Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Departed

In the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, we see the golden dome of the State House of Massachusetts, from the living room of a swank penthouse apartment formerly occupied by one of the characters in the film. In the background we hear strains of the Patsy Cline tune “Sweet Dreams.” This particular song is an important musical theme in the film. It often plays, sung by Cline herself or by others, and in one instance only the melody plays—though the lyrics of the song, with their depressive, melancholy words of forlorn hope, desire, and despair are important to the film. In The Departed, all dreams come to naught. As we gaze out the window towards the golden dome of law and order, we see a large rat creeping across the porch rail outside the apartment. On this juxtaposition of the rat against the golden dome of law, order, morality (and dreams), the film ends. The screen fades to black and credits roll.

Rats are important in The Departed. The presence of rats—human rats, informers, undercover men—in the Boston Police Department and in the gang of mobster Frank Costello, is crucial to the film’s plot. They are ratting out the plots and plans of the people they pretend to work with. Human rats in a larger sense—rats who cheat on one another, who plot and connive and deceive, who steal and kill, who feel jealousy and ambition, who are easily corrupted by the lure of money and power and ambition in any combination—are everywhere apparent in this film, which has been hailed as a return to classic form for director Scorsese.

The Departed doesn’t really expand or reinvent the Scorsese formula so much as it provides a kind of update. The venue is Irish Catholic Boston rather than Italian New York. We see clergymen, policemen, and mobsters, most of them of Irish ancestry. The film gives a sense of the cultural context of Irish Boston, but its real focus is the story of intrigue, deception, and labyrinthine plot twists. The plot concerns the efforts of the Boston Police to build a case against the mobster Frank Costello (other than his name, he has no connection to the real Costello). It also follows the ascending careers of two young Irish Catholic detectives, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, both connected in different ways to Costello, who sees himself as a kind of father figure to these and other protégés. In ways this film is predictable, but it is so well acted and written that following these characters and the twisting and turning plot to their ultimate conclusions is wholly satisfying.

DiCaprio portrayed a lead character in The Gangs of New York and starred as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He also plays a lead role as undercover detective Billy Costigan in The Departed. This may be DiCaprio’s best performance in any film. It’s nuanced, powerful, understated, and convincing. But there are plenty of other good performances, from Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin as Boston detectives to Ray Winstone and, of course, Jack Nicholson as gang members. Nicholson plays Costello. He’s great in the role, though it’s one he has played on and off throughout his career. Nicholson has some of the best lines in the film, which is full of good lines, many of them clearly written with Nicholson in mind, though Mark Wahlberg as director of the undercover division has his share of good lines as well. My favorite Nicholson line: “I don't wanna be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”

Martin Scorsese has a dark view of human nature. He believes with a vengeance in Original Sin. His Roman Catholic upbringing (as a young man he considered the priesthood) is a powerful presence in his work. He’s like a latter-day version of Jonathan Edwards melded to Jean Paul Sartre and Cormac McCarthy. Nearly every character in The Departed is corrupt or inept or both. Even the virtuous come to bad ends. As in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, there is redemption through violence, though in this film so many have died when the credits begin to roll (they are all among “the departed) that redemption hardly seems worth the effort. Redemption in Scorsese’s film is not salvation but purgation of sin and moral recrimination.

There are a few loose ends in The Departed. One example occurs towards the end, when an undercover cop about to go into hiding gives a psychologist a mysterious envelope that she is to open only if he calls and says that he needs it. We never learn the nature of the envelope. Another example concerns one of the lead detectives. Although he is actually working undercover for Costello, who has paid his way through the police academy and has a long history with him, background checks and other security measures never reveal the link. This is difficult to believe. In general, however, the intricately convoluted storyline is one of the strongest elements in the film, along with the acting.

Scorsese’s reputation as one of the major filmmakers of the last forty years mainly rests on a series of films that began with Mean Streets in 1973 and continued with Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Good Fellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), and Gangs of New York (2002). In one sense or another these are all crime films in which violence is a fundamental force. Along the way there have been notable forays in other directions: the musical New York, New York, with Robert DeNiro in 1977; The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Age of Innocence (1993), based on the Edith Wharton novel, and the dramatized biography of the Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997). He’s also made a name for himself through widely regarded musical documentaries such as The Last Waltz in 1978 and recent films about the American blues and the early career of Bob Dylan (he has even directed Michael Jackson music videos). But Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and (now) The Departed are the kind of films we associate with the Scorsese name.

These films share in common such characteristics as detailed portraitures of hard-bitten characters (usually Italian), vivid evocations of ethnic urban landscapes, a deep belief in the corruptibility of human nature, and the notion that violence can be redemptive. Violence in his films is precisely and artfully orchestrated: it’s powerful and sudden and brutal. Unlike Peckinpah, Scorsese never shows violence as beautiful—it’s always shocking and terrible. His skill in portraying these scenes is unquestionable. He is an excellent filmmaker—the editing in The Departed is superb and contributes directly to the power of the film. Scorsese’s technical expertise at setting up and portraying violence has much to do with his success and reputation as a director. In films without violence, such as The Aviator, Scorsese’s distinctive style is less evident.

If violence is the distinguishing condition of humanity, of modern America, and if Scorsese seeks in his best films to discover its power and corrosive and destructive force, it’s also one of the elements that makes him the filmmaker he is. Without violence, where would Scorsese be?

At the end of this film, we learn that Madelyn, a police psychologist and fiancé of one of the detectives, is pregnant. We assume the father is the detective she was planning to marry, but there is a possibility, clearly suggested by a scene in the film, that someone else may be the father. The possibility is important. This unborn child may be the survivor, but in the world of The Departed, surviving has questionable value.


The cops and criminals in this film are a well read bunch. They refer to Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and others. They talk a lot about human nature and the mistakes they have made and what they’ve learned. They all have a philosophical dimension. Costello may be the most introspective of them all.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

4 Little Girls

Spike Lee filmed the HBO documentary 4 Little Girls thirty-four years after the event that it chronicles—the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young girls getting ready for Sunday morning church service died. Their names were Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins. They ranged from eleven to fifteen years in age. The film is basically a series of interviews with members of the families of the girls, leaders of the local and southern Civil Rights movement, and white leaders of the town, including the attorney who defended the accused bomber Robert Edward Chambliss in the 1974 trial and the district attorney, Bill Baxley, who successfully prosecuted him in 1977. 4 Little Girls presents the events in chronological order. It first describes the girls themselves, mainly through the words and memories of their parents and close relatives. It presents a general overview of the racial environment in Birmingham in the 1950s and early 1960s and the development of the local civil rights movement, whose activities centered in the bombed church. The film’s focus gradually widens, but it never wavers from the primary subject of the girls.

Lee pursues the telling o this story in a highly objective manner. He interviews one subject after another, often filming them at close range, so that their faces fill the screen as they talk. Their expressions and tones of voice, the glistening tears that often gather in the family members’ eyes, are effective in conveying the emotions and the grief that more than three decades later continue to well up. Although clearly there are historical and political dimensions to the bombing of the church, dimensions that link the event to the larger context of the civil rights movement in the South and the rest of the United States, Lee does not make this context the focus of the film. Instead he focuses on the family members, the surviving parents, the brothers and sisters, the friends, who knew the dead girls and grieved most deeply for them. As a result 4 Little Girls is above all about a personal and private tragedy that took on wider significance because of the time and place in which it occurred.

The style and method of Four Little Girls is similar to that of When the Levees Break: A Tragedy in Four Acts, Lee's 2006 HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans residents.

Lee’s artful editing, his deft use of a subtle and sometimes hardly apparent musical score, his willingness to let people talk, his careful selection of photographs, newsreel footage, and interview subjects enable him to create a fascinating and emotionally powerful documentary that brings the history alive by never allowing polemic, propaganda, or political agendas to overwhelm the personal and private dimensions of the story. There are a few moments of awkwardness in the film, the main ones being scenes in which an elderly and frail George Wallace attempts to prove his progressive racial views by arguing that he provided free school books for poor black children and that his best friend, Ed, is a black man. Ed, who was apparently a hired companion for the frail Wallace, is summoned on camera twice by Wallace, and the result is embarrassing both for Wallace (who is incapable of seeming anything other than foolish) and for the film. Lee apparently wants to present Wallace both as one of the fundamental forces behind the racist environment that led to the church bombing and also as an aging relic of an old dispensation soon to pass from the scene. The scene seems to take advantage of Wallace's age and frailty, and it should have been omitted or at least significantly abridged. It is similar to Michael Moore’s similarly exploitative interview with a slightly addled Charleton Heston in the film Bowling for Columbine (2002).

Other scenes are more artful, and as a whole the film is skillfully and artfully made. It is far more artful and effective than any film Michael Moore ever made.

The film illustrates the importance of the family and the church as the sustaining center of African American life in Birmingham, as the heart of the civil rights movement, and therefore as the logical target of the bombers. Lee devotes significant time to interviews with the mothers of the dead girls, and with the father of Denise McNair, and these scenes drive home the sad and painful impact of the murders. Mr. McNair narrates an especially poignant scene in which he remembers having to explain to his daughter during the 1950s why she cannot eat at the lunch counter of a segregated Birmingham department store. The eyes of the mothers who still grieve over their daughters, dead more than thirty years, say as much as any number of other scenes in the film.

Contrasted against the family members are the religious and movement leaders—Fred Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, Martin Luther King—whose decisions inadvertently pulled the girls and their families into martyrdom and history. Lee is careful not to pass judgment in an overt fashion. Often the words of the people he interviews accomplish this. And of course images, photographs, film clips that Lee places on screen while interviewees talk do this too. When the attorney for the bomber talks about how Birmingham in the 1950s was a nice place to live, Lee projects images of lynched black men and of Klansmen on the screen to suggest a different story.

Above and beyond being a film about victims of a tragic incident from the civil rights movement, this film is about the intersection of private lives with a regional and national history. It is about how all of us participate in the making of history and how, sometimes, we pay for participation with our lives, or with the lives of those closest to us.

Is the title of the film a play on the title of the surrealistic play by Picasso, Four Little Girls, written during the 1940s? This is the kind of allusion that Lee would make.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Tony Bennett, Duets: An American Classic

A sign of impending extinction for aging vocalists is the inevitable “duets” album. Frank Sinatra released two of them. Ray Charles had one. Loretta Lynn released the widely praised Van Lear Rose, not really a duets album, but one produced and recorded by The White Stripes, who played on the album. Willie Nelson has been releasing duets albums for years, and though he’s past 70 he hardly seems on the verge of extinction. Nat King Cole, through the wonders of digital media, released a duets album with his daughter decades after his death. He should have let well enough alone. And now there is Tony Bennett, just turned 80, who has released Duets: An American Classic, in which he teams with a variety of performers. The results are mixed, song by song, but the album as a whole, with Bennett’s characteristic verve and enthusiasm and excellent big-band orchestration, is generally satisfying.

Actually, Bennett has done this before. In 2002 he released A Wonderful World with K. D. Laing, and in 2001 he released Playin' with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues. There have been other communal efforts as well. And he has continued to record solo albums, such as The Art of Romance in 2004, a strong and often melancholy album. Bennett is a stylist. His style includes not merely his voice but his overall persona as well as the kinds of songs and arrangements he chooses to perform. I don’t know enough of the lingo of the music industry, or of popular music in general, to state with the appropriate vocabulary why I like Bennett’s music. His songs convey emotional content and resonance, as if he is living and feeling them rather than simply performing them. He has a great sense of timing (as in “The Good Life” and the opening line of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”). He makes the enunciation of lyrics part of the performance. His voice has a strong, rugged, romantic timber, but it always seems unstrained, thoughtful, personally and thoughtfully expressed.

As he has aged, Bennett’s voice has aged with him and it is no longer the voice that he used in the 50s and 60s, when he made his mark. But is still a good voice, and it is in good form on Duets. Most of the songs are standards, with the exception of “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder and “Cold, Cold Heart,” by Hank Williams, which is, I suppose, a country standard. In fact, Bennett helped make it a standard by recording it early in his career. Here is it again, performed with Tim McGraw. >I once read an interview with Bennett in which he described how having to perform rock hits during the 70s made him physically ill. They weren‘t songs he felt suited to sing, and no one, at the time, wanted to hear standards. Yet one of the highlights of this album is the duet with Stevie Wonder, “For Once in my Life,” a strong and sure performance in which Wonder reminds us why he was such a powerful and enduring presence in the 1970s as a performer and a songwriter. There are weak songs on the album (the performances with Celine Dion and Bono are examples), but the duets with the Dixie Chicks (“Lullaby of Broadway”), Barbara Streisand (“Smile,” though he mars the song at the end by ingratiatingly complimenting his partner on her “style”), Billy Joel (“The Good Life,” but nowhere near the equal of the Bennett original), Paul McCartney (“The Very Thought of You”—McCartney has a wonderful voice for these kinds of songs), and Elvis Costello (“Are You Havin’ Any Fun”) are excellent, among others, and they make this album what it is.

It is sad to note that for twenty years of his career, when he was in close to top voice, Bennett was ignored by popular music. Now, after recent films and television shows featured his songs, and his MTV Unplugged album in 1994 brought him to the attention of younger generations of listeners, he is in the middle of a long career renaissance. I hope he is enjoying himself. Duets suggests that he is.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Wise Blood: Novel and Film

Flannery O’Connor’s short novel Wise Blood, the first of two short novels completed during her lifetime, was published in 1952. It was the first major work of her short career. The novel is set in the latter half of the 1940s, at a time when the American South was entering a period of major change. GIs, returned from the Second World War, were taking advantage of the G. I. Bill and entering institutions of higher education. When they graduated, they would enter the work force and contribute to major expansion of the regional and national economy. Institutions of higher education would never be the same and began a period of expansion that continues today. Eisenhower’s interstate road act (1956) formally initiated a period of road building that had been ongoing for some time and that would connect the South with the rest of the nation. Faster and safer airplanes would connect it with the rest of the world. The continued growth of radio and the new industry of television began a leveling process that began to chisel away at many aspects of the distinctive southern character: dialect, lifestyle, isolation. David Halberstam’s book The Fifties discusses the crucial changes that occurred nationally in the 1950s and that contributed significantly to the national character. Some of the changes mentioned here were going on before the novel was published and continued afterward. The Eisenhower Act is evidence of a trend in road-building that was in evidence when Wise Blood appeared.

One of the major changes that continued and intensified in this area (a trend that had begun decades before but that now accelerated) was urban growth. Southern cities offered excitement, connections with other people and other parts of the nation, and jobs. As agriculture increasingly relied on mechanization, therefore requiring a smaller work force, people who decades before would have lived out their lives without ever entering a large city now moved there. A major population shift began to occur.

Socially, culturally, demographically, these changes heralded the birth of the modern South. I mark 1945 and the end of World War II as the starting date for that new era. For Flannery O’Connor, the changes were symptoms of a shift away from spirituality towards secularism. This shift from the traditional to the modern, from a way of life where matters of the spirit were important, to a way of life where for many people religion had lost its importance, if it continued to matter at all, occasioned struggles and conflicts that became the central focus of O’Connor’s fiction. They are at the heart of the novel Wise Blood. These changes are hardly specific and limited to the American South. They began with the Renaissance and represent a marked distinction between the medieval world and the modern. It is this difference that O’Connor was most interested in.

When Hazel Motes returns from four years of service in the military, presumably service in the Second World War (he was wounded, apparently, but does not want to reveal where on his body), he discovers an altered and transformed world. The small town near where he grew up has almost disappeared. Everyone has moved to the city. The house where he grew up is a broken down shack. His mother had died before he left for military service, and now all that remains of her is the chiffarobe on which he leaves his note threatening that anyone who takes the chiffarobe will be “hunted down and killed.” It’s evident in both the film and the novel that his family has been gone from the house a long time. One can imagine their leaving almost as soon as Hazel left for military service. He did not stay in touch, nor did they with him, and therefore he has no idea what happened or where they have gone. His world has wholly vanished. In the novel, O’Connor tells us that Hazel sleeps the night through on the kitchen room floor. In the film, Huston shows Hazel gazing at the family cemetery where his grandfather, the preacher, lies buried—the preacher whose memory haunts him throughout the film. Whatever it is that happened to Hazel in the war, along with the disappearance of the world of his family and his childhood, clearly contributes to the new religion he goes to spread in Taulkinham.

O’Connor intensifies the atmosphere of change in the novel with descriptions of commercialism and technology (the potato peeler salesman, the movie theaters), sexual looseness, false prophets, and images of apes, monkeys, mummies, and zoo animals. Why the references to animals and monkeys? One of the concerns of the novel is the question of the nature of man without a spiritual existence. The soul, O’Connor might argue, is what distinguishes the human world from the animal world. When Enoch Emery enters the zoo and looks suspiciously at various animals, especially the chimpanzee, he is looking in a sense at reflections of himself. In the modern world, governed by science, belief in scientific theories such as evolution, which argue for the interconnections of the animal and human worlds, these images have a specific meaning. Enoch’s fascination with the mummy, which actually once was (presumably) a human being, builds this theme. His donning of the gorilla costume at the end of the novel is its culmination.

John Huston’s adaptation moves the time of the story from the late 1940s to around 1970. Rather than returning from the Second World War, Hazel is returning from Vietnam. Thus, we can if we wish see him as a wounded war veteran (shades of Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country) trying to cope and adjust to his life back from the war. But Huston is faithful, or largely so, to the text of the novel. Just as in the novel, with a slightly altered sequence of events, Hazel comes home, visits his abandoned family homestead, and recognizes that the world where he once lived has disappeared. Because of his insistence on fidelity to O’Connor’s text, the themes of change in the novel remain in the film, though in fact the South of the film has already largely undergone the changes that had been underway when the novel was published in 1952. By modernizing the story, Huston forfeits a certain degree of authenticity. In the film, it is not so much the changed world that Hazel must cope with as it is the modern city, and all the evils and temptations that it offers. Hazel goes to the big city because there is nowhere else for him to go, but also to preach the new religion, the Church of Christ without Christ. By re-dating the story, Huston forfeits some of the logic and sense that lay behind O’Connor’s portraitures of Hazel and Enoch and of the other characters as well. In the long run, this does not much affect the film, which succeeds in large part because of Huston’s skill as a director and his insistence on presenting in the film the tone, characters, and themes of O’Connor’s novel, pretty much using the same terms with which she presented them.

Huston succeeds in modernizing most aspects of the novel, but there are a few exceptions. Mrs. Leora Watts charges $4.00 for a night of pleasure in her bed. Even given that it is Leora, $4 seems a small charge for 1970. Also, the car that Hazel buys (in the novel, we are told that it is an Essex, an automobile that was manufactured in America between 1918 and 1932) looks as if it could have been a jalopy in 1952, not to mention 1970.

O’Connor presents in Wise Blood three different but related avenues to belief in the modern world. Huston’s film preserves these, but because it leaves out details, especially about Enoch Emery and Onnie Jay Holy, the distinctions are blurred. In Huston’s film, Hazel Motes is clearly the main character, with Enoch as a kind of sidekick who moves in and out of the film, disappearing permanently in the gorilla costume towards the end. In the novel, O’Connor parallels Hazel and Enoch. Although not of equal importance (Hazel is, because of his nature, the ultimate focus of the story) they are of more nearly equal importance.

Huston’s film obscures the religious themes in the novel without removing them. One can recognize O’Connor’s themes and concerns in his film because he has been so careful in adopting the novel. Yet the differences between Hazel and Enoch are much clearer, and more thoroughly outlined and explained in the novel than in the film. Huston’s characters in Wise Blood are country folk come to the city in search of whatever adventure or opportunity might be there, but they are also deeply in search of meaning, a way of understanding and explaining the world that has changed unexpectedly on them. For O’Connor, in addition to that theme, there is the additional theme of the nature of faith and belief in the modern world. She presents that theme far more clearly in her novel than Huston does in his film, because Huston has chosen a slightly different emphasis.

Why is Huston’s film a successful adaptation? First, it’s clear that the screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald understood and appreciated the novel. He made a few major changes, such as changing the action of the film from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, downplaying the character of Enoch and leaving out several scenes such as one at the swimming pool near the zoo, but for the most part he retained the important characters, setting, themes, images, and moods. Fitzgerald has written screenplays for only a few films. In addition to Wise Blood, he contributed to the screenplay for The Passion of the Christ, a 1998 television version of Moby Dick , and a 1994 television version of Heart of Darkness. His involvement in The Passion evinces a willingness to deal with close to the bone religious content, and that willingness is I think a key to the success he had with O’Connor’s novel. She was a religious novelist, and her novel Wise Blood is dealing with concerns about the state of religious faith in the modern world. Fitzgerald does not veer away from that subject matter, although he and Huston do seem to simplify and perhaps to obscure some of the themes O’Connor was exploring.

Huston himself was a lapsed Irish Catholic. He brought that background to bear in his adaptation of Joyce’s The Dead. He may have been able to view O’Connor’s novel through the same theological lens that she did, or at least he may have been able to understand her perspective. In the film, Huston plays the role of Hazel Mote’s grandfather. He comports himself well in that minor role, which he fills with an apparent relish.

The script is a minimalist kind of effort. It follows O’Connor’s own dialogue fairly closely, though some lines are altered or moved from one character in the novel to another in the film. But for the most part it is O’Connor’s dialogue that the film employs.

The film’s setting is well chosen. Much of the film was shot in Macon, Georgia, and if you visit that city even today you can recognize areas that the film portrayed. The setting provides much local color of a sort that is suited for the story—movie theaters, crosswalks, churches, run-down boarding houses.

I have always had to give thought to the question of whether the musical tune that Huston chose for his theme is appropriate—“The Tennessee Waltz.” There is a sentimentality to the tune that threatens at a few moments to infest the film, but instead it has the effect of encouraging the viewer to see Hazel with a bit more empathy and sympathy the viewer would otherwise feel. On one occasion bluegrass music turns a scene with Enoch Emery almost into slapstick comedy—this is when he is stealing the mummy from the “Mvsevm.” The film makes Enoch out to be more of a clown than the novel does, and it does not fully investigate the nature of his obsession with the money. In general, however, the “Tennessee Waltz” theme invests the film’s treatment of its characters with a sympathy and humanism that one might be tempted to argue is missing in O’Connor’s novels. O’Connor was very effective at portraying characters but not especially willing to show them any sympathy. Witness the fate of the family at the end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or even of Hazel Motes’ fate at the end of her novel.

Huston himself excelled as a director of literary adaptations. One of my favorite by him is the 1957 version of Moby Dick. The film is marred by poor special effects, but it has a genuine intelligence in its treatment of the story, and a respect for the story itself. Huston apparently felt the story was worth telling because it was a good story, and his treatment of Melville’s novel, as well as of O’Connor’s, reflects that respect. Another successful adaptation is his 1986 film The Dead, adapted from the story by James Joyce, the last story in his book Dubliners.

Huston in the film uses mostly minor actors, some of them amateurs. Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty are the major names in the film, though Dourif was emerging as a known actor after his rolls in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. None of these three was an acting phenomenon, a celebrity, so there is no actor in the film whose celebrity overwhelms the acting and the story. The part of Onnie Jay Holy is the kind of role at which Beatty excels. Dourif was not a major actor at the time of the film. In particular the roles of Sabbath Lily and of the boarding house keeper (played by Atlanta actress Mary Nell Santacroce) were excellent. (The film strips away the deceit and underhandedness of the boarding house keeper in the novel. The film’s house lady is more sympathetic, less devious than her counterpart in the novel). The casting allowed the actors in this film to inhabit their roles in a transparent way, so that they became the roles they played—they were not celebrities playing their roles. This is an argument in favor of casting unknowns or little knowns in film roles—so that their public personae do not run away with their parts.

Wise Blood is an excellent novel. It improves with each reading. By sticking close to the text of the novel, the movie was able to exploit and appropriate its strengths. The film is distinctive for the same reasons as the novel. It effectively projects O’Connor’s vision of the modern South, even though it is set two decades later than her novel. Wise Blood is one of a number of remarkable films made during the 1970s, one of the two great decades in American cinema, the other being the 1930s.

The fact that this film is not available on DVD is most unfortunate!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Flight 93

Flight 93 is a thinly fictionalized documentary-like account of United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked on September 11, 2001, by terrorists who apparently intended to crash it into the U. S. Capitol building or the White House, thereby contributing to the disastrous attacks of that day. Passengers on the plane thwarted the terrorists by rushing the cockpit and forced them to crash the plane. All on board was killed, but further disaster in Washington was averted.

The film takes a highly objective approach to its subject. This does not mean that it does not have a point of view—it does—but it does mean that the film, directed and written by Paul Greengrass, presents the events of that day in highly dramatic form, often relying on transcripts of cell phone exchanges, cockpit dialogue, and other records. Clearly some events depicted in the film—the last minutes aboard the flight—are recreated in a speculative way, but the film is cautious and conservative. It narrates events from the point of view of the crew and passengers aboard Flight 93, the terrorists, and the flight controllers and military personnel who tracked the development of events on that day. Although from the beginning the viewer will know the outcome, Greengrass actually usually this foreknowledge to his adventure, building pressure and tension as scene after scene lead towards those events that the viewer knows will occur: the hijacking of planes, the ominous radio messages, the takeover of the United flight, the killings of certain crew members, and the final struggle.

The film does not sentimentalize or eulogize or heroicize participants in the events. It does its best to trace in what I take to be real time the course of events as they developed. We see the preparations of the terrorists, the normal routines of the flight crew and flight controllers, the behavior of the passengers as they board the flight. The terrorists are not demonized. The film portrays them as human beings committed to a particular course of action which proves to be, as events transpire, horrific and brutal. In showing the preparations of passengers to rush the hijackers and try to prevent another terrorist act, the film does not over-exaggerate what they are doing. They’re trying to save themselves, of course, but also trying to prevent a brutal act against the United States that will result in loss of life and damage to the nation.

Especially moving are the scenes that show passengers in the last moments of the plane’s flight calling friends and family to say goodbye. These scenes could have been histrionic and overly emotional, but the film sticks to its essential strategy of showing in a documentary way what happened (based in this case on transcripts of the phone calls). The scenes are straightforward and genuinely heart wrenching as a result.

A few faintly familiar faces appear among the actors in this film, but none are well known. We see the actors as the characters they’re playing rather than as name actors playing their roles. No character in particular receives a lot of screen time, nor does the film make a point of naming characters—they’re crew members, passengers, flight controllers—all caught up in the events. It’s better, really, that most of them remain anonymous.

The film ends at the instant the plane crashes into the ground in Somerset County, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The screen goes black, and then a few messages appear explaining that all abroad Flight 93 were killed and noting (ironically) that flight controllers didn’t even recognize Flight 93 as a hijacked plane until minutes after it had crashed.

The film has two themes. One is the heroism of the many people caught up in these events. The film in that sense is testimony to Hemingway’s description of courage as “grace under pressure.” The other theme concerns how the FAA and the military responded to the crisis. We see diligent efforts to respond, but a wholly inadequate response system. Lack of communication, confusing communication, poor training, an increasing sense of helplessness as controllers identify hijacked planes (sometimes in error) and watch the planes hit the World Trade Center. The film suggests that the United States infrastructure was in no way prepared to respond to the disasters of September 11, 2001.

This film is superior to Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, a film that had merits. That film concerned the struggle for survival of two men caught up in a disaster. The context was the collapse of the WTT buildings, but it could easily have been any other context: a sinking ship, a collapsed coal mine, an earthquake. The context of Flight 93 could have been nothing else than what it was. There has been no other event in American history like it, and that is really one of the points of the film, and one of the many lessons to be taken from the events of September 11.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

In The Road Cormac McCarthy pares down language into short paragraphs sequenced on the page as singular, independent blocks of text, the spaces between each paragraph designating gaps of time that may be seconds or hours or days or weeks. This is a significant change from his earlier writing. McCarthy’s prose in the first half of his career, up through Blood Meridian, was labyrinthine, Faulknerian in the extreme, reminiscent at points of Melville, Milton, Joyce. The language in this new novel is spare, cautious, stripped of subordination and of excess. Fragment sentences often serve in place of complete sentences. Especially in comparison to the McCarthy of Suttree and Blood Meridian, the change is shocking and dramatic. Yet No Country for Old Men, published last year, and of a piece with The Road, prepared us for it.

McCarthy’s novels have always concerned estrangement. From the sewers and liminal cesspools of Suttree to the necrophilia of Child of God to the existential depredations of American expansionism in Blood Meridian to the tamer and deceptively romantic travails of John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham in The Crossing, McCarthy’s characters have wandered outside the margins of the modern world—dispossessed, abused, lost, alone. In last year’s No Country for Old Men, McCarthy explored the blasted wastelands of Southeast Texas, blasted not by droughts or sandstorm but by drug wars and murderous human dysfunctionality. McCarthy’s vision has always been bleak, sometimes bitter, sometimes verging on the nihilistic. No novelist has a bleaker vision. Even so, this latest novel is a disturbing surprise. It is dark and despairing even for McCarthy. Its darkness and despair come not out of the experiences of his imagined characters, but out of what he fears and envisions as the ultimate future of our human world.

The Road occurs in a post-apocalyptic world, six or seven or so years after a horrific disaster, probably a nuclear war, incinerates most of the human race. The Road is an environmental parable, an ecological novel where ecology no longer exists.

The main character in The Road is referred to simply as “the man.” His son is “the boy.” In the old life, we know they had names, but now since they are practically the only people left, or at least the only “good people,” there is no need to call them by anything personal. No one in the novel is called by any name, with the exception of one wandering old man, Eli, whom the boy and the man briefly befriend.

The title refers to the path the man and the boy follow as they make their way down from the mountains towards the southern coast. The novel is set in the Appalachians, where McCarthy grew up. Like the people, the mountains are not named, but there are enough geographical clues that we can identify them.

McCarthy describes the setting in whites and grays and blacks. The world is leached of color. The trees and other vegetation have died, and forest fires have swept through the mountains. The higher reaches of the mountains are still burning, but most of the rest of the world burned up long before the present time of the novel, and all that is left is ash, everywhere. This is a novel of ashes, shadows, darkness. The boy and the man wear masks to protect themselves from the ash. McCarthy has always been a master landscape artist. His abilities are especially evident in The Road, but here the landscape is desolation.

Wrack and ruin characterize The Road. We are constantly reminded of the lost human world. Empty houses, sheds, barns, cars, trains, stores, where humans once dwelled. They are vacant now, empty, except for occasional mummified corpses. Garbage, junk, all the lost possessions of the human race litter the pages of this novel. It is haunted by the constant memory of what was there before, the world before the apocalypse. The shell of that world is still partially there, empty houses and stores and other structures. Highways, bridges, railroad tracks are all still there and may still be there, as the man explains to the boy, for thousands of years to come. But the human world, the world that created those objects, is wholly gone.

The man spends a lot of time rummaging through vacant houses, looking for cans of food, anything that he and his boy can eat, but the finds are rare. Once he comes across an old soda machine scavenges an unopened Coke that he gives to the boy, who has never had a Coke, and who will never have one again. The novel is a story of constant starvation, and the man and the boy are on the verge of death from starvation more than once, only to run across an unexpected cache of food, once in a fallout shelter, on another occasion in a beached boat.

There are other humans abroad on the land. They appear as wraiths, stumbling along the road, or bands of refugees marching military style, or a small family group that locks up refugees in the basement and cannibalizes them one by one. These are the “bad men.” The boy often asks his father who the good and the bad men are. He’s worried by some of the acts his father has committed. The father kills a man who holds a knife to the boy’s throat, and he refuses to give aid to various people they pass. He refuses because he wants to ensure his son’s own survival, and they have nothing to share.

The boy and the man are headed towards the coast because they want to escape the freezing temperatures and snow of the mountains. But the cold weather follows them. The Road portrays the worst-case scenario of a nuclear winter calamity. Everything is dead and cold. One dog appears, briefly. There are no birds. All the trees are dead, shrubbery, grass, vegetation, everything is dead. The only living vegetation in the novel are some mushrooms the man discovers along the way. The man has no idea what he and the boy will do when they reach the coast. He doesn’t expect to be rescued, to find “good” people who will take him and the boy in. Every human being they run across is a danger, to be avoided. Moreover, the man is ill. He coughs often, hacking up blood, and over the course of the novel he weakens. He knows he is going to die, and the boy knows that too. The man knows the boy will outlive him, and at first he thinks about killing the child to save him from the horrors of the new world, but ultimately he knows he cannot kill the boy, even out of love. He loves the boy too much.

The novel is dedicated to McCarthy’s young son. Not surprisingly, then, The Road is about a father’s fierce love for his young son, whose survival he wants to ensure at all costs. The conversations between the boy and his father often seem a bit precious, but they are exactly the kinds of conversations a parent and a young child will have. Children are resentful, suspicious, anxious, insecure, loving, protective, fearful. The boy expresses all these emotions, more or less constantly. He is especially disturbed when his father enters a house that belonged to someone else, or when he takes possessions that belonged to the once living, or when he forces a thief who had taken all their possessions to strip naked. This is why he often asks his father whether they are still the “good guys” who “carry the fire.” The man assures the boy that they are still the good guys, but that most of the people they might meet in the world are not.

Some might find an underlying sentimentality in the novel, especially in the exchanges between the man and the boy. Children in most novels are better seen than heard. Few writers portray them realistically. McCarthy succeeds not only in portraying the boy in an utterly convincing way—both in his speech, mannerisms, and behavior—but also in how he interacts with his father. And McCarthy succeeds as well in conveying the man’s concern and love for his son. A parent will read this novel through the lens of his or her own children and his or her love for those children. Those who do not have children may not fully appreciate this aspect of the novel. What some may mistake for sentimentality is in fact love and tenderness—surprising yet wholly logical and natural emotions in this novel by Cormac McCarthy.

There is no wife or mother in the novel. She resides in the man’s memory, and at first he thinks of her often. In one of his memories they argue about her intention to kill herself. She sees only a horrible death for herself and the boy—she is sure they’ll both be raped, tortured, cannibalized--she doesn’t see the point of struggling on. She sees no future for herself or her family or the rest of the world. She also sees herself as another mouth to feed. Her death by suicide—in a scene that is implied but not described, she slits her wrists with sharp flints her husband has taught her how to use for that purpose—simplifies matters for the author, who has one less character to worry with, and for the boy and his father. It’s clear that the man loved his wife, but it’s clear too, as time goes on, that in the new world of gray dust and endless walking towards an empty ocean there is no place for her memory. In a wrenching, understated scene, the man takes out her photograph and, after looking at it a last time, places it face up on the road and walks on.

The Road is a novel written by a man who knows he will soon leave the world. The gray landscapes, the ashes, the corpses, the death, express McCarthy’s own sense of alienation from the modern world. He is losing the world, or he knows that he will soon lose it. He knows his son will survive him. The novel is his expression of love and hope for his son when the time comes that he must make his way in the world alone.

In another sense, the novel is McCarthy’s warning to the rest of us that our own recklessness, greed, carelessness, and haste may destroy the world. It gives little hope that we are capable of preventing the disaster he thinks will transpire.

It’s also a novel whose main character is convinced that there is no God, or at the least that God has deserted the world, and that there is no hope of salvation or redemption, only emptiness. Yet, despite all the despair and pessimism, The Road ends on a note of muted and perhaps short-term optimism.

It’s difficult to imagine that any author could produce another novel after writing this one. What could possibly follow The Road? McCarthy, in his early seventies, is old enough that this novel could be his last. One hopes he doesn’t stop here. One hopes that his horrific dream of a world without a future tense proves wrong. McCarthy, as The Road makes clear, does not believe he is wrong. One hopes, somewhere, for a glimmer of light in his dark vision of human eschatology.

Originally published in BlogCritics:

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

All the King's Men 2006

Steve Zaillian’s remake of All the King’s Men did not deserve the sound critical drubbing it received. It is a serious, ambitious, and in many ways satisfying failure. It makes a genuine attempt to adapt Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel by reading it closely. I am not of the camp that feels filmmakers are obliged to honor the texts of the literary works they adapt. What is most important is that the end result be a good film. In trying to adapt Warren’s novel, Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay for his film, made some concessions and changes that determined the ultimate outcome of his project. He also made a number of decisions, one of which, by my mind, was a serious error, and others whose wisdom was at the least arguable.

Zaillian made his film by borrowing novelistic devices from Warren’s story. It was interesting to read critical complaints about these devices—subplots, baroque language, jumps between past and present, voiceover—when in fact these devices were so fundamental to the novel. Zaillian makes extensive use of voiceover, always narrated by the character Jack Burden as portrayed by Jude Law. Often voiceover scenes begin with a view of Jack Burden tossing and turning on his bed, presumably mulling over in his mind the events he is talking about. Often voiceover in the film cues us into a transition back to the past (as to remembered scenes on the beach of Burden’s Landing) or forward to the present or to another geographical location. All the King’s Men in a sense is an interior monologue that takes place within Jack Burden’s mind. He narrates the novel, and the course of his thinking determines the direction of his narration. (Of course, Warren’s decisions as author truly determine the narrative’s direction). Critics complained of how the film jumped around from present to past and back again, but this struck me as a logical and useful way for the film to tell its story, especially given that the film and novel are about the interrelationships of past and present.

Jack Burden’s voiceover narration of the film calls attention to his own role in the events he describes. In the 1949 Robert Rossen All the King’s Men, there is no voiceover narration, and none is needed, since Burden in that film is mainly a secondary character. Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark was the central character. In Zaillian’s remake, as in Warren’s novel, Burden is one of two main characters. And he is the only character trying to come to terms with the events he narrates--the only character who bears the burden of his own past and who to some extent finds that past inextricably tied up with events of the present time in the film.

In the concluding pages of the novel, Jack Burden comments that in telling the story of Willie Stark he is telling his own story. This is a crucial element of the novel. Zaillian replicates the parallelism between Stark and Burden in his film. The film traces the arc of Stark’s career, of the complicating events that end in assassination. Unfortunately, he does not include events that follow Willie’s death, in particular events involving Jack Burden. By ending with Willie’s death, Zaillian fails to complete the story he set out to tell, so that the film feels incomplete.

The voiceover allows Zaillian to include in the film much of the actual language of the novel. Warren was at his best as a poet in All the King’s Men—even though he was writing a novel—the language is one of the most remarkable and notable elements of the novel, and Zaillian’s decision to use much of that language invests the film with a deep philosophical tone and character that I particularly liked.

Zaillian also preserved certain crucial dramatic moments from the novel—for instance, Jack Burden’s first meeting with Willie, Jack’s uncompleted tryst with Anne Stanton, the scream he hears from his mother on the evening of Judge Irwin’s suicide, and most of the details of the Mortimer Littlepaugh scandal. Although Zaillian preserves Sadie Burke’s speech to Stark about how he has been used by Tiny Duffy and others, and Willie’s subsequent dramatic speech to the people at the fair about how they are all hicks, he downplays these scenes. Willie does not seem to be drunk in Zaillian’ film, and the speech itself, though powerfully delivered by Sean Penn, lacks the drama of the speech in the novel and as delivered by Broderick Crawford in the Rossen film.

Finally, Zaillian makes clear that the novel he is adapting is set in the deep South. In fact, he goes further than Warren went by making the state in which events occur Louisiana. Warren keeps the identity of the state unnamed, and most of the cities he mentions—Mason City, Capital City, are generic. I don’t have a problem with Zaillian’s explicitness—we all knew what state Warren really had in mind to begin with, so what does it matter? Rossen removed his story from the South. Most of his characters did not speak with Southern accents, and there was little way to identify his story as a Southern story unless one had read the book on which it was based. Rossen’s concern was in telling a parable about the possibility of fascism in America. He used Warren’s novel and certain broad elements of its plot to address his own themes.

Zaillian started out with the quite different intention of adapting the novel and of retaining its basic tones, scenes, characters, and themes. And he decides to be explicit about the name of the state where the events occur. One pitfall of doing this is that one is more prone to connect Stark with Huey Long. To avoid the linkage Zaillian sets his novel in the 1950s, long after Huey Long was alive (and at the end of the Southern demagogue era). The novel All the King’s Men is a Depression narrative. It’s difficult to think of it in other terms, and in fact by appealing to the common farmer’s own economic problems and suffering, Stark is able to build much of his power-base. He rises to power, in part, by offering sympathy and rescue to those people most suffering from the Depression. Many of the people who listen to Stark’ speeches in the Zaillian remake look like they’re suffering from the Depression, but in fact this cannot be so. Maybe they’re simply suffering.

Setting the film in the 1950s perhaps allows Zaillian to make one more adjustment: many of the people who listen to Willie and are moved by his words are African American. In the 1930s black Southerners cannot vote, and probably would not be standing in the middle of a mostly white crowd at a political rally. In Zaillian’s version of the 1950s, black people attend political rallies and do, presumably, vote. This is not historically accurate. In the real 1950s of Louisiana and the rest of the Deep South, black people may have listened to and thought about political speeches, but they could not for the most part vote.

Clearly Zaillian made some questionable decisions in his making of the film. Primary among them are casting decisions. One can find fault in particular with the three main leads: Sean Penn as Willie Stark, Jude Law as Jack Burden, Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton. These are three fine actors, but they may not have been right for these roles. Some reviewers suggested that James Gandolfini (who plays Tiny Duffy in the film) would have worked better as Willie. I don’t think so. First of all, Gandolfini is too clearly entrenched in middle age. He is large and fleshy, and though Willie had undoubtedly attained those proportions to some extent by the time he ran for a second term as governor, Gandolfini could not have portrayed Willie as a younger man. Penn, not a fleshy person, appears in the film to be generic in age. He doesn’t look much older as governor that he does as a first-time political candidate in the film. He is also a better actor than Gandolfini, and thus potentially capable of portraying Willie Stark more effectively. Whatever one may think of Sean Penn or of the casting decision that placed him in this role, he offers a credible and reasonable interpretation of Willie Stark, an alternative perhaps to the one offered by Broderick Crawford, and perhaps even to the one given by Warren in the novel, but at least a reasonable interpretation. It worked for me, especially given the fact that Sean Penn’s Willie Stark was not intended to be the sole center of the film.

The film insisted on too many close-ups of Sean Penn while he is giving speeches. Penn presented an unusual and credible speaking style in which Willie Stark gestures with his entire body, not just with a raised arm or overturned hand. This is again not the Willy Stark I would have imagined, but it is ultimately one in which I was willing to believe. But more scenes shot from a distance, that showed Willie speaking to a crowd, that showed Willie and the crowd together and did not insist on the close-up shots which became distracting if not in some way narcissistic, would have contributed more effectively to the theme of power, democracy, and leadership in the film.

Once again, although Jude Law did not initially strike me as the right choice to play Jack Burden, he comported himself adequately. Burden’s character strikes me as older than Law, more bitter and hard-bitten, more sardonic and inclined towards satiric humor. Law came across as humorless and sometimes emotionless. We know he felt emotions mainly because he told us he did in the voiceovers. Yet it is Jude Law’s narration as Jack Burden that binds the film together and is the heart of the themes and interwoven plots that in fact are what the film is about. Ultimately, I thought Jude Law was effective as Jack Burden, in part because so much of Warren’s original language remained in his voiceover narration.

Finally, there is Kate Winslet. Her wig was false. She mainly had to look fetching, to give occasional bewitching or entrancing or mysterious or come hither glances. She was beautiful, as Anne Stanton was said to be, but she seemed wholly wrong for the part. Yet she is a fine actress, and she occupied the role in her own way and succeeded with it. As a character of primary importance to Jack, but who in the novel and film was really only a secondary character, Winslet’s role neither helped nor hindered the effort.

The film does have weaknesses, some of them significant. I noticed in the last third it began to drag and seemed to lose focus. Certain scenes seem “telegraphed,” as if the director assumed that the viewer had read the novel and therefore would recognize and register particular scenes so that full development was unnecessary. One of these was the scene involving the father of the girl who is seriously injured in the car crash with Willie’s son Tom. Another is Tom himself. The novel develops a subplot involving Tom and his difficult relationship with his father develops. Tom is brash and arrogant and, like most teenagers, considers himself immortal. When he is severely injured in a football game following the car accident—paralyzed, in fact, an injury from which he later dies—a series of events is triggered that leads Willie to relinquish his corrupt ways, to declare the hospital he is building off-limits to political deals, and which in turn leads Tiny Duffy to suggest to Sadie Burke who is mad about Willie’s affair with Anne Stanton to tell Adam that . . . and so on. But there is no need for Tom in the film. Zaillian’s script removes any reference to a chain of events set in motion by the car crash. Tom is there merely as a kind of acknowledgement of his place in the novel. He could have been omitted entirely, with no damage to the film. As it is in the film, what sets the chain of events in motion is Sadie Burke’s jealousy of Anne Stanton, a motivation that in and of itself seems inadequate.

Another weakness in the film is the absence of humor. The language of the novel is full of tough-guy sardonic humor, mostly utterances from Jack but also from other people in the story, especially Willy and his cronies. The humor of the novel is an expression of Jack’s personality, and also of his disillusionment. It is also an expression of the language itself. Although we encounter hints of that humor in the voiceover narration, for the most part the film is a somber, serious, sometimes lugubrious affair.

The film also engages in some oversimplifications of events. I’ve already mentioned one—events that lead to Willie’s assassination are elided and abridged, and Jack’s tangential involvement in them is missing entirely. The early rise of Willie Stark to political power is also simplified—when Willie in the film discovers that he has been played as the sap, he goes on the offensive and manages to win the gubernatorial election in a landslide, while in the novel Willie joins the Harrison campaign, lobbies for his election, and in another four years he runs again on his own, that time in a winning effort. That particular abridgement does not strike me as a serious lapse—it’s the kind of abbreviation that film adaptations by necessity engage in. A much more important sequence of scenes involving the scandal of Judge Irwin and Mortimer Littlepaugh are not for the most part abridged, and thus their crucial role in the narrative is retained. Another example of abbreviation is the early relationship of Jack Burden and Anne Stanton. In the novel, Jack’s early idealization of and love for Anne Stanton is at the center of his problem. His image of Anne diving off the float into the water and floating there in the water as the storm looms is partially alluded to in the film, but it lacks the importance it holds in the novel.

Of course, some scenes are missing entirely: I will mention two at this point. The film entirely omits the portion of the narrative that describes Jack’s life as a graduate student in history, his dissertation on his ancestor Cass Mastern, and his marriage to the lubricious Lois. The Mastern episode is a crucial episode in the novel. William Faulkner claimed it was the only part of the novel he liked. The Cass Mastern episode details the experiences of an ancestor of Jack’s who betrays his best friend and sleeps with his wife. The consequences include his friend’s suicide and the selling down the river by Annabelle Trice of the slave Phoebe, who is aware of the affair. Cass fells deep guilt for his involvement in his friend’s death and the selling of the slave, and for the rest of his life he takes steps to try to expiate the crimes he feels responsibility for. Cass is the person Jack could not bring himself to be. He is the example Jack could not live up to, and thus the presence of the episode in the novel sets up a parallelism between past and present, between Cass Mastern and Jack Burden, on which Warren weaves his spider web image and on which he bases further explorations of Jack’s character and the novel’s themes. I had hoped this episode would be in the film, but I did not expect it to be. As much as I like and appreciate the episode, and as much as it serves to illustrate and intensify the themes of the novel, those themes are already in the text. They remain there when the episode disappears. They’re not crucial to the investigations in which the novel and the film engage. I would say the same for the film’s omission of Jack’s father the scholarly attorney and for the virtuous character of Hugh Miller.,

The most serious flaw in the film is the absence of any narrative following Willie Stark’s death. In the novel, Willie hangs on for several days after the shooting before expiring. In both film adaptations, he dies right there on the floor of the capitol rotunda, next to Adam. In the 1949 adaptation this was a suitable ending, because that film was about Willie. But the 2006 film is about Willie and Jack, perhaps more about Jack than Willie. The film carefully builds the relationship and the parallels between Willie and Jack. It traces the development (albeit in abbreviated form) of the relationship of Jack with Adam and Anne, especially the latter, in their idyllic childhood days at Burden’s Landing. It shows how Jack becomes involved in the political world of Willie Stark and how to an extent he becomes part of that world—manipulative and corrupt. Finally, the film deftly traces how Willie is able to manipulate Jack into finding the dirt on the man whom Jack most admires and respects—Judge Irwin, the man who of course turns out to be his father.

What the film leaves out is Jack’s tenuous and unwitting involvement in the events that lead to the assassination. It also leaves out the after-story, that part of the novel in which Jack comes to realize his own complicity in the events. By this he is able, after a fashion, to recover from his guilt, to take responsibility for himself, and to have the possibility of a life with Anne Stanton, who at the end of the novel he has married.

As I say, at the end of the novel, Jack and Anne Stanton are married and are planning to leave Burden’s Landing and go out into the world of time and memory and whatever else the hell it is. The point here is that the events in which they’ve been involved have allowed them to learn how to live in the real world, a world of corruption and guilt and sin but also of virtues and ideals. This is also the post-World War II world. The entirety of the novel takes place and comes to an end prior to the beginning of the second world war. When Jack and Anne go out into the world it is the world of that second world war and all that it entails—death, horrific battles, nuclear bombs, the holocaust. That is the world they have learned to live in, that they have chosen to live in.

By omitting the after story and by moving the time of the film to the 1950s, Zaillian effectively removes this entire dimension of the narrative and also denies himself a way to conclude the story of Jack Burden. Willie dies and his story is over. But Jack’s story continues. And that continuation is a crucial point of the novel. Zaillian’s failure to complete the Jack Burden story, when he completed the Willie Stark story, means that he is unable to complete the story as a whole. After two hours and however many minutes, the film ends, yet it is not really finished.

My complaints about various episodes the film has omitted or abbreviated do not take into account the limitations that filmmakers face, and that novelists do not face. Most films have to end after two hours or at most two-and-a-half hours. The films that do not end within this span of time are more than likely going to fail commercially if not also artistically. Zaillian undertook the adaptation of a long novel and apparently set as one of his goals the preservation of important characters and scenes and tones from the novel. Trying to accomplish that goal within a two-hour span was simply an insurmountable task. This may explain in part why the film was delayed for a year after the initial announcement of its release in the second half of 2005. Zaillian apparently spent the next year editing and re-editing the film, trying to make it work. (Hurricane Katrina, which struck in August 2005 and devastated much of the state the film is about, may also have played a role in the delay.) Had funds been unlimited, or at least in greater abundance, and had I been asked, I would have advised Zaillian to allow the film to run another hour, which could have given him time to complete the Jack Burden plot, and perhaps to flesh out some of the other scenes. In particular, I would have reconceived and reshot the entire episode involving Willie’s discovery that he has been played for a sap and the speech in which he speaks to the hicks for the first time. The result might not have become a commercial success, but might have been more successful as an adaptation, and as a work of art.

Let me state for the record: I enjoyed this film and appreciated its attempt to make a fairly close adaptation of the novel. It preserved much of the novel’s structure and language, its complex array of themes, its primary metaphors and symbols. It was an intelligent if finally unwieldy and unsuccessful attempt. But it is also the sort of attempt that ought to be appreciated for what it sought to do as much as it merits criticism for the ways in which it failed.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


When it premiered in 1975, Robert Altman’s film Nashville seemed the culmination of a pattern set in motion with the release in 1970 of Mash and then of Brewster McCloud. All three films offer satiric critiques of American popular culture, contemporary history, values, and ideals. All three are dark and irreverent comedies that celebrate the perverse as well as the normal. One of my favorite scenes in Mash concerns a doctor who is so depressed that he considers suicides. Other doctors and staff at the Mash unit conspire to help him. It’s all fake, of course, a setup, and they help him think he is committing suicide in order to cure his depression. But they’re all entertained at the same time, gleeful at their elaborate joke. There’s something in it for everyone.

Altman’s central interest in these films was America—the state of the union, so to speak. Mash used the Korean War to comment on the Vietnamese conflict. I can’t even remember what Brewster McCloud was about, other than Bud Cort’s desire to fly around the inside of the Houston Astrodome, the angelic Sallie Kellerman’s nude bathing in one of the fountains outside the astrodome, the eccentric old billionaire who yells “Get that bird shit off my car!,” and the kiss between Bud Cort and Shelley Duvall immediately after she has thrown up.

Now Nashville, which remains for me a very pertinent and moving film, looks much more like an artifact of its time. It is deeply marked by a number of historical and cultural issues: the Watergate crisis, the aftermath of the Vietnam war and the cultural divisions it opened up in the United States, the growth of interest in the American South as a popular culture fetish (which included country music), the assassinations of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism, celebrity worship, and a general sense of national anomie—the sickness that Jimmy Carter, in a 1979 speech for which he was much reviled, once suggested had infected the nation.

Nashville is a great American film in the same sense that Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” is a great American poet. It is a film of many voices, many points of view, of conflicting values and judgments. Voices talk against one another in the film, overlapping and canceling one another out, blending in harmony and straining in cacophonous disagreement. It suggests that we have lost our national moorings, that we (at least some of us) have abandoned belief in the founding values of the nation, which consumerism and late capitalism have supplanted. It suggests that we are heading towards self-destruction, that, like Joyce’s Dublin, we eat our own farrow. It also suggests that the time is not too late for recovery, that even for someone like the fatuous and hypocritical Haven Hamilton, the film’s own Bob Hope, there is the final hope of a redemptive act.

Nashville is more important as a symbol in the film than as an actual place.

The city of Nashville is the film’s American microcosm. As the country music capital of the world, Nashville embodies the American dream of talent, success, and wealth. It is also connected, through its history and Tennessee setting and through the country music that insists on this link, to traditional and original American values—family, farming, God, moral and political conservatism. Yet the city in the film seems to be marked by an overweening boosterism and an inability to look honestly at its own reflections. Thus it is a city that, seeking to grow and prosper, exploits the vulnerable and unsuspecting. In this sense, the film is about a city of hucksters and exploitationists. The character Suleen, who works at the airport diner and whose only real friend is the African American counterman Wade Cooley (one of the most complex and endearing characters in the film), is the prime symbol of exploitation. In a scene reminiscent in ways of the “Battle Royale” episode in Ellison’s The Invisible Man, she allows herself to be talked into stripping at a fundraiser for the political character Hal Philip Walker. All the business and political leaders of the town are present to watch her—white men in suits, with cigars and alcohol and leering faces. She doesn’t want to strip, but when she is told that if she does she’ll be allowed to sing on the steps of the Parthenon with Barbara Jean, her idol, she agrees to do so. Bereft of talent or intelligence, Suleen is convinced she has talent. She never stops to question herself or her motives, even when Wade tells her that she has no singing talent and that people are going to eat her alive. The idea here is that the men who watch her also watch all the other characters in the film, that the power and money they embody is what most of the characters are after.

In addition to its role as a symbol of the nation, we have to see the city of Nashville as a symbol of the American South. This is a film about the South, after all, and Nashville is the only glimpse the film affords into the region. The film is made in a period of transition, when the increasing urbanization of the American South, with the attendant growth of commerce and industry, place the modern South in contrast with the more traditional South and with the focus of country music on down-home agrarian values. This implied tension runs throughout the film.

The change occurring in Nashville and the rest of the South is represented early in the film by the focus on the airport, where Barbara Jean is returning back from the clinic where she has been treated for what we are told is burns. The airport is a place of travel, movement, transition. L. A. Joan arrives from California at the airport. Tricycle Man first appears there as well, though it’s doubtful he flew in with his Easy Rider motorcycle. Opal announces at one point that America is a land of car crashes, and there’s some confirmation of this idea in the pile-up that occurs as all the characters at the airport leave at the same time and drive towards the center of the city. We later see a scene in an automobile junkyard, where the rusting car hulks are like vacated American souls (if I follow Opal’s way of thinking). The movie itself is a kind of car crash. What is it that Carlo Marx intones in Kerouac’s On the Road?: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?" The airport (and the roadways) are one avenue by which change comes to the city.

Country music typically addresses Southern themes and subjects. By choosing country music and musicians as his subject, Altman chooses an easy target. Who will argue back on their behalf and complain of prejudice, bias, stereotyping, anti-regional arrogance? As people who are, after all (according to the logic of the film), hillbilly hicks, crackers, no group will rise to their defense. But Altman is not as vicious as he could be. There is much compassion, empathy, in his portraitures. He finds something to like in most of these characters, even the most despicable among them. Narcissistic Tom Frank, eager and able to bed any women within reach, falls for Linnea, the expressionless mother of two deaf children and wife to the bulbous, soulless Delbert Reese. Tom actually talks with Linnea, playfully, during their tryst, though he had nothing to say to his other partners. Linnea moves him when all the others are merely objects to him, but as soon as he realizes that she is going to leave him he calls up another woman. His vulnerability to Linnea humanizes him, despite his narcissism, his sexist exploitation of women and of his own celebrity.

Linnea’s two children are perhaps at the core of one of the themes in the film, the desire to be heard. In several moving scenes Linnea is seen talking with her children through sign language, and her son struggles to speak. This is the essential theme of communication. Linnea and her husband hardly speak at all or listen to each other in a meaningful way. Delbert can’t understand what his children say at all. When Mary tries to tell Tom that she loves him, he is asleep, or at least pretending to be. Albuquerque—genuinely talented but lacking the connections that would give her an entry into the county music industry—tries to be heard is heard throughout the film. When she is given a chance to sing at a stockcar race, the noise of revving engines drowns her out. The Lady Pearl is trying to express some inchoate idea about her love of the Kennedys and her anguish over their assassinations, but Opal is clueless and confused about what she says. And Barbara Jean tries to say something to the audience at the Opry Belle performance, but she is mired in her own anguish and distress—she can’t finish a sentence, and her handlers don’t allow her to.

The film’s concern with media extends this theme. The opening credits, which present themselves as a television advertisement for the great hits of country music, packages the movie as a media instrument, calling attention to the fact that after all it is a manufactured product, a media vehicle. The opening credits are followed by a scene in which a car with loudspeaker drives through the streets of Nashville blaring out the voice of political candidate Hal Philip Walker. We see scenes of Haven Hamilton and of Linnea and a gospel choir in recording studios. Opal, of course, is a film-maker for BBC, and towards the end of the film Howard K. Smith, an actual news broadcaster for ABC, comments on the Hal Philip Walker campaign. Country music itself is a media-based industry—it communicates with its audience through radio and television shows, through recordings.

Opal, the purported journalist for BBC who is making a documentary “about America,” is constantly perplexed and confused. She misinterprets practically everything she sees and experiences. She’s eager to manufacture meaning—consider her walk through the auto junkyard, and later through the school bus lot. When she watches Linnea singing with an otherwise all black African American choir, all she sees are African jungle natives dressed up. Her essential racism rises to the surface, but rather than criticizing her for this Altman uses it to reflect on her essential ignorance and naiveté. It is no coincidence that the most uncomprehending and clueless person in the film is a documentary film-maker, a journalist.

Still, there are characters here who are little more than one-dimensional surfaces, signs and vehicles for the messages Altman wishes to convey. L. A. Joan is one—overwhelmed with celebrity and self-worship, without any identity or substance other than that she derives from the people she happens to be with at a given moment.

My favorite character in the film is Barbara Jean, who is genuinely talented but who is emotionally ill and unable to cope without the assistance of her husband/manager and of her admirers. As Pauline Kael suggests, Barbara Jean lives solely through her music and her performances. She has no other life, except through her memory, which she occasionally struggles to articulate. Everyone admires her and her talent, and they all seek to associate themselves with her—hoping perhaps that some of her authenticity and her talent will rub off. Trying to decide whether to appear on stage with Barbara Jean or her rival Connie White (they never appear on stage together), Hamilton avers that he will always appear on stage with Barbara Jean. By associating with her and the songs that she sings, perhaps he hopes that the empty and absurd songs he sings will sound slightly less so.

Barbara Jean is the authentic talent in the film. She’s also the person whose singing seems to enrage the minor character Kenny, who appears throughout the film, often in tandem with Private Glenn Kelley. The purpose of both these characters remains vague until the end. Kelley has apparently returned recently from Vietnam, and because his mother told him that she has once saved Barbara Jean from a fire, he devotes himself to the singer, following her everywhere, even sleeping one night in a rocking chair in her hospital room. His behavior is the behavior of a stalker. Kenny is also a cipher. He wears clothing that appears to be undersized, so that he seems to bulge out of his shirt and trousers. He carries a guitar case everywhere with him in the film, and we assume it holds a guitar, that he wants to get into the music industry like everyone else. Only at the end do we learn what the case really contains, and only then do we learn what Private Kelley’s narrative purpose is in the film. These characters, like L. A. Joan, the Tricycle Man, and Opal appear throughout the film as unifying elements that draw the disparate elements of the film together, in spite of itself. All of these characters, like virtually all the characters in the film, are in search of something—Opal is looking for a meaning, a hook that will allow her to make the film she claims she is making. L. A. Joan simply wants to associate and hook up with famous people—she doesn’t care who they are, as long as they’re famous. (She changes her name from the prosaic “Martha” to the more trendy “L. A. Joan”—associating herself with another city of trendiness and celebrity). The Tricycle Man is apparently a session guitarist. He’s just a presence in the film who appears here and there. His most substantive bit of action in the film comes in the small magic tricks he performs in the airport diner and at the bar.

Barbara Jean is the film’s heart and center. She’s the standard of comparison against which most of the other characters fail to measure up. Even Connie White, glittery and talented but a clone of sorts, doesn’t measure up. Connie is the most significant threat, however, to Barbara Jean. Unlike her rival, Connie is not emotionally unstable, she doesn’t need the help of advisors to prop her up, and one can imagine her quick rise to first-level stardom should Barbara Jean stumble and disappear. Connie White may want fame and fortune, but she doesn’t need these in the same way that Barbara Jean does—they aren’t (at least not yet) her soul and her identity as they are for Barbara Jean. (This is reading a lot into Connie White’s character). She possesses all the requisite formulaic elements for success.

Barbara Jean is the sort of singer/songwriter who helps account for the charisma of the Nashville name, for the tradition of music and talent associated with it. Clearly in the film, Nashville is in flux, in a state of change. Country Music in the 1970s stood on the verge of obsolescence. Too many white people. Too little variation. The film shows the arrival of different kinds of performers than the country music industry has admitted before this point—African Americans, rock and roll musicians, even in one scene at the racetrack, a singer who appears to be Native American or Hawaiian. Nashville and country music are growing and expanding yet standing in danger of losing their roots and thereby, one might argue, their heart and soul.

(In her hospital room, we see a book that Barbara Jean is presumably reading. It reappears in several scenes, and it’s difficult to make out the title. In one scene the title becomes readable. It’s a paperback copy of the novel Light in August, by William Faulkner. What do we make of this? Was this simply a book someone on the movie set was reading, conveniently seized and placed on the bed as a prop—there’s a significant element of improvisation in Altman’s filmmaking, and it’s possible the book found its way onto Barbara Jean’s bed in that random way. Or is the book there by intention, and if so, what does this suggest about Barbara Jean’s character? Such details are important. We have to pay careful attention to them.)

The final scene in front of Nashville’s Parthenon sums all of this up. Nashville’s Parthenon is, of course, a full replica of the ruined and famous building on the acropolis in Athens, Greece. It was originally constructed for the Nashville bicentennial in the early 1900s, built of plaster and wood. People liked it so much that a more permanent structure was erected following the end of the bicentennial. The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, is a ruin. The Parthenon remained intact for two thousand years until an explosion in 1687 set off by a cannonball ruined much of it. Portions of its marble sculptures (the so-called Elgin Marbles) reside in the London Museum. Other parts have undoubtedly been moved elsewhere. The Parthenon in Greece is a symbol of Western Civilization and thought, associated (whether rightly or not) with the highest ideals and achievements of ancient Greece. The Parthenon in Nashville is a fake, a symbol of all that the film regards as false and artificial and deceptive about the city and what the city embodies.

How ironic then that the final scene takes place on and in front of the Nashville Parthenon, a political rally for the candidate Hal Philip Walker who promises to create “New Roots” for America, and among other things to root out all the lawyers from Congress. It is a scene fundamentally essential to American democracy, and a scene that in the film is invested with every aspect of deceit, deception, hypocrisy, and fakery—with the exception of Barbara Jean, who doesn’t know why she’s there other than the fact that she is there to sing. And she does sing, beautifully, movingly, until the bullet strikes and presumably kills her.

We kill the things we love most. This seems to be one of the messages the film purveys. We kill the things that reveal and betray our own falseness. Why we do so the film does not suggest. At least I cannot tease out the explanation if it is there.

What does Nashville say about democracy? It shows little faith in the ability of the electorate to make intelligent decisions. It shows the electorate caught up in worship of material things, of celebrity, of vacuous meaningless trivia. A talented singer is killed on stage. After a moment of distress and chaos, the crowd is caught up in the chorus of a song, “It don’t worry me.” On to the next thing. Forget the past. A new star is born.

That is to say, this is what the film seemed to say in 1975, which it was current. Today, as I said, it is in addition to everything else it might be an artifact of a particular time and place in 20th-century American history. I think it’s still relevant.

Pauline Kael rightly described this film as a great comic epic about America. I agree.