Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Orfeo, by Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo (Norton, 2014) is about a dissatisfied man at the end of his life looking back at everything he has done wrong, and everything he has failed to achieve.  It is about a man coming to terms with the outline of his failures, trying to make amends to the people he once loved, trying to come to terms with mortality.  The often elegiac tone of retrospection that governs the novel, especially as composer Peter Els flees across the country, first visiting his former wife, then his friend Richard, and finally his daughter Sara, infuses the narrative with emotional power.  Although the details of my life are quite different from those of Els, I identified with him and found the novel, as a result, both moving and depressing.  I also found it to be a very fine work.

Orfeo fuses the story of a failed composer of modern classical music with bio-terrorism. Powers makes this improbable combination work.

Powers employs an indirect form of first-person narration in this novel.  The main character Peter Els does not tell the story himself. Powers as author, or implied author (to use an archaism), narrates through him, conveying speech and thought, all placed in the context not merely of Els’ life but of the history of the moment.  The reader therefore experiences the drama indirectly, rather than directly.  There are benefits to this method, and challenges.  Such narration can become tedious, and at times the reader may feel as if he is being guided too forcibly towards whatever end the author wants to achieve.  I felt pushed along in Orfeo.  At moments, when Powers is describing what is going through Els’ mind as he listens to a particular work of music, murky confusion results.  On the other hand, I won’t complain too much. 

Els doesn’t have a strong personality.  He doesn’t exude much personal force.  He is more often driven along by the women he loves, by his friend Richard, by the musical calling he would like to follow, by musical trends he doesn’t like but feels compelled to follow.  He drifts into marriage and then out of it, hardly aware of what has happened.  He’s out of tune with his age.  He sees music as a transformative force.  He believes in melody at a time when modern music is becoming increasingly avant garde, directed not so much at an audience as at the artistic inclinations of the composer.  (John Cage appears as a minor character).  Els wants to compose music that people admire and listen to, but the music he wants to write is not the kind of music he feels obligated to write.

It seems likely that some of Els’ work is good. But his passive, reticent nature prevents him from receiving more attention or pursuing a serious career.  The opera he composes at the instigation of his friend Richard Bonner receives a strong positive reaction from the audience, but Els is so worried that people will think that its concern with a 17th-century rebellion will be confused with the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas (which has just happened when the opera premieres), that he refuses to allow it to be produced again.  Yet people do know about him, he has a small following, and he works successfully as an adjunct teacher of composition at a small liberal arts college

In the present time of the novel Els is 70 years old.  He has been retired for several years, still teaches on an occasional basis, not composing very often.  He has become interested in biological engineering.  With the proper expertise and equipment (most of which can be bought in surplus form online or at hobbyist stores), amateur self-trained scientists can perform fairly sophisticated work in their own living rooms.  Hence the reasonable fear by government security agencies of biological terrorism by individuals who brew up toxins or biological agents at home and release them to the public.  This is not what Els is doing.  He is attempting to discover whether he can imbed the notes of a musical composition into the DNA strands of a non-lethal microorganism and then release it into the world.  He would then at least have the audience (unknowing audience) that he has longed for.  When Homeland Security agents mistake his experimental work for that of a biological terrorist, they raid his house, and instead of explaining himself, he flees.  He flees throughout the novel.

Powers uses historical markers to ground the narrative in the last half of the 20th century—Els’ opera premieres immediately after the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas in 1993, for instance.  Sometimes these references are important to the story, as in this case, but sometimes they can seem gratuitous.

Els is often listening to or thinking about music during the novel.  Music is how he experiences and measures his life.  I found the treatment of music in this novel particularly exciting.  Orfeo was an intense and affecting experience, one that kept me up reading late into the night.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974) gives the most intense, striking descriptions of battle I have encountered.  He strips battle of hackneyed stereotypes and shows it as a complex, intricate series of human actions, some carried out by design, some the result of necessity, some of chance.

Although the novel is about the three-day long Battle of Gettysburg, the most important battle of the Civil War, it is largely devoid of partisanship.  Shaara makes us aware of the reasons why soldiers on both sides of the battle are fighting (why they think they are fighting), but he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the evils of slavery, the impracticalities of a particular world view.  He does a good job of contrasting the habits and cultural disposition of both sides, but again without an underlying bias. I don’t view this as an assertion that both sides occupy equivalent moral positions.  Rather I see it as a reflection of the historical moment—what matters in the battle is not the right or wrong position each side is defending, but the battle itself, the prospect of death.

The novel is about battle, about the fury of battle.  The ideological and political conflicts that lead to Gettysburg, the reasons why it may be the turning point in the war, and in the history of the nation, are secondary or even tertiary to the battle itself.

The novel is structured around the three day-long span of the Battle of Gettysburg and around the officers who lead the armies on both sides.  Various figures emerge, often colorfully (Pickett and Stuart), but the two main characters are General James Longstreet on the Confederate side and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on the Northern side.  Chamberlain becomes an unlikely hero during the defense of Little Round Top more out of panic and necessity than anything else, but the experience transforms him and determines the rest of his life.  Longstreet, who for me was the most interesting and developed character in the novel, was a deeply introspective and rational man who believes that Lee’s plans to undertake a full frontal assault on Pickett Hill on the battle’s third day will fail and that the Southern army will be wiped out.  He urges Lee to change his plans, but Lee is resolute.  Longstreet follows Lee’s plan anyway, because of his loyalty to the general and because as a military officer he regards it as his duty to comply with his commanding officer’s orders.  But the failure of the Southern efforts in the battle leave him scarred and full of guilt, and destroys his close friendship with Lee, whose miscalculations the novel seems to suggest lead to defeat.

The main characters in this novel are generals and colonels and other officers who sent thousands of men into battle.  Although some of these officers die, most stand back and watch the battle develop—Lee, Longstreet, and others.  They feel responsible for what happens, but they survive.  The thousands of anonymous soldiers killed and wounded in the battle are acknowledged in the novel, but they remain mostly faceless.  What makes Chamberlain significant is that he actually fought.


City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt

In the closing pages of City of Falling Angels (Penguin Press, 2005) John Berendt writes that “I knew that in Venice I had been told truths, half-truths, and outright lies, and I was never entirely sure which was which.” The narrative begins in 1996, with Berendt’s arrival in Venice, around the time of the burning of the famous La Fenice opera house.  Berendt gives to this calamity a treatment similar to the one he gave to the murder of a male prostitute by an antiques dealer in Midnight in the Garden of Evil (1994).  What we got in that book was a cultural and social study of Savannah and its history.  What we get in this more recent book is the political, social, and cultural history of Venice, with special attention paid to leading citizens of the day, both Venetian and American.  The question at the center of the story is why did La Fenice burn.  Considering that question, Berendt engages in 400 pages of history, commentary, speculation, rumor, gossip, and hypothesis about leading citizens of the city, and about the wealthy Americans who set as their goal saving the city and its cultural attractions.  Someone tells Berendt early in the book that when a Venetian makes a statement, he really means the opposite of what he says.  He never quite loses sight of that observation, reminding us of it occasionally as he recounts his meetings and interviews with various people implicated in the burning, or trying to rebuild the opera house, or simply interested in the story.  His account of infighting among a group of wealthy Americans called “Save Venice” is particularly entertaining.  For those who enjoy listening to people talk and gossip about each other behind their backs, this book will be of interest.  Berendt must be an affable, sociable man who likes to hear people talk, and he puts his skills effectively to use in this book.

The Trip

In The Trip (2010; dir. Michael Winterbottom) two moderately well known British comedians travel around together in northern England sampling the food at various hotels and restaurants.  They try to outdo one another with impersonations and jokes and heartfelt testimonials.  Playing fictional versions of themselves, Steve Dougan and Rob Brydon are amusing for long stretches, and then tiresome.  The film is entertaining, but not enough so to justify the sequel currently in theatres, A Trip to Italy.  What we really have here is a study of two men in middle age.  One is having difficulties with his girlfriend, who was supposed to be along for the journey but who declined to go along at the last minute.  Work is her excuse.  He invites Brydon in her place, oddly, both since he is a man and since they don’t get along that well, at least not initially.  Gradually they bond.  They have several adventures, and then they return home.  The film is mostly formless, its episodic shape dictated by the roads the two men travel, the hotels they stay in, villages they visit, people they meet.  It’s is based on a nine-hour British television series, edited down to the 107-minute length of the film.  Ninety minutes would have been preferable.  The underlying premise is that these two actors are likeable blokes and that we’ll enjoy their company, on screen at least.  In fact, I found them tedious, clueless (especially the man whose girlfriend didn’t come along).  Some view this sort of humor as sophisticated and diverting.  It’s really rather weak-minded.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Babadook

In The Babadook (2014; dir. Jennifer Kent) a supernatural entity from a child’s picture book terrorizes a mother and her young son.  The film follows a typical formula: small events lead to larger ones, and finally a climactic moment.  The Babadook itself never directly appears—we hear its voice (repeating the words “Babadook”) and see its shadow, or the outline of its form.  Although the film was shot in color, you cannot tell.  It might as well be in black and white, and murky low-light black and white at that.  The lights often go out in the young mother’s apartment, but even when they are on I wanted her to turn on more lights.  The darkness supposedly contributes to the atmosphere of doubt and confusion and uncertainty but mostly it makes for irritation.

The interesting core of this film is the mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her child Robbie (Daniel Henshall).  Amelia’s husband was apparently killed seven years before the time of the action in a car wreck as he drove her to the hospital to have their son.  She lives her entire life in the remembered shadow of that event and associates her son with her husband’s death.  She’s lonely, sexually deprived, and overwhelmed both by her desire to care for Robbie and her sense that he is suffocating her.  She is both loving and hateful to him, at times abusive.  In one scene she tries to strangle him.  He probably suffers from autism or Asperger’s syndrome.  At any rate, he has serious behavioral problems and is demanding and clingy.  He loves his mother in an obsessive way and often tells her that he doesn’t want her to be disappear, he doesn’t want her to die, as if he can see something that might be coming in the future.  In a number of scenes, he’s clearly afraid of her.  Even without the Babadook, the household is claustrophobic, oppressive, and deadly.

It’s possible that the Babadook is a psychological, psychosexual manifestation of Amelia’s tormented state, that it’s not present in the film at all except in her mind.  The child believes in Babadook, but does he believe because he is fueled by his mother’s strained mental state, or because Babadook is really there?  Both mother and child are descendants of characters in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

A serious flaw in this film is the lack of sympathy one feels for mother and child.  Neither is particularly endearing.  We feel sorry for the mother’s plight, her loneliness and her difficulties with her son, yet she lives in a world where help is available for people with problems such as the ones she faces, and even without help one would expect her to bear up better than she does.  And the boy is, frankly, selfish and irritating and obnoxious.  One can understand why Amelia feels about him as she does.

Whether the Babadook is real or not, the horror of the film emanates from the lives of the entrapped mother and son.

The Babadook is not as frightening as the trailer would suggest, and although the psychological dimension elevates it among many others in its category, it is not the first to suggest that horror is a product of the human mind.   It doesn’t suck you in, leave you gripping your chair in suspense as you wait for the next frightening moment.  It’s more of an endurance test.  Moreover, here we have another film that blames a woman’s hysteria for problems that occur.

Essie Davis does an admirable job as the tormented and unlikeable mother, and one must credit as well director Jennifer Kent for her skillful if not wholly successful effort to move outside the usual bounds of the supernatural horror genre in this film.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Once again, seeking respite from the oncoming cold, I sought a diverting, undemanding film and chose How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014; dir. Dean DeBlois).  Brisk, vivid animation and the swooping, soaring exploits of flying dragons make for a significant entertainment.  The film avoids many of the pitfalls of sequels.  Although not as fresh as the original, this second installment of what may be a series follows the exploits of characters some five years after the first film as they take on the menacing dragon king Drogo.  At the center of this film is the return of a parent who has been missing and presumed dead for twenty years. She reunites happily with her son and husband but then as you should always expect there are complications with consequences.  In addition there is the discovery of a forgotten menace who reemerges to threaten the kingdom.  (The success of this sequel may come from the series of books on which the two films are based). The characters in this film seem to be Vikings.  They refer to themselves as Vikings, but there is a good bit of bagpipe music, and the chief’s sidekick Gobbo is voiced by Craig Ferguson, so perhaps these Vikings live in or near Scotland.  The flying sequences are exciting, the battles loud and explosive, the comedy is about what you would expect—the film offers the usual array of comic secondary characters that seem almost de rigeur in films like this one.  (What would Despicable Me be without those strange little eraser-like yellow sidekicks who follow Gru around?).  Does the use of the Arabic numeral 2 instead of the Roman numeral II in this film’s title indicate some assumption about the film’s intended audience?


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Into the Storm

Coming down with a cold, I wanted to sink down in my recliner and watch something that would require no real effort.  That is, I wanted something brainless.  My choice was Into the Storm (2013; dir. Steve Quayle), about a cluster of tornadoes that besiege the small town of Silverton, Oklahoma, one spring afternoon.  I’d read the reviews that excoriate the film for its plotless implausibility.  No doubt, the way the tornadoes behave in this film is probably not very consistent with observed meteorological realities, though the film evades the need for reality by having characters point out on various ways how “nothing like this has happened before.”  Reed Timmer, the loud and in my opinion somewhat demented tornado chaser we’ve seen on Storm Chasers and other shows, insisted in an online essay that the film’s storms are realistic, if slightly exaggerated.[1]  He also wrote a book about his storm-chasing experiences from which the film took its title.  The loud and somewhat demented storm chaser whose crew are among the main characters in this film seems vaguely similar to Timmer and his storm chasing companions.  So here we have monster tornadoes devastating a town, and what is the film’s focus? A young man estranged from his father; teenage romance; a storm-chasing meteorologist longing to be with her child.  Father and son reconcile.  Teenage romance blossoms.  Mother and daughter reunite.  Oddly, despite the movie’s insistence on the historical proportions of the tornadoes besieging Silverton, only a few people are actually blown to their deaths.  There’s not much focus on the survivors either.  There’s more concern with the aforementioned teenagers, the tornadoes, and their special propensity to wreak havoc.  I have to admit that I was curious as to when certain characters would die.  For the most part, I was disappointed.  Of the main characters, only the loud and somewhat demented head storm chaser meets his fate in the monster tornado that blows him and his storm-chasing vehicle up into the heavens.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Star of the Sea, by Joseph O'Connor

A clear purpose of Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea (Random House, 2004) is to present the suffering, prejudice, and mistreatment suffered by people of Ireland during the potato famine of the mid-19th century and more generally suffered at the hands of the English.  The point of view shifts among an Irish maidservant, an Irish composer of folk ballads and also murderer, Pius Mulvey, an American journalist Grantley Dixon, and an English aristocrat David Merridith Lord who owns land on which he lives in Ireland.  Others figure in as well, including Merridith’s father.  The maidservant Mary Duane is at the center of the novel, but Merridith and Dixon are almost as important.  Both have had affairs with her.  All of these characters live entangled lives.  This is an Irish novel, and although O’Connor gives us a range of English characters, some of whom he portrays with sympathy, his allegiances lie with the Irish. 

This novel has many virtues and strengths.  It is invariably interesting and engaging.  It’s beautifully composed and structured. The characters are fully drawn in Dickensian fashion (Dickens himself makes a couple of appearances).  But it gives as dark a story as one might imagine.  Suffering and depravity are everywhere—in the streets of London, on the estates where Irish servants labor for British landowners, in the fields and ditches where Irish people die from famine and disease, in the hold of the ship, Star of the Sea, where Irish refugees are transported to America in hopes of an improved life, and in the American harbor where the ship, along with many others carrying Irish refugees, lingers for days waiting to be allowed to unload their passengers, who perish in growing numbers with the passage of each day.

O’Connor wants his reader to appreciate the enormity of the largely overlooked potato famine, which caused the deaths of as many as a million people, and from which as many as two million Irish citizens fled to the United States and other parts of the world.  The consequence for Ireland and those who remained behind was devastating.

The message overwhelms the artistry of the book at times, if it is possible to extricate one from the other, and the book reads occasionally like a political tract, a work of historical documentation.  This is understandable.  The horrors O’Connor recounts, the suffering and racism, may be too fraught for fiction to bear.  The historical events at the core of this novel are so appalling that fictionalizing them seems to trivialize them.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014


Two questions concerning Gabrielle (2013; dir. Louise Archambault):  Does the film succeed, as I think it means to, in conveying the inner life of a young women with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that leaves one partially incapacitated in certain cognitive and physiological ways.  Does the film unethically lead its main actor, a woman afflicted with Williams syndrome, to engage before the camera in the representation of activities that she does not fully understand? The main character, played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, is a highly functional victim of the syndrome.  She communicates well, is full of enthusiasm and affability (as are many Williams syndrome patients), but also cannot handle certain tasks—such as testing her blood sugar each day, or navigating her way through Montreal by bus.  Although she wants to live on her own, she needs assistance.  She receives help from her sister Sophie, and the caregivers at the center where she lives.  Her parents are alive, but we never see her father, and her mother is strangely distant and unengaged.  Gabrielle is a lovely young woman.  The film helps us appreciate her many qualities along with the difficulties she would face in leading a normal life.

Gabrielle’s desire to live her own life becomes a significant issue for her when she falls in love with Martin, a young man who takes classes at the same center as she does.  Martin is also intellectually challenged, but he seems somewhat better adjusted that Gabrielle.  As the film progresses, the two of them move towards a physical relationship.  Martin’s mother does not believe her 24-year-old son is ready for sex, and when she discovers Gabrielle and Martin partially unclothed together; she removes him from the school.  Later the two reunite at a performance of the chorus they belong to, and they consummate their love beneath the grandstands of the concert arena. Gabrielle portrays this moment in a relatively tasteful and discreet way.

How much did Gabrielle Marion-Ricard the actor fully understand what she was doing?  Could she make an informed decision about participating in the scene.  Do not misunderstand:  people like Gabrielle and Martin are entitled to love one another, to have sex—in real life and on film.  But did the actress fully understood the role she was portraying, the scene in which she had sex with Martin?


Monday, October 20, 2014


Ida (2013; dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) is understated and neutral.  Filmed in beautiful black and white, it is set in the early 1960s in Poland.  It thereby avoids the settings and situations and clichés one might expect in a more contemporary film.  Even though the black and white cinematography is beautiful, it is understated.  We’re not asked to believe that anything or anyone in this film is extraordinary.  As an American viewer, I struggled with a temptation to attach values of one sort or another to the basic focus of the film: a young woman, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who has grown up in the convent where she is about to take vows and become a nun.  Her mother superior informs her that before she takes this important step she must pay a visit to her aunt, of whose existence she was unaware.  Ida makes the visit and receives information about herself and her past that could change her plans.  Will she change them? In narrative terms, that is the main question in this film.  Will her discovery of an unknown past, of unexpected ancestors, steer her towards another destiny?  In moral or ethical terms, or at least terms that don’t relate to plot, should she change her plans?

Balanced against the possibilities that might characterize a life for Ida outside the convent are the facts of her past, of the dark and still present specter of World War II in Poland, where fifteen years after it ended victims of that war live alongside their victimizers.  Poland is deeply embedded in the Cold War as well.  The West is faintly present, mostly through a small jazz combo that Ida listens to in a bistro.  She is an attractive young woman.  She considers her options with one of the performers in the combo, who is attracted to her. 

In the end she makes her decision.  It is to the credit of this film, its truly unusual and rare achievement, that those of us in the audience are unable to feel that she has made either the right decision or the wrong one, the good or the bad.  Does she surrender in the end to cowardice, to timidity, or simply to the cold realities of life in the world?  Maybe it is more desirable to avoid them than to live with what they might bring.

Ida is the most distinctive film I’ve seen this year.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Boyhood (2014; dir. Richard Linklater) is certainly a logistical achievement.  Made over a period of 12 years using the same actors, it was a feat to keep them all alive and willing to participate.  The main focus in this process was Ellar Coltrane, who plays the boy.  He is six when the film begins and eighteen when it ends. As a young boy he is an unaware and wholly natural actor.    As he grows older, and more self-conscious, his acting becomes slightly less effective, but he does the job.  His parents, not so much.  Rosanna Arquette as his mother always seems on the verge of some sort of nasal allergic reaction.  Ethan Hawke as his father seems smarmy. 

The underlying premise here has to do with the patterns of human life, of children who grow up and of the parents who, together or apart, raise them.  There’s supposed to be a commonality of experience there with which we can identify, and there is.  Of course, the parents here are middle class white Americans, and undoubtedly the experience would be different if a Syrian or Afghani or Ukrainian boy were at this film’s center.  But I grant this film its premise, with its limits.

This film works best when it centers on children, and it’s therefore Ellar Coltrane, the boy at this film’s heart, who is its heart.  The final scenes, about his first experiences as a college freshman, are truly moving.  There’s nothing particularly revelatory or illuminating for me about this film.  Maybe because I was once a boy and lived in my own way the life Ellar Coltrane lives.  Or maybe because as a parent I’ve seen my children grow up and mature and move away and have felt that same pride and sense of despair and abandonment that Arquette feels in the film.  Against one’s own personal experience, a film such as this one, however well conceived, can never hope to measure up.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

It is not so much boredom as ennui—spiritual and intellectual malaise—that Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) addresses.  Its main characters have lived for at least 400 years and have, unless something goes especially wrong, every prospect of living another 400 years.  They are vampires, but have long since abandoned seeking sustenance from the necks of hapless victims, a practice they regard with disdain.  Instead they make arrangements with local hospitals or blood banks.  Partially as a result, perhaps, their lives lack drama.  They try to stay out of sight.  They want to be anonymous.  Despite the fact that they are vampires and thus immortal, they need meaning in their

 loves.  One finds it through serving as a ghost composer for various famous composers.  At the time of the film, he’s a famously reclusive rock star.  Another seeks it through living a life of elegance in Tunisia.  A third is Christopher Marlowe.  Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, the author of the tragedy of Dr. Faustus.  He’s bitter that his need to stay in hiding has deprived him of recognition as the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.  All these vampires see themselves as lovers of fine things, of high culture, of the arts.  They’re romantics, or failed romantics.  One is so tired of his life that he’s considering rash actions, even suicide.  What can bring him back?

Vampires bore me.  The fact that they prove so fascinating to contemporary culture is a sign of something wrong with contemporary culture.  But director Jim Jarmusch does a wonderful job in this film of depicting their lives in textured and wry detail.  This may be my favorite among his films.  These are not comic book vampires, not teenage icons.  They are living undead humans.

It’s the end of this film that disappointed, if ever so slightly, for its surrender to the conventions that for the most part it had successfully avoided


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stories We Tell

It’s difficult to imagine a mystery more earthshaking than the mystery of one’s parents.  When we hear of the travails and scandals and secret knowledge of other people’s mothers and fathers, they seem to us conventional and banal.  When they belong to our own mother and father, they cut to the core of our being.  Why?  Our parents gave us birth, existence, identity, life.  They’re the primum mobile of all we are.  Learning about those mysteries is like discovering the background radiation from the Big Bang, in literal as well as figurative ways. 

Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley tells her family’s story in Stories We Tell (2012).  Loosely structured around interviews with Polley’s brothers and sisters, her father, and others close to the story, the documentary is focused on her mother, whose energy and vitality made her the center of attention wherever she was.  Polley doesn’t speak much in the film, though we see her talking with family members, asking questions, and engaging in conversation.  She mainly allows other to tell the tale, though she imposes shape and meaning by the questions she asks, the editing, and her directorial style.  It’s no surprise that different speakers have different portions and versions of the story to tell.  One brother recalls how involved their father was in raising his children.  Another observes that he wasn’t involved at all.  Everyone seems to agree that his marriage to their mother was a mismatch.  Perhaps the father wasn’t especially aware of the mismatch--everyone agrees on his own clueless reserve.  But the mother sought release through a variety of activities, including theater.  Children ponder the mystery of their parents’ lives.  In this case the film uncovers a true mystery, and a surprise.  In the process the speakers remember their mother and talk about her impact on them.  Polley tells her father that she wants to make the film in order to understand the nature of truth, how difficult it is to come by, and the illusory nature of memory.  In fact, we see by the end of the film that she had a far more fundamental reason.  This film is funny, interesting, charming, and sad, all at once--Polley’s stirring tribute to her mother, her father, her siblings, and important others as well.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch (1955; dir. Billy Wilder) is billed as a classic American comedy of the 1950s.  It is so much a product of its times that it now seems a fossilized artifact.  It’s difficult to feel any affinity with either of the two main characters.  The film in fact wants us to identify with Richard Sherman (Tommy Ewell).  The pervasive view is masculine.  The underlying premise of this comedy is that during the summers in New York City businessmen hustle their wives and children off to the cooler mountains for vacation while they stay in the city to work.  Then they are free to prowl for other women.  Sherman is torn between relative boredom with his own marriage, his interest in the possibility of other women, and his love for his wife.  It’s difficult to identify with a film in which it’s considered normal for men to hoot and howl at attractive women, in which the tendency of men to have affairs with women other than their wives is a sort of game at which everyone winks and grins.  In essence, this film is about the sexual double standard: while the wives are away, the men will play.

Marilyn Monroe plays the 22-year-old bombshell who moves in the apartment upstairs from Sherman while his wife and child are in the mountains.  He fixates on her, becomes convinced that she is his target, and engages in a dance of attraction and repulsion (his desire for her, his wish to be loyal to his wife) to which she seems oblivious.  Monroe is very good at inhabiting the bimbo role, but it’s a role that is entirely dated.  She has no name in the film—Sherman doesn’t even know her name—she’s just the Girl.  She speaks with a soft, breathy voice, with the hint of a lisp.  She’s oblivious, largely, to just about everything.  But she is also young, fresh, and ostensibly innocent.  She boasts of a photo shoot on the beach that was featured in a photography magazine.  Sherman’s reaction to it is so strong that we assume it was a nude photo shoot, but when we finally see the photo it is comically and ridiculously chaste.

The film clothes Monroe in costumes that exaggerate her breasts to ridiculous proportions.  It’s as if they’re her defining characteristic, as if nothing else about her matters.  The iconic scene in the film, of course, is when she stands over a subway ventilation grate and the breeze from passing trains balloons her dress upwards.  Does the character know that she is titillating others around her, especially Sherman?  Or is she oblivious.  Or does she not care?

Sherman speaks to us throughout the film in prolonged asides in which he ponders his situation and his would-be wandering ways.  Although in the Broadway play that was the basis of the film Sherman does sleep with the girl, in the film there is only flirtation.  Sherman presents himself as torn between his wife and his lust.  He imagines outlandish encounters with women—his secretary, his wife’s best friend.  And of course his imagination works overtime on the possibilities of a relationship with Monroe’s character.  He comes across as indecisive, deluded, weak, and silly.  At the very end, Monroe’s character hints that she was more aware of Sherman’s longings than she had previously let on.  A classic this film might once have been, but no longer. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013, dir. Steve McQueen) takes place mostly in Louisiana. We see numerous scenes of open fields, of swamplands, of trees hanging down with Spanish moss.  The sounds of droning insects and piping frogs are almost ever-present.  These sounds and the lush vegetation suggest an environment of remote isolation.  The beauty of this film—the beautiful setting, the artful cinematography and filmmaking—contrasts with the dark reality it portrays.  At times I wonder whether slavery (like the Holocaust) is something film should try to represent.  Is it possible that personal testimonials, scholarly histories, lists of the dead, better tell us the story than someone’s attempt to represent and interpret it, to use it as the stuff of art when in fact the reality is so horrible that the risk of misrepresentation overrides the benefits of representing it accurately, if such is even possible.

Solomon Northrup’s narrative 12 Years a Slave, published in the year of his rescue, 1853, strikes me as unsettling for several reasons.  Its account of how a man can be kidnapped out of his life into slavery is disturbing enough.  The years of enslavement he endures are recounted in painful detail.   Solomon on several points pauses his narrative to explain the process of growing cotton and of sugar cane, so that his story has the impact of both a personal tale as well as a more objective account.  Solomon never fully comes to identity with his fellow slaves, and it’s clear that his education, his former status as a free man, in his mind places him in a status superior to that of other slaves.  He is more than willing to serve loyally the slave owners who treat him well, like Ford, and even at times seems to sympathize with them.  At times I sense two voices in the narrative, that of Solomon and of David Wilson, who assisted him in the writing of the account. The film offers an effective adaptation of the narrative, focusing entirely on Solomon’s situation.  It drops the accounts of cotton farming and instead integrates those details into the plot of the film.  Many of the events of the narrative find their way into the film.  It thankfully omits the legal proceedings following Solomon’s rescue, and it significantly abbreviates the process by which he is reunited with his family.  The narrative tells and explains Northrup’s tale, while the film dramatizes it.

In an odd way, 12 Years a Slave reminded me of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932; dir. Mervyn Leroy).  Both focus on a man suddenly and unexpectedly torn from his comfortable environment and plunged into a hostile atmosphere of confinement, imprisonment.  Both focus on that confining environment—prison life, slavery—but even more on the plight of the lonely and isolated individual unfairly and unjustly ripped out of his life.  As there as with the character James Allen in Fugitive, there’s an existential quality to the plight of Solomon Northrup, who clings to his identity even as in order to survive he must pretend to be someone else.  I found myself as focused on that aspect of the film as on the issue of slavery, which at times seemed almost incidental to his situation.  To imagine the possibility of what Solomon Northrop suffers, the loss of his freedom, of his family and friends, for twelve years, is nigh impossible.  Other connections come to mind as well—Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1842) in particular, along with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862).

As he tries to preserve his identity, Northrup at first resists being lumped in with the other slaves he works and lives with.  Gradually the common situation they share makes its mark on him and though he never gives up on being Solomon Northrup he ultimately accepts his kinship with them.  When they sing over the grave of John, an old man who dies while picking cotton near the end of the film, Solomon joins in singing with them.  This moment signifies his acceptance of his unity with them, of his identity as a slave. 

I do not know whether this film gives an “accurate” or “representative” account of slavery.  I can say about it what I said in another post about Mandingo: that I have no doubt that everything it portrays was true of slavery.  12 Years suggests a natural comparison with Mandingo.  Yet the tawdry and sensationalistic melodrama of that inferior film is absent in Twelve Years.  The most telling contrast comes in the relationship of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) with the slave girl Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o).   This is a relationship of force and rape, abuse and abasement, while in Mandingo we are asked to believe that the relationship between slave master Hammond and his “bed wench” Ellen is consensual and mutually loving.  Despite the attention it pays to the slaves on the Hammond plantation, Mandingo is primarily about the white slave owners. 12 Years is about the slaves--and one slave in particular.  It doesn’t romanticize or sentimentalize slavery, nor does it, with one exception, make slavery worse than it was. What it does achieve, on occasion, is its portrayal of the practice of slavery as a form of everyday normalcy.  We may think of slavery in terms of endless brutality and abuse.  But mostly what it must have been was a sustained and unremarkable succession of days, normal days, in the lives of both the enslaved and their enslavers.  The film evokes this normalcy through scenes in which slaves go about carrying out the tasks of their typical routines—picking cotton or chopping sugar cane, chopping and carrying wood, cooking, washing—routines that characterized the span of their lives.  Each day they carry their bags of cotton to be weighed. Those who do not pick more than 200 pounds are whipped—the film portrays the whippings mainly in the background.  There is nothing unusual about them--they are part of the daily routine—not punishment but instead what the owners regard as an appropriate way to train their slaves to increase the productivity of their cotton picking work.

In an extended scene, Tibeats, who works as a carpenter for Ford, tries to whip Solomon, who resists and beats Tibeats in turn.  Tibeats flees and returns with two men who commence to hang Solomon, with the full intention of killing him.  Ford’s overseer intervenes, chases off the three men, and leaves Solomon suspended from a tree branch, his feet just touching the ground.  As he struggles to keep his balance and avoid choking to death, other slaves carry on their work around him, seemingly ignoring him.  Eventually one slave woman brings him water.  The mistress of the house looks on from the porch, as does the overseer.  The other slaves can do nothing for fear of their own lives.  They cannot interfere with the punishment of a slave who has transgressed and attacked a white man.  The film lingers for an excruciating duration on the images of Solomon attempting to retain his foothold.  Throughout this scene there is no music at all.  The sound of the insects—cicadas, June bugs-- familiar to anyone who has lived in the summers of the Deep South, drone on and on, in this atmosphere of deadening normalcy and pain.  Only Mr. Ford has the right to save him, and eventually he arrives and cuts the rope with which Solomon is suspended.

(On occasion whippings become a form of personal revenge and punishment—one in a scene involving Solomon, and another when Patsy has run off to a nearby plantation to bring back a bar of soap.  The whipping she receives from Epps is the most brutal in the film.)

12 Years has its share of depraved and brutal white people, but it also portrays a number of highly civilized white characters who deal with slaves as a normal part of their existence.  In an early scene, the slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) shows plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist minister, a group of slaves that he is thinking of buying.  Freeman seems a likeable man.  He is calm and affable in his manner, speaking candidly of the attributes of various slaves on sale, comporting himself as would an insurance or car salesman in the process of trying to make a sale. There is nothing remarkable or depraved about his behavior, other than the fact that he is selling human beings.  When Ford decides to buy Solomon and Eliza, who is the mother of two small children, she begs him to buy her children as well.  He decides to purchase the daughter, but Freeman refuses to sell, explaining that in a few years her beauty will make her a valuable property. When Ford brings the two new slaves home, his wife asks why Eliza is weeping and unhappy.  Ford explains that she has been separated from her children.  Mistress Ford nods sadly as if to signify that this is an unfortunate but inescapable result of a slave sale.  She reassures Eliza that soon she will forget about her children.  In many ways Ford treats his slaves well, preaches to them every Sunday.  He recognizes Solomon’s talents and rewards his good work.  In the film, Ford seems the ideal slave master. Solomon Northrop’s narrative Twelve Years a Slave praises him highly.  At the same time, in neither the narrative nor the film does Ford question the institution of slavery itself.  He accepts it as part of the reality of his world, as a necessary practice.

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the obverse of Ford.  He is close to being a psychopath, both in how he treats his slaves as well as in how he treats his wife.  He spends much of his time drinking, threatening the slaves, molesting Patsy, insulting his wife.  It is difficult to think that he is truly representative of the normal slave owner. It’s difficult to imagine that he could have been productive as a plantation owner, as a farmer of cotton and other crops, because he apparently spends little time tending to these activities.  If most plantation owners had been like Epps, the plantation economy would have faltered early in its history.  Yet what the film makes clear through his character (this is true as well of the Hammond family in Mandingo, and of Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, and of Duncan Bedford in So Red the Rose) is that however kind or cruel plantation owners might have been in their treatment of their slaves, they exercised virtually complete control over their lives. They were able, within the broad limits of what Southern law and social custom would allow, to do whatever they liked with the slaves.  I have to confess that as much as I know about slavery, from books I’ve read and films I’ve seen, 12 Years left me scratching my head in astonishment.  We did this?  This is our history?  From this vantage point early in the 21st century, 150 years since Emancipation, it’s almost impossible to imagine. Therein lies much of the value of this film.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mile . . . Mile & a Half

I am 64 years old and in addition to all the things I regret having done there are many things I regret not having done.  Among these is not having spent more time outdoors, in the wilds, hiking and camping.  I’m no daredevil.  Hang-gliding and extreme mountaineering don’t appeal to me.  But hiking in the outback does.  I’ve always wanted to walk the Appalachian Trial, despite Bill Bryson’s assurances in A Walk in the Woods that it’s a bore (and I’m sure much of it is).  The film Mile . . . Mile & a Half (2013; dirs.. Jason Fitzpatrick, Ric Serene) follows the walk of a group of adults in their 30s along the John Muir Trail in California and Nevada.  Their trip takes them 25 days along a 220-mile stretch.  The walking is difficult.  Most of it takes place above 10,000 feet.  Every day is another sequence of beautiful scenes.  There is nothing profound about this film, other than the intense natural beauty of the surroundings they walk through.  Along the way they meet other hikers, including two young painters, a Japanese girl walking alone, two young men with a ukulele and a xylophone, and married school teachers.  Although their purported purpose in taking the hike is to film a documentary (they talk a bit too much about this) they mainly want to prove to themselves that they can do it.  The tone of the film is light, never ponderous, not even introspective, though at times you can sense their moments of contemplation.  The fact that the John Muir Trail exists is amazing.  It would be a challenge for someone like me, but it’s now on my post-retirement list, along with the Appalachian Trail.

Particle Fever

Particle Fever (2013; Mark Levinson) is about the discovery of the Higgs boson by the scientists who worked on and in the Large Hadron Collider in Lucerne, Switzerland.  The subject is exciting but difficult, and this film succeeds in part by not taking it too seriously.  It explains well enough the importance of the Higgs and shows how scientists used colliding particle beams to detect it.  What it does best is convey the enthusiasm and excitement of the scientists working in the HLC, especially when it is turned on for the first time, and when the Higgs is at last detected.  The director relies on interviews with various scientists to explain the Collider and the Higgs.  Of particular interest is the mass of the Higgs.  If it’s discovered with one particular mass, then scientists will have a good chance of confirming super symmetry, a theory that has the potential to provide a unifying explanation for why the universe works as it does.  If it is detected with a different mass, then the possibility of a multiverse might mean the end of physics research, because whatever else there is to discover may be beyond the reach of scientists in this universe to detect.  The film makes clear the importance of the distinction and conveys how several of the researchers are deeply concerned that their lifetime of research may be for naught.  In the end, the Higgs is discovered with a mass midway between the two extremes.  No one quite knows what that means. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry

In their 1945 film The Southerner director Jean Renoir and screenwriter Hugo Butler drew their vision of the American South directly from the George Sessions Perry novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, published in 1941, and winner of the National Book Award.  The film follows the novel closely, though it simplifies the plot and reduces the cast of characters--most of the novel’s main characters are in the film.  The novel focuses on a sharecropper named Sam Tucker and his family.  Sam has tired of sharecropping and wants to try to make a go of it on a 66-acre plot of land that belongs to another farmer in East Texas, the setting of the story.  Told episodically, the novel describes how Sam moves his family, his first encounters with neighbors, the sickness of his youngest son from pellagra, the sowing of his crops, conflicts with a neighbor who allows his cows and hogs to run through Sam’s garden, and Sam’s ambitions to catch a large catfish.  In the novel, Sam is a distinctive individual, but he’s also cast as an example of a larger class of small farmers facing harsh economic and environmental conditions.  There’s a mild sentimentalism to the novel, and one is tempted to compare it with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  In the novel, Sam is no virtuous exemplar.  He operates by his own codes, whether or not they comply with the world around him.  But in general, I think, he is portrayed as a hardworking and virtuous man dedicated to farming and to earning his way.  He’s the model of the emblematic Jeffersonian farmer.  You can imagine him set in contrast against the sky in a Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton painting, or a John Ford film (and, as it happened, a Jean Renoir film).  He’s also the descendant, by a generation or two, of the Southern frontiersman, who carries on the tradition and individualistic values of his progenitors.  He hunts squirrels, fishes, gets into fights, gets drunk, considers lost property (such as a fishing net) his own, resists the entreaties of a local prostitute because of his love for his wife, cares about his children, makes good on his promises and debts, and so on.  (If his attempt at independent farming should fail, these traditions and values, the things he represents, are at risk).  He’s a little too good to be true, but in that sense he’s what an emblem of something larger than himself should be.  In fairly similar form the episodes of the novel find their way into Renoir’s film.  Both novel and film portray farming as a desirable alternative to factory work and city life.  The novel gives a more detailed, realistic accounting of the lives of poor dirt farmers than the film. It also casts the plight of the poor dirt farmers in a political context, comparing their plight to that of migrant workers in California, after the fashion of The Grapes of Wrath.  In the original ending of the novel, which Perry was dissuaded from using by his publisher, Sam Tucker gives up after a year of farming and decides to go to work for the factory in the city.[1]  The version of the novel that was published give no hint that Sam Tucker would ever give up. 

[1] Maxine C. Hairston, “Afterword,” Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry. Albuquerque, NM: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1975.  Novel originally published in 1941.