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Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

The 1619 Project

If one doesn’t know it:

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

I read all the articles this past week—those so far published, 17 by my count (the series is ongoing)—some 100 pages printed out (PDF is here), authored by well-known academics (historians and social scientists) and journalists. It’s an incredible series. Historian, Holocaust specialist, and old friend Marc Masurovsky described it well on his Facebook page:

A must-read, you have to read this special issue of the New York Times magazine…

It’s a shattering assessment of the history of America—white America—built on the blood of African slaves since 1619. A searing indictment of how American economic growth, political machines, and judicial decisions were rooted in the enslavement of millions of men, women and children. Generations of white businessmen, politicians, scholars, scientists, lawyers and judges, breathed and ate and drank segregationist and racist views…up to this day… and shaped and molded Federal and State policies to satisfy the segregationist agenda.

It makes one rethink what being American really means. And it’s simply frightening and appalling.

Oh, I know! We know the story of slavery and racism. But we really don’t. Please read this! You owe it to yourselves, to our African-American brothers and sisters. I am frankly ashamed that we have to bear this legacy. It’s bad to have committed genocide against the first inhabitants of what came to be known as America. If that wasn’t enough, we had to build the foundations of American democracy on the blood, flesh and tears of slaves. It makes you really wonder who the Bill of Rights was really written for and what that Declaration of Independence really means and for whom.

And no, I wasn’t born yesterday.

As Marc indicates, you may think you know the history of slavery and its legacy but, after reading The 1619 Project series, you realize you really don’t, at least not fully. There’s so much you don’t know or haven’t realized. And to call slavery America’s “original sin,” which just about everyone does, is too easy. It’s a throwaway line. Slavery was America’s crime: it was constitutive of the founding of the United States of America and the legacy of which weighs heavily today—and which is incarnated in the world-view of one of America’s two major political parties. As one reads in the series, the nature of American capitalism, the ideological rejection of universal social insurance schemes (a.k.a. the welfare state) by one of the major parties and the on-going battle over voting rights—making the US an outlier among advanced democracies—et on en passe, is a legacy of slavery and the century of apartheid that followed its abolition.

Sure, lots of countries had chattel slavery—Brazil, the islands of the Caribbean, Arabia, large parts of Africa, Thailand, etc—and which profoundly marked their politics and social structure (Brazil today is a big case in point) but we’re talking about the United States of America here, and where slavery and its legacy had some unique features.

Conservatives have unsurprisingly been flipping out over the 1619 series (a few reactions have been measured, though it’s obvious that most of those who are trashing the series have hardly read any of it). In responding to the conservative attacks, the NYT’s excellent columnist Jamelle Bouie (who has an article in the series) argues that “slavery was not a secondary part of our history: in America, liberty and bondage have always been intertwined.” And The Nation’s Jeet Heer observes that “conservatives’ freakout over The 1619 Project reveals their fear of America’s actual past.” Or, we should say, fear of a changing narrative of America’s past. E.g. some of the series authors refer to plantations as “forced-labor camps,” or “slave-labor camps,” and with all calling slave-owners “enslavers.” I will wager that in a generation, say twenty years from now, this nomenclature will be the prevailing one. An old Southern plantation doesn’t look the same if it’s labeled a “slave-labor camp.” This is, needless to say, deeply threatening to the conservative narrative—and largely white Southern—of American history.

On the question of historical narratives, the NYT published an op-ed on August 21st by writer and cultural critic Lewis Hyde, “How nationalism can destroy a nation,” in which he discusses Ernest Renan’s famous 1882 speech at the Sorbonne, “What is a nation?”—which is the classic French republican statement on the question—and whose central idea is that of historical narrative and the will of the members of a nation—the nation being an abstraction—to live together (Renan’s “daily plebiscite”). And central to historical narratives, for Renan, is “forgetting,” of an implicit decision by the gatekeepers of the national narrative to gloss over parts of the past—or bury them altogether—that caused members of the nation to kill one another (Renan’s example for France was the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, i.e. the 16th century religious wars of Catholics vs. Protestants). In America, this was slavery and the Civil War. As David Blight and other historians have written, the reconciliation of the North and South was predicated on black Americans—the former slaves—being written out of the American national narrative, and of the Southern view of slavery as a benign institution becoming the dominant one—of the North, in effect, being southernized.

This narrative was blown apart by the civil rights movement, the formal end of legal apartheid in the 1960s, and the according of full rights of citizenship—of belonging to the American nation—to Afro-Americans. And with that, America has once again become a deeply divided society—with a reactionary, southernized Republican Party leading the resistance to this change—such as it has not been since, well, the Civil War.

A few months ago, here in a Paris, I was browsing in a recently-opened far right-wing bookstore. One book I leafed through was a paean to the antebellum South, by the late neo-fascist writer-historian Dominique Venner, the title of which translates as ‘The white sun of the defeated: the epic history of the South and the Civil War, 1607-1865’. In the book he explicitly refers to the United States as being comprised of “two nations”: the North and the South. He was certainly not wrong in describing it that way for the period covered in his book and, I dare say, he would not be totally wrong in it today.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in WWII by the Free French and United States. Le Monde has a five-minute video on its website entitled ‘Liberation of Paris: why was there not a single black soldier in the military parades?’, even though there were over 3000 African soldiers—principally Senegalese tirailleurs—in General Leclerc’s elite 2nd Armored Division, which spearheaded the liberation of the city. The answer: pressure on the French from the Americans to remove the black soldiers from General Leclerc’s forces.

One of the preoccupations of the US Army during WWII in regard to its black soldiers—as historian Raffael Scheck, interviewed in the above Le Monde video, reminds us—was fraternization with European women—there being no taboo on interracial intimacy in France, Britain, or anywhere on this side of the ocean—and the measures that were taken to prevent this (including court martials and execution of black soldiers for rape, even when more than a few of the accused rapes were, in fact, consensual relationships). The actual consequence of interracial affairs involving black American soldiers was cinematically depicted in the powerful 2017 Netflix film Mudbound, which is set in rural Mississippi in the aftermath of WWII. What happened to the black soldier returning from Europe when his love affair with a woman in Germany was discovered by the local white men was utterly real. Such happened countless times to black men in the South. The excruciating scene toward the end of the film—which is almost unbearable to watch—crystallizes America’s experience with slavery and its legacy. And, one may add, the evil of the white American South.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

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The Apollo 11 moon landing

Those over a certain age are remembering where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon fifty years ago today. I was 13 and in London, where I had arrived the day before with my family (driving from Italy and France; we crossed the Channel from Calais to Ramsgate, in the hovercraft). We were staying with relatives, on Pennine Drive in NW2, all watching the telly. I remember the first live image of the spacecraft on the ground and, at 2:40 AM on the 21st, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerging from the vessel. My mother and I went outside and pointed up at the moon, me excited and probably saying “there they are!”

I likewise remember—as a snapshot image—when the three astronauts came to Ankara, Turkey—where I was living at the time—in October (three months to the day after the landing; it was a sunny afternoon), on their world tour, of them waving to the multitudes from an open-top sedan in the procession down Atatürk Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. A large part of the city turned out to see them.

On the subject, there’s the movie First Man, which opened last October and was nominated for four Oscars (in technical categories, winning one, for ‘best visual effects’). If one doesn’t know it, it’s the first feature-length non-documentary film on the Apollo 11 mission, with Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) at the center. I thought it very good and unexpected in its approach, as director Damien Chazelle opted not to make a classic ‘The Right Stuff’ kind of movie about the heroic march to the moon landing but instead meditate on the extreme dangers faced by NASA astronauts—who were taking their lives into their hands with each mission—and the psychological toll this took on them, their wives, and children (entre autres, the colleagues and friends who had perished in training and test flight accidents, not to mention the Apollo 1 disaster—and whose families were their friends—weighed heavily on all, as NASA in Houston was a tight-knit community). The Apollo missions, including the big one in July 1969, were anticipated by the astronauts and their families not with excitement but stoicism (for the former) and dread (the latter). And exhilaration did not necessarily follow the mission’s success. The subtext: history may be heroic but it is just as often tragic.

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Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

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[update below]

Everyone who follows American politics closely has probably heard about this terrific one-and-a-half-hour documentary, which is streaming on Netflix (the only place to see it; en France il est sous-titré). Its subject is the 2018 primary campaigns of four insurgent female candidates promoted by the progressive PACs Brand New Congress and, above all, Justice Democrats: Cori Bush in Missouri (against the incumbent Democrat, in the CD that includes Ferguson), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia (running against Joe Manchin), and Amy Vilela in Nevada (in a CD that includes part of Las Vegas, held by a Republican at the time). Voilà the story, as described on the film’s website:

When tragedy struck her family in the midst of the financial crisis, Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts in a restaurant to save her home from foreclosure. After losing a loved one to a preventable medical condition, Amy Vilela didn’t know what to do with the anger she felt about America’s broken health care system. Cori Bush was drawn into the streets when the police shooting of an unarmed black man brought protests and tanks into her neighborhood. Paula Jean Swearengin was fed up with watching her friends and family suffer and die from the environmental effects of the coal industry.

At a moment of historic volatility in American politics, these four women decide to fight back, setting themselves on a journey that will change their lives and their country forever. Without political experience or corporate money, they build a movement of insurgent candidates challenging powerful incumbents in Congress. Their efforts result in a legendary upset.

The upset was, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning defeat of incumbent Joseph Crowley in the New York primary on June 26, 2018. As AOC was the only one of the four to win–and has since rocketed to star status–much of the documentary naturally focuses on her. She’s fantastic. I just love her (does any minimally progressive-minded person not?). And her story is moving, particularly at the end, on the night of the primary and then with her in front of the Capitol, talking about her father’s final words to her (he died when she was in college). Reviews of the pic are tops, as one would expect (et en France aussi, par ex., ici et ici). The trailer is here. And here is a 23-minute interview with director Rachel Lears—who, pour l’info, has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from NYU—by Cenk Uygur, on the making of the documentary. Do see it, even if you don’t subscribe to Netflix (which may be had for a free one-month trial). This is the future of the Democratic Party.

UPDATE: The Washington Post Magazine (July 10th) has a profile of AOC’s Chief-of-Staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, which is worth the read.

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2019 Oscars

I’ve seen all but two of the films in the top categories. The list of nominees is here. I have posts on three: Vice and a single one on Bohemian Rhapsody & A Star Is Born. As for the others, here are my brief takes:

BlacKkKlansman: It’s about time Spike Lee got some Oscar nominations. This is his best film in years—I have admittedly not seen his entire œuvre but know I haven’t missed any masterpieces—indeed since ‘Do the Right Thing’ (which should not only have been nominated for best picture that year but also won it). I did enjoy ‘Inside Man’ and ‘Summer of Sam’ but these were popcorn movies, not political. This one is good, entertaining, and with a worthy message—seen at the end, with the commentary on the present day (Charlottesville, etc)—though not equal to the aforementioned ‘Do the Right Thing’. I hadn’t heard of Ron Stallworth before seeing the film, let alone know of his audacious operation against the Klan. Great material for a screenplay. On this score, I actually had a few issues with Spike Lee, as he takes a four year story—Stallworth joining the Colorado Springs police department in 1975 and infiltrating the Klan in precisely 1979—and compresses it into a single year, and 1972 at that (the year is not mentioned in the film but it’s pretty obvious, as one sees Nixon reelection campaign posters and with the Vietnam War still going). Directors invariably take liberties with the historical record when making a film about real-life events, which is okay so long as there are no egregious or flagrant errors. Spike Lee does not go over the line here but there were still a number of little anachronisms and unlikelihoods that I noted. E.g. police departments, particularly in conservative towns like Colorado Springs, were thoroughly racist in the early ’70s and did not set out to hire blacks until well into the decade, once affirmative action was instituted (and none would have allowed a beat cop to wear an afro); David Duke was not a KKK member in ’72 and Stokely Charmichael was in “exile” in Guinea that year (FYI, he spoke at my college in the fall of ’74 and the audience was mostly white, whereas in the film there is no white in sight at Charmichael’s event); answering machines were rare at the time and the model one sees in the film did not exist then. And then there’s the black student militant and love interest of Stallworth—played by the rather beautiful Laura Harrier—who talked too much like a white person from an educated family (not that there weren’t educated Afro-Americans back then but they didn’t talk like white people among themselves). Her character would make more sense today than in the 1970s. I may be buggering flies here (French expression) and do know that most people don’t care about these things—when they even notice them—but am just sayin’. And one other thing, as pointed out by Howard University communications professor and Huffpost columnist Natalie Hopkinson: Spike Lee is too nice to the police. He cuts them way too much slack. There’s only one outright racist cop among Stallworth’s colleagues, whereas in real life there would have been far more (if not practically all of them). And Klansmen of the time (as in the past and present), whom Lee depicts as bumbling low-IQ losers, were dangerous people and nothing to laugh about. All this said, it’s still a good film and should be seen. And if it wins the Oscar, that will be fine.

Green Book: Just about everyone I know—particularly in France—thinks this one is wonderful, as it is both an amusing—and ultimately gratifying—interracial buddy film but which also reminds us yet again of what a thoroughly wretched place the Jim Crow American South was. I gave it the thumbs up myself after seeing it. I do go for impeccably reenacted period pieces, particularly of historical periods of my youth. And having learned about the Negro Motorist Green Book in the last few years, this hook was of particular interest (and I’ll see any film on race in the US that receives halfway decent reviews). On this, the film disappointed somewhat—the actual Green Book was not its main subject (but is in a new documentary)—but still. I thought Viggo Mortensen was great in his role as Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, as was Mahershala Ali as Donald Shirley. But then a faithful AWAV reader (French) sent me an email about how much he hated the film, shredding it for, among many other things, the superficial and caricatured manner in which it dealt with the grave subject of Jim Crow and the violence that was consubstantial with this. I thought his critique a little strong but the points were well taken. And we both agreed that certain scenes did not ring true, e.g. the Memphis YMCA incident; in real life at that time, Shirley would not have made it out of there in one piece. My AWAV reader followed up in emailing me a critique in the NYT by Oklahoma State University philosophy professor Lawrence Ware, “How ‘Green Book’ gives short shrift to a gay life.” And then a stateside friend with expert knowledge on race in the US—who has avoided seeing the film, as he fears the worst—sent me two must-read pieces on the pic. One is by NYT arts critic-at-large Wesley Morris, “Why do the Oscars keep falling for racial reconciliation fantasies?” The lede: “In many Oscar bait movies, interracial friendships come with a paycheck, and follow the white character’s journey to enlightenment.” Morris’s dissection and dismantling of the Hollywood interracial buddy movie is thorough. The other article is by the Shadow and Act website’s managing editor Brooke C. Obie, “How ‘Green Book’ and the Hollywood machine swallowed Donald Shirley whole,” in which she details the many fictions and inaccuracies of Peter Farrelly’s film—e.g. the relationship between Vallelonga and Shirley did not, in fact, evolve into a veritable friendship—and the vociferous objections of Donald Shirley’s family to the making of the film when they learned how it was going to depict him (the family was not consulted at any point by Farrelly or Vallelonga’s son, Nick, who co-wrote and co-produced it). After reading these critiques, I’ve had to revise my assessment of ‘Green Book’ downward. If Mortensen or Ali win Oscars for their performances, that will be fine (particularly Ali), but not the film itself. [UPDATE: L.A. Times critic Justin Chang has a slash-and-burn post-Oscars piece, “Oscars 2019: ‘Green Book’ is the worst best picture winner since ‘Crash’.”] [2nd UPDATE: NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers has a brilliant, hilarious satire, “White Savior,” of the way Hollywood depicts race relations, as in movies like ‘Green Book’.]

Black Panther: I don’t think there’s been a film in the history of my Facebook news feed over which so much virtual ink has been spilled, notably by gauchiste academics, intellos, and other engagé types. Lefties seemed to like it on the whole and find it entertaining, though assessments of its putative political subtext varied, with, e.g., one Über-gauchiste academic friend, in critiquing the “heroic role by the CIA,” deplored the fictitious Wakandia’s “complicit[y] with US imperial designs…” Lefty suspicions will indeed not have been allayed by the effusive praise of the film in Breitbart, whose critic favorably compared King T’Challa (the Black Panther) to Donald Trump. Sans blague. As I’ve never read a Marvel comic in my life, know nothing of its stories and characters, and quite simply do not bother with such movies, I would not have considered seeing this one had it not been for the buzz in my socio-political-professional milieu and the putative political themes people were reading into the pic. So I saw it, last March. It was entertaining enough, even fun, but overrated, And I deemed that gauchistes and others were seriously over-interpreting it, sometimes laughably so. I archived some twenty-five analyses of the film from various publications and websites, with the view to writing a full post on it, but finally didn’t. Pourquoi faire? Life is too short. As for interpreting the film politically, one friend remarked that it represents “a great triumph of (black) capitalism,” with me submitting that none of the analyses and gauchiste commentaries I’d seen noted that Wakandia was a rentier state—a Dubai in the savanna—that got rich because of a natural resource (the magical vibranium). And the only Wakandians we see are the royal family and its praetorian guard. A People’s Republic Wakandia is not.

The Favourite: I saw this last Tuesday evening, at a multiplex in the center of Paris. The large salle was packed, signifying strong word-of-mouth. I have tended to avoid Yórgos Lánthimos’s films, finding them odd, but as this one was nominated for a slew of top Oscars, I wasn’t going to miss it. A friend later asked me to describe it with just one word. My response: loufoque (zany, wacky, crazy). It’s a black comedy. If one doesn’t know, it’s set in 1708 in the court of the wacky, zany Anne, Queen of Great Britain, and with a bevy of wacky, zany characters. What drives it, though, is the three lead female characters: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). They’re terrific—it’s a collective acting tour de force—and the movie is engaging, so I do not regret seeing it, au contraire. I will henceforth be more open to Lánthimos’s films.

Roma: I had to see this on Netflix, as it could not debut theatrically in France in view of French legislation—that imposes a four month delay before movies can go from the cinema to VOD—which was too bad, as it’s a film that should ideally be seen on a wide screen. But better my 42″ flat screen than nothing. The only thing I’ll say about it is that it’s very impressive and on every level: technically beautiful, very well acted, and with a strong, compelling story (of a slice of director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico City, though without him being the protag). I will willingly watch it again. For more on the film, I refer readers to Alma Guillermoprieto’s review in The New York Review of Books—growing up herself in Mexico City at the same general time, it hit close to home for her—and Anthony Lane’s in The New Yorker. If you’ve seen ‘Roma’ and maybe have a reservation or two about it, these reviews will put them to rest.

And then there are these, with nominations in the best acting categories:

The Wife: I’m not going to say much about this one, which I saw in the US last month with my mother, who’s 88, has written a lengthy review of it on her blog, and to which I refer the reader. Just three things. First, Glenn Close carries the film. Her performance is a tour de force, in the absence of which the film would have likely not been nominated for any awards. Second, Glenn Close was too old for the role she was playing. She was 71 when the movie was made and looks it, but when her husband, Joe Castleman (actor Jonathan Pryce), wins the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1992, she could not have been over 56, as she met him as an undergraduate at Smith College in 1958—the dates are flashed on the screen—when he was her professor. And when he won the Nobel, he would have been in his mid 60s—some ten years his wife Joan’s senior—except that Pryce is the same age as Close but looks older. So the ages are way off for both of them, but particularly Close. But critics seem not to have to picked up on this, nor a couple of friends who’ve seen it (the film has curiously gone directly to a streaming service in France, which means that almost no one here will see it). Director Björn Runge could have made them up to look a little younger but maybe he didn’t think of it either. Third, sexism and the (very low) glass ceiling is a leitmotif, with Joan, we learn, a far superior writer to her future Nobel laureate husband Joe, but who sacrificed a career as a writer and in publishing, and gave all to Joe, working in the shadows to advance his fame, and with him basking in the glory and accolades, all while cheating on her right and left. But was this fated to happen? Was she condemned to this subservient role given the ambient sexism of the era? Seeing the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg afterward, who is about three years older than Joan would have been, one wonders, as RBG forged ahead career-wise malgré tout, and ended up we know where. Likewise with one of my professors in graduate school, also older than Joan would have been but never played second fiddle to her accomplished husband and was a major figure in American political science. Joan, as one sees in the latter part of the film, blows a fuse and decides to even the score with her jerk Nobel laureate husband. Too bad she didn’t do so far earlier, as she could have.

If Beale Street Could Talk: Barry Jenkins’s previous film, ‘Moonlight’, was a chef d’œuvre, which any sentient person will readily second. This one may not be that but is still quite good. The cinematography and atmospherics are very Barry Jenkinesque, as is the pacing. And the young couple, Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne), moved me with their unbending love (a US friend sniffed that they were an “insipid Ken and Barbie couple” but that’s too harsh). And Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King, Best Supporting Actress nominee), is first rate in the role. The film’s value, above all, is in the depiction of the Kafkaesque judicial nightmare which Fonny got ensnared in, which was almost the rule for young black males in the 1970s, when the film takes  place, not to mention afterward (or before, of course), and which wrecked his life, i.e. in sending him to prison for seven years for a crime he didn’t commit. It may not have been director Jenkins’s intention but the film is, entre autres, an indictment of the American judicial practice of plea bargaining, which is happily non-existent in legal systems underpinned by Napoleonic or other such codes. The scene of Fonny’s interface with the cop in Greenwich Village is also bone-chilling. Another reminder of the shit black men in America have had to put up with….

My choices:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Roma’.
As this is not an American film or even in English, it should by all rights not be in this category, but it is and is by far the best of the eight nominees. If not ‘Roma’, then ‘The Favourite’ or ‘A Star Is Born’.

BEST DIRECTOR: Spike Lee.
For his lifetime œuvre, not the film (BlacKkKlansman) for which he’s nominated. If not Lee, then Alfonso Cuarón (Roma).

BEST ACTOR: Christian Bale in ‘Vice’.
He killed it as Dick Cheney. Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) is second. Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) is acceptable but absolutely not Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody). Don’t know about Willem Defoe, as I haven’t yet seen ‘At Eternity’s Gate’.

BEST ACTRESS: Glenn Close in ‘The Wife’.
A no-brainer and despite the age thing I discussed above. Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born) and Olivia Colman (The Favourite) are second ex æquo. Yalitza Aparicio (Roma) would be an edgy choice. Can’t speak about Melissa McCarthy, as ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ has not yet opened in France.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali in ‘Green Book’.
Obviously.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Regina King in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.
All the nominees are equally good, actually.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: ‘Cold War’ (Poland) and ‘Shoplifters’ (Japan) ex æquo.
Only if ‘Roma’ doesn’t win best picture (in which case it should this). ‘Capernaum’ (Lebanon) is not a good film. Don’t know ‘Never Look Back’ (Germany).

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2019 César awards

[update below]

France’s Oscars. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday)—two days before the US Academy Awards, as always—at the Salle Pleyel (in the 8th arrondissement). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with ten nominations each are ‘Le Grand Bain’ (Sink or Swim) and ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ (Custody), followed by nine for ‘The Sisters Brothers’ and ‘En liberté!’ (The Trouble with You), eight for ‘La douleur’ (Memoir of War), seven for ‘Pupille’ (In Safe Hands), and six each for ‘Guy’ and ‘Mademoiselle de Joncquières’. I’ve seen most of the films in the top categories. I’ll eventually have separate posts on some of the nominees—the best of them—but, in the meantime, here’s a brief mention of a few.

Le Grand Bain (Sink or Swim), directed by Gilles Lellouche. This was the huge hit comedy in France of the fall—indeed the year—that packed the salles (4.3 million tix sold, i.e. a mega-hit), which the critics (French)—at one with the masses—loved to boot, and that has consequently been nominated for a slew of Césars, including Best Film, Best Director, and four in the supporting acting categories. The pic, with its ensemble cast of A-list actors and actresses (Guillaume Canet and the overexposed Mathieu Amalric play the lead roles), tells the tale of seven sad sacks in their 40s and 50s who are down on their luck—divorced, unemployed, going nowhere in their lives, and/or just washed out, over the hill, and/or out of it—who join a club to train for a synchronized swimming championship in Norway—why not?—where they will represent the French nation, i.e. they will be the national team of France. Sans blague. They’re all out of shape and have never synchronized swam in their lives—some barely know how to swim at all—mais peu importe. Two slave-driving female coaches (Virginie Efira, Leïla Bekhti), who have life issues themselves, set out to whip them into shape. There is no hint that the seven slobs can perform at any level when they arrive at the tournament in Norway, but lo and behold—SPOILER ALERT!—they put on a performance worthy of Olympic champions. Comme ça. The whole movie is a buildup to the crowd-pleasing denouement. Of course. It is, as I read afterwards, a French ‘The Full Monty’ (a film that I have never seen, believe it or not). I think one has to be culturally French from a young age—or just have a sense of humor and taste in comedies different from mine—to appreciate the pic and find it funny, as I simply did not. I mean, it’s okay and all, but nothing more. I may have smiled at a couple of points but no chuckles, let alone gros rires. On this, the handful of US critics who’ve seen it largely share my view. But it will surely win its share of Césars and a Hollywood remake goes without saying.

En liberté! (The Trouble with You), directed by Pierre Salvadori. This one, nominated for Best Film and Best Director, is also a comedy, of the madcap variety. French critics loved it (US critics liked), with audiences rating it not bad to good. The story: Yvonne (Adèle Haenel, Best Actress nominee)—a police inspector in a seaside town near Marseille—suddenly learns that her beloved cop husband, Captain Jean Santi, who was heroically killed in the line of duty two years earlier, was not the squeaky clean, upright police officer of integrity that she believed him to be but rather a sleazy, corrupt ripou, and who had sent an innocent man, Antoine (Pio Marmai, Best Actor nominee), to prison eight years earlier no less. Horrified by the discovery, she sets out to make amends to Antoine upon his release, first via his wife, Agnès (Audrey Tautou, Best Supporting Actress nominee), and with crazy stuff ensuing, and with Yvonne’s colleague, Louis (Damien Bonnard, Best Supporting Actor nominee), who’s secretly in love with her, complicating the situation. The pic does have some amusing scenes—particularly its running gag (repeated several times), in which Yvonne theatrically recounts, and with embellishment, a bedtime story to her young son of one of his father’s/her husband’s more spectacular exploits in catching bad guys—but I found the plot overly complex and confusing. I struggled at times to figure out what was going on. So my verdict is mixed.

The Sisters Brothers, directed by Jacques Audiard. The only thing French about this one is the director, qui n’est pas le moindre d’ailleurs. It’s otherwise 100% American—based on the eponymous 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt—set in the Old West (Oregon and California)—though shot in Spain—during the late 1840s Gold Rush, about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix), who are professional killers, both cold blooded—though the latter more than the former, who sometimes has a conscience—and who are hired to track down and eliminate a fortune seeker named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), but who continually throws them off the scent. It’s well-done, the cast is great, and is thoroughly entertaining but if director Audiard was seeking to convey a message, it escaped me, as I gave the film no thought after leaving the theater (except to recount the spider scene to my arachnophobic wife and daughter)..

Nos batailles (Our Struggles), directed by Guillaume Senez. Olivier (Romain Duris, Best Actor nominee) is a foreman at a big e-commerce warehouse in a town near Lyon, with wife and children, and a normal-looking working class life. And he’s a union delegate, investing time at work defending the interests of fellow workers vis-à-vis management. A good man. But one day his wife vanishes, leaving a note saying she’s taken off, though offering no explanation. She occasionally sends a post card to the family saying she’s fine, though doesn’t say where she is. And that’s that; she’s never seen again. So Olivier is left to raise two young children alone, getting help from his supportive sister and mother, but still having to assume the big responsibility in addition to his day job and union activities. And that’s the film. Critics (French and American) and audiences alike gave it the thumbs way up. But not me. The film certainly has merit but the wife’s disappearance—and, above all, leaving her children—for no apparent rhyme or reason bothered me. Mothers/wives who are overwhelmed with family responsibilities do sometimes blow a fuse and take off for a stretch of time (as, e.g., depicted in the excellent 2017 Georgian film My Happy Family), or seriously contemplate doing so. People need to take a breather and have their own space. But a mother definitively abandoning her children and going incommunicado requires minimal explanation, but which the pic does not give. This is a flaw IMHO. I am, however, clearly in a minority in my mixed feelings about the film..

Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love), directed by Catherine Corsini. I’m in a minority on this one as well, which critics (French and US/UK) and audiences praised mais pas moi. It’s an adaptation of the eponymous, autobiographical 2015 novel by the well-known, très médiatisé writer Christine Angot, whom I personally think is a nutter and a flake. The story, which spans five decades, begins in the 1950s in Châteauroux, where Rachel (Virginie Efira, Best Actress nominee), a secretary from a modest background, meets Philippe, a young litterateur from an upper bourgeois Parisian family. They have a torrid affair—Rachel being beautiful, thus Philippe’s attraction to her—and with a child, named Chantal (Christine Angot, in effect), being the outcome, though Philippe will not a marry Rachel, as, for him, the social class gap (and certain parental objection) is insurmountable. So mother (with help from mamie) raises daughter alone—and with the two naturally being extremely close—though Philippe shows up in Châteauroux every once in a blue moon, to check in on Rachel and Chantal. Rachel, who’s had other prospects, inexplicably remains in love with him for years and never marries. When Chantal becomes a teen and with a literary streak, she seeks out a closer relationship with her absent father and vice-versa, spending time chez lui in Paris. He’s finally becoming the responsible, attentive father, or so it seems, and that she so yearned for. And then everything goes off the rails, as it is ultimately revealed that he has been sexually abusing her, and which exacts its lasting psychological toll, with Chantal, into her 30s, taking the whole thing out on her mother, with whom she breaks off relations. I have no idea what specifically happened to Angot—though could probably inform myself by reading her books and accounts, which I have no intention of doing—but something in this part of the movie didn’t add up, particularly with Chantal’s sudden rejection of her mother, who, at least as far as she’s portrayed in the film, was attentive, loving, and could not be reproached for what happened with the father (except, perhaps, for having maintained a link with him). So I left the theater with mixed feelings. But again, that’s me.

Les Chatouilles (Little Tickles), directed by Andréa Bescond and Eric Métayer. Voilà another movie, this nominated for Best First Film, about sexual abuse of minors, here outright pedophilia, based on co-director—and professional dancer—Bescond’s autobiographical one-woman play. The film goes back and forth between protag Odette as an eight-year-old who wants nothing more than to be a ballerina, and her as a professional dancer in her 20s (Bescond plays the role here), and her trauma of the sexual abuse she sustained as a child by close family friend Gilbert (Pierre Deladonchamps), often when her parents, Fabrice (Clovis Cornillac, Best Supporting Actor nominee) and Mado (Karin Viard, Best Supporting Actress nominee), were in close proximity or had confined Odette to Gilbert’s care (the chatouilles, or little tickles, of the title is what Gilbert told Odette he was doing to her). Adult Odette has Gilbert prosecuted and confronts her parents about their implicit responsibility, as Gilbert was their good, trusted friend. Father Fabrice accepts it—expressing contrition at having seen nothing, or not wanted to—but mother Mado defensively refuses to, going so far to imply that maybe Odette was, at age eight, at least partly culpable, that perhaps she egged Gilbert on. We know that this does happen in real life, that some mothers simply will not be held to account for the sexual abuse sustained by their daughter at the hands of a family member or friend, and practically under their eyes. Reviews of the pic were good, including in the Hollywood press. I go with the general consensus. The film ends with a reminder to the audience that a significant percentage of children—mostly girls, of course—are victims of sexual abuse and that proactive action against the perpetrators must be taken. Bien évidemment.

Amanda, directed by Mikhael Hers. This one is about an early twentysomething named David (Vincent Lacoste, Best Actor nominee), who lives in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, makes a living doing odd jobs, and often helps out his older schoolteacher sister, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), with her seven-year-old daughter (and David’s niece), Amanda (Isaure Multrier), with childcare, as there’s no father in the picture or, for David and Sandrine, a mother (who lives in London and hasn’t seen them in ages; this estrangement later being explained, unlike in ‘Nos batailles’). But then tragedy hits, when Sandrine is killed in a terrorist attack on picnickers in the Bois de Vincennes, and with David’s new companion, the very attractive Léna (Stacy Martin), seriously injured (the attack obviously recalls what Paris experienced on November 13, 2015). So in addition to the devastation of losing his sister, David now has to inform Amanda of what happened, to help her try to comprehend it and traverse the stages of grief, but, above all, to take full responsibility for her—to adopt her, in effect, as she is orphaned—but for which he is neither psychologically nor financially ready. He has to grow up and fast. It’s a well-done, understated film. Reviews were very good, both French and US/UK, and it did respectably at the box office.

Sauvage (Wild), directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet. Here’s a description culled from the web: “Léo (Félix Maritaud) is 22 and sells his body on the street for a bit of cash. The men come and go, and he stays put… longing for love. He doesn’t know what the future will bring. He stays on the streets. His heart is pounding…” The backdrop of this one, which is nominated for Best First Film, is the underworld of gay street prostitution, which is as glauque as one imagines it to be (as with any kind of prostitution). I’ve seen gay-themed films that are borderline hard (e.g. the first-rate L’inconnu du lac) but this is particularly so, with scenes that are downright pornographic. And violent: not in the blood-and-gore sense but in the interactions among that substratum of gay men. The pic will inevitably be seen almost exclusively by LGBTQs, though may certainly be by others (US/UK reviews are good, BTW). And à propos, I will rate it above Christophe Honoré’s well-received gay-themed Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Sorry Angel), which, with due respect to the good US/UK reviews, left me indifferent,

BEST FILM: Pupille.
This, about the adoption of a baby at birth and the manifold complexities entailed, was the best French film of 2018. Runners-up are the excellent Jusqu’à la garde—about a child custody battle between two divorced parents—and Guy, a mockumentary about a fictitious, over-the-hill crooner in his 70s. ‘The Sisters Brothers’: No. ‘En liberté!’: No! ‘Le Grand Bain’: Inconceivable. I have yet to see La douleur, but which I cannot imagine would finish ahead of the top three above.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alex Lutz for ‘Guy’.
Most of the others are worthy but Lutz should get it for conceiving this original film.

BEST ACTOR: Alex Lutz in ‘Guy’.
Lutz is not even 40 but makes himself up to look like he’s in his 70s. He totally pulls off the role. All of the nominees are good and worthy. This is a strong category this year.

BEST ACTRESS: Cécile de France in Mademoiselle de Joncquières.
She’s stellar in this marvelous 18th century romantic drama. Sandrine Kiberlain, whom I love, is also great in ‘Pupille’ and Adèle Haenel (En liberté!) is excellent in any role she plays (even if the movie in question may not be). A strong category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Philippe Katerine in ‘Le Grand Bain’.
This is a coin flip with Jean-Hugues Anglade in the same pic, as the other three nominees did not have significant enough roles to merit any award. A weak category this year.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Virginie Efira in ‘Le Grand Bain’.
This is by default, as none of the others deserve it. I normally love Leïla Bekhti but couldn’t stand her surly, insufferable role in ‘Le Grand Bain’. Isabelle Adjani in the trivial ‘Le monde est à toi’ (The World Is Yours) is utterly unremarkable. As for Karin Viard (Les chatouilles) and Audrey Tautou (En liberté!), they’ve had stronger roles. Also a weak category this year.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Dylan Robert in Shéhérazade.
William Lebghil in ‘Première année’ (The Freshman) is also good.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Ophélie Bau in Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno.
Abdellatif Kechiche has launched the careers of several A-list actresses (Sara Forestier, Hafsia Herzi, Adèle Exarchopoulos) and will likely do so for Ophélie Bau. One takes note of the pretty Lily-Rose Depp—whose father is a somewhat well-known American actor—in Louis Garrel’s otherwise forgettable ‘L’homme fidèle’ (A Faithful Man). Likewise Kenza Fortas in the not forgettable ‘Shéhérazade’.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Jusqu’à la garde’.
If this one wins Best Film—for which it is also nominated—then let it be ‘Shéhérazade’. If L’amour flou wins, I will be scandalized.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: ‘Cold War’ and ‘Une affaire de famille’ (Shoplifters) ex æquo.
If the hugely overrated ‘Capharnaüm’ wins, I will moan and groan.

UPDATE: ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ won best film (deserved), Jacques Audiard best director (inevitable), Alex Lutz best actor (totally deserved), Léa Drucker best actress for her role in ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ (she was good, so yes). ‘Shéhérazade’, about Maghrebi-origin Marseille teenagers at the bottom of the heap, won best first film plus most promising actor and actress (great!). Variety’s report is here.

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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as everyone knows, has been a huge hit since its release 3½ months ago—in the US (making over $200M), France (where it’s had 4.3 million box office entrées—which is a lot—and is still playing in several Paris theaters), and elsewhere—and despite the decidedly mixed reviews (French ones were a little more positive than American). And now the pic—and notably lead actor Rami Malek—is winning a slew of awards (Golden Globes and BAFTA, among others) and has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

As a film, I thought it was okay. I had never been a big fan of Queen and probably wouldn’t have bothered with the pic had it not been for my wife, who has long been a Queen fan and was thus eager to see it. I almost entirely associated Queen with its stadium chant songs—’Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘We Will Rock You’—not to mention the inevitable ‘We Are the Champions’—played endlessly after Les Bleus’ 1998 World Cup victory—and which everyone’s heard a hundred thousand times. Learning about the history of the group and particularly lead singer Freddie Mercury (né Farrokh Bulsara)—e.g. I didn’t know he was a Parsi from Zanzibar and who arrived in England only in his late teens—was interesting enough (though the film, one reads, is riddled with historical inaccuracies and untruths). To be honest, I didn’t even remember that Mercury was gay and had died of AIDS in 1991. There are indeed gaps in my musical culture générale. If the film had merit in filling this cultural gap, both my wife and I felt that Rami Malek’s performance was its weakest part—that he’s not a very good actor—and are somewhat incredulous that he’s winning all these best acting awards—and may well win the big one at next Sunday’s Academy Awards. Va savoir.

Continuing with the film’s merit in filling my cultural gap, seeing it prompted me to review Queen’s musical œuvre and reassess my prior view. And I have to say, my assessment has moved up several notches. Queen was indeed a great concert band—with Mercury one hell of a stage performer—and had some very good songs. The film appropriately ends with a reenactment of the June 1985 Live Aid concert, with Queen’s performance ranked in one music industry poll as the greatest live act ever. No less (watch it here; it is indeed something). I also rediscovered ‘Under Pressure’, which Mercury created with David Bowie in 1981. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song! Check it out in this YouTube mix of Mercury and Bowie (they actually never did perform on stage together).

So yeah, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a merely okay movie, is indeed worth seeing. I’m certainly glad I did.

Another recent music-themed movie I’m glad I saw—though had planned to from the outset—is ‘A Star Is Born’, the reviews of which were decidedly superior to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the US and good in France. And it was naturally a box office hit (2 million entrées in France). As it’s the fourth remake of the film, or something like that, everyone knows the story. What to say, it’s entertaining, well-acted—Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are tops—and with very good music. The soundtrack deserves every award it will receive. We (my daughter, her bf, and I) enjoyed it. Lady Gaga is a great chanteuse—that we know—but we were impressed to learn that Cooper did indeed sing his songs too. Pas mal. Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire sur le film.

On the subject of Lady Gaga, her halftime show at the 2017 Super Bowl may well be the greatest such musical performance—the act and with all the props—I have ever seen. It is quite simply incredible. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here and decide for yourself.

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