I HAVE TAKEN SOME RIBBING FROM MY FRIENDS since the appearance of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, a movie about a screenwriter who can't write a screenplay about a nonfiction writer who has trouble writing a piece of nonfiction about an environmentalist who doesn't want to obey laws designed to protect the environment. This is because my friends thought I had cornered the market on writing about not being able to write. In the 1980s I published a novel in the form of a memo to a university doctoral committee from a man confessing that he can't write his Ph.D. dissertation. A year and a half ago in this space, with considerably less irony and vastly more anguish, I published an essay in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, about not being able write the essay I was supposed to write.
My friends think it's funny that I've been doing this writing about not writing schtick for ages without much of anybody noticing, but when Charlie Kaufman does it, he wins all sorts of awards. Right now, they're thinking that I've said all this to launch into a review of Adaptation and perhaps other examples of self-conscious cinema. And then again, they're suspicious that I'm about to write an essay about not being able to write an essay about Adaptation and other examples of self-conscious cinema.
But I'm not.
Instead, I've said all this to reflect again on my novel The El Cholo Feeling Passes and its protagonist Richard Janus who couldn't write a Ph.D. dissertation in history because he didn't really want to be an historian. Like Richard Janus, I once failed to write a Ph.D. dissertation in history, but not because I didn't want to be an historian. I have recently come to realize that I've perhaps always wanted to be an historian—only one who dealt with history through the telling of stories, rather than the assembling of facts, through image, rather than analysis.
So what I'm going to do in this essay is celebrate three gifted cinematic storytellers who have taught us some history through their recent movies. Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron sets Y Tu Mama Tambien in contemporary Mexico but endeavors to produce a metaphor that stands for five hundred years of his nation's history. In Far From Heaven writer/director Todd Haynes exposes the ugly underbelly of a post-World-War-II America that aging baby boomers sometimes recall as a golden era innocent of the strife which stains contemporary society. And in Gangs of New York director Martin Scorsese looks at a fictional slice of New York history to underscore that religious hostility and ethnic violence are genetically embedded in its social, economic and political evolution.
Shameful punster that I am, I should warn uninitiated viewers that Cuaron gets Y Tu Mama Tambien started with a bang. Its opening images involve first one and shortly later a second teenaged couple in acts of sexual intercourse about as explicit as moviemaking gets this side of the triple X industry. The film features full frontal nudity of both sexes, several other graphic intercourse scenes involving two and more partners, and sex talk candid enough to make most of us blush. In short, this is not a film for anyone offended by the frank depiction of human sexual interaction. Still and without question, this is a movie that endeavors to stimulate its viewers between their ears, not below their waists.
Co-written by Cuaron's brother Carlos Cuaron, Y Tu Mama Tambien operates on two entirely different levels. On its surface the film is the story of two male high school friends off on an adventure with an older, married woman that will change their lives and their relationship with each other forever. Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) grew up together in Mexico City and have been friends since childhood. They are both handsome, smart, sexually experienced, and nonetheless very much still in the process of becoming. In this last regard they are cautiously wild, if such a consciously paradoxical description is understood to mean that they are open to various kinds of experimentation with sex, drugs and attitudes, so long as a path of retreat remains clear and close by.
Despite such similarities, and despite the apparent strength of their friendship, Tenoch and Julio are actually from very different places. Tenoch is the son of a Harvard-educated economist who has risen to the highest levels of Mexico's socio-economic-political world. Tenoch's father is the kind of man who gives parties attended by the nation's president. Julio, in contrast, is a child of the lower-middle class. His mother is a secretary, and his father disappeared when Julio was five. Tenoch, moreover, is fair-skinned, a Creole Mexican child of pure European blood, while Julio is dark, a Mestizo, a child whose ethnic heritage is presumably as much Native American as European.
When Tenoch's and Julio's girlfriends both head off to Europe for the summer, the two teens are left to self-gratification until they convince twenty-eight-year-old Luisa (Maribel Verdu), the wife of Tenoch's cousin, to accompany them on a road trip to a Pacific beach. Luisa is not quite the elite princess they think she is, despite her university professor husband's political and professional connections. She's a native of Madrid who has only recently arrived in Mexico, where she feels alien and remains uncomfortable. Luisa is a dental technician, a low-level professional who attended a training institute rather than college. Self-conscious about the difference in their class and educational backgrounds, she is always ill-at-ease with her husband's intellectual friends. Then she discovers that he's habitually unfaithful. In response, she takes off for the beach with the two teenaged boys. Along the way the three become friends, confidants, and ultimately sexual partners as well. But don't for a second mistake this film for a Mexican version of Losin' It.
For all around the edges of what pretends to be a randy sex comedy are somber images of worrisome reality. Though the action never points to the roadside, the travelers are constantly passing through armed roadblocks where peasants are being searched and bullied by rifle-toting soldiers. At the beach the threesome are graciously assisted by a kind fisherman whose future, we are told, is grim. His fishing grounds will shortly be appropriated by a luxury resort complex, and he will spend the rest of his life struggling to provide for his family as a janitor.
Gradually we come to understand that Cuaron has built his tale as an elaborate allegory about Mexican history and society, and in that recognition we grasp why we have liked the principals in the film so little and found their sexual escapades discomfiting rather than arousing. Tenoch's father had intended to name him Hernan for the Spanish conquistador and plunderer Cortez, but chose an Aztec name for him at the last minute. Such a disguise evokes the oligarchical domination of Mexico for most of the 20th century by a political party calling itself "revolutionary." Tenoch starts out wanting to be a writer, an artist, the creator of something new. But his father is a man once indicted for selling tainted food to the poor, and in the end, Tenoch is his father's son.
The film's last scene is an undefended left hook to the jaw. Events on the road trip have brought class distinctions out in the open. But the boys meet for coffee to talk about the summer past and their college careers now undertaken. Like so many of the Mestizos who have benefitted from their allegiance to the Spanish Creoles, Julio has had experiences unavailable to the Native American peasantry. But the Spanish connection which has brought them together is corrupt and now both figuratively and literally dead. And on this day, as for all time, it's the Mestizo who pays the bill.
TV Land Exposed
Civil-rights activist Will Campbell recalls being a Louisiana pastor at a relatively prosperous white Baptist church in the early 1950s. His congregation would nod with feigned sympathy when he would preach about racial equality. They thought their "little" pastor's concern for "darkies" was "cute." But that was before Brown v. The Board. Once integration became the law of the land, they thought Campbell was a communist. Although relocated from the rural South to the suburban Northeast, these attitudes are revisited in Haynes' powerfully affecting Far From Heaven.
Far From Heaven has been compared to such 1950s pictures as Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, but one can also see the film as a commentary on white-bread 1950s television. Far From Heaven is the story of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a 1957 Connecticut housewife who seems to live in Rob and Laura Petrie's house from The Dick Van Dyke Show. Cathy wears the sprayed hair and full dresses favored by every 1950s TV mother from June Cleaver to Harriet Nelson to Donna Stone, and she lives in a fantasy land where problems are what happen to other people. The fall landscape surrounding the Whitaker home seems to have been painted in bright, but artificial, reds and oranges.
Cathy's husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) works in advertising. Their children are as polite and obedient as those on Father Knows Best. Cathy has lady friends with whom she drinks coffee and for whom she hosts fancy cocktail parties where husbands don tuxedos and wives drape mink stoles over long dresses. The Whitakers' neighbors are "progressive." They go to art openings even when the exhibitions are curated by New York homosexuals. They compare themselves favorably to the people in Arkansas. The Little Rock school integration scandal would never happen in their town.
Then into this hypocritical Eden slithers the Satan of sex, even the act that dare not speak its name. Frank is gay. And though he wishes he were not with enough desperation to seek psychiatric counseling, he cannot control his desire. Despite the fact that Cathy and Frank have little in the way of a sex life, she remains blithely unaware of his sexual orientation until she catches him in the act. Even then, she believes Frank can and will overcome his homosexual urges.
Ultimately, Far From Heaven compares 1950s attitudes toward homosexuality and race. Townspeople may whisper snide remarks about certain New Yorkers being "light in the loafers," but it occurs to no one that Frank might be gay. Homosexuality is something made manifest behind closed doors, not, like skin pigment, displayed in plain view. People may be repelled by the idea of homosexuality, but they neither look for it nor see it. In psychological terms, Cathy doesn't recognize Frank's situation even after having witnessed it with her own eyes.
Still, Cathy is disoriented after discovering her husband's "weakness." And her life takes an unexpected turn when she becomes friendly with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a college-educated businessman who owns a gardening-supplies store and a contract gardening service. Raymond is a widower, the father of a young daughter, a fan of modern art and a man who reflects thoughtfully on matters of philosophy and religion. He is also black. And however much Cathy may be allowed to tell her friends that she's a supporter of the NAACP, she's not allowed actually to have a black friend. If Cathy dares to talk to Raymond at an art exhibition, if she has lunch with him at a diner, that can only mean she's sleeping with him. And in this way the film is about 1950s attitudes toward gender, as well. A white woman could not conceivably find any interest in a black man other than sex.
Despite stylizing his setting and costumes to fit a colorized version of 1950s family television, Haynes develops his characters in surprising depth. Frank is not merely a haunted homosexual unable to sustain the carefully created fiction of his own life. He is, in fact, ultimately a little less sympathetic than we first anticipate. He's a remote father, and he's capable of cruelty and even hot-headed violence. Cathy isn't perfect either. She disciplines her children in a way most contemporary parents would regard as overbearing. And her naivete about racial matters waxes unintentionally close to rank insensitivity. A fascinating measure of how far we've come as a society can be found in audience reaction to some of Cathy's well-meaning declarations. The audience who saw Far From Heaven with me guffawed when Cathy assures Raymond that she isn't prejudiced. Dressed as if he stepped from the pages of an L.L. Bean catalogue and largely depicted with the same kind of unassuming nobility Sidney Poitier brought to his roles in the 1950s and 1960s, Raymond would perhaps seem too good to be true. But surely there's as much exasperated deviltry as physical hunger in his decision to take Cathy to an all-black restaurant/nightclub.
In sum, in sketching three-dimensional characters trapped in a two-dimensional world, Haynes slyly turns an era on its head, exposes TV Land's happy endings for the hetero-WASP fraud they were, and touches our heart in a way few pictures any longer dare. The only glimmer of hope that endures resides in the goodness of two human souls and points both to how far we've come and how far we've yet to go.
As if charting the progress of the human race, Scorsese's Gangs of New York starts in an underground cave and rises through levels of horror as if visiting the various rungs of Dante's inferno, then bursts into an open landscape of urban decay where no paradise has ever existed. Written by longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks with Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, the film opens in 1846 when a horde of American-born "Protestants" fight a gang of Irish immigrants in an appallingly brutal battle for control of a desolate corner of Manhattan called the Five Points. At the climax of this bloodbath fought with nail-embedded clubs and kitchen cutlery, Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), the leader of the "natives," kills his Irish counterpart Priest Vallon (Liam Nelson) and orphans Priest's six-year-old son. After his father's death, the boy is placed in a reform school and remains there until 1862.
Upon his release, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) dedicates himself to avenging his father's death. To that end, he insinuates himself into Bill's gang and eventually emerges as his enemy's protege. Ensconced in Bill's inner circle, Amsterdam enjoys the power and money he's able to command as a fixer and strongarm. Here, the script would have been stronger had it suggested a developing bond between stalker and prey, for then we might better grasp why, Hamlet-like, Amsterdam waits so long to strike.
As Amsterdam ponders the occasion for assassination, significant subplots are set in motion. Amsterdam finds romance with a beautiful pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who remains Bill's confidant and was once his lover. Bill lends the forces of his gang to the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine that manipulates recent immigrants for votes to turn patronage into wealth. Bill hates immigrants, but he's hardly above selling his services as an enforcer to Tammany Hall leader Boss Tweed (Jim Broad-bent). And outside the city, on battlefields south and west, the Civil War's cannons and Gatling guns produce unprecedented human carnage. In the draft President Lincoln institutes to man the ranks of the Union Army, the poor must serve, but the rich can buy an exemption for $300.
When Amsterdam finally acts, his motives are largely personal. But like his father before him, he assembles urban warriors from the ranks of his immigrant, Catholic brothers, and Bill, in turn, rallies supporters from his own nativist, Protestant kind. As Amsterdam and Bill lead their troops toward a second battle for Five Points, however, they are engulfed in draft riots so sudden and violent that Manhattan seems poised to surrender to chaos. Beside this uprising, the animosities between Amsterdam and Bill are so insignificant that the gangs of both take far more casualties from a naval bombardment and a counterinsurgent police strike aimed at draft rioters than either of their sides suffer at the hands of the other. And thus emerges one of Scorsese's central points: From time immemorial, rather than unite in their common need and common humanity, the poor have fought each other over inconsequential differences, often at the behest and direction of those who are their true enemies.
The Civil War draft riots are little remembered today, even less so the violent nativist/immigrant turf struggle on which this picture is based. But Scorsese clearly thinks these events bear lessons for our own day. The picture closes with a series of dissolves that transforms the Manhattan skyline from three- and four-story nineteenth-century wooden tenements to a progression of concrete high-rises and ever ascending glass and steel skyscrapers. In the distance of the last shot, like mournful, paired ghosts, stand the twin towers of the World Trade Center. And thus we are reminded how ethnicities and religions may change but the hatred and the violence continue.
Karl Marx called religion "the opium of the people"; he might better have called it the angel dust or PCP of the people. Serious Catholic that he is, we can see in Gangs of New York Scorsese's ambivalence about the religious impulse. As Amsterdam and Bill prepare for their climactic battle, both pray for victory. Amsterdam prays to the God he knows through the Roman tradition, Bill to the God he knows through the Protestant tradition. Both pray for vengeance, and both pray for the spoils of dominance. Uptown a mile or so, a family of blue bloods sit down to a meal. These are people who have grown rich off the sweat of men like Amsterdam and Bill. They pray too, thanking the God who has blessed them with privilege they have neither earned, deserve, nor employ wisely. And so Scorsese makes his most important point: Men spend a lot of time beseeching God to stand beside them but precious little time endeavoring to know and stand with God.
For those of us who believe in God, Scorsese's last lesson is a particular scourge. We see religion as our hope for salvation. History wonders if religion isn't the paving material on the road to perdition.
Fredrick Barton's fourth novel, A House Divided, will be published later this spring. He is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Orleans and film columnist at the New Orleans newsweekly, Gambit.