What Followed the Triple Axel

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In America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, you can be anything you want to be, if you just dream big enough and try hard enough. Right.

Well, not quite.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team. Ross Miner did just that on January 7, skating a nearly perfect program to a rousing medley of Queen songs that earned him a silver medal behind 18-year-old skating phenom Nathan Chen and his five quadruple jumps. No one was going to beat Chen; silver was the new gold in 2018.

To win that silver medal, Miner had to be perfect. And he was. From the exquisitely light landing of his opening quad-salchow to the high, tight rotations of his triple lutz-triple toe to the musicality of his footwork and the unusual entrances into his fast, centered spins, Miner was perfect. No panic, no worry, he was “cool, relaxed, got hip, got on his tracks” as the lyrics sang during his footwork pattern. In figure skating there’s a term called “peaking at the right moment,” and Miner did. He laid out a perfect program when he needed it most: the national championships leading into the Olympics.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team.

Miner handily beat bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and pewter medalist Adam Rippon. At 17, Zhou has the quads but not the musicality of a seasoned skater; at 28, Rippon has the seasoned performance quality, but he choked when it counted, falling on his quad and popping two of his planned triples into singles. It was a devastating moment, one sure to haunt him for the rest of his life.

But hold on. Ross Miner didn’t make the Olympic team. He’ll be in South Korea as an alternate behind Zhou and Rippon. Unlike what happens in track and field, swimming, skiing, and just about any other sport, winning at U.S. Figure Skating Nationals doesn’t guarantee you a trip to the Olympics. In figure skating that decision is made behind closed doors by a committee that examines the skaters’ “body of work” to decide who is most likely to bring home a medal. And this season they’re betting on Rippon. Thanks for the memories, Ross. See ya later.

Selection by committee instead of competition also allows the judges to keep out the riffraff, which they weren’t able to do in 1994, when national gold medalist Tonya Harding, accused of masterminding the attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, sued the United States Figure Skating Association for her right to compete on the US team in Lillehammer, Norway. Under the new rules, she would not have been able to sue, because medaling would not have guaranteed her a spot.

But that wasn’t the first time the judges tried to keep Harding down. A jumping powerhouse from the time she was a child and the first woman to land a triple axel at Nationals, Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted. She wasn’t “an old timey version of what a woman is supposed to be.” There was a hard edge about her that came from growing up in hard circumstances. She had thick thighs, over-permed hair, and heavy makeup; her practice outfits were too garish, her music too brash, and her performance dresses too full of froufrou. She practiced in a shopping mall ice rink. Instead of taking her under their wing and helping her succeed, the judges brushed her aside with low scores and hoped she would go away.

Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted.

Nancy Kerrigan was the opposite of Tonya Harding. She wore simple practice dresses and elegant performance dresses, pulled her sleek hair back into a bun, selected classical music for her routines, and even had her tiny front teeth capped to please the judges and develop the proper “look” for ladies’ skating. She was a skilled, elegant skater as well, with confident jumps and her trademark hand-on-knee spiral that young skaters liked to imitate. But more than anything, she had the look. The judges loved her.

Everyone knows what happened next: a goon named Shawn Eckardt hired another goon named Shane Stant to clobber Nancy Kerrigan with a collapsible baton during practice just two days before the senior ladies’ competition at Nationals in 1994. Eckardt was Harding’s bodyguard and the best friend of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding was blamed and her career was over. As the US gold medalist, she successfully sued to compete at Lillehammer. But at her ensuing trial she would be banned for life from any USFSA competitions, events, or activities.

Although pleas were entered and verdicts were pronounced in the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure. Eckardt was a self-important blowhard who insisted he had done espionage work for the CIA. Gillooly would have turned in his own mother to stay out of prison. Harding would have done the same to save her career and compete in the Olympics. In a situation like this there’s a tendency for the brain to rearrange its memories in a way that defends and protects its host; I doubt that Tonya Harding really knows what she knew, and when she knew it.

All of this is chronicled admirably in the new film I, Tonya. Libertarians will see an ironic connection in this title that is probably unintentional; just as no one person can make a pencil, no one person is responsible for the making of Tonya Harding. She is the product of poverty and poor education, abandonment by her father, beating by her mother, more beating by her husband, and unfair judging in a sport that was the only good thing in her life. I’m not defending her here; what happened to Kerrigan is inexcusable. But I am strangely sympathetic to her as a tragic hero who fell so far and so hard.

In the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure.

The film uses the mockumentary interview format made popular by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest in such films as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. This fictionalized interview style is exactly the right choice for presenting a story that relies so completely on unreliable narrators who think they have a lock on the truth. The result is a film that’s as funny as it is tragic.

We see the same kind of delusional defensiveness in the mock interviews with Tonya’s mother, LaVona Harding (Allison Janney). “She skated better when she was enraged,” she explains, justifying her harsh treatment of Tonya, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her (the real LaVona denies the knife throwing, but she acknowledges and justifies the “spankings”). When Tonya’s coach suggests that a ladylike demeanor might help Tonya fit in more with the other skaters, LaVona shouts, “Tonya doesn’t fit in. She stands out!” When LaVona thinks Tonya needs a little more determination to prove herself on the ice, she pays a fan to heckle her own daughter. She is cold, cruel, and unintentionally comical, and Janney plays her to the hilt of the knife she flings into Tonya’s arm.

The other characters are equally entertaining in a “stranger-than-fiction” sort of way. It’s like watching skating’s equivalent of a 20-car pileup: you just can’t look away. And it does offer a plausible backstory that makes Harding (played at different ages by Maizie Smith, McKenna Grace, and Margot Robbie) a more sympathetic character as a battered woman, bullied by everyone around her, than the one we’ve seen in documentaries over the past 24 years.

“She skated better when she was enraged,” Harding's mom explains, justifying her harsh treatment of her daughter, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her.

As a former skating mom, I remember the meanness of certain skaters, the prejudice of certain judges, the “acceptable” sabotage that often went on in dressing rooms. I taught my daughter to hold her head up, skate her best, and act as though everyone liked her. Eventually, everyone did. But a girl as socially inept as Tonya, with an ex-husband as hotheaded as Gillooly and a bodyguard as delusional as Eckart might almost be forgiven for . . . um . . . Nope. Not forgivable.

Nevertheless, the film has become something of a darling among the feminist set who are determined this year to make heroes out of victims with vaginas, even one who may have ordered a hit on another victim of the same gender. The black-dress ladies fawned over Tonya at the Golden Globes and are likely to do the same at future awards events this season. Watching the real Tonya Harding skate her landmark 1991 program as the movie credits rolled, seeing the joy on her face as she landed her triple axel and completed a clean program, I could almost agree with them. It was all so senseless. She didn’t need to beat Kerrigan to beat Kerrigan.


Editor's Note: Review of "I, Tonya," directed by Craig Gillespie. Clubhouse Pictures, 2017, 120 minutes.



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Knights in Dark Satin

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It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



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Take Your Mitts Off Our Myths

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Bear with me here. I have some explaining to do with this review, so don’t start throwing tomatoes yet. Here it goes:

I loved watching the new Star Wars episode.

At the same time, I’m glad that fans almost unanimously hate the new story, even if they don’t completely understand their visceral reaction to it. The Last Jedi is indeed bad, but not because of its repetitive plot or unlikely character development. I rather enjoyed the humorous asides, reminiscent of the original Han Solo. Benicio del Toro as the codebreaker DJ is delectably suave and sinister. Daisy Ridley is fresh and courageous and conflicted as the female lead. And the Stephen Jay Gould-inspired moment when Rey (Daisy Ridley) snaps her fingers and sees herself as a continuum extending into her future in front of her and from her past behind her offers a sophisticated and subtle answer to the conflict between destiny and free will — if her past exists along with her future, does she have the power to change the past? Or is her future predetermined by her past?

Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar.

My beef is with what the movie tries to say about our culture. But as a professor who teaches classes on mythology, I was engaged by the classic conflict between good and evil, inspired by the continuing offer of redemption, and fascinated by the evolution of the Star Wars myth.

The number one complaint about The Last Jedi that I’ve read on fan blogs and social media is that the recent stories are all retreads of the original Star Wars plot. Well, duh! Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar. Greek plays tended to tell the same stories from multiple angles, just as the Star Wars episodes all surround the central characters of Luke and Leia. This should come as no surprise. Why have there been at least 59 movies made about Jesse James, more than a dozen about the shootout at the OK Corral, and annual movies about Santa? Don’t we already know how they’re going to end? We watch these movies again and again because we want to experience vicariously how heroes (and antiheroes) face conflict, interact with supporting characters, and find redemption even in tragedy. Aristotle called it catharsis. Each version of the story gives it a slightly different spin as each generation’s definition of heroism changes, but the change is cloaked in the familiarity of the characters and their stories.

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth. We can trace the evolution of our beliefs, values, and culture simply by studying the films of succeeding decades. Just watch how women are portrayed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and in current movies to see how American culture has changed. And has it ever changed in The Last Jedi!

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth.

From the beginning, George Lucas embedded in Star Wars the characteristics of American myth. His original story relied heavily on the western genre of the lone, flawed maverick who rides into town, is transformed by friendship, and chooses to risk his life and possessions to help protect his new community from treacherous invaders. Han Solo was that maverick hero. The values of that first film were the values of America: rugged individualism, rebellion against tyranny, reliance on instinct, and reverence for freedom. We saw those same values in the many movies of the 20th century with heroes who defy orders, take risks, act instinctively, and save the day. I also love the offer of redemption that permeates the Star Wars mythology. In each episode a hero has been seduced by the dark side, but all is not lost. He can return to the light and a hero’s welcome if he simply chooses it. Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader; now his grandson, Ben Solo, has become Kylo Ren. But the potential for good is strong in this one. He, too, can be redeemed.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down. Once again we have a maverick hero, Poe (Oscar Isaac), who acts on his own, and is demoted for it by the interim leader, Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Of course we expect that his instincts will prove correct. We also have a trio of rebels (Finn, Rose and BB-8) who secretly boards the First Order’s ship to push a button that will save the Resistance ship. If the story is truly repetitive of earlier episodes, this brave and risky ploy will work. Celebrations to follow.

But not in this movie. Our would-be heroes are caught and their plan is thwarted. Because of this, Vice Admiral Holdo’s secret plan for protecting the ship and its crew is also thwarted, and many Resistance soldiers are killed. The new message is clear: authority figures have no obligation to tell underlings their plans; and those who defy authority and follow their instincts will cause misery to the entire group. So shut up and obey.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down.

Fans are also troubled by the fact that our hero of 40 years, Luke Skywalker, has virtually given up on the Jedi. Discouraged and faithless, he has no desire to help the Resistance and is content to live out the rest of his life on a secluded island. Director and scriptwriter Rian Johnson has destroyed our once incorruptible hero, and his religion as well. I guess the pen truly is mightier than the light saber.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Hollywood controlling and creating the American myth. Hollywood people hardly represent my own values, beliefs, or culture, or the values and beliefs of most Americans. Apparently Star Wars fans don’t like the idea either. While they complain about esoteric details of plot and character, I think what they are instinctively resisting is the new message of the film.

Mythology resonates with us. That’s one reason such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the superhero movies endure. Cultural values can evolve over time, but when basic beliefs about free will and individualism change as outrageously as they have in The Last Jedi, we begin to feel “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror.” It’s time to resist the First Order of Hollywood and stop letting it control the American myth.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Last Jedi," directed by Rian Johnson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2017, 152 minutes.



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Another Small Piece of a War

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In an earlier piece in these pages, I reviewed a book on Nazi uniforms and insignia. My point was to show how incredibly all-pervasive the Nazi propaganda machine was. If the Nazi Party took such exquisite painstaking work over simple patches, uniforms, and daggers, can you imagine how attentive it was to school curricula, cinema, books, and artwork?

The nice little film I want to review now could also be described as showing the viewer a small piece of Goebbels’ total propaganda war.

While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as "degenerate," officially banning it in 1935.

The film is a sadly neglected German documentary Propaganda Swing, made in 1989 by filmmaker Florian Steinbiss. It recounts the bizarre story of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry creating a “Jazz Orchestra” as a tool to transmit propaganda to the Allied troops and citizens. Called “Charlie and his Orchestra,” the band included the most talented swing jazz musicians in Germany and occupied Europe at the time.

This was almost grotesquely rich. While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as “Negermusik” and “Entertetemusik” — black music and degenerate music — officially banning it in 1935. But into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

So it was strongly ironic that that a group of superbly talented jazz artists found themselves working for the Reich’s Propaganda Ministry. The band formed in 1940, and was broadcast over Nazi shortwave radio. Between 1941 and the end of the war, it made music that was very popular, especially among Allied troops and citizens. It was fronted by saxophonist Lutz Templin, with drummer Fritz (“Freddie”) Brocksiepen, vocalist Karl Schwedler (the “Charlie” of the group’s name, clarinetist Kurt Abraham, and trombonist Willy Berking.

Now, why would the regime fund and promote a swing band? The answer is that the crafty (if psychopathic) Goebbels saw that such a band would be useful in two ways. The first was to show Allied troops and civilians that Nazi Germany was culturally similar to the Allies after all. In this way it was successful. After the war, a BBC survey revealed that 26.5% of the British radio audience listened to the broadcasts. It is reputed that Churchill himself listened to and enjoyed the broadcasts.

Into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

The second, craftier, motive was to push the Nazi agenda in an opaque way. The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied ones, sung in English. Goebbels consistently advocated disguising propaganda as pure entertainment. If a weary GI were just listening to this outstanding swing music he would not necessarily have recognized the content of the lyrics.

The film explores this aspect of propaganda swing in some detail. For instance, as we hear the band play “You’re Driving Me Crazy” we hear Charlie sing;

Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do, what did I do?
My fears for you make everything hazy, clouding the skies of blue.
Ah, Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me when I need a Jew.
Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do to you?

Charlie then intones, “Here is Winston Churchill's latest tearjerker” and resumes:

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy.
I thought I had brains, but they shattered my planes.
They've built up a front against me, it's quite amazing,
Clouding the skies with their planes.
The Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me and laugh at me too.

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy,
My last chance I'll pray, to get in this muddle the USA.
This new pact also is driving me crazy,
Germany, Italy, Japan, it gives me a pain.
I'm losing my nerve, I'm getting lazy
A prisoner forced to remain in England to reign.
The Jews are the friends who are near me, that still cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are not the kind of heroes who would fight for me,
Now they're leaving me too.
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy, by Jove, I pray, come in USA.

The tune to Eddie Cantor’s song “Makin’ Whoopee” is introduced by Charlie, who says, “The Jews of the USA have asked Eddie Cantor to write new words for his famous hit of all time, ‘Makin’ Whoopee.’”

He then sings:

Another war, another profit,
Another Jewish business trick.
Another season, another reason
For making whoopee.

In the group’s parody of “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” we hear:

I’m gonna save the world for Wall Street,
Gonna fight for Russia, too.
I’m fighting for democracy;
I’m fighting for the Jew.

As the film’s narrator points out, the music focused primarily on anti-Semitic messages. For example, the parody version of “Down Mexico Way” pushed the view that FDR was Jewish.

The orchestra worked five days a week, with mornings devoted to the propaganda music and afternoons to regime-approved music for domestic consumption, with evenings available for playing in underground jazz clubs.

The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied and anti-Semitic ones, sung in English.

As the film notes, many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death. Ironically, as the war wore on, Charlie’s orchestra increasingly consisted of “half-Jews and Gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and communists” — groups being rapidly eradicated in the death camps. The fact that their music was considered vital to the propaganda war effort allowed them to work at least temporarily in relative comfort. Toward the end of the war, foreign players were brought in to replace the German ones who had been forced to join the army or work in factories. By late 1943, Allied bombing raids forced the band to move from Berlin to Stuttgart, where it remained until the end of the war.

After the war, Templin and most of the band were able to find work in a various venues, including in American administered jazz clubs. Schwedler apparently either became a businessman in Germany or immigrated to America. It is a testament to the quality of the band’s musicianship that after hostilities were ended, American jazz greats such as Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Gene Krupa visited with members of the band. The backbone of the band, the drummer Fritz (Freddy) Brocksieper, went on to win a German Grammy.

The film nicely explores the ways in which musical broadcasts made successful propaganda. Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death.

After the war, the band’s foreign members steadfastly refused to acknowledge their involvement with it — thus raising the question of why people joined the band to begin with. The band’s drummer Brocksieper indicated one reason: being in the band kept the players safe, at least temporarily, from being drafted or sent to the camps, and provided a modest income, which they augmented by playing side gigs. Italian trumpeter Nino Impallomeni gave another reason: the members uniformly loved big band jazz, and this was the only way they could play it.

Brocksieper recounts how, after the fall of Berlin, the Americans sought him out to play for them. They subsidized the creation of a new group, providing food, something in short supply in occupied Germany. Brocksieper said that being on the receiving end of this largesse did not bother the band.

Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Here is where the film gets very interesting psychologically. The band members had to have experienced great cognitive dissonance all during the war, and afterwards. The German players were playing music they loved that no other German could even listen to legally; the players from conquered countries knew they were collaborating with their conquerors; and not just during the war but afterwards they lived fairly well, while ordinary Germans suffered. Impallomeni gave one defense: we were musicians, not politicians. The film’s narrator adds that the band members said the meanings of the politically obscene propaganda lyrics were not intelligible to them — a hard claim to accept, given that the band’s singer Charlie spoke perfect English.

As one listens to some of the original musicians play beautifully, decades after the end of the war, one can understand and almost forgive their collaboration with Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

Almost.


Editor's Note: "Propaganda Swing: Dr. Goebbels’ Jazz Orchestra," directed by Florian Steinbiss. Sudwestfunk, 1991, 60 minutes. Distributed by International Historic Films, https://ihffilm.com/



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Día de los Vivos

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Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.

This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.

These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.

There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.

Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.

The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.

It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.

One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.

Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.

Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.


Editor's Note: Review of "Coco," directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Pixar, 2017, 109 minutes.



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Christie Redux

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In 1931, renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie was traveling on the Orient Express when a flash flood suddenly washed some of the track away. The passengers were stranded while repairs were made. This was not the first time the Orient Express had been stranded; two years earlier a blizzard had halted the train for six days. While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!” The setting for Murder on the Orient Express was established. Now she just needed a plot.

Christie wrote 66 murder mysteries and 14 short story collections, as well as a handful of romance novels and the longest continuously running play in London (The Mousetrap). Most of her mysteries are solved by the eccentric Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot or the no-nonsense matron-next-door, Miss Jane Marple. Her novels have sold an estimated two billion copies, and have been translated into a record 103 languages. She remains one of the world’s best-loved novelists.

While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!”

Murder on the Orient Express can work especially well for film because of its closed set (it takes place almost entirely on a train car) and its large cast of suspects. You may have seen the 1974 film version, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar; you might wonder: do we really need another? Perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment. Is it worth seeing this version? Yes, indeed.

Even if you’ve already read the story or seen it on screen, you haven’t seen this one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the detective Poirot. The enjoyment of an Agatha Christie doesn’t come so much from figuring out who done it or how it was done as from understanding what might drive someone to commit murder — and for a short time, finding ourselves in sympathy with a killer. From that standpoint, Murder on the Orient Express could as easily have been called “A Jury of One’s Peers.”

The story is simple: a group of seemingly unconnected people is traveling together from Istanbul to Paris. Each has a reason for needing to arrive on time. Each is harboring a private grief. Each grief will be uncovered by Poirot. And one of them will be killed. But who is the murderer?

You might wonder: do we really need another version of this story? But perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment.

Filmed in New Zealand and Switzerland, the movie is beautifully rendered, especially the long, wide views of snow-covered mountains and cloudy, luminescent skies. It almost feels as though the train is barreling through a Thomas Kincaid painting. Early scenes in Jerusalem, where Poirot is winding up a previous case before boarding the train, are filmed at odd angles, emphasizing Poirot’s odd way of seeing the world. Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

The cast of suspects includes such notable actors as Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. Gad, usually cast in silly comedic roles, is surprisingly good in his first truly dramatic turn. Even Emma Thompson, Branagh’s former wife, who has appeared in many of his films, makes a cameo appearance in this one. That’s a very young photo of her in the picture frame Poirot keeps by his bedside.

Poirot’s denouement is especially provocative, as the characters are blocked and staged in a way that emphasizes the ultimate theme of the story. I won’t say more here, but watch for it. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

Murder on the Orient Express evokes the glamour days of drawing room murders populated by characters with impeccable manners camouflaging their sharp claws. Its Alpine landscapes and exterior scenes in Jerusalem are breathtaking. Don’t wait for Netflix — this is one you’ll want to see in a theater. And see it on IMAX if you can.


Editor's Note: Review of "Murder on the Orient Express," directed by Kenneth Branagh. Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. 114 minutes.



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Trial by Fire

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It is the capricious nature of wildfire that can make it a lethal adversary. My own too-close-for-comfort brush with the beast occurred back on August 11, 1972 at a place called Harris Ridge, near the little town of Kooskia, Idaho.

It was the summer after my freshman year away at the university, and I'd found work as a chainsaw jockey thinning timber for the Idaho Department of Public Lands office in Orofino. The thinning crew — which could be pulled away from its thinning duties to fight wildfires if needed — was a young bunch: Greg had just graduated from high school; Ned, like me, had graduated from high school the previous year and had just finished his freshman year away at the university; and our two senior members, Russell and Rex, the foreman, were still in their twenties.

Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire.

Our assignment, when we had been dispatched to the Harris Ridge fire, was to climb a steep, brushy hillside, spread out, and start digging fire line to keep the fire on top from creeping down the hillside. At one point during our ascent, Ned and I ended up hugging either side of a brush-choked gully. We heard a faint cry of warning from somewhere below us, turned, and saw a huge, crackling fireball racing up the gully, right at us. I peeled away from the right side of the gully, took a quick look over my left shoulder, and saw through a wall of flame Ned's hardhat bobbing as he scrambled up and away to the left. I continued my lateral retreat, linked up with Rex, and made it back down to the bottom. Rex and I later linked back up with Ned, who had managed to get to the safety of a burned-out area on top.

But where were Greg and Russell? They had been well to the east of the rest of us, away from where the stealthy, encircling fire had ignited the tinder in the gully. They would have had plenty of time to get to higher ground as the fire burned across the hillside below them. In fact, I had even visualized them perched safely atop a bluff, taking a breather, and anxiously watching as Ned and I scrambled for our lives. Their bodies were found the next morning. According to the ensuing investigation, they had apparently found refuge atop a bluff — only to be knocked from their perch and into the inferno by a snag that had rolled down on them from the burned-out area above.

Those memories couldn't help but come to mind as I took my seat in the theater to watch Only the Brave. Based on Sean Flynn's excellent GQ article “No Exit,” the film deals with the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department's wildfire crew, headed by Eric Marsh. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Prescott itself would be menaced by wildfire, Marsh lobbies for the certification of his crew as “hotshots,” elite firefighters who can directly engage the fire, as opposed to being relegated to “mopping up” operations behind the hotshots. The film shows the crew honing its skills on a series of wildfires, one of which demands an evaluation of the skills that led to the crew’s certification. Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire: they hurriedly have to clear combustibles from a patch of ground, break out a thin protective covering that stretches from head to toe, and hunker down prone until the fire passes over them.

Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled.

The film also tracks the character arcs of certain of the 20-man crew. A couple of young men who can't stand each other end up bonding like brothers. A young man dealing with substance abuse relapse and an unplanned pregnancy becomes a responsible father and provider. A crass womanizer finds true love. Marsh — in his forties the “old man” of the crew — has to deal with marital tensions at home. Josh Brolin, who plays Marsh, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife Amanda, turn in particularly strong performances. In a masterly piece of dramatization,the film captures the anxiety of the crew's loved ones as they await news of the identity of the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill fire, the visceral grief that follows that revelation, and the effect this has on the survivor himself.

The direction and cinematography are superb, capturing the essence of what it's like to be on a wildfire crew: charred, smoking ground where a burned-out tree trunk can topple over on a man, the black-faced griminess of a mop-up detail, the skies busy with helicopters and planes carrying loads of water and retardant to be dumped on critical areas, and the speed with which a wildfire can spread. Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled. The film ends with a touching tribute to each of the firefighters.

As someone who has been there and done that, this reviewer gives Only the Brave a big thumbs up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Only the Brave," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Di Bonaventura Pictures, 2017. 133 minutes.



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The Importance of Showing Up

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In the wake of the horrendous massacre in Las Vegas, we have heard moving stories of heroism: a husband who was shot and killed while protecting his wife; a young woman whose vertebrae were broken helping others climb over a wall to safety; a young man stripping off his clothing to cover the faces of seven dead victims and helping a dozen others to safety; a stranger slinging a wounded woman over his shoulder as they ran for cover; a woman driving her pickup to the site in order to carry the wounded to hospitals; people lined up for five hours or more to give blood.

As the wounded begin their long road to recovery, they too will exhibit heroic efforts to regain their lives. Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote. We listen misty-eyed to their stories and praise them for their courage.

Coincidentally, two films opened this week with mass shootings as their theme. One of them, Super Dark Times, speculates on the events that create a mass murderer. The other, Stronger, is the subject of this review. It tells the story of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and provided a description of one of the bombers that helped the FBI track them down.

Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote.

We expect our recovering survivors to be stoic and heroic — especially when they appear in movies. But more often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain. Crisis doesn’t automatically build character; it reveals it. And Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is anything but heroic. A kitchen worker at Costco before the attack, he can’t even remember to take the chicken out of the oven before he takes out the trash. He is driven by an unwavering belief that his beloved Red Sox can only win if he watches the game from his favorite pub with a beer in his hand. He lives in a tiny fifth-story walkup with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), an alcoholic who is even more needy than Jeff. His girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) has broken up with him three times, primarily because he can’t get it together enough simply to show up when they have a date.

But on April 15, 2013, hoping to win Erin back, Jeff does show up — at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, bearing a homemade sign to cheer Erin on. And that’s how he loses his legs above the knee.

Erin shows up too, to shield him from his family and fans and to help him through his rehabilitation — and, yes, to assuage her guilt that she is the reason has lost his legs. But Jeff is a lousy patient, refusing to appear for the therapy sessions that are essential to building the core muscles he will need if he ever expects to use his prosthetic legs. Nevertheless, a sweet and painful romance develops between them.

More often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain.

Jeff’s lowlife family basks in the notoriety as reporters and promoters come calling. Oprah! The Bruins! The freakin’ Red Sox! His mother is positively drunk on booze and celebrity. Jeff’s relatives don’t understand the trauma he experiences in open spaces, where he relives the horror of that sunny afternoon, and they consider it a personal affront when he doesn’t share their enthusiasm for public appearances.

“You’re a symbol, kid!” one supporter proclaims.

“Of what?” Jeff asks.

“Of Boston strong!” is the reply.

But Jeff isn’t strong. He’s barely coping. We see his struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes — taking a shower, taking a crap, dragging himself across the floor like a baby, unable even to crawl.

Stronger is admittedly a genre film, and as such, it’s reasonably predictable. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Jeff does finally discover the strength to show up, although it comes through a plot development that is not at all predictable. What keeps this film from being maudlin, despite its subject matter and its predictability, is the topnotch acting, not only from Gyllenhaal (one of the best actors of this generation) but from the entire supporting cast. The beautiful Miranda Richardson is frumpy and low-class as Bauman’s self-centered alcoholic mother. Maslany is believably conflicted as the girlfriend from a better side of town who alternately feels pity, revulsion, and love for this tenderhearted young man. The nurses, paramedics, and doctors are so perfect in their calm, take-control speech patterns that I had to check the credits to see if they were medical professionals playing themselves.

We see Bauman's struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes.

Eventually Jeff agrees to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, and he asks for a bit of advice from the catcher. “Aim high,” is the response. Those two themes of the movie — show up, and aim high — are good advice for anyone.

Two days after the Las Vegas bombings, Jeff Bauman sent a message of encouragement and hope to the survivors. He wrote:

To the victims waking up in a hospital right now wondering how life will ever be the same. . . . I know your pain. The most important advice I can give is to remember that healing your mind is just as important as healing your physical, visible injuries. It took me too many years and dark moments to realize that and it is so, so important. You will walk again. You will laugh again. You will dance again. You will live again.

Bauman has learned how to show up, indeed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stronger," directed by David Gordon Green. Bold Films/Lionsgate, 2017, 116 minutes.



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Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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War from the Individual Perspective

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It’s a sunny blue-sky day in a charming French provincial town, when propaganda leaflets start raining down from the sky. Three soldiers walk into the foreground until the camera rests on the handsome young face of one of them, the story’s eventual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead). He spies a hose coiled next to a house and falls to his knees, upending the coil so the standing water drips into his mouth. I can taste the stagnant warmth of the water even as I feel its wet relief on his parched throat. The day may be sunny, but it’s far from bucolic.

Shots ring out and the men begin running toward a fence, joined by other soldiers equally determined to escape the Germans. One by one they’re picked off by the bullets. Only our unnamed and unvoiced hero makes it over the fence. My heart races with empathic panic and I think of how desperately he needs that helmet he took off to drink the water. How can I be so invested so quickly in the life of a character who is virtually unknown? I realize that the tension in my heart is being controlled by the tension of the music and the pace of the action, as it will be controlled throughout this movie.

Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed?

I went to Dunkirk expecting to learn about the strategic significance of the battle that was waged there, when nearly 400,000 Allied troops were stranded near the beaches of France, waiting either for reinforcement or evacuation. Much has been written about the decision of German leaders not to press forward to annihilate the Allied troops, and British leaders’ hesitation to send a full barrage of support. It is considered the greatest defeat and the greatest triumph of the Second World War. I’ll be on the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy next month, and I thought that watching this movie would enhance my appreciation of visiting the site.

But that’s not what the movie is about.

If you didn’t already know what happened at Dunkirk, the movie might make you think it was a minor skirmish involving a handful of soldiers, a couple of fighter planes, a few queues of Brits lined up to wait (unsuccessfully) for the next transport ship, and a single fishing boat crossing the channel to rescue them all, with a few random German bombers and snipers causing unexpected havoc along the way. We’re aware of the crowds of soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water, but they don’t have the vast impact of the same scene in films such as Atonement (2007); they seem almost like set dressing. And the French soldiers who kept the Germans at bay have no place in this film. In fact, the only French soldier in Dunkirk is portrayed as something of a coward.

Instead, this film focuses on our unnamed soldier and the inexplicable randomness of survival. Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed by strafing or blown up by bombs? Why does he survive while those “fortunate enough” to board the rescue boats are lost? Director Christopher Nolan deliberately cast young unknown actors to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers at Dunkirk and the senseless serendipity of who survives and who does not.

The score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer.

Meanwhile, Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) of a small fishing vessel hurries across the channel with a boatload of life vests, teamed only with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a family friend, George (Barry Koeghan). Dawson seems a sad sack of a man, but his small stature belies his strong character; he is determined to get those boys home. His character is loosely based on Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, a Titanic survivor who at Dunkirk rescued 55 soldiers in his personal yacht, the Sundowner, when he was 66. (Dawson’s boat is called the Moonstone.) Rounding out the rescue team are two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), whose job is to take down the German planes that are targeting the rescue ships, and two officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who are overseeing the evacuation in France.

The film is impressionistic in that each of these groups is representative of a larger whole, and the story is neither chronological nor complete. You’ll be confused by the juxtaposition of seemingly simultaneous scenes set in daylight and dark until you realize that one of the scenes is a flashback. Nolan explained that the alteration of time was necessary in order to bring the three storylines together, one taking a week (on the beach) one taking a day (on the ocean) and one taking an hour (in the air). In sum, Dunkirk provides an impression of the battle rather than a chronological history, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it is to follow the movie.

Dunkirk doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect.

Contributing significantly to the film’s success is its quiet, relentlessly rising musical motif based thematically on Elgar’s “Nimrod” and scored by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer used a pocket watch that Nolan sent to him as an instrument in the orchestration to create the underlying pulse that subconsciously controls the viewer’s heartbeat, while Elgar’s theme and Zimmer’s use of cellos at the limits of their normal pitch creates a sense of anxiety. They also incorporated a technique called the “Shepard Tone,” which is a kind of musical version of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase that gives the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. All of this leads to the continuous, unresolved tension. The resulting score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer. The Shepard Tone is also mirrored visually in Nolan’s juxtaposition of the three storylines (shore, sea, and air), in which one is always beginning, one is always climaxing, and a third is always ending.

Dunkirk is not a typical war movie. It doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect after the gruesome realism Spielberg introduced in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan 23 years ago. It’s a quiet film about individual courage, cowardice, suspicion, randomness, and the unrelenting desire for home.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dunkirk," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2017, 106 minutes.



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