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The Canyons

23 Aug

The Canyons is a bad movie. A seriously bad movie. That needs to be said up front. It was interesting to me for a few reasons, but none of those reasons had anything to do with the actual product on the screen. If I saw this and I had never heard of any of the people involved and I didn’t know anything about its production history, I would be left kind of baffled at how a movie this bad could get made. I doubt there are any people who actually walked in cold and saw it, but I’d love to hear an opinion from one of them. So I have some thoughts, but a movie this incoherent gets a review that’s just as incoherent. This is kind of scattered.

At this point I’ll post a link to the lengthy and excellent New York Times Magazine piece about the production, with the spectacular title Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.

Here’s the thing though. Lindsay Lohan is not one of this movie’s problems. The only way you could make that case is to say that she’s such a better actor than anyone else in the movie that it highlights how terrible they all are and makes their performances even more distracting. She’s obviously talented. I don’t keep up with her personal life, but one positive to take away from The Canyons is that from a talent perspective, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be a movie star. From a talent perspective. Her face looks pretty goofy now and there’s the aforementioned personal life, which are two strikes against her.

Another positive: it’s a pretty good-looking movie. I think one of the big ideas was to capture a mix between seedy desperate LA and phony glamorous LA. I think that goal was mostly accomplished. Locations, lighting, that kind of thing. Good job guys.

One of the biggest problems with The Canyons is one I didn’t anticipate: it’s boring. Really fucking boring. There’s no real plot. There’s not much character development. I don’t really know how to describe it. Maybe Paul Schrader did a bad job translating the script to film or maybe Bret Easton Ellis’s script is bad. But Christ, if you’re making a movie, you should have some events happen in it. Here’s my plot summary: This guy who’s a movie producer and his girlfriend have sex with random people from the internet, and this other guy, an actor, is cast in one of the producer’s movies, but the girlfriend is having an affair with the actor, and the producer gets jealous and for some reason eventually murders this other girl he’s sleeping with. I couldn’t tell you what the reason is, though. And there’s an orgy scene. It all seemed pointless, and not in a “Wow what an incisive commentary on how meaningless modern life is in our society/how directionless young people are etc.” way but in a “These characters are all boring and why is there a movie about them and furthermore this movie has nothing to say which is extra frustrating because that was obviously the goal since there’s no plot to engage the audience” kind of way.

As mentioned, the director is Paul Schrader. He’s an interesting character. He’s most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. That’s notable, I guess, but that’s not what’s interesting about him to me. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan in an apparently very strict Calvinist household. As someone who’s only a generation removed from very strict Calvinist households in Western Michigan, I was very surprised to learn this fact. He never saw a movie as a kid. Not one. This sounds crazy. Really crazy. There are (very old and dead) people in my family who also never saw a movie as a kid. I’ve heard stories of childhoods in which Sunday afternoons were passed sitting quietly on the couch between church services. When I was a kid, the McDonald’s in my parents’ hometown was the only one in America that wasn’t open on Sunday. My parents’ high school didn’t have a prom, they had a “senior banquet” because dancing was frowned upon. Mr. Schrader attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids. I know many graduates of that school, including my sister. You can spend some time on Google researching their retrograde positions on all kinds of issues, but here’s something relevant that I think is telling. The most famous graduates of Calvin are: 1: Businessman and notoriously bad sports team owner Wayne Huizenga, 2 & 3: The guys who founded Amway, and 4: Paul Schrader. My sister, who graduated just last year, had never heard of Paul Schrader until I asked her about this movie last week. Every university in America spends a lot of time bragging about its famous alumni, Calvin College included. But they don’t mention the guy who directed American Gigolo. Wonder why. So that’s where he’s coming from. I don’t know how relevant that is to a discussion of The Canyons, but I don’t care.

I watched The Canyons at home on my laptop. This cost me $7. I wanted to go see it in the theater, but it wasn’t playing anywhere in the East Bay and going to see a movie in SF adds up to like a $20 proposition. No thanks. I think this was a result of a disastrous first-week run in New York and LA. I believe it was supposed to be at a few more theaters locally, but it did so poorly in that first week and was so poorly-reviewed that a bunch of them dropped it. That’s my guess anyway. So it was only at one theater in the whole Bay Area. According to BoxOfficeMojo it’s grossed $43,000 and change. Yikes. I thought it would be impossible to lose money on a $250,000 movie starring Lindsay Lohan, but I guess that’s why I’m not a film executive. I guess that total doesn’t include VOD rentals. I’d be curious to see that number.

I get the novelty appeal of casting a porn star to be in your movie, but I think that’s a lot more appealing on paper than on film. James Deen is not a good actor. I will note that he was markedly better than some of his scene partners. Clearly not up to the standard of Ms. Lohan though. I saw that Steven Soderbergh movie with Sasha Grey a few years ago. I don’t remember it that well, but I do recall that it kind of had the same problem. She was a better actor than Mr. Deen, but she seemed tentative and generally out of her element. I wonder what kind of rehearsals/acting classes/preparation/whatever was involved for both of them. That Mr. Deen sure does have a big dick though.

On that topic, there are more naked men in this movie than I can recall seeing in a movie. That’s not to say that the nudity’s extreme or even especially explicit. Given the reportage about Ms. Lohan and the orgy scene, I thought this was going to lean more heavily to the erotic end of the erotic thriller genre, but I didn’t think that was the case. Ms. Lohan in particular isn’t any more exposed than any other name actress in a typical R-rated movie with “tasteful” nudity.

Recommendation: If you were, like me, very interested in all the behind-the-scenes nonsense of The Canyons, it’s probably still not worth watching. Sorry.

Blue Jasmine

12 Aug

I like Woody Allen. I’ve seen most of his movies. He’s made a movie a year for like 40 years. That’s crazy. There’s something familiar and comforting about going to the theater to see a new Woody Allen movie. The black title cards with the Windsor font pop up and the jazz clarinet blares and it just makes me happy. So that’s where I’m coming from.

I think it’s been very good for Mr. Allen to make films outside of New York. His recent “late period” or whatever has been fun to watch unfold. The movies are definitely more vibrant than his New York movies since the mid-90s or so. In a sense, I think it’s made things easier for him. He’s so New York that every little thing about the city was expected to be pitch perfect. When he’s filming in Europe, or now in San Francisco, I don’t think the audience has that same expectation. Or at least, they don’t have the knowledge of those places that they do of New York, so if things don’t live up to the same standard vis-à-vis the setting people can’t tell as easily.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to talk pretty negatively about the use of San Francisco in Blue Jasmine. I didn’t think it was great. Now I have only lived in the Bay Area for a year or so and I don’t even live in SF, but a lot of it just felt a little off to me. The whole concept of this working-class ethnic white community in SF that seems to have been constructed for this movie doesn’t really exist as far as I know. A lot of the filming locations are in neighborhoods populated either by rich hipsters, tech jillionaires, or tourists. That accounts for most of the white people in SF as far as I can tell. And there was that party in Marin County where everyone, including broke-ass Louie CK, was wearing coats and ties. Are you serious? That just feels so East Coast. I don’t get the impression that a lot of rich people here, even old-money types, spend a lot of time in coats and ties. The two locations that really worked for me were the first scene with Andrew Dice Clay in the Outer Sunset and Mr. CK and Sally Hawkins walking at Ocean Beach. Those didn’t feel as much like a tourists idea of “authentic” SF as the rest did. It’s the little things that Mr. Allen can get right in NY that he just kind of missed here. The prodigal son who dropped out of Harvard and works at a music store in Oakland? Perfect. Except he’s supporting a wife and kid. Hipsters in Oakland don’t have wives and kids. Close but not quite there.

It’s unfortunate that this movie came out so soon after Fruitvale Station. Blue Jasmine’s San Francisco can’t match Fruitvale Station’s Oakland. Not even close.

I think Mr. Allen gets pretty much whatever actors he wants, and his casting is sometimes up and down. Mostly up here. Sally Hawkins is underappreciated. I thought she was great in Happy-Go-Lucky. To play such a bubbly character without having it become a caricature is tough, and I thought she pushed it right to the edge without going over. There was some element of that same idea in this role–trying to stay upbeat about a life that didn’t follow the best-case scenario. She was on point. Alec Baldwin also deserves special notice. Although he didn’t seem to need to try very hard. Crooked financier is a perfect role for him. Mr. Clay and Bobby Cannavale were both good, even though they didn’t have a whole lot to do. Plus they were NY characters plopped down in SF. Mr. Cannavale is becoming a favorite of mine. Other recommended performances of his: Win Win and The Station Agent. Cate Blanchett was fine. She didn’t stand out to me, but the whole movie was pretty much on her shoulders and she’s enough of a pro that she never took a misstep. I like Louie CK a lot, but putting him in the mix was a bad idea. He has such a strong individuality and screen persona of his own that it’s almost distracting to drop him into such a small role and expect him to fully inhabit it. To have someone like that in your movie, I think it needs to be a large enough role to let them build something of a fully-developed character. Louie didn’t really get a chance to do that. I think he’d be an interesting choice for Mr. Allen to put in a lead role. Since he stopped playing all of his own main characters, a lot of his male leads (Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Larry David off the top of my head) have spent the whole movie doing a Woody Allen impression. I think Louie is so different from that archetype that he could do something new and different for Woody. It could also be something new and different for Louie, who’s developed a pretty recognizable version of himself on his TV show.

I don’t have many notes on plot or story. It’s a variation on A Streetcar Named Desire, as every critic has pointed out. Some critics love it. I don’t really get why. It was a good story and everything, but it didn’t seem especially incisive about income inequality or relationship power-dynamics or whatever. And it certainly wasn’t the definitive take on “how we live now” or “post-recession America” that some people seem to think. I think a lot of film critics are pretty out of touch. The kind of people who think that San Francisco is a good place to find blue collar people. The whole thing didn’t strike me as anything more than standard Woody Allen kind of stuff. The big drawback of making so many movies is that you have to write a new screenplay every year. That must be grueling and results in a lot of stuff that’s kind of light, honestly. I’ve always been curious about how Mr. Allen’s career would have turned out if he decided to take two or three years per production instead of one.

Here’s a list of places that I’d like to see dramatized in a Woody Allen movie in no particular order:
Staten Island
Any college town
Rural anywhere
Los Angeles

Computer Chess

5 Aug

I’m glad that movies like Computer Chess exist. I like them. The director is Andrew Bujalski. According to Wikipedia, he is the “Godfather of mumblecore”. That’s one genre I’m not very familiar with. A lot of those movies are tough to find. That baffles me. It’s 2013. Come on. Computer Chess definitely has a mumblecorey feel at times, but the setting is so different that I don’t know if you could fit this into that category even if you really wanted to. Or maybe you can. I can see some scenes fitting into that kind of movie if you changed the setting. I don’t know. This whole mumblecore section is me talking out of my ass.

The setting is a computer chess tournament in 1980ish. There are a bunch of teams with chess programs: MIT, Caltech, some shadowy defense contractor, a lone-wolf eccentric, etc. There were only a couple really well-developed characters, but the atmosphere of the whole thing was very absorbing. Almost the whole movie is set in the hotel where the tournament is taking place. That could have been a really claustrophobic setting, but that’s not how it played out.

The big hook of Computer Chess is that is was filmed on period video equipment. Read some technical stuff about that from the cinematographer here. I loved this idea. It was perfect. In Fruitvale Station, a lot of critics talked about how the director “made Oakland a character” in the movie or whatever. You could say something similar here. The video equipment was definitely a character. All the little imperfections and distortions–I would not like to watch movies filmed this way regularly, but as a one-time experience it really added to the experience. Plus on a superficial level, it gave everything a very authentic feel. Like, even more than the costumes and moustaches and giant CPUs, the visual signature just made this movie feel like an early-80s computer chess tournament in a way that I don’t think anything else could have.

I’ve been trying to write a thousand-plus words on movie reviews. That isn’t going to happen here. I don’t have anything urgent or unique to say about this one. I’m not going to insult both of us by doing a lot of movie-review summary bullshit or that kind of thing. This was a cool movie and I’d recommend it. If you have an open mind it’ll be interesting even if you don’t like it.

Film review quarterly: 2013 Q2

30 Jul

So I planned to stop writing the quarterly film review since I’m writing more frequently about movies these days. That was a bad idea. My team of SEO wizards has gotten me on the first page of Google results for searches like “2013 q1 movies”. I didn’t know people searched for that. But I get some pageviews that way. So I’m going to keep doing it.

I realize this is a month late and I don’t care. Now that I’ve decided to write it, I think this is a good idea. A nice recap of the past three months. My plan going forward is to write about each movie individually and then I’ll do this every quarter. Then I’ll write some kind of year-end thing. So I’ve written about all of these movies before. Click on the titles for more. I’m just going to do a quick little blurblet or something for each of them here. Spoilers as always.

The Silence
Blah. This could have been such a good movie. Needed a rewrite. Some of the characters were pretty far from believable.

To the Wonder
I want to see this one again. I think I might have been prejudiced by my dislike for Ben Affleck and by reading some bad press. It would make me sad if Terrence Malick made a bad movie.

The Place Beyond the Pines
This one has stuck with me. Especially the Ryan Gosling section. And Dane DeHaan as his son. The opening tracking shot has gotten some notice. I want to take a closer look here, because I think there’s a little trick involved. Watch the clip first.

OK. The big takeaway for a lot of people is “WOW, look at Ryan Gosling doing that crazy motorcycle stunt!” I don’t think so. Pay attention at 2:28. Ol’ RyRy GosGos rides out of the frame. The camera stays on the other two guys, then swings back to show the Sphere of Death or whatever with him already in it. Or his stunt rider, I should say. Busted. Although I think that adds to the technical impressiveness of the shot. Just something to point out.

In the House
This is another foreign movie that felt like it should have been better. I was hoping for more fireworks in the last act.

The Great Gatsby
I wrote a lot about this one. I still have good feelings about Gatsby. After some time, it’s easier to forget about the bad parts and remember the good parts.

Stories We Tell
This might function better as an academic exercise than as a narrative. “What if I made a documentary like this” kind of thing. I still enjoyed it. Keeping my eye out for Sarah Polley.

Room 237
I don’t get why people thought this was interesting.

Frances Ha
I like Greta Gerwig and I like this movie. Maybe at the 7/10 level or thereabouts. I stand by my anti-New York thoughts. Fewer movies set in New York please.

What Maisie Knew
Steve Coogan is a versatile performer. Alexander Skarsgård’s performance might be one of my favorites so far this year.

Before Midnight
Looking forward to the next installment. I listened to the Slate Spoiler Special about this one, glad to hear I’m not the only one who likes Julie Delpy much more than Ethan Hawke.

The East
Almost a really great and memorable movie. I think Brit Marling will put one together eventually.

The Bling Ring
Yuck. This was a huge misfire.

The Place Beyond the Pines was the best movie of Q2. I think Stoker is still my favorite so far this year, but it’s close.

Shakespeare in Love

28 Jul

I watched Shakespeare in Love this week as part of my ongoing quest to see every movie that’s won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’ve seen most of them. Now I’m at the point of actively seeking out the ones I’ve missed. Mostly the less famous and less good winners. This is one of those. I was kind of curious, but I didn’t have any special desire to see it, honestly. The biggest draw for me was that it stars Gwyneth Paltrow in the stage of her career where she was, as I’ve written before, almost impossibly pretty.

Shakespeare in Love is an OK movie I guess. I can see why people were charmed by it. But I can’t see how anyone who voted for it for Best Picture can look back with anything but embarrassment. It’s hard for me to remember which movies came out in which years. So I checked Wikipedia. I assume their list of “notable films released in 1998” is pretty complete.* Here are the movies I’ve seen from 1998 that I think are better than Shakespeare in Love: The Big Lebowski, Croupier, Happiness, The Last Days of Disco, Out of Sight, Pi, Run Lola Run, Rushmore, Saving Private Ryan, A Simple Plan, There’s Something About Mary, The Thin Red Line, The Truman Show. That’s thirteen. That I’ve seen. On the other hand, I just checked Rotten Tomatoes, and Shakespeare in Love is at 93%. So who knows.

*I recommend going through lists like this. Fun to look back at all the good/bad movies from a given year. Also a reminder of how many I’ve missed.

Maybe I just don’t have the personality to be taken in by a good romantic comedy. I guess that’s what this is. Although I didn’t think it was all that funny. You might call it witty or clever, and I can see that. The script is definitely the movie’s strength. I didn’t realize Tom Stoppard was involved. That’s a pretty serious name. I liked some of the clever little Shakespeare nods. The Twelfth Night parallel thing at the end was cool.

Ms. Paltrow definitely gave a good performance. She’s not at all believable as a man, but whatever. It’s a movie, after all. She’s charming, and this is a role that depends a lot on charm. What happened to Gwyneth? She hasn’t been in an interesting movie since The Royal Tenenbaums. I wonder why that is. Is she just too satisfied with her status in Hollywood and afraid to take risks? Too busy thinking of interesting baby names? I don’t know. She really is talented and she has a lot of years left. Maybe she’ll surprise me sometime and do something good.

You know who else was great in this? Ben Affleck. I’m not the biggest Ben Affleck fan. I’ve written bad things about him in the past. But credit where it’s due. He nailed this role and I really enjoyed his performance. Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench both got Oscar nominations. Shrug from me. I didn’t think either were that great.

I also want to give a shoutout to Christopher Marlowe. I think most of the stuff about him in the movie is exaggerated or bogus, but some of it was interesting. There’s a scene where the theater guys are annoyed because every actor auditioning is reading the famous “face that launched a thousand ships…” speech from Doctor Faustus. I read Doctor Faustus in college. Come on, guys, don’t get annoyed. There’s a reason it’s one of the foundational pieces of the Western canon. Everyone should read that speech at least once. It starts on line 88.

Here’s what I really want to talk about: Gwyneth Paltrow’s breasts. More specifically, the issue of breasts in movies generally and how people think and write about same. I’ve seen a lot of “serious” movies with “tasteful” nudity, and almost every review of those movies studiously ignores its presence and doesn’t consider it relevant to the quality of the movie. I don’t get this. In my experience, almost all “tasteful” nudity in movies like this is totally unnecessary to the story, is shot in a way that makes it look totally unrealistic, and is just as exploitative or whatever as it is in R-rated teen comedies. Shakespeare in Love is probably the archetype of this and I think it really detracts from the movie. The topless shots of Ms. Paltrow are obviously meticulously composed and are meted out in a way that doesn’t make any sense from a plot or story perspective. The one place where breasts would not have seemed tacked-on and would have seemed erotic or whatever in a naturalistic sense was the famous scene where Shakespeare undoes Viola’s chest wrap thing after her day pretending to be a man. But no. That shot abruptly pans up as soon as the wrap unravels.

Then, in the next scene, all of a sudden, there are the breasts! They show up while the two are getting romantic, but at arms’ length from each other so the breasts are clearly visible. Is it normal for people to make out with their torsos a foot apart? Am I missing something? And God forbid old Bill Shakespeare might want to, say, touch a breast while getting down with his new lady. NOT TASTEFUL. Of course, it would also not be tasteful try to depict sex in any recognizable way. Maybe it’s Joseph Fiennes’s fault. Maybe he thinks you have sex by doing weird little half-push-ups while hovering over someone. And then there are the multiple occasions where Viola suddenly becomes very shy and covers her chest with sheets while she’s in a room alone with Shakespeare. Because we all know that after you have sex with someone you can’t let them see you naked anymore.

Why do movies do this? I don’t know. This is where I get out of my depth and stop having good ideas. I think that a lot of it is Hollywood people (directors, producers, actresses) being afraid of anything that shows sex too graphically or frankly, because they think people might find it tawdry or unbecoming for whatever reason. I think that’s mostly stupid. I think there are two ways to handle movie nudity. 1. Try to be as realistic as possible within the restraints of the ratings people. 2. Don’t show anything. It’s not a big deal. People will understand. I personally find scenes shot to totally conceal things to be less distracting than scenes that try to find an awkward halfway point. At least if you don’t show anything you’re being more intellectually honest with everyone than if you construct a couple gauzily lit and carefully blocked topless shots. Nothing about that is tasteful. Sorry.

I kind of feel like I should give a counterexample to end with. Take This Waltz is a movie I’ve mentioned a couple times. It’s one of the more memorable movies I’ve seen in the last couple years. There’s a scene in a gym shower that blew me away. If you’ve seen the movie you remember it. That’s how to use naked women to improve your movie.

Fruitvale Station

25 Jul

I don’t know if I have a lot to say about Fruitvale Station. It’s one of those movies that critics like to talk and write about. It was at Sundance and Cannes and critics have been talking about it since. I think for the intelligentsia the movie is old news and it hasn’t even opened nationwide yet. Most of what I’m going to write is little more than a summary of other reviews. Wesley Morris at Grantland wrote the best thing I’ve read. He also weaves in some Trayvon Martin/President Obama stuff in a way that worked well. I don’t have anything to add to that angle.

On the other hand, I feel like this is the one movie where I might be expected to have a strong opinion or have something interesting to say. This movie is set in my neighborhood. It’s (indirectly) about large social issues that Oakland is often at the epicenter of. Issues that someone smart might be able to say something deep about. Should I have some profound insight into “what this movie is about” because I live across the street from the hospital where Oscar Grant died? Is it a personal failing to avoid the inevitable political questions raised by the movie even though I sometimes board BART trains at Fruitvale? I don’t know.

On the topic of political questions, I’ll repeat what most other reviewers have said. I was expecting this movie to be overt. Polemical. I expected to see a much more negative depiction of the poor sections of the East Bay and the impact of crime/poverty/racism/police on people living in them. That wasn’t at all the case. Naturalistic is an overused new buzzword in film criticism, but I think it fits here as well as it fits anywhere. Where the movie is contrived and emotionally manipulative, it’s in the service of character development, not social conditions or race relations. That was a very pleasant surprise.

This was an intense movie. It opens with a clip of the most famous cell phone video of the Oscar Grant shooting. It then goes back and covers the day leading up to it. The tension builds and builds as the inevitable ending approaches. The tone and pacing were generally very restrained. I was very impressed by the director Ryan Coogler. He didn’t try to score easy emotional points–the prison flashback was the only place where the emotion was really dialed up before the big climax. I thought that was the perfect strategy. By not creating points for the audience to release tension throughout, he kept it building. And it did build. The big BART platform scene was executed really well. That’s a big feat since that scene is so well-known at this point. And even here, there was no big catharsis. People forget that Mr. Grant didn’t die until the next morning. The overnight hospital waiting room sequence was very strong. This is where the emotion all came out. There was a fair crowd in theater when I saw the movie, and there were a lot of people audibly crying. That is not a common occurrence at the movies. At least not at the movies I go to. And then it was over. There was a little title-card epilogue, but there was no depiction of the aftermath. That was a very smart decision. That’s where things could have gotten away from the director and made for a muddy unfocused movie. Once more, this was an intense movie.

Three plot contrivances detracted from things. The dog at the gas station, the fish fry girl who reappears, and the prison guy who reappears. They all felt unnecessary and distracting. It wasn’t a perfect movie. Most of the non-perfection comes from little things like this that are maybe a little too on-the-nose. The intent was obviously to capture real life in a realistic way, and real life is messy. Always. Sometimes Mr. Coogler shied away from that. I can understand why he did things the way he did for the sake of the narrative and keeping things interesting, but it didn’t always work. Maybe some of the problem was the choice to dramatize a single day. That’s an unexpected way to tell this story, and overall I think it was a very good decision, but the fact is that any single day doesn’t have all that much drama in it. Maybe things would have been boring if not for the little narrative touches. I don’t know.

A few local notes. My understanding of and appreciation for this movie was most definitely enhanced because I live in Oakland. Mr. Coogler is from Oakland and did a very good job of creating a sense of place and placing the story in a geographic context that I thought added to it. I know I wouldn’t feel that as strongly if I’d seen this movie before I moved here. Little things like street signs are a nice touch wherever a movie is set. That this was all filmed on location was apparent. That always adds a bit of juice. My fear going in was that there was going to be a lot of depressing East Oakland footage–some ”look how terrible the ghetto is” kind of nonsense. As I mentioned earlier there wasn’t any of that. Oakland as I know it was very well-portrayed. It’s a beautiful city. There are big industrial zones. There’s a lot of graffiti. Etc. One thing that I thought was a perfect touch was the repeated use of BART trains. Both the images and the sounds of BART trains. It’s such a distinct Bay Area touch. And, of course, it was a great narrative device. It kept the audience focused on the direction of the story.

The acting was very good. Michael B. Jordan seems to be getting a lot of plaudits, and he was good. Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend matched him. I like Octavia Spencer. I’ve been a fan since she was Serenity on Halfway Home, a short-lived and probably-forgotten show on Comedy Central. That kind of acting is about the polar opposite of this. I hope she gets a chance to do more interesting movies because I think she has a lot more range than your average moviegoer who only knows her from The Help would guess.

So I don’t have any big thesis or whatever. I liked Fruitvale Station a lot. A lot more than I thought I would. I’d recommend it. Go see it.

Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons

18 Jul

Wolf Hall is a book. A Man for All Seasons is a movie. They both tell the same story, more or less. The story is Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. This is a very famous sequence of events. There was a lot of political intrigue involved. Two of the main people involved were Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. In A Man for All Seasons, More is the hero and Cromwell is the villain. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the hero and More, while not a villain necessarily, isn’t exactly presented in a flattering light. This blog post is about those two pieces of media, both of which I recently consumed, and how they can be so different, and, like, some other thoughts. Think of it as a New Yorker Critic at Large piece, except slapdash and poorly-informed instead of tight and focused.

A little background on WH and AMFAS. WH is a novel from 2009 by Hilary Mantel. It was very highly regarded. It won the Man Booker Prize and probably has other accolades. AMFAS is a movie from 1966. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Paul Scofield as Thomas More). WH is a fairly long book, so it’s obviously more expansive. There’s a lot more stuff in it, and a lot of the characters are more fully developed. I’m only going to talk about the things that happen in both. Following is a hopefully brief and hopefully accurate summary.

This is a complicated story. Bear with me. I think the common conception is that Henry just decided what he wanted to do and then did it unilaterally. It surprised me to learn just what lengths he went to to conform both to English law and canon law. This is what made behind-the-scenes operators like Cromwell and More relevant in the first place. Here’s the rundown. Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, was the widow of Henry’s brother, Arthur. This required that Henry get a special dispensation from the Pope in order to marry her. He got the dispensation because Catherine said she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. (He died only weeks after the wedding; they were both 15.) So, many years later, Catherine had failed to give birth to any sons and Henry decided to divorce her. Rather than just casting her aside and telling the Pope to go fuck himself, he waged a long campaign to get the marriage annulled, on the logic that the original dispensation was invalid. The Pope never granted the annulment. Failing to get the Pope’s support, Henry had the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declare his marriage to Catherine void and Henry married Anne Boleyn. As part of this, Henry asserted that he, and not the Pope, was the head of the church in England. Henry and Cranmer were excommunicated and the Church of England was born.

While all of this was happening, More was the Lord Chancellor of England. He was opposed to the divorce, but accepted it and recognized Anne Boleyn as queen. What he could not tolerate was anyone but the Pope as head of the church. He resigned as Lord Chancellor and refused to swear an oath recognizing Henry, and not the Pope, as head of the church and Anne Boleyn’s eventual children as heirs. He was eventually executed for treason.

All of Henry’s various maneuvering was accompanied by a lot of politicking from divorce advocates, notably Cromwell. Parliament enacted a whole series of laws legitimizing Anne Boleyn, and Henry went abroad to get the approval of other monarchs. Cromwell played a key role in passing new laws giving Henry authority over church matters and generally used the whole affair to solidify himself as Henry’s closest adviser. He was also eventually executed for some shenanigans related to Anne of Cleves, but that was several years after this whole sordid mess and irrelevant to what I’m talking about.

OK. I think/hope I got all the important parts. I know I left out a lot of things, if you spend some time on Wikipedia I promise this whole saga is interesting.

In AMFAS, More is the hero. He stands up to the king and refuses to compromise his principles. The cunning and immoral Cromwell is the driving force behind his execution, employing some treachery to get false testimony that More has denied that the king is head of the church.

In WH, Cromwell is a self-made man, as opposed to everyone else, who is part of the landed gentry. He rises to the king’s right hand on his own merits. He helps end the Pope’s authority over politics. (There are sequences in the book where Cromwell thinks to himself, “Where in the Bible is the word ‘Pope’” or something to that effect.) Without his political skill, there might have been a revolt against Henry and the Reformation may never have happened.

There are a lot of easy and obvious points to make about the disparity. Everyone has biases, history is complicated, we as an audience should always be skeptical of a work’s point of view, etc. I don’t think those are points that need to be made.

When I think about these two works, it’s easy to see how there would be different perspectives. In the abstract, a case can be made that Cromwell is bad or good. A case can also be made that More is bad or good, and I don’t think they necessarily even have to be on opposite sides. That’s in the abstract. In reality, they both seem to be advocating opposite sides of a profoundly stupid argument that, even allowing for “oh it was a different time” etc., just doesn’t seem to allow for either man to look anything like heroic.

More was a man of principle. That’s highly valued by a lot of people. Especially in contemporary American politics, where “flip-flopper” is just about the worst thing you can call someone. But let’s think about what his principle was. He was so sure of the Pope’s supremacy that he was willing to die for it. Not God. The Pope. Clement VII was much more of a political figure than a religious one. He controlled extensive territories in Italy. He collected taxes on land in England. And of course all of the other nonsense happening in the Catholic Church at the time. I don’t think there are many Catholics out there today who would rather be beheaded than admit the right of protestant denominations to exist, but Thomas More is apparently a hero for doing so. Whatever. Plus he spent a lot of time arresting people for translating the Bible into English and, as Lord Chancellor, burned six people at the stake for heresy. Principles can sometimes make you do bad things too I guess. I think a better principle might have been to let everyone read the Bible in English and decide for themselves whether the Pope ought to be the boss. This is an area where the historical argument holds even less water for me. There were a lot of reformers all over Europe at the time. More was one of their strongest opponents. Maybe you have to be Catholic to get it. I don’t know.

Cromwell’s position is, to me, even less reasonable. Oh, Henry needs to have a son. I mean, a legitimate son. (He had at least one illegitimate son at the time. A son who he acknowledged as his own and made a Duke.) The monarchy is maybe the one institution of the time that was stupider than the papacy. The obsession with legitimacy and heirs and the purity of women (but never of men, keep in mind that Henry also had a long-running affair with Anne Boleyn’s sister) just seems like a big dumb waste of time. Especially in England. They had a parliament. The parliament passed laws that the king had to follow. It was well-established that a woman could be the monarch. Henry was basically a big petulant baby and Cromwell went above and beyond to enable him.

In conclusion. The Henry VIII saga is one of the most obsessed-over stories out there. For good reason. It just seems hard for me to look at it and identify anyone as a hero or an upstanding character or even a rational actor. AMFAS goes further down this road with its lionization of More, but every dramatization or narrative about it goes looking for a hero or maybe an anti-hero, which seems so popular these days. I don’t understand the motivation behind the people telling these stories. If I were to come up with a fictionalization of it, a lot of my thrust would be a kind of winking “hey, audience, let’s all agree everyone in this story is being ridiculous” tone about it.

This got kind of out of hand. Maybe there will be a major edit coming up soon.