon interrupts himself, jumps about from topic to topic, confusing us and giving us an immediacy to events that, for him, may be long past. Altman also frames the four television monitors and the closed-circuit camera Nixon uses to watch himself to emphasize the claustrophobia and narcissism infecting this man.

I’m old enough to remember many of the events and participants of the Nixon years, and I know enough about the 50s to recognize the names Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Rosenbergs. I think for people unfamiliar with Nixon’s history, this film will make very little sense, and I fear that this astonishing performance by Hall will be forgotten forever someday.

But a notion Freed and Stone explore that remains of interest is why Nixon kept coming back long after he should have been buried politically. This is what they think: “I would be a winner because I was a loser! That’s right. I dream of failure every night of my life, and that’s my secret. To make it in this rat race you have to dream of failing every day. I mean, that is reality.” I’m not so sure. But when I look at the popularity of the perennially losing Chicago Cubs all over North America, I wonder if maybe they weren’t on to something.

Regardless, I’m not sure that the appeal of the loser Cubs is the same as that of Nixon. The final “Fuck ’em,” in which Altman repeats again and again Nixon uttering these words and flinging an upper cut into the air in defiance is shocking and the last nail in the coffin for Nixon apologists. He doesn’t need or want them–and he doesn’t deserve them.

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood

Subscribe to Ferdy on Films

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts


Chicago Resources

Collected Writings

General Film Resources