The Cineplex theater next to the one I was sitting in was packed with people avidly watching a “real life drama” of a guy from Texas who became a celebrated master sniper in America’s recent war in Iraq. Directed by filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, who has played his share of failed heroes, American Sniper is full of good old Hollywood heroic action, tension, violence. In its way, the film is an attempt to represent a psychological study of a contemporary of ours who, as a soldier, was capable of shooting 160 people in wartime and then readjust, though with some difficulty, to his family and ordinary civilian life.
For those who have seen Eastwood cumulatively kill far more characters than that in his movie career, the fact that there is a patriotic justification for his sniper’s actions is perhaps more acceptable than plugging bad guys for A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More. For those who have any political or historical awareness, however, Eastwood’s film is creepy and insulting in that there is no mention whatsoever of the actual context of the debacle in Iraq. Sold as a “human story,” American Sniper propagates Hollywood illusion and profit-making, with predictable storytelling aimed at entertainment at the expense of being remotely controversial.
But how far can a movie go in representing the lives of real people? I mean, if American Sniper were a film about a fictional sniper, wouldn’t it have been freer to probe the psychology and darker impulses, or particular inner life of its central character? (Clint Eastwood somewhat proves this in his direction of Mystic River and Unforgiven.)
A life without action
Meanwhile, back at the Cineplex, I sat glumly — and not exactly entertained — for two and a half hours watching another character study: director Mike Leigh’s portrait of the disturbingly intense, porcine early 19th-century British painter, J.W.M. Turner. We are introduced to Turner (1775-1851) at the last stage of his career. He wears a top hat and topcoats and outfits like any extra in films based on Charles Dickens’s books. Mr. Turner lives in a cluttered London home with his father, a retired barber, and a female servant, whom he subjects to a humiliating sexual use. He also visits the Royal Academy of Art and, though respected, he is tolerated as a curmudgeon by his counterparts John Constable, John Sloan, and others. You never see many of Turner’s actual paintings throughout the film, but there are panoramic images of lakes, cliffs, and vividly hued, detailed shots of ships, dockside row houses, and walkways in the town of Margate, where Turner spent his last years.
With his own observant respect, Leigh frames Turner walking through vast, sublime landscapes of northern Europe, standing on the decks of sailing ships in raging storms and poised as a still life gazing at oceanscapes, seaports, darkening clouds, smoke, and fog. Save for his fingers flicking a thin pencil in lines that gather on the pages of his open sketchbooks, Mr. Turner’s gait, lumpy body and thick face are a force in themselves. He is thoroughly absorbed in looking at and taking in nature’s complicated whirl of colors, shapes, and fluctuating motions. When we do see him standing at an easel, he smudges and spits and scumbles on the canvas. His hands and brushes push and knead the paint, reminding us that we really don’t want to see how sausage is made.
The film is nominated for four Academy Awards, but there is little that anyone would recognize as “action” or drama in Mr. Turner. The nominations are for Dick Pope’s cinematography, original music by Gary Yershon, costume design by Jacqueline Durran, and production and set design by Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts. In other words, this is a film about looking and colors and things and musical sounds that echo and reshape the film’s landscapes, architecture, and mid-Victorian manner.
As for character, Mr. Turner is too archly British to be likeable. As played by Timothy Spall, he is gruff in manner, grunts rather than speaks, and is too prone to say “Indeed” to just about anything. (Though, personally, I would much rather meet him than Bradley Cooper’s Navy Seal). When, late in the film, he meets a twice-widowed woman, she responds to the beauty in the beast of him and they settle in together.
And that’s it. Besides a few scenes concerning his ill treatment of a former wife and child, the self-made Mr. Turner travels and paints, furiously. He does occasionally break down in tears and, as his health fails, reflects the misery of aging and not being able to work. But as to why or how or what for, only when a wealthy businessman offers to buy everything does he offer a rationale for his life’s work. And that is only partly convincing.
Confronting the camera
Toward the end of the film, Turner encounters a new machine that, supposedly, will capture the surface imagery of the world in black and white, or mildly tinted flat images on glass and, eventually, treated paper. He actually sits for a portrait in a studio, critically eying the photographer positioning the angle of the box camera and fixing the mechanical lens. He even convinces his skeptical partner to join him.
He questions the photographer (who comes from Philadelphia, of all places) about the workings of the camera. Though he does not say it, he wonders what will this invention be used for in the future? And, then, what of his life’s work, spent looking at the world and trying to paint it?
So, I left the theater, which was surprisingly packed. Looking around, I saw a still photograph of Bradley Cooper staring into the telescopic lens on the top of his rifle. It caused me to wonder, with Mr. Turner in mind, about what we see these days and how we value it. And films, too.
Speaking of which, this week, American Sniper was replaced as the number one box office hit by The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.
Above right: Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner. (Photo by Simon Mein - © 2014 - Sony Pictures Classics)
For Paula Berman's thoughts on American Sniper and other biopics this Oscar season, click here.