Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  Munich is a film about a truly horrific terrorist attack and the response to that terrorist attack. It is not about moral equivalence. It is about what people will do for their families, for their clans, in order to protect and define them. It is about how far we will go in the service of the people we come from and the narratives we tell ourselves to justify what we have done. Those who have sympathies with either side will go away retaining their sympathies: that is the nature of the argument. And it is exactly this, the nature of the argument—what it does to those who are involved in it—and not the argument itself that Munich is interested in. Crucially, it is billed as “historical fiction,” which will permit those who cling to their separate, mutually exclusive and antagonistic set of facts to call the film a “fantasy.” This film has made groups on both sides uncomfortable because the truths it tells are of a kind that transcend facticity. Whichever family you belong to, national or personal, these truths are recognizable and difficult to dismiss.

  Munich is an imagined reconstruction of a program of assassination that Mossad implemented against the organizers and surviving participants of the 1972 Munich massacre. If you are too young to remember that massacre, rent the documentary One Day in September, because Munich wastes no time setting up context. Unusually for Spielberg, he treats us as historical grown-ups (though not, as we shall see, geographical ones). At the heart of the movie is Avner (Eric Bana), a young Israeli who loves his families, both small—his pregnant wife, Daphna (a wonderful English-language debut from Ayelet Zurer)—and large: Israel itself. He is an inexperienced but dedicated soldier chosen by Mossad agent Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) to head up a ragtag team of four operatives: a brash, South African-born getaway driver called Steve (Daniel Craig), a Belgian toy maker turned explosives expert (Mathieu Kasso vitz), a German-Jewish document forger (Hanns Zischler) and a “cleanup” guy (Ciarán Hinds). Together they roam through a series of 1970s European cities meticulously re-created, although too laboriously symbolized (in Spielberg’s Paris, wherever you are, you can always see the Eiffel Tower), doing unto their enemies as their enemies have done unto them.

  In the process we begin to understand the biblical imperative “an eye for an eye” as something more deadly than simple revenge: it is of the body. It permits us the indulgence of thinking with our blood. And Spielberg understands the blood thinkers in his audience: for every assassination of an Arab, we return—lest we forget—to a grim flashback of that day in September, when eleven innocent Israeli athletes met their deaths in brutal and disgusting fashion. Flashbacks repeatedly punctuate the film’s (slightly overlong) running time. We are not allowed to forget. But neither can we ignore what is happening to Avner as he progresses through his mission. Eric Bana gives a convincing portrayal of a man traveling far from who he is in order to defend who he is. His great asset is a subtle face that is not histrionic when conveying competing emotions. The scene where Avner is offered a double mazel tov—once for the arrival of his new baby, and once for the death of a target—is a startling example of this. Through Avner, Spielberg makes a reluctant audience recognize a natural and dangerous imperative in the blood, a fury we all share. “I did it for my family” is the most repeated line in this film. Its echo is silent, yet you can’t help hearing it: what would you do for yours? The perverse nullity of the cycle of violence is made clear. Death is handed out to those who handed out death and from whose ashes new death dealers will rise. Children repeatedly wander into the line of fire. Normal human relations are warped or discarded. When Black September launches a letter-bomb campaign in response to Avner’s assassinations, there is a twisted satisfaction. “Now we’re in dialogue,” says one Mossad agent. Thirty years later we are familiar with this kind of dialogue and where it leads.

  The technical achievements of the film are many. Most notable is Janusz Kaminski’s photography, which gives a subtle color palette to each city while lighting the whole like The Third Man, with bleached-out windows and skies that the actors shy away from, preferring the darker corners of the frame. The play of shadow and light looks like a church, a synagogue, a mosque. In the shadows, the cast debates the ethics of their situation and offer as many answers as there are speakers. If the audience recoils from South African Steve’s assessment, “The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood!” it understands Avner when he says, “I’m not comfortable with confusion.” It is easier to think with the blood. It is easier to be certain.

  But how many of us know what to do with these two competing, equally true facts we hear exchanged between Ephraim and Avner: “Israelis will die if these men live. You know this is true!” says Ephraim. Avner replies, “There is no peace at the end of this. You know this is true!”

  WALK THE LINE AND GRIZZLY MAN

  Arkansas, 1944. Two brothers walk the long, flat corridor of earth between one cornfield and another. Jack Cash, the elder, is memorizing the Bible. His little brother prefers the music of the hymnals; he worries that Jack’s talent for stories is the nobler enterprise. Jack wants to be a preacher. “You can’t help nobody,” he explains, “if you don’t tell them the right story.” Yet we already know it is his little brother, Johnny, who will grow up to tell the memorable stories, the kind you sing, the kind that matter most.

  In their own generic way, musical biopics are always the right story: the struggle toward self-actualization. With songs. They are as predictable and joyful as Bible stories: the Passion of Tina Turner, the Ascension of Billie Holiday. It is a very hard-hearted atheist indeed who does not believe that Music Saves. Walk the Line—although conspicuously well acted—is really no different from previous efforts, and that’s a good thing. It shares the charm of the genre. It has Cash abandoning the music of the church for the devil’s tunes. It has Cash falling down drunk onstage and smashing up a dressing room. It has the low times (“Didn’t you used to be . . . ?”) and the times when Cash’s name rode high on the hit parade.

  It has the greatest of all musical biopic tropes: the instrument endangered by a parent. One begins to suspect a reverse psychology ploy: parents ambitious of turning a daughter into a future Jacqueline du Pré would do well to smash up a cello in front of her. In Cash’s case, he has a hick father who wants to hock the family piano and buy whatever hicks buy with piano money—chewing tobacco, maybe. It’s Johnny’s downtrodden mother who saves it, but worse is to come: beloved brother Jack is killed in a farming accident for which Johnny feels responsible. Daddy Cash reckons the devil took the wrong son. Next time we see those cornfields, the boy Johnny has turned into Joaquin Phoenix, walking that line alone.

  Joaquin alone is, for many women, the reason to see this film. For this reviewer, his elemental masculinity strays rather too far into Victor Mature territory—still, I respect the majority opinion. Certainly when he is covered in water or sweat (which he frequently is) and filling the screen with his ungainly bulk, he possesses a certain Old Testament style. He looks as if he’s struggling with himself—he’d make a good Abraham. For Johnny Cash, he’s perfect. On those early tours, when we see Cash playing alongside Elvis (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), Phoenix works the difference between those two coltish, flamboyant stars and the bullish man in black whose sole piece of stagecraft was his no-frills introduction: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” It’s fun to see three musical pilgrims at the beginning of their journey, before their places in history were settled. “How about that Johnny Cash, everybody?” cries Elvis, with the magnanimous generosity of a man confident that he himself has the greater talent. While Elvis launches into “Hound Dog,” Cash watches from the wings with a face that encapsulates Bing Crosby’s sentiment re Sinatra: “I know one great singer is born into every generation, but why’d he have to be born into mine?”

  But Cash has bigger problems than Elvis. In a recent interview, Woody Allen put the trouble well: “The thing standing between me and genius is me.” The bad guy in every musician’s biopic is the musician himself. Cash is stuck in a
bad marriage, he drinks and he never got over Jack’s death. One night he is offered amphetamines on the assurance that “Elvis takes them,” surely one of the worst celebrity health tips ever recorded. Once the addiction takes hold, Phoenix is free to give us what he does best: a very dark night of the soul.

  It is presumptuous to speak of the parallels between Phoenix’s biography and Cash’s, but there is no doubt that whenever the plot returns to the trauma of the missing brother, Phoenix’s game raises and the audience grows tense. Several scenes are of an emotional intensity out of all proportion to the humdrum musical biopic one expects.

  And then, at just the right moment, Reese Witherspoon takes over and brings the film home. Witherspoon has the kind of maniacal feminine perkiness that people of a Woosterish temperament cannot abide. I like her. I like her triangular chin and her head-girl, can-do attitude. Here she plays Cash’s savior and eventual second wife, June Carter, and it’s a great piece of casting: Witherspoon is a twelve-step program in and of herself. She’s so capable, so hardworking, so upright and practical—underrated virtues among actresses. Physically, and in all other ways, Witherspoon makes the best of what she has. She has June’s steely self-sufficiency down pat. “Marry me, June,” begs Cash, not for the first time. “Oh, please, get up off your knees; you look pathetic” is the sensible response.

  There is in this film the serious notion that nothing is as existentially fatal as a miserable relationship. And no redemption like a good one. But to get the good one, you’ve got to work harder than Job. Before the successful prison concerts and the comeback and the hagiography of the very movie we’re watching, we see Cash taken low. Real low. Drugs, poverty, despair, violence. Each biopic digs its own way out of this hole. Black soul singers are redeemed differently from white punks—everyone’s got their own groove—but the principle is the same: keep it real, get back on track. Here’s Johnny at his lowest ebb, just before the turnaround, begging his bank for money: “I need this, see? To get my phone on . . . cos I got a woman . . . and I need to speak to her.” That’s country music logic, and it’s really quite beautiful.

  After the cultural violence of much nineteenth-century anthropology, there came a twentieth-century emphasis on reticence—we should no longer seek to explain people definitively, but rather observe them, respecting their otherness. Fortunately, no one told Werner Herzog, and that is why his Grizzly Man is so damn cool. Herzog (whose voice-over perfectly matches The Simpsons’s hard man, Rainier Wolfcastle) is an infamous egomaniacal, auteur nutjob (i.e., a great European director) with a bent for the Germanically literal. (To pay off a bet he once made a movie called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. It did not disappoint.) Herzog is hard-core. He’s not interested in your interpretation of why American nutjob Timothy Treadwell lived among bears. Who cares what you think? Herzog has his documentary in hand, explaining that what we have here “iz on astone-ishing story of beauty and depth.” He’s not wrong. The footage itself is mostly Treadwell’s, but the film is a discordant duet of two voices: Herzog’s old-world Schopenhaurian pessimism versus Treadwell’s new-world optimism (which, Herzog believes, masks a deep despair).

  Herzog calls bears a “primordial encounter.” Timothy calls them Mr. Chocolate and Aunt Melissa. Herzog believes Timothy was “fighing against the civilization that cast Thoreau out of Walden.” According to Timothy’s parents, the motivation was more prosaic. Not to give the specifics away, but “failed TV actor” is at the root of the crisis. Still, Herzog is determined to spin grandeur out of poor Timmy. And fabulous though it is to hear Herzog shouting about the “ooltimatt indifference of nature,” it’s Timothy saying to a fox, “I love you. Thanks for being my friend. I like this—do you like this?” that brings real joy. All you need to know about indifference is right there in that fox’s face.

  BRIEF ENCOUNTER AND PROOF

  In the spring of 1945, when David Lean’s Brief Encounter was first released, my father was nineteen. I envy him that vintage year of cinema and all opening weekends between, say, 1933 and 1955. Instead of Memoirs of a Geisha, he saw Woman of the Year. Instead of Shopgirl, he got Top Hat. The first film he ever saw was King Kong, and it was a merciful hour and a half shorter than the beast I slept through in January. In New York and Paris, we can revisit the films of our fathers any night of the week in dozens of fine revival cinemas; in London we rely on the occasional largesse of film festivals and the BFI. To those who love them, any rerelease of a 1940s film is a draught of sunshine. I have never seen a movie of this period in which there was not something to like, just as I have never come across a cheese I wouldn’t eat. Brief Encounter is a Wensleydale: a lovely slice of English fare, familiar, inadvertently comic. It has become its own parody. The English are slightly ashamed of it, as the Aus trians are annoyed by The Sound of Music. In fact, its reputation as a period piece is unfair. It is not all cut-glass diction and antediluvian good manners. The film is really about the dream life of the English, those secret parts of us that are most important and to which we have least access. It’s a shame to go to the cinema only to laugh (as modern audiences laugh at the supposed camp excess of another sincere movie, Now, Voyager). If you pass over the superficial culture shocks of sixty years passed (A lending library in Boots the chemist! A string quartet in a railway café!), it is as astute about the English character as it ever was.

  The story is easily paraphrased: Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) meet in a railway station and fall in love. Unfortunately, they are married to other people. Laura has a stolid, suburban husband, Fred, whose only connection to the Keatsian strain in English life is via the Times crossword, the clue in question being “When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face, Huge cloudy symbols of a high . . . (seven letters).” Laura suggests “romance.” It’s right—but it doesn’t fit with the other answers. In this moment the entire film is contained. There are many things that the English want and dream and believe. But they do not fit in with our other answers.

  Lean’s sad, buttoned-up account of unconsummated love is about all of us and our cautious natures. It’s not that the English don’t want true love or self-knowledge. Rather, unlike our European cousins, we will not easily give up the real for the dream. We remain skeptical about throwing away a concrete asset like Fred in favor of “the faery power of unreflecting love,” no matter how much Keats may recommend it. Laura, a Midlands mother of two, is certainly not a fairy by temperament, despite her pixie face. She will not give up the reality of Fred for the dream of Alec. Alec, gentleman that he is, quite agrees. An Italian (or indeed, the modern English viewer of this film) will diagnose Laura and Alec as morbidly repressed. The film offers a different hypothesis: that the possibility of two people’s pleasure cannot override the certainty of other people’s pain. Primum non nocere is the principle upon which the film operates. As a national motto we could do a lot worse.

  These days, carpe diem is more popular, and self-sacrifice invites sniggers. But the impulse behind Laura’s and Alec’s sacrifice seems to me neither smug, religious nor self-satisfied. Brief Encounter is not about English sexual repression or Christian values. It’s about personal grandeur. By the end of the film, Alec and Laura are truly grand; they are their best selves. And if there is a moral lesson, it is not about the sin of sexual infidelity but the secular sin of being unfaithful to oneself.

  In the last few minutes of their good-bye, they are interrupted by Dolly, a silly woman whom Laura knows. She sits down uninvited and starts to talk about train timetables. She represents all the petty horror of English life, the inconsequential stuff and nonsense that gets in the way of our real lives and separates us from that “high romance” Keats knew the English have within them. It is sad that Alec and Laura must part, but what makes this an English tragedy is that they will politely listen to Dolly as they do it. They should be showing their souls. Instead they discuss the weather.

  Hollywood recycles its actresses. Ava Gardner turned into A
ngelina Jolie. Claudette Colbert reincarnated as Reese Witherspoon. Cate Blanchett may one day prove worthy of the Katharine Hepburn echoes she evokes. Gwyneth Paltrow, star of the depressing misfire Proof, is Grace Kelly’s replacement, and that’s a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. The qualities of Grace and Gwyneth, as I see them, are as follows: a sense of entitlement, a glacial physical beauty and an apparently genuine submissive attitude to the opposite sex. They worship the men they play opposite and don’t so much act as react to them. It is this talent for silent reaction that won Paltrow an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, one of the least verbal Oscar-winning performances in recent memory. Her face flushes, her eyes flood. If you hold her in your arms, she trembles. It’s all good old-fashioned movie actress stuff. If you were a male moviegoer looking for someone to love you, to just love you, and not drive you crazy with questions and smart talk like Bette Davis or Renée Zellweger, then Gwyneth’s your girl. Classy as she is, she’ll love you even if you’re completely unsuitable, even if you’re Ripley or Ted Hughes. But just as Grace did, Gwyneth has grown tired of the princess gig. She wants to be an actress. Proof sees her acting and acting and acting. I’m sure it’s true that on stage she made this role her own, wowing audiences with her portrayal of Catherine, the emotionally and mentally vulnerable daughter of a math genius who has lost his mind. Did the father write the mathematical proof posthumously found in a desk drawer—or did the daughter? The theatrical script uses the word proof as a metaphorical launchpad for discussions of work and love and life, as plays will. It’s that kind of verbal swordplay that so impresses onstage while seeming so redundant and brittle on-screen. Everyone involved tries really hard, and Jake Gyllenhaal is puppyishly excited by the whole project, but dominating it all is Paltrow’s voice, with its hipsterish high-rising terminals that sound as if she is saying only one thing, over and over: “Like, I can act, right?” She has something to prove, but it has nothing to do with math.

 
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