Movie Reviews: The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots, Schindler’s List

Finding myself with an unexpectedly free afternoon, I went to see The Favourite at the Arclight,

You rarely see elderly people in central Hollywood, but they’re there at the movies at 2pm.  While we waited for the movie to start, there was an audible electrical hum.  The Arclight person introduced the film, and then one of the audience members shouted out “what’re you gonna do about the grounding hum?”

The use of the phrase “grounding hum” rather than just “that humming sound” seemed to baffle the Arclight worker.  Panicked, she said she’d look into it, and if we wanted, we could be “set up with another movie.”

After like one minute I took the option to be set up with another movie because the hum was really annoying.  Playing soon was Mary Queen of Scots.

Look, I like a costume drama.  I’m above average interested in Mary Queen of Scots.  Just her name is fascinating.  I’m no expert on Elizabethan England and Scotland but I’d say I’m fairly informed on the life of Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve read one biography* of her.

The plot of this movie was confusing to me.  I don’t know what they were going for but for me it didn’t come together.

Reminded as I thought about it of John Ford’s quote about Monument Valley.  John Ford assembles the crew and says, we’re out here to shoot the most interesting thing in the world: the human face.

Both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie have incredible faces.  It’s glorious to see them.  The best parts of this movie were closeups.  Other than that felt like there were whole scenes where it was like what is happening? why?  who cares?  There were impressive costumes.

One rule I’ve observed is that if there’s a period ball in your movie, there’s a high likelihood of disaster.  Heaven’s Gate, Waterloo.  Many expensive flops have spent a lot of money on costumes for ball/dance scenes no one ends up caring about.

Were I a movie executive I would shut down any director who wanted to film a historically-set ball or dance.

Next I saw Schindler’s List.

This movie has been re-released, with an intro from Spielberg, about the dangers of racism.

This movie knocked my socks off.  I forgot, since the last time I saw it, what this movie accomplished.

When the movie first came out, the context in which people were prepared for it, discussed it, saw it, were shown it in school etc took it beyond the realm of like “a movie” and into some other world of experience and meaning.

I feel like I saw this movie for the first time on VHS tapes from the public library, although I believe we were shown the shower scene at school.

schindler

My idea in seeing it this time was to see it as a movie.

How did they make it?  How does it work?  What’s accomplished on the level of craft?  Once we’ve handled the fact that we’re seeing a representation of the Holocaust, how does this work as a movie?

It’s incredible.  The craft level accomplishment is on the absolute highest level.

 

Take away the weight with which this movie first reached us, with what it was attempting.  Just approach it as “a filmmaker made this, put this together.”

Long, enormous shots of huge numbers of people, presented in ways that feel real, alive.  Liam Neeson’s performance, his mysteries, his charisma, his ambiguity.  We don’t actually learn that much about Oscar Schindler.  So much is hidden.

Ralph Fiennes performance, the humanity, the realness he brings to someone whose crimes just overload the brain’s ability to process.

The moving parts, the train shots, the wide city shots.  Unreal accomplishment of filmmaking.

Some thoughts:

  • water, recurring as an image, theme in the movie.

 

  • there are a bunch of scenes of just factory action, people making things with tools and machines.  that was the cover.  was not the Holocaust an event of the factory age, a twisted branch of Industrial Revolution and efficiency metric spirit?

 

  • reminded that people didn’t know, when it began, “we’re in The Holocaust, this is the Holocaust.”  It built. It got worse and worse.  there were steps and stages along the way.

 

  • what happened in the the Holocaust happened in a particular time and place in history, focused in an area of central and eastern Europe that had its own, centuries long, context for what you were, who belonged where, history, which tribes go where, what race or nationality meant, how these were understood.  Göth’s speech about how the centuries of Jewish history in Kraków will become a rumor.  I felt like this movie kind of captured and helped explain some of that, without a ton of extra labor.

 

  • In a way Schindler could almost be seen as like a comic character.  He didn’t start his company to save Jews. He starts it to make money from cheap labor.  He’s a schemer who sees an opportunity.  A rascal out to make a quick buck, a con man and shady dealer who ended up in the worst crime in history, an honest crook who finds he’s in something of vastness and evil beyond his ability to even comprehend.

 

  • There is a scene in this movie that could almost be called funny, or at least comic, when Oscar Schindler (Neeson) tries to explain to Stern (Ben Kingsley) the good qualities of the concentration camp commandant Göth that nobody ever seems to mention!

 

  • Kenneally’s story of how he heard about Schindler:

  • The theme of sexuality, Goth’s sexuality, Schindler’s, what it means to love and express your nature versus trying to suppress and kill.  Spielberg is not really known for having tough explorations of sexuality in his films but I’d say he took this one pretty square on with a lot bravery?

 

  • if I had a criticism it was maybe that the text on the little intermediary passages that appear on screen a few times and explain the context felt not that clear and kind of unnecessary.

 

  • I feared this movie would have a kind of ’90s whitewash, I felt maybe takes exist, the “actually Schindler’s List is BAD” take is out there, with the idea being that Spielberg put in too much sugar with the medicine which when we talk about the Shoah, unspeakable, unaddressable, is somehow wrong, but damn.  I was glad for the sugar myself and I don’t think Spielberg looked away.  The Holocaust occurred in a human context, and human contexts, no matter how dark, always have absurdity.

 

  • the scene, for instance, were the Nazis burn in an enormous pyre the months-buried, now exhumed bodies of thousands of people executed during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, Spielberg took us as close to the mouth of the abyss as you’re gonna see at a regular movie theater.

What does it mean that Spielberg made a movie about the Holocaust and the two leads are both handsome Nazis?

 

*As a boy I was attracted to the history of Britain and Ireland as well as Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples in America.  The peoples of those islands recorded a dramatic history that I felt connected to.  They also developed a compelling tradition of telling these history stories with as much drama and excitement as possible eg. Shakespeare.

At a library book sale, I bought, for 50 cents a volume, three biographies from a numbered set from like 1920 of “notable personages,” something like that. 

These just looked like the kind of books that a cool gentleman had.  Books that indicated status and intelligence. 

One of this set that I got was Hernando Cortes.  I started that one, but even at that tender age I perceived Cortes was not someone to get behind.  The biography had a pro-Cortes slant I found distasteful. 

Another volume was about Mary Queen of Scots.

Just on her name, really, I started reading that one. 

Mary Queen of Scots’ life was a thrilling story, and this one was melodramatically told.  Affairs, murder plots, insults, rumor, execution. 

Sometime thereafter, at school, we were all assigned like a book report.  To read a biography, any biography, and write a report about it. 

Since I’d already read Mary’s biography, I picked her. 

As it happened, I overheard my dad confusedly ask my mom why, of all people on Earth, I’d chosen Mary Queen of Scots as the topic for my biography project.  My dad did not know the backstory, which my mom patiently explained. 

My dad’s reaction on hearing I’d picked Mary Queen of Scots, while not as harsh as Kevin Hart’s imagined reaction on hearing his son had a dollhouse, helps me to understand where Kevin Hart was coming from.  Confusion, for starters.  Upsetness.

At the time the guys I thought were really heroes were probably like JFK and Hemingway.  


George HW Bush

Thought of this photo today.

(what’s David Gergen doing there?  sometimes I’ve been that guy).

All posts related to any Bush.

 


Anybody remember this one?

it’s possible attempts were made to record this song onto an audio cassette.


Best Email Subject Line of the Week


The Riddle of Chaco Canyon

Sure, we’ve all heard of Chaco Canyon.  It’s one of the 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the USA. But I tended to lump it in with Mesa Verde and the other cliff dwellings and move on.

Then an ad in High West (“for people who care about the West”) caught my eye.  $25 for a year’s subscription to Archaeology Southwest, PLUS the Chaco archaeology report?  Yes!

Once you get going on Chaco Canyon, it’s hard to stop.

Bob Adams at Wikipedia

What was it?  Who built it?  How?  What happened?  What were they up to?  Why there?

Room 170 at source: this Gamblers House post

One of the most important conclusions that leaps out of this book is that most of the societies examined had attitudes toward nature that were fairly compatible with a responsible, sustainable relationship with the environment, but that nearly all of them ended up destroying their environment anyway, either because they lacked the scientific and technological knowledge to know how to act best or because they let their values change as they became wealthier and more powerful through exploitation of natural resources.

from this post.

Sometimes you start looking for something, more information, help, and you find exactly what you’re looking for.  You find a guide who can give you exactly the information you’re looking for, in a digestible way.

That’s what I found when I found The Gambler’s House.  A dense, rich blog about Chaco by a former Park Service seasonal guide, he / she seems to know this stuff at a deep level.  Here are two of the closest I find to autobiography.

source: Gambler’s House

The author, who signs the name Teofilio, writes with clarity, patience, intelligence, respect for the reader, restrained but confident style, and a steady, calm voice, walking us through questions, debates, and controversies within the scholarship:

So if great houses weren’t pueblos, what were they?  Here’s where contemporary archaeologists tend to break into two main camps.  One sees them as elite residences, part of some sort of hierarchical system centered on the canyon or,  alternatively, of a decentralized system of “peer-polities” with local elites who emulated the central canyon elites in the biggest great houses.  In either case, note that the great houses are still presumed to have been primarily residential.  The difference from the traditional view is quantitative, rather than qualitative.  These researchers see the lack of evidence for residential use in most rooms, but they also see that there is still some evidence for residential use, and they emphasize that and interpret the other rooms as evidence of the power and wealth of the few people who lived in these huge buildings and were able to amass large food surpluses or trade goods (or whatever).  The specific models vary, but the core thing about them is that they see the great houses as houses, not for the community as a whole (most people lived in the surrounding “small  houses” both inside and outside of the canyon) but for a lucky few.

In this camp are Steve LeksonSteve PlogJohn Kantner, probably Ruth Van Dyke (although she doesn’t talk about the specific functions of great houses much), and others.

On the other side are those who see the difference between pueblos and great houses as qualitative.  To these people, the great houses were not primarily residential in function, although they may have housed some people from time to time.  Most of these researchers see the primary function of the sites as being “ritual” in some sense, although what that means is not always clearly specified.  In many cases a focus on pilgrimage (based on questionable evidence) is posited.  This group tends to make a big deal out of the astronomical alignments and large-scale planning evident in the layouts and positions of the great houses within their communities.  They tend to see the few residents of the sites as caretakers, priests, or other individuals whose functions allowed them to reside in these buildings.  Importantly, they don’t see these sites as equivalent to other residences in any meaningful way.  They are instead public architecture, perhaps built by egalitarian communities as an act of religious devotion.  Examples of monumental architecture built by such societies are known throughout the world (Stonehenge is a famous example), and this view fits with the traditional interpretation of modern Pueblo ethnography, which sees the Pueblos as peaceful, egalitarian, communal villagers.  There is a long tradition of projecting this image back into the prehistoric past based on the obvious continuities in material culture, so while these scholars are in some ways breaking with tradition in not seeing great houses as residential, they are also staying true to tradition in other ways by interpreting them as a past manifestation of cultural tendencies still known in the descendant societies but expressed in different ways.

(from this post).

While many archaeologists have made valiant attempts to fit the rise of Chaco into models based on local and/or regional environmental conditions, they have been generally unsuccessful in finding a model that convincingly explains the astonishing florescence of the Chaco system in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.  This has inspired some other archaeologists more recently to try a different tack involving less environmental determinism and more historical contingency.  This seems promising, but finding sufficient evidence for this sort of approach is difficult when it comes to prehistoric societies like Chaco.  The various camps of archaeologists will likely continue to argue about the nature of Chaco for a long time, I think.  Meanwhile, the mystery remains.

from the post “Plaster

I doubt this mystery will ever be totally solved.  There’s just too much information that is no longer available for various reasons.  That’s not necessarily a problem, though.  At this point the mysteries of Chaco are among its most noteworthy characteristics.  Sometimes not knowing everything, and accepting that lack of knowledge, is useful in coming to terms with something as impressive, even overwhelming, as Chaco.  One way to deal with it all is to stop trying to figure out every detail and to just observe.  The experience that results from this approach may have nothing to do with the original intent of the builders of the great houses of Chaco, but then again it may have everything to do with that intent.  There’s no way to be sure, and there likely never will be.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes mysteries are better left unsolved.

What of the Gambler legend for the origin of Chaco?  Alexandria Witze at Archaeology Conservancy tells us:

Navajo oral histories tell of a Great Gambler who had a profound effect on Chaco Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloan capital located in what is now northwestern New Mexico. His name was Nááhwiilbiihi (“winner of people”) or Noqóilpi (“he who wins men at play”), and he travelled to Chaco from the south. Once there, he began gambling with the locals, engaging in games such as dice and footraces. He always won.

Faced with such a formidable opponent, the people of Chaco lost all their possessions at first. Then they gambled their spouses and children and, finally, themselves, into his debt. With a group of slaves now available to do his bidding, the Gambler ordered them to construct a series of great houses—the monumental architecture that fills Chaco Canyon today.

when I picture The Gambler

What was up with Chaco Canyon’s roads?  They were thirty feet wide, perfectly straight, and seem to go… nowhere?

Once you’re into Chaco Canyon before you know it you’re into Hovenweep.

and where does Mesa Verde fit into this?

So what was the relationship between the two?  The short answer is that no one knows.

source: rationalobserver for wikipedia

This is a great post with a possible Chaco theory:

Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.

The “sexiest” post title:


Vivian Maier

stole that straight from Artnet.

The tale of who owns Vivian Maier’s work is interesting.  Through some twists, John Maloof, the Chicago real estate developer (?) who found and bought most of the physical photos at a storage auction, does not at present own the copyright:

Until those heirs are determined, the Cook County Administrator will continue to serve as the supervisor of the Maier Estate.


TMI

CIC of USS Spruance, 1975. USN-1162165.

But the most intriguing chapter is Hone’s study of a critical but largely unrecognized reorganization that transformed Navy operations beginning in late 1942. The problem was that commanders of warships were being cognitively overwhelmed by all the new information thrown at them in battle. In addition to traditional sightings and signaling, they were now receiving reports by radio from aircraft and from other ships, as well as from radar readings. The Navy’s answer was to design a new Combat Information Center on each ship. Through it, all that data could be continually funneled, sifted, integrated and passed to the captain and others on the vessel who might need it, like gunners. Such an improvement may seem mere common sense, but then many great innovations do seem obvious — in retrospect. Interestingly, Adm. Chester Nimitz told skippers what to do (establish the new centers) but not how to do it. This meant that different ships devised different approaches, which provided the basis for subsequent refinements.

CIC aboard an unknown destroyer escort during WWII, found here

Really interesting paragraph from Thomas Ricks, writing about this book:

which I will read when I have time, Trent Hone sounds serious!

Late 1942: is that the point in time where the age of information overload began?  Sorting, digesting, processing the enormous amounts of information that flow our way, telling signal from noise, is that a/the prevailing cognitive problem of the post 1942 world?

Tom Ricks=boss.