Friday, August 31, 2007

Déjà Vu

Déjà Vu (2006) is a predictable but entertaining time-travel drama. Set in New Orleans, the actual plot of the film has little to do with the city, other than the fact that various scenes are set in such areas as the French Quarter and that in the closing credits a message dedicates the film to the Hurricane Katrina survivors. The connection, perhaps, lies in the explosion at the start of the film that kills more than 300 people on a ferry—the ferry disaster is connected to the Katrina disaster, though to me it is cheesy and insincere of the film to suggest the link.

In Déjà Vu Denzel Washington plays an agent of the division of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms who investigates the explosion. He becomes interested in the body of a woman that has washed up on the shore of the Mississippi, a body that appears to be that of a disaster victim, even though it washes up two hours before the explosion occurs. Washington is recruited by a secret government agency that has developed a time machine that allows anyone using it to gaze back three days into the past. The agents using the machine hope to track events and find out who is responsible for blowing up the ferry. Washington senses a link between the body washed up on the shore and the disaster. In the process of using the time machine to track the dead woman's movements, Washington finds himself increasingly interested in her, and subsequent events unravel exactly as one would predict—he uses the machine to travel back in time to try to save her and prevent the disaster.

Although the film doesn't dwell much on the supposed science behind the time machine, and although it does seem aware of some of the theoretical implications of time travel, when it tries to explain how the machine works, anyone with the faintest knowledge of physics will recognize the hoopla. Fortunately, the film doesn't emphasize the science behind the machine, and even the implausible machine itself is underplayed.

The connections of the New Orleans setting to the concerns of this film are minimal. The film contrasts the rationality of the scientists who develop and use the machine with the humanistic and spiritual implications of its existence. (The actual inventor of the machine admits near the end of the film that he believes in God). As a center of African-American culture, New Orleans provides a background where the film's interest in issues of the spirit—one scene takes place near a church--can be tentatively and haphazardly explored. The woman whose body washes up on shore appears to be African American, and the father who mourns her death appears to be white, so New Orleans as a place where inter-racial relationships and marriages are common provides a social context that explains these different racial characteristics, though the film does nothing to expand this dimension.

One scene shows the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina, but it lacks organic connection with the remainder of the film.

As bad as it was, The Skeleton Key made better use of New Orleans as a setting, linking the New Orleans culture of voodoo and superstition directly to the plot of the film. Déjà Vu is certainly a better film, though only in relative terms.

Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess (1959) is unavailable on tape or DVD and has been shown only a few times since its initial commercial release in 1959. The Gershwin family apparently felt that the commercialism of the film ruined the opera, and they have refused to allow its release as a result. Concerns about the portrayal of African Americans in the film perhaps also discouraged its release. With high production values and an outstanding cast of African American actors, this film based on the most famous American opera, with music by Gershwin and the book by Dubose Heyward, is a significant landmark work. Featuring Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, along with Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, and others, it is difficult to think of a film with as impressive an African American cast. One may argue that films featuring African American actors in the 1950s and 1960s played a significant role in heightening the public consciousness about civil rights, just as did, in other contexts, African American figures in sports and music. If so, Porgy and Bess was one of the most accomplished of those films.

Mainly filmed on a set, most of the film takes place in Catfish Row, the fictional section of Charleston, South Carolina, where its characters live.

Porgy and Bess is a folk opera that seeks to portray the lives of African Americans in Charleston in what appears to be the early part of the 20th century. It presents the love affair of Porgy, a crippled man, and Bess, who enters the film in a relationship with a man named Crown (Brock Peters). Crown gets into a fight during a gambling match and kills a man. He flees to the swamps to hide, leaving Bess behind. When some of the people of Catfish Row blame her for the murder because of her relationship with Crown, Porgy takes her in and offers her protection. They fall in love. Later in the film, when Porgy is taken into custody as a witness to a murder, her attention wanders and she is seduced by the character Sportin' Life (Sammy Davis Jr.).

The music and singing in the film are outstanding, though the singing voices of several major actors—Poitier, Dandridge, Carroll—are dubbed. Poitier's deep bass singing voice seems totally unlike his speaking voice. Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey, not surprisingly, do their own singing. They have the standout roles of the film. Davis' rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So" is one of the best of a many great numbers. I never realized that the song is Sportin' Life's attempt to cast doubt on the religious beliefs of other characters. He is the great seducer in the film, and he offers cocaine to Bess and ultimately lures her away from Porgy.

Does this film show stereotyped portrayals of African American characters? From a modern point of view the answer may be that it does, in a certain way. The characters are full of life and joy; they dance and sing, love and gamble and fight. Although they are shown expressing deep emotions, deep thoughts are not so common. Bess in particular is fickle, moving with some ease from one lover to another. For the most part Porgy and Bess shows these characters interacting with one another within their own community. But the film clearly means to show these characters in a positive and sympathetic light. Undoubtedly many of the activities we see them engaged in were realistic portrayals, given the place and time of the film. The film emphasizes how they are at the mercy of the white law and the sheriff, who can enter Catfish Row whenever he pleases, accusing residents of crimes they didn't commit, hauling them off to jail for whatever reason. There is nobility in the best of these characters, especially in Porgy and in Pearl Bailey's character Maria.

One could argue that Porgy and Bess shows the African Americans of Catfish Row as shallow and as preoccupied with the simple pleasures. Yet it also shows them doing their best to respond to the difficult circumstances within which they live.

Although the film seems to end early, with Porgy on his way to try to win back Bess, it is still a powerful work. The picnic and hurricane scenes are especially effective. It memorializes the passions and the nobility of the people of Catfish Row. Even if it does invoke some stereotypes, it doesn't patronize or condescend and it avoids resorting to shuck and jive comedy stereotypes . Its fully rounded characters support and depend on one another and attempt to live their lives in the best ways they know.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Flannery O’Connor: A Life, by Jean Cash

Jean Cash's biography Flannery O'Connor: A Life is a disappointing hagiographic litany of facts and quotations. Cash does not know how to edit and consolidate information. Every fact and every statement she got from interviewees seem to appear in the book, even when they are redundant and repetitious. Thus we learn a great deal about O'Connor's love of chickens and other birds, her iconoclastic ways as a child, her unsociability. Cash includes contrasting opinions and accounts of O'Connor alongside one another without attempting to sort them out or resolve the conflict.

Cash goes to some pains to show that Flannery O'Connor was not a lesbian, that she was (or was not—there is some vacillation) a racist (Cash concludes that O'Connor has progressive racial views for a person living in Milledgeville in the 1950s and 60s, but she kept most of those views to herself to avoid offending the people she lived with). Cash believes O'Connor loved to goad some of her more liberal friends by pretending to be more racist that she really was. Cash argues that O'Connor was a brilliant intellectual in the hinterlands of middle Georgia, crippled by disease and place and circumstance.

The book is useful for the basic outline it provides of O'Connor's life. It is also useful for the many quotations from O'Connor's essays and letters it provides—drawing these together in one place it effectively builds the case for her intellect. They do allow us to develop a sense of a person and writer. But most of this work we have to carry out on our own—Cash the biographer doesn't carry it out for us.

The book is a disappointment for its failure to connect O'Connor's life with the fiction she created. We hear a lot about where O'Connor was when she was working on Wise Blood, and we hear a little about her writing of the stories that found their way into A Good Man is Hard to Find, her first story collection. There are some efforts to connect events and people in O'Connor's life—especially her mother Regina—with events and characters in the fiction, but sometimes Cash doesn't go far enough with these connections, and sometimes she goes too far. In general, she seems to regard the fiction as incidental to her claim that O'Connor was a great genius and intellect

This is an account of a writer's life. It is not a literary biography. It doesn't describe and explain the writer. It merely tells what she was doing on a particular day in a particular year. We don't learn much about how she wrote, why she wrote, what she was thinking as she conceived of a particular character or a particular plot. Maybe there isn't enough documentary evidence to provide such information. But some discussion of the novels and the short fiction would have provided the literary context that would make clear why this woman merits a biography. We receive discussions of what people thought of O'Connor when they met her at a particular meeting or reading. Chapters are devoted to O'Connor's book reviews in The Georgia Bulletin, a Catholic newspaper, and to readings and to friends, but no chapters discuss her writing of Wise Blood or the short stories or The Violent Bear it Away. No chapters offer analyses of these works.

The book is poorly written, with prose you would find in a small-town newspaper. There is too much repetition. This overly short biography or a woman whose complicated life was itself too short is too long and prosaic. It raises more questions than it answers. It portrays O'Connor and her work pretty much as O'Connor would have wanted, not from the imaginative, objective, analytical standpoint that a genuine biography should take, not from a standpoint that would expand and deepen the way we regard this writer. O'Connor deserves better.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Band of Angels

Band of Angels (1957) is based on the 1955 Robert Penn Warren novel of the same title. In the novel, young Amantha Starr, the daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner, returns to her father's funeral and discovers that she is the daughter of her father and a slave. He spent all his money on gambling and a fancy woman, his plantation is in debt, and Amantha is seized by a slave auctioneer, to be sold with all the other slaves on the plantation. The film devotes itself to how Amantha reacts and adjusts to her new station in life.

Band of Angels as a novel is so densely philosophical, so infiltrated with Warren's sometimes murky musings about slavery and identity and guilt and consequence, that the story itself seems secondary. Amantha is purchased by a former slave runner named Hamish Bond and at the end of the novel ends up married to Ethan Sears, whom she knew as an aspiring minister who visited her in finishing school. Although he was an ardent abolitionist as a young man, when he discovers that Amantha is part black, he is repelled, though he doesn't leave her. Warren loved this kind of irony and hypocrisy, loved to be able to show that even the most idealistic people often cannot live up to their ideals.

The film based on the novel strips away much of the philosophizing and moralistic musings and instead focuses on slavery and race. It foregrounds the relationship of Amantha and Hamish. Although well intentioned, and progressive for its time, as a film Band of Angels is confused. Most of the characters from the novel remain in the film, though some are relegated to minor status (such as Ethan Sears). The point of the film is to show the wrongness of slavery and racism. It does this in ways that are both overt and subtle. The home of Hamish Bond allows for subtlety. He owns slaves whom he treats as employees and near equals. The mistress of the house, Michelle, is a slave whom he has obviously had a relationship with, and she shows minor signs of jealousy when Hamish brings Amantha into the house. Perhaps as a result, she helps Amantha in an attempt to escape upriver to Ohio, where she attends school, though the attempt fails. Amantha, who has never been a slave until her father's death, never knew that she was part black or that her mother was a slave, regards the bars on her second-floor bedroom as a sign of her enslavement, while Michelle tells her that the bars are Hamish's way of trying to keep out the external world. There is ambiguity and uncertainty attached to the boundaries of Hamish Bond's house and yard. Within those boundaries the house servants (slaves) are allowed to come and go as free members of the household. Those who cross the boundaries and go out into the outer world do so either by permission or as a matter of trust with Hamish. The film implies that if they wished to leave Hamish would not prevent them, and that they do not leave because of how well he treats them. Yet there is one moment when Amantha, assisted by Michelle, tried to leave and turns back when confronted by Rau Rau. Would he have prevented her? The most important slave characters in the film are Rau Rau and Michelle. They are apparently allowed to do as they wish, but in return for the way Hamish treats them they remain to do his bidding. It seems likely that Michelle loves and respects Hamish, while Rau Rau, whom Bond has educated and reared as his own son and to whom he has given much responsibility, hates him—hates him because he is, after all, the Master. Despite everything Hamish has done for Rau Rau, the fact that he remains a slave provokes his hatred. These slaves—educated, respected by their owner, dressed in fine clothes, entrusted with important and serious tasks—are hardly representative of the typical slave in the American South and their relationship with their owner is hardly typical of the average owner-slave relationship. Of course, in New Orleans, where slavery took on new and complicated dimensions compared to the rest of the South, these issues become even more complicated. The film examines these issues through Amantha, who is a special case, and through Rau Rau.

In the film, Hamish Bond tries to atone for his terrible sins as a slave runner by treating his own slaves with respect and by purchasing Amantha, thereby protecting her from being sold as another man's mistress or into a brothel. In his house, she may become his mistress, and the implication is that he may have purchased her for that ultimate purpose. However, he makes no moves towards her, waiting for a moment to develop that will bring them together. This happens during a thunderstorm (recall the Kate Chopin story "The Storm"). After they have slept together for the first time, Hamish later seems remorseful and tells her that she is free to go, that he will help her travel upriver to Ohio and provide support for her to live there. Instead, as they arrive at his plantation, she declares her intention to remain with him. Is this a declaration of love on her part, where she chooses love over freedom, or is it a matter of the slave choosing to stick with the comfortable life afforded by the Master? The movie seems to hold both possibilities up for consideration. This is both a slave choosing to stay with the Master who owns her legally and sexually, but also the woman who has been placed in bondage by a man and who chooses to stay with her out of love. It reminds me of that scene in the William Gilmore Simms novel The Yemassee, where a slave owner tries to emancipate a loyal slave who then begs not to be released because of his love for and allegiance to his master. Undoubtedly such scenes may have occurred in reality, in isolated episodes, but Simms uses the scene to exemplify his contention that slavery was a beneficent institution that served the welfare of the slaves. How Band of Angels means us to see it is another matter, perhaps. It also reminds me of the rape scene that Scarlett O'Hara so clearly relishes in Gone with the Wind. These aspects of Band of Angels are clearly dated. Rather than focusing on the fact that Amantha, Michelle, and Rau Rau are slaves, the film focuses on Hamish's kind treatment of them, as if that mitigates his role as the enslaver or their roles as slaves.

As Hamish Bond Clark Gable plays a part curiously similar to his role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. At least it is difficult to tell the difference. Yvonne DeCarlo, who went on to fame as Mrs. Herman Muenster, actually handles her role well. In 1957 Sidney Poitier was always the actor of choice for African American roles—he is, as ever, refined and articulate, too much so for a character such as Rau Rau who is supposed to be burly and muscular as well as educated. In Warren's novel Rau Rau is somewhat less elegant but perhaps more convincing, given his background.

A major difference between the film and its source is that Amantha and Hamish reconcile after a separation. Hamish has a duel with a rival plantation owner, a reconciliation of sorts with Rau Rau, and finally escapes the Northern military officers who are trying to capture him on a fishing boat. As weak as the ending of Warren's novel may be, the end of the film rivals it in credulity.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


There's not a lot of back story to Transformers (2007), or at least I didn't pick up on much of one. This film is fun to watch, more so in the first half than the second, but it's important not to think about it much. Just watch it. The first half is more interesting because it dramatizes a teenage boy's discovery that his run-down Camero is actually an alien robot that has come to earth along with a group of similar friends in search of an alien power source. Once the film finishes introducing the good transformers, such as Optimus Prime, it bogs down a bit in increasingly complicated exposition. It turns out that the government has known about the transformers for fifty years, that the leader of the evil transformers was discovered frozen in the Arctic by the boy's grandfather, and that eyeglasses belonging to boy's grandfather provide missing evidence that brings the transformers to earth in search of the power source.

My sons who were young in the 1980s played with transformer toys. That is how I became familiar with them. There is not much of a mythic framework behind or beneath the transformers. There are simply some good ones that want to help and defend the human race and some bad ones that want to destroy it. The same is pretty much true in this film. Good vs. evil on the shallowest levels.

Politically, the film is deluded and reactionary. The American military shoots at the evil robots with weapons that have pinpoint accuracy. Hasn't our experience in the Iraqi wars of 1990 and 2002 more or less proved that such weapons don't exist?

Commercially, the film is about product placement, as others have noted. The transformers apparently made a deal with General Motors—the robots agreed to transform into GM cars. No foreign models, especially no Japanese models, which is ironic given the origins of the transformer cartoon series and of the transformer toys themselves. Also, it turns out, if the power source is activated, certain mechanical devices (such as Nokia cell phones) will transform into evil robots. Foreign devices in this case are allowed.

Two sources of action in the film: when the transformers transform, and when they fly and rumble around shooting at each other. That's how this film solves problems—alien robots shoot at one another and whatever buildings happen to be nearby. It is on that level that you must watch the film. On that level, and not any other, it is actually entertaining.

Despite the digital and other types of moviemaking technology brought to bear on the film, there are a number of moments in the latter half, when the good and the evil transformers are battling each other, that you know you are looking at men in rubber suits.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Heart of Dixie

Heart of Dixie (1989) uses a Southern sorority in 1957 to examine race relations and a college student's awakening into the meaning of racial equality and human justice. This is a commercial film drawn with broad strokes. It is told from a white girl's point of view. There is only one black character in a minor role of any consequence. Still, it has merits and effectively dramatizes the power of social pressures and of race itself at the time of the story.

The college where the story takes place is a thinly camouflaged version of Auburn University. The novel Heartbreak Hotel (1976) by Anne Rivers Siddons on which the film is based was an autobiographical account of the author's experience during the 1950s at Auburn University, where she caused controversy for writing editorials sympathetic to integration. She was fired from the student newspaper after publishing the second editorial. Her membership in Tri Delta sorority obviously influenced the novel and the film as well.

The sorority to which Maggie belongs is portrayed as a backwater in the modern world. All of its members want to be pinned and to get married as soon as they graduate. Maggie DeLoach, played by Ally Sheedy, at first is like everyone else in the sorority. She's never been exposed to beliefs different than the ones she grew up with. Two elements gradually wake her up: one is Hoyt Cunningham, a young photographer she meets at a bar. He is played by Treat Williams. Williams reads a newspaper editorial Maggie wrote about Autherine Lucy, the first African American to enroll at the University of Alabama, and although he is impressed that she wrote it he finds it timid. When he expresses support for the notion of integration, Maggie's friend asks him whether he is a communist. The other is her mildly bohemian friend Aiken Reed, played by Phoebe Cates, who apparently does not belong to a sorority.

When Maggie attends an Elvis concert with the photographer, she witnesses a young black man beaten up by a white concertgoer and then by a policeman who stops the fight. She is upset and angered. A talk with the black friend who works at the sorority leads her to write an editorial for the newspaper. The dean threatens her and the editor with expulsion if it is published. They publish it anyway. Her sorority sisters, including her best friend, shun her, she breaks up with her boyfriend, and she is expelled from school for refusing to apologize for the editorial.

Two key scenes: one at the Elvis Presley concert where she witnesses the beating; another where the first black student walks through a hostile mob to enroll at the university.

The sorority is a symbol of the pre-civil rights south: the sisters want to live like they are characters in Gone with the Wind. One sister is overheard saying she wants to marry Rhett Butler while her friend wants to marry Ashley Wilkes. When Maggie questions the automatic assumption that after graduation she will marry, have children, and live a life of leisure, her friend Maggie is astonished. Several scenes involve sisters talking about the desire to marry, resisting sex with their boyfriends, and so on. When Aiken announces she is pregnant at the end of the film, Maggie is astonished at her plans not to marry, to drop out of college, and to go live in Greenwich Village.

Maggie's gradual realization that she believes in racial equality, her decision to reject what she has believed for all her life, is the main focus of the film. It happens as a result of her exposure to various expressions of racism (such as her boyfriend's father the judge who explodes in anger at the notion of civil rights) and the bearing at the Elvis concert, and her exposure to ideas contrary to the ones she grew up with. The film shows the development of Maggie's racial consciousness and along with that her independence and integrity.

The scene in which the first black student enrolls at the university is moving, even though Maggie is only a witness to it, though she picks up and returns a handkerchief and returns it to the student. The fear on the student's face raises the scene above the ordinary. The scene seems to have been influenced by films of the integration of the University of Alabama in June, 1963, with Governor George Wallace first barring the door and then stepping aside to allow the first black students to enter.

Heart of Dixie is a film similar to Intruder in the Dust and To Kill a Mockingbird in the way it dramatizes a young character's awakening to the meaning of social injustice and racial prejudice. It is not as good a film, however, and it lacks their depth and richness. Heart of Dixie is self-consciously a film about race and racism. It wears its heart on its sleeve, which is not to say that it doesn't lack in subtlety. It does have its virtues. And its portrayal of racism and the social pressures it could bring to bear on people in the 1950s is accurate. The hothouse atmosphere of a college sorority may not provide the best means of exploring the themes it undertakes to explore. The South was hardly as homogeneous as the film would have it, and the sorority, and Greek life in general, don't offer a way of showing anything other than homogeneity.

To its credit, Heart of Dixie doesn't suggest in any way that Maggie's awakening has much of an impact on the civil rights struggle or the welfare of blacks in Alabama. Instead the changes that matter in the film are the ones that occur within Maggie. This is the story of the development and awakening of her character. By extension, they were changes that would occur in the hearts and minds of individuals all over the American South, and throughout the United States as a whole, in the years and decades that followed the year which the film concerns.

Madea’s Family Reunion

Madea's Family Reunion (2006) delivers a good message through a faulty medium. The film begins as if it is a Woody Allen movie for African Americans. The first scene involves a posh apartment and three well dressed young women. In later scenes we encounter characters from differing social classes—a bus driver, two elderly retired people, a young woman trying to succeed in her own business. Despite this, the film offers an idealized, smooth, sometimes saccharine portrait of its characters and their lives. The wedding scene at the end of the film is difficult to swallow.

Set in Atlanta, Madea's Family Reunion focuses on a mother, Victoria, and her two daughters Lisa and Vanessa. Victoria is a haughty and scheming woman who uses her daughters to get what she wants. Lisa is about to marry a wealthy businessman who beats her and generally abuses her. When she confides in her mother about the abuse, the woman tells her she must put up with it. She believes that woman must accept their lot, and what comes with it, if they want to be comfortable and cared for. Vanessa is generally ignored by the mother—later in the film Vanessa reveals the abuse she suffered from one of her mother's several husbands, abuse the mother not only countenanced but arranged for.

Madea is the aunt of the mother. She is a loud, brash, domineering woman who takes foster children into her home and disciplines and loves them rigorously. She and her husband Uncle Joe are comical characters in a serious soap opera. Madea is full of energy and is the heart of the film. She is played in drag by the director Ryan Perry, who also plays Uncle Joe. Their comic shenanigans often seem out of place given the serious problems of the other characters, but without them the film would be much less entertaining than it is. Madea and Uncle Joe are both stereotypical characters—Madea is similar to Big Momma in the two Martin Lawrence films of that name, while in Barbershop (2002) portrayed several characters like Uncle Joe. White filmmakers have used black stereotypes for years, and it is interesting to see them in films by black directors. Barbershop was criticized by Jessie Jackson for its use of stereotypes he regarded as damaging. What ultimately prevents Madea's character from being overwhelmed by the stereotype she portrays is her strong positive character and the support she provides to Lisa and Vanessa.

Social responsibility and family unity are the message of this film. It suggests that a black matriarchy seeks to uphold positive social and moral standards and to defend women and children from the onslaughts of destructive irresponsible males. The matriarchy also resists the decline of values evident in contemporary society. In general, the women characters have been victimized by men in one way or another, while the men are either weak and foolish or brutal victimizers. Madea is the strong and positive woman in the film, while her husband Joe is a flatulent fool. Lisa's fiancé is rich and ruthless—he sees Lisa as just another possession. The one positive male character is the bus driver Brian, who falls in love with Vanessa. Because of her painful experiences in earlier relationships, she resists him. Lisa wants to abandon her fiancé but he threatens her, even threatens to kill her, and her mother insists that she stick with the engagement—her financial welfare depends on the marriage, for reasons the film details.

Events work themselves out as they usually do in this sort of film.

The heart of the film is a family reunion where the 90 year-old-matriarch of the family is upset when she sees her descendants gambling and dancing licentiously in skimpy clothes. Cicely Tison and Maya Angelou give moving speeches about family and social responsibility, upbraiding the family members for their errant ways. As Eleanor Ringel in the Atlanta Journal Constitution pointed out in her review. "Perry shares an agenda with Bill Cosby and Spike Lee: He wants young African-Americans to take responsibility for themselves. He has no patience for drugs, careless sex, guns, fists, sexually provocative behavior, or blaming everyone else for what you're doing to yourself." This is one of the film's central messages, but the speech that Tyson delivers, and Angelou's comments, and the family reunion itself, seem awkwardly placed in the film focused on the serious problems of Lisa and Vanessa. The film is episodic and consists of a number of loosely linked set pieces, the reunion is the prime example, but a farting episode involving Uncle Joe is another. The different parts of the film don't really fit together, it's schizophrenic in a sense, and although the film is entertaining to watch and, in the end, moving, especially Tison's speech, it is not successful. It is a loosely assembled. It as if Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy collaborated on a film and could never agree on what they wanted to do, so that each directed his own individual scenes.

Madea's Family Reunion is a sequel to Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2002). Both were directed and acted in by Ryan Perry, whose plays of the same titles served as the source for the films.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Black Snake Moan

"Black Snake Moan" is the title of an old blues song about a man's grief over losing his wife. The song plays an important role in the film of the same title, directed by Craig Brewer, previously known for Hustle & Flow. The principal actors in this film are Samuel Jackson and Christina Ricci. Jackson (who appears in more films than anyone I can think of) plays an aging blues singer named Lazarus whose wife leaves him early in the film. His head is half-shaved in the film, evidently to suggest a radically receded hair line, but it looks fake. Christina Ricci's character is Rae, who is half-naked throughout much of the film.

Black Snake Moan (2006) begins with film clips from an interview with the bluesman Son House, who explains the blues as a musical form about relationships of men and women. The film then alternates between scenes involving Rae and her boyfriend Ronnie (played well by Justin Timberlake) and scenes involving Jackson. Lazarus meets his wife in a cafe hoping to repair their faltering marriage, but instead she tells him that she doesn't love him anymore and is leaving. In a later scene Lazarus' younger brother tries to talk to him in a bar—he is the person whom Lazarus' wife is leaving him for. Lazarus comes close to slitting his brother's throat with a broken beer bottle, so he is a man capable of violence, and his former life as a bluesman suggests that he is a man of talent as well as complications—now he is a farmer who takes his produce to town and sells it. He is so angry over his wife's departure that he plows under her rose garden and breaks apart furniture in their house.

Rae, on the other hand, is upset because Ronnie is leaving to join the army. They are not breaking up, but she seems pathologically upset about his departure and says she will not survive without him. Ronnie and Rae are codependent. Ronnie suffers anxiety attacks that only Rae can soothe. Rae is well known in the town for her sexual voraciousness. Everyone knows about her and the various diseases she has caught and passed on to others. In the early scenes of the film she is constantly coughing, as if she has a chronic illness such as TB, though later in the film she coughs not at all. Rae is what used to be called a nymphomaniac, and only Ronnie can satisfy her. We later learn that her problem stems from sexual abuse she suffered from her father. When Ronnie leaves, she runs amuck, taking drugs, getting drunk, playing football with most of her clothes missing, and having sex with a random man in the dirt. Ronnie's best friend offers to drive her home after a drunken evening and ends up trying to have sex with her—she rebuffs him and he beats her viciously, pushing her out of his pickup truck on to a dirt road, leaving her there in the middle of the night. Lazarus finds her the next morning and carries her into his house, where he undertakes to nurse her back to health—physically as well as spiritually.

At times Black Snake Moan wavers among being several different types of films—a film about the blues, about redemption, about the need for mutual dependence between the races, about social problems such as sexual abuse of children and its consequences. The notion of Rae's nymphomania seems not only a sexist cliché but also a hackneyed Freudian gimmick, not to mention a sensationalist ploy. Christina Ricci is a beautiful woman with an attractive body. For the first half of the film she appears frequently in various stages of undress. She compels one to view jean shorts in a new light. But the film's fascination with Ricci's body becomes fetichisist, voyeuristic—there is too much of it.

Why does Lazarus pick Rae up, take her back to his house, and try to "fix" her?—he's interested in doing this in a spiritual sense. Our first glimpses of him show him to be a man of potentially violent passions—he's angry and bitter and does not seem particularly pious. But as soon as he finds Rae on the road, he's interested in her soul. It's clear that at moments he's attracted to her in a different way, in a sexual way, but he always resists that attraction, even when she throws herself at him.

Black Snake Moan wants us to see Rae and Lazarus as kindred souls. It does not matter that he is black and she white, that she is young and beautiful and he is not, that she has a notorious reputation and he is respected. It matters that both have broken hearts, she from the departure of her boyfriend and from sexual abuse in her childhood, he because of the betrayal by his wife and brother.

Jackson is great in his part. But he's not wholly believable. His desire to redeem Rae isn't quite logical. Why does he want to help her? What specifically qualifies him to redeem her? How are we to view the fact that her presence in his house reawakens his interest in playing the blues—he takes her to a club where he plays publically for the first time in twenty years, and he plays well? Redemption works both ways.

Some reviewers criticize this film for using the stereotype of the wise old virtuous black man who helps save the needy white girl. The stereotype is there, but if the human realities of the film are vital enough, if the power of the script and the performances by the two actors are distinctive enough, the stereotype fades. Rae is a stereotype too, the nymphomaniacal white trash girl who sleeps with every man in town.

Black Snake Moan is about wounded people, wounded black and white people who need each other, sometimes, to recover from their lacerated emotional traumas. It is also, incidentally, about music, the blues. The film has a great soundtrack, and Samuel Jackson is very good in his role as a bluesmen. The film clips at the beginning and near the end that show Son Housie talking about the blues and their concern with relationships between men and women lead us to conclude that, in the context of this film, broken hearts, guilt and grief over the loss of love, are what white people and black people have in common and therefore are the reason why the blues serve as an effective metaphor and binding force for racial interdependence.

When Ronnie returns to town after being discharged from the army—his anxiety attacks prevented him from firing a rifle with accuracy—he finds Rae with Lazarus and threatens Lazarus with a pistol. Lazarus talks Ronnie out of shooting, him, essentially by provoking anxiety in him. Then he calls a preacher friend and arranges for Ronnie and Rae to marry. At the end of the film, when Ronnie has an anxiety attack driving with Rae down the road, sandwiched in between two large trucks, it is clear that life is going to be hard for both of them. Marriage is not going to solve their problems, but at least it provides a basis for struggling in the right direction.

The notion that the film presents African Americans as redemptive and soulful people capable of providing the spiritual support and guidance that white people need is clearly apparent in the final scenes. A black minister officiates; a young black teenager whom Rae seduced earlier in the film serves as best man; Lazarus and a woman from town in whom he has a romantic interest are present as witnesses. The only white people present are Rae and Ronnie.

In most small Southern towns that I know of, people like Rae and Ronnie wouldn't spend much time with black people. Racists don't typically associate with the race they hate. Rae sports a Confederate flag t-shirt early in the film; Ronnie calls Lazarus a "nigger." The film argues that the need for redemption drives Rae and Ronnie to seek the support that Lazarus and his preacher friend can provide. In Hustle & Flow Craig Brewer seemed to suggest as well that white and black people need each other, that they have more in common than they have differences. This may be one of his main themes, but it works better and makes more sense in Hustle & Flow (where economic survival is a motivating force) than it does in Black Snake Moan. The latter film does not offer convincing logical justification for Lazarus and his character and his desire to help Rae.

This is not to say that Black Snake Moan doesn't work as a film, only to argue that it does not consistently stand up to close scrutiny. Aspects of the film simply don't make sense. As a whole the different parts of the film don't cohere. One major plot strand seems unresolved—Ronnie's best friend tells him that he slept with Rae, and that Rae slept with others in town. For this betrayal, Ronnie simply tells his friend to leave. Although Ronnie confronts Lazarus with a gun—Lazarus the black man whom he believes has been sleeping with Rae—he does nothing to his best friend who betrayed him, just as Lazarus did not ultimately use the broken beer bottle on his brother.

The end of the film, with the reconciliation between Rae and Ronnie, the wedding, the helpful presence of the various African Americans who have brought about their redemption, seems contrived and sentimental. The fact that Rae and Ronnie face an uncertain future, and that Lazarus has a new love interest, doesn't make the ending more believable.

Black Snake Moan is powerful, moving, provocative, and disturbing. It's entertaining and emotionally fulfilling, but it's best not to think about it too carefully.

Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella

A novel about male wish fulfillment, W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (1982) is a kind of adult fairy tale about a man who obeys the injunction of a voice what whispers various messages. The most famous message is "If you build it, they will come." Ray Kinsella is the novel's main character. He has a wife named Annie and a young daughter named Karin and both are perfect. Despite the fact that he is on the verge of bankruptcy throughout the novel, when Ray tells Annie that he wants to use valuable acreage to build a baseball field, she agrees. Later when he tells her that he wants to take a tour of various famous baseball fields in the Midwest and east, she agrees again. She never doubts his most foolish plans, and he is full of them. But the nature of the novel is that foolish plans are often the right plans.

Kinsella clearly loves baseball and sees it as a metaphor for the American Dream. If you don't see the aptness of the analogy, then the novel will not work for you. If you don't believe that J. D. Salinger, the reclusive novelist, would allow himself to be talked into leaving his home with Kinsella in order to see a baseball field where the famous members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox come back to life to play baseball again, then the novel is not for you. Shoeless Joe requires one to suspend disbelief on all sorts of levels. If you can do that, the experience is entertaining and sometimes moving. I'm a sucker for any novel that depicts the reunion of a son with his long-dead father.

The makers of the film Field of Dreams (1989) significantly simplified the narrative of the novel. Several characters are dropped (Ray's twin brother and the oldest living Chicago Cub, Eddie Scissors, who rents the farm to Ray). This was probably a good decision as it allowed the filmmakers to focus on the story of the baseball stadium in the cornfield, of Ray's devotion to baseball. In the film, J. D. Salinger has a different name, and his character is played by James Earl Jones. This was probably mandated by the threat of lawsuits from Salinger, who doesn't like any kind of intrusion into his privacy.

Both novel and film suggest that modern America and baseball have been corrupted by commercialism and big business. The farm where Ray builds his baseball field, surrounded by the fields of corn, contrasts with the concrete and the hustle and bustle of the cities where major league baseball is played. In this sense, Shoeless Joe is a latter day agrarian novel that longs for the good old days when men aspired to play baseball for the pleasure and the glory of the game, not for a high salary. It hearkens back to an earlier, better time. It also suggests, improbably, that bankruptcy can be staved off just by wishful thinking.

I was moved by this novel, and angered by it as well. Its insistence on being naïve and sentimental, its willed romanticism, its fatuous notion that the past was somehow better than the present, doesn't work for me. Kinsella argues that dreams are more important than realities, but without realities, dreams can never come true. Americans place much stock in dreams. Perhaps this is one of the points of the novel. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Americans sometimes can't see themselves for who they are, and why the United States too often gets into trouble. It can't see its own dark side.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

2001 Maniacs

2001 Maniacs (2005) is a remake of the 1964 film 2000 Maniacs, once a cult classic because of violence and gore but now largely and fortunately forgotten. Why the remake? I don't have an answer. Neither the original nor the remake has any value, but they are still accessible for public viewing. Both are available on video, and the remake recently played on a cable channel. It follows the same basic plot as the original, and uses low-budget but more up-to-date technology to depict various acts of torture and violence and various body parts. The Plot: College students from the North who are headed to the beaches of Florida become lost in rural Georgia and accidentally wander into the lost village of Pleasant Valley, where a celebration is in progress which the students are invited to join. Citizens of the town systematically frighten, torture, maim, and kill the students, with cannibalism as the ultimate goal.

The film does place more emphasis on the revenge that the ghoulish citizens of Pleasant Valley are seeking against Yankee college students for atrocities allegedly committed against the town by rogue Union forces near the end of the Civil War. The town comes back to life once every year on the anniversary of the massacre. The desire of the townspeople for revenge will drive them, we're told, to torture, maim, and kill Yankee tourists until they have matched the death toll of the original massacre. Confederate flags are evident everywhere. Townspeople openly discuss their desire for revenge against the Yankees. The mayor wears an eye-patch with a Confederate flag on it. In one scene, as the townspeople prepare to slaughter and consume the last two surviving Yankee students, they stand around their intended victims and chant "The South will rise! The South will rise!"

A key early scene informs us of what this film is really up to: one of the college students plays his guitar and tries to keep up with the banjo-picking of a demented looking Pleasant Valley citizen. The scene recalls the famous dueling banjo sequence from Deliverance (1971). It enforces the notion that the South is full of genetic throwbacks and demented low-lifes, something the movie proceeds to confirm in numerous ways. The women are quick to doff their clothes and engage in sex that usually end in genital mutilation or acid drinking or other horrific events for the male participants. In another scene (taken from the original film) a young woman's arms and legs are tied to mules that her tormentor then swats with a branch, so that her limbs are torn from her body.

The South in 2001 Maniacs is a place of Gothic horror, supernatural terrors, demented goons, perverted and violent sex, and general ":Never Fergit" dimwittedness. The filmmakers count on the audience regarding this film as a joke, and that it is—but a sick joke. Even though only someone as limited in intelligence as the citizens of Pleasant Valley would take the film's depiction of the South seriously, it is easy enough for viewers willing to sit through the film to suspend disbelief and temporarily accept this depiction of an alien Other—a place that encourage the viewer's own sense of his or her civilized and refined superiority because it is not the viewer's place. It is the South, which by definition (at least this film's definition) accommodates the horrors of Pleasant Valley.

Why anyone would want to watch this film is beyond me. I fast-forwarded through most of it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Idlewild (2006) focuses on two childhood friends, Rooster and Percival, and their diverging though related paths in life. One stays close to home and works in his father's funeral parlor, though he also nurses his musical talent and works on the side in a speakeasy. The other ends up running the speakeasy. These roles are played by the two main members of Outkast, Andre Benjamin and Big Boi. Both are great in their roles, especially Benjamin as Percival, the son of the undertaker.

Idlewild is distinguished by visual flair—flashy, frenetic dance numbers; an effective fusion of cinematography and music, an impressive use of digital effects that speed or slow the action, place emphasis on different characters, or lend tension to a scene. The music throughout is a major strength. In many ways the best music and dance sequence in the film comes during the closing credits, although there is a stunning sequence early in the film.

The film is set in a small Georgia town named Idlewild. It is just the opposite of the town associated with the New York airport formerly of the same name, though the club that is the center of the town—at least for the characters in the film—offers as much action as one could find anywhere in New York.

Idlewild did not receive particularly strong reviews. One reason may be that it seems something like a folktale or fairy story. It gives the effect of realism without being realistic—how could a nightclub like the one in this film exist in the remote hinterlands of rural Georgia in the early decades of the 20th century? The film reminded me in ways of the folk ballad "Frankie and Johnny" and even of Toni Morrison's novel Jazz, which is like a folk or blues song set in high literary form. Idlewild brims with magical realism. One example is the flask of liquor that Rooster (Big Boi) carries with him throughout the film. It is emblazoned with the image of a rooster that talks to the owner of the flask throughout the film. Another example: when Percival looks at the pages of music he has composed, the notes become stick figures that walk and dance across the page. Several characters seem drawn deliberately larger than life: Terrence Howard as Trumpy is an especially vicious gangster who uses threats, violence, and murder to get what he wants. The musical styles of Outkast are laid on top of, combined with, musical styles of the time period of the film. The same is true of dance. In this sense the film suggests Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001), which combines dance and music styles from different time periods. There are scenes every bit as phantasmagorical in Idlewild as those in Moulin Rouge.

Another reason for the lack of critical acclaim may be that Idlewild might seem a film more of music, visual imagery, and style than of substance. Other recent African American films such as ATL and Stomp the Yard explored a number of contemporary issues important to African Americans: questions of class and economic tension, of assimilation, of personal responsibility. One can find those issues, by looking carefully, in Idlewild—one example is Percival's struggle to break out of his staid rut to assert himself as a musician and composer--but they are largely overwhelmed by the spectacle of the film. Spectacle, however, is no mean thing.

Idlewild begins with images of sepia-toned photographs of African American culture from early in the 20th century. One of the points in these photographs is to make clear that the story about to be told is from the past, part of history, and as such is a part of African American tradition. I noticed a Eudora Welty photgraph in the sequence. In ways Rooster and Percival represent different aspects of the African American struggle for success and respectability in a predominantly white world (though there is virtually no evidence of that world in the film). Rooster at first chooses the life of a gangster, running whiskey and working in a speakeasy. Percival is attracted to the wild life, but sticks close to home, working for his father and playing piano in the speakeasy on the side. He represents loyalty to place and to family, to tradition, but only by breaking with these virtues in the end is he able to give full expression to his talent.

This may be the first major production directed by Bryan Barber. He apparently had his start as a director of Outkast music videos. He has much promise. Idlewild comes across as the work of an experienced and confident director. Cinematography is one of the film's strongest elements. It's immensely entertaining.

Idlewild is the best musical I've seen since Moulin Rouge.

Seraphim Falls

Seraphim Falls (2006) plies the tired notion that hostilities between North and South did not wane following the end of the Civil War. It does so by focusing on the efforts of Colonel Carver (Liam Neeson) to track and kill Captain Gideon (Pierce Brosnan). The film begins in medias res, as it were, with Gabriel high in the mountains of Colorado. A rifle shot wings him in the shoulder, and he runs down the mountain, apparently aware that he is being tracked. My son and I wagered over how long it would take for this film to offer a flashback that would begin to provide background information about why Carver is tracking Gabriel). My son bet 20 minutes; I bet 10. The first flashback came in 14 minutes, though it offered only brief images, and it is not until late in the film that a substantial flashback provides this information. That mystery is about the only genuine source of tension in the story, other than the question of whether Gabriel will escape or Carver will catch up with him.

The first half or more of the film is fairly naturalistic, following the efforts of Gabriel to escape and Carver to capture him. The narrative is episodic: at one time or the other Carver and Gideon meet a band of thieves, stop at the cabin of settlers, encounter, religious zealots in a wagon train, stop at a camp building a rail line, meet an Indian by a small pool of water, and finally, in the middle of what appears to be Death Valley, meet a woman selling miracle tonic (Angelica Huston). When first Gabriel and then Carver encounter the Indian, the film takes a somewhat surreal turn, and it occasionally seems to recall the films of Sergio Leone, and some of the earlier Eastwood films, by suggesting that these encounters may be allegorical and that it is the struggle of Carver and Gabriel to come to terms with the tragedies of their own lives that is the real focus of this cat and mouse game they are playing. (Gabriel lost his two sons on the same day during the Battle of Antietam; Carver's wife and children were killed in a fire accidentally set by Union soldiers). But the allegory is not very coherent and the film is largely turgid and without suspense. The film does not really draw distinctions between the characters of Carver and Gabriel. Carver is overwhelmed by the fate of his family. Gabriel is haunted by his past and presumably the deaths of his sons. But they could easily change places. The point of their conflict is not in their regional loyalties but rather in the intersection of private and random events that overcame them, events that they personalize and blame on each other.

Brosnan is good at huffing and groaning. Neeson hides his accent. Angelica Huston is effective but out of place.

The film ends in Death Valley—is there an echo here of the ending of McTeague, by Frank Norris?