The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, September 13, 2007

"3:10 to Yuma," and "All That Jazz"

Love to look like this at 72. Hell, I’d like to look like that NOW.
Saw “3:10 To Yuma” yesterday. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale star in the best Western since “The Outlaw Josie Wales.” (Yes, I can well understand someone feeling that “Unforgiven” is better, and more recent. But there’s a rather unfortunate bit of Sacrificial Negro business that keeps me from really embracing that one…) The plot is simplicity itself. A small-time rancher, desperate for money and redemption, helps escort a bad, bad outlaw to the titular train for incarceration. The bad man’s gang (led by a spectacularly evil Ben Foster) wants to spring him. Crowe is the Devil himself, folks: sexy, intelligent, vicious, insinuating, corruptive, sly…and horrifically empathetic. Christian Bale (if you haven’t seen his turn in “The Machinist” you have missed one of the great, queasy acting performances of all time. Jeeze!) is perfect as the rancher up against astounding odds. This is simply a terrific Western. An “A.”
Personally, I think the Western went into a slump because of Sergio Leone. Leone, in films like “A FistFull of Dollars” de-mystified the west, made it dirty and grimy and amoral in a way American films never had. No clear-cut good or bad guys. America was (and to a degree is) going through a re-assessment of itself, a struggle for its own soul. The friendly rot at the core of Leone’s work made a mockery of the cowboys and Indians mentality, and it probably wasn’t until “Silverado” that anyone even began to put that kind of “fun” western back together again. And that film was about 1/3 comedy, 1/3 comforting cliché. But fun.
Last night, I watched the last half of “Perfect Stranger”, the Halle Berry/Bruce Willis suspenser. At the movie theater, I saw a poster for a film with Berry and Benicio Del Toro. I said something nasty about Berry that I really didn’t mean. In a very real way, I am happy for her that she has made it all the way to being white. The contrast between what SHE had to do to get her Oscar, and what Denzel had to do, in the same year, couldn’t make my point much clearer. She had to screw the white guy executing her Evil Black Man husband. Denzel had to get shot down like a dog in the street. I think that it was Hattie McDanial who was criticized for playing maids. “Hell, honey,” she is said to have answered. “If I hadn’t played one, I would have been one.” So Halle has found that by making herself sexually available exclusively to white males in her movies, she can get a “halo effect” that allows her to function at a higher level financially than her more talented (if no more beautiful. Human females just don’t get more attractive than Halle) sisters. All right.

But what disturbs and disappoints me is that I’d hoped that women were more sensitive and honest than men. Of course, I was a teenager when I hoped that, but it still hurt to have my youthful naiveté thrown in my face. I remember clearly that when Denzel or Wesley had sex with white women, black women threw a fit. There were letters in magazines and newspapers, and it was the talk of talk TV about whether this was a race betrayal. But I have never, not once, heard Halle criticized for doing far worse—whereas Denzel or Wesley might have boffed a white woman once in a while, Halle has had NOTHING but white men for years now, and black women give her a pass. Not a whisper. Can anyone send me a link to an article written by a black woman on the subject?
Actually, that’s not quite true. In “Perfect Stranger” she has sex with a boyfriend (Gary Dourdan from “CSI”) who is black. I was hoping to report that this was in some way ameliorative of the problem I’ve spoken of so repetitively. But there are some REAL oddnesses in the scene.
1) you can barely see his face. The scene begins with them coming in through the front door, in shadow. We’ve never met this guy, and I could barely make him out at all. Tananarive said: “hey, isn’t that the guy from CSI”?
2) Their clothes are on. I’m not saying that there should have been nudity, but there was no tittilation at all, and the entire scene was shadowed.
3) They were standing up, and screwing against furniture. As has often been noted, when you see this, it is a sign that the relationship is painful, and that the filmmaker disapproves.
4) The entire scene is viewed from the perspective of a white man who is in love with her. Wow. The metaphor is pretty blatant, don’t you think.
5) He has no last name, but is called only “Cameron”

This is bad enough. But worse still, there is a later scene where we finally do see his face in clear light. And in this scene, it is revealed that he has totally betrayed their relationship. She kicks him out. The trope? Once again, sex with black man is animalistic, impersonal, meaningful only viewed through white eyes, and doomed, and equals pain.

And don’t any of you dare believe that “that’s Hollywood.” Filmmakers in Hollywood come from all over the country. And they survive only if they can appeal to the tastes of filmgoers all over the country. This is America. It is the world. And if I seem to eager to extend humanity to odd and violent groups, remember that I also refuse to label this behavior as some aberration exclusive to white males—which wouldn’t be irrational, however much I may disagree with it. This is what it is to be human, and have the power to shape the images fed to others.

Everyone tries to bend reality to make themselves look like the most important, moral, and beautiful and beloved of God.
Oh. The “Hate Crime” controversy—the poor woman who was kidnapped and raped and abused. Should her kidnappers be charged with a hate crime? Not in my opinion. They have those bastards on enough counts to put them away for life. In my mind, the “Hate Crime” designation exists to ensure that local reluctance to prosecute (truly egregious in the 60’s) would allow Federal prosecution. I note that everyone I’ve ever heard complain about it is a member of the majority: white, heterosexual, Christian. Usually male. In other words, someone with no intuitive grasp of what it is like to be surrounded by a majority with 5-15% of that majority being hostile. No grasp at all. And maybe Right-Wingers and Libertarians are right in some abstract sense that the Federal government needs to stay out of State business. But my perception is that this is an hypocrisy: that when it serves their purpose, anyone will accept and encourage help from wherever they can get it to increase their own wealth and safety. And then act pious along the “them black folks should have just moved to another state!” level I find so loathsome.

But in this particular case, I don’t think the Feds are necessary. These scum are caught.
Last week, I watched “All That Jazz,” the Bob Fosse movie that changed my life when I saw it back in the day. If you haven’t seen this insanely brilliant film, do. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of Joe Gideon, genius director and dance choreographer and serial philanderer. Like Prince and Clive Barker, his genius arises from a tortured tug-of-war between sexuality and spirit, and the hole in his psyche simply gushes gold. And he is on the road to self-destruction I kid you not.

I watched this musical horror film with my mouth hanging open, and left the theater in a daze. I’d seen a stark reality: the upper levels of human performance are most often reached by monomaniacal focus that, unchecked, can rip apart the rest of your life. I was committed to being the very best I could be, but I also didn’t want to destroy myself. What to do?

Out of this, I came to one of the smartest decisions of my life, and its colored everything I do: I decided to be obsessive about being balanced. I literally can’t go a single day without telling my loved ones I love them. Working on my writing. And exercising. I CAN’T. There is nothing healthy about this obsession…except that it’s healthy as hell. If I had the same level of focus on almost anything else, it would have killed me, or they would have locked me up, and I’m not kidding even a little bit.

“All That Jazz” saved my life. See it.

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