Friday, June 29, 2007

The Creation-Evolution Debate, by Edward J. Larson

In the course of three lectures given at Stetson University in 2006 and collected in The Creation-Evolution Debate Edward J. Larson gives an overview of the history of the theory of evolution, focusing primarily on Darwin; he traces the development of opponents and proponents of the theory, suggesting both social and political reasons (not to mention scientific ones) why these lines of disagreement developed, and he assesses the attitudes of modern scientists towards religion and God.

Larson draws in these lectures from a deep and considerable body of knowledge about the nature of evolution and its history as a scientific theory. He has the advantage of being a historian who understands scientific concepts. He is an excellent writer, as clear a writer as one can imagine.

Clarity of thought is one of Larson's main strengths. He clearly sides with evolution and its proponents, but his discussion is balanced and fair. Although he notes that fundamentalist Christianity is at the core of the movement against evolution, he points out that many Christians accept evolution as a fact and don't see a conflict between evolution and their faith. The opposition between science and religion is not as clear cut as some would have it. In a sense it is more along the lines of fundamentalist Christianity vs. everyone else. He notes that Christianity in general has had a long history of advocacy for science and even for evolution. But the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century displaced moderation in the Protestant mainstream and therefore led to polarization. His discussion of the history of "creation science" and of the argument for intelligent design is especially cogent and interesting.

Larson notes in his third lecture that over a period of years religious attitudes of scientists have remained fairly stable Currently, some 40% of American scientists believe in a god and in the possibility of life after death. Among the most distinguished scientists, members of the National Academy of Sciences (the standard Larson uses for distinction), these figures are much lower. Larson seems to see a possibility for peaceful co-existence between science and faith. Because the conflict between evolution and religion has been construed (in part because of the Scopes trial in the 1920s) as a "battle" the idea of a rapprochement between the two is not as widely recognized as it should be.

In a nation based on reason and the notion that enlightened and educated voters will make intelligent choices, the national movement against evolution is a serious reason for concern. It is also a movement against reason and the basic principles of the Enlightenment and for that reason a basic threat against democracy.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Canyon Passage

Although it contains many of the characteristic elements of the American western, Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946) avoids the usual formulaic structure. It is difficult to assess the nature of this film. It is a western. It has the plots of several different kinds of westerns, not to mention other sorts of films as well. It’s about homesteaders, about a small rustic town in the old northwest, about a complicated love story, about friendship, about rivals, about Hoagy Carmichael, about Indian raids, vigilante justice, and so on. The film touches on all these subjects, interweaving some and treating others almost in isolation. It’s more like a series of interconnected vignettes than a coherent, linear story.

Acting in this film is a strength: Dana Andrews as a Gary Cooperesque entrepreneur who likes to go his own way, Ward Bond, Susan Hayward, Andy Devine, and of course Hoagy Carmichael, who hangs around throughout the film singing songs that provide an out-of-context and somewhat inexplicable soundtrack. He’s a medieval minstrel singing Tin Pan Alley tunes in the Old West—make sense of that if you can. Devine is excellent as the patriarch of a family of homesteaders. Bond’s portrayal of an increasingly disturbed and threatening rogue is convincing.

The Technicolor cinematography is beautiful. Tourneur clearly appreciated the beauty of the American northwest. Only once or twice does one sense a set. Most of the outdoor scenes seem really to have been shot outdoors. Many of the indoor scenes, and scenes shot at night (there are many) are often dark and murky. The town is placed on the side of a hill in the woods. It looks like a real place and suggests what an old northwest frontier town would really have been like—though I don’t know whether the film portrays the town accurately.

The friendship between Logan Stewart (Dana Andrews) and George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) is one of the film’s central interests. Camrose is a respected citizen of the town—a banker—but he is also a gambler who bets wildly and nearly always loses at card games. He holds gold dust for men in the town and ends up using it to cover his losses. He gets into serious trouble as a result. Logan is an old western businessman, stalwart and true, who works hard and successfully to earn his money. He is a close friend to George and somewhat blind to his faults.

Camrose is engaged to Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) while Logan is engaged to Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), a somewhat stuffy but vigorous girl with a British accent (she is attending school in England) who wants to marry and raise a family in the little town in the film. Logan always needs to be on the move, and the logic of his attraction to Caroline is doubtful from the start. Lucy is attracted to Logan, but she is faithful to Camrose. All are faithful to their intendeds. As one might expect, events ultimately allow compatible partners to find one another.

Many of the characters are compromised in some way. Although Logan is clearly the hero, he is not without fault. He lies to protect George, helps him escape the town jail after a vigilante trial convicts him, and attempts to shoots Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) who has killed an Indian girl and is suspected of other murders. The ethical and moral ambiguity in the portrayal of characters is a fascinating aspect of the film. After Camrose escapes from jail, one of the townspeople shoots him down, and no one, including his friend Logan, acts as if there were any other reasonable outcome. Logan himself is marked for hanging because of his suspected role in Camrose’s escape. There are no consequences for loose morals in this film. Only the truly criminal—Camrose and Bragg—pay for their sins. It’s easy to understand how Tourneur would succeed as a director of the film noir Out of the Past (1947). Canyon Passage doesn’t fully explore the moral ambiguities of its characters, but it also never declines into a hackneyed conflict of good vs. evil, hero vs. villain.

The film shows awareness that white settlers are displacing Indians from their native lands. In one scene, Indians come to town to express displeasure that the whites have built a cabin on their land. There is some talk about living together in harmony. The townspeople give the Indians a large basket of food to placate them. One of the Indians stares longingly at a jug of whiskey. The fragile harmony is disrupted when Bragg kills an Indian girl he discovers swimming nude in a stream. The Indians go on the warpath, brutally killing settlers of all ages. Their attacks are intense and terrifying. So the film doesn’t avoid the usual stereotypes, though there is no doubt that white settlers were often subject to attack by Indians whom they were displacing, or that Indians were victims of westward expansion. The film at least acknowledges both points of view.

Tourneur’s Canyon Passage shows the settlement of the Old West as a complicated and messy process. It’s entertaining primarily because of the well drawn characters and their assorted entanglements. It makes good use of color cinematography and the beauty of the northwestern landscape. Trying to decide why and how Hoagy Carmichael found his way into the film is well worth the time spent watching it.

Originally published in Blogcritics:

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Good Shepherd

The title The Good Shepherd (2006) according to Mahnola Dargis of the New York Times is a Biblical allusion: "The title refers to the Bible passage in which Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." It clearly refers ironically to the main character Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). In his role as an intelligence agent he seeks to protect his nation and its people. A shepherd protects sheep, of course, and sheep are often not aware of the enemies that threaten them. But the use of sheep as a metaphor has other meanings as well—sheep as dim-witted, unaware, following the herd, following the shepherd that guides them.

A fundamental question in the film is Wilson's passivity, emotionlessness, detachment. Is it adequately justified? Is it credible? As the film goes on he seems to layer on one layer of protection after another, increasingly isolating himself emotionally from conventional human attachments. Is this a price he willingly pays—the forfeiture of his marriage, for instance—or is it an effect of the kind of work he does? By the end of the film, having plotted to bring about (or at least acquiesced to) the murder of his own son's fiancé, are we to see this as a sign of decay, or as a necessary gesture? I think the film wants us to see Wilson and the other men as believing the act is necessary, but as not endorsing it. It is an horrific act, in fact, a sign of how deeply mangled and wounded Wilson's basic moral values have become.

Many of the early members of the espionage service come from privileged families. The skull and crossbones society which Wilson joins during his college days at Yale emphasizes secrecy, the importance of not divulging information about the group even to family members. Its members come from the most wealthy, privileged families. This atmosphere of privilege and secrecy carries over into the agency. Not only do its operatives protect the American sheep from the dangers of the world, but they also feel socially superior, privileged, empowered to act on the behalf of the sheep and for the sake of their welfare because they are members of the upper class. Does the film suggest that this is the origin of some basic characteristics of the agency?

An interesting motif is deafness. Wilson falls in love with a young deaf woman early in his career. Their relationship ends when he is confronted by the brother of a girl with whom he had a fling at a party. The girl is pregnant, and the brother expects Wilson to do the right thing. Wilson doesn't actually love the pregnant woman, but a sense of duty, a willingness to go along with the plan that he marry her (she obviously chooses him as a husband, or allows herself to be chosen for him by her older brother and parents), and undoubtedly also the fact that he will damage his career if he abandons the girl, persuade him. Later in the film, Wilson has a fling with a woman who says she is hearing impaired, but when he discovers she is probably a foreign agent, he arranges to have her killed. Wilson refuses to talk to his wife about his work. With deaf women he does not have to communicate. Ironically, when he has a brief reunion with the deaf woman he abandoned for his unhappy marriage, it is discovered by detectives hired by his wife, and this leads to the final dissolution of his marriage.

A fellow agent refers to Wilson as the "heart and soul" of the agency. The irony is considerable, since at this point whatever soul or heart Wilson might once have had has been burned and corroded away.

Late in the film, Richard Hayes, one of Wilson's colleagues in the CIA, invites him to take over one of the branches of the agency. He tells Wilson: "I remember a senator once asked me. When we talk about CIA why we never use the word the in front of it. And I asked him, do you put the word the in front of God?" This statement expresses the extreme hubris typical of many of the operatives in the CIA. They are above and beyond all other considerations, including the U. S. Constitution and the most basic laws of human rights and human dignity.

The film is long and slow, but enjoyable. It is well directed by Robert DeNiro, who has a small role as one of the founders of the CIA.

Throughout The Good Shepherd a pervasive use of religious music in the liturgical style. suggests the mute and sober devotion of men such as Wilson to the Agency—a devotion that is monastic in intensity and that in its final effects walls the most obsessed of the agents away from the world.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo has in a sense been preparing for years to write about the World Trade Center attacks. He's often written about terrorism (The Names and Players). Libra, though a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald's involvement in a supposed JFK assassination conspiracy, is a study in domestic terrorism. Mao II, also about terrorism, addresses the cultural disjunction between the West and the Middle East and in passing describes the towers as "harmless and ageless. Forgotten-looking." His novel Underworld¸ written in the wake of the 1993 bombing of the Trade Center, actually features the towers on the cover of the hardback edition, and they figure significantly in several scenes. Much of Cosmopolis takes place near the towers. So it is no surprise that DeLillo finally chose the World Trade Center attacks of 2001 as a primary text. Yet he does so in a surprising way.

In Falling Man DeLillo considers the impact of the September 11 attacks not in national or international or (overtly) political terms but in the context of a small number of individuals in various ways caught up in the attacks and their aftermath. There is Keith, who escapes from one of the towers and returns to his wife Lianne, from whom he's been separated for a year. Lianne is confused by his return, doesn't fully understand it, and isn't even sure she recognizes her husband. A counselor of Alzheimer's patients, she struggles against the loss of her own identity. Then there is the African American woman Florence who loses her briefcase while fleeing one of the towers and develops a relationship with Keith who finds and returns it. Even Keith and Lianne's young son is involved. He and his friends spend hours watching through the windows for more approaching planes—they talk of a man named Bill Lawton and speak about the disaster in a monosyllabic secret code that mystifies the adults around them. There is Hammad, one of the hijackers on the planes. Finally there is the falling man himself, a performance artist who at random moments around the city of New York appears to act out the plunge of a man from one of the burning towers.

DeLillo's great novel so far has been Underworld, and since its publication in 1997 he has written three small and less ambitious books: The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, and Falling Man. They are marked by a curious form of literary anomie, a disengagement from the outer world, a fascination with the solipsistic preoccupations of their main characters. In The Body Artist, the main character's emotional numbness makes it difficult for the reader to engage with her or her situation. In ways The Body Artist resembles
Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, also a work of emotional numbness that cloaks deep emotional turmoil stemming from the sudden death of a husband. Didion's carefully controlled hysteria effectively engages the reader. But she is writing in the first person—she's sharing her devastation. DeLillo writes in the third person, describing his characters rather than evaluating and assessing them up close. He holds the reader back from his characters—we see how they act, we hear what they say. We rarely know exactly what they think, unless they tell another character. It takes a major sympathetic leap for DeLillo's readers to realize that his focus on emotional numbness does not mean a lack of sympathy for his characters or an inability to write with emotional force. Just the opposite, in fact.

The innate interest of the September 11 catastrophe to an extent enables the reader's ability to engage with the characters of Falling Man, but they too are afflicted with numbness, an inability to articulate their circumstances.

DeLillo has been fascinated in recent novels with artist figures. Klara Sax from Underworld is the most notable of them. In this new novel the performance artist who simulates the plunge from one of the World Trade Center towers seems to be expressing through his performance a statement about the public impact of the catastrophe, as if the image of the falling man encapsulates everything, the totality of the entire experience. As the novel progresses we come to realize that, regardless of whatever public statement he may be trying to make, he is also making an inward statement about himself and his own circumstances. His repetitive reenactments take a physical and psychological toll. He suffers extreme pain from his performances, wrenches his spine, and his brother, after his death, talks about how the falling man had intended to do his last performance without a rope, thereby replicating to the moment of death itself the event on which he has fixated.

This interplay between the personal, inner worlds of individuals and the outer, external worlds is the fundamental axiom of this novel. The novel does not make clear which world is more significant and important and instead suggests that there are no distinctions.

This is best seen through the character Hammad, one of the infamous 19. He too is caught up in events, in emotional and cultural forces of which he has some understanding. Living in Germany and then in the United States, preparing for his role in the attacks, he at first seems tempted by the West, dating and sleeping with Western women, shopping in grocery stores, living invisibly among the people of the nation against which he conspires. Perhaps at first he drifts into the plot, but gradually it takes hold of him and he feels himself fated to be part of an act to which his entire life has been ordained. He feels Westerners live only on the surface, and that he is part of something they could never understand. His sense of separateness from the West drives his obsession with attacking it. Ultimately his identity becomes inseparable from the plot he is part of: "They felt the magnetic effect of plot. Plot drew them together more tightly than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point. There was the claim of fate, that they were born to this. There was the claim of being chosen, out there in the wind and sky of Islam. There was the statement that death made, the strongest element of all, the highest jihad" (p. 174). Hammad has a purpose, a sense of self inherently bonded to a personal and cultural ideology. None of the other characters in the novel are so self-aware.

Until the last few chapters, Falling Man lacks conventional tension or force. The numbness of the characters infects the narrative itself. Its momentum slowly grows out of the innate force of the events described, the momentous events that act on the characters, and their reactions. The characters themselves seemed to drift. Loss of identity, loss of self, personal breakdown—use whatever terms you like—in various ways they must reconstruct themselves after the towers fall. Yet the fallen towers do not create their problems. They are instead the traumatic catalyst that drive us on towards the powerful climax of the last few chapters.

DeLillo's characters emerge from the catastrophe with different reactions. The main character Keith before the attacks met on a weekly basis to play poker with colleagues from his office. Two of them die in the attacks. Keith and one of his surviving colleagues become professional poker players after the attacks. Keith's wife Lianne resorts to a disengaged political activism, attending rallies without much commitment to what they mean. The falling man does what he is best suited to do—fall.

DeLillo sometimes fixates on characters so confused and at such loose ends that there is no conventional way to explain them. Character analysis in any usual sense is pointless. They are like exploding balloons. DeLillo can only evoke their dissolution. Lianne with her extreme personal distress and confusion is a prime example of such a character. She can't make sense of herself. She is overwhelmed when she witnesses the falling man's performance, but she can react in only a deeply inchoate and emotional way. While she accepts the apparent reconciliation with her husband, she no longer recognizes him as the man she knew before their separation before. Everything is strange to her—her life, herself, her child, the world itself. Her mother is fading into old age. Her father committed suicide to avoid facing Alzheimer's. She encourages the Alzheimer's patients in the creative writing group she supervises to write about their world, even as it is dissolving away, as if by capturing it in words they can hold it for a while longer. She fears losing her own hold on the world. The patients in her writing group are losing themselves, and in a sense Lianne and other survivors in the novel have lost their identities as a result of their proximity to the falling, the fallen, towers. Lianne sees the falling man as an emblem of her situation, just as her husband sees the poker table as an emblem of his.

The only resolution for these characters is implied. There is no resolution, per se. There is only resolution in process. We don't know in any traditional, conventional sense where they are headed, where they are going to end.

The last chapter of Falling Man follows Hammad during the final days before the attacks on the World Trade Center. We last see him sitting in the plane, and when it hits the tower the perspective immediately switches to that of Keith, sitting in his office, reeling from the impact as his building sways, lurching, back and forth. He and other survivors arduously make their way down the stairs, trying to escape. Somehow Keith picks up a briefcase that is not his and continues on. The novel ends. The first chapter of Falling Man continues the account of Keith's escape and his return to his wife. The result is a kind of endless loop, as if there is no escape from the memory of the events this novel describes.

Originally published in Blogcritics:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Blade Runner

The heart of Blade Runner (1982) for me is the scene where Roy Batty, one of the Nexus 6 replicants, is about to die. He has spent the entire film trying to find a way to prevent his death, which has been programmed to occur four years after the date of his creation, his "incept date." Batty tells Rick Deckard what is going to be lost when he dies—all his memories, everything he has experienced, all the sights he has seen, "like tears in the rain." The words may seem corny, but the scene as a whole is moving, especially given that Deckard has fallen in love with Rachael, another replicant, and even more so since the film plants various clues suggesting that Deckard himself may be a replicant.

Blade Runner celebrates human life. It does so by its focus on a group of human-like replicants who are as self-aware and intelligent as the humans who created them. Only by a careful test can a replicant be distinguished from a human. Replicants fall in love with each other and, in one case, with another human. They feel emotion (though they are not supposed to). They are also programmed to die. They want desperately to live. Ultimately they emerge from the film as more human than any of the other characters. The character of Roy Batty, who quotes Milton, is truly tragic and heroic.

In a genre that often resorts to explosions and rocket ships and juvenility, Blade Runner is remarkable exception. It's an intelligent film that considers a number of serious issues—globalization, hyper-capitalism, pollution, multiethnic America, ethnicity, technology, bioengineering, and what it means to be human. It considers these themes in a way that is woven smoothly into the story—one never feels preached to, though in Roy Batty's final scene it is difficult not to get the painful point. The fine performances by Harrison Ford, Sean Young, and Rutger Hauer strengthen the overall presentation.

Blade Runner is one of my favorite films. It's highly imaginative. The characterizations are fully developed, the acting is excellent, and it's in a rare and small group of films that are truly visionary. It's especially interesting to see how the film conflates the 1930s era film noir elements with a 2019 science fiction setting.

Obviously, made in 1982, Blade Runner does not benefit from the special effects technology of 2007. But for the most part the effects are adequate. This film is slow and moody and murky. The Vangelis score is dated, yet effective. Even in 1982, I would have argued that the film was set at a time in the future (2019) too close to the present day. This is even more obvious now in 2007, only 12 years away from the time when the film is supposed to take place. Too much would have to happen between now and then for the film's setting to offer a plausible prediction of what the future may be. A date several centuries more advanced would be better.

Blade Runner has been released on DVD in at least two versions, the original commercial version of the film with the Harrison Ford voiceover narration, and the "Director's Cut" version with the voiceover removed and some scenes and edits restored. In the fall of 2007, "Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Final Cut" will be released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the movie. It will include restored scenes and will presumably be the last version of the film to be released. This version may make more explicit the suggestions in the earlier versions that Rick Deckard may be a replicant (director Ridley Scott confirmed several years ago that Deckard is indeed a replicant), and may make more explicit what happens at the end of the film when Deckard and Rachael leave together.

Being more explicit could be a mistake. One of the most impressive aspects of the film as we have it now is its allusiveness, its ambiguity—it hints at and suggests a lot of possibilities without making them explicit. It convinces us that it is showing a world that extends far beyond the boundaries of the film itself. Two examples: earth is being evacuated, and only the unhealthy and the less privileged are left behind. Why earth is being evacuated is never explained, though the pollution that pervades the world may be part of the reason. American society is clearly in dystopic decline. We can infer or speculate about the evacuation but cannot know much about what lies behind it. In addition, Blade Runner makes a number of references to replicant animals. If you pay careful attention to some of the scenes and to comments some of the characters make, you realize that animals are highly valued and that real animals are in short supply. Again, the film barely hints at these facts. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, the source novel for this film, explains more about the rarity of animals and the reasons why the earth is being evacuated. I'm not sure the explanation in Blade Runner is needed.

Frankly, I don't like the notion that Deckard may be a replicant. The film's message about what it means to be alive and conscious would be far more poignant if delivered by a replicant to a human. If Deckard is a replicant, then the impact of the final scene is reduced. In that scene, the replicant who has been the target of the blade runner's assignment to "retire" him is given a message about the meaning of consciousness and existence. That's a message one would expect humans to teach to replicants. If one replicant is teaching another replicant, then the poignancy and irony fall away.

In the forthcoming final version, I hope director Scott is careful to remain true to his original tone and intent. He has made a number of statements about the film that may or may not be genuine. Fans have speculated at great length as to whether Deckard is a replicant. There are certainly clues in the film suggesting that he is. But there are ample reasons to believe he is not. Did Ridley Scott mean to suggest this in his original film, leaving the possibility unresolved? Do we take at face value his comment that Deckard is really a replicant, or was he bowing to fan pressure. Is he going to re-conceive the film, or simply try to present a fully realized version of his original intent. I hope the latter. Ambiguity and uncertainty can be far more powerful than concrete facts and realities.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond (2006) is about rampant and thoughtless colonialism. Built on the somewhat fragile framework of a plot involving an African man kidnapped by rebels and forced to work in the diamond minds of Sierra Leone, and the white diamond smuggler and American journalist who help reunite him with his family, the film's main purpose is to make us aware of the damage caused by the western presence in Africa over the past two hundred years. That presence in this film is embodied in the blood diamond, stones mined and sold by military and rebel groups to finance war.

Blood Diamond presents frequent scenes of disorder and chaos, corpses in the streets, women and children shot down by boy soldiers, violence, and inhumanity of every sort. Several incredibly brutal scenes in which people are shot down in a wild frenzy of gunfire—girls and boys, women, old people, children--are unsettling in the extreme. They suggest a complete breakdown in the social and moral fabric of humankind, the utter failure of the restraints and values that make it possible for people to live together. More than any others these scenes drive home the object lessons this film seeks to convey.

Most of these scenes are the result of African on African brutality, and Solomon Vandy, the kidnapped African, wonders aloud why his own people can commit such acts on one another, but behind those acts is the heritage of the Western colonial presence, which continues to make itself felt today in the form of a burgeoning and increasingly complex global economy. The diamond smuggler, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a native white South African, first appears on the scene as the worst of colonials, adeptly smuggling diamonds from one country or buyer to another, doing whatever is necessary to succeed at what he does, regardless of the consequences to others. The reporter, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), ostensibly wants to write about the horrors and injustices being perpetrated in Africa, though ultimately it comes out the vicarious experience of crises, whether in Africa or Afghanistan, are what turn her on and give her the chance to advance her career. She, however, does have a conscience, while Danny Archer apparently does not.

Danny Archer and Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) occupy most of our attention in the film. DiCaprio once again proves himself a fine actor. Here he plays a ruthless smuggler who gradually discovers his conscience. It is a not entirely credible transformation that he undergoes, and it is only clear at the end of the film, once his fate is clear, that the change has actually occurred. But the issue of credibility is more the fault of the screenwriters. DiCaprio does as much as he can with the character, and he is excellent. Hounsou, an actor I have not seen before, is equally effective as the simple fishermen torn away from his family. His wife and daughters are held in an internment camp; his young son is kidnapped by rebels and trained to become a child soldier. Solomon, the movie would have us know, is the most civilized and moral character in the film. He is driven solely by his passion to recover his family.

At the center of the film is a large pink diamond Solomon finds and hides while working at a diamond mind. His supervisor sees him hide the diamond but an attack by guerillas prevents him from taking the stone. Gradually word gets out about the diamond, and Danny Archer sets his sights on Solomon as a result. They have an uneasy relationship. Solomon is willing to lead Danny to the diamond because he believes doing so will help him recover his family. Archer is willing (somewhat inconsistently) to help Solomon because he wants the diamond, which he sees as his ticket out of Africa.

One argument with Blood Diamond might be that it is simply one more in a long line of films about Africa seen through the eyes of white characters. The argument certainly carries force, but one must take what one can get. The film is directed towards a predominantly white audience, of course. There is presumption in the idea that white and non-African filmmakers have a basis for presenting the story through the eyes of African characters—what do they know about the experience of Africans, except that which they can infer indirectly—precisely the perspective we have in this film. Solomon Vandy is one of the three main characters in this film, and he is African. Ultimately, while I think it is entirely appropriate to complain about the dearth of commercially available African films by African filmmakers in this country—whatever the reasons for their absence—Blood Diamond tells a story that involves Africans and non-Africans, blacks and whites, Christians and Muslims and others. It is not only or merely an African tale, but instead is about several centuries of history and the cruel heritage of western colonialism.

The De Beers diamond company in the film is named the Van De Kaap conglomerate. It is shown in league with all the other nefarious interests in the film—business interests, diamond merchants, government officials, military officers, rebel soldiers, even American women who long for big impressive wedding rings. Everyone is caught up in the corruption, and the film doesn't draw subtle distinctions. It's a fictional film set in the context of an actual situation. Though it makes broad sweeping generalizations that are valuable in themselves, they don't stand up neatly under close scrutiny. The facts underlying the historical and political situation the film illuminates are probably more complicated and disturbing than even this film would have us know. By calling attention to the problem, and perhaps by stimulating viewers to seek further information, the film does a service.

In the end Solomon (apparently with Maddy's advice) offers to sell the diamond to the Van De Kaap conglomerate only if he is reunited with his family. Shortly thereafter, his family appears, transported in by helicopter, and he sells the stone for two million dollars. In the final scene we see him treated as a hero, though he has used the diamond to get what he wants. Does this mean that he becomes just another version of Danny Archer? The film doesn't draw distinctions that discriminating. But in allowing the audience to feel relieved that Solomon's own personal problems are resolved when he recovers his family and receives payment for the stone, the film manages to leave the situation in Sierra Leone behind and neatly forgotten as the credits roll.

Blood Diamond is set in 1999, and perhaps the speech that Solomon gives at the end is supposed to make us think that he has a role in convincing diamond merchants to adopt the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, intended to curb the sale of blood diamonds. The success of the Scheme remains under question, and though the scale of the problem as illustrated in the film may have been reduced, it remains an issue.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pan’s Labyrinth

This much praised film from Guillermo Del Toro is an adult’s dark fairy tale in which a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) invents a fantasy world to protect her from the grim realities of adult life. In this case, adult life is the second world war and Spanish fascism as experienced at an isolated mountain outpost. The girl’s mother is the lover of a cruel army captain who mistreats his own soldiers and kills peasants on the slightest provocation. The girl is an obsessive reader, and the film leads one to suspect that her reading influences the world she invents. However, the film also never explicitly confirms that the fantasy world isn’t real. Only Ofelia can see and experience it—we know this from a scene late in the film where the girl is talking to a faun and the captain spies on her—all he can see is the girl talking to empty air. The entire tale itself has the air of fantasy, of magical realism. The captain is extreme in his cruelty. The rebel peasants are extreme in their virtue. It is never difficult to tell the good from the bad, with two exceptions--the only characters who seem initially ambiguous are the housemaid Mercedes and the doctor, both of whom work for the captain but who are actually in league with the rebels.

Adult life in the film manifests itself not only through the ongoing war and the evil captain but also through the relationship of the girl and her mother. At the film’s beginning, the mother is pregnant with the captain’s child. The captain has summoned her with her daughter to join him at his mountain outpost so he can be present at the child’s birth. It soon becomes clear that the woman is important to the captain only as the bearer of his child—at one point he tells someone, perhaps the doctor, if the woman or the child must be sacrificed, the child must be saved. The woman herself is entirely expendable, from his point of view, which means that her daughter’s situation is even more perilous. The girl’s mother seems at loose ends. She tells her daughter that she married the captain because she has been alone for so long, implying perhaps sexual isolation. Her pregnancy is a difficult one, and at one point she bleeds heavily, almost losing the baby. The girl herself is only a year or two away from puberty, on the verge of becoming her adult self, yet all the unpleasantness of adulthood she is exposed to in the film causes her to resist it fiercely. When her mother compels her to put on a overly formal child’s dress, she manages to ruin it during a walk in the rainy woods. The invented creatures of her imagination give her respite not only from the captain and war but as well from her own mother’s foolish doting and lack of understanding. She is a dark and unhappy Peter Pan.

The girl’s fantasies are populated with fairies (grasshoppers that turn into fairies), fauns, bloated giant frogs, a hideous monster that carries its eyes in its hands, magic, and heroic quests, possibly all of them dredged out of her readings. The faun tells the girl she may be a long lost princess and that she must carry out three tasks to prove her worthiness. It is interesting and surprising how in the end this test plays out—it is the most moving and in some ways surprising aspect of the film. The world of the girl’s fantasies is not a deeply realized digital creation—there is the slightest deliberate clumsiness to the fairies and the faun, as if they belong to a not wholly realized world, as if the girl’s imagination continued to invent and devise them as the film progresses. The film has no interest in overwhelming its audience with digitized effects. The faun, who begins as weak and hardly visible, undergoes several gradual transformations. Ultimately the faun becomes what the girl most longs for—a warm and loving father-figure who protects her from the evils of her own world and assures her that in the end she has been successful and virtuous in her quest. And she has been. The film ends with her act of heroism and sacrifice.

Pan’s Labyrinth is so neatly and tightly packaged that it lacks a certain spontaneity. It is a very well done film, in practically every aspect. It is not that the film is boring or without interest. The situation of the film—the girl and her mother, the evil captain in the mountain outpost, the war and the rebellion, the fantasy, the girl’s imagination—all hold the viewer’s attention. Is the problem that the outcome of the film is ordained from the start? In an American film, or a film designed for a more popular audience, there would be a clear victory in the end. The girl would survive and prevail. In this one, the grim realities of the adult world win out. Only in the girl’s imagination does she succeed in her heroic quest and ascend to the position of respect and personal confirmation she has longed for. The film leaves only the slightest hope that her fantasies are real, and that her victory does not die with her when the story ends. There is to an extent in this film a self-satisfied and smug insistence on proving—both to the audience and to the little girl—that the adult world is grim and cruel, that within it there is no hope or salvation or meaningful survival, that everything is dark and cruel and empty. Only the girl to her last breath insists on believing otherwise. But perhaps that is enough for her.

Her hope and optimism, her belief in the possibility of transcending the sordid realities of the adult world, of achieving some measure of nobility through a heroic and sacrificial act, is perhaps the only way in which human ideals of any sort survive in this film. It leaves little to sustain and encourage us—the girl’s mother, the good doctor, the girl, numerous rebels and soldiers are dead. Only the girl’s infant brother survives, and what he must face we cannot know. The film does have an ideological center, of course, and some might argue that human ideals survive in the struggle of the mountain rebels against the evil forces that the captain represents. Somehow that is not enough. But the film is its own justification—the film itself justifies those ideals whose absence it so sorrowfully reminds us of.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Distant Flame, by Philip Lee Williams

Philip Lee Williams' novel A Distant Flame (St. Martin's Press, 2004) is about a man's struggle to make sense of his memories and the life they contain. His name is Charlie Merrill, a civil war veteran and small-town newspaper editor known nationally for his columns and books. From a 1914 vantage point, Charlie as an old man prepares to deliver a speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, and in the process he recalls his experiences in the war and his relationship with a girl he once loved—and whom he still loves. Through alternating chapters set in 1861-62, 1864, and 1914 the novel recounts a love story, a war story, and an old man's struggle to come to terms with his life. The 1861-62 chapters describe a relationship that develops between Charlie and Sarah, a girl who has come to live with her uncle in Charlie's town while her parents in Boston are divorcing. The relationship ends in 1864 when she leaves for England to live with her father. The 1864 chapters recount Charlie's experiences as a soldier and sharpshooter with the Confederate Army as it retreats before Sherman's army, advancing from Chickamauga down through northern Georgia towards Atlanta.

This narrative approach has its drawbacks. Just as the moment when a particular chapter develops momentum, the novel suddenly switches to another time period, and there is as a result a lapse in tension and interest. However, as the novel progresses, the reader's sense of Charlie's character, and of the connections between the three different stories, deepens, and the transitions from one to the other are less jarring. In fact, the novel grows more engaging with each chapter—this may occur as the reader adjusts to Williams' method. Moreover, as the novel moves forward the chapters seem to lengthen, so that transitions are less frequent.

There are points in the novel where some might question the realism of how characters speak and act towards one another. For example, Charlie speaks to General Patrick Cleburne, who has befriended him, in such a mannered and courtly way that it is difficult to know whether this manner of speech is historically accurate, borrowed from some other Civil War novel, or from Sir Walter Scott, or just a loose attempt to suggest how people from more than a century in the past might have spoken. Yet Williams shows great dexterity with facts and details and speech and behavior that give a historical novel a sense of reality. His deeply detailed knowledge of the Civil War never overwhelms the story and instead serves as a rich historical context. His research for the novel was prodigious— in an afterward he describes how he prepared to write it. Through letters, journals, diaries, and other accounts of speech from the era, he learned much about how men and women from that era talked and thought, and there is good reason to trust the novel's portrayal of life on the home and battle fronts during the Civil War. (The town of Branson, in which Charlie lives, is based on Madison, Georgia, where Williams grew up).

Although the novel focuses mainly on the white inhabitants of a small Georgia town around the time of the Civil War, Williams is careful to document the social realities of the times in which they lived, including the reality of slaves and slavery. Although he shows a close relationship between the Merrill family and some of their slaves, he makes clear that the slaves had no choice in their condition, that their lives were constrained, and that sometimes they expressed their unhappiness about their condition. As an old man, Charlie is convinced that slavery was an evil.

A Distant Flame is at its strongest in descriptions of battle. They are graphic, intense, and convincing. Few books come as close as this one does to a credible, seemingly realistic portrayal of battle. One thinks of The Red Badge of Courage. One comes away from this novel with a better understanding of the unpleasantness and unworldly horrors of battle—not only the violence and carnage of battle, but the unhealthy conditions in which solders lived and often died of disease.

The novel does not glorify the Civil War or the Old South. Charlie's motives for going to war are not ones of Southern patriotism but rather are personal—he goes to war out of grief over losing Sarah and over the deaths of family members. The conditions of war are horrible, and Williams suggests through these battle scenes that it offers little opportunity for glory. Though he sympathizes with it, Charlie never embraces the Confederate cause. His sense of distance, his indifference, and his ability to view the conflict between North and South from both sides enables him to see the war more fully than a biased observer could manage.

Ultimately A Distant Flame is about Charlie Merrill's efforts to understand and accept his life—his lost love Sarah, the fates of family members, his experiences during the retreat towards Atlanta, his feelings about war, his sense of himself as a journalist and a public citizen of Branson. It is similar in that respect to Williams' first novel The Heart of a Distant Forest (1984), also about an older man assessing the progress of his life.

At the end, as we discover in the penultimate chapter, Merrill achieves some feeling of accomplishment for his life, yet he also feels disappointed and bitter. That is the nature of life, as we grow older and look back at what we have and have not done. It is never as good as we would like it. A Distant Flame thus would end on a muted and ambiguous note consistent with the novel's overall tendency towards withheld judgment, stoicism and acceptance of disappointment and tragedy. The addition of one final chapter, set in 1918, gives a somewhat different twist to a conclusion that might better have been left to imagination.

A Distant Flame is Philip Lee Williams most ambitious and successful novel. It received the 2004 Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction and was named by the Georgia Center for the Book in 2005 as one of the top 25 notable books by Georgia authors.

Originally published in Blogcritics,

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bringing Up Baby

This 1938 screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks involves a drunken Irishman, a dinosaur bone, a terrier who buries it, the distraught scientist who seeks to recover it (Cary Grant), a young woman (Katherine Hepburn) with a pet leopard that belongs to her stuffy old aunt and who decides that she is going to marry the scientist, an escaped circus leopard, an incompetent sheriff, an overstuffed braggart of a big game hunter, a repressed and upright fiancée who plans to marry the scientist, and so on. There is much more, including the usual romance budding between the two main characters. The movie boils with a frantic desire to entertain and amuse and entertain. The New York Times review in 1938 accused it of resorting to timeworn and hackneyed clichés, and that may be the case, but it's still a successful film. Cary Grant seems to try too hard through much of the film, but Hepburn seems in her element, which is to say she tries too hard but does it convincingly. Were it not for the well known celebrity names and the somewhat elevated production values, you could easily see this film with Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges as the leading actors. Moreover, the wild harebrained humor is clearly influenced by the humor of the Marx Brothers (Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera especially come to mind). We find a similar social satire, the attacks on social pretensions and wealth, the ethnic humor. The difference between those films and this one is the acting, which is superior, and the comedy, which is forced. Bringing Up Baby is entertaining and amusing, an iconic representative of a particular brand of American cinematic humor. The two main characters couldn't be more shallow, but the film wouldn't work if they were otherwise.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Eve’s Bayou

Eve’s Bayou (1997) is a gothic African American melodrama set in the bayous of Louisiana. Because I am not particularly familiar with that area, it is difficult for me to assess the realism of the film. It does have a certain Hallmark Hall of Fame sweetness, and at times this was an irritation. Most of the characters wear freshly starched and new clothes, and if there is poverty in the area, we never see it. All the characters are of a racially mixed heritage, though they live as African Americans, descended from the union of a former slave named Eve and a white landowner. The film makes this heritage clear through voiceover narration and through scenes showing characters of varying skin tones. The implications of the heritage do not have much importance in the film, other than to suggest that we are all racially intertwined.

This film has too many subjects and themes. It is about a marriage in crisis, the conflict between folk magic and modern medicine, folk magic and reason, a coming of age story for two young sisters, a rivalry between a brother and sister, adultery, possible incest, jealousy, guilt, and so on. The closing voiceover narration insists as well that the film is about the nature of truth, which changes according to the weather. This is a point the film makes very well through scenes in which characters think they see one thing but are later convinced they actually saw something else. The film doesn’t need the voiceover narration to insist on this theme or that the film is about the nature of memory. All of this is clear enough.

Gothicism abounds in this film, but it is mainly a matter of mood more than anything else. (In the distant past is the relationship between the original Eve and the plantation owner Monsieur Batiste, but the film doesn’t effectively establish this as an element that has some influence on the modern world, and it doesn’t suggest that this relationship is a primal horror to which all must react—so to call it Gothic doesn’t make sense). One of the adults in the film, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) is a kind of seer. She describes herself as a counselor, but her clients come to her for spiritual and psychic readings. Every now and then she works a bit of magic. She believes she is cursed—all three of her husbands suffered premature deaths, and another conjure woman, a fortuneteller named Elzora smoothly played by Diahnn Carroll, tells her that she is cursed, and whether this is true or not she believes it. Her brother is a medical doctor, Louis Batiste (Samuel Jackson), the father of two daughters and a son.

The film is at its best when it focuses on the children and their perceptions of the adult world. The film tells its story from the viewpoint of Eve, the younger daughter, who has some of the same conjuring instincts as her aunt. She is a mischievous child who plays tricks on her siblings and who plays a more serious and ominous trick later in the film. She sees—literally envisions--the world through her own eyes as well as through the eyes of the adults who tell her their stories. In her mind the conflicting worlds of fantasy and reality, of magic and medicine, reality and imagination, come together in confusion and conflict. When Mozelle tells her stories, Eve imagines them so vividly that the characters of the story seem to act out events before her. In these scenes the film really comes to life.

The film’s real concern is with how the daughters learn about and become involved in the adult world. One of them has her first period. The other accidentally sees their father having sex with a woman other than their mother. Both hear their parents arguing loudly at night, and they react in various ways to the tensions of the house and marriage. We saw a similar tension in To Kill a Mockingbird, which shows the adult world through the eyes of the girl Scout and her brother. Their acquisition of adult knowledge comes mostly through the trial of a black man accused of raping a white girl. In Eve’s Bayou, adult knowledge comes through too many doors and windows—from the psychic aunt, their mother’s anguish over their father’s philandering, from general domestic discord, and from a strange sexual tension between the father and the older daughter. It is not enough that this film is about girls on the verge of adulthood, on the verge of losing their innocence and their faith in the world—it all must be complicated with an array of melodramatic twists and turns. In the end the film has to insist on its concern with how we always act out our heritage in one way or the other, with the nature of truth, with guilt and redemption—with the necessity of having to live with what we have made of our lives. It has to do this, I think, because the film over-complicates everything. Although the film has all the material elements needed for a detailed exploration of what it means to live out one’s heritage, these are never tied coherently together, and instead what we have is a melodrama.

The concern with magic and reason—with the brother Louis who is a doctor and the sister Mozelle who has conjuring abilities—gives the film much interest above and beyond the concern with the children. Yet this dimension is more a matter of spectacle, of sensation, than of substance. Nothing in the film truly hinges on magic. The film shows people talking about and trying to perform magic, but it doesn’t insist that magic and voodoo are real, only that people believe in them. When Eve decides she wants to kill her father, whom she believes tried to have incestuous relations with her older sister Cisely, she at first tries to do so by paying the fortuneteller Elzora to concoct a spell and by sticking pins in a doll. But she also tries to provoke jealousy in the husband of a woman with whom her father had an affair, as if to ensure that by relying on both magic and adult emotions that she will be able to achieve her goal.

The film shows us the undercurrent of belief in magic and voodoo among the people in the film without making this a film about these subjects. Instead they contribute to the general plot of daughters reacting to the circumstances in which they find themselves—their parent’s difficult marriage, their aunt’s belief that she is cursed, and the problems of the adult world which she tries to cure.

The acting in the film is more sincere and eager than it is good. The younger daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett), is earnest and entirely likeable, though she and many others in the film seem often to be going through scripted motions rather than acting. The film is genuinely entertaining and, finally, moving in those moments when the two girls become aware of the mistakes they have made and the consequences that have led to. What the unlikely and overwrought plot cannot achieve, the characters and their interactions make up for.

The addition of an incest element to the film seems gratuitous, especially since the film seems to back off from the theme after introducing it by suggesting that neither individual involved in the purported act of attempted incest is sure what happened or why. Apparently both bear some blame, and are to be absolved of blame by their loss of self-control, by their uncertainty as to what really happened, by their doubt that anything happened at all. The film wants to suggest incest as a reality in the world it portrays but is unwilling to engage the issue. We can extend this complaint to the film as a whole. Despite the grim and dark events that occur, despite the death of Louis Batiste, perhaps as the result of a partial misunderstanding by the two daughters, perhaps as a result of Eve’s plotting, despite the film’s strong argument that adulthood is a grim matrix of darkness and responsibility, the film comes to a strange sort of happy ending. Eve learns to live with what she has done. Cisely recovers from her depression. Even Mozelle gets another husband, though whether he falls victim to the curse we never know.

Although every major and minor character is at least partially African American in Eve’s Bayou (no white characters appear), and although the film takes place in the context of a social milieu in which every character is the product of a heritage of interplay between blacks and whites, it is not a film that engages racial issues. Rather it works in the individual realms of the individual characters. Those aspects of their lives that might have racial significance—interest in voodoo, dialect, varied skin tones—are mainly incidental. The characters of Eve’s Bayou confront issues and challenges more fundamentally drawn from the general human condition.