Philomena (2013)

Anybody who thinks there’s much difference between fundamentalist Islam, the Jim Jones cult,and mainstream Christianity needs to watch Philomena, Steven Frears’s short, devastating film about the Sean Ross Abbey south of Roscrea in County Tipperary, Ireland.

One scene in particular haunts me. A group of teenage girls who attend St Anne’s school, which doubles as a home for single mothers, are waiting impatiently to enter a room. When the nun, one of their teachers, finally opens the door, they squeal wildly and rush inside. But this isn’t a line to get tickets for a Justin Bieber concert. These little girls, these children, are waiting to see their own children. It’s not an indictment of teenage sex, but of patriarchy. Philomena, the titular heroine, who is 17 but looks younger, was not raped or seduced by an older man. On the contrary, she has nothing but pleasant memories of losing her virginity. Her lover was not only young and handsome. He knew exactly where her clitoris was. But birth control wasn’t widely available in Ireland in the 1950s, and Philomena never had a sex education class. So she winds up pregnant. She’s treated, not as a single mother, but as a criminal, incarcerated in St. Anne’s for the crime of sexual intercourse. But that’s not even the worst part. St. Anne’s is not just an authoritarian reform school. It’s a baby mill. Her son is taken from her without permission and sold on the open market to rich Americans.

The action of Philomena begins 50 years later. We meet Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, who, in the aftermath of having lost his job as a Labor Party press spokesman, is looking for a new career. He’s thinking about writing a book on Russia history — he was the BBC’s man in Moscow — but his heart’s not really in it. Sixsmith is an Oxford graduate, an ex-Catholic, with the emphasis on “ex,” as much a representative of the liberal, secular side of the United Kingdom as the nuns who run St. Anne’s school are of rural Ireland. After Philomena’s younger child Jane approaches him to ask him to write a story on the loss of her older brother, he, reluctantly, agrees. A “human interest story” is a big step down in prestige, but Sixsmith is a true journalist with a journalist’s natural curiosity. He’s also desperate to get his career back on track.

Philomena, now an elderly woman, a retired nurse, has been looking for her son for decades. Even though she has gone back to St. Anne’s, the nuns have been of no assistance, and, as Sixsmith immediately suspects, have been deliberately stonewalling her. While the Sean Ross Abbey may have gotten a new liberal coat of paint, a younger, subtler mother superior and a black office manager, underneath it’s the same rotten old Catholic Church, a harsh, puritanical matriarchy acting as the local enforcer for the vicious patriarchy in Rome. That Sixsmith can see this almost instantly and Philomena cannot demonstrates just what a tight hold the church still has on her mind. She knows the nuns stole her child. She suspects that they’re stonewalling her, but she’s also unwilling to see the worst in people, even Sister Hildegarde, who will reveal herself as the vile old woman she is at the film’s conclusion.

“Why do you think they managed to lose all the records that will help you find your son,” Sixsmith says when Philomena shows him the restrictive adoption papers she signed, “yet managed to keep the ones that prevent you from contacting him?”

As the movie proceeds, we learned why. The nuns burned all the records documenting how they were selling children on the open market to rich Americans. The action now shifts to the United States, to Washington DC, where Philomena has agreed to accompany Sixsmith. Their relationship deepens. Sixsmith is the upper-class cynic. Philomena is the elderly working class, Catholic innocent. There’s a running joke about Sixsmith’s expense account. For him, the flight to Washington is just another business trip. For Philomena, it’s the entrance to a world of affluent privilege she never imagined existed. But it’s by no means one sided. Sixsmith is curt and perfunctory with service people. Philomena is keenly sensitive to the minimum wage employees who staff the airlines, the restaurants, and the hotels. It seems odd to us that Philomena would have to stop to go to confession in rural Maryland. “Confession,” Sixsmith growls. “That church should be confessing to you.” But Sixsmith’s blistering cynicism also seems misplaced.

In the end, it takes both of them to unravel the mystery. I won’t go into any spoilers, but they find out what happened to Philomena’s son. Sixsmith’s journalistic sleuthing takes them halfway there, but it takes Philomena’s ability to earn people’s trust to take them the rest of the way. The final hour of Philomena is, if anything, more powerful than the introduction. Frears knows exactly how to dramatize a mother’s instinctive love for the son she never met. Nothing about what he became surprises her, if only because she instinctively learned all about him in the brief period she knew him in his childhood. The journey takes them both back to Sean Martin Abbey, where we learn that the nuns who allowed her to deliver a baby via a “breech birth” without anesthesia as “penance,” who emotionally brutalized her, who not only stole her child but stole him on the open market are worse than even all this would have led us to believe. Few films manage to capture the most extreme, most sadistic side of a patriarchal institution like Philomena. Sister Hildegarde doesn’t so much speak her lines. She vomits them out, as much of a demon as Linda Blair was in The Exorcist. But, overall, Philomena didn’t make me want to go Jacobin and tear down the Vatican. It reminded me of a poem by William Blake.

“I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;

So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,

That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tomb-stones where flowers should be:

And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.”

Before Midnight (2013)

Twenty years ago, back in 1994, Ethan Hawke starred in a movie called Reality Bites. He was Troy Dyer, a prototypical, angry young slacker with a high IQ, and without a job. The heroine of the film, an aspiring documentary filmmaker played by Winona Ryder, when she was still cute and didn’t shoplift, had a choice. There was Troy. There was Michael Grates, a young Ben Stiller as an executive at an MTV like cable TV channel called “In Your Face.” We all know who she would have picked in real life. In the film, she picked Troy, even though he was an abusive prick, nowhere as near as smart as the movie told as he was, and was probably destined to end up selling real estate, or living with his parents.

In 1995, Hawke starred in another, much better film called Before Sunrise. Here he played “Jesse,” basically Troy Dyer on his “junior year abroad.” Jesse, like Troy, was a prototypical young slacker. He wasn’t as smart as the movie told us he was. But, even if the heroine, Celine, a young Frenchwoman he met on a train in Vienna, wasn’t quite as cute as Winona Ryder, she was European. So he was nice to her. She represented “culture.” He also remembered that old American cliché that you should never talk about religion or politics. Troy, for all his faults, at least knew capitalism sucked. Jesse? I’m not sure what Jesse believed in. He certainly didn’t believe in “exchanging addresses.” He and Celine have sex once, get back on the train, and go their separate ways.

In 2004, during the very darkest days of the Bush Administration, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy released the sequel, Before Sunset. Jesse and Celine are now both in their early 30s. Celine works for a non-profit dedicated to fighting for the environment. She never talks about the environment, but she’s French so we knows she’s on the far left, and probably even reads Althusser. Jesse is now a successful novelist, having written a book about their night together back in Vienna. He’s on a book tour. Celine decides to look him up, and, even though he’s already married, and has a young son, we’re rooting for them to stay together, for Jesse to dump whatever American girl he married because, after all, Celine is French. Before Sunset ends before we learned what happened.

Oh let’s not kid ourselves. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were both critically acclaimed films that cost about 2 million dollars each, peanuts by mainstream Hollywood standards. Of course they got together. How else would there be a sequel? It’s now 2013. Troy, uh, I mean Jesse, didn’t end up selling real estate or living with his parents after all. He’s that rarest of individuals, not only a successful novelist, but a successful novelist who’s able to live in Paris, vacation in Greece, and commute back and forth to Chicago to visit his son and his ex-wife, all on royalties from a book that, to be honest, doesn’t even sound that good. It sounds like he won the lottery.

But he didn’t. As Midnight opens with Jesse, who still dresses like Troy from Reality Bites, taking Hank, his 13 year old son from his first marriage to the airport. Jesse and Celine, now married with twin girls, have spent the Summer on a retreat in the Peloponnese with “Patrick,” a writer even more successful than Jesse. We know he’s a great writer because he looks vaguely Mediterranean and has a British accent. Jesse’s son Hank seems destined to grow up into another Troy. He’s sullen, resentful, the child of a divorce. You can almost see his mother getting drunk back in Chicago— we never see her but Celine repeatedly lets us know he’s an alcoholic — and pulling aside the poor little boy as a captive audience. “Your father left me for that French bitch.” Jesse, feeling guilty, seems eager to please. He’s still Troy, still the American slacker boy man.

Back in the car, we meet Celine and the twin girls — who conveniently remain asleep so Jesse and Celine can fill us in on what happened in the past ten years. Celine, while never as cute as Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, still looks “pretty good for her age.” Let’s cut to the chase. The Celine of Before Sunrise is a woman from “my generation” who probably would have rejected me when we were both in our 20s. If I stalked her on Facebook — which I certainly would — and found the Celine of Before Midnight, my reaction would probably be something along the lines of “yeah. I’d probably still do her if I got the chance but wouldn’t feel quite so bad now if she rejected me.” Celine is not a happy woman. Why should she be? Her husband’s a famous novelist and a “great writer” who, as we realize during an excruciatingly boring dinner party, isn’t even very smart. Jesse is Troy from Reality Bites, if the world bought Troy’s hype. Celine knows it. She knows that if anybody should be the great writer, it should be herself. Unlike Ethan Hawke, who comes off like a mediocre actor reading lines, Julie Delpy has a certain gravitas. She embodies her part. Hawke only acts his.

If Before Midnight begins with Jesse eager to please his son, he spends the rest of the film trying to please his wife. Don’t listen to the critics about how this film “takes no sides.” Before Midnight is Celine’s movie. It’s Julie Delpy’s film. Before Midnight is about a woman’s fear of getting old. It’s about her dissatisfaction that men get shoved to the front of the line. It’s about her realization that the her culture, the same culture that declared her husband to be a great writer because he wrote what was basically a letter to Penthouse Forum expanded into a novel — “you won’t believe what happened to me on the train in Vienna” — is a complete fraud. We feel her seething throughout the long, boring dinner party, where Jesse floats ideas for the plot of his next novel that sound like they’d be rejected in a freshman year creative writing class. Celine may be politically incorrect. She uses the word “cunt” and theorizes about why women over 35 don’t get raped. But Before Midnight is a decidedly feminist movie. If ever a white male needed to “check his privilege” it’s Jesse from the “Before” series.

If I’ve sounded a bit cynical about Before Midnight up until now, rest assured I’m not. It’s a great film, but you have to wait until the final 30 minutes to realize it. The dinner party has broken up. Jesse and Celine are alone in a hotel room that was given to them as a present by their friends, some Greek couple who come off as Southern Europeans right from central casting. They start out trying to maintain the illusion that Linklatter maintained for the first two and a half movies, that they’re both living out a grand romantic life together, when, in fact, their marriage is nothing but a brief flirtation that’s been drawn out for two decades. Then they began to squabble, not in a balls out “I hate you” sort of way, but in the passive aggressive manner of two verbally sharp members of the cultural elite. But it doesn’t stop there. As the argument goes on, we realize something. Celine is now Troy. Yes, she’s got some job at a non-profit. She’s got two kids and an affluent live, but, at heart, she’s still a 20-year-old rebel trapped in the body of a 40-year-old mother. If Before Midnight never mentions politics — In Greece in 2013? — then it’s partly because we know how much Celine would love to be out on the barricades in Athens fighting the riot cops. But she can’t. She’s got twin little girls. She’s trapped in a loveless marriage with some loser American boy man who got lucky. Finally, she tells him she doesn’t love him anymore. The narrative that’s played out over the past 20 years, the perfect, perfectly apolitical love affair for the neoliberal age, is over. It’s been turned on its head. Celine is civilized, and French, so she doesn’t throw a lamp at his head. But we realize how deep her discontent runs.

Before Midnight ends perfectly. We certainly hope she’ll get on with her life and there won’t be any more sequels. I hope hey don’t draw it out into their old age, or, if they do, at least let Jesse get a clue and realize he’s been a fraud all along, that he should get a job teaching English, become a “house husband,” and babysit the kids while his wife finally gets to live her life.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

In their illustrated novel Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco talk about “economic sacrifice zones.” Camden, New Jersey, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, McDowell County, West Virginia are pockets of poverty and despair so isolated and so cut off from the American mainstream they might as well be somewhere in the Third World. Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper’s film staring Christian Bale as a Western Pennsylvania steel worker, is a deeply flawed attempt to make a film about this side of the United States.

In spite of some excellent performances by a cast of A-list Hollywood actors, Woody Harrelson, Bale, Sam Shepherd, Willem Defoe, and Casey Affleck, Out of the Furnace is a terrible movie. It’s often laughably anachronistic. It’s dull. It’s violent without having any clear idea about how it feels about the violence it portrays. The excellent Winter’s Bone, which was made for one-tenth the cost, 2 million dollars as opposed to Out of the Furnace’s 20 million dollars, showed us back in 2010 that you could indeed make a successful film about an “economic sacrifice zone.” So what went wrong?

I think Out of the Furnace might have failed precisely because it had an A-list cast and a 20 million dollar budget. Big stars and big budgets restrict a director’s freedom as much as they enable him to make a good film. Here’s what I think happened. While you do of course have every right to make a film about an “economic sacrifice zone,” you don’t have a right to investors, to funding. People won’t put up money for a film they don’t think will make money. Winter’s Bone, which starred Jennifer Lawrence when she was still a relative unknown, slipped through the cracks. It was a low-budget movie with a future mega-star. The Wire is a TV show. But Out of the Furnace, as a relatively big budget, relatively mainstream film had to follow certain conventions.

So how does poverty “make it through the censors,” which, in the United States? It’s rare, of course, for a mainstream film to feature poor, unattractive people. But there are certain formats you can work in if you’re interested in making a film about an economic sacrifice zone. You can make a crime drama. Police procedurals and detective shows are where you see the poor on TV.  You might, of course, argue that for most people people in America, cops are omnipresent. You get stopped and frisked on the way to work. You come home and watch the police respond to the domestic disturbance next door. But you’re not going to show an A-list Hollywood actor getting stopped and frisked or waiting in line for a payday loan at the check cashing store. So you need to dramatize poverty indirectly, circle around it, suggest rather than show outright, leave some room for the central protagonist to become a “hero.”

Out of the Furnace squares the circle by way of a revenge drama. It opens at a drive in. Note above what I said about “anachronistic.” We’re never told where the drive-in is located but we see Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, who we later learn is one of the Ramapo Valley Indians of Bergen Country, New Jersey, terrorizing his girlfriend. When a man in the next car tries to stop it, DeGroat savagely beats him in the parking-lot. This is not a man, we’re shown, who we really want to run into in a dark alley. Bergen County New Jersey, of course, is by no definition an “economic sacrifice zone,” but the hills above Mahwah, where the Ramapo Mountain Indians live, is an isolated, often misunderstood place. So there you have it. Poverty and isolation is embodied by one irrational, violent criminal. That he’s portrayed by a big star also means he has to be a seriously badass violent, irrational criminal, not just an idiot who shoots his mother for her welfare check or knocks over a convenience store.

The movie then shifts to North Braddock, a decayed industrial city just outside of Pittsburgh, not, strictly speaking, an economic sacrifice zone either, but still run down, a place that has seen better days. We meet Russell Baze, Bale, who works in a local steel mill as a welder. The aesthetics of North Braddock appear to have been lifted whole cloth right out of the Deer Hunter. There is in fact still an operational steel mill in North Braddock, but I doubt it’s a big part of the local economy anymore. I’m not exactly sure what North Braddock looks like these days, but this North Braddock appears to be stuck in a 1970s time warp. Restored muscle cars, dark, grimy working class bars, old men dying next to plastic statutes of the Virgin Mary, there are no desktop computers, no Starbucks, no big box stores or fast food places. A mobile phone will play a key role in the plot, but this is my father’s Western Pennsylvania, not mine. There is some good cinematography in Out of the Furnace. A road trip Russell Baze takes to Mahwah, New Jersey — portrayed by Independence Township Pennsylvania — is simultaneously beautiful and menacing. But, for the most part, Scott Cooper seems to be “sampling” from the Deer Hunter because he’s unsure of how to shoot the current day suburbs of Pittsburgh. Deborah Granik, in Winters Bone, by contrast, not only shows us the authentic Ozark “economic sacrifice zone” of Arkansas and Missouri, she shows so much of it it almost starts to look like a documentary.

We also meet Russell Baze’s younger brother Rodney, an Iraq War veteran who, since he has trouble settling down and getting a job, has gotten mixed up with some local gangsters, the bare-knuckled fight scene, and, ultimately, Harlan DeGroat. Why a local gangster and drug dealer in northern New Jersey is mixed up in a similar scene all the way out in Western Pennsylvania is never quite explained. In spite of Russell’s efforts to save his brother, efforts that include signing over his entire paycheck to pay his debt, Rodney agrees to participate in a bare-knuckled match out in New Jersey, where, in exchange for “taking a dive,” DeGroat agrees to forgive him and John Petty, Defoe, the money they owe. Petty and Rodney drive out to New Jersey. Rodney takes the dive as agreed, but, for some reason never explained, Harlan DeGroat murders them both.

The murder staged in Out of the Furnace, and the apparently lack of motivation, has, in the real world, led to some members of the Ramapo Mountain tribe to bring a law suit against Scott Cooper and the producers of Out of the Furnace. Since DeGroat is a common name among the Ramapo Mountain people and since Harrelson’s character is so irredeemably vicious, they’ve accused the film of being nothing less than a “hate crime.” It is indeed a little baffling as to why Cooper would have an isolated little rural slum in New Jersey play such a large role in a film about Western Pennsylvania but I suspect it has something to do with wanting to address racial tensions in Braddock — which is now 60 percent black — without having to deal with any fallout. Although Cooper casts two fine black actors, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana, in insignificant roles, the racial “other” is played by the white, Anglo Saxon Woody Harrelson as a Ramapo Mountain “Indian.” Cooper jumped out of the frying pan and landed right in the fire.

In any event, while in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s Uncle Teardrop and an associated family of meth cookers embody the poverty, desperation and violence of an “economic sacrifice zone,” in Out of the Furnace, Harrelson does it all by himself. It doesn’t work. While Harrelson certainly knows how to play a violent, depraved criminal, it comes off more like a star turn than anything that speaks to the society of either the Ramapo Mountain People or of Western Pennsylvania. Russell’s revenge, where Bale lures Harrelson back to Braddock on the pretext of collecting a debt, is as implausible as it is dramatically unconvincing. A scary crime lord like DeGroat didn’t have lackeys willing to drive out and collect the money? Nobody’s ever heard of PayPal or money orders? What’s more, it makes no sense that a welder would suddenly transform himself into a badass killing machine. Knowing how to fire a hunting rifle never made anybody Dirty Harry. It would have, in fact, made a lot more sense to have had Rodney, as an Iraq War Vet, avenge Russell, his hard working civilian brother. Surely they teach people how to kill in the army, but, once again, the economics of the film override its dramatic logic. Christian Bale is a bigger star than Casey Affleck, so he had to play the hero.

Indeed, Russell’s transformation into an avenger contrasts poorly with Jennifer Lawrence’s Rhea Dolly. Winter’s Bone is dramatically effective precisely because Rhea has to overcome her terror, precisely because she’s a 17-year-old girl without protection, stuck in an economic sacrifice zone where she and her younger brother and sister are about to lose their house. Winter’s Bone brings us into that economic sacrifice zone because it brings us into the mind of a young woman who understands what it means, but doesn’t fully understand what it means. The film is a learning process. Out of the Furnace, by contrast, is just another macho action flick. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s a criminal waste of talent.

Forget about Out of the Furnace. Watch Winter’s Bone. Read Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Dig your out your old VHS copy of the Deer Hunter, and, if you’re still in the mood, take a drive up to the Ramapo Mountains. I’m 100% sure you won’t get killed.

Nebraska (2013)

“This is the way the world ends,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem “The Hollow Men, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

Nebraska shows how it works in the United States. While the acclaimed new film by Bob Nelson and Alexander Payne presents itself as being an unvarnished, black and white, realistic, even hyper-realistic examination of a small group of people in the Midwest, it’s best viewed as an allegory about the end of American civilization. The United States, the film tells us, will not go down in flames, consumed by the souls of dead slaves and native Americans who rise up like demons from their graves. Rather, it will simply spin out into tired irrelevance, like the disconnected thoughts of a senile old man.

Woody Grant, played by a time-ravaged Bruce Dern, a retired auto-mechanic living in Billings Montana, has received a letter from Publishers Clearing House informing him that if subscribes to a list of magazines he will be entered into a sweepstakes to win a million dollars. While most of just run this kind of junk mail through the shredder as soon as we get it, Woody, who’s In the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, not only believes that he’s already won, he thinks he has to go personally to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his prize. No longer able to drive, he’s determined to go the 700 miles by foot.. Every day the police find him walking alongside the highway in the middle of Winter. Every day they bring him back to his wife, who remarks that if she had a million dollars, the first thing she would do is put him in a home. Finally David, his 40-year-old son, hoping it will bring him back down to reality, agrees to drive him.

Along the way they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska — I have no idea if it’s a real town or not — where the majority of the film takes place. Hawthorne Nebraska is the end of America. We observe the huge grain silos towering over the sparse, sincere downtown. The beaten up, whitewashed houses, the threadbare decor, the decades old advertisements, it’s a pale fading spirit of a great agricultural and industrial civilization in the memory of an old man.

I sometimes wonder why Americans no longer seem capable of greatness, or even of great evil, why, unlike people in the Middle East or Eastern or Southern Europe, even in the face of an economic disaster, the massive redistribution of wealth to the ruling class, the destruction of families and neighborhoods, the outsourcing of industry to the Third World, we seem incapable of rebelling, of “raging against the dying of the light.” Americans seem determined to go quiet into that good night, to plod along, regimented, obedient, spiritually dead.

During Woody and David’s stay in Hawthorne, as we meet his family, his old friends, and their children, Nebraska suggests a possible answer. We are an old, tired, senile culture. Whether physically young, like Woody’s two obese nephews in their early 30s, or old, like his former lover who runs the local newspaper, we are trapped in a cul de sac, a dead purposeless life we not only can’t escape, but have lost even the desire to escape. Hawthorne Nebraska is a town with a few young people who will never have a real life and a great many old people who remember their childhood as though it were yesterday, mostly because nothing ever came in between it and their senility. Their lives are over, and, yet, they’re still waiting for them to begin. We are in Dante’s antepurgtory, in the absurdist, disconnected chatter of a play by Samuel Beckett.

David, recognizing that Woody’s life is nearing its close, gradually loses the heart to wake him up to reality. What reality? When Woody tells his old friends about his fortune, they convince themselves he owes them money, then decide to believe him. In their various attempts to beg, extort, or demand part of his bonanza, the layers of memory are pealed back. A society is revealed, if not necessarily through its greed, but through the idea that it thinks it should be motivated by greed. None of these people really need the money. None of them really want it. There isn’t much to spend it on in Hawthorne, and none of them have any intention of leaving anyway. When they realize that they have been “duped,” that Woody has duped himself, that they have allowed themselves to be sucked into the illusions of a dying old man, their reaction is predictably cruel and predictably meaningless. After Woody insists to David that they go to Lincoln after all, tries to collect the prize money, and finally realizes the truth himself, it brings no enlightenment, not even a resounding sense of defeat. Winning a million dollars was never much of a dream to begin with. It’s just another day, and Woody is one step closer to death.

“I saw their starved lips in the gloam, with horrid warning gaped wide,” John Keats said in his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. “And I awoke and found me here, on the cold hill’s side.”

Nebraska ends on the cold hill’s side, but for Woody there never even was the dream of a beautiful woman without mercy. We realize that there’s no real difference between being asleep and awake, between reality and illusion. We not only awake on the cold hill’s side, we’ve been there all along.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club is a gritty little Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of a movie.

A conservative, libertarian core inside a tasty chocolate wrapper of cultural liberalism, Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, an intelligent, complex man inside the shell of a course, homophobic Texas redneck, who discovers that he is HIV positive at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. It is a confrontation with mortality. McConaughey lost 50 pounds for the film. He has the fragile, skeletal arms and legs of an old man. Jared Leto, who plays Rayon, a transsexual who Woodroof befriends over time, has the blotchy skin and unnatural pallor of a terminal AIDS patient.

Even though it’s a stark portrayal of two dying men, Dallas Buyers Club is also an upbeat story about an ultimately successful struggle against big government. If Chernobyl exposed the shortcomings of the Soviet government, then the AIDS epidemic hit the American government almost as hard. President Reagan never even acknowledged it existed until the final years of his administration. But even more damaging was the cumbersome, self-serving process the FDA used for approving new treatments.

Woodroof, who meets Rayon in the hospital at an experimental program to test the drug AZT experiences it firsthand. There is a sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner, who doesn’t have very much to do other than portray a character stuck into the plot mainly to prove that “all doctors aren’t bad.” But the head of the program, Dr. Sevard, is an overbearing government bureaucrat from central casting. Even after he’s confronted with evidence that AZT has side effects that cause more harm than any good the drug might do, he’s unwilling to make any changes to the program that’s quite obviously killing as many people as it helps.

After Woodroof realizes his symptoms are getting worse, he travels to Mexico and undergoes treatment at a clinic run by a Dr. Vass, a renegade who has lost his license to practice medicine in the United States. He immediately takes Woodroof off the AZT — It kills every cell it touches, he explains —- and puts him on a regiment of ddC and the protein peptide T, which, even though acknowledge to be non-toxic, have not yet been approved by the FDA. Soon, Woodroof has made what seems to have been a miraculous recovery. He hasn’t been cured of HIV, of course, but he realizes that treating the symptoms of AIDS do more good than trying to attack a virus that can’t be killed anyway.

For Dallas Buyers Club, the struggle to ameliorate the effects of AIDS was won not through collective action, by ACT UP or any other radical group, but by the invisible hand of the market. Ron Woodroof does not found The Dallas Buyers Club, a subscription service that gives AIDS patients access to alternative treatments by paying a fee of 400 dollars a month — a setup that allows him to evade the FDA’s regulations since his customers are paying for the memberships and not the drugs — for the good of mankind. He did it to make money. Woodroof’s views have evolved since learning he was HIV positive, but, at heart, he’s still a wheeler and dealer, a small time Texas capitalist.

After Woodroof self-medicates with too strong a dose of Interferon, however, he has a mild heart attack and winds up back in the hospital, where Dr. Sevard discovers what he’s doing. Soon the heavy hand of government bureaucracy in the form of Richard Barkley, an FDA agent, comes down on the Dallas Buyers Club and ruins Woodroof’s business. As the increasingly cash strapped Woodroof becomes more and more sympathetic towards Rayon, whose health continues its downward spiral not so much because of the HIV virus but because she insists on maintaining her drug habit,which, in conjunction with the HIV virus, devastates her immune system, the FDA and the United States government continues to grow more and more repressive and out of touch.

Eventually the FDA changes its regulations to make any unapproved drug also illegal. ddC and the peptide T become almost impossible to get, and Woodroof winds up losing a lawsuit against the FDA. As the final credits roll, we learn that Woodroof died in 1992, 7 years after he was diagnosed with HIV, even though he was later allowed to acquire ddC and the peptide T for personal use.

The aesthetics of Dallas Buyers Club transcend the free-market ideology. Dallas Buyers Club shows us a United States we rarely see in film or on TV. Trailer parks, oil drilling sights with lax safety regulations — in one scene an undocumented Mexican worker writhes in pain as his coworkers look on unconcerned — stark, bargain basement strip malls, an uncaring health care system, the landscape of Dallas Buyers Club is a landscape of economic desperation, as relevant to the post 2008 days of the Great Recession as it is to the AIDS epidemic of the mid-1980s. Rayon is not only a transsexual, she’s every American living on the margins of society, rejected by her family and cast out of the mainstream as a freak. When Woodroof breaks down and hugs her, or when he goes berserk at Dr. Sevard’s clinic after he puts her on AZT and she dies, it’s more than the expression of one man’s rage.

It’s a dramatization of working-class solidarity, of honor among misfits.

Ali (2001)

If Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is a good example of the right way to make a feature length drama about a well-known historical figure, then Michael Mann’s Ali is probably a good example of how the same kind of film can fail. Michael Mann who directed the cult classic Heat and Magnificent Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis has as much talent as Spike Lee. Will Smith, while not on the same level as Daniel Day Lewis, does a credible job as the titular hero. But Ali plays like a clunky 1970s TV movie.

How did Michael Mann manage, or why did he choose to make the life of Muhammad Ali look boring? Maybe the best way to approach the question is by looking at the film’s strengths. Will Smith captures some of Ali’s virtuosity with words, but it feels mechanical. Where Denzel Washington embodied Malcolm X, Will Smith always seems to be acting the part of Muhammad Ali. The fight scenes work on a technical level. But they lack the excitement of the excellent When We Were Kings, or even the rough, compelling melodrama of Rocky. Ali’s relationship to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and his heroic refusal to serve in the army during the Vietnam War are dealt with in a workmanlike, but perfunctory manner. The love scenes are just boring.

Ali is at it’s strongest when it slows down and shows Ali in his most private moments. Not only does Will Smith capture Ali’s laid back southern personality in a way he doesn’t capture him as a trash talking virtuoso, the film shows this titanic figure in the history of sports and American politics getting hassled by the cops while he’s jogging, walking through a snowstorm in a hoodie, worrying about money, sitting around in his living room watching TV with his family, We understand what it must have been like for the real Muhammad Ali to imagine that his career as a fighter was over, that he could no longer practice the art that he might have been better at than any other person in history.

Had Michael Mann explored Ali’s private relationship with Malcolm X, Ali might have been a good, or even a great movie. But in spite of one poignant moment where Ali refuses to speak to Malcolm when they run into each other quite by accident in Africa, Ali’s betrayal feels rushed, almost as if Mann felt he had to cover it but wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

Why, for example, did Malcolm X not have a full Muslim name, but Ali was “promoted’ from Cassius X to Muhammad Ali shortly after his conversion? It was, of course, a reward for his prominence — Ali was the most famous recruit the Nation of Islam ever had — and a bribe to betray Malcolm, with whom he had been close friends. Mann, to his credit, does put it on screen, but then lets it drop almost as quickly.

That Mann shows Ali’s independence from Elijah Mohammad and a hand-picked Nation of Islam handler is commendable but it also feels as if he’s also dancing around the real issue. As heroic as Ali was in his opposition to the Vietnam War, in his willingness to go to jail rather than serve in the army, he missed the boat on Malcolm X. A genuine exploration on how and why Ali fell so short in what might have been the most important test of his life as far as I know has yet to be put to film.

Malcolm X (1992)

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X holds up surprisingly well after 22 years. Much of the credit should go to Denzel Washington, who puts on one of the great performances in the history of cinema. But, if this very long — over three hours — film has scarcely a boring moment, it has a lot to do with Spike Lee’s direction and Arnold Perl’s screenplay, both of which compliment each other perfectly.

Let’s take one representative moment. Most of us are familiar with the photo of Malcolm X standing near a window with an M1 carbine. Perhaps we’ve seen a poster on the wall of a college dormitory with the famous caption reading “by any means necessary.” Spike Lee puts the image in a sophisticated fictional context — the actual circumstances of the photo aren’t clear — that undermines the idea that it’s a “call to arms.” We are late in the film. Malcolm X, who has just returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, is giving a press conference with a group of clueless — Is there any other type? — white reporters. Since he’s worshipped with Muslims of all races, he’s no longer a rigid black nationalist. He’s also broken with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, but he’s unwilling to change his position on armed self-defense. “When the white man gives up his guns,” he says to one particularly belligerent reporter, “we’ll give up ours.” But just as we’re about to cheer, a black man at the back of the crowd yells “get your hand out of my pocket,” exactly what one of Malcolm’s assassins yelled at the Audubon Ballroom, and, thus, clearly foreshadowing his murder. Later, at home, we see the famous image. Denzel Washington, as Malcolm X, is standing in front of the window with an M1 Carbine. The image is transformed. Malcolm is not defending his family against the Klan, or against the police, but against his fellow black Muslims. It’s not an image romanticizing violence, but calling our attention to its cost.

Lee’s film is not only an evocation of Malcolm X from the grave. It’s an elegy for the leader he might have been. Malcolm, only 39 years old when he was murdered, was not only at the height of his oratorical powers, but in the middle of a spiritual and intellectual transformation only the greatest leaders go through. If Lincoln died when he was on his way to seeing black Americans as his equals, then Malcolm X died before he become the leader of the black nation within the American nation, a “black messiah,” to use J. Edgar Hoover’s surprisingly accurate term.

Denzel Washington, who was 38 in 1992, accomplishes the astonishing feat of capturing Malcolm X at each stage of his development. Somehow Washington’s 19-year-old Malcolm X looks 19. That’s no mean accomplishment. Even the great Daniel Day Lewis, who, in Jim Sheridan’s film In the Name of the Father played the unjustly accused Irish political prisoner Gerry Conlon over a similar span of time, barely even tries to get the ages right. Lewis’s 19 year old Gerry Conlon looks 35. Yet when Malcolm X opens, the 38-year-old Washington manages to look like a young man barely out of his teens.

We are in Boston during the Second World War. It’s actually Ridgewood in Queens, but, whether it’s historically accurate or not, Spike Lee has set the stage with so much energy and commitment it doesn’t really matter. We think we’re in Boston during the Second World War. Malcolm, and his friend “Shorty,” played by Lee himself, are decked out in their “zoot suits.” Malcolm is about to get what’s known as a “conk,” a black man treating his hair with lye in order to straighten it, to make him look more like a white man. It’s not self-mutilation on the level of Michael Jackson, but it’s remarkably painful nonetheless. Later we see Malcolm blow off a black woman to get involved with a white woman named Sofia. He hooks up with a West Indian gangster named Archie, starts running numbers, and, soon, is living the life of a petty criminal.

Black men committing crimes, Lee implies, comes from their wanting to be white, from self-hatred, but he doesn’t quite leave it at that moralistic level. Washington’s Malcolm X is more than just a self-hating black man. He’s a gifted young man with a high IQ. He had the ability to be anything he wanted, but he was cut adrift by a society that did not allow blacks to rise to their potential. So much for a “meritocracy.” Indeed, we had seen him earlier mention to a clueless, malevolent white teacher he wanted to be a lawyer, only to be told he should be a carpenter instead, “like Jesus.” Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm, and Lee’s photography, shows him not only as a young man who hates himself, but as a young man looking for his identity. He’s charming one moment, angry and violent the next. The way Lee shoots him and Shorty as they walk along in their “zoot suits,” with a hand held camera from below, conveys what Malcolm is thinking. “This is fun for the moment, but it’s not me. I’m trying on this identity like I’m trying on this walk and this zoot suit. But when I find out who I really am, I’ll get rid of them.”

Malcolm finds himself in prison. After being sentenced to an 8-10 year sentence for burglary, and after being tortured into barking out a prison number instead of his “real” name,” he catches the attention of “Brother Baines,” a prison recruiter for Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Brother Baines, who will later betray him, helps him get over his hatred of himself for being black. But we also get the sense that part of the appeal of the Nation of Islam for Malcolm is that it’s also an opportunity to, finally, make use of his formidable intellect. After he’s paroled Malcolm quickly rises in the hierarchy of the Nation of Islam becoming not only Elijah Muhammad’s right hand man, but his clear superior.

One of the things that the film leaves unmentioned is how Malcolm X recruited Muhammad Ali, a coup on the level of someone in the Occupy movement recruiting Jennifer Lawrence into a drum circle at Zuccotti Park. Soon, Brother Baines is leading the anti-Malcolm faction in the Nation of Islam. So why didn’t Spike Lee include Malcolm’s recruitment of Muhammad Ali? It’s a significant part of the autobiography. Perhaps he was afraid of complications that would arise from the fact that Ali, who later regretted his mistake and converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, did not support Malcolm after his break with Elijah Muhammad. Perhaps he was afraid a historical character as important as Ali would have thrown his story out of proportion. In any event, we do get some hints over the way Brother Baines scolds Malcolm in prison for being happy about Jackie Robinson making it into the major leagues. While it’s true that Malcolm’s conversion was still in process, we also feel Malcolm’s affinity for another gifted black American and for individual achievement that a less brilliant activist like Baines might have resented.

As the inevitable tragedy plays out, as we approach the assassination, the tone of the film turns darker. We all know what’s going to happen. Malcolm X will be assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom, but the level of dread Spike Lee is able to imbue the final hour of Malcolm X with is quite remarkable. Spike Lee is known as something of an eccentric character, a manic little man who waives a towel on the floor of Knicks home games, but he’s also thought deeply about American violence, and how it consumes the most gifted Americans. Lincoln, both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the body count of potentially transformative leaders is staggeringly large. Lee never addresses possible government involvement in Malcolm’s assassination, but he’s interested in something far more important than another conspiracy theory. Malcolm X, a potential great man, was cut down by black mediocrities as surely as his father, a political activist and follower of Marcus Garvey, was murdered by the Klan.

There’s nothing liberating about violence, Lee is telling us. Washington’s Malcolm X is not a ruthless leader of an armed rebellion. Instead, he’s most powerful when he’s speaking in front of a crowd, not holding a gun. The highpoint of his success comes not instigating violence but with preventing it. After a black man is beaten by the police and taken, in secret, into a police station to be left to die, Malcolm leads a march on the precinct. There are no guns involved, just discipline and organization, for more important, even in the event of an armed rebellion, than a stockpile of weapons. As he leads a column of well dressed men against the police, the rest of the neighborhood follows along. The threat of a mass uprising forces the police to back down and take the beaten man to a hospital. Not a shot is fired. Not a punch is thrown. Not a harsh word is spoken. It’s what might have been, Lee is telling us, the promise of a new African nation inside the United States that was cut down by the hail of bullet inside the Audubon Ballroom.

Even as a white American, the enemy in the eyes of the Nation of Islam, I can’t help but realize that a well-organized black America might have been better for all Americans than a downtrodden mass at the mercy of the corporatocracy. Indeed, that might be the film’s biggest accomplishment. As opposed to the clueless white reporters, who persistently label Malcolm an “anti-white-extremist,” we can see that his political agenda, in the end, would not have been limited to his personal history. While it’s certainly understandable that any black man whose father had been murdered by the Klan and who had his opportunities limited by a racist white establishment would be hostile towards, even hate white people, it’s also clear that Malcom X had the intellect and the self-discipline necessary to work through his personal baggage to a larger, more inclusive vision. Lee somehow manages to use the trip to Mecca to convey a sense, not only of coming to orthodox Islam, but also transcending a narrow American view of the world. Perhaps Malcolm X, like James Baldwin in Paris, would have eventually realized that the United States is only one part of a very large world, economically and militarily powerful, but culturally limited. We’ll never know.

Exotica (1994)

If Atom Egoyan’s Exotica wasn’t quite as successful as it might have been, it probably has something to do with the deceptive advertising campaign Miramax Films used when it opened. I still remember the first time I became aware of this movie, from a poster in the window of a video rental store near the New Jersey Transit Station in Linden New Jersey. The image of a 19-year-old Mia Kirsher writhing on the floor of Toronto strip club in a Catholic schoolgirl dress blended in with the seedy neighborhood. There’s still a topless bar down the street. Exotica is not a film about the sex industry. It’s not even particularly sexy. But since deception and misdirection are key to its narrative structure, then perhaps Mirimax’s posters, while costing the film money at the box office, are appropriate after all.

Set in what most of the critics label an “upscale” strip club — it’s actually a fairly seedy place on the outskirts of Toronto — Exotica follows a group of people who seem to have no connection to one another. There’s the accountant for Revenue Canada, his teenage babysitter, a young exotic dancer, the strip club’s owner, a very pregnant woman in her 30s, a pet shop owner, and a disc jockey who introduces the “girls” before they come on stage. By showing us people who not only have more connections to one another than they normally let on, but more connections to one another than they normally let on to one another, Exotica captures the spiritual sickness of neoliberal North America. Perhaps the key scene in the film takes place as Francis Brown, the account for Revenue Canada, a man in his late 30s who goes to Exotica every night to get a laptop from Mia Kirshner’s Christina, is driving his babysitter Tracy home. What is their relation to each other? Francis Brown has none of the creepy pedo vibe of a Woody Allen but he is a middle-aged man alone in a car with a 15-old-girl in the seedy part of Toronto. He gives her money. What is this “baby sitting” really all about? Does he pay to consummate the fantasy he started began in the strip club.

It’s actually much stranger. Occam’s Razor never quite works in Exotica. When you hear hoof beats, sometimes it isn’t a horse. Sometimes it’s a zebra. Tracy isn’t a child prostitute pretending to be a babysitter. That would make sense. Instead, she’s a babysitter for a dead girl, Francis’s murdered daughter. Francis, who had been accused of the murder before he was cleared, goes to Exotica, not to hit on teenagers, but to exercise the incestuous demons that he had become aware of only after his daughter was dead. Tracy, who’s agreed to the ritual partly because she’s getting paid good money to house sit and practice her music while Francis is out at the strip club and partly because her own father, Francis’s brother, has hurt Francis in the past and she feels guilty, has finally had enough.

“You think this is normal,” she says, “what we do?”

“What do we do?” Francis asks.

“That’s just it,” Tracy responds. “We don’t speak about it.”

“You know that feeling you get sometimes Tracy that you didn’t ask to be brought into the world,” Francis finally says. “Well then who did? All I’m saying is that nobody asked to be brought into the world, you just ended up getting here. So the question is, now that you’re here, who’s asking you to stay?”

If that’s a heavy mind fuck to lay on a 15-year-old girl, Tracy, played by the excellent Sarah Polley early in her career, has no illusions about her uncle. She decides to break off their relationship, to “quit” her job as a babysitter, even though she knows deep in her heart it’s the only thing allowing Francis to believe he’s still a father, that he didn’t lose his daughter, and his wife a few years later. Francis, in fact, as a father who has outlived his child, is essentially a dead man, but he’s more than that. He’s every man under neoliberalism, going through the motions of living in a dead culture he knows is a fraud.

Francis, in fact, is not just spiritually dead. He’s a low level operative in a burgeoning surveillance state. He’s quite literally the tax man, but he’s more. He attempts to blackmail the pet shop owner, who also makes money on the side smugging the eggs of rare birds through customs, into killing the man he perceives as his rival for Christina, the dancer at Exotica he’s obsessed with. The murder never goes anywhere but the intent to murder is significant. Sex, under neoliberalism, is sterile. It never goes beyond voyeurism and the cash nexus, never quite gets out of the strip club. Francis is able to “hire” Christina to do a lap dance for him exactly the way he’s able to hire Tracy as his babysitter. Francis wants to kill Eric for taking Christina away from him. Eric tricks Francis into touching Christina. That gets him banned from Exotica for violating the rules. But Christina and Francis never had any connection to begin with. Unlike Eric, he never really saw Christina as a potential lover. Francis hates Eric, not for taking his lover, but for taking his illusion away.

Indeed, Eric, played by the great actor Elias Koteas, is the hero of the whole movie, even though, up until the very end, we thought he was just a sleazy DJ who gave voice to the pedophilic desires of the men at the strip club. By bluffing Francis into touching Christina, he releases him from his purgatory. He makes him face up to grief he was using the illusion of voyeuristic sex to avoid. In his own quiet way, Eric is a revolutionary. He calls thing for what they are. He shatters the pornographic, neoliberal facade keeping Francis from getting on with his life. He releases him from Christina’s power, and releases Christina from her codependent need to keep Francis under her spell. Does Exotica end on a happy note? Certainly not. But it does end with everybody finally admitting the truth.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”

-James Connolly

Made at the height of the United States occupation of Iraq in 2006, the opening of Ken Loach’s film about the Irish War of Independence grabs you by the throat, and forces you to look at a reality that very few Americans understand, a military occupation by a foreign power. We are in Cork, Ireland in 1920. A group of men are engaged in a curling match. We know we are about to look at a war movie, but this feels like the calm before the storm. After all, there’s nothing political about a hurling match, is there?

The men return home. One of them, Damien O’Donovan, a young man in his mid-20s who’s about to leave Ireland to study medicine, is chatting with, Sinead, his childhood sweetheart, and her younger brother Micheál. Suddenly, a group of heavily armed soldiers storm their block and hold the entire neighborhood at gunpoint. We learn that The Defense of the Realm Act has banned all public meetings, including hurling matches. The soldiers, the infamous Black and Tans, veterans of the First World War who were recruited by the British government as brownshirts to brutalize the Irish people, take us through all the stages an occupied people go through. Damien and his friends are made to shout out their names. They’re made to take off their clothes. They have to watch while foreigners scream at Irish women things like “shut up you bitch.” After Micheál refuses to comply, after he speaks Celtic, refuses to strip, and punches the leader of the Black and Tans, the Black and Tans take him into a shed and beat him to death with a Hurley, one of the hurling sticks they had just confiscated.

Micheál’s death is the catalyst that turns both Sinead and Damien, whose brother Teddy is the commander of a local IRA flying column, into committed revolutionaries. After taking the oath of allegiance to the IRA, Damien becomes a valued member of Teddy’s column. If the first 15 minutes of The Wind that Shake the Barley are about dramatizing what it’s like to live under a foreign occupier, the next 45 minutes are about the struggle against the occupier. Teddy, Damien, Sinead and their fellow activists are by no means romanticized. Indeed, after Damien carries out an order to execute Chris Reilly, a teenage boy who was strong armed into turning their names over to the police, we see how unsentimental Ken Loach is, even about a guerrilla war he so obviously supports.

In the second half of the film, after the British government and the IRA call a truce, Loach flips the narrative he had so effectively drawn us into in the first 15 minutes. Teddy and Damien find themselves on opposite sides of the coming civil war. Damien, who had come under the influence of an old militant named Dan, a disciple of James Connolly, wants to overthrow the Irish land owners and the Catholic Church along with expelling the British. He recognizes that the Irish poor can be exploited and repressed by the Irish as well as the English. Teddy, on the other hand, who feels a bit like Ken Loach’s stand in for Michael Collins, is willing to accept not only the existing system of class relations, but a partitioned country, dominion status, and the necessity of Irish politicians to take an oath to the King before being seated in the Irish Parliament. Try to imagine the American Revolution ending, not only with slavery intact but with a permanent British occupation of New York City.

We get a hint at what’s to come when Teddy interferes with the decision a “republican” (in this case “republican” would mean socialist) court in liberated Cork has made to compel a local moneylender to refund some of the money he had made off an old woman by lending at extortionate interest rates. Teddy needs his money to buy guns. Damien doesn’t see the point of independence if all it does is carry the old class repression along with it. But it’s only after Michael Collins goes to London and negotiates not independence, but dominion status within the British empire that the two brothers come to blows. Teddy becomes an official in the new Irish Free State. Damien joins the newly born anti-Treaty IRA. After Teddy has Damien arrested for stealing guns for the anti-treaty IRA, Damien is imprisoned in the very same jail where both brothers had earlier been imprisoned, and tortured, by the Black and Tans. Teddy has taken the place of the British occupier. Damien is leading an armed rebellion against his own brother.

Ken Loach, a socialist, is squarely in Damien’s camp. Indeed, Damien O’Donovan, is one of the more principled revolutionaries film has given us. He knows that from the moment he had chosen to execute Chris Reilly, he himself was a dead man, that he had given his life for the revolution, and that any attempt at compromise would be a betrayal. Teddy is much less self-aware, thinking that he can stop halfway, at “changing the flag and the accents of the powerful,” as Damien’s friend Dan had earlier said, paraphrasing James Connolly. But Loach also has the benefit of history. He realizes that very few people from Damien’s generation would live to see the Republic of Ireland break completely with Great Britain in 1948, let alone achieve complete independence, which still hasn’t happened. He knows how long the civil war will go on. Damien, perversely in the eyes of his brother, chooses to die rather than betray the anti-treaty IRA. Teddy, even more perversely, agrees to carry out the execution himself. The viewer is left shattered. Did Irish independence really mean the destruction of a family that had done so much to make it possible?

Kes (1969)


While Kes, the second feature length film by the British director Ken Loach, has been acclaimed by the critics and ignored by the general public, it has little to do with a difficult plot, or a self-indulgent, experimental style. On the contrary, it’s a straightforward little narrative about a bullied 15-year-old boy that should have an almost universal appeal. The problem has always been its setting. Filmed in the mining district of Yorkshire with mostly non-professional actors, the north of England accents can sometimes seem a bit like a foreign language.

There’s no reason people in the United States shouldn’t discover this poetic, humanistic film. The Yorkshire mining district accents are much less of a problem on DVD or on YouTube (where Kes is currently available in full) since you can easily turn on subtitles translating them into standard American English. While the setting and the story may at times feel bleak and hopeless, it’s offset by the almost universal appeal of the protagonist.

Kes stands squarely with a bullied underdog against the institutions of a class society. The protagonist, the 15-year-old Billy Casper, who lives with his single mother and 20-something brother in the city of Lundwood, is part of the lower-working-class. The opening of Kes, short for Kestrel, is quietly bleak. British miners at the time were among the lowest paid workers in the developed world. Billy and his brother Jud not only share a bedroom, but a bed.  An alarm clock rings. Jud, who is already working down in the mines, and Billy, who has to deliver papers before he goes to school, want nothing more than to stay in bed. As they squabble, as Jud demonstrates his complete disregard for Billy’s feelings, his callous, spiteful attitude towards his brother, you get the sense that this is about more than just wanting to hit the snooze button and get an extra hour of sleep. Both would rather just be unconscious than be alive.

We can see why Jud is so bitter and angry. What exactly do you have to live for if you’re pulling full time shifts at the mine, and don’t even have your own bed? Then again, Jud is not even the kind of young man who could imagine something better. He’s just an asshole with no inner life. He’s all surface.

Billy Casper on the other hand, lives in his own head, so much so that it makes it difficult for him to cope in the harsh, working-class school he’s on the verge of leaving to go find a job. These days he’d probably be diagnosed with Aspergers and medicated. But in Loach’s film, it’s clear that he’s an asocial, clumsy misfit simply because his imagination is likely to offer him a better life than anything in the real world. It makes sense for him to turn away. One day, out walking, he sees a pair of kestrels flying low over the horizon. A Kestrel, a majestic breed of hawk also known as a “windhover,” is perhaps, best described by quoting the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins.

“I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”

The Windhover

Suddenly, Billy Casper has something to live for. This is love at first sight, only it’s not a girl, who, at best would simply drag him down into a dreary working-class marriage, back into the cycle where his mother is trapped, a dead end that would do nothing more than produce more wretched Billies and Juds. The kestrel is Billy’s soul made flesh, the descent of his consciousness into the the physical and the ascent of the physical into the spiritual. After discovering the kestrel’s nest in a dilapidated ruin of an old castle, Billy steals a book on falconry from a local second hand book store, captures the bird, then brings it home.

Immediately we see the contrast between the way Billy treats the kestrel, or “Kes,” and the way the adults at school treat him. Where Billy loves Kes, trains him only to teach him to be more free than he already is, Billy’s school is all about crushing the spirit. Indeed, what’s striking about Kes is the way the lower-working-class and the lower-middle-class have so completely assimilated the contempt of the ruling classes for their “inferiors,” themselves. In another film about alienated youth, like the great French movie La Haine, we need cops. We need the oppressor with a gun or a set of riot gear. In Kes, people at the bottom of English society repress one another so well all we need are schoolteachers and football coaches. Loach captures the way people who hate themselves and the people around them speak, the contempt, the harsh dismissiveness, the inarticulate rage at being part of a community you despise in the way they spit out their words and hector one another for no conceivable reason. But Kes allows Billy to escape it all. As he watches Kes fly, soar above what we can now see is still a lovely green countryside apart from the mines, we soar with Billy’s soul. He will of course be defeated in the end, but, unlike Jud, he does, if only for a brief time, know what it’s like to be free.

That makes what happens to Billy, and to Kes, all the more emotionally devastating. It’s not that we don’t know what’s coming. A young man like Billy is damned before he’s even born. He really doesn’t have a chance But it’s the sheer cruelty and maliciousness of what’s done to him that makes Kes such a small scale, yet powerful protest against the English class system. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” the American poet Robinson Jeffers said.

Kes leaves us wanting to kill someone.