The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Extraordinarily Ordinary - What Do Dreams Know of Boundaries?

A new movie about Amelia was released in October, 2009. I, of course, waited patiently for the film to be released on DVD so I could bring it home and enjoy it at my pace, with my own really cheap and lightly buttered popcorn. I had a hunch I was going to like this movie simply because the reviews that followed it’s opening gave insight regarding style and content that actually sounded great to me. I’m going to spend a moment or so with critics’ words, if I may, and defend a movie that has been brutally bashed since it opened. 

 Frustratingly old-school; Hollywood-style Entertainment Weekly:
Ok, I understand that today many people like fast-action-jerky film work, or weird experimentations from the ‘sundance’ crowd. Truth is, some of us completely enjoy still-camera cinematography; we like to build a story visually, piecing things like costumes, sets, and audio tracks together with a steady, and I mean steady, accumulation of information. Perhaps that is old school, but I’m old so who cares. I like it. In Amelia, it’s one of the most charming aspects of the film. I can watch it and not become nauseated, which is amazing because I hate to fly and there are a lot of shots that are way up there looking down.

• The movie is imprisoned in safety NPR:
The movie stays right on the truth the entire film. It ignores urban legends and myths and, instead, concentrates on a nine year span of Amelia’s life which is mostly shown as her personal reflection of events that brought her to that fateful flight in 1937. She is winging around the world while she remembers. What else would the woman have done? If I were in her shoes I would have been full of retrospect, and this point-of-view has to limit the story to an absolute and safe place. Amelia’s diaries and log-books were heavily quoted and the voice of the aviator comes across clearly, even ordinarily quaint some times.

• The script smoothes over the many controversies surrounding her life, including her open marriage to Putnam, her rumored bisexuality, and whether or not she was a spy. Jezebel
Oh, my ... um ... let’s start with the open marriage. Yes, Amelia and George had an open marriage, which was more than unusual during their day. The proof of that is the letter she wrote to Putnam when she finally accepted his sixth marriage proposal.

"You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me. . . .In our life together I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly . . . .I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage."

The movie showed her writing that letter and giving it to her husband to be, and the idea of an open marriage was covered pretty well in this script. The only things missing were wild sex shots and in your face social judgments and lecturing. Frankly, I don’t want to imagine Amelia doing that and, in my opinion, she never did. Listen closely to her letter and you may hear a gal who was concerned about being owned. Remember the year (1931); understand what was expected of women back then. Amelia was fiercely independent and wanted to remain that way. She wanted to fly.

As for bisexuality and being a spy? That is pure speculation not founded on any provable truth. For folks who want to see this sort of story, you ought to write a script and call it Stella ... base the story-line on Amelia but add your fantasies for fun. You could have your steamy Ewan McGregor sex-shots, sultry leads, wild explosions ... CGI the plane ripping apart as it bounces across the ocean, what the hell. Stella could parachute out in time (not the navigator, though ... a man would not think quickly enough) and land on an itty-bitty South Pacific island, be a castaway for a while surviving by her own American-heartland-wisdom, drinking cocoanut milk and eating killer crabs she wrestled with her bare hands before the Japanese found, imprisoned, then lastly shot her dead-by-firing-squad for being a spy.  Dammit! That is filmmaking -101 ...

But that’s a different story ... let’s get back to
Amelia and the critics.

I'm not suggesting that Mira Nair should have invented anything for Amelia. It is right that she resisted any temptation. It's just that there's a certain lack of drama in a generally happy life. Chicago Sun Times:
This movie is not about Amelia’s life. It’s about a nine year span that lead from the first woman to sit on a plane flying across the Atlantic to a woman who was piloting a plane while trying to circumnavigate the globe.  Yeeesh ....

There are aspects about Amelia’s early life that are very interesting to ponder, and they follow a trend most surely. For example, Amelia did not grow up in a normal home with mother and father. She was sent to live with her grandmother, then on to finishing school. Dad was an alcoholic and that unsettled Amelia’s world on many levels. The same kind of thing was true for the other strong ladies I wrote about earlier in
There’s No Crying in Baseball. Dottie (Dorothy Kamenshek) went off to play baseball at 17 years old. I can’t find any information about her childhood or family relations, but how many 17 year old girls would have been allowed to go alone to Wriggley’s Field to play baseball during WWII? And then there’s Donna Hillman-Walsh, who grew-up the daughter of a Hollywood starlet and was sent away to finishing school at 14, then headed out to New York to learn how to race thoroughbreds. Research either of these ladies and you’ll find very little information about early family life and relationships. Truth be told, all these girls were extremely independent tomboys who’s goal in life was to be the very best that they could be, doing what only men were allowed to do. All were highly motivated, and all were very good. I would be interested in watching a film or documentary about this sort of stuff. But not in a film about a nine year span that lead to Amelia’s final flight. For now, let us focus on this movie and understand that Amelia was generally happy to be flying. Ok. What’s wrong with that?

•  Amelia is a by-the-book bio-pic. By following the template, it's as safe and straightforward as one could possibly get, without narrative flourishes and with minimal exaggeration to satisfy Hollywood's appetite for fictionalization. Reel Views


•  When it comes to some of the wild speculation that has arisen over the years about what happened to Earhart during that final flight, the movie doesn't even go out on a limb, opting instead for the sort of vague, open ending that, is historically safe and cinematically dull. The Washington Post:
It is true, this movie does not dare to try to answer what happened at the end. Amelia simply flies away. This movie is true on fact and as such, how could it speculate an ending?

•  ... old-fashioned, star-powered bio-mush Variety:

•  ... an object lesson in the follies of the conventional biopic, which puts mindless recapitulation of historical data above analysis or insight.  A.V. Club:
Did this critic just say that opinion should rise above historical data? I say, save the imagination for fantasy scripts. A film like Amelia should be held to standards of accuracy just in case some young person who knows nothing about Amelia sees it! Entertainment can teach and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, wouldn't we be prudent if more films aimed to educate?

I could go on and on with these reviews, but you get the point. How about we simply consider the film without the disappointed critics’ ramblings about what they wish it had been. True, anyone who ever researched Amelia knows the story going in, and comes away with no new information. The tale is what it is, why expect more? If you can’t handle that sort of thing don’t bother watching this movie. You would miss a beautiful film if you opted out, though, and just seeing the old-time news reels morph into modern day, full colour actors is a truly sweet effect.

Hilary Swank does a marvelous job becoming Amelia, though at times I could swear I heard Katherine Hepburn dialoging in aviator costume. As a girl I had a vision in my head that was Amelia and Swank nailed it for me; her big goofy grin, the confident swagger, the midwestern speech-halting accent, the kind of shy yet public figure, the in-love with her man though not publicly showing it woman.

In truth, there was only one person cast in this film that I wish had been just about anyone else. Whenever I see Richard Gere (he plays Putnam) in a film I see only Richard Gere, never the character he’s trying to play. The sets, costume, and filming technique all took me back to another time and I loved that. Richard Gere would rip me right back to my time and I hated that. George Putnam was a ground breaking fellow who, with Amelia, presented the very first public relation/image building situation and made her a star. He had a certain charisma and style. Richard Gere is frumpy (I thought so back when I first saw him in American Gigolo, I’m just sayin’). And, not even considering his acting, the guy is just too old for this one and does not look good in 1930s costume. Still, even with that, I like this film very much and would recommend it to anyone who wants to know about, or simply remember, Amelia.

As for her fate and the open-ended conclusion of the film, I think it’s our job to research and dig and learn. For sure, the truth is not settled yet, though many people think they know what happened. Some still cling to spy notion, others to the drowning theory, and some (like me) are convinced that Nikumaroro (Gardner Island) will prove once and for all that Amelia Earhart was a damn good pilot who didn’t survive because the United States Navy failed her.

Consider all the evidence I mentioned in part one of this story, and add to them this:

• Amelia’s last radio contacts where strong and clear, which indicated she was very near Howland Island and had the seaman on duty the night before not left certain tracking equipment powered on, the battery would not have been dead and the Navy could have pinpointed exactly where she was during every last moment of her flight. (yes, this is shown in the movie)

• Amelia’s very last transmission said   "We are on the line of position 157 337. Will repeat this message on 6210. We are running North and South." That put the Electra on a navigational line that coincides with the Phoenix Islands, with Nikumaroro (Gardner Island) specifically. The plane had more than enough fuel to get there, and the tide was low and the island’s reef was dry during the time they would have arrived, and that island is much easier to see from air than Howland. The reef is big and smooth enough in places to permit a bumpy, yet safe landing. As far as Amelia knew, the navy could track her. Landing was a smart thing to do.

• Credible radio distress calls were heard over the next four nights. Those transmissions coincided with times when the tides were low enough to allow prop clearance for an Electra’s engine to run. Why is that significant? The engines running at a certain speed would charge the batteries needed to send out signals. And, if the plane ditched into the ocean no signals could ever have been sent. All electrical systems would have failed if the plane did not sit on land, with undamaged landing gear beneath her.

Directional bearings of nearly 200 distress calls, taken by Pan American and the US Coast Guard, pinpointed those distress signals in the vicinity of Nikumaroro (Gardner Island).

• US Navy search planes did not fly over that island until a week after the plane disappeared. By then, distress signals had stopped. The pilots of the search planes noted “signs of recent habitation” on this officially uninhabited island. They saw no aircraft, but a photo of the island taken during the search shows the tide was very high with rough surf on the edge of the reef. If there were an aircraft on that reef, it would have been hidden by the surf.

• A colony was established on Nikumaroro (Gardner Island) in December, 1939 and residents from there report that aircraft wreckage was on the reef, as well as in the lagoon, when they came. They, apparently, stripped many parts from the crash and used them to fabricate things for themselves. A US Navy pilot saw island locals using an airplane control cable as lead fishing line. He asked them where they got the cable, they said from the plane wreckage that was there when they arrived.

One part of the Amelia story that truly annoys me are the words repeated by the fellows who let the lady down. They were very quick to point fingers at her, claiming she was a terrible pilot without the skills needed to complete her mission. Truth is, some fellows simply could not take orders from a girl, nor would they ever accept that a female out-performed them. Amelia was an amazing pilot during the time when aviation was new and extremely dangerous. She did things men died trying to do, and I believe she landed that plane on a small island out in the middle of nowhere, and the Navy did not heed reports of distress signals or take the Gardner Island theory serious in the days following her disappearance. She is my hero, as most strong and independent women are, and I am grateful for sky trails she blazed all those years ago. I encourage you to watch Amelia with those sort of thoughts in mind. 

And we'll leave this post with her words ...

"[Women] must pay for everything .... They do get more glory than men for comparable feats. But, also, women get more notoriety when they crash."