Monday, July 13, 2009

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.

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