[1992] A Few Good Men

a_few_good_men_posterIs a man “good” if he is honorable, attentive, and dutiful? For a vague adjective – one that is routinely edited out of academic and non-creative writing for lack of rigor and specificity – good seems to evoke this sense of righteousness attributed to no single entity in particular. Its usage is biblical and universal. Its opposite is not necessarily bad, but rotten, pernicious, and the catch-all not-good. Many potential partners desire this trait in a mate. Mothers long for their sons and daughters to stay out of trouble, “up to no good,” they will call it.

What does it mean, then, to be a good man? If we call it an adjective of vaguery and looseness, then a good man is a man of any quality the beholder attributes to good. It could be honor, attention, and duty, but it could also be kindheartedness and honesty. Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men does not ask us to define good, which is, well, good, because the line is thin between good and evil. Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup toes the line as if there is no line. The audience, whose narrator is omnipotent, sees cover-up and deception, but Col. Jessup, the antagonist as written, sees duty and honor. Is fairness and justice for all more important than national security and unit cohesion, as Col. Jessup sees it? Is it good to value honor over life? Continue reading

[1985] Prizzi’s Honor

Absurdity, at its purest, assumes its residual – common sense – exists as a constant. For a situation to feel nonsensical it must exist within the world of this context, but slightly off-center: any art that knowingly stretches or blurs the formal definition of object, for the purposes of critiquing it or commenting on it. If the author attempts to assign meaning, the art ceases to be free-form, in a way that erodes its absurdity. We need to be able to grasp at absurdity without ever reaching it. Absurdity also has a built-in meta component that syncs up with the very real phenomenon cognitive dissonance, holding two or more conflicting beliefs at the same time. When we watch Prizzi’s Honor, we know that the events in this film are unlikely to ever occur, even though they sometimes seem that they could in our own measured existence or even in another mafia-esque film. Maybe we desire this film because we desire absurdity.

In fact, if we use The Godfather (either) as our reference point for clarity, quality and non-absurdity, Prizzi’s Honor feels even the more surreal. Both films are set in fictitious micro-environments where organized family business often exists through crime motifs, or through (as Prizzi’s Honor illuminates it) honor and duty. We understand that crime, as a driver for story and for history, works insofar as purposeful or logical narration will allow. Only in specific context does random killing, for example, not derail an otherwise reasonable character framework; usually this character is molded and guided toward psychotic break, but sometimes a story will include a random killing as a moment of opacity. Purposeful confusion, though, is not a hallmark of absurdity, because the director will likely resolve the issue. The killing will turn out not to be random; the character is hiding disassociative personality traits; there exists a ‘whodunit’ mystery that unfolds. These film tropes, while tricky to clarify (see: The Usual Suspects), guide an audience, as the logic behind the story unfolds.  Continue reading

[1974] Chinatown

I broke my own rule on this one because I’d seen this film a few times before. But they’re my “rules” and, truthfully, it doesn’t matter, because I was interested in taking this film on as a corollary to my education as an urban planner. A professor of mine had mentioned in passing that Chinatown was the best “planning” movie ever made. If I can extrapolate a little further, what Professor Landis meant was more along the lines of “Chinatown is the best movie ever made in an urban setting whose main plot piece revolves around zoning and water/land use,” two issues dear to every urbanist’s heart. To the passing urbanist – an effete young worker in a sea of tall buildings and traffic congestion – issues of environmental justice and invisible infrastructure mean very little, yet are continuously essential to the maintenance of a thriving city. Most movies assume the standardization of the proxy: by translating the image of what the reader knows to frame the story onto the screen, there exists no need to redefine the space. This is the very fact upon which “dystopian” story exploits. Chinatown is not set in a dystopia – in fact the very opposite.

What makes Chinatown so lauded and versatile is its complete indulgence in verisimilitude. Truthiness and embedded authenticity therein is often understandably relaxed (by both the film maker and by the reader of a work of art) to serve the higher purpose to entertain; and that’s fine. But Chinatown is doggedly determined to exploit truth in the face of the story to give it the semblance of real life, working in tandem with the urban(e) truths of city building benefiting the few at the expense of so many. The “justice” in environmental justice provides the motivation for several of the characters to act as they do. Planners are intimately (or should be) entwined in creating a space for the benefit of every aspect of city life and even informally trained planners (read: humans) understand this concept, whatever they may exude in conversation or in ideology. This movie displays in perfect cacophony the levels to which people will elevate to indulge delusion of this concept. That’s what makes the famous quote “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” so anti-dramatic.  Continue reading

[1975] One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

I haven’t read a lot about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, intentionally, for the first twenty-four years of my life. There is a certain lore to the performance and mystery to the allegory that intrigues the brain to either watch this film right away or to categorically forget it. I didn’t want to spoil my decision either way.

But as an impetus for this project, I decided to tackle this movie early on. My initial reactions are somewhat split: it might be a hangover from the campiness of San Francisco or I might just be dull to shock and awe, but I didn’t find the ending particularly powerful or Nurse Ratched to be particularly evil in the traditional sense. I want to explore these reactions in depth.

This movie is justifiable in its major oscar sweep, even among the movies nominated in 1975. Remember, five years after the release and idolization of Patton, the middle of the 1970s showcased the greatest density of the greatest movies ever made, and Cuckoo’s Nest is nested right in the chronological center. This affords it more than modest exposure – perhaps overexposure – and not just because of its shining performances from Milos Forman in the director’s chair to Jack Nicholson’s delightfully misanthropic R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s domineering and understated Nurse Ratched. The story is singularly linear and does a perfunctory job developing all of the characters as a series of exposes – both demonstrating character strengths and flaws through the particular brand of Ratched’s evil.

But as for the lasting impression of Ratched’s evil? I’d argue she’s paradoxically too evil and not evil enough. She’s the head nurse at a small Oregon state mental hospital, in charge of the well-being of 18 patients with varying levels of mania. Some patients are self-committed, some state-mandated, like Nicholson’s McMurphy. But Ratched morphs her power as a caregiver into that of a caretaker. A minor distinction, sure, but to the absolute stature and reputation among the “Doctors,” she has the power to literally take and take and take, all for the sense of decaying the atrophy of the crazy. Her evil is seen through the lens of the general oppressor so relevant in the ’70s, off the heels of Cuba and Russia and especially Vietnam.  Continue reading