Monday, October 20, 2014


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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


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

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

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

Friday, October 03, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stories We Tell

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

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Seven Year Itch

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

12 Years a Slave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mile . . . Mile & a Half

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

Particle Fever

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

Monday, August 04, 2014

Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry

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

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


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.




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.