Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Directed by: Mike Newell

Written by: Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal

MonalisasmileA plucky individual defies expectations and sets out to challenge a social inequality. Their mission is spelled out for viewers, particularly in a few rhetorically dramatic scenes.

That vague description speaks to the nature of numerous Oscar-bait films, as well as one film in particular: Mona Lisa Smile. That film is the story of Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), an art history instructor who arrives at Wellesley (an all-women’s small liberal arts) College in 1954 and instantly gets off on the wrong foot.

I mention Mona Lisa Smile’s Oscar-baityness, because it is a quality that can put off viewers just as easily as it seduces award-nominators. I, for one, often find that Oscar-bait films are so expository in stating their sociopolitical theses, that they lose their cinematic magic. I do not feel like I am watching characters engaged in dramas, but mere actors reenacting mundane essays. Mona Lisa Smile is indeed a mundane essay. But unlike the worst baity films, it doesn’t simply try to heartwarm via its messaging. Instead, and rather effectively, Mona Lisa Smile centres itself around its characters.

Katherine Watson’s story revolves around her being a modernizing rebel. She’s an unmarried woman with an education and career, who admires the works of non-realist painters like Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock. But, interestingly, she does not start the film as an outright rebel. Watson only asserts her interest in modern art when, in her first (traditional) lecture, her precocious students overwhelm her by encyclopedically naming everything on her slides and essentially asserting that she is not smart enough to teach them.

From a twenty-first century perspective this is a fascinating scene. I’m used to a college-experience where numerous students avoid doing their readings altogether, let alone come to classes with the entirety of their texts memorized. Frustratingly, the academic strength of Watson’s students is never directly referenced again. Instead it is used: a) as a springboard for Watson to introduce modern-artists that force her students to think rather than memorize and b) as an ironic contrast to the fact that many Wellesley students would simply become housewives after graduating, instead of putting their hyper-academic-strength to work.

The film goes on to explore Watson’s attempt to win over her students, four of whom: Betty, Joan, Connie and Giselle (Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Ginnifer Goodwin and Maggie Gyllenhaal) become the film’s secondary protagonists. The film’s ambitious commitment to telling numerous stories keeps it compelling and makes its conclusion truly touching. It is also, however, the culprit behind the film’s baity feel.   In order to advance the plot, the film quickly rejects the implications of that first class: that all of Watson’s students are precocious and hard to reach. Joan, and Connie are portrayed as kind souls who quickly embrace Watson’s methods, while the sexually-liberated Giselle has even more reason to do so. While all of these characters have touching scenes (the comparatively low stakes of Connie’s subplot, I would argue, are particular essential to the film’s success), there is a chance some viewers will find their scenes to be to feel-good and not sufficiently organic.

Mona Lisa Smile focuses on a part of sexism’s history that is specific enough that it will prove new to many viewers: the idea that, in the 1950s, even  elite colleges pushed women towards traditional gender roles. At times, the pacing of this exploration is questionable. In an attempt to add nuance to its story, the film’s plot forces Katherine to accept (eg in a scene where is lectured about it by her boyfriend) that one of her students genuinely wants to be a housewife. While I don’t reject the premise that some women might prefer household work to having a career, the film’s simplistic both-sides-ism ignores that it is possible for an individual to claim they are making a free choice, even as their freedom is constrained by coercive social norms.

But as I’ve said before, Mona Lisa Smile manages to make up in character work, for some of its shortcomings in political analysis. The film’s “antagonist” is the soon-to-be-married Betty, who uses her connections and position in the student press to advocate for social-conservatism. Betty’s portrayal is illustrative of the fact that socially-conservative ideas aren’t just maintained by unthinking stooges, but also by troubled intellectuals.

The actual Mona Lisa’s smile is not something an ordinary viewer would notice. Its uniqueness is something non-art-historians have to be taught to see. Mona Lisa Smile is not as subtle as Mona Lisa’s smile. Its celebration of rebellious women academics is plain as day. Then again, maybe there’s more to the movie than its thesis. Perhaps there is a subtler smile between its lines.

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Written and directed by: David Robert Mitchell 

Under_the_Silver_Lake               Sometimes a movie captures your imagination because of its subject matter. Sometimes it seduces with cinematography. Sometimes eccentric characters do the trick. Under the Silver Lake is by no means devoid of such trappings, but they don’t begin to describes its memorability. This particular film, does not so much seduce as overwhelm. And in this case, being overwhelmed is a thoroughly satisfying feeling.

Under the Silver Lake follows Sam (Andrew Garfield), a young man on the verge of eviction for non-payment of rent. One of the first things we learn about Sam is that he practices voyeurism, using binoculars to spy on his semi-clothed women neighbors. This initial gendered-plot set-up proceeds to fade into the film’s overall plot soup. Sam eventually meets and appears to initiate a relationship with one of the women he spies on, Sarah (Riley Keough), before she mysteriously disappears leaving Sam to seek out her whereabouts.

Over the course of his story Sam meets a number of people and ends up on a series of escapades, some of which seem climatic but do not bring the film to its conclusion. While regularly engaging, Under the Silver Lake’s exact aesthetic wavers between modern-class-ambiguous-Great Gatsby and one of outright magical realism. As it goes through its various oscillations Under the Silver Lake overwhelms, not just through its shear volume of content, but through its ability to reference itself. Each self-reference sets viewers up to think the film’s plot is about to become clear, but that’s never quite the case.

Upon discussing the film with a fellow blogger, I was told that the confusion behind the film’s meaning owes to the fact that that’s what the film is about: falsely seeking out meaning. That’s certainly one lens through which the film can be examined, though I, for one, am not satisfied with it. Mitchell’s world is too lively and imaginative for it all just to exist for the sake of a cop-out, “hah, you fell for that!” punch-line.

Meanwhile, I left the film confused by the relevance of its initial theme of the male gaze, one that recurs through the behaviour of different characters throughout the movie. The film’s tone in its early moments makes clear that it is not apologizing for Sam’ voyeurism, yet its script also fails to show Sam the error of his ways. The closest thing the film offers to a trajectory on this issue is in following Sam on a journey through which he goes from objectifying a woman, to trying to save her (interpret the word “save” as you will) in a chaotic, perhaps oblivious or uncaring society.

For me, Under the Silver Lake’s themes become most compelling when one filters them through the lens of Sam’s impending eviction. The film shows Sam both as a selfish voyeur and as a wannabe hero on a mission. He is never shown in the middle ground position of being calm and casually decent. Well, there’s a glimpse of him when he briefly is, but this moment only comes when the eviction issue appears to have been resolved. In other words, perhaps the film is saying that both selfishness and selflessness are two sides of the same coin: both products of a sick society that we can’t count on to take care of others and ourselves. Sam is sometimes selfish, and sometimes recklessly selfless, because societal pressures give him the illusion that he has to be one extreme or the other.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Directed by: Spike Lee Written by: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Wilmott and Lee, 

BlacKkKlansmanGoing into BlacKkKlansman I knew the film had been the subject of a public exchange between Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, and the film’s own director Spike Lee. I opted not to read the exchange before seeing the movie and I think that was the the right decision. I’ll elaborate on that later.

BlacKkKlansman opens with a depiction of a southern political figure filming a racist rant (with stylistic reference to Bill O’Reilly’s “fuck it we’ll do it live” clip). The film’s main story than begins with the caption “this joint is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.”

I should clarify that while I’m glad I didn’t read the Boots Riley-Spike Lee exchange before seeing the movie, I’m glad I knew it happened. BlacKkKlansman’s (second) opening scene is one of its strongest, and it bears decent resemblance to the opening of Sorry to Bother You. Both scenes depict job interviews, border on fourth-wall breaking and address social issues. Furthermore, the characters in both scenes do not suppress themselves, instead cooly acknowledging the social dynamics at play. In the context of BlacKkKlansman, this sets up a quasi-cartoonish affect (the cartoonishness of Sorry to Bother You isn’t subtle).

The film’s protagonist, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) does not come across as your typical cop. Rarely seen in a uniform, his out-of-placeness is immistakable. This is one of the reasons why the “this is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” tagline is important. Through this seemingly cartoonish depiction, Lee and Washington portray just how out of place a black cop can feel and how subversive hiring a black cop in Colorado Springs in the 1970s was (or at least could have been).

The film quickly depicts Stallworth’s emergence on the force. He is seen working in a files room where he expresses discomfort with the dehumanizing way his fellow officers talk about (black) convicts. He eventually works his way up into the intelligence unit, only to find out that this line of work involves spying on black activists. Black KkKlansman however is merciful to its protagonist, giving him the conviction and luck to work his way out of these assignments and into a position where he can do what he wants (and what he seemingly joined the police to do): to spy on the Klan.

The middle of the film introduces Ron to Black Panther-inspired Black Student Association leader Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a number of Klan members (Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold and Paul Walter Hauser). Patrice is a bit of caricature, and the Klan members, while not caricatures, can feel cartoonish, especially from the perspective of a naïve liberal viewer. The Klan cast is further embellished by the presence of one of their folksy but equally racist wives, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). As Lee builds the universe of 1970s Colorado Springs, we are introduced to one larger-than-life event after another and again it is all “fo’ real.”

In addition to working as a compelling aesthetic, Lee’s “you wouldn’t believe this shit”-realism also sheds an interesting light on the present. The film makes numerous unsubtle allusions to the Trump era, and while that in itself may not make for original satire, what  the script cleverly does is expose the evolution of racism from the over the top rhetoric of the Klan do the dog-whistles of Trump: in other words it shows how shit you wouldn’t believe becomes shit that’s all too believeable.

Overall BlacKkKlansman is an enjoyable work, though I believe it wavers a bit in what its vision is. Unlike some of Lee’s other works it follows a dramatic and conventional plot arc. Given its topic one might think its writers had an Oscar-esque vision(it’s worth noting Lee did not write the original pitch). This clashes a bit with what I see as BlacKkKlansman’s more Sorry to Bother You-like (perhaps Brechtian) vision. Lee’s version of Ron Stallworth is a black man who joins a police force, despite knowing all to well that that is a bad idea. On top of that, this character seems to do so with the sole vision of using his police powers to fight racism, trying to avoid less comfortable police assignments like narcotics and spying on radicals Stallworth, in other words, is an amusing, though topical, comic-book hero. This part of his character is undermined by the Oscar-y side of BlacKkKlansman. Near the end of the film, Stallworth confesses that he’s always wanted to be a cop. With this line we’re robbed of an understanding of Stallworth as a gutsy activist who uses a police job to achieve his own heroic ends. Instead we’re told what we’ve watched is the liberal feel-good story of a cop who made his dreams come true and made a police department a little better.

Not all of BlacKkKlansman’s more Oscarish elements are for the worst. The film’s secondary protagonist, Officer Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) forms an unlikely bond with Stallworth as he comes to realize the ways he is both white and not-white in the eyes of the Klan. While his moral development is subtle, he is undoubtedly one of the film’s most compelling characters. Also interesting is the Klan member who ends up being the leading villain: a character driven not so much by the Klan’s ideology but by a search for validation from one of its members.

I said at the beginning of this review that I’m glad I knew about the Riley-Lee debate but hadn’t read it before seeing the movie. I knew that Riley was unhappy that an anti-racist film could portray police in a heroic light, and in some ways I found that to be a valid criticism. The film includes a minor subplot about a “bad apple” cop, arguably distracting from the view that police department racism extends beyond individuals. Otherwise, however, I came up with what felt like a satisfying defence of Lee’s approach. There’s a scene in BlacKkKlansman in which Patrice says she is ok with black cops in blacksploitation films because these characters are “fantasies.” I read this scene as a wink to the audience about BlacKkKlansman’s intent: to create a serious movie, but one with a cartoonish hero whose tale is not representative of cops in general.

When I looked up Lee’s reaction to Riley’s comment, however, I was disappointed. The reaction was seemingly a single line in an interview in which he said “look at my films, they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt.” This kind of response misses the point as to why many see the police as an innately racist institution. The systemic racism of police forces is based on the following premises:

  • The police are an institution whose mandate is to enforce laws and security and therefore they spy on (often racialized) organizations they suspect are too critical of the status quo.
  • Police forces largely developed to control protestors, enforce slavery in America, etc, rather than to “serve and protect” the public. This mandate may have evolved over time but its hard to think it does not continue to (consciously or not) influence the collective mentality of police forces.
  • Cops are hired to arrest people and occasionally exercise other forms of violence. Therefore, even if they aren’t all consciously racist, they aren’t likely to be hippies either.
  • Certain kinds of crime (eg theft) may flourish in marginalized communities since marginalization creates need. Therefore, police who regularly patrol these communities aren’t “bad apples” per se, but they nonetheless re-enforce the alienation of marginalized people from society.
  • Finally, police forces as currently constructed are key actors in an incarceration based justice system. Incarcerating people, again, further alienates them from society and traps them in cycles of poverty and violence.

 

In short, Lee’s argument that not all police are corrupt may in a way be true, but it dodges the deeper ideological issue that Riley hints at in his criticism.

Riley argues that contrary to the film’s claim BlacKkKlansman is not “fo’ real.” He notes that the real Ron Stallworth appears to have been less critical of mainstream police work than his fictional counterpart and that Phillip Zimmerman didn’t exist, amongst other things (I’ll link to Riley’s criticism here, but note that it contains spoilers). To me the question of whether this matters depends on whether you chose to separate the art from the artist (or at least the artist’s recent, presumably oversimplified, portrayal of his belief). BlacKkKlansman, judged as a film in isolation is not nearly as pro-cop as Riley suggests. Its hero crew (Stallworth, Zimmerman and Jimmy Creek) often hang out in a side room of their own, dressed in street clothes, reducing the degree to which you think of them as cops.  Additionally, through characters like Patrice and Kwame Ture aka Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), BlacKkKlansman undoubtedly portrays radical critiques of the police in a sympathetic light.

            BlacKkKlansman has funny moments, Where’s-Waldo-moments (spot the brothers of two famous Hollywood actors, and Eric Forman from That 70s Show) and ends with a powerful illustration of the Klan’s contemporary legacy. It’s absolute worth seeing, just remember to have a nuanced view of when it’s “fo’ real” and when it’s “a fantasy.”