Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Motorcycle Diaries

That The Motorcycle Diaries is about Che Guevara is almost irrelevant. This film works with or without that knowledge. This is a road movie about two friends searching for America and for themselves. America here is South America. The two characters set out to travel around the South American continent with the eventual goal of visiting a leper colony on the Amazon River. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is a medical student specializing in the treatment of leprosy, while his friend Alberto Granado is a biochemist about to turn 30. Granado is thinking about taking a job and settling down, while Guevara is in love with a girl who offers him a comfortable domestic future.

Like many road movies this one is episodic, and much of the first half features various exploits Guevara and Granado have along the way. We are supposed to think of their journey as a last boyhood fling before they resign themselves to more conventional and adult activities. The film's tone is gently comic. At first Guevara is uptight and plays the straight man to Granado, who is adept at telling tall tales to convince mechanics to fix their motorcycle, women to love them, and old men to give them a place to sleep. Their motorcycle often breaks down, and during a storm their tent blows away. Gradually Guevara loosens up and is able to begin enjoying their experiences.

The tone changes when the pair make their way into Peru. Guevara receives a letter from his girl friend, who breaks off their relationship. They wreck the motorcycle for the last time and must make their way on foot. And as they move higher into the mountains of Peru on their way to Macchu Picchu, passing poverty-stricken Indians along the way, Guevara begins to notice the disparity between his own privileged life and the lives of the people they encounter. He and Granado spend time with a young couple who announce they had to leave home in order to avoid arrest--they are communists. The film is not especially subtle in showing this political awakening--but it is not overbearing either.

At the leper colony on the Amazon River, Guevara's awakening comes to fruition. The symbolic moment is his decision to swim across the Amazon, from the side where the doctors and nurses live to the side where the lepers live. In this symbolic moment, where he risks drowning, he signifies his allegiance with the dispossessed and downtrodden.

This is an important film for North Americans to see. It is first of all interesting to see the themes of a road movie, coming-of-age movie, applied to South American characters and settings. It is also interesting to see these themes applied in a way that makes comedy and sex seem of secondary importance--something of historical moment is in the offing here, the birth of an important political figure, or at least of a cultural icon--something important is happening. We don't often think of South America as a land of beauty, but this film celebrates the landscape.

Late in the film, as Guevara and Granado are departing the leper colony, Guevara gives an impromptu speech (a bit too deliberately) in which he says, "Even though we are too insignificant to be spokesmen for such a noble cause, we believe, and this journey has only confirmed this belief, that the division of America into unstable and illusory nations is a complete fiction. We are one single mestizo race from Mexico to the Magellan Straits. And so, in an attempt to free ourselves from narrow minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and to a united America." Even more than the political awakening of Guevara, this statement expresses the film's real theme, its celebration of the South American land and people, and its argument against national, political, economic, and racial boundaries.

For North Americans, Guevara was at best a kind of counter-culture hero who since his death in 1967 has grown increasingly irrelevant--a failed revolutionary leader. For South Americans, he has remained more important, and this film helps to explain why as it builds and amplifies the myth. At the same time it humanizes Guevara—revealing his struggle with asthma, making light of his inability to dance and his moral rectitude—he refuses to lie under any circumstance.

This film reminded me of what it was like to be young in a country still beautiful and unsullied. It is based on Guevara’s own account of his journey across South America in the 1950s, and I look forward to reading the book, which, I understand, reveals a Guevara somewhat less perfect than the character of the film.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

Part travelogue, part documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus explores a specific and fairly narrow dimension of the American South: backwoods Pentecostalism (not even the mainstream variety), biker bars, damaged souls intent on suffering more damage. Ostensibly inspired by alternative country singer Jim White’s album of the same name, the film begins in Louisiana and wends its way to the coal-mining hills of West Virginia.

Jim White narrates the film and is its main character, in search of something—the soul of the American South, religion, redemption. The film is not really a narrative because it doesn’t go anywhere. Rather, it wanders, from one bar or roadside diner to another, from distorted characters to lost characters to yearning characters. It doesn’t offer answers or conclusions, but it does offer a particular view.

In some sense Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus seeks to explore and define the literary South of Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor (these are actually two fairly distinct Souths), and Crews himself appears briefly in the film, limping down a dirt road to lean in the window of the broken-down car White is driving to talk about how as a young boy he fell into a large pot of boiling water (a story he tells in his memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place). Director Andrew Douglas and screenwriter Steve Haisman do a good job of keeping the film interesting, of finding one disturbing scene or character after another, but the film does after a time seem to lose its energy, to drag.

By no means does this film attempts to define “the” South or even a major aspect of the South. Many of the scenes and characters are ones most Southerners in the normal course of their lives would ever encounter. They are truly remote and backwoods, and that is one of the points of the film, I think, these people cut off from and isolated from the modern world and modern America.

The soundtrack, taken partially from White’s album and partially from others musicians such as the Handsome Family, David Johansen, and Melissa Swingle, is excellent, haunting, and appropriate to the film.

Click here to see the web site for this film.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Pride & Prejudice

The 2005 film Pride & Prejudice offered several deftly executed cinematic tricks that link thematically to the main subject of the film. In one scene, Elizabeth Bennett, who has just rejected the proposal of the foppish minister Mr. Collins, is sitting in a swing that hangs in an open walkway that passes under a barn or shed. She twirls pensively in the swing, and each time her gaze passes through one end or the other of the hallway, the outdoor scene changes--different people walk by, the seasons change. For me this device signifies the passage of time and its significance for Elizabeth, who has just rejected a marriage proposal that would have brought financial security to her and her family.

In another scene, Elizabeth has just argued with Mr. Darcy, who had come to declare his love. Before leaving, he promises never to press her again about the issue. In the next few brief scenes--in her bedroom, walking down a hallway, standing in one of the rooms of her house, it is clear she is in despair. She walks over to a mirror hanging on the wall and stares into it. The scene suggests she is transfixed in some way by her own reflection, but as she stands there, day transitions into night, and the very look of her face seems to change. This is an unrealistic scene in that it's unlikely she would stand there before the mirror in a catatonic state for long hours as she seems to do her, but as a visual figure of her state of mind, it works.

Once again the scene signifies time passing, specifically pertinent to the second marriage proposal that Elisabeth has, in effect, rejected. Time is passing her by. She has rejected the suitor she really does love, and she knows that time is closing in on her, she is growing older, she will lose her beauty, and the prospects of another marriage proposal will grow increasingly dim. And she will also spend the endless passage of days without the man whom she loves.

Other devices of sight and of seeing in the film align with the issue of misjudged or misperceived characters. At key moments Elizabeth peers through some small object made of cut glass, and her resulting view of people and nearby surroundings is unfocused, distorted. In several scenes she looks through windows or doorways--openings into another world, another reality, which is denied her because of choices she has made.

Misjudgment of character is a central theme of the film. So too are the marriage prospects of the five Bennett sisters—always one of the important concerns in Austen’s gentle domestic comedies. Modern renditions of Austen’s novels have given this theme a darker tone than perhaps Austen would have been comfortable with—marriage or spinsterhood in Austen’s world was the only possible future for a young woman. For Austen this was a practical problem to be solved. In our time, we naturally are inclined to view through a feminist lens the prospects of the Bennett sisters, and of their parents who wish to see their daughters well married and provided for.

I do not remember the novel Pride and Prejudice well enough to judge this film by comparison. It's likely the plot and the characterizations have been simplified, but what little I know of Austen suggests to me that the film is true to the spirit of her novel. Although a number of concessions to modernity are made--no portraits of young woman in the 18th century look quite so beautiful as four of the five Bennett sisters in the film--the film does not make the mistake that the 1999 version of Mansfield Park made in its sweeping modernization of the plot and characters--at times it was as if characters from the late 20th century were running around in period costumes. For me Mansfield Park was profoundly unsuccessful in its pandering to modern audiences. To me Pride & Prejudice compares well to the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility and the 1996 film Emma. The director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach are relatively faithful to the plot and characters of Jane Austen, and to the social sensibility of the times. Combined with the excellent acting in all these films, the result is a adaptation of Jane Austen that is probably fairly true to the intentions of the novel. But I would have to read the novel again to be sure. A film's fidelity to its literary source is not an important issue to me--a film must be successful on its own terms. But I do think films should be faithful to the historical realities of the periods about which they are made, and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice succeeds in that regard.

There are reservations: cinematography and set design in the film often seem claustrophobic. Maybe this is an intentional way of suggesting the limited circumstances of the Bennett family—five daughters, parents, and servants in a small country cottage would make for cramped surroundings. But there are some wide shots that seem claustrophobic as well. Some parts of the film are artificial and strained, where family joviality and overflowing sisterly affection seem forced and not credible.

A couple of scenes show too obviously the presence of digital effects—in particular a scene where Elizabeth stands on the precipice of a cliff, apparently thinking with regret of Mr. Darcy (perhaps this scene occurs in her dream, which could explain the stylized effect), and several distant shots of the Bennett cottage and Mr. Darcy’s Blenheim Castle-sized mansion. As is sometimes the case in these films focused on costume and historical period, we linger overlong on the splendor of Mr. Darcy’s palatial mansion.

Finally, maybe it is my 2006 jaded sensibility, but Elizabeth’s attitude towards Mr. Darcy seems to undergo its most thorough transformation while she is visiting his home for the first time. It is almost as if the wealth and beauty she encounters there alter her feelings—not, I think, what Austen would have intended.

All things considered, however, the film is successful and highly entertaining, and the acting by Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, and Brenda Blethyn is excellent.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Our enlightened democracy . . .

Our leaders on both sides have apparently concluded that the American electorate is a herd of unintelligent, unthinking dimwits. A recent column by political writer Bill Shipp reported that Georgia Republicans plan in the coming legislative campaign to highlight laws against flag burning and gays to win voters--not taxes, not education, not the overwhelmed infrastructure of Atlanta, not pollution and water quality, not health or crime or poverty or technology. Democrats are little better. In the recent presidential election, the primary Democratic party strategy was to make fun of George Bush and to offer photographs of their candidate windsurfing or hunting--rather than emphasizing positions of substance that could counter low-brow Republican pandering. Democrats allowed Republicans to run the campaign on personality attacks and marginal issues that diverted attention from issues that mattered. The Republicans at least showed creative thought in their strategies. Democrats sat around in confusion.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


I have an issue with point of view in Junebug: both my own point of view as an inhabitant of a particular region of the United States, the Southeast, which is the setting of this film, and the point of view of director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus McLaughlin, who use the American South to dramatize themes and character relationships. On a broader scale their interest is in colliding cultures (a gentle collision at that). On a more specific scale, the cultural collision is illuminated in the developing personal relationship of the two main characters, Madeleine, a native of England who is a Chicago art dealer, and George, born in North Carolina, sometimes (apparently) embarrassed by certain aspects of his regional heritage, other times embracing them.

My issue with point of view is not a criticism or objection but simply uncertainty and curiosity. Exactly what is this film's viewpoint, its intention, in its presentation of the regional materials that constitute the American South?

To Madeleine, the South is an alien place. She expresses no particular preconceptions about it, but she knows little about it as well. Early in the film she learns of a North Carolina folk artist whose work she wants to feature in her gallery and decides that the best way to pursue her interest is to visit him. Since her husband's family lives near the artist, this becomes her opportunity to meet his family, whom he has not introduced to her before. The family is in some way or other supposed to be prototypically small town Southern middle class.

George's younger brother Eugene married his pregnant girl friend while still in high school and suffers perennial frustration over what he chooses to believe is his entrapment. He is profoundly uncommunicative, and jealous of his brother in a way he rarely gives full expression to. He can barely acknowledge his wife, Bernadette, though there are hints here and there of his love for her, especially when she goes into labor. Bernadette is a genuinely innocent, placid, and painfully repressed girl who talks incessantly about whatever enters her mind and instantly takes a liking, almost obsessively, to Madeline. Bernadette is irritating and grating until her character fully expands and develops. George's father is a taciturn man who in the chaos and flurry of his household chooses to watch television quietly or work downstairs in his woodshop, where he spends much time standing around and tinkering but apparently little time producing anything of interest. Peg, George's mother, played by South Carolina native Celia Weston, is the energetic and dominating force in the household. She loves her children but smothers and domineers them at the same time. She is clearly skeptical (and jealous) of Madeline, and she is quick to reach judgments about people, especially Madeline, though she tries to suppress them.

In the background Junebug is a domestic comedy. In the foreground it is about the developing relationship of Madeline and George. Most of all, it is about Madeline's introduction to a different life and way of thinking than her own. She is the main character, and through her eyes, most of the time, we view the characters and the action (what there is of action) in the film.

This brings me back to point of view. What is this film's viewpoint? Madeline herself seems fairly open to new experiences and new lifestyles. She doesn't rush to judgment and is more of an observer than anything else. She is unknowing about Southern people and manners, and this ignorance occasionally leads her (perhaps) to misstep, but her mistakes are never motivated by ill intentions.

The film’s point of view itself is what interests me. Is Madeline shown discovering a new southern culture which the film takes at face value, with openness and respect, or is that culture a target of humor and satire, ridiculed in a Horatian way for its eccentricities and bucolic ways?

I read a number of viewer comments about Junebug that commented on how it views the South without stereotypes. I find such opinions doubtful. We all stereotype. It is one of the ways we understand and categorize the world around us. Surely Junebug does the same. Its view of the South as populated by religious visionary primitive artists, of couples who marry out of high school, of domineering mothers and overwhelmed fathers, of functional dysfunctional families, of church gatherings where heartfelt and sincere pieties abound—these are all stereotypes. The fact that they are not necessarily objectionable—that is, that Southerners or others might not object to them—does not prevent them from being stereotypical.

The film’s heart may be the folk artist David Wark. A strange fusion of William Blake, Grandma Moses, and the Reverend Howard Finster, he produces visionary, demented paintings of angels and male genitals that punctuate depictions of lynchings and picnics. He is, we are given to believe, "mentally challenged," as is apparently his sister, though what may seem mental challenge to some may be to others simply a fundamental rural nature wholly untouched by modernity. Wark’s fusion of spiritual, sexual, visionary, primitive traits make him the incarnation of the authentic. He represents something that Madeleine can intuitively appreciate and respect but not something she ever comes to understand. There’s something disturbing and moving, in a deeply elemental way, about David Wark, and the fact that Madeleine never comes to understand him does not mitigate our own failure as viewers to understand him either.

There are other failures of understanding which the film highlights in Madeleine. When Bernadette goes into labor, the entire family heads to the hospital. Whatever their differences and preoccupations, this is what a Southern family does in a moment of crisis, so the film suggests--they band together and round the person in need. Madeleine doesn’t understand this. Instead of going with George to the hospital in this primal Southern family moment, she goes to talk with David Wark, whose sister has decided that Madeleine’s is not the best art dealership to represent him. This major lapse in Madeleine’s gradual introduction to the South and the Southern family is exaggerated and emphasized by George’s reaction to her decision. He is clearly bothered by it, and for a time you wonder whether this moment may be the beginning of a division that will grow larger between them. When Bernadette’s baby is stillborn, and when we see George sitting with and consoling the grief-stricken Bernadette, the gravity of Madeleine’s mistake seems even greater.

(Others in the film suffer misunderstanding as well. Madeleine is an emotionally expressive woman who frequently expresses herself through spontaneous hugs. When she is tutoring Eugene, and he expresses frustration, she hugs him. Eugene believes she is coming on to him and responds in what he believes is the appropriate way).

What one finally comes to understand is that this film is about Madeleine’s introduction to and education in another culture. There is no piety in the film about this theme, just as the film is completely unsentimental (and unapologetic) in its depiction of the American South. Instead there is a sense of respect for George’s family as individuals and as a unit. When George’s father at the end of the film gives to Madeleine a gift he has made for her in his woodshop, you can see that she and the family may have bonded.

Yet on the drive back to Chicago, George almost seems to apologize for his family, saying to his wife that “I’m glad that’s over,” by which he means the ordeal of their visit with his family. Is he embarrassed over them, shamefaced at her exposure to his true origins? She never responds to his comment. The movie ends. I found the ending ambiguous, not only in the prospects it offers for the future of George and Madeleine’s relationship but also in the commentary it offers on the modern South. It suggests to me a certain superficiality in George, who has intentionally purified himself of Southern traits, who chooses to be of the South when he is home, but who otherwise is willing to forget and leave it behind, with his Southern ways and manners and speech. It is Madeleine who may have learned and grown from this visit to his home, and her silence in response to her husband’s remark may be a sign of what she has gained.

On the other hand, the South of the film may be an island backwater in the civilized world of New Yorks and Chicagos and art galleries, a vestige of past days and ways.

Is the South a place to be embarrassed for in modern America, or should its loss be mourned? The film’s reserve on these points bothers me, but is also a virtue that leaves Junebug lingering long after the final scene on the road back to Chicago.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Fun with Dick and Jane

It didn’t take long in the first grade for the Dick and Jane reader to grow tiresome. Characters who stand around and exclaim over how they can see each other run are not especially exciting. But there was also something warm and reassuring about Dick and Jane’s world, their dog Spot, and their parents. They provided a model for how we, as 6 and 7 year olds in the 1950s, thought about ourselves and our simple, happy world, even as the double specters of civil rights and nuclear world war began to break through our unknowing complacency.

The film Fun with Dick and Jane, a remake of a 1970s film with Jane Fonda and George Segal, invests that idealized 1950s world of safety and affluence with reality tinged with the financial scandals of the 1990s and 2000s. In this new version Dick is played by Jim Carrey and Jane by Téa Leoni. They have a $600,000 house in affluent suburbs, with a 6-year old son who speaks Spanish better than English because he has been raised by a Hispanic housekeeper. Dick and Jane have all the appurtenances of affluence—a beautiful place to live, a flat-screen television, state-of-the-arts kitchen, beautiful furniture, and a hole in the backyard where the hot tub is being put in.

All of this luxury comes at a price. Jane works as a travel agent, while Dick is an officer in a financial affairs company, Globodyne, more than faintly similar to Enron. One day Dick is summoned up to the 56th floor of his company’s building and is appointed vice president for communications. His first task is to give a television interview where he will answer questions about the company’s financial stability. He thinks he will be reporting on quarterly earnings but instead is asked about the financial shenanigans of his company’s officers, about rumors of corruption and scandal. He is completely flummoxed because he is not at all prepared to answer those questions. He is, after all, not the kind of person who would be called on to serve as a vice president for communications in the first place. He is too eager, too ambitious, too willing to please, too inept. Like Enron before it, Globodyne tanks. Soon, Dick is without a job, and so is Jane, who quit her own position thinking there was no further need to work with the big salary her husband would be earning. They plan to live on their income until he can find another job, but because they invested all their earnings and savings in Globodyne, they soon find themselves penniless.

The rest of the film describes the plight of Dick and Jane, without money, their home foreclosed on, their front lawn repossessed. They resort to robbery—first quickie marts, soon banks—to survive. The hilarity of their adventures as robbers and thieves takes up much of the film. Ultimately, they happen on a way to work revenge on the owner of Globodyne. This too takes up much of the film’s time, and in some way it is apparently supposed to redeem and justify their robberies of convenience stores and banks.

Fun with Dick and Jane is a comedy. It shows the hilarious exploits of Dick and Jane as they rob a store disguised as Bill and Hillary, and later as Sonny and Cher. They are a bungling, endearing, desperate pair, even as they are robbing banks. We are supposed to commiserate with them, to feel their desperation. We are supposed to see them as typical upwardly mobile Americans, victimized by corrupt companies and owners, forced to resort to robbery and worse in order to stay afloat. One could view this as a kind of Robin Hood ethic, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. The trouble is that the people doing the robbing here started out close to being rich themselves, and they are robbing in order to maintain their wealth and their affluent lives, not to benefit the poverty-stricken. There’s no altruistic impulse in Dick and Jane, except, you might argue, at the end, where the plot they concoct to avenge themselves on the corrupt company owner has the effect of restoring lost pensions to thousands who once worked for Globodyne.

This is pretty hollow moralism. What you learn in this film is that Dick and Jane—rich, affluent, self-absorbed, white—are not much different from the company owner. They commit crimes in order to sustain their wealth, and we are supposed to find them heroic.

I am one of those few who think that Jim Carrey can be a fiercely comic actor. I especially liked a scene on the elevator where he sings and cavorts, ascending towards the 56th floor of the Globodyne building, where he thinks he is about to be anointed with a prestigious title and a high salary. Such small scenes are hilarious, and they save the film for a moment or two, as does the scene in which Dick and Jane’s little boy protests loudly in a heavy Spanish accent when he sees his parents carrying off the flat-screen television, intending to sell it for money.

This is a schizophrenic, self-deceiving film. Is it slapstick or social satire or both? Sometimes it is both, and in those rare moments it might be said to “work.” Most often is doesn’t know what it wants to be, and its vision is fundamentally craven and self-congratulatory. It is the kind of film one might make when he or she wants to pretend to be politically savvy and au courant without confronting the real issues.

The credits at the end of the film thank Enron, WorldCom, and other recently vanished companies that disappeared from the scene because of the glut and greed of their managers and major stock holders, and that in their absence have left despair and financial suffering. Nowhere to be seen in the film are the true victims of these companies, those blue and lower-level white collar workers who lost their life earnings and their pensions when these companies collapsed, who had little to begin with, and less in the end. These are the real victims, and they have as much to blame Dick and Jane for as they do the Kenneth Lays and Jeffrey Skillings. The world of those victims, the real victims, is hardly acknowledged in Fun with Dick and Jane.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Robert Cooperman, A Killing Fever

Robert Cooperman writes narrative poems about people and events. His books typically consist of cycles of poems that work as coherent units. Two of his collections are biographies of poets, In the Household of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1993) and Petitions for Immortality: Scenes from the Life of John Keats (2004). Two others are narrative cycles about events that took place in 19th-century Colorado gold-mining territory. In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains (1999) won the Colorado Book Award for Poetry in 2000. The Widow's Burden (2001) was runner-up to the previous award.

Cooperman’s recent collection, A Killing Fever (Ghost Road Press, 2006), follows in the path of the two previous Colorado books. It tells the story of two Colorado girls who are raped and thrown from a cliff while they are walking in the hills outside the settlement of Gold Creek. One of the girls survives while the other does not. After nearby Indians are blamed for the crime and murdered, the local sheriff organizes a posse and sends it in search of the real culprits.

Each member of the four-man posse has a different reason for being there. The leader is John Sprockett, a notorious killer who venerates women; Sylvester McIntyre, a witness to the crime who did not immediately report it because he did not want to lose time in his hunt for gold; Percy Gilmore, a newspaper reporter from England who is hired to write about the search for the killers — he is a Russian Jew hiding his real identity — he came to America after witnessing the murders of his family by Cossacks; and William Eagle Feather, a Ute tracker. These characters are an odd fusion of Dickens and Cormac McCarthy. Their conflicting motives and perceptions, their hidden conflicts, are as much a part of the story as the murders they are seeking to avenge.

The poems narrate the progress of their search for the murderers as well as the struggles of the surviving girl and her parents to adjust to the harsh new realities of disgrace and disfigurement.

Cooperman's typical strategy is to present in each poem the voice of a different character, usually a primary character but sometimes a minor one. This is similar to the approach used by Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, though Cooperman's method is more conventional in rhetorical tone and content.

Each poem advances the story, narrated in the past tense at a particular moment in the progress of events. Each character speaks about some aspect of the story, giving his or her perspective. Each poem is no more than a page long. Some of the poems end in a small ironic moment or revelation. In one poem, for example, Percy Gilmore describes how Sprockett confronts bandits tracking the posse:

Immediately, they drew back:
infernal creatures terrified
by God’s archangel of retribution.
But one, filled with foolish bravado,
attempted to ambush Mr. Sprockett,

Who slew the craven devil
With a clap of pistol thunder.
His brother demons drew their guns,
but in a display of dazzling marksmanship,
Mr. Sprockett dispatched each
as if their hearts were bull’s-eyes.

'I’d no quarrel with them,'
Mr. Sprockett lamented.
‘Not the boys we’re looking for,’
And wiping away tears,
he led us in a short prayer
for their troubled souls.

While the first half of the book describes the hunt for the murderers, the second half describes the developing love of Percy Gilmore and Mercy, the girl who survived the attacks but is left terribly disfigured. Her father is a minister, and he is revulsed that his daughter loves a Jew. At first he views the prospect of their marriage as little better than the attack she suffered:

My poor daughter, to suffer from merciless men,
Her only salvation almost as unbearable.

Ultimately he and his wife accept their daughter’s husband. In the collection’s final poems, thirty years after the marriage, Mercy returns to the scene of the attacks and considers the past and future direction of her life. Despite the violence, suffering, and horror that scarred her, she has also had love, and the book ends on a note of determined affirmation.

There is a documentary aspect to these poems, not only in how they seek to explain events, but also in how the characters appear to testify about their roles — this is testimony not only in the sense of the courtroom, but also in a more validating, spiritual sense. The effect is reminiscent of the Spoon River poems of Edgar Lee Masters.

Cooperman is an unusual and distinctive poet. He writes against many of the current trends in modern poetry, without taking obvious exception to them. In a time when many poets make their own personae the central issue of their work, Cooperman is almost entirely self-effacing. He has never claimed a large amount of attention in the world of contemporary poets, though he is widely published in poetry magazines and journals and his books have been published by respected small presses. He deserves more attention. His dedication to poetry, narrative, and stories of the human heart and experience has been heroic.

Cooperman’s latest book is The Long Black Veil, a cycle of poems built on the well known country and folk ballad by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkins. In addition to his longer works, Cooperman has published a number of chapbooks, including A Tale of the Grateful Dead, Not Too Old to Rock an Roll, Greatest Hits, and Shooting the Elephant. He was born in New York City, attended Brooklyn College and Long Island University and then earned his PhD from the University of Denver, where he studied with John Edward Williams, author of Augustus and Stoner and other novels. He taught for a time at the University of Georgia, at Bowling Green University, and again in Denver, but for the most part he has been a truly full-time poet. He lives and writes in Denver, Colorado, where his wife is a professor of business at the University of Denver.

This review appeared in BlogCritics,

See Western Reflection Publishing Co. web site on Cooperman.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

In A Walk in the Woods two middle-aged men, one the author Bill Bryson and the other his friend Stephn Katz, set out to walk the Appalachian Trail. The walk, narrated through the 300 pages of the book, becomes an occasion for Bryson to describe the shrinking of the American wilderness, the history of the Appalachian mountain chain (geologically as well as culturally), the history of the Trail itself, the lives of the men who conceived and oversaw its creation, the flora and fauna which he observes, various people whom they encounter on the trail, stories he has heard, experiences he has had, and on and on.

Bryson has a wonderful narrative gift. This books gives it full expression. He also has what I think of as a syncretic, associative mind. As he walks along the trail, or lies in his tent at night, one thought leads to another, and Bryson deals with each one as it comes. The other book I've read by Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, showed his skill as a science writer, as an explainer of difficult concepts, as someone capable of bringing together into one relatively coherent account all the theories and scientific explanations for the history of the cosmos, the earth, and of life.

In A Walk in the Woods Bryson's subject is more focused. Not only does he write about the Appalachian Trail, but also he writes, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, of his own attitude towatds middle age and the limitations of his life. Walking the Trail is for him a way of trying to come to terns with those limitations, at first by transcending but finally by accepting them.

Bryson has an acute sense of history, of historical context, and of irony. He is quick to point out that the existence of the Appalachian Trail is a kind of accident, that the wilderness through which it passes is vestigial, that the wilderness itself is, on much of the trail, second growth forest that has overgrown farmlands once farmed by early American settlers. His fear of bears is comical and he honestly discusses it.

Bryson plays the straight man to Katz, perennially out of shape and seemingly always in search of a candy bar and a beer. We learn more about Katz than just about anything else in the book, including perhaps Bryson himself. Katz at first seems to be Bryson's comic foil and nemesis. Finally he emerges as a true friend, a doppelganger to the more serious Bryson, who discovers in his walking companion another image of himself. Bryson's dawning appreciation of Katz is one of the subthemes of the book.

Walking the Trail for Bryson is no macho challenge but a way of coming to terms with his life and with the fullness of human experience.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Walk the Line

The main problem with Walk the Line is that it isn’t a fiction. I liked and enjoyed the film, but I never believed that the two main characters were who they were supposed to be. Both actors—Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon--did credible jobs of imitating the people they portrayed. But the best they could do was imitate, impersonate.

If the movie were a fiction, that is, not a film about real people, then the credibility issue would disappear. The characters in the film are well developed. You understand them fully as human beings, and they behave as human beings. The developing love story is moving and poignant, and you understand the forces that are both bringing Cash and Carter together and forcing them apart. Cash’s family origins, especially his difficult relationship with his father, who (according to the film) blamed him for his older brother’s death, is well portrayed. The musical careers of Cash and Carter, a central source of interest in the film, provide an enriching backdrop to the love story. You believe in these characters.

But when you have to think of Phoenix and Witherspoon as Cash and Carter, the film falters. Phoenix doesn’t sing like Cash sang. He does a passable imitation. Witherspoon comes closer to singing like June Carter, but not close enough.

This is my basic problem with so-called bio-pics. They are always a subjective rendering of the subject’s life. More then that, they are by nature selective in what they choose to focus on, to highlight and to leave out. Biographies are selective and subjective too, but because they usually contain much more detail and information than films can offer, the reader of biographies has more of a basis to reach his or her own conclusions, even to be skeptical of the biographer’s conclusions, than does the viewer of a bio-pic, who is pretty much stuck with the director’s vision of the subject.

Walk the Line differs from Ray in that it is really the love story of Cash and Carter, while Ray is the story of Ray Charles’ musical career. In that sense Ray is a more ambitious and successful film. And Jamie Foxx’s impersonation of Charles is one of the most successful impersonations I have ever seen on film. You forget that Foxx is not Charles. But although you appreciate the portrayals offered by Phoenix and Witherspoon you never forget that they are not Cash and Carter.

The trouble with any film like Walk the Line is not only the issue of impersonation but also the issue of explanation. How can anyone truly know another person—especially a person of talent and genius—how can you truly know the inner motivations of such a person?

Some of the most successful portrayals in the film are by minor characters—especially the portrayals of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Presley is portrayed at an early moment in his career. He shows flashes of becoming what he will become, but he is not there yet. The actor who portrays him, Tyler Hilton, doesn’t sing like him much at all, and his portrayal barely manages to suggest a resemblance. He comes across as still in the process of formation. For this reason, I found his performance wholly credible—Elvis as chrysalis, not the butterfly.

Waylon Payne’s Jerry Lee Lewis is such an over-the-top parody or impersonation—as the real Jerry Lee was himself—that he is the center of attention and the source of energy in the few scenes in which he appears. He comes across as a Dionysiac wild man.

Walk the Line is an intelligent film that attempts to portray its subjects with due respect and understanding. I cared about the characters, even if I did not believe in them as Johnny Cash and June Carter.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Country Music Hall of Fame

To read a longer and revised version of this commentary in Flagpole, click here.

The Country Music Hall of Fame, in a posh, ultramodern building in Nashville, TN, offers a compact but impressive summary of the history of country music (bluegrass, honkytonk, cowboy, hillbilly, what have you). It is definitely worth a visit if you're in the vicinity, especially if you're a fan of country music or any of its cognates.

Two must-sees: Webb Pierce's Cadillac, decorated with pistols (for door handles), rifles (for hood ornaments and trim), hand-tooled cowhide interior with silver-dollar highlights. It is an overwhelming visual assault.

Elvis Presley's Cadillac (one of many, but the only one the museum has on display). The paint on the Cadillac consists of twenty coats of crushed diamonds mixed with crushed fish scales. At least so the sign next to the car claims. The Cadillac shines with a hypnotic, numinous glow. Inside are a gold television and a telephone that connects the back seat with the front seat that is three feet away.

Less impressive, but still worth consideration, is the gold-paint piano that Priscilla Presley gave the King on their first wedding anniversary.

Someone standing nearby, gazing at the cars and the piano, quipped, "This is what happens when rednecks get money." Not original, I think, but apt.

The Country Music Hall of Fame offers a revealing glimpse into one dimension of 20th-century culture--a powerful wellspring of talent, musical styles, and influences.

The glamour of the place, typical of the compulsion of the country music world to over-hype itself, belies the humble origins of many of the individuals celebrated there.

A one-floor series of exhibits, arranged more or less chronologically, trace the development of country music, from its folk and Appalachian roots and the early days of Jimmie Rodgers to the beginnings of the Grand Old Opry to Hank Williams to the rise of rockabilly (Carl Perkins, Elvis, the astounding Wanda Jackson) to the present day. Musical instruments, vintage posters, costumes, pictures, and other memorabilia provide tangible evidence of the people and music. You get a very real sense of the culture of country music, a tradition that developed separately from Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, always lingering on the margins, never entirely comfortable with itself either inside or outside the mainstream. This discomfort manifested in outlandish costumes, inflated hair, gaudy cars and homes, obsessive self-promotion. It is also evident in country music's insistence that its own political conservatism and representation of basic American values somehow places it closer to the heart of the average man and woman than Broadway and Hollywood. This claim is questionable, but these exhibits argue strongly that country music is a valuable tradition in our national heritage.

This is not to say that the Country Music Hall of Fame makes a big point of showing you the downside--the failed marriages, drug abuse, alcoholism, and shameless competitiveness, the gluttonous cravings for fame and wealth and power, the compromise, corruption, and jingoism. For the most part you don't see the downsides, but what you do see is nonetheless of interest.

Other floors included Ray Charles and Earl Scruggs exhibits. A glass showcase briefly chronicles the Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton partnership in the late 1960s and 1970s. Wagoner’s hair was astounding.

As we gazed at a huge wall of gold albums on one side of the museum's second floor, I experienced a strange and funny temporary dislocation. My son, who is 22, peering closely at the albums, asked me whether LPs were recorded with music on both sides. His friend asked why there were gaps in between the grooves on the LPs.

I felt very old.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) is one of the literary landmarks of the 1960s, and one of the best works of non-fiction in the last half of the 20th century. She was and remains a highly idiosyncratic writer. She was one of the first writers to make writing about her own self as a way of writing about the society of which she has been more a highly perceptive observer than an emblem. While many of her contemporaries and successors, people she has influenced, have never moved beyond a conceited feathering of personal ego, she has always gone much further.

Didion’s partner in writing and in marriage was John Gregory Dunne, a novelist and screenwriter. They were married for nearly forty years and were rarely apart from one another. They both wrote at home, and they collaborated on screenplays. Dunne died on the evening of December 30, 2003, as Didion was mixing him a drink. They had just been to visit their daughter Quintana, who was critically ill with complications from pneumonia. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s documentary narrative of the year following his death. Few writers have offered such candid glimpses into their own sorrow and grief.

Didion is a highly self-conscious writer. In a sense, her own consciousness, her consciousness of self, her self-conscious observations of her world, is her major subject. She has lived an affluent, privileged life which she neither apologizes for nor brags about. She openly shares the names of famous people, some of them celebrities, who have been her friends. In this sense she reminds one of Woody Allen, whose life in the same rarified social strata he exposes frequently in his films. But there is in Woody Allen (an artist whom Didion attacked in a notorious New York Review of Books essay) more than a little of the the show-off as he drops names of famous celebrities and artists. In Didion’s work, such figures are simply people she knows, part of her life.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful and affecting book. I can think of no other book like it. It has its moments of excessive melodrama, of preciousness, but for the most part it is utterly candid and honest. Didion is able to view herself with a frightening objectivity, yet she is in a sense a wholly subjective writer.

This is also a genuine literary memoir in which Didion interweaves a line from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, lines from Delmore Schwartz, and passages from her husband’s novels and from her own writings. These references contribute to her exploration of her own period of grief.

This is a painful book to read. I recommend it highly.