Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 26, 2006

Four Mainstream Films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

This is the time of year when I get swamped by screener DVD’s from the major studios that are meant to assist members of NYFCO (New York Film Critics Online) choose the “best of” for 2006. While we are by no means as prestigious a group as the one that hands out Oscars, I think we have a lot more integrity. Because of the power of the Internet to influence movie ticket sales, the industry is paying more attention to what we have to say. Last year our awards were mentioned in a number of trade papers like Variety and I expect the same thing to happen this year.

Even though “Half Nelson” is the prototypical “Indy” film, I still regard it as mainstream from my rather outre perspective. I would regard any film that gets sent to me in a bid for a NYFCO award to fall into that category. Most of the movies I have seen this year, which are either documentaries or exceedingly obscure foreign films, will never get promoted in this fashion. It is a miracle that they are ever shown in theaters.

Interestingly enough, the first four I chose to view out of a pile of 20 or so are involved to one extent or another with questions of class society. It confirms the continuing interest by major studios, despite all sorts of pressure in the opposite direction, to carry out the major responsibility of anybody involved with fine or popular art–namely to tell the truth about the world we live in. None of these four films are a masterpiece, but I have no problem recommending them. They should either be available now as a video rental or soon will be.

1. “Little Children”— This film was based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, who co-wrote the screen adaptation with Todd Field, the highly regarded director who began his career as an actor. I have not seen any of the previous films he directed, including the 2001 “In the Bedroom” which garnered rave reviews as well.

“Little Children” covers the same kind of terrain as the hit TV show “Desperate Housewives” and the 2003 film “Far From Heaven”. This is a suburbia of barren marriages and phony values from which the major characters are trying to escape. The obvious inspiration for these pop culture expressions is Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, to which “Little Children” pays homage. Around the time that Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) has an affair with Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), her best friend invites her to take part in a local book discussion club that is currently focused on Flaubert’s study of another bored housewife. When some of the book club members denounce Madame Bovary as a slut, Sarah defends her as a proto-feminist. Considering her background as a graduate student in literature, it is not surprising that she would approach the novel from this angle, especially since it resonates with her own experience.

The film is very much concerned with the question of social norms, especially around sexual behavior. Their town is up in arms over the return from prison of a sex offender, a middle aged man who had exposed himself to young girls. Although he is certainly a detestable figure, the local villagers who write nasty graffiti on his house and hound him relentlessly come off as not much better.

“Little Children” makes extensive use of a voice-over narration lifted from Perrotta’s novel. While such a technique is usually seen as a hindrance, it worked well in this instance. Perrotta seems to be a rather sensitive and intelligent writer based on both his work and an interview he gave to Post Road Magazine. When asked his opinion about the function of novels in society today, he replied:

This question deserves a book instead of a couple of paragraphs, and the answer should be written by someone a little more knowledgeable than me. But my sense is that the novel’s status in American culture is a bit precarious at the moment. On the one hand, the novel has been superseded by movies and TV shows (and perhaps soon by computer games) as our preeminent popular narrative art form. On the other hand, there isn’t much of an audience left for the elitist, high modernist (or postmodernist) novel—there are apparently fewer and fewer readers of “serious” or “literary” fiction than there used to be. So it’s possible to look at the demographics and economics of reading in this country and feel kind of gloomy about the future of the novel. Maybe the novel is heading for the ghetto of once-flourishing mainstream art forms—like poetry and jazz—that now are lucky to reach a niche audience.

That said, there are also reasons for optimism. The novel has always occupied a murky zone between “high” literary culture and “low” mass culture, so its place in society right now isn’t necessarily that depressing or unfamiliar to its practitioners. And the fact is, the novel as an art form is flourishing—as far as I can tell, there are far more good novels being created right now than there are good movies or TV shows. And the novel remains the single best and most flexible art form for examining the individual in a social context, and exploring the inner lives of human beings. Those of us who love novels have no choice but to go on reading and writing them. Whether we can replenish the ranks of hungry readers in the decades to come will determine whether the form continues to thrive, or slowly fades away.

2. “Half Nelson”— This is the story of a white, Marxist, crack addicted intermediate school teacher who befriends Drey (Shareeka Epps) a 13 year old student who catches him on the pipe in the girl’s locker room. In other words, we are dealing with some rather unfamiliar (and perhaps unlikely) material.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is committed to teaching history through dialectics. History is about change, he tells his students, and change only comes about through the struggle between opposites, like the civil rights movement and racism, the rich and the poor, etc. Throughout the film, there are set pieces in which his students recount some key episode in American society that demonstrate these tendencies, like the killing of Harvey Milk.

While Dan is all energy and enthusiasm in the classroom, he is in a depressed drug haze everywhere else. This is actually the main problem with the film. Although there was a conscious decision to make the central character a bundle of contradictions, keeping with the emphasis on dialectics no doubt, it does not quite come off. For somebody who is as supposedly as political as Dan Dunne is, there is almost no indication outside the classroom that he cares much about politics. When another teacher, a female Puerto Rican, asks him if he is a communist after she spends the night with him, he asks her why she asked such a question. She answers that she got that impression from the Che Guevara books on his shelf. He replies that if she saw a copy of Mein Kampf, would that mean that he was a Nazi? This is not the kind of reply that I would have come up with if I had written this film. It was a perfect opportunity for Dan Dunne to reveal more about his character and why he was riddled with contradictions. But then again, I criticize movies not write them.

The best thing about “Half Nelson” is the performance by Ryan Gosling. It also has some funny moments, such as when a drug-dealing friend of Drey’s jailed brother asks Dan Dunne if he is still teaching “dianetics” in the classroom.

3. “Thank You For Smoking” is a satire on Washington lobbyists. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the main character, is a handsome, roguish, well-paid employee of an industry-funded tobacco institute whose main purpose is to get people to smoke more and to block any anti-smoking legislation, including a bill proposed by a Vermont Senator played by William Macy that would put a skull and crossbones on every cigarette pack. The institute was launched by the CEO of one of America’s biggest tobacco companies, who is played by Robert Duvall seen in the sickbed below. A lifetime of smoking has finally caught up with him.

At a Washington hearing, Naylor turns the tables on the Senator by accusing him of causing the deaths of thousands of Americans who eat cheddar cheese from his state, a high cholesterol foodstuff that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks. As somebody who has been urged by doctors to lower my blood pressure, I am certainly sympathetic to this line of reasoning.

But the edge in “Thank You For Smoking” is somewhat blunted by the underlying cynicism at work in the scene described above. Based on a novel by Christopher Buckley (William F. Buckley’s son), the main message is that everybody is for sale. Buckley can best be described as a conservative smart alec along the lines of P.J. O’Rourke. Whatever problems I had with the ideas–such as they are–that are expressed in “Thank You For Smoking,” I found it a breezy entertainment that was in some ways a throwback to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day epoch and as easy to take as a gin and tonic.

4. “Lassie” is based on the original 1943 movie that was set in Great Britain and which drew sharp class distinctions between the impoverished family that owned the collie and the aristocrats who bought it. Unlike the slew of Hollywood movies that appeared later and the TV show that they inspired, this film does not depict some kind of super-dog warding off bears, lions and snakes from his youthful master. It is basically the story of a dog making every effort repeatedly to return home to Joe Carraclough (Jonathan Mason), the boy who originally owned her and who loves her more than anybody.

Joe’s father is a Yorkshire coal miner whose poverty forces him to sell the dog to a Duke played by Peter O’Toole seeking to please his granddaughter Jeanie (Kelly Macdonald) after she falls for the collie during a visit to the village. For the rest of the film, the dog runs away repeatedly, each time being returned to the new owner. Eventually Jeanie realizes that the dog prefers to be with Joe and conspires to help it return.

“Lassie” is a welcome antidote to all the animated crap being churned out of Hollywood today with voices by Chris Rock, Robin Williams and the usual cast of characters. It is a return to the kind of humanitarianism that all children’s films should be endowed with. It also would introduce young children to the realities of class society. Highly recommended.

1 Comment »

  1. Lassie’s owners would have had less problems, if they kept that darn bedroom window closed.

    Good reviews.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — November 29, 2006 @ 6:22 pm

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