Casablanca plus The English patient equals another Oscar drama?
It’s Oscar season & I’ve had the chance to attend an advanced screening of Allied in Seattle, where Paramount’s security men assured us we’d enjoy the show & that they would, too–having night vision goggles, they’d be all over us should we try to illegally film the movie or even fiddle with our phones overmuch. I write to pan the movie, which is easily done, given the outline of the plot:
A Canadian played by a famous American, in Casablanca, during WWII, is involved in some espionage against the Nazis, & there’s a French woman he loves mixed in. It’s remarkable how silly celebrities can be. Then there is the torrid doomed romance in the desert, during the war, also involving the Nazis at an important point in the plot. I dearly hope this does not get any Oscars, on its way to inevitable failure at the box office. If there’s anything worse than superhero movies, it’s selling nostalgia for money & prestige.
The movie is shot to look as pretty as can be–the cars, the clothes, & the architecture are all beautiful. Our attraction to a more elegant, more formal age is flattered at every turn. In short, it’s a movie for women of a certain respectability & a certain age. I do hope they enjoy it, but I’m afraid some of the moral vacuity is going to be a problem.
Then again, the sentimentality might cover it all up–there’s a birth-giving scene, by night, in the streets of London, under a sky of anti-aircraft fire & German bombers, during the Blitz, in 1942. There’s a sex scene, in a car, in the desert, during a storm. Allied is, not to put too fine a point on it, a movie about how falling in love might cause a person to be ok with turning murderer & traitor. The plot is twisted such that, if you took it seriously, you’d have to think the writer insane, just to give cover to that ugliness. Nevertheless, some of the people in the theater applauded at the end…
Mr. Pitt is less credible as a Canadian than as the Frenchman his character at some point portrays, which is both silly & a welcome departure from the foolishness of our age: The latter-day obsession with authenticity of detail that conceals the grand betrayal of whatever’s being imitated on screen.
Miss Marion Cotillard is again doing work to please Americans–a combination of worldly sophistication, without morality, & secret anguish. Who could say no to that? I will not psycho-analyze the proclivity–I will merely say that people who secretly enjoy the combination of sentimentality & brutality as a sophisticated, nuanced immorality must come to accept the awful ending of this plot.
The thing to notice is that this is the most vacuous title for an Oscar-minded movie in a long time. What happened to the silly pretensions of Oscar season?
Witness the apotheosis of the atheist woman who averts the war of the end of the world
The story comes down to hearing John Lennon tell you, at the end of Abbey Road, that the love you take is equal to the love you make. After the smoke in the smoke & mirror show clears, what else has this silly faith to offer? Pacifism ends up identical with death. As Tocqueville warned, this is the age of pantheistic materialism, when people find nothing better to worship than impersonal forces that reassure them, there’s nothing they can do, they’re powerless, moved around like leaves in the wind.
Let’s start with the part that men pay attention to, war. This is the word the lady-linguist wants to use to mock her male competition. I’m told, in Sanskrit, the word for war really is about out-of-control desire. The story is full of the threat of war. Mankind are divided into nations & this limits, literally, communication. You could say the story recalls Reagan’s famous statement that only aliens could unite mankind.
How about men? Listening to angry rants about the dangers of aliens causes American super-soldiers to betray every oath, habit, & fellow-soldier: They start bombing & murdering. One is amused to see the director of a sci-fi story with a female protagonist resort to utter hysteria. Apparently, people who do not obey women–the CIA, the Chinese, & the Russians–are murderously crazy.
& the news teaches us that Christian fanatics are committing suicide while democratic masses are marching on D.C. & democratic mobs resort to looting for days, beyond the National Guards’ capacity to keep the peace. Apparently, America is, despite all protestations of progress, in an existential crisis: The revelation of divine, mysterious powers suffices to drive people insane. Facing people with the first thing they cannot control–maybe that by itself means the alien event is a miracle–causes them to enact their concealed fear of death & to reveal thus that they never believed in what they had pretended to believe.
If we take the setting & the events to match, we come upon this suggestion: America deserves this: There is something in America that makes Americans find American life intolerable. Maybe everyone is waiting for the Rapture & instead they get this silence that tortures them.
The natural & supernatural beauties on show dazzle: Instead, mankind might finally have its consciousness & its awareness raised or whatever it is earnest liberals piously pray for. This is accomplished by a very secret, very private message that solves the problem of war. This too public hope & this too private solution to the human problem, which together spell unlimited communication, annihilate humanity as surely as John Lennon’s tripe. Existentially, we’re where we were: The meek embrace of death is as hysterical as the denial of mortality that engenders it.
A pretty lady whose kid died & who seems to live in utter luxurious ignorance of the world, but with the kind of fame as a linguist that recalls the beginning of some 19th century story about academics-adventurers, turns out to be exactly who the government or the military or both want heading an effort to talk to aliens. She wants it so bad she can taste it–we are not told why.
Apparently, there are twelve alien ships, like the apostles, but nobody knows what news they’re bringing. Nobody can figure it out except, eventually, this woman. Why a woman? Because men do not go hysterical. Apparently, an existential crisis is required to figure things out: A mother seeing her daughter die despite what medicine can accomplish is the best hope of mankind.
The lady thinks language is the basis of civilization; the physicist she ends up mastering thinks that’s wrong, science is. But the scientists are baffled–it turns out they’re not masters of mankind, but the most conventional creatures. The universality of math turns out to be spurious: Every being is trapped being what it is. But on the other hand, language is nothing but languages–civilization nothing but civilizations–war is forever.
With the physicist’s help, & with computers, the lady learns how to talk to these beings, whose writing has no motion–it is independent of time. They have no interest in learning from human beings. Learning their language, however, is supposed to free human beings from the tyranny of time. What’s being revealed here is the end of philosophy–comprehensive science–all accidents of history repealed–mankind is finally wise. All differences between men are finally wiped out & there is finally no longer a difference between insight & agreement. The picture-language is pre-alphabetic.
Or maybe this notion that you can predict the future & then you have to live with it, which robs human beings of any freedom of choice, is unbearable for human beings. Democracy is future-obsessed out of an exaggerated sense of the existential importance of human limits which stems from its essentially erotic, desire-driven character. One way or the other, nature & chance become confused. But people do not want to be faced with their identity–the indication in the story is that the lady becomes wise & might pass that wisdom on to her child, at the expense of the man.
It’s not clear there would be any room for men in the world if people saw the future & accepted what was to come, turning responsibility into choosing the inevitable. That is the end of striving. This seems to be why accepting death is so crucial to the plot–this must reconcile people to this world.
A rather sentimental picture, from the director who made the rather unsentimental Sicario, which also featured a female protagonist.
The Reacher movie showed honor as American laws teach it going beyond what American laws will allow. This sequel shows the American family going beyond the laws. This seems more of a judgment on the secret manly dreams that create the action movie audience than on society at large.
The only interesting thing is the lawless way the plot forms the family-on-the-run. This suggests a natural, as opposed to a legal, family, as does the paternity lawsuit alleging Reacher fathered a bastard. We disbelieve: Reacher is the unerotic hero of an unerotic world.
But the writer cannot imagine a natural family–only an American family in unusual circumstances. This is not without merit–if you think of law as society, then it becomes obvious the three protagonists are all at the outer edges of society–they might want to fit in better, that is, to become part of a family. This might be a learning experience.
So the story turns around the sources of equality in American society. The dominant one, which tends to destroy the family, is professionalism. Doing a job well makes men & women competitors even as it pretends to wipe out the natural distinction between man & woman. The family threatens to collapse once, when the woman manfully takes insult at babysitting. There’s no family if you’re always risking quarrels concerning the honor of the sex.
The military is a source of equality for women. The girl is interested in the woman’s authority to give orders to men under her command, as well as her martial prowess for self-defense. This makes it obvious how much dignity is tied up with equality. She wonders, though, are all women-soldiers homosexual? She sees the dangers brotherhood & law pose to eroticism.
American family, however, is the main source of equality for women–Christianity is utterly neglected. Parents & children can have no serious secrets in America. When Reacher shows his indifference to his supposed daughter, discussing her prideful desire to run away, to be free, he shows he knows about family equality. Men ned hide their protective instincts & powers, because they might give offense or provoke. They need listen to their children’s foolish opinions & be mindful of their pride: The children learn they’re Americans young–they are as opinionated as the adults, but lack the reasonableness wrought of habits. American kids are as naturally asocial as Jack Reacher: They grow up with the twin instincts of honor & freedom. They have to be persuaded to be reasonable & accept authority where they cannot be compelled. This brings man to the situation of woman, among other things. Parenthood becomes hard to distinguish from a friendship strengthened by long habit. It gives children the illusion of self-rule.
Some notes on the motive power of freedom & honor when it comes to American men
Now that there’s a sequel out that seems as good as designed to ruin the character out of a misguided desire to introduce feminism into his story, I want to go back to the Jack Reacher movie, to spell out some of the things that made it such an interesting story & such a good fit for the Christopher McQuarrie-Tom Cruise team.
There are two things that make Jack Reacher interesting &, strangely enough, they’re both largely independent of his remarkable ability to kill people, which itself seems secondary to his willingness to do so. The first is something he says about himself in explanation for his way of life–he’d spent so much time defending America’s freedom in the military, he didn’t really know what it was. He decided to find out for himself. Now you might think that this is something to do with his driving muscle cars, & there’s some truth to that. You might think it’s to do with the freedom to fight whoever feels free to fight him–that’s also true.
But the most obvious thing about Reacher is that he lives a life alone from the rest of America, quite careful to hide from civilization. Of course, in America, freedom meant, before the Declaration & before the Pilgrims, the freedom of the Indians. Reacher wants to go from standing up for it to embodying it–he wants to live a nomadic life. He’s learning how much manliness is defined by aloofness.
This fits with the style of filming wonderfully–Jack Reacher uses both his detective skills & his natural violence to move around in the world. He is a foreigner in the city & has no attachments. His singlemindedness therefore dominates the setting & his decisiveness is on display in almost every scene. This is what an action or role playing computer game looks like transformed into a film. All the computer game-movies would do well to study it.
This brings us to the second thing, Reacher’s interest in justice, which he does not talk about, but is the American correspondent to Indian honor. Considerations of humanity seem alien to Reacher. He will not only do anything: He has no problem thinking the unthinkable, because he has no respect for Americans. The ugly secret about the city he’s entering as an avenger is not a surprise to him.
His conception of justice, however, comes from America. What’s strange about him is that he seems to know nothing else about America–leaving the army did not free him from his job as law enforcer, but from the political limits set to it. Reacher is the most public-spirited character there is. He has no soul but justice, is unerotic, & unconcerned with friendship.
Luke Cage has one mentor, Pop, a kindly old man whose barbershop is a refuge for wild young men & is neutral in the fights in the neighborhood. We see almost no real crime in Harlem, by the way, so it’s not clear why there would be any need for such a place. This place is supposed to be where young men can admit that their elders are wiser; & where the elders can admit that the young cannot really be cured of their anger in a hurry, but have to be treated with a respect they do not deserve.
Pop used to be a murderer, we learn at some point, in his youth. He reformed in prison, when he learned that his power to tyrannize over other people was not really a source of dignity. But he understands the temptation violence presents to youthful idealism, especially when corruption or suffering mock any claim the community might make on them in the name of justice.
In his old age, Pop is going to sacrifice for his people. Meanwhile, the people of Harlem, who used to fear him & now admire him, have allowed the meaning of his nickname to change from a fearful reminder of the sound his fist made to a loving reminder of his fatherly care & protection. His sacrifice achieves exactly the result he did not want: His attempt to move from injustice to a good, decent life is now turning the people who loved him in the direction of vengeance.
But it may be necessary for Luke Cage to rehearse Pop’s trajectory, to react with outrage to injustice, & thus to show & to experience his attachment to Harlem, & then to try to turn from a desire to punish to a desire to protect those who need his protection & to help them regain their dignity by doing well for themselves.
But of course, the story cannot address the fact that blacks in Harlem vote Democrat & the party has rewarded them, for two generations, with incompetence or indifference when it comes to everything from crime to education, except for when it abetted the criminals. It also cannot address the fact that religion has collapsed, the only source of moral strength for community organizing, & it has not been replaced by anything else.
It cannot address the problems crime & poverty create for the search for the dignity of people in Harlem, both as black people & as Americans. It cannot even talk sense about the collapse of black families. So in this most socially aware superhero story we see the real limits of superhero stories. No one dares to show American communities as they are, much less attempt to find fantastic solutions to real problems.
At some point, we’re told Luke Cage used to be in law enforcement, as well as a Force Recon Marine. If you’ve met men of either type, or at least seen them on a screen, you’ll notice that he conducts himself nothing like it. He’s as clueless tactically as anyone else would be. The story shows at some length that he was a boxer. He does not fight like one, either. Why is the writing so bad? How can characterization be just a rumor, part of the plot?
You might joke that in America the past is merely another rumor, but this is especially hilarious given the origins obsession of latter-day story-telling. Mercifully, Luke Cage’s origins say nothing about him. Unfortunately, they dominate the plot. How he acts is what matters, but there is precious little of that. Instead, it turns out to all be about some kid from his past who grew up to involve himself in shadowy conspiracies & ended up a kingpin, which sounds like a more interesting story, but we don’t get to see any of it.
Of course, neither Luke Cage nor the evil kingpin-former friend have anything to do with Harlem in this uplifting drama about the Harlem Renaissance. The family misery that leads to vengeance & destruction, however, seems to be about MLK’s sexual indiscretions or those of other famous black preacher-politicians’. A famous black pastor who fathers a love child while preaching the Gospel. Nothing comes of this except, the guy was a cold neglectful father. The crazy kingpin borrows from him his Bible quoting ways. It’s pitiful. Maybe it’s supposed to discredit Christianity?
The other story of family coming to a tragic end is at least tied up with black Democratic politics in New York City, with its civil rights struggle, its Christian-progressive moralism, its corruption, & the failures of the last half-century, which have seen black communities collapse.
Unfortunately, we do not learn much on this side either. The story inclined to tragedy–the family is beset by the original sins of parricide & incest. There is some attempt to show that the inability to move from family to community damns any attempt to get good things at the expense of strict justice.
Luke Cage is supposed to discover that he can protect the community of Harlem by putting an end to the cycle of anguish & crime that is encapsulated in this family, where pride by turns comes from claiming the fear that attends on exploitative crime & by denying that the community is beset by that kind of evil. He is supposed to be transformed by witnessing a sacrifice & become more serious & less moralistic about helping people who suffer regain their sense of dignity.
Welcome to the first spectacle featuring a black superhero. This is also the first time a superhero deals with a real American problem. This is not a coincidence. In our age, it’s not clear anyone would tolerate fiction on this matter without burdening the story with the conflicts of American politics. One watches the story unfold aware at every step of the dangers of the moral outrage of our liberal arbiters of morality.
It’s strange to think there is so little freedom in a story about heroism. Strange, too, to think of leadership as bound up with obedience to the conventions of liberalism in public America. Is Luke Cage under a compulsion to stand up for the dignity of Harlem & of black Americans, as arbitrated in the press & in whatever way Netflix shows are judged successes or failures?
This is ultimately a question about how politics works. Is every gesture, every word a symbol? Are people supposed to organize around their outrage, recognizing symbols, in order to compel respect? Is it possible to do anything but act out endlessly, hysterically, rehearsals of old stories about progress, as a kind of revenge for feeling that we do not have the opportunity to progress personally in any serious way? On the other hand, would abandoning our anger reveal anything except individualism – that we’re all alone?
Well, one thing about Luke Cage is how shockingly conservative he is, independently of political partisanship. He is what in America is called counter-cultural. He refuses to curse & especially to utter the word that scares Americans, nigger, because he senses the attack on his dignity implied in letting people make him that angry. When he really begins to fume, he says, Sweet Christmas! He can seems as much a boy scout as Superman.
Luke Cage is bulletproof, which is a condition for his kind of dignity, but it is also an image of that dignity. Being bulletproof may be said to be the idealization of moral manliness. It’s not clear where Luke Cage gets this, but he does in one scene debate the most important black writers in America. Unlike the young, the middle-aged & old people in that scene know who Ralph Ellison was.
Another thing is, he’s a stranger to Harlem. He ends up involved in saving the community precisely because of what makes him so strange–he has the powers of a hero. Of course, he mostly obsesses about who he really is, trying to protect his self-understanding by staying anonymous. The burden of the story is to show that the only thing that matters is how he acts, whether he conducts himself publicly, reliably as the hero Harlem needs, saving real people.
When once the aviators make it to Cape Canaveral, they reach a crisis. The quarrel starts in the locker-room, in-between their duties & their private lives. Soon, they form two groups getting read for a fight–some argue that private life is private for people who do their jobs well, because they sacrifice a lot to get the job done–the others argue that in their new situation, they owe deference to the public even in their private lives.
They are quarreling because in modern America there are women throwing themselves at them, presumably because they are charmed by the idea of having sex with astronauts. A kind of sexual promiscuity seems to be part of the privilege of success, but of course, it is not publicly tolerable–there is always a danger that the people will indulge in a fit of indignation concerning the few who indulge in immoral pleasures.
In the midst of the quarrel, one of the astronauts utters the only useful truth available to them–they’re being treated like monkeys, that’s the problem. They cannot agree on quite what liberty means or requires, but they do have a common enemy–the scientists who want to take away their dignity. American manliness is better equipped to deal with that threat than with the above dilemma.
This allows the two factions to move forward together. Public scrutiny of mores is not all there is to public America–now that they’re famous, they’re no longer mere warm bodies, to be replaced at the whim of the scientists–they are important in themselves & can use their prestige & popularity to assert their dignity. At the same time, private collapse into promiscuity is not the best available to men who have acquired various excellences–they are better suited to derive their dignity from how well they do a job worth doing.
In parallel to this assertion of human dignity, we see the aviators debate the manliness of the astronauts. One of them, to mock the national enthusiasm, says they’re no better than monkeys. Chuck Yeager, the man who personally has most to lose by way of celebrity from the new success of the astronauts, is the one who defends them. They may have no more control over the rockets than the monkey that preceded them in space, but they have more knowledge.
The situation of man is such that he knows he is riding a bomb, but he does it anyway. Even in the new situation, where man may be powerless, he still knows his life is at stake & must decide when to risk it & for what reason. Danger & manliness are still the twin conditions of standing up for human dignity.
Memories of the last age when manliness was a thing of pride in America
This is the only Tom Wolfe book made into a movie. It is a story about the confidence & daring of American men in the age when America first acquired the confidence of the most powerful republic in history. This was meant to inspire some confidence in America in an age when her confidence had been badly shaken & Reagan was trying to revive it. It has served more as an aid to nostalgia than anything else, unfortunately.
First, the title–Americans are reluctant to use the word manliness, even in the military. Even these rather heroic types prefer this oblique reference, the right stuff. It is less of a boast–it tempts fate & American egalitarianism less. It preempts the suspicion that men claim some kind of superiority for themselves. It deflects attention from being.
Next, the problem with science. The men in the story start out aviators & end astronauts. As the aircraft become more powerful, the men seem to lose all control of the motion, except that they agree to enter the machine. Indeed, it is not clear there’s much room left for any kind of human being as science advances, much less for the daredevils. It seems, at the same time, that the men are reduced to their bodies–they have to pass extremely demanding tests. More & more, they are treated like animals.
Finally, the political situation. The young men move from their desire to distinguish themselves, to excel, to be the best, striving against one another, to a new situation where they are famous throughout the nation, raised to celebrity by the president, & involved in America’s Cold War technological contest with the Soviets. The problem with manliness–most competitors lose–turns out to have a political advantage–it pushes ambitious men into new territories, taking new risks to achieve the desired celebrity. Thus, the people become arbiters of manliness.
One day, one of the soon-to-be astronauts walks into an aviator bar, to size up the competition, to strut around, & says confidently that he wants to earn his place–to end up a photo on a wall behind a bar. This is the small, select company of the men who live with death. The boy is taught, those are pictures of dead pilots. He did not know about himself that he loved death.
The women have to live with this. This form of manliness is not protective, not really–not until it becomes a political problem for America. There may be a career involved or some benefit that comes from prestige or popularity, but here the women are guided more or less by the same thing that America is looking forward to–the fearful, grinning beauty of the men.