Monday, December 31, 2007


Renaissance (2006) is an animated French film set in Paris in 2054.  A mega-corporation called Avalon, which specializes in prolonging life and youth, dominates the world.  A detective named Barthélémy Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig) is assigned to investigate the kidnapping of a brilliant young research scientist, Ilona Tasuiev, whose research concerns the disease progeria, which causes rapid and unnatural aging in children.  In the process of his investigation he uncovers a vast corporate conspiracy focused on a discovery made by one of the corporation scientists.  Some want to suppress the discovery while others want to release it to the world.  There are numerous turns of plots, unexpected surprises, and dark revelations.  People who seem to be good turn out not to be, and villains turn out to be something else.

The film turns on the notion that death gives life meaning.  I kept looking for Keats allusions but didn't find them.

Renaissance is an intelligent and well made animated film.  It is filmed in the style of Sin City, using motion capture photography. The animation consists almost entirely of high contrast black and white images.  The effect is something like a comic book.  This kind of animation would soon become tedious, monotonous, were it used in film after film, but in this one it works well enough.  Much of Renaissance takes place at night, when it is frequently raining or snowing.  This film could easily have been made as a live-action production.

The film reminded me in moments of Blade Runner and in others of films such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep because of the sudden turns of plot and revelations.  I was even reminded of Wuthering Heights

Renaissance is basically an animated film noir.  It takes a dim view of science, scientific research, and the notion of progress.  It suggests that technology imprisons humankind rather than offering new freedoms.  In this sense it has numerous connections to such films about genetic engineering and advanced technology as Gattaca and Minority Report. I'm surprised this film isn't better known.

Microcosmos: Le peuple de l'herbe

Microcosmos: Le peuple de l'herbe (1996) is a French film that uses close-up and time-delay photography to show the lives of insects and plants and other forms of life in the countryside. The film is beautifully photographed. There is only enough narration to place the film in context. For the most part the film is not narrated. Thus we rarely recognize the creatures we are seeing or learn anything about them. Most of their actions are clear enough--mating, eating, moving along the ground or the stems of plants. Photographs do speak for themselves, but this is mainly because they use images--human forms, for instance—that we can recognize and understand, at least to some extent. In the case of insects and other small creatures, the ignorance of viewers can be an obstacle to full appreciation of the images. Beauty by itself is insufficient. Beauty with some explanation would be an improvement over the mute images we have here.

I suppose one of the points of the film is that life in whatever form it takes is miraculous and impressive. The soundtrack to the film does not always contribute in a positive way. It can be distracting. It occasionally involves music or sounds that do not match the images displayed (in one scene, a woman is heard faintly singing in the background).

I enjoyed the parts of Microcosmos that I did not sleep through. Had the film given names and meanings to the creatures it so beautifully displays, it would have had greater interest and significance.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) is a dark, grim melodrama about Russian émigrés in London. An emigrant family apparently associated with the Russian mafia operates in London. A fourteen-year old prostitute linked to the family hemorrhages to death in a hospital emergency room. A midwife tries to identify the woman so that she can find someone to raise her infant child. One discovery leads to another. The midwife discovers the girl's diary, written in Russian, and asks her uncle, a former KGB agent, to translate it. As he does, she at first suspects that the girl was raped and abused by the son of patriarch of the Russian family. Later she discovers that the patriarch himself raped the girl and fathered her child and then allowed her to be brutally abused.

The two main characters in the film are the midwife Anna, played by Naomi Watts, and the driver for the family, Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen. He turns out to be an undercover agent who had infiltrated and been accepted into the family. He is excellent in his part—which is very unlike his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films or like the role he played for Cronenberg in A History of Violence. Mortensen's acting is the single most impressive element in the film. Also effective is the father of the Russian émigrés, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, whom we've seen previously in such films as Shine. He is fine as a benign and avuncular old man who turns out to have a deeply malevolent dark side.

A point of interest in the film is how the Russian mafia family continues to operate and maintain its basic structure and principles while it appears to assimilate into London society. It continues to commit acts of cruelty—murder, rape, drug smuggling, prostitution of young girls, various acts of brutality—in the middle of one of the world's most supposedly civilized cities.

Anna's intrusion into the world of the Russian émigrés seems headed for no good end. Her good intentions place her in potential danger at the hands of a cruel and violent group of people whom she can barely begin to understand. Only because of the intervention of Nikolai do things for her and her family come to a positive conclusion. Nikolai's intrusion does not fit smoothly into the dark and forbidding texture of the film. It seems a faulty and contrived intervention.

This is a well acted and effectively made film. But there's not much depth beneath the surface, despite the fact that Eastern Promises is in part about how deceptive surfaces can be. Others have had much stronger and more positive reactions to the film, and I may have misunderstood or misperceived it.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Entertaining and long, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) spends little time in the Caribbean. Instead it spends at least some time in the seas of South Asia and more time in an unknown location where all the pirates live and where the nine pirate captains gather for a big confabulation. The film also spends time in a place called Davy Jones' Locker, which is apparently where pirates go when they are lost at sea but not killed, or something like that. It's a surreal sort of otherworld—like purgatory or one of the long queues at Disneyworld.

The film begins by picking up the plot created at the end of the second film: the rescue of Captain Jack Sparrow from Davy Jones locker. There are numerous subplots. There is the love interest between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and (apparently) between Sparrow and Swann. There is Davy Jones' many tentacled quest for control of the seven seas. There is Turner's quest to rescue his father from the clutches of Davy Jones. There is the beating heart of Davy Jones kept in a chest in the possession of the British navy. The British navy is the enemy in the film. There is the resistance of eight of the nine pirate captains to the efforts of Davy Jones to take them over. And there is Calypso, trapped in her own body. She is a pirate goddess, and when the pirates and the British conflict comes to a crisis, she is released to wreak meteorological havoc that basically comes to naught. These plot lines intertwine and in the end combine together in a way that is satisfying and that makes no sense whatsoever.

All the characters in this film go through the same motions they went through in the first two films. Johnny Depp continues to be whacky and swaggering as Sparrow. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley remain the romantic young love interests in this film. Geoffrey Rush is great as Sparrow's rival pirate captain Barbossa. As good as these actors are in their parts, they were also good in the two earlier films, and this one doesn't get us anywhere new.

The Pirates of the Caribbean films are a fantasy series. The first film sets up a world that functions according to a particular set of rules involving the fact that the pirates on Sparrow's ship the Black
Pearl are ghosts—which is what they are on the Disneyworld ride that inspired the film. During the day the pirates appear to be real, but in moonlight at night their ghoulish nature comes clear. The later films basically abandon this convention, and the third one makes little reference to it at all, except for the fact that the men on Davy Jones' ship are in some sort of supernatural state of being. My point is that the first film sets up a set of rules which the latter two films either break or ignore.

Although I found the first film entertaining, I was disappointed that it made the pirates into ghouls. The film would have been more fun had they been real.

Keith Richards makes a brief if murky appearance as a senior pirate captain in the third film. His appearance is fitting since Johnny Depp supposedly modeled his character Jack Sparrow on Richards. However, it's difficult to recognize Richards as Richards. He simply seems a bit uncomfortable.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Spider Man 3

Spider Man 3 (2007) shows us what happens when a super hero runs out of steam. It is entertaining enough, but not as successful as its two predecessors. Part of the problem with a single film that attempts to perpetuate itself through multiple sequels is that novelty and creativity can wear thin. My memory of the Spider-Man and Superman and Batman comic book series is that they used basically the same plot-lines in issue after issue. This was possible because their audience consisted mainly of young readers who didn't mind the repetition and who even depended on it. Film audiences are somewhat more varied demographically than comic book readers, and in general probably more demanding and discerning. It's easy to recognized an overused and hackneyed plot. Once a film about a super hero tells the origin story and engages in several variations of stories about the good deeds super heroes can do for the world at large and its inhabitants, other plots are limited. Many super hero narratives show their heroes in conflict with other super-human or with alien nemeses. A few show their heroes struggling with the challenges of trying to live as normal people in a normal world. But these plots wear thin eventually too. For the most part I stopped reading comic books forty years ago, so I am not as aware as younger readers may be of the fact that comic books have grown more sophisticated and "adult" in recent decades—an attempt to maintain a more mature reading audience and to stay current with the modern world, also the result of the increasing creativity, imagination, and ambition of comic book artists. The Superman and Batman and Spider-Man stories have grown more complicated, more ambitious, much darker. Cinematic adaptations of comic book super heroes often don't seem able to keep pace with these developments. Only the Batman films—some of them at least—have succeeded in doing so.

One of the main interests of the Spider-Man series is that Peter Parker starts out as a normal kid who, after the infamous radioactive spider bite, finds himself possessed of superhuman powers. He struggles with wanting to continue his life as a normal American teenager and with facing up to the challenges of his powers. The first and second Spider-Man films made this struggle a central focus. The same is true in this third film, but here the plot begins to seem too familiar. So too do the continuing concerns with Peter's wavering romance with his girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and his relationship with his best friend and worst enemy Harry Osborn. Perhaps recognizing the need to freshen the story up, the film offers up as adversaries (in addition to Harry's alter-ego the New Goblin) an alien creature that infects Peter and brings out his evil side, a criminal (who Peter believes killed his uncle) who accidentally falls into a particle accelerator beam and is transformed into a superhuman sandman, and an ambitious rival news photographer. Peter is overcome by his own celebrity, begins acting like a disco king (with echoes of Saturday Night Fever, not to mention The Simpsons Disco Stu) and is insensitive to Mary Jane's problems with her career as an actor. He's never quite able (until the end) to convince Harry that he didn't really kill his father. And so on. It doesn't profit too much too think too deliberatively about this film. It's an overly complex and meandering mess whose action sequences manage to keep it interesting and loosely coherent.

Portions of this film are sillier than one has a right to expect. Some parts are simply a bore. Given the outcome of this film, especially Harry Osborn's death, it's difficult to imagine where and whether the series will go from here. Toby McGuire does have acting talent, but he has expended a lot of it on the Spider-Man films. Would he really want to do another?


Superbad (2007) is about three nerdy high school seniors on a night two weeks before graduation. Two of them have been friends for life but are beginning to drift apart—one has been accepted to Dartmouth while the other was rejected. These boys throughout high school have always been on the outskirts of things. One of them, Evan, the most normal of the three, is asked by his friend Becca why she never sees him at parties. He answers with an elaborate lie about how he is busy with other engagements when in fact the real answer is that he has never been invited to parties. His friend Seth, a heavy-set boy who is full of talk and plans for getting laid but is never able to carry through, offers to get liquor for a girl who is having a party—she invites him. He is certain that if he brings the liquor she'll reward him with sex. Their friend Fogell, the nerdiest and wildest of the group (his fake ID says his name is "McLovin"), pals up with two bumbling and wayward cops. The cops enjoy playing pranks on and in general terrorizing teenagers. They have a dark side—when the windshield of their cruiser is shattered, they decide to lay blame on Seth and Evan, and they enjoy a bit too much the tricks they play. Mostly, however, they're simply dimwit incompetents mourning the fact that they can no longer have the kind of fun the boys are having. Together and individually, the boys have a series of improbable adventures that involve booze, drugs, wild parties, attempts at sex, mayhem, physical danger, and whatever else you can imagine.

This is one of those films that, after two hours of total abandonment, brings its main characters to a point of enlightened understanding, moral uplift, and friendship. This seems to me a patently tacked on resolution to a film that is mainly a series of low-level skits about teen-agers running amok. I didn't particularly enjoy the film, and much of the humor was weak and lame.

Seth Rogen appears in the film as one of the two cops. He is said to have written the screenplay while still in high school. His co-screenwriter is Evan Goldberg. Obviously, the characters Seth and Evan in the film are self-portraits, or approximations thereof.

My high school experience was, unfortunately, not like the one shown in Superbad.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I Am Legend

In I Am Legend (2007) New York City is once again the place where the world—at least the human world—comes to an end. Three years after a man-made virus wipes out most of the human race, and turns a few million into flesh-eating zombies, the only man left is Robert Neville (played by Will Smith), a scientist from the research group that developed the virus, intended to cure cancer before it began mutating. (The film never acknowledges the statistical near impossibility that the man immune to the virus is a one of the scientists who developed it). Although the trailers for I Am Legend focused on Smith's efforts to evacuate his family out of New York City while the virus is in its early stages, the film itself begins three years after the virus has wiped everyone out. The back-story (everything in the trailers) is revealed through a series of flashbacks.

I Am Legend is based on the 1954 cult classic of the same title by Richard Matheson. Two previous films—The Last Man on Earth (1964) and Omega Man (1971) were also based on the novel.

Neville is the only man left in New York. His companion is a German shepherd named Sam. He spends his days hunting for food, foraging, sending out radio messages that ask survivors to contact him, and working in a lab in the basement of his apartment building, looking for a cure to the virus. At night he closes all the windows of his apartment and hides—the zombies come out at night—they survived the initial onslaught of the plague but changed into hyper-aggressive human mutants, always on the prowl for flesh.

The film is sad and wonderfully poignant in its first half. Neville drives at breakneck speed up and down the streets of New York in whatever car he chooses for that day. He enters a video rental store and selects DVDs to rent, returning the ones he has previously borrowed. He flirts with manikins he has apparently placed in the store. He hunts deer in the streets of the city, chasing them down in his truck. He grows corn in Central Park. He has decorated his apartment with famous paintings taken from well known New York museums. There is not much whimsy or irony in this film, which finds little to laugh at in the empty world. Rare moments of humor include one scene in which Neville recites the lines from Shrek aloud as the DVD of the film plays on his television—he has watched it often enough that he has memorized the screenplay. But there are moments of sad desperation as well, including one scene in which he begs a manikin to speak to him, and another when he realizes his dog Sam has contracted the virus.

In its second half, I Am Legend becomes a zombie film, with all the clichés that entails. Why is it in films like this one and 28 Days and Resident Evil and others that a virus necessarily turns victims into flesh-eating, ravening zombies? Why don't the victims just throw up, bleed out, and die? For my part, the arrival of the zombies (or whatever they are) marks a failure of imagination. The zombies are depicted with fairly unconvincing CGI special effects. They reminded me of the cover of Pink Floyd's The Wall, or of a Ralph Steadman drawing, or (as my son suggested) Munch's The Scream. They aren't real or credible, and they take the film with its convincing scenario of a New York stripped of human inhabitants, overrun with deer and escaped zoo animals and weeds and trash, and virtually turn it into B-grade schlock. Digital effects in the film in general are weak. The scene in which a lion attacks and kills a deer is lame—both animals look simulated, fake.

Many scenes in the first half of I Am Legend resonate with memories of the September 11 attacks. There are no direct echoes, but the film lingers on scenes that demonstrate the profound emptiness of the city. When Neville recalls the panic-stricken struggle of residents to escape the city before the government seals it off from the rest of the world—New York is where the virus was developed and where it first began mutating—we recall the crowds of people rushing to escape the burning or collapsed World Trade Center Towers. Images of such iconic locations as Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art drive home the notion that New York is (to Americans at least) the center of the world, and that if New York is empty then everywhere else must be as well.

Will Smith's acting is excellent. He's the heart of the film. Virtually all of his dialogue is with his reflection in mirrors, with his dog Sam, with manikins, with thin air. His ability to convey emotions and inner turmoil simply by his play of facial expressions is amazing. Smith keep this film going even when it begins to falter with the arrival of the zombies. He recalls Tom Hanks in the Robert Zemeckis film Castaway. There a man was stranded on an island after an airplane crash. There is hope for Hanks' character—the human world is still out there, he is simply lost, cut off from other humans. Someone may find him, or he may make his way back to the human world, which indeed is what finally happens. In I am Legend there is no human world out there. Will Smith's character Robert Neville is lost in an empty and wholly depopulated New York City—everyone is dead.

Although there is no real rescue for Neville, he does encounter another survivor, a woman who heard his radio broadcast in Maryland. She is convinced that God meant her to find Neville. She believes they are providentially destined to find their way to an encampment if survivors in the New England mountains. This insertion of theology into the film seems arbitrary—it softens and undercuts the grim and bitter portrait of a world emptied of humanity. She wants to insist that God has a plan for everyone and every event, while Neville insists, given the events that have occurred, that there is no God.

There are plot holes in I Am Legend, and the film makes little effort to explain the science behind the virus—why it mutated, how it kills, why it turns people into zombies, how Smith is trying to find a cure. But it is best not to think too much about such matters. The scenes of an empty New York City and Will Smith's acting make the film worthwhile.

Originally published at Blogcritics.

In It Wasn’t All Dancing and Other Stories, by Mary Ward Brown

In It Wasn't All Dancing and Other Stories (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2001), her second story collection, Mary Ward Brown continues the exploration of small-town and rural Alabama life that she began in Tongues of Flame.  The central theme of these stories is age and change.  Brown considers these themes through stories about widows coping with isolation and uncertainty and through stories of others unsettled by change.  The title story is told from the sick bed of a once vivacious and (by her own account) self-centered woman, Rose Merriweather, who knows she will soon die.  She virtually never gets out of bed.  She must cope with her own concerns of memory loss and identity along with the knowledge that her daughter (who has little to do with her) is gradually selling off family possessions to pay the cost of caring for her ailing mother.  The friendship that Rose tries to develop with the black nurse who is taking care of her allows Brown to explore another facet of changing race relations in the rural South.

Some of these stories are contemporary while others range back as far as the 1950s.  Many concern disappointments of one sort or another.  In "The Birthday Cake," the narrator and her older sister come to terms with a close friend's death.  In another, "Once in a Lifetime," a woman once considered the most beautiful girl in her high school lives in a small apartment with her adolescent daughter.  She is divorced after an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband.  While working in a restaurant, she meets a man from her high school who admits to having always been attracted to her.  They begin an affair, and at last the woman is truly happy, but when her young daughter becomes pregnant she breaks off the relationship.  The whole focus of the story falls on the woman's disappointment in life.  It is reminiscent of some of the stories in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, especially those concerned with the character Kate Swift, though Brown's stories are less intense and psychologically intrusive than Anderson's.

One story, "Swing Low: A Memoir," is actually a memoir about Brown's mother and a black man named William who worked for her most of his adult life.  Not always the most industrious of workers, and sometimes a petty thief, the man is devoted to Brown's mother, who invariably succeeds in talking her husband out of firing him each time some transgression has occurred.

Brown's attitudes towards African Americans and race probably reflect the sentiments of many rural white Southerners during the Civil Rights era.  To many readers her stories may seem anachronistic, concerned as they are with issues and events that occurred decades in the past. She writes to an extent from the viewpoint of the white residents whose position of power and privilege was overturned by the civil rights movement.  Her stories recall a particular kind of relationship between blacks and whites of the pre-civil rights South—one of friendship and mutual dependence.  Some might argue that such relationships never existed, but Brown clearly believes they did. At the same time, she seems aware that change was inevitable and necessary. And she accepts in her stories that many of the assumptions held by whites before the civil rights era (such as the notion that black servants always loved the families they worked for) were sometimes presumptuous.  It's important to have this perspective, to understand the reactions of rural, conservative whites to the civil rights movement, to appreciate their altered situations. Brown is not an ideological writer. She records human relationships as she sees and remembers them along with the factors that shaped them.

Brown is particularly effective in such stories as "A Meeting on the Road" in dramatizing the consternation that many Southern whites must have felt when time-worn social codes and conventions were challenged by events they never anticipated. The story concerns a lawyer who loses his job as town attorney when an election upends the racial balance on the county commission.  He is fired by the end of the first meeting and must come to terms with the reality that the job he thought was his by rights no longer belongs to him.  Towards the end of the story he encounters on a country road the grandson of the African American woman who raised him. They almost come to blows.  The outcome of this story is both humorous and serious—it confirms the new position of the main character, and his bemused acceptance of the change that has come to his world.

Sometimes what's at stake in these stories may seem small.  In "The House that Asa Built" a mother leaves her husband after he buys a television set rather than the washing machine she badly needs.  After spending several days with her sister's out-of-control children and their sometimes drunken and abusive father, she returns home to the husband whom now she sees in a different way, and who has realized his own error.  What's at issue for the characters in this carefully and minimally drawn story is crucial to their well being, but the reader must exercise some empathy to recognize the importance of the disagreement between the couple, and its resolution.  There's an element of local color here, of Kate Chopin when she was writing deftly executed vignettes but before she was writing the stories for which she is most known.  We learn a lot in these stories about human character and the concerns of small, constrained lives. What Brown's characters experience—old age, the deaths of friends, displacement, isolation, a changing society, bitterness and disappointment—are problems all of us experience. Brown's ability to open up these experiences and to compel us as readers to identity them as our own is a measure of her success as a writer.

Originally published at Blogcritics.

Monday, December 17, 2007

George Washington

In George Washington (2000) David Gordon Green depicts an alternative Southern landscape and in doing so redefines the terms in which the South can be cinematically envisioned. Rather than a traditional rural South, or an urban modern South, he presents a South in some transitional new world. Watching the opening scenes of this film is in some sense like watching the opening scenes of Terrence Malick's film The New World. The similarity is not coincidental since Malick is Green's model. But the South we see in Malick's film is a South undefined—it is all Nature, unspoiled, undeveloped, unmarked by any historical or ideological conflict. It is only after we begin watching The New World that we realize that the land on which the events of the film take place is the land that will become part of the South and of America, and that the early events depicted in the film mark the first step in the process of defining that geographical space.

Green's film is superior to Malick's—The New World has its merits
but is the least successful of his four films.

George Washington shows us the side streets and back lots and overgrown weeds of the lower-economic districts of a mid-size Southern town. This is not a space we can recognize from most previous films about the South (Nothing but a Man is a significant exception). It therefore appears unaccompanied by the values and themes of other Southern films—no plantation houses, no drag races, no battle of the old South with the New. It quickly becomes apparent that African American children will play a role, and soon after them a few African American adults and young labor class white men. With their appearance some themes of race and racial conflict become apparent, but even then they do not appear in their traditional forms.

The children who are the main characters are from the lower-economic class. They are not profoundly poverty-stricken—perhaps lower-middle class would be a more appropriate designation. Poverty in itself is an indicator of racial themes. Yet the film refrains from fully embracing this kind of theme by including young white and black men who work for the railroad. They all work under the same sets of circumstances. When Damascus—a young black man around 30—quits his job on the railroad after being docked a day's wages , we could possibly see racial implications in the act of a white manager firing a black laborer, yet the situation could quite possibly have involved the white manager firing one of the white employees.

The world presented to us in George Washington is not explicitly a racially defined world, though the racial conflicts of the modern South are implied. Rather it is a world defined by poverty, limited horizons, and the aimlessness of modern times.

It would be easy enough to view George Washington as a sociological tract focused on children without parents—children of the modern Southern ghetto. Once again, the film does not categorize its characters racially, and though we can draw conclusions from the film based on race, they are not the main concern.

Descriptions of the plot of this film usually mention that it is about the efforts of a group of children to respond to the unexpected death of a friend. The film explores that issue, but it is not the film's only or even central concern. Rather it is about children and the experience of being children in a modern world. It's also about the struggle of children to define themselves and to come to grips with approaching and uncertain adulthood. To me the central concern is not the child's death (though he does seem to be the main character of the film's first third) but the boy named George.

George is clearly a strange child. Everyone knows he has a soft spot in his skull, the result of a fontanel that never grew together. He apparently has to wear a football helmet to protect his skull (whether this is his choice or something he has been ordered to do by a doctor is not clear). He can't swim or immerse his head in water because he has severe headaches as a result. People give him a wide berth. Some people may think he is mentally deficient, and his strange behavior at times may bear up the impression. Yet the more we get to know him, the less we consider his possible defects, and the more perhaps we see him as the representative character of the film, the vessel for the film's message, if indeed it has a message.

Nasia, the film's narrator, a 13-year old and preternaturally mature young girl, idolizes George. (Nasia's poetic, poignant voice specifically recalls the voices of Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven). The film's first scene shows Nasia and Buddy in the act of breaking up. Nasia later tells Buddy's friend that she broke up with him because he was too much like a child. She wants someone more grown up. After Buddy, she chooses George. It's clear she comes to believe in him as a person who will do great things, who will become president of the United States, who is (after he endangers his own life by jumping in a swimming pool to save a drowning child) a hero. George is specifically associated with the first president of the United States, George Washington. He is attracted to figures of fame and prominence. After a July 4th parade, he sees the man who played Uncle Sam in the parade and tells him that he was the best thing about the parade.

A lot of what George wants for himself is really what Nasia tells us that he wants, or imagines that he wants: "My friend George said that he was gonna live to be 100 years old. He said - He said that he was going to be the president of the United States. I wanted to see him lead a parade and wave a flag on the Fourth of July. He just wanted greatness." George becomes her way of dreaming about the future, and even though in some ways he might be the most disadvantaged character in the film, his aspirations, specifically his desire to be a hero, to save people's lives, to have significance, are what attracts her.

Others in the film, if not desiring fame and recognition, at least agonize over what they will do, over the future. One of Nasia's friends wants to become pregnant because she feels that would be her entrée to adulthood. Vernon, a large boy in early adolescence, feels ridden with guilt for Buddy's death. He doesn't know what to do. He tells Sonya, "I just wish I had my own tropical island, I wish . . . I wish I was . . . I could go to China, I wish I could go out of The States . . . I wish I had my own planet, I wish I . . . I wish there were 200 of me, man . . . I wish I could just sit around with computers and just brainstorm all day man. I wish I was born again." He and Sonya, who is probably no more than 10, try to run away and leave town together, but she rolls the car they steal and they limp painfully away. Sonya thinks of herself as "no good": I don't have much to look forward to. I ain't smart. I ain't no good. My whole family ain't no good. And for the first time in my life, I don't got no excuses for my future."

Another way that George Washington doesn't fit the mold of many other Southern films is its depiction of race. For the most part the children in the film have not grown old enough to become conscious of race. Sonya is the only white child in the film. She's innocent, corrupted already, and blonde, and to the black kids in the film she's simply another one of their group. Buddy and later George have frequent heart-to-heart talks with Rico Rice (played by Rob Schneider, the only name actor in the film). There is no sense of condescension in Rico—he talks to Buddy and George as equals—the fact that they are black and younger than he doesn't come into play.

In a more general way, the white railroad workers that Rico works with and with whom he pals around—advising them on how to eat a healthy diet—talk to the black kids just as kids, and the kids themselves see nothing out of the way in spending time with the white men. This is a South where race matters hardly as much as class and economic status. One might argue that this is unrealistic, and that the film portrays a world that doesn't exist.

In a sense Green uses the black and white characters as vehicles for giving expression to his own sentiments about life and fate and the future. Do kids Nasia's age and George's age really talk like the characters in this film? Do they have the thoughts these characters have? Is any 12-year-old as self-conscious and aware as Nasia is?



John Waters' 1988 film Hairspray was campy, perverse, and tongue in cheek. His casting of Divine—the famous obese transsexual—as the Edna Turnblad character made clear that he was working new territory. The original Hairspray—set in the 1950s--was a silly film that gave itself some degree of respectability by using the Civil Rights movement as a faint backdrop. The main character Edna Turnblad campaigns for the right of African Americans to appear on the Corny Collins television show. The Corny Collins show is an all-white show, except for one month a day, "Negro Day," when blacks are permitted to appear. The stereotypical assumption in the film is that African Americans have life and vigor and rhythm that whites lack. Their appearance on the show becomes a blow for civil rights and a step towards redeeming a bland white culture.

The 2007 film Hairspray, based on the Broadway musical based on the Waters film, is not campy and is not perverse. Sometimes is veers towards blandness, but for the most part it is thoroughly entertaining. It is, admittedly, slightly off the beaten path as musicals go, but not too far off. Waters doesn't direct the remake, though his 1988 screenplay is the basis for the new one, and he makes a brief appearance as a flasher. The film's plot is basically the same as the original. The lead role of Tracy Turnblad is played by Nikki Blonsky, a diminutive and rotund girl who had never appeared in a film before. She is great in the film. Every time she sings she brings the film to life. This means that the film's first half, where Blonsky appears often, is livelier than the second half, where she sings and dances less frequently.

The musical Hairspray uses the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore, MD, late 1950s, as a backdrop. Tracy Turnblad is sent to detention one morning for some minor offense in the classroom. Detention is a room filled mostly by African American students. They are dancing and singing and full of life, and Tracy is immediately attracted to them. She feels that her excessive weight places her in a similarly oppressed group—she feels a natural affinity. The fact that the film mines this racial stereotype for all it is worth—the idea that African Americans have a life force that whites don't—doesn't undermine the racial message of the film—although the racial message is not especially earth breaking or revolutionary. In general, the civil rights themes make it easier for the audience to identify the good characters from the bad in this film—just in case there is any doubt. The bad guys are white and often blonde, wealthy and affluent, contemptuous of those who are not. The good guys are outsiders or African Americans or ethnics of some other sort or, like Tracy, divergent from the physical ideal.

John Travolta plays the Divine role as Edna Turnblad. He gives himself up to the role and is amusing if never quite convincing—the makeup and the fat suit never quite persuaded me. The film gives Edna much more of a role than she had in the original. Christopher Walken is his usually creepy and engaging self as Wilbur, Edna's husband.

The Corny Collins show is a fictional version of American Bandstand and other similar shows that proliferated on television during the 1950s—shows that made temporary stars out of teen-age dancers and that gave rising musical groups an opportunity to perform. One of the points of the original Waters film and of the musical remake is that these shows showed a cross-section of American youth that often wasn't representative and that was idealized for commercial purposes.

The main attribute of the film is the music, the dancing, and Nikki Blonsky. Hairspray is satisfying entertainment.

Ghost Rider

Based on a comic book series that I've never seen nor heard of, Ghost Rider (2007) is about a young man, Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles in return for having his father cured of lung cancer. Both the boy and his father are motorcycle stunt riders, aka Evel Knievel. As soon as the father is cured, he is killed in a bike stunt—the accident is caused by the devil. The devil, played by Peter Fonda, agreed to cure the father of cancer but not to keep him alive. The boy grows up to be a famous stunt rider, played by Nicolas Cage. To avoid honoring the contract with Mephistopheles, who may appear to demand his soul at any time, Blaze executes daring stunts, each more dangerous than the previous one, hoping to be killed before the devil demands his soul. Later in the film we learn that the devil has been present at these stunts to ensure that Blaze survives. There is a rebellious faction of devils led by Blackheart, the son of the head devil. He's attempting to overthrow his father, so he's competing for Blaze's soul too. (For some reason, all of the devils in the film wear long Goth overcoats and heavy eye make-up—is this standard attire in Hell?).

The plot grows increasingly intricate as the movie sludges onward. For instance, the beautiful girl Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes) whom Blaze loved and left behind as a young man appears later in his life to interview him before one of his stunts, and the romance rekindles (no pun intended). There's little to be seen of the famous Cage persona here, but even that could not save this film. Cage is game enough, he occasionally seems to be channeling Elvis in a minor key, but you suspect that he's imagining the paycheck as he mugs his way through scene after scene. (You also think this about Peter Fonda, who may be pleased to be cast in any film). At a key point, when Mephistopheles appears to demand that Blaze find the lost contract, Blaze catches fire and becomes a skull-headed demon motorcyclist. Every time he is in the presence of evil, he catches fire—if and only if it is nighttime. During the day he is his normal self.

There are a few impressive effects in this film, and I enjoyed each time Cage burst into flame. I enjoyed watching him on his fiery motorcycle, especially when he rode it up and down the side of a skyscraper, and also when he rode it over the arch of a bridge. I even enjoyed watching him ride his fiery motorcycle through the desert alongside another ghost rider (Sam O'Neill) on his fiery horse. But these were brief, painfully fleeting moments. At its best, and especially at its worst, which means most of the film, Ghost Rider is simply an acted out parody of the comic book series which, if it is anything like the film, is flat and silly. Nicolas Cage was once a great actor, and may still be, but in Ghost Rider he seems to have flamed out.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Knocked Up

Despite reviews that comment on its warmth and maturity, Knocked Up (2007) is really only a series of Saturday Night Live–type skits. Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl bring some depth and humanity to the story of a heavy-set web-designing geek, Ben Stone, who meets attractive television reporter Alison Scott in a bar one night and who, after a lot of beer and talking, fall into bed together. The next morning he can't believe his good fortune (though he cannot remember much of it either) while she is aghast at the naked man she finds sleeping in her bed. Eight weeks later she discovers she is pregnant and calls Ben up for a discussion. The rest of the film is about how they react and adjust to this unforeseen news. Ben's equally geeky friends (an array of types we've seen in other films—nothing new here) congratulate him on his so-called conquest of Alison. Her friends and relatives including her mother advise her to "take care of it," meaning to have an abortion. After seeing the beating heart of the developing fetus on a sonar gram, she decides to have the baby.

Knocked Up does not preach. Alison's decision to have the child is not presented as a preferred option. Rather it is simply a decision she makes. This is not a right-to-life film. If anything, it is a right to choose film. Once the decision is made to bring the child into the world, however, it is difficult not to see a message in Ben and Alison's struggles to adjust to oncoming parenthood and their very different lifestyles and personalities. One review described the film as "conservative" in its depiction of this couple's situation. While that may not be the right term, the film does suggest that acts engender consequences (in this case living consequences) for which those involved bear responsibility. Is this a conservative position, or simply an obvious one? The relationship that Alison wants with another man—the relationship that she looks for with Stone—is one of fulfillment and happiness. The film contrasts the marriage she hopes for with the unhappy one of her sister and brother-in-law—a marriage of unhappiness, neurotic frustration, and betrayal. This is a common contemporary view of marriage—that it is anything but what it is supposed to be. Yet in this film and in 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), which also shows example after example of frustrated people in desperate search of meaningful connections, director Judd Apatow seems to argue that marriage is actually a possible source of happiness and of mature lasting relationships.

The real issue in this film concerns whether Alison and Ben will decide to adjust to one another, whether the consequence they have produced is a reasonable basis for building a marriage. This is not a romantic question. It's a practical one. Alison and Ben are very unlike each other. They would never have been attracted to each other in normal circumstances. But given the special circumstances of Knocked Up, can they make a life together? Should they?

The humor in this film is on the same level as in 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad (2007--produced by Apatow but directed by Greg Mottola)—not much sophistication but a lot of genuine laughs stemming from jokes about human biology, scatology, sex, stereotypes, class differences, and so on.

Apatow may be a successor to Chris Columbus and John Hughes, who together and separately as producers, writers, and directors idealized white-middle-class family life in a seemingly endless series of films from the 1980s and 1990s. Apatow makes raunchier films, but they are, perhaps, more realistic and even more compassionate in their portrayal of characters in need of what society increasingly seems to say they do not need and should not have.

Friday, November 30, 2007


The screenwriters of Beowulf (3-D)—Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary--certainly understood the plot of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem on which the film is based. They understood that the basic theme was one of heroism, that the poem was a study in character and kingship, that it had possible Christian sub-texts, that the fabled monsters had psychological implications. In making extensive changes to both the plot and themes of the story, they did so in a studied way with the intent of both modernizing the poem and making the story more palatable and interesting to contemporary audiences.

There is no rule against making changes to a story when it is adapted from text to film. Some of the worst adaptations have been faithful to their sources (and some have been equally unfaithful). Film is a commercial medium as well as an artistic one. If you don't sell tickets and attract an audience, you fail, at least by one definition of film.

Beowulf the poem is basically a narrative about an epic hero. The poem lacks much self-consciousness. It's artful, but the artistry to me seems more the result of the story being told and the culture in which it occurs. Beowulf the poem is largely unaware of itself as artifice, as art, and its purpose is the telling of history, the forging of legend to be grafted on to a developing cultural and national consciousness.

Beowulf the film is highly self-conscious. It is torn by a desire to do right by the poem and the desire to be commercial. All the changes made in the conversion of the source text to film appear to have been made with these contending desires in mind. By changing the poem and by failing to provide in the changed narrative a unified logic equally compelling to that in the source, the film falls short.

The film preserves most of the basic events of the original story, although it sometimes reconceives and embellishes them. The three monsters—Grendel, his mother, and the dragon—are all there. Beowulf continues as the hero of the Geats who hears of the monster that is threatening Hrothgar's people and comes to the land of the Geats to vanquish it. He does so because he wants fame and the power that fame brings. This is not so different from the poem. But the film makes Beowulf a flawed hero, and in the poem few if any flaws are evident. Beowulf in the film (played by Ray Winstone) is arrogant and proud, and in his quest for victory he is willing to compromise himself—he lies to Hrothgar about killing Grendel's mother and about losing the treasured golden horn Hrothgar had given him; he does not reveal that he had sex with her. The film views anyone with power as corrupt by nature. Hrothgar himself (played by a miscast Anthony Hopkins) is an aged and bloated version of Beowulf—vain, loud, boastful. When Hrothgar commits suicide, Beowulf wins his kingdom and his queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn)—although she had virtually no role in the poem she is a major character in the film—she becomes Beowulf's wife, whom he betrays by taking at least one lover. In the poem, Hrothgar lives on while Beowulf returns home to the Geats and later becomes their king. We know nothing about Beowulf's wife and less about his exploits with other women.

In the poem, Beowulf is a great and flawless hero, and for this reason he is a major point in the argument for the poem's Christian sub-text. Beowulf is a Christ-like hero, and his battle against evil—embodied in the two monsters as well as the dragon—is a Christian battle of good against evil. In the film the battle that Beowulf undertakes is a battle against his own duplicity, the sins he has committed, the deceptions he has carried out. The film uses this quest for redemption to weave the two largely unrelated parts of the poem (the battles against Grendel and his mother and the battle against the dragon) into a more seamless but ultimately less satisfying narrative.

The flawed heroism of Beowulf is a specifically modern heroism. Its basis lies in the Aristotelian concept of the flawed tragic hero and even more in modern skepticism about heroes—no individual can be wholly good and unblemished, every hero must be flawed in some way. In making the story one of Beowulf's quest to redeem himself from the sins and errors of his life, the film fundamentally reconceives the story in the poem. In the poem, when the dragon begins its rampage Beowulf acts out of heroic goodness to confront evil and protect a suffering people. He does this even though he recognizes that his death may result. The poem's concern is with heroism and the character of a hero, not with tragedy. In the film he seeks personal redemption and expiation of his own sins of deceit and lust. His motive is selfish, not altruistic.

The film also gives us an Oedipal story. Grendel's mother is an evil demon who can take on the form of a beautiful sexual temptress. She seduces Hrothgar, and from this union comes Grendel. Later she seduces Beowulf, and from this union comes the dragon. Both sons seek to slay their fathers, partially from jealousy and partially out of revenge against the fathers whose duplicity and corruption are at the root of their progeny's being. This is course is a twist to the story largely absent from the poem.

The world of the poem Beowulf is a pagan world. Christianity, if it is there at all, is present in faint hints and presentiments. Beowulf's character and heroism contain the values and virtues that are the basis of the Christian sub-text. But in the film the world of the Danes is a world in transition. Christianity is explicitly mentioned as a religion that may succeed the pagan faith of the Danes and Geats. It is mentioned as a religion in which there are no monsters—monsters belong to paganism. As the film presents it, the battle of Beowulf against the monsters is a battle of Christianity vs. paganism, even though Beowulf himself is still pagan. In the film's final image, after Beowulf's death, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), who has accompanied Beowulf throughout his life and who has succeeded him as king of the Danes, looks out to the sea at the sinking funeral ship that carries the vanquished hero's body—he sees Grendel's mother rise out of the water-- they stare at one another. She is the pagan world—he is the Christian. The film leaves this face off unresolved, as if to suggest that Grendel's mother is not vanquished--she is with us today, whatever we might think to the contrary. We live in a world that is the opposite of the one in the poem—we live in a post-Christian world of rationality and skepticism, but the subterranean context is one in which monsters, in whatever modern forms they may take, still dwell. Even so, in its explicit acknowledgement of Christianity as a religion soon to replace the pagan religions of the Danes and Geats, the film seems confused and does not make anything particularly significant or meaningful out of the transition that it shows to be taking place. Maybe the point is that in the new Christian age without monsters, heroes like Beowulf won't be needed, but the film still can't refrain from denying the title character the full measure of heroism that the poem allows him.

The special effects in the film detract from the story. The entire film is digitally reconceived—the result of motion-capture technology. The characters move in a stiff, unnatural way. As many have pointed out, their eyes lack life. In face-on shots, they often seem to stare off to the side of the camera, to avoid a direct glance that would make their empty eyes more obvious. Their faces lack skin and muscle tone; the nuanced play of light and shadow that we see when we look at a living human face is missing. The digital effects exaggerate the unreality of the story. The filmmakers should have reserved digital effects for the obvious moments when they are needed—the monsters, the heroic exploits of various characters, especially Beowulf. For a story about human character, we need portrayals that are more human and less virtual. At this point in the development of DGI animation, the technology and those who wield it are simply not capable of presenting convincing recreations of human beings—at least not in this film. Do we blame director Robert Zemeckis, who in Forrest Gump, Contact, and Castaway showed himself more than capable of dealing with human characters and situations, or do we place blame elsewhere? Was this just a hire-for-pay effort by Zemeckis, Gaiman, and others?

Beowulf is a far more successful and nuanced film that 300, which also used extensive digital effects. Many of the reviews have overlooked the intelligence of the Beowulf script, dwelling instead on its many defects. Even so, the decision to craft the story for a modern audience, rather than to attempt a genuine adaptation of the epic poem, led to a significant missed opportunity. The poem has great power—its pagan world, alien to our own, so like it in ways—that would translate into a compelling film, if only someone had the courage to make it.

I saw the 3-D version of this film. 3-D technology has vastly improved since its first introduction to American audiences in the 1950s. I remember as a kid watching the film 13 Ghosts in 3-D at a theatre in East Point, Georgia. In Beowulf 3-D technology becomes another dimension of the film's insistence on spectacle. It is noticeable at first as a kind of novelty, but after a few minutes it ceases to be of much interest. In general, it lends little to the film.

Originally published in Blogcritics:

Tongues of Flame, by Mary Ward Brown

The slight, carefully wrought stories in Mary Ward Brown's Tongues of Flame (1986) remind us not so much of Flannery O'Connor or Eudora Welty as of such earlier writers such as Chekhov or Joyce or de Maupassant. Broiwn's stories are so casually and economically written, with an unassuming and concise prose style, that one is not immediately aware of how seamlessly crafted they are. Set in rural Alabama between the 1950s and 1980s, Brown's stories focus mostly on middle-aged and older women coming to terms with the shrinking limitations of their lives. Many if not most of the stories turn on a concluding epiphany in which a sudden insight changes a character's perception of the world. Brown renders these moments so subtly that sometimes one must read and reread the stories before "getting" them. The best story in the volume is the first one, "New Dresses," in which a daughter-in-law who has always remained distant from her mother-in-law takes the ailing woman shopping. She does so out of guilt. She has always resented her husband's devotion to his mother and has never spent much time with her as a result, especially during the older woman's gradual decline. She leaves her ailing mother-in-law at a dress shop she wanted to visit and goes elsewhere. When she returns, she finds the woman exhausted, and in possession of a type of dress she had not expected her to buy. On the dress itself, and the awareness it brings, the conclusion of the story turns. The word exquisite can virtually never be appropriately applied, but for this story it is the proper adjective.

These stories are often narrow in scope. They do not move outside the world of the author and of the people she knows. Yet within that world, in a restrained and careful way, they delve deeply. Some of them indirectly and inferentially concern the coming of the civil rights movement to rural Alabama (it had come much earlier to other parts of the nation). Older whites react with surprise and concern to a new generation of African Americans who do not show the expected subservience of their predecessors. Brown does not seem to mourn or regret these changes in behavior, but she does mark them. In "Let Him Live," the black and white citizens of the town pray for the recovery of a respected town lawyer from brain surgery. He has suffered complications and lies near death. He is known for his ability to mediate crises, to bring groups in disagreement together, to fend off conflict. He may have been what people used to term in the South a racial moderate. If he dies, the town's last source of stability will be gone, and the uncertainty of modern times will descend. In a sense, the white citizens see the lawyer as their protection against sudden change, against the demands of more extreme black citizens in the town, against upsetting the racial balance that has prevailed for years.

Another story, "The Cure," an elderly black woman, on the brink of death, and surrounded by her daughters, demands that an elderly white doctor be summoned to treat her. She is certain he can cure her. The daughters are unwilling because the doctor, retired for years, is widely known for his alcoholism and is suspected of senility as well. But they relent and summon him. He is not a particularly sympathetic character, and he has no special feelings for the dying woman. But he examines her, diagnoses her illness as old age, which he admits to suffering from himself, and in the final scene they both are dozing in her room while the daughters stand outside talking about who will be responsible for taking care of their mother .

The final story, "Beyond New Forks," concerns the relationship of a white woman in her sixties to an elderly black woman named Queen Esther who worked for her for decades. Esther lives near the woman's house but works for her no longer—she is too old. The narrator needs a housekeeper. She is past the point of keeping her own house and worries that without someone to keep house for her she will lose her independence. Esther agrees to take her to the house of her granddaughter, who lives far out in the country, in hopes that the girl will agree to work for her. Here again the narrator encounters an individual and a situation that she didn't expect, that upsets her sense of equilibrium and forces her to think about her own vulnerable place in the world. Although she and Queen have an uneasy alliance—however much she may think of Esther as an old friend, the story makes clear that the older woman does not return the feeling—it is clear that Esther too has her own difficulties with the modern world and old age. This story explores an intricately complicated set of relationships that tie the women to each other and at the same time separate them.

Some of these stories describe characters that may at first seem of little substance or significance, but Brown is able to uncover their significance and illuminate essential elements of their human condition. The best of her stories are very fine indeed.

Originally published in Blogcritics:

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Fracture (2007) is a crime and courtroom drama featuring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling in the lead roles. There is nothing particularly new or original about the screenplay, but the film is interesting throughout, mainly because of the acting. Hopkins fully inhabits the character of Ted Crawford, a jealous old man who shoots his young wife (out of jealousy) and then weasels his way out of the crime by revealing in court that the officer who took down his confession was having an affair with his now comatose wife. Gosling plays a young lawyer on the make, Willy Beachum. He has served his time in the district attorney's office as a prosecuting attorney and at the start of the film has just taken a job with a high-paying private legal firm. The head district attorney tells him that he belongs in the DA's office, but Gosling is focused on the high salary and especially on the beautiful blonde lawyer whom he learns will be his supervisor. They are soon sleeping together. This film is not particularly meaningful or profound, but it does pit the district attorney's office and its service to justice and the law against the corporate legal firm, where self-interest is the byword. Gosling carries the brunt of this tension. His carelessness in court allowed Crawford to outwit him (Crawford is serving as his own attorney). Willy recognizes that he was careless, that he wasn't paying attention, and as a result he asks to be kept on the case, even though if he loses he will forfeit both his job in the DA's office and in the cushy law firm. He does lose the case because the murder weapon is nowhere to be found—the pistol found in Crawford's possession does not match the bullet in his wife's skull (this is an interesting plot twist). Will Willy find a way to outwit Crawford and redeem himself?

This film develops as one would expect, but Hopkins and Gosling make the often trod path of the narrative interesting and gripping. Hopkins seems able to handle such roles effortlessly. Arrogant, self-assured, soullessly ruthless, as Ted Crawford he is very convincing.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), nothing is ever what it seems, at least not for long. This is the longest and least satisfying of the novels I have read by Haruki Murakami. By least satisfying, I do not mean to suggest that the novel was not absorbing, interesting, or stimulating. It was all of these. But after a while, after 500 pages, it began to drag. And its meandering plot turns and twists ultimately began to seem self-justifying.

The main character is Toru Okada. He is married to Kumiko, a magazine editor. Some months before the start of the narrative, he quit his job as a legal assistant ,and when the novel begins he is basically a house husband who does much of nothing. Kumiko tells him not to worry about his unemployment—eventually something may come along that interests him. Toru is strangely passive, strangely accepting of the various happenings that befall him, beginning with the disappearance of a cat that Kumiko loves because she associates it with the early days of their marriage. Kumiko spends many late nights at her job. Toru doesn't mind. One morning he notices she is wearing a scent he does not recognize, and after she leaves the house he finds a strange bottle of cologne in her bedroom—he wonders where she got it—she wouldn't buy such an expensive item for herself. He seems strangely clueless. On this day Kumiko goes to work and never comes back. Toru has no idea where she has gone. A representative of Kumiko's brother, Noboru Wataya—a brilliant but ruthless businessman and intellectual in the early stages of a political career—comes to tell Toru that Kumiko no longer loves him and that her family wants him to agree to a divorce. Later Toru receives a letter from Kumiko telling him that she has had a torrid affair with another man and that, although she doesn't love the man and has broken off with him by the time she writes the letter, she has shamed herself and asks Toru to forget her. She adds that she never enjoyed having sex with Toru. He seems strangely unresponsive to this revelation too, though as the novel progresses he becomes increasingly committed to finding Kumiko.

Events move strangely and mysteriously forward. Toru meets an obsessively chatty sixteen-year-old girl who lives near his house. She is fascinated with him, and they strike up a friendship. She ultimately seems to fall in love with Toru. He doesn't reciprocate, though the possibility is there. Toru spends days at the bottom of a well near his house. He has a visitation from a phantom-like woman who has sex with him and suggests they travel to Crete. He learns to move through walls. He learns to relieve the stress of women by making strange psychic "adjustments" to their bodies. He meets a former fashion designer and her son, who chooses never to speak. He communicates with someone claiming to be Kumiko through a computer. He meets and has conversations with a World War II veteran who worked in espionage activities and saw his commanding office skinned alive by Russian soldiers—this veteran also spent a significant time at the bottom of a well.

These bits and pieces from the novel do not represent the total experience of the book. The narrative itself comes to an end that suggests a resolution without really providing it in concrete terms. If events work out as Toru is told, then things will come to a satisfying end, but then nothing in this novel really works out as it is supposed to. Everything is bent and slightly askew and reality as a whole is fundamentally shifting, uncertain, unreliable. I would appreciate and understand this novel better if I knew more about the tradition of the novel in Japan, as well as the cultural and folk traditions that Murakami uses in his story.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Zodiac (2007) reminds me of All the President's Men (1976). It can be seen almost as a kind of semi-documentary. It dramatizes the Zodiac killings in Southern California in the late 1960s and the subsequent police and journalistic investigations that ensued. Much of the film takes place in a newspaper office. In the first half a reporter and editorial cartoonist become a "team" that investigates the murders. Newspaper headlines mark the progress of the investigation. Dates and locations label the time and place where scenes occur. While All the President's Men moved forward with a kind of inexorable momentum, partially the result of the fact that any audience would have been familiar with the events it chronicles, Zodiac is more casual if not lugubrious.

Zodiac is oddly structured. It moves forward in chronological order. It's devoted mainly to detailing the investigations of the murders, rather than the murders themselves, though it does show several of the killings. It has several protagonists who vary in importance as the film develops. For much of the film the cartoonist is merely an interested observer. In the film's second half, as the newspapers and law enforcement agencies lose interest, he becomes the primary investigator. Several of the investigators suffer for their involvement—a reporter becomes so obsessed that he loses perspective and quits his job; a detective is accused of faking a letter purportedly written by the murderer; the cartoonist stops drawing cartoons and begins writing a book about the murders, and his marriage is ruined as a result (the Zodiac murderer apparently calls the house once a week and breathes heavily into the phone—this doesn't make his wife happy, and her husband's gradually intensifying obsession with the case causes him to neglect her and their children. He is based on the cartoonist Robert Graysmith, whose book about the Zodiac killings is the basis of the film).

The film continually reminds us that we are in the late 60s by using iconic music of the period as a soundtrack. For some reason, this seems a bit contrived and forced.

In All the President's Men there was a clear endpoint to the reporters' investigations: the resignation of Richard Nixon. Zodiac ends with speculation, but not with certainty. Much circumstantial evidence and some physical evidence points to one suspect, but he dies of a heart attack before he can be indicted. Partial DNA evidence (the result of an analysis conducted long after the murders ended) does not support his involvement. When the film ends, all that is clear is that a lot of lives have been damaged if not destroyed.

Much of the interest in the film centers on the personalities of the reporters and detectives involved in the investigations, not to mention the Zodiac murderer himself—whoever he might be. His use of codes, the ways in which he chooses, stalks, and kills his victims, his manner of communicating with the police and newspapers, his occasional phone calls and his love of publicity—not to mention the question of why he does what he does and why he stops—make him a fascinating subject, even though who he is never becomes clear. Even some of the investigators of the murders are occasionally mentioned as possible suspects.

Murky, moody nighttime cinematography proliferates through the film. One is reminded of the X-Files. Some of the scenes are unsettling—in style and especially tone they reminded me of some of the best essays in Joan Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968). In one such scene the cartoonist goes to visit someone who he believes once might have worked with the murderer—during the scene the cartoonist asks a series of questions, the answers to which make him begin to suspect that the man himself could be the killer. He becomes desperate to escape the house—this is the most frightening scene in the film. Acting by Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Anthony Edwards, is good but low key, consistent with the overall style of the film.

There's no real resolution. The film just comes to an end and with a few messages before the credits start to roll tells us a bit about what happens to the various investigators and to the main suspect.

There's no deep philosophical message here. Some murders simply go unsolved. Not all mysteries can be explained. The Sixties were a disturbing, increasingly mysterious and perplexing time (especially as they grow more distant). The Zodiac killings were a bizarre and dark reflection of the decade that produced them. As an entertainment, a crime drama, a psychological study of the murders and the men investigating them, Zodiac is a satisfying if frustrating experience.

Read a Slate essay on this film:

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Charlotte’s Web

In the State Capitol Museum of Georgia, there used to be an exhibit that depicted stuffed animals—raccoons, squirrels, foxes, birds—playing poker. It may still be there, for all I know, though the last time I saw it was probably in the 1960s. Hopefully, the museum has been renovated since then. I remember as a child thinking how corny the exhibit was, even while at the same time I found it funny.

Why do we love to see animals engaged in human activities like playing poker? The answer must be rooted in the humor we find in depictions of animals acting like ourselves. It's a way of laughing at our own behavior. It's probably rooted also in ancient myths and legends, in Ovid's Metamorphosis, Chaucer's animal tales, and Aesop's fables, not to mention all those cartoons from the 30s and 40s I used to watch on television with dancing beasts of one sort or another.

The new film Charlotte's Web (2006) makes use of all the latest special effects technology in bringing to life talking animals—pigs, spiders, horses, geese, sheep—who are the main characters in the story. The film is as charming as the book. Julia Roberts voices Charlotte, the spider, while various other known and not so known actors voice the other animals in the story—Robert Redford, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Oprah Winfrey, Reba McIntire, Kathy Bates. They all do a creditable job. Steve Buscemi is outstanding as the rat Templeton. The film seems relatively true to the E. B. White story. This film was full of charm, whimsy, and life. I liked it but cannot wax too enthusiastic. The 1973 animated version holds more charm for me, probably because it was the one I watched repeatedly with my sons when they were younger.

Lil Abner

The musical film Lil Abner (1959) is a version of the Broadway musical which was in turn a version of Al Capp's comic strip which itself parodied and satirized Southern mountain folk. Capp actually used Southern mountain folk to parody and satirize American culture and politics. Capp's comic strip was idiosyncratic, distinctive, and often wrong-headed. But it had at its best originality and intelligence. The film strips away from its source the controversy and provocativeness and most of the wrong-headedness and gives us in their place dancing Broadway actors pretending to be hillbillies.

I have not seen the musical, but there is little merit in the film, with the exception of a couple of memorable musical numbers, especially Stubby Kay as Marryin' Sam singing about the revered town hero, General Jubiliation T. Cornpone, whose ineptness allowed (according to town tradition and an inscription on his statue written by Abraham Lincoln) the North to win the Civil War.

The plot of this film focuses on the decision of the federal government to move atomic bomb testing site from Nevada (where it is a nuisance to Las Vegas) to the "most unnecessary place in the world," which turns out to be Dogpatch, the home of all the characters in the film. Because the first A-bomb test will prevent the annual Sadie Hawkins Day Race, wherein unmarried women of Dogpatch get to chase and try to catch the men they love, the citizenry begins looking for a way to prove their town really is necessary. An equally important plot is Daisy Mae Yokum's desire to get Lil Abner to propose to her. She's also being courted by Earthquake McGoon, a wrestler whom no one likes.

Folks break into song at a moment's notice in this film. Those moments don't come often enough. As bad as most of the songs are, they're better than the non-singing portions of the film. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for the songs. The dance sequence surrounding the Sadie Hawkins Day Race brings a little life to the film, but the race runs on too long.

Some of Al Capp's themes filter through into the film: the bureaucracy of the federal government, the corruption and incompetence of politicians, suspicion of science and technology, the complexity and pretense of the modern civilized world in comparison to the innocence and simplicity of the people of Dogpatch. These people are, according to the film, ignorant, uneducated, licentious, and full of life. They talk with cartoon accents that seem, ironically, taken directly from the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris. There are no African Americans in the film, though there is one Indian, a dancing Indian. Few if any African Americans would have lived in the mountains where Dogpatch might have been located, and that makes it easy for this film to evade any awareness of the civil rights movement in progress at the time of its release. There's a lot of talk about the Civil War and several obvious flaunting of the Confederate battle flag.

It's difficult to bridge the gap of fifty years between the present time and 1959 when this film appeared. It's difficult to imagine an audience liking this film—its manufactured and accidental cornpone, its fundamental inauthenticity. The film was made entirely on a stylized set. Everything is stylized, brightly colored, as if in homage to the story's comic strip origins. Some of the characters do a respectable job of embodying their characters, especially Billie Hayes and Joey Marks as Ma and Pa Yokum. Leslie Parrish is fine as Daisy Mae—she at least looks the part. It's easy to see in Lil Abner the precursor of Jethro Bodine in the Beverly Hillbillies television series, which borrowed liberally from the comic strip and was more lively than this film ever manages to be.

The closest most of the actors in this film ever came to mountain folk was probably through reading the comic strip.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Wild Strawberries

The brilliance of Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) stems from the acting by Victor Sjöström, Ingrid Thulin, and Bibi Andersson, the use of memory and dreams as a way of exposing and unraveling Dr. Isak Borg's life, the various characters who pass in and out of the film, the use of landscape, and (of course), the directing. When Bergman died, several articles called Wild Strawberries his greatest film. I had never seen it all the way through, so I put it on my list. When I finally began to watch it, I did so with trepidation--dread of watching a long and tedious exercise in self-reflection and ponderous symbolism. Wild Strawberries was neither tedious nor ponderous.

As an old man playing an old man (no artificial makeup), Sjöström merely plays himself, or a version of himself, Dr. Borg, a retired medical doctor and professor, on the day that he is traveling to receive an honorary doctorate at a national university. His wife is long dead, and his son lives in another part of the country. His only companion is his housekeeper. His decision to drive to the university upsets her. She was looking forward to accompanying him to the ceremony on an airplane. She has served him for many years, and they sometimes interact as if they are husband and wife, though neither would agree to the label, and at the end of the film when the professor asks her to call him by his first name, she refuses, saying that she is content with the current nature of their relationship.

Through a series of dreams and memories, Borg revisits past events of his life: his idyllic childhood with his family, his love for a young woman who ended up marrying someone else, his less than happy marriage to another woman. The dream sequences are full of symbolic images and psychological portents. In the first one, he wanders the streets of a city that seems familiar to him, but it is deserted, and when he does manage to find someone, the person has no face-- only a blank visage. Is this Borg's own face, devoid of the details and accomplishments of his own life?

Along the way to the university Borg visits the family summer vacation home of his youth. Here the wild strawberries that he used to pick with the woman he loved become the symbol of lost youth and precious memories. During the drive he talks with his daughter-in-law Sara, who has been visiting with him. During their talk she reveals that she does not like him, that she finds him self-absorbed, egotistical, and cold. He receives this revelation in a matter-of-fact way, as if it is not a surprise, though it clearly is a surprise. The tenor of many of the revelations of the day drive home the fact that he has led a cold and self-absorbed life that has left him with few if any friends, an embittered son (Sara tells the professor that his son hates him).

The portrait is not entirely bleak. When Borg visits the town where he lived as a young man, residents come up to him to pay respects and express gratitude for all his service. He has worked for many years as a doctor, and his inventions and research have been of great use to the country. So while he has led a career as a venerated doctor and professor, his inner, private life has been cold.

In the course of the drive, Borg gives a ride to a group of traveling college students (two of them have a fist-fight over the question of God's existence) and a quarreling husband and wife. These temporary passengers are a source of comedy in the film, but they also help advance Borg's progressing assessment of his life. The husband and wife quarrel so fiercely that Borg finally puts them out of the car. He says he did so for the same of the college students, whom he does not want to expose to such bitterness, but it becomes clear that they remind him of his own unhappy marriage. The college students are silly and carefree, full of enthusiasm. They admire Borg and before they leave him sing to him from below his window. They remind Borg of his brothers and sisters, of that time in his early life of hope and possibility.

As Sara and Izak talk, her attitude towards him softens. She reveals her estrangement from her husband, who in ways is cold and distant like his father. She wants to have a child, and he does not.

This film is about how Izak Borg comes to terms with this life. He looks back over all that he has done and said, all the people he has known, and comes to an essential point of loneliness. Even his housekeeper declines to be his friend. She is content to be his servant--nothing more. (Borg's unawareness of how she really feels about him is evidence, perhaps, of his self-absorption). Yet in the reconciliation of his son and his wife, and in his deep and precious memories of his life with his parents and his brothers and sisters, he finds solace and redemption. Memory is redemption, in this film.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mississippi Marsala

In Mississippi Marsala (1991) director Mira Nair examines racism, both in the American South and elsewhere, through a different lens. The South in this film provides a landscape known for a history of difficult racial relations. We see elements of this racism in the film, mere hints, really. The primary focus is on relations between African Americans and South Asian Indians. By focusing on these groups, Nair views race in a new and unfamiliar context that sheds light on more familiar discussions of the subject.

Nair parallels the experiences of an Indian family in Uganda and in Mississippi. The family regarded Uganda as its home. Meena, the daughter, has never even visited India. She knows no other country but Uganda. When Idi Amin foments racial discord in Uganda, and when Meena's father Roshan Seth makes comments critical of Amin in a BBC interview, the family is forced to leave, along with all other non-Africans. As Roshan Seth's African friend explains to him, "Africa is only for Africans now, black Africans." As a result the family moves to Greenwood, Mississippi, to run a hotel while Roshan Seth pursues law suits against the Ugandan government, seeking the return of confiscated property. Part of the reason why Roshan Seth and others like him were expelled is that they had become wealthy and had been accused of a certain clannishness—Indian families did not, for example, allow their children to marry Africans.

In Greenwood, Meena grows up. At the time of the story, she is 24. Her parents expect her to marry an Indian. In a minor car accident, Meena runs into the van of a carpet cleaner named Demetrius Williams, played by Denzel Washington. Demetrius, with the assistance of some white citizens in the town, has secured a bank loan to start a carpet cleaning company. He has been successful with the company and always pays his bank notes on time. After the accident, he and Meena begin to see each other and fall in love. When their relationship is discovered (they are found sleeping together in a hotel room by one of Meena's relatives), there are extreme reactions in the community from both sides of the racial fence. Meena's father forbids the relationship, though he rationalizes his opposition by saying that he does not want his daughter to suffer racism in the same way he did.

In a scene shortly after the car accident, one of Meena's relatives, a successful businessman in Greenwood, urges Demetrius not to file suit against his family because of the collision. He tells Demetrius that all non-white people are "colored" people, the point being that they all suffer racism and therefore share a common bond. On the basis of this common plight, he appeals to Demetrius, who assures him he has no plans to sue.

After Demetrius' relationship with Meena is discovered, however, the common bond disappears. The Indians unanimously oppose her relationship with a black man. The same relative who appealed to Demetrius not to sue in turn goes to white business owners in town and asks them not to do business with Demetrius' carpet cleaning company. He quickly loses all his clients and the bank threatens to repossess his van. White citizens of the town complain and joke about Demetrius' relationship with Meena. Meena's father decides to move back to Africa to prevent his daughter from involvement with Demetrius.

Demetrius receives criticism from family and friends, from the African American community in general, for his relationship with Meena. His sister accuses him of rejecting black women. His father accuses him of causing trouble. His father, whom Demetrius loves, has spent his life working in subservient roles. He appears to believe in the necessity of playing it safe, of not antagonizing the white power structure by any action or word that would seem to offend prevailing racial codes. In a sense, Demetrius by developing his carpet cleaning business has done the same—it is a service-oriented business, one involving manual labor, not one that threatens to upset the racial order in Greenwood.

Both sides—the Indians and the African Americans—reveal their racial clannishness and their own racist attitudes in reacting to Meena and Demetrius' relationship. Several short scenes show white citizens in Greenwood reacting to the fracas. One old man gleefully remarks on the problems that the Indian family is experiencing with the African American Demetrius.

The parallels that Nair has set up in the film—between Uganda and Greenwood, Mississippi, and between the Indians who have never been to India and the African Americans who have never been to Africa—work well. Both groups feel that where they are—Greenwood—is their home. Yet both groups experience conflict with other groups who see a specific racial identity associated with their citizenship in Uganda or in Greenwood--Uganda is for black Africans; Greenwood is for African-Americans, or for whites, but not for Indians.

Meena and Demetrius ultimately resolve their problems by breaking with their families and with Greenwood. They decide to move away and to work the carpet cleaning business together. The suggestion is that, given the racism both of Greenwood and of their families, this is the only way they can find satisfaction and happiness. This film therefore seems to argue that the solution to racial conflict does not lie in adherence to past traditions and beliefs but rather in living in the present, in accommodating oneself to present-day circumstances and situations.

In a sense this film is not so much about the South as it is about two groups of people who live in the South—Indians and African Americans—and specifically about Mira and Demetrius' families.

Mira Nair has an incisive sense of comedy and satire that comes through especially in her portrayal of various Indian characters in the film, especially one character in particular who covets his car and dresses and acts like a 1950s style Memphis hipster, with greased back hair, in the Elvis style. She's more careful not to satirize African American characters—perhaps she feels her identity as an Indian woman allows her a certain license in satirizing Indians, but not in satirizing other races. Yet she also has a genuine fondness for the humanity of all her characters —African, African American, Indian, or white. She recognizes the comic as well as tragic consequences that can arise from human conflict rooted in racial divisions.

Sharky’s Machine

In 1981, Burt Reynolds was approaching the end of the most significant decade of his career. It began in 1972 with the release of Deliverance, in which Reynolds played a straight role, one of the two most important roles in the film. It was a role that many thought could be his breakthrough into film—previously he had been mostly a television actor. Numerous films followed Deliverance, such as White Lightening (1973), W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1974), At Long Last Love (1975), Gator (1975), Semi-Tough (1977), Hooper (1978), The End (1978), and of course Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and its first sequel (1980). In these films we see Reynolds in a number of roles--as an action hero, a comedian, a romantic lead, even a musical star. But the roles for which he is best known are those in which he plays a boisterous comic Southern prankster—a fool-killer with a moralistic desire to upend corrupt authority and in general to run amuck. Reynolds has been trying to live down this persona, and at the same time to take advantage of it, for much of the rest of his career. He's shown an impressive flexibility in the kinds of roles he is willing to take, and at the same time a resilient energy that led to the renovation of his career beginning with Boogie Nights and more recent films. He's even been willing to parody roles that made him famous—see Without a Paddle (2004) and The Dukes of Hazzard (2005). Although everyone knows his name, he did not ever become the great actor and star he aspired to become—there is a difference, of course, between acting and being a star. Reynolds was a competent actor and for a time a big-name star but in neither case a name for the ages.

Sharky's Machine (1981) may be the film in which Reynolds sought to alter the stakes of his career. Not only does he play a big city detective, but he also directs the film, based on the novel of the same title by Georgia writer William Diehl. I haven't read the novel and so cannot consider the film in relation to its source. The film on its own grounds is a mess, wavering back and forth between gritty police drama, character study, and romantic potboiler. Demoted to the vice squad at the beginning of the film because of a shooting that killed a civilian—Sharky is a highly skilled detective who wants to redeem himself and who is naturally disposed to rebel against authority. He and other members of the vice squad (all of them suffer from an inferiority complex because the vice squad is the least desirable assignment for a police officer) become involved in investigating a high-class prostitute who is murdered before their eyes. She is having an affair with a candidate for governor, and also with an Italian crime boss (played by Vittorio Gassman) who controls the city's power structure, and much of the police station. The plot grows increasingly dense and complex, and the film is not up to the complexity. There is a moment in the film when two Ninja assassins attack a police informant—you know at this moment that the film is floundering. Ninja assassins have little to do with the rest of the film--except for a final encounter with Sharky on a boat in the middle of (presumably) Lake Lanier. Ultimately, as Gassman's hitman brother kills off Sharky's colleagues, the film resolves all these complexities by transmogrifying into a film about Sharky's love for (some might say voyeuristic obsession with) the high-class prostitute apparently killed before his eyes.

The film has the quality of a 1970s era TV crime drama. Kojak comes specifically to mind. The cast includes actors who often appeared in such dramas (Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Henry Silva, Brian Keith).

Sharky's Machine is set in Atlanta. Reynold's choice of this film based on a Georgia book, the name of his production company (Deliverance Productions), and his use of Atlanta seems a deliberate effort to capitalize on his regional connections. Oddly, the film seems almost a deliberate attempt to reconceive Atlanta as a big national city with no regional distinctiveness. There is, of course, no reason why a film would need to adhere to preconceptions about how a regional city should be portrayed. What the film does for the most part is treat Atlanta as if it is just another version of Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. The music is decidedly non-regional—the brassy sort of music you would expect to hear in a film set on the strip of Las Vegas. Few characters speak with Southern accents, and the few who do are glaring, almost awkward exceptions. Reynolds himself underplays his accent—it's hardly apparent. One reason may be that many of the characters in the film may have moved to Atlanta from somewhere else. Even in 1981 Atlanta was beginning to take on its current character as a city of national and international dimensions (hence the Ninja assassins), but few people in 1981 would have thought of the city in that way, though many complained that it was losing, or had lost, its regional character. A few scenes are specifically tied to Atlanta—one in a night club where a blues band is playing (Atlanta is not known as a center of the blues, but at least the scene ties the film to the South), another set in the infield of Atlanta Stadium, where the Braves play. For the most part, Atlanta is presented as simply another big American city. The film as a whole is bland and without distinctive character. This may be a result of the director's failure to take advantage of the regional aspects of the city where the story takes place—doing so would at least have given the film a sense of place and a specific geographical identity. It might also have helped to emphasize what may be a theme of the film, with its Italian henchmen and Ninja assassins and police officers and bad men who seem to come from all over the nation—that the world is coming to Atlanta and one thing the world brings with it is big-time crime and corruption. (This is not to suggest that Atlanta did not already have enough crime and corruption of its own).

In 1982, Reynolds starred with Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It marked, in my mind, the end of his great decade. The South that provided the location for his most successful films had lost its commercial and cultural appeal (Ronald Reagan had whipped Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential elections), and Reynolds had demonstrated the extent and limits of his talents. He was at his best as the Southern prankster and good ol' boy, and neither Hollywood nor (apparently) Reynolds himself was interested in further incarnations of that role. The nation moved forward. Better romantic character actors made their way onto the scene, and Reynolds as a comic hero was no longer fashionable—a later generation of comedians replaced him. He would struggle for another fifteen years until appearances in such films as Boogie Nights (1997) and Mystery, Alaska (1999) brought about a resurrection of his career, though probably on the basis of terms he would not have chosen for himself.