Monday, June 30, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

Dysfunctional people are often funny. Take The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), for instance. Take many of Woody Allen's films. Take the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and screwball comedies in general. But there are limits. Margot at the Wedding (2007) passes them. This film about two disaffected sisters who reunite for a wedding has moments of humor, but it also has moments of misery, abuse, sadness, and despair. In Steve Zissou and the Life Acquatic (2004), writer and director Noah Baumbach offered a zany and unpredictable film full of whimsy, silliness, and emotional insight. There's silliness in Margot at the Wedding, but not of the sort that makes you laugh, particularly.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a successful writer in the middle of a break-up with her husband. She travels with her son to attend her sister Pauline's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding. Pauline is neurotic and into self-help books and retreats. Margot is a narcissist of the extreme order—the embodiment of narcissistic personality disorder. She is constantly criticizing, finding fault. Every child she sees she is sure is afflicted with autism. She can't take any criticism herself. She's having an affair with another writer, whom she alternately loves and hates. She is excessive in her love for her son, yet she says cruel and abusive things to him without hesitation.

In a lot of films like this, the various characters ultimately come to some sort of rapprochement. Not here. Things just continue roiling along, and you get the impression that neuroses and discontent and intrusions into the lives of others have been the pattern for Margot since the beginning.

Margot at the Wedding is similar to Woody Allen's Hannah and her Sisters (1986). But Allen's film does offer a lot of sustained humor. This one offers a few flashes here and there, but not much more. Jack Black as the overgrown teenager Malcolm whom Pauline is going to marry is effective in his part, though you sense that he is playing himself (or his slovenly rock-and-roll persona) more than anything else. The scenes in which he attempts to chop down a tree beloved by Margot and her family is briefly funny. Allen's film made you like his characters. I would prefer to stay far away from the characters in Margot.

I mourn for Margot's son, who surely will grow up warped and demented as a result of his experiences with his mother and her family. He'll likely carry forward the family tradition of neuroses and general self-centered misery.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Everything potentially interesting and entertaining about the film White Lightning (1973) is missing in the sequel Gator (1976). Burt Reynolds as Gator McKlusky has been blow-dried, face-lifted, uplifted, and sanitized. What was dark and brooding about him in the first film is here smoothed away. Gator in this film is a good old boy with a starched shirt and neatly combed hair. He's not that much of a good-old-boy—he's suave and urbane, in a lizardly sort of way. He drives a succession of fancy cars. He has somehow acquired a daughter—she's nine years old. He flirts with young girls in the town square. And his dad, who once lived in an old farm house in the country, now lives in an old house in the middle of the swamp. While car chases were the byword of the first film, fast boats are the trademark here. Gator is a package.

The plot of White Lightning seems to have been repackaged here: Gator is just out of jail, where he spent a second sentence for moonshine. An agent from New York, Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston), convinces the local police to pressure Gator into helping them bring down Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), the crime boss of the fictional Georgia Dunston County. He cooperates, but the Gator introduced in the first film is long gone. Gator in this film is a moral man in the conventional way. He goes undercover to work for Bama, not aware that his former friend is deep into the underworld. He soon becomes disillusioned with Bama's criminal ways. He is offended by the young girls employed by Bama as prostitutes. He's offended by how Bama treats black people. (He makes clear that he is "color blind and that "black is beautiful"). These traits are carried over from the earlier film, where they made sense, but here, in a context that is more cartoon-like than real, they seem like meaningless sops meant to assure the audience that Gator is a "good man." All the interesting ambiguities (such as they were) of his former character are now sharp and clear. The sequel offers the same criminal milieu as its predecessor, but in a context more influenced by the crime of the big city—protection money, prostitution, drugs, murder. This is intended as an indication of how the modern world has come to the urban South.

Part of the humor in Gator is based on the clash between Greenfield's Jewish New York background and the conservative protestant Southerners of Georgia. The Georgia governor in the film inasmuch asks why the government is sending a New York Jew to assist him in uncovering corruption in a backwoods Georgia county. He doesn't believe such a person could be effective. Greenfield comes across as determined and committed, but also as ignorant of the area he is investigating. Although the film makes no further overt references to his religion, he does mug and clown around in a way that can be associated with Jewish stereotypes. The film exploits the idea that he is a fish out of water. And although Greenfield is supposed to be an experienced officer of the law, he's none-too-subtle in his behavior—he calls attention to himself in various ways—hanging out at the swimming pool of a hotel where he is not registered, getting drunk at a town bar, and in general acting out of place. His main role is one of comic relief. It's Gator who has the abilities, if anyone does, to deal with the corrupt Bama and his minions. The film does not use the contrast between Greenfield and Gator (or other Southerners) as a way of exploring the underpinnings of Southern culture. It does not fully explore the friendship (of sorts) that develops between Greenfield and Gator, but that friendship is clearly implied, and it's another sign of Gator's openness, his lack of prejudice.

Gator takes place in Georgia. An early scene supposedly takes place in the Governor's Office of the state capitol building in Atlanta. Savannah is apparently the setting for another scene. Geographically, everything is out of place, but no matter. This film sometimes seems to be a comedy and sometimes a tragedy and sometimes a tragicomedy and in all three instances it fails to meet the demands of the genre.

As a Southern hero, Gator in this film moves Burt Reynolds forwards towards the character he'll portray in Smoky and the Bandit. There's not much difference between Gator and the Bandit. Interestingly, the second unit director and stunt coordinator on both Gator films is Hal Needham, who went on to be the director of the Smoky films. Although Jerry Reed's Bama character is apparently killed at the end of this film, he is restored to another name and life in the Smoky films as the Bandit's friend and compatriot.

There are a number of instances in Gator (as in White Lightning) where the characters seem to be waiting around, trying to figure out what to do next. This particularly seems the case in a scene where Bama has laced Gator's drink with a drug intended to knock him out. The scene seems poorly improvised and tedious. Needham's abilities as a director to avoid such scenes, his focus on action and car chases, suited him for directing the film that would be the major hit of Reynolds's career and that would catapult the star, for a time at least, to the level of a Southern cultural icon.

In general, as a film Gator is a mess. It lacks basic coherence. Reynolds directed. Jerry Reed overacts, Reynolds underacts, and Jack Weston lampoons. Lauren Hutton as ambitious Yankee reporter Aggie Maybanks is in the film, apparently, only to provide a romantic interest for Gator. The film does not develop their attraction to each other in a gradual way. It's simply there, chemically speaking, from the first time they see one another. As Gator, Greenfield, Hutton, and Emmeline Cavanaugh (played by Alice Ghostley--her role has no rational explanation—she's present simply to provide another layer of comic relief) hide out from Bama in a beach house, Aggie and Gator sneak off to the beach for a romantic tryst totally at odds with the rest of the film. In sharp contrast to the largely comic tone of the film, Greenfield and Ghostley's character are soon after brutally murdered by Bama and his henchman.

Worst of all, Gator as a manly, physical, rebellious hero comes across in this film as a slightly dyspeptic golfer in an acrylic shirt. He is Burt Reynold's self-parody.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

White Lightning

White Lightning (1973) melds the politics of moonshine with the counter culture of the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps working in the wake of Thunder Road (1958), this film defines its moral stance through its main character's conflict with a corrupt local law enforcement official and the Federal government. Although characters in the film make the typical complaint about college students and "hippies," in their opposition to government policies and corruption, in their marginalization, they and the "hippies" occupy a similar social niche and hold similar opinions and values, at least in some instances.

The film makes its province clear in the opening scene as we watch two men rowing a boat across a lake. They are towing another boat in which two handcuffed young men sit, handcuffed to cinder blocks. Soon the two men—a law enforcement officer and (as we later learn) the local county sheriff, J. C. Connors—use a shotgun to blast a hole in the boat, which sinks, carrying the two hapless young men with it. One of the young men is the brother of the film's central character—Gator McKluskey. (Sheriff Connors is perhaps named in reference to Sheriff Bull Connor, the Montgomery, Alabama, sheriff who played a forceful role in trying to suppress demonstrations in support of integration during the 1950s and 1960s).

Moonshine is illegal because its makers do not pay taxes to the federal government. Its making is an assertive act of individualism, of resistance to civil authority. When Gator tells his parents he intends to oppose the sheriff, they beg him not to because they fear the powerful sheriff will have him killed. But they are much more upset to learn that their son has agreed to cooperate with the Feds in return for an early release from prison. They regard this as a betrayal. It's cooperation with the Enemy.

Moonshine is everywhere in the community this film portrays. It is a fundamental community value: the right to manufacture and sell a product free of regulation or taxation by outside authorities, be they local, state, or national. What defines a character as good or bad is not whether he makes moonshine but how he treats others. By this standard the sheriff is corrupt and evil. By this same standard the moonshiners (most of them) are virtuous in how they stand up for community values by resisting federal interference and delivering moonshine to people who use it make a living for their families or even to raise money for the local church. Therefore moonshine symbolizes this film's Southern community. In fact, the film's portrayal of a community that regards moonshining as a venerated tradition is not accurate. Although 19th century folks may have tolerated moonshine and believed that no one should prevent others from making it, by the 1960s and 1970s, the public associated moonshine with marginal characters, with crime, and with news stories about how it poisoned those who consumed it. Communities such as the one in this film did not exist. Of course, corrupt law enforcement officials did exist. Moonshine in White Lightning provides a metaphor signifying the values of the rural Southern community and its conflict with the federal government and the modern world at large. Moonshine in that sense is tradition, while efforts to stop its manufacture, to tax it, or to exploit it are attacks on tradition by the North and by immoral people such as the sheriff.

We therefore encounter in this film moonshiners who are portrayed as family-loving hardworking men—men who try to stay out of trouble (relatively speaking) and who worry about falling out of grace with the sheriff. The mechanic Dude Watson (Matt Clark) is a good example. He at first resist's Gator's requests for help because he is afraid of the sheriff. Ultimately he relents and becomes Gator's ally—because he recognizes the corruption of the sheriff and the damage he has done. Not surprisingly, he pays for this transgression with his life.

We find in Gator the same posture of resistance to authority and corruption that we will later encounter in Smokey and the Bandit. But here that political and moral stance is more carefully and forcefully defined. While the sheriff complains that federal interference will bring integration, Gator positions himself in a sympathetic manner next to black children, college students, and unwed mothers. Although he never states his moral or political position, by his actions and by the people he associates with he makes his position clear. This position is made clear towards the end of the film when Gator learns that his brother and a friend were murdered by the sheriff because they were "demonstrating" in his county, resisting his authority.

Gator offers a more hard-bitten, hardboiled version of the Bandit in Smokey and the Bandit. We know much more of Gator's
background than of the Bandit's. Gator comes of a lower-class poor white dirt farmer family. His parents live in a run-down unpainted house, and they've lived hard lives. Late in the film we learn that the only member of the family to have gone to college is Gator's brother. When he first appears in the film he is in the fourth year of a prison term for moonshining. He is doing his time without apparent complaint, and the film seems to suggest that for lower-class whites like Gator in this rural, lower-economic class world, people always on the social margins and congenitally predisposed towards conflict with people in authority, prison time is not only unsurprising but even expected. When Gator learns that his younger brother has been killed, he soon guesses who is responsible and begins trying to escape prison in order to take revenge. Gator doesn't hesitate to break the law when he is so moved, but according to his own lights he is a moral man, intent on seeing that the sheriff responsible for his brother's murder is punished. He is in this sense related to a number of populist movie heroes in the 1970s who stood up for what was perceived as "right" even if that meant opposition to the Law: for example, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry (the first film appeared in 1971), Billy Jack (the first film appeared in 1971), Charles Bronson characters (especially Death Wish, 1974), and later on in the 1990s characters portrayed by Steven Seagal.

Gator is more than a moralist. The film's title, among a number of meanings (including its reference to the 1959 George Jones song), does refer to Gator's temper, his libido, and his strength. In a strange way, it refers as well to his race, for this film is basically about lower-class whites suppressed by difficult circumstances and a ruthless boss man. Gator is clearly aware of his social and economic circumstances and he seems increasingly willing to stand up to the sheriff as a representative of his marginalized class: he makes the decision to stand up to the sheriff at a rural home for unwed mothers that takes him in and nurses his wounds after he is viciously beaten by a moonshiner who works with the sheriff. In this scene (one of the most outlandish in the film) he comments that the only member of his family who ever made anything of himself is his brother. There is some suggestion that Gator's determination to ensure that the sheriff pays for his crime is reckless and even self-destructive. As a moonshine runner, he knows how to drive a car in the most fearsome of ways. His final showdown with the sheriff takes place in an automobile chase. It is as if Gator feels that if losing his life is the ticket to revenge on the sheriff, then he's willing to pay that price. It's also an indication that he feels he has no other options in his life. In this regard he reminds me of the main character in Harry Crews' Feast of Snakes, a novel whose main character Joe Lon Mackey has much in common with Gator, and who takes the final act of immolation in the novel as a way of expressing the emptiness of his life. Gator, of course, does not have to take that final step. He survives to appear in a sequel. One can also see that the community of this film, with its lower-class white moonshine runners, has much in common with the characters of the early novels of Erskine Caldwell.

Although the rural Southern world of this film is nuanced and detailed, it is largely imagined and contrived and full of subtle and obvious stereotypes, such as the pigs that run back and forth in the unkempt yard of the main moonshiner in the town. Lou, the girl who is Roy Boone's lover, is a veritable Daisy Mae, compulsively promiscuous, throwing herself at Gator. What is most important, however, is the way in which the film defines the Southern community as a community on the margins, afflicted with poverty and political oppression, riven with corruption, threatened with extinction by the outside world. One way the film represent's this threat is the lake where Gator's brother is killed, and where some of the final action in the film occurs. It is a hydroelectric impoundment, and the film shows the trees and saplings still growing up through the water that, we can assume, is gradually rising to cover up land and homes where people used to live.

There is a fine short scene in an African American bar, where Gator talks to the black proprietor who used to know his father. There are numerous other scenes apparently filmed in authentic locations—houses, and neighborhoods, and farms. But the authentic setting does not make up for the stereotypes, the inaccuracies, the invented South of hokum and hillbillies.

White Lightning is not a film for the ages in any sense. Ned Beatty does a fine job in his role as Sheriff Connor, though the script gives him little more to do than look grim and occasionally become angry. As Gator Burt Reynolds is adequate—even so, he defines the character type. The pacing of the film is often lugubrious. Yet it uses the politics and the iconography of a region to give expression to conflicting yet strangely similar cultural and political attitudes of the early 1970s.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Orphanage

The Orphanage (El Orfanato, 2007) uses virtually no special effects and instead relies on old tried and true devices to provoke suspense. The film is about a couple who move into an abandoned orphanage with their adopted seven-year old son. The house is large and looming, and it sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. An abandoned lighthouse sits nearby. A mysterious entrance leads into a dark cave. The boy plays with friends only he can see. And, oh, yes, his adoptive mother grew up in the orphanage. When she lets her son play for a few minutes in the cave, he doesn't come back out. She goes into find him and sees him talking to someone whom she cannot see—someone whom he invites to come live with them in the house. The film develops from there. Antonio Bayona directed this film, which was produced by Guillermo del Toro, writer and director of Pan's Labyrinth (2006).

The Orphanage reminded me of films like The Others (2001), The Changeling (1980), the The Haunting (1963, based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House), and Henry James' novel The Turn of the Screw, works of psychological interest that may be about supernatural happenings or may be about what characters imagine. The primary character in The Orphanage is the mother, who becomes obsessed with finding her son after he mysteriously disappears. Although what happens in this film is fairly predictable, the film artfully satisfies the various elements of the formula it follows. Even so, interesting embellishments and touches bring something new to the experience: the J. M. Barrie play Peter Pan has a role, and an ominous old woman with a shovel and a baby carriage makes several appearances. Geraldine Chaplain briefly portrays a medium employed to uncover secrets about the house and the boy's disappearance.

A number of shots down a long, empty hallway reminded me of Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Kubrick seems an influence here, especially as we pause outside a door to a room pungent with menace, or as we see shadowy figures at the end of a hall.

There are a number of serious holes in this film, and if you hold it up to too closely to the standards of logic and reality the light will begin to shine through. The mother in particular behaves in an increasingly erratic way, months after her son's disappearance. Something she does at the end of the film seems less an act of character than an act intended to honor the formula. She is excessively protective of her son, and therefore it doesn't quite make sense when she allows him to explore an abandoned cave. From the very beginning she never hesitates to investigate strange noises or to enter dark, ominous rooms and tool sheds. Yet isn't that foolhardiness the requirement of these films?—if we don't enter those rooms, the great horror remains hidden. The important point here is that The Orphanage succeeds in being the kind of film it is. Not only did the hair on my scalp and arms continually stand up in fear, but I actually got a headache from the suspense.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias (1989) is one of a number of films that focus on the 20th-century Southern community as a warm and sustaining force. I don't know when these films began to appear. Intruder in the Dust (1949) focuses on the Southern community, but there community is a force of racism and oppression. In Steel Magnolias community is a positive force. Although the film is contemporary to the time of its making, it is infused with a nostalgia more geographical than temporal. By this I mean a tendency of typical viewers (demographically, they live mainly in urban and suburban areas) to believe that in "other" parts of the nation—that is, in small towns located away from large cities—there is a different kind of life—a simpler life with traditional values, where individualism as opposed to the cult of the corporate masses is not only accommodated but even encouraged. This is part of the myth of the small town that Americans yearn for, believing that it offers a better world than the one in which they live. This is the world Steel Magnolias portrays.

The title expresses the paradox that is the crux of the film—the primary women characters have all the characteristics of the traditional Southern magnolia—grace, courtesy, friendship—but at the same time they possess a steely resilience and a resolve to survive.

Steel Magnolias is a melodrama about the lives of women in a small Southern town. The Southern setting to an extent provides a rationale and context for the characters and their lives—they are all individuals of one sort or another, they live in a traditional world where marriage and family are expectations (they have met these expectations in different ways), and they cope as best they can through support of one another. One could imagine a film that gives more emphasis to the dominance of men—a film in which women have to strategize and navigate their ways through the efforts of their husbands and lovers to control and suppress them. Such is the terrain of Tennessee Williams. In this film, however, men for the most part are ineffectual and marginal. The women outsmart them (though there is only rare need for this) or mostly tolerate and ignore them. There is no direct conflict. Even so, the film at least implies the male-dominated world in which these women live.

The problems the women in this film encounter have little to do with the region in which they live. Their problems are ones that all women (all people, for that matter) confront—marriage, illness, difficulties in work or domestic relations. This becomes especially so in the film's second half, where a character's worsening health dominates the attention of the others. Here, the community of women becomes a source of support in a difficult time, but one could imagine how this might be so in many other geographical settings as well.

The film falls neatly into halves. The first half introduces the characters and their lives and relationships. M'Lynn Eatenten (Sallie Fields) is the mother of Shelby (Julia Roberts)—when they first appear they're in the final stages of planning for Shelby's wedding. Truvy Jones (Dollie Parton) is a hairdresser married to an unhappy man having difficulties finding work (Sam Shepard). Clairee Belcher (Olympia Dukakis) is a widow. She is good friends with Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine), a bitter and hilarious iconoclastic woman who has gone through two unhappy marriages. Annelle Desoto (Daryl Hannah) is a younger woman recently separated from her husband (he's disappeared after involvement in some kind of drug scandal). She's not at first a member of the group, but when Truvy hires her to work in her beauty salon, she soon becomes one. The group ranges in age from very young to sixty or so—lower to middle class white women. (The film shows the progressive racial attitudes of the women by including a few black characters in party and community scenes. However, it also shows a few black domestic workers—these are the only real acknowledgments that there is a racial dimension to the American South. As with many other films about the South, Steel Magnolias finesses the South as a landscape for racial conflict by ignoring it). (The names of these characters are one of the only nods the film makes to its Louisiana setting).

The second half of the film focuses on Shelby's medical problems—her severe diabetes makes pregnancy for her a dangerous risk. After she has a child, her kidneys fail, and she receives a transplanted kidney donated by her mother. Her body rejects the kidney, and she dies. The group gathers around and supports M'Lynn in her grief.

Much of the action involving the central group takes place in Truvy's beauty salon or in M'Lynn's home. Truvy's salon is reminiscent of the beauty parlor in Welty's "The Petrified Man." That story in numerous brilliant ways explores the beauty parlor as a symbol and expression of sexual tensions. Those tensions are barely hinted at in Steel Magnolias. One thinks also of the novels of Lee Smith, which sometimes portray an similar group of characters. Smith's novels are more subtle and do not rely as much on stereotypes.

Each woman in the film has her own set of complicated issues, and the first half of the film is devoted to exploring them.

The basic message of the film is that "Life goes on" and that you need friends around to support you. One would expect from the film's first half that some sort of plot complication would grow out of Annelle's recent unhappy marriage, or Truvy's struggling marriage to her husband—some sort of difficulty that would throw this community of women into conflict with their men or their male-dominated community. But this film does not seek controversy. Instead the dramatic center of the film is Shelby's illness.

Most of the acting in the film is undistinguished. Dollie Parton plays the same stereotypical character she plays on stage and in other films—the down-to-earth country persona of a folksy women who hides her own problems and who is always spouting earthy, corny witticisms. Example: "Sammy's so confused he don't know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt." Dukakis is poor in her role. She hardly seems to know where she is, or what a Southern accent is. Has she ever been to the South? Sallie Fields is effective, and when her daughter dies and she erupts in a fit of anger and grief that is one of the best performances in her career. The most interesting character in the film is Ouiser. As played by Shirley MacLaine, Ouiser is full of venom, bitterness, and caustic humor. She insults everyone, friends and strangers, but all the friends know what to expect from her, so they're not bruised. We are given to know that bad marriages and ungrateful children have made her bitter. However, rather than exploiting her character more fully, the film shows how after she becomes romantically involved with an old flame she gradually softens. At the end of the film she even admits to praying. Thus while the film offers this edgy, interesting character, it also sets about to demonstrating that, after all, she's just like the other women in the film. The other characters frequently laugh at her behind her back or play jokes on her—she's disarmed, rendered powerless as a result.

In short, none of these characters comes across as especially authentic. They're someone's ideas of what people in a small Southern town might be, but they seem designed more for dramatic or comedic effect. The film's view of the Southern community is idyllic and utopian and not convincing. There are certainly individuals like Ouiser around in the South, and there are individuals around like the others, but how frequently they interact with one another, how genuinely tolerant of eccentricity and deviance from normal standards of morality and behavior the residents of a small Southern town would be, I don't know. This film is more interested in portraying its own view of "what ought to be" than in portraying representations of reality.

Sentimentality, stereotypes, and shallow writing are weaknesses of this film. With the exception of Shelby, by the end of the film all the characters' difficulties have been resolved—Truvy's husband finds work on an oil rig and their marriage improves; Annelle gets pregnant and finds God and another husband; Ouiser finds love; M'Lynn finds in her grandson and her friends hope and a way of getting past her daughter's death. Even though Shelby is dead, she did die the mother of a young child, and she says while arguing with her mother about her pregnancy that "I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." So even she gets what she wants.

However, the scenes involving the aftermath of Shelby's death—the funeral and the grieving—are moving and accurate.

The humor in the film mostly derives from Ouiser and her bitter pronouncements and insults, and the antics of the men on the margins. The humor mostly operates on the level of a "You might be a redneck if . . ." routine by Jeff Foxworthy.

This film for various reasons—Shirley MacLaine is one of them—reminded me of the 1983 film Terms of Endearment. There the character Aurora Greenway had much in common with Ouiser. There also, the melodrama of the film ends up focused on the illness and death of one of the main characters, as if the writers couldn't find another way to wrap things up. There also the message of endurance and mutual support in tough times is central.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece, by Jan Stuart

Jan Stuart narrates the making of Robert Altman's 1975 film in The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). The book is not a scholarly work. Rather it is written from the perspective of an admirer of the film. Stuart is a film reviewer for Newsday, so he understands films and the film industry. His writing style is casual, chatty, and informal, sometimes hyperbolic. Stuart makes no bones about his enthusiasm for Nashville or for Altman. His book is most useful in what it reveals about Altman's filmmaking methods. It is less useful in explaining the film, but Stuart's frequent use of interviews with various actors, writers, crew members, and Altman himself, along with his discussions of the screenplay and of the changes Altman made to it, provide glimpses into what Altman was seeking to convey. The introduction makes clear Stuart's conviction that Altman sought to make this film not about a large Southern city but instead about contemporary America: Watergate, Vietnam, etc.

Especially interesting is the discussion of how Joan Tewkesbury came to write the script, which was a major shaping force for the film. Her vision of a movie that interweaves the lives and characters of 24 individuals is important. Altman significantly altered her script as he shot the film (he told the actors to "ignore" the script), but he preserved the multi-narrative nature of the script's narrative along with many of its themes and patterns. Interlayered, intertwined multiple narratives focused on characters became a paradigm for many of Altman's films following Nashville.

One of the most interesting changes Altman made to the script: in Tewksbury's original script the assassination victim was Hal Phillip Walker. Altman decided to make Barbara Jean the victim, against Tewksbury's wishes. He wanted the film to have a contemporary political dimension in addition to others, but he also wanted to intermix politics, the music industry, and the burgeoning celebrity culture, where ultimately the death of an entertainer can seem as significant as that of a president or political candidate.

Altman shot so many hours of film that he seriously considered making two works: Nashville Red and Nashville Blue, which he thought could tell the same story from the perspectives of different characters. Funding difficulties, the editor's lack of enthusiasm, and commercial issues nixed this idea. The single film really took shape as Altman cut and edited the film down to its current form. Shortly after the film's release there was talk of making a Nashville miniseries that would use scenes and songs cut from the film.

Despite advance critical notices that hailed this film a masterpiece, it did not fare well at the box offices. By the time of this book's publication in 2000 Nashville had earned only some nine million dollars at the box office, a paltry figure in 1977 and now. I suspect revenues from tape and DVD sales would raise the figure.

In the middle 1980s Altman considered making a sequel to Nashville using the original actors and characters (excepting Barbara Jean, of course). This sequel came close to being filmed, but ultimately the project was postponed and then cancelled.

Stuart's book offers interesting accounts of the reactions of the city of Nashville and of the country music industry to the film. There was, not surprisingly, a lack of enthusiasm, and in some cases outright disdain Country music stars found the film's music amateurish and of course did not appreciate the satiric, edgy portrayal of their industry.

Stuart's book is full of interesting anecdotes about the actors who appeared (and did not appear) in the film. Robert Duvall was initially slated to play Hamilton Haven but dropped out because of the low pay Altman was able to offer. There were rivalries among various actors, personal problems and insecurities, that influenced how they participated. Altman himself treated his actors in a variety of ways—as a father, as a tyrant, as a taskmaster. He never fully revealed his thinking to the actors, often goaded them to get better performances, told them to ignore the script, criticized them when they did not give the performance he wanted or when they did not show up to view the dailies. They stood in awe of him—and some of them didn't like him. Altman himself said that he stood in awe of the actors. How he interacted with them in his film is one of the most interesting aspects of the book.

Any admirer of Nashville will enjoy this book—for what it reveals about Altman as a filmmaker, for what it reveals about how the film was conceived and made, and for the anecdotes and gossip and information about the various people involved.

August Rush

August Rush (2007) is an adult fairy tale. Nothing in it quite works, but the whole is greater than its individual parts. Treacly and trite and wholly implausible, flawed by the false hopes it offers to orphans hoping for a reunion with their birth parents, it is nonetheless emotionally satisfying in the end. A man and a woman meet briefly one night. She is a promising concert cellist. He is the singer and writer for a rock band. They hit it off. The next morning, fully intending to see each other again, they go their separate ways and do not reconnect. Nine months later the woman gives birth to a child, but her father tells her that it died and she never sees it.

We move forward a decade. A boy in an orphanage claims that his parents talk to him through music that only he can hear. His fellow orphans make fun of him. He runs away to look for his parents, who he is convinced are looking for him. Events begin to propel his parents towards him—though they do not know it. The film moves towards an inevitable reunion in the final scene.

Terrence Howard plays a Department of Human Resources officer who begins to look for the orphan shortly after he runs away. Howard is a distinctive actor, but he has little to do in this film other than to offer looks of concern. Robin Williams plays a Fagin-like character called the Wizard who befriends young boys, teaches them to play musical instruments, and then sends them out on to the streets to play music and bring money back to him. Williams plays the Wizard against his usual type—he lies to and deceives the boys, threatens them, physically intimidates them, yet in certain scenes the film seems to portray him as elfin, likable.

Child actor Freddie Highmore plays the orphan Evan Taylor, later named August Rush when the Wizard recognizes his musical talents. He hopes to find his parents by performing music they will recognize as their own. Highmore's main talent in this film is the ability to look innocent, joyous, and shell-shocked all at the same time. He looks to be around ten years in age, though by the time the film premiered he must have been fifteen years old. As August Rush, Freddie possesses incredible musical talents. He can play any instrument from the first time he encounters it. He composes music that incorporates everything he sees and hears. He's compared to Mozart, though even Mozart took more than a couple of hours to develop his musical genius. Virtually every aspect of this film stretches the limits of one's willingness to believe, but August's musical genius requires the most stretching of all.

The movie succeeds emotionally because it manipulates the emotions of its audience. Who doesn't care about a sweet-faced orphan boy looking for his parents? Who doesn't sympathize with the mother who discovers that the child she thought dead for ten years is actually alive? And who doesn't want the young man who lost the woman who inspired his songs to find her again? We are pushed and cajoled along willingly in this film. We overlook the myriad lapses in logic and reality. We overlook (though can't ignore entirely) the film's dishonesty about orphans seeking their parents. We are sucked in by the schmaltz and the sentiment. This isn't a good film, but there are many worse films, and in its obvious efforts (no pretense about them) to propel the audience towards a tear-stained conclusion, it succeeds.

By adult fairy tale, I mean a category of films such as Stardust (2007), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Pan's Labyrinth (2007). They vary from insipid to profound. Some, such as August Rush and Eternal Sunshine invoke the half-baked mythologies of the New Age and of the psychedelic era. At the least, they avoid or ignore entirely the rules of cause and effect, logic, and science, and they strain to convince us that in this leaden world of despair, miracles can happen. Unfortunately, miracles don't happen—occasional statistically improbable occurrences do, and they are no cause for redemption.

In the Shadow of the Moon

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) is a documentary directed by David Sington that uses the observations and voices of most of the surviving astronauts to tell the story of the United States lunar missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much of the footage is familiar, and the new documentary When We Left the Earth, which relies on reprocessed and high-definition movie footage, is more impressive visually. I found this film most interesting as a study of the surviving astronauts, those who went to the moon and returned. The film is built around their recollections. A few have since died, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, isn't here because he almost always declines to be interviewed, but most of the rest are here, including Buzz Aldrin. Their role in the lunar missions affected them in different ways. All feel they participated in momentous and highly significant events. Some were impressed by the lunar missions as achievements of human effort or of technology. Several found spiritual inspiration in the experience. All in one way or the other seem altered—they have lived the remainder of their lives—some forty intervening years—in the shadow of the lunar missions, in the shadow of the moon. All in their mid to late 70s, they look ashen and gray, some more able to articulate their thoughts than others, all still sobered, still amazed, by the achievement they were a part of. The visual images of this documentary don't convey the awe and wonder as much as do their eyes and facial expressions.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Steamboat Round the Bend

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) is basically a vehicle for the humorist and comedian Will Rogers to make witty, sometimes self-deprecating observations. Rogers in 1935 was such a low-key humorist as compared to contemporary comedians, who mostly eschew subtlety, that one might wonder what the ruckus was. Rogers was much respected and admired in his day, and when he died in the 1935 plane crash somewhere in Alaska with Wiley Post, the nation mourned--I am told that my great grandmother wept in sorrow. In the film, Rogers basically plays himself—he's not dynamic, he doesn't over act or under act, he just pronounces homespun witticisms, mumbles, bumbles and dodders, is generally likeable, and provides a genial presence that keeps the film going.

Set on the Mississippi River in the 1890s, on the borders of Louisiana and Mississippi, Steamboat Round the Bend tells the story of how Dr. John Pearley (he sells an elixir guaranteed to cure any pain or affliction), also known as Steamboat Bill, owner of the most decrepit steamboat on the river, takes part in a riverboat race in order to get to Baton Rouge in time to save his nephew Duke, condemned to death for a murder committed in self-defense. The only witness to the murder, a wild-eyed evangelist known as "the New Moses" (he has an uncanny resemblance to John Brown and to Orson Welles) has disappeared, and Steamboat Will looks for him as he makes his way down the river.

This film is mildly amusing and is interesting as a curious artifact of its times. It is shot as if it takes place on a stage. There are long silences as characters apparently struggle to decide (or remember) what to say, and the plot as a whole seems unimaginative and contrived.

The Will Rogers character Dr. Pearley is a snake-oil salesman—this is one source of humor. The Prophet is another such salesman—his rantings are one of the only forms of entertainment for people along the river. We briefly see his competitor, the "New Elijah." Although the film is set in the riverboat environment of the 19th-century South, it offers no genuine glimpse into the wild frontier of that world that found its way into much humor of the 19th century, including Mark Twain. The riverboat world of Steamboat Round the Bend is fully domesticated, though, admittedly, the wildest of the riverboat days occurred some fifty or so years before the 1890s.

Although this film takes place in the South, no one in it speaks with any kind of accent. The only real nod to the setting is the river, the steamboats, and an ongoing rivalry between the people who live in the swamp and those who live on riverboats—they don't like each other. Duke falls in love with a swamp girl, Fleety Belle, and this entanglement leads to the killing for which he is condemned. (Whether this rivalry has any historical basis, I don't know).

African Americans are also an aspect of the South in this film. A group of black prisoners sings at the wedding of Duke and Fleety Belle before he is slated to be hanged. Several mates on Bill's riverboat are black. But the most notable black actor in the film is Stepin Fetchit, who plays a clown-like riverboat mate whose clumsy, loud, imbecilic antics are intended as comic relief from a narrative that itself is supposed to be comic. Stepin Fetchit throws himself fully into this role--he understands the stereotype he is playing, knows what it will take to reap laughter from the white audiences of the film, and as sad and offensive (from our modern standpoint) as his character is, you can understand why he was popular in his day. He's not just going through the motions—there is no subtlety in his acting, but there is a lot of energy.

Friday, June 06, 2008


If you enjoy seeing privileged, narcissistic people in their 20s who live in New York City getting killed in a disaster caused by a huge lizard that sheds blood-sucking spider-like creatures that attack in darkened subway tunnels and whose poisonous bite causes the victims to explode, then see Cloverfield (2007). However, take Dramamine first—the film was shot in the same style as Blair Witch Project. It induces nausea.

The film in its own way is effective. Many disaster films offer sweeping panoramic views of the carnage. This one takes the perspective of individual victims—indeed, the film's point of view is that of a video camera held by one of the characters, who is documenting a going-away party for a friend. The result of this narrow, limited perspective is that we as the audience are placed in the position of the participants. We see only what they see, know only what they know. The film cheats a bit, however. When the disaster first begins, characters learn about it from television news reports, and later in the film a television report fills in missing information. Of course, there is also the kind of information people pass back and forth on the streets. But mostly we are limited to the views and knowledge of the characters, and to an extent we sense their helplessness, fear, and confusion as a result.

Style and method make this film interesting—the story itself is just another version of Godzilla. We have numerous scenes of soldiers and tanks and jet fighters shooting guns and artillery at the beast, dropping bombs on it--these are the scenes we've come to expect in this kind of film, though there are some strange and new perspectives here, and in the end Cloverfield is far more interesting for its style and method than most if not all of the other urban monster films.

This film is only 82 minutes long, and even that is too long. Opening scenes spend too much time on the going-away party, which lasts some twenty minutes. The party introduces the principal characters who will be caught up in the disaster soon to come. But it drags, and we could have made do with a shorter, more superficial introduction to characters who are, after all, pretty superficial.

The film itself is a film within a film, an artifact recovered by the American military. We are told in the beginning that what we are about to see was found in what was once known as "Central Park" but that is now part of an incident cryptically tagged "Cloverfield." The partygoer who films the party and then the developing disaster does not know how to use a video camera, so there are starts and stops in the jerky actions, missing moments, scenes shown out of order. As others have noted, it is fairly difficult to believe that the character with the camera would continue to use it as he and others run, creep, climb, and fall out of the sky in a helicopter. But the method itself, the point of view provided by the video camera, simulates the perspectives of the actual participants and victims in the disaster, and it serves well enough.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (2007), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a study in how religion and capitalistic ambition interweave, compromise, and subvert one another. It shows how the value of and need for oil can transform a society, both for good and for bad. It also shows the corrupting influences of ambition and greed along with the darker undertones of the American work ethic and the American dream.

Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the main character Daniel Plainview with the intensity that characterizes his best performances. Only in the final scene does he descend into the boisterous overacting that we saw in The Gangs of New York. Plainview's driving ambition and basic misanthropy (he says he hates most people) eventually deny him meaning and satisfaction in his life. He doesn't like competition of any kind, including, in the end, what he sees as competition from his own son.

Plainview is corrupt in a certain way from the beginning. The opening scenes of the film (when there are long stretches of no dialogue, simply scenes of Plainview at work) emphasize how long and hard he worked. The first part of the film extends from 1898 to 1912—during this period Plainview does nothing but work. We first see him digging an oil well, by himself, in 1898. When he actually discovers oil, he hires a few men to assist him. He never explains his motives or thoughts in these early scenes. He just works—hard, manual labor, hazardous labor, in the dirt and grime—at first alone, then with a few men whom he rarely talks with. We quickly come to understand what we are seeing—one example of how thousands of men sought their fortunes through prospecting for gold or oil or silver. Part of the point here is to suggest that Plainview works hard to gain success and wealth, and that he continues to work long and hard after he has begun to enjoy success. Plainview, however, is a man who enjoys considerable success—he aspires to wealth, power, and the satisfaction they would bring. Yet there is a kind of duplicitous hollowness evident in him from early in the film. When one of his workers is killed, he adopts the man's child as his own but does not tell the child about the circumstances of his birth. He masquerades as the boy's biological father and tells one man that the boy's mother died in childbirth. He resists any prying into the details of his private life. The child believes Plainview is his father.

When Plainview is trying to convince the residents of a small community of the advantages of drilling for oil in their community, he speaks to them as a solicitous and moral family man. He says that he cares about family above all else and goes to some lengths to convince the townspeople by offering to make a donation to the local church and by building a school. Plainview does love above all else the boy he raises as his son—he loves the boy to an extreme. But as his life progresses Plainview seems to be less and less the man he presents to others. He insists so diligently on his devotion to community and family that we begin to doubt him. There is something disingenuous about him.

Ultimately, things begin to go wrong. The boy is injured in an accident and loses his hearing. Plainview at first tries to deal with the accident but then sends the boy away to live in an institution in California. Is he ashamed of his son—is this imperfection a blemish in his scheme? It's not clear whether Plainview believes this or whether he thinks he is doing what is right for the boy. When a man appears claiming to be his half-brother, Plainview takes him in and begins to talk to him in a way he has spoken to no one else we have seen him with. The interest Plainview shows in the man, and in the information he brings about his mother's death, suggests that at heart Plainview really is a man to whom family is important. But when the man confesses to imposture, having stolen the half-brother's journal and identity, Plainview is enraged and viciously kills, burying the body. Shortly after, when he needs permission from a landowner to run a pipeline through his land, he agrees to join the local church and confess his sins—this is the only way he can get what he wants—he's no church believer.

It's not exactly clear why Plainview believes he has failed. Are the wealth, the prestige, and the success not enough? Did he expect more? Did he not plan for a son with disabilities? But whatever the explanation, it's clear that what he has is not enough.

Plainview at one point tells the man posing as his brother that he wants to make enough money to go away and live by himself, away from other people. He tells the man that he hates other people, and that he hates competition in general. Later, when his son announces his intention to go to Mexico and drill for oil on his own, Plainview reminds him that he hates competition—what his son proposes to do is become a competitor. Plainview renounces his son and tells him that he is not his father. This is one of the most intense and difficult scenes in the film.

There are long periods of time in the film when Day-Lewis as Plainview says nothing. We can read him only by his actions, his hard work, his expressionless face. The film seems in no hurry to do anything—especially in the opening scenes the pace is slow—the long, slow scenes are contrary to almost any kind of filmmaking going on in commercial film today. The slow, ponderous, fascinating scenes cast characters against the land in a way that reminds one of Terrence Malick in Badlands (1973) or Days of Heaven (1978). But here there is no visual lyricism, no sentimental paean to the land and the people who inhabit it. Here the colors are washed out. The landscape is huge and expansive and often unvaried. It's the kind of land we encounter in Frank Norris or Jack London. There's no calculated beauty here, though much of what we see is in its own way beautiful. The ponderous slow scenes help us to feel the years of hard labor that Plainview endures in order to get what he thinks he wants.

This is a tale of the late Gilded Age, it reminds me of Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, but certainly seems consistent with Upton Sinclair, whose novel Oil (1927) provided the source for the film—I haven't read Oil so cannot say how much of the novel makes its way into the film.

This film has an unusual and highly interesting soundtrack. Much of the music for the film is composed by Radiohead artist Johnny Greenwood. It's minimalist and discordant music in many ways, out of synch with the scenes it accompanies, but finally very appropriate. Compositions by Arvo Pärt and Johannes Brahms are also featured. The third movement of Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major plays a powerful role in the film's finals scenes, as if to impose lofty and impersonal judgment on Plainview's decline.

The film is dedicated to Robert Altman, one of Anderson's inspirations—Altman's influence is clearly evident in Magnolia (1999). But the director it most reminds me of, especially in its use of music and in its removed, distant, impersonal treatment of characters is Stanley Kubrick, especially the Kubrick of 2001 (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987)--these are films about the transformation of men, and transformation is certainly one of the interests of There will be Blood. I was constantly reminded of Citizen Kane (1941) and how Kane's ambition gradually corrupts and isolates him—Plainview goes through the same process.

One of the characters whom we least understand is the preacher Eli Sunday. He takes every opportunity to ask Plainview to highlight his work as minister of the church—he asks for a donation to the church if oil comes in. He wants to make sure that the roads Plainview plans to build will run by the church, he asks Plainview to name him in the blessing for the new oil well. People in the local community follow Sunday as if he is some sort of prophet, and we begun to feel suspicious of him from an early point. When he is revealed as the hypocrite and poseur that he ultimately proves to be, Plainview is once again enraged. Sunday's piety had haunted Plainview throughout the film as a kind of index or standard against which Plainview might measure his own behavior. When Sunday proves to be as hollow and corrupted as Plainview, then the emptiness of the world at large is revealed. Religion in this film is a social force that manipulates and deceives, just as Plainview himself manipulates and deceives.

As forceful as this film proves to be, as withering as the final scenes are, and as fascinating a portrait as it offers of Plainview, we are ultimately left without a full understanding of this man, of what he desired from life, of what would have satisfied him, of why he was who he was. All we are left with at the end is ambition, greed, hypocrisy, self-destruction, desperation, cruelty, hollowness. The empty house that Plainview inhabits in the latter half of this film is a perfect emblem of the emptiness he embodies. Is this portrait of Plainview as an oil man, the generator of American wealth, the enactor of the American Dream and proponent of American values—community, education, faith, family, hard work-- suggestive of a larger meaning?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Southland Tales

In Donnie Darko (2001) director Richard Kelley melded teen-angst and love with wormholes and time travel and an oversized rabbit that may or may not exist. He did this in a way that was fascinating, poignant, thought-provoking, and entertaining on any number of levels. The film became a cult phenomenon. In Southland Tales (2006) Richard Kelley completely fails. The film is casually, clumsily made, poorly acted, turgid, excessively complicated, full of sophomoric strainings towards intellectual profundity, politically as sophisticated as Pink Floyd's The Wall. It features frequent quotations from the book of Revelations, spoken by Justin Timberlake. The Republican candidate for President is Bobby Frost, who quotes from "The Road Not Taken." His running mate is Eliot (perhaps Thomas Stearns Eliot, whose lines from "The Hollow Men" are quoted several times, "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper"). Numerous actors make appearances that simply amplify the chaos (Janeane Garofolo, Amy Poehler, Justin Timberlake, Wallace Shawn, John Laroquette, Jon Lovitz, Mandy Moore, others). This film is so disappointing that it makes one wonder whether Donnie Darko could have been more an accident than something made by intent.

The basic plot covers the last three days of the earth. At some point in the recent past terrorists detonated an atomic bomb somewhere in Texas. Thus the film portrays a post-apocalyptic world, though it is not clear where additional atomic bombings have occurred. Numerous wars have broken out, including one in Syria. Society seems to be in a state of chaos. The world portrayed in the film appears to be our own, just before the 2008 presidential elections. I could attempt a more detailed summary of the plot, but to do so would suggest that I can make sense of the various plotlines, or that there is sense to make of them to begin with. They have to do with the disappearance of Senator Frost's son-in-law (Dwayne Johnson, "The Rock"), who is apparently kidnapped by an extremist group. He reappears several days later, afflicted with amnesia. A tear in the space-time continuum has opened up somewhere in the California desert. Several individuals who come in contact with the tear begin appearing in two places at once. Towards the end of the film we learn that if one individual comes in contact with his duplicate self, the tear in the space time continuum will consume and destroy the earth. This is communicated to us by the Rock in the film's most memorable statement: "The fourth dimension will collapse upon itself . . . you stupid bitch." There is also the launching of a giant blimp, two cars fornicating in the driveway, a writer who lives events he has already written about in a screenplay, a reality show for valley girls, a rebellion fomented by a terrorist group called the Neo-Marxists. And so on.

Creativity and originality do not mean self-indulgence.

I wanted to like the film. I'd read the scathing reviews, but I thought I might see something others didn't. Not so.