It’s a Christmas movie, some say, and in the end the holiday classic “Let it Snow” plays over the credits. But what counts as snow in the final scenes is a confetti of smoke, debris, and millions of dollars of bearer bonds, not to mention the Euro-villain who tried to steal them. These descend from the blasted-out upper floor of a skyscraper onto a scene of total destruction. Worse, it all happens in Los Angeles. Is “Die Hard” actually a Christmas movie? And what is a Christmas movie, anyway? Wes & Erin try to figure out if there’s anything like a yuletide miracle in this story about the violent defense of marriage and family against materialism, globalism, status, and other forces of social dissolution.
Diana Christensen is a television executive in search of an angry show—something that articulates the rage of the average viewer. In Howard Beale, failed newscaster turned mad-as-hell prophet, she seems to get exactly what she’s looking for. Yet in doing so, she reduces political and social discontent to a form of entertainment focused on generating audience excitement and television ratings. Wes & Erin discuss the 1976 film “Network,” which seems to suggest that with the advent of mass media, acts of anti-establishment defiance tend to be incorporated by the systems they oppose.
His first claim to fame was the solution to a riddle that earned him a kingdom by sheer force of intellect. His second was a doomed attempt to escape the particularly gruesome fates of patricide and incest. With his first act, Oedipus saved the city of Thebes from the sphinx; with his second, he afflicted it with a plague. In his retelling of this myth, Sophocles reflects on the competing claims of three paths to knowledge: reason, revelation, and experience. Why can’t Oedipus’s brilliant mind save him from the enactment of a prophecy? Why might we be most vulnerable to the fate we’re most determined to avoid? Can we truly be free, or are our attempts to transcend the limitations of character central to its pathologies? Wes & Erin discuss Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.”
How do you become the many you truly are? Try becoming the woman you aren’t. While Michael Dorsey can take the blame for his desperate transformation into Dorothy Michaels, it’s she who gets the credit for making him a better man. How are gender dynamics reflected in our relationships to ourselves? When are we staying true to ourselves, and when are we just acting out a role for others? Wes & Erin discuss Sydney Pollack’s 1982 film, “Tootsie.”
The land is not just ancient but “antique,” and while many of its artifacts end up as the possessions of distant museums, they may yet be capable of overpowering their audiences. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is traditionally taken as an exploration of hubris, and of the obliviating effect of time on power and its pretensions. But the poem also speaks to the power of art to preserve, and how this is accomplished by a hermeneutic collaboration between artist, audience, and subject matter. If there is something alive in the passions reproduced within an artist’s inanimate medium, then our creative powers may ultimately not belong to us.
The Nostromo is a labyrinthine spaceship, a hulking ore refinery run on a sophisticated computer operating system and manned by a crew of seven. But somehow it’s not the most impressive piece of technology in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film “Alien.” That distinction belongs to the title character, an organism with blood of acid and two sets of jaws, highly-evolved, adaptable to any climate. Its scientific mission, if you will, is to fulfill a basic biological imperative: to become a parent. Fitting, then, that it chooses to prey on a ship controlled by its own problematic Mother. Just what kind of existential threat does this techno-sexual organism pose to a man-made and sterile future? And how does one woman manage to defeat it? Wes & Erin discuss.
Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is subtitled a “Story of Wall St.,” yet there is almost nothing in it of the bustle of city life, and entirely nothing in it of the hustle of the trading floor. The story’s walls block out the streets, serving on the one hand as a container for a colorful assortment of human Xerox machines, on the other as a blank projection screen for the reveries of a man who seems to quietly rebel against the very concept of imitation. Can we continue to live and work, if we strongly prefer to do nothing that is derivative? What happens to our aspirations, if we come to fully appreciate the gravity of fate? Could we continue to tell our own stories, if we were liberated from all idiosyncrasies of character? Wes & Erin analyze.
The story begins and ends with two variations on the meaning of the title. On the one hand, to give another turn of the screw is to ratchet up the horror of a good ghost story, in this case by involving children in it. On the other, it’s to treat the cause of that horror as if it were just another of life’s many obstacles, to be overcome both by screwing one’s courage to the sticking place, and by suppressing awareness of what is revoltingly unnatural in it. Whose screw turns out to be looser—the audience that enjoys such stories (and sometimes believes them), or the teller who manufactures them? Wes & Erin analyze Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.”
Gone with the Wind— adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing film in American history— has undergone several critical reappraisals in the 82 years since its production and release. Certainly the film romanticizes the Antebellum South and the Confederacy while glossing over the evils of slavery and stereotyping many of its black characters. Yet it may also provide a sharp critique or even satirization of its white characters— the ambivalent, arrogant, and deluded plantation owners who fail to acknowledge that their so-called “fairy-tale kingdoms” are built on the backs of slaves. What can we make of Rhett Butler’s characterization of the Confederate “Cause” as the “Cause of Living in the Past”? And why does even the modern, adaptable Scarlett O’Hara remain in thrall to a childhood dream that, like the “gallantry” of the Old South, was nothing more than a fantasy? Wes & Erin anazlye.
In the transition from stage to screen, “A Streetcar Named Desire” retained its long-running Broadway cast with a single exception: the role of Blanche Dubois, which passed from Jessica Tandy to Vivien Leigh. Like Blanche, Leigh was the odd woman out. A symbol of the glories of the studio system, married to the symbol of English stage acting, her classical training ran contrary to that of her Method-trained co-stars. Thus to the clash of wills between Blanche and Stanley Kowalski was added a clash of acting styles— and the struggle between the death of Old Hollywood and the birth of Brando and the New. Which principle— Blanche’s fantasy or Stanley’s realism— makes for superior art? Can the conflict between magic and truth ever be resolved? And is all realism a form of cruelty? Wes & Erin discuss Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The Wizard of Oz is supposed by the land’s inhabitants to be its most powerful magician. But far from having any actual power, he is not even native to the place in which real magic is in plentiful supply. Oddly, this supernatural world seems to be secretly governed by mundane sleight of hand, and growing up, for Dorothy, involves uncovering the flimsy basis of adult authority. Which magic is more potent: the childish imagination, or the symbolic power of grown-ups to educate it? Wes & Erin analyze the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
Wes & Erin continue their analysis of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In Part 1, they covered roughly the first third of the poem. In Part 2, they begin with a discussion of Prufrock’s coffee spoons, and then continue on to: his allusions to John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet; the disjointed portrait of his probable love interest; and the twinning of aging and fantasy in the final stanzas.
It was T. S. Eliot’s first published poem. Written when he was only in his early 20s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” rode the crest of the wave of literary Modernism, predated World War I, and presaged an age of indecision and anxiety. The poem is the dramatic interior monologue of the title character, a middle-aged man whose passivity and ambivalence are threaded with artistic allusions, epigrammatic observations, and meditations on the nature of time, the fraudulence of relationships, and the risks of eating a peach. Should Prufrock dare disturb the universe? Should we?
Wes & Erin continue their discussion of “Apocalypse Now.” Wes apologizes for asking Erin to watch something so disturbing, and we further discuss dueling conceptions of the arts, one Platonic and the other Aristotelian. We agree that “Apocalypse Now,” despite being challenging, is an aesthetic masterpiece. What about the narrative? Wes argues that it is very close to not having enough of an arc. What it does most successfully is to convey a kind of surreal, psychedelic mood, one that is meant to capture the insanity of the Vietnam War (and perhaps war in general), and so constitutes its critique. We end by reminiscing about watching “Notting Hill” together. But we fail to talk about an obvious hypothetical ….
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore doesn’t flinch for enemy fire, loves the smell of napalm in the morning, and would literally kill for good surfing and a beachside barbecue. His attempts to recreate home within the theater of war render him the perfect foil to a certain upriver madman, who seems intent on making high culture serve the purposes of primitive horror. And yet Kurtz is ready to argue that it is his methods that are more sound, just because they embrace their ruthlessness more honestly, in contrast to the impotent half-measures of an imperial power that can rationalize its atrocities as collateral damage in the service of a larger humanitarian goal. Which approach should evoke more horror? Wes & Erin analyze Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.”
On his journey to the heart of the Congo, Marlow learns of a famed ivory trader named Kurtz— a remarkable man; a “universal genius;” a painter, poet, and musician; a man whose success in his trade has been unparalleled, but whose “unsound methods” have put him at odds with local bureaucrats. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, he hears firsthand the trader’s essential characteristic: a deep and commanding voice which, combined with his methods, has earned him disciples and inspired local tribes to worship him as a god. But what message does Kurtz speak into the terrible silence of the African wilderness? And what deficiency, as Marlow calls it, might be hiding beneath his eloquence? Wes & Erin analyze Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness.
Two women—one a straight-laced waitress, the other a naive housewife—leave town for a quiet weekend getaway. But after a deadly encounter with a rapist, the two become unlikely…and then increasingly confident…outlaws. Though a kindly police officer tries to convince the women to turn themselves in, their refusal to surrender to a future scripted by forces more powerful than themselves drives them to a shocking and iconic ending. Is their fate triumphant or tragic? Wes & Erin analyze Ridley Scott’s 1991 film, Thelma & Louise.
In Chekhov’s stories, beautiful natural surroundings are often a setting for unnatural lives and ugly social conditions. This sets the stage for a reflection on the relationship between physical and spiritual needs. His story “The Student” suggests that material deprivation–whether it is the exhaustion of the apostle Peter or the poverty of the Russian peasant–can undermine the capacity for fidelity and cultivation. In “A Medical Case,” a young heiress is made physically ill by her guilty awareness of oppressive conditions in her family’s factories. Can art, science, and faith truly redeem the individual human spirit without first transforming its social environment?
In this story, there are two sisters: one introverted, frail, and bookish; the other dominant, opinionated, and politically active. In meeting them, an accomplished artist seems to be confronted with a dilemma. Should art subordinate itself to the project of creating a just society? Or should it focus on serving more spiritual needs? These questions make Chekhov’s “The House with the Mezzanine” an interesting meditation on the relationship between politics and the arts, and whether the windows of our proverbial dwellings are best used to illuminate a new path forward, or to articulate the beauty of the world as it is.
Dmitri Gurov does not take love seriously. His wife annoys him, long-term relationships scare him, and his love life consists of brief affairs with women he meets at vacation resorts. In Anna, he finds someone who appears to be the usual victim—traveling alone, tired of her husband, and unlikely to make any effective demands for intimacy, something that seems to be revealed in the diminutive portability of her traveling companion. This time, however, he has met a match too powerful for his predatory ambitions. When is love’s bite bigger than its bark? Wes & Erin discuss Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Little Dog.”