December 2009
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

 

 

            “Hell in the Pacific” (1968), directed by John Boorman, is a wonderful little “whatsit” about a Japanese and an American stranded on a Pacific Island during World War II. Certainly titled by an American distribution company which wanted the audience to think it was a traditional war movie, it is anything but. The two characters are not in hell but a sort of Beckett purgatory like the wastelands in “Godot” or “Happy Days”. In a movie composed of long shots ending in non sequiturs, a number of choices stand out. First, the casting; Boorman found two actors, Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin, who lack any feminine side whatever. He allowed them to bounce off one another without ever sharing a common language. Over the course of months or possibly years (duration is as ambiguous as it is in a Beckett play), neither man appears to learn a single word of the other's language. Mifune's rantings in Japanese are not subtitled; Marvin's consist of incoherent story fragments, and snatches of folk song. The film illustrates the important but little understood fact that dialog is unnecessary in film.

 

            The two men share a large Pacific island. Either could choose to move away from the other, and has at least one opportunity to kill the other. Instead, they stay close, bickering, fighting and taking turns capturing and tormenting one another, until finally (in a movie which laudably lacks any sentimentality or preachiness) they become allies and build a raft together—which only takes them to a larger deserted island, with more trappings of civilization. One of my favorite lines of movie dialog of all time is what Marvin says when Mifune surprises him among the ruins of the new island: “I'm sorry, I took you for a Jap.” Its a splendid, deadpan little movie with an unexpected ending.

 

            “Duel in the Sun” (1946), directed by King Vidor, wants to be an epic and doesn't quite make it. It has the pretention (including a musical prelude and a 2 and a half hour running time) without quite achieving the sweep. You can tell at moments it wants to be “Gone With the Wind”. Nonetheless, its a unique little Western in which a woman in love must, at the end, take a shotgun to her assignation with her thoroughly bad lover, who will kill his innocent brother if she doesn't get him first. The only other movie of the era I have ever seen which involves a woman in a gunfight is, of course, “Johnny Guitar”.

 

            “The Fatal Shore” (1987), by Robert Hughes, is one of the two most entertaining history books I've ever read (the other is “Washing of the Spears”, about the Zulu rebellions). Well-researched, footnoted history is usually dry; this book is resplendent with irony, as it wends its way through the early history of Australia as a penal colony, and also analyzes more recent public forgetfulness of the country's criminal origins. Hughes, an Australian who spent most of his adult years in New York, writes very engagingly with Gibbon's adage in mind that history is a record of the follies and misfortunes of mankind. It occurred to me, while reading, that if you wanted to invent an account of humanity's violence and vanity, you couldn't do better—even Swift couldn't—than the actual history of Australia. Of course, on the heels of this epiphany another follows: American history, founded in slavery and massacre of native Americans, is as disturbing and cheesy as Australian, just not written with the wit and detachment of a Hughes.

 

            Joseph Ellis, author of “Founding Brothers” (2000), is about as close as we get to an American Hughes. His biography of Jefferson, “American Sphinx”, was the first (as far as I know) to reveal Jefferson as the consummate hypocrite and bloviator which he was. “Founding Brothers” is a series of connected chapter-long vignettes which give you a sense of the relationships and conflicts which produced the Revolution and the early republic. It starts with an account of the much later duel between Burr and Madison, then flashes back to the relationships between Adams and Jefferson, Jefferson and Madison, all of the above and George Washington. There is a sense of fresh air in the perception that history, rather than embodying manifest destiny, is the result of a series of accidents, makeshifts and improvisations, and that the men who got us to the goal were very flawed.

 

            “I Wake Up Screaming” (1941), directed by Bruce Humberstone, is a serviceable little noir which is mainly memorable for the appearance of Laird Cregar, an oversize, charismatic, strange actor whose career was too short. He plays a creepy cop whom you suspect of the killing until a few well-managed revelations direct your attention elsewhere. It seems almost a requirement of '30's and '40's noir that the title is never explained (“The Glass Key”, “The Long Goodbye” etc.)

 

            Wendy and Lucy” (2008), directed by Kelly Reichardt, is a sparse, stripped down Dogme-style narrative about a female drifter, Wendy, who has washed up in an Oregon town in a nineteen year old Honda Civic, accompanied by her dog, Lucy. Wendy is on her way to Alaska, to get a job in a cannery. But one morning, the car won't start, and things go downhill from there. Wendy ties up Lucy outside a supermarket where she shoplifts dog food; she is arrested at the behest of a super-zealous young employee, whose tired, stuttering boss would obviously prefer to leave matters alone. It takes Wendy all day to get out of lock-up and when she returns, Lucy is gone. The rest of the movie consists of Wendy searching for, finding and deciding to leave Lucy. Reminiscent of “The Bicycle Thief” but even less sentimental, the movie is the story of a woman with nothing left but her dog and her car, and who loses them both. Wendy has to solve problems most of us have never confronted, such as how you put up posters seeking a lost dog when you have no phone. The penultimate scene, when Wendy locates her dog quasi-adopted by a kind man with a large yard, contains one of the most poignant lines of dialog of any American movie, uttered in a near-whisper to Lucy: “I lost the car.”

 

            There were a couple of other things that I found really memorable about this movie. The lack of music on the soundtrack, except for some moments of humming and singing, allowed us to deal with the characters and narrative directly. Movie music is a crutch, telling us what to think even when the film itself has failed to connect.

 

            A disturbing element was the possibility of rape as the never-confronted elephant in the room. Wendy is not assaulted, but has a scary moment when, sleeping alone in the woods, a psychotic man wakes her and says, “Don't look at me.” Her defenses, the dog and the car, are taken from her and at the end, as she hops a freight train north, her prospects are not very good.

 

            This film is the relatively unusual story of a woman for whom men are not relevant; they are simply not present in the movie as romantic or sexual partners, or even as protectors or friends. An elderly security guard lends her a phone and a little money, and that's it. There is no moment in the movie of attraction, no awareness of sex. Wendy, who is barely in her twenties and fresh-faced, wears no make up, has no ex, has no moment of intrigued eye contact with anyone. She wears layers of clothing like practical armor.

 

            Finally, she has no back story whatever. Movies which explain what happened to the protagonist, what made her like that, too often descend into kitsch psychology. People are often more interesting when we don't know what shaped them. Wendy would only be trivialized by an absent father or cheating boyfriend.

 

            “John Adams” (2001) by David McCullough is a comprehensive, admiring and rather bland biography of the second President of the United States. A figure less well known to us today than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, he deserves, due to his integrity and intellect, to be better understood. The first President ever to be defeated for re-election, he was betrayed by his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, and by the more extreme members of his own Federalist party. What makes him interesting is his scrupulous honesty and care, and the way in which he brought an immense knowledge of the classics, philosophy and political writings of the past to bear upon the job of being president (compared to modern day office holders for whom the past does not exist). What made John Adams extraordinary was his wife, Abigail, whose intelligence, possibly  greater than his, allowed her to serve as advisor and commentator to his career. Two hundred years later and Abigail would have been in line to succeed her husband in the job. She might even have been a better President than him, because she was more attuned to the dishonesty of the people around him, which he wilfully ignored. The only negative thing to say about Adams was that he accepted the repressive Alien and Sedition acts cooked up by his Federalist party.

 

            The Long Affair” (1992), by Conor Cruise O'Brien, has all the sarcasm and rage “John Adams” lacks. It is an account of Thomas Jefferson's long love and defense of the French Revolution, even after it had murdered many of his friends. Jefferson was thinking of the revolution when he uttered his infamous statement about the tree of liberty requiring the blood of patriots and tyrants for its natural manure (quoted on the t-shirt Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was wearing when arrested). Jefferson is a highly dishonest, unreliable figure—his lies and prevarications are exposed in his correspondence and he was caught in many during his lifetime. It is a key American mystery—somehow vital to an understanding of our culture and origins—that a slave-owning Virginia planter could have been such a fervent advocate of insurrection and killing, just not in his backyard. When Toussaint L'Ouverture, inspired by the French revolution, overthrew and massacred the white planters on Santo Domingo, Jefferson placed an embargo on the island. In his lifetime he also proposed legislation which would force free black people to leave Virginia. He was, in short, the consummate American hypocrite. While serving as Adams' vice president, he committed acts which were essentially treasonous, counseling French envoys on the government's intentions and advising them to act in disregard of the policies of his ostensible boss. Finally, modern DNA technology has confirmed something long suspected, that he had five children with his slave, Sally Hemings. At his death, he freed the children—but not her. He was really a terrible human being, monstrous in many respects. He stands in gross contrast to Adams, who was faithful to one woman for life, and never lied, manipulated or bought a journalist (as Jefferson routinely did). Unfortunately, the Jeffersonian approach to politics has succeeded, while Adams is forgotten. O'Brien, an Irish politician, is not a professional historian, though he has written extensively, and this book is a little rough: he quotes long blocks of other writers' texts he should have summarized, and he is repetitive. Nevertheless, along with Joseph Ellis' “American Sphinx”, this book is an excellent corrective to the Jefferson myth.

 

            David McCullough's “1776” (2004) is interesting reading but a flawed concept. It is not even the story of a year—the Declaration of Independence and other proceedings of Congress get very short shrift—but mainly the story of what George Washington was doing that year. But despite the hype surrounding the year our nation was born, there isn't really a reason to write about one slice of a war which started in a previous year and went on for six or seven more.

 

            Nonetheless, McCullough writes very engagingly about the mistakes, lucky breaks and random outcomes which constitute a war. It appears that General Washington was inexperienced and indecisive, and made some disturbing mistakes, particularly in three successive battles in New york and New Jersey. He may have won in the later battles of Trenton and Princeton, not from brilliance, but because of energy, daring, and the home court advantage. Weather events, such as fog just when he needed it to cover a retreat, are not acts of God at the founding of the American nation, but random strokes of luck. Anyone who has read about the battle of Midway, which turned around when U.S. Planes accidentally found the Japanese carriers; the Normandy invasion, where everything went wrong, but we prevailed because of superior numbers of men and machines; or Tolstoy on Napoleon's invasion of Russia, knows that war is not a game of chess. The victors write history, and tend to imagine the hand of God tipping the balance.