TESLA: Ethan Hawke’s ‘Tragic Hero’ Tour de Force

Tesla movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert
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If you’re looking for a biopic of Nikola Tesla that will tell you he was born, made some grand innovations in electricity that have shaped our own current world, and that he died alone then this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a biopic that is as imaginative, mysterious, and enigmatic as the title character himself, then Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is just what the doctor ordered. It is an abstract look at the personal and professional history of one of history’s most troubling and unfortunate figures. It is also just another performance on the long list of great performances by Ethan Hawke whose brooding stare gives a glimpse of the madness that cohabited with the genius inside of Nikola Tesla.

The film’s strongest aspect besides its solid cast is the mise en scene. Immediately the viewer is sucked in by the costumes and set design that literally transport you to the Gilded Age. It is in this first scene where we meet Tesla as he dreamily roller skates around a palatial parlor with some friends and a violin player, all dressed impeccably in their turn of the century best. We also meet the narrator played by Eve Hewson who not only tells us the story but captivates us with her natural beauty as Anne Morgan, the daughter of J. P. Morgan. It is Anne who tells us about Tesla’s first run in with electricity when he received a static shock as a young boy while stroking his cat’s back. She narrates that it is Tesla’s desire to “stroke nature’s back” just as he did to his cat. Many have complained about the narration as Anne breaks the fourth wall, tell’s the audience that some of what they are seeing “most likely never happened”, and speaks over black and white photos as though she were narrating a PBS special. I heartily disagree. Anne’s narration is the perfect foundation for sorting out the facts in between the dramatic scenes and struggles we see Hawke endure as the tortured and mostly exploited genius from Serbia.

Being a big movie star, it is incredible to watch Ethan Hawke play Tesla as someone who is merely a pawn being pushed around by not just Thomas Edison(Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse(Jim Gaffigan) but also by the money men of the time. The turn of the century was a time when everyone was trying to get rich at any cost. Sadly, the film shows you how investors would use Tesla, not to support his visionary and groundbreaking ideas that had the chance to change the course of history, but to profit off of his inventions and leave him broke because he was not business savvy. As mentioned earlier, there are several scenes where Hawke is left brooding and sulking after he is either just finding out he has been swindled by investors or being berated and publicly humiliated by his bitter rival, Edison. Hawke’s scenes with Jim Gaffigan, in an excellent portrayal of George Westinghouse, are exceptional with Gaffigan actually overshadowing Hawke at times.

Much of the talk around this film has been about the strange ‘karaoke’ performance toward the end by Ethan Hawke. This scene, even more so than “Edison’s iphone” and the “Google searches”, shatters the conventional historical biopic structure. Hawke steps up to a contemporary microphone and in front of a screen that continues to change colors, he croons the 1980’s Tears For Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In his strange Serbian accent, this scene will certainly not bring Hawke any comparisons to Eve Hewson’s father but Hawke’s daring, sub-par singing is even more riveting. The audience is clearly forced to listen to the lyrics and see how they related to Nikola Tesla. ‘I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision.’ In so many ways this could be a motto or epitaph for a man who the world disregarded during his living years and now owes so much to his legacy.

“LATE SPRING”: Quintessential Ozu

Three Reasons: Late Spring - YouTube
photo courtesy of Criterion Collection

          The opening scenes of Ozu’s “Late Spring” are not only full of his iconic filmmaking style but also hints at the culture clashes in Japan at the time the film was made.  This film is a perfect analysis of culture in post war Japan where some embraced the new modern society while others held on to the traditions of the past.

          The film opens in typical Ozu style with some “pillow shots” or shots that may be aesthetically appealing to the audience but really have nothing to do with the main plot of the film.  Ozu opens with three shots of the “Kitakakamakura Train Station” from three different angles.  We then see the exterior roof of a Japanese house before we enter the house and see characters.  The characters, a group of Japanese women dressed in traditional garments are all kneeling down having tea.  The composition, low angle(3 feet) long shot of a group, is another trademark of Ozu.  This scene is portrayed to be a traditional tea party with a group of Japanese women.  When Nori, the main actress enters the scene, Ozu gives the viewer subtle clues that she is someone who may not fully belong in such a traditional setting.

          Nori, a young Japanese woman who cares for her widowed father, enters the scene dressed in a traditional kimono.  She kneels down and bows respectfully to the group but when she gets up to change seats we see the first clue of Nori’s modernity.  When she stands up we see her pick up her purse and try to hide it under dress.  The purse looks very out of place at this almost “ancient” setting.  Then when Nori sits next to her Aunt Masa, Aunt Masa immediately adjusts Nori’s dress, indicating that she may not know how to properly wear such a traditional outfit.  Then Nori and Masa take part in a conversation about domestic duties which Nori seems to enjoy but already the audience can tell she is faking.  I believe this was a masterful job by Ozu to show in the first few minutes of the film that we are about to see a major culture clash between Nori, the young modern woman, and Japan, a country still clinging to its strict traditions.

          This dialogue between Nori and Masa in the opening scene is also another example of how Ozu’s style differs from the Hollywood model and remains effective.  The traditional Hollywood model of over the shoulder shots in dialogue or medium shot to close up never existed in Ozu’s world.  As in all of his films we often see characters, when speaking, looking directly into the camera.  This was something that was thought to be a cardinal error in among Hollywood filmmakers.  In the opening scene when Nori is talking to her Aunt Masa, she delivers all of her lines while looking directly into the camera.  I must admit that I found Ozu’s style a little jarring at first.  Seeing characters looking directly into the camera does not feel normal nor does an entire film of low angle shots with no movement appeal to most viewers.  Ozu, however, won me over.  His techniques, although different and far from mainstream Hollywood, do not get in the way of the dramatic and intimate stories that his films tell.  It is possible to think that his Medium shot direct address style gives the characters more depth and strength.

          Ozu used marriage in his films as a way of examining its perceived importance to Japanese society.  “Late Spring” is a very powerful look at the struggle a young woman in Japan went through for many years facing the choice of getting a job and being independent or getting married.  Nori is portrayed as someone who toes the line between a strong independent woman and a domestic woman.  She wants to marry a man who she truly loves not someone who’s been chosen for her.  Through Nori, Ozu shows how desperate a young woman in Japan would feel when the people around her were making the decisions about her future.

MUSTANG (2015)

MUSTANG (2015) - Movie-Blogger.com
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One of the director’s of the new HBO reboot of Perry Mason is responsible for one of the most outstanding debut films in recent memory. Deniz Gemze Erguven, a French-Turkish director toiled away at filmmaking for years, almost giving up on her dreams before she wrote and directed Mustang, her first feature film that went on to win multiple awards around the world and be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. Being Turkish, this film is a very personal exploration into the treatment of women, especially young girls, in a male dominated society that sadly reflects the current climate that still exists in Turkey today as well as many other countries across the globe.

The film follows 5 sisters, all between the ages of pre-teen to late teens, who have lost their parents and live with their grandmother in the rural countryside of Turkey. One day when walking home from school with their friends, some of whom are boys, the girls are spotted innocently splashing and playing with the boys in the ocean. This sets off the rest of the film as we see the sisters are about to pay the awful price for what is really just a fun activity at the beach for any child or teenager. Erguven does an excellent job of not wasting anytime presenting the major conflict of the story: the manipulation and controlling of young girls by society. The director doesn’t even give the audience a moment to question what happened to the girls’ parents because right away we see that it doesn’t matter. The girls are now under the care of their grandmother who ultimately allows their Uncle to take control of their lives. It isn’t long before we see the girls being forced to transform from playful, innocent children having fun after school to young available virgins being showcased to young men as prospects for marriage.

The film takes place almost entirely in the girl’s grandmothers’ house. Nestled in the mountains, the house offers picturesque views of the Turkish countryside. This is another marvelous choice by Erguven as we view the beautiful landscape from the girls’ perspective. Sadly, this perspective is through a bedroom window which the Uncle and Grandmother gradually turn into a “prison” with gates and bars on the windows. Erguven also adds elements of familiar “fairy tales” into the plot. When the youngest sister, Lale, in an excellent performance by Gunes Sensoy in her first film, tries to escape to Istanbul, a friendly man on the road kids her for her “muddy shoes.” On her second attempt at an escape, Lale finds a pair of red heels which can’t help but bring to mind Dorothy and her ruby slippers trying to get to the Emerald City, which in this case for Lale is Istanbul. Other scenes of boys and boyfriends coming to the house and calling up to the girls as they stand in the window, “Rapunzel-like” looking down at the boys but being unable to leave their captivity. These “fairy tale” references only serve to underscore the conflict of the film which is the sisters realizing that they cannot wait for a “prince” to come and rescue them. They are the ones who can control their own fate.

This film is an outstanding achievement for any filmmaker let alone someone who was making their debut. Sadly, in an ironic twist, just before Erguven was about to begin production, her original producer backed out after finding out she was pregnant. Fortunately, for Erguven she found another producer and finished the film, giving the world a beautiful, intense, tragic, and uplifting story about women overcoming the oppression that has gone on for too long around the world. Hopefully, thanks to Deniz Gamze Erguven and her message of hope, we are another step closer to women being empowered and treated equally.

THE ENDLESS SUMMER

Movie Retrospective: 'Endless Summer' : NPR
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The title really says it all. ‘The Endless Summer.” Most filmmakers would kill for a title like that. It could mean anything. The possibilities are, literally, endless. Is it a romantic story about young lovers falling in love at the beach? Or maybe it’s a story about two innocent kids living it up while school is out? No it’s not, but in some ways it could be. Bruce Brown’s classic surf movie is so much more than a surf movie. It is a tale of innocence, excitement, daring, and most of all, good, clean, fun.

In 1962, after cutting his teeth on a few surf documentaries, Bruce Brown was ready for something big. Brown had been an avid surfer and started photographing and then filming his surf sessions just out of pure love for the sport. With fellow surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson they set out across the globe to follow the summer around the world. The crew started in Africa where they visited Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. Then it was on down to South Africa before heading to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii, which Brown calls “truly, the land of the endless summer.”

It is hard to pinpoint which was Brown’s greatest achievement in this film. With his two stars, August and Hynson, he was able to showcase the sport of surfing to civilizations in Africa that had never even seen a surfboard, let alone a blonde surfer from California. While watching the film I could feel as though Robert August and Mike Hynson were the “Lewis and Clark” of surfing as they were given an opportunity to explore beaches that were virgin, pristine, and begging to be surfed. The two surfers are certainly not lovers falling in love at the beach but they are exploring exotic places to find the one thing they do love: surfing. A sad element pervades the film as the viewer laments the fact that this trip could probably never happen in the 21st century. The world is not as innocent and welcoming as it was for Bruce Brown in 1962. This fact is actually underscored in the fantastic sequel The Endless Summer II where Brown takes two new surfers on an almost identical trail as the original film. Places like Cape St. Francis in South Africa, which was an empty desert-like beach in the original is now a well developed vacation community. Bruce Brown produced what is arguably one of the greatest documentaries of all time and the greatest contribution to surfing ever made but it also unintentionally led to the development and displacement of some beautiful natural wonders. But, I could never hold this against the director as he put the fire in me, like millions of others over the last half century, to get a surfboard, paddle out to a wave and catch one, albeit after several wipeouts.

The Endless Summer is many things. A time capsule of the 1960’s surf culture. A National Geographic trip around the world. A funny, goofy look at surfers on vacation in exotic places. Most importantly, The Endless Summer is a view of the world through the eyes of a few California surfers who crossed the globe with nothing but a few longboards, a 16mm film camera, and some swimming trunks. If you’ve seen the film then I think you’ll agree: the view is spectacular.

‘APOCALYPSE NOW’: ART IMITATING LIFE?

The 'Final Cut' of 'Apocalypse Now' Is Coming to Theaters and Blu-Ray
photo courtesy of Screen Crush

“The Horror…The Horror…” – Col. Walter Kurtz

Apocalypse Now is one of the most polarizing films ever made. While some may deride it as a mediocre war film from an egomaniacal director at the height of his power others laud it for it’s intense examination of the catastrophe’s committed by the United States in Vietnam in the style of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I believe that the legend of how the film was made should not be seen as a punchline but instead seen, sadly, as art imitating life.

Francis Ford Coppola’s legend as a director was already cemented when he obtained the rights to Apocalypse Now in 1974. The original screenplay was written by Coppola’s friend, John Milius in 1969. Milius wrote it after he was told at USC that no one had ever made a good adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Milius who had tried and failed to serve in Vietnam due to his asthma set about tackling what would become as stark a comparison to The Vietnam War and the disastrous European colonization of Africa that has ever been made. When Coppola took over the film he tried to make the adaptation to the book as literal as possible, even saying years later that he did not use a script on set instead just a copy of the book in his pocket. Coming off multiple Oscars for The Godfather, and The Godfather Part 2, Coppola was probably more powerful than any filmmaker on the planet and this is clearly what drove him to pull out all of the stops for his next project.

Most often when the film is discussed its achievements get lost under the legend of the director’s Heart of Darkness. There was even a documentary made about the film with the same title, pieced together with behind the scenes footage. It is easy in 2020 to look back and see that Coppola was the most powerful writer/director during a renaissance for writer/directors. Of all of the success that Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese would accomplish, it was Coppola who paved the way. This is not an excuse for the limits he pushed and literal dangers he may have thrust upon his cast and crew but to be sympathetic, he had no restraints. This is where sadly the art imitating life factor comes in. Coppola himself said it best at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979: “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” While the ego and audacity behind this statement angered many, and rightfully so, it is a devestatingly honest comment by Coppola and may or may not be a veiled shot at the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Certainly the film was but unfortunately, in this case more attention was paid to an egotistic director than a film whose message trashes the horrific actions of the most powerful nation on the planet.

The word ‘masterpiece’ gets used in movies way too often, no more than the current era. Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece and there’s no denying it. Sure Coppola bit off more than he could chew but what he was able to capture in some scenes was truly breathtaking in scale. The famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ helicopter invasion. The PBR boat floating down the river into a burning sun, toward the ‘heart of darkness.’ Marlon Brando shot in shadow with his voice bellowing from the darkness. Even that is a cinematic feather in Coppola’s cap. Brando had famously arrived at production severely overweight for his character so the director decided to shoot him in shadow and half light to cover his size. The result was an even more haunting vision of Col. Walter Kurtz who appears as a wraith dressed in black and covered in shadow.

While this film may be remembered as a journey into the director’s Heart of Darkness it may also be the best film made by one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the art form. Most directors can never even dream of the type of power and freedom wielded by Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now and that is probably a good thing. Tyrannical behavior has no place anywhere including film sets. But strictly speaking, as a work of art, the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.

“FOLLOWING”(1998): A daring debut in 16mm from Christopher Nolan

Film International
photo courtesy of Film International

Christopher Nolan is many things. A self made filmmaker who skipped film school to study English Literature. The creator of one of the most successful action franchises of all time. A Commander of the British Empire. A man who according to Steven Spielberg has managed to combine “art films” and “big studio blockbusters” with The Dark Knight trilogy. But more than anything else, Nolan is a masterful storyteller, maybe the best since his career started in the late 90’s with a little film called Following.

If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan and you haven’t seen his debut film then make it the next film you see. It’s easy to watch Following more than two decades after it was made and say “yeah! That’s a Christopher Nolan film!” but it’s not a trite statement by any means. In fact I think it enhances the film knowing that the director, who only made two films before getting signed by Warner Brothers, has directed epics like The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar, wrote, directed, and shot an outstanding neo-noir film in black and white for $6,000. This film dabbles in so many cinematic elements that it is staggering to think it’s not just a debut, but that Nolan pretty much did everything but act in it.

The film starts off with the introduction of the main character, “Bill”, explaining his “story” to a policeman. It appears Bill is a struggling writer who decides, out of pure boredom, to follow strangers around London. Nolan shows us Bill’s activities in a perfect guerilla shooting style as he wanders through busy streets, staying just out of reach of his subject. Nolan, shooting Bill through a store window with the “Dunkin Donuts” sign on the glass is an excellent scene steal. The grainy shots work in this sequence as it lends a ‘surveillance’ aspect to what starts out as a very mysterious hobby of our main character.

Several critics have designated this film as a “neo-noir” but I believe it can be considered just classic Film Noir. Nolan’s decision to shoot in black and white was a magnificent one and I do wish he would return to it someday. The lighting in some scenes is absolutely stunning, most especially in the house occupied by “The Blonde” played by Lucy Russell. When Bill begins to get closer to The Blonde, he spends an afternoon at her house where she tells him about her connection to her boyfriend “The Bald Guy.” The stories of the violence she experiences are underscored by the dark shadows on staircases and the characters walking in and out of the light and shadow. Without any spoilers, there is an excellent scene toward the end of the film that is straight out of 1940’s Hollywood Noir. When Bill gets suspicious of The Blonde he goes to her house and gets tough with her. Nolan has The Blonde, dressed in black, up against a white wall with a soft light illuminating her pretty face as she gets grilled by Bill. In this scene, Nolan has recreated the typical “femme-fatale”, immediately getting the viewer to think of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

The film’s most important quality is its story. As mentioned earlier, while Christopher Nolan’s films have all been visually stunning, his greatest talent is in his story telling abilities. Following itself is not an easy film to follow. While I don’t intend to give away any spoilers, it would be difficult to do so with a story that, like Memento, snakes back and forth between present and flashback and a few surprises from the minor characters. The story will hook you from the beginning but you better not let up because Nolan doesn’t.

As we await the release of Nolan’s latest epic, Tenet, I encourage to go back and look at his body of work. From comic books, to outer space, to War epics, to the gritty streets of London. Christopher Nolan can truly do it all.

IS “SUNSET BOULEVARD” A HORROR MOVIE?

Sunset Boulevard: The Relationship Between Viewer and Film
PHOTO COURTESY OF MEDIUM.COM

Let me begin by saying that the title of this article is by no means a trivialization of what I believe is one of the greatest films ever made in any genre. That being said, Billy Wilder’s classic film about Hollywood’s dark side is downright frightening in its portrayal of a former Silent-era megastar and her descent into delusion.

The film begins with one of its signature shots: Joe, floating face down in a swimming pool as policemen use hooks to retrieve his body. Immediately through the use of this shot and William Holden’s narration, we know this is a film about a murder at an old, decaying Hollywood Mansion. Sounds like the makings of a Monster movie. When Joe begins his flashback narration we see him elude the debt collectors and end up at the Mansion. It is at this moment when the film takes on an extremely creepy tone that doesn’t let up until the closing credits roll. This is when we meet the “Monster.” Joe is spied by a woman from inside the house, standing in shadow behind the window blinds. Wilder’s judgement to introduce Norma with such a veil of mystery is outstanding. Norma, played by Gloria Swanson, stands attentive at the window, gazing out at Joe, her eyes covered by dark sunglasses. There is a very strong resemblance of this shot in the way Hitchcock introduced “Mrs. Bates” in Psycho. We see Mrs. Bates stroll past the window of the Bates’ house, catching Marion’s attention and letting us know that she is still the “Woman of the House.”

As the plot progresses we see Norma aggressively taking control of Joe through her wild outbursts of mania and sadness. Joe appears to be trapped in Norma’s mansion, his only way out, if any, is to finish her screenplay and deliver it to “Mr. Demille” at Paramount Pictures. This aspect of the film brings to mind Misery, the Stephen King thriller where Kathy Bates holds her favorite writer hostage, forcing him to write for her. Is Joe really trapped? Surely he can leave under his own free will but Norma and Max, the butler are both doing all they can to keep him there. They give the debt collectors the slip as a show of goodwill to Joe but really we know it’s a ploy to keep Joe writing for Norma. The films climactic confrontation between Joe and Norma also proves that Joe really was doomed and that from the moment he steered his broken down car into Norma’s garage that he would never leave her home alive.

Sunset Boulevard is really a film that has it all. A monumental performance by Gloria Swanson. Beautiful cinematography in shots like Norma screaming about her comeback, bathed in the glow of the film projector in her salon. An exceptional script that not only gives the audience the creeps by showing us Norma’s madness but also lets us feel a compassion for a megastar who has now been cruelly cast aside by the very industry that she once owned. Another shot worth mentioning for its “horror” factor is the light shining through the empty doorknobs of the many rooms in the Mansion. It is a sad moment when Max reveals to Joe the reason for the empty doorknobs: “the doctor thought it was a good idea after Madame cut herself.” This line is very chilling in relation to Norma’s deranged mental state but later in the film the doorknobs take on a symbolic tone of how Norma is “watching” and controlling Joe. After an argument in Joe’s bedroom, Norma excuses herself and goes to her attached bedroom and closes the double doors. When Joe turns off the lights in his room we see, in the darkness, Norma’s light shining through the two circles, mimicking her eyes, constantly watching and hovering over Joe.

“An old Hollywood actress lures a young writer to her mansion, manipulating and controlling him. When he tries to escape, the unspeakable happens!” Sounds like a “Saturday Night Horror Film” at the Drive-In right? Maybe. For now it will stand as an indictment of Hollywood’s treatment of its original stars and the one thing all of us “wonderful people out there in the dark” never get to see: The Price of Fame.

Dziga Vertov and the ‘City Symphony’

A Restored Avant-Garde Classic, 'The Man With A Movie Camera' Is ...

Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera is the quintessential ‘City Symphony.’ Naturally it was this film that coined the phrase but since it was made there has been nothing quite like it. One of the film’s signature elements is its fast pace. There truly is never a dull moment. Vertov set out to capture what life was like in “Industrial Russia.” In every frame he made sure to include plenty of movement and action. One recurring theme in the film is shots of masses of people in movement. One scene that shows a horde of people pushing through a wire fence gate is almost identical to a scene in Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1936 film Modern Times. It is no secret that Chaplin was heavily influenced by Russian filmmakers when he made his satire of modern industry.

Another innovation by Vertov was his own use of modern industry in his filmmaking. When the Lumiere Brothers first shot trains pulling into stations these films were comprised of short, static shots. With Vertov, we no longer stand on the platform and watch the train. The train becomes the filmmakers tool whether it is attached to the train as it speeds down the track or placed on the track bed, roaring over the audience’s head at an angle the Lumiere’s would never have dreamed possible. These images are still stunning almost a century later. The director even reveals his sources of camera assistance at moments during the film. In one scene, shortly after we see a tracking shot of a man riding a bicycle, there is a cut to Vertov himself, crouched with his camera, holding onto the side of a trolley car as he follows the bicycle. A subsequent scene shows Vertov, in the backseat of a moving car, tracking a moving horse carriage. The director was certainly not afraid to use any means of transportation to mobilize his movie camera.

Music was another enhancement to Vertov’s breakneck shooting technique. As I mentioned, this film is all about fast paced movement. In every frame we see objects and subjects moving. The music score matches this intensity with its fast paced rhythm.

Man With A Movie Camera was Dziga Vertov’s crowning achievement and most definitely the gold standard of ‘City Symphony’ documentary.

‘Shoeless’ Joe, FIELD OF DREAMS, and ‘The Hero’s Journey’

White Sox and Yankees to Play at Field of Dreams
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John Kinsella:“Is this Heaven?”

Ray Kinsella: “No. It’s Iowa.”

Professor of mythology, Joseph Campbell, was famous for discovering “The Hero’s Journey.” It is the belief in what he called the ‘monomyth’, the theory that all myths from all cultures, passed down through generations, are all part of a ‘single great story.’ The Hero, begins in his Ordinary World, is called to take on a quest or journey with great consequence, overcomes dangerous obstacles, and finally returns to his Ordinary World, stronger and wiser but forever changed. Campbell’s theory has been proven over and over again when you look at the great epics whether ancient(The Odyssey) or contemporary(The Lord of the Rings). What’s truly fascinating is how The Hero’s Journey has influenced modern story telling, most notably movies. Star Wars is nothing more than a science fiction version of the monomyth, but if you look even further than the great epics you will see that most films follow the path of The Hero’s Journey.

Movies and baseball have gone hand in hand for quite some time. Maybe that is because baseball, more than any other sport, is loaded with myths and legends: Babe Ruth ‘calling his shot’ in the 1932 World Series, Sidd Finch, the New York Mets “pitching prospect” who could throw a 168mph fastball, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, after being suspended for life from MLB, playing in semi-pro games on the East Coast. Even ‘Casey at the Bat’ is considered an epic poem by die hard baseball fans. But is one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, ‘Field of Dreams’, just another strain of The Hero’s Journey? The answer is Yes!

‘Field of Dreams’ opens with a Ken Burns type montage, beautifully narrated by Kevin Costner, introducing us to the main character, Ray Kinsella. The scene quickly shows us Ray’s “Ordinary World” and is followed by the famous opening scene when Ray, at dusk in the corn field, receives the “Call to Action”: “If You build it, He will come.” Ray goes through denial at first and confides with his wife Annie that he might just be hearing things. He finally has a vision of what the Voice is telling him and he builds a Baseball Diamond on half of his farm.

At this stage of the Journey, Ray “Meets his Mentor”, the one who will give him guidance along his path. The mentor comes in the form of none other than the great ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, who happens to be Ray’s father’s favorite player. Ray initially believes that is quest is over just by giving Joe a chance to play baseball again. Hearing the Voice again telling him to “Go the Distance”, Ray sets off on a journey that leads him to meet famous writer Terrence Mann(based on J.D. Salinger), who accompanies Ray to Minnesota where they search for the legendary Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, played by Burt Lancaster in his final film role. A younger Archie Graham played by Frank Whaley accompanies Ray and Terrence back to Iowa and he is quickly inserted into a game where he gets to live out his dream and step in the box for an at bat against a Major League pitcher. Ray has just granted another wish to one of his allies by giving the ghost of a baseball player one last chance to play.

While Ray is on the road meeting ‘Allies’ and overcoming ‘Tests’, the ‘Enemy’ of the film emerges in the form of Ray’s brother in-law, Mark, in an excellent performance by Timothy Busfield. Mark wants to buy the farm from Ray and is now forcing his hand since Ray and Annie are facing bankruptcy due to the construction of the baseball field and destruction of the corn. A dramatic scene unfolds when Ray returns home and while watching a ‘game’ with his family and Terrence, he gets into a heated argument with Mark about selling the farm. Faced with the power of possessing the cradle of baseball history in his own backyard Ray ‘heroically’ says No to Mark and saves ‘Shoeless’ Joe and the ‘Black Sox’ for eternity.

The climax of The Hero’s Journey is called the “Return with the Elixir.” It states that the hero has been resurrected and may now return to the Ordinary World, although that World is now forever changed. ‘Shoeless’ Joe tells Ray that the field was not for himself but for Ray’s father, John Kinsella. Ray repeats to himself the Voice’s line, “Ease His Pain.” He then whispers to Joe, “I thought it was you?” Joe replies “No Ray. It was you.” Ray’s “Elixir” is that he gets to meet his father when he was a ballplayer, in the prime of his life. The two walk and talk as if John is just another ballplayer enjoying Ray’s field until Ray breaks the ice: “Hey Dad? Wanna have a catch?” Ray’s world has clearly changed for the better as he has reconciled with his father’s ghost. The camera pulls back to a sweeping aerial shot of the father and son having a catch as a line of headlights backs up for miles, all coming to see a brand new world…’Shoeless Joe’ in Iowa.

Happy Father’s Day!

THE DOCTOR IS IN: Dr. Caligari, Hannibal Lecter, & the portrayal of the ‘Evil’ Psychologist

Hannibal Lecter - Home | Facebook
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Wikipedia
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“You all think I’m insane! It isn’t true! It’s the doctor who’s insane!” – Francis, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’

The Horror film may be the most popular genre of all films. Slashers, Zombies, Demons all haunt our dreams and force us to watch the movies with the lights on, sometimes. Of all the famous evil characters from Nosferatu to Michael Myers, are any of them more terrifying than the ‘Evil’ Doctor? Two legendary characters from legendary films prove that the answer very well could be No.

In 1920, a film was produced in Germany that has been unparalleled in the 100 years that have passed. The film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, is so rich in content from its abstract sets to the chilling acting by its two stars, Werner Krauss(Dr. Caligari) and Conrad Veidt(Cesare, the Somnambulist). The story is told by a patient, Francis, in a mental asylum as he recalls how he has ended up in the hospital at the hands of the infamous, Dr. Caligari. Francis goes on to relay how his best friend was murdered after visiting the ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ at the Holstenwell town fair. It was Dr. Caligari’s subject, Cesare the Somnabmulist who told Francis’ friend that he would die before the following dawn. Francis is convinced that the mad doctor is responsible and after Cesare attempts to murder his girlfriend, Jane, and kidnaps her he makes it his mission to reveal the truth about Dr. Caligari. Francis discovers evidence that it is true that Dr. Caligari is using the somnambulist, hypnotizing him and ordering him to kill at his will. Francis, however, makes the grave mistake of bursting into the mental hospital and accusing Dr. Caligari of being a murderer. The lesson here appears to be ‘Never question a Doctor’ as Francis loses his argument and it Caligari who then recommends he be committed to the hospital as a patient.

Writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz crafted the story out of their shared experiences during World War 1 in Germany. Both men disagreed with the war and were harsh critics of the psychologists who seemed to be cooperating with the German government and forcing young men to continue fighting. ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is their look at the consequences of having blind faith in not just the government but also the medical establishment. Mayer and Janowitz were also aware of the sadistic nature of some psychologists in Germany who used electro-shock therapy to make men who did not want to fight so uncomfortable that they went running back to the front in order to get away from their doctor. This masterpiece of a film directed by Robert Wiene is certainly a case of ‘art imitating life’ in a very frightening way.

Hannibal Lecter has long been considered the scariest villain in film history due to his pure evil and an outstanding performance by Anthony Hopkins. Lecter, a psychologist and convicted murderer/cannibal steals the movie even though he is only onscreen for a total of 15 minutes. His most terrifying quality is that at moments when he converses with Jodie Foster we can see a very distinguished and intelligent psychologist. In an instant, Hopkins can flip the switch and unleash the monster more terrifying than Frankenstein and Freddie Kruger put together. The difference between Lecter and Caligari lies in the fact that Lecter has been caught and convicted and shows no denial or remorse for his dark side. Dr. Caligari, however, maintains his facade as the ‘good’ doctor when we all know he is the total opposite.

“I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Dr. Lecter’s bone chilling last line to Clarice before stalking his next victim. “Now I also know how to cure him.” Dr. Caligari’s “Compassion” toward Francis as he wrongfully commits him to the mental asylum and we are left to only guess at the horrors the Doctor has in store for his new patient. ‘The Doctor is IN’…in this case, Insane!