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Denofcinema.com: Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, November 21, 2015

 
Saturday Night at the Movies


Card carriers & rat terriers: Trumbo *** & Heart of a Dog ***

By Dennis Hartley


















Chris Hayes shared this Harry Truman quote on his MSNBC show, All In the other day:

When we have these fits of hysteria, we are like the person who has a fit of nerves in public; when he recovers, he is very much ashamed...and so are we as a nation when sanity returns.

-from Years of Trial and Hope, Volume 2

Hayes was doing a piece on the current political backlash and fear mongering (mostly from the Right) against Syrian immigrants in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. That quote from President Truman’s memoirs, Hayes pointed out, referred to the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s; his point being that, (as the French always say) plus ca change

Speaking of “timely”, one could draw the same historical parallels with the present from Trumbo, a new historical drama from director Jay Roach recounting the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending nearly a decade of writing scripts under various pseudonyms).

The film begins in 1947, the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee launched its initial “investigation” into whether or not Hollywood filmmakers were sneaking Communist propaganda into films; and if so, who was responsible. Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and nine other members of the industry (now immortalized as “The Hollywood Ten”) were summoned. All ten refused to cooperate. Their reward for standing on their convictions was…contempt convictions. This precipitated their inductions as premier members of the infamous blacklist (which, if one were to ask the studio suits that did the hiring, never officially existed). Trumbo ended up doing eleven months in the pen. The bulk of the film recounts his long, hard-won road to redemption.

Despite the somewhat rote narrative choices, I’m heartily recommending this film, for a couple reasons. First, for the performances. Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era prototype for Hunter S. Thompson (especially once he dons his dark glasses). He is ably supported by a scenery-chewing Helen Mirren (as odious gossip columnist/Red-baiter Hedda Hopper) Diane Lane (as Trumbo’s wife), Louis C.K. (his finest dramatic performance to date), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson). John Goodman (as a boisterous and colorful low-budget film producer who is suspiciously reminiscent of the shlockmeister he played in Matinee) and Christian Berkel (as larger-than-life Austrian director, Otto Preminger) make the most of their small roles.

Screenwriter John McNamara (who adapted from Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography, Dalton Trumbo) plays it by-the-numbers; with broadly delineated heroes and villains (Trumbo himself conceded years later that there was “courage and cowardice […] good and bad on both sides”). While not as emotionally resonant as Martin Ritt’s similar 1976 dramedy, The Front (it’s tough to beat those end credit reveals that key members of that film’s cast and crew actually were victims of the blacklist), Roach’s film happily shares a like purpose; it provides something we need right now, more than ever…a Rocky for liberals.



















I love Laurie Anderson’s voice. In fact, it was love at first sound, from the moment I heard “O Superman” wafting from my FM radio late one night back in the early 1980s:

And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force. And when force is gone, there’s always Mom.

Hi Mom!

And so it goes, eight minutes of stream of consciousness/minimalist electro pop bliss, vaguely apocalyptic, yet oddly endearing. It was The Voice...at once maternal, sisterly, wise, reassuring, confiding, lilting, impish. Hell, she could read the nutritional label on a box of corn flakes out loud…and to me it would sound artful, thoughtful, mesmerizing.

“That” wondrous voice can be heard all over the soundtrack of a new film by its owner called Heart of a Dog (in limited release and likely to be coming soon to an HBO near you). “Mom” is a recurring theme here as well. As is the dog of the title, a beloved rat terrier named Lolabelle. Sadly, Mom and Lolabelle’s appearances are posthumous. The spirit of her late husband Lou Reed is present too; never directly mentioned, but palpable.  You could say that Death is Anderson’s co-pilot on this journey to the center of her mind. But it’s not a sad journey. It’s melancholy at times, deeply reflective, but it’s never sad.

It’s hard to describe the film; I’m struggling mightily not to pull out the good old reliable “visual tone poem”. (Moment of awkward silence). Okay, I blinked first…it’s a visual tone poem, alright? Even Anderson herself is a somewhat spectral presence in her own movie, which (like the artist herself), is an impressionistic mixed media mélange of drawings, animations, video, and even vintage super 8 family movies from her childhood.

It’s probably just me (it usually is; I live alone) but I see parallels with Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, which was likewise prompted by the death of his mother. Like Ginsberg’s poem, Anderson’s film is a free-associative collage of childhood memory, Buddhist philosophy, ruminations on life, death, art, and grief therapy. Unlike Ginsberg’s poem, however, Anderson includes footage of her dog playing piano. What more do you want?

Previous posts with related themes:




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--Dennis Hartley