Friday, April 15, 2011

If You Are Uncomfortable With Something, Don't Make A Movie About It

            “The Reader” is about a lot of touchy subjects: Forgiveness of genocide in the name of humanity, the question of whether one can still love a person who has committed a horrendous crime, the impotence of shame and its translation into a lust for authority, and the never ending debate over whether or not law is based upon morality… just to name a few. And yet the one thing that springs immediately to mind whenever we think about this movie is the sexual affair between a fifteen year old boy and a thirty year old woman. We don’t think of their relationship later in the film, when Michael (David Cross in the flashbacks and Ralph Fiennes in the ‘90s) is forced to choose between exposing Hanna’s (Kate Winslet) shameful secret- she can’t read- or watching her be sentenced to a life in prison for the crime of allowing 300 Jewish women to burn to death in a church during her career as an SS guard. 
            Instead we think of the R-rated scenes involving beds, bathtubs, and books. Why? Is it a publicity stunt; to lure audiences in with the promise of sex and controversy before whacking them with a good dose of historical morality after they have already paid for their tickets? This would mean that the true depth of the more intense subject matter would emerge after having seen the film. At least, this was what I was hoping for. A hundred and twenty four minutes later, and my cynicism was in overdrive. 
            The problem with “The Reader” is that it presents exacting reality with tenderness and subtlety while treating the subtle and tender with exacting reality. It is not a holocaust film. It is about the lives of the next generation of Germans who had to live in the shadow of guilt and who were faced with the enormity of having to move on.
            It is certainly a unique premise and one that carries a massive potential to resonate in our moral psyches. But it plays it safe. All the way from the rather too coincidental beginning to the neat-as-a-pin ending, it walks ever so lightly on its abundance of ethically controversial material, picking up on the nostalgia of post-WWII films that have gone before, but goes hog-wild when it comes to sexuality, leaping at the chance to at least be bold about something
            In doing this, it becomes what, in my opinion, is a bad movie. It is based on a story that implores us to consider something that we would prefer to put behind us. It (rightly) doesn’t want to give any answers for fear of having to take sides; but neither does it have the courage to ask any questions. “The Reader” is a movie about a nation that is weary of the shadows of the past, and its responsibility is to have the audacity to cast a light into that darkness. Instead, it is afraid of its own shadow. It is tactful and predictable.
            When undertaking something that is potentially controversial, one must be firm in their convictions and know where they are going and what they want to do. “The Reader” has an identity crisis. Does it want to be a steamy romance? A period piece? A WWII aftermath film? It seems to know that any way it goes about it, there must be a flavor of controversy. And the only way it knows how to do that is not by forcing us to think, but by playing the sex card. 
            Maybe we too have an identity crisis. Maybe we are still afraid of our own shadow... our own thoughts.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Charcoal Monday

Sunday, April 3, 2011

You Might Be Surprised By What They ARE Afraid Of

            I love movies that are based on plays. Using a story that is intentionally fashioned for a presentation where flamboyant effects are limited not only by budget but by reality and is instead forced to place all its cards on the quality of actors and dialogue is a wonderfully sneaky yet effective way to create a movie boiled down to the essence of what great theatrical entertainment is all about. When it doesn’t get overly Hollywood-ized in the process… that is.
            “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is structurally about as simple as it gets: four actors, very little music, and most of the scenes are set inside one room of one house. The complexity lies in the characters mentality and is expressed in their dialogue, originally penned by playwright Edward Albee.
            The plot, at least on the exterior, is simple as well: A young professor and his wife (George Segal and Sandy Dennis, respectively) meet the daughter of the college president (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband, an associate prof. of history (Richard Burton) at a cocktail party and are invited to the older couple’s on-campus home for drinks at an hour that straddles both “late at night” and “early in the morning”. Little do Honey (Dennis) and Nick (Segal) know of the marital warfare that rages in the home of Martha (Taylor) and George (Burton).
            All attempts at friendly small talk are quickly muffled by the virtual machine gun spray of dialogue that George and Martha ceaselessly pelt each other with. As the foursome grows drunker and drunker, the two guests become sucked into the combat as well and round and round they all go, ripping each other down verbally until we no longer know what to believe and who to trust.
            It’s movies like this that thrill me to no end. The dialogue is the driving force that pushes the movie forward, only to whip the characters back with such great momentum, they need to take a minute to catch their breath. Elizabeth Taylor’s role in the film has become the stuff of legend- and rightly so- but upstaging even her was the brilliant performance delivered by Sandy Dennis. While the other three incessantly reload their guns with ammo of alcohol and secrets, the mousy blonde Honey is the one who bears the brunt of the situation, as it is she who ultimately discovers that her husband does not love her. It is one of those performances so unique and bizarre, it is impossible to keep our eyes off her even with Elizabeth Taylor just feet away.
            “Virginia Woolf” is a merciless movie. There is not an emotional or psychological stone that is left unturned, not a flaw that goes unscrutinized, not a gun that doesn’t go off; and in the end, we are surprised by our own shock at who can best withstand the blow. But it is also a deeply metaphorical movie that is not afraid of the surreal.
One might argue the same about long-term marriage.