Category Archives: Film

We’ve Lost Him: Paul Newman, 1925-2008

It’s hard to speak of Paul Newman’s entire life. There were too many parts to it. He drove race cars and sponsored Newman-Haas, one of the most successful Indy-league teams in sports history. He began Newman’s Own out of a few jars of salad dressing whipped up as Christmas gifts and turned it into a multi-million-dollar corporation that has provided satisfying work and healthy working conditions for thousands of employees, and turned $250M over to charities. He started out as an actor but rapidly grew into a director of some ability, a producer, and even a writer.

But it was as an actor that I knew him first, and it’s as an actor that he’ll be remembered by most us.

If Marlon was the Giant, the pioneer, the trendsetter, the larger-than-life prototype for all who followed, Paul was the one he opened the door for. If Brando was an earth-shattering explosion, Paul was the guy who came later and used the hole as the foundation for a hospital.

Newman always claimed he was a character actor in a leading man’s body, and over the years, especially his later career, he proved it. He was as dedicated to his craft as any artisan, and it was Newman who proved to the doubters of The Method, the ones who said Brando and Dean were exceptions, that Stanlislovski’s technique could bring depth and desire to even the 2-dimensional illusion of film. Brando may have finally given acting the cachet of art, but it was Newman who gave it the stability and honor of craft.

Continue reading

Ingmar Bergman Loses at Chess

death-seventh seal

Ingmar Bergman, Swedish Film genius (no relation to Ingrid), died on Monday.

I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire. The nearest movie theater was 10 miles away in Exeter – the Ioka. It showed things like Beach Blanket Bingo and Jerry Lewis movies in b&w. Foreign films and “art films” were little more than rumors. In high school, boys whispered with bright eyes and drooling lips that foreign movies had naked girls in them – lots and lots of naked girls. It was a powerful draw at 16. The closest we could get in the puritanical US, still reeling from the sexually suppressed and frightened 50’s, was Ursula Andress in a skimpy bikini (Dr No).

We made the most of it.

Then I graduated high school and got a scholarship as a day student at UNH for a year. At the time I wasn’t exactly a film buff. I liked movies and watched them on tv but I didn’t know anything about them. I thought they were fun but that was as far as it went.

The first week I was at the university and scoping out my new territory, I discovered, just off-campus and down a side street that wasn’t much more than an alley, a marquee. A movie house! And within walking distance of the campus (which isn’t really saying much – Durham is so small practically everything is in walking distance). Cool.

I remember being about to walk away when it dawned on me to actually read the marquee to see what was playing. To my surprise, it wasn’t Beach Party or the latest James Bond. It was Duck Soup, my favorite Marx Bros movie, and it was playing with The Maltese Falcon. Groucho and Bogart on a big screen with no commercial interruptions? That was something I’d never hoped to see. I’d never heard of movie houses that showed old films. I was supposed to be on my way home but as you can probably imagine, I dumped that plan and went inside.

From that point on, I was hooked. I went every time they changed the program, and sometimes I went to the same program several times. It wasn’t until January, I think, that they showed their first foreign film, Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. The title intrigued me – American films didn’t go in for obscure Biblical references or, indeed, have any panache about them whatever – though I didn’t recognize it (I quit going to church several years before and had never bothered to read the Bible), so I went on the chance there would be naked women in it.

Continue reading

F9/11 Makes Kerry Voters

Some startling numbers are emerging from polls done in connection with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, according to Moore himself. In his latest newsletter, Moore cites marketing research showing that hardly anyone going into F9/11 a Bush voter is coming out one.

9/6/04
Dear Friends,

I had dinner recently with a well-known pollster who had often worked for Republicans. He told me that when he went to see “Fahrenheit 9/11″ he got so distraught he twice had to go out in the lobby and pace during the movie.

“The Bush White House left open a huge void when it came to explaining the war to the American people,” he told me. “And your film has filled that void — and now there is no way to defeat it. It is the atomic bomb of this campaign.”

He told me how he had conducted an informal poll with “Fahrenheit 9/11″ audiences in three different cities and the results were all the same. “Essentially, 80% of the people going IN to see your movie are already likely Kerry voters and the movie has galvanized them in a way you rarely see Democrats galvanized.

“But, here’s the bad news for Bush: Though 80% going IN to your movie are Kerry voters, 100% of those COMING OUT of your movie are Kerry voters. You can’t come out of this movie and say, ‘I am absolutely and enthusiastically voting for George W. Bush.'”

His findings are similar to those in other polls conducted around the country. In Pennsylvania, a Keystone poll showed that 4% of Kerry’s support has come from people who decided to vote for him AFTER seeing “Fahrenheit 9/11″ — and in an election that will be very close, 4% is a landslide. A Harris poll found that 44% of Republicans who see the film give it a “positive” rating. Another poll, to be released this week, shows a 21-point shift in Bush’s approval rating, after just one viewing of the movie, among audiences of undecideds who were shown “Fahrenheit 9/11″ in Ohio.

My pollster friend told me that he believes if Kerry wins, “Fahrenheit 9/11″ will be one of the top three reasons for his election. Kerry’s only problem, he said, is how many people will actually be able to see it before election day. The less that see it, the better for Bush.

But 20 million people have already seen it — and the Gallup poll said that 56% of the American public has seen or plans to see “Fahrenheit 9/11″ either in the theater or on home video. The DVD and home video of our film, thanks to our distributors listening to our pleas to release it before November, will be in the stores on October 5. This is very good news.

(emphasis added)

These polls galvanized him to try to get F9/11 aired on television before the election. The DVD distributor so far has said No, fearing its profits on the DVD sales would be hurt. Moore is currently trying to talk them into considering a single, one-night-only showing right before the election–preferably the night before.

There’s a price, though–if the film is shown on TV then, less than 9 months after its theatrical release, Academy rules make it ineligible for a run at Best Documentary. Moore responds to that this way:

I have decided not to submit “Fahrenheit 9/11″ for consideration for the Best Documentary Oscar. If there is even the remotest of chances that I can get this film seen by a few million more Americans before election day, then that is more important to me than winning another documentary Oscar. I have already won a Best Documentary statue. Having a second one would be nice, but not as nice as getting this country back in the hands of the majority.

His enemies in the corporate press, however, have come up with another reason–they’re suggesting he’s just angling for Best Picture.

What happens when pugnacious filmmaker Michael Moore, incendiary documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and Oscar gunslinger Harvey Weinstein team up for an Academy Award run? An explosive, and extremely risky, decision to pull “Fahrenheit” out of the documentary race to fight for consideration as best picture.

Moore said he got the idea — it represents a first in Academy Awards history — from veteran Oscar campaigner Weinstein, the Miramax co-chairman who is also an executive producer on the documentary.


Bruce Davis, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ executive director, confirmed that no documentary has ever been nominated for best picture.

And there’s a reason for that:

An Oscar strategist for another studio who asked not to be identified criticized the move, saying “Fahrenheit 9/11″ might be popular with some writers and directors who want to make a political statement, but no actors will vote for it because there are no actors in the film, likewise, the crafts unions.

No one who knows more about the movie business than your average 12-yr-old could possibly take this theory seriously. This has Harvey ‘Mad Max’ Weinstein written all over it–a pure press play aimed at getting plenty of ink for Miramax–and a much longer run for the film. Harvey has proved to be a genius at manipulating Academy voters (he’s the guy who got Oscars for The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love when everybody said it was impossible), but even he doesn’t really expect to pull this off in the face of the rock-ribbed Academy prejudices against non-fiction film.

The Academy Award is worth millions of dollars in extra tickets to the winner and a bigger jackpot in video and DVD sales, and F9/11 had a good chance of winning Best Documentary again. It must have hurt Harvey like a hernia when Moore said he was giving it up. Both Miramax and Moore himself are giving up $$millions$$ by doing it. In my book, that makes them heroes–especially since there’s no guarantee the film will even be shown on tv and they may be giving up all that money for nothing. That Moore is doing this for no more than a wing-and-a-prayer hope that the film might be shown on a mass media outlet before the election says a lot about his commitment.

The ‘Best Picture’ ploy is just a gambit to take up some of the slack and renew interest in the film. Anybody who says otherwise is talking through his tinfoil hat.

Fahrenheit 9/11: A Holy Mess

As I said to someone recently, Michael Moore has never been a real documentary film-maker; he is a satirist who uses the documentary style as the tool of his trade. There is a vast difference between the two, and Fahrenheit 9/11 demonstrates just how wide that yawning gap is.

A good documentary builds its case from the inside out, like the construction of a house–showing us the foundations of its subject and then what was built on top of them–or from the outside in, like peeling an onion–showing us what’s on top and then slowly removing layer after layer to reveal what the surface was hiding. Moore’s film does neither. Fahrenheit 9/11 is structured like one of those grab-bags you get at a carnival: it’s got a little bit of everything in it that happened to be lying around loose when it got put together.

There is no attempt here to make any sense of what happened on 9/11 or of what it led to. This isn’t a documentary, it’s a polemic designed to pick out the most startling images and/or facts it can find and then throw them all in the same bag. The only thing that holds it together is that it all has something to do with 9/11 or Iraq. It doesn’t make clear the connection between them and it doesn’t show how one led to the other in any substantive way, in fact it barely gets around to suggesting that there is a connection.

And yet Moore clearly had more on his mind than a simple polemic. One of the longest and most connected sections of the film deals with the business relationship between the bin Laden family and the Bushes, including the relatively minor conspiracy around getting them out of the country after 9/11 so that potential investigations wouldn’t inconvenience them in any way. Compared to some of the other issues Moore raises–the oil imperative, the Halliburton-Cheney conspiracy, the Israeli Army-derived tactics against the civilians of Iraq practiced by our military, and most importantly perhaps in this context, the power of the Saudi Royal Family to influence the decisions of the Bush Administration–the ‘planes’ incident tends to pale into insignificance, yet he spends more time on it than on all those other issues combined.

Worse, he never finishes what he starts. The connection between the bin Ladens and the Saudi Royals is never made; he doesn’t detail any of the disturbing proof of the Saudi govt’s support for terrorists, including Al Qaeda; he shows that Iraqi oil was clearly a large part of the motivation for the Second Gulf War and brings the Afghanistan pipeline into the equation for what may be the first time, but he doesn’t connect those dots to the larger strategy the neocons have had for the Middle East since the late 80’s. Where is PNAC? Where is Richard Perle? Where, for god’s-sake, is Israel? No genuine documentary would ever have left out such key parts of the puzzle that is 9/11.

He follows a similar pattern throughout the film, lingering over insubstantial or less substantial aspects of the 9/11 fall-out while rushing through or brushing past far more lethal topics, a tack no self-respecting documentarian would take after his first student effort had been roundly criticized. How else would you explain that Paul Wolfowitz–a chief architect of the neocon strategy that led straight to Iraq–makes his only appearance combing his hair with his own spit? or that John Ashcroft’s only appearance involves a singular, not to say peculiar, instance when he sings a song–badly; there is nothing as sad as listening to somebody who thinks he can sing and can’t, unless it’s listening to somebody who thinks he’s funny and isn’t–of his own composition about an eagle soaring, soaring, soaring… OK already, I get it, John: eagles soar. Got anything else to say? Not in this film, he doesn’t, and that’s a problem.

Part political invective, part satire, part self-righteous polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11 stands or falls on the strength of its images and its ability to ridicule public figures who deserve it, and on that score it’s much more successful. Nobody who sees it is ever going to forget the image of the President of the US sitting in that second-grade classroom, immobile, for almost ten minutes after he’s been told that a second plane has hit the WTC, his face a mass of confusion and doubt. Moore speculates on what he might have been thinking, but if you look at his face it’s pretty clear that what’s running through his mind is one simple question: ‘What should I do?’ It’s equally and shockingly clear that he doesn’t know the answer.

The footage from Iraq is as stunning and as uncomfortable as anything from Titicut Follies. Iraqi children mutilated by American bombs, what the BA and the Pentagon would call ‘collateral damage’, are juxtaposed with Donald Rumsfeld cheerfully and with great pride and firmness explaining that such things could never happen because of the precision of our technology and the ‘great care’ we take to avoid them. Moore unceremoniously rips away the fantasy that the iraq war–that all modern war–is somehow cleaner and more humane than it used to be. It isn’t. War is still hell and the innocent are still its worst victims and anybody who doesn’t understand that should never be allowed to occupy a position in which they have the responsibility of either starting one or maintaining one.

But the most moving and devasting section of the film doesn’t come from Iraq but from Flint, Michigan. Anybody who can watch Lila Lipscomb trying to come to terms with the death of her son without his heart imploding in his chest is walking around dead and doesn’t know it. Anybody who can listen to her husband’s soft yet deeply angry question–‘And for what? For what?’–without questioning the motives of the leaders who sent his son to his death is either a robot or an alien pod-person, not a human being. You might still decide that Lila’s overwhelming grief is part of the price we must pay for a greater good, but if you don’t at least ask the question and re-examine the supposed reasons, everything from your toes up is no more than petrified wood masquerading as living tissue.

For in the end, Moore’s film isn’t trying to make or prove any particular case. It is aimed toward only one goal–taking you to that moment with Lila and her husband after having put into your head and your hands just enough information to make you question the govt’s quasi-justifications for this couple’s enormous sacrifice. For that achievement alone, it should be honored.

Brando Redux

Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post notes that unlike Ray Charles, Brando’s death seemed to go largely unnoticed–or at least unremarked. He thinks he knows why.

Brando’s effect was never confined to the realm of dramatic representation. By virtue of the roles he played and the figure he cut in the first half of the ’50s, he became an icon of the social rebellion of that decade — hipster, beat, at times delinquent, at all times sexual — that evolved into something much bigger and more political in the ’60s and has been part of our national DNA ever since (however much other strains in our national DNA fiercely oppose it). The onscreen biker who, when asked what he was rebelling against, answered “Whattaya got?” was also the off-screen star who rebelled against stardom and the studio system, who shunned premieres, didn’t dress up, and dared to do what half of Hollywood had always wanted to do but lacked the guts: blow off Hedda and Louella. A system that had at its apex Louis B. Mayer, Brando was saying, was somebody’s idea of a joke, and damned if he’d take it seriously.


Brando’s icon had legs. You can see it in the young Bob Dylan, in Bruce Springsteen, even in Eminem — young men whose quest for authenticity is defined against old social mores. Brando added sexual menace and working-class violence, a touch of the outlaw, to the instinctual social criticism of Huck Finn, and young American males — and females — have never gotten over it (even the most establishment among them, or haven’t you seen John Kerry on his Harley?). When the generation of Vietnam War protesters broadened their critique to the whole damn society, they were building, though not consciously and by no means exclusively, on Brando.James Dean joined Brando in shaping this icon; but Dean died just as he was starting out, ever a rebel without a cause. Brando went on, eventually to depict in Don Corleone the most seductive, cunning and deadly patriarch in our national canon. In a sense, “The Godfather” is ’50s Brando stood on its head — a film about the catastrophic failure to escape the confines of family, neighborhood, business and the whole traditional authority against which the ’50s hipsters had raged. Either challenging authority or depicting its rot, Brando remains beyond the pale of official canonization.

America has a long line of artists with whom officialdom has never felt comfortable, of course — from Theodore Dreiser to Allen Ginsberg, from vaudevillians to rappers — but it was Brando who brought rage and rebellion, however unfocused, to the center of the culture. States don’t honor rage and rebellion, and states that engender rage, as America has under George W. Bush, apparently don’t honor the representation of rage, either. That Brando’s death went unmarked by power is a testament not to his failings but to his success; not to his failings but to ours.

In Honor of charlie

Because we believe in being fair and balanced around here (HAH!), we herewith offer a potent criticism of F 9/11 by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Mark Morford, who is fun to read even when he’s dead wrong and completely round the bend, as he is here (he must be; he doesn’t agree with me). Morford, as ever, doesn’t mince words.

Oh my God but Michael Moore is infuriating.He has made a massively flawed quasi-documentary that treads dangerously close to excessive propaganda, a movie that never lets BushCo have the slightest hint of breathing space (not that they really deserve it) and he zooms his camera in on the distraught faces of weeping mothers and tormented soldiers and holds the lens there far too long, making you go, OK OK, enough already with the misery porn and the emo-manipulation.

Moore takes numerous cheap shots and finds far too many easy targets among the political elite, and he cleverly edits his footage to make the various politicians he skewers appear even more vacuous and slithery and alien and sad than they normally might, which is already quite a lot, I mean would you just look at Dick Cheney because wow the man is sinister subterfuge incarnate. Shudder.

“Fahrenheit 9/11″ is packed with missed opportunities. It argues obvious points far too weakly and never really digs very deeply, or very coherently, into the sinister underbelly of How It All Really Works.

Personally I think Morford is expecting an awful lot from today’s multiplex audience; you gotta remember, thanks to our yellow-belly corporate media this is the first time a lot of them have been exposed to this stuff. An in-depth whack at explaining ‘How It All Really Works’ would have left them utterly mystified.

Still, he makes some good points about how Moore basically let Dems off the hook for ‘roll[ing] over and begg[ing] for scraps when the GOP war machine steamrolled in and demanded the nation cower in fear so they could attack a wimpy volatile hate-filled pipsqueak nation that dared to threaten its global petrochemical interests.’

Enjoy.

PS: I just found out, much to my shock and awe, that F 9/11 opened in my town this weekend. I will get a chance to see it after all, though not til next weekend–if it lasts that long…. Keep your fingers crossed.