The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Friday, March 07, 2003
AND NOW THE TALKIES: Some other movies I've seen recently:

UFOria (John Binder, 1980): A lovely little comedy, marred only by a few rough transitions. It's filled with small touches that deepen the characters, turning what initially seem like stereotypes into complex, three-dimensional beings. And it's surely the only flying saucer movie in which the lead character takes pride in his physical resemblance to Waylon Jennings.

the wife (Tom Noonan, 1996): A darker comedy, or perhaps a bleakly comic drama, about an unplanned encounter between a manipulative New Age therapist, one of his patients, and their wives. As in UFOria, the film's characters display unexpected depths and its plot takes unexpected turns. Unlike UFOria, it's constantly unsettling, as though the characters' mind games are spilling off the screen.

Gods and Generals (Ronald F. Maxwell, 2003): A Civil War epic that's been widely condemned as soft on the Old South. It's not a fair complaint. The movie actually aims to present both sides of the conflict as sympathetically as possible -- not to promote (or attack) the Lost Cause, but to better represent the tragedy of the war.

Now, almost everyone reading this knows that North and South alike were basically military dictatorships throughout the conflict, that the South was chiefly fighting to preserve slavery, that the North entered the war for reasons that had nothing to do with abolition -- in short, that there was plenty of venality and brutality to go around. There was nobility on both sides as well, of course, but Maxwell's decision to treat both Union and Confederacy as essentially noble was made for reasons of art, not scrupulous accuracy. A battle between gallant, fraternal foes makes the bloodshed all the more tragic, and thus gets to the heart of why the Civil War is still so important to Americans. It may not be perfect history, but it's a legitimate approach to the story.

So I admire the intentions of this movie, and at times I admire the movie itself. Maxwell has a real talent for war scenes, and his battle of Fredericksburg is filmed so well it's almost worth sitting through all the interminable speeches the soldiers make when they're not shooting at each other. Unfortunately, he has no ear for dialogue and little sense of narrative pacing. The script cries out for a red pen, the finished film for another trip to the editing room. (Also: He's assembled a fine cast here, but couldn't they grow their own facial hair? All those fake beards look kind of silly.)

My friend Bill Kauffman has
written that this "is not only the finest movie ever made about the Civil War, it is also the best American historical film. Period." I usually concur with Bill's judgments about American film, but my favorite Civil War picture is still Buster Keaton's The General.

posted by Jesse 9:13 PM
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