The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has spawned a mix of feelings among fans and followers of his work: grief over the loss, sadness over the work never to be seen, bafflement over the senselessness of his death—or at least, what we who have the good fortune of being able to pronounce it senseless can experience as bafflement. Why would someone with such skill and so vast an array of good work already to his credit, not to mention three children of his own and the knowledge one acquires over the course of forty-six years, engage in activity so reckless? Because even though young enough to promise so much more, and old enough to know better, he was nonetheless troubled enough to continue to seek relief in something he’d struggled with for decades.
Aside from the ugly little lecture from Ben Shapiro at The National Review, the appreciations have mainly and generously focused on the breadth and consistently high quality of Hoffman’s work in movies and theater. And what’s remarkable is just how much of it there is—fifty films in twenty-five years, from the amazing stuff in Paul Thomas Anderson films dating from Hard Eight through Boogie Nights, Magnolia (clip below), Punch-Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master (reviewed in Commonweal by Richard Alleva); to his depictions of real figures like Art Howe (he played Art Howe!) in Moneyball (reviewed in Commonweal by Alleva), Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and of course the eponymous author in Capote (reviewed in Commonweal by Rand Richards Cooper), for which he won an Academy Award. He appeared in indies like Next Stop Wonderland and Happiness and blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Mission Impossible III. For an entire still-thriving subculture he’ll forever be the obsequious Brandt from The Big Lebowski. And then there’s the stage work: his duet with John C. Reilly in the 2000 production of Sam Shepard’s True West, his performance as Jamie in 2003’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (reviewed here for Commonweal by Celia Wren), his directing and acting with the Labyrinth Theater Company.
Two passages describing Hoffman’s work have jumped out at me in putting this post together; one appears in the headline, and it comes from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of Hoffman’s last appearance on Broadway, as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone, and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism.” The other is from Richard Alleva’s review in Commonweal of the 2009 film Doubt: “When it comes to ambiguity, no actor is better than Philip Seymour Hoffman. He conveys … creepiness and possible saintliness not just by turns but simultaneously in a portrait that is downright cubistic.”
“Uncertainty” and “cubistic,” and for good measure throw in Lee Siegel’s “beautiful helplessness” from his New Yorker remembrance. All somehow fitting in tribute—but how unfortunate they have to be summoned this way at all.
Right now, two new pieces from the upcoming issue.
First, James L. Fredericks and Andrew J. Bacevich in an exchange on Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of History in the age of Obama:
Barack Obama has vigorously prosecuted the war against Al Qaeda even while ending U.S. military engagement in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan. These seeming paradoxes make Obama an ironic figure of the kind that interested Niebuhr most—the self-conscious, existential irony of a man who knows he must act in history while being unable either to control the outcome or to escape the moral ambiguity of his choices.
Read it all here. Also, Richard Alleva reviews Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks. On the performances of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the former:
Critics speak about the autumnal grandeur of “lateness in art”—the tranquil power of Beethoven’s late quartets or the swan-song poignancy of Verdi’s Falstaff. Judi Dench has that quality as an actress nowadays, and it’s not just an inevitable feature of her old age. She’s in possession of a still center, and from that center she radiates. But the critical praise heaped on Dench shouldn’t keep us from noticing that Steve Coogan’s wry underplaying of Sixsmith makes Dench’s beatific comedy possible. With his boredom-glazed eyes desperately beseeching invisible gods for mercy as she blathers on and on, and his smooth baritone subtly inflected by covert sarcasm, Coogan is the Oxbridge Oliver Hardy to her female Stan Laurel. And would Stan be truly funny without Ollie?
Read it all here. And come back to the website Monday, when we'll be posting the rest of the new issue.
On our website we're now featuring two special posts on movies. First is our year-end roundup of movie reviews, essays, and blog posts that appeared in our pages and online from Richard Alleva, Rand Richards Cooper, Anthony Domestico, Cathleen Kaveny, and others, with the spotlight on such major releases as The Great Gatsby, Twelve Years a Slave, and Gravity, along with smaller features and documentaries like Philomena and The Central Park Five. You can find our Year in Movies feature here.
Also featured is a collection of pieces from our current issue that reassess the theology in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life; you can find that here.
Many of the films featured are now available on streaming or DVD, and some are still even in theaters, so if you're trying to decide on something to watch or see in the coming days, why not read what our authors have had to say? Or, let us know what you think about the movies you've seen in 2013.
I saw the movie Philomena last weekend: It is a movie about an Irish woman who had a baby out of wedlock, and was coereced into giving up her little son nearly half a century ago by the nuns who took her in. She ends up collaborating with a posh English journalist to find out what happened to him: As it turns out, he was adopted by a well-to-do American family, grew up to be handsome and smart, and became a lawyer. Actually, he became a key legal strategist for the Republican party, eventually rising to the position of Chief Legal Counsel for the Republican Naitonal Committee. Yet Philomena does not get the resolution she hoped for: it turns out her son died several years ago, his meteoric career cut short by AIDS--he was not only a Republican, but a closeted gay Republican. His ashes were buried on the grounds of the convent where he and his biological mother lived together during the first few years of his life.
I thought the movie was good. In fact, Judi Dench was brilliant--she acts with her entire body, not merely by emoting her lines. IMHO, they made a huge mistake in killing her off in the Bond movies--she was wonderful as M, too.
But it wasn't great. I do not agree with this reviewer, who lavishly praised the movie's storyline. You may say that the plot I recounted above is too incredible to make a plausible movie; but in fact, all that stuff actually did happen. Philomena's son Anthony became Michael Hess--"a man of two countries and many talents." Truth is stranger than fiction, and it's no crime for a storyteller to take advantage of strange truths.
At the same time, I did have three basic problems with the film's framing of the story.Read more
The Exorcist is a movie that could perhaps count as many viewers as people who have refused to see it. It's a movie you’d watch only if dared, on Halloween night. It has been famously called “the scariest movie of all time.” It makes visceral a very old question: Does The Devil exist?
The film was of course based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel, and for this Halloween Throwback Thursday we're linking to our archived writing on both the book and the 1973 film that came of it (and that made Linda Blair infamous). Reviewing the movie, Colin L. Westerbeck found director William Friedkin successful in “possessing” his audience:
The keystone of the film is not in any of those scenes where Regan (Linda Blair) is being exorcised, spewing bile and howling blasphemies, but much earlier when doctors think her fits result from a brain lesion. In scenes where her brain is being X-rayed, Friedkin depicts with documentary explicitness the injection and insertion into her neck of probes for a spinal tap. As she cringes with pain, enormous machine lurch and clank with a mechanical vengeance more horrific than anything unseen spirits have done to her so far.
When indeed the X-rays do not turn up any brain damage,“Life becomes unbearable,” Westerbeck wrote. “It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the Devil.”
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., an associate editor of Commonweal in the ‘70s, and William O’Malley, S.J., the actor who played Father Dryer in the movie, both wrote articles in Commonweal’s pages either trying to redeem or to exorcise the aim of Blatty’s novel. Schroth argued that, regardless of what Blatty set out to write, what he ended up bringing forth was a “piece of Catholic nostalgia of more service to the cause of supersititon than to true religion.” O’Malley (admitting first his role-in-the-movie bias) contended:
Even Father Schroth can't deny that this novel has drawn many readers at least to consider the possiblity of a personal reality transcending our senses. If one can make an audience, jaded by immensity, do that, he deserves better treatment -- and deeper study -- than Ray Schroth gave Bill Blatty.
To which Schroth responded:
The sense of "awe" brought on by the sight of human suffering is a poor gimmick to inspire faith...Blatty's "devil" in Regan did not increase the faith of any character in the novel. It killed two priests and got Regan's mother to believe in Satan, not in God. Nor has it increased Father O'Malley's already strong belief in God nor helped him make up his mind on whether there are devils. That's not religion. That's not awe. That's Show Biz."
Our September 13 issue is now live on the website.
Some of the highlights:
Leslie Woodcock Tentler writes on Detroit:
Those of us who have watched Detroit’s long dying tend to think in terms of the physical city—the abandonment of buildings, their subsequent decay and finally, if the city does its job of demolition, the rubble-strewn lot. For a very long time, I found love in the ruins (to borrow from Walker Percy). Life has hung on stubbornly in Detroit, in such unexpected forms as the flourishing Hungarian bakery, now gone, that I stumbled upon in a decaying working-class enclave close to the city’s western border. (The proprietor had provided each of the often-married Gabor sisters with wedding cakes, which presumably helped his bottom line.) St. Cecilia’s Church, with its apse mural of a black Christ, provided refuge to the Tentler family when it seemed that nearly every Catholic in our nominal home parish worshipped at the shrine of Ronald Reagan. Those memorable Cecilia’s Sundays, suffused with incense and gospel music, probably kept my children in the fold. The Detroit Institute of Arts, a refuge of another sort since my adolescence, still delights with its dazzling collection and especially its famed Rivera murals, paid for with a second generation of Ford money. Flower Day at the city’s sprawling Eastern Market, a plant-buying orgy for gardeners throughout the region, provided—and indeed continues to provide—a pageant of interracial good fellowship.
One can still find love in the ruins of Detroit, but it’s harder now. So much of the city has disappeared that recent visits have left me disoriented. (I tend to navigate by landmarks, an astonishing number of which are gone.) A new generation of urban pioneers now hoists the banner of optimism—“say nice things about Detroit!”—while I alternate between rage and despair. Yes, there are signs of life there, some of them new, like the city’s flourishing arts scene. But the decay is so vast and the human suffering so appalling that optimism seems not just delusional—an old Detroit problem—but almost obscene.
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels on the Catholic church as a "lazy monopoly" (subscription required):
Some would argue that the Catholic Church, claiming a monopoly on truth as well as salvation, has no course correction to make. That has been the stand of recent popes and their episcopal appointees, who have rescinded or tinkered with Vatican II reforms and ruled out further change. Complaints have gone unheard, while conforming members have been embraced. And many have left.
Parents and friends of former Catholics now singing in a Baptist choir, serving on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, or meditating in a Buddhist monastery may be relieved that they’re still praying, still believing in something. Perhaps even the “lazy monopolists” consider that these sheep are not lost, simply misplaced. But what of the “nones,” those who abandon religion altogether or just drift away from it. We seem strangely indifferent to their exit. If 12 million people stopped brushing their teeth, we’d all take notice.
Alfredo Castro is the actor linking the components of what Chilean film director Pablo Larrain calls his “unintentional trilogy,” while it’s the persistence of the Pinochet dictatorship’s effect on the country’s psyche that’s the true unifying subject. But in the process, Larrain has come in for criticism for his insufficiently unflattering depiction of a regime responsible for thousands of deaths—yet which certain elements of the population still warmly insist brought tranquility and prosperity.
That tension is on creative display in each of the three films comprising the trilogy. And though Larrain says he didn’t necessarily set out to build a body of work chronicling the Pinochet years when he made his breakout feature Tony Manero in 2008, he has also acknowledged his intent in setting this particular story against the backdrop of the dictatorship. Castro plays Raul, a fifty-two-year-old ballroom performer obsessed with the John Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever and relentlessly pursuing his goal to appear in a televised celebrity impersonation contest as the dancing Tony. He acquires the white suit and even practices, joylessly, on a dance floor built partially of lighted glass bricks. He also proves to be a serial killer, though not a scheming or meticulous one; his attacks are unpredictable and savage and carried out with no apparent fear of being caught. Raul’s violence is meant to reflect the violence meted out by the regime, although the film also includes brief scenes of Pinochet henchmen doing their work too—and one especially darkly funny moment when a would-be victim (and member of the opposition) decides it’s better to take his chances with the secret police than let himself be caught by the relentless Raul.
Tony Manero isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and its follow-up—2010’s Post Mortem—might be even less of an entertainment.Read more
Now featured on the home page, stories from our new issue.
In “Beyond the Stalemate” (subscription), Peter Steinfels looks at where we are forty years after Roe:
That Americans and American Catholics remain divided over abortion is, in important ways, to our credit. But some divisions are more necessary, compelling, or expedient than others. Some are well considered and executed, others are not. Some are paralyzing and self-destructive, others point toward fruitful resolution. Forty years after Roe, it is incumbent on Catholics to reexamine their stance toward abortion and its legalization.
There is natural resistance to any such reexamination. This is a topic associated with too much pain—and often hidden pain—along with too much hypocrisy, illusion, and male betrayal. Many Catholics who are angry at church leaders or prolife activists for their harsh rhetoric, political absolutism, moral righteousness, or general attitudes toward women and sexuality simply refuse to think about the topic further. Prolife leaders, on the other hand, boost morale by seizing on any uptick in public opinion, any success in a state legislature, and every fresh summons from religious authorities as confirmation that their present course, no matter how inadequate or counterproductive, is unassailable. …
My own reexamination of the Catholic stance on abortion begins with two simple statements and then attempts to determine what conclusions and practical proposals might flow from them.
First statement: From the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.
Second statement: This conviction, taught by the Catholic Church and shared by many people, religious and non-religious, is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.
David Rieff sees trouble in the calls for “humanitarian war” in Syria:
If the conditions on the ground in Syria today, after two years of unbridled civil war, were more akin to those in Libya at the time French president Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded his NATO partners to act, or to those in Mali at the time of the recent French military intervention than they are to the conditions in Iraq or Afghanistan, then the ardor of the liberal hawks and the neoconservatives for intervention there would not seem so reckless. After all, the interventions in Libya and Mali both seemed to recapitulate the so-called humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, where the core of the debate was never whether a U.S. or NATO intervention would be successful—this, probably rightly, was taken for granted—but only whether there was really a will in Washington, Brussels, London, or Paris to intervene in a Bosnia, Rwanda, or Kosovo. But even most of those who think the United States must act in Syria concede that not only is an effective military intervention there likely to prove far more difficult than in Iraq, let alone in Mali or Kosovo; it is also by no means sure that any political result that is now imaginable will be much of an improvement over a continuation of the Assad dictatorship.
Compliance is the second feature from director Craig Zobel, and when it was shown at Sundance earlier this year, audience members reportedly booed and walked out. The concession worker at the theater where I recently saw it told me she hadn't yet worked up the nerve to watch it, and, while no one at the showing I attended booed or walked out, there was a lot of nervous whispering and disbelieving laughter, which soon enough turned to grim silence. Sitting through Compliance is an ordeal, and its meant to be.
The movie forces the audience to watch what happens when people unquestioningly follow orders, even when it results in harm to others. That Compliance is a small film is what makes the subject matter even more powerful. The setting is familiar and intimate: a fast-food restaurant on a busy winter Friday, manned by a skeleton staff of teenagers overseen by a harried middle-aged manager (Sandy, amazingly played by Ann Dowd).
Routine is broken when a caller identifying himself as a police officer asserts that one of the workers (Becky, played by Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer, then deputizes Sandy to detain Becky and initiate an interrogation in the restaurant office, out of the sight of other employees and diners. The accused girl responds with increasing disbelief to the increasingly degrading demands of the unseen officer, relayed and carried out by the pliant Sandy: This is stupid, Becky says; there's no way it can keep going like this. But it does, and then it goes on some more, and then just when you think it has to stop, it goes even farther--with other employees dragooned into taking part while the late-afternoon rush kicks into gear on the other side of the door.
Unadorned writing and tight direction keep the main questions prominent: Why would ordinary people let themselves be talked into taking things to such lengths? Why wouldnt they rise up and say stop? The answer is that ordinary people are often only too willing to comply. Psychological studies like the infamous Milgrim obedience experiment, in which test subjects readily inflicted pain on innocents if the instructions came from an authority figure, demonstrate it. We like to think wed be brave enough, or aware enough, or smart enough to do the right thing in such instances, but maybe were not.
Few in Compliance are, least of all the hapless Sandy. Unsure, indistinctly middle-aged, clad in the color-coordinated scarf and blouse mandated by corporate for its female store managers, she's a ready mark for the smoothly manipulative presence on the phone. She's already having a crappy day--unruly staff, ungrateful regional supervisor, no pickles or bacon in the freezer. So she's eager to help, hungry for praise and validation, and blind not only to Becky's degradation but her own.
Amid the many unsettling moments is a low-key, single-shot scene outside the restaurant. Instructed by the voice on the phone to move important evidence to her car, Sandy sets out over the cracked parking lot, skirting piles of dirt-encrusted snow to reach her salt-grimed Subaru (model year 2001, the film makes sure to note). A discarded Styrofoam cup skitters across her path, but she's oblivious--she needs to hurry back to monitor the prisoner. Yet after depositing the evidence in the front seat as instructed, she stops to remove papers and cups littering the passenger side, lest she leave a bad impression for the officer arriving to retrieve it. It's an arresting segment, providing a momentary respite from the misery unfolding inside but also a sadly revealing glimpse of the neediness that makes Sandy so willing to help, so eager to please, so easy a mark. People who are hurting may prove more capable of hurting other people, especially if their actions are met with approval every step of the way. This is what gives Compliance such relevance and so much more immediacy than a psychological study, and what makes it work as art.
Unquestioning compliance leads inexorably to complicity, and the locked office of a generic fast-food restaurant will spur thoughts of Abu Ghraib, concentration camps, and other arenas of atrocity. Sandy doesn't make these associations; in the end, explaining to another character that she was simply doing what she thought was expected of her, she blurts: It all seemed normal to me. Of course: She was only following orders. There's a beat, and then she switches to the topic of the weather--much less troubling to ponder since it involves no introspection.
Xan Cassavetes 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (available DVD-only from Netflix) chronicles the history of the Los Angeles-area pay-TV station that specialized in cinema and gave viewers an art-house experience without having to leave the couch. That these viewers included Quentin Tarantino and other future luminaries is emphasized: Predating HBO and Cinemax, Z ran from 1974 to 1989 and influenced a generation of young artists yearning to make it big in the local industry.It did so mainly with fare unlikely to find a way into the multiplex, from the uncut versions of Ciminos Heavens Gate and Bertoluccis 1900 to Altmans McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Peckinpahs gory westerns. There were John Ford tributes, Hitchcock marathons, Fellini and French New Wave festivals, and a lot more. The man responsible for the eclectic selection was programming director Jerry Harvey, and its his (and every fanatics) relationship with film that informs the title of the documentary. Friends and former colleagues recount Harveys fixation via anecdotes, and a humorously told story about his subjecting a girlfriend to three straight days of memorized line readings from Kubricks Dr. Strangelove hints at his capacity for emotional and physical cruelty, while also foreshadowing his end. The documentary makes passing reference to Harveys fundamentalist Catholic father in attempting to trace his demons, while noting that both of Harveys sisters killed themselves, but it doesnt follow the thread much farther than that.Cassavetes spends more time on the films, those that Harvey unearthed, championed, and insisted on showing the way their directors would have wanted. With each viewing of Z Channel I come away with another list of movies its time to see (or see again); just watch the final montage from the documentary to understand why.
But its the commentary of critic F.X. Feeney that got more of my attention this time around. A Harvey confidante and a co-producer of the documentary, Feeney provides emotional first-hand recollections of working and watching movies with Harvey, and his energy buoys the film while steering it clear of hagiographic shoalsa necessary thing, given Harveys final act as the perpetrator of a murder-suicide at the age of 39 (with a gun presented as a gift from Peckinpah). While theres no way to overlook Harveys dark side, Feeney helps keep the focus on his creative impulse and the art he brought to light.