How Does a Man Become a Cow in The Salesman and My Cousin Rachel?

“How does a man become a cow?” a student asks in reference to a realistic story with one, odd, fanciful element being analyzed in class.

“Gradually,” Emad, the teacher (Shahab Hosseini) responds in a prescient scene in the beautifully layered, rightfully Oscar-winning Iranian domestic melodrama, The Salesman.

The better animal choice might be a pig…but the answer, crypto-Feminist writer-director Asghar Farhadi implies, is the same.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION)

No man is born a disgusting, sexist pig. You become one…gradually, based on the choices a misogynistic society forces you to make. When you live in a religiously repressed and politically oppressed society that systematically puts value on their women based on what their men do (or don’t do) to them, and in turn puts value on the men based on the value put upon their women, men will often too easily devolve into metaphorical pigs obsessed with shame, dishonor and possessions…even unwittingly sometimes.

Take for instance Emad, the teacher who brings to his students eye-opening Western literature and moonlights (along with his loving, lovely wife, Rana, played by the powerfully emotive About Elly alum Taraneh Alidoosti) as an actor, currently putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he is Willy Loman and Rana is Linda Loman. The play, by the way, is being threatened with censorship by the government. I loved how this threat of censorship is presented as a throwaway line, a common, all-too-everyday annoyance in Iranian middle-class society (and don’t think this couldn’t happen here…or anywhere, with the right strongman in place). This couple seems like a liberal bastion in a repressive society, self-aware and quietly trying to bring about enlightenment through education and the arts.

But the world they live in wants to turn women into objects and men into pigs. Continue reading

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A Review of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”

Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Doubt

CAPTION:  Meryl Steep and Amy Adams have some bad habits to break in Doubt.

Perhaps We’re not Meant to Sleep so Well…, 21 December 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

It seemed rather fitting that I saw Doubt on the first day of winter, the sun making its shortest visit of the year, the advancing cold indicative of the looming incertitude of the characters in the film. This is the second film in a row after Frost/Nixon that has been adapted from an award-winning play. Unlike that film, Doubt is directed by the playwright, John Patrick Shanley. Wisely he employs the best in the bizz, cinematographer Roger Deakins, to translate his theatrics into film language. The crooked camera angles, the overt symbolism of storms approaching, windows blowing open, snow covering the ground, crows squawking, and lights blowing out, all smack the viewer in the face. There’s no denying what lies at the heart of Doubt.

Set in New York in 1964, the film tells the story of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep acting in her wheelhouse), the principal of Saint Nicholas’ School, who begins to suspect the new priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman, insidiously innocuous) is developing an inappropriate relationship with one of the altar boys, who also happens to be the school’s first African-American student. The naive Sister James (a perfectly cast Amy Adams) is at first pulled into Sister Aloysius’ plot to uncover the truth, but soon falls under the priest’s spell and is convinced of his innocence. But things aren’t so cut and dry, and soon both women are riddled with doubt after being so certain they were on the side of the just.

Some have claimed Streep’s performance verges on camp and that the film relies too much on Gothic overtones. However, anyone who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school knew a nun just like her (mine was Sister Laboure), and her portrayal of a domineering principal who still defers to a higher power is nothing short of brilliant. Also, the Gothic nature of the film falls right in line with the traditions of Catholicism as it subtly hints at other crimes and sins in its sly treatment of secondary characters and plotlines that stir the audience’s imaginations not unlike Henry James worked readers into a tizzy with The Turn of the Screw over one hundred years earlier. Yes, there are moments where the film plays like a psychological thriller, and that’s part of its brilliance, for in no other way can we come to accept the sins but in the guise of horror.

Like Notes on a Scandal the film uses a salacious topic as a vehicle for an acting showcase. The fireworks amongst the three leads are worth the price of admission alone. In its treatment of the Catholic child abuse scandal, the film accurately portrays how insular the Church was (and still is) from the rest of the world and how easy it was for the accusations to be never voiced properly, or if they were, swept under the rug. In its closing scene of Streep and Adams finding solace in each other’s doubts on a bench in the dead of winter, Shanley seems to beg the audience for a little bit of sympathy on behalf of the Church. However, it left me thinking of an earlier scene where Hoffman’s priest asked Streep’s nun, “Where is your compassion?” To which Streep replied, “Nowhere you can get at it.” Perhaps any sympathy should be showered on the victims…for I feel nothing for the Church.  Doubt will leave you chilled, and like the Sisters, perhaps we’re not meant to sleep so well as long as the crimes continue.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0918927/usercomments-18

A Review of Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”

CAPTION:  Kevin Bacon tells Frank Langella, “You are not a horse.”

Mr. Nixon, It’s Time for Your Close-up, 18 December 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Ron Howard’s competent film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play (who also scripted and co-produced here) dramatizes the famous Frost/Nixon interviews from 1977. At one point in the film, Kevin Bacon’s character explains to Frank Langella’s Nixon that a portion of the interview will focus on “Nixon the man”. To which Nixon retorted, “As opposed to what? Nixon the horse?” Of course what was on everyone’s mind at the time was Watergate and how American was never able to give Nixon the trial they so desperately wanted. Through the unlikely Frost interviews, the American people finally heard the truth behind the scandal–straight from the horse’s mouth.

Morgan’s source material translates smoothly onto film. Much as he did with The Queen, he mixes a behind the scenes look at the immediate time period leading up to the historical event and closes with an almost word-for-word dramatization of said event. Also, like The Queen, we have the excellent Michael Sheen on board, who after playing Tony Blair now takes on the mannerisms of the legendary British talk-show host and man-about-town David Frost. Director Ron Howard nicely interweaves archival news footage, faux-post interviews with the secondary players, and the dramatic reenactments of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews. Howard’s studied but pedestrian style of direction lends itself well to this type of docudrama as he allows the actual events to speak for themselves and the fine performances to shine on their own. Though it takes quite awhile to get where it’s going, the final interview where Frost takes Nixon head-on about the Watergate cover-up is a payoff well worth the wait.

Of course the most fascinating aspect of the film is Frank Langella’s portrayal of a shamed and swollen Richard Nixon. He plays him as a fallen man desperate for an act of contrition but still in too deep with his old trickery and slick ways. His performance, and the way it connects with the audience, is wonderfully layered. On one level, we have an aged actor thought to be well past his prime firing back on all cylinders in a renaissance role that will likely lead to a showering of award nominations. The way the film reduces his performance to that one lingering close-up after being steamrolled by Frost on the last day of the interview leaves a lasting impression. But it also works on another level as it is meant to represent the reduction of Nixon’s political life to that one lingering close-up on the television monitor when he realized it’s all over for him. The audience members who remember watching the interviews and can picture the actual close-up they saw on their TV screens are now allowed to share a communion with the audience members who weren’t even born yet and now only have a memory of Langella’s face on the silver screen. In that sense, Langella truly became Nixon, and his performance will not soon be forgotten.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0870111/usercomments-34