On the boat with Bogie

Published 36 years after the film.

Published 36 years after the film.

Having by happenstance seen the classic 1951 film, “The African Queen,” the other night, I began immediately to read a book on one of the living room shelves, “The Making of ‘The African Queen,’ by the actress Katharine Hepburn.

The subtitle, “How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind,” is not completely accurate.  The eccentric Hepburn is in command throughout this book of about 130 pages.  And although the book appeared 36 years after the film’s release, Hepburn’s eye for detail at age 75 is astonishing.

“. . . there are some happenings you can’t forget,” she wrote in circa 1987, or 16  years before she died.  “This happened to me with “The African Queen.”  I remember it in minute detail — I can see every second of its making and of me at the time. . . . ”

Once I became accustomed to Hepburn’s unique writing style — jumping suddenly from past to present and back again along with the unusual punctuation — I began to enjoy the book.  Her eye for the odd behavior of the director John Huston and the daily goings-on of the male lead Humphrey Bogart aka Bogie and Bogart’s wife Betty, who is better known as the actress Lauren Bacall.

For example, she writes about Bogart:

“Bogie was funny.  A generous actor.  And a no-bunk person.  He just did it.  He was an actor who enjoyed acting.  Knew he was good.  Knew his lines.  Always was on time.  Hated anything false.  Hated his hairpiece as he began to need one . . . .”

But much of this book is about Hepburn’s impressions of her first visit to the Dark Continent and how she dealt with the language barriers, the weather, the food and bad water and the bug. bilharzia, which almost brought the film to a halt.

The Riuku River, a tributary of the Congo, served as the primary film location.   In a later location in Uganda, the proper Ms. Hepburn startles the film crew by going on an elephant hunt with Huston.  Bacall wanted her to stay and help the crew prepare food, but, no.

“Live dangerously,” Hepburn wrote about the incident.  “There’s a lot to be said for sinning.”

The film won an Oscar for Bogart and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Hepburn) and Best Director, (Huston).

As for the boat itself, The African Queen, it was discovered in Cairo in the 1970s, purchased, refitted and now is docked at Key Largo, Florida.  Shortly after Hepburn wrote her book, the boat was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.








The condom problem with ‘Wild’

I saw the film “Wild” last weekend with the same annoyance I had in reading the wildly popular book by that title almost two and a half years ago.  The condoms.

Here was the author, Cheryl Strayed, setting out on an arduous trek to purify her soul by hiking part of the Pacific Crest Trail in California and Oregon.  Her life up to the point of departure along Highway 58 near Tehachapi Pass was a disaster.  She was, if we are to believe her, a heavy drug abuser with a major in heroin and a propensity for unprotected sex with numerous male partners.  As portrayed, this was a woman who clearly hated herself, although she blames it all on grief.  Her “beloved” mother died of cancer not long before.

Strayed’s idea, it seems to me, should have been to make this spiritual voyage, at least at the start, drug and sex free.

But, no.  As she put together that giant backpack, dubbed Monster, she slipped in some condoms.  Why would she do that? To start out so half-hearted on such an important venture to cleanse herself?  Or, as she said, to become the perfect person she once was, “strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good.”  Right there, it sounds like someone with an idealized and unrealistic view of self.

It was at that point early on, with the condoms, that I began to lose faith in the author and the honesty of the book.  And for that matter, the film too, since she wrote the screenplay.  The film, by the way, larded on Strayed’s grief from the death of her mother to the point you could slit it with a dull knife.  Flashback, flashback, flashback, to good times with mom, times that did not seem good to me.

Problems abound.

Why did she change her married name to the affected “Strayed?”  She did that soon after the divorce from a husband who of course worshipped her and always saw the good Cheryl.  She seems to glorify her life as a bad girl, straying from the straight and narrow.  And if she so loved her mother, why not keep the original surname to honor her?  But again, no.  I suspect the change was made because she planned to write a book all along and thought it would enhance sales.

Why not start with the PCT at its beginning point at the Mexican border?  And after starting, why skip the most dangerous 450 miles, from Lone Pine, near snowbound Mount Whitney, to Sierra City?

At one point, in self-pity, Strayed describes herself as “the woman with a hole in her heart.”  In checking my reading notes, I wrote she had a “callous” for a heart.  Take her pregnancy.

Strayed was not sure who the potential father was and suddenly followed up with this:  “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink.”

While abortion is more a health issue to me than a moral one, my god, shouldn’t you give a little more time and consideration to it than “tuna flakes?”

In the end I did not like Strayed or her book.  She waited almost 17 years to write it after ending her journey at the Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border, a long way from the trail’s end in Canada.  So I believe a lot of what she wrote, because of the way she wrote it, was fiction.

I will give Strayed this.  She made a pile of money from book sales and whatever film deal she made.

The one good thing I see is that “Wild” will encourage a lot of women to set out on spiritual treks alone and find the hikes rewarding — only doing them right.  Though Strayed no doubt suffered physically during her journey, I as a longtime hiker myself, think too often she took the easy way out.


Films: Serious and making money and yet . . .

It strikes me we are in a good place right now with our movies.  As A.O. Scott, the New York Times film critic, pointed out in a rare Page One article today, “What strikes me about this year’s Oscar nominees is how many of them invite, or even force, their viewers to think, and making thinking part of the pleasure they offer.”

To my mind, thinking or rather not thinking, is the biggest problem in America.  This country needs to think more, argue less, and try to get along.

We are talking here about critical thinking.   It is not enough to just attend “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” and say, aha, we now know the facts of important historical moments.  No, it is thinking about the accuracy of the “facts” presented and trying to understand what they mean.

In “Zero Dark Thirty” we are led to believe the killing of Osama bin Laden was the result of brutal interrogation by the U.S., torture that included waterboarding.  Yet most knowledgeable sources say torture had nothing to do with finding bin Laden.  It can’t be both ways.  At the bottom of the debate is right-wing, pro-George Bush policy adherents.

In “Argo,” the Ben Affleck film about the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the viewer is clearly given an American point of view.  As I discussed in a review of the film, the Iranian view is absent.  And, thus in my opinion, the film is seriously flawed.  In fact, the film so angered Iran with its prejudicial view that it is planning to make its own film, “The General Staff,” to counter “Argo.”

It is not enough to think as a patriot about the Iranian hostage crisis.  Hopefully, if nothing else, “Argo” will spur you to seek truth.

A search for truth is our salvation as a people, as a nation as a world.

Yes, it is nice to have serious filmmakers.  But if moviegoers are not astute enough to process what is before them with a critical eye, it makes little difference how serious the film.  All is lost, and we are back at the same old square one.

`Precious:’ That rare moment of clarity

My favorite part of the film, “Precious,” comes near the end.   Daughter and mother are seated in an office.  The mother, Mary, is being grilled by the child psychologist, Mrs. Weiss, who is attempting to get to the bottom of the daughter Precious’s home life.

Precious, at 16, is overwhelmed.   She has two babies sired by her own father.  One of them has Downs Syndrome.  She also is illiterate, obese, reduced to stealing food when hungry, carries no self-esteem and lives with a monster of a mother.  Her future is as black as her skin.

Mary’s days are centered around drinking liquor, watching TV and on occasion donning a hideous wig when the welfare worker comes to visit.  To her, Precious is little more than slave labor and a battering ram for Mary’s pent-up rage. 

But Mrs. Weiss is relentless and ultimately digs out the truth.  Mary, we discover, is more of a monster than we suspect.  She was complicit in the sexual abuse of her daughter, abuse that started when Precious was only 3 years old.

As the anguished words flow from Mary’s mouth in a rare moment of clarity,  I think back to other words earlier in the film.   Precious has just told her alternative-school classmates and teacher about her sordid home life, then she says:

“Now I wonder if everybody go through sumthin — sumthin that leaves a shadow in they lives.”

At that moment, Precious has nailed it.  Her problem is not unique.  The problem is universal.  And not only with girls.  We are all warped by our childhoods, by our inter-actions with parents, many of whom do not have a clue to parenting or the meaning of love.  But Precious, despite her horror-show of a life, has something most of us never attain.

After hearing her mother’s confession to Mrs. Weiss, Precious says to Mary:  “You know, I didn’t realize what you was until this day — even after all those things you did.  Maybe I didn’t know no better or maybe I just didn’t want to but I finally see you crystal clear for the first time. 

“And I forgive you too . . .  but I’ll never see you again.  Not even if you dead.”

Precious has had her moment of clarity, a moment of truth when your whole life flashes before you in 3-D.  And for all her misfortunes, Precious is one up on most of us who struggle through a shadowy life trying to make sense of what we are, how we got that way. 

With that piece of precious clarity, this daughter raised in hell now has a chance to go out into the world on her own, try to cope and become all she can be.

No liberal media in `Green Zone’


Amy Ryan's portrayl of Lawrie Dayne was right-on, almost.

Lawrie Dayne, the Wall Street Journal reporter in the film “Green Zone,” is the worst kind of journalist.  She’s an insider.  She gets most of her information about the war in Iraq from one “trusted” and highly-placed source in the government.  A source, as it turns out,  with a hidden agenda, a source that uses her to further his aims.  Or in reality, the aims of the Bush administration.  Worse, she never questions the information given her.

Two forces drive Dayne, played admirably by Amy Ryan.  One is to get an interview with “Magellan,” the fictitious Iraqi source who knows where to locate the elusive and equally-fictitious weapons of mass destruction.   The other is to feed her ego.  She is overly ambitious.  She wants to be a star at all costs.  She no doubt wants to win a Pulitzer for her reporting.

 This is a film a day late and a dollar short.  Most knowledgeable readers long ago concluded  the war was concocted by Bush and his cronies for political reasons.  The war’s “shock and awe” was as much a high-dollar pyrotechnic display  for the gullible American public as it was to scare the Iraqis.  It was like the Fourth of July.  “America, the Beautiful.”   Wow, look at those bombs, baby.   

Still the movie was right-on with the war and right-on with the media’s role in abetting Bush as he led us down that primrose lane from 9/11, all fueled by Big Oil, big corporations, and profiteering.

Dayne symbolized the media’s own gullibility and the sense of superiority and arrogance that their stars exude.  Think of TV’s talking-heads.   Dayne has every resemblance, by actions and looks, to the discredited New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had a pipeline to the White House and used it not only for “news” about Iraq’s WMD but the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson as well.  It does not seem strange then that the real truth-seeker and Dayne’s polar opposite in “Green Zone,” is also named Miller.  The Matt Damon character, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller.  He is what she as a reporter should be.

I have only one objection to Ryan’s Dayne.  No star reporter would risk career suicide by confessing her reporting sins to the likes of Chief Miller.  Never.  She would do as Judith Miller did in real life.  String it out, never fully admit to wrong-doing.  Save some measure of the career at all costs.  The flaw is not Ryan’s.  The confession served director Paul Greengrass’s script.

Those bombastic conservative propagandists (Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage et al)  have only to take a hard look at Dayne, and ultimately Judith Miller, to see there is no “liberal media” to chastise.  If anything, reporters play along with those in power and their bosses, those powerful right-wing CEOs that run a great majority of America’s news outlets.   It’s called career preservation. 

And, in the case of the war in Iraq, the media swallowed the swill of the most dangerous president of our lifetime.  Most dangerous so far.

Stalled in the red zone

Moviegoers who believe as I do that the war in Iraq was a tragic and criminal contrivance of the American government and the George W. Bush administration will find “Green Zone”  satisfying as entertainment yet frustrating in substance. 

In football parlance, this fast-action thriller zipped into the red zone but didn’t score.

The film tells the nasty story of a military detachment in Baghdad searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction shortly after the U.S. invasion.  The leader of the unit is Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon).  He is nearly everything America says it admires.  He is a brave, dedicated, highly-skilled specialist in WMD.  

On the other hand, Miller is something ultra-patriotic Americans abhor.  He has an alert, open  mind.  And he soon becomes cynical after U.S. intelligence leads him astray on three straight missions.  No WMD. 

After a fourth failure, Miller at last finds a reliable source of information.  It is, of all people, “Freddy,” a patriotic Iraqi crippled years ago by his country’s war with Iran.  Suddenly the viewer is faced with a dilemma.  Are there two Americas?  A good one, in the dutiful Miller, and a bad one (think “evil-doers”), in the slimy, plotting intelligence officer Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear who plays the part with admirable skill). 

Poundstone works his propaganda magic in what initially was then called the Green Zone, the heavily-fortified Baghdad home to the ruling civilian authority operated by the U.S. and Great Britain and their consulting firms.  The film’s title is the director’s way of saying the war was run by politics. 

Freddy, though often angered and bewildered by the mixed bag of American actions, helps Miller uncover a U.S. government plot facilitated by Poundstone to assassinate an Iraqi military general, Al Rawi, and a handful of associates. 

 The naive Al Rawi believes until the last moment the Americans will eventually reward him.  Why?  Because he has told them the truth prior to the war, that WMD no long existed in Iraq.   He does not know the Americans always wanted a lie.  They desperately wanted an authoritative voice, like Al Rawi’s, to say, yes, WMD exists. 

That’s how the war was sold to the gullible American public.  Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld told us over and over despite no hard proof, Iraq had WMD and therefore posed a threat to America in the light of 9/11.  In fact, there is a news clip that appears in the middle of the film showing Bush uttering one of his “mission accomplished” speeches about the war.

The film’s climax then depicts Miller’s efforts to save Al Rawi before the chief plotter, Poundstone, and the U.S. forces can get to him.  Not only save him but to show American the truth, that the war was built on a lie. 

The ending brings on a surreal moment.  If  you the American viewer buys in to Greengrass’s assertions, then you have to take sides between the two Americas.  You may find yourself as I did pulling against the traditional U.S. Army and for the ad hoc military group led by Chief Miller.

It is an interesting movie, but the director Greengrass speaks to the choir.  It will draw few if any from the patriotic far right.  If it does, those viewers will pack up and leave early in the movie.

Most sympathizers of the “Green Zone” already realize the Bush adminstration lied about the reasons for going to war.  This quick-action film fosters a theory, a little tweak, on how it was done.  There is even the obligatory Wall Street Journal reporter, a symbol of the timid media’s role as Bush administration enabler. 

In the portrayl of Freddy, the film provides a true glimpse into the complexities facing ordinary citizens of the mideast.  To them, it is all smoke and mirrors.  Near the end, the well-intentioned Freddy kills the only hope Iraq has to avoid occupation and to discredit the wrongful American invasion.  Then says in ignorance, he wants his country, not the U.S.. to decide Iraq’s future.  He played right into the hands of “bad America.”

What is frustrating about “Green Zone,” if you can call it that, is the dead-end to which it leads.  The film begs the question:  What was the “true” rationale for warring with Iraq, while not taking care of business first with Al Qaeda in Tora Bora?  Why would America not seek to punish the believed villains of 9/11? 

Skilled film-makers who concentrate on the next level, the dark inner workings of the Bush administration leading up to the war, will capture much appreciation from us, the skeptics, but of course only derision from “patriots.”    Just another Hollywood hatchet-job, they will say.

Secondary roles, major flops

I was thinking about a couple of the character-driven movies I’d seen recently.  But it was not the main figures in Crazy Heart and Mr. 3000 that bothered me. It was the secondary characters, the two female journalists, that caught my attention.

Having some expertise in the journalistic field, I was struck by the possibility that Jean Craddock, in Crazy Heart,  and Maureen “Mo” Simmons in Mr. 3000, might be taken seriously, that they might be sublimated far beyond what they were.   As journalists, these two characters are flawed and misguided posers.  They truck on nothing but their good looks to crawl up a disgusting media ladder to nowhere, a ladder long shaped by style over substance, by opinion over fact, by beauty over brains. 

Of the two journalists, Simmons is the lowest of the low.  Played by beautiful and brassy Angela Bassett, Simmons is a veteran TV “reporter” for ESPN.  She is romantically involved with one of her subjects, Sam Ross.  Ross (Bernie Mac) is a baseball has-been trying to make a short comeback with the Milwaukee Brewers.  It is a big story for Simmons because Ross is the center of national attention being only three hits away from the magical 3000 Club, a feat he thinks will propel him into the Hall of Fame.  

In Crazy Heart, Craddock, played by moony-eyed Maggie Gyllenhaal,  is an inept “feature writer” for a newspaper in Santa Fe.   She too becomes romantically involved with the subject of a profile she plans to do on another has-been, the country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges).  Craddock has the excuse of being new in the business and totally untrained.  

The problem with Simmons and Craddock is not that they have affairs with their subjects.  That happens often enough and is no great sin.  The problem with these two so-called journalists is that their conflicts of interest do not ring a bell, that both continue to go about business as usual with their subjects-lovers.  If known, not exactly an atmosphere that breeds the all-important trust of the reader or viewer.  

In real life, if discovered, this behavior would be a career-ender.  Or it should be.   Both would be fired.  Such conflicts can be extremely embarrassing to a media outlet.  The heads on the periphery, those of editors and producers, may even roll as well.  In the real world, Simmons and Craddock would have come clean.  They would likely have revealed the conflicts to their bosses, kept the romance going and trotted off with new assignments and perhaps new gold stars pinned to their lapels.

This is the problem with character-driven films.  Directors are so focused on the central character, the Bad Blake and the Sam Ross, that they often fail to pay close attention to minor parts.  They kiss them off.  They get sloppy with reality.  And their attempt at plausible story lines falls flatter than flat.

In this way, Crazy Heart and Mr. 3000 are undeserved bad news for journalism.