Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

The basic plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is well-known. While doing research on the duality of human nature, Dr. Henry Jekyll, a renowned London physician, invents a potion that will separate good from evil, the civilized man from the barbarian. After that many people draw a blank. The original novel by Robert Lewis Stevenson focuses on the efforts of Gabriel John Utterson, a lawyer, to track down the real identity of Mr. Hyde, a brutish, sub-human man who has committed a series of violent crimes. In the 1931, pre-code film by Rouben Mamoulian we dispense with the mystery of Mr. Hyde’s real identity altogether. Mamoulian, who also directed what’s still by far the best version of The Mark of Zorro, lets us know right from the beginning that the bestial Mr. Hyde is really Dr. Henry Jekyll, a young, handsome, well-educated man played by the thirty-four-year-old Fredric March. That Mamoulian’s Jekyll is almost two decades younger than Stevenson’s, who’s described as being a “substantial, smooth-faced man of about fifty,” is important to the particular approach his film takes towards the familiar story. The very first “sound” interpretation of Stevenson’s novel, filmed during the Great Depression and, like a surprising number of “pre-code” Hollywood films, written for angry, working-class women, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a harrowing dramatization of domestic violence.

The film opens, quite literally, from the point of view of Dr. Henry Jekyll as the camera follows him from his house, to one of his lectures at a local medical college, to the clinic where he cares for underprivileged children and senior citizens. At first glance, Jekyll is exactly the kind of young man you’d want your daughter, or your sister, to marry. When he successfully encourages a little girl to get rid of her crutches and walk on her own, it’s hard to imagine any woman not imagining that he could be the father of her children. Yet something seems wrong. There’s something about Dr. Henry Jekyll, some strange, unlikable quality, that goes beyond the self-centered arrogance of a high-priced physician. General Sir Danvers Carew, his intended father in law, distrusts him so much that he takes his daughter, Muriel Carew, on an extended vacation in the hopes that he’ll forget about her and move on to someone else. Often, in stories like this, a father who’s jealous of his prospective son-in-law is motivated by some sort of overly protective, smothering, even incestuous feelings for his daughter. In the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, however, not only is Danvers Carew, who’s played by the British actor Halliwell Hobbes, right about Henry Jekyll, his attempts to save Muriel eventually cost him his life.

For Dr. Henry Jekyll, General Sir Danvers Carew is an uptight bourgeoisie, part of a repressed Victorian culture conspiring to divide civilization against sexuality, the subconscious and the intellect. Jekyll only partly understands that he’s not only part of the same Victorian bourgeoisie as Danvers Carew, but that he’s also a far more extreme representative. When he describes his ongoing research about the duality of man to his friend, and severe critic, Dr. Hastie Lanyon, it’s clear that Jekyll isn’t a sexual libertarian who wants free the culture from a repressive puritanism, but a deeply disturbed man who’s horrified by his own lust, which he describes as “evil” and hopes to cut out of his body and soul like a malignant cancer. So when he meets “Ivy Pierson,” a dancer and prostitute who lets him know that unlike Muriel Carew she’s sexually available any time he wants, we get a feeling that none of it will end well. Shortly thereafter, when Jekyll drinks his potion, and becomes the bestial Mr. Hyde, he feels liberated, but anybody watching the film begins to wonder exactly what Jekyll has liberated.

When Dr. Jekyll returns to Ivy Pierson’s apartment, not as the handsome, educated young man she fell in love with, but as the horrible Mr. Hyde, part of what Mamoulian is doing is critiquing the Victorian, sexual “double standard.” Bourgeois marriages are economic arrangements. Bourgeois men seek sexual satisfaction outside the bourgeois home with working class women. Bourgeois women own cats or sleep with the pool boy. But Jekyll isn’t looking for a cheap lay, something Ivy, played by the amazing pre-code actress Miriam Hopkins — who hated playing the role —  would be more than happy to provide. There’s a real working-class rage underlying Mamoulian’s film. Jekyll is a sadist, a monster looking, not for sex, but for dominance and control, a side of himself he feels he can only fully express with the lower-class Ivy.

Indeed, there’s nothing particularly “savage” about Mr. Hyde. That he looks like a neanderthal seems like an insult to neanderthals. Mr. Hyde is never motivated by primitive sexual desire. On the contrary, he’s as much an educated bourgeoisie as Dr. Jekyll, only, in his case, rationality has turned rancid, malevolent. He’s smarter and more powerful than Ivy and he knows it. He also lets her know it. He taunts her with her poverty, lack of education, and low status. Just before he murders her he reveals to her that the only reason he knows so much about her conversations with Dr. Jekyll is that he is Dr. Jekyll. He lets her know that her romantic illusions about the upper-classes are empty and vulgar. He considers her no more than a bug he’s put under a magnifying glass, or a lab rat he decided one day on a whim to dissect. Dr. Henry Jekyll is in fact a sexual serial killer, Ted Bundy years before he was born, Jack the Ripper re imagined as another legend of Victorian horror. He’s not a brute. He’s a man who’s violated reason itself.

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see a character in a movie shot down like a dog.

Baby Face (1933)

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In William A. Wellman’s 1931 film Safe in Hell, Gilda Karlson, the feisty, spirited heroine played by Dorothy Mackaill, fought back against any man who treated her badly. She never had a chance. There were so many horrible men in Gilda’s world – and they were so relentlessly horrible – that her only escape was to go to the gallows. Baby Face, the iconic pre-code film directed by Alfred E. Green, is just as pessimistic about the male sex, but Lily Powers, the heroine played by the young Barbara Stanwyck, also realizes that while men are often brutal an abusive, they’re basically dumb animals, stupid and easily manipulated by any woman who knows how to use her sex appeal. For the first fifty five minutes, Baby Face, which until 2006 was shown only in a heavily censored version, deserves all of its acclaim. It’s a magnificently cynical work of art that vividly dramatizes how, at least under capitalism, men and women are irreconcilable enemies. In the last twenty minutes, however, it falls apart. It loses the courage of its convictions, and its cynicism, and becomes, not cynical with an artistic purpose, but just cynical.

Baby Face opens in the grim, industrial town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Green’s camera pans across row after row of dark, smoggy factories until we come to the illegal speakeasy of Nick Powers, Lily’s father, and a villain in every sense of the word. When we first meet him, he’s viciously abusing Chico, an African American dishwasher and waitress played by Theresa Harris. He threatens to fire her, something we suspect he does pretty much every night, until his daughter Lily enters the room and gives him in ultimatum. If he fires Chico, she goes too. We never find out exactly how old Lily Powers is in Baby Face — Stanwyck was twenty five when it was filmed — but her only friend other than Chico, an elderly German immigrant and intellectual played by Alphonse Ethier, tells her it’s long past time she left Erie, and her father, and struck out on her own. He’s right. Not only is Lily sexually harassed so relentlessly by her father’s brutish, working-class clientele that she has trouble walking across the room without being groped and fondled by one swarthy pair of hands after another, it’s even worse. In order to keep his illegal speakeasy open, to continue to serve liquor during Prohibition, Nick Powers pimps his daughter out to various local union officials and politicians.

Yes. You heard that right. Nick Powers pimps out his own daughter. He also gets just what he deserves. Shortly after Lily finally gets sick of servicing her father’s patrons — spilling scalding hot coffee over one particularly repellent “customer’s” hand before clocking him over the head with a wine bottle, Nick goes downstairs to repair his malfunctioning still. Lily, who was surely headed for a savage beating — since Nick was about to lose his political protection and his ability to serve illegal drinks — catches a break. The still blows sky high, engulfing the shed in flames and burning her devil of a father to a crisp. As she watches the fiery inferno, Lily can barely cancel a smirk. Neither can we. The only regret anybody can possibly have is that Nick Powers died quickly in a catastrophic explosion instead of over the course of several days by slow torture. After Lily, who had intended to get a job at the local strip club, pays a final visit to her Nietzsche loving, German intellectual mentor, he convinces her that she can do a lot better. Go to a big city, he tells her. You’re young, beautiful. You have the whole world ahead of you. Don’t let men walk all over you. Harden yourself against sentimentality and use your sexuality to get what you want from them. Cultivate your “will to power.”

As is usual, I’m not a feminist, so I can’t really judge whether or not Baby Face is a “feminist” movie. I haven’t yet availed myself of the extensive literature on pre-code movies, and am not familiar with the current critical consensus, but I will stay this. Baby Face is a great working-class, Marxist film. Lily Powers has spent the first twenty or twenty-five years of her life — well the last five or ten of those years anyway — getting fucked for someone else’s profit. She’s not even a proletarian. Nick lords it over her like a tyrant and doesn’t share the profits. She’s an outright slave. After the death of her father, she decides that she’s going to continue in the same line of work, but she’s going to keep all the money for herself. She’s also going to service a much better, and much better paying class of men. She started out on the “bottom.” She and Chico — probably her lesbian lover but even pre-code films couldn’t be that realistic — hop a freight train. When a railroad security man threatens to throw them both in jail for a month, she fucks him in exchange for her passage to New York. The scene, which was lost until an archivist found it in 2005, is utterly raw and unsentimental. Lily is engaging in the basest form of prostitution, giving a railroad bull a blow job in a dank freight car so he won’t lock her up in a cage. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “after such carnal knowledge what forgiveness.”

Once she reaches New York City, however, Lily doesn’t waste any time with railroad company detectives or quick fucks in dirty freight trains. Rather, she heads right to a skyscraper on Wall Street, flirts her way into a job at a major investment bank and quickly, and quite literally, begins to sleep her way to the top. When I say “quite literally” I mean “quite literally.” Every time Lilly fucks her way a step up the social latter, Alfred E. Green pans up the side of the skyscraper to show that she’s moved up another floor. She goes through a chubby Southern HR Director, then a lowly office clerk played by a very young, twenty six-year-old, John Wayne, then various department heads and Vice Presidents, all of whom she uses coldly and cynically, enslaving one man after another and tossing him in the garbage when something better comes along. Finally, after two of the bank’s Vice Presidents die after Lily rejects them — one shoots another then kills himself — she reaches the top, the top floor of the building, and the top of the social hierarchy, and she snags Courtland Trenholm — how’s that for a WASP name? — the bank’s new President played by George Brent and the son of its founder. Trenholm, who’s just as much of a fool as any other man, not only agrees to alienate his ruling class family and marry her, he showers her with a half-million dollars worth of gold, diamonds, stocks and bonds. Lily Powers, the abused daughter of an Erie, Pennsylvania bootlegger has fucked her way into the one percent.

Sadly, after Lilly Powers marries Courtland Trenholm, Baby Face falls apart. The original theatrical release had a moralistic ending where Lilly is punished after the bank fails. It was the Great Depression after all, so this much is believable. Trenholm kills himself, and Lilly realizes she loved him after all. I suppose the ending was supposed to have demonstrated that you can’t harden yourself to love forever, but bleh. Trenholm’s not particularly repellent but he’s not particularly likeable either. Green doesn’t take enough time to make him appealing, and George Brent isn’t a charismatic enough actor to make up for his underwritten character. In the restored, director’s cut, the banks still fails, Trenholm still tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the stomach, but this time Lilly finds him before he dies, gets him into an ambulance and rushes him to the hospital, promising, along the way, that she will use the half million dollars he gave her to rebuild his, and their fortune. Once again, bleh. Up until the end, Baby Face had been an allegorical, and largely abstract story about class war. Men are the bourgeoisie. Women are the proletariat and sleeping your way to the top is revolution. When Lilly Powers genuinely falls in love with Courtland Trenholm for apparently no other reason than the fact that she’s finally reached the top of the social pyramid, she ceases to be a revolutionary and becomes a mere social climber.

There was, in fact, only one way to end Baby Face. Lilly needed to use Courtland Trenholm as coldly as she used every other man, take his money, destroy his bank, leave him in a puddle of his own blood, and run off with Chico, and that half million dollars, to live happily ever as a lesbian couple. But I suppose that even pre-code Hollywood never had that much nerve. What’s more, after the Catholic Church bullied Hollywood into passing its miserable Production Code, Theresa Harris never again got a part as good as Chico. Read about it here.

Ms. Nottage seems less interested in rescuing the African-American actresses who were her inspirations than in arguing for the complexity of their images. She sees films like “Baby Face” and movies made before the code was enforced as presenting a more realistic vision of race in America than many later films simply because they show blacks and whites existing alongside one another. “If that code hadn’t set in,” Ms. Nottage speculates, “the whole trajectory of Hollywood would have been different, and some would argue that race in America would be different because the representations of people of color and particularly of women would have been much more expansive.”

Safe in Hell (1931)

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In 1919 an American veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille named William A. Wellman met the actor Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks, who was impressed with the young man’s rugged good looks, quickly offered him a lead role in an early silent western called Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Although Wellman, who had come to Hollywood wearing his uniform, could have become a movie star like Fairbanks, he disliked acting, considering it to be an “unmanly” profession, and preferred to make his living behind the camera.

Although Wellman doesn’t have a reputation as a “feminist” director, he put his dislike of being objectified for his good looks to good use in the pre-code film Safe in Hell. I’m not a feminist myself and don’t have a particularly good idea of what constitutes a “feminist movie,” but Safe in Hell sure seems like one to me. Based on a play written by Houston Branch and adapted for the big screen by by Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton, it not only puts the problem of sexual harassment right at the center of it narrative, it forces us to come to an inevitable conclusion. Men suck.

Safe in Hell opens with Gilda Karlson, played by Dorothy MacKaill, getting a call from her pimp about a client. While it’s clear that Gilda isn’t working as a prostitute by choice – “respectable” jobs weren’t easy to come by in 1931 – she seems more bored than oppressed. When she discovers that the client is a man named Piet Van Saal, however, the boredom quickly turns into disgust, and then horror. Van Saal, her ex-boss, is the reason she’s working as a prostitute in the first place. His wife got her fired after she caught them together. Gilda never explicitly comes out and says that Van Saal’s wife interrupted a rape, but after she clocks him over the head with a wine bottle, and runs out of his apartment just before his cigarette sets the building on fire, all we can say is “you go girl.” Van Saal is a dirt bag and we’re glad he’s (apparently) been burned to a crisp.

The only problem is that the bellboy identified her, and she’s wanted for murder. Enter Carl Erickson, a merchant seaman who’s been away at sea for the past few months, Hilda’s boyfriend, and the one arguably sympathetic (white) man in the whole film. Initially shocked when he finds out she’s that she’s been working as a prostitute, he helps her escape from the police, and stow away on his own ship. Eventually they reach the island of Tortuga. Tortuga is not only a country without an extradition treaty with the United States. It doesn’t have prohibition. “I’m finally in a free country,” Gilda says after she the complimentary bottle of rum someone left in her hotel room.”Tortuga” is also a name that you’ll recognize if you’ve seen enough pirate movies. After Carl pays her rent for a month, and goes back to his ship, Gilda realizes she’s gone from the frying pan into the fire. Until Carl returns, she has to deal with the group of shady men she had noticed in the hotel lobby eyeing her the way a hungry dog would eye a piece of raw meat, alone.

When I said that Carl is the one sympathetic white man in Safe in Hell, I had to specify “white.” The couple who run the hotel, a black man named Newcastle and his wife Leonie, are far more sympathetic than the guests, all of whom are white men who believe that they have some God given right to sex with Gilda. Wellman never quite comes out and says he’s trying to counter the racist propaganda that came out of films like Birth of a Nation, but aside from the clueless, and prudish, Carl, Newcastle is the only man in Safe in Hell who isn’t a potential rapist. Not only is he happily married to Leonie, who’s played by Nina Mae McKinney, once known as the “Black Garbo,” he even slaps down the hand of one of the white men when he tries to touch Gilda without her permission.

The worst man on the island is “Mr. Bruno,” Tortuga’s policeman and executioner. After Gilda finally allows herself to get drunk, and confesses to the other hotel guests that she killed a man in New Orleans, they accept her as one of their own, a fellow outlaw. Mr. Bruno, on the other hand, sees her confession as opportunity. He’s the spider. She’s the fly, and Tortuga is his web. Sooner or later he’s going to have his way with her. He gets his chance when Piet Van Saal shows up on the island. Not only is he still alive, he’s decided to follow Gilda to her special place in hell, where she’s anything but safe. By this time, Wellman has established the air of white male malevolence so well we don’t even have to suspend our disbelief to accept the way Van Saal has escaped from the fire back in New Orleans. He’s just one more devil tormenting Gilda in her own personal inferno. Indeed, when Mr. Burno gives Gilda a revolver and tells her it’s illegal to possess a firearm on Tortuga, we never question why she takes it since it’s clear that Van Saal has every intention of raping her at the first convenient opportunity. Van Saal finds that convenient opportunity soon enough. He tries to rape Gilda, again, and she shoots him dead.

After one of the hotel guests, a lawyer in his former life, defends Gilda in court, she’s apparently beaten the murder rap. Mr. Bruno, however, has no intention of letting her go. Even if the jury votes “not guilty,” he tells her, he intends to charge her with weapons possession, to make her spend six months in one of his jails, where, of course, he’ll be able to rape her each and every day for 180 days. I won’t spoil the ending other than to say that, even though Safe in Hell has anything but a happy ending, Mr. Bruno does not get his way, that William A. Wellman, the macho World War I flying ace, has made a film that to me looks more radical and more feminist than anything you’ll see today. Is it? Once again, I’m not a good judge about what’s a feminist film and what isn’t. But see if for yourself and let me know what you think.

Carlos (2010)

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On December 21, 1975, six militants who called themselves the “Arm of the Arab Revolution” attacked the semi-annual meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna, Austria, and took more than sixty hostages. The Arm of the Arab Revolution, who were led by a Venezuelan man named Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, then divided the hostages into three groups. Delegates from militant Arab countries like Libya and Algeria were moved to the left side of the room near the door. Delegates from neutral countries like Nigeria and Venezuela were left in the middle. Delegates from countries allied to Israel and to the United States were moved to the right side of the room near a table wired with explosives.

You probably haven’t heard the name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. You might be familiar with his nome de guerre, Carlos. Carlos, directed by the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, is a six hour mini-series detailing the life of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, nicknamed Carlos the Jackal by the western press, from his rise as an elite “soldier” for Waddie Haddad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the early 1970s to his capture in Sudan in 1994. Carlos and his associates, who included German Red Brigade members Hans-Joachim Klein (“Angie”) and Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann (“Nada”), took sixty hostages as bargaining chips, but they were really only interested in two, Jamshid Amouzegar and Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the oil ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries the PFLP considered to have betrayed the cause of the Palestinians.

The plan, which was to demand an airliner from the government of Austria, then fly to Iraq and the Protection of Saddam Hussein, shoot Amouzegar and Yamani, then release the rest of the hostages when they were no longer needed as leverage, didn’t quite work out. First Carlos and his people mistakenly shot a Libyan economist. Then for reasons the miniseries doesn’t quite make clear, they asked for a DC-9, a plane not cabable of flying non-stop from Vienna to Baghdad, instead of a Boeing 707, which was. Finally they accepted an offer from Houari Boumediene the President of Algeria to land in Algiers, unload Hans-Joachim Klein, who had been badly wounded, refuel, and fly to Libya. Thinking they would be welcome in Tripoli, Carlos and his associates released the hostages from the neutral and friendly countries to Boumediene, but were denied political asylum from Muammar Gaddafi, who was still angry about the death of a Libyan citizen in Vienna. They then flew back to Algiers, and attempted to negotiate with Boumediene, but Boumediene, who had been in touch with the Chancellor of Austria all along, threatened to storm the plane if Carlos went through with the plan to murder Amouzegar and Yamani. Over the loud protests of Kröcher-Tiedemann and the of his group, Carlos accepted a face saving deal with the Algerians. He would release Amouzegar and Yamani. In exchange the Arm of the Arab Revolution would be paid $20 million dollars, and Carlos and his associates would be allowed to go free.

Whatever you think about the idea of holding innocent, and sometimes not so innocent, people at gunpoint, you have to admit that Carlos and the Arm of the Arab Revolution, pulled off quite a coup in Vienna. Try to imagine a group of right-wing, American libertarians taking the New York Board of the Federal Reserve hostage, then getting away with $20 million dollars, and their lives, and you’ll see what I mean. Carlos, the privileged son of a left-wing, but bourgeois South American lawyer, was a skilled, nervy guerilla fighter who put his money where his mouth was. Nevertheless, as Assayas makes clear, Carlos embodied one of the worst traits of the 1960s left, egotism. In his leather jacket and Che Guevera style beret, Edgar Ramírez, the actor who plays Carlos, is an incredibly charismatic presence, but that’s the point. He’s too charismatic. He’s in love with the image of himself as a badass revolutionary, a rock star with a sub-machine gun, not with the idea of justice for the West Bank and Gaza. Richard Estes of Counterpunch criticizes Olivier Assayas for being “orientalist” even racist in his depiction of “Carlos and his European allies as initially more supportive of the Palestinian cause than the Palestinians themselves,” but I think he’s wrong. Waddie Haddad of the PFLP may not be a sympathetic character, but he’s onto Carlos from the very beginning. Carlos is not about Palestinian liberation. Carlos is about Carlos.

After Carlos declines to execute Amouzegar and Yamani, and die at the hands of the Algerian security forces, Waddie Haddad expels him from the PFLP, and he becomes a freelance mercenary. Between 1975 and his capture in 1994, life, for Carlos, for Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, is every young man’s dream. There’s an endless supply of guns and beautiful, oversexed German women. He gets to travel the world in search of adventure. He’s basically a Marxist James Bond, a secret agent with a license to kill. But as the radical spirit of the 1960s and the 1970s winds down, as the Communist bloc crumbles in the 1980s and 1990s, as Carlos ages from virile Che lookalike to a paunchy, middle-aged entrepreneur of armed struggle, we begin to wonder what it was all about in the first place. Carlos, like an aging rock star forever looking for the comeback he knows he’ll never have, begins to feel the walls close in all around him. He becomes persona non grata, first in Hungary and East Germany, then in Syria. Finally, in his 40s, an aging revolutionary long past his prime, he’s picked up in Sudan and delivered to the French police, who sentence him to life in prison. There he remains, to this day, as a cautionary tale to would-be professional revolutionaries. If you’re prepared to pick up a gun and shed human blood for a cause, you’d damned well better not forget what that cause is all about.

Note: It’s absolutely essential to watch the full, six hour version of Carlos, and not the edited, theatrical release. There’s a music to Carlos, to Assayas’ filmmaking in general, long stretches of banality punctuated by brief flashes of excitement, that takes time to unfold. Watching Carlos in one of the shorter cuts would be a bit like listening to the Clear Channel version of Light My Fire by The Doors, the one without the long keyboard solo in the middle. You’ll never understand exactly why Carlos kept looking for that fix, that next “big thing” that would bring him back to the glory days of the successful attack against OPEC in 1975, and he’ll come off, not as a fascinating monster, but as as just a monster.

Where are My Flying Cars?

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Cranford, NJ is a town of 22,625 people about twenty-two miles outside of Manhattan. There is no reason why you would want to come here. It is a boring place with boring people, pretty much like any suburb of New York City, except maybe a bit more boring. I live in Roselle, the next town over. It’s just as boring, only a lot more run-down, and without a NJ Transit station.

Out of curiosity, and boredom, I occasionally Google the history of my local area. Cranford, Garwood, Scotch Plains, Plainfield, Roselle, and Westfield, all on the “Old York Road” between Philadelphia and Elizabeth, have been around for a long, long time. Small farming communities until the United States Civil War, they expanded along with the New Jersey Central Railroad in the Late Nineteenth Century until they reached their present dimensions at around 1900. In other words the center of Cranford, NJ in 2016 looks pretty much the way the center of Cranford, NJ did in 1900. Just about the only changes to the town itself came after World War II, when real estate developers bought up all the local farms, built houses, and sold them to returning veterans under the GI Bill.

Being more bored then usual, I decided to compare the time it would have taken to get from Cranford, NJ to downtown Manhattan in 2016 to the time it would have taken in 1900. I found an old brochure from a real estate company advertising houses near downtown Cranford in 1894  (warning: this is a huge .pdf file) in a development then called “Roosevelt Manor.” Aside from being curious about why it was called “Roosevelt Manor” — Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t become president until 1901 — I was pleased to discover a New Jersey Central Railway schedule from the early 1890s. In 1894, if you left downtown Cranford at 8:17 AM you would be at Liberty Street (near the World Trade Center and the current day Zuccotti Park) at 9:02 AM. That’s precisely forty five minutes (including the ferry across the Hudson River).

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Central Railroad of New Jersey train schedule from the early 1890s

Google Maps (above) tells me you can drive from downtown Cranford to downtown Manhattan in about 40 minutes. I suppose that’s theoretically possible if Chris Christie (or Trump) hasn’t shut down the Holland Tunnel so he can get his fat ass into the city and kiss up to his owners on Wall Street, but I wouldn’t count on it. I’d give it about an hour. It’s a lot easier to take New Jersey Transit.

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New Jersey Transit schedule from 2016.

It seems very little has changed. In 2016, if you leave downtown Cranford, NJ at 8:17 AM on a typical weekday morning, you will arrive at Penn Station at 9:06 AM or the World Trade Center at 9:08 AM (if you switch to the PATH at Newark). As a matter of fact, it takes slightly longer than it did in 1894, fifty minutes as opposed to forty five minutes.

So where are my flying cars?

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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When Barack Obama leaves the White House this January he will be worth over $12.2 million dollars.  Barring the unlikely possibility that he takes the path of Jimmy Carter instead of Bill Clinton, I suspect this is only the beginning, that over the next few decades the first black President will amass a vast fortune. For the American ruling class, he has been a valuable tool, a black intellectual who has stood between the rich and revolution.

“My administration,” the president added, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

In her review of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Jacobin writer Eileen Jones takes issue, not only with the films historical inaccuracies, with the contrived, melodramatic plot line revolving around a fictionalized rape of Nat Turner’s wife Cherry, she disliked it so much she called it a “travesty.” I think she’s largely right. In the end, The Birth of a Nation is a pretty bad movie, but I also think she misses the film’s latent possibilities. Nate Parker had a good film right at his fingertips, but he lost his nerve.

Perhaps the best account of the Antebellum South is the book The Cotton Kingdom by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Olmstead doesn’t pull any punches. The South, he argues, is a militarized police state, a perverse hellhole with a slave patrol every couple of square miles. This much The Birth of a Nation gets right. In fact, the opening of Nate Parker’s movie is such a vivid dramatization of the nasty brutality of Southampton Country Virginia in 1831, it’s probably worth seeing  for this alone. The difference between the American south under the Slave Power and Germany under the Nazis is pretty much nothing.

Early in The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s fictionalized Nat sees a book draped across a chair on the porch of the great house of the Turner Plantation, and steals it. Over the next few years, he teaches himself how to read. When Elizabeth Turner, the wife of the plantation’s owner, comes to Nat’s mother and informs him that her son knows how to read, the poor woman is terrified. Surely it means torture, and perhaps even the death penalty, but Elizabeth, played by Penelope Ann Miller is a liberal, not a conservative. She wants to take young Nat into the great house. She wants to make him a house slave and further his education. Elizabeth may not be evil, but she’s also committed to the status quo. Nat will not have access to the books on history, philosophy or science that line the shelves of the plantation library. “Those are for white people.” The only book he will be allowed to read is the Bible.

Years later Nat Turner is now a young man in his twenties. Elizabeth is a widow, and the failing plantation has been taken over by her good natured, but feckless son Samuel, a physically imposing but dimwitted young man played by Armie Hammer. After Reverend Zalthall, a local white clergyman, suggests that Samuel can get his property out of debt by renting out Nat as a preacher, Nat, in effect, becomes Barack Obama, the compromised black intellectual standing between the corrupt ruling class and the pitchforks. Admittedly the reward never quite reaches $12.2 million dollars, but as long Nat plays ball, as long as he is willing to tell slaves on neighboring plantations that the Bible commands their obedience, that if they passively defer to their owners in this life , they’ll have their reward in heaven, he gets to travel, stay out of the cotton fields, and, just perhaps, have some influence over his master. Indeed ,when Nat sees a brutalized teenage girls on the auction block, Cherry, his future wife, and suggests that Samuel buy her as a present for his wife, Samuel comes through with $250 dollars.

Had Nate Parker followed through on his portrayal of Nat Turner as a corrupt black intellectual in the mold of Barack Obama, The Birth of a Nation just might have been the best film of 2016.

Part of the reason he couldn’t is that black America in 2008 was facing a very different situation from black America in 1831. As Noam Chomsky argued in his book Manufacturing Consent, it’s mainly democratic governments that rely on propaganda. Authoritarian societies rely on jails, secret police, the murder of dissidents, and of course slave patrols. Parker has dramatized the totalitarian hell of the Antebellum South so vividly, he makes it a little difficult to see exactly why the plantation owners of Southampton County were willing to pay so much money to have Nat Turner propagandize their slaves into obedience. Perhaps the most brutal, and vivid scene in the entire movie comes when Samuel and Nat visit a neighboring plantation. There they witness a recalcitrant slave on a hunger strike being force-fed, Gitmo-style, having his teeth knocked out with a hammer and gruel poured down his throat until he almost chokes to death.

Not being quite able to explain why exactly such a fascist ruling class would even need a black intellectual to keep his people in line, Nate Parker fumbles the second half of the film. As Eileen Jones writes, the real Nat Turner rebelled against the slave power because he believed that the Bible considered slavery to be evil. The Birth of a Nation does indeed hint at how its fictionalized Nat Turner eventually concluded that the Bible was a revolutionary, and not a reactionary document, but as a first time filmmaker and screenwriter he doesn’t quite know how to dramatize his ideas, to translate the abstract into dialog and plot. So he clumsily hacks together a resolution where Cherry is raped by a slave patrol.

Cherry’s rape is historically plausible. If the original D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation was centered around rape, it was largely projection. D.W. Griffith was obsessed with the idea that black men desired white women. In reality it was the mirror opposite. South black men didn’t rape white women. Southern white men raped their slaves.  The only problem is that in the context of Parker’s screenplay, the far more interesting resolution would have focused on Turner, a black intellectual, finally becoming  so sick of standing between his master and the pitchforks, that he picked  up the pitchfork himself. Will Barack Obama pick up that pitchfork when he leaves the White House in January? I wouldn’t bet on it. Those speaker’s fees for preaching submission to authority now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per minute.

Free State of Jones (2016)

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Free State of Jones, which stars Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a multi-racial uprising against the Confederate government in south-east Mississippi, is that rarest of Hollywood productions, an openly leftist film about the United States Civil War. If it hasn’t gotten more attention I think it’s probably for two reasons.  The writing is uneven. As Godfrey Chesire argues on rogerebert.com, Free State of Jones drags for an hour, then tries to pack too much of the plot the the second half. More importantly, a leftist movie has to appeal to leftists, and American leftists, in general, have never been particularly interested in the the United States Civil War. They’re also difficult to please.

Some critics have have dismissed Free State of Jones as a “white savior” film.  Except for how Matthew McConaughey’s terrific performance “saves” the mediocre script writing, I don’ t think the argument holds much water. Not every film about a white man who hates slavery and the oppression of black people is a “white savior” movie.  More accurately I think Free State of Jones is a working-class movie. Newton Knight doesn’t rebel against  the Confederacy because he’s anti-racist, but because he resents the idea that he’s a “poor man fighting a rich man’s war.”

I suppose its testament to how effective “lost cause” propaganda has been that most Americans know all about the Union Army draft (and about Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus) but much less about the far more oppressive Confederate Army draft, which exempted plantation owners who possessed more than twenty  slaves. Most of Scarlett O’Hara’s beaus never got anywhere near the Battle of Gettysburg or the Battle of Atlanta. They spent the war going on slave patrols and chasing down deserters. Free State of Jones opens at the Second Battle of Corinth, a major battle in Mississippi where the Union Army under William Rosecrans defeated the Confederate Army under Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price. While not quite Shiloh or Chickamauga, the Second Battle of Corinth was a nasty, bloody affair. It produced over ten thousand casualties, including almost two thousand Confederate deserters.

Unlike the putrid Ted Turner Gettysburg film — which plays like a fun weekend at the Civil War reenactment — Free State of Jones gets the war exactly right. Weapons had far outstripped military tactics. Newton Knight’s Regiment moves forward  in closely packed ranks right into a line of Union artillery, which, loaded with grapeshot and scrap metal, turns young men and boys into lumps of mangled flesh as quickly as their commanders can feed them into the meat grinder. Knight, a medic, dutifully carries the wounded back to the medical tent — and the weapons of the day had also outstripped the medical technology of the day — growing more and more embittered with every broken teenager he dumps on the table screaming for his mother. After his own cousin, who doesn’t seem to be much more than fifteen or sixteen, shows up at Corinth after being drafted, and is shot through the chest by a mini ball, Knight’s had enough, and he heads back to Jones Country, determined never again to fight for the Confederacy. The situation on the home front only validates his decision that the government of Jefferson Davis is more of an enemy than the government of Abraham Lincoln. The Confederate Army, which regularly confiscates supplies, and which enforces an oppressive level of taxation on poor white farmers, is an army of occupation. Knight finds himself growing more and more sympathetic to the local black population, especially  a young woman named Rachel, with whom he eventually becomes lovers.

There’s no question that Newton Knight overshadows every other character in Free State of Jones. He’s a traditional patriarch who ends up living in a polygamous household with two women, one black and one white. The Free State of Jones, however, the government Knight and his followers set up in southeast Mississippi after their armed insurrection against the Confederate authorities is not a dictatorship. On the contrary, Knight leads by example and moral authority. His followers, including a white man who accepts an amnesty deal from the Confederate Army, only to be hanged along with his children, can and do leave at any time they want. For Newton Knight, being a “nigger” has nothing to do with skin color. A “nigger” is any man, black or white, who submits to the authority of a government controlled by the rich. His right hand man, a black man named Moses Washington, is a “free man” even before Sherman’s Army breaks the Confederacy and Lincoln introduces the Thirteenth Amendment. The language may be offensive but Newton Knight is a genuinely colorblind man who thinks that blacks are fully the equal of whites.

I was going to say that I wished Free State of Jones gave Moses as much screen time as it gave Newton Knight, but then I realized he’s arguably the hero of the last third of the movie. Mahershala Ali, a fine actor, is simply overshadowed by McConaughey like everybody else. After the war, Moses Washington tries, but fails, to live up to both his first name and his last name, organizing black voters, and becoming, along with Knight, a stalwart of the Republican Party in Jones County, trying to lead his people out of the wilderness to become the father of his country. But Free State of Jones is true to history. Radical Reconstruction, which gave Moses Washington the space to organize, is shut down after the disputed Election of 1876. In the following decades, the Klan would reimpose white supremacy. Moses is lynched and castrated. Newton Knight lives on into the 1920s. A subplot involving Knight’s partially black grandson, who is sentenced to five years in jail in the 1940s for his marriage to a white woman, has been widely criticized, but it’s also true to history. In spite of the efforts of freedom fighters like Moses Washington and Newton Night to liberate the South from class oppression and white supremacy, they not only failed. They’ve been forgotten.

Sadly, I don’t think Free State of Jones will succeed in reviving interest in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but I do know this. If someone finally makes the great movie about John Brown that deserves to be made, he or she should cast McConaughey. It would be the performance of a lifetime.

American Madness (1932)

You’ve probably never heard the name Amadeo Giannini. You’ve almost certainly heard about The Bank of America. With 210,516 employees, $256.2 billion dollars in equity, and $2.185 trillion in total assets, it’s the very definition of a multinational corporation. Yet when Giannini founded The Bank of America in 1904 as the Bank of Italy, it was little more than a small immigrant business housed in a converted saloon. How did it ever grow into such a behemoth?

According to Frank Capra, The Bank of America is great because The Bank of Italy was good. American Madness, filmed during the last year of the Hoover administration at the very height of the Great Depression, is straight up propaganda for corporate paternalism. It’s also a cinematic masterpiece. If you want to see just how good Hollywood was in the 1930s, head over the Google Play and stream American Madness for $2.99. Capra packs more entertainment into eighty six minutes than today’s Hollywood can do in a whole season.

American Madness opens at the beginning of the workday at the Union National Bank. A group of bank tellers are waiting at the vault for Matt Brown, the head cashier played by Pat O’Brien. The tellers, or “cashiers” as bank tellers were known in 1932, are all white men in sharp suits. The secretaries and receptionists are all women. Thomas Dickson, the President of the Union National Bank played by Walter Huston, is a benevolent patriarch who cares about his employees as if they were his children. This bank is not only a corporation. It’s a family, the model of small town, conservative America transplanted to the big city. When the cashiers tease Matt Brown by going out of their way not to laugh at his jokes, it’s all in fun. He’s not only the head cashier. He’s their older brother. Everybody has a place, and everybody has a future. Who wouldn’t want to work at the Union National Bank? Matt Brown is more than just a good employee. If he’s especially loyal to Thomas Dickson, that’s because Dickson did more than hire him. He saved his life. Brown, an ex-convict who’s done time in jail for some unspecified crime, is now the man who locks up the safe at night, and opens it back up on the morning, the prodigal son the company trusts with hundreds of thousands of dollars in depositor money. Thomas Dickson’s trust, as we learn, is not misplaced. There’s a snake in the Garden of Eden that is the Union National Bank, but it’s certainly not Matt Brown.

After Matt Brown distributes the day’s cash to his fellow bank tellers, Capra introduces us to the rest of the Union National Bank’s family. There’s Helen, Matt’s fiancee played by Constance Cummings. There’s a hilariously nasal voiced blond receptionist played by Polly Walter. There’s Oscar, a gangly young cashier played by the famous character actor Sterling Holloway. There are the banks regular customers. Above all there’s Thomas Dickson himself, the forerunner of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life and Al Stephenson from The Best Years of Our Lives, the banker with a heart of gold. A bank, Stephenson argues to the Union National Bank’s board of directors — who believe that he’s been far too liberal in lending out the bank’s money and who are trying to organize a coup that will force him to retire — is about more than precious metals, or figures on a ledger. Money represents the social contract. It’s an expression of the confidence that we have in one another. Without that confidence, it’s just worthless paper. What’s more, he continues, the main reason for the Great Depression is under consumption. If the banks clamp down on credit now it will destroy what’s left of the economy.

We also meet Cyril Cluett, the bank’s Vice President, an oil dandy, a womanizer, and the movie’s villain. After Helen notices three shady looking men take Cluett into his office, we learn that Cluett is a habitual gambler in debt to a loan shark named Dude Finlay for $50,000. If he agrees to serve as the inside man for a bank robbery, they tell him, they’ll let him off the hook. If he doesn’t, they’ll break his legs, or perhaps worse. All he has to do, they explain, is to disable the bank’s alarm system, and program the safe to open, not at nine in the morning, but at midnight. Finlay’s boys will do the rest. The terrified Cluett, not wanting to end up floating face down in the river with a couple of bullet holes in the back of his head, agrees. He also finds a convenient alibi in Mrs. Phyllis Dickson, Thomas Dickson’s neglected wife.

Frank Capra is often thought of as being a leftist filmmaker, that benevolent capitalists like George Bailey and Thomas Dickson are dramatic representations of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. If you consider the plot of American Madness more closely, however, you realize that Capra is actually a right-wing, family values conservative, that what threatens the moral order in American Madness is not economic injustice, but adultery, the erosion of Thomas Dickson’s authority in the eyes of his employees and his depositors. Thomas Dickson deeply loves his wife. He also loves his job, so much so that he’s arranged to speak at a conference in Philadelphia on the night of their wedding anniversary. Phyllis Dickson, in turn, deeply loves her husband, and has no intention of being unfaithful to him. She’s also bored enough to engage in a little flirtation with the company dandy, just enough to reassure herself that men still find her attraction. When Matt Brown catches Cluett crowding Mrs. Dickson into the corner of his office and trying to put his arms around her, however, he thinks the worst, that they’re already having an affair.

Matt Brown’s suspicion is more than confirmed later that evening when he shows up at Cluett’s apartment and sees them together. Cluett, who had earlier managed to trick Matt into letting him into the vault long enough to reset the timer to midnight, has also managed to persuade Mrs. Dickson to go to the theater, then to join him at his place for a drink, not only to give him an alibi, but also perhaps to put one over on the kindly Thomas Dickson, to undermine the Union National Bank family. It works. Finlay’s boys rob the vault and murder a security guard. Gunfire stops the clock at ten minutes after midnight. Matt Brown, who had hoped to have a “man to man” talk with Cluett, but who had instead wound up walking Mrs. Dickson back home, can’t, or to be more accurate won’t, account for his whereabouts after midnight –Brown is so loyal to Thomas Dickson that he’s willing to go to the electric chair in order to protect Phyllis Dickson — and winds up getting blamed for the bank robbery and the murder. Word of the robbery gets out. The amount of cash stolen is inflated from $50,000 dollars to $100,000 dollars to well over $1,000,000 dollars, and there’s a run on the bank. Thomas Dickson returns, not only to find his most trusted employee facing the death penalty, but a crowd of thousands of depositors jammed into the lobby of the Union National Bank trying to close their accounts.

Frank Capra’s (and Franklin Roosevelt’s) corporate paternalism disarmed the working class. It seduced my grandparents and great grandparents into giving up their radicalism and pledging their loyalty to American capitalism. I’m glad they didn’t live to see the inevitable result. The social contract that existed from 1933 to 2008 between Thomas Dickson and Matt Brown, between the bourgeoisie and the working class, loyalty in exchange for a job, obedience in exchange for food and shelter, had a fatal flaw. What if the bourgeoisie decided not to honor it? What if the ruling class is ultimately more like Cyril Cluett then Thomas Dickson? What if the people who run the banks are all a bunch of corrupt gamblers willing to let the working-class take the fall when they screw up?

American Madness has a happy ending. When Helen tells the police that she had noticed Cyril Cluett’s meeting with Dude Finlay the day before, they put two and two together, and figure out who really disabled the vault’s security. Cluett goes to jail. The National Union Bank is saved, not by its board of directors, and not by the federal government, but by its depositors. Matt Brown and the bank’s loyal employees organize a counterattack, call in so many new depositors that Dickson manages to find a new line of credit, and the public’s confidence in the National Union Bank is restored. The next day Thomas Dickson, the benevolent patriarch, is back in charge at the head of his big happy family. He “orders” Matt and Helen to go down to city hall and get a marriage license, a “command” they’re more than happy to obey. He apologizes to his wife. The nasal voiced blond receptionist goes back to her old routine. “National Union Bank. Please hold.” Once again, everybody has a future and everybody has a place. All is right with the world.

But that was 1932, and it was a movie. In reality, in 2008, in spite of how the working class came together through their elected representative Barack Obama to save the banks from themselves, the banks didn’t honor their end of the bargain. Credit dried up. There were no more good jobs for loyal ex-cons or anybody else. The Cyril Cluetts of the world took the money and ran, and Thomas Dickson is nowhere to be seen.

Clean (2004)

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While David Roback, who makes an appearance at the end of French director Oliver Assayas’ Clean, is not exactly a household name, he was the lead guitarist of Mazzy Star, one of the best, and perhaps most representative bands of the 1990s. Mazzy Star, which looked back to the acid rock scene of the 1960s, to The Jefferson Airplane, Jim Morrison and The Doors, celebrated, not fame and fortune, but the beautiful outcast, social isolation, indifference to but not rebellion against the mainstream, and finally oblivion. You could do worse than to think of their lead singer Hope Sandoval as a female Jim Morrison, a sexy rock star poet, but with all the male aggression drained away.

Back in the 1990s, heroin — which has recently become associated with the white underclass — was often celebrated by the cultural elite. Calvin Klein did  advertising campaigns for glossy magazines featuring barely legal models who looked like they’d be willing to suck dick for a fix. The film Trainspotting made close to $100 million dollar at the box office. Even Bill Clinton felt it necessary to issue a statement condemning heroin chic. “The glorification of heroin,” the President said, “is not creative. It’s destructive. It’s not beautiful. It is ugly. And this is not about art. It’s about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society.” He was right. Heroin became a curse on the American music industry, destroying the lives of talented performers like Hillel Slovak, Kristen Pfaff, Shannon Hoon, Layne Staley, and  of course Kurt Cobain.

Clean opens in the industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario. Emily Wong, a former French MTV DJ played by Maggie Cheung, and her lover Lee Hauser, a musician played James Johnston of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds,  are in town, hoping to negotiate a new record contract with their manager Vernon, the always excellent Canadian actor Don McKellar. Evan though Wong and Hauser have had their fifteen minutes of fame, and still have a certain cult appeal for people in the known, it’s over. They’re both over forty. They have a seven-year-old son named Jay. It’s time to grow up and move on with their lives. Unfortunately, however, they’re both addicted to heroin, and  Lee’s friends, and elderly parents who are taking care of Jay in their absence, blame Emily. Emily, who knows she’s being scapegoated, resents her husband for not standing up for her. Lee, who knows his best years are behind him, resents is wife for his own failure. They quarrel. Emily storms out of their spartan, by the week hotel room, drives off, shoots up, then falls asleep in her car. When she returns the next morning, Lee is dead. The police try to blame her for the overdose, and she’s lucky to get off with only six months in jail for possession, and not five or ten years for dealing.

In spite of or perhaps because of the grim subject matter, the early scenes of Clean are remarkably beautiful. Oliver Assayas, a Frenchman, has a real eye for the North American industrial landscape, and there’s real poetry in the way he visualizes Hamilton’s decaying steel mills, and seedy commercial district. It’s hard to exaggerate how good some of it is. It’s cinematography worthy of Robert Frank and his iconic book of still photos The Americans, and I don’t think it’s an accident. Assayas is far too intellectual a filmmaker not to be aware of what he’s doing. We are inside the minds of Emily and Lee on heroin, the blissed out longing for oblivion Mazzy Star expresses in their music. “You’re a ghost on the highway,” Hope Sandoval sung in the opening song of Mazzy Star’s first album She Hangs Brightly, “and I’ll love you forever, ghost on the highway, and I’ll love you forever, forever and ever, and ever and ever.” If nothing in Clean, except perhaps the ending in San Francisco, approaches the visual beauty of the opening in Hamilton Ontario, it’s because Clean is a film about recovery, not oblivion. Lee Hauser is now literally a ghost, and if Emily Wong doesn’t get off that highway,and stop pursuing his memory, their son Jay will never see his mother again.

Six months later, after Emily is released from prison, she’s a broken woman. She’s on methadone. Albrecht and Rosemary Hauser, Lee’s elderly parents played by Nick Nolte and Martha Henry, have gotten a court order giving them custody of Jay, a decision Emily has neither the energy or money to contest. After Albrecht tells her she won’t be allowed to see her son if she doesn’t kick her drug habit, Emily goes back to Paris to try to get her life together. Assayas gives the movie over to Cheung, his ex wife. Even though the rest of clean is set in the iconic cities of Paris and London, most of it is shot indoors. There’s no more beautiful cinematography. We could just as easily be in a suburban office park in New Jersey, but Cheung more than makes up for it. Not only does she manage to act in three languages, English, French and Cantonese, she inhabits the identity of a recovering drug as if it were her own.  The scenes in her uncle’s Chinese restaurant, where out of familial obligation he’s given her a job as a waitress, bring home the harsh reality of having to give up the creative life for the 9 to 5 world. It’s like a bad hangover. The sexy waif has become just a waif, a former icon of heroin chic trying to wake up from the glamorous dream world transformed into a nightmare.

If film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has labeled Clean ” a disappointment,” I think it’s partially because he doesn’t understand the film’s trajectory. It’s supposed to be disappointing the way waking up from a beautiful dreamworld is disappointing. But I also think he has a point. The scenes in Paris and London, where Emily bounces from dead end to dead end as she tries to work her way back into the music industry — she’s recorded ten songs with a woman she met in prison — not only have a sameness to them. They reflect a certain indecision on the part of Oliver Assayas. He doesn’t quite know how he feels about giving up the drive for beautiful oblivion. if the songs, which were written by Dave Roback of Mazzy Star, are uninspired, they’re uninspired because Roback is not at his best when he’s writing songs about recovery, about the idea of clawing your way back into the world of ordinary misery, to use Freud’s term. If she wants to survive, Emily Wong can never be more than a mediocre forty-year-old singer badly imitating music that celebrates the state of mind that John Keats described in Ode to a Nightingale as being “half in love with easeful death.”

Emily,however, probably will survive, if only because of her son Jay. Her father-in-law, Albrecht Hauser, who had gone to court to keep the little boy from his drug addicted mother, now realizes that he and his wife don’t have very long to live. Even though he allowed his Rosemary to brainwash Jay into thinking that his mother killed his father, that she gave him the drugs that led to the overdose, he now understands that while Emily may have been a bad mother, she’s still the only mother the little boy has. The scenes where Emily and Jay reconcile are in fact so good that you wish they had begun earlier. Maggie Cheung has little or no report with the child actor who plays Jay, but that’s the point. Emily and Jay aren’t mother and son. They’re strangers. They need to get to know each other from scratch. Clean ends with Emily flying to San Francisco to record her songs in David Roback’s studio, but with a promise from Albrecht Hauser that he will give her back the custody of her son when she returns. Will it work out? We don’t know. Assayas leaves that to our imagination, and to an even better movie he could have made instead.

Love & Friendship (2016)

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Back in the 1990s, American cinema was flooded with adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Some of them, like the Gwyneth Paltrow vanity project Emma, were pretty bad. Others, like the 1995 BBC adaptation of Persuasion, were competently done but boring. Still others, like Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, were entertaining in and of themselves, but bore only a superficial relationship to Jane Austen’s writings. Perhaps the most representative, the 1995 British miniseries where Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is imagined as a viral hunk and Elizabeth Bennett is motivated more by lust then by money, gets to the root of the problem. In spite of the current inability of Anglo Americans to see the marriage of two good-looking, and wealthy, people under thirty as anything other than a love match, Jane Austen didn’t write romance novels. She wrote satire, critiques, albeit from the right, on the petty gentry of late Eighteenth Century England. Elizabeth Bennett didn’t care about Mr. Darcy’s square jaw or rugged body. She wanted to marry him for his “huge tracts of land.”

Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship Love & Friendship is not a great film. It’s the kind of wispy little costume drama you wish the BBC, or even HBO, would make more often. Nevertheless, it does capture the spirit of Jane Austen’s novels in a way so many more ambitious films don’t. Based Lady Susan – an unpublished manuscript written in 1794 – Love & Friendship liberates Jane Austen, not only from the kind of big budget, Merchant Ivory production that would entomb her soul in elaborately designed sets Royal Shakespeare Company acting, but from “alternative” adaptations that miss the point altogether. Whit Stillman, who broke onto film in 1990 with Metropolitan – think of it as Hal Hartley meets the Preppy Handbook – understands the essential cynicism at the heart of upper-middle-class “romance.” Metropolitan was a fun movie because Stillman’s young Manhattan WASPs were more interested in reveling in their own verbal cleverness than they were in getting hitched for life. If Last Days of Disco was a disappointment, it’s mainly because he put his cynicism on a leash, and tried to fool himself into believing that upper-East-Side yuppies could ever get more excited by sex than by their trust funds. In Love & Friendship, he’s not only acknowledged the reality that “love,” both in the world of the American upper-class and in the world of Jane Austen, is mainly about money. He’s made it fun.

Like any English major, I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s canonical novels. Not being a specialist, I’ve never read Lady Susan, but I’ll have to correct that mistake. While Jane Austen’s unfinished and unpublished first novel might not rank with Emma or Pride and Prejudice, its heroine — to be more accurate its anti-heroine – looks forward to William Makepeace Thackeray and Becky Sharp. Lady Susan Vernon, a penniless thirty-something widow with a sixteen-year-old daughter is no dewy eyed twenty-year-old looking for a rich husband. Rather, she’s Elizabeth Bennett a decade later, a clever, accomplished woman who failed to marry the richest man in England, and who now has to work her way back into the upper-class by virtue of nothing but her charm and sex-appeal. She’s also refreshingly free of the illusion that a happy marriage is a love match. On the contrary, Love & Friendship opens with Lady Vernon and her daughter Frederica being expelled from the Manwaring Estate because she’s seduced Lord Manwaring into an adulterous relationship. Lady Vernon is no French Troubadour poet, but she is aware that romance more often disrupts established social hierarchies as it reinforces them. If the canonical Jane Austen is a conservative, the nineteen-year old Jane Austen was a budding radical.

Unfortunately for Lady Vernon, she’s also homeless. Like Blanche DuBois, she and her daughter depend upon the “kindness of strangers,” although thankfully the strangers in Love and Friendship are much nicer than the strangers in A Streetcar Named Desire. Her next stop is the “Churchill Estate,” which is owned by her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon and her amiable husband Charles Vernon. Catherine Vernon, played by Emma Greenwall, would just as soon her sister-in-law out into the street. Lady Susan knows she’s on thin ice, but she also knows she’s protected by two things, convention – you don’t just toss a “lady” out in the street – and the fact that men, to put it crudely, often think with the wrong head. Catherine Vernon’s younger brother Reginald DeCourcy, a naive young hunk played by Xavier Samuels, has heard all about the notorious Lady Susan, and like any would-be groupie he’s not going to pass up the chance to meet the rock star now occupying the guest room. Before long, Susan has Reginald DeCourcy wrapped around her little finger. She’s also presented with an added complication when her sixteen-year-old daughter Frederica gets expelled from her boarding school, and shows up – along with a very rich but unwanted suitor named Sir James Martin – at the Churchill Estate, bringing all the drama, and opportunity, that usually entails.

Morfydd Clark, who plays Frederica, strikes just the right note of teenage angst and naivete. It’s also believable that the 43-year-old Beckinsale could seduce a much younger man. I’m not sure if she sold her soul to the devil or found some sort of magical youth potion, but unlike Sevigny, she hasn’t noticeably aged since The Last Days of Disco. In any event, the two women look close enough in age – the Gilmore Girls of Jane Austen – to imagine them passing men back and forth between each other. Chloë Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan’s American friend Alicia Johnson is a disappointment. I’m glad she doesn’t attempt a British accent, but her timing and body language seems to suggest that she wanted to. She would have been much better in the role of Catherine Vernon. Emma Greenwall is also pretty forgettable. Xavier Samuels is adequate as a naive young hunk, not much more. Lochlann O’Mearáin, who looks a bit like Colin Firth, and who plays Lord Manwaring, doesn’t have to do much more than stand around looking like a male model. Jenn Murray, who plays Lady Manwaring, overdoes the hysteria, but I suppose that’s the point. The character in the novel is to be so unbearable you can understand why her husband cheats on her. Justin Edwards is amiable enough as Charles Vernon.

The real star of the film, however, is an actor named Tom Bennett, who plays the bumbling Sir James Martin. Sir James, who has ten thousand pounds a year and a gigantic estate, and who’s positively obsessed with Frederica Vernon, is also an idiot. He’s exactly the kind of fabulously wealthy dupe any naive sixteen-year-old girl would reject and any cynical thirty-five year old woman would consider an opportunity. It’s honestly hard to stop laughing whenever Bennett is on screen, and Stillman strikes comic gold with his dim, and overly literal mind. “Churchill,” he says. “I was looking for a church and a hill and couldn’t find either.” When he finds out that there are only ten, and not twelve commandments – a running joke in Love & Friendship is how Anglicans don’t seem to read the Bible – he’s delighted. That’s two less commandments to obey. He decides to throw out the rule that you should honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. The rest of the commandments, injunctions not to kill or cover your neighbors wife, are just stating the obvious. He wasn’t planning to do any of that stuff anyway.

At the end of the film, it’s clear that the one commandment Sir James should probably take seriously is the Seventh. Lady Susan, who has claimed him, along with his ten thousand pounds a year, for herself after shuffling Reginald DeLancy off to Frederica, hasn’t the slightest intention of being faithful. That makes it all the more hilarious that the one original idea Sir James seems to have is a misogynistic theory that men are naturally inclined to cheat but women don’t have it in them. I suppose it’s fortunate Stillman ended the film here – and Austen didn’t bother finishing the novel – because this was not a marriage that could have possibly worked. Either Sir James would prove too dim to ever suspect that Lady Susan was cheating on him, a distinct possibility — and we’d just end up feeling sorry for him as she and Lord Manwaring drained him of his money – or he would. He’d challenge Lord Manwaring to a duel, and probably get himself killed. As for Reginald DeCourcy and Frederica Vernon, their marriage probably will work out. Reginald is a naive young man more in love with the concept of being in love than with Lady Susan herself. So why shouldn’t his affection, along with his own ten thousand pounds, go to an equally naive teenage girl with a charming singing voice and a penniless mother? Then again, their marriage would probably be too dull to be the subject of another novel.

If Love & Friendship, in spite of having a clearly feminist heroine, is not exactly a feminist novel, it probably has something to do with how the nineteen-year Jane Austen, and the sixty-four-year-old Whit Stillman, have constructed a sort of utopia that depends on the good nature and the indulgence of clueless rich men. Many books and PHD dissertations have been written to prove that Jane Austen wasn’t simply a conservative, that there’s a coded critique of class and of the slave trade running through her novels, but for me that’s never quite worked out. Jane Austen lived in and critiqued a bubble, the world of the English landed-gentry in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century. Most of her anger is reserved for inadequate men and women – Mr. and Mrs. Bennett – who don’t prepare their children to succeed in this narrow, sheltered world, not for the class system and the British Empire that made it possible. Even though Jane Austen was a contemporary of the French Revolution she barely seems to be aware of its existence. If the French had successfully invaded England, I’m fairly confident that Lady Susan would have just brushed up on her French and reveled in the idea that there were now rich, eligible men in two languages. We never see the Captain Wentworth of Persuasion at war. For Austen, the only significance to his having served in the British Navy is that he comes back to England with enough money to marry Anne Elliot.

In this sense, Whit Stillman, who makes movies about the antiquated WASP gentry of the northeast United States, is similar to Jane Austen. Stillman built his career dramatizing the lives of privileged Americans living in a a sheltered bubble, much more concerned with the mating rituals of the people living inside than in how the bubble got built. All of Austen’s and Stillman’s characters are in a sense children. I keep thinking of Steven Fry, the excellent actor who plays Chloë Sevigny’s much older husband “Mr. Johnson.” The gigantic Fry – he’s 6’5” – exudes an air of benevolent patriarchal authority that seems out of place in the rest of the film. He also keeps threatening to send Sevigny back to Connecticut, which in 1796 would have been a pretty rough place indeed. If Stillman had switched the roles of Fry and Justin Edwards, who plays Charles Vernon, Love and Friendship would have been a much better film. It would have brought home just how precarious Lady Vernon’s position in society really was, and would have made her triumph over the patriarchy that much more satisfying.