Friday, September 30, 2016

September Cultural Roundup

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri


Birth of a Nation (U.S., 2016)
Transparent - Season 3 (U.S., 2016)
Jacki(U.K., 2016)
Paris Can Wait (U.S., 2016)
Neruda (Chile/Argentina/Spain/France, 2016)
Snowden (U.S., 2016) 
In Dubious Battle (U.S., 2016) 
Amanda Knox (U.S./Denmark, 2016)

Monday, September 12, 2016

In Defense of Beauty and Artifice

Natalie Portman (as Jackie) and Jackie Kennedy
Jackie (U.K., 2016) directed by Pablo Larrain, 95 minutes

The film, a biopic about the First Lady Jackie Kennedy, widow of JFK, specifically covers the period directly following the assassination of JFK. But it is more than that - it is an argument for the value of beauty and artifice in a troubled and unhappy world with the invention of the concept of the JFK presidency as a sort of Camelot first proposed by Jackie Kennedy herself. She was ideally suited for this - seemingly handpicked by Jack Kennedy for her beauty, her style and appreciation of arts and culture to add a dimension of sophistication to a previously lacklustre White House formerly peopled by the down home (and homely) Eisenhowers.

Jackie Kennedy, portrayed by the transcendentally beautiful and talented Natalie Portman, meets the Journalist (Billy Crudup) who is clearly meant to represent Theodore White (although he is unnamed here). Jackie had invited White to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis on the weekend following the assassination for an interview which was to become the basis of a Life magazine essay, dedicated to JFK, on December 3, 1963. 

The meeting depicted here is oddly hostile (if accurate) - she is cold, he is at times withering and unsympathetic, bordering on rude considering that she has just lost her husband in the most horrific manner imaginable. It was in this conversation that Jackie Kennedy suggested the image of the presidency of a sort of Camelot for Americans. (Later White appeared to resent being ensnared in presenting this sentimental metaphor.) James Pierson wrote a cogent piece on this on the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013.

The film shifts from the "present" (a week in November 1963 following the assassination) and the "past" (Jackie featured in the first televised tour of the White House in 1961). Initially, I thought it an odd juxtaposition but it appears shrewd and the heart of the film's premise as Jackie was used (or chose to present herself) as a symbol of a new sort of Presidency - modern, sophisticated, cultured - and this extended beyond JFK's presidency well into his death, his funeral, and for decades afterward.

A complicated image of Jackie emerges in the film: cynically accepting of JFK's dalliances but clearly very much in love with him; carefully manipulative of her public image (refusing to allow the Journalist to record that she smokes and other minor peccadilloes that might besmear her ladylike, upper crust image); tough and determined not to be be bullied by LBJ's minions in the aftermath of the assassination; persistent to the point of angrily aggressive in formulating the funeral plans that followed; and, more poignantly, drunkenly floating her way through the private residence of the White House dressed in the glamorous gowns she wore as First Lady, with strains of Camelot blaring in the background.

Jackie defied the Kennedy family in having JFK buried with the rest of the family rather than at Arlington with military heroes. She resisted LBJ's people who insisted on a safe, less exposed route to the funeral. She modelled the funeral on Abraham Lincoln's funeral who, it appears, was very much on her mind as First Lady.

The director Pablo Larrain re-enacts the 1961 White House tour (lead by Mrs. John F. Kennedy) with a specific focus on Jackie's interest in Lincoln and his spouse Mary Todd Lincoln. She repeatedly highlights the American historical artifacts and art that promote the value of these piece, emphasizing that these are equal to, or superior to, European art. During the tour (which may be viewed here in its entirety), Jackie, in her whispery, vaguely babyish voice, emphasized that Mary Todd was left destitute upon Lincoln's death and had to resort to selling the furniture bought when she redecorated the White House in 1861. She was reprimanded for her extravagances by her husband (wink wink to the modern viewer as Jackie was sometimes accused of the same). Jackie had made a point of retrieving the furniture purchased by Mary Todd and bringing it back to the White House. She opens the cameras to the Lincoln bedroom, his office (used as an anteroom for Jack Kennedy), and shows a snippet of wallpaper from the room where he was carried to after being shot and died. 

Pallbearers bore the casket of JFK to the East Room where the body of Abraham Lincoln also had lain a hundred years before. She chose the draping of the coffin borne by a single horse drawn carriage and that the mourners should walk to Arlington National Cemetery based on the Lincoln funeral procession. She chose to publicly include the children in the ceremony and to wear a traditional veil some might argue to bolster a heroic image, to create pathos and an historical comparison to the greatness of the Lincoln presidency. She knew the value of pomp and ceremony - she knew the value of beauty and artifice to soothe a republic in crisis. For the America of November 22, 1963 was a broken and wounded thing and she sought to heal it, for personal reasons no doubt but also to protect the legacy that she and Jack Kennedy sought to build. 

She knew the value of her role - if the comparison to Camelot and to the legacy of Lincoln was a myth, a beautiful mirage, it was a potent one that would sustain the nation. Jackie was well versed in playing the partner of an important and consequential man. She had been doing so since her first days as JFK's bride, and then wife and First Lady, at great personal cost.  

If his (and her) sacrifice had not been significant, what, then, had it been for? 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Birth of a Revelation

Birth of a Nation (U.S., 2016) directed by Nate Parker, 120 minutes

This year, for the first time in many years, I vowed that I would do something other than review the TIFF films I've seen. My thoughts were that I would write a short essay relating to themes about the films themselves. We could not have started the film festival with a bigger bang - Birth of a Nation - directed by Nate Parker.

This film is, undoubtedly, a substantial and important piece of cinematic art, by a relatively unknown entity. It is rare that the slow holocaust, which slave ownership in the Americas represents, has been documented by a black artist (with the notable exception of Steve McQueen's 2013 film 12 Years a Slave). Parker is a triple threat - he wrote, directed, and starred as Nat Turner, the leader of the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia.  

Parker was astute enough to coop the name of the most famous pro-KKK film of all time by D.W. Griffith's, a silent film masterpiece, clouded with its own controversy. Who could forget the image of the "heroic" KKK riding to the rescue of the imperilled Southern whites at the end of the film? 

Now we learn, with shock and revulsion, after our initial excitement about this new film that there was another imperilled individual at the centre of the film's controversial reception - the alleged 1999 rape of Parker's classmate at Penn State. It gets more complicated. The alleged co-assailant was Jean Celestin who co-wrote the screenplay for Birth. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. The charge against Celestin was overturned some years later when a judge ruled his trial attorney was ineffective in his defense. 

I won't enumerate the details too closely here. They are easily accessed. The actions of the two men, during, and immediately after, were sordid and very disturbing and many would say completely inexcusable. How to reconcile this with the raw and beautiful and horrifyingly detailed film we saw? 

The depiction of slavery in the film is vivid - perhaps too vivid for some - the relentless lynchings for minor transgressions, the frequent beatings of slaves, the forced feeding of slaves who refused to eat, the rape of slave women, the sexual exploitation of female children, the on-going terrorization and persecution, the dehumanization. It's all there ... sadly it builds to a righteous crescendo for the film viewer. We witness the daily indignities and horrors that the slave Nat Turner endures until it reaches an unstoppable breaking point leading to the rebellion which lasted for 48 hours and lead to the massacre of 60 odd members of slave holding families (including his own “master” Sam Turner) as well as the killing of many more blacks - free and slave - by vindictive white forces after the rebellion is quelled.

But it s not merely the ugliness that is depicted so well ... it is the beauty of a slave mother's love for her son, for that son's love for his grandmother, the love between husband and wife, the joy expressed at a "wedding" between two slaves who clearly adore each other (Colman Domingo and Gabrielle Union), the care with which the tortured, whipped son (Parker) is administered by his family and clan. Parker captures it all. The rage, the love, the courage, the indignity, the bravery, the sense of community, the wasted human potential and talent. 


What does a sentient being with progressive views do with this information about Parker? What did we do when we learned of Roman Polanski's rape of a thirteen year old in the 1970s? (“It was a different time,” some say with sage nod.) Or the allegations surrounding Woody Allen's molestation of his adopted daughter Dylan? For many admirers (myself amongst them), we did nothing. Or  - in a different artistic field – how did we process the information of Pablo Picasso's brutal physical treatment of the women in his life? Or Miles Davis?

Largely, we continued to watch (and praise) their films, admire their art and music. Perhaps we did so with a troubled consciousness. Does it matter if they are long dead like Picasso or Davis? If I go to a Picasso exhibit or listen to a Miles Davis CD - do they profit from this? Or only in terms of the respect they still retain in the artistic community? If I attend a Woody Allen movie, he certainly does profit in a manner that Picasso does not. 

Roxane Gay, a prominent black feminist whom I respect a great deal, wrote a convincing opinion piece called "Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy" in the NYT to the effect that she cannot separate the artist from the art and won't be seeing the film.  Nor can I at times if I am honest. Parker, unfortunately, will be imbedded in my consciousness as the talented director/likely rapist. I was conflicted about how to proceed and how much to support the film.

It gets messier: the alleged assailants are both black, the victim white. Some Penn students claimed that “Jennifer” (a name given to her to mask her identity) was ashamed that she had had sex with a black man and made up the rape accusations. If she did, she paid a very heavy price for that lie.

Arguments against supporting Parker are both factual and emotional: he did have sex with “Jennifer”, a woman who was intoxicated at the time. She claims she did not give consent, he says she did. We have a very different idea of consent to sexual intercourse today than we had in 1999. He is alleged to have “invited” other classmates to join in – one did (Celestin), one did not (Penn classmate Tamerlane Kangas who quickly left the scene according to testimony). Parker and Celestin, as well as others, were alleged to have harassed the young woman after she pressed charges. The woman eventually was so distraught that she left school and years of instability and depression followed ending in her suicide in 2012. Is Parker accountable for this?

On the other side of the argument: the charges were seventeen years ago and he was acquitted. How long should he pay for this crime, if indeed it was a crime? Today, he seems genuinely penitent but does not deny what he did. One of his co-stars, the actress Gabrielle Union who herself has been a victim of sexual assault, has spoken out to defend him in that she believes that he recognizes the magnitude of his actions and believes that he is a changed person – now a married man with his own daughters.

Then there is the matter of the seriousness and quality of the art he has produced. Should it disappear into oblivion because of what he did? It is historically important, beautifully constructed and we are presently in a virtual desert of works by black artists in the cinematic mainstream. Does that count for something? 

I saw the film, not because I don’t believe Jennifer’s allegations are false. I believe they are likely true. I am just uncertain that, henceforth, I must now avoid, discount, disregard, everything that Parker produces as an artist.

For some there is a compromise – see the film by illegal means so that he does not profit from it. See it because it is an important piece of history to remember. It is beautiful and painful and essential to understanding the American psyche. That’s right … I am advising you to commit a crime, to avoid rewarding a man who likely committed a serious crime where the end result was that an innocent woman killed herself.