Monday, July 27, 2015

Examining the Greats: What More Is There To Say About "Twelve Angry Men?"

Eleven of the angry men. Juror #12 got cropped out because nobody cares about him.

With my review of Sunset Boulevard, I announced that I was taking requests. If there was a film you wanted to see reviewed, or if there was a subject you wanted examined, I was all ready to talk about it (and still am)! I did, in fact, receive another request. The classic film Twelve Angry Men, written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet. I grinned when I saw this suggestion. I love Twelve Angry Men. It is one of my favorite films ever made. I've seen the film, fittingly, twelve times, and each time I gain new insight into it. And it's not just the original film: I've seen the remake, I've listened to the radio version, and I've seen the show on stage. I've probably read the play more times than I've seen the movie. For fun. I love this film. On my list of dream roles (which every actor has) I have included "any juror from Twelve Angry Men. I love everything about this film so much. It is perfect, it is brilliant, it is amazing. And I was so excited to be able to sit down and write a post about it.

And then I realized that I have nothing to say.

I have absolutely nothing to say about this film.

Sure, I could go into detailed stuff. I could talk about Boris Kaufman's brilliant cinematography. I could talk about how the lens focus changes so that the room physically looks and feels smaller and more claustrophobic as the film goes on. I could talk about how the camera angles change in the three acts of the film: starting at above eye level, then going to eye level, and then going to below eye level, which further enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. I could talk about how as the film goes on there are more close-ups on the actors' faces as opposed to wide shots of the room, which brings more focus to the jurors as opposed to the room over time, making them seem more dominant and commanding. I could talk about the symbolism of the broken fan and how it's an elegantly simple and effective storytelling device to showcase the shift in the tone of the room. I could talk about how the fact that none of the characters have names (we learn two of them at the very end, but that hardly counts) makes the film especially accessible and somehow makes the characters far more vivid. I could talk about the motif of eyeglasses amongst the jurors, which foreshadows what ends up being one of the most crucial pieces of evidence in the case. I could talk about all of the filmmaking tactics which make this, in my opinion, the single best crafted movie of all time. Not a single shot, not a single second is taken for granted. Everything is perfectly precise, and everything works together.

Like I said, I love this film.

You could say, perhaps, that I'm! Get it?

But if I were to talk about the actual filmmaking techniques, it wouldn't really address what I think makes this film so successful. Filmmaking is a visual medium, and the cinematography and editing choices made by filmmakers certainly do affect our emotional response, but analyzing the craft of Twelve Angry Men does not explain the way this film truly resonates with those who watch it. There is something undeniably powerful about this film. And while I could talk about this film for hours, nothing I say can really do the movie justice. And nothing I can say hasn't already been said by the many others who have discussed this film in the past. Pinpointing any one thing and saying, "This is why the movie is great," just doesn't work in this case. It's that rare film where every individual aspect comes together to create a work greater than the sum of its parts. It's not just the acting, it's not just the directing, it's not just the writing, it's not just the cinematography--every individual part is simply extraordinary. But, more than that, I find it difficult to talk about this film because of its nuance. Every time I watch it, I experience it differently. Characters who represented one thing in a previous viewing suddenly represent something else entirely. Moments that I had forgotten about suddenly become critical in my mind. Every person watching this film at any point is going to get something new out of it. For a one-location film that is so deceptively simple, there are an infinite number of ways to watch this film. And discussion of this movie is certainly more suited for an actual conversation between people than a written blog post.

So, if you have somehow not seen this classic movie, stop reading now. Go find someone else, whether they've seen the film before or not, and watch it together. And then talk about it. That conversation will be far more valuable and speak to more of the film's strengths than anything I write here.

All of this is a disclaimer to say that what I'm about to say is far from insightful. I won't be looking too hard at the intricacies of the filmmaking or the script or the performances. But I will be discussing the film in the simplest of terms. Because, I believe, its simplicity is where it thrives.

Look how angry he is! Just like the title promised! Simplicity!
Twelve Angry Men's greatest achievement is that it does not feel dated. Which is amazing for a number of reasons. This film is in black and white, it features a complete lack of any modern technology, and is a story that really couldn't be written today. I mean, this is a film about a murder case that does not have any mention of DNA. And nobody has cell phones. But it still feels applicable. It still feels relevant. And, again, I think this has to do with its simplicity. I've already described the film as "deceptively simple." It is very complex in the way the story is told, but the story itself is as simple as you can get: it's a story of right vs. wrong. Everything about this film is a simple examination of those two very intrinsic ideas--ones which are universal amongst all of humankind. It is, in fact, preferable that the film is in black and white: it lays bare the strict contrasting forces of the film's central theme. This too is why we all experience the film differently: no two people have the same exact impressions of right and wrong, so our viewing of the film changes on a philosophical level. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has spoken about how this film influenced her career, and continues to do so. It's what first sparked her interest in the law, and as she says "This movie continued to ring the chords within me." The amazing thing is that Twelve Angry Men is notoriously a TERRIBLE courtroom movie. The way the jury operates is completely the opposite of what a jury is supposed to do. The investigation lead by Juror #8 would cause a mistrial. But that inherent sense of justice, and those core ideas of goodness triumphing over hate are nonetheless inspiring. As Justice Sotomayor would be the first to tell you.

If only she'd watched Willy Wonka instead then we could have had the greatest chocolatier who ever lived!

If you don't know what the film is about (in which case, I'm impressed you've read this far at all), the film follows a jury that has just heard the case against a young man from a slum accused of murdering his father. After they make an initial vote, eleven of the jurors vote that he's guilty, and only one votes that he's not guilty. Over the course of the film, as they debate the case, every one of the jurors eventually changes his vote to not guilty and the defendant is declared such. So, not only is it a story of right vs. wrong, it's a story of how those who are "wrong" are eventually converted to "right." And herein lies the beauty of the film. All twelve of these characters are very distinct, and all twelve of them play different roles. The film examines what sorts of ideas and arguments resonate with each of these men to make them change their vote. The film could not exist without every single one of the twelve, which is impressive for a cast that could easily have been overcrowded.

So now we're going to talk about the jurors, and my thoughts on each character and the purposes they serve. No great insights here, just a general discussion. And as I go through, I have a question for you all: which juror are you most like? We love to categorize ourselves by personalities. Which Myers-Briggs personality type are you, or Harry Potter house are you in, there are so many ways to sort ourselves. But I think a far more interesting question is which juror are you. These are far more complex options, and you are probably not going to feel attached to one and only one juror. But it's an interesting thing to think about. After all, it could be argued that the jurors are all more concepts than actual character. We only ever find out two of their names, and that's at the very end of the film. For the most part, they exist merely as broad representations in that jury room. This exercise should be especially useful for actors-- as every actor hopefully knows, you need to know your type. Well, after watching Twelve Angry Men, you should be able to identify which juror you would best be able to portray. And we'll look at them in the order that they vote "Not Guilty."

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda)
JUROR #8: This is, essentially, the main character of the movie. He sets the entire plot in motion as the only juror to initially vote not guilty, and continues to be the defendant's greatest champion for the duration of the film. It's no coincidence that he's an architect by trade, as he is the architect of the young man's defense and of the movie's entire plot. He appears to be the epitome of goodness and righteousness--the absolute picture of honor. He clearly trusts his fellow human beings. He trusts the defendant's word, and he trusts that the other jurors will change their minds. After his vote for not guilty, and the initial debate amongst the jurors, he famously says that they should vote again without him, and if everyone still votes guilty, he'd go along with that decision. Of course, Juror #9 changes his vote, and this is because Juror #8 trusted that someone else must feel uneasy simply convicting the defendant without a discussion. Juror #8 is perhaps most defined by his refusal to see ugliness in others. Even as he disproves the testimony of the witnesses, he never accuses them of lying. As he debates with the increasingly agitated jurors, he does not insult them. And when he does criticize them, he still tries to do so in an understanding way. He believes that others are good--and that is why he is such a strong protagonist. He was even named the 28th best movie hero by the American Film Institute.

I will say, though, that the more I watch the film, the more I become disillusioned with Juror #8. His detective skills are impractically strong--his insights into the case often rely on wild leaps and it's improbable that anyone would be correct about so much considering the very little the jury had to go on. Perhaps the biggest example of this is "The Knife Scene," when he produces a knife identical to the one used in the murder, which he does to prove that anyone could have had this murder weapon and it does not incriminate the defendant. This moment is undeniably effective (and always gets applause in stage versions) but it is also patently ridiculous. WHY HAS HE NOT BROUGHT THIS UP BEFORE?! They were arguing about this knife for a while, and the whole time, Juror #8 must be thinking "Ooh, I can't WAIT to show them the knife in my pocket! They're going to be so shocked!" And then he stabs the knife into the table for NO REASON. The whole thing is needlessly dramatic.

I have a degree in criminal law and pregnant pauses.
But, he's such a righteous character, and such a strong voice for fairness and truth, and portrayed so brilliantly by Henry Fonda, that you ignore his faults and except this idealistic architect as the hero we both need and deserve.

Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney)
JUROR #9: Even though Juror #8 has the most lines, and is the first to vote not guilty, I would argue that he's not actually the "hero" of the film. He is, in fact, the only character who does not change over the course of the movie. Everyone else changes their vote--Juror #8 never does. So, the true hero of the movie is Juror #9, the first one to actually change his mind. And for all of Juror #8's detective work, Juror #9 is actually the most effective presence in the room. The oldest of the jurors, #9 is treated with great respect by everyone in the room (#8 is not), and while #8 speaks the most, #9 speaks the most wisely. He's the one who brings up the crucial clue about the old woman wearing glasses, which ends up swaying the final jurors in the room. As the first to change his vote, and the one who convinces the final jurors to change their votes, he becomes the one who actually marks the biggest shifts in the debate. I think about the famed duo of magicians Penn & Teller. Both are great magicians, but it is generally acknowledged that Penn is generally the showman who does the presentation and distraction, while the silent Teller is the more skilled magician who does the majority of what we would call the actual magic. Both are vital to the success of the partnership (which might be why they are the only two jurors whose names we ever learn, at the very end of the film). And while we all focus on #8 as the main protagonist of the story, we greatly overlook the more unassuming #9 who is the true hero of the film.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman)
JUROR #5:  An ambulance crewman, he has what most would argue is the noblest profession out of all the jurors. #5 is soft-spoken, and due to his calmer nature is focused on less than many of the other jurors in the room. But this only makes his moments in the film all the more significant. We find out that #5 grew up in a violent slum. This not only means he serves as a source of knowledge (like when he demonstrates the proper way to use a switchblade), but also means he in some ways represents the unseen defendant. As he shares the defendant's background, his inherently gentle nature serves as a clue that the young man is not guilty. Perhaps the most telling moment for me about what makes Juror #5 who he is comes towards the end of the film, in one of my favorite scenes. In this scene, Juror #10 goes on a bigoted rant, and one by one, the jurors literally turn their back on him and his hateful rhetoric. This scene tells us so much about every single character, and it's worth noting that #5 is the very first juror to turn. He is the antithesis of #10. If #8 is all about justice and #9 is all about wisdom, #5 is all about compassion.

Juror #11 (George Voskovec)
JUROR #11: Juror #11 is perhaps the most easily recognizable due to his accent. Originally from Europe, he's a naturalized American citizen and the most notably patriotic. He delivers a wonderful speech about the importance of the American justice system, and offers a clear individual perspective on the case. Early on, he corrects Juror #10's grammar in one of the film's more humorous moments, but this is more than just a funny gag. Along with his knowledge of grammar, his dialogue showcases the largest vocabulary of the jurors, and his lines are consistently eloquent. He's consistently presented as one of the smarter and more rational jurors. He and #4 are the only ones who seem to be specifically defined by their intelligence. Jurors #8, #9, and #5 all vote not guilty due to their emotions. But #11 is the first to change his vote based distinctly on the facts.

Juror #2 (John Fiedler)
JUROR #2: The cast of the 1957 film is truly extraordinary. Everyone is perfectly cast. But I would argue that the best casting choice is John Fiedler as #2. Fielder is, to modern audiences, best known for being the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. And that basically tells you everything you need to know about Juror #2. He is a fluffy little nugget. Everything about this guy is meek and soft-spoken and nervous. For a film called Twelve Angry Men, you can't imagine this guy being angry ever in his life. Seen by some as a bit of a comic relief character, I think that Juror #2 is far more two-dimensional than many give him credit for. He grows considerably over the course of the film, finding his voice and standing up to several of the louder jurors at crucial moments. He's lovable, and he's great. There's not much more to say, really.

Juror #6 (Edward Binns)
JUROR #6: Whenever there's a cast this big, one character is always going to get the short end of the stick. There's Hawkeye in The Avengers. There's Garrett Morris in the original cast of SNL. And, in this case, there's Juror #6. He makes the least impression on the viewer. Somewhat tough, but principled, he's likable enough, but doesn't really have a grand moment or identifying characteristic the way the other jurors do. He contributes the least. And yet, that in and of itself is noteworthy. He's the swing. After all, as the sixth to vote not guilty, he's the one who makes it a tie. He's more of an observer than a debater, and therefore comes across as more impartial than any of the other jurors. At the very start of the film, it is very clear that jurors like #9 or #2 will be among the first to shift, and it's clear that #3 and #10 will be the very last to shift. #6 is the wildcard. He represents, in many ways, the audience, absorbing everything the other jurors are saying.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden)
JUROR #7: Okay, this is, I think, perhaps the most fascinating character in the entire film. Because his defining characteristic is apathy. He doesn't care about the outcome of the case, and openly admits that he's voting not guilty only because he thinks it means that they will get out of the room sooner. And in a film where the entire line of action is a debate, to have a character who is completely disinterested in the debate is surprising. And, I think that this trait makes him the primary antagonist of the film. Not the bigoted #10, not the prejudiced #3, but the completely apathetic #7. At the start of the film, Juror #8 is not 100% sure that the defendant is not guilty. He just thinks there's a case, and that they should go over the evidence again before sending the defendant to, they presume, death row. If Twelve Angry Men has a central thesis, it's that it's important to consider things and listen to the viewpoints of others. Even the more villainous and outspoken jurors are willing to do this. #7 is not. He comes across as the least likable of the group--a man with no convictions or morals of any kind. With Juror #7, Twelve Angry Men is making the cast that the greatest enemy to justice is apathy. The most outspoken juror voting guilty is #3, who is also the last to change his vote. But at least he believes strongly in what he's saying, and without #3 there wouldn't be such a passionate argument. During #10's bigoted rant which I mentioned earlier, he is one of the last jurors to turn away, and of the jurors who do turn, is the only one who does not actively leave the table. Even when he's offended by #10's comments, he can't be bothered to physically remove himself from the situation, and his anger just barely registers. #7 contributes nothing, and is the true villain here.

Juror #12 (Robert Webber)
JUROR #12: It's easy to define one characteristic to each juror. #8 is justice, #9 is wisdom, #5 is compassion, #11 is intelligence, #2 is timidity, #6 is impartiality, and #7 is apathy. To follow this approach, #12 is indecision. He is the only juror in the entire film to vote not guilty and then change his vote back to guilty (only to, of course, change back to not guilty again). And ad executive who seems somewhat distracted during the discussion of the case, although not disinterested, he's fairly non-descript. He's friendly, but not noteworthy. He's not incredibly bright, but he is savvy. And despite being caught doodling on a notepad and playing tic-tac-toe earlier in the film, his indecision shows how seriously he takes the case. He's not the most remarkable of the jurors, but his indecisiveness makes him distinctly human and that alone sets him apart from the other jurors who consistently stick to their deeply-held convictions.

Juror #1 (Martin Balsam)
JUROR #1: The foreman of the jury, who volunteers for the role, #1 is a natural leader (we find out he's a coach) who generally keeps the debate, and in turn the film, on track and diffuses his fair share of arguments. In many ways, he has a lot in common with #8, but with his priorities set elsewhere. While #8 seeks justice by examining the facts under close scrutiny, #1 seeks justice by following the rules of the court system. He serves as a moderator as opposed to a participant, and rarely shares his own opinions in the discussion. His vote for not guilty is perhaps the most momentous for me. We know nothing about his thought process. While we can tell when some of the other jurors are starting to turn, his comes as a genuine surprise. Despite not being involved actively in the debate itself, he is nonetheless a constant presence in the film, due to his regular bookkeeping. He's the juror we ultimately know the least about, but he also makes one of the strongest impressions due to sheer screen time. His role as foreman is the most separate from the rest of the jury, and that alone makes him stand out as an important vote. So, when he changes his vote, it serves to me as the best example that the tide has changed. When the one who runs the vote changes their vote, you know it's set in stone. It is only when the foreman changes his vote that the Not Guilty vote becomes a certainty to me.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley)
JUROR #10: Perhaps the least subtle character. He's racist. And awful. And that's all he is. Driven by prejudice, he immediately establishes himself as an antagonist, and much of the satisfaction of the film is watching as he is exposed as a bigot as the number of guilty votes fall and he loses all support. Considering how his motivations for voting guilty are so clearly tied to prejudice, it is always surprising to me that he actually changes his vote before two other jurors. And his vote change is one of the biggest turns in the whole film. And it is handled quite elegantly, and quietly. I've already talked about how crucial his bigoted rant towards the end is, and how the jurors turn against him one by one. Well, there's one juror who does not turn away from him. That's #4, who I'm going to discuss in a second. #4 does not turn away, but when #10 is finished, he's the only one to speak. #4 says "Now sit down and don't open your mouth again."

And he doesn't speak again.

Even when he changes his vote, it's because #8 asks him, "Do you think he's guilty," and he silently shakes his head. For all of his prejudice, when everyone else turns against him, he actually listens. He takes their rejection to heart. He takes #4's advice literally. He sits down (away from the table, and turned away from the group) and does not open his mouth again. It's a rare moment of quiet introspection from Juror #10. And his change is the most important for the film's central thesis. #8 trusts that humans are, at their best, good and just people. That even #10 can change serves as the film's best argument to prove that theory.

Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall)
JUROR #4: The jurors who vote guilty are the clear antagonists. This is pretty obvious. If the defendant is not guilty, and our hero is the one who changes everyone's votes to not guilty, then those who are in opposition have to be the "bad guys." And two of the three most vocal guilty votes fit the bill perfectly--both #10 and #3 are fueled primarily by anger. #4 is not. #4, despite being the penultimate juror to switch his vote, never comes across as villainous. In fact, he's painted as the most intelligent one on the jury. Everything he does is rational and fact-based. While others are swayed by emotion (the film, after all, promises that everyone's angry), he shows none. He's almost Vulcan-like in his logic. The reason he doesn't turn away from #10 during his rant is because emotions don't come into play with #4. His comments to #10 that he should shut his mouth show that he is angry and disgusted, but those feelings don't affect him to move the same way it does the others. And when he finally changes his vote to not guilty, he's not defeated like #10. He simply explains, "I have reasonable doubt now." This makes him crucial to the film's success. The film teeters dangerously on the edge of being self-righteous. The moral grandstanding could easily come across as saccharine. And if all of those voting guilty were outwardly villainous like #3 and #10 then the line between right and wrong would be too clearly drawn and there would be no ambiguity. #4 allows for that ambiguity. He's respectable, so his presence as one of the primary guilty votes lends that side of the debate credibility. #4 keeps the film from feeling too one-sided.

And, last but certainly not least, we come to...

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb)
JUROR #3: The most outspoken guilty vote, he's fueled by anger and hate as opposed to reason. He recognizes in the defendant his own son, with whom he's estranged, and takes the case personally because of this. For him, the case is irrelevant. He wants to punish the defendant as a cathartic release. It is for this reason that Juror #3 makes such a good opposition. Because the case is so personal to him, the stakes become much higher. Sure, the others have to decide the fate of the defendant, but in the end it's not someone they know. But, for all intents and purposes, Juror #3 feels that he DOES know the defendant. And he's angry. As the last two guilty votes to switch, #4 is all about facts, and #3 is all about emotions. It is because of these higher stakes for #3 that the film is as exciting to watch as it is. There's a reason he's the very last juror to change his vote: if anyone changed before him, all suspense would be lost.

But, as I argued before, despite his hatred, I view #7 as the main antagonist, not #3. And the reason that I can't think of #3 as a villain is because he's so passionate. Sure, he's misguided, but he's convinced that he's in the right, and in his own way, is seeking his own version of justice in the same way #8 is. He is, ultimately, a principled man. To, again, bring up the scene where #10 rants and everyone turns away one by one, #3 is a special case. He never turns away. Because at the start of the rant, he's already standing with his back turned to the table. If we look at this scene as an indicator of each juror's moral compass, this would imply that #3 is the most morally upstanding of all. After all, the next juror to turn away after #3 is the compassionate #5, followed by #9. All of the jurors to change their votes first are among the first to turn away. And yet, #3 is the very first to denounce #10's prejudice. He's not a villain. He's just misguided. And he takes the longest to make his change--as the final vote, his is the vote that ultimately counts more than anyone else's. He's the one that makes the decision to make it a unanimous vote.
With all this in mind, I'm including my dream cast for if they were to remake Twelve Angry Men. I'm quite happy with it. Feel free to share your own dream jury in the comments!

1: Idris Elba
2: Maria Bamford
3: Robert Downey Jr.
4: Candice Bergen
5: Giancarlo Esposito
6: Octavia Spencer
7: Will Arnett
8: Frances McDormand
9: Morgan Freeman
10: Sam Rockwell
11: Christoph Waltz
12: Allison Janney

But the jurors are not really the only characters. There's a guard who occasionally pops in. There's a judge who we hear at the beginning. Ther are also two alternates who we see sitting in the jury box at the beginning before they're dismissed. They just might be my favorite characters in the movie, because they have no lines, and I like to imagine that these jurors went to see this movie and were like, "Well, shoot. We clearly missed out on a life-affirming, inspirational tale of trust and the power of thought and open-mindedness. That sucks." There are also the various players in the court case--the defendant, the lawyers, the witnesses, etc. They're never seen, but are pretty vividly painted by the jurors' discussion. You can see the sad old man who got dressed up to be a witness in court. You can visualize the glasses on the woman who thought she saw the murder. You can definitely understand the underpaid defense lawyer, who barely puts up a defense for his client because he thinks there's no case. They're so clear that it's rather amazing that we never actually see them in the film. And then, of course, there's the room itself. This might be the definitive example of a set becoming a character. Everything, from the lack of air conditioning, to the long table sets the tone perfectly and, for a room that is purposefully non-descript, it's a truly iconic setting.

Ultimately, there is something triumphant about watching Twelve Angry Men. It is infinitely rewarding. And it is truly invigorating. Forget Michael Bay and his explosions, Sidney Lumet manages to create much more tension and excitement filming twelve men talking in a room. It is an expertly crafted film, which only furthers the much-needed optimism of its strongly defined moral compass.

I love this movie.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hamilton, And Why Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Modern Day Shakespeare

Get ready, everybody. This one's a doozy. Because The Cinematic and Other Cultural Endeavors of Miles Purinton is about to take a journey down one of my more rarely discussed cultural endeavors. This time, we're not talking about film, and we're not talking about television. This time, we're talking about theatre. Specifically the new musical Hamilton which played a sold out run at the Public Theater and starts previews on Broadway tomorrow.

A number from the brand-new Broadway musical Hamilton

I typically don't talk about theatre on this blog. Not because I'm not passionate about it (I'm probably more passionate about theater than film, and that's saying something) but because theatre is less accessible as it's limited to one location. While films are broadcast worldwide and can be preserved and accessed years after their initial release, a theatrical production is isolated to a distinct place and time. So if this blog talked about a great show I saw recently, anyone who's not in New York City is probably not going to be able to see it and share in that experience. And as someone who doesn't want to exclude any of his faithful readers (there are dozens of you, dozens!!!!) I often fear that rambling on and on about a great show might be met with a collective "meh."

But Hamilton is not like most shows. I saw it at the Public and, like everyone who saw it (with the exception of, perhaps, Madonna) I was blown away. And while I have not seen it on Broadway yet (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it hasn't started performances yet), I can only imagine the success it will have. Hamilton is a big show, and as good as it was on the Public's stage, it is meant for Broadway. For anyone who doubts Broadway's credibility in the contemporary world of theater, or who feels like it's a venue that highlights commercial appeal over artistic integrity, I encourage you to see Hamilton. It makes a case for Broadway's relevance. There is no other stage that can possibly live up to the grand, epic scale that this show is designed for. It is the rare type of show that surpasses the limitations of the genre and becomes an event. Across the world, people know about the stage version of The Lion King. Shows like Rent, Les Miserables, The Book of Mormon, and...sigh...even Cats transcended their staged locations. And Hamilton will easily be the next show to do so.

It even looks Les Mis-esque in this picture.

Rather than simply review the show, I want to talk about why this is the case. And while the production is incredible in its design, choreography, and cast (there are standout performances from Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., and Phillipa Soo in particular), I will mostly be talking about the script--the elements of the show that can be presented as a document. Because these elements (written entirely by Lin-Manuel Miranda) are where the show thrives, and by looking at them we can get to the crux of the show's success. So, bear with me, and at the end, we can all buy full-priced Broadway tickets together.

For the uninformed, Hamilton is about Alexander Hamilton, founding father and creator of the national bank who is probably best known as being the face on the ten dollar bill. His story is fascinating and probably unknown to most. While we might remember little snippets from history class (he founded the Federalist Party, was the first Secretary of the Treasury, and was killed in a duel with sitting vice president Aaron Burr. Spoiler alert.) I doubt anyone other than a historian will know every facet of Hamilton's life and influence. There were plenty of details about many of these characters that I know will be brand new, and rather illuminating, for the majority of the audience. Eliza Hamilton, Alexander's wife, for example, is a FASCINATING individual whose story was completely unknown to me until the show's epilogue. Because of this, the story that unfolds on stage is a welcome mixture of familiarity and surprise, with various plotlines unfolding in new and unexpected ways.

This is what the American Revolution looked like
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about the show is its contemporary aesthetic. Despite the setting, the show is undeniably modern, from its hip-hop score to its incredibly diverse cast. In a world where people complain about unconfirmed speculation that a black actor might play James Bond, you might think it would be jarring to see black actors portraying such historical figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But the casting undeniably works, and I have yet to hear a single person complain about it. And while I'd love to think this is due to the more open-minded nature of the theatrical community, I think that wouldn't give enough credit to the show, because it makes such a great case for why such characters would be played by these actors. As Miranda said in an interview, "This is the story of America then, told by America now. It looks like America now." For a show set during the American Revolution, the revolutionary feel of the show makes it impossible to imagine these characters portrayed any other way. "We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution," Miranda said. The show makes it evident why.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton make a deal.

At a very young age, Miranda has already become a superstar in the theatrical world. He won numerous awards (including a Pulitzer nomination and a Tony) for his first show, In the Heights, and earned further accolades for the criminally underrated Bring it On: The Musical. But it was not until watching Hamilton that I realized the full extent of Miranda's powers: he is the William Shakespeare of our generation. Once it occurred to me, I couldn't help but find further matches between these two figures. Both are actors, neither came from a traditionally theatrical background, and both write in rhyme, although Miranda has traded in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter for rap. That rhyming connection should not be underestimated. It makes me sound like I'm in a really bad, overly-earnest movie where a nerdy guy teaches Shakespeare to inner-city youth by going "Shakespeare is a lot like your rap music!" but it's true. In both Shakespeare and in Miranda's lyrics, the rhythm is just as important to the meaning of the dialogue as the words themselves. It creates a distinct atmosphere that only a skilled craftsman can perfect.

This is not from Hamilton. This is from Bring it On. Which I've sung the praises of before. Seriously, more people should talk about this show.
In Shakespeare, the language is intentionally stylized, and the characters use it to show their status. When Shakespearean characters utilize clever wordplay, it's not just Shakespeare showing off, it's the characters showing their own way with words. Miranda does the same thing with rap here--his raps are lyrical and poetic, and with the passion of great statesmen on the stage, their ways with words are a natural fit. Sung through, we get the grandness of an opera, but the wordiness of a Shakespearean epic. Simply by saying his lines, we are able to appreciate Alexander Hamilton's intellect and skill, because those lines are so strong. When Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton debate in front of the senate, Miranda turns it into a rap battle. Which isn't too far from the truth--two noted politicians trying to outwit the other with their words and ideas is perfect content for a rap battle. But it also put me in mind of Julius Caesar when Brutus and Antony have dueling eulogies, each more eloquent than the last (ending, of course, on Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech). The "winner" of each scene is not just who has the best argument, but who has the best verse.

Miranda must be aware of this theatrical link--he has Hamilton compare himself to Macbeth in several scenes. But if we look at Hamilton from a Shakespearean perspective, it's not a tragedy, it's a history. The founding fathers are like the great kings whose stories Shakespeare set to stage. And in that historical context, Miranda finds wonderful characters and brings new life to the names we know from history books. Even by simply titling the play with the name of its protagonist put me in mind of Henry V or Richard II, as Miranda examines these well-known figures as human beings with faults and nuances.

Jefferson and Hamilton in a rap battle. For democracy.

Shakespeare is famous for being a champion for unrecognized voices. He took characters who ordinarily were not seen on stage and gave them voices. Shakespeare's plays were incredibly diverse for the time, including characters of different ethnicities and backgrounds when his contemporaries were not. A great example is Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who I've talked about briefly before, who is written problematically, but still treated with more respect than by any other playwright at the time (if you doubt me, read Marlowe's The Jew of Malta which features a terrifyingly anti-semitic caricature in the title role). With all of Shakespeare's characters, he tried to find a certain grey area. His villains (with a few notable exceptions) are not treated as purely evil. He finds the best in them. In Hamlet, the traitorous king Claudius has several moments to show his humanity, such as a scene of him praying. Macbeth may be evil, but shows much tenderness in his scenes with Lady Macbeth and how much he cares for her. Shakespeare's characters have endured so well because they are so well-rounded, and shown at their best and at their worst. Miranda affords the same careful consideration to his characters. You could say that Hamilton himself is an unrecognized voice--an immigrant who was often unpopular amongst his contemporaries for his intellect and abrasiveness, he's not the first person you'd think would be the main character in a musical. Then there's the eventual villain in Hamilton's life, Aaron Burr, who at both the start and the end of the show laments how he is forever marked as a murderer in the history books. Thomas Jefferson, who was famously at odds with Hamilton throughout history, is portrayed as a cocky and self-important ass (albeit a smart and oddly likable one). You leave Hamilton feeling differently about every single character than you did when the show began. You understand their motivations. You understand what drives them. You understand them as humans.

Aaron Burr and the Schuyler sisters

Miranda matches Shakespeare not only emotionally, but on a technical level as well by demonstrating ability with a great number of writing styles. While the score is mostly rap and hip-hop, Miranda also draws upon a number of musical styles, especially those traditionally associated with black culture. The three Schuyler sisters (one of whom is eventually Hamilton's wife, Eliza) seem distinctly modeled off of Destiny's Child. Elsewhere, there are clear undertones of jazz and ragtime. My favorite number in the show, a showstopper led by Burr called "The Room Where It Happens" has a decidedly Dixieland feel to it. Miranda not only excels in these styles, but blends them together beautifully. It's not just an enjoyable score, and it's not just a memorable score, it is an unbelievably smart score.

Like Shakespeare, Miranda is also an actor, and he stars as Hamilton. He gives an undeniably strong performance, but it is clear that his primary function is as a writer rather than an actor. I think Miranda would agree with me--during Hamilton's run at the Public, Miranda would often watch the show when his alternate (Javier Munoz) was on, taking notes so as to improve his own performance. Miranda certainly holds his own, but in this stupendous cast, his performance is not the immediate standout. And yet, it is amazing to watch him on stage. His artistic voice is so strong, and so integral to the success of the show that he is absolutely magnetic. Miranda's portrayal is more than a performance, it's a complete presentation. Just as Hamilton is more than a show. Hamilton is an event. I feel privileged to be able to have seen it now and already look forward to seeing it again. And more than that I look forward to the tremendous work that Miranda will continue to do. Miranda has already merited a great amount of praise for his work, all deserved, but I truly think that the extent of his talent cannot be underestimated. He is that rare artist that challenges the way theatre actually works. When Miranda is in his prime, he doesn't just excel in the genre, he reconfigures it to fit his own expectations. And if Hamilton is any indication, it is only the start of what Miranda has to offer the stage. If Hamilton is Miranda's Julius Caesar, I can only imagine what his Hamlet is going to be.

Eliza and Alexander Hamilton. I ship it.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rating the Underrated: Why "Crash" Actually Deserved Best Picture

Don Cheadle is so sad and confused about why people hate this movie.
Perspective is an interesting thing, especially in an artistic context. What seemed brilliant once might, upon a future viewing, seem thoroughly disappointing as we grow as viewers and the medium evolves. Similarly, I can't even count the number of things which have been deemed "ahead of their time," and which have only received their deserved acclaim and recognition years after their initial release. This is perhaps most apparent when one looks at awards ceremonies of years past. The Oscars are well-known to be problematic, and their most reliable function is probably to serve as an indication of what people were responding to at a given point in history. In 1976, the country was still feeling betrayed by the government they once trusted in light of Watergate, and it showed in that year's Oscar ceremony. Films which are now considered among the best films ever made like Taxi Driver (about a dangerous psychopath who ends up becoming a national hero), Network (about, among other things, corruption in the media and its willingness to exploit its broadcast for ratings), and All the President's Men (about the Watergate scandal itself), all lost to the feel-good sports movie Rocky. Many people are still surprised by this decision, but it makes sense. Audiences were responding far more to the story of an inherently good underdog achieving success. It was uplifting at a time that the country needed it. Other times, historical context can't be used as an excuse and the Oscar decisions just seem baffling. At the 14th Academy Awards, for example, the rather forgettable How Green Was My Valley took home the award for Best Picture over other films which have aged with much more grace-- such as Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, the noir gem The Maltese Falcon, and a little film called Citizen Kane that is generally considered to be okay.

Spoiler alert: it turns out that the Maltese Falcon was just a sled.

There has often been debate about whether or not films deserve the awards that they receive, and as time goes on a few movies are consistently mentioned as undeserved Best Picture winners. One such film that frequently appears in these discussions is Crash, Paul Haggis' ensemble drama which took home the top award at the 78th Academy Awards. Unlike with something like How Green Was My Valley, however, the backlash to this decision was almost immediate. It was a huge upset, and was instantly controversial. For one thing, Crash had not been a major player at most of the other awards, so its Oscar dominance came out of left field. The award was expected to go to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, and it was felt that Crash, while a good film, "stole" the award which it shouldn't have received. But as time goes on, the reaction to the film has proven to be somewhat hostile. Consensus now, by and large, is that it is actually a bad film and its title of Best Picture is seen by many as one of the Academy's greatest oversights. Despite the title of this post (whooo clickbait titles FTW!!!!), I'm not going to try and argue that this was the best film of the year (although, I don't think that honor goes to Brokeback Mountain either-- for me, the best film out of the nominees is Capote) but I do think that the film has received overly harsh criticism. And, especially in light of recent events, deserves a reevaluation. Crash is, in my opinion, a great film and deserves our consideration and respect. As a film dealing with a subject as heavy as race, it may not be the best (that distinction, for me, belongs to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing) but it earns its place as surprisingly strong supplemental viewing.

If "best film ever made about race" didn't intrigue you, well, Do the Right Thing has Giancarlo Esposito in it. Please watch this movie if you haven't already. It's so important.

First, lets' talk about the film's strengths. For a start, it is unbelievably well-acted. This is a star-studded cast and features some really fantastic performances. Not just that, but many of the performances are the highlights of these actors' careers. Matt Dillon absolutely deserved his Oscar nomination and gives a performance that remains the best of his career. And he's not the only one: Ryan Phillippe, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, and Terrence Howard all stand out as actors whose performances here cast a new light on their talent. And I think this is an aspect of the film that even its critics would agree on-- these are great performances through and through. I would also argue that the Oscar-winning screenplay deserves merit. While parts of the script have been criticized (which I'll get to in a second) the plot is nonetheless ambitious and well-executed, and individual scenes are certainly well-written, at least in terms of dialogue.

Now here is where we get into the film's criticisms. From reading and hearing peoples' complaints about the film, there are a few problems that stand out. Many people think that the plot's twists and turns are unrealistic and, more pressingly, many take issue with the film's dealings with the subject of race. Which is a fairly big criticism to levy, since that's kind of the entire point of the film. A common criticism is that the film's depictions of racism are caricaturey and preachy-- coming across as holier-than-thou and, again, unrealistic. More troubling, though, is another criticism that the film actually mishandles its depiction of race-- that it provides a too simplistic view of the subject and, by glossing over the intricacies of the issue of racism it provides an incorrect and harmful view of the subject it is supposed to be shedding light on. But I would propose that Crash is a thoughtful consideration of the subject of race--certainly more so than other preachy Oscar-winning films starring Sandra Bullock

I am, of course, referring to Speed.

Let's start with the idea that the plot itself is unrealistic, as that is the easiest to discuss and, in this case, refute. I always find these criticisms boring and, frankly, just incredibly useless when applied to a discussion of film. Obviously, there are times when plot twist can be all too convenient and really test the audience's patience. I find this problem especially glaring when something is "all part of the plan." For example, in films like The Dark Knight or Skyfall (both of which, for the record, I enjoyed greatly) the villains orchestrate plans that work out perfectly in their favor but which have to account for WAY too many variables which are outside of their control. They make such little sense as to be completely impossible. But, even in these cases, I tend to just accept it in the interest of my greater enjoyment of the film. I feel that to hold any dramatic form to only the strictest rules of reality is, frankly, moronic. If films were 100% true to life, they'd be incredibly boring. Are some scenes and premises in films unrealistic in the sense that they probably wouldn't happen in real life? Absolutely. But that's why we're watching a film. And as long as the scenes are handled well and can further the plot and the characters, I'm all for them. In Crash, the many characters end up interacting with one another and, oftentimes, it is for the convenience of the plot, yes. But it is also to make a grander point. Crash may be set in the real world and may focus on real themes, but there is nonetheless a fable-like quality to it that allows for such conveniences. Would the events of the film happen in real life? Perhaps not. But, also, why not? Stranger things have happened. Nothing in this film strikes me as too much to swallow and, as such, I personally dismiss this particular criticism against the film as a whole. Some things might be coincidental, but it is a work of fiction and is allowed to take liberties. The film does not at any point extend beyond what is physically possible. So at no point did I personally find myself taken out of the experience.

Now is where we get into the nitty gritty of the film. Crash does not really follow a typical Aristotelian plot and storyline-- rather it is a general examination of race and racism as it occurs over a few days in Los Angeles. And the most prevalent criticism of the film is its depiction of racism. It's not that these characters are subtly racist, they are REALLY racist, and the film's critics say that the characters come across more as caricatures than as real people. There's the gun store owner who refers to a Muslim character as "Osama." There's the district attorney's wife (Sandra Bullock) who complains that the Hispanic locksmith is going to make copies of their keys and sell them to his gang members. Writer and director Haggis makes no attempts to veil these racist comments and, indeed, they are pretty blatant. But, I have to say, aren't these depictions accurate? While I think most would (hopefully) agree that they would never say such a thing, these are absolutely comments that still exist in our world today. Considering events in the news recently, I don't find anything caricaturey about them at all-- in fact, I find them brutally honest and accurately disturbing. Donald Trump saying that all Mexicans are rapists is not something that would seem out of place in the world of Crash, and none of the depictions of the racists in this film are out of place in the realm of reality.

Frankly, in a world where this man is running for president, you cannot say that ANYTHING is "unrealistic"

The problem in depicting such blatant racism, though, is that often it allows an audience to go "Well, I'm not like them because I'M not racist." But, Haggis avoids this problem admirably as the film goes on. It is no coincidence that a majority of this film's characters are policemen, and it is apt that the film ends with a white police officer shooting an unarmed young black man. While recent tragic events such as those in Ferguson have shed light on the issue of racism and brutality within the police force (which, I will be honest, is partially why I felt compelled to consider this film again and do this writeup) this issue has been present for a shockingly long time. But (spoilers ahead) the policeman who does the shooting is Officer Hansen (Phillippe) who has, until this point, been painted as an undecidedly "not racist." He's supposed to be the good guy. Earlier in the film, he requests for a transfer after his partner's racist remarks, and acts as an advocate during a previous police confrontation. This, again, is a moment that I have seen criticized a lot, the reasoning being that the act by Hansen feels too convenient and uncharacteristic. I disagree-- I feel it is very characteristic and important to show Hansen's own prejudices which come to light with this action. I thought back to the conversation he had with his superior Lt. Dixon (Keith David) when he requested a new partner. Dixon rightly calls Hansen out--is he doing this because he thinks that his partner's comments were truly wrong, or just because they make him uncomfortable? Hansen is not sure how to respond. It's a fantastic scene, and Dixon's speech about having to be a high-ranking black man in a predominantly white and bigoted environment strikes as heartbreakingly true.

"I'm really really not racist, you guys." Officer Hansen

The most overt example of racism in the film is Hansen's partner, Officer John Ryan, played by Matt Dillon (for which, as I already mentioned, Dillon earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination). This character is an absolute creep. His bigotry and anger is well-documented throughout the film-- including a time when he demeans and insults a black doctor who is caring for his father for no reason other than anger and prejudice. When we first meet Officer Ryan, he asserts his power as a white, male officer of the law by molesting Christine (Newton) in front of her husband Cameron (Howard) after pulling them over. Cameron does not speak up out of fear of what the officer will do. I'm confused--is this the type of scene in the movie people feel is too "unrealistic?" Because if anyone feels that such a thing does not happen in the real world, then they are being far too naive at best and, at worst, willfully ignorant. But, at the end of the film, Officer Ryan happens upon a car crash and actually saves Christine's life. In the end, Officer Ryan is deemed a hero because of his actions, and that act is indeed heroic and selfless as he risks his life to save another. But none of that negates his previous actions. He may be a hero, but he is also the same bigoted, creepy epitome of toxic masculinity. And it's admirable to me that the film lets him be the one to actually earn this heroic reception. In a time when, after all, the "boys in blue" are often considered heroes despite the pervasive problems in our nations' police forces, it asks us to consider who our heroes are. And it reminds us that a single heroic act cannot negate the actions of the past. Hero cops are still a part of a problematic institution. Yes, to Christine, Officer Ryan will always be the man who saved her life. But he is also the man who molested her on the side of the road when she could not fight back. The moment where she has to decide to trust him when he pulls her out of the burning car is a brutal one. Newton's cries of "Anyone but you," are haunting. None of this strikes me as a caricature. It strikes me as a fairly accurate portrayal of some of the manifestations of racism in our world today, issues that a decade later still are not widely discussed in the world of film.

The defining image of the film, as Office Ryan saves Christine.

A more serious and, in my opinion, accurate critique of the film is that it does not go far enough in its commentary. While it may hold a mirror up to the problem, it offers no solutions to it and does not explore some of the major reasons why such prejudices are held. These are all fair critiques, but I don't think are inherent when discussing the film's success or failure. It is not Crash's responsibility to end racism, after all. Especially considering that it was written by two white men (which is in itself a problem, of course), I feel that Crash does about all that it could do. It is a movie about problems rather than solutions, and that's okay. If the film had examined the subject more closely, would it have been better? Most likely. But that's not what the movie was trying to accomplish. Crash was trying to tell a story that was, at its heart, quite simple, and in this regard it absolutely succeeds. It makes me think, in a way, of the Bechdel Test-- the now famous test for films. To those who don't know (are there people in the world who don't know about this still?), a movie passes the Bechdel Test if it contains a scene where two named female characters speak to each other about a subject other than a man. That's it. That's the only criteria. And it is shocking the number of films which fail these very basic rules (for the record, Crash does pass--the only nominee from 2004 that does). Many have criticized the test by saying that it is a poor example of feminism as this does not judge how feminist a film truly is. And this is true-- there are some incredibly offensive and specifically misogynistic films which pass the test, so just because a film passes, that doesn't make it not sexist. There are some very good films that fail the test, and that does not make them bad films. There are even some films which one could consider feminist which fail (an example that comes to mind is the recent film Gravity which features a mostly well-written female protagonist, and the film fails solely because there are only two real characters in the entire movie). So, the Bechdel Test is not about determining whether a film is feminist or not, it's simply there to point out an all too common trend. It is effective BECAUSE of its simplicity-- purposefully made basic so as to show how Hollywood is failing women under ever the most basic of conditions. This is a long-winded way of me saying that Crash's simplicity is not a failing, but a strength. By focusing on simply shining a light on some commonly-held prejudices, the filmmakers are able to perform this task expertly. Had they attempted to go deeper, that would have been a far more difficult task to accomplish and would likely have detracted from what Crash did so well.

Ludacris and Larenz Tate as a pair of philosophical carjackers
Ultimately, Crash is meant less as an in-depth discussion and more as a parable. Defined as "a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson," I can think of no more apt a word for this film, and when viewed as such, it succeeds mightily. A great example is in a subplot that combines the story of a Persian shop owner, Farhad (Shaun Toub) and a Hispanic locksmith, Daniel (Pena). In a film where everyone is shown at their best and at their worst, Daniel probably comes across as the very best of the lot. He's a loving father, and an unbelievably kind man, who tries to calm his daughter's fears about the gunshots heard in their neighborhood by giving her an "invisible impenetrable cloak" that will shield her from harm.

No, this is a different Daniel with an invisibility cloak.

Many characters in the film are relatable and interesting, but he's easily the most universally likable. Daniel is hired to fix the lock on the front door of Farhad's shop, and tries to tell Farhad that the door frame needs to be replaced. Farhad, whose English is limited, does not understand, and thinks that Daniel is trying to cheat him. Daniel grows frustrated and leaves, thinking Farhad understood him. The next day, Farhad's store is ruined--it has been vandalized and robbed, with threatening words and slurs painted on the walls. A distraught Farhad believes that Daniel is responsible and attempts to shoot him using the gun he recently purchased with his daughter. As he goes to shoot Daniel, Daniel's daughter jumps in front of the gun, thinking her invisible impenetrable shield will stop the bullet.

Yeah, that's right, you're not smiling anymore, you little shit. This moment is fucking devastating.
As luck would have it, Farhad's daughter had purchased blanks for his gun as she was against the purchase in the first place. And so, to both Farhad and Daniel's surprise and relief, everyone is unharmed. Farhad realizes the irrationality of his actions and everyone is fine. I was surprised to learn, upon reading criticisms of the film, that this storyline is perhaps the least popular in the film. I suppose that the ending does feel a little too well plotted. "My, what a stroke of luck!" you imagine them saying and then Farhad and Daniel and Daniel's daughter all go out and get ice cream. But, as far as cheap emotionally manipulative moments go, this one is pretty damn effective. I remember the first time I watched the film audibly reacting in horror. But the main criticism people have is in the depiction of Farhad. They feel he comes across as a villain and that his actions are not explained. I don't see why anyone would reach this conclusion. Toub portrays Farhad with a lot of complexity. He is angry and upset, but his emotions are justified. He's an impulsive and volatile character, who acts on darker urges when provoked, but he's also an unmistakably good person. He remains a sympathetic character rather than a loathsome one. The story of Farhad and Daniel speaks to the almost fairy tale quality of Crash. These are characters, seemingly, brought together to act out simple stories. And these stories illustrate moral lessons rather expertly.

"I've made a huge mistake."

I feel that most of the anger against Crash stems less from the fact that it won Best Picture than from the fact that Brokeback Mountain lost, and the hatred towards it spiraled from that initial feeling of injustice. To compare the two films is always going to be a matter of preference-- I am not here to decide which film is better or worse. But I will say that Crash holds up much better than its recent backlash would suggest. Many feel it's outdated, but as racially  motivated crimes-- particularly amongst the police-- continue to occur with alarming frequency today, Crash feels, sadly, more relevant today. In fact, parts of it still feel ahead of its time, even a decade later. We can only hope that one day it will feel as outdated as people claim. Instead, it remains a poignant and well-thought out ensemble drama. One that is certainly worth another look.

This is not from Crash, but I still thought you'd want to know that Terrence Howard went on Sesame Street dressed as Elmo. You're welcome.