Friday, July 18, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is the kind of film that happens when creative imagination proves less important than the desire to resurrect a successful and popular character. This film is tired and hackneyed. Apparently Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas and Harrison Ford and others dickered for years over the plot of this film. Finally they came to a compromise. It shows. This is the worst of the four films in the Indiana Jones series.

The opening scenes are promising. The film seems shot in a hazy afternoon light, and the effect is pleasing, as if we are gazing back into the golden, halcyon days of the 1950s. Markers of the 1950s abound. For a while they keep the film interesting. Students at the university where Indiana teaches look as if they are straight out of American Graffiti. There are hot rods and long skirts and pony tails and anti-communist demonstrations. The young man Mutt Williams played by Shia LaBeouf has a motorcycle and a leather jacket, is constantly combing his hair (like the Fonz from Happy Days, like Kookie from '77 Sunset Strip, like the original James Dean). Shia doesn't look particularly tough, though he thinks he is. Mainly he looks foolish and narcissistic. But the main way the film references the 1950s is through an A-bomb test and McCarthyism (the villains are Russians, and Indy is suspended from his teaching position because it's discovered that he once worked with a character suspicious enough that the F. B. I. placed him on their list of suspicious characters).

Harrison Ford plays his part with an acceptable simulation of enthusiasm. He's an old man to be pulling many of the stunts he pulls in the film (assuming he did them himself), and there are only rare hints of awkwardness.

In an early scene Indy finds himself in a town built by the U. S. government to test the effects of a nuclear blast on a suburban neighborhood. Loudspeakers announce that a nuclear blast is only seconds away. There's no escape, but at the last minute he finds a place to hide. The whole scene is carried off in an impressive, credible, witty way, even though it's the obvious product of digital manipulation. It's also, I think, not original. Consider this scene alongside The Atomic Kid, a 1954 Mickey Rooney vehicle in which the main character finds himself in a similar town. Other scenes seem borrowed: the penultimate scene in South America seems taken directly from the climax of The X-Files movie (1998). Of course, the Indiana Jones series is a wonderful example of cinematic intertextuality—of borrowings from H. Rider Haggard novels and comic books and numerous Saturday afternoon movie serials and so on. These sources are all part of the fun. There's a lot of intertextuality in this fourth film. But the vitality of the first and third installments, the energy and good humor, is missing.

Things clearly begin to implode when the Russians have taken Indy and Mutt prisoner in South America, where they have gone to search for a strage crystal skull and Mutt's mother, who has been kidnapped by the Commies. To force Indy and Mutt to lead them to the secret kingdom of the crystal skull, the Russians trot out Mutt's mother. She's Marion Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen, Indy's love interest in the first of the films. All of a sudden a film that was plodding along as a passably amusing and fantastic adventure becomes a family reunion. Not only does Indy see Marion for the first time in 20 years—she slugs him for deserting her—but she also tells him that Mutt is his son. Indy spends the remainder of the film trying to reacquaint himself with Marion and to adjust to the fact that he has a son. Mutt can't believe this old professor is his father, so we have an ongoing struggle by Indy to win the boy over. Marion herself seems goofy and tired, and once she's part of the action Indy starts behaving that way too. Everyone is trying to impress everyone else. When Mutt pulls off an impressive stunt, Indy winks and grins—a "that's my boy" reaction. The corniest dialogue in the film comes when Indy and Marion are discussing their long separation. He's surprised to learn that she married a colleague after he disappeared:

Marion: I'm sure I wasn't the only one to go on with my life. There must have been plenty of women for you over the years.

Indy: There were a few. But they all had the same problem.

Marion: Yeah, what's that?

Indy: They weren't you, honey.

This kind of schlock continues throughout the film: Indy's pleased that Marion can drive a car and shoot a gun and that his son can swing on a rope. These warm expressions of family unity compete with the main plot—battles with the Russians and giant carnivorous ants and zombie-like natives, and the discovery of the hidden kingdom deep within the Amazonian jungle. It's all ultimately preposterous and unbelievable. I like stories about aliens as much as anyone else, but the way the aliens with their psychically potent crystal skulls blend into this story of Father Knows Best in Amazonia suggests desperation among the screenwriters.

I remember distinctly an episode from a television program from the late 1950s or early 1960s—I saw it twice, and it made an impression. Explorers of old Aztec ruins in South America discover a strangely shaped skull—the skull of a deceased being from outer space who has visited the earth years before and left strange legends behind him. I can't remember the name of the show. But it's another example of the lack of originality in this film, the sodden derivativeness, which draws heavily from the nutty book by Erich von Däniken, The Chariot of the Gods.

I did not enjoy and was not entertained by this film. It's a cheesy recycling of a beloved character from two decades and more in the past—it would have been nice to encounter him again in a film conceived with imagination and vigor, in the spirit of the original installment. It's incredible to me that Stephen Spielberg directed this film. He's directed some impressive films. Consider Schindler's List (1993) and Munich (2005), or even E. T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Jaws (1975). Why would he associate his name with this mess? Presumably he did so out of loyalty to his friends George Lucas and Harrison Ford, and also because he directed the first three films in the series.

In the closing scene, we see Marion and Indiana getting married. This is, I suppose, one way to end the series, Indy and Marion shuffling off into geriatric domesticity, with their cats and their girdles and their goiters and their false teeth. Where are the keys, honey? Where are my glasses?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Green Pastures

The Green Pastures (1936) is based on the 1930 Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same title by Marc Connelly, which itself is adapted from Roark Bradford's Ol' Man Adam and His Chillun (1928), a series of Bible stories told from an unlettered African American viewpoint. Connelly and William Keighley co-directed the film. From the 1936 perspective, the film was intended to be appreciative and sympathetic to African American culture. But it achieves sympathy at the cost of paternalism, condescension, and racial stereotypes. Undoubtedly Connelly thought he was presenting an authentic portrait of African Americans and their religion. What he was really doing was portraying a white man's view of African American religion—how whites liked to think that African Americans conceived of their religion. Although there may be elements of truth in the film—children in particular would have responded to the film's images of African American angels flying around in heaven (the Green Pastures), singing, playing chase, fishing, having picnics—as a whole it is a well intended but misinformed and misguided effort.

Despite its pious subject, one purpose of Green Pastures is comedy—to elicit the laughter of a mainly white audience in response to images of African Americans dressed as angels cavorting in heaven and acting out Bible stories.

The Green Pastures was the first major motion picture with an all-black cast. Rex Ingram portrays "de Lawd," with Oscar Polk as Gabriel and Eddie Anderson as Noah. The film shows a Sunday school teacher explaining God and the Bible to a group of young children. He describes "de Lawd" as someone vaguely resembling Dr. Du Bois—is this W. E. B. Du Bois? The teacher's talk with the children and their rapt faces segues into a series of scenes portraying black angels in heaven. When "de Lawd" arrives on the scene, he complains that the pudding lacks something of substance and decides that it doesn't have enough "firmament," which he thereby creates. A sequence of scenes shows the creation of the earth, of Adam and Eve, the story of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood (one of the central scenes in the film), and the fall of Babylon, after which de Lawd decides not to try to help the human race anymore and retreats to heaven.

The portrait of God in this film is deeply humanistic and anthropomorphic. De Lawd is shown agonizing over the sins and tribulations of the human race. He is constantly disappointed at how humans manage to sin after he intervenes to help them or to clean things up. Even after he retreats to heaven, he is shown suffering over his decision, struggling to discover a way to help the human race without violating his decision. This leads him to an understanding of mercy, suffering, and finally the meaning of faith. The crucial moment comes when de Lawd realizes that though he may have lost faith in mankind, mankind (some of them at least) have kept their faith in him. With these discoveries de Lawd decides to send Christ to the earth as his representative, though this decision is only indirectly implied.

Much of this film is quite watchable. It has its charms. Ingram in particular as de Lawd is impressive. The excellent traditional spirituals sung by the Hall Johnson Choir are used throughout the film to highlight and accompany the Biblical dramatizations. The best scenes are the earliest ones, and as the film moves past the creation of Adam and Eve towards Noah and the flood and the fall of Babylon it becomes too literal and begins to drag.

The Green Pastures exemplifies a view of African Americans that was pervasive in the 1930s, not merely in the South but throughout much of America—a view that regarded them as pious, simple, and primitive—as the bearers of a folk and racial tradition that merited preservation mainly as a form of racial local color.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth's famous persona Zuckerman narrates the first third or so of his 1996 novel American Pastoral. He talks about his childhood friendship with Jerry Levov and of his idolatry of Levov's older brother, nicknamed the Swede because of his blond hair, handsome appearance, and athletic build. The Swede was the envy of other boys and the dream of girls. His real name is Seymour Levov. His father is an Italian immigrant, a wealthy manufacturer of gloves. Despite his nickname and his physical appearance, the Swede is Jewish. American Pastoral explores the irony of a man who seems the embodiment of the standard young American hero but who is also Jewish. Is this an irony, a contradiction? Is it possible to be an American hero and a Jew at the same time? Is it possible to be a Jew and an American hero at the same time? Who defines the categories?

The Swede's ambiguous embrace of his ethnic identity is only the surface of the many subjects the novel examines. The Swede lives an idyllic life. He is married to the former Miss New Jersey. He runs his father's business and is wealthy. He is widely admired for his looks and athletic prowess. But gradually his life begins to break down. The collapse begins when his daughter Merry starts to stutter. This formerly charming and idyllic girl puts on weight, grows distant from her parents, embraces radical causes. Finally, at the age of 16, she plants a bomb that blows up a local post office and kills the post master. She disappears.

American Pastoral explores an idyllic life that proves to be not so idyllic. (The novel's title implies this exploration). On the surface the Swede is the American ideal: successful in business and athletics and marriage, an attentive and involved father, a good citizen. Beneath the surface, darkness lurks—or does it? Zuckerman at first hypothesizes that a somewhat too passionate kiss between the Swede and his daughter when she was 11 may have been the source of the problem (the idea of the kiss is Zuckerman's surmise—based only on his suspicion that there must have been some buried event that caused the family's problems). In Zuckerman's imagined account of the Swede's life, the Swede considers this possibility but then discounts it—it was only one kiss.

In the 1990s, when he is in his sixties, Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede, whom he was never close to, asking to meet with him. They meet for lunch and chat but the Swede says nothing that could have been reason for the meeting. Zuckerman doesn't understand why the Swede wanted to meet with him. A year later, at a high school reunion, the Swede's brother Jerry tells Zuckerman about the trauma caused by the Swede's daughter's involvement in the post office bombing. Zuckerman, a writer, is interested in the story that Jerry tells him, but he learns only the bare details, and he wants to know more. Unfortunately, he cannot call the Swede for further discussion because, as it turns out, the Swede has died of prostate cancer. He must have been ill with the disease when they met for lunch.

Zuckerman speculates and surmises. Suddenly the book changes from a story narrated by Zuckerman to a story focused on the Swede, told by a third-person narrator—these latter sections of the novel may be Zuckerman's fictional speculations about the Swede's life, narrated from an omniscient viewpoint. The story covers the years from the 1960s to the 1990s, though the main episodes occur in the late 60s and early 70s, ending around the time of the Watergate scandal.

A key to the Swede's character may be his desire to make others happy, his willing acquiescence to whatever demand or request comes his way, his unwillingness to assert himself or his own point of view. His entire life has been one of compromise and acquiescence. When he calls his brother to tell him that he has found his daughter and to ask for advice, Jerry angrily attacks him and tells him that if he had not tried to make everyone else happy, his life would not have become such a disaster. This trait extends from his athletic career to his job to his family life. The Swede has always been concerned with trying to give those around him what they want. His father convinces him to join the glove business. A friend convinces him to play football, a game he thought he wouldn't enjoy. When his father opposes his marriage to a gentile woman, he relies on the woman to argue with his father rather than doing so himself. Perhaps the main example of this unassertive nature comes when the Swede discovers his daughter, missing for five years, living in a broken-down hovel of an apartment building, a flop house. She is emaciated, in bad shape, and has embraced Jainism. Instead of forcing her to leave and taking her home or to a doctor, he talks to her and tries to understand her actions. Then he leaves her and goes home. In his defense, however, he knows that if he takes her home she will eventually be arrested and tried for her crimes, which include the murder of four people in various bombings. Should a parent be expected to expose his child to arrest? The question is not easy to answer.

American Pastoral also considers the damaging consequences of the 1960s. Conflicts over Vietnam, Civil Rights, feminism, the sexual revolution, drugs tore the nation apart, and extended down to the level of families across the nation. The Swede is part of the post-World War II generation, the generation of so-called complacency and affluence, the generation of the 1950s, while his daughter is a child of the 60s, with its basic rejection of the parents' generation and its attacks on everything conventional, traditional, and of the past.

Roth's portrait of the Swede Levov is powerful and engaging. He is a latter-day version of the Great Gatsby, yet Gatsby sought wealth and American affluence, while the Swede merely acquiesces to it. The Swede is a good man who tries to do right by his family, yet who falls victim to his own goodness, his own lack of will. Does American affluence condition him not to assert his will, his identity? Does it deny him a moral conscience, an ability to see beneath and beyond the surface of his own situation, of his character and his life?

Roth's powerful prose style is a major attribute of the novel, but the novel is overwritten. It could be two-thirds as long. Conversations or scenes that should have run for two or three pages run for ten or twelve. Roth's immersion of his readers in the milieu and thinking of the Swede becomes overkill. I found myself impatient for a scenes and chapters to end. The novel does not end in a satisfying way—it ends with a question.

It's possible I misread this novel. I read it late at night and became impatient with the long chapters when I grew tired. I should reread it.

Clearly one of Roth's interests here is the conflict between the Swede's Jewish upbringing and the "American" identity he adopts. This is not Roth's main issue, but it is an important one. The Swede can stand for any individual with a heritage, a tradition, that is part of his identity. To what extent does pursuit of the American dream of success and prestige compel one to give up his or her individual essence and be absorbed in the national faceless void of predefined values and identity?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort (1983) is about cultural imperialism—about how one culture reacts when another encroaches on its territory. A squad of Louisiana National Guardsmen is assigned as part of a training exercise to make a cross-country hike through the swamps. This is a weekend jaunt for most of the men, who have other jobs. Soon into the hike one of them finds and cuts through a net line belonging to local residents of the swamp, whom we assume are Cajuns. Later they find carcasses hung out to dry. Then they take two boats belonging to the swamp residents and use them to cross a river. (They do leave a note explaining that they will return the boats). When the guardsmen look back and see the owners of the boats watching them, they try to explain their actions, but there is a language barrier—the Cajuns speak French, and they are too far away to hear. As a joke, one of the men in the squad fires his automatic weapon at the men on the riverbank—it's filled with blanks, but the Cajuns don't know that and duck for cover. One of them returns fire that kills the lieutenant in charge. The plot of the film is thus set in motion. The guardsmen try to make their way across the swamp and are picked off, one-by-one, by the local residents.

For most of the film the Cajuns are portrayed as violent and murderous swamp dwellers who resort to all sorts of devices—booby-traps, quicksand, raging dogs, fear tactics—to work revenge on the guardsmen. At the end of the film, the surviving two guardsmen leave the swamp and catch a ride into a nearby Cajun settlement where a celebration of some sort is occurring. Now the Cajuns are portrayed as joyous and fun-loving people who invite the guardsmen to dance and join the celebration. The residents of the settlement are dancing, playing music, cooking. Then the men who had one by one killed the other guardsmen come into the town and try to kill the two survivors. It's not clear whether the townspeople know this is going on and use the noise of the celebration to cover it up, or whether they're unaware. This final scene, with all its ambiguity, exemplifies the guardsmen's essential lack of understanding of the Cajuns—and, since we are viewing the action from the guardsmen's perspective, our own lack of understanding as well.

During the film the guardsmen capture a Cajun man who they believe is responsible for killing their lieutenant. Some of the men abuse the prisoner either for purposes of revenge or to get information out of him. The prisoner watches the guardsmen and recognizes that they are all individuals and that not all of them are to blame for the abuse. As a result, perhaps, he later helps the survivors find their way out of the swamp.

What the film does make clear is that the guardsmen set in motion the events that cause their problems in the film. The swamp dwelling Cajuns interpret the guardsmen's lack of respect for them and their property as an attack. Despite the fact that the Cajuns are the initial victims, however, they are portrayed as murderous and violent, more than up to the task of exacting revenge on the invaders of their territory. Ultimately the film portrays the guardsmen as the victims. Are the Cajuns as a group portrayed as murderous and violent, or does the film place blame only on the men tracking the guardsmen in the swamp? Are the guardsmen as a group responsible for their actions, or are only certain individuals to blame. It's difficult to weed out the guilty from the innocent, and the Cajuns in this film in general are shown as primitive, violent, and dangerous.

Yet this is not purely a film about cultural misunderstandings. It is fundamentally a film about men trying to escape a threat to their lives. Suspense and action, with no small emphasis on violence—are the point—the unpreparedness of so-called civilized men when they are plunged into a life-threatening situation in an alien environment. The commanding officer of the squad dies early in the film, and the officer who takes over for him proves wholly unprepared to lead the men or prevent them from falling into complete disorder and disarray. One can make comparisons with Deliverance (1972) and Lord of the Flies (1963, 1990), and one can draw comparisons, as I believe some reviewers did, of the men in this film with American soldiers in Vietnam. In Deliverance as well as Southern Comfort, we must ask who the real victims are. Both films, moreover, consider what happens to morality and respect for human life when the restraints of civilization are stripped away. In Deliverance these questions were clearly and overtly at the film's center. In Southern Comfort they may be more of a pretext for the action and violence than they are the real subject.

The plot of Southern Comfort, in which the guardsmen are killed off one by one by an unseen enemy, is the typical plot of many a horror and suspense film—think of Halloween (1978) or Alien (1979) or Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), for instance, or even the Agatha Christie film And Then There Were None (1945). It's a too often used, hackneyed device, and it doesn't provide an effective way of exploring the collision of the two cultural perspectives in this film.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Battleship Potemkin

The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is one of the great silent films. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, it is notable for its highly dramatic portrayal of a mutiny on a Russian battleship in 1905, early in the Russian revolution. The film is relatively short (75 minutes) and is divided into five sections. One focuses on the mutiny and the death of its leader, another on how news of the mutineer's death provokes citizens of Odessa into a massive reaction, still another on how government troops massacre hundreds of citizens on the famous Odessa Steps, and another on a showdown between the Potemkin and the Russian navy. The massacre on the Odessa Steps is one of the great scenes in cinema—primarily for the balletic way in which it depicts the massacre, and for how it focuses on individual victims. It draws a stunning contrast between the inexorable and robotic march of the soldiers conducting the massacre and the deaths of various victims. The most famous image in the scene is of a baby carriage plummeting down the steps, baby still inside. Another image shows a mother clutching her wounded son, pleading to the oncoming troops to let her pass. They shoot her down.

I do not know enough about early film history to know exactly why this film is so admired, but I can speculate. First is Eisenstein's highly dramatic, sometimes epical, way of presenting the events of the film, connecting them to history, specifically the Russian revolution. Another is his use of unusual perspectives. On the Potemkin he uses a lot of overhead shots showing the sailors moiling back and forth on the deck of the ship. Another is simply his use of numerous distinctive human faces—peasants, aristocrats, the young and old, mothers with their children. There is a Hogarthian quality to the film, but these individual faces are meant to represent the individual faces of an uprising, of a national movement that will lead to revolution against the czar. Still another device is his ability to evoke suspense. This is most apparent in the final segment of the film, where the sailors of the Potemkin are waiting in suspense for the showdown with the squadron that is coming to confront them. Will the squadron attack, or will it join the Potemkin in rebellion? Eisenstein shows the crew of the Potemkin waiting—sleeping, talking, eating—always looking concerned—waiting to learn what will happen. By delaying the final showdown, he invests the film with suspense. The effect is highly successful.

The restored version of the film I watched used music by Dmitri Shostakovich to accompany the silent action. Shostakovich wrote the music well after the film was made, but it was extremely effective and only with difficulty can I imagine the film without that music in accompaniment. However, another restoration of the film is available with music by a different composer.

Film is a technological medium, and The Battleship Potemkin was made when film technology was still early in its development. The film is dated as a result, but it's easy to understand why it has had such an impact and reputation.


WALL-E (2008), the newest Pixar production, disappointed me. While it tackled a number of serious issues—the future of our species, our increasing reliance on technology, our environmental impact on the world—it did so in the context of a children's cartoon that relies on the tired old cartoon clichés of stock characters, a love affair, a battle with the bad guys. The effect is somewhat schizophrenic and self-defeating, even if the movie itself is diverting enough. The need of this film to enchant and charm its audience waters down its handling of the serious issues. As an animated character, WALL-E owes much to the extraterrestrial from E. T. (1982) and the Short Circuit robot (1986). WALL-E is cute, he has a heart, he's sentimental , he's self-conscious, and so on. He's fascinated with an old musical, Hello, Dolly (1969), from which he sings or thinks about two songs incessantly, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment." He's just what we humans would like a robot to be (except for his fondness for Hello, Dolly). So is his futuristic partner, Eve, sent to earth to scout out any signs of plant life, which would mean the planet is livable.

The best parts of WALL-E come early in the film as the robot wanders around what used to be New York, collecting garbage and compressing it into cubes that he stacks methodically. (His name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class). He also collects little artifacts of the vanished human culture, along with spare parts from other robots like himself so that he can self-repair when necessary. We humans would find WALL-E's life a lonely one, but it's the only one he has ever known, and he's not programmed to be lonely. Eve's arrival on the earth throws him into confusion. She's sleek and smooth and high-tech—and robotically feminine—WALL-E falls for her.

If this film had used WALL-E and Eve to examine a speculative version of our future, to tell a parabolic tale of fabulous admonition, we might have something more than what we actually get. What we get is the story of two robots in love, set in the context of a future 700 years after humans have left the earth because it has grown too polluted with garbage and smog. The humans and their descendants live on a huge cruise-type ship far out in the galaxy, their every whim catered to by robots. They have grown lazy, stupid, and fat. (Is this the ultimate outcome of what Blade Runner (1982) predicts, when all the humans who can afford it have left the earth to live in space?) What matters in this film are the robots, not the future. In spite of everything, the robots do manage to bring humans back to the planet, where they are set to lose weight, raise vegetables, and repopulate the earth.

There are numerous allusions to previous Sci-Fi films with robots and other marvelous creatures—Auto, the robot who oversees the interstellar cruise ship, and who disobeys the captain's orders, is directly reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with his glaring red eye. There's E. T. (one scene in particular is replicated), Short Circuit, Blade Runner, the various Star Wars films. Regrettably, the robots of the 1950s—from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956)-- seem beyond the memories of the makers of this film--they were perhaps too ominous for the purposes of WALL-E.

WALL-E is modest fun and entertainment. The animation is excellent, though it's held back by the premises of the film and the need to satisfy the dictates of a cartoon universe that will sell tickets. Such Japanese films about the future and saving the environment as Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Princess Mononoke (1997) and Howl's Moving Castle (2004) are imaginatively superior. The director of the latter two films--Hayao Miyazaki—manages to make films that appeal to adults and children without pandering to the conventions of commercial animation in the way that WALL-E does.

Still, WALL-E is entertaining.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a major entry in the American tradition of chain gang films, a tradition that extends back to Mervyn Leroy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The American South provides a logical setting for the film, since chain gangs are associated with the South, though in fact they were used all over the nation. The South is also a suitable setting for this story because of its reputation for strict enforcement of law and order and its purported lack of sympathy for lawbreakers and the down and out. Race is not an issue in Cool Hand Luke, in part because in the 1960s most Southern chain gangs were segregated. The absence of race as an overt theme simplifies matters for the filmmakers, perhaps. Yet race can be viewed as a subtle theme in how the film portrays the struggle of individuals, specifically Luke himself, against a system that does not favor people who do not fit neatly into a predetermined, predefined place.

The real theme of Cool Hand Luke is the individual against the system. The opening shots of the film show repeated images of a garish red sign reading "VIOLATION." We next see a drunken Luke struggling to twist the head off a parking meter. He's arrested for this small act of vandalism, for "defacing public property." The film doesn't argue that he should not have faced arrest. Instead it argues that the degree of his punishment is extreme, and that society's insistence on conformity, its intolerance of individuals, is extreme as well.

Luke is the son of a lower-class family. We briefly meet his dying mother when she comes to visit him at the prison farm. Clearly, whatever progress he makes in life has been of his own doing. We learn that he has always had difficulty fitting in, especially since his traumatic experiences in war. He apparently suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, an affliction for which there was no name when the film was made. He is, in effect, a psychically wounded war veteran.

Cool Hand Luke has much in common with other films about men imprisoned or trapped or confined in an oppressive environment. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Stalag 17 (1953) are examples. It is also linked in this sense to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward. In such works, the prison or the hospital ward, and the individual's struggle with the institutional structures and authority they embody, become an emblem of society at large.

Cool Hand Luke is an episodic film that follows Luke's entry into the prison camp, his adjustment there, his growing conflict with prison authorities, and three escape attempts. The inmates who accept their confinement are portrayed as content with their lot. They are shown having parties, dancing, gambling, and engaged in other activities with prison personnel standing nearby, nodding approval. The main representative of this group is Dragline, played by George Kennedy. He's been in the camp longer than most of the prisoners, and he sees the way to survival through complying with prison rules. He's worried by Luke's rebelliousness, and in various ways he urges Luke to go along with the rules. Dragline is not a coward, but he clearly has a different attitude towards life, towards survival, than Luke. The men like Dragline may be more likely to survive the prison camp, but they do so at the cost of their individuality, their identity. Luke may ultimately retain his identity, but it comes at the cost of his life.

Contrasted against scenes of prisoner camaraderie are those in which Luke wages his struggle against the prison authorities, against authority in general. Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is the egg-eating wager: where inmates bet on whether Luke can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in a sitting. Paul Newman as Luke is the center of the film, which is built around his character rather than around some coherent central narrative that moves the film forward. The distinction between a film of character and a film of narrative may be minor. But the film is memorable because of Luke's character and because of his struggles against authority, rather than because of any narrative involving other characters in the film. We could imagine the film with a different slate of secondary characters, with a significantly different narrative, but we could not imagine it without the character of Luke or even without Paul Newman himself. Cool Hand Luke is not a groundbreaking film, but Newman's performance as Luke is one of the best of his career.

One motif in the film concerns how the inmates live vicariously through Luke's rebelliousness. They enjoy talking about his exploits and they clearly feed off his resistance to prison authorities. They compensate for their own lack of resolve and strength by drawing on the example he provides. When he escapes from prison, they talk about him while he is away, and when he is captured and brought back they enjoying hearing about his exploits. After the egg-eating contest, Luke lies prone on a sheet of plywood, his arms stretched out to either side. The symbolic posture suggests crucifixion, and there is clearly a sense in Luke's character of the savior who suffers for those who believe in him.

After his second escape attempt, Luke is returned to the camp severely beaten. His entire demeanor has changed. He shouts at the other inmates when they brag about him: "Oh come on. Stop beatin' it. Get out there yourself. Stop feedin' off me. Get out of here. I can't breathe. Give me some air." When he's forced repeatedly by the prison guards to dig a ditch and then fill it in, he finally breaks down and tearfully begs the guards not to beat him. In anger, the inmates turn against him, refuse to help him when he collapses to the floor, and tear up souvenirs of him they have saved.

The prison guard who wears opaque sun glasses—"the man with no eyes"—is the source of the sheriff who tracks the three convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). The two characters are fairly similar—associated with the devil, or at least with fate, with an impersonal and indifferent Authority that exacts punishment when transgression occurs.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Time to Kill

In A Time to Kill a contemporary (1996) trial provokes events (cross burnings, physical attacks, arson, riots, a kidnapping) that seem temporally out of place. It is not that such events could not have happened in 1996 or that they even could not happen today. It is rather that all of the events taken together seem an unlikely pastiche constructed from the past seventy years—a collection of the worst possible examples of racial hatred. I liked this film for the acting and the narrative. However, the historical details concern me. I am not sure the film is historically as accurate as it could be. I worry that extreme manifestations of racial terrorism and hysteria have been appropriated by the film to enhance its sensationalist and entertainment value. I may be wrong about this—further research into Klan activities in Mississippi during the 1990s will support or refute my point.

All historical films are inaccurate to some extent—some more than others. Often the inaccuracy may not matter. The point of the film may be simply to entertain, to divert the audience. But when a film has as its intent to deliver a message about the state of American race relations, the stakes are higher, and the need for accuracy more pressing.

A Time to Kill means to examine an ethical paradox or allegory. It concerns a black man named Carl Lee Hailey whose 10-year-old daughter is attacked, brutally beaten, and raped by young white hoodlums. The young men are quickly arrested by the local sheriff, who himself happens to be black. Convinced that the young men will be found innocent by a local jury, the girl's father sneaks into the court house and shoots the two men to death as they enter to stand for their indictment.

Everyone sympathizes with Carl Lee. There is little doubt that the two young men attacked his daughter. They're toothless rednecks who drive a pickup, swig beer, shout racial epithets, and behave in a menacing way to black citizens of the community. There is nothing redeeming about them. Other than the fact that they're shot down without benefit of a trial, there's nothing to find in their defense. And it's true as well (at least according to the film) that a white jury in this particular Mississippi county might find these hooligans innocent, or at least not issue a sentence appropriate to their crimes. On the other hand, Carl Lee has committed a vigilante murder. He's violated the law and denied these men justice.

The point of this arrangement of events in the film is to portray a crime and an accused man who might be found innocent and who might be found guilty, with no disputation of the facts, only of their significance and their interpretation. As one disbarred lawyer in the film remarks to Carl Lee's defense attorney, "If you win this case, justice will prevail, and if you lose, justice will also prevail. Now that is a strange case." It's ironic, of course, in a pointed way, that the man accused of vigilante justice is a black man, and that his victims are white—a reversal of the usual circumstances that led to numerous lynchings in the American South and elsewhere through the seven or so decades of the 20th century.

A Time to Kill doesn't investigate this legal dilemma very thoroughly. Any film about theoretical interpretations of the law faces a challenge. How do you make such a film entertaining? Here, however, the film clearly sides with the accused and with his lawyer, Jake Tyler Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), especially with the various problems encountered by Jake and his colleagues and family as the local chapter of the Klan begins to flex its muscle.

About the Klan: this film gives it too much credit. One of the murdered men has a brother with Klan associations, and he meets with the leader of a Klan chapter elsewhere in the state. He is encouraged to recruit members to join a local chapter of the Klan (one of them a police officer) to take action on behalf of the white victims and against those defending Carl Lee. They effectively wage a campaign of terror—they issue numerous threats, beat up the husband of Jake's secretary (he dies), kidnap a law student who is assisting him (Sandra Bullock), burn down Jake's house, attempt to shoot him as he leaves the courthouse (instead seriously wounding a police officer), and in general wage a war of terror.

The Klan's presence in the film makes clear that despite all the superficial signs of a changed Mississippi, beneath the surface there is still racism. Yet the film does a good job of making clear that white racism is still an issue even without the Klan. The mostly white jury seems headed towards a guilty verdict against Carl Lee—white juries do tend to convict black defendants more often than white defendants. The film shows several scenes in which the jury deliberates Carl Lee's guilt or innocence—it's clear that his fate is in danger. Jake's final presentation to the jury hinges on his asking the jurors to imagine the victim of the crime for which Carl Lee took revenge as a white girl rather than a black girl. "How would you feel," he in as much says, if this girl were white? He plays on the jurors' racism to make them see the case from Carl Lee's perspective.

The Klan is an unnecessary additional means of making these points clear. In 1996, the Klan might have appeared to demonstrate at such a trial, and its members might have made various folks uncomfortable, but they probably could not have waged the kind of terror campaign the film portrays. A fundamental paucity of Klan members and of intelligence, and a lack of community support, would probably not have allowed the Klan to do in reality what it does in the film. If the film had been set in 1925 or even 1965, we would have a different situation perhaps. But not in 1996.

A more successful film that demonstrates how racially charged incidents can provoke a community to erupt into riot and discord is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). I'd be surprised if Lee's film were not in the back of director Joel Schumacher's mind as he worked on A Time to Kill. Schumacher seeks to show how the killing of the white murderers provokes a situation that makes clear the hidden racial divisions in the town. One scene in particular, shot from overhead, shows a face-off between members of the Klan and their supporters and members of the black community and their supporters. There are similar scenes in Do the Right Thing. Such scenes seek to historicize the event the film portrays—to make it an emblem of the racial struggles and themes that characterize so much of American history. Thus it is no surprise that Roger Ebert, in his Chicago Sun-Times review of the film, calls it "a skillfully constructed morality play" (July 26, 1996).

Time to Kill illuminates racial struggle through the perspective of white participants who are sympathetic to the cause of civil rights, but who have never been called to put their reputations and lives on the line for that cause. When they do that, they discover both the risks involved in the position they have taken, and the ambiguities and uncertainties in their own attitudes. Ebert rightly points out that the film doesn't do much with presenting the view of the black characters. On the other hand, one film can't do everything.

Perhaps the main defect in this generally well made and entertaining film is that although it seeks to portray a legally and perhaps morally ambiguous situation (a vigilante killing) as a way of uncovering the fundamentals of American race relations, it is in itself not ambiguous. It's easy to determine what the film's point of view is. There's no doubt about the sympathy it expresses for Carl Lee and his feelings as the father of a brutally beaten and raped girl. The film doesn't take the kinds of risks this topic might have led it to.

Oddly, and ironically (given American history), the film does seem to suggest that a finding of innocent for a man who without hesitation admits to killing two other men to avenge their crimes against his daughter is just. It sides with a vigilante murder, a position that raises all sorts of moral and legal issues that the film seems aware of but that it largely evades. Clearly this is a post 1960s, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate film.

Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney in this film does a fine job. His accent is authentic. The film was made in Corinth, Mississippi, and the buildings and scenes in the countryside lend authentic local color and detail that give this film a clear and convincing sense of place. Patrick McGoohan as the ominously named presiding judge Omar Noose is cranky and full of character but somewhat out of place. So too is Donald Sutherland as Jake's alcoholic disbarred mentor, Lucien Wilbanks. Samuel L. Jackson is effective as Carl Lee Hailey—no surprise there.