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If there’s anything true about film it’s that there really are no rules – the only rule is: does it work? This rule is on display very well in The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemming’s book of the same name. Fortunately, in the case of this film the answer is yes.

That said, a couple of ‘rules’ of scriptwriting are broken with relish. First, ‘don’t overuse narration.’ The film opens with a lengthy ‘tell don’t show’ narration by George Clooney (playing Matthew King) that outlines his current predicament: the fact that his wife is in a coma, he has more responsibility for his children than he can handle, and in tandem has to oversee the sale of his family’s land trust on Kauai to a group of investors — all with the requisite family politics.  It is within this very tragic, real, and hilariously portrayed stew that The Descendants unveils itself.

The second rule even more liberally broken is that characters should have a clear motivation, usually a single overarching motivation that drives them.  Now I’m sure I’ll get a script consultant or two who would disagree with me on this point, but the major breakthrough of this film is that the motivation of George Clooney’s character changes as often as the weather over Princeville, Kauai. He is at once angry, vindictive, forgiving, mature, selfless and victimized, often concurrently.

Interestingly, this film ends up being much better at depicting how human beings actually behave than any reality show out there. Reality shows, for the most part, are fairly well ‘scripted’ by the producers in terms of the myths that they project and the lines of behavior they coach the ‘stars’ to exhibit. The result is often a flawed mirror of behavior in that the situations that the reality stars are placed in are patently false and unrealistic.  In its own beguiling way, The Descendants shows why artists and scripted material remain relevant as they continue to be effective messengers and fulfill the important role of storytellers in society  — i.e.,  artists that communicate to the group in such a way as to maintain social cohesion and/or critique social ills. As such, a fictional reality can often be more ‘real’ than reality itself.

How so?  In but one example, the film shows how our current crop of American children seem to have very little fear of their parents and are often vocal in their opinions aimed at their parents on  subjects (such as masturbation and pornography) that would have been inappropriate twenty years or so. I know if I said such things to my father when I was a kid he would have cold-cocked me in the mouth, much like George Clooney’s wife’s father cold-cocked the insensitive Sid (hilariously played by Nick Krause) for making fun of his wife’s Alzheimer’s. These generational differences are rarely, if ever, depicted in any ‘reality’ show out there, although the Disney Channel might hint at them in an obtuse way. While TV series such as The Cosby Show used to effectively reconcile (although some might say gloss over) generational, class and racial differences, this type of programming has fallen out of vogue.

Because of these well-drawn generational schisms, The Descendants will go down as one of the few modern films in recent memory that deals effectively with these differences and outlines the issues of discipline, permissiveness, bitterness, shallowness,  and, ultimately connectedness that binds not only families, but generations of families that have specific responsibilities to leave their children in as good of shape as their parents left them.  As a kind of inverted Dallas for our modern, liberal age, The Descendants removes the guile, revenge and hatred evident in most generational melodramas and replaces it with humor, pathos and the occasional bruised ego. Finally, a message of spiritual reconciliation trumps all feelings of ill will.

Another ‘issue’ dealt with in The Descendants is one of class, although obliquely. I would draw a comparison here to Jane Austen, whose class-conscious works often were indirectly aimed at creating a feeling of reconciliation between the upper and lower classes (usually through marriage) and to as a result create the sense of a common human bonding and ‘Britishness.’ While George Clooney as Matt is distinctly a member of the 1%, he is also a human being filled with a kaleidoscope of emotions. He is pulled, as most modern Americans are, in a multitude of directions at once, and at the same time trying to live in a way that is consistent with his values.  Showing a ‘one-percenter’ in this light is interesting in this current time of rampant protests. On one hand it is completely accidental, on the other hand it is the kind of humanism that is acceptable to those with money and is (again obliquely) an attempt to create a sense of a common humanity, bound in this case to a land called America.  However, I would say it isn’t accidental in this sense: the one-percent  who own the production companies that make films like The Descendants would find the depiction of the King family very familiar in terms of the broad situation that combines privilege and pain. As such, the content of The Descendants is very much non-threatening to the powers that be, and thus acceptable to all classes.

There are a series of stellar performances in The Descendants — including Mr. Clooney’s — that will likely land the cast several awards in the upcoming season. Along with Clooney, Shailene Woodley (Alexandra), Amara Miller (Scottie) and Nick Krause (Sid)  form a perfect ensemble.  Moreover, the film’s message of class, familial and generational unity and reconciliation will undoubtedly continue to allow it to do quite well at the box office as people cling to the film’s much needed message of forgiveness and hope for the future.  For this the filmmakers and producers deserve our congratulations and every accolade they receive.


With Super 8, director J.J. Abrams reveals himself not only as quite the commercial filmmaker, but a sociologist as well. Obviously an individual of broad interests, Abrams’ film is a textbook example of how to make a popular film that appeals to a wide constituency while maintaining a certain degree of artistic integrity.  As my former film school professor Howard Suber has long indicated, creating memorable, popular films is more akin to a political campaign than anything else. Success is measured by bringing everyone in under a large tent, with the vote being box office appeal. With Abrams, we see constituency building at its most clever, and yet without an ounce of insincerity, or at least the perception of such.  Abrams both reminds us of a past, pre-1980’s cinema that effectively built such constituencies while not insulting the intelligence of a more sophisticated audience.  As such, he can hook people like me (an adult middle-aged male), but also teenage girls — no easy feat in today’s world with its jaded studio execs whose demographers and marketers have convinced them such things are impossible. It takes someone like producer Steven Spielberg to push Super 8 through unscathed, and I’ll bet one of his main roles was to help Abrams maintain the purity of his vision.  Also, the budget on this film ($50 million) is relatively low compared to some Comic Book films that have A-listers attached. Super 8 has no stars;  the star is the story.

Some could accuse Abrams of being derivative. To be sure, there is a lot of influence going on in this film. First, and most mentioned by critics, is Steven Spielberg, whose footprint is all over the film both in terms of style and content; but most would agree the Spielberg emulated is not the Spielberg of present, but of pre-Reagan, 1970’s America, where the action of the film takes place. That Spielberg was melding the humanism of 70’s American filmmakers such  as Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdonavich and Cassavetes with the genre showmanship of the American Studio system.  As such, Super 8 reflects more the Spielberg of Close Encounters and E.T., and less the Spielberg of Duel, Jaws, or War of the Worlds.  During the early seventies, Coppola and company were very much influenced by the European art films out of the fifties and sixties, primarily from the French New Wave and Italian Neorealist masters. So from a very circuitous and long view perspective, Super 8 is all about carrying forward humanistic European sensibilities in cinema that arose post World War II, primarily from auteur filmmakers such as De Sica, Godard, Truffaut and Rossellini. Truffaut (who starred in Close Encounters) in particular had a strong impact on Spielberg.

What Spielberg has always done well is family relationships, and Abrams handling of the family is 100% Spielberg. In Super 8, familial relationships take front and center, and become the driving force behind the action.  As with Close Encounters and Jaws, the angst of the central adult male is very evident as a motivational prod that both deepens the character and the emotional payoff when the eventual familial bonding arrives. What is humanistic about this film is that themes of reconciliation rank high; that is, what brings people together rather than what separates them. Moreover, this same theme is carried into the Sci-Fi, galactic realm.  If you are a UFO and expolitical follower, this stuff is dead serious, which is why Arthur C. Clark felt that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the most important film ever made, and would likely rank Super 8 right up there with that film in terms of its importance as a social artifact. The primary theme becomes one of compassion, not alien-squashing hatred. It is compassion, derived from the familial struggle and bonding, that reaches out to the wider world past the nuclear family and into the cosmos.

Another important reference for Abrams is Stephen King, specifically Stand By Me (based on a short story by King and directed by Rob Reiner) and IT. In IT, the group of boys whose central muse was a young girl who helped motivate them to battle the evil entity, much as Alice (beautifully played by Elle Fanning) becomes the muse to the boys in Super 8.  Alice becomes the central, feminine voice of the film, and the purpose behind the boys’ quest.  It is her innocence, beauty and sensitivity that drive them forward, not the adrenaline rush of killing an enemy, as is standard in video games and comic book movies galore. This is very much counter to a military mindset, which often tends to see everything without an American flag stitched onto it as an enemy. Thus the film fits in with a long line of anti-military films that arose out of the Vietnam era, and why its placement in a 70’s America makes so much sense. It is also why the film also makes sense in a war-weary America of today.

Soon after it was the eighties, Reagan was on the scene, Conan the Barbarian was hitting the screens, Superman II was released, and the rest is cinematic history in terms of the slow devolution of humanism in modern films. How easily we forget that E.T., Close Encounters, The Godfather, M*A*S*H, Patton, Alice Doesn’t Live Here AnymoreThe Last Picture Show and Apocalypse Now all packed houses in their day just a substantially as The Green Hornet and Transformers.  Have audiences changed that much, or are other exigencies and agendas also at play?

Outside of Abrams and Spielberg, who best understands all this human story  and constituency building stuff is Pixar. With J.J. Abrams and Super 8, we see the potential for these kinds of stories to make their way back into the mainstream cineplex with live human characters, not animated Avatars. Let’s  hope there’s more of the same on the way.

Seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was in a sense a return, because I had my film debut about ten years ago prior in the same lower east side New York City neighborhood where I wound up seeing Tree of Life this past week. Since both Malick and I seem to be inspired by a similar vision of film, and since both of us tol-002
(apparently) trace much of that back to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, it was almost as if I was watching an extension of Antonioni – as if Malick’s film was indeed another branch of an ever-growing tree.  While I’m not sure if Malick has ever seen my own Antonioni-inspired Clouds,  I found it striking that we came to similar conclusions about life and the expression of life through art, albeit via completely different paths.

As such, seeing Tree of Life was deeply personal and made me feel somewhat vindicated about the artistic choices in my own work – whether that be in film or the criticism thereof. With Tree of Life, Malick is expressing very much what I propose as an alternative direction in film style in an essay titled Peace As Style, where I discuss Antonioni as being the precursor to such a style.

In but one example, Malick effectively uses the ambiguity of sound and then later unveils the source of that sound in a kind of slow reveal that links the sound to a particular feeling or motif in such a way that he evokes mystery and awe, not the hyperventilating stimulation so often the norm today in film. Antonioni was extremely effective at the clever use of ambiguity to create a sense of mystery, and Malick, apparently inspired by Antonioni’s Zabriski Point, uses wind chimes to allude to the mystery of sex to which the young boy (played by Hunter McCracken) is slowly being revealed and later shamefully tries to rid himself by throwing the nightgown in the river. Once the source of the sound is seen (the wind chimes), and the boy steals the night-gown from his fantasy woman’s house, we don’t hear the sound again.

[As a side note, the nightgown scene has prompted more internet searches than any other I know of for this film, and apparently evokes deep, unresolved emotions. Suffice it to say many people are captured by the mystery of the scene and don’t understand the boy’s subsequent reaction. To me, he is clearly ashamed of creating a sexual fetish of the nightgown. He tries to hide the gown at first, then washes it down the river — an attempt to dissolve his guilt and shame into an overwhelming nature that washes away all sins and purifies his conscience as a result. I believe the scene essentially depicts the boy’s baptism into sexually-aware manhood.  As such, the nightgown evolves from a fetish to a sacred baptismal shroud.]

Ambiguity, used sparingly by most filmmakers today, becomes the central stylistic choice in Malick’s Tree of Life.  While most directors and producers are so afraid to alienate or offend an audience who, according to conventional wisdom, can only take things if spelled out literally, Malick assumes his audience is intelligent, and can follow his meandering, poetic connections.

Another example of the effective use of sound is the peaceful and alluring sound the ocean, which bookends the film – beginning with the ‘spirit image’ the beach scene at the end, where the various characters meet to reconcile in a timeless, meditative state. All of this stuff is so counter to the normal fodder we are fed on television and film that it is extremely gratifying to find the critical response to Tree of Life to be so favorable, although the film apparently did receive some booing at its Cannes premiere (as did Antonioni with some of his films). The film did win the top prize at Cannes, which also helped assuage the critics. My challenge to Fox Searchlight is to go as wide as possible with this film; they might be surprised by the outcome, particularly among a Christian audience.

Tree of Life is built on the use of motifs, used brilliantly with sound and source slowly revealed, cyclic re-occurrence, the grand scale of time being interleaved with the present moment. Malick’s particular approach, at least in this film, is more akin to music than the Hollywood style that traces its roots back to D. W. Griffith, kinetic editing and The Great Train Robbery. Instead, Malick seems to draw his inspiration from the Bible, surrealists (Bunuel and Dali), Italian neo-realist filmmakers (Fellini and Antonioni), existential science fiction films (Tarkovsky and Kubrick) and the literature of William Faulkner and James Joyce. Tree of Life is a grand amalgam of sometimes contradictory influences, including an effusive orchestration from Smetana’s The Moldau, and yet reaching beyond these influences even while honoring their undeniable presence.

It is a testament to the encyclopedic scope of the film, one can find various critics not only responding in completely different ways, but referring to completely different sets of (assumed) influences that Malick brought to his film.  As such, the film is a Rorschach test of sorts, and one can take from it multiple readings, which I’m sure is Malick’s intent, and shows how powerful his multi-layered ambiguity can be as a storytelling device.

To turn to the thematic elements of Tree of Life, I have written in the SolPix webzine and blog about the need for a more ‘humanistic’ media and film and even elaborated further to use the term ‘spiritual humanism.’ Malick’s film is, I would say, a spiritually humanistic film for several reasons. First, he deals with the subject of the origins and nature of violence and compassion and their relationship to human choice. Second, he seeks a balance between nature and mankind’s desire to control nature. Third, he sees reconciliation as the answer to questions of meaning and happiness. Finally, he sees something binding all these threads, or branches, of life together (even an extra-human aspect): love. And this love compels the tree to grow ever outward from its branches. From a biblical perspective, the tree is also a source of knowledge. But the overall energy and essence that drives this movement of life is a love that Malick sees shimmering through the light of his images and characters, of nature, of far-flung galaxies, of the extra-dimensional ‘non-physical’ – in short,  the entirety of life itself.

While it is generally uncomfortable to discuss an extra-human love in a culture where our obligatory ‘love you’s’ are generally restricted to our close familial ties, if we are to believe Malick, the force of love is quite large and behind everything we see in the natural world and beyond. Call this force ‘God’ or whatever name you will, it is tangible as long as we make it so. It is this existential choice to, in essence, choose and create an alternative to a cold universe, that takes Mr. Malick beyond Antonioni, who generally only saw despair in his landscapes, and very little hope. From a philosophical perspective, this probably puts Malick closer to the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard and further from the absurdism and alienation of Camus, who would find better company with Antonioni.

In terms of compassion, it is apparent that Malick sees compassion as one choice among many. This is why the dinosaur scene was so pivotal and important. He is showing us that there is a primal, non-rational (or proto-rational) choice involved in treating others compassionately; that this choice in a sense comes from beyond us, yet does nonetheless express itself in daily human decisions. It is the same choice Mr. Obrien’s children make when deciding not to hit their father (played in a tour de force performance by Brad Pitt), even as he chides them to do so while he teaches them to box and defend themselves.

As for nature, the imposition of the (male) architecture over the (feminine) natural world is, apparently, the wider tragedy of human existence to date, and a theme clearly traceable to Antonioni’s early works.  It is the exploration of this ‘architectural’ theme that makes Sean Penn’s scenes so important (some critics have suggested they should have been cut). It is the dwarfing of the natural landscape when compared to mankind’s architected space – seen through the modern scenes – through which something is lost. This pattern happens as one chooses the path of ‘nature’ (in the negative sense of the will to dominate) over ‘grace’, according to the preamble of the film. The grown son (moodily played by Sean Penn)  finds himself dwarfed by his own creation, but he is unhappy because there is no love in his architecture, only utility. He longs for the love of the natural world and of his mother (delicately played by Jessica Chastain) for which he has destroyed in an egoistic attempt at control as he attempts to overcome the (perceived) failings of his father.

Thus the decidedly ‘male’ perspective finds its limits; for on a grander, larger scale, it is mystery – one might say the feminine – still reigns supreme. We cannot ‘know’ reality by the rational mind, just as the natural world cannot ultimately be ‘tamed’ by architecture and science. In truth, we live by grace, or the force of will, depending on your perspective and your choice. But clearly the individual will cannot control the larger, herculean forces of nature. We could, for example, be wiped out in an instant by an errant asteroid. And even if we controlled all the asteroids, some other, larger calamity would rear its head. Thus the great winds of time and space, of galaxies and stars, which provide the context for mankind’s ‘will’ – a will that in an attempt to impose itself on nature does so only with a certain folly and arrogance, for nature is, and always has been, the wider context through which we live. Any attempt to control nature in the broadest sense is futile, and if some semblance of this does happen only occurs through the mastery achieved through the reconciling power of love — a process Malick refers to as ‘grace.’

Further, Malick seems to argue that love is the natural evolutionary path for humanity. Mankind, stubborn to prove otherwise, continually tries to control through his will (and the proxy servants of science and technology) what cannot ultimately be controlled, but rather must be surrendered to and accepted in order to find peace. Without this surrendering there is only conflict, only suffering. So it is the binding nature of love and reconciliation, as seen at the end of the film as the characters reconcile in timelessness on the beach, returning to the ocean from which they arose – it is here that Malick beckons us toward a path that is separate from the contentiousness of domination and control and toward a more ‘New Testament’ vision of acceptance, surrender and compassion, and it is through that path that Malick asserts we will find happiness. And again, we are compelled in this direction by the life force itself.

As a bit of personal background, Malick had just released Days of Heaven when I was in film school in the early eighties. At that time I was studying European film, with a focus on Antonioni.  Zabriski Point, Blow Up, The Passenger – all of these films by Antonioni were fresh on my mind. It was nearly twenty years later (in 1998) before Malick would return to film, and nearly twenty years later (in 2000) before I would return to film after a long stint on a different career path outside of film and the arts. Now, decades after the French and American New Wave, Malick returns to re-assert the power of those film artists who apparently impacted many of us so deeply, and pay homage to the artistic territory they staked out — to extend the branches of the tree they and his life represent. Malick, as a cinophile and philosophy teacher of a certain age, was certainly impressed in his youth by many of the same directors I was: Kubrick, Antonioni, Godard, Fellini, and so on. It was these (mostly) Europeans, who also had such an impact on the likes of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who molded my own opinions about the potential for film and film language, and, moreover, how to create a uniquely American aesthetic that nonetheless pays homage to these great European masters who offered us an alternative to the studio film and style. Malick continues that tradition with Tree of Life. It’s not that all films must conform and be like Tree of Life, but certainly our cultural palette must and should include many more films of a similar aesthetic.

Malick, who began his career in the early seventies (with Badlands) at roughly the same time as Martin Scorsese, became in a sense our lost master. Again, after Days of Heaven he wasn’t seen again for 20 years. Thankfully, he has returned to us in full glory. This is a glory that he himself would eschew; for the glory he sees is not so much in himself as an artist, but as a vessel of the beauty of life that he sees around him, and a translator and messenger to us of that beauty. While many of our most financially successful filmmakers are more architects than artists – technicians under the employ and influence of more utilitarian forces – Mr. Malick is an artist and a teacher, and, miraculously, one now allowed to express himself in a fairly unrestricted way. Malick may have given us more if he had the chance, but fortunately what we wind up with is his best, for that is what he seems to demand of himself.

We may look back on Mr. Malick’s recent work and see it as the beginning of a re-invigorated American art cinema. Suffice it to say that Mr. Malick sees the world through a different, more compassionate lens than the (currently) dominant forces in society and in film. He is leading us toward a new sensibility, and we should follow.


Don Thompson is a producer/filmmaker and essayist. You can visit nextPix here.

Viewing Stanley Kramer’s and Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg, almost 40 years after the film was made and over 60 years since the proceedings on which it was based have passed, proved illuminating to me on a few levels. First, the film shows that an intelligent and nuanced discussion of the issues surrounding World War II were and still are possible, and second, that Spencer Tracy is perhaps the greatest film actor to have ever lived.

As for the first point, let’s turn for a moment to the recent fall from grace of Helen Thomas.  Helen Thomas, who served for many, many years as a celebrated journalist, is summarily judged and executed (to the extent we can do so today) for making remarks about Israel that are deemed, by conventional wisdom, to be disdainful at best and downright perverse at worse – bordering  it would seem on moral depravity.  Absent from the Helen Thomas media judgment, her subsequent apology and the universal assumption that she was completely off her rocker, was a nuanced discussion of her statements, and any analysis of those statements that would have contextualized them.  To get such a contextualization we need to turn away from ABC, CBS and CNN, and toward Judgment at Nuremberg.

As for Helen Thomas’ views, there are at least a few Orthodox Jews that actually voice the exact same opinion that Helen does regarding  how the “Jews should get the hell out of Palestine.” These Jews, apparently in the minority (I have not researched this) quite literally would support every iota of Helen Thomas’ viewpoint.   Now, since I myself have befriended, roomed with, worked for, and loved those of the Jewish faith and/or culture I don’t think I am a good candidate for either anti-Semitism nor an educated discussion on the veracity of Zionism.  However, I can say what I see – and what I see is that the mainstream media in utterly incapable of entering  into a rational, even-handed debate regarding the validity of the Jewish State’s position against Palestine, and the efficacy of the Jewish State as the solution to the issues surrounding World War II.

That said, such a debate was not the point of Judgment at Nuremberg, although the Helen Thomas incident underscores how World War II continues to be a pervasive event surrounding the American psyche, because the extension of that war exists with us to this day.  If any war could have been said not to have ended, it is that war.

What was the point – or points – of Judgment at Nuremberg?   Let me try to summarize them here.  First, that a level of personal responsibility lies with all people for the atrocities that are committed by their leaders.  Second, that this moral responsibility grows out of a fundamental understanding that all human beings are of value and are therefore due to be treated with equal justice based on the rule of law.  And third, that large crimes begin with small ones.

Burt Lancaster’s character Ernst Yanning asks Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) at the end of the film (I paraphrase): “You must believe me that I did not know that it would come to what it came to.”  As for Haywood, he replies: “After the first murder of the first innocent allowed, you knew what it would come to.”  Such words can be echoed today to any American, any person who allows atrocities to continue without speaking up.

In his closing remarks, Tracy’s Haywood stated quite eloquently that “every human being is of essential value.” Why was that important?  It was important because it is only in dehumanizing others that atrocities can occur in the name of the State.  This can happen today on many levels in many guises, and is a disease which humanity seems ill prepared to rid itself of, although there are those that continue to try to raise the rationality of humanism above fascism.

Finally, large crimes begin with small ones.  It is the first compromise that leads to the larger one that leads to the massive crime.  We can look to our recent financial failings for examples. Take Bernard Merdoff, or Enron, or shaky derivatives deals.  All begin with rationalizations, excuses, small crimes and cutting corners.  Eventually, the whole society is rotting and a culture of corruption, buttressed by a fundamental dehumanization of self and others, takes hold.

Who judges the judges?  That becomes a searing question for us, as Americans, today, posed by Judgment at Nuremberg, where American judges quite literally sat in judgment of their Nazi counterparts.  Where are those judges today?  Many that voted for Barack Obama had prayed and hoped for some kind of resolution to questions of Iraq, open questions regarding 9-11, and a real debate regarding the veracity of our financial system.  Questions that could be explored and debated in the light of day by a people’s tribunal of sorts, so perhaps we could begin the process of healing and transcending what we know are probably crimes against humanity, committed not by Nazis but by ourselves, who have become in essence the criminals, either directly or indirectly.

What occurs with the national psyche, just as with individual psyche, is this corruption, when not illuminated, when not brought to light and justice, festers and expresses itself in another way.  And what better a symbol of that expression than the current Oil Spill. The toxicity of our system is literally washing up on our shores.

Do we address the internal toxicity that leads to the external?  It seems not. For there are questions of country, questions of jobs, questions of money, questions of practicality, questions of ‘the survival of the country’ that arise to dissuade us when such a truth and reconciliation movement is desired by people. Arguments of ‘survival’ that were made by all of the men and women who compromised Germany at the time of the Nazis, who were themselves seen by most  as the only viable vehicle for national salvation.

Where is our truth and reconciliation committee?  Where is our Judgment at Nuremberg? While we are constantly told ‘not to forget’ the atrocities of World War II and 9-11, what of other atrocities that occurred yesterday?  What of dozens of innocents killed by un-manned drones in Afghanistan? What of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed for no reason in the last 10 years?  What of Rachel Corrie being bulldozed in Palestine?   What of the monks being tortured in Chinese-occupied Tibet?  We justifiably hold the emblem and horrible reality of the Jewish Holocaust as that which we will ‘not forget.’ And yet every day we are encouraged to forget other atrocities because they do not serve our interests.  But what of the human interest?  What of the interest of justice?

But we are in a new era. This new era has no Spencer Tracy, apparently – who himself, in reality, was just an actor, a myth of our own purity.  Myth or not, we have no wise old men, for they are corrupted, or corruptible.  We have no Sam Ervin, who led the Watergate  Committee.  What the powers that be do not understand is that we are destroying ourselves by not allowing ourselves that transparent self-criticism that we need with Iraq, with 9-11, with the financial system, and with other issues.  It is impossible for a rational human being to exist in this situation, knowing what they know, and not to demand justice on some fundamental level.  Without it we wither and we end up with the type of justice we provided Helen Thomas, who, like Spencer Tracy’s wisdom, is apparently an anachronism, and easily discarded as we move on to the next news cycle.  A news cycle that seems strangely to conspire against our awareness, even as its false sense of urgency touts its importance to us all.  What is lost is wisdom, the type of wisdom seen in Spencer Tracy’s Dan Haywood.

And yes, Spencer Tracy.  What is it about the man? He was, after all, just an actor. He was, apparently, a flawed man.  But there was a greatness about him, and certainly a greatness in his acting, an honesty, a transparency into the inside of the man, the weariness of the man, the burdens of the man.  It would do us all good to look at Judgment at Nuremberg again and again, to look into the craggy face of Spencer Tracy and recognize that if we can imagine such a man, such a wise man, that we as human beings, by the very force of that imagination, may be able to find ourselves out of the round of delusion and myth we seem so content to live with.  To imagine, indeed to find, some measure of justice  and enlightenment, in these days where such things seem so passé, so impossible, and yet, so needed.

We elected a Black Man hoping he would replace our lost Spencer Tracy.  Certainly he is up to the task. However, it also seems to me that he, our President, is not listening to what people crave.  He is not seeing what we need as a nation.  We need truth. We do not need to kick more ass regarding an issue which is tangential to the real issue: that we are lying to ourselves, and getting rather used to it.

I didn’t actually meet Howard Suber until I was a graduate student in the UCLA Film Studies program, although I had taken his (required) film studies courses as a motion picture television program undergraduate.  I took two film studies seminars with him as a graduate and enjoyed every minute.

The first paper I wrote for the first seminar I took with him was quite memorable.  I wrote an essay about ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ – frankly I don’t remember exactly what  the theme was.  After handing in the paper, and while attending the next class, Suber stood in front and read my essay out loud.  He said he had done that once in a while with essays he felt were exceptional.

While I barely said a word in any of his seminars, he gave me an A+.  Little did he know that he inspired me to want to continue to write about film and culture, and provided confidence that I maybe knew what the hell I was doing.  Suber even attended my wedding, and recounted to my father the story of him reading the paper in front of the class.  My Dad said it made him exceptionally proud.

After graduating with my Master’s from UCLA,  I didn’t write about film again for many years.  While I was accepted into the film criticism PhD program, and even received the Chancellor’s Fellowship (the highest academic honor from UCLA at that time), I chose not to pursue an academic career.  Instead, I got married, studied computer science, began working in New York City, and eventually made and raised enough money to produce the film that I had written while at UCLA as an undergrad, CLOUDS, and founded my production company nextPix.  Later, after 9/11, I founded the SolPix webzine with Mike Neff and wrote a lot about film in a way that was reminiscent of my graduate seminars with Suber.

In short, I never forgot my love of film nor of my experience at UCLA.  After my wife and I moved from New York, I found myself wandering back to my academic roots.  While googling for Howard Suber,  I discovered he had written a book called ‘The Power of Film’.  I immediately ordered it, and would like to discuss a little about both Suber and his book here.

Howard Suber was unique as a teacher in that he did not have a particular theoretical framework.  If he did, it would probably be Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.  He certainly was not a Marxist or a Freudian, nor a Historicist.  He was rather incredibly practical and accessible.  He talked about films, mostly popular American films, in a way that the students understood.  While some of the professors would confuse students with their complex, and often brilliant, meanderings about a single core idea rooted in this or that critical theory, Suber was a fountain of dozens of observations and anecdotes that he jotted down in hundreds of pages of notes, and revealed to his students as a sort of gift to their potentiality.  What he lacked in methodology he made up for in insight.

‘The Power Of Film’ in an anthology of those notes that was first published in 2006.  As I read through it I was reminded of his classes and some of the ideas that stuck with me.  It is these ideas that he provide about the ‘why’ of popular films that so many people eventually used in so many films after they studied with him.  Not so much in the way of formula – he devised no easy 12-step program for filmmakers – but rather in individual elements used in great films that enabled them to tap into the popular Zeitgeist.

As such, ‘The Power Of Film’ could just as easily be called ‘The Elements Of Film Style’.  Arranged alphabetically, Suber outlines each element and provides examples from hundreds of ‘memorable, popular’ films in a way that it becomes a kind of reference or primer for the filmmaker.  Again, not as a cookbook, but more of a compendium of those elements that empowers popular filmmaking.

If Suber has a big idea in his book, he is much to self-effacing to state it.  So I’ll do it for him here.  The big idea of his book is that popular, wide appeal and memorable films are less works of art than political campaigns (this could be why Hollywood and Washington are so similar).  This is, according to Suber, because popular films do not so much speak to the least common denominator as they do appeal to a wide swath of often contradictory constituencies.  Pixar I would cite as the most recent and best example of what Suber is talking about.  Pixar films appeal to both young and old, conservative and liberal.  I would add that the memorable, long-lasting ones tend to be humanistic.  Perhaps if Suber writes another book, he could look at the relationship between popular film and politics – I think he’d do a great job!

It is this ability to tap into various, often contradictory constituencies that make many popular films paradoxical.  I would add at times this becomes so self-conscious for modern producers that they end up with a film that uses the first half of the film to outline one world view, then spends the second half dismantling it. But these often end up on the list of the non-memorable.  The memorable, on the other hand, manage an integrity to their storytelling that is neither self-conscious nor patronizing.  Again, Pixar is a great example here.

My concern with recent film trends is that we sometimes tend toward the mythic rather than the humanistic; as Suber might say, we opt more for Homer and less for Sophocles.  One thing I did get from other professors at UCLA was there was value in looking at the social context of film, in the case of Marxist /Structural analysis, how films are produced, who produces them  and for what reasons.  And while we may say ‘to make money’ films do, through the grinding influence of bean counters and a corporate philosophy, become vehicles for a Homerian mythic style that is at its core intent, for example, teaching (mostly) young men about aggression, competition and battle.  While that is a vast oversimplification, the easy relationship between video games and mythic blockbuster films can not be ignored.  And that fact that our society spends ten times its nearest competitor (China) on military spending, and has a far smaller population, cannot be ignored.  Is this all ‘bad’?  Probably not.  But it certainly is worth discussing as we face tough cultural choices in the future that may go at the heart of our competitive, aggressive and militaristic tendencies.  Moreover, perhaps recent popular films are trending more romantic than militaristic, less Sly Stallone and more Sandra Bullock.  As such Sandra Bullock is a political statement and in cahoots with the Dalai Lama.

Suber also does not really discuss the ‘American Independent’ phenomena.  Again, his criteria is ‘memorable and popular’.  As such, he harkens back to a day when there was not such a split between popular films and independent films that are opting to speak to a different audience for different reasons.  Some of the elements he describes have in fact been lost on many modern blockbuster producers, and might be remembered again.  James Cameron and Harvey Weinstein are probably the closest to being producers of the Suberian mold, but there could be more.  In short, every producer of popular films, and every independent filmmaker and student of film, should read Howard Suber’s book if they want to understand great American films, and ideas and instincts of the great showpeople that were behind them.

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