Archive for the ‘Genius In Action Awards’ Category

I am in a rapture at having seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie by Wes Anderson.

Peter_Strain The_Grand_Budapest_Hotel

It is a master work: a suspenseful story, artfully told, and also a brilliant exposition of the difference between high civilization and the depths of human depravity and how the two are constantly wrestling for the human soul.

Like the tides of the oceans, human society rhythmically rises (Periclean Athens, Republican Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Germany in the early 20th century), and falls (Imperial Rome, the Middle Ages, 20th century fascism in Europe, Russia, and Japan).

These forces exist also in each one of us: the good, and the bad, swirling around all the time. Life is about leaning in one direction or the other, and from this collective leaning, civilization is made or destroyed.

Wes Answerson, who wrote and directed The Grand Budapest Hotel, has given us the joy of a main character — Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes — who is the personification of civilization, and what a beautiful personification it is.

<Spoiler Alert>

Joseph Campbell's master work.

Joseph Campbell’s master work.

This is for many reasons, including that he exhibits and practices a code of living based on uncompromisingly high standards of excellence, courtesy, manners, higher learning, joie de vivre, love, loyalty, grace under pressure, and courage in the face of direct and indirect challenges to all these qualities. And this is the genius of the film: Gustave is not just cultured, he is severely, brutally tested by the dark forces within all human beings, including himself. And he triumphs, and I love a happy ending. His is a hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell wrote about definitively (if you have not read The Hero With A Thousand Faces, you must do so immediately, or at least start with his interviews with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth).

In the hero’s journey, a person is cast out of his comfort zone (voluntarily or by force or trickery) and into a series of trials. He faces the trials as best he can, and eventually returns to his starting point, hopefully intact and with higher consciousness, but not necessarily so.

Gustave’s journey in this movie is a perfect model of this archetype, and perhaps Wes Anderson created him with this intention. Screenwriters are generally aware of these archetypes and you’ll find them in just about every movie that gets made, but the genius of Anderson’s artistry is how well he did it here. The lesson is quite clear, but not so much that you can’t be swept away by the madcap events of the story.

I will also admit to loving this movie as well for the way it speaks to our present moment in the United States and the world. In 2014 we find our civilization under daily assault and our humanity being tested sorely. And we are losing.

But back to this wonderful piece of art.

Gustave’s Bona Fides

Gustave is, as the narrator says towards the end, “civilization itself”. Anderson reinforces this in the character in so many ways, including giving him the attributes mentioned above.

But also in some other key ways, such as Gustave’s refusal to be a victim during his jail time. He fights, gets beaten up, but gives as much as he gets; he is such a long way from life in his beloved hotel, and yet his spirit is unbowed and he never loses or surrenders his agency.

He continuously displays courtesy and manners even in the face of openly hostile people (or people who only appeared to be hostile, but then turned out to be allies when he needed them the most) and in the most abhorrent situations, such as after he emerges from a sewer through which he escaped from the jail.

He is willing to put himself in harm’s way to protect his vulnerable charge, Zero (the lobby boy).


Uniforms, art, beauty, standards, a rose, a partnership

And he is also capable of weak moments and apologizing when appropriate. In a key exchange, he verbally abuses Zero, clearly as a result of his own exhaustion and suffering at that point in the story. But when Zero stands up for himself, Gustave realizes his error and apologizes in a heart-felt manner. I found this to be very important for the character: no one is perfect, and indeed Civilization is not perfect. But which way does a man lean? Towards cruelty, or towards compassion and human connection?

The Decline of Civilization

I absolutely love the way The Grand Budapest Hotel portrays the decline of civilization (the era depicted, a facsimile of 1930s Europe during the rise of Hitler, could stand in for aspects of our present moment). Anderson conveys the decline by using the same motif twice: our main characters, Gustave and Zero, are traveling together in a rail car through the beautiful countryside of Europe, and each time they are subjected to a harsh interrogation by hyper-aggressive law enforcement / military figures who board the train to check passports.

A civilized ride, and then challenge.

A civilized ride, and then challenge.

In both cases, Zero does not have proper papers, and this provokes actual physical violence against him and Gustave (after Gustave, out of loyalty to his companion and with no hope of overpowering the adversaries, attempts to intervene).

But in the first instance, the police chief, also on the train, catches up with the commotion and calls off his dogs: he knows Gustave, and such sadistic and impersonal treatment will not do. The opposite of bureaucracy, in other words.

The second instance takes place much later in the story, and plays out very differently <spoiler alert again>. We see Zero knocked unconscious by the butt-end of a rifle, and later learn that Gustave is shot and killed in the aftermath of the episode.

In these two renditions of the motif, we see the same high culture (Gustave demonstrating loyalty and courage against sadistic, violent men and overwhelmingly bad odds), but not the same outcome because something crucial is missing the second time around. The police chief and his human connection to a particular citizen are gone, and the result is a spasm of violence and the senseless death of a beloved man.

This is why central governments, manned by armies of bureaucrats, are dangerous: there is no humanity in them, and without humanity, the raw struggle for survival is all that is left (the kill-or-be-killed nature of the animal world).

Joseph Campbell called it “the end of life and the beginning of survival” (he was quoting a great Indian chief, who was cautioning against abandonment of spirituality).

This is a way of saying that human life is not life unless it includes love and compassion (unity) and transcends the animal world of eating, fighting, and fucking (survival). The zero-sum game of survival is truly hell on earth.

The Rule of Law

And while we are on the topic of the Decline of Civilization, would you believe that a Hollywood filmmaker could make one of the most powerful cases for the Rule of Law that any of us has seen in recent years?

Well believe it, because one of the most powerful narrative arcs in the movie (for me anyway) is that of the attorney, played by Jeff Goldblum.


An extraordinarily rich woman has died (or was murdered, apparently), and her will must be administered — no easy job with dozens of hungry relatives circling like vultures throughout the proceedings. This falls to the attorney, and just look at the way Anderson presents him in the above picture.

Three piece suit. Surrounded by hundreds of books. A thorough and exhaustive reading of hundreds of documents to sort out the estate. These are not mere props, as the man’s conduct and character match his surroundings. This is a man who has respect for due process, for hard work, for not taking short cuts, even under pressure.

And oh, does he get pressure. The most aggressive would-be heir, played by Adrian Brody, challenges him in a fundamental way by asking him the question “Aren’t you supposed to be representing US?” To which he responds, “…actually no, strictly speaking I represent the deceased…” (or words to that effect). An attorney must always remember who his client is, and this one does very clearly, and the answer is not at all what the bully wants to hear.

Two violent men confront Civilization.

Two violent men confront Civilization.

And so he escalates his bullying and demands that the attorney bend the rules. His reply to the demand is simple and straight forward: No, I cannot do that. I am an attorney and I must follow the law.

This is civilization. This is what keeps societies from destroying themselves in an orgy of street violence.

The Goldblum character is a beautiful rendition of it, and Anderson then shows just what is at stake in today’s American culture: the attorney is stalked by Jopling, a murderous thug played by Willem Defoe, and flees into a museum (I’m sure this was no accident, as a museum is another institution of culture and learning). Jopling murders him in cold blood inside the museum, and it is no leap to say that Jopling’s character and those of his ilk (might makes right) represent the murder of culture as much as the murder of the man.


Murdering the Rule of Law.

Anderson is saying that the Rule of Law is important, but that it is also vulnerable (the attorney’s persian cat is another nice touch — the law is strong, but delicate). Without it, civilization cannot survive.

The Rule of Law: Refined. Strong. Delicate.

The Rule of Law: Refined. Strong. Delicate.

Again I will admit that this hits home for me, as I watch our country get dragged down a path of selective enforcement of the laws (or none at all in some cases) by a president who does not respect the law of this land. Or rather it would be more correct to say that he respects the laws he likes, and ignores or tramples on the laws that he does not like. His actions bludgeon the foundation of our civilization.

In Closing

Gustave’s journey begins at the hotel, where he is happy and fulfilled in his role as Concierge extraordinaire, and then moves into his trials, including a violent stint in jail, an audacious escape, a confrontation with Jopling in which he and Zero are the improbably brave pursuers and in which he faces death and recites poetry before he makes it through to safety, and a successful trial that allows him the inheritance, and then back to the hotel where his joie de vivre may flourish again (the hero’s return).

Grand Budapest Joie de Vivre

Joie de Vivre uber alles

Watching the complete cycle was thrilling and a joy.

And the movie is important.

As I debate various members of my family about the increasing consolidation of central power by our government and the terrible consequences of it that we are already experiencing every day, I am constantly met with a kind of mushy indifference (“all presidents do this stuff”, etc etc).

All I can say is that humanity has spent many more years living under tyranny than freedom, making the pull towards survival relatively more powerful (and the sadism and cruelty that come with it).

Luckily for us, our American Experiment has blessed us in this lifetime with a truly glorious era.

But we are losing it.

To my Liberal friends I say: if you don’t want the butt of a rifle smashing into your foreheads, open your eyes to the men and women, including Barack Obama, who would gladly put all our necks into so many yokes.


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A recent LA Times discussion with Robert Downey, Jr. walked down memory lane with him and recorded his thoughts on his many roles, including those in Weird Science, Tuff Turf, Less than Zero, Air America, Chaplin, Natural Born Killers, Home for the Holidays, Zodiac, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Tropic Thunder, Sherlock Holmes, and Due Date.

What I want to know is how they could have skipped over Downey’s greatest performance and one of the great films of the last 25 years? I speak of the movie Restoration.

All great art features some kind of illumination in a world of darkness, usually through a character who undergoes a profound and difficult transformation, and Restoration spins such magic literally and figuratively. It is a brilliant work overall, with Downey’s transcendent artistry at its heart.

It is the height of irony that Restoration was not on the long list of movies Downey was asked to revisit, but it is poetic given that it stands taller than all the others combined.

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The recent theft and recovery of a Rembrandt sketch in California brings to mind a movie that is on the sasoc list of perfection: The Thomas Crown Affair, with Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, and Denis Leary.

The real-life story involved what seems like an almost identical plot:

The 17th Century Rembrandt sketch stolen from a California hotel at the weekend was recovered at a church about 20 miles (32 km) away, it has emerged. Valued at $250,000 (£153,625), the piece, entitled The Judgement, was taken from an exhibition at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey. The sketch was recovered at a San Fernando Valley church after a tip from an anonymous caller on Monday. Police said no one had been arrested in connection with the theft. <source>

In The Thomas Crown Affair, a billionaire (Brosnan) steals a Monet from the Metropolitan museum in New York for the pure pleasure of the challenge inherent in the act. In a private moment, he is seen staring at the painting in his study, drink in hand, and such is the extent and final expression of his purpose. He returns the painting to its original place unharmed. In other words, he didn’t do it for the money.

So it would seem for the real-life thief who stole the Rembrandt and then left it in a church, complete with anonymous phone call.

The movie is an exquisite production and and absolute feast for the eyes, ears, and mind.


In perhaps one of the greatest uses ever of a pre-recorded song in a movie, the climactic scene in the museum — a cat-and-mouse chase that Crown masterminds brilliantly — is set to Nina Simone’s Sinner Man.

The synchronicity of this sequence reminds me of Kubrick’s brilliant use of the second movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in A Clockwork Orange, a horribly dark and macabre movie, which as I think about it sits in stark contrast to The Thomas Crown Affair.

As dark as A Clockwork Orange is, The Thomas Crown Affair is light, a near-perfect antidote to visions and parables of pain. It has little intellectual heft, but I adore it for the pure pleasure of seeing attractive people acting out a lustful and intelligent seduction in elaborate and entertaining ways and with total class. The art direction, music, editing, wardrobes, locations, comic timing, and poignant moments are flawless. Rene Russo has never been more scorchingly beautiful, and Denis Leary never more compelling, and neither of these observations is meant to diminish Brosnan’s performance, which was pitch-perfect (was anything in this movie not?).

Out of sheer curiosity I went back and watched the original, with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, and this horrible experience only added to the stature of the “remake”, a word that utterly fails to describe the dramatic transformation that the producers and all involved accomplished. It stands on its own as a transcendent work, of the lighter kind, but so much the better in an increasingly heavy and dark age.

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I am in shock (and total joy) over the boldness and beauty of the Starz series Spartacus – Blood and Sand and its prequel Spartacus – Gods of the Arena, which is even better and more perfectly executed. Before the series aired last year, marketing for the show touted its alchemy of two other beautifully rendered works about ancient civilizations: the movie 300 and the HBO series Rome. As a big fan of both, such marketing built up huge expectations. The verdict: the creators pulled it off and have given the medium of television another boost in its ascendancy.

Although the show is ostensibly about the humble beginnings of the slave/gladiator Spartacus, and despite a solid performance in the title role by Andy Whitfield, it is in fact John Hannah who steals the show with his visceral, snarling, and yet vulnerable depiction of Lentulus Batiatus, a surly “Lanista” (owner and trainer of gladiators) on the outside of an insider’s game who possesses a driving ambition to exceed his station.

The core of the Batiatus character is that he simultaneously embodies three essences: the energy of the runt of the litter — a weak-chinned awkward physical specimen surrounded by mesomorphic gladiators in peak condition — the insecurity, paranoia, and petulance of a man stung too many times by the disappointment of his father, and (yet) the cunning and aggression of a man who continually triumphs over all those who underestimate him.

Hannah’s facial expressions and his world-weary delivery of lines create an intensely believable character. His default visage is of a man concealing the discomfort of passing a painful gall stone. Though he speaks his mind freely, he seems bound up in his misery. On top of it all, Batiatus is more than willing to indulge in the most heartless cruelty against those under his roof. Yet Hannah makes us want to watch him, and even root for him, which is a kind of genius.

His ability to project a strange likability into such a vile and sniveling character reminds me of James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. Towards the end of that series, the FBI agent who pursued Tony throughout the years (later re-assigned to other duty) speaks for all of us in the viewing audience when he un-self-consciously confesses to a colleague that “Hey, we’re gonna win this thing!” as Tony competes in a mob war to the death. Despite knowing better, we all joined the agent in rooting for Tony, a murderous monster, because Gandolfini seduced us into doing so.

The Batiatus character also reminds me of another Roman character depicted in the movie that a few years ago may have kicked off the whole revival: Gladiator, with Joaquin Phoenix playing Commodus, the feckless and outwardly weak son of the legendary Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I wonder if the creators of Spartacus had Commodus on their minds when they conceived of Batiatus and his over-bearing and profoundly disapproving father (depicted in Gods of the Arena).

Here is a quote from the movie in which Commodus addresses his father:

You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but… there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then it was as if you didn’t want me for your son.

These words could easily come out of Batiatus’s mouth, and in a few scenes I half-expected them to. Hannah embodies this aspect without total capitulation, and gives the character convincing flashes of strength and power that surprise and enliven.

A particularly poetic moment perhaps embodies the whole series: in Gods of the Arena Batiatus successfully avenges a previous beating at the hands of the local magistrate and maneuvers his way into the opening games at the new stadium, a feat requiring guile, political acumen, boldness, and dogged determination. His wife’s friend, who had played a significant role in the scheme, initiates a celebration among the three of them by pouring wine down her naked body, which prompts Batiatus to rush her in unbridled joy, something we never quite see in the character and which Hannah delivers with abandon. I can’t deny that the sexual power of the scene may be clouding my judgment, but I will observe nonetheless that I thought the director and cinematographer depicted a moment of celebratory freedom from care with absolutely perfect tone. Hannah’s face actually buckles slightly as it enthusiastically meets her breast, and symbolizes rather well our universal, and infantile, quest for salvation. And then Dad walks in, and his presence of course rips the lovers out of their transcendence and back to the edges of the wheel of fortune.

A wonderful ride, this show.

The Genius-In-Action accolades on this blog are always meant to include the element of brilliant casting, whether Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors, or Callum Keith Rennie in Californication, or John Hannah in Spartacus. But in every case the actor must perform the role and manifest what the casting director saw. Hannah gets it done, and as if to prove his centrality in the story, the very last image in the end-credit sequence is not of any fearsome gladiator, but this:

Full Range

I hope we shall be offered some flashbacks of Batiatus in Season 2, now in production and to be aired in 2012. I anxiously await.

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An absolute masterpiece, as I said before and then again. This is an artistic statement of serious measure. I wasn’t sure I’d have the same emotional response the second time knowing the arc of the story, and yet there I was, carried over the edge of the abyss again. What a thrill ride, and what a performance by Portman. Brava, as they say.

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Tony Scott’s review of Black Swan (or rather, his discussion of Natalie Portman’s performance in the context of the Oscar race) in the New York Times is pretty darn good. He has some nice flourishes of language and understanding, such as:

Nina’s psychological state is evidently part of the artifice of “Black Swan,” but her body, subject to unimaginable (and sometimes unreal) mutations and mutilations, is the film’s ground zero of authenticity.

I think this is astute: a big part of what allows the movie to rip open the viewer and make him one with Nina’s journey is the near-constant physical horror that Nina’s flesh is subjected to. One cannot watch this movie without literally squirming in the chair, and this guarantees an emotional involvement that takes you right over the edge in the final scene (goose bumps again…thank you artists).

Of course what made the film particularly brilliant for me is that much of Nina’s horror is self-inflicted, and Tony Scott’s review glossed over this point. He preferred instead to emphasize the external forces that drive Nina to madness:

Thomas pushes Nina, whose delicacy and precision is never in doubt, to “let go,” and her contradictory effort to obey him — to perfect her performance by allowing spontaneity and imperfection into it — is what makes her and undoes her. The forced integration of the Dionysian and Apollonian impulses leads to the disintegration of her personality, a literal splitting into two Ninas…

Life Devouring Itself

Yes and no. I agree that the opposing ‘parental’ forces of the mother and the artistic director drive Nina to extremes and cause what appears to be a “disintegration.” But the two Ninas: the white swan, and the black swan, in fact come ready-made, if not fully formed, inside her from the moment of human conception. These opposing forces are in us all and we wrestle with them continuously, whether consciously or not.

As I said in my own review of the movie, most of human self-wrestling is done in a dissociated state so that we can bear getting out of bed every morning; the genius of the film is that this primal Struggle is front and center, irresistible, horrifying, and yet glorious.

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The simplest definition of Art is that which makes us actually see what we have already seen (but not seen); know what we already knew (but did not know). Key aspects of the human struggle are thoroughly known and explored by us all, many to the point of cliche and lost meaning. The magic of Art is that it breaks through this and shocks the viewer into a fresh understanding.

But Great Art goes even further: it evokes an actual experience of that which is being depicted.

The movie Black Swan does this.  Natalie Portman is breathtaking in her performance. The Director, Darren Aronofsky, brings us through with reckless abandon, and yet with confidence and care. In the midst of an unpredictable and intensely uncomfortable journey through the swan queen’s inner horror, we never feel at risk. I still have chills traversing my body, though I left the theater more than an hour ago.

Black Swan‘s themes are quite familiar: a girl seizes adulthood and breaks through the crush of a maternal grip; an artist pushes past technique and reaches something transcendent; each of us faces his own worst enemy, which is in fact himself (though he imagines it to be the Other); the yin and yang struggle for supremacy in the play of consciousness.

All of these are intensely painful as each of us moves through life, but as humans, we endure life’s pain by numbing ourselves in countless ways; we dissociate and survive. Black Swan does not allow you this defense, and that is its genius: it rips you open, makes you feel it all, and summons your own shades of self destruction and inner turmoil, whether mild or severe. The beauty of it is that only in this field of experience can an act of transcendence, such as the one depicted in the final act, truly penetrate and touch your soul: the final triumph is revealed and experienced as the kingdom of god in the here and now, complete with the scars of a battle well fought (and not with the Hollywood fugazy of an unmarked hero). No one gets through clean. Life is a dirty business, yet glorious.

By the time the credits roll, we are there with her, and then deposited safely back on the ground, fully present, and yet on wobbly legs. To attain this condition is a gift, and we need Art to give it to us. Black Swan does.

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