Hey Ho, Van Gogh

At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, 2018)

If you need to know — I didn’t know — At Eternity’s Gate is a late painting by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, of an old man with his head in his hands, based on earlier designs. Van Gogh didn’t get to be an old man, having (spoiler) shot himself in the stomach whilst not in a fit state. He is the poster boy for artist as mad, tortured genius, seller of a single painting in his life time and now worth millions per canvas.
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Impeccably Liberal

On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder, 2018)

This is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) struggling at Harvard Law School because of discrimination against her even by those who admitted women to the university, struggling to get a job as a attorney or lawyer because she might get pregnant or make her colleagues’ wives jealous and then struggling to bring a sex discrimination case that could uncrack the whole canon of sex discriminatory laws. At one point Dorothy Kenyon (a cameo from Kathy Bates) tells her it will take a generation.
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The First Casualty of News

A Private War (Matthew Heineman, 2018)

Marie Colvin was a female war correspondent, following in the footsteps of Martha Gellhorn (and Kate Adie), reporting under fire from many of the hell holes of the world. We know what war correspondents are like from films — hardbitten, tough, driven, sociopathic and unable to maintain normal relationships, slave to the bottle and traumatised if they’d but admit it. It’s still unusually to see a women in this role on film, although since at least the 1930s journalism has been an acceptable job for a woman on screen.

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Contains Moderate Violins

Music of the Heart (Wes Craven, 1999)

This is perhaps the most disturbing of Craven’s films.

It’s heart-warming.

I mean, what the fuck?

This is based on a true story of Roberta Guaspari, here played by Meryl Streep, dumped by her Navy SEAL husband for a younger model, picked up and speedily dropped by a writer, but not before she’s argued her way into a job at a East Harlem school. Well, not exactly a job, but a programme to teach a few of the children to play the violin.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Some of the kids don’t want to be there and one of them is killed and there’s a nasty trad music teacher who hates her guts but doesn’t seem to age in ten years. Slowly, she makes progress, overcoming resistance, opening eyes, battling low expectations and the programme expands to other schools.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

And then the authorities cut the budget, so the programme is doomed unless the kids and Roberta can raise the money. Fortunately, photographer Dorothea von Haeften (Jane Leeves, showing the talent for accents she brings to Daphne in Frasier), knows a few proper fiddlers and the day might be saved.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Craven resists the temptation to throw in a few nightmares or inbred families, and even the corruption of the central family thanks to Charlie leaving them is explicitly celebrated towards the end of the film — sometimes it’s better for daddy to go.

It has to be noted that the kids are a diverse bunch — African American, Hispanic, Latino/Latina, with a few more white faces in later years, a character in calipers — and Streep here is presumably Greek-American rather than Jewish. A mother is given an apposite speech about white knights coming in to save the underprivileged, and asked her to name any non-White composers (she can’t, or doesn’t), but somehow she endures. Angela Bassett, as school principal Janet Williams, is given a frankly better role than the one she has in Vampire in Brooklyn: tough, caring, hard ass, wise.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

In the hands of a Scorsese, we might have been clearer about the passage of time — she seems to use same classroom for over a decade and may have slight changes of hair, but it’s not clear if it’s 1975 or 1985 or 1995. Her sons suddenly turn from adorable tots to lanky teens, ready to pimp her out for a new boyfriend, but the film is less epic than its two hour plus running time might suggest.

This is, perhaps, Craven’s most overtly political movie and is, “Pére-Lachaise” in Paris Je t’aime (2006) aside, pretty well his only venture out of the horror genres. Whilst based on a true story, it seems almost too easy. The jeopardy never seems as high as when a character’s soul is at stake.

That being said, my eyes were distinctly moist for the last fifteen minutes.

The horror, the horror.

An American Problem?

I had a pun all ready for use — well, the beginnings of one. I don’t think it is appropriate. I shall censor myself.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

This is an astonishing and moving account of the events around the 1965 Selma marches that deserved to have won an Oscar over the single continuous take of Birdman. David Oyelowo deserved shortlisting for the Oscars for Martin Luther King, but able-bodied playing disabled is always a fair bet (as is straight playing gay). I’ve not seen more than an episode of Spooks, so I don’t know Oyelowo’s work (although he was the principal in Interstellar). He’s surrounded by a host of British actors — Tim Roth as Governor Wallace, Howard Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. Everyone seems to be giving their all. An uncredited Martin Sheen, meanwhile, as federal judge Frank Minis Johnson, seems to be channelling President Bartlet.

That being said, there are a couple of places where they didn’t quite hold their nerve.

It’s telling that there’s quite a large disclaimer at the end of the film noting that it isn’t documentary — which is on top of the usual no-intended likeness clause. Well, duh. Toward the end of the film we see King smoking — I think this may be almost the only time characters do so in an era when many more people did (I didn’t notice because I wasn’t looking earlier, but his smoking did stand out). In context the moment is there to show how much is at stake — he is nervous about what lies ahead. I didn’t quite believe it. One reporter seems to ask all the questions and offers the commentary. No biggie. There’s a couple of white guys that get beaten up and killed — were these guys real or just representative? I guess they stand in for any ally who lost their lives. More problematic is the placing of LBJ as supportive to an extent and whether King would have been able to be so blunt to a president without being shown the door. On the one hand, it’s dramatically right (did he fly? how could he afford such visits? how long would it take?), on the other, a generation will take their understanding of King and LBJ from this movie — which is why I felt little wish to see the version of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

There are a few of moments of, “As you know, Martin” dialogue, so that we know enough historical context, but I think in general that is handled as well as it might be. It’s fascinating to watch the sheer self-awareness of their tactics — they know how the protest will work and what kind of impact they will get. It’s tempting to think of the past as more naÏve than it clearly was. Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) has a low-key cameo, the more militant figure historically speaking, but again aware of the game being played (and let that use of the word “game” not undermine how serious all of this was).  King repeatedly refers to himself as a marked man, foreshadowing the assassination that you know lies in the future — although the action is focused on 1965.

The violence is, as it should be, distressing. From the frankly terrorist explosion in a church to the police charges around the Edmund Winston Pettus bridge, with whips, truncheons, barbed wire wrapped night sticks, smoke bombs and more, it is too unbearable to watch but too important not to. Obviously, I felt my buttons being pressed, the cameras are placed in such a way that you identify with the marchers, but it needs to be witnessed.

And then, in the closing credits, we get to the kind of music that troubled me a bit from the trailer  — in the kind of hypocritical not seeming historically-appropriate way. The track is called “Glory”, the work of John Legend and Common, the latter also appearing as John Bevel in the film. The song gives a kind of historical context:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down”, and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

The Selma to Montgomery march was part of a wider campaign for voter registration in line with the US constitution and further fights for civil rights, one victory among many before and since. Anyone who has been watching the news over the last few years — the Rodney King beatings, the treatment of Barack Obama, the shooting of Michael Brown — must be aware of how a tension still runs through US culture. I wonder if we might have been trusted to make such connections ourselves?

I don’t know.

Clearly consciousnesses still need raising.