Screening Classic Hollywood: “I Want to Live!” (1958)

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve been wanting to watch I Want to Live! for quite some time now, if for no other reason than that it’s referenced twice in The Golden Girls (always a solid reason to watch a film, IMO). Well, I did, and I have to say, I was enraptured from the first scene to the last.

The film centers on Barbara Graham, a woman accused of murdering an elderly widow. When she is convicted by the court, she must do all she can to try to save her own life, not just for her own sake, but also for her son’s.

From its first canted shots, I Want to Live! wears its noir-ness on its sleeve. It has an almost morbid fascination with the lurid and the macabre, whether that be the seediness of the underworld or the minutiae of the execution that occurs at the film’s conclusion. As with any noir, there is a palpable sense of unease that saturates the film, a sense that not all is as it should be, that we in the audience are looking in on a dark world, a sinister place of crime and death.

A significant source of this unease is the way in which the sound design and the camera work in sync to convey this sense of a topsy-turvy, uncertain world of criminality and vice. In one early scene, for example, the frantic editing combines with the ecstatic music to conjure up an almost ecstatic embrace of the sensational. This is a world where the excitement of the underworld is always tinged with menace, whether that be from the cops or from its own denizens.

At the same time as it is a noir, it is also very much a melodrama. Though Barbara tries to find happiness and fulfillment in the domestic bliss of marriage, it turns out to be something far more unsatisfying. Her husband is both physically abusive and a drug addict, and her dire financial straits lead Barbara right back into the world of crime and deceit that proves to be her undoing. Though she might be a murderer, the film invites us to feel for her by showing her as both a devoted mother and a woman wrongly accused by her criminal compatriots. And, in keeping with melodrama’s obsession with time (see the work of Linda Williams for more on this), it is always/already too late for Barbara to be saved, despite the ever-present hope of a reprieve from the governor. The last few moments of the film are an agony to watch, as time slowly ticks down until the fateful execution. By the end, the film has utterly convinced us that Barbara is the victim of her own story.

Though she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Susan Hayward owns the screen, portraying a woman who’s tough as nails and yet has an inner softness. Hayward manages to capture Barbara’s swings between fierce independence and vulnerability, between strength and despair. The brilliance of Hayward’s performance in this film comes from her ability to embody the two poles of femininity that are such a key part of postwar film noir, the femme fatale and the good girl, sometimes in the same scene. She has some of the sharpest lines of the film–her waspish tongue gets her in trouble more than once–yet she can also deliver lines filled with tearful pathos, the anguish of a mother parted from her child, the terror of a victim going to her own death.

Fictional it may be, but I Want to Live! makes an eloquent case for the abolition of the death penalty. Just as importantly, it also exposes the ways in which both men, and the institutions that they dominate, care more for headlines and public affirmation than they do about the actual pursuit of justice. By the end, we come to see Barbara as a woman ensnared by these systems–particularly the press–and her ultimate defeat at their hands gives the film’s message just that extra bit of bite that makes it truly effective.

All in all, I very much loved I Want to Live!, and it definitely deserved its Oscar nominations.

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Reading History: “The Huntress” (by Kate Quinn)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve been a fan of Kate Quinn’s historical novels for some years now. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when she moved away from antiquity and the Renaissance into the 20th Century, but then I read The Alice Network, and all of my doubts were utterly swept away. The novel kept me captivated from the beginning to end.

Having been quite thoroughly convinced that, in Quinn’s capable hands, even modernity could make for good historical fiction, I waited for the release of The Huntress with baited breath. And, once again, I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel centers on the woman known as The Huntress, a Nazi who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of several children in the last days of the war. She comes into the life of young Jordan, an aspiring photographer living in Boston, in the form of Annalise, her father’s wife-to-be. She is also pursued by Tony (an American), Ian (a Brit), and Nina (a former Russian fighter pilot), who each have their own reasons for wanting to pursue this dangerous and deadly woman. Gradually, their fortunes will coincide with that of this ruthless killer, and none of their lives will remain the same.

The story of a Nazi murderess is, sad to say, incredibly relevant to the United States in 2019. As several of the characters point out, the US in the aftermath of World War II was far more interested in rooting out communists than in hunting down Nazis, and Quinn ably captures the struggles (financial and emotional) that devoted Nazi hunters had to endure as they sought justice from those who perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust. Fortunately, Quinn’s novel is also unequivocal in its denunciation of The Huntress, and there were several moments in the novel where I truly wished that she would be struck down in the cruelest and most violent way possible. I suppose that’s a good feeling to have when it comes to Nazis, right?

As she always does, Quinn manages to create kick-ass female characters, ones who are willing and able to set out on paths that are very different from the ones that society expects of them. In that sense, the novel really reminded me of a film from the 1930s or the 1940s, when female stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford kicked ass and took names. Jordan, as a young woman coming of age in the aftermath of the Second World War, faces intense pressure to give in to the cultural imperative to get married, have children, and settle into peaceful domesticity, but she would much rather be out taking photographs like her idols. Right up until the end, she refuses to be put in any of the boxes that society has for her.

Of course, the most kick-ass of all the characters is Nina, a complicated and conflicted heroine if ever there was one. As she claws her way into the ranks of the Russian air pilots, she finds herself falling for another woman named Yelena, and their passionate (though brief) affair provides some of the most moving scenes in the entire novel. There aren’t very many people who can capture same-sex desire in a way that isn’t either sterile or prurient (and this is particularly true of queer women), but somehow Quinn manages to do just that with Nina. While she eventually comes to have feelings for Ian, the novel makes it clear that it is Yelena who owns a piece of her heart that she can never quite bring herself to give in the way that she did when she was young. And while some might hope that she stays with Ian past the novel’s end, I for one hope that she finds happiness, somehow, with Yelena.

I thus especially enjoyed the ways that the novel gives free rein to women’s sexual desire. The novel isn’t erotica, obviously, but boy does it really capture the power of sexuality to impact people’s lives, both men and women. Quinn doesn’t romanticize sex, however, and she makes clear that sometimes it’s okay if people submit to desire even if they have no intention of getting married. Sex is often far messier, and more complicated, than we realize.

What really set this novel apart, however, was that it avoided the ease of a simple happily-ever-after ending. Sure, the main characters are all still alive, and they are all together, but it remains unclear whether things will stay that way. Nina, in particular, might decide to go off and search for her long-lost Yelena, or she might be happy with Ian. Jordan will probably be happy with Tony, but it may be that she’ll find someone else. The point is that we do not know for sure, and it is this narrative indeterminacy that I found especially refreshing.

Lastly, I just want to say how much I enjoyed the novel’s reflections on the nature of photography and how the camera has the ability to capture truths that we may not notice with the naked human eye. As a scholar of visual culture, the question of whether (and to what extent) the camera can capture objective truth is one that I have thought about a lot, and let me tell you, Quinn gets to the heart of the question. When Jordan captures her stepmother’s face showing its true colours as a ruthless hunter, it shows us just how powerful a photograph can be, how easily it can expose parts of ourselves that we would rather remain hidden. It’s an unsettling thing to think about, precisely because it tears away the illusions that we have about ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world.

I truly cannot say enough good things about this book. It reminds us of why it’s important to not forget history, to remember those who have given so much to rid the world of evils like the Nazis. If you take my advice, you should go out as soon as possible and buy The Huntress. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

A Tale of Two Endings: “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Green Book”

When Green Book was announced as the winner of the Best Picture at this year’s Academy Award, one could practically hear the collective groan that went up. The film, many argued, was too simplistic and too banal in its exploration of race relations in America, particularly when compared to other films such as Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. G

Having now seen it, in conjunction with Barry Jenkins’s new film, I can say that those frustrations are justified.

If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, chronicles the budding romance between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), which faces an existential crisis when the latter is accused of having raped a woman and imprisoned. The film toggles between past and future, showing the beginnings and flourishing of their romance, as well as the struggles they face after he goes to prison.

It probably goes without saying that, in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has managed to recapture the same sort of magic that he brought to his Oscar Award winning Moonlight. The film is visually lush, with a color palette that makes the texture of fabric sensible to our own fingers, inviting us to experience the rich, deep love between the film’s two leads. The score is hauntingly beautiful, likewise invoking the exuberant joy of first love.

Yet it is precisely the films exquisite beauty that makes its ending that much more tragic. Having confessed to the rape in order to avoid even harsher punishment, Fonny must now spend several years in prison. Still, the two of them attempt to make the best of this awful situation, and Tish brings their son to regularly see his father, and the film ends with this haunting tableau: a family united yet also irreparably shattered by the violence of the state.

Of course, we’ve been primed for this unhappy ending throughout the film, for Jenkins makes the canny choice to intersperse the film’s lush colors with moments of black and white photography depicting the depredations of a police state that sees black bodies as little more than prison fodder. Though we want Fonny and Tish to find a way out of this dreadful situation, we also know that it can never be.

As I sat in the theater watching that family manage to claw some sort of love and unity out of this horrid situation, I was struck by how the ending tears apart the Hollywood myth of the happy ending, for though they are united in their love of each other, they are separated by the institutions that have oppressed people of color and by the banal pettiness of racism.

The next day, I saw Green Book, and wow, what a different film. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer who is employed by renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to be his driver as he makes a tour of the Deep South. Though clearly racist himself, as they journey through the south Tony gets a clear sense of the tremendous toll this takes on his employer. He gradually comes to recognize the terrible injustice of Dr. Shirley’s life.

Let me say upfront that the film is not nearly as bad as I had thought it would be, and I think it might be overstating it to say that it is explicitly racist. I don’t think it would be going too far, however, to say that the film is disingenuous in the extreme, and I can understand why many were upset that the film won out over such contenders as Roma, The Favourite, and BlacKkKlansman.

For one thing, the film isn’t about race relations, or the black experience in America, or about black people at all, really. What it is about is one white man’s journey to understanding the injustices that black people face. Let me be clear. This is not at all the same thing as focusing on Dr. Shirley’s experience, precisely because so much of the film is about, and told through, his perspective. Of course, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find a Hollywood film channeling our present anxieties about racial strife through the eyes of a white man.

More irritatingly, one of the film’s central conceits is that Tony has a salt-of-the-earth wisdom that is superior to the more educated one possessed by Don. In one particularly notable scene, Tony actually has the gall to claim that he is more authentically black than his employer (because he likes fried chicken and knows who Aretha Franklin is), and the film doesn’t really make any effort to show either Tony or the presumptive viewer how utterly ridiculous that claim is.

Most frustrating, however, is the ending, in which  is exactly what you would expect from a liberal film from the early 1990s: after returning to NYC, Tony invites Don in to enjoy Christmas with his family. While at first Don demurs, at the end he knocks on the door, is admitted, and is welcomed into Tony’s family. Now, to be clear, the film has gone out of its way to show how everyone in Tony’s family except for his wife is as virulently racist as he is, and somehow the film seems to want this ending to do the heavy lifting of making us believe that they have all had a moment of enlightenment. Such naivete is both laughable and incredibly frustrating.

Through this narrative closure, the film promulgates the idea that somehow, if everyone just puts their minds to it, the film suggests, everything will be okay, no tearing down of institutional racism needed! So predictable is it, and so heavy-handed in its delivery, that I actually groaned when I realized what was about to happen. Surely, I thought, this can’t be how they intend to end this film. Alas, it was.

Let me be clear: the ending isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s okay sometimes to go to movies simply for the pleasure of feeling good. What frustrates me, though, is that the film remains so resolutely and frustratingly wed to Tony’s perspective. Everything hinges on his “acceptance” of Don, who remains a shadowy and elusive presence right up until the end.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as annoyed as I am had not Green Book not won the Oscar for Best Picture, a category in which If Beale Street Could Talk was not even nominated (when it clearly should have been). It is tremendously frustrating to once again see a film that takes the easy out when it comes to issues of race in the United States win the Best Picture, a frustration made that much worse by one Academy member’s huffy claim to The New York Times that he voted for Green Book because he was tired of being told how to vote by those outside of the Academy.

These two films, with their radically different endings, make different demands on us as viewers. Beale Street forces us to reckon with the consequences of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, which cannot be waved away by the banalities of a Hollywood ending. Green Book, on the other hand, reassures us that everything will be all right, so long as good white men like Tony take it upon themselves to not be racist.

In 2019, we deserve better from Hollywood than the triteness of Green Book. Thank goodness we have If Beale Street Could Talk.

Book Review: “The Last Tsar’s Dragons” (by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple)

Note: I would like to thank NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

I have to say that the title is what drew me to this strange but enjoyable little novella. How on earth, I thought, can one make dragons relevant to the Russian Revolution?

Somehow, mother and son team Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple weave together myth and history into a compelling tale of the last days of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, their relentless hatred of both the Jews and the peasants, and their eventual fall from power.

Several notable historical figures appear in the story, including the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, the tsarina Alexandra, the man who would later become Leon Trotsky, and a nameless functionary whose narration bookends the story as a whole.

Of these, arguably the most compelling–and repelling–character is certainly the nameless functionary whose point of view bookends the novella. He is ruthless, vicious, and utterly willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that he advances up the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy, even if that means betraying his own wife (or engage in the murder of Rasputin). He is the only character whose narration is in first person, and this provides us an uncomfortably intimate glimpse into a psyche that is fundamentally twisted and ruthless.

Though the novella is largely driven by such characters, the authors also have a gift for capturing a fascinating mix of the fantastic and the historical. One gets a sense of the political and social ferment affecting Russia on the eve of the Revolution, as various parties struggle to cope with a country–and a world–that seems to teeter on the brink of absolute collapse. Furthermore, they also manage to bring into the open the toxic antisemitism that was such a prominent part of Russia at the time (and since).

All in all, I found The Last Tsar’s Dragons to be an intriguing tale, and it was rather refreshing to see a story told successfully in the form of the novella. At the same time, however, I for one am left hungering for more, precisely because the central conceit begs so many questions. Where did the dragons come from? Were there other places that used them other than Russia? If not, why not?

Perhaps the authors will one day pursue these questions, but in the meantime, we can savour what they have provided us, a glimpse into how the real world of history might have been impacted had the mythical played a larger part in it.

Reading History: “A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin” (by Simon Jenkins)

Every so often you find a book that is quite upfront about what it is and what it isn’t, and such is Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin. Beginning with ancient Greece and going from there, Jenkins provides a magisterial overview of several thousand years of European history. It’s a bit of a greatest hits of the past 3,000 years of history, ranging over the great convulsions that have rocked the continent almost from the beginning of its existence.

The early parts of the book are a bit too reductive for my tastes, and I would say that the book really doesn’t hit its stride until he moves out of antiquity and into the medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods. There, he starts to provide what I view to be actual historical analysis rather than repetition of the traditional narratives about both antiquity and late antiquity. Once we get into the more recent centuries, we begin to see how the conflicts that roiled these centuries set the stage for what was to come later.

As Jenkins makes clear, Europe has always struggled with two competing impulses: the desire to forge a collective identity and the equally powerful drive to seek self-determination for its constituent parts. Just as importantly, Jenkins points out that Europe’s other continual struggle has been against the impulse to barbarism and warfare. Again and again, Europe has been convulsed by armed conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. One would think that this would provide an imperative for the various nations to find some way of preventing such conflict, but such peace has proved elusive.

As a result of this deep history, Jenkins allows us to see the reasons for the current struggles and upheaval afflicting the European Union. I would go so far as to suggest that it is this contextualization that is the book’s primary contribution to an understanding of European history. One senses that his own ambivalence about the EU might be coloring some of his conclusions–and some of his analysis–but as a whole I find his diagnosis of the problem (if not his solutions) convincing.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. While Jenkins makes it clear from the beginning that most of the figures he discusses will be men–presumably because most of the most important figures in European history have been male. I find this to be a rather disingenuous argument, and it runs the serious risk of marginalizing those figures who have actually been far more influential than Jenkins seems to give them credit for.

All in all, A Short History of Europe is a useful guide for those who may not have much of a knowledge of European history and want to understand how it is that the entity that we know came into being. It also helps us to understand why it is that Europe continues to be such a draw for so many people around the world, a continent characterized by its utopian desires and the concomitant inability of those desire to be fulfilled.

Reading History: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mid of America” (by Greg Grandin)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC in return for an honest review.

Every so often you read a piece of history that is blistering, refreshing, and utterly compelling. Such is historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This book explores the ways in which the frontier as a concept, a myth, and an ideology has remained central to how America has conceived of itself and how, in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, the myth has at last begun to collapse upon itself.

The End of the Myth is roughly chronological, starting with the American Revolution (when the frontier was basically the Appalachians) and moving into such epochal events as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, and the recent financial crisis. He has a keen eye for detail and an ability to parse primary texts to expose the assumptions undergirding ideologies. Indeed, so sharp is his close reading ability that I almost felt at times like I was reading a trained English professor (which, coming from me, is quite the compliment).

Two figures loom large in his analysis: Andrew Jackson and Frederick Jackson. The former was the first populist president, a man who based his “egalitarian” vision on the brutal exploitation and oppression of people of color and Native Americans. The latter was, arguably, one of the most influential historians of an era, one whose theorization of the frontier provided a set of parameters within which any discussion of this concept must take place.

As Grandin points out throughout the book, the frontier has, from the beginning, symbolized the political aspirations of the United States. That is to say, it has served a multitude of purposes: as a safety valve, as the engine of empire, as a means of social control. So long as there was a frontier, the inner problems facing American politics–white supremacy and all of its ugliness foremost among them–could be projected outward. Those toxic, destructive energies could be used to expand the boundaries of the nation, while simultaneously serving the needs of those in power.

Beyond the realities of the political, however, the frontier has also served as a unifying me The frontier, and the promise of infinity that it represents, allowed Americans to believe that they were immune to the cyclical nature of history, with its rise and fall of empires. The frontier promised perpetual growth. Because of the frontier, America could convince itself that it existed outside time itself, a fantasy that would inevitably come crashing down into ruin as the realities of the limitations of the frontier became more and more obvious as the 19th and 20th Centuries progressed.

As Grandin explains, now that the frontier has utterly closed, the very energies that it was meant to channel have redounded upon the country. In the wake of globalization, endless wars in the Middle East, and the financial meltdown of 2008, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The social unrest and problems that have always existed at the heart of America’s accomplishments–and which were, to an extent, deflected by the frontier–have now burst into the open. The wall, with all of its ugly rhetoric and racist overtones, is the ultimate physical symbol of the closing of the frontier.

Grandin pulls no punches in what he sees as the political ramifications of the frontier myth and its demise in the 21st Century. Sometimes, in fact, I found his political claims (and investments) overshadowing his historical consciousness, particularly in his analysis of the Clinton and Obama years (admittedly, this may be because of my own political investments). Nevertheless, I do think that there is a danger in allowing one’s political investments to so transparently mold the perspective one takes on events.

Despite that, this is the sort of bracing, politically-engaged history that is like a breath of fresh air. Grandin tears away the air of obfuscation that allows so many (particularly white) people to believe that the frontier is some sort of infinitely tappable resource that can be exploited at will. Just as importantly, Grandin suggests that, if we want to create a more just and equitable country, we must confront the very ugly and violent parts of our collective past. Only by confronting our original sins can we move forward into a hopefully bright future.

Film Review: “Stan and Ollie”

Fair warning: Spoilers for the film follow.

These days, it’s sometimes hard to remember that it used to be possible–preferable even–to have a film with a running time of an hour and a half, one that still manages to hit all the right narrative notes to make a satisfying cinematic experience.

Cue Stan and Ollie, a pleasant little biopic about the later years of one of Hollywood’s most iconic comedy duos.

Though a few scenes take place during the duo’s heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the majority of the film revolves around their attempts to rejuvenate their film career via a tour of the UK and Ireland in the 1950s. Though it’s slow going at first, they gradually attain success, until they are playing to packed crowds in London. However, the ostensible goal of this tour–to procure a movie contract–ultimately falls through, and the two must decide whether they will continue their partnership.

Full confession time: I’ve always much preferred Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello. I can’t say why, other than that I think that Stan and Ollie just seemed more organically funny to me than their (arguably) more successful counterparts. So, I was already prepared to enjoy the film, and I was not disappointed.

The film does play a bit fast and loose with historical details, compressing some things and excluding others, but that’s rather what you expect from a biopic. Indeed, rather than trying to provide a panoramic view of the comedy duo’s career, it shows us this one particular incident that is reflective of their dynamic and their struggles both within and against Hollywood. As a result, we do get a fairly rich sense of their relationship.

While the film’s plot follows a fairly traditional biopic pattern, the performances from both Coogan and Reilly really allow the film to stand out (it’s rather a crime, I think, that neither was in contention for an Oscar). They both seem to truly inhabit their characters. This is not mere mimicry, but instead something richer, deeper, and more meaningful. Just as importantly, there is also an undeniable chemistry between the two leads that lends their performance a level of credibility it might otherwise lack. There are times when one could be forgiven for believing that the two men on screen are really the two old Hollywood stars.

Thus, the film is essentially about the relationship between the two men. From its perspective, the two of them only really succeeded when they worked together. Their other partnerships, Though their wives are certainly prominent parts of their lives–and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda deserve enormous credit for imbuing each of them with spit-fire personality–it’s clear from the beginning that the bond between the two men is of a different kind.

The film is also a reflection on the brutal, unforgiving nature of Hollywood. No matter how successful Stan and Ollie become through their tapping into nostalgia, there will be no movie deal for them. The Hollywood of their heyday has moved on, and while they may not be as pathetic as, say, Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, there is still a sense of pathos about the whole drama. We in the audience know that there can be no resuscitation fo their film career even before they do; there is no place for 1930s comedians of their type in 1950s Hollywood. We are thus invited to both cheer for them and pity them at the same time.

The film is intertwines various types of nostalgia: there is the yearning of the two actors for their earlier success; there’s the nostalgia of the fans who fill the auditoria; and then there is the film’s own nostalgia for both the 1930s and, arguably, the 1950s. As with so many Hollywood films about Hollywood, the dream factory is a vexed signifier. While it promises them both a renewed career, it is also the great beast that has already chewed them up and left them behind.

In that sense, Stan and Ollie is a rather melancholic film, for as the blurb of text at the end explains, the tour did in fact take a heavy toll on Ollie’s health, and he died shortly afterward. For his part, Stan never again performed with another partner. In the end, we’re left with a sense of sadness for what might have been, a bittersweet longing for two careers cut short by the vicissitudes of Hollywood.