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.

No comments: