Thoughts on ‘Dr. No’

Since my household recently purchased a complete box set of the James Bond films, we’ve begun a total re-watch of the entire series. So, I’ll be giving my thoughts on each film in turn.

First some background: I’m a long-time fan of the Bond films. I’ve seen all of them (except Quantum of Solace) at least once and have a fairly good working knowledge of the history and background of the films, though I haven’t gotten around to reading any of the books yet.

So, we open with the very first of the mainline Bond films: 1962’s Dr. No, in which James Bond travels to Jamaica (the Caribbean was a favorite haunt of Ian Fleming’s and a common setting of the series) to investigate the death of a British agent investigating mysterious radio interference with American missile tests.

What struck me most on this re-viewing was simultaneously how down-to-Earth it is compared to many of its sequels and yet how complete it is. The classic trappings of the Bond formula are almost all there in full force; M, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter, the casino, the exotic locations and high living, the women, and the oppressively powerful villain with his private army of henchmen. Only Q, and with him the emphasis on gadgets is yet missing. Also, the opening credits are instrumental rather than accompanied by a song, and the gun barrel sequence is slightly off in that it opens in silence.

More than that, the character of Bond bursts onto screen essentially complete; there was never a part where I thought “Well, Bond would never do that in later films.” On the contrary, watching this time and paying closer attention to the details of his characterization, I realized just how strongly marked a character he really is, perhaps not in depth, but in style and personality. We’ll come back to that.

Yet, as I say, this film is comparatively restrained when contrasted with its sequels. It in fact takes more the form of a detective story, with Bond spending most of the film pursuing leads and trying to trace the footsteps of his predecessor, Strangeways. He’s even referred to as a detective more than once (Dr. No eventually dismisses him as, “just a stupid policeman”). The emphasis is more on Bond’s cunning and cleverness than on his fighting prowess: the action scenes are generally pretty short and restrained, while scenes like Bond’s verbal fencing match upon meeting Quarrel (the first of many local Bond allies) or his interviews with the slimy Professor Dent take up much of the first and second act, interspersed with more quietly suspenseful scenes like Bond waking to find a venomous tarantula in his bed. The third act ramps up things a bit, but still remains pretty low-key and realistic (including a tense pursuit through a swamp that ends with Bond knifing one of the guards commando-style).

Partly for this reason, I was struck by just how good the movie was, and how effectively it tells its rather complicated plot and ushers us into the world of Bond for the first time. In the very first minutes of Dr. No we discover that a man at a British gentleman’s club is a spy, and then see him gunned down by what seemed to be three blind beggars. The stage is set; we are in a world where appearances cannot be trusted and death is a moment-to-moment possibility: a hidden world of spies and counter-spies operating just out of sight of normal people.

This is immediately followed by a scene of men and women working at a radio switchboard, identifying that something is wrong, and passing the information along. They’re dressed in normal work clothes and deal with the disappearance of two people in a calm, professional matter by referring it to the correct channels. It is a short scene that most people probably forget, but it is also important; the apparatus of spy work is, fundamentally, not a cabal of supermen, but a job like any other, carried out, for the most part, with cool routine and procedure. This is an idea that the films will return to again and again, and it is here established almost immediately.

From there we go to a high-end casino, where we receive our unforgettable introduction to, “Bond…James Bond” (apparently, this immortal line and its delivery was worked out by Sean Connery himself when he found the original version of the scene too dull).

As I’ve said, what is remarkable is how complete Bond’s character is from the start. To take an illustrative example: when Bond first arrives in Jamaica, he finds a man with a car waiting for him, ostensibly from the government. He coolly excuses himself without arousing the man’s suspicions and calls his contact to check whether a car has in fact been sent for him. Finding that none has, he goes back to the car and gets in anyway. He then grabs the chance to turn the tables, easily outfights the man, and proceeds to interrogate him (a cyanide-laced cigarette prevents him from getting any information, establishing the fear Dr. No inspires in his underlings).

This is a pattern that will recur throughout the film and indeed the series: Bond never takes the safe option. Instead, he prefers to walk into danger with his eyes open, trusting to his skill and his luck to get the better of his opponent and thus to learn from them. Bond is not looking for safety, but information, and in the hidden world of spies he needs to skate shoulder-to-shoulder with the people trying to kill him in order to get it. If he discovers a trap, his instinct is not to avoid it, but take the bait and try turn it to his own advantage, which he more often than not is able to do. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy: the personality of a born gambler.

Casting Sean Connery was brilliant, not only for his acting chops and rugged physicality, but also for the rough air that came from his poor background. As implied in the early scene at the switchboard, Bond is fundamentally a workingman: a civil servant with a paycheck and a pension (despite the fact that he actually comes of a high-class family, as will be revealed later in the series). Connery, himself a working-class man in a job that causes him to adopt an air of sophistication, brings the perfect balance to the role, so that both elements are there, but so blended that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

This is the strange, potent blend that makes Bond so interesting; he is simultaneously rich and sophisticated, a gentleman of wealth and taste, and also a workingman, living by his wits and his luck, with earthy, human appetites in alcohol, women, and food (granted with high standards in all three). He combines in one person Jack the Giant Slayer – the cunning peasant who overcomes enemies ostensibly far above him through use of his wits and taunts them when he’s finished for good measure – and Sir Lancelot – the high-born knight of unquestionable loyalty and unmatched martial prowess who follows court etiquette to the letter. I don’t think any culture but England could have produced such a hero, which might be one of the reasons he has taken such a place in the popular consciousness.

Of course, he’s not a classical hero, like a knight of old: morally, he’s closer to a brutally pragmatic pagan hero, like Achilles or Odysseus. He kills his enemies in cold-blood (and even shoots the corpse of a dead enemy at one point as a final insult). He lies continually and without turning a hair, whether he needs to or not. And, of course, he shamelessly flirts with and sleeps with women as the mood strikes him, or as a strategy, and he’s perfectly willing to rough them up to get information.

But, at the same time, he has real virtues. He cares for his friends, is unshakably loyal to his country, and sincerely believes in the justice and freedom he is fighting for (when he meets Dr. No, he sneers at people who think they’re “Napoleon. Or God,” and comments that No’s disregard for human life suggests he’s working for ‘the East’). He’s also shown to be fairly generous and respectful towards servants and the poor (as seen when he drops generous tips to the staff at the casino). And though he sleeps around with many different women, he also makes a point to protect innocent girls like Honey Rider, the shell-collector he meets at Dr. No’s island. Once she shows up, he tries time and again to get her to safety or to protect her against the bad guys, and he treats her, as far as the film goes, very kindly.

Honey is the first main ‘Bond Girl,’ and her introduction, rising from the sea like Venus, is one of the most famous images of the series. She really doesn’t have anything to do with the story, except giving Bond someone to protect, but she is a comparatively rare Bond girl with an actual backstory (daughter of a marine biologist murdered by Dr. No), and she’s certainly a pleasant enough character, and giving Bond charge of an innocent party is a good way to keep the film’s rather shaky moral premise intact and emphasizes that there is a world of difference between Bond and his adversaries. Whatever nasty things Bond does, he ultimately does it to protect the innocent people that the likes of SPECTRE would abuse, exploit, or kill.

As for Dr. No himself, again we see the trappings of the Bond franchise are remarkably complete here in the first of many vivid Bond villains. He has comparatively little screen time, but his presence as an ominous, unseen force that drives people to suicide for fear of displeasing him, hangs over the whole film. He is introduced as a disembodied voice rebuking Professor Dent in terms that assure him (and us) that he knows far more of Bond’s investigation than he ought and considers himself completely in control of the situation. And, despite all of Bond’s strength and skill, he makes good on that assertion for almost the entire film.

Played with cold detachment by Joseph Wiseman, Dr. No, like so many subsequent villains, takes an opposite approach to Bond. He is a chess master and scientist, relying on his brains and organizational skills to control his environment to his own advantage. He speaks in a soft, calm voice, almost a monotone, wears a featureless suit, and has powerful robotic hands. All this marks him as having largely sacrificed his humanity for his own goals, in contrast to Bond, who retains his natural appetites and enjoyments, his sense of humor, and some fundamental ideas of right and wrong.

Dr. No, though not on screen long, makes a powerful impression and even after some twenty-four films, he stands as one of the great villains of the franchise. Not only that, but he serves as our introduction to the legendary SPECTRE organization, which will be pursuing Bond through most of the early films. We’ll talk more about them as things go on.

Though I mentioned the film’s remarkable sense of completeness, there are a few signs of it’s being the first of a series. The film opens with Bond trading in an old Berretta for his trademark Walther PPK, for instance, and he later is shown meeting his perennial American ally Felix Leiter for the first time (Bond specifically comments that he’s “heard of Leiter, but never met him” at this point). Leiter himself is slightly more antagonistic towards Bond than he would be later on, with some mild jockeying over whose jurisdiction No falls under.

The scene where Bond receives his Walther is another example of the film’s efficiency. It rapidly and naturally establishes the capabilities of the firearm, the fact that Bond is an experienced field agent, but not invulnerable (it’s mentioned he was in hospital after a previous mission went south), and that the double-o designation means he’s licensed to kill.

It’s not perfect, of course (I don’t know that any of the Bond films will make a ‘best of all time’ list, though some, this one included, would easily land on a ‘best action-adventure films’ list). There are things like how, as mentioned, Honey Rider has no story purpose in the film at all, or that Bond seems to escape No’s cell and foil his plan rather easily after all that build up, or the moments where the film’s comparatively low-budget shows through, such as the unconvincing green screens during the car chases. It probably could stand to be a little shorter, and depending on your taste in music the song ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’ will probably start to grate on you long before the film is over (the ‘Three Blind Mice’ song that opens the film is much better, to my tastes).

But despite these problems, even after all these years I’d still consider ‘Dr. No’ as one of the best of the Bond series. It’s a strong opening act setting the tone for a long journey.

Aquaman and Causation at The Everyman

That review I fisked last week sparked some thoughts in my mind about Progressivism and causation. The resulting essay appears today at The Everyman

First it must be noted that Aquaman is a very successful film. As of this writing, it’s made 265 million dollars in the US and close to a billion worldwide (according to boxofficemojo.com)—and it’s still going, sitting comfortably at number one in the US Box Office, while standing at a respectable 7.5 rating on IMDb. Objectively speaking, it’s not a great film by any means, but clearly people like it. Heck, I liked it, even with all its many flaws.

Now here comes the point: if it had been everything this reviewer apparently wanted it to be—a social justice driven, feminist-environmentalist tale where instructions on real-world politics and ideology served as the main themes—does anyone honestly suppose that it would have been half as successful as it is?

There are no hard and fast rules in the box office, but there are in philosophy, and one of them is this: if you change the cause, you change the effect. Aquaman is a very successful film because audiences enjoyed it, and one of the reasons they enjoyed it seems to be that it was so unabashedly escapist in its tone. If the filmmakers had changed that and instead opted for a self-consciously ‘relevant’ film like, say A Wrinkle in Time or Ghostbusters 2016 or Robin Hood, it almost certainly would have bombed just like they did.

Read the rest here.

By the way, since writing that, Aquaman has officially passed the $1 billion worldwide mark. He’s come a long way since the Superfriends.

An Aqua-Fisk

Last weekend I got out to see Aquaman. It was incredibly stupid and absolutely ridiculous in a lot of ways, but I enjoyed it a lot. Certainly, I much prefer over-the-top dumb-fun like this to self-consciously grim garbage like Man of Steel.

Then I happened across this review which I thought was so off-point that I had to write something about it. As usual, original in italics, my response in bold. 

No, yes, please, let us continue the tradition of telling stories about men who proudly don’t care about anything thrust into positions of power and authority purely by dint of birthright. I mean, as long as they have some smart, dedicated, noble-minded women around to support them and guide them and show them the way to wise manhood, that’s fine, right? Like, maybe some women who have been working toward whatever lofty goals the man will eventually “achieve” even though he’s just arrived on the scene and, as previously noted, couldn’t give a shit about the things they will now step aside and let him take all the credit for.

Well, we’re off to a great start; a ‘tradition’ that, as far as I can tell, you would have to really look for and stretch things to identify, and which is in any case depends on putting who achieves something over what is achieved. And, really? This is what she gleans from the film? We’ll come back to this.  

I certainly cannot see any way in which this recurring cultural narrative could have any negative impact on the world.

            Huh. I wonder whether she’d have a similar reaction to the recurring cultural narrative that, say, capitalists are heartless, greedy monsters who only desire to exploit workers for their own gain? Because I’m pretty sure that narrative has had a negative impact on the world. But never mind; pray continue.

 So here we have Aquaman, about a fish-man, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa: Justice League, The Bad Batch), who is half human and half Atlantean… as in the ancient underwater realm of Atlantis. He can breathe underwater, see even at depth in the dark ocean, swim superfast, and communicate with the animals of the seas. (For some reason he is also superstrong, because, I dunno, fish are unreasonably brawny?)

            This is explained in the film: Atlanteans are much stronger and more durable than normal humans because they’re built to survive under thousands of pounds of oceanic pressure. It’s easy enough to miss, I suppose, but it’s only the first sign that she didn’t really pay much attention to the film.

And his Atlantean half is not just any-old peasant, either: His mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman: The Beguiled, Big Little Lies), was queen of Atlantis, though not a willing one, so she ran away, had a kid with a human man (Temuera Morrison: Moana, Green Lantern), and then got dragged back again. Now, another unwilling queen, Mera (Amber Heard: The Danish Girl, Magic Mike XXL), comes to the human world, the surface world, to bring Arthur back to Atlantis because his half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson: The Commuter, The Founder), is up to no good and must be stopped, and apparently only Arthur can stop him, by taking up the throne of Atlantis. Mera can’t stop Orm, even though she seems to be secretly part of a resistance against him. She’s just a girl, after all.

             Okay, let’s address this. Mera (who is a princess, by the way, not a queen) cannot stop Orm because he is the legitimate king of Atlantis. She’s Princess of a smaller kingdom, which is ruled by her father, who is in league with Orm. Thus, she really has no way of stopping him; she can’t depose both him and her own father, and if she tried the people would revolt against her. The plan, therefore, is to bring in Arthur, who, being first born, actually has a better claim to the throne than Orm. However, since he’s an outsider and half-human, the only way the people will accept him is if he brings a very clear symbol of his right to rule in the form of the lost trident.

            It’s a little convoluted, and I’m not sure if it all holds together, but it’s all there. They’re doing what actually would be done in a real monarchy if the King were out of control: finding an alternative claimant and convincing the populace that he has a better right to the throne. This isn’t Black Panther where an obviously psychotic outsider can just show up, take the crown, and the entire country instantly gets behind him: the characters have to take things like legitimacy, local customs, and the will of the people into account (yes, Aquaman is a smarter film than Black Panther, and yes, I do like picking on that film).

Here is another recurring cultural narrative that by all means must endure, and that surely isn’t doing any damage whatsoever:

Okay, what is your definition of ‘damage’? Do you want to cite anything objective here, any actual incidences of real harm being done to real people by the things you’re complaining about? Put up, or actually tell me something about the darn film rather than your socio-political paranoia. 

science fiction and fantasy stories — of which Aquaman is arguably a bit of both — told by men — the screenwriters here are director James Wan and three other guys —

Wow, nice little gratuitous bit of misandry there.

that feature wildly inventive alternate worlds full of magic and wonder and all manner of fanciful places and creatures… and is just as f***ing sexist as the real world.

          And what, specifically, in this film was ‘sexist’ by her definition? I mean, I can see her thinking that the fact that Atlantis has arranged marriages, at least among royalty, is sexist (though Mera actually points out to Arthur that there are reasons for it), but what else? Mera’s a tough, capable heroine, very powerful, and saves Arthur’s life more than once, as well as being generally smarter and more on the ball than he is. Heck, I thought they went too far in that regard and would have preferred if she’d needed to be rescued at least once, just to balance things out a bit.

The limits to the imagination at play here are shocking but tediously predictable. God forbid we should enrage the fanboys who would howl should any hint of social-justice warfare edge into their fish-man-who-would-be-king story.

Okay, let’s deal with this. First, the only limits to the imagination I see here are her attacking a film for daring to show a culture that doesn’t work like modern upper-class America. That’s if her complaints mean anything at all beyond that she just didn’t watch the film very closely. The movie being willing to present a monarchical society, complete with arranged marriages and clear distinctions between high and low-born shows a refreshing freedom of imagination: a willingness to not be restrained too much by the rigid standards of the present culture. Nor do I think any reasonable person would look at this film, with its fantastic monsters, characters, and environments, and conclude “lack of imagination” simply because it doesn’t regurgitate the same tired political talking points you can find literally everywhere these days.

            Yes, ‘social justice warfare’ does not belong in an ‘Aquaman’ film; it does not represent a lack of imagination, but awareness on the part of the filmmakers of what their job is. People do not like be lectured when they go to see a fantasy film: they don’t want to see their favorite hero turned into yet-another mouthpiece for telling them why they should be ashamed of themselves for existing. Again, they can get that literally anywhere else anytime they want it; it does not belong in a superhero movie.

 Which, they may all rest assured, has not happened at all. Unless there is something objectionable in the non-blond-Aryan Momoa — who is partly of Native Hawaiian and Native American descent — in the lead role? (*Googles* Yup, some people think so.)

Why the heck did she bring this up?

            Yes, when you cast someone who looks completely different from the original character, some people are not going to like it. I’m sure you could find some people who even were legitimately racist in their reaction to it (it’s the internet; you can find anything). But why mention it, especially in context of the surrounding points? The best I can tell is that she means it as an insult to those she so contemptuously describes as ‘fan boys,’ implying they are racists as well as sexists and generally insufficiently woke.

            But here’s the thing; the ‘fan boys’ obviously liked the film, since any doubts about Mr. Momoa in the role clearly haven’t hurt the box office or prevented the film from making a billion dollars.

            Look at what she is doing: she complains that the film is politically regressive, and that those who like the film hate social justice, then to support that she cites fans who had a problem with Jason Momoa’s casting. But that would be a reason for people not to like the film. She is equating two separate groups: those who liked the film and consequently were okay with its ‘sexist’ politics, and those who didn’t like it based on the choice of Mr. Momoa in the title role.

This is one of the main reasons I wanted to do this fisk, because this is quite frankly disgusting; she’s gratuitously attacking a huge number of people (those who liked the film) for no reason by snidely linking them to views they very obviously do no hold.

Indeed, even Aquaman’s nominally pro-environmental angle doesn’t dare to say anything even slightly radical. The badness of King Orm is all about how he wants to lead a war against the surface world because we’ve been dumping all our garbage in his ocean since forever, and just generally doing our best to destroy the planet, and it’s pretty difficult to fault him for this.

             Wait, she thinks a world war and mass-murder is an acceptable punishment for pollution?

But Arthur, straddling the two worlds as he does, can prevent this, apparently… and so Aquaman ends up reassuring us polluting humans that we don’t have to change our ways and clean up our act — literally or figuratively — because the half-human guy will make it all better and save us from suffering any consequences for our crimes. 

            Arthur’s role is to be a mediator, with the point that both sides have a mistaken view of the other (as explicitly shown in Mera’s rant against the surface world: even heroic Atlanteans are prejudiced and dismissive of the surface), but he is able to see things from both points of view. And ‘crime’ is a bit of a stretch for pollution, don’t you think? Obviously she doesn’t.

There is no suspense in anything here, and so no real sense of triumph even when we’re meant to be cheering. It barely even registers when Arthur morphs every so slightly from a guy who might engage in some light maritime rescuing, even though it means missing happy hour, to a guy who is no longer scoffing at the “fairy tales” that indicate he is the rightful ruler of Atlantis. (He has to find a legendary trident and publicly wield it. Not pull a sword from a stone and publicly wield it. Totally different thing. King of the who?) 

            They explicitly made that connection in the film. It’s very obviously intentional. That’s not a criticism.            

Of course some of what he has to do involves dick-measuring hand-to-hand combat with his half brother, or with other manly obstacles, and for a guy who thinks with his muscles, that’s just fun.

            More misandric comments, and it’s an action film with a male lead; what does she expect? This isn’t a criticism, this is just smugness.

 He’s not particularly challenged by anything that happens to him. He doesn’t struggle. As long as Arthur gets to keep being the same old pretty but colorless meathead (spoiler: he does), it makes no difference to him.

            No, he has a huge moment of crisis when he realizes that he’s endangered the people he cares about because he made a bad decision earlier in the film. It’s not brilliantly done, but it’s not nothing. Again, I get the impression she didn’t really watch the film.

            Arthur’s actually a pretty decently developed character; he acts like a meathead most of the time, but underneath is shown to be pretty intelligent and feels strongly for the people in his life, but he runs from this side of him because he doesn’t want anything to do with Atlantis, since they killed his mother just for having him. His coming to terms with this and becoming a king capable of mercy and moderation comprises his development. All this is established in the film. Again, it’s not perfectly done, but it’s not nothing.

What else is there? A lot of imagery of the high-tech underwater realms, especially the city of Atlantis, that seems inspired by 80s mall-store black-light posters. (Hello, Spencer Gifts!) Jarring detours down an Indiana Jones/Dan Brown tangent, then another into a Lost Continent realm. (This movie is trying to be a lot of movies all at once, and it doesn’t work.) Undersea action sequences — big battles, chases — in which director Wan (The Conjuring 2, Insidious) offers us no sense of geography or space, no sense of who most of the characters involved are, and so they just mush together into a lot of noise and psychedelic chaos.

            And here we finally get a legitimate criticism; the big battle scene at the end is pretty hard to follow, except that a lot of stuff is going on and a lot of people are getting killed, but where our characters are is kind of lost in the shuffle.

            The sudden shifts to Indiana Jones and the Lost Continent are a little strange, and you could cite them as a problem, though I enjoyed them, personally; I thought it was tonally consistent with the madcap fantasy world of Atlantis, as set early on in the film.

I don’t know why she’s complaining about the look of Atlantis: just likening it to ‘black light poster’ doesn’t tell me anything. Is it inconsistent with what Atlantis is supposed to be? Aesthetically ugly? Thematically inappropriate? I thought it was fine; reminiscent of both Ancient Greek architecture and bioluminescence, with a high-tech sheen. Pretty much perfectly fitting for Atlantis. Is it the best possible Atlantis? No, but I don’t think the visuals can be legitimately cited as a criticism; the film looks great. There are a lot of very impressive, very creatively filmed scenes. You could argue the CG is a bit much, but that’s about it.

This is part of the problem: even when she cites legitimate flaws, she doesn’t seem to be giving the film an honest hearing; she’s just citing everything as a flaw, apparently because she didn’t like the politics. This ‘review’ doesn’t seem like an attempt to say what works and doesn’t work in the film, but to vent her spleen on something she took offense at.

There’s a human villain trying to kill Arthur, but when Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Boundaries, Baywatch) — who is hellbent to get revenge on “the Aquaman” for a thing Arthur did — has a chance to shoot Arthur, literally has Arthur in his sights, he fails to do so. (It’s much worse than the typical movie trope of the bad guy who fails to take the opportunity to kill the good guy: there’s no feint toward giving Manta a reason to hesitate. He’s not even monologuing at the time!)

I don’t know what specific moment she’s talking about here, but I distinctly remember Black Manta nailing Arthur with his lasers at least once, not to mention stabbing and slicing him several times. So, maybe this is a legit criticism, but…I wouldn’t bet on it.

When Aquaman isn’t an incoherent mess, it’s little more than Jason Momoa standing around smirking or Amber Heard shifting instantly from disgust of Arthur to adoration of him. Which is barely any better.

Aquaman is not a great film; I don’t think I’d even call it a good one. It’s got a large number of plot holes, questionable moments, laughable mistakes, and it goes on for probably about a half-hour too long. This ‘review,’ on the other hand, is a single paragraph of substandard film criticism stuck onto the end of a nonsensical rant about progressive politics.

            There are a lot of positives in the film: Arthur’s character and Mr. Momoa’s performance, Black Manta, Arthur’s relationship with his father, the visuals and creativity, the fact that Orm is allowed to have an honest and human reason for hating Arthur (he blames him for their mother’s death), Mera overcoming her prejudice of the surface world, the camerawork, all of these things are honestly well-done. She doesn’t mention any of them.

There are a lot of other things that could be argued one way or another, and likewise a lot of flaws: the question of why Orm needs to hire Black Manta to go after Arthur, and how he’s able to tinker with ultra-advance Atlantean tech to build his helmet (and why they allow him to do so), the fact that the arena battle is almost completely unnecessary to the story, the question of how Arthur and Mera hiked out of the desert, Manta’s father firing a grenade-launcher inside a submarine with no repercussions until he hits a torpedo, the cringeworthy inspirational speeches, and so on. But she doesn’t mention any of these either.

Again, this isn’t a review, it’s a rant: she doesn’t like that the film doesn’t go out of its way to promote her favored politics, so nothing it does is right, and she sprinkles it with gratuitous insults towards the filmmakers and fans.

Chesterton said that a good book tells us the truth of its characters, while a bad one tells us the truth of its author. I think that goes double for reviews.

Sticking up for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

So, a few days back, someone posted an attack on It’s a Wonderful Life in the ‘Boston Herald,’ criticizing it, not only as a bad film, but as promoting socialism. It was a very poorly done piece, of the “make a bold claim, then support it with a sarcastic comment” variety, but since the point of view is one that I’ve seen infecting Conservative circles a lot, I thought it needed to be addressed. Hence, today’s piece in The Federalist:

Having dismissed “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a technical level with a single ill-informed paragraph, he proceeds to tackle the film’s message. Graham’s position is that George’s life is “pretty awful” because he endures a lot of suffering, is unable to go to college or even on his honeymoon, and “his kids wear second-hand clothes and get sick from the cold…because George can’t afford nice things for his family.” Graham then claims the film’s vindication of George’s life “fails” because “his life still stinks. He’s not, in fact, rich or even financially secure…and on top of that, Potter gets to keep the eight grand!”

Thus, apparently, Graham’s definition of a good life is one in which we are “rich, or even financially secure,” able to do what we like, able to avoid suffering as much as possible, and perhaps one in which evil people are punished as well. He then rather absurdly goes on to claim that “It’s a Wonderful Life” represents socialist, New Deal-style economics, and that it was intended for “the workers at a Soviet collective circa 1949,” with the message “who cares that you have no shoes? Back to the factory for Mother Russia.”

Ironically, Graham’s view of the good life as defined primarily by material security and wellbeing is far closer to a socialist perspective than anything in the film. The foundational idea of Marxism is that the world is purely material, and therefore creating material security and equality for the most people is the highest good.

Judging by this op-ed, Graham would agree, but only dispute with a Marxist whether socialism or capitalism creates the most good for the most people. One thing with which a Marxist would never agree is that a man’s happiness is far more dependent on family, community, virtue, and so on than by his material well being.

This is a fundamental flaw in modern discourse for both conservatives and liberals: we focus so much on material issues, trying to work out a system that will make, as Graham says, “the best world for the most people,” that we don’t stop to ask what we mean by “the best world” or a “good life.” Both sides are making the exact same mistake even as they draw different conclusions: both accept the same basic philosophy, but disagree on its application.

Read the rest here

It’s a Wonderful Life at Catholic Match

If anyone were to ask what I think the best movie ever made is (understanding there’s objectively no such thing), I would probably say It’s a Wonderful Life. I might do a piece going into why I think this, but in the meantime I get to give some idea of why in today’s piece on Catholic Match. 

I have sometimes thought it a shame that It’s a Wonderful Life is regarded as a ‘Christmas Movie.’

It is, of course (in more ways than one), but if we think of it as ‘merely’ a Christmas movie we risk undervaluing it.

Frank Capra’s masterpiece, of course, needs no introduction. You’ve seen it at least once, and if you haven’t you know the basic premise: an ambitious, gifted young man named George Bailey wants nothing more than to escape his small, provincial town and do something big and important with his life.

But, one way or another, he gives up every opportunity to make good on that dream in order to help the people around him until one Christmas Eve finds him contemplating suicide, feeling he’s wasted his life. A roly-poly, ‘second class angel’ named Clarence then appears and shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born.

The message of the film is usually given as “every life has value.” Yes, but not quite in the way you might think. It is not George Bailey’s intrinsic value as a person that leads to his vindication, but the choices he made along the way.

Read the rest here, and Merry Christmas!

Yes, Virginia, ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas Movie

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, and it’s all about the Christmas classic Die Hard and what makes it a Christmas movie.

Since the question hinges on there being a difference between a Christmas movie proper and a movie set around Christmas, it seems that a Christmas movie proper is a film that has some thematic element of Christmas as a central part of its story, while also linking this theme with the Christmas holiday itself. For instance, generosity and kindness are Christmas themes, but a film is not a Christmas movie for featuring them, only if they are linked with the Christmas season (otherwise something like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” would be considered a Christmas movie).

So a Christmas movie is a movie specifically about Christmas and the related ideas of love, generosity, family, and so on. “Miracle on 34th Street” is a Christmas movie, not only because it is set during Christmas and features Santa Claus, but because it is all about putting innocence, generosity, and kindness ahead of modern cynicism and consumerism.  

It would be going too far to say that “Die Hard” has the same moral premise as “Miracle on 34th Street,” but it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate either, because “Die Hard” is all about the clash between love and materialism.

Read the rest here.