Phantom Thread Features Stunning Performances


Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Annapurna Pictures, 170 minutes, R (solely for F-bombs)

There is true love, tough love, love among opposites, and love that dares not speak its name. The Phantom Thread isn’t any of these; it’s a love that obliterates the border between beauty and ugliness, logic and impulse, propriety and indecency, desire and contempt. You probably won’t like the people you meet in this film, but you won’t look away, as they are fascinating in their exoticism, anguish, and awfulness.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a 60s-something high couture dress designer whose perfection with a needle contrasts with the chaffed fingers that push it through the fabric; that is, underneath his dandy exterior lies a person with deep character flaws, including an obsession with his dead mother, a strain of cruelty, egoism, and the textbook symptoms of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Work defines his life and one of its more visible exterior markers is a string of brokenhearted model/partners—each of whom thought she would be the one to melt his defenses. Reynolds, though, is so inscrutable that he’s not even the one to inform them of his boredom and send them packing; that task goes to his spinster sister and business manager Cyril (Lesley Manville).

During one such incident, Reynolds absents himself and strolls into a tearoom in a fading Victorian seaside hotel. Enter Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a ruddy-cheeked and slightly klutzy waitress who quietly takes his eccentric order. She’s everything Reynolds is looking for, by which I mean to model his dresses, be his arm candy, and serve as his salon’s lady du jour. Sex isn’t what it’s about—that would, after all, be a distraction and a man who takes a temper tantrum and flees the room when toast is buttered too loudly doesn’t easily assume the role of torchy lover to a woman half his age. He is, though, very much up for things in which he is the center of attention: elegant dining, lording over his shop, and flattering matrons, glitterati, and princesses who buy his gowns.

The question is what’s in this for Alma. It’s easy to see why she’d find the wealth and glamour of the Woodcock salon preferable to waitressing, but why does she tolerate what is essentially an emotionally abusive relationship? I’ll only caution you to not rush to judgment about much of anything in this film. Don’t assume motives, power, or outcomes.

The Phantom Thread won’t be everyone’s favorite fabric, but there are some things that we must acclaim unembroidered truth. Daniel Day-Lewis has stated that this is his final film. More’s the pity. His was easily the best performance by an actor in a 2017 film and it would be a travesty were he not to collect his fourth Best Actor Oscar for his role as Woodcock, whom he plays as the damaged boy who would be tyrant. I used to think that Dustin Hoffman was the male Meryl Streep, the best actor of his generation. I was wrong; it’s Day-Lewis. His is a subtle performance that’s like a tsunami without waves or sound. Day-Lewis has the sort of depth as an actor that warrants mention in the same breath as Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, or Alec Guinness.

Lesley Manville certainly deserves serious consideration as Best Supporting Actress. She plays Cyril with all the potential danger of a slumbering lioness. Credit also goes to Vicky Krieps, an actress from Luxembourg who we will be seeing in more films. She’s as intriguing physically as she is psychologically. As Alma she is, at turns, luminous, stern, and borderline frumpy. Director Paul Thomas Anderson did his own cinematography, and he does a great job of capturing the feel of 1950s elegance as it reaches its apex and begins it slide out of fashion. When he catches it on the cusp, he does it so skillfully that the film feels timeless and it’s only the external clues that betray its era.

Ironically, I found Anderson’s camera work superior to his directorial and script writing roles. This film could/should have been PG-13, which would have been accomplished had he excised the F-bombs. It’s not that the word itself shocks anymore, rather that a polished, tightly wrapped character such as Reynolds would have resorted to less vulgar ways to express disgust, fear, or contempt. My suspicion is that Anderson wrote in such outbursts to add quickened interludes to the languid pacing of most of the film. I wish he had simply trusted the audience. This is a film in which we feel pain from a thousand needle pricks, not blunt force trauma.

Rob Weir


Early Man Goofy Fun Though It's No Chicken Run

EARLY MAN (2018)
Directed by Nick Park
Aardman Animations, 89 minutes, PG

Early Man, the latest claymation feature from Nick Park, is often as cheap as a Walmart tie, as campy as a Boy Scout Jamboree, and as thin (narratively speaking) as a tea bag thrice used. It would be complete junk were it not also occasionally inspired, really funny in places, offbeat goofy, and sentimental in all the right ways. It's a stretch to call it art, but there are far worse ways to wile away an hour and a half—as evidenced by the absolutely dreadful previews we viewed of upcoming animated features. If you have kids or nieces and nephews, you can also score some points by taking them with you to the cinema. If not, do as we did: don a disguise and scurry into the back rows when the lights dim.

The premise of Early Man—such as it is—is pretty zany. Director Nick Park takes us to the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, the one that saw an asteroid crash into earth and wipe out the dinosaurs. For the sake of the story—not because he's a Creationist—Park has ancient human ancestors present as well, and allows some of them to survive and "accidentally" begin kicking molten rocks around. Before you know it, they've invented soccer, or football as everyone in the world uncontaminated by the NFL calls it. They duly paint sporting scenes onto cave walls.

Move the clock forward to the period in which the Stone Age is about to yield the Bronze. A late tribe of close-knit and lovable Stone Agers occupies the "Valley" and lives a simple hunting gathering existence. Of course, they all act and talk like it's a British working class precinct peopled by goofballs. It's led by Bobnar, an 'elderly' chief—he's almost 32 ya' know—but our 'star' is young Dug, an idealistic kid with a pet boar named Hognob, one of Park's many cheeky jokes.* Like everyone else, though, Dug has no idea what to make of the strange cave paintings he sees in the Valley.

All is well until giant mining machines chase the cave dwellers from the Valley. Yep—it's an attack of Bronze Age technophiles that live in a city that looks like a Rube Goldberg fantasy and is populated by upper-class twits and the bread-and-circus-loving masses. Our villain is Lord Nooth, who also heads the football federation, has a serious fetish for bronze coins, and possesses no qualms about exiling primitives to a barren plain. Will the Stone Agers never again occupy their beloved Valley? Maybe. All they have to do is defeat the world's best football team. The details of all this belong to the world of animation logic and only a humorless prude would be foolish enough to label them absurd. (Well, duh!) Let's just say that Dug must recapture ancient knowledge, that he is aided by a Bronze Age girl, Goona, whose gender excludes her from being able to pay football, and that a whole lot of very silly things happen in the match between "The Brutes" and "Real Bronzio." The best parts of the movie lie in Park's visual jokes. Always look for background detail in a Nick Park production.
You get to hear the voices of people you might know: Eddie Redmayne, Maisie Williams, Tom Hiddleston, Timothy Spall…. In tone and construction, Early Man is very much like other Nick Park features, right down to the fact that Chief Bobnar is a sort of Wallace and Hognob is a bristly Grommit with tusks. It needs to be said Early Man is not up to the standards of Wallace and Grommit and that the overall script is really limp and lame. Unlike the wonderful Chicken Run in which Park essentially befowled The Great Escape, Park has no preexisting story arc to mirror. Plus, when you get right down to it, the screenplay (Mark Burton) is simply a zany Valentine to soccer dressed in animal skins—even though the amusing final credits advise us "no dinosaurs or rabbits were harmed" during filming. Watch for cameos as the credits roll. Early Man never evolves into a higher film species, but that's okay. Walk away without guilt. 

Rob Weir

* If you don't get it, Hobnobs are a much beloved British sweet tea biscuit/cookie. 


Blood and Faith

Originally published to an academic site, but this is a timely book.

Blood and Faith: Christianity in White American Nationalism. By Damon T. Berry. Syracuse University Press, 2017. 

In the epilogue to Blood and Faith, St. Lawrence University religion professor Damon Berry evokes the 2016 presidential election: “If the economic policies of the new administration do indeed end up hurting the white working class that voted Trump into office, we should not expect the administration to automatically receive the blame. Rather, we should expect scapegoating…. The same accusatory politics that brought Trump to electoral victory will be mobilized to keep him from accountability.” He further warns that “those who want an equal, open, and tolerant society” must face the stark truth that a “society based on those values is not guaranteed to us…. We are going to have to construct it” (206).
Would that this were the most unsettling conclusion of this chilling book. Berry takes us inside a dark world that most know more through popular stereotypes than careful analysis. Our cavalier use of terms such as “deplorables,” “little Nazis,” and “Christian right” may ameliorate our fears, but we err badly if we think of them as merely weak-brained dupes and fools. Few of us have heard of people such as Revilo Oliver, William Pierce, Ben Klassen, William Pelley, James Madole, or Alain de Benoist, nor do we know much about Cosmotheism, Creativity, racialized atheism, Odinism, Wotansvolk, Occult Fascism, or the Left-Hand Path. And we haven’t considered the enormous impact of European New Right movements upon American Alt-Right figures such as Stephen Bannon.

If there is any good news, it is that the forces of the hard right are disputatious and divided. Berry delves into these often idiosyncratic fractures, but most nationalist groups agree upon essential values. The first is what Berry dubs “racial protectionism;” that is, white nationalists are either blatantly racist or supporters of racial separatism. Like older hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, they extend racial protectionism to voice opposition to egalitarianism, multiculturalism, feminism, immigration, and non-heterosexuality; unlike the KKK, most nationalists also oppose Christianity, a phenomenon often missed in discussions of groups such as Christianity Identity. White nationalists castigate Christianity for being effeminate, weak, and overly inclusive, but mostly it clashes with their second shared value: virulent Antisemitism. They are the heirs to views propagated in the infamous 1903 The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Henry Ford disseminated in the 1920s, and of Francis Parker Yockey (1916-60), whose Imperium is a seminal work. Christianity is often called “Jewish Christianity,” and is therefore both “alien” and corrupt. Those who adhere to it at all are careful to differentiate “historical Christianity” from that “profaned” (181) by modernism. Many are more likely to embrace neo-pagan views akin to the Nordic and Indo-European mysticism found in German Nazism. (Berry is careful to differentiate racialized paganism from positive spiritualism.) Still other nationalists are agnostics, Satanists, or atheists who reject—in the words of Creativity’s White Man’s Bible—“Jewish spooks in the sky.” 

Another surprise is Berry’s discussion of the word "nationalism." Extreme patriotic rhetoric notwithstanding, white nationalism is refracted through bioracial and cultural lenses that are pan-Western European; they are (in my terms) the white equivalent of negritude. We should make no mistake; the nationalists are dangerous people, not dress-up delusionals. Violence is part of their modus operandi past—including the murder of Alan Berg and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—and present-day attacks on African Americans, American Muslims, and LGBT individuals. White nationalists feel they are engaged in RaHoWa, their shorthand for Racial Holy War. This also puts them at odds with mainstream conservatives, of whom they are as contemptuous as they are of liberals. To give you a sense of their fervor, many of its theorists quit the John Birch Society because it was too soft. Consider also the fact that Bannon’s freelance extremism was beyond even that which Donald Trump could forbear.

I have a few nits to pick with Berry’s book. First, he correctly rejects the notion that modern white nationalism emerged in the 1980s, but makes too much of his own assertion that it actually crystallized in the 1950s. He’s not wrong about those connections, but in his third chapter he takes us through a cogent litany of even deeper roots: Manifest Destiny, the wars on Native peoples, Social Darwinism, immigration restriction movements, eugenics, and a welter of other things. As Gunnar Myrdal famously expressed it in 1944, race has always been “an American dilemma.” For a book that pulls few punches, Berry held back on this one. White nationalism isn’t a single breed of poisonous snake; it’s a broad suborder of venomous vipers.    

I also longed for a more thorough explanation of how white power theorists decoupled nationalism from the volk-specific associations of post Enlightenment romanticism (whose language they often appropriate) to move it beyond national borders while simultaneously opposing globalism. These may well be ideational contradictions within movements, but they warrant closer analysis.

Berry’s attention to subtle distinctions, theoretical structures, use of postmodernist terminology, and breadth probably make this a book best suited for graduate students and specialists. But even if all you do is sample, we should heed Berry’s evocation of Henri Bergson that these are people “prepared for war" (14). They must be held accountable.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst.  


Steal Away Home Contrived

STEAL AWAY HOME (January 2018)
By Billy Coffey
Thomas Nelson, 416 pages.

First things first: There are at least four other books titled Steal Away Home. This one is from Billy Coffey. The title appears so often because it's a phrase from a famed spiritual,  "Steal Away:" Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus/Steal away, steal away home, I ain't got long to stay. Coffey's book is true to the lyric in several senses. First, the book is partly about baseball, and making it around the bases to "home" is the point of the sport. Coffey also has the spiritual sense in mind.

I'm a baseball fan, so I was lured by blurbs that said it was a tale of a boy with a dream of making it to the big leagues. I've no objection to the novel's spirituality, except here's the second thing: Some forms of literature have preordained endings. LGBT and romance literature are always big strip teases in which two people must become a couple at some point. Crime fiction and mysteries must end with some sort of a reveal. Christian novels like Coffey's are teleological and must make their way to conversion and redemption. I accept that, but this book underwhelmed me.

A third thing: I grew up in a valley in the shadow of Blue Ridge Mountains and have issues with how the novel deals with that region. The book is set in a backwoods town in a western Virginia, ostensibly in the late 1980s through to 2001. Its main character is Owen Cross (get it?), the lad who dreams of playing professional baseball. Actually, it's a shared dream with his father, Paul, who had similar ambitions until he blew out his shoulder. Owen grows up with his father as his personal coach and from little league on, is a star player. There's just one thing that gets Owen's attention as much as baseball: a girl from the wrong side of town named Michaela "Micky" Dullahan. I don't know if Coffey is aware that a Dullahan is a headless horse rider in Irish mythology whose presence is dangerous for humans with attached heads, but Micky certainly can take Owen's mind away from baseball. He nonetheless harbors forbidden love for her from childhood on.  

Here's where things get hairy. I've spent enough time in the Appalachians to appreciate (and lament) its pockets of poverty and the persistence of tradition, but Coffey writes about western Virginia as if the 1950s went straight through the 1990s without having ever heard of the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Everybody in the novel speaks in stereotypical hillbilly idioms—all the time. It makes one wonder what was taught in school, or how Owen made it through Youngstown State, where he plays college ball on scholarship. (Note to Coffey: Athletes get away with a lot in college, but one still has to be semi-literate to make it through four years.)

The town's values are similarly frozen in ancient amber. Micky is from "Shantytown" and everyone there is ostracized by other town residents, including Owen's father, a born-again Baptist for whom the concept of Christian charity does not extend to Shantytown's white trash. Owen and Micky can never be seen together, not with her alcoholic father, Pau's hard heart, or the ridicule of peers to be considered. The two meet clandestinely for years with the grand plan being for Owen to take Micky away from all of this. During their senior year, though, something mysterious happens and plans change.

Coffey juxtaposes the tales of Owen and Micky with a game played in Yankee Stadium in 2001—by which time Owen is a minor league washout who gets baseball's equivalent of a golden handshake: a 24-hour call-up to serve as a backup backstop for the Orioles. The game is a blow out that Coffey tries to milk for non-existent drama in half inning sequences.  Mostly it's a device for Owen to take stock of his life, chat with a 42-year-old reserve outfielder hoping to hit 40 more homers to punch his ticket for the Hall of Fame,* and to consider a question Micky asked years earlier: "What do you love?"

There are simply too many contrivances in this novel. Coffey's look at Appalachia that is one-part Smokey and the Bandit and one part Andy Griffith gone bad. Ambition, metaphorical ghosts, small-town dynamics, unexplained phenomena, and the gap between professed and practiced faith could make for a good novel. This isn't it.

Rob Weir

* Coffeys' character might be loosely based on Harold Baines, though Baines is African American, not a good ol' boy, and he left the Orioles after the 2000 season. Plus, only five players (Bonds, Yaztremski, Musial, Williams, Aaron) have hit 40 homeruns after age 40!  Baines finished with 384 for his career. He is in the Orioles' Hall of Fame, but not Cooperstown.