[2015] The Martian

October_2_24_92_99_18.epsThere is a long history of awards’ ceremonies ignoring science fiction as fun but not worthy of enshrinement. Almost, if not all, of the films recorded as Best Picture have been dramas or musicals. The voters, mysterious creatures, but all too predictable, seek to reinforce the gravitas of the human condition, or the light-heartedness of the times between the terrible. Heavy be the high watermark that keeps film from being fun; Drama is Art, but not Fun, because verboten be that particular Venn diagram.

If comedy is the populist mandate for the film industry – and it is – then science fiction is the socialist third-rail. Audiences who scoff at a serious science fiction work – book or movie – often cannot decide whether they enjoy the science or fiction part less. The concepts are too high-minded and far-flung, and the situations just not humanistic. We have not yet been to Mars in any capacity, so instead of letting computer aided graphics show us a branch of the possible, the Academy scoffs. Millions of people saw The Martian and presumably enjoyed it because while the human condition needs history to preserve for future generations, the human condition is not simply a puzzle of the past, it is also very much the struggle for the uncertainty of the future.

Science fiction offers an escape to its readers. The scariest science fiction toes the line between the possible, the macabre, and the near future. The world is broken and we need technology to save it. Eventually, we find out that what we thought we knew was completely wrong, and we unite to crush the dystopia to bring order. The tamest sorts the world out; we are a fixed species in the future and our problems are common and external. We are running out of room and resources for humans, say, so it is time to start exploring our Solar System. Here, science fiction branches off again. There is the fear of being alone in our Universe – and then not – and our neighbors are not benevolent. Then we fight for survival, and we win, because to watch a film about the actual end of the world shows a bleakness reserved for the innermost depths of our minds. There is also the joy of rooting for a singular human who faces dire consequences and must channel the best of us. This character is heroic and faces internal conflict as a matter of narrative. But this human is relatable because his situation is unbelievable, but he is a projection of what we would like ourselves to be.

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[1942] Mrs. Miniver

mrs-_miniver_posterEvery American film released between 1941 and 1945 was in some way a “war” film. It is the context that gives each film this title, because in some way some person working on the film was related to World War II – a family member serving, a friend or community newly employed in the manufacturing effort, a dissident among them. The unease about America’s role in the war could be interpreted, written about, filmed, distributed, discussed, and then repeated. Film became – eventually – a propaganda tool for the war effort and those who would want to prop up effort as meaningful and necessary made sure in some way that this message was clear.

And it was. Mrs. Miniver was perhaps this decade’s finest example of film-as-allegory.

It is not hard to dismiss Mrs. Miniver as a phlegmatic period piece about a middle class family only tangentially affected by the war. No one in the small hamlet where the Minivers live has had to put life and limb on the line for the war, yet. The devastation and heartbreak of war is elsewhere and in the future, though how could anyone know that? The townsfolk lead quotidian lives as a matter of fact. Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) worries about how to tell her husband about a new hat she bought, while Mr. Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) does the same, but with a new car. For this family, there is no ultimate choice, and any decisions are not have or have not, but have this one or that one. This representation is remarkably mom, pop, and 2.5 kids. A cynic could dismiss this film as a petty drama about a flower show; they could be right. But they are so, so wrong.

The seams unravel when young Vin Miniver (Richard Ney) both meets a lovely girl (Teresa Wright) and then leaves to join the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. This dramatic sequence will tend to devolve into his death and her grief. But Mrs. Miniver flips this on its head. The Dunkirk evacuation, not yet history, provides a gripping arc for the Minivers to be apart, and for Mrs. Miniver to understand what “enemy” means. It also shows her how to deal with desperate.

A climactic showdown between Mrs. Miniver, who is every woman, and a downed German soldier, who is every enemy, says much about who each of these archetypes is. As Mrs. Miniver feels, so do the women who fill her metaphorical shoes, and humanizing the fallen soldier makes the war more real. No longer are we fighting The Germans, but just one German, who is afraid and inept. Mr. Miniver, distant, if only for a while, is every man deployed. Director William Wyler, a native of Western Europe and close to this conflict, knew all well how to get this message across to the utmost success. Continue reading “[1942] Mrs. Miniver”

[1956] Friendly Persuasion

Without a whimper some movies – wager half or more of the 546 movies nominated so far for Best Picture – fall out of the consensus consciousness. Musicals, memorable, often last longer than say, a period piece written contemporaneously and are destined to be stuck there. Old films that strike a memorable dent in their medium, say Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey, continue so through essayists who all have a new take on it (they don’t) and families who insist they know film (more likely) needing to pass it on to their sons and daughters, lest the lore get lost. Other films, period pieces about period pieces, are destined to be buried within their own time, with neither sharp pen nor advocate to fight for it.

If Friendly Persuasion has yet to cross into the national conversation, it is unlikely to ever. Ask anyone what movie won Best Picture in 1956, let alone the other four films nominated; some might remember or guess Around the World in 80 Days. Others would guess Gigi. (Does it matter?) Counter: only the most dedicated film buff can name all 500-plus films at any given time, and even then, it is unlikely that this film comes to mind. The why is obvious, a more interesting question is the why not this one?

Friendly Persuasion is antidramatically left off best-of lists, and the web barely has a criticism of it, save for a few “Gary Cooper, listless as ever…” hot takes. Even its Wiki has gaps in its plot summary. It was neither William Wyler nor Michael Wilson’s best known or most accredited work and its permanence did not aggrandize during a period of consistent blacklisting. Despite seven nominations, it won zero. Is this what happens to a film that comes up nil – Oscar graveyard? How long after its rollover did the public lose contemporary, then historical interest in Friendly Persuasion? It is now over 60 years old and has not quite held up; we are less religious and less interested in the combination of a now-historical film about a historical age then and this combination with puritanism has not and will not continue to stand the test of Public time.

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[1978] An Unmarried Woman

unmarried_womanThousands of years of male dominance has told women to shut up, sit down, and do as they are told. This has always been wrong and a lot perplexing to even the most progressive mind. How could an entire gender be designated “other” and inferior? Women’s liberation had been a long time coming and it used a strong media strategy and political campaign to break the shackles of expectation and subjugation. Men, oh men, did not like this one bit; while women went high – garnering lots of support and progressive change, men – somehow turning a positive movement into a negative attack on their every fiber and being – went low, or so it now seems. The underside of the women’s liberation movement, hiding in plain sight but without the thrust to make it stop, reared its ugly head in late 2017 after decades of rumor and manipulation, rug-shuffling, and horror and contempt.

Sexual assault, the unwarranted advance and action of one person toward another (overwhelmingly men preying on women), has most likely always been a deep seed in human culture.  But until the clock struck midnight in the waning months of both 2017 and of personal privacy and freedom, it has been quiet.

This is no longer the case and it is hardly a coincidence.

The backlash to men no longer being able to corral women – “own them” – was a Red Pill dismissal of their right to organize and present themselves as human beings. It’s belittling to everyone involved because a ferocious right to one’s own body and morality is no one’s to give but one’s own self. Chauvinists dismiss a woman’s right as precious and meaningless; they are wrong. “Nice guys” present as harmless, but are reptilian and have hijacked someone else’s perception of morality as their own; they too are wrong. Not everyone is at fault for the way the world has unraveled, but it everyone’s individual and collective responsibility to dig deep and bridge the gap between acceptable behavior and horrid, life-threatening, unwanted behavior.  Continue reading “[1978] An Unmarried Woman”

[1986] The Mission

the_mission-702519941-largeCan a film be considered a religious text? Yes: if it openly professes a love for one’s gods and saints, openly proselytizes for the purposes of religious conversion, or maintains a strong interpretation of a written or oral religious text. In a tech-dominated world it is a means of spreading the Word visually. In other words – a modern world where information is more valuable by the second than by the sentence. It is too simple to say that our attention spans are shortening and that the only way we learn is force-fed through television. It is too simple to say that the only way to teach is to show and not tell. It is interesting that in a world with more choice, the options for information transmission have shrunk.

No: a film isn’t a religious text. How can it be? For a film to be successful it has to enrapture; tell a story, but not preach; fulfill character and plot narrative. A successful film has to draw from and reflect back its creation onto its audience – a religious text is instructional and a one-way guide to Salvation and Surrender. Or: can it be up to interpretation? Can a film be slick enough to work as a religious text for visual learners and a narrative for those who choose to see religion as a plot point and not an instruction manual? 1986’s The Mission comes close.

The Mission is a quasi-retelling of the betweenmath of the Treaty of Madrid that realigned Spanish/Portuguese political borders in Central South America at the expense of native peoples homes and livelihoods. In the center of this realignment are Jesuit priests, who have successfully(?) converted a tribe to Christianity bringing with them industry, housing tenure, and service to a higher power. The Jesuit priests, led by Jeremy Irons’ Father Gabriel, and eventually Robert De Niro’s Captain/Father Mendoza, seek to retain a relationship with the native tribe in spite of differing attitudes from the colonizing envoys – the Spanish are laxer than the Portuguese. They (Jesuits) see their purpose as one direct from God, by way of salvation and prosperity. They (envoys) see their purpose as one direct from God, by way of salvation and prosperity.  Continue reading “[1986] The Mission”

[1992] A Few Good Men

a_few_good_men_posterIs a man “good” if he is honorable, attentive, and dutiful? For a vague adjective – one that is routinely edited out of academic and non-creative writing for lack of rigor and specificity – good seems to evoke this sense of righteousness attributed to no single entity in particular. Its usage is biblical and universal. Its opposite is not necessarily bad, but rotten, pernicious, and the catch-all not-good. Many potential partners desire this trait in a mate. Mothers long for their sons and daughters to stay out of trouble, “up to no good,” they will call it.

What does it mean, then, to be a good man? If we call it an adjective of vaguery and looseness, then a good man is a man of any quality the beholder attributes to good. It could be honor, attention, and duty, but it could also be kindheartedness and honesty. Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men does not ask us to define good, which is, well, good, because the line is thin between good and evil. Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup toes the line as if there is no line. The audience, whose narrator is omnipotent, sees cover-up and deception, but Col. Jessup, the antagonist as written, sees duty and honor. Is fairness and justice for all more important than national security and unit cohesion, as Col. Jessup sees it? Is it good to value honor over life? Continue reading “[1992] A Few Good Men”

[1989] Born on the Fourth of July

born_on_the_4th_of_julyFearful and fearless are not opposites but complements. One cannot become fearless without first acknowledging that fear exists and that fear persists within the unknown. This is true for all humans, and probably most animals, and is the reason we learn and why the calmest among us continue to learn. But the fear never goes away. Knowledge helps us internalize it and experience help us externalize it. Ron Kovic, the man, shares his experience (with Oliver Stone’s help) in Born on the Fourth of July and crafts a powerful anti-war story that Ron Kovic, the character, shows us. We are supposed to relate to him. Kovic experienced these feelings in reverse. For so many, fear is the catalyst for progress.

Born on the Fourth of July is about gradual, perplexing human disillusionment. The wide-eyed boy the audience meets in the film’s first act is brash and brave, without any real reason for doing so, except for a blind faith in Country and in Institution. Halfway through, when Kovic begins to see things through the lens of war, where Country is a construct and Institution does not play proxy for stability. Still, Kovic plays the part well. Perhaps he still believes that Vietnam was his destiny or that he was right to play his part. Toward the film’s end, Kovic devolves into a version of himself and no longer has an interest in pretending to love Country or his role in it; it happens over a few years for Kovic and just a few hours for Stone’s audience.  Perhaps Kovic was afraid to admit defeat. More likely he was afraid to admit that he was wrong.  Continue reading “[1989] Born on the Fourth of July”