LOG: Paths of Glory

Is Paths of Glory the Talkiest War Movie Ever? I can't think of a talkier one. In fact, I think it would actually make an excellent stage play. Watching this for the first time, Paths of Glory feels like Dr. Strangelove's more serious older brother, hearkening back to an earlier time when war (even when waged by blind cowards) was still thought to be conducted with some kind of fleeting sense of valor. By the time of Strangelove (released three films and seven years apart in 1964,) the war mongers had devolved into full-on, raving comic madmen, and there was nothing left to do but laugh at them. The photography is much like Strangelove too, with big cavernous rooms and echoing voices, beautiful in black and white. But somehow, Paths is actually breezier.

Sometimes I think the act of disdainfully dismissing Stanley Kubrick as an overhyped, dickhead blowhard has become even more of a right of passage for film fans than simply discovering him in the first place (watching Rose McGowan of all people smugly bitch about him on TCM made me seriously want to slap her.) Folks, 9 of his 11 major features are in the imdb top 250. Maybe Kubrick is overwatched and underscrutinized. But of all the other directors who might appear on that dubious, imaginary list of so-called "sacred cows," I'll take him over Coppola, Tarantino, or Spielberg any day.

Paths of Glory reinforces the sad truism that evil warmongers are as timeless as war itself, and that killing eachother or getting ourselves killed in their service is completely stupid and unacceptable. It's heroic, manipulative, agenda-fueled filmmaking at it's best.



The hero of David Mamet's film Redbelt is Mike Terry, a man with an abnormally high moral code. It is not an exaggeration to say that there are not many men like him. Mike ekes out a meager existence running a studio for training fighters. He is studied, a black belt, nearly a master. We know this implicitly. The film opens on a training session, with Terry as benevolent teacher, hovering over his fighters and firing sage bullets of spoken advice. "You train people to fight?" someone asks him early on. "I train them to prevail," he replies. It's not hard to quickly understand and appreciate this philosophy. In his studio, with this students, Mike is absolutely at peace. But when trouble very literally walks in through the door, he finds his simple existence disrupted and slowly poisoned by the outside world. Not so much a fight movie as a movie about a fighter, Redbelt is the journey of Mike Terry from a place of comfort to a place of intense compromise, and though the film ends in a victorious moment, his journey surely does not.

To detail the plot of Redbelt would be a chore, and this should be taken as a compliment. It is not a chore to watch, however, as the labyrinthine twists and turns (which are extensive even by Mamet standards) are all richly dependent on one another. Suffice it to say, Mike is broke, and his wife dissatisfied. The studio cannot pay it's own bills. Enter a movie star, who befriends him first by accident, then by way of lavish promises. Mike does not resist. He is then pulled into a myriad of doublecrosses, betrayals, challenges and surprises. The fodder of samurai films and boxing noirs, Mamet's acknowledged influences. To reveal anything else is not neccessary.

Looking at Redbelt from the movie snob POV, there are many joys to behold. Tim Allen is a remarkable choice, perfectly in line with the kind of underutilized personnel Mamet has always employed (like Ed O'Neill.) Though he has no staggeringly big moments, he plays the alcoholic movie star Chet with ease (apparently Mamet's love of Galaxy Quest is genuine.) We also, as usual, get a look at most of the old Mamet gang, his cast of loyal company players like Ricky Jay, Jack Wallace, J.J. Johnston, etc., whose faces only get better as they age. Chiwetel Ejiafor, as Mike Terry, has exactly the calm, deliberate, zen quality the role requires. He makes us believe that a man of these convictions could actually exist. But this belief is pretty far removed from reality, and Mamet in fact spends most of the second half of the film showing us why. He tears down Mike's cherished ideas and drops him, unapologetically, into the crooked, business-driven world. Everyone else in the movie is making money. And finally, at his lowest, after being beaten and stolen from, Mike attempts to join their ranks.

The film is interesting to ponder at a few meta-levels. Mamet's distaste with the Hollywood system is hardly a secret, and it is on display here in the contrast between the grand spectacle of the MMA circuit and the untainted artistry of Terry's studio. Terry's struggles with money also smartly predated our current financial crisis, with the elite ring bosses and deciders passing their greed and power lust on down to the working class "fighters." There may even be some incredibly buried political commentary in there as well (Tim Allen as Bush? Any takers?)

But the simple lesson to be learned is that everything that came down on Terry from above was poison. He was happy in his simple, pure way of life. But forces pulled him away. We see the beauty of his teachings turned into spectacle and corrupted for monetary gain. We feel Mike's shame. When the night of the big fight comes, even the grandmaster, the Redbelt himself, is in the audience. Everybody, it seems, is doing business. Still, Mike refuses to let go. It's him versus them, and Mike fights back. He fights for what he believes, and he clings to what he knows. Right up to the end, Mamet correctly refuses to reconcile these two corners of the ring.
A supremely poetic fantasy, as all great fight movies are, Redbelt is also a fine lesson in realist ethics. You can hide from dishonor, it says, but dishonor will only seek you out. You can attempt to live by a strict moral code, but life, with all it's complications, is nothing but a crooked fight. Believe in something, however, and, just as in the ring, there will always be an escape.



I have never seen an Oliver Stone movie. Nor have I ever much been interested in one. Actually, I may have watched U Turn quite a few years ago. And for a time I wanted to track down The Hand. That would be the extent of my knowledge. I never really had a reason to dislike him. That is, until World Trade Center, who's very existence offended me on every level. "Too soon," everyone said, and it sure as hell was. 2050 would have been too soon. Well, if WTC was too soon, Stone has indeed trumped himself.

But somehow I couldn't resist the idea of a liberal director's supposedly fair and balanced take on the Bush administration. So what do we get? Fair? I suppose. Stone shows us where W. came from, ponders his possible motivations, and it's all very hard to dismiss. Ebert's description was "fascinating," and that is about perfect. There has never been a movie like this. So, finally, we approach this as fun, which it somehow is, even though the events and characters portrayed are so painfully real and unfunny. Stone seems to understand this, as he makes almost no attempt to judge the Bush presidency in any specific way other than to present the possible private scenarios (alongside many actual documented meetings and actions) that may have been it's impetus.

The casting is pretty great. I'll pay to see Dreyfuss do anything worthwhile, and his smarmy, growling Cheney is perfect. I've heard a lot of complaints about Thandie Newton as Condie, but I thought she was just fine. And Brolin, whom the film hangs on, shows some massive chops. He plays G.W. as he surely is; an entitled rich kid from Texas, sucking on Lone Star beer in honky tonks, slurping down sandwiches in the White House. A jealous, power-lusting, unloved president's son. So why is this OK and not World Trade Center? Well, because the events of 9/11, unlike the presidency of George W. Bush, deserve immense reverence.

In the end, could there be any more damning statement than to simply portray the events in such a way that even Bush supporters could not decry it? I doubt it. But can you laugh at it? I don't blame you if you can't. But what else is left?

He lost in in the lights. What are you gonna do... ?