Saturday, January 24, 2015

American Sniper

A few thoughts on American Sniper.
Spoiler alert.
In between ingress and egress of rounds of sleeping over grandkids, I snuck off to take in American Sniper. For some odd reason I didn't get, my wife took a pass. Maybe someone can clue me in why.
I thought it a really good movie, very-- can I use this word-- filmic, very cinematic, alive and absorbing, without being gratuitous, from first scene to last, and with none of the arch stiffness and overdone righteousness and sheer dullness that all marked Selma down in my estimation. 
I left thinking one flaw in American Sniper was maybe the failure to render a more complex Chris Kyle, a certain lack of getting more inside both his his head and the meaning of events. But I thought about that some and came to the view that he was what he was, an amazingly straight shooter literally and metaphorically, and that the movie is, at an easy minimum, adequate to that. 
My initial niggling found itself eventually landing on what I thought was the glib, or perhaps too easily passed over, post de-enlistment transition in Kyle from a guy seething with psychological wreckage and trauma, which we see only brief glimpses of, to a seemingly recovered constructively whole person. 
But the presentation of him in his growing up and in the different phases of his life is well given to us by Eastwood. The metaphor and symbol of the rifle scope marking the narrowness of his original vision of the war and his place in it sets what expands in him over the course of the movie. He transcends the role of sole sniper as he goes on the house to house hunts with the marines and as he gets more leaderly in heading more broad based missions that enfold his role of solitary and removed shooter, a role his Iraqi counterpart, also shown as militarily gifted and with wife and child, persists in. 
The hell and horror of war, its fog, swirling dust and sands of confusion, chaos, blinded vision and moral ambivalence are among the strongest things shown in the movie. And their depiction, each foray growing wider in scope, is integral to both the expansion of his soldierly role and and the final defeat of his hitherto indefatigable and unflinching commitment to the cause as he tells his wife he's ready to come home.
His need in between tours to get back into action, restless and dissatisfied with civilian life, reminds me, of course, of Hurt Locker, but with the overall psychological arc more fully given, as I remember Hurt Locker, in American Sniper. That contrast in Kyle is evident in his instantaneous, joyouts, clamorous, boisterous camaraderie with his band of brothers as against his domestic pent up listlessness. 
Cooper is just terrific in his role, totally physically and temperamentally convincing and wholly compelling in his portrayal of Kyle, And, to touch on Selma again, the marriage scenes in American Sniper, to my mind, simply put away the stiff artifice of the scenes between MLK and Coretta. Sienna Miller is good too in her relatively brief appearances. But, again, Cooper is more than good. He's superb, a natural, "all the way down," as Justice Kagan said of law in a different context,
For me, American Sniper, in sum, is the depiction of a certain type of quiet, strong man who is at first a black and white true believer while brilliantly gifted in certain of the arts of war all as set in the hell and fog and ambiguity of war, and all of which take their toll on his commitment as his role and vision of things expands. What he is left with at the end is a life-healing commitment to soldiers physically and psychically afflicted. In that commitment, unlike in war itself, there are no greys.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Selma: Oversttuffed And Slow, However Worthy

I saw Selma today with Sharon.
I guess we're both in a really small minority but we both thought the movie was a pretty big yawn though with some strong individual scenes. It was, we thought, near to dead at its core. Inert. I found it dragged and I got impatient with it how slowly it moved.
I think it's troubled by how bathed in righteousness it is. I know it's supposed to humanize King, show him in his self doubt and anxiety and uncertainty. But I didn't much believe it. Next time I'm in one of those states of mind, feeling nervous and such, I'll call Deborah Katchko-Zimmerman at 2:00 am to sing to me so I can hear God's voice. This King, and I'm reporting my reaction not trying to be contrarian for its own sake, bored me to drowsiness.
For me that inertness is underscored by high blown and high sounding and morally exemplary so much of the talk is awash in swelling violins and other heart-moving strings. Not one swear word from any of the movie's exemplars. Not even one "God damn," about Wallace or Clarke or a foot dragging LBJ or the Klan, or after the church bombing or the devastation levelled at the first aborted march across the bridge, or the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson.
My diagnosis of the inertness at the heart of this movie is its failure to make compelling drama out of the great themes it deals with, overstuffed with the glow of righteousness it bathes its exemplars in, the to-me contrived anxiety the movie is intent in showing King suffering from. There's no real internal tension of the movie that grabs you and and pulls you in. It wants to make history into art and it tries way too hard with, as noted, the pompous dialogue--no one talks that way--basking in musical crescendos. 
I thought the scene between Johnson and Wallace, while not the greatest scene ever, Wilkinson failing I thought in conveying the power and complexity of LBJ, Tim Roth--and I'm in a minority here--was pretty good as Wallace, crackled with some real drama and than did any of the dead scenes between the exemplars, including between King and Coretta King. Oprah Winfrey mind you was just great in her small role. She is a vastly under-rated actress and conveys almost innately authentic emotional complexity and pain. 
I obviously appreciate the magnificence of the historic achievement but this movie, despite some of its powerful moments, is for me, in a word, soporific. 
P.S. I don't have any quarrel with how the movie presented the history or its treatment of LBJ.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gone Girl: Some Comments

This is a thoughtful, well written piece. The problem for me is that while the movie is just ok, worthwhile in a stolid way, weighed down by Affleck's one note lugubriousness, as well as flawed by small inconsistencies, too glib dialogue at the outset, and a preposterous ending, most of what Rothfeld writes is overwrought. (I haven't read the novel.)
Here's an example of the latter:
...This is the patriarchy that Amy is up against: one in which men don’t have to care, or even respond to female caring, because they hold all the cards. One in which even the most accomplished and capable women are forced to mold themselves into the incarnations of male fantasy in order to matter, in which every heterosexual love story is a retelling of Pygmalion. One in which women are powerless to hold men accountable—in which female emotion is valued as a fundamentally worthless currency....
Some such notion of a shifted patriarchy may be evident in the novel but it's not organically present in the movie despite the one slapped on monologue about "cool girls." Amy, let's be clear is nuts, a psychopath whose acting out grows from faking a rape to trying to contrive elaborately a murder--getting Affleck executed, which he should be, critically, for his terrible acting and killing the screen--to committing a bizarre, bloody and horrible murder. 
Her psychosis is entangled with her central self- perceived failing--the painful distance between Amazing Amy and the all too human, real, deeply troubled Amy who writhes around in existential bad faith. The night of celebrating Amazing Amy's wedding is only salvaged for real Amy by Affleck's proposing to her. Real Amy is all external accomplishment and all inner failure evident in needing to fulfill herself in perfecting the intellectually inferior men she takes to herself: such as the first guy she falsely indicts for raping her when he starts to pull away from her relentless attempt to make him better; and such as Affleck who similarly pulls away from her to the point of an affair with his jejune student. Only Desi, who can't be improved by her and is, at a minimum, a match for her, it seems, in intellectual accomplishment, sophistication, and wealth, homicidally repulses her by his unstinting devotion to her. Affleck understands her psychotic need and plays on it in telling her what she insanely needs to hear in his interview in order to draw her out.
Rothfeld's abiding error throughout her piece is to use Amy's sickness as a basis for the weighty cultural pronouncements about the new patriarchy and the boundary pushing new femme fatale. But for Amy's crazy, literally crazy as in psychotic, idiosyncrasies, she needn't try to be a "cool girl;" she needn't saddle herself with mediocre men: she needn't seek to close the distance between the real and amazing her by creating an Amazing Nick. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, the saying goes: here a psychotic woman is just a psychotic woman, and Affleck is just another zhjlub, which shoots down entirely, I argue, Rothfeld's overwrought and misplaced cultural pronouncements about the new patriarchy, about the relation of this movie's femme fatale to the tradition of femme fatale in noir, and in her overall reading of the movie in these terms. 
One other example:
....The traditional femme fatale cannot be faulted for availing herself of the only weapon available to her—her sex appeal—but we cannot fully endorse her tactics either. Her beauty was too conventional, too much a realization and reinforcement of male fantasy—perhaps a means toward more radical transgressions, but surely no more than one step on the path toward greater, more destabilizing disruptions...
"Cannot be faulted," "cannot fully endorse": by whom, by what standards, based on what unargued for assumptions? There seems to me some ultimately unstated feminist ideal set of principles, values and ideals running through this piece and forming unstated bases for judgment. And that, in my judgment, both ties in to the overwrought notions of a new form of patriarchy and Rothfeld's general overthinking of this movie. 
One other note: aside from Affleck's leaden dolefulness, in small ways his character just doesn't add up. He picks Amy up by a lot of slick, smart talk, joking about a beer not belonging to a guy who looks like he's doing a thesis on Proust. He describes himself as a writer, and writes for a men's magazine. He's trying to write a novel. He teaches creative writing. Yet this is the guy who thinks quinoa is a fish, wants just to play board games with his sister, guzzle beer and watch reality TV. I don't think so. These jarring inconsistencies blend in with his incompetent acting to make him and his character wholly unsatisfactory.
No one is dismissing her as crazy. She's being recognized for what she is: namely, crazy. Really, the gender-inflected power dynamics of both the boardroom and the bedroom have little to do with anything in this movie.
Yes, I read the review. You're confused. That's evident in your positing a film based on a novel vitiates the literal, whether literal is or isn't in scare quotes. What's literal is what actually happens, the actual story. A film from a novel has nothing to do with it, or anything else really. They're separate and distinct works, with their own themes, genre specific techniques and either successes or failures. The more acute point is that to oerleap what actually happens and start airily talking about symbolism is an error, which error gets accentuated when what's posited as symbolic makes a hash of what actually happens. Then you're squarely in the realm of silliness. The facts of the story involve a woman who falsely indicted her first boy friend for rape and ruined his life thereby, who has with obsessive and phenomenal elaboration contrived to have her cheating husband murdered by a Missouri execution and then has in a scene of utter bloody horror brutally murders the wealthy, sophisticated guy obsessed with her and who takes her in at her desperate request. All without an ounce of remorse. All with cold, conscienceless calculation to get what she wants. I'm no diagnostician of mental illness, but it's patently wrong to understand this homicidal woman as anything but sick and evil. All of that knocks the shit out of any airy and nonsensical view a of "symbolic representation of the long-term effects of interpersonal gender dynamics." So, again, of course I read and understood the review. It's, as are you in endorsing its argument, wrong. Finally the literal, what actually happens in the film,, and even more so, I understand, in the novel, is light years away from men often calling their ex-wives crazy and dismissing them. I hope you can get it through your head that this woman is actually crazy in the world of the film.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cass Sunstein On Richard Epstein On Constitutional Theory

Linked to below is a most interesting and accessible account by Cass Sunstein of Richard Epstein's constitutional thinking, which itself, that thinking, became a kind of Bible for the Tea Party's version of the U.S. Constitution.

Epstein has what he calls a classical liberal reading of the Constitution. His argument is that as the bare text itself cannot yield determinative answers to hard cases, what is needed is to understand and isolate the theory that animates the text.

(In that formulation, Epstein rejects out of hand Scalian Originalism, which, he contends, has nowhere ever been functional in constitutional interpretation.)

Epstein argues that that theory is classical Liberalism that limits government, vaunts private property, protection of individual rights, freedom of contract, and most fundamentally personal autonomy. Hard cases fall to be decided on principles that are consistent with and enhance that animating theory.

Sunstein's basic criticism of Epstein is that his, ultimately, is an arbitrary moral imposition of his own present preferred views, which views are not supported by an exhaustive historical demonstration of their informing the constitutional text. Others take different views of what underlies it.

My own thought as to what Sunstein argues is to wonder whether he agrees with Epstein's fundamental proposition that as the bare text yields no determinative answer what is needed is the theory that animates the text and by which hard cases fall to be decided.

If he doesn't agree, what is his principled account of the resolution of hard cases? If he does, what theory or theories does he postulate?

For as much as I enjoyed Sunstein's lucid and highly accessible review of Epstein's thinking and his book, the meal would have been even more satisfying had Sunstein touched on his own thinking on these issues.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Middlemarch, Chapter 61, Book 6: Has Eliot Mucked Something Up?

Middlemarch, Chapter 61, Book 6

Has Eliot mucked something up?

.....The spiritual kind of rescue was a genuine need with him. There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.

The service he could do to the cause of religion had been through life the ground he alleged to himself for his choice of action: it had been the motive which he had poured out in his prayers. Who would use money and position better than he meant to use them....Also, profitable investments in trades where the power of the prince of this world showed its most active devices, became sanctified by a right application of the profits in the hands of God's servant.

This implicit reasoning is essentially no more peculiar to evangelical belief than the use of wide phrases for narrow motives is peculiar to Englishmen. There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.....

This odd, as in strange, narrative reflection goes on in Chapter 61, in which Bulstrode in the end tries to make all kinds of amends in offering to buy off Will.

Clearly, Bulstrode is a much more complex bad guy than Raffles, who's a straight up rogue with no tincture of doing good. But the argument here, save if Eliot's narrator, Eliot too, is being coy and subtly ironic, a possibility I lean against strongly, is that since Bulstrode isn't an out and out con man and fraudster, which he's not, he's less morally compromised in the result. His hypocrisy is of a piece with mankind's: "...the use of wide phrases for narrow motives...," that wherever we squander our good intentions by turning away from "fellow feeling" and seek our own narrow ends that we cover over with "wide phrases," we are in league with Bulstrode and he with us, and so he is less villainous and objectionable than a Raffles who is deviantly criminal.

I beg to differ.

I'd say, contrary to what Eliot *seems* to argue for, Bulstrode is more morally objectionable than Raffles, save for Raffles's sadistic streak, loving to torment others for his own pleasure, getting off on "effects." Raffles has no pretence about himself and he feeds off others' wrongdoing in his blackmail. This isn't of course to make a case for him, just to compare immoralities. Bulstrode has, not to put too fine a point on it, swindled others, caused the innocent loss at his gain.

While we can feel Bulstrode's pain, we pity him, it's hard not to, rather than sympathize with him. The substance he has made of his life, his actually doing some good, cannot expiate his blatant wrong doing. And his gradual fall into evil ways, rather than straight up, immediate criminal self seeking, does nothing to ameliorate his wrongs. It rather just instances another more of wrong doing slathered over by hypocrisy, such that some straight up clarity about what he was and did would be like a breath of fresh air. Consistent with that hypocrisy, my call is that what animates his urge to "protect" himself with penitential acts is the threat of being exposed and the scorn and opprobrium that will be heaped on him should Raffles go public.

We never so much grieve over our wrong doings and become penitent, seeking ways to ameliorate their consequences, as when we are in the midst of getting caught.

It takes Raffles's threat to expose Bulstrode to move him for the first time to try to make concrete amends for the loss his fraud on his first wife has caused to her rightful heirs, Will and his mother at his, Bulstrode's, own huge enrichment.

This, the imminence of the crashing down of reality on him, rather than substantive, uncalculating, truly motivated, genuine remorse, is what ultimately causes Bulstrode his agonizing, internally sick-making woe. That is made clear when Will refuses to be bought off with tainted money from the sleazy pawn brokering business, which thrived on dealing in stolen goods,which forces Bulstrode to comfort squarely the worst of himself without "wide phrased" defences, and when Bulstrode's own weeping for himself, his reality likely to be exploded, is somewhat staunched by his realization that Will "...was not likely to publish what had taken place that evening."

So Eliot in the narration I quoted seems untypically out of step with herself here, her grand theorizing here getting the better of her, given the novel she has written, specifically Bulstrode's own criminal wrong doing, and his subsequent insidious, continuous hypocrisy. And, I surmise, she has gotten lost, untypically, in the very complexity she accords to Bulstrode.


And by the way, Bulstrode in keeping the information about Will and his mother to himself and bribing Raffles to keep quiet when he'd undertaken to execute the search is criminal and is civilly actionable, just as his pawn brokering receipt of stolen goods was criminal. Eliot has Bulstrode denying he has no legal obligation to Will, just the compunctions of conscience. He's dead wrong. I think Eliot is as well as I read the narrator to suggest as much.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Middlemarch: A Note On Chapter 54, Book 6

Finally, and at last, sexual desire in Middlemarch.

If this isn't sexual desire, couched to be sure, layered into other needs and motives too to be sure, then I'm a monkey's uncle and I'll tell you where to send the bananas:

...Ch 54: ...The silent colloquy was perhaps only the more earnest because underneath and through it all there was always the deep longing which had really determined her to come to Lowick. The longing was to see Will Ladislaw. She did not know if any good would come of their meeting: she was helpless; her hands had been tied from making up to him for any unfairness in his lot. But her soul thirsted to see him....

But to dwell on the presence of sexual desire in Ch 54, even as it seems out in the more or less open--it is after all a Victorian novel-- for the first time in the novel, is to do Chapter 54 cheap.

I had wondered whether after Casaubon's death there would/could be anything as psychologically penetrating as Eliot's dissection of Casaubon and Dorothea and the terrible negative dynamics of their relationship.

No need to wonder.

In the meeting between her and Will Laidislaw, the complexity of the psychological and social forces working against their being straight with each other and professing their love for each other, or at least offering some understandable sign of it, is rendered with such complexity and power that my head is still spinning.

Would that I had the will and the energy to try to analyze more formally some of what's that's going on there. The dynamics and layers of meaning are inexhaustible.

Which, on a different point, screams out against the move to theory in academic English, crowding out close reading and appreciation of the text, theory seemingly being concerned with everything but what is in the text on the text's terms, which is to say, on literature's terms.

Middlemarch: A Note On Coming To The End Of Chapter 52, Book 5


I just finished Ch 52, and am roaring like a tortoise toward the end of Book 5. The heights of the novel remain for me, so far, matters Casaubonian and his Mrs., though of necessity that particular focus has changed. He's dead.

I wonder if there will be a falling off of psychological intensity with that shift in focus.

I'm still struck by all the explicit asexuality, and wonder about sexuality's implicit place in the novel. I look forward to reading Rebecca Mead's book about reading and rereading Mm as she grows older and as her relation to the world accordingly changes. Apparently, I've only read the Kindle sample portion of it, she argues for plenty of implicit sex in the novel. I don't want to read any more of her book, natch, till I finish Mm myself. I'm sensing peripheral intimations of sexuality, like Dodo's horse back riding, which she finds so *invigorating,* but they're way more incidental than purposeful, it seems.

I'm keeping in mind a professor friend's comment about Mm extolling the Christian virtues like self sacrifice for good, forgiveness and such as its strong theme. I'm not seeing that and am seeing, rather, the need for a balance between doing good, rather than do gooding, and a healthy portion of self interest.

So even when Farebrother self-effacingly pleads Fred Vincy's case to Mary Garth, a wonderful, penetratingly intelligent and moving scene rooted in laudable self sacrifice, there's a measure of self interest in their exchange, I'd argue, which saves it from irritating piety and conforms more to Eliot's thematic ideal of balance as opposed to inhuman, life denying self sacrifice.

At least so far in my reading it does.