Film Essay

15/11/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

Salinger (2013)

Salinger (2013)
Director: Shane Salerno
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Judd Apatow


As I walked out of the theater after seeing Shane Salerno’s documentary, Salinger, I wondered.  Why am I interested in J.D. Salinger?  Have I been wondering why the famous author stopped publishing in 1965 and retreated from the limelight to Cornish, his home in the woods of New Hampshire?  Have I been waiting all this while for an answer to that question?  Not really.  But that’s the theme of Salinger and while the film’s review of his life revived my interest in Salinger, I found more of a satisfying answer to my question in my own ruminations.  To borrow the opening phrase from The Catcher in The Rye, “If you really want to hear about it…”, I’ll go into it.

In set-up scenes before the film title appears for Shane Salerno’s documentary on J.D. Salinger, a reporter readies himself to take a paparazzi-type photo, on the sly, with a telephoto lens, of J.D. Salinger picking up his mail. Once the reporter gets his photo, the single word Salinger comes up in gold, on a blood-red background. The gold-glyph lettering on red brought up an association for me with C.G. Jung’s revered The Red Book, promising inner images from the most important years of Salinger’s life.  However, far from revelatory, Salerno’s film reads more like a tabloid searching for psychological pathology than for numinous beginnings of genius.

Salerno’s film is factually grounded in his carefully researched book, Salinger, co-written with David Shields and contains a great deal of archival material.  However, its paparazzi set up is apt.  That initial invasion of Salinger’s privacy leads to a cinematic scrutiny of Salinger’s life, looking for indications of why he left publishing and public life in 1965. The film delves into notes, letters and photos from Salinger’s private life, interviewing people who knew him and taking excerpts from second-hand interviews about him. It even uses re-enactment scenes with a look-alike actor to further the film’s impressionistic interpretation of Salinger as a quasi-fugitive.

Now I’m as curious as the next person about the author of The Catcher In the Rye, a book that was a must-read when I was a teenager. I wanted to know more about Salinger, the man who wrote a signature book of the 20th century and validated my desire for individuality while feeling pressured for conventionality. But I’d never heard Salinger referred to as “Jerry”.  Somehow, the familiarity jarred my image of the visionary writer who is practically a subtitle to his famous book – and a member of the Glass family, the iconic American family who appears transparent but isn’t.  All sorts of disturbances are out of sight.

Salinger was a man who was always protective of his privacy and who, by his own declaration, preferred being known through his writing.  I wanted to know more about the voice that’s lasted, a mind that continues to captivate me even as I re-read The Catcher in The Rye fifty-some years later. In his writing, he praises the delicacy of innocence and holds it in high regard as a source of the will to live.  By implication, woven into the fabric of his stories, innocence is a quality to be protected above all others.  Children don’t know they have it until they begin to lose it.  Adults in Salinger’s world are often oblivious to its critical nature and don’t even know what is and isn’t tainted by phoniness.

Like Bob Dylan, J.D. Salinger caught a wave of consciousness sweeping across America and crystallized it in The Catcher in the Rye. We loved him for it — he shared forbidden thoughts, speaking directly to us as if he knew we wanted to know. Salerno is a dedicated archivist and I learned things about Salinger that made me appreciate him more than ever before. Vivid footage of WWII interspersed with photos of Salinger in uniform brought home the reality of his presence during a wrenching time in America. He was there, for real, and came home to complete a novel about a disillusioned youth that would soon catch on like wildfire. His way of talking caught a wave breaking in the 1950s, the last years of a reasonable, predictable world in which an ideal of authority reigned.

Salerno’s film takes its time exploring Salinger as a drop out, forgetting to take him seriously as writer who captured the heart of America’s rebellious youth with a story of boy trying to protect himself. Searching for answers as to why Salinger turned down the public life of a celebrated author, Salerno’s film speculates that dropping out of prep school set the stage for Salinger to see society as up to no good. It cites early romantic and literary rejection as wounding him beyond repair, leaving him an emotional cripple and more than a little crazy. And then, with help from some startling WWII footage, Salerno substantiates war as unnerving and, by association, posits its force as breaking Salinger’s spirit and mind, forever leaving him too sensitive for ordinary social interaction. Sadly, Salerno’s insistent focus on psychological pathology denies Salinger consideration of being a writer living by his own truth.

Reclusiveness and sexual relationships with young women hardly qualify as pathology amongst artists.  And then, as the film itself explains, Salinger was well known in his hometown in New Hampshire, kept up longtime friendships with army buddies, sought out romantic liaisons and, most importantly, continued to write. As for his inclination to seek out young women, just think about Picasso — and keep listing famous men who romance women who are decades younger than themselves. Salinger himself referred to the artistic importance of his infatuation with a teenager in a personal letter to the girl in question, Esme.  He stated emphatically that he couldn’t have written his short story, “For Esme – with love and squalor,” without her.

Salinger forgets the author’s famous message of distrust in The Catcher in the Rye. It acknowledges Salinger’s identification with Holden Caulfield and then forgets to consider what Holden would’ve done in Salinger’s shoes when society came knocking. The film prefers to play with the theme of pathology, comparing Salinger to Howard Hughes and joining critics in seeing him as a wounded man who never grew up.  Rather than focusing on Salinger as a serious writer wanting freedom, the film pumps up the wattage on his refusal to be a public figure.   The irony may be that Salinger became fully himself right under the nose of a public hungry for his hide.

Why not take Salinger at his word? I think it would have been fascinating to delve into his written words seeking a rationale to explain forty years of silence. It’s not even hard to speculate why he wouldn’t  drop out of a society that, as he’d made clear in one of the most famous books of the 20th century, doesn’t accept individuals for who they are. To his way of thinking, society co-opts the creativity of individuals for its own ends. Does it take more than his own philosophy to understand his rebellion and angst?  How about a reference to the fact that neither Tennessee Williams nor Truman Capote ever wrote another serious work after succumbing to the wiles of fame? And what of Norman Mailer, another 20th century icon, who arguably lost his footing as the shredding public winds had their way with him?

Salinger began Holden Caulfield stories before he went to war. The film explains that Salinger kept several chapters tucked inside his jacket on D-Day for protection, and it (somehow) worked. After two years in the trenches, Salinger’s got off the front lines and into intelligence gathering – and, by his own words, into digging foxholes to cowardly depths.  Though he was always in terrible danger, his need to survive in order to get his message out to the world gets short shrift in the film.

Isn’t it more interesting, and equally credible, that Salinger – like Holden – sized up the oppressive weight of a disapproving, judgmental and popularizing public and thought better of growing up on its terms? After William Shawn, the New Yorker editor he regarded as a soul brother, used almost an entire issue to publish the story, Hapworth 16, 1924, in 1965, the critics panned his story.  At first, Salinger pursued publication as a novella – and then changed his mind. Deciding not to publish was the last of his interface with the public. Even so, he never stopped writing.   

Why not wonder if Salinger, the man who found a touchstone of rationale for rebellion against society in millions of people, believed the authenticity of his voice wouldn’t survive mass marketing? Would he want to offer the heart and soul of his developing perspectives on war and intimate relations with women to a society he thought inhospitable, hypocritical? It’s public knowledge that he regarded society as hostile to values he held dear — innocence, authenticity and creativity. His refusal to be a dancing bear for society may be better explained by looking within Salinger’s own stories.

Now I can give you the answer I found to my question.  The writer is the J.D. Salinger I’m interested in. I’m interested in the J.D. Salinger who may have been walking his talk, rebelling against a society that thinks it has a better idea for young minds than the ones they have for themselves, the society that idolizes their bodies and their youth but throws them away in war and tampers indiscriminately with their exuberance.  I’m re-reading his old books for clues of what Salinger was protecting.  And I await the books of his later years – the ones Salerno cites at the end of the documentary that may be published between 2015 and 2020 – to see what emerges from Salinger’s reclusiveness. This American icon may have been tapping a chord submerged in our collective psyche.

In seeming testimony to the veracity of my curiosity, I recently read in the New York Times (October 13, 2013) about 82 year-old Janet K. Ruttenberg, a painter who’s refused to sell a single painting and never exhibited her work until now. Seventeen of her paintings are on view at the Museum of the City of New York in a show called “Picturing Central Park.” Her comment when asked about her decision to ignore the art market and paint only for herself? “I’m just not interested. I’m interested in working. It’s like cracking a code.”

Or perhaps the words of singer-songwriter David Byrne capture a few notes of the Salinger chord: “If the 1% Stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m Out of Here.” As marketing has replaced incubation, artists may long for the days when they were ignored until they blossomed.  Byrne talks about his early days with his band, Talking Heads, when exploration without the embarrassment of public scrutiny was critical to their development of a musical identity.

From a younger source, my grandson True deliberates blogging even as he posts his first blog, a self-inflicted publishing option for Millennial generation writers. He channels what could be an inner Salinger-esque voice debating the pros and cons of writing for a waiting audience, a critical audience, an audience with the audaciousness of a society that judges value by popular success. For any serious writer, especially a young one, feeding a hungry public dragon poses a distraction. As True says, “Actually writing is one thing, but straining to display it is another altogether, especially when it consists of the musings of a good-for-nothing twenty-something.” And I hear Salinger’s chord twanging.

Only the writer knows when ripening has occurred. Without knowing whether readers await, the writer chooses the moment to come forward.

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01/08/13 Film Essay # , ,

All The Real Girls (2003)

All The Real Girls (2003)
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: David Gordon Green
Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson


Not until girls became real persons could a movie like All the Real Girls be made. Now, even young men are noticing. Girls and women are not figments of the male imagination but real, live, hot-blooded human beings with needs, desires and ideas of their own. Conceptualized, written and directed by two men, “All the Real Girls” captures that heightened poetic moment when Mars falls in love with Venus. But because Venus is a real girl, not a dreamgirl, she holds her own orbit just long enough to send life-changing tremors through Mars while she makes a few of her own.

In this way, an old story gets a fresh twist. Paul (Paul Schneider), a bored small town stud with too much time on his hands, is captivated by Noel (Zooey Deschanel), his best friend’s younger sister returning home after graduation from a girl’s boarding school. Theoretically, Noel should be just another conquest but instead she arouses feelings in him that confuse Paul, making him shy away from his usual modis operandi of fast kisses, quick sex and cool exits. But Noel, a virgin on the verge, launches her own agenda. She flirts with Paul hoping her big brother’s friend will provide an answer to her budding sexual desires.

All the Real Girls opens with Paul and Noel talking in the shadows of an alley, stopped on a walk around town by obvious tones of mutual attraction. Noel’s forthrightness contrasts with Paul’s hesitation. Noel asks Paul, “Why haven’t you kissed me?” He answers that he doesn’t want to kiss her like he’s kissed other girls. She suggests he kiss her hand, seducing him easily from her hand to her mouth. She’s ready. He’s not. When Noel leads Paul into a passionate first kiss, an equality of spirit is established.

This may be a girl who can be swept off her feet but she is far from passive. Virginity may be an alluring sign of purity to a man but, for a young woman, it marks a burgeoning potential. Noel is on the brink of discovery, breaking through to a time of empowerment where sex and feelings converge into self-knowledge. It’s not about Noel yielding to the flattery of Paul’s discovery that she’s ‘the one’. All the Real Girls explores rather than trivializes the rich emotional territory of a young woman’s arousal of sexual desire. Noel wants to know how she feels about Paul. And she wants Paul to want to know what she can only know after she knows herself as a sexual woman, not settling for less. It’s not all about Paul. When Noel tells him, “You have my heart”, she speaks a truth she can stand behind. Thus, sexual desire takes a turn into emotional awareness, revealing a truth so obvious that it’s invisible. Love between a man and a woman is an intersection of feeling, a profound transition beyond expectation or design.

Once Paul meets Noel, he can’t seem to help himself from talking in poetic phrases. Even though he’s a small town hick who has slept with every girl in town, a natural elevation of aesthetic expression takes place when he’s in her presence. He picks up her trombone and plays – badly but with soul. Delightfully symbolic, Paul dances behind Noel’s back in the lanes of a bowling alley. And he says he could do it forever. On a more serious note, he stops cracking jokes about girl’s bodies. But his determination to realize his fantasy puts Noel on a timeworn pedestal; one from which she can only fall. He won’t kiss her like he’s kissed every other girl nor will he sleep with her like he’s slept with every other girl. He’s reaching for something special – and he gets it. Paul gets carried into a river of change; he goes from a boy realizing his dreamgirl fantasy to a young man facing the fact that he’s not the only one who matters in the matters of love. And it’s not just about romance. ‘Real Girls’ puts intense loving back into friendship as well as family.

When Paul finds out that Noel finds out that she loves him by having sex with another man, a stranger, his fantasy gets struck to the ground but his relationships with his mother and his best friend deepen. No way Paul could have ever anticipated that Noel would have sex with another man while they were in his fantasy. It opens his eyes to the sheer existence of other people as people in their own right. He begins to see his mother, Elvira (Patricia Clarkson) as a real person, making the best of her life as a single woman. Elvira is a truthful woman, a little bit wacky but strong enough to convince her son to don a clown suit, brightening a day for children at a local hospital. She doesn’t back down from confrontations with him about his puerile attitudes and, on one occasion, hits him for his stupidity. To his credit, he doesn’t run away. Paul also goes from bad boy posturing with his best friend to some soulful hugging as they both knuckle under to emotional needs they would rather not have. These two young men turn from friends who conquer fear with bravado to ones who battle demons of loss, shame and limitation together. To deal with the women in their lives, they develop an honesty of feeling they’d rather not have.

Noel’s turnabout on Paul wakes him up to the depth of despair that comes with disillusionment, creating empathy for the young women that he’s betrayed. But, as the wind blows and time passes, it’s not simply the error of his ways that impresses itself upon Paul. His imperfections take on greater meaning. Life and love are beyond control of the human ego. Children die. Noel’s younger brother has Downs Syndrome. Paul’s aging uncle has a young daughter (pointedly called Feng Shui) left in his care after his wife, her much younger mother died unexpectedly. His womanizing best friend decides to marry a girl he’s gotten pregnant so he won’t be alone. His mother clowns to cover up pain that won’t go away.

Decisions come not from the head but from accidents of nature, strange bedfellows of fate and the hearts of star-crossed lovers with different agendas. Choice goes back to the only place it can, where it belongs – in the hands of a man or a woman who knows little more about what they’re getting into than that they will get wet.

But, if no leap into the unknown realm of feeling is made, one sits upon the bank of the river watching life pass by. Not even a dog would do that.

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19/07/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Lone Ranger (2013)

The Lone Ranger (2013)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Justin HaytheTed ElliottTerry Rossio
Stars: Johnny Depp, Armie HammerWilliam Fichtner


The Lone Ranger, a borderline comic book film infused with outrageous action and dry humor, is good summer fun with a fresh mythic twist, courtesy of the filmmaking team behind the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The titular masked hero is brought to life through the eyes of his old sidekick, Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has been transformed, for the purposes of the film, from caricature to a Native American spirit warrior with equal – and at times top – billing. The story begins as Tonto recounts to a young boy in 1933 – and us, an audience in 2013 — the untold tale of John Reid (Armie Hammer), a district attorney, and his passage into legend.  Behind the well-written, well-acted and expertly-directed film lie dark references to the rise of warfare between the white settlers and the Indian nations. Politics and business colluded to create terrible, inevitable incidents of history as America expanded westward in the 1800s. For modern audiences, Tonto and the Lone Ranger put their legendary heads and hearts together to lead a spirited fight for justice and the rule of law against greed, stupidity and corruption. Two unlikely heroes make for a dynamite duo.


I love the new rendition of The Lone Ranger — but that could be because I am over 70, a longtime Johnny Depp fan and a proponent of contemporary films revamping outdated cultural mythology for the greater good. For those who remember the original legend of a masked man in a white hat who rode into town and set folks straight in the wild west, the emergence of a 21st century Lone Ranger with Tonto now a full blown equal is sheer pleasure. Depp does a respectful turn as an American Indian who lives in sync with nature, thriving before the age of the machine; Depp, with help from some very smart writing, helps the visionary spirit of the west live on. The humor and wild acts of Good triumphing over Arch-evil in The Lone Ranger draws forth audience participation in the best way.

As the new story begins in a 1933 San Francisco carnival, a boy masked and garbed in the Lone Ranger’s likeness wanders into a natural history sideshow, where a life-size buffalo and brown bear loom, mounted in displays next to an aged American Indian standing before a painted Monument Valley backdrop. The Indian’s diorama is called ‘The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat,” and the Indian wears a dead crow on his head.


For the cognoscenti, The Lone Ranger made his first appearance on radio in 1933. He was the last of an elite band of Texas Rangers ambushed by bandits and restored to life by Tonto, who became his faithful companion. His image ushered in look-alike post-WWII boys and girls who rode imaginary horses and longed to be the masked Ranger, with cap guns and silver bullets that never missed.


Now the story comes alive again as an old Indian who calls himself Tonto begins to tell a young boy the story of the Lone Ranger and to appropriate his legend for modern times. As if to keep a boy from 2013 as fascinated as the boy from 1933, Tonto tells his story so loosely, with shifts in time and space and special effects, that he seems to perform the magic of time travel. In seconds, he steps back and forth from diorama to the past, where all the action takes place. This version of the Lone Ranger mimes iconic scenes from past and present western moviemaking, wreaking havoc on any viewer’s effort to reference actual history.

What is clear is the film’s invitation to shift the singular image of hero in our minds. Tonto begins as a prisoner in a boxcar on a train sitting next to Butch Cavenish (William Fichtner), who’s being transported for trial. But Cavenish’s gang rides up along the train and boards with guns blazing to free their boss.

When the man who will become the Lone Ranger leaves his passenger seat and attempts to save the folks on the train by taking charge of Cavendish, an auspicious meeting with Tonto quickly puts the two men on equal footing. From here on out, these two men from very different backgrounds become reliant on one another to create vision, not destruction for the future.


Once upon a time, the Lone Ranger was “lone.” He was the old-fashioned, outsider hero much revered and admired. I listened to him on the radio, followed him on TV and occasionally caught him at the movie theater in Saturday afternoon serials. It was a time when girls learned a social identity from male heroes. He took his place in society as “the Masked Man (with) his Faithful Indian companion” in feature films, newspaper comics and comic books.

His image rearing high on his white horse, shouting out “Hi Ho Silver, Away” is seared into the cultural psyche, forever merged with the William Tell Overture — and now includes Depp’s startled eyes and an indelible comment that says ‘hey, buddy, you’re not up there by yourself anymore.’ Look at the new film poster and compare it to an old one for confirmation of two heroes becoming one as the new legend unfolds.

Johnny Depp’s exemplary characterization of Tonto is seeding the image of a “brother hero.” To wit, here is a quote from a previous piece I wrote about the emerging double-hero archetype in Master and Commander for The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal: “In Master and Commander, duty is wedded to compassion as both friend and opposite, as separable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.” Together, Tonto and the Lone Ranger create a similar dynamic duo of interdependence and reversibility, a “brother hero” with two faces – one quite erudite and one quite ready to smite – who burst forth from literary folklore to cope with an encroaching imbalance in nature. Each becomes more the man he is in the presence of the other.

I don’t remember a woman, saloon-keeper or wife in the early radio or film presentations of the Lone Ranger, so I’m left with Miss Kitty fromGun Smoke. In today’s version, however, the wife and the saloon-keeper madam are both colorful, independent women who are worthy of being identified with by a new generation of young girls. Wife and mother Rebecca Reid (Ruth Wilson) is married to the Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), the ranger who apprehended Cavendish and was subsequently killed in the ambush, his heart torn out and eaten by the bandit. Reid’s younger brother is the up-and-coming legend who’s been sweet on Rebecca since they were kids. Red Harrington (Helen Bonham Carter) sports a tattooed, ivory false leg that doubles as a shotgun and an erotic art object for those moments in a madam’s life when her authority is in jeopardy. Rebecca is no victim when the bad guys capture her; she protects her son and escapes. And, in the end, when the Lone Ranger (her husband’s younger brother) goes back on the trail, she leaves him with a seductive smile that will, for sure, bring him back to the gate of her ranch.

In The Lone Ranger, the last Texas Ranger, the one who didn’t die in the ambush, gains a star-powered equal, Tonto. Greed, pride and ruthless exploitation give rise to two men of opposite persuasions who carve out principled relations with each other. Tonto anoints the surviving Ranger a spirit walker – “one who has crossed over to the other side and returned.” He gives him a name, Kemosabe. In the old legend, Kemosabe meant “man of wisdom.” But when the Ranger asks this Tonto what Kemosabe means, he answers flatly, “wrong brother.”  Tonto – like the rest of us when we entered the theater — reckoned for the heroically recognizable ranger, the older brother who put Cavendish in cuffs but was killed in the famous ambush.


The film brings forth a timely heroic image of two men, flipsides of one another who are brought together to meet a grievous outcome of progress — a nature out of balance. Rabbits have become fierce, and horses stand atop tall trees and gulp liquor. C.G. Jung speaks of two forces governing our actions as human beings. One lies within, the other is the spirit of the times. When times call for men and women to cope with nature out of balance, learning to live with paradox is required. To counter bad guys who exist on both sides of the law, the Ranger calls upon the intellect of a dead philosopher (Thomas Paine) while Tonto calls upon the spirit of a dead bird. Together they function comically and effectively within a world driven by progress and leavened with absurdity.

The interaction between the Lone Ranger and Tonto functions as an alchemical symbol of opposites in motion. Visual imaging of the two men in action invites audiences to feel the underlying unification of opposites. The whole beneath promotes a new level of understanding. Neither man stays good for long, nor bad.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger regularly surprise one another as they see themselves mirrored in each other’s behavior; when Cavendish is cornered in the middle of the film, Tonto seizes Reid’s gun, not keen on Reid’s intent to bring Cavendish “to justice” via the courts, only to be smacked on the back of the head by a shovel. In another instance, Reid is dragged from an impromptu burial up to his neck by his horse, leaving Tonto behind only to return moments later to inquire the way to the river where Cavendish and his boys are hiding. The man who lives by the book of principles readily abandons the man relying on a dead bird when he’s buried to his neck in sand until he can’t move forward without him. The man of instincts with a bird on his head readily turns an agreement to his own purposes – until his purpose goes asunder.

Good and bad go hand in hand with these two, in clear sight unified within and between them. One is as certain to bonk the other with a shovel to get his way as the other is sure to save the day when all is lost. It’s pretty hilarious, and pretty sophisticated humor.

Don’t slide toward an easy resolution of The Lone Ranger.  It’s meant to move in the psyche. The film is easy to dismiss as wrong, wrong-headed and wrongly directed. Monument Valley, for instance, isn’t in Texas where the railroad is being built. The characters and conflicts are ones you’ve seen so many times – all the usual players are there: greedy corporates, mangy outlaws, savvy saloon madam, good wife, dead lawmen and dead natives, etcetera. And yet all the action — ambush, trickery, train robbery and massacres – are all shenanigans of the first, the second and the third order of Westerns everyone wants to see. A few shocking scenes are included, perhaps to avoid boredom for the jaded under-twenty-somethings. Don’t dismiss the film, or you’ll miss the seesaw motion of Tonto and Reid as they become a double-hero archetype and the ‘every-man-out-for-himself’ myth bites the dust.

After the masked boy of 1933 leaves the carnival tent, resolved to wear his mask forever, the old Indian leaves the diorama, having changed his buckskin for a suit, and a real crow flies forward out of the historically dusty remnants of Monument Valley. I felt its whistling wings pass my ears, a courier of “the spirit walker” opening the way between then and now…and a then to come. Bring it on, I say. Bring on the mythology that meets the challenges of our day. See this film.

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15/05/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

In The House (2013)

In The House (2013)
Director: François Ozon
Writers: François Ozon (screenplay), Juan Mayorga (play)
Stars: Fabrice Luchini, Vincent Schmitt, Ernst Umhauer


Ask yourself.  What’s happening In The House?  That is, who really knows what’s happening In The House?

“If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house.  Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly.  Visitors come and go.  At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas.  As with any house all within cannot be seen.”

–Preface to James Salter’s memoir, “Burning the Days”

No doubt we have all sat on park benches, looking at a house across the way and wondering about the family who lives there. In the driveway, a man bounces a basketball, his wife waves good-bye to him as she gets in her car and their son hops on his bike, a book bag slung over his shoulder. One could just sit and wonder… or one could figure out a way to enter the house and write a story like Scheherazade warding off death, captivating your audience as if your life depended on it. In the new film by acclaimed French director Francoise Ozon (Swimming Pool, 2003), a sixteen-year old student responds to a writing assignment asking for little more than what he did over the weekend with a cliffhanger story that draws his professor, episode by episode, into an edgy real life drama.

The opening scene of In The House takes place in the austere high-ceiling marble foyer of the prestigious Gustav Flaubert High School, where a professor sits alone – on a different kind of bench – waiting for a meeting. It’s a forbidding, cold atmosphere for a student like Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who doesn’t come from a privileged home. The next scene is of Claude putting on a school uniform that speaks of his enrollment status while masking his troubled emotional background and, unlike clothes of choice, hides personal identity. Claude, a gifted student, embarks on a journey that reveals a talent for entrancing his professor that’s a bit disturbing.

In response to the assignment to describe his weekend, Claude writes about his perceptions of a family — a longed-for “perfect family” of another student in his class, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto). He volunteers to tutor Rapha out of voyeuristic curiosity about his “perfect family”, but as it turns out, Claude’s writing  about Rapha’s home life arouses hope in his teacher, Mr. Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a disgruntled professor known as a dispenser of C’s, D’s and F’s.  Mr. Germain’s demeaning attitude toward his students leads him to treat Claude’s writing with disdain. He often dismisses his depictions of the Artole family and pushes for more detail but, as he does, Claude rises to the challenge. Instead of getting ground down by Mr. Germain’s harsh critiques, he asks appreciatively, “Why are you helping me?”

The special mentoring continues as Mr. Germain gets caught up in the drama of Claude’s story.  Claude takes his professor’s lessons increasingly to heart and begins to incorporate, in real life and in his writing, the scenes Mr. Germain wants. The story itself comes alive – in Rapha’s house, in Claude’s writing and Mr. Germain’s mind. Mr. Germain shares Claude’s writing assignments with his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who runs an offbeat art gallery. Claude’s stories spark erotic, slightly comical conversations between the two of them. Together they begin to speculate on what’s truth and what’s sheer imagination. Mrs. Germain believes Claude is reporting real events while her husband sees Claude as an imaginative writer with potential, a young version of himself before he gave up writing to become a professor. Soon husband and wife are caught up in Claude’s story; as the presence of Claude and his story expand into Mr. and Mrs. Germain’s relationship, the film audience is also drawn into the enticing question of what’s real and what’s not.

Claude rapidly evolves from Rapha’s tutor to his best friend, then to a family friend joining extracurricular activities and taking more liberties in order to give Mr. Germain a technically sophisticated story. He discovers x-rays of a spinal column in Rapha Sr.’s desk, spies Rapha’s parents having sex and examines Mrs. Artole’s shoe collection. Mr. Germain’s writing lessons push Claude to go further into his desires for inclusion in the family and relations with Rapha’s mother, Esther.  He pushes beyond the limits of protocol into perilous territory when he develops the particularities of character identity and, at least theoretically, stirs up emotional reactions in the Artole family.

As fabrication brings truth forward, the film pulls the audience in.  We see Mr. Germain appear in the Artole home, enacting his critiques of Claude’s writing as if correcting his work then and there. What’s real and what’s being expanded in Claude’s writing? Is he really kissing his friend’s mother?  Then what’s Mr. Germain doing in the kitchen critiquing him while he does? Is Claude pursuing personal desires or projecting his desires for effect? From what point of view are we seeing? The line gets pushed hard when Rapha fails to show up in class one day and Claude offers an explanation in his writing that scares Mr. Germain out of his wits. The writer’s power, of course, is to write a scene from one point of view and then to rewrite it from another. Claude blurts out that he knows Mr. Germain was not going to like his original version of Rapha’s reaction to seeing him kiss his mother so he writes it another way.

If you know a writer, you should know that, as their friend, you’re going to show up in their stories. For a writer, the line between a friend as a separate person and as fodder for a story is a fine one indeed. The line between the real and the imagined is simply not the writer’s focus. It’s the story that counts. And for a writer looking to develop quality writing, the skill to weave fantasy and reality into a compelling drama is the grand objective. Who didn’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code searching for the bloodline of Christ as if it would be revealed in spite of knowing the story was a complete fabrication? Fantasy is a land we inhabit as surely as it’s a place that doesn’t exist, especially when it enlivens us. And we like writers who draw from their own life experiences, putting tangible skin in the game.

Giving the Persian King his nightly dose of soul medicine extended Scheherazade’s life for 1001 nights – and gave many more nights of pleasure to readers with many more stories than the well-known Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad. Claude manages to get Mr. Germain to extend his private lessons with irresistible, “to be continued” Scheherazade-like endings until the professor, like the King before him, develops an addictive attachment to his student. Voyeurism does not have to be a sexual preoccupation to become an obsession; “I like women,” Germain declares defensively to his wife in bed one night when she speculates that he has erotic yearnings for Claude. No need for the Greek teacher-student notion.  Germain is hooked on Claude’s writing ability to break through his ennui. As movie lovers, we’re arguably diagnosable voyeurs.

As the talented Francois Ozon, charismatic Fabrice Luchini and quicksilver Kristin Scott Thomas lure us into an impatient anticipation of Claude’s next episode of his borderline diabolical portrayal of a family, we don’t know whether to resist or go all in. Voyeurism has its dark side. The more taboo the revelation, the more intriguing the explanation thereof. At times Claude, an unassuming young man who’s invading a friend’s family to satisfy personal desires, seems akin to a scary protagonist in a horror movie. Claude’s collaboration with Mr. Germain takes both of them further into the perils of curiosity than either ever intended. But, for good or bad, Claude revivifies the deadened lives of the Artole and Germain families with his imaginative powers.

How strong is the pull of fantasy in real life? Francois Ozon’s talent is to hover just above the real, reveal just enough to challenge the bounds of ethical reasoning and lead the viewer into temptation to try their own hand at this business of storytelling.

Lies or deep truth? Treachery or revelation? Mockery or comedy? Finality or (To Be Continued…)?

I liked the ending. It begs beginning. Go ahead, sit on a park bench, look into the windows across the way and risk the perils of curious fantasizing.

“ The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake. ”

— Oscar Wilde

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16/04/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

Blancanieves (2013)

Blancanieves (2013)
Director: Pablo Berger
Writer: Pablo Berger
Stars: Maribel Verdú, Emilio Gavira, Daniel Giménez Cacho


Once upon a time, in a land faraway called Spain, a girl named Carmenita after her mother, nicknamed Blancanieves by dwarves and branded Snow White by Grimm and Disney was born Pure and destined to be Someone Special in a world of Good and Evil…what girl isn’t?

Because of its powerful appeal, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves — a confabulated fairy tale of a girl coming of age that primarily references Snow White but also Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty —  should come with a warning label. Like drugs and tobacco, Berger’s gorgeous black and white cinematography induces a euphoric state of mind that can obscure what the film has to say about the harmful effects that accompany women’s success in our modern world. Blancanieves contains the deadly message that the break women are making with the tradition of passivity in society bodes a bad end of entrapment and exploitation.  Unless this film is taken as a warning itself that malevolent forces lay in wait for successful women, it should come with a warning to be viewed at one’s own risk.

A fairy tale is not a myth.  A fairy tale is not about the deep inner conflicts of the psyche but about the conflicts between a child born and the world into which it’s born.  Snow White is born into a world with a poisonous power attitude (embodied by her wicked stepmother) to be surmounted as she moves from child to young woman.  A fairy tale is concerned with the familiar and universal theme of a search for the happy ending that overcomes the power of evil in human affairs.

Some think of fairy tales as moralistic, but noted Jungian analyst, Marie-Louise Von Franz, asserts there is an ethos in fairy tales that lies beneath the common standards of right and wrong, an ethos that discloses purpose more than moral rightness.  Blancanieves achieves purpose in its cinematography, letting a fascinating interplay of black and white images communicate the powerful transcendence of beauty; yet it fails to lift its heroine from the clutches of public exploitation.

Blancanieves goes like this:

To tell the tale of a girl child born to a beautiful mother who dies in her own blood during her birth and a famous matador father of great prowess, paralyzed after being bloodily gored by a bull, who abandons her when he falls into the clutches of a wicked and hungry second wife…

So that the girl is raised by a beloved grandmother, who dies flamenco dancing just as the girl’s coming of age and is ritually confirmed into the church…

So that the girl ends up in the basement of her rich father’s house performing hard labor tasks under the thumb of a sadistic stepmother with only a rooster to keep her company…

So that the girl – in clandestine meetings away from her evil stepmother’s eye – bonds with her invalid father sufficiently to dream of being a matador herself one day…

So that the girl can be taken in by performing dwarf toreadors after she survives a murderous attempt by her stepmother who’s already killed her father and eaten her beloved rooster…

So that she develops her natural born abilities as a matador…

So that an unscrupulous entertainment agent can catapult her to fame and return her to the very bullring where her father met his sad fate…

So she can inflame the jealousy of her sadistic stepmother by upstaging her on the cover of a national magazine as a female matador sensation…

So that the sadistic stepmother can give her the iconic poisoned apple that symbolically put the fate of Snow White in the heads of girls forever when they wondered why they are hated instead of loved and long for a Prince to come who will jostle their glass coffin and wake them from the boredom of repression.

Blancanieves, contracted for a lifetime performance, ends up in a deathlike sleep that’s gotten confused with another fairy tale, one in which a Prince kisses her and wakes her up to ‘happily ever after’…

From magazine cover girl to freak show centerpiece, Blancanieves doesn’t cough up the poisoned apple that is her true fairy tale destiny but instead remains asleep while men buy tickets to kiss her…

So she lies in a coma, forever tended by a dwarf who loves her…

The sadistic stepmother does meet a well-deserved comeuppance – any child would demand that of a fairy tale.

And Blancanieves does, as she sleeps, shed a tear.

The End of the Fairy Tale.


The Beginning of Understanding.

With the clear and incisive form of earlier silent films, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves transforms one of the oldest, well-known fairy tales of a girl coming of age into an epic conflict between eternal and oppositional divine and demonic forces. From the moment of birth, a threat of death drives the action.  No three drops of blood here.  A girl child is born amidst the blood of her father’s near-fatal goring by a bull and her mother’s bloody death in childbirth.  Innocent child, beautiful mother, powerful father, lethal stepmother, loving grandmother, obedient servants, magical helpers, a small prince charming and a rooster to help the child get from place to place all make for a dramatic tale.  And the child bears no anger, accepting threat as part of the way life is.  But should we, as watchers?

Berger’s drama begins in emptiness. The opening shots scan the empty streets of a city eerily assigned an absence of sound.  It reads like a blank slate, waiting for action. A placard with a question steals a trick from past silent movies to hear the unspoken sound of our own voice — “Where is everyone?”  The answer comes via a shot of people’s feet walking on a promenade toward Spain’s famous bullfighting ring in Seville.  Everyone’s attending the fantastic spectacle in which a great man faces a menacing beast with the bodily moves of a dancer and a cape.

The circular arena is packed.  Attention is riveted on Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenex Cacho), a famous matador who has been dressed with tender care and  bows in respect to the crowd.  Just before entering the bullring, he kneels before an aloof plaster statue of Madonna, kissing the photo of his beloved wife in a locket and putting their fate in the upturned fingers of her hand.  The photo dissolves into his beautiful, pregnant wife, Carmen (Macarena Garcia), already in the stands.  Villalta is announced by another placard, “Six bulls, one single toreador”.   There follows one triumph after another until the sixth bull.  Villalta lifts and points his sword, facing the bull on the verge of his final kill.  He creates an irresistible photo-op for a news photographer who’s been banned from taking photos.  The photographer sneaks up to the rim of the ring and takes a shot with a blinding florescent flash.  Villalta takes his eye off the bull for a deadly second and the bull, aptly named Lucifer, charges.

And evil never stops charging in this epic conflict between predator and prey.  The weakened, paraplegic Villalta marries his gorgeous but malevolent nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu), who eventually kills him.  He abandons his infant, mother-look-alike daughter, Carmenita (Sofia Oria) to her devoted but elderly grandmother, Angela Molia (Dona Concha), who dies.  That’s how Carmenita comes into the hands of her stepmother.  And then, in a cinematic slide of time, Carmenita disappears as girl child and re-emerges as her young woman self, Carmen (Marcarena Garcia), while hanging sheets outdoors (just one of the many tasks of servitude enforced by her domineering stepmother) she steps from punishment into grave danger.

After pushing her invalid husband to his death down a flight of stairs, Encarna sends her footman on a mission to kill Carmen.  Carmen is rescued from near death of drowning by a ragtag band of dwarf toreadors and begins to develop her talent fighting bulls.

In all versions, Snow White incurs her evil stepmother’s murderous wrath when she comes of age, i.e., coming into the empowered sexuality of a young woman that sets her spirit free from parental dominance.  What’s different in Blancanieves is that the girl doesn’t rest on her natural beauty but acquires the skill and charisma of a toreador, drawing upon her father’s legacy.

However, this modern turn of events in Blancanieves exposes Carmen to danger. When Encarna asks the famous question “who’s the fairest of them all?” she searches for her reflection in a modern mirror. The “mirror, mirror” that doesn’t lie no longer hangs on a wall.  It’s not hand held: it’s the press.  In the national glamour magazine, Lecturas (think Vanity Fair), Encarna – in all her finery – is buried in the back pages while Blancanieves graces the cover.  Thinking Carmen dead, Encarna’s incensed to discover Carmen has not only survived but become a national wonder, a female matador.

Beauty represents perfection, the never to be attained but forever to be sought after prize that evil covets.  Carmen, having become a public sensation, returns to the grand bullring in Seville.  Under cover of a veil of black lace, Encarna arrives, hiding in full view and waiting for the right moment to strike.  As Carmen basks in the pleasure of applause after an astounding performance with a treacherous bull, Encarna pulls the poison apple from her purse.



Carmen takes two bites from the fated poisoned apple and falls asleep.

The wicked stepmother goes to a fate worse than death but we don’t see the gory details as we have with everyone else and what we really want to know is how does the girl destined to be Someone Special fare?

To get to the big leagues, Carmen was required to sign a contract with a sleazy agent and now, in her vulnerable state of coma, he exacts his pound of flesh.  As the film ends, Carmen has been stripped of her identity as Snow White. The agent hawks her as Sleeping Beauty in a freak show; Carmen is embalmed for life as a passive woman unable to fend off lecherous kisses sold to the perversely curious.

Our question begs Berger for a placard but what we get instead is a tear.   A single tear sliding down Carmen’s cheek as she lies in her glass coffin behind the curtained freak show is our only clue.

We are left, in the end, as all fairy tales leave their listeners, to decide for ourselves what to make of the course of events.

Is the tear a response to the devotion of the dwarf who reveres her, loves her spirit and tenderly cares for her passive body?

Is the tear symbolic of sadness for the plight of beauty and innocence in the world, an inevitable end for all of us?

Is it the water of life coming deep from within her soul foretelling her return to a fulfilling future?  I like to think it is the last but this is a dark tale with an icky ending desperately in need of the last fifty years of women on the move to a freedom from dependence on – to borrow a phrase from the great Tennessee Williams that’s relevant to a girl with dwarfs as her only friends — the kindness of strangers.

Only if I take Blancanieves as a cracked mirror, a reluctant commentary on a demonic force in society that refuses to free women from a poisonous backlash when they succeed, can I identify a redeeming feature.  Otherwise, the beauty of its cinematography feels like a trick, pleasuring while it steals the soul of the purpose fairy tales propose.

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19/03/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick(novel)
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro


If, as existentialist psychologist Rollo May claims in “Cry for Myth”, the American dream of coming out number one died with The Great Gatsby, Silver Linings Playbook pitches an idea for how to make the best of a society without personal myth.  In The Great Gatsby, no amount of money or success frees Jay Gatsby from his past, nor does access to beautiful women and high society ease his loneliness.  Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), the protagonist in Silver Linings Playbook, pins his hopes for an image makeover on getting trim and getting his wife back.  In the first scene he stands looking at the word “Excelsior,” written on a poster adorning the wall of his room in a mental institution. He shall, by force of will, get his dream back on track.

Unbeknownst to 21st century Pat Jr., Fitzgerald identified this path of blind optimism and facade of accomplishment as a dead end to achieving love and happiness.  Pat Jr., as sure as Gatsby before him, believes in “the green light, the orgastic future” across the Long Island sound even as he finds himself in the hell of a broken dream. He’s an involuntary patient in a mental institution where he was sent after nearly killing his wife’s lover.

So, what’s the Playbook part of Silver Linings?  What’s going to redeem the dream?

Pat Jr. is a man linked firmly to a previous generation of lost dreams. His father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) has lost his job, barely talks to his wife and uses the family home as a hub for his bookmaking operation.  Like father, like son, both are hotheads who fly off the handle regularly.  Their simmering rage hides in the folds of self-absorption, a defensive symptom of alienation.

Pat Jr. is obsessed with getting back his wife because marriage is a fantasy of happiness for him.  Barely thirty, he’s an ex-part-time schoolteacher and was such a loser husband that his wife not only cheated on him, she’s divorced him, moved and took out a restraining order against him.  Psychiatric diagnosis may label the rude, crude and unattractive behavior of Pat Jr. and Pat Sr., but it fails to explain their solidarity of devotion to dysfunction. Reveling in dysfunctional dynamics seems to fuel both father and son’s determination to prevail in an illusory dominance of spirit over reality.

As the film begins we get our first hint of who’s writing the playbook to restore Pat’s chances for a silver lining.  Not his father, not his shrink, not his friends and not his positivistic plan, “Excelsior”.  His mother makes the first move.  He is rescued from an involuntary commitment by his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), who signs a court order for his release to her custody.  This is not because he’s cured.  This is because Dolores feels certain in her heart that her son will be better off at home.

The first challenge to his mother’s instinct comes before they get out of the parking lot of the institution.  Pat deludes her.  He talks her into giving his good buddy, fellow patient Danny (Chris Tucker), a lift only to discover Danny doesn’t have permission to leave the grounds.  Undeterred, she u-turns Danny and continues on home with her son.  Mothers may be fools some of the time but not all. Pat Sr. has not been told of his wife’s decision to bring Pat Jr. home.  Wives – as well as mothers – are no fools.  When Pat Sr. sees his son standing behind his mom, his face contours an irritated disgust.  Pat Jr. proceeds to wear through the already worn out welcome mat at his parent’s door.

Pat’s homecoming becomes a series of clashes that stretch his mother’s good will and test his father’s forbearance.  In his son, Pat Sr. is faced with himself.  Pat Sr. is also hooked on a green light, denying his failures and dysfunctional relationships, betting on lady luck to get him a restaurant to replace the job he’s lost and settling into a spate of frustrated outbursts. He’s as obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles as Pat Jr. is obsessed with Nikki, his ex-wife.  The mother, in her infinite wisdom, seems to stand quietly by while husband and son occupy center stage.  Pat Sr. blows hot and cold.  Pat Jr. rants and runs, jogging in a black plastic garbage bag that speaks louder than his mantra “Excelsior” about his destiny.

One has to wonder.  Is Silver Linings Playbook writer/director David O. Russell fighting fire with fire?  Throw frustration into the emotional tumult of a dysfunctional family and see what happens?  What’s this mother got in mind?  What big idea – the myth – is Dolores tapping into to find the strength to believe in these two men while they each heave disrespect her way?  Heat the iron bar of alienation until it glows red and bends into intimacy?

Not exactly.  She’s got love in mind, love in the shape of a young woman with diamonds on her soul named Tiffany (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence; the actress in Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone…no stranger to holding her own) who lives nearby.  Tiffany takes up running on the same neighborhood streets as Pat Jr.  (We’ll discover the mother’s got a hand in this too.)  A girl very different from Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Tiffany sizzles.  From the moment Pat and Tiffany meet at her sister’s house, sexual chemistry leaps between them. She’s got the name and the credentials to challenge alienation.  Tiffany is a recent widow and marked as a misfit in the community by her sexualized acting out after her husband, a cop, was killed. She’s as lost as Pat but she’s not an isolator, she’s a connector.

Tiffany, like Dolores, follows her instincts and maneuvers Pat into a diner date.  Over raisin bran, she calls him on his hidden arrogance, revealing the hubris fueling his rage and separating him from friends and family.  In a few hot moments, she transforms cynicism and changes Pat’s direction.  Not afraid of the dark side of human nature, she’s a match for Pat’s delusional persona.  Next, she offers Pat an opportunity to give a letter to his ex-wife who is a friend of her sister’s and makes a pivotal playbook move.  She lays out the rules of the game for building trust. “If you want something, you gotta give something – and you gotta show up.”

Tiffany’s next move is to ask Pat to partner with her in perhaps the least manly activity he could’ve imagined — a dance contest.  A man who can run can dance, right?  Wrong.  Run is a straight line, done totally by oneself.  Dance is circular, done with another.  If run is masculine – single minded, goal oriented, reasoned and focused — then dance is feminine – instinctive, intuitive, empathetic, relational and contextual. Tiffany, already a good runner, invites Pat to become a good dancer. She holds his feet to the fire. If he wants her to deliver his letter to the ex-wife, he’ll have to give what she wants.

A two-way partnership is a novel idea for Pat – a man whose illusionistic thinking has bound him into the unfulfilled striving so poignantly elaborated in The Great Gatsby.  Pat believes if he can just convince his ex-wife that he’s a man in control of his emotions and a man with a future…she will change her mind and they’ll live happily ever after.  Not one iota of his plan includes what the woman of his dreams feels or longs for.  And while that fact is not lost on Tiffany, she’s a woman in love who’s not afraid of risking honesty.

At the same time Tiffany is getting Pat’s cooperation, Pat Sr. draws his son into a grand scheme of magical thinking taken straight from his bookie’s belief in the Eagles.  Pat Sr. will soon discover that Tiffany is a match for him as well as Pat Jr.  Pat Sr. has been banned from his beloved Eagles stadium for angry outbursts that have nearly ended in jail or institutionalization.  Also a man who stakes everything on a dream, he’s beginning to look like the fool he is.  Father and son, boxed into a corner where neither has a job nor decent respect for others, make a pact.  Pat Jr. will go to an Eagles game and give the team Pat Sr.’s superstitious “ju-ju” support.  Pat Jr. goes, only to get into a fight and be thrown out of the stadium – with his shrink!

This is where the fun really begins.  Pat Sr. tries to put the hex on Tiffany and get her out of Pat’s life.  But Tiffany, no stranger to reasoning in the realm of magical thinking, dances with more than her feet.  With exquisite logic in one of the best scenes in the film, Tiffany bridges the gap between her and the men in the family with aplomb. She parlays her wishes into a parlay bet.  The Eagles will beat the Cowboys the same day that Tiffany and Pat will compete in a professional dance competition and achieve at least a rating of “5”.  Pat Sr.’s stoked by the excitement of a big win.  The day arrives.  The Eagles beat the Cowboys in a long shot.  It’s all up to the dance contest now.  But, just as Tiffany and Pat enter the competition dance hall, so does the ex-wife – the ‘ideal woman’ illusion back in play.  Is the dead dream of turning wishes into reality going to reclaim Pat Jr.?  Even Tiffany’s confidence waffles.

As much as Silver Linings Playbook is about a man finding a silver lining in his obnoxious personality – mental disorder or no – the winning plays come from the women in his life.  He’s rescued by his mother more than once and given a stream of second chances (with teeth) by Tiffany.  On her own, Dolores urged Tiffany to run (literally) after her son.  It’s Tiffany who wrangles Pat into the confidence and commitment to become a true partner – first, on the dance floor and, second, as his shrink clarifies, in real life.  Tiffany’s brilliant risk-taking, bringing unruly dark feelings into the light and making all the right plays, creates a connective tissue of intimacy for Pat that was missing for Jay Gatsby.

With uncertainty an equal player to stability in relationship and alienation as American as apple pie, dreams should be worthy of the individuals who pursue them.  Silver Linings Playbook challenges any unexamined belief that there is nothing relational for men to do.  As part of an antidote to despair, the inclusion of raucous family dysfunction, good-hearted witchcraft and smart plays by some very smart women in a film with a Hollywood ending qualifies as a cry for myth.

There’s so much emotional winning at the end of this film, no spoiler alert is necessary because you can’t imagine it.  You have to see it…and decide for yourself whether its playbook offers an alternative to Gatsby’s alluring green light, a future that moves ever further away as it’s pursued.

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15/02/13 Film Essay # , ,

Promised Land (2012)

Promised Land (2012)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: John Krasinski, Matt Damon
Stars: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski


Promised Land opens in an opulent five-star restaurant, where Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is a young man realizing his lifelong ambition. He’s being vetted for an executive position with a multinational natural gas corporation that symbolizes the safe haven that his family’s Iowa farmland failed to provide.  But before he meets his future boss, he’s splashing his face with water in the bathroom.  He stares into the mirror, not noticing his reflection in the sink water going down the drain.  It’s a visual dichotomy: one obvious, one subtle.  He’s not seeing the downside of where he’s going.  When Steve picks up country clothes in a local store before taking his sales pitch into the homes of resident farmers, the metaphor of chameleon is extended.  Absorbed in his belief that guaranteed security is within reach, the young man’s true identity is hidden from his own view.

Promised Land makes a good point stick.  This is a time when humans are affecting nature’s systems, a time when a young man’s quest is inextricably intertwined with the fate of the land — and he hardly knows it.  Promised Land signifies quiet stretches of scenic farmland as both life source and resource. A promise is a two-way street. Land requires what it offers – protection as the bespoken home of future generations while meeting basic needs of people in the present.  And as the human population increases, the meaning of “promised land” is palpably shifting from a place of easy pickings to a place of endangered refuge.

Promised Land has a subtitle: “At Risk”.

Not alone as a film with an eco-consciousness, Promised Land ups the ante. The film dwells upon the difficult issue of risking tomorrow for today’s necessity of fuel and cash, with minimal moralizing and no easy answers. Those of us who live in Los Angeles live every day on a major fault line.  A planar fracture often shakes the earth beneath our feet, portending certain disaster.  Yet we reside here, work here and raise our children here.  Psychologists have a name for the mechanism that allows us peace of mind: denial.  Because an earthquake is an act of nature, we shrug, buy earthquake insurance and carry on.  Promised Land is less about changing minds than waking them up.

Steve Butler is a highly successful field salesman buying drilling rights to the natural gas beneath farmland for a bargain price.  Impoverished when a local Caterpillar plant closed in his childhood farming community, he determined to never be victimized again by a lack of money.  He takes advantage of his understanding of the desperation farmers feel when they’re scraping the bottom and losing what little they have.  His success elevates his status in the corporation while, by his own reasoning, rescuing farmers from bankruptcy, saving the land and giving the little guy ‘fuck you’ money to beat the consequences of poverty.  Sounds win-win, as long as Steve is in denial about fracking, the process by which natural gas is extracted from the ground.  Dangerous chemicals threaten the water table upon which the farmers all depend. Promised Land moves the question from plot to planet, from oil boom to earth devoured and a faith unique to our times because there’s no way to know what lies on the other side of extraction.

It makes us wonder, What would I do?

An old high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) with a physics background raises his hand in a community meeting and asks the question that pits today’s well being against tomorrow’s: “How do you get it?”, the “it” being the natural gas that lies like gold beneath acres of farmland that yield subsistence living for the farmers.  At first, he appears an old crank.  Then he’s a wise elder, expanding the question philosophically for Steve.  As he stands on the porch of his home, he explains his options to Steve the way he sees them.  He’s a man who was forced to give up farming to raise miniature horses — not a popular alternative in any community.  But it’s a way to eke out a living and stay put.  If he sells to Steve and the early reports of fracking’s danger prove true, he asks rhetorically, “Where would we go?”

Thwang!  In a heartbeat, the question of risk climbs the ladder of time.  Where, besides earth do we go?  Bet on redemption or another planet?  Or tend?

The story of Promised Land comes, in part, from author Dave Eggers, a man resilient to family tragedy.  When both parents died, he raised his young brother while still in school himself.  He inspires the film’s answer to the dark question of risk with a life dedicated to teaching and tending.  Steve’s spunky love interest, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), gave up her city life to come home and tend her family’s farm when her father dies.  Alice, like the thorny rose in The Little Prince, “tames” Steve, waking him up to his planet as a beautiful place to live. His view of farmland changes from disappointing to promising as his feelings for her grow. She supports her farm by teaching and uses the land to teach her fifth graders to garden.  She explains to Steve that she’s not teaching them to farm but how to take care of something.  How do you take care of a plant so it doesn’t die…so we don’t die?  How do you take care of land so it doesn’t die…so human beings don’t die out as a species?  Promised Land is bespoken land — meant to support the spirit of life as well as its materiality.

You may have noticed that I have not weighed nor speculated upon the motives of the natural gas corporation but rather the power of people to think long and hard about short-term gains and long-term consequences. In the film, the corporation is not simply evading the questions of the future: it’s betraying its own employees.  Steve Butler is not only betrayed, but set up for humiliation by his employer, so perhaps its motives warrant more exposition.  But Promised Land is not just another movie about corporate betrayal.  It’s an insistent wake up call.  To see the larger, mythic question of a young man going out to seek his fortune only to discover it lies within…and beneath his feet, in the air he breathes and the water he drinks or splashes on his face is more unique, more interesting, more relevant. Steve Butler comes home to the land he left and becomes the man who will search his heart for the elusive, critical answers to the question of risking the earth’s water supply.   The corporation set his priorities straight.  Now the hard work begins.

As I was working on this essay, I came across a fable told by Zhang Yimou as he was directing the opera, Turandot (1998) that spoke to the pressing question of risk lying within Promised Land:

A girl who is about to be murdered tells her killer that if his act is wrong, then it will snow in summer — and so it does.

And a little perusal of Turandot offers an answer to puzzles that can’t be won by might or right – love.

Take a look.

Promised Land provokes thoughtfulness about the issue of risk as major decisions about what’s best for life on the planet must be made by individuals everywhere.  There is now a need for more than harnessing the winds of the earth to return home.  We need to master the winds of time.  Risk must be addressed with all the big brains, big hearts and big foresight we can muster because much lies with the choices ahead.

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10/01/13 Film Essay # , ,

Mud (2012)

Mud (2012)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland


There’s only one good reason to see Mud — Matthew McConaughey’s performance as a primordial man with heart.

I will talk about the film’s story, but it’s not what kept me in my seat.  That honor belongs solely to McConaughey.

Mud sports one of the best across-the-board collections of real men — fathers, uncles and sons — you’re likely to see in one movie. A father gets past his silent pain of failure to talk openly with his son; an uncle takes responsibility for his adoptive son seriously, with sensitivity; an old man reveals his personal history to an adolescent boy; and a crazy man called Mud provides an alternative role model — one who’s strayed far from the path of sane, rational decisions, and scorns it — for boys who yearn to understand feelings of love and manhood. Even the bad guys consist of a father and son; their blind loyalty plays as a violent contrast to the caring we see in the other men.

Unfortunately, Mud is a straightforward narrative that gets over-explained and filled in with scenes and dialogue anyone could’ve just as easily imagined – and been better off for if you had. Without McConaughey, who lifts the character of Mud to the mythic dimension of a monster, a Minotaur who could eat the children and doesn’t, the film falls flat.

Two young teenage boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), are good buddies who get a fair shake from the decent men in their lives, but little insight. The men care and they try. But they flounder, longing for a love that eludes them, and they’re lost without it.  Their women pass them by, substantial but a mystery, out of reach.

Modern times are bringing change to the shacks along an Arkansas river, and fishing is over as a way of life. Neither of the boys’ families do well; Ellis’ mom sees it’s time to move into town and dad’s hanging onto the old ways, still peddling fish caught in the river. A divorce is in the offing. Neckbone’s guardian uncle dives for oysters, gathering girls and pearls while playing the guitar in his trailer for fun. The two boys, with time on their hands and girls on their minds, take a flatboat across the river to an island to claim a boat that’s been caught in a treetop after the last flood.

When they find the boat, they find Mud. What kind of wise guy is this wild-haired man with only a story to his name? He’s definitely intriguing. Mud captures and holds the center of this film with a providential task for the boys: bring the boat down from the tree.

The boys say okay, making up their own minds about what’s right and wrong for once, outside the bounds of parental oversight. As they get involved with Mud, each choice moves them forward. He lays down the question of choice over and over for them, helping the boys define themselves. While they know it’s risky, they’re drawn in.

Mud’s odd name conjures up earthly, primitive notions about the beginning of man. He’s a fatherless, motherless man who grew up on the river and left. Now he’s come back, waiting for the woman he loves who’s promised to meet him. He’s killed a man who did her wrong and is on the run. Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is as contradictory as the desert tree of her namesake, with a dead trunk and limbs in bloom, reaching for heaven. She eventually turns up, tailed by a gang of bounty hunters hired to kill Mud.

The boys help Mud with food and supplies, and when they spot Juniper in town they tell Mud. Ellis mirrors Mud in his younger days, an idealistic kid with an eye for the perfect girl, a hankering for love and one foot already firm on the path of the outsider. A crisis involving Ellis and a cottonmouth snake brings Mud into town and into harm’s way. The bounty hunters close in. There’s a shotgun shootout on Ellis’ parents’ houseboat in which an old man (Sam Shepard) who raised Mud rises like Clint Eastwood and saves the day.

And so we wonder about the larger story behind the coming of a new day for a couple of teenage boys. Crossing the river is a metaphor often employed to describe breaking away from the shore of conventional rule, entering the labyrinth of choice that leads to the core of being – or not being. It takes extraordinary courage to challenge the small vision of opportunity when society is crashing down around you. Boys like Ellis and Neckbone meet their inner crisis of manhood in the form of Mud, a rangy outsider with only a gun and the shirt on his back who’s taken refuge on an island where love is strung up in a tree. In Crossing to Avalon, Jean Shinoda Bolen describes the search for the mystery that births and sustains life:

“Once we enter (the labyrinth) ordinary time and distance are immaterial, we are in the midst of a ritual and a journey where transformation is possible; 

We do not know how far away or close we are to the center where meaning can be found until we are there;

The way back is not obvious and we have no way of knowing as we emerge how or when we will take the experience back into the world until we do.  

To return to ordinary life, we must again travel the labyrinth to get out, which is also a complex journey for it involves integrating the experience into consciousness, which is what changes us.”

As I crossed the river with Ellis and Neckbone, I searched for a way to embrace McConaughey’s magnificent performance. In fitting with the slow story of societal failings, the turmoil of family difficulties and stereotypical uncertainties, I envisioned Mud as an unlikely Minotaur, as a mythic impersonation who was not sure whether he was beast or man, bull-headed or a man following his bliss.

I merged my voice with the man of Mud, the movie with an irresistible mythic image of love stuck in a tree.

Mud speaks:

“For the love of a woman I’m a crazy son of a bitch, a misfit, a minotaur who lies at the center of his own labyrinth. Am I Modern Man coming of age or a disappearing fisherman? Love of a woman is like a boat in a tree, to be brought down from its cradle and restored by boys who came into my labyrinth with a rope tied round their ankle. They’re looking for refuge in a society bound up in cynicism; fathers lost without a way to make a living and mothers placing bets on a paper-thin future. The boys help me lower the boat out of the tree into the river. They reckon I’m deserving of their help because the woman who leaves me loves me, and I love her. Together, the boys and me, we’re onto something else. Though I’ve killed the beast he lives on, and he’s coming to get me. I honestly don’t know if I’m dead or I’m dreamin’ as I float through water. The old man next to me in the boat, the father I never knew, says ‘you gotta see this,’ so I climb up on deck to see. Once the snake bites, the shotguns fire and the sun rises, I see what he sees. An endless horizon beckons too far into the future.”

So, for the love of a river that brings some things of value and some evil things, I laugh.

It’d be okay if you do too.

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15/12/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin(book)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn


Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, portrays Abraham Lincoln’s masterful and determined political leadership in passing the 13th Amendment through the US House of Representatives and abolishing slavery by law.

As my memory serves, Abraham Lincoln was a tall and skinny man who spoke eye to eye from whatever lofty podium to whatever man, woman or child in front of him.  Perhaps the opening scene, where soldiers of the Civil War bayonet and stomp one another in hand to hand combat, serve to remind audiences that when Mr. Lincoln spoke, he had to first overcome the heartache of a trampled people in order to be heard.  To do this, the former President often tells a story that ends with a soft smile to invite the listener to come closer to his meaning.

Before President Lincoln meets the camera’s lens face on, two black Union soldiers stand before his shadowy presence as he sits atop a wooden railway platform.  They tell the man of their hopes after the war is over. President Lincoln (expertly embodied by Daniel-Day Lewis as weary, worn and regal) slowly comes into being as the man we all recognize.  Simultaneously homespun and larger than life, Lincoln asks how they’re doing.  One talks smart, making it clear his days of subservience are over.  “I don’t like the smell of boot wax and I can’t cut no hair.”  Lincoln responds with a story about his unruly, wire brush-like hair and how he wishes he could find a barber who could deal with it. They have to laugh. He makes his point. He is easy in their company but he won’t be intimidated.

Then, two young white soldiers – boys really – step in and thank him for his speech on the Gettysburg battlefield dedicating the National Cemetery. Mr. Lincoln wonders aloud, “Could you hear me?”  By way of an answer, they recite the few paragraphs he spoke.  At this point, shivers ran up my spine.  Tears flowed down my cheeks.  The black soldier who was fresh with his words finishes the last of Lincoln’s address.  Boys, really, who had only heard the speech once, committed his words to memory.  Quintessential Spielberg; there’s no way the soldiers’ memory is that sharp, but strong emotion runs straight through the scene, and from my own past. I could hear my own father’s voice teaching me those words.  As a girl, I remembered how hard it was to memorize them.  And yet they never left my mind.  Years later, as I stood in the Lincoln Memorial, I heard my father’s voice in my head as I read the inscription carved in stone declaring a new birth of freedom.  So, these boys –looking up from below, still at eye level and ready for the challenges of their day – set the mood and anticipation for Lincolnto bring forth its point.

It is, after all, a story well known: Lincoln freed the slaves.

But it is also, after all, a story not so well known.  It wasn’t the war that freed them. It was a wrangled effort, led by Lincoln and voted to victory by a cantankerous House of Representatives.

It is not well known that the Constitution of the United States of America needed to be amended to abolish slavery.  The war wouldn’t have done it.  In order for slaves to be free under the law and not just by the say of Lincoln, who held war president powers, an amendment to the Constitution was needed.  Lincoln shows the former President as an adroit politician leading and winning a bitter fight in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery before the South surrendered.  Without the 13th Amendment – that is, without being bound to a U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery upon return to the union – the Southern states could have retained slavery when the war was over.  This point the film makes clear.

Lincoln is a helluva story, not to be missed because it’s a great film nor because it’s an excellent history lesson.  There are lots of facts to be checked.  It’s the story within the story to which the film draws attention and sets off fresh thoughts about the inner workings of our democracy that make it an important film to experience.  The underlying message about the democratic process as a stage for endemic opposition upon which a dedicated reach for reconciliation of opposites plays for all seasons can be easily overlooked.

When Lincoln asks his wife’s black maid, “What will your people do once free?” she answers, “I don’t know what we’ll do with freedom, but free comes first.  I am a mother of a son who fought and died for the Union. That’s the way I’ll remember myself.”

“The door. It opens.” shouts Thaddeus Stevens to a fellow congressman knocking at his office door.  Metaphorically, this small piece of dialog captures the accomplishment of the 13th Amendment.   The film plays Abraham Lincoln’s use of power close to the vest but never in doubt. It is Lincoln’s willingness to use his power as he sees fit that opens the door for many tough arguments to follow.  What people will do with the freedom the amendment provides will result in many struggles for identity.  Lincoln felt driven to open the door, to let things happen.  He never let the mantle of authority drop, not to joke and certainly not to please.

1865 is a bare 100 years before 1965, a time when the fight for civil rights was in the streets again and dividing North and South.  Separate, but equally challenged.  Not as bloody a fight as the Civil War, but bloody enough to spur the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964. At the turn of the century, women fought for the right to vote; 1920 brought the 19th Amendment prohibiting denial to vote on basis of sex but not before women went to jail in protest.

Today, one more time, a struggle for freedom presents itself.  Many of the prejudices exhorted in Lincoln about black people in 1865 resound in current opposition to gays and lesbians.  Archaic but modern, many civil rights issues remain the same.  The Dalai Lama says compassion is the true normal for humans so when we’re drawn into heated oppositions, the return to center is what’s called for.

The cinematography in Lincoln exemplifies Lincoln’s ability to hold the outside at bay while he holds our attention on his intent: compassion.  Behind every window of darkened, often candlelit rooms and just beyond every outside scene, a white light glows and blocks the view. Lincoln’s lanky presence, brief words and lengthy stories lie within a dazzling brilliance, intensifying the masterful interiority of his vision.  His single-minded campaign to abolish slavery effects an historical victory for the world and ‘the unborn to come’ like a spotlighted, center stage act.  In the end, the light from another world comes in, shining upon his frail body lying dead in the center of a group of men in dark suits who will carry on.  However, as the victory vote came in that day so long ago in January, Lincoln stands amidst long, filmy white curtains filled with bright late light, holding his son under his arm and looking out a window where there’s nothing but the future to see.

Free is not an identity.  It’s a beginning of many searches by people who are free to argue fiercely in a ‘country where the fox and the hare say good night to one another’ (P.L. Travers).

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15/11/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Argo (2012)

Argo (2012)
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrio
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman


A dramatization of the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez’s miraculous rescue of six American diplomats during the famous 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — a feat made possible by disguising them as Canadian filmmakers.

What was I thinking? Three action thriller films in one week? Not my usual style as a seeker of mythic themes in film with cultural relevance. Being blown, thrown and ripped from my wits on a virtual roller coaster of near death encounters might be an occasional choice but not a ride I’d take over and over in one week. That said, there was a discovery to be made.

Watching The Matrix and The Hunt for Red October just days before I saw Argo gave the film a mythic framework. To recap a bit, The Matrix conjures up a computer-enhanced hero who plugs in and out of virtual realities with the ease of a Zen Master. The Hunt for Red October is about two heroes; a rescuing CIA operative and a defecting Russian navy captain who confront one another under the ocean as a nuclear-armed submarine heads toward the U.S.

By contrast, Argo is a real life story in which the hero is a real life man, Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) who rises to mythic stature by making illusion truth at just the right moment. Mendez successfully crosses the Iranian airport in full view of armed guards with six fugitive American diplomats disguised as a Canadian film crew on location in Tehran scouting a science fiction film.

The chutzpah of the Argo play on words, “Ahrwgofugyrself” (exquisitely delivered by Alan Arkin) reflects an inspiring triumph of mind over matter. The audience laughed every time the slogan was uttered, and its sentiment easily expresses the pleasure taken when courage and integrity visualized in film are mirrored in life. Tony Mendez (and, for that matter, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Jack Ryan and Captain Ramius) refused orders to follow his conscience when the CIA wanted to pull the plug on the rescue mission mid-stride. Independent action, taking responsibility into one’s own hands – or by the balls (these are very male films) – is never a sure thing but when the other way, the sure way, is for sure a dead end, it’s is worth a shot.

In Argo, Mendez’ efforts are infused with a mythos of heroism as might’ve happened in the ancient days of Greek when Odysseus called upon the gods to give him safe passage. The six American diplomats who ran from the back door of the besieged American embassy found temporary refuge in the Canadian Embassy. They hid there until Tony Mendez arrived with a plan more likely to succeed in a fairy tale than a war zone. The real life rescue mission drew cover from a different sort of mythic raiment than the Greek skies — Hollywood moviemaking. Mendez, with critical but not guaranteed help from his agency, transforms the six fugitive American diplomats stranded in Tehran into a Canadian production crew of a faux movie – an epic scale sci-fi film, funded, storyboarded and publicized with movie posters in the trades with a direct phone line to a Hollywood production studio.

While Argo is a story with an awfully good ending, there’s no spoiler in knowing the hostages escaped. In the film, anxious, dispirited American captives walk within an arm’s length of soldiers whose shackles promise torture. Fifty-two other hostages were detained 444 days in Iran. And terrorism ended the lives of four Americans, including an ambassador, in Libya a bare month ago. The danger is actual, not virtual. Argo is the dramatization of a true life C.I.A. caper dreamed up and carried out by one of the bravest men on the planet, yet it’s supported by a tradition of science-fictionalized heroism that everyone in the world believes even though it’s clearly make-believe. Only Orson Welles could’ve done it better.

The thread of mythic storytelling runs through all three films. In The Hunt for Red October, King Neptune himself commands the action, allowing state-of-the-art Cold War nuclear submarines to navigate murky waters while we hold our breath not wanting to utter a disturbing sound. It’s like being submerged in the psychic depths of a dream where unconscious encounters between behemoth monsters occur in slow motion. The Matrix engages our imagination for other worldly experience just as conclusively. We’re effectively dropped into an inner core of subsistence survival, a womblike murky fluid with bacterial attackers into which a few human survivors plug in through a cybersocket splice in time and space from one world to another. With the magnetic pull of possibility heightened by computer animation, The Matrix engages viewers in an exhilarating, albeit sobering mythic in-between world where dodging bullets is key to peace and well-being.

Like Ginger Rogers who did everything that Fred Astaire did — only backward and in high heels, Argo plays out as an action thriller through the lens of a fake movie. As the faux Canadian film crew, conspicuously white and swarmed by Iranian pedestrians, carries out a faux location scout on Tehran’s humming streets in a crowded outdoor market, we’re as alert as if we were 20,000 leagues under the sea anticipating a collision of humongous submarines. I physically flinched when an Iranian storekeeper leapt angrily to his feet objecting to a photo taken by a young woman in the role of the movie’s location scout. She quickly offers him the polaroid photo but he’s not interested. She profusely apologizes but he’s not interested. When I visited souks in Marrakech, I experienced a similar angry tirade from a shop owner to a photo I’d taken of his booth. He didn’t care about the photo. He cared about an insult vibrant in his own mind. Physical assault was avoided but like Trinity disappearing into a telephone as she’s about to be crushed by huge truck, escape felt close. Imagine then, the odds of extricating six Americans from a revolution – an impossibility without the magic of a Hollywood script.

As a true story with a little fast fingered editing of events for box office leverage, Argo walks the same fine line between fantasy and reality as The Matrix or The Hunt for Red October. We imbue Tony Mendez with special powers as he traverses the Iranian airport with six fugitive Americans in full view of armed guards just as we do when Jack Ryan shimmies down a wire from a helicopter into the freezing cold ocean to a waiting submarine or when Neo bodily invades a digitalized agent and, like so much silly putty, turns himself inside out! But more importantly, the armed guards suspended disbelief just like we do while watching movies and let Mendez through.

One of the funniest, barely plausible scenes in Argo is when one of the faux Canadian filmmakers explains – in Farsi – the faux film’s faux storyboards to a very real life Iranian Guard. He translates – fabricating on the spot – wild planetary invasion drawings of storyboarded scenes with metallic men and latex women into a convincing saga of acceptable Iranian family values – and gets his group past a key checkpoint. Maybe outrageous schemes are the only ones to fly in the face of an enemy as invisible as fear.

For me, three action thrillers in a row turned up a truth that breaks through facts. We walk a fine line between fantasy and reality every day. Some days, it’s more obvious than others; The Matrix, a widely popular film based firmly in myth offers a choice to live a fictionalized version of the ordinary or realized version of the extraordinary. The Hunt For Red October fictionalizes an enlightened vision of men from nations at war who relinquish the power to wipe humankind off the face of the earth. Argo, an arguably lesser film packs a larger truth because we live so close to facts of terrorism – wherever in the world they occur – thanks to an invisible world wide web of eyes that doesn’t wait for a movie theater to reveal what it’s seeing. And, yes, it’s funny. There’s nothing duller than truth without humor.

And Argo has the last laugh. What if anything has meaning when fiction works better in reality than reality itself?

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