Tuesday, January 29, 2019
So A Guy Asked Me What I Thought Of Green Book
So I just saw Green Book.
It snowed so heavily here that I thought getting to the movie might be a problem. But it all ended well.
Including the movie. How good is it? So good. I loved it. I give it 4/5, 8/10, 80/100.
I had that score firmly in my head before I started skimming through a few reviews from Richard Brody’s 30/100 to others’ 100/100.
The criticisms include it being too formulaic, too sappy about race relations, too trading in cliches, too contrived, too stereotypical, too echoing of previous films arcs, too simplistic about the complexity of race, and maybe class, in America.
My general answer to some of these concerns is that in them we’re back to imposing how we see our own moment on the way things were racially in the late 50s early 60s in America. That was a time that in some senses things were, you should pardon the expression, black and white as between black and white, and no more so than in the South and even more so in the Deep South, for all the racial hypocrisy and racism extant in the North.
Black and white means things are simpler and cruder and the movie presents that. But Ali’s performance is so subtle and shaded, so complex and nuanced, for who his character is, for what he understands, for his suppressed rage, for his higher sensibility, for his personal limitations, for his virtues and strengths, for his artistic genius, that no one ought say this movie oversimplifies race as it was then. His nuanced complexity fills in infinite shades of grey between the black and white.
Mortensen too, for all his swaggering Ed Bundy, deze, demz and doze, Bronx Italian street guy, has shades of grey in him. Ali is a self imploding, tightly wound and constrained, stick up his ass type consistent with a sensibility so refined and rarified it seems like it might at different times either float off into the ether or fall on the floor and shatter into a thousand pieces or snap in half out of sheer brittleness.
Mortensen is the opposite of course but is marked by a personal solidity and code of honour, even as it coexists with a slice of playful, flexible, forgivable, pragmatic larceny in him. He has integrity and is totally open and appetitive, all as aspects of his Bronx Italian, his street, his hustler’s, sensibility. In all of that he has an iron grip on what is importantly right and wrong and he lives according to the code clutched in that grip. In fact, they both embody contrasting and complementing codes of honour, integrity and strength.
Their contrasts drive the movie, but each character is rounded and subtle in his own way, each so much more than what is apparent about him, that it’s nonsense, imo, to dismiss the movie as but another iteration of Oscar and Felix or simply the inversion of Driving Miss Daisy. The latter are middlebrow entertainment, nothing wrong with that, but Shirley and Tony are wrought in art.
There is no reason to pooh pooh what the movie makes as its theme: how Ali and Viggo affect and change each other. It’s no point that this kind of arc occurs often in movies. The point is how it happens in this movie that counts. And for my money, that affecting and changing arise organically over the course of the two hours and change. I believed it all and it all moved me.
Btw, in all my review skimming, I didn’t notice anyone commenting on the kind of music Shirley plays: to my ears, it’s third stream jazz or chamber jazz, a blend of jazz and classical music. That music complements Shirley with his one artistic leg in each stream, classical and jazz, finally flowing into the one musical river.
Btw, did you notice that when Ali near the end lets loose in the juke joint, one of the members of the backing band is white? So many little touches like that.
And I didn’t see any note on how percussive is Ali’s piano playing, an outlet for his inner rage, comprising an implicit attack on his Southern audiences, a kind of fuck you to them, who get off on thinking they have some association with his genius, perhaps salving some sense of their own guilt, or just making themselves feel good, while the minute before and the minute after his performance, he’s back to being the Other, the N....r.
A closer look at the movie will reveal, I believe, some blue notes and blusiness in one of Shirley’s performances after one of his harrowing southern experiences. There are all kinds of subtleties in the way the movie deals with music that are worthy of more extended and precise comment.
I’ll just say one more thing: some find the ending treacly. Not me. I loved it and I welled up. It’s the perfect culmination of what the movie develops between its protagonists over its course.
I’m reading A Farewell To Arms and I commented to a friend on the well known simplicity of much of Hemingway’s expository prose and his dialogue, with, say, descriptions like “she was very beautiful,” or “the town was very nice,” descriptions a creative writing teacher would warn sternly against. But in Hemingway they work because as we get into his worlds, we internalize his mistrust of complicated talk, of a lot of interiority, introspection and complexity. Things in his worlds are very much as they appear; people are what they seem; and they like or love things—people, situations, food, wine, beauty or ugliness—or they don’t.
That kind of straightforward reaction to straightforward things works in his worlds. Which is all a lot of roundabout words to say the ending in Green Book to my mind works in a comparable way. In a moment of virtually pure relationship black and white embrace each other as equals, as friends, as who each is. The moment is one of almost pure fellowship, just that. It’s straightforward, believable and fine.
Those who find it sappy, simplistic, undercutting complexity, an impossible proxy for racial harmony in America are missing what it is by seeing it as something larger than what it is—two utterly different guys who over the course of events come to appreciate and love each other. They stand for nothing but who they are in relation to each other.
Why not 100/100?
Well, I like it too much to bother carping and niggling about this and that.