Smoking in Black and White

As the holidays pass, life returns to normal. I even managed to get out and see some movies.

And one of them challenged a long-cherished belief. Good Night, and Good Luck. (the comma and period are part of the title) is based on well-documented historical events, and it follows those events””as near as I can tell””with rigorous accuracy. And in spite of this accuracy, it’s a terrific film.

I’ve always held that, without significant tampering, good history makes lousy drama. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “God never wrote a good play in his life.” Yet here is a film that follows the actual events in the order they took place, often with the actual words, and it works.

By now you probably know that Good Night, and Good Luck. is about the legendary early television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), and his run-in with Senator Joseph McCarthy (Senator Joseph McCarthy). And that’s all the movie is about. We don’t meet Murrow’s family, we don’t see his home. The only personal lives we intrude upon are a couple of minor characters, Joe and Shirley Wershba, who must hide their marriage from fellow employees. Not coincidentally, the Wershbas are credited as consultants.

Of course the film is extremely timely these days. When elected officials like Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) call McCarthy a “hero for America,” it’s important to see just what is “heroic” about him.

Although set in the 1950’s, Good Night, and Good Luck. has the feel of a movie from the “˜40s. It’s not just the black and white photography; it’s the smoking. I haven’t seen that much cigarette smoke since I was in Germany. I hate it in real life, but there’s something romantic and sophisticated about smoking in black and white””even if it killed Humphrey Bogart; and Edward R. Murrow.

Warning: At least one of the following films contains black and white smoking.

Recommended: The 40 Year Old Virgin, Parkway, ongoing; Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. This is a perfect date movie””provided the relationship has progressed past initial awkwardness. Steve Carell stars as the man who’s learned to live with his limited experience, even if his friends are determined to get him laid. The wonderful supporting cast include Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, and the always-wonderful Catherine Keener. Carell co-authored the screenplay with director Judd Apatow. Good clean, dirty fun that earns its R rating the old-fashioned way, with sex.

Recommended: The Aristocrats, Roxie and Parkway, ongoing. “A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says “˜Have I got an act for you.'” Thus begins an old joke that professional comics never tell audiences but love to tell each other. But what goes between that opening and the punch line differs with every telling, and often includes incest, bestiality, scatological acrobatics, and stuff that’s really disgusting. But as famous comics retell the joke, you laugh more than you cringe. And as they discuss the art of telling it, you learn something about how humor is fashioned.

Noteworthy: Berkeley Video & Film Festival, Â Oaks Theater, Friday through Sunday. This is a different sort of festival. You don’t pay for one feature or a handful of shorts, but for a five-hour marathon of long and short movies. There are five such marathons, each with a different set of movies, over the course of the weekend.

Recommended: A History of Violence, 4 Star, opening Friday. David Cronenberg has turned what could have been a conventional Hitchcockian thriller into a meditation on the nature, the lure, and the destructiveness of violence. Viggo Mortensen goes way beyond Aragorn as a small-town family man who kills two thugs in self-defense, then finds gangsters at his door who think that he’s one of them. The violence is both visually gruesome (this is Cronenberg, after all) and emotionally harrowing. Life doesn’t return to normal just because you’ve killed all the bad guys. But on one level, it’s still Hollywood: The good guys are impossibly talented fighters. But that’s okay; the movie would be unbearable without that one bit of fantasy.

Recommended: Nosferatu, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The first (and unauthorized) film version of Dracula, and you can forget about sexy vampires here. Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (renamed in a failed attempt to avoid lawsuits) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. This silent film will be accompanied by Molly Axtmann at the piano, Rachael Durling on violin, Rem Djemilev on viola, and David Brin on cello.

Recommended: Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, Oaks Theater, Berkeley, approximately 4:06. One documentary, four stories of Native Americans fighting to protect their environmentally-threatened reservations. One of the stories deals with the same caribou/Alaskan oil drilling issue that’s at the heart of Being Caribou, but this time, they got it right. Emotional and compelling, this is what an activist, political/environmental documentary ought to be. Part of the Berkeley Video & Film Festival, Homeland will be shown near the end of a marathon screening that starts at 1:00.

Recommended: Casablanca, Parkway, Thursday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or you know that you should. Let me just say that no one who worked on it thought they were making a masterpiece. It was supposed to be just another movie coming off the Warner’s assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. A benefit for the San Antonio Community Development Corp, the Parkway is encouraging people to come in appropriate 40’s costumes.