March 18, 2004 § Leave a Comment
These days, Americans are focused on the big picture — and who can blame them?
How nice that Jonathan Demme’s 1992 film, “Cousin Bobby,” serves as a reminder that we are not necessarily helpless in the world if we refocus on the smaller arenas.
Demme’s follow-up to “Silence of the Lambs” has a sweet home movie quality as it recounts his reunion with his cousin, Reverend Robert Castle, an Episcopalian minister in Harlem who Demme has not seen in almost 40 years.
Castle’s ministry is all about self empowerment while demanding your due from society and the government. He recognizes that you can demand people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but part of that action involves insisting that they receive was they believe is theirs — equality in all matters, including public works.
“There will be no peace where there is no justice,” Castle concludes his speech on demanding neighborhood traffic lights and pot holes repairs. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 11, 2004 § Leave a Comment
Poet/writer Charles Bukowski was renowned for his rough edges — a womanizer, a drunk, a gambler, a fighter, and foul-mouthed to the point that you begin to believe he knows vulgar words that no one else in the world has ever heard of. His poetry focused on a side of life so dark that its landscape is barely visible to the naked eye. He was not an immediately appealing guy.
John Dullaghan’s film, “Bukowski: Born Into This,” works to change this. Oh, Bukowski still has the unsavory qualities, the film brings them all into a context. At the start of the film, I privately challenged Dullaghan to make me like this pot-bellied blowhard. By the end, Dullaghan had won.
Bukowski’s first onscreen appearance follows a prelude of talking heads telling tales of his most appalling behavior. The man himself doesn’t improve the situation, drunk and hacking up something, preparing for a reading. Once on stage, drinking constantly, he spars with his audience and even threatens to beat up one guy. The audience laughs and cheers and eggs him on. He’s almost like a cartoon.
As the scene shifts to Bukowski walking in a seedy urban area populated by adult book stores, his middle-age paunch in full blossom, old and tired, his voice-over an apocalyptic poem invoking cannibalism that to the uninitiated sounds like a bit of overwrought dialogue from an old hippie exploitation film.
This is a legend?
He may look like an old drunk, but the ideas and emotions that go on in that intoxicated noggin, and the words that flow out to express these, prove Bukowski is much more than that.
By the time the film is over, you are left with more than the image of the drunk who mauls his girlfriend on camera — you are also left with the image of the sensitive man who breaks down in tears when he reads a poem about his ex-girlfriend, of the self-deprecating guy who laughs about losing his virginity to an obese hooker or accidentally dropping his wallet in a toilet, and a magnetic and angry artist who reads a stirring and uncomfortably truthful indictment of the hate he feels ordinary people can heap on those like him.
Similar to the documentary “Crumb,” Dullaghan’s film does an graceful job of pulling together all the pieces of Bukowski The Artist with the pacing of a good suspense film, revealing that sometimes the road to art is not paved with art school degrees and arts grants.
If you don’t know anything about Bukowski or his writing, this film is a alluring introduction.
Bukowski’s power was in the way he expressed his soul in terms that readers could latch onto and feel it expressed their own. When Bukowski sleeps with a young fan, he writes about the encounter in a coarse, sexually frank fashion. The woman writes her own account and includes what he leaves out — the tenderness between them. She realizes that she was so busy personalizing the agony in his writing that she never imagined he could be a messed up guy who was great with concepts and the words to express them.
“There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out,” Bukowski reads at one point, then scolds himself for threatening to ruin his own book sales by uttering such words.
For many fans, the poet’s raw and perversely funny words seize something about life which for most of us remains unstated, at the cost of that bluebird he can’t comfortably release.
In other words, Bukowski expressed his pain and anger so his readers wouldn’t have to–and though the spectacle of his personal torture and sacrifice could easily be subtitled “The Passion of the Bukowski,” this is a divinely human story.
March 11, 2004 § Leave a Comment
Massachusetts documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has made a career of letting people tell their side of the story. Morris’ subjects are usually happy to unload and expound and offer themselves raw as they attempt to explain themselves once and for all. It’s a little different when your subject is a former secretary of defense widely acknowledged as one of the main architects of the Vietnam War. As chronicled in Morris’ Oscar-winning film “Fog of War,” Robert MacNamara’s career under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson is summed up in 11 lessons he has learned. Filmed before the war with Iraq, there are lessons here to be learned from a characterization of war that drives home the fact there is nothing simple nor black and white about it.
Death and industry are the major players in MacNamara’s life. His earliest memories are of the celebration of World War I and the devastation of the flu epidemic. Later, in World War II, he served under Gen. Curtis Lemay, a collaboration that resulted in the devastating fire bombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 civilians and was the tip of the iceberg for what some consider needless fire bombings of dozens of other Japanese cities.
Lemay commented to McNamara that if the U.S. had lost the war, the two men would have been tried for war crimes. This prompts McNamara to ask, “What makes it immoral if you lose?” — a question that haunts the film.
The years before becoming Kennedy’s secretary of defense were spent at the Ford Motor Company applying the same cold efficiency he learned in the military to manufacturing and setting up the guiding strategies of waging a war in Vietnam.
Though Kennedy was in agreement with MacNamara’s advice — get out of there — Johnson was less inclined and McNamara served the role of company man helping a CEO slog through an unnecessary mess.
In this regard, McNamara makes a keen observation about human nature and doing the right thing that illustrates his central quandary. In an effort to bring down traffic fatalities, he also introduced the seat belt — after conducting gruesome research involving human skulls being tossed down staircases. There was a huge opposition from consumers and a widespread refusal to wear seat belts, despite the estimated 20,000 lives to be saved from its use.
Obviously agonizing over his own policies, Johnson seems very similar to those consumers.
In another revealing tale, McNamara talks about the U.S. ambassador to Russia challenging Kennedy’s thinking during the thick of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is clear that McNamara craved a similar moment with Johnson. It never happened.
It’s too bad, because McNamara’s assessment of what went wrong is insightful, and relates directly to Rule #1: Empathize with your enemy. According to McNamara, the United States stumbled from the beginning, because we never really knew the Vietnamese. They looked at the situation as a civil war, and viewed our presence as an extension of French colonialism. We looked upon the situation as one more small stage in the larger scene of the cold war. It was doomed from the beginning.
Morris’ film is a 60s protester’s attempt to follow Rule #1. To those of Morris’ age and political view, McNamara was the enemy. It’s not an easy rule to follow in this setting — though an engaging speaker, McNamara is clinical and at arm’s length through much of the film. This manner is telling in itself. He realizes that he amounts to more than just a company man doing his job. Instead, he understands and grapples with the implications of his service, they are so deep within him that he flatly admits that he is incapable of revealing too much about them.
Morris structures the film using archival footage and behind-the-scenes recording, alongside modern interviews with McNamara that employ jump cuts and blackouts to express a structural fog of war — the assertion that war is so complex as to be beyond the ability of the human mind to understand all the variables.
In other words, business like stewardship does not work — war is an out of control industry.
“It isn’t that we aren’t rational,” McNamara concludes. “We are rational. But reason has limits.”