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January 2012

Winter Movie Roundup

Welcome back to a fresh new year of CultureGeek. It was a rocky start, what with a week of malfunctioning internet and cable here at Casa CultureGeek, but fortunately we had DVDs. In fact, we had so much fun with DVDs that I started to wonder why the heck we have cable again?

Oh yeah, CNN. That work stuff. In the meantime...

The Help. I snagged this one from The Film Professor, who rated it a good flick. I have to agree - I had it on for background while I did chores, and most of the chores went ignored due to stellar peformances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spenser as two of the maids interviewed by wide-eyed ingenue journalist/author Emma Stone. It's a look at Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, the effects of Jim Crow laws and the society that developed with Junior League steel magnolias laughing in the drawing room while black maids raised their children.

At first I found it mesmerizing. I considered myself fairly well-versed in Jim Crow and the legal apartheid in mid-20th century South, but even I didn't know that society houses had separate outdoor bathrooms for their black staff. I suppose it should have occurred to me, in a society where there were separate hospitals, drinking fountains and other such nonsense.

And there's a good bit of cultural context: the assassination of Medgar Evers and other events fortelling the turbulence of the mid-sixties sets the stage for the tension in author Kathryn Stockett's Jackson. One senses that the genteel hostility shown toward "the Help" by their white employers is their sense that this stratified world in which they live is slipping away, and they will no longer be the belles of the plantations.

In the end, though, The Help seems more concerned with interpersonal relationships than the wider scope of the societal changes it foretells. We get a lot of scenes about the writer's relationship with her mother, friendships lost, whether this maid or that one loses her job... but the sweeping changes that would transform the South seem miles away from the petty domestic squabbles. SPOILERS! While it's a good, entertaining movie trying to make a point, one feels that the protagonist isn't really our doe-eyed writer, but the first maid herself: a lady who decides that maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if she tried writing on her own.

I'd like to read the book she wrote.

• I wanted to like Miracle at St. Anna. I really did. I like most of Spike Lee's movies, and this one opens with a bang: a middle-aged postal worker shoots a man dead at work, no one knows why, and he has the head of a statue in his closet. Mystery begins!

At first, Lee does an excellent job following Negron's life as a black Puerto Rican soldier serving in World War II. The prejudice faced and overcome by black soldiers serving in combat is definite and apparent, and while Lee can't help letting the soldiers speechify occasionally, it mostly shows by doing.

From there, however, it devolves into a confusing, meandering and far-too-long wartime epic that barely distinguishes itself from any other giant wartime epic put forth by a Hollywood that is far too fond of refighting the Nazis. It wants to be Saving Private Ryan in which the soldiers happen to be black, but it doesn't work; it doesn't have the single narrative thread that Ryan did, no cohesive story or objective that makes any sense.

Who is the Sleeping Man? Does the statue head have magical powers or is it just luck? What was the point of the love triangle with the only intelligent woman in the movie? SPOILERS!!! And I'm sorry, Mr. Lee, but no matter how powerful the boy became, there's no way he makes murder charges just vanish. Could we have spared ninety seconds of the ungodly 2.6 hours of this movie to show a not-guilty verdict or something?

I wanted to like it. Some scenes were very intelligent and there was strong acting from just about everyone. There is a scene partway through about a real atrocity committed by the Nazis, killing an entire village in a futile search for a partisan guerrilla fighter, and I dare you not to flinch or look away. It is hideous, and it really happened.

That, and we need more movies about the untold stories. There's a moment at the beginning when Negron is watching a John Wayne war movie and mutters, "We fought for our country too, pilgrim." It's pretty much a moment explaining why this movie exists. But it isn't enough to make a movie just because no one has yet; you still need a story to tell. In the end, you really don't know what the titular miracle was, and that's the big question that needs answering.

• It's pretty much required that all journalists see Good Night and Good Luck. A love letter to Edward R. Murrow, it portrays a time in which people were too afraid of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to do the jobs that needed doing. I don't need to rehash Senator McCarthy and his misdeeds to you; if you don't know, there's no summary can do it justice.

David Strathairn plays a subdued and controlled Murrow, resolute in his intent to unmask McCarthy's witch hunt for what it really was. It's awkward for a journalist of the modern ethic to watch it, because Murrow's work really did become partisan; he wasn't just covering what was happening, he was openly criticizing McCarthy and the entire Red Scare.

Yes, McCarthy needed unmasking. Yes, the Red Scare was politically brilliant nonsense that destroyed lives. Yes, the journalistic world at the time was doing a piss-poor job of holding our leaders accountable for their fearmongering. But there's a line between journalism and advocacy, and Murrow danced on it - at least as director George Clooney represents. Murrow states that there aren't always two sides to every story, and as much as it pains me to disagree with one of my heroes... there are always two sides to every story. The other side may be completely full of it and so tied up in fear, hate and prejudice as to be worthless to anyone with a grain of intelligence and compassion... but that's my opinion, not fact.

On the other other hand, Murrow's belief that television news was sliding into infotainment and serving up pablum and diversionary nonsense rather than fulfilling its ability to inform and educate the vast majority of the public was practically visionary for the current mess.

It isn't really about McCarthy, but about an ethic of journalism that Murrow embodied and the rest of us try to meet... within our own ethical guidelines. I'd like to think that my fellow journalists have at least as much courage as Murrow's team, in an environment that is now far more Darwinian and less controlled than his time. I also think there are far too few in television news carrying the torch of Murrow's beliefs... or could even name him. That, too, is a thought worth exploring.

Regardess, Good Night and Good Luck serves as a thought-provoking story and educational for those who weren't there - strongly recommended for classes studying the McCarthy era, so the kids know how it used to be. It's a slice of history, and one that we would do well to remember, lest it repeat itself.