The Florida Project (2017): The Antithesis of Hollywood Escapism

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When we run in different circles it’s easy to have a conveniently jaundiced view of our society. On a personal scale, I’m talking about our neighborhoods, our towns, our community institutions. We turn a blind eye to those things that do not concern us — maybe they’re below our station in life — and so we live unclouded by the hardships around us.

We form tribes and often do our best to stay separate whether it’s along social, ethnic, political, or religious lines. Though we have an innate desire to pair off and form communities, it can have detrimental side effects. At our very worst, we become polarized units totally at odds with one another. To a lesser extent, our enclaves remain insulated and never interact or acknowledge those outside our social bubble. Places like the Boys and Girls Club, Food Banks, and churches slog on without vibrant community support systems because heaven forbid we lower ourselves.

The Florida Project is a sobering portrait and an altogether necessary one because it offers an uncompromising glimpse at a lifestyle that’s easy enough to disregard. This is an issue needing recognition.

Because just down the road from Seven Dwarves Ln and Disney World, the purported “happiest place on earth,” there are signs of degradation and malevolent poverty. We are met with the garish purple and pinks of the low-rent hotels.

But there are two obvious camps. Tourists who are only passing through and the locals who have set up camp long-term living week to week on the money they scrounge up. Spend some time there, even during a seemingly carefree season like Summer Break, and you see the deleterious nature of the ecosystem. Such activities see endemic.

Front and center are Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and her band of friends. They’re like a merry band of precocious little terrors. If they were older we might call them hoodlums but now they have the pretense of being cute. Except they’re hardly innocent. Spitting on someone’s car from a second story for “fun” and getting in any type of conceivable mischief they possibly can. Like turning off the power in the throes of summer or panhandling.

They are the epitome of the cliche “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” And yet their behavior is indicative of their parents (or lack thereof). Because a lot of what Mooney does feels reinforced and learned from her role models. It becomes equally evident her imagination is always vibrant out of necessity. It shields her from the world and her constant state of want. It is her only avenue to something better.

But we must ask where will the buck stop? Is it the social systems being flawed or non-existent? Halley (Bria Vinaite), Mooney’s young and disaffected mother, looks to sell perfume for a profit at a nearby resort just to eke by a day late on rent. She has trained her daughter up to scrounge for change to buy ice cream. Mooney always shows up at the back door to receive handouts of free waffles and extra maple syrup with a friend.

The kiddos go on a demolition rampage and when they’re bored of that they divert themselves by lighting a house on fire. Of course.

It grabs the attention of the entire neighborhood and necessitates the local fire department coming out to quell the flames. It’s like a block party the way the locals congregate, drinks in hand, whooping, and snapping pictures in front of the conflagration. The kids don’t seem to realize until after the fact, the effects of such a serious form of arson.

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Through all these ordeals, Willem Dafoe is the Most Valuable Player. Because as the local manager of the Magic Castle, Bobby, he provides some semblance of well-meaning humanity in an otherwise unfeeling and incredibly tense wasteland. Because the crusty exterior reveals a genuine concern for kids and even when he’s disgruntled his hard-working, good-natured spirit shines through. He extends the same care to a trio of inbound storks that he does the tenants who are constantly harrying him.

There so many hardships and yet the people resigned to this life have issues of their own. There is a pervasive disrespect shown to everyone and lifestyle choices are a bit dubious at times. The saddest aspect is impressionable children being subjected to so much that is objectionable at such a young age.

Halley has left her former career choice as a stripper behind, but she seems less than enthused about applying for new work. She also shows attitude toward anyone who will not immediately bend to her requests or even those who try and stay on their side. Her retaliation can be utterly malicious, at times, even as her sense of entitlement is trying.

Likewise, she teaches her daughter posing for hypersexualized selfies while her smoking, drinking, and male company with no sense of commitment, only prove detrimental to her daughter. These are the exterior issues that make themselves plainly apparent.

My only concern or minor reservation is the fact we never get much of the interior life of these adults. I would like to get to know Halley and Bobby better. But because this is very much Mooney’s story, grace can be extended. Her point of view is the most applicable to this narrative because it is not able to comprehend everything or even bring it to a succinct resolution. There are so many unresolved issues. It should not be on a child to have to solve them.

It’s the realization, in the end, Mooney is just a kid. She doesn’t know the situation her mom is in. She isn’t completely liable for all the behavior she perpetrates.  In many ways, she’s oblivious and yet all the negative influences affect her even implicitly. She cannot comprehend the nuances of her mom’s situation because to her it’s simply the way life is. There is no other example to match it with. It starts with the social environment around her.

In a final twist, Sean Baker deems to cap his film with a Disney ending with the girls running off from the dizzying world around them for some type of oasis. Make of it what you will. It’s a bit like running off to the movies because you want to escape life. But The Florida Project is not Hollywood escapism. It’s immersive, yes, but in a way that will make you reconsider the current cultural landscape. If it does not make us open our eyes and carry a dose of empathy for those residing in our own communities than few things will.

The Florida Project does not cast blame and yet it draws us inward to ask the honest questions. How is our society failing? What might we do to fix this? On the smallest, most personal scale, what can each of us do to promote human flourishing? Because one thing is for sure, even if the movies normally coming out of the industry reflect otherwise, this is not an isolated occurrence.

Our society is full of Mooneys and if we learn anything from this film it should be to appreciate their worth as human beings even as we grieve their unfortunate circumstances and life choices. If we are more fortunate than them, it is solely a gift and we were blessed so that we might be a blessing to others. To those who much has been given, much is expected. I’m saying this as much to myself as anyone else.

4.5/5 Stars

Days of Wine and Roses (1962): Alcoholics Anonymous

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I had always heard Days of Wine and Roses was shown to members of AA. It’s no small coincidence the co-founder Bill Wilson served as a technical advisor. But I never realized how integral it is to the very integrity of the plot.

Jack Lemmon had the penchant for playing lovable losers — the corporate schmucks who are a bit sleazy but have just enough charm to make them relatively endearing. In this one, he’s Joe Clay, a public relations man who nevertheless finds himself to be “a eunuch in a harem” and a glorified pimp for businessmen.

To some, he may feel reminiscent to C.C. Baxter who was an ambitious fellow with a similar conundrum. Because he has a conscience in this callous corporate jungle. Clay likewise, is a character with a decent streak. He feels uncomfortable with certain duties thrust upon them.

He gets off on the wrong foot with the bosses secretary Kirst Armeson (Lee Remick), followed up by rejected peanut brittle offerings in an attempt to make amends. Though ultimately his persistence and a certain amount of candor straighten things out between him.

Getting along is not their main problem anyway. The issue which will become most troubling is his penchant for a little merriment after hours. In other words, he likes to drink. “Booze makes you feel good,” he says. Something to let off a bit of steam like any extracurricular. In a way, it’s kind of endearing when they’re standing on the water’s edge reminiscing together, Joe’s a bit tipsy.

From these moments onward, Days of Wine and Roses is capable of contending with some of Wilder’s comedies like The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie while being superior to Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite being less well-known. It’s hardly going out on the limb to say this offering is his best work. Because whatever his plethora of comedies might say about him, beloved as they are, Days of Wine and Roses shows a capacity for completely different material. He does it justice juggling tones.

Maybe it’s a matter of how she carries herself or her hairstyle but Lee Remick never felt more mature and self-assured than in Days of Wine and Roses. It’s as if she has aged — still beautiful and alive — but there is something more to her now.

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She lives in “The Roach Kingdom” and begins a romance with Clay, which ends with marriage on the fly. She takes him home to her daddy (Charles Bickford) and he doesn’t approve exactly but he gives them the benefit of the doubt. They seem happy.

But you don’t cease to be your old self and suddenly become someone new once marriage is decided upon. As is the case in all scenarios, you bring your baggage along with you and it can either make you a more steadfast couple or be the millstone around your neck drowning you mercilessly.

If he is a flawed husband than he is a flawed father as well. Alcohol-fueled giggle fits are endearing at first but when they turn heated and verge on the uncontrollably violent the destructiveness of alcoholism becomes overpowering

Their daughter feels like a casualty as their parenting suffers. First, Joe comes home swacked one evening and wakes the baby in a fit. Then, slowly Kirst gets pulled down with him. Her own dive toward alcohol dependence ends in a house fire of her own creation.

The effectiveness of the storytelling has to do with the alcohol not being front and center as it insidiously moves in on a man’s life. Here are a man and a woman. This is a love story. But it goes horribly awry.

What follows is a horrifying cut to Jack Lemmon in a straitjacket. Grimace-inducing. We have gone far beyond a mere mealy-mouthed drama. We have reached the point of positively no return. No film thus far, not even The Lost Weekend has managed this low before, so it seems.

Unfortunately, it’s a result of countless appreciative viewings of  Some Like it Hot and The Odd Couple that causes me to often label Jack Lemmon a comedian rather than a “real” actor. But what an oversight that is. He is absolutely phenomenal without a shadow of a doubt. Like Peter Sellers, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey, it does seem funnymen are often capable of extraordinary dramatic performances because it’s so true there is an inherent polarity between comedy and tragedy. Yet they are so closely tied together.

Jack Klugman (another future Odd Couple veteran) appears as an AA man who acts as Joe’s anchored lifeline providing tough love with pragmatic advice. “Just one more” is a lie. And assuming that we have enough willpower to overcome it is equally pernicious. Pretty soon we’re content to live in spiraling cycles.

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Meanwhile, Kirsten balks about joining AA. She doesn’t want to degrade herself in front of a group of people. She deems herself better than that and goes on living the lie, getting by on willpower.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where the bottle is God. Joe is finally made to realize that but now his wife is so tainted. He pleads with her, “There’s just room for you and me, no threesome.” His wife proceeds to go out the door.

He looks out the window and watches her disappear into the night. Then, he looks out the window again and the street’s empty. The only thing there is a neon “Bar” sign flashing in the night. He looks at it grimly knowing that it took his wife away from him.

In a manner of speaking, they were unfaithful to one another. No, not with another person but another thing — an obsession that ripped apart their marriage with a canker that cannot be easily eradicated. Days of Wine and Roses manages to document it all with a harrowing lucidity hardly pulling a gut punch. It also conveniently forgets to tack on a happy ending.

Is it any wonder that Blake Edwards, Jack Lemmon, and Lee Remick, who had all struggled with excess alcoholism at a time, eventually all quit the habit? There is no more potent indicator. If it does its job, there will be at least several moments where your insides will squirm and you will be repulsed. For people so amiable, Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick do an astonishing job.

4.5/5 Stars

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Sophia Loren is an extraordinary treasure of the cinema. We know her from numerous Hollywood pictures but there’s something especially gratifying about hearing her in her mother tongue. It’s not that she is necessarily less herself in a picture like Houseboat, speaking English dialogue, but we can take it in the opposite way.

Seeing her in a film like this, with such a reputable director like Vittorio De Sica, in her native Italy, adeptly pulls us into the searing drama. It feels like we are seeing more of her. Because the beauty of emotions through cinema is the very fact they can speak to anyone from any nation, regardless of time or place. So it is with Two Women.

Though quite young to play a mother, Loren is, nevertheless, more than up to the task, emotionally exuding a fierce maternal strength in the face of everything. She’s not afraid about calling out certain men as pigs for their leering ways and forward behavior.  In fact, it seems highly prevalent behavior, troubling as it is to admit. Along the road, the relationship between mother and daughter is paramount and it evolves as they are burnished together. Eleanora Brown is only 11 years of age and yet she too, like her onscreen mother, is endowed with a maturity, a presence, far beyond her years. They carry the screen together.

However, Vittorio De Sica’s film is simultaneously a portrait of Italy during the war with Cesira (Loren) trying to eke by a living with her daughter Rosetta, away from Rome. They make the trek to the countryside to escape the destructive onslaught of Allied bombs. We begin to see war with a human face where goodness is maintained in the face of evil. For instance, she relents and gives aid to two stranded Englishmen, sharing a meal and a bottle of wine together cordially. They reciprocate some of the hospitality that has been extended to them by local families.

From all I know of Jean-Paul Belmondo as an unorthodox anti-hero for Godard and Melville, he seems somehow miscast for this role, completely disregarding the fact he’s not Italian. His Michelle is an enlightened man of intellect denoted by spectacles. He welcomes the change coming in the waning days of war and rebukes the people for being more dead than Lazarus. Not even Jesus Christ can resuscitate them he says. It seems a harsh indictment.

We can also hear Cesira counting sins and trying to decipher how children fit into the insanity of war. Because there’s little doubt war is exactly that. Planes continually dropping bombs from the skies overhead. Emaciated German soldiers demanding food at gunpoint and a hostage guide to lead them toward freedom. Finally, American forces move in with their liberation party riding in on their tanks and the mood lifts.

Thus, it’s a war film with soldiers of all different stripes and allegiances, but vastly more importantly it regards the lives of the laypeople and folks affected by the outcomes of such a global conflict. It is their homes and their families that are torn asunder. Their bodies are in need of nourishment. They are the ones in constant danger of becoming collateral damage.

It’s a disheartening form of whiplash sending us into so many conflicting fits of emotion. From the highest elation down to the mundane and finally heightened senses of fear and suffering. Humans should not be subjected to such extremes.

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Then, comes the scene you hear whispers of when anyone mentions Two Women and it’s true there is certainly a “before” and “after” effect from such a life-altering experience. All we can do is look on helplessly as the two travelers are overpowered by soldiers looking on lecherously, almost giddy with delight. The rest we understand implicitly. In the moment, it almost feels comical and ghoulish; it’s bitterly ironic these egregious acts are committed in a deserted church building of all places.

What is most piercing is the immediate aftermath because there is no way to disregard or forget what has just occurred. It is apparent in the eyes, the overwhelming despondency — the broken spirits of both mother and daughter.

They are left behind clinging to their bodies, clothes torn to shreds. There is no classical element like the Rape of the Sabine Women. It is all a facade, a galling lie. Rosetta becomes almost catatonic due to the horrible shock. Again, so much dwells within their eyes, going unspoken, hidden behind their glazed expressions. It is deeply unfeeling to simply label them two more casualties of an unjust war. Instead of putting words to it, the greatest form of agency is to allow us the opportunity to try and sympathize with them as closely as possible.

Sophia Loren is a reverred sex symbol and yet we cannot observe her in this light without also acknowledging the brokenness found widespread across culture. Where women are objectified, ogled, and desired. Where something sacrosanct like romantic love is trampled over for something cheaper, easier, and completely licentious.

Surely it’s within the context of war where these unspeakable things happen but still there is no excuse. The way the women are treated in this film is painfully devastating. Yes, Michele is lost, families are torn apart, and so much more, but this one incident is emblematic of it all. It’s one sign of so many other underlying issues with humanity.

The beauty of De Sica is the fact he never seems to be trying to capitalize on any amount of drama. He was a master of steeping us in very real emotions so we can better understand the plight of others not so different than ourselves.

I spoke earlier of a classical painting and somehow when the camera slowly pulls away from a mother with her child cradled in her arms, this unmoving portrait evoked the Pieta for me.  Fitting for a tradition steeped in religious imagery of the crucifixion. But it goes beyond the love of a mother for her child. Anyone familiar with the story knows that it revolves around a purportedly perfect individual’s undying love for the imperfect.

Michelle chides the townsfolk for being more dead than Lazarus. Perhaps even his own death cannot shock them back to reality but that does not mean there cannot be some semblance of hope left over. Love and resurrection; these things are still possible for those with hope and faith.

4/5 Stars

Do The Right Thing (1989): The Legacy of MLK & Malcolm X

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The opening images are charged with the beats of Public Enemy matched by a provocative palette and a vibrant kineticism. One is reminded up a very particular point in time and a particular subculture — rap music is a part of it, certainly — but it’s indicative of so much more.

Because Do The Right Thing is shot on Spike Lee’s home turf in Brooklyn so there’s no denying the intimacy he has with the material. However, it was actually the obligatory “all persons and places” disclaimer that instilled the idea this film could be about any city. This could be Watts. This could be Detroit. This could be Ferguson. And unfortunately, in another year or two, it might just as easily be another city we’ll have to reckon with, whether due to prejudice or police brutality.

The film overwhelmingly succeeds in developing a world — that is a neighborhood — with the players who live within it. And in this regard, it does feel a bit like the Hollywood movies of old (which Lee is well aware of) where people have their types and their shtick. Take, for instance, the three stooges who shoot the bull on the street corner.

The stuttering Smiley is always making the rounds to pass out his personalized pictures of Dr. King and Malcolm X. The swaggery Radio Raheem does his own version of Reverend Harry Powell’s love-hate performance art for the benefit of the audience a la Night of The Hunter. It makes him as much as a thematic symbol as he is a larger-than-life character.

These relational dynamics feel authentically lived in, even going so far as casting his sister as his sister in the film. Likewise, the real-life couple Ruby Dee (Mother Sister) and Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), play out an antagonistic autumn romance on screen.

It gives the impression of minimal camera movements (aside from a few pans) because Lee cares about focusing on his characters head-on, photographing them in an often stylized manner with low angles. It’s not quite as precise as Ozu but having people placed up against their backdrops so overtly, it is hard not to remember. His own distinct visual language stands out emblazoned with color and the patois of his town.

Samuel L. Jackson is the groovy, smooth DJ, Mr. Senor Love Daddy, part Magnificent Montague, part Wolfman Jack. He provides the atmospherics — the soul — for the entire community, even as the heat hits record temps. It’s a portent of future attractions.

One doesn’t always think of Spike Lee as an actor per se, but it’s fitting he’s central to the action in Do The Right Thing because this feels like an extremely authentic context for him. Mookie’s current job as a lax pizza delivery boy allows him to mosey his way around the neighborhood.

Again, it acts as an invaluable narrative device to keep the story moving and yet it never feels totally manipulating. Each beat brings a fresh scenario worth discovering with every chocked sidewalk or spewing fire hydrant. Because this is a film about people and their relationship to one another.

Up until this point, the majority of the characters mentioned beforehand are African-American though that doesn’t necessarily suggest they have an entirely shared point of view. However, what gives Do The Right Thing it’s inherent conflict is bringing in a menagerie of starkly different individuals.

The prime example is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a pillar of the community’s social and economic scene, run by an Italian-American (Danny Aiello) and his two sons. There are the Koreans “fresh off the boat” running the grocery store across the street. Then the Puerto Rican subset of the community including Mookie’s put upon girlfriend and mother of his baby son, Tina (Rosie Perez).

Their problems and their passions feel like real 9-to-5 reality we are privy to. And the police who patrol the streets come off a bit oblivious, if not completely fat-headed. What’s gripping is how each one conveniently points their ire in another direction manifesting this never-ending cycle of bigotry.

Mookie can always be found repping number 42 (Jackie Robinson) and one of his street corner chums wears Magic Johnson’s 32. These are obvious cultural touchstones just as the white guy clamoring into his apartment wears a Larry Bird jersey. They represent the current social moment impeccably.

It’s as if everyone has misconceptions of everyone else. They are driven by ignorance and small-mindedness and no one is immune to this disease. In a telling conversation over the jukebox, Sal’s oldest boy, a general malcontent fed up with working in his father’s business (Richard Edson), talks to Mookie about how his favorite athletes and musicians like The Michael Jordans and Princes of the world aren’t just “black” they’re more than black.

Let’s put this straight. I think his assertion is totally absurd and yet I found myself thinking just before how ironic these African-American young men wearing Robinson and Magic because their lives and reputations feel so contrary to the young men who idolize them. That should hardly be seen as an offense against them.

Regardless, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) feels affronted because there are no brothers on the “Wall of Fame” next to Pacino, De Niro, and Sinatra in Sal’s. He wants to start a boycott and at first, it’s an admittedly ridiculous idea.

No one takes him seriously because most everyone loves Sal’s pizza pies. And in his softer more hospitable moments, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. But this is one of the greatest revelations, even normal people — especially normal people — can seethe with hate, anger, and fear. Because the heat is not only about upping the temperature, it proves to be our dramatic barometer. We know at some point the story must blow its top.

Sure enough, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem are talking each other up and wander into Sal’s ready to make a stand. It’s utter idiocy. They’re being a pair of punks. They know full-well what they’re doing and yet in the same sense, I don’t think they do. It’s as if they don’t see the writing on the wall. No one does.

And everyone is once again on a different wavelength. Like Cool Hand Luke, we have a failure to communicate. Violence ensues. The fuses blow and the images are relatably chaotic and terrifying as they verge of the brutal and tumultuous. It’s insanity.

Fire shoots up the building and there’s something deeply affecting about seeing the portraits of the likes of Sinatra and Sophia Loren being licked by flames. Again, they feel like odd figures of collateral damage. All of this destruction feels directed across racial lines but surely it’s misdirected. What’s the real problem? What caused such an evening?

Is it merely angst and discontentment with the situation? Are they really mad at Sal? Are they mad at his establishment? Did he really want this boy dead? Were the police acting out of pure malice, fear, or both?

In the aftermath of the violence, I couldn’t help but bemoan the Twitter age we now live in. If this film is any indication, physical violence and confrontation is not the answer. However, I feel social media has polarized us even more — making our communities even more fragmented and our modes of communication either echo chambers of like-minded enlightened people or rival camps we can so easily demonize.

I must even admit one of the ones exacerbating this problem is President Donald Trump himself. It seems almost prescient he gets a mention in the film because some would say he is emblematic of where our country has gone in 30 years’ time. Surely, a country coming out of the Reagan years would never have guessed the future ahead (including a black president).

Ultimately, to say this is a film about racism is too vague. It needs some unpacking, some grappling with what it really brings to the fore. The issues run deep. They are partly economical. There’s de facto segregation. They have to do with police and deep-rooted traditions of tension. Racism is something taught and learned creating a feedback loop or closer still a vicious cycle. I am hardly the person to explain them all. But I’m willing to listen to others — to dialogue.

Do The Right Thing is the most unnerving piece of cinema I’ve seen in some time and I mean that only as the utmost compliment. It’s a bold expression full of energy but also more profoundly still the unmistakable threads of humanity. It’s as ugly as it is honest. Honesty, in a sense, it feels like Lee is making a valiant attempt to call out the inhumanity while still empathizing with all sides.

This even is reinforced by the two contrasting quotes he fittingly pulls from Dr. King and Malcolm X, a final testament to the picture’s message.

I must admit I wasn’t surprised by the substance of Dr. King’s quote but I do acknowledge being slightly taken aback by the sensibility of the second quotation. It’s this same duality visible in the film. Where there is a problem. Each of these men and their stances and the worlds they come out of have inherent flaws. The issue is how we get together and solve them. History has shown how messy and complex they have been and will remain if we fail to do anything. Strike that. If we fail to do the right thing.

4.5/5 Stars

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”–Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”–Malcolm X

Splendor in the Grass (1961): Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty

Splendor_Sheet_ALike William Inge’s earlier piece, Picnic, or some of Tennessee Williams’ most substantial work, Splendor in the Grass seems to hinge on the fact its content is in some way pushing the envelope as far as social issues and subsequent taboos go. It’s no surprise Elia Kazan was often drawn to such content over the course of his career on stage and screen. Hence his numerous collaborations with some of the landmark playwrights of the mid-20th century.

But again, in spite of being a Depression-era period piece, Splendor in the Grass comes off as a bit dated for how it’s trying to grapple with its contemporary moment — at least to begin with.

Our protagonists Norma Dean (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty) are coming of age in a society with a curious way of making sense of sexual mores. They are so confusing and no one seems willing to talk about them. When they do their advice only complicates matters.

Because the two teens look into each other’s eyes lovingly in the hallways at school. The affection is palpable and they want to do it right. They believe that the other is probably the “One.” Norma Dean has a Bud triptych up in her bedroom. Her devotion verging on obsession. Bud tells his boisterous father (Pat Hingle) he’s bent on marrying the girl.

They want to have intimacy but no one seems capable of dispelling the myths for them. Mrs. Loomis is quick to make sure her daughter hasn’t gone too far with her beau. She doesn’t want her daughter to be one of those girls — easy pickings with no respectability. It’s like a death sentence in a small town like theirs.

Kazan also captures the almost incoherent whisperings of bystanders whether concerned parents, students, neighbors, or partygoers. Because it’s true every slight tilt toward something “abnormal” gets the whole community talking. There’s a stigma attached to so many things.

The perfect example is Bud’s own sister, a prototypical floozie named Ginny (Barbara Loden), who is used to a good time and cavorts with nearly any man who will take her. Her father tries to keep a rein on her and Bud begs his sister to pull herself together. You can tell he’s genuinely worried about what she is willfully doing to herself.

Whereas Norma Dean’s mother preaches chastity to her little girl, Bud’s own father encourages him to find another type of girl — a girl in fact not unlike his daughter — someone who is easy. He preaches a gospel of sowing his wild oats before settling down to a life of prosperity and a Yale education. Bud eventually takes the advice and generally finds it lacking, though he still winds up terminating his relationship with Deanie. His experiences in college aren’t much better as he’s always maintained humbler aspirations.

Already so devoted to him, Deanie is emotionally torn apart by the separation, going so far as to teeter on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her mother encourages her to court another boy named Toots (Gary Lockhart) who comes a calling, but it literally drives Deanie to the brink where she looks to jump off and save herself any future heartache.

When she enters her home and her parents seem oblivious to her feelings, bombarding her with happiness, it somehow feels like a precursor to Benjamin Braddock’s suffocation. It’s not simply that we begin to take on Deanie’s point of view, but there’s such a relational disconnect. Parents have no idea what their kids are going through and they seem hardly capable of empathizing with them.

So they go it alone. Natalie Wood soaking in the bathtub. Her voice gets more airy and unsettled by the minute. She’s the epitome of fragility. Bud struggling away from home and looking for understanding in another girl (Zohra Lampert) or a benevolent school official who actually chooses to listen to him, unlike his father.

However, far from demonizing parents, we realize just how much pressure there is on them, so many mistakes to be made, ways you treat your kids, which unwittingly affect them in their future. It’s just the way it is. Art Stamper cares so much about the success of his kids and he’s put his entire life into setting up their good fortune. Where does it get him in the end? Likewise, Mrs. Loomis dotes incessantly over her daughter confessing she did her best as a mother, afraid Norma Dean holds past failings against her.

Then, her parents make the heady decision to send her away for therapy and things begin to reach an equilibrium. The plot feels like vague fragments rather than a fully cohesive narrative from start to finish, but it gives us hints and contours of our main characters trying to decipher their lives.

As times passes, there’s less and less of Kazan’s more dramaturgical entries and more of Wild River another Depression-era drama, which was equally blessed with understatement in its most crucial moments. I think Splendor in The Grass does well to ditch drama for a near wistful milieu feeling at home in the poetic romanticism of William Wordsworth. Regardless, it proves a healthier place to wind up.

It’s a more hopeful rendition of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The romance we thought would be something — even marred by scandal — was nothing of the sort. It just dissipated and with the passage of time two people found others and it seemed right.

When Bud and Deanie meet again, in the end, they muse how strangely things work out sometimes. Neither of them would have foreseen things this way. He’s a farmer now, with a kindly wife, and a boy with another child on the way. She’s to marry a successful doctor whom she met while she was in the care facility. It really is a satisfying denouement.

Instead of thinking about happiness, they take what comes and find contentment wherever life leads them. For people so young, they seem to have a fairly clear handle on doing precisely that.

With his debut, Warren Beatty readily became another protege of Elia Kazan gleaning anything he could, serving him well in a diverse career as an actor, producer, and director that is still going to this day. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood benefited as well in a performance that though it borders on the spastic, nevertheless seems to cull depths of emotional instability yet untouched in her career.

Now we cannot immediately label those the hallmarks of a great performance. Yet maybe the vulnerability brought on makes it so. The film is at its best in its innocence and transparency finally giving way to a newfound maturity. The old maxim manages to ring true; time heals all wounds.

3.5/5 Stars

Wild River (1960): Elia Kazan and Monty Clift at Their Subtlest

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“You’re getting awful human aren’t you Chuck?” ~ Lee Remick as Carol

“I was always human, wasn’t I?” ~ Montgomery Clift as Chuck

With the mention of the Tennessee Valley Authority and what feels like Depression newsreel footage suggesting the work they are looking to do in the face of poverty, it becomes immediately apparent Elia Kazan’s Wild River feels very much like a docudrama.

Despite the raging water in the title, this is a surprisingly subdued picture especially given Kazan’s credentials. But there you have a dose of its enticement as a film that all but flies under the radar because it cannot be so easily attributed to the Method due to theatrics like a Streetcar Named Desire or East of Eden.

And yet there is no doubting the capabilities of a now weathered Montgomery Clift in this latter stage of his career. Fitting, as his name is linked, deservingly so, with the Brandos and the Deans for the jolt of newfound authenticity and masculinity they helped usher in within the Hollywood community.

However, unlike his compatriots, Clift was not a rising star partnering his talents with Kazan’s own intuitive handling of actors. He was a highly established and ceaselessly ingenious talent already. Clift never seems prone to histrionics but more crucially proves invested in emotional authenticity.

In this case, he is a man with an obvious task at hand. With a new TVA dam going in to provide electricity for the surrounding community, Chuck Glover is called upon to clear the area of all its occupants so the river valley can be completely flooded. The area has been all but vetted except for one lifelong unwavering inhabitant, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) who lives on a solitary island with her grown sons and granddaughter.

She’s not too favorable toward TVA men and Glover’s predecessor gave up, finding the old lady unyielding. Still, the new man’s got to at least try because the Tenessee Valley Authority is intent on moving forward with progress.

As she showcased in everything from East of Eden and Cool Hand Luke, Jo Van Fleet could be a scene-stealer in her own right and she was consequently an adherent to a “Method” style, gelling with her director. Hence Kazan’s eagerness to cast her again. She doesn’t disappoint with her 45 years all but disappearing behind her performance filled with a resolute obstinacy, which is neither wholly bitter or overly pious.

One could situate Wild River as a Grapes of Wrath story from a sympathetic perspective.  The wheels of progress are more of a benevolent aid to the public rather than an unfeeling force bulldozing the old for the new. The delineation is purposeful even as it leads to obviously divergent conclusions.

Chuck does not want to use force and he is looking to understand the local inhabitants so he can help them the best he can. Though the eldest Garth rejects his initial inquiries, he does find a sympathetic spirit in Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick) who raises two children following the premature death of her husband. As the story progresses and Chuck keeps on plugging away in his mission, he and Carol slowly grow closer even as their worlds seem so far apart. There’s a glint of Norma Rae in how they come together. What matters is people’s convictions rather than their environment.

But to a slightly lesser degree, there’s the racial element as it seems like it would be ill-advised to draw up a story such as this without a certain enmity. Chuck just wants his job done and he’s ready to use black labor to do it. All the local southern white folks aren’t about that, much less equal wages.

He meets particular pushback from a local cotton plantation owner named Bailey (Albert Salmi) who doesn’t look on his presence too kindly. The same might be said of Walter Clark (Frank Overton) who has been Carol’s beau for some time. And yet their characters could not more starkly different. We get to understand them more deeply in due time.

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One of the greatest pleasures of Wild River is the opportunity to study the faces of our leads in-depth. Lee Remick’s performance alone abounds with the unspoken feelings behind her eyes.  It’s as if her eyes are the windows into her every emotion. Bright blue, at times pleading, other times aloof with a sadness we can only attempt to understand. But the film is made by its warmth and its subtleties, far more than any amount of blundering brutal magnetism. It comes out aging like a fine wine compared to some of its hothouse contemporaries.

The galvanizing moment comes when the local yokels try to scare Chuck off and have themselves a time goosestepping on the roof and ramming a truck into the side of a house; a shotgun even gets brought to the proceedings. The sheriff observes from a measured distance with mild amusement.

And yet when Chuck wanders out to face his perpetrators, there’s a resolve in his eyes. Surrounded by all these folks, he goes up to the spiteful man who is behind it all and proceeds to get wailed on. It’s almost pitiful. Our hero goes flailing, his girl starts climbing and clawing over the guy only to wind up in the mud right next to her lover.

It’s hardly a cinematic moment but it feels like a real one and the fact that our hero, Monty Clift, winds up so pitifully is a testament to this story. For the record, I’ve never gotten into a fist-fight. I’m a very flighty non-confrontational fellow but regardless, there’s something honest about how this one goes down.

One of the final shots is an equally fitting testament of what we have just witnessed. A solitary house on an island is set ablaze surrounded by water with an American flag dancing in the breeze. Maybe others feel the same emotion but the flag all but suggests this nation of ours has a complex relationship with progress. Where we must let go of the old to make way for the new. However, we must also reconcile each with the other.

Is it simply a part of life — the inevitable — or are there truly righteous and detrimental ways to go about it? The film is not forthcoming with its own answers. All we can do is sit back and ruminate. With a smile on our faces looking forward but nevertheless a lingering wistfulness for the past we left behind.

4/5 Stars

 

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Lonesome Rhodes is No Andy Taylor

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It begins unobtrusively enough. In a backwater Arkansas jail, a drunkard plays his guitar on a radio segment of “A Face in the Crowd” being broadcast from his cell. They don’t know it quite yet but soon the host who found him, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) capture the public’s imagination. Far from just plucking Rhodes out of obscurity, Jefferies also rebrands him with an off the cuff remark and uses her daddy’s radio reach to broadcast him all around.

With such a platform, Rhodes does the rest with his wild whoops of down-home charm and strangely beguiling magnetism. He’s a natural performer and showman who knows how to form a connection with the folks at home. Soon they have created a following or as is popular in the lexicon these days a “tribe” giving him real media presence in the cultural conversation.

Someone asks him the question, “How does it feel to be able to say anything that comes into your head and be able to sway people?” But it’s true. He’s at the forefront of a grassroots democracy turning into a television phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Jefferies watches it all unfolding with bright-eyed awe and deep enthusiasm. It’s absolutely rich seeing it sweep over the country. One of the cogs in the machine is a jaded writer named Mel (an early Walter Matthau) who watches the unfoldings with grim amusement. Meanwhile, Lonesome’s ever-ambitious and cutthroat promoter (an even younger Rip Torn) positions his man to continue broadening his success. Everyone’s trying to get a piece of this new pie. Because what’s more American than pie?

Rhodes keeps up his side of the bargain by purveying his own brand of “authenticity.” On one show he brings on a destitute African-American woman and gives a call-to-action and the money comes pouring in, in response. Another week he crosses a mattress sponsor and subsequently raises the man’s sales all across the country simply by belittling his product.

Soon he’s brought on to promote the product of the stuffy Vitajex company and he takes their pride and joy, disregarding their focus groups and tradition, selling the pill straight to the public. By the time he’s done with them, the public’s buying them up by the barrelful.

He also captures the imaginations and the fancy of all the young girls all across the nation — soon has them all swooning over him — but one lucky girl wins out (Lee Remick) with her baton twirling during the Ms. Arkansas Majorrette competition of 1957. Of course, Lonesome Rhodes is made the judge and after getting mobbed by the girls, he takes a shine to Betty Lou.

Marcia gets pushed further and further into the periphery of his life as Rhodes weds the frisky twirler and sets his sights on the next domain to be conquered. Politics have entered a new stage — the television age — and no man is more beloved than Lonesome Rhodes. “You gotta be a saint for the power the box can give you,” as Mel notes, and in the wrong hands, this immense power is dangerous.

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Rhodes throws his support behind a stodgy old lawmaker giving him advice in the process. The film was already predicting the famed televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy. Where campaigning is about punchlines and glamor; it becomes a popularity contest and an advertising endeavor as much as a smear campaign. He uses his Cracker Barrel Show to promote the senator in a more relaxed atmosphere and has the position of Secretary of National Morale waved in front of him.

He even notes his candidate should get a dog, observing that it didn’t do Roosevelt any harm or Dick Nixon neither (referring to the well-received “Checkers” speech in 1952). Because these events begin to hint out how corruption, even double talk, begin to make the general public question “authenticity.”

In one off-handed remark, Lonesome crows, “This whole country is just like my flock of sheep.” However, like Arthur Godfrey, his downfall (though more rapid) occurs after an onscreen incident that removes his mask and undermines his image before the people. They can never see him the same way. The saboteur, as it were, is Marcia for she cannot bear to see the people taken in.

So the final trajectory is obvious — the ascension and the dethronement — but that can hardly neutralize what we have already witnessed. A Face in the Crowd lingers with fair warning, relevant to any analogous situation in the modern landscape, only magnified to the nth degree.

Earl Hagen’s down-home waterhole tunes fit The Andy Griffith Show just as this arrangement from Tom Glazer gels with A Face in the Crowd. Speaking of, I must insert a thought on what I know more about, as I grew up watching countless hours of The Andy Griffith Show.

The character of Andy Taylor obscures the fact of what a fine actor Andy Griffith was. To some extent, the same can be said of No Time for Sergeants because like the early seasons of his show, he’s just playing a bubble-headed hick. Later on, he became more of a straight man and after Barney Fife left, he settled into a more irascible role so there was an evolution.

Regardless, Lonesome Rhodes turns the overarching stereotypes of the man on their head. You can still see him as the benevolent Sheriff of Mayberry but this certainly lingers in the back of your mind. Take away the moral integrity and others-centric mentality of Andy and you wind up with Lonesome.

Given its themes about media and television, which seem like a cutting-edge indictment in their contemporary age, it seems logical to lump A Face in The Crowd with Network. Similarly, though technology and advertising continue to become more advanced and invasive, the themes explored feel not less relevant but more so.

We simply have to magnify them. Instead of television, we have Twitter and smartphones. Instead of people who willfully hide their intent, we have people in power who seem to blatantly disregard moral uprightness.

I want Lonesome Rhodes to be outdated and immaterial but to make such a claim would be an immense act of folly. It would cater to the same sense of ignorance and sway in all sectors of society, which led to the rise of such a person in the first place. Then and now…

4.5/5 Stars

Baby Doll (1956): Elia Kazan Does Southern Comedy

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Elia Kazan had a fairly lucrative partnership with Tennessee Williams and the same could be said of his ongoing working relationship with Karl Malden. It’s fitting that all three are back for Baby Doll and yet it still manages to feel like a bit of an outlier in Kazan’s oeuvre thus far.

As per usual, Kazan invests great commitment in his actors and the emotional richness of their performances, which enter near hyper-realized heights. Because there would be no Baby Doll without Malden, Eli Wallach and of course, Carroll Baker. They must carry its weight and for what it’s worth, they manage the task quite well.

Malden is the bug-eyed hick, Archie Lee, who made a pact with the dying pappy of his virginal bride that he would take care of her. Whether he’s held sway on his side of the bargain is up for debate, as Baby Doll and he live in a home literally crumbling around them by the hour

He’s a narrow-minded cotton gin operator who has recently been hitting the skids due to competition. If you are looking for the bare minimums of the story, there you have them. The situations themselves venture on the absurd in this hardly fully-realized plot.

With their house a decrepit eyesore, the furniture soon gets taken away. Archie Lee’s just about at the end of his tether and so he sneaks out one night and commits an act of arson on a whole silo full of cotton. It’s a desperate attempt to give himself an advantage and direct some business his way.

It’s true many might be unaccustomed to comedy in a Kazan film because though it’s masked by typical antics, melodrama, and the risque veneer that precedes it, the humor is unquestionable. If it sounds like melodrama you only have to look at the performances to crack a grin because they do feel like over-the-top exaggerations.

The galvanizing moment, of course, is our first view of Baby Doll lounging in a crib-like bed, sucking on her thumb. Her husband peeps on her through a hole in the plaster giggling like a lecherous schoolboy when she wakes up. We have a Lolita archetype and no doubt the source of its censorship woes, which elicited a “Condemned” rating from the Catholic League of Decency.

What always stings more is hearing the N-word bandied around so inconsequentially as the African-American characters play an unheralded supporting role in the far-off periphery. There you see the hypocrisy. No one in the Catholic or Southern Christian communities probably saw it fit to condemn this element, no doubt considering it acceptable, even commonplace. It’s at least something worth acknowledging soberly.

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If Archie Lee is our entry point into this asinine world, then Baby Doll and Vacarro (Wallach) have the presence to keep us watching. In a momentary lapse in judgment watching Long Hot Summer, I mistook Lee Remick for Carrol Baker because they look vaguely similar at first glance. However, Baker does more than a southern belle here full of sing-song dialogue. There’s a tremor, an impediment to her speech which, comes off as strangely childlike. She boasts a cutesy name and enticing sensuality akin to Darling Jill from God’s Little Acre and really there’s the film we can draw the most parallels between.

Because Eli Wallach plays the other man who pays Archie Lee a visit the following day after the conflagration at his place. He’s derisively referred to as a “Whop” and so it’s easy for him to become the outsider with a chip on his shoulder. He’s willing to do what he needs to do in order to get back on top of the heap. Ironically, he lets Archie Lee in on his philosophy.  He’s a proponent of “biblical justice,” an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, though he obviously didn’t read the scriptures too closely.

Instead, he implements their “Good Neighbor Policy” and while the other man is out fixing his machines to take on a new cotton crop, Silva starts playing with his wife even sneaking into the house to toy with Baby Doll. But remember this is not A Streetcar Named Desire. Wallach has his own inner demons but he’s no Stanley Kowalski and Baby Doll’s no Blanche.

Their trajectories take them into different places as a drunken Archie Lee gets jealous of his wife’s suitor, going after his adversary with his shotgun. However, in the end, the stakes are slighter than its predecessors and yet there’s something novel and slightly refreshing in this. While Baby Doll is nowhere near the best of Kazan’s work its “otherness” makes it a risible endeavor out of left field.

3.5/5 Stars

A Tree Grows in Brookyln (1945): The Precursor to I Remember Mama

ATreeGrowsInBrooklyn1945Poster.jpgThe reveries of a Saturday afternoon in childhood are where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chooses to begin and it proves a fine entry point, giving us an instant feel for the world the Irish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Its contours are impoverished, even harsh, but also richly American.

There is a mother (Dorothy McGuire) who is practical and ever-resourceful, scrimping and saving to eke by an existence for her family. She faithfully pays her family’s due to the door-to-door insurance man Mr. Barker, who is always ready to sow some juicy gossip around the community.

It occurs to me that Katie Nolan (McGuire) is a precursor to Irene Dunne’s role in I Remember Mama. But there is also a near-callousness that is lacking in the latter part, which is mostly sunshine. In this regard, it gleams with a certain individual truth. Struggling  to make ends meet, Nolan asserts, “My kids are going to be something if I have to turn into granite rock to make them.” She dishes out tough love and makes difficult decisions in what she deems is their best interest — an extension of her undying love for them.

There’s an extraordinary shot showing bickering wives, stories up in their apartments, with clotheslines strung up every which way and a man trying to fix the source of their problems.

Nearby sits the little girl enthralled with her book and you understand first hand the power of the library. Because with the internet, television, and movies we’ve deluded them but, at a certain time, books were a way of escape, of learning, and open avenues to distant places.

Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) is, without question, the emotional center and if we are to extend the earlier juxtaposition further, she is an analogous version of Barbara Bel Geddes’s character in I Remember Mama. We view the memories of the past through their impressionable eyes.

She too is captured by her imagination — the rapturous escapes that stories and music can provide a fanciful mind like hers in the station of life she finds herself in. Francie’s deepest wishes are granted when she is able to attend a fine school where her benign teacher gently cultivates her passions.

The advice passed down to her is empowering as Francie is inspired to be a writer. She must write about the things she knows imbuing them with truth, which can then be dressed up with the whims of her imagination.

It’s true Francie maintains an underlying sweetness and innocence even in the midst of heartache. For instance, there is the annual Christmas ritual retrieving discarded trees and boy do the kiddies bring home a whopper. Its presence alone puts some yuletide cheer and the smell of evergreen into their holidays.

It only takes such a minor yet meaningful Christmas scene to humble us in our modern tendencies so that we realize how off-base our modern celebrations are. These folks have nothing and yet to look into their eyes you see such contentment in the singing of a song and quality time spent together.

However, the most debilitating ideology in the film is the concept of neverending cycles — believing the lie that change is impossible and things will never be different. Because already you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. We see it most obviously in the marriage of Francie’s parents.

Johnny Nolan is an ebullient father bred on dreams and singing. There’s always a song in his heart whether “Swanee River” or “Sweet Molly Malone” and unfortunately, for the sake of his family, a bottle in his hand. His daughter memorializes him aptly, “He had nothing to give but himself but this he gave generously like a king.”

The words stand tall and true. To my mind, I have not seen such a compelling father finger as Johnny Nolan in some time and the reasons are as obvious as his flaws. He’s an alcoholic. He makes promises he can never keep. He’s practically useless when it comes to providing for his family. And yet through all his shortcomings shines a light of generosity and geniality that positively warms the cockles of our heart. We cannot condemn him without loving him just as deeply. There you have the testament of a truly impactful character.

Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) proves another bright spot in the film and her vivacity, much like her brother-in-law’s, injects the film with a buoyancy making us grow fond of them even as their flaws are laid fully bare. Sissy has her own struggles holding onto a marriage with a couple of husbands already coming and going. Her escapades leave her baby sister shaking her head and hoping to shield her kids. And yet even Aunt Sissy has her admirable qualities.

The local police officer Mr. McShane (Lloyd Nolan) walks his beat with a quiet integrity, disregarding any stereotypes of policemen and fashions them into compassionate people the world could probably use more of. Meanwhile, kind old Mr. McGarrity (James Gleason) heaps neighborly generosity on the Nolan’s in an effort to help the overextended Mrs. Nolan make ends meet.  It’s the benevolent spirits in the film who are quietly memorable.

Too blinded by the resonating sentiments, I failed to see the obvious denouement of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which nevertheless proves deeply satisfying. As its title suggests, out of death and decay can grow new hope. It comes from hardy stock and dutiful cultivation, which all seem integral to the American way of life.

For me, it’s almost unthinkable to think the man who played a small part as Googie in City for Conquest only 5 years letter would alight on a directorial career that shook Hollywood over and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. He brought us Brando and Dean, conquered stage and screen and left an indelible mark on film acting forever. Of course, we’re talking about Elia Kazan and here he has his first prominent muse Dorothy McGuire (a founding member of the La Jolla Playhouse) who is often an unsung star fitting as she’s playing an unsung heroine

It seems a fitting entry point into Kazan’s career as it is an immigrant story and he came from such a family. It makes no difference that he wasn’t Irish because we can surmise the essence is much the same. He believes in the American dream no doubt and the love and integrity that can see people through the turbulence of life.

However, perhaps the most striking acknowledgment has to do with the fact this story does not thrive on intensity — one might see that as being a marker of Kazan’s most noted works — it’s tenderness mostly. But then if you stop a moment and think of Brando slipping on the glove belonging to Evie (Eva Marie Saint) or James Dean crying to his father (Raymond Massey), you realize he never lost those sentiments. What made his films was the real emotions that reach out to us. He never allowed for those sensations to waver. There you have an integral element of his success.

4/5 Stars

Ad Astra (2019): To The Stars and “The Seeing Eye”

Ad_Astra_-_film_posterSince the dawn of man, the vast reaches of the cosmos up above have enamored us to the nth degree. You need only watch something like 2001 to be reminded of that fact. (There’s no doubt James Gray is well-versed in its frames.)

Herein lies a core theme throughout our very existence. We have this inherent overlap between science and spirituality — the celestial spheres and the extra-terrestrial — forming a framework for how we comprehend this world.

Aspects of this film even have a near-liturgy or the solemnity of an open-air cathedral. Dean Martin’s “Heaven Can Wait” is a hymn and a hint. Prayers are cast up to St. Christopher for the pilgrimage ahead. The dead are venerated like saintly martyrs for the cause. Because somewhere at the end of it all is the thought of some universal meaning, some ultimate truth, be it God or sentient being.

One is reminded of the proclamation the Soviet Union made when they sent their cosmonaut up into the stratosphere and came back down not having seen God. In essence, the conclusion was that this tangible world was all there is. Tools and technology are the instruments in which to make sense of the world. God, in whatever form, is only a pipe dream or a form of wish fulfillment for the weak. We must look somewhere else. Inside ourselves perhaps.

C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Seeing Eye” wrote the following response when pressed on the Soviet’s pronouncement:

“Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye.”

Watching Ad Astra (Latin for “To The Stars”) with this context uncovers profound meaning for me. It is a journeyman’s film pure and simple. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is on a mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. He procures helping agents along the way, namely, Donald Sutherland in an enigmatic role and Ruth Negga, an operations director and Mars-native who dreams of Earth as the distant reality she once visited as a child. It brings to mind her parents, now deceased. Yet another cryptic puzzle piece.

One is led to think they do a fine job being exactly that, mysterious and understated, but it doesn’t give us much to relish as an audience. Tommy Lee Jones is a vanished American hero clouded with secrets of his own. Could it be the rumblings are true and he’s the manifestation of Kurtz in the heart of darkness on the surface of Neptune?

The question becomes not what is at the end of the universe but even more sobering, what if there’s nothing there, just the vastness and austere beauty (as Kubrick depicted, without his images of rebirth)? What are we to do then? Ad Astra‘s conclusions aren’t all that different than the Soviets all those years ago, but they are admittedly far less cynical.

While it lacks true emotional heft in crucial scenes, Gray’s endeavor is concerned with human relationship and this distinction is ever so important. Because this niche of movies can fall into two categories. 2001 spearheads those that are not altogether interested in humanity as such. It’s vast and clinical with the vision and scope Kubrick could capture immaculately. Whereas Tarkovsky’s Solaris or even more recent films like Gravity and Interstellar are far more intimate, regardless of any flaws they might engender.

James Gray is certainly skilled at developing the world planted in a so-called “near-future.” Still, as expansive as the galaxy becomes with every panorama and lens flair by Hoyte van Hoytema, so much more of the movie is borne by the features of Brad Pitt. His perspective and his thoughts. We come to understand him in physical proximity even as we are never allowed close emotional proximity.

Because Ads Astra is a pensive, solitary film. It maintains some intrigue by divulging little and stretching out its assets. It plays with some generic terrors. For instance, “The Surge” that has sent a shockwave across earth leaving many dead and without power. We have moon raiders, Gravity-like survival moments, which Pitt handles with steely aplomb, and touches of governmental conspiracy verging on the sinister.

Primates in space give another brief glimpse of 2001, Planet of The Apes, or even Alien. However, we also get the fleet-footed Nicholas Brothers, who are one of the best-kept secrets of Classic Hollywood’s musical circuit. All these are cultural references to earth, mind you, and not the outer reaches of the galaxy. This is an important observation.

Because there is an uncanny feeling that humanity has managed to shape outer space into our own image with the proliferation of Subway or DHL shipping even made available on the surface of the moon.  It makes the Restaurant on The End of The Universe less of a joke and more and more of a reality.

Still, these are never the elements completely defining Ad Astra for me. They are of secondary or even tertiary importance in deference to the central character study. I am willing to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt and believe his performance to be authentic and genuine. Where his masculinity is made really and truly vulnerable. We don’t build a deep connection with him precisely because he doesn’t have a rapport with anyone. Not his wife (Liv Tyler in a minuscule role), not his father, not anyone.

We begin to assemble a blueprint of someone who has always dwelled in their father’s footsteps, resentful of being abandoned, and simultaneously driven to be the best he can be in pursuit of the same auspicious goals. There are fractures cutting through his life even as he is a figurehead of national pride and American know-how, his life continually compartmentalized into professional and personal.

In fact, Ad Astra is simultaneously an exploration of how we forge heroes and erect idols in our culture. It doesn’t actually tackle this idea to an altogether satisfying conclusion, although it’s pardonable as the film literally takes an about-face. This is how it manages to set itself apart from the pack with a final decision different than the Soviets or Lewis, Kubrick or Nolan, even Tarkovsky.

For the final key, I turn to a very mundane place. One of my favorite bands sings about “Stars” from a Descartes perspective — humanity at the center of the universe — only to turn it on its head.

Instead of us looking up into the heavens, it becomes the stars looking down at us. To recall Lewis, those who cannot find “God” on earth will hardly find them in space. And those who look for meaning, or the beauty or the love they are lacking, in the skies above will probably be disappointed.

After all, maybe our objective is not the stars at all, and it never was. They are only markers and a compass with which to reorientate ourselves amid the entropy of this lifetime, that is, existence on earth. Once oriented, we can start looking around and seeing the people orbiting around us and begin a new objective — to love and cherish one another. It’s striking Roy’s final words almost sound like wedding vows. As if he went to the stars only to realize what he had to come back to. He finally had eyes to see.

4/5 Stars