Weekend Film Recommendation: Under the Skin

It’s October again, which means that we’re kicking off another month of horror-themed movies here at RBC! The first in the series is a new interpretation on the alien femme fatale story, in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The action begins with a motorcyclist bringing a lifeless woman to the back of his van. There, his accomplice, a naked woman played by Scarlett Johansson, takes the victim’s clothes for herself. Already five minutes in to the film, and very little has been explained yet, nor will it for much of what follows. Instead, viewers have to divine who the characters are, and what their motivations may be, based on the smallest fragments of information.

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So, when the woman starts driving the van around the streets of Glasgow with the intent to seduce men and bring them back to her home, we believe we may have a grasp on what she’s about. We’d be wrong. Once inside her home, we learn that its interior is nothing but a pool of immaculate black oil, into which the woman’s suitors descend and are consumed during their pursuit of her. It’s not clear what happens to the men once they are submerged in the oil until half way through the film. By that point, the woman has amassed a sufficient number of victims that one of them notices another suspended in the mysterious black fluid. Upon reaching out to his fellow captive, he finds that the other man disappears into nothingness, leaving only skin behind.

Consequently, much of the first half of the film is devoted to trying to decipher who this protagonist is, what’s happening to the men she seduces, and why she’s doing it. Answers to any of these questions remain elusive. Therefore, you might just settle on thinking of her as an alien simply to make things easier on yourself. Yet one of the remarkable successes of Under the Skin is that we learn to invest in and sympathize with her all the same, despite all this not-knowing. Continue Reading…

Cities of Refuge

When I first met Paul Roemer a few years ago a few years ago he was promoting an idea he called “Charter cities.”

The basic idea is that, under contemporary economic conditions – in particular the astonishingly low cost of transporting freight by water – economic activity doesn’t require much in the way of natural or even human resources: just a piece of land with access to ocean transportation, a little basic urban planning, the rule of law, and the absence of intrusive and kleptocratic government.

Alas, those last two are sufficiently rare in the worst-off countries that hundreds of millions of people, deprived of industrial opportunity where they are, want to leave and go somewhere else. The problem is that “somewhere else” mostly doesn’t want to take them in.

Romer’s proposed solution flows directly from this analysis: find an empty space with the requisite transportation access, get the national government out of the way, and build a new city, attracting economic migrants from around the world. At first the charter city would be governed by an international board, with housing and industrial plant built by private actors and infrastructure and public-services financed by ground leases: in effect a Henry George single tax.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Recount

Next year, election season will bring with it a painful reminder of the last time someone named Bush made us pay close attention to Florida. This weekend’s movie recommendation, HBO’s Recount, dramatizes the crisis of political legitimacy occasioned by hanging, lingering, and downright stubborn chads up to and including Bush v. Gore.

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The Past is Another Country

An academic colleague once made an intriguing observation about his left wing, multicultural theory-influenced undergraduates (i.e., all of them…he taught at UC Santa Cruz). They were absolutely unforgiving when judging the past of their own culture but were resolutely opposed to making any judgments about other cultures existing today. For example, when learning about the lack of professional career opportunities for American women in the 1950s, they would denounce the vicious patriarchy of the period, raging that it stemmed from an utterly horrible culture full of utterly horrible people who should have known better. But when asked about the same lack of professional career opportunities for women right now in, say, Mali or Uzbekistan, they would maintain that it would be oppressive and imperialistic of them to pass judgment: After all, how can people raised in one culture possibly understand or evaluate a completely different culture?

My colleague noted correctly that his students were showing an extreme lack of compassion for the past. It’s naïve and self-congratulatory for someone alive in 2015 to look back at 1955 or 1825 or any other prior era and assume that all the stupidity of the period would have been overcome if only they’d been there to set the benighted masses straight. It is equally naïve and self-congratulatory not to grapple with the fact that 50 or 100 years from now people will look back on some things we take for granted today and wonder what on earth we were thinking.

I sometimes made use of my colleague’s observation in psychotherapy when I was counselling adolescents and young adults who were being driven crazy by their grandparents, e.g., “I hate the way Grandma is always talking about Jesus and nagging me to go to church!”, “My grandfather won’t listen to me when I tell him not to keep all his money in his house – he’s completely paranoid about banks!”.
I would suggest to these young people to think of their grandparents as immigrants from another country: the past. We understand that people from other countries can have trouble adjusting to our society, that they may struggle to fit in and that it hurts them to have the values they grew up with rejected or surpassed. Seen in this light, our elders are easier to understand and to feel for, and when we ourselves are old we will need the same compassion from the young as the world we knew is replaced by the world they make.

Weekend Film Recommendation ***With Interview of Star Brad Rowe***: Purgatory

bannerOne of the happy outcomes of the cable television revolution was that more stations were competing to brand themselves with audiences, and one method some of them chose was to start making their own films. The budgets were not as large as what Hollywood might provide, but the results were often more original. Such is the case with Uli Edel’s unconventional western Purgatory, which debuted in 1999 on Turner Network Television and has attracted a growing base of fans ever since.

Purgatory opens as a classic oater, with glorious vistas, exciting gunfights, noble sheriffs and vicious outlaws. But then the film takes an entirely novel, Twilight Zone-eque turn as a group of bank robbers gets lost in a sandstorm and arrives in the strangely peaceful town of Refuge, where a sheriff who doesn’t even carry a gun (Sam Shepard) unhesitatingly welcomes them to stay. The town has a saloon that no one enters, a church that every single resident attends every day, and some strangely familiar-looking locals, all of whom are watched over by a wizened Native American medicine man. I am not going to tell you more than that for two reasons. First, I don’t want to spoil this fine film for you and second, I need the space this week for an RBC first: An interview with the star of a recommended film.

BradBrad Rowe is the emotional center of the film as “Sonny” the one member of the pack of snarling bad guys who is a decent, vulnerable human being to whom the audience can relate. Brad has since gone on to become an expert in drug and crime policy, working with Mark Kleiman’s BOTEC consulting firm. I am grateful for him for taking the time to talk about Purgatory.

Brad, you’ve been in many movies and television shows, but say that this film was probably the most fun you ever had as an actor. What was so enjoyable about it?

First of all I was a very young actor and had hardly been around the block. Uli Edel was kind enough to have me come in to read for one of the lead roles in a project that already had Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts and Randy Quaid attached. After getting the role, when I arrived for the cast read through, my eyes were as big as saucers. These guys were legends to me and it was really endearing that they all took me under their collective wing. And then we got to the work of training, which included riding professional stunt horses, learning how to quick draw guns, staging screen fist fights and perfecting our cowboy swagger in period clothes. Lots of down time too where the other actors and crew would share fun stories about the countless projects and people they had experienced over the decades. I was in heaven. There was something magical to the story telling as well. Gordon Dawson had written a solid screenplay and TNT was really invested in making that story come to life. I think we all knew we were working on something special. As it turned out the project was well produced and promoted, so it found an audience. It wasn’t until I had been around for a while that I truly appreciated how many wonderful professionals had come together for a few months to make some movie magic. And of course the genre of the Western has become more of a scarcity recently so that time holds a bit of additional nostalgia for me.

I could imagine an actor first reading Dawson’s script and thinking “This strange plot may just not work for an audience expecting a traditional western”. Did you have that worry or did the story hook you right away?

I personally didn’t have any reservations. It felt like the super-western with a cast of characters that spanned the storied history of the wild west. The supernatural twist was an essential tool for exposing everyone in the story’s true character – warts and all in some cases. What resonated for me was how close that character was to me at that point in my life. I was new to Hollywood and eager to learn and in many cases found myself swimming with sharks. Sonny was doing his best throughout the story to stay true to his values but finding mentors who shared the same compass was nearly impossible.

Do you think of Purgatory as a religious film?

I do. There are both themes of spiritual redemption and rigid religious observance. Churchgoing is a central to community life in Refuge and it is the place where individuals who have lived characteristically sinful lives get a shot at redemption through faithful observance of a very strict protocol. It is the adherence to that difficult path that causes the biggest challenge for several of the main characters. Forgiveness, selflessness, and sacrifice all play heavy in the story as well. I don’t want to make the movie seem overtly fire and brimstone but it hits the audience pretty squarely. Thankfully Purgatory is the uplifting kind of spiritual journey though.

Shepard“Larger than life” is an overused phrase, but it applies to the playwright-actor-director Sam Shepard. What is he like in person?
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Weekend Film Recommendation: The Mating Season

If I told you I was going to recommend a funny 1951 movie about class differences, you would naturally expect something British. But this week’s film recommendation shows that post-war Americans too could also mine the comic possibilities of people from different economic strata rubbing shoulders: The Mating Season.

The plot of this mistitled little gem: Ellen McNulty (Thelma Ritter) is a widow whose hamburger stand has gone bankrupt. She embarks on a long journey to visit her son Val, whom she and her hardworking husband were able to put through college. Val is a low level white collar manager (John Lund) trying to impress the big boss so that he can get ahead. After Val meets cute with the ravishing Maggie Carleton (Gene Tierney), daughter of a wealthy ambassador, the two fall in love and a wedding is quickly arranged, coincidentally on the day that Ellen is to arrive. Before you can say “screwball comedy” the young bride mistakes her dowdy, working class new mother-in-law for a maid, and the mother decides to play along, moving in to the new couple’s apartment!

This is a film about how working class people can be both proud of their origins yet ashamed of them at the same time, particularly as conveyed through Lund’s character. Val both loves his mother and is embarrassed of her (His chemistry with Ritter is so natural it’s hard to believe they weren’t actually mother and son). Similarly, he both despises his rich, crummy boss yet also can’t resist the impulse to flatter and tug his forelock in front of him.

The movie is also wise about how wealth makes some people generous and turns others into snobs. I don’t know if it was in the filmmaker’s minds or not, but it’s also intriguing to watch in terms of gender roles: Even though Val has little money and Maggie is rich, they both assume he will be the sole provider and the couple end up in debt as a result.

But despite all that, this isn’t A Place in the Sun; the film’s accent is on laughs rather than dark drama and The Mating Season is delightful on those terms. Miriam Hopkins is hilariously over-dramatic as Tierney’s pampered and entitled mother, and Ritter, as she showed in so many other films (including prior RBC recommendation Pickup on South Street), can deliver a wisecrack out of the side of her mouth with the best of them. She was so good at being a character actor that Hollywood didn’t seem able to see her in any other light: Despite being the star here, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Roger Ebert used to point out how few Hollywood films take work and household budgets seriously. In the movies, single mom cocktail waitresses have huge apartments in Manhattan, architects are obligated only to look at a drafting board in their den in the evening rather than go into an office, and no one is ever shown paying their electric bill or doing their taxes. The Mating Season is a welcome exception to this rule, as Ellen works out how to deal with her failing hamburger stand, hitchhikes to save on travel expenses, scrambles for the money to pay her bills (including having to work for two days as an office temp for “Mr. Pinchbottom”), finds affordable-but-tatty lodgings and otherwise scrimps and saves. Throughout Ellen’s struggles, the film appropriately portrays as noble her and her husband’s ability to have afforded college for their son despite their modest means, rather than being condescending toward the aspirations that millions of post-war working class Americans shared.

Director Mitchell Leisen was not a consistently strong artist, but he was good enough when, as here, he had a strong script from which to work. The Mating Season’s is by Walter Reisch, Richard Breen and Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator). In addition to some memorable zingers, the trio’s script also has some funny 1950s style sexual innuendo. This team went on to win an Academy Award for screenwriting together two years later for Titanic, but they could just as deservedly won for The Mating Season.

The Mating Season is American in style, but stands shoulder to shoulder with all the Ealing Studio comedies that alternated between having the audience laugh about class differences and nod their heads in recognition of the truths we so often don’t openly discuss.

p.s. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can watch this film for free here.

Another day of shame on the gridiron

College football season opened with another humiliation for my school, to go with our financial disasters (last year we spent $2m on a coach and athletic director who no longer work for us), bottom-of-the NCAA graduation rates, and lousy on-field performance.  We beat Grambling State University, a historically black school in Louisiana, 73-14! Late in the fourth quarter, I think  a 110-lb cheerleader was our right tackle. If it had been a boxing match, the ref would have shut it down (52-0 at halftime); in kid’s sports they would have invoked a mercy rule.
But who would schedule such a senseless, unsportsmanlike exercise in the first place? Grambling’s entire athletic budget, one of my colleagues  found out, is third from the lowest of all Division I public schools’, 1/15 the size of ours.  Their football  roster is 89 players, almost all from east Texas and Louisiana; ours is 133, recruited from all over the west. Their coach makes $195,000; ours makes ten times that. Continue Reading…

Gay marriage, divorce, and the Gospels

Ted Cruz’s statement on Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk now in jail for defying a court order to do her job by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, demonstrates once again that a high IQ and excellent meritocratic credentials are consistent with functional idiocy, and that functional idiocy is no bar to being treated as a “mainstream” Presidential candidate. (Walker, Jindal, Rand Paul, and of course Huckabee, all came out the same way.)

Of course Davis wasn’t arrested “for living according to her faith.” She was arrested for refusing to do what a judge, after a hearing, ordered her to do. She could have avoided jail by (1) doing the job she gets paid for; (2) allowing her clerks to issue the licenses she doesn’t want to sign; or (3) resigning. She chose to do none of these, and she’s in the clink. That’s life in the big city. When she gets out, she will no doubt spend several years collecting some kind of wingnut welfare.  To liken her to victims of genuine religious persecution is an insult to those victims.

On some level Cruz is plenty smart enough to understand all this, but he’s decided to make a career out of not understanding it.

There’s been some rather indecent glee among supporters of same-sex marriage about Davis’s own rather colorful marital history. There ought to be a strong presumption that a public official’s private life is off-limits in political debate, and Davis has on the face of it a reasonable case that behavior predating her religious conversion is irrelevant to her current beliefs.

But, as Lt. Colombo used to say, there’s just one more thing. Davis claims to be acting as a Bible Christian. Adultery violates one of the Ten Commandments. (Male/male sex violates a rule that’s on a list with eating shellfish, and female/female sex is never mentioned.) And Jesus of Nazareth – breaking with existing tradition in the interest of protecting women against being cast off by their husbands – says quite explicitly (Matt 5:32 and Luke 16:18) that marriage with a divorced woman (or marriage by a divorced man) constitutes adultery.

Therefore, by Biblical standards Ms. Davis’s sin is not in the past. Every time she has sex with her current husband, both of them are – according to the one they acknowledge as the Son of God – violating one of the Ten Commandments. The only way she could stop sinning would be to live as a celibate from now on (just like all those gay folks are supposed to do).

So, whatever religion Kim Davis is suffering for, it’s not the one preached in the Gospels.

This analysis suggests a question for Cruz and the other Republicans coming out in support of Davis:

If an elected county clerk who was an actual Bible Christian refused to issue licenses for the remarriage of divorced people with living spouses, on the grounds that his religion forbade him to connive at adultery, would that be legitimate exercise of individual conscience? And should divorcees in that county remain unable to marry?

Footnote There’s a general point here: Lots of the stuff that’s done in the name of “Christianity” has as little to do with the Bible as some of the stuff done in the name of “Islam” has to do with the Koran. In each case, local customs have been engrafted onto a larger religious tradition. As Don Marquis said, an idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe it. Especially, as he might have added, when they really don’t.








Weekend Film Recommendation: The Accused

This week’s movie recommendation continues last week’s theme of court-related drama. As the credits are still rolling, we watch a deeply distressed young woman named Sarah Tobias exit a roadside bar in an urgent search for help. Tobias has just been raped in full view of the bar’s patrons, and in this week’s movie recommendation, Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused, she is looking for justice. Continue Reading…