Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Road

Although it’s clear that The Road (2009; dir. John Hillcoat) takes place in the southeastern United States, beginning in the Appalachians and moving towards the Atlantic coastline, geography and place matter only incidentally. Civilization has come to an end through some unspecified disaster. It’s not culture, or the wealth of centuries of human achievement, that the two main characters are struggling to preserve. They’re struggling to preserve their own lives, struggling in a sense—at least the father is—with the idea that their lives are worth preserving. The few remaining members of the human race are organized in savage bands, killing and cannibalizing the stragglers they encounter. The father and his young son try to avoid discovery by these bands. They keep heading south, towards the coast, towards some rescue that we know, that at least the father knows, is not there.

As dark as this film may be, the 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy on which it’s based is even darker and more brutal. The film preserves a few of the darkest moments from McCarthy’s story, for instance the departure of the man’s wife, the mother of his child, who has decided that there’s no purpose to their continuing struggles to survive. She knows that if they’re caught, which she believes will inevitably happen, she and the boy will be raped, that they’ll all be killed and eaten. She wanders off into the woods to kill herself. Another instance is when the man and boy discover people held captive in the dark basement of an abandoned house. The people are naked and filthy and faded in color, so that they hardly appear to be human. They’re livestock awaiting slaughter as food for their captors. Mostly the film focuses on the lonely trek of the father and son towards the southern coastline.

The film lacks the rich, stark language of the novel. In its place the film uses vivid images of a devastated landscape, of ravaged, incinerated cities, of empty human skeletons. While the man and the boy in the novel have a kind of generic, anonymous quality, so that we can imagine them as we will, the film personalizes the two through the actors who portray them: Viggo Mortensen is the father and the mostly unknown Kodi Smit-McPhee is his son. Charlize Theron portrays the mother, primarily through a series of brief flashbacks. None of these characters are given names. Although the woman’s character is somewhat more prominent in the film than the novel, her role is essentially the same. All three actors are excellent in their roles, for the most part evading sentimentality or bitterness, though it is bitterness that drives the mother to suicide.

The difficulty with a film such as The Road, based on a well known and widely read novel, is that those viewers who have read the novel can never view the film on its own terms. They must always see it in the context of its source, almost as a kind of appendage. This is not to suggest that the film should not have been made—it should have been—nor that readers should avoid the novel if they plan to see the film. It is simply to acknowledge a matter of fact—the inseparable link between the two forms. Although some may disagree, it seems to me inescapable that if one sees The Road and finds it successful or at least interesting one will necessarily seek out and read the novel on which it is based.

Admirers of McCarthy argue about whether there is cause for optimism when the novel ends and the boy, his father having died, is taken in by a family—the only other family in the story. The world is still dead, or at least dying, and there is little hope of its recovery, unless one takes the novel’s final paragraph, a vivid description of a trout swimming motionless in a stream, as a foreshadowing of the future rather than a memory of the past. There is no such moment in the film, unless one counts the small beetle—still alive--that the boy discovers late in the film. In the film the boy is also rescued by a family—a man, a woman, and their two children. The man agrees that he is carrying the fire—that he and his family are the “good guys.” The boy wants to be assured. Carrying the fire, being the good guys, these are the terms the boy’s father uses when he talks to his son about keeping moral values alive—values of virtue, of civility—even though he makes clear to the boy that he will resort to almost anything to protect his son, even though the boy is the only way these values retain any meaning for him. The man’s struggle not to abandon those values is a central theme of the novel and film.

The film version of The Road offers no more hope for long-term optimism about the boy’s survival or the fate of the human race than the book does. But because the film ends with the glimmer of a smile on the boy’s face as he agrees to join the family that is offering him protection, and because the viewer—this writer at least—will seize on any evidence that allows him to avoid complete nihilistic despair, the film in a small and muted way offers faint hope.

The film is a reading of McCarthy’s novel. In general it preserves the major events, themes, and emphases of its source. The changes that Joe Penhall’s screenplay makes to McCarthy’s story are for the most part not major and do it no disservice. There are differences. The language of the novel has a vivid intensity that the film lacks. The novel gives special emphasis to garbage—garbage is all that is left of human civilization. McCarthy makes this most clear when the father (who may have been a teacher) finds the rotting books of what was once a library and realizes that the sodden pages are all that remains of the great monuments of human achievements. Garbage is the novel’s metaphor for environmental and self-destructive human recklessness.  The film offers many scenes of ruined buildings and garbage and smoking cities but doesn’t make as much of them.

Robert Duvall makes a brief appearance as a wandering old man whom the father and son briefly encounter on the road. The boy insists that they share food with the old man. Duvall’s brief appearance is the best moment in this generally remarkable, deeply sad, and melancholic film.


Avatar (2009; dir. James Cameron) was thoroughly entertaining, even enthralling. If one scrutinizes too carefully, weaknesses will appear. But from a purely vicarious point of view, it is hard to beat. It is also perhaps the only film I have seen so far that effectively uses 3-D technology. The setting is vividly realized—a fusion of Maxfield Parrish and Henri Rousseau and Frank Frazetta. On the one hand there is no doubt that the alien world of the Na’vi is a digital graphics world, but it is detailed, colorful, and detailed and it draws one in. It’s artfully created and deeply realized, with a geography and biology and culture that, while borrowed in various ways from the world we know best, are convincing. The plot is not particularly novel (there are similarities to Dances with Wolves), but it is substantial enough, and the world in which it takes place more than overshadows any deficiencies. The film’s pace is break neck, with few lapses in action. With a culture partially drawn from Africa and partially from Native America, with a large dose of New Age hoo-hah thrown in for good measure, the Na’vi world is one whose veracity you rarely doubt, however implausible it might sometimes seem. Some might term this film science fiction, and certainly there are sci-fi elements here. To me it is straightforward fantasy. Avatar is so well done that it more than lives up to all the hype. Among the best scenes is one in which the central character Jake is waylaid at night in the Na’vi forest and chased by fantastic beasts. In another Jake is accepted into the Na’vi culture when he learns to ride a huge flying reptile—the sequences in which he rides this creature and soars through the air are the highpoint of the film. There are many other such scenes. Avatar will certainly reward subsequent viewings.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Three elements stand out for me in Inglourious Basterds (2009). First is the acting of Brad Pitt, who is effective in his role as Aldo Rainey, the leader of the commando squad whose mission is to kill and scalp Nazis. Pitt’s Maryville, TN, accent is suspect, but he carries it off and convincingly parodies the image of a Sergeant York hillbilly war hero. Because of his notoriety as a Hollywood pretty boy and husband to Angelina Jolie, viewers may overlook or forget that Pitt has repeatedly shown his ability as a character actor: consider Twelve Monkeys (1995) or Burn After Reading (2008).

The second element is Tarantino’s typical reliance on long, slow scenes in which tension slowly, inexorably builds. The first time I encountered this method was in Tarantino’s early film Reservoir Dogs (1992), where a cop is tormented and tortured in a warehouse scene that seems to go on forever. We encounter these scenes again in Pulp Fiction (1994) and the Kill Bill films (2003, 2004). In Inglourious Basterds, one such scene occurs at the film’s beginning in the house of a dairy farmer, another in a Parisian bar, still another in an isolated location where Rainey’s commando squad is interrogating three Nazi soldiers. For long periods in these scenes nothing happens. Inane conversation takes place. Yet you know something is coming. You’re not sure what it will be or how it will transpire. The tension can build to extreme levels. When the tension explodes, whether the payoff in cathartic release is worth the long stretches of dull and boring inactivity is a subject for examination.

The final element is the climactic scene that features the murder of Hitler and Goebbels and most of the German high command in a movie theater fire, effectively ending World War II. Although the plot of the film had moved towards this moment, my assumption was that in one way or the other it would not happen because, historically, it did not happen—Hitler and Goebbels died, probably by suicide, during the last days of the war. Even though the story in this film is fictional, the world Tarantino places it in is historical (or so I assumed). In such a world Goebbels and Hitler are not assassinated. But in the world of this film they are.

Alternative realities are a characteristic of postmodernism. As a filmmaker who has built his method on imitating and quoting the cinematic styles of other filmmakers, Tarantino certainly qualifies as postmodern. But for me the manner in which two of the Nazi era’s most heinous villains died in this film had the effect of invalidating its story.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

A Christmas song I particularly like is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Written in 1943 by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, first performed by Judy Garland, the song does not suggest that Christmas will take away the troubles of one’s personal life and of the world. Rather it suggests that the holidays offer a brief respite from misery: “from now on, our troubles will be out of sight”; “from now on, out troubles will be miles away.” The song hearkens back to “olden days, Happy golden days of yore.” What these are, the song does not say, but the idea is that in comparison to a happier past the present day is a time of difficulty and woe. When I hear this song, I hear an underlying sadness and sorrow, a sense of diminished expectations, that the holiday season may enable one to forget briefly, but not to leave behind. The song’s final stanza suggests the tenuousness of life. The holidays are a time when family and friends come together “through the years” but “only if the fates allow.” Written during the years of the Second World War, this Christmas song reflects sadness and anxiety on the American home front. But its sober appraisal of the ephemeral nature of holidays against the more realistic problems that beset human experience makes it singular.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Why do I bother to watch films like this one? I was off from work for the holidays, no one else was at home, and in a weak moment I decided to indulge in something inexcusable. First I tried Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). Then I resorted to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008; dir. Rob Cohen). This is the third film in the resurrected Mummy franchise, all of them featuring Brendan Fraser as Rick O’Connell, famed hunter and battler of resurrected mummies. The first of these films was entertaining, with suitable special effects, decent acting, and some truly frightening scarab beetles. The second film was less impressive, basically focused on the desire of the mummy from the first film for revenge against O’Connell. The third film moves to China, where O’Connell’s son, following in his father’s footsteps, unearths an army of terracotta soldiers, all of whom come back to life in time to give the retired O’Connell and his wife an excuse to come out of retirement and join their errant son in China to battle the moiling mass of mummies.

It seems pointless to note that this film relies on CGI effects. They are everywhere, and CGI is basically the medium of choice. There’s little attempt to merge it with actual film images. It’s just there, take it or leave it. It’s become its own form. It has been applied here with all due diligence but no real enthusiasm or creative energy.

Fraser is a very fine actor. But his role in the mummy films seems to have pegged him as the actor of choice in half-wit adventure films for which Harrison Ford is unavailable or too old or plagued by some degree of self-respect: we’ve seen Fraser in too many films with names like George of the Jungle (1999) and Dudley Do-Right (1999), and Adventure at the Center of the Earth (2008). He was very fine in Gods and Monsters (1998) and Blast from the Past (1999) and Bedazzled (2000).

Fraser is hardly the only actor of note in this third mummy film. Jet Li is here, along with the excellent Michelle Yeoh. That they are here makes no difference. The film required no real acting—only available bodies to occupy the requisite roles, to carry out the necessary motions of swashbuckling and leaps and bravado.

I was ashamed at how I’d spent my time once this film was over. A test pattern might have been better.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Is it redundant to state that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) is about product placement? It is first of all a matter of franchise—establishing momentum in a series of intense-action films about giant robots engaging in an ongoing battle of good and evil. Revenge of the Fallen is the second Transformers film, and surely it will not be the last. In the final scene the voice of the uber-robot Optimus Prime assures us that the transformers and the human race will be allies for years to come—enough logic for a sequel. The Transformers films are based on a line of toy robots manufactured by Hasbro, a company which surely must share in whatever profits the film earns, and that will sell more toy robots as a result of the interest it generates among the toy-purchasing population.

To make this clear, or at the least to make clear that it makes no pretense about motive, a message early in the film announces that it is based on a line of toys created by Hasbro.

A major flaw in this sequel is the over complicated story. In the first film there is a certain novelty in the revelations that giant and not-so-giant robots lie hidden in cars, toasters, cranes, and other mechanical or electrical devices, and that their mission is to protect the human race from undisclosed menace. In the sequel, novelty is replaced with an overly complex mythology involving Egypt and ancient rivalries between a race of robots, loosely resembling the ancient war in heaven that is part of Judaeo-Christian mythology. The more the story unfolds, the more ridiculous it becomes.

Another element of product placement in the film is Megan Fox. In between this sequel and the 2007 original, she became a popular culture phenomenon, fetishized by the media, teenage boys, and apparently also by Michael Bay, director of the Transformer films. Bay’s name is appropriate to one of the primary cinematic devices in the film: slow-motion camera sequences focused on flimsily clad, highly developed, usually female human bodies moving in slow motion down the beach. This technique alone made the 1990s television show Baywatch what it was, which was not much. In Transformers the camera focuses on Fox’s pulsating, heaving breasts, partially hidden (and revealed) by whatever flimsy shirt or blouse she is wearing, as she runs straight on towards the camera, or across the screen, fleeing from marauding hostile robots. Fox is Mikaela Baines, the girlfriend of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf), the presumptive main character of the film. While he leaves for his first year at college, she stays at home, painting designs on motorcycles and cars—at least until hostile robots threaten to take over the world and destroy the sun. But Witwicky is not really the main character—Megan Fox is, along with the oversized robots that compete with her for time on screen. Next to them, the plot and LaBoeuf’s Witwicky matter very little if at all.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Storm Warning

Storm Warning attempts to take a strong moral view of the Ku Klux Klan, but it does so in such a timid way that the Klan and what it represents is hardly recognizable.  Released in 1951 and featuring Ronald Reagan in the lead roles, with the support of Ginger Rogers and a young Doris Day, Storm Warning is a film noir of sorts.  It presents the Klan as a group of community hoodlums who for relatively hazy reasons occasionally attack people identified as enemies of the community.  Most often these turn out to be enemies of the Klan.  In an early scene a reporter who has been investigating the Klan, and who has been jailed on trumped up drunk and disorderly charges, is hauled out of jail, beaten, and shot to death.  Ginger Rogers, who has come to town to visit her sister (Doris Day) witnesses the murder, and this becomes a key event in the film.

Storm Warning views the Klan as a dangerous vigilante group that threatens law and order in the town.  The men who belong to the Klan, most of them upstanding local citizens, have joined either because they believe government is too weak to maintain order, or because they've been pressured.

The film barely hints at the racist bigotry at the Klan's heart.  Even though the Klan in 1951 was well known for its Southern origins and activities, the film camouflages its setting.  We know that the film is set somewhere in the South, as opposed to the North, because folks keep speaking with disparagement of the way things are done up North.  No one speaks with any accent.  No cultural or regional markers connect the small town in which the film is set in any way with any sort of distinctive place.  It could as easily have taken place in Southern Los Angeles, or Southern Idaho, as somewhere in the American South.

Why?  In 1951 the McCarthy hearings were going full tilt.  Communists (so Americans were urged to believe) were threatening the woof and warp of American society.  In some sense does the film's portrayal of the Klan as a menace to social order make a veiled commentary on the commie danger?  What the film does seek to do is take a stand against hooliganism and vigilantism.  But it portrays the Klan members as hooded thugs, not as white supremacists. 

Explaining himself to Ginger Rogers' character, the leader of the Klan explains that his group exists to ensure that the streets will be safe for people like her.  Why would she be in danger to begin with?  She walks the streets of the small town at night in complete safety.  But what the leader is implying (and one has to lean over backwards to get the implication) is that the Klan ensures that white woman such as she will be safe from black men.  This is the closest the film comes to any open acknowledgment that the Klan has a connection to black people and civil rights.  It's a moment easily missed.

My colleague John Inscoe notes the similarity of aspects of the film's plot to A Streetcar Named Desire.  The film was released in the same year as Storm Warning, so any influence would have come from the published play or Elia Kazan's Broadway production.  In both works an older sister comes to visit her younger sister, who is married to a working class young man suspicious of the older woman.  Both works feature a subtle sexual tension between the man and the unmarried sister; in both works the younger sister is loyal to her husband despite all his faults.

Ronald Reagan is more than serviceable in his role as a young district attorney.  He's determined and ethical and not easily cowed.  He has integrity, and even when his legal career and (possibly) his political future are threatened (the Klan leader is one of the most powerful men in town), he stands tall.  What he lacks is heroic stature of the sort we see in Gary Cooper in High Noon or Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Reagan’s character is devoted to doing his job and doing it well but has no philosophical vision, ultimately. He views the Klan as a bunch of lawbreakers and is eager to take it down.

Storm Warning would like to be a drama of conscience.  Its focus is Ginger Rogers, who witnesses a murder and who, when it comes time to provide the courtroom testimony that will implicate the Klan (and her brother in law), suffers a failure of courage.  Again, the McCarthy hearings come to mind.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991, dir. Simon Callow) is not a rewarding film. Although it has been some time since I read the Carson McCullers story on which it is based, my recollection is that the story is a plaintive tale of lost love and retribution. The film is actually an adaptation of Edward Albee’s dramatic treatment of the McCullers story. The tone is plaintive and mournful. The film left me cold. It proceeds in robotic fashion to trace the life of a woman, Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave), disappointed in life and in love. We first see her as a face peering out the front door of an abandoned building. The film then backtracks to earlier years, when men would stop on the porch of her general store on the way home from work to buy and drink the moonshine she made at her still. The woman’s face is hard and emotionless, and her hair is cut short, like a man’s. One day a little man, a midget (Cork Hubbard), walks into town claiming to be her cousin Lyman. He entrances her, and he convinces her to open up a café where the townspeople—who never appear to be anything other than bored and lifeless—can come at night to dine and converse. (Who cooks the food? I don’t think the film ever shows anyone cooking. We see people eating only). Lyman learns that Amelia was once married, but she refuses to say anything about her husband when he asks. He becomes fascinated with the notion of her former husband, whose name was Marvin Macy. Just coincidentally, about that time, Macy (Keith Carradine) walks into town, recently released from prison. Another flashback shows us that Marvin had loved Amelia years before, that to win her hand he abandoned his carousing ways and combed his hair. He proposed to her, she accepted, and they married. But soon after they go upstairs for the wedding night, she throws him downstairs and will have nothing to do with him any longer. We can only speculate as to why. Years later, when he returns to town, nothing has improved between them. He is still bitter over how she rejected him. The resolution of the film focuses on the conflict between Amelia and Marvin and Lyman. The conflict climaxes in a brutal fistfight.

The film’s setting is notable for its bleakness. Life in the small Southern town (apparently during the Depression) is so bleak and monotonous that all the men can do is work and drink. I was reminded of the desolate town in the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter (1973). In such a place, the arrival of a stranger, any stranger, is a break from the routine. The arrival of Cousin Lyman, a strange little man who talks incessantly and performs comic routines on a more or less continuous basis, offers relief from their deadening existence.

The still that Amelia operates is on the far side of a swamp. She has to wade through the swamp in hip boots to reach the still, which sits next to a tall rock outcrop. I am unaware of any such geological formations in the Deep South—tall rock walls next to swamps—but maybe some exist.

This film comments not so much on the South—though it does suggest that people in the South are dull and violent individuals who lead uninteresting, benighted lives—as on the nature of gender identification and sexual rivalry. Amelia and Marvin may love each other but they are so incompatible that they cannot bear—or at least Amelia cannot bear—the thought of being touched by the other. Amelia is fascinated with Lyman, who is infatuated with Marvin, who loves Amelia, who loves him in turn but wants nothing to do with him. She’s hurt when Lyman rejects her for Marvin, hurt further by the fistfight in which Marvin beats her senseless while the entire population of the town watches in transfixed fascination.

I may simply have missed the point. Cousin Lyman is certainly the most fascinating figure in the film. Vanessa Redgrave never elevates Amelia to a level that allows us to feel much sympathy or even interest. Keith Carradine seems simply bitter. Rod Steiger as the town preacher seems lost and out of place. The film suggests that life is hard, that people who love one another also make each other miserable, that we are entrapped within socially imposed definitions of gender, that we are simply entrapped in general. It fails to explore these propositions in coherent ways.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, by Judith Ortiz Cofer

The verse and prose poems in A Love Story Beginning in Spanish (University of Georgia Press, 2005) demonstrate that one can never escape the pull of parents, of family. Judith Ortiz Cofer doesn’t wish to escape that pull, but she does write about it in these poems about her parents, her recollections of her youth, her memories of Puerto Rico, and her thoughts about her own daughter. These mostly personal poems vary widely in form and style. Although each poem is discrete from the others, together they make a narrative. One theme is language—implied in the title. The “love story” is, I think, about Cofer’s feelings for her parents. It begins in Spanish because that was the language she was born into. But she spent much of her early life around people who also spoke English. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, as she writes in her poem “A Theory of Chaos: October 1962,” she suddenly discovered she could speak and understand English. Eventually English becomes her primary language, and her loss of Spanish, at least as a language that comes easily and naturally to her, is a sign of her separation from the island and culture into which she was born, as she explains in “Where You Need to Go.”

These poems reflect the powerful image of Cofer’s father who, at least in these poems, was warm and loving to wife and daughter in the early years, but who over time grew darker in mood and drifted away. He is a haunting presence. Less troubling and less distinct is Cofer’s mother, and many of the poems describe the poet’s imagined recollections of her as a young wife and mother (see, for example, “Siempre”) and then trace the mother-daughter relationship through more than five decades.

Among the excellent poems in this collection, “First Job: The Southern Sweets Sandwich Shop and Bakery” especially stands out—it is about Cofer’s experience as a young teenager working at a Southern candy shop and of the others who work there. Another notable poem is “Before the Storm,” about the poet’s visit to her mother as a hurricane approaches Puerto Rico. In several prose poems Cofer experiments with repetition and rhythm in a style that verges on incantation: these include “The Names of the Dead: An Essay on the Phrase,” “Dominoes: A Meditation on the Game,” and the title poem.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Knowing (2009, dir. Alex Proyas) has something of the initial mood and appeal of an M. Knight Shyamalan film—ominous portents and family values. In this case we have a troubled and recently widowed man, John Koestler, trying his best to raise a young son, Caleb, who is convinced his father is ignoring him. Koestler, played by Nicolas Cage, is an astrophysicist at MIT. When a time capsule is unearthed at the 50th anniversary celebration of Caleb’s elementary school, the boy comes into possession of a sheet of paper covered with random numerals. We already know from the film’s opening scene that the sheet was the work of a student from fifty years before—students were asked to draw pictures of the future for the time capsule. Most drew rocket ships, but one student—a haunted girl with a morose and depressive air--produced a double-sided sheet of numbers.

Studying the sheet late at night, after one too many bourbons, Koestler notices that a group of the random numbers actually indicates the date of the attack on the World Trade Center, along with the number of fatalities in that event. He soon determines that other number groups correspond, in chronological order, with other catastrophes, including his wife’s death, and eventually he recognizes that the numbers also tell, by longitude and latitude, where these calamities occurred.  Three final number groups represent disasters that have not yet occurred.

There came a moment in Knowing when it occurred to me that Proyas was going to give us a better story than Shyamalan has managed in his last few effort. Shyamalan’s recent films have stumbled too quickly into absurdity—mythical creatures living in caves beneath swimming pools, trees that take revenge on humanity. But I was soon disabused of this notion. Knowing makes Shyamalan seem like Sam Peckinpah in comparison.

The first such disabusing moment came when strange figures began to appear to Caleb. All these figures vaguely resembled the rock singer Sting.

Another disabusing moment occurred when the father just happened to run into the adult daughter of the woman (long since dead) who created the sheet of numbers. She has her own daughter, about the same age as Caleb, who also has also been seeing Sting-like figures. Moreover, both children claim they are receiving strange whispered messages from people they can’t see. The boy receives his messages through his hearing aid. He also has a nightmare involving a flaming moose.

Still another disabusing moment came when Koestler recovered crucial information about the prophetic numerals from an abandoned double-wide trailer deep in a forest. No black velvet paintings were in evidence.

Disabusing moments came fast and furious.

Knowing manages to allude to various films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact and The Fountain and invokes all sorts of religious symbolism, mainly Christian apocalyptic symbolism—we have angels and prophecies and Edenic gardens and redeemed skeptics. And, oh yes, portentous pebbles. The allusions do not reflect a film with religious meaning—they merely give Knowing the illusion of significance.

Cage, who solved puzzles in both National Treasure films, looks convincingly befuddled and obsessed in this one.

Knowing is like a Rubik’s Cube whose sides you never manage to line up. Just as you’re about to throw up your hands in frustration, aliens step in and provide a solution. But they also kill you.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Beverly Hillbillies

A one-note bad joke notable for a fundamental lack of enthusiasm and imagination, The Beverly Hillbillies (1993, dir. Penelope Spheeris) does not improve on the 1960s television series of the same name. Rather, it simply tries to do it over. With Cloris Leachman as Granny and Lily Tomlin as Jane Hathaway, one might think that the film at least had acting in its favor, but all we get from them are earnest pasteboard parodies of roles that weren’t much more than parodies of stereotypes to begin with.

Stereotypes are what The Beverly Hillbillies is about. A Tennessee mountain man, Jed Clampett (Jim Varney) accidentally discovers oil on his land. He becomes an instant billionaire. His cousin Pearl convinces him that paradise is in Beverly Hills, so he moves his family to California, where he hopes to find a new wife to raise his daughter up proper. In Beverly Hills the greedy banker Millburn Drysdale and his secretary Jane Hathaway take the Clampetts under their avid wings. Shady characters plot to steal Jed’s fortune. This was a standard plot of the television series—efforts to bilk Jed out of his fortune, along with such other plots as Jed’s search for a husband for Elly Mae or Jethro’s aspirations to be a brain surgeon or a double-naught spy.

In the television series and the film, hillbillies are simple mountain folk full of virtue, homilies, good intentions, and friendliness. They are always relatively simple-minded (though not stupid) and naïve. Beverly Hills is full of malice and corruption and false, hollow pretensions. Somehow the Clampetts resist temptation and evil of Hollywood life and remain unblemished and wealthy. Like the television series, the film views the hillbillies as a cartoon stereotype—there is no concern with even remotely authentic details, only the broad and careless brushstrokes that identify the stereotype—a hound dog, Granny in her rocking chair, Jed’s ragged hat, Elly Mae’s cut off jeans, banjos, shotguns, moonshine, and so on.

With all its mindless silliness the television series is more satisfying than this film. With an array of minor characters such as Millburn Drysdale’s dithering and embarrassed wife Margaret and their son Sonny, along with all the eccentric relatives who visit the Clampetts, the show was usually entertaining, especially when Jethro or Granny was the center of attention. In the film, Mrs. Drysdale becomes a bland yuppie matron with a poodle, while Sonny is renamed Morgan. In the television show, Sonny Drysdale, played brilliantly by Louis Nye, was one of my favorite characters.

The television show was always making fun and satirizing, contrasting the pretensions of the rich against the earnest good-heartedness of the Clampetts. It carried on the tradition of slapstick social satire of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers and many others. The film simply imitates the television show, without much vigor or success.

Hamlet 2

Hamlet II (2008, dir. Andrew Fleming) is one of the most stupid yet entertaining films I’ve seen in a while. Although it ultimately falters by taking itself a bit too seriously, it remains engaging throughout. One can see how this film might have begun as a television comedy skit that didn’t make it to primetime—it’s focused on a deluded high school drama teacher who satisfies his frustrated ambitions by writing and directing a series of bad plays based on movies, and on the two students who idolize him, a gender-confused boy and a girl who is unaware of her own talents. The film plops down one bad joke on top of another, until, unexpectedly, improbably, the bad jokes take on a kind of momentum, a critical mass. Everything is silly and played for laughs, from the appearance of the actress Elizabeth Shue playing herself as a nurse to Amy Poehler’s role as an ACLU attorney.

When the high school principal cuts funding to the drama program, the drama coach Mr. Marschz (the pronunciation of his name is a constant issue) resolves to put on a musical that will raise funds to save the program. The musical he writes for this event is a sequel to Shakespeare’s great tragedy, a sequel in which Hamlet uses a time machine to go back in time to prevent the deaths and murders of everyone who dies in the original, thereby allowing a happy ending. Mr. Marschz (Steve Coogan) blithely and profoundly unaware of his own silliness, of everything that is happening around him, including the obvious affair between his wife and their border. This is one of the keys to the film’s success. Although he is miserable and although everything seems to be going against him (he loses his job, his wife leaves him, the high school principal won’t allow him to produce the play, and so on), he stumbles forward.

Hamlet II alludes to, borrows from, and satirizes an impressive range of sources, from bad songs of the 80s to Elton John to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Dangerous Minds to Shakespeare himself. It is ridiculous, offensive, and hilarious. In the end, Mr. Marschz’s bad and absurd play is actually moving. I might have hoped for a different ending to this film, one more consistent with the overall foolish tone, but as it is, Hamlet 2 is fun. And, yes, “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” is, well, what can you say?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Engaging the Muslim World, by Juan Cole

In Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave MacMillan 2009) Juan Cole argues that profound misunderstanding of Muslim countries has led the United States and other Western nations to adopt destructive and ineffective policies. Without substantial change, he sees no hope of rapprochement between the West and the Muslim world, which suffers from its own misunderstanding of the West. He suggests that our tendency to view the Muslim world as monolithic is a fatal error. He reviews the development of British and American foreign policy since before the First World War. Early on he focuses particularly on Western attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which the U. S. government has often identified as a radical organization, when in fact, according to Cole, it is a long established organization whose roots are moderate and based in tradition. He covers in turn Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran. He contends that our current policies have radicalized certain populations in the Arabic world, contributing to the rise of terrorism and hostility towards the U. S. To counter these trends, he advocates that the West should use diplomacy and spend funds to improve education, medical facilities, and social institutions in the Muslim world rather than seeking military dominance.

The first chapter presents one of the best and most succinct accounts I have read as to why reliance on oil will inevitably doom the West and the East, and ultimately the rest of the world, to conflict as fuel supplies dwindle. Cole sees development of solar-based technology as the only long-term solution to the growing need for energy around the globe.

Cole is an intelligent writer and scholar with a strong research background in his subject. His prejudices are clear, however, and what he presents as a matter of scholarship and logic on occasion comes across as polemic or as blithely naïve optimism. Still, his book is a focused and incisive explanation of the political and cultural environment of the most important of the Muslim nations.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gran Torino

Gran Torino (2008; dir. Clint Eastwood) is the name of a machismo automobile popular during the 60s and 70s. Large, obnoxious, and gas guzzling, it is the prized possession of Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) in the movie named for the car. Gran Torino is a moving character study, even if in some ways it doesn’t quite make sense. We meet Kowalski in the film’s opening scene. His wife has just died, and at the funeral he barely manages to summon enough interest to greet well wishers and mourners. Clearly upset at his wife’s death, but congenitally antisocial, he can’t accept the sympathies others try to offer. Kowalski is a manly man. He is passive and stolid and shows little emotion, other than disgust and disdain for the modern world that has moved on without him. He is a senior citizen version of the main character in the Dirty Harry films of the 70s and 1980s. He is particularly upset over the changes taking place in his neighborhood. No longer solidly white and middle class, it has from his perspective deteriorated over the years, and different ethnic groups are moving in. A family of Hmong Asians move in next door to his house. He sneers at them in disgust as he pushes his mower back and forth across his small and well manicured lawn. His objections to their presence, the challenges they encounter, form the dramatic core of the film.

In many ways this is a typical Clint Eastwood vehicle, wherein injustices and crimes lead to an act of cathartic and climactic retribution. The way the central character rises to that moment of retribution, the way in which it differs from what one would normally expect, is the way in which the film measures the man. Gran Torino operates in the same territory as The Unforgiven (1992), the Eastwood film that overturns all previous Eastwood films while at the same time delivering the violence and mayhem that satisfy audience expectations. As satisfying as The Unforgiven was, as good a film as it is, it suffers from moral incoherence as a result—the man who has renounced violence returns to violence in order to punish those who use violence against him and his friends. Once vengeance is his, he returns to his complacent, domestic life as a dry goods store owner. The Unforgiven is Eastwood’s pronouncement on the flaws of violent retribution and his defense of its occasional necessity.

Gran Torino offers a more morally coherent pronouncement on violence, on the Eastwood persona in general. It is warm and compassionate, despite its conclusion. It has many moments of humor. It dramatizes an old bigot’s gradual transformation to appreciation of and friendship with people of another culture. One might find fault for the ease and speed with which the transformation occurs—food has a lot to do with it, as does the winsome attractiveness of the young woman who befriends Kowalski, as does the bumbling and ambitious naiveté of the young man whom he takes under his wing.

In the end, Walt Kowalski’s final gesture allows a full measure of vengeance that is totally satisfying yet wholly within the confines of law and civilized order. It is also one of the few moments in cinema when an actor/director manages to extinguish in a convincingly permanent way the persona that has been the hallmark of his career in film.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins

Immediacy and vivid descriptions are the strengths of Dexter Filkins’ series of articles about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, collected in his book The Forever War (Knopf, 2008). Filkins doesn’t dwell much on the political aspects of these conflicts and instead simply describes them. What he describes brings the political context out. A main point of his book is his refutation of the notion that American intrusion in Iraq and Afghanistan was welcomed by the people living there, that American intervention will have a lasting beneficial impact. Even the Iraqis friendly to American forces did not like the American presence. Filkins does take issue with the characters and strategies of several commanding officers, but mostly he focuses on the soldiers themselves. As a reporter for the New York Times he was assigned to various units which he followed to the front lines, right into the middle of ongoing battles. Descriptive power is the great strength of this book—few writers have described the Iraqi and Afghani wars with such graphic immediacy. Filkins doesn’t flinch from what he sees, doesn’t resort to indirection. He notes at one point that after a car bombing it is not unusual to see a human spine in the wreckage. He put himself at significant risk. In one of the most harrowing episodes, he describes how he and a cameraman ask several servicemen to take them into a building to view the body of a supposedly dead sniper. When they enter the building, two of the servicemen are shot and killed, either by the sniper or a compatriot. Filkins feels guilt for the deaths of these men, but does not dwell on his feelings. There is a minor-key element of self-promotion in these articles. Filkins on occasion notes his own bravado, or recklessness, though for the most part he does not make himself a major issue. At the end of the book, acknowledging various people who supported and assisted him, he remarks that his work in these two wars cost him a relationship with someone he loved.

Friday, September 18, 2009


The 1935 romantic musical comedy Mississippi (dir. Wesley Ruggles, A. Edward Sutherland) is primarily a vehicle for singer Bing Crosby and comedian W. C. Fields, who play lead roles. Rodgers and Hart provided most of the music, though Stephen Foster’s “Swanee” River is a recurrent theme. This film could have been a Broadway musical, but I don’t believe it was.

Fields plays Commodore Jackson, captain of a riverboat headed to an engagement party to provide entertainment. Tom Grayson (Crosby) is engaged to Elvira, whose younger sister Lucy is secretly in love with Tom. An old beau of Elvira’s arrives during the party and is angered when he learns that she is engaged to another man. Tom refuses his challenge to a duel, and Elvira and her father order Tom to leave the plantation—they are dishonored and humiliated by his cowardice. Tom leaves, but before he goes Lucy declares her love. Tom becomes a singer for the river boat and, after he kills a man in a fight, Fields builds a reputation around him as the “Singing Killer.” Lucy and Tom are briefly reunited, but when she learns that he is the “Singing Killer” reputed to have murdered her cousin, she leaves him. Tom hears she is engaged and goes to her plantation to confront her family and win her back. The movie ends with their embrace on board the riverboat.

Fields as the riverboat captain incorporates his own blowhard persona with that of the Mike Fink tradition of swashbuckling river boatmen from 19th century Southern humor and Mark Twain. He often tells of his exploits killing Indians with a Bowie knife or a revolver. Several scenes are devoted to the Fields shtick, where he does a typical Fields routine. The opening scene is a good example. He offers comic relief, though the tone of the film hardly calls for comic relief. Whereas Crosby’s character is at the center off the film, Fields’ character, who takes up much screen time, is not essential to the basic romantic plot.

Crosby is the romantic relief, the straight man to Fields. I was amused that while others in the film may recognize Fields for the charlatan he is Crosby’s character never seems to see through him and in fact helps rescue him from at least one tight spot where in a poker game he manages to deal straight aces to every player involved.

The film reminds me of a typical Elvis Presley movie whose plot is designed to allow as many opportunities for singing by the lead actor as possible. Though there is more of a plot in this film, the kinship between Elvis and cinematic forebear is clear enough.

As with Jezebel (1938), affairs of honor are important. Grayson, raised by Quakers in Philadelphia, doesn’t understand the Southern code of honor and is at heart a relaxed, peaceful man. He declines a challenge at the Rumford plantation house because he says he doesn’t understand the point of killing a man who has done him no wrong and whom he doesn’t even know. Although the film seems to support his rejection and doesn’t suggest that he is a coward, Tom still must develop the physical prowess and self-assurance that will enable him to win over Lucy and her family at the end of the film. He kills a man who is trying to hill him on the riverboat, acquires a reputation as a killer (concocted by Fields), defends Fields from angry gamblers, and in fact becomes the kind of man he was initially accused of not being. This is an irony in the film, though I don’t think the film intends it to be.

The patriarch of the plantation is General Rumford, the old blowhard who strictly defends the Southern code of honor.

Elvira Rumford is the Southern belle who hopes her engagement to Tom will not make her former beaus forget her. She rejects Tom as soon as it becomes clear that he will not answer the challenge. Her attitude towards firmer beaus suggests Julie Marsden from Jezebel and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind (1939). The film implies deceptiveness in her manner, a lack of integrity.

The plantation is a place of elegance and beauty. The film seems unaware of basic facts about 19th century Southern plantation life; for example, a young woman wouldn’t be allowed to be in the presence of a suitor without another person, a chaperone, nearby. There is pretence of Southern accent among the characters, but for the most part they act like characters out of any 1930s romantic comedy movie. Crosby certainly embodies his usual persona, hand in pocket, care what may, relaxed and ready for whatever happens.

We never hear the word “slave” in Mississippi, but slaves are present throughout, always in servile roles, usually comic ones. A trunk full of young black children sing at several points in the film. Everyone listens appreciatively—there is no racist talk, though Fields calls them pickaninnies. In one scene Tom and Lucy are talking and a house servant standing nearby nods with understanding, as if he overhears what is passing between them. When Lucy receives a proposal, one of the slaves sends a written message (in dialect, but still readable) to Tom telling him that he had better come. For the most part, the African Americans are treated as stereotypes, but not as caricatures, with the exception of one bug-eyed character who is driving a carriage and who shuffles and drawls like Step-n-fetchit. No plot line depends on the presence or treatment of slaves. The film offers no social commentary, overt or implied, on their condition.

As in Jezebel, a Northerner’s ignorance about Southern codes of conduct leads to difficulty, though in Jezebel people talk about the Northerners while in Mississippi their ignorance becomes a key element in the plot.

The film brims over with Southern types: loudmouth, braggart riverboat captains, bug-eyes slaves, evil gamblers, men ready to take offence at any insult implied or overt. The presence of the frontier is often in evidence in this film. Fields’ lies suggest its presence in the recent past, and the violence that pervades the film suggests the Southern frontier as portrayed by Twain and other humorists of the 19th century.

The film is based on Booth Tarkington story “Magnolia.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sweet Bird of Youth

Because I have not read or seen Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth (I’ll read it soon), I cannot judge the Richard Brooks 1962 film adaptation by comparison. I doubt that much if any dialogue in the film was written by Williams. If I am wrong, then the play must be a presentiment of his long decline. The film invokes so many Southern stereotypes and conventions that it would be difficult to list them all. It is a panoply of every perverted manifestation of what would pass for sin and corruption in the 1950s that Brooks or Williams could possibly conceive of. The film is highly mannered and melodramatic. Paul Newman in the role of the main character Chance Wayne plays a one-dimensional, one-note gigolo who believes that sooner or later, primarily on the basis of sex and his good looks, he will break into the Hollywood big time. The love of his life is a woman named Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), the daughter of the local political boss—a former governor who swaggers with all the subtlety of Orson Welles in a B-grade wine commercial.

In a Williams play one looks for nuanced psychological insight into human character. We don’t find that here. Newman’s character is engaged in a long and protracted decline. His companion at the start of the film is an aging Hollywood actress, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), who he hopes, in return for his service as a driver and in other capacities, will get him a screen test. She is an egotistical, narcissistic diva hooked on drugs and alcohol and her dream of a comeback. Boss Finley (Ed Begley—he has the best role in the film) doesn’t want his daughter to waste her life on Newman, so he connives in one way or the other to keep them apart. When Newman leaves town and Heavenly discovers she is pregnant with his baby, Boss Finley finds a doctor who will perform an abortion and who also agrees to marry her. Boss Finley’s son Tom (Rip Torn) is the head of the “Finley Youth Brigade” (or some such name), a quasi-vigilante group on the same level as the Hitler Youth. Heavenly herself has apparently resorted to self-destructive promiscuity out of despair over her father’s insistence that she stay away from Chance.

Boss Finley is a Southern demagogue in the vein of Huey Long, but he is mainly one protracted cartoon stereotype. He professes outrage at accusations he is corrupt, yet he doesn’t hesitate to strong arm, manhandle, and intimidate to get his way. He demands that his daughter appear with him at a televised rally so that she can deny rumors of her profligate behavior. The result is that Finley’s political rival (apparently a professor from a local university) appears at the rally to announce via loudspeaker that Finley arranged to have his daughter marry the doctor who performed an abortion on her. (For some reason, he doesn’t mention Boss Finley’s long-term affair with a floozy named Miss Lucy).

Several comic scenes focus on Boss Finley’s political cronies and their willingness to tell him whatever he wants to hear and believe. The film suggests that Southern demagogues thrive on the basis of gullible and unthinking mobs who respond to populist slogans and platitudes. Interestingly, the film highlights Boss Finley’s use of media such as radio and television to spread his political message—carrying forward on the points made in Robert Rosen’s 1949 adaptation of All the King’s Men and the Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd (1957, based on the Budd Schulberg screenplay). Chance Wayne tries to contact various Hollywood gossip mongers such as Walter Winchell to promote his faltering career.

A basic theme is the search for happiness and satisfaction—for success. Chance Wayne was moving towards a successful career in acting when Boss Finley managed to get him sent to Korea. There he discovers that he is a coward and returns home in disgrace. Alexandra Del Lago, once a film star famous for her beauty, has been in decline for fifteen years—she longs for a comeback. Boss Finley’s career depends on his popularity with voters. Heavenly believes happiness means her relationship with Chance. All of these characters struggle to recover the success and happiness they believe once lay within their grasps. In contrast are the teeming anonymous crowds that Del Lago and Finley depend on for their fame and power, and whom Chance Wayne hopes to convince of his talent. The film portrays these crowds as populated with leering Hogarthian mosters attracted to sex and beauty, demagogic promises and moralistic platitudes, and impervious to reason and ideals, those qualities of an enlightened and educated electorate on which democracies depend for their survival. This film’s view of American democracy, of the American South, is dim indeed.

Based on descriptions I have read, the film substantially changes events in the play. In the play, Heavenly contracts a venereal disease from her relationship with Chance and has a hysterectomy as a result, while in the film she becomes pregnant and has an abortion. In the play Boss Finley’s thugs castrate Chance, while in the film they merely break his nose. The play has a decidedly unhappy ending in which Chance and Heavenly do not reconcile, while in the film they drive away together in a Cadillac—even so, it is impossible to imagine they will have much of a life.

Friday, August 07, 2009


As my energy has flagged of late, at least insofar as it sustains this blog, I’ll for the time being be more succinct in my comments. Mongol (2007; dir. Sergei Bodrov) is the first in a three-part series of films about the great Asian leader Genghis Khan, known in this film as Temudjin. Mongol tells the story of the early stages of Temudjin’s career, his struggle to rise as a leader. It seems a fusion of folk-tale, myth, history, and tall tale. It has a powerful narrative quality, and is truly epic in scope. The frame of the story focuses on Temudjin’s choice of a wife at the tender age of nine. His father tells him that it is important to choose a “good woman,” and this becomes one of the film’s themes, the demonstration of how the good choice Temudjin makes has a major role in the success of his aspirations. Another theme concerns the rivalry of two blood brothers. A final theme, and perhaps the most important, is Temudjin’s growth as a leader—his ambition is to unite the disparate and often warring Mongol tribes by stressing law, order, fairness in his treatment of soldiers, concern for family, and a basic pragmatism (when, after long separations, he is reunited with his wife to discover either that she is pregnant or that she has a child that is not his, he openly accepts the child as his own, recognizing that whatever she did was beyond her control, or at least done out of necessity). Towards the end of the film, there is a hint of darker elements in Temudjin’s character, and where these may take us will perhaps become evident in the second and third installments of this series. Mongol has a strongly melodramatic structure—it begins with an adult Temudjin languishing in prison, then moves back to his childhood. For much of the film the narrative switches back and forth between brief scenes in the prison and longer expository scenes about Temudjin’s various trials and tribulations as a younger man. As we discover, everything is leading up to a key scene in the prison, after which the film moves forward. Temudjin suffers one trial after another—his father’s death, betrayals, imprisonments, the kidnapping of his wife, beatings, the slaughter of all his followers—the ups and downs are relentless. The action is non-stop, yet at the same time character development is nuanced and detailed—highly unusual for most such films. Most significant of all in Mongol is the scenery. Few films use setting so spectacularly and effectively.

Mongol is, as Roger Ebert complains in his review, relentlessly violent. He notes Temudjin’s wife complaint (her only complaint in the film) that “All Mongols do is kill and steal.” Her complaint bruises Temudjin and perhaps leads him to his plan to bring order and law to the Mongol tribes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Adolescent angst and darkening skies in the world of Hogwarts run parallel in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009; dir. David Yates), the latest installment in the series of film adaptations of the J. K. Rowling novels. For most films based on novels, I have always felt that the films need to stand alone—they should not require their audiences to have read or even know about their sources. I feel differently about the Potter novels and the films based on them. They form a symbiotic dyad. The films bring to life characters and events in the novels. We know how, even before the last two films are completed (they will premier in 2010) how things will come out. The points of interest lie in how the films will depict the events. One’s familiarity with the novels provides a context in which to view the films, which may change events, reinterpret characters and scenes, leave characters out or add new ones, but which inevitably honor the spirit of the novels and the story they tell.  And we read the novels, or reread them, with the film versions of the characters in mind.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Grangerford (Emma Watson), the three main characters, are the heart of this latest installment.  The actors are all in late adolescence now (Grint is 20), and their maturity and developing skills as actors show. The film handles Ron and Hermione’s developing relationship with subtlety and sensitivity (although in most of the film it is not developing at all), just as it shows Harry’s growing interest in Ron’s sister Ginny. Of the three, Watson is the best actor, though the others are nearly as good.

The romantic interests of these characters in one another seem to develop almost in isolation from events happening in the outer world, the growing power of Voldemort who of course wants to take over everything and who has specific designs on Harry. In Half-Blood Prince there is specific focus on a conspiracy involving Draco Malfoy, Harry’s long-term nemesis, and his mysterious relationship with Professor Snape, who takes an unbreakable oath that he will assist Draco in an assignment he’s been given. But above all else the main characters, the deep friendships they share, are what captivate and carry us through the story.

Jim Broadbent was especially good as Professor Horace Slughorn.

The final scenes of the film deviate in ways from the climactic battle in the book, though the outcome is the same. To me, the deviation didn’t matter. The film worked well enough. As the Potter characters and the actors portraying them have grown and matured, as the problems they engage have become more complex and difficult, I have enjoyed each film, and the novel it is based on, more than its predecessors. Half-Blood Prince for me is the best so far. It will be interesting to see where the final two installments (based on the final novel in the series) go. They will mostly be taking place away from Hogworts, as Harry and Ron and Hermione search for horcruxes—pieces of Voldermort’s soul that must be recovered and destroyed before Harry himself has any hope of successfully facing Voldermort. Much of the final novel is a long and protracted delay before the final confrontation in which Harry plays the role he has been chosen to play, and before the series comes to a final end.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was by turns amusing, funny, disturbing, sad, and intriguing. It is well made in every regard. As a fan of the novels and of the films, I found it entertaining and satisfying.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


It was interesting to see Moon (2009; dir. Duncan Jones) nearly 40 years after watching on television the first landing of human beings on the lunar surface. What was miraculous and epochal in that historical moment in 1969 has become conventional and workaday in Moon. No longer a place of discovery, the moon is the object of a multinational corporation that harvests lunar materials to produce Helium 3, used to generate energy on the earth.

The challenge in writing about this film is not to give away important elements of plot that help make it interesting, and that ultimately keep it from being more original than it seeks to be. Probably not filmed with a large budget, Moon nonetheless succeeds in creating visually convincing depictions of the lunar surface. A film like this one must compete against standards of realism set not only by other films but also by actual missions to the moon, manned and unmanned—virtually everyone has seen the video footage and photographs from those missions. Moon’s modest special effects never undermine the story.

Moon most clearly shows the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Less ambitious than that hugely ambitious film, but nearly always alluding to it, Moon also has as a central theme the human relationship with technology. Again we have a computer that looks after the welfare of the crew member at the lunar station. His name is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). His role is to ensure that the machines mining the lunar surface are operating properly. When something goes wrong, Sam goes out to fix it. An accident sets in motion the plot of the film. The computer speaks with the voice of Kevin Spacey. In 2001 faulty technology caused the computer HAL to malfunction. Here, although at one point the computer does override its own programming, the real malfunction takes place elsewhere. Although that malfunction is connected with technology, it is more a matter of human morality.

In 2001 technology was apparent in the equipment humans used to travel into and live in space, and in the computers they relied on. In Moon technology also involves biotechnology. While in 2001 the expansion of capitalism into space was portrayed mainly through the proliferation of brand names (some of them now defunct) attached to companies that were operating in space—mainly service companies (United Airlines, ATT, Hilton), the company that the main character in Moon works for is a generically named Lunar Industries. We know that it is a huge corporation that produces and sells energy and that it has apparently boundless resources.

Both Moon and 2001 focus on the isolation and loneliness of humans in space. Both show their characters speaking with family members on the earth. 2001 is more effective in suggesting the nature of its characters’ loneliness in space, and in connecting it to the larger human condition. It makes the audience feel that isolation even if the characters do not. In Moon Sam Bell clearly shows the effects of loneliness and isolation and is impatient for his three-year stint at the lunar base to end.

Certain paradoxes and perplexities afflict Moon. To save funds (apparently) the company apparently chooses to have only one person at a time overseeing its lunar mining operation. He is assigned to a three-year term of service. Yet it becomes increasingly evident that the company’s resources are so vast that the cost of maintaining a larger crew should not have been an issue. Moreover, the measures the company uses to avoid relying on a larger crew would have been extremely expensive. The more one considers this conundrum, the more troublesome it becomes.

The influence of other films is evident here, especially Blade Runner (1982) but also THX 1138 (1971), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973).

Among the issues at the heart of Moon is what it means to be human and alive. What makes us what we are? Our genetic heritage? Our memories? Our role in some huge commercial megastructure? In 2001 Kubrick showed how technology could become both a transforming mechanism in human evolution as well as a potential fatal flaw. In Moon, director Duncan Jones shows how, potentially, human technology can render human existence insignificant and irrelevant and perhaps simply a trivial cog in a huge revolving and self-perpetuating multinational corporate wheel.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Belizaire the Cajun

Belizaire the Cajun (dir. Glen Pitre; 1986) is set in Cajun country of Louisiana, 1859. A message at the beginning of the film tells us that although the Cajuns have been living peacefully in Louisiana for decades, vigilante groups of white landowners have organized to threaten and drive them out of the area. They are given two weeks to leave, after which they’ll be hanged. Belizaire (Armande Assante) is a Cajun healer. He’s a popular man of all trades. He holds no particular grudge with anyone. He’s a respected community leader, on the one hand, and a kind of trickster on the other.

Aside from the efforts of local white residents to expel the Cajuns, a major subplot involves Alida Thibodeaux, a Cajun woman married to Matthew Perry, the son of a local landowner. Although Perry takes part in the vigilante actions, he does so half-heartedly and often tries to discourage other participants from their actions. His sympathies are clearly torn, the result of his marriage to Alida. She herself is torn between loyalty to her husband and children (and to the financial support he provides) and to her Cajun heritage. Belizaire is a former romantic interest of Alida, and he often visits her on the farm, usually with the excuse of providing medical treatment. She is kind to him but not receptive to his advances. She and Matthew are not legally married, although they have three children with a fourth on the way. She claims this doesn’t matter, that they are married in the eyes of God. Matthew’s brother-in-law, Willoughby, dislikes Matthew and is especially disapproving of his sometimes soft approach to the Cajuns. He clearly has his ambitious sights set on old man Perry’s farm and fortune. When Matthew is found dead, the local sheriff casts about for a suspect. Belizaire is arrested for the crime and condemned to hang.

The film pays particular attention to characters caught in the margins between the “white” and Cajun cultures. The sheriff in particular is obliged to uphold the law, and he willingly does so. He protects the Cajuns when he can against vigilantism, but sometimes that means his having to agree that some families can be driven out and others allowed to stay. He makes a deal with the vigilante leader that he will find someone to blame for Matthew Perry’s murder if the leader will agree to end the vigilante action. He even allows the leader to choose who that person will be. He serves both sides of the fence, and it’s tempting sometimes to see him as contemptible and other times to see him as doing the best he can in difficult circumstances. After Matthews’s death, the marginal status of Alida and her children is a major point of concern, one of importance to Belizaire. The failure to formalize Matthew’s marriage to Alida places future support for her and their children in jeopardy—Willoughby vows to see that Alida and her “bastards” receive no part of the Perry fortune.

Even though the film takes place in 1859, it does not mention the American Civil War about to take place. The effect is to emphasize the singular uniqueness of Louisiana Cajun culture, which stands apart from the culture of the rest of the United States. In ways the film seems to have been made on a restricted budget, but it is carefully made nonetheless. The costumes and behavior of the characters don’t always strike me as authentic or historically true to the times and culture of the people portrayed, but then again I don’t know what those times and people were precisely like. The Cajuns are shown as family oriented, fun-loving people who want only to be left alone. They don’t seek out conflict with the local whites, though they don’t miss opportunities that arise to “acquire” stray livestock that come their way. The film engages in a certain sentimentalizing idealization of the Cajuns, and a vilification of the worst elements of white culture.

Armand Assante is the center of this film. Especially in the final scene, when he is about to be hanged, he is quite impressive. He doles out various medicines and herbal remedies to the crowd assembled to watch the hanging—most of them are there in his support. The scene dramatizes the importance of his role in the community, his concern for the people he has served, and, of course, his desire to live.

There is an anecdotal quality to this film. It never overstates nor oversteps its own importance. While it dramatizes the marginalized status of the Cajuns in mid-19th century Louisiana, it is not stridently committed to presenting their point of view and instead seems content merely to make note of their presence and the significance of their culture. Through the character of Belizaire, who so fervently wishes not to be hanged, though he accepts that fate willingly as a means of bringing vigilante action against his people to an end, the film seems to make a similar argument for the survival and recognition of Cajun culture. The film is worth viewing as a kind of contrast to the portrayal of Cajun culture in such a film as Southern Comfort (1983).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Whatever Works

The familiar plot in Woody Allen’s 2009 film Whatever Works centers on an old man who becomes involved with a much younger woman. A relationship develops, they marry, and after a year she meets someone else. Allen’s interest in revolving, evolving personal relationships rolls on. In a way the device is similar to what we find in such plays by Shakespeare as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Measure for Measure—though in those plays waning and waxing passions intertwine with mistaken and concealed identities. Allen acknowledged the connection in his 1982 film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (a delightful and underrated film).

Whatever Works might have worked better had it been an animated film. The characters seem broadly, hastily drawn, as if they are caricatures, cartoon parodies of more three-dimensional individuals. As it is, this real-life film is amusing enough, not one of Allen’s best efforts, but an entertaining one nonetheless.

Boris Yellnikoff is an apparently retired physics professor from Columbia University. He is quick to profess his own stellar brilliance and to denounce the moronic ineptitude of the rest of the human race. His great claim to fame is that he was “almost nominated” for the Nobel Prize for his work in string theory. His first marriage, to a woman almost as brilliant as he, ended when he suffered what appeared to be a breakdown. A suicide attempt failed when he jumped from his apartment window and an awning blocked his fall to the sidewalk. He was left somewhat lame as a result. Allen himself could have played Boris, but instead he chose Larry David, the former writer of Seinfeld and star of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is difficult to distinguish from Seinfeld. David plays the part much as Allen would have played it, but with his own flourishes. He is loud and abrasive and relentless in talking about himself and dismissing everyone else. It’s difficult to like him, at least throughout much of the film. He reminded me of the protagonist of Allen’s film Celebrity (1998).

The young woman is from a small Mississippi town. Allen has often used stereotypes for comic effect. The chastely named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) is such a stereotype. She has never been exposed to the world outside Mississippi. A high school dropout, a frequent participant in beauty contests, she blithely explains to David how she once (only once) committed the sin of having sex with an attractive boy at a catfish fry. Melodie has about as much depth as Al Capp’s Daisy Mae Yokum or as Ellie Mae Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies. She is wholly provincial, small-minded, uneducated, unenlightened, naïve—just the opposite (or so he would have us think) of Boris.

Boris allows Melodie to stay in his apartment for a few nights. She has run away from Mississippi and her overbearing mother to experience life and adventure in New York. The more time Boris and Melodie spend together, the more impressed by him she becomes. She begins to mimic his speech and his thoughts, and he is flattered. One night, after listening to her express some of his own thoughts about life and existence, he realizes he has found someone he likes to spend time with. They marry. After a time Melodie’s mother from Mississippi, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up at their door. She has been looking for her daughter. She is equally small-town and provincial, but with the added trait of religious mania. She is horrified by the man her daughter has married and immediately sets out to find a suitable replacement.

Woody Allen chooses in this film to take a particular view of the American South through the stereotyped characters of these two women: the South in this film means provincialism, repression, small-mindedness, ignorance, fundamentalism, backwardness, catfish fries. One might argue that this is the view Allen takes of the world in general outside the boundaries of New York City.

Once these Mississippi women encounter the sophisticated environs of New York, they open up to life’s possibilities. Marietta discovers her talents as a photographer, has a love affair with two men (she lives in the same apartment and sleeps in the same bed with both of them at the same time). Melodie falls in love with an actor. For Woody Allen these are the patterns of human relationships.

Much of this film comes across like a stage play. It takes place on sets--the apartment of Boris and Marietta, a museum, a boat. The effect is static and confining, just as the shallow characterizations are confining. One can imagine the story working better as a play than it does as a film. In Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979—one of Allen’s best films) Allen uses New York City as a spectacular setting for his characters and their affairs. We know that Whatever Works is set in New York City, but for the most part we see little of the city and feel less of its life. The tight focus is on Boris, Melodie, Marietta.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rambling Rose

The most important visual image in Rambling Rose (1991, dir. Martha Coolidge) is the view from the front yard of the Hillyer family home. The front yard looks towards the nearby river, and a bridge that arches over the river, approaching the home. This view is what the narrator sees when the film first begins. It is the bridge over which Rose walks when she first comes to live with the family. And it is the closing image of the film. The image of the bridge suggests both the family’s isolation from the rest of the world, and its connection to that world. The bridge is the connection to everything that is out there, to the future, to adult experience. For those approaching from the other side, it is the connection of memory to the past, to the sacred idyll of family and home and childhood.

Rambling Rose uses the tried and true frame of an older man remembering his childhood days at his family’s home in Glenville, GA. We begin as he drives towards his family home, planning to spend time with his elderly father. He arrives, and as he looks for his father he remembers his childhood days there. The film then jumps backward to the mid-1930s, when the narrator was a boy of 14. At the end the film returns to the present. The narrator’s boyhood name was Buddy. His family was an unconventional one for the deep South. His mother (Dianne Ladd) is a graduate student in history working on her thesis. She is hard of hearing and has to turn on a hearing aid whenever anyone speaks to her. She is an independent and outspoken woman who is also kind and compassionate. The house the family lives in a house she bought with her inheritance. The father (Robert Duvall) manages a hotel in the nearby town. The mother and father are full of witticisms and odd expressions. The father speaks with rhetorical flourishes, sometimes fraught with meaning and sometimes not.  Buddy (Lukas Haas) is their oldest son. He has a younger sister and brother. Although the film takes place in 1935, the Depression is mentioned in passing only once, and there is otherwise no mention of it.

Despite their unconventional nature, the Hillyers live in an old Southern house with columns—there is little in the story that plays off the symbolism of the columned plantation house, but it is here nonetheless. The closing credits to the film scroll down the screen as the song “Dixie” plays in the background, not as a “fergit Hell” anthem but rather as a plaintive song of memory, “old times there are not forgotten.” But the use of the song nonetheless seemed odd.

The story revolves around a young woman named Rose (Laura Dern) who comes to work as a housekeeper for the family. She has a troubled past, and the mother and father agree to bring her to work for the family to help her escape her difficulties in Birmingham, where it seems she was being pressured to work as a prostitute. The film doesn’t dwell on the fact, but the mother and father have a sense of social responsibility. They see it as their Christian duty to help a girl like Rose. She quickly bonds with the family. She feels a connection with the mother, who was also an orphan. She develops a crush for the father, and while the mother is away at a meeting she throws herself on him. He rebuffs her advances, after a few long seconds of apparent hesitation. She develops a close friendship with Buddy, who is fourteen. When she comes into his room to talk about her crush on his father, she climbs in his bed. He asks to feel her breasts and other parts of her body, and despite her misgivings she lets him. This is a disturbing scene that reflects both Rose’s strongly sexual passions and the nature of her problems. (Except for the fact that he falls in love with Rose, Buddy seems to suffer no damaging side effects from this episode). Rose has a number of misadventures with various men of the town, including the local doctor. Daddy Hillyer becomes increasingly convinced that the family must let Rose go, while Mama Hillyer resists, insisting that Rose is a good girl, despite her problems.

What I take away from this film are the eccentric family and the theme of sexual repression. Although they are a Southern family from the 1930s, the Hillyers all agree that black people are mistreated (although we see only one black man in the entire film). When Rose makes her advance on Daddy Hillyer, both Buddy and his sister watch through the door, slightly ajar. They are interested at what is going on, curious, but not shocked or ashamed. Therefore we encounter another Southern family that is not representative of the norm. They are exceptions—not typical Southerners—whatever ”typical” means. 

One could argue that because of the sexually repressive, male-centered atmosphere of the South Rose is unable to fully express herself sexually. On the other hand, she is a victim of an abusive childhood. She has been left sterile from a gonorrhea infection, and her sexual appetite is as much a product of her childhood as it is part of her natural character.

The film emphasizes the power of patriarchy. When Rose believes she is pregnant, the family takes her to a doctor, who diagnoses her with an ovarian cyst. This is when we learn that she is sterile. Because of her scandalous reputation in the town, the doctor proposes that when she has surgery for removal of the cyst that she ought to be given a double hysterectomy, which will remove the source of the hormones that fuel her sexual appetite. Such surgery would fundamentally change her. The father at first agrees that this is a necessary measure. The mother refuses to allow it, and the father changes his mind and agrees with her. As sometimes gruff and domineering as the father sometimes appears to be, in the end it is Mother Hillyer who wields authority—she is the source of human judgment and moral standards in the film. She sees through Rose’s loose behavior to the human being that she is. She refuses to allow the surgeon to cut out of Rose’s body an essential part of her identity.

In the final scene of the film we return to the present time where Buddy, now a grown man (played by John Heard) talks with his elderly father about Rose, who has recently died. Buddy had loved Rose, and when she left to get married he wept. He weeps now in the present time, remembering her.  The father and Buddy both agree that they loved Rose and that she was full of life and passion and then the film ends.

It’s difficult to get a handle on this film. The characters carry the film more than the story does. But the big question is what we are to make of Rose. Why is she interesting? Is she significant? Is the film suggesting that she lived in a repressive time that didn’t allow her to give full expression to her sexuality and to the person she was? Or is it suggesting that she was a damaged product of an abusive childhood and of manipulative men such as her father and the doctor and even Daddy Hillyer?  Or some combination of both? After he rebuffs her advances, Daddy Hillyer tells Rose that women and men are different. He says something to the effect that men cannot help but fall victim to their sexual passions, but that woman have the ability to choose not to give in to their passions. This may serve as some sort of justification for the sexual double standard that allows men to wander while their women ”choose” to remain at home. Clearly Rose does not choose to resist her passions—both she and Mother Hillyer insist that love and not sex is what matters to women. We are told that it takes Rose four husbands before she discovers the man meant for her, and they stay married for 25 years.

The film offers something of social commentary, something of melodrama, a fair amount of sentiment and a touch of hokum. Laura Dern is good in her role as Rose. Robert Duvall, who is usually effective in any role, in this one seems more of a caricature than a real person, and the same can be said of Diane Ladd’s portrayal of Mother Hillyer. In a sense, the film comes off like an Erskine Caldwell novel rewritten by the novelist John Irving.

The Hillyers are as middle-class Southern family. Rose comes from a lower-class background. Class difference may have something to do in the film with how the Hillyers view and tolerate Rose’s promiscuity.

The Trip to Bountiful

The film The Trip to Bountiful (dir. Peter Masterson) appeared in 1985, some 32 years after the premier of the Horton Foote teleplay on which it is based. Foote adapted the screenplay and produced the film. The story takes place in east Texas, which geographically speaking is still the Deep South. The story is simple: an old woman, Mrs. Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page) lives in a two-room apartment with her son Ludie (John Heard) and his wife Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn). The time is approximately that of the Depression, though it could be somewhat later, as late as the early 1950s. The son has been in and out of work but presently has a low-paying job. The wife complains endlessly about everything, especially about how they never go out and about the old woman, whose hymn singing, habit of running rather than walking around the apartment, and difficult behavior irritates her. It’s easy to understand why the old woman’s behavior is irritating. Although she is old and near the end of her life, she is somewhat self-centered and, like her daughter-in-law, insistent on getting her way. Her son is caught in the middle of the quarrels that occur, and when he attempts to intervene and calm things down, he doesn’t always succeed.

Carrie wants to go back to Bountiful, the town where she grew up. She is constantly recalling her days there. She manages to sneak out of the apartment, find her way to a bus station, and ride the bus to a town twelve miles from Bountiful. She plans to visit her childhood friend, but when she arrives at her last stop, the bus station attendant tells her that the woman has just died, and that no one is left in Bountiful. Carrie plans to go there anyway, and after she collapses in the bus station, the local sheriff agrees to take her.

The plot of this film is thin, and much of the time it seems simply to be marking time. Early scenes show Carrie’s life with Ludie and Jessie Mae in the drab and cramped apartment—neither Carrie nor Jessie Mae can’t stand each other, and Jessie Mae is intent on forcing her mother-in-law to follow her rules—no running, no hymn singing, no sulking. Carrie has no income of her own, apparently, and no friends or other family. Her entire world is circumscribed by the apartment. We understand why she would want to leave. The middle scenes show Carrie as she travels by bus towards Bountiful. She sits next to a young woman whose husband has just gone overseas with the military. She and Carrie strike up a conversation, and Carrie talks about her life and her past. Geraldine Page does a good job of portraying Carrie (she won a Best Actress Oscar for the part), but I found the character she played constantly irritating. Perhaps this is because Page does such a good job with the role—Carrie is an irritating woman. She is full of mindless small talk, the kind of person who feels a need to fill the silences in conversations with hymns or with stories about her childhood or with other banter. As often as not she is talking about herself and her life. At the same time, as she talks we come to understand her loneliness—she has no friends, all her relatives except her son have died, her hometown is abandoned, and soon she will be dead. Hers is the plight of many an old person.

Where this film comes to life is in the final scenes, which take place at the old home where Carrie was born and where she lived in her childhood with her parents. The house is empty and abandoned, on the verge of collapse, and the film follows Carrie as she walks from room to room, looking contented and happy and sad all at the same time. When Ludie arrives with his wife to pick her up and take her back home, he and his mother talk on the steps of the old house. She asks him if he remembers her father, and at first he says he doesn’t—ultimately he confesses that he remembers it all, but that he doesn’t want to. He expresses disappointment with his own life. The summary may make the ending seem sentimental and maudlin, but in fact it is all deeply moving—an old woman coming to terms with the vanishing remnants of her life, her son confronting the realities of his own disappointments.

The film contrasts the old homestead and Carrie’s memories of her life there with present-day realities of the modern world—a world that compels farmers to leave their farms, divides families, entraps people in small confining apartments in big cities. One might argue that the film is suggesting the advantages of the old life over the new. In fact, it is simply commenting on the nature of time, place, memory, and morality.

Much of the success of the final scenes can be attributed to the cinematography and the absence of music or sounds other than those that naturally surround the old home. We see shots of open and empty fields, and we know they are the canvas of Carrie’s memories. Insects and birds whir and twitter in the background, and they give the final scenes an intense feeling of realness. The effect enhances the credibility and emotions that Carrie is feeling.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

In the Heat of the Night

Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) does all it can from the earliest scenes to establish the viewer’s moral superiority over the place and the people of Sparta, Mississippi—the fictional setting of this film. In the first scene we see Virgil Tibbs step down from a train that has stopped in Sparta. In the second scene we see two scrofulous men in a run-down diner. One is trying to kill a fly with a rubber band. The other is a cop drinking coffee. There is tension between them, we later learn its cause, though at first the cause appears to be a lemon pie that the cop loves but which the counterman hides beneath the counter so the cop will think it is sold out. There is one piece of cake beneath a cover, and when the counterman lifts the cover, we see another fly trapped inside with the cake.

Warren Oates plays the policeman, Sam Wood, who manages to perspire throughout the film. Sparta is a hot town. Sam patrols the town, driving down a residential street and slowing in front of a house where, we learn later, he often slows down—to watch a young girl standing naked in front of a window. She is hot too, in more ways than one. When Sam drives on, he discovers a body crumpled in the street, and the plot begins to unfold.

The basic premise of this film focuses on an educated, well mannered African American detective from Philadelphia (PA) who has a layover at the Sparta train station while he waits for a connection. He has been visiting his mother in a nearby town, and when the murdered body is discovered, the local sheriff, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), tells his deputies to look for drifters, hobos, anyone who might be passing through. Tibbs, a strange black man reading in the train station, fits the bill. He’s arrested. The deputy is suspicious of Tibbs as soon as he sees him—primarily because he is a black man whom he doesn’t recognize, probably also because he is well dressed and is reading. He addresses Tibbs as “boy,” a term used throughout the film by various townspeople to express their dislike for and sense of superiority over Tibbs and other African Americans. Tibbs gets Gillespie to call his captain in Philadelphia and is cleared as a suspect but is also assigned to assist in investigating the murder. Tibbs does not want to assist, and Gillespie does not want his help either. They become unwilling partners.

The murder victim Colbert had planned to build a factory in town, a factory that would hire 1000 workers, at least half of whom would be black. He was a Northerner whose factory would have brought change to the town, change that some are resisting, especially the wealthy landowner Endicott. He lives in a grand mansion outside the town. His hobby is growing orchids. Tibbs at first suspects him of involvement in the crime, though he eventually realizes that Endicott’s reputation as a racist had more to do with his suspicions than evidence and clues. The real truth of the crime is more sordid and mundane and in fact not especially intriguing.

The interest of the film grows not out of the efforts of Tibbs and Gillespie to solve the murder but rather out of their interactions with one another, and out of the reactions of the townspeople to an African American detective from Philadelphia, PA, intruding in their affairs. We identify with Tibbs and with no one else in the film.  We share his outrage at his repeated encounters with racism, in comments people make, in a carful of rednecks trying to run his car off the road, in Endicott’s patronizing comments about how black people need to be taken care of like orchids. The film fuels our sense of moral superiority over the inhabitants of Sparta.

The point of the film is to show that racism and racists are bad. This is not an especially sophisticated or shocking lesson, from our standpoint in 2009, but it was a lesson that in 1967 would have had a powerful impact on audiences that saw the film, especially audiences that included people not as clear in their own thinking about race and civil rights as the makers of the film might have regarded themselves to be.

From a 2009 perspective, the film dramatizes the gradual awakening of the mid-twentieth South to the issue of civil rights and racial equality. Gillespie is the character in whom this awakening occurs. At first Gillespie is shown as a good ol’ boy sheriff who is quick to resort to easy conclusions, especially when it comes to solving the murder of a prominent developer such as Colbert. After he gives up on Tibbs as a suspects he then begins to suspect a young man found with Colvert’s wallet. He assumes the man is the murderer. Tibbs points out that the suspect is left-handed but that the murder was committed by a right-handed man because of the nature and location of the wound. Gillespie doesn’t like being shown up and corrected by Tibbs, and he yells. He yells often in the film. Rod Steiger is effective as a fierce Southern sheriff. But Gillespie also grows to appreciate Tibbs’ skills and his determination to solve the murder. (He accuses Tibbs of wanting to prove to all the white people in town that he is smarter than they are—Tibbs does not dispute the accusation, and in fact it convinces him to stay in town and investigate the murder). Gillespie finds his position as sheriff in jeopardy because he is willing to work with and accept the advice of a black man—Endicott and the mayor both imply that he may lose his job as a result.

An interesting scene occurs in Gillespie’s living room. Gillespie is sprawled out on his sofa, and Tibbs is sitting in a chair. They are drinking and talking. Gillespie talks about being lonely and isolated and tells Tibbs that he is the first human being who has ever been in his house. They seem on the verge of forming a bond, establishing a link, but when Gillespie asks Tibbs whether he is lonely and Tibbs responds, “No lonelier than you are,” Gillespie responds by saying that he doesn’t need pity. In this scene we see how much the two men have in common—both are unmarried, without wives or families, both feel somehow out of place and isolated. Gillespie more than Tibbs seems to need human companionship, but the barriers of race and the prejudices of a region and a historical moment prevent him from recognizing in Tibbs a kindred soul—at least until the end of the film.

Gillespie is a man who is more intelligent and of more substance than his time and place might allow him to be. His mettle becomes clear as a result of the murder and of Tibbs role in solving it. Although Tibbs is risking his life as he investigates the crime—in the climactic scenes of the film, two cars full of local citizens with guns are hunting him—Gillespie through his developing respect for Tibbs is risking his job and his place in the town as well.

The film was shot on location, and there are many scenes of local buildings and streets and downtown areas that make the film seem realistic. It is set in a fictional town in Mississippi named Sparta. By showing how Gillespie at first confuses Tibbs’ home town in Pennsylvania with Philadelphia, Mississippi, the film clearly associates its fictional setting with the actual town where only a few years before three young civil rights workers had been brutally murdered. In the Heat of the Night specifically operates within the reverberations of those events and of the civil rights movement in general. On the way to visit Endicott, Tibbs and Gillespie drive past expansive fields of cotton where black people are busy picking the crop and large industrial machines are harvesting it. The scene is an image of change—the comparison between Tibbs himself and the black people working in the fields, the contrast between the laborers picking cotton by hand and the industrial machines harvesting the plant. When Gillespie and Tibbs arrive at the mansion—a large brick plantation house—they go to the front door and a black man answers the bell. Again there is a contrast between the black servant and Tibbs. The contrast culminates in the greenhouse where Colbert tends to his orchids. When Colbert realizes that Tibbs and Gillespie have come to interrogate him about Colbert’s murder, he becomes angry and slaps Tibbs, who immediately slaps him back. Gillespie does not react, and Endicott is enraged at his lack of a response. When Tibbs and Gillespie leave, Endicott is left weeping in anger and humiliation in his greenhouse. This is a wonderful scene, one that (as I recall) promoted audiences to clap and cheer.

A problem with the film is the lack of nuance in how it represents the racism of the people of Sparta. Everyone is racist. Everyone is suspicious of Tibbs and speaks to him with disrespect. No one stands up for him or likes him. The only person who demands that he be kept on the case is Colbert’s widow—she is from the North and therefore more respectful of black men. It is also doubtful how long an aggressive and outspoken black man like Tibbs would actually have survived in a Mississippi town like Sparta in 1967.

There are only two scenes in the film where Tibbs interacts with other black people.

What made Poitier an attractive African American actor in 1967? First and foremost, he in ways was more like a white actor in black skin than an African American. As Virgil Tibbs in the film he spoke with a distinguished accent that sounds almost British. He dressed impeccably. He carried himself with force and dignity and stood up for himself. He was not a black Southerner (though he might have been, since his mother lived in the South). In many ways he portrayed a “safe” African American character for white audiences to admire. Would the film have worked as well, would the protagonist have been as successful in eliciting audience sympathy, if Tibbs had been a black man from Sparta who lacked Poitier’s elegant demeanor and his non-ethnic accent? Of course, the basic premise of the film requires that Tibbs be an outsider, but as a black man so intensively deracinated, Poitier makes it easy for largely white audiences to like him. This is not criticism of Poitier—he was an important transitional actor, a man who paved the way for the participation of African Americans in the film industry, from Denzel Washington to Samuel Jackson to Will Smith to Mos Def.

This is one of the first films in which an African American actor is shown standing up against white characters and surviving—the scene in which Tibbs slaps Endicott is an important moment.