We continue the 1995 Project with three very different movies with a couple of common characteristics. Two of these were amongst Roger Ebert’s favorites of the year. And two of these connect by virtue of being very much preoccupied by the value of masculinity.
Rob Roy (directed by Michael Caton-Jones)
There must have been something in the mid-nineties air that inspired two movies about Romantic Scottish Masculinity. The more popular one went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (and a directing one for Mel Gibson), but ‘Rob Roy’ came into theaters about a month earlier, and while not nearly as successful (in terms of commercial success or cultural ubiquity), it was preferred by many critics, especially Roger Ebert who was really into it and named it one of the best movies of the year. Ebert was particularly enchanted by the movie’s classical nature. While ‘Braveheart‘ redefined the historical epic by adopting contemporary blockbuster sensibilities in the sweeping armies of its action sequences, ‘Rob Roy’ is unashamedly old-fashioned and reserves its fights to “official” duels and chase sequences. It is based on the Romantic novel by Sir Walter Scott, and it very much plays like a classic Hollywood melodrama (albeit a little more graphic than the Hayes code would’ve allowed).
To me, ‘Rob Roy’ is a fine movie. It falls pretty comfortably into the Romantic adventures of the early nineties: a late relative to ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves‘ and ‘The Last of the Mohicans‘. And while it might not have been as colossally influential as ‘Braveheart’, there are two very memorable things about it. The first is its magnificent action choreography, especially in the climactic duel between Rob (Liam Neeson) and the evil Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). It is quite a sequence, and by far the most memorable part of the movie. It is a testament to William Hobbs’ choreography that such a stage-bound moment as this duel can be so thrilling. It is also probably one of the most “authentic” versions of sword-fighting ever put on film. It takes into consideration the dance element of a fencing battle, the strategic element, and the uncertainty of charging towards someone who might kill you in the next few seconds. There is no score during the sequence, just the sound of two swords clashing.
The second most memorable element of ‘Rob Roy’ is Tim Roth’s Oscar-nominated performance as Archibald Cunningham. Thrown around by many as one of the best villains of the nineties, he is certainly one of the most despicable ones. Unlike the rough Scottish warriors of Rob Roy’s clan, Cunningham is a refined aristocratic Englishman. Underestimated due to his mannerisms, he proves early on to be a deadly fighter, and later, to be a heartless human. If we want to keep comparing the movie to ‘Braveheart’, then Cunningham is the equivalent to that movie’s Edward II. An effeminate nobleman villain. Only the big difference comes in the fact that Cunningham’s gender deviancy doesn’t prevent him from being a fantastic fighter. He is still a villain that -as was largely the case at this time in Hollywood cinema- equates queerness with evil. Manliness and honor are equated in the movie’s portrayal of Rob Roy, while queerness and evil scheming are the main traits of Cunningham. At the very least, ‘Rob Roy’ has the decency of making Cunningham a worthy adversary.
Friday (directed by F. Gary Gray)
Oh, man. On the one hand, we don’t have nearly enough movies that try to interlace the the archetypes, stereotypes, and realities of black life in America the way ‘Friday’ does. The thing it reminded me of the most was Chris Rock’s wonderful sitcom ‘Everybody Hates Chris‘, which presented a delightful bend on the nostalgia of shows like ‘The Wonder Years‘. ‘Friday’ is not nearly as insightful a document of growing up in a black neighborhood as ‘Everybody Hates Chris’, but it at least has some pretty funny moments in it. I, of course, can’t speak to what life in the “hood” is like, so I will just say that whatever experience F. Gary Grey, Ice Cube, and DJ Pooh are presenting me with, seems to be coming from a personal and accurate place… which makes it all the more disappointing that ‘Friday’s view of the world is as fucked up as it is.
Ice Cube is credited as a co-writer in this movie, and he decides to use his memories and experiences in the “hood” to make a movie that ends up being little more than just another plain male fantasy. He also wrote himself quite a terrible role. Craig Jones is one of the most boring and uninteresting protagonists I have ever encountered. Ice Cube has gone on to be a pretty entertaining screen presence, but at this early stage of his career, he doesn’t seem to be able to transcend the trappings of his own script. Craig is nothing more than the hetero-normative hero of this story. He is the “ideal” black man, and not in a satyrical kind of way. Almost everyone around him is in one way or another a satire on certain black stereotypes, but the creative team behind this movie is dead-serious about Craig’s journey towards heroism. He is the manly man. He doesn’t make jokes, he takes things seriously, he listens to the advice given to him by his elders. He becomes a hero when he defends a female and stands up to Deebo, the neighborhood bully.
So, Craig is a boring character that sports the kind of masculine ideal that drains the life out of me. Usually, when you have such a lame protagonist, you get some life energy out of the cooky supporting cast. This movie has Chris Tucker’s breakout performance as Smokey (and if the character has problems, they are obliterated by Tucker’s unbounded energy), but the movie’s depiction of the rest of the people in the neighborhood is where it all starts to go sour. I don’t know how this played back in ’95, but in 2015, I can’t look past its oppressive masculinity. Examples: The weak guy who isn’t only weak, but dumb, and can’t do anything about their problems except cry in their cars; it’s up to Craig to solve their problems. A small guy (obviously) can’t satisfy his wife, so she cheats on him with the pastor. Craig’s “girlfriend” is annoying and shrill, and in case we didn’t know she is a slut, we will be told so by the lyrics of the music that plays in the background every time she is onscreen. And the most horrible of all, the girl who is mocked, shamed, and rejected as a Romantic partner because she is fat. I don’t know about you, but I can’t sympathize with a charisma vacuum when his worldview is this despicable.
My Family (directed by Gregory Nava)
‘My Family’, credited within the movie as ‘My Family/mi familia’, is so hard to find I had to watch a VHS copy of it. But I wasn’t just not going to try to watch this movie, which was praised by -you guessed it- Roger Ebert as one of the best movies of 1995. What we have here is a very personal entry in the canon of director Gregory Nava (Oscar-nominated for his breakthrough El Norte and most famous for directing Selena and writing Frida). ‘My Family’ was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and Ebert name checked ‘The Godfather‘ saga when singing the praises of this movie. Only, instead of looking at the saga of American history through the prism of an Italian-American family, Nava looks at the history of 20th Century America through the prism of a Mexican-American family.
In many ways, that is quite an accurate comparison. There is the obvious element of the movie spanning a large amount of time in the history of a family that, despite coming from a minoritized background, ends up representing the archetypical nature of the American family and the pursuit of the American dream. Going even further, ‘My Family’ takes on the stereotypical views of Latino immigrants the way ‘The Godfather’ looked at and tried to subvert the nature of Italian American families by engaging in the cliched association of Italian American with organized crime. In Nava’s case, the director seems to be playing off of the family-saga Latin American narratives that became popularly acclaimed in the mid-twentieth century. The story never goes fully into the realm of magical realism, but the the narrator tells us the story of his family in a whimsically romantic way that resembles the prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and those who followed in his style. Unlike ‘The Godfather’, the story of the Sanchez family is a more optimistic one. When one of the oldest members of the family dies, his tombstone reads something along the lines of: “I was born here when this (California) was Mexico. And as I die, it is still Mexico.” This land is the Sanchez’s family to take. The dream of America is their promise.
I don’t know about you, but to me, this sounds like an ambitious and exciting idea, and I was particularly saddened to know that such a project got as little attention as it did upon release. After watching the movie, however, I can’t deny that it is a largely underwhelming experience. The movie comes from an undoubtedly earnest and sincere place, but it is bogged down by its own grandeur, and its excitement to be representing the Latino struggle over the decades. Most of what we learn about the characters and their situation is through narration, and there are so many of them that we can barely identify with them before we’re on to the next moment. It was actually this affinity for literary devices that made me think of the movie trying to be a cinematic equivalent of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude‘ (largely accepted as the text that represents the definitive Latin America saga). Case in point, the best parts of the movie come later on, when it focuses on an immigration-related matrimony and lets the characters connect to each other on their own terms. It’s a noble project, but one that forgot it was a movie.