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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Voice from the Stone

Voice from the Stone is a competent if dull film that tries to capture the feeling of Gothic ghost stories (it borrows a great deal from Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw) but ultimately is too weighed down by atmosphere.

Emilia Clarke stars as a nurse/governess in 1950s Italy. She specializes in children with problems, but like Mary Poppins moves on once the child is cured. She ends up at the thousand-year-old home of a sculptor (Martin Csokas) who has been widowed. His wife, a celebrated pianist, has died, and ever since their son has not spoken a word.

Directed by Eric D. Howell, Voice from the Stone makes good use of its surroundings. The overall look is somber--I don't think we see the sunlight, even during the days--and Clarke's performance, in perfect contrast to her ebullience in Me Before You, is leaden.

The plot is up for interpretation. Does the ghost of the boy's dead mother speak to him through the walls? The last shot would indicate something very supernatural has gone on. One question is answered definitively, although if you're on the ball you'll have that figured out.

Good ghost stories are rare in film, and this one is just okay. It is resolutely grim.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Faces Places

Faces Places is a charming if lightweight look at art and memory, and further reinforces the status of Agnes Varda as a kind of mascot/saint of cinema.

Varda, who received an honorary Oscar just a few months ago, was then nominated for an Oscar for Faces Places in the Best Documentary Feature category. She teams up with guerrilla artist JR to visit various places around France and meets interesting people. JR and his team then take their pictures and paste them to the side of buildings.

Varda and JR make for an amusing pair. She has two-tone hair that makes her head look like a toadstool, while he never takes off his sunglasses (Varda says this reminds her of Jean-Luc Godard). They have various answers for how they met--the funniest is when JR says they met on a dating site. They are like Mutt and Jeff when it comes to height.

The film is a bit scattershot, with no particular rhyme or reason. They visit a town that had many coal miners, a dock where they pay tribute to three wives of the workers, an abandoned village, and a World War II German bunker that fell of a cliff. JR paints a large photo that Varda took on the same beach years earlier. It washes off after the tide comes in. JR says that he is used to his art being ephemeral, but that the sea works fast.

There isn't a particular through line, other than that we should remember our old loved ones (Varda says that JR is good with old people, and he introduces us to his grandmother to prove it). The only bit of plot is when Varda arranges for JR to meet Godard, but he stands them up at the end. He is supposed to be quite a dick.

Perhaps most enjoyable about the film is when ordinary citizens get their pictures taken and see them printed on poster-size paper and then put up on a wall. One woman, a waitress, becomes the most famous person in her town.

Some thought Faces Places would win the Oscar but it lost, and I think it was because there is no strong viewpoint here, just a couple of artists having a good time interacting with small towns throughout the country.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

Winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman is pretty fantastic, but is also on the cutting edge of changes in society, as it is about a transgender woman, starring a transgender woman.

From Chile, it concerns Marina (Daniela Vega) a waitress and singer, who has moved in with an older man (Francisco Reyes). He is fully aware of her past, but they have a sweet relationship. He takes her out for her birthday, they tie one on, and go home to bed.

But he awakes in the middle of the night feeling strange, and will die of a brain aneurysm. Vega is not technically family, so is pushed aside by his ex-wife and son, who state in no uncertain terms that she is not to attend the memorial or funeral, and to leave them alone.

This echoes a problem that longtime partners had in the U.S. before recent court decisions--someone who had been with someone for fifty years or more couldn't make health decisions, requiring a family member who may have been estranged for years. As far as we have come in recent years, there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by bathroom laws in North Carolina and this film, which shows a shocking level of ignorance about transgender people (she is assaulted by her lover's son's friends, calling her a "faggot.")

More than that, A Fantastic Woman is about identity, and how much we invest in sexual parts to define who someone is. Vega is often seen looking into reflective surfaces, and in one striking moment is naked in bed, a mirror between her legs. In another clever scene, she must masquerade as a man to get into Reyes' gym so she can open his locker. She was born a man, but her awkwardness pretending to be one is palpable.

A Fantastic Woman was directed by Sebastian Lelio with some restraint. Vega, a nonprofessional actor, brings the qualities that sometimes only amateurs can bring, as at no point do we see overacting--we just see truth. This is a very fine film. I haven't seen all five nominees yet but I'm fine with this one winning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Evangelicals

The Evangelicals, by Frances FitzGerald, just won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is a thorough look at American history through the prism of evangelicals, who many Americans see as a fringe religious group. But, "evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the population. They are also the most American of religious groups, and during the nineteenth century they exerted a dominant influence on American culture, morals, and politics."

What is an evangelical? The word is from the Greek for good news (the source of the word gospel). But there have been many offshoots. It takes some concentration to keep them all straight: pentecostals, charismatics, Southern Baptists, etc. Of course not all of them believe the same things. One of the most surprising things I learned is that there are liberal evangelicals, and those who do no find it seemly for religion and politics mix.

FitzGerald begins with the Great Awakening, which most of us may remember as being centered around Jonathan Edwards and his "Sinner in the Hand of an Angry God" speech. There was a second Great Awakening in the 1830s, and from there the history is long, going through the Civil War (a certain number of evangelicals were perfectly fine with slavery, but also many were abolitionists). But I think the meat of the book, as well as of most interest to general readers, is of the movement in the post-War era, starting with Billy Graham (coincidentally, I had read the chapter on him the day before he died). This ties into the mass-communication age, as Graham became "America's pastor." He was slightly to the left of most evangelicals of the time, as he did not condemn the civil rights movement, but that's a low bar, as he did call for the castration of gay men.

FitzGerald spends a lot of time with the most recent celebrities: Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker (who somehow is still on the air), and Jimmy Swaggart. She goes into great detail about the founding of the Moral Majority, Robertson's run for president of the U.S., and the various councils and organizations, founded by people such as James Dobson and Ralph Reed. The book does manage to include the election of Donald Trump, and the strange support he has from evangelicals. Not all of them, though, as suggested by this statement by Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. ""Trump’s “entire mode of life,” he said, “has been at odds with American evangelical conviction and character.” Moore, equally disgusted, said Trump could win only in a “celebrity-focused mobocracy in which sound moral judgments are replaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power.”"

The Evangelicals is generally even-handed, although predictably there are one-star reviews from those religious people who don't like any kind of criticism. Occasionally FitzGerald will let her feelings be known, such as mentioning that the "bathroom bill" in North Carolina, designed to ensure that transgender people went into the restroom that corresponded with their birth gender, was "ridiculous" and "unenforceable."

The book is impeccably written and researched, and is invaluable even to secular humanists like myself. While evangelicals have had an inordinate influence on electoral politics (mostly since Ronald Reagan) it is important to note that they are numerous and diverse. There are crackpots, yes, but some are serious thinkers and in the pluralism of our society, involved, even if they themselves are not. It isn't mentioned in the book, but I remember Paul Weyrich saying he didn't want the Republican Party being a big tent. And James Dobson's son wrote a book called Be Intolerant.

The history of the United States can't be told without steeping one's self in religion, and this book proves it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Me Before You

I liked Me Before You more than I thought I would, mostly because of Emilia Clarke, who manages to make a character who is supposed to be "quirky" into something real. Unfortunately it is really just an amplified Lifetime film, approaching issues that are very interesting but only scratching the surface.

Clarke plays a young woman who has never strayed much out of her provincial town. She stays at home to provide money for her family, because her dad is out of work. She has a long-time boyfriend who is a bit of a lunkhead. She gets laid off from a bakery and finds work as a caregiver for a quadriplegic. She soon learns the real reason for her employment--to make him think life is worth living.

He is Sam Claflin, who before his accident was a hot-shot financier and a sportsman. Being confined to a wheelchair has shattered his view of himself. He is a big mope, and has gone through several caregivers. He really wants to kill himself, and has made a deal with his parents to give him six months. If he hasn't changed his mind, he's off to a clinic in Switzerland where suicide is facilitated.

The goofy but charming Clarke slowly melting the heart of the rigid Claflin isn't that interesting--she wears granny clothes and loves to talk, but has never seen a film with subtitles, and he lives in a castle--but what is interesting is the ethics of the situation. Many disabled activists protested the film, for Claflin's character believes he is a burden and that he can never be the man he was. Even though he has fallen in love with Clarke and enjoys a trip to the tropics, he still wants to end it.

On one hand we have the argument that he is rich and is loved, but on the other hand we have the notion that a person has the right to end their life. He is not terminal, but will never regain the use of his limbs and has constant pain. Should he kill himself? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Unfortunately the film doesn't roll up its sleeves to explore this issue. The director Thea Sharrock has been made a pretty film, but the script by JoJoy Moyes, based on her novel, doesn't do justice to the issues involved.

The film did great business, though, which indicates there is a market for this kind of film.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The One Inside

In addition to being one of America's greatest playwrights, Sam Shepard dabbled in prose. But he did not write his first novel until shortly before his death. The One Inside, which came out in 2017, covers some of Shepard's usual haunts--the West, and the dangerous bond between fathers and sons, but also provides insight into what it is like to grow old.

Shepard tells two parallel stories, both involving older men and younger women. When he was a boy, his father was having an affair with a teenage girl, Felicity, who later seduced him. Years later, as an old movie star, he is having an affair with a younger woman. I have no idea how true this is (the current story), but it does have some familiar details. He is on a movie set in Oklahoma, and Shepard had just made August: Osage County. He refers to a wife he had of thirty years, and I suppose this is Jessica Lange, but again, I don't know if any of this is based on fact.

He calls the young woman Blackmail Girl, because she wants to take the transcripts of their phone conversations and turn them into books, which leaves him aghast. The girl shows up on the set of his movie and strips stark naked. There's something erotic about that, as well as foolish."Next morning, me and Blackmail Girl appear on the set. Everyone seems befuddled and judgmental now. Even in this era of liberal smugness it causes suspicion—an almost-seventy-year-old man with a twenty-year-old girl. Taboo!" Indeed, though it is more acceptable culturally than if the genders were reversed, there is something suspicious about such a union. We know what the old man wants. We're unsure about what the woman wants. When it is spelled out how Felicity is only 14-15 years old, it's like a slap in the face. This was acceptable back in the '50s, but certainly not today.

The stories themselves don't seem as important as Shepard's lyrical style, which can be found in his plays: "We drove on past ancient meteor craters, Navajo trading posts, dinosaur skeletons, buffalo petting zoos, rattlesnake purses, knife emporiums, concrete tepees, abandoned frontier forts, authentic Zuni bracelets, Apache casinos, adult superstores, Catholic crucifixion stores, agate bookends, Aztec blankets, Elvis Presley T-shirts, Sitting Bull coffee mugs." Shepard was an interesting mixture of the old West and downtown New York City when he came on the scene, and that remained up until his death.

I haven't kept up with Shepard's plays in his last few years, when he was writing about old men, but some of The One Inside reminds me of his earlier work, such as Curse of the Starving Class, True West, and A Lie of the Mind. All are about misplaced people struggling to find a foothold. And all of them have bursts of brilliance: "There was a morning when he mistook it for one of those motel rooms off Highway 40 West, outside Little Rock. One of those little rooms where you sleep in all your clothes because the sheets are slightly suspect. The rugs are sticky so you keep your thick blue socks on. Yellow neon somehow breaks through the paisley wallpaper. Faded prints of the Mayflower muscling gigantic Atlantic waves. A laminated desk that’s never been sat at with attention. Pocketknife graffiti. Traces of cheap wine spillage or vomit—can’t be sure. Stains."

For those not familiar or not big fans of Shepard this book may be mystifying--I wasn't completely satisfied. But it can be funny: "Albuquerque seemed more boring than ever and it was hard to believe it is now the U.S. capital of MURDER. Probably because there is nothing else to do." And I love his figurative language involving art and cinema: "She wore a leering grin like one of those cat demons in a Goya drawing that seem without motivation. Black eyes, Pacino dead eyes. I didn’t feel panic but I could feel all the signals," and "Now and then, the giant scrub jay would sweep in and take over, causing all the little ones to flee, just like those helpless villagers in a Kurosawa film."

Shepard is a giant among American writers, but I would have liked him to be able to have a few more years to give us more prose.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Weekend is Jean-Luc Godard's most powerful statement, an anarchic representation of the West run amok, with parallels to both Alice in Wonderland and the Marquis de Sade. It is a kind of summation of his career up to that point (1967), and very much of its time. It's the cinematic equivalent of "Burn the motherfucker down."

It stars Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne as two horrible bourgeoisie. They need to get to her father's house before he dies so they can assure themselves of his inheritance. But they get stuck in a huge traffic jam, and then find themselves on foot, running into a variety of different characters. Eventually they are kidnapped by a revolutionary group that are also cannibals.

It's interesting to note that the word "weekend" is of American provenance, and there is no French equivalent, so just by the title Godard is condemning American culture and politics. There are also many destroyed cars, and people hitting each with other cars, and fighting over cars. If we think of America as being a culture of automobiles, again we can see the effects of the "American century."

Weekend is also drolly funny. There are a lot of great lines. A car explodes, and Darc exclaims, "My Hermes handbag!" Trying to catch a lift, an old woman stops and asks Yanne if he'd rather be screwed by Mao or Johnson. "Johnson, of course," he says. She sneers and says, "Fascist," and drives off.

The most famous scene is an extremely long tracking shot, more than five minutes, of the traffic jam. There are many cars, and also wagons, people playing cards on their hoods, and animals (a cage full of lions, a llama, some monkeys). This is not the only long take--another has the couple fighting Jean-Pierre Leaud for a car, and another has them interacting with Emily Bronte, whom they set on fire. Everywhere they go they find wreckage and dead bodies lying around. It's like a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Weekend was very much of its time, but it also works today, unlike many films about the counterculture of the '60s. Consumerism is only worse today--even Godard could not have envisioned things like Black Friday.