ASSESSING THE DAMAGE: A Writer’s Almanac, NYT Headlines, and Triathlons

baldwin

 

In 1974, James Baldwin’s book,  If Beale Street Could Talk, was published. About a young couple who find themselves about to be parents when the young man is accused of rape and imprisoned. Baldwin was accused (by some) of sounding too bitter in the writing of “Beale Street…” I have to ask –

 How do the disparaged of the times

escape bitterness – escape even its sound –

when innocence dines at a table set

with rotting images –

marinated in vinegar ?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 On August 2nd in 1932 American Physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence of anti-matter. My heart stutters at the idea at measuring matter – much less what doesn’t. I am transported into last week where I read a NYT piece about a lower west side condo approved for a system of double entry: The condo association provided one door for the owners of the million dollar condos above and another entry for the affordable housing of the merely middle class.

      There are those who matter

And those who spend lives in the

Measured existence of anti-matter

They matter not to king, god, and bomb

Certainly not to those entering the golden

Archways living cloud-high quarters

Immeasurable in size and matter

There are those falcons loosed from

the widening gyre of definition

bullets spattered across time and distance

where class and doorways don’t matter

 

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Yesterday I spent the morning volunteering at a local triathlon event – my job was to count the swimmers exiting the lake

Making sure the number agreed with the number of swimmers who went into the lake

I meditated on the necessity of competition in a world awash in “my (fill in the blank) is bigger, better, smarter than your _________”.

I had to remember that I was in a town, home to an ivy-league institution, where competition is a personality cornerstone of those lucky enough to be invited to study at such an institution.

But what of the corralled mass of middle-aged male humanity standing next to me – exuding more testosterone than a Balco Lab? A heady experience for a second – until I remember the time in 10th grade when

I inadvertently entered the boy’s locker room after football practice. The smell of competitive animals doesn’t change –

No matter the age.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Take-a-way Wisdom:

Art is a way of confronting life. Getting to the big unruled YES in a country bordered and ruled by no

 

LINCOLN: The “Long Rough” History With Fairness

 Lincoln    One would be hard pressed to find a more educational, entertaining, and sensual two and a half hours of film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That this movie comes to us at a time when an African-American sits in the white house seems prophetic. It is this information that provides the dramatic irony that streams throughout the arguments against abolition on the floor of congress and makes the viewer keenly aware of Lincoln’s moral courage even as Lincoln, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, himself could not verbalize how

the effects of a 13th Amendment passage would manifest.

The 16th president was a driven man, an autodidact with a tremendous humility that tempered the tremendous power that comes with the Presidency. The movie, taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, lays to rest the oft told tales of Lincoln’s moral ambivalence towards the idea of ending slavery. The central conflict in Lincoln deals with the opposition of the Democrats in the House of Representatives to the passage of the 13th Amendment and educates the viewer as it pulls apart the south’s argument for the continuation of slavery. The importance of this amendment passage is obvious. But, the rush of activity to pass this legislation in that particular month (January 1865) rather than wait for a new pro-Lincoln congress to be seated needs explanation.  The prevailing rationale was that Lincoln wanted to show cross-party approval to prove a national unity. But, hadn’t national unity been evident with Lincoln’s reelection in 1864? In his New York Times review of Lincoln, professor of history at the University of Virginia, Philip Zelikow, suggests Spielberg is the truer “historian” here because the movie’s explanation “that Lincoln and…Secretary of State William H. Seward,  realized that the war might end at any time and when it did, any prospect for passing the amendment as a means to win the war would end with it” (NYT Opinionator, 2012), provides a more persuasive argument.  Using this premise, Spielberg sets up the intrigue prompted by the parallel story of   Francis Preston Blair Sr. (played by the late Hal Holbrook) the well-respected, conservative Republican and his attempts to arrange secret peace talks between Confederate and Union envoys. It is plausible that had these talks actually taken place prior to the vote, and a peace agreement been signed, the argument for the passage of the 13th Amendment (the necessity of outlawing slavery forever to end the war) would have been found weak.  Spielberg’s movie pulls back the curtain on the workings of the House and the men who filled the air with jubilant applause or boos and hisses depending on the matter at hand. But even this frat-house atmosphere did not minimize the effect of the heightened language used to cut and rend its target with precise aim. The radical Republican (no oxymoron in this instance) Thaddeus Stevens, played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones, spouted erudite rejoinders that made me wish I had a paper and pen to record his words for personal posterity (and usage).

The four-month period covered in the film represents the last four months of Lincoln’s life and serves to humanize Lincoln, his family and close friends. We hear Lincoln – before we see him – his dreams being recalled to his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field. The sense that his wife is the vessel into which Lincoln’s hopes for the future of a whole country are poured is prominent from the very beginning. We are treated to Lincoln’s soft nurturing side as he spots his son Tad (played by Gulliver McGrath) asleep by the fireplace and proceeds to get down on the floor, lovingly stroking his son’s hair before hoisting him on his back for the trip to bed thus completing what we come to believe is this father and son’s bedtime ritual. It is hard to say who is responsible (director or actor) for the humanity that animates Lincoln. Maybe it is simply the collective elegance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg that binds the audience to the film’s message. The same can be said for Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field lets us see the tormented Mrs. Lincoln who, after suffering a parent’s worst nightmare – the death of a child – continues to waver between fierce reality and a drain-circling melancholia. We see Mrs. Lincoln’s insight as she attempts to locate her place in history, suggesting that she will be forever seen as the hysterical wife and impediment to a famous husband.  Today, Mary Todd Lincoln would be treated with a well prescribed anti-depressant and expected to snap out of it for the sake of the country.  But parental torment is not hers alone. Both husband and wife do verbal battle in an argument laced with a combined, unresolved grief. It is Lincoln who acknowledges his grief, declaring it just as legitimate as his wife’s. The president’s outburst emotion underscores the enormous weight wrought by the his desire to pass legislation of great scale and the heart-deadening sadness of his child’s death.

The movie’s subtle lighting lends itself to the somber plot. The soft close lighting of the lair belonging to democratic party operative William Bilbo, played convincingly by James Spader, added to the intrigue of the Bilbo character who, now freed from prison by Lincoln, begins to lobby/politic for the passage of the 13th  Amendment.  The relationship between Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, played by David Strathairn, embodies John Hay’s (Assistant Private Secretary to Abraham Lincoln) description of a “friendship…so absolute and sincere…between these two magnanimous spirits.” Seward is by turns conscience and devil’s advocate assuring Lincoln of multiple perspectives on issues. But it is Day-Lewis’s Lincoln who commands the screen as he is shuttled around a muddy Washington in an open carriage and as he spurs then halts his horse through battlefields quiet but for the smoke and blood. We see the pain of a man, a husband, and a father as he sadly takes in the faces of the dead – young men the age of his oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln who desperately wants to fight for the Union cause. Lincoln’s calm demeanor is broken three times – once in his argument with his wife, and when he slaps his oldest son in parental frustration with his son’s military aims, and again when he pounds his fist on the desk yelling for his team to get the votes needed to pass the amendment.   This last outburst sets off a montage of activity detailing  perfectly calibrated cajoling, lobbying and the promising of all manner of perks to the congressional lame ducks. Lincoln’s insistence on getting the necessary votes rather than be satisfied with Blair’s peace arrangement with the south leaves one to shudder at the potential for disaster had the south been left to take care of its slave “problem.”  It is as if Lincoln knew this, knew of his limited time left and was quite willing to endure the long rough history with fairness.

“The Master” Blows

Can a movie that is, in parts, visually pleasing, with great performances, and reference an intriguing, powerful and controversial religious movement, be a failed movie on the whole?  Yes. “The Master” via master film director, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights), fails to assemble all its beautiful parts into a thematic, cinematic whole.

The cinematography is excellent. Establishing shots do what they were meant to do but Anderson fails to leave well enough alone going even further, eventually crushing the movie-going experience with overly long establishing shots minus the mesmerizing cinematic beauty of say, Malick’s “Days of Heaven” or Minghella’s “The English Patient.”  Without these directors’ sweeping panoramas, “The Master” could have saved the viewer’s soul by just getting its characters (in one transition) to the damn front door: Establish the scene with a wide shot of the house, cars of traveling congregants pulling to the curb then cut to the interior. The viewer gets the message. But to hold on to the wide shot, get the characters out of the cars, set the suitcases on the parkway and hugs all-round from wealthy host before strolling up the walkway to the inside is at best boring and at worst, indulgent. There is a belief around the industry (often unspoken, considering the political dynamics between directors and those in post-production)  that a writer should not be allowed in the editing room where his/her work is being brought to life. But maybe these mind numbing, overly long shots were the actual intent of film editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty. Maybe. But doubtful.

“The Master” will and should get Oscar buzz. The actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, turn in riveting performances. Lancaster Dodd is the charismatic leader of the Cause. (“The Master” is loosely based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard). Hoffman’s Dodd forced me to forget the indulgence of the editing, captured as I was by his sonorous, patriarchal manner that invited me to be a part of his “Cause”. Like most charismatic leaders Dodd is quite full of himself and burying his writings in the desert was something akin to the elder Joseph Smith (Church of Latter Day Saints founder) translating scripture from buried ‘golden plates.”  Dodd’s wealthy followers gladly fund his ‘process’ parties providing elegant food and shelter for their leader as they cling to their “master” and his self-styled scientific approach to personal happiness and fulfillment.  Writer/director Anderson is on familiar ground with this ongoing theme of one’s search for meaning (Magnolia) and those leaders who are inclined to see these searchers as manna for their egos. Sadly, Lancaster Dodd is not allowed to take this menacing plot-strand to its ultimate potential.

Unlike Dodd, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is at once dangerous and unsympathetic. Phoenix ups his character’s ‘creep factor’ ten-fold with his continuously slouched posture suggesting a furtive and unhealthy lack of integrity. We first see Quell on a public beach simulating sex with a sand sculpture of a naked woman. If that doesn’t invite a review of one’s lunch then surely Quell’s hand digging sand out the sculpture’s vaginal area creating a more anatomically correct ‘woman’ will. Quell is emotionally lost and, after his stint in the navy during WW II, left to wander the country taking jobs as luck presents itself.   Quell reenters the civilian working world as a hard-drinking, department store photographer with a veneer of civility that is easily cracked by the sobering dullness of his job. Quell’s alcoholism creates a hair-trigger anger that dooms this character to a life of hard labor until, running away from an angry group of migrant laborers, he spies Dodd’s yacht in a San Francisco harbor. It is here I wanted “The Master” to blossom with the intertwining stories of a creature looking for ‘god’ and a man willing, by necessity, to be that god.  But no, what I witnessed was a meandering plot line that did not want (out of fear?) to make Lancaster Dodd the vile, manipulative megalomaniac that comes with the territory of a 20th century charismatic cult leader. Director Anderson shows Dodd as sympathetic, even loving the unlovable drunk that is Freddie Quell. Yes, there is the hint of scandal in Dodd’s arrest for, ostensibly, defrauding rich patrons but that plot line is left hanging. The viewer never learns the truth behind his arrest and quick bail. In fact, that scene serves only to strengthen the viewer’s sympathy for Dodd as he professes to Quell that he (Dodd) is the only one who likes him.  It is hard to understand why Dodd likes Quell even as he drinks the ‘delicious’ paint thinner-laden alcoholic drinks Quell concocts. In fact, alcoholic mixtures of whatever is horribly available seems to be the only talent Quell can bring to Dodd’s empire.  But, Dodd works hard to change the angry ways of his latest acolyte via a suspiciously unscientific method of having Quell walk back and forth from wall to window as the rest of the followers look on until at the end of one session (and the viewer’s emotional rope) Dodd simply says stop. I wanted to scream, “why?” There was not enough space to tread in that dinning room to quell the demons of Freddie Quell. And even this did not kill Quell’s willingness to maim those who found themselves in Dodd’s presence brave enough to express doubt.  By the movie’s end I thought Freddie’s liver would get screen credit for the abuse it received. If not screen credit then surely the disclaimer; no liver was harmed in the making of this movie.

Overall, the acting in “The Master” was superb. I was quite fearful of Freddie Quell’s authenticity and endeared to the calm veneer of Dodd’s easily cracked belief system. But, there is only so much actors can do for a script with no centralized conflict. Truth be told, it was Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s wife who could have provided the evil Shakespearean fulcrum from which to launch the vile net of emotional imprisonment. But, again Anderson skirts the potential for more cinematic substance. Suffice it to say, I came to the end of  “The Master” appreciative of the acting but unimpressed with this 2 ¼ hour movie that could have lost 20 minutes and benefited by the tightening, redirection of stray plot lines and a more fearless director.

Dark Shadows – Oh Please…

   You’ve heard the rumor that you cannot simply kill (in ordinary fashion) a vampire.  Sadly, this is true. I can say with confidence that even 30 pieces of silver bullets could not slay Tim Burton’s latest theatrical beast. I know this now, after I took the bait; Johnny Depp in anything has to have some merit – right? Wrong!

I am not a disgruntled Dark Shadows follower from 1971 left to simmer in some angry stew of TV show cancellation. My vampire interests began and ended with Anne Rice’s trilogy on the vampire theme. So, when I saw the trailer in which the unlawfully beautiful teenager, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) asks Barnabus if he is “stoned” and heard Depp’s   17th century verbal play on the word, I thought I’d get to see vintage Depp via a humorous Burton retelling. Unfortunately that trailer presented just one of the two humorous scenes in the movie. Now that I think about it, the movie was so bad I can’t remember the other funny scene.

That Barnabus Collins comes back to 1972 fairly screams humorous potential. Somehow the writer(s) could not find enough going on in that year at which to poke fun. (Which is a strange occurrence in itself.)  How could a writer not be able to inject political humor into this beast with the Watergate break-in being in the news? As the surly teen, Carolyn, watches TV news couldn’t Depp have something clever put in his mouth (besides the obligatory canines) like a timely (and somewhat suggestive) reference to ‘deep throat?’ 1972 saw the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment (surprising in light of today’s attempts to backtrack on this progress) so couldn’t the very male Barnabus reference his superiority to Angelique (Eva Green) in a clever way of course. And what about George “segregation forever” Wallace? Barnabus could find himself with three silver bullets as he comes into a room confronted with four real bad guys:  a Nazi war criminal, Idi Amin, George Wallace, and the inventor of the jump suit; our hero wastes not a minute dispatching Wallace – unloading all three bullets into the southern ‘guvna’.

1972 was a year of real film making, what about the movie The Godfather? Vito Corleone meets Barnabus Collins, or Eastwood’s Dirty Harry? And for the frightening random violence of A Clockwork Orange – make it less so by getting Barnabus in there to show who’s boss. And let us not forget The Brady Bunch, a TV series known to kill bricks – (and should still be held for crimes against television-watching humanity) yet not one mention. Come on DS writers, this stuff practically writes itself.   And what was up with Alice Cooper? All the deadly, spooky makeup in the world couldn’t stop that insipid music coming from this guy. The only positive thing I can say here is at least he had the courage to play himself. This takes some of the heat off the writers.

If the year were not interesting enough for DS writers, couldn’t they have livened up the competition for the best fishing fleet in Maine by, say, having Barnabus (unable to secure men to fish) going out on one of the boats hypnotizing the fish right into the boat? Couldn’t Barnabus mesmerize the town and highlight the power of money to assuage all fears of vampires, werewolves and ’57 Chevy wagons? And the sex scene… Really?

Call this Monday morning quarterbacking, or governing politics from the comfort of a television news studio but the cinematic bulls-eye was missed with Burton’s Dark Shadows. I would have preferred a closing scene of driving (the ’57 Chevy wagon) into the red-orange sunset past a sign of George McGovern waving under the caption “Y’all are gonna miss me when I’m gone.”  True that.

That Titanic Sinking Feeling: A Movie Review

The tragedy of a death has no exact expiration date as any parent or survivor can tell you. Likewise, tragic deaths on an international scale is an event that can become, in-and-of itself, a being – some thing to be festooned each milestone with wreaths of remembrance; flowers and stories interwoven in the airy base of the human condition. Next week we will be exactly 100 years from just such a tragedy, one that has been turned into a multi-million dollar business for good or ill. This is a story that plays into the hands and hearts of those who refuse to and those who cannot forget. We live for this stuff – nostalgia; our friend who takes us by the hair and drags us into the cul-de-sac of romantic endings. There is room here too for the ironic, the boarding ticket lost equals, in the end, a life saved and the ship that was dubbed unsinkable – did just that – sink.  And while we’re on the subject of sinking ships let’s look at the movie Titanic – again.  I saw this epic disaster twice in 1998. I suppose I provided balance for the scores of others who attended its opening in ’97 and now need permanent resident visas at certain theaters.  I did not understand it then and I don’t get it now.

The reality of me directing a movie is highly unlikely so I do what all people who believe their creativity is unappreciated do – I criticize – or critique, if you will. To be fair, I don’t want to minimize the colossal effort it must take to create a blockbuster movie in which the plot’s climax is well-known history. Just the facts; unsinkable boat sinks drowning 1500.  With this information to work with there’s nothing left to do but get technical. And technical the movie was. The academy award presentation was right on the mark in awarding Titanic the Oscar for the best movie in all the technical areas. I know they did the right thing because my mom cringed months later when speaking of the beautifully monogrammed china crashing to the floor after the ship’s impact with the iceberg. And the replication of the grand staircase was straight out of a young girl’s dream; to stand at the top of such beauty before descending into a crowd of admirers. No,  I am not here to critique perfection. And had I been favored with input on the choice of actors I would not be here putting these words to print. But I wasn’t asked for my choices so I shall critique the casting mistakes of those who were.   I’ll start with Leonardo DiCaprio. He should have won an Oscar for the most valiant (yet failed) attempt at impersonating a fictional character. I think it was the smile. I had to remind myself that the year was 1912 and DiCaprio was cast as a less than high society character.  So I was bothered whenever he flashed that perfect keyboard which smacked of very expensive Beverly Hills orthodontia. I don’t believe people were that model-agency perfect in 1912. A small, brown cavity working its way between any of his front teeth would have been more authentic. I mean he did just win his ticket in a card game for heaven’s sake! And the haircut? Really!  kid DiCaprio swooped, lunged, and spat his way around the world’s largest ship and at every turn I kept expecting him to show up with a surf board over his shoulder looking every inch the truant high schooler shooting the curls (instead of brushing them) at Santa Monica Beach. And I have a problem with the dynamics of this movie – fluid dynamics that is. I am not here to minimize the power of love but there is no way DiCaprio and his love interest could have maneuvered so skillfully through near freezing water. Puhleeze! This was the same North Atlantic Ocean that kept that iceberg intact. In my second viewing the characters seemed to shiver only as an afterthought.  And the dialogue… I could have sworn I heard DiCaprio say “cool.”

Now, Kate Winslet is another story. I liked her style immediately. No pink, Barbie-type doormat this one. Winslet portrayed well the serene woman of substance. While I can’t say much for her taste in fiancées, she did an admirable job of displaying the anguish a young, beautiful woman must feel when confronted with a real Miss Havisham of mothers. I would have given her an Oscar though for at least one scene. It’s the scene where she poses nude for that worldly (he looked all of 13 years old!) artist of distinction with incredible gifts and experience. All this boy’s wincing and squinting at Winslett’s beautiful female form evinced nothing of his fascination for her “…hands…” he says he has. How she remained in character is beyond me. Maybe she got through the scene by visualizing a Cary Grant or Clark Gable in place of this teen heart-throb. In any case, I am sure this is why I have never been asked to star in a movie.  Winslet, the actress, is believable even when she lets this youngster calm her Victorian fears of low-class impropriety. A real woman would have gathered DiCaprio  up with milk and cookies, taken him to bed and tucked him in soundly before kissing his greasy forehead goodnight and going below decks. Yes, below deck, because that’s where all the fun is. Didn’t you know? All the steerage types – those without shoes, proper fitting clothes, and little food – always come with a fiddle or two to dance like River Dance. If I show an unnatural rancor here it’s because my son asked if we would be in first class or steerage if we had sailed on the Titanic?  “We wouldn’t have been on the Titanic honey… you know how dad hates cruise ships.”

The actor, Billy Zane did what he does best. He played the sinister, psychologically frightening, yet oh so attractive man of means. Zane’s best sinister performance though remains with the movie Dead Calm. I felt the director really kept the gloves on my hero, Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown. This character always seemed to be holding back. It was as if she could have run away with many scenes with her shoot from the hip delivery. Here is where I’d like to see the outtakes. And in the lifeboat scene, the Molly Brown of my knowledge was far more urgent – you could say a real pushy broad as she verbally badgered the rowers (all women I thought) to return for survivors. And then there’s Gloria Stewart with her character throwing the blue diamond overboard after all those years!  I have trouble here. The jewel really had nothing to do with her love relationship with the Dawson character. She could have used the proceeds from the sale of the blue diamond to, say, purchase more lifeboats for the next Titanic or (and this is cruel I know) she could have used the money to open the Jack Dawson Acting School. What better way for her to memorialize her (thankfully dead) loved one.  Seriously, to feature such a thin love story within such a technical masterpiece as the Titanic is to minimize the real story – the death of more than 1500 people and the class/monetary barriers that allowed the privilege of life for some and death for others. (It appears the fate of the world’s 99% hasn’t changed much).  What of the mother who soothed her children with lullabies as the unsinkable massive ship tilted them toward certain death? What about the aged couple deciding to end their life together in peaceful non-resistance to the inevitable?  Are these not love stories?  What of the builders of this magnificent ship and that blind faith that a calm North Sea must engender? What about the Titanic’s near miss out of her last port? Another huge ship, (ironically named, the New York) pulled by the suction of the passing Titanic had cables snap  and engines had to be reversed to avoid a collision. Frightening premonitions are also evident in the novel Titan, written years before 1912 but with the unsettling storyline of big ship hits iceberg and sinks without enough lifeboats. There was the chief officer of the real Titanic who wrote a letter to his sister saying, “I still don’t like this ship. I have a [strange] feeling about it.” No kidding.  James Cameron missed incredible foreshadowing opportunities here. I’m just sayin’.

I write this review under the protection of time and distance.  I can tell you now that the pictures of Kid DiCaprio my then 9th grade female students taped on my bulletin board suffered an ugly fate by a few boys who planned to inflict certain pictorial pain. Everyday they waited for the safety of a (relatively) empty room in order to add some odd caricature over each new picture the girls put up. And I was remiss in my instruction of values and morals for I did not lecture them about their behavior. Instead, I ate my lunch and admired DiCaprio’s new look (black eye, fright-wig, hillbilly teeth) and the new moniker – Leonardo Decapitated.  After my lunch I removed all traces of the offensive facelift and waited for the next day’s incarnation.

These girls are now young women and I am sure part of the throng that will watch the Titanic movie in honor of the 100 year anniversary of the sinking. Maybe time is what I need to appreciate the movie Titanic. Maybe I need to see it again if for nothing else to get some pointers on how to survive the next 100 years.

WAR HORSE: In praise of Schmaltz

                                                                                                                                                                    I was impressed by some of the promotions of  the Broadway play War Horse; the wicker puppet horses that exuded a Lion King feeling though in much more dire circumstance. So I am not sure what I expected from Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse.  But the story of War Horse is not a new one and like human nature the camaraderie that can exist between animal and man can take many permutations. And Spielberg gives it to us in spades. After five minutes of the story I was on the verge of feeling cheated. Hadn’t I been animated by the themes involving the power of love and  love conquering the unconquerable  in the many Lassie movies and the TV show? This is Steven Spielberg, the man who gave us Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and Munich – all stories that pulled the curtain back on the wizard. Stories that gave pause to consider the questions of God, free will and the vile temper that can run deep within the breast of the human animal. What’s he doing treading the emotional road too-well trodden? I took a deep breath before suspending judgment.  Yes, “pure schmaltz,” was my reaction upon leaving the theatre and a woman waiting on her husband claimed she felt the same way but added, “in a good way.” She is right. A heartfelt story to occupy the heart is just what we  need. Now, today – in 2012.

From the very opening scene, I was struck with visuals of a lush and verdant English countryside replete with a mare giving birth then frolicking across the hillside with her young stallion foal. I settled into the movie made comfortable with expansive panoramas and life affirming human and animal nature. I found myself considering the job of color-timer – the person later in the post-production process whose job it is to balance the color, tone and density of a film. It is a job that is usually noticed for its annoyance when there are shifts or bounces in color as a film progresses from scene to scene.  Not so with War Horse.  I was wrapped in a blanket of greens, tweeds, dun earth and rich sunsets that moved seamlessly from the first dramatic moment to the last.

Life lessons abound in War Horse. There are lessons in courage, selflessness,  what it means to be a real man and the ubiquitous battle between the haves and have-nots.  Joey, the war horse is sold (his ownership changes hands more than a few times after this) in a bidding war to Albert’s father a Boer War veteran struggling to maintain his farm and family. Once the long-suffering wife scolds her husband for spending too much money on a thoroughbred rather than a draft horse, the emotional trajectory of this film is obvious with the time-honored theme of Eric Knight’s 1938 short story and later novel, Lassie Come Home. Like the entire Lassie franchise, Spielberg also wrings every human/animal bonding cliché from every scene.   In spite of cliché, this theme works for War Horse just as it did in reality. According to writer Nigel Clarke,

the original Lassie who inspired so many films and television episodes was a rough-haired crossbreed who saved the life of a sailor during World War I. Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the port of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Formidable was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. One of the ship’s life rafts, containing many bodies, was blown by gales along the coast and was washed ashore in Dorset. The bodies were laid out on the table of the local pub. The pub dog, Lassie, began to lick one sailor’s feet, and someone noticed the man was reacting to it—so they revived him.

This was life awaiting art (enter Hollywood) to validate the experience. Suspending disbelief is good for the soul. It provides a delicious alternative to the certainties of life today – for as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow the political landscape will continue to offer podiums for patriotic scoundrels conferring the blessings of improper gods. Children will make life-altering decisions out of starvation and necessity. A mother will make choices that in sunnier times would seem unthinkable but now – hauntingly probable. This is a world where the transitive verb, occupy now does double duty as a noun. War Horse is a movie that allows the viewer to address the issues of the human heart and run free when the heart is held hostage to what seems to be man’s congenital desire for war.  On the back of Joey we can escape the many handlers who do what they have to do to keep the war machine alive. The scene in which the horse is actually able to bring two sides together is antithetical to the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan – there is no blood just one English and one German soldier cutting free the horse from yards of barbed wire. Even these characters are given enough intellect to acknowledge the irony of their duties.  “We’ll be fighting in a few hours…” the Englishman in his thanks for the German offered wire cutters.  Joey is free and in a coin toss returns to the  English trenches unknowingly passing a gas-blind Albert being treated in a front line Red Cross facility. It is Albert’s well-known whistle that saves the badly injured horse from destruction. Cue John Williams and his mounting crescendo when long-lost horse meets his loving now blind master on the WW I battle field. This could have been the end to a very sweet movie.  But no – Spielberg has more emotion to wring from us. Such as the return of the grandfather of the beautiful yet sickly little French girl (into whose hands Joey fell when his two German deserter handlers were shot for their troubles)  who walks three days to the  auction of all English military property at the war’s end. In a show of love and good-will Albert’s entire unit pools their pounds to purchase Joey for Albert but it is not enough to compete with the grandfather who wants the horse to remember his now dead granddaughter. What is a heart to feel?  The granddaughter was so sweet and precocious that we want the horse to go to the grieving old man. But then there’s Albert, he’d been blinded by mustard gas in service to his country and we are happy he can see now so, “gee, let the soldier have his horse old man.” And the grandfather relents. It is what the young, beautiful and precocious girl would have wanted.

Albert returns home in the most touching and emotional scene in the entire movie. Mom and dad are in the garden unaware of the silhouette on horseback moving across the horizon. Mom puts her hand to her eyes prolonging the dramatic irony – it could be anybody riding up to the farm but we know who it is. This lasts long enough for both mother and father to come to full recognition of their son and then –  group hug. Big – group hug.  Joey is left to display his great profile for us to admire. The rich, fire-inducing sunset backdrop screamed Gone With the Wind and the moment when Scarlet falls to the red earth of Tara and screams, “as God is my witness I’ll never go hungry again…” Seriously, I indulged in a claymation visual of Joey the horse laying on the ground at the gate furiously pounding a many-scarred hoof neighing, “as God is my witness I’ll never go to war again.”

Yes, pure schmaltz. But schmaltz never tasted so good.

Searching for Howard Beale: The Fall of Our Discontent

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

*Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Ya, what’s going on

Wall Street: a neighborhood that handles the finances of those elusive job creators who have perpetrated the ultimate coup: enacting a suspect political dogma that the masses think they understand. Simple wording and snappy sound bites are all part of the gelatinous political-stew of lies and half-truths. But wait a minute, not all the masses have eaten this last supper of deception. Zuccotti Park has become a festival of signs and faces of protest which brings to mind a certain declaration – the emotional genesis for many a proletariat movement – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Today, life imitates art imitates life… (I could go on). The art here is the 1976 movie Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky, Directed by Sidney Lumet) where the mad rantings of prophetically sensitive newsman Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) send the network establishment into the hair-pulling tizzy of damage control. They fire the unhappy newsman deeming this much easier than attending to the root of his suicidal outbursts. Beale’s position is saved by a friend’s intervention and his promise to apologize to his viewers. But the emotional waters have already boiled and all it takes is heat from the lights, camera and the countdown to spill over. Once more, rather than the promised apology, Beale rages at the camera calling life meaningless and “bullshit!” The “angry man” scenario is an overnight (today it would be instantaneous) ratings hit moving the network to give Beale his own show. Network is ripe with subtext and the firing of Beale highlights the old Hollywood maxim – “…you’ll never work in this town again — until we need you.” The personal urgency behind Beale’s rage remains unexplored by those he works for and the audience he entertains with his emotional antics as the “Mad    Prophet” who refuses to be ignored any longer. Timing is everything in love, politics and business and Beale hits the perfect note when he persuades his audience to throw open their windows and shout the “mad as hell…” mantra of the masses. The people have found their leader  and, at his behest, will send letters and telegrams (yesterday’s e-mail and twitter) to the White House in protest of the UBS network company being bought out by a Saudi conglomerate (any of this sound familiar?). Beale’s pending emotional breakdown is ignored even as his message is being co-opted and twisted by his employers who fear his power.  The big boss does manage to get a naïve Beale to put his evangelical zeal to work on another, less populist cause. As a result, ratings tumble but Beale is kept on and, like a public hanging in which the corpse is left (as a lesson) to twist in the wind, his messages, along with Howard Beale the Mad Prophet, are barely remembered.

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

In 2000, because it was considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” Network  was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. And rightfully so. Those protesting in Zuccotti Park are mad as hell and (in a figurative sense) refuse to continue the dance with their executioners. It is as if Network creators had their fingers on the pulse of the future.

I have a journalism student who spent several days photographing, talking and sleeping at

courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

Zuccotti park as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This highly  motivated and intelligent young woman believes that education is her key (as it has always been) to open the gates of success. I wondered if she would come in contact with other college students, those who perhaps have already acquired the key to said gate. Would they tell her how the key no longer fits?  How can there be a future with bright horizons when there is no present to occupy? Sadly, it is part of the grand deception; the horizons that once belonged to today’s youth have been bundled, parsed and sold as part of the derivative stew of lies and half-truths. Yes, education can be the key to success, but not in a society that allows the 1%  to leave the building and take all horizons with them.

In the quest for lost horizons, frustration becomes the muse of the masses from Egypt to     Oakland and major points in between. If Howard Beale represents the 99%; those  unemployed without hope and those workers with more empathy than hope, then the 1%,

A wall Street-off Scott Lynch/Flickr

the vile and heartless who today would mock the protesters as they sip champagne on a balcony overlooking Wall Street, is represented by Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) the network programming head whose spiked heels have pierced many backsides in her race to the top of the ratings chart. Like the Wall Street dwellers, Christiansen has crapped where she lives but a little cinematic license allows her to close the door on the smell.

Not so in life – today.  Chickens truly do come home to roost- witness Zuccotti Park. But, until these demonstrations manifest in a change that will slay greed thereby returning futures to their rightful owners, these Wall Streeters get the same warning of self destruction that Network‘s Christiansen received from her lover (William Holden), “You are [greed] incarnate…indifferent to suffering, insensitive to [true] joy.” For Diana Christiansen, “All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” And so it goes with a life owned by those who would mock  misery with their bitter toasts.

   *From, What’s Goin’ On/Marvin Gaye