GO TELL THE SPARTANS (1978) is an anomaly——a Vietnam War film that gets good reviews from both critics and veterans. The story of a handful of American soldiers struggling against an overwhelming North Vietnamese force (the title is an ironic reference to the Spartan stand at Thermopylae) shows soldiers using drugs or PTSDed to the hair-trigger crazy point, but they’re handled so matter-of-factly that it works well dramatically (something I touch on here and comes off more as an observation than an indictment of the war. With Burt Lancaster and Marc Singer among the performers, this is worth a look. “Oh, shit.”
THE SIEGE OF SIDNEY STREET (1960) is a docudrama starring Peter Wyngarde as the leader of an Russian anarchist cell in London whose plan to rip off a jewelry dealer to finance the revolution, only to wind up in the eponymous gunfight (which inspired the climax of Man Who KNew Too Much). Other than Wyngarde’s performance, this is pretty routine, which makes me wonder if it’s because it’s choosing accuracy over drama. “They’re a lot of anarchists over there—and atheists—and vegetarians!”
PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991) has John Gielgud recounting the tale of THE TEMPEST while others act it out on screen on some wildly colorful sets—however, while the visuals are impressive (the director certainly makes better use of film than many) this is far from the best rendition of the show I’ve seen.
RASHOMON (1950) is, of course, Akira Kurosawa’s account of several unreliable narrators replaying the same story of a bandit, a samurai and the woman caught between them, with the different accounts raising questions about everything from truth to human rottenness (“If we can’t trust each other, this world is hell.”). I’m curious how the audience reacted originally, before the premise was so well known——also curious whether the woodchopper’s version isn’t to some extent a mythbusting story (since it undermines the nobility any of the characters showed in their own versions of the story). “All men lie—we don’t even tell the truth to ourselves.”
Not the best week for reading …
FEAR: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke is a look at how our fears have shifted throughout the 20th century on such matters as disease (from cancer to AIDS), death (“We’re now more afraid of artificially prolonged life than of sudden death.”), poverty and current worries over crime and terrorism. While the bits are interesting, none of this really knits together into a whole, and it feels like she’s cherry picking in a lot of ways (why nothing on polio? Or the current obsession with staying germ free?); also I’d disagree with a few of her points (like the idea white fears of black rapists only became an issue in the 1930s). Interesting, but despite my interest in this topic, not quite what I wanted.
MADCAPS, SCREWBALLS AND CON WOMEN: The Female Trickster in American Culture by Lori Landay, argues that the female trickster who either openly defies convention (Mae West) or uses a mask of convention for manipulation (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) is actually a staple of humor. Landay’s look at Mae West, I Love Lucy, Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve are not without interest but undercut by Landay’s university-press academese and by the fact she’s less interested in the tricksters themselves than what they tell us about consumerism or “hegemonic gender issues.” Despite several good points, such as the transition from Mae West to Marilyn Monroe (“Marilyn could never utter West’s observation that ‘You can be had.’”)most of this is a nonstarter for me.
FOOL is the first book by Christopher Moore that completely didn’t work for me——the story of Lear’s fool Pocket desperately trying to save the kingdom from his master’s stupidity fell completely flat, whether because the Britcom humor doesn’t work for Moore or because the jester, in contrast to Moore’s usual put-upon heroes, is someone who’s trying actively to be funny.