Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Hounddog (2007; dir. Deborah Kampmeier) takes place in a rural Southern landscape from around 1960. The vegetation is lush and green, with forests and overgrown fields. Children swim in a river. We see, often close to each other, ramshackle shacks and shotgun-type houses where blacks and poor whites live, and much larger, decorous white houses with columns. Farmers work the fields. Black men work with horses and socialize among themselves. Early scenes evoke an idyllic Southern past of rural and natural childhood innocence. They define the South in a series of stereotypical images, focused on a young girl named Lewellen. Even as these images are set in place, the film undertakes to undermine and also reinforce them. A boy lets a girl look at his private parts. He indignantly explains about a bruise on his thigh that “My daddy don’t hit me.” The girl shows a bruise on her leg that she says her daddy caused. The opening image of the film is a garter snake crawling up the braches of a tree. In the background, gradually coming into focus, two children are walking. The idyllic natural paradise, the two innocents, the snake in the garden—all the elements needed for a drama about loss of innocence and entry into adulthood.

Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) lives with her grandmother who, though loving, is severe and puritanical and tends to believe the worst of her granddaughter. (Piper Laurie plays the grandmother, reprising almost exactly her role as the mother in Carrie, 1976). The girl’s father is an indifferent and slovenly farmer who is having a relationship with the sister of his departed wife, who is either dead or a runaway--we don’t know which. The girl is friends with a young boy her age named Buddy. They swim in the nearby creek and exchange kisses in an innocent, experimental way. She is also friends with a black man named Charles (Afemo Omilami). He cares for horses, is a folk doctor, and plays in a small band with friends.

Lewellen is an obsessive fan of Elvis Presley. She does a passable imitation of Elvis singing “Hound Dog.” She gyrates and slinks around like Elvis on stage. Her grandmother tells her that Elvis sings Satan’s music but is content to listen to him singing gospel songs.

Is this a coming of age film in which Lewellen learns about the difficult realities of life? Is this a film in which a young girl who idolizes a famous singer gets to meet him? Is it a racial drama? Is it about class differences? Is it about sexual abuse? At one moment or the other it might be any one of these, or all.

Hounddog lacks focus and coherence. Lewellen and her friendship with Buddy and Charles give the film the unity it has. Only late in the film, when something terrible happens, does a plot seem to materialize, and even then it not well prepared for by preceding events.

The flaws in Hounddog, beyond those of incoherence, stem from its reliance on stereotypes and poorly developed characters. Lewellen’s immediate family is poor white, and this means a hodgepodge fusion of religious fundamentalism, freewheeling sex and sexual abuse, drunkenness, and general cussedness. The black man that Lewellen is friends with loves the blues, has a deep knowledge of folk medicine (he treats snake bites with serum he has cooked up on his own), and is possessed of a natural wisdom that enables him to advise her on her life.

Lewellen’s life is a continuing misery. Her grandmother is suspicious of her and wants to control all aspects of her life. Her father comes and goes, abuses the woman he briefly lives with, and after he is struck by lightning becomes simple-minded to an astounding extent (when Lewellen cuts her hair, he cuts his so that they will look alike—when he finds her missing from the house, he wanders out into the town, stark naked, looking for her). Her friendship with Buddy is an important part of her life, but he betrays her in a cruel way. Her aunt—her mother’s sister--abandons her, after promising never to leave.

For the most part the music of Elvis is incidental in the film. The girl’s love of Presley’s music is childlike and obsessive. It does give Charles the chance to explain to her that Elvis in singing “Hound Dog” is really singing a song written by and originally sung by Big Mama Thornton; he implies that it is possible for a white person to sing the blues, but this idea goes nowhere until the last scenes of the film. One night, while she is walking alone down a dirt road, a pink Cadillac driven by Elvis Presley passes her—he waves at her. Does she imagine this moment? Are we supposed to believe it real? It seems gratuitous.

Buddy wants to prove his love to Lewellen and promises to get her a ticket to a concert nearby where Elvis is performing. She holds him to the promise and refuses to talk to him until he finds her a ticket. He finds an older boy who says he will give her a ticket if she will sing “Hound Dog” and dance like Elvis for him. When he insists that she take off her clothes and dance naked, she agrees. He rapes her. A film that seemed to be for its first hour about the difficulties of a poor white girl’s life suddenly darkens and takes a severe turn, and never really catches up with itself.

Snakes and crab apples are important and obvious motifs. They signify loss of innocence. But snakes also signify the danger that is looming unseen in the tall grass that Lewellen’s grandmother warns her about—poisonous snakes lurk in the grass, she says. The thick grass and the snakes hidden there signify the dark and ominous dangers of adult life that Lewellen has encountered. She is so traumatized by the rape that she can barely speak, and lies unconscious on her bed. Snakes crawl through her window, slithering over and around her, until Charles somehow senses what is going on and comes into her house and rescues her. Snakes, he tells her, represent the inner life in her that needs to wake up and come out.

There is much in this film that makes little sense. It’s not impossible that a 12-year old girl would agree to sing and dance naked in front of an older boy she has never met—a boy who lurks menacingly in the dark shadows of a barn and whose face she can’t even see--but it’s certainly unlikely, and the film does not present Lewellen as the kind of imbecile who would agree to do something so stupid just for a concert ticket. Perhaps I overestimate the intelligence of 12-year old girls, or underestimate the strength of Lewellen’s desire to attend an Elvis Presley concert. Maybe the point here is that Lewellen is far more innocent and naïve than she seems. It is unlikely that in the rural South of 1960 a black man could enter the house and bedroom of a young white girl and carry her away unchallenged. Or that Elvis Presley would be driving a pink Cadillac down a dirt road.

When Charles coaxes Lewellen into singing the blues, bringing her inner self out, the song she sings is “Hound Dog.” Not the Elvis Presley version but the Big Mama Thornton version. I suppose this signifies that through hurt and suffering Lewellen truly discovers the source of the blues, which she sings on the basis of lived experience rather than of a commercial recording she might have heard on the radio. This scene in which Lewellen learns to sing the blues is presented almost as a kind of ritual—Charles and the other black men sit and watch, as if they know what is going on, as if they’re party to the cultic knowledge driving the scene. But it’s a poor way of resolving Lewellen’s problems and of bringing the film to some sort of point. Those wise old black men always know how to rescue the white folks. The underlying racism here is clear.

What’s worse, with all its straining for realism, Hounddog inexplicably seems obliged to provide a happy ending. The soror ex machina it resorts to is the unconvincing stuff of fairy tales.

Here we have another film in which black characters rescue white characters. This is the second such film Dakota Fanning has appeared in—The Secret Life of Bees was the other. With all of its problems, that film was more coherent and featured better acting than Hounddog. Fanning pretty much plays the same character she played in Secret Life, with various details and circumstances altered to fit the needs of the plot.

Hounddog recalls works by Erskine Caldwell as well as Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, by Louis Menand

In Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Norton, 2010) Louis Menand traces the development of the American university over the past 150 years. He argues that the development of American universities has been governed by the same market forces as other institutions. The rise of the research university at the end of the 19th century established the mold for the systems of higher education we have today. The formation of academic disciplines, of standards for admission to study and teaching in those disciplines, was the result of the professionalization of faculty in higher education, which in turn was the result of the rise of the research university.

General studies curricula were the direct result of the development of research universities, which saw their mission as one of preparing undergraduates to become graduate students and then professors in the disciplines in which they studied. The professionalization of faculty led to increased emphasis on how students who would one day become faculty members would be educated. One result was a movement to establish a general studies curriculum, based on the notion that there is a common body of knowledge that college students ought to have.

Menand observes that for more than a century scholars have argued over whether there is a specific body of knowledge students need to learn and, if so, what it might be. While he recognizes the value of a liberal education, he notes that the concept of educating students liberally has developed in such a way that practical knowledge and academic or theoretical knowledge have come to stand in opposition to one another: “The divorce between liberalism and professionalism rests on a superstition: that the practical is the enemy of the true. This is utter nonsense.” An adjustment in the nature of general education may therefore be needed.

The number of students graduating with liberal arts degrees has, in proportion to the whole, declined over the past century. Enrollments in humanities programs specifically have declined since the 1970s. One reason may be that students increasingly seek degrees identified with career goals rather than with the general pursuit of knowledge. Another reason (one that Menand advances) is that the humanities in general since the 1960s have become so fragmented and diverse that it is not always possible to know what “the humanities” actually are. Uncertainty as to what constitutes legitimate subjects and methods of study presents another challenge. Increasing diversity among the professoriate, students, and subject matter do as well. A crisis of self-doubt among humanists has resulted from their lack of confidence in being able to convince the public of the value of what they do (and even, I would add, from their inability to agree on just what it is they do).

The current unhealthy situation in the job market for humanities PhD graduates resulted from a number of factors, Menand argues. American institutions of higher education grew rapidly throughout the first half of the twentieth century. So too did the corps of faculty teaching in them. The number of students enrolled in colleges and universities reached a highpoint during the Vietnamese War because college attendance meant a draft deferment. The end of deferments and of the war saw the beginning of a decline in the number of students enrolled in higher education and an associated decline in the need for faculty. This decline has been going on, Menand says, for 25 years. (The correct number is more like 35 years—jobs were not plentiful when I was on the market in 1977).

As more Americans began attending institutions of higher learning, respect for these institutions began to decline. Menand marks the beginning of this decline as around 1960. It was accelerated by the Vietnam War, when many college professors were accused of radicalism.

Menand suggests that interest in interdisciplinarity has been a result of the desire of the 1960s generation of PhDs to change the system, to modify and even discard existing paradigms. But he contends that interdisciplinarity—the practice of teaching and conducting research outside and across established disciplinary boundaries—is really only another form of disciplinarity. He calls interdisciplinary “a ratification of existing arrangements.” The word itself—“interdisciplinarity”—acknowledges the legitimacy of established disciplines (which themselves are at most only about 150 years old). As soon as one’s teaching outside the usual disciplinary boundaries is accepted, then those boundaries stretch to include that which was once excluded. Or a new discipline develops. Interdisciplinarity runs the risk of dismantling the disciplines of those teachers and scholars who profess it. How truly interdisciplinary, therefore, do faculty really want to be? Interdisciplinarity enables scholars to cross established boundaries without seriously questioning their existence.

Menand observes, citing various data sources, that American professors tend to be on the liberal side. But only a small percentage identify themselves as radical, and most see themselves as mainstream and only moderately liberal. The concept of academic freedom developed from the deeply held conviction that academic inquiry needed to be objective and independent of political currents outside the university. Even so, Menand argues, surveys show that professors do not see a problem in letting their political or religious inclinations influence their research, and this raises the possibility that such inclinations also influence hiring and promotion decisions. This political homogeneity among the American professoriate tends to be self-replicating—one generation of PhD students is educated in the image of the previous generation, faculty tenure and promote the junior faculty most like themselves, and so on.

Menand offers an unpleasant and candid account of the current state of affairs in English departments, which are producing more PhDs than there are positions available. (He suggests that English departments are representative of the situation in many disciplines). Of all PhD students who enroll in English doctoral programs, only 50% complete their degrees, and of that number only 5% find positions in institutions like the one that awarded their degrees (that is, tenure-track institutions). Although many institutions are abolishing required courses, he notes that the one requirement that remains in place across the nation is first-year composition. These are the bread and butter of English departments, but for the most part composition courses are not taught by tenure-track or tenured faculty but by graduate students. Departments rely on and need graduate students to teach these courses (hence, logic suggests, it is not in the best interests of these departments to hasten graduate student progress towards degrees). Menand suggests that English departments are not organized to be doing what they are really doing, producing ABDs, not PhDs. He questions the notion that PhDs in the humanities should be encouraged to consider positions outside their chosen disciplines—if they want to go into business, for example, why didn’t they enroll in business school, where they could earn their degrees in a shorter time? (The average time to degree for a PhD student in the humanities is more than 9 years).

The most important point in this book is Menand’s contention that higher education institutions in America evolved in response to forces in the economic, historical, and cultural environment. Then these institutions tended to become self-justifying, conservative, and resistant to change. To remain vital, American institutions of higher education need to become more pliant, more willing to evolve, more intellectually diverse, more responsive to the society that supports and depends on them. In particular, they need to be trained to perform tasks for which current generations of graduate students are unprepared: “to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we need to train them differently.”

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Most Wanted Man, by John le Carré

A Most Wanted Man, by John le Carré (Scribners, 2008), may or may not be a typical le Carré novel—the only other one I know I have read is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), and that was forty years ago. The new novel concerns a Chechen refugee who makes his way to Germany through various uncertain means, the efforts of a lawyer and banker to help him, and the struggles of German, British, United States, and other espionage/security agencies to learn about and take advantage of him. The motives of everyone in this novel are suspect and ambiguous, and there are no clearly virtuous or evil characters. There is much we do not know, and are not told, about the Chechen refugee named Issa. He may have terrorist connections, and he may not. What seems most likely, however, is that he is sincere in his desire to study medicine and make amends for the sins of his father, a Russian KGB agent. The best example of this ambiguity in character is the Islamic scholar Dr. Abdullah, who is widely respected for his writings and his good deeds, but who may have, through indirect means, been responsible in a minor and perhaps unwitting way for funding terrorists. This particular ambiguity may be something inherent in the Muslim world, given the complex and confusing ways charities and banks handle money. It is something the Europeans are more willing to live with than the Americans. The young lawyer Annabel Richter who befriends Issa is outraged at the persecution and torture he has suffered, but in deciding to champion his cause at what may well turn out to be the cost of her legal career if not her freedom it is clear that other motives drive her as well—particularly the dynamics of the family in which she grew up and her relationship with her father. The banker Tommy Brue who decides to give Issa money does so not out of concern for his situation but because he is attracted to Annabel, bored with his failing marriage, and irritated that his stodgy and upright father apparently allowed Russian money to be laundered through his bank. The espionage agent Gunther Bachmann is genuinely interested in helping Issa, Annabel, and Brue, but he also wants to defeat other agents and officials he has competed with in his career. Every character has conflicted motives and backgrounds.

Political factors and national rivalries become important forces as security agencies compete and argue with each other over how to handle Issa and particularly Dr. Abdullah. Despite their initial interest in Issa, he ultimately becomes a pawn in their plot to enlist Dr. Abdullah as a counter agent. It becomes clear ultimately that an individual’s innocence and guilt are not important to these agencies—what matters is how that individual might serve the needs of the moment, whether they concern a nation’s security or one official’s desire for one-upmanship over another. It also becomes clear that for these agencies individuals such as Issa or Abdullah don’t matter as human beings, and decisions that affect them are carried out with carelessness and indifference. Individuals are consumed and, potentially, destroyed by these competing, ruthless, and amoral interests.

A Most Wanted Man explores and illuminates differences between Western and Eastern (Muslim) cultures—in the relationships of men and women, in how different individuals think, in how they interact with one another. The gulf le Carré exposes is wide and deep, and he seems to believe (with good reason) that the West has made a poor effort to understand the Muslim world.

The focus in A Most Wanted Man is talk and discursive narration about what people are doing and thinking. There is little dramatic action, even intellectually, so that the novel can be tedious. But the final scenes are high in tension, and the final paragraphs are devastating.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Brewster McCloud

Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) in ways is a precursor to Nashville (1975). It takes place in Houston and much of the action occurs in or near the Astrodome, at the time of the film a symbol of the city’s yearning towards cosmopolitan trendiness and economic power. The Astrodome is a symbol of the commercialization of sports and of late capitalistic excess. It occupies in the film something of the same role and function as the faux Parthenon in Nashville, where the Parthenon represents the city’s aspirations for prominence and culture beyond its reach. Brewster McCloud is notable for its weirdness, its peculiar lack of focus, and its seeming incoherence. It puzzled audiences and reviewers, who were prepared for something else following on the success of Mash (1970).

What this film has in common with the aforementioned examples is its contention that corporate America, capitalism, and commercialism in general are hostile to individual initiative, personal conscience, and the creative spirit.

Like Nashville, Brewster McCloud is set in the American South, or at the least on its western margins. The events in both films take place in cities associated at the time with the notion that the South, especially the urban South, would become the commercial and economic heart of the United States. Subsequent developments intervened. A long period of recession in the oil industry denied this hope to Houston, while Nashville fell behind the burgeoning economic engines of Atlanta, Birmingham, and Charlotte, though it remains today a healthy metropolitan area.

The Astrodome in Brewster McCloud is also a symbol of modern America. It’s the home of the city’s professional baseball and football teams. It’s adorned with commercial advertisements for various well known products. Altman drives home the symbolism of the Astrodome in a number of ways. Early in the film Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz, sings the national anthem in accompaniment with an all African-American high school band. She berates the band when it doesn’t play precisely as she wants it to, and finally the band members simply ignore her. The Astrodome is also where Brewster McCloud lives and where he works on the machine that he hopes will allow him to fly away. The name of the dome suggests the American space program, whose headquarters is in Houston—this link to Brewster’s aspirations is hardly coincidental. In the final scene, Brewster launches his flying apparatus into flight and, pursued by police and security guards, flies in circles around the interior of the stadium. When he cannot find a way out, he grows tired, falls to the ground, and is killed.

Brewster’s aspiration to fly connects him to Icarus who in Greek mythology flies too close to the sun and dies when his wax-fashioned wings melt as a result. His desire to fly and to leave the corrupting commercial world of contemporary America behind connects him to creativity, self-expression, and freedom. (Brewster’s death echoes Brueghel’s “Landscape and The Fall of Icarus.”) The woman who protects and counsels him (the film implies she is an angel; she is played by Sally Kellerman, who portrayed Hot Lips O’Houlihan in Mash) warns him against losing his innocence. He must remain pure and chaste. Ultimately, an agent of contemporary American commercialism, a tour guide in the Astrodome, played by Shelley Duvall, seduces him, and he loses his innocence and the protection of Kellerman as a result.

Much of the humor and satire in Brewster McCloud is broad and slapstick. Although there are elements of this clumsy and broadly drawn humor in Mash, the screenplay kept the film in focus, at least until the football game in the final scenes. Altman rewrote much of the original screenplay for Brewster McCloud, and according to many accounts there is much improvisation in the film.

For Altman, contemporary America is chaos, car chases, bureaucratic corruption, greed, commercialism, loud marching bands, and a compulsive conformist pressure against individual expression. These are the forces that foil Brewster’s aerial ambitions and bring him crashing fatally to the ground.

A subplot in the film involves a serial killer who leaves his victims covered with bird droppings. The victims turn out to be people who threaten Brewster’s plans to build a flying machine, who are cruel to birds, or who are simply offensive. One example is Margaret Hamilton’s character, Daphne Heap, who keeps a large outdoor cage of birds in the backyard. Another is the landlord Abraham Wright, who collects rent on substandard retirement homes and berates the tenants when they fall short in their payments. Wright (Stacy Keach) is a Scrooge-like old man with long stringy white hair. Confined to a wheelchair, he is pushed and chauffeured around town by Brewster. It’s unclear how he is killed, but his death shortly follows his outburst of anger over “Bird shit! Bird shit on my car!”

Birds are a central motif in the film. License plates of the major characters include the names of birds. Scenes of a professor (Rene Auberjonois) lecturing on birds are sprinkled throughout the film. The professor’s behavior becomes increasingly eccentric and extreme, until, finally, in late scenes he is behaving like a bird. Sally Kellerman’s character apparently has wings. She sometimes caws like a bird. And, of course, Brewster himself wants to take flight.

In response to the serial murders, the Houston police bring in a Los Angeles detective, Lieutenant Frank Shafft (Michael Murphy) to assist their investigations. As competent as he seems, at least in comparison to the locals, he’s no more able to find the killer. Car chases that go on for too long are one result—when Shafft accidentally drives his cruiser into a lake, he shoots himself. The incompetence of the police are another dimension of the governmental and economic institutions that conspire to oppress the individual.

Brewster’s role as the killer (he confesses it to Shelley Duvall, who tells the police) subverts any allegory we might want to find in the film. The notion of a carefree spirit who wants to fly away from the sordid limitations of the world and is also a murderer doesn’t make sense. No one actually tries to prevent Brewster from building his machine. It’s the fact that he is living illegally in the Astrodome, and that he will try to fly his machine in the Astrodome, that cause him problems. He is a trespasser there after all. His role as a murderer might have remained undetected had he not confessed to Duvall after they slept together. The obstacles that prevent him from finding freedom and achieving his dream are the obstacles that affect all humanity—our mortal human coils, the obligations and considerations of living in an imperfect human world. As flawed and corrupt as almost all the characters in the film are, they are not ultimately the anomalies. Brewster is.

The problem Altman explores here is the division between life and art, life and the ideal. It’s the division that Keats explores in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” Brewster wants to achieve the ideal, his dream of flight, but to do so he has to murder and otherwise deceive and dissemble and live an existence that involves no physical interaction with the rest of humanity. Life and art in this instance cancel one another out.


Coraline (2009; dir. Henry Selick) is about a young girl whose parents move to an isolated house in the country. They are too busy with their work to bother with her (they seem to be writers), so she has much time to herself. This animated film is for adults who remember what it was like to be a child. It is not really a film for young children because it is in many ways terrifying. It exploits some of the worst nightmare fantasies a child might have: the disappearance of parents, getting lost in a world full of vague and frightening menaces, discovering that nothing is what it seems. What might prove most disturbing to a child are the scenes in which Coraline stumbles into a world parallel to her own. There she discovers her parents—but they are parents who have time for her, who are nice to her, who do all the things for her that her real parents can’t or won’t do. Just as she begins to like this other world, she begins to discover things about it she doesn’t like; her alternative parents begin to pressure her to do things she doesn’t want to do (such as have buttons sewn on her eyes). Then she discovers that returning to her real world isn’t easy. Complications ensue.

Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel, this film is visually ingenious, captivating, and always interesting. It weaves a tale out of the psychological fantasies and fears of childhood without entirely explaining them away. It makes fun of self-absorbed adults in such a way that those adults can appreciate the humor. Coraline is a post-Freudian, postmodern version of Alice in Wonderland.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Reflections in a Golden Eye

This film is rich with tormented people. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967; dir. John Huston) is based on the novel by Carson McCullers, for whom the South was a place of repression, prejudice, and private angst. What filmmakers have picked up on in her fiction, Huston foremost among them, is repression. Huston’s film earnestly endeavors to ensure that no one miss its presence.

The film is set in a Southern town with a military base. Because McCullers grew up in Columbus, GA, we can assume that the base she had in mind was Fort Benning, but the film offers no clue as to exactly where it might be set, other than in a Southern town. The military in this film is an agent of control and masculinity, though the conflicts it shows have little to do with the military. Instead they have to do with sexual roles and sexual identity. A central motif is the horse, a symbol of masculine sexual power. Lenora Penderton (Elizabeth Tailor) can control the stallion she rides, but when her husband, Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando), tries to ride it, he loses control and the horse runs away with him. He beats it violently in retaliation. This is a general representation of their marriage. Lenora refers to her husband as “prissy.” He tells her that she “disgusts” him, in response to which she languorously removes her clothing and slinks away naked up the stairs to her bedroom, aware that he won’t follow. (This is the best scene in the film, and the only time when the Elizabeth Tailor mystique is evident). They sleep in separate bedrooms. He threatens her but never carries through. In the Penderton marriage, gender roles seem reversed. She enjoys riding her stallion, drinking hard, and playing cards with the man next door (with whom she’s also sleeping). He, on the other hand, practices martial gestures before the mirror. He becomes increasingly fascinated with a private who tends to his wife’s horse, and who also sneaks into her bedroom at night to hold her undergarments and to stare at her while she sleeps.

In the U. S. Army of 1967, there is no ambiguity about gender role expectations. Men are supposed to be men. Yet the film offers examples of men who don’t fit that conventional role: Major Penderton is one. Another is Capt. Murray Weincheck, a relatively minor character, but his interests are described in such a way as to imply that he is homosexual, or at least far outside the desired military definition of what is masculine: he loves art and music, he holds receptions at his home, he values a collection of silver spoons, and so on. It’s so obvious that he doesn’t fit the military mold that other officers talk about him. (Weincheck’s name suggests that he may be Jewish: is that also a reason why he doesn’t fit the Army mold?). Finally his commanding officer advises him that he has no future in the military, and he decides to leave the army. The private who is so fascinating to Weldon is another ambiguous individual. On the one hand he is a peeping tom who lurks outside the Penderton house at night and spies on Lenora while she sleeps. On the other hand, the Pendertons see him riding a horse naked, and Major Penderton sees him sunbathing in the nude. The film implies without stating outright that the private is aware of the major’s interest in him, but leaves ambiguous what his reaction might be.

The U. S. Army also brings with it a clear set of social standards, priorities, and protocols. Officers and military men do not socialize with one another, for one. Officers and their families do socialize. However, wives are expected to remain faithful to their husbands, and there is no room for unconventional sexual relationships. This is a context for the film, but not one that it explores deeply. Instead it focuses on the characters—the Penderton marriage; the affair between Lenora and Colonel Langdon; Major Penderton’s attraction to the private; the Langdon marriage; the character of Alison Langdon, who cut off her nipples with gardening shears after her baby’s death; her friendship with Anacleto, a Filipino homosexual who is her personal confidant and servant. One might also expect that the Southern setting could reinforce the atmosphere of repression that permeates the film, but for the most part this doesn’t happen. Several characters, including Leonora and her husband, have Southern accents, but their backgrounds and upbringings for the most part do not seem factors in what transpires. The environment of the South has little to do with what happens in the film, though perhaps we are supposed to see in the forces of repression, puritanism, prejudice, and rigid social boundaries a connection.

An example of what happens when a character openly rebels against a social role is evident when Alison Langdon decides to leave her husband. She knows he is having an affair with Leonora. He decides she is having a nervous breakdown and has her committed to a mental institution. Does he to this to avoid the shame and embarrassment he’ll suffer when she leaves him and when his affair with Lenora becomes publically known? She dies of a heart attack soon after he leaves her at the mental institution.

As a film Reflections in a Golden Eye is confused: it doesn’t know what to make of the homosexuals it portrays. Do they suffer from repression in a world that narrowly defines what male and female mean? Or are they agents of perversion, worthy of ridicule or worse? With characters such as Major Penderton and Captain Weincheck, the film might seem to lead towards the former alternative—these are men whose normal inclinations are suffocated and hidden by the lives and roles they live--but in the character Anacleto, a mincing homosexual stereotype, the film also leans in the latter direction. It is Colonel Langdon who embodies the conventional American male in this film, and it is towards him that Lenora gravitates as an alternative to her weak and ambiguous husband. However much sympathy for Major Penderton and Captain Weincheck the film might show, however much discernment it might have about the rigid gender definitions forced on them, all the fundamental signs and indications suggest that this film views them as a perversion that underlies the veneer of military and Southern society more than they are victims of repression.

The film ends in an outburst of violence that doesn’t seem earned. Major Penderton sees the private entering his wife’s bedroom. He finds him gazing at Lenora as she sleeps and shoots him. This moment might represent the cathartic reassertion of Penderton’s masculine self, roused by jealousy to defend his wife and his sexual turf. Or it might be simple jealousy that the man to whom he was attracted instead was attracted to a woman. Or it might be a release of anger and passion in response to the repressive forces at work in the film. Lenora screams in horror, repeatedly, over what has happened, and these screams bring the film to its conclusion. The incoherence of this final moment is a fitting expression of the film’s overall incoherence.

Reflections in a Golden Eye appeared in the same decade as a number of films dramatizing in Freudian terms the powers of repression. Examples: The Haunting (1963), based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, concerns domestic repression, while The Children’s Hour (1961), based on a 1934 Lillian Hellman play, concerns alleged and repressed lesbianism. Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), based on the D. H. Lawrence novel, and The Sergeant (1968), deal more directly with male bonding and male love than does Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Julie & Julia

There’s nothing particularly mind-bending about Julie & Julia (2009; dir. Nora Ephron). It’s simply an entertaining and intelligent diversion. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Childs is so convincing that for most of the film she seems to be channeling Childs--I lost track of the fact that this was Meryl Streep I was watching, not Julia Childs. The film parallels the lives of Julia Childs and a young woman in New York City who decides to try to cook all the recipes on Child’s famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The idea of paralleling these stories might seem contrived and artificial, but it works. In the course of the film, we learn a bit about American history from the 1940s to 2001, spanning the period from the end of the Second World War, the McCarthy hearings, to the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in New York City.

The film is written and directed by Nora Ephron. It is lightly humorous and rarely moves into melodrama. We learn how Childs’ unhappiness over not having a career, following the end of her service in the OSS in WWII, leads her to try a number of different occupations, including hat making. But she finally settles on French cooking, and her life takes off. The only real point of unhappiness in her life is her failure to have children, but the film does not emphasize this. Much gentle fun is made of Childs’ height and her burbly and typically unflappable personality. Amy Adams is effective as Julie Powell, the young New York woman who after a promising college career as a writer has come to nothing, while her friends are highly successful in their lives. She starts a blog about her efforts to cook her way through the Childs cookbook, and gradually it attracts attention and followers. After a New York Times article about her project she is besieged by book agents and publishers who want her to write a book.

The parallel lives of Adams and Childs, two women trying to find a path in their lives, never cross. In the present time of the film, Childs is already 90, and when a newspaper interviewer asks what she thinks of the blog devoted to her cookbook, she responds that it shows a lack of respect. At first Powell is discouraged by the remark, but her husband convinces her that the Julia Childs she admires and loves is the woman of the cookbook, the woman she has envisioned in her mind.

I was impressed by how Julie & Julia does not insist on the importance of its subject. It relies on empathy. By allowing Streep and Adams to portray characters who are at the core likeable and recognizably human, it draws us in. Streep’s acting in this film, a tribute to the life and career of Julie Childs, is truly remarkable.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Happy: A Memoir, by Alex Lemon

Happy: A Memoir (Scribner’s: 2010) is a first-person narrative about an 18-year old college student—intelligent, artistic, a baseball player—who in 1997 begins to suffer bleeding in his brain stem. The memoir details how he responds to two episodes of this problem, undergoes risky and devastating surgery, and gradually recovers. Bleeding in the brain is not the only challenge Alex Lemon faces (his nickname is “Happy”). His parents have been divorced since he was a 2-year old. His mother is a strong willed individualist. As a child he was repeatedly molested by an older cousin. He indulges heavily in alcohol and drugs, and as he begins to suffer the effects of bleeding in his brain, he drinks and drugs even more heavily. It is difficult to separate these various sources of trauma and to measure how they impact him. Perhaps this is the point—Alex himself cannot manage this.

As a college student, despite his interests in art and literature, Alex is a stereotypical jock and frat boy—perhaps at the extreme of these stereotypes. He devotes much of the narrative to descriptions of interactions with fraternity brothers and his excessive behavior at parties and on other occasions. A primary way he and his brothers interact is to pretend to insult and abuse one another—this is typical college-level behavior, and most of the time it’s possible to distinguish the playful nature of the talk from the occasional episodes where the insults are serious. Nonetheless, this aspect of the book became tedious. I did not like this dimension of Alex Lemon, which tends to dominate the story. Lemon himself seemed to brim with self-loathing during this part of his life.

Self-pity and willful denial of the problem besetting him are also issues—he suffers the symptoms of bleeding in the brain long before he actually sees a doctor. The condition at first affects his play as a catcher for the Macalester College baseball team, ultimately ending his career as an athlete. Soon it affects his emotions and his social interactions with friends, his roommate, and his girlfriends. How he deals with the brain problem, his decision to have surgery, the days in which he prepares for the event that he believes will end his life, and the recovery afterwards, are the best parts of this book. Effective also are Alex’s descriptions of his mother—a wild and careful counter-cultural type—an artist--who loves her son deeply but is not fully aware, at least at first, of how disturbed and unhappy he is. She’s ceaselessly supportive, even when he is indifferent or cruel to her; at the same time she can be hard on him. As important as she is to Alex, he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining her character, but she’s vividly portrayed.

A large chunk of the narrative detailing the latter stages of Alex’s recovery from surgery, his pursuit of a graduate degree in creative writing, and his decision to marry are not in the memoir, which seems to end when it becomes clear that he is going to make a near-full recovery. Perhaps this part of the story will come in a later volume. (We do have two chapters set in 2004, three years after the surgery). In an epilogue, some eleven years after the first problems began, we learn that Lemon continues to suffer some symptoms from the brain surgery.

Lemon has published three volumes of poetry, one with Tin House Books and two with Milkweed Press. He is a lecturer in the English Department at Texas Christian University.

Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent Vice is the lightest and most ephemeral of Thomas Pynchon’s works. Given V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, his three greatest novels, he is entitled to self-indulge if he wishes. The title of this new novel alludes to the underlying corruption that the main character, Doc, a hipster doper private detective, discovers underlying the economic, law enforcement, and political system of greater Los Angeles and, by extension, the entire United States. The discovery is not unlike the one Oedipa Maas makes in The Crying of Lot 49, though the conspiracy she uncovers lies at the roots of western civilization, while the one Doc uncovers in Inherent Vice is more superficial and less surprising—there is much less at stake in this novel—it’s the kind of corruption that in 2010 we’ve come to accept as an inherent aspect of our world.

Inherent Vice is very readable, and there are moments of great description, but for the most part it lacks momentum and sometimes falters. Doc is often in an altered state of reality, and since we view the novel through his eyes the view is sometimes smokily obscured, which is part of the fun.

Doc reminded me of the Dude in The Big Lebowski—surely Pynchon has seen that film. Inherent Vice is set in the late 1960s, and Doc senses that the 60s not so much as a decade as a cultural moment are approaching an endpoint, a transition to something else. Pynchon himself does not seem entirely immune to nostalgia over this now distant decade. Nostalgia of a certain type lightly infuses the text of the narrative. He also occasionally inserts here and there small verbal innuendoes and references to more recent events that make clear his awareness that his readers inhabit a later decade than Doc, that they will recognize these nods and hints while Doc will not.

One character in the novel uses a very early form of the Internet, which gives him access to a considerable amount of information about various characters—it is difficult not to see this as cheating on Pynchon’s part, although the Internet was in early stages of development at the time when the novel is set.


In Ballast (2008; dir. Lance Hammer) a small group of African Americans in the rural Mississippi delta react to an unexpected suicide. To one character the dead man was a brother and business partner, for another he was an ex-husband, for a third he was a father. The film has a documentary quality. The actors are not professionals, and their acting style is flat, emotionless, and repressed, as if they have been encouraged to underplay their roles. The film title alludes metaphorically (I am guessing) to the heavy emotional and personal baggage these characters carry. Certainly one point of the film is to show that life for African Americans in the rural South is as difficult as it would be in big cities. Some problems from big cities have infiltrated their lives. The boy James (JimMyron Ross) is flirting with crime and drug use—he steals his Uncle Lawrence’s pistol and repeatedly robs him at gunpoint. He keeps a motor bike hidden in the bushes near the house where he lives with his mother—did he steal it, does she know he has it? When James cannot pay back a small debt he owes two local drug dealers, and then shoots at them with his pistol, they run the car his mother is driving off the road, drag him from the car, and beat him.

Depression is a major issue for both Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) and his dead brother’s ex-wife Marlee (Tarra Riggs). Lawrence tries to kill himself after his brother dies, and Marlee loses her job when she misses work to take care of problems involving her son James. But the main problem these characters confront is not related to race or economic status—it is the death of an individual who was important in their lives.

The film focuses a lot of James. On the one hand he plays the loving son to his mother, and she has no idea at first of the life he is leading outside their home. On the other he is increasingly veering towards crime and self-destructive behavior. The opening scene of the film in which James frightens a large flock of birds into flight and then stands in awe as they swoop and circle in the sky above him reminds me of the use that David Gordon Greene makes of his characters in the 2000 film George Washington. However, Greene may have had less interest in the social and economic contexts of his characters’ lives than writer and director Lance Hammer has in his characters—James is not an integer in an art drama. Hammer instead portrays him as a young man whose life is in danger and on the verge of careening in any number of directions. At the film’s beginning, with his mother frequently absent from their home because of work, and his father’s death, James clearly seems headed towards the same adolescent fates of lawlessness and dissolution that many other adolescents like him have suffered.

James’ situation may be the factor that ultimately draws Lawrence and Marlee together in an uneasy alliance. (Hammer told an interviewer that the film is “about a child being saved .”[i]) The film reveals little about their lives prior to the film, but we do know that Marlee had filed a restraining order against her ex-husband before his suicide. She can barely stand to talk to Lawrence, whom she blames along with her dead ex-husband for her miserable life (in which she includes her son James). Gradually they begin to recognize the importance of working together to address all the problems they are encountering.

I find Lawrence the most interesting character in the film. He is so affected by grief and depression after his brother’s death than he can barely move. He tries to kill himself. A white neighbor tries to help him and rouse him from his depression. (This is the only white character in the film, and he appears in only a few scenes). Lawrence allows his nephew to rob him without resisting, yet at the same time speaks with the boy in a restrained but friendly manner. Nothing seems to matter to him: he stops working at the store that he and his brother operated and sits at home on his sofa watching television or staring blankly out the window. When Marlee moves into one of the houses he and his brother owned, he can barely respond to her threats to sell the houses and the store from under him.

There are numerous complications in the characters of this film. It is difficult to pigeonhole them. Lawrence, for example, seems to be intelligent and fairly well educated. He explains to his nephew how twin brothers are conceived, and how they are genetically identical yet become separate individuals. The fact that he is a genetic match to his dead brother is a point he emphasizes several times in the film. He and Marlee decide to work together to home school James. Finally he agrees to work with her in running the store. On occasion the film clearly moves into exaggerated melodrama, but mostly the complications serve to make these characters and their lives real. An example is the conflicting motives that drive Lawrence towards a partnership with Marlee. He doesn’t want to lose the houses and the business that provide him with a livelihood (although he tells Marlee that the idea doesn’t bother him). He seems to feel genuine concern about his nephew’s welfare. He also is attracted to Marlee and seems to feel that he can step into his dead brother’s shoes in more ways than one (when Marlee realizes he believes this, she is enraged). Through all these complications these characters have to make their way.

There is no happy resolution to the problems these characters face. But there is no unhappy resolution either. Late in the film Lawrence discovers that James has stolen the ammunition of the gun with which he tried to kill himself once before, and which he seems to be ready to use again for the same purpose. But he discovers that James has dumped the ammunition in a ditch in a field—the film doesn’t make clear why, but one reason may be that the boy did not want his uncle to use those bullets to kill himself. That is, James shows his need for his uncle, and his mother, by doing away with the bullets that could have ended the uneasy alliance they have managed to build.

The setting of the film reflects the depressed, difficult lives of these characters. The weather is mostly cloudy, is often rainy, and colors as a result are muted and washed out. Characters live in cinder block houses or trailers and drive beaten up old cars. The store that Lawrence and Marlee run together is so realistic in its appearance that one suspects it actually exists.

The issues this film explores are not, finally, issues of race. They are fundamental human issues that everyone must face, sooner or later: grief, loss, isolation, depression, confusion, purposelessness. It is only incidental, in this sense, that the characters in Ballast are African American. However, their race and the economic and cultural conditions of their lives clearly do determine, complicate, and constrain how they deal with these challenges.

Ballast premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, where it won awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography. It was picked up for distribution by the Independent Film Channel. Hammer later took back the film to distribute on his own.

See the Roger Ebert review:

[i] Ioncinema interview,

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Seven Pounds

Seven Pounds (2008; dir. Gabriele Muccino) is a film of woe that becomes more so as it moves forward. The plot centers on a man who is preparing to make amends for a terrible event for which he feels responsible. A major part of the interest of the film derives from the fact that we don’t know what the horrible event was, or what the main character is up to, until random details revealed through flashbacks and small bits of information allow us to figure things out. This is a maudlin film. It really has virtually nothing to say. Its point is to stir up our emotions, to make us sad and sorry for the main character and the mistakes he has made, to tempt us into admiring the act of noble self-sacrifice he is contriving to perform. He’s seeking redemption, of course, and everyone can appreciate that need. Will Smith is predictably effective as the man who hides his secret grief and methodically investigates the lives and characters of the individuals whom he plans to help in one way or the other. In fact, Smith’s acting, his way of inhabiting the main character, is the most interesting aspect of the film. But that’s not enough to make the film worthwhile. Redemption is not an automatic guarantee simply because one makes a sacrifice. The generosity Smith’s character is expressing, the noble gestures he is making—do they come from a true desire for repentance (the film seems to work in those terms—sin, penance, repentance) or do they simply come of despair over the loved one he has lost? Despair does not, theology makes clear, lead to salvation.


The animated film 9 (2009; dir. Shane Acker) offers a bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic future in which machines have wiped out the human race (aka Terminator). The anti-technology message here is familiar: machines will take us over, wipe us out, if we’re not careful. It’s our humanity (whatever essence that implies) that separates us from the technology of our own making. The creator of the über-machine who masterminds the world’s takeover is a well-intentioned scientist who invented robots meant to serve the human race. But politicians, totalitarian leaders, foiled his plan and turned his machines to evil purposes. (It’s the politicians, not the scientists, who are the true villains in this piece). Ultimately, the machines destroy the politicians and everyone else. All that is left are nine small doll-like robots (they appear to be covered with burlap, or something like it). They are named by the number designating the order in which they were made. One of the doll-robots is the excessively cautious and controlling leader of the group. Another resembles the Pillsbury Doughboy. A third is a valiant warrior with a female voice. And there is number 9, the hapless hero who discovers an important secret. The scientist implanted a small fragment of his soul in each of these robots, and together they are meant to defeat the master machine and save the earth. This film is a parabolic fantasy. The plot is slight, almost flimsy, and although visually the film is intriguing and detailed, the predictability of its plot, the familiarity of its main characters (we have seen them all before in other forms), and the shallowness of its themes do not sustain interest. At only 79 minutes in length, 9 seems like a sketch for a longer film. It is rushed and breathless, with numerous turns of plot that defy logic and the laws of physics. It is sufficiently intense (monster robots repeatedly terrorize the main characters, capturing some of them and sucking out their innards) that it would not be suitable for young children, though it seems to have been designed with a younger audience in mind.