Archive for the ‘drama’ category

BlacKkKlansman

November 3, 2018

blackkkIn a way, Spike Lee’s filmmaking career from the beginning has been a rebuke and retort to the infamous Birth of a Nation, the movie credited with sparking the comeback of the Ku Klux Klan in America. In 1980, in film school at NYU, a 23-year-old Lee made the short film The Answer, in which a black screenwriter is hired to write a remake of the D.W. Griffith film. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee stages a screening of Birth of a Nation for an audience of hooting white supremacists, including Klan grand wizard David Duke, and intercuts it with an account of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, during which account a witness (played by Harry Belafonte) links the atrocity to the release of Birth of a Nation the year before.

Lee knows the power of cinema to influence and change. Will BlacKkKlansman do likewise? As a work of (somewhat fictionalized) protest, it’s a piece of the past (the early 1970s) passing trenchant comment on the present; time will tell if it will have much sway in the future. What it is right now is an attempt to unify rather than to divide — the movie shows black and white people working together to shut down the racists. It may begin and end with blasts at racism, but most of BlacKkKlansman is an object lesson in cooperation between different races, colors and creeds. It does this in a half-satirical way that’s as much about acting as about reality.

Black men have to pretend to be racist white men; Jewish white men have to pretend to be anti-Semitic white men. Based loosely on the adventures of a real cop, BlacKkKlansman shows rookie detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) posing, over the phone, as a white man interested in joining the local Klan chapter, so that Stallworth can infiltrate and learn about possible terrorist plans. Stallworth is black, so he can’t carry out his disguise in person; enter white Jewish cop “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who “plays” Ron in the flesh.  In a spooky basement meeting with a virulent Holocaust denier, Flip-as-Ron makes an equally Jew-hating case for the Holocaust having happened. Whichever one of the four credited writers (Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott) is responsible for this scene, it’s a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Eventually, Stallworth talks his way up to the top, securing himself (or Flip) a meeting with David Duke his own bad self (Topher Grace, teaching a master class in mealy-mouthed corporatized racism). The filmmaking heats up, changing from fluent coolness to a hot thriller mode, charging towards a climax fabricated for the movie but no less dramatically and thematically sound. Lee’s inventions don’t offend much, because even if some events didn’t happen to Stallworth, they’ve happened elsewhere, and Ron comes to stand not for himself but for the disenfranchised who have tried to negotiate a hostile territory through defensive imposture. Blacks passing as white, Jews passing as gentiles, gays passing as straight (this last doesn’t get much play in the movie, except maybe through amusing subtext).

Undercover cops have to understand the banality of evil in order to assume it as cover, which often means understanding their own self-hatred or potential for bigotry. Actors and artists do much the same, and the movie finds Lee wearing both entertainer and artist hat. BlacKkKlansman argues for a world where no one has to pretend to be anything. I think Lee would even rather racists were open about it, sunlight being the best disinfectant and all, instead of hiding behind the hypocrisy of dog whistles and three-piece suits. Lee has taken the opportunity to deliver an existentially crazy police procedural that ends up saying more about society’s disease than many a sober-sided Oscar-chaser. Not that the movie doesn’t deserve it — c’mon, Academy, can you acknowledge Spike now, please?

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First Reformed

August 26, 2018

firstreformed“There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” – Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader

First Reformed is Paul Schrader’s twenty-first film as a director, and probably his best. It seems to sum up a lot of things Schrader believes in, artistically and spiritually. It is quiet and modest; it adopts the boxy “Academy format” of 1.37:1, in which most films were shot before the widescreen revolution of the 1950s, and which is seldom if ever employed today, even on television. First Reformed has been released the same year as the re-issue of Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film, which meditated on the cinema of Robert Bresson, Yasajiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer, and the two Schrader works can stand alongside each other, or atop each other, as two characters in the film do in a fantasy sequence — at least I think it’s a fantasy sequence. Past a certain point the distinction becomes unhelpful, and when Schrader draws the final curtain we are left with doubt regarding the image immediately preceding the darkness. We are left, much like the film’s protagonist, balanced between despair and hope.

Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) presides over the sparse congregation of the First Reformed Church in the drab, snowy, fictional town of Snowbridge in eastern New York. Toller was once a military chaplain, married with a son, but he lost his son and then his marriage, and now he is here, drinking too much in his lonely, barren rooms (which make Travis Bickle’s apartment look like a Chuck E. Cheese). He coughs; his stomach hurts; at one point he pours Pepto-Bismol into his whiskey, and Schrader’s camera hovers above the slimy, blobby mix the way Martin Scorsese’s camera detained itself over a glass seething with Alka-Seltzer in Taxi Driver. Toller resists any attempts to bring him into the family of man; he would much rather brood in solitude and wrestle with God in his journal.

Decades of moviegoing have conditioned us to expect Toller to respond to a calling raised by the plot, and that happens, sort of. A parishioner, the tremulous, pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), approaches Toller and asks him to advise her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is concerned about the environment, to the point of being arrested at a protest in Canada. He wants Mary to have an abortion, since bringing a child into a disintegrating world seems to him like selfish folly. First Reformed is not about what anyone thinks or feels about abortion, though. Mary discovers a suicide vest in the garage, and soon after, Toller discovers Michael’s body in a park, head shattered by a self-inflicted shotgun blast. The plot, as they say, thickens; Toller is shown to absorb the dead man’s fear and loathing about the environment and its despoilers (including the corporation that bankrolls Abundant Life, the megachurch that oversees Toller’s church).

Yet I don’t get the sense that the movie becomes about the environment, either, or that Toller becomes fixated on it. He is drawn, I think, to the kind of passion that would resolve itself by a self-extinguishing gesture — something Toller has lacked until now, a vital and bleeding connection to Christ. He is ill and alcoholic and mad with loneliness and despair. He says that a blend of despair and hope produces life, but hope is what he has been missing. So he lunges for someone else’s hope, the hope that one’s life and death will matter, make a difference. In essence it’s the same impulse that drives Travis Bickle to blast through anonymity (to paraphrase Pauline Kael). I have always felt that Travis’ liberation of the teen prostitute Iris was incidental to his real mission, to announce himself to an indifferent world. Same dynamic here. Does Toller really love Christ, or is he just hiding inside the bleak asceticism the religious lifestyle makes possible?

First Reformed has a lot of moving parts (and nods to other directors besides Schrader’s triumvirate, the big one being Ingmar Bergman and his Winter Light), but its emotional/spiritual throughline is plain and simple. Schrader pulls career-best performances out of Hawke, Seyfried, even Cedric the Entertainer (billed here as Cedric Kyles), creating quiet, intense moments the actors can share inside the pinched square of the frame. It’s a rigorous, unadorned film except for two bits between the pastor and the pregnant woman that are sure to be debated as long as there are films and debaters. It’s at these points that Schrader seems to acknowledge the movie-ish tradition he’s a part of, the foundation from which artists can then leap free via surrealism or symbol. As for the other tradition studied here, the Dutch Reformed Church has been home to various people of note over the years, including two presidents, Evel Knievel, and Fred and Mary Trump.

Madeline’s Madeline

August 11, 2018

MadelinesMadelineThose of you whose craving for experimental actors flailing around wasn’t quite sated by Who’s Crazy might want to discover Madeline’s Madeline. An elliptical art-house film, the third such effort by writer/director Josephine Decker, the movie centers on a difficult girl, Madeline (Helena Howard), who has fallen in with a New York theatrical troupe. The group’s director Evangeline (Molly Parker) keeps asking her players — all of whom except sixteen-year-old Madeline are adults — to express their inner pigs or cats or turtles while circling around a vague theme that always seems to be changing.

Madeline, who has a history of mental illness, butts heads often with her brittle mom Regina (Miranda July), who’s a bit overprotective and knows less and less what to make of her daughter the older Madeline gets. At one point, at a gathering at Evangeline’s house, Madeline confides in Evangeline’s nonplussed partner that she’s thinking of losing her virginity for her seventeenth birthday. The movie is made up of awkward interactions like that, and there’s one sequence near the end, when Madeline is encouraged to act out the part of her impatient mother while Regina sits watching in agony, that practically demands we avert our eyes in discomfort.

Is Madeline’s Madeline enjoyable? It took me a good while, maybe half an hour, to get used to its diffuse style — Ashley Connor’s cinematography takes us very close in and glides in and out of focus — and its emphasis on shrill, bouncing acting exercises, which I generally find embarrassing. Gradually, though, a portrait coalesces out of jagged pieces, of a girl casting about for a self. Who is Madeline? A daughter? An actor? A student (she goes to regular school, where we hear that kids make fun of her, but we never see her there)? Who is her real mother — Regina or Evangeline? The theater director always seems on the verge of flipping into a cult leader, but it turns out she’s just trying to hold everything together — her theater project, her life, her marriage. The evident fact that Evangeline is more or less based on Josephine Decker does not escape notice.

Most of the critical attention has focused on Helena Howard as Madeline, as well it should — hers is a guileless, open performance hungry for revelation. That climactic bit Madeline does about her mother is like a lightning bolt of clarity slashing through a humid fog of repressed, ignored emotion. It’s also something of a centerpiece, an actor’s moment handed to Howard on a platter, and she runs with it. The movie is completely an actors’ film, built to be warmly hospitable to its players — though with efforts like this, you never can tell if Decker, like Evangeline, is running all sorts of vulnerability games meant to extract raw truth from an actor like a rotten tooth out of a suffering jaw. Howard is obliged to spit out a few such teeth, not without emotional blood. The true test will be how well she aligns with a film not so snugly fashioned to her particular set of skills. (Though, please, keep her clear of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

If your first response to oblique films like this when the end credits roll is “Will someone tell me what that was about?,” you should probably give Madeline’s Madeline a wide berth. Even I, who perhaps has more patience than most for artsy doodling, sighed and checked my watch once or twice. But if you enjoy the soft-grained, difficult, probing nature of Decker’s film — and I did, for the most part — it pays off in quiet, almost peripheral ways. The various problems of the characters don’t lead to drama or even resolution; they just add to the fabric of the piece and give the actors something to work with. The ending might be ambiguously happy, Decker’s way of saying she’d be gratified if her art got out of her control and became its own thing. The last shot expresses freedom while literally leaving us behind to think about it.

The Last Temptation of Christ

August 5, 2018

lasttemptation_89_033_current_mediumEnough, I think, was written about the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ when it opened thirty years ago this August 12. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather skip all that, except to say that the outrage showed a thunderous lack of understanding of context and of literary inquiry. The movie, and its source novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, imagined a Christ confronted on the cross by an angel (Satan) who offers him escape into the life of a normal man, a life with wives and children and, yes, lovemaking. Christ’s agonized mind turns this possibility over at length — the possibility of simple human contentment — until finally he realizes and embraces his literally God-given role, and finds himself back on the cross, radiantly happy as he passes from life into legend.

Last Temptation is director Martin Scorsese’s act of cinematic worship, the movie he had hungered to make since boyhood. Of course, most of his films have that stream of Catholic blood and guilt running through them. Again and again in Scorsese’s work we see men (he has never, with a couple of exceptions, been interested enough in women to put them front and center) sinning yet yearning for redemption, or at least respect or peace or a point at which they can rest assured that “it is accomplished,” whatever it may be. The movie is imperfect — its colloquial dialogue and casting of homely urban types and musicians (hey, John Lurie! hello, Victor Argo!) as the apostles bring it, at times, perilously close to camp. But it doesn’t need to be perfect.

Much of the movie’s soul can be traced to the long and many disputatious talks between Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Judas (Harvey Keitel). Dafoe seems to be experiencing the same insecurity and fear playing Jesus as Jesus himself feels — Dafoe and Jesus both have to grow into their roles. Keitel, for his part, approaches Judas with the same spiritual anguish he brought to The Piano and Bad Lieutenant. In this telling, Judas is merely the guy who has to embrace his intolerable role, the betrayer, so that God’s plan for Jesus can proceed. Late in the film, when the elderly former friends meet again in Jesus’ mortal bedroom, Keitel makes us feel the betrayal Judas feels — he has betrayed his master as ordered, only to see that act of love rendered meaningless when Jesus chooses the life of a man. We first see these two together when Judas is chastising Jesus the carpenter for building crosses for the Romans. Here is a Jesus in need of redemption.

Dafoe and Keitel, and also Barbara Hershey (who gave the book to Scorsese in the first place) as the Magdalene, get to run the gamut of inflamed, wounded emotion. The rest of the cast, eclectic to say the least, sometimes falters in the face of the moment’s importance — some of them, we gather, like the late Call frontman Michael Been, are there out of their own Christian passion. And then David Bowie swans into the picture as Pontius Pilate, unimpressed with what Pilate clearly sees as (sigh) yet another Jewish troublemaker, and the conception and almost comically perfect casting transcend camp (even with Pilate’s deathless, amazing line “We have a space for you up on Golgotha”) and achieve a kind of show-biz nirvana. Bowie takes his few minutes of the film away from Jesus and Scorsese and suavely tucks them in his pocket.

The filmmaking here, though rushed and on the cheap, is a hot stew of influences; Peter Gabriel’s sometimes alarming world-music score, Michael Ballhaus’ savagely unadorned photography of a dusty and near-uninhabitable land, Thelma Schoonmaker’s gliding and intuitive editing — all of it coalesces into a cinematic essay about the violence and chaos, and also the vitality and urgency, of worldly life, the solace Jesus must renounce — the heat and hard dirt floors, the cool fleshly comforts. This renunciation would be meaningless if it were too easy and did not come freighted with self-doubt and conflicting desires. Scorsese manages to make us feel what pulls Jesus towards normality, what he has to give up. We do not see the resurrection; instead, at the climax, the very celluloid itself seems to rupture, shudder, flare into a blood-red death. How else would a director equally indebted to Christ and cinema end such an inquiry?

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You Were Never Really Here

July 22, 2018

youwereneverLynne Ramsay’s filmmaking in You Were Never Really Here is gorgeously precise. We feel there isn’t a shot or an image that isn’t there for some reason, though the reason may not at first present itself. The spare narrative follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), who, after stints in the Marines and the FBI, has fallen — backwards or sideways — into being a hired gun, or hired hammer (his weapon of choice). Joe seems to specialize in rescuing trafficked girls, and oblique flashbacks tell the story of male predators abusing women and children — in Joe’s lines of work and also in his own childhood. He lives with his mother in a modest home, and sings “A, You’re Adorable” with her in the same cracked, mumbly voice in which he accepts his bloody, lonely missions.

Who is the “you” in You Were Never Really Here? The title might be Joe’s self-admonition — he’s atoning for the crucial times he wasn’t there, wasn’t able to help. But the movie exists more as a tone poem than as a psychological portrait or, heaven knows, a plot. It’s about Joe burning a photo, tossing it into a trash bin, and then extinguishing its flame by dropping a Bible on it. It’s about how Joe and an adversary pause, on their backs, and sing “I’ve Never Been to Me” along with the radio as the assailant bleeds out and reaches for Joe’s hand — and Joe accepts it. That one image says more about what Christianity should be than a lot of the Bible does. Religions, or just male-dominated systems, put out our light.

Phoenix is, as usual, committed and intense, with pockets of warmth and even humor that Joe shares with his mother (played by Judith Roberts, who was Beautiful Woman Across the Hall in David Lynch’s Eraserhead and is still, in her eighties, a striking woman). He does much to drain out the stagnant water of the Assassin’s Heart Restored by the Innocence of Children trope, which gets trotted out every so often (previous offender: Proud Mary with Taraji P. Henson). He’s credible as a broken man, bulky verging on flabby, who has some large and clear holes in his humanity. All Joe has left is a kind of chivalry, which ironically involves thinking of females young and old as frail creatures needing a guardian — baby birds protected from wolves by another wolf. I’m pretty sure Lynne Ramsay, as a woman, is critiquing this notion yet, as an artist, is entering into complicity with it the better to swim around in it, understand it, express it.

The story, adapted from a Jonathan Ames novella, involves a conspiracy reaching from the gutter to the senate; if handled another way it could play as an untold Sin City story, with Joe as yet another violent white knight turning human dragons into inky smears on tenement floors. Put another way, You Were Never Really Here is what Sin City might have been if an artist, not just an entertainer, had gotten her hands on it (not necessarily better or worse, I should add, just radically different). Both treatments of the essence of the story wind back to the bitter black heart of noir, though this film is so stripped down Joe doesn’t even have a dame — romantically, anyway — to throw it all over for; the closest thing he has is Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenager he has to rescue from the dragon.

Ramsay’s images spark the damnedest connections. A close-up of a woman’s bare soles reminded me of “If her horny feet protrude, they come/To show how cold she is, and dumb.” From there I wondered if Joe was the Emperor of Ice-Cream himself, bringer of death, master of the impermanent. Meanwhile, the emotional import of the scene — and it’s supposed to be a big one — passed me right by. You Were Never Really Here is a riff on a theme, a playpen for the mind and senses, but it likely won’t engage anyone’s heart — Nina is such a flat-affect blank there’s no rapport between her and her savior. But then that could be intentional as well, and thematically appropriate. It’s terrible that it takes artists like Lynne Ramsay so long between getting funding for projects — this is her first film since We Need to Talk About Kevin seven years ago, after leaving Jane Got a Gun in 2013 — because we could use a lot more movies like hers that tickle areas of our brains that usually aren’t touched.

Phantom Thread

April 8, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 4.31.39 PMPaul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a sort of upper-class pornography — without sex or nudity, though; it’s fashion porn and, secondarily, food porn. The camera lavishes its fixation on close-ups of threads, lace, mushrooms, pastries. The people onscreen focus on what goes into and onto the body, the better to avoid thinking about the body itself. The protagonist, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), surrounds himself with women but seems interested in them only as walls on which to hang his art, or assistants in making his art. He has successfully created an elegant bubble in which his various servants perpetuate his lockstep routines and he gets to play the difficult, complicated genius.

The hero of Phantom Thread is not Reynolds, or even his enabling sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville); it’s Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps), a waitress drawn into Reynolds’ sphere after Reynolds has discarded his latest muse/lover and is possibly on the lookout for another. Alma, however, as we gradually learn, is not interested in being the typical muse, the victim, the martyr to a man’s greatness. She insists on her own humanity, perhaps because she understands Reynolds’ humanity more than most do. If Reynolds is meant in any way as an avatar for Anderson, Phantom Thread is the idiosyncratic and ambitious filmmaker’s self-satire. The character of Reynolds, though, at least on paper, feels a bit warmed-over — we’ve seen this rigid mad genius before.

What Anderson and Day-Lewis bring to him is a kind of sneaky dark libido, acted on, if not sexually, then in a thousand sublimated ways. He dominates as surely as does a Dom/me in BDSM play. In that respect, Phantom Thread follows from Anderson’s 2012 Hegelian reverie The Master; in both, the student, as they tirelessly say, becomes the master. Here, though, we get a rich aroma of a gothic stew — a good deal of talk about ghosts, literal and metaphorical; the turn two-thirds of the way through into the overt macabre; the title itself, which seems to refer to the invisible string connecting us all but could also signify the unseen messages Reynolds stashes in the linings of each dress.

Phantom Thread, shown in some theaters in colossal 70mm, harks back to the super-extra blockbuster dramas of the ‘50s, the ones shot in creamy Technicolor and drenched in repressed flop sweat. The dynamic between Reynolds and Cyril, and between him and the various muses he wishes to control, carries a faint whiff of Vertigo. As in other recent Anderson films, the mood is sexually impacted and obstinately uncanny. It could also be adapted to the stage with little trouble — I think a daydream near the end is the only exterior shot in the movie — yet fluently speaks the language of pure cinema. Even if Anderson has moved on from Altman and Scorsese to Hitchcock and Ophuls, he seems slowly to be irising in on the essence of whatever overstory he wants his career to tell — getting closer to whatever he’s been getting at for twenty-odd years.

Reynolds has a preoccupation with his dead mother, from whom he learned his trade, but the movie doesn’t suggest that he’s resurrecting Mom over and over every time he sculpts the perfect dress to bring out any woman’s beauty. Rather, his ego seems to want to displace the importance of his mother, leaving footprints that dwarf hers, while dismissing his father entirely (his only meaningful exchange with a male in the whole movie is a couple of disdainful shots at a young doctor). The psychology is tangled and doesn’t always track smoothly, but aesthetically it’s usually surprising and entertaining. I think if you don’t hold the movie’s pompous style against it — if you accept its style as part of the movie’s oblique point about creativity — Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most satisfying whatsit yet about the beasts red in tooth and claw beneath the politesse of what is amusingly called society.

Journey’s End

March 25, 2018

journeys endThe necessarily melancholy Journey’s End, a World War I drama, has been around a while. How long? A 21-year-old Laurence Olivier made his first big splash in the source material, R.C. Sherriff’s well-regarded play, in 1928. The current film version is the fifth such adaptation; the first was James Whale’s debut, in 1930. And yet it doesn’t feel old, perhaps because Sherriff, an army officer in the war, left any cant out of it. No one harrumphs on about the glory of sacrifice — or the insanity of war. It’s just these men, many barely old enough to harvest whiskers, waiting for their turn to step into the bear trap. At the time the tale is told (March 1918, or roughly a century ago), the war is still eight months away from armistice — plenty of time for many thousands more men to die in the mud.

A newcomer to the material might expect Journey’s End to follow Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a wet-eared though not toffee-nosed young officer who asks to be assigned to the company commanded by a pre-war friend, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, stepping into Olivier’s big shoes). But the  story, at least as told here, focuses more on Stanhope, human wreckage trying to hold himself together with whiskey, and his friendship with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany, looking more than ever like the young Max von Sydow). Raleigh is more of an object here, a thing that introduces drama and brings Stanhope’s tensions to the fore. Stanhope, you see, was involved with Raleigh’s sister, and if Raleigh writes a letter to her mentioning what a mess her brother has become…

This string of the narrative is standard dramaturgy that could, in theory, unfold anywhere (Raleigh is off to medical school and discovers old chum Stanhope, an anxiety-ridden third-year resident popping pills to stay awake). But here it’s linked to the war and the agony of dread it causes all the men — existential dread to the nth degree, the horror of a man watching an unknown other man gurgle and die in the muck, and knowing there’s no reason he himself is alive (for now) and the other is not. A good part of the action happens offstage — or offscreen, rather — betraying the film’s origins on the boards; a major character dies out of our sight, which we don’t expect to happen in a movie. (It does, however, make for a delayed jolt that films don’t usually do, but which is part of a playwright’s bag of tricks.)

Directed by Saul Dibb (Suite Française) mostly with hushed intimacy, Journey’s End lets off a few bangs — most of the combat is reserved for the third act — but is often found picking up the sounds of a straight razor scraping off stubble, or a cigarette torching into life, or an exhausted soldier sipping tea that tastes of onions. Indeed, all the senses are engaged here, the narrative slowed down just enough for us to share in the tactility of the men’s discomfort. The actors scale down their performances accordingly; Claflin has the flashier role, getting drunk and upbraiding everyone around him (most of the men absorb his abuse with a shrug), but is also allowed quieter moments to create pockets of fear and sickness.

It’s all a bit of a lad’s tale — we’re on the movie’s home stretch before we see our first female face (with no voice) — and a white lad’s tale, too. (Someday soon we may see a film about the Harlem Hellfighters, or perhaps a biopic of Dorothy Lawrence.) Period war movies may be the only genre left that can plausibly ignore the modern (and justified) demand for diversity; the least such movies can do is reveal the cracks in the façade of privilege, and Journey’s End does so. A good portion of the film’s pathos lies in the pained smile of Paul Bettany’s Osborne, a schoolmaster in pre-war life, who has seen the apocalypse of the new mechanized way of war. In the face of the mass meat grinder of the war that was supposed to end all wars, a man can try to retain some humanity. That’s about it.