Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Death of Cinema Lives!

Michael Keaton in this year’s ‘Birdman’
For a long time, I’ve been saying that Hollywood has now become driven by sequels and properties with pre-sold identities.  Now, writer Mark Harris is telling us that we are entering a time when sequels and franchises are the business, in a fascinating and rather scary article called “The Birdcage.”

Also, Jason Bailey of Flavorwire writes that Hollywood movies are now so expensive that they have priced such acclaimed filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, and John Waters out of the business.  His article is titled “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers M.I.A.”  

It seems that the happening place to be for thoughtful, character-driven dramas these days is on television.  Breaking Bad, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, and other series are sparking the water-cooler conversations these days as the feature films did back in the 1970s.  Meanwhile, big-screen movies are increasingly reserved for high-budget, high-grossing, lowest-common-denominator projects, with pre-existing identities, targeted mainly at children, adolescents, and very young adults.  Harris and Bailey second my opinion, reinforcing it with the facts on the ground.  If you love movies — and are uneasy about their future — both articles are must-reads..

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Tortured Rationale for the Iraq War?

This week, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence announced its report on the George W. Bush administration’s use of torture.  Here is how Wikipedia describes the document:
The 6,000-page report, which took five years and $40 million to compile, details abusive actions by CIA officials (amounting to systemic mistreatment of detainees) and various shortcomings of the detention project. On December 9, 2014 — eight months after voting to release parts of the report — the SSCI released a 525-page portion that consisted of key findings and an executive summary of the full report. The rest of the report remains classified. 
The report details actions by a number of CIA officials, including torturing prisoners and providing misleading or false information about CIA programs to government officials and the media. It also revealed the existence of previously unknown detainees, the fact that more detainees were subjected to harsher treatment than was previously disclosed, and that more techniques were used than previously disclosed. Finally, it offers conclusions about the detention project, including that enhanced interrogation techniques did not help acquire actionable intelligence or gain cooperation from detainees.
The report has been blasted by its critics as inaccurate, incomplete, egregiously one-sided, and politically partisan.  And it has reignited the recurring dispute in this country about the usefulness of torture and what it says about us as a people whose government is willing to employ it.  For example, Charles Krauthammer points to the absence of any new terrorist attacks since 9/11 as confirmation of torture’s effectiveness (Q.E.D.).  And former Vice President Dick Cheney, a strong supporter of what he called “enhanced interrogation techniques” while he was in office, now appears on news show after news show as an ubiquitous advocate of the practice. 

Of course, I’m no expert on the subject, but most of what I’ve read about it says that torture doesn’t work.  A tortured prisoner, according to intelligence experts, will only end up saying whatever his tormentors want him to say.  In the words of Ali Soufan, “a former FBI special agent with considerable experience interrogating al-Qaeda operatives”: “When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them. That means the information you're getting is useless.” 

The Senate’s torture report also dredges up memories of the Iraq War itself.  A number of news stories regarding people like former counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke and Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill have said that Bush wanted to invade Iraq at the very beginning of his tenure.  Indeed, when Bush established his administration, he appointed several advocates of “regime change” in Iraq — such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle — to positions of power.  As the news interviews with Clarke and O’Neill suggest, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 provided Bush with an opportunity to implement his long-held ambition to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Now, I would like to say something that the more misanthropic corner of my mind has suspected ever since the Abu Ghraib prison story broke.  I didn’t go around announcing my suspicion to everyone I knew because it would have made me sound like a far-left nutjob.  This is the suspicion: I’ve long feared that much of Bush and Chaney’s “intelligence” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq came from tortured prisoners of the War in Afghanistan.  In other words, Bush and Chaney so badly wanted a rationale to invade Iraq that they had prisoners of war tortured until those detainees parroted the regime-change hawks’ notions of WMD.  We now know that these notions of a nuclear-armed Iraq were erroneous, but I can imagine “enhanced” interrogators tormenting a detainee about WMD and the prisoner saying that Hussein was acquiring them just to make the pain stop.  And this is the main reason, my sardonic side suspects, that Bush and Chaney so vigorously defend torture: it (along with other debunked “evidence”) helped to provide the Iraq War’s false casus belli.   

This all sounds extremely cynical, I know, and as much as I disliked the Bush administration, I still gave it the benefit of the doubt that it wouldn’t go quite so far to achieve its dubious ends.  But a news story in the National Journal now gives credence to my formerly far-fetched suspicions.
December 9, 2014 — A Senate investigation into the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation practices released Tuesday suggests that at least one detainee supplied false intelligence contributing to erroneous claims by the Bush administration that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was working with al-Qaida. 
A footnote buried in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page report references a Libyan national known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who “reported while in ... custody that Iraq was supporting al-Qaida and providing assistance with chemical and biological weapons.” 
Some of that intelligence from al-Libi was used by former Secretary of State Colin Powell during a speech to the United Nations attempting to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to the footnote, despite al-Libi later recanting the claim. 
That speech by Powell, delivered on Feb. 5, 2003, was a pivotal part of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, wherein the secretary discussed Iraq's “deadly weapons program” and the country’s “involvement in terrorism.” 
No weapons of mass destruction were ever discovered in Iraq, nor was Hussein found to have deep, crucial ties to al-Qaida. It is unclear how significant al-Libi's testimony was to the Bush administration's insistence that Hussein possessed them.
To be sure, the story does not say that al-Libi supplied the false intelligence as a direct result of torture, and the article states that it’s not certain to what extent, if any, al-Libi’s “testimony” contributed to Bush’s justification for the invasion of Iraq.

But the fact that this news story comes as close as it does to confirming my worst suspicions is bad enough to get me to write this post.  The known history of the Iraq War — its being based on false intelligence, the hasty and heedless way that Bush rushed into it, its incompetent mismanagement — already makes it an egregious calamity.  If the false intelligence used to justify it turns out have been the result of torture, this would boost it to a cataclysmic tragedy. 

For a long time now — and the new Senate report now says that I had a good reason — whenever I listened to Chaney or any other regime-change apologist defending the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” this is what I heard between the lines of what they said: Torture is good because tortured detainees tell us what we want to hear 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

007’s Next Nemesis: Stephen Hawking?

I’m not the world’s biggest James Bond 007 fan, but here’s an intriguing idea: the fictional secret agent’s next movie antagonist should be played by Stephen Hawking.  Yes, that Stephen Hawking — the British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who expressed interest in portraying such a role in a recent interview

Virtually everyone who knows anything about him greatly admires Dr. Hawking’s expansive intelligence and his perseverance in the face of a terrible degenerative disease, and we are thankful that a computerized speech synthesizer allows him to continue communicating with the rest of the world.  But the modern imagination is also mindful of how a withering of one’s physical abilities and an over-dependence upon technology can run the risk of sundering us from our own humanity.  Imagining the dark side of someone with Professor Hawking’s genius whose deteriorative illness has alienated him from the rest of the world — as he speaks to it through an impersonal-sounding artificial device — sets the stage for an intriguing story of good against evil.  So, the idea of Stephen Hawking playing a Bond villain makes for a fascinating concept.

However, production has just this month commenced on the 24th James Bond actioner, titled Spectre, for distribution late next year.  If Hawking is ever going to play a Bond bad guy, such an endeavor won’t come about for at least two years.  Many years ago, Hawking was told that he didn’t have long to live, but he beat the odds anyway.  I hope that his health continues to hold out, and that he and the people behind the Bond franchise can make this intriguing concept a reality.  Yes, let’s see Professor Stephen Hawking play the secret agent’s adversary in the 25th James Bond film!

Friday, November 7, 2014

‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” is one of my favorite Beatles songs, and I know I’m not alone in saying that.

However, I’m not sure how many listeners realize just how demanding that song’s rhyme scheme actually is.  And a big reason for this is how the English word “been” is pronounced on both sides of the Atlantic.

In America, the word “been” is homonymous with “bin.”  But in most of Britain (and parts of Canada), “been” is homonymous with “bean.”  When pronounced the British way (as Paul McCartney does on the Beatles’ recording), “I’ve Just Seen a Face’s” three-syllable rhyme scheme becomes more apparent:

Had it been another day
I might have looked the other way
And I’d have never been aware
But as it is, I’ll dream of her

Not every verse follows this pattern, but when they do, the rhyming absolutely soars!

Still, when American singers cover the song, they usually pronounce “been” as “bin,” and the elaborate rhyming recedes a little.  So, I’m wondering if most of the song’s listeners are as tuned into the way that “I’ve Just Seen a Face” rhymes.  Or whether it’s something they think about at all.

Originally posted on BeatleLinks Fab Forum in 2011.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Horror Film for Halloween: ‘The Innocents’

To celebrate Halloween, many filmgoers will often search for a scary movie to help get themselves in the mood for a time of ghosts, goblins, monsters, children trick-or-treating, and adults partying in costumes they’ll regret wearing in the morning.  So, with Halloween only a week away, I’d like to recommend my favorite horror film for viewing, as something to help folks get into the Halloween spirit (so to speak): The Innocents, a black & white gothic ghost story from 1961. 

The Innocents is masterfully helmed by English director Jack Clayton, which is surprising since it’s only his second feature, following Room at the Top (1959), the celebrated “kitchen sink” drama credited with helping to launch the British New Wave.  Although The Innocents is based on Henry James’s famous 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, the movie is more directly drawn from a 1950 stage adaptation by William Archibald, also called The Innocents, from which the film gets its variant (and more descriptive) title.  Archibald also collaborated on the film’s script with Truman Capote (in a rare screenwriting stint) and with additional dialogue by John Mortimer. 

As I’ve said before, I’m not especially big on horror films, even though the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ’40s spawned my youthful interest in film.  One of my reasons for not liking horror anymore is because the genre is based on fearing things rather than understanding them.  But I become intrigued when the source of the horror is within the protagonist — rather than being something external — because such stories encourage us to examine our concepts of identity and self.  So, although I probably wouldn’t sit still for a horror movie about a main character battling monsters, a film told from the perspective of a werewolf (The Wolf Man [1941, 2010], The Curse of the Werewolf [1961], etc.) or any other “resist the beast” protagonist would more easily grab my attention. 

Until very recently, I understood that a horror film had to contain some sort of fantastical or otherworldly element — the dead returning to life, humans transformed into other creatures, beings from other worlds, and so on — to qualify for the genre.  If a film’s story concerned only subject matter that could be found in the lived world — serial killers or the witchfinder generals of history, for example — then it wasn’t a horror movie.  Such a film might be a thriller or a frightening mystery movie, I thought, but an absence of any supernatural theme disqualified it as horror.  However, conventional wisdom now says that some films about deranged humans, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the typical slasher flick, or other scary movies with real-world evils, can now also be counted as horror.  Moreover, two silent films frequently categorized as horror, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both starring Lon Chaney, exclusively concern dramatis personae that are ostensibly mortal humans; the title characters’ deformity or disfigurement, things that can happen in the lived world, serve as the films’ only “terrors.”  So, I seem to stand corrected.  What does all this have to do with The Innocents?

Because Clayton’s film is based on the well-known Turn of the Screw, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the film’s driving force — as in its literary source — is the uncertainty whether the movie fits at all into my earlier definition of what a horror film can be.  Are the happenings on screen a supernatural story of ghosts that are “real” within the narrative?  Or are the happenings only the product of the protagonist’s repression-fueled imagination?  The Innocents never answers these questions in any unambiguous way.  I think that the film gives slightly more weight (but not too much) to the all-in-the-head side, but if more were done to enhance the real-ghost-story side, this would probably have made The Innocents look like a generic horror movie, which is something Clayton wanted to avoid. (He made the picture in response to the superficiality of Hammer Films’s popular monster movies, one of the most conspicuous worldwide examples of British cinema at the time.) 

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens
The Innocents’ story concerns Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), an unmarried minister’s daughter approaching middle age in Victorian England.  Suddenly needing a livelihood, the inexperienced Miss Giddens accepts a position as governess to the orphaned niece and nephew of the absentee owner of a country estate (Michael Redgrave in a cameo).  Being a man-about-town and world traveler, and now saddled with the children upon the death of his brother, the bachelor uncle makes it clear that he does not want them in his life and that he is never for any reason to be bothered with whatever goes on at the estate.  Miss Giddens travels to the large country mansion, where she meets her grade-school-aged charges, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin).  The children are charming, but they also act disturbingly mature — at one point, Miles kisses Miss Giddens goodnight lingeringly on the lips — as well as secretive.  As the days go by, Miss Giddens (but no one else) sees two spectral figures, a man and a woman, appearing and disappearing on the estate.  She learns that the young governess who preceded her was in an abusive relationship with the uncle’s brutish valet, which included indiscreet sex throughout the mansion, and when the valet mysteriously died, the young governess drowned herself.  Without anyone else’s corroboration, Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the figures she sees are the ghosts of the valet and the young governess, who are trying to possess the bodies of Miles and Flora in order to continue their sexual relationship.  Miss Giddens takes it upon herself to exorcize the ghosts from the children by getting the young ones to acknowledge their (implied) past sexual abuse by the valet and former governess. 

If my synopsis makes The Innocents sound like heavy going, it isn’t.  The thorny issues are only subtext that enhances the film’s inchoate sense of dread.  Released in the U.S. by Twentieth Century Fox in 1961, the movie needed to be passed by the bowdlerizing Hollywood Production Code, which had been faltering and liberalizing since the 1950s but which was still in force.  As a result, the sexual abuse is only insinuated, and some viewers contest whether any such abuse is part of the story at all.  But the implication adds to the idea that Miss Giddens is motivated by sexual repression. However, the Production Code’s approval slightly hampers the mood when, at one point, the children are said to be speaking in profanities, and the strongest language that the audience hears is when Miles calls Miss Giddens a “damned hussy.” 

The main reason why I’m recommending The Innocents is because this has been the only film I’ve ever seen to really scare me.  I first saw this movie on television when I was very young — in grade school myself, I think — and very much into monster movies.  Hearing that The Innocents was a horror film, I made an effort (in those pre-VCR days) to see it on TV when it was shown.  Back then, there was a certain formula that I wanted horror movies to follow: monster comes (back) to life; monster causes mayhem; monster is killed at the film’s conclusion (at least, in certain cases, until the next sequel) — a tidy way for a kid to mentally “control” whatever is frightening, don’t you think?  And most vintage horror films did indeed follow the life-mayhem-killed pattern.  One reason why The Innocents unnerved my younger self so much is because it not only didn’t follow the pattern, but it threw the whole pattern into question by problematizing the concept of what exactly a monster was. (Being so young when I first saw The Innocents, I didn’t consciously pick up on the pervasiveness of the film’s sexual themes, which, as I said, were muted to begin with.) 

Beginning with the sound of Flora’s a-cappella voice singing a mournful song of lost love and death over the Twentieth Century Fox and Cinemascope logos, The Innocents hints at haunting things to come, and it soon delivers.  Moreover, the film contains some of the most unsettling images (by cinematographer Freddie Francis) I’ve ever seen, but they’re not unsettling in any obvious way: even the most brightly lit scenes convey an air of menace.  To this day, the close-up of a bug crawling out the mouth of a decorative stone cherub stays with me as the cinema image that did the most to send chills up my spine.

Also crucial to the film’s effectiveness are the preternaturally precocious performances of Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as the children, the “innocents” of the sardonic title.  With their well-behaved manners but their simultaneous ability to suggest a dark side, the youngsters balance on a knife’s edge between the adorable and the uncanny.  At the film’s beginning, Miles is away at boarding school but is expelled for hurting and swearing profanities at the other boys.  When Miss Giddens meets him, Miles is impeccably polite and well spoken, the very picture of good behavior — he couldn’t possibly be guilty of the accusation!  But he is evasive when she questions him about his expulsion, and he sometimes turns her queries back on herself with apparent adult-like cunning. 

Pamela Franklin as Flora, Kerr, and Martin Stephens as Miles

In scenes such as these, we get the idea that Miss Giddens’ visions may be the product of her repressed attraction to the uncle.  (Why else would the film hire a well-known star like Michael Redgrave for such a small role?)  But the characters of Miles and Flora are so schizophrenic, and the young Stephens’ and Franklin’s performances are so disquieting, that we might also think they are indeed possessed by demons.  (How could Flora foretell that Miles would soon be returning from school?)  By maintaining such a precise equilibrium between the psychological and the seemingly supernatural, The Innocents keeps us guessing — in an intriguing and entertaining way — what’s really going on.

And it makes for enthralling viewing for film-lovers in the mood for a horror movie, whether it’s Halloween or not.