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Clint Eastwood

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Clint Pulls a Wheeler. | 1924.

So…regarding Clint Eastwood’s much-maligned empty chair speech: I actually liked it. Not for its content per se – It was discursive and rambling and definitely embarrassing to sit through. But I admired it for being a brief burst of weirdo-improv in the midst of a four-day-long political commercial that’s usually been scripted right down to the second.

There was also the added bonus that Clint’s speech helps make the old dissertation that much more timely. Since, as it happens, the empty-chair routine was a favorite campaign trick of Burton Wheeler, Robert La Follette’s vice-presidential running mate in 1924. To pull the relevant paragraph:

Wheeler got particularly good mileage out of debating an empty chair or cross-examining a straw dummy about Teapot Dome and various other campaign issues. ‘You knew all about the oil scandals and the Ohio gang, didn’t you?’ Wheeler would ask. Then, after the ensuing silence, he would add, ‘Well, knowing all these things, you kept quiet, didn’t you? And now you have the reputation of being a strong, silent man, haven’t you?’ Here, Wheeler told voters, was America’s ‘Silent Cal.’

Clint’s gonzo chair bit also brought to mind one of my favorite chapters to write, on the disastrous 1924 Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden — in which Al Smith and William McAdoo were dead-locked for over two weeks and 103 ballots, before the Democracy settled instead on West Virginia lawyer John W. Davis. To give you a flavor of the disaster:

‘This thing has got to come to an end,’ begged Democratic humorist Will Rogers a week into the ensuing fiasco, ‘New York invited you as guests, not to live.’ In years to come, Rogers quipped, when little children asked their fathers if they were in the war, they would reply, ‘No, son, but I went through the New York Convention.’ Mencken harrumphed that the ‘convention is almost as vain and idiotic as a golf tournament or a disarmament conference.’ Journalist Arthur Krock deemed the unfolding Democratic nightmare ‘a snarling, cursing, tedious, tenuous, suicidal, homicidal roughhouse.’ Lippmann thought the Democrats had taught America ‘more at firsthand about the really dangerous problems of America’ and ‘learned more of the actual motives which move the great masses of men than anyone of this generation thought possible.’ ‘No man or woman who attended the Convention of 1924 in the old Madison Square Garden will ever forget it,’ Daniel Roper, one of McAdoo’s lieutenants, said later in life. ‘This country has never seen its like and is not likely to see its like again.’ Over three decades later, Al Smith’s daughter still remembered those sixteen days with a shudder. ‘Traits that I do not like to think of as American played too great a part that year,’ she winced.

And, for the first time in history, the convention had all been broadcast nationwide through the miracle of radio.”

In fact, one of the first-ever radio catch-phrases emerged from the 1924 convention, when the Governor of Alabama, William Brandon, kicked off each round of voting with the same sentence: “Alabamah casts twenty-foah votes for Oscah Dubya Undawood!” (For years later, a resolute man or woman would be considered ‘as steady as Alabama for Underwood.’) In any case, back then memorable, often un-scripted or badly-scripted Eastwood-esque speeches were the norm. To take just a few notable examples:

James Phelan, nominating McAdoo:When the roll of states got to California, boss James Phelan gave a florid fifty-minute nominating speech for McAdoo that was deemed by observers ‘the worst speech never heard.’ It, according to others, nearly ‘stampeded the convention of Smith’ and would have killed ‘Thomas Jefferson running on a ticket with Andrew Jackson.’ Long before Phelan got to his closing, the galleries were desperately screaming ‘Name your man! Name your man!’ When he finally Mc’did, McAdoo forces festooned with buttons and hatbands reading ‘Mc’ll do!’ broke out in an hour-long celebration, chanting ‘we don’t care what the Easterners do; the South and West are for McAdoo!’ In response, the galleries bellowed ‘Ku Ku, McAdoo!’ and ‘No oil on Al!’ The situation was only just beginning to get out of hand.”

FDR, nominating Al Smith: “When the roll of states reached Connecticut, the delegation yielded to their neighbor New York, meaning, everyone knew with bated breath, it was time for Al Smith’s official nomination. The deliverer of this good news to the galleries, on account of his relative stardom and offsetting attributes to the candidate, was Smith’s campaign manager, Franklin Roosevelt. (When Joseph Proskauer first pitched the idea to Smith, the candidate asked, ‘For God’s Sake, why?’ Proskauer replied, ‘Because you’re a Bowery mick and he’s a Protestant patrician and he’ll take some of the curse off of you.’)”

“Helped by his teenage son Jimmy, whose arm he gripped so hard it bruised, Roosevelt slowly made his way to the lectern on crutches. Once there – Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania had already tested that ‘the pulpit’ could bear Roosevelt’s weight – he turned on the charm, winning the McAdoo crowd over right away by gently admonishing the galleries above. Then, delivering a speech written by Proskauer (although Roosevelt would rarely admit to it later), Roosevelt praised Al Smith as ‘the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield,’ a moniker, derived from Wordsworth, that would stick to Smith as surely as ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ had in 1920. The Smith crowd loved every minute of it, and the McAdoo crowd was quietly impressed – Franklin Roosevelt was back.”

Andrew Erwin, on the Klan:: “As soon as the anti-Klan plank was read, the floor and the galleries both went into full hysteria…by the time pro- and anti-Klan speakers began making their remarks late in the evening, the assembled Democrats were cheering and hissing with abandon. The wall of noise became particularly intense during the remarks of Andrew C. Erwin, the former mayor of Athens, Georgia. Expecting pro-Klan nostrums from the Georgian, the pro-Smith galleries booed Erwin mercilessly – until the room slowly started to realize that Erwin was actually denouncing the Klan, at which point a lusty cheer erupted from up above even as McAdoo Alley wailed with rage. When Erwin went back to his seat, only one member of the Georgian delegation stood to welcome him.”

William Jennings Bryan, on the Klan: “The last speech on the Klan issue was delivered by William Jennings Bryan, who pleaded with anti-Klan delegates that everyone could agree if only the three words ‘Ku Klux Klan’ were left out of the platform. It went over like a lead balloon. The galleries were so vociferous in their booing of the Great Commoner that Bryan had to stop three times. On the third such interruption, [Thomas] Walsh rose up and began gaveling and screaming in fury to quiet the balconies down. Rattled, Bryan slipped into the cadences of the church and implored the unruly congregation ‘in the name of the Son of God and Savior of the world. Christians, stop fighting and let us get together and save the world from the materialism that robs life of its spiritual values.’ The crowd was having none of it, and Bryan retreated to a chair on the platform, too tired to walk back to his seat with Florida. It wasn’t even his worst speech of the convention.”

(Note: For a very funny book-length treatment of the 1924 convention, check out Robert K. Murray’s The 103rd Ballot.)

Devil in a Blue Dress.

(Ok, admittedly, that’s still unsubstantiated. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) In any event, a sturdy and plodding workhorse of a biopic, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar attempts to humanize the man who fanned forty years of fears about Communism to become architect of the F.B.I. and one of the most powerful figures in Washington. It’s…not bad, and I would say I was engaged for most of the movie’s run. But, even despite all the Brokeback Mountain-style kabuki restraint that Eastwood must’ve felt he had to employ to do justice to the are-they-or-aren’t-they relationship of Hoover and longtime partner Clyde Tolson, a film about a figure as polarizing as J. Edgar Hoover should take stronger stands about its subject. Despite some very good (and, in di Caprio’s case, very bizarre) performances, this is mostly biopic mush.

It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.

With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)

For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.

For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.

Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.

So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.

Strange Trips.

In the teaser bin, superspy Angelina Jolie (again?) gets befuddled traveler Johnny Depp in over his head in the trailer for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist, also with Paul Bettany, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Dalton, and Ralf Moeller. (Not exactly The Lives of Others, is it? And this soon after Salt, Jolie feels like a red flag.)

Meanwhile, Matt Damon sees dead people in the trailer for Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, also with Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr, Jenifer Lewis, Cecile De France, and Richard Kind. Eh, maybe — This definitely looks like a potential schmaltzfest.

Rugby > Racism. (Rinse, Repeat.)

I’ve got bad news, folks. It’s nothing personal, I’m sure, but Clint Eastwood apparently thinks we’re stupid. That seems like the best way to account for the ridiculous redundancy built into Invictus, his well-meaning but over-broad account of South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Sadly, this is the type of flick where characters keep intoning the obvious take-away message from the scene you just watched — “This country’s changed. We need to change as well!,” “He’s not a saint! He’s a man, with a man’s problems!” — just in case you’re, y’know, a little slow on the uptake. And every single point here gets hammered on three or four times, when once would’ve usually been quite enough, thanks much. In all honesty, I came out of Invictus feeling like I’d just been trying to guard Jonah Lomu for two hours. In a word, bludgeoned.

Don’t get me wrong — The movie has its heart in the right place, and I wholeheartedly agree with many of its basic contentions. I too believe Nelson Mandela is a great man, and that he was just the right man to lead his nation at the delicate hour when apartheid finally fell. I believe that racism is a moral failing that must be overcome, and that forgiveness is a more enlightened path than revenge. (As A.O. Scott aptly pointed out in his more-positive review of this film, Invictus is as committed to examining the issue of vengeance, and its overcoming, as Unforgiven, Gran Torino, Mystic River, and countless other films in Eastwood’s oeuvre.)

And I even think there’s a sophisticated story to be told here about the role of symbols (the Springboks), iconography (green-and-gold), and sports teams in politics and nation-building. (Throughout much of Invictus, I was reminded of a book from gradual school days: In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, historian David Waldstreicher’s book on the early national period of the United States, when (as the title indicates) our Founders threw galas, parties, and festivities pretty much constantly to help engender a healthy nationalism in newly-minted Americans.)

Both in terms of fostering forgiveness on both sides and as a sheer political play, the basic “human calculation” made here by President Mandela — getting behind a team loathed by blacks and beloved by whites in order to signal good-faith intentions to Afrikaners and to help forge a new national unity — is a very savvy one. (You might even say it’s a Lincolnesque move, and in fact, there’s a good bit of Lincoln’s blend of folk wisdom, bonhomie, and ruthless, clear-eyed political calculation in Mandela as portrayed here.) And, of course, there’s a great underdog sports tale at the actual Cup itself — South Africa versus the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand.

The point being, Eastwood had a lot of good raw material to work with here in Invictus…but the final product, alas, is not so good. The film is competently-made, sure, and everyone from Morgan Freeman (not just being himself) to Matt Damon (great job with the accent) on down does a solid job with what they’re given. But the movie still ends up being more Flags of our Fathers than Letters from Iwo Jima: It’s so ham-fisted so often that it hardly ever gets off the ground. And it just doesn’t trust that the audience will pick up on anything unless it’s spelled out for them and underlined a few times. (I presume this is Eastwood’s fault rather than the source material, John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy — One definitely gets the sense from Invictus that Clint may have watched Idiocracy recently.)

One example should explain the problem. In one scene in the middle going, the all-white Springboks (Chester Williams notwithstanding) venture to a run-down shantytown in Soweto to teach young black South Africans the sport of rugby. (In this case, Invictus is smart to spell one thing out to the audience — the basic rules of play.) The kids generally seem excited by the trip, some of the Afrikaner meatheads who were complaining before start smiling and getting into it, and everybody — white and black — is clearly having a good time. The basic point is obvious from the entire scene: The fun of the game and the day is bringing former adversaries together. But then Clint has to pan over to a sign saying something like “One Team One Nation” or somesuch, and right thereafter some not-very-good pop song blares over the soundtrack with hokey lines like “we are color blind.” Ok, Clint, we get it.

Invictus does this throughout its run. Just in case we somehow miss the racial-reconciliation-through-sport point of the entire movie, there are multiply-redundant systems built into the narrative. There’s a divided Greek chorus of security guards that, like the Springboks, gradually come together as a team. There’s the black maid of Matt Damon’s somewhat haughty white family, who finally gets included as an equal. And there are even cuts to some random once-racist white cops and the black youths they would’ve undoubtedly spent the day harrassing, if it weren’t for the healing benediction of rugby, all jumping up and down together and enjoying the Big Win. After awhile, it all gets to be overkill.

Put simply, Invictus has great and laudable intentions, and I guess I wouldn’t call it an out-and-out fumble. But it definitely should’ve taken some lessons in subtlety from the real Nelson Mandela: Sometimes a quiet word in the right moment speaks louder than the mightiest of trumpets.

The Oughts in Film: Part IV (25-11).

Hello again, and a happy New Year’s Eve to you and yours. Well, I thought this Best of the Decade would end up being four parts, but now it’s looking like five. The recaps for this last twenty-five got so long that MT seems to be consuming the bottom of the entry as I write.

So, with that in mind, here’s #’s 25-11 for the Oughts, with the top ten of the decade to follow in due course. If you’re new to this overview, be sure to check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 before moving on to the…

Top 100 Films of the Decade: Part IV: 25-11
[The Rest of the List: 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-11 | 10-1]

25. Donnie Darko (2001)

From the original review: “All in all, this is a marvelously genre-bending film with wonderful anchoring performances by the Gyllenhaals. I think I liked this movie much more for not knowing a lot about it going in, so I won’t mention the particulars here. But it’s definitely worth seeing. Extra points for the soundtrack, which with ‘Head over Heels,’ ‘Love will Tear Us Apart,’ and ‘Under the Milky Way’…reminded me more of my own high school experience than any other film I can remember. (The Dukakis era setting helped, since that was my own eighth grade year.)

I almost took this movie out of the top 25 on account of its association with Southland Tales and The Box, and even the director’s cut of this film, which snuffs out a lot of this movie’s weird magic by slathering it in needless Midichlorian-style exposition. As I said in my recent review of The Box, Donnie Darko seems to be a clear and undeniable case where studio intervention saved a movie.

Nevertheless, part Philip K. Dick, part John Hughes, Darko was a touching coming-of-age story (thanks in good part to Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s cranky but loving parents), a decently funny satire about the vagaries of small-town life (think Sparkle Motion, “sleep-golfing,” and the Love-Fear axis), and a trippy sci-fi/psychological thriller. (Was Donnie really talking to a demon-rabbit from the future, or was he just off his meds? The original version muddles this question a lot better than the Kelly cut.)

Whether or not Richard Kelly just got struck by lightning here, everyone else involved clearly brought their A-game to this production. Two Gyllenhaals got on the Hollywood board with this flick, although Maggie would have to wait for Secretary to really break out. The Michael Andrews score contributed mightily to the proceedings, as did the Gary Jules cover of “Mad World,” which got a lot of run in the Oughts, from Gears of War to American Idol. And there are plenty of quality performances in the margins, from the late Patrick Swayze riffing on his image, to Beth Grant typecasting herself for the decade, to Katharine Ross coming back for one more curtain call. Fluke or not, the original version of Donnie Darko was one strange and memorable bunny, alright.

24. High Fidelity (2000)

From the year-end list: “An excellent adaptation of a great book, even if I preferred the Elvis Costello britrock emphasis of Hornby’s tome to the indie Subpop scene of the movie.

Charlie, you f**king b**ch! Let’s work it out!” Arguably John Cusack’s finest hour (although 1999’s Being John Malkovich is right up there, and I know many might cite the Lloyd Dobler of old), Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity has continued to grow on me over the years. If it counts as one of David Denby’s slacker-striver romances (see the discussion of Knocked Up at #40), it’s definitely the one that hits closest to home for me.

The first thing people usually remember about this movie is all the Jack Black/Todd Louiso banter in the record store. (“It’s a Cosssssby sweater!“) And it’s true — All of that stuff is both really funny and all too telling about the elitism and obsessiveness inherent to the fanboy mentality — “Don’t tell anyone you don’t own ‘Blonde on Blonde’! It’s gonna be okay.” Besides, let’s face it, this entire end-of-the-decade list is really just an extended High Fidelity-style Top 5 (and I had a great time back in July organizing my history books chronologically, a la Rob’s record collection.)

Still, as with the book, High Fidelity‘s killer app is really the dispatches filed from Rob’s romantic life, as he ponders what went wrong with his Top 5 Crushes gone awry. (“We were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26, and we were of that disposition.“) There’s a lot of truthiness throughout High Fidelity, from Rob’s catastrophic hang-up on Charlie (Catherine Zeta Jones) to his eff-the-world rebound with an equally besotted Sarah (Lili Taylor), to his single-minded infatuation about whether his ex, Laura (Iben Hjejle), has slept with the loathsome new boyfriend, Ian (fellow Tapehead Tim Robbins in a great cameo) yet.

In short, I’d argue High Fidelity gets the inner-male monologue closer to right than any flick this side of Annie Hall. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, it’s funny because it’s true.

23. In the Mood for Love (2000) / 2046 (2004)

From the original review: “Since I spent Friday evening watching In the Mood for Love — a tale of a romance-that-almost-was, told in furtive hallway glances — and 2046 — a broader and more diffuse disquisition on love and heartache — back-to-back, here’s an


Blade Runner 2049 (8/10)

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