Monday, June 28, 2010

Thoughts about "On the Waterfront"

I feel really bad for "throwing it under the bus," because I think a lot of people love this movie, but I watched "On the Waterfront" over the weekend and I just didn't get why this movie is such a classic.

The first thing that really bothered me is the Leonard Bernstein soundtrack. During the film whenever anyone starts showing the slightest emotion the orchestral music swells and distracts from the acting. Basically, I wish I could have erased the music.

Yes, Marlone Brando gives a great performance, but I didn't think the script gave his character Terry Malone much growth. He starts off as kind of a dimwitted ex-boxer that only thinks about himself and by the end of the movie I guess we are supposed to think he’s learned to think about other people, but he testifies because the villain had his brother murdered, so has Terry learned altruism or simply revenge? In fact, I thought all of the characters where kind of one-note characters, the only other character with any growth was Eva Marie Saint’s Edie, who at the start of the film is a sheltered, but book-smart girl who doesn’t seem to have any experience with men and at the end of the film she’s fallen in love with Terry, but the movie doesn’t show how/if the relationship has made her grow/change.

My favorite scene without a doubt is the one where Terry and Edie are talking and she drops her glove. Terry picks it up and starts playing with it. I've always heard that this part wasn't scripted, but improvised. It really makes the scene because it's not just Brando that's improvising Saint is right there with him because at the end of the scene she pulls the glove off his hand and it all seems so natural, so real. Unfortunately it’s one diamond among a pile of coal.

Possibly the film’s biggest problem is that it can’t decide what kind of a villain Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is. In his first scene, Friendly talks about how he started as a nobody and carved out a crime empire. This led me to believe he was an effective and smart villain. However, in the same first scene Friendly does two incongruous things: first he repeatedly refuses to count stacks of money saying it makes his head hurt. I let this go at first thinking he must be the hands-off type. Then someone else counts a stack and says a guy was short $50 bucks and Friendly goes nuts on the guy and tells him he doesn’t work in this town anymore. For someone who can’t be bothered to count his own money, the money sure means a lot to him. I guess we are supposed to think that the money doesn’t mean as much to him as trust does?

The next questionable scene takes place when it seems like Terry is going to testify. Friendly talks to Terry’s brother Charley. Charley is one of Friendly’s Lieutenants. Charley is the reason why Terry has always gotten a free ride, Friendly has kept Terry happy because it makes Charley happy and by that logic, Friendly is willing to do so much for Charley because he is a really great Lieutenant. But the fact that Terry might testify is just too much, Friendly gives Charley an ultimatum, he tells him he has to kill his brother or else. Now here comes the curious part, he lets him go take care of it on his own! If I was a really smart crime boss who had built a crime empire from nothing, I’d probably be pretty careful. If I’d given a man an ultimatum that backed him into a corner I’d probably be concerned he might decide to betray me. So you take a bunch of guys you can trust and you go with Charley and you make sure he kills his brother and if he can’t, you kill both of them. The one thing you don’t do is let him go off alone so he can formulate some sort of plan. Luckily, Charley did something even more boneheaded. He’s in the back of a car with his brother; up front some unnamed hoodlum is driving the car. Charley openly discusses betraying Friendly. You can see how horrified the driver is and so it is absolutely no surprise when Charley is dead a few scenes later. Did Charley think the hoodlum was loyal to him before Friendly? Maybe they were really good friends, and he trusted the unnamed hoodlum completely. But the unnamed guy had secret ambitions and his betrayal was not unlike Iago’s betrayal of Othello, a saga of unbelievable evil. But unfortunately the movie doesn’t give us the slightest hint.

Okay, the next scene of interest is the court scene. Terry gives about a two sentence confession on the stand. They ask him if he knows who killed Joe Doyle, he says Friendly ordered some guys to do it. That’s all he says and it seems that’s all the evidence the Crime Commission has: one man’s testimony. If Friendly was smart he’d understand that they still have nothing and all he has to do is play it cool. Instead Terry gets off the stand and Friendly goes into a blind rage and starts screaming at Terry and punching him. This outburst made him look guilty whereas the testimony hadn’t really been all that damning.

Okay, so Friendly and his boys are the Union leaders for the dockworkers. They make their money from…I never quite figured that out. Okay, so Friendly and his boys control whether a dockworker works on any given day. They also control what jobs any given guy has. We know this because Terry Malone was given a job where he doesn’t actually have to work. But the catch is that Friendly doesn’t own the boats or the cargo. That’s all owned by an overweight bald guy who we see only twice in the movie: First he is watching the court proceedings when Terry testifies. He just sort of grumbles when Friendly goes “ape-shit” on Terry afterwards. Then we see him at the end of the movie. He stands at the doorway to the docks and waits for the bloody and beat up Terry to report for work, because none of the workers will work unless he is working too. If the fat man didn’t somehow benefit from whatever deal he had with Friendly, why did he let him run the workers for so many years?

This movie’s director, Elia Kazan is legendary. I’m a big fan of his film “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but this movie was clearly an attempt by him to justify his testimony to the House Un-American activities Committee (HUAC). You see, Kazan was a Communist for a year and a half from 1934 and 1936. Then twenty years later, the HUAC was questioning “known communists” and trying to get them to name names. It was a witch-hunt and Kazan eventually caved and named 8 people. Then the following year he made this movie where the theme of the movie turns out to be how much of a hero you can be if you have the courage to testify. Knowing this background made what seems on the surface to be a movie about silly and evil mobsters seem to be about much more and it made it seem almost insidious, like if we thought Brando’s Terry Malone was right for testifying then we had to think Kazan must have been right for testifying too, right? Only they were two completely different situations. When I listened to Father Barry’s (Karl Madden) impassioned speeches about standing up to the union and having the courage to speak out, I thought they were kind of over-the-top, but when I think about them in the context of the HUAC, they absolutely disgust me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Thoughts on "Contact"

Carl Sagan's "Contact" is a great concept and is very well written in some parts, I especially enjoyed the beginning where the reader follows Ellie Arroway through her childhood.

However, the novel suffers from being kind of flat. It's a 432 page novel (all page numbers are according to the hardcover edition I got from the library) and I got the feeling someone told Sagan that's how long a "real" novel had to be. There seems to be some filler in the form of tangents where Sagan introduces all sorts of extra science fiction elements into his near future world.

But I'll focus on those tangents later, but first I want to explain why I thought the story was flat. On about p 106 Arroway and the other scientists discover the 10,000 page encrypted message from the Vegans (Did anyone else read the first mention of Vegans as talking about those vegetarians that don't eat dairy?) but they can't decipher the message. So, they wait for the message to repeat, hoping that at the beginning of the message is a "primer," a key to the encryption. Then around p 234 they figure out that there is no primer, but they end up figuring the message out without one. It's only about 100 pages, but it felt like a lot more while I was reading the book. This section was kind of bland, nothing was happening, it just felt like the story had no momentum.

I didn't like the religious aspects of the book until the end of the novel. When the evangelist characters Joss and Rankin were introduced I felt like they were just "strawman" characters, whose only purpose was to be beaten by Arroway and science. When Arroway debated them, I thought that the two of them were made to look like jokes. I'm no preacher, but I felt like I could have put up a better argument against Arroway.

I think that religion comes down to faith. God, in the Christian sense, doesn't show himself in an absolute fashion because he wants us to choose to follow him. He wants us to choose to be "good people" not out of fear, but because of a belief that it's just the right way to live. Because philosophies like "love your neighbor as yourself" and "turn the other cheek" are worthy philosophies to aspire to.

I was happy to see that the ending dovetailed: Arroway who questioned religion because of a lack of absolute proof, received first hand proof of aliens and many other wonders in her journey across the galaxy, but she only had her words to share with others. She had become exactly what she criticized. She expected the rest of the world to believe her story and her philosophy without any physical evidence.

The very end of the novel puts a further spin on the ending when a computer finds a message buried deep inside the exponents of Pi, a binary code that translates to a circle. The novel purports that this is the proof Arroway needed for people to believe her story. I'm more skeptical of human nature and figure that the average person would either figure it was a coincidence, or not be able to wrap their head around how deep the number was buried in Pi and just figure it's not true.

I just thought I should note that in 2009 Pi was calculated to 2.5 trillion digits and no sequence of ones and zeroes or binary circles were found, but it was a fun idea, wasn't it?

Okay, I promised I'd get back to those tangents. The first one, around page 223 is all about a theme park called "Babylon" that is somewhere 30 minutes from Manhattan by train, but still subject to NYC laws, so it must be in Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx.

By day Babylon had neat architecture, fun rides, games and tasty food, but by night Babylon was an adult theme part where men and woman could play out sexual fantasies with prostitutes.

I know there is a real market for prostitution, but I find it impossible to believe that it could ever be coupled with a family friendly tourism industry. Sure Las Vegas is a tourist trap, but I've never seen it advertised as a family-get-away destination.

The other tangent is when Arroway goes up to a space station and there are a small number of elite super rich men who believe that living in the weightlessness of space is going to prolong their lives. Everything I've read about the effects of weightlessness suggest that it's long term effects are harmful. Here is what Wiki said:

The most significant adverse effects of long-term weightlessness are muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton, or spaceflight osteopenia. These effects can be minimized through a regimen of exercise. Astronauts subject to long periods of weightlessness wear pants with elastic bands attached between waistband and cuffs to compress the leg bones and reduce osteopenia. Other significant effects include fluid redistribution (causing the "moon-face" appearance typical of pictures of astronauts in weightlessness), a slowing of the cardiovascular system, decreased production of red blood cells, balance disorders, and a weakening of the immune system. Lesser symptoms include loss of body mass, nasal congestion, sleep disturbance, excess flatulence, and puffiness of the face. These effects begin to reverse quickly upon return to the Earth.

I especially enjoyed the part about increased flatulence. I just picture the men and woman on the International Space Station in a sort of reenactment of the famous beans scene in Blazing Saddles.

Finally, I wanted to mention my confusion about one passage in the novel. On page 277, Arroway is agonizing over Drumlin's death. She feels guilty because her first thoughts when he died were about herself. She thinks about men who for one reason or another she had admired "Drumlin. Valerian. Derr Heer. Hadden...Joss. Jesse... Staughton?...Her father."

Was the purpose of this passage just to foreshadow the revelation at the end of the book that Staughton was her biological father. When I read the passage the first time I was sure it had some sort of deeper significance. Like she was admitting to herself in some sort of Freudian way that she was sexually attracted to men she admired.

The other strange thing about the passage is that she doesn't mention Vaygay. Of the men in her life, he was my favorite. Clearly he was interested in her sexually, but he never pressured her. He just sort of left that option open to her. And in turn she developed a sort of relationship with him that went somewhere beyond friendship but only unconsciously on her part. Look at the way Arroway gets all "hot and bothered" when she thinks of the other women in his life.

I haven't yet seen the 1997 film. (It's next in my netflix cue). But I am looking forward to seeing how it differs from the novel. I see that Matthew McConaughey plays Joss and so I suspect Arroway and him will become romantically involved in the movie version. Off hand this doesn't make sense to me, though the end of the novel seems to imply that the two characters could get together after the events of the novel, because Arroway's experiences have given them new-found common ground.