[Once again, please welcome guest blogger David Fellerath, movie critic extraordinaire for the Independent Weekly]
More Max Mail: I got an email from my friend D.B. about my Slate piece on Max Baer and Cinderella Man. D.B. suggests that the inspiring and true tale of James J. Braddock is sufficient justification for Cinderella Man's convenient but unjust vilification of Max Baer. I don't want to beat this movie to death, but D.B.'s letter got me thinking about why Hollywood prefers simple men and simple stories, and what correlation this trend has to the political consciousness of the present generation.
Personally, I think Max Baer's life and times are more interesting than Braddock's, but the only aspect of Baer's life that would make for a good Ron Howard movie is his defeat of Max Schmeling while wearing the Star of David. (Otherwise, I think the Coen Brothers are the ones for the job.) I think Howard would be uncomfortable acknowledging that Baer's motives for coming out as a Jew were mixed and not entirely noble. He'd also have trouble dealing with Baer's overriding sense of irony -- he simply refused to take boxing very seriously, especially after he killed Frankie Campbell. And Howard would have trouble finding a good girl in Baer's life to be played by Renee Zellweger.
The fact is, Baer made boxing writers in his own time uncomfortable with his open disdain for his trade and all of the noble myths that journalists and fans ascribe to it. Ron Howard specializes in noble myths, and Baer is an unsuitable hero for him.
In the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and 1970s, however, Baer would have been considered a great subject for a film. This period was full of anti-authoritarian and counter-cultural male icons like Brando, Hopper, Peter Fonda, Elliot Gould, Pacino, De Niro and Nicholson. A movie about a hedonistic and anarchic boxer could have been made in those days -- perhaps by Robert Altman and starring a young and fit Gould -- but no longer.
Nowadays, movies promote idealized families with nary a glimmer of non-conformism or rebellion. Russell Crowe's Jim Braddock is simply another variation of the idealized American male that has made a rich man of Tom Hanks: simple, virtuous, hardworking, patriotic and, above all, dedicated to his family. I'm all for sturdy family values, but I cherish skepticism and unpredictable, destabilizing narratives. (Plato was suspicious of the arts for this very reason, that artists would undermine the necessary lies promulgated by the state.)
But unpredictability makes institutions nervous, whether they be movie studios or media outlets. It's tempting to draw pessimistic conclusions about today's Hollywood being unwilling to give us the genuine countercultural icons we got in the Nixon era. In the wake of the revelation of Deep Throat's identity, thoughtful journalists are now asking themselves whether they would have the balls to report such stories today. Unfortunately, the unavoidable dismaying conclusion that today's media institutions have been effectively cowed by the government. Sadly, most seem to be opting for Michael Jackson jury deliberations over the Downing Street Memo.
The prospect of pursuing the implications of the Downing Street Memo - that our president clearly, purposefully and knowingly lied to the nation in order to prosecute a war - is simply too frightening to truly contemplate. It creates cognitive dissonance, and we turn instead to ordered and comforting narratives.
Like Cinderella Man.
Opening this weekend in Chapel Hill is Head-On, a striking, smart and sexy German movie about Turkish immigrants. Indy critic Godfrey Cheshire thinks that this movie heralds a new period of creativity in a Europe gone seriously stagnant, both politically and culturally. It's here.
And Triangle movie fans, be sure to check out the outdoor screenings at the NC Art Museum of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset this Friday and Saturday. I'm a biased observer, being the same age as the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but I hold these movies dear to my heart as essential documents of my disillusioned, "over-bored and self-assured" generation.