Time Out of Mind: Richard Gere as a homeless man in New York City

By Robert Fowler
5 October 2015

Director Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, with Richard Gere, is a sincere yet flawed film that attempts to portray the struggles of a homeless character named George Hammond.

Time Out of Mind

Moverman’s previous efforts include directing the Iraq war drama The Messenger (his debut as a director) and writing or co-writing I’m Not There (the Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan) and the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy .

In the opening scene of Time Out of Mind we discover a disheveled George Hammond (Gere) sleeping in a bathtub in an abandoned apartment. He is roused by an officious building manager ably played by Steve Buscemi. The building manager insists on removing George as quickly and efficiently as possible, and despite protestations from our protagonist he succeeds in doing so.

After being forced out of the building, George wanders aimlessly throughout the city. He is accompanied by the sights and particularly the sounds of New York, which serve as the film’s soundtrack. Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski chose to shoot Time Out of Mind in what might be considered a neo-realist style, with hand-held and hidden cameras. We hear off-screen conversations from passersby and there are several long-distance shots of George.

One would assume that this is an attempt to depict the isolation that George and so many homeless individuals must feel, but, unfortunately, in this case it comes across as contrived, and in the end creates an unnecessary distance between George and the viewer. One feels Moverman missed an opportunity or perhaps was reluctant to delve more profoundly into the depths of George’s plight.

As the very loose narrative unfolds, we learn that George has lost his job, that his ex-wife is dying from cancer and that he is estranged from his daughter, Maggie (Jena Malone). Along the way he befriends a gregarious African American man by the name of Dixon (Ben Vereen) in a homeless shelter. They soon become an “odd couple” in a rather clichéd fashion. That being said, Dixon, played competently by Vereen, comes across as the more true to life of the two homeless men. He is a former jazz musician who, despite his predicament, is consistent in his liveliness and ability to find humor and hope.

Some of the more authentic moments in the film come in the form of George’s difficulties with government bureaucracies and homeless shelter officials who insist on seeing some sort of identification. One empathizes strongly with George’s frustrations in these circumstances as he desperately tries to remember his social security number, home address, date of birth and other pieces of information, under constant passive-aggressive interrogation from detached bureaucratic mouthpieces. Moverman attempts to balance this with a scene involving a friendlier homeless shelter attendant who pointedly tells George: “I was once in the position you are now.”

George attempts to reconnect with his daughter Maggie on a couple of occasions. First at a laundromat, then in the bar where she works. Again, these moments, although well-intentioned, seem contrived and quite “Hollywoodish” in both their writing and acting. Predictably, Maggie is aloof and embarrassed at what her father has become. However, toward the film’s conclusion, she does have second thoughts about her coldness.

The inevitably repetitive nature of life on the streets is a strong focus of the film. This approach has mixed results. George pleading for change, for example, although quite realistic, failed in many respects as these moments seemed to lack an urgency and desperation. The little money George receives from the streets is spent on alcohol and clothes. There are vague allusions to George having a drinking problem, but for Moverman to harp on this aspect of his personality seems a bit lazy.

Time Out of Mind

Gere’s performance is earnest, but terribly self-conscious. He overdoes the naturalistic grunts and sighs, trying too hard throughout. Perhaps all this “special effort” is unsurprising as Gere had championed the script for many years seeking a suitable director.

Gere found his man in Moverman, who explains in an interview with Indiewire, “The project came with Richard. He approached me, he told me about a script that he had, an old script, and a character that he’s been obsessed with. That’s where the conversation started. In a way the movie came pre-cast. Otherwise, I would never, ever cast Richard Gere.”

According to philly.com, the actor was affected by reading Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, “a memoir by a homeless person called Cadillac Man. ‘I loved the book because it was artless,’ Gere says. ‘He didn’t know how to write, and, so, the writing, of course, was wonderful.’ Gere met with Cadillac Man—a meeting that gave the actor the confidence to go ahead with Time Out of Mind. For three weeks, dressed in secondhand clothes, he roamed the streets. He’d scour Dumpsters for food, he’d stand at curbs, he disappeared in the thrum and hustle.”

There’s no reason to doubt Gere’s genuineness or his social concern. Another major film performer, Paul Bettany, has directed a film called Shelter, which opens in a limited run in the US November 13, about a homeless couple in New York (with Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s wife, and Anthony Mackie)

Moverman further explained, “I didn’t make this film as some homeless advocate who is in the trenches for years, or as anyone with any kind of righteousness or superiority on this issue. I’m just like anybody else, I ignore people as much as anybody else. I think we all live complicated lives and we have lots going on. We have a lot of narratives happening in our hands and strands of communication. Reality is really something that we have to block out sometimes, or we can’t help but block out. I think that the movie opened our eyes, for sure, to noticing people more and to maybe being more conscious about it, which is the only thing you can hope for. It’s not a movie with a solution.”

Nobody is expecting Moverman to offer a “solution” to the crisis of homelessness in a two-hour film but surely an artist can at least offer a strong and clear point of view. Instead, Moverman opts for a false objectivity, convinced, no doubt, that he is showing “life as it really is.” In fact, this passivity is bound up with a certain superficiality, an unwillingness to go terribly deep into the social problem or the character’s psyche.

In terms of the housing crisis, as the WSWS has noted in numerous articles, the spiraling cost of living in New York City has forced thousands of people onto the streets. The official total of those living in shelters is over 60,000.

During Michael Bloomberg’s tenure (2002-2013) as mayor of New York, the homeless population is estimated to have increased somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. After his successor Bill de Blasio’s first year in City Hall, the total number of people sleeping in homeless shelters was 58,469. The number of people currently sleeping on the street on any given night is in the range of 4,000.

The great difficulty in finding affordable housing is obviously a major factor. A recent report on the real estate web site StreetEasy pointed out that it is impossible for a worker in New York making the city’s minimum wage, $8.75 per hour, to find an apartment. Meanwhile, the average sale price of a Manhattan apartment is $1.87 million. According to an article in Forbesmagazine, there are currently 78 billionaires residing in New York City.

At one point in Time Out of Mind, George cries “We don’t exist! We don’t exist!” This is a rare and powerful moment in the film that rings true for thousands and thousands of New York residents. Such have been the devastating consequences of the profit system.



I Saw the Light (Hank Williams) and Janis: Little Girl Blue (Janis Joplin)—Popular music and its discontents

By David Walsh
3 October 2015

This is the third in a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-20). The first part was posted September 26 and the second part October 1.

Country music performer Hank Williams (1923-1953) and rock and roll singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) were both significant figures in the history of American popular culture. Williams died at 29 and Joplin at 27. Each is the subject of a new film. I Saw the Light (Marc Abraham) is a fictional account of Williams’ life; Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amy Berg) is a documentary about Joplin.

The gifted British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and also creditably sings his songs (musician Rodney Crowell worked with Hiddleston for a month). I Saw the Light follows Williams’ life from his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama in 1944 (the owner is also a justice of the peace) to his death, from alcohol and pill-induced heart failure, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light

Abraham’s effort is a fairly standard film biography. It treats some of the ups and many downs in Williams’ life. The singer drank heavily, between occasional periods of sobriety. He was often in pain because of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the outer part of certain vertebrae is not completely closed. He and his wife frequently fought, over money, over her desire to sing, over his affairs, over her affairs. They eventually divorced, and shortly before his death, Williams married again.

I Saw the Light

Williams had his first big hit with “Move It on Over,” about a man in trouble with his wife, in 1947. In fact, it is an early rock and roll song, one that unmistakably reflects the postwar atmosphere. After a successful stint on the Louisiana Hayride, Williams first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, where his “Lovesick Blues” was a triumph. The glory did not last long.

He was eventually fired from the Opry for alcoholism in 1952 and his famed producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford in the film), stopped working with him. His life went from bad to worse … It did not help matters that a quack, who had obtained his “Doctorate of Science” for $35 began prescribing amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate and morphine for the ailing and addicted singer. I Saw the Light fleshes out these various episodes. Hiddleston, Olsen and Cherry Jones as the formidable Lillie Williams, Hank’s mother, all do well. The film avoids painting any of the characters as yokels, but it also avoids saying much of anything about them. This movie is not an immense step forward from Gene Nelson’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, the 1964 film with George Hamilton as Williams and Susan Oliver as Audrey.

Williams was a remarkable singer and songwriter. His lyrics are clever and insightful about everyday life. His liveliest songs “swing” with confidence and swagger, finding a large audience in a population that had endured the Depression and the war and now, with jobs and with some money in their pockets, had no intention of returning to the darkest days of the 1930s—“Move It on Over,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “Why Don’t You Love me,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and more.

In one of the better scenes in I Saw the Light, Williams-Hiddleston is in New York—where he feels like a fish out of water—for the Perry Como television show in November 1951. He speaks frankly to a reporter from a big city newspaper. “Everyone has a little darkness,” he says. Williams refers to the anger, misery, sorrow and shame that everyone feels. “I show it to them [the public]. … They think I can help.”

In another comment, cited by Colin Escott in his biography of Williams, the real-life singer told an interviewer (perhaps the one fictionalized in the film?) in 1951, “Folk songs [which are what he termed his own music] express the dreams and prayers and hopes of the working people.”

This element seems deliberately played down in I Saw the Light. Perhaps Abraham was frightened of making sweeping and too easy generalizations, and unsubstantiated generalizations should obviously be avoided. But Williams was born in immense poverty in rural southern Alabama and grew up during the Depression. His father was a terrible drunk and his mother was not an easy person. He drank, and ultimately took pills, all his brief life to alleviate physical and psychological pain. But his songs reflected something more than merely his own personal distress and striving. Their rhythms and words tapped into the sentiments of large numbers of people.

The film convincingly recreates the physical look of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but pays little attention to the larger forces at work that shaped and propelled Hank Williams and country music in general. One does not really obtain a sense in I Saw the Light of the quality and character of everyday life out of which his songs emerged.

Country music, including its very name, is full of contradictions that deserve to be explored. Like Williams’ family, which moved from rural Butler County to Montgomery, Alabama, a city of 70,000, when the future singer was 13 or 14, the genre was created and developed for the most part by those who were, in fact, leaving the “country.”

As historian Rachel Rubin notes: “In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind as both black and white Southerners fled the rural South for the promise of good jobs in the city.”

Neither is the question of Jim Crow segregation touched upon in the film. Abraham’s may have had the healthy notion that I Saw the Light should not become prey to contemporary identity politics, but simply sidestepping complexities is not helpful either.

One of Williams’ earliest influences was the African American street musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who apparently showed the eight-year-old how to improvise chords on the guitar. Williams had many African American fans. The final shot I Saw the Light is newsreel footage from the day of Williams’ funeral in January 1953 in Montgomery, and one sees many black faces in the crowd milling about on the street.

Claudette Colvin was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was arrested for opposing segregation on Montgomery’s buses in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was taken off a city bus by police, sparking the famous boycott. Speaking of her childhood, Colvin told her biographer Philip Hoose, “I listened to the Grand Ole Opry, too. The star of the show was Hank Williams, a famous country singer from Montgomery. When he died, his funeral drew the biggest crowd in the history of the city; Hank Williams’ wife invited the black community to attend since so many of us liked his music, but Mom wouldn’t let me go because the funeral was segregated.”

These are the sorts of fascinating dramas and conflicts that a more serious work on Hank Williams’ life and times might have raised. As it is, I Saw the Light is a pleasant film that does not go terribly deep.

Popular music has played, and continues to play, an immense role in American life. There are many reasons for this, including the extraordinary heterogeneity of experiences, traditions and nationalities that jostle against one another in America and seem worth calling attention to. But is it not possible as well that a population so politically disenfranchised and excluded as the American people must find some outlet, which social democratic, “Communist” or labor parties have provided to a limited extent in other countries, for its feelings and sufferings?

Janis Joplin

Amy Berg is making a name for herself as an interesting documentary filmmaker. Her Deliver Us from Evil (2006), about a Catholic priest who admitted to molesting and raping 25 children, and West of Memphis (2012), about the frame-up of a number of young men for the supposed “satanic” murder of three eight-year-old children, were both systematic and compassionate.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Berg turns to the life and career of singer Janis Joplin, who was immensely popular for the last several years of her life until her tragic demise from heroin and alcohol in October 1970.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a sea port on the Gulf of Mexico and at the time the center of a large oil refinery network. Her father was a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. In high school, as Little Girl Blue details, Joplin felt persecuted and an outcast.

The civil rights movement and the social developments of the late 1950s and early 1960s were obviously critical to the course of her life. One of her first musical memories, Berg’s film notes, was hearing folk singer Odetta’s version of “Careless Love.” Joplin tried folk singing in Austin, Texas, before first moving to San Francisco in 1963, where she sang but also developed a methamphetamine habit and became “skeletal.”

After a brief period back home in Port Arthur, Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 and became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a “psychedelic rock” band. A major breakthrough took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first of the large, well-publicized music festivals, in June 1967, where she sang a memorable version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Berg’s film follows the vicissitudes of Joplin’s professional and personal life. She left Big Brother in 1968 and went out on her own as the leader of her own bands. She continued to use serious drugs. A friend says blithely, “We shot heroin for fun.” She eventually took for Brazil to clean herself up, where she fell in love with an American tourist.

Janis Joplin in 1970

Berg treats Joplin’s life with a great deal of sympathy. The singer, who exuded confidence and bravado on stage, was beset by anxiety and insecurity. She told a Montreal reporter in 1969, “Send me your review. I agonize over all of ’em. Man, I’m really neurotic. I really want people to love me.”

Joplin’s recordings are not generally as good as they could be and she tended, as filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker remarks, to “shout and scream.” It will elicit cries of outrage from some, but, in my opinion, there is very little of the “San Francisco Sound” that stands the test of time: too much self-indulgence, too many drugs, too much self-delusion.

However, anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it. This writer saw her in concert three times in 1968 and 1969, including on a bill with B.B. King only a few hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.

Her last boyfriend David Niehaus comments in Berg’s film that Janis “could feel everybody else’s pain.” She could not be oblivious, Niehaus explains, to suffering, her singing represents an “entire honesty.”

Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’ younger siblings, participated in the making of Berg’s film and are interviewed in it. They were present at the public screenings in Toronto. Each makes a highly favorable impression. They spoke with considerable affection, four decades or more later, about their elder sister. Laura described Janis’ emotional life as a “roller coaster” from early on. She made clear that her sister hated “racism” (Port Arthur had an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s) and felt strongly about “integration” and “equality.” Footage of Janis’s mother, after Janis’ death, reading one of her daughter’s letters, is also very moving.

The final and most apt comment in Little Girl Blue comes from John Lennon, on a talk show following Joplin’s death. Lennon observes that no one is asking the most important question, why people take drugs in the first place. He suggests that it comes from a “problem with society. People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.”

Gillian Armstrong’s latest film

Australian film director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, High Tide, Oscar and Lucinda) has made an intriguing and original documentary, Women He’s Undressed, about the legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly (1897-1964), born Orry George Kelly in Kiama, New South Wales.

Women He’s Undressed

Armstrong has actor Darren Gilshenan portray Orry-Kelly in various slightly camp reenactments of episodes from the designer’s life. Sent to Sydney by his parents in 1917 to study banking, Orry-Kelly developed a love for the theater, before emigrating to the US in 1922. He shared an apartment with the future Cary Grant, then Archie Leach, in New York City, where they sold ties together.

Orry-Kelly moved to Hollywood in 1931 and eventually found work at Warner Brothers. In the end, he had 300 film credits, including as costume designer for such films as Juarez, When Tomorrow Comes, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, The Little Foxes, An American in Paris, Oklahoma!, Auntie Mame, Sweet Bird of Youth, Gypsy and Irma La Douce. During certain periods, he worked on as many as 50 films a year.

The talking heads include Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda and award-winning costume designer Ann Roth, all of whom speak about Orry-Kelly with great respect and affection.

The designer, who was gay in what he described as a “homophobic city” (Hollywood), never found personal happiness. He drank a great deal, and when drunk was apparently “foulmouthed” and “mean.” Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards for his design work (the most won by an Australian until costume designer Catherine Martin surpassed his total in 2014).

Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, is a biographical film about the trials and tribulations of American screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), blacklisted and sent to jail in 1950 as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” screenwriter and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Roach is best known to this point for directing the Austin Powers series of films with Mike Myers and the Meet the Parents series with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. He also directed the execrable Borat, with Sacha Baron Cohen. None of this is very auspicious or seems a serious preparation for taking on one of the most complex and fraught political periods in American history.

One’s misgivings are largely confirmed. More can be said about the film when it eventually comes out to the movie theaters, but Trumbo represents the writer (played by Bryan Cranston), a Communist Party member from 1943 to 1948, as little more than a tepid liberal. Granted, the Stalinist party presented itself during this period as the most fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the war effort, but there was more to Trumbo and his adherence to the CP than that. His 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, about a shell-shocked World War I veteran, was a quite ferocious attack on imperialist war and its horrors. In any case, Trumbo is a weak effort.

Sunset Song

More should also be said in the future about Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, based on the well-known 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Davies (The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth, Of Time and the City) is an immensely sensitive filmmaker, but his adaptation of the novel is oddly dissatisfying.

The story, set in the early 20th century, involves a farming family eking out an existence in northeast Scotland. The patriarch (Peter Mullan) is as hard and unsympathetic as a closed fist. His wife, worn out by painful births, eventually takes her own life and those of her two youngest children. Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the eldest daughter in the family, is deserted by her beloved brother, the victim of their father’s brutality, who takes off for greener pastures in Canada.

After her father’s death, Chris marries Ewan Tavendale, a young farmer, and the pair spend some happy time together. However, the shadow of World War I falls across this isolated region too. Under the pressure of public opinion and against his better judgment, Ewan enlists and is sent off to France, where he experiences the horrors of trench warfare. When he comes home on leave, he is a transformed human being. One tragedy follows the other. Sunset Song is a lovely film, but its focus and center are not at all clear. The first line of the film, spoken by Chris to a school-friend, is this: “Is your father a socialist?” And a discussion of equality and the French Revolution soon takes place. However, much of the film is devoted to the sadism of Mullan’s character, which the actor, frankly, overdoes and which becomes a bit tedious.

World War I, a central fact of the story (and the period!), one would think, comes in rather late—almost as an afterthought. When a WSWS reporter asked Davies, who seemed somewhat demoralized by the state of the world, at a public screening whether his film was intended to be taken as an “anti-war” statement, the filmmaker looked bemused and replied, no, no, it was merely about “forgiveness” and such. Something is muddled.




Re-released after 40 years: The strengths and weaknesses of Robert Altman’s Nashville

By David Walsh
30 September 2015

Robert Altman’s film Nashville has been playing in movie theaters across the US recently to mark 40 years since its original release in the summer of 1975.

Ronee Blakley in Nashville

The nearly three-hour work follows two dozen characters over the course of several days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, the official capital of country music. As was his wont, Altman created a rambling, improvisational film, which includes a number of intertwined storylines.

Psychologically fragile country music star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is returning to the city and its cutthroat music scene, accompanied by her gruff, controlling manager-husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), after a somewhat mysterious stay in hospital. Various hangers-on and admirers orbit around her. The dreadful Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a veteran country performer, presides over the Grand Ole Opry (a weekly country music concert and radio program broadcast since 1925) and the city’s music industry with an iron fist.

The members of an “alternative” folk-rock trio are in Nashville to record an album. Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), the group’s most prominent figure, pursues or is pursued by several women, including a garrulous British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin), a local matron, gospel singer and mother of two deaf children (Lily Tomlin) and the female singer in the trio, Mary (Cristina Raines), who is currently married to the group’s third member, Bill (Allan F. Nicholls).

Lily Tomlin

A presidential election campaign is underway. The voice of the candidate of the newly founded pseudo-populist Replacement Party, Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), is heard throughout the film, as his campaign van broadcasts his empty, platitudinous message on the streets of Nashville. Two of his representatives, the oily John Triplette (Michael Murphy) from California and local lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are making efforts to line up support in the music world for their candidate. A large outdoor rally for Walker, at which all the singers are set to perform (Barbara Jean has more or less been forced by circumstances to show up, others have been bribed), forms the denouement of the film.

Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce various other personalities in Nashville, including Barbara Jean’s bitter rival, Connie White (Karen Black); a Vietnam veteran still in uniform (Scott Glenn); an older man (Keenan Wynn) whose wife has been hospitalized and his niece, a would-be “groupie,” visiting from Los Angeles (Shelley Duvall); a waitress and aspiring singer, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles); an African American short order cook (Robert DoQui); an estranged husband and wife (Bert Remsen and Barbara Harris); and a young man from out of town (Kenny Frasier) who carries a violin case and seems infatuated with Barbara Jean. The young man turns out to be her assassin.

One of Altman’s innovations, which has its positive and negative sides, was to encourage his actors to write and perform their own songs in the film (and also contribute lines and entire speeches). In fact, in the end, the best of the music is the most compelling single element in Nashville. The emotion and beauty of certain songs is the strongest proof of the enduring quality of popular music, including country music.

Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines

Altman’s work was shot in the summer of 1974. The resignation of President Richard Nixon took place during the filming. Nashville is permeated, among other things, with moods produced by the Watergate scandal, part cynical, part hopeful. In fact, the film was released in the wake of explosive developments in American life extending back fifteen years or more: the civil rights movement and inner city rebellions, a series of assassinations of major political figures, the Vietnam War and the mass protest movement it provoked, the strike wave that engulfed American industry in the early 1970s and more.

Altman and Tewkesbury set their sights on the emerging celebrity culture in America, a crass and vulgar culture that was reducing country music and politics alike, in the director’s words, to “popularity contests.” At its best,Nashville sets its struggling and often bewildered, but well-meaning, human figures against the hollowness, cruelty and greed of the existing set-up. Altman had his definite weaknesses as an artist and a thinker, but his instincts in regard to authorities of every kind were invariably hostile.

There is a certain prescience in the film, in its attention to the rise of Nashville and the Sun Belt more generally, with their association with “free market economic thought,” parasitic economic activities of various kinds and the move away from industrial production. One commentator notes that the “Sunbelt boom of the late 1970s paralleled the popularization of country music and auto racing [also present in Nashville] … In sum, the Sunbelt became fashionable in the 1970s.” The 1976 election of Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, the first Southerner since before the Civil War who had come to the presidency by election, seems presaged by the film. Moreover, when John Lennon was murdered five years after Nashville’s release it seemed to many horribly like life imitating art.

The director, an inveterate gambler and, at the time, heavy drinker, adopted a semi-anarchistic approach to life and to filmmaking. Actors were brought in at the last moment for key roles. Altman often wrote dialogue for a given scene the morning it was to be filmed. He devised a means, with the help of technicians, of recording the voices of various characters and even “extras” speaking simultaneously. The resulting overlapping dialogue in the final film is a trademark of his. The result, at its best, is a chaotic, amusing tumult in which the many-sidedness and even absurdity of human behavior finds expression.

Certain sequences and personalities stand out. Lily Tomlin’s Linnea Reese conveys sympathy and dignity at every point. It is a remarkable moment when Tom (Carradine), in a crowded club, attempts to reach her over the heads of three other women through a seductive and, presumably, honestly delivered song. A few minutes before, Mary (Raines) has belted out a song, expressing her own feelings for Tom. Critic Andrew Sarris suggested that Tomlin, Raines and Carradine “turn a smoky café into an arena of yearning sexuality.” Later, in bed, Linnea teaches the self-absorbed Tom sign language.

One remembers, with chagrin and pain, the hapless Sueleen (Welles) perform a striptease before a crowd of hooting male spectators at a Walker fundraiser on the promise that she will be allowed to perform with her idol, Barbara Jean, at the upcoming concert.

Henry Gibson

Above all, there is the performance of Blakley as Barbara Jean, in the words of critic Molly Haskell, “a white-clad Ophelia whose psychic disorder is expressed in those odd, uncoordinated hand gestures.” Her on-stage breakdown (based in part on singer Loretta Lynn’s problems) is poignant and believable. The immense, unbearable pressure of “show business” claims another victim. Nothing is more destructive in America than success.

As noted above, the music, intentionally or not, is Nashville’s most enduring and endearing feature, and Blakley, a songwriter and singer, provides the best of it. Along with Carradine’s “I’m Easy” and the trio’s “Since You’ve Gone,” Blakley’s “Tapedeck in His Tractor,” “Dues” and “My Idaho Home” are to a large extent what draws one back to the film time and time again.

Altman and Tewkesbury are quite sharp about certain things. They may have been somewhat easy targets, but the noxious patriotism and piety of the country music establishment were in considerable need of a vehement attack. Haven Hamilton (inspired by the figures of Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, among others), who performs wretched songs about America’s greatness and the virtue of perseverance in public, is behind the scenes a hypocritical, conniving, Machiavellian scoundrel, with considerable political ambition.

The filmmakers were no doubt aware of the warm welcome Acuff, for example, had given to President Nixon on the occasion of the opening of a new, suburban home for the Grand Ole Opry in March 1974, a few scant months before the latter’s departure in disgrace.

Altman’s film came in for fierce criticism in 1975 from right-wing sources. The ideological pedigree of many of those who pretended to be speaking for supposedly caricatured Southerners and the abused country music scene was extremely dubious. Those claims blended in with a general chorus of abuse from openly reactionary defenders of the status quo, deeply offended by Altman’s blows against some of the American establishment’s sacred cows. George Will, already turning out his reactionary rubbish, rejected Altman’s work, with its criticism of “callousness, exploitation, [and the] failure to communicate,” as “not a close approximation” to American life.

Right-wing columnist Patrick Buchanan (a former adviser and speechwriter in the Nixon White House) also denounced the film, for, among other things, depicting country music’s “public patriotism” as “false and phony.” Buchanan argued that Nashville was “a slander on America; it is a notion that lives only in the jaundiced eyes of men like Robert Altman and the artistic and intellectual community that endorses and applauds what he is saying about the United States.” One obviously has to defend Nashville against these claims.

All that being said, and Nashville’s sporadically extraordinary qualities having been recognized, a re-viewing of the film today brings home two central facts: first, that if it was Altman’s intent to create a panoramic view of modern American life, his effort was audacious and entirely creditable; and second, if such was his intent, that he failed, perhaps inevitably, in the effort.

The numerous exaggerated claims made for the film over the decades, that it is “a masterpiece” and “an epic pronouncement on the state of the union,” that “it might just be the greatest American film of all time” and so forth, need to be set aside. Nashville is not a great film; it is one with a good many strengths and a good many weaknesses. It contains intriguing and insightful moments, along with much sloppy, careless and irritating material. Of course, the film’s sharp and persistent contradictions need to be seen within the appropriate context. Altman’s limitations were not entirely of his own making; they were bound up with the state of political and intellectual life.

In any event, too many sequences and characters in Nashville go nowhere. Its first hour meanders somewhat tediously. The satire in the early airport and traffic accident sequences is rather heavy-handed. The film is stretched too thin in its initial portion for the demands being made on it by dozens of characters and situations.

Bert Remsen, a fine character actor, has nothing to do but look grumpy. Until the final scene, Barbara Harris is also essentially given little to do. Jeff Goldblum’s silent Tricycle Man is a mystery that does not interest one. The relationship between Keenan Wynn and his niece never fully convinces. Altman makes Chaplin’s journalist, critic Robin Wood noted, “as idiotic [and annoying] as he can.”

Altman never worked out his attitude toward society and human beings. He passed back and forth, often in the same work, sometimes in the same scene, between compassion and rancid misanthropy. Wood describes Altman’s all too frequent “smug superiority to and contempt for [his] characters.” In Nashville, one is often left uncertain precisely who and what are being satirized and from which point of view. The problem extends to the music. Carradine and Blakley simply go ahead and perform the songs they want to sing, with sincerity. Other numbers, however, hover confusingly (and ineffectively) somewhere between camp and genuine commitment.

As we noted two decades ago, “Unpredictability, instability, the working of chance, spontaneity, arbitrariness, the lack of logic in the universe—these make up Altman’s sensibility.” In contrast to the many stultified products of the Hollywood system at the time, this sensibility opened the filmmaker up to sides of American life—in The Long Goodbye (1972), Thieves Like Us (1974) andCalifornia Split (1974) in particular—that were unavailable to more staid figures.

But all of this had a limit. And when Altman attempted to make a grand statement about American life, to use Nashville and the country music world “as a metaphor,” he inevitably faltered. Nashville demonstrated the limitations of a far too heavy reliance on artistic intuition at the expense of conscious understanding. One cannot stumble upon the truth about a society and its prospects by accident, nor does a major work, as Hegel points out, come to the artist “in his sleep.”

The failure expresses itself in his ambivalent (at best) attitude toward the American people. One has the definite sense that Altman, like many radical intellectuals at the time, blamed the population for Nixon’s electoral victories (especially for the defeat of liberal George McGovern in 1972), and for the general shift to the right taking place by the mid-1970s.

Asked in a 1975 interview whether there were any political figures or movement with which he could identify or sympathize with, Altman replied, “I’m a Democrat, if anything. I supported [Eugene] McCarthy, McGovern, [probably Robert] Kennedy. I was very, very angry from the beginning about people like Richard Nixon. I don’t like [Ronald] Reagan or [George] Wallace.”

He went on, “I think change is going to come through social pressure. The anti-materialist movement [“counterculture”] that took place in the sixties is certainly an expression of that.”

A banal outlook, common to the garden variety American intellectual of a certain type. The difficulty, and it is not Altman’s personal difficulty, is the sharp decline by this time already in the influence of left-wing thought and analysis. The Cold War purges, the alliance of American liberalism with ferocious anti-communism, the decline of the labor movement, combined with the crimes of Stalinism that did so much to damage the standing of socialism in the eyes of millions, all this had taken its toll.

Unlike artists of an earlier age, who followed events with an eye to concrete social relationships, to class association, Altman speaks largely in abstract, vague generalities. He proceeds to blame the population for apathy and for its supposed lack of understanding. “The majority of the people … have done what they have been told they were supposed to do.” He speaks rather contemptuously of those who have “worked for their new Chevrolet every two years and they’ve got their house and their barbecue and they’ve sent their kids to college.” Later he suggests, “That’s what the picture [Nashville] is about, really. The whole point of making political analogies to the country-western stars is the fact that people don’t listen.” This is the language of the middle class radicalism of the time, including the New Left, which wrote off the working class in America as hopelessly backward and inert.

In fact, the American working class had just passed through one of its most militant and combative phases in history. The General Electric strike of 1969-70 lasted 122 days and involved 133,000 workers. In March 1970, 200,000 postal workers walked out, in the first national strike by public employees. In the fall of the same year, some 400,000 General Motors workers stayed out for 67 days. In 1970 alone there were some 5,600 work stoppages and 6.2 million lost worker-days.

The chief difficulty in the 1970s was not apathy, or an unwillingness to do what people were not “supposed to do,” but historically accumulated political problems associated with the continued alliance of the trade unions with the Democratic Party, the very party in which Altman continued to have and to sow illusions. The enormously militant movement of workers reached a dead end because it remained within the confines of capitalist politics and capitalist economics. This gave the powers-that-be a breathing space and made possible the vicious counter-offensive against the working population that began in earnest in the late 1970s.

This historical and social analysis was a closed book to American filmmakers. Behind Altman’s claim, in the same 1975 interview, that he has “high hopes, great expectations,” one feels rather, as Wood describes it, that his “gestures toward a progressive viewpoint thinly conceal despair and a sense of helplessness.”

Nashville is a work full of strikingly, almost provocatively unresolved contradictions, some of them more intriguing and richer than others. Whatever its serious failings, however, one cannot come away from a viewing of the film, and of its climactic assassination scene in particular, without a sense of deep social and moral malaise, of a troubled and tormented society headed, sooner or later, for a breakdown. In that general intuition at least Altman was unfailingly correct.



Phoenix: After WWII in Germany, a woman rises from the ashes

By Joanne Laurier
3 September 2015

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is now playing in movie theaters in the US. This is an edited version of an article that appeared as part of the coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival on September 24, 2014. Labyrinth of Lieshas yet to be released in the US.

Whether their creators intended them as responses to the resurgence of German militarism or not, two films screened at this year’s Toronto film festival, both set in the postwar period, dealt quite strongly with the devastating consequences of Nazism. One way or another, as the recent resolution of the Socialist Equality Party of Germany noted, “History is returning with a vengeance.”


The fact that, as the resolution goes on to say, “Almost 70 years after the crimes of the Nazis and its defeat in World War II, the German ruling class is once again adopting the imperialist great power politics of the Kaiser’s Empire and Hitler,” must have the most significant implications for German filmmakers and artists.

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix and Italian-born Giulio Ricciarelli’s Labyrinth of Lies are both skillfully made, intelligent films that delve, in quite different ways, into the legacy of fascism.

In Phoenix, set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a Jewish concentration camp survivor, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, in another collaboration with Petzold), is grossly disfigured and traumatized. With the help of her close friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly undergoes plastic surgery in Berlin. Her face is altered, although Nelly did not want to forfeit any of her past identity, including her looks—presumably as an act of defiance toward her persecutors. It soon becomes clear that she also wants to be identifiable to her beloved husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld).

Lene, who works for the Jewish Agency for Palestine, tries to dissuade Nelly from searching for Johnny, claiming that he divorced her and betrayed her to the Gestapo. With a sexually enigmatic devotion to Nelly, Lene works toward their relocation to Israel.


Nelly, at one time a well-known performer, eventually locates Johnny, formerly a pianist, doing menial work in a sordid cabaret in the rubble-filled American sector of the city. Believing his wife to be dead, he does not recognize the surgically repaired Nelly.

Seeing an opportunity to get hold of his former wife’s inheritance, he proposes to remake the mysterious woman (the real Nelly) into his wife. For various emotional reasons, including her need to be near Johnny, Nelly allows him to change her clothes, hair and walk—he is pleased that her handwriting is already a close match! Johnny is prepared to go to great lengths to convince friends and family that Nelly survived the Holocaust and is now able to claim her fortune.

Petzold’s dark cinematography bolsters the film’s portrayal of a devastated society, suffering from the impact of enormous historic crimes, and a population that has been nearly effaced, physically and emotionally. In the film, postwar Germany is a wreckage made up of broken people and places that cannot be put back together again.

Neither Johnny nor Nelly has any hope of returning to his or her prewar self. Their respective experiences have qualitatively and permanently transformed them. In a real sense, Nelly is “unrecognizable” to Johnny. Despite the war’s end and despite the settling of personal accounts, there is no immediate relief from the almost universal suffering and sense of betrayal, both of which may be insuperable.

Labyrinth of Lies

In the Allied-organized Nuremberg trials (1945-46), twenty or so prominent Nazi leaders were prosecuted and convicted. Nearly two decades later, the Auschwitz (concentration camp) trials, which opened in Frankfurt on December 23, 1963 and ended August 19, 1965, marked the first time that Nazi officials were brought before courts in the German Federal Republic (West Germany). Some 1.1 million prisoners, 90 percent of them Jewish, died in the network of Auschwitz camps.

Labyrinth of Lies

Of the more than 6,000 to 8,000 former members of the SS (Nazi Party paramilitary organization) who guarded Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, only 22 came before the Frankfurt court.

Giulio Ricciarelli’s Labyrinth of Lies opens in Frankfurt in 1958. An ambitious young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling)—a fictional composite of three prosecutors who participated in the Auschwitz trials—is eager for more challenging work than his current caseload of traffic violations. Although traffic court is where he meets and eventually falls in love with Marlene (Friederike Becht), whom Johann initially prosecutes for a minor infraction—the incident is also going to prove what an incorruptible, “by-the-book” sort of individual he is.

Coming into Johann’s life as well is an energetic, contrarian journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), who forces the prosecutor to recognize how many former Nazis still function unimpeded in West German society. Chief Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer (played by the late Gert Voss, to whom the film is dedicated, who died in July 2014 at 72), well aware of the Nazi plague, encourages his young associate to pursue the matter. (See this three-part WSWS series: “Forty years since the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial,” part 1, part 2,part 3.) Working with Gnielka and concentration camp survivor Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), Johann is stunned when he learns the vast dimensions of the Nazis’ machinery of extermination at Auschwitz and that many of those who ran the “factory of death” now have comfortable careers in public service. (“The public sector is full of Nazis. And none of them has anything to worry about.”)

Sifting through the chaotic records of 600,000 individuals stored at the U.S. Army Document Center, Johann discovers that thousands of former Nazis seamlessly returned to their prewar lives. In his pursuits, he is aided by the testimony of Auschwitz survivors, his endearing and principled secretary Schmittchen (Hansi Jochmann), and a fellow prosecutor, who initially ridicules Johann about the project.

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Auschwitz survivors file through Johann’s office, one after the other, to provide testimony. There are no words in the sequence, just a series of headshots of people with resolute, determined expressions and horror stories to recount. Schmittchen cannot contain her grief and shock.

At first, Johann is exclusively focused on capturing the elusive Dr. Josef Mengele at the expense of lesser targets. After discovering that his girlfriend Marlene’s father was a Nazi, Johann begins to wonder about his own now-deceased parent, whom he idolizes and idealizes. At one point, one of Johann’s hostile superiors angrily asks: “Do you want every young man in this country to wonder whether his father was a murderer?” Labyrinth of Lies successfully dramatizes the events leading up to hearings that helped illuminate the truth about the death camps and had a strong impact in particular on a younger generation of Germans.

Expressive of some of the current ideological difficulties, neither Phoenix norLabyrinth of Lies makes any attempt to explain German fascism as a historical and social phenomenon. The Nazi regime is rather an appalling “given,” the starting point in both cases for a legitimate and compelling drama. Each work tends to reduce the problem to individual moral choices, summed up in this comment by one of the lead characters in Labyrinth: “The only response to Auschwitz is to do the right thing yourself.” This sidesteps the question, however, of how it was that Auschwitz came into being to begin with and whether its existence was inevitable.

Nonetheless, both are serious and sincere films and serve as warnings against any attempt to minimize or relativize the crimes of the Third Reich.



Woody Allen’s Irrational Man

The familiar flatness and lack of conviction

By David Walsh
14 August 2015

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, focuses on controversial philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who arrives at fictional, liberal arts Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island to teach a summer course.

A depressed Lucas, who sips from a flask at every opportunity, has clearly run out of intellectual and emotional steam. For years he has been trying, without success, to finish a book on Martin Heidegger and Nazism. A close friend of his has been killed stepping on a landmine in Iraq. Political activism, by which Abe apparently means “human rights” work in Darfur and other global “disaster areas,” has failed him. Nothing energizes or excites him about life. He is also impotent.

Lucas becomes involved with two women, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), an unhappily married fellow professor, and Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), one of his brightest students. Lucas resists Jill’s advances for some time, but they become constant companions and her youth and enthusiasm rub off on him.

Irrational Man

Lucas expresses disdain for academic philosophy, asserting that there is a vast difference between “theoretical” reality and the “real, nasty world.” He suggests to a roomful of students, including Jill, that much of human theorizing is a form of “verbal masturbation.” He seems to favor an absurdist, existential view of things, referring in his classes and conversations to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Dostoyevsky and others. I have “no zest for life… I’ve given up,” he tells Jill. At a party he even indulges in a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

A conversation that Abe and Jill hear by chance, while sitting in a diner, changes things. (Anyone who doesn’t care to know the central narrative wrinkle in Irrational Man should stop reading now.) The woman in the next booth is tearfully explaining to her friends that a particular judge is unfairly going to find for her husband in a bitter custody dispute. Supposedly, the judge has some prejudice in favor of the husband, but will not recuse himself.

As Lucas tells us in a voiceover, he there and then determines to become a vigilante for the cause of good and bump off the judge, calculating that this will be a “perfect murder,” since he has no motive or connection to any of the judge’s cases.

Having accomplished the deed, Lucas quickly comes back to life. Now everything starts “flowing.” He has made his “existential choice… Life has the meaning you give it.” Thanks to his “meaningful act,” Abe can have sex with both Rita and eventually Jill. Unfortunately, this idyllic state of affairs is interrupted by a police investigation and the suspicions of several people close to him.

Allen’s Irrational Man has the same fatal flatness and lack of conviction that have plagued his filmmaking for the past two decades, since Husbands and Wives (1992). Reality, personal and social, has clearly knocked the stuffing out of the writer-director. He continues to turn out a film a year, calling on the services of some of the most intriguing talent, but the works are largely drained of and starved for life. (And it is an indication of the state of the contemporary film world that performers are reportedly thrilled to work with Allen, for far less money than they normally receive.)

Irrational Man

The idea content of the new film is very weak. Aside from the fact that Lucas’s relatively undiluted and gloomy existentialism would have been far more appropriate—where is postmodernism, for instance?—to the period when Allen might have gone to university (he dropped out, in fact, in the 1950s), the presentation is full of clichés.

Particularly irritating is the sight of the two female leads—who are far more interesting and dynamic as personalities than Phoenix or his character—circling around an individual who hardly possesses a single original thought. When Jill exclaims worshipfully to Lucas, in a restaurant, “I love that you order for me,” and Rita, equally adoringly, proclaims after their first successful sexual encounter, “What happened to the philosopher? Christ, you were like a caveman,” one feels that the filmmaker (for whom every leading male character is a stand-in) has simply made himself a little foolish.

The faint, faint echoes of Crime and Punishment are evident. To mention the two works in the same paragraph, however, is inappropriate. Dostoyevsky, for better or worse, approached his novel with the utmost urgency and sincerity, intending to take up what he perceived to be pernicious nihilistic and atheistic views and attitudes. The dialogue and actions in the novel, with the exception of its concluding, falsely self-abnegating section, are thoroughly convincing.

There is terribly little that is convincing in Irrational Man. That Lucas, as personally miserable as he may be, would embark on a plot to murder another human being in cold blood on the basis of one snippet of overheard conversation is preposterous. In any event, far from carrying out a “perfect murder,” Lucas allows himself to be seen at key moments by various eyewitnesses.

Flatness, lethargy, sluggishness, intellectual exhaustion: these are words or phrases that come to mind throughout.

It should not be necessary to begin from zero on the subject of Woody Allen’s sad, protracted decline. In 2005 (Melinda and Melinda), we commented: “The Allen persona wore thin a good many pictures ago, but it carried him through until the early 1990s. Various factors, including personal ones, may have caused him to lose his way so dramatically, but no doubt social changes played a decisive role. The milieu that he lovingly, if sardonically, chronicled has disintegrated.”

Irrational Man

Four years later (Whatever Works), we wrote that it was “impossible to detach Woody Allen’s decline, notwithstanding its individual twists and turns, from the general fate of considerable numbers of quasi-cultured, semi-bohemian, once-liberal, upper middle class New Yorkers in particular.

“Intellectually unprepared for complex social problems, culturally shallow, ego-driven and a bit (or more than a bit) lazy, exclusively oriented toward the Democratic Party and other institutions of order, distant from or hostile toward broad layers of the population, inheriting family wealth or enriching themselves in the stock market and real estate boom…for a good many, the accumulated consequences of the past several decades have not been attractive.”

In 2014 (Magic in the Moonlight), we noted that “Woody Allen’s new film seems very distant from life, including his own life.” Over the course of the previous year, Allen had been subjected to a scurrilous campaign, spearheaded by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the champion of imperialist “humanitarian interventionism,” over unproven 20-year-old allegations of child molestation. We added that “Allen seems too self-absorbed and too limited at present to be able to bring into his filmmaking the central dilemmas of our time, even when they involve him directly. So, as a consequence, his work resembles life less and less.”

Nonetheless, Allen remains a cultural presence, largely and residually based on his earlier comedy and film work and also in recognition of the fact that he has never entirely thrown in his lot with the Hollywood system.

His pessimism is not attractive, and it has consequences, whether he recognizes that or not. At the drop of a hat, Allen tells interviewers how miserable he is and how he finds life pointless and absurd. For example: “I’m a great believer in the utter meaningless randomness of existence… All of existence is just a thing with no rhyme or reason to it. We all live subject to the utter fragile contingency of life.” (He seems to have gotten over his view in 2009 that “now we’re entering into at least a period of some hope, of some human possibilities for the country … we’ve made progress, and elected our first African-American president.”) To preach such things to young people in particular is highly irresponsible.

Allen also declares, whether sincerely or not, that most of his films are “failures,” a judgment, unhappily, that one is obliged to agree with.

The writer-director has dealt before with the protagonist-criminal, most notably in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007). The first of those films is perhaps the most important and deepgoing in Allen’s career: a wealthy ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) faces a crisis due to the increasingly strident demands and threats of his mistress (Anjelica Huston). He turns to his shady brother (Jerry Orbach), who hires a hit man to take care of the woman.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen no doubt, consciously or otherwise, took a look at the filthy, money-grubbing ethos of the “Reagan years,” but more generally, he alluded to the moral and social shift of an entire social grouping, the erstwhile liberal, Jewish, New York middle class, which was suddenly finding itself wealthy and obliged to support the most ruthless measures in defense of its riches.

Unfortunately, Irrational Man is almost entirely bereft of that historical and social concreteness. It floats like an inconsequential straw in the breeze.

While the film may be relatively negligible, it raises some issues that are far from negligible.

Allen’s title deliberately refers to the well-known 1958 study (and promotion) of existentialism of the same name by William Barrett. The latter, an American academic, who, after “flirting” with Trotskyism in the 1930s, like many of his generation, converted to anticommunism and irrationalism under the intellectual influence of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. Barrett ended up a sour neoconservative.

Barrett’s Irrational Man, which was almost mandatory reading in American high schools and universities in the 1960s, was one of the milestones marking the move of significant sections of the intelligentsia toward anti-Marxism. “Marxism,” Barrett pontificated ignorantly, “has no philosophical categories for the unique facts of human personality, and in the natural course of things manages to collectivize this human personality out of existence.” (Have we ever heard this kind of thing before?)

Marxism, he goes on, is one of the “relics of the nineteenth-century Enlightenment that have not yet come to terms with the shadow side of human life as grasped even by some of the nineteenth-century thinkers themselves.” (Again, is this the slightest bit familiar?)

The Marxist “picture of man,” according to Barrett, “is thin and oversimplified. Existential philosophy, as a revolt against such oversimplification, attempts to grasp the image of the whole man, even where this involves bringing to consciousness all that is dark and questionable in his existence. And in just this respect it is a much more authentic expression of our own contemporary existence.”

To what degree Allen takes this reactionary viewpoint at face value is unclear. But to the extent that this type of ideology has remained in the background of his thinking, it gives a clue as to some of the difficulties at work.

One of the peculiarities of Irrational Man, the film, is that Allen on the face of it subscribes to Lucas’s outlook. Presumably, as long as one sits around and discourses pseudo-profoundly about the meaninglessness of life and doesn’t poison or push one’s fellow creatures down elevator shafts, existentialist nihilism retains its allure.



Amy, a documentary film about the British singer Amy Winehouse

By Joanne Laurier
12 August 2015

Directed by Asif Kapadia

British-born director Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, about the pop singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), is a straightforward and compelling account of the performer’s life starting at the age of fourteen. Through video footage from a variety of devices and the voiceover comments of friends, family members and music industry figures (Kapadia conducted 100 interviews), the documentary paints a picture of an immensely talented and tortured musical prodigy.

During her eight-year recording career, beginning when she was still a teenager, Winehouse garnered numerous awards, including six Grammys. Her second album, Back to Black, released in October 2006, made her an international singing star. By the time of her death, she had sold more than six million albums in the UK and US alone. Kapadia’s film features a number of her biggest hits, “Rehab” (2006), “You Know I’m No Good” (2007), “Back to Black” (2007), “Love is a Losing Game” (2007), and her soulful duet with Tony Bennett, “Body and Soul” (2011).


From an early age, as the documentary reveals, Winehouse aspired above all to be a jazz singer. Among her most important influences were Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bennett and others. But she also channeled many of the pop artists and trends of the 1960s and 1970s, including Motown, R&B, reggae, Carole King, James Taylor and “girl groups” like the Shirelles and the Ronettes. In her music and extraordinary voice one encounters a multitude of influences, each one distinct and yet blended together to create a personal and unique sound. A record industry figure notes that she was a “very old soul in a very young body.”

After Winehouse’s death, Bennett commented: “It was such a sad thing because … she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way,’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer.…A true jazz singer.”

The movie opens with footage of a close friend’s 14th birthday party in 1998, at which Winehouse offers an alluring, mischievous version of “Happy Birthday” à la Marilyn Monroe, and ends with the aftermath of her tragic death from alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27.

A friend observes at one point that she was “a North London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude.” Her father Mitchell owned a cab and her mother Janis was a pharmacist. Her paternal grandmother Cynthia was a singer and at one time dated Ronnie Scott, the tenor saxophonist and owner of the best-known jazz club in London.

Kapadia’s Amy follows Winehouse from her teenage years to the beginnings of her professional music career in 2002 and beyond. We see a host of appearances and performances, both private and public, some of them intensely intimate and very affecting to the viewer. In some of these scenes, the young singer is disarmingly genuine, childlike and really adorable.

Three of Winehouse’s friends, including two from childhood, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and her first manager (when he was 19 and Winehouse was 16), Nick Shymansky, provide the most in-depth and believable portrait. Her father, her ex-husband Blake Fielder and her promoter-manager Raye Cosbert also feature prominently in the film, in a less favorable light.

At a certain point, of course, Amy gets down to business, which every viewer knows is coming—the singer’s [meteoric] Rise and [tragic] Fall, as it were. Much of the documentary details her successes and the severe complications or contradictions accompanying those successes.


Winehouse insists—and one feels, sincerely—on several occasions that celebrity and what comes with it is not her goal. As she told CNN in a 2007 interview, “I don’t write songs because I want my voice to be heard or I want to be famous or any of that stuff. I write songs about things I have problems with and I have to get past them and I have to make something good out of something bad.” Early on in the film, in fact, she asserts, “I’d probably go mad [if I were famous].” Later on: “If I really thought I was famous, I’d f—g go top [kill] myself.”

Tragically, Winehouse, already a bulimic since her adolescence and a heavy drinker early on in life, falls into heavy drug use. Kapadia’s documentary focuses perhaps too much on this aspect, as though this by itself could explain her fate.

The film effectively captures some of the ghastliness of the modern celebrity racket. Countless scenes record paparazzi camped outside her door and snapping photos of her every move, including the most crazed and desperate. Her ex-manager Shymansky told an interviewer, “the paparazzi were allowed to get brutally close…it’s this infatuation with getting up people’s skirts, or seeing someone vomit, or punching a paparazzi.”

As Winehouse goes to pieces in public, the media engages in what Shymansky calls, in the film, “a feeding frenzy.” Kapadia himself told the media, “This is a girl who had a mental illness, yet every comedian, every TV host, they all did it [bullied or laughed at her] with such ease, without even thinking. We all got carried away with it.”

The production notes for Amy suggest: “The combination of her raw honesty and supreme talent resulted in some of the most original and adored songs of the modern era.

“Her huge success, however, resulted in relentless and invasive media attention which coupled with Amy’s troubled relationships and precarious lifestyle saw her life tragically begin to unravel.”

The inquest into Winehouse’s death, according to the Daily Mail, found that she “drank herself to death … Three empty vodka bottles were found near her body in her bedroom. A pathologist who examined her said she had 416mg [milligrams] of alcohol per decilitre [3.38 fluid ounces] of blood—five times the legal drink-drive limit of 80mg. The inquest heard that 350mg was usually considered a fatal amount.”

Kapadia’s documentary is both valuable and intriguing. Because the director lets Winehouse speak (and sing) for herself, the viewer receives a relatively clear-eyed and balanced picture of both her artistry and her qualities as a human being. Amy rightfully points a finger at a predatory industry. Kapadia told NME (New Musical Express, the British music journalism magazine and website), “I was angry, and I wanted the audience to be angry. … This started off as a film about Amy, but it became a film about how our generation lives.” NME continues, “Kapadia hopes his film will force the music industry to re-examine its handling of young, troubled talents.”

In the interview, unfortunately, the director places too much of the blame on the public itself, as though people were in control of the information they received and were responsible for the operations of the entertainment industry.Amy, at more then two hours, is perhaps overly long because the filmmaker seems intent on driving home to the viewer his or her supposed “complicity.”

In opposition to this, the 2011 WSWS obituary of Winehouse argued that the ultimate responsibility for her death lay with “the intense … pressures generated by the publicity-mad, profit-hungry music business, which chews up its human material almost as consistently as it spits out new ‘product.’”

Comic Russell Brand, in a comment on the death of Winehouse, a close friend, characterized the celebrity culture as “a vampiric, cannibalizing system that wants its heroes and heroines dead so it can devour their corpses in public for entertainment.”

Stepping back, Amy Winehouse was definitely a cultural phenomenon. As opposed to many acts and performers, who ride on the crest of massive marketing campaigns, like bars of soap or automobiles, she came by her fame honestly, almost in spite of her efforts. She truly struck a chord with audiences and listeners.

This was not an accident. Her songs, in part because they brought to bear (and made new) so much popular musical history, registered with audiences as more substantial, truthful and urgent than the majority of current fare. Winehouse’s popularity reflected a dissatisfaction with the lazy, self-absorbed pablum that dominates the charts.

In terms of the combination of factors that led to Winehouse’s death, of course there were the individual circumstances of her background and life. The entertainment industry juggernaut inflicts itself on everyone, but only the most vulnerable collapse under what is to them an unbearable burden.

As always in such cases, the media self-servingly treated the singer’s death as a purely personal episode. The Daily Mirror, for example, fatuously suggested that Winehouse was “a talent dogged by self destruction.”

Surely, something more than this, or what Amy offers as an explanation (drugs, difficult family history, a bad marriage, a cold-blooded industry), for that matter, is called for. Why would someone at the height of her global fame and popularity bring about the end of her life so abruptly and “needlessly”? What made her so wretched and conflicted?

To begin to get at an answer, one must look at the more general circumstances of her life, including the character of the period in which she lived…and died.

She came of age and later gained public attention between the years 2001 and 2011, in other words, a decade dominated by “the war on terror” and the politicians’ “big lie” and hostility to democratic rights (the Blair government in particular prided itself on flouting the public will), as well as by global economic turbulence and sharp social polarization. The generation she belonged to increasingly looked to the future with skepticism and even alarm. A serious darkness descended into more than one soul.

One study of American college-age students in the first decade of the 21st century, and this could certainly be applied to British young people as well, sums them up as a “generation on a tightrope,” facing an “abyss that threatens to dissolve and swallow them,” “seeking security but [living] in an age of profound and unceasing change.”

Amy Winehouse, as far as this reviewer is aware (or the film would indicate), never addressed a single broader social issue, including the Blair government’s involvement in the Iraq War, which provoked one of the largest protest demonstrations in British history in February 2003. Nonetheless, the drama, anxiety and sensitivity of her music speaks to something about both the turbulent character of the decade and the dilemma of a generation whose dreams and idealism came up against the brutal realities of the existing social set-up.

The manner in which Winehouse approached the latter “dilemma” was refracted through the objectively shaped confusion and difficulties of that same generation, which finds itself hostile toward dominant institutions and yet not entirely clear why. In that light, Winehouse’s famous refrain in “Rehab,” “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘No, no, no,’” which from one point of view might simply seem self-indulgent, comes across as a firm (if misguided in this case) rejection of intrusive orders from above.

In part due to an unfavorable and unsympathetic social atmosphere, a conscious or unconscious alienation from official public life, Winehouse turned inward and reduced these significant feelings into purely personal passions and self-directed anger, and ultimately, with her lowered psychic immune system, found herself a victim of that rage and disorientation.

Kapadia’s Amy does not go anywhere near some of these critical issues, but it is a worthwhile introduction to the work of a remarkably gifted artist.




Mr. Holmes: Old age, the perils of science, a minor mystery solved …

By David Walsh
6 August 2015

Directed by Bill Condon; written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin

Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes places the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), now 93, in postwar Britain. Holmes lives in seclusion in Sussex, in South East England, with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Mr. Holmes

Thirty years after his last case and the departure of his chronicler, Dr. John Watson, Holmes faces inevitable physical and mental decline. In fact, he has traveled to Japan in search of prickly ash (“Japanese pepper”), a plant supposed to increase one’s mental powers. During the course of that trip, Holmes witnesses the horrible devastation of Hiroshima, targeted by a US nuclear weapon in August 1945 (in fact, 70 years ago today).

Holmes is attempting to write the story of his last case, or correct Watson’s fictionalized version of the episode (also made into a film, which we see bits of), but he cannot adequately remember its details, or at least its denouement. Holmes senses, however, that the conclusion of the case must have something to do with his decision to isolate himself from other people.

Meanwhile the aging former detective strikes up a friendship with Roger, a very bright child, who helps him with his bee-keeping and other matters. That friendship threatens, perhaps makes jealous, his working class mother, who lost her husband in the war. She plans to take a job in another part of the country, in part to remove Roger from the older man’s company.

In fragments, we see the 1917 case still troubling Holmes. Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) comes to see Holmes with concerns about his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan). After two miscarriages, Ann has sunk into depression and apparently fallen under the spell of an exotic music instructor, Madame Schirmer (Frances de la Tour), for some unknown reason.

Mr. Holmes

Holmes takes on Kelmot’s case and finds himself following the latter’s wife through the streets of London. Things, of course, are not as they seem. The sad fate of Mrs. Kelmot, once Holmes recalls it, has an influence on the way he responds to and treats human beings in the present.

There are modestly appealing elements in Mr. Holmes. McKellen and Linney are of course accomplished performers, and generally interesting to watch. Milo Parker is charming as Roger. Some careful attention is paid to the details of daily life and everyday relationships. Holmes’ deterioration is presented with sensitivity, although at times that deterioration and McKellen’s aggressive presentation of it threaten to dominate the film, pushing other matters aside. One wants to say on a couple of occasions: we know people get old, what of it?

The “mystery” surrounding Mrs. Kelmot turns out to be rather mundane, though sad enough. The case, wrapped up in the course of a single afternoon, hardly ranks with one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s remarkable stories.

Mr. Holmes

It would be mistaken to suggest that Mr. Holmes beats the viewer over the head with any particular theme. Director Bill Condon proceeds more “moderately” and discreetly than that, but in so far as his film has a central concern, it seems to be with Holmes’ supposed super-rationality. In an interview, Condon suggested that “Holmes has all these steps along the way towards figuring out the limitations of rationality.”

In the annihilation of Hiroshima we are meant to recognize the dangers represented by modern science. (Condon: “You watch science taken to that degree where it becomes irrational, and pure destruction.”) The viewer is also intended to draw critical conclusions about Holmes’ response to Mrs. Kelmot, who needs comforting (and even being lied to) rather than common sense advice. Holmes himself certainly draws that conclusion in the film. He has hid himself away from others, he realizes, because of the damage he thinks he has done.

Neither of these points is especially convincing. “Modern science” as such was not responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—modern capitalist society, and specifically, American imperialism, was to blame.

As for Mrs. Kelmot’s situation, it is not entirely clear what Holmes could have done. His chilly, conventional reaction was probably not helpful, but it seems absurd to fault him for her fateful decision. He did not, as they say, find her wandering around in the woods. Her situation was formed by circumstances that had nothing to do with Holmes.

Condon, who first made his name with Gods and Monsters (1998), has an eclectic body of work. His most interesting work remains Kinsey (2004), with Liam Neeson as the famed sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, whose efforts in the 1950s came under attack from right-wing forces. That film, made during the Bush administration and in defense of sexual “variation,” was done with a certain amount of warmth and humanity.

But Condon has also written or directed some trivial works, or worse, includingChicago (2002, which he wrote), Dreamgirls (2006), The Twilight Saga (two parts, 2011 and 2012!) and, most disgracefully, The Fifth Estate. The latter work, a hatchet job on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), left a particularly foul taste in the mouth.

As we noted on the WSWS: “Despite claims by the director and others involved that the film was not conceived as an attack on Assange and WikiLeaks, [The Fifth Estate] is a tendentious work promoting a definite agenda.” An article in Vogue confirms Condon’s hostile attitude toward Assange: “Cumberbatch realized that some of Assange’s fears were justified. ‘On a lot of the stage direction, we collided paths because Bill [Condon] did seem to be setting him up as this antisocial megalomaniac.’”

An interviewer suggested to Condon that “you’re personally in support of this way of exposing truth, and the importance of it.” The director replied, wretchedly, “Yeah, but I would never say I agree with total transparency for powerful institutions, because governments cannot function with total transparency. I think that’s a naive idea, you know?”

Condon’s Mr. Holmes does not involve dramatizing contemporary political issues and personalities. In a period piece, the director can avoid revealing in so direct a fashion his accommodation to the status quo and the accomplished fact. However, something of his essential conformism on important matters, colors Mr. Holmes. It is not an impressive work.