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This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on June 14, 2006.

Akeelah and the Bee, and Popular Film Art.

Also, Thank You for Smoking, L’Enfant, Three Times, and more

Akeelah and the Bee

by Daniel Garrett

“Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement. A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.”

—John Dewey, “The Live Creature,” Art as Experience

“The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new. And despite all the chatter about the media and how smart the young are, they’re incredibly naïve about mass culture—perhaps more naïve than earlier generations (though I don’t know why).”

—Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Going Steady

“Like Charles Burnett’s estimable Nightjohn (about the salvation that Negro slaves found in learning to read), Akeelah and the Bee recognizes the class distinctions that are erected along lines of literacy… It would be a mistake to underestimate Akeelah’s story as a do-gooder homily. Atchison depicts the basics of class mobility that are routinely taken for granted—mostly by people who regard their own literacy and self-conscious preference for film festival art-movies as a private privilege.”

—Armond White, “Bee Season,” New York Press

I imagine that great benefits would accrue to impoverished communities if they could find ways to own and maintain land, start and control economies and businesses, cultivate agriculture for food and sale, develop education systems for dissemination of practical information and cultural practices, create medical centers, offer affordable and decent housing, and manage legal and political presentation. I imagine that a cosmopolitan and sophisticated modern culture would consist of patronage of various art forms—cinema, dance, jazz and other musics, opera, painting and sculpture, among them—and patronage as well of developed thinking as embodied in criticism and philosophy. I imagine that human relationships could be improved if we all tried to utilize a little more empathy and imagination when contemplating and responding to people who are different from us, but my present concern is much simpler: to consider a film or two or ten, in the order in which I saw them: Thank You for Smoking, L’Enfant, V for Vendetta, Lucky Number Slevin, Mission Impossible 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Akeelah and the Bee, Three Times, The Da Vinci Code, and Art School Confidential. How frivolous.

Of course, I do not think it frivolous: art, and even entertainment, is a way of sharing experience, meaning, and values; a form of creation and an exercise of craft and an embodiment of beauty; an affirmation of individuality and an offering of community. In the film Akeelah and the Bee a girl learns to respect her own talents and interests, and to pursue individuality, knowledge, public recognition, and success; and her discovery of self and its resources is seen to redeem her community—and that is the kind of story that lasts.

In Noel Carroll’s essay on film form, “Film Form: An Argument for a Functional Theory of Style in the Individual Film,” in his book Engaging the Moving Image, Carroll writes, “Films have many elements, and these can be related in many ways. Sounds may repeat, functioning as leitmotifs. Characters may stand in adversarial relations to each other. This is dramatic conflict, which is a standard formal feature of narrative films. It is a relation between parts of the film—the characters—and what they represent (good versus evil, the Allies versus the Nazis, intellect versus might, and so on). Volumes in particular shots can be in equilibrium or disequilibrium. Scenes may alternate between being fast and slow paced. These too are formal relations. A film may be complex because it has a wealth of different and contrasting characters. The quantity of characters and their clashing qualities are also formal properties of an artwork on the account under consideration” (Yale University Press, 2003; 138).

In Akeelah and the Bee, an early scene shows Akeelah harassed by other students, who both resent her intelligence and want to force her to help them with her school work—she is physically attacked, and in a later scene, once Akeelah has won public acclaim following her participation in spelling contests, one of her attackers cheers her. Akeelah’s mother Tanya also has trouble hearing Akeelah’s request for attention, permission, and support when Akeelah first becomes interested in the spelling competition, but, following a talk with Akeelah’s tutor Dr. Larabee, becomes more attentive and supportive. Akeelah’s story is filled with new associates, new words, new tests, new places; and she is becoming a new person. The elements in her story can be compared and contrasted with some of the elements in the other films under consideration: Thank You for Smoking, L’Enfant, V for Vendetta, Lucky Number Slevin, Mission Impossible 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Three Times, The Da Vinci Code, and Art School Confidential. Such considerations allow for the exploration of film as a multifaceted and popular art: and to essay—to approach, and to attempt to explore—the subject of popular film art involves looking at particular objects of study closely, with interesting digressions, and the potential to discover principles of value. In addition to essaying these moving pictures, sometimes with reference to the work of Noel Carroll, Armond White, John Dewey, and other writers, I would like, as well, to think again about Pauline Kael’s essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” first published in Harper’s magazine in February 1969, an essay in which Kael talked about the appeal, value, and limitations of American and international movies, and the attitudes that are brought to film-viewing and the uses that are made of movies, the irresponsibility involved in watching a film that is part of its liberating pleasure, the appeal of transgression, the identification with movie characters, the relative importance of film technique, and what movie art is. She wrote of the need for facts, for diverse forms of culture. In language that appeared plain, but was not—for its analyses, ecstasies, mockeries, rages, and varied slang—Pauline Kael, a great critic, said yes to both common sense and idiosyncratic perception, art tradition and disposable entertainment; and in doing so she encouraged and encourages individual response. It is individual response that is fascinating—and dangerous.

Thank You for Smoking

Thank You for Smoking, based on a novel and screenplay by Christopher Buckley, and directed by Jason Reitman, is a satire, contemporary, intelligent, and witty, and I was surprised by some of the reviews that seemed to indicate it was not quite sharp enough, suggesting that the reviewers are even more in-the-know than the satirist: which I don’t think is true. The film is about a tobacco lobbyist, Nick Naylor, and his attempts to promote cigarettes in a time when most people are aware of the health hazards. Nick Naylor affirms smoking as a choice, as something that can be done as part of one’s independence, with awareness, and in defiance of authority. The film is also about Nick Naylor’s relationship to his peers—other merchants of deaths, a woman involved with the alcohol industry and a man who works to advance gun sales—and to his, Nick’s, family, specifically Nick’s relationship to his young son, a boy of practical intelligence and emotional perception, someone whose values are being formed by what he is told and what he sees. If you argue correctly you’re never wrong, is something Nick tells his son, a bit of sophistry that certainly conveys the power of rhetoric while not at all acknowledging the requirements of reality or the value of morality. Such a statement within the context of the film asks something of the viewer—his or her own discernment and participation. I’m inclined to think that the critics who didn’t find the film amusing, bold, or pointed enough, to be playing a game that involves ego and perceptions of knowledge (“This movie is knowing?—Well, I know more than this movie”). Some reviewers were more honest and responsive to the film, in my view: “Thank You is a sly, smart and very funny caricature of corporate politics and image culture. Reitman neither takes sides nor holds anyone accountable, a frustration to be sure, but he skewers the spin machine with such wicked wit that you can’t help but laugh at the whole perverse, corrupt culture,” wrote Sean Axmaker in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (March 31, 2006). Kenneth Turan’s March 17th review in the Los Angeles Times also called Thank You for Smoking a “very smart and funny movie.”

Thank You for Smoking (Fox Searchlight 2006)
Thank You for Smoking (Fox Searchlight 2006).

In his essay on film form, Noel Carroll posits a descriptive account of film form as a comprehensive view of all the elements a film contains, and states that “any instance of a relation among elements of an individual film is an instance of film form. On this view, in order to provide a full account of the form of a given film, one would list or summarize all the relations among the parts of the work” (138-139). What that can mean is the provision of a map or a summary of the world in the movie, which if the film is honest has some relation to the world in which we live. “The world doesn’t work the way the schoolbooks said it did and we are different from what our parents and teachers expected us to be. Movies are our cheap and easy expression, the sullen art of displaced persons,” wrote Pauline Kael in “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (Going Steady, Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown, 1970; 87). Pauline Kael wrote about city, nation, and world; and about being, consciousness, feeling, and life. She wrote about individuals—and their faces, voices, gestures, movements. Pauline Kael loved energy, honesty, impudence, style, and wit in movies; and while she did not think all entertainment was art—she thought it self-deceptive to call everything we liked art—she also thought that all art was entertainment if one was intelligent enough to understand it. In her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Kael was attempting to describe the qualities art and entertainment share and our desire for film. She wanted to exorcise—to eliminate—all kinds of unnecessary attitudes and emotions that are attached to film for questionable reasons: contempt, fear, piety, pretension, shame, and vanity. She wanted viewers to accept and respond to films freely. Kael also wrote, “Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again” (88). The forever open question is, What is a good film?

Thank You for Smoking, which involves ambition, conflict, and journey, as the tobacco lobbyist does his work—bribing a public complainant, appearing on a talk show, facing down an official inquiry—shows the selling of corruption and death, and our enthusiasm for what is not good for us. Many of the scenes are of social situations, involving Nick Naylor with business associates and strangers, with the few scenes of intimacy being between Nick and his son as when they travel by car (and also between Nick and his former wife when he visits to pick up his son). Aaron Eckhart, blond, with sharp features, is handsome and trim—and his eyes can be alert, delighted, or full of a wary pain, but what’s appealing about Aaron Eckhart’s character Nick Naylor is that he usually does not pretend to know less than he does—he’s free in that way. Nick Naylor, not only a lobbyist, a public face for a company and an industry, is a father in Thank You, and he has greater financial resources and more useful social contacts than the mother in Akeelah and the Bee, but he seems less concerned with discipline and conveying moral standards to his child—and yet, because of the generally supportive milieu, his son is making fewer practical mistakes than Akeelah, who skips classes and has low grades when we meet her, as she willingly performs down to the level of the other students. (Nick’s village can afford to help rear his child, but I was glad the film did not deny Nick’s son an independent mind.) Nick Naylor is almost a truthteller, but he’s more of a sophist, a knowing manipulator of language. It is nearly a bitter irony that when he tells the truth to an ambitious and inquisitive reporter (Katie Holmes), he’s betrayed and his reputation damaged—except that he gets back at her by admitting on television that she got the truth out of him by going to bed with him and he takes control again of his own public image. Nick Naylor defends himself in an open forum. A self-righteous senator (William H. Macy) opposes Nick, and though he’s right to do so, the senator is embarrassed, subverted—condemned—by his own sanctimony. The senator is one of the figures of power we see in the film, as are Rob Lowe as a movie executive and Japan enthusiast, and Nick’s various bosses. The film, which displays different locations—homes, businesses, public institutions, presents a confluence of social events and forces, including divorce, health concerns, mass publicity, and global culture: and it makes knowing fun.


L’Enfant, by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, two brothers, is about a young Belgian man who goes from a desperate survival mode to imagining the experience and needs of others. That the young man seems at first the most disposable kind of person—a beggar and a thief—and then sells his own child, before becoming—as a result of his girlfriend’s shocked, hurt response—someone on the cusp of being very different is what gives the film a central experience worth considering. The film is about poverty and it is about one man’s spirit. It is about a relationship between two people, a man and a woman, who have affection for each other, and who take pleasure in each other, but who, also, assume, and incorrectly, some very basic things about each other’s values or humanity: and it is about their conflict and attempts at reconciliation. The couple in the film are Bruno and Sonia, played Jeremie Renier and Deborah Francois (and I thought he seemed a little old for the part, though it’s possible to believe that a rough life has aged him; and she seemed perfect—sensitive and sensual and smart in ways that are at once apparent and not fully developed: in ways that are typically young). The film, with its simple story, is then about many things, but this is a film without pretension. It is very slice-of-life.

L'enfant (Les Films du Fleuve/Kinowelt/Sony Classics 2005)
L'enfant (Les Films du Fleuve/Kinowelt/Sony Classics 2005).

The Dardennes made, or released, La Promesse in 1996, Rosetta in 1999, and The Son in 2002. After seeing the film L’Enfant—liking the simple story and its real-world (Belgian) locations; and how naturally the drama unfolds, how that unfolding meant that someone and something that could have received a quick dismissal received the understanding we all want, and possibly are all due—I wasn’t sure whether it was an important film. (I liked it, but I wasn’t excited by it; and I wasn’t sure how good it was.)

I looked, as I sometimes do, for what others had to say about the film (the perceptions of others can stimulate one’s own; and, sometimes, if I think a film is likely to be very important, I may read many commentaries about it before seeing it—I don’t care about surprise: I care about depth, thought, meaning, and I’d prefer not to miss significance). In the Chicago Tribune (April 14, 2006, the day the film opened in Chicago), Michael Phillips describes the lead characters, their situation, and the beginning of the film’s scenario: “…Bruno and Sonia, living from meal to meal and place to place. Bruno panhandles and steals. (The film owes a thematic debt to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, though visually that film was as smooth and polished as L’Enfant is nervous and rabbity.) At the start of L’Enfant Sonia has given birth to their son, Jimmy. ‘It didn’t hurt too much,’ she says. Under pressure from loan sharks, Bruno must raise money quickly to save his hide. He arranges to sell Sonia’s baby to some shady adoption middlemen. He does not tell Sonia the plan. He merely tells her where the baby went after the baby is gone.”

Sonia faints and is taken to a hospital. Bruno begins to realize the meaning of what he has done: Sonia’s distress tells him. Sonia, hysterical, tells hospital personnel and policemen about what Bruno has done: social order, and social power, what they had been alienated from, enter their lives. Bruno is vulnerable to judgment, vulnerable to punishment; and works to get the child back. He is also still involved with his petty thefts. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips writes, “As is usual with a Dardenne film, this one lands on a redemptive and hard-earned grace note. Some will buy it; some will not. The final sequence, which follows a suspenseful, ragged-edged chase down by the river, leads to the one unfettered rush of feeling in the entire picture. It’s undeniably powerful. The Dardennes’ major works operate behind the guise of happenstance and randomness. But little is random. Theirs is the artifice of the real-seeming, and their films are no less stylistically identifiable—and, when you least expect it, wrenching—than those of directors working with a hundred times the budget and a thousand times the calculation.”

Kenneth Turan (The Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2006) describes the Dardenne brothers’ themes in their films as being “the difficulty of being moral in an amoral world and the grinding, unforgiving nature of reality for those forced by poverty to live on the margins of society. These are not easy films to experience, but they are uncompromising and unforgettable.” Turan commends the intense intimacy of L’Enfant cinematographer Alain Marcoen’s style, before concluding about the film’s lead character and story, “Without Bruno realizing it, he has put powerful forces into motion that he can in no way influence or contain. And as he gains a knowledge of how costly it can be to have essential human emotions, the wonder of it all is that he never loses our sympathy or our concern.”

In his book Engaging the Moving Image, Noel Carroll remarks that “our ordinary conception of film form is explanatory rather than descriptive” (139), but is that so? It seems to me that descriptions of plot and theme, actors’ personalities, spoken lines, and distinctive objects all often occur in how we speak and write about films. (The descriptive account of a film by a writer such as Pauline Kael would include comprehensive description, explanation, and analysis.) Noel Carroll affirms the selection of details that express what is perceived as the purpose of a given film. “The form of the individual film comprises the collection of formal choices that enable the realization of its points or purposes,” he writes (141). Carroll calls the aspects of form that work to realize a film’s apparent (or supposed) purpose as what constitutes a film’s functional account: “The functional account says that film form comprises only the elements and relations intended to serve as the means to the end of the film” (141).

What does that mean for a film such as L’Enfant? If its last scene is its destination and also its purpose—Bruno asking about the baby, and the expression of deep, wordless feeling by Bruno, and his reconciliation with Sonia—what has brought them to that place? We do not know the origin of their relationship—not how it began, nor how she began to accept Bruno, a man without work or home, as a lover. We see, at the beginning of the film, her return from the hospital with the newborn baby, and later his indifferent sale of the child, her misery and anger at him, his attempts to get the child back, and his taking responsibility for his various actions in ways that mean he must accept judgment and punishment. If we accept such a reading as an outline of a functional account, must we then leave out some of the film’s early scenes of how playful Bruno and Sonia are together when they stop near a park, or the jackets he buys for himself and for her and the gift for the baby: their pleasure together and his gesture of generosity and sense of style? Must we ignore the indications that they alone are not poor, but belong to a class of those with little financial income, something that suggests there’s a larger system of institutions, relationships, resources, and values that has or does influence them—and so Bruno’s character and spiritual state were not only a result of his awareness or will but of his circumstances?

Although the people we meet in Akeelah and the Bee have money concerns—and commitment to work (and in a few instances, possibly to crime) we do not see the need or desperation that’s present in the lives of Bruno and Sonia in L’Enfant—possibly by now, need is assumed for Akeelah’s African-American community: among other things, that means that there’s less knowledge about working class and poor lives in Akeelah than in L’Enfant: the pressure of class is subsumed in the presence of (Akeelah’s) family and ethnic community. Having a baby is a significant choice, an emotional, physical, and financial matter. One wonders why the couple in L’Enfant have the baby if they weren’t prepared. Didn’t they have conversations about what to do when the baby arrived? Were they too overwhelmed by circumstances to do so; or to make any other choice, such as not to have a child? There is hardly anything more important than the birth of a child, and the responsibility that entails. What to teach? How to love? Do Bruno and Sonia have themselves any family relations or friends? (We see a brief scene with Bruno and a personal acquaintance to whom he goes for an alibi: could that individual have been of more practical help to him?) Selling the baby is a terrible transgression—and a symbolic gesture, more remarkable than simply neglecting one’s child for one’s wants and needs. Was I wrong in saying the film lacks pretension; or is the story we see simply the most effective dramatic presentation of the theme possible? The film’s presentation of reality, with its urban misfits, and Bruno’s quests for money, his sold baby, and then Sonia’s anguish and forgiveness, encourages the suppression of certain very practical questions. I had forgotten: after seeing the film, I wrote in my notebook, “Realistic atmosphere, not action.” Such a perception has more to do with individual understanding of likely human nature than the elucidation of film form.

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta, written by Larry and Andy Wachowski, and directed by James McTeigue (who grew up in Australia), is a movie that stars Natalie Portman as a frightened girl who becomes brave, a girl who has accepted appearances but learns to look beyond them: she becomes a young woman, and a hero. It is the kind of story that has been done before and cannot be done enough: its warning will be always valid, as long as society attempts to impose moral values on individuals. (“Forms are selected because they are intended or designed to perform certain functions,” wrote Noel Carroll in Engaging the Moving Image; 143.) The male hero in the film, V—played by a masked Hugo Weaving—is a courageous freak, alone, nostalgic, and a seeker of justice: a figure that may embody a social truth. He had been subjected to government-approved medical experiments and now wants both justice and vengeance. Stephen Fry plays a television show host who confuses popularity for power, and forgets that dictators cannot tolerate being laughed at. The heavy hand of political power falls on the main characters, the film’s heroes. It is strange to see a popular film that has one hoping for an act of terrorism. V for Vendetta, inspired by a comic book by David Lloyd, is a film that is sometimes too stagy to be as effective as it could have been—in certain obvious ways, such as in the framing of certain scenes, and in the gathering of people to form a demonstration of dissent near the film’s end—but I still found it a vivid, entertaining, and interesting work, a kind of symbolic story of the worst kinds of controls that can occur in a society.

V for Vendetta (Warner 2006)
V for Vendetta (Warner 2006).

The Warner Brothers movie V for Vendetta, which takes place in London, and makes reference to Guy Fawkes, who, in fighting English oppression of the Catholics, was part of a conspiracy in 1605 to blow up the parliament building, is a film with color, scale, and effects that seem very much of the cinema—one could hardly see such a large production, involving various city landscapes, diverse buildings, and movement of vehicles (such as an underground train) and masses of people and other things on a stage, though stage productions have become elaborate, but these specific film elements sometime seem more the expression of expense than vision, though the world it creates seems a gloss of various aspects of social life and politics in history.

“Classical film theory is generally preoccupied with isolating the essence of film—what some people call the cinematic. The cinematic is what differentiates film from some other artforms, such as theater and painting,” reminded Noel Carroll in his Engaging the Moving Image commentary on film evaluation (151). Carroll notes how the desire to define the cinematic by various writers—such as Rudolf Arnheim—often meant that “movement, image, and action” were emphasized, particularly “close-ups, camera angulation, trick photography, visual devices such as fades, wipes, and superimposition, camera movement, and the like,” and editing (153). And Siegfried Kracauer would emphasize the importance of the documentary aspects of photography as a principal factor in film: the revelation of the real. (The first transcends reality, the later embraces it.) Various film philosophers argued for their own view as definitive, but Carroll argues that they confused particular historical developments and personal preferences with essential factors.

Pauline Kael remarked in “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (in Going Steady) that “American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn’t very interesting” (93), and she said, “If a movie is interesting primarily in terms of technique then it isn’t worth talking about except to students who can learn from seeing how a good director works” (97).

V for Vendetta is more attractive than it is visionary, just as it is more intelligent than insightful, if vision means offering a new way of seeing and insight means conveying a rare understanding. How much depth can a movie inspired by a comic book have? I suppose, for depth, in addition to vision and insight, it would have to have clearly drawn characters, dramatic situations, energy, and style—and at least one of these things would have to be really compelling. V for Vendetta would benefit from showing the lives and struggles of more ordinary people—some of the home lives we see are very comfortable. How are public decisions affecting most private lives? The film is a colorful yet abstract allegory.

“We have lots of film categories, such as suspense films, horror films, structural films, trance films, neorealist films, art films, and so on. Nor is there any reason to think that regarding films under these categories rather than others is not often correct,” declares Noel Carroll (Engaging the Moving Image; 158). The question, as he sees it, is how well do films fulfill their purpose; how well do they relate to the category within which they fall. V for Vendetta is a futuristic epic and a story of one young woman’s political evolution and a warning—and it is entertainment. In some ways it is disappointing but it mostly fulfills its purpose—but what happens when we encounter films that do not easily fit the widely known categories, films that have content that frustrates easy reconciliations? Don’t we have to then let the film direct the criticism or interpretation?

V for Vendetta shows explicitly political situations—surveillance of citizens, a strong-arm police force, restrictive policies regarding personal expression (free speech); visual cues for the practice and rhetoric of oppression—but Akeelah and the Bee does not: and yet the situations we see in Akeelah and the Bee—the low funding and few innovative programs for Akeelah’s school, the vulnerability of Akeelah’s family (an overworked mother; a brother in the military; an unmarried sister with a baby; another brother joining a gang)—are a result of history, of discriminating and unsympathetic politics and social choices. What Natalie Portman’s character Evey and Keke Palmer’s Akeelah share is a spiritual journey. (The most difficult thing to watch is Evey’s imprisonment—and its circumstances are hard to forgive even when the lesson it teaches her proves useful.) In one of V for Vendetta’s last scenes, it is obvious that Evey is not the only person who has decided to take a stand. What is disconcerting is that many people have chosen to wear a Guy Fawkes mask identical to that of the male hero, V: it is a sign of solidarity that erases their individuality—before they take off their masks in what seems a transcendent moment in which we see not only ordinary citizens known and unknown but also people who had seemed to have been killed by government forces or paranoid neighbors in the film.

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin is a story of crime and violence, a story of flawed human character, family, gambling, death, and vengeance. It mixes violence, mystery, comedy, and even romance. Lucky Number Slevin, written by Jason Smilovic and directed by Paul McGuigan, stars Josh Harnett as a young man who becomes embroiled in the war between two crimes bosses when he visits New York and lodges in someone else’s apartment. Lucy Liu plays a neighbor of the man whose apartment Harnett’s Slevin stays in: she, as Lindsey, has never been more appealing—sweet, smart, warm, funny. The film seems amusing and stylish. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley play the crime bosses who threaten Harnett. Bruce Willis is a hit man. There is a lot of secrecy and betrayal in the film—dangerous secrecy, brutal betrayal. Near the end, I wasn’t sure that Harnett’s character was admirable: he achieves his goal, a goal rooted in the past, in love and loss, but its calculation and cost says something about his character and makes this a story with a resonance that is almost Shakespearean. However the film’s language does not approach Shakespeare—as the film goes on, and a mystery is illuminated, the dialogue and shifts in action become awkward.

Lucky Number Slevin has a couple of hoods in the employ of Morgan Freeman’s crime boss (one seems an outright parody), and either could be Akeelah’s gang member brother grown older: exercising a force and purpose that are not truly his own. The film is partly about impulses and habits that take on velocity, and reverberations, and create situations that seem fated. The two crime bosses who were once friends and who oppose each other come to share the same end: they have seemed protected and powerful, but when we last see them they couldn’t be more powerless: they are murdered together by Josh Harnett’s Slevin. It seems naïve to complain that we are being entertained with so harsh a vision. Is it?

The relationship between Josh Harnett’s Slevin and Lucy Liu’s Lindsey is the most redeeming thing in the film—they share amusement, attraction, concern, protection, and sacrifice. Lucky Number Slevin’s mix of motives and tones may be a way of answering different film-going wants. There are different genres answering different wants, but some films attempt to reconcile several genres, and this movie seems one of them. “We go to movies for the variety of what they can provide, and for their marvelous ability to give us easily and inexpensively (and usually painlessly) what we can get from other arts also. They are wonderfully convenient art,” surmised Pauline Kael (“Trash, Art, and The Movies,” Going Steady; 99). However, Lucky Number Slevin leaves blood on the floor, and unasked and unanswered ethical questions regarding the choices that Josh Harnett’s character makes.

Mission Impossible 3

Mission Impossible 3 is an entertaining movie about a secret agent in love and trouble, and I enjoyed it and forgot it about an hour after seeing it. Like Lucky Number Slevin and X-Men, Mission Impossible 3 is a fantasy; and the question is what kind of fantasy is it, healthy or unhealthy, one that gratifies what we consider our best or worst or simply most common instincts, one that helps us to see reality a little more imaginatively or not? Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and J.J. Abrams, and based on the television series written by Bruce Geller, Mission Impossible 3 was directed by Abrams, and features Michelle Monaghan, Laurence Fishburne, Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Keri Russell, and Billy Crudup. The movie stars Tom Cruise as the hero, Ethan Hunt, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain, Owen Davian. Michelle Monaghan makes an attractive and well-intentioned, if uninformed, match for Ethan Hunt. Fishburne is wonderful as an arrogant but ethical and witty leader, Theodore Brassel, who oversees Hunt’s work, with Crudup as a second in command (Crudup is not photographed well). Keri Russell’s brief appearance as an endangered student of Ethan Hunt was effective, with her character inspiring concern, admiration, and sorrow. Maggie Q has her moments (of adventure and glamour). I was less impressed with Rhames and Rhys Meyers, though I wouldn’t describe either as bad (Rhames conveys strength, but not sympathy or wit, and Rhys Meyers seems boyish and possibly cowed by Cruise’s presence). The globe-trotting story is full of deceptions and thefts, chases and explosions, and all kinds of hard-to-execute actions: symbolizing danger and courage. It’s fun—and very little of it is of genuine significance.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle wrote a May 4, 2006 online review of the movie that considered its appeal and that of its stars, Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman: “…Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who makes Cruise’s technique look artificial and studied in comparison. But when this fast-paced action thriller turns physical, Cruise closes the deal. His intensity, sometimes unsettling in close-up, is ideal in a fellow running through alleys in Shanghai or dodging missiles or parachuting from a skyscraper.” LaSalle, who approves of the deepening of the relationships and situations that director J.J. Abrams gives the movie, reassesses Cruise with “what a curious spectacle we’ve been taking for granted all these years: a taut bundle of calculation, eternally boyish, always aware of what his face is doing, always insisting that we like him, prodding us with smiles and frowns and a sincerity that almost looks real, the ultimate screen creature.” Manohla Dargis, in the May 5, 2006 New York Times, also considers Tom Cruise’s image and performance, but I found her review closer to the speculation involved with gossip than with the interpretation that forms a basis for film criticism (as when she refers to Cruise’s presence as “the resurrection of a screen attraction who has, of late, seemed a bit of a freak” and refers to the film as “a seriously strange vanity project”). I have not found Tom Cruise’s personal life unusual—whose love life isn’t idiosyncratic, and who doesn’t have quirky opinions?—and I think he’s a dependable and superb film performer. He is not original or profound but he’s astute about the deployment of his own presence and talent.

I missed most of Tom Cruise’s early movies: I never saw Endless Love, The Outsiders, Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money, Rain Man, or Born on the Fourth of July. I recall seeing Far and Away on television but it was not until Interview with a Vampire that I paid any significant attention to him—and I liked him in the things I’ve seen since, such as Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, and Minority Report. I liked the first Brian De Palma Mission Impossible film in 1996: it had a terrific cast—Emmanuelle Beart, Henry Czerny, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jon Voight, with Cruise as Ethan Hunt, and its story was about a traitor among Ethan Hunt’s associates. I thought John Woo’s year 2000 Mission Impossible, featuring Thandie Newton, Dougray Scott, Rhames, and Cruise, and a story in which Ethan uses Newton’s character Nyah to retrieve a weapon from her former lover, was disappointing. There weren’t enough interesting personalities in it, for one thing.

The most intense moments in Mission Impossible 3 are the endangerment of Ethan Hunt’s friends and associates, and his own coming close to death: these are great moments for actors to play, though they are not the main action of the film. Mission Impossible 3 is about the kinds of schemes—and forms of power—that ordinary people like Akeelah and her family are assumed to have no relation to, except as viewers in a movie theater. The figures in the film might stand in for figures in the world, but its plot is, largely, fantasy. Secret knowledge and arcane skills are used against same. Outrageous ambition and greed are loosed upon an unsuspecting world, with only our hero and his associates to save the day. In the film, Ethan Hunt’s attempt to have a somewhat normal life is capsized by unusual demands: the invasion of the powerful, the strange, and the willful. It is almost an allegory for our relationship to entertainment.

X-Men: The Last Stand

I liked Halle Berry in the X-Men: The Last Stand, a movie written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn and directed by Brett Ratner. I thought Halle Berry’s character Storm was well presented as a teacher, a friend, and a fighter. I thought Halle Berry’s lines and the use of her voice—judging, contemplative, worried, soothing, sad, affirming, challenging—were effective. Her very pretty and very youthful face did not always match the rest of her performance. I suspect that she is someone who should not be directed and filmed for her beauty, but for the emotion in her face—a director should always make sure there is perceptible emotion in her face. Else, she becomes an iconic object. (I imagine Halle Berry’s Storm, or her Catwoman, could be of symbolic interest—an obvious heroine—to a girl like Akeelah, a fantasy figure for her.) I think that I liked, with vague disappointment, the first X-Men movie directed by Brian Singer six years ago, but preferred his second, 2003’s X-Men: Men United, finding its plot, about an attempted presidential assassination and the subsequent social paranoia, more interesting. It is good to see again Hugh Jackman (as Logan, also known as Wolverine), though the story this time focuses less on him—but for a few battle scenes, advice given to an insecure student, and Logan’s relationship to Famke Janssen’s Dr. Jean Grey/Phoenix, an embodiment of female or human contradiction (love/rage). Phoenix becomes a destructive goddess figure. James Marsden’s appearance as Scott (Cyclops)—handsome, sensual, unhappy—is even briefer, with less depth, than that of Jackman: Scott’s love and grief for Jean Grey make him vulnerable. There are some very unfortunate happenings in the movie. Its principal theme involves rejection: self-rejection, and social rejection; and focuses on a supposed cure for mutant being—the same differences that make people strange also give them unusual gifts and powers: are the gifts and powers worth the ostracism? The film also shows several betrayals within families and among friends and associates. It is interesting to think about the pain that magic and spectacle might otherwise distract us from; and the movie, to its credit, points us to that pain even as it offers dazzling spectacle.

Akeelah and the Bee

“I think that the good life is a life in which a person lives with a healthy mixture of solitary and group activities. It’s a life in which there is a tremendous development of the mind, an active mind, a creative mind, that’s cultivated, not just in childhood but throughout one’s life. There are opportunities for cultivating one’s life that are actually seized upon. So that the good life involves a continual series of creative and intellectual explorations that tax and challenge the mind. It is a life that’s full of ethical self-awareness and moral self-awareness, and a life that involves bringing young people into the world…For me, the good life includes taking care of children and cultivating the next generation in a very positive way,” said Anita LaFrance Allen, a Georgetown University Law Center associate dean of research and adjunct professor of philosophy, to George Yancy, a philosopher and an interviewer, for his anthology, African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations (Routledge, 1998; 181-182). Allen’s definition of the good life, which affirms the intellect, and individuality and community, and the possibilities of youth and maturity, is noteworthy for not including a list of conventional luxury items—large houses, swimming pools, tennis courts, car, jewelry, furs, fame and celebrity friends—and in the movie Akeelah and the Bee, though we see the cultural and practical limitations faced by the central character, what is offered as an alternative is not material luxury, but a life of the mind.

Akeelah and the Bee, written and directed by Doug Atchison, focuses on a girl, Akeelah, growing up with her brother, sister, and mother, and attending a dilapidated school. Doug Atchison, who made the films Ellen’s Father (1990) and The Pornographer (1999), and whose next film is scheduled to be Spinning Into Butter with Sarah Jessica Parker, Miranda Richardson, and Beau Bridges, participated with his Akeelah and the Bee screenplay in a competition for novice screenwriters, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowship, which he received in 2000. In the film Akeelah and the Bee, the eleven year-old Akeelah, an African-American, is surrounded by harsh, lazy, and mocking attitudes, and, though smart, and an excellent speller, she does not have much encouragement to do well in school. We do not see enough, or hear enough, of what leads to the negative attitudes she must contend with: not only are slavery, social segregation, and ongoing economic discrimination not explored, but the poverty of intellectual life, the paucity of institutions, habits, and manners that affirm intellectual activity in the African-American community, is not discussed. Yet, once Akeelah is asked by a teacher and principal to participate in a spelling bee and does well, and then is aided by a one-time spelling bee participant and professor, she begins to move beyond her given circumstances, and one by one, others in her neighborhood begin to help her. Akeelah is played by Keke Palmer, her mother Tanya by Angela Bassett, and the tutoring professor, Dr. Larabee, by Laurence Fishburne. (Palmer, selected from among more than three-hundred young actresses, gives a “career-making performance,” says Doris Toumarkine in a Film Journal International review, which I saw online June 3, 2006. Toumarkine also wrote a separate and earlier April 1, 2006 article about the film’s development and marketing, which included a special Starbucks promotion.) There is also a good performance by a young man playing a second brother of Akeelah, one who lives away from home, in military service. And Akeelah is befriended by a young speller, Javier, played by charming J.R. Villarreal, who I imagine will have a long career. The school principal, Mr. Welch, played by Curtis Armstrong, could have been more nuanced (though sympathetic, he seems too narrowly focused—possibly seeing him throw an appreciative, then embarrassed, glimpse at a girl’s bottom would have helped). There is not enough realistic investigation of the hurt or the help the girl, Akeelah, has received; and yet I found the film—as simple and as obvious as it is in writing, plot, and appearance—so effective that it made me weep (not cry, but weep). The film is not boring or dull, crude or incompetent, but it is direct and without embellishment; and possibly that helps, in that what is most important comes to us without disguise. I felt as if the film were not simply taking the scales from my eyes but removing scabs from my spirit. I had become used to seeing inclinations toward decadence and degradation presented and affirmed among African-Americans. It has been a long time since I have seen youthful intellectual urge presented as curiosity and talent, as a threat to the mediocrity and cynicism of others, as hope for the redemption of a community.

I think that is something beyond what Variety’s Justin Chang (online March 20, 2006; in print March 21, 2006) described as the film’s “overly calculated yet undeniably potent crowd-pleasing elements,” as some films do speak to the needs of a culture: its intellectual and spiritual needs, not merely its desire for entertainment. Akeelah is the present and the future, or a symbol of it. Keke Palmer’s Akeelah is believable—girlish, confident, shrewd, practical: she knows she is smart and knows in the environment in which she lives that is not usually seen as a good thing. It marks her as an individual, as different—so she does not go out of her way to cultivate her intelligence, until she meets the professor who compels her to see words as part of a larger culture. She also remembers her father, who is now dead but whom Akeelah had found encouraging when he was alive. Fishburne’s Professor Larabee, Akeelah’s tutor, is a kind of surrogate father. Dr. Larabee’s manner—commanding, formal, intellectual—is a rarity; a welcomed rarity. Akeelah and Dr. Larabee spar over her use of slang and need for discipline, and his superior attitude, before truly joining forces: she gives as good as she gets. Akeelah becomes a surrogate daughter for him, and as he lost a girl child, that reminds him of his pain; and there are moments when that pain is vivid—and the film and Fishburne give us a rare view of a sane, smart, strong, and suffering African-American male. However, Akeelah’s mother was a problem for me—she is played by Angela Bassett and is first cold, tough, practical, as she tries to manage her family, and she is exhausted and sad when she remembers her dead husband, and warm and grateful late in the film when she appreciates what is happening with her daughter. The toughness reminds me of women I’ve seen on the street, but it also reminds me of other Bassett performances—and makes me wonder if Bassett uses a kind of withholding, a not-niceness, as a form of integrity (Pauline Kael wondered something similar decades ago regarding Cicely Tyson). I also wonder if this is part of an actor’s resentment of her choice of roles, not merely an interpretive choice. I think we need, too, to see the root of the mother’s attitude not simply in her situation but in her face (is she afraid for, or worried about, her children?). When Bassett’s character smiles near the end of the film, grateful for plane tickets to be able to see her daughter in a significant spelling bee, it is like sunlight after a storm.

Akeelah and the Bee (Lionsgate 2006)
Akeelah and the Bee (Lionsgate 2006).

“Bassett’s character is the classic commotion-causing black mom,” wrote Wesley Morris in his April 28, 2006 Boston Globe review. John Wirt in an April 28, 2006 commentary appearing in The Baton Rouge Advocate wrote that “Playing Tanya, Akeelah’s distracted, stressed-out mom, Bassett is nearly the movie’s villain. As if Akeelah doesn’t have enough trouble already, Tanya is more hindrance than help for her bright child.” How does one see and think about such a character as Angela Bassett’s Tanya in Akeelah and the Bee? Does one accept what she seems to be, or ask more questions, imagine more motivation? I think of James Baldwin who wrote of how African-American actors sometimes smuggle ideas and feelings into their film characters that resonate and sometimes require explication. Bell Hooks in her 1996 Routledge publication Reel to Real, with a title suggesting movement from the artistic and imaginary to the ordinary, difficult, and necessary world, a book that examines mainstream and marginal filmmaking, and includes conversations and essays, Hooks in “The Opposition Gaze” writes about the use of harsh black women figures as points of contrast for other characters. Akeelah’s abrasive mother and the demanding and even insulting Asian father of one of the students, Dylan, with whom Akeelah competes, are imperfect parents, echoes of the real: are they accurate, or distortions of sound and image?

To account for the pain and paralysis portrayed in film, we may have to look again at life, just as John Dewey once suggested that the pleasure we take in the beauty that art gives us also can be found in life, beginning in aesthetic moments (he spells the word esthetic) in our everyday activity: “In order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens: the sights that hold the crowd—the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts. The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd; who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent interest of her goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals. These people, if questioned as to the reason for their actions, would doubtless return reasonable answers. The man who poked sticks of burning wood would say he did it to make the fire burn better; but he is none the less fascinated by the colorful drama of change enacted before his eyes and imaginatively partakes in it. He does not remain a cold spectator,” wrote John Dewey in 1934’s Art as Experience (The Essential Dewey: Volume 1: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy, Indiana University Press, 1998; 392). The question is whether we are able to create and accept arts of truth, even unpleasant truth, as well as arts of celebration or fantasy; and in Akeelah and the Bee there are attitudes on display, such as that of Akeelah’s mother, that are observable in the world. I think of a young woman I know whose mother told her decades ago that she could not be a lawyer because that’s not what black women did; and I think of an African-American mother who told me months ago that teachers at her daughter’s school wanted her child to go into a gifted and talented program but the mother rejected the suggestion as she said she did not want her daughter under that kind of pressure. Whose parents do not cause wounds? Few.

Variety’s Justin Chang, who apparently saw Akeelah and the Bee March 19 at the Los Angeles County Museum before the film’s general release, wrote, “The script overall betrays a weakness for emotional simplification and would feel a lot less manipulative if, like Spellbound, it were genuinely interested in the art and mechanics of spelling. But aside from a few well-played scenes of Akeelah and Larabee studying obscure etymologies and developing mnemonic devices, pic focuses its highly optimistic gaze on the bee’s community-uniting impact, as Akeelah becomes a local celebrity.” I agree that the film makes some of what occurs seem more simple than necessary, but Chang’s emphasis strikes me as out of proportion, especially as the professor does connect spelling—and language—with larger aspects of culture, and the use of language to express self, ideas, and politics, which are more important than an esoteric explication of linguistics. The professor names for Akeelah historical African-American figures and quotes their ideas. (When asked what he thought African-American philosophy was, Tommy L. Lott, who has written on film, philosophy, and politics, answered, “I think it is the study of issues and the kind of traditional thought that has been developed by African-American thinkers, to put it broadly. And that can include everything from music to religion to the Harlem Renaissance to Pan-Africanism, depending on which set of authors you choose to represent those topics,” quoted in African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations; 198. I think that Laurence Fishburne’s Dr. Larabee works as a philosopher figure in Akeelah and the Bee, as a wise man and wounded healer.)

Newsday’s Jan Stuart’s response to Akeelah and the Bee verged on the jaded—as when he wrote, “Atchison goes in with your basic oppressed class-nerd scenario and comes out at the other end with a feel-good Frankenstein monster, stitched together from the recycled body parts of every underdog athlete movie ever made” in his April 28, 2006 review—but the Chicago Reader’s Andrea Gronvall called the film a small gem. Upon the film’s release, John Wirt in the April 28th issue of The Baton Rouge Advocate described the film as great, and declared, “Akeelah and the Bee understands its subject and runs with it, beautifully transposing real-life drama into a moving feature film.”

It is sad to think of how rare such a film as this is. “If Akeelah and the Bee is a generic, well-oiled commercial contraption, it is the first to credibly dramatize the plight of a truly gifted, poor black child,” wrote The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris (April 28, 2006).

Decades ago, John Dewey wrote that, “The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love nests, murders, and exploits of bandits” (The Essential Dewey; 392). That may have been—regarding cinema—because of the evolution of early films, many of which “took their impetus not from the desiccated imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common,” according to Pauline Kael (Going Steady; 103).

Even now, some people do not think of films as art; and those who do often think of earnest films with serious themes—say a story about illness and death, or about history or politics—as art; or else films that express forms of consciousness and use techniques in ways that call to mind other art forms, such as literature or painting; or that lay bare the filmmaking process itself. I hope for a film art that has beauty, thought, and, without sacrificing complexity, is understandable to the ordinary person, but, too often, alienating experiments are offered as art by the critics and scholars who take film the most seriously.

Some film enthusiasts only accept so-called avant-garde and experimental film as serious works (though I always wonder how something in practice for four decades or more can be seen as avant-garde). Alternative, yes; advanced practices, no. In fact, often such work has fewer ideas and much less human experience in them than more accessible and popular films: instead, what they offer is abstraction and a concentration and intensity of focus. These marginal works offer as a main course things that more accessible and popular works absorb or ignore without particular attention. These marginal works often move slowly and stop to look at a particular idea or thing, but what power would they have but for the existence of common film imagery and languages, for popular work? Would they be understood without reference to a larger discourse—as commentary; as repudiation; as supplement? Would these alternatives satisfy on their own? Some film scholars consider the small audiences they form as that of true seekers; and they seem to confuse obscurity for originality, and for pleasure and knowledge they seem to want to substitute intellectual pride, rhetoric, and theory—categories, formulas, generalizations; and, finally, they seem to seek to turn art into a science. (To be fair, the initial development of film was scientific—involving experiments in technology by Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers, Louis Le Prince, Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne Jules Marey, and George Eastman—but science is not art; and it is art, its beauty, pleasures, and refreshment, that most of us seek in cinema: just as no one goes to a piano recital to see and hear the construction, maintenance, and tuning of a piano despite the education that might offer—but goes to hear music.) “When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar” (The Essential Dewey; 393). The problem in such an atmosphere is that the works that do not fit the established and respected intentions and forms, works that are trying to make their own genuine way, may be judged as works that are inadequate or incompetent, even when they are good, especially if they seek to reach the ordinary viewer.

In reviewing Akeelah and the Bee, New York Press’s Armond White wrote, “Atchison’s mostly plain narrative respects universal sentiment, but benignity has become disreputable in contemporary film circles where cynical, pessimistic and abstruse narration are favored. Through its dramatic attention to character and place, psychology and existence, Akeelah and the Bee resurrects a nearly lost idea of what an art-movie really is” (Volume 19, Issue 17; available online April 26, 2006). Armond White, informed by film history, with expansive taste and rigorous if sometimes eccentric and punitive standards, has been one of the most perceptive commentators on films featuring people of African descent, fit company for writers who have commented on film such as James Baldwin, Donald Bogle, Jacqueline Bobo, Thomas Cripps, Norman Denzin, Manthia Diawara, Ed Guerrero, Bell Hooks, Arthur Jafa, G. William Jones, Elvis Mitchell, Gene Seymour, Clyde Taylor, Michele Wallace, Gladstone Yearwood, and Mark Reid.

Mark Reid, in his 1993 University of California Press book Redefining Black Film, wrote about African-American family films made as a result of popular demand, and in response to increased literary production, and with the investment of independent producers, though the films’ distribution and reception were not always assured; and Reid cited as film examples, Take a Giant Step, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Learning Tree. (The irreverent Pauline Kael said, years before in her essay on movie art in Going Steady, page 102, that A Raisin in the Sun offered “the lesson that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family.”) In Bell Hooks’s book Reel to Real (Routledge, 1996), Bell Hooks presents her conversation with cinematographer Arthur Jafa, whose last name is spelled incorrectly with a second “f” in the text (I asked him), and Bell Hooks and Arthur Jafa discuss Spike Lee’s family film Crooklyn and the inability of the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman and other critics to see the mother’s death as a significant event in the film, and the two also discuss the complexity of argument, care, and competition among the family members in the film as something not everyone sees, understands, or accepts. Hooks and Jafa also discuss the work of Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger), and the need for informed, sophisticated criticism. I, myself, think of the family films Sounder, Claudine, Daughters of the Dust, and Eve’s Bayou; and would like to see a wider range of films discussed by critics and scholars. (I do not want or need to read one more essay on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Do the Right Thing, or Menace II Society, any more than I want or need to read one more essay on Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, or The Godfather: especially when more could be written about films such as Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess, Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, Wendell Harris’s Chameleon Street, and Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories, as well as about Laurence Fishburne in Deep Cover and Othello, Angela Bassett in Strange Days and Boesman and Lena, Denzel Washington in Mississippi Masala and For Queen and Country, Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat, Ride with the Devil, and Syriana, or even Sanaa Lathan in Something New, Out of Time, and The Best Man.)

One of the good things about Armond White is the regularity with which he appears in print, which means opportunity to comment on many films. It is often easy to write about films once their importance, main points of interest, and popularity have been established; and harder to establish them yourself. Although I do not always agree with Armond White’s opinions, and sometimes have taken offense from them, I rank Armond White with the great Pauline Kael for his sense of the possibilities and frustrations available in popular film, and for the passion and seriousness and scolding (and scalding) wit with which he approaches it. (White’s anthology of film criticism, and essays on culture and politics, The Resistance, is magnificent.) Armond White, who appreciated the premiere of Akeelah and the Bee at Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca film festival, notes the film’s honesty about class and its multicultural characters—including the Latino Javier and Asian Dylan, among them—and describes how some of the words Akeelah learns (brunneous, synecdoche, enfranchisement, philliopietistic, argillaceous) have meanings that resonant in her own experience, and details how Akeelah’s journey to be with her new acquaintances for study and fun is cross-class and spiritual exploration. White asserts, “American films that examine the particulars of class interaction and education are no less meaningful than European or Asian films that do not. Atchison’s work in Akeelah and the Bee follows the artful tradition of Clarence Brown, Frank Borzage, Martin Ritt, Jonathan Demme and, yes, Spielberg—the American masters of working class experience whose films transcend the socialist sentiments sanctioned in so many foreign films. These directors’ concerns are with issues of humane politics: self-hood and community—virtues our film culture has become too hip, too sophisticated, too racist to care about.” (Spielberg, an American master of working class experience? That’s eccentric.)

For some aesthetes, does the usefulness of a film speak against it? Pauline Kael had a strong moral sense, but also advised against moralistic attitudes to movies, to turning movies into church or school. She thought that people did not have enough respect for pleasure. “Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings,” wrote Pauline Kael in “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (Going Steady; 106).

I can only guess whether or not Pauline Kael would like Akeelah and the Bee. She is no longer here to tell us, and those who found her work entertaining and insightful sometimes wonder about what she would think of the new films we see, she who admired Jean Renoir, Robert Altman, Bertolucci, and Satyajit Ray, and liked then grew impatient with Antonioni and Bergman and Godard. Her tastes included Cary Grant and Marlon Brando, Henry James and Virginia Woolf and Norman Mailer, R. P. Blackmur and James Agee, Aretha Franklin and Streisand, classical music and jazz and rap: and these are the briefest of notes, as she saw, read, and listened widely. Pauline Kael welcomed Cicely Tyson in Sounder, Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, and Lonette McGee in Sparkle; and she considered Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington among the best actors working. She sometimes rejected a certain kind of realism as dully redundant, but Pauline Kael reinvented her critical technique from film to film, using observation, reason, film history, and personal experience in various combinations to understand and explore aesthetics and ethics, performances and plots.

Others simplified what they saw—Pauline Kael did not: she revealed the richness of a film, pointing to its ingenuity and deceptions and the promise or incompetence of its makers. Pauline Kael registered ideas and impressions and noticed complications and contradictions. She had a gift for perceiving tone. Her rigor did not forbid humor or sensuality; in fact, she insisted on the applicability of these responses in recognition of fundamental facts of human existence. Pauline Kael analyzed what was actually on the screen, rather than distorting it to fit academic theory or popular prejudices. Although she pointed out when filmmakers, producers, and even the audience were responsible for the proliferation of bad movies, she reminded us that we could enjoy certain kinds of trash—and their moments of comedy, honesty, or style—but that we shouldn’t pretend that it’s art or discuss it in terms of art (“We are now told in respectable museum publications that in 1932 a movie like Shanghai Express ‘was completely misunderstood as a mindless adventure’ when indeed it was completely understood as a mindless adventure. And enjoyed as a mindless adventure,” she commented about the rewriting of historical aesthetic response, in Going Steady; 113). It is hard to think of a critic anywhere with Pauline Kael’s willingness to look at such a wide range of films, and to see them so honestly. Kael had her own taste, her own preferences, but, where other critics might pretend to an objectivity no one has, she was so forthcoming about her likes and dislikes that one could take them into consideration when weighing her responses. While appreciating directors and stars, she did not kneel to their myths—not for her the elevation of adolescent shoot-’em-ups and blushing celebrations of pretty but vacuous girls (that was the province of aging male critics who resented her forceful mastery). Pauline Kael was prophetic in her recognition of Last Tango in Paris, for the significance of the intimacy and impersonality, the sexual hunger and shamelessness and rage in Last Tango in Paris; and we see now in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy and Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven and other films the revelation of character and feeling in the depiction of explicit sexuality. She welcomed Robert Altman’s Nashville, a film with an improvisational and open style, a style of rambling suggestions and found meanings, as it showed the interaction of personal and public stories with an ensemble cast, a model for independent films. Pauline Kael remains a model of critical practice not only for her criticality but for her capacity for pleasure and truth. I think she would like Thank You for Smoking and Art School Confidential, but I don’t know that—and I can only guess whether she would like Akeelah and the Bee, but I think she would like Keke Palmer’s Akeelah as Pauline Kael liked confident, smart heroines.

I think that the most important scenes in Akeelah and the Bee are those between Akeelah and Professor Larabee, but the freest are those between Akeelah and her new spelling bee peers as they play and prepare. The only reservation I have is that I don’t think there’s a point at which anyone apologizes to Akeelah for how they treated her before she began to receive attention from other communities and television. Often African-Americans resent independent individuals—and then expect those neglected and abused individuals to use their accomplishments and resources on behalf of community: but appreciation for, and exploitation of, success is not acceptance of individuality.

Three Times

Three Times stars Chang Chen and Shu Qi, and tells stories of a man and woman in three different historical periods—1966, 1911, and 2005 in China—and how they seek love from unlikely people, in unlikely situations. In the first, a young man visits a pool hall before going off to military service and becomes infatuated with several of the women who work there for short periods of time. It says something that while he thinks of them, they do not leave an address for him so that he can reach them after they leave. It is their job to be charming—and he takes the state of being charmed more seriously than he should, but he tracks down one of the women who responds affectionately. In the middle story, a mostly silent film with music I thought delicate and entrancing, a woman develops affection for a man, a writer, who visits the house in which she lives and possibly works (the scenes are so subtly handled that it is hard to affirm that this is actually a brothel). It was not clear to me whether she was a prostitute. The film is discreet. The woman had been told she would be allowed to leave when another girl would be old enough, and skilled enough, to take her place—but that girl has received an offer and is leaving first, and the new girl who comes is a child, meaning that the woman is not likely to leave for a long time. Most of that is indicated rather than said, and is more interesting, more suggestive, for the restraint: empathy and imagination attend such restraint. The story was also the one I liked the best. The last story, the one nearest to us in time, is about a photographer infatuated with a young woman singer who is sexually involved with him and also with a woman. The singer seems ambivalent, distant, duplicitous. (I felt bad for her woman lover.) The choice of lovers in all three stories seems a leap of sentiment and will. I found myself wondering if that said something about love—or simply about the filmmaker’s feeling compelled to put at the center of his stories a subject, love, he assumed most people would feel sympathy for. I also thought about how the freedom allowed women increased over the last century—so much so that the young woman in the most recent story seems freed of having a centered or coherent self. Other than that, the film’s images seem discovered rather than created, so that we seem to be seeing aspects of lives and situations that exist even when we are not looking: the images have a detailed and lovely verisimilitude. Three Times is punctuated with shots that in their focus and stillness almost seem abstract. The film did not strike me as being unduly sentimental, though several of the characters were sentimental.

Three Times (IFC Films 2006)
Three Times (IFC Films 2006).

In responding to Hsiao-hsien Hou’s film Three Times, The Nation’s Stuart Klawans (May 22, 2006) wrote about the subtle acting in the film, its visual beauty, the differentiation of its three narratives, historical context and irony, and the desire for and frustration in love. Klawans, among his other comments, wrote about the 1911 story, “The actors (Chang Chen and Shu Qi) are distractingly gorgeous; the setting for this segment (a high-toned brothel) continually catches your eye in rich surfaces, carved, embroidered or glazed; the light, ostensibly cast by kerosene lamps, pools like nectar in the room’s volume, so that it becomes a presence of its own. The camera, as it pans through the space, seems to tug at you with gentle insistence; while the soundtrack’s exquisite solo piano music winds through events, like ivy threading itself into a building. Sensual refinement threatens to engulf the story’s devastating human problem.” It might be said that sensuality—or, the pursuit of desire—is the human problem.

It’s always interesting for me to wonder whether one story, or one character, is able to comprehend another. The woman and man in the middle story, the one taking place in the early twentieth-century brothel, so constrained by their time, have a yearning that makes me think they would have the consciousness to imagine other times, other ways of being. (There is no apparent place for Akeelah and her family in Three Times—though maybe Akeelah might like the music made by the singer in the last story, or maybe she might come to study China and its culture as she grows older.) The form of Three Times—with its three narratives, three time periods—reminds the viewer of the value of perspective and history.

The Da Vinci Code

I felt compelled to see Ron Howard’s interpretation of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, which I understood to be a mystery-thriller partly inspired by speculation about the biography of Jesus Christ and how a possible personal relationship to Mary Magdalene could undermine traditional church teachings. (What compelled me? A desire for mystery and thrills.) Some of the film reviews suggested—and some stated—that the film was one kind of mess or another: clumsy, intellectually incoherent, ineptly acted. I was pleased to find that it looked better than commentators said, it was not dull or stupid, and Audrey Tautou and Ian McKellen and Jean-Yves Berteloot were a pleasure to watch, although Tom Hanks seemed oddly disengaged (he projects no intellectual interest, which is the most important thing he should project as an interpreter of symbols interested in the matters at hand), and Paul Bettany’s murderous monk made Bettany, unfortunately, too strange and unsympathetic to offer his usual appeal. Tautou is charming, smart, sympathetic, and vivid, as a cryptologist reared by an old man she has known as her grandfather and who taught her to decipher codes and puzzles. (Sophie is a daughter who grew up without her father, like Akeelah, and she has to discover her history and determine her own destiny.) Sophie’s grandfather, a museum curator, is killed at the beginning of the movie—the why is a mystery, and the attempt to find out why, against opposition, is the challenge and the source of thrill for the viewer. McKellen is aristocratic, loquacious, mocking, and amusing, as a scholarly man who has long investigated the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and seen that story represented in one of the paintings of Leonardo of Vinci. Berteloot is a servant who looks as if he has more talents than he is using.

The story at the center of The Da Vinci Code does not have to be true: it’s fine if it is pure speculation. Art can give us some knowledge of history and the world, but we are better off in libraries doing research that involves the consideration of evidence. (One smart scene is at the beginning of the film, when Hanks’s Robert Langdon gives a lecture, with photographic slides, illustrating how the meaning of signs are determined by context and use.) What is most important is what people will do in response to what they believe, something Hanks’s Langdon says to Tautou’s Sophie near the film’s end. What eliminates whatever genuine religious power the film might have is not the nature of its speculation about Jesus—whether the speculation is warranted, justified—but rather that no one in the film seems to have genuine spiritual concerns. Religion may be about doctrine and institutions but those have some connection to the spiritual yearning of ordinary people, and without that yearning, without that genuine engagement with the spiritual, with the inner life, with metaphysical questions, it doesn’t really matter what the facts are nor how they are questioned. (It is academic in the worst sense.) The Da Vinci Code works as entertainment, not as the re-imagination of history or religion.

The Da Vinci Code does not seem to me to be at all an important film, and yet that does not seem enough to explain the reviews it has received. Were reviewers responding to the investment of money, talent, or public attention in the film? Were they repudiating a pretension the film itself does not have? The Da Vinci Code begins in a museum, with a man who knows and wants to tell a different story about a part of history that is fundamental to much of European and American culture, and he is killed for that reason. Were some of the critics acting as protectors of a traditional western story? “Most European museums are, among other things, memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism,” John Dewey reminds us in Art as Experience (The Essential Dewey; 394): and the preservation of culture—of objects, but also of stories—is often a preservation of power. Were the critics responding to art and entertainment, or to power? Were they just bored? “The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again,” wrote Pauline Kael (Going Steady; 128). I recognize The Da Vinci Code as a kind of mime of things that have come before, but, to be honest, I did not mind.

Art School Confidential

There were a number of films playing in theaters that I hadn’t seen—Clean, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Down in the Valley, The King, The Proposition, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Somersault, United 93, and Wah-Wah, among them—but I wanted to see something fun that I wasn’t likely to regret. When I first heard of Art School Confidential, a comedy with intelligent themes and a murder-mystery subplot written by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff, I looked forward to it, and then when the film opened and the reviews were disappointed, the film went from a must-see to a maybe-I’ll-miss-it. Avid to see something I thought I might really enjoy rather than something I’m supposed to enjoy because of the calculated effort—contrived script, beautiful cast, continuous action, explosions, and great devices; or because of the typical signs of art—earnest intentions, perverse imaginings, or dreary style of those involved—I decided to see Art School Confidential, I saw it, and I enjoyed it. It is an obvious construction, but one made with some reference to both the contemporary moment and also to lasting concerns about youth, identity, love, sex, work, and life purpose.

I liked Max Minghella as Jerome, the sensitive and skillful young artist who wants to get fame, money, and the girl (Sophia Myles as Audrey, a model and the daughter of a famous artist). Sophia Myles was in Tristan and Isolde and Underworld, and despite her favorable impressions, she hasn’t yet had her distinctive role: here she is a little eccentric without being genuinely unique; and she is an object in the story, not a driver of it. Audrey models for one of Jerome’s classes. Jerome’s work is different from most of the other students—Jerome’s art has concern for color and shape, for reflection of observed people and objects, for order and feeling. Jerome’s work may belong to another, earlier century. I liked Matt Keeslar as someone whose naive painting becomes popular among the other students (they like his work because they think he has divested himself consciously of art history; but, in fact, he has not learned that history). I liked Adam Scott as a student who graduated from the school Jerome attends and since has become a celebrity: in a public forum before teachers and students, he speaks vicious truth to all. I liked Angelica Huston, who is warmly radiant, as an art professor concerned with the timeless aspects of art and the possibility of love, a perspective that is sane and old-fashion, charming and necessary. I liked Jim Broadbent as a drunken painter, a failure and a cynic: he’s a funny and terrible picture of someone whose humanity has been destroyed. The film’s perspective can be read in the diversity of its characters, in its presentation of most of them as both authentic (they are themselves) and clichés. It also assumes either interest in, or patience for, visual art—and it throws viewers a challenge by showing a fully nude male body, that of a drawing class model, before showing a nude female one. (One student artist takes photographs of his testicles and produces colored enlargements for an art project, something which inspired me to double-check the film’s rating: R for restricted.) Some of the art that we see seems inspired by Cy Twombly, Jenny Holzer, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres (here an indictment, not a compliment).

Art School Confidential (UA/Sony Classics/Miramax 2006)
Art School Confidential (UA/Sony Classics/Miramax 2006).

Art School Confidential is a satire and I’m starting to think that even half-successful satire (which is what the film has been called) is better than most other (American) things we’re offered. Satires, in their comprehension of the complexity and density of the world, in their refusal to accept the status quo as inevitable, or in their presentation of the status quo as very flawed, are more intelligent and relevant than many dramas and romantic comedies. “Maybe this material isn’t entirely fresh, but Zwigoff delivers it with the snap of a quick punch to the face—which is, in fact, the first image in the film, and a model for innumerable excellent sight gags to follow,” wrote Stuart Klawans (The Nation, May 22, 2006).

Like Akeelah, the young man in Art School Confidential, Jerome, is influenced by his school surroundings, and he has to choose whether he will create himself, whether he will be the principal shaper of who he will become, or allow others to create him in their image(s). One of his misfortunes is that (unlike Akeelah) he does not have recommended, and does not choose, a good mentor; another is that his desire to please and be placed high in the esteem of others forces an abdication of whatever other genuine concerns he has. He is vulnerable. “At every moment, the living creature is exposed to dangers from its surroundings, and at every moment, it must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its needs,” wrote John Dewey (The Essential Dewey; 397). What if Jerome had chosen the Angelica Huston character as his guide? What if he had chosen to follow his own artistic preferences? In a way, Max Minghella’s Jerome is a recurring young and questing figure: an innocent, coming to knowledge; an apprentice, attempting to learn mastery; a lover, seeking pleasure and happiness. “Pleasures may come about through chance contact and stimulation; such pleasures are not to be despised in a world full of pain. But happiness and delight are a different sort of thing. They come to be through a fulfillment that reaches to the depths of our being—one that is an adjustment of our whole being with the conditions of existence,” advised Dewey (399). Max Minghella’s performance is kind of brave—I doubt that it’s a performance that can or will be repeated (he seems very different in looks, manner, and performance from what he was as the intelligent and irritated son questioning his parents’ profession and secrecy in Syriana, the political drama). There are scenes in which Jerome’s confusion and pain are all in his face. Jerome has an odd and poignant beauty, something that has little or no value in America. It’s an irony that a country with so many blind people dominates an art form founded on seeing—cinema.

What Akeelah Knew

I imagine that it would be easy, if one thought of it, to identify ideas and values and even provable principles, or propositions, in the stories we tell or see and hear. Thank You for Smoking could be said to express the proposition that people will try to get away with whatever they think they can for their own gain. L’Enfant? You don’t know what you have until you lose it. Or, sometimes we need our intimates to be our conscience. V for Vendetta signifies that one person’s rebellion can ignite that of others. Lucky Number Slevin says that one’s own actions inspire one’s fate. Mission Impossible 3 illustrates that we cannot control the existences of others, and keeping difficult secrets from someone you love doesn’t necessarily protect her. X-Men: The Last Stand suggests that differences that are perceived as fundamental lead to conflict and confusion. Akeelah and the Bee shows that when you cease being afraid of your own powers, you can achieve. Three Times, that the desire for love recurs, whether or not it can be satisfied. The Da Vinci Code suggests that through conscious effort and accident the repressed eventually returns. Art School Confidential suggests that it’s always hard to serve two masters, such as artistic integrity and popularity, especially if they are at war with each other. The proofs for these principles are in the stories told; but what’s also clear is that these ideas or principles are not true in every instance—but only in certain situations, under particular circumstances and pressures. A change of situation or stress could render a principle inoperative, irrelevant. I imagine that Thank You for Smoking, L’Enfant, Akeelah and the Bee, Three Times and Art School Confidential are films that people will return to in years to come for pleasure and principle.

Films are a collaborative art, involving writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, production designers, costume designers, set builders, and others, with the funding of production companies; and many of the films we remember were directed by: Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Bresson, Peter Brook, Luis Bunuel, Michael Cacoyannis, Claude Chabrol, Jean Cocteau, Constantin Costa-Gavras, Brian De Palma, Vittoria De Sica, Jacques Demy, Federico Fellini, John Ford, David Wark Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Vincente Minnelli, Laurence Olivier, Max Ophuls, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sam Peckinpah, Carol Reed, Alain Resnais, Tony Richardson, Martin Ritt, John Schlesinger, Jacques Tati, Francois Truffaut, Luchino Visconti, Frederick Wiseman, and William Wyler. Pauline Kael wrote about all these directors. In some cases she affirmed their importance, in some she established their importance, and in a few cases she questioned or subverted their importance—or made them the punch lines of jokes that are likely to be told as long as anyone remembers twentieth-century film. Yet, whatever the final judgment of their work, some honor will go to each of them—and that’s because it’s hard to accomplish anything in art or even in entertainment. Pauline Kael knew that too—her own journey had not been easy, had involved a lot of diverse and even rough work before she became a prominent critic: and Kael, a one-time philosophy student, filmmaker, and manager of film theaters, as well as cook and seamstress, found it difficult, if not impossible, to lie about life or its portrayal on the screen—no sanctimony, sentimentality or self-pity for her. Still, she could laugh—both at and with others. Pleasure was as dependable a standard as any—and more fun than most.

I can only hope that the films I care about are as good as I think they are, and will continue to resonate, among them: All About Eve, Before Night Falls, Boesman and Lena, Camille, Cold Fever, The Constant Gardener, Dead Man, Dogville, Eve’s Bayou, The Fast Runner, Get on the Bus, Gosford Park, Happy Together, Heights, The Hurricane, Lady Sings the Blues, My Beautiful Laundrette, The New World, Pather Panchali, Paradise Now, A Raisin in the Sun, Rocco and His Brothers, Sugar Cane Alley, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and The Way We Were. I have looked to them for art and entertainment; for intelligence, order, passion, style, and wit. One of the things I will remember from Akeelah and the Bee is that when Akeelah first meets Dr. Larabee, a figure of authority, he is working in his garden, and he reprimands her for being late for their appointment and for her use of slang, but she does not accept his judgment as a summary of who she is, and she tells him about himself—she speaks back to authority. She knew she could, and she did—and that’s important knowledge; and even more important—of value, of consequence—is that she knew enough to recognize that the man had something to teach her, and she was willing to learn.

Daniel Garrett is currently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

$ $ $Date: 2006/05/30 20:03:17 $