Monday, August 24, 2015

An Ode to Robert Newton, 'Arr Matey

This is Robert Newton:

I love Robert Newton. He is perfect. Look at that ruddy face, that feverish glare, those flared nostrils and beetled brows. He is the quintessential rogue, the consummate scalawag, the peerless rascal. He eclipses Charles Laughton, Geoffrey Rush, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, Johnny Depp, and even my beloved Peter Ustinov, for in this crazed, hammy lunatic we have the most perfect of pirates.

Newton created what today we consider the archetype of the pirate, especially the heavily dialectic speech patterns of his thick West Country accent. He's the unofficial patron saint of Talk Like a Pirate Day, celebrated on September 19. Though his pirate voice is his most obvious legacy, the dimensions he gave to his most famous characters, Long John Silver (in Disney's 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, as well as a number of unofficial sequels) and Blackbeard (the titular role of the 1952 film) have determined pretty much every aspect of cinematic pirate characters. His triumph, however, was also his downfall, since most viewers today see his performance as unoriginal and cliché, not realizing that his performance is the original, the one that established the clichés in the first place. 

Newton's is a hammy performance, but anyone who has read Treasure Island should easily recognize how rooted in Stevenson's literary portrait Newton's Long John is, a pirate whose success depends on his ability to enthrall, to thrill and tantalize, since physically he is no match for the seasoned cutthroats under his command. Similarly, the legendary Blackbeard has attained such a monumental cultural status in large part because he was a ridiculous ham - this is a guy who literally set lit fuses in his beard (or hat, depending on the source). Newton was born to play these characters.

Of course, Newton became typecast as a pirate in the wake of his success and today is remembered almost exclusively for his performances as Long John Silver and Blackbeard. But Newton was an extraordinarily accomplished actor, with a wide and varied repertory of stage roles, including Horatio (Hamlet) which he played opposite Laurence Olivier in the titular role, and dozens of screen roles, ranging from villainous murderers and thieves to the most principled and upstanding of policemen. As Pistol in Henry V (1944), he is deliciously droll opposite the pomposity of Olivier as one of the most successful monarchs of English history, and the performance gives us a taste of how great Newton must have been on the Shakespearean stage.

Perhaps his most interesting on-screen performance is as an obsessive and almost demonic painter in Odd Man Out (1947). Carol Reed's film is generally overshadowed by The Third Man, which enjoys critical adulation and is nearly always cited as Reed's best effort, but this film is a much more complex beast, less broadly entertaining, not so much a thriller as a meditation on human compassion and justice. Newton is given an opportunity to chew up the scenery and yet, despite the theatricality of the performance, its believability is key to understanding the entire film. Its power rests on ambiguity, on the conflicts between selfish desire and altruism, political idealism and pragmatism, obsessive madness and steely-eyed determination, all the grey areas where moral truths slip away like eels and the absolute loses all significance. Newton's character wants above all else to capture on canvas the last moments of a dying man, and, believing that he has found his model in Johnny (James Mason), the fugitive leader of an IRA-like partisan group, he is loath to lose his perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What fascinates about the performance is how quickly and evasively the character seems to flip-flop between qualities that nearly merge. Is he mad or brilliant, or both? Is he moral or amoral or does he occupy some twisted middle ground? Is he protecting or exploiting his subject, or vacillating between motives? It's an ostentatious, histrionic performance, but its jagged, profound complexity renders it anything but artificial.

Sadly, a familiar foe, one that dogged the pirate characters he so brilliantly played, ultimately destroyed Robert Newton, who died in 1956 at age 50 of a heart attack, after a long, losing battle with alcoholism. Alas, a pirate may love his bottle of rum, but rum makes for a treacherous lover, a verity that the liver of every pirate learns to its peril.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Feminist Wish List for the "Top Gun" Sequel

Rumors of a Top Gun sequel have been making the rounds for years, but as it appears that it might actually happen I'm already contemplating what, ideally, the new movie should be like. The news that the movie will focus on drone warfare certainly indicates that the potential franchise is being brought squarely into the 21st century. The film could go in several directions. I think it's likely that this will be, as so very, very many movies have been of late, a gritty reboot, with significantly less humor and a decidedly less lighthearted approach. The original film may be about fighter pilots, but it takes place in a bubble. Politics are so remote that one almost forgets that wars aren't just training montages and simulated games. Though much has been made on the internet of the film's ending - which realistically speaking, would have indicated that World War III had just erupted and been less a victory lap for Maverick than a sobering, possibly world-ending transition from a Cold War to a very Hot War indeed - the film doesn't really equate military action with real-world consequences. The pilots are after a trophy and the consequences and larger implications of warfare are pushed aside. The only acknowledged death in the movie is a pure accident during training and is no one's fault (I would assume the pilots in the planes Maverick shoots down at the end of the movie die, but they are dispatched callously, like faceless enemies in a video game). The movie is pure entertainment.

I think that's going to be a lot harder to pull off today. For one thing, attitudes towards the military have altered a lot. Yellow ribbon bumper stickers are everywhere and the focus on reporting about the military tends to be on subjects like PTSD, sexual abuse in the ranks, poorly administered and underfunded medical care, gender disparities and exclusions, and the implications of high-tech weaponry, like drones. A mixture of reverence, discomfort, and mystified incomprehension greets the veterans of our current military conflicts. Drones in particular have sparked passionate and divisive debate about their efficacy, the morality surrounding their use and the ensuing collateral damage, privacy issues, and a host of other concerns. With this cultural milieu, it's going to be very hard for the Top Gun sequel to both entertain and juggle the issues that any film about drone warfare inevitably brings up, especially if it actually does focus on Maverick's difficulties adjusting to a new paradigm of military aviation.

Here's the deal: I love the original Top Gun, a movie I binge-watched before binge-watching was a thing, but I'm also a feminist. I've said it before and I'll say it again: You don't have to like a movie's politics to like the movie. But how much more awesome it would be if the movie weren't so extremely misogynistic. I don't actually expect the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer to deliver any of the following, but I can dream that somehow my wishes for a more equitable, dare I say feminist, Top Gun movie will be fulfilled.

1. At least 1/3 of the pilots should be female.
The Navy has had female pilots since the 1970s - yes, they're a minority, but they do exist. There are no female pilots in the original film, not one. Kelly McGillis plays a civilian instructor and Meg Ryan plays a wife and mom; they are the only two women in the cast. I don't believe they even have a women's locker room. That's absurd. Though ideally I would like to see a full half of the pilots be female, I've learned over the years not to set the bar too high, and even if we get more than two female cast members, that will already be unusual. So, I would settle for a somewhat less skewed ratio of male to female pilots.

2. It needs to pass the Bechdel test.
Passing the Bechdel test - two women talk to each other about something other than a man - doesn't make a movie feminist by any means, but at the very least it indicates that female characters do not function solely in relation to the male characters. The original movie doesn't come even close to passing and at this point I don't want any movies produced that fail the test. If we got #1, #2 would be easy!

3. No female character should sacrifice her career for a man.
Nothing about the original movie sticks in my craw like the ending: the wildly successful civilian instructor gives up her highly paid, highly prestigious government contract to stay with the novice pilot. The new movie needs to allow the female characters room to value their careers as highly as the male characters do. This scenario is trite and done to death, not to mention a signal feature of patriarchal reaction against women entering the work force. If these pilots really are testosterone-fueled macho men, they shouldn't be threatened by a woman with a good job, and if they aren't... they shouldn't be threatened by a woman with a good job.

Thanks to the gods and goddesses, there isn't a whiff of rape in the original movie (it is rated PG), but it bears repeating: rape is not entertaining, rape is not fun, rape does not belong in movies that do not grapple with the consequences of sexual violence. There are way too many depictions of sexual assault in movies that purposely avoid confronting serious political, social, and cultural issues. The Top Gun sequel does not need to be another one.

5. A sex scene that revolves around consent.
Call me utopian, but one of the ways to make consent - and news flash people, if you don't get consent, it's rape - sexier and less intimidating is to show it as an integral, exciting part of sexual activity. I'll be stunned if the new movie doesn't have a romantic subplot and that will inevitably come with a sex scene, so it would be wonderful if it portrayed two adults, both fully engaged and actively giving consent. In the original film, the sex scene itself is fine, but there's an underlying assumption that Maverick "won" a shot with Charlie with persistence in the face of refusal - nix that.

I think I've set the bar quite low, and yet, depressingly, I'm not holding my breath for any of the items on my wish list. I'm expecting the Top Gun sequel to entertain and to have lots of great flying footage, but it remains to be seen whether the producers will be cognizant of how much they could do to make a blockbuster that doesn't rehash the same old misogynistic gender perspectives.