Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Iron Lady (2011)

"Oh Maggie, Maggie what have we done!?"  So goes the last line from The Post War Dream, a song from the The Final Cut, Pink Floyd's last studio collaboration back in 1982.  The line is a direct reference to Margaret Thatcher's decision that same year to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.  Not long after, the Soviets nicknamed Maggie the "Iron Lady".

Thirty years later, British film director Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the most financially successful British film ever released (Mamma Mia!), unveils the biographical story of The Iron Lady.  The story as told by Lloyd weaves in and out of an aging Thatcher's point of view and stream of consciousness, almost to the point of introducing dementia as a whole new subplot.  For those of us over 40, the quasi-modern-time historical context of the movie created a bit of an Alzheimer moment for ourselves: was I aware back then that she had been elected as the first woman prime minister in the UK?  Did she really make into the 90's as prime minister?   Is she still alive??

Meryl Streep plays the part of Lady Thatcher not-surprisingly well, almost adding fuel to the stream of consciousness. As the timeline goes back and forth, we begin to wonder if we're not at times watching a documentary. While most of the audience may recognize Streep's name, the rest of the characters are played by relatively unknown actors. Between Streep's fair-enough likeness to Thatcher, and the unfamiliar cast, the film sometimes plays with the audience's collective mind as it appears to waltz in and out of a docudrama genre.

A few days after watching the film, I came across a commentary of The Iron Lady in the Harvard Business Review. Given the source of the review, it was not surprising that the focus was on Thatcher's management style, how effective it was, and how questionable it became when she was unable to evolve with the times as the 90's rolled in. But Herminia Ibarra, Harvard professor and author of the article, actually put some soul into the commentary beyond a pragmatic, ivy league management lesson.

Ibarra recalls a mid-90's BBC documentary about Thatcher, when the former prime minister is asked about her legendary aversion to consensus... "Flashing her famous blue eyes, she answers in measured tones: 'If you look at the great religions — and the Judeo-Christian religion is really at the heart — would you have those great guidelines if Jesus had said, Brothers, I believe in consensus?After a long and piercing look, she answers her own rhetorical question: 'Of course not, you'd have nothing of value.' "

That might give an insight of how Maggie rose to power. But how did she "lose it?" Well, that's when the "aha" moment sets in. Once again in Ibarra's words, "Thatcher's story is a textbook case on how to get power and, later, how to lose it... For as we all know, what got you here won't get you there." She concludes her commentary by saying "...if we are successful, the hard part kicks in: we come to the point where we have to reinvent ourselves. What must we keep and what must we shed in order to advance and grow?"

Well said.   Although on the matter of power I might feel compelled to put it as follows: it's hard to lose something you've never really had.   And that may very well be my takeaway from the story of The Iron Lady: the reason why we must reinvent ourselves, why someone as smart as Maggie should have known better towards the end of her mandate, is the very essence of evolution itself.   At the time the Iron Curtain came crashing down, ironically thanks in part to Ronnie and The Iron Lady herself, so ended the notion that sustainable power could be had by a single mere mortal, kingdom, or empire.

Film Trailer:

Monday, January 2, 2012

Melancholia (2011, Lars Von Trier)

We decided to go see a movie last night, and we picked "Melancholia".  Yes, while most people were out trying to spend the first day of the new year in a happy way, we decided to go witness an existentialist drama about the obliteration of our entire planet as we know it. To exist or not to exist - that is the question you keep asking yourself throughout the film. 

Melancholia is yet another existentialist story from yet another existentialist Dane, filmmaker Lars Von Trier. The father of existentialism himself, Søren Kierkegard, must be proud of his fellow countryman.  I don't know what it is about the Danes and their existentialist ways, but I feel I must disclose that I am an admirer of Mr. Kierkegaard and his groundbreaking philosophy.   

Now, you would think that after watching the trailer of Melancholia, I would begin to agree with that guy in Hamlet who said, "there's something rotten in Denmark."  But, nooo. Existentialism sucks me in, yet again. The tragic spirit of the Prince of Denmark himself could have easily been spotted anywhere in the painfully long wedding scene in Melancholia, early in the storyAppropriately set in a castle, modern day notwithstanding, Hamlet could have waltzed into the upper crust event, like the guy from Quantum Leap.  

The wedding party itself is fraught with all the aristocratic dysfunction that would have made the prince feel at home. Following the surreal toasts from the father of the bride, who was a spoon short of a proper table setting, and the mother of the bride, who ended her toast with the ever so popular at weddings, "Enjoy it while it lasts... I myself hate marriages", Hamlet could have provided the coup de grâce of the evening with his famous soliloquy "To be, or not to be".  All the while the beautiful bride Justine, sensually played by Kirsten Dunst, keeps exiting the reception, stage left, pursued by the mother of all Armageddons.

Kierkegaard could have also "quantum leaped" into this Danish tragedy, and would have found himself right at home.  He would have been useful too more than once, as comfort to the brave-but-one-pill-away-from-a-breakdown Claire, Justine's sister.  Though Claire helps Justine unconditionally through her wedding unraveling, Claire herself begins to breakdown eventually, without much relief from her pragmatic-but-useless-in-a-doomsday-scenario husband John.  John is well played by Kiefer Sutherland, and to be fair to his character, he at least delivers a much needed comic relief in the story when he asks Claire, "Is everyone in your family stark raving mad??"

Kierkegaard's existentialist input would have been borderline eerie, in light of the doomsday nature of the story.  It took me a while, but I eventually remembered and dug up an apocalyptic thought by the Danish philosopher, from his work "Either/Or, Part 1".  The lines could have very appropriately been delivered by Kierkegaard to Claire during the film's "Part 2: Claire"
“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it's a joke.” (SK, 1843)

If I were to take two good stories in their own right: Mike Cahill's film Another Earth (also released in 2011), and Arthur C. Clarke's book The Hammer of God (1993), then  slow-cook them together, I would end up with Melancholia.  Presto, and that would have actually made a fine dishWhat almost spoiled the taste was a dash of that bitter existentialism from a story like The Tree of Life (2011). Fortunately, it was just a dash, not enough to ruin the whole meal. At its  heart, I actually liked Melancholia. Von Trier might have considered a dash less of the dragging and drawn-out moments to hypnotize us into submission, but hey, it's his story and he's sticking to it.

To Mr. Von Trier's credit, I do believe he ultimately succeed in artistically paying tribute to Kierkegaard's genius, whether he intended it or not.  That is especially evident if you consider one of the philosopher's great quotes: 
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never have.”

jy - Jan. 2, 2012

Film Trailer:

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