WHAT MASIE KNEW, THE EAST and HANNAH ARENDT



What Maisie Knew is the lovely, at times magical, even transcendental, new movie directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, written by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright.  The description might seem a little odd, even ironical, since the movie is a study of a vicious and acrimonious divorce by two people who would feel right at home in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
What Maisie Knew is Kramer v. Kramer as seen from the eyes of the true victim in stories like this, the child.  Maisie is still in pre-school.  She’s old enough to know that something is going on, but not old enough to know exactly what it means.  Hence, she spends most of her time playing her reactive role with all the cuteness and charm the directors can get out of her.   Maisie’s parents divorce and then each remarry.  But they don’t remarry because they’re in love or want a relationship—they remarry in order to gain the upper hand in a custody battle.  Not only that, they each marry someone younger than they are with what seems to be the express purpose of having a live in babysitter.  If it weren’t so damn serious, it would be a comedy; but it’s not. It’s just sad and pathetic. 
But Maisie is a lucky little girl.   Her situation is terrible, but in the two people that her parents marry, she finds a loving couple who are willing to put Maisie first.  Another of the ironies here is that her “babysitters” are better parents than her parents are.      And she has a happy ending.  I’m a little ambivalent about that, if truth be told.   It’s straight out of Kramer v. Kramer and I Am Sam, both of which had resolutions that grew out of sentimentality and wanting to please the audience; as a result, neither were remotely believable or satisfying.   And the ending of What Maisie Knew also seems a little pat and formulaic (the ending in the book by Henry James—yes, this is an adaptation of a novel by that Henry James, one of the more original adaptations of a Victorian novel, if nothing else—and the characters of the “babysitters” are handled differently).  At the same time, I think What Maisie Knew comes much closer to earning its fairy tale ending than those earlier child custody films.   And one just sighs with relief as the credits come up.
The actors are made up of a cry of players who handle their parts with great skill.  Julianne Moore as Maisie’s mother plays the character given the least sympathy, the working woman who is neurotic and unhappy because she is a working woman; but she gives a marvelous performance nonetheless.  Steve Coogan demonstrates that he can play drama as well as comedy with ease.  Joanne Vanderham plays the new wife of Coogan’s character (Maisie’s governess) and has one of those accents where you never want her to stop talking.  Alexander Skarsgard makes good use of his gangly body, awkward teeth, and goofy looks as the person who can relate to Maisie on her own terms since he is basically a child in a man’s body.   And Onata Aprile is Shirley Temple ingratiating as the long suffering Maisie. 
Early on in the movie The East, Patricia Clarkson, who plays the boss of the central character, Sarah, says something to the effect that Sarah reminds her of her when she was young.  At this point, I thought, “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”.  And it was as The East quickly became a rollercoaster of clichés and formulaic, second hand plot turns. 
Sarah is played by Brit Marling and in many ways, she has done something of genius.  Not getting the parts she wanted in movies, or parts she felt were worthy of her, she decided to write her own parts and produce her own movies.  The result was the highly imaginative and deeply moving Another Earth.  Since then, she has made two other films in this manner, Sound of My Voice and now The East, neither of which have apparently risen to her debut attempt.  This really isn’t all that unusual.  Someone once said that everybody has at least one story in them.   I would hate to think this is true of Marling, not after Another Earth, but to be ruthlessly honest, the omens are not favorable at this point.
Sarah is an up and coming, hungry to prove herself, agent at a private intelligence firm.  She is to infiltrate a group of eco terrorists.  Two things happen that always happen in movies driven by formula and cliché.  First, Sarah becomes empathetic to the terrorists’ cause.  But second, and even worse (because it’s the most insulting cliché of all), since she’s a woman doing a man’s job, she has to find herself romantically conflicted as well.   I told you it was a bumpy ride.
The strongest aspect of the films are the jams (what the terrorists call their missions), attacks that are ironic in the way they go after their target (the first is to take an anti-toxin with deadly side affects and slip it into the champagne at a party by the manufacturers in order to give them a…wait for it…taste of their own medicine).  There is something clever, if not straight out poetic, about these attacks on the 1%, and they’re directed as if they were in a Hitchcock film.  And the general background of eco-terrorism has a certain feeling of realism to it.  But what seems strange is that if that much thought was given to this part of the film, why couldn’t as much thought be given to character, dialog and plot?
The supporting characters are played by talented actors like Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard.  But you leave wondering why they took such flat, expendable and unchallenging rolls in a small independent like this.  Even worse, almost all the actors have to at one point give that speech, you know the one, about what drove them to do what they are doing, invariably reducing their motivations to pop psychology.  Page has an especially painful one to sit through where she emotes that her reasons for becoming a terrorist was not to save the environment, but because she has daddy issues.
What started as a story about eco-terrorism and big brother spying at the end becomes a love story, and not a particularly convincing one at that.  Even worse, there’s a coda during the credits where Sarah is shown going off and changing the minds of all her fellow agents.  It’s ridiculous and preposterous.  If you see the movie, be sure you keep that seatbelt on until the very end. 
Hannah Arendt is a biopic of the Jewish German philosopher who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel for the magazine The New Yorker.   Like so often happens when someone writes a lengthy and intensive article about a sensational subject, it’s usually only one or two small sections that get focused on once it is published.  For Arendt, it was a suggestion that Eichmann had no real feeling about Jews, was not exactly anti-semitic, but was only following orders; and that Jewish leaders, by helping organize their people, contributed to the number of deaths, whereas if they hadn’t cooperated at all, far fewer people would have died.   In many ways, her most memorable contribution to the subject of Nazism and the Holocaust is the idea that Eichmann’s attitude (that he was no more than a petty bureaucrat and that he was not in many ways essentially evil, but was just doing his job), is a reflection of the idea of the “banality of evil”, controversial at the time, but now commonly accepted. 
In talking about the movie, there are two aspects to be covered.  One is the aesthetics of the film, i.e., just how good it is as a movie.  Another is the ideas it tries to communicate.  On the first, the movie is perfectly all right and gets the job done.  It’s not much more than that, and in some areas, a little worse.  The strongest aspects of the film are whenever it focuses on Germans when they are speaking German.  Whenever there are Americans speaking English, the movie becomes clunky and sometimes almost surreal.
The film is directed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of the filmmakers who contributed to the German new wave of the 1970’s (which also gave us Herzog, Fassbender, and Wenders), and written by von Trotta and Pam Katz, and it’s possible they just weren’t that comfortable when it came to the scenes with the American characters.  Everything that happens in the U.S. feels forced, with the actors’ emotions pushed just a little too much.  Almost no non-German actor seems comfortable in their roles, with line readings that feel a little faked, as if they were dubbed.   Even an actress as talented as Janet McTeer, who plays author Mary McCarthy, can’t seem to overcome a certain awkwardness to her scenes.  In fact, only Nicholas Woodeson, as New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, looks relaxed in his role, giving the exact amount of restraint to be convincing.   
Barbara Sukowa as Hannah, though, tears into the part with a fury.  She fully invests in the role and is at times mesmerizing and charismatic, even when the philosophical arguments go over one’s head.  Sukowa has been in many a von Trotta film from the early years and hopefully this collaboration will continue.
When it comes to the themes of the movie, the ideas of Hannah Arendt, I and my friend had a very intense discussion afterwards, so if nothing else, the movie is intellectually stimulating.  We both questioned some of the Arendt’s conclusions (that it’s a fact, not an opinion, that the Jewish leaders only helped enlarge the number of Jews that died—how could anyone know that for a fact; and that Eichmann was only a petty bureaucrat—well, as any of us who have dealt with bureaucrats know that, petty or otherwise, there are ones who do nothing; there are ones who do their job and no more; and there are those who go at it with a vengeance, going way beyond their job description, which seems to be the category Eichmann fell into, something Arendt doesn’t seem to recognize). 
But what really struck me is that, as her critics suggested (at least to me in the audience), she wrote her article without any concern about the consequences of it.  Even she basically admits that.  She’s a philosopher and, as such, all that matters is her ideas and being honest about them.  In fact, from her perspective, it wasn’t her place to worry about anything else.  She was just doing her job.  But isn’t that the excuse Eichmann used?   
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