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The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

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November 2015

Billy Budd (1962)

Source: Billy Budd (1962)

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Billy Budd (1962)

Billy

 

When a person is either drafted or volunteers for military service they must be willing to put their life on the line.  But it goes deeper then that.  A soldier, sailor, commando, military pilot, etc. essentially surrenders their entire lives to be part of a large operation, one that is governed by strict codes, rules and a caste system that must be obeyed by one and all.  A soldiers life is not their own.  They become, at least for the duration of their service, a slave.

In 1888, thirty-seven years after writing nautical masterpiece Moby Dick, Herman Melville began writing another maritime tale, this one about the complex apparatus of the Royal British Navy.  Billy Budd told the story of a young merchant seaman pressed into service aboard a warship.  He endears himself to everyone on the crew except for a sadistic master at arms who is determined to break him.

Melville passed away in 1891 and was thus unable to finish the novel.  In 1919 a biographer named Raymond M. Weaver found the manuscript amongst Melville’s papers and the novella was published in 1924 to great acclaim.  It went on to be adapted for the stage by playwright Louis O. Coxe on Broadway in 1951 where it received great acclaim and success.  On the other side of the pond in that same year Benjamin Britton wrote his highly acclaimed operatic version.  There was even, heaven help us, a rock musical called Billy that opened on Broadway in the late-sixties.  It apparently wasn’t very good as it opened and closed on the same night.

Billy Budd again entered the spotlight in 1962.  That year a new version of the novel was published.  Co-edited by Melville scholar Merton M. Sealts, Jr. it is now considered the definitive edition and is the one most readily available to the public.  It was also that year that Billy Budd made it to the big screen.

The man who brought Billy Budd to the cinema was Peter Ustinov.  A true-blue Renaissance Man, Ustinov was already well known for his roles in such films as One of Our Aircraft is Missing and Spartacus, but he was also a prolific playwright, novelist, poet, set designer, humorist and newspaper columnist.  By 1962 he had already written and directed a number of films, including School for Secrets, Private Angelo and Romanoff and Juliet.  When asked by a reporter what drew him to the Melville novel (and the Coxe play in which much of the dialog for the film was taken) Ustinov explained “I am an optimist, unrepentant and militant.  After all, in order not to be a fool an optimist must understand how sad a place the world can be.  It is only the pessimist who find this out anew every day.”

While picking out the meaty role of Post Captain Edwin Fairfax Vere for himself, he combed Britain’s theater scene to cast his naval battalion.  These actors included David McCallum, Paul Rogers and John Neville.  Two key roles went to well-known Hollywood actors.  One was Robert Ryan, then best known for such films as The Naked Spur and Bad Day at Black Rock, later for movies such as The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch.  He was cast as the sadistic Master-at-Arms John Claggart.  The other was Melvyn Douglas.  Originally a suave leading man in such films as Ninotchka and Too Many Husbands, he was here cast as the elderly Scandinavian sail maker.  Years later he would enjoy great late-career acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his role as an aging businessman/politician in Hal Ashby’s Being There.

The title role was the hardest to cast.  The role required someone young enough to play a teenager, who could portray an innocent without becoming coy or coming across like a cipher.  Supposedly every young actor in London read for the part.  This included a young Michael Caine and his roommate Terrance Stamp, with whom he had co-starred on the London stage in The Long, the Short and the Tall.

Given he is best known today for playing the Kryptonian renegade Zod in Superman II and an aging transsexual in The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Dessert, he might seem like an odd choice to play a young innocent.  But at twenty-four Stamp was ideal.  A king actor who was still a prince, he would perfectly embody the part of the “militant” optimist who doesn’t waver even when he learns just how cruel a place the world really is.

Billy Budd takes place upon the high seas in the year 1797.  It’s a perilous time for the British military, the navy in particularly.  The crown has lost the American colonies, and while the War for Independence was fought on land it was a tremendous blow to the image of Britain as a military superpower.  Meanwhile, the French Revolution is taking place and tensions between these two longtime enemies are rising upon the Atlantic trade routes.  Finally, the navy has seen a pair of mutinies that threaten the very foundation of military order.  Aboard the warship HMS Avenger Capt. Vere (Ustinov) and his fellow commanding officers try to keep news of the insurrection a secret from their crew.  But even in these pre-mass media days, word travels.

According to Britain’s Rights of War the navy can, during wartime, impress merchant seamen into service if necessary.  One day the Avenger crosses paths with The Rights of Man, a merchant ship (named after a book by Thomas Paine).   One member of the crew is selected to join the men on the Avenger, a young man named Billy Budd (Stamp).

Budd is not exactly a strapping young lad, but he clearly has made an impression on his fellow crewmates, looks healthy and (make of this what you will) is beautiful.  Working on a merchant ship is quite different then being in the military warns the Captain of the Rights of Man.  Budd learns this the moment he steps on board the Avenger as a sailor is flogged.  When Budd inquires as to the man’s crime, the old sail maker says, “It was his time.”

In no time Budd endears himself to his shipmates.  He happily jokes about being a bastard, shows good humor when the older soldiers rib him and despite being a bit on the scrawny side compared to the rest of the crew he wins a wrestling match with a fellow sailor.  Budd doesn’t gloat but offers the sailor his hand.  With that Budd is no longer a newbie but a peer.

But not everyone is won over.  John Claggart (Robert Ryan) is the ships Master-at-Arms.  He is responsible for, among other things, disciplining the sailors.  Unfortunately, he is a dyed in the wool sadist, openly antagonizing the sailors by humiliating them, striking them with his cane and coming up with any excuse to flog them.  He eggs them on by suggesting that one of them might stab them in the night, and then argues that none have the courage to do so.  This is a man who thrives on chaos.

During a night watch he demands that a sailor who is violently ill stand his post on the ships mast.  When the informed sailor is about to pass out, Budd leaves his post to try (in vain) to save him.  Technically, he abandoned his post.  For Claggart, this could be an excuse to subject Budd to the lash.  But Capt. Vere is impressed.  He decides to promote Billy despite the fact that he’s just been pressed into service.  He’s warned by one of his Lieutenants that this could breed resentment from the crew.  It does not.  Billy has already earned the admiration of everyone on board.

Even, for a brief time, Claggart.  One still, moonless night the two of them exchange a moment on the ships deck.  Billy insists that he likes the Master-at-Arms and amuses him with his humor.  Once he realizes that he’s let his guard down Claggart quickly becomes defensive and paranoid.  He becomes convinced that Budd is conspiring against him.  He hires his spy, nicknamed “Squeak” (Lee Montague) to find a reason to flog Billy.  Instead Squeak warns Budd about his intentions.  Billy refuses to believe that Claggart is out to get him.  He’ll soon learn his lesson.

Fear of a mutiny is a pressing concern for the officers aboard the Avenger.   At one point the crew is ordered to surrender their swords.  At one point a crewman attempts to stab Claggart.  Budd intervenes.  Instead of showing his gratitude a confused and angry Claggared attempts to frame Billy for conspiring to lead a mutiny.  The news is brought before Capt. Vere, who is immediately suspicious of the charges.  Truth is, he too dislikes Claggart and doesn’t trust him.  But he is a superior officer and his word carries more weight then Billy’s.  When Claggart confronts the young man, Billy begins to stammer, unable to defend himself.  Finally he does what any cornered animal would do.  He lashes out and strikes a blow to Claggart.

Striking a superior officer is in itself an offensive would lead to a court-martial but Billy soon finds himself in deeper then he could ever imagine when Claggart falls backwards and hits his head.  He looks up at Billy, smiles, then dies.  It’s as if he realizes that during his last moment on earth he has put Billy into checkmate.

Taking control gently asks Billy to wait in a small holding pen then asks his lieutenants to enter his quarters for a court-martial.  Everyone knows that Claggart is an antagonist and that he provoked Billy.  The old sail maker later confirms that Claggart was trying to frame Billy.  As far as the Lieutenants are concerned, it’s an open and shut case.

But not quite.  Suddenly Vere is overcome by a sense of duty.  Yes, Billy Budd was being framed, was provoked, and Claggarts death was an accident.  But Budd did strike a superior officer.  According to the rigid system of the military, the law must be obeyed to the letter, no exceptions.  As much as it pains him, Vere must punish Billy to the full extent of military law, which is death by hanging.

There is, of course, a certain subtext to the scene.  Yes, they could exonerate Billy and cover up the cause of Claggarts death, but they can’t hide the fact that Claggart is dead.  Sooner or later, the truth could get out.    If order is not maintained the sailors could revolt and it could be Vere who dies from a fatal blow.

This leads us to the harrowing climax.  The crew is summoned on deck for what they assume will be another flogging.  But the sail maker reminds them that floggings take place at noon.  Hangings take place in the morning.  To their shock and horror they see Billy being lead to the noose.  In his last moments alive Billy stands defiant.  He then cries out “God Bless Captain Vere!”  The Christ-like implications are clear.  Even as he’s being crucified Billy finds it in his heart to forgive his accuser.

Billy Budd has a damn near perfect cast.  I say near perfect because of the casting of Robert Ryan.  His performance as a cold, calculating, menacing Claggart is one for the ages but it’s not “perfect” because unlike the rest of the cast he doesn’t have a British accent.  This isn’t meant as criticism.  Truth is I barely gave it a thought when I first saw the movie.  It was only later when my friend and fellow film buff Matthew Baker, who turned me onto the film, pointed out the fact that I really gave his accent (or lack there of) any thought at all.

Prior to the American Revolution it was quite common for Colonist to join the Royal Army and Navy and many loyalists fought for the crown.  It’s conceivable that Claggart was a loyalist who joined His Majesties Navy prior to 1776.  At one point Vere discusses the fact that Claggart’s past is a mystery.  Of course his American accent would thus be a topic of conversation.  At the end of the day a great actor can make you believe anything and we have no trouble whatsoever believing that Ryan is paranoid, sadistic monster that he is (in real life Ryan, who was brought before the HUAC committee on charges of being a communist, was committed to the civil rights movement and later an activist against the Vietnam War).

One last thing I’d like to mention is the stunning black and white cinematography by Robert Krasker.  Born in Egypt and raised in Australia, he worked with David Lean on Brief Encounter and won an Oscar for The Third Man.  At that time Kodak had developed a remarkable sharp black and white film stock that produced a much crisper image than previous stocks (another film from this period set primarily at sea that took advantage of this new stock was Michelangelo Antonioni’s stunningly beautiful L’Avventura).  In 1962 movies were frequently being made in both color and black and white.  Budget played a roll in determining how to shoot the film, yes, but generally speaking it was an artistic decision.  If you wish to see a Technicolor seafaring adventure I recommend another Melville adaptation, John Huston’s terribly underrated film version of Moby Dick (which I do plan to include on this blog).  Color is glorious, no doubt about it, but black and white photography almost always allows you do see details that the naked eye can’t see.  This is especially true of the human face.  Billy Budd may be set at sea but the action takes place in the claustrophobic confines of the warship.  It’s the faces of the crewmen that tell the real story.

We can be grateful that corporal punishment is no longer used as a means to discipline military personnel and someone found guilty in a court-martial will face jail time rather then death.  But make no mistake about it; soldiers are still treated like slaves.  Just recently we fought two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The later was orchestrated by our Svengali-like Vice President Dick Cheney who, in my opinion, is also a dyed-in-the-wool sadist.  Many soldiers not only lost their lives and have endured horrible injuries but saw their pay docked and often didn’t have body armor while in battle.  Soldiers have been notoriously neglected since returning from these two wars, not that this is a new phenomenon.  More then half the homeless people in this country are veterans.  I believe that the military itself is a necessary evil and it must function properly in order to keep our country safe.  But the men and women who serve are not evil and there must be a way for them to do perform their duties without sacrificing their humanity.

 

 

25 OF THE MOST INTRIGUING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES THAT FAILED TO MAKE IT TO THE WHITE HOUSE by Nathan Cox

Source: 25 OF THE MOST INTRIGUING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES THAT FAILED TO MAKE IT TO THE WHITE HOUSE by Nathan Cox

MA VIE EN ROSE (1997)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

Note:  This film should not be confused with film La Vie en rose starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. 

GEORGES DU FRENSNE MA VIE EN ROSE FREEWAY 01/05/1997 CTE13853

 I don’t expect that she will be voted this years “Person of the Year” by Time magazine, but I do think that Caitlyn Jenner will be featured in a number of profiles about the most intriguing people of the year.  Whether you believe that Jenner is a hero for speaking frankly and publicly about her gender transition or that it’s just the latest coup of his media hungry dynasty to stay visible in an ever crowded zeitgeist (I for one think it’s a little of both) she certainly has helped bring to light that, yes, some people are transgender and yes, they should be accepted for who they are.

Jenner, of course, is an adult and long before becoming part of a dumb reality show she already had, as Bruce…

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MA VIE EN ROSE (1997)

Source: MA VIE EN ROSE (1997)

MA VIE EN ROSE (1997)

Note:  This film should not be confused with film La Vie en rose starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. 

GEORGES DU FRENSNE MA VIE EN ROSE FREEWAY 01/05/1997 CTE13853

 I don’t expect that she will be voted this years “Person of the Year” by Time magazine, but I do think that Caitlyn Jenner will be featured in a number of profiles about the most intriguing people of the year.  Whether you believe that Jenner is a hero for speaking frankly and publicly about her gender transition or that it’s just the latest coup of his media hungry dynasty to stay visible in an ever crowded zeitgeist (I for one think it’s a little of both) she certainly has helped bring to light that, yes, some people are transgender and yes, they should be accepted for who they are.

Jenner, of course, is an adult and long before becoming part of a dumb reality show she already had, as Bruce Jenner, achieved fame for actually accomplishing something remarkable by winning six gold medals.  He was old enough to come to terms with his gender identity and has the wherewithal to undergo gender reassignment.

But what about a child who is transgender?  How does he or she deal with the fact that they identify as a she or he?  How do the parents deal with a child going through gender issues?  And lastly, how does one deal with a community that is not willing to accept a transgender child?

Ma vie en rose (translation:  My life in pink) is a 1997 Belgian/French/British co-production about a young boy named Ludovic Fabre (Georges Du Fresne).  His family has just moved into a brand new upscale suburban community that, not coincidently, is also where his father’s employer lives.  When the family throws a picnic in order to introduce themselves to their new neighbors Ludovic’s Dad (Jean-Philippe Ecoffe) presents Albert (Daniel Hanssens) with the real estate sign from their house.  After all, Dad says, Albert made their dreams come true.

Later Dad introduces his family to his guests.  There’s his beautiful wife Hannah (Michele Laroque, well-known for such films as The Hairdressers Husband) and his four children.  When seven-year old Ludovic shows up, he’s dressed in his sisters old princess costume, complete with clip-on earrings and lipstick.  Dad thinks fast and introduces Ludovic as the joker in the family.  Mom then grabs him, leads him into the bathroom and makes him wash off his makeup.  “Why did you do this?” she demands.  “I wanted to look pretty.” Ludo responds.  In his seven-year old mind there’s nothing wrong with that.

We learn that Ludovic has pretty much gravitated towards his feminine side for a while now.  He has two older brothers but he doesn’t play with them much.  At one point he looks out his bedroom window and sees them playing cowboy, pretending to shoot each other.  Ludo just doesn’t get it.  He’s much closer to his older sister (Cristine Barget).  She’s now entering womanhood and is happy to let Ludo play with all of her old toys.  His favorite are Pam and Ben, a pair of plastic dress-up dolls that stand-in for Barbie and Ken.

Ludovic has another advocate in his grandmother (Helene Vincent).  She’s apparently been out of the picture for a while but is now getting back in with the family.  She watches Ludovic watching the Pam and Ben TV show and sees nothing but a happy child.  She also tells Ludo that whenever she feels upset she just imagines the world the way she wishes it to be.  Ludo tries that.  He fantasies that he is in the world of Pam and Ben and enters the high-chroma world of Pam’s doll house and many accessories.

Ludo’s parents aren’t too worried about him at first.  Mom thinks it’s just a phase and Dad is pretty overworked to really notice.  Things grow complicated when Ludovic befriends Jerome (Julien Riviere), Albert’s son.  While playing at Jerome’s house Ludo enters a room that’s “off-limits”.  It’s a girls room, filled with dolls and costumes.  Ludo convinces Jerome to play dress-up.  Ludo dresses as a bride, Jerome as a groom and they play wedding.  When Jerome’s Mom comes home, she faints.  What Ludo could not possibly have known is that the room belonged to Jerome’s dead sister.  Later, Ludo tells his Mom that he’s gonna marry Jerome when he grows up and is “not a boy”.  That’s when Mom and Dad decide to take Ludo to a psychiatrist.

Dad can now tell his boss that he’s doing something about Ludovic’s behavior.  Things seem to be getting under control.  But then Ludo pulls a prank that causes an uproar.  At his school production of Snow White, Ludo locks the lead actress in the bathroom and takes over the role of the catatonic heroine at the shows climax.  Jerome is playing Prince Charming.  When they leave the school the Fabre’s are now social pariah’s.  Director Alain Berliner and his cinematographer Yves Cape emphasize the point with a subtle change in color temperature.  Up until now the film has been shot in bright, vibrant color in order to emphasize Ludovic’s point-of-view.  Now the colors become cooler, bluer, and far less inviting.

Things slowly get worse.  The parents of the other students take up a petition to have Ludovic expelled from the school.  After playing soccer (a game Ludo does seem to like) the other boys gang up on him and his brothers fail to intervene.  Dad gets fired despite assurances from Albert that his job is secure.  When he arrives home drunk, his Mom loses it.  She blames Ludo for what happened and cuts his long hair.  Seeing the young child with little follicles of hair on his face as he weeps is just plain heartbreaking.

Maurice Sendak, the author of such children’s books as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen was criticized throughout his career for painting an often dark view of childhood.  He would often respond by arguing that while yes, childhood is a time of great joy, it can also be a time of great torment.  We go from being indulged and protected to suddenly being told what we can and cannot do and are expected to conform in one way or another to cultural amore.  In more recent years children have been encouraged to be themselves.  Shows like Sesame Street embrace diversity and Mister Rogers always told children that “people can like you just the way you are.”  It’s true, they can, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will.

Quite simply, Ludovic is just being himself, and there are few things in the world that are more enjoyable.  How can a child possibly understand why he’s being condemned for dong what comes naturally?  He’s not hurting anybody, right (the people in the community would disagree)?

We in the U.S. like to believe that our European counterparts would be more liberal and understanding towards such a child.  This movie isn’t set in the Bible Belt of the United States and the community looks like it’s perfectly secular.  Still, many people in the town frighten Ludovic by telling him that he’s going to go to Hell for being “bent”.  People have a tendency to suddenly become pious when confronted with something that they perceive as being sinister.

Children often go through a period of gender exploration when they are little.  The first time a boy notices that a girl has different gentiles then he does, or vice-versa, is a major, at times even traumatic revelation for all of us.  At one point in the film Ludovics sister opens up her science textbook and shows him that our gender is determined by whether or not we are fertilized with an XX or an XY chromosome.  Ludovic then imagines the hand of God tossing down two X’s and a Y, then the X accidentally bumping off of the house’s chimney and landing in the garbage.  That, Ludo reasons, is why he’s now a boy and not a girl.

Of course we do live in a world of double standards.  What if Ludovic was a “tomboy” who dressed in boys clothes and liked to play sports and war games.  Odds are nobody would bat an eye.  Later in the film Ludo meets a child named Chris (Raphaelle Santini) whom he assumes is a boy but turns out to be a girl.  Nobody seems to care very much about Chris’ lack of femininity, at least not at this stage in the game.  If she continues to develop as she does she might be considered “butch” or a “dyke”.

While I don’t wish to see a sequel to Ma vie en rose (I think most sequels are unnecessary), I sort of would like to know what happened to Ludovic.  He would be twenty-five now, old enough to decide how he wants to live his life.  He could just be going through a phase and might grow up to be a heterosexual man.  And of course being transgender doesn’t necessarily mean one is attracted to the sex they were born with.  There’s a 1998 documentary called Prodigal Sons which I do plan to eventually profile on this blog.  It was made by Kimberly Reed, a woman who was born a boy in Montana, was a star football player and despite her gender reassignment is married to a woman.  Human sexuality has a spectrum as wide as a rainbow, which no doubt is a reason why it was adapted as the symbol of gay liberation, though has evolved to represent overall LGBT equality.

I do wonder how this film would differ if it took place today?  Society as a whole has become far more tolerant of gay and lesbian people but we’ve also become even more protective of children.  There are pockets of New York City and San Francisco where parents are urged to accept, embrace and even encourage their child if they seem to display homosexual tendencies.  But that happens to be the exception, not the rule.  By and large we still live with a pack mentality that kids are expected to conform to.

I think it goes without saying that little Ludovic captured my heart in a way that very few children in the movies ever have.  Much of this has to do with the incredible performance by Georges du Fresne.  He was a beautiful child and gave one of the most natural, moving performances I’ve ever seen from a little kid in the movies.  Most child actors don’t grow up to be successful adult actors, as we all know.  Du Fresne made a few movies in the ensuing years, including playing a young Marcel Proust in the 1998 film Time Regained.  As an adult he’s only acted occasionally. Doing a Google search I was able to find little out about him except that he went on to study architecture and that in 2007 he received a European Tolerance Award in Cologne, Germany for Ma vie en rose on the occasion of the films tenth anniversary.

I certainly think that the United States has grown more tolerant in recent years towards gay and lesbian people though they’re just now starting to understand people who are transgender.  Here’s a question that I think is worth pondering.  When Ma vie en rose was released in this country it was given an R rating despite the fact that there was no violence, fowl language, nudity or any sex beyond gender issues.  This obviously caused a minor uproar from people who felt that the rating was ruled by intolerance towards the LGBT community and that it wasn’t appropriate for children even though it dealt with a child who badly needs to be understood.  Would the film receive an R rating when Catilyn Jenner is a constant media presence and has become a figure of admiration to many (and criticism by some)?  I’m not sure what the answer would be but I do know that if I had a child I would want them to watch this movie, R rating or not.

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