Monday, September 25, 2006

William Faulkner and Talladega Nights

If you sit through all the credits for Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, you come to a brief scene of Ricky Bobby’s mother reading to his sons. She’s reading the final paragraph of William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” the scene where Boon Hogganbeck, terrorizing the squirrels in the squirrel tree, turns frantically and threateningly to Isaac McCaslin and cries, “They’re mine. They’re all mine.” In Faulkner’s story the scene represents the acquisitiveness and greed that have destroyed the natural beauty of the original Southern wilderness. The woods where Ike and his companions have hunted deer and bear have been sold to a logging company and will soon disappear forever, replaced eventually by farmlands and then towns and cities. In the film, when she finishes reading to the little boys, they all discuss the meaning of the conclusion, the moral ambiguity that it expresses, so essential, the grandmother explains, to American literature of the early 20th century. The boys agree that the story’s conclusion is about the transition of the Old South to the modern world.

I first learned of this scene on a Faulkner discussion list. Several members of the list wrote about it, though no one seemed to know what it meant, why it was there. I went to Talladega Nights planning to sit through the credits to find out if the scene were really there. It was.

First, of course, the scene is a joke. Many comic films end with outtakes of discarded alternate scenes or hilarious mistakes made by the actors. Certainly that is the case in Talladega Nights, which includes a number of outtakes shown just before the credits begin. The outtake involving the discussion of “The Bear” is shown by itself, after the credits have ended. I think it was placed there as a hilarious afterthought, so out of synch with the film, so improbable, and so pertinent. Where we look for randomness, we must also look for intent. I think this final outtake offers an additional level of context for a film that largely seems to be little more than a fairly well done sustained joke. Someone connected with the film, by accident or deliberate act, placed the scene at the end of the film as a commentary. Talladega Nights is about the modern Southern and American world that replaces the world of the untrammeled woods where Sam Fathers and Isaac McCaslin hunted their fabled bear.

This is not to say that the film operates in a serious dimension, or that it seeks to be anything more than what it is, a comedy about American stockcar racing, a satire of the American dream of personal satisfaction sought through the fulfillment of one’s personal dreams: “I wanna go fast.”

Talladega Nights operates pretty much on the same level as the television series “My Name is Earl,” where the satire and humor is more unrelentingly perverse, biting, and subtle. There’s more slapstick in Talladega Nights, more lampoonish caricatures of people who idolize Dale Earnardt and who, when all is said and done, are good natured, down home, country people. Both the film and My Name is Earl are subject to occasional bouts of sentimentalism, especially the film, with its formulaic portrayal of the hero who rises and falls and then struggles to rise again, winning the love of the shrinking violet who was there for him all along, especially when his career hit its nadir. In fact, there are numerous formulaic elements in the film—the long absent father who returns at the crucial moment to help his son, the opportunistic wife who deserts when his career falters, the devilish, misbehaving young sons, the incredibly thick and mumbled French accent of Ricky Bobby’s gay adversary, the drunken wife of the man who sponsors Ricky’s racing-- the list goes on. The formulas really don’t matter that much because you expect them in this kind of film, and because they are successfully, often hilariously applied.

The most comical scenes for me in Talladega Nights are the ones where Ricky Bobby explains why he prefers to pray to the baby Jesus at the supper table. People have a right to pray to the Jesus they want to pray to, he explains. In several scenes Ricky’s young sons hurl one insolent insult after another at Ricky, at his friend Cal, at their grandfather, on and on. In another scene they escape from the Sunday school where their grandmother has taken them, and then they run amuck, yelling, “Anarchy, anarchy!” One of them exclaims, “Anarchy! I don’t even know what that means.”

Like many films of this type, Talladega Nights succumbs in the end to a sentimental resolution of plot and character. But the process of reaching that point is diverting entertainment.

If Faulkner’s story, alluded to in the final scene, is any clue to a larger meaning in this film, that meaning is commercialization and commodification. At one point someone in the film explains that stock car racing developed from bootleggers who learned to drive their cats fast so they could outrun the cops. (See Thunder Road, 1958, starring Robert Mitchum and based on a story he wrote). They enjoyed the speed and began racing one another, and the American sport of stock car racing was the result. But if we’re to think that at some point or at some level that racing cars is a hallowed American tradition, in this film it is wholly commercial and commodified. The best race car drivers have the emblems of all sorts of name brands emblazoned on their cars. The name brands are an emblem of their success and fame. Ricky Bobby will endorse any product he is paid to endorse (there are hilarious outtakes at the end of the film showing some of his commercials that did not make it in to the film).

Product placement in the film seems intentionally self-referential— it’s self-parody. Ricky Bobby’s family goes to Applebee’s twice for dinner, and at a crucial moment at the end of the film, in the middle of a slow-motion crash sequence, described by one of the announcers as the longest crash he remembers ever seeing, an advertisement for Applebees interrupts, as if to say that the whole thing is product placement, all of modern America is product placement, crass, obvious, greedy, product placement.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


In 1923 white residents of nearby towns invaded the mostly black town of Rosewood, Florida, lynching and killing many residents and burning their houses to the ground. The actual number of victims is estimated to have been as few as 6 and as many as 40. The survivors left the area and the events were largely forgotten, at least in official histories of Florida, until the early 1980s, when accounts of the event surfaced and were published.

The name of Rosewood is now a byword for one of the worst episodes in America’s racial history—though not the worst. The New York Draft riots, and any number of race riots in the 19th and 20th centuries exacted larger death tolls among African Americans and white Americans as well. What is significant about Rosewood is that its story was suppressed and forgotten for so long.

John Singleton’s 1997 film chronicles and dramatizes the events surrounding Rosewood. It is organized as a documentary, divided into sections labeled with the dates on which events occurred. The film shows what happened, or at least one version of what happened. It seems closely based on contemporary accounts of the event, as well as on a study commissioned by the Florida legislature in 1983 that led the legislature to pass a bill providing reparations for the families of Rosewood survivors.

The events chronicled in Rosewood begin when a white woman of dubious reputation is savagely beaten by her white lover. For reasons that were not clear she lies and claims that she was attacked by a black man. (This recalls for me Faulkner’s story “Dry September”). The consequences explode and lead to lynchings and mass chaos, with white mobs roaming back and forth across the town, setting buildings afire, shooting and hanging men and women. The sheriff at one and the same time leads one of the mobs even as he tries to control it. Some whites are sorry for the murders they commit; others murder with relish. It is difficult to connect these events with anything recognizable in modern times. But of course they did occur.

Among the few virtuous whites are the storekeeper John Wright (Jon Voight) and his wife Mary (Kathryn Meisle). Voight plays a weak and conflicted man who cannot face the mob and is afraid of losing business if he stands up against the murders. His wife is new to the South, horrified by everything that is happening around her, and appalled by the weakness of her husband. Ultimately, Wright helps survivors escape. Ving Rhames plays Mann, a stranger who is passing through town when the trouble begins. He is the ostensible hero of the film (the “Mann”), though he is not based on a historical character. Because Wright and Mann conspire to help the survivors escape, and because Wright himself is white, the film recalls Schindler’s List, where the Nazi Schindler helps many Jews escape the death camps. This is a way of suggesting that the suffering of African Americans is akin to the suffering of the German death camp victims.

I wanted to like or at least admire this film, but it fails to do much more than show the events leading to Rosewood’s destruction. It doesn’t provide much of an explanation for why the mobs do what they do, other than suggesting that they are racists and that racists behave murderously. White people kill black people and the remaining black people kill white people. There’s a lot of shooting, much death and carnage, many images of horror, and a lot of suspense as the survivors barely manage to escape on a locomotive Wright has secured. Ving Rhames as the itinerant stranger Mann suffers recurring crises of conscience, but ultimately he overcomes his hesitation and rises to the task of being the film’s hero. Wright’s tenuous family situation is redeemed by his discovery of courage.

The film is important for the story it tells, but it fails to tell the story with much understanding and resorts to stereotypes in the process of doing so.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Inside Man

Inside Man (2006) is an unusual film for Spike Lee. It’s short on social issues and long on action and suspense. It has some of the trademark features of a Spike Lee film: inventive photography, innovative use of music, a multicultural cast of characters. But it is also about a bank robbery: two hostage negotiators, the lead played by Denzel Washington, fail to talk robbers who have taken a large group of bank employees and customers out of robbing the bank. At the critical moment, the robbers escape, despite the hoard of policemen surrounding the bank. And it’s not clear what they’ve stolen. The rest of the film unravels the mystery of who the robbers were and why they robbed the bank.

This is not a social problem film, not a film that seeks to examine the racial and social issues that divide and energize the nation, but a film that after a long and somewhat engrossing exposition boils down to a surprisingly hackneyed conclusion.

Even so, the film is interesting if not of great substance. In the film Lee pays homage, or at least winks, at several issues. One is the World Trade Center attacks. In the background of one scene is a banner that reads “Never Forget,” or something to that effect. This might seem to be the only such element in the film, but in fact there is more. Policemen, detectives, hostage negotiators, riot squads, and crowds of onlookers, surround the bank once the word gets out that robbers have taken hostages. All the power of New York law enforcement is brought to bear. High technology and expertise all collaborate to prevent the robbers’ escape. Yet they do escape. They outwit the policemen and disappear. The efforts of law enforcement are completely foiled.

In some way Lee seems to be commenting on the ineffectiveness of law enforcement in confronting and defeating plots. Policemen expect criminal minds to think in a particular way. The criminals in this film think differently, and their plot succeeds as a a result. In terms ethics and expertise, the police are found lacking. Denzel Washington’s superior officer tells him to close the case because “it can’t be solved.”

Another issue obliquely commented on is racial profiling. The robbers force their hostages to put on the same clothing the robbers are wearing. The police can’t tell the robbers from their victims. This helps the robbers escape. When everyone leaves the bank at once, everyone is dressed alike, and the policemen treat everyone as a criminal, forcing them to the ground, handcuffing them, manhandling them. They have no alternative, of course, because some of the robbers are clearly among them, but the point is made nonetheless. The hostages are treated like robbers because they are dressed like robbers. This ruse defeats the attempts of police to detect the real culprits. A plot twist at the end of the film further enriches the complexity of this theme.

The police base their plans for dealing with the robbers on assumptions about how robbers behave. They also treat the people streaming out of the bank on the basis of assumptions about the way they are dressed. The robbers depend on these assumptions. Because they assume that law enforcement will assume, they are able to escape.

Inside Man is well made and inventively filmed. But the script and the basic plot scenario hamstring Lee, and the film seems too tightly wound, too programmed, as a result. But it works nonetheless. Christopher Lee is effective in a supporting role. Jodie Foster seems out of character as a independent agent who works with people of a shadowy nature—Osama Bin Laden’s nephew, an aging Nazi, corrupt politicians, to help them get their way.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The 1952 film A Member of the Wedding was a closet drama. Only Ethel Waters gave it any life, and what she gave was hysteric and flat. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968) is a different kind of closet drama—a young girl’s view of a small town and its inhabitants. But it is not really the girl’s view that matters—it is the deaf mute, played in the film by Alan Arkin, who takes in the life of the town and suffers for what he sees and feels. Both films focus on a young adolescent girl afraid she is missing out on life. In A Member it is her brother’s wedding. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter it is simply life, the life everyone else is living, the life that her family’s shrinking circumstances threatens to deny her.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter strains for a kind of lyricism that it never quite achieves. The Member of the Wedding strains for a tragic awareness of life’s darkness. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter explores the trope of a small town’s hidden life.

The girl Mick, played in the film by Sondra Locke in her first major film appearance, lives in a family that is typical in some ways but not in others. Her father has suffered some sort of injury that at least temporarily leaves the family without income. Her mother is frustrated and anguished, not only over the lost income but also over her own life. She has a strained and histrionic appearance, and in a key scene she tells Mick that all her aspirations and ambitions will come to nothing, that she will find a man and marry him and that if she is lucky there may be love. In another scene the parents tell their daughter that she may have to start attending high school at night so that she can earn money for the family during the day working at a general store. This is Mick’s context throughout the film, and she strains against it constantly, despite her love for her parents and her brother.

Mick is the archetypal young girl waking up to life, full of hope, interests, ambitions, running up again the pessimism and obstacles of the adult world. She is awkward and gangly, a tomboy, alternatively loud and horsey, sensitive and yearning. She never quite fits in with other girls her age, and when she has a party to which she invites other friends her age, the outcome is a disaster. She is fascinated by Mozart, and her love of music suggests that McCullers, a musician of some accomplishment, invested herself in Mick’s character. Sondra Locke is not quite successful with this character. She seems too old for the part, and she overplays it. But the film as a whole is overplayed.

Analogues to this film’s portrayal of small-town life are numerous: Dylan Thomas’ voice play Under Milkwood (1953), Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio, Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel. Hidden secrets, grotesque characters, repressed sexuality, jealousy, envy, poverty, small aspirations and smaller abilities, these are the bywords of small-town American life.

The source of lyricism in the film is the deaf mute John Singer. Alan Arkin is wonderful in this role. He never speaks, but his expressive, interested, eager face displays his longing and his need for connection. He is an empath who absorbs and fully feels the emotions of the people around him, who suffers from his ultimate inability to help others, especially the people who matter most, such as Mick. At a crucial moment, her rejection of his attempts to communicate leads to the tragic conclusion of the film.

Singer befriends a retarded Greek young man, Spiros Antonapoulos, a drunk winningly played by a young Stacy Keach, an African American doctor disappointed in his daughter’s decision to settle for being a made rather than making something of herself, and Mick. The doctor, Doctor Copeland, is a complex and difficult man. He’s socially ambitious, devoted to his patients, a hater of whites, a man who yearns for material success and security for his daughter, who has married a man he feels is beneath her. She in turn hates him and recognizes his cowardice in crucial moments. He is also dying of lung cancer, a secret that only John Singer knows. Singer, the white deaf mute, is the one man who is able to break through Copeland’s intolerant, unwelcoming exterior.

Doctor Copeland is similar to Sergeant Waters of A Soldier’s Story. He’s trapped by race and racial categories, by his own inability to fit into any niche, by his own unhappiness within his own skin.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter gives some acknowledgement to the race problem of the mid-20th century American South. But mostly it exploits the small Southern town as a setting for examining the mysteries of human character. We see through this film (and through the novel) that McCullers views the South as a place where the individual suffers in silence from community pressures, family traumas, and human failings. She is far more interested in the inner lives of her characters than their exterior lives and how geography and social pressures that derive from geography affect them.

John Singer is a kind of Christ character who takes on the suffering and sins of those around him and ultimately dies for them. He is an extreme example of isolation—his inability to communicate coupled with his need for connections with other human individuals makes him a pathetic and sad figure. He is a modern figure rather than a Southern figure. He reminds me of characters in Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, as well as in William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. It is the modern human condition this film and the novel on which it is based are most deeply interested in displaying.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as a title describes both Mick and John Singer. Mick is isolated from the world by her awkwardness, her ambitions to be significant, and her family situation. John Singer (who sings through his face and his behavior towards others rather than with his voice) is isolated by whatever sad medical or biological misfortune left him disabled. Life is full of unkindness beyond the reach or correction of human effort. This is the sad message of the film and the novel.

The Celestial Jukebox: A Novel, by Cynthia Shearer

Cynthia Shearer’s novel The Celestial Jukebox (2005) explores the multicultural South of the new century. It is set in the fictional Mississippi town of Madagascar, a town which reflects many of the changes that have come to the American South as a whole. Everyone — people whose families who have lived in Madagascar for a century, people who have just arrived — must learn to live in the new world.

Few novels offer such an array of characters and backgrounds: Boubacar, a young African Muslim who comes to America to join his uncles and yearns to play the blues; Angus Chien, a Chinese immigrant who runs a small store near Madagascar; Dean, a long-time white farmer whose wife has left him for reasons neither understands; a dissatisfied housewife neglected by her husband and children; a man who collects and repairs jukeboxes; a street gang; an eccentric elderly artist who makes bird houses and lines their interiors with the great books of the western world and who claims to be the daughter of Matisse; Honduran farm workers; Aubrey, an African American farmer with a gambling problem, and the list goes on. They’re all a charming and exotic lot, and the book could easily fall into cliché and platitude. But it doesn’t.

Shearer’s great achievement is her development of characters. They’re all credible, convincing human individuals. Shearer loves her characters in the same way that Dickens seemed to love his, and this love is conveyed to and shared by the readers. This book consists of 35 short chapters, each with its own title, so that at first it seems like a collection of stories. But the chapters are interwoven as characters meet and become involved with one another — Boubacar goes to work for Angus Chien, the disgruntled housewife and the jukebox collector fall in love, Dean befriends an African American girl who has come back South looking for her ancestor, and so on. In a way, the novel reminded me of ensemble movies like Crash and Magnolia and even Nashville where the lives of individual characters are part of a larger reality.

Music is a unifying theme. Characters are always listening to or thinking about music — the blues, rock, country and western, African drumming, and European classical. Bob Dylan’s songs are a recurring motif. A National Steel guitar passes from one character to another and ultimately ends up in the hands of Boubacar, who learns to play it.

Another unifying connection is Ariadne. Long dead at the time of the novel’s events, she was an African American midwife who helped bring many of the Mississippi natives in the novel into the world. Named for the woman in Greek myth who is turned into a spider, she weaves a metaphoric web of relationships, links, connections, and consequences that are the heart of this novel. Through her, Shearer suggests the fundamental shared humanity of all the inhabitants of Madagascar.

The lesson of this book is that America is a land of immigrants, that its power and cultural wealth come out of the diverse quilt of its population. This is not a particularly earthshaking idea, and to Shearer’s credit she doesn’t push it. This novel makes its point by showing how all the characters — white and black, Asian and Hispanic and African — deal with the same problems and suffer the same ambitions and desires. By making her readers empathize with and care about these characters, Shearer gently leads them towards the appropriate conclusions.

The last few chapters of the novel occur on the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The attacks occur far away from the Mississippi setting of the novel, but all the characters hear about and understand what they mean. Suddenly the ethnic and cultural relationships of the novel seem fragile. The African Muslims take precautions for their safety. They become more conscious of themselves as outsiders. Shearer shows in these stories how short- and long-term Mississippi residents like Dean, Boubacar, Angus Chien, and their friends have gradually adjusted to and become a part of the diverse population among which they live. The World Trade Center attacks make everyone wary of everyone else, and though all may recover from the shock, the possibility of discord and conflict is there.

It was a pleasure to read this book. It is modest and unassuming with a straightforward, unadorned style that focuses on the characters. As the number of pages left to read dwindled, I became concerned that the characters would not solve their problems before the novel ended. I am usually a more objective reader who looks forward to finishing even the best of books. But not this one.

Does the title, The Celestial Jukebox, allude to the Hawthorne story “The Celestial Railroad,” where the narrator finds himself on a train with a motley assemblage of individuals all headed towards the same destination? Could it be in some way representative of the American population, the human condition? Maybe. Maybe not.

In Shearer’s novel the celestial jukebox resides in Angus Chien’s store. It holds all the great songs and musicians of the American 20th century, the music that in one way or the other binds all these characters together and by which they define their lives. Usually the jukebox only half works, refusing to play the song the customer has chosen, playing something else instead. But it always plays something. The jukebox represents the dreams and ambitions and the cultural interconnections of all the characters who bring this novel to life and make it memorable.

Cynthia Shearer lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She is also the author of The Wonder Book of the Air (1997).

This review originally appeared in BlogCritics,

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Wicker Man and the Wicked Woman

The trailer for The Wicker Man (2006) suggests a mystery with supernatural overtones. With images of a missing child, a station wagon hit by a truck and bursting into flames, an isolated island, and strange women dressed in 19th-century clothing, the trailer caught my interest At the same time, there was something about the trailer that bothered me, something hackneyed, jury rigged.

Written and directed by Neil Labute, and “reinterpreted” from the highly regarded 1973 British Wicker Man, this film has an agenda. It targets feminists, matriarchy, the New Age movement, Wiccans, nature worshippers, alternative cultures, bees, and fans of Ellen Burstyn, whose appearance is an embarrassment. It draws on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and, of course, the 1973 original. Labute’s film does not live up to these sources.

Policeman Edward Malus, played by Nicholas Cage, stops a station wagon in Northern California to return a doll dropped on the road. When he returns the doll, the little girl who dropped it throws it out again. When he walks over to pick up the doll, a truck crashes into the station wagon, which bursts into flames and then explodes as Edward tries to pull the girl from the wreckage. He loses consciousness. Bodies are never found in the wreckage. While he is recovering, he receives a letter from his former fiancé whose child has disappeared. She asks his help. Against his better judgment, he travels to the state of Washington and the isolated island where she lives, and the mystery begins to unfold.

This film reminded me of the old computer game Myst, which had a rich and fascinating atmosphere but not much of a plot, at least not much of one as far as I got into the game. Myst in its evocation of mystery and suspense and its puzzles and problems was a revolutionary computer game. The Wicker Man is a dull and plodding film that follows Edward Malus in his anguished and fairly dimwitted plunge towards the mystery’s solution. There is little about this film that is surprising or creative.

In the first few minutes of the film, Nicholas Cage is convincing as the police officer recovering from the traumatic failed rescue. He keeps having hallucinations, or thinks he does, and pops pills to suppress them. But once he arrives on the island he spends most of his time stumbling around in an angry sort of funk, yelling at various women who smile at him in a knowing way as they refuse to give up any information. He runs or trots or walks up and down the roads and paths of the island, breaks into houses, descends into holes, rides a bicycle, swims, and explores an old barn. He never changes the suit he wears. He never seems to catch on. Nicholas Cage is a great actor given the right part. This is not the right part.

The Wicker Man offers all the usual hints and clues and portents of horror films—lost clothing, forbidden rooms, nightmares, cackling crows, disfigured bodies, disfigured people, a beautiful and tormented woman, lies, deceit, fear, hiding places, holes in the ground that lead to danger, clues that mount up and lead towards an inevitable conclusion. There is the standard shocking reversal near the end of the film that turns everything on its head, though anyone who watches this film with any care will catch on long before the surprise reveals itself. And there is the concluding scene that assures the final horror’s perpetuation.

In a rather systematic way the iconography of this film presents nature worship, feminists, and pagan religions as all wrapped up in an anti-male, anti-Christian, anti-tradition, anti-Western World cabal. The penultimate scene certainly supports this notion. Towards the end, Edward Malus violently slugs several women who, he suspects, are about to take part in a terrible crime—beyond the issue of the crime, what point is the film making here about women who don’t know their place? What this film shows about pagan religions such as Wicca is exactly what many right-wing fundamentalist Christians want to believe: that they are demented, tree-hugging, anti-Christian, men-hating subversives. All the women characters are named for plants: Sister Rose, Sister Thorn, Dr. Moss, Rowan, Sister Willow; Sister Beech. They take part in fertility rites and harvest rituals. The figuratively if not actually emasculated men never speak or assert themselves or respond to Edward’s calls for help. The women refer to the men as drones. Edward falls into a subterranean pool where he comes across a submerged statue of Jesus. In another scene, a teacher asks her girl students, “What is man in his purest form” and the girls give the answer they have been taught, “Phallic symbol, phallic symbol, phallic symbol.”

Even if the film is not deliberately expressing these sentiments, it is still exploiting them. Those of us in the audience are clearly expected to react negatively to all of this. We’re supposed to share Edward’s point of view. Neil Labute does not seem like the sort of director who would endorse these positions. Yet they are in the film. Why?

Interestingly, the main character in the 1973 original (which I have read about but not seen) is presented as a Christian whose faith conflicts with the nature worship of the inhabitants of the island. Moreover, the earlier film depicted an island ruled over by a man, not by women. In this more recent version, the Christianity is sublimated into the mood, characterizations, and dialogue.

I am no advocate for Wiccans and other paganists. But they are harmless. To suggest that they and feminists are somehow one and the same, interchangeable, is ridiculous. To imply that feminism’s attack on patriarchic social institutions has undermined and endangered our world is preposterous. Yet The Wicker Man makes these arguments and vilifies those who choose alternative paths by presenting them as a danger.

The one positive element in this film is the setting, a beautiful island--in the film it sits off the Washington state coast but in reality it is near Vancouver in British Columbia. The film exploits the exotic and remote scenery effectively. But it’s not much of a film.

This review originally appeared in BlogCritics,

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Two Thousand Maniacs

Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) exploits in an almost perverse way numerous Southern stereotypes: north vs. south hostilities, southern nationalism, hillbillies and rednecks, violence, humor, hijinks, decay. Production values are so low, acting so poor, the narrative itself so implausible, that it is difficult to view the film as little more than a sustained joke. The director Herschell Gordon Lewis made numerous films of C-level sex, violence, gore, and inanity during the 1960s. They offered titles such as Blood Feast, Moonshine Mountain, Sin, Suffer, and Repent, Blood Feast, A Taste of Blood, and Color Me Blood Red. Two Thousand Maniacs was often considered part of a triptych of films by Lewis, the “Blood Trilogy,” the others being Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red (they are not set in the South).

The film’s premise is that the citizens of Pleasant Valley in an unnamed Southern town are celebrating the centennial anniversary of an event that occurred near the end of the civil war, in April 1865. At first the nature of the event is unclear, but eventually we learn that 100 years before renegade Northern soldiers had wiped out the town, killing or maiming most of the townspeople. Now, in April 1965, the townspeople have returned to avenge the massacre. They do so by waylaying six Yankee tourists whom they convince or compel to serve as the special guests of the centennial.

One by one, four of the tourists are killed: one has her limbs chopped off with an axe—they are later barbecued; a second is drawn and quartered; a third is rolled down a hill in a barrel laced with nails; and the fourth has a boulder dropped on her. There are the requisite severed limbs, episodes of horrified screaming, and ample amounts of fake blood.

The townspeople all behave as demented buffoons, laughing and guffawing over their plans to avenge themselves on the Yankee tourists. The tourists themselves have not a clue as to what is going on, until one of them, a school teacher, manages to discover the nature of the centennial celebration. He and a young woman escape to tell the tale.

The central image of the film is the Confederate stars and bars flag, whose blood red background is linked with the blood so often seen in the film. Not surprisingly, since most of the people in the film are temporarily resurrected Confederates, there are no black people in the film at all. Instead we find the sorts of white people stereotypes that appear in Lil Abner comic strips and in TV series such as The Beverley Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Gomer Pyle. In this film, however, those stereotypes take on decidedly violent and macabre dimensions. By modern standards, the violence in this film is tame, and though it involves horrible acts against the Yankee tourists, the fake blood and primitive effects, not to mention the bad acting, eviscerate the horror.

Two Thousand Maniacs presents the American South as a self-evident joke. Though no one would take the movie in a literal way as a serious representation—most of the characters are absurd parodies and, after all, ghosts—in a more metaphoric sense the film presents the South as a geographical and cultural Other, a remote and marginal hinterland unknown and inaccessible to the outer world, a place that brings gruesome death to those unfortunate enough to enter it. More mainstream films such as Deliverance and Southern Comfort present a similar if more complicated view of the South.

Films of this type were fairly common in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them were B- and C-grade films with titles such as Macon County Line, Bloody Mama, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Redneck Zombies, The Alien Dead, and so on. The list of such films is lengthy. These films helped perpetuate the notion of a violent and backwoods South, a notion that many were eager to accept since it accorded with the image of the South promulgated through accounts of racism and civil rights struggles in the South of the 1950s and 1960s.

For Director Lewis, who is not a Southerner, the South provided a handy setting for many of his exploitation films—a stereotypical place of violence and barbarism, a natural context for the content he wished to portray. He uses Egypt in Blood Feast in a similar way.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bob Dylan, Modern Times

What more is there to say about Bob Dylan’s Modern Times? The release of a Dylan album these days is such a significant event (at least for his admirers) that it is difficult to evaluate with objectivity. It’s also difficult not to compare Dylan’s more recent work with his great albums of the 1960s, especially Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, which loom in his career like golden tablets from the mount. Dylan himself, with characteristic immodesty, has expressed amazement that he produced those albums. Such comparisons profit little. Dylan is one of a very few singer/songwriters who has continued to change and evolve throughout his career. In a sense, his last three albums—Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times--have been about that evolutionary process. Modern Times is the most recent moment in a continuum that has run now for 45 years. It is a movement forward that needs to be judged on its own grounds.

Modern Times is no relic and no dying ember. It is a great album. It has five or six truly great songs, and four or five strong and good songs.

Critical response to Modern Times has been largely positive, even adulatory. Oddly, everyone seems to offer a different assessment of what the album and its songs are about. Some find the album uplifting; others say it is pessimistic. Some say it is about love, while others find it full of rancor and bitterness. Dylan’s lyrics are no help here. They don’t allow easy interpretation. They’re cryptic, allusive, elusive, playful, full of force and complexity.

Here’s my assessment: in Modern Times Dylan expresses an unwillingness to stop living and feeling and an apprehension of the end of days (personally and more generally). Loss of the things that matter to him is a constant threat, for which he blames various forces and institutions of the outside world. He writes of love, lost love, and desire. Finally, religious imagery, imagery of apocalypse in particular, suffuses these songs. Many of them express a yearning for meaning of one sort or another, for some kind of redemption, along with a haunting skepticism that he will ever find it. Overall, throughout there is a sense of estrangement from the modern world and a pervasive yearning—for love, acceptance, salvation.

The strongest songs on Modern Times are “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Ain’t Talkin’,” with “When the Deal Goes Down,” “Someday Baby,” “The Levees’s Gonna Break,” and “Nettie Moore” right behind them. Musically, “When the Deal Goes Down” isn’t that strong, but the lyrics—among the best on the album--carry and sustain it. Dylan builds “Nettie Moore” on an old slave ballad from the 19th-century. He makes it a song about lost love, nostalgia, loneliness, lost meaning, the sense of an impending end:

Oh, I miss you, Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o'r
Winter's gone, the river's on the rise
I loved you then, and ever shall
But there's no one left here to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes.

Dylan’s heartfelt performance of “Nettie Moore” is unlike anything else in his repertoire, and it recalls some of the more emotional moments on his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is an adaptation of and embellishment on an old tune as sung by such bluesmen as B. B. King and Muddy Waters. At first, the songs I liked the least on Modern Times were the slower-paced ballads—“Spirit on the Water,” “When the Deal Goes Down,” “Beyond the Horizon”--but with repeated listenings they all grew on me. They’re all good, strong songs. There isn’t a weak or average song on the album.

I want to comment on the opening and closing songs of Modern Times, not only because they are the best songs on the album, but because they sum up what the album is about. “Thunder on the Mountain” opens forcefully with images of apocalypse (“thunder on the mountain . . . fires on the moon.” Two contrary tensions empower this song—the sense that life will soon end, and the resolve to continue on. Any verse from the song is worth quoting, but take this one as an example:

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you're trying to run me away
The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

There’s humor and nonsense as well (“I got the porkchops, she got the pie / She ain't no angel and neither am I”). Later in the song Dylan writes that “Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king.” He expresses no remorse for his life or for what he has done (“I did all I could, I did it right there and then / I've already confessed - no need to confess again”). If you try to read the lyrics of this song in a literal way, they make little sense. (This is true of many Dylan songs). Instead you have to read them as images, as a series of emotional and intellectual impressions that, when taken together, add up to a vow of fierce resolution in the face of personal extinction.

“Aint’ Talkin’” is the longest, most powerful song on the album. It reminded me on first hearing of the “Highlands” ballad at the end of the 1997 Time out of Mind. But “Ain’t Talkin’” is a considerably more focused and devastating effort. In it Dylan assesses the state of the world and of himself and finds both lacking. He describes his travels through the world (“just walkin”) and observes “this weary world of woe / Heart burnin’, just yearnin’ / No one would ever know.” He writes of the suffering in his own life and in the world at large. In “Nettie Moore” he writes that “Everything I've ever known to be right has been proven wrong”. Here he expands that idea:

Well, the whole world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They will tear your mind away from contemplation
They will jump on your misfortune when you're down.

Though he does not dismiss the possibility of divine aid (“Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?”), he does not expect it either. He begins the song by remarking on his walk “in the mystic garden” of “wounded flowers . . . dangling from the vine.” At the song’s end, he walks in the garden again but notes that “There’s no one here, the gardener’s gone . . . heart burnin’, still yearnin’ / In the last outback at the world’s end.” This pessimistic, even bitter conclusion suggests no human or supernatural means of relieving the world’s misery.

Dylan sings with a voice that some might call ravaged. To me his voice is, most of the time, just right for the songs he composes. Unlike Tom Waits, whose musical eccentricities and wracked vocal cords make appreciating his work a real challenge, Bob Dylan sings with depth and beauty. Not with the beauty of a Tony Bennett (a wonderful singer) but with a different sort of beauty, and with the same emotional insight and depth and pathos. Dylan’s voice convinces you that he understands the words he has written, that he has drawn them out of his own experience, that he has lived them, that he feels them.

A few have complained that the songs of Modern Times go on for too long. The ten songs run slightly over an hour. All but one are five or six minutes long. The final track, “Ain’t Talkin’,” is over eight minutes. The songs go on as long as they need to. That is, they are just right.

A strong band backs Dylan up on Modern Times. The playing is sometimes a bit loose, especially when a few songs seem to stumble to an end. One can imagine Dylan, with that faintly impatient and exasperated look on his lined face, deciding that he’s had enough and waving the band to a conclusion. The effect is one of freshness and spontaneity. I’m not sure what instruments Dylan himself is playing, though certainly the harmonica is among them, and probably the guitar.

The sound of the album is excellent: crystal clear and full. Dylan himself produced it under the name of Jack Frost, as he did also for Love and Theft. The album’s title, of course, is a kind of joke, since many of the songs hearken back to traditional forms, especially the blues, and they have little in common with trends in popular music. But in their concern with basic human concerns—age, love, corruption, isolation—they’re absolutely modern.

Dylan at the age of 65 continues to wander in the world. He hasn’t given up or settled down. He wouldn’t be satisfied if his life ended today. He doesn’t rest on his considerable achievement, though he doesn’t reject it either. He offers a good model for growing old.

This review originally appeared in BlogCritics,

Monday, September 04, 2006

Suddenly, Last Summer

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), based on a one-act play of the same title by Tennessee Williams, was written and produced in a decade when psychiatry had become the solution to all human problems. Montgomery Clift plays Dr. Cukrowicz, a psychologist who is asked to examine Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), a young woman who has been hospitalized since a traumatic event the summer before, an event she cannot remember. The event involved the death of her close friend , Sebastian, whose mother, Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn) is intent on having Catherine lobotomized so that she will be cured of her insanity. As events unfold there are hints of another reason why Mrs. Venable wants Catherine to have a lobotomy--so that she won’t disclose the true nature of her son’s death.

Cukrowicz’s challenge is to decide whether Catherine is truly insane, and therefore in need of a lobotomy, or whether she can be compelled to remember the details of her traumatic ordeal and therefore be cured. Oh that life were so simple. The film treats psychiatry, lobotomies, and insanity without much accuracy. The Freudian psychology that underlies the film’s notion of how Catherine’s insanity can be cured—by Dr. Cukrowicz’s forcing her to remember the horrible events of “last summer”—is presented in a simplistic, reductive way.

In Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the main character Jack Burden watches brain surgery performed by his friend Adam Stanton. For Adam, the brain is merely an organ, the physiological center of the mind, but for Jack it is the place of human identity, of the self, the soul. After observing the surgery, Jack decides that human life can be reduced down to a Big Twitch, the sort of twitch that can be prompted by an electric shock in the severed leg of a frog—a naturalistic expression of life’s meaninglessness and God’s absence.

The same notion is at issue in Suddenly, Last Summer. If Clift performs the surgery, Catherine may be cured, but she may also be left permanently disabled. If he performs the surgery, Mrs. Venable will donate enough money to renovate and modernize the state mental hospital. The hospital director pressures him to perform the surgery. The small fortune that Sebastian left to Catherine in his will has been signed over to her mother and brother because of her purported insanity. Catherine is reduced to object level: her sanity, her mind, and her life are caught up in the web of intrigue surrounding Sebastian’s death and his mother’s wealth and power.

The film’s Southernness is incidental to the plot, but we find several characteristic elements here: the deranged old Southern matriarch, power and corruption, insanity, the obsession with a hidden event from the past, the broken down, decrepit hospital where society’s disfigured and unwanted are conveniently hidden away. But for Tennessee Williams, one of the fundamental aspects of Southernness is repression. Mrs. Venable, the film gradually and obliquely reveals, doesn’t want the true nature of her son’s death divulged because her son’s homosexuality will be revealed. He attracted men by relying on his mother, and later Taylor, to attract them: Catherine says that she “procured” for the boy. In some cases, at least according to the film, he paid for sexual favors from men and boys. This element was more explicit in the one-act play, but in the film it is camouflaged and toned down. I have not read the play, but the treatment of homosexuality in the film implies self-loathing on Williams’ part.

Nonetheless, the film makes clear enough Sebastian’s personal preferences. The film itself was significantly edited to remove overt references to homosexuality. Even so, it was one of the earliest films to deal with homosexuality in a way clear enough that the audience could actually recognize the subject. A Streetcar Names Desire treats the subject indirectly through the repressed character of Blanche DuBois, and though Stanley Kowalski’s intense sexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof dealt with Brick's former attraction to his dead friend in relatively candid fashion, though the film version virtually removed all references to the nature of their friendship.

Taylor’s acting is excellent in this film. Katherine Hepburn is mannered and eccentric, and effective, and Montgomery Clift, in a post-accident performance, is wooden and repressed. He lived the life, of course, that the film is about.

Suddenly, Last Summer is more about hysteria than anything else—especially in the performances by Taylor and Hepburn. The way that Sebastian supposedly dies—torn to shreds by a group of men and boys—seems hard to accept. Maybe it is supposed to be Catherine’s hallucination, a delusion that stands for something else, but what? The ending shows the psychologist and his amazingly cured patient walking off together in a way that suggests a romantic future for them. This was clichéd, formulaic, and implausible.

And Hepburn, raving, ascends on her personal elevator to the upper floors of her mansion. For me, this was the overwhelming image in the film.

Hugh Ruppersburg
Athens, Georgia

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen

Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965) is a Canadian-made hagiographic treatment of the writer and singer at around the age of 31. In a stern deep voice a narrator describes in the most straightforward manner imaginable the daily routine of Leonard Cohen, in the same way he might describe the career of Johnny Unitas. The film presents Cohen as a young genius, a wit, a brilliant poet and writer, a stand-up comedian. It is a short documentary, 47 minutes long, directed and written by Cohen’s filmmaker friend, Donald Brittain, who appears in the film with Cohen and other members of his small group of companions. There is little to distinguish this work as a film. But it offers an interesting glimpse into Cohen in the middle 1960s.

Cohen’s demeanor in this documentary is self-conscious and stiff. He reminded me of Dustin Hoffman as Ben in The Graduate and also of the former U. S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Cohen seems self-assured and convinced of his genius. He’s aware of the idea of the “con”—the false or at least semi-false persona that he projects as a poet, the image that the film presents of him. This comes out in an interesting scene where Cohen is watching and commenting on a part of the film that shows him sleeping. At first he speaks of the strangeness of watching himself sleep. Then he recognizes that he’s not sleeping at all, that he’s only pretending to sleep, and that therefore there is an element of the “con” in the film. There’s a large element of con in the film.

Mainly this film treats Cohen as a poet and writer. He’s shown strumming the guitar and singing in one brief scene. Otherwise his career as a songwriter and performer is not mentioned at all--in 1965 that career had hardly begun. As a poet, Cohen showed much promise in this film. But it’s easy to listen to him read his poems and to understand how well suited they are for adaptation to music.

Cohen’s poems often appears in poetry anthologies. But since 1965 he has excelled as a lyricist and singer. In that role he has surpassed the reputation and the claims made for him in this film. His deep, ragged, self-absorbed and melancholy voice is a perfect instrument for the delivery of the lyrics he writes. This film was made three years before the release of The Songs of Leonard Cohen, the first of his albums, and already a mature, unique and idiosyncratic expression of his songwriting and singing.

This film is interesting but frustrating. Cohen seems too self-conscious, too smug, too removed from the austere, romantic persona he would project in his albums. He comes across as a child of privilege (despite the claims of his poverty—one photo in the film shows Cohen and his sister standing with the family chauffeur), as an ego, as someone in love with his own image. He was young then. I can forgive him. Besides, maybe in 1965 he would have come across as the ultimate of cool. The film is dated in every way. It was made two years before Don't Look Back, the D. A. Pennebaker documentary about Bob Dylan. There's a remarkable difference between the films--Pennebaker's film still burns. It was an innovative and imaginative achievement. This film about Leonard Cohen doesn't burn at all. Dylan had already made his mark--several marks--in 1967. If Pennebaker meant to claim the label of genius for Dylan, there was reason for him to do so. Cohen's career in 1965 couldn't sustain the claim.

I have never paid much attention to Cohen the person. He has never loomed large in the public imagination. I read his novel Beautiful Losers many years ago, but it did not impress me. His music and his singing have always impressed me. His lyrics come close to poetry. I’ve heard that he lives, or has lived, in a Buddhist monastery. His songs are intensely thoughtful and introspective, filled with menace, wisdom, insight, and intelligence. As a popular singer, he began his career at a relatively late age, when he was well into his thirties. He released his most recent album, Dear Heather, in 2004 at the age of 70. Like Dylan, he continues to do excellent work.

May he live long and continue to write and record his music.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) opens with various views of the plantation house where Charlotte Hollis has lived all her life. The house signifies her family’s former wealth and prominence in the community. It also signifies a moment in 1927 when Charlotte became essentially stuck in time, blamed for the meat cleaver murder of her lover, John Mayhew, whose head and hand are never found.

This film offers a horror-movie gothic view of the South as a place of violence, insanity, intrigue, and decay. Charlotte essentially lives in the past, alone with her housekeeper Velma (Agnes Morehead) and house servants.

Progress looms heavy from the opening scene when we learn that a bridge is being built across the nearby river and that Charlotte’s house has been requisitioned by the Louisiana government. She’s going to have to move, and the house will be torn down. So the film also incorporates the collision of tradition and progress, the old ways vs. the new.

An underlying question that lingers throughout concerns whether Charlotte is insane. As the film progresses, she starts seeing things that lead the audience to wonder whether she is in fact insane or headed that way. But then there is the possibility that someone is trying to drive her insane, or at least to convince local authorities that she needs to be committed.

There is also the unanswered question of whether Charlotte actually killed her Charles Mayhew, the husband of a family relative. Or did someone else do it? Joseph Cotton plays the family doctor Drew Bayliss, who treats Charlotte when she is ill. And Cousin Miriam Deering shows up, after decades, to help Charlotte move.

In considering the issue of Charlotte’s possible insanity the film evokes Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and the governess who might or might not be seeing ghosts. The film is not nearly as subtle as James’ novel, but it does maintain a high level of deception and intrigue until the last scene. There are numerous scares, twists, and turns, though having seen recent films such as Sixth Sense and movies in the Halloween, Jason, and Freddy Kruger vein, modern audiences could predict many of the surprises and turns before they happen.

Set on an old plantation, this film uses iconic actors from earlier films about the American South so that their earlier performances become a subtext. Bette Davis herself appeared in Little Foxes, based on the Lillian Hellman play. That performance itself was building on Davis’ performance as Julie Marsden in Jezebel. Olivia Dehavilland, of course, played Melanie in Gone with the Wind. Davis’ earlier films portrayed the South as a place of competitiveness, financial and sexual jealousy, and intrigue. Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte carries forward with those traits, though Charlotte herself is the victim rather than the perpetrator. Dehavilland’s character at first seems directly descended from her part in GWTW, though later events in the film eventually overturn that notion. Rather than paragon of solicitous virtue, she becomes the symbol of rapacious self-interest, Mrs. Mayhew correctly describes her character when she observes that the only person Miriam has ever been interested in is herself.

The Gothic horror at the center of this film is the murder that occurred in 1927. Rivalries and jealousies undermine the close-knit community, and they are an emblem of the larger traditional Southern community’s collapse. Returning after so many years, Miriam is an agent of progress. She is in public relations, we are told, and as it turns out, she is an agent of immorality and evil that is associated with the modern world and that is undermining tradition. In effect, she is allied with the forces of progress that are building the bridge, displacing Charlotte and her kind, and destroying the past.

The Skeleton Key (2005) seems to draw heavily from this film, but Hush . . . Hush, Charlotte itself, with its emphasis on insanity and psychological innuendoes, seems to work squarely in the film tradition of Tennessee Williams. In fact, when Charlotte rides off at the end of the film either to the police station or the insane asylum, there are clear echoes of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Charlotte affecting the same air of feigned aristocratic hauteur as Blanche DuBois. Unfortunately for Bette Davis, Vivian Leigh was more credible in her role than Davis. Davis was never capable of a great range of emotions, but within her range she could be very good. In this film she plays her role effectively, but she is more caricature than tragic victim.