Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cape Fear (1991)

Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear adds complexity while retaining the essential storyline and even movie score by Bernard Hermann from the 1962 film.  In the original, Max Cady’s motive seemed to be revenge.  He was angry that Bowden’s testimony as a witness to his crime placed him in jail.  The circumstances are different in Scorsese’s version.  We learn that Bowden was Cady’s attorney in a trial for assault, and that Bowden suppressed evidence showing the victim’s history of promiscuous behavior.  Cady’s discovery of the suppressed evidence motivates his quest for revenge.  It also becomes the original sin at the heart of Bowden’s character.

Another difference is Bowden’s marriage.  In Scorsese’s version it is deeply troubled.  Bowden (Nick Nolte) has moved his family to New Essex, NC, from Atlanta to make a new start after infidelity led to a crisis in his marriage.  In New Essex, he and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) struggle to hold things together.  Leigh worries that he is having another affair.  The atmosphere is tense.  Leigh is trying to pursue a career as a designer.  She alludes to “lost years” in her life, and she’s probably referring to years she has lost to the marriage.  The daughter Danielle is a fifteen-year-old recently suspended from school for smoking marijuana. She feels the tension in her parents’ marriage, hears their arguments, and is unhappy.  Cady exploits all of these weaknesses.  Perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in the film comes when he lures Danielle into the basement of her high school, pretending to be her drama teacher.  This is essentially a seduction scene, where Cady convinces her of his sincerity by referring to private details of her life and her parents’ marriage.  He convinces her that they share much in common and asks if he can put his arm around her.  Even though she recognizes him as the man who has been stalking her family, she allows him.  He makes her suspicious of her parents and what they’ve told her. 

In the 1962 film, Cady reads legal books in prison.  We know little about his background other than the fact than he grew up in difficult lower economic class circumstances.  In Scorsese’s version, Cady goes to jail for 14 years rather than 8 and although he is illiterate when convicted he learns to read in prison and reads widely.  In addition to law, we know he’s read philosophy, including Nietzsche, and he’s a fan of Henry Miller.  He’s read Look Homeward, Angel (a novel whose attitude towards the past provides a faint undertone in the film) and talks with Danielle about it.  Cady’s an intelligent, self-educated psychopath, enamored of the culture whose art and literature and music he’s come to love, enraged that he can’t participate in the affluence of people like Bowden.  Like his predecessor in the 1962 film, he’s jealous of Bowden’s economic status.  He knows that, were it not for his jail time and the economic facts of his birth and upbringing, not to mention luck, he could live the life that Bowden lives.  This enrages him.

Scorsese’s film is more psychological in focus than the original, although in both films Cady understands how to inflict terror.  De Niro’s Cady is more aggressive, more violent, and more ingenious than Mitchum’s. 

De Niro is great as Cady, but you know it’s a role, a part he’s playing.  He never melds with it.  The same can be said for the other characters, with the exception of Danielle, who’s convincing as the vulnerable and psychologically damaged adolescent.  The Bowden family dynamics seem false, and the actors don’t convincingly inhabit their roles.  When the terror begins, the family behaves as if being stalked and threatened is normal.  They walk along the sidewalks of the town, talking to one another about their plans to resist Cady.  They suspect Cady has already entered their house, that he’s poisoned their dog.  In general he’s created a menacing atmosphere. Paranoia and anxiety ought to have set in much earlier than it does. 

The 1962 film has simplicity.  It does not weigh us down with complicated information about Bowden’s marriage and past.  It does not draw out elaborately the character of Cady and instead works in reductive, simplistic fashion to conjure a narrative of revenge and fear.  Although, in a sense, the 1991 film gives us more to think and talk about, in particular with respect to Cady’s character, the 1962 film is a more seamless, more effective story.

While the South was a background in the original, Scorsese foregrounds it.  We see images of the Confederate flag, and Cady’s past is clearly one of fundamentalism and biblical literalism.  He’s covered with tattoos that use the Biblical language of sin and redemption.  Cady reminds me of the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back.” His frequent Biblical references suggest O’Connor’s character the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  The South is a center of fundamentalism.  Scorsese uses associations with the South of violence, religious mania, and the subjugation of women as a way of building Cady’s character as well as Bowden’s.

Fear of rape is an issue in the 1991 film, but it is not its heart.  We know Cady plans to have sex with Bowden’s wife and daughter, consensual sex if he can convince them, but the central horror in the film is not the prospect of rape but rather the total destruction that he wants to inflict.

De Niro’s Cady is a psychopath.  Bowden as played by Nolte comes close to becoming a psychopath himself.  Cady several times tells Bowden how much they’re alike, how they’re equals. One of his goals is to reduce Bowden to his level.  He succeeds.

 

 

Cape Fear (1962)

Fear of rape is the central terror in Cape Fear (1962; dir. J. Lee Thompson).  In jail for eight years because of the testimony of lawyer Sam Bowden, Max Cady seeks revenge through stalking, threats, and sexual violence against the lawyer’s family.  Cady has no other motives, perhaps other than class resentment.  (Of course, a psychopath doesn’t need motives).  Bowden and family live in a stylish upper-class home.  While he was in prison Cady’s wife divorced him and left with their daughter.  He blames Bowden for all that has happened to him.  He covets what Bowden possesses—happiness, a family, a beautiful wife and daughter.  But he doesn’t want just to possess these things.  He wants to destroy them, through what the film increasingly makes clear will be sexual violence, mainly against Bowden’s daughter.

In 1962, the concept of sexual violence against children, in this case a girl who appears to be twelve to fourteen years in age, would have been far more terrifying than it is today because at least today, when such violence is horrific enough,  it is at least talked about.  I can’t think of another film from this era that raises this fear as directly as this one.  When Cady confronts the mother and her daughter late in the film, you feel their fear.  In that regard the film hasn’t aged at all.

Given the historical context of the South and 1962, one can ponder the film’s underlying motives.  No one questions that sexual violence—rape—is horrible.  But was fear of rape in 1962 foremost in the Southern mind, even the national mind?  Why would Southern white people fear the violence of a lower class white male against an upper class white male and his wife and child?  Such violence is terrible enough that it can become the center of a suspenseful film.  But why highlight it at this time?

A primary argument in the South against racial integration during the 1950s and 1960s was that it would bring the races together and make it easier for black men to harass, molest, and rape white women.  The assumption (for those who thought in such paranoid racist terms) was that all black males wanted to do such things.  What if a black man took Max Cady’s place?  How much would the film change? There would be certain things a black Max Cady could not do in 1962 in the South.  He could not come and go as easily as the white Max Cady.  He probably would experience more interference from the police.  Fear of rape was already exaggerated in the public mind.  Does this film seize that fear and redirect it to Max Cady, a lower class white man?  Is this film an expression of the fear of racial violence against white women by black men, all the result of integration?  I must admit to doubting my own argument.  If the film were simply a text, the product of a single writer, especially a Southern writer, it might make more sense to me.  But the film is a product of many makers.  It’s based on a novel by John D. McDonald novel, who was from Pennsylvania.  The director J. Lee Thompson was from England.  The screenwriter James R. Webb was from Colorado.  So my speculation begins to fall apart.

Why isn’t Bowden given more protection against Cady?  It’s difficult to believe that Cady could threaten a family in the way he threatens this one and get away with it.  We’re told that he had read enough law in prison to understand how far he can carry his threats without breaking the law, and he’s careful not to go too far.  But is he really that smart?  Is there no legal recourse for the Bowdens?  It’s equally difficult to believe that the police and a private detective would conspire with lawyer Bowden to plot Cady’s murder.  Bowden completely compromises what one would assume (hope?) are his personal ethics: he first offers to pay Cady off if he will leave.  What has he done to pay Cady off for—what crime, what lapse?  This offer at the least raises questions about Bowden’s character.  He further compromises himself when he hires three men to beat Cady up.  When he schemes with a private detective to kill Cady, he seems completely lost. 

In the end, Bowden and Cady fight one another in the North Carolina swamps.  Bowden’s final decision not to shoot Cady, but instead to see him imprisoned for life, is supposed to indicate that he has, after all, retained civilized values, but this weakly redemptive moment seems unconvincing.

Although Cady rapes either Bowden’s wife or daughter, he certainly terrorizes them and one can imagine the psychological scars he leaves.  Yet the person most damaged at the end of this film is Bowden.  Are the measures he takes to protect his family justified?  Straw Dogs (1971; dir. Sam Peckinpah), in which a mousy graduate student resorts to savage methods to protect his wife, seems an analog. 

Bernard Hermann’s score is a major contributing factor to the suspense and fear in the film.

 

 

 

Trouble in Paradise

The ingeniously designed setsof Trouble in Paradise (dir. Ernst Lubitsch) are an important feature for a film that is (like most 1932 films) set-bound.  One can imagine its working well as a stage play, using the same sets.  (The film is loosely based on a play).  The most important set is an apartment building which we see both from the inside and outside.  In a key scene, and a key plot point, one character looks out an apartment window into another apartment at a woman staring back at him.  The film is about a couple of thieves and con-artists, Lily (Miriam Hopkins) and Monescu (Herbert Marshall), who team up to steal money from a wealthy woman, Colet (Kay Francis).  The thieves become romantically entangled, but at the same time Monescu becomes attracted to the woman whose money they plan to steal.  The tone of the film is light comedy.  Much of the film’s interest comes from rapid-fire dialogue and two suitors of Colet—one played by Edward Everett Horton, who is very good.  This pre-Code film is full of subtle and not-so-subtle sexual references.  It implies, for instance, that Lily and Monescu are sexually involved, and that Monescu and Colet have sex as well—by modern standards, these implications are tame but clear.  After the Code was in force, such references would not occur.  Here’s a film where my own inability to engage with the characters and the plot becomes an impediment.  All the characters are wealthy, they’re trying to deceive and cheat one another out of their money or their love, and when it’s all over, when Lily and Montescu sit in the taxi making jokes about the bracelet Montescu stole from Colet and that Lily in turn stole from him, what does it all matter?  I’d like to squash them all with my thumb. There are significant holes in the plot, the most important one being why Colet allows the two thieves who have deceived her and stolen her money (one of whom slept with her) to escape.  

So Red the Rose, by Stark Young

Stark Young’s 1934 novel So Red the Rose describes the experience of two Southern planter families—the McGeehees and Bedfords--during the time just before, during, and after the Civil War.  It focuses on a wide array of figures in the two families plus their friends and acquaintances.  The novel largely limits itself to the planter class, but its horizons are relatively broad, and we come to understand not simply the members of the two families but their world—their awareness of the impending war and its causes, their differing opinions about the prospects of secession and of Lincoln’s election, the books they read, how they think, their childhood histories, people they know—who extend throughout the South and the North.  Historical figures appear— William Tecumseh Sherman is headmaster in an academy where one character studies, while another character pays a visit to Jefferson Davis (family members disagree over his qualifications to be president of the Confederacy).  The narrative shifts among the thoughts and conversations of various characters so that readers gain a rounded, detailed, fairly insightful sense of the characters and their world.  So Red the Rose romanticizes and idealizes its subject, but it places the people and events it describes within a social and historical context.  This clearly partisan novel takes pains to lay out the indignities suffered by the two families as well as all the arguments in defense of the southern position in the War.  It views the Civil War from the home front, as the two plantation families experience it.

From a modern viewpoint the problematic element in the novel is its treatment of race and slavery.  Several characters oppose slavery, Hugh McGeehee in particular, but that opposition is primarily a matter of principle.  Everyone accepts slavery as a normal part of life.  No one argues for the equality of the races or takes any position other than one that regards slaves as less than human.  Northerners who appear and talk about the equality of the former slaves are viewed as clueless.  The novel’s position is that slavery was a benign and necessary practice.  The Bedford family names all the housemaids Celie so that they don’t have to remember their names.  The families are especially outraged when black Northern soldiers come into their house, take their belongings, and in various ways cause them to feel menaced.  They view former slaves who leave the plantations in search of a better life as ignorant and disloyal.  They regard poor whites as little better.  One of the points made late in the novel is that the loss of the Civil War will turn everything upside down, and that poor whites and former slaves will gain the upper hand.  To the Bedfords and McGeehees, this is the gravest of indignities—the loss of social prominence, of power.  From the novel’s perspective, this means the disappearance of their culture, their civilization. 

The novel gives a convincing picture of what defeat might have been like for Southern planter families in Mississippi.  It makes clear how violated they feel by the invasion of their plantations by Northern soldiers.  It lays out the case in various ways for the virtues it associates with the Southern cause and the Southern way of life.  In doing this, I think it is in fact presenting this information from the viewpoint of a Southerner in 1934, that the attitudes it expresses are more those of a writer looking back on the war rather than of one in the middle of it.  It is difficult for me to believe that families who have watched their houses burned and whose sons have been killed in battle would be so stoic and accepting of the change that has come on their lives.  The characters in the novel take a philosophical view of their loss in the war.  But who knows what it would have been like?  The historical accounts I’ve read—letters, journals—are mostly concerned with the day-to-day necessities of survival.  There’s little philosophy involved.

At times the narrative seems disorganized and meandering, especially in the latter third. In its efforts to make clear the Southern point of view, it sometimes veers towards the didactic.  The novel’s virtues are the fully developed characters, its relative intelligence, its delineation of the social life and the individual lives of the family members, and the ways in which it represents the Southern viewpoint, at least as Stark Young would have it. 

 

 

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

What struck me about The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt, 2014) as I read it was that I wanted it to be over even as I was eager to continue reading.  The chronicle of a 12-year-old boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but who gains possession of a certain painting, is richly detailed.  The wealth of detail can be fatiguing.  The main character Theodore Decker is a character difficult at times to care about.  As an adolescent and later he is a habitual heavy user of drugs and alcohol, and at times his future seems dark.  His good friend Boris, whom he meets when he goes to live with his father in Las Vegas, is a source of anarchy and self-destruction but ultimately as well of a kind of salvation.  As he becomes involved in dealing and restoring furniture under the tutelage of the older man Hobie who takes him in, he sells as valuable antiques items that have been restored—they are fraudulent.  And then there is the painting, Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch, which he takes with him everywhere, which hangs over him like a black cloud but which he can’t bring himself to return to the museum.  But his imperfections, considerable as they are, help us keep things in perspective.

I like the fact that this novel concerns big themes and questions.  In that sense it runs counter to current trends in contemporary serious fiction, and that may explain some of the negative reactions it has received.  (A Vanity Fair article assessed these reactions, suggesting that a major factor behind them may be simple envy of Tartt’s success.)  The themes are such questions as what is the purpose of life in an empty universe, and the value of art, which Tartt, or at least her narrator, regards as eternal.

In the last 40 or so pages of the novel, Boris and then the narrator himself bring it all to a conclusion by explaining what the events of the narrators life have meant, what conclusions they have led him to.  This could be a tedious and post-climactic way to defuse a novel that has had a lot of energy, but in fact it makes for a powerfully moving conclusion.

Question: One reason I at times wanted the novel to end before it did may have had to do with the sense that it was going nowhere.  It traces Theo’s life through his mother’s death, his time with the Barbour family that takes him in, his life with his father in Las Vegas, his years with Hobie in New York, his engagement, and then the fateful trip to Antwerp.  We read through these pages interested in how Theo’s fate is going to work itself out, but without a sense that there is some underlying purpose or theme to it all.  Tartt in masterful fashion does impose order and meaning on Theo’s life in the concluding pages of the novel, but I would have appreciated some faint hints of this resolution earlier in the book.

The great scene in this novel is the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Theo’s conversation with a dying old man he encounters in the rubble—from which almost everything else in the story develops—is powerful.

 

 

Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConnaughey is undoubtedly the center of Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013; dir. Jean-Marc Vallée).  I’m not surprised the film earned him the Best Actor Oscar, but I would not have been surprised if other recent films had done the same for him.  His role in HBO’s True Detective this past season was one of the best character portrayals I’ve seen on television, or in film for that matter.  Dallas Buyer’s Club is basically a character study, and once it establishes itself as a film about a hard-living lower class cowboy who discovers he has AIDs (he’s told he has 30 days to live), the film proceeds to detail how his struggle to deal with adversity makes him a better man.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with that often worked theme, and it makes for an entertaining film.  The film reminds us of what the early years of the AIDS epidemic were like—when few people understood the disease, how it was transmitted, who was most likely to get it, how it might be treated.  At first McConnaughey’s character Ron Woodruff refuses to see that he has anything in common with more conventional AIDS victims—gay men—he’s probably acquired the disease through using dirty needles--and he’s interested only in finding drugs that will cure him of the disease.  As he discovers outlets in Mexico and elsewhere that sell drugs not yet approved by the FDA, he sets up a buyer’s club that allows him, through a legal loophole, to sell those drugs to AIDS victims.  At first his motive is to make money.  Gradually his motives and sympathies shift, and he becomes a crusader for AIDS victims.  The film makes a strong and disturbing argument against how slowly things moved in the 1980s as scientists used well established painstaking methods to develop and test drugs for treating the disease.  The FDA’s conservatism, defensible in many situations, in the case of the fast spreading AIDS epidemic meant that many people died before drugs for treating it that were already available in other countries were approved.  The film isn’t insensitive to the fact that use of unproven drugs could be dangerous.  Woodruff’s developing friendship with the transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto) and with Doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner) are at the film’s heart.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How I Live Now

I watched How I Live Now (2013; dir. Kevin McDonald) because it involved World War III.  The cable TV description of it as a teenage romance interrupted by the Third World War seemed sufficiently weird and perverse that it drew my interest.  Saoirse Ronan plays an American teenager sent to live with British relatives during a world crisis whose specific nature is never explained.  It involves large explosions (we infer they are nuclear, and there is fallout, but no one sickens) and invading armies.  Ronan and the family she lives with are separated from the parents, who are apparently killed in a London explosion.  The children are sent to a work camp, then they escape and try to return home.  Some of them survive and some don’t.  This is really not a very good film, and it seems casually produced, but what I assume must have been a relatively low budget means that the filmmakers largely keep the world war and the explosions off screen.  We see news clips on television before the power goes out and we see a few of the enemy soldiers but that’s all we know.  So the focus of the film falls on the struggle of the children to survive.  That they do survive at all is improbable, given the fallout and the hostile soldiers and the lack of food and water and electricity.  This film demonstrates that if you have some relatively sympathetic teenagers stumbling around in the woods and the countryside for an hour or two you can actually make a halfway interesting film.  Ronan’s character gradually evolves from a hostile teenager angry with her father for sending her abroad to a young woman determined to find the boy she loves and return to his family home in the British countryside.  But I liked her better in her creepy role in Atonement (2007) and in her revenge fantasy film Hanna (2011).

His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940) is adapted from a stage play (Front Page), and it shows.  The film is set in two locations, a newsroom at the local newspaper and a press room at the courthouse, with a brief scene in a restaurant. I have to say, despite this film’s great reputation, that I didn’t much care for it.  The plot has to do with a recently divorced newspaper couple, played by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.  She is engaged to be married to a dimly lit insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy), and Grant wants to find a way to stop the wedding.  He convinces her to cover the pending execution of a man convicted of killing a black man, and through various hijinks, most of them on a slapstick level, Grant lures Russell away from the fiancé and the wedding.

The primary device here is fast-paced, scattershot dialogue.  Characters talk at one another, two or three conversations take place at one time, and the volume level is high.  No one simply talks.  There’s yelling and self-conscious wittiness.  The humor is corny and falls flat.  The plot moves along at such a fast pace that you can miss the holes and the illogicalities and the bad jokes.  The condemned man spends a good bit of the play hiding in a roll-top desk in the courthouse newsroom while people talk about and look for him.  The woman who loves and is trying to protect him leaps out a window and is severely injured—no one cares.

This film is a contrivance.  No one is supposed to believe it represents anything real.  Instead it’s an excuse for Grant and Russell to strut their stuff, and to try to be funny.  The outcome is obvious almost from the first moment.  The film is dated, and a number of racist jokes or references help make this clear.

It’s a classic because everyone thinks it a classic.  

 

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

What I noticed in The Silkworm (2014), and it was evident too in The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), the first of the Robert Galbraith novels (J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym) was how much time the author spends writing about nothing.  I do not necessarily mean that as criticism, nor as praise.  It’s simply an observation.  The strength of both the Galbraith novels is the characters, especially the main character, private detective Cormorant Strike.  If he were real, I’d like spending time with him.  In both novels I found the mysteries, which revolve around murders, contrived, especially the ultimate way in which they’re unravelled.  Galbraith handles the mystery in The Cuckoo’s Calling more effectively than in the first novel, and even though it still seems contrived it’s bizarre enough to hold our interest.  But it’s curious how much time Galbraith spends describing where Strike is—the interior of a pub or of the city itself—or of what he is doing—he eats a great deal, overeats in fact, and at some point I suspect his overeating will become an issue in a later novel (as will I am sure his relationship with his secretary Robin) —the Cormorant series is sure to continue.  These passages in which Galbraith describes nothing can in themselves be entertaining, but they don’t advance the plot or the concerns of the novel.  In that sense they waste our time. 

The context of The Cuckoo’s Calling is the contemporary literary world of London.  The novel includes a prominent agent, editors, and writers, and one wonders whether any of them was based on actual personages.

It’s tempting to look for similarities between the Galbraith novels and the Harry Potter series.  Galbraith writes for an adult audience, of course, and for the most part she made the transition from juvenile to adult writing well.  But at the center of every Harry Potter novel is a mystery that the primary characters have to unravel.  The plot usually involves discovering who among the Hogwarts teachers is acting for Voldemort.  Evil does exist in the Hogwarts world.  In Galbraith’s adult world, it’s more psychological deviation than evil.  But the title of the novel at the center of The Cuckoo’s Calling is itself a puzzle that detective Strike seeks to decipher, as at the same time he’s solving the gruesome murder.  The way in which we discover the nature of the book and the murder is similar to the way in which the mysteries are resolved in the Potter novels.

 

Frances Ha

It’s difficult for me to empathize with the experiences of so-called millennials because I’m so far removed in time and age from them.  Still, Frances Ha (2012; dir. Noah Baumbach) stirred my interest and empathy.  Filmed effectively in black and white, it follows the plight of a 27 year- old woman in New York City.  She’s an intern in a dance company and hopes to join the company as a full member, but it becomes clear that the director of the company doesn’t think she has the talent.  She encourages Frances to try choreography.  Frances has a close relationship with her roommate.  They are almost like married partners, except that they’re not.  When her roommate decides to move in into a better apartment with other friends, their friendship and Frances’ life are thrown into confusion.  They quarrel, and though they later reconcile their relationship is never close again.  The film basically follows Frances as she tries to make sense of her life, to form bonds with the people around her, as she visits her parents in California.  Greta Gerwig makes Frances an awkward, endearing, but sometimes uncomfortable character.  She doesn’t ask for help when she needs it, she seems in more peril that she recognizes, and we can see her gradually sinking—late in the film she is working at a summer camp as a kind of counselor.  Her optimism and relaxed attitude towards life drive her forward.  But gradually she discovers where her talents lie, and her personal prospects improve. The film is a charming character study.   

The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck

The Farther Shore, by Matthew Eck, is a novel about a small group of US soldiers trying to escape an Iraqi city during the war.  This was an interesting book but not a great one.  Its descriptions of the Iraqi war reminded me of Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War.  The plot is not extraordinary:  an idealistic and sensitive young soldier experiences the horrors of war, kills some people, tries to escape the pursuing enemy, friends are wounded and die, he accidentally kills a fellow soldier, is rescued, talks to dad and mom over the phone.  Then it’s over.  At the beginning the main character and fellow soldiers are watching out for enemy movements from the top of a tall building in a war-torn Iraqi city.  They hear movement in the stairs coming up towards their location and engage in gunfire.  The noises, it turns out, were made by young boys coming up to the roof.  The soldiers know the dead boys will be missed and leave the building, headed towards a rendezvous location where helicopters will pick them up.  But the helicopters are chased off by enemy fire, one of the soldiers is fatally wounded, and the group has to leave the town on foot.  They make their way through the city to the beach and walk north along the shore for days until they reach a deserted building where they stay during the rainy season.  When the rain stops they travel further, are separated, and then more events occur.  Eck’s descriptions of Iraq and the experiences of the soldiers are vivid.  His descriptions of the struggles of the soldiers through the Iraqi countryside reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  An emotional numbness penetrates this novel.  Eck refrains from commentary or soul-searching, apparently believing that the horror of the events speak for themselves, but they don’t, and the book seems not fully formed as a result.

Far Tortuga: A Novel, by Peter Matthiessen

Chapter 40 of Moby-Dick is a literal drama, with various crew members of the whaling ship the Pequod speaking their parts as if in a Shakespearean drama.  Although other chapters suggest Melville was reading heavily in Shakespearean tragedy, as indeed he was, I remember the shock of this chapter the first time I read it.  It’s what makes the novel such a revolutionary work, such an unexpected and untimely work, part of the reason it still resonates with me so strongly today.

Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga: A Novel (Random House, 1975) is written in the style of Melville’s chapter—less Shakespearean, more in the style of Miller or O’Neill, except with the impressionistic poetry of Tennessee William’s stage directions. The novel tells the story of a crew of turtlers in the Caribbean, on their last voyage on an old and broken down turtle boat, under the command of an embittered captain who is hunting for a full haul of turtles.  The method is naturalistic.  Much of the tale is told through the direct language of the crew, who speak in a heavy dialect inflected with English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, with a heavy dose of African words.  The crew is mixed and diverse racially.  The dialect is so rich and heavy that it takes getting used to.  The end result is poetry of a deep and intense kind.  Matthiessen introduces each chapter with a paragraph or two that describes the scene, the setting or the weather or the sky.  But most of the novel is simply the language of the crew talking to one another.

Captain X is the Ahab of this novel.  He’s cruel and bitter and contemptuous of the men on his vessel.  He berates them without hesitation and at length.  Several desert.  His father dies.  After an attack by a group of renegade Jamaicans, the ship founders on a reef and sinks.

The Far Tortugas is intense.  It’s difficult because of its stylistic method.  It’s also strangely distinctive and beautiful.

 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

The voice of Little Onion in The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (2013, Riverhead Books) is one of those essential American literary voices that defines and becomes the story it narrates.  It’s like Huck or Holden or Scout or Ishmael.  It carries personality, point of view, a vision of history.  Though the subject of the novel is serious—John Brown, abolitionism, slavery—Onion’s voice offers a new or at least distinctive way of viewing it.  Onion avoids the potential pitfall of exaggerating a historical figure into heroic proportions.  John Brown is already legend.  But he gives Brown to us here as a devout man obsessively dedicated to the eradication of slavery, often lacking good judgment, capable of murderousness, willing to sacrifice himself and others, willing to go to any extreme to achieve his goals, a man whose piety often seems blended with psychotic mania, but who to the end is true to his purpose.  The comic tone of the novel ensures that we don’t overlook the historical realities of its subject, that he becomes neither more nor less than what he was. Only at the end, does the tone veer slightly and briefly towards sentimentalism.

Comparisons of McBride with such novelists as E. L. Doctorow are logical— historical figures often appear in his work.  But I was most reminded of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), which, like this novel, is narrated by an old man about his exploits with various historical characters at a much younger age.  A similar comic tone characterizes that novel as well as this one. 

The Good Lord Bird follows John Brown’s skirmishes in Kansas against pro-slavery homesteaders to his unsuccessful seizure of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, where he hoped to prompt a slave uprising.  Onion’s narrative manner is comic and matter of fact.  Many if not most of the events he describes, many of them involving murders, all of them tangentially if not directly involved with slavery, are grim, but the comic voice offers an interesting perspective. 

The narrator masquerades as a girl for the entirety of the novel.  The masquerade serves as a way for McBride to explore the deceptions and masquerades that being owned as property enforces on slaves—how they must pretend to be one thing when in fact they’re something else. 

Onion is especially contemptuous of Frederick Douglass, whom he finds unequal to his fame.  In one scene Douglass becomes drunk and tries to seduce Onion.  Although Douglass encouraged Brown’s plans for Harper’s Ferry, he refused to take part, arguing (correctly, as it turned out) that the attack was doomed to fail.  More admiring is the account of Harriet Tubman, who also makes an appearance and who, but for illness, would have been part of the Harpers Ferry raid.

 

 

Manderlay

In Manderlay (2005; dir. Lars Von Trier) a young woman is traveling with his gangster father and his henchmen when they runs across a plantation in Alabama where slavery still exists.  The year is 1933.  She tells the slaves they are free.  Her father leaves, and she undertakes to teach the African American residents of the plantation how to live in a civilized community according to community, democratic principles.  She compels the white owners to live and work with the former slaves so that they too can understand their crime.  She lectures the former slaves about democracy, community, hard work, justice, and seeks to roust them from what she sees as their passivity.  She gradually finds her principles undermined.  First, though she is preaching democracy, the henchmen of her father, who have remained behind with her on the plantation to protect the newly freed slaves, provide armed enforcement and force the slaves to attend Grace’s educational meetings.  She makes some decisions that lead to problems—cutting down trees, for instance, that block an annual dust storm, causing crops to fail and a little girl to become ill with pneumonia.  When an old woman steals food from the girl who then dies, the plantation residents vote to execute her, and Grace has to inflict the punishment. 

In the end, Grace discovers that she has made serious misjudgments, especially concerning one of the residents whom she fantasizes about before actually having sex with him, only then to discover that he has gambled away the money the group earned growing cotton.  She is so disgusted with her misunderstanding and his betrayal that she decides to leave.  When she reveals her decision to the community, they inform her that the book that the former plantation mistress used to enforce slavery had been in fact written by the oldest of the slaves.  What she thought she understood about the book is turned upside down.  Rather than a handbook on how to handle slaves, it was a set of survival strategies for African Americans living in a country not ready to accept them.  In the penultimate scene, the film returns to its opening, where Grace stopped the whipping of a slave.  In this scene, she viciously whips him herself.  While she assumed the slaves were thoroughly unprepared to live in the world, it turns out in the end they controlled their lives.

As the closing credits roll, photographs of racial crimes, murders and so on flash across the screen, along with photos of black leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Von Trier’s point in this film is that white people created America on the backs of slaves, and that it is illogical and morally absurd for them to claim they know what democracy is or how to prepare blacks to live there.

The film takes place on a large stage, on which the outlines of Manderlay are painted.  There is virtually no set, just logs and props that indicate where houses stand.  The film is divided into 8 parts and is narrated by Malcolm McDowell, with compositions by Handel and Vivaldi frequently heard in the background, and with “Young Americans” as sung by David Bowie playing as the credits roll. McDowell’s narration makes sure we don’t misunderstand what is going on.  The actors read their lines in the most casual way.  The screenplay is so poorly written, so contrived and wrenched about, that the film is nearly unwatchable.  It’s a bad, overbearing Sunday school lesson with the moral depth of early adolescent anger.  I’ve enjoyed other films by Von Trier, but this one fails.

 

 

The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure, by Jack Handey

This odd novel is a series of one-liners about a trip to Honolulu.  It has little connection to reality or to a novel and certainly not to Honolulu.  The author, Jack Handey, a Saturday Night Live writer, is familiar with Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour road movies, but he’s familiar with a lot else as well. To say that this book is allusive is an understatement.  The narrator is an unlikeable, self-absorbed reservoir of bad jokes and he grows tiresome early on.  It became increasingly tedious to read this book.  Its jokes fell flat and interest proved slight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Annihilation: A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer

In the 1990s computer game “Myst,”  players wandered from scene to scene, picking up clues (if they recognized them), trying to figure out the nature of the mystery, to figure out what the real goal of the game might be.  In “Myst” you begin with no idea of what the point is.  You’re just in a a space, and you start moving around.  Annihilation: A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer (Macmillan, 2014) reminded me of “Myst,” although it provides more exposition than the game did.  The narrator is an unnamed woman who is a member of a team sent to investigate Area X, an unidentified place apparently in the coastal area of the American Southeast—a place where “something” has happened.  What “something” is isn’t clear, but it may involve an alien invasion.  Eleven previous expeditions failed to discover the nature of Area X, where unknown forces can apparently distort human perceptions.  It’s never exactly clear what is going on in this novel.  There are long stretches where nothing happens, and then when something does happen you’re not sure what it is, or what it means, and neither is the narrator.  The novel evokes an atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty that is never dispelled.  Much of it involves explorations of a tower or tunnel that appears to be embedded in the ground, and a lighthouse.  Something is writing words on the inner walls of the tower/tunnel, and their vaguely Biblical meaning are frequently repeated.   The challenging aspect of point of view in this novel is that everything is suspect—the narrator, her understanding of what is happening, her identity, the past, the future.  This is the ultimate unreliable narrative.  The narrator’s involvement in the mysteries of the novel, which directly engages with the question of fate, identity, and the questionable meanings of reality, is deeply moving at times.  I appreciate the novel but don’t feel driven towards reading the second and the third volumes of the The Southern Reach Trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first part.

The Hunters, by James Salter

James Salter’s novel The Hunters (Harpers, 1956) is the best novel about fighter pilots I’ve read.  It’s the only novel about fighter pilots I’ve read.  Set in the Korean War, focused on a pilot named Cleve Connell, it describes the lives of the American pilots in the conflict.  Connell comes to the war with a promising record, so much so that he’s made the commanding officer in his flight wing, but he finds it difficult to succeed in the war.  He finally bags one plane, a kill, but other pilots surpass his record, and ultimately he comes to believe that other officers see him as a “safe” pilot, one who doesn’t take risks.   Long periods of waiting stand between missions, and actual encounters with the enemy are brief.  Success or failure depends on sharp eyesight, luck, and skill.  The novel follows the development of Connell’s character as he confronts his growing lack of success and the possibility that he lacks these needed elements.

Social interactions among pilots take up much of the book.  One’s social standing depends on success in the air.  Connell becomes especially fixated on a new and younger pilot named Ed Pell who, he thinks, puts other pilots at risk in his quest for kills.  He’s ambitious, eager to please his superiors, willing (Connell suspects) to bend the truth.  Yet he is, after all, a success while others like Connell are not.  Connell at first blames his lack of success on bad luck, but he does have an uncanny knack for flying missions where nothing happens.  He grows increasingly jealous of Pell, resentful of his superiors and fellow officers.  He becomes defensive, provokes arguments, and complains.

Connell defines himself by his success as a pilot.  As his sense of failure grows, he becomes isolated and empty.  In the end, he takes risks that he probably shouldn’t have.

Although there are moments when the characteristics of a “first novel” become apparent (occasional overwriting; one pilot’s unhappy fate is repeatedly hinted at), in general The Hunters is a tightly focused exploration of a topic most readers know little about.  The fact that Salter himself was a U. S. Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War suggests that it may provide an accurate account.

 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pretty Baby

Pretty Baby (1979, dir. Louis Malle) has the feel of a documentary, a supposedly neutral, objective account of the lives of prostitutes in Storyville, LA, just before the start of the First World War.  The lack of a conventional point of view, of clues that in some way would allow us to see this film through a lens of conventional morality or social analysis, makes it difficult and disturbing to watch.  We are confronted with the issue of a 12-year-old girl running around in a whorehouse, or of her virginity being auctioned off to the highest bid, or of her posing nude for an admiring photographer. We must also consider the very fact of the film’s having been made, and even more than that, of our act of watching the film.  Does Malle wish us all to feel complicit in the life of this 12-year old girl in Storyville, or in the use of the 12-year-old girl actress in the film itself?  Or is complicity for him not an issue.  Is his own private pathology at work here?  Or are all these forces at work?  Is morality (that entirely relativistic, subjective concept) not an issue at all?  Is he simply documenting history without passing judgment? 

The lens is narrow—the film is set almost entirely within a whore house, and it focuses on the lives of the women within it.  Only towards the end do we move outside the barriers that divide the house from the rest of the world, and even then it is to the house of the photographer whose obsession is photographing prostitutes.  The entire film takes place within a frame of apparent unreality.  When Violet throws a young black playmate to the ground and demands that he “do it” with her on the spot, a black woman comes out of the house and lectures her on the difference between the world outside the walls of the whorehouse and the world within, the white world and the black world.  This is a rare moment when the film moves beyond itself to stress the notion of the whorehouse as an isolated enclave of pretense, fantasy, and self-indulgence cut off from the reality of the world outside, where men are preparing to go off to war and die, where racial codes are in play.

The two slight plots have to do with Violet and her prostitute mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon).  Hattie wins the affections of a contractor from St. Louis who proposes marriage.  Hattie accepts, having told him that Violet is really her sister.  (The film suggests that middle-class respectability outside the whorehouse is what all the women who work there long for).  She promises to come fetch Violet after she’s able to tell him the truth.  The other plot follows the interest of the photographer Bellocq (Keith Carradine) in taking pictures of the prostitutes.  He’s especially interested in Violet, falls in love with her, and towards the end of the film marries her in a ceremony that turns out to be illegal because she is under age.

The film invites us to speculate about Bellocq and his interest in Violet.  She’s not entered puberty yet, and is boylike in appearance.  Does she attract him because she looks like a boy, because of her appearance of innocence (she is, after a fashion, innocent)?  Does the film mean to present him as a homosexual, or a pederast, or an innocent and sincere man, or what?  With our consciousness in 2014 of the sexual victimization of children, of child pornography, we view this film through a lens that might not have been available when it was made.  In fact, the film was made in pre-Internet days when pornography was not easily accessible to the masses, and the large and disturbing child pornography industry was much smaller and better hidden than it is today.  The film itself is not pornographic, though some might consider it so.  However, it does raise questions about the exploitation of children—both within the plot of the film and in the larger world where viewers sit and watch the performance of the 12-year-old Brooke Shields.

Although the whore house is a small portion of the larger landscape of the American South, it enshrines notions of Southern masculinity and gentility.  The prostitutes dress as if they are refined upper class Southern women.  They are, at least in the public part of the whorehouse, treated with respect and deference by their patrons (there are exceptions).  It’s all a pretense, of course, a manifestation of the sexual double standard that pervaded Southern life for decades.  The whorehouse provides a space where Southern gentleman can with their prostitute of choice subvert with impunity the codes of Old Southern gentility and respect for womanhood.

In the end, Violet’s mother and her husband come to fetch Violet.  They’ve made the transition to respectable middle-class life.  They dress as respectable middle-class citizens.  Hattie wants Violet to go to school and to have a proper rearing.  Bellocq protests, weakly.  The transition is sudden and shocking.  In the film’s final image, Violet’s new stepfather takes her photo in front of the train with a handheld camera (different from the old-fashioned one that Bellocq lugs around and laboriously sets up).  We see her in the frozen image both as a normal 12-year-old child and as a young women whose shadowy look of uncertainty, skepticism, doubt (whatever it is) suggest to us—what?

Time moves forward.  The epoch of Storyville, of old-fashioned cameras, of prostitution, of the lifestyle this film portrays—this all is coming to an end.  Money and a new set of clothes accomplish the transition. 

In one scene Violet’s virginity is being auctioned off to a room full of mostly middle-aged white men.  They’re portly, laughing, cigar-smoking men.  As they call out their bids, a black piano player stands nearby watching.  The look on his face grows increasingly dark and grievous.  The parallelism between this scene and that of a slave auction is too obvious, but the point is made clearly enough.

Sounder

Sounder (1972, dir. Martin Ritt) documents the life of a rural African American family in Louisiana in 1933.  The film has a semi-documentary quality.  The main character is the oldest son in the family, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), who’s growing up and has a close relationship with his father Nathan (Paul Winfield).  The Morgans are sharecroppers, and when the film begins they are having a difficult time.  Nathan and David Lee are out hunting raccoons for dinner, but they miss an opportunity and go home late without supper for the family.  The film records in simple, straightforward form the lives of the family as they go to town, play baseball, work, and talk with one another.  There are no especially dramatic moments.  It’s not a series of crises or problems.  It’s just the life of the Morgan family.  Its purpose is to give a picture of what life was like for one black family during the 1930s.

When Nathan fails to bring home supper, he leaves late at night and returns with meat stolen from a local farmer.  As a result, he’s arrested and tried for robbery and sent to a work camp for a year.  David Lee and his mother Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) and a brother and sister must work the farm and bring in the crops so that the farmer who owns their farm can receive his earnings. 

David Lee decides to go search for the work camp where his father is living.  The town sheriff apparently knows where the work camp is but won’t reveal the information, he says because of rules, not even to a local white woman, Mrs. Boatwright (Carmen Mathews) who is friendly to the family.  She manages to get the information from his file cabinet anyway, and David Lee leaves on a long hunt for his father’s whereabouts.  The movie suggests it’s a long walk, and he passes through farm after farm, hardly seeing anyone.  He visits several work camps but never finds his father.  A school teacher befriends him.  She teaches an all-black school and talks to David Lee about important figures in African American history.  In the end, she invites David Lee to attend the school. (The film pointedly shows David Lee attending a class where the teacher reads from Huckleberry Finn, and of his reading with pleasure the novel The Three Musketeers.  These are both artifacts of white culture, while the school teacher who befriends him introduces him for the first time to figures from African American history and culture).

He returns home.  Sometime later, the father returns as well, and family life resumes, though Nathan insists that David Lee must leave to attend the school.  The family works hard to make their farm a success, but the film does not extol the virtues of farming, nor does it suggest that farming is the best way towards success and self-sufficiency for African Americans.  Nathan tells his son not to love the farm.  Nathan says he will miss it, but he will not worry about it.  Thus the film gives one reason why African Americans across the South began leaving their farms during the early decades of the 20th century in the Great Migration towards northern cities.

What Sounder does extol is the virtues of family.  That is the value in which all the Morgans believe.  They work hard on the farm for the betterment of the family.  At the same time, the film tends to idealize their lives and the conditions under which they lived, which on the average I would suspect were more difficult than portrayed.  Moreover, certain scenes don’t seem historically accurate.  Early in the film, we see David Lee going to attend school in a class taught by a white teacher and filled with white students, except for the last row, where David Lee and two other black students sit.  It’s highly doubtful that in 1933 in Louisiana any white school would have allowed black students to be in the same classroom with whites.

Sounder makes clear the difficult legal circumstances in which the Morgan family and other African Americans lived during the Depression era of the American South.  Some whites are friendly, others are not.  The family is subject to the requirements of sharecropping, of an economic system that allows them barely to scrape by, and a law enforcement system that is indifferent to why they may be driven to steal. It’s interesting to compare this film with Hallelujah (1929; dir. King Vidor), which argues that most of the problems black people encounter are of their own doing, and that the farming life is what they are best suited for.  The characters in Sounder are simply good and decent people trying to live their lives, trying to get by, in difficult circumstances.

Sounder is David Lee’s dog.  When the sheriff arrives to arrest Nathan and drives away with him, the dog follows, barking, and the deputy shoots him.  The dog’s return to David Lee and gradual recovery is a symbol of the family that unifies the film.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Panic in the Streets

Panic in the Streets (1950; dir. Elia Kazan)is more interesting for the ideas it presents than for its story.  Set in New Orleans, it is about an illegal immigrant who carries a plague infection.  He’s killed when he begs out of a card game.  When the autopsy reveals his infection, the public health inspector, Clint Reed, played by Richard Widmark, urges the city police and other officials to conduct a city-wide search for the identity of the dead man and for people he may have been in contact with.  The pneumonic plague is described as highly infectious and 99% fatal.  An early version of such later films as Outbreak (1995, dir. Wolfgang Peterson) and Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh), Panic works clearly in the American film noir tradition.  It’s a combination of police drama and disease drama. 

Immigrants play an important part in the film.  The film shows New Orleans as a place of diverse and multicultural populations, Asians, Italians, blacks, and so on.  The atmosphere if the city is often evoked, and the opening scene specifically recalls the opening of Streetcar Named Desire, also a Kazan film.  In bars, eateries, fishing wharves, warehouses, and elsewhere the film makes the atmosphere of New Orleans prominent.  The film specifically links the disease itself with immigrants, and the infected man is suspected of being East European. 

The film explores the origins of the infection—a vessel off the coast populated with crewmembers from various parts of the world.  Rats infest the ship, and they are suspected as the cause of the disease.  One crewmen has died, and another is infected when the officials manage to find the ship.

Reed as the health inspector understands how diseases spread, and he knows that if people exposed to the disease aren’t identified and inoculated (in this film, one simple shot protects you from the plague) it may spread to other cities and become a national and international epidemic.  He spends much of the film trying to convince others, especially a police inspector who doesn’t like government officials, of the importance of dealing with the situation.  Two tensions become evident here.  One is the relatively minor tension between local and government officials concerning who is best able and willing to deal with crises.  The other, a more significant one, concerns the idea that immigrants are a potential source of contagion, especially immigrants from less familiar parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America.  New Orleans is not only a multicultural center of culture and people in this film, but also a threat to the rest of the nation as a result.

Reed’s family life runs as a sub-current through the film.  It’s clear that he’s an ambitious man who wants success in his job and wants to be able to provide for his family.  In the opening scene, we see him painting a cabinet with his young so.  The boy talks admiringly about the man across the street who has taught him how to paint and has spent time with the boy.  The implication is that Reed doesn’t spend enough time with his son, and at the end of the film the neighbor comes out and says as much.  Reed’s wife is clearly also someone whom he needs to spend more time with.

Reed is aggressive and hot tempered because he’s worried about his own status in life, worried about failure.  He’s not an Annapolis man, and this may factor into his thinking, his subtle sense of inferiority.  His wife gently convinces him that he sometimes takes out his worries on other people, including her.

An interesting piece of sexual diplomacy circa 1950s style occurs in a scene late in the film when the wife reveals that she has “decided” to become pregnant with a second child.  This is something she and Reed have discussed before but they have delayed because of money concerns.  Now she has decided to “let” herself become pregnant. Her assumption is that Reed will be happy with the second child, and that somehow they will survive financially. 

 

This film about the threat of plague in New Orleans recalls Jezebel (1938, dir. William Wyler), in which city fathers discuss and ultimately decide against taking precautions against yellow fever, which has ravaged the city in the past and which, in the closing hour of the film, visits the city again.  

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Angel Heart

With characters named Lewis Cyphre, Harry Angel, and Epiphany Proudfoot, portentous allegory can’t be far behind.  Or not.  In this mystery about a smalltime detective hired to find a shadowy man who failed to satisfy the terms of a contract, atmosphere is everything.  Set first in Brooklyn and then in New Orleans, Angel Heart (1987; dir. Alan Parker) portrays through African Americans voodoo, mystery, the supernatural, superstitious, and dark religions.  None African American has a primary role—primary roles are for white actors, except for Lisa Bonet as Proudfoot, who has a modest but significant part.  I first saw this film in 1987.  I remember feeling disappointment with the final scene, which involved an elevator descending to, you guessed it, the pits of hell.  Much of the rest of the film had faded from memory by the time I watched it again this morning.  But I did remember the descending elevator, and it influenced how I saw the film.  Angel Heart telegraphs its storyline from almost the earliest scene, and astute viewers (I wasn’t one in 1987, and may not be one now) might guess at the twist that the movie hints at with growing insistence as it moves along.

An alternative title could be “I See Black People.”  Black people are everywhere in Angel Heart, and are essentially faceless.  They connote evil, the supernatural, voodoo, Santeria, devil worship, wild sexuality, and mystery.  They also, through their impoverished lives, represent Louisiana and the South. The film really never stops to question whether they might be anything else.  It isn’t especially forthcoming about how voodoo works, especially the version Harry encounters.  Chickens are involved, blood sacrifices, frenetic dancing, drums—practices beyond the understanding of Harry.  (He’s afraid of chickens--despite its darkness, the film has comic moments).  He interviews a series of people who might know about the man he’s been hired to investigate, yet after he interviews them, they turn up dead, in circumstances that make him seem the likely villain.  He’s certain he’s being framed and becomes convinced that the person he’s been hired to find, someone who disappeared twelve years ago, is the murderer and framer. 

Angel Heart builds suspense through the fairly effective performance of Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel, a private detective wary of getting too close to serious criminal activity.  Yet he finds himself increasingly drawn into a web of murder and dark mysteries.  

Clashing cultures are at issue here—North vs. South, but more specifically the rationalism of Brooklyn vs. the irrationalism of voodoo and African American culture in Louisiana (as the film conceives of it).  I’m not an expert on voodoo or Santeria, and although the writer of this screenplay obviously bothered to do some research, I don’t think he’s that informed either.  African Americans and their culture in this film are looming dark Others, used merely to inflate the suspense and uncertainty of a storyline that is fairly linear and banal.  There’s not much understanding involved in the portrayal of voodoo and other practices—it’s just all blasted at us as strange and mysterious.  Harry declares himself an atheist, and to the very end resists the truth: “I know who I am,” he insists, but of course he does not.

Aspects of this film reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), especially the pacing, mood, and the use of flashbacks and glimpses of mysterious imagery that hint at revelations to come.  As the final scenes approach, we have probably figured out the story before Harry does.  One nice bit of irony involves the film’s title, Angel Heart, which seems to suggest that Harry serves virtue in this battle with dark forces, but in the end it means something different. Epiphany Proudfoot’s first name is neatly accounted for as well.

 

From Harry’s slow-witted persistence to Louis Cyphre’s greased down hair to Lisa Bonet’s inviting glance to a baby’s lizard eyes, this film is heavy handed.  So is this review, carefully written to be 666 words in length.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle, by Allison Graham

Allison Graham’s Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle (Johns Hopkins Press, 2001) is full of provocative, insightful comments about the media and films about the South, especially their portrayal of the Civil Rights era.  A fundamental method of this book is to show that in the end, whatever the underlying premise or trope or intent of a film might be, the work often undercuts itself. The tendency of many Southern films, argues Graham, to steer away from difficult and complex topics in favor of safer, more marketable ones means that they don’t deal directly with such issues as racism and civil rights.  The context of such discussion is primarily one of failure—failure to engage racism directly.  By trying to understand the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which films are made and sold, in which people view them, in trying to embed films in that context, Allison Graham sometimes skews matters entirely, distorting and wrenching and ultimately leaving a film unrecognizable.  She sees the tendency in Southern films since the early 1960s to satirize, criticize, and otherwise portray the Southern redneck or hillbilly as an ignorant, benighted source of racist evil as a way of avoiding the reality of the institutional racism that lies at the heart of Southern society.  This is a good insight, but as a thesis it can overpower, narrowing rather than expanding the argument.  Her discussion of Forrest Gump, which she views as an apology for Southern racism, an affirmation of the innate goodness of the Southern white man, is a case in point.  She argues that the film (and many others) takes the position that the “southern problem has never been white people; it has, it seems, always been social class” (191). To me that assertion is too simplistic, but more than that, it does not account for what the film is.  It is more than a place in a larger context, more than evidence for a thesis and a formula. 

Examples of her comments:

“In Forrest Gump, the Hollywood South finally found its Homer.  The rise, punishment, and redemption of the white man is his tale” (15).  Elsewhere she calls Gump “an Alabama idiot” (14) and describes the film as “an homage to No Time for Sergeants(191). 

One of Graham’s primary contentions (one I endorse) in Framing the South is that many films make rednecks and hillbillies the villains in the battles for civil rights.  They express racist attitudes openly, says Graham, (“they roar the hatred that his betters will only whisper,” 13).  Such films showed racism as a problem associated with the lower-class and ignorant, not as an ingrained aspect of Southern institutions (14).              

“Elvis was a black impersonator” (128). Well, yes and no.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee placed the story in the 1930s as “a memory, a fantasy tempered by an acute awareness of its remoteness from present-day urgency” (160).

Cape Fear seemed to turn the liberal politics of the moment on its head for it argued that not only was vigilante justice the correct response of upstanding white men to those who threatened their security, it was the only possible response” (163).   I’m about to re-watch both versions of Cape Fear and will keep this reading in mind.    

In both Mockingbird and Cape Fear, Graham finds that the insistence on the inherent badness of the villain-rednecks (Bob Ewell, Max Cady) is an argument that racism stems from problems of social class—the lowest white social class--rather than a problem located in the deepest structure of Southern society and life. (164).

In The Heat of the Night: “by not implicating the white power structure in the major crimes of the story and by exonerating, in effect, the legal and economic institutions of the Deep South, [Sterling] Silliphant’s screenplay managed to create a ‘social realism’ that was both politically acceptable and commercially viable” (181).  My recollection is that this film does not exonerate those institutions but instead makes clear their guilt.  Though they may not have been involved in the crime at the film’s center, they are the source of the racism and hatred that Virgil Tibbs contends with throughout the film, and that the film constantly displays.  One does not leave this film feeling good about the Mississippi town it portrays.  This film presents racism as a force deeply engrained in Southern society.       

Graham’s knowledge of films about the American South is deeply impressive.  She has seen, it seems everything, including many films not easily available.

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre (Grove Press, 2002) uses the voice of an obnoxious sixteen year old for comic and pathetic effect.  Vernon is suspected of having colluded with his best friend Jesus in a mass killing that took 36 teenage lives.  Jesus did the crime.  When Vernon realizes what his friend means to do after being bullyied by classmates, he tries to stop him.  But too late.  As he manages through bad decisions and bad luck to make himself look more and more guilty, as others collude around him (rather improbably—his mother’s ex-lover produces a weekly television show that shows an execution—the American public votes on which convicted murdered will die next), he runs away to Mexico, thinks he is going to have sex with a girl he has fantasized about throughout his entire adolescence, gets arrested and put on trial, and ultimately finds himself on death row.  He ends up on the gurney, waiting for his lethal injection.

What troubles me about this book is authenticity, consistency, and moral appropriateness.  (That phrase “moral appropriateness” seems suspect to me.)  A review compared Vernon’s voice to that of Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield.  That comparison attracted me to the book.  Another review mentioned hilarious humor.  Actually, although Vernon speaks or narrates in a continual patois of insults, puns, and caricatures, he’s not that funny.  Are we supposed to laugh because he repeatedly uses the word “fucken.”  Is this how he thinks the word is spelled, or pronounced, or just an act of rebellion against good spelling?  Is this sight dialect?  Why doesn’t he spell it “fuckin’, which is how I hear it? Is that how the British spell it?  The deliberate misspelling is like a lot of the humor: artificial and forced.  The tone and rhetoric in which Vernon speaks varies considerably.  Occasionally he narrates with the intelligence and adult insight.  At other times he sounds like a halfwit.  What we do grow to understand is that he’s very intelligent, very damaged both by his family upbringing and by his friend’s murder of 36 schoolmates, very much alone.  The mood varies from comic to potentially tragic.  And moral appropriateness—well—exactly how appropriate is it to make comedy from the aftermath of the killing of 36 teenagers?  Or of impending death by injection?

Characters are portrayed as cartoons, Vernon’s mother in particular.  Although he loves her, he finds nothing positive about her.

 

The book seems a calculated sleight of hand, a deception, right down to the deus ex machina rescue from execution, Vernon’s mother’s new dish washer, and the beautiful young woman waiting for him across the street with the suitcase that he and she will take to Mexico.  To make it all seem even more like a trick, the novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. 

To Sleep with Anger

To Sleep with Anger (dir. Charles Burnett, 1990) is a comic melodrama about an African American family from Mississippi that has lived in Los Angeles for thirty years.  A family cousin (or friend—it’s not clear) whom no one has seen for decades appears at the door, and a happy reunion takes place.  In LA the family has established a comfortable if modest middle-class existence in what appears to be an African American neighborhood.  It’s not clear why they moved to LA three decades in the past, but one can guess that economic opportunity and freedom from discrimination and danger were the reasons.  The family does have a better life.  They don’t live in a word of rigidly enforced segregation.  To some extent, blacks and whites in the film interact in a friendly way, as an early scene of a Lamaze class shows.  But racial problems are not a direct focus.  Problems of middle class life for a Mississippi-born African American family are.  The husband and wife, Gideon and Suzie, are relatively content, but they worry over the things that many parents worry over—in this case, the resentment the older brother feels both towards his father as well as towards his younger brother.  The father worries over the distance between himself and his older son, and resents that he doesn’t show up at family occasions, such as his mother’s birthday.

Harry’s appearance brings back to Gideon and Suzie memories of life in Mississippi.  He brings disruption too.  At first Harry (Danny Glover) seems to be an inoffensive country bumpkin visiting big city relatives.  He wanders around their house, peering at and touching family photographs and possessions.  He opens drawers to see what’s in them, reads private letters.  This behavior gentle characterizes harry as an intruder, someone who means to intrude in a family’s private life.  He otherwise behaves in a generally harmless if aimless manner.

We gradually notice that Harry loves to stir things up.  His method are subtle.  When Gideon and Suzie are away at church, he plays cards with the older brother and his wife.  (Cards are forbidden in this churchgoing house).  He constantly puts his hands on everyone—at first this seems to be simple affection but soon becomes something different, though what I’m not sure.  When the younger brother slaps his wife and leaves a bruise, instead of encouraging him to apologize to his wife, Harry takes him on a walk over difficult rocks in a creek and then encourages him to leave LA and go back to Mississippi.  There, he says, the man will see wild women beyond imagining.  Improbably, the man is tempted.  He offers to help him learn how to make money playing cards.  He tells the man that the best way to get his wife back would be to find another woman—no man, he says, has only one woman.  Instead of helping the family deal with their problems, he makes them worse.  We also begin to learn things about his past, of people who, for whatever reasons, ended up dead after being around Harry.

Harry becomes the guest who won’t go away, who wears out his welcome.  He grows increasingly an irritation.  When he takes Gideon on a long walk, Gideon returns home exhausted, has a breakdown, and almost dies.  He lies in a coma for three weeks. 

The film focuses on the conflicts between life in the Deep South and life in LA.  It can also be seen as a film about conflicting generational values.  The parents retain many of the family and religious values they learned in Mississippi: Gideon loses his good luck charm early in the film; Suzie uses various folk remedies to treat him when he falls ill; they attend church regularly, raise chickens and garden, and place a strong emphasis on family togetherness.   Their sons don’t feel and live the same way, especially the older brother, whose life has wandered astray.  In subtle ways Harry aggravates these disruptions, brings people and ideas into the house that accentuate the differences: for instance, he brings into the house the high school boyfriend of Suzie, who later proposes to her when her husband lies near death.

When Harry dies suddenly of a heart attack, the family begins to recover.  The two brothers make up.  Father and son reach an uneasy truce.  Gideon wakes from his coma.  The county won’t send someone to retrieve Harry’s body, so the family and friends sit around, ignoring the body, talking and joking and feeling relieved and relaxed.

Harry is, literally or figuratively, the devil.  He describes himself to Suzie as having both good and evil sides, and says that he’s unwilling to declare which side he favors.  He embodies the growing family conflicts that come to a head in the film.  When he is, at the end, effectively cast out, the family’s problems are exorcised.

The use of a family drama in a comic way to address important issues in African American life we have seen in the films of a director who must have strongly felt the influence of Charles Burnett: Tyler Perry, who inclines far more towards slapstick, parody, and broad humor.

To Sleep with Anger is entertaining, but there are defects: the screenplay is not consistently well written, the dialogue can seem wooden, and the pacing can be awkward.  As Harry, Danny Glover is very good, but his performance is also unsettling, creepy.  Other cast members are not always as effective, and sometimes lines are delivered in a stilted, lifeless way, as if they’re being read.

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Revenge is the motive in The Outlaw Josey Wales (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1976).    The title character lives with his family in Missouri, a border state.  Border States were neutral in the Civil War, but the term can be misleading.  In this film neutrality means not merely neutrality in the North-South conflict, but also moral and civil anarchy, a region where neither North nor South is in control and the forces of chaos reign.  Guerilla activity was especially strong in Missouri during the Civil War.  As the war rages on, Wales farms in Missouri with his wife and son.  While he is plowing his fields, Union raiders burn his house with his son in it and rape and kill his wife.  When a band of Confederate soldiers passes by intent on taking revenge against the Union marauders, Wales joins them.  After they wreak havoc against Union forces, they are given the offer to surrender with amnesty, and all accept, except Josey.   He still wants revenge.  When the Union soldiers kill the surrendered Confederate raiders, Josey’s desire for revenge only increases.  He becomes, in effect, the last unreconstructed Confederate, and he begins heading west, intent on confrontation with his Union pursuers.

The fact that Union soldiers are the villains in this drama, which is told from a semi-Confederate point of view, is unusual.  The fact that the book on which the film is based was written by Asa Earl (“Forrest”) Carter, an ardent segregationist, Klan leader, White Citizens Council organizer, and George Wallace supporter/speechwriter during the 1960s and 1970s may account for the point of view.  (After the 1940s, most films about the Civil War South were told from a Northern point of view.  The one exception I can think of is Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, 1999, also about Civil War guerillas, but there must be others). But these Union soldiers are not after all the standard variety but brigands, deserters, and guerillas who use the war as an excuse to rape, kill, and plunder.  In this film, it just so happens that they ride under the order of a U. S. senator and a general, implicating the “union” as a concept on a much broader scale.  One point driven repeatedly home throughout the film is that no one has a corner on virtue and justice.  Everyone is corrupt, for the most part.  Although Josey devoted himself to the peaceful and hard life of a Missouri farmer, once his family is dead he reveals his capabilities as a cutthroat killer, always capable of shooting his way out of tight spots (there are a good number of them).  In fact, the plot of the film moves from one tight spot to another.

The interest of this film lies in how many scoundrels, Union soldiers, comancheros, and generic scum Josey will kill before he achieves the revenge he wants.  It lies also in the issue of personal redemption—will Josey ever move beyond his desire for revenge? 

Along the way, Josey picks up various vagabonds and victims.  An old Cherokee, an Indian woman, an old granny and her granddaughter, a bunch of ne’er do wells from a deserted saloon, and so on.  We find here the same interest in eccentric characters we have seen in earlier Eastwood films, including those directed by Sergio Leone.  Like many Eastwood heroes, Josey has a fundamental sympathy for victims, marginalized characters, the weak, but it’s not always evident until some moment of crisis. 

Chief Dan George plays Lone Watie, supposedly a Cherokee chief whom Josey runs across in Indian Territory.  He plays a character similar to his character Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man (1970; dir. Arthur Penn), though here he seems less wise and more loony.  His purpose seems mainly to be rescuing Josey from a few tight spots, serving as a source of humor, and spouting various absurd witticisms.  The Indians in the film, needless to say, are stereotypes, though at least Josey treats them well, and the film portrays them as rounded human beings.

The film loses steam when Eastwood and company arrive at a ranch in the far west where the granny and her granddaughter plan to settle.  By this time, Josey has started to wish for a different life.  He gives a bounty hunter who confronts him in a saloon a chance to back off instead of shooting him outright (when the bounty hunter doesn’t back off, Josey shoots).  When he knows that Comanche Indians are going to attack the ranch, he rides out and makes peace with the chief.  And finally, he passes up a chance to face down the man who betrayed his band of Confederate raiders to the Union raiders.

The film’s final scene, with a wounded Josey riding off into the desert, echoes the end of Shane (1953; dir. George Stevens), though it’s not as clear here that the wound Josey has suffered will be fatal (given the other difficult situations he managed to recover from, it probably isn’t).

Josey’s unwillingness to surrender to the Northern soldiers, or to show allegiance to any other source of authority, indicates his existential aloneness.  The fact that he has ridden with Confederate raiders and eluded Union pursuers only accentuates his isolation.  Josey is like Dirty Harry and the Man without a Name.  He’s an isolated man intent on revenge even though it may well mean his life. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s nostalgic longing for childhood, the past, for simplicity suffuses his films.  It’s the pull of the family idyll—pulled between what one would like to believe family was ten years or more in the past, and what it actually is, that gives The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) its strangely charming and painful touch.  We see this as well in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), where children flee from and towards the misery of adulthood (see especially The Royal Tennenbaums, 2001).  But for Anderson these complicated, disturbing pulls and tugs weave the matrix of the world he has repeatedly portrayed.  It’s adult world misery looming somewhere in the future that gives Moonrise Kingdom its poignancy.  In The Grand Budapest Hotel that misery takes form in the looming ominousness of World War II and the rise of the Nazis.  That looming reality is powerfully present in this film, even though it’s represented only indirectly, in camouflaged form, though there can be no misunderstanding about it.   

The Grand Budapest Hotel may be Anderson’s best film.  It’s a narrative within a narrative within a narrative.  At some point I lost track—a young girl talking about an author who wrote about another author living in a European country who wrote about a hotel.  But you don’t need to worry about keeping up.  Ultimately it’s the hotel manager, the protégé of the main character, who tells the story to the author (played by Jude Law) who writes it all down.

The usual cast of Wes Anderson ensemble actors appear here—briefly, flitting through—and I found myself wondering when and whether we would see them.  But they are not simply gratuitous appearances—everyone from F. Murray Abraham to Ed Norton to Bill Murray to Tilda Swinton make significant contributions.  But Ralph Fiennes as concierge Gustave H commands the film, with newcomer Tony Revolori as the lobby boy close behind.

This is both a comedy and a dark noir.  It’s fanciful and gruesome, although most of the gruesomeness takes place out of sight.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is highly creative, entertaining, weird, and deeply poignant.

 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)

The pleasures of Les Enfants du Paradis ("Children of Paradise," 1945, dir. Marcel Carné) come from the constant movement.  Seething crowds, carnival performers, plays, jokes, romantic imprecations, intrigues.  A film about performance, Les Enfants is itself a performance.  In the opening, we enter the film through theatrical curtains that part to reveal the world of 19th century France.  The very production of the film is a legend.  It was made during a two-year period in Vichy France. Some of the actors and crew worked under false names, some wearing makeup to hide their identities from the Nazis, who wouldn’t allow Jews and Communists to appear in a film.

In the film four men vie for the love of a beautiful and intriguing young woman named Garance (Arletty)--I write the word “young” wondering exactly how young she is supposed to be—she could have been 40—Arletty herself was 47 when the film was released).  She is beautiful, but also mysterious.  Only as we see more of her do we realize how corrupt, corrupted and corrupting she is (in part 2, she becomes less a mystery and more an unrequited lover).  The film brims over with good acting and overacting, and much of the latter relates to the carnival in which many characters play a part.  Everyone overacts.  Even the carnival’s proprietor, full of extreme emotion, overacts, constantly throwing comical tantrums and fining actors for mistakes or misbehavior on stage.  In one great scene one carnival performer offends another on stage during the middle of a performance.  They begin to fight and the entire cast and crew storm in to engage in the battle.

The center of the film is the pierrot character, Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault) son of the carnival owner, a romantic, anxious, willowy mime who falls passionately in love with Garance.  At least in part one of the film (“Boulevard du Crime”), she never shows emotion, except when she is accused of thievery.  When Baptiste has the chance to make love to her and instead flees the scene, she chooses the next man who comes along to sleep with for the evening.  Baptiste believes in love as an eternal commitment while Garance views it as a matter of the moment.  The other men vying for her attention see love as a commodity, a goal, moment of mastery, a means to some end.  Only Baptiste is the true romantic.

Baptiste suffers magnificently.  His face, whether made up or not, is a perfect emblem of suffering and sorrow, except in those few moments when he thinks he might win Garance’s love.  As the film moves forward, his suffering gradually wears him down, to the point where he attempts suicide in a montage series of scenes that might be part of his dramatic performances or might be real.  When he plays the figure of a pierrot, his suffering, formally stylized, still seems real.  When he suffers out of character, it is even more real.  He acts with his eyes.  He is a fascinating figure, and Jean-Louis Barrault’s acting in this role was the film’s best element.  Arletty as Garance is fascinating in a different way.  She plays the unattainable, marble beauty.  All men are attracted to her, but she keeps her own counsel, picking and casting off as she chooses.  In one scene she plays a statue.  Baptiste’s pierrot figure pays passionate court to her, but she never reacts.  Only when another man woos her, clearly a conniving man of the world, does she react, come to life, and leave with him.  This is one of the messages of the film, the dangers of idealization, of romanticism, though the film itself is intensely romantic.

Part two of the film, “The Man in White”) occurs some years after part one.  Pierrot, accepting the loss of Garance, has married and is the father of a son.  He appears to be happy with his family.  He’s also famous for his acting.  Garance returns to Paris and secretly attends his performances.  After all, it turns out, she really does love him.  When they are briefly reunited, Baptiste is perfectly content to leave his son and wife behind.  After meeting Baptiste’s wife and child, Garance rides away in a carriage, with Baptiste chasing after her.  There the film ends. To bring a close to the film by having a firm conclusion, one in which Baptiste leaves with Garance or remains with his family would violate the principle of motion that energizes the film.  

 

Maiden Trip

Maiden Trip (2013, dir. Jillian Schlesinger, with Laura Dekker) documents the nearly two-year voyage of a teenage girl, Laura Dekker, as she circumnavigates the globe in a 30-foot vessel.  Dekker shot much of the footage during her voyage.  She is 14 when she embarks, and 16 when she finishes.  She sails alone. No one accompanies her. It’s certainly remarkable that she did what she did.  The film coveys the isolation of long sea voyages.  We see Dekker change and grow more confident as the months pass.  At first, as she makes her way across the Atlantic towards the Panama Canal, she is easily bored.  But she makes friends along the way and celebrates when she crosses the equator.  When she enters the Pacific, she begins to feel the enormity of what she is undertaking. 

This is an interesting, impressive, and relatively short documentary about an unusual feat. But what interested me most was Dekker’s narration about her family, her parents’ broken marriage, her distant relationship with her mother, her relationship with her father, with whom she lived before the voyage.  Her attitudes towards her family are ambiguous, as one would expect of a teenager, but increasingly in the film it becomes clear that her sea voyage is not just something she wants to do.  It’s an escape--from her family, from the Netherlands.  Her vessel, the Guppy, becomes her home because she has no other home.  The sea voyage is also her assertion (somewhat precociously) of her entry into adulthood.  After it’s over, instead of returning to the father and the Netherlands, she sets sail for New Zealand, with a young man whom she calls a member of her crew but who may also be a romantic partner.  

Dekker struck me as lonely and as damaged by her family experience.  She comes to love the solitude of the ocean.  She’s not fazed by rough waves and difficult conditions.  She doesn’t like crowds or socializing, and is bothered by the people who treat her as a celebrity when the voyage is over.  Frankly, as a parent, I cannot imagine sending off a 14 year old to a 2-year sea voyage by herself.  It seems the worst sort of parenting.  Undeniably Dekker has great skills as a sailor.  Her father clearly loves her and helps her prepare for the voyage.  He must have helped to finance it.  Halfway through the voyage, somewhere in South Asia, he meets her and helps renovate and repair the boat.  But you have to wonder: exactly what was he thinking?  What would compel a parent to release a child to such a dangerous, difficult experience, one that most adults could not handle?  For me this film is not, as some might want it to be, a feminist assertion of self-hood, or a coming of age tale.  I see it as the document of neglectful parenting and a failed family.

The Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon

It’s difficult sometimes to know exactly what is happening in a Thomas Pynchon novel.  It’s not that his prose is difficult or obtuse.  It’s clear enough, but indirect, inferential.  It’s elusively allusive.  The Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), like his other novels, is deeply embedded in American popular culture and history.  The action takes place in 2001, the year following away from the dot-com bust, and moving fatalistically towards the events of September 11.  It’s also an early year in the development of the Internet.   All of Pynchon’s novels to me feel like they’re taking place in the 1960s, even if the actual time of action is the 1940s or 18th century.  There’s a deliberately subversive playfulness in the tone of his writing, his depiction of characters, his evocations of themes and paranoiac conspiracies.

Conspiracy is definitely at the heart of The Bleeding Edge.  It is rooted in secret government operations, Internet entrepreneurs, terrorist networks.   Money is passed back and forth.  Mysterious avatars are encountered in Internet chat rooms or alternative reality hangouts.  We never quite know what is going on, nor does anyone else, though they and we have inklings. We expect some sort of explanation, some revelation, but in the end, we never get there. 

The main characters, especially the private fraud investigator Maxine Tornow, are always under scrutiny by higher authorities.  She raises her children in a small New York apartment and puts herself increasingly at risk as she becomes more deeply involved in trying to discover the conspiracy she believes she’s detected.  People she knows are killed.  She is shot at.  You expect something to happen to her or her children or her ex-husband, who drifts back into her life in the course of the novel.

This is a detective novel, but a strange one that honors some conventions of the genre and completely manhandles or ignores others.  The identities of most of the evildoers never come clear, the nature of their crimes remains murky, the intentions of the developing conspiracy are uncertain.  There is no resolution or denouement or climactic ending that uncovers the culprits and explains all the mysteries.  It’s the network of intrigue that makes this novel compelling, interwoven with Maxine’s private life.  The narrative seems to be working towards some kind of heinous event: September 11. Once it occurs, a kind of post traumatic numbness sets in for the characters and the city of New York as a whole.  No one really comes to terms with the conspiracy, whatever it might be, whether it is at all.  It’s simply a hinted at possibility. Life continues, but different from before, in an altered state, an altered consciousness.

The constant movement and energy, the array of characters, especially Maxine, the burgeoning intrigue, the underlying irony that distinguishes the reader’s knowledge (that 9/11 will happen) from the knowledge of the characters, Pynchon’s persevering love for corny song lyrics (his own) and for the American language in general—I will reread this book.

The Beguiled

In the immediate background of The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971) is the American Civil War.  A union soldier (a self-described Quaker, though that is probably a lie) is injured in battle and with the help of a young girl makes his way to a school for Southern girls, housed in an old mansion in the apparent middle of nowhere.  There he is nursed back to health, almost.  In the foreground is a vicious sexual battle.  The Union soldier at first seems the predator.  Ultimately we discover that the entire school is full of predators.

Two images early on in the film announce that we’re in for an unusual experience.  As the 12-year-old girl, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) helps Eastwood’s character, Corporal John McBurney, stumble through the woods towards her school, Confederate soldiers ride nearby.  Amy and Eastwood hide in the wreckage of a fallen tree.  To keep her from calling out, Eastwood kisses her, a prolonged and extended kiss.  Once it’s over, she’s enthralled.  But there will be retribution.  The second image is of a raven tied to the rail of the upper balcony of the school.  Ostensibly it’s tied there so that its broken wing can heal.  The bird and Eastwood have symbolic linkages, of course.  In a final image near the film’s end, the raven hangs dead from the cord that pins it to the rail.

In The Beguiled we have a number of competing narrative lines.  One is a Civil War drama, though in fact the Civil War is only a backdrop.  We also have a Gothic Southern horror story.  We also have a psychological drama of sexual tension and repression.  As soon as Eastwood arrives at the school, grievously wounded though he is, tension starts to boil.  The black woman, a slave, who cooks and cleans at the school, mentions how dried up all the women of the school have become in the absence of a man.  One of the school girls, Carol (Jo Ann Harris) not of the same upper class origins as the rest of the group, talks about how much she has missed the company of a man.  The school mistress Martha, played by Geraldine Page, switches unpredictably between the demeanors of an ardent Southerner who plans to turn Eastwood in as soon as he recovers to a coy giggly admirer.  Then there is the young school teacher, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) an Ophelia-like woman, 22-years in age, inexperienced in love, who falls for Eastwood.  (She plays her role as a brittle Bette Davis kind of character).  The premise here is that of women hot for sex, with Eastwood as their object.

However, Eastwood returns their attention in kind, beginning with his prolonged kiss with Amy.  He’s a dissembler of the first order.  Although he presents himself as a peaceful, respectable soldier waging war out of necessity, he is actually the opposite.  As he tells of his love for the land and for farming, images flash through his mind of burning haystacks and a farmer’s fields.  He calls himself a Quaker who never toted a rifle and who was wounded while trying to save a fellow soldier, when in fact his memories show him carrying and shooting the rifle in battle.  It’s not clear what he was doing when he was shot and then injured by shrapnel.  He encourages the attentions of every girl and woman at the school, doing his best to make Edwina fall in love, reminding the 12-year old that he loves her, bedding Carol, paying court to Martha.

The women at the school are afraid of Yankee soldiers, of course, but there is a greater fear of men in general.  Fear of rape is always in the air, and at one point Martha faces down two Confederate soldiers who have come to the school because they know that young women live there.  Rape is clearly on their minds.  But contending with that fear is what the film portrays as the fierce, ruthless drive towards sex that affects everyone.

When McBurney’s deceptions are discovered (following a dream sequence in which Martha, Edwina, and others fantasize about him, at the very moment he is having sex with Carol), there is grievous retribution, even more so after he goes on a drunken rampage and kills Amy’s turtle (!).  Of all the weirdness in the film, the childlike Amy, always skulking about (she ties up the raven), takes the prize.  McBurney, of course, is a scandalous predatory cad without scruples.  The women are portrayed as repressed and ultimately murderous maniacs.

Eastwood’s rough but quiet monotone of a voice grows increasingly irritating as the film progresses, but it also contributes to a tone of dread, fear, and paranoia that penetrates the film (not unlike the pervasive mood of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, dir. Don Siegel).  His raspy, off-note, miserably mumbled singing accompanies the opening and closing credits of the film—he was much better in Paint Your Wagon, 1969, dir. Joshua Longan, but only by degree).  The film is full of shadows, shut doors, closed windows, people creeping along hallways, spying on others, not to mention the amputation scene.  The atmosphere reminded me of a Hitchcock film, of a Shirley Jackson story (The Haunting of Hill House), where the fear of unseen presences or revelations becomes the driving force of the narrative, even of such a film as 200 Maniacs, where ghostly residents of a ravaged Southern town resurrect a century after the Civil War to take revenge on Yankees.

The interest of this mess of a film is its creepiness, its distorted portrayal of gender wars, and the dreadful uncertainty of what’s to come next.