Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hereafter & The Ghost Writer (2010)

These two sort of go together.

I don't see a whole lot of contemporary movies--it is usually more fun to catch up on the classics, and the newer ones rarely speak to me anyway. However, I found I enjoyed both of these, mostly due to their presentations. They are well-made, by famous and very old directors, Clint Eastwood (b. 1931) on Hereafter, and Roman Polanski (b.1933) on The Ghost Writer. Despite having been made by these dinosaurs, both of these felt contemporary to me--or at least what the contemporary world looks like through the lenses of minds rooted in the 1960s or 70s, or even the 50s, which is about where I seem to be stuck as well. A younger person attuned to the thought processes, aesthetics, attitudes and so on of this digital era might not find these to have much to do with the present at all.

The main appeal to me of both of these is what I will call 1% porn. I wonder if there has not been a trend in this direction in recent years since the recession and the ever increasing gulf in educational and professional achievement between the cognitive and financial elect and the masses. There is something in this that echos the many movies of the 30s that depicted the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy, though the emphasis in this modern incarnation is less on raw luxury than on quality of life aspects that suddenly seem inaccessible to large numbers of formerly semi-competitive people. In my youth in the 80s and even the 90s, wealthy people were often presented in movies and other pop culture in a rather cartoonish aspect. The emphasis was on over the top or otherwise absurd and useless frivolities that millionaires indulged in, such as having a hundred sports cars, or a thousand pairs of shoes, or a specially installed room for tanning in the mansion. Qualititavely there was otherwise little difference in the life of such a person and the viewer at home. While the rich kid's boarding school, for example, may have had more thoroughly obnoxious snobs and girls who were into horseback riding, it was not implicit that it was academically superior  to any ordinary suburban high school, if anyone even cared about such things. Indeed the servants or other help were usually at least the intellectual equals of the master, so much so that anyone who took the message of these programs too seriously could not help but believe that fortunes were distributed in the world on a completely arbitrary basis. This trend I am noticing in more recent works is not merely a corrective to this faulty view that prevailed in the past, but probably is reflective of a change in the public imagination and sensibility where the wealthiest and most privileged people are concerned.

In Hereafter, for example, which has a rather bizarre plot about communicating with the dead, most of the appeal of the movie, which I cannot otherwise explain, is in its tasteful settings and what it shows people doing in them . There are three storylines, centered in Paris, San Francisco and London, and the movie opens with a modern French supercouple, a journalist/author and a television personality, at a resort in Thailand that is neither too grandiose nor too bourgeois, which seems to be the sweet spot of modern life. There is, objectively speaking, no little unpleasantness. The Thai vacation coincides with the famous tsunami, in which thousands of people are killed, and the London family consists of a drug addicted single mother living in a council estate with her twin boys, one of whom is killed by a truck. However, after being dead, or very nearly dead, for several minutes, the Frenchwoman caught in the tsunami ends up coming back to life and discovering priorities that are more attractive to the typical fan of the cinema; and in the London episode the surviving son begins traveling all around the city to various beautiful old buildings, train stations, libraries, auditoriums, doctors' offices, etc, in his quest to communicate with his dead brother. Even when the drug addicted mother consents to go to rehab, her facility is in a remodeled castle. We are told that Matt Damon's character works in a factory making $2,000 dollars a month (do they still have jobs like this in San Francisco? as least where the workers speak English as a native language?), but he lives at a much--much--higher tone than this situation implies. He has a very nice 1920sish apartment, where he lives all alone, in what looks to be a neighborhood in the area of the wharf. I am not very familiar with San Francisco, though I am guessing the area where this apartment seems to be is expensive. He takes a Italian cooking class from a distinguished Italian chef in which the students drink good wine and listen to classical music as they slice tomatoes, and everyone in the class is beautiful and well-educated--even the old people. Socializing with or even being around people who are good-looking and smart to any degree (and not being in a position of subservience to them) seems increasingly to be a mark of privilege. I suspect that even if I signed up for a class or joined an activity that had these kinds of perfectly developed persons, I would stand out as not belonging so egregiously that I doubt the desirable people would stay in the class or the outing club once they found I was to make part of the group.

Hot girl picked up in the cooking class in Hereafter

I almost forgot that Matt Damon is a rabid Charles Dickens fan. He chills out at night by listening to David Copperfield on books on tape and has the great man's portrait hanging up in his kitchen. Later on, after he gets laid off from his $2,000 a month job, he regroups by taking a trip to London, perhaps the world's most expensive city, and goes to Charles Dickens's house on Doughty Street (I was there too! It looks like they have re-arranged some of the displays since that time). This was all very corny, but I admit, it drew me in.

In the Ghost Writer the impression made is more of the untouchable power, knowledge, raw intellect and grim professionalism of the modern well-educated and connected. The movie is very persuasive on the point that pretty much all the core faculty and best graduates of places like Harvard and Oxbridge are in the employ of the CIA or Halliburton-like corporations and deeply involved in endless political machinations of a decidedly sinister character, to which they seem to devote an even greater part of their considerable intelligent energy than to their glittering academic careers (which only underscores how impressively brilliant they must be). While the bulk of the story takes place in a pretty ugly modernist bunker (albeit on the ocean on Martha's Vineyard) we do get to examine the interior of one particularly evil Harvard professor's perfectly maintained and appointed colonial home in one of New England's most desirable zip codes. Most of the movie was actually shot in Germany and France due to Roman Polanski's well known legal situation, but a second unit was dispatched to Provincetown and Wellfleet on Cape Cod to shoot some exteriors. As I have written before, all these years I have lived in New England, but I have never made it yet to Cape Cod. It looks great in this movie, though it appears to have been filmed in November, when it is unlikely I will have the time or opportunity to go down there anytime soon. Maybe this summer--Gloucester is also on my never been/to visit list, courtesy of the Captains Courageous movie, though Gloucester is on the north shore and I could go there as a daytrip. Cape Cod is too far to go for the day, and during the high season it is difficult, both due to expense and availability, to drop in for an overnight or a weekend on the spur of the moment. The summer is so short anyway when you have to work.

Ghost Writer star Olivia Williams: The favorite middle-aged actress of a certain kind of Anglophilic, book collecting, undersexed middle-aged dilettante intellectual. Born Camden Town, London, 1968

Another facet of this movie that was of personal interest was its depiction, somewhat unusual I think, of the professional aspect of the publishing industry and writers, people who are actually in it to make money, who take on projects and assignments for hire, and are expected to be able to execute those tasks competently. In other words it bears somewhat more resemblance to real life than the image of the writer wrestling with his typewriter in his film noir inspired New York apartment or cabin on a lake in Maine hoping to wrench something resembling literature out of it that I somehow latched onto. This more adult version has probably always been out there for me to pick up on, in movies and real literature itself, but when I was younger I would either not have seen it or thought it was somehow beneath consideration. It is true, it is not an aspect of writing that most English teachers, either in high school or college, treat as of much importance, or maybe they take it for granted that everyone understands the nature and importance of professionalism. I am not going to blame them for the oversight.

Troy (2004)

I am going to review this very quickly. I don't think this got especially good reviews, but if you were able to block out all of your pre-existing knowledge and feeling about The Iliad and the legend of the Trojan War and maybe ancient Greece itself the movie is somewhat successful as an entertainment. The actors are very good looking, have incredible bodies (assuming they are real), to the point that it would almost be ridiculous if they did not have sex with each other all the time, which they do. I like the casting of Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy--she is plausible--and I like the seduction scene where she lowers her top and invites the willing Paris to come and get it, though I don't think it happened quite that way back in the day. There is a similarly smoldering Briseis who holds a knife to the throat of Achilles, played by a supernaturally buff Brad Pitt. Needless to say he does not panic, but smiles devilishly and begins to massage her sensitive areas, and pretty quickly the knife falls harmlessly to the floor. After all this sex, in marked contrast to modern life, the women are wiped out and look as if they won't be able to rise from the bed in any kind of functional state for several days, while the men are up at the break of dawn as fresh as newly laid eggs ready for a full day of ancient warfare in open arid terrain in 90 degree heat.     

Diane Kruger as Helen. I like her look. Born Algermissen Germany, 1976 (around age 27 at the time of the filming this movie, which, though now ten years old, I still think of as being brand new. I have no sense of cultural time after about 1999).

All this aside, I think there is a certain point, depending on the amount of immersion in Homer and the study of Ancient Greece that you have had in your life, where it is hard to get past the many liberties taken with the traditional story (Agamemnon and Menelaus don't die during the war, obviously, and it's kind of hard to get past that here) and the general atmosphere of lightness with regard to the material. I don't want it to be over-reverent, but I would like to have seen more of a sense of the true epic quality of the story, which I did not get. The gods, just to name one example, play no part in the film at all, and they are kind of central to any understanding of the Trojan war story, I would think.

Rose Byrne (Briseis). Born Sydney, Australia, 1979
I like Peter O'Toole, but I don't like his teary-eyed, moist-lipped turn as Priam here.

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