Saturday, May 31, 2008

The General

Buster Keaton starred in and co-directed The General, a silent 1927 film loosely based on the famous 1862 Civil War episode in which Northern spies stole a Southern train (named the General) and were pursued by Southern troops. (The episode is known as the Great Locomotive Chase). Keaton plays a train engineer named Johnnie Gray whose locomotive is stolen. Annabelle, the girl he loves, is accidentally aboard the train, checking her trunk, and when the northern spies take the train she goes with it. This 75-minute film is fun to watch, and it rarely flags. The General is not what I would call a slapstick film, but there is plenty of comedy, most of it visual comedy involving Keaton walking back and forth on top of the train, jumping from car to car, once even riding up and down on the side rods that drive the locomotive. Taken individually, most of the stunts are not that impressive. Taken all together, however, they constitute a seemingly endless and intricately varied series of jokes, stunts, tricks, pranks, and pratfalls—effortlessly, naturally executed. The film is highly entertaining.

The General is told from a southern point of view, but this is only because Keaton's character is a Southerner. Other than the mere fact of whose side he is on, there is little that makes this film southern or northern. The issues and causes of the war have nothing to do with this film, nor is there any romanticism attached to the conflict between north and south. When the war begins, Keaton tries to enlist in the Southern army but is refused by the enlistment office because, they say, he can do better service as a train engineer. His girlfriend mistakenly believes he refused to enlist, so she stops talking to him. When his locomotive is stolen by Northern troops, he has a chance to do service to the southern cause and win back the heart of his girl at the same time. That's about all there is to this film--sight gags, action, constant motion (the trains are in pursuit of or attempting to escape each other throughout the film), ingenious comic stunts, valiant and quixotically incompetent efforts by Keaton's character to thwart the spies, and a dramatic battle and train wreck at the end. The Northern troops are defeated, the Southern troops win, Keaton wins back his girl, and he is allowed to enlist.

Show Boat

The musical Show Boat has often been held up as the first modern American musical, in part because of its focus on a social issue: racism. The one time I saw the stage play, it struck me as long and static. By the end of the first act, Joe has finished singing "Old Man River," by far the strongest moment of the show, and Julie LaVerne has been evicted from the show boat with her lover after it is revealed she is half black. Then the musical drags on for another long act. Once Julie LaVerne leaves, the stage play (as I remember it) lacks much tension or dramatic excitement and instead becomes a kind of pageant play about the private and public life of Magnolia Hawks. The emphasis is cyclical—people are young and romantic, they have ambitions and love affairs, they grow old and disappointed, and their children enter into the same cycles on their own. The stage play did not strike me as particularly cheerful.

There are three film versions of Show Boat, one made in 1929, another in 1936, and the third in 1951. In the 1951 version, the garish Technicolor hues are unnaturally bright and bizarre. Although the film's focus in its first 40 minutes on miscegenation may be a sign of what passed in 1951 for a social conscience, this is hardly the main focus. Once Julie leaves, she is largely forgotten until she appears briefly later in the film in Chicago and then again in Natchez. Julie is a version of what used to be termed in American literary studies the tragic mulatto—a character whose mixed racial heritage becomes a source of tragedy and suffering in a society that cannot tolerate racial mixtures. In the film, the people on the show boat are apparently accepting of Julie, but when a spurned lover betrays her to the local sheriff, he enforces the local laws against love between the races. Although the cast and crew on the show boat protest, the sheriff is determined to enforce the law, and she leaves. Is Julie's situation tragic because of society's racism or because she is half black? Is society's racism held up as worse than the fact that poor Julie is part black, and therefore (in the view of the film) inferior--in which case the film itself is racist? This is one of the fundamental issues in stories concerned with racial mixed characters who come to bad ends. The play shows its inability or unwillingness to confront this question by simply dropping it. The focus then falls squarely on Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson) and her romance with the river gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel). The film then turns into a romance about show business and disappointment in love. The film also significantly changes the latter half of the play.

Julie LaVerne's character, played by Ave Gardner, possesses certain coded characteristics that are linked to African American stereotypes. She is passionate, she becomes an alcoholic, is involved in a series of love affairs, and when we see her towards the end of the film she is haggard and dissolute. She is the only woman in the film who in any sense seems sensuous, while the other young white women are prim, proper, and antiseptic. Julie also carries out a sacrificial function by giving up her role in a stage review when she learns that Magnolia is trying out for the role--that is, the black character sacrifices herself for a white character. Her sacrifice is also an act of self-destruction. Late in the play, she plays a key role again in bringing Ravenal and Magnolia back together. Once she departs from the main focus of the film, she fulfills an essentially subservient role. Therefore although the film may portray racism as regrettable, it also seems to portray Julie's partial blackness as less than desirable itself.

Early in the film, as the show boat approaches the riverbank for the first time, we see several scenes of African Americans working happily in the fields and lolling in a carefree manner around the decrepit, broken-down shacks in which they live. These early scenes do not suggest that the film takes an especially enlightened view of issues of race.

Although the film illuminates the racism of the society it portrays, it does not suggest a possibility for change. Instead it expresses a fatalistic sense of social determinism—as if racism, bias, the victimization of one group of people by another, are inevitable, inescapable conditions of life. The most powerful expression of this idea in the play and film comes in the song "Old Man River." Whatever one may think of the play or the film, or even the message of the song itself, "Old Man River" is powerful and moving. William Warfield as the African American stevedore Joe sings beautifully. Essentially "Old Man River" is a black man's lament about the sorry condition of human existence. It complains about hard work ("tote dat barge, lift dat bale"), about victimization by a society and a set of laws over which one has no power ("get a little drunk and you land in jail"), and the mortal, limited nature of human existence in general ("tired of living and scared of dyin'"). The ballad is the play's way of explaining away the sorry circumstances of Julie LaVerne's expulsion from the river boat—racism is just the nature of life, the film and the song imply, you have to accept it. Neither the film nor the play offers any alternative explanation. The song is an expression of determinism, pessimism, of the notion that these moments of oppression must happen and there is no changing them.

Both the play and film explore a parallel circumstance to racism--the victimization of women by the men they fall in love with and marry. Julie has a series of increasingly unhappy love affairs. Magnolia marries a riverboat gambler whose luck goes bad and who abandons her. Again the film suggests this is the condition of life. There's no changing it.

I found the central portion of the film, which focuses on Magnolia's marriage to Ravenal, tedious and predictable, like the play. The 1951 version of Show Boat offers a set of final scenes that are true tear jerkers. As sentimental and hackneyed as they were, they certainly had me reaching for the tissues. Ravenal meets Julie on a riverboat. She attacks him for her abandonment of the pregnant Magnolia, and he protests that he did not know Magnolia was pregnant. From Julie, Ravenal learns that Magnolia and their child are on the show boat in Natchez, where the riverboat on which he is travelling is about to dock. He finds his child playing with a doll, pretending that it is her father. He suggests that they pretend he is her father, and he sits her on his knee.

From a 2008 perspective this is a creepy scene—a little girl approached by a man she does not know who offers to play with her and then sits her on his knee. The film is wholly impervious to these resonances that are apparent to us only because in 2008 we are so jaded. Then Magnolia finds her daughter with the husband who abandoned her. After twenty seconds of gazing at each other, Magnolia and Ravenal embrace and reunite. Everything ends in happiness.


Films that portray history, in my opinion, have an obligation to be accurate, whatever viewpoint towards history they may take. Although Glory (1989) deviates in many details from the facts, it is in general an accurate account of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. One might argue that from an ideological standpoint accuracy is less important than political content. Glory celebrates what for many may have been a forgotten but important episode from the Civil War.

Glory is not really a film about the south. It is a film that occurs both in the north and the south, and it certainly has pertinence to the south, but it is more concerned with national issues of history, race, and the struggle for freedom and equality. The racism portrayed in the film is mostly that of Northern soldiers and officers. Col. Robert Gould Shaw believes the men in his regiment can be as successful at soldiering as white soldiers. He meets a number of officers who do not share his opinion. A quartermaster refuses to supply shoes for the men because he regards them as soldiers who will do manual labor and never go into battle—therefore they don't need shoes as badly as men who are likely to see battle. Another officer encourages his black platoon to pillage and burn Darien, Georgia. When one of the soldier strikes a white women, the white commanding officer shoots the soldier. The film emphasizes that most of Shaw's fellow officers believe that training black soldiers for battle is folly.

Glory is about free African Americans and former slaves fighting for self-worth, dignity, and freedom. They want to prove their worth as soldiers, and therefore as human beings, and they are willing to die to do so. In the film, Colonel Shaw volunteers his regiment to lead the charge against Fort Wagner in South Carolina. As they march towards the front lines, the white soldiers in other regiments cheer for them, acknowledging their bravery. Of course, all the principal characters in the regiment are killed in the brutal attack that follows. Historically, nearly half the regiment died or was wounded in the attack, which failed to take the fort. The heroism of the men, their willingness to die for one another as well as for the country they fought for, is the point.

When Shaw volunteers his regiment to lead the charge, their deaths are a foregone conclusion. What kind of favor is he doing for these soldiers he loves so well—to lead them to their deaths in a charge that accomplishes nothing? Such questions, I suppose, are not appropriate.

Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead" extols the heroism and the memory of the 54th regiment. At the end of the film as the credits roll close-up images of what appears to be the monument in Boston about which Lowell wrote his famous poem are highlighted.

One small galling deviation from fact: in the opening scene soldiers are preparing for the Battle of Antietam, which took place in September 1862. As soldiers ride down a road, we see dogwood trees in bloom. Dogwood trees bloom in the spring, of course.

This is an excellent war film. It never fails to move me. Matthew Broderick, not known when the film was made for his acting ability, is excellent as Colonel Shaw. Broderick's natural awkwardness and slightly mannered way of talking supports his portrayal of Shaw as a somewhat naïve but also fiercely idealistic and committed individual—committed both to the defense of his nation as well as to the soldiers of the 54th Regiment.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Meet the Robinsons

Meet the Robinsons (2007) has a kind of plot and a kind of theme. It's a story about an orphaned boy searching for his mother, a time-traveling story, a story about a young inventor. It's about how a boy from the future comes back to the past to influence an event that may or may not happen in the future. It's about how a boy from the past travels to the future to change events there. We can follow the narrative, in its own way. But the film—the animated film—is too much of everything. The main character, Wilbur Robinson (named after the boy from Lost in Space?) is likeable and engaging. He's always trying to make new inventions, and they always seem to fail. He's always hoping for parents who will come to his orphanage to adopt him, and he's always scaring them off—he's apparently frightened off something like 123 sets of parents.

The film is so fast, frenetic, and loud that it's difficult to enjoy. The pace of the action seems out of sync with the main character. The animation is fun, but after a while it grows tiresome. We're not given a chance to enjoy one scene before another one comes clambering along right behind it. The burlesque quality of some characters seems to clash with the more realistic quality of others. The sudden appearance of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (brought by Wilbur's nemesis from the prehistoric past) brings some excitement and fear to the film, but it's inconsistent with the rest of the film. The family that Wilbur goes to visit in the future is such a circus-like conglomeration of clowns, freaks, geeks, and normal people that it's difficult to make sense of. Stylistically the film seems incoherent, it switches in tone too often and too fast—it's dark and it's light and it's comic and it's scary and it's warm and it's doleful--ultimately it's disappointing that it's not better and more entertaining than it manages to be.

Way Down South

In Way Down South (1939), directed by Bernard Vorhaus and written by African American actor Clarence Muse and writer Langston Hughes, we see an old Louisiana plantation that exemplifies all the romantic myths about the antebellum South: we see slaves working happily in the fields and around the plantation house. They sing and dance joyfully and gladly serve their white masters. In turn, their owners are kind and thoughtful to them. Despite the great expense, the plantation owner is planning to build new slave cabins, though he is warned of the expense by his financial advisor. His family prides itself on never having sold a slave. The plantation is a place of social and racial harmony. The white boy who is one of the central characters in the film has as best friends two slaves from the plantation.

When the old master Timothy Reid dies after being run over by a horse, however, things go wrong. His son is too young to run the plantation, so his father's financial advisor Martin Dill assumes control as executor, with assistance from foreman Charles Middleton. Dill immediately begins taking steps to bring efficiency to the plantation, but at the same time he appears to be draining money from the plantation for his own uses. He is not as kind to the slaves as their dead master was. The head house slave, Uncle Caton, played by Clarence Muse, explains that Dill "don't understand the South."

Dill decides to sell most of the slaves on the plantation, including Uncle Caton. Young Reid helps disguise Uncle Caton as an old woman and escapes with him to New Orleans, planning to buy him passage to the north on a riverboat. There is, of course, comedy in having a black man dress up in disguise as an elderly white women, although the film doesn't play this plot element for as much comedy as it might. There were historical incidents of slaves disguising themselves and escaping north. The most famous is that of William and Ellen Craft. Ellen, who was light-skinned, disguised herself as a white man, while her husband posed as her servant. They describe the incident in their narrative of their lives, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.

Before Dill is able to sell the slaves, young Reid convinces a besotted New Orleans judge than Dill is stealing money from the estate and that his plan to sell the slaves is contrary to what his father would have wished.

The two main settings for the film are the plantation and the inn in New Orleans to which Reid escapes with Uncle Caton.

The film illustrates the mythic Southern ideal of the kind and paternalistic plantation owner who keeps good care of his slaves and treats them as family—though clearly in the film the slaves are shown as relatively simple and in need of protection. The intrusion of outsiders (Southerners always liked to complain about the intrusion of outsiders) causes problems. The extent to which the Hughes/Muse screenplay added these elements to the screenplay is unclear—I could find no evidence in Arnold Rampersand's Hughes biography that changes were made to the script against the authors' objections--apparently Muse, Hughes, and the producer Sol Lesser agreed to the antebellum context of the film. Ampersand suggests Hughes saw the film as a compromise and hoped he wouldn't be criticized too harshly for it. (He did receive considerable criticism). Hughes and Muse clearly had much to do with the portrayal of the slaves and of the film's specific emphasis on slavery. Slavery itself is not shown as a particular horror in the film. More than anything else being sold away from the place they have lived for their entire lives is what they fear and dread. Dill's plan to sell the slaves is the dramatic center of the film.

African Americans actors and the slaves they portray are prominent in the film. The film's argument against slavery (or at least against the selling of slaves) is especially strong for its times. Yet the slaves are portrayed as stereotypical—often clownish and bug-eyed, singing and dancing and jubilating. No African American in the film breaks out of a stereotypical role. They love and speak kindly of their dead master and his son. Although Uncle Caton is accustomed to speaking his mind to his owner, even disagreeing with him, the film makes clear that this is permissible only because the dead owner permitted and encouraged it. When Uncle Caton speaks his mind to the executor, Dill immediately places him on the list of slaves to be sold.

Much of the entertainment value of the film centers on the singing of the slaves (the Hall Johnson Choir, a black musical group, provided many of the actors who played slaves in the film). The singing varied widely from what one would imagine to be traditional slave ballads to jazz-type music current in the 1930s, to popular ballads. Young Reid (Bobby Breen, a transient child star and singing sensation of the late 1930s) breaks into song on a number of occasions, often accompanied by the African Americans in the film. The film, of course, was conceived as a vehicle for displaying his singing talents.

It's difficult to make a case for the racial progressivism of this film. Although slaves are portrayed sympathetically, they are also shown as simple and subservient. Although young Reid helps Uncle Caton to escape when Dill decides to sell him, this hardly mitigates the rest of the film. There is no attack on slavery here—only on the mistreatment of slaves, on the practice of selling them away from the friends and families whom they have grown up with (whether the typical slave grew up with friends and family is a historical question I cannot answer). One might argue that showing slavery as an institution where slaves could be beaten, exploited, and sold down the river in itself is an attack, yet too often in the film slaves are shown behaving gratefully for their condition. Although the Hall Johnson Choir sings beautifully in portions of the film, they and other actors behave in shamelessly stereotypical ways. Uncle Caton behaves with dignity, yet he never acts independently, is always a servant, is always bowing to the white masters who love but also own him.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, by Suze Rotolo

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (2008) by Suze Rotolo recounts the author's early years in Greenwich Village and her relationship with Bob Dylan. She is the girl walking next to Dylan on the famous cover of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963). Rotolo was interviewed in the 2005 documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, directed by Martin Scorcese. Her memoir is a fascinating, revealing glimpse into this early period in Dylan's career. It quotes from a number of his letters to Rotolo and gives a clear sense of what he was like as a young man just beginning to make his way in the New York folk scene. It is written in an informal style, not at all a literary style but still one that is clear and readable.

In early chapters Rotolo writes about her parents, both Communists who immigrated to America from Italy. They settled in Queens, New York City, where they raised their two daughters. Both girls grew up during the McCarthy era, and fear about arrests, persecution, and being spied on by federal agents was always an issue. Censorship that resulted from excessive sensitivity about political subject matter was an issue Dylan himself had to deal with in the early 1960s—Rotolo describes how he refused to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show when he was denied the opportunity to sing his song "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues."

Rotolo is an intelligent, knowledgeable writer who understands the history and context of the 1960s. She writes as someone who admires and respects Dylan and who considers him a great artist yet at the same time as someone who sees him as a human being flawed like the rest of us. From an early point she makes note of her objections to his need to invent facts about himself (such as his name and stories he told about his upbringing). Later this develops into a concern with the nature of their relationship, especially after he meets Joan Baez.

This is not a kiss-and-tell memoir. Rotolo is discrete and doesn't offer much intimate information about her relationship with Dylan, except for the fact that they lived together. She says nothing about their sex lives nor about her relationships with other men. (She talks about friendships with other men, some of whom she may have been closer to than others). It's to her credit that she doesn't even feel obliged to apologize for not providing more private information. She focuses instead on Dylan, her parents and childhood in New York City, her identity and growth as an artist, the social and cultural scene of Greenwich Village, and the early 1960s folk scene.

Rotolo does discuss how she did not enjoy being stereotyped as a famous singer's girlfriend or "chick." She didn't see her identity as inherently defined by the man she loved, nor does she believed he felt that way either.

Rotolo discusses the recording of Dylan's first two albums and his gradually developing reputation as a singer and songwriter. She focuses especially on the recording and release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. She marks the Carnegie Hall concert he gave in October 1963 as the true beginning of the Dylan mystique.

I especially enjoyed Rotolo's discussions of such early folk music figures as Dave Van Ronk, Rambling Jack Elliott, Izzy Young, and Ian and Sylvia. Her considerable knowledge of the major figures of the 1960s folk scene gives this book a special interest. She did not agree with those people who felt that Dylan betrayed folk music when he went electric. She provides numerous examples of how people tried to make Dylan into the figure they wanted him to be, about how he resisted such pressures, and about how people weren't comfortable when he developed in ways they didn't anticipate or like. She sees his drift away from folk music and political activism as a natural and even inevitable aspect of his growth as an artist. She cites Phil Ochs, who wrote what she terms "topical" folk music—about current events and issues—as an example of someone less open to change than Dylan.

As Dylan's fame grew, as he became involved with other women (Joan Baez is the only one Rotolo mentions, though she implies there were others--she does make clear her heartbreak when she first learns of Dylan's involvement with Baez), and as her own interests and needs began to clash with his, they drifted apart and broke up, at first temporarily, then for good. Dylan apparently continued to want to see her well after she had decided that she could not see him—he even asked Albert Grossman to ask her to visit him while he was on tour in England in 1965. Rotolo describes the breakdown she suffered shortly after the end of their relationship. In the closing pages of the memoir she discusses her trip in the early 1960s to Cuba with a group of students (travel to Cuba then as now was forbidden to U. S. citizens), her involvement with other people, her work as an artist and as a set designer in the New York theater district, and her final decision to move away from the Greenwich Village scene to Italy in 1966. These overly long sections are not as interesting as those that involve Dylan, but they are probably for Rotolo a necessary way of bringing her memoir about her days in Greenwich Village to an end.

One wishes that the letters she quotes from Dylan could all be published, if there are enough of them. This memoir is a valuable document. No one figured more prominently in Dylan's personal life in the early 1960s than Suze Rotolo. She helped inspire his music, much of which he wrote about her.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Crazy like a Fox

In Crazy like a Fox (2006) Nate Banks, 8th generation scion of a Virginia plantation family, faces the loss of his family home and estate. He's a quixotic and somewhat eccentric man who rides around his plantation declaiming Shakespeare (especially King Lear) and admiring his land and family heritage. He's deeply in debt, his home is on its third mortgage, and he's being forced to sell. The film is about how he resists giving up his home and quaintly and ineptly tries to get it back. Banks is played by Roger Rees, who puts his experience as a Shakespearean actor to good use in this film.

The film is a quiet comedy, usually not slapstick or burlesque. Nate has a wife and two children. His wife Amy (played by Mary McDonnell of Battlestar Galactica fame) is more down to earth than he is. She recognizes the pointlessness of trying to hold on to the house and land, and she presses her husband to sell. Though Nate is not a success as a farmer, and though he seems to have money and sunk more deeply into debt no matter what he tried to do, the film is entirely on his side. Land, family, and heritage trump everything.

There is something endearing about this awkward and amateurish film. Partly it is simply the awkwardness. The film exists in spite of itself, and one can only speculate as to who produced and underwrote it. The Virginia Film Office is listed in the credits, and the prominent use throughout the film of information about the pivotal role Virginia has played in the nation's history suggests the film may be something of a homegrown effort—how many times Nate happens to mention that George Washington was friends with his great grandfather several times removed I cannot count.

Certainly in its values the film is homegrown. There's little subtlety. Crazy like a Fox defines the qualities of Southern living as gentility, community, veneration of the past, and love of the land. The North and the rest of the world are corporate greed and mindless urbanism. The South is agriculture and tradition. The North is commerce, banks, lawyers, and real estate agents. Not surprisingly, a lawyer and a real estate agent--they're married--decide to buy Greenwood. Not surprisingly, the lawyer is named Will Sherman. He has no sympathy for the feckless Banks, and as soon as he and his wife succeed in talking Nate into selling the house (with the promise that he can continue to live on the property as the farm manager) they evict him. Their plan, ultimately, is to raze the 200-year-old house and subdivide the land for a high-class subdivision.

Although the Shermans give their word about allowing Banks to continue living at Greenwood, about not tearing down the house, the film makes a point of the fact that they give their word as a matter of honor—the promise is not written down and therefore has no legal force. To the Southern real estate agent and to Banks their word of honor is enough. To the Shermans it is nothing—as soon as the deed of sale is signed, they announce their intention to evict Banks. The point here is that Southerners are people of honor while Northerners are not. I'd guess that few if any business deals these days depend on a word of honor, rather than a signed and notarized contract.

Nate's reaction to what he regards as betrayal and deceit is extreme. He begins to behave as if he has lost his mind. He finds the Civil War sword that once belonged to his grandfather, puts on the Civil War uniform given to his grandfather by General Lee, and begins riding back and forth across his land, waving the sword, reciting Shakespeare and Chekov. Though his wife and children move into town, he remains at Greenwood, living in a cave on a river bank, biding his time and looking for a way to defeat the Shermans. There is a clear connection here between Nate and King Lear—the old King is betrayed by two of his daughters and loses his power as a result; he wanders mad on the moor. Nate is betrayed by corrupt Northerners and loses his land. One wonders whether this connection will lead to a tragic outcome for Nate, but the film subverts any tragic connotations with a soundtrack that suggests that Banks behavior is comic and clown like, that he is more akin to Shakespeare's Fool than Lear.

People like the Shermans certainly do exist, but in this film they're so stereotypically drawn, so shallow, that it's difficult to take them seriously—even though they have the power to raze the house and sell the land. They have a home in Palm Springs and spend much of their time there. When Mrs. Sherman talks to the servants of Greenwood (whom Nate treats like family) she addresses them while sitting in a chair, in a distant manner, gives orders, and dismisses them by ringing a bell. Will is bombastic and arrogant and willing to do whatever it takes to get his way. Mrs. Sherman often talks about how the house at Greenwood is beyond repair. Greenwood for the Shermans is nothing more or less than a financial investment. The film makes clear that tradition and the abstract, tenuous notion of "land" as anything other than a financial commodity mean nothing to him.

While the Shermans are away at Palm Springs, the black housekeeper Mary Johnson (Myrrh Cauthen) tells Nate he should move back into the house. She regards the house without question as Nate's house. She believes the Shermans are hoping the house will burn because they have removed the pennies from the fuse box that kept electricity flowing in the house. Nate gradually convinces his family to return to Greenwood. The idea here is that while the Shermans are away Nate will make sure that the house is properly maintained. Everyone gleefully acknowledges this fiction. Nate and Amy hold a Christmas party—the entire town seems to be there. They all understand that Nate is living illegally in the house, but they don't care—regardless of the fact that someone else owns the house, it belongs to Nate and his family.

If the Shermans represent the North, then how does this film construct the South? The South is embodied in Banks himself, the patriarch of his family estate. He loves his heritage and his land, which he and his ancestors have gradually had to sell off in parcels to pay debts. Nate talks frequently about the importance of land and of farming, but we see him do little more than admire his property. He rarely works it. Maybe he has employees who work the farm, but we see little of them. (He even suggests at one point that making money off the land isn't the point of owning it. He tells Sherman that he could make money by raising chickens, if he wanted to.) Around Nate are arrayed other Southerners, the townspeople of the small town nearby, the African Americans who work in his house and who are absolutely loyal to him, the white employees who work for him. Although she at first resists, his wife Amy soon comes over to his side. In this small Virginia community everyone agrees that Nate should keep his land and house regardless of the fact that he can't pay his debts. They ostentatiously decline to acknowledge the Shermans when they pass on the streets. A local restaurant refuses to serve the Shermans; the owner describes them as trash.

When Sherman seeks permission to divide Greenwood up into estates for a subdivision, the country calls a meeting and declines to give approval. In retaliation, Sherman hires a wrecking crew and begins to demolish the house. Nate rallies friends and families and they obstruct the wrecking crew. Nate has another party at the house attended by everyone in the area, including the judge whom Sherman approaches the next day in hopes of legal redress. The film suggests (or at least Will Sherman sees it this way) that everyone in the area is related and in cahoots. When the crowd gathers to support Nate in his resistance to the demolition of his home, his wife Amy suggests that they make a party of it: they go home and dress up in 19th-century garb and return to riding horses and sitting in carriages, as if the Civil War is being fought again.

Recognizing that they may become embroiled in a losing and long-term legal battle, the Shermans decide to sell the house and land and leave town. Nate and his family move back in, victorious. Their real estate agent tells them they can live there and take care of the place while he tries to sell it. The film ends. Some might consider the ending as less than satisfactory because although Nate is back on his land and in his house, they are still being sold out from under him. But perhaps the ending is supposed to imply that given enough time Nate and his friends may find a way to buy back the house.

Crazy like a Fox is like a pageant play. There is no real tension. One occasionally wonders whether Nate is truly going to lose his mind and run amuck or even whether he is going to be killed. But for the most part the characters go through their expected motions—the evil carpetbagger Shermans rapaciously planning to subdivide and sell the land; the good and virtuous Nate Banks and friends stalwartly refusing to surrender to the forces of capitalism and the North. It is as if all the film really wants to do is to make its point—that the values embodied in the South—as the film construes the South—are good and noble even though they are being devoured and reduced by the rest of the nation. The film's definition of the South is, of course, arbitrary and narrow, historically flawed, and politically retrograde. This is the South that the makers of the film want to believe in, not the South that actually exists. The film sees the South in terms of the noble landowners. Land is everything. Veneration of tradition and history matter above all else. If farmers don't make enough money to pay their debts, the fault isn't theirs but that of the corrupt modern system to which they are subject. Lower-class whites as well as African Americans respect the landowners and share their values. Southerners live by a code of honor, not of law—law for them is based on honor. The portrait of the South we have here is artificial and hollow and incomplete—even Margaret Mitchell and William Gilmore Simms gave fuller portraits. At least in their novels, written from a decidedly partisan Southern viewpoint, there was the sense of a three-dimensional society being portrayed. In Crazy like a Fox Nate Banks comes across mainly as a flat, shallow Don Quixote figure.

Crazy like a Fox takes itself seriously. It is earnest and well intentioned, even though it is clumsily made as a film and poorly conceived and executed as a narrative that seeks to make serious statements about the nation and its history. If the nation were dominated by men like Nate Banks, we'd all be in trouble.

Crazy like a Fox is reminiscent of the film Colonel Effingham's Raid (1946), based on the novel by Berry Fleming, in which a retired military officer leads the people of a small Georgia town in resistance against plans to tear down the county court house.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Into the Wild

Does dysfunctionality make one representative and typical? Does one's difficult relationship with his family necessarily lead to universal significance for humankind? Such questions ought to occur to the viewer as he or she watches Sean Penn's excellent film Into the Wild (2007) based on the book of the same title by Jon Krakauer (1996). Krakauer's book tells the story of Chris McCandless, who after graduating Emory University in 1990 disappeared and set out on a quest—to live well and meaningfully, to discover the "real" America, to find himself. These may be oversimplifications of what he was out to find, but they will have to do here. He changes his name, cuts all ties with his parents, gives his money to charity, abandons his car. Over a period of two years he wanders in the American west, holds numerous jobs, makes friends and acquaintances, and carefully avoids putting down roots anywhere. In April 1992 he makes his way to Alaska and wanders off into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. He lives in an abandoned bus for four months and then, after eating a poisonous plant that blocks his digestive system (Krakauer speculates), dies of starvation. His body is recovered in September. Both the book and film do not suggest that McCandless went into the Alaskan wilderness with the intent of dying there. Both make clear that he planned to return to the continental United States. Yet the book contains excerpts from letters McCandless wrote to friends telling them that he would never see them again, at least implying that he considered the possibility that his wandering would end in his death.

Penn's film version of the book is carefully and expertly done. He preserves most of the basic and even minor details of the McCandless story, though he tells it in a somewhat different order than Krakauer. While the book tells the story in chronological order (and engages in several pertinent and revealing digressions), the film moves back and forth between scenes of McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness, scenes describing his wanderings before he makes his final trip to Alaska, and scenes involving his family, especially as they think about him after his disappearance. McCandless' sister provides frequent voiceover in the film, where she quotes from conversations with her brother or from his letters to her. (He did not write her or his parents after he disappeared).

In general, the virtues of the film are the virtues of the book. The film is more narrowly focused, however. on McCandless, his adventures, and his family. The book views McCandless in a larger context. Krakauer compares McCandless to other wanderers and loners who wanted to lose themselves in the wild, some of them coming to grief in ways similar to McCandless. Krakauer also refers to his own experiences and describes at some length a foolhardy mountain climbing experience in Alaska while he was in his 20s. Krakauer sees many similarities between his youthful self and McCandless, and suggests that he survived his own experience in the Alaskan mountains only by good fortune. The film emphasizes the relationship between McCandless and his parents, suggesting that the repressive atmosphere of the McCandless household, and especially the domineering personality of McCandless' father, were responsible for his decision to abandon his parents and to retreat into the anonymous hinterlands of America. Krakauer does present this argument, but he does not give it as much emphasis as the film does, and in certain ways he minimizes it, suggesting that McCandless might have moderated and tempered his attitudes towards his family with time. The film never lets go of this connection between McCandless and his family, while the book treats it in a discrete chapter and also considers other ways of understanding McCandless and his personality.

For Krakauer, McCandless is one of a larger group of individuals who sought fulfillment and retreat in the American wilderness. He is a young idealist, scarred by family, perhaps, but driven as well by the American literary tradition of fascination with Nature and the wilds. He's also on a quest for personal fulfillment.

In the film, McCandless is significant as a single individual, while in the book he is also significant as a participant in a larger cultural and historical phenomenon.

Both the book and film are fascinated with McCandless as a person and a personality, a young man of considerable intelligence and gifts, a charismatic soul, yet someone so traumatized by his relationship with his parents, especially his father, that he was compelled to break off all links with his family and with the life they lived. He told his sister shortly before graduating from college that he planned to break all ties with his parents and never see them again. This at least raises the possibility that there was a motive of revenge in what McCandless does, though neither the book nor the film makes much of this.

The America that McCandless sets out to find, the one he believes must necessarily be out there—based on his readings of such writers as Jack London and Henry David Thoreau and John Muir—is the America of the wide open spaces, of the west, of wilderness, of a land undominated by the quest for wealth, world domination, and material objects. It is also the America of the margins—of people who live outside cities, who wander from place to place—aging hippies, street bums, the maladjusted, individuals and itinerants and the down and out, and the people who simply choose not to join the mainstream. In a sense McCandless relives in his quest the decades of the 1930s through the 1960s, of the Depression and the Beats.

The film joins in with McCandless in his search for these Americas. At the same time it views him from more objective perspectives, so that we are aware of his relative youth and inexperience, so that we never lose track of the argument that his stubborn independence plays a role in his ultimate fate. He is a noble philosophical wanderer on the one hand and on the other a victim of his own innocence and naiveté. The book tends to hold McCandless at arm's length. It makes us aware of what the boy was thinking and feeling through quotations from letters and journal entries and through conversations recounted by people he met along the way. The book sympathizes with McCandless but tends to maintain a more objective perspective than the film.

The film takes relatively short sections of Krakauer's book and expands them: an example is the friendship McCandless strikes up with two aging hippies who live on the road and sell books and knickknacks at flea markets along the way, with a seventeen-year-old girl, with an 80-year-old man who has been living alone for years. Hal Holbrook is excellent as the old man. Catherine Keener and Vince Vaughan are also excellent as supporting characters (Vaughan is hardly recognizable and shows that he can play characters other than the buffoons he has so often played in recent films).

When I first heard about Chris McCandless and his death in the Alaskan wilderness, like everyone else I was struck by the pathos and mystery of the story. Why had he cut himself off from his family and friends? Why would such a promising young man so intelligent and creative wander off alone into the wilderness to die? What had happened, and why? This was a great mystery. Sean Penn makes a strong argument for the impact on the young man of his dysfunctional family, the controlling father, the discovery that his father had married his mother well after both he and his sister had been born, the life of deceit and deception for which McCandless blamed his parents. I've known plenty of individuals who grew up in families with similarly complex profiles, people who did not go on to live the life McCandless committed himself to. Why did McCandless make the choice he made when others did not? For me, the dysfunctional family argument does not provide a complete answer. Krakauer's efforts to view McCandless from a number of perspectives is ultimately more convincing for me.

I sympathize with McCandless' desire to throw everything away and go and live on the land, on the road, to discover the real and genuine America that would give the lie to the lives we all live in the cities and in our affluent culture of self-satisfaction. Yet his idealism is not a way of thinking that can survive in the real world, in a nation of nearly three hundred million people. Perhaps that is part of the tragedy of the story, that individualism, solitude, iconoclastic living are difficult in our modern times. There is a selfishness and solipsistic naiveté in the path McCandless ultimately took. He could have done service to his society, he could have played a role in changing those parts of society he did not like, but he took a path that brought him to isolation and death.

It is not fair to blame McCandless too deeply. He was undone by bad luck, inexperience, youthfulness. He planned to return to America after all. This is the sadness of his story.

The Reaping

The Reaping (2007) is set south of Baton Rouge, supposedly in or near the swamps and bayous of Southern Louisiana. This is a Gothic film of the supernatural, and the rural Louisiana setting with swamp water and hanging moss and an isolated small town that no one has ever heard of named Haven evokes a spooky, mysterious setting. In fact, this story could be set anywhere—nothing in it is specific to Louisiana or the South. The supernatural trappings are generic—we could be in New England or Oregon.

The South in this film explains the willingness of the townspeople to believe that strange happenings are manifestations of demonic activity, and that a twelve-year-old girl is at their center. Haven is untouched by the outside world—the townspeople like their isolation. The first image we see when we arrive in the town is a religious sign. The main character Katherine (Hillary Swank) is the representative of enlightened reason, but she also has a gripe with God, whom she blames for killing her husband and daughter.

Katherine teaches at LSU and her specialty is debunking miracles—proving they have a rational explanation. Five years earlier she went to Africa as a newly ordained minister to do missionary work with her husband and five year old daughter. The husband and daughter were killed by African villagers who blamed them for a drought. In response, Katherine loses her faith. She works with an African American man, Ben (Idris Elba), who is deeply religious, primarily because he miraculously survived a gang shooting when he was younger. The interplay of faith vs. reason, of Katherine vs. Ben and the villagers, gives the film some interest, for a while. But you can predict where things will take us. Mainly this film is a hackneyed mess.

The local science teacher (David Morrissey) summons Katherine to Haven when strange events begin taking place: a boy dies mysteriously; cows become ill without explanation, two miles of the local river runs red with what appears to be blood. The townspeople believe there is a cult worshipping the devil out in the woods, and that the 12-year-old is responsible for all that is happening to them. Katherine believes a bacterial infection, or pollution, is to blame. One event leads to another, and it soon appears that the same ten plagues that besieged ancient Egypt are assaulting the town, that God is trying to send some kind of warning or message, that something portentous is about to occur. Katherine soon gives up on reason and is convinced over the phone by a priest she knew in Africa that she is God's angel appointed to resist a satanic plot. There are surprises and twists and turns in the plot, but you expect such twists and turns in this kind of film even if you don't know what they will be.

We have our obligatory scenes in a graveyard, in a crypt, in a mysterious locked room, in a dark and ominous basement which of course Katherine doesn't hesitate to explore. Ben is the film's one African-American character, and as such we know he must die—the only question is when.

I was reminded of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," of the early Stephen King, of Nathanael Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. Mostly I was reminded that the film could not last forever.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville portrayed country music stars as largely cut off from their country roots. Nashville itself was shown as a modern city that only simulated at best the authentic country roots of its birth. Nashville was a satirical send-up of the American Bicentennial. It was more about America and popular culture than country music, which was a mere vehicle. Payday (1973) provides a portrait of country music that is simpler and more conventional. Yet the film is decidedly unromantic. Produced by Ralph Gleason, the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, and with a cast and crew of virtual unknowns, the sole known presence in the film is Rip Torn, who portrays country music star Maury Dann.

Dann is a star either on the way up or the way down—which is not exactly clear. He tours nonstop with his band. They drive from gig to gig in a pair of Cadillacs. Maury quips, "You only go around once in life. You might as well go in a Cadillac." He's waiting for a big break, hoping for an appearance on the Johnny Cash Show, not counting on it. He's got to keep moving, keep performing, to stay alive and solvent. The film is structured around his travels from one point to another. He's always moving.

When the film opens he is playing a honky-tonk that brings in a box office of $600. We see members of Maury's band being paid $50 each for their efforts. This is part of the title's meaning: struggling to make ends meet, to make it to the next payday. But there are other meanings to the title. Maury earns a living by constant touring, never stopping to rest or get his bearings. While Nashville shows the glitz and glamour of the music industry, Payday shows the grueling routine and boredom. Only once in the film do we see Maury on stage. Rarely do we see him enjoying himself. Instead we follow him from one hotel to another, with stops along the way to visit his broken-down mother, his first wife and the three children whose ages and birthdays he cannot remember. Country music for Maury—life in general--is a constant grind.

Payday has a flat, documentary style. The cast seems composed largely of rank amateurs, though a few went on to modest television careers. Their Southern accents are often poor imitations of reality. Only Rip Torn gives the film any life. He seems to base Maury Dann on Merle Haggard, with a smidgen of Conway Twitty thrown in for good measure. He sings a passable imitation of Haggard, though it's parody too. Halfway through the film we notice that something is happening to Dann—things are piling up on him, closing and hemming him in. He constantly pops pills, often with shots of whiskey. When a young song writer he has hired complains of fatigue, Dann offers him a pill. When his mother complains that she doesn't have enough energy to get out of bed, he offers her a handful of pills.

Dann becomes increasingly abusive as the film moves forward. He mistreats and uses the people around him. He fires a band member who insists on buying his dog (Maury's mother is neglecting it). When a fan asks for autographs, he lures her into the backseat of his Cadillac. He tires of the girlfriend we see him with at the beginning of the film, and has sex with another girl in the backseat of the car where his girlfriend is sleeping. When she blows up at him, he orders his driver to pull the car to the side of the road and throws her out. He throws a wad of bills at her, drives off, then comes back and retrieves the bills, explaining "You haven't earned it."

Dann's decline accelerates when he gets into a fight with a man at a restaurant—the companion of the autograph-seeking girl whom he lured into the Cadillac. They go out into the parking lot. The man pulls a knife, but Dann manages to deflect the blade, fatally wounding the man, who dies in front of him. Instead of taking responsibility for this accident, Dann says he doesn't have time to deal with the police and instead orders his manager to "take care of it." His manager pays off the restaurant manager and convinces Dann's driver, Chicago, to "stand in" for him—that is, to tell the police that it was he, not Dann, who was in the fight. Dann offers a job to the only other witness, a young and terrible singer and songwriter. This is a bribe, in essence, though the young man is too dimwitted to realize it. We suddenly become aware in a shocking way of the kind of man Dann has become—a man besotted with his own celebrity (or the hope of celebrity), relying on other people to get him out of trouble, to pay people off or to "stand in" for him. He consumes people—his girlfriends, his mother, the man on the pavement outside the restaurant.

A few scenes later, Dann finds himself back in his hotel room with two policemen, a district attorney, his manager, a promoter, and a songwriter. They all are making demands. He takes the songwriter and leaves the room, driving furiously out of the parking lot. They drive down a country road, sipping whiskey, and talking about what it was like for Dann to grow up on a farm. Dann says he hated farm life. They pass a cotton field, and Dann remembers how he hated to pick cotton. Then he suffers a heart attack and dies. The car runs off the road, coming to rest in a plowed field. The last glimpse of Dann is of his lifeless face, his eyes open, staring into nothing. The scene directly echoes the restaurant parking lot, where the man whom Dann accidentally killed lies dead, his eyes open and empty. This is the real payday towards which the entire film has moved.

It's clear that Maury Dann has talent. In a hotel room late at night, alone, he sings a few bars of a song that he presumably wrote. The song is beautiful and heartfelt. But he sings only a few bars and then moves on. His is a squandered talent and life. We see Dann in the context of the "country" roots that gave him his identity and his life. He goes bird hunting with friends in the countryside near his childhood home. He clearly enjoys himself. Yet he also enjoys his life as a singer, a life that has demanded a growing series of compromises and concessions, that draws him away from those country roots. It's possible to view Dann's decline as one created by the world in which he lives—the commercial music world that forces him to attend to his manager and give mindless interviews to disc jockeys and to worry about box office sales and album revenues. But the more convincing explanation for Maury is that as a man and an individual he's lost hope, he no longer believes he will get the big break, he rides the highways just to keep going, to avoid the conglomeration of debts, demands, sins, crimes, and failed responsibilities accumulating behind him.

Dann's payday is the day when all these burdens catch up with him in the field where his Cadillac comes to rest.

Dann's demise comes as the result of his desire for fame and celebrity, for his increasing immersion in the commercial side of the music industry. He's not in the industry to sing his songs or to share his feelings—he's in it for money, for fame. In the film's final scene, as he drives down the dirt road deep into the heart of the countryside, the countryside that presumably gave him his values, formed his identity, fueled his songs and his music, we're painfully aware—even before he dies—of how separated he is from those roots. In this sense Payday agrees with Nashville on the corrupting force of commercialism. One might compare Dann to Barbara Jean in Altman's film. However, there is a difference that makes Dann a more complex character than Barbara Jean. She's a true victim of the environment she lives in. She's emotionally fragile and apparently mentally ill—she's not aware of how she is being used. She knows only that she loves to sing and she relishes the attention an adoring audience can give. Dann is complicit in his downfall. His compromises and mistakes and self-indulgences are ones he chose for himself—including the pills and the booze that ultimately killed him.

Payday was filmed well before Elvis Presley ate and drugged himself to death. Yet it was also made in the wake of the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons, and others. The country music industry was well known for alcohol and drug abuse, for self-destructive behavior. Hank Williams' death in 1953 from drugs and alcohol seemed almost to set a pattern. Johnny Cash became notorious for his drug use in the 1960s. Self-destruction and country music—self-destruction and music as a cultural theme in general—are clearly a context in this film.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iron Man

In Iron Man (2008) the battle lines at first seem clear, but eventually they blur. The opening scene occurs in Afghanistan, where the convoy in which our hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey), an ultra brilliant and wealthy weapons designer and manufacturer, is assaulted by evil foreign nationals who blow up or kill just about everyone but , you guessed it, our hero. They torture him until he agrees to build weapons for their use. Instead he builds a crude suit of iron with a limited capacity for flight and combat. He uses the suit to escape and return to America, resolved to stop manufacturing and trading in weapons of war—the source of his fortunes—and to serve the higher interests of peace and humanity. For reasons that never seem quite clear, this resolve leads him to build an ultra-high-tech robotic suit of iron. When he dons it, he has all the super-powers he has programmed into the suit, including ultrasonic flight, great strength, and a variety of weapons that wreak havoc. With this suit he takes revenge on the rebels who held him for six months.

Iron Man relies on the old notion that great societies are built by great men. Take the Jeffersonian aristocrat, temper him with Nietzsche's übermensch, and you have Tony Stark, brilliant all his life, a success at all he does, never in error, brilliant and cocky and arrogant and amoral—a rake who brags on sleeping with all but one of the women who appear in the super models of the year calendar. Stark is perverse but likeable.

This highly entertaining film is based on a comic book series I've never read. It has all the recognizable traits of a comic book narrative without a lot of the hoopla. We find the standard comic book stereotypes—the avuncular mentor Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), the loyal but neglected beautiful blonde assistant Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, the army general Jim Rhodes played by Terrence Howard (he respects Stark's genius but can't officially acknowledge him because he so often ignores protocol and rules and policies). Stark's father, also a universal genius, is mysteriously dead.

In Iron Man not everyone is who he or she seems. Although the Afghani nationals cease to be much of an adversary after Iron Man wipes them out, a darker enemy emerges. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that it is a complex of military and industrial interests for whom making money is more important than defending humanity and truth and the American way.

There's a lot of concern about the "handling" of Tony Stark. His rakish, rebellious ways make him difficult to handle. Stane doesn't trust him to act in the best interests of the company that bears his name, or of the America military that buys his weapons. General Rhodes has to protect Stark when he intrudes into enemy airspace or when the military tries to shoot him down. And the long-suffering Penny simply worries about him. He doesn't conform, doesn't respect protocol, doesn't care about rules of engagement or forbidden air space. He simply does what he wants, and out of the chaos there emerges an increasingly recognizable pattern of altruistic, moral behavior. He is one of those super heroes who does good but on his own terms—and that often makes him a problem. One minor theme of the film focuses on how American corporate culture discourages and even suppresses the individualism that is supposedly an inherent American value. One notices also how superheroes rarely rise from a background of poverty. As is with Bruce Wayne of the Batman series, our main character is able to indulge his penchant for inventions and high living only through the large inheritance left to him by his father.

This post 9/11 film implicates American foreign policy and munitions manufacturers as among the causes of the problems in the Middle and Far East. Weapons manufacturers do not always recognize the interests of the American government and military as consistent with their own. Stark discovers at one point that the weapons he has been designing for the U. S. military are also in use by the very enemy the American military is fighting. Not only are his weapons being used by foreign terrorists against American forces, but also against the poor and innocent and downtrodden. They're allowing evil dictators to take power and thereby threaten the rest of the world. When Stark recognizes this fact and sees his own responsibility, he experiences his change of heart. In essence, this is an argument against a global economy. Because Stark's company is committed to the bottom line, to a profit-margin, it sells weapons to whoever is willing to pay, regardless of whether the weapons will be used again innocent civilians or allies or even the United States itself.

Iron Man therefore suggests that Americans bear some responsibility for the rise to power of the myriad hostile forces in the rest of the world. At the same time, the film in a retrograde sort of way suggests that true Americans, which means Americans like Tony Stark—universal geniuses and individuals who abhor bureaucracy and cant and conformity--are essentially good at heart. Whatever errors they may commit, they will rise to the challenges that confront them and the rest of us lesser folks.

The last two words of the film make clear that there will probably be a sequel, and that Tony Stark will continue living his life the way he wants to.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) is a revenge drama, in the tradition of Hamlet or one of the 18th-century Jacobean revenge plays. A barber named Benjamin Barker is falsely sent to prison by a corrupt judge who then seduces or even rapes the barber's wife. She dies of humiliation or a broken heart, and her infant daughter is adopted by the evil judge. On release from prison fifteen years later, Barker vows revenge and changes his name to Sweeney Todd.

Sweeney Todd is full of hatred and bitterness, fueled by anguish and heartbreak over all that has happened to him. When he discovers that he maty have difficulty exacting revenge against the judge, he decides to seek revenge against the whole human race. The musical includes tender love songs and romantic ballads, some of them sung as we watch Todd slitting the throats of his customers and dumping them down a chute to a basement furnace room where his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who has fallen in love with the barber, butchers the corpses and bakes them into meat pies that she sells to the general public. The film's underlying and ever-present irony subverts the romanticism of the songs and the self-pity of the main characters.

This film, based on the famous 1979 Broadway play with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, itself based on a long tradition of literary and folk sources, has a strongly allegorical quality. It is a commentary on modern times, on our penchant for violence (both in the entertainment we prefer and in our foreign policy) and our romantic self-infatuations. Sweeney is if anything a romantic, and he pines for his lost wife, but he is also a narcissist. He believes his own suffering and grief justify the brutal acts of murder he commits on his customers.

In several scenes, we see from afar black columns of smoke issuing from the chimneys of the building where Sweeney barbers and butchers his customers, and where their bodies burn in the oven that cooks the meat pies. For me, the black smoke suggested the smoke from the crematoria in the death camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other infamous locations of World War II.

In another sense the play and film are a parable about capitalism, about how we feed our dreams on the corpses of those we exploit. Sweeney's dream is the desire to murder the man who destroyed his family. More generally, his dream is to get revenge on the general human race—his general statement about the unfairness of the lot he has been dealt. His accomplice Mrs. Lovett apparently has a similar self-justification—she's been done wrong by various unnamed parties, probably men. Moreover, she loves Sweeney and seeks to do whatever will make him happy.

This story offers the symmetry of Greek myth—of the tale of Medea who for revenge kills her own children and feeds them to her husband, or of Atreus, who feeds to his brother his own sons. There is a moment if recognition in both these mythic narratives, when the horrified parent recognizes the nature of the meal he is about to consume—there is a similar moment in Sweeney Todd, though of a somewhat different sort that brings justice to bear on Sweeney.

There's little pleasure in watching this film. The music is good. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are effective. Depp throws himself fully into his role. But you're never free of the gnawing certainty that his story is not a normal or representative one. Whatever allegorical or political implications it might have, it's a tale of a man driven mad by grief, of a psychotic serial killer. One could argue that society drives him to do what he does—that a corrupt judge and judicial system falsely accuse and imprison him, that a perfidious judge is allowed to ruin a young woman and adopt her daughter without repercussions. Yes, no doubt, society is replete with corruption and evil that victimize the helpless and innocent. Yet such realities do not justify or mitigate what Sweeney Todd does and becomes. He's more distorted, perverted, corrupt, and hollow to the core than anyone else in the film, including the judge whom he hates to the end.

When Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett come to their inevitable bitter conclusions, there's no satisfaction for the viewer. We knew this was coming all along, and for me it could have come sooner. This is no tragedy. We never identify with Sweeney, at least not with the man he becomes—there's nothing to like about him once he starts slitting throats.

The film's somber brooding tone is characteristic of its director Tim Burton. Though the it is shot in color, shades of grey, black, and white predominate. The film brims with Hogarthian caricatures, distorted and grotesque human faces that somehow typify the city that the film portrays. The story of Sweeney Todd gives Burton the chance to revel in his favorite elements.

Sweeney Todd as a film (and presumably a play—I haven't seen it as a play) is a sordid spectacle that titillates its audience with beautiful music and with love and violence and spurting fountains of blood—the blood and the gore undercut and fundamentally subvert any real message the film might be seeking to deliver. The ironic turn of events at the end of the play only emphasizes the extremity of Sweeney's dissolution.

The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie (2007) has occasional moments of satire and humor that bring it almost up to the level of the better episodes of the television series. For the most part, however, the film takes a single idea, embellishes it with borrowings from various episodes and also from various films (I noticed scenes borrowed directly from Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and stretches it out into an 87-minute film. It's always a pleasure to see familiar characters on a film screen. But that pleasure wears thin here. Too many subplots and a relatively thin main plotline darker than what one usually encounters in the Simpsons muck up the works. A number of set pieces do distinguish the film—Bart skateboards through town naked—on a dare from his father; Homer learns to ride a motorcycle inside a metal sphere at an amusement park; Disneyesque forest animals help prepare Marge and Homer for a romantic tryst; Homer adopts a pig and as he walks the pig across the ceiling of his house sings a song called Spider pig to the tune of the Spiderman television series. Individually these scenes are amusing, but taken together with the basic plot of the film they grow tedious and tiresome. The overabundance of subplots often seem little more than an excuse to feature the numerous minor characters of the Simpsons series. Here is the basic plot: Homer dumps the pig's manure leavings in the local lake, the result of which earns Springfield the status of most polluted city in the world. The E. P. A. decides to deal with this problem by encasing Springfield in a large plastic dome. Later the E. P A. decides to blow up Springfield, erasing it from the map. Who will save Springfield?

There are small whimsical touches here and there. Arnold Schwarzenegger serves as president of the United States. But there is also cliché and schmaltz: Marge leaves Homer at one point and takes the kids with her. He has to perform some heroic feat that will win her back. This occasionally happens on the television series, but in the film Marge's decision to leave seems more final. In general; the humor seems weak and the satire lame. The film simply takes the conventions of the TV series and tries to stretch them out into a feature-length film and the result is less than satisfactory. South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999) succeeded much better as a film version of the television series. Why? Music in the South Park film was better—it featured witty, memorable songs, especially "Blame Canada." The film's wonderful opening scene lampooned the opening of Oklahoma. The film didn't sentimentalize its characters (as the Simpsons film does), and the plot, absurd and ridiculous though it may have been, was stronger and more coherent. The South Park film didn't water down its television source, while the Simpsons film does.

The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I never paid much attention to the Fantastic Four comic book series. Although I was a fan of the DC comic book heroes, Stan Lee's Marvel Comics creations did not catch my interest. I came to the films based on the series with no particular expectations. The films seem fairly literal in their adherence to the Fantastic Four characters and storylines, and they offer narratives that don't delve deeply into the inner workings of the main characters (unlike the Spiderman films).

In The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), a silver figure riding what appears to be a silver surfboard arrives on the earth and begins boring larger craters into the ground. Astronomical data reveals that every planet the surfer has visited explodes or otherwise dies within eight days of his appearance. It turns out that the surfer is a kind of scout or sentinel for a much larger cloud-like alien entity called Galactus—he scouts out the planets that Galactus later destroys. Galactus lives off the energy that the planets provide. The Fantastic Four have to defeat Galactus and save the earth.

This film never allows one to think that he is watching anything more that a basic rendition of the comic book. It never rises to the level of comic book myth, as the Batman and Superman stories often do. It's simply a matter of the four fantastic characters showing off their super skills, suffering occasional setbacks, dealing with petty day-to-day crises, and ultimately overcoming their adversaries. The special effects would probably excite a 10-year-old, but they did little for me. They're rendered as if this is an animated film. The four main characters themselves are vapid, stereotypical cut-outs.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Tom and Viv

Well, of course, as a literature professor I'm drawn to a film entitled Tom and Viv (1994) because it is about the troubled first marriage of the most famous English language poet of the 20th century: T. S. Eliot. In 1915 he met and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a beautiful young woman afflicted by severe emotional and physical problems that Eliot supposedly did not know about when they married. Most of her problems were probably caused by a hormonal imbalance, at least according to the film, and had she lived in contemporary times she could have been easily treated. She learns as much as the end of her life approaches in 1947, in the insane asylum where she lived for nine years, after being committed by her husband and her family

The aim of this film wavers with some uncertainty throughout. It is first of all the story of the marriage of a famous poet and his first wife. Things begin to go wrong almost as soon as they marry. Her physical problems include severe and frequent menstrual bleeding and cramps that apparently prevent a normal sex life. They also include severe mood swings that often cause her to behave in self-destructive and irrational ways. She trashes a hotel room shortly after their first attempt at lovemaking fails. She threatens Virginia Woolf with a knife. She pours hot melted chocolate into the mail slot of her husband's publishing office. She writes letters to various women in London accusing them of seeking to seduce her husband. She causes frequent scenes wherever she happens to be.

Eliot's reaction to her problems—pretty much the reactions of her family as a whole—is to ignore them, try to keep them hidden, as if they won't matter if they don't become public knowledge. The most sympathetic to Vivienne is her mother, who can calm her when she is having difficulties simply by hugging her. No one else in the film seems interested in hugs, certainly not Eliot, who's portrayed as cold, indifferent, and unresponsive, even while he weeps in the presence of an Anglican bishop to whom he confesses that he is "totally alone."

Vivienne's problems are vaguely diagnosed as "women's problems." We overhear various lectures by various doctors about how the intestinal and hormonal systems interact and cause symptoms that worsen as time goes on. One doctor advises Eliot not to give too many details to Vivienne. Another doctor calls her illness "febrile mental illness" while another diagnoses her with "moral insanity," a condition that causes her to act in dissolute and embarrassing way. Basically, no one has a clue, and most everyone is willing to write her problems off as the vague sorts of hysteria that women in the early 20th century are supposed to suffer. Their poor men! Among whom is Old Possum.

Another aim of this film is to demonstrate how great men create their art out of the suffering of the women they victimize. This is the same approach taken elsewhere to Nora Joyce and Zelda Fitzgerald. Vivienne is said to be talented and brilliant, though exactly how is never made clear. The film implies that passages in Eliot's poems (The Waste Land in particular) are verbatim quotations of Vivienne's own statements. She shows great enthusiasm for her husband's work, wants to help edit his poems, brags about him to friends and family, and is upset when he is not consistently willing to share his life with her. At one point she confesses to wanting to share some of his fame. In 1947, in the asylum where she has lived for nine years, she fiercely defends her husband, who hasn't seen her in eleven years.

There are moments when the film seems to sympathize with Eliot. But its real agenda comes clear in the final scenes when we see Eliot and Vivienne's family conspiring to have her committed. She seems perfectly capable of behaving in a rational way but apparently chooses to behave irrationally to give her husband and her family what they want—freedom from the troubles and shame she causes. Her own brother tells their mother that Vivienne is ruining Eliot's career. The easy solution is simply to get her out of the way. At the end of the film, we see Eliot through the elevator doors that are closing in front of him, cutting him off from the rest of the world. We are therefore meant to see him as perfidious and selfish, isolated, cold and mean, more concerned with himself and poetry than with the woman he married and eventually cast off and abandoned.

It's difficult to know the truth. There are clearly elements of truth in the film's portrayal of Tom and Viv's marriage, but how much truth? Is Eliot the evil Rasputin the film makes him out to be? Is Vivienne the virtuous saint martyred on the bier of her husband's noble poetic calling? Eliot seems a bit too callow in the film, and Vivienne reeks too much of saintliness. The film's narrative vacillates between these extremes. Admittedly, the portrayal of Eliot grows increasingly cold and indifferent. There are times in the film when Vivienne behaves as a genuine maniac, and other times when she seems perfectly sound. This was, perhaps, the nature of the affliction she suffered—her moods and her physical state were slaves to the hormones at war within her.

Willem Dafoe as Eliot is effective but problematic. Eliot is described as a man who wants very much to speak with a British accent but who never quite manages it. Dafoe's accent seems a fusion of Irish and Welsh and East European dialects. It verges on the truly weird. Dafoe's hard and inexpressive face is well suited to the film's portrayal of Eliot.

The New York Times review notes that "However sympathetic to Vivienne the film is, it cannot overcome the simple fact that Eliot, an enduring poet and a horrid individual, was far more interesting than his wife." We hear various snatches of Eliot's poetry in the film. We overhear him as he reads his poems to a room of friends. We see him reading his poems over the BBC. There are minor attempts to connect the great poems with the events of his life. But these attempts are superficial and infrequent.

I'm not sure we should care that much about the lives of the poets. Their lives matter only because of the poems they wrote.