Some Thoughts on Some Recent Films

February 11th, 2015  |  Published in Winter 2015

A current trend in Hollywood films this season seems to be the biopic, based on “true” lives, but often manipulative of those stories toward particular social ends. Some are less directly about “real” people than creating possible representative lives and characters, but the intents seem similar: to characterize a segment or aspect of society and comment upon it as the focus of the “message” about society at large from a contemporary point of view. This, of course, can often distort the social worlds of the past from the perspective of their own times by layering them with our present ones. These messages are thus complicated, and quite open to a range of interpretation and response beyond the possible intentions of the filmmakers, further complicating viewers’ possible receptions of these films.

Foxcatcher is a very well written, carefully directed, and subtle acted “true story” about a rich scion of  the DuPont’s usurping of the United States Olympic Wrestling team. Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave gave especially striking portrayals of the would-be coach, a wrestler, and the disapproving matriarch of the DuPonts. Channing Tatum was a more complicated sensitive hunk than in his Magic Mike, but the dramatic arc was rather muted for all the creepy interpersonal tension it generated between coach and wrestlers. I knew the real life story somewhat beforehand, and maybe there was nowhere else really to go with this tragedy waiting to happen. It does portray overweening competitive aspirations to the point of madness, a small step beyond Whiplash (see below), with beautiful pictorialism and intelligence about nuanced psychologies throughout. The dramatic tone is of suppression and dread waiting to explode, and a portrait of a truly dangerous but powerfully placed individual. It works as a cautionary allegory of power and power-politics, as well, thereby.

I was quite pleasantly surprised at Whiplash. My interest in jazz drumming is not high, but it was a serious meditation on commitment to an art. I liked both leads very much as aspiring drummer and his martinet teacher. Miles Teller was quite convincing as the young drummer with reserves of will and talent, and J K Simmons was remarkable as the ruthless but idealistic drill-sergeant for the sake of realizing one’s full musical talent. Surprisingly dramatic and conflict-driven, it takes many unexpected turns. As a disquisition on the place of art in our lives, it opens a significant dialogue. Not a biopic, literally, but a simulacrum of actual lives and situations beyond its specific period.

Wild, a portrait of a real woman who hikes the Pacific Ridge Trail alone, (a rather foolhardy endeavor),  left me ultimately less engaged. Her quest was merely odd and unexplored, and her underscripted mother, whose death catalyzed this journey, as played by Laura Dern, didn’t register (as scripted) deeply enough to seem a real springboard for such reckless behavior. It ended in a good lyric epiphany, and Reese Witherspoon was quite earnest in it. Nice scenery, too, along the long slog. Larger import was suggested, but rather elusive beyond trying to save one’s psyche by externalization. I had seen Tracks, with Mia Wasikowska crossing the Western Australian desert with camels in tow earlier last year, and that character seemed more coherent in a similar self-chosen risky trek alone based on a real memoir. Neither resonated beyond the main characters’ quests very much to include a commentary on a larger psychological world.

Big Eyes is about The Keanes, Walter, (who usurped credit for a time for his wife Margaret’s huge -eyed children on canvas, and who, as a salesman, created a huge fad for the works) and Margaret, whose story this ostensibly is. She is left simply shallow and vacuous in the midst of the film’s bizarre subject matter, and though Amy Adams was quite good and Christoph Waltz wasn’t really (over the top showy) the script and the handling were so limited and limiting that it added up to very little. I felt I’d wasted my time. Even with a female empowerment theme coming in at the end when she finally reclaimed her works, it came with no examination of why she churned out those execrable waifs in the first place. Tim Burton has visual talent– the film looked good–but a very limited mentality about his subjects, especially adult psychological ones. I went because I didn’t think it could be THAT shallow and silly, but it was, despite a proto-feminist overlay and a fair evocation of some almost David Lynch-like visual aspects and  behavioralism of the 1950-1970’s period.

Two biopics of “genius” British scientists, Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game were exceptionally good examples of the genre, though both were very light on the specific intellectual contents of both geniuses. Theory Of Everything was really a love story, told through the lens of Steven Hawking’s first wife with a great performance by Eddie Redmayne impersonating Hawking through his descent into ALS. The decency and goodness of the various characters was very tonic and touching. The characters’ good will, proud and foolish as they might have been to go it alone for so long, was evident throughout. Very stiff upper lips for all! It certainly indicates the remarkable perseverance of all concerned, and celebrates that virtue in an earned feel-good way. A rarity: good and happy people surviving difficult fates in their domestic and (for Hawking, in his contributions to theoretical physics) public heroism.

The Imitation Game was a somewhat inaccurate rendition of Alan Turing’s life, I gather, but as a coherent disquisition on Asperger’s spectrum syndrome, and the great loneliness of the “different” outsider, it really reverberated with me, The film as film was less stylish than Theory of Everything, and it WAS manipulative about the red scare (invented as a hurdle for Turing, though true enough for British society then), the stupid resistance of his superiors (as usual with “geniuses” on film, but trumped up somewhat here), and the “framing device” itself, which is the telling of his story to a policeman on his trail. They were all artifices. Still, I was moved to tears by the tragic injustices portrayed. The effective melodramatics of social injustices were very powerful and hardly all invented. The stupid and cruel anti-homosexuality laws in England then were a springboard of the whole dramatic tragedy. In this sense it is a contemporary perspective laid upon an earlier era from a present more “enlightened” point of view that validates the embattled heroism of its difficult protagonist.

Many “facts” are disputable in the film: it seems he may have died from accidental self-poisoning from an experiment he was running. and he was already off the forced chemical castration drug (which didn’t reduce him mentally, as shown), so his suicide isn’t so certain. Also, in real life he was warmer (at least sometimes, supposedly) and less socially disabled than the film suggests. It doesn’t really matter for the effect of the film: it was a coherent script to produce outrage at “criminal” injustices from prejudice and stupidity–a point of view quite close enough to the present to–despite the melodrama–induce a deep reaction. I was left very angry at aspects of human society, then and now, a  reaction the film actively promotes…  Benedict Cumberbatch was terrific as the Alan Turing character and Kiera Knightley as good as I’ve ever seen her as his co-worker. Also, Mark Strong made a strong impression as a pragmatic professional spymaster. The enclosed atmosphere of Bletchley Park, the headquarters of the code-breakers, was very convincing.

Inherent Vice is not a biopic but an evocation of 1970 Southern Californian Hippie culture and its larger cultural contexts. In that sense, it’s a semi-realistic societal portrait, but through the lens of satire. It’s a loosely episodic picaresque, but I liked it much more than I’d expected,  not without reservations. I found the evocation of hippie affects and attitudes very evocative of that lost world. I really like noir, and this was basically a noir of sorts, though often quite satiric. Joachim Phoenix was very convincing as what he was playing, a stoned private eye, and most other parts from a huge cast of characters were well-played cameos too, including Josh Brolin as a complicated straight arrow cop and Katherine Waterston, who has a remarkable naked dramatic scene with Phoenix. Martin Short was rather broad, but most of the “characters,” though inscrutable, ultimately, were part of the general effective mood. I didn’t even mind Owen Wilson for a rare change. It didn’t add up very coherently to much, but the book (I’m told) doesn’t either—more a kind of tone poem on the page.

Pynchon’s whimsies are often self-indulgent–but this is really a mood piece, and it was certainly effectively translated to screen as that. I think others too young to have been there might  get some real feel for that period, now long gone. Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, scene by scene, was first rate. He’s very good at camera placement, composition, pacing, blocking, performance, etc., though rather weak on narrative–and this is even more loose than his better, earlier films, like Boogie Nights, set a little later in the same place. Nonetheless, his films are always of some big ambition and interest. Consisting of excellent parts, adding up to less than a complete whole, its atmosphere stayed with me long after, rather than evaporating, as many do… There are some serious, variously satisfying films in town– but they’re mostly smaller scale in some ways, and thus more simply focused than Inherent Vice, which, finally, has a bigger social canvas, but doesn’t seem to be aiming for too much more. This is a goof, and I easily got into the swim of it. Others might not.

Selma, by Ava DuVernay is another matter. What could be agitprop is instead a nuanced meditative work of great calm and clarity despite the charged subject matter. Her previous film, Middle of Nowhere had the same classic virtues: psychological subtlety and clarity in a coherent frame. Selma is the story of Martin Luther King Jr’s process of addressing the logistics and moral complexities (and pragmatic difficulties) of the Freedom March for African American voting rights in the South in the 60’s. It is not propaganda nor simplification: he is a complex and sometimes uncertain character, played with force and dignity by David Oyelowo (also in Middle of Nowhere). Another British actor in a potential Best Actor role, joining Redmayne and Cumberbatch. The evocation of King, without permission from his family to use any of his actual words, is quite remarkable. The intelligent direction and portrayals by all are out of the ordinary, especially for this kind of potentially easily simplified  hagiographic material. It is not worshipful, but celebratory of a complex and conflicted human being at a turning point in our political history. It doesn’t indulge in much anachronistic perspective in hindsight to heroize him, but captures the moment by moment engagement in the process of an important social battle. He has to make complicated strategic decisions in the moment, without certainty but with risk and bravery. That little has fully resolved in race relations in America since then is left implicit.

I would add that the recent (but unseen by me) Unbroken, by Angelina Jolie, also fits into this category of biopic films.

Last but not least, American Sniper. The character, Kyle, is a patriotic unintrospective “well meaning” killer in the service of protecting his fellow soldiers. Also, a loutish brute among the same in Seal school and Iraq. That Eastwood shows the macho world of Navy Seals so well doesn’t necessarily mean he endorses all of it at all. They ARE our well-trained “protectors.” There are many demurrals by others, such as his wife and brother, and one can see the PTSD havoc the war creates. It’s ironic that he was killed on a firing range by a disturbed veteran he was trying to help with PTSD back home in real life. The film doesn’t show that or even mention it specifically, just that a disturbed soldier killed him. It is so insane that we were there in Iraq at all that it colored the whole experience for me, though it might not for others.

It’s somewhat like Katherine Bigelow’s Hurt Locker: a driven man who can’t easily readjust to America after the Iraqi front. In this case the film skirts what I gather is a darker human being than shown. It’s anti-war if you take the meta view I did: hellish and stupid deaths throughout. But the character simply sees it as doing the right thing. It’s too ambiguous to really know what Eastwood intended. It’s well worth seeing for quality direction and performances, with troubling/viscerally exciting material. Which is a good in itself, as far as I’m concerned. Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are vivid presences as sniper and wife. The sniper’s wife  has a lot to say about how he is neglecting his family for war. Bradley Cooper really bulked up for this role, and played it like a committed macho believer.

The film has a broader perspective, I think. To show flag wavers is NOT to embrace flag wavers, necessarily. It’s more nuanced and complex, generating moral ambiguities. In fact the “hero” is in many ways NOT one, but a committed killer of women and children sometimes to protect his buddies. Yes, some might see their point of view by projecting onto it easily. In Zero Dark Thirty by Kathrine Bigelow (also maker of Hurt Locker) the US tortures prisoners: that’s not an endorsement of torture, though some war hawks might applaud that in it..

I think it’s a very unsophisticated view of art to think that showing something is to embrace or endorse it. This film simply shows war acts in their disturbing realities. It’s hard to say that it embraces these acts–it just shows them in skin crawling detail… Soldiers are under fire and under duress often. Maybe I’m projecting my own thoughts onto “patriotic” scenes, but I think they’re all sorry dupes for an evil and insane war. The Iraqis are simply fighting their invaders. The sniper simply kills them with only slight regrets occasionally. He thinks 9/11 justified invading Iraq! A sick joke that reviewers think is meant at face value when it’s merely his blindered stupidity perhaps? It’s possible Eastwood meant us to identify with him–but I’m not sure. He’s not as shallow or stupid as this do good sniper, I think. He is a Classic Hollywood director who has made a large number of significant films of great nuance, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby among them…

I thought Bigelow’s Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were fuller thematically and better than Sniper in its narrower range, but this is in the same league, at least. Violence is not an automatic turn off for me on screen: it’s a dramatic device that can be used for good or ill, and can be aesthetically well done or not. It’s not “real” violence, in any case. In real life, violence is just sickening. Showing it on screen can be part of a moral discourse, and this film raises many questions, rather than just waving a flag.

Social questions raised by filmmakers through individual portrayals in a social context seem to be the implicit and explicit intent of all of these films to various degrees. In that sense, perhaps an engagement with examination and critique of social structures is at last becoming a more common practice in Hollywood film. There always were such films and such implications, but it seems more central, deliberate, and overt in the very nature of “true stories” selected for their social significance. Has Hollywood become more cognizant of social issues? If you look back, I think you’ll find they’ve always been doing this. These are just a contemporary sensibility brought to such examinations, maybe more realistically cognizant– or not: they are still commercial fabrications, perhaps in a more :”realistic”-seeming mode than the conventions of escapism and lack of analysis of past times. In that, they reflect a more reflective and cynical age, perhaps, post-Depression of 2008 in America.

–David Schloss

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