Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sherman's March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

Every now and then I encounter a book or film or painting that lacks a point of reference, an identifying marker or set of markers within the literary or cinematic or art worlds that allows me to place and understand it in comparison to other books or films or paintings. Sometimes—perhaps most of the time—this is the fault of my own ignorance. Perhaps other times the fault belongs to the work itself—to shoddy form or unfocused vision or downright ineptitude. Occasionally it is the result of a distinctive and original artistic vision. Sometimes the reason is just not clear.

For much of Sherman's March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1986, dir. Ross McElwee) I thought I was watching a self-indulgent and long-winded home movie. This film is really about another film. The director Ross McElwee begins by announcing that he wanted to make a film about the impact of Sherman’s campaign on the Southeast, especially Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. But just as he was about to begin, he tells us, his girl friend broke up with him, leaving him hurt and traumatized. So instead he makes a film about a quixotic odyssey in search of a romantic partner that takes him through the states through which Sherman marched. Occasionally, he actually talks about Sherman, a man with whom he finds much in common. Sherman for much of his life regarded himself as a failure, a judgment the director levies on himself as well. Following the end of the war, Sherman was criticized for negotiating a surrender with the South in his campaign that was too lenient, and he was treated unfairly. Sherman loved the South, lived there much of his life, and so when he was ordered to wage his campaign of destruction, McElwee finds that fact highly ironic. McElwee believes Sherman was a brilliant writer. By overt connection and implication, he finds much in common with the Civil War general.

But Sherman occupies only a relatively short portion of this two-hour and thirty-seven minute film. Most of it is taken up with what at first appears to be casual and amateurish footage of the director’s visit with his parents and with various women whom he has been involved with in the past, or whom his parents or friends try to fix him up with, or whom he just happens across. Mostly they are in their late twenties or thirties, like him, and like him they are trying to find their place in life. Several aspire to be actresses, one wants to be a singer, another is a Mormon who wants to bring God into her house through marriage, another is a linguist living on Ossabaw Island working on her dissertation, another is an anti-nuclear power activist and teacher, and another is a lawyer in an off-again, on-again relationship with a man.

McElwee easily becomes infatuated with these women, but he seems fairly inept at relationships. This is one of the points of the film, which features McElwee’s attempts to discuss with the various women their reasons for lack of interest in him. In part he blames his own mistakes and weak character. Several women are more interested in their careers than in him. He and the linguist become involved in their idyllic Ossabaw Island setting, for a time, but then he leaves for a part-time job in Boston and she finds someone else. The women with whom he was involved in the past aren’t really interested in rekindling the former connection—they’ve moved on. In part, he blames the nuclear age. How can he sustain a relationship at a time when the threat of nuclear destruction looms constantly in mind?

McElwee portrays himself as a kind of Southern Protestant nebbish. He’s romantically inept and miserable as a result. He’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end of the film, having failed at romance, he announces that he doesn’t really like the South and travels north to make films and teach filmmaking at Brown University, where he teaches today. With this pronouncement, the end of the film has the effect of subverting in an amusing and ironic way McElwee’s sense of failure and incompetence. He’s clearly good at something.

McElwee defines his own documentary style in Sherman’s March. It’s not a style that could easily be imitated, and indeed, given the length of this film, not one with much commercial potential. It’s a style that is obviously a projection of McElwee’s personality. Despite the casual, deliberate sloppiness to the film, there is a clear method at work, one that parallels the route of Sherman’s march with McElwee’s own romantic odyssey, and that portrays an interesting series of Southern characters—mostly white and female, affluent to varying degrees (with one exception)—at a time when the South was becoming increasingly urban and suburban, deracinated, deregionalized.

A minor sort of theme in the film involves Burt Reynolds. The first woman whom McElwee encounters in the film (in a meeting arranged by his father and step-mother) is an aspiring actress who has a connection with a friend who works for Burt Reynolds. She hopes to wrangle a part in a Reynolds film. Later in the film, McElwee actually runs across the set of a Reynolds film (Stroker Ace? Cannonball Run II?) and tries to film Reynolds but is thrown off the set and threatened with arrest. Does Reynolds represent the authentic South?

In a sense, as a filmmaker from Boston who comes down South to make a film about a man known for his destructive campaign in the South, McElwee joins with those forces that are changing the South in as drastic and fundamental a way as Sherman ever managed to do. The film shows several vistas of the skyline of Atlanta, Columbia, SC, Savannah, and Charlotte during the mid-1980s. These cities represent the South’s recovery from Sherman’s March, and at the same time the long-term and undeniable impact of the victories he achieved.

(In my favorite scene, McElwee walks towards the banks of the Congaree River, in Columbia, SC, gazing at the city skyline. He tries to clamber down the banks towards the river but falls, disappearing from view. The image of this awkward, bumbling figure trying to negotiate the Southern landscape is representative of his demeanor in the film as a whole).

Monday, May 25, 2009


Bill Maher’s satiric documentary Religulous (2008, dir. Larry Charles) is a sustained editorial attack on religion. Maher sees religion—particularly Christianity, but the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well—as responsible for hatred, bias, racism, nationalistic bigotry, persecution, superstition, and ignorance that have been the bane of the civilized world for centuries.

Maher’s method is to visit various individuals and locations associated with religion, to interview or talk about them, to point out logical fallacies in what they argue for or represent, to use film clips from religious films, or messages scrolling across the screen, that have the effect of ridiculing them. He’s interested in making fun of his subject more than he is in trying to understand it

Maher is completely transparent about his goals in Religulous. He’s against religion. He’s out to show what’s wrong with it. He doesn’t try to be balanced or fair, though on a couple of occasions, when someone on the “other side” has made a good point, he gives them credit.

In one scene at a recreational park called “Holy Land,” Maher interviews a man impersonating Jesus—not as if he is talking to an individual dressed up as Jesus, but as if he is interviewing Jesus Himself. The costumed Jesus does his best to answer Maher’s pointed questions and to counter his argument, but he’s an easy target.

In another scene, Maher impersonates an evangelist preaching Scientology to a crowd gathered on a street corner in what appears to be London. The scene is hilarious, but the teachings of Scientology make another easy target.

Most of the people whom Maher interviews are easy targets—evangelists, right-wing Jews who deny the Holocaust, semi-coherent Catholic priests, amusement park characters and patrons, a self-described Jew for Jesus who runs a religious souvenir shop, a formerly gay evangelist married to a former lesbian who is convinced that gay people are not really gay (he doesn’t believe in gay people) but are “out of balance,” and so on.

The most interesting figure whom Maher interviews is a priest who is an astronomer for the Vatican. This is an interesting man who has succeeded in reconciling his own commitment to science with his faith in the Catholic Church—but Maher doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to ask interesting and probing questions about science, logic, religion, and faith. In general, he avoids talking with people of substance.

I have no argument with Maher’s contention that leaders of the world should use logic and education. I agree that it is disturbing to hear leaders invoking irrational and illogical principles, religious nationalism, astrology, superstition, zealotry, all in the name of whatever god they believe in. But Maher resorts to ridicule and satire to make fun of religion and of religious people. In effect, he’s guilty of the same sort of bigotry that he is criticizing. His film is amusing and entertaining but it lacks substance, and it lacks respect for its subject and even for its viewers. It will appeal to people already inclined to agree with its viewpoint but will do little to persuade others.

One could argue that Maher approaches his topic with the same lack of respect and understanding and tolerance that some religious people express towards people or topics with which they disagree—evolution, stem cell research, those who believe in other faiths and creeds, etc. The trouble is, of course, that the term “religious people” encompasses billions of individuals with a wide array of attitudes—you can’t stereotype all religious people as thinking the same way, as having the same attitudes. But Maher does.

To Bill Maher, religion represents illogicality, irrationality, and ignorance. He favors logic, reason, and enlightenment. I favor those ways of thinking too. But the divide between religion and science, faith and logic, superstition and reason, is not as simple or clear as he would have it.

Star Trek

Entertainment value. What does it mean? For the money you spend the product you purchase possesses an intrinsic worth directly proportional to the pleasure it gives you. The entertainment value of the new Star Trek (2009, dir. J. J. Abrams) is high. There is nary a dull moment. While the original television series often took time out for political or philosophical pontifications, the new film takes little time out for anything. It is constant action, motion, noise. It has numerous cliff-hanging moments, free-fall hijinks, warp speed teleportation, sex with green women, phasers set at stun, black holes, imploding planets, brain devouring parasites, you name it. It has a strong sense of fun—it takes seriously the TV series on which it is based, but lacks more than enough respect to play fast and loose with the particulars. If you are a fan of the original series or any of the films it spawned, then you will watch this film with a particular anticipation—awaiting the appearance of each of the original characters, awaiting the appearance of the Enterprise itself. (If you were not a fan of the original, then you will simply be entertained). All the original characters are here, including Scotty, who appears relatively late, but who is immediately recognizable. The characters, especially Spock, seem more three-dimensional than their TV-based originals. Chekhov and Sulu for the first time are genuinely interesting. Uhuru for the first time seems more than a token representative of racial equality—she’s downright fetching, a brilliant linguist, and, as we learn, she and Spock are romantically involved. The film shows the half-human/half-Vulcan Spock in a series of transitions as he chooses to be neither wholly Vulcan nor wholly human. He has logic and precision but also passion and, surprisingly, a temper. Obviously, the full-grown adult Spock is a product of self-discipline. Spock and the actor Zachary Quinto who portrays him are the best human elements in the film.

Basically, and fundamentally, Star Trek is entertaining. It reinvents and reinvigorates the original story line, pays homage (not too reverently) to the mythology of the television series, uses a legion of special effects to the maximum (this is not a film where one can complain of too many special effects), is full of humor and humanity and constant movement.

The film has its problems. For one, Leonard Nimoy’s appearance was contrived and unnecessary. For another, the science underlying the series has always been questionable. It remains so here. A major problem has always been Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Star Trek neatly avoids the light speed limit by use of warp-drive, a technology that allows the Enterprise to bend space and travel light years in only a short time. The series has never offered much explanation for this technology, other than the fact that it relies on the ever-present (and problematic) lithium crystals. Physicists have speculated about warping space as a way of evading the light-speed limit but have not gotten far in proposing how it might be done, other than to suggest that it would require more energy that the galaxy or the universe or certainly human technology can generate. Over the past few years physicists have succeeded in creating a form of teleportation—but this has never involved more than moving a proton or two at a time. Theoretically, teleportation may be possible. Practically speaking, it may not be, and if it is, we are probably millennia away from being able to employ it in the reliable way the folks on the Enterprise do. The film also invokes time travel and parallel universes, and the science for these remains speculative though tantalizing as well. In general, Star Trek depends on the premise that it’s possible to move around in the galaxy without much difficulty—a galaxy that is 100,000 light years across and a 1000 light years thick, populated by some 300 billion stars. In Star Trek the galaxy is conveniently small and navigable. It is like the Old West in cowboy movies, easily traveled, fraught with its own perils. The real galaxy is a lot bigger, emptier, colder than this film would have it.

But Star Trek does not rise or fall on such quibbles. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch

The new biography of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch (Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Little, Brown, and Company, 2009) gives a better and more three-dimensional portrait of the writer than any other I have encountered. It is not a literary biography--it does not read or interpret her stories and her two novels, and it does not trace her development as a writer in any but the most general details. But it is an engaging and sympathetic account of the writer’s life and of the conditions and challenges she faced. It is also well written. The biography is sympathetic to O’Connor without being hagiographic. Gooch may find much to admire in his subject, but he doesn’t hesitate to bring out issues that might place her in an unflattering light (her views on race, for instance, which moderated over the years).

I have always found O’Connor and her fiction difficult. She strikes me as an exceedingly doctrinaire and uncompromising writer both in her theology and in her fiction. She shows no mercy to her characters, though she would argue that it is not her business but God’s to do so. She was a devout Catholic in a Protestant South. She lost her father, whom she loved, at an early age to the same disease that would later afflict her. Her mother Regina was, apparently, strict and difficult. When she contracted lupus and returned to Milledgeville to live out the remainder of her life, she did so in part because she knew she could depend on Regina for help and support. She worried about what might happen to her if her mother died before she did. But mother and daughter apparently did not always get along, and Regina did not understand or like her daughter’s writing. Various visitors to the O’Connor home at Andalusia commented on the tension in the household and on Regina’s occasional hostile or embarrassing comments. Of course, lupus itself was a major challenge during the last fifteen years of O’Connor’s life. She knew the diagnosis was a death sentence, and the main question was how long she would last before it took her. Amazingly, she continued to live a full life right up until her final illness and completed two of her best stories, “Parker’s Back” and “Judgment Day,” shortly before she died.

Gooch seems to have read every document and interviewed every conceivable living subject who knew O’Connor. His accounts of her early childhood and Catholic upbringing in Savannah are detailed and fascinating. He depicts a young Flannery who was a self-styled character from an early age, writing stories about her family, drawing satirical cartoons, training chickens to walk backwards, disdaining social occasions that for other Southern girls would have been command performances. It is to Regina’s credit that as much as she might have exerted authority in her household she gave her daughter ample space and opportunity to grow and develop, both before her illness and afterwards—although this may have been the result of O’Connor’s own strong personality.

One way the biography manages to depict a three-dimensional O’Connor is through the people she was friends with and, in a few cases, in whom she may have been romantically interested. The main example of the latter category was Erik Langkjaer, a young book salesman who visited her frequently during the early 1950s but who returned to Europe and became engaged to another woman while O’Connor apparently still believed a relationship might develop. Gooch portrays the failure of this relationship as one that was painful for the writer. O’Connor apparently later incorporated elements of this relationship into her story “Good Country People”— Langkjaer even recognized himself in the story. There has been some speculation over the years about O’Connor’s sexuality. She was friends with two women who professed their love for her—Maryat Lee and Betty Hester--but she did not reciprocate their affections except in a friendly way. She remained close with both women to the end of her life. The friendship with Hester was clearly an important one that produced a rich and revealing series of letters. Friendships with writers such as Robie McCauley, Robert Lowell, Caroline Gordon, Andrew Lytle, and others demonstrate that she did not lead a life of isolation and that she often traveled away from Milledgeville to visit friends such as Brainard and Frances Cheney in Nashville.

One flaw in the book, I think, is Gooch’s constant attempts to draw parallels between O’Connor’s life and her fiction. Obviously, there were links, and clearly O’Connor got much of her material not only from people she knew and events she experienced but also from stories told to her by family and friends. But imagination clearly played an important process in the invention of her stories, and Gooch doesn’t sufficiently credit it. He seems to believe that everything in her fiction has some connection or basis in her life, though he acknowledges the often dramatic ways in which she transformed life experiences into her art.

Gooch is especially effective at making clear the extent to which O’Connor’s devout Catholicism affected every aspect of her life and work. He makes clear that she read widely in Catholic theology and philosophy and that she was especially fond of the Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac. In literature she read fairly widely, including the literature of the American South, and she had strong opinions on the writers she admired (Faulkner) and those she disliked (Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote).

Gooch quotes generously from O’Connor’s letters, stories, and other writings, as well as from interviews and accounts by numerous other individuals. He brings O’Connor to life in part by allowing the reader to hear her own voice as often as possible in the biography, and by allowing us to see O’Connor through the opinions of the others who knew her.

I have often wondered (along with others) whether by the time of her death O’Connor had written herself out. Late in her life, she herself seemed troubled by this question. Would she have continued to write the same sort of fiction? The questions of whether and how her work would have evolved invite the kind of pointless speculation inevitably focused on writers who die at a relatively young age.


The title of Doubt (2008, dir. and writer John Patrick Shanley) expresses the themes and concerns of the film in every possible way. The film is about political and cultural doubt, personal doubt about one’s motives and perceptions, theological doubt, ethical and moral doubt. In other words, the film is about those modes of thought that make us self-aware and thinking creatures, that give us a sentient self, that burden us with uncertainty. Doubt is a film that, despite its concern with faith and the Catholic Church, doesn’t take anything for granted, a film in which there are no absolutes and everything is up for interrogation, examination.

Doubt takes place in 1964, when the Civil Rights Movement was making major political and cultural inroads in America, the year following the assassination of John Kennedy, two years following the pronouncements of Vatican II. The placement of the film in 1964 thereby enables it to explore issues that remain pertinent today. Another issue that was not much spoken of, if at all, in 1964, was the concern that some priests might be molesting young members of their churches. The film examines this possibility; helps explain why the problem went for so long unacknowledged or addressed; yet at the same time does not make this issue its main subject. Instead, its mains subject is exactly what its title conveys: doubt.

I can think of few films with better acting. Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn provide some of the best acting I’ve seen in film in quite a while. Streep in particular so fully inhabits her role as the senior sister of the school, a stern disciplinarian both to students and to others, totally dedicated to her calling as a teacher and nun, devout in her faith, fully disapproving of the reforms of Vatican II beginning to make themselves felt. The film is worth seeing solely for the experience of watching the expressions on Streep’s face—she can say more with a grimace, a raised eyebrow, a clenched lip, than many actresses can manage in a career. In her public appearances on talk shows and other venues, Streep has always struck me as highly intelligent and without any kind of distinct personality. In her acting roles, she becomes the parts she plays.

Amy Adams is fresh and convincing in her role as the young nun and teacher Sister James.

The plot focuses on Sister Aloysius’s growing suspicion that Father Flynn is having an “inappropriate” relationship with the only black student at the school. Sister Aloysius does not like Father Flynn’s informal way with the parishioners and the students at the school. He’s too relaxed and familiar for her tastes. He’s willing to have a secular song as part of the Christmas pageant, and this bothers her as well. Flynn is apparently responsible for the admission to the school of its first black student, Donald Miller, and although the sister does not openly disagree with the student’s presence she feels he needs special attention because of how other students may treat him.

The film suggests, and Sister James and Father Flynn suggest, that Sister Aloysius’s suspicions of the priest are motivated by her dislike of his reformed ways. The film neither confirms nor denies this possibility, just as it neither confirms nor denies her accusations against the priest. In the end, those accusations seem confirmed circumstantially—Sister Aloysius is told something about Father Flynn by a teacher at another school, and when she threatens to go public with what she believes she knows, he decides to resign. Is this because he is guilty of her charges, or because he wants to avoid embarrassment? The film never gives an answer. It provides only possible explanations.

Gradually, Sister Aloysius collects evidence. Flynn held a special meeting with the boy, after which the boy appeared upset and may have had wine on his breath. Sister Aloysius sees Father Flynn put an undershirt in the boy’s locker. We see Flynn and the boy together only twice. The first time the boy is confessing his desire to enter the priesthood. The second time the priest is comforting the boy who has been jostled in the school hallway by another student. There is nothing untoward in these two scenes. Everything Sister Aloysius knows about the boy and about Flynn is circumstantial, assumed, inferred, implied. Nothing is certain. As members of the audience we are in the same position as the characters in the film. Only Sister Aloysius seems sure that she knows what is happening, and she vows to bring Father Flynn down.

The film makes a point of portraying the male-centered structure of the school and the church. Father Flynn is the final authority. The nuns live and eat together in relatively Spartan surroundings, while Father Flynn and other priests dine and joke together in a social, jovial way. If Sister Aloysius follows protocol, she will have to forward her concerns about the school and Father Flynn through Flynn himself. Father Flynn himself must answer to other priests, cardinals, bishops. It’s only when Sister Aloysius contacts a nun in another school and asks about Father Flynn’s past that she is able to make headway. Even when Father Flynn resigns his position in the church, he is reassigned by his superiors to another church and school, a better one, in fact.

The only person who does not have doubt about what she believes she knows is Sister Aloysius. In the end, even she is unsure.


It’s always been interesting to me how the American popular imagination is constantly on the lookout for people to identify as Enemy. In the 1950s, when I was growing up, Indians and Nazis and Communists were the enemy. As political attitudes evolved, Nazis remained a convenient enemy, but Indians (Native Americans) were replaced by other ethnic groups—Mexicans, South Africans, East Europeans, and (for the last several decades), Arabs. There was even a period in the 1980s and 90s when outer space aliens substituted for ethnic enemies. The events of September 11 and the ensuing war in Iraq focused the popular imagination not so much on Arabs as on people of the Muslim world.

East European Muslims—Albanians, to be exact—are the enemy in the film Taken (2008, dir. Pierre Morel). This well made, soulless, and intellectually vapid action film operates entirely on a visceral level. Liam Neeson plays a retired U. S. security agent whose 17-year-old daughter is visiting in Paris when she is kidnapped by Albanians who drug her and sell her into the slave trade. Neeson sets out to rescue her, vowing to her kidnapper in a cell phone that “I will find you, and I will kill you.” This he does, with grimly calculating efficiency. I did not count how many Albanian—and Muslims and ethnic individuals of other stripes—met their maker at Neeson’s hands, but the number was high.

Neeson functions in this film like a super hero. He’s relentless and unstoppable.  He uses skills acquired as a security agent to track down the kidnappers, the people they work for, the individuals to whom they sell their victims. He shoots, stabs, garrotes, throttles, and otherwise dispatches the bad guys in his quest to find his daughter. The film leaves little doubt that he’ll be successful. While the film is exciting and entertaining, there’s not much tension involved. I watched it with the curious sort of interest one would feel watching someone lining up the colors of a Rubik’s Cube, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

As a parent, I understood the obsessive dedication of Neeson’s character to finding and rescuing his child. One can easily imagine that he applied to his work as a national security agent the same single-minded ruthlessness with which he pursues his daughter’s kidnappers.

As if to make clear what the stakes are, the film makes clear that she is a virgin, that she is (as one of her kidnapper’s describes her to a potential buyer) “100% pure,” so she has to be rescued not only from kidnappers who want to drug her and sell her as a prostitute, but from dusky-skinned Arabic-speaking Muslims who want to deflower her.

Taken is a version of the myth of American indomitability and moral righteousness—a myth that events of the last several decades should have dispelled. In this 91-minute film, Neeson (who himself is Irish-born, not a native U. S. citizen) succeeds in defeating and killing the Muslim enemy in a way that the U. S. nation has not managed in various wars over the last two decades.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Waitress (2006) instills a familiar plot with a fresh perspective, partially because of the particular approach the film takes to its subject, partially due to the excellent acting of Keri Russell and supporting cast. Russell plays Jenna Hunterson, a young waitress who works in a pie diner in a small Southern town. She expresses her emotional life through the pies she bakes—she names them after moods and situations she is in. She has no other emotional outlet. Early in the film Jenna discovers that she is pregnant by the husband whom she doesn’t like and whom she is plotting to leave. He is a controlling and self-centered bubba. She begins a hot affair with the obstetrician she goes to see about her pregnancy—he is new to town, married to a resident physician at the local hospital.

The film traces Jenna’s reaction to her developing pregnancy, the affair with her doctor, and the increasingly domineering behavior of her husband—he forbids her from traveling to a local town for a pie baking competition, requires that she turn over all her earnings, and forces her to swear that she will never love the baby as much as she loves him. Jenna narrates the film, and she makes clear that she does not love her husband and does not want the baby. She plans to have it anyway.

The freshness of the film comes partially through the perspective of director and writer Adrienne Shelly, who questions the traditional notions that a woman can find fulfillment through marriage and motherhood. Jenna’s dissatisfaction, her sense of entrapment in her marriage to Earl, is a constant focus. The pregnancy and the not-so-subtle urgings of her friends at the diner to embrace motherhood become another layer of entrapment. The two waitresses who work with her in the diner are themselves constantly on the lookout for men. One is married to an older man who is (apparently) an invalid—she is having an affair with the thoroughly distasteful manager of the diner. The other seeks companionship through a newspaper dating service. She becomes involved with a strange little man whose enthusiasm and poetry writing initially put her off.

The setting of a small Southern town helps focus Jenna’s struggle against a deeply entrenched Southern male power structure. We see this in a number of other films about the South, such as Jezebel (1938), Norma Rae (1979), and Places in the Heart (1984). (The power structure is Southern only because the film is set in the South—it exists everywhere, though the South’s reputation as a bastion of patriarchal traditions underlies the logic of the film).

Waitress pursues its concern with Jenna’s entrapment, with her need and the need of the other waitresses for release and fulfillment, through comic and satiric means. This is not a heavy-handed or doctrinaire film. But it makes its point.

Perhaps the most comical character in Waitress is Jenna’s husband Earl. He views Jenna solely in terms of how she serves his own well being. When they have sex (rarely) he is concerned only with his own satisfaction. He tells her that she has never been sexy and comments often on her increasing size. When he discovers the money she has been hiding around the house (money she has been saving to fund her escape from the marriage) she tells him she has been saving it to buy a crib and other things for the baby. He believes her, and uses the unspent portion of the money to buy himself a video camera to film the birth. Earl is the supreme example of a self-centered, wholly egotistical man who views his marriage and his wife solely as an enhancement to his own ego. Although he is an exaggerated parody, not a few men who watch the film should feel a wee bit uncomfortable with what they recognize of themselves in his character.

Jenna finds an alternative to Earl in her obstetrician Dr. Pomatter. He compliments her, enjoys her cooking, listens to her thoughts and concerns, and for much of the film she genuinely considers running away with him. In many ways, as she finally decides, he is just another version of Earl.

The small town in which Waitress occurs offers the director a venue for a comical cast of eccentric and quaint Southern characters. Foremost among them is Old Joe, played by Andy Griffith. He owns the pie bar and comes in each day with an exacting set of demands that only Jenna seems able to carry out to his satisfaction. Despite his crotchety exterior, the film gradually reveals an inner personality that at first we don’t see.

A fortuitous turn of events at the end of the film—not wholly a surprise—provides Jenna with an escape from her predicament. It is, unfortunately, not a solution available to most women in her predicament, a fact indicative of the basically romantic and fairy-tale character of the film.

Nonetheless, Waitress is thoroughly engaging.

Adrienne Shelley was murdered shortly before the film’s release.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Innocents

In his short novel The Turn of the Screw Henry James through a gradual accretion of situations, details, hints, and improbable moments builds the case that his central character, a young governess charged with the care of two young children, isn’t really seeing the apparitions she thinks she is seeing. One can read the story as a straight tale of the supernatural, a story in which the ghosts are really there. Or one can read it as a study in psychological deviance in which the ghosts are the projections of a neurotic young woman. The genius of the story in part rests in the fact that you are never sure how to read it—though once you glimpse the outline of the psychological reading, it is difficult to put out of your mind.

The 1961 film adaptation The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton) begins with a scene of the disturbed young governess, in distress and in prayer, agonizing over her desire to protect the children in her charge. She is clearly an upset and hysterical woman. From its first scene, this film leaves little doubt which reading it will undertake. From the start it strips away that layer of narrative subtlety in the novel. The film otherwise offers an effective and literal rendition of James’ novel, with Deborah Kerr portraying the governess in what may be one of her finest performances.

The film retains much of the uncertainty and nuance so important in the novel—the strange tales of the recent deaths of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, their love affair, the boy’s expulsion from school, the distant and indifferent uncle who is responsible for the children, but who doesn’t want to be bothered by them or by the governess in any way.

When the uncle implores the governess to take the position, he does so almost as a kind of marriage proposal, and she is clearly marked by the moment. The uncle is often in her mind.  The film is more explicit than the novel in suggesting the sexual undertones and overtones of the story—the governess’ dissatisfaction with her own life, her sexual inexperience and repression, her attraction to the uncle, the strangely adult way the boy interacts with her (including a lascivious kiss he plants on her), his self-conscious innocence that, with a different inflection or facial expression, becomes, at least in her mind, proof of his corruption.

While the novel is all subtlety and restraint, the film adds a strong note of hysteria to its portrayal of the governess. The fear the film inspires is not about supernatural occurrences but about what the governess thinks she is seeing, her deepening psychological disturbance, the dangers she poses to the children. The film is not so much an adaptation as it is a reading, and in that role it performs in an intelligent and interesting way that does no violence to the novel.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Robert Wise version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was simple and straightforward. Produced when special effects were primitive, it relies on ideas and characters to convey its message. The nuclear age and the Cold War had just begun. The Age of Science was in the ascendant. It was a time of fear, uncertainty, and hope. The film was set in Washington, DC, the center of political power in the Western World. The space ship, a conventional flying saucer-type craft, lands on a baseball diamond. A figure emerges from the ship, and when he raises his hand, he is shot and wounded by a nervous soldier. He is hospitalized but soon escapes and takes up residence in a boarding house where a young woman (Patricia Neal) lives with her son. They become friends, he reveals himself along with his desire to speak with world leaders, and complications ensue. The Bernard Herrmann score is a spectacular and original enhancement to the film.

The 2008 remake of the film (directed by Scott Derrickson) preserves the main plot outline but transfers the setting to New York City—the space ship lands in Central Park. Rather than a conventional flying saucer, the ship is a glowing, translucent globe. Keanu Reeves plays the alien, Klaatu. Reeves actually could have done well by the part had the rest of the film been something other than what it is. The new film dispenses with practically every admirable element in the older one. Whereas the earlier film shows people infused with fear and wonder as the space ship lands and the alien figure emerges, this new one mainly shows fear. Everyone assumes the spaceship has come to do harm, and the film complicates matters by having not just one spaceship but hundreds land on the earth. The menace they pose Gort in 1951is clear. (The idea of subtlety in the 2008 film is a truly alien concept). In the older film we are told that the robot Gort can destroy the world, if called on to do so. We are shown only a few minor examples of his power. He is a frightening and imposing figure, and there is no doubt that he is formidable. But this is clear only because of implication. In the later film we are also told that Gort can destroy the world, and then in graphic and considerable detail for the last twenty or so minutes of the film we are shown how he can do so. The trouble is that I never believed in the robot of the newer film—he looked like a special effect from the beginning, and when he starts in on his destroy-the-world shtick, all I could think to myself was, "these are special effects." Gort in the newer movie lacks the mystique and reality of Gort in the older film. He is an abysmal failure.

Jennifer Connelly plays the Patricia Neal character in the new film. She is an exo-biologist. Federal agents drag her from her house to join a team of scientists supposed to advise and work with the government in deciding how to respond to the alien visit. The new film pays a lot of attention to how the government mobilizes the military to meet the challenge of the alien menace, and of course all their efforts are ineffective. In fact, the new film seems to exult in the notion of humankind's utter helplessness.

Whereas Klaatu in the first film comes to the planet to give a warning (he sees the human race as too warlike), in the second film he comes to destroy. Mankind has created such an environmental danger to the survival of the planet, one of the only planets in the galaxy that harbors complex life, that Klaatu decides the humans must be destroyed to save the planet. Whereas Klaatu in the earlier film shows no hostility and even seems interested in the humans that surround his spacecraft, in the latter film he shows indifference.

The second film relies heavily on special effects, and the human characters seem secondary. They merely follow the alien around and periodically try to convince him that the human race can change and that he shouldn't wipe it out.

Although the second film preserves the major characters of the original (including the robot Gort) and even the basic plot and many of the same scenes (often completely reenvisioned), it substitutes noise and explosions and spectacular effects for intelligence and human engagement with an extraordinary situation. The first film may seem dated, but the second film is simply dead.

The 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still was a visionary film, one that puts aside national boundaries and ideologies and addresses larger issues of peace and survival for the human race and the planet. It is one of the many reasons why I love films.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Places in the Heart

Places in the Heart (1984, dir. Robert Benton) is schizophrenic. The title suggests a warm, sentimental, somewhat addled encomium to the idyllic past. There is a degree of that past in the film. But it is also about the hard struggle a young wife and mother, Edna Spalding (Sally Field), must endure after her husband's unexpected death. On the night of his funeral she asks a friend to show her how to write a check—she has never written one. The next day the local banker shows up at her door to inform her about her husband's finances—he left barely half the money she will need to make the next payment on the farm. The banker is sure that Edna is incapable of understanding her plight and certainly lacking the skills required to save the farm. He advises her to sell the farm and move in with a relative. He suggests that she can farm her two children out to relatives in Oklahoma. At first she is incapable. But eventually she rises to the challenge, intent on disproving his certainty that she will not survive on her own.

The film shows the pervasive racism of the 1930s in Texas. The young black man who drunkenly and unintentionally shoots her husband, killing him, is lynched. A procession of cars drags his body through the town, stopping in front of her house long enough to ensure that she knows "justice" had been done. The Klan makes an appearance in the film as well.

But Places in the Heart also wants us to see Edna Spalding as an exception in this environment. An itinerant black man named Moze (Danny Glover) comes to her door, asking for work, and she turns him away. When she finds him chopping wood in her yard, she sends him away again, harshly, but not before he manages to steal some of her silverware. The local sheriff arrests the man and discovers the stolen silverware. In the meantime, she has had another meeting with the local banker and now understands her circumstances better than before. The sheriff brings the thief to her door with the silverware. Instead of confirming that the stolen goods are hers, she tells the sheriff that she had given the silverware to the man so he could clean them. She remembers his promise that he is an expert at growing cotton, his offer to help her, and her plan now is to take him up on that offer.

Soon after, the banker shows up at her door again with his blind brother-in-law (John Malcovich) in tow. He suggests that if she takes his brother-in-law as a border, the bank will think better of her when it comes time to consider another loan. She takes him in too.

In the course of the film, these three marginal people—the widow woman, the vagrant black man, the blind man—become allies and friends. It is certainly within the realm of possibility than such an alliance could form. There are more than a few examples of such alliances in the historical record. But they were rare exceptions. Many films about the Southern past avoid dealing with the historical reality by focusing on exceptions. This film focuses on an exceptional situation but also includes glimpses of racism and patriarchal prejudices. It shows murder, bigotry, adultery, yet in the final scene everyone—the dead and the betrayed—gather in church together to worship—this is apparently Edna's wish-fulfilling vision, the way she would want her life to be. It is also perhaps Robert Benton's way of showing (if indeed this wasn't merely a way of pandering to the audience and glossing over the negative elements) that everyone is washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

The film is more than a portrayal of Edna's struggle to save the farm. It portrays life in a small east Texas town during the Depression. We see Edna spending time with her children and with two couples to whom she is close. An adulterous affair between two of her friends provides melodramatic interest. The film shows that in the rural South of the Depression life was slow and difficult and different from what it is now, but it also shows similarities that link past and present.

In Moze, Benton gives us a positive portrayal of an African American male that both embraces and subverts racial stereotypes. Moze is itinerant. He needs a way to feed himself, to survive. He is wily, crafty, and not beyond stealing. He sees in Edna a vulnerable woman in need of assistance. So he attaches himself to her—out of self-interest at first, perhaps, but later out of loyalty to the friendship they develop. He is skilled at farming, gives good advice to Edna, and is protective of her children. The stereotype he embodies is of the virtuous black character (usually a man, sometimes a woman) who rescues white people in need—Sidney Poitier portrayed many such figures in films from the 1950s and 1960s. There is also an element here of the fond desire of some Southerners to believe that whatever one may say about the racist past there were strong bonds that held blacks and whites together.

In the end, the woman and her two new friends work together to save the farm. Moze plants and cultivates the cotton, and when it is ready for picking he talks other black folks in the area into working for Edna for a price, and he convinces her to hire them. When she takes the cotton to the gin, he makes sure that the gin owner doesn't cheat her, as of course he tries to do. She is able to make her payment to the bank. How she will make subsequent payments the film does not make clear and in fact does not even seem interested in the question.

Why during the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s did Sallie Field appear in so many Southern films—Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Norma Rae (1979), Places in the Heart (1984), Steel Magnolias (1989), Forrest Gump (1994)? She first of all looked the part of the strait-laced and conventional Southern belle—attractive, pliant, and unthreatening. Someone who by her appearance one might think could not get along on her own. But in most of these films part of the interest in her character grows out of her struggle against the type she portrays--the bride who declines to marry, the farm owner who is determined to make the bank payment, the mill worker who resents exploitative policies by management. Without wholly moving outside the convention role of Southern womanhood that her appearance and demeanor suggest, she proves herself to be resourceful, resilient, feisty, and determined. When she perseveres, she does so against a Southern male power structure. She was, in this sense, an expression of the impact of the Feminist movement on the American South and on Southern women in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Norma Rae

Norma Rae (1979, dir. Martin Ritt) dramatizes the struggle of North Carolina mill workers to unionize. The film is effective at portraying the workers themselves. Most of them do not look like Hollywood extras, but more like the sort of folk you would expect to work in a textile mill. The exception, of course, is Norma Rae (Sally Field), who is strong-minded, rebellious, and independent and doesn't like being put upon or seeing her relatives and friends exploited. She also doesn't mind upsetting the conventions of the local community.

In the film, a union organizer from New York City. Reuben (Ron Leibman) arrives in town to try to interest mill workers in forming a union. At first he is treated with disdain and suspicion, and sometimes hostility. The development of his friendship with Norma Rae is nearly as interesting as the story of her efforts to convince the millworkers to listen to him and to support unionization. In a muted but sustained way, the cultural contrasts between Norma Rae and Reuben give this movie life and interest. Their friendship endangers her marriage, and she admits to her husband one evening that Reuben is "in my mind," but it never develops beyond that point. This is a point of strength in the film, which develops the tension of a growing potential attraction between the two characters without resorting to the Hollywood ending that audiences might want or expect—there is no affair, and Norma Rae and Reuben part when the film ends.

Through this contrast in cultures, the film suggests both that beyond and above the differences there are fundamental shared concerns that unite people from fundamentally different places. Yet it also suggests that those differences are great enough to prevent the rapprochement with which the film tantalizes us throughout. One of the connections between Norma Rae and Reuben is their insistence on pursuing causes that no one else believes they can accomplish. Against strong odds, Reuben wants to unionize the mill, even when his supervisors urge him to consider giving up (they disapprove of Norma Rae too—they know she is married and are suspicious of her relationship with Reuben).

Norma Rae dramatizes the difficulties a woman would experience when she moves outside the traditional modes of behavior expected for her time and place. Norma Rae's husband (Beau Bridges), who in general the film treats as a good man, is increasingly bothered by her involvement in union work and her friendship with Reuben. The factory bosses at first promote her in an effort to get her on their side, but when she is placed in the position of having to evaluate the work of her former friends, even of her own father, she demands to be returned to her former position.

Despite its attempts at realism, the film is not resistant to the stereotypical lures of the small southern town idyll. Reuben himself is attracted to that idyll, even though the town itself is not especially receptive to him—he manages to achieve unionization only through Norma Rae and her efforts. In one scene he and Norma Rae swim together nude in a creek. This is supposed to be what the small rural town offers, the idyllic immersion in nature, Edenic innocence, yet at the same time the scene titillates, gives the audience some small gratification through the possibility of a connection between Norma Rae and Reuben that never occurs.

Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch collaborated on the screenplay for this film. They produced several other screenplays for films about the South, in particular The Long Hot Summer (1958) and the execrable The Sound and the Fury (1959)—Martin Ritt directed these films as well. The Long Hot Summer is at least watchable, though it gives us Faulkner as filtered through the minds of writers who understand Tennessee Williams better than the writer from Oxford. In Norma Rae, Frank and Ravetch are less prone to invoke melodrama and stereotype. They labor admirably to tell a story loosely based on fact and clearly connected to the unionization of Southern textile mills in the 1970s. The historical focus of this film—grounded in Southern patriarchy and sexism, class conflict, the ever-present struggle between management and labor, and the deeply entrenched Southern antipathy to labor unions and to outsiders—that staves off melodrama and stereotype.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express (2008) is a stoner comedy/thriller several notches above the usual level of such films. Although there is much dope smoking, and many jokes and humor centered on dope (nothing is more tiring than two dopers rejoicing in the glories of weed), there is also a plot, a disturbing fusion of the comic and the horrific, and an array of wildly whacky characters—many of whom come to gruesome ends.

The film was co-written by Seth Rogen (one of the main actors) and Judd Apatow, who also produced the film. The illogicalities and plot holes that one finds in other Apatow films, such as Super Bad (2007) and Knocked Up (2007), where they don't matter much, do matter here. But there are numerous comic moments too—a raucous and hilarious fight in an apartment; the two main characters, doped-up (there are few moments in the film when they aren't), stumbling terror-stricken through the woods when something that we never sees frightens them; a dinner gone wrong at the home of the 18-year-old girlfriend of Rogen's character; two hit men who run as much against type as one can imagine; and so on—and together they make a highly amusing but pointless film. With its counter-intuitive fusion of comedy and grim violence it reminded me of True Romance (1993) and especially of Martin Scorcese's 1985 After Hours.

The main character is a process server, Dale Denton. He spends his life smoking dope and donning various disguises in order to serve subpoenas on people who have been trying to avoid them. He buys his weed from Saul (James Franco), who sits in his apartment all day watching TV and selling product. Saul offers Dale a sample of the best weed in LA; it's called "Pineapple Express." Dale gladly accepts and goes off to serve a subpoena on a man named Ted Jones (Gary Cole), who turns out to be the drug kingpin who gave Saul an exclusive on the Pineapple Express. When Dale accidentally sees Jones and a policeman (Rosie Perez) murder a member of a rival drug gang, he is horrified. He throws down the joint he is smoking and drives straight to Saul's apartment. Jones finds the joint, recognizes the brand of weed, and sends henchmen to kill Dale and Saul. In the meantime, Dale and Saul have figured out that Jones will be looking for them (how they figure out anything in their dope-addled states is unclear).

So the film is basically about Saul and Dale's attempts to elude the hit men and outwit Ted Jones. There are numerous diversions and side jaunts. There is an ongoing rivalry between competing drug gangs (one of them features Ninjas). Saul wants to be a civil engineer, but he sells drugs so his grandmother can live in a comfortable retirement home. And of course there is Dale's relationship with an 18-year-old high school student. Most of all, this is a buddy film in which the two main characters ultimately come to terms with the fact that they like and need each other. It's also a film about Dale's gradual recognition that he needs to grow up and stop smoking dope—but whether this ever happens is unclear. I was disappointed that Dale's recognition that he needs to sober up is in the film. Why? It seems almost a gratuitous acknowledgement by the filmmakers that their film is immature and addled, that their values are really down home and middle class, not drug culture values. Let me leave no doubt—the film IS immature and addled, and you can enjoy it on that level. To insert the possibility of adulthood and redemption is to create a film that doesn't have the strength of its profoundly deviant convictions.

David Gordon Greene directed this film—the director of four promising but commercially unsuccessful films including George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), Undertow (2004), and Snow Angels (2007)—one imagines that he realized he had to participate in some money-making ventures to be able to keep making the kinds of films he wants to make—Pineapple Express did make money. Greene's expertise is evident in a number of scenes, especially in pacing, characterization, and cinematography. Despite the virtues of Pineapple Express, one hopes that
Greene will not have to make this kind of film often.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mekong First Light, by Joseph W. Callaway, Jr.

Mekong First Light (Presidio Press, 2004) is a memoir about Joseph W. Callaway's experience as a soldier in Vietnam during the late 1960s. Its strength is that it is not a literary memoir. Callaway is not a trained writer, a fact evident throughout his narrative. But his memoir is not at all clumsily written. It is simply not especially artful or elegant. It is intelligent and honest and devoid of pretense. It is what it is—straightforward and to the point. Callaway begins with a discussion of his childhood and adolescence. His family moved around fairly often as his father struggled to find a way to make an adequate living. Callaway came to think of himself as a failure, a kid who always seemed to mess up, who couldn't do well in academics or athletics. Part of the problem was, he later realized, a learning disability. He basically gave up on himself.

After several failed attempts at college, Callaway joined the army. In training school he discovers that he has a knack for leadership, that the men he leads trust him, and gradually a change begins to occur—a change evidenced in the memoir's title, Mekong First Light. In Vietnam he discovers the fullness of his capabilities. He becomes there the man that he thought he would never be. But the discovery comes at some price.

Callaway's account of his time in Vietnam is graphic and disturbing. On the one hand he continues to distinguish himself as a leader, though he resists receiving awards for his efforts. He describes the deaths of several close friends, men whom he respected, and their deaths had a profound impact on him. Although there were men in the command structure of the army whom he respected, there were others he did not respect. He points out serious mistakes—in the assignment of personnel, in tactics—that often led to a loss of life, or that might have. He makes no bones of his opinion that awards and honors given out for valor in battle were often given for false reasons and were often underserved.

Callaway also makes clear in his introduction his opinion that the nature of war is that it is fought by young men—too young and inexperienced to realize their own vulnerability and mortality—under the command of older men who have grown wise enough to realize that they might die in battle.

Callaway's is not a leftwing point of view. Though he was friends with some members of the activist movement following his departure from the military, though he had some sympathies with the movement, he was never wholly in support. As an older man, he describes himself as conservative and expresses misgivings, for instance, about John Kerry's use of his military record for political ends. His criticism of the war and of the U. S military therefore seems especially credible.

The Secret Life of Bees

In The Secret Life of Bees (2008) a young white girl, troubled by her cold and indifferent father and by her memory of having accidentally killed her mother when she was four, seeks shelter and solace from a group of black women in rural South Carolina in 1964. Based on the novel of the same title (which I have not read), the film reminded me especially of Toni Morrison's Paradise, also about a group of independent black women living on their own in a hostile setting (and to a lesser extent Song of Solomon). Whereas Morrison lets us know from an early point that her characters are headed for tragedy, The Secret Life of Bees makes clear from the start that amidst tragic memories and the unhappiness that is to occur there will be heartwarming moments, tenderness, sentimentality, a lack of realism, plot holes, and a story and characters that hold our interest and whom we come to care about.

This film reminded me of Eve's Bayou (1997), also about black women—some old and some young—trying to survive in a world of male betrayal.

The story is told through the eyes of the fourteen-year-old white girl Lily (Dakota Fanning). Although her own life is an interesting one—she wants to be a writer, she has a dream in which bees swarm into her room at night, and she is in the middle of puberty—she is mainly an observer through whom the more interesting story of the Boatwright women is told. They are three sisters, the oldest of whom inherited a farm from her grandmother, and they raise bees and manufacture highly prized honey, which makes them a comfortable living. The sisters are named for the months of the year. Their house is the color of Pepto-Bismol. It is nicely furnished, and their farm exists in a kind of isolation from the racist white South and the rest of the world.

The Boatwrights sell their honey in a bottle labeled with an image of a black Virgin Mary. It turns out the women worship an old wooden figure of a black Virgin, an old masthead that washed up on the beaches of Virginia a hundred years in the past, and which one of their ancestors found and brought home with him after (he believed) it spoke to him. The women believe that the figure gives them strength when they touch the image of the heart painted on her breast.

A number of interwoven plots keep this film going and also weigh it down. There is the story of Lily, of course. Each of the sisters has her own story. June (Alicia Keys) is in love with a man from the local town, but she doesn't for reasons that remain unclear want to marry him. She is active in the local NAACP and resents Lily's appearance. She's beautiful and distant and plays the cello. Another is May (Sophie Okonedo) , whose twin sister died some years before, leaving her in a constant state of mental distress—whenever anything bad happens to someone, she weeps uncontrollably. She has built a stone wall in the back of the house where she inserts pieces of paper on which she writes prayers or short inscriptions about bad events. And there is August, played by Queen Latifah, the oldest sister, who runs the farm and to whom Lily turns for advice. There is also Roseleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson), who worked as a servant for Lily's father. When she walks with Lily to town, she is accosted by a group of white men who yell insults, and when Roseleen pours snuff juice on the shoes of an especially hateful man, he beats her. Lily and Roseleen run away and make their way to Tiburon, a small town whose name Lily found on a memento of her mother's.

Very early in the film a connection between the bees of which Lily dreamed, her mother, and the bee farm of the Boatwrights becomes evident. The nature of this connection is made fairly clear well before the film explains it outright—whether this is intentional or not I don't know. Maybe we in the audience are supposed to recognize what Lily herself doesn't recognize so that we can watch with anticipation as she gradually makes the connections herself.

There is also a Civil Rights theme. Lily finds herself attracted to a young man who is friends of the Boatwrights. They work on the farm together, share a couple of kisses, and inexplicably he drives her into town to deliver honey and then invites her to go to a film in a theatre where whites and blacks still sit in separate sections. He is accosted and dragged off by a group of angry white men, and for a time it looks as if he is going to be found dead. This event leads to tragedy.

It is perhaps understandable why 14-year-old Lily would not recognize the danger of sitting in the black section of a segregated theater with her black friend. But he certainly should have realized the danger to himself—he is older than she and intelligent and well educated. When he is dragged away, we know Lily is going to blame herself for whatever is to happen.

The Civil Rights era theme and time period do create some problems for the film, however. Would black women such as the Boatwrights have been allowed to live unmolested in rural white South Carolina in 1964, especially given their relative affluence and forward thinking attitudes? Only a year later in Mississippi, three civil rights workers—two young white men and one young black man—would be murdered by white racists. Only three years before in Birmingham, Alabama, four young girls were killed in a church bombing carried out by white racists. Were things that different in rural South Carolina in 1954? It's also difficult to imagine that the young man hauled out of the segregated theater by white racists would be allowed to escape with only a beating for sitting with a young white girl in the balcony reserved for "coloreds." This film wants to make clear its awareness of the difficult times in which the action is taking place, but it wants to pretend that its main characters are less affected by those times than in reality they probably would have been.

It's also clear that, no matter how positive a figure August is as played by Queen Latifah, there is clearly a dimension of the stereotyped black Mammy about her, as she readily agrees to take care of the poor white girl in distress and offers various wise homilies and lessons to her, helping her, even in the midst of her own grief, to come to terms with her mother's death ten years before. It's worth pointing out the improbability of the situation the film portrays—a 14-year old white girl on her own in rural South Carolina in the company of a somewhat older black woman who shows clear signs of having been beaten up. Would they have been allowed to go on their way unmolested? Probably not. There is the slightest possibility that people such as the Boatwrights could have existed and made a living for themselves on their farm. That is one point of the film, the improbable nature of the story itself, and of Lily's managing to find the Boatwrights as she does. Improbability itself is part of the interest of the story.

(Roger Ebert aptly captures the film's implausibility in his review: "As a realistic portrayal of life in rural South Carolina in 1964, 'The Secret Life of Bees is dreaming. As a parable of hope and love, it is enchanting. Should it have been painful, or a parable?" Ebert settles for parable, admitting that if this had been a "bad" film then he would have willingly dissected it. A. O. Scott in the New York Times observes, "It would be wrong to say that the troubles of that time and place have been wished away — on the contrary, the movie begins with a scene of horrific domestic violence and includes child abuse, a racially motivated beating, suicide and the threat of a lynching — but from the opening voice-over to the final credits, every terror and sorrow is swaddled in warm, therapeutic comfort.")

The author of the novel on which the film is based is Sue Monk Kidd, a white woman who was growing up during the time period of the film. The screenplay author and director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, an African-American. Had a white director and screen writer made this film about black women and largely black situations, told mainly through the eyes of a white narrator, they would likely have been accused of stereotyping their subject. With an African American woman director and screen writer, the film has more credibility and is less vulnerable to accusations that it is just another film that patronizes African Americans.

One other influence on the film is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), based on Harper Lee's novel. There are certain similarities between the character Scout in that film and the somewhat older Lily in this one. Both are narrators, both are struggling to come of age, in a certain sense, both are struggling to understand and to accept their mother's death, whom they hardly remember. A minor character in Bees is a white liberal lawyer who reminds us, fleetingly, of Atticus Finch.

In the Electric Mist

In the Electric Mist (2009) puts to the test William Faulkner's observation (from Requiem for a Nun) that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In the form of a long dead Confederate general, perhaps a ghost, perhaps a hallucination, General John Bell Hood advises the protagonist Dave Robichaux about his interest in two seemingly unrelated murders, one of which took place more than forty years before the time of the film.

Although this is a sloppy and often hackneyed film, two elements make it interesting. The first is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays ex-alcoholic police detective Robichaux. His performance is typically low-key but intense—as we saw In the Valley of Elah (2007) and No Country for Old Men (2007). It is always interesting to watch Tommy Lee Jones do what he does, and he does it well in this film. The second element of interest is the setting, mostly rural and small-town Louisiana. The film makes use of an array of local characters, none of whom -act particularly well, but all of whom give flavor to the film. Buddy Guy makes a brief appearance as a blues singer named Hogman, and though he cannot act either, it's interesting to see him in the film. John Sayles appears as the director of a film about the Civil War. He can act considerably less well than he can direct. Levon Helm, formerly of The Band, and the actor who played Loretta Lynn's father in A Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), plays General Hood here, in a casual, cryptic, offhand way.

Dave Robichaux grapples with the past in all sorts of ways in this film. He's a recovering alcoholic, a fact that has him often reacting to and resisting the habits of a past life. As a young boy, he saw a black man shot down by in the swamps. A drunken actor in the present time of the film discovers the chained bones of a dead man in the swamp, and Robichaux comes to believe they belonged to the man he saw killed. But what connection do they have to the murder he's investigating of a small-time prostitute? Robichaux feels guilty for having witnessed a crime he couldn't prevent, and guilty for being unable to solve the murder of the prostitute.

The production values in this film are only slightly better than what one would expect from a television crime drama. The characters are stereotyped—John Goodman as Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni, a crime boss turned film producer, Ned Beatty as Twinky LeMoyne, an aging cotton mill owner, Mary Steenbergen as Bootsie, a loving but long suffering wife to Robichaux. Their names suggest not only the stereotypes they embody but, in the case of Balboni and LeMoyne, that they are burlesques, parodies, broadly depicted types. As soon as we see Goodman surrounded by beautiful young woman and body guards, his grossly distended chest sagging out of and over the swim suit he wears at the pool, we know all we need to know—he's venal, corrupt, and probably guilty. We can stop thinking—his character pushes all the standard buttons. The plot of the film is circuitous and complex, and Robichaux figures things out mainly by managing in his own mind to recognize the links between past memories and more recent ones. The careful viewer will pick up on the clues well before Robichaux does.

Both Balboni and LeMoyne are particular Southern types—arrogant men whose power and money renders them immune to laws and moral codes that govern the rest of us. If violence needs to be committed, they get others to do it for them and then forget that they asked—they're absolved by forgetting. By struggling to remember and understand what he once saw and who he saw doing it, Robichaux achieves some kind of absolution—though LeMoyne and Balboni are apparently never tried for their crimes—Balboni at least goes to jail for tax evasion.

The most arbitrary and disparate element in the film is General Hood. Robichaux attends a party given by Balboni and drinks a glass of tea apparently spiked with LSD. He comes to when his car wrecks on a road in the swamp, and he follows a light to a gathering of camping Confederate soldiers, among whom is General Hood. Previously we've been told that sometimes strange lights—swamp gas—are seen in the swamp, and of course there's an association in Robichaux's mind between the Civil War film and the soldiers they encounter. Of course, the soldiers are not real, and General Hood is in one way or the other a figment of Robichaux's imagination. But he's also a relic of the past, the past that haunts Robichaux, and the past he must somehow reconcile to the facts of the present-day murder he's investigating.

The last image of the film, in which Robichaux's step-daughter is staring at an old photograph of General Hood with other Confederate soldiers, specifically recalls a similar photograph at the end of Kubrick's The Shining (1980).

The film is based on the James Lee Burke novel In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead. I have not read it but will soon do so. Certain aspects of the film and of Robichaux's character in particular remind me of Raymond Chandler and his protagonist Philip Marlowe.