Conformity Versus Individuality in Bridge of Spies and in The Experimenter

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Used with Courtesy

Ralph Waldo Emerson stated “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”  Within the last week, two movies that opened based on true events that embody Emerson’s belief are Michael Almereyda’s The Experimenter, and Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, (written by Ethan and Joel Coen and Matt Charman). The main character of each film operated within the integrity of his own mind. Each refused, based on his own morality, to do what others told him to do; each searched his own conscience and made determinations based on his exploration of goodness. Years later, each won the “suffrage” of the world having never felt culpability about his own actions.

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from left to right: Billy Magnussen, Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel and Tom Hanks. Used with courtesy.

The Experimenter depicts the story of the famed, although originally maligned, psychologist Stanley Milgram, (played by Peter Sarsgaard) who conducted experiments in 1961 on human behavior, specifically on obedience. His goal was to determine what made people commit atrocities during the Holocaust. He conducted an experiment, later deemed unethical because of failure to disclose with veracity how he was going to conduct the experiment and the reasons behind the experiment. The people who participated in the experiment believed that they were applying electric shock to Individuals who gave incorrect answers to questions posed during the experiment. With each subsequent incorrect answer, “the teachers” increased electrical voltage to the “learners”. “The teachers”, told to continue, applied the shock. Although most of “the teachers” believed that the shock application harmed “the learner, they continued applying the shock because they believed  that it was for the good of mankind. In the experiment, sixty-five percent of “the teachers” continued applying the shock in spite of the assumed protests and screams of “the learners.”  Only thirty-five percent of “The Learners” ended the experiment because hurting someone was contrary to their ethics, despite the psychologist’s exhortation to continue for the greater good.  Milgram did other experiments testing for conformity and he came to the conclusion that most people follow orders without questioning the authority from which they came. Most people want to conform because of their need to belong and to have popularity. Nonconformists question authority, and determine the greater good, be it following orders or holding to their own belief about what is best. Milgram was originally disdained for his “unethical” experiment, but later became a world-renowned psychologist for his behavioral experiments. He was not looking for the approval of man, but he received it nonetheless because of his nonconformity.

Similarly, in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), an attorney, represents a notorious “Russian” spy, Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance), that the United States government arrests for espionage. Almost no one wants Donovan to vociferously represent Abel. Contemptuously viewed, others question Donovan’s allegiance to both his family and to his country. In the end, although he did not win the case, despite his vehement representation, he became an expert negotiator, exchanging Abel for two Americans (Frances Powers, a U.S. pilot, and Frederic Pryor, a Yale student) held by the Soviets and East Germans,respectively, during the Cold War. Furthermore, the United States, under President Kennedy, engaged him as an expert negotiator who ultimately gained the release of nearly ten thousand Americans imprisoned in Cuba as a result of the Bay Of Pigs. In Bridge of Spies, one of the last statements that Donovan makes to Pryor is that “It doesn’t matter what people think. You know what you did.” Ultimately, one must follow his conscience and do what he feels is right. Pryor later became a professor at Swarthmore College.

The Experimenter explores man’s need to belong. He wants group association and acceptance rather than outlier status. Even when he knows he is right about something, and everyone around him has an opposing view, he will often abandon his own morality to become part of the group. He feels both external and internal pressure to conform. Most people do not ask questions; they assume honesty and not mendacity or chicanery. They go along to get along.

In both of the aforementioned films, both Milgram and Donovan took audacious stands in the face of overwhelming criticism; they remained steadfast. Donovan, in the movie, repeatedly tries winning the release of both American prisoners, although admonished to try to win only the release of Powers. He, however, did not want to leave either one behind. Most people would have buckled under the pressure to follow orders and gained the release of just one prisoner. Because of the temerity of both Milgram and Donovan, political negotiations and knowledge of human behavior has increased and shaped political and psychological disciplines. Both individuals went on to achieve greatness in their respective fields, receiving top accolades for their work. The citizens in the communities where they both lived later held them in high esteem.

These two entertaining and educational films are both great, but in different ways. Artistically, Bridge of Spies, is more thrilling, but The Experimenter is more ponderous. I doubt that either one will be an Oscar contender, but each is worth watching for its historical context.  Using the ideas of Emerson, both Donovan and Milgram, through their individuality and their nonconformity, and after absolution, won the suffrage of the world.

Personal note: I saw peter Sarsgaard in an off-Broadway production of Hamlet. He was similarly reflective in such a ponderous role as Hamlet, as he was as Milgram. Playing such heavy roles is his strength.  During the production, I sat behind Jake Gyllenhaal, his brother-in-law.

Revisiting Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle

Currently ( Summer of 2015) the Brooklyn Academy of Music began showcasing some  of the best 1980’s independent films. The program was launched with Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. I saw this film in 1987 when it was first released in theaters in America.  It took me back to the jheri curl era in which black men and women exchanged the tight curliness of their natural hair for a loose curl that was maintained with “activator.” What I remember most about the curl is that the hair of those who wore it was constantly dripping with activator. The film depicts cultural practices of blacks during that time period. The film, however, is a satire that seeks to expose the behavior of Hollywood directors who continue to perpetuate black stereotypes in both television and film, although with our tacit approval.  In the film black actors desperately want success in the entertainment industry, yet the only roles that are allowed are those of black criminals, black hoodlums, jive talking blacks, and gangsters, etc. The main character, Bobby Taylor, is an aspiring actor who disdains working at a fast food restaurant, and does not want to settle for a job at the post office even though the work is honest.  He auditions for a part in a movie in which he is a black jive talking hoodlum who is prone to violence.

The film, Hollywood Shuffle, satirizes a school where blacks can learn to “act black.”

Throughout Hollywood Shuffle, the casting directors have Taylor and other black or Hispanic men audition using racial stereotypes of the aforementioned races. Many of the aspiring actors comply with the directors’ demands, albeit unhappily. Bobby’s younger brother idolizes him throughout the entire film, and wants to be just like him.  Both Taylor’s mother and grandmother support his aspirations, although they are not content with the type of stereotypical roles that he is portraying. Through much soul-searching and through a conversation he has with someone, he realizes that honest work is better than selling one’s soul to achieve fame and stardom. This makes his family as well as his girlfriend immensely proud. This film was made more than thirty years ago, although released years later.  At the end of the film, Taylor is featured in commercials while working at the US Postal Service.  The moral of the film is that one must be true to one’s self. The question to pose is what, if anything, has changed during the last thirty years within Hollywood? Are dark-skinned blacks still getting gangster and thug roles? Are they still getting roles as slaves? Are blacks still depicted as uneducated and inarticulate? Let’s examine some of the recent films of the last decade to make both a fair and honest assessment of the changes, if any, that have been made.

Many films, in which blacks have been cast, that recently have garnered accolades have been movies directed, written, and produced mostly by blacks. There are some exceptions.  Last year Twelve Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, won the Oscar for best picture.  It featured blacks as enslaved people and whites as slave owners.  Brad Pitt was the executive director. Similarly, The Butler, (directed by Lee Daniels) a period drama, starred Forrest Whitaker in a film about the heroic steps that a butler takes when working as a butler at the White House.  It was a film about a journey one man takes to reconcile his desire to be compliant with his job’s demands while not allowing others to take advantage of himself. It featured black actors in the primary roles.  Additionally, at the end of 2014, we saw the release of Selma, a civil rights drama that chronicled the historical events of the march in Selma, Alabama. It primarily featured blacks in the major roles. The blacks featured were both educated and articulate in the film. Ava Duvernay, a black woman, was the director. There have been a series of “Best Man Movies” and The Black Nativity film. Jamie Foxx starred in Django Unchained, a western set two years prior to the Civil War.  It is about a former enslaved man who is freed so that he could assist a bounty hunter. It was directed by Quentin Tarantino; Furthermore, Will Smith has starred in a series of films over several decades.  He and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, however are among the coproducers of many of these films. Viola Davis and Kerry Washington have succeeded in television and in film; however, the shows in which they star are produced by Shonda Rhimes, a black writer, producer, and director. Then there is Blackish (cocreated by Kenya Barris) and Empire cowritten by Lee Daniels), both successful shows featuring blacks. Both Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington  in the last decade have played many roles that have not been stereotypical and that have been neither directed nor produced by blacks. Washington’s films include the The Book of Eli, and The Great Debaters. Chris Rock recently directed his last film, Top Five. Morgan Freemen recently starred in 5 Flights up, a film about an older interracial couple reflecting on their life together. It appears that seasoned actors are better able to command the major roles that are directed or produced by whites.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates in 2004 starred in a PBS documentary series entitled America Behind the Color Line. It featured, among other topics, the difficulty that black actors have in receiving major roles in Hollywood. If the actor is not an “A List” actor and is not the right complexion, then it is hard for him to obtain major roles.  The texture of one’s hair is also an issue. Although the roles that blacks get are not as stereotypical as they once were, getting those roles still remains difficult. Gates interviewed Chris Tucker and Morgan Freeman. Tucker specifically talked about the difficulty blacks have in getting major roles. If whites are not able to relate to our films, then we are not likely to receive those roles.  Since we are in the minority, it is financially inconsequential if we do not receive those roles.

Thus, it appears that blacks have stopped to a large degree taking demeaning roles. Yes, we still take roles depicting slavery, but not in a pejorative way.  It also appears that we have empowered ourselves by producing and writing films that depict us in a positive light.  Green-lighting our own films is still expensive.  It also appears that we are supporting each other more within the entertainment industry than we have previously done. Overall, progress has been made.  We had to get to a position and to a point in life in which esteeming our worth was more important than accepting those stereotypical roles in order to advance in the entertainment industry. Complexion, still matters, especially if one is female.  The lighter one is, the more likely one is to be cast. We could and still cannot wait for others to do what we can do ourselves.

If you have never seen this film, it is a must see.  If you have, see it again. You will laugh and reflect on the issues that are presented. I leave with you the words of Polonious in Hamlet, ” This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the /night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man./ Farewell. My blessing season this in thee.”

Triumph and Tragedy in What Happened Miss Simone? : A Review

Used with permission

Often both melancholy and musical genius operate simultaneously. We see this in the current 2015 documentary, Amy, the film about the musical genius Amy Winehouse. Similarly, Nina Simone was a musical genius who suffered with depression. She used her artistry to provoke blacks and whites to action.  She also used her ingenuity to propel blacks to have pride in their culture and in themselves individually and collectively. She was a tragic figure in the sense that her politics both gripped and consumed her to the point of ruining her career. She was a focused musician who believed that her music should have a purpose.  Because she had not had a “voice” to speak out about the racism during the Jim Crow Era, she used the Civil Rights Movement as the catalyst that ignited her to action. She began to surround herself with artists and activists of the time so that she could gain intellectual knowledge and support for her music and to develop pride within her race. The Brooklyn Museum, last year featured a civil rights exhibit that played a recording of Nina Simone’s audacious song, “Mississippi Goddamn.” I had never heard her song about Mississippi before that day. To my recollection at the exhibit there were no dialectics to explain what prompted her to sing that song. After seeing that exhibit, I researched Simone’s work, and I later read an article in The New Yorker about an upcoming movie, starring Zoe Saldana, about Nina Simone.  There has been some controversy about Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone (Saldana’s face is darkened), and whether the movie will make it to the big screen is somewhat dicey because it does not have the support of Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. Kelly is the owner of all the footage and the one who holds the rights to the music. As a result, the movie is still in flux.

Used with Permission

A documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone, however, was both recently produced and released via Netflix.  It was directed by Liz Garbus and produced by Amy Hobby. It has the complete support of Ms. Simone’s daughter, who, along with others, attempts to explain the rise and fall of her mother. The documentary explores Simone’s (born Eunice Waymon) beginnings as a pianist, and her rise to fame.  It also charts her career, through archival footage and interviews of her coterie of friends including: her business associates, her husband, her child, and her neighbors. It explores her legendary career as a blues, folk, and jazz singer who ultimately became a civil rights activist through her musical career.  Lastly, the documentary explores what may be interpreted as Simone’s character flaws or mistakes as both a musician and a human being. Her work became all-consuming, and it catapulted her to heights that no black female musician of the time had reached. After seeing the documentary and reading subsequent articles about Simone, I now have historical context for her music and for the trajectory of her life. If Simone had anger as a character flaw it was because her passion for racial freedom was intense. She was not able to temper the extreme passion that she felt was needed to speak out against racial injustice, and to give blacks a sense of culture and pride in their race.

Used with permission

The documentary opens with a statement from Maya Angelou that stated, “Miss Simone, you are idolized, even love, by millions now.  But what happened, Miss Simone?   Her daughter attempts to answer that question through the documentary as it continues with Simone performing a concert in which she is described as “the incredible, unique, and fantastic, one and only Nina Simone.”  Indeed Simone was all of the adjectives described and more. The film attempts to explain the triumphs and the heartaches suffered by Simone. Nina Simone suffered a series of disappointments as an adolescent and as a young adult. The movie charts Simone as a young girl who was taught how to play the piano by her mother.  She was noticed by a white woman who began to give her lessons in classical piano.  Simone continued playing the piano, practicing nearly eight hours a day, making her further alienated by both the white and the Negro communities.  She said that she felt isolation, “All the time, even when the kids used to play with me.”  Children often asked her to play the piano or to dance.  They were not interested in her for any other reason.   As a child she was not taught to consciously deal with race.  It was not talked about in her home. Her piano teacher, however, was an anomaly during that era. She started a fund to pay for her to further her musical education. Simone excelled as a pianist, and later applied to Julliard where she was enrolled for a year and a half until the money for enrollment was depleted. She later applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was denied admission, and later realized months later that she was denied because she was black. Ironically, two days before her death, she was granted an honorary diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music. Simone had but one hope, which was to become the first classical African-American pianist to play classical music at Carnegie Hall. Sadly, she never fully achieved that goal.  When she was allowed to play at Carnegie Hall (through her husband’s promotion), she was not allowed to play classical piano.  She was forced to sing jazz and blues tunes, the music for which she had become known. One song that she chose to sing at Carnegie Hall, one may believe, was in tribute to the audience. The lyrics included ” I can’t go on without you/ Your love is all I’m living for/ I love all things about you/ Your heart, your soul, my love. The lyrics fully explained the ebullience that she was feeling to finally sing at Carnegie Hall. Her career reached greater heights after that appearance.

The documentary moves methodically through Simone’s early years as a singer as she began to incorporate civil rights activism within her music.  In an interview she is asked  the question about what it means to be free.  She states that it is hard to describe.  Ultimately, Simone says freedom means having no fear. She says it is just a feeling. She says “you know it when it happens.” The lyrics to one of her songs says ” I wish I could share /All the love that’s in my heart/ Remove all the bars/ that still keep us apart/ I wish you could know/ what it means to be me/ Then you’d see and agree/ That every man should be free/ I wish I could give/ All I’m longing to give.” This song fully sums up Simone’s beliefs about the integration of humanity.

The film also chronicles the abuse Stroud inflicted on Simone. Specifically, Simone details one of his brutal assaults against her. Like many women, she continued to stay with him, believing that he would not physically abuse her again. He gives a cursory statement about one of the arguments that he and Simone had, and tries to minimize the effects of the abuse. She later leaves him, and subsequently divorces him because of the abuse and because he did not share her same passion for the music she began to write.

This movie is worth seeing. It gives a great view of Simone’s life, and the predilections that drove her to fame and infamy.  I cannot help but wonder if making this documentary was cathartic for Kelly because of the devastating events that she suffered during her childhood. The music in the film is also great and it was nicely infused into the entire story . The lyrics to the music were written out to further highlight the passion and genius of Nina Simone. The film superbly begins and ends with the song about wanting to be free. The racial sentiment of the sixties as well as life’s disappointments resulted in Simone’s uncontrolled anger and rage.  That is what happened to Miss Simone.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

The Rise and Fall of Amy Winehouse: A Review

Amy Winehouse, used with permission
Used with permission

I happened to have been in the United Kingdom four years ago when the BBC announced that six-time Grammy Award winner Amy Winehouse was found dead. It was a tragic media frenzy, and many Londoners went near her home as they were tragically stunned at the death of such a great jazz singer, who at such a young age sang as well as the greatest jazz musicians of the twentieth century.  For days, her death was in the media as the public was awaiting the autopsy report.  I admit, regrettably, that I had not followed Winehouse’s music at the time; however, after her death, I began to think, like others, about her music and wondered about her life.  I wondered how could such a great singer be dead at an early age from the abuse of drugs and alcohol.  When the autopsy was released, it said that Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning and that her blood alcohol level was about four to five times the legal limit.  When I visited London several months ago, I was reminded again of Winehouse’s music and of the fan base that she had while living, and that she has had since her death. After her death, her then manager, realized that the life of Amy Winehouse needed to be told so that fans around the world would know about her rise and fall.

Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia, chronicles the rise and fall of Winehouse who tragically died at the age of twenty-seven in London in July 2011.The film uses footage from personal videos, television interviews, and concert footage. Her family, her bodyguard, her managers, her fellow musicians, and her best friend all give statements that are played while some of the footage (without audio) is shown.  The documentary shows how Winehouse, as a nascent singer, first achieved fame then fortune, and how she became obsessed with Blake, the man who became her husband. The film infuses her music, with the lyrics textualized to ensure understanding of every word.The film is an unbiased attempt to show how Winehouse spiraled downward and how others around her tried to help, but lacked the fortitude and the wherewithal to assist her in the capacity that she most needed. Winehouse was a strong-willed talented singer whose emotional instability caused her to obsess on a man who lacked the ability to help himself as well as herself. The film captures the sentiments of those closest to her, especially her managers and her dad.  Winehouses’s mother states that her daughter was always a strong-willed child, and she had difficulty setting limitations on her. Currently, her family feels that this documentary is an inaccurate depiction of Winehouse and that her father’s statements have been mischaracterized.

According to archival video, Winehouse’s dad felt that she did not need rehabilitation. Winehouse adored her father.  She wanted nothing more than to please him, and thus would have done whatever he recommended.  He, however, did not get her the help that she needed, but began to exploit her by taking advantage of her fame. Her father tried hard to profit monetarily off of her success.  He does not appear to be nefarious, but a person that put his own desires ahead of his daughters.  I believe that he did not think that she would die at such a young age, and thus, she had time to get her life together. He felt that it was her decision to attend or not to attend rehabilitation. Although Winehouse was never a teetotaler, she began to use alcohol as her drug as she began to let go of cocaine and heroin.  However, they noticed that she was bulimic and that was also contributing to her ill health.

The most tragic part of the documentary is that those closest to Winehouse were pushing her to perform, even when she did not desire to sing songs from her most successful album, Back to Black.  They continued to push her because their careers depended upon her’s.  As long as she was making money, they would continue to make money.  When Winehouse was scheduled to perform shortly before her death, she had no desire to sing songs from the Back to Black album, but her manager and her fellow band members told her that her audience was demanding that she sing those songs.  As a result, she relapsed into inebriation.  The shows were ultimately canceled and she died a few weeks after their cancellation.

Prior to her death, there was nearly a two-year period of time in which Winehouse did better without the alcohol and the drugs.  Her manager and her friends told her that they would not allow her to perform as long as she was an addict. Thus, she began to detoxify her life of the drugs and alcohol. Moreover, when her husband (they later divorced) was arrested, she was able to clean up her life because she did not have a drug partner.

Tragically, the UK media, as well as the American media began to satirize and ridicule Winehouse when she was most vulnerable. Various late night television shows poked fun at Winehouse’s drug and alcohol use.  As usual, the media fixated on negative news. Some media outlets did not understand why her closest confidants did not take more drastic measures to get her the needed help.  I am reminded that the love of money is the root of all evil. Because of the negativity of Winehouse’s life, her lifestyle became fodder for the media.

What captured my attention the most about this documentary is that Winehouse was interested in neither the fame nor the fortune.  She just wanted to sing and write music. She wanted to write lyrics that were meaningful to her, and that she would enjoy singing.  Unfortunately, the others around her were interested in affluence and in reaching an opulent lifestyle. When Winehouse performed with Tony Bennett, her humility showed.  She so wanted to sing perfectly because she was singing with her icon.  Bennett said it best when he said that Winehouse belonged in the category of Ethel Waters and Sarah Vaughan.

If you have not seen the documentary, it can be viewed at many local theaters.  It will give you great insight into the life of Winehouse and possibly cause you to sympathize if not empathize with her tragic life. Also, download some of her music to see the potent and inimitable Amy Winehouse.  You will not be disappointed! Comments welcome.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

Coming of Age: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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Earl and Greg watching their remake of a classic film while surrounded by a library of great books and great films.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, is a film starring Thomas Mann, as Greg, RJ Cyler as Earl, and Olivia Cooke as Rachael. The film is a bildungsroman, (coming of age story)  adapted from the young adult novel by Jesse Andrews about the value of friendship and how it sustains one through some of the most daunting times in life. It’s about the awkwardness of character, the feeling of not belonging, and the loneliness that it can bring. It captures the essence that “Life is for Service” even if that means serving one’s friends. Additionally, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an independent film mostly about Greg, a senior in high school, and the relationships that he has with his best friend (although he is afraid to acknowledge him as his best friend for fear of losing the friendship), and Rachael, a girl at his school who is dying from leukemia. Although he barely knows her, Greg’s mother coerces him to spend time with Rachael and he acquiesces.  It is through this resistance that we come to know Greg. Greg and Earl, through the prompting of Rachael’s friend, decide with reservation, to make a film for Rachael in order to encourage her during her illness. Through this film, the true meaning of friendship becomes evident. The story shows us that a friend loves at all times and that friendship is not without conflict and not without disappointment.  One must be willing to set his hurt and disappointment aside in order to support a friend during “the best of times and the worst of times.” This film has great writing, great structure, great acting, great cinematography, and a beautifully sentimental ending.

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From L to R: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and RJ Cyler
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Eating breakfast with students who survived the turmoil of high school. L to R: Sheinese Clement, Kenisha Fraser, the selfie queen, and me.

The screenplay with intermittent narration, staged in parts that reflect the sentiments of the characters during their last year in high school, accurately depicts teenage life for many students who have a low opinion of themselves and who do not seem to fit into any social clique. As a result of feeling alienated, Greg and Earl bond with one of their teachers who appears to be as unconventional as they are. The film captures the loneliness of life and how one can have esoteric interests that cause friendship with others to be limited. Greg’s interest in foreign cinematek causes him to only have one friend, Earl.  He and Earl parody classic films. They spend most of their time having lunch with a teacher because they do not engage positively with other students in the cafeteria, a place of conflict that they rather do without. Their teacher has taught them pithy maxims such as “Respect the Research” and “Life is for Service.”   All that matters in the end is friendship and having someone who will be supportive through the worst of times.  These friends do that for each other. Each part of the film shows them in different locations and how their friendship develops.  We see Greg at home, at school, and at Rachel’s home.  There is conflict in every part of the film. The narration helps us understand Greg’s internal feelings and struggles and shows us how he navigates through the conflict.

The casting for this film is perfect. Each actor fully captures the essence of his or her character. Through the language, through the nonverbal communication and through gesticulations, the audience is able to see the characters develop over the course of the film. These actors act with great style and originality.  Mann accurately portrays, through his body language, a student who is having difficulty accepting himself. The way he moves, the way he holds his head, even his speech cadence is of one who has a low self-esteem. Cyler, who may be seen as stereotypical, is not at all stereotypical. Although he lives in an impoverished neighborhood and he knows how to fight, he is anything but the stereotypical African-American young man.  He shows his love for his friend, Greg, with deep heart-felt action. He moves and dresses with a style all his own. The rhythm with which he walks and his articulation of speech keep the audience in tune with the action. The fight scene between him and Greg was awesomely choreographed, although fighting is not condoned. With Greg’s low self-esteem, it was clear that he would not have the fortitude of character to win the fight, even if he had the strength to win.  Also when Earl comes to rescue Greg during a fight, Earl is at his best in the film. Olivia Cooke, was great from beginning to end. Her character was the tool used to help Greg understand the true meaning of friendship. The scene with her and Greg near the end of the film evoked much emotion from me. I could feel both the happiness and the sorrow from Cooke’s actions. While watching the film that both Greg and Earl made for her, I could feel the emotional pain that Rachael experienced and its impact on Greg.

The cinematography gives an added dimension to the play.  We see video of the homes of the characters, video from the characters themselves, and from different vantage points or angles. Parts of the film include films within the film itself. The cinematography by South Korea’s Chung-Hoon Chung captivates the audience.  Many of the images are filmed to allow the audience to look at the action from different angles which helps us to feel more depth of emotion. The length of the stairs outside and inside of the house symbolize the difficulties that Greg and Rachael both face.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film. The set design, the cast, the acting, the cinematography all make this one of the best films so far this year. Do not delay. People of all ages will enter into deep reflections of their own lives after viewing this film.

*Two Personal Comments relating to the film*

On a personal note, I as an adult, can relate to the awkwardness of having esoteric interests.  I too can relate to not fitting in with my peers. I too am a film enthusiast.  I often watch foreign classic films and classic films of various genres.  I too wish to become a filmmaker so that I could document the events going on around me.  Sometimes these arcane interests can leave one feeling alienated by others who do not understand your passion for such films. One must, however, be confident in character, and continue to pursue what makes one happy. All of the challenges of life have helped me to work through the difficulties of life so that I could see the value of a few good friends, rather than many.  We teachers and parents should help children work through the challenges of adolescence.

Also on a personal note, the film, Me and Earl, and the Dying Girl,  has special meaning to me on another level. Over the last two years, I have known a student who has been suffering with cancer in several forms.  He has battled this disease with both courage and determination to overcome its devastating effects.  He, his mom, sister, and brother have all suffered with him through multiple surgeries and through chemotherapy, through which this disease continues to hang on. As I watched the film, I could not help but reflect on how much strength and courage it takes to overcome the emotional turbulence that this disease brings.  I give kudos to him and his family for remaining steadfast and brave throughout this crisis.  Bravery does not mean the absence of fear, but the ability to move forward in spite of the fear.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

Metaphoric Wind in Hiyao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises: A Review

Acclaimed French poet Paul Valéry once stated that “The wind is rising.  We must try to live.” With this quote Hiyao Miyazaki opens his latest film, The wind Rises.  The film metaphorically interprets this quote to mean that we must seize the day when trouble comes.  The film is set in Japan and also in Germany during the 1920s and 30’s before and during World War II. The story is loosely based on The Wind has Risen, a book by Tatsuo Hori.  The film is a highly fictional and animated account of the famous Japanese aeronautical engineer, Jiro Horikoshi.  The English dubbed version stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Jiro, Emily Blunt as Nahoko Satui and John Krasinki as Honjo.  Miyazaki incorporates major events in both Japanese and world history into the film including the following: World War II, the Tuberculosis Epidemic, the Great Depression, and the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923.  At the outset of the film, young Jiro dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer.  His mentor in his dream is Giovanni Battista Caproni, the great Italian aeronautical designer of the early twentieth century. Jiro is depicted as magnanimous and never parsimonious.  He defends those who cannot defend themselves.  He is beneficent and altruistic to a fault. Both Jiro’s altruism and magnanimity are portrayed when he decides to care for his ailing girlfriend in spite of the many difficulties that her care presents.  I enjoyed the vivid artistry in the film’s illustration of the countryside and in its portrayal of Japanese mores.  For example, tea is often the beverage of choice, and bowing when greeting someone is shown.  The characters show the proper decorum toward elders during all of their interactions.  Disrespect is never shown from the youngest toward the eldest.  The Wind Rises is a love story, a fictional account of Jiro’s journey in becoming one of the greatest aeronautical designers in history, and a story of great friendship.

In the opening scenes of the film, the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is occurring.  It is ravaging the countryside and wreaking havoc and near total devastation on the town.  Jiro is on a train when the earthquake occurs; however, before the earthquake occurs, the wind rises and Jiro decides to seize the moment. In the film, whenever the wind rises a negative or catastrophic event happens. It is during these crises that Jiro seizes the day.  Jiro grabs ahold of all the possibilities that life has to offer.  Jiro saves Nahoko, the woman many years later who becomes his wife.  He makes a splint to brace her broken leg and carries her a great distance to safety. Both she and her family are appreciative to Jiro, despite almost no contact for many years afterward. During this time, Jiro enters college, becomes an aeronautical engineer and is recognized for his erudition.  A company selects him to design aircraft bombers for Japan during the war. Although Jiro is designing bombers which seem to be the antithesis of his character, the film devotes little attention to this inherent character conflict.  He ruminates, however, about the money that Japan is spending on aeronautics while its citizens are starving during the depression.  He says that they can use the money that is spent on aeronautics to feed the impoverished.. The film shows how he desires to help the poor even when they refuse his actions. Intermittently the film returns to Jiro’s dream-like state in order to illustrate the influence of Caproni on his life. Additionally, the film depicts the danger of the war and the casualties of negative associations with those suspected of subversive actions against Germany.  Jiro works with both assiduity and dedication.  He never settles for mediocrity.  When his designs fail, he remains tenacious and dedicated to his goal of designing the best aircrafts with no drag. The Wind Rises illustrates the complexities of aeronautics and how daunted one becomes when one desires to succeed in designing great aircrafts.

In addition to Jiro’s engineering career, the film shows how much in love he is with Nahoko, the woman he rescued years earlier.  When he becomes reacquainted with her, he professes his love for her and his desire to marry her. She also acknowledges her love for him, but tells him that she has the same disease that killed her mother- tuberculosis.  Jiro’s quixotism causes him to take her away from a sanitarium in which she was receiving long-term care.  He cannot live apart from her when he realizes the gravity of her illness. He wants to seize the day by taking advantage of all that their love offers.  He removes her from the long-term care facility, marries her, and assumes responsibility for her care.  Unfortunately, his job requires him to work long hours and as a result, he is unable to spend much time giving her the attention and care she deserves. The love that they share for one another is palpable through their interactions and through their deep respect that they have for each other.  The wind often rises during these difficult times in which both Jiro and Naoko seize the day.  As one watches the film, it is essential to see how Jiro responds regarding Naoko and regarding his life each time the wind rises. I pondered the following question throughout the second half of the film: Why did Jiro not contract tuberculosis? This answer is never explored during the film. They were in close quarters. There was one very brief mention that Jiro could catch the disease.  Perhaps that part of the film was edited out.

True friendship is illustrated in the film. Jiro has an enduring friendship with one of his fellow engineers, Honjo.  They work with great synergy while never competing against one another.  They never engage in sabotage against each other, but it is evident that they have deep respect and admiration for each other.  In real life or otherwise, it is rear to see such true friends support the accomplishments of each other without feeling threatened.

The film thoroughly portrays the successes and the failures regarding Jiro’s career as well as the personal conflicts that inhibited his ability to care for his wife.  His idealism and his undying love for his wife cause him to jeopardize her life.  We all have flaws, but what we do with them counts the most.  We must believe in carpé diem. Using the ideas of Jill Scott, we must take advantage of  all the magnanimous possibilities that life has to offer- today, this hour, this minute.

The Wind Rises is nominated for best animation.  It is a film with a great story and with a great score, but may not have mass appeal for all age groups.  It is up against Frozen, a film with mass appeal that has been in theaters for nearly three months. The Wind Rises is thought to be Miyazaki’s last.  Carpé diem.  Catch it if you can to see the denouement of this love story. Comments are welcome!

Questions to ponder: Should the conflict of designing bombers have been explored in the film?

Do you like the ending? Explain.  If you could change the ending, how would you do it?

How could you remake the film to have mass appeal for both a younger and older audience?

What are your least and most favorite parts of the film? Explain.

With Time Comes Forgiveness: A Review of Stephen Frears’s Philomena

Stephen Frears’s Philomena, is a film based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a historical account, by Martin Sixsmith ( a BBC journalist) of an event in the life of Philomena Lee, an Irish citizen.  The film stars Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith. The film chronicles a time in history in Ireland in which pregnant teenagers were forced to both live and labor in a convent in exchange for the convent caring for them and for their children.  The film is as much about telling a story that must be told as it is about forgiveness.  This film is about children ripped from their mothers, about unmerciful behaviors, and about an era of which I’m sure that the Catholic Church in Ireland is abashed.  The film chronicles the sentiments of these teenage mothers in the convent. As I ruminate on the events in the film, I  wonder how I would have felt about this issue if I were alive in 1940.  I know that the Bible says “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” I would like to think that my attitude then would be as it is now, but the truth is that we are all products of our environments.  Because teen pregnancy was not rampant then, forgiving the behavior in its historical context is not difficult; however, the nuns’ words and thoughts coupled with their actions are reprehensible. Illustrative of this objectionable behavior is when an elderly nun emphatically believes that Philomena received the punishment she was due, fifty years later.  Fifty years later, the nun has remained steadfast in her position.  Many of us change our views as we grow and develop, but some of us hold to our conservative views.  I wonder how the nun would feel knowing that millions of women today have had abortions rather than risk the public shame by society for becoming pregnant.

The children of the pregnant teens after reaching several years of age were adopted by American families without the approval of the mothers.  The pregnant teens were forced to sign documents stating that they would not inquire about the whereabouts of their children or question the convent regarding the adoption proceedings. As the film opens, Philomena is reminiscing about her son who would be fifty years old on that day.  She never spoke about her son to anyone, never inquired about him, and her grown daughter never knew he existed.  in the beginning scenes of the film, a young Philomena, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, begins a relationship with a boy with whom she soon falls passionately in love. She is naïve and lacks sophistication regarding unprotected sex and pregnancy.   She does not see her act of fornication as “dirty” or wrong, but as an act of love.  After conceiving a child, she is sent to the convent where she tells the nuns that she had no previous knowledge about “the birds and the bees”.  They regard her incredulously, and one of the nuns states that Philomena’s lack of knowledge is likely true. When Philomena is in labor, the Catholic midwife determines that the baby is breached and that they need to call for a doctor.  At that point In the drama, one of the nuns forbids the midwife from requesting a doctor.  She says that if the baby dies, it is the penance that Philomena must pay for her sins.  Fortunately, the midwife is able to redirect the position of the baby, and a normal delivery ensues. The scene in which the nun refuses to call a doctor is horrifying. I saw the total disdain and lack of mercy that these nuns had for those who have made mistakes with serious consequences.  I could feel the contempt not only through their language but through their countenance.  These nuns actually believed that a baby born out of wedlock deserved to die because of the sin of the mother.  The new mothers were only allowed to spend one hour a day with their babies who soon became toddlers.  Philomena’s child was adopted when he was five.  The scene when he and another child with whom he bonded were adopted by an American family was deeply emotionally poignant.  I could feel Philomena’s pain as she stood helpless to stop the adoption.  For a mother to have her child involuntarily taken away from her has to be one of the most difficult events in a mother’s life. At the time of the adoption, none of the mothers knew that their children were adopted by American families.

Through the help of Philomena’s daughter, Philimena meets Sixsmith, who agrees to help her in her quest for her son. Through his investigative journalism, Sixsmith finds out that Philomena’s son is deceased, worked for a former president, was in a committed gay relationship, and died of AIDS.  Researching the information was not easy because the convent had destroyed all the records regarding the adoptions and those nuns who had knowledge of the events were all deceased except for one.  Philomena and Sixsmith both try to contact Philomena’s son’s partner.  He is not immediately forthcoming regarding information; however, he does tell Philomena that her son tried to look for her before his death.  Her son went to the convent in Ireland, and was told by the nuns that they had no knowledge of Philomena’s whereabouts.  He died stripped of his right to meet the woman by whom he was given life.  With the knowledge that Philomena has, she is at a crossroad.

At this juncture in the film, Philomena makes a conscious decision to forgive the nuns at the convent.  Sixsmith, however, refuses to forgive them. Philomena recognizes that a lack of forgiveness will paralyze her and that it will impede her development and growth.  This film causes me to reflect on current events in our history in which people have forgiven the actions of those who have committed grievous wrongs against them.  Although, greatly difficult, forgiveness is a Biblical mandate.  We must “forgive those who have trespassed against us.”  Seeing forgiveness at this level is rare and must be applauded. When the real Philomena appeared on stage with Steve Coogan at the Golden Globe Awards, I could not help but be proud that I knew who she was and that she was indicative of greatness.

Judi Dench is superb in this role.  She along with Coogan have a few potent scenes that captivate the viewer.  The film is less than 100 minutes; thus, it is succinct and to the point.  The editors included only what was essential in the telling of this drama.  Dench is nominated for an Academy Award for her role in this film.  I doubt that she will win, (she is up against Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine) but whether she wins or not, does not in any way diminish the strength of the story filmed.

Philomena Lee  must be a woman of great courage and compassion to have desired to bring this story to the world by sharing an immensely personal story.  As a result of Sixsmith’s willingness to write a human interest story, many more women will have the courage to share their stories of shame and heartache. Kudos to Lee, Sixsmith and Frears, the director.

Four weeks until Ellen Degeneres engages us with her humor at the Oscars.  In my next blog, I’ll make some Oscar predictions.  Comments are welcome.

Family and Race Matters: A Review of Out of the Furnace

As an older sibling, I often ruminate about my responsibility to my younger siblings.  I wonder how much I am responsible for rescuing them from  catastrophic situations or whether I have no liability regarding helping them to make the most sagacious decisions.  I know that Cane asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Although these concepts are not explicitly stated, they are implicitly discussed in Out of the Furnace, a film directed by Scott Cooper. The film stars Christian Bale ( before gaining 50lbs for American Hustle)  as Russell Baze,  Casey Affleck as Rodney Baze, Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, Willem Dafoe as John Petty, Forrest Whitaker as Chief Wesley and Zoe Saldana as Lena Taylor, Russel’s love interest.  The film’s title is a metaphor for Iraq and possibly a metaphor for prison. Rodney Baze was discharged from the military after serving his tour of duty in Iraq and Russell Baze was released from prison for serving a sentence for vehicular homicide for driving while intoxicated.  In the opening scene, we are introduced to Harlan DeGroat, the antagonist of the film.  We realize that he is a brute who engages in unconscionable and egregious behavior.  Afterward, we are introduced to Rodney Baze who loses a wager to Petty that costs him over a thousand dollars and that he is unable to pay.  Russell, the protagonist, decides to pay the debt, but wants to conceal that he has made the payment.  Rodney believing that he still owes the debt wants to pay down his debt; thus, he is ready to earn money any way he can so that he is no longer indebted.  Petty vehemently tries to dissuade him from fighting albeit futilely. He is not easily discouraged from fighting such an infamous fighter from North Jersey.  He is adamant about fighting this one fight so that he can pay what he believes to be his debt.  He agrees to fight a notorious violent fighter for money (one of the Ramapo Indians); however, he must lose the fight in order to receive remuneration.  At first he is not in accordance with this arrangement.  He is quickly convinced that this is the best route to take. Rodney leaves a letter for his brother informing him about his plans.  He says that he will return after the fight is over.  He never returns, however.  After the fight, Rodney’s body and Petty’s body are soon found and DeGroat (the leader of the Ramapo) is suspected to be the killer.  Russell spends the rest of the film trying to avenge his brother’s death.  He feels that it is his responsibility to ensure that his brother’s killer is found and simultaneously brought to justice.  In the end, Russell risks his freedom as he kills DeGroat when Russell has every opportunity to retreat.

The pending questions that the film explores are: Why does Russell Baze feel as if he must avenge his brother’s death? Why can he not leave the investigation up to Chief Wesley? Why would he risk losing reconciliation with his former girlfriend, Lena (she left him during his prison stint)? For what singular cause is a man willing to risk losing everything he has? Does one murder justify the killing of another?  Is avenging the death of one’s sibling justifiable?  At the end of the film, one can assume that Russell will end up in the penitentiary unless mitigating circumstances allow for his acquittal. Some of these questions are implicitly answered.  We know that Russell feels that the police chief and the Bergen police lack the courage to challenge DeGroat.  We know that Russell lost the love of his life.  Perhaps he feels as if his life is meaningless without the love of this woman.  The other questions go unanswered.  One can speculate that Russell feels responsible for his younger brother.  We know he exhorted his brother go get a “real” job.  He may feel as if it is his responsibility to protect his brother.  Perhaps, he feels that he did not do enough to protect him In the past.  Maybe he is his brother’s keeper.

Many of the scenes are horrifically intense in order to depict the lawlessness of a particular group of people.  Although the violence is not gratuitous, some of the scenes are difficult to watch.  The opening scene is of high intensity, and it prepares the audience for future scenes.  Woody Harrelson’s character, DeGroat is the most violent.  He is a long way from Woody in “Cheers”.  As an audience member, I hoped that DeGroat would be less violent, but the character was to epitomize a group of people (according to the filmmakers the film is fiction) known for extreme violence, lawlessness, and drug addiction. Profoundly illustrative, the film shows the extent that a brother will go to seek justice for his brother, even if it means incarceration for avenging his murder.

After the film was released, a group of  Native Americans from Ramapo in North Bergen County, New Jersey were outraged. Currently, 17 members of the Ramapough Native American nation are suing the filmmakers for their negative depiction. Furthermore, according to the New York Daily News, some of the least palatable characters in the film have names common to their tribe.  Most of the plaintiffs in the suit, have the last name DeGroat and live in Bergen County or in another area where the action in the film occurs.  They believe that the film is an attempt to portray them in a stereotypical negative way.  As a result of the film, they claim that they have suffered mental anguish, emotional distress, and defamation. They insist that they are not violent people, but people who do not believe in technological advancement and who live in their own community.  They say that any violence in their community is no more prevalent than in others.

As an African American, I know how harmful negative stereotypes are.  No one wants to be inaccurately portrayed.  Although, the filmmakers say that the film is fictitious, there was probably some attempt to sensationalize the film through this extreme portrayal of these Native Americans. Although names are common, I had never heard of this group of Native Americans with the last name DeGroat. It is unfortunate that my first source of information is negative.  In an attempt to dispel the negative stereotype (especially if you see the film), let’s all agree to read about this tribe that is a descendant of the Lenape.

In spite of the negative depiction, I recommend this film for its intensity and captivation.  All of the actors played their roles to the extent that as an audience member I could feel the raw emotion as I often screamed during some of the scenes.  I felt as if I were part of the scenes as they unfolded.  I wonder though, if I would recommend it if the stereotypes negatively depicted blacks.  It’s food for thought.  Comments welcome.

Saving Mr. Banks: The Backstory of Mary Poppins From Book to Film

As children many of us grew up on songs from the film Mary Poppins.  We remember singing “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, the medicine go down.”  Many of us also as children sang “supefragilisticexpialidocious, even though the sound of it is very quite atrocious.” In spite of seeing the film as a child, I never knew the story behind it. I would never have suspected that these songs were rebuffed by the original author of Mary Poppins. It is this backstory that Disney illuminates in Saving Mr. Banks by showing us the contentious contract that Walt Disney himself negotiated with the author of Mary Poppins for twenty years in his visionary fulfillment of the book ‘s adaptation to film. The film stars the inimitable Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and the accomplished Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the author of the original book, Mary Poppins. The film is set during the 1960’s in California.  Chivalry, diplomacy, and family loyalty were three of the prevailing attitudes reflected during this time. They are adequately portrayed through the characters.  During the film, Walt Disney shows Travers the utmost respect and decorum and both Disney and Travers are committed to the project in spite of their dogmatic opinions on how the film would be presented.  Saving Mr. Banks takes us through the musical process, and ultimately through the originally unwanted animation.  Working with Travers proves to be a daunting task to which Disney is committed because he promised his children that he would bring the book to film.

Travers is recalcitrant, intractable, and cantankerous throughout the entire process of developing the screenplay including the musical score for the film.  When the film opens, Travers’s attorney makes us aware of the two decades that have passed since Walt Disney first requested the rights to make the film.  With her financial stability depleting, Travers acquiesces and agrees to allow the process of adaptation to move forward; however, there is one caveat: all communications must be recorded and there must not be any animation.  Unfortunately, the one film genre that Disney is known for is animation.  He unwillingly agrees.  The process becomes quarrelsome because they each have separate agendas regarding the production of the film.  Travers, a British citizen, has her own views on how seriously she wants two of the characters to be depicted. She deplores what she sees as frivolity regarding the Disney empire. The title of the film takes its name from one of the characters in the book.  Mr. Banks, one of the main characters in the book, is a facsimile of Travers’s real life father. Disney is unaware that there is a connection between Travers and her characters in the story.  It is this connection that holds up the creative process.

As the action rises, we see the challenges that Mrs. Travers has as a young child and as an adolescent. Travers grew up with an alcoholic father and with a docile mother.  Travers’s father had difficulty maintaining a job and he was chronically ill because of his excessive drinking.  He died during Travers’s childhood.  She felt guilty because she believed that she was not everything that her father wanted her to be.  Thus, during the film’s production, she wants to pay homage to her father.  She wants to make sure that the portrayal of  Mr. Banks (Disney once again had no knowledge that the story Mary Poppins had elements of Travers’s life) was accurate.  Travers did not want the portrayal of her father to be desiccated.  Near the end of Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney realizes that Mary Poppins is based on Travers’s life.  Disney, at that juncture makes a personal connection with Travers.  He shares with her his personal difficult childhood experiences.  His identification with her made her decide to move toward completion of the film, in spite of its animation.  Disney assures her that her father’s character would be an authentic portrayal of his life in all of his goodness and he assured her that the character Mary Poppins would be similar to her character in the book.

Emma Thompson gives a convincing performance.  She is able to show the stubborn disagreeable temperament that Travers must have had.  Thompson’s depiction of Travers is often superb when conveying Travers’s dismissive attributes.  Thompson is able to convey Travers’s lack of satiety with both the ideas of the musicians or with the ideas of the writers of the screenplay. Through Thompson’s performance, we are able to see Travers’s dissatisfaction. Thompson’s performance is compelling as the audience begins to fully understand Travers.  As the production of Mary Poppins is completed, one sees the reserved elation exuded by Thompson.  Thompson’s captivating performance helps one want to reexamine the original book as well as Disney’s film so that all of the literary process could be fully appreciated.  I just wish that I had seen the Broadway production of Mary Poppins.

Tom Hanks plays a tenacious Walt Disney.  He is not deterred by hardship.  His childhood was difficult.  He clearly depicts the etiquette of the time period regarding how women were treated during the 60’s.  Disney’s gentility toward Travers is fully conveyed. Because the film is largely about Travers, Hanks plays a less dominant role than Thompson.  Thus, Hanks has less of a pivotal role than Thompson.  Nevertheless, he plays his role well.

As the film credits role, authentic recordings of the original process are played. We hear Travers voice, we hear her recalcitrance, we hear her reluctance, and we hear her strong will.  These recordings help validate the authenticity of the film.  Without Saving Mr. Banks, I would have never know that there was a real life story behind the making of the film, Mary Poppins.  Although this film is rated PG, it’s more for adults who can appreciate the literary and creative process that is involved in filmmaking.  The film’s setting helps to maintain the film’s family atmosphere although young children and most teenagers would fail to appreciate the ingenuity of the film.  They will however, appreciate the highly chimerical Mary Poppins since it “will help the medicine go down.”

If you desire a quality film with no objectionable content, then this film is for you.  It has great acting, a great story, and great cinematography that captures the zeitgeist of the 60’s. It is highly enjoyable and may even help you break out into singing a song with unintelligible words.

Folksy Llewyn Davis: A Review of the Coen Brothers’ Film

When I hear the term folk music, I immediately become nostalgic as I reminisce about artists such as Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Although, I was born in the sixties, my taste in music is eclectic and I have listened to folk music as a way to validate my life experience.  I also enjoy the folksy music of Norah Jones.  In fact, just last night I found myself listening on my IPOD Bose Sound Dock to an old folk song by Peter Paul and Mary- Don’t Call Me Names.  With folk music as the backdrop for Inside Llewyn Davis, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, tell the story of Llewyn Davis’s total colossal failure even when his music is involved.  He has had limited success because he is informed that achieving financial success as a folk singer is difficult.  The scenes also help us to be transported back to the sixties via some of the classic automobiles and other props of the era.  The film begins and ends at the same point. We are first introduced to Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, in a bar where he is soon brutally assaulted in its back alley.  We are not immediately told about the events that lead to the attack, but the film immediately begins with the depiction of Davis’s life. The cast of characters that help support the depiction of Davis includes Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as Jean and Jim Berkey respectively, his two musician friends who have supported him in many ways.  Additionally, John Goodman’s role in the film is both comedic and tragic.

Davis has no home, but manages to ruin relationships with either friends or acquaintances with whom he stays with throughout the entire film. With each place that he stays, he has myriad challenges that hamper these relationships.  He loses his friend’s cat, his sister is disgusted with his behavior, he rants at the wife of a friend, and he fails to use prophylactics especially with a forbidden relationship. He is either held in high regard or in contempt both by friends and by acquaintances. The only solace he has is in his music, despite the challenges of receiving music gigs. The story focuses on the many failures and mammoth mistakes that Davis makes regarding his relationships with both family and friends.  He is indigent, but manages to fulfill himself sexually by impregnating two women, one of whom is the wife of his friend, Jim. He offers to pay for an abortion for her although he borrows the money from her unsuspecting husband. He later finds out that the other woman whom he impregnated, never had the abortion for which he previously paid.  Because he perpetually has no address and therefore no phone, (it’s the 60’s in which there is no cell phone) the doctor was unable to reimburse him for the money paid. As a result when he pays for Jean to have her abortion, the doctor says that he still has the money from the prior payment.  It is with this surplus, that he tries to start a new life-possibly as a marine shipman.  Even that desire becomes a financial challenge because nothing turns out as he hopes. The film takes us through his challenges of trying to stabilize what is left of his musical career after the suicide of his partner. He travels to Chicago, and he thinks of traveling to Ohio to find the girl that may have had his child.  In the end, he is battered and bruised as a result of his own disdainful behavior.  He never despairs of his music despite his inability to succeed prodigiously.

The score is what makes this film successful. Oscar Isaac sings  “Fare Thee Well” and “Hang me, Oh Hang Me”.  These songs are the signature pieces of the film which adds to the melancholy and pessimistic tone that possibly Davis can not achieve success either in his music or in his personal life.  The music is extraordinary for its catalytic propensity to catapult the audience back to the 60’s.  Even if folk music is not one’s passion, one can appreciate the music as it tells the story of Llewyn Davis.  I may just purchase the soundtrack to remember times past.

Although the film never allows us to go inside the mind of Llewyn Davis, the film’s purpose may not have been to inform us about his childhood experiences which may have been the incendiary device that causes the series of unfortunate events.  We are also not given background information on Davis’s past.  We are given no information for his failed relationships.  We never go inside Llewyn Davis to help us empathize with him.  Despite the film’s silence on his background, we sympathize with him because we want him to succeed paramountly with his music.  Although the market is saturated with quality films, if one is looking for a film without outrageous plot lines, without hedonism, without hyperbolic sex either visually or aurally, then this is a great film to watch.  I make this statement not facetiously, for I have seen many films during the last several months and “I’ve been all around this world” ( lyrics from the film).  It may not receive an Oscar or a Golden Globe award for best picture, but just possible it may receive one for Justin Timberlake’s song, “Please Mr. Kennedy.” Please, let there be just one hit song to further affirm such a classic film!