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Lawman (1971), directed by Michael Winner, is an unusual little Western in the morality play subgenre. Burt Lancaster is a righteous, avenging sheriff in the 1940's mold, come to town to retrieve some cattlemen who in a fit of drunkenness shot up his own town, killing an old man. He only knows one way to act or live, and nothing--neither the odds nor the offer of a bribe--will deter him. The movie has a fine cast, with Lee J. Cobb as the kind of cattle patriarch played by Edward G. Robinson and Anthony Quinn in other films, Robert Ryan as the local bought sheriff who has come to ground here after a series of defeats and humiliations elsewhere, Robert Duvall as one of the cowhands Lancaster is tracking, and Sheree North as an ex-flame who is now with another of the hunted men. In typical 1970's fashion, Lancaster's quest goes completely haywire; after capturing or killing several of his targets, repeatedly sparing the life of a young cowhand who is not one of his targets but who comes against him out of pride and loyalty to the others, and sleeping with North and considering her plea for the life of her man, Lancaster quits and starts riding out of town. But an ill considered shot fired at his back by a townsperson unleashes a shootout in which Lancaster must down the rest of his targets. At this point, Cobb the patriarch has decided not to fight any more, but his headstrong son goes up against Lancaster anyway and is killed. Cobb fires a pistol into his own chin. In a stunning moment, unique among the westerns I have seen, North's hapless man breaks and runs, dropping his rifle, uttering incoherent noises of desperate panic. Faced with a couple of surviving threats from the front, Lancaster turns, studies him like a hawk--and shoots him dead from the back. Earlier Lancaster had boasted that he never in his whole career shot a man who didn't draw on him first. What we are witnessing now is almost incomprehensible, given the moral rigor of Lancaster's character. It wasn't an accident or a moment of confusion--Lancaster studies his target too deliberately. Is he punishing North for refusing to come back to him? Is it a little known codicil to the Western code, that cowards deserve death? Probably the sheriff himself would not be able to explain why he fired that shot. It is the moment at which justice shades over into murder, and the strict architecture of western morality itself begins to wobble and decay.
The Crying of Lot 49, (1966), by Thomas Pynchon, is a good way of sampling the author's work without committing to the length and density of his other early, powerful works like "V" or "Gravity's Rainbow". In this 183 page novella, his protagonist, Oedipa Maas, discovers the existence of a centuries-old cabal whose goal it is to disrupt government-run mail systems and provide its own underground alternative. Just writing that last sentence provided an epiphany: describing Pynchon's story underlines how much less there is to it than meets the eye. It is Pynchon's prose and the brilliance of the supporting details that create the atmosphere. On plot-lines alone, we are in low stakes, sub-Dan Brown territory (its hard to care very much about an attempt to disrupt the US mail). However, in this unusually short work, Pynchon gives us two kinds of entropy, Maxwell's Demon, telekinesis, Mexican revolutionaries, an imaginary Jacobean revenge drama (from which he quotes excerpts in creditable blank verse), rock music, probate and philately, among other topics. The depth of his knowledge of anything he chooses to write about is startling. In the end, the theme of the novel is hard to discern; the reference to "information entropy" early on seems to match the idea of a secret organization disrupting the U.S. mail--but to stop dead at the proposition that the same organization offers its own alternative mail system, as entropy does not create its own universe while breaking down ours. It is not a novel of political protest, either. Pynchon, as epitomized in "V"--a novel I adored as a teenager and reread many times--specialized in a kind of free-floating psychedelic 1960's paranoia. My fad of Pynchon essentially ended a few years later with "Gravity's Rainbow", a novel I have made several attempts to read in the decades since it appeared. In contrast to Pynchon, whose long novels are gripping but ultimately exhausting, I find Don DeLillo, his sincerest admirer-imitator, almost completely unreadable. The reason may be that Pynchon has a sense of humor, and DeLillo has none.
I almost did not bother reviewing Black Notice (1999) and The Last Precinct (2000), by Patricia Cornwell, two works in the Kay Scarpetta, medical examiner, series. Cornwell has two things in common with Pynchon: the novels are set in a world of deep paranoia, and she excels at secondary details, such as the world of tattoo parlors briefly revealed in the first novel and the discussion of Nazi-era Austria in the second. Because, like certain other series (such as the Aubrey-Maturin sea novels) the Scarpetta books are best understood as installments in one mega-novel, each book creates a rather impressionistic feeling, where characters and suspicions surge up momentarily, to be recalled in later books. For example, in "Precinct" a hit man is murdered, but we barely understand who he is or why he is there. The Scarpetta series suffers from excess grandiosity of story line, a common pitfall of series which have gone on too long: how do you trump the masterful, shrewd serial kiler of the third novel in your fourteenth? Having killed off Carrie Grethen, the nemesis of earlier installments who supposedly killed Scarpetta's long time lover, Benton, Cornwell in these latest two novels is now creating an international cabal which may have manipulated Grethen--who may not be the actual killer after all. This kind of plotting undermines the credibility of the series and is reminiscent of the infamous scene in "Dallas" where an entire year of the show was revealed to have been a bad dream. I also--and I feel a bit uncomfortable saying this--dislike the endless suffering and emoting of the main character, in prose like: "The essence of who I am is ruined. The simple beauty and safety of my life is sullied. I tremble inside." I am risking accusations of misogyny here, among other things, but find this a style of "female" writing which is outmoded, undignified and inconsistent with Scarpetta's identity as a powerful and decisive person. I am not saying that Scarpetta should suck it up like Philip Marlowe or, god forbid, Mike Hammer, but that there are ways of writing about emotion that are less florid and soap-operatic. So why do I continue reading Cornwell? The depth of detail on forensics, and the other worlds into which Cornwell chooses to look, are fascinating. Scarpetta has me every time she focuses a Lumalite on a crime scene.
Minority Report, (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg, is two unusual things: true science fiction on film, and a Spielberg movie that is more than half decent, largely because of the lack of sentimentality and corresponding absence of "Hoorah!" effects. Given that all of Spielberg's prior forays into the genre have been grossly sentimental fairy tales and/or incoherent nonsense ("ET", "Close Encounters", "AI"), this is quite an accomplishment. I suppose even Spielberg is capable of commissioning a good script, then not fucking it up. Tom Cruise heads a team of cops who use drugged, comatose precognitives (three eerie, wired bodies afloat in a pool) to predict murders, so that the suspects can be arrested before they have actually killed. Naturally, the precogs predict a murder by Cruise, and he flees, trying to clear his own name of something he hasn't done yet. In "Alien", which showed us a battered, scratched spaceship and bored crew members nattering about their union contracts, Ridley Scott introduced an era of science fiction movies in which (as in the written genre) the strange is made normal. Before that, every actor and every set in a sci fi movie (such as "Forbidden Planet" or even "2001") suggested something remarkable happening for the first time. "Minority Report" is wonderful on the little details, many of them about retinas. Yours are scanned everywhere, creating customized holographic ads which surge up addressing you by name. In order to become truly anonymous, Cruise must go to an underground, criminal surgeon to get his eyes changed; the depiction of this man and his crazy nurse, and the apartment in which they live, is one of the strangest and most memorable bits of science fiction cinema I have ever seen. There is a wonderful moment afterwards where, in his first visit to a store with his new eyes, Cruise is addressed as "Mr. Nakamoto" and repeats the name to himself in an irritated undertone. He keeps his former eyeballs and uses them to gain access to his old workplace (Spielberg cannot resist a scene in which Cruise drops them and they roll down a hallway and fall into a grate). One problem I had with the script, however, was that the aspect of the precog's work which provides the title turns out to be a red herring. Cruise discovers something he didn't know: sometimes the precogs have inconsistent visions of the future, and the "minority report" is suppressed. This turns out to have nothing to do with Cruise's case. There is a logical, fascinating and believable reveal about how you commit a murder in a world where everything is foreseen. Immediately after, the story becomes conventional and shaky; Cruise is arrested and placed in stasis, and his estranged wife, in something approximating a Spielbergian gee whiz moment, picks up a gun and gets him out. Nothing we know about her even remotely suggests she is capable of this. It could have been easily fixed in the script by making her a cop herself. Samantha Morton, an actress of unconventional looks whose work is always intense and interesting, plays a precog who Cruise awakens to help him. In a brief epilog, Spielberg resorts to an unfortunate bit of narration, really completely unnecessary, to let us know that she too, like Cruise and wife, lives happily ever after. (Later: I see some reviewers thought that everything which happens after Cruise is placed in stasis is a dream. The same suggestion has been made about the entire Mars portion of "Total Recall" and was the more explicit ending of "Brasil", as revealed by the last shot. It is also deliberately suggested by the ending of "Inception", reviewed last month. I don't believe that this is what Spielberg intended; he isn't that clever, and this isn't really a mind-game movie like the others. Also, if the end was really a wish fulfillment, Cruise would have gotten his missing son back, or at least found out his fate. The idea that part of the movie is a fantasy is an occupational hazard of science fiction movies with weak endings.)
Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953) by Lawrence Durrell, was mildly disappointing only because I expected more from the author of "The Alexandria Quartet". "Venus" is neither truly a travel book nor nonfiction. It purports to be an account of a year Durrell spent as a military information officer, publishing local newspapers on Rhodes after World War II ended. It is well worth reading for the beautiful descriptions of the island, and anecdotes about local people and practices. A foreword reveals that at least one of the principal characters, a military officer with a monocle and weakness for local wines, is invented, raising a serious ethical issue about a work presenting itself as factual. However, if you have visited Greece or dreamed of going there, this book's description of crags, groves, farmers, fishermen and saints will sing to you.
Mao's Last Dancer (2010), directed by Bruce Beresford, is based on an autobiography of the same name by a Chinese dancer who defected to the United States. It includes fine, extended ballet scenes and (driven I assume by the man's actual story) avoids some of the usual sentimental pitfalls of the genre. His American mentor has a petty, vindictive side to his personality, and the young woman whom he marries to stay in the U.S., who seems almost perfect at first, sinks into a wallow of jealousy as his career takes off while she can't find employment as a ballerina, an issue which eventually ends the marriage. "She's not good enough to dance for us," says the mentor. Another good choice in the story-telling: the hero is not able to defend some of the people who stood up for him, and later suffer as a result. The movie fails to avoid certain other pitfalls, however: it evokes the hoary old plot of "42nd Street" when the Houston Ballet's male soloist is injured and the protagonist, a mere exchange student studying with the company, is picked to go on in his place. Later, his parents, whom he has not been permitted to see in years, are brought from China and revealed to him onstage after a performance, a moment which is either flagrantly stagy or represents a disgraceful bit of showmanship by his mentor. I haven't read the book so can't say whether these two incidents happened, or were invented as cinema spectacle. The movie takes an abrupt but effective turn into drama when the protagonist visits the Chinese Consulate to inform them he will not be returning home, and is dragged away by thugs and confined in a room where the consul tries to bully him. Kyle McLachlan, in a small but skilful turn as a heroic immigration lawyer, works every contact in his address book, including a local judge and the State Department, to get him freed. This is on the whole a superior entry in the ballet genre which began with "The Red Shoes", and now includes "The Turning Point", Robert Altman's "The Company" and many others.
Browsing old paperbacks for sale in the Woodstock library, I found Shaw on Shakespeare, (1961), edited by Edwin Wilson. Shaw's comments on Shakespeare were not systematic--they tended to occur in the reviews of current productions or even in the middle of essays on unrelated topics--but Wilson has gathered them into a delightful and amusing book. Shaw thought Shakespeare a whore to the audience, though his language is more politic, and also no kind of philosopher. He points out that most of Shakespeare's most famous passages, translated into ordinary modern prose, communicate the most appallling cliches and truisms. He execrates Shakespeare for failing to attack real social problems or important issues of his time, for pandering to the audience instead, and even for failing to create consistent characters (his examples are Mercutio and Imogen, both of whom he claims are two characters, not one). What he lauds in Shakespeare is, instead, a talent, never since equalled, to engage in wonderful flights of musical language ("word music"), sometimes quite nonsensical in meaning. He classifies Shakespeare as being (uselessly) angry at God, when in Shaw's opinion, the real vocation of a playwright is to be angry at men (and seek reform).
Tender Mercies (1983), directed by Bruce Beresford, is a very good, very puzzling movie. Robert Duvall plays a fallen country singer-songwriter who has found redemption before the movie starts, by remaining sober and marrying a younger woman with a son who loves him. There is very little conflict in the movie; things just get better and better as he hooks up with a young, up and coming band which wants to perform his songs; starts singing again; and reconnects with the 18 year old daughter he has not seen most of his life. She is not even angry at him. When she is killed in an automobile accident a few days later, he has a moment in which he asks God what sense it all makes; but then he gamely carries on. The worst truism about plays and movies is that characters must face conflict and have arcs; the protagonist here faces none and has none, yet the movie is compelling for its luminous performances.
Border Incident (1949), is effective early work by Anthony Mann, a director best known for noirish 1950's Westerns starring James Stewart. Despite some gee whiz narration at the beginning and end, this is a documentary-like noir about illegal immigration, as Mexican gangsters cooperate with American ranchers to smuggle "braceros" across the border. The one questionable, possibly propagandistic detail: the Mexicans find themselves making less in the U.S. than they could have back home. The atmosphere of violence, exploitation and bribery, occasionally laced with murder, seems contemporary.
Cornered (1945), directed by Edward Dmytryk, is a near miss, a noir which was almost very good. Dick Powell plays a Canadian flyer who is willing to track the killer of his French wife, a member of the Reistance, to the ends of the earth. Powell, breaking with his earlier career in musical comedy, is appropriately grim and violent.Much of the movie takes place in Argentina, where a mysterious French collaborator has gone to ground. The problem is that the plot is extraordinarily dense, requiring you to try and keep track of an unusually large network of henchmen, many of whom are related to one another. When the arch villain finally shows up, in a confrontation in an abandoned bar, his face is shadowed for enough of the scene that you are sure when illuminated he will turn out to be one of the existing characters--but we have never seen him before. The script really needs a rewrite, eliminating two thirds of the characters and story--or needs to breeze past these details, overwhelm them with action a la "The Big Sleep", where its not important who killed whom. Here, its all that's important.
The Haunting (1963), directed by Robert Wise, is a creepy ghost story in the old style, not requiring any blood nor much violence, just bulging doors and unearthly noises in an old house. With effective work by Claire Boom and others, it tells the stories of four paranormal investigators who congregate in a haunted house. One of them is "identified" by the house as the one it wants to keep, and the rest of the movie involves her coming to like that fate, while the others fight to keep her from being drawn in. It is based on a novel by Shirley Jackson.
Beach Red (1967), directed by and starring Cornel Wilde, is an effective example of the anti-war combat movie of the 1960's, in the same genre as "Hell in the Pacific" and "Go Tell The Spartans". It follows some American troops as they hit the beach on a Japanese-held island, and cross-cuts to the defending Japanese troops. We hear the American's thoughts, and see flashbacks expressed unusually as still pictures and home movies, involving the women and families left behind. The Japanese are not subtitled, but we see similar flashes of their wives and children. Rip Torn is memorable as a hateful Marine lieutenant, who tells his captain that he will slash, stomp and shoot Japanese and generally kill them by any means possible. By the end of the movie, all of the Japanese we have met are dead, and most of the Americans dead or wounded. The humanization of the enemy is very different from the more propagandistic movies of the forties and fifties. In those, a wounded Japanese will stab an American, or detonate a grenade. In this film, a Japanese and American shoot each other, then exchange water and cigarettes as they lie near one another.
Young and Innocent (1934), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is an enjoyable precursor of his later films, and shows Hitchcock already in top form. It involves a cross country chase in which an at first unwilling woman becomes the enthusiastic collaborator of an endangered man, similar to The 39 Steps, Saboteur and the great North by Northwest. First it is necessary to find a tramp who is wearing a stolen raincoat, then the man who gave it to him, known only by his odd facial tick. There is an extended penultimate scene in which the couple, aided by the tramp, are in a ballroom; via a classic Hitchcock montage, we learn that the blinking man is the drummer in the band to which everyone is dancing. The cops are closing in, the blinking man thinks they have come for him, he faints, the young woman--played by the intelligent, appealing Nova Pilbeam--goes to give him first aid, and sees him blinking. There is also a scene in which Nova Pilbeam is falling into a hole and must be rescued by the protagonist in a scene completely similar to that at the end of "North by Northwest"--and reminiscent of Hitchcock's famous mistake at the end of "Saboteur" in which he hung the villain off the Statue of Liberty (Hitchcock said later that the stakes were low; no-one cared if the villain fell).
Nicolas Freeling was a cynical, funny but very deadpan crime writer of the 1960's. In Love in Amsterdam,(1962), he introduced Piet Van der Valk, homicide detective of the Amsterdam police, a leading example of the beloved subgenre of foreign detectives which came to include Inspector Martin Beck,Arkady Renko, McCall Smith's African female detective and now Lisbeth Salander. Van der Valk is very European, meaning that he is more cerebral than American detectives, yet rather flakier and enjoys his job more. He takes himself less seriously and has more of a sense of humor. The story concerns a novelist who is dragged in and interrogated when his toxic ex-girlfriend is murdered. The story is set from the novelist's point of view, and you wonder for a while if this is one of those tales in which the unreliable narrator will turn out to be the murderer, having concealed information from the reader as well as the detective. Freeling is more complicated, and at the same time, more conventional, than that. Like most genre writers, Freeling hops the tracks at moments when he asks you to accept improbable devices in support of the plot. Here he sketches a denouement which involves the novelist going undercover to help trap the murderer. The Dresden Green, (1966), a stand alone not involving Van der Valk, is the tale of an interpreter at an international organization like the U.N., who is caught up in an intrigue involving a missing diamond. He is a fairly interesting character, who changed sides several times during the war for survival, and was a member both of the Waffen SS and the French Resistance. In the end, he is unequal to the forces he has unleashed. Having lost a woman and a child in World War II, he loses another pair and his own life in one of two alternative endings the author supplies. In the other--the one we are told the protagonist "would have" preferred--he lives happily ever after with them. One inconsistency is that the anti-hero, who remembered his wartime skills and cleverly killed a surprise assailant at the outset, becomes strangely passive for most of what ensues. As in the other novel, Freeling asks us to believe a whopper: the villains fail to search the apartment where the protagonist is staying, assuming he would not have been foolish enough to leave the diamond there. But that is exactly where it is, and the first place they would search--which would have ended the novel on page 35 instead of page 192.
Vampire movies are all about the art direction. In the better ones, a lot more attention is paid to the lighting, set design and costuming than in the average Hollywood film. Let the Right One In (2008), directed by Tomas Alfredson, is an unusual one, set against snow (as was Thirty Days of Night). In a depressed Stockholm town, a nerdy twelve year old boy, son of a single mom, meets his extremely lonely next door neighbor, a girl who happens to be a vampire. "I've been twelve for a long time", she says. The filmmaker deftly weaves vampire lore into modern Swedish anomie; Eli, the vampire, can't enter her friend's apartment unless he asks her, and an older alcoholic woman Eli infects commits suicide by asking someone to open the blinds and let the sunlight in. The movie is mainly about the phenomenon of like calling to like, of two lonely, rejected people bonding. It is also completely amoral, like every vampire movie which doesn't involve the vamps drinking plasma. First, an elderly companion kills to feed Eli; then when he becomes useless, she herself kills. We know that somewhere subsequent to the movie's happy end, in which she saves her human boyfriend from bullies, he will begin killing for her too.
Blood: The Last Vampire (2009), directed by Chris Nahon, is a more traditional B-movie, with the lovely blacks and reds and shadows of the best art-designed of the genre. The acting is indifferent, the script predictable, the fight scenes kick-ass. Its a guilty pleasure movie, worth it if you like watching beautiful young women who know how to handle swords. Based on an anime I haven't seen, the movie tells the story of Saya, a plasma-drinking half-vampire whose mission is to kill Onegin, the oldest, meanest demon alive. Much of the movie is set on a U.S. air base near Tokyo--its 1970, and the Vietnam war is still on. "Blood" also represents the new film globalism; it switches effortlessly between Japanese and American, as do the heroine and the demon. One of the co-producers is a Beijing film entity. In the final confrontation, Onegin, a woman, is wearing an outfit with long flowing white streamers, which somehow don't interfere with her handling a sword.
Years ago, I finished Zola's twenty novel Rougon Macquart series, Duhamel's ten novels about "Le Notaire Du Havre" and his family, Durrell's "Alexandria Quintet", Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, Scott's "The Jewel in the Crown" and all of Proust. So I've sunk down to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, which is a series of twelve rather sketchy short novels whose protagonist views the fluctuations of British society from the twenties onwards. He himself is dull, as is the writing; the observation is superficial; there seems to underlie it all a grudging worship of the titled classes; yet I can't stop reading. Am I a completist? I love the title of the series, and at least once per novel, after boring, confusing recitations in dialog as to what people we have forgotten about from earlier novels are doing, there is a satisfying artistic click, a moment of psychology or emotion. I have just finished the fourth and fifth in the series, At Lady Molly's (1957) and Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960).
Later--I am finishing the whole twelve novel series with the exception of the tenth book, "Books Do Furnish a Room", missing from the Woodstock library. Powell deserves credit for the effort involved in creating and tracking characters across a period of almost seventy years. The books integrate almost seamlessly in that respect. People we haven't seen in five novels regularly show up; new ones introduce themselves as being connected to incidents described many novels before. Since most works of fiction follow their protagonists and other characters across a much more restricted field of time, anyone deserves credit who can encapsulate most of a life in a novel. Powell also deserves credit for capturing a large stretch of a society, from people who have just emerged from the working classes into the middle, through the hereditary peerage, to visiting foreign royalty. One of the substantial interests of this kind of sweep is the very unexpected but organic things that happen to some of the people, without any sense of author-trickery. A minor character, a working class girl named Gypsy Jones, is the wife of a peer by the end. The central character, not the narrator himself, is Ken Widmerpool, the awkward outsider eager for approval at school, who becomes variously a wealthy businessman, a politician, a Lord and then a worshipper of youth and dissent by the end. The narrator, Nick Jenkins, reveals rather little of his own inner life, skipping large chunks of it with a few sentences of narration (his own marriage, for example). The problem with all this is that Powell is too clearly trying to be the English Proust, as his series title reveals, and that Proust did all this better and with more intensity. Powell's collection of twelve short novels never achieves the grand madness and intensity of Proust's hundred page disquisitions on magic lanterns, and all Powell's effects are Proust's--having people turn up forty years later and then recounting the odd changes in them since last seen.
I just saw Gone With the Wind, (1939), directed by Victor Fleming, for the fifth or sixth time. I never liked the movie, yet have to see it again every five or six years, to try to understand why people love it and how it is constructed. I think this time I understood better how masterful Vivien Leigh's performance is. However, I continue to detest the character she plays. Scarlett's arc is a strange one; she goes from being coquettish and phony to being real in the middle of the movie, when she must save everyone else's life, fend off starvation and kill a marauding Union soldier. As she becomes rich in the postwar era, she becomes coquette and fake again, as if she learned nothing. I would appreciate the movie (and I suppose the novel, which I haven't read) more if it ended with strong Scarlett vowing never to be hungry again. Melanie, played by the usually wonderful Olivia DeHavilland, is too saintly to be true. Clark Gable as Rhett sounds strangely like Groucho Marx at times; he wasn't really a very nuanced actor, and couldn't even manage a Southern accent (neither could Leslie Howard; but if you can't sound Southern, sounding British is acceptable). The plotting of the last part of the movie (and I suppose the novel) is laughable, with creaky old contrivances like Scarlett's fall downstairs and the loss of their daughter wilfully jumping her pony. The movie is badly dated; it comes alive in the middle, when Atlanta is burning, and in Vivien Leigh's face. Another thing which makes it worth watching is the intelligent, dignified performance of Hattie McDaniel in what could have been a very stereotypical role as Mammy, the maid. McDaniel, who won an Oscar for the role (the first ever to an African American) said she would rather play a maid than be one (and she had been).
Red Square (1997) by Martin Cruz Smith, is the third in the Arkady Renko series which began with Gorky Park. Renko is the flotsam of Soviet history, always being tossed like a chip. Unlike more conventional heroes like Jack Reacher, Renko never drives events; at best, he barely copes with them. Smith is one of the best thriller writers working, however; his characters are always real, never stereotypes, and there are never those moments one finds in lesser thrillers (as in the Freeling novels I review above) where the plot departs from common sense. In this one, Renko, early in the Gorbachev era, is back in Moscow after years of exile, working as a detective again. He gets embroiled in a complex plot to smuggle a Russian modern art painting to Germany for sale, carried on by a Jewish financier and a Russian mafioso, with the sinister Chechen mafia in the background. Renko makes a trip to Germany, ostensibly to investigate the case, knowing he will see Irina, the woman for whom he sacrificed everything in the first novel. Smith is the consummate genre writer because he takes the trouble to get the details right, but never at the expense of characterization. A wonderful moment at which research and character dovetail is when Renk learns about "craquelure", the phenomenon when two paints fail to bond in a painting and small cracks form. Renko muses he probably shows some craquelure himself.
The American (2010), directed by Anton Corbijn, is a slow-moving, art house mash-up of thriller tropes. George Clooney plays a burnt-out assassin; whether he works for a government agency or for organized crime is never disclosed, and is probably a distinction without a difference. The script has a major problem: Clooney kills his girlfriend in the first scene because she has seen too much, and it is hard to care about him after that. Endless scenes of him walking around a small Italian town, and drinking brandy with a Central Casting priest, are interspersed with a few chase scenes. It is impossible to believe Clooney wouldn't run after killers find him, and the last reel reveal that his boss is trying to kill him was predictable. The film even stoops to the prostitute with a heart of gold. It is reminiscent of "The Passenger" in its pretentious slowness. There are more than a dozen Godard movies ("Breathless", "Pierrot le Fou") which play with thriller tropes which take themselves far less seriously, move faster and stay with you more than this movie. Even Melville's slow moving art-house thrillers are much better than this. Godard famously said that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun. This movie has several guns and girls, and one girl with a gun, and wastes them all.
George Orwell may be my favorite 20th century writer. Not on the strength of "Animal Farm" and "1984", his works of anti-Communist fervor which prove rather rigid, angry and dogmatic, like the political systems he opposed. I sympathize with the earlier, more cerebral, flexible and sarcastic Orwell, of essays like "Shooting an Elephant", nonfiction like "Homage to Catalonia" and novels like "Keep the Aspidastra Flying." A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) is a lesser effort, but still compelling. It is the story of Dorothy, daughter of a rural rector, whose life is constrained to taking care of her father, making visits to parishioners, and stigmatizing herself with needles for each perceived sin and failure. She is twenty-eight years old, moderately attractive and terrified of sex. Orwell's portrait of a failing parish is interesting; Dorothy's father is an angry, uncharismatic man, who has only a fraction of the attendees at his church he had a few years ago. Because there is no money, the bells, already unstrung, are threatening to crash through the ceiling into the chapel. The novel takes a very unexpected turn when Dorothy has a nervous breakdown induced by this life, and wakes up homeless in London. There is an extended panorama of life on the road, picking hops, and a night spent in Trafalgar Square huddling with alcoholics, schizophrenics and wastrels in near-freezing temperatures. It is as if a Jane Austen heroine wound up in a gypsy encampment. When she finally returns to live with her father, the one remaining major change to her character is that her faith has vanished entirely. But, in an entirely existential way, she chooses to pick up needle and thread again, to give her life purpose.
King of the Gypsies (1978), directed by Frank Pierson, is a disappointing sub-Godfather drama about Roma families in America. It has some fine performances, by Susan Sarandon, Eric Roberts, Judd Hirsch and a very young and radiant Annette O'Toole, and one notable scene in which Sarandon steals a diamond by having her five year old son swallow it. Most of the actors bring the same shtik to playing gypsies they would have to playing Jewish elders in a shtetl-- that indistinguishable, Eastern European thing. The movie is mostly people ineffectually running after people you would think they could easily catch, and silly dancing. There is some great Stephane Grappelli violin jazz on the soundtrack.
Underworld USA (1961), directed by Samuel Fuller, is a surprisingly good B movie. Fuller is, along with Philip K. Dick, one of the "accidental angels" of American culture, people whose art exceeded their very modest goals and the genres in which they thrived. Fuller at his worst, as in "Shock Corrdor", is laughably over the top ("Nymphos!Nymphos!"), but this movie is very well written and acted. A teenage boy sees his father murdered by four men, and devotes the rest of his life to revenge. As an adult, infiltrating the mob the killers control, he sets them against each other (a la "Yojimbo") with the reluctant help of a prosecutor. Each of the characterizations is fine: his ex-show girl stepmother, the prostitute whom he rescues and comes to love. The mobsters are convincingly amoral while never trite; they talk business rather than swagger.
Mogambo (1953) directed by John Ford, is a little fable about a man who collects animals for zoos, played by Clark Gable, and two women who are in love with him. Earthy Ava Gardner, a show-girl washed up in his part of Africa, puts on pants and helps feed the animals. Grace Kelley, arriving on safari with her anthropologist husband, is icy and nervous and can't get down off her high horse. There is never a moment's doubt that Gable belongs with the earthy one, or that he is madly in love with the icy one; it is nice to see judgment and morality kick in, in an extended scene where he tries to tell Kelly's husband of their affair, and can't. This takes place while they are waiting for mountain gorillas to emerge from the bush, and is interrupted by the charge of the alpha male, whom Gable must shoot to death. It is as if the momentary vision of rage and testosterone, and his grief at killing something so fierce and beautiful, forces Gable down another pathway. The movie stays real--no humans in gorilla suits--and contains many beautiful shots of animals, local tribesmen, and the bush. It is never sentimental or denigrating. In a scene, reminsicent of "Zulu", where the characters must walk quietly through an angry crowd of African people brandishing spears, you appreciate that it is someone else's country, and the Caucasians are just visiting. The movie is mildly dated by the fact that we must watch Gable shoot members of two endangered species, though both times in self defense. It is arguably a better movie than the much more famous "African Queen", which had a very contrived story line and ending.
The Secret Beyond the Door (1948), directed by Fritz Lang, is a really absurd Freudian gothic, complete with dream scene, about a woman who marries a man who collects murder scenes (buying all the furniture and fittings and transferring them to rooms in his own mansion). Our heroine, Joan Bennett, prevents her new husband from strangling her by psychoanalyzing him as he approached her, scarf in hand. Still, it has a certain momentum and some snappy dialog; Fritz Lang imparted a certain flair even to his really bad movies.
The Prowler (1951), directed by Joseph Losey, is an efficient little noir about a cop who stages the perfect murder of his mistress' husband, only to discover she is prematurely pregnant by him (the man he murdered couldn't have children). Van Heflin, in an uncharacteristic sociopath role, seems genuinely to care about the mistress, whom he marries; they retreat to an uninhabited ghost town to have the baby, unattended, so nobody will know; but there are complications. The sense at the end is of the universe closing in on a couple who have gotten away with murder, like the denouement of many pulp fiction novels, ranging from "Double Indemnity" and "Postman" to "The Get-away". Joseph Losey later branched out in the 1960's to direct eerie, surrealistic films with scripts by Harold Pinter.
Why is it that British historical films are so lively, and ours tend to be dull and didactic? Maybe because their historical figures killed people while uttering aphorisms, and ours made insufferable speeches. Anyway, Fire Over England (1937), directed by William K. Howard, is a wonderful account of the year the Spanish Armada invaded. Flora Robson, as Queen Elizabeth, blows away Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett in the same role; she is a female king and a woman, who regrets the loss of her looks yet never (unlike the Queen in "Elizabeth and Essex") yields her dignity. This is the movie in which Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh first met. Olivier has to dissolve in hysteria twice, and is not believable. Much of the rest of the time, he is jumping off ships and balconies, sword-fighting and kissing women. Vivien Leigh is charismatic in a supporting role as a lady who attends the Queen and loves Olivier. There is a wonderful, tongue in cheek moment when a Spanish nobleman tells his lady not to recognize enemies as human beings, because then they are not enemies, and what will become of patriotism? "It will be the end of everything."
Waterloo Bridge (1940), directed by Mervyn Leroy, is a moving, four handkerchief weepie, done with style and intelligence. Vivien Leigh is a ballerina who falls in love with a soldier in a whirlwind 24 hour courtship, gets engaged to him and then sees him listed as dead in the newspaper. When he returns from a year of German captivity, she is a prostitute. There are a number of memorable shots in the movie: Leigh cruising Waterloo station, only to see the man she thought dead get off a train; Leigh on Waterloo Bridge (where they met), looking at increasingly larger and more menacing military trucks passing by; the camera seems to sink, until we are looking under their wheels, and then she throws herself under one. The main flaw in the movie is Robert Taylor, who is wooden and doesn't even attempt a British accent. Leigh, in her first movie after "Gone With the Wind", wanted Olivier, but the studio wouldn't comply.
Beaufort (2007), directed by Joseph Cedar, is one of the best war movies ever made. While scrupulously realistic, by the time the film is over you are very very aware of the Beckett-like overtones of this unique story in which the soldiers have no mission and an enemy face is never seen. The small Israeli army contingent sits in an outpost built from concrete and portable steel--parts look very like a spaceship set, metal corridors with sliding doors--right outside a centuries-old Crusader fort on a mountain in Lebanon. They never conduct a raid, or any surveillance of the enemy, or fire any artillery towards him. One of the soldiers jokes they are there to guard the mountain, so it doesn't get away; while others more seriously speculate that they are there to be seen. Towards the end, awaiting a delayed order to evacuate, they have no mission at all. In the meantime, mortar rounds and missiles fly in and kill a few of them. The movie reverses a number of the typical war film tropes. The bomb disposal expert they are sent, to disarm a device visible in the road, is nervous, tries to cancel the assignment, and then is killed immediately upon touching the bomb. There is a poignant scene later when the soldiers see the bomb guy's dad on television, bemoaning, calmly, that he is a terrible father who never taught his son to value his own life. The commander of the group, Liraz, is very young, with a startling baby face; he is ferociously compassionate and committed to his men, but freezes twice when individuals are endangered and other soldiers must charge past him to rescue them. At the end, his one traditional moment of war movie courage is a passive one. The order comes down for the last twelve men to hold one more night, sitting atop thousands of pounds of explosive, waiting to be blown up if one more missile hits. One of his soldiers asks him to ignore the order, and evacuate them. but Liraz says he can't be that person, who ignored an order and fled. The movie, which works conscientiously to go at right angles to expectations, even has a happier ending than you have come to expect. During the evacuation of Lebanon, I heard an anonymous Israeli soldier quoted, "No-one wants to be the last man to die here." The movie possibly shows us the last Israeli soldier to die in that evacuation: Shpitz, a musician guarding the wreckage of a bunker destroyed the day before by a new kind of missile, also causing the death of a friend. The next man sent to guard "Green" has a nervous breakdown, and Liraz, caring more about his men than the war by this point, leaves it unguarded--with no consequences.
Horizons West (1952), directed by Budd Boetticher, is a disappointing Western, with Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson as brothers on opposite sides of the law. I have often noticed that any random Western you have never heard of tends to be far better than any random romantic comedy, cop movie or dysfunctional family indie. Western tropes were so well worked out, and the people who juggled them by 1950 so experienced, that usually when I see three men on horseback, or a tumbleweed blowing down the street of a nearly abandoned town, I know I am in for some good entertainment. This movie, cursed by a very generic and irrelevant title, includes some very trite moments, such as an angered mob banging on the sherriff's door while the deputies hide a prisoner in the church basement. The ambiguity of the heroes and villains, increasingly apparent in the 1950's westerns of Anthony Mann and of Boetticher himself, has no place here; Hudson is purely heroic and Ryan sociopathic. Also, it crams far too much story into its less than ninety minutes, as Ryan goes from being a penniless returnee from the Civil War to building an entire corrupt cattle empire. The story demands a three hour epic. Ryan, however, is one of my favorite actors, because he is moderately ugly--not so much as Ernest Borgnine--and proved that you can have an excellent and long career as a character actor in genre movies on the strength of a face which looked increasingly pushed-in and weathered over the years. He is watchable in everything.
The Town (2010), directed by Ben Affleck, is a superior heist movie with some extra human elements. Affleck also stars in the film, about a crew consisting of four old friends from Charlestown, Mass. who rob trucks and banks. Affleck's father, well played by Chris Cooper (one of the best character actors going) is serving multiple life terms in prison for a truck robbery that ended in murder. In the course of the movie, Affleck falls in love, visits Cooper, discovers the fate of his mom who disappeared when he was five, and decides to extricate himself from crime, which of course proves difficult. He first shadows, then falls in love with, a woman they took hostage in the robbery which opens the movie, who never saw the faces of her captors. She knows him as a blue collar sand and gravel worker; one of the high points of the movie is when an FBI agent shows her her boyfriend's picture. Affleck ably directs robbery and chase scenes and keeps the tempo fast. One of the crew members, an old friend, seems to be coming unstuck, more violent on every job, and the film includes a series of confrontations between the two men as battles between Affleck and the only life he knows but has to leave. The supporting characters are all well sketched and the film is full of the kind of quirky small details which give genre movies life (the crew microwaves the cell phones of the bank workers). In the end, the only flaws are that the gun battles are too big and noisy to be believable (my main objection to the similar "Heat", which sits at the head of this genre), and that Affleck's character (common when the director stars in the movie) is a little too perfect and also too lucky. In the end, crime does pay.
Dr. Fischer, or the Bomb Party of Geneva (1980) is a late Graham Greene novel, really a short moral parable, which is compelling without being believable. An older Englishman, with a modest career as a translator for a Swiss chocolate firm, falls in love with and marries the much younger daughter of a cruel billionaire, Dr. Fischer, who stages elaborate parties at which he torments his guests, getting hold of them by their greed. At the last party, he tells them that six "crackers" in a Christmas barrel contain five checks for 2 million francs and one small bomb....and the guests take the chance, as if playing Russian roulette for money. The writing is efficient and poignant but the stakes rather low, as I didn't really care what happened to any of these people.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1952), directed by Elia Kazan, was worth watching again now that I am more aware of Vivien Leigh's career and other performances. It struck me this time that she could be playing Scarlett O'Hara, twenty years on and more dissipated. It is remarkable that this English actress' two greatest roles were Southern ladies who tried to hang on to plantations (Tara and Belle Reve). It is nevertheless a noble and gripping performance, even if it crosses over into a certain drag-queenism as Tennessee Williams' leading ladies tend to do ("I don't want realism...I want magic"). I noticed that Kazan fidgeted a bit with the script to imply that the rape wasn't premeditated (even to leave open the question of whether it occurred) and yet to imply that Kowalski wasn't getting away scot-free. In reality, this is a story of a fragile being who is gratuitously crushed. It made me realize how many of William's plays ( "Suddenly Last Summer", "Sweet Bird of Youth"), contain passages of shocking, sociopathic cruelty. Even Tom's abandonment of Laura and Amanda at the end of "Glass Menagerie" seems gratuitously cruel, as it probably resulted in their destruction.
Viva Zapata!, (1952), directed by Elia Kazan, is the movie Brando made immediately after "Streetcar". I am not a big fan of dying the skin of Caucasian stars brown and having them speak a simplistic or stilted English playing the people of other countries. If a movie set in Mexico is not in Spanish, I have a hard time suspending disbelief. Nevertheless, Brando does a good job, and the movie is lively--until you do a bit of reading and discover that its history is cockeyed. Revolutionary president Madero, whom Zapata is shown idolizing and supporting, was actually the target of rebellion for a chunk of Zapata's career that is omitted from the movie. Viva Villa! (1934), directed by Jack Conway, contains even more howlers: Pancho Villa is portrayed as interim president of the republic for a time after avenging Madero's assassination; but the historical Villa never rose higher than state governor. The plaeaure of a well made historical film is obviated, for me, by the discovery that I have learned nothing but misconceptions and fabrications, about the actual history of the era sought to be portrayed.
Turner Classic Movies had an evening of cattlemen vs. homesteader movies, followed by a day of some of the greatest Western classics ever. I watched them all and am probably losing brain cells. The Westerner, (1940), had little to do with the actual Judge Roy Bean, but is an interesting example of a subtle Western comedy (watch Gary Cooper's hand motions putting a girl's lock of hair into his wallet, or his expression extricating it again later, to see what I mean). Walter Brennan steals the show as the hanging judge. Howard Hawks in Eldorado (1966) remade Rio Bravo of seven years earlier, with the same star, John Wayne. The movie was written by the mysterious Leigh Brackett, a female science fiction author of the 1940's and after who alternated writing testosterone movies such as this and "The Big Sleep". The film contains a good assortment of well limned characters, including the knife-throwing gambler with the funny hat who can't handle a gun (James Caan), the alcoholic sheriff (Robert Mitchum), the aging Indian fighter, loving prostitute and so forth. John Wayne develops a role in which he would specialize: the aging gunfighter whose body is beginning to betray him. There is a cool, tough teenage girl, not afraid of anything or anyone, who shoots Wayne at the outset, then saves his life by shooting his adversary at the end. The Violent Men (1955), directed by Rudoph Mate, was worth seeing for an unusual (and late) appearance by Edward G. Robinson, as a crippled cattle baron tired of murder. Glenn Ford is less wooden than usual as the protagonist, an Easterner who came West to be cured of consumption, and then couldn't leave due to a moral obligation to defend his workers and neighbors in the range wars. Barbara Stanwyck does a powerful turn as Robinson's tough, deceptive and ambitious wife, who wants to dominate the valley and needs a healthier man to help her do it.
Then the next day, I did my brain more damage, watching The Searchers, Johnny Guitar and Gunfight at the OK Corral back to back. The Searchers, (1956) directed by John Ford, is the second greatest American film ever made, after Treasure of the Sierra Madre. John Wayne and his young nephew look for a kidnapped girl across the years; the structure is picaresque, a quest movie almost like Lord of the Rings in which they must deal with various lesser challenges and subsidiary evils to get to the main one. There is also prejudice, the social cohesion that is creating a race of "Texians", relationships between Wayne's loner character (who has probably been a bandit in the recent past) and everyone else, interaction of Rangers and cavalry, young love not running smooth, and various other strands. The movie is constantly stopping to show us unusual and disturbing things, such as some white girls Wayne inspects who have been raised by the Indians since childhood and seem almost psychotic. Finally, the quest is accomplished and the girl (who has grown up to be Natalie Wood) is found and freed. There is an unforgettable final shot through a doorway of various villagers walking her inside, after which Wayne stands alone, framed in the doorway, and turns and walks away.
Johnny Guitar (1954), directed by Nicholas Ray, is an unforgettable Freudian Western that is so far over the top that it verges on camp while keeping a straight face. Joan Crawford, in full drag queen-sad clown mode, plays Vienna, lonely ex-show girl who owns a casino placed right where the railway will shortly be built. The townspeople, led by her rival Mercedes McCambridge, hate her and wish for her destruction. The movie is remembered for the only (so far as I know) gunfight between two women, the final confrontation between Vienna and McCambridge's character. ("Duel in the Sun", from the same era, had a memorable shoot out between a woman and a man.) Vienna is almost hung, the place is burned down, and there is constant churning and violence. Sterling Hayden plays the titular character, a gunfighter turned musician who Vienna summons to love and help her. In this film, men and women have essentially switched places; the two women are the authority figures from whom all the actions flow, and the men are indecisive and ornamental--the other main male character, nicknamed the Dancing Kid, is the the mcguffin or muffin over whom the two women fight. Vienna spends part of the movie in pants with a holster strapped on, and part in the most amazing huge bouffant white dress (in which she is almost hung and must do a lot of running around). She takes her place as one of the most memorable women in Westerns, and got me thinking about that small subset of movie women of the era who are able to pick up a gun and fire it when needed.
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), directed by John Sturges, is a retelling of the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday story, one I find more satisfying than "My Darling Clementine", which I also saw recently. There is something about Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas which resonates in every movie they did together; their weariness and cynicism blooming into guarded friendship, again and again. Here, Lancaster is Earp and Douglas Holliday. An eternally interesting movie trope is the pair of extreme unlikes who become allies and even friends. Earp is a straight laced, highly moralistic lawman who comes to trust a dangerous gambler and killer, as they each save the other's life across the years. At the end, outnumbered in the highly personal confrontation with the Clantons just minutes away, Earp tries to wake the dying Doc, almost weeping, telling him, "I need you." And Holliday wearily climbs out of bed, buckles on his guns, and goes out to fight, telling his prostitute mistress and caretaker that at least he will have died for something. He has a remarkable moment when he tells her, you and I don't matter, we haven't since we were born. It is in fact one of the first of the existential Westerns, in which nothing matters except doing the right thing when the moment comes. The movie is also memorable for being the second of three in which Douglas says a riff on the same line of dialog. Talking to the prostitute girlfriend, he says, "Its not your fault, Katy; its not my fault; its nobody's fault," a variation on a line he had also said about ten years earlier in "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers",which, if you think about it, almost emanates from Douglas' tired, mischievous face as a life philosophy. Then, almost twenty years later, in one of his last movies, and rare science fiction film, "Saturn 3", Douglas said, "Its not your fault, its not my fault....Its everybody's fault."
I never properly appreciated Vivien Leigh as an actress, probably because (having only seen her in Gone With the Wind) I identified the flirtatious, dishonest character with the actress herself. I just saw her in Anna Karenina (1948), directed by Julien Duvivier, in which she ably carries off the basic moral exhaustion and obsessiveness of the character, right up to her final madness as she mutters to herself in the train station. It is a respectable adaptation, reminiscent of the David Lean Dickens movies of the period, with adequate attention to snow and spectacle. One very elegant decision was to bracket the movie with the first and last sentence of the novel, which are two of the most stunning phrases in literature. The movie is nonetheless a bit lifeless, as extremely faithful adaptations of great novels tend to be.
Leigh is completely delightful in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), directed by Gabriel Pascal, in which she perfectly captures the chillingly intelligent, kittenish killer of Shaw's play. I have loved this play since childhood, and read it over and over. It innovates in portraying an intimate relationship between an older man and a young, beautiful woman, with no sexual component, and also, in assured Shaw style, allows him to philosophize about life and politics a good deal without interrupting the action. Shaw probably should not have been allowed to write the screenplay himself (but who could refuse him?) as the movie is static and feels more like a stage play, with too much exposition. All of the props--boats in particular--are very stylized and look like stage-craft. Flora Robson, so impressive as Queen Elizabeth, is equally powerful as Cleopatra's killer slave. Claude Rains brings exactly the right intelligence, humor, modesty and resignation to Caesar, who departs for Rome at the end remarking he would rather be killed than die of old age. For an intelligent playwright with a unique philosophy and sense of humor, whose works stand up well on the page, Shaw has fallen into a sad obscurity today. On New York's off off Broadway, where all plays are done eventually, you can see fifty productions of "Midsummer Nights' Dream" for every one of "Candida" or "Arms and the Man".
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1959), by Yukio Mishima, is a chilling, unpleasant account, based on an actual incident, of a Zen priest initiate who, unable to bear the presence of beauty in the world, sets fire to a famous and ancient temple. It is reminiscent of "Crime and Punishment" and "The Stranger" in its account of a pathological mind.
Days of Heaven (1978), directed by Terrence Malick, is one of the ten greatest American films of all time. Its very stripped down story, delivered in Malick's elegiac style with stunning cinematography by Nestor Almendros, is Shakespearean in proportion. A pair of migrant workers pose as brother and sister; the farmer for whom they are working falls in love with the woman, and the pair decide she should marry him to give them both security. He soon detects that the man is not his wife's brother, with predictable consequences. Malick's style of telling his story through incidental and found dialog (reportedly improvised) is effective. You often do not see the character at the moment you hear crucial words advancing the plot, and the whole, spare movie feels like it has only a hundred spoken lines. Malick constantly intersperses scenes of people with shots of nature; one scene is interrupted first by the sight of five black-clad migrant workers in a field, then five black horses milling around. The film is seen from the point of view of a strange, wizened teenage gnome, played by the unique Linda Manz in her film debut. Her narration is an exception to my rule that narration is always unnecessary in films; it is bizarre, poetic and frequently at right angles to what is portrayed. My one criticism of this movie is that it is chilly; there is a lack of deeply felt emotion in the story as he tells it, cemented by his choice of three actors-- Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as the workers, Sam Sheppard as the farmer--who are beautiful but lack inner resources.
The Sundowners (1960), directed by Fred Zinneman, is a charming account of an Australian sheep-droving family, with Robert Mitchum (who proves he can do an Australian accent) and Deborah Kerr as an extremely unlikely couple. It delivers a startling but satisfying ending, in which all of the couple's plans, to buy a farm and end their itinerant life, come to nothing, but the love and tolerance they have for each other is unchanged.
Apropos of the proposition that every movie has a moral issue at its center: "Let the Right One In"-- friendship vs. social convention, rights of superior beings to feed on others. "Minority Report"--ethics of the use and misuse of technology. "Fire Over England"--Duty to the nation vs. love. "Gunfight at the OK Corral"--friendship and loyalty vs. traditional notions of justice. And so on.