Movie review: BlackkKlansman

This movie is not at all political, but I approve of its message.

What is it about? It offers a glimpse of Klan culture, and perhaps a glimpse of two Black cultures as well. But this depiction of culture is not very deep. The most telling feature of Klan culture might appear to be regular efforts on the part of minimally educated white men to impress other white men of comparable educational background by means of provocative and/or profane language. But this might also characterize the manner in which the culture of poor black men is often depicted in movies/TV. For good measure, some derogatory language about Jews is included, which attitudes are also Klan attitudes, but Spike Lee seems intent on (accurately, it seems) presenting a Klan boss, the historical David Duke, as a relatively mild mannered and polite person. The TV series CSI NY might successfully encapsulate racial, cultural conflict in its characters or stories; there is very little cultural tension or cultural conflict depicted in this movie.

If not about politics or about black or white culture as such, then is this movie about history? Starting from some basic historical facts involving a Colorado police department and the KuKluxKlan (in the 1970’s) the movie appropriately enough will dramatize and elaborate upon that bare history, and then add some modern as well as ancient historical framing. An elderly character speaks dramatically to a black audience about what he observed as a child. He gives his first-hand account of genuine history, the public lynching of a young black man immediately outside of the courthouse and just after being convicted and sentenced to die for the brutal murder of a white woman, 1916, Waco Texas, population 30,000, 20% black. (As a Wikipedia article mentions, a special article published by the NCAA about this Waco event may have helped to convert the public at large to the evils of lynching, but photographs of the huge Waco crowd present at this event evidence a complicit local populace.) This is the early historical bookend. On the other side is added some movie-adjusted tv and interview footage of a year past, a white supremacist rally and counter-rally at which a protester/bystander was killed.

Do these three historical points hold together as one movie–about history? Not as a movie about history-as-subject nor as historically-astute movie but rather, it seems to me, as message about a lack of adequate sensibility, about something which people are missing–an adequate sense of history. So the movie is an entertaining story which also makes a point about something important which is missing, this historical sensibility? But does the movie itself, does the director himself possess this important, this much needed historical sensibility?

I agree with the truism, whether recent historians generally share it or not, that modern history is difficult if not impossible to write. And this must be because we are still living, personally engaged, in that present. There must be some distance in time before the historical perspective can be achieved. Thus recent news events since they cannot have such perspective, are never really history-as-understood. They are still news. Similarly, in BlackkKlansman, an elderly character describes for an attentive black audience something from his past life. As narrated, this shocking event is not history either (according to my argument) just because it is personal. The needed but missing “sense of history” or historical sensibility, this cannot (in my opinion) be merely personal, local, self-serving.

And then the movie itself, of course, attempts to present an accurate historical view of Colorado Springs in the seventies, with its cars and houses (and maybe even attempts to depict its protagonists as thinking like people of the 1970s). But I expect that Spike will agree that this movie does not very profoundly grasp, historically, what the 1970s was like. Spike, myself, most people lack a healthy, profound historical sensibility.

But I still find the “message” of the movie here. Not by way of the character he plays but (with the help of some information gleaned from Wikipedia) in the actor, in Harry Belafonte himself, black singer with a long and successful career whom I hope and expect is the rare individual who has (or at least wish to use for my example here as someone who possesses) this much needed historical sense or sensibility.

The modern man-in-the-street, black or white, policeman, reporter, politician, filmmaker, film critic wants most to live in the moment; does not have the time or the desire to develop the historical virtue as personal ability. If developing an historical sense is going to slow me down then why should I worry about that. Until I come across a movie re-enactment of a humorous but historical event. Then one’s appreciation and one’s evaluation will be directly proportional to one’s historical sense, or lack thereof.

pk 2018

Movie-review Test: Interstellar (answer 2 of 3)

Though its focus seems to be on a very personal and almost solipsistic plot-line, the primary and lasting appeal of this movie is in the realm of ideas, and in the way in which it depicts a world, or world-view, in which modern science is included within a larger and humanistic (American) culture. Discuss…

Describe in filmic terms the presentation in this movie of the image or notion that the earth is not a suitable home-planet for humankind. Is the filmic image simple, consistent… If ambiguous, what sort of ambiguity is inherent in this notion/image? (Might supra-human energies help humans to fix the planet rather than leave it?)

If, as it seems, it is difficult depict a protagonist in film who is convincing as both a good person and a good scientist, why is this so? Is film too visual to depict science-type thinking; Is genuine science too weighty for a general (American) audience; or Are directors, like everyone else, science-phobic? Why are the only convincingly depicted scientists in this film the two secondary characters who are also bad scientists because they are one-dimensional scientists? Does the female NASA doctor-of-science undergo a conversion to humane-scientist? Does the main character himself undergo any conversion from practical pilot to scientist?

Bonus: Consider as specifically as possible the emotional effect of the father-daughter reunion scene. Is such an effect primarily due to visual, psychological, storyline, thematic, or else other causes?

The Great Gatsby (the movie)

In the novel of the same name we must largely rely upon the observations of a literary narrator, Mr. Nick Carraway, for our apprehensions of this new or natural aristocrat, Mr. Gatsby. We may as well trust this same narrator because, as he claims, he seems to possess a neutral, tolerant, and objective sensibility/personality-somewhat like the modern movie camera. But Nick also states in a couple of extreme phrases that he himself did not like nor exactly trust Gatsby. This phrasing must be Nick's own acknowledgement to the reader that he himslef (loosely speaking) identifies yet as a member of the multi-generational wealth-aristocry, and thus he himself will be genetically predisposed to deny the claims of any and all pretenders. Again, though, that element which essentially motivates Carraway's narrative interest in Gatsby, a certain fascination, is what effectively keeps readers hopeful...
The movie presents an engaging, careful, and interesting psychological transposition of the plot-content of the novel, but at the same time, and because this movie-version is psychological, it also must leave out that most significant (if largely implied) dimension of the novel which I will now label as being sociological. Similarly, if this movie does (and quite convincingly) explain the motivations and motives of a certain Mr. Gatsby, then it must also fail to adequately explain Gatsby as character in the novel, who, it seems to me, must necessarily remain partially inexplicable, and somewhat mysterious and/or mythical. As a respectful (and one might hope ultimately worthwhile as well...) interpretative-transposition of the novel into a different medium, I can admit that this movie works. But with such a positive evaluation we need to keep in mind that the movie may have, it does have, different themes, and is also less ambitious as art than the novel.
Though more indirectly and less emotively than in the novel itself, the movie's narrator, also called Nick, is so deeply affected by the happenings relating to one, Mr. Gatsby, that he requires psychological catharsis; A psychological journal-narrative allows him (and us, via cinema re-creation) to re-experinece this past. He adds the word "great" to the title of his just-finished journal, thus indicting his abiding respect-and at this point as well we might attempt to make the case that the film in various ways does cinematically wish to uphold a more ideal Mr. Gatsby... But it seems to me that because of its chosen psychological mode the movie hardly (that is, less obviously) leaves us with Gatsby as hero. Rather, the Gatsby character becomes unrealistic; the DeCaprio character dies out of touch with the real world... This cannot be heroic!
In the novel's Plaza Hotel scene things do begin to turn against the great Gatsby. Daisy reluctantly states her intention to leave her husband for Gatsby, but then, after some financial insults or insinuations made by her husband, Daisy is soon afterwards definitely inclining towards remaining with her husband-continuing in her present wealth and circumstance. Her reasoning here is not further explicated for our benefit, and readers must (and will) guess at what (sociological it seems to me) forces compelled her in this direction. (Marriage, like wealth-aristocracy, is also an institution...) But in Mr. Luhrmann's movie, this scene comes off as a more explicit and very psychological (if also more democratic) turning point:
Within this scene in the novel, Nick (observant as always) labels Daisy's husband a "prig," and then he also notes for a brief moment that Gatsby may have evidenced on his face a murderous sort of hatred (according to those bits of gossip going around about Gatsby-which Nick himslef doesn't believe...). Then Nick also states that the financial accusations made at this moment against Gatsby were not really so serious... But in the filmic version/transposition Gatsby will blow his aristiocratic cool long enough for all present to see. The DeCaprio character, Gatsby, seemingly commit a very obvious if also plebian mistake; he commits that proverbial flase step; his anger at being insulted seems to expose an essentialy cheap allegiance: Gatsby is not really an aristocrat. And then it is also because of this uncharacteristic anger (within the movie) that we may conclude that Daisy has excuse for rejecting him. Gatsby's demise within the movie begins here, but he himself dosent't seem to see this as clearly as the others characters already do...
Not so long after, in both film and movie, the narrator offers an imaginative re-consruction of Gatsby's last few minutes... as Gatsby is waiting by his swimming pool for a possible call from Daisy:

"I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves..."

Is this personal intrusion upon Gatsby's psychology or does the narrator believe (and accurately) that Gatsby himself recognized that he, Gatsby, must loose, must fail? The novel leaves much of this sort of questioning unanswered and so, ultimately, within the realm of the ambiguous.
There are certainly adequate grounds mentioned within the novel's own text for following a tragic or socially-deterministic interpretation; that is, Fitzgerald offers ammunition to those who want to follow the negative route: money, establishment, whatever, will never allow such a decent character to succeed. They did him in-as they always will. Wealth even has its two-time lackeys to do its bidding. And with its eyeglass-billboard ad the movie seems to prefer such a tack. (Those eyes fixed upon the poor neighborhood will soon be turned around upon the behaviors of a wealthy neighborhood as well...)
But some will still read the novel as giving support to belief that the Gatsby character, though failing with his feminine ideal, Daisy, has not come to the end of his ambitions nor abilities; That he might accommodate this major setback and still go on to act as the natural aristocrat. It was actually just a bit of unnatural or circumstantial bad luck that was his undoing.
pk(September, 2013)

Zero Dark Thirty

As a rule I do not write reviews about movies which I have only seen on TV screen or computer. In the present instance I break my own rule (and then some) by reviewing a movie which I haven’t seen. I am not really so worried about this since I notice via the Metacritic website that quite a few have given it high ratings, and because I have also now read (quite carefully) a few of the more articulate persons who have complained about the torture depicted in the movie. So with the indirect assistance of all of these competent persons I shall attempt to triangulate my attention upon the movie in question and produce if possible an even more insightful review than has been yet offered.

First, I expect and hope that this movie is about lack of intelligence and not just intelligence; that is, it must be not just about the rush to obtain that one item of pragmatic intelligence-where one self-declared enemy of the American State is hiding. In our own Reality as in this movie depiction there is a larger background, and that background is the two (largely self-interested) cultures of the Arab/Islamic Middle East and the English speaking USA. So my first thematic hint is to pay attention to the presentation of languages and to translators/translation in the movie. This interface must at least hint at a lack of intelligence in the non-pragmatic and larger meaning of that word. Lack of intelligence; problems with our supposed intelligence.

Why recently have the CIA’s director, or Senators, etc. not issued statements saying that this movie’s depiction of the role of the one female agent within this larger operation-That this is not historically accurate? (If, as historical, fact one female agent did succeed against the whole of the operational establishment, then twenty years from now this history in the history books will have a semi-mythic quality.) But I expect that as viewers we are smart enough to accept this central female figure as filmmaking choice, that is, sensibly and without making too much fuss we allow ourselves some residual ambiguity as to the ultimate historical significance of this one female agent. One emotional woman succeeds while cooperative and rationalistic pragmatism seems stymied.

Ot first consideration, the torture content and its inclusion as movie content may seem not to be analogous to the freedom which we have just allowed the filmmaker in choice of main character. Torture seems more than a plot point. Torture reflects negatively upon those who engage in it. One criticism, I suppose, of this torture content might be that this dubious activity must not be exaggerated because it will make us, the USA, look bad. But this, the patriotic complaint, is seldom the complaint given (unless by Sen. McCain). Instead, the complaint has been along the lines that if there was torture, we, being honest Americans, we want that torture exposed. But the movie errs in allowing torture to be essential within the plot line of the movie. Torture appears too obviously to be instrumental to pragmatic success. Such a complaint then accepts the success of our mission, but doesn’t want torture to have been (direct) means to that success. The director of such a movie must question torture as acceptable means rather than support torture to any significant degree within their re-created historical-narrative plot-line. Else people will say that torture is OK. Else this would be opposite to the direction towards which we wish society to go, towards which we should be educating people...

For any red-neck there certainly awaits within this movie a hook. But I believe red-neck patriots as well as other Americans will also be quite aware of the possibility of such a hook on their way in to the theatre. I hope to enjoy this depiction of historic American success up on the big screen but I also hope that my feelings in response will be somewhat measured, reasonable, sensible, Triumph, but not too much, else it’s just advertisement. We can guess then, and correctly, that this movie will not promote a too simplistic and purely one-sided patriotism no matter how enjoyable such a presentation could be for an audience. Expecting too much cheerleading our own patriotism will catch us...

But other reactions made to this movie demonstrate another less obvious hook. That juicy thing that looks like an insect floating on the water, the torture issue, is apparently so appealing that certain persons (the factual-rationalisically inclined ?) cannot but swallow it whole. -But to, first complete my larger point: Is not this second hook very similar to the first?

An excessive patriotism will not care about anything else out there, out beyond the borders. But as well, a nation pushed to the extreme of engaging in torture to gain “intelligence” means that other avenues for intelligence gathering must be sharply limited. It suggests national provincialism of some kind. The FBI may wish to torture their recently apprehended mafioso, but they can also quite easily monitor his previous contacts within this country, etc. We, the USA, engage in torture (it must be) because we remain so much in the dark as to what the culture of the Arab Middle East is, how its people think, are thinking. (If we had a network, or if money worked, then we might obtain intelligence like was done in the former East Germany.)

We torture because we are under duress but more importantly simply because we lack other methods. The torture issue then should expose our continued culpability as cultural ignorants. Why then do we understand (in the full meaning of that word-) so little about the culture which Bin Laden, for a while at least, was trying to influence?

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books Mr. Steve Coll claims that Zero Dark Thirty is disturbing and misleading. I appreciate Mr. Coll’s candor in his analysis and I may be setting him up as something of a straw man here in my pseudo-movie-review but I do believe he is one of those persons who have been hooked by this torture issue as topic; hung up on the one issue, caught.

To be strict or fair, in his article he is not reviewing a movie as much as much as he is reviewing the documentary and factual aspects of this same docu-movie, but even here I will stand up for arts prerogatives vis a vis Mr. Coll’s extensive resume in journalistic reporting, editing, and his Middle East experience. The movie does not claim to be the definitive interpretation of this elimination of one nasty terrorist, does it? Of course (as we both agree) these events are only partially digested, assimilated by us, American society, the culture victimized... But why theoretically might movie-art not contribute more towards this effort than journalism itself? I expect that this is what the director/writer are trying to achieve however much or minimally they succeed in their attempt. They are trying to help us interpret and not primarily interested in giving us conventional facts.

The TV-news mode of presentation is a ready means for the varied purposes of the cinematographer in a way that it is not for the playwright. The ordinary person on the street knows that the line between video news and reality is already blurred, and I believe that ordinary viewers of this movie as well, can also note to themselves, should they wish to do so, that torture is not good as means... Why does Mr. Coll nitpick? When will we ever have all the torture facts here, all the actual motivations?

Going out on a limb here... my psychological comment would be that an easy rationalism is as enjoyable as an easy patriotism. Ambiguity is is the more difficult route; either easy simplification is a hook, a distraction, diversion.

Mr. Tarrantino’s recent films may not ultimately contribute so much to our debate about problematic qualities of Nazism, slavery, violence, but I am also quite sure that that is what he would like for audiences to do... to grapple, even if he himself doesn’t solve. But the interpretative question must be whether the director’s cinematic product conduces at least in some small degree to improved awareness. If not, then the movie is at best entertainment, advertisement. Or else, as in recent news, background checks for gun buyers could be a good idea as law. But does this operate now as social excuse? Wouldn’t (if it were possible) awareness, evaluation of our own culture-good and bad-of guns/violence, wouldn’t this be more helpful. How about requiring a background check on American history and culture... But who is capable of such insightful, accurate discussion of one’s own culture? Who would listen to it? Who really understands those persons over there on the other side of the Mediterranean?

In part just because this movie allows the reality of torture to remain problematic I thus note that it probably wishes to deal with Reality rather than simplifying it away. ( To choose this subject matter and then avoid all inclusion of torture would be an even more bizarre alternative.) I give the movie a 7.5 to 9 and if after seeing the movie my evaluation moves outside that range I promise to write a movie-review retraction with full explanation.

I hope that Zero Dark Thirty does deal thematically (and to effect) with my preferred background themes of ignorance, lack of cultural understanding. The background issue even after the elimination of Bin Laden must yet be how the Western and Islamic worlds interact-understand one another. This remains hundreds and hundreds of times bigger as issue-(to phrase it rhetorically)-than whether we are abiding by our own standards of military-espionage interrogation.

Nova: Becoming Human

(three one hour episodes which can be viewed at the Nova website)
Director and writer, Graham Townsley

This is a carefully arranged and interesting overview of the latest scientific ideas about ancient human ancestry, from six million years ago through to Neanderthal remains. As a documentary it includes the now obligatory "dramatic" elements of exerpted sentences from real experts, video recreations of discoveries at the original locations, and also some imaginatively constructed footage of what such human ancestors could have looked like...if captured by the modern video camera. But thankfully it does also include more science content, it seems to me at least, than many other Nova episodes...

As something of a scientific illiterate (and I expect that much of my reading audience may in the same demographic) I remember that my own vague notions about human origins were significantly influenced by the Lucy discovery (1974-Wikipedia) as being a claimed link between early primates and human beings. But any such vague notions which I might have had are now out of date. New discoveries since the 1970’s require a new and better science...

A dogmatist for science might claim that scientific knowledge doesn’t change, that is, it was never wrong, rather, it simply improves. But also quite obviously, when a science is based upon a relatively minimal collection of fossilized skulls, skeletons, and chipped stones, and when a few new fossilized skulls and skeletons are discovered, this new material can change the “science” or the knowledge a great deal. And this is what is happening (or what must now happen) because of discoveries... some of which have been very recently in the news: skulls from Dmanisi Georgia, and the hobbit like remains from Flores, Indonesia found in 2003.

These three Nova episodes descriptively span six million years, but what I found most interesting (and telling, I would hope also) is observing the way in which a science can and must now re-configure itself (that is, the science of paleo-anthropology) just because of such new discoveries. Science, evolution science, is not at all a fixed or unchanging business.

The view now is that there were numerous bi-pedal walking-primates– since some half-dozen or more partial examples of these have been found from approximately 3 million years ago. But these were all relatively short in stature. What induced the need for a taller Homo erectus, such as the almost complete Turkana Boy skeleton (1.5 m years ago) which was discovered just a few years ago? At five foot three inches tall and nine years old (estimated from analysis of its teeth) he would grow to 6’2” or so. It is not difficult to imagine that such tall animals, could have walked out of Africa to Peking or Europe. But wait, the Dmaninsi specimens, dated to 1.8 million years ago, are small of stature. Did the short Homo erectus types from Georgia walk out of Africa also?

The Homo floresiensis remains from Indonesia are even more troubling. Should these actually be entitled to the categorization of the Homo genus if (and this is my uninformed insertion here...) they may have been human-like three-foot-high creatures who made use of stone tools, but perhaps human-like animals evolved from chimps/bonobos rather than the larger primates..? And what then might such a scenario mean.. as myth? When mythic resonances are too bizarre, then “explanations” may not even register...

But the more comprehensive and modern theory in human-origins science takes occasion from the geologic record of 200 thousand years of erratic and quite extreme climate fluctuation in African and the east Africa rift valley region. What prompted bipedal apes during this time period to become human-like tool makers? As Mr. Rick Potts enunciates his major theory just for this show’s video, the climactic up and down would have been mastered by a newer sort of species “adapted to change itself,” i.e., the new Homo erectus, a species able to handle such catastrophic African environmental change.

As bare idea, this of course is certainly quite interesting, but as explanation (as in scientific explanation) this strikes me as as being an explanation which may simply explain too much, that is, an explanation which cannot be genuine. Let me explain.

I made my way some years ago through Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, and this was also a time not too long ago when the future and its changeableness were actually foreboding. Walter Cronkite assured us that we would be OK, but whether we could cope psychologically with technological change was not (–as seems to be now) a forgone assumption.

We are now unafraid of change, unafraid of future technological complexities. But does this suggest that we have necessarily progressed, become more mature as such?

It was something of a truism for Emerson and Thoreau that increased communication would tend to result in less rather than more human diversity of character. If farmer and city-artisan remain separate, they also have disparate life experiences and thus develop different notions of the universe. Where huge numbers of people share the same Facebook or Twitter-type experience their life-experience becomes limited to such a shared and homogeneous similarity; They may become almost one individual living separate lives but within the one shared and artificial world...

It may be flattering to imagine that the ability to adapt to worldwide and instantaneous communication–that this is the sort of skill which explains the essence of humanness. But adaptability may itself be a reductive conformism, and not an explanation for any sort of cognitive breakthrough..

Another modern explanation, the fire theory, fire as catalyst for human social qualities, this seems similarly tenuous and at the same time (and likely unavoidably) grandiose. Again, as idea merely it is fine; but as explanation for eventual human traits it seems to me that it is being asked to carry too much weight. After all, I might prefer (as an artist) the notion that it was the creative and playful impulse from some one early individual playing around with rocks, learning stone sculpture as artistic expression–this was the breakthrough towards humanness. This would mean that the artistic impulse is that trait which is central in any scientific definition of what modern human beings are. I might further suggest that we orient our society towards promoting and paying properly for this most central and original of all human traits. Perhaps I not only developed stone sculpture as art and set us out on the path to humanness, but also passed on the stone-working techniques to my more practical clan fellows.. Art-consciousness is where it all begins...

Could the crossing pattern carved in the South African cave be the work of a budding computer scientist who was trying to conceptualize ON/OFF as the expressive foundation for a language? What do you make of the x shapes carved in the side of the cave?

Unusual discoveries mean that the science is wide open; the science isn’t complete; explanation is required. The dogmatic scientist may say that we know what the conclusion will look like: a genetic and strictly biological descent from primate to modern human. The more sensible humanist (such as myself) would prefer to insist that all of the sciences are contained among the humanities and that there is no one of the humanities (or sciences, for that matter..) capable now or in the near future of definitively and comprehensively declaring what being human means...

paul kragt 9/2011