Tag Archives: Tony Kushner

Double meanings? Allegories in three films

26 May

These days it feels as if I’m seeing allegories everywhere, or at least hidden meanings and metaphors. Earlier this month, I saw two films that I was sure held double meanings, but a cursory look at reviews failed to find others making the same point, and now I’m wondering if I’m just seeing things that aren’t there, or if reviewers are not writing about this, or if I’m not reading the right people. One of the first people I met to discuss her blogs was a Princeton English professor, but I never thought anything I could say about films would be valuable to anyone. Well, ok, but if so many people are missing the point, is it worth chiming in myself? These films have insightful things to say about gender, class, and race, but insights that penetrate deeper than might at first appear on their surface. The three films are Renoir, Beijing Bicycle (from 2001, but I just saw it on TV), and 42.


Of the three, both Renoir and 42 are biopics, but really only 42 is true to the form. The film Renoir concerns actually two Renoirs, hence the ambiguous title, the father Pierre-Auguste the painter, and the son Jean the filmmaker. The film captures Auguste towards the end of his life, and the son just before he was to begin a career in film. While not having read anything about the film I went in thinking it was a biography of the elder, it turns out to be about much more.

The glorious cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin (who also did the camerawork for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love) actually recreates the palette of the impressionist himself in a kind of cinematic representation of the vision Renoir depicted on canvas. Lee’s use of light and color is breathtaking, and one can only imagine the pressure of trying to develop a cinematic portrayal of landscapes, nudes, and art in general that does justice to not only the painter Renoir but one of the early masters of French cinema as well. With this backdrop, we see the painter struggling to paint his last model, who became romantically involved with Jean and later starred in some of his early films. So the film is largely about transitions from father to son, from painting to cinema as the dominant medium of visual art, and from 19th century to 20th century treatments of women in art – “treatments of” as women continued (and continue) to be objectified even into the 21st century, gazed at, and manipulated, for art’s sake and not. Thinking of women as having been “painted” explains one of the more curious and intriguing moments of the film that involves the spattering of blue paint (which I’ll refrain from spelling out more here). If anything, the film to me is about these latter two themes: how visual art, and male artists’ use of women changed during the early decades of the 20th century, just as the archetypal father was replaced by the more virile son. The ample use of nudity recalls John Berger’s landmark essay in Ways of Seeing on the male gaze, but in this film, written by J√©rome Tonnerre, Michel Spinosa and Gilles Bourdos, and directed by Bourdos, it’s as much about male privilege generally and male privilege in the arts more particularly, which still of course exists today. And while the painted nude still exists as a genre and an art school exercise, painting a nude has been replaced in large part by filming or photographing the nude.

    Beijing Bicycle

Where Renoir is thematically concerned with art and women, Beijing Bicycle is more concerned with the rise of capitalism in China after Deng Xiaoping. I’ve read around about the film, found that it was banned for a while, but haven’t seen any criticism that discusses it as an allegory for the new capitalism. Without giving away too much, a young peasant from the countryside migrates to the city and leases a bicycle for his new job as courier. The bike is stolen, and he makes a deal with his boss that he won’t be fired if he can find the bike again – which he does, in the possession of a student, who bought it from the thief with money the student stole from his father. The peasant steals it back, the student takes it from him again with the help of his buddies, and the back and forth reaches a truce with the peasant and the student agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, effectively to share it. There’s more that happens in the end, which I won’t give away here, but for my purposes, what’s really significant is the film’s clear comment on the effect of the new capitalism on China’s core populations. After all, two of the stars in the Chinese flag represent peasants and students, as pillars of the Revolution. This film (unlike the film with which it normally draws a comparison, the Italian neorealist Bicycle Thieves), shows the peasant and the student pitted against each other by the cynical actions of the thief who steals to survive and sells his goods for cash – the capitalist. The peasant and the student, left to share what property is left to them, namely the bicycle, work out a makeshift arrangement that is good for neither, and the thief (whom we don’t see) presumably makes off with the money. The director, Wang Xiaoshuai, renders both the peasant and the student sympathetic (despite the student’s sins there are still ways we are lead to root for him, especially romantically). But they’ve been robbed of their prosperity, and even their future. If communism had been an ideology that at least professed sharing between peasants and students (at least in the early days), the class struggle has been reconstituted under capitalism such that they are pitted against each other, and even their uneasy alliance ruins both as they are powerless against the more materialist elements.


When I first saw the ads for 42 I wondered, Why now? I was surprised there hadn’t been a commercial film about Jackie Robinson that I had heard of, although he is the subject of arguably the most memorable episode of Ken Burns’s documentary, Baseball. I’m convinced it’s not just a biopic, but a film with a very useful message, because the struggle against segregation and degradation is so forgotten by the current younger generation. But there’s got to be more to it. In a way, the story does reinforce the American myth that one individual can make a difference, that social change occurs because of one person, rather than because of collective action. Look at the way the Rosa Parks story has been cast as the work of one resolute and courageous individual – which she was – rather than considering her training and connection to the Highlander School and hundreds if not thousands of other trained Civil Rights activists.

But why is Robinson’s story so important now? It is the story of one individual who was able to break the color line but only if he could turn the other cheek, and not become angry or strike back at those who oppressed, harassed, or abused him. Then I realized, during the film, this is the same story we are seeing played out every day in the Obama story. The U.S. is not baseball, but then baseball has long been a metaphor for the U.S. I am not inside the head of President Obama, nor can I imagine what he has gone through in his life nor the threats and vitriol he probably receives and that we may never fully know about in the future. But I can only imagine that the reaction to his election must rival that of what Robinson went through – and indeed, even Hank Aaron got death threats on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth’s record. There are levels of hate out there we can only guess at, and they are still out there. If anything explains Obama’s unwillingness to take on the goading, the disrespect dished up daily by McConnell, Boehner, Graham, and others, this is it. It is no secret that what lies beneath a lot of the hatred of Obama and the fear of his “socialism” is still the same old, perhaps more hidden, racism we’ve dealt with for centuries. And if Obama’s legacy really is to open the doors of power to leaders other than people of white European heritage, it’s going to have to be with a Robinsonesque restraint. The long-term goal of human equality may outweigh the short-term goals of trying to score a social justice agenda with a significant amount of economic redistribution. That was the political reality for Robinson in his day and it may still be the political reality today, no matter how much many of us in white America may think we have overcome.

Having said that, I kept thinking how smart Brian Helgeland’s script is. On the surface it’s a straightforward, slightly hagiographic biopic that works effectively without becoming too sentimental or hackneyed. It’s also helped by Mark Isham’s just-right and often beautiful scoring (Isham should give lessons to Hans Zimmer, by the way.) But it’s really a parable for our times. And when I realized this, it made me feel sorry for Tony Kushner, who I think completely misses the point in his discussion of Lincoln on Bill Moyers show, in which he compared Obama to Lincoln as master of the compromise. It’s too soon to tell, but I think it is wishful thinking to compare Obama to Lincoln in suggesting Obama’s compromises will save the union as Lincoln’s did. For me I now consider that the parallel for Obama is not Lincoln, but Robinson. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not just the breaking of the color barrier that links them, it’s the way they have had to use restraint to win. Obama doesn’t have to be a Lincoln to make his mark upon history, and indeed, he may not be – nor is there any guarantee his mark will be great. It is no stretch to say that getting Obamacare passed, or the raid on Bin Laden, may be his equivalent of winning the pennant, not winning the Civil War. Read this way, I think there’s more insight in Helgeland’s script than in Kushner’s, but either way, there’s something to think about as a result of seeing this film. The aptly named 42 is on the surface about #42, but one can’t help wondering if the title isn’t actually meant to draw a link from #42 to #44.

A “Lincoln” for our times?

4 Jan

This morning I heard this interview on WNYC radio, about two new films, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Brian Lehrer was really on today, and he had on two guests, Tricia Rose of Brown University and Dana Stevens from slate.com, discussing not only the qualities of these films but their politics as well. I don’t always agree with him, but this was one of the best discussions I have ever heard on his program.

The discussion of Django Unchained reflected a lot of the discomfort I have felt about seeing it. Both guests asked pointed questions about whether Tarantino has thought through his film, and whether whites and Blacks would respond the same way to the violence, and whether in fact a Black director and writer would have handled the story differently. What struck me as the great unspoken was that Professor Rose had said she initially intended not to see the film, but eventually gave in out of curiosity and a desire to be able to discuss the film. This is not an insignificant point. Tarantino has, in a sense, won. He is a loudmouth who has built up such an influence, regardless of the morality of his films, that he has positioned himself and his work as must-sees, such that he always wins. Everyone, love him or hate him, has to pony up money into his wallet, because viewing his films, because of his loudness, has become de rigueur. Which strikes me as the proof of his commercial dominance, separate from any critical contribution he has to make. The quality doesn’t matter, what matters is that the consumers have to buy viewing rights to the spectacle, just to fit in to the conversation of the day. He grabs attention whether his film is worth seeing or not, whether you like him or not, whether he is moral or pornographic. The commercial industry has made him matter, whether or not he matters artistically, the market makes us listen. This is symptomatic of commercial control of the cinematic artform. Please go away.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s critique of Lincoln could not have been more similar to my own. He was especially critical of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, or ambivalent in much the same ways I am. At the level of dialogue, period accuracy, and character, it’s brilliant. But Lehrer finds the portrait of Lincoln to be hagiographic, and is disturbed by the lack of strong African American characters and Abolitionists. Was it historically true that all the movement towards ending slavery constitutionally was entirely a debate among white people?

When I saw the film, I was bothered by the lack of strong Abolitionists, and particularly by the absence of Frederick Douglass. It is true that the role of Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommie Lee Jones, is pivotal and complex. But here’s the issue I have, and I haven’t seen this addressed anywhere yet. I did see an interview with Tony Kushner on Bill Moyers’ program. Now, I confess I have never seen nor read Angels in America, so I am not familiar with Kushner’s best work as America’s pre-eminent political playwright. But in his interview with Moyers, Kushner justifies his portrayal of Lincoln as the Great Compromiser, one who held to his principles while being able to compromise effectively to achieve what he wanted. Then Kushner draws parallels to President Obama as a brilliant compromiser, admitting that Obama doesn’t always get what we know he wants (e.g. the public option in the health care plan) but that through the art of compromise he is able to bring together the entire country, not just his progressive followers, in moving the country forward. Be sure to read the viewer comments on Bill Moyers’ website – I am not alone in my criticism!

We have the benefit of hindsight to know now that Lincoln’s approach worked, both in saving the Union and in amending the Constitution. Kushner’s implication in the screenplay and in his discussion of Obama is that compromise is an effective, mature approach by a President to achieve social change. Lincoln is a good liberal movie: it shows Lincoln’s effectiveness, his wisdom and judgment and progressive ideals, but it is not prophetic. The film is made to upset no one, or at least none of its white viewers. The ideal of egalitarianism, of truly equal justice under law – which in theory is not that radical an idea – is not part of Lincoln’s agenda. The Radical Republicans are still depicted as, well, radical, and Kushner chooses to promote the portrayal of them as radical, rather than a more prophetic, radical vision himself. And Frederick Douglass and Black Abolitionists are not depicted at all. I had the feeling after watching the film, and especially after watching Kushner’s interview, that as an artist he is saying the mature, even wise political choice is to learn to compromise, to move forward incrementally by bringing everyone along, not to be impetuous and immature.

It may be right and more effective for an elected politician to take this approach, especially in the executive role. And it may be right for a body of people, as the Quakers have shown, to use compromise effectively as a way of building consensus and promoting respect throughout the community for diversity of views, as they work towards social justice. But I’m not sure it’s right for our artists, like our activists, to abandon their responsibility to be prophetic, by which I mean to be the intellectual engines that not only promote change but act as innovators of idea and guardians of our higher conscience. In other words, Kushner is not constrained by the same political realities that Obama is. And leaders must also lead; not all leadership consists of synthesizing opposing views. We need prophetic voices especially in the arts, but also in the civic sphere; where would Abraham Lincoln have been if Frederick Douglass had advocated patience and compromise? And can we picture Arthur Miller, say, offering the sagacious position that compromise is mastery of social change? I look back at The Crucible, All My Sons, even Death of a Salesman, which is the least “political” of the three, and they are absolutely uncompromising, that’s part of their power.

The relationship between artists and leaders, and between artists and activists, are important and critical yet need not always be smooth for us to move together towards a more progressive vision.

It’s easy for me, who have never written anything worthwhile and could never write dialogue like Tony Kushner in a hundred years, to sit back and criticize him for making the thematic choice to offer wise compromise as a political ideal. Yet it seems to me that the role of the artist is not the role of the President. The artist’s role is to take risks, occasionally to be prophetic if the times call for it (or if the artist is trying to create that kind of work), but to be uncompromising, morally as well as artistically.

Our mainstream, well-compensated artists tell us we live in times when to be able to compromise is to be seen as wise and mature. That is a theme, and it is part of a legitimate theme. But it’s not the only way that social change happens, it’s not an insight that moves us forward. It’s an insight that reassures us and cements our national mythology. But isn’t one role of literature, of the arts, in this society to prompt us, to challenge us to move, well, forward?

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