Arguing About Dunkirk

This film nearly broke my wife and me up. That it is to say, I wanted to walk out in the middle and she wanted to stay. I thought I had seen all there was to see and that the movie was on an utterly predictable course, and Stephanie thought that it was fascinating in the way it dodged all of the standard war film clichés. We stayed.

A lot of people have disagreed about Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic story of the evacuation of 400,000 soldiers from the German-surrounded French town of Dunkirk in 1940. The New York Times praised it to the skies; the Wall Street Journal thought it was a “dumbing down.” The New Yorker was schizophrenic: First it says that there are “many ways in which the film falls short,” but then it concludes that “the movie works.”

Before we continue, perhaps you should look at the trailer so that you can get a taste of what the film is like:

The film follows three different groups of men: a trio of soldiers at Dunkirk itself, over the course of a week; a trio of rescuers, over the course of a day; and a trio of British Spitfire pilots, over the course of an hour. Nolan, in one of his favored gambits, distorts the timestream so that the sequences looks like they are simultaneous, cutting between events that would have taken place hours or days apart. At the end, all of the time-sequences converge.

Several Times commenters referred to this intercutting as “amateurish.” I don’t think things are that simple. First principle of movie watching: judge the film by what the writer and director are trying to achieve. Clearly Nolan is after something more that mere dramatic effect. He seems to be saying that in crises everything feels as if it is happening all at once. He more or less succeeded in this effort, at least for me, although at times I was disoriented, not in the “good” way Nolan intended, but just in a jumbled way. Stephanie and I did not discuss this aspect of the film explicitly but I think we agreed that it was not amateurish.

Another thing that various reviewers and commenters mentioned is that Dunkirk never provides historic context. They wanted to see Churchill or the British high command. They wanted to see the evils of Nazism that the gallant British and French were doing battle with. Second principle of movie watching: make sure you are talking about the film in front of you and not some other film that you would have made. Dunkirk is not one of those war movies that begins with a map of Europe showing the different armies moving in animated arrows. It does have a map, but it’s a simple map on propaganda leaflets dropped by the Germans on the British to make them give up.

Third principle of movie watching: use the categories your teachers worked so hard to teach you in school, for example, point of view. War movies occasionally use the first-person perspective, in which we see the action through a character’s eyes as he is under fire or running away. In these cases, a shaky hand-held camera is usually used. This technique is often employed to portray fear. The first-person is used sparingly in Dunkirk, most notably when we look through a pilot’s machine-gun target sight on his plane.

However, war movies, like most movies, usually use the third-person point of view, in which the camera follows characters around and records what they say and do without explicitly getting into their heads. This is basically the third-person limited perspective. But many war movies mix in some third-person omniscient material. Here is where we get the maps and voiceovers, etc. Cutting to the high command can also be a way to insert something like an omniscient perspective.

Dunkirk is 97% third-person limited, and 2% first-person. It is utterly immersive. We never step back from events and see them from an outsider’s perspective. The closest we get is with Kenneth Branagh’s Admiral Bolton, who discusses the “big picture” with an army colonel whose name I did not catch. (Most of the characters in Dunkirk are not given names until the credits.) But even Bolton is trapped on the pier and might not get away; he is not some posh minister back in London. The only bit of omniscient narrative is right at the beginning where titles introduce the three settings and their time frames.

Here is where Stephanie and I started to part company. It’s not that I minded the immersive aspect. I didn’t miss the omniscient point of view. But I found one scene of men struggling to escape drowning after another a little tedious. Nolan was trying to convey their experience. I got that. But I didn’t need to see it so many times. I felt as if I were drowning. And even Stephanie felt that the Spitfire sequences were too much like a video game. As we’ll see, however, I was missing something big.

Some of the film’s critics are just crazy. USA Today’s reviewer said that the lack of women and persons of color in the story might “rub people the wrong way”! (One of the French soldiers, a face in a crowd, is black, and there are a few female nurses on one of the ships, but they are not really “characters.”) And the Times reviewer concludes her rave review with a bit of raving lunacy when she says that the fight against fascism continues.

This last comment is wrong on so many counts. The Germans are not even referred to as “Germans” in Dunkirk, much less as fascists, but only as “the Enemy” in the opening titles. The rest of the time they are off-screen and are not referred to as anything. Furthermore the Times reviewer is clearly trying to conscript Nolan (who is British) into her “resistance” to Donald Trump. Poor Nolan! Even though he’s British, everything he does has to be about American politics. By the way, such a big production as Dunkirk had to be conceived, written and shot long before Trump won the White House.

Not that isn’t fair to say that a movie is “about” something outside of itself, even something topical. Michael Mann’s fine film Public Enemies, with its cowboy police officers and use of torture, is clearly in part a commentary on the War on Terror. But Nolan is after something more universal in Dunkirk, and we shouldn’t try to cheapen him as the Times reviewer does. Fourth principle of movie watching: Don’t use artworks to advance your own agenda.

So what is Nolan’s agenda? If I had walked out when I wanted to, I would have missed it. Dunkirk’s setting is the evacuation of the soldiers at Dunkirk in 1940, but Nolan is not making a historical film about real events. It’s not a docudrama. It’s too stylized for that, with its grey palette and long sequences of pure cinema.

Nolan is clearly making a universal point about the chaos of war and the existential capriciousness of some aspects of life. But there is something else deeper, even evanescent to it. It is a story about survival, but more than survival. It is obviously about heroism, but not the obvious kind. Yes, the private ship crew that goes to rescue soldiers is heroic. Yes, the Spitfire pilots are heroic just for being there. However, something goes beyond this recruiting-poster version of heroism.

Almost all of the major characters have one special moment of understated heroism or humanity. Nolan doesn’t bracket it. He doesn’t put a halo on it. If you are not paying attention, you may not know what you are looking at. Fifth principle of movie watching: Pay attention to the bloody details! Don’t expect the point to be dropped into your lap.

No one gets up and makes a speech about what they’re doing. Most of them don’t even get to think about it for more than a moment or two. It happens in the cracks between giant blocks of grinding stone.

These are defining moments of character. That is, in my opinion, what the movie’s about. Do you have character, even when you don’t even know who’s shooting at you? Do you have character, even when someone has just killed your friend? Do you have character enough to stay when you could go?

It’s not about self-sacrifice. As the skipper of the rescue yacht says, “If we go home, there will be no home to go to.” Rather, it is about loyalty.

If I had walked out, I would have missed this. Fortunately, my better self made me stay.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge

Science, Womanhood, Beauty–this film has them all.

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You always have to take biopics with a grain of salt–in this case with a grain of radium salts.

I have very little idea what the real Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie was like, beyond what I learned in school and read on Wikipedia. I know that she and her husband Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of radium and that she won it again after his death. I know that she succeeded as a woman in a man’s world and that she survived a scandal when she had an adulterous love affair with a married man years after Pierre died. I know one her daughters also won the Nobel prize. And I know that she did not understand the dangers of radioactivity (a word she coined) and died of prolonged exposure to it.

the real Marie Curie
The real Marie Curie

Marie Noelle’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge is not a naturalistic portrait of the great scientist, but uses her to make a point, which may or may not have been valid in the real Curie’s life. Noelle focuses on Curie the woman. This focus does detract from Curie’s genius. In fact, that is the point: You can be a genius and a feminine woman at the same time. The theme of the picture is “the embodied womanhood of a great mind.”

We see Curie working in the lab with Pierre or by herself, but we also see her in Pierre’s arms. For the Curies, science is an aphrodisiac. She obviously adores Pierre, but in one understated moment we see her correcting a mistake he makes on the chalkboard. The scientific establishment might disparage her as a woman, but the men she worked with and loved treated her as an equal.

Years after Pierre’s devastating death, she finds intimacy again with another scientist (because for Curie a shared passion for knowledge kindles a shared passion for love). Unfortunately he is married–to an “ordinary woman” who cannot compete with Curie’s ambition and brilliance but who does not want to surrender her husband and the father of her children. The lovers carry on their affair in secret. But can a scientist stand to conceal the truth?

Science is hard work. At several points we see Curie stirring a vat of hot liquid. At first I thought she was washing clothes, but actually she was purifying pitchblende to get radium. These are eloquent moments, because they suggest a bridge to Curie’s domestic life. With the help of her sister and father-in-law she raised two daughters. She teaches them science and in one inspiring scene she shows one of them how to climb a rope. This is authentic girl power–far superior, in my opinion, to anything we might get from Star Wars or Wonder Woman, because it is set in the real world.

It took me a while to see how the stylization of the film supported its theme of the embodied female mind. For example, we see a lot of Curie’s body in the movie. I thought this was strange, until I realized that the director (a woman who co-wrote the screenplay with another woman) was not going to let us just see a scientist walking around in a long black dress. No, Marie Curie had a body as well as a mind–a woman’s body. The actress who plays Curie, Karolina Gruszka, is beautiful, but not a mannequin. She is intense and determined even while emotions play subtly across her features.


Karolina Gruszka as Madame Curie

The most striking aspect of the film is the cinematography. The palette is dark and tends toward the blue end of the spectrum. This color scheme has symbolic significance: Dark blue is a “serious” color. Radium glows blue. And blue is the color of the Virgin Mary (aka Marie). Marie Curie is incorruptible like the Virgin Mary, but she is definitely no virgin. This palette, along with the consummate recreation of the places, clothing, technology and even hairstyles of the period, gives the film a “classic,” aged feeling, similar to the effect of the sepia palette of The Godfather. There is a kind of haziness to the light in some shots. I normally don’t like hazy photography, but in this case the haziness acts as a medium in which the actions take place, a medium of time and feeling. The style puts Curie’s struggle for equal treatment, as well as her womanhood, into a credible historical context. This poster captures the visual mood of the film:

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge has an important theme that it brilliantly captures in every aspect of its creation. The real Marie Curie might only have been a jumping off point for its makers, but oh what a journey they take us on.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

The Defects of His Virtues, The Virtues of His Defects

As everyone knows, the novel and film Schindler’s List tells the true story of how Nazi party member Oskar Schindler, though he came to Poland to exploit Germany’s conquest of her, saved over 1000 Jews from certain extermination by using what would uncharitably be called the skills of a con man. A line from author Thomas Keneally’s introduction stays with me: “this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil.” Usually, according to Keneally, novelists write about the triumph of evil, and they choose to be “wise, ironic, piercing, to avoid bathos” when writing about the good. However, Keneally tells his story with a minimum of irony.

In Oskar Schindler, a man of dubious ethics, we do see the triumph of good over evil, not only in that he saved many lives from the evil Nazis but also in that Schindler’s own life was redeemed. And this triumph is pragmatic, not only because we can measure it in lives, but also because it involves a man sliding into good, when so many men pragmatically slide into evil or at least moral compromise. The difference makes us reflect on the relationship of virtues and defects of character.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler

We can put a magnifying glass to this relationship by focusing on character development in literature. (Keep in mind that most people only know Schindler as a character in a story.) A character can have the virtues of his defects, like Schindler, or, as is more commonly the case, the defects of his virtues. Let us first examine the more common case, as it is more straightforward.

The easy example of the defects of one’s virtues from real life is someone who is so “nice” that he, or perhaps more often she, gets taken advantage of. Things in literature are more complex but follow the same pattern.

An illustration of this pattern from classic literature can be found in the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus is a Stoic, a man of high moral character, an “honorable” man, as Mark Antony repeatedly reminds us in his funeral oration over Caesar’s body. Yet, as every point in the conspiracy to kill Caesar and save the Roman Republic, Brutus, in taking the high ground, makes the wrong choice. For example, Brutus’s co-conspirator, Cassius, wants to kill Mark Antony, who is wily and dangerous. Brutus squelches this notion, saying that Antony is only Caesar’s limb, which will be harmless when the head’s cut off and that no more blood should be shed than is necessary. This is a fatal underestimation of Antony, who of course ends up leading the army that eventually destroys Brutus and Cassius. Brutus is, yes, an honorable man, but honor, at least the kind that Brutus values, is not always what is called for in realpolitik, and in this context, Brutus’ virtues contain a deadly defect.

James Mason as Brutus
James Mason as Brutus

An example from more recent literature can be found the character of Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Roark is the walking embodiment of the virtue of independence. He not only does not care what other people think; he does not even notice what other people think. For this reason, he can be quite naïve. He repeatedly helps his college roommate, second-hander fellow architect Peter Keating, with his design projects because he can’t let a bad building be built. This generosity, if that is the right word, gets him into a lot of trouble near the end of the novel but eventually he gains insight into philosophical truth and attains wisdom. But up until that point Roark’s virtues lead him to do bad things.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

Giving a character the defects of his virtues is a good way to build a story around a basically good person, because the defects lead him into trouble, which creates narrative tension. If the author takes a dark, Byronic view of life, the defect can lead to the character’s downfall, although perhaps the virtues redeem the situation, at least in giving the character tragic dignity. If the author takes a more benevolent view, then the defect is a set-up for growth and the triumph of virtues through adversity.

But with Schindler, things are the other way around. Here we have defects that contain hidden virtues. Schindler was an operator, a schmoozer, a sybarite and a man who took advantage of other people’s misfortune. And of course, he was a member of the Nazi party. But these qualities are exactly what he needed to outfox his fellow Nazis. Schindler spent years conning the local Nazis into believing that his Jewish workers were needed for the war effort so that they would be spared from the Final Solution. Part of how he did this was by “partying” with the loathsome Nazi officer Amon Goeth. Part of it was that he was a good liar who inspired trust by displaying geniality. Again these are qualities that would well serve a con man.

That much is plain from the story. What is not so clear is why he did it. It appears that under that bluff bonhomie he did have a conscience and that despite his predatory tendencies he did feel compassion. We see this compassion most clearly in the scene in the story where he hoses down the train carrying Jews to their destruction.

But I have to wonder whether part of his motivation was that he relished the challenge. He was an adventurer in some sense, after all, rather like a pirate. Perhaps he enjoyed the scheming and the trickery. Perhaps he enjoyed walking the tightrope. Maybe he was the Reynard the trickster, who enjoyed fooling the foolish. He may have felt most alive when dancing along the edge. We’ll never know for sure.

One difference between the novel and the film is telling on this point. In the film version, right before he makes his escape, Schindler breaks down and cries. “I could have got more,” he sobs. If only he hadn’t held on to his fancy car and his gold Nazi party pin, he could have saved more lives. He feels guilty for his high living and probably also feels a release from the burden of his actions over the years.

This breakdown is not in the novel, which seems more reflective of the real man. Here Schindler coolly stashes diamonds in hidden compartments of his car and drives off. There isn’t the slightest suggestion of guilt. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Schindler probably felt pride in his accomplishment. Some of this is a matter of interpretation of course, but that is normal in literature.

Sometimes we need heroes who do great deeds, not out of a sense of nobility or altruism, but simply because they enjoy the thrill of the chase. Oskar Schindler seems to have turned his keenness for living, which had been directed at scheming, boozing and womanizing and incorporated a better goal of saving lives.

The hero who performs great deeds out of zest is a familiar figure, at least in popular culture. (Think Robin Hood.) But zest is a morally neutral category. One can murder zestfully as well as save lives zestfully. Up until the time he started saving lives, Oskar Schindler’s zest seems to have synergized with his moral defects (and he remained a philanderer even as he saved lives). But when he decided to do good, his zest largely repolarized and became a tool of virtue. I would venture a guess that Schindler found it more satisfying to be zestful in this way, but the emotional quality is largely the same. This suggests that character is as important as abstract morals, at least in many cases.


The real Oskar Schindler

The view that the high rises from the low is well-known: It is the notion that unites Nietzsche and Freud. But I am not claiming that Schindler sublimated primal urges that were naturally crude. I am saying that personality is made up of half-conceptualized, half-realized virtues and defects that thrust against each other and that when integrated by good or evil intentions can form an exquisite whole. This is the stuff of literature, and I would assert that we need literature as well as philosophy for an understanding of character, in both the sense of characters in literature and the sense of ethical character. But that is the subject of another essay.

Oskar Schindler never did anything else great for the rest of his life. In fact he was a failure in business and at his marriage. He was dependent on the gratitude of those he had saved. But for a few terrible, yet glorious years, Schindler realized himself as few of us do.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with writing Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I don’t think it’s nice to label people. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment almost exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it.

Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 11.22.47 AM

I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are or are not Pretending a false self and sense of life. I didn’t want to rely too heavily on fictional examples because I wanted to make a point about the state of actual Americans. But I’ll share some of them here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about them in real life. Examples: Humphrey Bogart, Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Al Pacino, etc. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil. My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Perhaps the best example of a Pretender character of either sex isn’t American but Scottish: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Watch that movie and you will get the concept.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post Star Wars.

Sometimes you get a Pretender/non-Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearingen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In both cases the Pretender is smarter than the non-Pretender and is either morally ambiguous (as in the case of Doc Holliday) or downright evil (as in the case of Al Swearingen). In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

I don’t mean to say that Pretenderism is a smart person’s disorder. Plenty of dumb characters don their macho or torchy airs. John Wayne’s swaggering characters aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re certainly not intellectual either. But many of them are Pretenders.

John Wayne in Brothers

John Wayne in Brothers

Many characters are Pretenders by default, because nobody could authentically be like that. I am not sure their creators are aware of the Pretender concept. But other artists are aware of it, even though they haven’t worked it out as explicitly as I have. I believe Mark Twain knew that Tom Sawyer in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a Pretender, and I believe that Harper Lee knew that Scout, Jem and Dill were proto-Pretenders in To Kill a Mockingbird.

How about farther back in literary history? Julius Caesar, in Shakespeare’s play, seems to have been a Pretender, talking about himself in the third person and posturing. I think Shakespeare at some level understood the concept. Hamlet, although he pretends to be mad, is not a Pretender, because his act is self-conscious.

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Louis Calhern as Caesar not bewaring the Ides of March

Sometimes I joke with my wife that I see a Pretender under every bed, like Joe McCarthy and the communists. But joking aside, Pretenders are quite common in literature and in real life. You just have to learn how to spot them. And there’s a very good chance you’ve done some Pretending yourself, especially when you were younger, even if that is not your ultimate character type.

The Deception Game

Alan Turing and his friend Christopher are sitting under a tree at boarding school. Alan asks Christopher what he is reading, and Christopher says it’s a book about codes. Alan says, “You mean, like secret messages?” Christopher replies, No, a code is something everyone can hear but no one understands, and Alan replies, Isn’t that just talking? Everyone says something but means something else.

There in a nutshell is the character of Alan Turing The Imitation Game, the new film about the life of the British mathematician and codebreaker. I assume the reader is familiar with the basic story of Turing’s life, and so I will not withhold spoilers.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Everything in Turing’s life (as it is shown in this film) involves deception: He exchanges love notes with Christopher–but they have to be in code. He endeavors to break the German Enigma code, which is a deception. He has to hide the fact that he is a homosexual. He is required to lie about his work during the war and cannot take any credit for saving thousands or millions of lives and shortening the war.

The irony of Turing’s having to lie is that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (although it was not identified as such in Turing’s time) and is not a natural liar. He doesn’t even get jokes, he’s so literal-minded. There’s a hilarious scene where he’s pressed into service as a wing man in a bar and people keep kicking him in the ankles when he almost spoils their lies.

So the open and honest Turing is forced to be deceptive. But can he keep it up? The framing story is how he gets caught out as a homosexual and sentenced to chemical castration for it. Here the movie drops the ball by having Turing tell the story of his wartime experience to a copper who suspects him of being a spy.

The truth is less melodramatic and more poignant. When asked about the burglary of his house that brought him to the police’s attention in the first place, the real Turing blithely told them that a friend of his boyfriend did it. Perhaps Turing got tired of telling lies or perhaps he was such an open man that he didn’t see why he should conceal the simple facts. Either way, Turing suffered terribly for his honesty, and in the end probably committed suicide.

This bungle aside, the movie does have a consistent theme, and that is that some people are too good for this world, a world where, due to the malice of nations, deception is a necessity. God bless Alan Turing.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

Lessons of The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather was one of the biggest bestsellers ever. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part One and Part Two, are often placed near the top on lists of the greatest movies ever made. But is there anything else to these stories besides violence and well-dressed criminals?

The movies – and to a lesser extent, the novel – get to me in several ways. At one level, The Godfather draws me in just because it is about serious people. The Corleone family are very focused on their enterprises. They are not trifling or easily distracted. They deal in matters of life and death, and they generally decide these matters with great planning and deliberation. Things do not turn out well for the people in the story who act impulsively or venally.

Furthermore, the Corleones have discipline. They are trying to get something done and they toe the line in the effort. The Corleones value loyalty to the group. Renegades and deviants do not fare well in this world. In addition, the Corleones have a culture of accumulated wisdom. Don Corleone’s ideas are what steer the family through its trials.

It is a rare thing in a motion picture to see serious people acting rationally and strategically, and even if it is in the irrational context of crime, it is a pleasure to watch. The book, but even more the movies, convey a kind of weight that is lacking from most stories. These people are so wonderfully not frivolous!

You might think that this sort of seriousness might be found in other stories about business, i.e. legitimate business, but there aren’t a lot of examples of this. I can think of one outstanding exception: Executive Suite. Most books and movies about business usually portray executives as ridiculous or amoral. At least The Godfather doesn’t portray its characters as ridiculous.

Nina Foch and William Holden in “Executive Suite.”

In a way, that the Corleones’ enterprise is crime is almost incidental. While they use violence to solve problems, we don’t see the day-to-day criminal activity that is the foundation of the their empire. We don’t see the gambling parlors or the union racketeering or any of the rest of it. We do know that the Corleones won’t touch prostitution or drugs, which makes them slightly less abhorrent, if not exactly noble.

The first two Godfather movies – the only ones worth considering – feature two exquisite characters: father and son Vito and Michael Corleone. (The concept of the exquisite refers to a portrayal of character that is at once archetypal and concretely realistic. Such a portrayal involves the integration of unexpected or even paradoxical attributes. For more on the exquisite, see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

What makes Vito’s character exquisite is the juxtaposition of a ruthless violence with a style of reasonableness and traditional values. Vito is not some Scarface-like screaming maniac. He is imperturbable. He is willing to negotiate. (Although his idea of negotiating sometimes involves making you an offer you can’t refuse.) Further, and this is clearer in the novel than in the film, he is straight-laced about sex – he expresses contempt for one of the other Family leaders for being a pimp. And he does not wish to get into the drug business.

Michael describes Vito to his future wife Kay as a man of great responsibility, like a senator or a governor. And that’s part of the key to Vito’s character: he is the head of a family and he takes care of that family. He has a certain kind of twisted parentalism, as befits the moniker “godfather.”

Another element of Vito’s character is that he believes himself to live in a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world. As a refugee from Sicilian Mafia violence who emigrates as a child to the jungle of Little Italy, he is somewhat justified in this belief. He sees society as a great war of all against all. And the morality of war is different from the morality of peace. In a world of war, it is Machiavelli’s rules that apply, not Jefferson’s. Vito is a lot like The Fountainhead‘s Gail Wynand in this regard.

Vito has no taste for cruelty, however, and although he is quite comfortable with ruthless coercion, he would never harm a woman or a child. He is not a sociopath. He is just making sure that he and his are safe in a world fraught with peril.

We could take the Corleones to be modern-day Medicis, a dynasty using cunning and the occasional act of violence in order to survive and prosper in ever-dangerous times. If Italian Renaissance history is not your thing, we could compare the crime families in The Godfather to the Great Houses of Frank Herbert’s Dune, who are into vendettas, poisons and swordplay.

Lorenzo de Medici

By either analogy the Corleones can be seen as a kind of nobility, at least in the fantasy world they occupy. Perhaps we might see nobility in general as the ability to maintain dynastic survival in a world of violent competitiveness: nobility as evolutionary fitness over the long term. If you are a force to be reckoned with, you are noble, but if you are a wood chip in the flood, you are of no account and are common.

Vito’s son Michael is similar to his father in some ways and different in others, but is still exquisite. Like Vito, Michael is a “reasonable man.” He is ruthless, too. And he does not enjoy cruelty for cruelty’s sake. But he is not rooted in traditional values and except for one romantic encounter, which significantly takes place in Italy rather than America, he is cold. Almost the first thing he does after his father dies and he assumes unequivocal command of the Corleone Family is to murder the heads of all the other five families in New York. This goes beyond what is necessary, since only two of the other families had plotted against him. His father never felt it necessary to be the only one left standing: Michael is driven by a desire for safety, which is nice way of saying that he is paranoid.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

At the same time his men are butchering half the gangsters of New York he also has his sister’s husband garrotted, because he was a traitor. In doing so, Michael wounds his sister enormously. This, Vito would never have done. In The Godfather, Part Two, Michael’s paranoia escalates until he drives off his wife and his adopted brother. Then he has his real brother murdered.

To understand the message of Michael’s life, we might wish to consider a concept that has long circulated through the Objectivist and libertarian worlds: the prudent predator. This type embodies the question: what if you could commit crimes with virtually no chance of getting caught? Wouldn’t doing so be in your “rational self-interest”? I believe the answer to this question to be No. My point, however, is not to rejoin that debate but to note that Michael Corleone is a great example of the type. And The Godfather, especially Part Two, has something to say about the type, because it chronicles what happens to a prudent predator.

The type has been dealt with in literature before. One common device in good stories about evil, like The Godfather and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, is to show that even when evil does not get punished by the law, it still suffers by its internal logic. Call it “the operation of cosmic justice.” It is the operation of this principle that makes the Godfather stories moral, even though none of the major characters is ever tried for his crimes.

One reason why the prudent predator is impractical is that he sees other people not as people, but as objects to be used. This view is not conducive to the good life, needless to say. Michael never gets arrested, but he does become a social atom. He is capable of hurting anyone, even his own brother, and by the conclusion of The Godfather, Part Two, he is a solitary being, living in his beautiful lakeside house with his haunted memories. If the survival of the fittest is the rule you choose to live by, then as the winner you get to survive by yourself.

You might think that Vito is a prudent predator as well, but Vito is too well connected to other people. Maybe his connection to others and his somewhat traditional values are just superficial. Maybe deep down he could become like Michael. But he gets through life without descending to that depth. I would say that this is because he is from an Old World culture.

Vito doesn’t get through life unscathed, however. He is shot and badly wounded by rival criminals because he refuses to modernize by entering the drug trade with them. His traditional values, if that’s what they are, are not enough to protect him from the logic of criminal “progress.” An Old World man like Vito is not going to flourish in the remorseless evolutionary struggle of the New World. But if the modern American world forces a Vito to die or become a Michael, and if that world forces a Michael to become a murderous robot, then can we say that being a prudent predator pays?

So what do Part One and Part Two add up to? Part One chronicles the descent of a once good man into evil. Part Two shows how he suffers due to his fall, while also showing his father’s rise. In the long run, the Medici approach might work for a time among rooted, Old World, types, especially in the Old World where clients look to their patrons with loyalty, but it does not work among “individualistic” Americans, who eventually force godfathers to become monsters. Michael ends up like a shark, the perfectly ruthless killer whose fate it is to swim alone.

At the level of Michael’s character, we could see the Godfather movies as a tragedy. Michael’s tragic flaw is loyalty to his father, whom he sees as a great man. This loyalty is what motivates him to join the family business and commit his first murders when his father’s life is in danger. (Francis Ford Coppola’s friend George Lucas tried to craft a similar tragic flaw for Anakin Skywalker in the second Star Wars trilogy, but it was not convincing.)

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker

So the Godfather stories are at once a tragedy, a portrayal of human seriousness and twisted nobility and a commentary on the prudent predator. Such richness is what makes great art. But there is an additional dimension.

One overarching theme of the story, in my opinion, is the importance of creating a just society. In a society like Sicily or big city America, would-be great men are crushed and have to resort to violence to protect their self-esteem and the ones they love. No doubt some men rose to legitimate greatness from such a milieu, but it probably took a titanic struggle and an almost irrational optimism to do so. It would be understandable for other men to think they had to play by Machiavelli’s rules.

I don’t think that in the end The Godfather is really about crime and criminals. For one thing, the Corleones are a fantasy. Real criminals are almost all thugs, not Renaissance princes. And crime just doesn’t carry that much thematic weight. So what is the story about if not crime?

One way to understand a novel or movie is to look at its social context. For example, the movie The Untouchables, which tells the story of Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone, is “really” about the War on Drugs and how we have to embrace ruthless means to fight it. On the other hand, Public Enemies, which tells the somewhat similar story of Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of John Dillinger, is about the War on Terror and how we have degraded ourselves by the way we have fought it. The Untouchables is from 1987 and Public Enemies is from 2009, and this is not mere coincidence.

The social context in which The Godfather stories were created was threefold: 1. the Civil Rights Movement, which had turned to Black Power, because a number of vocal African-Americans believed that America’s 300-year war against black people was not going to be ended by a few Congressional acts. 2. The Vietnam War, which showed that even the Federal government could not be trusted. 3. The battle against police corruption, especially in New York City, which revealed the dirtiness of the law. (This third story is taken up in another movie with Al Pacino, Serpico.) The Godfather, novel and movies, are a commentary on what happens when the social contract is not honored and indeed is not honorable.

The Godfather illustrates what happens if injustice, oppression and corruption are allowed to create conditions of war in American society. The oppressed turn to violence and domination in an attempt to protect themselves and to establish a reliable social order. A certain type of powerful person will either try to rise within a just society or exercise his power to create a new one, in this case, a society within a society. And such men will exploit opportunities created by society, especially victimless crime, the laws against which are after all another form of injustice and oppression.

These attempts to establish a safe and prosperous zone outside of mainstream society do not work, of course. In fact, they engender something that is as bad as the conditions that spawned them. But ambitious, intelligent and indomitable men will create their “families” or gangs or sometimes even new religions, if they are not allowed to achieve their greatness through normal channels.

But as I say, the criminal class is beside the point: The Godfather stories aren’t about criminals: They are about great men who will not be squelched. They are about 1960s radicals. They are about Malcolm X. If you don’t want a war of all against all, then those in power and those who can influence those in power must establish a just society. That was a message for The Godfather‘s time, and for ours.

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
Malcolm X

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

The Bust of Caesar

About 20 years ago my wife and I were walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when, at the end of a corridor, I came upon a bust of Julius Caesar. It was made about 500 years ago by Andrea Ferrucci. He seemed so real, I felt a jolt when I saw him.

The statue portrays Caesar at the age of 45 or 50, showing some wrinkles, but still quite vigorous. He’s a good looking man: thin, broad forehead, direct eyes, beautiful Roman nose, nice mouth, smallish jaw with a slightly prominent chin and a long neck. He’s wearing a magnificent breastplate with a screaming Medusa – to turn his enemies to stone, presumably – and a Roman eagle.

But it’s the expression Ferrucci gave Caesar that really impressed me. He has his head a little cocked as if he’s curious and amused. His eyes are intense, with creases at the corners and he is looking off to one side as if something had gotten his attention. His mouth is a little compressed, as if he is in control of himself. Overall he looks focussed and composed, but also as if he is able to see the humor in things. He seems self-aware and very confident.

Because of its “casual” posture and carved-in pupils and irises the bust looks less “stiff” than most other statues, more “natural.” Yet it is a masterpiece of stylization. Ferrucci’s Caesar is idealized, compared to the traditional representation of the dictator as balding and maybe a bit past his prime. But the expression represents a triumph of characterization. I don’t know whether that was what Julius Caesar was actually like, but it is definitely the image of some kind of greatness.

The real Julius Caesar is not a hero of mine. He had many virtues, but he was an agent of Rome’s loss of freedom. The person in the bust, however, is a hero to me. You look at him and say “There is a man!” Nietzsche thought the real Caesar was a superman. I’m not sure I buy that concept, but this depiction does make the idea plausible.

However, it’s not greatness or heroism per se that most fascinates me about the bust. It’s another quality, which I have trouble pinning down. I call it the “exquisite.” It refers to a kind of perfection of character, so particular that it could be real and at the same time almost archetypal.

For example, the character of Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, is exquisite. It’s not that he’s morally perfect: he keeps helping Keating when he shouldn’t. And it’s not that he’s psychologically perfect, either. Actually Roark is practically a freak. We’re talking about a man who is surprised to find himself thinking about a woman the day after he first has sex with her. He’s interesting because he’s a freak. What makes him special is he does not start out all tangled up with other people as the rest of us are. He has to learn to be connected. That learning process is an exquisite thing to watch.

Caesar was morally ambiguous and Roark was good, but I even appreciate, if that’s the right word, exquisiteness in the portrayal of evil. In The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey and Gail Wynand are both exquisite characters. Toohey gets the best dialogue Rand ever wrote. Wynand gets the second best.

Also on the evil side, I love Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Ever since the movie came out in 1972, Don Corleone has had a grip on the American mind. For a while, all young men had a Godfather impression. That’s because people sensed, without having the explicit concept, that he was exquisite. Interestingly, there’s a connection between Corleone and Caesar. According to the novel, Vito chose a path of crime because he refused to have his greatness crushed by a corrupt society. Caesar was in a somewhat similar situation. And given his criminal behavior, Corleone is actually reasonable – for a criminal – and his evil deeds are tempered by his “family values.” Corleone is also somewhat similar to Wynand and both are romanticized notions of bad people. Real criminals, of course, are not generally so “pure” in their motives and are not exquisite.

All the examples I have discussed so far have been “great” men, in the sense of being larger-than-life human beings of superior ability. But an “exquisite” character need not be great in this sense, nor a man. Take for example the character of Ripley as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the first Alien movie. She is a thinking person. She is not reactive. She is healthily assertive with the men on the spaceship. But she’s just a second officer on a towing vessel. Still, I look at her and say “There is a woman!” And it’s not just the climactic duel between her and the alien that makes me say so. She’s admirable throughout the story. Sure, it’s just science fiction, but her character is still indelible.

Ripley is still impressive as a great survivor, even if she is not a “great woman” in a general sense. But greatness need not be a feature of the exquisite character at all. Take another of my favorite film personages: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The story concerns a teacher at a private school for girls in 1930s Scotland. Miss Brodie tries to make her charges into something above the run of the mill, tries to bring some refinement into their lives. Unfortunately, this includes showing slides of her Italian vacation when she is supposed to be teaching history. Even more unfortunately, it includes her sharing her admiration for the Italian dictator, Mussolini.

Jean is what I call a “Pretender.” She adopts a false sense of life, not as a pose for others, but to try to become something she’s not. (I write at length about the Pretender type in my forthcoming book Killing Cool.) The false sense of life that Jean adopts is one of “sophistication.” She believes in Art and that all of her little girls are the “creme de la creme.” Jean is an exquisite example of the Pretender.

But Miss Brodie is still a formidable person in her own way. Exquisiteness can also be coupled with vulnerability and then it is a thing so piquant that it’s breath-taking. Look at this painting. It’s the sketch for “Alone Together,” and it’s by realist painter Maria Kreyn, who is based in New York. (The painting is oil on canvas, 20 x 11 inches, done in 2012. You can see more of the artist’s work at www.mariakreyn.com.)

I’ve given a lot of thought to what I love about this painting. I tried to look at it as I did the bust of Caesar. The woman is comforting the man, her fingers in his hair as he lays his head in the crook of her neck. She is not looking at him. She is looking to one side, like Caesar, but I don’t think she’s looking at something specific. I think she’s looking at a source of her own private sorrow. She may share that sorrow with the man, but the pain is her own. She is vulnerable, not controlled: her lips are parted (where Caesar’s are compressed.) He skin is very pale and delicate, also a sign of vulnerability. She almost looks as if she is going to cry, but she doesn’t look like she’s breaking down. She just looks like she’s living with it, whatever it is. She seems present to her feelings. Where Caesar is the paradigm of a person who makes something happen, the woman in the painting is a paradigm of a person letting something happen.

Now I certainly don’t worship pain. But this woman is beautiful in her suffering. I almost imagine that this is a couple who has lost a child.

Some sadness is part of life. The only way you can avoid it is to withdraw from caring in a stoical or Buddhist fashion or to adopt some kind pollyanna-ish “It all happens for the best” attitude. But how much more life-affirming is it to face pain and go on? This painting shows us the answer to that question. That is the gift Maria Kreyn has given us.

It’s very difficult for me to describe exactly what exquisiteness is and why I am in love with. It’s almost a cognitive thing rather than a moral quality: I love the perfect example of some human quality, even if it is not a morally admirable quality or a happy quality. I love how a representation of a person can mix unexpected, even paradoxical qualities and not come out just a muddle. I don’t belong to the cult of moral grayness, but freakish, ambiguous and even evil characters can be exquisitely subtle and therefore cognitively engaging.

Good art shows us what is possible for human beings, for better or worse. The best art gives us not just an abstraction of a single characteristi but a concretized realization, with all the individual notes. Roark is not an allegory of Independence, but a fully realized person, freakish in his separateness, loyal to the earth, naive when it comes to people. The unexpected, yet logical juxtaposition of these traits, and many others, makes him seem real and at the same time becomes a whole too integrated to reduce to a philosophical abstraction.

I would compare exquisiteness to sense of life. You could say that a person has a joyous or a tragic sense of life, just as you could say that Roark embodies the virtue of independence. But the individual notes that make a person unrepeatable would be missing. The joyous person always has something else going on, too: something a little mischievous, some silent wonder, a patient wisdom. The exquisite character is the same way – that’s what makes him a presence.

If I can be forgiven for borrowing a phrase from the creationists, the exquisite character is an example of irreducible complexity. He adds up to something definite – independence in Roark’s case, pretended sophistication in Miss Brodie’s – but he cannot be deduced from that characteristic, any more than a real person can be deduced from a principle. Reality is richer than our concepts, and an exquisite character is greater than the principle he embodies – although he embodies it very well indeed.

The exquisite is a dimension of beauty that counts too, sometimes even more than classical beauty or the sublime or even a moral ideal. The exquisite gives us hope that we will not fizzle out into a tepid gray puddle, but will continue to be interesting and alive. The exquisite energizes the mind by showing it what subtleties it is capable of grasping.

Human beings are the most fascinating thing in the known universe. Their specialness is prior to philosophy and in a way transcends it. Look at how Rand’s positive characters struggle to find philosophy. They are already something beautiful, if sometimes tortured, before they do find it. Roark never does find a full-fledged philosophy, just some isolated bits of wisdom. Ah, but there is a man!

We need to remind ourselves that philosophy serves life, not the other way around. Philosophy helps our natural inclinations find their proper ends, but those natural inclinations and our passion for living do not descend from philosophy—they motivate it. This way of looking at things leads to passion, and it is passion that makes one want to live, rather than merely not wanting to die.

The Reader’s Digest used to run a feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” At the risk of trivializing my meaning, I will say that that’s what I’m talking about: the most distinctive and impressive kinds of human beings, good or bad, happy or sad, pure or mixed. Such characters provide us with reassurance that we as a species are not ordinary, drab and merely “nice.” They are pinnacles.

And now I’d like to know what you think. Do you believe in the idea of an unforgettable character who can transcend good and bad? And was Francis Bacon right when he said, “There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion”? Please leave a message about one of your most unforgettable characters.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

Plutarch Goes to the Movies

Following up on the last post, I’m making notes for a future book on cinema. It’s tentatively titled “Parallel Movies,” and it consists of paired film criticism. (I got the idea from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans.) An example might be Public Enemies and The Untouchables. The former is in a subtle way about the War on Terror while the latter is about the War on Drugs. They have different takes on when it is acceptable for government to cross the line into torture and murder. The former is about a Pretender who stops being one, while the latter is about a non-Pretender who becomes one.

At this point you might think I have Pretenders on the brain! (See the previous post.) Well, I do think that they are very common and the concept will show up in some of the criticism. But other things will be highlighted as well. I might make a triple review out of We the Living, Notorious and Lust, Caution, which all about a woman sleeping with a man she despises in order to gain some personal or political advantage. How does the woman view herself, how do others view her, what happens between the man and the woman? Those are all interesting questions. And what about the underlying idea, which is that for a woman to “give herself” to a man like that is more ethically and spiritually compromising that a man doing the corresponding thing with a woman he despises, an act which bothers the typical male action hero not at all.

Other examples might include Apocalypse Now and M*A*S*H, and North by Northwest and some early James Bond film.

If you have a pair of movies you think would make for a good review, please leave a comment.

The Pretender Goes to the Movies

One problem I had with Killing Cool is that I didn’t want to label living people as Pretenders, i.e. persons who unconsciously assume a false sense of life. I also did not want to open myself up to charges of libel. So what I did was to comment exclusively on dead public figures, like Ronald Reagan and fictional ones like Jem and Scout Finch. At first I felt bad not being completely up-to-date and relevant, but later I was glad of it. I don’t think it’s nice to label living people.

I have come up with a list of movie and TV characters who are Pretending a false sense of life. I’m not sure whether or where to include it in the book. I’ll share some of it here.

Some actors specialize in playing Pretenders. I hope that doesn’t say anything about these actors in real life. Examples: Samuel L. Jackson, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Interestingly, they are capable of doing other things. Take Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. That character was not a Pretender. He was authentically cold and evil.

My favorite female Pretenders are Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Notice how revved up all these characters, male and female are, how self-regarding, how inappropriate in their humor. Those are all marks of the Pretender type.

Some actors specialize in playing non-Pretenders too, although the only example I can think of is Sidney Poitier. Perhaps Harrison Ford would count, at least post-Star Wars. Of the older generation, perhaps Henry Fonda would count.

Sometimes you get a non-Pretender/Pretender pair of characters in the same production. In Tombstone Wyatt Earp wasn’t a Pretender and Doc Holliday was. In Deadwood Seth Bullock wasn’t and Al Swearengen was. It makes for an interesting dynamic. In Tombstone the non-Pretender gives hope to the Pretender. In Deadwood the Pretender sees through the non-Pretender in a cynical way, but also admires his moral character.

There are a lot of Pretenders in the movies (and in books and plays, too). I’ve done a bit of searching and I have yet to find someone else who describes the Pretender type in anything like the same way I do. But artists have been implicitly aware of the type for a long time, since Mark Twain at least: Tom Sawyer is a Pretender, while Huck Finn is not. Artists always know more and can portray more than they can articulate.