Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Coen Brothers and "The Hatchet Man"

The Coen Brothers make "interesting" movies (Chinese curse:  "May you live in interesting times).  Their movies are well made, visually striking, and I find them sterile.  There is little real warmth to their movies.  They sort of treat human beings as quirky (another given in a Coen brothers movie) bugs to be examined under a microscope.  A case in point is "Fargo."  I have not seen the Coen brothers movie that won best picture (as Hollywood divides furteher and further from most of the American people), but my daughter saw it.  It sounds like a typical, "interesting" Coen brothers movie.  You (at least I) just can't ENJOY a Coen Brothers movie.  Nor do the movies have much of a point to them, because the style just overwhelms any real storytelling.  You may well think a Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing (I thought so with "Fargo"), but their movies are just too cold and sterile to be really enjoyed by most people.

This brings me to "The Hatchet Man."  That could well be the title of the next Coen Brothers movie.  In fact, it could be a Coen Brothers movie, if both the emotional power and melodrama were removed from it.  The movie, made in the 1930's, has a Coen Brothers plot, but shows the difference between Hollywood then and Hollywood now. 

I just saw "The Hatchet Man" (which I recorded off of Turner Classic Movies). It is about a "hatchet man" for a Chinese tong in early San Francisco.   The story is all about those "old fashioned" things like honor, dutry, right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral:  You know, the kind of thing Hollywood is not interested in anymore in its passion for quirky "style" and political correctness--not to mention special effects.   The hatchet man is forced to execute his best friend.  That best friend gives the hatchet man all of his assets in his will, and also gives his daughter--not onl to be reaised, but in marriage when she becomes of age. 

Fast forward.  Times change.  The hatchet man puts up his hatchet.  The old ways are gone, in his view.  No longer are women's feet bound.   He insists that his ward make up her own mind about the marriage, rather than follow the old Chinese way of obeying her parents.  The daughter supposedly consents willingly to the marriage, but promptly falls prey to the modern urge for excitement--as she falls for a younger hoodlum.  In the hands of the Coen Brothers, this would be a sylistic examination of alienation and despair.  In the hands of the old Hollywood (albeit pre-Code, where adultery was a subject treated openly), this was basically a melodramatic morality play.  I assure you:  old Hollywood was better.  I found "The Hatchet Man"--crudely made in many ways and with enormous flaws--a more enjoyable piece of hokum to watch than "Fargo".

Did I mention that the CHINESE tong hatcet man was played by Edward G. Robinson?  No, even Edward G. Robinson could not sell that he was Chinese.  He didn't really try.  He tried, rather, to show a character who tried to embrace "change", while never abandoning the old values that he retained underneath.  In its own way, "The Hatchet Man" exposes the FRAUD that is Barack Obama.  If you believe in change and excitement merely for the sake of change and excitement, then you believe in nothing.  As usual, Robinson gives an extraordinary performance, even while failing to do the impossible (convince you he was Chinese).

Then there was Loretta Young, totally miscast as the CHINESE daughter betrothed as a child, by her father, to the Robinson character.  Loretta Young could not make you forget for a moment that she was not Chinese, and brought nothing to the role.  A later Young movie, "The Farmer's Daughter", was to prove that Hollywood could make a better FEMINIST movie in the 1940's than it can make today, and a better movie about corruption in politics and political campaigns.

Was this RACISM by old Hollywood?  That is looking at it wrongly.  The movie was NOT racist.  The movie was sympathetic to traditional Chinese values (Hollywood's view of them).  Contrary to the modern, simplistic view, it is NOT racist to have a non-Asian play an Asian. It is just disconcerting, and distracting to the viewer.  You KNOW Edward G. Robinson is not Chinese.  It is a tribute to his talent that he probably made this movie better than any Chinese actor would have.  The casting was, of course, BOX OFFICE stuff--although racist in a more subtle sense.  Yes, the failure to cast Asians in Asian roles (although there are real oreientals in the movie) was a form of racism in HIRING--in refusing to give equal opportunity to enthnic and racial minorities.

Look how bad the trade off is.  Hollywood now is supposedly "enlightened", and we would surely not get an actor like Edward G. Robinson in a clearly Chinese role (although Hollywood might figure out how to get Tom Cruise, for example, ADOPTED into a Chinese family).  Instead, we are stuck with political correctness run amok, and a total lack of storytelling ablility in favor of style and special effects.  It makes you wish fervently for the good old days--just slightly modernized without having lost the "old values".   In other words, like most successful morality plays, "The Hatchet Man" applies in many different contexts.  It applies to the Barack Obama "message" that change is needed for the sake of change--that style and excitement are their own reward, even if there is no substance underneath.  It applies to Hollywood itself, where change has meant losing its soul, even as the techniques available to movie makers have advanced unimaginably.  As Edward G. Robinson had to return to his fundamental values, maybe bouth Hollywood and this country should follow his example.  But I forget.  "The Hatchet Man" was made in the 1930's in a politically incorrect way.  It could therefore not have any lessons for us, could it?

The question of casting is interesting.  Is there anything wrong, for example, in an Englishmean, like Sean Connery, playing a Russian?  A Puero Rican playing a Mexican?  An American playing a German?  I think that the answer is:  obviously not.  The problem with a black actor playing George Washington, or a "white" actor playing a Chinese, is that it is DISTRACTING.  It makes it hard to suspend disbelief.  It is NOT automatically racist (although it MAY indicate racism in hiring certain kinds of actors in general).  It is a matter of CASTING.  Actors which obviously do not fit their roles are MISCAST,  In "The Hatchet Man", it is hard to say whether Edward G. Robinson is really miscast. You don't believe him as a Chinese, but he brings so much to the role (as he struggles with his various moral dilemmas in the movie) that it may have been worth it.  It may be a sign of our ultimate progress in getting past surface characteristics if we stop noticiing whether the actor or actress is of the right "race" to play a role.  Plua, if you have no American Indians (for example) really available (and qualified) to play Geronimo, you might be forced to cast someone else.  There is nothing that says an actor playhing an Apache has to be an Apache, just like there is nothing that says an actor playing a Russian has to be Russian. The question is MUCH more complex than today's "political correctness" would have you believe.  I repeat:  For purposes of a MOVIE, it is not a matter of racims but a matter of believable CASTING.

You coould regard this movie as anti-feminist.  Turner Classic movies did a really stupid "documentary", with Jane Fonda narrating", which totally misrepresented the way the Hollywood Production Code suppressed women (just as Turner Classic Movies had a really stupid, politically correct, series about how gays have been misportrayed in movies).  Isn't it ironic how Turner Classic Movies has bought into some of the very things that are KILLING Hollywood, and the old movie making values celebrated on Turner Classic Movies?   The Loretta Young character gets PUNISHED for leaving her husband, and disobeying her father's wishes. 

If you look at this as an anti-feminist message, then you have no chance of understanding the dark side of feminism (much less why modern movies are generally not worth watching),.  Are honor and honesty anti-feminist?  Does feminism mean that women have a "right" to pursue excitement, and their own fleeting desires, above all else?   There are obviously a lot of things wrong with "bound feet" to keep women in their place,  but does that mean all of the "old values" are worng?

I agree that this is a lot to hang on an obscure movie that many people today would h ave no patience for.  To me, however, the movie struck a cord.  I think it symolizes pretty well where Hollywood has gone wrong--no longer "binding the feet of women", but discarding all of the GOOD old storytelling values at the same time.

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