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The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

Less then well known movies that I think are worth checking out.

Bulworth (1998)

Stephen Sondheim once said that the purpose of art was to create order out of chaos.  Well, we certainly are living in a chaotic time right now, so this is a good time to look for a work of …

Source: BulWorth (1998)

BulWorth (1998)

bulworth

 

Stephen Sondheim once said that the purpose of art was to create order out of chaos.  Well, we certainly are living in a chaotic time right now, so this is a good time to look for a work of fiction that might put some perspective on last weeks election.

First, at the risk of alienating some readers, let me just say that I voted for Hillary Clinton and that I have found Donald Trump to be repugnant for as long as I’ve known who he was, which is most of my life.  Like many I watched the election results first with optimism, then apprehension, then disbelief and finally shock and despair.  Almost every major scientific poll (a bit of an oxymoron given the fact that polling is not an exact science) predicted Clinton the winner, with Trump’s chances of pulling ahead virtually non-existent.  His convention was a disaster; his performance at the debates appalling and his rhetoric angered and isolated a huge chunk of the populace.  Yes, Clinton got an unwanted “October Surprise” when James Comey announced that he had found some of Clinton’s e-mails, sending the false impression that they were re-opening the investigation.  Comey later admitted that they were of no significance but the damage was done.  Still, could this false accusation have greater consequences then a man bragging about sexual assault to the host of a tabloid talk show?  Apparently it did.

As it so happens the election has more or less coincided with the release of Warren Beatty’s first new movie in well over a decade, the now ironically titled Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don’t Apply.  I didn’t know that Beatty had a new film in the works but learned of it in an interview he gave for the New York Times.  They mentioned how the last film he had directed was the outrageous political satire Bulworth; a film that the author of the article pointed out seems rather prophetic today.  The only other film that he has appeared in since then was the 2001 disaster Town and Country.

I really hadn’t thought about Bulworth and it’s parallels to the 2016 election until that moment.  After the election I was in a daze.  But once I snapped out of it I decided to re-watch Bulworth and make it the subject of my blog.  I must say that I found some striking similarities. 

First off, we must examine Mr. Beatty and Mr. Trump.  On the surface they might seem like polar opposites.  Warren Beatty is an actor who quickly rose to stardom when he starred opposite Natalie Wood the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass.  While his chiseled good looks certainly didn’t hurt his chances of getting juicy parts, Beatty quickly achieved acclaim as an actor and later moved into producing with Bonnie and Clyde, a film that is often sighted as one of the first major works of the “New Hollywood” that arrived in the late-sixties and the seventies.  He later branched out into writing with Shampoo and directing with Heaven Can Wait.

Mr. Trump of course made a name for himself in New York’s competitive real-estate market.  He was given a major leg up by his father, who was already a real-estate mogul, albeit one who concentrated on middle class apartments in the outer-boroughs and not luxury condominiums, office buildings and hotels in Manhattan.  Like Beatty he quickly became a media personality and a source of public fascination.  Beatty’s public persona has been that of a smooth talking charmer.  His friend Jack Nicholson nicknamed him “the Great Seducer”.  Trump on the other hand seems to have created an image of him based entirely on ego, intimidation, anger and hubris.

Whereas Beatty is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat who was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, openly campaigned for George McGovern and expressed his political views in movies such as Shampoo and his Oscar winning film Reds, Trump has never been a political activist.  He ping-ponged back and fourth between the two parties, arguably supporting whichever one favored his business interests at the time.  When he did vocalize his political views they tended to lean to the right.  He took out a full page ad in New York’s four major daily newspapers calling for New York Sate to reinstate the death penalty after the case of the Central Park jogger broke,* he supported the War in Iraq (which he later denied) and of course there was his outrageous and baseless claims that President Obama was born in Kenya.

And yet, the two larger-than-life personalities do have some things in common.  In a world where fame is fleeting, both of them have managed to hold onto their celebrity status for decades.  Beatty has a good twenty years on Trump but then again he’s pretty much been out of the public eye for the last fifteen.  Since he first started making headlines in the early eighties, Trump has never been out of the limelight for one reason or another.  Both men have reputations for being Lotharios.  For decades Beatty was Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor, having affairs with such beauties as Julie Christie, Diane Keaton and Madonna before settling down with Annette Benning.  The two of them have been married for over twenty years now, have four children and by all outward appearances are a happily married couple.  Trump on the other hand has been married three times, has favored subservient women whom he has been unfaithful to.  And while Beatty could be (and often has been) described as a womanizer, Trump has been accused of downright misogyny for years, a fact that has been given a great deal of credence during this campaign season.

Finally, both men are notorious narcissist.  Carly Simon, one of his many romantic conquests, claims that her song “You’re So Vain” was about Beatty (he probably already thought it was).  When Paul Thomas Anderson approached him about playing Jack Horner, the pornographic film director ultimately played by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, Beatty wanted instead to play Dirk Diggler, the twenty-something leading role ultimately played by Mark Wahlberg. In Town and Country (which I saw and didn’t think was that bad) Beatty finds himself being pursued aimlessly by several beautiful women. Even in the upcoming Rules Don’t Apply the seventy-nine year old Beatty plays Howard Hughes when he was in his mid-fifties.   True, Beatty has aged with impeccable grace, no doubt with the aid of a plastic surgeon (Trump….not so much), but why is he so obsessed with playing men who are nearly young enough to be his grandchildren? Both narcissism and insecurity can infect even the most talented of us.

And that leads us to Bulworth.

The film takes place in mid-1996. It’s two years after the so-called “Republican Revolution” allowed the G.O.P. to regain control of both the House and the Senate. Newt Gingrich had become the first Republican Speaker-of-the-House in over forty years. President Bill Clinton, a center-left candidate to begin with, started moving more towards the center, even declaring, “the era of big government is over.” Many felt that he was waffling, though he took the hard line approach when Gingrich tried to put forth his “Contract For America”, even shutting down the federal government when Clinton didn’t cave. By the time he was up for re-election in ’96 there was no real suspense over whether or not he’d be re-elected, partly because voter apathy was at an all time high and voter turnout was at an all time low. If there’s one positive thing one can say about this country in the new millennium it’s that voter turnout has increased over the last five presidential elections, even if 46% of eligible voters still don’t vote.

At the start of the film Jay Bulworth (Beatty), a Democratic Senator from California, sits in his Capitol Hill office. On the wall are photographs of him in the sixties with such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King, Huey Newton and Robert Kennedy. On the TV we see a commercial for his umpteenth re-election campaign. It’s your typical mawkish piece of propaganda, showing Bullworth sitting around a dinner table with his family as he talks about cutting money for welfare and doing away with unnecessary Affirmative Action programs. Clearly, his years in Washington have compromised his ideals, a fact that he seems painfully aware of as he weeps while watching the videos. In front of him is a congealed pizza plus other take-out items that don’t look like they’ve been touched.

When the sun comes up his office starts to fill. There’s his Chief-of-Staff Dennis Murphy (Oliver Platt) a typical behind-the-scenes Washington wonk who tries to make sure the trains run on time and the campaign checks clear. It’s two days before the California primary and Bulworth is due to head back west to do some last minute barn storming and fundraising in L.A. He gives an obligatory press conference then meets outside of the capitol with his wife (Christine Baranski) for a photo-op. They clearly are estranged but go through the act of being a happy couple for the good of the campaign.

Back inside the Senators office he meets with an insurance company executive (Paul Sorvino). There’s a bill that’s working it’s way through the Senate that would make it easier for the disadvantaged to get insurance. That doesn’t sit well with the insurance industry. “I’ve got no problem with the African Americans,” says the executive. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan, I’ve got no problem with these people. These people have good jobs.” He seems to forget that one of them hasn’t been at work, or been alive for the past twenty-eight years. “But you’re telling me that I have to give a policy to some lazy, rap singing punk so he can burn down his house and smoke crack and get AIDS?” Bottom line, he wants Bulworth to make sure the bill never makes it to the Senate floor. While it’s illegal for Senators to accept bribes they often do receive certain “gifts” along with their campaign contributions. In this case Bulworth wants a very generous life insurance policy worth ten million dollars to be payable to his daughter should anything happen to him.

Next the Senator meets with a shady character named Vinnie (Richard C. Sarafin). He claims that they’re meeting for a “weekend research project” but in the privacy of his office it turns out that Vinnie’s actually arranging a hit for Bulworth. He gives Vinnie a photograph of the guy the Senator wants killed. It’s a photo of him. “If I’m not dead by Monday I stop payment on the check.”

Bulworth then flies into LAX; guzzling the little bottles of Jack Daniels they give you on the plane (He flies commercial. Today a lobbyist would probably let him use their private jet). He meets up with Chief-of-Staff Murphy, who has arranged to have C-SPAN follow the Senator on the campaign trail. Even though he’s arranged for his own death he’s still human and hared wired for survival. So when he hears a loud noise at LAX he instinctively starts to walk faster.

The first stop on the campaign trail is a black church in South Central. Bulworth enters. The parishioners politely applaud. Then he goes to the pulpit. He begins to read the speech his staff has prepared but stops and asks if there are any questions.

One parishioner points out that they were supposed to receive federal aid after the L.A. riots. What happened? He’s already signed his death warrant. What has he got to lose? “What happened,” Bulworth responds. “Is that we knew it was going to be big news for a while so we all came down – Bush, Clinton – and then we went home.” Needless to say this was not the answer the congregation was looking for. Another parishioner complains that they can’t get any insurance and why he hasn’t come out in favor of the insurance bill to help the poor. “Well you haven’t contributed much to my campaign, now have you?” More uproar! “Are you saying that the Democratic Party doesn’t care about the black community?” asks an angry woman in the audience. “Well isn’t that obvious?” asks Bulworth. Murphy pulls the fire alarm before things get out of hand.

As the Senator is escorted to his limo a trio of young black women approach him saying that they want to volunteer. One is a girl named Nina, played by Halle Berry. She catches Bulworth’s eye because, well, she’s Halle Berry. He asks Murphy to give the ladies jobs as volunteers.

Amazingly, Bulworth feels liberated. After driving through a KFC (he hasn’t eaten in three days) they head to a Beverly Hills mansion to meet with various members of the entertainment industry. While scarfing down hors d’oeuvres a guest asks him about censoring movies. “I think the problem is that so many of the movies you make are just really bad,” he says. “My guys aren’t stupid,” he adds. “They always put the big Jews on my agenda. I mean, you’re all Jews here right? At least three out of four?” He then looks through his speech, “there’s got to be something bad about (Louis) Farrakhan in here.”

Once again, he is hurried out. He invites Nina and her two friends to hop in the limo and asks where they’re going. They take him to a hip-hop club back in South Central. Bulworth and his aids are of course fish out of water at the place, but while Harris looks around fearing for his life, the Senator tries to blend in…as best he can. He stands next to a muscular looking fellow who gives him a menacing look. He then passes Bulworth a blunt, which the Senator graciously accepts. One of the bartenders mistakes him for George Hamilton. Soon he gets into the hip-hop music and even makes up his own freestyle rhymes. He sees Nina on the dance floor and the two of them begin to boogie. His moves look like Carleton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air but hey, he’s having fun.

At sunrise Harris wakes up (having fallen asleep on the clubs sofa) and sees Bulworth playing with the turntables. “We had fun, we had fun!” the Senator says enthusiastically. Harris thinks that he’s gotten it out of his system. He also suggests that he get some rest rather then going to a fundraiser at the Wilshire Beverley Hills. “Nonsense,” says the Senator. He may have a five o’clock shadow and his suite might not be laundered but he at least seems more focused.

He arrives at the Wilshire and begins to work the crowd, hugging and shaking hands with his various campaign contributors. He walks up to the dais and begins to give a typical speech filled with the usual political BS “It’s up to the people of California and the nation to decide what to do.” He then stops. Nina walks in. He then throws out the script and starts freesyling. He’s no Lin-Manuel Miranda but he sure does get his point across, happily moving amongst the tables of the various industries that fund his campaign and telling them some of the awful truth about American politics.

 

As lon as you make your contribution

you get your solution.

As long as you pay

I’m gonna do it all your way.

We all got our problems

The haves and the have nots

but the ones who make me listen

pay for thirty-second spots.

 

While this is going on we see a mysterious figure (who’s face we cannot see) sneaking into Sen. Bulworth’s suite. He puts some poison into a bottle of champagne and also unbolts the balcony. Nina suggests that they go up to his room, but when Bullworth sees a shadowy figure in sunglasses amongst the people in the hotel lobby he immediately gets frightened. The fact that he was going to die liberated him and allowed him to go rouge. Now that he’s been reinvigorated and met a young woman that he likes he realizes that he has to stop his own assassination.

Bulworth is a wickedly funny film. The image of a white man reaching social security age trying to freestyling and trying to re-invent himself as a b-boy politician is very funny. The film is merciless in its attack of the political system. Certainly one of the funniest characters is Oliver Platt as Bulworth’s chief-of-staff, trying to coax him in the right direction, spinning things when he gets out of hand, angrily criticizing him behind his back and then doing a 180 when the Senators candor gets a positive reaction. A particularly hilarious scene has Platt’s character angrily ranting while he snorts a heroic amount of cocaine from a small vile while his assistant (Joshua Malina) looks on like a hungry puppy hoping that a meatball will fall from the dinner table.

But of course this film has a lot to say about how our political system has been corrupted, how lobbyists and big campaign donors essentially have politicians – Democrat or Republican – in their back pocket. And it’s gotten worse since then. Lobbyists have literally been writing some of the laws that get passed and the Citizens United decision has made it so that corporations, now recognized as a “people”, can donate as much money as they want to a political party or campaign, all but assuring a conflict of interest.

The film also focuses good and hard on the racial and economic division in this country that has also arguably gotten worse. In one scene Bulworth talks to Nina about his experiences with Huey Newton and wonders “why there aren’t any black leaders today?” She gives him an extremely insightful lecture on how the decline of the manufacturing base has lead to the death of the middle class and that the post-war economy made it possible for African-Americans of modest means to receive a good education and mobilize an informed community. In one scene Buloworth is taken to Nina’s house in South Central. He probably spent a good deal of time down here in his more idealistic days. Now he looks at all the urban decay around him, the sound of helicopters overhead. Black Californians make up a big block of the electorate, but he hasn’t really seen what a sizable percentage of them have to live with on a daily basis.

Not that Bullowrth (or Beatty) lets the black underclass off scott-free. In one scene he meets a local drug dealer played by Don Cheadle. He has a bunch of young kids selling drugs for him. He calls them his “little soldiers” and explains how he’s “looking out” for them because he controls the only “growth industry available to them right now.” He then gives a lecture about how politicians have gutted the education system and send young men off to die for oil money. Maybe so, but Bullworth flips the script on him, pointing out that he too is essentially just looking out for his own self interests.

(I must say that while I think Don Cheadle is one of the finest actors working today I’ve never quite found him convincing when he’s playing a guy from the streets, such as here and in the film Talk To Me. He can play an African hotel manager with perfect ease in Hotel Rwanda but when playing someone from the hood he can’t quite shed his refinements.)

The very first movie that I wrote about on this blog was Billy Wilder’s misunderstood masterpiece Ace in the Hole, about a reporter who deliberately keeps someone trapped in a mineshaft underground so that he can milk the story for all it’s worth. It was one of those prophetic films that accurately predicted the way America and its media would be headed. Others would come later. A Face in the Crowd showed us what happens when a television personality becomes a demigod. The Truman Show predicted the rise of reality television. Some say that Hal Ashby’s Being There predicted the rise of George W. Bush. And of course there’s Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, a savage attack on the TV industry that basically predicted how the news media would be replaced with sensationalized entertainment and how the public would embrace a madman so long as he tapped into their fears and base desires.

Right now the Clinton years almost looks like halcyon days compared to today. Then again the past always looks better when filtered through the lens of time and compared to our present, highly imperfect world. Bill Clinton was our first president born after World War II. He was a product of the “New South”, a child of the Civil Rights movement who connected with the African-American community in a way that no president until Obama was able to. Yet Clinton quickly learned how to play Washington politics and while he oversaw a period of dramatic economic growth he was still more then willing to snuggle up to big campaign donors, a fact that certainly hurt his wife’s own chances of winning the White House this month.

On the right there was a genuine hatred of Clinton and what he stood for. The G.O.P platform of “family values” didn’t really sell in 1992 but in the interim people like Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott and others tapped into the anger of the “endangered” white man and the middle class that was under assault. And lets also not forget that when Clinton ran in 1992 he was running the first genuine three-way race since Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket back in 1912. Ross Perot, a self-made billionaire from the tech industry ran as an independent with a very populist message. He bought up hours of airtime where he explained our countries precarious economic state with a series of pie charts and what he called a “voodoo stick” because “as you all know, we’re in deep voodoo.” Perot warned of a “great sucking sound,” referring to the jobs that would be outsourced to Mexico if the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, were signed into law. Both Bush and Clinton supported the program. It was drafted under Bush and signed into law by Clinton. His hope was that the growing tech industry would create new jobs to supplement the ones that were outsourced. This did happen, to an extent, and a record twenty-two million job were created during his presidency. But those who were unskilled and didn’t have a college degree had to make due with minimum wage jobs at Wal*Mart and McDonalds, not nearly enough to supplement the income made in an auto factory. Ironically, it might have been the Clinton impeachment that rekindled his faith with the people. At the height of the proceedings he had a 65% approval rating.

Obviously, this anger hasn’t gone away. Trump managed to insult blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the physically challenged and women (and yet 42% of women voted for Trump. This I just can’t understand). Yet the angry white man has continued to wield enough power and cover enough territory so that on Election Day Trump was able to win the bulk of the electoral map, if not the popular vote.

It’s also worth noting that Trump wasn’t the only populist candidate in the running. I remember driving home after the Iowa caucus. Trump was the Republican victor while Hillary beat Vermont Governor Bernie Sanders by just a fraction of a percent. “Populism has both a right and a left,” the radio announcer pointed out. That’s very true, although I felt that Sen. Sanders was really trying to start a movement. His campaign was about the people. Trump’s was largely about him and yet somehow the disenfranchised working class connected with (or were duped by) him. Bottom line, the public is angry with career politicians. That’s who the Democrats ended up nominating.  The Republicans meanwhile went against the will of the establishment and nominated a self-aggrandizing egomaniac that, inexplicably, is now the president elect.

I think there’s another factor one must look at. The 1990’s were an era when political correctness was on the rise. Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that had already suffered it’s share of censorship problems over the years, was again being banned for it’s use of the word “nigger”, this despite the fact that it’s probably the greatest anti-bigotry story ever written. The Little Rascals disappeared from the airwaves, Actors Equity refused to grant a Visa to Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce in order for him to recreate the role he originated in the London company of Miss Saigon. Michael Jackson was forced to recall copies of his single “They Don’t Really Care About Us” over supposed anti-Semitic lyrics. Even Ross Perot was taken to task for addressing an audience of African Americans as “you people”. It was a time when calling Native Americans “Indians” or East Asian people “Oriental” were likened to racial slurs. As George H.W. Bush said while running for re-election “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.” How many of the people who preached “political correctness” were aware that the term was originally coined by the Bolsheviks who declared anything that wasn’t in tune with the Soviet ideology to be “politically incorrect” and therefor had to be censored, often by violent force.

It wasn’t too long before there was a backlash. Bill Maher began hosting Politically Incorrect, comedians like Chris Rock, Dave Chappell, Dennis Miller and a young Sarah Silverman were joined by old hats like George Carlin and Jackie Mason in thumbing their nose at what was appropriate. And while TV shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld attacked social taboos in a very subversive way (not that there’s anything wrong with that), new programs like In Living Color, South Park and Family Guy tackled any and everything head-on, equally offending everyone and everything.

Lately, there’s been another wave of political correctness. Last year the Huffington Post created a list of “most inappropriate Halloween costumes,” one of which was Katelyn Jenner, someone who unabashedly hogs the spotlight. Why is it okay for a man to dress like Lady GaGa and not her? This year Hillary Duff caused an uproar because she dressed like a pilgrim and her boyfriend like an apache warrior. They were both accused of being “racist”. Frankly, I think calling someone “racist” for something that’s even the tiniest bit offensive is far more insensitive. Even Jerry Seinfeld, easily one of the least taboo tackling of comedians caused a minor stir when he made a joke about someone who looks like a “gay king” when he scrolls through his phone.

Obviously, I’m no fan of political correctness, and when I’m accused of being politically incorrect (and there have been quite a few times) I often retort that I’m not a politician.

I’m not but the moment he announced that he was running for President Mr. Trump became one. He might be an entertainer because of his TV show (I’m happy to confess that I’ve never seen it. Frankly I can’t imagine someone competing to work for that guy), but running for office is another manner. I can laugh at the episode of South Park titled “Do the Handicap Go To Hell” but I find it impossible to laugh at his mocking a physically handicapped reporter. I think it’s ridiculous that terrorists would go on a killing spree in Paris over an offensive cartoon but I think that calling all Muslims “terrorists” and trying to ban anyone who may be Muslim from entering the country (this despite the fact that it’s unconstitutional to make any law regarding religion and that it’s against the law to ask someone what religion they are when entering the country) is as un-American as you can get. And while I find the humor of people like Howard Stern and Andrew “Dice” Clay to be both sexist and unfunny  I respect their right to say it. But when a man who is the Republican nominee for President is overheard saying he likes to “grab (women) by the pussy,” that should immediately disqualify him from holding any higher office.

Bulworth didn’t get much of a release when it came out. Supposedly 20th Century Fox only green lit the film because of a lawsuit Beatty won regarding Dick Tracy, a film that was originally supposed to be made at Fox. They gave him carte blanche freedom to make the film but only gave it a limited release. The hideous poster for the film probably didn’t help matters. Bulworth went on to achieve a cult following. Once in an interview President Obama even said that he was tempted to go “full Bullworth” during the campaign. In other words, just throw out the script and speak from the gut regardless of the consequences.

Clearly, Mr. Beatty understood that there was a great deal of discontent with the political system and a great deal of anger with the status quo. Two years later we would have one of the most hotly contested elections in our nations history, with Al Gore winning the popular vote but the Supreme Court ruling in favor of George W. Bush. Congress meanwhile was virtually split down the middle. The election of Obama galvanized the left but while he has many accomplishments he can point to, uniting the country isn’t one of them. No sooner was he elected then the whole Tea Party movement started up and wrestled Congress away from him. And this year we saw two candidates, one who is quite easily the most qualified in our electoral history and the other so unqualified that every living president has failed to endorse him, along with every major newspaper in the country, countless world leaders and other people of note. And while Clinton won the popular vote by a significant margin, she failed geographically to win the Electoral College and, in turn, the presidency.

A teacher of mine once said that a theologian gives answers, an artist asks question. I think it’s fair to say that in 1998 Warren Beatty was asking the right questions. Whether we were looking for the right answers is another story.

 

Bulworth is now streaming on Netflix.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_m2N5Ak2os

*In 1989 a female jogger was assaulted and rapped in Central Park and spent twelve days in a coma but survived. Five young men, four of them black and one of them Hispanic were arrested and charged with the crime. Donald Trump took out an ad in New York’s five major daily newspapers, not only prematurely judging them as guilty but also calling for re-instating of the death penalty in New York State. The five men were ultimately found guilty. In 2001 a convict serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime confessed to being the actual rapist. DNA evidence corroborated his claim and the “Central Park Five” had their convictions overturned. In October 2016, right before the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording surfaced, Trump said in an interview that he still believed that the five men were guilty.

MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1979)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

more-american-graffiti-8

 

In 2012, the Hollywood trades, online bloggers and just about ever other form of mass communication this side of Tatooine was all abuzz over the galactic sized news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm Ltd. – the motion picture company that he spent decades building and jealously guarding against outside corporate interests – to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion in stock options. “I’m going to retire to my garage with my saw and hammer an build hobby movies,” Lucas said prior to stepping down as Lucasfilm CEO and selling the company to Disney. “I’ve always wanted to make movies that were more experimental in nature, and not have to worry about showing them in theaters.”

Lucas has often claimed that he wasn’t all that interested in movies while he was growing up. He says that his interest in filmmaking wasn’t really sparked until after high…

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MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1979)

In 2012, the Hollywood trades, online bloggers and just about ever other form of mass communication this side of Tatooine was all abuzz over the galactic sized news that George Lucas had sold Luc…

Source: MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1979)

MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1979)

more-american-graffiti-8

 

In 2012, the Hollywood trades, online bloggers and just about ever other form of mass communication this side of Tatooine was all abuzz over the galactic sized news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm Ltd. – the motion picture company that he spent decades building and jealously guarding against outside corporate interests – to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion in stock options. “I’m going to retire to my garage with my saw and hammer an build hobby movies,” Lucas said prior to stepping down as Lucasfilm CEO and selling the company to Disney. “I’ve always wanted to make movies that were more experimental in nature, and not have to worry about showing them in theaters.”

Lucas has often claimed that he wasn’t all that interested in movies while he was growing up. He says that his interest in filmmaking wasn’t really sparked until after high school when he and a friend would venture off to San Francisco and explore the art-houses, watching the films of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini and Kurosawa while also watching the avant-garde Canyon Cinema films that were being made in the Bay Area. This lead him to the University of Southern California (USC), one of the first institutions of higher learning that offered cinema studies as a major. While at the University he directed such cinematic tone poems with such haughty titles as Look at Life, 1:42:08 and THX:1138:4EB (Electronic Labyrinth). It was the latter student film – a twenty-minute short about a human drone trying to escape a dystopian society – that ended up pointing him towards the mainstream when he won a scholarship to be a student observer at Warner Bros.

“I arrived (on the Warner studio lot) on the very day that Jack Warner retired.” This probably isn’t literally true, but when he did arrive at the famed Burbank studio he didn’t see the bustling backlot one saw in such movies as Sunset Boulevard or The Bad and the Beautiful. It was rather a depressing ghost town seeing as how the studios output had slowed down considerably and most films were now being shot on location.

There was one film that was being shot on the lot, a musical called Finian’s Rainbow. The director was Francis Ford Coppola, a graduate of the UCLA film school and the first student filmmaker to break past the studio gates. Coppola took the young filmmaker under his wing and Lucas helped Francis start American Zoetrope, the San Francisco based Production Company that Coppola still owns. The young companies first film was Lucas’ first theatrical film – a feature length version of his student film, title shortened to THX:1138.

A largely silent film that explores such themes as totalitarianism and the human need for free will, THX:1138 is no masterpiece but it was an interesting and imaginative film that went on to develop a cult following among sci-fi fans. At the time though, it was not very well received. Warner Bros, who distributed the film, didn’t give it much of a chance and cut five minutes from the release print, a fact that Lucas has never let go.

And then, his career took, as Lucas has said, a detour. He teamed up with his USC classmates Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to write a script for American Graffiti, about a group of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood living in a small Northern California town not unlike Lucas’ own Modesto. Coppola, who went on to direct The Godfather used his newfound influence to help Lucas get the film made. American Graffiti ended up being the sleeper hit of 1973, grossing over $50 million domestically against a $700,000 budget. With this success Lucas was able to make a little something called Star Wars, a film that…let’s just say it was very popular.

After that Lucas took a twenty-two year respite from directing. In the interim he wrote, produced and conceptualized his pictures while others did the actual directing. These included Irving Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi), Ron Howard (Willow), Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails) and of course Steven Spielberg (all four Indiana Jones films). Spielberg himself noted that “Like Disney, he has that rare talent of being able to get the best from the people he works with. I know. He got nearly the best out of me in 1981 when I made Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Before making any of these films he produced More American Graffiti, his first sequel and his first experience handing over the car keys to another director.

To direct More American Graffiti he hired Bill L. Norton, billed at the time as B.W.L. Norton. A television director today whose credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Law and Order, Roswell and Las Vegas, he first gained industry attention with his 1973 counter culture film Cisco Pike. Lucas was impressed with the film and since Norton was a fellow Californian he felt that he’d be the ideal choice to direct American Graffiti II. Norton also wrote the screenplay based on Lucas’ outline.

One litmus test as to whether or not a sequel is warranted (and more often then not one isn’t) is whether or not you care what happens to the characters after the final coda. I don’t think anyone gave two damns what happened to Roy Schider and Richard Dreyfus after the shark blew up in Jaws. I don’t think anyone cared what happened to Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist once that demon was exorcised. And I think it’s quite fair to say that no one could care less what happened to the characters in Independence Day twenty years down the line. Just check out the box office receipts if you don’t believe me.

But everyone wanted to know what happened next for the Rebels in Star Wars and everyone wanted to join Indiana Jones on another adventure, but I don’t know that many people were dying to see what happened next to the characters in American Graffiti. That’s not to say that they weren’t memorable. Indeed, just about everyone who went to that movie could either identify with one of the characters or they at least reminded the viewer of someone they knew in high school. The film also ended with an epilog saying what happened to the four male leads in the film, and that kind of tied up loose ends. Still, just as there was a back-story to the original Star Wars trilogy (which I personally liked, though clearly not everyone did), there was a middle point between the end of the first picture and that final coda.

The first American Graffiti took place entirely in one evening on the last day of summer in a Northern California town in 1962. Taking a page from Federico Fellini’s early film I Vitelloni, the film featured four male protagonists whose stories intertwine during the course of the film. There’s Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus), who’s due to fly east in the morning to start college but who has cold feet about leaving home. His best friend Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) who’s also due to go to college back east and claims he can’t wait to get out of “this turkey town” but actually still has strong feelings for Laurie (Cindy Williams), his girlfriend and Curt’s sister. Then there’s John Milner (Paul Le Matt), a hot rodder who gets stuck with an awkward thirteen-year old girl (Mackenzie Phillips) and Terry “the Toad” Fields (Charlie Martin Smith), a short, clumsy but self confident nerd who manages to pick up a “bitching babe” named Debbie (Candy Clark), who he flatters by telling her that she looks like Jayne Mansfield.

More American Graffiti takes place on New Year’s Eve, but not one single New Years Eve. Rather four consecutive New Years Eves from 1964 through 1967. The film cuts back and fourth between the stories, each of which if given it’s own unique visual style.

The film opens on New Years Eve of 1964. Since it’s California, the sun is shining and everyone is wearing shorts and T-shirts, which for this life-long North Atlantic resident just seems weird. John Milner is now a professional drag racer. He has his own team but hopes to race for a racecar manufacturer. His friends show up. Steve and Laurie have tied the not and Laurie is now pregnant. Terry “The Toad” clearly made an impression on Debbie from the first film. Here it is two years later and they’re very much an item. Though the character of Curt is referred to he’s not present. After Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his Oscar winning turn in The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfus’ pay grade was by then considerably higher then the other actors.

Terry has joined the army and has is about to ship off to Vietnam. This was before the conflict had escalated into an all out war but after congress had authorized the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. “Uncle Sam said ‘we need the Toad! The only we’re gonna win this thing is if you send the Toad!” proclaims Terry with all the swagger of a young man raised on John Wayne movies. Milner gives him a bolt from one of the many races he survived to use as a good luck charm. “You know what I’m gonna do,” says an obviously touched Terry. “I’m gonna bring you back a V.C. flag.” “Nah, nah, don’t do that,” Milner replies. “Just come back alive.”

Exactly one year later, Terry is in the thick of the jungle, and he’s clearly had enough of it. In a hilarious moment Terry looks at a photograph of Debbie, says “I’m coming home baby!” and then ties to injure himself by rigging up his riffle and firing a bullet into his arm. The plan backfires. It doesn’t his him but the rest of his platoon at a nearby camp thinks they’re under attack. They respond by returning fire. Terry survives, but he runs afoul of his C.O. Maj. Creech (Richard Branford). Later he tries to injure himself again by playing a game of tackle football, going up a guy who looks like he could be a professional linebacker fort he 49rs. Wouldn’t you know it, the linebacker guy gets injured, not Terry.

Later we see Terry on a chopper being airlifted into battle. He’s befriended a guy named Little Joe (Bo Hopkins) who comes from “back home”. You might not remember but Little Joe was the leader of the Pharos, the gang of greasers that more or less abducted Richard Dreyfus for the night in the first film. While flying over enemy territory Terry holds the bolt that John Milner gave him. He mentions how a “good buddy who died” gave it to him Soon their plane is shot down. One soldier gets shot. Little Joe, who’s just recently been deployed, is horrified at what he sees. “You get used to it after a while,” says Terry. Soon however, they get shot down. Terry tires to call the Major for help, but he’s busy entertaining a Congressman. Terry reacts by telling the Major what he thinks of him. Terry gets out of there. He’s unable to save Little Joe but he does save a fellow soldier. Frankly, the Major’s still mad about Terry’s brief (and understandable) moment of insubordination. He puts him on latrine duty.

Next we go to New Years Eve, 1966. Debbie is living in San Francisco. She laments that she doesn’t like New Years Eve much. “I lost two friends on New Years Eve. One of them was a boyfriend.” She no longer has her platinum blonde hair, lives with a bunch of other hippies (including McKenzie Phillips from the first movie) and is working as a go-go dancer. When her “old man” gets arrested for drug possession (by Harrison Ford in a cameo, reprising his role from the first film) she goes on a series of comic escapades to help get him out.

We then move to 1967. Steve and Laurie are living in Berkley. Steve is an insurance salesman, they have a pair of twins and Laurie is going crazy. She wants to get out of the house and get a job, something that the old-fashioned Steve finds abhorrent (this is before the women’s rights movement began in earnest). Laurie eventually leaves to stay with her brother Andy (Will Seltzer). This eventually finds her involved with a campus anti-war demonstration. Steve comes looking for Laurie. though he’s no hippie (“I voted Republican”) also find himself siding with the agitators when he’s reunited with Laurie. The straight-laced Steve later helps his wife spring a whole bus full of women who were arrested during the protest.

As with the first American Graffiti, this film features a killer soundtrack of songs from the era, ranging from the Supremes, the Beach Boys and the Marvellets to the Rolling Stones, the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Bob Dylan. Scoring a film with pre-existing pop songs was still pretty novel when the first Graffiti was released. Now it’s become ridiculously clichéd and is often just an excuse to have a soundtrack recording tied in. These are all familiar songs but they serve more as a frame of reference. I wasn’t alive during those years but I imagine that someone who was will be transported back to that time and place. More importantly, the music sets the right emotional tone and manages to subtly comment on the action.

One thing that is really unique about Graffiti II is it’s unique visual style, or more accurately styles. Each sequence is shot differently. The 1964 scenes are shot in widescreen Panavision. The Vietnam scenes are shot in 16mm, thus simulating actual combat footage. Debbie’s story in 1966 is shot with multiple, split screen images throughout, much like in the Woodstock concert film. The 1967 scenes are shot in standard Panavision. This was one of the first films photographed by Caleb Deschanel. The father of actress Zoey Deschanel, he would also go on to lens such classics as The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural and The Passion of the Christ.

At the end of Debbie’s story she’s ditched her deadbeat boyfriend and has hooked up with a different rock band, played by Country Joe McDonald and Fish. We’re told at the final coda that she went on to become a country and western singer. Steve and Laurie have made their peace and Steve is willing to let Laurie get a job. One hopes that their marriage will remain strong.

Terry, fed up with the carnage and bureaucracy of war, fakes his own death in a very ingenious way while also getting even with that asinine Major. We learned in the first film that he was reported “Missing in Action”. Well, he’s missing alright, but not dead. He’s now a deserter. “You realize you won’t be able to go back home,” a fellow soldier warns him. “That’s okay,” says Terry. “I’ve always wanted to see Europe.” When we last see him he’s optimistically singing “May Old Acquaintance Be Forgot” as he heads off into the jungle. Who knows if he will survive.
John Milner’s story ends on the most ominous note. He’s met a beautiful Icelandic girl, who might be the girl of his dreams. He’s shown riding off in his Duce Coup, another car coming in the distance. Both cars disappear behind a hill. We then see a photo of Miler and learn that he died when he was hit by a drunk driver.

Critics didn’t care for More American Graffiti and the box office was indifferent. Maybe no one really did care what happened next to these characters. Maybe America wasn’t yet ready to reflect on the turbulent sixties. That arguably took another decade when Born on the Fourth of July and The Wonder Years took off. More American Graffiti isn’t a great film nor is it as magical as the first.

“My whole idea of a style for More American Graffiti was unsuccessful, I guess,” Lucas later speculated. “Bill’s a more conservative kind of storyteller, and I think I forced him to do things that in his heart he wasn’t comfortable with.” Norton himself said that “Multiple stories are very risky. They worked well in American Graffiti because there was a unity of time and place. But in More American Graffiti we were asking a lot of the audience because things were happening at different times, as well as different places.”

Since this time, people have grown more and more accustomed to stories taking place in different times and places. Look at the films of Quentin Tarrintino or Atom Egoyan. Check out films like The Hours or Babel. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve caught up to the idea. Just one more reason why the film should be given a second look, though it would be wise to watch the first film again as a refresher.

Now that Lucas has sold Lucasfilm and is officially out of the blockbuster game, one can’t help but wonder what he’s going to do next. Is he going to go back to making cinematic tone poems like THX:1138? Lord knows the man has earned the right, both in stature and financially, to make whatever movies he wants. But I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if he went back and made another movie like the Graffiti films. In other words, a movie about regular people. True, he’s been a wealthy man for many years, but he hardly seems like a plutocrat who’s out of touch with reality. He was a single parent, maybe he could make a movie about that? He’s recently remarried to and has become a father again, that might make a neat movie. Or how about a movie about a very successful man starting a new phase in his life and career. I know it’s futile to expect a filmmaker, or any artist, to make the kind of movie you’d like to see them make. Lord knows there was a disconnect between what fans wanted the Star Wars prequels to be and what Lucas wanted to make. But I just can’t help but wish Lucas would just make one more film about regular people before he retires to his garage.

 

GOYA’S GHOSTS (2006)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

goya3x.jpg

We’ve all been there. We read a review or hear overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth about a movie, play, TV show, book, art exhibit, album, restaurant…you name it. We go to see/read/hear/dine at the before mentioned and we find ourselves totally underwhelmed, if not downright disgusted. Everyone’s a critic, of course, and everyone has his or her critics. You may recall the scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where Allen and his young girlfriend (Muriel Hemingway) run into Allen’s best friend (Michael Murphy) and his mistress, played by Diane Keaton. On first impression, she proves herself to be maddeningly pretentious. Among the sins that she commits is reciting the candidates for her “Academy of the Overrated”. These include Gustav Mahler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gough and even Woody Allen’s real life idol, Ingmar Bergman. “I think every one of them is great,” Allen’s character protests. I assume the real…

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GOYA’S GHOSTS (2006)

We’ve all been there. We read a review or hear overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth about a movie, play, TV show, book, art exhibit, album, restaurant…you name it. We go to see/read/…

Source: GOYA’S GHOSTS (2006)

GOYA’S GHOSTS (2006)

 

goya3x.jpg

 

We’ve all been there. We read a review or hear overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth about a movie, play, TV show, book, art exhibit, album, restaurant…you name it. We go to see/read/hear/dine at the before mentioned and we find ourselves totally underwhelmed, if not downright disgusted. Everyone’s a critic, of course, and everyone has his or her critics. You may recall the scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where Allen and his young girlfriend (Muriel Hemingway) run into Allen’s best friend (Michael Murphy) and his mistress, played by Diane Keaton. On first impression, she proves herself to be maddeningly pretentious. Among the sins that she commits is reciting the candidates for her “Academy of the Overrated”. These include Gustav Mahler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gough and even Woody Allen’s real life idol, Ingmar Bergman. “I think every one of them is great,” Allen’s character protests. I assume the real Woody Allen does too. But I also heard in interviews that he never liked The Wizard of Oz, he’s never been able to make it all the way through Casablanca and that he doesn’t think Some Like it Hot is funny.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. We see a film, read a book, go to an art exhibit, what have you, and we fall in love with it. We then find out that the so-called tastemakers hated it. Whether because of a pack mentality or their honest feelings your peers agree. I’m not talking about guilty pleasures. For me at least, if I were to pick a some movies that fall into this category they would include the Police Academy series, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and the recently roasted-by-the-critics R-rated animated film Sausage Party. I’m talking about the films made by major artists that were released with lofty aspirations and that, for you at least, were on the mark. For rest of the crowd it’s another story.

What were some of mine? I’d pick Martin Scorsese’s critically panned Shutter Island, Spike Lee’s Miracle at Santa Anna, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Federico Fellini’s Intervista and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, the latter being the subject of one of my first blog entries.

And then there’s Goya’s Ghosts, a 2006 Spanish-American co-production directed by Milos Forman, one of my favorite filmmakers. Because it was Forman’s first (and thus far only) film since Man on the Moon in 1999, there was no way I wasn’t going to see it.

Like most people, I read reviews to give me an idea as to what films I should see and what films I should avoid. If there’s a movie that didn’t look good to me but gets rave reviews, I’ll probably check it out. Conversely, if there’s a film that I was mildly curious about but is panned by the critics, I’ll probably skip it or at least wait until it comes on Netflix or HBO. But if there’s a movie I really want to see, I’ll go see it the first chance I get. I’ll also avoid reading any reviews of the film until afterwards. Truthfully, I often like reading reviews after I’ve seen the film in question because I have a frame of reference and a point of view I may or may not agree with.

When Goya’s Ghost was released in New York, I went to see it at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. I was blown away by the picture.  I personally rank it with Forman’s two Oscar-winning masterpieces – One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Amadeus, the latter being hands-down one of my favorite films of all time. I also adored his early Czech films Love’s of a Blonde, Fireman’s Ball and the before mentioned Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. His adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime was unsatisfying but it had many wonderful qualities, not least of which was a performance by James Cagney, who agreed to come out of retirement in order to play his first role in over two decades. I must confess that I didn’t care for either his film version of Hair or his terribly didactic The People vs. Larry Flynt, though many people I know admire them both.

Getting back on topic – after seeing Goya’s Ghosts I went back to see what the “intelligencia” thought of it. While my favorite critic Roger Ebert gave the film a favorable three-star review, I found to my dismay that almost every other critic treated the picture as if it were a work of pure heresy.

As of right now, the film has a dismal 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though a much more encouraging 57% audience score). Here are a few excerpts:

 

“Think of it as an Amadeus that doesn’t work.”

                                                            -Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

“A Punishing Misfire.”

-Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle

 

“Captures the essence of the period – an intriguing, backward era

            in Spain – but without the emotional impact that such a

            film requires.” 

                                                            -Marta Barber, Miami Herald

 

“A storyline that turns so silly you half-expect Mel Brooks to show up

            reprising his “inquisition” musical number from History of the World,

Part I.”

-Matt Brunson, something called Creative Loafing

 

Reading these reviews now, and the similar reviews ten years ago, all I can think is, did we see the same movie?

The title of Goya’s Ghosts refers to the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828). Originally a romantic painter, he came of age during the tale end of the great classical period in European art. He painted scenes from Greek mythology, Biblical scenes and portraits. He also made tapestries and prints, the latter becoming widely sold throughout Western Europe. Eventually he became the court painter to King Charles the IV of Spain.

Alas, Goya also lived through turbulent times. These included the Peninsular War, when Napoleon’s army seized control of the Iberian Peninsula. Spanish nationalists would remain at war with France until 1814. During this period Goya began created his Disasters of War series of prints, documenting the carnage and misery caused by the conflict. His paintings grew more and more grotesque as he grew older. He traveled into taverns, prisons and asylums looking for subjects. His paintings became more and more grotesque, more disturbing and more fantastic. This culminated, at the end of his life, with his Black Paintings series. These include, among others, one of his most famous and horrific works, Saturn Devouring His Son. Indeed, his later works seem to point directly to the surrealism of Salvador Dali and the many abstract movements pioneered by Pablo Picasso. As Forman himself said, “Goya was the last great classicist and the first great modernist.”

 

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Goya’s Ghosts is not, however, a biopic. Just as Amadeus took the events of Mozart’s life to fabricate a fictional tale about his rivalry with a fellow composer, this film takes elements of Goya’s life and the historical backdrop of his time but out of it creates a completely original story which he co-wrote with French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who collaborated with Luis Bunuel on his classic films Belle Du Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and The Obscure Object of Desire. He also wrote or co-wrote The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Likeness of Being and Valmont, Forman’s own film version of Les Liaison’s Dangerous.

The film begins in 1792 Madrid. The Office of the Inquisition is still in effect, if not as tyrannical as it had been. A council of priests examines a series of grotesque prints attributed to Goya. They include old crones, witches on broomsticks, people engaging in all forms of depravity and even people with the heads of beasts taking part in different forms of debauchery. The clergymen are all appalled at what they see.

All except for the youngest priest, Father Lorenzo Casamares (Javier Bardem) who, we learn, has commissioned Goya to paint his portrait. And why not? Goya is also the official artists to the King and Queen, and as we’ll learn, Lorenzo does have a very high opinion of himself. He also seems to have a genuine affinity for art. He suggests that these grotesque etchings are simply depicting the world. “Certainly not my world,” protests one of his colleagues. “There is only one world, and that belongs to God.” He suggests that in order to cleanse the world of such debauchery, they must go back to “the old ways”. In other words, they’d better start going back to their medieval forms of interrogation and conversion.

He asks to be put in charge of the Inquisition. One of his first orders of duty is to recruit a group of spies to work on his behalf. He warns them of the dangers of Voltaire, spreading ideas of freethinking throughout Europe. He warns them that if someone says that matter is made up of small particles called atoms, then he’s a heretic. And if a man covers up his penis while urinating then he’s probably hiding the fact that he’s circumcised and therefore must be a “Judisor” (or worse, a Protestant).

We later see Lorenzo posing for Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) in his studio.   Goya’s grotesque paintings may be purer expressions of his soul but if he wants to live and live well, he must paint portraits and religious paintings. Frankly, he seems to enjoy his work-for-hire paintings. He also enjoys the company of Father Lorenzo, who genuinely seems to appreciate the art of painting. At one point he notices a portrait of a beautiful young woman (Natalie Portman). He recognizes her from a fresco Goya painted in a chapel. “Forgive me, for I am a man of the cloth,” Lorenzo asks Goya. “But is it true that artists become intimate with their models?”

Goya just laughs the inquiry off. In an earlier scene we see him painting the young girl. Her name is Ines and she is the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Goya flirts with her, jokingly calling her a witch. But it’s no more then good-natured flirting.

We later see Ines with her two brothers at an inn. It’s clear that the siblings are, for lack of a better word, slumming. The tavern is filled with people of questionable virtue, busty wenches serving ale and wine and even a dwarf who is hoisted up onto a chair and paraded around like a king. Ines pays a few coins to kiss his feet. Later, a roast pig is brought to her table. She grimaces and rejects the pork platter. Unfortunately for her, two of Lorenzo’s spies have seen her.

Ines is later called before the Office of the Inquisition. Neither her nor her father (Jose Luis Gomez) can imagine what this is about, except perhaps her kissing the dwarfs feet. When interrogated by a priest he asks her if it’s true that she rejected a plate of pork. Yes, she says, “I don’t like the taste”. He asks if she’s telling the truth. A perplexed Ines insists that she is. “Would you give us the opportunity to prove that you’re telling the truth?” asks the head inquisitor. “Yes, I would be grateful,” she answers. “But how would you do that?”

Alas, she is put to “the question”, a medieval ritual where the accused is stripped naked. Their hands are then tied behind their back and are hoisted up with a rope and pulley. This is, of course, torture. “What is it that you want?” Ines cries out while being hoisted aloft with her hands tied behind her back. “The truth,” answers the priest. “Tell me what the truth is?” she cries out in agony.

One night, while painting by candlelight (he fashions a special hat with candles placed around the brim) Goya receives a call from Ines’ father. Explaining that his daughter never returned from the Office of the Inquisition, he points to Father Lorenzo’s portrait and asks if his influential friend could help him locate his daughter. When Lorenzo comes to see the finished portrait, Goya informs him that a rich merchant, who has also agreed to pay for a new monastery, has paid it for. Then he tells the priest about the patron’s daughter.

Lorenzo travels down into the dungeon where Ines is being kept prisoner. The jail is filled with chained up, malnourished prisoners all with varying degrees of waning sanity. Lorenzo finds Ines, still battered and naked. He promises to pass a message along to her parents. He also comforts her, but also can’t help but get aroused.

Lorenzo and Goya are then invited to Bilabatua’s house, where he bestows upon Lorenzo a chest full of gold for both the portrait and the monastery. Naturally though, he asks about his daughter. Lorenzo informs him that she confessed to being a Judisor. Her family is perplexed. Why on earth would she confess to that? Lorenzo points out that Bilabatua had a relative from Amsterdam who converted to Catholicism when he migrated to Spain. Bilabatua confirms this fact but points out that the relatives migration happened over one hundred and fifty years ago and that he never told any of his children about their Semitic heritage.  Alas, Lorenzo insists that she must practice Jewish rituals because she confessed to it while put to the question. The other diners are appalled by what their hearing. Bilabatua says that he would confess to being a monkey if he were tortured. Goya agrees. Lorenzo then tells them that if they were answering truthfully that God would give them the strength to withstand the question.

Now, take into consideration when this film was released. 2006, three years into the Iraq war. The public was just beginning to hear about the “advanced interrogation” techniques authorized by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their underlings at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Not only is torture immoral and illegal, it’s also ineffective. When gathering information you want to be sure that it’s accurate information, not just the information that one wants to hear. The entire Iraq War was predicated on information that proved to be completely false. And if I may take off my mask of non-partisanship for a moment, the Obama administration ended these torture proceedings and succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden.

At this point Thomas Bilabatua leaves the room. He then returns with a document that he’s written. A confession saying that Father Lorenzo, despite his human appearance, is actually the child of an orangutan and a chimpanzee. He then demands that Lorenzo sign the confession. He will not, so Thomas has his sons and servants block the doors. Goya, who tries to intervene on the priest’s behalf, is excised from the house. Bilabatua, with the help of his servants, then takes a rope and, using a chandelier for a pulley, proceed to put Lorenzo to “the question”. Sure enough, he caves, and with the last bit of strength in his wounded arms he signs the confession. Bilabatua says he will burn the offending document the moment his daughter is returned to him. He also encourages Lorenzo to take the money he bequeathed the church. It might be a useful bargaining tool in having his daughter released.

When Lorenzo presents the Cardinal (veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale) with the endowment, he is naturally impressed. “There is a request,” says Lorenzo. “There usually is.” When Lorenzo tells him about Ines, the Cardinal insists that they will use the money to build the monastery. They will carve the donors name into the wall. But they will not release his daughter. If they were to do that it would show the church to be fallible and essentially put “the question” into question.

Eventually Bilabatua releases the confession. He first shows the letter to the King Charles the IV of Spain, who frankly finds it to be hilarious. The letter is then passed on to the Cardinal. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He declares that Lorenzo must stand trial for disgracing himself. Alas, Lorenzo has gone into hiding.

Later at the Royal Palace, Goya presents a completed painting of Queen Maria Luisa on horseback. Everyone is shocked at what they see. Though he doesn’t realize it, Goya has painted Lorenzo’s face onto the head of the queen.

This leads to one of the most ironic moments in the film. Goya is sent into the king’s private chambers. It’s hard to tell what the king is thinking. He could, of course, have Goya executed for insulting his spouse. Alas, he seems somewhat amused. Indeed, their body language in a previous scene suggests that the king and queen don’t really like each other. The King then takes out a violin and place a piece of music, horrendously.  Goya, who has started to lose his hearing, pretends to enjoy it. “Do you know who wrote it?” the king asks. “Mozart?   Handel?” asks Goya. “I wrote it,” the king says with a smile. He puts the violin away and says “so much for art.”

Oh, did I mention who plays the Spanish monarch? Randy Quaid. Yes, that Randy Quaid. He not only bears a strong resemblance to King Charles IV but he gives a very strong performance. Like Jeffery Jones in Amadeus, he seems to be an absent minded head of state with way too much free time and no real taste in music.   Indeed, historical records indicate that he was a very inept ruler. He would abdicate in 1808.

Fortunately for Goya, fate intervenes. A messenger brings news that the king’s cousin, Louis XVI, has been executed. The French Revolution has begun and history has shifted into overdrive.

Fifteen years pass. Napoleon’s army invades Spain in order to liberate it from the monarchy and the tyranny of the clergy. We see one of his generals declare to his troops that “we will be greeted with flowers and kisses!” Well, when they make it to Madrid they are instead greeted with violent resistance. Soon Madrid falls into chaos as the streets fill with carnage.

Once again, does this sound familiar? The French claim that they were liberators, bringing the ideals of the French Revolution to the Iberian Peninsula. Yet to the Spanish people, the French were just foreign invaders and Napoleon was nothing more then an imperialist. Three years before this movie was released the U.S. invaded Iraq. We were told that we’d be greeted as liberators. Sure, we toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, one of the most violent and oppressive dictators in recent memory, but the country descended into chaos. How so many critics seemed to miss this parallel is quite beyond me.

By now, Goya has entirely lost the ability to hear. “I am completely deaf now,” he says. “But everyday I thank God that he hasn’t taken away my ability to see.” Goya does what any artist does. He uses his medium, in this case oil and canvas and pen and ink, to record and interpret what’s going on in Spain.

Once the French gain some semblance of control over Madrid, the Office of the Inquisition is disband and the Cardinal imprisoned. They also release the prisoners from the gallows of the holy office. Ines is among the liberated. She leaves looking like a zombie, her hair prematurely gray, her skin covered with soars, her jaw slacked and her body filthier then the ground she walks on. In another bit of irony that Mr. Forman is so justly known for, we hear the music of an angelic choir and Ines walks into the blinding sunlight for the first time in fifteen years.

She manages to find her way to her home. Alas, the house has been looted and ransacked, her family killed. She eventually makes her way to Francisco Goya. He doesn’t recognize her at first but once he does he asks her to write down all that happened to her (I think this is a flaw in the film. I doubt that someone who’s been locked up and chained for fifteen years would remember how to write). It turns out she has no idea as to how long she was in prison. She does know that she had a child while in prison. A baby girl. Would Goya help her find the child?

As it just so happens, a special prosecutor has arrived from France to judge the officers of the Inquisition. And who is this person but Lorenzo Casamares?  No longer a man of the cloth, he is now put in charge prosecuting the very men he once worked with. When the Cardinal is brought before the court, he tells his old superior that this is “nothing personal,” though one suspects that he is enjoying having the tables turned in his favor.

Lorenzo spots Goya in the crowd and invites him to his office, which is decorated with some exquisite pieces of art (say what you will about Lorenzo, he does seem to have good taste). He says that he owes everything to the merchant who tortured him into signing an absurd confession because that’s what prompted him to flee to France. The one who once derided Voltaire and Rousseau has now embraced them. He is now married, has three children, and considers himself a child of the Revolution. When Ines is brought in he doesn’t recognize her. But later she tells him that they had a child. “How do you know that I am the father?” he asks. “You were the only one.”

This is obviously not good news for a man who wants to sweep his past life under the carpet. He offers to care for Ines. In actuality he simply has her locked up in an asylum. He does try to track down the child though. By offering to spare the life of the Cardinal he is given the name of the orphanage where the baby was sent. He learns that the girl was baptized as Alicia and that she had run away from the convent. This is obviously a relief to Lorenzo.

Alas, his relief is short lived. One day Goya spots a young woman on the street. Except for her black hair and somewhat more Spanish features, she’s the spitting image of Ines (and is also played by Natalie Portman). Sure enough, her name is Alicia. When Goya reports his findings to Lorenzo, the ex-priest is clearly not happy. It clearly would not behoove him if his new superiors knew that he had taken advantage of an inmate and had an illegitimate child with her. It would also probably disturb the happy home life he’s built for himself.

Goya’s Ghosts is Milos Forman’s first film based on an original screenplay that he wrote since Taking Off (1971), his first American film. The film is set against a historical backdrop, one that has rarely been depicted on film. Yet it mercifully avoids the trap that so many historical dramas fall into by becoming so obsessed with “historical accuracy” that they fail to tell a compelling, dramatic story. I love history and I read about it and watch historical documentaries all the time. But while I have no qualms with learning something about a time period or a historical figure that I didn’t know about previously (and I’ll admit I knew little of the French “liberation” of Spain or Francisco Goya) but in a dramatic film I want to be told a good story with well defined characters.

Again, this is not a biopic about Francisco Goya. Yes, Goya was a successful artist. The official painter to the Royal Court who in his spare time painted more personal, grotesque painting that were purer expressions of his soul. It’s also true that he started to go deaf around 1792, when the film began. But it’s clear that for Forman this was, like Goya’s “black paintings”, an expression of his soul. Forman grew up in the former Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation. A friend of the man Forman believed to be his father was arrested by the Gestapo and under what was no doubt extreme duress, outed Forman’s father for selling banned books. Whether true or not, he was sentenced to die in a Concentration Camp. His mother was sent to Auschwitz. Relatives raised Forman during the war and claims not to have fully understood the severity of the situation until he was sixteen. Also, for what it’s worth, he learned that his biological father was actually a Jewish architect (Forman was raised protestant).

Forman also lived through the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Unwilling to live under communist rule, he left his wife and twin sons and moved to the U.S, where he lives to this day. This distain of censorship and authoritarianism is a constant theme in his films, be it Randall MacMurphy and the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, the gaggle of hippies in Hair, the pornographer turned free speech champion Larry Flynt or such iconoclastic artists as Mozart and Andy Kaufman. Though Forman has had to deal with censorship problems here in the U.S, he has often shown gratitude for the freedom of speech and expression that is guaranteed in our Constitution. It’s also pretty clear that with the invasion of Iraq, the authorization of torture by Dick Cheney and the populaces willingness to forgo certain freedoms in order to pass the U.S.A. Patriot Act, Forman felt the need to express his feelings on celluloid just as Goya had on canvas.

When Forman made Amadeus he surprised many by casting American actors in most of the principal roles. This was surprising because Amadeus was an English play, written by an English author (Peter Shaffer) and when the play was brought to Broadway it had a primarily English cast that included Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and Jane Seymour. Also, we have a tendency to accept anyone with a British accent in a period film with white people. Though Goya’s Ghosts was a Spanish co-production, it was filmed in English. Javier Bardem is Spanish, of course, as is Jose Luis Gomez. But Stellan Skarsgard is Swedish, Natalie Portman and Randy Quaid American and Michael Londsdale French. They are all excellent in their roles, though Bardem is certainly the most compelling. It’s often more fun to play villains and he knows how to play a snake in the grass. A smiling, seductive man of the cloth at first, then a supposedly reformed and enlightened man. But only outwardly. This is a man who’s a hypocrite and opportunist. You always know there’s something diabolical going on in his mind.

And finally, there is one more virtue to which even some of the films harshest critics had to concede. Goya’s Ghost is a visually marvelous film. Movies about painters, of course, offer a built in visual template on which a director, cinematographer, art director and costume designer can work with. It’s also quite thrilling to see great works of art brought to life on screen. The works of Vincent Van Gough were animated in both Lust For Life and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Frida Kahlo’s in Frida, Jonas Vermeer’s in The Girl With the Pearl Earing and most recently J.M.W. Turner’s in Mr. Turner. For Goya’s Ghosts Forman fills his screen not only with faces as lovely as Natalie Portman’s, but also the fleshy, jowly, wrinkled up faces that Goya loved to paint, while cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe captures the unique, beautiful light of sunny Spain and the ambient light of candles to capture the mood of the period.

Having re-watched the movie I’m more baffled then ever as to why the critics hated it so much. Maybe they were missing something. Maybe I saw something that wasn’t there. What I’d really like is for you, the reader, to see it and give me your impression.

 

FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1981)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

MBDFRTH EC020 FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES, Robert Atzorn, Christine Buchegger, 1980

Finally, I get to talk about Ingmar Bergman! Like millions of die-hard film buffs I absolutely worship at the shrine of this Swedish genius. He is undeniably one of the most unique, probing, daring and important filmmakers who ever lived.

Ugh, I hate to use that word, “important”. In describing the works of an artist in the greatest form of mass media ever created as important, you’re almost certain to turn people off. I don’t blame them but I do feel that Ingmar Bergman was the William Shakespeare of cinema. That’s not to say that he towers above all of his fellow artists, though there are many “Bergmatics” who would argue that he does. The reason why I say this is because Bergman, more then any other cinematic artist, constantly and successfully used the art of film to explore…

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