Movies

Women in Trouble at Wartime - Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Lifeboat (1944)

lifeboat.jpg

“Lady, you don’t look like you’ve just been shipwrecked.” 

That’s the first line in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), uttered by a man, just pulled out of the ocean, to a luminous Tallulah Bankhead.  She wears a fur coat, and her hair remains meticulously coiffed—exactly as if a Nazi U-Boat had not sunk the ocean liner she was on.  She also then announces that, as a Margaret Bourke-White-style journalist, she has captured their whole ordeal on film. When the man knocks her camera, full of “irreplaceable stuff,” into the water, she responds indignantly at first, and then seems to instantly recover.

A couple years earlier, in 1942, Mrs. Miniver had shown audiences a different kind of strong woman during World War II. Set in a small village near London, this movie shows us the Miniver family as the war really begins to affect their lives, and Greer Garson plays the titular lady of the house.  Watching this movie felt like revelation after revelation.  I looked up Garson, wondering why I hadn’t seen any of her other movies.  I looked up the date, stunned to find that it came out in the United States so soon after we had entered the war.  I wondered how relevant it must have seemed to people who were experiencing similar events in real time, starting to view a new hat as a vice or wondering if they had enough sugar to make treats for their children.  Knowing that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk would be coming out soon, I was immediately intrigued by Mr. Miniver being among the men who sailed off to ferry distressed British soldiers home on their leisure and fishing boats.

It was something of a coincidence that I watched both these movies in a short period of time—I’ve been joking lately that maybe my true calling in life is to watch old movies and tweet about them.  That might just be true, but I had never really thought before about the spectacular machine of Classic Hollywood chugging out naturalistic dramas in real time.  It seems entirely counterintuitive to the magic usually ascribed to the Hollywood of that era.  Sure, we now have films like Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Lone Survivor (2013) that have addressed current conflicts, but both came years after those conflicts had been minimized both tactically and in the American media.  More importantly, the home front presence is limited in these films primarily to weeping wives and phone calls home. Just as it has been entirely possible for contemporary Americans to ignore the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I cannot think of a movie that puts regular people, outside military service, in a situation like that which occurs in either of these movies from World War II.  Argo (2012) is, perhaps, a recent exception, but it balances the damning reality that Iran is still unstable and potentially dangerous today with the high drama of the 1970s set piece.

Turning back to World War II and these classic films, both Mrs. Miniver and the people in Lifeboat encounter an enemy directly—a German who has survived, but landed in enemy territory.  Neither man speaks English, and it’s up to the two smartest women—Greer Garson as Mrs. Miniver and Tallulah Bankhead as Lifeboat’s Constance Porter—to deal with them.  Mrs. Miniver outsmarts her German pilot prisoner.  At first he threatens her, and she responds with kindness.  When he collapses, she takes his gun, hides it, and waits for the police to arrive—never losing her cool.  In Lifeboat, we’d guess from the beginning that Constance Porter is unflappable, except where her precious camera and her livelihood are concerned, but she also happens to speak German. She translates for the stranded German, who survived after his U-Boat sank; indeed, he finds himself in the same situation as the American survivors are.  And when their small boat is nearly overtaken by stormy seas, it is the German who saves the day, revealing in the process that he speaks perfect English and has understood them the whole time.  It’s hard to draw conclusions about these scenes without irretrievably spoiling these films, but a huge part of their narrative success is the role-playing aspect of imagining what you’d do in a similar situation.  If you were Mrs. Miniver, would you, too, be able to act decisively when it mattered?  If you were Constance Porter, would you trust the German, or throw him overboard to save yourself?

I mentioned above that a crucial part of my interest in these movies had to do with the fact that they came out while there was still no end of the war in sight.  So how did they both fare?  Mrs. Miniver was MGM’s most profitable film that year, and it still ranks on Best of All Time lists.  Lifeboat did not do as well—it received only a limited release, and truly can only be viewed as a success through the eyes of modern critics praising it as part of the Hitchcock oeuvre.   Crowds understandably did not appreciate the portrayal of a German that was not straightforwardly evil.  And yet I noticed that the print of Lifeboat I saw still had a message on the end credits to let viewers know they could buy War Bonds in that very theater where they saw the film.  The ever reliable research source of Wikipedia (joking, joking) suggests that President Franklin Roosevelt rushed Mrs. Miniver into American theaters knowing that a well-timed sermon delivered in a shelled church would provide meaningful propaganda when he needed it most.

It’s not surprising to me that Hitchcock would produce a movie during World War II that asked harder questions than audiences were willing to hear.  What is surprising is that both of these movies feel new and creative; they’re not just films to revisit as historical research.  They’re living, breathing representations of an era very different from our own, yet one that still feels relevant to a contemporary viewer.  After many years of recommending movies to people, I know they don’t always listen if the movie was made before 1960 and/or is still in black and white—but these films are both deeply worth the time it takes to watch them.  And if anyone wonders what I’m watching next, I have about five Hitchcock movies (2 major, 3 minor) left on the DVR to work my through.

That post about The Keepers I’ve promised for weeks.

But first: my roommate and I watched Now and Then a couple nights ago.  It’s a fair statement that I haven’t watched that movie in fifteen years, but it’s also a fair statement that I watched it nearly every other week between the ages of, say, ten and thirteen. 

Roberta, Samantha, Chrissy, and Teeny from  Now and Then  (1995)

Roberta, Samantha, Chrissy, and Teeny from Now and Then (1995)

Even so, I remembered almost nothing of the plot besides a bunch of then teenage girls who I really like (still) turned into a bunch of grown women who I also quite like (despite their more recent travails with the celebrity press).  I had completely forgotten the plotline about how the girls pluck a mystery out of a graveyard séance, take their question to a psychic and then an older person (always the first two lines of inquiry…), and then, when all else fails, head to the dusty library basement to look through huge, bound volumes of newspapers from years earlier.  As an adult, the fact that most of them live years before finding out how their mystery relates to their present-day strikes me as particularly poignant—only Gaby Hoffmann/Demi Moore learns the truth as a young girl.

Which brings me to The Keepers—I understood the power of Now and Then, even as a tween, to be that it was about girls who turned into women who always had each other’s backs in face of everything that the world could throw at them.  How I understand the power of The Keepers means that the horrifying story of church abuses is fortified by the strength of the women-driven mystery narrative.  Two women, Gemma and Abbie, started a Facebook group to find justice for Sister Cathy, their beloved teacher.  Their group connects women who believed they were alone and who, in this new context, gain strength from knowing that other women support them.  At first, it even seems like Sister Cathy may have actually been murdered as the result of her steadfast devotion to protecting and supporting her female students. 

Gemma and Abbie are a study in unlikely detectives.  They cracked me up as they narrated for the camera how they did their research and organized their thoughts.  The last times I remember microfilm readers looking so cool on camera were early episodes of The X-Files, filmed before digital records were an option.  In The Keepers, Abbie and Gemma were also filmed organizing their thoughts via a system of coffee filters with notes written on them.  They talked candidly about deciding who took on tasks based on their personality strengths—Gemma could talk to anyone without fear so she did interviews, while Abbie focused on research deep dives.

Abbie and Gemma from  The Keepers

Abbie and Gemma from The Keepers

When we meet Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, the two women who were at the basis of the initial case about Father Maskell’s abuses at their school, they are presented as strong, intelligent women.  They are, first and foremost, shown to be capable people—they speak clearly and forcefully about how their lives have unfolded over the past forty years.  They save themselves, though they give credit to their friends and family where it is due.  This approach was fascinating to me and deeply moving.  This isn’t a story about women being victimized, but a story about women trying to fight back with the help of other women.  A story about women coming back together after years apart to learn the truth and take action.

For me, the approach to documentary story-telling that centered women’s voices proved to be the real draw.  I had chosen to watch the show expecting a splashy true crime story that would indulge my odd fascination with nuns, and got a carefully drawn portrait of a group of women who suffered guilt at their inability to save themselves and perhaps to save their teacher, Sister Cathy.  To me, that makes the criminal elements of the story feel even more galling and even more violating.  As a strategy for encouraging change, it’s a good start.

So you wanna be a superheroine AND a museum curator...

Wonder Woman walking into the Louvre

So Wonder Woman, breaker of box office records, fortifier of women's hearts, is a curator at the Louvre.

At first, as Diana Prince walked through the courtyard of the Musée du Louvre, I thought they might just be setting up one of the popular "smash the fancy landmark" action sequences, or perhaps that someone had screwed up and not realized that I. M. Pei's pyramids did not exist during the World War I-era in which the bulk of the movie is set.  

But then you see Diana at her desk, surrounded by glass cases full of beautiful artifacts - then only seemingly similar to Wonder Woman's Amazonian tools - that befit the collection of the world's greatest museum.  And the purpose of showing her in the present is the delivery of a photograph of her and her friends during World War I that Bruce Wayne has unearthed for her safe-keeping, which is a perfectly sensible plot point to stage in a museum.

I said, after I left the movie on Sunday, that Wonder Woman may be the best conventional superhero movie I've ever seen, and I stand by that.  Like most other female viewers, seeing a woman superhero on screen provoked a cocktail of emotions.  Yet her "day job" in the present-day, which I assume will continue on for the Justice League movies set in the present, bothers me for two reasons.  

First, it perpetuates the idea that art history is an unattainable, luxury discipline and that a career based in its study is available only to those with special circumstances and skills.  (What I wouldn't give to bring Hestia's Lasso of Truth to an academic conference here or there.)

Second, you might actually need to be Wonder Woman to become a curator of ancient artifacts at the Louvre.  I don't mean this to contradict my first point - I mean simply that there's no better person to curate a collection of Amazon warrior artifacts than someone who has actually used them.  There's also little room in that model for an enthusiast of Amazon warrior artifacts to learn enough and argue effectively enough to gain equivalent prestige.

I wonder if Diana Prince will still be a Louvre curator in future films and if it could play a bigger role in the story at any time.  I'm going to keep watching, but I hope her day job doesn't turn out to be just a flimsy character trait.

Read a book.

When I get frustrated with people who fail to understand a point I'm trying to make or circumstances as I see them, the charge I am most likely to level at that person is: read a book.

Reading (or watching documentaries, which seems to me an analog to reading) is helpful to me when I'm trying to make sense of situations I don't understand or arguments that other people very different from me are making.  This especially occurred in the wake of the Women's March on January 21, when women of color accused white women of ignoring problems beyond those of white middle-class women.  I read a lot of think pieces in response, and they did not fall on deaf ears.  I know that my feminism is white.  It's only through luck and an eccentric (in the good way) Intro to Gender Studies professor that I was exposed to other feminisms relatively early on in my academic life - black feminism, women in Islam, queer feminism, and (ever my favorite) cyborg theory.  One of the links that I saw circulating after the Women's March was Melissa Harris-Perry's Black Feminism Syllabus, which she originally posted in response to cruel comments someone had made about Michelle Obama's persona as First Lady.  I started there, and picked the book that I could immediately load on to my Kindle through my library's services.  And then I kept going.  And it's now a month later, and twenty-two days into Black History Month - between MHP's list and the resources made available because of Black History Month, I've done something of a deep dive into the subject. I'm providing a bibliography and some annotations below because, if you are confused in these confusing times: read a book.  

Books

  • Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (originally published 1983).  Davis threads the needle on a lot of issues, gracefully taking what you think you know and flipping it upside down.  She gives credit where credit is due, but also pointedly eviscerates legacies, arguments, histories, where necessary.  Her interest is in arguing how black women have been left out of discussions of both the post-slavery era and the struggle for women's rights and proving how their particular circumstances make them powerful outliers necessary for comprehensively understanding both of those histories.
  • Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (originally published 1984).  Lorde was probably the black feminist writer I knew the most about and had read the most in pieces with having actually picked up the book.  I'd recommend reading a more foundational text first (i.e. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought) because this is a collection of essays and speeches that dips in and out of debates you'll appreciate more if you understand the basics.  Lorde is, however, eminently quotable, and she is a truly a poet, even in her most straightforward speeches.
  • Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.  This book is pretty phenomenal.  It starts with the Rosa Parks that everyone forgets - the activist NAACP field secretary who investigated and documented rape allegations throughout the Alabama countryside long before she refused to give up her seat on a bus.  That's only the beginning of this argument, and it proceeds through the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Summer, and notable rape trials in the 1960s and 1970s to demand attention for the substantial, yet usually underrepresented role of black women in forwarding the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016).  Not finished with this one yet!  See the movie mention below.

Documentaries and Movies

On PBS: 

  • Birth of a Movement - This episode of Independent Lens discusses the origins and release of D. W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation, a 1915 masterpiece of early cinema yet also a barely veiled narrative of white supremacy, and how William Monroe Trotter, a Harvard-educated black writer and friend of W.E.B. DuBois, mobilized protests of the movie.  This documentary makes the argument that these protests presaged tactics that would form the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer - Both of these documentaries were American Experience episodes, and both use a combination of historical footage and more recent interviews.  They are both fascinating, and if you need a reminder of how bad things were then, these clear, concise films are what you need.
  • Oklahoma City - I've included this here because it couches the Oklahoma City Bombing deep into the vein of anti-government white supremacy that arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I remember much of this information from the documentary on Timothy McVeigh that Rachel Maddow did a few years ago, but it has become perhaps even more compelling in today's political climate.

Streaming on Netflix or Amazon Prime:

  • 13th - This is Ava DuVernay's documentary on how the prison system grew out of conditions created by the 13th Amendment, which was supposed to mean liberation from slavery.  This documentary interviews a who's who of black intellectuals, and it's exceptionally well-done.  Definitely worth watching, and maybe also keep a list of the people you see so that you can then look up their books.  It should win the Best Documentary Oscar this year.
  • Selma - This is Ava DuVernay's quasi-fictional account of the series of marches in Selma, Alabama that have come to define the Civil Rights era.  I missed this movie in the theaters the year that it received Oscar nominations, but I remember the outcry over the lack of honors given to David Oyelowo for playing Martin Luther King, Jr.  The strange thing about this movie, though, is how decentralized it is - King is important because he is commanding and because we know he is important, but the movie shows the breadth of debate and action that characterized this moment in the movement.  That is a necessarily broad perspective.

In Theaters:

  • Hidden Figures - an absolute must-see.  This is my favorite of the Oscar nominees this year (save maybe Lion), and though it has been made sleek for movie audiences, it does not shy away from much of the harshness wrought on the black women who worked hard for the privilege of being able to do difficult and complicated work appropriate to their skill. 
  • I Am Not Your Negro - This film will square off with 13th for the Best Documentary Oscar, but it really shows how broad a genre that can be.  If 13th provides an intellectual analysis, I Am Not Your Negro is more of a prose poem set to images.  Baldwin, long-dead, is given a screenwriting credit because so much of the film is in his own words.  When coupled with more recent images, his words become prophetic, and this film that is, on the face of it, a biographical documentary becomes powerful social analysis.

So that's what I've been up to lately.  Do you have anything I should add to my list?  If the answer is Moonlight... I am working on it.

Review: Inferno

The world has lately seemed a sad and contentious place, one where risks and consequences have grown larger and more negative in response to a new world order.  Immersed in that feeling, I went to see Inferno, the latest film adaptation of one of Dan Brown’s less-than-literary art historical novels.  Yet because Inferno’s use of its historical material differs so substantially from the other book-to-movie entries in the series, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, this new movie holds up better and seems more grounded in contemporary social issues in a productive way.

First of all: yes, I did pay actual money to see Inferno, and yes, I did enjoy it.  I also saw The Da Vinci Code (a little dull) in the theater in 2006 and Angels and Demons (generally more engrossing) in 2009—if nothing else, I am a Tom Hanks completist, and all three of these movies star Hanks as Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor and renowned symbologist.  People with ties to academia often scoff at these movies and the books from which they’ve been adapted because, among other reasons, symbology is not an actual academic discipline.  Using a fake word over its closest real analogs, like semiotics or iconography, seems like a lazy cop-out.  Even reading The Da Vinci Code as a 17-year-old, at the height of its popularity, I found the prose unskilled, at best, and was annoyed by Brown’s willingness to fabricate history to serve his cause.  So… why did I enjoy Inferno?

Inferno draws its inspiration partially from the fourteenth-century masterwork the Divine Comedy, in which the Italian poet Dante describes a vision of Hell, or the Inferno, with nine circles.  Langdon, though he does not speak fluent or even passable Italian, is a renowned expert on Italian art and literature and their symbols, and so outside forces summon him to Italy to investigate a trail of clues based on elements of Dante’s description of the Inferno and the actual known facts of Dante’s life.  The piece of art that holds those clues, left deliberately for Langdon and his assistant to interpret, is a ca. 1480-95 map of Hell created by Sandro Botticelli, better known for his Primavera and The Birth of Venus.  And beyond that, the clues are left in a reproduction of the original image, not in the image by Botticelli himself.  This starkly contrasts The Da Vinci Code, where Langdon and his assistant discover symbols that have supposedly been hidden for thousands of years by secret societies with dubious motives.  The elements of Dante and his writings that Langdon and his helpers discuss in Inferno might not hold up to expert scrutiny, but these bits of “factual” knowledge form the basis of a code rendered by a person in the present-day in order to pass a time-sensitive message.  Unlike in Brown’s previous efforts, Langdon's work does not depend on a centuries-old conspiracy coming to fruition.

Furthermore, the plot of Inferno does not dwell solely in the realm of academic consequences.  Sure, if Jesus had had a wife, as The Da Vinci Code posits, many factors that make up the Judeo-Christian worldview would be deeply altered.  Yet parsing the consequences of that shift would mean understanding its rippling, incremental effects.  Inferno operates as a more traditional thriller with real world consequences—someone is seeking to unleash a version of the Inferno, of Judgment Day, upon the earth.  Consequently, there is, first, the moral question of whether or not that person’s plan has merit and, second, how to stop him once the determination is made that it does not.  Both of these questions operate only tangentially in relation to the histories of Dante and his work; parallels and affinities appear, but they are not tasked with the heavy lifting of the story.  For this reason, Inferno is more compelling and, ultimately, more successful than the other entries in his series.

I recently saw another Inferno review that snarked: “But if Langdon is distinguished from the other globe-trotting saviors by his PhD, why aren’t his movies smarter?”  Those other globe-trotting saviors include, of course, James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Indiana Jones, all charismatic adventurers crafted from more urbane source material.  If Brown’s writing leaves something to be desired where sophistication is concerned, his main detective certainly does not benefit from how Hanks plays Robert Langdon.  His Langdon is something of a modest fuddy-duddy, an anti-adventurer.  Indeed, the moments of Inferno that provoke the most emotion are not ones where he demonstrates his mastery of the subject or his adaptability in a fight.  Struggling with amnesia for much of the movie, Langdon cannot manage to sort out his personal memories from his academic knowledge in a manner befitting a celebrated scholar.  Though intellectual power has drawn him into his globe-trotting mysteries, it is no more reliable than anything else.  He is fallible, but he follows the clues when the potential discoveries are too juicy for him to ignore.  Robert Langdon has the heart of an academic, and Tom Hanks has the humanity to play him in action.