Dissertation Days (21): Roadblocks

I’ve reached that stage in Chapter 3 where I know that the end is in sight, but it’s precisely the nearness of accomplishment that proves more than a little debilitating. Still, it is precisely in those moments that one has to continue onward, pushing past the mental barricades to get to the rich intellectual material beneath.

I did manage to eke out some new material in Chapter 3, both by writing some new stuff and also by importing a paragraph from an earlier draft. The third section still needs a little development to fully cohere, and it’s going to take some doing to make sure that it fits together both internally and with the rest of the chapter, but I think that’s doable, so long as I don’t let myself get bogged down too much.

That being said, I do feel like I made some genuine progress today, and I’m setting Wednesday as the day that I would like to be done with the heavy lifting on this draft. That puts me at just about two months revision which, considering all that’s been going on–pet loss and illness, travel, family obligations–isn’t bad at all. I really do have to keep my momentum going if I want to defend by this coming spring (which I basically have to do regardless). So, any positive thoughts and encouragement y’all could send my way would be much appreciated.

In terms of Chapter 4, I wrote 500 words, mostly in two of my sections that deal with the films. Today, I focused mostly on Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. At the moment, I’m trying to think through the utopian sensibility that these films express, even as they also acknowledge the rather dystopian realities of history.

Once I settle down again, I am going to need to rewatch both Fall and The Bible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, and I need to make sure that I have the type of detail that enables a textured film analysis. Given how much of a stickler I am for sound film criticism, I have to be extra careful to practice what I preach.

On tomorrow’s agenda: keep plodding away at Chapter 3 (as usual). Then it’s on to Chapter 4, and I think I have a rich vein of inquiry ready to be tapped.

Tomorrow is going to be great.

Dissertation Days (15): Three Outta Five Ain’t Bad!

I know it’s been a while since I posted a dissertation update. My Parents and I lost a furry member of our family, so we’ve been grieving. Today, though, I knew I had to get back in the swing of things. And here we are.

So, this chapter of my dissertation has basically five complete sections: context (historical); context (theoretical); close reading of Samson and Delilah; close reading of David and Bathsheba; and close reading of Quo Vadis. There is also, of course, a very brief conclusion.

So far, I’ve managed to finish three out of those five, especially since I managed to finish up my close reading of David and Bathsheba. It’s a little briefer than the one about Samson and Delilah, but that’s okay. It’s basically meant to be a complement to that earlier reading, an elaboration of the many ways in which the historico-biblical epic engages with the question of desire and history.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this section turned out, and I think I’ve added some nuance to the ways in which scholars have already talked about the film. I really think that thinking about colour adds a new layer of understanding to the way in which the film engages with the question of history and desire. David and Bathsheba may not have attained quite the canonical status of some other epics of the midcentury period, it does, I think, deserve more critical consideration than it typically receives.

Tomorrow, I’ve got to get deep into the weeds on the section of Quo Vadis. I’ve thought about excising it from the chapter, but have opted not to. I do think there is a strong case to be made for the way in which queer desire in the film operates at the level of form, and it makes a compelling counterpoint to the question of female desire raised by the other films discussed. So, it stays in for right now.

I was planning on submitting this chapter later this month, but since I’ll be traveling for quite a while, I’m going to submit it around the middle of June. However,  I going to continue working on Chapter 4 (which I fully intend to do tomorrow, in addition to my other work).

There is still a lot of work, but I think most of it will be done this week.

It can be done.

TV Review: “Feud”–“You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”

So, we come at last to it, the finale of the first season of Feud. I’m still not sure that the series needed all 8 episodes that it got in order to get to this point, but I do think that it told a good story, solidly acted, and beautifully shot. It may not go down in history as one of the greatest TV series, it is nevertheless a solid part of the Murphy oeuvre, a testament to his ability to imprint his vision on Hollywood history.

Whereas earlier episodes showed Lange’s Crawford slipping into moments of high-strung histrionics, this episode sees her bowing out with a measure of pathos-drenched grace. This is the Joan whose body has begun to fail her, first in the rash of dental problems that are the result of her having molars extracted in her youth to give her cheeks a more carved appearance, and then when the cancer that will take her life starts to take its toll. She gradually withdraws into her apartment, determined at the last to maintain a measure of dignity despite everything else (this becomes an especially acute issue after a photo that she deems unflattering sees the light of day).

The episode makes no secret that Joan’s career was definitely the one that fizzled out much more ignominiously than Davis’s. (While you wouldn’t know it from this episode, Davis would actually go on to have several more notable film appearances, even costarring with Lilian Gish in The Whales of August). One cannot but feel sorry for Joan, that one of the giants of the screen should be reduced to playing in a film such as Trog. Even there, though, the series does show that she continued to be a consummate professional, working with all of her considerable skills to bring an element of craftsmanship to this inglorious position. She faces every new humiliation with aplomb, even though she is truly working in less-than-ideal conditions.

The highlight of the episode is, of course, a fever dream in which Joan sees Hedda, Jack, and Bette gathered in her living room. There ensues a conversation  in which Bette and Joan at last say the things to each other that they never said in life. As with the rest of this episode, the moment is laden with ambiguity, a potent and pathos-laden incident in which we are treated to a world that might-have-been. It’s a moment when both Bette and Joan are restored to their former glamourous glory, and they can at last be honest with one another.

Of course, the fantasy cannot last, and the scene abruptly shifts to Joan sitting alone in her dark living room, her long hair askew. The fantasy has been punctured, and the revelation that Joan died shortly thereafter makes the scene all the more poignant. When Bette responds to the death with a cruelly offhand remark, we’re left wondering if she does it out of a residual sense of bitterness, a lack of feeling one way or another, or just because by this point it’s what she’s expected to do.

The last scene is one that is also laden with ambiguity, as we are shown a scene in which Bette and Joan, on the first day of shooting for Baby Jane, both think that is the beginning of a beautiful new friendship. But, of course, the past 8 episodes have shown us that that is a hope that remains unfulfilled, that the dark forces of male Hollywood will always come in between them. This sequence ultimately raises more questions than it answers: Is this a flashback to what actually transpired on the first set of the film, a moment of utopian longing for a friendship that could have been? Or is instead just that, a utopian figment, a figment of the imagination, a cautionary tale about the dangers of Hollywood feuding (and, by implication, our complicity in consuming this narrative?)

And of course the last shot is the most heartbreaking of all, as the two actresses, both of them larger than life, both of them outshining many of the stars who would come in their wake, go to their separate dressing rooms. It’s a moment laden with a melancholy significance, as we in the audience are left to mourn a friendship that never was, just as we were left to contemplate the tragedy of Joan’s final delusion, in which she imagines a rapprochement that never took place but which we wish might have, as it would have offered both of them an opportunity to unite against the system that worked so stridently to keep them apart.

In the final analysis, I think Feud is a thoroughly good show. Is it one of the greatest or even great on its own terms? I don’t think so. It tends to rely too much on cleverness and surface, and there are some questionable historical choices (and even more questionable accuracy). As with so many Ryan Murphy projects, it tends to be better in concept than in execution. Still, as a student and amateur historian of classic Hollywood, I’m excited that it was made, and I’m glad that it has brought such increased visibility to a period that has only recently begun to get the respect and attention that it deserves.

If I have one major complaint about the series, it’s that it tends to focus too much on Joan at the expense of Bette. This wasn’t as noticeable early in the series, but as it went on it was very clear that Murphy was more invested in her side of the narrative than Bette’s. She gets to have more of the tender moments–particularly in this last episode, where we see her visibly touched by the love of one of her daughters–whereas Bette is always seen as the tower of strength. That by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it does tend to skew the series in Joan’s favour.

Overall, I’m glad that Feud was made, and I am very glad that I stuck with it to the very end. While I tend to fall of the wagon with Murphy’s series, for once he made it worth sticking with him.

Long live Bette and Joan.

Dissertation Days (10): Bits and Pieces

Well, friends, I wasn’t quite as productive as I should have been. It was a busy day of meetings and such, and that prevented me from working on what I had intended to. I just need to remind myself that it’s okay if I don’t meet my goal every single day. Sometimes, it’s not going to be possible for one reason or another, what with grading, editorial stuff, and just general life.

However, I did manage to chip away at a few paragraphs that were giving me a particularly large amount of trouble. I even managed to craft this sentence about the visual contrast between the Philistines and the Danites: “The color scheme, bifurcated as it is along lines of power and prostration, registers the essential brutality of history.” This, in fact, helped me to clarify some of the issues that I’ve been struggling with, and I think it actually may end up being the linchpin for the whole chapter. As I go on to discuss in the rest of the chapter, the spectacle of color provides an immediate experience of the violence of erotic history.

Also, while I’m thinking of it, I also managed to weed out several of my “couplets.” I have this nasty habit of pairing up two nouns (or two adjectives) to round out a sentence. For example, I almost wrote “the violence of the erotic and of history” above but changed it. I don’t know whyI have this habit, but I’m working on breaking it.

I also managed to revise several of the paragraphs associated with my close reading of Samson and Delilah, so that actually felt good. That particular reading is beginning to cohere nicely, and I hope to have it done by early next week (though that means I might have to work during part of the weekend).

There might be a little bit of productivity left in me tonight, but I honestly rather doubt it. However, I do feel like I can get at least 10 pages revised tomorrow, as well as my customary 500 words of Chapter 4. If I’m really lucky, I might even make it entirely through my historical context section. Wouldn’t that be something?

I have to get a lot done in the next couple of days, before the travel-heavy May and June begin.

Sigh. There is, as they say, no rest for the weary.

So, on to another day.

Dissertation Days (5): Clarity at Last

Today was what I would like to call a successful writing day. I not only met my word goal (2000 words!) but also started to achieve that elusive goal of every chapter: intellectual clarity. I know it may not seem like much to some, but man, if you’ve ever written a book-length scholarly treatment, you know that’s no small feat.

I managed to get some important context written today, focusing especially on the postwar consumption boom. I really found the book As Seen on TV to be particularly helpful, as it gave me the theoretical understanding I needed to make the point about the connection between tactile images and erotic desire. If you’ve ever seen Samson and Delilah or Quo Vadis, you know  that there are a number of spectacular fabrics on display, and I can’t help but think that they register to a degree the importance and presence of both female and queer male desire.

The most frustrating thing I’ve found about this chapter is how slippery it is. I’m really trying to tease out the essential contradictions of the epic, to find in those contradictions the systems of power and representational systems that render the terrors of history, its utter unknowability and ineffability, experiential and, just possibly, comprehensible.

I’m…not sure to what extent this draft of the chapter is doing that, but I think it is holding together in ways that definitely weren’t true of its earlier iteration. There definitely seems to be a stronger, more organic connection between the historical and theoretical context and the close textual readings. I just have to find a way to make sure that I make those connections explicit,  without getting repetitive or clumsy about it.

As Sophia Petrillo once said: “presentation is very important.”

Also, incidentally, I also began a new draft of Chapter 4. Still not quite sure what form this final one is going to take but…there’s a glimmer of illumination ahead.

Tomorrow’s goal: more close textual analysis and a bit more context. Goal: 1000 words.

If I keep up at this pace, I might even be able to get a draft of this chapter back to my adviser by middle of May. Regardless of whether it’s approved this time around or not, I really do feel like I’ve made vast improvement.

That improvement, ultimately, gives me the courage and enthusiasm to face the glowing computer screen tomorrow morning.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Hagsploitation” (S1, Ep. 6)

A friend recently remarked to me that, every time he watched an episode of Feud, he felt as if nothing significant had transpired. As I continue to watch, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him. While there is still much to love about this series, it does feel like it’s beginning to drag a bit, weighed down by its own pretensions.

In this episode, Joan attempts to resuscitate her career by acting in cheesy horror films, while Bette also struggles to find roles that are worthy of her talents. However, Aldrich is determined to cement his legacy and so, even as his marriage falls apart, he proposes another entry in the “Hagsploitation” genre (a term allegedly coined by Jack Warner), and he hopes to reunite Crawford and Davis and continue to exploit their antipathy toward one another.

The relationship between Aldrich and Bette, as always, continues to ring the truest and to have the most emotional depth. There is an undeniable chemistry between Sarandon and Molina, and they carry this over into the fondness that these individuals have for one another. They understand one another, even more so now that Aldrich is faced with a life without his wife (who has told him she wants a divorce due to his inability to truly privilege her in the face of his work).

As always, though, it is Lange who steals the show, and she manages to continue wringing the role of Joan for all of the pathos that it’s worth. While it remains unclear whether the real Joan Crawford–if we can even speak of such a thing–would ever have shown the type of vulnerability that Lange conveys, the fact remains that Lange combines strength with vulnerability. Lange’s Crawford is knowing and understanding about what the world is like, and the world of Hollywood in particular, but this knowledge does not give her any sort of comfort. Knowledge in this context proves to be just as much a burden as it is a blessing.

She does, however, display a true spine of steel when her brother threatens her with an alleged video of her performance in a stag film (the rumour of the existence of such a film ultimately sunders her friendship with Hedda). While she pays off his demands, she does so because she values her career and her accomplishments above everything else, and she is not about to let a money-grubber, even if he happens to be related to her by blood. Thus, when she finds that he has died during an emergency operation on his appendix, her first move is to cancel the payment on her check. For Joan, family is a burden, yet another sacrifice that she must make in order to solidify her career and the reputation that she has taken such an effort to maintain.

However, while I still take a lot of pleasure in this show, it’s clear that it’s starting to run out of steam a bit. I’ve thought for some time now that it would have probably made more narrative sense for this to have either been two episodes shorter or to have been released all at once. For me as a viewer, the appeal of the show continues to lie in the performances and the sumptuousness of the image, rather than in the narrative. I’m not sure that this is entirely as Murphy intends it, but I have long felt that his skills as an image-maker and as a casting agent far excel his skills as a creator of long-form drama. I suppose that we will have to wait until the final episode to see if my theory is proven correct. (Note: while he is not the writer or director of most of the episodes so far, his imprint is indelibly stamped on the series as a whole)

Overall, I found this to be a touching entry, but I’m still a little unclear about what the series in the aggregate will look like. If the series’ purpose was to show the ways in which women are exploited in Hollywood and their interests sublimated in the service of men’s profit, then that mission has already been well-accomplished. However, one can hop that there will be a deeper takeaway by the end, one that merits the expanded frame of the narrative.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Mommie Dearest” (S1, Ep. 3)

Just when I thought that Feud couldn’t get any better, it manages to continue to showcase the ability of Ryan Murphy to plumb the depths of despair and sadness in the human psyche. In particular, it shows his longstanding interest in the suffering that women endure in a patriarchal world that rarely, if ever, values them for themselves.

Overall, the episode offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the convoluted nature of motherhood in particular. As is well-known, both Bette and Joan had quite vexed relationships with their children. Overall in this episode Bette is the one who emerges as the most compassionate mother, in that she continues to try to support B.D., even though it’s obvious she’s a terrible actress. Further, she also continues working in order to pay the bills for her younger daughter’s schooling.

It is her relationship with Victor Buono, her effeminate and portly gay co-star, that really cements Bette’s inner core of maternal feeling. In Buono, she sees a companion spirit, a man who has suffered because of his sexuality (at one point he is arrested in a vice sting and she has to bail him out of jail), but in whom she sees a great deal of genuine talent. The scenes that show them together show a meeting of the minds, a young acolyte starstruck and determined to make the most out of this moment to costar with one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history (incidentally, Buono would also star with Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).

Even Crawford, whose motherly reputation has long been overshadowed by her daughter’s tell-all memoir and its filmic adaptation, appears in this episode as a woman who genuinely wants to care for the children who come under her care. The episode makes it clear that she craves the affection that she was denied in her childhood (except from her stepfather), and that it is this desire for human connection that drives so much of what she does. The brutal irony, of course, is that she cannot see the truth that is right in front of her face. It is Davis, more than any other character, who actually understands Joan and what she suffers, yet she is the one person that she cannot quite bring herself to be friends with, no matter how much it might benefit the two of them.

This episode, as with the ones preceding it, continues to show the extent to which both Joan and Bette are being manipulated by those who have a vested interest in keeping them at one another’s throats. It’s particularly frustrating that it’s Hedda Hopper who continues to pull the strings on Crawford, for as a woman one would think that she would be more sensitive to the need for women in Hollywood to band together and support one another. But, like so many others in Hollywood, all she can see is her own aggrandizement, no matter the human costs.

Yet the episode also shows that, for all of their foibles and flaws, both Crawford and Davis are consummate masters of their craft. Even Crawford, acknowledged as somewhat less than an accomplished actress by subsequent filmgoers, manages to impress even Davis by her delivery of Blanche’s final, crushing revelation. All in all, the episode manages to do justice to both of these phenomenal women of old Hollywood.

However, I do have to express a small amount of concern over the future of the show. After all, we’re only in the third episode, and now, diegetically, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has finished filming. Where will the show go from here? Presumably, it will stretch into the drama over the Oscars, and perhaps will even show the women as they pursue their careers in the aftermath of

Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

Film Review: “Trumbo” (2015)

As a fledgling scholar working in classical Hollywood, I was very excited when I heard about Trumbo, the biopic about the famed member of the Hollywood Ten.  This group of screenwriters and directed would go down in history as a mostly principled group of men who refused to cave in to the anti-Communist paranoia that swept the nation in the wake of World War II.

The film essentially charts the process by which the Hollywood Ten is blacklisted by the industry due to their refusal to name names before HUAC.  After languishing at King Brothers Productions (during which he is also compelled by economic necessity to take on more and more projects), Trumbo at last begins to claw his way back into respectability with The Wild One.  However, it is not until a young actor and producer named Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and a dour director named Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) intercede that he finally breaks the blacklist, and Trumbo’s name is openly acknowledged in the credits of both Spartacus and Exodus.  The film ends with a vindicated Trumbo delivering a heartfelt and deeply philosophical address to gathered Hollywood dignitaries.

Like many recent dramas, Trumbo strikes a delicate balance between portraying the 1950s in exacting and delicate detail, while also excoriating the period for its hypocrisy and repressiveness.  The film does not allow for a great deal of ambiguity, and rightly so, as the fanatical overreach of HUAC destroyed the lives and careers of not just the Hollywood Ten, but also numerous other Hollywood professionals who saw their livelihoods demolished on even the faintest suspicion of Communist sympathies.

There are, fortunately, a few moments that undercut (or at least dilute) the more straightforwardly hagiographic tendencies.  As the third act progresses, it becomes clear that Trumbo is not quite the loving and affectionate family man that everyone has believed.  While the father/daughter film trope is a teensy bit on the lazy side, Cranston does a grand job bringing out the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious traits for which Trumbo became somewhat infamous.

While Trumbo is the driving narrative center of the film, a few other characters gain nuanced treatment.  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) emerges as a conflicted and somewhat tragic figure, an actor desperate to salvage his reputation and maintain his livelihood.  Though we are not invited to condone his betrayal of his friends (including Trumbo), the film clearly wants us to sympathize with him.  He makes the best decision in a terrible situation, and while the relationship between him and Trumbo never returns to its

While perhaps not nuanced, per se, Helen Mirren does an absolutely marvelous job bringing Hedda Hopper to life.  Mirren has always excelled at playing powerful women willing to do whatever it takes to defend their principles, and say what you will about Hopper’s red-baiting, she was a woman stalwart in her (misguided) principles.  While the film may give her too much credit for the imposition of the blacklist, she does have some memorable (and vicious) lines, as when she reveals her racism by reminding Louis B. Mayer of his scrupulously disguised Jewish identity, as a trait he shares with many of his fellow studio heads.

Several of the other players deserve accolades.  John Goodman is splendidly vulgar as Frank King, Trumbo’s employer (a role that Goodman has honed to perfection).  Diane Lane, while conveying the long-suffering yet fiercely independent Cleo Trumbo, is rather underused, while Elle Fanning hits an unfortunately strident note as Trumbo’s increasingly resentful daughter Nikola.  And poor Stephen Root is almost invisible as Frank’s brother Hymie, while Dean O’Gorman captures the look of Kirk Douglas, without quite mastering the older actor’s unique verbal mannerisms.

Trumbo is one of those films that the Hollywood film industry loves to periodically produce.  By granting Trumbo the last word, it allows the industry to atone for the sins of the past and to lionize those figures who it once did everything its power to destroy.  The film holds valuable lessons for us in the present, as we find ourselves as a nation confronted with a not-dissimilar atmosphere of paranoia.  Like Trumbo, we should all be very wary of those who would mobilize our fears and make us give up those things that we value most about America.

Queer Classics: “Gods and Monsters”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

I’d been wanting to watch this film from beginning to end–I’d seen a few bits and pieces now and then throughout the years–for a long time.  Fortunately, it became available On Demand the other day, and so I decided to a look.

And I’m really glad I did.

I’ve always had a bit of a crush on both Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser, and watching this film reminds me of why.  McKellen plays famed horror director James Whale, slowly fading into obscurity decades after his famous successes in the 1930s, while Fraser plays a gardener who gradually finds himself drawn into Whale’s world of old Hollywood memories and tortured reminiscences of World War I.  At first, the rather dim gardener (whose name is Clayton Boone), seems unsure how to respond, but gradually the two develop a strong bond that is increasingly tested by Whale’s failing mental and physical health and his eventual, final descent into madness and despair.

In many ways, this film feels like a romance that isn’t really a romance.  We’re never allowed to forget that Clayton is rigorously straight, but one can still detect a fair bit of on-screen chemistry between the two men, not least because it’s obvious that there is a great deal of chemistry between the two actors.  And of course there’s no denying that Whale obviously experiences some measure of attraction for his handsome gardener, though I would hesitate to say that it is erotic in the sense that we normally expect.  While that may be an element, he also seems to see in Boone a measure of the youth and vitality that he saw during his time in World War I, a reminder of the exquisite yet frail nature of young beauty.

Whale is also a man tormented by his past, both that in the trenches and his time as one of Hollywood’s most famous directors.  This past continues to intrude on the present.  Whale has begun to suffer from a series of strokes that keep his mind from being able to stay firmly in the present.  Visually, of course, the film allows us to see this through editing, and there are several moments where we are violently jarred into the past.  Through such editing, we come to understand the mental (and, increasingly, physical) agony that Whale feels as his body fails him and he yearns to recapture some measure of the success that and energy that he possessed in his youth.

This toggling between various times also explains one of the film’s most appealing aspects, i.e. the rumination on the nature of Hollywood.  As with the finest of films about the industry of the industry (I’m thinking here of ones like Sunset Boulevard), Gods and Monsters shows us that Hollywood is a fickle mistress, willing to abandon those who are no longer seen as lucrative investments.  As the film points out, at least two of Whale’s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein have rightly become two of the most canonical films in the horror canon.  Fortunately, it also reminds us that Whale produced what is largely considered the best adaptation of the famous musical Showboat, before gradually fading into the obscurity from which he has yet to emerge.

Like the best films, Gods and Monsters leaves you with a faint feeling of sadness and melancholy, of the a world that has vanished and that will never reappear.  One cannot help but feel at least a measure of nostalgia for the world of old Hollywood that the film presents to us, a world of larger-than-life figures that hold on to the last fading vestiges of their former glories.

At the dramatic level, the film features excellent performances, not just from McKellen and Fraser, but also from the late Lynn Redgrave as Whale’s caretaker Hanna.  Judgmental and harsh at times (she refers to Whale as a “bugger,”) she is equally devoted to him and is absolutely devastated by his suicide.  There is clearly a strong relationship between the two of them, one born of mutual affection and love.  But the dramatic heart of the film is the relationship between Whale and Boone, a touching if somewhat tragic bonding between the old world and the new.

Score:  10/10