Friday, September 28, 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Stranger than Fiction (2006) is another in a succession films and novels that explore, sometimes in highly fanciful ways, the relationship to reality of literature, art, and the human imagination. Such films as The Truman Show, Adaptation, Tristram Shandy, Pleasantville, The Fountain, and Being John Malkovich are examples, and there are others. In Stranger than Fiction a man named Harold Crick gradually becomes aware that he is a character in a novel being written by a famous reclusive novelist, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Crick is an IRS auditor who lives a life of carefully observed routine that never veers outside established boundaries. He is what we call a "flat" character. He becomes aware that he is bring written about when he begins hearing a voice that is narrating his life. (He is brushing his teeth when the voice first speaks). The voice turns out to belong to a writer who always brings her main characters to a bad end—as she puts it, she "kills them off." As Crick begins to fall in love with a bohemian cookie store owner, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), we see him begin to develop a three-dimensional personality. We also see a developing relationship between the demands and value of art as embodied in the novel in progress and the value of an individual human life. Eiffel is experiencing the worst writer's block of her career and cannot decide how to end her novel in progress. Her publisher appoints a literary agent, nicely played by Queen Latifah, to assist her. Harold consults a literature professor, Jules Hilbert, played by Dustin Hoffman, for advice. Hoffman's character is an expert on Eiffel's work, though he has never met her. Just at the moment when Eiffel has resolved how to finish her novel, Harold tracks her down and confronts her with his situation, and his desire to live. She in turn takes her manuscript to Hoffman. He reads it, judges it her best work, and concludes that she should not change a word, that Crick must die, that not to let him die would destroy a great literature. He advises Crick that there is nothing he can or should do, that he should accept his pending demise as a necessary sacrifice for the cause of great art.

The point of the film boils down to the question of what Eiffel will do—will she complete her novel as she planned it, or will she change it?

This film is a fantasy. If you try to see it as anything more, you become aware of numerous points of illogic and narrative errancy, not to mention the impossible premise of the film. But if you view it as the story of a man in the process of discovering himself, of accepting a fate over which he may have no control, of having perhaps to die not just for literature but to preserve someone else's life, and if you view it as the story of a writer suddenly confronted with the notion that her stories may possibly have a life-and-death impact on a man's existence, it's an entertaining and moving film.

It's also a film built around a false conceit—the notion that imaginative literature, art in general, directly and forcefully affects reality. Imaginative literature usually does not have a bearing on the physical fates of actual human beings. Writers can determine the fates of their fictional fabrications, their characters, but not of real people. Only when a Mark Wayne Chapman or John Hinckley becomes obsessed with an author and a literary work do we have the rare and disruptive intrusion of art, of literature, into the realm of human life. Yet one may argue that both these men are extreme and unrepresentative examples of the impact that literature, in far more subtle and moderate ways, actually does have on the lives of individuals and thus of nations. It may not determine whether we live or die, but it does help develop our character, our views of the world. At least this is true for those of us who read.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New, by Judson Mitcham

A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New (2007), by Judson Mitcham, has recently been published by the University of Georgia Press. The value of the poems previously collected in Somewhere in Ecclesiastes and This April Morning are reflected in reviews and awards they received. The first book won both the Devins Award and recognition for Mitcham as Georgia Author of the Year. Mitcham has received two Townsend awards for his novels, The Sweet Everlasting and Sabbacth Creek. He's the only author to win two Townsend awards, both for fiction.

Mitcham is a very fine poet. The work collected in his first two volumes of poems tends towards the narrative and the philosophical, though not in an abstract way. Instead Mitcham approaches philosophical matters—such matters as the passage of time, human mortality, memory, for example—through illustrating them with examples from his own life or from people he has known. Philosophy for Mitcham is always tied up with the personal. There is a strongly spiritual tone to his poetry. It is not precisely correct to describe his work as religious, but he is definitely concerned with many issues of religion, such as redemption, sin, contrition, and so on.

Somewhere in Ecclesiastes (1991) offers a moving sequence of poems, written throughout the 1980s, about youth, family, mortality, and the southern cultural scene. They especially concern themes of personal loss, such as the death of Mitcham's father and memories of friends from his youth. This intensely felt, elegiac sense of loss is the central feeling in many of Mitcham's poems. The later poems, many collected in the 2003 volume This April Day, are tinged with a deepening pessimism and despair over the disappearance of the people who played a crucial role in his early life and in the formation of his identity as a person and a poet.

The new poems in A Little Salvation presented under the title "Oblique Lexicon," are something of a departure for Mitcham in style, although he continues to visit many of the themes and concerns that characterize his earlier work. In line with the lexicographic title, the poems are arranged alphabetically by title. One could object to this ordering of poems as a kind of gimmick, and that it may be, but the lexicographic model is how Mitcham chose to write and organize these poems, and whether it works or not, or whether it contributes in a constructive way to the overall effect of the poems, it is what we have. I became convinced after reading through these new poems that even if the model doesn't enhance the poems it certainly doesn't detract from them. I found only a few poems that could have been written for the sake of providing poems whose titles begin with a needed letter of the alphabet.

Beyond the matter of alphabetic unity, Mitcham in these new poems employs several new poetic styles, or at least styles he did not use frequently before. Along with the narrative poems he favored earlier in his career, he writes a number of shorter poems, some of them in the lyric mode (e.g., "Lyric," not surprisingly). The opening poem "Art" is written entirely in couplets, with the exception of the final single line. "Epilogue," about memories provokes by photographs, employs three-line stanzas, again concluding with a single line. There are several dialect poems: "Dream" and "Ignorance" are examples. Several poems employ poetry in prose form, such as the very effective "Understanding," in part about the murderer Charles Whitman who shot down numerous students at the University of Texas in 1966. The poem, "Body," employs an approach that at first seems whimsical, as Mitcham muses over the kinds of items we inadvertently ingest ("the rat hair and roach wing") when eating hot dogs at ball games, though ultimately he links this concern with the discovery of a tumor growing in his mother's brain. Mitcham often uses this approach of tying together events, people, or memories seemingly unrelated in time, place, or nature.

Some of these poems pay tribute to literary forebears: "Grace" is for Flannery O'Connor; "Tennessee" for William Carlos Williams and his poem "The Jar"; "Village" is for Stanley Kunitz; while "Villanelle" (which, as far as I can tell, is not a villanelle) apparently pays homage to Mississippi writer Larry Brown.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Flushed Away

When Flushed Away (2006) appeared in the theaters I decided not to see it. The appeal of the story about the adventures of rats after they are flushed down the toilet was nil. But here I was last weekend, lolling on the sofa, talking to my son. Flushed Away was on. We watched.

Flushed Away is a moderately charming and entertaining animated film. It was written by the screenwriter who produced Wallace & Gromit
The Curse of the Were Rabbit. The humor is British—wry, ironic, funny. There is ample slapstick. There is a budding romance between two initially antagonistic characters—the pet rat Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman), who has lived his entire life in a cage, and the independent, feisty female rat Rita (Kate Winslett), who confronts him soon after he is so villainously flushed by another rat who has invaded his apartment. There is an impressive array of whacky animated characters. Notable among them is the evil Toad (Ian McKellen), who once belonged to Prince Charles and still nurses resentment over how the crown prince rejected him. He bears only a slight ancestral resemblance to the infamous Mr. Toad of The Wind in the Willows, a 1949 Disney production.
There is a plot of sorts involving a ruby supposedly fallen from Queen Elizabeth's crown. There is also a plot focused on Roddy's struggle to return to the comforts of his cage only to discover that life in the outside world can be more exciting and adventurous than anything the cage can offer.

Not as fun or bent as The Curse of the Were Rabbit, Flushed Away is nonetheless a pleasant surprise.


This fairly well done 2007 remake of the 1950 Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window has all the basic elements of the original: a protagonist temporarily trapped in his house, a mad murderer of women, voyeurism, temperate eroticism, detective work, suspense. The main difference between this remake and the original (aside from the 57 years that have passed, the contemporary suburban world of the remake vs. the same world circa 1950 of the original) is that the remake is of and for teenagers. Shia LeBoeuf plays a disaffected young man named Kale Brecht who feels responsible for his father's death in an auto accident. After he slugs his mathematics teacher, he is sentenced to three months house arrest and is saddled with an ankle bracelet that notifies the police if he strays more than 100 feet from his house. Add to that the fact that the policeman assigned to his neighborhood is the cousin of the teacher he slugged. Add to that the beautiful teenage girl, Ashley (Sarah Roemer) who has just moved in next door. Add to that Shia'a sometimes inattentive and imperceptive mother (Carrie Ann Moss). Add to that Shia's best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), an Asian teenager with a love of jokes, pranks, and cameras. Add to that the predominantly night-time scenes and the murky subterranean pool beneath the basement of the next door neighbor's house. All of these play into the relatively predictable plot. What really made the 1950 film Rear Window was the interplay between Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart. Kelly infused the film with an incredible eroticism solely by inference, by subtle suggestion. Although there is no sex per se in the remake, there much thinking about it by the two teenage boys, who spend much time staring at Ashley sunbathing in her bikini or her cut-off shorts or undressing in her bedroom, as well as at the ominous movements of the neighbor on the other side of the house. Whereas in Rear Window Stewart's character is watching his neighbors in a desultory way, to pass the time, in Disturbia (be sure to get the interplay with "Surburbia"—hardly the sort of playful, subtle linguistic bawdry possibly implied by the title of the 1950 film) the teenage boys are deeply engaged in voyeuristic fascination with the girl. Their interest in the man who lives on the other side of the house, and who might be a notorious serial killer of women, is at first incidental. Only gradually does it become more central. This is an entertaining film, but the fact that it is presented as a teenage film, with all the usual trappings of teenage films intended to lure and hold a teenage audience (our hero has to rescue his girl, rescue his mother, rescue his best friend, and then he has to kiss kiss kiss his girl), and with no real attempt to transcend those limitations, prevents it from rising very far above the mundane average. A friend of mine observed that what most irritated him about this film was that he had to watch the young hero and his girlfriend kissing: "I'm too old to enjoy that." Well, perhaps, in the spirit of the voyeurism of both the original and the remake, I won't go that far. But kissing was not the focus of the original, and the fact that, in the remake, it is the focus pretty much explains the difference between the two.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Night of the Hunter

Towards the top of my list of favorite films about the American South is the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, based on the Davis Grubbs novel of the same name. This is the only film ever directed by stage and screen actor Charles Laughton, and its commercial and critical failure following its release convinced Laughton and his producers that he should not direct again. When the film was released, critical reaction was mixed and reflected confusion on the part of reviewers and probably also on the part of audiences. The film was an unusual combination of crime drama, film noir, children's fantasy, and stylized, expressionist motifs. It combined scenes of comedy and tragedy, of violence and religion. Parts of the film were conventional; parts seemed almost amateurish. It is not surprising given the kinds of films being made in the 1950s that The Night of the Hunter sank from view soon after its release. It ran counter to established trends. It took 20 years for critics and viewers to recover this film and to begin to recognize its considerable merits.

Admittedly, the inclusion of The Night of the Hunter in a course about Southern films may seem problematic for some. In fact, the more I researched the background of this film, the more problematic its inclusion became. It is first of all not set in the South, or at least not in the deep South. It apparently takes place on or near the banks of the Ohio River, probably where it borders West Virginia. The film certainly looks and feels Southern, set in a rural region during the time of the Depression. A number of scenes show rolling farmland landscapes, with barns such as one would expect to find in the tobacco lands of Tennessee and Kentucky. A number of characters have Southern accents. It has many of the elements we expect to find in Southern literature—for examples, concern with religion and a gothic interest in violence and murder. It also expresses an agrarian skepticism towards cities, progress, technology, and the modern world and the general decay of values in the modern world. So for these reasons I've felt justified including The Night of the Hunter on my list.

But there are further complications. The traditional conception of Southern literature is that it is written by people who have spent all or most of their lives in the American South and that it expresses attitudes and deals with subjects generally associated with the South. We know that this view is being supplanted with other views, and that Southern literature is more diverse than traditional definitions would allow, but I will let tradition suffice for the purpose of this paper. I must further add that I tend to view films in the same way I view literature, that is, as texts suitable for interpretation. I am not a film scholar. My training has been that of a literary critic and teacher. Film has all the basic elements of fiction—narrative, plot, characters, themes, images, setting, and so on. So I treat it as literature. But in thinking about certain films as Southern films, there is a major difference between literature and film. Literature is usually the product of single authors. Film is collaborative. The director is often credited as the auteur, but others, such as screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, and actors, also have a major role in the final product. There is also not a major film industry in the American South. Films are made here, of course, but the people who make them are not typically Southern. Thus in a simplistic way it may be possible to argue that while Southern literature in its traditional definition is by Southerners and about the South, and reflective of attitudes one might associate with the South, Southern films are largely made by non-Southerners who use the South as a landscape on which to explore attitudes that may be Southern or that may not be.

This is certainly the case with The Night of the Hunter. It was filmed on a Hollywood set. Most of the principal actors were not Southerners. Laughton was British. Laughton convinced James Agee, the Tennessee writer who had written the screenplay for John Huston's The African Queen, to write the screenplay for this new film, but the evidence seems to suggest that Laughton did not like Agee's screenplay and partially or largely rewrote it. It is possible that Laughton saw Davis Grubbs' novel The Night of the Hunter as a "Southern" work and that in hiring a Southern writer such as James Agee to write the screenplay he was reflecting this fact. There is conflicting evidence as to how much of the Agee screenplay was actually used in the film. The best discussion of this question that I have read, based on close study of extant drafts of the screenplay, is by Jeffrey J. Folks, "James Agee's Filmscript for The Night of the Hunter," in The Southern Quarterly (1995). Folks suggests, contrary to what others have said, that much of Agee's screenplay appears in the film. Whatever the case might be, the film does reflect his influence.

A number of reasons explain Laughton's desire to make a film of Davis Grubb's novel. He first of all liked the novel, which he read before it was published. He set out to make a faithful adaptation and worked closely with Grubbs in developing the film. The themes that he emphasized in the film were religious extremism, the dire economic conditions of the Depression and the suffering of the rural poor as a result, the victimization of women and of children, and the loss of values in the modern world. His emphasis on the rural landscapes, on the religious extremism and misogyny of his main character Harry Powell, and on the clash of modern values and the modern world against more traditional values—these are emphases he accepted from the novel—are ones that are characteristic of much modern Southern writing. They make it convenient as well as logical to view this film as a Southern work, and at the least as a work which in tone and content is consanguine with other Southern literature.

For those of you unfamiliar with this film, here is a barebones summary. A man named Ben Harper robs a bank and kills two men in the process. He gives the money he has stolen to his son John and directs him to hide and protect the money at all costs. Harper is captured by police, sent to prison, and executed, but before his death he tells his cellmate, an itinerant preacher named Harry Powell, about the hidden money—but does not say where the money is. Powell, who is in prison for stealing a car but who in fact has been traveling through the countryside romancing and marrying vulnerable widows, killing them, and taking their money, decides to find the widow of his executed cellmate and marry her. Soon after this, Powell finds and marries the widow, he realizes that she does not know where the money is and that the children do, so he kills her and begins pressuring John and his sister Pearl to give up the money. They refuse and flee, escaping down the river in a small boat. They are taken in by an elderly woman, played by Lillian Gish, who befriends orphans. She is a pious, virtuous woman who protects parentless children from the evil of modern times, and from people like Harry Powell, whom she wounds with her rifle when he tries to break into her house, and who at the end of the film has been captured and is headed for trial and execution.

Three characteristics make this film remarkable. One is the character of Harry Powell as portrayed by Robert Mitcham. He is an evil and psychopathic serial killer who believes that he is carrying out God's word. His hatred of women, his animalistic greed, and his willingness to kill the children in order to get what he wants make him one a truly chilling character. Mitcham never surpassed or equaled this performance during the remainder of his career. You can't put out of your mind his singing of "leaning on the everlasting arms"—it's not comforting. The second memorable element involves the visual qualities of the film. In cinematography the film ranges from ultra realism to stylized expressionism to fanciful lyricism. One thinks of this film in terms of the visual images that characterize it: the hands of Harry Powell tattooed with the words Love and Hate, the church-like bedroom where Harry kills his wife; the gruesome image of a dead woman sitting in an old jalopy on the bottom of the river, her throat cut; the lyrical images of the children fleeing downriver from their pursuer, and so on. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez deserves much of the credit for this aspect of the film. The third characteristic involves the film's narratives, which fuse the plights of children and widows in the Depression and a young boy's determination to carry out his promise to his father with an elemental battle between virtue and evil.

This is not a perfect film, and from the technical standards of 2007 it may seem dated in ways, especially in several scenes involving special effects. Parts of it are contrived or overstated. My students were particularly put off by a series of scenes in the film's central section where the fleeing children are juxtaposed with images of wild animals that are supposed to suggest that the children live in a world where the strong victimize the weak, where there are predators and their victims. The Night of the Hunter is clearly a "made" film that seeks to create its own world with its own set of standards, not one that seems to emulate the world we inhabit. I like to think of it as a nightmarish fairy tale, the kind that keeps you awake at night. Yet the imperfections, the utter distinctiveness of this film as compared to most American films of the 1950s, or of any other decade for that matter, make this film what it is.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dragon Wars: D-Wars

I am writing about Dragon Wars: D-Wars (2007) only because I set a goal to write on this blog about every film I see. TV ads for this film, which showed battling dragons in an urban landscape, with one dragon coiled about a towering skyscraper, convinced me that this was the sort of film with brassy digital effects and loud explosions that my son and I might enjoy as a mindless entertainment. So we went to see it. I paid $8.00 each for tickets.

This was the worst film I've written about so far. It is apparently a Korean-made film repackaged for American audiences. To say it is a Korean film in no way is meant to say that it is necessarily a bad film, only that it is not what the television advertisements make it out to be. This film possesses, with one exception, every aspect of badness one can imagine: acting, story, screenplay, editing, continuity, you name it. I knew within five minutes—as scene after scene of subtitled flashbacks and exposition began to unfold—that this film was a mistake. The one minor exception to the wide and impressive array of execrably bad aspects was the digital monsters. The first few times they appeared they seemed impressive. But soon they become increasingly like monsters from a third-rate comic book and they pale in comparison to some of the beasts we encounter in such films as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There we had a good story. Here we have an intricately murky mythology about dragons that come back to life once every five hundred years. There is always a girl who must be sacrificed so that the good dragon can triumph. If the bad dragon wins, then the human race ends. There is a five-hundred year old man who runs a curio shop. There is another man who can walk through walls and leads a troop of soldiers dressed in impenetrable armor. They ride dinosaur-like beasts. Their swords shoot fire. Flying lizards spit balls of fire. There are plot holes (even given the utter ridiculousness of the story) large enough to drive battle cruisers through.

I wondered briefly if my negative reaction was the result of my unfamiliarity with Asian mythology and dragon myths. But surely such unfamiliarity could not lead one to misjudge a good film as bad. Although D-Wars features the only cinematic appearance of an Asian dragon I have seen, Asian dragons do not redeem this film from the dragon excrement that suffuses it from beginning to end.

New York Times reviewer Andy Webster wrote that D-Wars "is such a breathless, delirious stew, it's impossible not to be entertained, provided — this is crucial — you have a sense of humor." I have a sense of humor and laughed often during the film, but virtually none of the humor in D-Wars is intentional (with a few exceptions) , and after a while one tires of laughing at scenes and dialogue and plot turns for their clumsy ineptitude.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Driving Miss Daisy

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) records a very narrow slice of Southern life between the late 1940s and early 1970s. The setting is Atlanta. The principal characters are an aging black man in need of employment and an old Jewish woman no longer able to drive, or at least whose son does not want her to drive. She is feisty, stubborn, and independent, and when her son brings to her house the man he has hired to chauffeur her around, she makes clear her lack of interest. Gradually, over the course of twenty-five years, a friendship develops between the two. Although Daisy thinks of herself as a progressive woman who has never been prejudiced, she clearly is. She never recognizes the links between herself and Hoke. When the Atlanta Jewish Temple is bombed, Hoke remarks to her that the same men who committed that crime are also the men who commit acts of hatred against blacks. She fails to see the connection. Later she fails to understand why Hoke might want to attend a dinner where Martin Luther King is speaking—she had an extra ticket she could have given him—he drives her to the dinner but does not attend, waiting for her outside in the car while King gives his talk. Despite all of this, their friendship develops in spite of limitations of prejudice and racial divisions.

As the chauffeur Hoke Coburn, Morgan Freeman plays a role that earned him both praise and criticism. He is ingratiating, and there are stereotypical elements in his performance. But he brings Hoke to life not as a general type but as an individual human being. He plays a kind of black man who today would seem a throwback, an anachronism, by 2007 standards. Such men did once exist. To play such a character must have taken courage on Freeman's part, and might well have involved humiliation as well. Jessica Tandy is equally good as Daisy. Criticisms leveled against the film found fault with its portrayal of a friendship between the elderly white woman and her black employee. Such friendships did not exist, so the criticism argues, and the film perpetuates a damaging falsehood as a result. Such friendships may have been rare, but undoubtedly they did occur. Clearly there were black people who worked for white families who felt a sense of kinship with their employers, who may have identified with them to varying extents. Clearly also there were many black people who worked for white families who felt no such kinship at all. Does the film argue that we ought to return to former times, when divisions between the races were more clearly marked, when whites occupied rigidly defined social position over that of blacks? No, I don't think so.

In a sense, the film is about change, progress—both in a good and bad sense.

One can see how the film might be seen to suggest that social progress and modernization have come at a cost. In particular, Daisy's son Boolie and his wife Florine adapt a lifestyle that is decidedly untraditional, at least in the sense of Jewish traditions. They celebrate Christmas and put up seasonal decorations. Boolie may in fact affect Christian customs for the sake of his business, which relies on many non-Jewish customers. He also declines to attend the Martin Luther King tribute dinner because he fears that doing so may cost him the business of white patrons who dislike King. Boolie makes many decisions on the basis of what is good for his business. One might argue that this film portrays a kind of friendship that would have become much more unlikely in post-civil rights days. Thus from this point of view the film may bemoan the loss of such friendships. But what the film doesn't do is argue for a return to the past. It illustrates and marks time's movement forward and the changes it brings. The film effectively illustrates how people grow old, lose their friends, lose their bearings, become more and more alien and alone in a world that is moving forwards and changing without them.

An interesting aspect of this film based on the play of the same name by Alfred Uhry (who also wrote the screenplay) is its low-key portrayal of Jewish Southern life in Atlanta during the mid-twentieth century. In many ways Daisy and Boolie's lives are indistinguishable from the lives of many non-Jewish people around them. Daisy attends synagogue regularly and has her circle of Jewish friends—they play canasta together on a regular basis. They may be outsiders in a predominantly Christian city., but they are also citizens of that city (as Daisy makes clear when she attends the MLK dinner). Some minor conflicts in the film arise from the collision of Jewish and non-Jewish traditions. But Daisy's religion is an incidental context. It's important but not the center of the film. Her identity as a white Southern woman struggling against advancing age and her own prejudices is more important in the film than her religion.

Again we confront in this film the issue of representation. The film portrays an individualized situation—an individual white woman developing a friendship with an individual black man. The film makes no claims that these two are representative of a larger class of people, or that their friendship in some way is representative of a larger phenomenon between white employers and their black employees prior to the Civil Rights movement. But film is a representative medium—it portrays individuals who are also, inescapably, seen as representative types. Audiences are naturally prone to see individual characters in a film as representative of a larger, wider reality. When we watch films (or read books) we often identify with the individual characters—we see them as representative of a larger aspect of experience than their individual situations can imply. It is easy to understand why some viewers of this film may object to the portrayal of a friendship that they do not believe accurately represents white and black relations in mid-20th century Atlanta. But this whole issue is fraught with complications. Often when we talk about the past, attempt to understand it, to portray it, we skew and distort our visions to encompass a past we want to believe in. How can we know what the facts of the past are to begin with, unless we actually lived through it? Even then our own prejudices and perceptions and memories distort our sense of our own experience.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma (2007) is a study in angles and close-ups. The film is composed almost entirely of close-up shots of its characters, sometimes one character, sometimes several at a time. Often we view the action at eye-level from just behind the shoulders of a character. The result is a sense of deep involvement with the characters and their conflicts, and also of constraint, claustrophobia. Some scenes are filmed with handheld cameras, which produce a shaky, jerky shot that both disorients you and draws you deeply into the action.

A remake of a 1950s film of the same title, 3:10 to Yuma takes a number of old movie western conventions and reinvigorates them through a fresh script, excellent acting by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, innovative cinematography, constant tension and movement. The hackneyed convention made fresh is that of a Civil War veteran, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), down on his luck. He has lost the respect of his wife and his two sons, especially his oldest son, a fourteen year old, who thinks his father inept and a coward. A drought has caused crop failures that have left Evans nearly penniless and in debt. He has to regain his bearings or perish. When he and his sons witness a stage coach robbery by a gang of outlaws led by the notorious Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), Evans takes a wounded survivor of the robbery to the town doctor and in the process gets involved in the arrest of Wade, who carelessly goes into town after the robbery and stays long enough to be arrested and captured (this is a plot flaw, as Wade is not portrayed as a careless or unintelligent man). Evans agrees for two hundred dollars to escort Wade to the local penitentiary. Obviously he sees this as an opportunity to get out of debt and redeem himself in his sons' eyes. It's a risky and foolhardy job—Wade's murderous gangs of thugs and psychopaths are ready and waiting to rescue him.

Much that may seem conventional and predictable about the film is kept interesting by the acting of Crowe and Bale.

Bales is excellent as a slow-witted but resolute father who endures the contempt of his older son and risks his life to save his farm and family. Crowe plays a murderous outlaw, an amateur artist who is utterly without scruples, but who turns out in the end to have a small redemptive core. Crowe keeps his character interesting and alive even at moments when he seems on the verge of sinking into cliché. Wade is clearly a legend, everyone recognizes his name, people tell stories about the crimes he has committed and people he has killed. Some stories are only legend, but others are true. Wade has surrounded himself with a gang of utter lowlifes, vicious desperate men who follow his bidding without thought, including one younger man, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who kills with the indifferent fury of a robot. Yet Wade also has his sensitive side: we see him at several moments in the film sketching—a hawk, a woman he has just slept with, even Dan Evans. One character reports that Wade sketches only those things that he loves. But his interest in drawing suggests that beyond his two-dimensional murderousness is a more complicated man that we might expect.

John Ford westerns pitted his characters against each other as well as against the western landscape, against Nature. His camera rarely came in as close to his characters as they do in this film. While in the best Ford movies the struggle is against the environment as well as other humans, in this film characters struggle against one another. Environment is incidental--except for that environment created by the jealousies and ambitions of men.

There is at least one truly heroic moment in this film when, after other characters have been killed off or have withdrawn in the face of almost certain death, Dan Evans says he will escort Wade from the hotel where they have holed up to the train station. Wade's gang and others wait outside the hotel ready to shoot anyone who tries to take Wade to the train station. Evans' fate seems almost certain. Although he does make arrangements with a train agent to provide for his family should he not survive, his determination to get Wade to the station is a matter of principle—of setting an example for his son, of standing up for law and order, of doing the right thing.

For a time in the film the struggle seems to be between the law and respectability as exemplified by Bale and the utter anarchistic, rapacious fury of Crowe and his men. In the end the struggle boils down to the gradual efforts of two very different men to come to terms with each other and with themselves.

As predictable as the end of the film may be, it is truly moving.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Colonel Effingham’s Raid

Colonel Effingham's Raid (1946) dramatizes the conflict of modern commerce and traditional values, at least as they are construed in this film based on the 1943 Berry Fleming novel of the same title. In a sense the film is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the elderly. Col. Effingham comes home to Fredericksville at the age of 65 after a lifetime career in the army. His great achievement has been assisting with the building of the Panama Canal. He returns home in 1940 eager to be of use. Col. Effingham in the film is a man of high ideals and principles. He regards himself as a patriot. Although he is overbearing and full of bombast, he is also sincere. He volunteers to write a column on the military for the local newspaper. The newspaper is ambitious to compete successfully with a larger newspaper in town and is not inclined to seek conflict with the political power structure of Fredericksville, a group of older men who have been running the town out of pocket for years, who make deals and agreements under the table, and who have contempt for the townspeople and for the principles of democracy. When they decide to name the town's Confederate Square for a long deceased businessman whom many locals consider a carpetbagger, and when they decide to demolish the historic courthouse and replace it with a new structure to be built by the mayor's brother, Col. Effingham takes aim in his column, calling the citizens to arms and lambasting these threats to the town community and tradition.

The lines of battle are drawn between business , progress, and traditional values. This film about a small Southern town is also set just before the beginning of the Second World War. Therefore at the same time the colonel is battling attacks on tradition and hometown values, the nation is preparing for war. The film (and presumably the novel) explicitly links these two dimensions—Effingham is leading a battle to defend tradition and place and the nation's military is calling up forces to do the same on a wider scale. Oddly, then, this places the nation's enemies—the Nazis and others--in the same category as the men whom the colonel regards as the enemies of the town-- the corrupt political and commercial machine that have always gotten their ways. Not surprisingly, these forces on various scales continue to do battle today in numerous small and large towns and cities around the nation.

One odd characteristic of this film is that while it makes no hesitation to identify itself with a small Southern town there is virtually nothing about the film that is regionally marked. Virtually no citizen has a Southern accent. Col. Effingham himself, played by Charles Coburn (a Savannah, GA, native) has a British accent and swaggers and wears a monocle. I don't really think this is a matter of the film trying to avoid acknowledging its settings (there are a number of black characters playing servants); it may be more a matter of the film's simply trying to avoid the difficulty and expense of teaching actors accents and dressing them up in regional attire. The film may be navigating the demands of authenticity by ignoring them—we have generic Southerners as a result, Southerners who readily acknowledge their region but who aren't much like people who live there. Once you adjust to the peculiarity the rest of the film works well enough.

Effingham's energetic efforts to defeat the town power structure, save the courthouse, and keep the original name for Confederate Square initially seem to fail when every businessman in town refuses to support his efforts—they have too much money at stake, they don't want to anger the city fathers and endanger their own economic welfare. Even the colonel's cousin, a young man named Albert, who also works for the newspaper, is embarrassed by his elder cousin's stand. Only when his uncle suffers a heart attack and lapses into weakness and despair at the defeat he has suffered does Albert begin to feel regret and a sense of duty both to his cousin and the town. Matters take their formulaic course at a rally in the town square held to send the Georgia National Guard off to war.

The South defined in this film is probably based on Berry Flemings own definition in his novel. The South is portrayed as a place of traditions and values threatened by commerce and corruption that have come in from the outside. The lure of money is too much for many of the town's leaders, men who grew up in Fredericksville. It takes the older men like Effingham as well as the women to stand up for traditional and virtue. The newspaper for which Effingham writes his column is portrayed as a paper more interested in its own financial status than in representing the interests of the community.

An exception to the generic South of this film is the black characters, all of whom appear as servants. They play the typical stereotypical roles, rolling their eyes, acting clownish on occasion. My attempts to identify the black actors in the film were made difficult by the fact that the credits don't seem to list them. It's ironic that the one Southern characteristic the film doesn't ignore is the presence of black servants.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


There came a moment in Ratatouille when the audience audibly gasped at the image of rats busily engaged in preparing food in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant. This moment signifies the success of the film—it compels you to believe in the rats. Ratatouille has much in common with other animated films from Pixar and Disney--talking animals, caricaturish humans, computer animation. What makes this film work so well, what pushes it well above the level of most other animated films, is how well all the basic elements interact and cohere. The film has an interesting and engaging story, a varied and distinctive array of characters who seem real and about whom we care (including the chef rat Remy), beautiful animation that does not call too much attention to itself, and a fine soundtrack. It combines a romance between two cooks in the restaurant kitchen with the story of the rat Remy's ambition to become a great chef. A key element is the fact that Remy is the most intelligent and engaging character in the film. The great antagonist of the story is the head cook Skinner, an undersized but tyrannical taskmaster who runs the kitchen like a boot camp, who is incompetent and also responsible for the once-great restaurant's decline. My favorite character was the restaurant critic Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O'Toole. The film boasts a multiplicity of plots: Remy's desire to cook, the romance between Linguini and Colette, Skinner's jealousy of Linguini's inexplicable ability to cook wonderful dishes (Remy does the cooking for him), the ghost of the deceased master chef Auguste Gusteau, and so on. This is a delightful and charming film.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Stranded is a 1987 film featuring Maureen O'Sullivan and Ione Skye (the singer Donovan's daughter) about a family of aliens who suddenly appear in a house outside a small Southern town. The aliens are fleeing an assassin on a remote world. Why they are the object of assassination is never explained. The aliens are vintage Lost in Space aliens, with bad hair and cheesy costumes and make-up. Based on their coiffures, the aliens owned blow dryers. One of them, an apparent robot, is dressed as a Ninja. We know this film is set in the South because all the human characters speak with Southern drawls. Some carry shotguns, drive pickups, hate black people and other strange people including aliens. The local sheriff is a black man, and at least one of his deputies, not to mention other numerous locals, hate him because of his race. Despite the fact that they kill several people who are, admittedly, trying to kill them, these aliens turns out to be kind and civilized. A teenage alien boy and the character played by Ione Skye seem to fall in love. The grandmother played by Maureen O'Sullivan becomes friends with an alien grandmother. This silly film lacks humor, intelligence, insight, and skill. Despite the fact that in the course of the film most of them are killed, the surviving aliens leave the earth at the end of the film with smiles on their faces. Galactic understanding and good will for all.

I had not heard of this film when I saw it listed on the schedule of a cable movie channel. Stranded construes the South as shotguns, baseball caps, pickup trucks, dimwitted racists, and a few good souls thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Snakes on a Plane

There was no way Snakes on a Plane (2006) could have lived up to the furor surrounding it for months prior to its release. And it doesn't. The film is on the same general level as Anaconda, whose huge digital snake terrorized passengers on a boat on the Amazon. Some of the snakes on the plane in this film are actual snakes while others are digital, and it's often easy to tell the difference.

Snakes on a Plane exploits primal fears of slithering reptiles and the claustrophobic entrapment some people feel within the fuselage of a jetliner. Halfway through the film some sixty people on the jetliner are dead, bitten by poisonous snakes placed on the airliner to prevent a government witness from testifying against a Hawaiian gangster. The snakes make their appearance while the plane is still two hours from Los Angeles. Soon one pilot is dead, and after a valiant effort to keep the plane in flight the other pilot dies too. The only person left capable of flying the plane is a rap artist's bodyguard played by Keenan Thompson. Keenan has over 2000 hours of pilot experience flying video game airplanes, and on the basis of that he has to bring the plane in for a landing at LAX.

The plane is full of distinctive passengers who remind you of the passengers in such films as The High and the Mighty, Airport, and other such films. The drama of those other films came out of the private lives of the passengers, all of whom are brought together in a moment of crisis on an airplane high in the sky. The interest of those films, where there is interest, grows from the way we care about those passengers. (The High and the Mighty is the classic film in this genre). In Snakes on a Plane most of the passengers are developed only far enough for you to take note when they are bitten by a snake. They're not human beings with interesting back stories—they're victims. A pair of newlyweds meets their snake in the bathroom, where they are trying to enter the mile-high club. A snoring overweight Hispanic woman meets her fate when a snake slithers up her dress. A stewardess on her last flight is bitten when she attempts to keep a cobra from biting a five-year old. An obnoxious Frenchman is crushed to death by a giant anaconda and then swallowed head-first after he throws another passenger's Chihuahua into its jaws. And so it goes.

Most of the major characters in the film survive. The baby and two small boys survive. If the film has any real guts, the anaconda would have swallowed the baby and one of the boys wouldn't have survived the flight. The only real star in the film is Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to appear in every film these days, and who waits until nearly the end of the story to utter the famous line that will give this film its own immortality. Jackson seems bored with his role, but even so he performs well. The only other actor of any note is Juliana Margulies of ER fame, and this film won't do anything to restore her sagging career.

Films such as Alien and Halloween and even Nightmare on Elm Street rely to varying extents on tension and suspense to hold the viewer's interest. There is little tension or suspense in this film. You know that at some point the snakes are going to appear, and you can guess pretty much how things are going to go when they do. Rather than stirring up suspense, this film relishes in showing you how various passengers come to their deaths when snakes bite them. There's too much attention on the gore and the effects of the poison and the faces grimacing in pain. In one scene we are shown how a man foams at the mouth in his last seconds. One woman is bitten in the eye. A male passenger is bitten while relieving himself in the bathroom—you can guess where he is bitten. Other passengers are subjected to multiple bites all at once. Some die quickly. Others die slowly and horribly. The film makes a point of displaying their swollen, discolored bodies. At one point, one of the pilots, before he is killed, radios LAX air control that 60 passengers are dead. This is a horrific fact, yet it seems merely incidental here. The point of this film is to show death, but death doesn't seem to matter.

When the plane finally does land in Los Angeles and the surviving passengers emerge, it is a kind of victory. Everyone is happy and joking. Samuel Jackson and Juliana Margulies embrace and make a date. When a last snake manages to bite the star witness in the chest, Jackson shoots the snake with two gunshots that go through the snake right into the witness' chest. Well, not really. The witness is wearing a bullet proof vest, so he is unaffected by the bullets or the snake. Everyone laughs. No one seems to remember that sixty or more dead passengers lie in the plane. They don't matter. The survivors have survived. Margulies and Jackson will have their date. Jackson and his witness are shown surfing together in the film's last scene. The studio has its money. Case closed.

A subplot in the film involving a herpetologist trying to help the police locate anti-venom seems almost comically superfluous. No one cares.

Let's be clear: this film was made by the pre-release hype. Everyone went to see it with high expectations. And perhaps those expectations lured them into liking the film. But Snakes on a Plane has all the lineaments of a low-budget C-grade movie—no artistry, no interest, a cynical, perverse, obsequious pandering for the viewer's money.