All three films described here are top-notch, well acted, produced and directed. But running through them all is a message that their heavily female audiences probably do not intend to send.
The film opens in North Africa during World War II. An aging biplane skims over beautifully, almost sensuously, filmed sand dunes, then crashes. We see Bedouins bury one of the plane's occupants and swathe the other horribly burned occupant in bandages.
Forward a couple of years to Italy. A Canadian nurse, played by Juliette Binoche, is having very bad luck - everybody she befriends dies. By my estimate, she single-handedly accounted for most of the casualties in the European Theater. The connection of any of this to the rest of the film is tenuous at best. But Juliette later on became so adept at getting people whacked just by showing up that she became Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote. She married Dick Van Dyke from Diagnosis Murder. They live alone and have no surviving friends. You have to watch the film very attentively to catch this.
Juliette is dropped off at an isolated ruin to care for a mysterious patient, swathed in bandages, apparently amnesiac, and known only as "the English Patient." Why he's not taken to a hospital, and why a single nurse plus several soldiers as guards are assigned to one patient are again not very clear.
Back to pre-war Cairo. A group of foreign expatriates is conducting idle-rich archaeology. Into this group comes Ralph Fiennes, playing a Hungarian count. Fiennes (best known as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List) excels at playing characters coated with a thin layer of slime, even when he's a good guy, and he soon has an affair going with the wife of the head archaeologist, played by Kristin Scott Thomas (the wife, that is, not the archaeologist.) Their affair truly pushes the envelope of good taste to the tearing point when they make love at Christmas while a group of soldiers outside sing "Silent Night."
The film flips back and forth between Cairo and Italy. Enter a vengeful soldier who is searching for Fiennes and suspects the English Patient might be him. Seems that during an interrogation, an over-zealous German officer cut off his thumbs. On the plus side, this soldier will never be arrested on an Interstate for illegally thumbing a ride, and when schools begin teaching base-8 arithmetic a few years hence, he'll be all set. He's already tracked down and killed the German officer, and now he's looking for the man who gave the Germans the information that resulted in him getting captured. (We can presume he did some interrogating of his own to find out who informed the Germans.)
As a veteran of three military hitches, this makes me wonder just how this
guy gets the freedom and mobility to turn World War II into his own private
"Sir, can I have some time off? I want to go find and kill the German who cut off my thumbs."
"Well, if you want to kill Germans so much, why don't you start with the battalion up there on the ridge?"
"Hey Sarge, can I get off KP? I want to go find and kill the German who cut off my thumbs. Have The Kid From Brooklyn Who's Too Young To Die cover for me."
The vengeful soldier and the English Patient finally meet and the English Patient finally fills in the gaps. Kristin and her husband fly out to a remote site. The plane flips. Hubby is killed, Kristin gravely injured. Fiennes takes off to find help, running into some British troops. Since he has no identification, the Brits assume he's a spy and pack him off as a prisoner.
Here's the biggest gaffe in the whole film. Supposedly Fiennes is an urbane, sophisticated and well-traveled man. He's at least fluently trilingual. So what's a supposedly sophisticated man doing in a war zone with no identification? Even more, Hungary was on the German side in World War II. What's he doing wandering around free at all? Why wasn't he interned as an enemy alien? Poor Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet ended up that way even though he was up in the Himalayas about as far from the war as you could possibly get. And even if we swallow these improbabilities, why didn't Fiennes say "Fine, do your jobs. But please send somebody out to check my story."
Fiennes escapes, encounters the Germans, gives them information on the approaches to Cairo in exchange for transportation, and gets back to find poor Kristin has given up the ghost. He rights the plane and takes off across the desert with her body, only to be shot down. He is in fact the English Patient. The Vengeful Soldier comes to terms with his own hatred - how do you get revenge on a man who wants only to die anyway? Juliette finally gives the English Patient an overdose of morphine.
Okay, FREEZE! Drop the Kleenex and turn around slowly. No funny stuff. Okay ma'am, we want to ask you a few questions. Doesn't it bother you in the least that Fiennes gave away secrets to the Nazis? "Yes, but, sniff, sob, slobber, he did it for love!" Touching. "Ach Eva, mein Schatz. Ze artist in me vould like to spend my life painting sad clowns on black velvet (und later Elvis venn he comes along) but because it means so much to you, mein liederkranzleberwuerstleinenkuegellebkuchen, I vill invade Poland."
I have a certain affection for this tale because I have seen the bridges of Madison County. In fact, I first saw them in 1984, long before the book, let alone the film, came out. They're odd things with flat roofs, not at all like the conventional image of a covered bridge.
Meryl Streep is always good, and Clint Eastwood has matured into both a good actor and a good director.
The film opens as Francesca's (Meryl Streep) family discovers her diary after her death and learns that she had an affair. Flash back thirty years to see Francesca, an Italian war bride exiled to the depths of darkest Iowa, seeing her husband and sons off to the Illinois State Fair. Why Illinois? I wondered that too. Maybe to provide a reason for them to go and her to stay home, and Oregon or Vermont was stretching credibility too much. Right on cue, Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) pops up. He's on assignment for National Geographic to photograph the bridges, and he's lost.
He's lost? He works for National Geographic, for heaven's sake! They make maps. Surely they could have gotten a good one for Clint. Also why these bridges as opposed to covered bridges in, say, Indiana (around Terre Haute there are over 40 of them)? We can presume they must be noteworthy somehow. So wouldn't the local Chamber of Commerce have a map? But then Clint would shoot his pictures and go away, Francesca would still be lonely and unfulfilled, and we wouldn't have much of a picture.
Kincaid introduces himself and enthralls Francesca with all the exotic places he's been. He explains that he got hired when National Geographic happened to see a calendar picture he'd taken.
The folks at National Geographic got a real charge out of the tale of how Eastwood got hired as a photographer. Frankly National Geographic would be better off firing their editors and hiring Clint Eastwood. Old Yeller pioneered the photographic concept that the Alps might be really nice, but they needed a certain something, and that something was a person in a red flannel shirt dominating the view, and their style hasn't matured much since then. (Their latest thing is blurry animals taken in poor light. Also a lot of wholly unnecessary use of view cameras.) If National Geographic actually had done a story on the bridges, we'd have gotten a dozen photos of local geezers playing checkers over a cracker barrel, and maybe (if we were lucky) one photo of somebody changing a flat tire with a tiny, out of focus image of a bridge in the background. It would be shot with a view camera in poor light and feature weirdly distorted shapes along the edges of the picture. I actually let my subscription lapse a few years ago because they had gotten so banal.
Francesca tells Kincaid she's lonely, sex-starved and unfulfilled, and Kincaid says, sorry, he can't help because he has the same problems himself. Yeah, right. They soon have a torrid affair going. Probably the most absurd part is where Francesca bathes immediately after Kincaid and reflects on how erotic the thought was of being in the same tub he was. Okay ladies, show of hands here. All those who find your Significant Other's bathtub residue erotic raise your hands. I thought so.
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan make such an ideal couple. They have so much in common. Wholesome good looks, wit, charm, nice personalities, Medal of Honor (Hanks 2, Ryan 1). Hanks is a recent widower living in Seattle and still grieving. Ryan lives in Baltimore and is engaged. Hanks' son gets on a radio talk show and tries to find a new wife for his dad. Ryan hears the talk in Baltimore and turns to jelly. There's a lot of transcontinental shuttling before the film lurches to its inevitable happy ending. Bring plenty of insulin.
At some point, Ryan has to tell her fianc that she's dumping him for a guy in Seattle she barely knows who hasn't even proposed. What's wrong? Does her fianc beat her? Cheat on her? Blow his paycheck on booze or drugs? No, no, and no. His only crime is that he's a bit of a stuffed shirt, but we have no evidence that he's cruel to anyone, merely a tad dull. And when she does dump him, does he do the manly thing and try to run her car off a cliff? Stalk her? Rig a bomb to her turn signal? Climb up on a water tower with a high-powered rifle? Take out a contract on Hanks? No, he just says, that's how it is, and swallows his disappointment.
I just stumbled on to the video of The Moody Blues' Your Wildest Dreams. Totally legal, by the way - it was posted by the copyright holders. Your Wildest Dreams is one of the best songs by one of the best groups ever. We all have irrevocable branch points in our lives where we had to choose between two desirable goals, and sometimes wonder what it would have been like to travel that other path. The genius of the song is that the tune and lyrics capture the spirit of those moments perfectly.
The video cuts back and forth between a middle-aged woman and her younger self. We see her part ways with her musician boy friend. Later we see her at home. Her once hip second boyfriend is now her boring, steadily employed husband (he has gray hair, she doesn't), and she has two squabbling kids. We see her gazing wistfully out the window and then a close up of her crying, while her husband slumbers. Selfish insensitive SOB - imagine, sleeping in the middle of the night like that. He probably has some lame excuse like having to go to work in the morning. She finally goes to a concert, and she and her old love catch a fleeting glimpse of each other.
It's a familiar enough theme, but suppose we reversed the gender roles. Suppose it was the husband looking at his boring, somewhat frumpy wife and then wistfully recalling his former college love, who is now a successful singer, living an exciting lifestyle and still looking sensational. So he goes alone to one of her concerts hoping to connect. Would we be quite so sympathetic?
The common thread in all three films (and the video) is that if a man treats a woman decently but is otherwise a bit dull, she'll dump him at the first opportunity for a sportier model. "My husband never hurt a single person in his entire life," Meryl Streep says in Bridges of Madison County, just before she cheats on him. Is this really the message women want to send?
Suppose I could take the three abandoned males from these films down to the local women's shelter and say "Here are three men. Don't abuse women, don't cheat on them, take good care of them. But they're a bit on the drab side. Any takers?" Think I'd get results? Maybe. Then again, considering all the letters I see in advice columns from women who habitually link up with charismatic but abusive losers, maybe not.
Now of course guys dump women all the time for younger and sportier models, both in film and in real life. In real life it's a well known fact that divorced men make out far better (in all senses of the term) than women. In film, the husbands generally destroy themselves (American Beauty) or fall prey to delicious revenge from the abandoned women (First Wives' Club), or are at the very least portrayed as shallow cads. It would be hard to make a film glorifying a man who left a loyal wife for someone with fewer wrinkles. On the other hand, films aimed at women regularly glorify women who cheat on a loyal husband because her emotional needs are unfulfilled. The underlying premise seems to be that physical attraction is shallow but emotional needs are deeper and more legitimate.
Sorry, I reject this premise completely. The quest for emotional satisfaction is every bit as superficial and shallow as the quest for big breasts, and a lot more dishonest. Or perhaps I should say that the kind of emotional satisfaction people pursue is superficial and shallow. In all the examples above, emotional satisfaction is defined as warm gooshy feelings. None of the women find emotional satisfaction by, say, working at a women's shelter or volunteering for the Peace Corps (for all the horrors it perpetrates, even Shallow Hal gets that right). The equivalent behavior among men is easy to define. Nobody ever pretended a desire for big breasts represented anything profound. Contrary to popular psychology, this is not a society where people are out of touch with their feelings. This society wallows in feelings. If anything, what most people in this society need is precisely to get out of touch with their feelings for a while. Beirut, Belfast and Belgrade were all creations of people who were entirely too much in touch with their feelings.
When film does show rational people, it is often as a caricature. The Vulcans in Star Trek are the type examples. They are regularly portrayed as secretly longing to have human emotions but unable to do so because of their conditioning. (The Vulcans nearly destroyed themselves before they learned to control their emotions. See Beirut, Belfast and Belgrade above.) Or when the characters simply proceed rationally (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) critics lambaste them as stiff and wooden. Most of the Nicolas Cage bashing seems to be inspired by the fact that he plays characters who generally keep their cool. Considering the number of people in the arts who have destroyed themselves through suicide, substance abuse or self-destructive lifestyles, I conclude that many media critics are simply unable to relate to characters who solve their problems rationally without going into depression or hysteria, that unless a character has some defect requiring deep therapy, they simply aren't interesting to the critics.
Simply this: the obsession with feelings, and the idea that feelings are superior to rationality, goes hand in hand with intellectual shallowness and anti-intellectualism in our society. We have people who quit school, do drugs, and mess up their lives because they are striving to gratify feelings; we not only lose taxes and productivity from these people, but we have to spend billions of dollars helping them get their lives in order. However, we can't attack their lifestyles because that would weaken their self-esteem. Supposedly people with lifestyle problems have poor self-esteem. Anyone who thinks he's entitled to a life without accountability, life support from others, and the right to vent his frustrations on innocent people does not suffer from poor self-esteem. Such people have grotesquely bloated senses of self-esteem. They are narcissists of the first order.
As an educator, I would really love it if everyone found learning exciting. But I'm willing to settle for Plan B: "Sit down, shut up, and do as you're told." According to stereotype, if we adopt this approach, in short order we will have jackbooted minions marching into Poland. I could take that threat seriously if there was the slightest evidence that excessive regard for authority was a problem in this society. (For those who read history, if the Germans in the 1930's really did suffer from an excessive regard for authority, they'd have accepted defeat, paid their reparations, and moved on. They rallied to Hitler precisely because he represented an attack on authority.)
Most of what is called math and science anxiety is also narcissism. The buzzword for narcissism in the educational literature is "ego protection." Students feel that they rank so high in the cosmic order that they are entitled never to suffer anxiety or frustration. The irony, of course, is that you can never have good self-esteem as long as you know you are hiding from an obligation.
Since I criticized three admittedly excellent films above, it's only fair to list a couple of good Chick Flicks.
In this unlikely romance between a bookshop owner (Hugh Grant) and a superstar (Julia Roberts), what makes it work is the bizarre circle of friends around Grant. A couple are semi-normal, some are goofy, one is handicapped, and they all seem to really love each other. Also, when Grant and Roberts have the obligatory Long Split before getting back together, there's a great montage of Grant walking down the street while the seasons change behind him.
Nia Vardalos stars as a Greek-American girl trying to bring her non-Greek boy friend into a clannish family. There's a brilliant and poignant scene where she's trying on a wedding dress and she, her mother, and her grandmother (who must have had a hard life in Greece like most Americans can't even begin to imagine) are reflected in the mirror. The movie came with contractual obligations for a TV sitcom, which nobody really wanted to do. So the performers phoned in their performances and it died a merciful death.
Starring as her father is veteran Michael Christopher, who starred in one of the most lamentably underrated TV series ever. It was called Sirota's Court and ran for all of four episodes in 1976, and still managed to get a Golden Globe and Emmy nomination. It was the forerunner of Night Court and superior to it by light years.
Created 8 July 1998, Last Update 15 April 2011
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