Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Marie Colvin and the face of war

December 5, 2018

Marie Colvin was one of the outstanding war correspondents of our time.  She was killed in 2012 while reporting on the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city of Homs.

I never read her work when she was alive, partly because it was behind the paywall of the London Sunday Times, but I got some idea of her work by seeing a docudrama of her life with a couple of friends.  I also read samples of her work collected by the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting at Stony Brook (NY) State University.

The movie is outstanding in its depiction of the human cost of war. which was the focus of Marie Colvin’s reporting.  It shows her willingness to risk her life to see what was happening first hand.

The first scenes of the movie show her losing her left eye while reporting on the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in 1999.  Later scenes show her struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the last scene shows her death.

The movie understandably neglects the other part of her achievement, which was her ability to make contacts and win trust so that she could get to the scene of events and talk to the people.

I have misgivings about docudramas about the lives of contemporary people.  Even when they don’t distort the facts, I feel that I am being invited to invade privacy and learn things that are none of my business

Rosamund Pike gives an outstanding performance, showing Colvin’s compassion, anger, toughness and vulnerability in a convincing way. and it is roughly true to the known facts.  But every time I see a photo of Marie Colvin, I’ll think of the scenes of Pike in the nude.

The movie uses a quote by Marie Colvin that her goal was to make newspaper readers care about the suffering of civilians in war as much as she did.  She wrote once that she was more concerned about the human impact of war and less about the geopolitical implications.

The first episode of the move shows Marie Colvin drawing attention to the suffering of civilians, who were deprived of food and medicine in the Sri Lanka government’s war with the Tamil Tigers separatists.

Well and good, but what could have been done to help the suffering Sri Lankan people?  Air drops of food and medical supplies?  Sanctions against the Sri Lankan government?  Occupation of Sri Lanka by a UN peacekeeping force?

In the American Civil War, the Union forces imposed a blockade of the Southern states and the Union army destroyed crops and livestock.  General Sherman said that war is hell, and the most humane way to wage war is that way that ended it most quickly.

Maybe there was a way to help the Sri Lankan civilians without prolonging the war and the suffering, but it is not obvious to me.

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Why did the 1968 French student rebellion fail?

October 15, 2018

Last Friday I saw a remarkable movie, “In the Intense Now,” about the French student uprising in May, 1968, showing why at the time all things seemed possible and what went wrong.  I didn’t go to the movie with the intention of posting a review of it, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

The filmmaker, João Moreira Salles, is a Brazilian who, in 1968, was a small boy living in Paris with his parents.  The movie consists of archival footage mainly from France, but also from Czechoslovakia and Brazil and home movies his mother took on a visit to China in 1966.

He captures the joy the students felt in breaking free of the constraints of a mediocre bureaucratic society and their hope that all things were possible.

He shows their leader, the cocky, smart-alec Daniel Cohn=Bendit and I can share their pleasure is seeing him in a TV panel show, telling off the pompous intellectual authorities.

The student riots were followed by a series of strikes by factory workers all over France.  I always thought that the students and workers in France, unlike in the USA, were comrades in arms.

But Moreira Salles showed a delegation of students marching to a factory occupied by strikers to show their solidarity, only to have the workers mock them as “future bosses.”

The striking workers, he contended, were revolutionary in a way that the students were not.  He contrasted a graffito saying (approximately – I didn’t make an exact mental note at the time) “All power to the workers,” with a graffito (again – I don’t remember exactly) saying something about following the desires of your heart and not advertising slogans.

The first graffito was a revolutionary slogan.  The second was not.

He contrasted political demonstrations that are intended to bring about revolutionary charge with political demonstrations that are merely intended to express emotion.  Holders of power feel threatened by the first, but can tolerate the second.

He showed footage from August, 1968, showing the Soviet occupation of Prague, which shot furtively, mostly from behind curtained windows, and the later footage of the funeral of Jan Palace, a student who committed suicide in 1969 by setting himself on fire in order to protest the re-imposition of dictatorship, which was shot openly.

Moreira Salles said the difference was that, in August, the Soviets were fearful of a real uprising, and, the following January, they were not threatened by allowing the Czechs to vent their grief.

He showed three funerals in France—one of a student killed by police, one of a worker killed by police, and one—never before shown in documentaries of the 1968 uprising, of a police officer murdered by rioters, who was crushed against a wall by an empty truck aimed at him with bricks on the accelerator.

He also showed a funeral of a worker killed while protesting the new Brazilian dictatorship.  The funeral was a political demonstration; burial of the worker was almost an afterthought.

Moreira Salles showed a conciliatory speech by President Charles De Gaulle on TV, which was followed by the largest student riot so ar, and then a radio broadcast a ew days later, taking a hard line against breakdown of law and order.

The second broadcast was followed by a pro-government demonstration, consisting mainly but not entirely of members of the prosperous classes, which drew more people than any of the student demonstrations.

In the age of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, it’s important to think about the difference between a serious politics with a strategy to bring about change, and a psychodrama politics limited to expressing emotion.

Then again, what good is a revolution without spontaneity and joy?  Emma Goldman, who was a true revolutionary if anybody ever was, said she didn’t want to be part of any revolutionary movement in which she couldn’t dance.

And, after all, it wasn’t the students who tamed the French workers’ movement.  It was the Communist-dominated trade unions, whose leaders had long ago compromised with the status quo.

I don’t draw a simple moral from the movie, but I find a lot to chew over in my mind.

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‘Based on a true story…’

September 17, 2018

Jason Kottke of kottke.org pointed out a page on Information Is Beautiful, which goes through movies “based on a true story” scene by scene and rates each scene by how much it is based on fact.

Each movie gets a rating on how many minutes of screen time are fact and how many are fiction.  Interesting.  Here are the ratings.

Selma – 100 percent (!!)

The Big Short – 91.4 percent

Bridge of Spies – 89.9 percent

Twelve Years a Slave – 88.1 percent

Rush – 81.9 percent

Captain Phillips – 81.4 percent

Spotlight – 76.2 percent

The Social Network – 76.1 percent

The Wolf of Wall Street – 74.6 percent

The King’s Speech – 73.4 percent

Hidden Figures – 72.6 percent

Philomena – 69.8 percent

Lion – 61.4 percent

Dallas Buyers Club – 61.4 percent

American Sniper – 56.7 percent

Hacksaw Ridge – 51.5 percent

The Imitation Game – 41.4 percent

Many people, including friends of mine, regard movies of historical events as sources of information.   Information is Beautiful has done a good service by judging the accuracy of that information in recent well-known movies.

Usually when I’m impressed with a movie based on historical events, I read the book it’s based on.  I read Twelve Years a Slave, which showed the movie was largely accurate, and The Free State of Jones (not rated above), which showed many dramatic scenes in the movie never happened, but that the movie accurately depicted the overall situation.

I relied on the movie “Spotlight” for information on how the Boston Globe reported the Catholic pedophile scandal, and I’m glad to be reassured that it was largely accurate.

I understand that in dramatizing complex events, it is necessary to have composite and symbolic characters and to condense events, so I’m willing to cut directors a certain amount of slack.

But if you make a movie using the names of real people, and say it is “based on a true story,” you have a responsibility for a certain minimum level of accuracy—say 75 percent.

Otherwise change the names of the characters and drop the claim to be based on truth.  “The Imitation Game” would have been a fine movie if the hero had not been named “Alan Turning.”

LINK

Based on a True Story? Scene-by-scene breakdown of Hollywood films on Information Is Beautiful.

All the movies that won special effects Oscars

February 10, 2018

A day in the life of the world

February 4, 2018

Life in a Day is a documentary film consisting of YouTube videos from all around the world, all shot on July 24, 2010, which was a Saturday and a day of a full moon.   The video above is the trailer and the one below is the full 95-minute film.   It’s been around a long time, but I only just now came across it.   That’s true of a lot of my posts.

It’s consists of clips taken from 81,000 videos shot by volunteers in 192 countries, adding up to 4,500 hours of footage.

There are some remarkable episodes—a Slovak filmmaker in Kathmandu, Nepal, interviewing a Korean man who is bicycling around the world; a Peruvian shoeshine boy hustling to make a living, and confessing the thing he likes best is his laptop; an acrobatic Russian making Moscow his playground.

But most of it is people in different places living their everyday lives and answering one of three questions:  What do you love?  What do you fear?  What’s in your pockets?   The filmmaker doesn’t make any overall sociological or political point, except the diversity and unity of the human race.  It’s a joyful movie.  The musical score adds a lot to it.

Ninety-five minutes is a long time to watch a movie on a computer screen, but you don’t have to watch it all at one.  It took me about five or ten minutes to get into the film, but, when I did, I watched through till the end.

Part of the purpose of making the film was to celebrate the fifth anniversary of YouTube.   It was released on YouTube and, so far as I know, has never been shown in theaters.

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‘Three Billboards’ is a very good movie

January 25, 2018

Yesterday I went with my friends Hal Bauer and Gayle Mosher to see “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”  It was the best movie I’ve seen since “Hell or High Water.”   I’d willingly see either movie again.

“Three Billboards” is full of surprising twists, which I don’t want to reveal.  Just when I thought I knew where the story was going, it veered off in another direction.  I just I thought I understood the three main characters, one of them revealed an unexpected side of themselves.  None of this was arbitrary or forced.

Like “Hell or High Water,” “Three Billboards” is full of low-key humor, based on the contradictions of human nature and the foibles of a particular regional culture.  Part of the reason I might go to see either movie a second time is to pick up on some of the nuances I missed.  Yet both movies are tragedies.

“Three Billboards” poses the same dilemma as some of the old Greek tragedies.  On the one hand, you don’t want to be trapped on a cycle of revenge and retaliation.  As a character says, anger only begets greater anger.  On the other, you don’t want to submit to wrong without striking back.  The final scene leaves this dilemma unresolved.

Afterthought [1/28/2018]

After thinking things over, I have some reservations about “Three Billboards.” The power of the acting, script and direction blinded me to the implausibility of the plot.   I still like “Three Billboards” as a parable, but, unlike “Hell or High Water,” it doesn’t have anything to say about American life in general.

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The Human trilogy

August 29, 2017

During the past few nights, I watched a three-part documentary movie series called “Human.”   An account of the origin of the film is above, and the three parts are below.

It consists of a series of interviews of people from all over the world about love, war, work, marriage, parenthood, poverty, migration, being gay, being handicapped, the nature of happiness and the meaning of life, plus remarkable aerial photographs of human activity.

It reminded me of the benediction we used to give in my church, which included the words, “behind all our differences and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one.”

Each part is about 90 minutes, which is a long time to watch something on a computer screen.  But it is broken up into segments of 15 or 20 minutes, so you don’t have to watch it all at once.

If you watch it, you should use the CC (closed caption) feature, which will tell you the first name of the person being interviewed and the location of the interview or scene.

The film series was made by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a French environmentalist, photographer, journalist and filmmaker.   He and his 20-person team interviewed 2020 people, in 60-some countries and speaking 63 languages, over a period of three years.

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A cat watches Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

August 26, 2017

Two versions, in case one is taken down or has too many pop-ups

A third version below matches the kitten’s reaction with the scene.

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A documentary of arresting imagery

July 23, 2017

This is a trailer for the forthcoming movie “Awaken,” which is supposed to be a celebration of humanity’s relationship to technology and the natural world.

I don’t know what the following images add up to, but, like Jason Kottke, I think they are lovely to look at.

The genius of Hayao Miyazaki

June 17, 2017

I love the movies of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli.   These videos give an idea of his genius as an animator.  But you would have to see the movies to appreciate his genius as a storyteller.

I read that he is coming out of retirement—or that his previous “retirement” announcement was misunderstood.  This is good news.

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My favorite movie of 2016

February 26, 2017

Click on Hell of High Water: ‘I never met nobody who got away with anything’ for a good review by Lance Mannion.

Newton Knight, an American hero

July 22, 2016

My friend Hal Bauer urged all his friends to see the movie, Free State of Jones.  I saw it, and it is as good as Hal said it is.

The movie tells the story of Newton Knight, a white farmer in southern Mississippi, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy itself.

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Knight was 6-foot-4 with black curly hair and a full beard—“big heavyset man, quick as a cat,” as one of his friends described him.  He was a nightmarish opponent in a backwoods wrestling match, and one of the great unsung guerrilla fighters in American history.  So many men tried so hard to kill him that perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to reach old age.

“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” said [local historian Wyatt] Moulds. 

“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat.  A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”

Source: Richard Grant | Smithsonian

Knight hated the 20-slave rule, which gave slave-owning families one exemption from military service for every 20 slaves they owned.  He also hated Confederate confiscations of livestock, crops and food from small farmers.

For a time, his Knight Company drove the Confederate Army out of Jones County and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi.  Contrary to the impression given by the movie title, he didn’t intend to set up Jones County as an independent nation.  He was loyal to the Union.

He didn’t only fight for independent white farmers.  He fought against slavery himself.  He defended the rights of newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.  After the triumph of the Ku Klux Klan, he retreated to his homestead where he lived with his inter-racial family.

I had no idea Newton Knight existed until I saw the movie.

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Donald Trump’s excellent adventure

July 21, 2016

When Donald Trump phoned his pal Bill Clinton a little over a year ago, and asked his advice about running for President, I doubt that either of them thought that Trump would get as far as he did.

150930093139-bill-clinton-donald-trump-large-169I have no way of knowing Trump’s thinking, but I suspect that he figured that he had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

At worst, he would promote the Trump name and add value to the Trump brand.  At best, he would show up and pay back politicians and journalists who treated his political ambitions as a joke.  Coming in a strong second or third for the Republican nomination would have accomplished that.

But did he think he actually would be nominated?  I’m reminded of the Mel Brooks comedy, The Producers, in which two characters hatch a Trump-esque scheme to make money from a losing Broadway play.   They choose a script, “Springtime for Hitler,” which they think is sure to fail.  But, much to their consternation, it succeeds.

Unlike the Mel Brooks characters, I think Trump will take his own “Springtime for Hitler” production as far as it will go.  But if he loses, which at this point seems likely, I can imagine him sitting down a year or two from now with his friends, the Clintons, and having a good laugh about the whole adventure.

LINKS

Inside the Fraternity of Haters and Losers Who Drove Donald Trump to the GOP Nomination by McKay Coppins for Buzzfeed.  Coppins thinks his ridicule of the idea of a Trump Presidential candidacy may have goaded Trump into actually running.

36 Hours On the Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump by McKay Coppins for Buzzfeed (2014).  This is the article that Coppins thinks may have set Trump off.

Donald Trump’s ghostwriter tells all by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker.  Donald Trump as seen through the eyes of the ghostwriter who wrote The Art of the Deal.

Philip K. Dick’s greatest hit

April 2, 2016

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer whose main theme was the fluid boundary between illusion and reality, and sanity and insanity.

Sadly his insights were partly due to his own drug use and mental illness.  This may have been the reason so many of his novels and stories lacked coherence.

It also may explain why movies based on Philip K. Dick novels and stories – The Adjustment Bureau, Blade Runner, Imposter, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall – were all better than the originals.  I say nothing about other Philip K. Dick movies because I haven’t seen them.

man-castleI recently saw the Amazon Prime series based on The Man in the High Castle, which was excellent, and I went back to the original out of curiosity.  Unlike the others I mentioned, the novel is better than the TV series, both as a novel and as a science fiction novel.

Both the TV series and the novel depict a world of 1962 in which the Axis has won the Second World War.  The Nazis occupy the United States east of the Rockies, and the Japanese occupy the U.S. Pacific Coast, with the Rockies a neutral buffer zone.

There are three plots in both.  One is an attempt by hardscrabble Americans in San Francisco to make and sell fake art objects to sell to rich Japanese antique collectors.  Another is an attempt to head off a conspiracy by a Nazi faction in Berlin to launch a nuclear first strike against Japan.

The third is a search for “the man in the high castle.”  In the novel, he is the author of a underground novel set in a world in which the Allies won, which, however, is different from the real world (I almost wrote “our” world).  In the Amazon Prime series, he has mysteriously obtained actual newsreels of the real world.

The novel is better because it is more realistic, and because the characters have more psychological depth.  The Amazon Prime series has an anti-Nazi Resistance movement, which is not in the novel, and characters undecided about their true allegiance, which wouldn’t be tolerated either by real Nazis or real anti-Nazi fighters.

The excellence of the novel and the TV series is in showing how living under Nazi and Japanese occupation could come to feel normal, and in developing realistic and memorable characters.

One is Mr. Tagomi, the humane Japanese bureaucrat whose life is guided by the I Ching.  Another is Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, who appears in the TV series but not the novel.

I look forward to Amazon Prime’s second season in the series, which will take the characters beyond the scope of Dick’s novel.

A good movie’s window into Iranian life

August 17, 2015

The 2011 Iranian movie “A Separation” is one of the best movies I ever saw.   It is good in itself, and a good window into life in Iran.

There are at least two kinds of separation depicted in the movie.  One is between husbands and wives.  Another is between the educated middle class and the uneducated lower class.

It begins with a conflict between a educated woman, who wants to leave Iran, and a husband, who is unwilling to leave his sick father.  The wife separates from the husband, and he hires an uneducated woman to look after his father while he is away at work.

The husband comes home one day and finds his father alone and unattended.  The woman comes back, he flies into a rage, something happens outside camera range and she falls and has a miscarriage.  It then is revealed that the woman got a job without the knowledge of her strict Muslim husband, who disapproves of women working outside the home.

Iran is a right-to-life country and an unborn life has the same value as anyone else’s.  The educated woman’s husband is charged with murder.   Two mysteries then need to be cleared up – what really happened off-camera to cause the miscarriage, and why the educated woman left her place of work.

One of the bonuses of watching the movie was the glimpse I had into everyday life in a country I never expect to visit.

In one scene, the elderly father falls in the bathtub, and his caregiver fears it would be a sin for her to see the naked body of a man not her husband.   She picks up a phone and calls a hot line for advice.  An expert on Muslim law tells her that her duty is to help the old man.

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How to make a trailer for an action movie

May 2, 2015

Hat tip to kottke.org.

Validation

April 18, 2015

 

A Thin Wall

April 11, 2015

Last night I went to the Little Theater here in Rochester, NY, to see the world premiere of a moving documentary film on the partition of India and Pakistan.

It was directed by Mara Ahmed, a Pakistani-American women who lives in the Rochester area and studied at the Visual Studies Workshop here, and co-produced by Ahmed and Surbhi Dewan, who was trained at Rochester Institute of Technology.  I’ve lived in Rochester more than half my life, and yet never knew about them until now.

The movie is in three parts—interviews with their aging relatives and friends about the peaceful life in India before partition, then interviews about their terrible experiences during the massacres and flight of peoples during partition and a final part about the ongoing tragedy of division Indians and Pakistanis, culturally similar peoples except for religion.

It includes dream sequences, animation and poetry—all of which work well in the film.

The movie is so even-handed that I sometimes forgot whether I was hearing the experiences of a Hindu or a Muslim, their tragedies were so alike.

Blame for partition is put in the British and to an extent the leaders of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.  They did virtually no advance planning as to how it would be carried out.  Nor did they ever hold a referendum or consult the people on whether the subcontinent should be partitioned in the first place.

I don’t know enough to say whether Hindus and Muslims would have been able to live in peace in a united India.  There was a history of rioting and violence between the two communities.

In any case, the “two-state solution” did not solve the Indian subcontinent’s minority problems.  There are still 176 million Muslims in India, and their rights are a fraught issue.

The filmmakers said in a Q&A after the showing that Hindu and Muslim emigrants from the Indian subcontinent get along very well, as do ordinary citizens of India and Pakistan when they meet.  As they said, the least that could be done is to allow free travel between the two nations.

LINK

An interview with Mara Ahmed. [Added 4/24/2015]

 

A good movie, but not the story of Alan Turing

January 5, 2015

I saw The Imitation Game on Saturday night.  It was a good movie.  I liked it a lot.

It was about a character called Alan Turing, a tormented and rejected genius who nevertheless, through sheer power of intellect, broke the German codes and hastened Allied victory during World War Two.

The most touching part of the movie was his relationship with a character called Joan Clarke, a brilliant woman whose gifts Turing recognized and fostered despite prejudices of the time against women, and who in turn helped bring the misfit Turing out of his social isolation and related to other people in a human way.

But as much as I enjoyed and admired the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly, I had a problem with the movie, and that is that the central character was named Alan Turing.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Because, as a little Internet research showed, the real Alan Turing bore no resemblance to the character in the movie.  He was a much more interesting person.

The movie showed Alan Turing as emotionally crippled by the need to conceal his homosexuality.  But he didn’t conceal it.  Like many members of the Oxford and Cambridge intelligentsia, the real Alan Turning was openly and flamboyantly gay.

His biographers say he was moody, eccentric and had little tolerance for fools, but he was extroverted, gregarious and had a great sense of humor.   What got him into trouble was not inability to express his emotions, but his lack of discretion.

He was one of the top mathematicians of his time, and worked with British intelligence on cryptography even before the outbreak of World War Two.   He was recruited for the Bletchley Park codebreaking effort as a matter of course.  He led a team consisting eventually of thousands of people.  One of his assignments was to encrypt the personal messages between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

His breaking of the German code was not a once-and-for-all breakthrough as depicted in the movie, nor did he do it all by himself, even though his contribution, especially the use of machine intelligence for decoding, was essential.

Bletchley Park broke the German Luftwaffe code almost immediately, and the German Naval code later on.  The Germans then thwarted the codebreakers for a time by complexifying the Naval code, but that obstacle, too, was overcome.  Cryptography and codebreaking were and still are a continuing duel of wits.

Alan Turing never knew John Cairncross, the Soviet spy who infiltrated Bletchley Park, let alone agreed cover up his treason as shown in the movie.

After the war Turing continued to do work for a time for MI6 and its successor, GCHQ (General Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to the U.S. National Security Agency.  This was cut short when, under pressure from the U.S. government, the British government declared gays to be security risks.

Turing’s arrest and conviction for homosexual activity was unfortunate, and his sentence to a year of chemical castration, by means of hormone injections, was a horrible and unjust ordeal.  But it didn’t inhibit his intellectual activity and his work on the theory of artificial intelligence during that period or for the year after.

Nobody knows why he committed suicide, and there are those who wonder if his death really was suicide.

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Jackie Chan on action comedy

December 27, 2014

Via kottke.org.

Jackie Chan is one of the most entertaining performers in movies today and one of the hardest working.

The cougar, the bear cub and the grizzly

October 17, 2014

The bear cub, the adult grizzly and the cougar are actors in a feature-length film, The Bear, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and released in 1988.  The cub befriends the grizzly, and the grizzly protects the orphaned cub as they face non-human and human predators.  I never heard of this movie until I came across this YouTube clip on Flixxy.com.

The facts behind the movie “Belle”

June 11, 2014

The other evening I saw “Belle,” an enjoyable movie about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a West Indian slave, who was adopted into the family of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

It’s a sweet love story.  It is an interesting picture of the life of the 18th century British aristocracy, and the interplay of race and social rank.  And the real Belle must have been a remarkable person.  BUT:

It is less than just to Lord Mansfield, who is depicted as an old fogy who needed to be prodded by idealistic young people to do the right thing.

Lord Mansfield was an opponent of slavery who, as a judge, was faced with the fact that slavery was established in law.  Only a naive person would think that he was in a position to abolish slavery simply by decree.  But he established judicial precedents, within the existing law, that weakened slavery.

Mansfield in the movie is shown as reluctantly accepting the child Belle into his household because she is the illegitimate daughter of his nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsey.  In fact he was not reluctant at all, and Belle was not a blood relation.  She was the daughter of a pregnant mulatto woman liberated from a Spanish ship that Lindsey captured in war.

The movie focuses on the Zong case, in which Mansfield ruled against owners of a slave ship who claimed insurance compensation for chained slaves overboard on a voyage.

The Somersett case, in which Mansfield ruled that a runaway slave need not return to his master, was much more significant.    Mansfield’s decision was that, in the absence of a specific law establishing slavery, it could not be permitted because it was inherently “odious”.

This was roughly the same position that Abraham Lincoln took prior to being elected President.  He said he did not have the legal authority to abolish slavery where it existed, because it was established by the Constitution, but slavery was so obviously wrong that it could not be allowed to spread into new territories.   This was unacceptable to slaveowners, which is the reason for the Civil War.

At the end of the movie, it seems to me, the characters spoke and thought more like contemporary people than people of their own time.  As if the present generation represents a pinnacle of wisdom!  I think that is a common flaw of historical movies.  I think Amistad would have been a better movie if the John Quincy Adams characters had made the arguments that the real John Quincy Adams made, and not what Steven Spielberg thinks he should have made.   The movie Lincoln was better because it put Lincoln in the context of his times.

§§§

Click on ‘The Black Must Be Discharged’: the Abolitionists’ Debt to Lord Mansfield for more background by Stephen Underwood for History Today.

12 Years a Slave: reviews of the movie

December 7, 2013

In my previous post, I shared my thoughts on the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Here are some links to reviews and articles that give deeper background and different perspectives.

A Confederacy of Kidnappers by Matt Karp for Jacobin.  Hat tip to tashqueedag.

Henry Louis Gates on 12 Years a Slave and The African-Americans, an interview in Time magazine.

Jezebel and Solomon: Why Patsey Is the Hero of 12 Years a Slave by Amy Davidson for The New Yorker.

Silenced by Christopher Benfrey for the New York Review of Books.   This is an interesting review, but the things Benfrey criticizes as being corny and sentimental are based on facts as set down in Northrup’s book.

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12 Years a Slave: the movie and the book

December 6, 2013

I have long understood the evils of slavery on an intellectual level – that is to say, I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way understood them.  But seeing the movie, 12 Years a Slave, and reading the book has helped me to understand it in a deeper and more visceral way than I did before.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and who survived to tell the story of what happened to him.  The movie is true to the book.  Some details are left out, and some are changed in unimportant ways, but anybody who sees the movie will get the essence of the book.

The movie is a powerful evocation of the slave-holding South.  The movie helps me imagine, as much is possible for me to imagine, what it would be like to be ripped out of my everyday life, and suddenly thrown into a situation in which I had no rights and no identity, subject to people with the power to commit rape, torture and murder without any consequences.   The scenes of everyday slave life are as powerful as the scenes of whipping and abuse.

Northrup experienced the extremes of slavery.  His first owner was William Ford, a sincere Christian, who sought to treat slaves as humanely as possible without giving them freedom.  Under him, slavery was probably as endurable as it was anywhere in the South.  But Northrup spent 10 years of his servitude subject to the power of the half-insane sadist and sexual predator, Edwin Epps.

Epps’ chief victim was a young slave woman named Patsey, whom he used as a sex object, then allowed his jealous wife to abuse and have whipped.   It culminates in a scene that is almost too painful to watch.  Epps, to please his wife orders Northrup to whip Patsey half to death, and then takes the whip himself.

While the movie is true to the Northrup’s experience, Northrup’s book gives you insight into his mind.  He accurately describes not only what happened to him, but what he observed—the conditions of life, how the system worked, how sugar cane and cotton were grown.   He judged people, even white slave-owners, as individuals, and he never gave way to hatred of white people in general.  I don’t think I could have done that in his situation, even assuming I would have survived in the first place.

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Hayao Miyazaki, the great animator, to retire

September 28, 2013

HIyao Miyazaki, the great Japanese animator, announced earlier this month that he intends to retire from making feature-length films.  I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m not too disappointed, because there are so many of his films that I haven’t yet seen.

He is a great storyteller with a great visual imagination.  The trailers I’ve included in this post hint at it, but don’t fully show it.  His stories are exciting and full of derring-do, but they generally end with reconciliation and never with the annihilation of the losing side.

Spirited Away, whose trailer is shown above, is about a little girl who finds herself trapped in a sort of vacation resort for supernatural beings.  It is highly imaginative, and yet, for me, evokes the feelings of a young person on their first job—having to do things that seem impossible, being subject to the whims of powerful, unreasonable beings, and somehow figuring out how to adapt and function well.

Click on Hayao Miyazaki for his Wikipedia biography.

Click on Hayao Miyazaki to retire, his real reasons for leaving anime in the Asahi Shimbum for background on his retirement.

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