Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

The title character in Juliet of the Spirits begins to suspect her husband is cheating on her, so she hires a private detective, who confirms that he is having an affair. However, she is trapped in the marriage because she loves her husband so much that she is afraid he will leave her. But her real problem is that she is trapped in a Federico Fellini movie for over two hours, which was produced under the assumption that if you have a lot of strange people in a movie saying weird things, and then fill the movie with all kinds of symbolic stuff, people will think it is profound and deep. She thinks that it is better to have a husband who does not love her and who cheats on her than to have no husband at all. And I guess she believes it is better to be in a Fellini movie than no movie at all. Wrong on both counts.

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Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

The title character in Diary of a Country Priest is in ill health. He cuts out all meat and vegetables from his diet, which consists of wine with sugar in it and stale bread. So we wonder, Is he unable to eat because he is sick, or is he sick because he does not eat? Another priest tries to get him to eat more, but to no avail. At one point in the movie, he sees God. It made me think of Bertrand Russell’s remark to the effect that one man will get drunk and see pink elephants, while another will fast for a week and see God: both are abnormal perceptions arising from an abnormal physiology. We wonder why he does not go to a doctor, and finally he does. It is stomach cancer. He dies.

Sands of the Kalahari (1965)

When I first saw Sands of the Kalahari, I figured it was inspired by Robert Audrey’s African Genesis:  A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man.  Audrey made the case that man had evolved from Australopithecus africanus, a violent, murderous primate.  His book soon became all the rage.  However, African Genesis was published in 1961, whereas the novel, The Sands of the Kalahari by William Patrick Mulvihill, was published in 1960.  On the other hand, the theory that man had evolved from killer apes had originally been proposed by Raymond Dart.  Audrey interviewed Dart and wrote an article about Dart’s theories in The Reporter in 1955, so perhaps that was Mulvihill’s inspiration after all.

In the movie, a group of passengers are on a small airplane that crashes in the middle of the desert in southern Africa.  They manage to find shelter, water, and food in a mountainous area, which also is inhabited by a troop of baboons.  One of the characters, O’Brian (Stuart Whitman), who has a hunting rifle, decides that his chances of survival will improve if he wipes out the competition, which includes not only the baboons, but also the other survivors, except for Grace (Susannah York), who also functions as something worth competing for.

One of the men he runs off manages to cross the desert and make it to civilization.  He returns in a helicopter to rescue those who have survived, but O’Brian refuses to go with them, presumably because he would be tried for murder.  He eventually runs out of bullets.  As the baboons become more menacing, he decides to fight their leader with only his bare hands, eventually killing the baboon with a rock he managed to grab.  Earlier in the movie, the point had been made that the leader of the troop was the one that got first access to all the females.  After he kills his foe, other baboons begin to approach in a manner suggesting that they recognize him as their new leader.  In fact, we suspect the approaching baboons are females.  Will O’Brian indulge?  The second time I saw this movie was on the Late Show.  As the female baboons closed in around O’Brian, some joker in the television studio played the Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell.  For that matter, before Tarzan met Jane, did he indulge?

The movie is a little dated now. When it first came out, the idea that man was a killer ape was new.  As a result, the author of the screenplay probably felt it necessary to have several characters drive home the point that man is in many ways like the baboons. Today, when the expression “alpha male” has become commonplace, if not trite, such repetitive, explicit comparisons to the baboons now seem overdone. Also, since the group has plenty of water, food, and shelter, the idea that several of them, and not just O’Brian, would start thinking and acting like baboons after only two days is a stretch.

Contact (1997)

Long before the movie Contact was produced, I had known people who made some sort of connection between intelligent life on other planets and the existence of God.  Maybe that is not quite right.  It’s hard to say exactly, because no one ever presented the connection as a valid argument, consisting of premises about extraterrestrial beings and ending with the conclusion that God exists.  No such argument was ever forthcoming, because it would have been palpably absurd on its face, even to them.  Instead, they just seemed to feel that the existence of aliens had religious significance, but they could never quite to bring themselves to spell it out.

Apparently, it was people just like that who made Contact.  The movie is mainly about making contact with extraterrestrials through the transmission of signals through space, but religious stuff keeps showing up, not because there is any logical connection between the two, but simply because some people seem to feel that connection, even though that feeling never seems to rise to the level of coherent thought.  Mostly what we get is the association of ideas.

For example, Jodie Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer.  When Ellie was a young girl, she had a ham radio.  At one point, she asks her father if she can contact her deceased mother through her radio.  And after her father dies, she tries to contact him through her radio.  So an association is made between radio transmissions and life after death.  We regard this as merely a child’s desperate hope of finding her parents again, which would be just fine as a stand-alone scene.  But further such childlike associations recur throughout the movie.

While listening for signals from outer space in Puerto Rico, she meets Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who is an almost-priest whose spirituality expresses itself as a concern for human values that he believes are being jeopardized by technology.  Ellie and Palmer have sex, and in the afterglow, during a little pillow talk, he says:  “So I was lying there, just looking at the sky. And then I felt something. I don’t know. All I know is that I wasn’t alone. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of nothing, not even dying. It was God.”

There it is in a nutshell:  He looks up at the sky; he has a feeling of the sublime; so there must be a God.

By this time in her life, Ellie has become an atheist.  She says, “And there’s no chance that you had this experience because some part of you needed to have it?”

Her remark is to the point, of course.  Most people have a religious need.  That need is satisfied by whatever their parents told them when they were little children, and that suffices for life.  If they lose their faith in the teachings of childhood, their religious need will manifest itself in something else, sooner or later.  But some people have no religious need at all.  They simply quit believing whatever they were raised to believe, and nothing ever takes its place.  They look up at the sky, and all they see are stars.  If they think about life on other planets, it inspires no religious awe.

As a way of forestalling rational objections, Palmer says, “I’m a reasonably intelligent guy, but this…. My intellect couldn’t even touch this.”

And that’s the end of that.  His epiphany transcended such things as reason and common sense, so it cannot be questioned.

Later in the movie, when the world finds out that signals from the vicinity of the relatively close star Vega show signs of intelligent life, we are informed that attendance at religious services has risen.  And we see Robert Novak on Crossfire saying, “Even a scientist must admit there are some pretty serious religious overtones to all this.”

It would be tedious for me to object to every piece of poppycock in this movie, but I cannot let this one pass.  A lot of religious people believe that intelligent life on this planet can be explained only if there is a God.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, there being another planet with intelligent life on it is no big deal.  What God did once, he could easily do again.  On the other hand, atheists believe that evolution can completely explain intelligent life on this planet.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, evolution could just as easily produce intelligent life on another planet as it did on this one.  In either event, one more planet is just one more planet.

Ellie and Palmer get into a debate about the existence of God.  She appeals to the principle of Occam’s razor:  “Occam’s Razor is a basic scientific principle which says: Things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be right. So what’s more likely? An all-powerful God created the universe, then decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or that he doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t feel so small and alone.”

Palmer says he would not want to live in a world where God does not exist.  Ellie, in turn, says she would need proof.  Palmer asks her if she can prove that her father loved her.  She is stumped.

Anyway, it turns out that the aliens have sent us schematics for building a transportation machine that will allow someone from Earth to visit that planet orbiting Vega.  After a lot of paranoid politics and neo-luddite terrorism, Ellie gets to go.  She zips through a wormhole and ends up in a world based on what is in her mind, memories of a beach in Pensacola and of her father.  The alien who has taken on the image of her father explains everything to her, how lots of civilizations from different planets have interacted this way.  Ellie wants to know why more people from Earth can’t see what she’s seen.  The alien answers, “This is the way it’s been done for billions of years.”

In other words, this advanced civilization does not ask why things have to be this way, even though the original civilization that set things up has long since disappeared, and so Ellie shouldn’t ask why either.  Does that not smack of the same sort of answer people give when they defend some feature of their religion they cannot justify?  This is just one of the ways in which a connection is being established between the aliens and religion.  We are not supposed to question the ways of God, and we are not supposed to question the ways of the aliens.

When Ellie gets back, it turns that while she has been gone for eighteen hours by her time, only a split second has passed here on Earth.  This is the reverse of the usual twin paradox, in which more time passes for the people on Earth than it does for the astronaut traveling at speeds near that of light, but the reason for this anomaly soon becomes clear.  It is so that her story can be doubted.  Because she ostensibly was only gone for a split second, a lot people don’t believe her story about what happened.  In particular, Michael Kitz (James Woods), who is sort of the villain of the piece, calls her story into question.  He says she just hallucinated it, that the whole thing is a hoax.  He demands that Ellie produce proof, and she cannot.  He indignantly asks if we are supposed to accept her story on faith.

Now Ellie is in the position of someone who believes in God but cannot prove it.  And now we know why the aliens demanded that just one person go on that trip to Vega instead of the Vegans coming to Earth.  In that case, everyone would have seen the aliens on television.  There would have been no doubt as to their existence.  But this way, the aliens recapitulate the objection that Ellie had earlier, that God did not leave proof of his existence.  So all the objections earlier enunciated by Ellie about God are turned against her with respect to the aliens.  Ellie’s response to these objections harks back to the mystical experience Palmer had while stargazing, almost a beatific vision.

For those of you who are inclined to infuse the existence aliens from other planets with religious significance, this movie is for you.  For those of you who have no need of religion, this movie will make you feel like an alien from another planet.

The Ledge (2011)

The Ledge is a good example of what happens when a story is made to fit the Procrustean bed of a preconceived philosophical dilemma.  Actually, make that a preconceived sophomoric philosophical dilemma.  The result is that characters in this movie find themselves in situations that would never really happen, and even if they did, they do things that no one would ever do, and even if someone was dumb enough to do these things, we wouldn’t care, because no one cares what happens to people that stupid.

The movie has two plots, and the principal characters of each intersect on the ledge of a skyscraper, where one man, Gavin, is about to jump, and another man, Hollis, is a detective trying to talk him out of it.  The movie begins with the Hollis-plot.  Hollis goes to a fertility clinic to donate some sperm, whereupon he finds out that he is sterile owing to a genetic defect, and has been so all his life.  This means that the two children his wife had were not his.  As we find out through subsequent scenes interspersed with the Gavin-plot, Hollis and his wife were wondering why they could not have children.  So, they went to a fertility clinic to be tested.  His wife Angela went by herself to get the results, at which point she found out that Hollis was sterile.

Get ready for some unbelievable stupidity.  First, Angela did not tell Hollis, because she was afraid she would lose him.  In other words, we are to believe that she thought that once he found out that he was sterile, he would no longer love her.  All I can say is that any man who would stop loving his wife because he found out that he was sterile is a husband worth being rid of.  But the whole thing is preposterous.  Couples go to fertility clinics all the time, and when one of them turns out to be infertile, they have all sorts of choices available to them, such as adoption, surrogate mothers, or in vitro fertilization, but divorce is not usually one of them.

Second, if you can get past that, here is another stupidity.  Angela decided to have children anyway, and to make sure they looked like Hollis, she decided that Hollis’s brother should be the father.  So, she had Hollis’s brother go to the fertility clinic to be tested to see if he has the same genetic defect, right?  And when it turned out that he was fertile, she had him donate sperm so that she could be artificially inseminated, right?  Wrong!  She had an adulterous affair with Hollis’s brother until she got pregnant.  And that worked out so well that when she was ready to have a second child, she started having sex with him again.

All right, let’s move on to the Gavin-plot.  Gavin hires Shana at the hotel he manages.  She and her husband Joe just happen to live on the same floor of a nearby apartment.  Joe is a Christian fundamentalist to an absurd degree, whereas Gavin is an atheist.  Joe finds out that Gavin and Shana are having an affair.  He calls Gavin on the phone and tells him that either Gavin or Shana must die for having committed adultery.  If Gavin does not jump off the ledge of the skyscraper by noon, Joe will shoot Shana.  Joe says he has the courage to die for his beliefs.  This test will determine whether Gavin has the courage to die for his beliefs.  Actually, if he jumps, Gavin will not be dying for his beliefs, but to save the life of the woman he loves.  But by this point, the whole idea is so dumb that we don’t really care. Anyway, at noon Gavin leaps to his death, and that is so dumb we don’t really care either.  After all, any normal person would have simply called the police and told them what the situation was.

There is a subplot about Gavin’s roommate Chris.  Gavin took pity on Chris and let him move in with him when he lost his job on account of being HIV positive.  Chris has a lover whom he wishes to marry, but the rabbi won’t perform the ceremony.  Therefore, religion, be it Christianity or Judaism, is shown to be bad.  Atheism, on the other hand, is shown to be good.  There is a ludicrous scene where a maid in the hotel finds out her father died and becomes hysterical, and Gavin gets down on his knees and pretends to pray to God to save her father.  That is so we will think him magnanimous.  And when Gavin leaps to his death to save the woman he loves, knowing there is no afterlife, that is supposed to prove just how noble he is.

To an atheist like me, you might think that The Ledge would be refreshing, considering all the movies that have portrayed atheists in a bad light.  But the movie was too lopsided and simplistic to be of any value, either intellectually or aesthetically.

After it is all over, Hollis goes home, intent on reconciling with his wife and accepting her children as his.  Angela wants to say grace, but Hollis says, “No, not tonight.”  The idea is that he’s had all the religion he can stand for one day.  However, they will presumably say grace in the future.  As to whether they will be having Hollis’s brother over for dinner any time soon, I cannot say.

Boomerang! (1947)

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction.  And indeed, there are stories that would be unbelievable if presented as a work of fiction, but succeed because they are based on a true story.  It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that movies are better when they are based on something that really happened rather than based on nothing more than a writer’s imagination.  And this is because whereas a work of fiction can be structured so that everything is satisfactorily resolved by the end, reality is often messy and incomplete.

Boomerang! is a good example of that.  It was made during a period in which filmmakers were on a realism kick, wanting to make movies based on true stories and filmed on location.  It begins with a Reed Hadley, semi-documentary, Louis de Rochemont style of narration:  “The basic facts of our story actually occurred in a Connecticut community much like this one.”

Hadley’s narration accompanies us through the murder of Father Lambert and the outrage on the part of the citizens of the community.  But then we have a flashback of sorts, in which we see Father Lambert dealing with two different men, as narrated by Hadley:  “Since he was a man of God, his labors sometimes led him into the strange and secret places of men’s souls. He was just and forgiving, but he was also a man and a stern and uncompromising judge of character.”  The first man, we later find out, is John Waldron, played by Arthur Kennedy.  We see Lambert give him something, smile, and pat him on the shoulder.  But Waldron angrily turns away, tearing up the piece of paper he was handed.  From what we find out subsequently, Waldron was presumably asking for a handout, but all he was given instead was “a lecture and a pamphlet.”

This is followed by a conversation Lambert has with a second man, in which Lambert tells him that he is sick and needs to be institutionalized:  “This time, fortunately, no great harm has been done. But the next time…. No, I can’t let you go any longer. It’s got to be a sanitarium.”  Lambert even suggests that the man’s mother may have to find out (Gasp!). We never learn exactly what this man has done, but everything points to his being a child molester. The remark about no great harm having been done this time suggests that he was caught fondling a little girl, and Lambert is afraid that the next time the man will go further.

At first, this seems strange.  We can see that Waldron’s anger could be a motive for murder, but that would be quite a stretch.  On the other hand, a child molester who is afraid his mother will find out and that he will be put in a sanitarium very definitely has a motive for murder. So, why would the movie tell us who Lambert’s killer was right in the beginning?  Sometimes murder mysteries do that, however.  In the television series Columbo, we always found out in the beginning who the murderer was, and the fun was watching the cat-and-mouse game played between him and the title detective.  So, I settled in with that assumption and continued to watch the movie.

The prosecuting attorney, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews), actually presents evidence that Waldron did not commit the murder, despite all the political pressure and even blackmail brought against him.  Throughout the trial, we see the child molester in the courtroom watching with apprehension on his face.  Then there is a ridiculous scene in which Harvey has an assistant point Waldron’s loaded revolver at his head and pull the trigger in order the prove that the firing pin was faulty and thus the gun could not have been the murder weapon, which is immediately followed by Ed Begley’s character committing suicide by shooting himself right there in the courtroom.  Somehow I doubt seriously that these are some of the “basic facts” of this “true story.”

Anyway, Waldron’s innocence having been established, he is released.  We see the guilty-looking child molester leaving the courtroom, while a savvy reporter, played by Sam Levene, looks at him suspiciously.  Later, we find out that the child molester was killed in an automobile crash.  He was fleeing from police for speeding, when he suddenly swerved, presumably intending to kill himself.  While we are seeing all this, the narrator tells us that the case was never solved.

Now wait just a cotton picking minute!  In other words, there was no child molester.  It was a total fabrication.  In its confused way, the movie is admitting that no one ever found out who killed Father Lambert, while at the same time suggesting that somehow or other justice was served.  The reason for this piece of baloney is easy to understand.  If the movie had stuck to the facts, if all the stuff with the child molester had been edited out, then it would have ended with the unsatisfactory conclusion that while an innocent man was cleared, the guilty man, whoever he was and whatever his motive, was never caught.

This movie cheats, trying to have it both ways.  It presents its story as based on actual events and filmed on location to give it the aura of authenticity, and then it concocts an imaginary child molester to be the villain so he can be killed off at the end, giving the movie the kind of resolution that we typically have in a work of fiction.

Is “The Americans” the Most Deadpan Situation Comedy Ever Made?

When I was in college, back in the 1960s, my friends and I used to watch 1950s monster movies and science fiction movies on the late show.  Much of the fun arose out of the unintentional absurdities in those movies, including everything from the poor production values to the corny dialogue to the scientific nonsense. We did not use the word “camp” to describe these absurdities, for though we had the concept, yet we did not know the word.

Then, in 1966, the television show Batman made its debut. This was, to my knowledge, the first time a movie or a television show deliberately had camp value. As a result, there was a lot of confusion when it first aired.  Children took the show seriously and enjoyed it on that level.  Most adults realized it was supposed to be funny, even if they didn’t actually care for it.  But there were a fair number of people that took the show seriously the way children did and criticized it for being juvenile.

I first started watching the show The Americans only a couple of months ago. On the very first episode, I found myself laughing.  I wasn’t laughing throughout the show, but only occasionally.  I would be taking it all seriously, and then something would happen or be said that would make me laugh.  By way of contrast, I never laughed when watching Homeland.  After a few episodes, I started wondering if there was deliberate camp value in this show, only much more subtle than in Batman.

I suppose the first clue was the hammer-and-sickle symbol of the Soviet Union being used as the “c” in the word “Americans.” Then there was the Ozzie & Harriet cover for the two spies, Philip and Elizabeth.  Now, every sitcom family has next door neighbors to interact with.  This does not happen so much with serious crime or spy shows.  We never saw Joe Friday interact with his neighbors in Dragnet.  We never see James Bond at home, let alone see him visiting his neighbors.  But in The Americans, we do have neighbors, and what could be more appropriate than for them to have an FBI agent living next door.

And while I thoroughly enjoy watching Elizabeth kick butt and waste the “bad guys,” something inside me cannot help but be amused by it all.  She is all communist.  Philip, on the other hand, thinks about defecting, is less likely to kill, and feels guilty when he does.  He is the weaker of the two.  In other words, as with many comedies, the husband is dominated by his wife.

What really capped it off was when their daughter Paige discovered Christianity and wanted to start going to church.  I don’t know much about the actual spies Soviets planted in this country who were married and had children, but I should think the Soviets would have wanted the family to go to church to enhance their cover.  In this show, however, the Jennings have apparently never gone to church or given their children any religious upbringing. And so it is that when Paige gets caught reading the Bible, Elizabeth is appalled. Speaking later to Philip, she comments about how horrible it is in America, what with all the churches and synagogues, all that “opiate of the masses” everywhere you look. How can they have her drop a heavy line like that and not expect us to laugh?

Then there is the way Philip, pretending to be Clark, insists on keeping his glasses on even when he is having sex with Martha.  All I can think of is that this is an allusion to another Clark who, we were expected to believe, could keep people from guessing that he was Superman by making sure he kept his glasses on too.  Speaking of which, at one point, Philip says he is worried about the way Martha seems so insistent that she and “Clark” become foster parents.  Elizabeth is disgusted.  “Just who wears the pants in that family?” she asks.  That’s a fine phrase coming from her.

In one episode, Philip and Elizabeth decide to check on Kate, their handler.  They break into her house, which is deserted.  They sneak around, checking things out.  Then Elizabeth notices that the toilet seat is in the up position, even though Kate lives alone.  Sure enough, there is a secret message on the toilet paper core.  Philip would probably have never noticed.

However, a friend of mine assures me that this show is not intentionally camp, that it is meant to be taken seriously.  But I think we have another Batman situation going on.