Saturday, March 8, 2014

Some Cultural Thoughts (4 Movies and a Book)

A few thoughts on Thinge Cultural...

Heart of Darkness - by Joseph Conrad

Finished Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad a few weeks ago.  Had heard the book referred to in the remake of King Kong and also Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown Congo episode and added it to my list of "classics I should read."

Moby Dick is a fairly dense read but this Heart of Darkness was a whole order higher in reading challenge for me.  The book is written as someone telling a story about their experience heading into the Congo as part of the ivory trading business and I just found it really difficult to read the prose and to follow what was going on.  The story has been remade in various versions but early on it became very clear to me that Apocalypse Now was a version of the story and so if you know that movie then you have a pretty good feel for the plot line albeit not exactly.  Conrad's work is set during the late 1800's when European colonial powers were pretty much raping and pillaging their way through Africa.  It appears Congo got the worst of it.  I knew that African exploitation was part of what the book was about so the impact of it was not quite as dramatic on me as it might be to others.  At my age, education level, knowledge level, whatever you want to call it...I am aware of the cruelty that has been perpetrated on people by other people throughout history and so the shock value of that is pretty much lost on me but you should be warned that there is a callousness to other humans in this story, which is most likely historically accurate, that rivals anything you are likely to already be aware of.

Blue Jasmine (movie)

Karen and I are watching our way through the Oscar-Nominated movies and we saw Blue Jasmine before the the Oscars.  I have not seen all of the movies yet but Cate Blanchett's Oscar for Best Actress was well deserved.  Wow.  Movie is tough to watch at times and it is a Woody Allen movie so you expect a rather ambiguous "artsy"ending so it leaves you probably less satisfied than other movies but her performance is something to see.

Dallas Buyers Club (movie)

Matthew McConaughey won the Oscar for Best Actor and Jared Leto won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  All in all we did not think this was a great movie.  It wasn't bad but it wasn't something we felt was jarringly emotional (except for Leto's performance).  We have not finished watching all of the Best Actor performances but my guess is that Matthew was probably the right guy to win his Oscar but, truth be told, Jared Leto probably had the best performance of anyone nominated this season.  I pretty much believe that most actors play a version of themselves so for Matthew it is not really a stretch.  The guy is from Texas and is playing a homophobic (which most of America was in the 80s) rodeo Texan who gets HIV then AIDS due to his lifestyle choices at the time.  I also believe that everyone has some level of androgyny but what Jared Leto pulled off with his portrayal of Rayon was simply astounding.  His performance is the only reason I would recommend seeing this movie.

We watched this last night and I will reserve final judgment until I have seen Gravity and American Hustle and Nebraska but I do not believe this was the best movie nominated for the Oscars.  I'm almost 51 and saw Roots when it came our originally.  Anyone who is shocked or surprised by any of the activity in this movie simply was not paying attention in school and/or needs to do a little bit of personal research on the subject of slavery.  The most impactful scene in this movie was when Edwin Epps was demanding that Solomon Norhtrup whip Patsey.  The scene's violence is graphic but no more than other movie portrayals of whipping.  The palpable drama was in the the emotional interplay of the four characters in the scene. Epps, the white plantation owner who used Patsey, the young slave girl, for his personal pleasure and was filled with self-loathing due to it, Mistress Epps, the plantation-owner wife who knew her husband lusted after a slave and took the opportunity to goad her husband into inflicting tremendous pain and suffering on the object of his desire and the object of her disgust and hate (which seemed to be an equal mix of a woman-scorned + a woman wronged by her husband's abuse of the power over her given to him by society at that time + a belief that black slaves were subhuman property and so should not even be touched), Solomon, the captured free man forced into slavery coerced into whipping his friend or seeing if Epps might follow through on his threat to kill every slave in sight if Solomon didn't whip Patsey and Patsey, the pretty young slave girl who was, to my observation, innocent but who was bearing the brunt of all of the hate combined of the other three characters combined into the lash which was eventually taken over by Epps who ferociously finished the whipping.  If you're someone who really gets emotionally connected while watching a movie then that scene is incredible to watch (if you can stomach the violence.)

And finally...

The Great Beauty ("La grande bellezza" in Italian - movie)

First, it's in Italian so you have to read subtitles.  Second, it is an Italian movie and people in other countries view life differently so you have to sort of get into an artsy mode to watch this.  Finally, it is an artsy movie so the plot is virtually indiscernible.  All that being said, damn good.  One measurement I use to decide this kind of thing is how long I think about the movie afterwards and both my wife and I were still discussing it last night three days after watching it.  We Googled some information about it and I revisited what has turned out to be my favorite scene in the movie the next day just to watch it again.  The movie is essentially a man reflecting on his life after turning 65 and he does it in various ways while walking his city, Rome.  The pivotal scene is when his standard social group is convened on his patio (which overlooks the Coliseum) lounging, drinking and talking and the wife of one of the men lays into the main character for his lack of accomplishment (he only wrote on "novellette" and that was 20 years ago) while she has written 11 novels, been a wife and mother, done TV...and generally made much more of a contribution than he has.  After trying to defuse her ire in a nice way several times he finally says to her that all of her sacrifices and accomplishments are basically untruths and that he doesn't wish to embarrass her.  She says she is "a woman with balls" and if there are untruths he should let loose because she can take it.  In the most excoriating way I have ever seen in film or in real life he just destroys all of her accomplishments but the point he made afterwards to her was essentially this: Her desire to inflate her accomplishments and knock down others' was essentially her way of hiding or dealing with her own fears of inadequacy and "We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little... Don't you agree?"

I'd say that applies to all humans at many points in their lives.

Great movie.