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True Grit

Posted by Gerald on December 23, 2010

I went to see the Coen Brother’s adaptation of True Grit yesterday.  My good friends Dana and Richard were there as well.  We saw it at the first showing at 11:30 am on Wednesday so the theater was less than packed.  There were a number of adolescents in the audience and I really wondered what they thought of the film because this was not a slam-bang action flick.  Instead it was a mature western with a good story and great characters and acting.  I’d say it is the best western I’ve seen since Unforgiven and maybe the best film I’ve seen this year.

First let me say that I am a fan of the 1969 version.  John Wayne yelling “Fill your hand you sonuvabitch!” and riding into the climactic gunfight (yes, there is a lot after that with caves and snakes, but seriously – isn’t that the real climax of the film?) is one of the iconic moments of movie westerns.  I think Wayne and director Henry Hathaway created a broad and enjoyable caricature of the John Wayne Western Hero that was entertaining in and of itself, but then occasionally rose above it.  Add to this an excellent supporting cast (well, except for Glen Campbell, who has criticized his own acting in that film) and wonderful cinematography and you have one of the great westerns of all time.  John Wayne dominates this film as he did so many of his pictures.

As a fan of that movie I experienced an interesting mix of familiarity and discovery while watching the Coen Brother’s adaptation.  In terms of story, sometimes even in terms of shots, the two movies are very similar.  What makes this so different is the deft touches in the direction and acting.  Jeff Bridges is excellent in this movie.  He makes Rooster Cogburn into a less slapstick sort of character.  He is still heroic, but in a rather different way – more brutal and less endearing, but also more real.  In a scene almost straight from the 1969 version, a drunken Rooster Cogburn falls from his horse.  In the original this was played for comedy, here it comes across as a painful reminder of the flaws and frailty of this man.  Still, the heroic sense of the character comes through strongly at the end during the long race to save Mattie’s life.  Bridges is able to bring all of these elements – heroism, brutality, and weakness – together in an excellent performance.   Comparing Matt Damon’s portrayal of Le Boeuf with Glen Campbell’s seems almost unfair, but the character becomes much less of a seeming afterthought and more a part of the whole story in this film.  Barry Pepper turns in an excellent turn in a short amount of screen time as Ned Pepper (as did Robert Duvall in the original).  As in so many of his films, the master of making much of small parts is Josh Brolin, here as the villanous Tom Chaney. 

The biggest difference is the character of Mattie Ross.  Kim Darby gave a memorable turn in that role in 1969 and held her own in scenes with Wayne, which was no mean feat.  I though the much younger Hailee Steinfeld actively dominated many of her scenes.  True Grit is the story of her adventure, but I think that is lost by the end of the 1969 version simply because of the extent to which Wayne takes over the screen.  The new adaptation keeps bringing us back to Mattie as the protagonist and Steinfeld’s performance is strong enough to support that.  While Jeff Bridges is identified as the star of this movie, I think this movie really belongs to Hailee Steinfeld.  I’m looking forward to what this actress will deliver in the future.

As much as I still love the 1969 version, the new adaptation is a more solid movie.  It achieves that rare balance in todays movies of character and action.  It also achieves that sense of “authenticity” (or perhaps verisimilitude) that modern westerns frequently seek but without the ponderous seriousness that comes with so many (Deadwood is another example of success in that area, while The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford comes to mind as a failure, although one should have expected a ponderous film given that ponderous title).  In this adaptation we see another great piece of work by the Coen Brothers.  It plays to their strengths – the visual appeal of the west, the mixture of comedy and drama, somewhat eccentric characters – all things you see done well in their best films.

This movie has Oscar written all over it (Although its excellent score has been eliminated from consideration by the Academy due to the unforgivable crime of including elements from 19th century hymns.)  I hope it garners the awards it deserves.  It is a film that takes the best elements of the classic western and the human reality of the best drama and uses them together.

Yep, I liked it.


Posted in film, Movies, reviews, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Thermopylae and the Alamo

Posted by Gerald on June 26, 2008

At long last, I’ve finished reading Tom Holland’s Persian Fire.  I really enjoyed the book, but I kept starting it and stopping it.  Part of the reason was that it seemed that every few pages were giving me things I wanted to figure out how to add into my class lectures.  I also found myself rereading several chapters each time I came back to the book.

Holland has a great prose style and, like his book Rubicon, feels almost like a novel.  From a purely scholarly viewpoint, there are some minor problems.  He uses a novelist’s touch when discussing motivations.  What give the account such immediacy is his willingness to get inside a historical figure’s head.  The problem for me as a sort-of-historian reading it is that I know the sources won’t bear that weight.  It is rare that we know what any specific historical figure actually thought, unless we are lucky enough to have things like private journals or letters.  We have no such sources for the war between Persia and the Greek poleis.  Most of what we have is Herodotus, who was willing to make conjectures that would get a modern monograph rejected out of hand.  I’m reminded of the whole debate over Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre.  She took heat for moving beyond the sources.  I think that sort of thing is an absolute necessity at times, depending on audience.  At times the historian must be a social scientist – answerable to strict analysis and logic.  But I think the historian also needs to be an artist sometimes, moving beyond strict data to bring the past in touch with the reader through prose.

Holland does that well.  This book was well researched.  He was upfront about when he was departing from more traditional views of events and used his endnotes to point the reader in the direction of both sides of a given scholarly debate.  This isn’t a work of new scholarship, but it is a well-written work of synthesis.  Holland is also very good a bringing the subject matter to life.  He uses his own travels to the locations he is discussing as well as archaeological work to engage all of the reader’s senses – the heat of the day at Marathon, the stench of the corpses at Thermopylae, the thirst of the Greeks at Plataea.

Looming over this book is Herodotus.  This is inevitable in that his historia is our major written source about the war as well as being the generally acknowledged foundation of western historical study.  More than this, there is a similarity of structure.  Like Herodotus, Holland places the war in a context of the meeting of Asia and Europe.  Also like Herodotus, Holland begins his account among the Persians.  This was the most interesting part of the book for me and it set up what I see as one of its strengths.  Given the lack of Persian literature from this period (we’ve got inscriptions on walls and that’s about it) every account I’ve ever read of this battle has been inevitably hellenocentric.  Holland’s book keeps moving from one side to the other.  I’ve left the work with a deep desire to learn more about the Persians.  In fact, I’m planning on using them extensively in the World Civilizations course I’m starting in the fall.  His account of the Greeks is also refreshingly honest, both in their strengths and in their weaknesses.

I’d highly recommend this to anyone interested in a work for a general audience.  I also think it should be required of anyone who saw the movie 300.  My next foray into this subject will be Paul Cartledge’s recent book on Thermopylae.

As I read Persian Fire I kept thinking about mythology.  Not classical mythology, but the mythology surrounding Thermopylae itself.  The fact is, we don’t know WHY the battle happened the way it did.  I know that when I first learned about it, the battle was described by my teacher in terms of another great moment of myth-making – The battle of the Alamo.  There is a myth that has the Spartans standing alone and holding the pass in order to win precious time for the rest of Greece to prepare in defense of “freedom”.  This is nonsense.  Whatever they hoped for, there were no preparations going on.  Several major poleis were openly supporting the Persians and others were firmly on the fence.  Both Spartan helots and Athenian slaves (and any Greek woman) could comment on the whole “freedom” thing.  Also, the Spartans weren’t alone – they brought helots, periokoi, and hoplites from other poleis.  Almost forgotten is the simultaneous naval engagements by the Greek fleets.  Still, there has been this romantic vision of the Last Stand of Leonidas.

Again, I see all of these echoes of the Alamo myth (and I’m sure I’m not the first – if anyone reading this could point me in the direction of folks who’ve written about this similarity, I’d appreciate it.)  This same vision of a desperate last stand in defense of freedom.  This has to be part of a broad pattern.  It is obviously about the west and its sense of identity, and in particular the American variety.  We Americans do seem to love a last stand – Alamo, Little Big Horn, Corregidor, and lots more if you include the narrowly won victories alongside the sacrificial stands.  I’ve got to think that when accounts of the Alamo first appeared in the US that there were references to Thermopylae (or maybe Livy, given the early republic’s love affair with the Romans).  I wonder if the accounts of these battles were twisted around each other and fed back into each other into a grand narrative of dying for freedom.  Then comes Custer and that painting – the messiah of the West.  All of this seems to me part of the ongoing rhetoric in America about the justification for military adventurism and the cultural sense that real men become Marines.*

Thomas Pakenham wrote in his introduction to The Boer War about how every upper class Victorian home had a painting of the Last Stand and how every young man took his commission waiting for that moment.  He then contrasted that with the failure of the Jameson Raid, but I wonder if there isn’t a bigger point here about cultural identity (maybe gender?) in imperialistic societies like the US and Britain in the 19th century?

Somebody has got to have already written this up.  Can anyone point me to work about this?

* To be honest I should confess that I’ve been indulging my addiction to military porn – i.e., JAG, NCIS, etc… – as of late; my perceptions might have been altered.  Bellesario as LSD.

Posted in American history, History, reviews | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

My Response to Steve’s Review of Waitress

Posted by Gerald on August 1, 2007

Before reading this, you should read Steve’s review of the film.  I am really just reacting to what he said in his blog.  I decided to do it here because I wanted to write something rather longer than the average “comment.”

First, let me say that I agree with almost everything Steve has to say about Waitress.  In some places Steve mentioned a conversation we had about the film.  Although there was certainly no attack, I feel I need to rise in defense of my reaction to Waitress.

First, there really isn’t any “ire” in my reaction to the film.  I enjoyed it.  I thought it was sweet and funny and featured excellent performances by Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, and Jeremy Sisto (who I think deserves some extra kudos for his willingness to commit so fully to putting the “B” in Bastard.)  The movie had some fine moments, in particular when Keri Russell plays the moment when she decides to face Earl and the beautiful “moon pie” sequence.

I did not mean to say this movie had a “Hollywood” ending.  If it had such an ending, Jenna would have tried to sneak out on Earl, he would have caught her and would have proceeded to endanger her, at which point Dr. Pomatter would arrive, save her, and then he would have assumed the role of protector for her and the baby.  Curtain close and all is right with the Patriarchy.  It didn’t do that.  Instead, Jenna discovers the strength the audience could see beneath the surface (again, due to the fine performance) and she finds it through true heroism.  She doesn’t rise up to just save herself – she rises up to save her child.

The moment comes in a beautiful shot where we have Jenna’s POV looking at her daughter.  Then Earl leans into frame and reminds Jenna of the promise he had extorted from her to “always love him more.”  Then we go to a tight close-up of Keri Russell’s face as she ponders for a beat, and then tells Earl to get out.  It is a moment of almost orgasmic release as she finally finds her courage to confront him.  I give extra kudos here to the late Adrienne Shelley for not even allowing us to hear Earl’s outraged protestations.  The focus stays where it should – on Jenna.  I call this heroism, because what I saw was her realization in that moment that if she didn’t finally confront Earl, whom we have already seen is not just controlling but is physically abusive, she is going to doom her daughter to the life she has been so desperate to escape.  She saves her daughter and thus saves herself.  That is heroism.

What I did intend to say is that the last scene, where we see Jenna and the girls at the pie shop Jenna now owns, is very artificial.  I think that was intentional.  I said to Steve that the shop looked like a Soho artist’s vision of what a southern diner ought to look like (bright swirly colors and what looked like poetry on the walls.)  The women are dressed in what look like the costumes worn by clog dancers.  The whole thing has an air of unreality that reminded me of the last dream sequence in Raising Arizona.  I think this might have been deliberate.  How do you visually depict contentment and joy without indulging in melodrama?  It was a happy ending, but almost like the one in Blue Velvet (but without the dark irony.)  Everything seems too perfect.  But why not?  All endings are artificial to some extent, the self-conscious use of that is a sign of true artistry.  Again, I have no complaint.

I thought the movie was good, but I enjoyed it intellectually and not emotionally.  Unlike Steve, I was never moved to tears (and I get teary all the time while watching movies).  The movie felt to me like the pies it featured.  It was sweet and tasty with interesting undertones and the occasional surprise.  I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a “meal” for me.  Why?  I don’t know.  I’m not assuming it was the movie.  Maybe it was the mood I was in.  Maybe it was the timing.  Maybe it is just a “strawberry” movie and I tend to react better to “chocolate” film.  All I can say is that I didn’t walk away from this film having felt something new or having learned something I didn’t already know.  It didn’t move me, but it did intrigue and entertain me.

Posted in film, opinion, reviews | 1 Comment »

It is Sunday and I’ve Seen Children of Men

Posted by Gerald on July 8, 2007

It is Sunday morning and we are headed for a high of 96 today.

I’ve been posting and commenting a lot this weekend.  All of my friends have plans or are out of town and I have no one to go play with 😦

As a result, I was home last night and I watched a dvd of Children of Men directed by Alfonso Cuarón.  This is a story set in 2027, eighteen years after the last child has been born.  It is set in Britain, which has realized Tom Tancredo’s wildest dreams for this country by closing itself off from the rest of the world and aggressively hunting down and deporting the “fugies” (illegal immigrants) who have tried to escape the horrors that characterize much of the rest of the world.

The plot centers around Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist who is now holding down a bureaucratic job and going through the motions of his life.  His state is clearly meant to echo that of the whole world.  We discover that he had been married and had lost a child during a flu pandemic (in 2008).  Theo is contacted by his ex-wife (or maybe just estranged, it is hard to tell) Julian (Julianne Moore) who is part of a radical group working to help the illegal immigrants.  She wants his help getting papers for a girl named Kee, who we discover is an illegal immigrant and who is pregnant.  What follows is an odyssey through this dystopian world as Theo tries to help Kee and her midwife Miriam get to the coast to meet a boat from a semi-mythical group called the “Human Project” which is working to solve the problem of human infertility.

The real core of this movie isn’t the story.  Cuarón provides a vivid picture of a world without any hope.  The film is at its strongest when it shows small moments against the backdrop of the end of humanity.  Theo’s cousin Syd, who helps him get the papers for Kee, is part of an art preservation project for the government.  What they are trying to do is preserve art from vandals and terrorists who are destroying it in this miasma of despair.  When Theo asks Syd how he keeps doing this when he knows no one will be around to these work anymore one hundred years on, Syd says he just doesn’t think about it.  Sitting in a long abandoned school, Miriam tells Theo about the escalation of miscarriages she had seen 18 years before and the day she realized she had no appointments scheduled more than seven months in the future – and after calling other midwives that none of them did either.

“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.  Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”

Dystopian films can often get buried in their own world background (Soylent Green) but that doesn’t really happen here.  I think this film is ultimately about fatherhood – and hence the title.  This could have been a film about motherhood – in fact that would almost be the natural way for this story to unfold.  In this case we have a story about fathers, both good and bad, and their roles.

Theo was a father who was destroyed by the loss of his child and who comes alive again as he becomes a sort of father to Kee’s baby.  Michael Caine is fantastic as Jasper, who may or may not be Theo’s actual father but is everything a father should be for him.  The negative aspects of fatherhood are embodied in Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who wants control of the baby for his own ends and who intends to remake the child into his own image.

It would have been easy to make this into a blatantly Christ-like story – the miracle child who will save humanity – and the writer even nods to this:

Theo: “Who is the father?”
Kee: “Whiffet!  I’m a virgin.” pause “Nah! Be great though, wouldn’it?”

Kee doesn’t know who the father is among all the possible candidates.  The facelessness of the baby’s father creates a space for both of the would-be fathers in the film to step into that role.  It may also suggest the title – that men are the fathers of children and have a responsibility to them.  That there is always a struggle between Theo – the father who wants to guide and protect – and Luke – the father who wants to control and exploit.

This is an excellent piece of science fiction.  It takes a scientific premise – the collapse of fertility in humans – and uses that to tell a very human story.  This isn’t about latex and special effects, it is about using speculation to explore who we are.  I wish we could see more movies like this and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Posted in film, Movies, reviews, science fiction | 3 Comments »

I Saw Apocalypto

Posted by Gerald on July 4, 2007

In celebration of July 4, the day that nothing happened, I saw some friends, did some blogging, started reading a (relatively) new history of the Late Roman Period while listening to British folk music, and then spent the evening watching the DVD of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

The film has an incredibly simple story, about half of which seems to be either an homage to, or a blatant rip-off of, The Naked Prey.  It has lots of gory violence and some beautiful visuals of a Mayan city.  It also has the seemingly required gratuitous historical inaccuracies, like the appearance of Spanish ships in the last few minutes (Spaniards didn’t show up until about three centuries after the last Mayan city was deserted.)

I found an interesting review entitled “Is ‘Apocalypto’ Pornography” by a professor of archaeology and an expert on the Maya named Traci Arden.  You can read it here.

I found her review of the film quite worthwhile, but I saw something different.  She saw an essentially colonial message with the Maya depicted as decadent and in need of saving and the arrival of the Spanish as providing the saviors.  Certainly the Maya are depicted as decadent.  There are numerous depictions of bloody violence, especially in grisly sacrificial rites in the city.

I do not disagree with Prof. Arden about the colonial message here, but I think there was another message on top of it – a cautionary tale.  The first frame of the movie shows a quote from good ol’ Will Durant about how no great civilization was ever conquered from without until it had destroyed itself from within.  This is a transfer of the standard old Gibbon, etc… narrative about the “Fall” of the Roman Empire transferred to the Maya.  I do not think Gibson was trying to tell a colonial story (although I think he did) and I don’t think he was trying to tell a Roman story (although I think he borrowed one).  I think he was trying to tell a modern story about the “decline of the west.”  The moral is that we can’t be destroyed from without unless we destroy ourselves from within.  This is right in line with his general political and religious conservatism.

Where I got my personal dose of irony here was from my reading earlier in the day.  I have started Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians.  Heather is trying to take the startling work in the study of Late Antiquity and pull it together into a new narrative to replace the older “Rome and the Barbarians in endless struggle as Rome rots from within due to a) Christianity (old school) or b) economic decline (newer school) or c) fill in your favorite Roman rotting agent here; until such time as the barbarians bring down the empire.”  The more recent scholarship seems to point to a more nuanced and surprising story that I am just starting to read.  It was just funny to me to turn on this movie about Mayans and suddenly see Gibbon all over again.

As an action film, this is pretty good.  As a historical depiction of the Classical Maya it su… isn’t so good.  For some very cool visuals of life in a Maya city, it has stuff I’m going to steal for my World Civ course – but I’ll turn it off before we get to the temple.  However, if you are going to watch it, be sure to bring you Edward Said glasses with you.

Posted in Archaeology, film, History, Maya, Mel Gibson, Movies, opinion, Personal, reviews, Roman History | 5 Comments »

“The Economist” on Palestine

Posted by Gerald on June 26, 2007

The Economist had a very interesting write-up on the situation arising from the fighting between Hamas and Fatah.

The authors ask some very useful questions.  What does this division mean for Palestinian statehood?  Answer, nothing good.  Is the Western hope that the division between Fatah and Hamas will lead to the end of Hamas realistic?  Answer, probably not.  Will Western aid do more to polarize the situation than to prop up Fatah?  Answer, probably.

Read it here.

Posted in Diplomacy, international relations, Israel, Middle East, news, Palestinian Authority, politics, reviews | 1 Comment »

Idi Amin and Steve Biko

Posted by Gerald on June 15, 2007

I just finished watching The Last King of Scotland.  Like many other people, and even film critics, I was very impressed by Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin and I thought it was a good film.  One thing bothered me, though.

I generally do not care for criticism of a film for not being a different film.  For example, criticizing the Pirates of the Caribbean films for not being very dramatic or historically accurate.  They were never meant to be.  I do have a problem like this with The Last King of Scotland and it reminded me of a similar problem I had with another biographical file set in Africa – Cry Freedom.

In both films we have a story concerning a significant figure in Africa, in The Last King of Scotland it is the dictator Idi Amin of Uganda and in Cry Freedom it is the anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness movement Steve Biko.  In both cases we see fantastic performances, in the first case Forest Whitaker’s and in Cry Freedom the brilliant performance of Denzel Washington.  In each case, it is the African-American actor and the African character that dominates the screen.

My complaint about both films is that neither of them is actually about the African character.

The Last King of Scotland is actually the story of Nicholas Garrigan (ably portrayed by James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who winds up as Amin’s personal physician.  He begins by being charmed then winds up horrified as he discovers who Amin really is and then winds up escaping Uganda, to go tell the world the truth about Amin (note this), aboard the airplane that evacuated the non-Israeli hotages aboard Air France Flight 139 before the Israeli commando raid at Entebbe airport.  Garrigan is a fictional character loosely based on a man named Bob Astles.

Cry Freedom is actually the story of a white journalist named Donald Woods (ably portrayed by Kevin Kline), who meets Steve Biko, becomes more radical through his acquaintance.  He finally earns the official displeasure of the South African government, especially due to his reporting after Biko’s death while in police custody.  The last part of the film chronicle’s how Woods and his family escaped from South Africa so he could write a book to tell the world the truth about Biko (coincidence?).

While both films are fine, both seem to assume that a story about Africa has to be told through the eyes of a white guy.  In each case a brilliant performance by an African-American actor is given second place to a capable performance by a white actor.  This is a common Hollywood trope, to give the film a “familiar” character through who the audience explores an “foreign” or “exotic” situation (see Dances With Wolves).  This makes some rather racist assumptions about what constitutes a “familiar” viewpoint, though.  It also isn’t necessary for a film to be successful (see The Last Emperor or Gandhi.)  Both films are laudable enough, but both would have been better if they had told the African’s story from the African’s viewpoint.

Which gets me to my last problem with The Last King of Scotland.  It contained a fascinating portrait of Amin, but there isn’t much of a portrait of Uganda.  There are images of poverty and of violence, but there is no real examination of why there is poverty or why there was violence.  The last part bothers me more here.  The rise of Amin, like that of any brutal dictator, is the result of specific circumstances.  It is the tragedy of Africa that this story isn’t completely unique, but it is still a disservice to Uganda to treat it and it’s history as an interchangeable backdrop.

Of course, this could be just because I teach African history and I’m overly sensitive, but I don’t think so.

Posted in Africa, film, International, Movies, opinion, reviews | 5 Comments »