Saturday, November 23, 2013

Neglected Gem #49: Mission to Mars (2000)

When I saw Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars in 2000 with a heckling, pre-release audience, I didn’t think much of it. A year later, though, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria screened it on a double bill with The Fury as part of a month-long De Palma retrospective, and a group of former students who took me out there to see The Fury persuaded me to stay and take a second look at Mission to Mars. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the two movies that made me look at Mission to Mars with new eyes, but the second time around I fell in love with it. The Fury has an almost insane narrative, but it’s a work of such visual inventiveness and emotional potency that, if you connect with it, the story is no obstacle; its excesses serve the movie just as equally ridiculous stories serve Jacobean tragedies and nineteenth-century operas. And though Mission to Mars has a much simpler silly plot, it too is a kind of outline – you might say a metaphor – for De Palma’s ideas about the tension between technology and humanity and the nature of loss, his two favorite subjects.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Imagine!: Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived

Photo by Walt Cisco/Dallas Morning News

I was only four years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, fifty years ago today, also on Friday. Though I don’t remember that event I've always admired the man, despite the later revelations of his philandering before and during his years at the White House. I’m Canadian but like so many people I felt that JFK symbolized a promise for a better future for his country and by extension the rest of the planet, which also took to his fresh, youthful vigour. His was a promise, of course, cut tragically short when he was still in his prime. And I, too, have wondered what a two term John F. Kennedy presidency would have meant, in light of America’s continuing presence in Vietnam and its challenges surrounding race relations. In that vein, Jeff Greenfield’s new speculative book, If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (Putnam) is a welcome imaginative journey into a world that so many of us wish had come to be and a timely reminder that one man can make a huge difference in the world.

Greenfield, a veteran journalist who has already made a previous, effective foray into presidential alternate history with his book Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan, keeps to a modest tone throughout. He never overstates his points, but emphasizes that a continuing Kennedy presidency would have been significantly at odds with the Lyndon B. Johnson one we actually lived through.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vicious Circles: The JFK Conspiracy Films

Immersing oneself in the conspiracy mythology that has grown up around the assassination of President Kennedy means hearing, again and again, confident assertions of things that have been repeatedly shown to be untrue. Oswald couldn’t shoot straight, they say, and no one could get off the number of shots he supposed fired in the space of time he had using the weapon he would have used. There's also exhaustive, detailed arguments that completely unravel upon close inspection (such as all the mocking elaborations on the impossible trajectory of the bullet that passed through the bodies of Kennedy and John Connally that fail to take into account the fact that, as you guess just from looking at photos of the two men riding in the presidential limousine, Kennedy’s seat was a few key inches higher than Connally’s).

There was never any valid intellectual reason for doubting that Lee Harvey Oswald was the president’s killer, just as there’s never been any valid intellectual reason for doubting that the plays and poetry credited to William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare. Arguments that somebody else wrote Shakespeare’s work always come down to snobbery; they’re emotionally necessary for people who can’t deal with the fact that the greatest English writer was a mutt. The belief that Kennedy must have been the victim of a conspiracy must be very reassuring to people who can’t wrap their minds around the idea that some mutt with a mail-order rifle changed the course of history. That helps to explain why high-profile conspiracy proponents – people who claim to think that powerful forces, maybe even the government itself, murdered the president and got off scott free, never seem to be as furiously angry and despairing as you’d expect them to be. Given the chance to spout off, an Oliver Stone or Mark Lane is more likely to come across as remarkably at peace, even smug. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t live in a world where chaos reigns and things are out of man’s control. They know something you don’t know.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

From Historian to Novelist: The Work of Dan Vyleta

Working toward the Fuhrer. It’s the watchword of the age…Who’s to say the [arrested man] isn’t guilty? A little time with us, and I’m sure he will confess.”

—Detective Franz Teuben in The Quiet Twin

As the first part of this epigraph suggests, Dan Vyleta has deftly incorporated into his second novel one of the most important insights of Sir Ian Kershaw’s definitive biography of Hitler. Orders do not have to be explicitly given: citizens should instinctually be able to interpret the wishes of the Fuhrer. If it is not in the best interest of individuals to act in this spirit – or if historical circumstances have radically altered – they must learn to dissemble and wear a mask to protect their secrets. To varying degrees, this aperçu could apply to the characters in the three Vyleta novels.

As a novelist, Vyleta carries his historical research lightly since he is primarily interested in creating a world. He has accomplished that goal for the most part exceptionally well in his novels: the frigid winter of Berlin 1946-47 in Pavel and I (2009), the early months of 1939 wartime Vienna in The Quiet Twin (2011), and 1948 post-war Vienna in The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins, 2013). He has also peopled his novels with a bevy of idiosyncratic characters that appear to be inspired by his historical research and Dickens, Greene, Dostoevsky and Kafka underlining his European origins: his parents were Czechoslovakian refugees living in Berlin where he was born and he did his doctorate in history at Cambridge before coming to Canada. Perhaps he owes his greatest debt, though he does not mention it, to the 1949 film, The Third Man, written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. The black and white film noir quality of that film is an avatar to the atmosphere and plot of his novels.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Blunt: Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave

During an interview with American composer Randy Newman on the National Public Radio show Morning Edition in the fall of 2003, host Bob Edwards questioned Newman's motivation for composing "Sail Away," a sweeping and majestic track about the slave trade told from the point of view of the slave trader. In the song, Newman not only steps inside the skin of this flesh merchant, he introduces his African captives to an idea of freedom which turns out to hold the fruits of every horror they will later face as black Americans. But the orchestral arrangement is so majestic, it arouses an eagerness to jump on board in spite of the words you're hearing. Shocked that Newman could write such a beautiful song about such a shocking subject, Edwards pressed on. "What am I supposed to say," Newman replied, "'Slavery is bad?' It's like falling out of an airplane and hitting the ground. It's just too easy. And it has no effect."

Newman could just as easily be describing Steve McQueen's new and highly acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave. If McQueen's first picture, Hunger (2008), boiled a complex situation down to a blunt portrait of one man starving himself to death out of political principle; and his second, Shame (2011), reduced a character's sexual obsession to a prurient judgment of his pathology, 12 Years a Slave, a true story about a free Northern black man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sold into slavery, repeatedly tells us  with the impact of a blunt instrument  that 'slavery is bad.' This approach may be too easy, but (judging by the enthusiastic reviews and huge box office) it has apparently been highly effective. McQueen achieves this acclaim by opting for endless scenes of pictorial abasement to whip up the audience's outrage rather than dramatically engaging us in Northup's fate. McQueen's glacial temperament and his freeze-dried painterly style (literally, with its nods here to Goya) treats melodrama as a formal exercise.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fascism and Folly: The Donmar Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse

Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar, imported from London’s Donmar Warehouse for a five-week run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, is the second version this year of Shakespeare’s tragedy with a prison setting. The first was Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s film Caesar Must Die, an account of an actual performance of the play by male inmates at a high-security Italian lock-up. In Lloyd’s production it’s enacted by the inhabitants of a woman’s prison. The audience gathers outside the heavy metal warehouse door for unsmiling uniformed guards to let them in, and then waits again, in their seats, for the actors to march in.

This Caesar, like Orson Welles’s famous 1937 brown-shirt adaptation, is about fascism, an idea that’s underscored by the setting but even more, intriguingly, by the all-female cast, which throws the boys’ club machismo and thuggery of Caesar and his associates into relief. Caesar (the terrific Frances Barber) is charismatic, a crowd pleaser, who’s playful with his friends. But the playfulness has an edge, his sense of irony a scary unpredictability. “Let me have men around me who are fat,” he declares as he opens a box of doughnuts, and the audience laughs appreciatively at this contemporary variation on a familiar line. But then he grabs Cassius (Jenny Jules), whose “lean and hungry look” has occasioned this declaration, pins him to a chair, shoves a doughnut in his maw, takes a bite out of it himself, and then wets his finger delicately and uses it to wipe Cassius’s mouth. The act is simultaneously a humiliation and a threat. Caesar’s men pay tribute to him by wearing cardboard masks of his face; when Cassius, Brutus (Harriet Walter) and Casca (Susan Brown) meet for a secret conference – they sit together at a table pretending to read magazines while they murmur rushed remarks – Casca reports that some men they know have been put to silence for taking down Caesar’s images.