Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, by Judith Ortiz Cofer

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Disabusing moments came fast and furious.

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

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

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

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Beverly Hillbillies

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet 2

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

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

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