Category Archives: Movies

It’s Dangerous to Believe your own Lies

 

The 2021 remake of the film Nightmare Alley was worth seeing for many reasons. I have blogged about it earlier  (Under the category of Movies), but did not comment on an important theme in the film. The movie is about the carnies in a carnival, and in particular about a conman who has impressive abilities to convince people of lies. He is what used to be called a magician but now we call an illusionist.  Bradley Cooper plays the part of Stanton Carlisle the illusionist.

 

One of the carnies, Molly, tells Stan about her father. She says, “he could charm his way out of anything.”  Stan replies, “A man after my own heart.” That is exactly what Stan is. Until he isn’t. Molly too deceives people into thinking she is being electrocuted. Naturally, they fall in love and Stan promises her, “I’ll give you the world and everything in it.” She should know better, but she falls for that illusion.  The most effective illusions of course are those which you want to be true.  Those illusions are almost impossible to resist. And illusionists take advantage of such desires. Like the illusion that after you die you will go to paradise in heaven. Let’s face it there is not much evidence to support it, but many people want it to be true, so they believe it.

 

In the film, the rich man Ezra badly wants Stan to materialize his dead wife.  He wants it so bad he will believe it. Stan asks Ezra if he thinks he can buy his wife back. Ezra’s answer was this: “Not to be crude. I know I can.” This is the deadly illusion of the rich man who believes he can buy anything.  When Stan says he wants Molly to help him to convince Ezra that his wife has materialized he says to Molly he is just helping Ezra to unburden his guilt: “Far as I can tell, that is what preachers do every Sunday.”

 

At one time Stan rescues the geek who was lying in a puddle dying in the rain. He knocks on a door hoping they will answer and save the geek. But Clem, who “owns” the geeks tells Stan to get out of the rain and join him, telling Stan to quit pretending that he cares about the geek. That is an illusion he suggests.

 

Pete who teaches Stan the art of becoming an effective illusionist warns him that the book he has prepared on those arts is dangerous. That’s why he quit. Pete says, “When a man starts believing his own lies—that he’s got the power—He’s got shut-eye. Because now he believes it’s all true.”

Despite this good advice, Stan eventually starts to believe his own lies.  That is hard to avoid when you are worshipped by adoring fans and your reasoning powers are numbed by the applause. When the illusionist believes he actually has the power to see the future  he is done. Eventually, Stan learns the truth that he has been deceived. Then he is in nightmare alley. He has become the pitiful “poor soul”—i.e. he is the geek.  Stan says, begging to be the geek, “I was born for it.”

Believing one’s own lies is particularly dangerous in times of war or pandemic.

That is exactly what may have happened to Vladimir Putin. Recently U.S. intelligence has reported that Putin has been misinformed by his military advisors about the poor performance of the military.  Would those advisors dare to lie to Putin? Or rather, would they dare not to lie to him? In any event, Putin seems to believe the lies of the Russian propaganda machine. He wants his own lies to be true.  He apparently, doesn’t even realize Russia is suffering grievous economic harms by his war. Does he also believe that Ukrainians are welcoming Russian soldiers as liberators? Does he believe his own lies?  Has he gone down Nightmare Alley? What a poor soul indeed.

 

Toxic Masculinity; Toxic Femininity

 

 

 

When  recently I was frantically trying to see all 10 movies that had been nominated for best Picture, I never realized that the Oscars ceremony would so closely mirror the films and life. After they award show was over where Will Smith walked up to Chris Rock who was  introducing an award and made a poor joke about his wife I was amazed. It is amazing how much we can learn about life from art and about art from life.

 

I had noticed from the stunning film The Power of the Dog how masculinity could be toxic. Phil one of the two brothers in that film shows himself as a vessel of toxic masculinity when he mocks the “art” of Rose’ son Peter who he clearly sees as effeminate and weak. Later he comes to change his views, perhaps because of his own latent homosexuality. Then Peter is driven to extreme measures to protect his mother, much like Will Smith at the Oscars was driven to extremes to defend his wife from a perceived insult. This may have been brought on by the fact that  at a young age Smith saw his father beat his mother and always considered himself a coward for not defending her. At the Oscars he tried to be more manly and do better. Did he succeed or cruelly flop again?

I noticed that when at first Smith heard the poor joke about his wife that he was laughing and enjoying it. Then the camera switched to his wife who started laughing but quickly switched  to disapproval when she realized what was being said.  Did she communicate her disappointment to her husband? Did she goad him to act? That was not shown, but it was remarkable how quickly Smith’s manner change from jocularity to menace. It is also remarkable how quickly men can stoop to violence to defend the honour of their women. Do women like that?  Do they want their men to get violent in their defence? Sometimes it seems so. I was surprised to read 2 New York Times female writers  presumably, weak kneed liberals, say they thought Smith did the right thing?

I had just the day before watched the film The Tragedy of Macbeth. The tragedy was that Macbeth’s  wife goaded him into killing the king  and in doing so mocked his lack of courage. If that is not toxic femininity what is? When Macbeth hesitates to do the dirty deed she urges him to do it. This is part of what she said,

 

“When you durst do it, then you were a man;

…I have given suck, and know

How tender it is to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while  it was smiling in my face

Have pluck’d my nipple from his toothless gums,

And dash’d the brains out, had I sworn as you

Have done to this”

 

Then after he kills the king but still has doubts,  she mocks him and finishes hiding the evidence for him.

 

I realize that this entire Oscar  incident was coloured by the ugliness of a black man defending his insulted wife. Many a black man has been cruelly emasculated by such actions. Violence is deeply engrained in American and Canadian societies. This is true even in societies where black men react violently against other black men.  This is one product of centuries of oppression. Deep and persistent hatred has led to deep and persistent self-hatred. After all they learned it from their masters. What can be more cruel than that?

 

But to deny this painful and ugly fact, as we are urged to do by white supremacist pundits today, is to drive the hatred and resentment deeper where it can do even more perverted harm. Ugly truths must be faced. Denying them is not the way out. It just makes things worse.

 

What really bothered me about this incident at the Oscars was that about an hour or less later, when Will Smith won the award for best actor, and he stumbled through a tearful speech that included an apology to the Academy and fellow actors, but notably not Chris Rock, the audience erupted with applause.  What are the rest of us (including children who witnessed it) to think? Are we to think that violence is the answer to insults? That after all is the American way (with Canadians not far behind). Is this not how cycles of violence perpetuate themselves harming no one more than the victims turned aggressors?

 

Art can help us understand such questions, but it offer few clear and definitive answers.

 

The Tragedy of Macbeth

 

This is a film that all would be tyrants should watch.

 

This play is nearly 500 years old, but is clearly still relevant.  This is the perfect time to watch this film or read the play. In these times when we see tyrants challenging freedom we should turn to Macbeth for spiritual nourishment. Macbeth, like so much of Shakespeare can drizzle wisdom on us in our hour of need.

 

Early in the play, the 3 weird sisters, or witches ask us to “all  hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king.”  Remind you of anyone? Then we are told “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Is that not the 21st century?

 

This is also the land of untruth. For as honest Banquo tells us:

 

“The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray us

In deepest consequence.”

 

I immediately felt at home in the black and white colour of the film, with ominous black birds alarmingly in the sky.

 

Lady Macbeth the Putin master of the story tries to guide Macbeth the prize of kingship:

 

“Yet I do fear thy nature;

It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;

Art not without ambition; but without

The illness should attend it: what you wouldst highly

That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,

And yet would wrongly win”

 

Like the little general from Moscow, Macbeth is filled with “vaulting ambition” and that, as we know, leads straight to pain and sorrow.  She urges Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower; but be the serpent under it.” These are the men with whom we are entirely familiar. And the man who would be king knows what he must do. He must not only commit foul acts he must also must ensure that “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” Welcome to the 21st century.

 

In the Scotland of Macbeth, like the Ukraine of Zelensky “the earth was feverous and did shake” and as all good despots know, “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.” And “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.”

Yet the real question, the same question Shakespeare asks of Macbeth, and we ask of Putin, what is the point of this all?  Why? Tyrants must “be bloody bold and resolute” but for what end.? In the end Macbeth is described this way: “now does he fell his title hang loose upon him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief.”  Who can doubt that our modern dwarfish thief will not look any more regal? And who can doubt that in the end the tyrant will be forced to acknowledge, at least if he is open to the terrible truth, as Macbeth was, that this is profoundly true:

 

“Tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

 

I so wish the Putins of the world had read deeply of Shakespeare. The world would be so different.

King Richard

 

Some films surprise me. This was one of them. I knew this was not Shakespeare’e Richard, but rather a sports film.  Really, I thought. Have I not seen enough sports movies? It is like action movies. x

 

But this film—to my surprise—was different. It had some of the same elements of typical sports movies, but still it was different. I thought I would hate the father of Venus and Serena Williams. Wasn’t he the unreasonable parent who had driven his children to compete for fame, glory, and wealth?  How could I like that guy?

King Richard (Will Smith) is the father who devotes his life to his 5 daughters, 2 of whom have extraordinary talent to play tennis.  The others seem destined for more traditional success as doctors and lawyers.

Even though this movie had some of those elements it was more than that. It asked some interesting questions. How much freedom should young parents give to their young children? How much is it reasonable to expect of their children. How much can parents do for the good of their children?

 

The story tells the story of a father who has extensive plans for his young African American daughters who seem to have a lot of talent to play tennis. This is often a dangerous and foolish presumption. From a very young age, he wants and expects his daughters to become professional tennis players. In fact he expects them to become the best tennis players in the world. He starts off coaching them until he realizes he need professional coaches, but he can’t help interfering. He also thinks he knows what’s best for his girls. Which fathers don’t believe that?

 

One of the issues is faith.  Not so much children having faith in their parents, but parents having faith in their children. King Richard seemed to have near absolute faith in his daughters, yet at times, when they are young, he does not have enough faith.  Then he  expected his 14 year-old daughter to make momentous decisions for herself.  Does that make sense?

From a young age King Richard had incredible well developed plans for his children. He wrote a book of his plans. He planned their lives. I have never thought that was a good thing for parents to do. If the parent makes plans how can he or she trust his kids?

In this film the father was not solely stuck on sports success. He wanted more for his daughters.  As he said to a coach of his young star, “The main reason we’re not rushing, is that without an education no matter how good you are, by the time you’re 18 you’re gone no matter how good you are and you’re gonna have 50 more years to live like a fool.” Richard is a complex man. He is not like other tennis parents who he says “should all be shot.”

How much is big money worth?  How does it compare to “patience, family, and education?” How important is humility in the face of success? What if the success is huge?  What is the effect of failure?

The film explores many important questions and it does that well with an interesting story.  This film is worth seeing. Even if you don’t like sports films.

Licorice Pizza

 

I like this movie. I don’t know why? I don’t care. I just enjoyed it. I enjoyed it like—well–I enjoyed it like licorice pizza. I suspect you have to be in the mood for it.

In this story 15 year-old grinning, fast-talking and precocious Garry Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) tries to get a date with  terminally bored cantankerous and nasty  25 year old Alana Kane who is disgusted with herself by the thought that a peon–who was only 15 years old would actually interest her. The lad persists and she finds herself sickeningly interested. That she is interested strikes her as showing how low she has sunk.

This is a conversation between Alana and her friend:

“Alana:         Do you think it’s weird that I hang out with Garry and his friends all the time?

Friend:        No.

Alana:         I think it’s weird.

Friend:        It is whatever you think it is.

Alana:         I think it’s weird  that I hang out all time with a boy and his 15-year old friends all the time.”

 

There are some brilliant short roles in the film. Sean Penn performs as a motor cycling Jack Holden who is persuaded to “fly” over a bonfire with his cycle. Bradley Cooper plays the part of Jon Peters, the psychotic husband of Barbara Streisand. A few other zany roles add sauce to the pizza. The relationship between Kane and Valentine is interesting and anything but smooth.

 

Alana sits in on a conversation between her boss, a municipal councilman up for re-election who is spotted by a spy having dinner with his boyfriend.  Even though he considers himself filled with integrity and has no time for relationships he doesn’t want people to think he had a date with this guy during the campaign so he calls up Alana and instructs her, even though she is is his integrity officer, to act as his friend’s beard so his secret won’t come out. Meanwhile, his friend is humiliated by the subterfuge.

Thinks only go better for Alana when she finally realizes there is no point in doing what others would want her to do. Why care about them? That’s not integrity. Do what you want to do and don’t worry about whether others think you are weird.

Yes you are weird. Revel in that. Make your pizza out of licorice. Red or black, it doesn’t matter. It’s all good.

 

West Side Story 

 

West Side Story is a remake of a classic film that I had never seen before. Let me confess, I have never been very keen on musicals. Is that actually pretty dumb? I admit I enjoyed this film a lot.

I found it interesting that this film is not unlike Belfast.  Both films deal with hate of one group against another coupled with demands from zealots in the group to amplify hatred rather than finding a resolution. Some people don’t want to find solutions; they want to fight. both films have a boy and girl from each group attracted to each other.  Both have outstanding production values.

The West side story is really an ancient oft repeated story, but it is no less important for that. It is a crucially important theme. Many times we have learned that we have not learned enough about it because we keep creating a trap for young lovers and others.  The background to the film is  is the enmity between 2 gangs in New York and the lovers caught in the melee.

The first line from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliette, which explores the same theme,  makes a very important point in its opening paragraph:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

 

And that is the point—two groups that are actually very similar hate each other and draw blood, making unclean hands. And for what purpose? Very often as Shakespeare said, the two groups are alike. Sometimes the more alike the more vicious the fighting.

In that play it was the Montagues and the Capulets and the dynamite created when a young girl from one family and a boy from the other fell in love with each other.  The issue was the same as the issue in this film. Can the hatred keep the lovers apart? What is more powerful , love or hate? In this film it was the Jets against the Sharks, but it could just as well be the Catholics and the Protestants as in the  other film nominated for best film, Belfast. It could just as well be the Conservatives and Liberals, Republicans and Democrats, Russians and Ukrainians, Hutus and Tutsis, or Mennonites from Winker versus Mennonites from Steinbach, or vaxxers against anti-vaxxers. All groups can come to hate the “other.”  It is easy to fall into hatred. Getting out is not so easy.

After Steven Spielberg announced that he was interesting in renewing this old musical he explained why he wanted to do that. This is what he said:

 

“Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

 

The film has a lot going for it.  Great art design, excellent music with familiar tunes, well sung by beautiful young people, and one old person who starred as a younger person in the earlier version. Everyone should see this film and make up their own mind. I am just not entirely convinced that a musical with stylized violence is the best way to deal with such classic themes. But that’s OK. Every film does not have to be best in its class.

 

The Worst Person in the World

 

 

 

This film has achieved many international plaudits including nominations for for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and for Best International Feature Film. Yet, the film left me cold. This may be the lamest movie review ever, but what does all of this mean?  I am bankrupt of ideas.

Belfast

 

The  film Belfast opens with a scene of pure joy. Young children playing on the street. Catholics and Protestant children playing with no thought of such distinctions.  At least not to the children. After all they were “coming down to joy” as Van Morrison’s exuberant song plays in the background song.  The only way you can tell the Catholics from the Protestants is by their names, and even that is a far from perfect tool.

It is was August 15, 1969 when this  idyll was disrupted suddenly by a gang of belligerent Protest  rioters walking together ominously in a group towards Buddy, the nine-year old protagonist. He is clearly mystified and has no idea what is going on. Suddenly torches are flung at houses by some of the mob. A rag is inserted into the gas tank of a vehicle, lit, and the car pushed down the street until it explodes in flames. Bricks are thrown thrown through some windows. Kids screaming in terrors having no idea what is going on. Buddy begs his mother to tell him what is happening. She does not have time to explain, even if she knew. obscene calls are heard demanding that Catholics get off the street. Buddy’s mum gasps : “Holy God.”  It turns out peaceful Catholics were targeted by the mob. Why? What was going on?

The film is entirely shot in black and white.  Perhaps because the issues seemed so black and white, when they were much more complex than that.

There are many snippets of films or news shows interspersed through the film.  Some of those are in colour. They paint an alternate reality to the homes and the streets of Belfast.

Buddy’s family is Protestant, but Buddy’s mother and grandmother don’t understand what is happening. After all they get along well with their Catholic neighbours. Why is she supposed to hate them? They are “the same, except they kick with their left leg.” Why would Protestant neighbours attack them?

Buddy’s sister asks “how the hell are we supposed to know (who is Catholic and who is Protestant)? What a great question. and if you can’t tell the difference why would you hate them?

Buddy wants to know if that was “our side” or “their side on the street.”  His father explains that “there is no  our side or their side on their street. At least there never used to be.” Buddy says “I’ve had too much God for one day.”  But his mother tells him, “your granny says you can never have too much God.” His father says, “I’ve got nothing against Catholics but it is a religion of fear.” The next scene is of the Protestant church with a hell fire and brim stone sermon guaranteed to put the fear of God into a 9-year old child with eyes wide open.  Then he asks for money.

One of the Protestants in the gang says, “We’re looking to cleanse the community.”  The he asks his father, “will it be cash or commitment?”  Pa offers neither.  He says, “We’re living in a civil war.” Billy Clanton the resentful leader of the Protestant gang says to Pa, “You think you’re better than the rest of us.” Pa replies, “The problem is you know you’re not.”

In the film scenes from the classic American western High Noon are shown.  The hero, played by Gary Cooper, feels duty demands he stay to confront the gang of killers though his wife wants him to leave the town with her. The song rings out: “I must face the man who hates me.”  Pa is in the same position. So is his family.

Buddy’s grandfather tries to help Buddy do better in math so he can sit with the girl he prizes. He suggests that he fudge the answers so that if he is wrong the alternative might be right and his teacher might not know which one he meant. Buddy asks if that is cheating and then says, “but there’s only one answer.”  To that Grandfather offers a wise response: “If that were true people wouldn’t be blowing themselves up all the time.”

Buddy’s dad wants the family to move to London where he has a better job with a house. His mother wants to stay. “This is our home,” she says.  After all, “we can’t all leave, there’d be nothing left but nutters.” She also tells Buddy, “Remember you’re Buddy from Belfast 15, where everybody looks after you.”

One lovely summer day, kids are playing with their fathers as Buddy’s mum and a friend are talking as they watch the play. Her friend says, “The bloody Irish are born for leaving. Otherwise, the rest of the world  would have no pubs. It just needs half of us to stay so the other half can get sentimental about the ones that left. All the Irish need to survive is a Guinness, and a phone and the sheet music to ‘Danny Boy.’ ”

Buddy’s granny and grandfather share a wee drink at their window that nicely frames them. She says “they have to move on,’ presumably referring to her son and family. He replies with an Irish quote: ‘Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Who said that? She asks “what is it?” He replies, “Yeah well you don’t usually buy your wisdom with a walk in the park. Your heart has to explode.”  “Mr. philosopher,” she says to him. “When did your heart ever explode?”  “That time I saw you in those brown stockings,” he says.  She replies, “Holy God, I remember that.” And he, “Aye, I remember that.  They both chuckle.  He says, “When you’re old people think your heart never skipped.” “Did yours ever skip?”  “Aye. I danced a bloody jig every time you walked in the room. She says, “you were full of it then, you’re full of it now.”  Neither has lost any love for the other, even though both are getting old. He is going to the hospital tomorrow. She insists she will walk him there and out again. But she is wrong.

Another day a riot broke out in Belfast and a mob broke into a store. Buddy joined in. He grabbed a box of detergent  and the reason he gave his mother was, “it was biologic.”  He thought that meant it was good and he should take it as others took other things. Why do protests so often spill over into looting? It happened in Minneapolis after people protested the death of George Floyd when a white police officer kneeled on his neck until he suffocated.  His mother was wildly upset when she saw what her son had done.  She dragged him back to the store,  right into the danger where the riot was ongoing and tried to make him give it back, but was interrupted by Billy Clanton, the Protestant gang leader who said, “We don’t give things back.” You don’t give anything back when you are consumed by hate.

After  Buddy’s Grandfather dies Buddy and his father share memories of him. Buddy says he used to help him with his math. He taught him how to cheat. Buddy says a lot of people came to see  him at the funeral. Yeah, says, Pa, “he was very popular and he owed half of them money.  He was a very deep thinker.” Full of blarney I guess.

Buddy asks his father. about his young girl friend “Pa do you think me and that wee girl have a future?” “Why the heck not,” his father asks. “Do you know she’s Catholic.” His father squats down low, looks Buddy in the eyes and quietly and calmly replies, “That we girl can be a practicing Hindu, or a Southern Baptist, or a vegetarian antichrist, but if she’s kind and she’s fair, and you two respect each other, she and her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.” Then he asks Buddy if this means they have to go to confession. Buddy says, “probably.”  “Then we two are in trouble,” his father says.

 

I loved this film. I think you will too.

 

 

Background to the film “Belfast” : The Troubles

 

Even though I have been to Belfast, I think it was very helpful for me to hear Kenneth Branagh who wrote, directed and produced the film Belfast explain the background to the film when interviewed on the Bill Maher show. Instead of shot from the film I include some of my own photos of Belfast taken in 2009 when Christiane and I made a wonderful trip to the wonder country of Ireland.

 

This photo is one of many I took of murals in Belfast that celebrate heroes of the Troubles.  This one felt threatening. The rile held by  masked man “followed” us by a the trick of an optical illusion.

 

The film Belfast has been nominated for Best Picture and it  is a sad love story about the love of a  Kenneth Branagh for his hometown which he had to leave a  9 year old boy. That was the same age as  Buddy in the film. Just like the family in the film, his family lived on a street in Belfast. His family was Protestant but there were many Catholics as well on the street.

In southern Ireland the Catholics are in a majority, but in Northern Ireland which was part of the United Kingdom the Catholics were in the minority at about 40% of the population. Yet they got along well, at least until they didn’t.

This writing on the wall expresses the spirit of Branagh’s family.

 

Maher asked Branagh to explain the history of what happened in Belfast during the troubles. The troubles began in 1968 because the Catholics were dissatisfied that they were not getting the same economic and social  benefits as the Protestants in Northern Ireland. It was not really a religious dispute, but religion helped to fan the flames of hate as so often happens. The Protestants were dominant in the north, and the Catholics there thought they were not getting a fair shake. From the mid-1960s there was a civil rights movement in Ireland as there was in the United States and Canada. People started to speak up for their rights and that can lead to trouble, or in this case, to the Troubles.

 

The film opens up on August 15, 1969 when the grievances suddenly spilled out into street violence. Until then the Protestant majority in the north got along well with the Catholic minority. They had the same kinds of jobs and the same kinds of homes. But in one fell swoop a Protestant mob came down the street where Buddy, the 9-year old protagonist in the film was playing with his friends, both Catholics and Protestants.  This is exactly what Branagh experienced as a young boy in Belfast at that time. The story is also the story of his life in fictional form. The Protestants marked the houses of the Catholics with stones, and broke the windows on their houses. The message was clear, “We know where you live. It’s time for you to get out.” As Billy Clanton one of the leaders of the Protestant gang I the film said, “We want to cleanse the city.” Ominious words in the 20th century.

 

1969 in the US was the summer of love, but in Belfast it was the summer of hate. There was the greatest displacement of people in Europe since the second World War, up to that time. Thousands of Catholics were forced to leave and a dark period in Ireland began. It lasted for 30 years.

 

Branagh’s family was Protestant but they did not join in the violence against the Catholics. They were opposed to violence against their friends with whom they got along. Some of the Protestants did not like that. The Protestant leaders came to visit Branagh’s father and told him, “You’re either with us or against us. There is no middle ground.”  Again these are ominous words, later adopted by George W. Bush after 9/11. Branagh’s father tried to stand up against the mob, but that was hard. As Branagh said,

“It was a really difficult thing to do to disagree fundamentally with someone, but not to translate that into hating them. Or rejecting them.  But the even more difficult thing of actually trying to understand them. That was the example he set.”

 

That is difficult everywhere. It is difficult in the United States and it is difficult in the bible belt of southern Manitoba. Bill Maher claimed that this is what he tries to show on his television show. He always wants to show that he thinks for himself, not a tribe. “Im not with either tribe,” Maher said. His father said, “I’m not going to join you to hate the Catholics for reasons I don’t share. A 9-year old must be taught that.”

The walls, still standing in 2009, had to be built very high to stop people from throwing rocks and more dangerous things over it.

 

As Branagh said, a 9-year old can be simple and open in the stand off, but people forget that the effects may last for decades when violence rears its ugly head. The situation can be quickly polarized with ordinary people caught in the maw. Branagh said, when he grew up it was a beautiful day in the neighbourhood everyday. He did not understand why one day a man came and told him that he and his friend Paddy, who was a Catholic, could no longer play together. Why? He said it was buried in his mind for 50 years. That is why he wrote the story of the  film.

 

3,700 people died in Ireland during the Troubles. Yet the world over people have showed that tribal pressure can be overcome by talking to each other no matter how hard it is. The same things happens everywhere. It happens in Iran, Palestine, Ukraine, Congo, and southern Manitoba. Every where there is a trouble spot. The good stuff of family, laughter, music, dancing, and partying can help. Insisting that we are always right and they are always wrong does not help. Religions though encourage such attitudes, at least when they are least religious.

This is the way the house still looked in 2009. First a barrier on top of the wall, and then supplemented by screen over the porch. Belfast was a hard place to live.

 

Belfast really is a lot like so many places around the world. From Ireland to Winkler, from Croatia to Rwanda. From Iran to the Middle East. Neighbours fighting neighbours. Neighbours hating neighbours. For no good reason. It just happens when we gather in tribes and it becomes us against them. It can be in the name of religion, or politics or creed whenever we try hard not to understand each other. And troubles can arise as quickly as prairie fire.

 

All of this is background for the film Belfast I want to talk about next.

The Power of the Dog

 

 

This film is essentially a murder mystery, though not of the conventional garden variety kind. This is not Agatha Christie. There is more than one mystery here including a spiritual mystery encapsulated by the film’s title. The title to the film comes from Psalm 22: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”

 

This is a film that portrays events that set  in Montana in 1925 at a wealthy ranch owned by two brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). During a cattle drive the cowboys meet the owner of a saloon Rose Gordon (Kristen Dunst).  Phil the less gentlemanly of the two brothers feels attracted to her while his brother Phil is repelled by her. From there on the calves butt heads as symbolized by an image early on in the film. Phil believes Rose is after George’s money. Rose has son Peter, (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is a delicate young boy unaccustomed to the rough ways of the west. The film was written and directed by Jane Campion. It has received a lot of favourable attention such as 12 Academy award nomination nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best actor for Cumberbatch, best supporting actor for both Plemons and Smit-McPhee and Best supporting actor Dunst who is also the spouse of Plemons. No film has more nominations this year.

While the cinematography is stunning, not every one was impressed that it was shot mainly in New Zealand standing in for Montana. At one time Phil is standing looking up into the mountains and the cowboys wonder what he sees. His reply is curt: “If you can’t see it; it ain’t there.”

Early in the film, Pete in narration, says “when my father passed, what sort of man would I be if I did not help my mother?”  And that is a significant theme in the film.  Masculinity, both toxic and otherwise is important in the film.

Peter is first seen making flowers out of paper for the dinner table in the restaurant, when the staff are rudely dismissed by Phil. “I wonder what little lady made these,” he asks while looking directly at Pete. Phil lights the paper and throws it into a glass of water, as if beauty cannot possibly be masculine. It is only fit to be discarded. Who needs flowers?  Meanwhile the men—the real men—cavort with whores. As a flower child myself, I dissent from the suggestion that flowers are not masculine. Phil writes to his parents warning them that George is courting a “suicide widow.” But George is in awe of Rose. And in time they marry.

George is much gentler and civilized  than his rougher brother. He is a true gentleman. Interestingly George and Phil share a bed in the hotel. But all is chaste.

Though Phil is rougher than George he has his artistic side too. He plays the banjo while Rose is playing the piano and drowns her out. Later Phil also made a beautiful lasso for Peter who becomes his protege.  He also was Phi Beta Kappa in college while studying the classics at an eastern university.  The Governor asks George, “ Does he swear at the cattle in Latin?” He calls the ranch “an island of civilization,” but says Phil’s dirty clothes don’t bother him. “He’s a ranchman. That’s honest dirt.”

Peter may not be as innocent as he seems, for we learn from the maid that he killed a rabbit to practice surgery.  Yet Peter and Phil, so apparently different, are also attracted to each other. Phil becomes his mentor. Peter’s father hung himself and Peter says his father told him he wasn’t kind enough and that he was too strong.  Phil finds that hard to believe.

There is a mysterious death that is central to the story. And it is mysterious.