If you want more of the Cornel West vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates debate but are sick of Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates here’s a great forgotten movie. Three young Generation X punks kidnap a liberal Boomer capitalist pig and try to talk him out of his illusion that you can be both a capitalist and a decent person. Even though it was made in 2004 at the height of the Bush years, it seems more relevant than ever. In this scene, the middle-aged liberal is clueless about, or to be more honest, he doesn’t care about what’s going on in the global south. The three young radicals harshly remind him.
That Harvey Weinstein is a sexual harasser as well as a fat, gross pig — think Chris Christie as the head of a Hollywood studio waiving his dick at any available young woman — has always been Hollywood’s worst kept secret. Until Ronan Farrow published a series of interviews with his victims, however, it was hard to imagine the scope, or the outright criminality, of Weinstein’s reign of misogynistic terror at Miramax Film and The Weinstein Company. As actress after actress after actress after actress came out with her own tale of being “Weinsteined” a pattern began to emerge. This was not catcalling or unwanted propositions, or even a “hostile work environment.” This was an elaborate criminal conspiracy that arranged for the short-term kidnapping and rape of young actresses, and the subsequent coverup in the media and legal system. Conservatives, if you’re looking for the real “pizza gate,” it’s right here.
So what is Harvey Weinstein to me? Aside from being a clueless man who probably hasn’t listened closely enough to women when they talk about the issues that the Weinstein affair has raised, not much. Yet, on this blog, I have hundreds of film reviews, which I wrote, not because I’m a specialist in film or Hollywood gossip, but simply because, as a fairly serious photographer and a failed fiction writer, I’ve always loved images and narrative. I thought that, perhaps, I could some contribution to steering people from the latest superhero reboot to the Pre-Code Hollywood Hollywood or the French New Wave. It turns out that I’m an even worst film critic than I’ve always suspected, and should probably just delete this blog and everything on it.
I’m not engaging in self-indulgent, theatrical self-laceration.
The conditions that female actors work under in Hollywood are so bad — I’d chose being an undocumented immigrant landscaper over being an A-List Hollywood starlet any day — that it’s impossible for them not to have affected the aesthetics of the films themselves. Harvey Weinstein and Miramax produced some of the most acclaimed films of the 1990s, but if you look more closely, you realize most mainstream American films have a dreary, mediocre quality that, as a younger, angrier, most emotionally honest man I always recognized. It goes beyond Weinstein. As a teenager I saw Roman Polanski’s Tess, and while I could appreciate the film’s gorgeous photography, I was always vaguely creeped out by Nastassia Kinski’s zombie like performance. How could I have realized at the time that she had been sexually exploited from a very young age? Had I wanted to make a real contribution to film criticism I could have concentrated on reading that buried code in American cinema, to tracing the outlines of the criminal conspiracy hiding in plain sight. Instead, I always tried to find something I liked about any film I reviewed. “Why write about something you hate?” I would sometimes think.
That’s exactly what I should have been doing. American film? I should have been working, in some small way, to destroy it. How could an industry that subjects women to the kind of working conditions I’ve read about in the past few days produce anything but filth?
Whenever any debate on social media about the ethics of “punching Nazis” comes up, I often think of a scene from The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s classic film about three American veterans making a difficult transition to civilian life after the Second World War. Fred Derry, a working class man who received a battlefield commission in France and spent the war as an officer, is back working at his old low-status job as a “soda jerk” (sort of the 1940s version of a Starbucks barrista). A middle-aged man in a suit comes in, orders a sandwich and sits down. Derry’s friend Homer Parrish, who lost his hands after his ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, sits down next to him. While Derry is competently, but unenthusiastically attending to them both, the middle-aged man, having noticed Fred’s disfigured arms, takes the opportunity to strike up a conversation about the war. We quickly realize that he’s an “America Firster,” a Nazi and an antisemite masquerading as a common sense critic of American militarism. After Derry notices that his friend is visibly upset, he orders the America Firster to leave, but Homer Parrish isn’t finished. He follows the man to the counter and rips a small American flag pin off the lapel of his jacket as if to say “you don’t have the right to wear that flag you traitor.” There’s a shoving match, and Fred, an athletic man who survived the war without a scratch, leaps over the counter and clocks the America Firster in the jaw, sending him sprawling out onto a glass counter, which crashes beneath his weight.
When I saw this film as a teenager, my sympathies were actually with the America Firster. He was leaving the drug store, after all. Homer did get into his space, and Fred did wildly overreact. Mostly I was reading the scene through the lens of the Vietnam War. After growing up listening to my father and his friends denounce hippies and pacifists, I was ready to take the America Firster at his word, that he was simply a common sense critic of American militarism. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the American consensus against Nazism seemed so rock solid that it was hard to imagine anything else. If there was one thing we we could all agree about it was that Nazis deserved to be punched. But I should have known better. In 1985, Pat Buchanan had already persuaded Ronald Reagan to give a speech at the German cemetery at Bitburg, where he declared men who served in the Waffen SS were “victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” Anticommunism, even American anticommunism, has always had a strong fascist and antisemitic quality to it. Indeed, not only did the United States get fully into the war in Western Europe at the absurdly late date of 1944, there was really never any guarantee that it would join the fight against Hitler at all. When the America Firster in The Best Years of Our Lives denounces “those radicals in Washington” he’s very specifically referring to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. When he talks about the “reds and the Limies who manipulated us into fighting on the wrong side” he never comes out and says “the Jews” but anybody in 1946 would have known what he was talking about.
Now, in 2017, we have a white supremacist President, Nazis marching in the streets of the great university town of Charlottesville, and even people on the left “debating” about whether or not we should punch Nazis. A lot of it has to do with the conservatism Ronald Reagan mainstreamed in the 1980s. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom fought the Nazis as conservative powers. Franklin Roosevelt, of course, was famously liberal. Even Churchill did not govern as a conservative, but, instead, as the leader of a coalition that was dominated by the Labor Party, who quickly threw him out after the war was over, and installed a government that passed a comprehensive system of public healthcare. That liberal, anti-fascist consensus is gone, and I am actually old enough to see it as a radical transformation of American society. We’ve gone from a world where even a popular president like Ronald Reagan was quickly denounced for going to Bitburg to a world where even people like the great radical journalist Chris Hedges draw up bogus moral equivalencies between anti-fascists and fascists. The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film because it captures how fragile that consensus was all along. If Derry overreacts to the America Firster trying to bait his friend Homer Parrish into an argument, then it’s because Derry, once a glamorous air force officer, but now confronted with the brutality of the American class system, is perhaps wondering himself if was all worth the trouble. Did Homer Parrish leave both his hands at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean for nothing? Did the America Firster have a point after all?
When it came time to act, however, Fred Derry didn’t hesitate. Derry was no radical leftist, but when he had to chose between keeping his job or standing up for his friend and punching a Nazi, he didn’t have to think twice about it. He chose punching the Nazi.
I saw Star Wars, now called Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, at exactly the right time in my life. I was twelve-years-old. As an adult I would come to see its flaws. It was elitist, racist, and simple-minded. It raised the issues of imperialism and nuclear annihilation only to dismiss them without really addressing them. If Richard Nixon, the man who almost used nuclear weapons on Vietnam, came from Yorba Linda, California, Grand Moff Tarkin, the man who actually did order the destruction of Alderaan, came from Old Europe. The heroes, by contrast, Luke, Leia, and Han Solo, were as American as apple pie.
For a twelve-year-old from suburban, New Jersey, Star Wars was thrilling entertainment. Luke Skywalker was no ordinary nineteen-year-old farm boy. He was a hero with a special destiny. Who wouldn’t want to have a father like Obi Won Kenobi or a big brother like Han Solo? In the real world, nineteen-year-old American farm boys raped and murdered Vietnamese peasant girls. In that “galaxy a long time ago and far far away” they rolled into the heart of the evil empire, rescued the princess, and got to fly jet fighters without even passing the Air Force Academy entrance exams. What Star Wars taught us – and by “us” I mean late Boomers and Early Gen Xers – was that perhaps America still had a future. Forget Vietnam. Forget stagflation. Forget the gas lines. Ordinary Americans from out of the way places like Stanley Rogouski from Elizabeth, New Jersey or Luke Skywalker from the desert planet Tatooine could still go onto do great things.
What a cruel hoax it all turned out to be. Star Wars was not only rotten, Cold War Propaganda – it was no accident that Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” – it was the end of American cinema. Star Wars was not the first “blockbuster” – that honor belongs to Jaws – but it was a key moment in the process whereby storytelling became marketing. After Star Wars, Hollywood began to concentrate, not on selling movie tickets, but on selling brands. The great American films of the 1930s and 1940s were surrounded by hype and publicity, but they were one off events. The screenwriter had to say what he wanted to say in ninety minutes. After Star Wars, moviegoers had to assume that any new “blockbuster” was probably the first movie in a long series of movies, little better than a teaser. The Hunger Games is a good movie. It’s not three good movies. I’ve long since lost count of how many times they’ve remade Batman. The Matrix should have ended with Neo’s monologue about the continuing struggle. Shailene Woodley wisely gave up acting in the ongoing Divergent series to combat the real evil American empire at Standing Rock. Worst of all is Star Wars. It just goes on, and on, and on. What seemed so fresh and innocent in 1977 was already stale in the late 1990s when George Lucas brought out the insipid Phantom Menace. Astonishingly, in 2017, thirty-year-olds are paying to see Star Wars reboots, to watch films based on a simple-minded screenplay written for children over a decade before they were even born. Indeed, more than anything else, the release of The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and the coming Last Jedi indicate that we are living in a dead culture.
Sadly, it turns out, “these kids today,” the millennial generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, don’t want anything new. They simply want a more inclusive version of what the Boomers had. The Force Awakens, which was a bad movie, gave us a female Luke Skywalker. Rogue One, which is actually a pretty good movie, gives us a Latino Han Solo. I suppose it represents some progress that Gareth Edwards cast Diego Luna instead of say Ryan Gosling, a Mexican white guy instead of an Anglo Saxon white guy, as Rogue One’s ruggedly handsome, morally ambiguous hero Cassian, but it’s not that much progress. What saves Rogue One from becoming a tedious bore like The Force Awakens is not only Felicity Jones, who with her pert British face, girl next door athleticism, and wounded, angry demeanor, is utterly believable as an action heroine, it’s the film’s doom laden dramatization of a world, and of a culture, with no future. Whether or not Gareth Edwards intended it – and I strongly suspect he did not – Rogue One is the negation of the Star Wars franchise, a good slap to the back of the head for the millennial generation, an exhortation to forget about the past and create something new.
In my review of La La Land, I remarked that Damien Chazelle’s musical would have been a much better film if it had been about zombies, if Ryan Gosling twirled Emma Stone around the dance floor only to rip her arm off, and, in turn, get beheaded. Rogue One comes a lot closer. While its hero and heroine are not zombies, Grand Moff Tarkin, one of its most important villains, is not only depicted as a zombie, but actually played by a zombie, a digitally created zombie to be sure, but still a zombie. In the original Star Wars, Tarkin, played by the gaunt, almost cadaverous British actor Peter Cushing, annihilates Alderaan, Prince Leia’s home planet, right in front her eyes. Aside from Obi Won Kenobi feeling a “great disturbance in the force,” we forget about it thirty seconds later. Not only does Leia not go through any kind of ritualized mourning process, she immediately falls into a meet cute “I’m only fighting with you because I really want to fuck you” relationship with Han Solo, who never once says “God Leia, it must really suck that your entire species got wiped out by the Death Star. Can I run to the store and get you a pint of Häagen-Dazs or something?” In Rogue One, by contrast, we vividly experience the effect of Tarkin’s serial genocide spree from the point of view of the races of people being destroyed by what Darth Vader once referred to as “this technological terror,” twice.
It’s probably not worth thinking too much about whether or not “the holy city of Jehda” is Baghdad or Mecca. Yes, Forrest Whitaker’s extremist rebel Saw Gerrera is more Al Qaeda in Iraq than George Washington crossing the Delaware, and yes, kyber crystals are probably supposed to represent oil, but Rogue One’s script is too underwritten to make any real political point about American involvement in the Middle East. The real point that the film makes, whether it intends to or not, is the sense of there being no future. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and Diego Luna’s Cassian will not live to see the Death Star destroyed. Whether it’s a fear of global warming, nuclear war, or economic disintegration, the millennials feel, deep inside their bones, that they will never see old age, that they are part of the human race’s last generation. The current obsession with reboots of Boomer franchises like Star Wars, the lack of any real new youth culture, the millennial generation have a problem with “the horizon.” In the memorable words of the reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO “there is no horizon.” In the original Star Wars franchise, Luke Skywalker not only had a father. He had two, the choice between Christ, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Satan, Darth Vader. He also had Yoda. He had mentors, teachers, older men who either would help him grow up to be a Jedi Knight, or seduce him into serving the dark side of the force. Jyn, in turn, has two fathers, her biological father, from whom she’s separated as a little girl, and Saw Gerrera, who teaches her how to kill a whole platoon of Storm Troopers with a baton. Nevertheless, she has no future, neither with Cassian or anybody else. Jyn, like Luke Skywalker, watches both her fathers die, but she only outlives them by a few days.
Jyn Urso and Cassian die a heroic death, vaporized in each other’s arms, but they save, not the future, but the past. After they die in the holocaust created by the digitally recreated dead actor, the cgi zombie Peter Cushing, the story picks up at the beginning of the original Star Wars. We have come full circle back to 1977. The plans for the Death Star, bought so dearly at the cost of two planets, are handed off to none other than Princess Leia, played by none other than a dead Carrie Fisher, her digital likeness superimposed on the young Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila. Take this to heart millennials. Take this to heart. Not only will your elders make you work at unpaid internships, they will replace you with digitally recreated versions of themselves. I wasted my future. If you kids don’t rebel now, you won’t even get that opportunity.
Between 1880 and 1924, approximately twenty-five million immigrants settled in the United States, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe. If their story has figured prominently in American cinema, as I have argued previously, it is not well-understood. From the original Scarface to 1970s classics like The Godfather to 1990s TV miniseries like The Sopranos, the cinematic history of non-Anglo-Saxon white immigrants has followed what I will, for lack of a better term, call “The Italian Narrative.” Tony Soprano, in a session with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi, sums it up best. The white ethnic gangster is nothing more than an American capitalist with a vowel at the end of his name.
Superficially, The Italian Narrative sounds radical, even socialist. To quote Balzac, “le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.” Behind every great fortune is a great crime. Nevertheless, The Italian Narrative has always obscured the history of the Italian immigrant working class to focus on the corrupt, even criminal Italian immigrant bourgeoisie. Tony Soprano’s great grandfather was almost certainly not a “worker bee,” but a small time enforcer who imported Southern Italian labor for those “other fucks,” the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, and broke strikes when those “worker bees” got uppity and demanded too much money.
Like Jerzy Skolimowski’s terrifically cynical black comedy Moonlighting, James Grey’s unjustly overlooked film The Immigrant focuses, not on the petty-bourgeois immigrant exploiter, but on the exploited immigrant proletarian. It is a story, not of upward, but of downward mobility. The American dream is not a moral dilemma where you, almost inevitably, trade your morals for a McMansion in North Caldwell or a Summer house on Lake Tahoe. It’s an illusion. In fact, you don’t even see many “real” Americans, if “real” Americans are defined as old stock, white Anglo Saxon Protestants. Your life in the United States is a lot like what your life would have been like in Poland or Southern Italy. It’s a brutal Darwinian struggle where those immigrants who, in Tony Soprano’s words, want a “piece of the action,” introduce their fellow immigrants to American capitalism the hard way.
The Immigrant opens on Ellis Island – where James Gray was allowed to film on location – with Ewa and Magda Cybulska, two Polish women who have escaped the war ravaged hellscape of Eastern Europe. Ewa, played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, and Magda, played by the Armenian American actress Angela Sarafyan, are not from the very bottom of Polish society. On the contrary, Ewa, who speaks fluent, if heavily French trying very hard to be Polish accented English, has worked as a nurse for an English diplomat. She and her sister are not proletarians, but downwardly mobile petty-bourgeois. Nevertheless, it’s 1921. The American ruling class no longer needs Eastern and Southern Europeans as worker bees. Three years later Congress would pass the Johnson–Reed Act of 1924, a law heavily influenced by the eugenicist and white supremacist pseudo-science then in vogue, and the authorities at Ellis Island are looking for any excuse to send immigrants back to their home countries. After the doctors examine Magda, who has a persistent cough, they send her to the infirmary to be examined for lung disease. Ewa, who’s perfectly healthy, but who was raped on board ship during the transatlantic crossing, is declared a “woman of low morals” and set to be deported.
Note: The plot of The Immigrant heavily depends on Ewa’s plans to get Magda out of the infirmary at Ellis Island and I think this is a major weak point. Not only do we never find out whether or not Magda really has tuberculosis, she pretty much disappears from the film after the doctors at Ellis Island pull her out of the line. I’m not an expert on the history of Ellis Island but I can’t imagine that Magda would be better off in a Lower-East Side slum than she would be at Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, racist though its administration may have been.
Ewa’s detention as “a woman of low morals,” as it turns out, is no accident. Throughout the film’s opening, the two sisters have been shadowed by a man named Bruno Weiss, a first generation German Jewish American – we’re never explicitly told his religion but he does speak Yiddish – played by longtime James Gray collaborator Joaquin Phoenix. Weiss, who’s one of those ethnic whites who “wanted a piece of the action,” is a pimp and a theater impresario who regularly observes the newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island looking for attractive women. Not only did Ewa fit the bill, he had become so obsessed with her appearance that he had bribed the immigration authorities to mark her off as a “possible public charge,” insuring that she would not be able to enter the country legally. Something about the collusion between Weiss and the authorities at Ellis Island rings true in our currently climate of nativism and white supremacism. The American ruling class wants new immigrants, but it doesn’t want them to have any political rights. Weiss takes advantage of the darkening mood of early 1920s America to make Ewa his virtual slave.
The Immigrant is a classic melodrama but it’s a very good one. It’s main strength is Marion Cotillard, who manages to project the right combination of damsel in distress and determined, independent woman. Joaquin Phoenix is also very good, as is the set design and cinematography. There are one or two missteps. Gray’s budget did not allow him to recreate the Manhattan skyline of the 1920s and there are several very clearly modern buildings visible upon Ewa’s arrival in lower-Manhattan, but whether or not the period décor is authentic, it works. It’s rich, almost overly ornate quality manages to reflect Gray’s restrained approach to Bruno Weiss, who’s about as genuinely evil a movie villain as I’ve seen in a long time, but who’s outwardly normal, if not exactly “charming.” Somewhere underneath the richly designed sets is the rotten heart of American capitalism. Weiss doesn’t so much seduce Ewa into a life of prostitution but bully her into it. The “American Dream” for Ewa is clearly a Darwinian nightmare, a gaudy, outwardly wealthy spectacle she sees through without much trouble, but which has captured her and won’t let her escape. All she really wants to do is hold onto to her family and her religion. Events beyond her control has made that impossible.
The main weakness of The Immigrant is Jeremy Renner, as Bruno’s cousin “Emil”, or “Orlando the Magician.” We’re never quite sure what we’re supposed to think about Emil, and that’s a problem. Is a genuinely good side of the American dream, or is he the seductive illusion of the American Dream. Renner sadly can’t quite project either. Ewa seems to like him, and he tries to encourage her with the admonition that “she deserves to be happy.” Maybe if Gray had cast a younger actor in the role – an actor in his twenties might have been able to convey a sense of the innocence and idealism of “American Dream” – but Renner, with his pencil thin mustache actually looks more like a villain than a potential rescuer, and in the end we don’t really care much when he comes to his violent, tragic end.
Whether or not Gray intended it, the effect is to strengthen The Immigrant as a feminist movie. Not only does Ewa have to stand on her own, the only thing she really cares about is getting her sister out of the infirmary. In spite of the overall lack of solidarity between the women exploited by Bruno Weiss, and a rather vicious female character played by Dagmara Domińczyk, sisterhood in The Immigrant is indeed powerful. James Gray has made a film that steals the immigrant narrative away from the Tony Sopranos of the world and gives it back to the women who scrub the floor at your local hospital, or wait for the bus ever morning on the corner to go to their jobs as domestic servants. That his exploited heroine is played by a fair skinned European actress only calls our attention to the universality of the story that he tells. Those Syrian refugees and Mexican migrant laborers currently in the cross hairs of racists like Donald Trump were once Irish, Polish, or Italian immigrant being persecuted by a previous generation of nativist bigots and exploited by a previous generation of soulless, petty bourgeois hustlers. Some things sadly never change. That Mexican woman Donald Trump and Steve King are trying to persuade me to hate could have been my great grandmother.
As most historians know, from 1934 to 1968 American cinema was more heavily censored than any other film industry in the western world. The Motion Picture Production Code, the fruit of a partnership between the major Hollywood studios and the Catholic Church, had strict rules about what we could, and could not see in movie theaters. There was to be no miscegenation, “licentious nudity” or profanity. You couldn’t “ridicule the clergy.” You couldn’t depict “scenes of actual childbirth” or “the illegal traffic in drugs.” Above all you couldn’t portray criminals in a sympathetic light or make a movie where “crime pays.”
(I don’t give away the ending, but there are spoilers.)
Hell or High Water is a great “pre-code” movie, maybe the first one I’ve seen in the modern era. Between 1930 and 1934, American cinema reflected the angry, almost revolutionary mood of the American people during Great Depression. Hell or High Water does the same thing for the “white working class” in 2016, for people still angry about the financial crisis of 2008 and the Bush/Obama bailout of Wall Street. Don’t get me wrong, Moonlight is a fine movie, but there’s a reason that Hell or High Water never stood a chance to win Best Picture. The pampered liberal elite that runs Hollywood was not about to put its stamp of approval on a movie that all but calls for guillotines, pitchforks and torches.
Hell or High Water begins at a Texas Midlands Bank in one of those desolate little towns made famous by Peter Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show. A teller arriving early in the morning to open up the doors, Dale Dickey from Winter’s Bone and Breaking Bad, is shoved inside by two men in ski masks. To her surprise, they don’t want the money in the vault, but only the loose bills collected from depositors the day before, a few thousand dollars, a fairly modest sum that hardly seems worth the risk of a long prison sentence. When the bank robbers, Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, take off their masks in their getaway car, we immediately begin to identify with the two men. They seem likable. They knock over another bank, then head home to their ranch out in the wastelands, where they bury the cars underneath a pile of dirt, and talk about their recently deceased mother. We learn that Tanner Howard, the elder of the two and the family black sheep, has spent time in jail for shooting their abusive father.
Hollywood being Hollywood, I suppose you can’t make a movie about a pair of sympathetic bank robbers without also including a pair of sympathetic police officers. Hell or High Water gives us two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton, an old Anglo nearing retirement played by Jeff Bridges as a combination of Deputy Dog and The Dude from the Big Lebowski, and Alberto Parker, who’s a half Mexican, half Comanche evangelical Christian who likes to watch TV preachers in between interrogating witnesses. Hamilton’s a half-hearted bigot but no fool. Parker’s convinced that the two men who knocked over the pair of Texas Midland Banks are simply methheads looking for their next fix. Hamilton’s not so sure. There’s a method in their madness, he insists, a reason they’ve declined to take the more easily traceable rolls of money from the vaults, and only targeted banks in small, out of the way towns with low foot traffic and poor security. In between genial ethnic slurs, Hamilton suggests that they stay the night in the local area, and stake out a few more Texas Midland Banks in small, decaying out of the way little towns. Parker, reluctantly, agrees.
After Toby and Tanner Howard stop off at a local Indian casino, exchange their stolen money for a stack of chips, play a few token hands of cards, then cash in the chips for two checks made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, we realize that Ranger Marcus Hamilton is onto something. There is a method to their amateurish methods, which we learn about in detail after they stop off at their lawyers. Years ago their mother had taken out a reverse mortgage on the family ranch. Later, her bank, not coincidentally Texas Midlands, started foreclosure proceedings on the land they had once believed next to worthless, but have subsequently realized contains enough oil to make Toby’s ex-wife, who he still owes child support, and two sons rich. They’ve just about stolen and laundered enough money to pay off their mother’s debt, and set their kids up for life. That they’re stealing money from the same bank that’s threatening to take property that’s been in the family for generations is not only class war. It’s poetic justice. One more robbery should put them over the top.
We all know what’s coming, a final showdown between the Howard brothers and Rangers Hamilton and Parker, but it’s the way the film executes the familiar plot that makes Hell or High Water one of the best films of 2016. Neither Hamilton nor Parker is exactly what you would call a “pig” or an enthusiastic enforcer for the American ruling class. They’re just doing their jobs. Similarly, neither Toby nor Tanner Howard has personal grievances against the police. They’re just doing what they have to do to keep the banks from getting hold of their family’s property. It’s the character of Tanner Howard, however, that makes Hell or High Water such a dangerous, explosive film. Tanner, who we’ve already learned has killed his abusive father, is the troubled, violent family black sheep. Toby Howard, in turn, is a cool headed, cerebral criminal mastermind. For the past few years, we’ve all been reading about violent, disgruntled white men who go on shooting sprees, and many of us, at least me, have always lamented how the typical mass shooter targets innocent people. If only we could direct that violent rage, not against people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but against the banks, the courts, the ruling class, their lawyers, and the police officers who defend their “privileges.”
That not only happens in Hell and High Water, Taylor Sheridan, the same writer who wrote the screenplay for Dennis Villeneuve’s film Sicario, grounds his conception of class war in the history of the white man’s genocide against native Americans. Tanner Howard, to be sure, is an Anglo, not an Indian or a Mexican, and perhaps Sheridan is engaging in a certain kind of “cultural appropriation,” but the underlying theme of Hell or High Water is that the European genocide against the Plains Indians has now taken on a new form, the corporate elite’s economic genocide of the white working class. “This town has lost its reason for existence,” the half Indian, half Mexican Parker tells Hamilton as they look out on a desolate, half populated row of abandoned factories and foreclosed houses. “One hundred and fifty years we owned all of this land,” he continues. “The white man came and took it away from us, and now the banks are taking it away from them.” Suddenly, an earlier scene, where Tanner had almost come to blows with a native American man in the Indian casino makes sense. “I’m a Comanche,” the man had said, glowering at Tanner. “That means I’m the enemy.” Tanner takes it all in stride. “Of what?” he asks. “Of everything,” the man responds. “That makes me a Comanche too,” Tanner nods, recognizing a brother in arms.
I began this review by labeling Hell or High Water “a great pre-code movie,” but I think the final shootout and the film’s ultimate resolution go beyond anything Hollywood tried in the early 1930s. It’s straight up class war, the suicidal rebel against the banks, the police, and a gang of enthusiastic Texas gun nuts who finally see an opportunity to “shoot a bad guy,” and wind up getting much more than they bargained for. Chris Pine’s final scene with Jeff Bridges spoke to me in a way few mainstream films do. “We’ve always been poor,” he said, revealing the true history of the “white working class” in American. “We’ve never had anything. That’s going to change for my boys.” Bridges, who hates Howard for what his brother did to his partner, but knows he’s been upstaged, can only seem to agree. He’s spent his life doing a job that no longer has any real meaning.
Final Note: If you’re a good looking bank robber and a chunky waitress flirts with you in the diner, always, always leave her a big tip. The life you save may be your own.
In Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, Mookie, a delivery man played by Lee himself, has a brief argument with Pino, the racist older son of his employer, the owner of Sal’s Pizza. Unlike his father, Pino has no hesitation about voicing his contempt for black people, but Mookie has already noticed a contradiction in the way he thinks. “Who’s your favorite basketball player?” he asks. “Magic Johnson,” Pino quickly responds. “Who’s your favorite movie star?” Mookie says. “Eddie Murphy,” Pino answers without hesitation. “And who’s your favorite rock star?” Mookie adds. By this time Pino is beginning to catch on. “Bruce,” he says. ”It’s Bruce,” but Mookie knows he’s lying. “It’s Prince,” he sighs impatiently. “It’s Prince. Pino all you ever talk about is nigger this and nigger that, but all your favorite people are so-called niggers.” Few things are more revealing about the culture of the 1980s than Pino’s clumsy attempt to explain away Mookie’s argument. “It’s different,” he says. “Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers. I mean they’re not black. “Let me explain myself,” he continues. “They’re not really black. I mean they’re black but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”
Orenthal James, O.J. Simpson, who was born in public housing projects in pre-gentrified San Francisco in 1947, is one of the greatest running backs ever to play football. The 1968 winner of the Heisman Trophy, he led the University of Southern California to the National Championship. After a rocky start in the NFL under Buffalo Bills head coach John Rauch, who tried to fit him into a system that wasted his talents, he thrived under Rauch’s replacement Lou Saban, rushing for 2003 thousand yards in 1973, and breaking the all time record set by Jim Brown the decade before. Watching old highlight films of Simpon playing for USC or the Buffalo Bills is a bit like opening the pages of an ancient Greek epic and reading about a demi-god. Simpson is 6’2” and 210 pounds, which is already big for a running back, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, but when he finds a hole in the opposing teams defense he becomes almost superhuman, impossible to catch, let alone tackle. Many great athletes struggle after they retire from professional sports. Simpson seemed to be an exception, getting out of the NFL only a little after his prime, and begining his career as a successful actor, corporate pitchman and man about town in star studded Hollywood. You can still see traces of his charisma in the commericals he did for Hertz Rent a Car in the 1970s. He’s anthing about a dumb jock. On the contrary, he comes off like any other graduate of the elite University of Southern California, smooth talking, quick thinking, urbane, intellectual.
If you had met O.J. Simpson in the early 1980s, you probably would have decided he would become more like Bill Bradley, the basketball star who became a United States Senator, then Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants Linebacker who fell into alcholism, drug addiction and despair. If you had been Mookie from Do the Right Thing, however, you might have noticed something different, that O.J. Simpson had spent his life trying to win the approval of people like Sal’s racist son Pino. Back in the late 1960s, when African American athletes were beginning to assert themselves politically, Simpson refused to make even a token gesture of support. Unlike Muhammad Ali, who joined the Nation of Islam and resisted the draft, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who gave their iconic black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics, Orenthal James Simpson did not consider himself part of the new generation of race conscious African Americans, but rather, to quote Pino, “more than black.” In a sense, he was the Michael Jordan or the 1960s and 1970s, the superstar athlete who cares more about his TV commercials and his stock portfolio than about the people back home in the projects. Jordan, however, who was born in the 1960s, did not carry around the same emotional baggage as Simpson, who was born in the 1940s. Michael Jordan had the luxury of remaining apolitical because of the radical black athletes who came before him. Simpson did not have that privilege.
O.J.: Made in America is more than just a biography of a great athlete who fell from grace. It’s a broad, wide ranging history of race relations in the city of Los Angeles. When as USC’s star running back, O.J. Simpson declared that “I’m not black. I’m O.J.,” he probably couldn’t have done it anywhere else in the United States. Los Angeles was more than just a northern city, a Chicago or a New York, where black people from the south moved n the 1940s and 1950s to escape the Jim Crow South. It was the epicenter of the American Dream, the great metropolis where you could not only escape Jim Crow but escape from American history altogether. Simpson was hardly the first man in Hollywood to dream about becoming more than the sum of his parts. The film industry, after all, was founded by Eastern European Jews. They not only dreamed of being real Americans, but reinvented what it means to be a “real American.” Simpson was squarely in their tradition, and by 1985 he seemed to have achieved his goal. He had discarded his first wife for Nicole Brown, a tall blond Aryan out of central casting. He had turned his Brentwood Estate “Rockingham” into a social center for the Hollywood elite. He was friends with the Kardashians before the Kardashians were the Kardashians. He imagined himself as the President of a major film studio.
From the very beginning, however, something was clearly wrong. In the Fall of 1985, only a few months after he formally married Nicole Brown – they had been dating years before that – the LAPD responded to a domestic violence call at his Rockingham estate. He was already beating her. In some ways, O.J.: Made in America is about seven hours too long. Orenthal James Simpson is really just another wife beater, an egotistical control freak who makes himself the king of his castle and the lord and master over his wife. “O.J. thought he owned Nicole,” one of his friends says in a revealing and provocative moment. “It was kind of like a reverse slavery.” White domestic abusers act pretty much the way O.J. Simpson did. They get away with what they can, which, if the husband is rich or well-connected, is usually quite a bit. The violence escalates until the wife either leaves for good, or she ends up either a broken shell of a woman, or dead. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the racial undercurrent in the marriage of O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown. For O.J., possessing Nicole had finally let him convince himself that he was “more than black,” that white America had not only accepted him as a man, but as a white man. As Simpson declined into middle-age, however, and as relations between the LAPD and black Los Angeles reached their breaking point during the Rodney King affair, it became more and more difficult to maintain the illusion that he was “not black but O.J.” Mark Fuhrman, the police officer who responded to the domestic violence call in 1985, a racist who had fantasies of killing black men, would soon play an out-sized role in O.J. Simpson’s life.
O.J.: Made in America pulls no punches when it comes to the photos taken of the murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, a friend who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see them again and again. We examine the gruesome images more and more closely each time until we finally linger on the large, gaping holes in Goldman’s and Brown’s neck. It’s impossible not to try to imagine what the murder itself looked like. Ron Goldman was a young man, twenty five years old, over six feet tall. He was fit and went to the gym, but O.J. Simpson had reverted back to a demonic version of the superman he had been when he played for the Buffalo Bills and the University of Southern California. No longer able to deny that he was black, and middle-aged, forty six years of repressed, murderous anger burst through the carefully constructed walls of repression and denial like the water breaching the New Orleans dykes after Hurricane Katrina. If Simpson had spent his life trying to be “more than black” in order to win the approval of white America, he had at long last become white America’s deepest fear, the black brute who kills a white woman. After a lifetime pretending he was Jackie Robinson or Sydney Poitier, he had become Bigger Thomas.
Or did he?
Did O.J. Simpson really kill his wife on the night of June 17, 1994? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know, and if I had been on the jury for the O.J. Simpson murder trial, I would have certainly voted “not guilty.” I don’t even think he should be in jail today. The civil trial was a kind of “double jeopardy” and the thirty-three-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping in 2007 that’s effectively sent him to jail for the rest of the his life was absurd. Anybody else would have gotten a year or two, if that. I never really followed the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, but it’s breathtaking to watch O.J.: Made in America and to see the prosecution’s case fall apart. The documentary contends that the evidence was overwhelming, that Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Judge Lance Ito simply mishandled the case, but there’s no question that F. Lee Bailey and Johnny Cochran succeeded in raising “reasonable doubt” about Simpson’s guilt. The black people who cheered his acquittal weren’t cheering on a man who got away with murder so much as they were cheering on a black man who had finally gotten a fair trial. The white people crying over Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman weren’t crying for two people they had never met, but over the way the criminal justice system had finally begun to work the way it was supposed to work. To quote that tedious social media cliché, “when you’re used to privilege, equality begins to feel like oppression.” O.J. Simpson may or may not be a murderer, but there’s no question that he was “not guilty.”
Perhaps the most fascinating moment in O.J.: Made in America comes halfway through the third segment. The incompetent judge Lance Ito has allowed the mostly black jury – O.J. Simpson got a jury of his peers, but Nicole Brown Simpson didn’t – to tour Simpson’s Rockingham estate. Simpson’s lawyers – who had based their defense partly on the idea that Simpson was now a hero to the black community in Los Angeles – had redecorated the house with whatever photos they could find showing him with other black people. One of the pictures they remove is a portrait of Simpson with Donald Trump. Trump and Simpson were never friends. The photo had been taken at a press conference at the opening of the Harley Davidson Cafe in New York City, but there’s a deep cultural affinity between the two men. Along with Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, the O.J. Simpson murder trial represents the decisive break with the media landscape of the 1970s and 1980s, the moment when the cable news networks dropped all pretense of acting like journalists and started acting like entertainers. If O.J. Simpson was, in a sense, the beginning of “Reality TV,” then the election of Donald Trump is President is its logical outcome. O.J.: Made in America, which got a well-deserved academy award for Best Documentary, shows us how it all happened.
(Spoilers ahead: It would be impossible to write about this film without spoilers so I won’t even try.)
Arrival, the French Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve’s followup to the excellent Sicario, is based on a compelling premise. If we ever make contact with aliens what language would they speak? The problem for me was no so much in its execution as in the way it tries to be two movies in one. On one hand, it’s a fascinating intellectual exercise on the difficulties of communicating with beings we’ve never even imagined existed. On the other hand, it’s a personal story about a woman who loses her child. The mystery that Villenueve so skillfully evokes in the first half of Arrival does not so much get solved as it gets progressively replaced by another narrative altogether. Needless to say, you don’t come out of Arrival knowing whether or not humans will ever be able to talk to aliens. Whether you come out caring about Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and their teenage daughter, I will leave for you to decide for yourself.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, and the mother of a teenage daughter who we see in what we believe to be flashbacks dying of cancer. They’re not flashbacks but first things first. One day she goes to class, and finds that only a tiny fraction of her students bothered to show up. As she begins a lecture about why Portuguese is so different from French, Spanish, or Italian – I don’t know if it’s true or not but the idea seemed interesting – she realizes that nobody’s paying attention. She stops. What’s going on? I suppose Professor Banks doesn’t look at her iPhone before she gets in her car. In any event, she stops the lecture, and switches her laptop to a news channel. Twelve gigantic alien spaceships have touched down in various place all over the world. Nobody knows who they are or why they’ve come, but the effect has been similar to a hurricane, or perhaps more accurate, a blackout. Society is breaking down. People are panicking, rioting, looting.
The mystery of why a college professor like Louise Banks has such a fine house on the lake is immediately cleared up when she goes home to find G T Weber, a United States Army Colonel played by Forrest Whitaker. Banks is not only a college teacher. She’s a world-renowned expert on the short list of consultants the military turns to for advice in the event of an alien invasion. After the army takes her by helicopter to the site of one of the alien ships in Montana, she meets Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner who’s also on the army’s short list of go to consultants, and a man with whom she establishes an immediate emotional bond. Have they met before? We think about Louise Banks’ flashbacks to the death of her daughter, first a little girl, then a teenager who with a shaved head dying of cancer. We wonder what her husband was like. We never see him in the flashbacks. We wonder if she’ll ever get married again. We weigh in our minds about whether or not she’d be compatible with Ian Donnelly and decide that yes, she probably will.
Imagining what aliens look like is the most difficult job for a filmmaker. The easiest way to get around the problem is simply to imagine either that the aliens take on some sort of “human form” or that they’re simply humanoids from another planet. In the classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, to which arrival owes some of its pacifist subtext, the alien Klatu is simply a man in a what looks to be a silver tracksuit. In the 1980s gothic, science fiction horror film Alien the alien is a terrifying, bug-like monster. In the 1984 movie Starman, he’s Jeff Bridges. Dennis Villeneuve chooses to imagine his aliens not as humanoid, but instead as gigantic, technically advanced jelly fishes. Even though they don’t make any aggressive moves, they look terrifying, and when Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly put on Hazmat suits and enter the alien ships, we fear for their lives, even though we know they’re not in any real danger. Donnelly and Banks, however, and especially Banks, have none of the usual fear of the “other.” Banks even removes her helmet and walks up to the clear barrier the aliens have erected between themselves and their human hosts. Back at her house on the lake, Colonel Weber had played her a tape of what the aliens sounded like, but she’s got a better idea. When one of the aliens sprays the clear barrier with what appears to be a type of ink, we understand what she meant. Language isn’t aural. Language is visual.
While Louise Banks or Ian Donnelly may not have a visceral fear of the “other,” they are highly educated, elite intellectuals. The rest of the world, especially the military, and most especially General Shang of the Peoples Liberation Army of China, are beginning to get paranoid. When the Chinese army mistranslated the word “gift” or “tool” as “weapon,” Arrival becomes a race against time. As Banks and Donnelly are working to decipher the series of images the aliens spray onto the barrier, China, then Russia, then Pakistan, then every landing site on earth cuts itself off from the United States, and prepare to follow the lead of Shang, who has delivered an ultimatum to the ship near Shanghai. Leave Chinese territory or be destroyed. Even rogue troops in Colonel Weber’s garrison in Montana plant a bomb, and try to kill Banks and Donelly in order to sabotage their growing rapport with the aliens. Eventually, however, Banks’ tenacity and courage and Donnelly’s scientific training and ability to think in mathematical abstractions pay off, and Banks cracks the alien code. By this time, we know that mankind is on the verge, not of annihilation, but of a series of discoveries about space, and about ourselves, and we root for the two scientists to prevent the coming attack. Destroying the twelve alien ships would be akin to smashing the Rosetta Stone or burning down the ancient library at Alexandria.
Oddly enough, it’s at this moment that the movie begins to fall apart. If you’re familiar with the history of cinema and science fiction, you’ve already figured out by this time that Arrival is a plea for world peace and international cooperation, The Day the Earth Stood Still with aliens that look like squids and not humans. The problem isn’t the message so much as it’s the lack of historical context. That the original short story was written a by Chinese writer doesn’t change the way General Shang is cast as the paranoid war monger and Louise Banks as the enlightened white savior. Indeed, the clumsy attempt by Colonel Weber’s rogue soldiers to bomb the alien space is confusing, slows down the narrative, and was obviously Villeneuve’s way of hedging himself against accusations of Sinophobia and Orientalism. That there’s a more complex narrative twist underneath the plea for internationalism should theoretically deepen the film’s mystery. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film. Banks’ mastery of the alien language also means an understanding of their non-linear conception of time. She can now look into the future. Not only does her newfound understanding of time allow Louise Brooks to make a satellite phone call to General Chang and talk him out of starting a war with the aliens, we realize that the father of her dying teenage daughter is none other than Ian Donnelly, that what we thought were flashbacks were actually flash-forwards.
If all this sounds great to you, then by all means go see Arrival. You may like it more than I did. Theoretically it’s a clever resolution, a neat little narrative trick that lets Dennis Villeneuve wrap up the story with a neat little bow. It certainly does “make you think,” but to me it not only felt unfinished – exactly how Louise Banks managed to talk General Shang out of starting the war is never made entirely clear – it felt a bit like a bait and switch. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are both likable actors I’ve enjoyed in previous movies, but their relationship never feels strong enough to carry such a radical shift in the plot. The idea of a teenage girl dying of cancer is as sad a story as you can imagine, but we never really get to know “Hannah”–the name is supposed to have some significance to the movie’s non-linear conception of time because it’s spelled the same backwards as it is forwards–well enough to care about her as an individual. The utterly fascinating exploration of “the other,” and the baffling mystery of learning not only a foreign language, but an extraterrestrial language, has given way to a domestic tragedy. Louise decides to give birth even though she knows her child will die young. Ian blames her for making the wrong decision and leaves her. Villeneuve has succeeded, not so much in resolving or in further exploring the film’s great premise so much as in sidestepping the admittedly impossible mystery and finessing us into another film altogether. It’s not that we don’t admire his cleverness. We just wish he had explored Arrival’s more abstract and intellectual premise in more detail, and saved the familiar romantic drama for another movie.
A revolutionary novel by a forgotten reactionary novelist.
My hometown of Roselle, NJ is in a very old part of the United States. Elizabeth, the nearest big city, was founded in 1664. Westfield, the most important town in the western part of the county, was settled in 1712, and contains a house that dates all the way back to New Amsterdam. Unless you have a very sharp eye, however, you won’t notice much of the state’s colonial heritage, and for a very good reason. Not much of it is left. The currently existing landscape of northern New Jersey was built in two waves. The massive construction of working-class suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s that came out of the Baby Boom and the G.I Bill is fairly well known. “Little boxes on the hillside,” Pete Seeger sung in Little Boxes, his savage attack on post-war American suburbia, “little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.” Most of the grand mansions and solidly built colonial revivals, on the other hand, the houses that have retained their value in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, were built during the less well-understood, but probably more important phase of economic development that unfolded during the two decades before the First World War. If the suburbanization of the 1940s and 1950s was based on the car culture, the suburbanization of the 1890s and 1900s was based on the construction of railroads. Starting at about 1890 and continuing on through about 1910, the colonial era towns of Union County, NJ, which up until then had been mostly farmland, were rebuilt as upscale bedroom towns for people who commuted to Wall Street by the New Jersey Central Railroad. While New Jersey had already become a multicultural, and largely Catholic state, little cities like Summit, Westfield, Cranford, and Scotch Plains retained the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture of the old colonial bourgeoisie, now made wealthy beyond their wildest dreams by the economic boom that followed the Civil War.
Who built these grand old houses? Why have they been abandoned?
Northern New Jersey has never to my knowledge produced a great historian or realist novelist. The closest Union County has come is Van Wycks Brooks, after whom a once wealthy neighborhood in Plainfield has been renamed. Indiana, on the other hand, has produced the now almost totally forgotten but, I would argue, still worth engaging writer Booth Tarkington. Reading Tarkington’s 1918, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons feels a bit like reading the origin story of my civilization, not “Western” or “Christian” or even “American” civilization, but the civilization of the suburban American bourgeoisie. Tarkington was a conservative Republican who opposed the New Deal and who probably thought people with “ethnic” names like “Rogouski” were ruining America. Nevertheless, The Magnificent Ambersons, which is set in the Woodruff Place neighborhood of Indianapolis, cuts right to the heart of American capitalism, and ultimately exposes it as an empty and soul-killing exercise in futility and environmental destruction.
In the 1870s, Major Amberson, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, riding the wave of economic prosperity that followed the establishment of the United States as a world power in the wake of the Civil War, becomes the wealthiest man in what was then the fairly small city of Indianapolis. He builds a grand mansion, then a hotel, then a second great Victorian house, all of which become the core of a burgeoning, upscale little suburb. He has three children, two sons, George and Sydney, and a pretty daughter named Isabel, who becomes a desirable “catch” for many of the town’s eligible young men. Eventually she settles on two suitors, Eugene Morgan, a dashing young lawyer from a middle class family with a degree from a state college, and Wilbur Minafer, a rather dull, plodding, unromantic young man, but one from a more suitable background. One night Eugene Morgan gets drunk and accidentally steps through a bass violin at a party being held in her honor at the Amberson Mansion. Whether it’s mainly due to bourgeois snobbery or some odd streak of perversity is never fully explained – I’d guess the latter – but Isabella rejects Eugene the love of her life and marries the uninspired Wilbur Minafer.
Booth Tarkington may have been something of a Wilbur Minafer himself, a dull, conservative WASP, but he’s written a novel with romantic critique of American capitalism. By rejecting love in the name of social status, Isabella dooms the Amberson family to dissolution and eventual destruction. As Mrs. Johnson, the town gossip, accurately predicts, since Isabella can never love a man like Wilbur, she will end up doting on her children. George Amberson Minafer, Isabella’s only son, grows up to be an arrogant, conceited, and to be perfectly honest – although I don’t think Tarkington meant for us to see it this way – fairly stupid young man. Even though he gets the best education money can buy – a local prep school and an Ivy League university – he not only makes more enemies than friends, he doesn’t prepare himself for a profession. If George is a sympathetic character almost in spite of himself, then it’s because he speaks to our own fears of what we all could become. More specifically he speaks to a successful writer’s fears of becoming a nobody. He’s a rebel who’s also a conformist bourgeoisie, a man with an artistic temperate but without any talent for or even inclination to take up a creative discipline like poetry or music. In the end, he’s simply a snob who wants to live in his money, a rich slacker who wants “be” and not “do.” The main problem is that he’s not as rich as he thinks he is. Wilbur Minafer may have been a gentleman from an proper family, but he has no talent for making money. Major Anderson may have been a savvy businessman in the 1870s, but by the turn of the century he’s little more than a relic living off past glory. What’s more, capitalism in Indianapolis in the early 1900s, like capitalism everywhere else, as Marx pointed out, has to revolutionize itself continually or die.
If the revolutionary technology of the Civil War Era was the railroad, by 1907, when Henry Ford invented the Model T, it was the automobile. Booth Tarkington’s stand in for Henry Ford is none other than Eugene Morgan, Isabel’s rejected suitor. What made Eugene Morgan ineligible in 1890 has by 1910 made him the heir apparent to Major Anderson as the unofficial King of Indianapolis. We never find out the name of Eugene Morgan’s wife. By the time he returns to Woodruff Gardens after twenty years she’s already dead. Morgan also has a pretty daughter of marriageable age named Lucy, with whom the arrogant George Amberson Minafer falls hopelessly in love. George’s love for Lucy is not exactly what you would call “unrequited” – he’s an exceptionally good-looking young man from a prominent family and Lucy is tempted by his offer of an engagement – but it’s certainly unfulfilled. Lucy, who’s very much the daughter of her upwardly mobile father, can’t understand, not only why George Minafer won’t prepare himself for a profession, but why he just doesn’t seem to have any interests in life. Tarkington once again may have been a conservative Republican, but he’s also written a novel with a strong feminist undercurrent. Lucy Morgan is quite simply too smart for George Minafer. She’s too strong to be bullied into a marriage she doesn’t want. She doesn’t like his assumption that he’s entitled to her love. In the meantime, Wilbur Minafer has been getting sicker and sicker, mainly out of worry that he’s made too many bad investments. Eventually he dies, setting up the opportunity for the widower Eugene Morgan to finally marry Isabel, the love of his life, and an ultimately tragic confrontation with her son George.
It’s easy to see why George Amberson Minafer stands in the way of his mother’s second marriage. He’s partly motivated by his resentment over Lucy’s rejection. More importantly, lacking a profession or any useful occupation, he’s finally found his calling in life, to defend the family honor against an outsider, to imagine himself as Hamlet to Eugene Morgan’s Claudius and Isabel Amberson Minafer’s Gertrude. It’s a little harder to understand why the forty-year-old Isabel allows her twenty-year-old son to become her patriarchal oppressor. I suppose you can only expect so much from the turn of the century Midwestern bourgeoisie. In any event, George gets control of Isabel in a way he could never get control of Lucy, bullies his mother into rejecting a second chance of happiness with the man she genuinely loves, and then whisks her away to Europe after he decides there’s too much gossip. In reality, there’s never as much gossip as George thinks. His distorted sense of his own importance has exaggerated in his mind the extent to which people are interested in his mother’s move love.
By this point, the House of Amberson, both the literal physical mansion in Tarkington’s fictional Woodruff Place as well as the family reputation and fortune have rotted way. Major Anderson’s oldest son Sydney has already demanded his share of the inheritance, which the old man reluctantly gives. His younger son George has made a series of bad investments of his own. What’s more, the property values in the old suburbs, long degraded by the city’s rapid industrialization and urbanization are dealt a death blow by the increasing popularity of Eugene Morgan’s automobile. Nobody wants to buy or rent property downtown anymore. They all want to live further away from the noisy, dirty factories and the air made unhealthy by soft burning coal. One kick will bring down the edifice of the Amberson family for good.
That kick is the death first of Major Anderson, then of Isabel. Major Anderson dies of old age. Once unable to rebel against what she thought were the expectations of her parents – in reality Major Anderson never had a problem with Eugene Morgan and it was her own inflated sense of her own importance that made her think he did – Isabel is now unable to rebel against her son. She grows sick, then dies of a broken heart. The rest of the rotten old House of Amberson crumbles in rapid succession. Major Anderson’s younger son George and Wilbur’s sister Fanny had made foolish investments in an electric headlight company that eats up the rest of the family fortune. The paperwork for the great old mansion had never been put in proper order. Unable to take a low paid position as a law clerk and law student – he has to earn enough money to support himself and his Aunt Fanny — the once lordly George Amberson Minafer ends up as a low paid factory worker, and then, after he carelessly steps into the street and gets hit by a car, a disabled factory worker. He will remain childless. The Amberson bloodline has come to an end.
The son as the patriarchal oppressor of his mother.
Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Anderson’s is quite simply the most virtuoso adaption of a novel to cinema that I have ever seen. Welles, who was only twenty-seven-years old, works on a level as far above the typical Hollywood director of his age as Mozart was above Antonio Salieri. I actually saw Welles’ film before I read Tarkington’s book. Somehow, almost miraculously, Welles sculpts 600 pages of narrative into a feature length movie. Welles’ camerawork is so fluid and so powerful, his direction so effortless, that he doesn’t suggest the movement of time. He transforms it into images and sound. Welles’s film is both pure cinema and pure narrative. He has not translated Tarkington’s novel into a film. He has reproduced Tarkington’s novel as a film. Unfortunately, either through malice – Citizen Kane had offended the powerful Hearst Corporation – or sheer stupidity – Welles’ film was too cynical about American capitalism to be released only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor – RKO Studios cut forty minutes out of the intended two hour and ten minute film, released it as a ninety minute B-Movie, and burned the scenes they edited out of the original theatrical cut.
Booth Tarkington’s remarkably prophetic warning about the car culture.
“They destroyed Ambersons,” Welles once remarked, “and that destroyed me. I think it also impoverished American culture. Welles had revived Tarkington’s radical critique of American capitalism, and above all the car culture, only a few years before the construction of the Interstate Highway system and the second great wave of suburbanization in the 1940s. Had this great, butchered film been shown in its full length – a film none of us have ever seen – and had it become a hit, we might have saved public transportation. General Motors might not have been able to buy up and destroy large parts of the Los Angeles streetcar nework. We might not have demolished Penn Station. We might not have built mile after mile of sterile, “ticky tacky,” little Levittowns that are now, in turn, as neoliberalism hollows out industrial America, falling into disrepair and disuse. We might have been a better, more humane culture. Nevertheless, as I read Takington’s novel and watched Welles’ film, as I used both to fill in each others gaps, I felt as if I was learning something about the world in which I live, as if I was peeling back layer upon layer of dirt and cultural obfuscation away from the civilization that nurtured and oppressed me. I became George Amberson Minafer. I was given the opportunity not to share his fate.
I haven’t seen Manchester by the Sea, Arrival or Hell or High Water and for all I know one of those might have deserved Best Picture. I also think La La Land and Moonlight are such different films it’s impossible to judge honestly which one was better. Both were very good. Neither was great. So I had no rooting interest in either. This Vox article, however, reminds me of something I hadn’t previously considered. Moonlight is the lowest-budgeted film ever to have won Best Picture.
Moonlight’s budget was $1.6 million, which is very low by most standards. (By contrast, fellow Best Picture nominees La La Land shot for $30 million, Hacksaw Ridge for $40 million, Arrival for $47 million, and Hell or High Water for $12 million.) And while its $22 million gross is terrific for such a low budget, it’s still the lowest-grossing of the Best Picture nominees.
Out of curiosity I looked up the budgets of a few well-known independent and alternative films.
As I said, I had no great rooting interest between Moonlight and La La Land. The best movie of the year rarely wins the Best Picture Oscar anyway. But in the age of $100 million dollar superhero films and $144 million dollar reboots, a film with a budget of $1.6 million dollars being named Best Picture is surely an encouraging sign. Even last year’s comparatively modest Best Picture Winner Spotlight cost over $20 million.
Moonlight’s budget is even more impressive when you take into account how Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I hope prospective filmmakers learn all the right lessons. You can make a film about a demographic (black, working class gay men) most Hollywood studios like to ignore on a budget you might be able to raise off a Kickstarter campaign, and not only gain critical acclaim, but make money. Let’s hope that going forward we see more real people and fewer superheroes, more good camera work and less CGI, more first time actors and fewer big stars. Maybe Hollywood can finally get off the disastrous track its been on since the 1970s, when blockbusters, branding and advertising replaced imagination and creativity.