Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Where's the Kaiser?

During one of the occasional moments of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) that's actually quiet enough to hear someone speak, infantryman Tjaden (Slim Summerville) observes, "Me and the Kaiser, we're both fighting. The only difference is the Kaiser isn't here." A pointed observation in 1930 (and in 2005--but we'll get to that later). Based on Erich Maria Remarque's best-seller, which was published only a year earlier, this is one of those early talkies that underlines the confidence and boldness of American cinema before World War II, in terms of both technique and theme. Despite the period's status as the "Golden Age," there's a bit of a drought that begins with the Breen Office Code of the early '30s and ends with the post-WWII plunge into noir waters, with only intermittent bursts of "darkness visible"--Citizen Kane, of course, but also hard-boiled movies such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in the early '40s, as well as, but oddly enough with lesser effect, the social problem films of Warner Bros.--whose spirit is still essentially reformist/populist rather than radical/existential. No, for real guts and glory, you have to go to the post-Griffith silents and that half-decade before Breen henpecked the movies for twenty years--"Put down that blonde, young man! You don't know where she's been. And if you're going to Tommygun that fellow, I insist you both remain in separate shots." Only Bugs Bunny in drag and an eternally pantsless Porky Pig got away with anything back then.

The viewer's rewards for the venture into pre-Depression American movies are great; All Quiet, for instance, gives you a surprisingly large canvas--think Saving Private Ryan without digital embellishment; the DVD production notes mention that enough TNT was used in All Quiet to wreck Los Angeles, that all 2000 extras were ex-servicemen, and that the camera crew wore German spiked helmets, pickelhauben, after someone was knocked unconscious by flying debris. And it's all there on the screen: the battle scenes are extensive, grueling, and deafening, and filmed with an agile camera that sweeps along with the lines and snaps back as the bodies fall.

The film's deep commitment to spectacle belies an equally unyielding grasp on the earnest anti-war message of Remarque's autobiographical novel. I long ago gave up griping over the heavy-handedness of "message" art, having fought in the trenches myself in grad school with the Marxist-realist and Brechtian-Epic dramatists of the American Depression. Believe you me, that's training: Clifford Odets, Marc (The Cradle Will Rock) Blitzstein, John Dos Passos (before he became a kind of 1940s Jeffersonian neocon), and many others during the 1930s wore their Popular Front kind hearts like sturdy work-clothes while maintaining a level disdain for Kapital's coronets. Some were naive, others opportunistic--Barton Fink gets it about half right--but the best, despite their promise of communism's Eschaton, shared Remarque's convincing combination of frank reportage and broken-hearted dismay. It seems it took Remarque ten years to emerge from the Great War's wreckage. It was a mess, compounded by a willful amnesia, at least on the part of the Allies, if not the resucitating nationalism of Germany. I remember seeing something on TV about French veterans, whose faces had been maimed, wearing prosthetic noses, chins, and ears so as not to offend--but also to help everyone forget an event that, as the film's opening title card states, gave the West a "generation of men who ... were destroyed." It seems Remarque had had enough of mulling it over while the '20s roared toward global depression and the Six-Year Reich and the "burning roof and tower" of Old Europe. And the filmmakers shared his urgency, giving us a movie whose outrage and bitter scorn and pity and sadness pulls us into the trench and between the crosshairs.

I must admit that I had a knee-jerk reaction as I watched All Quiet last Sunday. There's a uncomfortably familiar scene early on in which a schoolteacher exhorts his students to join the march--which is right outside their windows, at first louder than the vigorous speech of the professor, then subsiding to allow us to hear him use the same old language that gets "young men to play old men's games," as my mother defined war (in 1972 or thereabouts, by the way, which cheered me considerably at sixteen years old, with McNamara's fog of war creeping under every doorway; I figured she'd enjoy visiting me in Canada). And of course by the end of his speech the classroom is empty; the camera stays behind and watches through the windows as the boys jauntily join the procession. While one would be hard-pressed in the US to find such calls-to-arms in a classroom these days, the opportunity arises with every recruiting ad, in the dead-end-towns whose jobs have flown south, and in the American guilt over Vietnam that paradoxically leads to "supporting the troops" right back to another fruitless front.

All Quiet's mission is never to let us forget the suffocating irony of such moments; by the end, Remarque's alter-ego, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), stares without recognition at his parents and his home, cuts short his leave, and returns to the trenches, where he is shot without fanfare--true, while reaching for a butterfly (he and his sister used to collect them), in an image that fairly drips with obvious irony and sledge-hammer sensitivity; but after two hours of noise and filth in the service of nothing we can't smirk; we are compelled to leave Paul be, to avert our eyes, as the camera does, so that he can die in peace. It is a simple message, one we always seem too smart to believe; but again, while watching the movie I could not help myself from hearing other old men exhorting young men to play the game--this time dragging Yahweh and Allah and what-all like dead rabbits to train a dog to hunt--for all the right reasons, as unreasonable and vile as they have always been. It's important to note that the men in All Quiet shriek regularly; it is a sound we'd rather not hear, and we try to make it seem silly and simplistic, or fit that shrieking face with a prosthetic. But I think it is an authentic sound, as purposeful as grief and necessary as grace.

Monday, August 22, 2005

"They're Coming to Get You, Barbara"--and Billy and Janey and Tommy, Too

I know someone, a young man in his early twenties, who thinks about George Romero's zombies all the time. Whenever he enters a room, a little careful part of his brain has him scope out all entrances and exits. He doesn't like to be alone, and facing the door or ground-level window only makes it marginally better. Outdoors isn't so bad, but there needs to be a lot of open space; even then, he keeps in mind that Romero's first victims were in a big cemetery, and could see Doom coming a long way off. When he confessed this fear to me, no doubt during one of my ecstatic outpourings on movies, I probably wasn't even talking about Romero, but something in my wide-eyed rush of words provided him an opening to tell me of his fear. One madman to another.

At first, I almost congratulated him. After all, here we are in a time when we've slopped around in every evil, twice, and come up grinning, like those pretty young people I saw triumphantly clenching dead rats in their teeth on TV's Fear Factor; a time too Gonzo for Dr. Thompson--who stared down the slavering jaws of the Were-Nixon--too twisted for Bruno Bettelheim --who survived Buchenwald and Dachau and knew what the wolf dreamed of while waiting for Little Red Riding Hood to show up--and simply too much for Karel Capek, the Czechoslovakian writer who gave us the word "robot," who was perhaps the first casualty, wasting away, his heart broken, when it was clear no one was going to stop Hitler in time. You'd assume that after all those affronts, nothing could faze anybody under thirty anymore. I thought it was good to see a little atavistic fear still tinkling the ivories of the spine. Of course, though, the more that young zombie-phobe talked, the worse I felt for him. This fear dogged him, silent in the underbrush of his life, always out of sight but never out of mind.

I have nothing new to say here, except to acknowledge how thoroughly George Romero understands the nature of the terror of evil, at least when he's making zombie movies. Some day I will write about something a friend once said, long ago and far away in 1980--in an offhand yet "that's-that" way--that The Shining was about the banality of evil. (Note to self: I owe Hannah Arendt a posting.) For now, though, Romero: He knows dread, and how it is linked to the rooms we sit in and the scenery we move through, and how dread comes at us, its shambling, E.C. horror comics/Karloff as The Mummy gait laughably slow--but so darn inexorable, like plate tectonics, so that you cannot escape the object of dread: consumption. In Romero's Dead movies, evil may be silly or slimy, but it is always as close as the dinner table or the shopping center, the personal and social feeding grounds. So when that young man admitted he was always thinking of zombies, he was just seeing Romero's version of the Post-Everything Age. In Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood--by the way, made into a 1979 movie that needs to be on DVD--Hazel Motes founds the "Church of Christ Without Christ," where "the blind don't see, the lame can't walk, and the dead stay that way." I wish someone would tell that to Romero; in the meantime, we'll keep our eye on the door.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Unclean Thing

Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004) is a bit of a mess, but I was happy to see that Stone acted true to form and made a movie that sees ideas as plot devices, that is, he always tries to merge story and "theme" so that the two complement each other. In doing so, he may sacrifice any sense of responsibility to historic accuracy--as in J.F.K.--but I could care less. I have no stake in the facts of Alexander's life; I merely wanted to see what Stone was up to. I'm happy to say that as usual it's no good. What he's up to, that is.

First is Colin Farrell as Alexander. Farrell conveys an arresting combination of bully-boy bravado, outraged pride, and tortured insecurity that's more than a little disconcerting. I wonder how Alexander made it out the door, let alone to India, with such debilitating emotions, most of which trail back to his relationship with his parents, Olympias (Angelina Jolie) and Philip (Val Kilmer). Farrell takes advantage of the contradictions, compulsions and guilt that the screenplay (by Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridas) has given him, and carries the weight of Oedipal irony with every step across his growing empire. Alexander's dilemma is fueled by the conflict between his father's position--standing between Alexander and the whole wide world--and his mother's will to make Alexander the Great. Stone and company lean heavily on the mother's bond with her son, disdain of her husband, and desire to compensate for her own lowered status as a barbarian. She transfers all these insecurities to the already-ambitious Alexander, and he is forever torn between his own desire for ascendancy and his guilt over supplanting his father, coupled with his attraction to and fear of his mother. Stone manages to stir this strident pot while sweeping us across Alexander's world, from seaside to jungle, from monsoon to desert. As he advances, Alexander is increasingly haunted by his father's death, his mother's fearful devotion, and his own dream of crossing every boundary, religious, political, and sexual, while remaining untouched by the guilt-ridden stain of excess.

Ultimately, Alexander fails. In Oedipus the King, the blind seer Teresias, who knows what Oedipus doesn't, that the latter has murdered his father and married his mother, finally breaks down under Oedipus' persistent and self-defeating quest for the truth, and tells Oedipus what he wants to know, and dreads: that Oedipus is the cause of all the troubles, "the unclean thing" that will defeat itself. Stone's Alexander tells a similar story, with the added bonus--and sometimes distraction--of a cast of thousands, wild parties, and battle elephants. Inevitably, and often, everything is drenched in blood, which, as Alexander's priests tell him, is the gods' food; and they feast on Alexander's anxieties and guilt as much as on his dreams of a world without boundaries

Thursday, August 18, 2005

"... but some animals are more equal than others."

At the end of chapter four of The Origin of Species, Darwin brings up the analogy of the tree of life. I can remember putting together construction-paper family trees in school--my children did the same, like every schoolkid. And my grandmother had a knick-knack, a small silver tree with tiny family photos hanging from the branches, her and my grandfather at the top, their three children lower down. That's backwards, but I didn't care. I was happy to see them all lined up, pendant from the tarnished silver, fuzzy images from the '50s. But I'm bringing up Darwin's tree because he writes about certain animals that enjoy "a protected station," and thrive like a low, straggling branch that should have withered, but lives on. Our pets are like that--and my apologies to George Orwell for taking his chilling punchline out of context, but they become for petowners more equal than other animals, a point insisted upon in Erol Morris' debut from 1980, a documentary about pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven.

Morris made a landmark film, if only because in it he almost single-handedly invented the visual language of irony. Now there are precedents, including Andy Warhol's focus on the amateur and the accidental, the stumbling, lurching, leering kitsch manufactured in The Factory, where he charted the intersection of the ingenious and the disingenuous in a barely navigable course that Odysseus would've hesitated to follow. Morris, though, is not as scattershot or freewheeling. He holds still his subjects and leaves them be in an isolated space, where all they have is themselves. He frames them in self-consciously centered poses, almost as if they're being booked on suspicion (of being silly or crazy or simply stoned)--or they sit low in the frame, with the sky or a wall of cacti rising above their rock-still hunched forms, unconscious parodies of themselves. Morris' subjects are not interviewed; instead, they deliver monologues, often uncomfortably prompted to continue speaking by Morris' stubborn silence, a refusal to fill any dead air himself, while the camera relentlessly rolls. Like David Byrne's True Stories (1986), we become co-conspirators in a plot against the movie's subjects; we wonder whether we're being asked to laugh at them--or merely to laugh at them--or perhaps, in watching them unreel their sometimes-agonizing attempts to make sense, we become their protectors--or better yet, allies, insisting they be given their due, and even realizing the truth of their convictions, and the extent to which we share them.

This is the second time in as many years I've seen Gates of Heaven. The most recent was at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois. Morris was in attendance--and I will indulge and recount my Brush with Greatness. I was standing in the lobby of the Virginia Theatre, and felt something big to my right; it seemed to displace atoms, as though it had suddenly arrived via wormhole. I turned to it, and found myself looking at someone's sternum. I looked up, and it was Morris, six-feet-plus. I hesitated; do I act like a movie geek and bother this stranger, or play it cool and move on? I thought I was still deciding when I realized I was already shaking his hand and blathering--in my defense I will say it was relatively cool and collected blather, about how much I enjoyed his films, and some comment about the "Interrotron," his invention which acts as a kind of teleprompter, except that, through the magic of, I dunno, mirrors and prisms, while he is the one the subject is looking at, the result is a level gaze directly into the camera, rather than the slightly-off-to-the-side style of most documentary interviews; and then I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was looking for Roger; naturally, I crossed a line and offered to help find him. I immediately felt Morris assume a defensive posture, so to speak, a retreat managed without moving. I realized I had gone the way of all geeks, and let him be--stupid, because he walked ten feet away and into the theater, where Ebert and Werner Herzog were sitting in the back row. Another missed opportunity to stammer inanely.

But I digress.

Viewing Gates of Heaven at a film festival underlined its more postmodern qualities, especially the self-reflexive, referential, ironic elements. Still, watching the grainy print on the big screen gave Morris' pet lovers--and interrers--an inevitable magnitude. This served to make their foolishness more foolish, of course, but it also helped validate their commitment to making their animals more equal than others; and their love is expressed unselfconsciously, as they memorialize their pets and in the next breath discuss their fur coats and platters of meat ruined by the smells of exhumation and rendering. "A protected station," indeed.

The movie covers a lot of ground, but watching it yesterday I focused on the truths it told about pets and pet ownership: that becoming a pet removes one from the struggle for existence in a fundamental way; that owning a pet allows for a blissful, albeit partial, ignorance of one's shortcomings, while simultaneously providing an opportunity to generate an ideal in the form of the pet; that the need for contact is great, whether it be with the pet or, given its demise, Morris' Interrotron, which, when stared at and spoken into, validates the love felt for the pet. Near the end, Morris gives us a sequence of shots of dog and cat headstones. None of the memorials are dopey or campy or morbid; all of them are simple and unashamed in their affection for the pets. I found myself noticing the birth-death dates; many of the pets lived only two or three years, and yet they are accorded their due. Naturally, this never entirely stops being weird, but in that lingering sequence of shots, Morris seems to acknowledge the honesty of the petowners' love; the smarmy ironic wink is replaced by the respectful glance toward those small indicators of the need to "love and be loved," as Floyd McClure, the visionary but failed cemetery designer, described the two purposes of pets. I should be so lucky.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Stones in His Shoe

I hadn't seen Godfather III in a long time; in my mind I carried it in two hands, marked like Robert Mitchum's in Night of the Hunter: one said "love," the other, "hate"--although "hate" is too strong a word, and one too simple to describe the uncertain shrug I sometimes inclined toward the movie, or an almost embarrassed tilt of the head; any number of gestures that slid Godfather III to the rear of the shelf. And watching it yesterday brought back a few of those tics. Despite my growing admiration for the trilogy as the decades have rolled, I always hesitated as my hand reached for the final installment.

To be honest, I think the movie does invite a certain tentativeness on the part of the viewer. It came late, sixteen years after Godfather II, and the threads of its fabric were a bit thin and frayed. I remember in 1990 being glad Coppola was going to do a third Godfather: the previous two were a perfect marriage of the soap opera and the pulp novel, with the glow of all those remarkable performances, Dean Tavoularis' richly layered production design, and Gordon Willis' alternately brassy and brooding cinematography, all burnished with Nino Rota's emblematic score. And these were all called into the service of a set of ideas about family, culture, and, here we go again, sin, to which Coppola was deeply committed. I looked forward to another chance to see that world made.

The first two films, though, marked an accomplishment I thought he couldn't top--which he didn't, and I am only recently realizing that he didn't need to. My grumbling about the choppy exposition, the sometimes-stilted dialogue, and, as many others noticed, Sophia Coppola's performance, has subsided over the years. It began with an assertion by a friend that Francis' daughter actually does a good job of playing a young girl in her father's shadow--retroactively, it even seems like typecasting rather than a last-minute patch-job (Winona Ryder was set to play Mary Corleone, but pulled out). My reconciliation with her performance allowed me to see the larger accomplishment of Godfather III: the deep resonance of family and culture and sin. Michael's youth is gone, but the iron-clad family values of his past--which also, one should note, served to tear that family apart--live on in his sister Connie (Talia Shire) and nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia). Shire delivers the performance of her career; Connie is part Borgia, part Sicilian Madame LaFarge, perpetually knitting the doom of traitors. Andy Garcia as Vincent, Sonny's (James Caan) illegitimate son, enjoys himself immensely as he chews up the scenery--and Joe Mantegna's ear--with his fierce loyalty and fierce passions and, ah, fierce everything. It is, I'm glad to say, not a subtle performance.

Of course, at the center is Al Pacino. In Godfather III he hits some interesting notes we haven't heard from Michael. There is at times a kind of self-effacing playfulness in Michael, an almost satiric jab at his self-made image. When he re-asserts himself as Godfather via Vincent, Connie tells him, "Now they will fear you." He quips with a bit of a grin, making him the only one in the room smiling, "Maybe they should fear you." And those broad strokes--his tears, his face buried in his hands, his stumbling and screaming, his diabetic delirium as he shouts Fredo's name--seemed beautiful and necessary as I watched it last night. The movie is haunted by Fredo, who forces Michael to confession, submission, and finally rough justice, as Mary is killed because Michael couldn't stop taking care of business. Pacino has Michael clutch his guilt as if it were the last prayer he would manage.

It is almost cruel, the way Coppola leads Michael to the dark, dry well in which he has dumped his sins, but from which he must drink. At the end, Michael is abruptly pushed into senility and a crumpled death under a shadowless Sicilian sky, the sun beating him to the ground. It seems that as Coppola ran out of pity for Michael he delegated the task to us. I know I was shaken every time Fredo's ghost arose, and watched in horror as Michael's face froze breathlessly before the inevitable scream over Mary's death. At that moment Pacino vomits out every act of contrition that stuck in Michael's craw, and leaves nothing afterward but the sound of that cry hanging in the air like Judgment.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Jesus, Reeves

I went into Constantine (2005) perfectly willing to accept Keanu Reeves as a demon-hunter. After all, his career has assumed more than a whiff of the messianic, with its more obvious manifestations--Neo (a.k.a. The One) in the Matrix movies, and, lest we forget, Siddhartha (ak.a. The Buddha) in Little Buddha (1993)--as well as less overt saviors who nonetheless press their lips together and, well, save: football from itself in The Replacements (2000), and Sandra Bullock from Dennis Hopper in Speed (1994). And, I am happy to say, next year he will be literally animated by Richard Linklater in his adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, in which Keanu will save America from its addiction to better homeland security through chemicals. So I was not the least surprised to see him as John Constantine, demon hunter.

I enjoyed Constantine for a number of reasons. First, it's about Catholics a-exorcisin' and a-demon-slayin'. I was puzzled by Roger Ebert's review of this movie, in which he wondered why you never see movies with Episcopalians or Presbyterians TCB-ing Satan and his minions. He went to Catholic school, and then watched a gazillion movies, so I know Ebert was kidding; he knows that if you want to thwart the Evil Underlord, you need REAL old-time religion: mystical Buddhist monks with better kung fu than anyone, Talmud-toting mystics carving the right word into the Golem's forehead to set him off crushing Christian oppressors, pyramid-dwelling immortal high priests keeping a lid on restless mummies--and the Holy Roman Catholic Church spraying holy water like Napalm. Durn tootin' it burns.

Also, Constantine and its titular hero have attitude to, ahem, burn (I'll try to stop such not-so-bon mots). Demons without brains--absolutely!--demons made of bugs, demons trapped by mirrors--shades of Dracula--and hey! Reeves was Jonathan Harker in Coppola's version of Bram Stoker's novel; another recruit in the Holy War--and Hell depicted as our world laid to waste. And moping and coughing and striding then stumbling through all this is John Constantine, who knows the score but still moves forward. Once again, an American hero gloms onto Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, the Last Boy Scout Standing, sick to death--literally, in Constantine's case, as lung cancer and the sheer weight of all those demons put a constant slump to his shoulders--but soldiering on anyway, "past all concerns." (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) I even dug it when, during his aborted assumption to Heaven, Constantine remembers to half-turn and give Satan the finger. You tell 'im, Keanu. And I know it's all supremely silly, but, while this movie sometimes takes itself seriously, it also enjoys itself WITHOUT getting caught up in too much irony.

The result for me is another oddly affecting Reeves performance. I have a soft spot for the kid, one that, as it does for other Reeves apologists, goes all the way back to Bill and Ted. I don't know if Reeves wants to put the role behind him, but Ted Logan peeks like Kilroy through every Reeves performance, a kind of easy-going determination that never quite winks at the camera--as Bruce Willis does, with alternately satisfying and irritating results--but still shakes its head and smiles at itself. It's guileless, and maybe sometimes too earnest, but Reeves in the end is like Brendan Fraser, whose own brand of California doofus-cool also redeems weak material. So while Constantine may be more of a groan than I'd like to admit, Keanu Reeves and company (and if you doubt the Five-Minute Rule--"every okay movie has at least five perfect minutes"--check out Peter Stomare as Satan) and all those kickin' anti-demon devices keep me on the narrow path to one bitchin' salvation, dude.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Fixing a Hole

Writing the other day about Kurt Russell, I mentioned Robert Zemeckis, who early in his career directed I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), about a group of teens trying to get to see The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, which in turn reminded me of the first time I saw Yellow Submarine (1968), an event that says much about my parents' willingness to indulge our movie-going habit, and the price they sometimes paid for their indulgence; I recall inadvertent encounters with Rosemary's Baby and Barbarella at the drive-in (back when they ran five or so movies dusk-till-dawn); I can still remember my mother insisting every ten minutes that I shut my eyes during the latter. Fortunately, her mania for finishing the picture ensured we'd stay to the end. But seeing Yellow Submarine was more than yet another instance of spoiling the kids at the movies. I look back on the experience as a rare moment when it seemed life was making certain promises that for once it would keep.

For some reason, we had to travel to Philadelphia to see the movie. This was unusual, because by 1968 we had two big theaters in the malls near us, not to mention two or three drive-ins, and the old Whitman Theater in Camden--which we actually did not frequent much, except for two memorable visits, which I will relate at a later date. Maybe Yellow Submarine had not yet made it to the malls; however, as soon as we arrived at the theater, I began to suspect it wasn't just a lag in distribution, even though some Philadelphians still think of South Jersey as "the sticks," so it made sense that some films might not open immediately beyond the mighty Delaware. But no, something else was afoot; for one thing, virtually everyone else lining up and milling around outside the theater was older than me--well, I was eleven, so sixteen was "older"; still, most of the males had beards, long hair, seemed like adults--adult hippies, to be exact, actual heads, which were rare, at least for me. Maybe this happenin' was too far out for the suburbs, man.

Inside, the theater was tiny. Now, this is a commonplace today, but back in 1968 movie screens were typically broad-shouldered affairs, many set up for 1950s-'60s widescreen formats like VistaVison and Cinerama. So to feel our way down a narrow aisle in a narrow theater with a postage-stamp-sized screen was disconcerting--and something to comment on, at least as far as my Dad was concerned, who had expressed some doubts about this excursion. And for the record, I'm not sure who suggested we'd go, me or my sister. It's true, though, that she was the one who generally led such charges. She had already convinced my Mom to chaperone her and her friends to a Dave Clark Five concert, and was on the verge of making it a yearly ritual to see Tom Jones at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, NJ for her birthday. Now that was an experience. So every April for a while there my father arose like Gleason from the nervous depths of the working class and asserted his Italianamerican cool as he greased palms, got us the front table, ordered lobster, made sure a flaming Baked Alaska arrived at the end of the meal, and generally acted like the Wheel he could've been. For myself, I was lost in this electric ladyland, as my sister swooned and panties flew--fortunately not her own, and thank God not my mother's--while Tom unsuccessfully tried to reassure me that it's not unusual, pussycat.

The Latin Casino he could handle, but my father was not in charge of this Fab Four cartoon caper, so he grumped that the movie theater was too grimy, the seats too unaccommodating, and the hippies too, what, hairy? Smelly? One did notice a sweet smoky smell in the air--and I'm not being cute, just factual--and something else, as I remember it from this remove, a feeling that my world and my parents' were separating. Now, children always tend secret gardens, of course, but watching Yellow Submarine and stubbornly refusing to feel my parents' irritation--in fact, moving sharply contrariwise and imagining I was really digging it, me and the hippies--I felt ready to grow up and go to college--forget high school--and let everything grow out, and for the rest of my life agree with The Beatles that love is all you need. And I will admit I still agree with them, even though I didn't make it to college until 1974, when the hippies were practically gone, and soul and funk decided to finally make some real money and become disco, and the Catholic college I was attending routinely booted off campus any stray pamphleteer, with their mimeographed manifesti and Daily Worker convictions--which got them nowhere, at least not among the Jesuits, liberation theology or not; all those potholes-to-come aside, in that cramped movie theater in 1968 The Beatles themselves showed up at the end to inform us we had to continue to fight Blue Meanies by leaving the theater singing. And we did, following the bouncing ball to "All Together Now."

I don't know if my parents sang along, and it's okay if they didn't, because I wanted to make my own world. And even if the one I've ended up with feels much like my parents', I know it also has its own geography, and is guided by the Blue Meanie admission that "my cousin is the Bluebird of Happiness."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A Tough Thing

In one of my countless guilty pleasures (and if you have enough of them, they stop either making you feel guilty or being pleasurable), The Thing (1982), Kurt Russell's R.J. MacReady reminds everyone that "Trust is a tough thing to come by these days." This makes sense at the time, considering they're trapped in the Arctic outpost John W. Campbell first brought to light in the short story, "Who Goes There?" way back in 1938, at the dawn of print SF's Golden Age. The outpost is under siege--or more correctly, being literally infiltrated--by a shape-shifting alien. Of course, John Carpenter's movie was preceded by The Thing from Another World in 1951--at another dawn, that of film SF's First Wave--directed by Christian Nyby with Howard Hawks as producer (Yeah, just like the way Tobe Hooper directed under Steven Spielberg in Poltergeist, a movie that looks a lot more like E.T. than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Carpenter's version is truer to Campbell's story's central idea, although it's soaked in pre-CGI gross-out FX; but what I remember most--after the severed head that sprouts spiderlegs and tries to scramble away--is Kurt Russell's Mac, in a performance I am proudly ashamed to love, as I do too many of Russell's performances. A friend of mine thinks much of the appeal is in Mac's hat, which is a Yosemite Sam affair, floppy, be-tasselled--and worn by Russell with complete conviction. I even ran across an internet review with the tagline, "Kurt Russell and His Hat Burn Some Aliens Dead." Every time I see The Thing I want the hat, even though I know I couldn't wear it like Russell did. (Note: Try as I might, I couldn't find an image online of Russell with said chapeau. Darn.)

To be fair, not every Kurt Russell performance is a guilty pleasure. From Elvis (1979) to Silkwood (1983), from Tequila Sunrise (1988) to Tombstone (1993), from Breakdown (1997) to the remarkable Dark Blue (2002), Russell has proven himself able to pull off a down-to-the-bone movie star trick: He is versatile while always seeming himself. Like Robert Mitchum or Burt Lancaster or Kathleen Turner, you can always see Russell coming, even when he's wearing one heckuva weird hat.

OK, so back to the concept of The Hat, the guilty foolish thing Russell so often is, in Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and the two Escape from ... movies--and much of it with John Carpenter, another guilty party(-er)--not to mention Soldier (1998) and his big breakaway--after Elvis--from all those 1960s Disney movies, Used Cars (1980), an early Robert Zemeckis movie whose cheerful cynicism introduced me to the notion that one can never trust anyone who smokes Mores. And for me that is the joy of a Russell guilty pleasure: the gleeful loss of trust in him, either to play it straight or camp it up. The Thing is perhaps the best display of this; I am never sure if Russell thinks he's in a horror film or a comedy. I think John Carpenter is the co-conspirator here. His movies with Russell are impishly perverse, imbued with '70s paranoia and a ruthlessness that careens with go-kart abandon. Unlike a movie such as Overboard (1987), in which one feels no uncertainty concerning his intents: you can tell he's relishing the opportunity to play it broadly, to toss lines and fellow actors around like corks on the bounding main. And, in a different vein, in Soldier he plays it fearsomely straight, while also managing to make his silent, genetically souped-up super-soldier of the future an almost poignant figure. This has its precedents; I've always insisted that until Richard Crenna shows up in First Blood (1982) to explain to everyone that John Rambo is screwed up and will kill everybody, Stallone gives Rambo a mute anguish--no, I really mean it--that tells us he is alone and unable to stop himself, as sad as George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? (1966), and almost as dangerous. Russell channels that in Soldier; just check out the look in his eyes. He seems lost, almost frightened, even on the verge of tears. It is a tightly wound performance that, I must admit, does fit the straight-faced silliness of the material, nicely illustrating, like First Blood, the fine line between pathos and bathos; but Russell adds touches the movie doesn't need, but profits from, little things with his eyes, the corners of his mouth, a slight tilt of the head; and in a small way he puts his finger on the fatal adolescent urges of the American action hero, and asks us to worry about him, despite the biceps and ultra-cool kill techniques.

I guess in the end I must admit that Kurt Russell is a guilty pleasure because I do trust him: not to be too complex an actor, but still smart enough to wink at the camera without making us feel like suckers; and to draw us with that hangdog look into movies that don't quite deserve our trust, even though he does.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Kid Finishes the Picture

My parents were of The Movie Generation, putting up with all kinds of low-budget junk, mid-budget snores, big-budget disappointments. Their response to film was paradoxical, at once valueless, forgiving, uncritical, and enthralled, engrossed, entrenched. My Dad told stories, which I thought of as continuous showings, of watching The Outlaw (1943) when he was sixteen or seventeen, and being convinced with his other South Philadelphia friends--guys with Our Gang nicknames like Measles and Doggy and Pajamas--that something needed to be done to honor Jane Russell, some monument erected (sorry, couldn't resist), a statue built. I could see my father molding it by hand--so to speak--a ten-foot testament to Howard Hughes' devotion to the intricate concept of lift. Or seeing Gunga Din (1938)--I can still hear him pronounce it "Gunga DEEN"--and, convinced of its greatness, going back every day for a week, as he told it, to sit for the first show and stay all day. Or going to see Frankenstein--no doubt during one of its many re-releases--with someone he claims had never been to the movies before. When The Monster first appeared, in that famous close-up as Karloff enters the room with his back turned, and faces us silently, huge on the screen, that poor deprived kid screamed and ran out of the theater. I like to think he never went back, not even to see Pink Elephants on Parade in Dumbo. And my mother, who arrived here at seventeen from Cuba, and who learned English by looking at the Sunday funnies and, of course, going to the movies, was also a Compleat Viewer, willing to watch anything just so she could go regularly.

Together as adults, as my parents, they continued their habits, and lovingly drew my sister and me into the beautiful dark. Having moved to New Jersey when I was three, they would take lucky us across the Delaware back to Philadelphia to be overwhelmed by Cinerama colossi; to this day I refuse to admit that How the West Was Won (1962) is a bad picture; how can I, with that swooping curve looming still above me, that Big Sky and Waters soaring and rushing? Add to that the malls of South Jersey, with their audaciously big screens, crushing my willing form in the third row as Kubrick's monolith spun through space and Charlton Heston bounded defiantly across the Planet of the Apes. Television stood in at home, with Chiller Theater on Saturday nights and Shirley Temple and the Bowery Boys on Sunday mornings, and every sad B-picture in between.

So much of it was forgettable and weary, scratched and etched with the dust and stray hairs of long-gone projectionists. But it was all conditioning; I was in training, and my parents ran the camp. My father pointed out all those minor players and bedrock stalwarts: Frank McHugh with his sad-sack face and wheezy little laugh; Brian Donlevy and William Bendix, either blustering, glowering, or grinning; Gloria Grahame, that queen in exile, with Veronica Lake magically looking Alan Ladd square in the eye; and TV good guys causing havoc: Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and Raymond Burr in Rear Window. My mother knew the deeper waters of cinema, and insisted I see Midnight Cowboy. But she also loved a soap opera, and relished an opportunity to shed tears.

My parents taught me two great lessons. Once my father and I were watching a silent film; there was a crowd scene, and he remarked, "All those people are dead now." True, my father had a mordant sense of humor, but something else happened in me with that ghoulish observation: I saw the comfort of an unbroken chain of images extending across the decades. I began peering at the backgrounds of Three Stooges shorts for glimpses of 1940s Los Angeles; I noted the lost look in Peter Lorre's eyes that made me realize he wasn't just some pipsqueak menace; I stopped fretting about how fake city streets looked, and began looking forward to those outdoors filmed indoors. For her part, my mother showed me the power of narrative. She would get stuck with some awful drek, locked to the end, knowing it was bad, but willingly trapped. In one of his spookier songs--and that's saying a lot--Tom Waits whispers, "I want to know the same thing everybody does: How is it going to end?" Not to make too much of her obsessive viewing habits, but she was always someone who looked all the the way in and to the end of things; at the movies, she wanted to see it played out over and over, so that it could come out different--yet of course the same--every time.

Between a kind of Will Rogers attitude toward movies--I never (more or less) saw one I didn't like--and a tendency to scan the periphery of the frame, searching for something I didn't notice the first time, no matter how inconsequential, it seems I picked up some bad habits from my parents, for which I am thankful. Anyway, I've seen only one movie today, so--and let me apologize beforehand to W.B. Yeats--I must "arise and go now," for always I hear the reels spinning "in the deep heart's core."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Mad Love

I just read a Time magazine article about the upcoming Terry Gilliam movie, The Brothers Grimm (opening August 29), and the mere mention of his earlier films filled me with a foolish rush of affection. Beyond the apres-Monty Python tang of Time Bandits--but no, that's not fair: even in that Punch-and-Judy show I can feel Gilliam's humane heart, protecting the innocents, turning an indulgent, blind eye on human weakness; but caning like an end-of-his-tether headmaster our tendency toward the self. Gilliam insists we make the first move, and that it be outward to others, as in The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. In these films, his best characters lose themselves in the pain of others, even take on their burdens, and are liberated by doing so. But he also knows the price of such abandon and submission, and details the dreams deferred along the way, and the price you pay even to glimpse the promised land. Indeed, in Twelve Monkeys the loss is of simple things--an old song on the radio, the wind in your face, cool sheets--but precious, especially from the dank underground future, where all those things have slid away. Gilliam can break your heart; just watch the faces in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen listening to the Baron's stories. We feel with them the deep need to assert the truth of those tales of wonder and victory; and Terry Gilliam feels that need as well, even though he knows it simply isn't so. But what the hell; he waves his hand--"as much shaman as showman," as Richard Corliss puts it--and grants our wish, and the stars come out, and we climb them like a gentle slope.

Such conjuration, though, can wear you down. Corliss rightfully compares Gilliam to Orson Welles and Erich von Stroheim, "hard-luck masters" whose uncompromising attitudes essentially shut them out of the business. And like those two, Gilliam looks inward, but does not make "personal" films in the indie sense; no, he needs special effects of all kinds, visual, conceptual, symbolic. And that takes money, of course, but in Gilliam's world that doesn't matter; all he wants is room to prestidigitate. I think he never lost the sense of limitless possibility one gets from being a cartoonist and animator. Working for Harvey Kurtzman in the early 1960s in the post-Mad publication, Help! (and here's another sad story of loss: I actually once owned a few issues of that mag), Gilliam worked on photo comic strips (or fumetti, as the Italians put it), where he met John Cleese, leading of course to Monty Python, which lived in a world specifically predicated on the idea of the limitless. Early on, then, Gilliam beautifully, magically erased any possibility of a career that would turn away for even a moment from the deep need for flight and fable. Naturally, the demands of a big business are antithetical to such cosmic doodling--I know, as it must--so Gilliam has had to become Quixote (of course, his great failed project, the movie that would be king) and tilt at Weinsteins, both Bob and Harvey.

Forty years and more down the road from Help!'s mondo weirdo fumetti and the Bronx-cheer footfalls of Monty Python, Gilliam continues to fill me with anticipation. With his movies I am guaranteed an opportunity to see an intricate, dangerously rickety, pinwheeling, gravity-defying reality that tosses everything at me, including its generous heart.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Right Is Wrong

I've been re-arranging the media in my life--books, CDs, DVDs--and I came across a book I bought used in college: Film 69/70: An Anthology by the National Society of Film Critics. There they all were--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, Richard Schickel, John Simon, and of course Pauline Kael--simply and reassuringly working away. I stood in the middle of the mess of words and music and pictures scattered around me and browsed through the collection, watching them going about their business as the '60s slid self-consciously into the '70s, reviewing If ... and The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider and Medium Cool and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, as well as relative obscurities--at least to me--such as Ivan Passer's Intimate Lighting and Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard, which Kauffmann bemoans as evidence of "a great talent being lavished on hokum," and profiling Barbra Streisand and John Wayne, and reporting on "Fellini at Work" and "The Making of The Angel Levine," not to mention peering at "Skin" --I Am Curious (Yellow) of course and something called Coming Apart, starring (no surprises here) Rip Torn and Sally Kirkland.

As I read, "looking backward," I was driven to an uneasy nostalgia in which my affection for many of these films--and critics--was tempered by remembrance of my insecurities in the face of some of those same movies and critics. By the time I was in college, I fancied myself not merely a film enthusiast but a pretty sharp critic myself. This, as I recall, was most often evidenced by a constant thesis that Aristotle may have been right when he placed "spectacle" low on the list of needful things in theatre, but it was a dead-wrong idea for movies--"Moving PICTURES!" I would triumphantly remind anyone who'd listen--and some who wouldn't, but full steam ahead anyway, right? I always cited 2001 as my proof, which can cause more problems than it solves; but that was the fun of a monomaniacal view of cinema: I had a sharp and certain tool with which to slice away the fat of failed filmmaking. If The Image is not paramount, then the film fails. Case closed.

Such stiffness is self-defeating; every structure needs a little give, or it'll snap. Today, I know that the strength of a movie lies in more than its visuals; and so I can laud The Image without threatening structural integrity, from Carl Dreyer's unblinking study of Jeanne d'Arc's face, to Kane stalking around his newspaper office, almost crushing us down there in that famous hole in the floor from which Gregg Toland recorded all those bangs and whimpers, to, again, any thirty seconds of 2001, to the Mandala swirls of impermanence in Scorsese's Kundun--oh, and so much more; imagine Ozu without his serene, irrational compositions, or Hitchcock without the simple panic of a falling man. Back in 1974, however, my Theory of Everything dug in too stubbornly, and thus was often threatened with defeat. I was enthralled by the spinning imagery of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and the jump-cuts and subjective camerawork/fantasy sequences of Midnight Cowboy; still, I must admit that I felt insecure around Stefan Kanfer's dismissal of the "assembly line" of "manufactured ironies" in the former and John Simon's assertion of the "ultimate cleverness and sentimentality" of the latter. So maybe I should've stood up to them, asserted my Imagism, damned their faint praise. And I did, sort of, but as time went on and I watched more and more movies--many of them from before 1969/70--I grew uncertain as to whether the movies I had loved in high school were the best I would ever see. Of course they weren't; my uncertainty eventually turned out to be a good thing, but at eighteen I was more dependent on certainty than I wanted to admit. Any doubt was like a sudden coppery taste of blood in the mouth: something's definitely wrong. So I petulantly dismissed the bunch of them, Sarris and Simon, Kauffmann and Kael--which had the effect of giving them too much power over my convictions without allowing myself to take advantage of the doubts they raised. In short, in 1974 Film 69/70 made me too uneasy to read it carefully.

Looking over some of those reviews today and remembering my faltering objections back then, I am relieved that things change, and that I no longer carry the burden--or as much of one--of insecure certainty. Today, those reviews seem clearer to me, some truer, others still wrong; but true because of the critics' own talent to make us see the picture as they did, or wrong because, well, everybody gets to be wrong. Including me.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Blind See: Martin Scorsese and "The Way of the Future"

One of the reasons I wanted to see Million Dollar Baby was to understand how it could beat The Aviator for Best Picture last year. I had seen neither in the theaters--I am only now overcoming a decade-or-more-old reluctance to go to the movies--but had watched Scorsese's picture a few weeks ago on video, and found it hard to believe Eastwood's boxing-and-mercy picture could top Scorsese's take on the young Howard Hughes. The Aviator is a compelling movie, reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) in that both deal with World-War-II-era entrepreneurs who grin (Tucker) or grimace (Hughes) at their opponents, then dig in like starving men on opportunity and challenge. Exciting adventures in capitalism, with more than a touch of mania.

Having now seen both Scorsese's and Eastwood's pictures, I can make all kinds of guesses why Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar; but if I had to land on anything, it's Scorsese's insistence on mercilessly dissecting his characters' fearsome, fearful weaknesses while demanding our pity. The hard work of tragedy, in other words. And while Eastwood, as I note in my discussion of his film, also grabs us by the nape and refuses to let us look away, we somehow feel that the pain and loss of his world are part of an assertion; with Scorsese, though, it is revelation, and all the horrors that entails. Not the stuff of Oscar, who, if he allows horror to win, as with The Silence of the Lambs, prefers it washed down with a good kee-antee.

Simply put, we don't like Scorsese's protagonists. From Travis Bickle to Jimmy Doyle to Jake LaMotta to Rupert Pupkin, from Vincent in The Color of Money to Henry Hill in Goodfellas--jeez, even his Jesus gives us the creeps--Scorsese rubs our noses in our missteps, our venality, our obsessive-compulsive yearning for order--which Freud defined as the "compulsion to repeat" and linked it with the need for cleanliness--and in most of his films, including The Aviator, wraps loss tight like a baseball bat and comes at us with it like Joe Pesci pissed off.

I don't think they'll ever give out Oscars for directing such a reality--acting in it, sure; I like to imagine that every other actor was relieved that De Niro was the one willing to tear himself like strips of newspaper in Raging Bull. But I hope Scorsese continues making these pictures, which have so much pity for the pitiless--and isn't it easy to love those who deserve our love? (Where have I heard that before?) Poor Leo, having to pee in all those milk bottles, cut his hands while washing, shiver and shake like an addict at the mere thought of human contact. Lost in his cell, Jake LaMotta insists, "I'm not an animal." But he also chants, "I'm the boss." Twenty-five years later, Scorsese seems to feel the loss even more deeply, as Hughes inanely chants, "Come in with the milk." But he also knows "the way of the future," and I think it lies in our capacity to love Scorsese's madmen and sinners, even when they seem alien--if only because such seeming masks our reluctance to accept identification. If tragedy works, it is because we are fearful of and for the tragic hero--and not just fearful of him because he is so overwhelming, but because, as Pogo said so long ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Monday, August 01, 2005

Resolved: Gather Ye Leeches While Ye May

I did not write last week, breaking so soon my promise to be diligent and post posthaste--and like a precious undergraduate I turned to a poem to urge me along: Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence." I hadn't seen it in years, and had almost completely forgotten its beautiful opening stanzas on Nature in the morning; I was happy to read just for that image of the sprayline of dew raised by the running hare. And then of course that weird, almost off-putting heart of the poem, the encounter with the old leech-gatherer (and what a strange thing the job market was two hundred years ago). Wordsworth describes him as an apparition, compares him to a sea-creature that has emerged from the depths to sun itself. Reading the poem brought back the same combination of admiration and embarrassment one can feel with Wordsworth, he is so profound and silly all at once. Which in my mind makes him good--all right, monumental, in a fond and foolish way, a writer after my own ambitions, who can strike one as frighteningly insightful one moment, staring at you from the misty mists of time with clear understanding; and a little pathetic the next, straining for effect, reporting on the simple, albeit direct, surfaces of human faces without understanding them at all. But able to use them to build the damn poem.

I bring up Wordsworth to mark my own resolution--to write every day--and my own independence--from sloth, and hesitancy--and okay, so that I can "laugh myself to scorn," as Wordsworth famously closes, at the last moment saving the poem from impending mawkishness and providing me with a way back to the page. Dig We Must, yes, Faithful Reader? Even if you're not there, even if you're just me. So every day it will be. Starting today.

Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Mea Culpa

WARNING: The following contains an elliptical but potentially damaging Million Dollar Baby spoiler.

I saw Million Dollar Baby over the weekend, and I am even more deeply convinced that when Eastwood is on he is formidable. But let me begin by damning with faint praise: Clint Eastwood is an earnest filmmaker. I'm still letting Wordsworth run around in my head as I consider Eastwood's flashes of brilliance combined with simple surfaces, all of it lovingly photographed and acted, eminently sustainable while the film runs, but sometimes too direct, almost bland in its forthright posture. The process of training Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a case in point: the old grouch, Eastwood's Frankie Dunn, reluctantly allows Maggie to his inner circle, but not until she impresses everyone else, the audience most of all, with her pluck and yearning. In all seriousness, and I mean this as a compliment, I am reminded of Richard Gere's Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). Am I the only one still moved--against my will--by his admission, "I got nowhere else to go!"? Maybe I am; I checked, and the moment is not recorded on the Internet Movie Database's page of "memorable quotes" for the movie. Maggie, like Zack, comes from a white trash hell--Zack's relationship with his father, played by Robert Loggia with his usual ferocity (and I really must do something on Loggia some day), mirrors Maggie's encounters with a family whose troubles come "by the pound"--and we know, as does Morgan Freeman's Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris, that Maggie must find her father, just as Zack found his father in Louis Gossett Jr.'s Sgt. Foley--and Dunn must in turn find his daughter, lost to him by an unnamed sin.

This is good stuff, but formulaic, and watching it I could feel Eastwood demand I feel for Maggie in certain ways, especially because her only early ally is Dupris, in a patented performance by Morgan Freeman, whose range may not be broad, but always pitch-perfect, and as reassuring as a loving God. Eastwood knew this in Unforgiven (1992), and boy-howdy he still does. Freeman allows us to accept Maggie as more than another oddball wannabe, some non-developmentally disabled version of Jay Baruchel's "Danger" Barch. We believe in her, and know Dunn's conversion is only a matter of time.

But of course Million Dollar Baby is not just another boxing picture with a father-finds-surrogate-daughter slant--although in many ways it is simply that. But, again, Eastwood is serious about something here, and as his and Swank's performances sink deeper into the material, as they draw us into their fears and hopes, the formula is transcended, broken, and reconfigured. Of course, I'm referring to Dunn's religious convictions, as tortured as Gerard Manley Hopkins', who at one point in his "terrible sonnets" exclaims, "I lay wrestling with (my God!) my God." And gosh, as long as it's Poets' Day, I wonder whether Frankie Dunn is John Donne, needing to find himself asserting that "no man is an island"? I'll let that go, but Frankie's faith, as sardonic as it is, still runs deep; and this provides the second tier: Dunn's decision in light of Maggie's suffering to play a role in her death. I would argue that Frankie's priest is correct: He warns Dunn that doing what he plans will destroy him; he will be lost to himself, if not to God. This becomes his sacrifice for Maggie.

So Dunn loses himself for Maggie's sake. That sounds dangerously like it might lead to a Deep Thought, and I think it does, raising the movie to a moral height I haven't seen in a while. And Eastwood forces us to stay eyes wide open despite the height. Keep in mind that the evil German boxer disappears; Eastwood refuses to give us the facile satisfaction of "seeing Justice done." Instead, he manages to make a statement that stands at the center of my own faith: We may seek justice, but what we really need is mercy. Furthermore, as Dunn's priest says, even if you leave out Heaven and Hell, even if you leave out God, some things remain true, such as the fact that the steady heart of sacrifice beats without thought of reward. So in the end the movie is simple and terrible, beautiful in its insistence that Dunn may have done something wrong, but it was still a moral decision, mysterious, hidden from our partial understanding, led relentlessly by mercy and the need to atone.

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