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.

Walk on the Wild Side

Walk on the Wild Side (1962, dir. Edward Dmytryk) is a mannered, dated film about New Orleans in the 1930s. Laurence Harvey plays a young Texas farmer named Dove Linkhorn (the last name bears what must be a deliberate resemblance to “Lincoln”) whose father dies and who sets out on the road to New Orleans, where he means to find his long lost love, Hallie Gerard (Capuchine). On the way, he meets a young, legally under-age woman named Kittie Twist (Jane Fonda). She has run away from an orphanage and is headed towards New Orleans “to have fun.” When she throws herself at Linkhorn, he rebuffs her, and she worms out of him the story of his love for Hallie Gerard. I never regarded Laurence Harvey as much of an actor, and although he isn’t much of one in this film, he at least handless his role well, once you adjust to his effort to speak with what is supposed to be a Texas/Southern accent.

Dove Linkhorn, as we are reminded throughout the film, is an upright lad—morally straight, virtuous, and deeply in love with Hallie. She, it turns out, after an unsuccessful career as an artist in New York, and after waiting for Linkhorn to come find her (he didn’t accompany her to New York because he felt obligated to take care of his sick father on the farm back in Texas), has been lured to a life of high-class prostitution in New Orleans by a woman named Jo, played by Barbara Stanwyck. (Exactly how this happens is never made clear, other than the fact that the only painting Hallie ever sells is one that she sold to Jo). Jo and her henchman keep a house full of attractive young women in what amounts to a state of imprisonment. There is a hint that Jo is attracted sexually to Hallie.

The plot of this film is predictable. A young woman loses her way, falls into prostitution, enjoys the benefits the money and attention can bring, and then is found by the young man she once loved. She resists him, tells him to leave, but ultimately is won over by his moral rectitude and his passion. When she tries to run away with him, Jo’s henchmen viciously beat Dove. Ultimately, in a fight between Dove and one of the henchmen, a gun is fired, and Hallie takes the bullet and dies.

When Dove first arrives in New Orleans, he is befriended by a Hispanic woman named Teresina Vidaverri (Anne Baxter) who runs a gas station and café. Kitty tries to rob her, and when Dove returns the necklace she has stolen, Teresina recognizes that he is a good man and offers him a job until he can get on his feet. She also helps him place an ad in the personals section of the newspaper. Later she professes her love for Dove, but he loves Hallie.

Hallie vacillates too much in this film between self-flagellating and corrupt acceptance of her life in Jo’s house and her love for Dove. She looks constantly miserable and morose when she is not looking corrupted. Oddly, she continues her work as an artist in the same bedroom where, we assume, she sleeps with johns for money.

The film is entirely Hollywood. It’s a Hollywood version of New Orleans. A Hollywood notion of what a prostitute’s life must be like, of what a house of high-class prostitution may be. There are three types of prostitutes in this film—those who are too stupid to know what they are doing, those who are corrupt and enjoy their work, and those who, like Hallie, walk around in a constant state of self-recrimination and guilt over the fallen life they live. The film offers many scenes of the streets in the French Quarter--the standard images every New Orleans film shows. The building in which the prostitutes live, with the central courtyard, resembles the one we see in the film Band of Angels. The music, composed by Elmer Bernstein, is a Hollywood attempt at a New Orleans jazz-type score. Nothing in the film is convincing or realistic. Several songs are featured—we see a band of African American musicians playing, and we hear someone singing, but we never see the actual singer.

Fonda is good in her role. Although she receives equal billing with Capuchine, she in fact has a relatively small part.

This is one of those films that, when it ends, you find yourself asking exactly what the point of it all was.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Southerner

Jean Renoir’s 1945 The Southerner is the second of his two films about the American South. It has something of the feel of a documentary about it, as it seeks with some deliberation to chronicle the travails of a small farming family somewhere in the South. We first see the family members picking cotton for another farmer, presumably a large landowner. They are working in the fields along with other workers—whites, blacks, Mexicans. It is obviously hot, and one of the family members, Uncle Pete, collapses from exhaustion and soon dies. One point of this opening scene is to show the difficult lives that small farmers lead.

Renoir is not from the American South, so he doesn’t bring any particular Southern ideology to his film, though he may have been aware of issues important to the region. It’s clear he sees meaning and value in what farmers do, in the lives they lead and the values they hold. An underlying argument in the film may be Jefferson’s conviction expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia that “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” Zachary Scott plays the farmer, Sam Tucker, while Betty Field plays his wife Nona. Scott and Field are so fresh-faced and clean-cut and happy that it’s difficult sometimes to believe that they are leading such hard lives. Yet these very qualities make them likeable and draw us into their lives. They’ve asked for the challenges they face and they do little complaining, even when things seem about as bad as they can get. One could almost say the same of the film itself—it’s clean-cut and fresh-faced—but it’s simple and straightforward as well, and its simplicity should not undermine its message.

One element of this simplicity is the absence of melodrama—with some exceptions. There is little dramatic tension. One scene ends and another begins. In the penultimate episode of the film, a rainstorm strikes and leads to a devastating flood that ruins Sam’s cotton crop and nearly destroys his house. With his friend from town he wades through the flood in search of the milk cow. The camera follows them as they struggle through the rushing water, and as the friend nearly drowns. Sam helps him out of the water. It’s not even fully clear in this scene what is going on, especially after they find the cow. They keep wading and struggling and then they clamber out of the water, soaking wet. The most melodramatic scenes involve moments when a character such as Granny Tucker or Sam Tucker express outrage at the indignities visited upon them—but these are always brief moments.

Before Uncle Pete dies, he murmurs something to Sam about “farm your own land, “and Sam takes this dying message to heart. He makes a deal with the landowner he works for, moves out to an abandoned patch of land, and moves his family into a nearly collapsed ramshackle house. Nearly everything that can go wrong does—the well is bad, a neighbor is unfriendly, the river water is polluted, Tucker’s boy comes down with “spring fever,” the children suffer from a bad diet, Sam and his friend get drunk in town and the friend runs amok after the bartender tries to cheat him, the rains come and ruin the cotton crop, and Sam’s friend almost drowns. This list makes the film seem more melodramatic and cornball than it really is. The Southerner celebrates the pleasures of independence and farming one’s own land, but it also shows the difficulties. The point is to show the importance of what farmers do.

I felt the influence of John Ford in this film, though whether Renoir knew Ford’s early work, such as The Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road, I don’t know. Though Renoir doesn’t have the panoramic visual sense of Ford, he does know the value of shots of human individuals set against the landscape as a way of defining what’s important about their lives. Renoir, like Ford, appreciates the value of an array of distinctive characters—the crotchety old grandmother (Beulah Bondi) complains and makes caustic remarks throughout the film. She provides comic relief but is also a source of irritation for Sam and Nona. Sam’s mother, Mama Tucker (Blanche Yurka) and her new husband Harmie (who loves his liquor) also bring humor and color to the film. The scene in which they marry, and the ensuing celebration, suggests the vital heartiness of the farmers and their lives.

An important neighbor is Tim, played by Charles Kemper, a successful farmer embittered by the hard costs he has had to pay for his success (a dead wife and son). He covets the land Sam has come to farm and envies his prospects. He warns Sam of the difficulties he faces but allows him to use water from his well. At the same time, he allows his apparently addled son Finley to run the pigs and cows through the Tucker garden. The ensuing argument ends in a fist-fight that almost leads to gunfire, but when Sam hooks the huge catfish that Tim has been trying to catch all his life, and allows Tim to take credit, they become friends, or at least declare a truce.

The film portrays Sam Tucker’s group as an extended family that assists with, and is supported by, work on the farm. Uncle Pete and Granny Tucker live with the family. Ma Tucker and her new husband are closely associated with it. The portrayal is of farming as an activity that carries on through the generations, and that is a source of family unity and identity. Conversely, one might imagine that the end of farming, the Tucker family’s failure in their efforts to farm their own land, could well mean an end to the family itself.

The film begins and ends with the image of a sporting print of what appears to be a pheasant flushed from hiding by hunters. The print encapsulates the closeness of the farming life to nature, to wildlife, and focuses on the notion of self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Unaware, perhaps, of the specific arguments of Southern agrarianism (something I need to research), Renoir nonetheless reflects those arguments in his film. Although he does to an extent idealize and sentimentalize farming, he also accurately portrays the difficulties and hazards involved. The fact that he titles his film “The Southerner” indicates that he associates Southernness with the agricultural life.

Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, by Harry Crews

Karate is a Thing of the Spirit (1971), by Harry Crews, is not easily described. I can see certain influences in it, especially Nathanael West, maybe Flannery O’Connor. But, fundamentally, it is the sort of novel that only Harry Crews could write. It concerns a young drifter, John Kaimon, who meets a group of radical practitioners of karate on a Florida beach, led by a man known as Belt. None of the karatekas goes by his or her given name. The one female karateka, Gaye Nell, is known only as “the brown belt.” The karatekas devote themselves to karate and to Belt with the zeal of religious fanatics. They consume pills instead of food (some pills are fruit; others are vegetables, and so on). They have given up all material possessions and all aspects of their former lives. John Kaimon joins the group, begins learning karate, and quickly falls into a love affair with Gaye Nell. Early in their relationship she more or less rapes him, though later he returns the gesture. The karate group provides security for various musical events and beauty contests in the area to raise money for a mountaintop karate retreat in Arkansas that Belt wants to build. Gaye Nell takes part in the beauty pageants to raise money. She has won, apparently, 23 competitions.

This is a novel of endless spectacle—the spectacle of the karate practitioners brutalizing one another, and the students they teach, as part of their training, the people on the highway who stop to watch the karate training in the empty hotel swimming pool where the karatekas train, the beauty pageants, the lovemaking of John Kaimon and Gaye Nell, the plane that crashes near the end of the novel.

What are the issues here? Karate in the novel is a way of life by which individuals give up their personal identities to a larger group. They renounce the material world. They devote themselves to a higher calling. Karate is a form of self-discipline. Through it, Gaye Nell represses personal emotional and physical passion. She uses her body to discipline herself and others and to get what she wants, to earn money for the group. Though John Kaimon initially buys into the ethos of the karate group, he never wholly gives up his personal self and interests. He falls in love with Gaye Nell, and ultimately he seeks to restore emotional identity to her through sex. She becomes pregnant by him and wants him to “knock the baby out” of her. John Kaimon visualizes himself as a baby in her womb. He is concerned about saving the baby and wants a life with Gaye Nell. He wants to ensure she doesn’t have an abortion. He needs to restore human identity to her. This is a very vague and uncertain description of what is going on between them in the novel.

The novel includes a number of homosexual characters and seems infused with a deep homophobia. If the karate group is all about self-discipline and abnegation, the gay characters are all about narcissism, self-indulgence, disease. Two of them, masquerading as women in a gay night club, pick John Kaimon up, take him to their dressing room, and rape him. When a group of gay individuals show up at the karate swimming pool and ask to be instructed by John Kaimon, he beats them brutally. Six of them return for an additional lesson. Whatever problem John Kaimon has with his own identity, the gay characters, as the novel portrays them, have assumed identities that reflect the material corruption and narcissism of their world. They also reflect the crisis of gender identity that Kaimon to an extent faces.

In one way or the other, all the members of the karate group come to karate in order to compensate for flaws in their own lives and identities. Belt, we learn, was tried for cowardice during the Korean War. He believes he should have been dishonorably discharged. He pays a company that specializes in printing fake newspaper headlines and certificates to produce for him a certificate that attests to his dishonorable discharge.

Kaimon wears a t-shirt adorned with the image of William Faulkner when he first appears in the novel. He frequently thinks about Faulkner. Although he has never read any of Faulkner’s fiction, he seems to think of the writer as a standard of moral force and concrete identity. He’s always thinking of how Faulkner is watching him, always wondering what Faulkner would have said or thought about one situation or another. Faulkner is the judgmental ancestor who gazes reprehensibly down on the contemporary Southern landscape of the novel. Clearly Crews felt his presence in his writing of the novel and is on the one hand paying homage to him and on the other questioning his relevance.

A climactic episode in the novel involves a July 4th beauty pageant, and Crews emphasizes the unruly, uncontrollable nature of the crowds (shouting out “Meat! Meat!” as they wait for the pageant contestants to appear. In the parking lot, cars are crashing into one another. The crowds mill and teem. Over the top fireworks displays, one of them a huge image of the American flag in the sky, are prominent motifs. The scene reminded me in a way of the riots towards the end of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. This seems to be Crews judgment of popular American culture: unruly mobs, mindless demonstrations of patriotism, lust, drunkenness, anarchy. The beauty contest (which everyone agrees Gaye Nell will win) is interrupted by a crashing plane and the ensuing tumult as spectators wade into the ocean to rescue the pilot (shades of Faulkner’s Pylon here).

Following this spectacle, John Kaimon and Gaye Nell retreat into a trailer house and have sex (it’s not exactly accurate to call their sexual encounters lovemaking). The trailer is dismantled and hauled down the highway while they continue to have sex. Gaye Nell hopes prolonged and perhaps violent sex will lead to her loss of the baby. Later, she and Kaimon return to the abandoned hotel for another sex session, and in this one he seeks to secure emotional reactions from Gaye Nell—he wants her to lose her self-discipline, to be lost in the passion of the moment. He succeeds, and as the novel ends (somewhat abruptly and without much warning) they are leaving the abandoned hotel together. For me, the changes or transformations that occur during these trysts are not especially clear—Crews does not explain the transformational dynamics of sex between Kaimon and Gaye Nell—but clearly the end result seems to be Gaye Nell’s domestication and John Kaimon’s rehabilitation of his male identity.

Many aspects of this novel are problematic—its politics, its homophobia, its ending. Yet it is powerful and disturbing. The opening scene in particular, where Gaye Nell walks forcefully through the Florida landscape in her bikini, heading towards the karate group practicing on the beach, is powerful and in many respects unequalled in contemporary literature. This isn’t an easily categorized book. Crews doesn’t write like a graduate of a creative writing program (even though he taught in one for years). His writing is unruly and brutal and spare and direct.