Tuesday, January 06, 2004

More Movies for Reb

Continuing with my list of recommended movies . . . .

Category: Man, Morals, and Society

Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978). Based on the true story of Billy Hays (played by Brad Davis, who also played the American runner Jackson Schultz in Chariots of Fire), who was arrested and sentenced to a life sentence in Turkey for attempting to smuggle hashish out of the country in the 1970s. Subjected to unspeakable conditions of imprisonment, Hays eventually escapes after accidentally killing a guard who was trying to rape him. (That guard, "Hamidou," is played by Paul Smith who was also the Beast Rabban in David Lynch's production of Dune). The movie features some extremely graphic violence, nudy, homosexual episodes (one of which is Hamidou's attempted raping of Billy, the other is Billy's rebuffing an advance by a Swedish prisoner) and another scene of immorality when Billy is visited by his girlfriend. So it's not a movie for children or teenagers. The reason I enjoy it, however, is that everyone roots for Billy and everyone's glad when he escapes. Even assuming Hamidou's death isn't Billy's fault, no one who watches the film thinks Billy (who is already clearly guilty of smuggling hashish) ought to be extradited back to Turkey to be tried and punished for his escape. Why is that? Is there a source of law higher than the state, so that we may rebuff Turkey's claim to further punish Billy? If so, where does that law come from? How do we apply it to men like Billy who are obviously guilty, and yet who obviously do not deserve to be treated as he was.

Night of the Generals (Anatole Litvak, 1967). From the famous novel by Hans Kirst, Omar Sharif plays Major Grau, a German military policeman assigned to solve the brutal rape/murder of a Polish prostitute. A witness who was hiding as the culprit left the prostitute's apartment saw the man's clothing: The murderer had a red stripe on his pants, the insignia of a German general. Grau relentlessly investigates the suspects -- the psychotic SS General Tanz (Peter O'Toole), the pompous and cowardly General Gabbler (played by Rocky Horror narrator Charles Grey), and the nihilistic, drunken General Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasance) -- across WWII Europe. The film succeeds in making Grau's quest seem slightly ridiculous and entirely quixotic amidst the German reduction of the Warsaw ghettos, the plot to kill Hitler (Christopher Plummer has a brief appearance as Field Marshal Rommel), and the invasion of Normandy. That's all to the good, because the devaluing of humanity through war is one of the main themes of Kirst's book, and it's handled brilliantly by the film mostly through understatement and a few quips by Grau. ("Yes, I've no sense of proportion. It's been pointed out before.") I like the film because it shows the inevitable corruption of human values that war produces and because of Major Grau's eccentric tribute to the rule of law. Still, we can ask ourselves if Major Grau is truly a hero, or just an envious man enslaved by an idee fixe? In the modern world, how easy is it for us to tell the difference? The film has some (modest, by today's standards) depictions of sexual immorality (fornication, adultery), but the sexual crimes are described afterwards or alluded to rather than shown happening. (E.g., a policeman in the prostitute's apartment pulls back a sheet, Grau grimaces and holds a handkerchief to his mouth, but we never her body)

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957). Billed strictly as an anti-war movie, I like its depiction of the forces that sweep justice and truth aside. It's 1916, and General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) orders General Mireau to attack an impregnable German position. The mission falls on Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who leads the attack. When it fails, Mireau blames his mens' cowardice and orders three representative soldiers court-martialed. Dax defends them, and uncovers evidence of Mireau's blundering. General Broulard offers Dax a bribe in the form of promotions and medals. Is courage only needed on the battlefield? Is savagery only found in bloody trenches, or can it exist amidst clean linen in an elegant chateau? Paths is wonderfully curious because it doesn't discriminate between the obvious brutality of man and its more subtle manifestations -- we get to see the slaughter of the men in the trenches as a simple part of the slaughter of humanity in their officers' minds.

The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968). This film is so wonderful, it deserved all its oscars! (Best Actress for Katharine Hepburn, best screenplay adaptation, best soundtrack). It also should have won the oscars it got nominated for (Best Actor for Peter O'Toole, Best Director, Best Picture, and best costumes). It's Christmas Day 1183 A.D. and the whole family's together -- King Henry II (O'Toole) has let his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn) out of prison and gathered his three sons (who are all scheming to take his throne) around him to celebrate the holiday. The actors playing the sons have interesting careers -- Anthony Hopkins plays Richard (later called the Lionhearted), Nigel Terry plays John (later bad King John of Magna Carta fame), and his character's a far cry from his fiery performance as King Arthur in Excalibur. John Castle plays the scheming Geoffrey (Castle also appears in productions as diverse as the graceful BBC miniseries Lillie and the ubelievably-stupid Robocop III). Timothy Dalton (whose smugness has always kept him from living up to his promise as the Great Villain a'la James Mason) plays Philip Augustus, King of France. The whole film involves a weekend of intrigues, double-dealings, and plots as the three "boys" vie to become next in line to (or take outright) the throne, Eleanor takes revenge on Henry for her own bitter disappointments, Henry tries to eat his cake and have it regarding the mess he's made of his kingdom, and Philip tries to see what's in all of it for France. The dialogue is fast-paced, elegant, and at times extremely brutal. The movie suggests that politics and persons can never be separated and, therefore, that the redemption of the human person is the only way to achieve good politics. As Eleanor exclaims: "We are the origins of war . . . not history's forces nor the times nor justice nor the lack of it nor causes nor religions nor ideas nor kinds of government nor any other thing! We are the killers; we breed war. We carry it, like syphilis, inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little? That's how peace begins."

Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987). This movie was touted as Oliver Stone's Grand Remonstrance to the Greedy Reagan Years. Fortunately, this is one film where Stone falters in conveying his political message, largely because Michael Douglas' character Gordon Gekko ("Greed works . . . greed is good") is offset by the forceful Terence Stamp as Sir Lawrence Wildman, a titan of industry who's actually a titan of, uh, industry. Douglas' character represents the worst of capitalism -- his labor produces nothing but ruined companies, paper wealth and usurious riches. Wildman's efforts create employment and goods. The contrast isn't drawn as well as it ought to be, but it's there and it keeps the movie from degenerating entirely into a mindless Leninist passion-play. Charlie Sheen plays the main character "Bud," a young hustling stockbroker who gets ahead by breaking the law for Gekko. Charlie's father, the estimable Martin Sheen, plays Bud's father, who is a Righteous Working Man at the company Gekko is trying to take over. This would have been a much better movie if a well-drawn contrast between Gekko (useless capital) and Wildman (productive capital) had been paralleled with a real conflict between Bud (useless labor) and his father (worthwhile labor). Instead, the economic issues are handled with liberal cocktail-party bromides ("How much money is enough? Huh?") and Bud (whose character ought to have been the forum where all issues are resolved) comes off as just a confused, petulant and snarky kid who hasn't grown up and probably never will. I include the movie because, even though you have to read between the lines a lot, it's the only one I know of that contrasts these two ideas while allowing that there's some value to property and productive labor.

Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980). Timothy Hutton plays Conrad, the youngest son of an affluent Chicago marriage (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore). Conrad's older brother was killed in a boating accident, and Conrad suffers from depression and suicidal impulses because he feels guilty for surviving and because he senses that his mother wished he'd died rather than her favorite child. Despite everyone's best efforts to pretend that things are "just fine" after Conrad returns from being committed after a suicide attempt, the pressures continue to mount until the family explodes. Everything is done perfectly here, the "explosion" is tight, contained, and understated in the best bourgeois manner. No one gives great, astounding speeches about the meaning of life -- all the conflicts are understated and approached indirectly -- the characters truly behave like "ordinary" people. The ending is an encomium to living in truth, even if the appearance of truth isn't ideal or perfect. The reason I like the movie is that it shows what happens when people have no source of love outside of themselves -- they run dry and become cold like Moore's character, cowardly like Sutherland's character, or self-destructive like Conrad's character. The ending makes a nice finish to the lesson, since despite seeing the family tensions resolved we're still left uncertain about the character's future.

Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). This film, set in a small multiracial neighborhood in New York City, was intended to be about race, and it just about beats you over the head with racial "issues" every other minute. (There is, however, a magnificent montage where a character from every ethnic group in the neighborhood berates another ethnic group, ending with a Korean grocer who delivers a bizzare, bigoted tirade against Jews). These people are so busy being ethhic one wonders how they find time to reproduce or hold jobs, and oddly enough that's what makes the film worth watching. The main characters seem trapped in their ethnicity, in stereotypes of their own or others' invention, becoming really human only when they succumb to "temptations" and step outside their usual places. The pizza delivery boy ("Mookie," played by Spike Lee) is tempted to be responsible and a good father by a relationship with a hispanic girl. The pizza parlor's owner (played by Danny Aiello) is tempted to love his store's black patrons by an infatuation (depicted harmlessly) with Mookie's sister. But these moments get swept away by the neighborhood's tides of selfishness, pride, fear, and "ethnicity" and the film ends very violently as the neighbors burn down the pizza parlor in an orgy of self-destructive rage which stuns everyone with its rapidity and viciousness. I enjoy the film (occasionally) because, in a way similar to Ordinary People, it suggests what happens when people have no source of identity other than their societies. They can't love "the other" without ceasing to be themselves, and so make a state of unending hostility a necessary condition of self-preservation.

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