September 2014
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Boyhood (2014) directed by Richard Linklater impressed me and then became slighter the more I thought about it. It is a coming of age drama done with consummate good will and lovely, often unglamourous performances. But the gimmick of filming the movie over twelve years as the boy at its center grows up, which originally intrigued me, is not all that original--we have all watched it happen on television series which ran ten years, such as Rosanne, on which child actors became teenagers and then young women and the stories told about them were age appropriate (toys and school, college and boys, marriage and career). Also, though the script was decent and sincere, every element has been told before: the lonely child who doesn’t fit in (even kitschy filmmakers like Spielberg think they were that child), the abusive stepfather, the beautiful girl who unaccountably but honorably loves the lonely boy. Linklater certainly has an interesting, quirky filmography (A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful film made of a Philip K. Dick novel, but is also somewhat dull) but he may be the auteur of near misses rather than an unforgettable independent voice (he is no Bunuel).

Closely Watched Trains (1966), directed by Jiri Menzel, is a leading example of a 1960’s European genre, the pastoral with Nazis which ends with a punch in the gut. When I was twelve, I probably thought that all foreign films told this story. I remember a slight movie I saw at the time, called The Two of Us, about an originally anti-Semitic Frenchman hiding a Jewish child. The heights of the genre are probably Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien, Bertolucci’s The Conformist and an eerily beautiful film about two little girls in Civil War Spain, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. Anyway, in Closely Watched Trains we watch a conflicted, virginal employee of the railroads struggling to grow up, and to have his first sexual experience, in an atmosphere (which is peculiarly Czechoslovakian) of mildly depressed light comedy. He achieves all of his goals, then loses his life, planning and executing the bombing of a Nazi ammunition train. It overlaps Boyhood in that its protagonist is the nerdy outsider who is unacccountably loved etc.

The Arrangement (1969), written and directed by Elia Kazan, is a really repellent movie which exemplifies another genre, that of the Self-Pity of a Privileged White Male. As we all know, wealthy successful white men, perceiving the alien “thrown-ness” of their lives as they turn forty and the incipient signs of age in their loving, faithful, beautiful but not very interesting wives, console themselves quite understandably by having sex with Faye Dunaway. I have nothing more to say except that every emotion known to humans has provided a great novel, opera or movie, love, remorse, rage, compassion, except self pity. Also, the title was incomprehensible; I kept waiting for Kirk Douglas in the lead to make some kind of arrangement with somebody or something.

Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (1945) is a beautiful analysis of the unstable, violent exercises of power among human beings, who hold each other at spearpoint one minute and then have the spear at their own throats the next--Patroclus and Hektor in Homer’s epic. Force makes the victim into a thing, even if he survives; but Weil perceives that it also makes the victor deaf and dumb. In this month’s lead article, I look at the Israel Defense Force in Gaza as Greek warriors before Troy.

Paul Johnson has written so much nonfiction on so many unrelated topics that I suspect him of supervising a mass-produced history factory like Stephen Ambrose or Doris Goodwin, but A History of the Jews (1987) is a highly intelligent and well considered book which follows the Jewish people as they are buffeted by historic currents; sections are named “Ghetto”, “Emancipation”, “Holocaust”, “Zion”. As a Jewish person, I enjoyed seeing our people from the perspective of an attentive, respectful outsider--I felt liked but at the same time spoken to truthfully, so I came away with a better understanding of the way we are seen by other people.