Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Many Years Ago?--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© A.M.P.A.S., via

Welcome to the inaugural installment of a new series under which Paul and I hope to log many more entries in as the months roll forward. "How Many Years Ago?", as the name suggests, ties our blog to the Golden Age of cinema many decades in the past. Each entry will look not only at the technical aspects of a particular film, but, most importantly, at the historical context under which the film was released and how that has shaped our understanding of the piece. Consider this series your film education for the day.

If you have been following our blog lately, you may recall how Paul and I hold that elusive fifth star when assigning ratings to films as the pedestal on which we place only the most tightly composed works. Very few films are ever awarded this highest honor, so, naturally, for the premiere entry in this series, I have selected one of my favorite movies of all time that most certainly deserves the prestigious five-star rating.

Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, adapted from the controversial stage play by Edward Albee, premiered in 1966 to rapturous critical and public applause. The uberfamous and scandalous celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star as Martha and George, a couple which draws many parallels from their own personal lives. George, an aging history professor at an unnamed New England university, often spars with his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the school, over cocktails. Near the point of complete inebriation late one night, Martha upsets George once again by inviting a new teacher to the school, Nick (George Segal), and his mousy wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), over to their house for even more drinks. As beverages are consumed and the night wears on, verbal and physical abuse between George and Martha rises to the surface, with Nick and Honey helplessly caught in the maelstrom of torment.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is notable for being the film that reshaped the industry and ultimately undid the archaic Production Code that had been in effect for 30+ years in Hollywood. Under the Code, movies were severely restricted as to what they could portray in terms of vulgarity, language, and sexuality. For roughly fifteen years before this particular film was released, other films such as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly, Last Summer, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, began to push the boundaries of the Code and its main tenants to such an extent that its impact could not be ignored any longer. When Virginia Woolf? was finally released in 1966, with such shockingly coarse language and sexual elements for the time, the then head of the Code, former presidential aide Jack Valenti, took notice of the evolving tastes of society. Valenti did away with the Code and instituted the lettered rating system we are familiar with today (G, PG, etc.). This change allowed for films to be reviewed on individual bases rather than lumping films with common negative traits together, regardless of the variation in severity of those traits.

The marital strife between the characters of George and Martha also greatly mirrored the very public lives of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For many years, Taylor and Burton constantly made headlines around the world as stories of their extravagance and lavish lifestyle made them the most famous celebrity couple of the day. Scandal erupted when the two stars, at the time both married to other people, began an affair that eventually turned into a fully blossomed romance. The relationship quickly turned sour, however, as both dealt with severe insecurities and became dependent on alcohol as a result. The fights became tempestuous and legendary; yet, the two could not stay apart from each other for long. In 1966, when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rolled around, both of their respective careers had been dampened by alcoholism and stories of reckless behavior on set. The characters of Martha and George provided a realistic outlet for Taylor and Burton to explore the deepest reaches of their own abusiveness towards each other. This exploration allowed for very humanistic and, at times, vulnerable portrayals from two actors who had never before turned in such searing performances.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? completely revitalized the careers of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with Taylor even snagging one of the most well deserved Academy Award wins for Best Actress of all time. The film was so well received, in fact, that it managed a nomination for every single category in which it was eligible that year (13 overall with 5 wins), a feat never before or since matched. PLEASE do yourself a favor, and in any capacity: be it reading/seeing an adaptation of the original play, or watching the cathartic journey of the movie, acquaint yourself with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as you will not be disappointed. Pay attention, however, to the fact that this work is a highly draining whirlpool of emotion and is not to be invested in lightly. This is not to say that all is lost, however, without giving the ending away, as the faint rays of sunshine that slowly start to creep through the windows at the end of the story represent the beginning of the catharsis the viewer endures. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s stunning play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the basis by which all other movies hoping to earn a five-star rating are judged.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

20+ Years Later--Did Mookie Do the Right Thing?

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg


What do you think of Do the Right Thing?  It’s pretty much polarized critics and just normal, everyday viewers (which critics are really just glorified versions of) ever since its release in 1989.

But since it’s likely been a while since this film has left our national consciousness, let me give you a refresher:

·     Do the Right Thing is directed by Spike Lee, an African-American filmmaker nearly universally lauded for his artistry and directorial craft.  However, Mr. Lee is also a magnet for controversy.  Numerous quotes (for a selection of such quotes, as well as brilliant analysis, read Stanley Crouch's review entitled "Do the Race Thing" in his 1990 book Notes of a Hanging Judge) as well as themes and implications of his films paint Lee in some people's eyes (such as mine) as racist, segregationalist, victimhood-peddling, and guilt-mongering.

·     Spike Lee also stars as Mookie, who for the majority of the movie is level-headed and likeable, although apathetic and irresponsible

·     The film takes place in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn (working-class), where the entire population is black other than Sal (Danny Aiello), whose pizzeria has been a local landmark for over 25 years, and a newly emigrated Asian couple. 

·     Though Sal seems to be in touch with the neighborhood, Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito), the neighborhood’s detestable rabble-rouser, decides that he doesn’t like that Sal only has pictures of famous white Italians, and none of any famous blacks, on the walls of his restaurant.  Buggin Out enlists Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) to help stage a sit-in protest of Sal’s restaurant.  Radio Raheem (known as such for the boombox he constantly carries with him, always playing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) and Buggin Out enter Sal’s shop, refuse to leave, Sal gets crazy pissed, calls them the N-word, and busts Radio Raheem’s radio.  Raheem then grabs Sal and starts a brawl, which the entire neighborhood eventually becomes involved in.  But here’s the turning point of the film: the police eventually come in, take Raheem off of Sal (who’s lying, beaten, on the ground), and in their anger wind up killing him.  At this point, the whole neighborhood turns against Sal, blaming him for Raheem’s slaying, and Mookie— a previously friendly employee of Sal’s, and the neighborhood conciliator—throws a trashcan through Sal’s window, causing the neighborhood to riot and eventually burn his pizzeria to the ground.  At the end of the film, Mookie comes up to Sal, demanding his last two weeks’ pay.  Sal angrily shells it out.

·     The credits of the film tie up one of the film’s running motifs: Malcolm (X) vs. Martin (Luther King, Jr.).  Essentially, Lee asks us to choose between Malcolm’s view of violence as intelligence (to which Lee subscribes, and in all likelihood intends for his movie to exemplify), and Martin’s view of violence as never—in any circumstance—moral or allowable.

·     One last interesting thing to note:  although the end of the film is full of gravity and deep, deep tragic dilemmas, the majority of it is actually comedic and light.

Alright, so there’s the basic rundown/refresher on which I’ll now build.  So of course, the question is: was Mookie’s decision to throw the trashcan through Sal’s window, starting a riot amongst an angry mob, the right thing for him to do?

I think that people who say “yes” to this question are either illogical, unthinking, or racist.  Lee himself believes that because of the cops’ slaying of Radio Raheem, of course Mookie’s action is justified.  But how?  Let me point you to Lee’s logic in this belief:
  1. The white cops murdered Radio Raheem (black)
  2. Sal is white
  3. Therefore, Sal is also guilty of Radio Raheem’s death
  4. Therefore, Mookie is justified in rioting Sal’s restaurant and having it burned to the ground
Does this make any sense to you, reasonable reader?  That just because Sal’s skin color is the same as the murderers, he is also a murderer, and must pay for their sins?  This is morally confused for two reasons: (1) Because Lee is viewing people not as individuals, but as groups, when in reality, the individual is always to be considered first, and (2) Although no one ever thinks of this, in fact SAL is the minority in the neighborhood.  SAL is the person surrounded by people suspicious of him on the basis of his skin color alone, SAL is the person feeling enclosed and overwhelmed.  So in fact, Lee has unwittingly reversed the roles he intended: The formerly oppressed minority (black people) become the oppressive majority, while the formerly oppressive majority (white people) become the oppressed minority.  Thus Mookie is 100% in the wrong by starting a riot with the goal of intimidating and destroying Sal’s livelihood.

Moreover, the final scene of the movie, in which Mookie demands Sal pay him for his final two weeks, is supposed to, I believe, come off as a final resolution between the two, a recognition that both have harmed and been harmed, and all sins paid.  Of course, as in the rest of the movie, this final scene is terribly morally confused; it implies that Sal and Mookie are morally equivalent—or worse yet, that Mookie (the man who started a dangerous, destructive, violent riot) is morally superior to Sal (the one harmed by all these actions).

Now, if Lee were making a film about police brutality, and cops’ exceptionality to the Rule of Law, then he would have the moral high ground.  When police break the law, all faith in the goodness of government and authority is lost, as is any citizen’s sense of safety.  It’s one of the worst things that can happen in a civil society.

But of course, Lee’s film is about racial tensions.  And on that point, he loses mightily.

For you see, although he sees Mookie’s throwing of the trashcan as right because it is not violence, but in Malcolm X’s term, “intelligence”, any logically and morally thinking person should see that it’s nothing but baldfaced, destructive violence.  A violence that spews separatism and segregation rather than togetherness, and breeds hate and rash action rather than compassion and thoughtfulness.

Perhaps if the film were made by someone other than Lee, with different motivations, it could be viewed more positively.  As a description of the state of race relations in the country—indeed, it often seems that we too often view other races as groups rather than a collection of individuals—it would be quite poignant.  But as a prescription of how race relations should run, it’s simply dangerous venom masquerading as depth and insight.

Critics’ reactions at the film’s release were mixed, but most who didn’t like the film were too scared to speak out strongly against it.  Instead, the loudest voices were those of racist buffoons who feared that the film would cause blacks around the country to riot and those of pandering “intellectuals” who praised Lee for the film’s moral “complexity”.

Of course, before ending, I should mention some noteworthy ingenuity in the technical aspects of the film: the raw camerawork imbues it with a sense of unvarnished urban-ness, the one-face-at-a-time, head-on camera angles during confrontations highlight the real me vs. you, head against head nature of  any sort of confrontation—to me, this was the notable brilliance on the film, that Lee allowed you to feel the anger and the blood-rising of each character during scenes of tension.  The jazz soundtrack gives it an easy, authentic, feel.  Although Lee’s dialogue is inauthentic and most of his characters are one-dimensional, he does a good job of creating a story arch that pulls you and jerks you with its every turn, and effectively highlights the key tragic moments by surrounding them with contrasting, light comedy.

But while Lee shows technical directorial talent in the making of Do the Right Thing, it’s overwhelmingly overshadowed by his outed racism, irrationality, and moral shallowness.

Did Mookie do the right thing?

No.  How can you say he did?

Please, if you have a comment to make, do.  I’d love read and respond.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Ides of March--Video Review

Alex The Savant's Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Paul The Good-Looking One's Rating: 3/5 Stars

The video's half the length of the last one; so we hope that it's short enough to fit into a study/work break.

Ignore the beautiful still shot that youtube chose for us, and go ahead and click play to hear our hilarious insights and watch our comely countenances.  Anyways, we hope you guys enjoy!

By Alex Heisman and Paul Goldberg