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.


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 (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.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

My recollection of the 1992 film based on Marguerite Duras short novel The Lover (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1984) is hazy, but I recall that it focused primarily on a young girl’s first love affair with a young Chinese man in Saigon during the 1930s. The novel, published in 1984, also focuses on the girl (never named), her family, and their lives in Saigon before and after the affair.  The affair itself is part of the story, and certainly the title signals its centrality but I didn’t find the novel particularly erotic.  Maybe it’s the fact of my age.  More likely it’s the nature of Duras’ novel, which displays the narrator’s gradual emergence as an individual.  Part of that emergence includes her discovery of physical pleasure, of desire.  But the novel’s occasional descriptions of lovemaking are not detailed or graphic by any modern standard.  They’re certainly not prurient.  Yet the facts are disturbing—we’re not prone in our society to view a relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and a twenty-eight-year-old man as exploitative, as bordering on sexual abuse.  Yet do we accept the narrator’s assertion that she allowed, willed, the affair to begin on her own terms, or do we name it differently.  The mere fact that a fifteen-year old girl says she voluntarily had sex with an older man does not mean that their relationship is not abusive. 

An older woman (we imagine an old woman) narrates the story, looking back on her past.  What mystifies her is not the love affair, or the lover himself, but her family:  her mother’s brittle psychological state and gradual descent into madness, the emptiness of her brothers’ lives, her older brother’s sociopathic cruelty.  He takes advantage of his mother and sister, wastes his life, never holds a job, fritters away the family fortune, and dies alone in a small apartment in Paris.  Her younger brother dies of heart failure at 28.  She tells us she was close with this younger brother, that she grieved over his death, but there was distance between them as well, and after the family separates he writes her once in ten years.

I don’t have the proper vocabulary to describe the style of narration.  This is disturbing, since I teach literature.  But it’s also because the narrative style is distinctive and iconoclastic.  It reminds me of stream of consciousness, in some ways, though the narrator is clearly telling the story.  It is impressionistic, affected, and appropriate to the nature of the book.  She doesn’t narrate in linear fashion but instead follows a method of free association, moving from one topic to another, back and forth in time. This is how memory works.  This method conveys a mood of brittle indifference, of emotional numbness, as if she has concluded that she cannot change the events of her life and of those she loved, and rather than allow them to weigh her down she simply regards them at a distance whose gap she does not seek to close.  The one event that brings her story into focus is the love affair, which she returns to repeatedly, following its progress from beginning to end.  


Burmese Days, by George Orwell

In his novel Burmese Days (Harper & Bros., 1934) George Orwell’s displays his contempt for British colonialism and the diplomats and businessmen and citizens who seek to keep the British Way alive in the jungles of Burma.  Drawing from his own experiences there (e.g., “On Shooting an Elephant”), he describes the seven British citizens who see their posting in Burma as merely a step to somewhere else.  Most of them hate the local citizens, though they don’t hesitate to exploit and abuse them.  The one character who seems an exception is Mr. Flory.  He appreciates the culture of Burma, enjoys the people there, and has made friends with a local doctor (for which his British colleagues much abuse him).  He enjoys the arts and literature.  He has a large birthmark, of which is much ashamed.  He also has a Burmese mistress.  He has come to Burma as a way of escaping the small-time failures towards which he was destined in England.  He works for an English timber company, contributing in a significant way to Burma’s deforestation (though for Orwell this is not an issue).  He has lived in Burma for fifteen years when the arrival of a young woman awakes his interests and makes him hope, believe, that he might make a life for himself—he sees in this young woman the chance of a companion with whom he can share his interests, whom he can talk to. 

Unfortunately, Flory is so much centered on himself that he can’t judge circumstances very well.  The woman is entirely vacuous.  She wants to talk about riding and hunting while he wants to discuss literature.  She hates his interests and is repulsed by his efforts to discuss them.  The only thing that attracts her to him at all stems from his rescue of her from a water buffalo and, later, his success in killing a leopard.  But when younger, more attractive men come along, she doesn’t hesitate to go after them.

This is a book of miserable people living miserable lives in a miserable environment.  Flory’s misery gradually increases as he grapples with Elizabeth’s rejection of him.  He can’t believe in her rejection.  In the end, suicide is his way out.  No happy ending here.  Flory is dead.  Elizabeth has been abandoned by her most recent romantic interest.  Life and the British effort to impose British life on Burma continue on.

Orwell’s writing style is precise and effective.  His descriptions of the natural environment surrounding the village are especially impressive.  He viciously parodies British middle class life through the small array of residents at the outpost.  The book reminded me, of course, of Heart of Darkness, but also aspects of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The South and America since World War II, by James C. Cobb

James C. Cobb’s The South and America since World War II (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) argues that the characteristics that distinguish the Southern region from the rest of the United States actually are traits that conjoin the South with the rest of the nation.  Cobb uses the historian’s method of weaving a narrative around facts, anecdotes, and statistics (demographic and economic data, polls, and so on).  For those unaccustomed to reading accounts formulated in this way, the going at first can be slow, but gradually one adjusts.  I found the first four chapters the most interesting.  They trace the progress of race relations in the South since 1945, first by establishing their nature to begin with, then by tracing the legislative, cultural, and other changes that brought about the current uneasy but clearly improved state of affairs.  These pages are interesting because they present a compact, intense, and shocking account of race relations in the south from 1945 through the early 1960s.  They were shocking to me even though I lived through much of this period and remembered many of the events recounted.  I emerged from these pages understanding more clearly than before that one cannot remove the issue of race and racism in talking about what makes the South Southern.  To announce that one is a “loyal Southerner” is to announce (unwittingly or not) complicity with the South’s racial history. I don’t mean to suggest by highlighting the interest of the civil rights chapters that the rest of the book is dull—by no means.  I especially enjoyed the chapters on blues music, country music, and the rise of rock n’ roll.  The later chapters on the business economy of the modern South, political developments, locally and nationally, and on the literature and music of the contemporary South (the B52s and REM are not mentioned) are equally interesting.

A central theme is the distinctiveness of the Southern character.  What does distinctiveness mean?  Is it a description of the region, or of the individual who claims Southern identity as his own?  Cobb examines these questions.  During the Civil Rights movement, as he shows, many Southerners worried that the South would lose its regional character and become more like the rest of the country.  Such an argument takes as its premise, unfortunately, that the Southern character is inherently tied to racism and racial divisions.  That is, “How can the South maintain its special character if blacks have equal rights?”  Few people stated the question so blatantly, but such thinking often underlay their protests about the endangered South (read “the endangered racial hierarchies of the South”).

Cobb shows that the agricultural nature of the South was waning for much of the 20th century, and that the South was rapidly becoming a place with a mainly urban population (by 1960, he notes, the South had more urban than rural residents).  Agriculture became increasingly mechanized through the use of tractors, cotton pickers, and other machinery.  As a result it become more profitable to farm on a large scale, which made small-time farming less competitive.  One figure that reflects changes in agriculture is that the number of mules used by Southern farmers fell by 350,000 during the decade following the war.  Not coincidentally, the number of tractors skyrocketed during the same period. 

Cobb explores various arguments since the 1960s about how Americanized the South was or is becoming.  He finds the assertion that the South was losing its character questionable.  Rather, the rise of conservative values across the nation might seem to suggest that the rest of the nation was becoming more Southern.  (The popularity of Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace outside the South in the early 1970s supports this notion).  Cobb prefers to see the rise of such values as proof that the South and the rest of the nation had much in common to begin with.

Cobb is a good writer.  Clearly linked to, but not duplicative of, his Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford, 2005), The South and America since World War II is informative, provocative, and readable.  


Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, by Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell in Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited (Yale University Press, 2009) writes a personal and informal appreciation of the famous novel and film.  She recounts many of the well-known stories surrounding how the novel was written and the film made.  These stories are available elsewhere, in biographies and film histories, but Haskell’s fluid, relaxed, intelligent style of writing compresses them into accessible form.  She’s interested in the various people in Margaret Mitchell’s ancestry and life—her grandmothers, her cold and distant father, her stern and formidable intellectual and ambitious mother, her hotheaded scoundrel of a first husband, Red Upshaw, and her apparently dull and passive second husband John Marsh.  She argues both directly and inferentially about how these different people found their way into her novel either as fictionalized characters or as influences.  Haskell suggests that Mitchell after her twenties became a psychologically and physically fragile person who suffered from multiple auto accidents, breakdowns, depression, anxiety, fear of crowds, hypochrondria, and aversion to sex.  She portrays Mitchell as both a young rebel and, later, as someone who struggled mightily to comply with the social expectations of her day, especially after the novel and film made her famous, when honoring these imperatives became a way of avoiding fans, critics, and even, perhaps, the expectations of a second novel.  In effect, Haskell’s version of Margaret Mitchell is a basket case of a writer.

Although Haskell’s discussions are grounded in research and in her years as a film and literary critic, she indulges in what seems to me a good bit of inferential reasoning and speculation.  How DO we know that Scarlett hates sex, for instance?  How do we know that Mitchell felt the same way?  We can speculate based on the circumstances of her life (as Haskell does), by the fact that she and her second husband Marsh were so busy taking care of each other’s illnesses and crises that there was no time for sex, but in the absence of outright declarations by Mitchell, and because we were not there in the bedroom to see for ourselves, how can we know anything with certainty?  Leaps of faith, leaps of logic, can be exciting, but they don’t always provide convincing history.  In her reading of the novel and film, however, such leaps lead to interesting insights.

For Haskell, Scarlett O’Hara is a figure in which Mitchell works out, intentionally and otherwise, the contending elements of her own life.  Scarlett never compromises, but instead strategizes.  She is a cold rationalist who does what she must in order to survive and flourish.  She marries, three times, but she doesn’t like marriage—it’s always an end to a means.  She despises romantic entanglements, except for the one she cannot have with Ashley Wilkes.  In this sense she is a figure through whom Mitchell vicariously eludes the expectations of her class and times, as well as the formulaic characters and plots of popular romances and films.  Haskell claims that Mitchell never intended for there to be a happy reunion between Scarlett and Rhett Butler, either at the end of the novel or afterwards.  She argues that the traits that separate them, that will keep them separated, are evident in the scene when, having led Scarlett and Melanie and her infant out of a burning Atlanta, abandons them on the road to Tara and heads off to join the Southern army.

Only in the last few pages of this book does Haskell address the African American characters in the film, and the actors who portrayed them.  I was not entirely persuaded.  Haskell says that although Mammy and Prissy are stereotypes of one sort or another, they are also finely drawn characters, round and developed, rather than flat caricatures.  She sees evidence in Scarlett’s relationship with the family slaves of a subversiveness, an attitude that conflicts with the prevailing odes of racial hierarchy.  She finds the white characters of the film and novel, and the white inhabitants of the American South in general, more like the African American population than many would have wanted to admit.


Fully developed characters, an excellent cast (especially De Havilland, Gable, and Leigh), a slew of screenwriters (notably Sidney Howard and Ben Hecht and a list of both credited and uncredited writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald), two very different directors (George Cukor and Victor Fleming, plus a number of uncredited names) artful scenic design, attention to detail, epic sweep, nuance in character and scene and script, plus a seemingly impossible series of accidents, cast and staff changes, biographical details, and coincidences, combined to make this novel the monument that it is.  Haskell doesn’t think it is great literature (she thinks it’s “good”), and she never says outright that the film is a great one (though in the end she must think so).  She does find the film in general an improvement on the novel.  There are longer and more detailed books than this one on Mitchell and her novel and the production of the film, but none is as readable and personally centered as Haskell’s.  She places the novel in the American and British literary traditions, and the film in the context of American film history. Her comparisons of Gone with the Wind and Jezebel are particularly apt, as are her comparisons of Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis, who wanted the part of Scarlett.  Haskell’s critical insights as a film and literary critic make this an interesting and stimulating book.  

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Europa Report

Science fiction films make space travel seem either like a high-tech version of Stagecoach, with episodic problems, alien encounters, battles, and so on, or, less often, they try to simulate monotonous routine.  Space travel is mostly routine—checking data, preparing for predetermined events, communicating with earth, doing nothing.  I can imagine that long space voyages, ones that last months or years, will be dull and that part of the challenge will be to keep space travelers entertained and engaged.  Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) does a better job of any film I’ve seen of imagining the routine and monotony of space travel.  In fact, the trip to Jupiter it dramatizes takes so long that most of the crew is placed in suspended animation—to save resources, of course, but also to avoid the craziness that might result from endless months of doing nothing.

The Europa Report (2013; dir. Sebastian Cordero) demands that we think of 2001.  If we didn't know better, we could think of this newer film as a kind of sequel to Kubrick's masterpiece.  The Europa Report does a good job of presenting the routine of space travel.  A crew of scientists is traveling to one of the moons of Jupiter to investigate the possibility of life below a frozen ocean.  Unlike 2001, all the crew members stay awake, tending to their duties, socializing to an extent, sending messages home.  Most scientists, like most people in general, are not especially interesting, at least of the level of interest that would make them worth putting in a film.  The two astronauts in 2001 aren’t very interesting at all: they have the emotionlessness of bureaucrats.  Their circumstances are what become interesting.  They carry out their assignments and try to solve problems.  They don’t agonize or wax hysteric, even in extreme moments.  The travelers in Europa Report behave as scientific professionals but they all have personalities—there is the cute Russian, the driven and focused pilot, a young father who misses his family, an older man embittered by past experiences and haunted by a crewman’s death.  They are all interesting, in some way, and we grow to like them. 

Although The Europa Report at first seems to be a docudrama, gradually a terror plot unfolds.  Is one of the crew unbalanced, crazy?  Will human error lead to tragedy?  Something is out there beneath the frozen oceans of Europa.  Once they land, they begin the search for life, and it begins to search for them.  Through their own errors, or because the thing beneath the ice is outwitting them, they begin to die.  So this becomes one of those films where a crew of people engage in some sort of assignment or project and one by one they’re killed off.  The interest of the film becomes who will die next, and how.  And, of course, there is also the question of whatever it is beneath the ice that is killing them.

The deaths generally occur off screen or in a flashback.  A couple of them are still terrifying, and the final scene is intense and well done.  We get a brief glimpse of the thing beneath the ice.  We’re supposed to feel happy and exalted that life exists on another world, and sad that seven lives are lost.  But it all seems a bit contrived.  The faux documentary counterbalances the suspense film. The result is casually interesting, which is not enough.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

American Hustle

In the opening scene of American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell, 2013) small time huckster Irving Rosenfeld carefully, methodically, laboriously prepares his hair for the coming day.  He twists and curls the long knot of hair that is his comb over, pastes it to the top of his head with spray-on black glue, positions it carefully, and is ready.  This is a wonderful scene of vanity, embarrassment, self-consciousness, and self-creation.  Were there no other scene in the film, I would prize it for this one.  The hairstyles in this film are an eccentric and forceful extension of the personalities of the characters they adorn.  The hair stylists (the credits list fifteen of them) should have won an award.  If there isn’t an Academy Award for hairstyle, it should have been created for American Hustle.

Christian Bale, who played Batman in a trio of films, in this one plays so much against character that you have to strain and squirm to realize that he is the actor playing Rosenfeld. The same is true of Jeremy Renner, whom I didn’t recognize until the film was nearly over.

Everyone in this immensely entertaining film is a hustler and self-creator.  Everyone is running some kind of scheme.  Even when Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) fall in love, they’re still suspicious of each other, or at least they appear to be, and then we see that their suspicion plays into yet another scheme.  The word “American” in the title suggests that the activity on display here is a national characteristic, emblematic of something deep in the heart of the American experience. We long for wealth, accomplishment, a position of significance, yet we long as well for someone who can see through all the deceptive pretension to the inner core of who we are, and who doesn’t care what she finds there.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (dir. Stanley Curtiz, 1940) expresses a pre-World War II set of attitudes about national and racial stereotypes.  An audience member, retired UGA law professor James Ponsoldt, pointed these out in a discussion following the film.  Queen Elizabeth’s hesitancy to engage in direct combat with the Spanish—and the film’s insistence, through the heroics of its main character, played by Errol Flynn, on the importance of intervention directly addressed the political climate prior to the start of British and American involvement in World War II. 

Perhaps because of the historical environment in which it was made, the film makes free use of stereotypes.  Spanish sailors are shown as brusque, dishonest, and swarthy.  They take prisoners off ships they defeat in combat and enslave them as oarsmen in the bottom of their ship, a deplorable existence of hardship and suffering.  The Spanish Inquisition plays a role, and when Captain Thorpe and his men are captured, they stand trial before a board of inquisitors, all Roman Catholic priests, one of them with a faint Irish accent.  The film plays loosely with numerous historical facts, including the dates of the Spanish armada, Queen Elizabeth’s life, and so on.

The Sea Hawks are a semi-official band of sea captains who defend English interests around the western world through privateering and downright piracy.  They can act when English diplomacy hesitates, and they serve as agents of the Queen’s will even when she takes the official position of disavowing what they do.

The Sea Hawk is full-purpose entertainment.  It has romance, action, sword fights, skulduggery, and heroism.  It moves from Spain to England to Central America.  The staging of the encounter of two ships—one a Spanish vessel and the other Captain Thorpe’s ship, is spectacular.  Whether it is realistic, I don’t know (I suspect not entirely, if much at all).  Flynn’s acting is just right for the role.  He makes a great hero, and nothing about him compels you to look beneath the surface.




Friday, February 28, 2014

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The Martian (2014) as a novel reads like a highly technical instruction manual.  Or like a series of complicated puzzles, all of them linked, all of them moving towards the specific goal of survival for an American astronaut stranded on Mars.  This is not a conventional science fiction novel: it is totally lacking in any elements of the fantastic, and other than the speculation that one day humans will land on and explore Mars, it is not especially speculative.  It also lacks many of the elements one would expect from a good novel—character development, exposition, narrative development.  We come to know the main character, Mark Watney, primarily as the engineer he is, possessed of knowledge about engineering and botany that enables him to do what he must in order to survive. 
Watney doesn’t ruminate much over the nature of his situation.  He may be disappointed or downcast when setbacks occur, but he recovers and quickly begins to cast about for solutions.  It’s difficult to imagine how one could function in his position, stranded on Mars, 480 days away from the hope of rescue.  It’s also difficult to believe that solutions, and the materials they require, would always be at hand, would always be successful.

The interest of this novel lies in the fact that its author, Andy Weir, is a NASA engineer who understands the intricacies of manned space missions and the science behind him.  Each solution to the problems Watney encounters are based on his knowledge.  Everything in the novel seems rooted in fact.  Though it is presented in chapters ostensibly taken from the daily logs of the astronaut, and on occasional accounts of how NASA responds to his situation, the novel’s interest comes directly from the often ingenious methods Watney devises, his fearlessness (though he really has no option to be otherwise), and on the ultimate question of his survival.  I cannot imagine reading too many novels like The Martian, but this one kept its reader engaged.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Män som hatar kvinnor/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Män som hatar kvinnor (dir. Niels Arden Oplev) is the 2009 Swedish adaptation of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I thought the 2011 American adaptation, directed by David Fincher, was good.  BothAlthough I found the novel entertaining and readable, as a novel it wasn’t very good.  Both films bring to life the essential events and characters of the novel.  Both are successful adaptations, but the Swedish version is better than the American.  Why?  If we’re dedicated to the notion that a good adaptation must adhere somewhat closely to the details of the source text, Opley’s film more successfully captures Larsson’s narrative, the details of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, of the serial killings, of how the killer is identified, and of the personalities of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.  The actors who portray these characters seem more like the characters that Larsson described in his novel, in particular Blomkvist, who is more rounded and middle-aged in appearance (based on the novel’s descriptions) than Daniel Craig.  If we’re dedicated to the notion that a successful adaptation must be forst of all a good film, then Opley’s film wins out there as well.  Both films avoid the flaws in the novel—too much talking and exposition, not enough drama.  The novel’s focus on violence against women, especially rape, and its strident criticism of the corruption of capitalism, which can become preachy at times, are better integrated into the narrative in the film.  Virtually everything that happens in the novel is tied up in violence against women, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Nazism, anticapitalism.  Is the story supposed to be a polemic, or a crime narrative in which these various sins contribute to but do not overwhelm events?  (These flaws are even more evident in the second and third volumes of the Larsson Trilogy).  Both adaptations are better-made films than the novel is a novel.  Finally, however ingenious Larrson’s plot may be, the nature of Harriet’s disappearance, the serial killer and the Old Testament rationale he applies in his killings—these are all fairly conventional.  What makes the novel, and the film adaptations, stand out are the two main characters, Blomkvist and Salander.  They are fully, distinctively drawn, and, most of all, human.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Kept, by James Scott

The Kept (Harper, 2013), by James Scott, takes all the traits that make Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis special and turns them into conventions.  It's set late in the 19th century, in upper New York, near Lake Erie.  There's a revenge plot, very predictable.  And the final scene is predictable, unsatisfying, a cop-out.  There are high points and low points.  The two main characters are a woman named Elspeth who finds her entire family—three children and a husband--murdered, except for one son, 12-year-old Caleb, hiding in the barn.  He is the other main character. We're constantly learning new things about these characters, especially Elspeth, who prior to her family’s slaughter disappeared for months at a time, serving as a midwife in remote towns and villages, entirely beyond the reach of her family.  Nothing is as it seems.  Darkness and mud and ice abound.   The book is structured around a historical event, a disaster in a factory that harvests ice from a frozen lake, but this seems a convenience.

The circumstances surrounding mother and son are so grim that we fail to believe even in the rare moments of hope that the novel offers.  Caleb, by horrible circumstance beyond his control, and Elspeth, both by her own acts and by her situation, are doomed.  This seems beyond dispute even from the earliest pages.  Doom can come in various forms—moral, legal, violent, psychological, even supernatural, and all of those apply here in some way.  The author so convinces us of this doom that the story hardly seems worth reading to the end.  To have these characters rescued in would betrayed the book’s own principles.  Their situation is one from which rescue is not possible. The novel tempts us to believe in some redemptive glimmer, then denies it completely.  The final scene recalled the penultimate moment in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), whose sadness is tempered by an epilogue.  Here, there is no tempering, and in that regard this novel at least is honest.