Reactionary Adventures in Cinematic Time Travel

 

shutterstock_149151383Being a reactionary, I’m a sucker for high-production-value period piece movies. The period piece is the native genre of the reactionary. A really good period piece creates the optical illusion of time travel – backwards, of course, to a place with worse hygiene, but better costumes and manners. As everyone knows by now, according to Oakeshott, “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant….” etc., etc. Well, the past is most of these things by definition.

Time travel into the future, by contrast, is for liberals. To be a liberal is to believe that history is an orderly procession toward the broad, sunlit uplands of enlightenment and flying cars; to believe that certain ways of thinking are outmoded, while others are modern and progressive, with good people marching forward and bad people standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” This view is popular with Whig historians, Hegelian idealists, children, H.G. Wells and Lincoln Steffens (who, in Soviet Russia, saw the future, and it worked!). But such people are wrong: history is not an unstoppable freight train of progress – it’s a bunch of half-blind people stumbling around in the dark from one dead end to another, stepping on each other’s fingers.

Not all retro time travel works for me. Star Wars doesn’t, even though it takes place a long, long time ago. Nor does The Hobbit. Yes, Tolkien’s vision of a green and pleasant mythical arcadia appeals to a certain kind of conservative anglophilia. But all the magical flimflam is in violent conflict with Oakeshott’s precepts. A good period piece is all about gritty, granular realism; it abhors magic, mysticism and CGI.

I was thinking about all this last weekend, while thoroughly enjoying the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis. The movie takes place in 1961, eight years before my birth – distant, yet familiar. What is also interesting about that year is that it marks the approximate high water mark of American civilization. Shortly thereafter, the long, slow slide began, although there was enough momentum to carry the country through another few years to the Apollo moon landings, which are without question the apex of mankind’s (personkind’s?) achievement. In this respect, Inside Llewyn Davis tills the same furrow as Mad Men, but without the belabored, semi-ironic adherence to mid-century authenticity. What Mad Men accomplishes studiously and self-consciously, Llewyn Davis achieves seemingly without effort or artifice. It just picks you up and dumps you unsentimentally into 1961 Greenwich Village.

The Coens are absolute masters of the period genre. To appreciate a good period piece, a conservative temperament helps; to recreate the past convincingly on screen requires not only genius, but a love for the past. The Coen Brothers are conservative geniuses. No wonder Harry Reid keeps denouncing them from the well of the Senate (although I don’t understand how they can be responsible for global warming).

I am always looking for a good period piece. My short list of favorites includes the following.

Russian Ark (2002). The entire film, all 96 minutes, is a single-take uninterrupted stroll with a steadicam through the Hermitage Museum and Russian history. It’s a dazzlingly choreographed piece of czarist propaganda. Doesn’t get much more reactionary than that. My favorite part is where Nicholas I, sovereign of a mature and self-confident world power, receives and accepts the abject apology of the Persian Shah for the massacre of Ambassador Alexander Griboedov and his diplomatic staff at the hands of an Islamic mob. It starts at the 54:05 mark here. Notice that what Nicholas does not do is throw an innocent filmmaker in prison and then crawl on his belly to the United Nations to explain that the mob had a number of understandable grievances and that Russia basically had it coming. Nope, he is upright throughout.

HBO’s Rome (2005; first season only – season 2 sucks). Deftly scripted and lavishly produced, only actual time travel back to the last days of the Roman Republic could rival this almost tactile experience for sheer spectacle. I would take only slight issue with the politics. Caesar’s rise, and the terrifying descent of the Republic into anti-constitutional lawlessness and civil war, are an object lesson in what happens when a charismatic populist transforms politics into a conspiracy between the super-rich and the underclass. This is a political pattern that would have some slight resonance with us today, if only we had an effective charismatic populist politician somewhere in the picture. Personally, I would have played up this angle. But in any case, you get the sense that the Republic was running on fumes. The anti-Caesareans are a disaster: Pompey is vain and bungling; Cicero is effete; Brutus dithers. On the other hand, Cato, the one true defender of conservative Roman virtue, is admirably crusty and curmudgeonly. Again, echoes of the present abound.

Ragtime (1981). What I love about this movie is not its time machine quality, which is merely OK, but that it is not what it appears to be. Taken at face value, E.L. Doctorow’s book, as realized by Milos Foreman, appears to be a lush romp through turn-of-the-20th-century America that uses a story of racial injustice as its narrative vehicle. But in fact, the whole thing is a slick and highly entertaining piece of political agitprop masquerading as a period piece. The movie and the book feature a number of historical figures, notably Booker T. Washington. At the climactic moment, the authorities bring in Booker T. to try to talk some sense into Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the movie’s magnetic protagonist, by appealing to Walker’s intelligence, sense of justice, and the fact that his reckless and selfish actions are about to undo decades of Washington’s work on behalf of black Americans. Walker rejects these appeals and the standoff ends badly. I read the book years ago and enjoyed it, but didn’t really understand what it was about until I saw the movie recently. It’s basically a brilliant race revenge fantasy. Doctorow was a leftist writing in the early 1970s at the height of the black liberation movement. Both Walker and Booker T. Washington are portrayed sympathetically, but ultimately Booker T. loses the argument. W.E.B. DuBois is out of the picture, but casts a shadow on the message of the movie. His approach was far more radical than that of the bourgeois-leaning Booker T.

Ultimately, Ragtime is not about the early 1900s; it is about the 1960s and 70s, when bourgeois values were crumbling and the Constitution-inspired civil rights movement of MLK was being hijacked by the Black Panthers. Doctorow was cleverly taking sides in that argument. The cast is great: Samuel L. Jackson, James Cagney, Norman Mailer, Mandy Patinkin and Howard Rollins Jr. Jack Nicholson and Fran Drescher also make appearances. And Elizabeth McGovern is much more fun here than in Downton Abbey 30 years later. (Downton Abbey is good too, of course, as Rob Long, James Delingpole and other prominent Ricocheti have noted.)

Finally, The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, (1973, 1974, respectively), with Michael York, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and Oliver Reed. This has been a favorite of mine since about age 10. The makers of this version had the good sense to know they couldn’t improve on Dumas’ original, stuck to the book and just concentrated on transporting the viewer into the realm of Louis XIII and Richelieu – an arch-reactionary’s paradise. It is easy to forgive the several charming anachronisms (e.g., a proto-submarine, flying the Union Jack, for the Duke of Buckingham to steal away the Queen of France (the Union Jack is the anachronism)). 

Addendum: Sorry, I am now being told that it is the Koch Brothers – not the Coens – who are the main cause of global warming. Apologies for any confusion.

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  1. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    “Russian Ark” is a masterpiece, no doubt about it, and it’s a pleasure to see it mentioned here on Ricochet. And I have to say, as a lifelong Richelieu fan, ol’ Chuck really nails it in Lester’s 1973 version of “Musketeers”; Heston’s a wonderful dark schemer, the very picture of charming ruthlessness.  When I worked for the American Film Institute we’d see Charlton Heston on campus and at our public events, and think: there are still such men walking among us. 

    (Hollywood has still not listened to my concept, based on “Abbott and Costello Meet the Wolfman”, of teaming up Cardinal Richelieu, Richard Nixon, and Sergeant Bilko. The damned fools don’t understand!)

    I liked “Quiz Show”, “Apollo 13”, and “The Hudsucker Proxy” for various bits of real-feel history.  Fellow conservative Bob Gale’s “Back to the Future”, for all its lightheartedness, gives you more of the feel of the real Fifties than, say the tendentious “Good Night and Good Luck” or “Pleasantville”.

    You should keep this series of posts going–it’s a great idea. Hope readers find it. 

    • #1
  2. user_1029039 Inactive
    user_1029039
    @JasonRudert

    Great post.

    • #2
  3. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Oblomov, have you seen Konchalovsky’s “The Inner Circle”? I like it; it’s a rare English language, Hollywood-distributed look at the Stalin era. 

    There are a lot of last-years-of-the-USSR-made films that deserve a fresh look, if you’ll forgive my transliterations, like “Chuchila (Scarecrow)”, or “Plumbum: A Dangerous Game”, a grim black comedy about a Pavel Morozov type. Yevtushenko’s Detskii Sad” (Kindergarten), Alexi Gherman’s “My Friend Ivan Lapshin”, Yuri Mamin’s “Fountain”. Good stuff.

    Sometime we’ll find one or more on a free site like YouTube and we’ll hold our own informal “screening”; each of us can run it in a window and come back to Ricochet to talk after the film.

    Of course, like a multiplex, it would be fine to have multiple Saturday night get-together “channels”–bios of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the SoCons, “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” for the libertarians, Andrzej Wajda for CultureCons.  

    And Bob Clampett’s “Beany and Cecil” for 10 Cents.  Even a sock puppet of imperialism needs representation. 

    • #3
  4. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    How I love this post. I hope you write more.

    • #4
  5. user_96427 Contributor
    user_96427
    @tommeyer

    Oblomov: On the other hand, Cato, the one true defender of conservative Roman virtue, is admirably crusty and curmudgeonly. Again, echoes of the present abound.

    One of my gripes with the casting in this is that Cato was only 49 when he died, yet they played him as an old man.

    • #5
  6. user_7742 Inactive
    user_7742
    @BrianWatt

    There are so many period pieces that have immersed me into the era that it’s difficult to name just a few without leaving out obvious choices but here goes:
    Little Dorritt and Nobody’s Fault – with Alec Guinness and Derek Jacobi (even the costumes were made completely by hand).
    The Mountains of the Moon – About Burton and Speke’s discovery of the source of the Nile
    Anything by Merchant Ivory Productions – The Deceivers, Room with a View, Howard’s End, The White Countess, Remains of the Day…etc., etc.
    The Elephant Man
    Apocalypto
    Last of the Mohicans
    Gangs of New York
    There Will Be Blood
    Girl With A Pearl Earring

    I’m with you on Richard Lester’s Musketeers films and Ragtime.
    I think Blade Runner broke the mold on squeaky clean, antiseptic optimistic futuristic films and Minority Report seems quite possible – the precogs aside. In the 60s and 70s Universal produced some quite lame sci-fi fare and you could always tell how cheaply they were by the sparce and unimaginative sets – a lot of blank walls with an occasional picture. 

    Great post! Keep ’em coming.

    • #6
  7. user_140544 Inactive
    user_140544
    @MattBlankenship

    HBO’s John Adams.

    • #7
  8. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    My all-time favorite period piece is the BBC’s A Jewel in the Crown, a mini-series aired in 1984.  Based on four novels by Paul Scott, it tells the story, through British members of the Raj and Indian natives, of the last few years of the Raj.  As I recall, it covers from mid-WWII until independence in 1949. 

    jewel

    It is beautiful to see, the story (or, more accurately, stories) are compelling, the direction is superb.  Geraldine James, Tim Pigott-Smith, Charles Dance, Judy Parfitt, art Malik, Peggy Ashcroft, and Rachel Kempson are stunningly good.  James (pictured with Dance) gives a performance of a lifetime.

    There are few guarantees in the entertainment business, but if you’ll watch two episodes you will be hooked.

    It has the feel of the movie made of A Passage to India, though infinitely better.

    • #8
  9. user_140544 Inactive
    user_140544
    @MattBlankenship

    Lincoln, if only for Daniel Day Lewis’s performance.

    • #9
  10. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Master and Commander, a ripping yarn and true to the spirit of the series as well as the reality of  wooden shops and iron men. My favorite period piece. Honorable mention for Tucker, A Man and His Dream. The story is a bit jumbled and compressed, but what a reproduction of post war America.

    • #10
  11. Mr Tall Inactive
    Mr Tall
    @MrTall

    Thanks very much for this post! 

    I love historical films — at the moment, the Family Tall is addicted to Jane Austen and Agatha Christie adaptations, and I’m constantly on the lookout for new material. So thanks for the recommendations.

    But even more so, I appreciate your analysis of Ragtime. I’ve read the novel, but haven’t seen the adaptation. I’m very familiar, never the less, with the phenomenon you’re highlighting here: the hijacking of a period piece in order to deliver an anachronistic object lesson or indulge in moral preening. Once I smell this in a historical drama, it’s very hard for me to continue watching with enjoyment, no matter how well-adapted the material otherwise may be. 

    Thanks also to other commenters for the additional recommendations.

    • #11
  12. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    I liked the second season of Rome. THIRTEEN!

    Ambivalent as I am about Woody Allen – I prefer his earlier, funnier movies – “Radio Days” has its charms,  and recreates things without telling you what it recreated. The Diane Keaton song, I believe, is set in the bar of the old Knickerbocker Hotel, which had “King Cole” murals by Maxfield Parrish. 

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  13. user_7742 Inactive
    user_7742
    @BrianWatt

    James Lileks:

    I liked the second season of Rome. THIRTEEN!

    Ambivalent as I am about Woody Allen – I prefer his earlier, funnier movies – “Radio Days” has its charms, and recreates things without telling you what it recreated. The Diane Keaton song, I believe, is set in the bar of the old Knickerbocker Hotel, which had “King Cole” murals by Maxfield Parrish.

    PiedPiper
    James – In a street level bar in the Palace Hotel (now owned by the Starwood chain) in San Francisco is Maxfield Parrish’s enormous mural of the Pied Piper. Over the years the bar has undergone many transformations. The last time I visited the hotel, the bar had been turned into a sports bar and the magnificent painting by Parrish was completely out of place amidst a plethora (yes, a plethora) of sports memorabilia. If I’m ever lucky enough to win the lottery (any lottery) I’d be tempted to purchase it, have it painstakenly restored and placed in a museum where it belongs.

    • #13
  14. user_7742 Inactive
    user_7742
    @BrianWatt

    Apologies for the off topic aside.

    • #14
  15. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    No apologies ever needed. A brief stop and a refreshing draught at the Brian Watt roadhouse is always well worth a short break in the journey!

    • #15
  16. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    That there’s some fine writin’ !

    • #16
  17. SParker Member
    SParker
    @SParker

    James Lileks:

    I liked the second season of Rome. THIRTEEN!

    Ambivalent as I am about Woody Allen – I prefer his earlier, funnier movies – “Radio Days” has its charms, and recreates things without telling you what it recreated. The Diane Keaton song, I believe, is set in the bar of the old Knickerbocker Hotel, which had “King Cole” murals by Maxfield Parrish.

     +1 on 2nd season of Rome and Woody.  The King Cole mural is in the King Cole Bar (which  even the most casual examination of the work suggests is the nicest gay bar ANYWHERE)  at the St. Regis.

    • #17
  18. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    That’s odd…you’d expect Mrs. Parker to hang out at the Algonquin…

    • #18
  19. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The makers of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers had the discretion, taste, and wisdom to hire George MacDonald Fraser (of Flashman fame) to write the screenplays, and Fraser had the discretion, taste, and wisdom to cleave to Alexander Dumas père’s original.  Two of my all-time favorites.

    • #19
  20. FightinInPhilly Coolidge
    FightinInPhilly
    @FightinInPhilly

    Chariots of Fire is a spectacular piece of time travel. I’ll second Last of the Mohicans, with a special nod for its moving soundtrack. With respect to going into the future- I think one of the first films to make it less romantic is Alien, from 1979. As I recall director Ridley Scott said they wanted to make space “dirty”. Many films, such as Star Wars and in particular 2001 A Space Odyssey depicted space travel as clean, light, sterile. Scott wanted the opposite. (and got it.)

    • #20
  21. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Thanks everyone for the great suggestions, many of which are new to me. 

    Gary, yes, The Inner Circle is excellent and unusual. I’m pretty sensitive to false notes in movies about Russia, but this one gets it right. Another one that does is The Russia House with Connery and Michele Pfeiffer. It’s not a period piece, but it nails the feel of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. I will have to check out your other Russian suggestions.

    James, I share your ambivalence about Woody Allen and also love Radio Days. It definitely has that slightly nostalgic time machine quality I’m looking for. 

    Tabula, Jewel in the Crown is going straight to the top of my queue. Don’t know how I could have missed it all these years.

    I love Apollo 13 and plan to introduce my 6 year old to it this weekend. Chariots of Fire is great. All the Merchant Ivory stuff is in a class by itself. Master and Commander is fantastic.

    Keep ’em coming!

    • #21
  22. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    And now, I soil this conversation by bringing up Sergio Leone.  Why would I do this?  The sheer spaciousness of Once Upon a Time in the West.  That is, I don’t know if his fidelity to the time was 100%, but his fidelity to the space was second to none.

    By the way, The Right Stuff ranks up there with Apollo 13.

    • #22
  23. MikeHs Inactive
    MikeHs
    @MikeHs

    How about some French movies with English subtitles?
    “The Return of Martin Guerre” (Le retour de Martin Guerre)
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084589/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

    “Life and Nothing But” (La vie et rien d’autre)
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098596/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

    • #23
  24. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Oblomov: Time travel into the future, by contrast, is for liberals. To be a liberal is to believe that history is an orderly procession toward the broad, sunlit uplands of enlightenment and flying cars; to believe that certain ways of thinking are outmoded, while others are modern and progressive, with good people marching forward and bad people standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”
    What about Back To The Future 2, where human nature is still basically the same even though technology has advanced? Ditto for Babylon 5, the Alien series, the Space Odyssey series, etc.

    What about Demolition Man, which mocks the very idea of progress you describe?

    What about all the movies that portray the future as a dystopia?

    The only movies set in the future that try to portray an unambiguous utopia, as far as I can see, are the Star Trek movies, and they need to grossly violate the laws of physics in order to make it work.

    (Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica take place in the distant past, so they don’t count.)

    • #24
  25. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    I’ve to agree with Misthiocracy about dystopian novels and films.  The clean utopia is the liberal’s view of the future.

    Conservatives know that all attempts to create utopia will end badly.  So we tend to like dystopian novels and films, which allow us to explore the vast array of ways social engineers will completely screw up the world.

    That said, given a choice, I’ll still take a good period piece.

    • #25
  26. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Apropos of Misthiocracy’s and Tabula Rasa’s posts, a friend writes:

    “Almost all — if not, in fact, all — serious futuristic films and books (not frivolous fantasy sci-fi such as Star Wars, etc. which I enjoy and, in fact prefer, but thoughtful tales that explore serious moral and social issues, i.e. Galaga, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games) occur in dystopias. In other words, artists — even liberal artists — know instinctively what the conservative builds his worldview and political theory on: mankind cannot and will not achieve utopia, because mankind will always find ways to screw it up. It is built into the native DNA of man to warp good things into bad things. The religious-minded of us will call it original sin.”

    Point well taken.

    There is also the question of what to do with  Stanley Kubrik, who can come up with 2001: A Space Odyssey  (THE Ur-futurist movie), then follow it up with A Clockwork Orange (dystopia) and Barry Lyndon (period).

    • #26
  27. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Also not sure what to do with this: http://news.yahoo.com/most-europeans-rather-visit-past-future-155928724.html

    • #27
  28. Rhoda at the Door Inactive
    Rhoda at the Door
    @RhodaattheDoor

    Dittos on Jewel in the Crown and Master and Commander.  I came across The Passion of Joan of Arc recently and was stunned.  It has the most minimal settings and costumes, and though made, I think, in the 1920’s, uses curiously tv-style close-ups predominantly.  It deals only with St. Joan’s trial and is quite partisan, but the acting is phenomenal.  A modern musical score overlaid on the restored film is most effective.

    • #28
  29. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Forgive me if someone else has already mentioned it, but in the categories of “costume drama” and “slice of life in world now gone,” it’s pretty hard to top Downton Abbey.  And so pleasingly reactionary.

    • #29
  30. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Gary McVey:(Hollywood has still not listened to my concept, based on “Abbott and Costello Meet the Wolfman”, of teaming up Cardinal Richelieu, Richard Nixon, and Sergeant Bilko. The damned fools don’t understand!).

     Oh man. Oh. Man. The world of film now loses a little bit of it’s luster because this film has never been made. It’s like that Three Stooges episode where they ran a Pizzeria. As far as I know it’s never been made, but it would have been perfect.

    • #30
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