Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): July 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Punningly, the title is a winking reference to Tom Hansen’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) girlfriend, the rather ludicrously named Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Appropriately then - and look elsewhere if you don't want the ending spoiled - the film’s own seasonal mood is rather autumnal, focusing as it does on the decline and expiration of a “quirky” romance. The movie also anticipates and tacitly acknowledges the death of the very hip/quirky/indie aesthetic that its own contemporary success would seem to vindicate. Just as “indie” trendiness hits saturation point in the media, the movie whispers to anyone who’s listening that the show is over and the queen is dead – the movie is an allegory for its own demise (and that of its audience) and even more surprisingly, an apologia for such.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, directed by David Lean

The Story: T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a minor British officer stationed in Cairo during World War I, is sent into the Arabian desert to “assess” the state of the Arabs’ revolt against the Turks. The revolt is a mess, but instead of reporting back, Lawrence himself leads a band of Arabs through the harshest sectors of the desert into victory against the Turks. Astonished and delighted, his superiors give him free reign and so T.E. becomes “Lawrence of Arabia,” an enigmatic, brilliant, and narcissistic guerrilla leader whose genius and bravado is matched only by his eccentricity and insecurity.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mark Rudd and the Weather Underground

Microphone in hand, impatiently trailing the wire behind him as he paced at the front of the old theater with about forty people gathered before him, Mark Rudd emphatically, if a tad regretfully, declared that he was not a "revolutionary." At least not any more. On Saturday, July 18th, the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH held a seminar as part of the Maine Film Festival entitled "A New Century - A New Activism." The talk began before the screening of The Weather Underground (a 2002 documentary about the radical left-wing group Rudd belonged to in the 1960s and 1970s) but spilled over into a post-film discussion as well.

Rudd could talk up a storm when he wanted to (he prefaced a response to a Columbia University question by jokingly asking if the questioner wanted the "5, 10, or 20-minute version"; his detailed analysis of the protests he led there in 1968 went on for at least ten). However, he made an effort, and ultimately a successful one, to open the event up to the audience members, and soon a spirited back-and-forth was initiated.

Nonetheless, Rudd himself remained at the center of the conversation, grinning encouragingly when he agreed with a speaker's point, patiently but assuredly responding to challenges (of which there were a few), and taking the lead in posing questions and speculations - without necessarily supplying the answers. It was not hard to see in him the teacher he has become (he instructs mathematics at a community college in New Mexico) and at times difficult to detect any traces of the fiery, scowling twentysomething he had once been, an angry young man on display in The Weather Underground.

Rudd is now sixty-two, with a thick beard and a full head (ironically, given the comb-over style he wore as a young man) of white hair, his build far bulkier than in his slight student days (not to mention his years as a fugitive from justice, when his weight dropped down to starvation levels). His scowl has been replaced by a beaming countenance, the nasally rasp of his youth deepened into a professorial baritone. Yet the physical changes are the least of his many transformations.

Not only did Rudd cast aside his "revolutionary" credentials, he warned his audience that "this is not a heroic story." He was speaking not only of the film to be screened, but a book he had just written, Underground, a memoir whose perspective he described as, "I and my friends made a lot of mistakes. Big ones." One of the biggest, Rudd asserted, was the abandonment of old, solid, rich organizational methods for a more a violent, isolated path, characterized by romantically militant but ultimately suicidal guerrilla rhetoric and tactics.

In 1969, Rudd helped dismantle Students for a Democratic Society, the organization which had initiated him (along with much of his generation) into activism; he formed the Weathermen, later re-tailored as the Weather Underground, in its place. Devoted to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, one faction of the group (which Rudd and most other surviving members of the group deny knowledge of) built a bomb intended to maim and kill civilians. "Tragically but fortuitously," as Rudd wrote it in a recent essay, the bomb detonated prematurely, blowing up the Greenwich Village townhouse in which it was constructed, and killing several Weather radicals who were working on it.

After that, the group (which quickly went "underground," giving up their identities to avoid government detection) forswore violence directed against people, and focused on destroying property and issuing manifestos. For a time, the Weather Underground continued to grab headlines, but by the early seventies, youth radicalism was already on the wane. In the film, Rudd recalls sitting on a park bench during his years underground, reading a newspaper and realizing the absurdity of his situation: a prominent activist, a student at one of the top schools in the country, he is now reduced to working odd jobs and dodging police. Eventually he surfaced in 1977, avoided any serious charges, and settled down to a life of teaching, while occasionally speaking and writing on the tangled history he participated in.

In the discussion at the Music Hall, Rudd actually didn't talk much about the Weather years, letting the film itself cover that period. Instead, following his excited recounting of the Columbia strike, he attempted to capitalize on the "New" in the seminar's title - albeit with a twist, since many of the new forms he hoped activism would attempt were in fact old ones (which had been abandoned since the sixties). Yet in many ways he did keep the discussion up to date; most notably and surprisingly, by singing the praise of a man significantly less antiwar and left-wing than Rudd himself.

"Obama is for real," Rudd proclaimed proudly. "The consciousness of this individual is very, very high...in fact, if you read one book, don't make it mine. Make it Dreams of My Father!" Acknowledging Barack Obama's defense of the war in Afghanistan and tepid withdrawal from Iraq, Rudd claimed that the president was a "prisoner of the military-industrial complex," but that the administration gave the antiwar movement "an opening" which was not present during the Bush years. In fact, on the subject of Obama's election, and the mass youth involvement which coalesced around the young candidate, Rudd gushed, "This is the greatest thing that's ever happened in my lifetime!"

Overall, Rudd struck a note of optimism - even of cheerfulness, quite different from the somber aura he exudes in The Weather Underground. There he also criticizes his past, but from a more somber, chastened perspective (the interview was conducted ten years ago). Rudd closes the film with the statement, "These are things I am not proud of, and I find it hard to speak publicly about them and to tease out what was right from what was wrong. I think that part of the Weatherman phenomenon that was right was our understanding of what the position of the United States is in the world. It was this knowledge that we just couldn't handle; it was too big. We didn't know what to do. In a way I still don't know what to do with this knowledge. I don't know what needs to be done now, and it's still eating away at me just as it did 30 years ago."

On this particular day, however, Rudd seemed to have stronger ideas about what to do with his knowledge (facilitate mass movements based on personal connections and older organizational models; use the openness of the Obama White House to activists' advantage; advocate a turn away from unilateral war and toward international law - ironically, as he acknowledged, given his own past as an outspoken outlaw). He even had a suggestion of what his - and his generation's role - could be in this new era, delivered with a grin and a bit of a wink.

Rudd told one woman - about the same age as him, and extolling the virtues of the newly involved youth - that he would like to see baby boomers form "a self-immolation brigade." He continued, to appreciative chuckles, "We could provide martyrs for the cause and get ourselves out of the way at the same time." But before the dialogue got too self-deprecating, Rudd revealed a bit of the old determination. "My mother's ninety-seven," he paused to acknowledge, his expression wry and a youthful gleam in his eye. "So I may be around for a while yet..."

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. Thanks to whoever preserved the piece on this listserv for 8 years, before I migrated it onto this site.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

16 Days into July (One Year and Counting)

Links to all of my online work, on an ongoing basis

On the first anniversary of this blog, I compiled a complete directory. It has now been moved here in its entirety.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, directed by Stanley Kubrick

The Story: Monkeys kill each other. Millions of years later, a murderous computer is dismantled while singing a vaudeville tune. An astronaut travels through a wormhole, ages rapidly, and is reborn as a gigantic fetus floating amongst the stars. Sleek, black monoliths appear intermittently. Lots of ships and satellites and stations float through outer space.

The plot both is and isn’t the point of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the one hand, its rather sketchy (and on paper, ridiculous, as the above indicates) plot is easily overwhelmed by the cosmic light shows, the long demonstrations of space travel technique and ritual, the passages featuring the apes who can’t talk and the bloodless bureaucrats who can but probably shouldn’t, and of course the lavish visual effects (which hold up so much better than CGI from two years ago – or for that matter, from this year). On the other hand, if the overarching plot seems haphazard and thin, the narrative arc – spanning millions of years as the human race progresses from a mindless ape to a cosmic star child – is all-important. Composing the arc are several generally separate stories, four in all: the prehistoric men, the trip to the moon sponsored by Howard Johnsons, the showdown with HAL, the mystical and mystifying finale.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Lost Son of Havana

Thirty years after the chants of "Lou-eee, Lou-eee!" have faded from Fenway, six miles from the spot of a very important and long-awaited 1975 reunion, the National Amusements Showcase Cinemas in Revere screened The Lost Son of Havana in Theater 1 at 7:35 pm; one of four daily screenings for at least the remainder of the week (if it is not held over any longer). The name of the movie was left out of the "Now Playing" flyers adorning the lobby, and there weren't any placards emblazoned with large quotes from Entertainment Weekly or video installments running trailers in loops. When asked for a ticket to the film, one of the theater's employees warned, "You do know it's a documentary, right?" Apparently, this disclaimer was necessary: some customers have been complaining. No one complained on this particular night, though - the four other people in the near-empty theater seemed perfectly content with their choice of entertainment.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Apocalypse Now Redux

Apocalypse Now Redux, 1979 (revised in 2000), directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Story: Capt. Willard, an increasingly strung-out Special Forces commando, is assigned a top-secret mission in late 60s Vietnam: travel up the Da Nang river to assassinate the renegade Col. Kurtz, a mysterious military genius who has set up a private empire in the wilderness. Along the way, Willard and his shipmates encounter increasingly bizarre characters and situations, and by the time they arrive in Kurtz’s unholy domain, it has become clear that the colonel is only as mad as the war around him.

When the troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was mired for years in the Philippines, Hollywood wags dubbed the film “Apocalypse Later.” The implication, of course, being that such a crazy idea – an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, transposed to Vietnam, and shot in conditions which were themselves often warlike (literally, the crew had to negotiate with both sides of a civil war which was raging around them) – could only exist on paper or perhaps in Coppola’s crazed, grandiose mind. When the film arrived at Cannes finally, at the tail end of the 70s, it could have merely been a footnote to the legendary turmoil of its making, something like the later big-budget flop Heaven’s Gate, labeled a “folly” and quickly cast aside.

The Movie Bookshelf

A gathering of all the movie books that influenced, enlightened, and excited me, you, and everyone else - a diverse and highly personalized canon.

Six weeks ago I launched a new "meme" (another word I don't particularly enjoy, but which fits), calling it Reading the Movies and inviting you all to respond. There was a great response, and here are the results: a canonical list of, by my count, 364 titles which impacted these particular bloggers. A list of the 37 blogs that participated appears at the end of the post. I hope you will visit these blogs, because this list is only a starting point - many bloggers described their choices in loving detail, some devoting entire posts to a single book. And the discussion continues in the commentary, where many blog-readers have let their own choices be known. If I've missed anyone, please let me know and I'll add your selections as soon as possible. I've also included book covers wherever provided by the blogger.

Finally, if you've yet to participate - if this has been on the back burner for a while, or you've only just discovered the exercise - keep in mind that this is just the beginning. Jump right in, and comment below to let me know that you've joined. That's the nice thing about a virtual bookshelf - no size limits.

*(And, please, when you've read a book on this list for the first time, return to the thread below and let us know what you thought. No time frames on bookshelves either...)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind, 1939, directed by Victor Fleming (with uncredited assistance from George Cukor and Sam Wood)

Story: In an age of “cotton and cavaliers,” spoiled Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is the belle of the plantation barbecue. But then war – the Civil War – comes to her chivalric South, and her way of life is swept away, or gone with the wind, as author Margaret Mitchell put it in her bestselling novel. Soon this young beauty (who was once fanned by slaves during afternoon naps) is vowing to the angry sky, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Even as she pursues the married and genteel Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), and is alternately seduced and bedeviled by the charming anti-gentleman Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), Scarlett does her best to keep good to this promise.