Wednesday, July 27, 2011



* *  (out of five) Captain America. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel Comics. Directed by Joe Johnston. 

I guess we must be deep in the reserve bench of superheroes to render into major motion pictures, now that it’s down to Captain America. This guy, you might recall, wears a suit of truest blue and throws a star-spangled shield at his enemies. From his conception, he seemed kind of culturally redundant, because isn’t Superman the real “Captain America”, complete with impeccable American bona fides (he’s an immigrant and a Midwesterner) and super-powers far, far more appropriate to a superpower? And as any gladiator will tell you, you never, ever throw your shield at your opponent, no matter how much you might be tempted to.
            But of course, none of that means Captain America must be a bad movie. In the hands of director Joe Johnston, who has produced some pretty good pulp nostalgia in the past (The Rocketeer, October Sky), at least we’re not in Michael Bay territory here. And in truth, Captain isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just terribly earnest, and predictable, and thus kind of dull. (Fanboys feel free to add a star if you’ve read this far…)
            Of the Captain’s origins little need be said except he starts off as little Stevie Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who desperately wants to get into the fight with Hitler. Trouble is, he’s skinny and asthmatic, so he’s stamped “4F”. That is, until his spirit and virtue are recognized by a top-flight government scientist (Stanley Tucci) who just happens to be hanging around the recruitment center, and inducts Steve into a top secret program to turn scrawny kids into super-soldiers. You know the rest. (Short version: fight, arch-villain, more fighting, over-produced effects, evil plan in motion, last kiss, still more fighting, set up for the next movie).
            Now you might ask, isn’t using dubious science to concoct “super-soldiers” really a Nazi thing? True enough, but the difference is that where the Nazis use eugenics and Wagnerian crescendos to “improve” the breed, we Yanks use old-fashioned industrial know-how—the kind with big hearty knobs and chunky, straightforward dials with labels in plain English. We also start with the humblest of material, the guy who got sand kicked in his face in that classic Mr. Atlas ad. In other words, where their “science” is a matter of privilege, we offer equality of opportunity, where any kid from anywhere can become the bulked-up freak of his dreams. Take that, Adolf!
            Alas, while the body of the new Steve Rogers is cut, his personality lacks any edge at all. That’s intentional, because he’s supposed to represent the generation that whipped fascism, which apparently means he’s a reflexively good soul who never indulges in such modern sins as self-consciousness and sarcasm. And if that makes him dull—well, saving the free world ain’t a job for comedians, pal.
            But honoring the Greatest Generation and genuflecting before its altar are two different things. What makes Captain America special isn’t the body that was built for him, but the character he was born with—in other words, the character our grandfathers describe when they reminisce about a better, more honorable time. There are more appropriate places than a mere movie review to discuss such things, but I suspect that if you also sold Steve Rogers a diet of double bacon-cheeseburgers, pushed a deceptive mortgage on him, and told him to go shopping instead of sacrifice for the national good, he’d end up just like us—fat, foreclosed, and selfish.
            In other words,  it wasn’t the generation that was “the greatest”, folks. It was the leadership.
            A more cynical critic might also take exception to the other subtext here, about taking techie shortcuts. For there’s nothing about Stevie’s physical transformation—(except his augmented height, I guess) that couldn’t also have been accomplished with a six-month gym membership. Captain America not only makes getting an artificially enhanced body definitely sexy (the chicks suddenly dig him), it portrays it as consequence-free, with no real side-effects. (Well, except for the immortality thing…) Not necessarily a helpful message for today’s scrawny kids tempted by HGH and steroids, that.
            Chris Evans, who also played Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, gets a second crack at playing a superhero here. But as a guy who gets all the benefits of the ‘rhoids without any of the rage, this is not much of an improvement. Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in the Matrix movies) seems to be trying to inject some fun into the proceedings as Red Skull, chewing the scenery with an accent that sounds curiously like Werner Herzog’s. Hayley Atwell (Brideshead Revisited) is also on hand, brandishing a decent right-cross and tonnes and tonnes of British sass. It’s just too bad they couldn’t transform her into the super-soldier instead.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Volcano Lover

*** (out of five) Passione. Directed by John Turturro. 
Now that the nation is teetering on the edge of a fiscal precipice, why not check out the cultural offerings in Naples--a place that dances literally on the edge of a volcano? This week, Cornell Cinema hosts the Ithaca premiere of John Turturro's Passione, a love poem to the musical heritage of the sun-splashed, forever shabby-chic Italian city (the film is also available on Netflix). Yes, the music of Naples is something usually associated with scratchy Caruso records. But even that sounds better than looking at Mitch McConnell's face on an otherwise fine summer day, doesn’t it?
            With apologies to opera fans, Turturro's subject is the contemporary Neapolitan music scene, so that mostly rules out Senore Caruso. Instead, we get a sampling of the work of current artists, running the gamut from jazz-inspired (James Senese) to reggae (Raiz) to folk ballad (Peppe Barra) to crooners (Massimo Ranieri) to pop (Fiorello). Turturro mostly shoots them in the streets of Naples, the grit and character of which often threaten to upstage the artists. In the case of Pietra Montecorvino, a torchy singer, the artist seems to stalk the camera; in my favorite sequence, an artist named Raiz cruises the streets with cap rakishly askew, eying up passing females as they, in proper Italian style, return the compliment.
            The tone is one of celebration, even reverence, for what Turturro calls "a city painted with sound." Naples, you see, is a place where life and trauma have coexisted for centuries, where the people have learned to sing and smile through their troubles. Whether any of this really makes Naples unique among the cities of the world is perhaps only a question a spoilsport would ask (what Meditterranean city has not had its share of troubles?). What is clear is that Turturro loves this city, and through his passione for it makes us want to love it too.
            And why John Turturro, you ask? This is the guy, you may recall, who has either starred in (Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou?) or played the antagonist in (Do the Right Thing, The Big Lebowski) a number of the more "hip" indie productions in the last twenty years. Yet he's hardly ever the "hip" guy in any of them. Indeed, with his perpetually skewed mouth and jangly screen presence, he's best described as a character actor approaching the iconicity of that patron saint of all twitchy character actors, Steve Buscemi.
            But here he is, strutting the mean streets of Naples in a black duster, sporting some distinguished gray hairs, with a dancer's skip in his step. It's an inspiring combination, for if Naples can turn a guy like John Turturro into someone comfortable in his own skin, so at home around too-cool-for-school musicians and beautiful women, then what might it do for you and me?
            When it comes to the passione of Neapolitan music, it's not always easy to pick up on what Turturro's talking about. But there's no good reason to disbelieve him.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Old School

***1/2  Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Written and directed by Werner Herzog.

According to many experts, it's all been downhill for humanity since we abandoned our heritage of hunting and gathering. Hunter-gatherers, after all, led longer, healthier lives than the vast majority of their agricultural descendants. Anthropologists can always tell the difference between the skeleton of a person who grew his food and someone who hunted and gathered it: the ancient farmer always looks weaker, punier, misshapen from years of repetitive, soul-destroying drudgery. "Diseases of affluence" like cancer and diabetes were virtually non-existent among pre-agriculturalists. And they were probably happier too, with more time for leisure activities like sitting around, dancing around campfires--and making more hunter-gatherers.
            Now the visionary German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) wants to convince us that the art was better in those days, too. His Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a look at one of the true masterpieces of painting made in any age. Chauvet Cave in southern France was discovered only in 1994, and has been sealed off from the public ever since in an attempt to save it in something like its pristine state. Herzog is the first filmmaker allowed inside to document the 30,000 year old works within. Not sure it’s worth your time? Then consider this: quite apart from what it affords educationally, his film also offers a nice, cool, subterranean break from the latest carbon-forced heat wave we clever agriculturalists have inflicted on ourselves.
            You'd think it would hard to make a movie about what is, in essence, just a fancy mural. In an inspired move, Herzog presents Cave in 3-D, giving the viewer a vivid sense of the space and the undulating surfaces on which the paintings were made.  That, and the way Herzog allows his lighting to play upon them like ancient torches, makes this not just an engrossing spectacle, but something like a spiritual experience.
            For these images of lions, horses, mammoths etc., executed with a kind of easy, Picasso-esque virtuosity, were not intended just for someone's sensual gratification. They were also visions of an alternative reality, considered so precious by their makers that they were executed in remote places that never saw the ordinary light of day. Herzog--whose logorrheal attempts at profundity are legendary and only occasionally successful--wisely ceases his narration for long stretches here, leaving his crew (and us) the opportunity to absorb the experience in appropriate silence. Indeed, his reverence extends to the point of not even bothering to explain how the paintings were made, or what they're made of--things virtually always addressed in History Channel treatments of prehistoric art. They aren't missed.
            In addition to the paintings, the cave is a time capsule of skulls and bones left over from millennia of abandonment. These make the place as much a exhibition of sculpture as of pictures, including hanging "ridge-stones" that flow like frozen drapery and a cave bear skull encased in a layer of calcite resembling sparkling caramel. Here again, the choice to present this film in 3D--perhaps the best use of the technique I can think of--enhances this experience in a way that, say, watching Captain America's mighty shield fly at your head just doesn't.
            Are Chauvet's paintings really the all-time pinnacle of picture-making that Herzog suggests they are? Such things are, of course, matters of taste, but for my part the paintings here don't match the dynamism or the colors of Lascaux, let alone (say) the Sistine Chapel, Manet's Water Lilies, or Citizen Kane. Such hyperbole actually does its subject a disservice, for this doesn't need to be "the best" to be uniquely worthwhile. For my part, to spend ninety minutes in the presence of works so ancient, so undoubtedly authentic, is an experience far more profound than anything encompassed by what we call "art" today. 
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Sunday, July 10, 2011

We Are Greece After All [Op-ed]

Are we like Greece?

Perhaps for the first time in American history this question is not being asked about our democracy, our civil institutions, or our place in history. Instead, we’re wondering if this country is, like the inheritors of Socrates and Melina Mercouri, a deadbeat polity teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Greece’s sovereign debt now runs 168% of its GDP; America is far behind at 98%, but somehow that doesn't sound too reassuring. 

Our common problem, some say, is a bloated public sector that taxes and spends too much. Without radical change, like rolling back commitments to social welfare we (supposedly) can no longer afford, America will be forced either into painful austerity measures, or mortgaging our children’s futures. Either way, our fate is supposed to be an ugly one—with riots in the streets, plunging public credit, and a generation of disgusted young people heading for the exits. In other words, like Greece today.

Does this nightmare scenario have any chance of coming true? Interestingly, our American public debt of 98% of GDP is far less than that of some healthy economies, such as Finland (at 215%) and Switzerland (a whopping 379%). Not being an economist, I'll leave that debate to others. But as a novelist who’s spent some time exploring Greek history, crossing and re-crossing the modern nation in the process, I can say that we do resemble Greece in one respect that is even more striking: like the Greeks, we are becoming a people with a pathological dread of national government.

Over there, reaction against broad authority has deep roots. With its convoluted coastlines and torturous interior, geography long made it difficult for Greeks to develop broad governing institutions. Virtually all of the ancient city-states were far smaller than ancient Athens, which was tiny by modern standards anyway. Even when they faced outside threats, as when the Persian Empire invaded early in the 5th century BCE, the Greeks united only with difficulty, and always mistrusted the authority invested in national defenders like Themistocles, Lysander, and Alexander the Great. The kingdoms and leagues that developed in Hellenistic times were institutionally weak—easy prey for the Romans who mopped them all up by the time of Augustus. Theological divisions in the later Byzantine Empire made most of its territories not only liable, but willing to be conquered by invading Arabs in the 7th century CE. The Greek-speaking Christians of Alexandria and Antioch, after all, knew almost nothing about Islam, except that it sounded like some strange variant on their own faith. But they did know they hated those tax-and-spend bureaucrats of Constantinople even more.

Centuries of Muslim subjugation did encourage Greek nationalism, but not necessarily Greek faith in big government. The birth of modern Greece in July, 1832 was midwifed by the Western powers, who immediately installed a king who was not Greek at all, but German. The events of the 20th century, from the fruitless war with Turkey to the fascist occupation to the dictatorship supported by the CIA, likewise reinforced Greek cynicism about rulers from distant places pulling their strings. 

The result on all this history is still stamped on the Greek spirit and landscape. Drive around the country, and you’ll see lots of people living in ugly buildings with unfinished upper floors—deliberately unfinished, that is, because incomplete buildings are not fully taxed. Indeed, dodging taxes is the Greek national pastime, with up to 60% estimated not to pay anything at all. Meanwhile, her citizens continue to reap the benefits of modern infrastructure, health care, environmental laws, public pensions, etc.—all of which cost money the Greek themselves begrudge paying.

Sound familiar? It should. In the US, there's a rising (and very Greek) sentiment that any money sent to government is money wasted, more likely to go to booze and hookers for bureaucrats than the services they're meant for. This is a patently self-serving prejudice, of course -- most taxpayers, I'd wager, would rather believe their taxes go for naught than actually see it benefit people other than themselves. Isn't revulsion against taxes in America -- which are low relative to other developed nations -- is just another way of saying that money spend on anything other than me, personally, is wasted? Yet, like the Greeks, we still expect our highways, food inspectors, and cops to be there when we need them.

American fiscal conservatives have been striving to “starve the beast” of big government since the 1980s . The Greeks have been doing it for generations, obliging their government to borrow more and more to meet its obligations. The practical result -- a public fiscal catastrophe -- is seen roiling the streets of Athens right now. 

Therein lies the lesson. Starving the beast, whether in Athens or Washington, is an oddly Pyrrhic exercise, for nations with weak, penurious governments rarely have healthy, innovative economies. Indeed, past evidence suggests quite the opposite. Historic commercial powers like Elizabethan England, Pre-WWI Germany, and the Venetian Republic all had strong political leadership, each capable of taking resolute action against their respective challenges. For some reason, the illusion has spread among American conservatives and economic libertarians that minimal government somehow must equate with a productive private sector. In fact, this is a false correlation, inspired more by ideology than actual historical experience. Far more often, strong economies have only come with strong, proactive governments.

This was the case in ancient Athens in the late 5th century BCE. That was when a tax-and-spender named Pericles launched some lavish public works programs that caused many ancient Tea Partiers to grumble about the size and scope of government. Pericles got his way anyway, with the fortunate consequence that the Parthenon and other fruits of classical age of ancient Greece actually had a chance to happen. Today, Pericles' "big government" programs represent one of the zeniths of Western civilization.

But Athens' classical moment was brief indeed. Far more often, Greek hostility to joining their resources in a common endeavor led to division, paralysis in the face of chronic problems, and national mediocrity. The classical Greek city-states fell under the rule first of Macedon--a militaristic monarchy--and then to Rome. The latter was not run by free-market libertarians. Instead, the Romans well understood that while government might be a "beast", it was their beast (Res publica, "the public thing").  

In the current political climate, it's easy to dismiss the importance of government. "Shut 'er down!" cried many Tea Partiers last spring, when the threat of a federal government shutdown was narrowly averted. Now, with the debate over the federal debt ceiling coming to a head, maybe it's time to remind folks that there's value in "the public thing" after all. Maybe it's time we started acting less like Greeks, and more like Romans.