Category Archives: Film

The Station Agent (2003)

Peter Dinklage, who’s probably best known for playing Tyrion Lannister from the HBO miniseries Game of Thrones, first came to wide attention in 2003 for a brief, 3-minute scene in Will Ferrell’s Christmas movie Elf. It is a hilarious meeting of opposites. The 6’3″ Ferrell is a childlike innocent who grew up in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The 4’5″ Dinklage is an aggressive, Type-A frat boy who brags about his material possessions and sexual conquests as if he were just another follower of Andrew Tate. After Ferrell speaks to Dinklage as if he sincerely believes he’s an elf who had escaped from the North Pole, and Dinklage violent assaults him, as guilty as we may feel about our ingrained bias against people with dwarfism, it’s difficult to keep a straight face.

That same year, Dinklage played the lead in a small, low-budget movie called The Station Agent. Set in sparsely populated West Milford, New Jersey and starring Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, and Bobby Cannavale, the critically acclaimed film further explores the dilemma of being a 5’10” man in a 4’5″ body. Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, an employee at a small hobby shop in Hoboken New Jersey specializing in model trains. When Henry Styles, his long-time friend and employer played by Paul Benjamin, one of the street corner Greek chorus from Do the Right Thing, dies of a heart attack, Finbar, or “Fin” as he refers to himself, suddenly finds himself without a job. For reasons unmentioned, Styles does not leave Fin the hobby store, but he does leave him a small piece of property, including an old train depot, and an old passenger car, 44 miles away in the unincorporated Newfoundland area of West Milford in Northern Passaic County.

To call West Milford, New Jersey “rural” would be a bit of a stretch. It’s an affluent suburban area just south of the New York State border, and about 20 minutes north of Morristown and the cluttered retail strip in East Hanover on Route 10. Nevertheless, it’s about as different from Hoboken and Hudson County as you can possibly get. Tall trees, quiet roads, lonely mountain lakes, the whole area has an idyllic feel, the kind of place where, in the Spring, you just want to go outside and ride a bike or walk. That’s precisely what Fin does. When we see him talking towards the Hoboken rail terminal, we assume he’s just going to get on the PATH and take a NJ Transit Bus from the Port Authority. Instead he drops down onto the tracks and walks, all 44 miles to West Milford. That Fin would have certainly run into murderous traffic along the way and surely would have been shooed off of NJ Transit property by the police is besides the point. The world of The Station Agent is a quiet little cul-de-sac off the main road of early 21st Century America.

While the tracks in front of the old railway depot in Newfoundland are still active, it’s a low volume freight line, and no longer carries passengers from New York City to the (still extant) Idylease Inn, a luxurious resort yet still open to the middle-class of the metropolitan area. Moving into the depot, for Fin, is to commune with ghosts, the ghosts of vacationers from the early 20th Century, but most of all with the ghost of the station agent, who in 1900 would have been a combination ticket seller, general store manager, and even barber. Above all the station agent would have been an outsider and an observer, a man looking at the world passing by and wondering when if ever he would become a part of it.

Idylease around 1910

Idylease (A frequent stop on my cycling route) today.

Once ensconced in the depot, Fin almost immediately makes a friend. At first it seems an “unlikely” friendship. Joe, played by Bobby Cannavale of Boardwalk Empire, is a tall handsome Cuban American who surely has no trouble meeting women or making friends. Indeed, it seems a little strange, almost creepy. Why exactly does this strapping young Latin hunk want to be friends so badly with a dwarf? Does he have some kind of fetish? But then we realize that Joe, who runs a hotdog stand out in the middle of nowhere and can’t possibly be turning a profit, has also communed with the ghost of the station master at the old depot. He’s a customer service agent without any customers.

People can make connections, the movie seems to argue, without speaking. They feel one another’s souls. There’s a reason Joe’s spirit reaches out to Fin’s. His father is dying. If Fin has recently lost his spiritual father, then Joe is constantly worried about losing his real father. He suddenly realizes why he has driven his father’s hotdog truck out to the middle of nowhere and set up shop. Fin is wary and mistrustful. But Joe breaks down his defenses. “Be friends with me bro,” he seems to say. “I may be a foot and a half taller than you but inside we’re just two lonely guys who have lost our dads.”

Indeed, it quickly becomes clear why Fin rarely talks about his old boss Henry Styles, even though Henry protected him from customers who would mock him for being a dwarf. The entire plot revolves, not only around the station agent’s ghost, but around Harry’s ghost. People are drawn to Fin, not because they’re curious about his being a dwarf, but because they sense his loss and want to share their own. Olivia Harris, played by Patricia Clarkson, who has recently been separated from her husband over their shared grief at a lost child, almost runs into Fin, not once but twice when she spills coffee into her lap in her SUV. Eventually, Joe, Olivia and Fin are drawn together almost by the force of gravity.

Olivia also offers Fin and unexpected opportunity for redemption. Early in the movie, she is the pursuer. She barges into Fin’s life whether he likes it or not. But as the film progresses, she becomes more and more consumed with anguish over the loss of her child and the separation from her husband, and withdraws into a suicidal depression, trying to push both Fin and Joe out of her life. Suddenly, Fin is no longer trapped in the shell, which is not only an accident of a physical handicap but which is partly of his own making. He finds he cares about a person who is pushing him away. He has to find a way to break through her defenses so they can once again be friends. A subplot with Michelle Williams, always an appealing actress, feels a bit forced but further hammers in the point that Fin is a 5’10” man living in a dwarf’s body. After her abusive boyfriend shoves Fin to the ground after Fin tries to protect her, and he’s angry that he doesn’t have the size or strength to win the fight, she tries to seduce him. But it’s not what he wants. “People don’t understand,” he says. “I’m just a boring, ordinary person.” Fin doesn’t want sexual conquest. He pursues Olivia because he cares about her, not because he wants her as a lover. He and Joe end up almost like brothers. But he doesn’t want to get even with an abusive asshole by fucking his girlfriend. He’s not that kind of person.

We don’t learn anything about Fin’s past, other than that he’s a man in his 30s who loves trains and recently worked in a hobby store. But he appears to be an educated man from middle-class family, a socially isolated underachiever not because of poverty but because of dwarfism. Throughout the movie, Fin has been pursued by another Joe, Cleo, a young black girl still in junior high school, who barges into his life out of pure innocent curiosity. This is where we realizes how different Peter Dinklage’s character is from the arrogant jerk he played in Elf. He’s not offended by Cleo’s innocence. He’s redeemed by it. Finally agreeing to be a guest lecturer in front of her class and give a talk about trains, he seems to get over his anxiety over speaking in front of crowds. A boy makes a cheap crack about his height, but it’s no big deal. The other kids are so fascinated by his knowledge of trains they want him to come back and give a talk about blimps. Fin knows nothing about blimps, but upon meeting with Olivia and Joe the next day he starts peppering them with questions. Perhaps Fin is a grade school teacher waiting to come out of his shell, a popular little man who can speak to kids on their own level without condescending to them, the station agent finally come home from the past to find that maybe he has a future after all.

The Whale (2022)

In the opening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale, we find ourselves on a wooded, rural highway somewhere in North America. It’s quiet, idyllic, peaceful, without much traffic. A bus pulls up, stop, lets off a passenger on the side of the road, and pulls away. We do not see what he looks like. The camera does not pull in further, and in retrospect, it is an odd scene to begin a movie set almost entirely indoors. Indeed, with one very big exception, the Whale is not so much a cinematic adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s award winning 2013 drama so much a stage version of the play put to film.

In the next scene, we meet the very big exception, Charlie a lecturer at an online university in the process of teaching a lower level English course. While The Whale takes place in 2016 — there is running coverage of Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican Party primaries — the class feels more like 2020. Charlie’s students look bored, impatient, like they would rather be somewhere else. They are young, but don’t have the quality of youth. What’s more, almost as if he were wearing a mask, they can’t see Charlie’s face. “When is the professor finally going to get his webcam fixed?” one student remarks sarcastically. Charlies students will have to wait until the end of the movie to find out what their professor looks like. We get to see him in the very next scene.

Francoise Truffaut once remarked that it is impossible to make a genuinely antiwar movie since the cinematic aesthetic almost always throws a veil of glamour over the blood, gore, death and destruction. The same pitfall apply to addiction and self-destruction. If what does not kill you makes you stronger, what does kill you can also make you cool. Cigarettes cause cancer. They’re also inherently cinematic. While heroin addiction isn’t quite as cool as it was in the 1990s, it also killed Kurt Cobain and informed the aesthetic of neo-psychedelic groups like Mazzy Star and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even alcoholism, as anybody who’s ever watched Humphry Bogart in Casablanca declare his nationality to be that of a “drunkard,” is more than just a way of killing yourself. It can also be a way of turning yourself into a romantic hero.

One form of self-destruction that’s almost impossible to make beautiful, however, is morbid obesity, which is exactly what we see when Charlie’s class ends. Brendan Fraser, who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie, the tall, rugged hunk from The Mummy, is now a balding middle-aged man wearing the fat suit that probably cost half the film’s budget. Charlie is not only fat. He’s quite literally killing himself by overdosing on food, a long, slow arduous process that has left him weighing at least 600 pounds, and has jacked up his blood pressure to 233/167. It’s immediately obvious why he doesn’t want his students to know what he looks like since he almost embodies the idea of the “corruption of the flesh,” of sin, or moral turpitude. Aronofsky takes the idea of Charlie’s depravity so far over the top it becomes almost funny. Masturbating to gay porn, he groans with pleasure until he clutches his chest and starts to groan in pain. Is Charlie having an orgasm or is he having a heart attack? No, he’s having a heart attack while he’s having an orgasm, sex, death, depravity, and self-destruction all wrapped up in a 600 pound, sweating, wheezing mound of flesh. Then we hear a knock on the door, and Thomas, a young man, barely into his 20s, the same young man who had gotten off the bus in the opening scene, walks into Charlie’s apartment.

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about Jesus?” he says, gasping in horror at the mountainous spectacle in front of him.

Quickly realizing that Charlie needs a doctor more than he needs a religious lesson, Thomas asks to borrow Charlie’s phone to call an ambulance — oddly for a member of Generation Z Thomas does not have a working cell phone — but Thomas’s first impulse was actually correct. Charlie, who is too far gone to save himself physically, is more interested in “the word” than in the flesh. He does in fact want to talk about books, just not the “good book.” Handing Thomas a typed single page he begs him to read. Baffled, Thomas hesitates, but Charlie insists, and when Thomas finally begins, we realizes it’s a crudely written book report on Moby Dick, the other whale of the title, an essay we later learn was written by someone long estranged but dear to Charlie’s heart, words he wants to have going through his mind as he dies. For Charlie, the beautiful, ornately poetic language of the King James Bible, would only take him further away from himself, from his family, from what he wants to remember in death. What Charlie values above all is not beauty, but authenticity. For Charlie, as he tells his students, a few words written sincerely from the heart are more valuable than the Song of Solomon.

The Whale has been criticized for casting a height weight proportional actor in a fat suit instead of a genuinely obese man, but I personally think Brenden Fraser is perfect for the role. Orson Welles and Marlon Brando in their later years were grotesquely fat, and either could have played a self-destructive English teacher, but both men also had a commanding presence, a force, an authenticity that would overwhelmed Charlie’s inner torment and made it impossible for us to understand the reason he has decided to commit suicide by overdosing on food. Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, with his thick lips, male pattern baldness, his almost stereotypical middle-aged ugliness, has a soft, weak, confused quality about him that at first glance would make him the kind of man no woman, or man, could love, the kind of man who would die a virgin, but it is not so. Charlie in fact used to be a respectable, educated, middle-class man, but it all came at the cost of denying himself, of denying his own homosexuality and emotional complexity. When, well into middle-age, he finally meets the love of his life, he gives up everything he has, his family, his job, his health, and finally his life, all to be true to the self he had been denying so long.

Indeed, Aronofsky has played a clever trick on us all. With the help of Brendan Fraser, he has taken the ugliest possible object anybody can imagine and made it beautiful. Thomas is a sincere young man who, unlike Charlie’s friend and caretaker Liz, depicted by the actress Hong Chau in a complex, nuanced, and compassionate performance, doesn’t quite understand that Charlie doesn’t want to be saved. He wants to be damned on his own terms. Like one of Dante’s beautiful sinners in the upper circles of hell, like Francesca Di Rimini, who was murdered while in the act of adultery and thus damned, he wants to cling to his beloved object for all of eternity, even if that eternity is full of misery. If the double grief of a lost bliss is to recall its happy hour in pain, Charlie wants to feel his grief forever.

Tár (2022)

Lydia Tár, a renowned classical musician and music director played by Cate Blanchett, has a lot on her plate. She’s not only the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, an august post formerly held by luminaries like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, she’s also an “EGOT,” a person who’s won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. In other words, she’s written as much music as she’s conducted, and if that weren’t enough, she runs a school in New York City dedicated to “grooming” (choice of words no accident) young women to go onto be music directors themselves, and teaches a class at Julliard. My reaction hearing about Lydia Tár’s resume was similar to my reaction to hearing that Wilt Chamberlain slept with 20,000 women. “There isn’t enough time in the day.” But there’s where I’m wrong. In the long interview that opens the movie, with real life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, who plays himself straight but comes off like a clownish parody of a New York intellectual, Lydia Tár explains that her job as a conductor basically makes her a time lord. “The music can’t start without me. The music can’t stop without me,” she says. Lydia Tár has enough time because she commands time.

What Lydia Tár doesn’t command is the younger generation. In her class at Julliard, Cate Blanchett, in all of her flamboyant Aryan majesty, plays Lydia Tár playing Lydia Tár, an act that has brought her to the pinnacle of the artistic world. But this time the audience, her Generation Z students, aren’t buying it. We watch the transformation of a literal goddess, the privileged receptacle of the entirety of western tradition, transformed into just another out of touch old Boomer. When Max, one of her students, a tall good looking young man with a nervous leg played by newcomer Zethphan D. Smith-Gneist, tells her that “as a pangender BIPOC” he can’t perform Bach, Bach being a white, Protestant German male who oppressed both his wives by siring 20 children, she responds with a discourse on the importance of individual genius that we all agree with, but simultaneously see as a performance with a bit of a missed note. Max may be an absolute fool, but he’s also young, and the younger generation, who regenerate society with sex, idealism and passion, have decided that race and gender are more important than individual genius. They have pushed Lydia Tár and her beloved western tradition to the edge of the cliff, where she’s desperately hanging on for dear life

The rest of the movie shows them stomping on her fingers. As far as hostile young people go, Max is the least of Lydia Tár’s problems. Much more pressing is Francesca Lentini, a woman in her late 20s who we’re told is one of Tár’s designated successors at the Berlin Philharmonic, but who at the moment just seems liker her lackey and personal assistant. Francesca, played by Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the surface seems severe and competent, the kind of summer intern you’d actually hire permanently after she graduates, but surfaces can be deceiving. Francesca is also in constant touch, by smart phone of course, with another young woman named Krista, one of Tár’s former students who Tár may or may not have had an affair with, who may or may not have been an obsessed stalker, but who Lydia Tár has destroyed, blacklisted in the world of classical music and prevented from holding any job above the director of a local church orchestra or community theater. After Krista commits suicide, and Tár responds with astonishing callousness, Francesca’s passive aggressive resentment at long last explodes into out and out rage, and she begins plotting with Krista’s parents for Tár’s downfall.

Lydia Tár’s destruction has both a social and an artistic component. On the outside, we see her smeared in a highly edited TikTok video that “goes viral,” sued by Krista’s parents, and ultimately dismissed as director of the Berlin Philharmonic in favor of Eliot Kaplan, a billionaire investor who’s finally managed to buy his way to artistic success. But it’s Lydia Tár’s that is the soul of the movie. Tár’s confrontation with Max at Julliard was revealing. For Max, Bach was a “misogynist” because he sired a lot of children. For Lydia, a lesbian who will never have her own biological children, but like many gay men and women, has substituted art for procreation, that’s what made Bach worth studying, his ability generate life, to regenerate himself in his children, and ultimately his wife’s herculean ability to survive the rigors of 18th Century childbirth (Bach’s second wife, with whom he had 12 children, outlived him by a decade). Max, who’s chosen identity politics over life, can be dismissed. But it’s Olga, another young person, a talented Russian cellist played by real life cellist Sophie Kauer, who ultimately drives Lydia Tár over the edge.

In the artistic world, being “sexy” will get you a long way. In fact, it’s pretty much the entire point of artistic creation. What Millennials and members of Generation Z don’t quite understand, and why, with some exceptions, they’re boring, passive consumers of superhero movies and bad Star Wars reboots, “robots” as Lydia accurately points out, is that if you don’t want to fuck what’s up on screen, you’re not really experiencing “art.” You’re consuming a product. Olga, unlike Max, has real talent. In fact, she’s massively talented, and the only time the movie really comes alive is when she’s on screen. There’s no contradiction between Lydia Tár’s wanting to fuck Olga and wanting to promote her in the world of classical music. Lydia recognizes talent when she sees it and wants to do what she’s done all of her life, bring art and beauty to the rest of the world. But even within the framework of her own assumptions and ideology, the world has moved on from Lydia Tár. Olga will kiss the old lady’s ass as much she has to to get the spot in the Berlin Philharmonic but she’s most decidedly not under Tár’s spell. In fact, Tár no longer has a spell. She’s lost the ability to bewitch, to command an audience, or even to enjoy music.

Indeed, Lydia Tár’s keen sense of hearing, which has propelled her into the artistic stratosphere, is now her oppressor. Cut off from the world of youth, sex, beauty, creativity, she no longer hears symphonies and string quartets. She hears screams, stray out of place metronomes, unexplained groans from the next apartment, a frail elderly woman in the care of her Boomer daughter dying very loudly. Things fall apart. Mere aural anarchy has been unleashed upon Lydia Tár’s existence. Young people, who she has both exploited and promoted her over the years, have rejected her. Frail elderly people, who once exploited and promoted Lydia Tár, aren’t giving up the ghost without making a long, ugly moan. In the end, Lydia Tár finds herself expelled from the west itself, from the European elite that once accepted her, into an Asian exile, out of which which she may, or may not regenerate herself.

War and Peace (1967): An AI Generated Review

I had ChatGPT, the groundbreaking new artificial intelligence app, write me a review of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Is it better than my own? It’s more concise. I asked it for at least 1000 words. It gave me 567.

Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace is a cinematic masterpiece that successfully captures the complexity, depth, and grandeur of one of the greatest literary works of all time. At a runtime of over seven hours, the film is a monumental achievement in filmmaking, showcasing Bondarchuk’s talent as a director, writer, and actor.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows the lives of several aristocratic families as they navigate the tumultuous political and social landscape of Russia. The central characters are the idealistic and romantic Pierre Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk himself), the strong-willed and passionate Natasha Rostova (played by Lyudmila Savelyeva), and the calculating and ambitious Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov). The film traces their journeys from innocence to experience, from love to heartbreak, and from idealism to disillusionment, against the backdrop of war, politics, and social upheaval.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is its sheer scale and ambition. Bondarchuk spares no expense in recreating the lavish costumes, stunning landscapes, and epic battle scenes of the novel. The battle of Borodino, in particular, is a tour-de-force of filmmaking, with over 15,000 extras and hundreds of horses and cannons creating a visceral and unforgettable spectacle. The film’s use of widescreen and color cinematography is also noteworthy, capturing the beauty and majesty of the Russian countryside and the opulence and decadence of the aristocratic estates.

But while the film is undoubtedly a visual feast, it is also a deeply psychological and philosophical exploration of the human condition. The characters are complex and nuanced, each struggling to find meaning and purpose in a world that seems to be crumbling around them. Bondarchuk’s performance as Pierre is especially noteworthy, capturing the character’s vulnerability, idealism, and existential angst with great depth and sensitivity. His scenes with Natasha, played with equal sensitivity and nuance by Savelyeva, are some of the most emotionally powerful in the film, showcasing the complexities and contradictions of human love.

The film’s script, co-written by Bondarchuk and Vasiliy Solovyov, is also a triumph of adaptation. While some may argue that the film takes liberties with the novel, compressing and simplifying certain storylines and characters, the overall effect is one of clarity and coherence. The film successfully distills the essence of the novel, capturing its themes of love, war, and morality, and bringing them to life in a way that is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Of course, no film is without its flaws, and War and Peace is no exception. Some may find the film’s pacing slow, especially in the first half, and the sheer length of the film may be daunting for some viewers. Additionally, some of the secondary characters, such as the scheming Helene Kuragina (played by Anastasiya Vertinskaya), may feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. But these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, and do little to detract from the film’s overall power and impact.

In conclusion, Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace is a true masterpiece of cinema, capturing the scope, depth, and beauty of Leo Tolstoy’s novel with skill, sensitivity, and ambition. It is a film that rewards patience and attention, offering a rich and rewarding experience for those willing to invest the time and energy. If you are a lover of cinema or literature, or simply a seeker of great stories, then War and Peace is a film that should not be missed.

War and Peace (1967)

In 1812, Western Europe was doing pretty much the same thing it’s trying to do today, trying to destroy Russia and its Orthodox Christian civilization. Indeed, when Napoleon crossed the Nieman River at the head of what was up until that point the largest army the world had ever seen, the Russian people, like the people of Spain and the royalist French counterrevolutionaries of the Vendee in the years before, saw him as the anti-Christ, the beast on horseback who would bring the godless red terror of the French Revolution to their doorsteps. They weren’t entirely wrong. The French sack of the fortress city of Smolensk was not only brutal, it threatened to destroy an icon of the Virgin Mary that Russian legend maintained had been rescued from the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Later that year, just before the Battle of Borodino, the Stalingrad of 1812, the Russian Army held a religious service where the Smolensk icon was displayed in front of over 100,000 soldiers, many of whom would die that day in the great battle that finally broke Napoleon’s aura of godlike invincibility. While Napoleon would drive the Russian Army from the field, then go on to occupy Moscow, the West had lost the apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Orthodox Russia would survive for another 105 years until 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks destroyed it for good.

Or did they? That Sergei Bondarchuk could make his epic movie War and Peace in 1967 with the full state support of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union is something of a miracle. If it’s one thing the Soviet Union was good at it was putting history on screen. October by Sergei Eisenstein not only captured the storming of the Winter Palace on film, it became almost a historical event in and of itself. Bondarchuk’s film, which features tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers as extras, and which includes a full length reenactment of the veneration of the Smolensk Icon, is most emphatically not a communist movie. It is, rather, a resurrection of the Russia of Czar Alexander II, of the first Great Patriotic War, of the grand aristocratic society the Soviet Union had supposedly replaced. If we American love tabloid stories about the British Royal Family, we have nothing on those Russian communists of the 1960s who pretty much built a complete live action museum of a Christian empire that was gone forever. Compared to Bondarchuk’s epic, American attempts to recapture their history, from the silly Ted Turner Gettysburg of the 1990s, to classics like Gone With the Wind, seem almost primitive and childish.

Nevertheless, if Bondarchuk’s film is not a communist film, it’s not exactly a reactionary one either. Rather, it is a herculean attempt to bring Leo Tolstoy’s novel, and his deeply mature humanism, to cinema. Having read War and Peace twice, in English translation of course, I can say almost without reservation, that this film comes pretty close to succeeding. It’s not just that Bondarchuk manages to recreate a realistic facsimile of the world of 1812, it’s that he also manages to dramatize how small, relatively insignificant humans interact with gigantic historical events that threaten to crush them. In the burning of Moscow, for example, the film’s climatic sequence, and it does register as a climax after almost 6 hours of exposition, Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s hero and Tolstoy’s alter-ego, who’s played by Bondarchuk himself, has stayed behind as part of a quixotic desire to assassinate Napoleon. The French, who had marched into the city in good order, have degenerated into a rapacious mob, looting and murdering civilians, raping women, and shooting at random civilians who they believe responsible for setting the fires. When a woman calls out that she has lost her child in the fire, Bezukhov forgets about his plan to assassinate Napoleon and bulls his way through a group of French soldiers in the direction of her house. The French, who had just finished looting it, tell Bezukhov that the child was indeed in the courtyard. They had made no attempt to rescue her, but don’t seem particularly interested in stopping the would be Russian hero from doing it himself.

Pierre Bezhukov succeeds in rescuing the child, but cannot find her mother. Did she die in the flames? Was she killed by the French? We never find out. Then the mood of the French soldiers changes just as suddenly as a fire changes direction in a strong wind. Even though he’s clearly got a child in his arms and he’s clearly looking for her mother, the French soldiers accuse him of being a saboteur, an incendiary who helped start the fires. They force him to abandon the child and lead him off to his execution. In the end, as anybody who’s read the novel knows, Pierre Bezhukov is not executed by the French. Rather he’s taken west on the retreat, death march of the French Army back to Western Europe, where, one by one, his companions are tied to a post and shot, the vulnerable 19-year-old boy, the kindly middle-aged man who had prevented him from starving, a few innocent peasants they picked up along the way, until he’s miraculously rescued by Cossacks. During his rescue, is he thinking about the child he saved from the fire but couldn’t save from the mob? We never find out. But Bondarchuk has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations of what it’s like to be caught in the maelstrom of history.

If the film has a weakness, it’s probably Bondarchuk’s decision to cast himself as Pierre Bezhukov. Pierre is a giant, physically powerful young man in his 20s on an elaborate philosophical and spiritual quest. Bondarchuk is a square, plain man in his 40s. He’s certainly better in the role than Henry Fonda was in the King Vidor version (what kind of drugs do you have to be on to cast Henry Fonda a Russian?) or Anthony Hopkins in the BBC miniseries from the 1970s, but the role really calls for a young Gerard Depardieu or Liam Neeson, a burly, brute of a man restrained only his cultivated spirituality. Then again, perhaps it’s not a flaw so much as an aesthetic choice. Bondarchuk feels so stiff and unemotive in the role that perhaps he decided to cast himself, not as a character in the novel, but as a witness to the novel’s events. Indeed, in real life, Pierre’s decision to stroll around the Battle of Borodino, a meatgrinder that made Gettysburg or Antietam seem almost bloodless in comparison, would have gotten him killed in the first five minutes of the battle. It would be impossible to depict these passages in Tolstoy’s novel realistically without spending the entire time with Pierre huddled behind an earthwork desperately trying not to get hit by shrapnel. Instead he becomes almost a disembodied presence, the angel of history recording one of history’s most hellish moments.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov as the brooding, intellectual Andrei Bolkonsky is somewhat better. Tall, spare, with aquiline features and graceful movements, he embodies Tolstoy’s tragic aristocratic hero. Anatoly Ktorov as Andrei’s father is even better yet. Somehow he manages to evoke in 1967 the wistful nostalgia of an old man in 1812 for old world that had vanished decades before 1812. How exactly did the proletarian dictatorship of the Soviet Union end up with so many actors so good at playing aristocrats? Ludmila Savelyeva, bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, who played Natasha in the King Vidar film, but a Slavic Audrey Hepburn with none of the original’s — all apologies to fans of Ms. Hepburn — Anglo Saxon brittleness. Savelyeva’s Natasha, like Bondarchuk’s Pierre, is an abstract portrayal, but it’s on the opposite end of the scale. Savelyeva at times comes off like the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But at other times she comes off like a petulant, almost stupid child. She embodies all of the contradictions of aristocratic Russian girlhood as seen through the eyes of a mid-20th Century Soviet filmmaker.

Natasha is also the focal point of the film’s recreation of Russian society, the “peace” half of the novel to Andrei’s and Pierre’s “war.” Bondarchuk’s depiction of the grand balls of Alexander II are filmed with as much painstaking detail and elaborate choreography as his battle scenes. You can’t do any of this with CGI. At her coming out party, when Natasha attends her first grand ball thrown by the Czar himself, the camera follows her entrance into the palace. We weave our way in and out of the crowd, like children approaching the beach for the first time hearing seagulls and smelling salt water. When he have finished climbing to the top of the staircase and can finally see the length and breadth of the ballroom, the elegance and splendor of the guests, it almost takes our breath away. “So that was the world that was lost,” we think. We don’t even bother to remember how that beautiful world was built on the brutal exploitation of tens of millions of impoverished serfs. But we don’t care. If a communist filmmaker can enjoy such a spectacle of the aristocratic past, so can we.

The Emigrants (1971) The New Land (1972)

On December 26, 1862, 38 Lakota Sioux men were hanged in Mankato Minnesota. It remains the largest mass execution in United States history. For Jan Troell, the Swedish director who stages a vivid recreation of the execution near the end of his seven hour epic about Swedish immigrants in the north Midwest, it was just punishment. While one of the film’s characters carefully explains that the Lakota were driven to war by an artificial famine created by the United States government, the scenes of Indian atrocities against white settlers, one clearly inspired by the Manson cult’s murder of Sharon Tate, create a much stronger impression. This is not a revisionist western about the suffering of native Americans. It is an epic about the struggle of a group of Swedish settlers to establish themselves in the “new world.”

The Emigrants, the first half of the epic, begins in Småland, a province in Southern Sweden. Now a wealthy, prosperous region of the European Union, the headquarters of IKEA, in 1844 it was a harsh, repressive backwater, dominated by narrow-minded Lutheran fundamentalism, and a rigid social hierarchy. Karl Oskar Nilsson, a peasant farmer played by Max von Sydow, and his wife Kristina, played by Liv Ullman, try to make a go at farming, but it is clearly hopeless. They are hard-working, pious, industrious people, but the land is too barren. The population has outstripped the region’s carrying capacity. There is no upwardly mobility in mid-19th Century Sweden, only an inevitable slide into poverty and debt.

Robert, Karl Oscar’s younger brother played by Eddie Axberg, a likeable if somewhat dim romantic dreamer and rebel, is an indentured servant at a neighboring farm. His master is a cruel, physically abusive tyrant, in one scene boxing his ears so hard that it would give poor Robert a bad case of tinnitus that would last for the rest of his short life. But unlike his older brother, Robert is not without imagination. Obsessively reading a book about opportunities in North America, especially the passages about there being no rigid European style class system, he imagines himself as an American. Lacking the fare for the passage across the Atlantic, his dream remains a dream until Karl Oscar, Kristina, Kristina’s uncle Danjel, a freelance evangelical minister who’s persecuted by the local authorities for holding unsanctioned prayer meetings, Ulrika, one of Danjel’s parishioners, an ex-prostitute played by the Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund, and several of their neighbors decide that emigration is their only hope of ever making a decent living. They sell all they have and buy tickets on a clipper ship bound for New York.

Arriving in the port city of Karlshamn, Robert spots a magnificent sailing ship just off the coast, its sleek lines and intricate rigging looking like the culmination of his romantic dreams. It’s an astonishing scene, imagination become reality, mind meets matter, a depiction of Robert’s world opening up right in front of his eyes. But the voyage across the ocean is brutal, excruciating, not quite a slave ship or an Irish coffin ship, but dirty, lice ridden, harsh, claustrophobic, and in several cases fatal. Kristina, who is pregnant, barely survives. Ulrika the ex-prostitute, is scapegoated for the lice. Robert’s wonder at the sight of the magnificent clipper ship off the coast becomes passive, bored misery, lying back in his bunk, his tinnitus growing ever worse. Only Karl Oscar, the tough as nails patriarch, manages to keep his head, and only because his concern for Kristina outweighs any urge he might have to indulge himself in his misery.

Indeed, the Emigrants above all is the story of a marriage, a marriage the the term “happy” would be inadequate to describe. Karl Oscar and Kristina share a bond so deep it goes beyond romance, and represents economic and social necessity. Running a farm takes a man and a woman, a husband and a wife. Their marriage is a harsh Garden of Eden, full of trials and tribulations, but ultimately what defines being human. Von Sydow and Ullman, both good looking professional actors, are perfectly believable as plain Swedish peasants, their physical beauty not detracting from the movie’s credibility, but on the contrary, lending an air of dignity to the working class that only a great artist like Jan Troell could make us believe. Through everything, the brutal voyage, the long journey west, the dangerous Minnesota winters, the struggle to build a homestead out of raw materials, they not only survive but prosper. Just before Kristina’s death in childbirth at the close of The New Land, Karl Oscar hands her an apple, the fruit of the tree she had planted years before. They have reestablished paradise in the new world, the painful birth of Scandinavian America.

Robert, on the other hand, dies young, doomed as all single males are inevitably doomed. On the voyage across the Atlantic, it first appears that he may pair off with Ulrika’s illegitimate daughter Elin, a pretty young woman who at first glance would appeal to any young man. But Elin is the female version of Robert, the impractical romantic dreamer. When he offers to teach her English, she argues that there’s no need to study. She genuinely believes that when she sets down in New York she will be so filled with the holy spirit that God will give her the ability to speak the new language, almost as if she were one of the early martyrs in Acts of the Apostles. They are clearly not the pair to settle down and grind through the decades long process of building a farm in Minnesota.

Instead Robert and his friend Arvin head out for California to prospect gold. They have no idea how to find the gold — someone will help us, Robert says — or how the trek across the high sierra and the California desert will make the voyage across the Atlantic seem by contrast like a stay at a first class hotel. Somehow Robert makes it. Arvin, who has never taken the trouble to learn English, dies after he drinks water that is clearly labeled “poison.” Yet in the end Robert’s abilities fail his imagination. While he does know enough English to get by, he mistranslates signs that say “Beware of Yellow Fever” to “Beware of Gold Fever,” mistakenly thinking a hard practical warning is a conspiracy to limit his American dreams. When he returns home to Oscar and Kristina with a large wad of counterfeit bills he had been scammed into accepting in exchange for actual gold coins, Oscar can barely hide his contempt. Becoming an American is hard, grinding work, not aimless dreaming. The United States is a place for practical men willing to look to the future, not romantic poets with no grounding in reality. Yet ultimately Robert is the most likeable, sympathetic character in Troell’s epic, the stand in for Troell himself, a tragic figure born before Swedish Americans would enter the middle-class, then the intellectual elites, and produce their own playwrights, poets, painters, actors and film directors.

Dara of Jasenovac

While Dara of Jasenovac, a Serbian movie about the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, has gotten a number of bad reviews, most notably from Variety, for being Serbian nationalist propaganda, it’s also film Americans should watch. Since “we” intervened in the Yugoslavian Civil War of the 1990s, and still maintain a gigantic military base in the newly independent state of Kosovo, supposedly to prevent genocide, we should probably learn something about the history of the region. If anybody wants to recommend a Croatian movie defending their collaboration with the Germans, I’ll watch that one too.

When the Germans conquered Yugoslavia in April of 1941, they set up an “independent” client state under the Ustaše, an ultranationalist organization founded by Ante Pavelić. The Nazi attitude towards various Slavic nationalities in Eastern Europe was actually a lot more subtle than they’re usually given credit for. In the long run, Hitler planned to repopulate all of Eastern Europe with Nordics and various other western Europeans, but in the short run he was very good at playing various types of Slavs off against one another. For the dominant Slavic nationalities, Russians, Czechs, Poles and Serbians, it was quick and immediate genocide. For the smaller and less well-known Slavic nationalities, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Croatians, Lithuanians and Latvians, the Germans presented themselves as “liberators,” and gave them a chance to establish their independence under the protection of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS.

In the opening of Dara of Jasenovac a group of Serbian men, women and children are being marched off to a concentration camp past a group of Croatian women women working in the fields. “Why aren’t they taking those women too,” a young girl, Dara, asks her older brother. “Because they’re Croatians and not Serbians,” he answers. “What’s the difference?” she asks. “They cross themselves differently from the way we do,” he says, the Serbians being Orthodox Christians and the Croatians Catholics. Aside from that there is no difference at all. One of the Serbian women catches the eye of one of the Croatian women, then quickly puts her newborn child down on the ground behind a thick row of hedges. The Croatian woman picks the child up and takes it home to raise it as her own. It’s important scene, not only because it makes it clear that the director isn’t condemning all Croatians, only the Ustaše, and because it provides a hint of the horror to come.

Dara of Jasenovac is at its strongest when it deals with the question of why so many Croatians were willing to collaborate with the Germans in a genocide against their fellow Slavs. At its best, Dara of Jasenovac reminds me of Passolini’s film Salo, a movie that so accurately captured the fascist mentality that Italian fascists assassinated Passolini in retaliation. The fascist torturers and murderers in Dara of Jasenovac aren’t fascists because they’re Croatians, any more than most Nazis were fascists because they were Germans, or most Ku Klux Klan members were fascists because they were Anglo Americans. There’s no essential fascist nationality. Rather, the Croatians who run the Jasenovac, the chain of death camps where Serbs, Jews and Roma were condemned to an almost certain death, are the kind of people you see in every country, petty little assholes who suddenly get power over their neighbors, upwardly mobile, aspirational dickheads the ruling class finds it convenient to elevate as long as they’re useful to the ruling class, the “ruling class” here being the Germans and the “working-class” being the Slavs.

Most of the Ustaše members in Dara of Jasenovac are based on eyewitness testimony and thus have historical antecedents. Miroslav Filipović, for example, was a real Croatian war criminal, and Catholic Priest, who was hanged in 1946 wearing wearing the robes of the Franciscan Order. Somehow I don’t think genocide was what St. Francis had in mind.

Filipović is a minor character in the film. The real monsters of Dara of Jasenovac, Vjekoslav Luburić, Ante Vrban, and Nada Šakić, a sexy young female guard played by Alisa Radaković, are low rent versions of The Duke, The Magistrate, The Bishop and The President from the above mentioned Salo. While a visiting German officer thinks of genocide as a necessary but thoroughly distasteful task to be carried out in the service of the Thousand Year Reich, the low rent Croatian torturers and murderers under his command positively love it. They don’t just herd their Serbian and Jewish prisoners into gas chambers. They play an elaborate game of “musical chairs” where Serbian men are made to run around a circle of chairs before one is pulled away. Whoever is left without a chair gets shot through the head. They eat, flirt, laugh. At one point, Nada Šakić gets so turned on by the carnage all around her she has to duck into a car with her boyfriend for a quick fuck. This isn’t necessarily the banality of evil. It’s the frat party of evil. Dara, by contrast, is the “virgin” to Nada Šakić’s “whore,” literally. Played by Biljana Cekic, and charged by her murdered parents to take care of her sick little brother, she’s filmed as a pre-adolescent Virgin Mary cradling a sick infant Jesus, an austere Christian witness to a vulgar, fascist orgy.

If the Croatians are portrayed as human trash utterly carried away with the fact that the Germans have suddenly given them a little power over their Serbian neighbors, the film’s Jews are portrayed as noble, not because Jews are essentially better than Croatian Catholics, but because they know there’s no chance of escape. Indeed, the visiting German officer seems most offended that the Croatians are wasting so much time killing Serbians when they should be killing Jews. People who know they’re going to die have the capability for heroism and self-sacrifice, even in the most impossible situation. Dara of Jasenovac isn’t a pleasant film to watch, and I fear many of the child actors might have been traumatized by the subject matter, but I do think it’s an important film about the Holocaust that deserves a larger audience.

RIP Linda Manz

Linda Manz, who is not well-known by the general public but who is a household name among cinephiles, has died at age 58.

Linda Manz, known for her performances in films like Days of Heaven and Out of the Blue has died. She was 58.

The actress died on Friday after a battle with lung cancer and pneumonia, her family said on a GoFundMe page established by her son Michael Guthrie.

https://people.com/movies/actress-linda-manz-dead-at-58/

I suppose she’s best known for her role in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven but I’ll always associate her with Phillip Kaufman’s criminally neglected masterpiece The Wanderers, a movie I must have watched 100 times on HBO as a kid. She played “Pee Wee,” the President of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Bronx gang The Fordham Baldies (a gang these days that would probably have me as a member).

I can watch this scene over and over again and never stop laughing or admiring the way Kaufman deftly films a chase scene that walks the razors edge between comedy and the childhood fear of being pursued by a gang of bullies. Manz only has a few lines but the arrogant way she delivers them just defines how it feels to have the toughest guy on the block as your insurance policy. “You better watch your mouth kid.”

Is Conan the Barbarian a Superior Reboot of Apocalypse Now?

We find ourselves in a small village out in the countryside. Tomorrow it will not exist. An army approaches, an invincible juggernaut bearing down on a tiny community of people who have no idea that their way of life is about to come to an end. The villagers are not pacifists. Indeed, they are a martial race with warrior gods, a nation of people who are skilled in the use of arms, a civilization that has survived for hundreds of years, perhaps since the beginning of recorded history, and they put up a brave resistance, but they have no chance. The invading army has not only has caught them off guard, they attack with a ruthless efficiency that makes the outcome all but inevitable, the slaughter merely a formality. At the end of it all, we meet the invading army’s commanding general, a cruel sociopathic man with no mercy or compassion, a would be god who sees the defeated villagers as an inferior species of animal put on earth for his sadistic pleasure. Genocide is just another day at the beach.

Which scene from which movie am I talking about?

a.) The helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now?

b.) The opening of Conan the Barbarian?

In 1975, a 30 year old director and screenwriter named John Milius, a far right wing California surfer dude who had, quite predictably, avoided military service in Vietnam, and just as predictably developed a deep admiration for the United States Marine Corps, broke into Hollywood with The Wind and the Lion, a deeply confused movie about Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, a Berber Chieftain in Morocco, played by Sean Connery, who kidnaps an American woman played by Candace Bergen, and holds her and her children hostage for reasons that we can never quite figure out. The historical Raisuli kidnapped an American businessman and held him hostage until a very specific list of demands was met. In The Wind and the Lion, which opens up with a cavalry raid very much like the one that opens Conan, Milius seems more interested in the romance of the North African way of life, and its reflection in Teddy Roosevelt, America’s “rough rider” President, than in any kind of political agenda. Milius would later go onto direct the paranoid, right wing cult classic Red Dawn, which, and I hope your starting to see the pattern, opens with a surprise attack on a small town in Colorado by a ruthless, genocidal host (this time Russians).

While John Milius is listed along with Francis Ford Coppola is the co-writer of Apocalypse Now, it is unclear which man was the driving force behind the iconic helicopter attack. What’s not unclear is that it’s by far the best sequence in what is in many ways an overblown, confused mess. I think most people would agree that after Robert Duvall exits stage right after declaring that “Charlie don’t surf” the film dearly misses his presence. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s short novel Heart of Darkness, which re-imagined King Leopold’s genocide as a journey into the heart of European arrogance and hypocrisy, Apocalypse Now has two big problems. The first is that the motivations of Captain Williard, the lead character played by a rather glum Martin Sheen — who had a heart attack during the film’s production — are never entirely clear. Unlike Conrad’s alter ego Marlowe, Williard, a CIA operative charged with assassination a rogue counterinsurgency officer played by Marlon Brando, has no consistent point of view. He accepts the mission out of some deep need to be a part of a CIA black op, but unlike Colonel Kilgore, the wonderfully insane “Air Cavalry” commander played by Duvall, he doesn’t seem to enjoy death and destruction for its own sake. He has no real axe to grind with Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the rogue Green Beret played by Marlon Brando who established himself along the Cambodian border and set himself up as a demigod over a cult of native admirers. Indeed, he even wonders why the army even wants Kurtz dead.

The second problem is Marlon Brando himself, who phones in a performance so lazy and uninspired he seems to be making fun of us. At least when Orson Welles did wine commercials because he needed the money he put in a halfway credible day’s work.

My guess is that both the liberal Coppola and the reactionary Milius would have liked to have made Apocalypse Now from the point of view of the Vietnamese communists, those incredibly brave warriors who defeated both the French and the American empire in less than two decades. Both men, however, liked to play with big budgets and expensive military hardware. The helicopter attack was only possible because Ferdinand Marcos, the anti-communist dictator of the Philippines donated the helicopters and the pilots. Had Brando not been such a fat, lazy cunt and actually decided to act instead of just mumble, his portrayal of Kurtz might have emerged as a loosely fictionalized dramatization of Pol Pot, the genocidal, and by the way American supported, dictator in Cambodia who transformed an ancient civilization into a death cult that put Jim Jones to shame. Instead we are left with a film that is brilliant in many of its individual scenes, the USO show that turns into a riot, the emergence of Williard as a war criminal willing to shoot a teenage girl through the head rather than risk a mission he doesn’t really believe in, the lurid night combat along the Cambodian border, but a story that never quite comes together as a whole, 3 hours sailing up a far off river, not into the heart of the American darkness to confront an evil, but charismatic cult leader, but into one of the worst performances a great actor ever gave in his career.

Conan the Barbarian, over which John Milius had complete control after cutting out Oliver Stone from the film’s production, presents no such problems. While nobody would rank Milius on the same level as Francis Ford Coppola, there’s no question that the man knows how to make an engaging movie. What’s more, by recasting the Vietnamese as a fictionalized tribe of northern Europeans, and Captain Williard as Conan, an Aryan superman played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Milius removes all of the irritatingly self-indulgent ambiguity from the plot. The helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now ends with a picnic on a Vietnamese beach while an insane American army officer enjoys “the smell of napalm in the morning.” The raid that closes the opening scene in Conan the Barbarian ends with Thulsa Doom, played by an inspired James Earl Jones, decapitating Conan’s mother right in front of his eyes. From that moment on we know that Conan will eventually seek his revenge and if lucky kill the man who destroyed his people and murdered his mother out of no real motivation other than the urge to play God. What’s more, while Apocalypse Now tells us that Brando’s Kurtz managed to found a suicidal death cult in the jungles of Cambodia, we never really get to see much. In fact that idea is vaguely racist. Brando shows no real charisma or even desire to establish his rule. We’re simply expected to assume that any moderately talented white man can simply wander into a country that beat both the French and American empires and trick the people into worshiping him as a God.

No such problem exists with James Earl Jones, who I might venture to say is a better actor than the overrated Brando and who was at the height of his powers in the early 1980s. Thulsa Doom, a black man who rules over an adoring cult of dumb, white suicidal hippies, a cult that recalls both Manson and Jim Jones, enjoys every moment of his godlike power, and Jones clearly relishes the part. When Jones can’t help by laugh at Schwarzenegger’s thick German accent, he somehow manages to transform the gaff into such a vivid depiction of evil enjoying itself for being evil, that Milius simply kept it in the film’s theatrical release. When Schwarzenegger finally beheads Thulsa Doom in front of a crowd of Doom’s adoring slaves, he not only liberates all of those dumb fuck white hippies from their fate as air-headed human sacrifice, he avenges his beautiful young mother, played by the long forgotten German actress Nadiuska, who makes such a vivid impression as a courageous woman defending her child against pure evil in only a few minutes of screen time it’s hard to imagine why she never had a more extensive career.

In Conan the Barbarian, not only does the Aryan superman Arnold Schwarzenegger become the avenging angel of a small nation ravaged by a genocidal dictator, the heroic Vietnamese communist who defeats the American Empire, the black man James Earl Jones becomes the face, and above all the voice, of European colonialism, and ultimately civilization. In an interview with Dick Cavett back in the 1970s, Jones once expressed a desire to play Ludwig Van Beethoven. Cavett’s, genteel racist audience laughed uncomfortably at the idea, but in retrospect, James Earl Jones in his 30s or 40s would have made an ideal Beethoven, an actor truly able to express the massive, revolutionary passion Beethoven managed to channel into his music. Who cares about his race? Beethoven doesn’t belong to Germany, or to Europe, he belongs to the world. Jones would, of course, go onto play one of the most iconic villains in American cinematic history, the only reason, along with Alec Guinness, for anybody over the age of 25 to see Star Wars. While our culture would probably be better off had the entire Star Wars franchise never existed, Jones’s portrayal of the “Jedi Knight” turned to the dark side of the force is a better dramatization of the central idea of Heart of Darkness, the man of superior culture and technology setting himself up as a genocidal god, than Apocalypse Now. It’s just too bad Jones never got a chance to play the liberating impulses of western civilization embodied by Beethoven as well as he got to play an evil space wizard in a silly children’s movie.