Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Politics of War Examined in Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory"

Politics may lead to war but when war becomes little more than a political ploy to protect those in charge the average soldier ends up as the victim sacrificed to ego. Stanley Kubrick's first masterpiece "Paths of Glory" focuses on a colonel (Kirk Douglas) who defends his men on the charges of cowardice when they fail at carrying out a mission that his superiors knew to be impossible. Douglas gives one of his finest performances in Kubrick's film and the top notch supporting cast includes Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, Richard Anderson, and George Macready.

Kubrick's film is a study in the hypocrisy and gap that exists between waging war and the politics of war, it's impact on our humanity and the often absurd lengths that those in charge will go to as a means of keeping the their world neat and tidy. It also sums up an entire generation of those who feel entitled using murder as nothing more than a means to bolster their ego and protect their station. It's the ultimate method to punish someone else for your mistake(s) so that we can trust those who lead even as they lead us into a dead end.

Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb and written for the screen by Calder Willingham (the earliest drafts), Kubirck and Jim Thompson (who rewrote the script adding despite Willingham later claim about 50% new material to the script), Kubrick already demonstrates his expertise at setting up and executing complex sequences just as well as his smaller intimate moments of character conflict.

The Criterion edition of the film (this review is for the Blu-ray)is the ultimate edition. It has the correct aspect ratio. The transfer has been lovingly restored from the best elements available and detail, depth and blacks are remarkable throughout the presentation. This is a huge step up from the original DVD. "Paths of Glory" is beautifully rendered on Blu-ray. The mono audio sounds quite good with dialogue quite clear.

Be aware however that there is a jump cut in this restoration where a few frames are missing and UCLA/MGM which restored the film were unable to find adequate source for that footage. It lasts only a second at about 56:04.

As with all Criterion films this comes with a book featuring an essay on the making of the film by film critic/scholar James Naermore, a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick about the making of the film (a bit of trivia--Kubrick "suggested" a less bleak ending in hopes that he could keep the dark ending that is IN the film much as Hitchcock used to bluff the Hayes commission by putting things in his script and sometimes film that he KNEW he would never end up using in the final product), a 1979 interview with star Douglas and new interviews with producer Jan Harlan and James B. Harris as well as actress Christiane Kubrick. We also get a vintage French TV special on the inspiration for the film as well as the original theatrical trailer. The audio commentary by Gary Giddins is quite good providing insight into the filmmaking process as well as themes later elaborated in other Kubrick films.

As with all of Criterion latest Blu-ray releases (and their latest DVD releases as well), this is a top notch highly recommended version of the film. Yes, it is expensive but if you don't want to pay the full retail price wait for a two-for-one Criterion sale (as I did).

While Kubrick directed noteworthy films before "Paths of Glory" this film provided him with the opportunity to step up to bigger, more elaborate productions and demonstrated the themes that would preoccupy for the remainder of his career as a film director. Highly recommended.

Our Crippled Healthcare System

Health care continues to limp on in the United States. We are ranked 46th out of all the Top 50 nations for health care in the world. Part of the issue is that health care is run like any other business and yet it isn't truly a business--profiting on someone's else's health or denying coverage for a pre-existing condition (or stating that a technique is experimental when, in fact, it isn't so as to deny coverage and keep the patient alive)is a form of gambling but it gambles with people's lives which makes it Wendell Potter worked for what he would probably characterize as the "enemy" now for over twenty years. As a PR executive he would weave lies into a positive "truth" for the company he worked for (Cigna) making it appear that they were always doing the right thing for their patients. Using statistics to lie is one thing (for example dropping people off the unemployment rolls that are reported to make it appear that the nation is covering when it isn't)but PR people like Wendall Potter would often twist the truth or help craft messages to appeal to middle America to scare the public from reform in health care.

Wendall Potter's book DEADLY SPIN takes us behind the curtain to reveal that our make shift healthcare system continues continues to fall apart because the magical Wizard of Oz continues to con us into believing their illusions: the illusion that we have great healthcare; the illusion that reform is bad; the illusion that universal healthcare that the nations ranked 1 through 10 on the list of exceptional care are somehow substandard; the illusion that tying organizations that provide healthcare to profits and that profitability of a healthcare company will give us the quality that we need to survive in the 21st century. The CEO magpies of Aetna, Cigna and other health insurance giants continue to profit from illness, death and disease making them nothing more than one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Hooper came to his senses and realized he worked for unethical charlatans who were descendants of the rainmakers that populated the dust bowl during the Great Depression.

One day Potter had an awakening and realized what he was doing was wrong leaving the industry that had nurtured him and becoming an advocate for proper health care and a government based system to force corporations to play fair. He just couldn't stomach hiding greed behind the veneer of double speak falling into a rabbit hole with language that only George Orwell would recognize. He chronicles his rise in the industry and his disillusionment and how the media is manipulated, patients, government to make decisions that are profiting major corporations at the cost of our health and lives. This is as much the story of his awakening as it is about the PR manipulation of the public around health care issues.

Potter's exceptional book "Deadly Spin" takes us behind-the-scenes into the wheeling and dealing that goes on with multiple PR flacks that try and spin doctor any change that threatens their profit as bad for the average consumer. Potter gives us a history of the PR game to help us understand WHY and HOW this delibunethical.

The health care industry from health plans to pharmaceuticals have for too long had access to lawmakers (using the money that we pay them) to push forward their own agenda and "buy" politicians in Washington; that's nothing new it just just become more blatant than before. Using misinformation, front groups to suggest that any sort of reform is bad, these organizations have been directing America down a path with overgrown foilage and rough terrain where the patient must always suffer. Potter's book takes the curtain that these companies hide behind and let's us see the thought process, innner workings and how misinformation manipulates the public to make the wrong choices while allowing politicians to make those choices knowing they are wrong without ramifications.

Is "Universal Healthcare" the way to go? I don't know but I do know that the insurance industry is scared of it. Perhaps the enemy of our enemy could be our friend and perhaps that friend SHOULD scare the healthcare industry. Maybe they'll shape up and move in an ethical direction where Orwellian doublespeak doesn't dominate their time and caring for humanity will. It's a nice dream. The dream can only come true though if made practical and removing profit as an incentive. Potter points out how people like him would manipulate the media and politicians to paint Universal Healthcare as "communist" or "socialist" in nature to taint any and all intelligent discussion about the positives and negatives scaring people away before dialog had even begun. Is it communism or socialism to want to live long, healthy lives? I would state that this is an essential element of a caring democratic society.

Potter suggests that having some sort of system like this in place would be helpful in redefining the way we take care of our health. The recent changes with Obama Care he points out aren't perfect but is a step in the right direction (--his complaint was that corporate America shaped it (this is Potter's opinion mind you I don't know that I agree with him on this point but it is food for thought).

I don't know that I agree with all of Potter's suggestions (for example I think that given our economy Obama Care should have been a lower priority--right in the middle of the worst economic downturn in ages-- and when it did become a priority it was so badly compromised that the changes--small as they were and some positive--are meaningless in the over all big picture)but I have to admire him for waking up from the money inspired opiate-like dream that has entranced everyone else in his former industry. I also feel that Potter would have done better to give us more indepth examples of why the system breaks down consistently but what we do get makes me embarrassed to be an American because of the self centered greed of those in charge.

Regardless of where you stand on healthcare-- if you believe or don't believe in universal healthcare--Potter's book is essential reading for understanding the flaws in our system and how corporate greed and profit continues to manipulate who gets coverage, who doesn't and why we are ranked so poorly compared to other nations when it comes to health care.


The Southern Gothic World of Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter"

"The Night of the Hunter" (Blu-ray)
Genre: Suspense
Review by Wayne A. Klein
Release Date: 11/16/10
Studio: Criterion
Special Features: Commentary, documentaries, outtakes, photos, essays
Rating: Unrated
Combining elements of Southern Gothic with German Expressionism Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter" remains an unusual classic. It manages to combine suspense, broad elements of satire, and a dollop of compassion. This is an influence of D. W. Griffith's stylized dramas. Laughton even went so far as to cast Griffith regular Lillian Gish in a pivotal role that echoes her work for Griffith from the silent era. Laughton tells a story that Faulkner or O'Connor might have although with a slightly less populist touch. Featuring an amazing performance from Robert Mitchum that is, at turns, sincere, evil, psychopathic and just south of over-the-top, actor Laughton ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Mutiny on the Bounty")was in his 50's when he made his first film in collaboration with director of photography Stanley Cortez ("The Magnificient Ambersons")and acclaimed writer James Agee ("The African Queen" the Pulitzer Prize winning novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY)but it's clear that he paid attention on all of those movie sets. A box office dud when it was released the audience at the time didn't know what to make of Laughton's film. Laughton never directed a film again. Luckily audiences rediscovered this stylized film which is as droll as it is sincere and suspenseful.

There is no doubt that "The Night of the Hunter" is an acquired taste like some of Hitchcock and Welles' films but for those who appreciate the film this is the ultimate edition and essential. The film like Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" and Welles' "The Magnificient Ambersons" focuses on how we saw ourselves in the era the film is set not necessarily on how we really WERE at the time. There is a stylized, theatrical quality to the film that wasn't unnatural for the era. Unlike a contemporary film Laughton wasn't trying to create something that reflects the real world but like the Southern Gothic origins of the story tell a story that reflects the myths, legends and stories of the south that were often told as parables to entertain, enlighten and frighten.

While Laughton didn't have the free reign to adapt the film including all of the darker elements of the novel (the Code was still in effect and all scripts had to be submitted for review prior to production and release) resulting in a film that often has a number of surreal moments that don't exactly fit the needs of the narrative. Laughton pared down Agee's script cutting a fair amount of material to make the film as concise as possible adding to the mystery of the film at times; we don't know why the Preacher behaves the way he does we just know that he is completely crazy. In many respects Mitchum's Preacher reflects every crazy con man that drifted through the south during the Great Depression trying to fleece those that were barely surviving and justifying his "mission" to some funhouse mirror reflection of God.

How does it look? Having seen the MGM release of "The Night of the Hunter" on DVD (and in Meltnitz at UCLA)I can state that Criterion's Blu-ray (and I'm sure the DVD since it was prepared from the same 2K high definition master)looks the best it ever has on home video. That doesn't mean for those you of you raised on digital video without film grain that the grain has been removed--the fine grain and textures of the film are intact and give the film the marvelous ominious quality it had when it played in theaters removing the murky blacks that were a hallmark of the MGM DVD.

The story based on the novel by Davis Grubb (who contributed sketches and comments to Agee and Laughton in pre- production)focuses on a traveling preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum)who is after the money a bank robber (the late Peter Graves)stole to help his wife (Shelly Winters) and children. Cellmates in prison Powell goes on the hunt for the money after the money of the robber after his execution. He woos and weds the widow of his cellmate terrifying her children while playing the pious minister as he searches for the money suspecting that the children are the only ones who know where it is hidden.

As with all Criterion discs you pay a lot for this BUT you get a lot in return if you are a fan of the film and a film buff. We get a deluxe 28 page booklet with essays about Laughton and writer Agee by Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow with plenty of production and behind-the-scenes photos from the film. As film critic F. X. Feeney and assistant director Terry Saunders point out in their excellent commentary track the film was made on the studio lot with a budget of around $700,000 and Laughton spent an exhausting amount of time with his actors to get the best performances he could including the children in the film (Feeney and Saunders point out that Robert Mitchum's biography which suggested that HE directed the child actors is nothing more than fantasy--perhaps he did some time as an actor coaching them but Laughton despite his dislike of children spent the time with them he needed to coach them)going to far as to scrap ALL the footage with one actor and reshooting them with a new performer.

We also get an excellent interview with actor/writer and Laughton biographer Simon Callow ("Five Weddings and A Funeral")focusing on Laughton's career and the making of the film. An excerpt from "The Ed Sullivan Show" is included where the cast perform a deleted scene from the film as well as archival interviews with Mitchum and Cortez. The big attraction though is the new documentary on the making of the film that includes new interviews and on the second disc "Charles Laughton Directs 'The Night of the Hunter' a two and a half hour compilation of behind-the-scenes footage, stills, and outtakes from the movie.

Robert Gitt of the UCLA Archives who provided the print used for this restoration also appears in an interview with Film Historian and critic Leonard Maltin discussing the "Charles Laughton Directs" special feature on disc two. Gitt a long time fixture of the archives has helped shepherd hundreds of films from being swallowed by the mist of history. The work that the archive has done in collaboration with MGM, Criterion and other studios/production companies has been essential in maintaining our cultural history on film. Without them we would have had the disaster that occurred with many silent films disintegrating during the early sound era of the 20th century. During that time frame (from the 30's until the 60's) transferring silent movies was a low priority and many of them either were destroyed in disasters or by the time studios got around to recognizing that silent films were assets were far too gone to do anything with them. We're lucky that films such as "Metropolis" have managed to survive in private collections enabling the reconstruction of missing footage. I fear for the digital era movies that we have coming out because unlike film itself once the data is gone reconstruction may be impossible.

If you've never seen "The Night of the Hunter" I would probably recommend renting it first to see if it is a movie that appeals to you. Laughton's unusual tone and approach to the material makes "Hunter" a film that not everyone appreciates. If you love the film I would definitely pick up the Criterion edition because although it IS expensive, it has an exhaustive catalog of special features covering almost every aspect of the film.

It's a pity that Laughton was so discouraged by the reception of this film as his next project was an film of "The Naked and the Dead" and based on "Hunter" I imagine film fans would have been in for a treat.