This is the time of year people start making New Year’s lists, and if you’re in any respect a culture vulture that means making lists of works of art to “take in” that you haven’t managed to get to yet. But a bucket list is an almost comically awful way to approach art. You’re not just reducing art to a signifier (of taste, class, whatever) rather than letting it be the thing itself; you’re not just turning it into a commodity (something to be accumulated rather than experienced) and reducing it to its cash value; you’re actually turning it into something akin to cash itself, into a featureless line in a ledger.
But . . . I like lists. I find that a physical list of, say, places I’ve been actually jogs my memory, breathes life back into the experience of the place. Ditto with cultural experiences – ditto even with people I don’t see regularly enough.
Of course, flipping through names on Facebook isn’t the same as seeing somebody again. So: here’s a list of a different character. Not a list to make you feel bad about all the experiences you haven’t accumulated yet, nor to make you feel virtuous once you’ve checked them off. But a list of old friends to revisit.
It’s a list of movies to see again. Not because there are no new movies coming down the pike worth seeing – there will be piles of them – any more than because there are new places to see you should never sleep in your own bed. Not because 2014 is the right year to see this or that film, but because any year would be a good year. They’re just films you’ll enjoy seeing again. And again.
Some movies repay repeat viewing because the experience changes materially – and for the better – the second time around. “Fight Club” is a good example – seeing it again once you know the big “twist” is a different and more even more enjoyable experience than seeing it for the first time. For others, you really have to marinate yourself in the film before you’ve truly experienced it. “The Big Lebowski” is probably the template for that kind of film: the jokes get funnier once you know them, but also subtle acting and directing choices stand out that you might not have noticed before. Try watching the entire film paying closest attention to Donnie; it’s a whole new movie.
Sometimes you were just the right age. Like, the way I saw “Star Wars” fourteen times the year it came out. Because I was seven and, you know, that’s what seven year olds do. I’m sure “Toy Story” had a similar trajectory – I’ve certainly seen it over a dozen times, and I can tell you, existential crisis really doesn’t get old. Nor does Miyazaki’s perfect tale of maturation, “Spirited Away.”
The old television networks understood the importance of repetition. That’s why they aired “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas. And why they aired “The Wizard of Oz” every . . . actually, I don’t remember when they aired it – but I understand it was very confusing for people back when most everybody had a black-and-white television. Anyway: they knew what they were doing. See them again, even though you don’t have to.
And then of course there’s “Groundhog Day,” which is in a class by itself in terms of demanding re-screening.
“The Shining,” on the other hand, I would not recommend seeing over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Or you’ll wind up making a silly movie like this one. Or, you know, chopping your family to bits. Ah, heck – it’s worth the risk.
That’s a bunch already. I’m going to list a few more, but I’m not going to get to 100. Not without your help anyway. So please – submit your additions to the list in the comments.
“Withnail and I” – legitimate contender for best buddy movie ever, certainly one of the best conjurations of the spirit of the late ’60s, British variant, and if nothing else, definitely a movie that will do something to your brain. And once it has done so, why would you want to do anything else to it? Why trust one movie more than another?
A tale of city boys in the country needs to be mated with a story of country boys in the big city. “On the Town” – no, it isn’t as iconic as “Singin’ In the Rain,” but it’s equally perfect as a movie, and it wears its perfection more lightly – and for that reason, becomes even more thoroughly enjoyable the more familiar it is. And the ending basically announces that you’re supposed to see it again. Come up to my place, and we’ll put it on.
And then, when it gets late, we’ll put on “After Hours,” a very different tale of the city. Martin Scorsese’s only “indie,” and his only film (I believe) to feature a cameo by Tommy Chong, it’s another film that announces the necessity of repetition with the ending, but it’s also so dense with visual jokes that it’s really impossible to absorb them all in one viewing.
More comedy! Everybody’s seen “The Princess Bride” a hundred times – and with good reason. But how many times have you seen “The Court Jester,” Danny Kaye’s triumph of a mock-swashbucker? However many it is, it isn’t enough. Similarly, everybody’s seen “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment” – two Billy Wilder films that certainly merit re-watching. But his less-heralded Cold War comedy, “One, Two, Three,” has an ever greater density of jokes that never stop being funny. And the third act, lifted wholesale from Ferenc Molnar’s play, The President, only gets more outrageously unbelievable with each viewing.
The classic “comedy of remarriage” films from the 1940s are all ideal for perpetual revisiting – as someone smarter than me pointed out, they’re like Shakespeare. For my money, the two best are “The Lady Eve” and “The Philadelphia Story.” And they make an excellent double-feature to boot; watching Barbara Stanwyck run rings around Henry Fonda is the perfect antidote to watching Kate Hepburn get pummeled emotionally by pretty much every male in the film.
Meanwhile, a more modern film very much in the spirit of the ’40s classics is “Flirting With Disaster,” David O. Russell’s sophomore effort and a personal touchstone. See, this is the kind of movie you make when you watch great movies over and over again until they sink into you. (Tarantino films, by contrast, are what you make when you watch junk movies over and over again until they sink into you.)
But you know, they don’t all have to be great movies. And a personal fave in the “not great but wonderful to see over and over” category is the ’80s Richard Pryor comedy, “Brewster’s Millions,” about a down-on-his-luck minor-league ballplayer who unexpectedly inherits $30 million dollars – with a catch: he has to spend it all in 30 days. It’s as funny now as it was when I was a kid – I’d say I don’t know why they haven’t remade it (again – the ’80s version is based on a Depression-era film, which is based on an even older novel) except I know they’d only ruin it.
Speaking of the Depression – one of the strangest musicals ever made is a disastrous love story set in the Depression. I’m talking about “Pennies From Heaven,” which, as a story of mental colonization by over-familiar popular art, is also a great one for revisiting over and over. And then you can visit the television miniseries on which the movie is based – both are excellent, and quite different from one another.
Speaking of series: when a new movie in a series comes out, sometimes it’s a good idea to see the previous installments, just to refresh your memory. But sometimes, it’s just a good excuse to revisit beautiful films, and experience how your relationship with them changes with age. Or maybe I’m just talking about one series in particular: Richard Linklater’s continuing “Before” saga, currently a trilogy: “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight.” May they keep coming, and keep providing me with excuses to watch them all. (And because we have to watch them all, we’ll count them as one entry in the list.)
With Linklater’s trilogy, a reason to revisit is to learn how our perspective on the films changes as we age. With Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” shifting perspective is substantially what the film is about. Which is an excellent reason to see it again and again – to experience how our understanding of each version of the story shifts the more familiar we are with the other versions.
If you’re Akira Kurosawa, you make great samurai films partly inspired by American westerns, and then what do the Americans do? They turn around and make American westerns inspired by your samurai films. So what’s a Japanese filmmaker to do but, as the late lamented Juzo Itami did, make a modern Japanese picaresque with all of these mutual borrowings hovering in the background. The result: “Tampopo,” one of the sweetest films I know, and one you’ll want to see again and again just to recall the taste of it.
Some meals are harder to swallow – acquired tastes, let’s say – but once acquired they can become addictive. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” gets its primal energy from a political fury that is no longer relevant, but it endures as a stunning visual realization of its central metaphors of carnality. “La Grande Bouffe” is, in its way, equally political, though much less overt about it, and is a much more terrible journey. But somehow it compels return visits.
There are terrible journeys, and then there are terrible journeys. One of the most harrowing I know is Charlie Kaufman’s magnum opus, “Synechdoche, New York,” a film which explicitly tries to contain all of life, and just about does so. It’s so painful, it’s almost unbearable to watch, but you have to watch it again, both to absorb all the details and because the memory of it will otherwise fade, and this film has something to teach us that we need not to forget.
- “Fight Club”
- “The Big Lebowski”
- “Star Wars”
- “Toy Story”
- “Spirited Away”
- “It’s a Wonderful Life”
- “The Wizard of Oz”
- “Groundhog Day”
- “The Shining”
- “Withnail and I”
- “On the Town”
- “After Hours”
- “The Court Jester”
- “One, Two, Three”
- “The Lady Eve”
- “The Philadelphia Story”
- “Flirting With Disaster”
- “Brewster’s Millions”
- “Pennies From Heaven”
- “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”/”Before Midnight”
- “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”
- “La Grande Bouffe”
- “Synecdoche, New York”
Seems like a good start. Your turn.
Earlier this week, I saw Steve McQueen’s film, “12 Years A Slave,” and came away awe-struck but also dissatisfied, and perturbed about that dissatisfaction. The film is powerfully acted, carefully written, and, it has to be said, beautifully shot – there’s something especially disturbing about brutality looking so gorgeous. But something about the narrative irritated me, and I had to figure out what it was.
The story is a simple and brutal one. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man of Saratoga, travels to Washington with two white men who say they plan to employ him as a musician. Instead, they drug him, kidnap him, and sell him into slavery. Unable to prove his identity, Northrup is sold down the river, first to a plantation run by a relatively liberal owner (played by Benedict Cumberbatch); he’s a genuine liberal, not a phony, which shows just how little a liberal attitude is worth when enmeshed in systemic evil. Then, after he gets himself in trouble by fighting with an overseer, he’s sold to a sadistic tyrant, Epps (Michael Fassbender), the only man who will buy him, where he is trapped for years until the opportunity presents itself to get a message out (through a sympathetic white Canadian carpenter, a cameo by producer Brad Pitt), and he is rescued by friends from the North who prove he was born free.
Much of the commentary on the film has focused on its determination not to flinch, to show us the lash, the noose, the sexual violence that were integral to the enterprise. But another way in which the film doesn’t flinch is that it doesn’t frame Northrup’s story in a way that provides us with certain expected satisfactions: specifically, the satisfaction of the hero’s triumph over adversity (even though the hero does triumph in the minimal sense that he escapes, and returns to his family).
The most common way Hollywood engineers that triumph is directly, through manly violence. But there are alternatives. The hero could triumph through a rejection of violence. Or the hero could triumph by losing, sacrificing himself for some larger cause. Or the hero could triumph internally – and be changed profoundly by the experience in a way that brings him or her to some larger consciousness or greater state of satisfaction. Or, of course, this could be a tragedy, and the hero could triumph over adversity in ways that destroy something more fundamental, ways we ultimately reject. Whatever the outcome, the narrative structure will be designed to impart meaning to the hero’s experience, the suggestion that the experience happened for a reason, even if that reason was impossible to discern from the outset. As Joseph says when he reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt: you intended evil (by selling me into slavery), but God intended it for good – to save our family from famine.
Northrup’s story doesn’t work like that. Even though it’s his story, Northrup is, structurally, an observer character. I don’t mean to suggest he’s passive. He makes active choices all the time, though they avail him nothing until the very end. He chooses to use his engineering talent to help his first master, hoping to win favor and ultimately his freedom, which only winds up making him an enemy of the overseer. He chooses to beat the overseer who is unjustly abusing him, which nearly gets him killed and gets him sold to the sadistic Epps. He chooses to try to bolt from Epps’s plantation, only to run almost immediately into a lynching of two other runaways. He chooses to trust a white laborer for Epps, a former overseer who intimates a moral revulsion at slavery, to get a message out to the north; the man betrays him to Epps and thereby nearly gets him killed (he talks his way out of it in a scene that brilliantly reveals the genealogy of a whole tradition of African-American folk wisdom about how to fool the master – listen to how his voice changes in this scene).
And by saying he’s an observer, I don’t mean to suggest that he doesn’t suffer directly – because he clearly does. But I felt more strongly the horrible abuses he observes, and can do nothing about, than the beatings he receives, even his hanging – it was a relief, honestly, when he suffered directly, instead of having to be passive. The deepest pain is reserved for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the beautiful slave woman for whom Epps has conceived a fierce and jealous passion. Epps rapes her; his wife tortures her; and he, in a fit of jealous rage, flogs her almost to the point of death. And the worst pain Northrup himself experiences is the pain of having to participate in that flogging, unless it’s the pain of having to refuse her request to be murdered at his hands rather than continue suffering.
When I say he’s structurally an observer character, it’s because the the narrative is fundamentally a relation of his experience – what he saw and felt – in a way that doesn’t implicate him, neither in the sense of being truly at fault (though he clearly feels guilt at not being able to act in anyone’s defense), nor in the sense of being the one who rights a wrong. I don’t want to be misunderstood; I’m not saying Northrup is in any way emotionally detached. I’m saying he’s morally detached.
This is unquestionably deliberate on the part of the filmmaker, because it’s a fundamental truth about slavery, not merely in that the slaves were collectively the victims of a crime, suffering unjustly, but in that they did not themselves force an accounting for that crime. You can tell true stories of individual heroism, but in a fundamental way the truest story is one of victimhood. And victimhood as such is narratively unsatisfying – because it is politically unsatisfying.
Consider, by way of contrast, the ending of “Schindler’s List.” Now, in that movie, there’s a very clear protagonist – Schindler – which relegates the Jewish population to the status of object, of the Nazi extermination project and of Schindler’s efforts at rescue. That’s not a problem narratively – but it was a problem, for Spielberg, politically. So Spielberg did something at the end of the film: he introduced the Naomi Shemer song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” a song about longing for the unification of Jerusalem that just preceded the ’67 war. This is the music that carries us to the present in which the men and women Schindler saved can show their gratitude at Yad va-Shem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum. The film very explicitly “corrects” the narrative we’ve just witnessed by saying, in so many words: once, the Jews were objects, as they are in the story you just saw; but they aren’t anymore, because they have a state of their own. Now they are subjects – and, as subjects, they are in a position to show proper gratitude to people like Schindler, gratitude as something other than mere victims.
McQueen doesn’t give us that uplifting twist. The last thing we see Northrop do is break down and apologize to his family – for, presumably, being unable to escape and return to them for twelve years. (His daughter, now grown and married, mercifully tells him he has nothing to apologize for.) In text afterwards, we learn that Northrup was thereafter passionately involved in the abolitionist movement, and pursued his kidnappers in court. He pursued them unsuccessfully, but the more important point is that we don’t see him pursuing them. McQueen could have shown us a determined Northrup engaged in that pursuit, vowing never to rest, and ended his movie on an “up” note. He chose not to.
This broad, powerful choice has some fascinatingly perverse consequences. In my write-up of the movie, “Captain Phillips,” I pointed out how our sense of who the protagonist is changes in the middle of the movie. Initially, Phillips is the protagonist, actively working to outwit his would-be captors, and the Somali pirates are the antagonists. But once we’re in the lifeboat, he shifts to being more of an observer, just trying not to get killed, while the Somalis become the tragically doomed protagonists, facing the overwhelming might of the United States Navy as an antagonist. Something similar happens in “12 Years A Slave,” where Epps became the object of my most intense interest, the tragically doomed protagonist in love with his slave, disgusted by his own love, and flailing out with brutal violence in all directions. (I don’t know that it means anything, but “Captain Phillips” and “12 Years A Slave” also both end with the freed captive breaking down emotionally.)
Epps has set himself up as a kind of god on his plantation, and in his twisted way he thinks he’s a loving god. He’s remarkably intimate with his slaves in general, always putting his hands on them, fondling and carrying the children, and his rage at Northrup’s deliverance is not merely about money or pride; there’s a real sense of betrayal. It’s alarmingly easy to see him as a kind of outrageously abusive father, to forget that he is no father of any kind, that his authority is completely and totally without legitimate foundation.
I don’t know if that forgetting has something to do with my position as a white viewer, or if it’s the opposite, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome due to identification with the slaves – perhaps even a consequence, as a Jewish viewer, of refracting the slave experience through my own cultural memory of the Holocaust, and my feelings about that experience. But it might, again, be deliberate. McQueen has averred that he himself has profound sympathy for Epps, precisely because he cannot control his love for what he hates, or his hatred for what he loves.
In any event, I walked out of the theater on the one hand creepily enthralled by Epps, and on the other hand furious – at Northrup, for, well, for being a victim. This is the core emotion behind nationalism, the desire to no longer be the victim, and instead have a chance to be (or magnanimously avoid being) the oppressor. This is the reason why nationalism will always be a powerful force in human affairs.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that part of McQueen’s purpose is to point to the African-American experience as a paradigm of some other kind of response, precisely because nationalism has never been a realistic program for black Americans, howsoever appealing. (McQueen himself is a Britisher of Trinidadian descent.) But he’s not willing to point to liberalism or Christianity or any other historic response that seeks to make peace with the past by overcoming it, precisely because the terms of that peace have always involved a certain amount of discretion about what really happened. He’s looking, I think, for some kind of existential humanist response, for a global audience, with all varieties of historical connection with the Atlantic slave trade, including none to speak of, simply to confront the slave experience directly, without having their response dictated to them. To confront the past without contextualizing it in terms of its meaning today.
I’m fascinated to see if it works. I wonder if I’ll know if it has.
I wrote my last write-up of Alexander Payne’s new movie a little too quickly, and as a consequence I think I gave it kind of a shallow once-over. Allow me to take the opportunity of having a blog to have another go.
I talked about the movie being a “slow thaw” in the cold relationship between father and son. A lot of that coldness relates to the son’s bitter feelings about his parents’ marriage – the sense that his parents were deeply unhappy with each other and that his father in particular never really wanted him or his brother. The first crack in the ice comes in a bar, where father and son share a round of beers. (It takes some doing to get that far; David has long since recognized his father’s alcoholism, and avoids drinking himself for that reason.) After a bit of lubrication, David finally starts to ask his father some of the things he really wants to know. Such as: why did you marry Mom? Answer: she wanted to. Did you love her, at the beginning? Answer: it never came up. Well, why did you have kids, then? Answer: I like to screw, and your mother’s a Catholic, so you figure it out.
These answers, needless to say, are not particularly satisfying to David. They sound like dime-store cynicism – an evasion rather than an answer. And David really wants to know this stuff because he’s been going through his own romantic troubles. His live-in girlfriend has just moved out and broken up with him, because she had to do something. ”Get married, break up” – it almost doesn’t matter which. Just do something. And why doesn’t David just marry the girl? Well, as he asks his father at that bar, “how do you know you’re sure” that this person is the right person to make one’s life with. Woody, unsurprisingly, can’t make head or tail of this question. Because it’s a question about choices – and Woody hasn’t spent his life making choices.
Here’s Woody’s history, as pieced together from what we learn in the film. Once upon a time, Woody was a randy young man. As his wife, Kate, tells it, during a visit to the cemetery in Hawthorne, in that respect he was like all the other young men in town, who all wanted to get into her bloomers. (“They grow up staring at the rear-ends of cows, it’s no surprise they go crazy at the sight of a real woman.”) She wouldn’t drop her drawers for the guy who was too boring (she hitches up her skirt over his grave, saying “see what you could have had if you didn’t talk about wheat all the time?”) or any of the other guys chasing after her.
But she did put out for Woody. We know that because David meets another girlfriend of his dad’s from the old days, the woman who runs the town newspaper. She still has a soft spot for Woody, notwithstanding that she married a lovely man (now deceased) and had three lovely children, and now some grandchildren. She has no regrets; she just remembers him fondly. She lost him – and she knew she was going to lose him at the time, as she tells David, because she wouldn’t “let him get ’round the bases.”
Whereas Kate, presumably, would. She wanted him; she knew how to get him; she got him – and then she was stuck with him. Woody, meanwhile, married her because she wanted to – and because, as David says of him in another context, “he believes what people tell him.” Well, from what we hear of her, she probably told him a whole lot of things, many of them about himself. He probably believed them.
Anyway: my point isn’t to blame Woody (or Kate) for their unhappy marriage, and it’s not the movie’s point either – and you can tell because the movie gestures in the direction of making that an option, of pointing to bad choices and asking “what if,” and it pulls away toward a different conclusion. I read the movement of the movie as going from a kind of moral stance toward Woody’s non-chosen choices to something more compassionate. Should Woody have held out for the girl who wouldn’t put out? David looks like he’s wondering that at one point, in the newspaper offices; this other woman seems so . . . nice. Unlike his mother. Should Woody have reconciled himself to the brute facts of life earlier on, and not descended into bitterness and drink? That would seem to be Kate’s perspective. Was Woody a bad husband? A bad father? I think everyone in the audience thinks so – and we’re right.
But so what? That seems to be where David ends up. He finally takes his father to Lincoln – to learn that, as David knew, he hasn’t won anything. So David deceives his father into thinking he’s won a consolation prize: a new truck, with which he can drive through Hawthorne to show his old “friends” and neighbors and grasping relations that he won after all.
It’s not clear whether Woody understands that this is a deception or not, but of course David knows it is. He’s playing Edgar to his blind, foolish father’s Gloucester. And he’s giving his father a gift. It doesn’t matter whether Woody deserves that gift – indeed, he hasn’t done much of anything to deserve it. But it’ll make his father happy for a little while. He ends, in other words, in a place of compassion and pity for his father, which is a prerequisite, I would argue, for having compassion for himself – for the mistakes he’s made and will undoubtedly continue to make.
I’m a big fan of Alexander Payne’s work – loved “Election,” loved “Sideways,” really liked “Citizen Ruth,” and felt warmly about “The Descendants.”
You’ll notice I left out “About Schmidt,” and that’s because, notwithstanding that Payne got a wholly unexpected performance out of Jack Nicholson (an achievement which the Academy should honor with a special award of its own), I found the experience of watching the movie to be really unpleasant. Schmidt is so thoroughly unhappy a man, and so thoroughly unaware of the nature of his unhappiness, and he seems so comprehensively trapped by his own nature and the nature of things – that it was almost too painful to sit through. (Nonetheless, my favorite moment in the movie was one of the most cringe-inducing – the moment when Schmidt comes on to a lady in a trailer park who has invited him in to dinner; he’s confused kindness with attraction, and behaves so wildly inappropriately that the evening is completely irrecoverable. It’s a brilliant and true moment.)
Payne’s new movie, “Nebraska,” has a lot in common with “About Schmidt.” Both are set primarily in Nebraska; both deal with elderly men who feel they have missed life somehow (and associate that missing out with having married June Squibb), and who go on a quixotic road trip in a roundabout way of trying to resolve their existential dilemmas. The largest difference is that “Nebraska” centers not on the old man, Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern), but on his son, David (played by Will Forte), who agrees to take his father on the trip (from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim supposed sweepstakes prize money that everybody but Woody knows doesn’t exist), mostly to get him to shut up (and to keep him from setting out to walk the 850 miles).
Objectively, “Nebraska” would appear to be even more depressing than “Schmidt.” Nearly everybody in the film, with an important exception (a one-time girlfriend of Woody’s, Peg, played by Angela McEwan, who lost out to Kate in the marital contest because she wouldn’t sleep with him before they married), is thoroughly unhappy. Woody is losing his mind, but by all reports when he had all his marbles he spent most of his time trying to lose them, passed out drunk and ignoring his kids. His shrewish wife (named Kate, appropriately enough) has not only lost patience with him but with everybody else in the universe. David has a boring job that he isn’t especially good at (selling stereo equipment), and a girlfriend who has moved out because she’s finally tired of waiting for him to propose. Even his brother, who may finally have gotten a good break at work (on local television), only got it because someone in his way got a “really bad infection.” Nobody is exactly making it. And Billings is, economically speaking, in much better shape than their old home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody and David stop on their way to Lincoln, and where they spend most of the movie, a town where everyone who hasn’t left is old or truly hopeless, or both. (At least one of Woody’s brothers still lives in town, with his wife and two dim-witted middle-aged sons, one of whom is doing community service after a conviction for rape.)
If it weren’t for the exceptional performances, the first hour would be pretty tough to sit through. But the movie softens in its last act. We slowly see another side to Woody – that, at heart, he’s a generous person, just not a particularly communicative or responsible person. He wants to do what people ask of him, and they take advantage of him. And that dynamic made him bitter over time, leaving him a man who had no time for his sons, or for much of anything but the solace of the bottle. And that, in turn, embittered his wife – but by the end, we’ve seen another side of her, too, not a softer side but a tenderer one – a fundamental loyalty, and below that, something like love.
Those revelations come so stealthily, and Dern’s performance adjusts so subtly that you might almost miss the change. Which is wonderful; this isn’t the kind of film, or the kind of performance, that tells you outright what you need to see. You’ll most-likely notice it because Forte shows us that he sees it, which lets us know to pay attention.
I have the vague sense that the commentary on the movie has emphasized the bleakness of the economic situation out there on the high plains, and it does seem bleak. But I think there’s a connection implied between Woody’s character and that circumstance. Payne seems to me to be saying something about where those character qualities of Woody’s – a fundamental generosity combined with a kind of dim-witted incapacity or stubborn unwillingness to communicate – and the character of the region, and with both of their trajectories. He doesn’t have any kind of answer for it – this isn’t the kind of film that has answers to any of the questions it poses. But he does seem to love both Woody and Nebraska (his home state), in spite of their ultimate hopelessness. As do we, by the end.
Not that I disagree with all of Brantley’s complaints, particularly his complaints about Ethan Hawke, who does indeed seem to have confused Macbeth with Hamlet. But his principal overarching objection strikes me as quite problematic, to whit: that a witch-centered Macbeth somehow avoids what the play is really about.
To be clear what I mean by “witch-centered” – Jack O’Brien, director of this production, places very heavy emphasis on the witches as controlling forces in the play. He has them appear as various minor characters in the play, including the wounded soldier who reports on Macbeth, as one of the murderers set on to kill Banquo (the best use of them in the play, in my view), and (with more equivocal success) as the Porter. He has restored the frequently-cut part of Hecate, and expanded her role as well. And the staging, starting with the giant pentagram on the floor but continuing through a highly schematic red-and-black color scheme, emphasizes the supernatural.
Brantley says in his review that “you thought” the play was “about ‘vaulting ambition which overleaps itself’ and all that other poetic psychological stuff.” I’m not sure what that populist “you” is doing, and I don’t trust it; I take it that he thinks this is what the play is about. But on my reading of the play, Macbeth is not especially ambitious. His wife muses of him, “art not without ambition” which is hardly a strong claim to the quality; her whole “unsex me” speech is about her knowledge that he won’t be guided by his ambitions, but will need to be spurred on – by her. And what about that “vaulting ambition” quote from Act I Scene 7 that Brantley references? In that speech, Macbeth is fretting about how likely their scheme is to fail precisely because all it has going for it is ambition – which won’t be enough (the image is of a horseman leaping into the saddle, missing, and falling onto the other side, a metaphor for Macbeth’s correct anticipation that if he murders Duncan he will be murdered in turn). Which, in turn, suggests Macbeth doesn’t put much stock in ambition as a motive.
To me, Macbeth is only shallowly a tale about the dangers of ambition. It is much more fundamentally a horror story, about a man who feels compelled to commit a horrible crime that he can see (Macbeth’s imagination is very visual) will only lead to misery and death. The question then is: whence comes that compulsion, and that horror?
Well: let’s look at the play. Act I, Scene 3, right after Macbeth learns he has been made Thane of Cawdor, and the witches have spoken true.
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
Macbeth doesn’t know where the idea of murdering the king comes from. He’s plainly terrified by what he calls a “suggestion” and a “horrid image.” It does not sound to me like he understands this “suggestion” as coming from himself, from his own ambition. He perceives it as a demonic intrusion on his previously calm mind.
Now, we are free to psychologize that state, and ask ourselves what would divide Macbeth in this way, make him unable to own his own ambitions, whether to follow them (as self-aware villains like Richard III or Edmund or Claudius do), or to manfully reject them in favor of the right. But we – or, rather, a director – is also free not to psychologize it, but to show us that state, show us the world as Macbeth perceives it, that is to say, filled with malevolent forces that are external to him and too powerful for him to oppose.
Moreover, the director might well agree with Macbeth’s perception of reality. He might feel that the world is filled with malevolent forces beyond our comprehension that, in our mortal weakness, we have not the power to oppose. He might, in so many words, believe in witches. And he might want us to believe in them, too.
Roman Polanski’s film version of the play seems to partake of some such understanding of the play, and of the nature of reality. If Jack O’Brien’s version of the play fails similarly to give us the creeping horrors – and I do think it fails in that – it’s not because its ambitions are misplaced, but because it overleaped itself – and fell on the other side.
Brantley also objects to the stylishness of the production, contrasting it with the two original-practices productions (of Richard III and Twelfe Night) currently playing on Broadway, which I review in the next issue of the print magazine. There’s no accounting for taste of course, but I will say two things. First, Tim Carroll, director of those two productions, himself views “original practices” staging not as a program that all must follow but only as one style among many – albeit one of particular value in our day.
Second, Macbeth in particular is a highly visual play, and the script itself calls for special effects, particularly in Act 4 Scene 1, when Macbeth visits the witches a second time. You need to see his visions, precisely so that you can understand what he’s going through. One can, of course, produce great effects with very little money, and without sophisticated technology – but it takes real ingenuity. Whenever I’ve seen a production of Macbeth that scanted on that score, it’s been a real disappointment – and has hurt the play.
None of that detracts from the fact that Macbeth is also filled with gorgeous poetry, and that you really need actors who know how to speak the verse so that it will be understood (which starts with them understanding it themselves). All I’m saying is you can have that particular cake and your witch’s brew too. But screw your courage to the sticking place, and you’ll not fail.
The tributes to Nelson Mandela are coming thick and fast, as well they should. Rather than add my own to the list, though, I’d like to suggest that we take those commendations to heart.
Mandela is being praised for two qualities more than anything: his firmness and determination through decades of struggle for justice, and his extraordinary magnanimity in victory. Neither quality is particularly common, and both are highly praiseworthy—but they are particularly extraordinary in combination.
And we are most likely to applaud the half of that combination that we can most easily see applying to us. So, those who thirst for justice are more likely to look up to his tenacity and uncompromising pursuit of right. And those who fear revolution are more likely to praise his eagerness to reach out to his former oppressors and integrate them into his new South African order.
All of which has an unfortunate way of turning Mandela against our current opponents. Of telling those in power: will you really jail another Mandela if he comes among us? And of telling those who would overturn the established order: I can’t listen to you unless you promise to be as forgiving as he is if you win?
It would be nice if we did the opposite.
So, for example, there’s a substantial conservative record of support for the South African apartheid government during the Cold War, on the grounds that it was an ally against Communism and that the ANC had ties to Communist movements. Now could be a time for liberals to point to that record and demand its disavowal, and for conservatives to demand magnanimity and understanding for their prioritization of anti-Communism over anti-racism.
But given the scale of the anti-Communist victory, wouldn’t it be more in tune with the moment for conservatives to be magnanimous, and say: you know, it’s entirely understandable why the ANC sought Communist support. Indeed, it’s entirely understandable why many groups fighting oppressive structures and regimes accepted or even sought the support of Soviet-backed groups during the Cold War. What looked like the most important moral question from the perspective of Washington would not have looked like the most important moral question from the perspective of Transkei, or any number of other places. So maybe, now that the Soviet Union is dead and buried, we should stop harping on ties to Communists as some kind of unforgivable sin, in this case and in general.
Just a thought.
Sean Graney, mad genius founder of the Chicago theatrical troupe, The Hypocrites, has made himself a lovely home in the oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan. But he did quite a bit of remodeling on the way.
Graney’s Pirates of Penzance, which I saw almost three years ago, was his first foray into operetta; he added a new wing with last year’s production of The Mikado, delightfully revived in time for me to see it in Chicago over Thanksgiving (full disclosure: my nephew is in the company, and in this production); and word has it Pinafore is up next. So he’s clearly got an affinity for the work.
But that’s surprising, because Graney’s sensibility would seem to be at odds with G&S in a number of ways.
Most obviously, G&S were social and political satirists, and satire necessarily points outside of itself at the thing being satirized. Graney’s style of theater, however, pretty comprehensively rejects that kind of double consciousness; it’s all about what is happening in the room, right here, right now. So, where other directors might update a satirical patter song to zing more contemporary targets, Graney is more apt to cut it altogether, no matter how beloved the song in question might be. In the previous mounting of The Mikado, Graney cut “I’ve Got a Little List” entirely, and in this production it is trimmed substantially and all references to the world outside the theater have been removed. “A More Humane Mikado” has been cut even more drastically.
As well, G&S comes out of a 19th century British world fairly barnacled with rules and highly conflicted about feeling – devoted to melodrama and grand opera, but formally committed to a conception of virtue that amounted to a stoic denial of normal emotions (for both men and women). Graney has no such conflict, has little use for rules, and doesn’t seem to be much interested in repression; his humor has a contemporary, distinctly American sensibility. Finally, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music is informed by (and sometimes aspires to join) the operatic tradition, and the plays were originally conceived for a proscenium, while Graney’s productions are promenade theater, with the audience continually hopping up to get out of the way of the advancing actors, and his musical sensibility is hipster pop – his actors play their own instruments, guitars predominant among them.
So why has he gravitated to – and had so much success – with Gilbert and Sullivan?
It’s not just that the work is public domain, and it’s not just that its familiar enough that he can take whatever liberties he likes without losing his audience. (Do you actually remember the plot of The Mikado – or just the songs?) I think the kinship he’s found is on a deeper level. For Graney, theater is not about acting, primarily, but about playing – the spirit of play. And that is something William S. Gilbert understood as well. As Mike Leigh revealed so brilliantly in his film, “Topsy Turvy,” underneath the social satire is a satire on sentiment and feeling that, in turn, taps into a deep, and universal, sadness. Graney just turns that sad clown’s frown upside down.
I mean that pretty much literally. His Mikado is set in a cross between the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, the apparent inspiration for the delightful costumes (by Alison Siple), and a circus tent designed (by Michael Smallwood) for Paul Rubens, complete with a flame red tricycle and acres of balloons. From the very first line, we know we are not in Japan – these are “gentlemen of this land,” wherever it might be that Titipu is. Once again, he goes in for innovative doubling – in Pirates, the inspired choice was doubling Mabel and Ruth; in The Mikado, it’s doubling Nanki-Poo and Katisha. (He also doubles the Mikado with Yum-Yum, which makes for a nice wink at Yum-Yum’s ambitions as revealed in “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” but the Mikado doesn’t actually have much to do in the show, so the impact of the doubling is limited pretty much to just that one joke.)
And, again, amid all the zaniness he zeroes in on the most heart-felt moments. In Pirates, the big surprise was General Stanley’s late number, “Sighing Softly To the River,” a lovely song that is pretty much always crushed by the comic business of the pirates (General Stanley sings the song as his house is being invaded, oblivious to the pirate invaders until its end), but which Graney played against the humor of the General’s own outfit (bunny-slippered feet pajamas, if I recall correctly) but without distraction, so the humor only deepened the pathos of the song. In The Mikado, the equivalent moment is Katisha’s “Alone And Yet Alive,” played with entirely sincere feeling – and therefore all the funnier. And playing the song as a moment of sincere pathos sets up Ko-Ko’s number, “Willow, Tit-Willow” much more effectively, and makes that number play as, if not a sincere love song, then at least partly a sincere attempt to ease another’s breaking heart. Which makes it funnier as well.
There are things I could quibble about. It would be nice if Shawn Pfautsch’s Nanki-Poo had more chemistry with Emily Casey, who plays Yum-Yum (whose overwhelming self-love is entirely appropriate to the character). There’s some weird staging to their lovemaking such that it mostly takes place at a great distance, so perhaps this was a directorial choice, but I’m not sure I understood it if so – unless it was to highlight how much better his chemistry is as Katisha with Ko-Ko (the excellent Robert McLean, making a very sad clown indeed). And Matt Kahler gives us a very traditional rendition of Pooh-Bah that, though perfectly charming, isn’t entirely in keeping with the zaniness of the rest of the production.
But these are minor quibbles to a production that is a general delight, and a wonderful way to warm up a chilly Chicago evening.
The Mikado plays in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Garage through December 29th.
Daniel Larison doubts it, but I think there’s some truth to the assertion, certainly based on my anecdotal experience with the Belgians I used to work with and the various other Europeans I met in my banking days. The discomfort with the idea is bound up in the logic of the European project.
The syllogism works something like this.
Nationalism caused World Wars I and II, which nearly destroyed European civilization. The only way to avoid a repeat is to put an end to aggressive nationalism as a force in European affairs. That means either submitting to some form of imperial foreign domination, or creating some new institution that transcends nationalism. The latter would, obviously, be preferable.
If the European project is legitimate, therefore, it is precisely because it transcends nationalism. If it transcends nationalism, it can’t be about creating a European “nation” out of Germany, France, Italy, etc., that behaves the way a traditional nation does. Therefore, it can’t be defined in national terms—as a union of Western Christian peoples (implicitly excluding Orthodox Christians and Muslims), for example, nor, ultimately, in geographic terms. In theory, the EU is a project with no natural borders. Therefore, it’s not at all absurd to look forward to the day when Russia itself will be incorporated into the EU in some fashion, to say nothing of former Soviet Republics like Ukraine.
Back in the 2000s, before the EU went into perpetual crisis, I used to hear this sort of thing all the time. Now, not so much—given the amount of trouble Greece and Portugal have caused, and how much trouble adoption of the Euro caused for Spain and Ireland, nobody is that eager to expand the European periphery particularly quickly these days. But the ideological underpinnings are still there.
Sphere-of-influence thinking is also threatening for Europeans because it threatens the EU internally. Back in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia came apart, Germany moved very quickly to recognize Croatia and Slovenia. France was traditionally more aligned with Serbia, but came around to support the German position fairly quickly, for the sake of European unity. This unity has frayed badly as a result of the Iraqi and Libyan wars, but it’s still very much a European ideal. So if Russia is allowed to have a sphere of influence, does that mean Germany is allowed one as well?
When you hear Atlanticist grumbling about Germany and the EU members east of it not supporting the Libyan adventure, or intervention in Syria, you’re not just hearing an echo of neo-conservatism; you’re also hearing an anxiety that Europe be something other than Greater Germany, and, by implication, that the Germans should go along with whatever project “European” leaders come up with (even if those leaders aren’t representative at all of European opinion or European interests).
Moreover, if you think about it, if Europe’s states had spheres of influence of their own, Germany’s natural sphere would be to its east. In other words, in a world of Great Powers competing for spheres, Ukraine would be a zone of competition between Germany and Russia. Nobody wants to frame the situation that way, because nobody wants to live in that world again.
So I don’t think elite European surprise and dismay at Ukraine’s decision is really about an arrogant assumption that their sphere of influence extends to Russia’s borders. It’s about an arrogant assumption, which in turn is rooted in a fundamental insecurity, that Europe is the final form of political organization which, naturally, everyone would want to join, and it’s Europe’s decision when other states are ready to do so. The idea that Europe could actually be in competition with other political entities (like Russia) does suggest that it needs to be more like a state. And that’s a threatening idea.
All that having been said, it’s also worth pointing out that, to Russia, Ukraine is not just another country on its borders that was once part of the Soviet Empire. Ukraine is intimately bound to Russia’s history, has a very large Russian-speaking population, and has little history as an independent country. From an ethnic Ukrainian perspective, of course, Ukraine has been one of the signature victims of Russian and Soviet imperialism—and point most prominently to the seven million deliberately starved to death by Stalin. In other words, ethnic Ukrainians and metropolitan Russians see Ukraine’s destiny and identity very, very differently.
That usually doesn’t bode well. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I’ve been fretfully expecting Ukraine to wind up like Yugoslavia, or, more optimistically, like Moldova or Georgia, and thankfully it hasn’t come to that. But I’m not at all surprised that Russia is playing very hard ball to make sure that Ukraine remains within its orbit—harder ball than it would dare to play with, say, the Baltic states.
Rod Dreher can post pictures of food all the time. I pretty much do it once a year. This is that once.
To recap for readers who aren’t obsessives, every year I throw a dinner party on Hanukkah that features a holiday-appropriate eight courses, each showcasing the holiday-appropriate ingredient of olive oil.
This year’s menu:
Antipasto: Latkes three ways, topped with -
- Triple-crème cheese and apple-cranberry compote
- Wild mushroom stroganoff
- Gorgonzola and brandied figs with toasted pine nuts
(I always start with latkes with three different toppings. Since this is my seventh year throwing this particular dinner party, I’ve now tried 21 different latke toppings. Some of them are real keepers; I suspect someone more enterprising than I would see the potential for a book, or at least an article. This year, the figs were a little over-brandied, but the other toppings were hits.)
Zuppe: Chestnut cream topped with fried leeks
(I don’t really have a rule for what constitutes showcasing olive oil as opposed to merely using it. I guess I’d say that I count a dish as showcasing if either (a) it’s fried; (b) it uses olive oil in a modestly non-traditional way, or (c) you can really taste the oil. Even with that leniency, I don’t always make it.)
Insalata: Puntarelle salad with anchovy dressing
(For example: this salad is not fried, uses olive oil in an entirely traditional way, and you can’t really taste the oil because the capers, anchovies and fresh garlic predominate. Well, maybe that’s not fair; you can taste the oil. Anyway, it’s a great salad.)
Primo: Deep-fried risotto “oranges” topped with butternut squash and roast garlic puree
(I’ve been meaning to make these for years. Finally got around to it. That’s my son in the tuxedo t-shirt serving, by the way.)
Intermezzo: Blistered shishito peppers with matcha salt
(Most of them aren’t spicy. But every now and then . . .)
Secondo: Whole snapper baked in a salt crust, served drizzled with olive oil, with a side of sautéed broccoli rabe
Dolce I: Deep-fried chocolate-filled wontons dusted with five-spice sugar, accompanied by rosemary olive oil ice cream and green tea
(The wontons puff up when fried. So after you take a bite of the wonton, you can spoon the ice cream into the opening and you’ve got an ice cream cone.)
Dolce II: Pistachio olive-oil cake filled with fig compote, iced with a cream cheese frosting
Previous years’ menus:
Recipes, as always, available upon request.
The conjunction of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving struck me, initially, the way it struck most people: as an opportunity to have latkes and turkey together, and to use cranberry-apple sauce two ways; and as a more fortuitous juxtaposition than Hanukkah and Christmas. Hanukkah, after all, is supposed to be a fairly minor holiday, and neither it nor Christmas particularly benefits from the competition. And Hanukkah is a holiday of thanksgiving: it commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the victory by the Hasmoneans in their war against Antiochus IV, and expresses gratitude at the implicit divine favor shown on the victors in that they were able to complete the rededication even though there appeared to be insufficient pure oil to keep the flame burning. (And, in the background, there’s gratitude for the arrival of the winter rains even though the festival of Tabernacles could not be observed at the proper time a couple of months earlier, and with the appropriate sacrifices, due to the pollution of the Temple and the ongoing civil war.)
But the more I thought about it, other links between the two holidays began to assert themselves in interesting ways. Specifically, both holidays relate to civil wars – and to civil religion as a means of establishing national unity.
President Lincoln formalized America’s Thanksgiving in 1863, while our great civil war still raged at its bloodiest. Lincoln’s proclamation explicitly established the holiday as a national one, to be observed solemnly and reverently, “with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” It also explicitly associated divine providence with the continued flourishing of the Union even under the stress of civil war: the growth of population, the spread of settlement, the abundance of crops, etc. Framed as the giving of thanks, it was also a political prophecy: the Union would prevail, and ultimately we’d all be celebrating Thanksgiving together.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving wasn’t a secular holiday exactly, but it was an ecumenical and theologically vague one. It can be thought of as a template of “civil religion,” the association of the nation with a kind of religious aura untethered to any particular theology.
Hanukkah is far more particularist in its origins – but it’s also about the establishment (or reestablishment) of a civic religion. Hanukkah originated as a celebration of victory at the end of a civil war – and a successful rebellion against a foreign empire. The war began as a contest for power between a Hellenizing pro-Seleucid party and an anti-Hellenist, pro-Egyptian party among the Judeans. The Hellenizers invited in Antiochus IV to put down their enemies, and Antiochus conducted an atypically harsh campaign against the religious observances of the traditionalists as part of the war effort, including turning the Jerusalem Temple into a temple of Zeus. This latter can be readily understood as an effort to establish unity with the rest of the Seleucid domains, but it backfired and provoked more furious resistance by the anti-Hellenizing party, the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee.
Alongside dynastic and economic motivations for the Judean civil war, in other words, there was a battle over communal particularism – and, more specifically, whether the national symbol, the Temple of Jerusalem, would have a particularistic orientation or would follow the norms of the larger Hellenistic world.
Both holidays evolved substantially from their origins, however. As early as the writing of the Mishnah, Hanukkah was treated as problematic by the rabbis. There was a clear discomfort, in the wake of the catastrophically failed Bar Kochba revolt, to celebrate a holiday of national prowess and self-assertion. This is one reason why the “miracle of the oil” began to take center stage. But even that observance becomes ironic if you consider that the menorah is a recollection of the rededication of a Temple that, by this point, had been obliterated by the victorious Roman armies. By the time you get down to medieval and modern times, the symbol of the holiday – and of the divine “great miracle” that happened “there” – is the dreidl, a game of chance. Its observance is almost entirely private, and is far more common than other, theoretically more important holidays – and, though nominally a celebration of particularism, it’s the holiday that is most commonly shared across communal boundaries (and in multi-religious homes).
Thanksgiving, meanwhile, has largely ceased to be a civic holiday. Instead, it has been privatized to paradigmatic family holiday, a day when far-flung relatives get together to roast a sacrificial bird and observe a ritual contest of strength and skill, and give thanks for their private plenitude. It may have more or less religious content depending on the observance of the home in question – but the primary civic ritual is the pardoning of the sacrificial bird, an act which symbolizes the god-like powers over life and death accruing to the Executive, powers which few civilians care to dwell on at any length.
There’s a lesson here about the limits of that executive power. Kings, High Priests and Presidents may have the power of life and death, as well as the power to create holidays to celebrate their victories. But the meanings of their inaugurations are beyond their control, and get re-written to conform to the actual contours of their celebrants lives – and to change as those lives change. When we excavate it, much of religion turns out to be civic in origin, and much civic ritual, forged in times of civic stress, thereby acquires (or is formally invested with) religious aura. But when those particular stresses pass, and the generations who were shaped by them are gathered unto their ancestors, the rituals, if they are to endure, inevitably get re-invested with new significance that would strike our forebears as strange indeed.
And we should give thanks for that, as well, because that process is how both the living and the dead get to live comfortably if confusedly together.