Tag Archives: military

One Hour Mark: Kind Hearts and Coronets

This is an image from 1:00:00 into Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a deliciously black, happily morbid comedy from England’s Ealing Studios. Dennis Price plays Louis Mazzini, who schemes to kill off all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family standing between him and his rightful inheritance. Alec Guinness plays every one of the D’Ascoynes, flawlessly imitating eight different varieties of blue-blooded pomposity – from the long-winded clergyman down to the august banker who unwittingly employs his would-be murderer. In the middle of the film, as Mazzini’s systematically hacking apart the D’Ascoyne family tree, we’re treated to a series of homicidal vignettes as three aristocrats in a row shuffle off this mortal coil… and that’s where this image comes in.

The Guinness guise pictured above is that of General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne, whom Mazzini sends an explosive pot of caviar, considering it a fittingly bombastic finale for a lifelong soldier. The General embodies the spirit of Victorian imperialism, as he gloats tediously about his part in the Boer War: “I pretended to be deceived by the feint and sent our horse to meet it. At that moment, the concealed enemy emerged from behind the kopje…” etc., etc., all in the same raspy monotone. Even his last words are filled with unthinking ethnocentrism, as he refers to caviar as the “one thing the Russkies do really well.” He’s boring and self-absorbed, and as with most of the D’Ascoynes, his death evokes a chuckle instead of a tear – especially since he goes up in an absurd puff of smoke right out of Roadrunner and Coyote.

This whole scene is surrounded by Price’s impeccably dry voiceover narration, as he details his methods and underscores the little ironies of his refined killing spree. The contrast between the witty, industrious Mazzini and the stuffy old warhorse he’s hunting makes his crime seem all the more justified; after all, he’s only leveling the playing field. His murders are like a controlled burn in a forest, getting rid of the decrepit trees that have outstayed their welcome so that new life can grow in its place. While Mazzini rapidly advances through the social hierarchy, the General stays rooted in his chair, shifting only to dig into the caviar. He’s the proverbial sitting duck, an easy target for both Mazzini and the film itself.

Both the General and the club around him look so stately and sessile, so grounded in revered British traditions, that they ought to be mounted in a museum. Mazzini says nothing about the General’s surroundings, but he doesn’t need to, as the film’s set design says it all. The ritzy decor, obsequious waiters, and clusters of well-dressed old men are all hallmarks of the gentlemen’s clubs popular in Victorian England – establishments with class- and usually gender-restricted clientele. If it’s not obvious already, Kind Hearts and Coronets isn’t just about the killing off a single family, but about the slow death of an entire social system – a change which began around the turn of the 20th century, when the film is set, and is continuing even today.

This frame contains a caricature of social class and a historical moment, rendered comical through Guinness’s narcissistic monologue and silly-looking bald cap. Just like the General, Kind Hearts and Coronets is part of a long British tradition, one that runs from Punch to Monty Python and beyond: that of scathing satire. For beneath its veneer of sly dark comedy, it’s really a movie about violent sociopolitical revolution, and Louis Mazzini is really a lovable, self-motivated terrorist. It’s a funnier, transatlantic version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. And it couldn’t have happened without the understated genius of Alec Guinness.

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Asking and telling

I’ve got about an hour here to write, so likely as not this’ll be a fairly short post. I had some thoughts this morning I wanted to write about, based on some random Wikipedia reading. The category I ended up in was “Changing sexuality,” via Norma McCorvey (aka the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade), who declared that she was no longer a lesbian when she converted to Catholicism. This, in turn, led me into reading about the ex-gay movement, homophobia, AIDS, Ryan White, and a host of other sexuality-related topics, but mainly my thoughts were on this idea of changing sexuality; according to the category’s guidelines, it also includes articles about the potential fluidity of sexual orientation.

And I was talking to Ashley about how sexuality is such an interestingly important part of your life: it determines a lot about what (and who) you pursue, how others view you, etc., but it does not by itself define who you are. It’s one of many aspects of your identity. But everyone has a sexuality, even if they identify as asexual, since that’s a kind of sexuality, too. And so this big question is, how is it determined? Judging from the research done so far, it looks like it’s a complex convergence of many factors, genetic and environmental. And this makes me think about a lot of things: for example, consider typical homophobic retort that, oh, well, statistics show that homosexuals have more abusive relationships, more of them are drug addicts, more get AIDS, are promiscuous, blah blah blah, so therefore homosexuality is evil. And it’s such an ignorant claim because it seems to pretend that if we have two identical human beings, except that one is straight and the other is gay, and each of them grow up in a Skinner box, then solely because of this one difference, the gay one will go on to become an HIV-positive heroin addict who sleeps with a different man every night.

And of course this is total bullshit, because of environmental influences. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, but it just seems obvious that when you’re gay in a society (e.g., the U.S.) where your sexuality has been a mental illness, a crime, or both for all of history up until the last, say, 40-50 years (hell, Lawrence v. Texas was only in 2003!) – I mean, I think I’m understating when I say these are not exactly sterile laboratory conditions. There’s a huge albatross around the neck of every American (hell, every human being on earth, more or less); a huge shadow being cast by a long, long history of institutionalized homophobia.

I think a lot of the ignorance here follows the same logic as another easy example: let’s say that black, or hispanic, or Native American communities in major U.S. cities happen to have higher rates of crime and poverty than elsewhere. I’m not citing any statistics or claiming this as an absolute truth; this is just hypothetical. Is the answer clearly that they just don’t work as hard as white people, and they’re more inclined to crime? Or is there a slight chance that the centuries-long legacy of racism, and the subjugation of other races by whites, is coming into play in the present day (not to mention racism that persists, in part because people swallow such ridiculous fallacies)?

My point is that yes, each person is their own person and no, there are (duh) no inherent tendencies toward laziness, illiteracy, or violence in gays, blacks, etc., but the simple fact is that centuries of history are very difficult to undo, so of course society and the government still have lingering elements of racism and homophobia from all the years when these institutions fully endorsed all the hatred and ignorance. And so naturally this is going to have a negative effect on minorities, who start out at a disadvantage largely because of this historical baggage. Of course, this brings up yet another kettle of fish, but fuck it, that’s not what I’m here to discuss. My point was to touch on people misinterpreting the effects of institutionalized homophobia.

I’m reminded of the “Heterosexual Questionnaire,” a great little exercise we did in my intro WGST class. This kind of ties into Ashley’s “Corrective Rape” posts in that it’s another (albeit less horrifying) sign of the stupidity and intolerance that continue. And continue. And continue, to affect personal choices, policy decisions, and the way life is lived all over the world. To quote Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I just glanced over Wikipedia’s page on the inane “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy the U.S. military has had since 1993; interestingly, I just learned of Lt. Frederick Gotthold Enslin, who in 1778 was apparently given a dishonorable discharge for attempted sodomy. This is interesting to learn about, and I want to explore his life in greater detail at a later date, Internet research permitting. I’m also reminded of a video I watched for Digital Storytelling last spring called “Last Time“; here’s how I described it in my posting for the class.

It tells of a queer black woman’s decision to leave the military after attending a meeting discussing social justice issues. Feeling supported by a community, she is finally able to take a closer look and speak out about how those issues impact her life.

Human beings are so complicated, unpredictable, and dynamic; it really is just a shame on so many levels to put them (us?) into boxes. You are [attribute], therefore you [action] – like yesterday hearing the sentence, “But I thought women liked it when you’re sensitive…” to which I immediately replied, “Different women like different things.” Duh.

Tammy (Jessica Campbell) and Paul (Chris Klein) in Election

This subject ties in with a movie I wanted to mention briefly, Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy Election. It’s a really dead-on satire that brings to mind, one of my favorite books, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, which really deserves its own post. Like the book, Election is the story of a man (Matthew Broderick as a neurotic civics teacher) who watches as a quasi-sociopathic bundle of raw ambition (Reese Witherspoon as the pinch-faced, tight-strung high school student Tracy Flick) schemes and drives toward success… and eventually decides it’s time to put a wrench in the works. It’s a film built on strong characters – there’s the briefly appearing Dave Novotny, a teacher whose career and life are ruined by a dalliance with Tracy; Paul Metzler, an empty-headed jock who blithely runs against Tracy in the school election; and then there’s Paul’s anti-authoritarian sister Tammy, who ties the movie to the topic at hand. As Tammy claims early in the film (each of the four main characters get a chance to seize the POV and make their case),

It’s not like I’m a lesbian or anything. I’m attracted to the person. It’s just that all the people I’ve been attracted to happen to be girls.

And Tammy, played by Jessica Campbell as a braces-wearing anarchist, is a delightful presence in the film, as well as a small LGBT representation; her hilarious speech to the student body (“Or don’t vote for me… who cares? Don’t vote at all!”) even caused Witherspoon to initially pursue her role. Ultimately, Tammy gets exactly what she wants (even if it does inadvertently fuck things up for other people), and it’s a very satisfying turn of events. I really liked Election, and I recommend it; it’s got great interplay between well-defined, dysfunctional characters and makes a droll statement on the nature of ambition.

That quote from the movie also makes me think a little more about the stigma against the word “lesbian” itself. Ashley and I use both it and the word “dyke” in a totally neutral, descriptive sense, and I think it’s disgusting that schoolchildren still use it along with gay, homo, etc. as an insult. As I once noted: the word lesbian, besides being just fun to say, is derived from a gorgeous Mediterranean island that was home to a great ancient poetess. It’s also the location of Mt. Olympus, the dwelling place of the Greek gods. What better images could a word conjure up than the sun striking the blue waves as a mountain towers over trees that line the coast? I seriously think lesbian should be used as a compliment.

Mt. Olympus on the isle of Lesbos


Filed under Cinema, Politics, Sexuality