Author Archives: Maria Cosma

Justifying the “Lies” in Lincoln

When Lincoln first came out, critics, trivial pursuit fanatics, and history buffs flocked to theaters, legal pads in hand, ready to call out all the lies and dramatizations of the movie. But as we discussed in class, Spielberg made a conscious decision to use fiction to create truth. Many of the “lies” in Lincoln were purposeful choices to get at greater themes and metaphors, using the story as an allegory for the historical legend that has become ingrained in our national memory. In this post, I will take a look at some of Spielberg’s “lies” and consider why he chose to include them.

  1. The black and white soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address: It is inconceivable that any soldier, Union or Confederate, black or white, could have memorized this speech, however ingrained on modern public memory. Spielberg put this in the movie to demonstrate Lincoln’s desire to unite the country, setting the plot up for the Thirteenth Amendment. It also demonstrated the commitment of both black and white soldiers to fight together for the birth of a new nation, one without slavery.
  2. Mary Todd watching the passage of the amendment from the House Gallery: This could never have happened in 1865. The First Lady, much less any woman, had no place in this sacred political chamber. So why put this scene in the movie? Spielberg frequently used the portrayal of Lincoln’s unhappy, torn-apart family as a greater metaphor for the unhappy country torn apart by the civil war. A crucial plot point was the necessity of the passage of the thirteenth amendment before completing any peace talks with the Confederacy. Thus, the thirteenth amendment would start the healing process for the nation, and having Mary Todd there signified the beginning of the healing process for Lincoln’s family. Furthermore, keeping Mary Todd in the House Gallery while her husband stayed at home emphasized how intertwined the family’s public and private life had become.
  3. Lincoln’s cabinet advising him against the Thirteenth Amendment: By 1865, Lincoln had swapped out his most unruly cabinet members for loyal men dedicated to serving the president. Those remaining from the original cabinet — Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles — were all fiercely loyal to Lincoln. Drama aside, Spielberg probably put the debates between the cabinet and the president in the movie to show that Lincoln made a risky decision when he chose to back the Thirteenth Amendment in his re-election campaign. The cabinet from the movie was thus able to voice all of the concerns and counterarguments of the time, demonstrating the roadblocks that the amendment faced and starting the difficult journey to its passage.
  4. Roll call by state for the Thirteenth Amendment: Roll call is and was alphabetical. This was merely a dramatic device since the audience can easily understand that southern states had Democratic representatives. Also the amendment wasn’t called the Thirteenth Amendment, but again, this was solely to help the audience.

Equally interesting, here are three “facts” from the movie that were true in 1865:

  1. Thaddeus Steven’s “marriage” to his housekeeper: This was Washington’s worst-kept secret.
  2. Lincoln made corrupt bargains to pass the 13th amendment: Also true, though Lincoln was not as directly involved as in the movie. He did give Steward broad instructions to generate votes, who in turn hired a group of New York lobbyists to do the dirty work.
  3. Lincoln told Congressman James Alley, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” This is perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in the movies, and one of the few times when Day Lewis becomes almost terrifying. Also, it actually happened, though Lincoln probably didn’t shout the words.

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Sources:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/fact-checking-lincoln-lincolns-mostly-realistic-his-advisers-arent/265073/

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/six-footnotes-to-the-greatness-of-lincoln

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/22/what-s-true-and-false-in-lincoln-movie.html

An Unlikely Choice

Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” was almost played by Robert Redford. While working on the script, Mike Nichols had envisioned the tall, bronzed blonde coming home to California to start an affair with a suburban wife. But as the script began to take form, Nichols realized that Redford was too suave for Braddock; he needed a loser in love, someone awkward, funny, and noticeably out-of-place.

Nichols happened to catch Dustin Hoffman playing (I kid you not) a transvestite German fishwife in a play, and found him funny, endearing, and perfect for Braddock. Hoffman at the time had gained a small amount of success after 10 years of stage acting, including an Opie award. Still, he came to California with hesitation that quickly turned to embarrassment during his screen test.

He showed up in his New York garb, pale skin and a black turtleneck, immediately sticking out among the Californian crowd. The makeup crew spent two hours trying to give his face color, make his nose smaller, and his muscular neck look thinner. When Hoffman saw his co-star, Katherine Ross, he immediately felt inadequate next to her beauty. He tried to dissipate some of the nervous tension by pinching her butt before they began the audition, but she immediately turned to him and said, “Don’t you ever do that again.” Hoffman felt the audition was a disaster, and when it was finally over, he reached into his pocket and accidentally sent a fistful of subway tokens flying, adding to his embarrassment.

A few days later, Nichols called Hoffman’s agent, offering him the part.

It’s interesting to note a lot of the parallels between Hoffman’s life and Braddock’s. Both grew up in California and hated it, escaping to New York City (or in Braddock’s case, the ambiguous east) for college. Hoffman was frequently bullied in California by vocal anti-Semites and felt that New York welcomed him like Cali never could.

He brought this intense feeling of discomfort and marginalization to the wasp-y character, giving it the depth Redford would never have achieved. Hoffman’s non-traditional Hollywood appearance (short stature, thick neck, large nose, brooding eyebrows) also made the character seem more every-day and relatable. Braddock wasn’t a gorgeous blonde God of the silver screen, he was an awkward twenty-something suffering from an existentialist crisis.

The unlikely choice ultimately paid off. Hoffman was nominated for two Golden Globes and an Oscar, winning one of the Golden Globes for New Star of the Year- Actor. It’s hard now to picture anyone but Hoffman in the role of Benjamin Braddock. The movie also launched Hoffman’s ultimately successful career as a movie actor.

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Here are the two great articles I used to write this post. Would definitely recommend reading!

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/03/graduate200803

http://www.amc.com/talk/2008/04/dustin-hoffman-the-graduate

The Failings of Unforgiven and its Unforgiving Genre

Unforgiven has received critical praise for challenging the classic western genre by taking a realistic look at the consequences of violence. With this blog post, I fully commit to being a small voice of dissent: I strongly disliked the movie and believe that it failed to question the greater issues with the western genre as a whole.

Let me begin by saying that I wholeheartedly hate westerns. Growing up, the western was my dad’s favorite genre, and as the frequent remote-control holder, he made me sit through numerous movies hoping that this one would change my mind. It never worked. I was never drawn to their idea of an untamed frontier for the taking. I hated the stone-faced gunslingers, their cheesy one-liners, and the simplistic plots. I never understood why driving cattle always led to a shoot-out, and I never understood why the shoot-out was even considered a “noble” solution.

But above all, I hated the society that westerns promoted: macho, patriarchal, where violence reigned supreme and women were either prostitutes or love interests. Everything was black and white, and everyone had a moral duty to protect a misguided conception of “honor,” usually by killing someone. Where is there honor in murder? I had no characters to identify with, no strong female leads, no pacifists, no middle-of-the-road characters advocating for diplomacy over violence.

That being said, I was excited at the idea of the anti-Western. Listening to the pre-film lecture on Monday, I wanted Clint Eastwood to say no to the violence and show how stupid it was. I wanted him to expose the stupidity of the macho society, the truth that honor was really hubris. A small part of me was hoping that the female characters would help expose these problems.

The film failed to live up to my expectations on multiple fronts. The society remained firmly in the hands of men. And while some might argue historical accuracy, what’s interesting is that women were placed in the pivotal role of starting the revenge cycle. Of course, the second men stepped in to complete the cycle, the women slinked away. And did I mention that they were prostitutes?

So let’s think about the kind of message that sends about the “inferior sex” in this world: women are just as guilty as men of instigating and promoting violence, only they are dependent on men to act out their violence for them. The final shootout wasn’t between the prostitutes and their aggressors, it was between the sheriff and the hired hand. The women watch behind the men, mute and petrified.

Meanwhile, Eastwood still gets a dramatic ending full of Hollywood flair. He whips out the one-liners, shoots to kill, and leaves no man standing. Though he leaves the very violence his character detests in his wake, Eastwood is still glorified and the audience finds themselves rooting for him. All of the discomfort at the deaths of the original aggressors is wiped away by the glee of seeing him do what he does best. And because Little Bill has been set up as the antagonist, we are happy to see him die for his crimes. Let me say that again: we are HAPPY to watch a character die.

Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of the movie? If Eastwood really wanted to criticize this sort of ending, he should have turned the revenge cycle on its head. Maybe the prostitutes could have shot Munny (what’s a more tragic consequence of death than orphaned children?). Or maybe Little Bill could have killed Munny, highlighting the unlawfulness of the law enforcers in the west. Or really anything but what we were expecting and what Eastwood ultimately gave us. Eastwood’s ending was a cop-out, and in my opinion, the movie overall was a huge disappointment.

 

Fight Club vs. Fight Club: Important Changes Between the Book and the Movie Adaptation

It’s always interesting to see what was changed and what stayed the same when a movie is based on a book. After all, the source material is essentially the same, but even the most subtle differences can change the way the story is told or even the story itself.

David Fincher’s 1999 movie “Fight Club” is based on Chuck Palahnuik’s book by the same name, which came out just three years before. The movie follows the same plot as the book, uses similar terminology (for example, all of the Fight Club and Project Mayhem rules are straight out of the book), and has the same characters. However, movie director David Fincher and screenplay writer Jim Uhls made five key changes to highlight different aspects of the story.

  1. How the narrator meets Tyler Durden: In the movie, the narrator finds himself sitting next to a flashy if fashionable man on an airplane carrying the same briefcase. Palahunik’s meeting between Tyler and the narrator could not be more different: the two meet on a nude beach, where Tyler is building a wooden structure that casts the shadow of a hand on the sand. In my opinion, Fincher and Uhls changed this meeting for several reasons. First, the airplane setting holds with the narrator’s insomnia-inducing lifestyle, while also breaking with the banal conversations he has earlier in the film, indicating that Tyler holds anti-conformist views that draw the narrator in. Additionally, Pitt’s fashion sense creates a parallel with Marla, an important motif throughout the film. Finally, the briefcase serves as a major first clue that Tyler and the narrator are in fact the same person.
  2. Marla’s suicide attempt: In both the book and the movie, Marla notices that the narrator has stopped showing up to the support groups. Wanting to get his attention, she overdoses on Xanax and calls him. In the movie, the narrator picks up the phone and listens to Marla talk for a bit before dropping the receiver, which Tyler then picks up. In the novel, the narrator never picks up the phone, Tyler does, beginning their affair. This key difference highlights the narrator’s choice not to go to Marla’s apartment and, arguably, his cowardice. It also sets up the antagonistic relationship between Tyler and the narrator over the affair with Marla, even though they are the same person: the narrator realizes that, had he gone to Marla’s place instead, he would be sleeping with her instead of Tyler.
  3. Lye burns: In the book, Marla burns herself with lye on accident. In the movie, Tyler holds the narrator’s hand and pours lye over it, holding it until the burn is deep enough to leave a scar. Tyler and the narrator’s matching scars are another clue that they are in fact the same person. The lye burns become a source of pain, like the fight club, to feel something different from the senseless modern lifestyle. (Fun fact, Brad Pitt asked his parents not to see the movie, but they insisted. They stopped watching after the chemical burn scene.)
  4. Tyler’s last planned explosion: In the book, Tyler’s final Project Mayhem endeavor is to blow up a skyscraper containing a national museum, taking himself out in the same explosion as a martyr. The bomb malfunctions because Tyler mixed paraffin in the explosives. In the movie, the targets are credit card companies. Fincher’s adaptation highlights the theme of consumerism in the story. With this explosion, Tyler wants to eliminate credit card records, and therefore credit card debt, returning everyone to a “clean slate.” This goes to the narrator’s wishes to re-create his own life, which he desperately tried to do by blowing up his apartment and starting a fight club in the first place. Unlike the book, the bombs go off, though it’s ambiguous whether the building the narrator is in blows up as well.anigif_enhanced-buzz-30101-1389371874-16
  5. The ending: In the book, the narrator blacks out after he shoots himself and wakes up in a mental hospital, convinced that he is in Heaven. The novel ends with the hospital employees revealing themselves to be Project Mayhem members, telling the narrator that they expect Tyler to come back. The movie has a much more, for lack of a better term, “Hollywood ending.” The narrator and Marla reconcile and hold hands as buildings blow up around them. The ending suggests that the narrator has finally killed the part of himself that was Tyler and is finally ready to start a new life with Marla. Conversely, the novel’s ending is cyclical, suggesting that Tyler will eventually return.

 

Kouchtown, Drunken 11-Year-Olds, and Governor Dunston

103 Primetime Emmy Nominations and 16 wins. The 21st best-written television series of all time, according to the Writers’ Guild of America. One of the best series finales in the history of television. Yet 30 Rock struggled to attract viewers throughout its run.

I am dedicating this post to Tina Fey’s laudable wit and satire just as I dedicated my Jefferson Smith post to Amy Poehler’s. Watching The Network and discussing it on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but be reminded of 30 Rock and its ingenious way of poking fun at itself. It’s a show on NBC about making a show on NBC. Tina Fey is the lead writer for the show, and plays the lead writer of the show that’s on the show. Genius! And the show touches on every single topic we discussed on Wednesday: the news oligopoly, the obsession with ratings, the political horse race, and absurd TV programming.

One of the plot lines of 30 Rock, shown largely through the existential struggles of network executive Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin), is the acquisition of NBC from its previous owner, General Electric, by the “fictitious” cable company called Kabletown. (Ahem, Comcast; Fey is poking fun at the actual sale of NBC from GE to Comcast that happened during the show’s run.) To satirize the absurd corporate structures both before and after the sale of the network, Fey designates Jack to be both the head of the network and the head of the Microwave division under GE, losing the latter position after NBC is sold. Jack struggles with the loss of this position, and the loss of his abilities to “create” something, coming up with numerous ideas and schemes to prove himself to his new boss at Kabletown.

One of his first ideas is couches. Just like a cable company buying a network is vertical integration, Jack decides that a network selling couches would further the vertical integration. This crazy idea aside, Kouchtown fails because of shoddy “American engineering” that creates couches so uncomfortable, they are purchased by law enforcement as interrogation chairs. But the show succeeds in using an absurd idea to pass on an important message: our “free” media is being held in fewer and fewer hands.

While 30 Rock struggled with ratings, TGS, the fictional show on the show likewise struggled, and Fey wrote in increasingly absurd demographics to poke fun at TV’s obsession with ratings. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Liz Lemon (Fey’s writer character) suggests that they will not be able to get the show done for Friday, to which Jack replies, “Well, that will really disappoint your key demographic of drunken 11-year-olds.”
  2. After introducing a new environmentalist mascot called Greenzo, Jack remarks, “Look how Greenzo’s testing! They love him in every demographic: colored people, broads, fairies, commies. Gosh, we gotta update these forms.”
  3. NBC’s new show about teenage boys on an island with hot moms, MILF Island has a new star called Deborah. Jack comments, “And Deborah is testing off the charts in the most profitable demographics: Soccer moms, NASCAR dads, white collar pervs and the obese.”

During the 2012 election, Fey also pokes fun at politicians and the people who impersonate them. She introduces a character called Governor Dunston, played by one of the cast members, Tracy Morgan, and then uses Morgan’s character, Tracey Jordan to satirize Dunston on TGS. Dunston is an absurd Republican politician and presidential candidate, promoting policies that terrify liberal Liz, while frequently humiliating himself in public. Because of Dunston and Jordan’s physical resemblance (they are played by the same actor), the Dunston skits put TGS’s ratings through the roof. However, the Dunston skits on TGS also increase the Republican Governor’s popularity, creating a moral dilemma for Liz: if she continues to write the skits, her show will get great ratings, but a foolish politician will get more votes for the presidential race; if she doesn’t write the skits, her show will suffer, but the candidate won’t benefit from the free media attention. The plot ingeniously pokes fun at Fey’s experience impersonating Sarah Palin, and eerily foreshadows the recent obsession of the media with Trump (it has helped their ratings, but has also helped Trump’s popularity).

All 7 beautiful seasons of 30 Rock are on Netflix and I encourage everyone to watch them. (I personally have binge-watched the show twice so far.) The pilot has received a lot of criticism, and the show takes a couple of episodes to find its comedic footing, but once you’re halfway through season 1, you can enjoy one of the best shows in TV history.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • “Affirmative action was designed to keep women and minorities in competition with each other to distract us while white dudes inject AIDS into our chicken nuggets.” -Tracy
  • “No, Tracy took advantage of my white guilt, which is supposed to be used only for good, like over-tipping and supporting Barack Obama.” -Liz
  • “The only thing I will be discussing with the House Subcommittee on Baseball, Quiz Shows, Terrorism, and Media is vertical integration.” -Jack
  • “Okay, in my defense, every April 22nd I honor Richard Nixon’s death by getting drunk and making some unpopular decisions.” -Jack
  • “Every Tina I know is a judgmental bitch.” -Liz
  • “Oh, no, The Peace Corp. Lawrence Peace’s corporation. We drilled for oil in gorilla habitats.”-Avery

Here are the articles I used to write this post (and they are both worth a read!):

How Tina Fey’s ’30 Rock’ Lasted Seven Seasons and Changed the Game for Female Comedy Creators

10 Episodes that Show how 30 Rock Tweaked the Sitcom Formula

Rear Window: Violating Women One Gaze at a Time

Earlier this week, my Facebook feed was peppered with the announcement of Jessica Chastain’s launching of an all-female production company. This news stemmed from the recent Oscar and Grammy award seasons, which brought with them a slew of criticisms of the largely white male pool of nominees coming from an industry dominated by white males. (Take a good look at the graph in the Forbes article hyperlinked above; these shocking statistics are from 2015.) Feminists often cite the portrayal of women in films and media as a source of ongoing sexism and violence against women. If you’re wondering what that means, you don’t have to look any further than Rear Window.

I walked out of Carnegie this past Monday a little dazed and deeply unsettled by Hitchcock’s movie. The acclaimed director’s portrayal of women violated every feminist stance possible. The women in Rear Window are obsessed with marriage and how they are viewed by men. They enjoy being victims of violence and abuse. They exist only to please the perverted men they love.

rear_window_ver3_xlgHitchcock directed the movie to exclusively show the male gaze. There are only three perspectives, and all three are male: Jeff, Hitchcock’s subjective camera, and Thorwald briefly at the final climax. As the audience, we see what these men see, and despite our own race, gender, sexuality, etc., we view the movie and the action as white men. (And as most directors, Hitchcock tries to get us to empathize with his (white, male, hetero) protagonists.) This choice of direction automatically objectifies women; we must divine their thoughts and intentions through the lens of the male gaze, which frequently stops at their physical appearance. Miss Torso’s plotline until the very last scene can be summed up as “eye candy,” and even when we see her partner come through the door, her greatest ambitions are shown to be domestic bliss. Lisa’s first scene and last scene, despite her “character development,” are identical: Massive shots and slow pans of Grace Kelly not speaking and looking gorgeous, or in other words, even more eye candy. Women are to be seen and sexualized, but not heard.

So what happens when the male gaze lingers past the curves and starts to look into the lives of these women? The answer is three victims of abuse.

The first is Lisa, who suffers emotional abuse in trying to domesticate Jeff. In her first scene, Lisa is, by 1950’s standards, the perfect woman. Gorgeous, fashionable, and ready to take care of her man. But her man still doesn’t want her, and that limits Lisa’s character development to pleasing Jeff. In the final scene, Hitchcock further infantilizes her by showing she has not really developed at all; she puts down her book and picks up a fashion magazine with a smile.

The second is Miss Lonelyheart, also seeking domestic bliss. She practices her date etiquette, prims and trims her appearance, and then puts her plan into action by hanging out at a cafe. Her efforts are met with an attempted rape, which Lisa and Jeff watch uncomfortably, neither of them reaching for a phone to call the police. Jeff has just finished asking Doyle to look into a murder he didn’t actually see happen, yet when he witnesses a crime about to happen before his very eyes, his instinct is to watch and say nothing. This incident foreshadows a rape and murder that happened ten years after the release of Rear Window, the famous Kitty Genovese case that launched research by psychologists into the Bystander Effect. Between 37 and 38 witnesses, all neighbors in her Queens apartment block, saw or heard Kitty being stabbed and raped, but not one of them intervened or called the police.

rear_window_ringThe third woman is Mrs. Thorwald. She is sick and nags her husband, and as a result, is murdered by him. One thing that struck me is that Hitchcock, in his attempt to make his murderer seem like a normal fellow, only gives those two reasons for Thorwald’s decision to kill his wife (that she is sick and nags him). Again, this furthers the argument that women are meant to be seen and sexualized (and should therefore beautiful, not sickly) and not heard. Hitchcock further supports this by showing Lisa sneaking Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring on her own finger, symbolically marrying a wife-murderer. Lisa is the perfect female character to be shown doing this, having already taken Jeff’s verbal abuse to heart and acting upon it.

The movie ends with domestic justice: Thorwald is sent to jail, Miss Lonelyheart finds a companion in the struggling musician, and Lisa metaphorically lets her hair down for Jeff by wearing jeans and attempting to read an adventure book. Both of the surviving women have reached their peak happiness in the prospect of marriage, and both are seen in their male partner’s apartment, conforming to the man’s life instead of their own. With the final scene, Hitchcock imprisons the women in their endless quest to please men, with no indication of further ambitions or further capacities.

I realize now that my word count is obscene, but for any of you interested in the feminist and psychoanalytical implications of Rear Window and other Hitchcock films, here is a great essay by Laura Mulvey from 1973 that was published as an article in Screen in 1975.

Two Men in a Taxicab

The two large men are squashed in the back of a taxi. Charley, the older brother just can’t keep still. This is the first scene we see where he isn’t the “cool guy,” strutting around, barking orders, or cracking a joke. He fidgets with his hands, his eyes wander, he adjusts his coat. He just can’t seem to meet Terry’s eyes. Meanwhile, Terry, the bullheaded bum little brother, slinks into his seat in a calming sadness of surprisingly emotive power. The scene begins Terry’s confrontation of the union’s power. By accepting what Terry has told him, by showing remorse and giving him the gun and the chance to leave the system, Charley both acknowledges his corruption and assures his own death.

When Marlon Brando looked at the script for this scene, he insisted on changing its direction. The screenplay used simple language throughout the movie, forcing Brando to communicate more through his actions and his expressions, a task which he excelled at and eventually won the Oscar for. Brando convinced Kazan that Terry should gently push the gun away when Charley pulls it out in the taxicab scene. He also insisted on reacting calmly to the gun and delivering the monologue with sadness rather than anger.

The result is incredibly poignant. Brando, himself a strong, muscular man, talks about his boxing failures with emotional depth, creating a shocking contrast between the audience’s expectations and the reality of the character. Both Brando and Rod Steiger (Charley) seem broken, though in very different ways. Their physical size and the closeness of the camera heightens the drama of their acting and highlights emotion over physical dominance (which has been established as the most valued attribute in this corrupt system). By the time Brando delivers the infamous like, “I coulda been a contender!” the audience’s image of him as a tough, D&D guy is completely broken, before he even confesses his love for Edie or testifies against Friendly.

To truly understand the power of Brando’s acting, here’s the text of the monologue. When you read it, without watching the scene, it sounds like an angry deadbeat complaining about the past.

It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money. You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.

Here’s a Youtube clip of Brando delivering the monologue. Notice how soft his voice is, despite what he’s actually saying. Notice how Steiger reacts, how he stutters and looks away. Notice how Brando slumps into the seat before and after the monologue. The acting is exquisite on both ends.

Brando was actually very upset with his performance in this scene, though critics have always lauded it as some of his best acting. In his autobiography, Brando recounts that he left the theatre at a preview screening of the movie without comment. The Academy clearly disagreed with his evaluation, and this movie, along with Streetcar, propelled Brando into success as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

Source: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/4749/On-the-Waterfront/notes.html

Three Endings

In class we talked a little bit about the three endings to The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck, Ford, and Zanuck each envisioned a different ending, each with its own moral and political implications. In this blog post, I will take a look at these three endings and what they meant.

Steinbeck’s Ending:

Dorris Bowdon as Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn)

Steinbeck’s novel ends with more religious than political connotations. The Joads, homeless and starving once again, seek refuge in a barn during a rainstorm (symbolic of the flood). There, they encounter a homeless man who is on the brink of death from starvation. Rose of Sharon, having just given birth to a stillborn child, breast-feeds the starving man. Steinbeck insisted on the man being a complete stranger, thereby emphasizing the selflessness of Rose’s act. He also did this by building her up as a self-centered character earlier in the book. Steinbeck thus ends on a symbolic gesture, rather than a happy ending. His final scene is a message about humility and kindness towards fellow human beings. It is simultaneously the ending of a high romantic and a Marxist.

Ford’s Ending:

To say that John Ford was the ideal director for The Grapes of Wrath is an understatement. Ford was the son of Irish immigrants who left during the potato famine, and thus had strong emotional ties to the Joads’ story of land dispossession, hunger, and journey to the promised land of California. His work on The Grapes of Wrath won him an Academy Award, though the movie received criticism for diluting the novel’s more controversial points.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in Ford’s original ending.

Ford’s ending accomplishes two things. Politically, it supports FDR’s New Deal policies. This is largely done through the setting. In the novel, Tom Joad is hiding out in a cave when Ma Joad comes by to say her farewell. Ford moved this scene to the government camp, highlighting the camp as the only location where the Joad’s were treated as human beings. Furthermore, Ford cast an actor who physically resembled FDR to portray the camp director, and even had the actor mimic the President’s speech patterns. The visual impact is a strong argument for the government’s role as protector of the people.

The second effect is to emphasize the tragedy of land dispossession. To Ford, losing one’s land trumped unemployment and even starvation. As such, the most poignant scenes of the movie are when Ma Joad starts going through her items and burning memories she cannot take with her, and Tom Joad’s farewell. In Ford’s ending, Tom is seen walking towards the horizon alone, leaving his family and his refuge. His loss, the loss of a home, is the greatest loss he has endured, and he must go through it one more time.

Zanuck’s Ending:

Zanuck’s ending with Ma Joad’s speech (Jane Darwell)

Zanuck found Ford’s ending too politically provocative (since Tom intends to become a union activist). He therefore added a coda ending, meant to dilute the political force of Ford’s scene and simultaneously give audiences the “Hollywood ending” they wanted. Ma Joad’s speech echoed the feel-good American spirit of gritting your teeth and moving on. However, this ending did not sit well with many critics, particularly in the 60’s. They essentially considered Ma Joad’s speech a cop-out, a betrayal of the political spirit of the novel. The ending told viewers to hang in there and wait for things to get better, rather than take political action and rock the boat.

Source: http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2012/08/27/the-senses-of-an-ending-the-grapes-of-wrath-novel-and-film-patrick-j-keane/

Amy Poehler’s Modern Take on Capra

(AN: For any Parks and Recreation fans out there, I hope this post will do the show justice. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, if you enjoy simultaneously witty and silly humor, and shows like The Office or 30 Rock, I am going to shamelessly suggest you watch it. Its take on modern politics is surprisingly profound.)

For those of you who don’t watch Parks and Rec, it’s a show about Leslie Knope, the deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie is the Jefferson Smith of local government: she is an idealist, full of patriotism and over-zealous energy, and fueled by any and all challenges she faces. She embodies the populist ideals of the equality of men. Episode after episode, she is shown hosting public forums and treating even the smallest citizen complaint with the utmost dedication. One episode even shows her removing slugs from a citizen’s sidewalk. Another shows her single-handedly removing litter from the Pawnee river, because her cleanup proposal is being held up by bureaucratic red tape. To draw even more parallels to Jefferson Smith, Leslie totes around pictures of her role models (Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Madeleine Albright), and even has her own patriotic Washington, DC montage in season 5 (the episode title is “Ms. Knope Goes to Washington”). And yes, Leslie is even a girl scout.

The show follows Leslie’s advancement in local, and eventually, federal government. Episode plot lines typically follow the same structure: Leslie is faced with an issue that confronts her ideals, she tries compromising her ideals to solve the issue, and then ultimately turns to her idealism for a creative solution that resolves the conflict.

One episode, “Filibuster,” is surprisingly reminiscent of Jefferson Smith. Leslie, now a councilwoman, has just finished organizing a merger between the rival towns of Pawnee and Eagleton. The purpose of the merger was to bring Eagleton out of bankruptcy, though tensions between the towns have generated animosity, graffiti battles, drunken brawls, etc.

In response to this animosity, Pawneean councilman Jeremy Jamm tries pushing a bill through city council preventing Eagletonians from voting in the next election. Leslie finds out about this just as she is about to attend her husband’s birthday party. Instead of attending the party, she tries to kill the bill by filibustering until the council adjourns for the day. As she is filibustering, she learns that Eagletonians, who have rushed into the council room to support her, plan to vote against her in the election and elect their own representative to city council. Despite this, Leslie continues the filibuster, supporting her democratic ideals and the rights to suffrage. Because she needs to keep talking, Leslie thinks out loud:

“If Eagletonians vote for someone else, then it would be in my best interest to stop, right? So then they can’t vote… Or, I keep going. Because the right to vote is fundamental in any democracy. This is bigger than me, so I’m not going to stop. I don’t care if I lose.”

Leslie filibustering.

Leslie is making the ultimate sacrifice for her ideals. Representing Pawnee on City Council has been her dream job. She is eventually recalled and replaced with an Eagletonian representative. Like Jefferson Smith, this is an ambiguous ending to the conflict, not exactly happy, because she loses her job, but not exactly sad, because the filibuster works. Leslie spends the better part of the season struggling to find her purpose, before an employee in the National Parks Service approaches her with a job opportunity, with an almost deus ex machina ending. Still, she stands by her dedication and idealism, much like Jefferson did.

Chaplain in Communist Romania

I don’t remember my first Charlie Chaplain movie, but I do remember watching it with my parents and being happy that I could understand it even though it wasn’t dubbed. We still watch Chaplain movies, our personal favorite is “The Kid,” and every time my parents tell me how much these movies made them laugh when they were growing up. This may not seem like a big deal, except my parents grew up in communist Romania, and I was lucky to have been born a few years after the Romanian Revolution. When I was a kid, the Tramp helped them tell me their stories about life in an oppressive regime through comedy.

“The Great Dictator” (1940)

For my parents, the Tramp’s endless quest for his next meal struck home in a time of severe rationing and actual bread lines. To this day, my parents hate pasta because grocery stores would be filled with aisles on aisles of pasta and canned fish…and nothing else. Electricity and running water were never a given; if anything was certain, it was that the water would run out or the lights would turn off exactly when you needed them most. (I should also mention that they lived in the capital city, Bucharest, not some tiny Transylvanian village.) The shantytown houses Charlie would sometimes live in looked a lot like the poor village homes you can still see in rural Romania today, torn, tattered, and falling apart. And while most people identified Adenoid Hynkel with Adolf Hitler, my parents could sneak a giggle at how much he resembled Nicolai Ceaușescu without incurring the wrath of the Secret Police (if you don’t believe me, here’s Hynkel, and here’s Ceaușescu). 

Lines at the grocery store in Communist Romania.

How do you explain poverty and political oppression to a 6-year-old girl? Show her a Tramp who would rather go to jail for a hot meal than be homeless. Show her a dictator who speaks in understandable gibberish. Let her laugh, because she is too young to understand how tragic it is when these situations are real. 

I know these blog posts are supposed to be more research-oriented, but two points were brought up in class that literally struck home for me. The first was that Chaplain believed silent movies were more universal. I think he should have been less modest and insisted that HIS silent movies are more universal. The Tramp became a symbol of resilience in communist Romania, somebody who was staring into the face of poverty and still finding reasons to laugh. Because his comedy was all transmitted through his body and his facial expressions, his movies were incredibly easy to understand. His use of universal themes, like hunger and societal oppression, also made the movies translatable. 

Ceaușescu giving a speech in 1967. He was the dictator of Romania until 1989.

Another point we brought up in class is the ability of comedy to reflect on social issues. To be fair, “The Great Dictator” would undoubtedly have been banned in my country if it weren’t a blatant satire of Nazi Germany. Still, it struck the hearts of a people who were tired of hearing the ruthless leader of their country screaming on the TV for an hour every week about how rich Romania was when everyone was miserable and starving. Chaplain gave them a way to express their criticisms and frustrations with the oppressive regime. 

In that vein, we also mentioned in class how comedy is a fine line away from tragedy, as noted in the roller skating scene of “Modern Times.” One step over the edge turns laughter into tears. For my parents, that ledge was moving from the movies back to reality. But at least the movies gave them a chance to laugh.