Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Best of 2012

I read a lot of books and saw a lot of movies last year, but not enough to be able to put together a reliable guide to all that was best in 2012. Nor can I remember what I saw and read when. But I'll make a few recommendations, for what they might be worth.

Rotten Tomatoes has a list of the top-rated 100 movies of the year, of which I think I've seen ten (the Rotten Tomatoes rankings are in parentheses):
  1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (9)
  2. Argo (16)
  3. The Queen of Versailles (28)
  4. Moonrise Kingdom (37)
  5. Marvel's The Avengers (51)
  6. Skyfall (52)
  7. Lincoln (64)
  8. Django Unchained (76)
  9. The Dark Knight Rises (91)
  10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (95)
I would say that the best three of these are "Moonrise Kingdom," "Django Unchained," and "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Since I just saw "Django Unchained" and want to think through it, I'll try to say something about it here. 

Two of the best reviews I've found of it are by Joe Morgenstern and Mick LaSalle, but neither hits the nail on the head. Morgenstern says:
"Django Unchained," which has not one but two blow-out endings, is overlong—energy is lost when the narrative loses track of Django's quest for his wife—and it will surely be too blood-bespattered for many moviegoers. Yet this seriously crazed comedy is also a crazily serious disquisition on enslavement, and how it has been portrayed over the years and decades by slaves to Hollywood.
But it isn't overlong at all. You couldn't possibly get bored during the film, even though it is nearly three hours long. And it is not exactly a disquisition on enslavement. It's more a reminder of how horrible slavery was, and how fundamental it was to the southern way of life that is still so often held up as something sadly lost. It's more than that, but this is part of what the movie is. And it isn't only that Hollywood has portrayed slavery inaccurately over the years, as if this were a fault that somehow lay in the past. It's that we have grown up watching and celebrating movies that gloss over the horror, and that make heroes of the people who profited from it. The movie is a kind of Western, after all, and contains many characters who look just like the cowboys we see in those movies. But why have we been brought up, or chosen to grow up, watching so many Westerns? Why isn't there a demand for Southerns? Why are we so eager to regard and encourage others to regard armed 19th-century white men as heroes? And why so reluctant to acknowledge both the reality of life in the Old West (which I know nothing about, but assume was not all white hats versus black hats, and John Wayne or the Seventh Cavalry saving the day) and life in the Old South? Before the film has even had the chance to raise these questions we are already living the answer: we like myths and entertainment. We prefer them to reality. Tarantino makes no attempt to change this reality. He gives us all the gunfights and explosions we could want, all the simple good versus evil, and amor vincit omnia we could want. But he switches it up and raises questions about it too.

LaSalle writes that:
The violence is outsize, epic, enormous, bloody - but not disturbing, and not dehumanizing. There's a place for violence onscreen, and this is the place, a Quentin Tarantino movie that's rated R. Just as there was nothing dispiriting about watching Hitler get his in "Inglourious Basterds" - it was about time - the same could be said for the events in "Django Unchained."
But "Inglourious Basterds" made us realize how close we are to Hitler and co. when we cheer their deaths, just how much savagery and bloodlust belong to who (or what) we are. And "Django Unchained" is similar. We hate the rich white man who watches black men fight to the death for his entertainment, but what are we doing as we laugh and cheer as Django gets his ultra-violent revenge on the not-exclusively-white people who abused him and his wife? We aren't the same as the bad guys, true. We haven't done exactly what they did. But we aren't all that different either. As Morgenstern points out, not only is one of the actors from "Inglourious Basterds" in a starring role, he is playing much the same character. Except that this time the murderous German is someone we root for.

The movie is not realistic at all, but it reminds us just how brutal and violent slavery was, and just how grotesque was the pretense of civility in the lifestyle parasitical upon it. Better than Morgenstern or LaSalle is A. O. Scott, who writes that:
Like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness.
The playfulness is actually essential to what the film does, because we enjoy it--that's why we're watching it--and it shows us something about ourselves. Or at least it puts this something right before our faces. Presumably not everyone sees it, since few reviews talk about the film being intentionally unsettling. But it is unsettling, albeit perhaps not unsettling enough, and not because of anything it says but because of what it does and how it does it. It uses our enjoyment to arrange an interview with conscience.

How is this not enough? There are at least three criticisms of the movie that seem worth considering. One is that it is so violent. I have never seen people being shot, but the amount of blood splashing around seems unrealistically large. This brings home how sanitized violence has been in the movies, but it also makes Tarantino's violence ridiculous, which is itself a kind of sanitization. The violence isn't clean, but it doesn't drive us insane because we can laugh at it. If it were not entertaining then the movie wouldn't work, and one might claim that the reality it is about is so horrific that you have to laugh or else you'd cry. But it is clear enough that the movie falls somewhere short of complete moral excellence when the friend with whom I go to these movies says (entirely justifiably) that they make you ashamed of yourself with a huge grin on his face as he looks forward to seeing the next one.

Another complaint people have made is that Tarantino is far too cavalier with the n-word and that he, as a white man, really has no business going into this territory at all. I don't know what to say about this. My sensibilities would probably not allow me to do what Tarantino has done. It would be pretty much unthinkable for me, even if I had his talent. But should I turn this into a rule and then apply it to others? Maybe. Maybe Tarantino is too insensitive to the suffering of those groups of people from whom he takes his heroes (African-Americans in this case). But one of the things I think he brings out is the extent to which both racism and violence are in the atmosphere we breathe. Perhaps he's too comfortable acknowledging this fact, but it does seem worth acknowledging.

Thirdly, and finally, is it all too much fun? As I said above, part of the point is that we do enjoy this stuff, and that point could not be made the same way, from within, as it were, if the movies were not enjoyable. He isn't telling us something in a sermon, he's showing us something through experience. It has to be fun to work. And the more fun it is the more people he can attract to have the experience. But does he trade too much for this? Maybe so. I can't say where he ought to draw the line or precisely how serious he ought to be, but if the movies are to be praised for their moral seriousness and value then we need to acknowledge that they are not as serious as they might be, and that their effectiveness as agents of moral improvement is questionable.

So much for movies. Of the books I read this year, the two I haven't mentioned before here but want to recommend are Paul Johnson's Socrates (the book seems poorly edited at times, and shows an off-putting desire to portray Socrates as compatible with Christianity, going out of its way to argue that he probably never had any kind of gay sex, but is nonetheless a quick, easy, and educational read for those of us who don't specialize in Greek philosophy but do teach bits of it every now and again) and Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus (published in 2008 but new to me last year). Kapuscinski is not always reliable (his work has been called magic journalism) and does not seem to have been an overly noble man, but his writing is evocative and unchallenging in a way that seems to have a kind of honesty or directness about it, and he combines travelogue with stories and quotations from Herodotus in a way that, like Johnson's book, feels painlessly improving.

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