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It’s been a long time since I watched a movie twice in the same day, but after seeing Their Finest on DVD, I wanted to hear the Director’s commentary. Both the movie a second time and listening to Lone Scherfig were well worth the time taken.

Their Finest is set in London in 1940, during the height of the Blitz, and takes its title from a speech by Winston Churchill. I recommend that if you are watching it on-line or on DVD you should first watch this ten minute explanation of what happened at Dunkirk and why it is important. Actually, the video is so well done it is watching, period.

Their Finest is in the movie within a movie genre but special. The movie being made within the movie is for the British public but also as propaganda for Americans. It will remind the British of the heroism of ordinary men and women who came to the rescue in the Dunkirk crisis, raise their morale and encourage them to carry on even as they endure the terrible bombing. The Americans will see the British as brave allies holding the fort for democracy and needing American help. Their Finest is history accurately represented and it informs us on how important movies and the cinema were for people in those most trying times.

Scherfig remarks, with evident pleasure, that because the British maintain and respect their built environment, the film crew found locations and ways to present the streets and buildings of London as they really were in the 1940s, aided by the use of CGI for recreating the images of a bombed cityscape. Scenes of the Dunkirk beach and shore were shoot on the beautiful beach of Pembrokeshire, Wales.

The leading man in Their Finest, a screenwriter, Tom Buckley, played by Sam Claflin, expresses his dream of creating a quality movie that is worth people’s time to watch. We watch how they accomplish this, how all the elements come together. I was intrigued by ways in which the script took shape. Scherfig in her comments speaks of the extraordinary effects produced in the main film by the camera men and women and by the access to archived films, by the set designers, the crews working behind the scenes, and above all, by the amazing actors. All the roles in Their Finest, even the smallest, are played by experienced and skillful actors. Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole is just right as the central character, subtle and expressive. I was engaged with her throughout. Jeremy Irons does a wonderful cameo as Secretary of War quoting Shakespeare. Favorites of the reviewers are Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard and Helen McCrory as Sophie Smith who becomes his agent. From the New York Times review “… sly puss Bill Nighy as a faded star in permanent high dudgeon over his career …” steals scenes and “… Sophie as a talent agent, brings man and dog to heel in a few short, barbed scenes. She’s the kind of no-nonsense woman you can imagine contributed to the real war effort, including in the film industry. …” The Director reports that she had to omit from an already complex movie a subplot they had filmed of Sophie supporting Jewish refugees in her home.

I liked the Phyl Moore character, played by Rachael Stirling and the way she evolves. She is the executive who keeps tabs on the film crew for the Ministry of Information. Tom, the screenwriter, definitely disapproves of her and of women generally taking on work he believes belongs to men, and he is no different from any of the other men on this. Catrin’s main challenge is to prove herself as a writer, as an independent individual and to make certain their screenplay does justice to the bravery of women in the movie they are making. Hilliard points out that the women and he, as an aging actor, are benefiting from the war taking away the young men who would ordinarily step in and push them aside. From the Guardian review — We see “… the quiet revolution in wartime sexual politics – the key female characters are in their jobs because the chaps are otherwise engaged, but for the most part, the women have no intention of going “back into their boxes” once the war is over. It also acknowledges the dismissive, tweedy sexism of the era by having even the most sympathetic of the male characters, sarcastic bespectacled screenwriter Tom Buckley, blithely dismiss women’s dialogue in a movie as “slop”. …”

Phyl says to Catrin that the men will expect the women to go back into their box once the war is over, implying that women will resist this, but in fact they did go back to traditional roles. This is clear from the BBC Call the Midwife I comment on here. The fundamental change for women, and for the larger society, came later, with the reliable contraception.

This is an excellent review that includes a video showing a critical scene in the story line, one where Catrin approaches Hilliard and they, as writer and actor, join forces to save the movie they are making. You will see a bit of the film’s marvelous acting.

The Guardian review is very good and includes a six and a half minute video.

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I think about movies and their influence in our lives. Gaslight, for example, is a good movie and it added a useful word to the languge; “gaslighting” is a verb that names behavior previously we could only describe. Now we say “he gaslighted me” and people know what we mean. Decades ago Rashomon, a truly great movie, gave us a phrase, the “Rashomon effect.” It did not become part of our common, every-day vocabulary but is used by psychologists, psychotherapists, journalists, and people like me because it names, and therefore helps us understand, a particular sort of complex social interaction.

But first, the movie – I saw Rashomon in 1952, soon after it arrived in the U.S.  Roger Ebert wrote that “Rashomom (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt.” It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, introducing Japanese cinema to the world, and won the Academy Award as best foreign film, setting box office records in the U.S. for a subtitled film. At the time I was a university student and holding down a job to pay for it, so had little time for movies, which I then thought were, anyhow, mostly a waste of time. Student friends more sophisticated than I were foreign film enthusiasts but a movie from Japan did not interest them. It was outside their experience, so I, the anthropology student, asked my sociology student friend, who happened to be Japanese-American, to see Rashomon with me. (During World War II, his family was relocated and interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans, a totally unjust action taken by the U.S. government.) Less than half an hour into the movie he stood up, abruptly, and walked away, out of the theater. I was so involved in the movie, in the story and the marvelous images, that only after it had ended, after sitting there for some time, still caught in its spell, did I wonder why my friend had left. He never spoke of it and I felt somehow it better not to ask.  Here for a full description of the movie.

No one discussed Rashomon with me; in college social circles cinema was not yet considered an art form and I was not yet reading movie reviews. Bosley Crowther’s in the New York Times seems to be the only Rashomon review from 1951. Robert Ebert wrote his in 2002, in concert with the Criterion Collection release on DVD. For many years I believed I was the only person who knew of Rashomon, but the question it asks and scenes from the movie stayed with me. I have seen it again on DVD and on-line.

Not all the critiques of Rashomon have been unstinting in their praise. Phillip Lopate, who reviews the book by Paul Anderer, “Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Vanished City, a Lost Brother, and the Voice Inside His Iconic Films,” believes that Anderer overrates Rashomon. In Lopate’s opinion – “… …The fact that it is “iconic” does not necessarily make it a masterpiece — certainly not one of comparable depth to, say, Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” or Ozu’s “Late Spring.” Visually dazzling, yes, but the hammy and naïve aspects remain irksome. Toshiro Mifune’s monkey-scratching bandit, charming at first, becomes one-note; the drifter’s cynical laughter is excessive; and the woodcutter’s rescue of the baby at the end, a crudely sentimental device. Kurosawa’s Big Thoughts, like What is truth? and Is man inherently evil?, seem trite. The problem is not that these questions are undeserving of consideration, but that Kurosawa poses them in a didactic, simplistic, self-congratulatory manner.”

I prefer Roger Ebert’s view. He accepted the elevated emotional level of the actors, as did I. Kurosawa was not looking for realism. He had the actors, in the mode of silent film, use their faces, eyes and gestures to express emotion, and the story takes on a universal, mythical meaning beyond what language can ordinarily communicate.

In another review from 2015 2015 Kim Newman places Rashomon as less than a masterpiece but important in film history. She considers it is essential viewing.

James Berardinelli’s thoughtful commentary is well worth reading to comprehend the significance of the movie and the questions it raises.

Whether one considers Rashomon a great movie or merely consequential, the idea of the “Rashomon effect” remains. For the anthropologist it is central; a main problem is how do deal with different understandings in different cultures.

Michael Lakahn defines it: “Stated simply, the “Rashomon effect” is the effect that our subjective perceptions have on our memories of events. The result is that two or more observers of the same event will describe substantially different but equally plausible accounts of the event. As neurological science has demonstrated, we are all subject to the Rashomon effect. We are all unreliable narrators.”

In the first scene of Rashomon, in a heavy wind-driven rain, two men sit in the ruins of a once massive city gate. The woodcutter says and repeats, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.” The priest, in a sad voice, lists many of the wrongs perpetuated by man and by nature — wars, plagues, floods, fires — but finds the court trial testimonies he and the woodcutter heard, sitting there in the background, the most distressing and disastrous of them all. A commoner who joins the woodcutter and priest states the obvious. He points out that murder and violence are everyday occurrences and wonders why they agonize over this particular murder, over how it was committed and by whom.

For the priest, the succession of personal tales may have reinforced his fear that human beings are inherently flawed, self-serving, locked into the individual’s own perspective, while the very essence of being religious is putting the good of others above self. For the woodcutter, perhaps the stories told were reminders that people in other places and other social statuses are different from himself, not really understandable, but since he had played a part, if only a small part, in the drama of the thief, the noblewoman and the nobleman, he cannot separate himself from them. The commoner shrugged it off, mindlessly, and looked to his own interest.

I have lived my life as a friend, wife, citizen, anthropologist and public health worker trying to understand why people from different backgrounds think and act differently from the ways I acquired growing up in America. I recognized the Rashomon effect but until recently did not find it, as in the movie, a reason to lament the nature of human nature; I thought differences in perception were simply a fact of life to analyze and work with. Now, however, everything around me has changed. I observe new technologies and the global economy changing American society and culture. Americans are divided as never before into factions with sharply opposing self and national interests. We have at present a toxic political climate and a government dominated by a President and his appointees who represent one part only of the society, and a minority part, at that. I wonder how our traditional democratic institutions, the economy, ordinary people will weather this ideological storm.

I cannot help but reconsider the grave view held by the priest in Rashomon. We are all subject to the Rashomon effect. We are not only unreliable narrators, we are unreliable observers who interpret circumstance and relevant information to favor our own self-interest and to act in that regard, justifying our actions as beneficial for the larger society. Thus, we have no hope for a universal court where everyone can agree on what is true and just. However, unlike some of the commentators, I do believe that a knowable psychological and social reality does exist and can be discovered through scientific study.

But enough of this for now.

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I find it difficult these days to concentrate on my past, on my memories, and writing about them seems particularly irrelevant. Instead, endlessly I read and listen to news reports and political analyses, obsessed with the crises Donald Trump is creating in and for the American government. I believe Trump and the people he brings into office are a danger to America’s democracy and economy, maybe also to other countries’ well being.

And I worry about what is happening to young people. They face a job market where wages are abominable.

Since 2000, the hourly wage of the median worker rose just 0.5%, while productivity increased by nearly 23%. From 1979 to 2011, wages for the median worker grew by 6%, wages for the highest-earning 5% rose by nearly 38%, and for the top 1% they rose by 131%. For the lowest paid workers, wages actually fell during those years. Nearly one-third of women, compared to nearly a quarter of men, earned poverty-level wages in 2011. For more statistics, check here. But know that this sort of inequality has happened before in capitalist democracies and has been reversed through collective action by the workers. In the 1930s my grandfather and father worked as unskilled, low-paid laborers in a steel mill, in a dangerous setting, for long hours six days a week. They joined with other workers and formed a union. Unions transformed the society and the economy.

Norma Rae captures the meaning of the union, which is why I remember so many of the scenes. Besides, it’s a wonderful movie about friendship, family, love, relationships, individuals growing and changing, all of which made it a box office success. Watching a real textile factory floor in action, both the technology and how the workers and managers related to one another, fascinated me. The cinematography is exceptional and the acting remarkable. Sally Field won a large number of Best Actress awards for portraying Norma Rae, including at Cannes in 1979 and the Oscar in 1980, along with “It Goes as it Goes” sung by Jennifer Warnes, as Best Song. It’s a classic film, selected in 2011 for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Nevertheless, very few reviews of Norma Rae are available on-line and the reason why is explained in this excellent summary of the story Matt Langdon wrote in 2011.   “This is a classic 1970’s film that successfully blends a feminist component with the typical management labor struggle that have existed in factories and mills since the 19th century. It’s an important subject but more than 20 years after it was made it continues to have a bad rap with mainstream audiences. Mainly because it is a feminist film, a pro-labor film as well as one that is very class conscious and takes place in a small southern town. All these things, though, make “Norma Rae” a unique Hollywood film since its kind wouldn’t be made today. … …”

 

An early meeting

I like this detailed summary of the plot, but certain expressions need to be explained. For example, “balled out” should be “bawled” out, meaning to shout at and scold someone. In the last paragraph, regarding the expression: “And boy that Sally Field really did an excellent job.” I no longer hear “boy” used to emphasize an idea. When I was young the expression was “boy oh boy.” Perhaps the original meaning was from buoy (same pronunciation), a devise that bloats on the water and serves to warn people of a hazard, such as a reef. The buoy often had a bell attached. As a verb, buoy or buoy up can mean to boost or increase. For another slang expression:  “And the Flying Nun was looking pretty sharp in the film.”  “Looking pretty sharp” means looking bright and very pleasing. Flying Nun refers to a television series Sally Fields starred in.

I love this video clip from the movie. It expresses why the union was important to ordinary people.

The man speaking is a union organizer from New York. He is Jewish, the first Jew Norma Rae has met. The meeting is being held in a humble Black church. This photo is from its interior, with people sitting on the church’s benches. Norma Rae later asked the White preacher for permission to hold a union meeting in the much better equipped White church, the sort of church in the other photograph, and he turned her down.

The events in the movie took place in 1974, at a time when the textile industry was already unionized, nationally, except for this one company, J.P. Stevens.

The turning point

The U.S. Congress had passed laws to protect the right of workers to unionize, but by keeping its workers from knowing about the law and worker rights, the J.P. Stevens company was able to keep worker wages low and their work conditions dangerous to health. In one dramatic scene we see Norma Rae’s bosses harassing her as she copies a paper posted on the factory’s bulletin board. Management had written it to frighten the White workers. The paper states that if the workers formed a union, the Blacks would run it, which is untrue, and under national civil rights law such a prejudiced assertion is illegal. The company is gaslighting the workers.

 

The woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, on whom Norma Rae is based is described here.  She was pleased with the movie’s interpretation of her union activities and of her life.

The movie’s presentation of a town such as Crystal Lee’s town is authentic. Compared with those in the North where I grew up, it is a life of relative poverty. Norma Rae’s household needs three adults, her mother and father and her, a mother of small children, working full-time to support the family. (After all, the textile industry owners moved their factories from the North to the South because the wages there were significantly lower.) I compare this scene of Norma Rae and her parents in their yard with the yard of my low-income working-class grandparents. In the 1940s, Grandmother had a washing machine and wringer in the house and her clothes line in a neat back yard. Norma Rae’s mother, in 1974, is doing laundry in a tub, wringing it out by hand. It seems like a hardscrabble life.

This article is by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was sent in 1974 to North Carolina to report on efforts to unionize the workers in large textile mills. It is a lengthy discussion of struggles between the textile companies and the unions, including the movie’s unionization, and of the government’s involvement in settling disputes.

Finally, my memory of union country — In the 1940s, I lived for three years with my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant working class grandparents (described here) in Ohio. Like many small town White Christian working-class girls, I never heard the word “Jew” outside of Bible studies at church and was quite unaware of anyone in my high school being Jewish. The Negro community in the South (“Negro” being the polite word at that time) was a large minority, unequal and living segregated from the Whites, except as servants. (described here in The Help) In my Ohio town the Negro community was small and socially invisible to most Whites. The high school was integrated and I chatted with a few Black kids in the classroom but social segregation reigned. (a note here on sports and Black/White school integration.) My circle of friends included children of Catholic families who had come in the early 20th century as immigrants to the northern U.S., rarely to the South, from southern and eastern Europe, and although Grandmother and Granddad disapproved of the Catholic Church they reluctantly accepted my visiting with families they found so different from themselves. I was always curious about different people and asked Granddad to tell me where the Negro children lived and why nasty words like Dago and Wop were used for people from Italy and other strange places. He said, “We don’t talk about that.” End of discussion.

His non-answer, so unlike him, puzzled me, but I now think his silence had to do with the union. Granddad and Grandmother personally held the standard racial and ethnic prejudices but did not like to say negative things against other people. To avoid unpleasantness they, in their own words, stayed with their own kind. However, Black men and men of the new ethnic communities were in the union with Granddad. They had been on the picket line together, together they fought the company and its well organized, well financed supporters. They had won and together elected leaders, fought for decent wages and safe working conditions, followed union principles and acted as one. The union saw to it that Grandmother had a nice, affordable place to live when she was widowed. My grandparents had no vocabulary for a rationale discussion of the inconsistencies between their union identity and social differences in the larger society, so they choose not to talk about it. They believed in the union and were faithful to its ethic of collective identity and action. I think it taught them tolerance. In later years, although not always comfortable with it, they accepted my stepping out into a diverse world. They even accepted my marrying a foreign student from India, without going so far as to include his photograph among the family photos on the top of the piano in the living room.

Apparently, the unions that built middle-class America are dead, gone. I read that Americans have reached the (incorrect) conclusion that organizing workers is counterproductive. If so, this has to be changed.

As an addendum — In a fascinating, well written article, “Confronting the Parasite Economy,” in the American Prospect magazine, Nick Hanauer, an extraordinarily successful businessman, presents his view of the economy and of wage scales, of what is wrong with both and why and how they should be changed. His ideas are controversial among economists but I find them convincing.

Hanauer’s argument is that in the U.S. we have two types of businesses – (1) businesses in the real economy that pay their workers decent middle-class wages and (2) parasite businesses that pay unjustly, economically unnecessarily low wages. The cost is high for taxpayers working in the real economy because the majority of the money we collectively pay for anti-poverty programs goes not to poor people without jobs; it goes to low-wage workers who must rely on government welfare programs to survive. Our tax money supports the working poor employed by parasite businesses — businesses that keep wages low because they can, not because it is necessary for running a profitable business but because they have total power over their employees. Parasite businesses are bad for the economy; they reduce their workers’ ability to buy goods and services from businesses in the real economy and prevent those workers from contributing to the nation’s economic growth. And the wrongs the parasite businesses create for the society … … too numerous to list.

The solution is collective action. Governments should raise the minimum wage, which entails raising citizen awareness of the negative effects of poverty-level wages. Mostly, we need a rebirth of unions to increase wages, improve working conditions and bring individuals from diverse communities together in collective action. With our nation’s growing ethnic diversity, bringing people together for collective action is especially important for our democracy.

Addendum 2 — An important study indicates that the growing income inequality in the U.S. is caused in large part by a politically induced decline in the strength of worker unions. Unions reduce pay differences within companies and unions lobby in the federal and state governments on behalf of the working and middle classes for better education, better health services and generally for a strong public social infrastructure. Union decline, and the decline in public infrastructure, has come from business-financed political conservatives who spread misinformation and successfully lobby Congress to pass laws that make it difficult for workers to unionize. When in my mid-forties, in the 1970s, I did an M.B.A, in the Kellogg School. The hostility many of the student expressed toward unions, and toward workers, surprised me. How different from the small business people I had known for whom employees were people, not factors of production requiring cost control.

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Recently a young woman was telling me about how she had once worked in a certain business establishment but left because the men were gaslighting the women employees and even though it was my first time hearing of gaslighting I knew what she meant; I had seen the movie. However, my friend had not; Gaslight is from my generation, not hers. Indeed, she had barely heard of the movie. Gaslighting was simply the word everyone she knew used to describe such circumstances. The following day, watching a news program on television, a woman reporting on sexual harassment in the work place spoke of gaslighting; it has become an ordinary word.

Gaslighting is similar to but stronger than the phrase I heard from the 1960s-70s generation, something like “he’s messing with her mind.” In the past, people certainly thought about such situations but had no vocabulary for reifying and contesting them. It was assumed that men would dominant women and pushing a woman around psychologically was considered normal, if not nice. Gaslight is from that past, from the 1940s. It was a time when, quoting from this excellent film site, a large number of noir, gothic, melodramatic movies had the theme of a sheltered woman who is menaced, threatened, or at least frightened by a deranged man. The 1940s was early for me but I saw a number of the movies later, in the 1950s, when I was in my twenties, including Jane Eyre (1943)Rebecca (1940)Suspicion (1941)Laura (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945),  And, of course, Gaslight.

Not many films have their title enter the language in such a socially significant manner.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2017, Ben Yagoda wrote that the American Dialect Society, while choosing the Word of the Year, selected to gaslight as winner in the category of “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed.” They defined to gaslight as “to psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” Yagoda continues in the article to give a history of how, beginning in the 1950s, gaslighting has been used by various public personalities in print and on television.

In the December 10, 2016 issue of Teen Vogue magazine, in an article, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” Lauren Duca wrote that since the rise of social media, of smart phones, Facebook and its imitators, of instant communication, gaslighting has been the word of choice for teenage girls and young women when describing how ex-boyfriends have tried to mess with their heads, and she continues with a discussion showing that from the time when Donald Trump began his campaign for President, and was elected, the use in the media of the verb to gaslight has increased enormously. She states that Trump won the Presidency by gaslighting the public and supports her point with examples and an analysis of the consequences.

An article in a technology and science magazine accuses the food industry of gaslighting the public on the harm of heavy use of sugar.

Returning to The Chronicle of Higher Education —  In 1951, Solomon Asch, social psychologist, conducted a series of experiments in which a person, the Subject, sat in a room with other people. The Experimenter showed them four lines – Line A and a set of three other lines, one of which was the same length as Line A – and asked them all to identify the line among the three that matched line A. The Subject chose the correct line but the other persons, having been primed by the Experimenter and part of the experiment, all agreed on one of the incorrect lines as being the same as Line A. Of the 50 Subjects who did the experiment, 37 decided that the others in the room were correct. Most admitted afterwards that they had not agreed with the majority but had gone along to avoid being ostracized. To understand the Subject’s motivation:  “Suppose you go to a fancy dinner party and notice to your dismay that there are four forks beside your plate. When the first course arrives, you are not sure which fork to use. If you are like most people, you look around and use the fork everyone else is using. You do this because you want to be accepted by the group and because you assume the others know more about table etiquette than you do.” The Subject was being gaslighted, and most of the Subjects conformed to the group but did not lose their grip on reality.

In other such experiments, if just one person agreed with the Subject, the Subject person could resist conforming to the majority. This, I think, is encouraging. It shows the importance of having an ally and of getting information to people in a way that is relevant to them. Of course, an emotionally disturbed individual with no friends is vulnerable to a single negative influence, but that is another matter.

A small number of the Subjects in the experiments were truly convinced by the majority that they were seeing incorrectly. These are the individuals at great risk for serious gaslighting and psychological damage. In the real world “ … (The) victim must be somehow emotionally cathected (deeply attached) to (the bully). Thus a beloved husband can gaslight his wife; thus a charismatic dictator can gaslight many of his subjects. By fostering insecurity, by loudly asserting as truth various “facts” and narratives that make no sense, the gaslighter gains a kind of emotional access that will eventually trump his victims’ reasoning. … ” (no pun intended)

A Hotline is available in the U.S. to victims of domestic violence. A national organization of highly trained experts on the sort of violence that can happen in the home, mostly against women and children, keep a telephone service that anyone may call at any hour to receive useful, helpful information and advice.

Returning to the movie –  A British Gaslight, based on a stage play, was released in 1940 but the 1944 Hollywood version, directed by George Cukor, starring Ingrid Bergman  and Charles Boyer became the box office success and it won Oscars.

Touches like this add to the 1944 Gaslight: The set decoration is by Paul Huldchinsky, a German refugee who borrowed elements from the German expressionist style to make the house cluttered and stifling and give it a claustrophobic jail-like atmosphere. The movie received an Oscar for interior decoration. For depicting the broader Victorian period environment, the 1940 version is considered more effective.

I saw Gaslight many years ago, so I watched it again on-line. Obviously, the atmospherics are much better on the big screen, but Gaslight is a good movie, and even without the current interest in its title and theme, the story and the acting still would have engaged me.

How could Paula, played by Bergman, be so easily and seriously gaslighted? The answer lies in her vulnerability as an inexperienced and isolated young woman. Moreover, she had fallen in love with a charming, clever, authoritative father-figure of a man considerably older than she, and he, by hiring particular household servants, constructed an environment that he alone controlled. Her vulnerability began when she was still a child, about twelve years old, and her aunt, her guardian and only family, was murdered in their London home. Paula heard but did not see it happen. She never recovered from the trauma she suffered from the event. Her isolation began when she was sent, immediately after the death, to live in Italy under the protection of a kindly, elderly maestro whose responsibility it was to train her as an opera star. Unfortunately, she doubted her talent and she lacked motivation. The story is set in a time when and in a place where girls did not venture out into public without family. (I wonder about the social status of a woman opera singer in that era but that matter is totally ignored.) Paula had wealth but no family and, apparently, no friends or companions. Not until the end did she have that one essential ally.

I like this bright, witty review and it’s many photographs from the movie.

In this review, also with photographs, the two film versions of Gaslight are discussed and compared. It is excellent and a good read.

It did not occur to me, seeing Gaslight in the 1950s, that this man’s bullying of his wife was a theatrical expression of a fairly common pattern of behavior, one we could more easily recognize and act on after it had a name. It took psychotherapists to first name it and today’s young women to bring the word into our vocabulary. I wrote here, toward the end of the essay, about the teenage stage of life as a fairly recent social phenomenom, of the rise of women in public life and of the social revolution we are experiencing. The invention and widespread use of a word like gaslighting is yet another instance of how our world is changing – both in private life and in the way we perceive, think and talk about our societies’ leaders.

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After watching Quartet, this movie title caught my eye, and with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the cast, I decided to watch it. I am musically illiterate but do enjoy listening to a string quartet. Besides, most critics fell in love with the movie. Roger Ebert’s review for the plot and appreciative remarks on the acting are here.

The story is of four musicians, members of the Fugue String Quartet, a world-famous ensemble based in Manhattan. They are an affluent group, living stylish lives.

 Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Robert, second violinist; Catherine Keener is Juliette, who plays the viola; Christopher Walker, Peter, is the cellist; and Mark Ivanir is Daniel, the first violinist. Alexandra, in her early twenties, is the daughter of Robert and Juliette and she is played by Imogen Poots.  (Here for fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman who are saddened by his untimely death.)

The music we hear is performed by the Bretano String Quartet, and Nina Lee, the cellist who takes Peter’s place in the Fugue quartet, is a real member of the real quartet. In a flashback we see Peter’s wife as he remembers her in their home, standing at the piano, singing. The image we see and the voice we hear is of a well-known mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter. The wonderful Indian actor, Madhur Jaffrey, plays the doctor who diagnoses Peter’s Parkinson’s disease. Among her many accomplishments are her cookbooks, two of which I’ve used for decades. Wallace Shawn, who is unforgettable in My Dinner with Andre, does a cameo role.    

The movie’s Fugue String Quartet has been together and performing in major venues for twenty-five years. Robert, Catherine and Daniel are in their mid-forties. Peter is a generation older and teaches in a music school as well as performing.

Here for knowledgeable comments on both music and musicians in the urban, urbane elite social circles depicted in the film.

In another review, Yuron Zilberman, the Director, is reported as saying he made the film about his own neighborhood, his studio having been near Central Park and the adjoining musical zone on Manhattan’s West Side. A large number of working musicians lived in the area and resembled the characters in his film.

This opens onto a map of Central Park to give an idea of where Manhattan’s West Side neighborhood is located. Robert jogs in the park and often encounters a casual friend there and talks with her about music.

Bridge by Calvert Vaux

Daniel and Juliette meet on a park bridge, having known this place since they were students together. Peter and Juliette may have walked across Central Park to the Frick Collection, an art museum in an old mansion on 5th Ave., where Peter comments at length on Rembrandt’s self-portrait. The massive, wonderful Metropolitan Museum of Art, where their concert takes place, is north of the Frick. The Julliard School of Music is on Broadway, near where the quartet people live, west of the Park. Sotheby’s auction house is east of Central Park, near the East River.

Zilberman originally intended to write about family, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, within a fictional chamber group. But his story, he quickly realized, could only be told around Beethoven’s 14th string quartet. “The music influenced the storytelling; it was part of the initial concept,” he said. “Opus 131, one of five late Beethoven quartets, is a long piece, played in seven movements without a break. It brings a turning point for the oldest member of his group, the cellist. The other musicians have issues of their own. But the intricacies of Beethoven’s work, one of his last, come to stand for what joins them, what separates them and what they have achieved in a professional lifetime together.”

A Late Quartet received more than the usual number of reviews and most were highly positive, as in this one — “A Late Quartet cleverly dramatizes its central message, which is that some combinations of people are much greater than they could ever be on their own or in another group. This is an anti-individualistic film, a picture that prizes co-operation and self-sacrifice over personal ambition. That’s a rarity in cinema — and virtually unknown in a Hollywood product.”

American culture is individualistic but it also places a heavy emphasis on teamwork. I was most aware of this when, on the first day in my M.B.A. program, even before we began classes, the professors had us organizing ourselves into teams. It amazed me that these young men and women, mostly men, could immediately assemble teams, each team composed of one person with a finance background, another from marketing, a computer guy, a recent graduate who majorized in economics, etc, etc. They were drawing on their experience with team sports and continually used metaphors from football and baseball, a vocabulary I often had to request be translated for me.

I see the four musicians as a team creating something they could never create as lone individuals, something widely appreciated, and they derive deep satisfaction from working together and from the success of their efforts. However, teamwork takes a toll on the players’ individuality, on some of them more than on others, and unless attention is paid, the temptation is always there for the lesser rewarded to change roles within the team or to leave.

In an orchestra the first violinist is the leader. He (rarely she) usually carries the tune or the melody of a particular piece of music, while the second violinist provides the harmony. The first violinist usually does the musical solos. It is the more prestigious role but a violinist can enjoy playing the harmony, without which the music lacks richness and is incomplete. In the Fugue Quartet the first violinist, Daniel, is intense, technically brilliant and totally invested in his music. He collects books on composers and knows their musical philosophy; he makes the team’s bows, strings them with horse hair from (I think) Siberia, is a highly demanding teacher, and one of his pupils is Alexandra. He is the quartet’s musical leader but Peter is its center. Juliette regards Peter as a father figure and they all defer to his word. Practices take place in his apartment, in a brownstone we see in a few scenes, including when he stands for a moment looking down from his balcony, perhaps tempted to end his troubles by falling to his death below. Parkinson’s disease is overtaking his body and he will soon be unable play the cello.

It is Robert who upsets the group’s balance. He enjoys playing second violin but resents Daniel not hearing him when he suggests even the slightest change in their mode of playing. He wants more spontaneity, perhaps a warmer style, an openness. When he joined the quartet, while still a student, he had intended to write music, not to become a performer. He may have joined the quartet to be with Juliette, whom he loves and adores. He accepted the group’s modus operandi, but with Peter’s leaving and his Central Park friend, his admirer, suggesting he needs to challenge himself, he decides it is time for him to play first violin. Daniel cannot imagine any change whatsoever in the quartet. He persuades Juliette to agree with him. She then tells Robert that, in essence, he is not a first violinist, which hurts him deeply and damages their marriage but does not change his mind. Daniel, in the meantime, has come to love someone other than himself for the first time in his life, a transforming experience for him, and that someone happens to be Alexandra, an individual with perspective on the four musicians. She has fallen in love with Daniel but wants, above all, for the quartet to survive.

I could not quite grasp the Juliette personality. Perhaps Zilberman and the writer, Seth Grossman, being men, were not comfortable writing a woman into the quartet. In most cultures, music is an exceedingly male dominated world, but in America this is changing. As violist, Juliette is the least noticed of the four musicians and her significance for the story resides in her different relationship with each of the three men. The conflict she deals with, and may not have resolved, has to do with being a wife and mother, not a musician.

The film’s denouement is quite satisfactory and very touching.

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The story being told in Quartet is of strong, creative individuals not yet in the fourth stage of life but certainly approaching it. (I defined “fourth stage” in the previous post.) Six of the seven splendid actors playing the main characters were in their 70s while making the movie. Maggie Smith was 79. The characters are attractive and believable, and moreover, the extras who surround them, including a number who are shown being quite active, are of that age or older, and delightful to watch. All are residents in Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians, nicely filmed in a handsome Georgian style mansion, the Hedsor House near London, where a good number of movies have been filmed. The lovely grounds, with gardens, parkland, wooded areas for walking, and a small church are all used to good effect. With Quartet, at age 75, Dustin Hoffman made his debut as a Director.

The plot of the movie is given here, in Wikepedia.

The four central characters are opera singers many years out from having been on stage, from having been enormously successful in their long careers. Maggie Smith plays Jean; Tom Courtenay, Reginald “Reggie”; Billy Connolly, Wilfred “Wilf”; and Pauline Collins,”Cissy.” Jean was the famous diva and an international star, but all are still known to the public as a magnificent foursome who for years performed the Act 3 quartet (“Bella figlia dell’amore”) from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

The one actor in the movie who actually was a widely admired, much honored opera star, and who looks the part, is Gwyneth Jones as Anne.

Do go to this site for the Quartet’s wonderful soundtrack. I especially enjoyed the string quartets.

The reviewers did not enthuse over the movie. From Roger Ebert — “This movie will no doubt be pitched to the same audiences that loved “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” It even brings Maggie Smith along. But it lacks that film’s life, intelligence and spirit. It has a good heart. I’ll give it that. Maybe what it needs is more exotic marigolds.”

What did he mean by “a good heart?” Quartet tells a different story. Marigold is about people in the third stage of life with a small income and no obligations looking for and finding a place where they can live comfortably and interestingly within their means. The setting, in Jaipur, is photogenic.

The other major reviewer, A.O. Scoot of the NY Times, is only a little more favorable toward Quartet. I suppose not many younger adults will be intrigued by how artists, or creative persons of any occupation, reconcile themselves to the loss of capacity that comes with aging. The grand Jean is something of a curmudgeon, isolating herself, expecting her former status and privileges to continue forever. Cissy has dementia, but she is sweet and funny and becomes the person who brings the four together to fulfill the meaningful goal set for them by their community. Fortunately for the movie, Pauline Collins, whose mother had suffered from vascular dementia, knew from experience how to make Cissy’s behavior touching and authentic. Wilfie and Reggie look after and protect Cissy. The two men are life-long friends, Wilfie mischievous and unwilling to give up his Casanova inclinations, Reggie staid and conscientious, the two still fussing and complaining at one another.

A number of the minor characters, and even the extras, are special. Every one of them is a former musician Dustin Hoffman located and hired for the movie. They add depth, plus much of the music, to many of the scenes. At the end of the movie, in the credits, each actor in one of the smaller roles is shown in a photograph as s/he appears in the movie, along with a photograph taken in the past, from his/her days as a performer. The movie’s introductory scene is also remarkable. It is of an ageless, truly beautiful woman. The image of her at the piano is a pleasure to see and remember.

To me the movie’s story is about coming to terms with the loss of abilities and qualities that made for success in one’s public life, that of work and in the community. And of coping with the inevitable illnesses and disabilities. Jean, who had built her life around achieving the heights and being the best, grieves for the loss of her musical instrument and of her art. She seeks comfort in mementos of her past glory. Toward the end of the story we learn from a knowledgeable critic that Reggie had been a brilliant performer with a voice like Pavarotti’s but we are already aware of his having sacrificed career to the value he placed on living a full, principled personal life. At one point, as Jean and Reggie are working through their past together, he brings out a written statement on the nature of art he keeps with him and she reads it aloud. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the words sufficiently to reflect on them.

I watched the movie a second time, listening to and following Dustin Hoffman’s engaging, informative commentary. He meant for the movie to be the story of conflict and love between Jean and Reggie. He used his art and emotional intelligence to show the two overcoming past errors and continuing to learn and adapt and find meaning in an accepting and loving relationship.

 

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Last night I watched The Intern on television and decided to write about it because the story seems relevant to our time, the characters are attractive and the humor gentle, it has several nice subplots, and with one exception, never annoyed me. Robert De Niro plays Ben Wittaker, a 70 year old retired business manager working as an intern in a website business. Anne Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, his boss. Quoting a reviewer, here, “In Intern, She’s the Boss, but He’s the Star.” De Niro is masterful in the role, Hathaway is convincing and the young actors surrounding them are charming. Here and here for reviews.

The current meaning of “intern” is new to me. I’ve always pictured an intern as a recently qualified doctor in a hospital, fresh out of medical school, doing a year’s training in a medical specialty. Interns worked long, grueling, punishing hours for low pay, and hospitals depended upon them for cheap labor. For many years, movies and television dramas about doctors in hospital internships were popular with the public. I discussed one such movie here.

Now the internship is defined as job training for white collar and professional careers. From a study I did in rural Turkey, 1968 to ’72, I became familiar with traditional apprenticeships for trade and vocational jobs, the original internships. The boy in the photograph here is in an apprenticeship, as were boys in the butcher shop shown, and a boy in the photo of a furniture workshop in another essay on our apartment in Ankara. In the central Anatolian town Hasan and I studied, described here and in other posts, we observed boys working as apprentices, on the way to becoming a master, Usta, in various traditional crafts, such as blacksmith. Usta is a title of respect, like Bey (or Doctor) for a professional or learned man. In the mid-1970s, doing an M.B.A. in the Kellogg School (in my mid-40s), between the two years most of us did a summer management internship that was not directly related to future employment. (Mine was in the American Hospital in Paris, unpaid.) The current internship is a new institution. In my generation, at least in the early years, the tradition still existed of a business/industry doing its own training of the management staff and of its skilled laborers. Then came the vocational schools, the M.B.A., the professional Master’s degree preparing people for the job market. And now we have the intern as cheap, or free, labor while learning on the job, not too different from the apprentice, except the apprenticeship was more personal and the young person’s future was far more secure.

The movie begins with showing why Ben wants the intern job; it is a way out of the boredom that has overtaken him. He’s a widower whose children and grandchildren live too far away for him to be involved in their lives. He is in good health, has a good income, still lives in his proper bourgeois home, has many acquaintances, if not exactly friends, and is part of an upper middle class neighborhood. He knows this area of Brooklyn, even the building in which he will be an intern. Midway through the movie a romantic interest for him, a woman of about sixty, is introduced. It annoyed me that the two women his age are both made to look foolish and unattractive.

In Jules we see a frantically busy entrepreneur running a business she loves, engaged in its every detail and on good, if not close relationships with her employees. We also see her aid-de-camp informing her that the company’s investors want her to step aside, to bring in a qualified CEO to manage the company more efficiently, and they have a number of men prepared to take over for her. Granted that she did create and build a very profitable business in eighteen months from nothing to hundreds of employees, she really is in over her head, isn’t she? So, all she needs to do now is interview the CEO candidates and select the one she prefers. In the meantime, as Jules struggles with this, she and her husband, who is a stay-at-home Dad to their adorable daughter, are having troubles.

Ben is tactful and observant. He becomes everyone’s friend, an advisor to the young men in matters of romance, and a helper with several management problems. His experience is useful, even in this world of changed technology, more casual dress and manners for young men, key positions held by young women, and certainly less hierarchy. He soon finds himself in a position to be Jules’ constant source of support, and they become friends. He respects both her and her business acumen.

This is an agreeably done story of an older person finding meaning in life by being involved with and helping younger people, of a modern woman succeeding in the business world if the man in her life accepts a blurring of traditional roles, and of friendship between generations. To think reasonably about it overall I had to check and set aside my thoughts on social reality and what someone with my background and frame of mind would have done in Ben’s situation.

Park Slope brownstones

The movie is set in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and part of the story is the setting — scenes of building facades and interiors, of the streets and of the parks where children play. The brownstone row houses are handsome.

Brooklyn Conservatory of Musid

I would like to have seen more of the public buildings, the way we saw more of Manhattan and Harlem in Jungle Fever,  the movie I discussed here, and included a useful map of New York City and its boroughs.

Azad, my adopted son, watched the movie with me and was surprised by the gentrification of Park Slope. In the 1980s he had gone into the area to look for a place to live but found it too crime ridden for his comfort. An image that stays with him is of a car on a main street sitting on bricks, its tires and everything detachable long gone. People in the neighborhood were poor, older working class, like the Irish and Italian, and Black and Latino people who had moved in as middle-class families fled to the suburbs. Finally, Azad rented an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, near the IRT subway stop, not far from the great St. George Hotel.

A notable feature of The Intern is everyone in the workplace, except for one woman, and in Ben’s neighborhood being standard of-European-descent White. In most movies and on TV these days, a more realistic ethnic and racial diversity is shown, at least among the extras. Since Ben had worked for forty years in a top managerial position in the remodeled building of his internship, he surely would have known a more mixed demographic as workers, more like the minority group women we see when Jules goes to the factory floor to show workers how to box items for shipping. Think of how Ben might have volunteered to teach in a vocational school, showing less privileged young people learning technical job skills how to development the management skills also needed for moving up the career ladder. That sort of engagement would have broken the boredom, but these people were not part of his community, of his reference group, and probably invisible to a man like Ben.  Oh well. At least the movie doesn’t stereotype minority group people; it just pretends they don’t exist.

Azad often chose to walk across the historic, magnificent Brooklyn Bridge to reach the Manhattan office where he worked. How I would have loved to walk on the bridge, to have had that experience.

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