Endgame: the Biggest Superhero Show

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Avengers: Endgame may not be the best movie of 2019, but it certainly is the biggest. Clocking in at 3 hours and 1 minute, it’s the longest studio release since the epics of the 1960s. And grossing an astounding $1.2 billion dollars worldwide in its first weekend, it is the biggest financial success in Hollywood history, breaking six box office records so far. At the cineplex where I saw the film with my grandson, it was being shown every half hour, 35 screenings in a single day, beginning at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. We felt lucky to snag three seats together in the neck-craning third row — and we bought them in advance. My grandson was already seeing it for the second time. I might see it again too.

So what’s the attraction of Endgame? It’s just another superhero movie in a long line of superhero movies, right? Is it really that special?

For many, "Infinity War" and "Endgame" marked the movie event of the decade. Super fans rewatched a dozen films or more in preparation for the release of both films.

Well, yes and no. Several factors make this film quite special, while others caused me to cringe in disbelief. I lost interest long ago in the superhero genre, yet I felt duty bound as a movie reviewer to see this one, and found elements that gave it a spiritual and literary gravitas I wasn’t expecting. Since there are hundreds of traditional movie reviews praising this film, I want to step away from the traditional and focus on my experience and reaction watching it, and I can’t do that without talking about significant elements of the plot. So if you want to see the film without the spoilers, you’d better stop reading and save this review for after you’ve seen the movie.

First, the basic plot. Endgame is the culmination of 22 separate superhero films based on Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, featuring Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (played by numerous actors over the series, and in this one by Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Antman (Paul Rudd), Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the entire Guardians of the Galaxy contingent, along with numerous side characters from each domain.

The characters have been crossing into one another’s universes over the past several installments, finally culminating in the ultimate Showdown with Evil in the two-part finale that includes Infinity War (2018) and Endgame, the current film. For many, these two films marked the movie event of the decade. Super fans rewatched a dozen films or more in preparation for the release of both films. While listening to a call-in radio show last week I heard a woman ask whether she could honorably get out of going to a hospice retreat with a friend who is dying of cancer, because she already had tickets to see this movie with her family. (The radio host wisely advised the woman to skip the movie and assist the friend.) Some theaters scheduled marathon showings for fans who wanted to watch the earlier films in the series together. I didn’t bother to “prepare,” yet I still enjoyed the two films just fine by accepting the fact that I didn’t know every backstory or reference, and that was OK.

What I like about this movie is how it taps into deep mythological archetypes and also introduces a new concept about time travel.

In Episode One of the finale (Infinity War), super villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants to gain possession of six powerful stones that will allow him to vaporize half the population of the universe with the snap of his gauntleted fingers. He thinks this will make the universe a better place by reducing overpopulation. (Here is the first of many conundrums; what kind of evil superpower is motivated by the desire to make the world a better place? But that’s the way it is.) His plan shares nothing with the parlor game of imagining a lifeboat with too many people onboard and arguing about who deserves to stay in the lifeboat and who needs to be thrown overboard so the others will have enough food and water to survive; his plan is a seemingly fair, unbiased, randomly selected annihilation. And he succeeds, in a particularly moving ending to Episode One, as half our favorite characters are vaporized into tiny particles of flame.

Episode Two (Endgame) begins with the vaporization of a family on a picnic, reminding us that it isn’t just the Avengers who have lost half their numbers; nearly everyone in the universe has suffered the loss of a loved one. Now the remaining Avengers must wage another battle to regain the stones so they can reverse the process and bring back the people who have been annihilated. This is pretty iconic good-versus-evil, science-versus-nature stuff, with mechanized robot-warriors on the evil side, and flesh-and-blood (or wood-and-sap) superheroes on the other.

What I like about this movie is how it taps into deep mythological archetypes and also introduces a new concept about time travel. One of the accepted rules of the time-travel genre is that anything you do while traveling in the past will change the future. Thus Marty McFly in Back to the Future returns to his original present and discovers that his family has changed. His father is successful, his mother is slender, his siblings are happy, and his old nemesis is washing Marty’s car. Only Marty remembers the former timeline, because only he has lived the “new past.” This occurs in most time-travel movies; only the person who went into the past remembers the old present. It always makes me a little sad that those who remained behind don’t realize the dreariness or danger they’ve escaped. In Endgame it’s explained that they can’t change the past because what they are doing actually occurs in the present. What they’re changing is the future, which is true of all our choices. Thanos will still have vaporized everyone, but now everyone will be able to come back. I like that concept because all of them realize the fate they’ve escaped and appreciate the sacrifice of those who fought for them.

Then Thanos returns and another epic battle ensues — just as Satan will, according to the book of Revelation.

What I like even more are the biblical and mythological allusions in this story. At the end of Infinity War, two biblical allusions appear in the sudden and random vaporizing of half the population. The first is a reference to the rapture at the end of the world, when, according to Matthew 24:40, “Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left.” That’s exactly how the vaporizing feels. The other is a reference to the destroying angel taking the firstborn of every household in Egypt that marked the beginning of the Israelite Exodus into the wilderness. And another reference to the Exodus is seen when Thanos observes, “As long as there are those who remember what was, there will be those who resist,” echoing God’s decision to make all the Israelites who remembered Egypt wander in the wilderness until they died before the others were allowed into the Promised Land. In yet another scene, Dr. Strange holds back a towering flood of water, just as Moses held back the water in The Ten Commandments. (Okay, that was Charlton Heston. But he was portraying Moses.)

Thanos succeeds initially in Infinity War, but he is killed in an early battle of Endgame. For five years, the remaining residents of the earth enjoy a fairly idyllic life. They marry, start families, work the fields, study, produce, and live in peace. Then Thanos returns and another epic battle ensues — just as Satan will, according to the book of Revelation, be bound for 1,000 years of peace and then unleashed to gather his armies for a final epic battle. And when the final battle occurs in Endgame, the Avengers are joined by the resurrected beings who had been vaporized, just as in the battle of Armageddon — according to some interpretations — Christ will be joined by the resurrected dead. It’s a powerful scene in the movie, met with thunderous cheers from the audience, and made more powerful by the archetypal allusion.

Other references to redemption occur as well. Bruce Banner learns to embrace his inner Hulk, who now lives peacefully on the outside. We see a virtual resurrection of the late Stan Lee, who created the Marvel universe and died in 2018, de-aged and in his prime for his final cameo appearance in a Marvel movie. “Hey, man! Make love, not war!” he calls, as he drives out of sight. Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Iron Man (my favorite of the Avengers because he is an inventor, a businessman, and a reluctant superhero) has also experienced a kind of redemption in his life, having overcome his nearly debilitating addictions 20 years ago to become one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. His career was dead, and it has roared back to life.

This is an astonishing affront after the brilliant success of "Black Panther" in 2018, and serves to highlight the self-righteous hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals.

Perhaps it was the serendipity of Endgame’s opening just a few days after Easter that caused me to see Christian archetypes in the film. The ultimate hero in the story willingly sacrifices his own life to reverse the deaths of those who were vaporized, saying, “If we don’t take that stone, billions of people stay dead.” He willingly trades his life for the lives of his friends — and everyone else. Like Jesus, he dies when his heart literally breaks. His last words are “I am . . . [his name],” I AM being a name of God, applied by Christ to himself. By contrast, the character’s father tells him, “The greater good has seldom outweighed my self-interest,” but I like to think that self-interest and concern for others are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each of us acting in our own self-interest while respecting the rights and property of others is probably the fastest way to the greater good. So I like this too.

My biggest beef with Avengers: Endgame is that the Black Panther universe is shoved to the back of the bus. Its citizens don’t show up until the third hour of the film; they literally stand at the back of the Avengers group in a significant funeral scene; and the token non-BP black Avengers, War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), play secondary roles throughout the battles. Even Okoye [Danai Gurira], who survives the Thanos vaporization in Infinity War and thus ought to be fighting alongside the Avengers throughout the movie, makes only a token appearance in the first two-thirds of Endgame (to report on an earthquake under the sea). This is an astonishing affront after the brilliant success of Black Panther in 2018, and serves to highlight the self-righteous hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals. What were they thinking?

My second beef is actually a chortle at Hollywood do-gooders who couldn’t quite figure out what was evil in Thanos’s plan, whose goal is actually to remove one of their pet peeves — the overpopulation that is supposedly destroying the planet. One would almost expect them to see this save-the-planet-by-eliminating-the-humans tactic as a good thing. (Indeed, many historians argue that the plague produced an economic boon in the Middle Ages by reducing unemployment.) And in fact, Captain America comments to Black Widow at one point, “I saw a pod of whales when I was coming in, over the bridge . . . Fewer ships, cleaner weather.” What a good guy that Thanos is!

I wanted to see more of how the loss of half the population of earth affected trade, manufacturing and production, but everything was presented in a very hodge-podge way.

Nevertheless, the film gives us only a glimpse of life after near-annihilation, and it is glaringly inconsistent with the “liberals’” worldview. The reduction in population seems to have resulted in a dystopian future; five years later, cars are still abandoned where they were left by their drivers when they were vaporized, and our heroes are living an agrarian life in the woods. Okay, that makes sense. If we lose the people who run the factories, drive the trucks, service the power grid, and pump the oil, life is going to become pretty bleak, I think. At least back-to-basics. I wanted to see more of how the loss of half the population of earth affected trade, manufacturing and production, but everything was presented in a very hodge-podge way.

An example: despite their agrarian existence, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is making Tony Stark and their daughter peanut butter sandwiches on something that looks suspiciously like factory-produced Wonder Bread. Who’s manufacturing that soft, squishy, sliced bread with its pure white center and thin tan crust? For that matter, who’s manufacturing the peanut butter? Who’s making their daughter’s machine-knit sweater, her jersey-knit leggings, and her cute little pink tennis shoes? Evidently the Gen-Xers and Millennials who run Hollywood these days don’t understand where products come from, besides the store (or Amazon). Meanwhile, the Internet works, the computer and communications systems work, kids are taking selfies on their cell phones, and somehow food supplies are getting to the diner everyone patronizes. I wanted to give everyone in Hollywood a copy of “I, Pencil.”

Despite such inconsistencies in the setting and plot, not to mention the ideas, and despite my not having watched at least half of the films leading up to this denouement, I have to admit I was moved by the story. I think it was largely because I watched it with my own set of tropes and understandings about good and evil, sacrifice and redemption, resurrection and restoration. The relationships are well portrayed, and I bought into the battle, although I would have liked a clearer philosophical conflict than “Please don’t kill everyone.” I appreciated the fact that some characters changed and chose their own paths. Like my grandson, I will probably see Endgame again.


Editor's Note: Review of "Avengers: Endgame," directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Marvel Studios, 2019,181 minutes.



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“Pro-Choice” or “Pro-Life”?

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“‘Non-profit’ is a tax status, not a business model,” Planned Parenthood chief Cheryl (Robia Scott) barks at clinic director Abby (Ashley Bratcher) in the movie Unplanned, when Abby objects to Cheryl’s insistence that her clinics double their number of abortions in the coming months. Abortion services have become big business for the NPO, and Cheryl wants to increase profits even more. But Abby’s motive for joining Planned Parenthood was to reduce the number of abortions by reducing the number of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies through PP’s reproductive counseling and free birth control.

Unplanned is based on the memoir Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye Opening Journey across the Life Line, the true story of Abby Johnson’s journey from becoming one of the youngest ever clinic directors at Planned Parenthood to becoming staunchly pro-life. Surprisingly, the film does not preach or condemn; it simply shows one woman’s experience with the procedure, both as a patient and as a practitioner, and asks us to walk around in her literally bloodstained sneakers for a while.

First, the technical review: in terms of its production values, Unplanned is good, but it isn’t great. The acting is a bit self-conscious, particularly in the secondary characters. The perky character is a little too perky as she sits crosslegged on the breakroom counter; the morose character is a bit too morose; the sparkly little toddler a little too sparkly. The villainess who runs Planned Parenthood is cartoonishly icy. Most of the women are wearing newscaster makeup. And, at one hour, fifty minutes, the entire movie is a little too long.

The villainess who runs Planned Parenthood is cartoonishly icy. Most of the women are wearing newscaster makeup.

But these are piddling complaints. As a whole, the film works, and works well. It is emotionally disturbing, visually powerful, and ultimately a celebration of persuasion over force. And, in contrast to the supporting actors, Ashley Bratcher is thoroughly convincing as Abby.

Despite the fact that Abby’s parents, husband, friends and church community are strongly pro-life and share their views with her, none of them shun her, shame her, or offer ultimatums. They use persuasion and patience, act for themselves according to their own conscience, and allow her the same right to make her own choices. They do not withhold their love from her, even when they disagree with her.

This, to me, is what being “pro-choice” really means (or ought to).

Protestors Shawn (Jared Lotz) and Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts) of the pro-life organization 40 Days for Life condemn the actions of other pro-life activists who jeer aggressively and crudely as patients and workers arrive at the clinic. Instead, they befriend Abby during the eight years they spend on opposite sides of the clinic fence and act with patience, persistence, and kindness.

Abby’s parents, husband, friends and church community do not withhold their love from her, even when they disagree with her.

As a result, Abby doesn’t have to fight with them, and she doesn’t have to overcome the obstacle of “I told you so” when she does decide to resign from the clinic. We are able to empathize with her experience and follow her gradual change of heart, even if we don’t completely agree with her — on either side of her journey.

The film is disturbing emotionally, but it contains not a single word of profanity, nor any nudity, sexual encounters, illegal substance abuse, guns or weapons (unless you count the medical vacuum aspirator). There is blood in a clinical setting and in a realistic bathroom miscarriage. Yet the film received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. I find it grossly ironic that a child under the age of 17 cannot view this movie about abortion without the presence of a parent or guardian, but she can get an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or consent. Could it be that the MPAA sides with Planned Parenthood on wanting to prevent young girls from seeing another perspective on abortion besides the one that is carefully crafted and presented by PP?

This is a hard film to watch and a harder film to review. While I wish abortion was never needed, I understand the difficult circumstances women sometimes find themselves in. Unless (or until) it can be definitively determined that life begins at conception, I would not overturn Roe v. Wade.

It’s personal.

So where should a good libertarian stand on the issue of abortion?

Many offer the private property argument to side with the woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body. If the fetus is an uninvited and unwanted trespasser, then she has the right to reject it from her property — her womb. The fetus’s right to live stops at the woman’s right to privacy and her right not to provide free housing for nine months — housing which puts her own life, happiness, and future at risk.

This is a hard film to watch and a harder film to review.

Others might counter with the life-or-death survival argument — a person who normally respects private property has the right to break into a stranger’s cabin in the woods in order to avoid freezing to death, or to commandeer a car in order to get a heart-attack victim to a hospital. Similarly, a fetus has the right to remain in a womb because it will die if it is kicked out. Whose rights have priority — the property owner, or the person who will die without protection?

I don’t think the government should be involved in this very difficult, very personal medical decision. My focus has always been to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, through proper use of both self-control and birth control. But if a pregnancy does need to be terminated, it should be decided between the woman, her doctor, and her conscience. She shouldn’t have to add hiding from the government to her list of stressors.

That’s Abby’s argument too, at first. She genuinely believes that the fetus is just tissue — well-formed tissue, but non-viable, non-living tissue nonetheless. I think a lot of people have felt this way.

But modern technology makes that argument harder to support. For a long time, it seemed as though life began sometime after the first trimester, when the embryo grew from being a blob of cells with the potential for life to a living being who kicked and moved. They called it “quickening,” and it seemed to happen at about the fourth month of pregnancy. Thus first-trimester abortion seemed justifiable. Now, through high-tech ultrasound, 3D imaging, and other modern devices, we can see that a baby is much more developed at a much earlier stage. It “quickens” long before we can feel it moving. It’s real. It’s alive. It just needs time to grow. The argument that “it’s just a blob of tissue” becomes harder to make.

If a pregnancy does need to be terminated, a woman shouldn't have to add hiding from the government to her list of stressors.

What about a woman’s right to privacy and property, to choose what she will do with her own body? What about the potentially destructive impact the birth of a baby might have on her financial, professional, personal life? It’s a fair question, with no easy answer. It brings us back to that original question: when does life begin? If preemies born as early as 26 weeks of gestation can survive and thrive through modern neonatal care, it might mean that a 26-week fetus’s right to life will have to be protected, regardless of inconvenience to the woman. If it can be determined scientifically that a fetus feels pain, or that it can think and react beyond mere reflex, as Abby Johnson believes she observed, we might have to ban the procedure altogether. At that point only the self-defense argument — my physical life is threatened by this pregnancy, and I have a right to protect myself from it — would justify abortion in the third trimester.

As I said, it’s personal. Intensely so. Unplanned is a film worth seeing, no matter on which side of the clinic fence you’re standing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Unplanned," directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon. Pure Fix Entertainment, 110 minutes.



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Somebody’s Favorite

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In the wake of last year’s militant #MeToo movement, when actresses haughtily proclaimed, “We will no longer be pressured into trading sex for jobs” (and bullied other actresses into wearing black at the event to show their solidarity), the Academy this year has bizarrely honored The Favourite with ten Oscar nominations, tying Roma for first place in number and confirming once and for all (as if there were any doubt) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has zero credibility and doesn’t know what the hell it is doing.

Loosely based on the reign of Queen Anne and her relationships with Sarah Churchill,Duchess of Marlborough, and a servant named Abigail (eventually Lady Masham), the film suggests that the silly and childlike Anne made all of her decisions based on which woman’s tongue pleased her best — and I don’t mean by talking. The film fairly drips with transactional sex, from stagecoach wanking to arranged marriages to child trafficking to extortionate sex to withholding of affection for political positioning to ordinary prostitution. We even see ducks mating.

A young social climber, formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne.

Despite its praise from a supposedly “woke” Hollywood culture, the film’s theme is simply appalling. Yet Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Marlborough, called the film “a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.” In that film, an established star (Margo Channing) befriends an aspiring actress (Eve Harrington), only to see her try to usurp her position in the theater. Similarly, in The Favourite, a young social climber, Abigail (Emma Stone), formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) by befriending and then pushing aside the queen’s long-standing confidante and advisor, Lady Churchill (Weisz), simultaneously finagling a financially and socially beneficial marriage to regain her aristocratic status.

Don’t misunderstand my objection — I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different. The Favourite doesn’t just joke about sex; it celebrates the use of sex to gain political power, and hypocritically undermines everything these same preening, moralizing Hollywood hotshots stood up for just last year.

It also seems to justify rape, as long as it’s funny and as long as the women are in charge. When Lord Masham enters Abigail’s servant quarters without being invited, she asks him, “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” He responds, “I’m a gentleman.” “To rape me, then,” she deadpans, and the audience chuckles.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought rape had ceased to be funny, even in the movies. And nary a trigger warning in the trailers. Tsk, tsk.

All I’m asking is that the Academy pick a side and stick with it. Or admit that it really has no backbone or underlying moral principles whatsoever, and quit pretending to have the upper hand on social morality.

I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different.

So why the accolades for The Favourite? It’s all in the technique (to mimic Lady Abigail to Lord Masham on their wedding night as she turns her back and offers him her hand — you get the idea). First are the obvious awards: all three women have been nominated, and all three deliver stellar performances. Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention. Colman’s Queen Anne is gouty, needy, dumpy, screechy, and even develops a convincing stroke midway through. She’s amazing. Nominations for the Big Three — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay — bring the tally to six.

Of course, any time you make a “costume drama,” you can expect to see a nomination for Best Costume Design, and in this case, it is well deserved. The early 18th century is not a common era for filmmaking, so costume designer Sandy Powell couldn’t just rent the costumes from a local supplier; most of them had to be made specifically for this film. And they are spectacular. The opulent textures and colors, and especially the tailoring details of the pockets, lace, and scarves are stunning, although the fabrics — including recycled denim and a chenille blanket — are far from authentic. The massive 18th-century wigs are impressive too, and even more impressive because, due to budget restraints, Powell often took the wigs apart after they were used in one scene and remade them for another. Interestingly, Lady Sarah is often dressed in men’s fashions. It prompts the question: can a woman only be powerful if she’s manly?

The opulent costumes fit perfectly within the opulent production design, also nominated for an Oscar, as it demonstrates the aristocratic decadence of the time. England is at war with France, and Queen Anne keeps threatening to double the taxes, but her courtiers are fiddling while the figurative fires burn. We see duck races inside the castle. Live pigeons, used for skeet shooting overlooking the sumptuous lawns. Exotic pineapples, imported from who knows where. A naked courtier being pummeled with blood oranges in one of the palace salons, just for fun.

Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) says, “A man’s dignity is the one thing that keeps him from running amok,” but we don’t see much that inspires dignity among these characters. In one scene, Queen Anne’s cheeks are painted with heart-shaped rouge, and in a later scene she murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

Adding to that looking-glass sensation is the bizarre use of fisheye lenses and dizzying panorama shots of interiors that create distorted scenes, almost as though we are looking through a giant peephole. And to a certain extent, we are. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara based their characterization on letters between Queen Anne and Lady Churchill that indicate an intimately affectionate friendship and chose to play up the lesbian angle as the driving force in their characters and in their politics. All three important women in this filmwere married, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate heterosexual preference, especially in court marriages.

Still, the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah — if indeed it existed — was intended to be private and, I hope, loving and intimate and true. The fisheye lenses and peephole angles reinforce that sense of peeking in on something we aren’t supposed to see — and that we might have a distorted impression of what really happened. Although Abigail did eventually take Sarah’s place as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, there is no historicalindication that Abigail used sex to win the Queen’s affection. Sarah and Anne did indeed have a falling out, possibly over money for building Blenheim Palace, and the Marlboroughs were banished to the continent. Abigail then became the “queen’s favorite,” or personal lady-in-waiting. After Queen Anne’s death the Marlboroughs returned to England and finished building Blenheim. That’s what we know.

In a later scene the queen murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

The Favourite opened with a limited run in November to a dismal $442,000 box office its first weekend. Trailers had been somewhat misleading, suggesting that the story was a more audience-friendly knock-down, drag-out catfight between two ladies-in-waiting, not a fairly graphic lesbian love triangle. Either way, it didn’t do well at first. After its Oscar nominations, however, it returned to theaters and as of January 31 had grossed over $42 million worldwide, from an audience of mostly bewildered moviegoers. That’s the power of an Oscar nomination.

Liberty readers might well enjoy The Favourite, depending on where they stand on the situations I’ve described. It’s bizarre in many ways, but it’s also witty, opulent, and well-acted. It presents three powerful women controlling the throne and politics of England in their own womanly way, especially Lady Sarah, who evidently really did have the queen’s ear from their childhood and ruled from Anne’s shoulder until the war with France ended. All three women use their sex for trade, but they do it willingly and deliberately, from a position of power rather than victimhood. Is it possible —even probable — that women in Hollywood have been doing the same thing for over a century, and only cried “outrage!” (and somehow managed to blame Republicans) after they were caught?

The Favourite might even turn out to be your favorite, even though it isn’t mine.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Favourite," directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Element Pictures, 2018, 119 minutes.



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How Less Becomes More

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Roma is perhaps the most unusual and unexpected Oscar contender for Best Picture of 2018. It’s filmed in black and white, spoken in Spanish with English subtitles, and told with very little storyline, no musical soundtrack, and no well-known actors. It’s set in the 1970s but feels more like the 1940s or ’50s. And it moves as slowly as a sloth. The Cannes Film Festival rejected it because it was made for Netflix instead of theatrical release. Netflix! It was available for free on the Internet before it went into a few art theaters. Nevertheless, like Italy’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), it has been nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.

Unlike Life Is Beautiful, Roma does not have a strong, charismatic protagonist or a compelling conflict. It simply presents a dreary year in the dreary life of a young Mexican working girl. It is the most personal film Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013) has ever made, told as a series of vignettes that come directly from Cuarón’s childhood memories and filmed by Cuarón himself. It is dedicated to Libo, a servant in his childhood home on whom the film is based. Cuarón said of the film, “It’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”

Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’”

The story centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two full-time domestic servants working in the home of a middle-class family in Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City. Cleo and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) share a small room where they also do the ironing after the regular workday is done. They chatter together congenially throughout the day, and the children in the family seem to genuinely love Cleo; one of the boys (perhaps representing Cuarón himself) holds her hand affectionately when she kneels on the floor beside the couch to watch TV with the family after dinner (until the mother absently sends her away to fulfill another duty.)

But while Cleo is the subject of the movie, she is not our POV — we don’t see the story through her eyes. Instead, Cuarón uses wide angles so that we observe her only in her interactions with other people. This technique objectifies her to a large degree. Since we don’t see what she is seeing, we also don’t see any eye contact from others looking at her. Consequently, we can feel sympathy toward her, but it’s difficult to feel empathy. Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’” We don’t. At best we can observe what she experiences, and think of how we might feel ourselves.

So why does this film merit ten Oscar nominations, and why does director Guillermo del Toro call it one of his top five favorite films of all time? The key is not in the two Best Picture nominations, but in the eight other categories. Most significant is the cinematography. Cuarón often uses award-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot his films, but this time he chose to handle the camera himself in order to keep the film as personal and true to his intent as possible. The result is often dreamy and reflective. Indeed, reflection is a recurring theme throughout the film. It begins with water washing repeatedly over a brick sidewalk, almost like waves, reflecting the sky, the trees, a building, and even an airplane flying across its reflected surface. Reflections are often seen in windows, cabinets, the table Cleo is polishing, the car fender as the man of the house parks in the narrow garage.

Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion; the devastatingly authentic hospital scene may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

Nominations for sound editing and sound mixing are equally impressive, especially considering the lack of music. Instead, the sounds are entirely natural — the wash of water against the bricks, the bickering of birds in the trees, the sounds of dogs barking and people conversing in the distance. And the acting! So natural, and so introspective. With very little dialogue, Avaricio and de Tavira, nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, portray the unspoken thoughts and desires of the two young servants. The hospital scene is devastatingly authentic; here Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion. The moment was filmed in one take and may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

The lack of a traditional storyline and a traditional soundtrack makes the film seem slow, even plodding at first. We meet the servants, the family, the dog, but nothing much happens — until Cleo goes to the movies with a friend on her day off and ends up going off with a blind date instead — probably her first date ever. There we begin to see how her past, her class, and her future blend into a kind of inescapable destiny. The vignettes become compelling, and in the end, we can’t stop thinking about this young girl who has had so few choices in her life. We realize that she has had no control over the biggest factor determining her options — the circumstances of her birth — and thus no real control over any aspect of her life, beyond how dedicated she will be as a servant. It’s almost as though she were born dead — a metaphor that becomes significant at one point in the film.

Roma ends mostly as it begins, because Cleo’s life will end mostly as it began. Many important events have occurred during the year, politically and historically as well as within the family, but these events really haven’t affected Cleo personally. She is loved and appreciated by the family members, but she still lives in the small room above the garage that she shares with Sofia. She will never truly belong to this family she serves. But in making this film about his beloved nanny Libo, Cuarón gives her a place at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Roma," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix, 2018, 135 minutes.



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Glorious Beale Street

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“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1974 novel on which Barry Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based. It refers to an area of Memphis important to African-Americans, designated by an act of Congress as “the Home of the Blues.”

In the 1860s black traveling musicians began performing there; they eventually developed a genre known as Memphis Blues, led by such legends as B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King was once billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

An astute real estate developer, Thomas Church, became the first black millionaire in the South after he bought land along Beale Street following a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The famous Church Park, a cultural and recreational center where blues musicians gathered, is named for him, not for a religious organization.

By the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings.

In 1869 a congregation of freed slaves began building the Beale Street Baptist Church. Besides the congregation, it housed the newspaper offices of civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells. Such notables as Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, while Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR spoke at the 2,000-seat auditorium in Church Park.

However, by the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings and the neighborhoods surrounding it instead of renewing them. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated not far from Beale Street.

Eventually the neighborhood was restored by the racially diverse Beale Street Development Corporation, and the area is now a popular tourist destination featuring the Beale Street Music Festival in early May each year. Beale Street’s development is tightly controlled by the city of Memphis, the BSDC, and a management company.

In so many ways, the story of Beale Street is an apt metaphor for the African-American experience — artistically gifted, entrepreneurially astute, politically active, brought down by neglect and resentment, and then restored by a consortium of well-intentioned but often misguided do-gooders who have changed the essence of what it once was.

In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from Fonny's cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art.

Beale Street is also an apt metaphor for the characters in Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story at heart, the film uses flashbacks to show how Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up as childhood friends, fell in love as teenagers, planned a future that included marriage and family, and saw their plans destroyed when Fonny was falsely accused of a heinous crime.

Although the movie takes place in Harlem, the characters represent different aspects of the Beale Street story. Fonny is an artist with big dreams. In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from his cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), works tirelessly against injustice, and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is a rising activist who tells Tish at one point, “Unbow your head, sister, and do not be ashamed.”

Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are both hardworking entrepreneurs. (Well, OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.” And in truth, Fonny is in jail because false witnesses have been suborned against him.) Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) represents the church in the black community — moral and austere. And of course the urban renewal board is represented by the overzealous justice system that intends to clean up Harlem by putting the young black men in jail — whether they’re guilty or not.

Jazz and the blues also play central roles in this film. The soundtrack, mostly performed as string adagios, is bluesy, haunting, and full of despair, an emotion created by the close, discordant, unresolved harmonies and the deep, slow vibration of the bow across the bass strings. At the end, the credits roll to the sound of Billy Preston and Joseph Green’s slow, jazzy, plaintive “My Country ’tis of Thee.” If ever there was a time for singing the Beale Street blues, this is it.

OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.”

Although Baldwin describes the young lovers in his novel as plain and unattractive, Jenkins chose to cast his Tish and Fonny with two astonishingly beautiful young actors. KiKi Layne radiates wide-eyed innocence mingled with tough determination, and Stephan James is not only handsome but also blessed with kind eyes and a warm smile. Who wouldn’t be drawn to them? Studies show that we trust and like attractive people more readily than ugly people, and clearly Jenkins was not going to take any chance that the audience might not sympathize with his protagonists. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the casting; it was a pleasure watching these two fall in love on screen.

We don’t learn the nature of the crime with which Fonny has been charged until 45 minutes into the movie, although we learn in the first five minutes that he is in jail. Jenkins also softens the scene of the first sexual encounter between the two by having Fonny gently cover Tish’s naked breasts with a blanket in a gesture that is both protective and romantic. It subtly tells us that Fonny could not have done what he is charged with; he just isn’t that kind of guy.

Sadly, under our flawed, overcrowded, injustice system, it doesn’t much matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, especially if the person is poor or black. Most never go to trial. In fact, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz, an astounding 94% of state felony convictions and 97% of federal convictions stem from plea bargains. If you can’t afford bail, you’ll sit in jail, waiting for your day in court, often for months and sometimes for years. So you take the deal and the record, just to get out of jail and back to your life. As Tish says to the audience in voiceover narration, “I hope that no one has to talk to anyone they love through a glass.”

Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal.

Moreover, plea bargains have now become the safer bet in a legal system where freedom hangs on how a jury interprets the evidence and the defendant. Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal. The deadly “to life” tacked on to many sentences today is especially chilling for the innocent; how can you convince the parole board of your remorse for a crime you did not commit?

The routine indeterminate sentencing of “to life,” which is bad for many reasons, was created three generations ago by liberal reformers. Its heyday is long past and needs to be eliminated, along with mandatory sentencing and three-strikes rules, to allow judges to judge and prisoners to have hope.

If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story of love, loss, and loyalty. Baldwin’s 1974 portrayal of the injustice of our court system is just as true today. Barry Jenkins’ film version is not completely true to the novel, nor should it be — film is a visual and aural genre and needs to be adapted accordingly. The film is beautiful to watch, even though it is heartbreaking to comprehend.


Editor's Note: Review of "If Beale Street Could Talk," directed by Barry Jenkins. Annapurna, 2018, 119 minutes.



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No White Saviors Need Apply

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Witty, ironic, meaningful, and delightfully entertaining, Green Book is quite possibly the best movie released in 2018.

It’s based on the true story of African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the unlikely friendship he developed with Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a Copacabana bouncer and self-proclaimed bullshitter. In fall 1962 Shirley hired Tony to be his driver and bodyguard during a concert tour through the South of the Don Shirley Trio, consisting of Shirley and two white string musicians. What follows is a new twist on the old buddy genre as two opposites, one black, suave, educated, and sophisticated and the other white, uncouth, ill-spoken, and street smart, learn to like each other. The two could not be more different, or more written against stereotype.

Shirley is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The name of the movie comes from a guidebook published by the Negro Tourists Bureau from the 1930s to the mid-1960s called The Negro Motorist Green Book. As you can guess, it identified restaurants, hotels, and public buildings that travelers of African descent could patronize. It was demeaning, and the Don Shirley Trio could make three times as much money doing gigs in New York, where they were more accepted and could move more freely. But, like Jackie Robinson before him, Don Shirley was out to make a point and blaze trails. He chose the southern circuit on purpose. Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov), the bass player, understands. “Genius is not enough,” he explains to Tony. “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

We also realize that genius is not enough to bring happiness, any more than money is. Shirley is educated, talented, and rich, but he drinks alone. He knows the white European masters of music, but he doesn’t recognize Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, or Sam Cooke. He is a gourmand, but has never tasted fried chicken. He isn’t welcome in the hotel where his companions are staying, but when some men staying at the Green Book hotel invite him to join them for a game of horseshoes, he doesn’t know what to do. “If I’m not black enough, or white enough, or man enough, then tell me — what am I?” he asks Tony in anguish. He is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The acting throughout the film is superb. Ali won a Golden Globe for his role as the regal, impeccable Shirley; his comedic timing for noncomic dialog is perfect, and wait till you see him play the piano! In fact, the music in this film is stunning. Mortensen packed on the pounds and embraced his inner slob to play the lovable, slovenly, totally unself-aware Tony Lip. Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores is so perfect that Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s real-life son and the author of the book on which the screenplay is based, said that he was in tears whenever Cardellini was on camera, because she is so much like his mother. Cardellini is one of those quietly unsung actors who is marvelous in everything she chooses to do. In addition, many of the people in the family scenes are not actors but members of the Vallelonga extended family, and there is an authentic vibrancy as they interact with one another around the table.

Tony is an equal opportunity bigot; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.”

Unfortunately, following the film’s initial praise from critics when it opened and its three wins at the Golden Globes (for Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture) the reputation of this fine film was maligned. Critics recently charged that it’s “racist” and another “white savior story.” Either these people haven’t seen the film, or they don’t understand the “white savior" genre, or they’re terrified to speak out against the progressivist hegemony.

Well, I’m not afraid to speak out. The person who is saved in this film is not the cultured, wealthy, talented black pianist, who hires the bodyguard, pays the bills, and calls the shots. It’s the gauche, ignorant, uncouth, bigoted white restaurant bouncer who takes the job and the orders. And anyone who suggests that any film with a black star and a white star necessarily creates a hierarchy with the black man at the bottom is being, well, just plain racist.

At the beginning of the movie Tony is comfortable in his bigotry. He’s a product of his environment, and his environment has been racist. He’s an equal opportunity bigot, however; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.” Tony agrees to be Shirley’s driver and manage his itinerary, but he flatly refuses to launder his employer’s clothes or shine his shoes. He needs the money the job will provide, but he’s a little embarrassed by the relationship; when someone questions him about it he responds, “He ain’t my boss — I work for the record company!” At his home, when two black repairmen finish a heavy job, Dolores gives them each a glass of water. Seeing this, Tony fishes the glasses out of the sink and drops them into the trash. He will not be putting his lips where black lips have been. Does this sound like someone with a “white savior complex” to you? I think it’s no coincidence that during his concerts Shirley often plays a jazzy medley of songs from South Pacific, one of which bears the lyric, “You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade. / You've got to be carefully taught.” This film shows that you can be untaught as well.

Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail.

The reversal of stereotypes continues when the well-spoken Dr. Shirley offers to correct Tony’s diction and make him more presentable in fine society, an ironic (and witty) race reversal. He even tries to change Tony’s last name to Valley, “something more pronounceable,” in an ironic nod to the emasculating and insidious practice of renaming slaves for the convenience of the owner when they were purchased. While Tony is the star of the movie, Shirley is the power of the relationship. He even owns a throne.

In every way, Dr. Don Shirley is superior to Tony. He is wealthier, more educated, more refined. He lives in a beautifully appointed apartment above Carnegie Hall and wears immaculately tailored suits, while Tony lives in a small apartment in the Bronx and wears ill-fitting bowling shirts. Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail. Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life. Not willing to share a glass with a black man? By the end of the film he is walking around in his undershorts and sleeping in the same room.

No, the real concern about this film — the true progressivist fear that’s whitewashed by accusations of white saviorism — is that it does not fit the current narrative of blacks as victims who need saving. (Ironically, at the behest of our mostly white legislators.) The hypocrisy is so blatant it’s maddening. Don Shirley’s “sin” is that he achieved success through hard work and talent — yes, by his bootstraps — and that he espoused a philosophy of peaceful resistance. "You don’t win with violence,” he tells Tony. “You only win with dignity.” Try touting that philosophy with activists today.

Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life.

In one particularly poignant scene, Shirley and Tony happen to stop near a field of black laborers to check something in the car. Camera filters intensify the lighting of the scene, mimicking the muted colors of a mid-century painting. No words are spoken, and none are necessary. The laborers stand in the fields picking cotton, dressed in headscarves and calico, while Shirley sits in the backseat of a Cadillac DeVille picking lint from his tailored suit with his soft manicured hands — for one reason: Shirley was given not only a talent for music but also a mother who could recognize it, nurture it and sell it. The key to his success is hinted at in the unsung lyrics of “Happy Talk,” also from the South Pacific medley: “You got to have a dream. / If you don’t have a dream / How you gonna have a dream come true?” Yes, Shirley, as well as the fieldworkers, faced racism and Jim Crow laws. Shirley had to live by the Green Book when he traveled, and he hated it. But he wasn’t victimized by it. He had a dream, and he made it happen.

In sum, Don Shirley’s story does not fit the political narrative of black suppression and victimhood that can only be righted through in-your-face activism and hatred toward whites. We are allowed to admire Black Panther as a strong leader and role model without disturbing the political narrative because he comes from Africa and has not been “tainted” by American sins. But we mustn’t tolerate the example of strong African-American characters without the backdrop of white racism. Thus a central theme of Hidden Figures — a film about the remarkable black women mathematicians who worked in NASA’s space program — deals with the women having to leave the building where they worked to use the colored bathrooms in a distant building, despite the fact that NASA already provided integrated bathrooms at that time. Talk about “demeaning.” Hollywood put them in the colored stalls, not NASA.

Similarly, the story of Don Shirley’s remarkable achievement must be sullied through unfair and untrue criticism of the powerful, witty, uplifting movie based on his life, simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable stereotype. Indeed, I was soundly criticized for praising this film. But I won’t be cowed. And don’t you be fooled: Green Book is quite possibly the best movie you’ll see this year.


Editor's Note: "Green Book," directed by Peter Farrelly. Participant Media, 2018, 130 minutes.



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A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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No Escape from Human Nature

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Are humans instinctively brutal? Do we attend hockey games, boxing matches, and race car events hoping see blood? Do we rubberneck at car accidents hoping to see death? Have we really made no moral progress since gladiator games were used as public executions?

The producers of Escape Room want us to think so. From The Most Dangerous Game (1932) to The Naked Prey (1965) to The Hunger Games trilogy (2012–2015), movies have explored the concept of humans hunting humans and have tapped into the idea of execution as entertainment. And that’s what happens in this movie.

Inspired by the escape-the-room genre of video games, real-life escape room adventures have become popular over the past decade in cities all over the world. Contestants are locked inside a room decorated to resemble a haunted house, prison cell, space station, or other isolated location and are given a time limit during which to discover clues, solve riddles, and find the escape hatch. It’s a fun, socially interactive, real-life alternative to sitting in front of a computer screen discovering clues, solving riddles, and finding the escape hatch.

They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you?

The premise of Escape Room is simple. Six strangers are invited to compete for a high-stakes prize by solving a series of puzzles in order to escape from a series of rooms. Danny (Nik Dodani) is a videogame nerd who has played in nearly a hundred escape rooms before. Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy math prodigy with a talent for solving puzzles. Jason (Jay Ellis) is an investment banker with expensive tastes. Ben (Logan Miller) is a stock clerk for a grocery store. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an army veteran, and Mike (Tyler Labine) is a blue-collar worker. What has brought these six together? And how will they interact under pressure?

The six soon realize, of course, that this is no game. If they fail, they die.

With its PG-13 rating, Escape Room is high on suspense and low on blood and guts, making it an entertaining film as the audience members work along with the characters to solve the riddles and unlock the doors.

What makes the film interesting are the gradual reveal of the characters’ backgrounds and their interaction with one another as they do what it takes to survive. They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you? They’re all strangers, after all. They only just met, and they have no personal connection with one another. Will self-interest lead to treachery? Or will goodness win out?

You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must.

Despite being driven by self-interest, we still seem to want our heroes to be self-sacrificing — at least in Hollywood. We cheered when Han Solo, that maverick businessman of the cosmos, returned to help the resistance in Star Wars. We took heart when Katniss Everdeen refused to kill her youthful opponents in The Hunger Games. We even approved when Hombre (Paul Newman), the ultimate libertarian hero, reluctantly risked his life to rescue the wife of the thieving, racist Bureau of Indian Affairs agent from the stagecoach robbers.

But in reality, when push comes to shove and our own lives are on the line, what would we do to survive?

I recently listened to The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, a fictionalized account of the widows of Jewish resistance leaders and their experiences during and after World War II. It’s a sappy, sentimental novel full of 21st-century morality and clichés. For example, Shattuck refers to “racial profiling” when her characters are asked to show their papers, a term that did not exist in World War II. Moreover, her protagonist is cloyingly egalitarian. She comes from an aristocratic background and thus has special access to food and protection. Yet she refuses to accept those special favors, or at least expresses consternation about accepting them. To hell with accuracy; Shattuck seems compelled to imbue her 20th-century protagonist with 21st-century values, no matter what. Such egalitarianism is a fine principle in times of plenty, but when your children are truly starving or threatened by death, you will accept any special opportunity offered to feed and protect them.

Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation.

Actual Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl belies Shattuck’s politically correct fantasy about genteel survival morality in his concentration camp memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl reveals a particularly troubling source of survivor’s guilt — he admits that in order to live through the kind of brutal starvation they experienced in the camps, those who survived had to be ruthlessly selfish at times. There might be one piece of potato in the soup pot, and that one piece of potato would determine who had enough sustenance to survive the march to work the next day, and who would collapse in the snow. You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must to scavenge that bite of potato, reach the warm spot at the center of the mass of prisoners, avoid the front of the line when the camp guards were looking for someone to shoot. You might feel guilty. You might be furtive. But you did it anyway.

In such films as Escape Room, Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation. The hero manages to be self-sacrificing and self interested, to fall on the grenade and make it out alive. And that’s OK. After all, we’re looking for escapism, not realism, in entertaining movies like this one.


Editor's Note: Review of "Escape Room," directed by Adam Robitel. Original Film Production, 2019, 100 minutes.



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Three Smart, Suspenseful Movies

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The leaves are settling, the goblins are gone, and you have a bowlful of leftover candy that you convinced yourself you would need for all the trick-or-treaters. Why not sneak those treats into a movie theater and enjoy an evening of intense suspense? I’ve reviewed three gripping new films that will send shivers down your spine. All three contain characters who face demons — of the psychological kind. All three examine the concept of choice and accountability, and all three offer unusual definitions of freedom.

Drew Goddard and Jason Blum are the new masters of suspense, lifting the genre above the slasher model of the ’80s and ’90s and the bloodfests of Quentin Tarantino to return to the psychological suspense dramas that were made in the ’50s and ’60s. Their films are characterized by sophisticated scripts, top quality cinematography and music, and lavish, almost garish, set dressing. After writing and directing 2012’s remarkable The Cabin in the Woods (see our review), Goddard explained, “The horror genre gets you in touch with our primal instincts as a people more than any other genre I can think of. It gives you this chance to sort of reflect on who we are and look at the sort of uglier side that we don't always look at, and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.” His latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is an ensemble piece that does just that, taking us on a dark and stormy night to a hotel as eerie and secretive as Hitchcock’s Bates Motel.

The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us.

The movie begins almost like a stage play; the scene, an oversized hotel room with an unnaturally wide expanse of floorspace in the middle where actors could mingle and emote, fills the screen and is as wide as a stage. A bed sits far stage right and a desk far stage left, with a small couch under the window next to the foot of the bed. A man enters, backlit through the hotel room door. He crosses stage right to the window and looks outside uneasily, then crosses downstage left to deposit his bag and crosses back to the window, where he closes the curtains furtively and finally turns on the light so he can get to work. The motions feel staged and unrealistic. That is their purpose. Nothing is going to be realistic in this movie.

Scene 2 occurs ten years later at the same hotel, circa 1968 (assuming that a particular news item on a black and white TV is meant to be a live broadcast). Several characters are gathering in the once-glamorous lobby of the rundown El Royale Hotel to check in for the night; we assume that at least one of them is related to the action in the opening scene. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who introduces himself as a vacuum cleaner salesman on a junket, displays stereotypically sleazy gaucherie, especially toward Darlene (Cynthia Ervio) a young black woman carrying a bundle of bedrolls. By contrast, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) treats Darlene with genteel manners that may or may not be sincere, offering to carry her luggage to her room for her. The fourth guest (Dakota Johnson) is cool, glamorous, and haughtily aloof to them all as she selects a room far from the rest of the guests.

The El Royale is loosely based on the old Cal-Neva Hotel in Lake Tahoe, whose claim to fame (besides having once been owned by Frank Sinatra) was that the state line ran directly through the lobby. “Would you prefer the warmth and sunshine of the West, or the hope and opportunity of the East?” Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the El Royale’s desk clerk, asks expansively as customers arrive. “California rooms are a dollar extra,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, of course.

Yes, a National Geographic documentary is the scariest movie I have seen in ages.

It’s a significant decision, because choice and chance are important themes in this film, where nothing is as it seems and choosing wisely can be a matter of life and death. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Whom should we trust? What deep secrets are kept at the El Royale, and can the truth set them free? The plot backtracks and restarts numerous times as it is retold through the perspective of the various characters, insisting that our perspectives change too.

Occasional allusions to events that took place in the ’60s become important later in the film. The vintage clothing, automobiles, music, and mid-century furnishings also contribute to the rich Hitchcockean atmosphere. The women are stylish, the men are masculine, the young desk clerk is troubled, and Goddard even kills off a key character just a third of the way into the story, à la Hitch’s main character in Psycho. The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us. Horror might not be your genre, but this film is just about perfect.

Another film in which being off balance can lead to instant death is Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s breathtaking attempt, last year, to become the first person to solo climb the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Yes, a NatGeo doc is the scariest movie I have seen in ages. My heart was pounding and I had to look away from the screen several times as Alex fought to balance on a tiny toehold here, a half-inch protrusion there, making his way up the nearly perpendicular giant — without a rope or parachute. One slip, and he would be dead. In terms of Goddard’s definition of the horror genre, Free Solo reveals the psychological need to “get . . . in touch with . . . primal instincts, . . . [offers a] chance to sort of reflect on who we are . . . and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.”

What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death?

Alex Honnold is, by his own admission, an odd duck. Raised by an emotionally distant father and a mother for whom no accomplishment was ever enough, he notes that he had to teach himself how to hug when he was in college after noticing that hugging was something other people did. He never heard the words “I love you” from his parents. He earns “about as much as a moderately successful dentist,” through sponsorships, books, and speaking engagements, yet he lives in his car, a minivan that he modified to include a small stove, a refrigerator, and a platform bed. He eats his car-cooked meals from the skillet with a spatula.

This background is offered as a kind of psychological answer to the obvious question: What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death? Alex is possessed by personal demons that only seem to leave him when he is enjoying the freedom of the climb. As head cinematographer and co-director Jimmy Chin observes, “You have to be perfect in this sport. It’s like being in the Olympics where you either win the gold medal, or you die.” Dozens of extreme climbers have indeed fallen to their deaths, adding to the suspense of Alex’s pursuit.

In order to successfully ascend the mountain without a rope, soloists must practice repeatedly with ropes and a belaying partner until they know every inch, every crook, every cranny of the face. As Alex trains for the climb, he slips off the face and dangles over the canyon floor — a lot. This adds to our suspense as he finally starts the main adventure. Chin wisely decided to widen the angle of the documentary and include the filmmakers as part of the story, and we see how carefully they, too, prepare to document the feat. They must select the best vantage points along the way, roping into the face with their heavy cameras while remaining out of sight and making sure they don’t interfere, physically or psychologically. Jimmy’s greatest fear isn’t not getting the shot; it’s causing a distraction that might lead to his friend’s death.

The cameramen become our vicarious eyes and hearts. One repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death. I found myself looking away too, willing him to get to the top and end the agony of watching him glide impossibly up the sheer expanse of the mountain.

Despite the agony of suspense, the film is breathtakingly beautiful. The camera work is exquisite, capturing the magnificence of the mountain. It’s matched by the grandeur of the music and the precise choreography of the climb. Alex knows exactly what he is doing; he has memorized all 3,000 feet of the granite precipice. It’s the scariest and most awe-inspiring film I have seen in ages. The look of joy on Alex’s face as he turns to the camera after a particularly grueling section says it all. To quote Drew Goddard again, this kind of horror “lends itself to a sort of freedom” that few of us will ever know.

One crewman repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death.

Our third film is horrifying in that it isn’t fantasy — it’s fiction, yes, but it’s based on true-life experiences of gang life, drug culture, and trigger-happy police officers. The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, tells the story of a family determined to escape by staying put. They reside in a rundown, longstanding black neighborhood, but they send their children to a private school where they have a better chance of getting a good education and, let’s face it, living to adulthood without being sent to prison. Passing by the public high school, the main character, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) tells us in voiceover narration, “That’s where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list. And that’s one of the horrors presented by this film.

Starr must learn to navigate two worlds as she moves between her mostly white school and her mostly black neighborhood. Her school friends play at being cool by listening to rap music, dancing with a cool R&B vibe, and using black slang. But because she is truly black, Starr studiously avoids the vernacular of her black world. She fits in by not joining in. Meanwhile, at home she hangs out with her childhood friends (those who are still alive) while trying to remain safely aloof from the fights and drama that break out between them. She has a complicated relationship with many of the neighborhood kids; “Kenya’s mama had Seven with my daddy, but she’s no relation to me,” she explains to someone at a party.

When a fight breaks out at the party, Starr’s childhood friend and somehow-relation, Khalil (Algee Smith), grabs her hand and drives her to safety — almost. When he is pulled over by a cop (for the egregious crime of changing lanes without signaling) Starr quickly puts both hands on the dashboard as her daddy (Russell Hornsby) has taught his family to do, and frantically urges Khalil to do the same. But Khalil isn’t about to be submissive; with the swagger that comes from knowing you’ve done no wrong, he challenges the police officer. As the confrontation escalates, Khalil is shot and killed. Even though you know it’s going to happen, the moment is shocking, brutal, horrifying.

The public high school is “where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list.

What follows is a fair and complex assessment of all the things that have led to this moment. Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), a black police officer, explains to Starr that cops have to make split-second decisions based on what they see and what they expect. He tells her that he probably would have ordered Khalil out of the car too, in order to keep an eye on him while running his license. Starr listens but then asks, “Would you have told a white business man in a Mercedes to get out of the car?” “Probably not,” he admits.

The message is clear: like Alex Honnold in Free Solo, those who challenge the granite face of the law need to respect the power of the opponent, even when they have a right to be where they are. Keep your hands where they belong and focus on potential risks. The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

Meanwhile, the police try to smear Khalil by painting him as a common drug dealer. “Good riddance,” is the message, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong at the moment he was shot. They want Starr to testify against the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who controls the neighborhood and oversees the violent turf wars (and happens to be her half-brother Seven’s father). While protestors chanting “What do we want? Justice!” at City Hall are being pummeled by tear gas, King is tossing fire bombs at local black businesses that are standing up to his authority. This message is clear too: the problems in the ’hood aren’t black and white, in the racial or the metaphorical sense.

The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

According to rap artist Tupac Shakur, “Thuglife” is an anagram for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything.” One of the common threads in these three films is that children who are traumatized or neglected often grow up to commit traumatic or traumatizing acts. The Hate U Give offers much to think about as we figure out how to solve the problems in our urban neighborhoods, beginning with the public school system that acts as a racial boundary and the drug laws that act as a direct pathway to easy money followed by death or prison. That is true horror, in ways beyond anything we ever see on Halloween.

Bad Times at the El Royale, directed by Drew Goddard. Twentieth Century Fox, 2018, 141 minutes.

Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. National Geographic, 2018, 100 minutes.

The Hate U Give directed by George Tillman Jr. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2018, 133 minutes.




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Beauty’s in the Eye of the State

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For propaganda scholars, Nazi propaganda is especially fascinating. This is because of its intensity, its virulence (i.e., its emotional manipulative power), and its coordinated use of all the media of persuasion. That is, while most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines — the Soviet Union, England and America in the world wars, and contemporary communist cum fascist China come to mind — few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did. Only the Soviet Union and Communist China approached this level. All German media — radio, books, newspapers and magazines, movies, painting and sculpture, theater, and so on — were controlled by the regime, and employed to spread its ideology and create support for its power and its policies.

The films I want to briefly review here are two recent documentaries about an interesting Nazi propaganda film. The original propaganda film — at about 30 minutes, really a “short” — introduced the German public to a new youth organization meant to inculcate Nazi values in young women. It was made in 1938 and intended for release in 1939. This original propaganda short was about the Belief (in the sense of “Faith”) and Beauty Society. It is the subject of these two recent documentaries, both conveniently available on one disk, and both with English voiceovers. (The original 1938 film is not on the disk in its entirety, perhaps because no good prints of it remain).

While most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines, few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did.

The first (shorter) recent documentary, is entitled The BDM Movement — Belief and Beauty: The Education of 17 to 21 Year Old Girls in the Third Reich. It runs 50 minutes, and appears to have been made in 2006. The second — included in the disk’s “Bonus Materials” — is entitled Zest for Life and Physical Joy. It runs 30 minutes, and is labeled as having been produced in 2008. Both are brought to us by the filmmaking company ZeitReisen Verlag, credited to Marc Meyer zu Hartum, and edited by Ralf Oltersdorf. They were translated into English by Chris Crawford, with an English narration by Elisa Moolecherry.

I want, first, to give a short historical introduction to the general background of this realm of Nazi propaganda. I will then present a brief review of the shorter documentary (Zest for Life and Physical Joy), and explain how it differs from the longer one. I will finish by raising two questions about these documentaries.

Let’s start with the regime’s use of youth groups as a powerful mechanism of propaganda.

Hitler’s propaganda machine was mindful of the crucial role of society’s “mediating structures” — family, schools, churches, sports clubs, unions, and so on — in molding people’s minds. But the regime put a special focus on youth organizations. It realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself. This was nothing new in world history; recall the Jesuit propagandist and missionary St. Francis Xavier, who allegedly said: "Give me the child until he is seven and I'll give you the man."

The regime realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself.

In particular, the Nazi Party from its founding understood the importance of youth organizations. The Boy Scouts were established in Britain in 1909 and spread rapidly around the world — including Germany. As early as 1922 the nascent National Socialists had an ancillary youth arm, which grew as the party grew. By early 1933, the main regime youth organization, the Hitler Youth, had 100,000 members. And by the end of the year it had two million members.

Besides building their own enormous youth groups, the Party worked to eliminate other such groups. It first banned youth organizations allied with other political parties, such as the Communists. By the end of 1936, the regime banned the International Boy Scouts and all other youth organizations, and made joining the Hitler Youth mandatory (except for Jewish children, who were of course banned). That year it grew to four million members. By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

The Hitler Youth enrolled children from 10 to 18 years and had separate divisions for boys and girls. For boys aged 6 to 10, there was the Little Fellows organization. They mainly just hiked and camped. For boys aged 10 to 12, there was the German Young People (Deutsches Jungvolk). Here the boys moved from just camping to marching in unison and map reading. Finally, boys aged 13 to 18 went into the Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) proper. Here the emphasis was on military preparedness.

By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

Girls at age 10 joined the League of Young Girls (Jungmädelbund), and at age 14 transferred to the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel, or BDM). Its focus was on physical fitness and personal hygiene. Specific goals included being able to run 60 meters in 14 seconds, march for two hours, swim 100 meters, and be able to make a bed. From ages 17 to 21, the girls could volunteer to join the BDM Belief and Beauty Society (BDM-Werk ‘Glaube und Schönheit’). As adults, the women could then join the National Socialist Women’s League.

The youth organizations shared several general goals. Their first general goal — indeed, the main one — was of instilling support for the regime. This included developing a cultish adoration for the Fuehrer. This was the Fuehrer-Prinzip, or Leader Principle, under which Hitler was seen not just as the leader but as the nation incarnate and the paragon of all Aryan virtue. Moreover, the Hitler Youth children had explicit lessons in German racial theory. For example, as I have noted elsewhere (“Selling Genocide II: The Later Films,” Reason Papers 39.1 (2017) 97-123)., Hitler Youth had to watch the vicious anti-Semitic screed The Eternal Jew at their meetings.

It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

But another general purpose was to create a kind of para-familial mechanism to counterbalance and police the family itself. Just as the Waffen SS was a paramilitary organization that fought alongside the regular Wehrmacht (traditional military) and also monitored and balanced it, so the Hitler Youth organization worked alongside the family to raise the children, while also monitoring it. It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

The third general purpose was to push physical fitness, preparing the children physically for being proper Nazi citizens. For the boys, this started out as rigorous physical play and exercise, military drill. But with the outbreak of war in 1939, the amount of military training the older boys underwent increased dramatically. It included grenade-throwing, digging trenches and foxholes, gas defense, handling barbed wire, and gaining proficiency in small arms. By 1943, all boys 17 and older were conscripted into the military. By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught. Boys were moving directly from the Hitler Youth to the battlefield, and were in essence suicide squadrons. Ill-prepared for actual combat, they were often easy kills. (An excellent film exploring the use of Hitler Youth as cannon-fodder is Die Brucke [The Bridge], a 1959 West German movie based upon a real event, in which a group of conscripted 16-year-old schoolboys dies defending an unimportant bridge.)

For the girls, the focus was on physical health (fitness and hygiene), to prepare them not for combat but for their ideologically ideal role as Aryan wives and mothers. Truth be told, the ideal roles were in reverse order: mothers, preferably married, but in any case mothers . . . mothers of more Aryans, which is to say, more fighters to advance the great Aryan will to power. As Dr. Jutta Ruediger, leader of the League of German Girls (starting in 1937) put it, “The task of our girl’s league is to raise our girls as torch bearers of the nationalist socialist world. We need girls who are at harmony between their bodies, souls and spirits. And we need girls who, through healthy bodies and balanced minds, embody the beauty of divine creation. We want to raise girls who believe in Germany and our leader, and who will pass these beliefs on to their future children.”

By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught.

It was to propagandize this ideal that the Belief and Beauty Society was created. It was set up in 1938 by the National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach. The society’s education was built around a school of gymnastics, created by Hinrich Medau — the Medau Gymnastics School. The Medau school — to put it in simplistic terms — more or less melded gymnastic workout with organized dance moves. For those of you old enough to know about two legendary gentlemen, the first an early advocate of gym workouts and the latter an early movie choreographer: imagine Jack LaLanne combined with Busby Berkeley. The Belief and Beauty Society focused on women’s obligations, fashion, and motherhood. It developed feminine sports and dancing, home economics, and education in the arts, music, and of course politics.

Let’s now briefly summarize A Zest for Life and Physical Joy. The introduction explains the history of the Belief and Beauty Society. The narrator notes that the society originally had eleven “work groups,” each designed to appeal to the interests of girls, with the idea that each girl joining the society could pick one that interested her particularly.

The narrator notes that the 1938 film was produced to show young women the various things the society had to offer. She also tells us that the head of the society, Clementine zu Castell, got Leni Riefenstahl’s main cameraman Hans Ertl to make the movie, which was filmed around in and around Munich, in areas familiar to Ertl from his earlier work filming Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics.

We see the young women making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.”

We then see footage from the original film. It opens with the symbol of the society, and we listen of the score by Hans-Joachim Sobanski. Then appears a group of girls running down steps dressed in shorts and T-shirts. Carrying large gym balls, they quickly form a line and dance in a circle, where they work out in unison, tossing the balls. We see some of them doing Olympic-style events: such as javelin and discus throwing, sprinting, and so on.

The original film cuts to footage of a young woman preparing food, while a narrator notes that the BDM helps girls acquire such skills through home economics courses. We watch them practice setting tables and weaving. We see them making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.” We watch as some of the girls model what they made, to the applause of the other BDM members (in their uniforms).

Next up are girls sculpting figures, as the narrator tells us that the society advances the girls’ knowledge of culture and the arts. We move to interior design, where the announcer tells us, “The modern girl should be educated about tidy living early on. She will have to know this prior to getting married.”

We cut to girls in their uniforms marching and singing along a lakeshore. As chickens scatter, the girls march into a farming village. The narrator tells us that girls from the city work closely with the country girls and celebrate the end of the day with a nice swim.

The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.”

Then there are girls who are into equestrian activities. The announcer tells us that no longer is riding just for the privileged; girls of all backgrounds can now “enjoy this wonderful sport.” We watch the young women engaged in competitive rowing, after which the film turns to the “health service group,” wherein young women are taught how to help those who are sick or injured. The instructors are doctors, we are told. Olympic swimming is another group the girls can join, along with diving and fencing. Also there are synchronized gymnastics for “happy girls of our great time.” We watch as young women twirl hoops, work with Indian clubs, and march in unison wearing white dresses.

There the original film seems to end, but the documentary continues, showing footage of the Medau School of rhythm gymnastics, which we learn was made popular by Hinrich Medau in Germany in the 1920s. The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.” While we watch girls in very short white frocks with bikini briefs dance in unison, we are told about Medau’s life.

The narrator adds that while putting together this documentary, footage was discovered that was not in the original propaganda film. We see the women “moving organically” — hopping, skipping and prancing in unison, and then using the gym balls. The film notes that performances of the Medau routines were given during the 1936 Olympics. We discover also that National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach saw an exhibition while visiting England in 1937. When he returned to Germany, he was able to enlist Medau’s support for the BDM society. But then the war expanded to become a world war. The Medau School continued in Berlin despite the bombings, but had to move to Breslau in 1945 when its headquarters were bombed. Shortly thereafter it closed. In 1948, however, it reappeared, and in 1952, moved to its permanent new home in Coburg, where it continues to this day. The film ends with footage of various dance routines.

The women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release.

The longer recent documentary about the original 1938 film includes most or all of the footage of the shorter one just discussed, with the same score. The longer version discusses more of the whole youth movement. It also includes extended 20th-century interviews with key players. We hear from Dr. Jutta Ruediger and Clementine zu Castell, about how they were recruited to run this movement, and from Hanna Lincke and Hannelou Canzler (Koenigsberg leaders of the BDM). Ruediger describes how Medau worked to stage the girls for Ertl, and the narrator gives us more information about the groups within the society. These women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release as scheduled in October 1939. But this film too ends abruptly, with a note that the society was disbanded at the end of the war in 1945.

Despite their abrupt and somewhat inconsequential endings, these documentaries about an obscure but interesting propaganda short raise two important issues.

First, in neither of them are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why? We are told how wonderful the Medau school of synchronized gymnastics was, and how wonderfully poised and attractive the girls in it became. But what about the wider role their work played in instilling Nazi ideology in the girls, i.e., as enablers and supporters of it?

Second, why was the polished and visually interesting short documentary, filmed by Riefenstahl’s cinematographer and in her style, never released in October 1939 — never in fact released at all?

It’s an interesting puzzle. This was a film which presented “Aryan” young women are poised, fit, slim, and sexy — in a somewhat distantly anatomical way — and the presentation seems reasonably successful. It conveys what seems to have been the regime’s paragon of German womanhood. Yet the regime refused to release it. Warum?

At no point are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why?

Every reader is invited to speculate. For what it’s worth, my speculation is this. The movie was made in 1938, for release in 1939. But in 1939, war broke out — actual war, not warlike but costless conquests (of Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the 1938 capitulation by Britain and France of Czechoslovakia) that Hitler enjoyed from 1933 to 1938. It apparently surprised Hitler that England and France, who had been so compliant with his prior demands, declared war upon his invasion of Poland.

At this point, Hitler’s nation had about 87 million inhabitants, counting those of its possessions, and was facing Poland, France, Britain, and Britain’s English-speaking colonies, with a total of about 160 million inhabitants. My suspicion is that the regime realized in 1939 it would be dramatically undermanned. It probably drew the reasonable conclusion that German women would have to assume more active roles (as doctors, nurses, construction workers, industrial workers, and so on) than those of subservient mothers. Goebbels canceled the movie.

But you can see it analyzed now, and enjoy (if that is the right word) the insight it offers into an all-encompassing propaganda state. Ultimately, it shows how a police state such as the Nazi regime put great effort into controlling reproduction itself for state goals. In the case of the Nazis, the clear aim was to get girls prepared to reproduce rapidly, so that the “non-Aryans” — especially in the East — could be rapidly replaced by Aryans.


Editor's Note: Review of "Belief & Beauty — The History of the Nazi BDM Movement (Glaube & Schonheit)." 50 mins + 30 Mins, 2006, International Historic Films.



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