No Movie Monday this week: temporary hiatus

Hi everyone,

You’ve probably noticed that there hasn’t been much activity on the blog this week. This is because I am simultaneously dealing with a huge project at work and apartment-hunting. It’s been a busy week and it looks to be another. However, I promise that normal service will be restored shortly. (Of course, getting the internet working the new place etc. etc. yadda yadda, but we’ll figure something out.)

Thanks for your patience and I hope I’ll have something more interesting for you to read shortly.

No Movie Monday this week: temporary hiatus

Movie Monday: Short films!

I kind of forgot it was Monday until there wasn’t enough time to watch 55 Days at Peking, so instead you’re getting short films and you’re gonna like ’em.

Last time I was in California, I went to a museum in Palo Alto, where I’m from, the Museum of American Heritage. To be honest, I was mainly there to see a Lego display, but my wife and I went through the museum, which turned out to be very nice indeed. One of the displays was this film footage of San Francisco, shot by sticking a camera on the front of a cable car in 1906, only days before an earthquake levelled large areas of the city.

Same location, shortly afterward.
Same location, shortly afterward.

So anyway, an interesting historical snapshot, not just because of the earthquake but because of the period, one where cars are only just beginning to displace horses on the streets of an American city.

Something I love finding in history is the introduction of things that are now totally commonplace. Consider this 1936 promo for parking meters:

I think the thing that’s most interesting about this is that it’s phrased as if it were a commercial — it sounds like an ad, even though it’s not selling anything. I wonder if that’s to do with the fact that it’s introducing something that people tend to think of as a nuisance. Also, “no nickel, no parky!” reminds us that you can’t really ever really guarantee a historical American experience will be missing some casual racism.

Speaking of things that ape other types of media presentation, check out this … whatever it is … telling Christians about how to get ready for the Rapture. It’s really interesting, in this day and age of “oh, people don’t really believe that, and by claiming they do you’re making fun of them, you bully” to see someone straight up endorsing the sudden-disappearance model of the Rapture.

I was going to post up some WW2 propaganda videos, but the Youtube comments sections were really depressing.

Movie Monday: Short films!

Walk the Line (2005) exemplifies the history-movie problem

So, back around 2000 or so I decided I liked Johnny Cash; something or other made me listen to Live at Folsom Prison and I was just a fan from then on. I suppose this was around the time he was having his last glow of stardom, with his whole country-fried patriarch of rebel music persona going on. I was on my way to Esbjerg airport in 2003 when I heard Danish radio playing “I Walk the Line” at like eleven in the morning, and I said “huh. Johnny Cash died.”

Walk the Line (2005) isn’t a bad film at all; in fact, I quite like it. But it does something that is not only absolutely infuriating but also typical of movies about art — and, in a broader sense, typical of movies about history. Let’s take a look at a pivotal scene in the film for an example. Young John has managed to get an audition with Sun records supremo Sam Phillips. He and his band bore their way through some gospel numbers until Phillips stops them and demands that they play something they really feel: 

Sam Phillips:You know exactly what I’m telling you. We’ve already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just… like… how… you… sing it.

Johnny Cash: Well you didn’t let us bring it home.

Sam Phillips:Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ *you* felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.

Johnny Cash: [after a pause] I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?

Sam Phillips: No.

Johnny Cash: I do.

So Cash gets back in the saddle and this time he plays “Folsom Prison Blues” and history is made. 

Now here’s an account of the same meeting from Cash’s autobiography: 

Once we were in the studio, I sang ‘I Was There When It Happened’ and ‘It Don’t Hurt Anymore’ for him. I sang … whatever else I’d taken into my repertoire from among the popular country songs of the day. Sam kept directing me back to my own repertoire: ‘What else have you written?’ Though I didn’t think it was any good, I told him about ‘Hey, Porter,’ and he had me sing it for him. 

That did it. ‘Come back tomorrow … and we’ll put that song down,’ he told me. 

I think that scene would be fucking amazing if they kept in that self-important horseshit speech from Sam Phillips and then at the end he played Hey Porter: 

So, OK, why does this bug me? There are several differences between this scene and the account Cash gives. Let’s list the big ones. 

  • The Tennessee Two weren’t there — Cash auditioned alone and brought his band back the next day. 
  • Cash initially tried to audition as a gospel singer (I didn’t quote that bit) but Phillips turned him down. 
  • Phillips wanted Cash to perform a song he’d written. 
  • Phillips didn’t want country or gospel music; he wanted rock and roll — or at least lively, upbeat country music that could appeal to the rock and roll market. 
  • There’s no record of Phillips giving some speech about the meaning of music, as if that weren’t obvious. 
  • Cash auditioned with a bomp-chicka-bomp train song, but not that bomp-chicka-bomp train song. 

Now, some of the changes made to the story for the film are very understandable — the sequence of events has been simplified, and the song has been replaced with a more recognisable one. Some details are even kept, like the song Cash plays in the audition, which is one of the ones he mentions in the book. 

But the rest are just … in reality, at least according to Cash’s book, Phillips was making a business and/or artistic decision. He wanted more of a certain type of country/rock artist, and he wanted songwriters. In the film, he makes a speech about self-expression, and he ties it right into the only religion Hollywood can ever take seriously: good old believing in yourself

With a few tweaks of dialogue, you could drop that Phillips speech into any movie made about music or art in Hollywood more or less ever. It has nothing to do with the set of circumstances that turned Johnny Cash into a rock star, and it has nothing to do with music more generally. In some ways, I think that’s a very bad thing for people who might want to be musicians to see — we get this idea of Johnny Cash, the lonely, tormented misfit with songs burning inside him, and we don’t see Johnny Cash talking about his music obsessions with Elvis, being immersed in the nascent rock and roll scene, hunting for hard-to-find “race records” or playing crappy gigs in nowhere church halls with his band, making his own posters, on the grind. Being a musician in movies, like being a writer, is an identity, not a process. 

Now maybe that’s fine; obviously, the process isn’t as visually or dramatically interesting. But what really gets on my nerves about this and every other film like it is that it doesn’t give a shit about the source material, or, if you like, the truth (bearing in mind that an old man’s recollections for commercial resale might not be the “truth” either, of course). It takes a thing that happened, and it replaces it with an inspiring feel-good believe-in-yourself speech. It takes reality, or something close to it, and it just … ignores it. No, not even ignores it, rejects it. Oh, this thing that really happened isn’t enough like a movie, so let’s replace it with a movie scene. This thing isn’t like what we already believe, so we’re just going to replace it with what we’ve already got. It isn’t interested in learning anything. 

If you’re just going to replace things with stock Hollywood moments, why go looking for things to begin with? If you’re just going to take real life and make it more like a movie, why the fucking fuck are you making movies based on real life in the first place?

Walk the Line (2005) exemplifies the history-movie problem

Sensationalism. Sensationalism never changes.

The modern media bombards viewers and readers with an image of Super-Action History, that period when everything was always exploding in slow motion and everyone was covered in filth. Popular history books are written to spark controversy in hopes that this will lead to sales. Ah, for the old days, when dignified dons issued thoughtful examinations of the works of the ancients —

cannibalcover cannibalback



Well, you know how publishers are always slapping crazy lurid covers on perfectly respectable books, maybe it’s like that  …

… well, kinda.

What author Garry Hogg appears to have done is an old pop-anthropology trick. He’s taken most of his info from various travel accounts, missionaries’ memoirs, and so on, and presents them with a pretty even-handed tone. So there’s a contrast between Hogg’s tone and the excitable tone of his sources. But he also writes things like this:

Broadly speaking, however, anthropologists are agreed that where cannibalism exists as a long-established feature of the social life of a community … it originated in one or other of several distinct forms. It may be connected with religious ceremonial; it may have magical significance; it may be the ultimate result of a temporary and unwelcome farinaceous diet which led to experimenting with human flesh as food. This last would be a catastrophic form of experiment, for it has been widely found that when the taste for human flesh is once indulged, such taste quickly develops into a fierce and eventually unappeasable lust for flesh which no mere animal flesh can ever satisfy; thus the stages of degradation in gluttony succeed one another inexorably.

Now, I suppose I have some kind of tribal obligation to sneer at anthropologists or something, but I am almost certain they don’t say things like “thus the stages of degradation in gluttony succeed one another inexorably.” I’m also pretty sure that anthropological research on cannibalism suggests that it’s often part of very complicated kinship or other social structures, rather than a diabolical hankering for vittles ye cain’t raise nor buy.

Anyway. The other cool part of this story is that there is a bookseller near my house. It isn’t usually open to the public, I don’t think, since it mainly does book fairs and online sales. They had an open weekend on Saturday, and I went along. Lots of discounts. I grabbed up some bargain books, and was about to leave when I saw this lurid little paperback for £1.50, so I grabbed it as well. When I took it up to the till, he gave it to me for free with the other books I was buying. So that was pretty cool. If there is another open day, I’ll definitely be back.

And another trashy post-war paperback goes on the shelves to be pulled out in some future hour of need.

Sensationalism. Sensationalism never changes.

Movie Monday: The Monuments Men (2014)


There was a bit of a flap here in Cambridge last summer when George Clooney and Matt Damon turned up at Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre to work out and play some basketball. If you’ve ever been to Kelsey Kerridge you’ll know that’s sort of a weird image, but the point of it is that they were filming The Monuments Men at the nearby Duxford Imperial War Museum, which I have never gone to even though the number 7 bus goes right there.

I first came across the work of the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives section — the “Monuments men” — when writing a review of Sidney Kirkpatrick’s book on their search for the “Spear of Destiny,” and by that I mean their total non-search for the spear that Sidney Kirkpatrick desperately wanted to be more sinister and occult-y than it was. But they were more famously the subject of Robert Edsel’s book which I presume is what attracted the attention of Clooney.

The actual history of MFAA is pretty impressive — even while preparing to invade Europe, the Allies were concerned about protecting and repatriating the collections of art and historical artefacts that the Nazis had been swiping from all over occupied Europe. Sometimes these pieces were directly looted, sometimes they were “sold” more or less at gunpoint, and of course in many cases they were confiscated from Jewish families who were either forced to flee the country or killed. The process was an extremely complex one, especially the part about figuring out who the real owners were, which is still going on in some cases.

To facilitate the process, dozens, even hundreds of “Monuments men” (depending on who you count) were attached to the invading Allied armies to identify items of cultural and historical significance and advise on them. Some of them were already well-known in the art or history fields: one of the great figures of Middle Eastern archaeology, Sir Leonard Woolley, worked with the program, for instance.

The problem with the story of the MFAA is the problem with the story of any large effort. When you have a huge cast spread out over different parts of the war, it’s hard to put together a coherent narrative. The film reduces the cast to seven and makes them a band of scrappy misfits making it up as they go along, which makes for a more satisfying conventional war movie structure, complete with a sadistic Nazi villain and a quirky car to drive around in. The movie also compresses the timeline a lot: it portrays the MFAA program as starting in the latter half of 1944, when in reality it was already underway by 1943.

There’s a certain amount of added action: the number of Monuments men who die in the film is the same as the number who died in real life, except that there were many times more MFAA personnel in real life. I was pleased to see that there wasn’t really a shoehorned-in romance. I was also pleased to see that a lot of the locals were portrayed as skeptical about the intentions of MFAA, believing that they were there to procure the art for American museums.

When I watched Six Feet Under, the bits where Lauren Ambrose was in art school always struck me as implausible — I bet that actual artists, even art students, don’t sit around discussing The Nature of Art all that much. Similarly, even though Treme is moderately restrained about it, I bet that most people from New Orleans go from one year’s end to the next without saying that this city is music. Similarly, in my experience, archaeologists don’t spend all their time yakking about the significance of what they do and heritage and culture and blah, at least not when they’re not trying to persuade lawmakers of something. But the guys in this movie do, boy howdy.

This sounds like I didn’t like it, which isn’t true. It’s a goofy buddy action/comedy which happens to invest in the idea that art and history are important — literally important enough to die for. I feel like it’s a little incoherent in the story it’s telling, but perhaps that’s to be expected. I enjoyed it a lot. I do wonder if we’ll start to see people believing that MFAA was just seven misfits tooling around Belgium and Germany with a trailer full of Rembrandts, though.

Movie Monday: The Monuments Men (2014)

A little self-promotion

If you cast your eyes to the sidebar of this blog, you will see that there is now a page labelled “Buy My Book.” Technically, it is an ebook. It is a short work of sorta-kinda Lovecraftian horror set in the 9th century, and it is only $3. It is not uplifting reading. Still, if you like the kind of thing I like, you might enjoy it. You can click on that link or this one.

A little self-promotion