Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Face in the Crowd

We first encounter A Face in the Crowd (1956; dir. Elia Kazan) as what seems to be a film about the discovery and rise of a country music star whose sharp satiric humor and music might win him a place on the stage of the Grand Old Opry. In that sense, the film is about the rise and fall of an American hero, another tale of the American Dream.

The main character Lonesome Rhodes exploits the hillbilly image by suggesting in his music and his rambling radio and television monologues that down-home values—which include family and religious values—as well as his natural-born suspicion of government, bureaucrats, the wealthy, and the educated—give him a common ground for talking to and representing the interests of the common individual. On his Memphis television program, he develops this kinship by championing the cause of a poor black woman with eight children whose house has burned down. On his first show he invites his audience to send in contributions, no more than fifty cents, to help her buy a house to replace the one she’s lost. This championing of the downtrodden immediately cements Lonesome’s audience—which is mainly working class. It also wins him an African American audience. By the next week, his fans have contributed more than $18,000. On another broadcast he expresses sympathy for the hard work of housewives and mothers, suggesting that their men don’t appreciate them. This also brings him an audience of devoted women admirers, who are also attracted to his wild vigor and implied sexuality. His rugged good looks and his singing attract still another audience, mainly of younger women.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that Lonesome’s championing of the black woman would have been highly controversial in Memphis, TN, of 1957. Walter Matthau’s character says as much. Rhodes readily expresses his indifference to any social or cultural barriers or rules that tell him how to act or what to think. He’s a self-styled populist, and his populism helps him to win millions of listeners.

Gradually, however, A Face in the Crowd morphs into an exploration of the rise of the media, specifically of television, in American popular culture. It examines the power of the American media to shape and control public opinion. The film was made when the American television industry was still seeking to discover what its role might be in American culture. Budd Schulberg’s screenplay gives expression to the fear that media celebrities might use the new industry to gain control of public opinion, to sway the public mind and shape national events. The rise of such media stars in the 1950s as Billy Graham, the evangelist, and of Elvis Presley, whose songs and gyrations provokes audiences to Dionysian frenzy, provided some evidence that there was good cause for concern. This was a concern that had already been seen in other films, especially in Richard Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1940), where a newspaper magnate uses the media, including the newspaper chains he owns, to wield economic and political power.

Several historical factors inform this focus on media, politics, and public opinion. The 20th century was a period of demagoguery, when leaders on both sides of the Atlantic rose to fame and power on the basis of a populist political message and a dynamic media image. Father Coughlan, Marcus Garvey, Huey Long, George Wallace, and many others were American examples. Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin (in different ways) were examples from Europe. The film responds to the very real fear of the takeover of the American government by such a figure. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, fear of undue communist influence in the American government and right-wing political zealotry resulted in the rise of Joseph McCarthy, the senator who held hearings seeking to identity communist infiltrators in various corners of American government and culture, and whose reckless behavior destroyed numerous reputations and led to a low point in government.

Ultimately, although American politics now depend heavily on the media, things did not turn out in precisely the way that Schulberg prophesied. On the other hand, he was not that far off the mark. Candidates who look handsome and personable on screen tend to do better in the polls than those who don’t. There are exceptions, of course. John McCain, not the most photogenic fellow, did win the Republican nomination for president in 2008, even though he was running against the swarmily handsome Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. Barack Obama clearly profited from his dynamic speaking style and eager appearance, both of which came across effectively on the television screen. However, it’s doubtful he changed his entire personality, as Rhodes attempts to convince Senator Fuller to do in the film to attract voters.

A Face in the Crowd is also a hillbilly film, exploiting in the role of “Lonesome Rhodes” the comic stand-up career of Andy Griffith in the 1950s. Griffith, not a trained actor, plays the role of the self-styled and very self-aware hillbilly hick to the hilt. Even from his first appearance in the film, where he’s sleeping off a drunken spree in a small-town jail, he’s shown as a calculating fellow whose primary concern is “me, myself, and I.”

Patricia Neal plays a young radio producer who from the start is hoodwinked by Lonesome’s charm, down-home wit, and singing. Even at the end of the film, she’s still swayed by his influence, even after she knows he is a duplicitous manipulator of herself and of everyone else.

The film never really shimmers, in that sense that creates mystery and ambiguity and uncertainty and that makes a film or literary work memorable. Some might argue for shimmer in the final scene, where Rhodes bellows in desperate agony after Marcia. Yet up to this point the film has spent so much time pinning Rhodes down, making clear that we have no doubts about him or the forces that make him who he is, that the shimmer hardly matters.

A Face in the Crowd may have been an important influence on Robert Altman’s film Nashville, where an unseen candidate uses blaring loudspeakers, radio and television announcements, and rallies with country music singers to promote his populist political message. An important scene early in Altman’s film comes when the singer Barbara Jean arrives at the Nashville Airport to be greeted by throngs of adoring fans, high school hands, and baton twirlers. This seen is specifically reminiscent of the one in Face where Lonesome Rhodes judges a baton twirling contest.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Monsters vs. Aliens

To me the most amusing element of Monsters vs. Aliens (2009; dirs. Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon) is how it references various sci-fi films from the 1950s (and later). One of the characters is taken from The Blob (1958, 1988)—he falls in love with a dish of jello. Another is from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). A third, a Vincent Price-like mad scientist, is the main character from The Fly (1958, 1986). And a huge moth is, clearly, from Mothra (1961). There are other allusions—the President of the United States performs his greeting to an alien spaceship on an organ (see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977). Another scene suggests The War of the Worlds (1953, 2005). And of course the huge spaceship that threatens to destroy the earth reminds us of Independence Day (1996).

The main character, a young woman suddenly transformed into a giant version of herself, suggests Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958, 1993).

All these characters are comic animations. The plot is fairly unremarkable. All the characters band together to defeat an evil alien overlord who creates multiple clones of himself so that he can take over the universe. The suddenly transformed young woman must come to terms with her transformation. The various monsters who have been confined by the government for fifty years in a secret underground facility must adjust to their freedom.

Beyond the intertextuality—an expected component of most animated films these days—there is not much original about this film. But it’s fun to watch, and it’s interesting to see how the filmmakers borrowed key scenes from the films they’re referencing. The one scene I remember from the previews for the 1958 version of The Blob showed moviegoers running in panic out of a theatre, pursued by the huge protoplasmic beast—a comic version of that scene is here.

The Accountant

This short, forty-minute film (2001; dir. Ray McKinnon) features three male actors. Two of them portray brothers—the O’Dell brothers. One of the brothers stayed on the family farm, trying unsuccessfully to make a go of it. The other went to town to find his way—he’s dressed in a suit while his brother wears farm clothes. They’ve hired a financial consultant—an accountant—to assess the financial health of the farm. He drives up in an old jalopy, wears brogans and a severe, old fashioned suit. He has a ghastly nose and an ashen pallor. The first thing he asks is for a beer—not imported beer, which he scorns, but PBR. He drinks can after can, throwing each one down as he finishes. Then he asks for bourbon. He doesn’t use a calculator—he counts on his fingers and stamps his foot on the floor as he adds up the figures (“A man who won’t add his own numbers ain’t much of a man in my book.) He says that everything is in the numbers and can read the minute details of a man’s life in the numbers—the financial records--he leaves behind: “You can tell a lot about a person’s comins’ and goins’ if you know how to interpret the numbers.”

The accountant determines that the family farm is $277,452 in arrears and offers advice on how to save it: burn it down for insurance money. Make sure the dog and livestock die in the fire to avoid suspicion. Consider forfeiting a leg or two in an accident, again for insurance money. Consider murder.

As desperate as these measures are, the accountant’s goal is to save the family farm. That’s important above everything else—save the farm so that it can be passed down to the farmer’s two young sons. The message of this film is decidedly old school: pro-farm, anti-capitalism, anti-North, pro-agrarian. The accountant lectures his clients on how they’ve been victimized by “Hollywood, Wallstreet, Boston Market,” by “caricatures and stereotypes” of the South in such shows as “The Beverley Hillbillies” and “Dukes of Hazzard,” so that Southerners don’t even know what it means to be Southern anymore—one day, he warns, “one day your grandchildren will be eatin’ cornbread that’s sweet and drinkin’ ice tea that ain’t, and they’ll think that’s a Southern tradition.” When one of the brothers suggests that maybe they can sell the handwritten family logbook (passed down through five generations--“it's a tragedy”) as a book or a film, that maybe Billy Bob Thornton could make it into a movie, the accountant scoffs that Billy Bob’s not real, it’s just a Southern name like Jethro or Ellymae, and that he’s from the same state as Bill Clinton.

Donald Davidson could have written this script.

This film is a fable about the plight of the small-time farmer, the ravages of capitalism, the disappearance of Southern traditions and values. These are all well and good, and heartfelt in this film, but they’re not much more than platitudes—the film doesn’t give itself time to let them be anything else. In a longer film these pointed editorial lessons would weigh the story down. But The Accountant is just the right length.

This off-beat, whacky, droll, sad film is highly entertaining. Ray McKinnon as the accountant is an amazing character. The accountant may be the devil, or he may be the Lord, or he may be just a number cruncher. He does come up with a way to save the family farm, though it’s not what either of the brothers might have wanted.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Raintree County

The decade of the 1950s marks Raintree County (1957; dir. Edward Dmytryk) in numerous ways. The title song by Johnny Mathis, Johnny Greene’s sappy score, the concerns with madness, the blandly sanitized themes of race, the contrived and banal sentimentality, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Taylor and Clift were fine actors, but Raintree County is not high on their lists of achievements.

Much of this film takes place in Indiana, where the eponymous county supposedly exists. The title refers to a mythical tree that grows somewhere in the swamp near Raintree. Early in the film, John Wickliff Shawnessey (Clift), just out of high school, stumbles into the swamp in search of the tree. He falls in the water and gets soaked. His friends make fun of him. The tree symbolizes his youthful idealism, the ideals and goals that he never quite achieves in his life.

There is so much about this film that is bad that I could waste pages on it. It’s a turgid, sloppy, illogical mess. The plot is shapeless. The film seems to have been shot largely on a set, with some exceptions, and it lacks the attention to authentic detail that gave Gone with the Wind and Jezebel whatever realism they may have had. But I am interested primarily in how the film portrays the Civil War, and in the character of Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor).

The film is set just before the Civil War, towards which occasional faint allusions lead us. The war becomes an overt issue after John marries Susanna, a Southerner from New Orleans, and brings her back to Raintree to live with him. He announces to Susanna his sympathies with abolitionism (this never came up before the marriage) by asking if she has ever heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as if that novel neatly encapsulates the issue. After listening to campaign speeches by supporters of Lincoln, John decides that Susanna must free her two house slaves. He tells her that if she does not do so he will not return to the house. (This conflict between them is introduced rather suddenly, as if nothing led up to it or prepared us for it. The relationship between John and Susanna waxes hot and cold throughout the film, and there are often no reasons for the shifts in mood). Susanna does free the slaves, but at a party she is giving for John several of her Southern friends humiliate her by drunkenly mocking slaves. One of them blackens his face with ashes from the fireplace and in a racist and demeaning way ridicules black people.

The film presents the fraught relationship of Susanna and John as representative of the larger national conflict between North and South. But Susanna is full of dark passions, madness, and a mysterious past, while John behaves as if he is a kind of half-wit. He’s a moon-eyed aspiring poet. The equation doesn’t work. John somehow overlooks the beautiful and adoring Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint) and is seduced (willingly) by Susanna in a forest glade. She then leaves for New Orleans. But she later returns claiming to be pregnant, and John marries her. Throughout the long (it seemed long to me—everything in the film seems long) marriage, John is frequently tempted with Nell, who still loves him, but he remains faithful to Susanna. Nell is the saintly angel who remains chaste and faithful to John, even through his marriage to Susanna, while Susanna plays the whore. She is not literally a whore, but she is cursed with madness, a family inheritance, as well as with darker secrets. She deceives John into marrying her because she says she loves him too much to risk losing him. She at least on one occasion spends the entire day in a nearby town for suspicious reasons, and ultimately, at the height of the War, runs away to Louisiana with their son.

Susanna, whose parents died mysteriously in a plantation house fire, suffers from madness that is said to run in her family. But madness may actually be a metaphor that hides the possible secret that her mother may have been a black woman. One of the first pronouncements that Susanna makes in the film, an especially harsh one, is that anyone with a drop of black blood is by definition a black person. Yet she also speaks with extreme fondness of the woman who raised her, the woman with whom she often shared a bedroom and whom she describes as “a great lady.” This woman was black. She seems awfully confused about this great lady. We later learn that her father had fallen in love with this woman in the Caribbean, and that he had brought her back to Louisiana. It is implied that he was with her the night of the fire, and Susanna explains to John that she heard firecrackers going off in their bedroom. The implication is that Susanna’s mother killed her husband and the woman and then burned down the house. The larger implication is that Susanna is the product of her father’s love for the woman, and that her madness is the result of guilt, anguish, confusion, who knows what, over the questions of her paternity, of the possibility that she is part black, of the cause of the fire.

The curse that Susanna suffers, then (if I am right in these assumptions), is the curse of slavery, of racism, the selfsame curse that marks and condemns the South. Unfortunately, the film hints at Susanna’s parentage so faintly and euphemistically that it can do little to explore these possibilities.

In an odd scene early in the film, when John has gone South with Susanna to visit members of her family, the young couple stands on the porch of a ruined plantation house. The porch and columns are all that remain. This is the house where Susanna lived with her parents before they died in the fire. She at first tells John that she can’t remember anything about the fire because she was only three years old when it happened, but he later learns that she was actually nine and ultimately discovers that she knows more than she has been willing to reveal. In fact, the ruined plantation porch with columns closely resembles a photograph made by Eudora Welty in 1935 of the ruined Windsor Plantation. I wonder whether the filmmakers were aware of the ruins or of Welty’s photograph.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom Night in Mississippi (2009; dir. Paul Saltzman) is about the first integrated senior prom held at the only high school in Charleston, Mississippi, in 2008. The documentary does not blame or ridicule the community for taking time to catch up with the rest of the nation. In a modest way that avoids big claims, it shows how change and history don’t come to all parts of the nation at the same moment, and that what might have been dramatic and earth-shaking for one place three decades ago can be equally monumental in another place today.

By mostly relying on interviews with students and a few parents and school teachers and administrators, director Saltzman records the planning of the first integrated senior prom. The actor Morgan Freeman, a native of the town, was distressed that after so many years separate prom events continued to be held. He offered in 1998 to pay for a single, integrated event but the school declined. In 2007 he makes the offer again and is accepted. He appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film, which shows him making a visit to the high school to offer to sponsor an integrated prom.

The film suggests, and Freeman believes, that while the students want a single prom event, tradition, the school board, and a group of parents have forced separate events. The parents who opposed the single prom declined to be interviewed. Among the remaining parents, there is a range of views. The students express a range of views as well. Most claim not to be racists, though some agree that they don’t socialize with people of the other race either because they were raised not to do so or because the opportunity has never presented itself.

Freeman explains early in the film that he wanted the prom to serve as a catalyst for bringing students of different races together and getting them to socialize. All the black students, and many of the white students, express to Freeman their openness to the idea. But the film shows a lot of ambiguity in their attitudes, more among the white students than the black. Many of the white students worry about what their parents think about their black friends. One girl speaks of being physically threatened by her step-father. While all the students comfortably occupy the same gymnasium for the dance, for the most part the white and black students socialize separately. The film doesn’t show how other students react to the one mixed-race couple that attends the dance. As the end of the prom approaches, students seem to loosen up, there is more mixing and milling around, and we see a few white and black students (white males and black females) dancing together, and a more general willingness by most people in attendance to enjoy one another.

The film dramatizes how difficult social integration was, and can still be, and how it is difficult to make good on even the best of intentions. Even the most outspoken white boy in the film, who talks about his black friends and his disagreement with the racism of his elders, admits that he has never dated a black girl because he has never wanted to. Another white boy, who asked that his face be obscured and who uses a false name, implies that his parents would disown him if they knew he socialized with members of the black race. Those parents who disagree with the integrated prom organize a separate dance for white students only: many of the white students attend both events.

The father of the white girl who dates a black student describes himself as a “red neck” but claims that he is not prejudiced--he simply believes the two races shouldn’t socialize and talks about the different ways he has tried to keep his daughter from being with her black boyfriend. He admits that he cannot control what she does when she is not at home. In the end, however, he says that he will stick by her no matter what.

These are the true roots of racial progress, the father who through love of his own daughter comes to accept something fundamentally opposed to his upbringing.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Waltz with Bashir

The animated 2008 documentary Waltz with Bashir is beautiful and powerful. Why should such a beautiful film document such horrors? Its main character and narrator is also its director, Ari Folman, who builds the film around his efforts to reconstruct his repressed memories of the Lebanon War in 1982, in which he participated as a member of the Israel Defense Forces. He’s most concerned with remembering events concerning massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, carried out by Christian phalangists in response to the assassination of the Lebanese president elect Gemayel Bashir.

Memory is a central subject. How do we remember what we remember, and why do we repress certain memories and retain others? In seeking answers to these questions, Folman interviews men who were with him on the evening of the massacre. They too, in their own ways, have repressed or distorted or revised their recollections. Gradually Folman’s memories emerge, but it is not until the final scene of the film that he recovers them fully.

Memories are repressed because of the horrors they contain. They are also repressed because of how close Folman was to the massacres, and of his feelings—implied but never explicitly stated—that he and his mates might have done something to stop them.

This is also a film about war. It rarely editorializes, though the scenes and words it contains are clear enough in what they convey. The film does not address the reasons for the Lebanon War or for the Israeli invasion—instead it focuses on moments and events of brutality and seems to view events not from the viewpoint of Israelis—it is, after all, an Israeli film, and Folman is an Israeli director—but rather from a pacifist viewpoint that does not incorporate national loyalties.

I did not realize until halfway through this film that Waltz with Bashir is a documentary. I thought it was fictional. But when I saw images of Menachem Begin, Golda Meir, and Ariel Sharon, I realized otherwise. Why would a documentary be animated? The animation helps to camouflage the atrocities—this is an intentional strategy. The music and the frequent shifts in mood-- from quiet introspection to brutal realism to humor—serve a similar purpose. As memories of the events gradually coalesce, the animated images become increasingly gruesome. At one point we see the execution of a family of Palestinians, including two young children. In the final scene, the animation changes to actual footage of the survivors of the massacres, of bodies stacked up in piles or covered with bricks. The final image is of the curls of a dead little girl, covered by the collapsed wall of a house.

The film begins with a dream narrated to the director by a friend who was involved in the Lebanese conflict, remembers—his dream is of a pack of vicious dogs running down the street. They come to a stop outside the window of the house where he lives. The dogs are his projections of guilt—in the Lebanese conflict, his assigned duty was to shoot dogs whose barking would warn Lebanese villagers of approaching Israeli troops. Another image the film repeatedly returns to is of three young men emerging nude from the ocean waters outside Damascus. As they approach the beach, flares illuminate the nighttime cityscape. The film repeatedly returns to this image, each time filling it out more. At the beginning of the film it is a beautiful scene with entrancing, Philip-Glass type music. (Max Richter composed most of the soundtrack). By the end of the film, these wide-eyed and naïve young men emerging from the sea confront the most horrific of scenes imaginable.