Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lore: Breaking Down the Ideological Barrier

“The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.”
― Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, 1976.

“A vast army of ghosts, cripples and monsters inhabited my dream landscapes, where cities were burned and forests were mowed down by a hail of bombs.”
―Melita Maschmann, Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self, 1964.

In 1933 when Melita Maschmann was fifteen years old, she secretly joined the girls’division of the Hitler Youth in a protest against her wealthy conservative parents. Her goal was to escape from her “childish narrow life,” and attach herself “to something that was great and fundamental.” For almost twenty years, she remained a committed, avowed Nazi supporter experiencing at times “overwhelming joy” as she worked in the press and propaganda sections during the 1930s and supervised the evictions of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms during the war years. By the end of the war, she exposed herself to danger expecting to die since she was unable to imagine “an existence robbed of the possibility an inner life.” Even after she spent three years in prison and underwent the compulsory de-Nazification program, she remained an unrepentant Nazi. Then over the next twelve years she underwent a profound transformation that culminated in her mea culpa memoir, Account Rendered, which attempted to understand not excuse “the wrong and even the evil steps I took.” It was the first time a former National Socialist publicly acknowledged that she had served “an inhuman political system” and admitted that she had not thought for herself. The vast majority, like the parents in the novella and film adaptation Lore, burned any incriminating documents. They regarded Maschmann’s memoir as a form of betrayal and never forgave her.

Cate Shortland's Lore (2012)
Lore (short for Hannelore), the central character of Rachel Seiffert’s “Lore,” one of three interlocking novellas in the 2001 The Dark Room, and Cate Shortland’s 2012 film, Lore, is about the same age as Maschmann was in 1933. The setting for the novella and the film is Bavaria in the spring of 1945. The girl of the title shepherds her four younger siblings that range from about twelve to a baby on a perilous trek through a ruined country under foreign occupation to reach the grandmother’s home outside of Hamburg several hundred kilometres away. The film might be understood as a latter-day Grimm tale: the mother warns Lore to stay from soldiers because they kill all the children. Like Maschmann, she too undergoes a psychological odyssey from Hitlerian delirium to the beginning of awareness about the truth of the Nazi horror, a process in which she is forced to confront the demons of Nazi indoctrination and its consequences. As a result of her harrowing ordeal, Maschmann was permanently scarred. We do not know of course the future of Lore but the evidence from other sources suggests that the offspring and descendants of powerful Nazi officials did experience lives fraught with guilt and shame. Some sought reparation by converting to Judaism.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Strike Three: Brian Helgeland's 42

It’s curious that most American films about baseball, arguably the country’s national sport, have little to do with baseball. It doesn't matter whether you're watching Pride of the Yankees (1942) or The Natural (1984). You never get to fully comprehend what makes the game such a clear mirror of the culture that created it because the movies never want it to be one. Instead, baseball ends up as an inspirational tool to tell tired moral dramas of personal triumph. In The Natural, for instance, based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, Robert Redford gets to hit a ninth-inning home run to save his troubled team as well as his own corrupted soul. (The original novel, on the other hand, had quite the opposite conclusion.) It’s as though baseball heroes need to undergo their own secular Stations of the Cross in order to reach individual redemption. In Field of Dreams (1989), Kevin Costner gets to heal the emotional and generational rift between him and his dead father by having his dad's spirit come back to play catch with him. In dealing with the scandal of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players fixing the World Series, Field of Dreams (based on WP Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe) airbrushes out of its story the more troubled, uncomfortable aspects of baseball’s past by portraying the participants of the scandal as innocent victims. (The picture even shamelessly features a black journalist talking worshipfully about baseball being the one constant in American life when, in fact, his race was kept out of the major leagues for half the century.) 

Rather than examine how the game has both ignored and led the political and cultural changes in America, most movies about baseball resist the ties that bind the game to the nation's character in an effort to win over the mass audience with stories about heroism. Baseball has certainly had its iconic heroes, from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Cal Ripkin (just as it has had its tainted ones, from Ty Cobb to Pete Rose to Barry Bonds), but, in movies, we rarely get to see what sets those individuals apart from the rest of us. There's a desire to make them seem ordinary, as though this contrived egalitarianism would make us identify with them more strongly. One baseball movie that did truly confront the complexity of our celebrity worship, Ron Shelton's bracing Cobb (1994), about the violent and racist clutch hitter Ty Cobb, was ignored by audiences and critics alike (just before, ironically, O.J. Simpson's trial would capture national attention).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Male Gaze: The Fall

Gillian Anderson as SDI Gibson in The Fall

When Gillian Anderson was on The X-Files in 1990s, she was often overshadowed in the media, if not on the show itselfby her co-star, David Duchovny. It was Duchovny who was constantly being singled out in the press for being unusually intelligentyou know, for an actorand who stepped away from the series to pursue a movie career. (It was also Duchovny who seemed to go out of his way to select movie roles that seemed to call attention to his lack of range and who, in recent years, has raised the question of just how intelligent someone who can stay interested in his Showtime series Californication can possibly be.) After starring in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth in 2000, Anderson seemed to step away from the spotlight; she worked on the stage in Britain, took sizable roles in a few small films and small roles in a few higher-profile films (The Last King of Scotland, Tristram Shandy), and played Lady Dedlock in the superb 2005 BBC production of Bleak House. She’s been more active, or at least easier for Americans to catch sight of, in the last year or so than at any time since The X-Files went off the air in 2002. Last year, she gave brief but strong, compellingly weird performances in TV versions of Great Expectations (as a spectral, wounded-bird Miss Haversham) and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (as a madam with aspirations to haughtiness), and in the last few months she’s had a recurring role on NBC’s Hannibal and played the leada police detective investigating a serial murder casein the five-hour Irish TV series The Fall.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Repairing the World, One Case at a Time: Howard Shrier’s Miss Montreal

Crime novelist Howard Shrier (Photo credit:

Jonah Geller is back in Howard Shrier’s Miss Montreal (Random House Canada), the fourth book in his series chronicling the adventures of the determined Toronto private eye. Over four novels, including Buffalo Jump (2008), High Chicago (2009), Boston Cream (2012) and now Miss Montreal (2013), Jonah has gone from working for a security agency as a PI to running his own private investigative business, World Repairs, with partner Jenn Raudsepp. (World Repairs is the English term for the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam, a Jewish mandate to repair the world and make it a better place by doing good deeds.Or as Shrier puts it, "Jonah Geller: repairing the world, one asshole at a time.") Unlike other Jewish detectives, such as fellow Torontonian Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman, in a series set in small town Ontario and a bit lighter in tone or Harry Kemelman's low key Rabbi David Small books, Jonah is a tough guy: ex-Israeli army, with an exterior that doesn’t countenance any belligerence, including dealing effectively with anti-Semitism, evident in Buffalo Jump when he dispatched a bigot aboard a Toronto streetcar. He’s also something of a tragic figure, saddened by what he witnesses around him and more and more forced into situations where he has had to use violence, something he would rather have put behind him after a calamitous army experience in Israel.

Shrier’s books are consistent in tone and depth, smartly written mysteries that rarely telegraph where they’re going and offer up some interesting regular characters, including openly gay Raudsepp and Dante Ryan, a hit man with a conscience. (I know Dante sounds like a cliché but in Shrier’s skilled hands, he’s not.) Shrier, who is a two-time winner of the prestigious Arthur Ellis award for excellence in crime fiction (Buffalo Jump won for Best First Novel of 2008; High Chicago for Best Novel of 2009), also brings his book’s settings, the cities where their stories largely unfold, to vivid life, as well. They range from a down-at-its-heels Buffalo, whose glory days, if they ever existed, are behind it, to confident and corrupt Chicago to gentler Boston, riven by racial and religious currents as well as differing police jurisdictions. Miss Montreal, which begins with Jonah investigating the death of a Montreal newspaper columnist whom he knew from summer camp when they were both twelve, deftly focuses on Canada’s most unique city, dealing with its perpetual nationalistic French-English divide, current immigration concerns including integrating a sometimes hostile Muslim population as well as hearkening back to the city’s storied past, which was both wide open, in terms of illicit entertainment, and conservative in its social mores. (Shrier, now 56 years-old, began his writing career in 1979 as a crime reporter for the sadly defunct Montreal Star so he knows whereof he writes.) It’s another ambitious but successful book, proof positive that Shrier is one of the finest mystery writers extant. Critics at Large recently interviewed him by e mail in his Toronto hometown.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Neglected Gem #42: Weeds (1987)

Weeds, written by Dorothy Tristan and John Hancock and directed by Hancock in 1987, is clumsy, and it has an irregular, unwieldy shape, but it’s brimming with life. You may be excited and touched by it in a way that you aren't by technically much better pictures; it may be awkward and messy but it’s rarely trite. And perhaps the film’s structural problems even work in its favor – you never know what’s coming next. The towering actor Nick Nolte plays Lee Umstetter (a character suggested by the real-life ex-con Rick Cluchey). Lee’s in San Quentin for life, with no possibility for parole, on an aggravated armed robbery charge; he keeps trying to off himself and failing, so, resigned to his life, he decides to find something else to fill up his time besides suicide attempts. Presenting himself at the prison library desk, he asks for a thick book and gets War and Peace; when he’s done, he returns it to the librarian and demands, “Thicker.” Umstetter’s got a quick mind, and before long he’s sampled Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn, and turned himself into a genuine, unpretentious intellectual. (It’s hard to imagine anyone more appropriate for this role than Nolte, Hollywood’s peerless combination of masculine instinct and intelligence, in his prime. Someone should have cast him as Ernest Hemingway.) When the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop (which John Hancock helmed for a while) brings its famous jail-tour production of Waiting for Godot to San Quentin, Lee, turned on by the play, decides to write his own, an existential/expressionist drama with music about prison life called Weeds. (The metaphor refers to the inmates.) Then he and his buddies, his wry cellmate Claude (Lane Smith) and the grinning, effusive black entrepreneur Navarro (John Toles-Bey), get the permission of the authorities to produce it. A local journalist, Lillian Binghamton (Rita Taggart), catches the performance and campaigns for Lee’s release. It takes a while – by the time the governor agrees to spring him, all his friends are long gone. Once out on the street, Lee rehabilitates himself by gathering them all together and starting a company, The Barbed Wire Theatre, to produce a revised version of Weeds.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Four Feathers: The Novel and the Films

Shekhar Kapur's The Four Feathers (2002)

The British Empire was not only the playground for boys’ adventure stories; it provided the backdrop for the A.E.W. Mason novel The Four Feathers, a nuanced exploration of male redemption, one that remained immensely popular from its 1902 publication through to the Second World War. Set during a three-year period, 1882-85, Four Feathers charts the risks and the dangers to which a young man exposes himself in order to atone for his loss of honour. Unlike the adolescent adventure novels of George Henty, among others, Mason’s heroes define themselves less by acts of derring-do than through their quiet, anonymous, patient endurance in the service of others. The novel has spawned seven films – two made during the Great War spoke to current concerns – but the most memorable were the 1939 version produced by Alexander Korda on the eve of another war, reviewed in these pages by Shlomo Schwartzberg, and a 2002 version by Shekhar Kapur. The acclaimed Korda film is more in keeping with the jingoism of the time in which it was made rather than the spirit of Mason’s tale, while Kapur’s adaptation is more faithful to the spirit and intent of the novel.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Master and a Hack

The Weir, directed by Josie Rourke

The supernatural is alive in the work of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson. Ghosts appear in Shining City and in his movie Eclipse; in The Seafarer a man plays poker against the devil. But these pieces don’t feel like folk fables, because stylistically McPherson is a realist. In The Weir, which was recently revived in a fine production at London’s Donmar Warehouse (it closed to make room for McPherson’s latest, The Night Alive), ghosts are only spoken of, but by the end of the evening they’re so close you can almost hear them breathing. The play is set in a bar in rural Ireland (County Leitrim, to be exact) where four middle-aged pals, including the proprietor, Brendan (Peter McDonald), entertain a newcomer, Valerie (Dervla Kirwan), who has just moved into a house in the area. She’s attractive, evidently single, more sophisticated than the women they know, and the men fall over themselves trying to impress her – especially the sportiest of them, Finbar (Risteárd Cooper), who owns the local hotel and appears to be the richest man in the town. Somehow the conversation turns to local ghost stories. Jack (Brian Cox) tells the first one, about a knocking spirit that was driven away by a priest’s exhortations; legend has it that the house had been built on a “fairy road.” Only after Jack finishes his tale does it occur to the men (the fourth, shy, awkward Jim, is played by Ardal O’Hanlon) that the haunted house they’ve been describing is the one Valerie has moved into, and they’re ashamed and embarrassed about any discomfort they might have caused her. But she doesn’t seem unnerved, and the stories continue.