Quarantine Cinema 3

If you have a whole night to fill, you might enjoy a double feature consisting of the first movie, below, followed by one that it inspired.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles wrote, directed, produced and narrated this classic tale about the decline of a wealthy Midwestern family during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  While Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) tops any number of “greatest American movie” lists, The Magnificent Ambersons remains somewhat in the shadows. That’s in no small part because after the filming was finished nervous studio executives took the movie out of Welles’s hands, cut 50 minutes and added a Hollywoodized ending. Yet for all that, and despite the undeniable greatness of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the one I keep coming back to. Graced by Welles’s wise, nostalgic narration, it seems somehow warmer and more human.

Embarrassed by her beau’s drunken serenade, heiress Isabel Amberson (Delores Costello) rejects him and marries the ineffectual Wilbur Minafer instead. In the absence of true love for her husband, Isabel turns all of her attention to their son, George (Tim Holt), who grows into a holy terror. The entire town anticipates the day when George will finally get his “comeuppance.” That process is set in motion when Isabel’s erstwhile beau, Eugene (Joseph Cotten), returns to town as a widower. A pioneer in horseless carriages, Eugene serves as a fitting symbol of an encroaching industrial age that will forever change the Ambersons, their town, and their way of life. The 1918 Booth Tarkington novel on which the movie is based inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—just as Welles’s film version inspired the movie below.    

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Filmmaker Wes Anderson has cited The Magnificent Ambersons as an important influence for his third movie. Though Anderson’s films are uniquely and unmistakably his own, that influence is evident not just in the title, but in the wistful narration (with Alec Baldwin subbing for Orson Welles) and in the gently unfolding lives of a complex, multigenerational family. Gene Hackman plays the title character, Royal Tenenbaum, a rogue who has failed as a father, husband and businessman and who now seeks redemption from those he has let down.

Anjelica Huston plays Etheline, his ex-wife on the cusp of a second marriage. Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller are Royal’s three grown children. All are struggling with varying degrees of success to forgive their father and repair the damage he’s caused. Danny Glover, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the script with Anderson) help round out the ensemble cast. The Royal Tenenbaums has the Wes Anderson trademarks of sets that look and feel like pictures from a children’s book, and a lush soundtrack of familiar and obscure pop songs. The Royal Tenenbaums plays like a slightly twisted urban fairy tale with humor and lightness interspersed with a few shocks and intimations of disaster. In the end, Anderson’s greatness is about much more than style. Underneath it all, the human connections are genuinely moving and make this a memorable film.

Quarantine Cinema – 2

Sharing a few more movies that I love, and hope you will, too.

Random Harvest (1942)

I fell in love with this movie (and with its star, Greer Garson) when I was a kid. I’ve never fallen out of love with Greer Garson, I’ve seen Random Harvest eight or nine times, and it keeps getting better. Ronald Colman plays a British soldier suffering from amnesia as World War I draws to a close. Amid Armistice Day celebrations, he wanders out the unguarded door of the asylum and into town, where he befriends Paula (Garson), a dance hall singer. Since he doesn’t know his name she takes to calling him John Smith, or “Smithy.” Before long they are married and living an idyllic life in a country cottage. But when the ex-soldier takes a trip from home, he is injured in an accident that restores memories of his previous identity, while erasing “Smithy”—and Paula.

The balance of the movie follows Paula’s quest to restore her husband’s memory of the years they shared—even as he, unaware, resumes his previous life as an industrialist. I can’t speak to the medical accuracy regarding amnesia. But MGM was the elite studio during Hollywood’s golden age, and Random Harvest hits all the marks you expect from a great tearjerker. What makes it so special is Paula’s quiet strength, steadfastness and enduring love. The movie is based on a novel by James Hilton, who wrote two other novels that became wonderful movies: Lost Horizon (starring Colman) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (starring Garson).

Groundhog Day (1993)

No one needs a special reason to re-watch Groundhog Day. It’s as funny and inventive today as when it came out 27 years ago. Bill Murray was born to play Phil Connors, the dyspeptic Pittsburgh weatherman living the same day over and over in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Andie McDowell is his perfect counterpart as Rita, his guileless producer. Every time I watch the movie I marvel at how director Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin manage to weave together all the intricate threads of characters replaying scenes time and again, with slight but important changes.

Now may be a better time than most to give Groundhog Day a view, when many of us are waking each morning to the prospect of another day very much like the day before. Phil Connor’s challenge mirrors our own right now. He moves from disbelief to frustration to, finally, accepting a situation he can’t control and focusing on what he can – opening his heart, helping others and emerging when the spell lifts as a better person.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

This is my favorite movie of all and to my mind belongs on any short list of the greatest ever made. It captures the difficult adjustment of soldiers returning to civilian life at the end of World War II. Al (Fredric March), Fred (Dana Andrews) and Homer (Harold Russell) meet on a transport plane carrying them home to Boone City — Anytown, USA. Al, a middle-aged sergeant in the infantry, comes home restless and questioning his comfortable life and his job at the bank. Fred, a dashing captain and bombardier, finds that when the uniform comes off the world sees him as the same drugstore soda jerk he was before the war. Homer, a former high school quarterback, has lost both hands in the war and doesn’t know how his family and his childhood sweetheart will respond. All three actors are superb, including novice Russell, a veteran who lost his hands in a training accident.

But it is the women—Myrna Loy as Al’s wife, Milly, Theresa Wright as their daughter, who falls for Fred, and Cathy O’Donnell, as Homer’s sweetheart—who give The Best Years of Our Lives its underlying strength. The interlocking love stories are told with grace and humanity. Give yourself some time to enjoy this movie. The Best Years of Our Lives comes in at nearly three hours long, and under William Wyler’s sensitive direction there scarcely a false note in this uniquely American story. 

Quarantine Cinema

In times of worry I’ve always found refuge in movies. 

With so many of us spending time around the house these days, I thought I’d share some personal favorites, starting with two today and with more to come until this crisis passes—as surely it will. I’m not a professional critic or film historian, and I speak only on the authority of more than half a century of watching and loving movies.

There are great ones from every era, and I’ll start with two from the 1950s. The first is a classic love story, the second a great western. Both are in black and white. If black and white has been a hurdle for you in the past, give it another try now. You may find it helps transport you out of this troubled moment. 

I hope you enjoy these suggestions. And please share your own!


Roman Holiday (1953)

Let’s start with a love letter to Italy in happier times. Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a foreign dignitary on a diplomatic visit to Rome. Struck by the beauty of the city and longing for a taste of ordinary life, she skips out on her royal handlers and is soon wandering the streets at night, anonymous and alone. There she meets a down-on-his-luck American correspondent named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). 

The princess, who hides her identity for fear of being sent back to the dreary formality of her other life, and Joe (who secretly recognizes her) can’t let on that he’s a reporter, for fear of losing a career-saving story. This tale of mutual deception blossoming into love unfolds among the landmarks of Rome. Hepburn, in her first major role, seems impossibly young. Her chemistry with Peck is perfect, their romance handled with grace, and the city is alive and splashed with sun and happiness and optimism. We can’t visit Italy right now, of course. Most of us can’t do much but batten down our own hatches and send heartfelt thoughts to a country under full lockdown. Until the day when visitors can return, this charming movie offers a couple of hours of pure escapism and joy. 

High Noon (1952)

On their wedding day, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and his Quaker bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), are set to leave Hadleyville, the town Kane cleaned up. He has pledged to find a more peaceful occupation somewhere else. But as they roll off, word comes that Frank Miller, a man Kane sent to prison, is just out of prison and returning with his gang to seek revenge. 

Kane knows that if he doesn’t stay and face the gang now he’ll run for the rest of his life. One by one, upstanding townsfolk rationalize their unwillingness to help. They urge Kane to leave and even blame him for having stirred up the trouble with Frank Miller. Their arguments are just plausible enough that we think, briefly, they have a point. But that only sharpens the power of Kane’s decision to take his stand. The movie plays out in real time, with clocks on various walls ticking ominously towards the noon showdown.

High Noon was filmed against the backdrop of McCarthyism sweeping Hollywood and the United States in the early 1950s. But what makes this movie so timeless (not to mention timely right now) is that it’s not the external threat, however real, that is the greatest danger—it’s what happens when contagious fear overcomes reason. And it’s about the power of individual courage to set things right.

Cass Sunstein’s Free Speech Awakening

Earlier this month, prominent Harvard Law School professor and former Obama administration official Cass R. Sunstein lambasted President Trump for his “assault on the First Amendment.” At issue was Trump’s foolish, boorish and unsuccessful attempt to prevent publication of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s highly critical book about the Trump administration.

In a fine article published in Bloomberg View and republished elsewhere, Sunstein quotes James Madison’s observation that government meddling in free speech, above all other transgressions, “ought to produce universal alarm.”

Yet there’s irony in the fact that Sunstein himself has a long history of arguing vigorously for government meddling in free speech. In fact, he wrote a whole book on the subject, Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. First published in 1993, the book calls for regulation of speech and writing that, to his way of thinking, fails to serve the public good. Government, he argues, should actively regulate media to promote diversity, inclusion and other values, in the name of “encouraging the creation of a civic culture.”

In a chapter titled “Does the First Amendment Undermine Democracy?” Sunstein outlines possible remedies including forcing newspapers to publish replies to articles, diminishing the role of advertising in media, and using taxpayer money to subsidize newspapers that “agree to cover substantive issues in a serious way.” Those words may be 25 years old, but as recently as last month Sunstein praised as “illuminating” a book by a University of Richmond law professor suggesting that the Founders never intended free speech to be quite as free as it is today. Which would, presumably, open the door to just the sort of regulation Sunstein has long favored.

The differences between Cass Sunstein and Donald Trump are many and stark, to be sure. Sunstein is a Democrat and Trump is a Republican. Sunstein is sophisticated, well read and erudite and Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump. Yet their underlying arguments have a similar ring. Both say they only want what’s fair and good for the country, and that clamping down on bad actors in the media would actually enhance freedom. It has to be said: If letting Donald Trump choose who gets to publish books is a terrible idea—and it is!—imagine the assault on freedom when Cass Sunstein’s bureaucrats start deciding which journalists are or aren’t presenting the news “in a serious way.”

The rise of Trump should, if nothing else, cause Sunstein and other would-be reformers to recognize the danger of bad precedents, embrace the First Amendment in its broadest terms and, once and for all, reject the idea of giving people in government the power to control or interfere with free speech.

First Down, First Amendment: The NFL and Free Speech

After months of violent street protests across the nation, and with college campuses seeming to have lost their will to defend unfettered debate, the most salient free speech lesson this season comes to us courtesy of professional football.

The sight of players kneeling during our national anthem understandably evokes strong, emotional reactions. But that’s the thing about free speech. Whenever our most precious right makes the headlines, it’s because someone has said or done something that someone else finds deeply offensive.

Whether you see those National Football League players as coddled millionaires disrespecting our sacred symbols and institutions, or as principled young men courageously demonstrating against racism (and there are solid cases to be made for both positions) step back and you’ll see a textbook case in how free speech is supposed to work.

First, President Trump blew the lid off a long-simmering controversy by urging NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who refuses to stand for the anthem. Let’s keep in mind that in many countries, a “suggestion” by the head of the government is the same thing as a command. Yet the response from the football community (including normally reserved coaches and owners) was one of widespread condemnation of the president, and defense of the players.

Broadcasters joined in. Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, now an announcer for Fox Sports, questioned whether the president quite understands the Constitution he is sworn to protect. And while kneeling during the anthem is against NFL rules, the league has thus far declined to discipline or fire players for doing so.

Fans have exercised their right to boo or cheer as they see fit. Many have turned off their televisions, burned souvenir uniforms, and sworn to boycott future games. Attendance and viewership are down this year. These reactions, too, are well within the bounds of reasonable expression. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

Everybody, it seems, has shared heartfelt opinions, but so far there has been little evidence of violence or even the threat of violence to intimidate others into silence. Thus the practitioners of one of our most violent games—often cited by detractors as evoking our most brutal characteristics as a nation—have taught everybody a lesson in peaceful dissent and debate.

And when the anthem ends they all go out and play football.

To some, the kneeling controversy represents a low-point for the country. The Wall Street Journal captured this sentiment in an editorial lamenting that the dispute represents “a very unhealthy level of polarization and mistrust.”

I disagree. We may love or hate the individual opinions being expressed. But as free speech debates go, this one is about as healthy as it gets.

Note: See the terrific new site First Amendment Watch for a detailed look at where the NFL kneeling controversy and similar protests fit in the long history of American dissent dating to Revolutionary times.

The Power of the Perfect Manhattan

I start most restaurant meals by asking for a perfect Manhattan, Maker’s Mark, twist of lemon, no cherry. Straight up, of course—a Manhattan on the rocks is like asking the chef to poke a hole in your soufflé.

The success or failure of the evening rests on what arrives at the table, and the visual cues say a lot. I’m looking for a generous glass (funny shapes and tints need not apply); a fine coating of condensation, indicating proper chilling; and a rich, amber color to the liquid, filled close enough to the brim that the server must concentrate not to spill.

From the first sip of a well-made Manhattan, the universe falls into perfect, benign order. Problems that hours earlier pressed like lead weights seem distant and manageable, and the other couple’s banal observations about the incompetent contractor handling their kitchen renovations sparkle like conspiratorial revelations. It’s us against the world, and we’re winning.

But a gaffe on any Manhattan front—tepid temperature; an inch of space between the drink and the brim, precious liquid slopping onto the fingers of a careless server, a lemon wedge instead of a twist—and the whole effect is ruined. When one of these crimes occurs, not even the most talented chef can resurrect the meal. My well-meaning wife, who has grown adept at recognizing (if not understanding) my disappointment at such times, usually compounds the problem by asking if I wouldn’t enjoy a nice glass of wine instead.

The finest Manhattan I’ve ever had was not in New York but in northern Maine, of all places. It was well chilled and very strong but in perfect balance. Best of all, it came with a sidecar glass containing a few extra ounces that wouldn’t fit into the larger one. The sidecar sat beside me like an unspent Christmas bonus. Just knowing it was there gave me solace. The food was not good. Ignoring docks not 100 yards away unloading the world’s freshest lobster and haddock, the owners had gone exotic with Montana bison, Oregon salmon, Alaskan crab and other items as foreign to the chef as they were to northern Maine. But no matter, I enjoyed the evening thoroughly and mourned when the restaurant went out of business. I would have become a regular. And that, I think, says it all about the power of the perfect Manhattan.

Is Speech Violence?

Marchers in Berkeley, California recently invoked a favorite tactic among would-be censors by muddying the distinction between words and physical force. “Speech is violence!” they screamed in protest of a speaker whose views they disliked.

Adapted from Liberty’s First Crisis:

When it comes to free speech, the Supreme Court has wrestled with the infinitely complex question of just where those boundaries lie—giving us terms such as “fighting words” and “clear and present danger” to determine when speech truly goes too far.

But there is one thing that cannot coexist with freedom, and that is declaring that people have a right against being offended, even deeply offended, by someone else’s words. Such a declaration automatically transfers the right of speech from the speaker to the listener, who now enjoys the power not just to say, “I don’t like your opinion,” but “I won’t allow you to say that.”

Ignorance and hatefulness can and should be confronted and shot down, with reason and with better words. Yet if we wish to remain free, we must resist the strong temptation to call the police. The fact is that everyone who voices a controversial opinion is bound to give offense to someone. In a regulated climate, speech ceases to be a right and becomes a political privilege. The trick isn’t to avoid giving offense; rather, it is to avoid offending the wrong people.

Times change. Most of the concerns that inflame us today will one day be regarded as historical footnotes. What remains as the measure of a generation is not the restrictions it imposes on its most repugnant voices. The true measure of greatness of any generation is the wisdom it shows in looking beyond the moment and handing down liberty, intact and unfettered, to the next.

Reflections on Our Turbulent Times

Just about anyone you talk to these days will tell you we live in an age of “unprecedented” rancor and incivility. But it isn’t so.

Investigate the past (as I’ve done in three books of historical nonfiction) and you’ll find plenty of doomsayers decrying their moment in the same desperate terms that we use to describe our own. Every generation imagines itself perched at the edge of disaster.

For all our troubles, we’ve got plenty of reasons for optimism. We’re living longer and better than any generation in the history, and our nearly 250-year American experiment in self-government and liberty is going strong. The United States today is a better, more inclusive country than the one I grew up in—and it was a great country then. We continue to draw newcomers from all over the world seeking the most rare of opportunities: to live in freedom, work hard and pursue happiness on their own terms.

I don’t mean to minimize or make light of the very real challenges we face. But I do believe that the greatest threats come not so much from the challenges themselves as from our readiness to reach for drastic solutions, especially when those solutions threaten fundamental liberties such as freedom of speech. My most recent book, Liberty’s First Crisis, describes a rancorous period at the end of the 18th century, when the ruling Federalists, assuming the country to be in grave danger, started throwing people in jail for the crime of criticizing the government. They believed that silencing the most odious and dangerous voices of their generation was the only way to create a stronger and freer country. Yet in the end it was the Federalists whose actions put the country and its freedoms in jeopardy.

Even today there are those among us so convinced of their own righteousness that they’ll happily take the shortcut from persuasion to coercion, invoking the powers of a legislature or a mob to make sure people see things their way. Whether Republican or Democrat, right or left, we must be especially on guard against those on our own side of the political fence—they’re the ones who lull us into believing we can destroy our opponents’ rights without destroying our own.

In this blog, starting today, I’ll take a long view of rights, pointing out threats as I see them. I’ll write about other subjects as well (movies, books, drinks) keeping in mind the advice my grandmother gave me, to save time for some fun.