Thinking and Watching
THINKING AND WATCHING: During an anxious September,
I had the following thoughts about TV coverage of the attack
The awful images. We are victims of our own ubiquitous
electronic vision and its forever memory. After Pearl Harbor,
the only way of seeing the images was in black-and-white
photos and movie newsreels. This September 11 will
live in infamy. And we don't know if there will be more
such days to come.
No more Gary Condit. The vast media apparatus finally
has something to do. As so often before, it comes
through. It unifies, informs, comforts.
The paper. Fluttering, falling like snow in the
gloom. Does it suggest something poignant to those who work
with paper every day and squirrel it away in drawers?
Cell phones. Who would have thought about it? Good-bye
and a final declaration of love.
"God Bless America." For our second national anthem,
thank you, Irving Berlin. The legislators who sang it spontaneously
on the Capitol steps were sour but sincere.
The rhetoric about American sin and secularism.
It has to be toned down. The attack was evil. Compared to
that, we are not evil.
The rescue workers. They show up and they don't
give up. Also haunting are the stunned and bereaved, with
their many pictures of missing loved ones, standing behind
every TV reporter.
The telethon. Paul Simon without Art Garfunkel sings
"Bridge Over Troubled Water." Once again, as 30 years before,
the song has meaning and moves us.
TV executive forecast. "Viewers are going to be
looking for different themes [now] in their programs. The
age of irony will be over. You'll see more escapism, more
warmth, more heroism, more patriotism."
The dilemma. We're like the dispossessed Oklahoma
Dust Bowl farmer in The Grapes of Wrath, who asked,
"So who do we shoot?"
Sister Wendy's American Collection
SISTER WENDY'S AMERICAN COLLECTION (PBS miniseries): For
some it's the NFL that keeps you going; for others, it's
Sister Wendy stalking the halls of U.S. museums and explaining
why good stuff is good. Wendy always surprises and delights.
At Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum in this September three-parter
Sister Wendy finds Mondrian's straight lines and solid colors
"sharing a spiritual vision of the world." After an awed
look at an eighth-century bronze statue of a Buddhist ascetic,
she says, "Every aspect of this exquisite saint reminds
us of what a Christian mystic said, 'All shall be well and
all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.'"
(Talk about the right message at the right time!)
WAR LETTERS (American Experience series, PBS, November
11): This selection of newly discovered letters by ordinary
people in various American wars (based on Andrew Carroll's
best-seller) is extraordinarily apt. Read by celebrity actors
over archival images and recreations, the letters cope with
love, suffering, hope, reconciliation and faith.
Here is a typical excerpt (from a WWI soldier to his Episcopal
pastor): "What I would like to believe is that God is in
this war, not as a spectator, but backing up everything
that is good in us. He won't work any miracles for us because
that would be helping us to do the work He's given us to
do on our own. I don't know whether God goes forth with
armies, but I do know that He is in lots of our men or they
would not do what they do...."
HARDBALL (A-3, PG-13) is a Bad News Bears descendant
with a hard edge and a social message. It has all the heart-tugging
gimmicks of a feel-good interracial movie.
A down-on-his-luck gambler (Keanu Reeves) grudgingly coaches
a ragged youth baseball team from the Chicago projects.
He comes to love the kids and tries to reform his life.
The kids are real in that their talk is riddled innocently
with common vulgarities and the toughness of their existencedrug
thugs and shootings in the projects, absence of fathers.
Poignant realities (they've never been to a big-league ballgame
in their own city) are pushed to our attention. They are
also almost unbearably cute, but the script isn't very believable.
Other problems include violence in the gambler's own seedy
Yet it's a movie about hope and harmony among people who
at the start don't really like each other. It will inspire
compassion. It's also a rare film shot amid the setting
and icons of an inner-city Catholic school. More uplift
than art; mostly suitable for adults and older children.
O (O, R): Moralists have been so concerned with other sins,
we may have forgotten about envy. As the September events
demonstrated, envy can be a dark and powerful force.
Shakespeare's Othello is surely the definitive drama
on this subject. Writer Brad Kaaya's O, relocating
the situation to basketball in a contemporary South Carolina
prep school, is skillful and largely effective.
The afflicted, subversive Iago is now Hugo (Josh Hartnett),
the coach's son, once the designated star of a team now
taken to state-championship level by an import from the
inner city, point guard Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). The black
athletic hero with the brilliance to bring fame and fortune
to an affluent white residential school seems an inspired
21st-century U.S.A. variation on the character of Othello,
a Moor idolized as a war-hero general in 16th-century Venice.
Hugo is disturbed, both for the loss of his own ambition
and for being displaced by Odin in the esteem of his obsessive
father (an intense Martin Sheen). Odin has all the glory,
plus the affections of the dean's beautiful daughter Desi
(Julia Stiles). Hugo subtly poisons this relationship, manipulating
perceptions and mutual friends as he destroys O, playing
precisely on his racial and cultural insecurities in an
uncertain environment. In the end, as in Shakespeare, the
tragedy plays out.
Among the problems: We have tragic impact. (O has overcome
every obtacle in his rise from poverty except his friend's
cruel jealousy.) But we don't have the Bard's poetic words,
which explain why the characters are vulnerable to Iago's
evil. Director Tim Blake Nelson's soft-spoken, low-key style
(which captures gossip's wickedness so well) and virtuoso
hoops sequences are helpful but not equivalent.
Sex scenes may be even more troublesome than the suicide,
beatings and shootings. The original Othello and Desdemona
were mature adults and married. They didn't need sex scenes
to display either love or suspicion. In any case, O and
Desi are just kids "going together," and their lovemaking
is pointlessly center stage. Flawed but artful effort;
the R rating (17 and over) seems about right.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (A-3, PG-13): In one of
Fellini's great films (Cabiria), the innocent heroine
falls under the spell of a stage hypnotist and is mocked
for her simple faith in true love. Woody Allen, who has
been borrowing from Fellini for years, uses this situation
for comic effect. Co-workers (Allen and Helen Hunt) who
dislike each other are made to fall goofily in love under
The sinister hypnotist puts Allen and Hunt in a trance
to pull off burglaries of precious jewels, using their insider
knowledge as insurance operatives. (Eventually, somebody
says the basic truth about hypnosis: A person can't be made
to do something that he or she wouldn't do in real life.)
Much of the hilarity comes from the frequent instant switching
(normal to trance, hate to love), plus the fact that the
characters are trying to solve the crimes. Such blatantly
broad hypnotism humor has had little exposure since the
golden age of the Three Stooges.
Curse is set in 1940 (Woody's favorite era). His
character is a sexist, politically incorrect shamus of the
time. Hunt plays a more improbable feminist precursor,
so there is plenty of mutual irritation. He: "Never trust
a woman who whistles for her cab." She (in a charming mixed
metaphor): "He's not man enough to be a cat burglar."
Despite nostalgic sepia images, the usual Allen wit, jazz
background and plot simplicity, Curse is several
cuts below Allen's last two films (Small Time Crooks,
Sweet and Lowdown), but still among the best adult
flicks in recent months. Satisfactory for viewers in
search of unstressful entertainment.
SMOKE (1995): Although the action is mostly set in and
around a Brooklyn cigar store, this unpretentious first
screenplay by novelist Paul Auster is a marvelously complex
(and rare) tale about people who respond to grace. Grace
here means two things: an opportunity (both to understand
and to do something benevolent) and a revelation (of purpose,
The characters include Augie (Harvey Keitel), who operates
the store, and Paul (William Hurt), a writer and regular
customer. Paul almost walks into a bus but is saved by a
disconnected young black man, whom he invites to stay and
who gets a job working for Augie. This ultimately leads
to a series of reconciliations.
The best anecdote is saved until last, when Augie narrates
his favorite Christmas story, about how even a bad deed
turned into a wonderfully warm day of friendship. These
parables of the big city are uplifting and beautifully underplayed
by the good cast (including Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd
and Forest Whitaker) directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy
Luck Club). A low-key discussion-group bonanza; urban
realities without the usually prescribed hopelessness.