Monday, March 22, 2010

Ghosts of Mississippi

There are no moral ambiguities in Ghosts of Mississippi (1996; dir. Rob Reiner). Given that this film is about the 1994 trial of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights worker Medger Evers, perhaps there shouldn’t be. But their absence does indicate the level on which this film functions. It begins with a montage of shots alternating between brutal scenes of struggle from the civil rights movement and images of African American achievement. The montage is followed by a message stating that “This is a true story.” As with any film based on fact, what we really have here is a version, an interpretation, of the true story. But because the story is “true” and because the screenwriters thought it important to stick with the facts, basically, there are some scenes, some information, some moments that detract from the dramatic focus on de la Beckwith and the young Mississippi assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter who succeeds in putting him on trial and convicting him.

De la Beckwith as played by James Wood is cold, frightening, and crazy. There is no drama associated with him. He’s the evil racist perpetrator, and the film makes little effort to understand him or how he became what he became. He is what he is, and the film implies that in various ways he holds beliefs and values that much of the rest of the white South held in 1963 and continued to hold, perhaps, in 1994. The white racist South, and the oppressed African American South, is the film’s historical context.

Whoopi Goldberg as Myrlie Evers is the ever vigilant and long suffering widow who never gives up on her hope that one day her husband’s killer (who was freed after all-white juries in two 1964 trials could not reach a verdict) will be convicted. Goldberg can be a good actress, and she performs well in this film that makes few demands on her.

The dramatic center of the film is Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin). He embodies the moderate white Southerner of the 20th century who holds in contempt the racism of people such as De La Beckwith but who finds it easier not to stir up trouble and to live with the status quo. DeLaughter in the film struggles against the idea of opening a case that has been closed for twenty-five years. His guilty conscience gnaws at him. He reviews the evidence, talks to some witnesses, visits the home where Evers was killed, thinks about his three children (Evers had three children as well), and finds enough new information to reopen the case. As a result, his wife leaves him, he receives bomb threats, some of his former friends insult him, and the political career he hoped to have is ruined. The key moment in the film comes when leaders in the local black community accuse him and his boss Ed Peters (Ed Nelson) of being racists who want to prevent a new trial. Peters decides to assign the case to another lawyer, an African American woman. DeLaughter appeals for support to Myrlie Edwards, but she hangs up on him, only to appear in the court house a couple of days later with key evidence that ensures both that the trial can take place and that DeLaughter can stay on the case. He sacrifices a great deal personally in pursuing the case. His character is the most interesting aspect of the film—both as a white Southern moderate moved to act, and as a man compelled to sacrifice his marriage and his place in the legal and social community by his obsession with the case. But the film does not explore this potential beyond the issue of DeLaughter’s moral commitment.

This film succeeds as a dramatization of an important event in American civil rights history. It falls short as a film because of its overzealous earnestness, its lack of depth or nuance, its simplistic definition of the issues, the Hollywood characterizations, the stark binaries in its portrayal of the late-20th century South, the predictable ways in which the plot develops (more predictable than even a film based on fact should allow).

Ghosts of Mississippi ends with DeLaughter’s successful conviction of De La Beckwith, who died in jail in 2001. Outside the courthouse, a mixed crowd of blacks and whites celebrate—underlining the film’s assertion that many people in Mississippi disapproved of De La Beckwith and people like him. But the film doesn’t suggest that the victory led to improved race relations in Mississippi, though in some small sense it should and must have, though DeLaughter’s passion for prosecuting the case is evidence of that improvement.

Filmed in 1996, Ghosts of Mississippi doesn’t touch on DeLaughter’s later financial difficulties, his unsuccessful career in politics, or his bribery trial in 2009.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Race to Witch Mountain

A sequel of sorts to two Walt Disney films from the 1970s, Race to Witch Mountain (2009; dir. Andy Frickman) features The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, in his new child-friendly persona as an ex-con cab driver named Jack Bruno trying to go straight. Unfortunately, he picks up as his fares two children, brother and sister, from another planet. The girl can move objects through the air and her brother can alter the molecular density of his flesh so that he can poke his hand through doors. Both behave in an aloof and creepy manner. The plot thickens and coagulates with each moment of this film. Suffice it to say that the brother and sister are trying to get back to their spaceship, which has crash-landed and been secretly impounded by the U. S. Government. They come from a planet that is dying, and their species is planning to migrate en masse to the Earth and take up residence. The parents of the two space children have discovered a way to restore life to their home planet, thereby making invasion of the Earth unnecessary. For some reason the boy and girl have been entrusted with possession of the discovery, which they are supposed to carry back to the home planet. But there is also an evil robot assassin sent by enemies of their parents to kill the children and recover the discovery so that the aliens can take over the planet anyway. And much of the action takes place at a UFO convention in Las Vegas. In one scene The Rock and his female scientist sidekick gape in embarrassing and unconvincing awe at a flying saucer lifting off just past the edge of the screen. The boy and girl, who are repressed and uptight and who speak in stilted bureaucratic sentences, by the end of the film have warmed up. The girl tearfully bids The Rock goodbye and makes him promise to take care of the friendly dog they have picked up along the way as they fled the evil robot assassin and the irrepressible agents of the U. S Government. Driving his yellow taxi at top speed up and down isolated dirt roads (and through railroad tunnels) just outside Vegas, the Rock manages to stir up a lot of dust.


Appaloosa (2008) held my interest for three reasons. First was the spectacular landscape in the background of many scenes. Director Ed Harris obviously heeded the films of John Ford. Second was the character Virgil Cole, played by Ed Harris, one half of the gun-slinging team hired by the power-structure of Appaloosa to restore law and order. Harris is an under-appreciated actor who in The Right Stuff and Pollock (which he also directed) and The Hours seemed capable of reinventing himself. In Appaloosa Virgil Cole is an upright sheriff who can’t countenance bad language or disrespectful talk about women and who has slept only with prostitutes and an Indian woman. He is an interesting character, if somewhat predictable, and Harris effectively brings him to life. Third was how in this generally mediocre film the three lead actors, Harris, Viggo Mortenson, and Renee Zellwegger, moved the story along. Although it never moved particularly well, it at least kept me awake. Jeremy Irons played the bad guy, a vicious cattle baron and businessman and nemesis of the other three. He is supposed to embody the evil developers and business opportunists who are taking over the West. My main interest in Irons was how he suppressed his British accent by talking as if his mouth were full of pebbles, much like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York. Zellwegger portrays a widow woman, Allison French, so uncertain of her welfare and survival that she sleeps with any man who shows promise of being able or willing to take care of her. Although her character was supposed perhaps to provide the film with a feminist angle, illustrating the limited means for survival available to an unmarried woman in the Old West, she is basically a wanton, amoral, and vacuous opportunist. She is, of course, who Virgil falls in love with, but not before he asks on their first meeting whether she is a whore.

None of the three main characters seems particularly intelligent. They go through the motions, responding to the challenges and opportunities that confront them. They reminded me of characters in a Frank Norris novel (McTeague came to mind). Moral rectitude drives Virgil. Amoral self-preservation drives Allison French. Viggo Mortensen’s character Everett Hitch never says much, and though he makes what is supposed to be the noble gesture of the film, you don’t really care. Randall Bragg, played by Jeremy Irons, does seem intelligent. But as the bad guy, it’s OK that he has the smarts.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Ponyo (2008; dir. Hayao Miyazaki) is not as charming as Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away, but visually it is a stimulating, confusing, disturbing, phantasmagorical animation. This is a child’s tale about a boy who falls in love with a fish who happens to be the daughter of the wizard of the sea and of Mother Nature. The logic that underlies the film is not adult logic. Only a child could appreciate or follow it. Even as a fairy tale the narrative strains against credulity. The best way to approach Ponyo is to watch it image by image, with no concern for how the images cohere. Although Japanese folklore and culture must be the source of many of the images in this film, they remind me of nothing so much as childhood dreams (and nightmares). The main character, a five-year old boy, lives in a house on a tall peak on the coast. In one scene waves from a storm stirred up by huge fish who themselves are the products of waves invoked by the sea wizard, wash over everything and even lap at the doors of the boy’s house. As he and his friend Ponyo (the fish turned into a girl his age) sail in a boat through the sea, he recognizes fish from the Devonian period swimming beneath the boat. Ponyo herself while a fish takes care of myriad miniscule baby fish that swarm all over the place—are they miniature Ponyos? Is she their mother? When the boy first spies Ponyo caught in a jar jostling in the surf, he rescues her while ominous waves with large eyes pursue him. The wizard of the sea lives in a huge bubble on an underwater ship. The list could go on. English language voices were provided by such folks as Liam Neeson, Betty White, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, and others. Their dubbed-in voices seemed forced. The original Japanese voices with English subtitles might have worked better.

Friday, March 05, 2010

At Home in the World: A Memoir, by Joyce Maynard

At Home in the World: A Memoir (Picador: 1999) is Joyce Maynard’s recollection of the first four decades of her life. Known for her columns in the New York Times and her other writings, she recounts how her father courted and married her mother, their early years together, the births of their children. Her father, an English professor two decades older than her mother, was a frustrated artist and an alcoholic. Her mother was a brilliant woman who would have been a college professor and perhaps even a writer had she not lived in a time when married women with children found it difficult if not impossible to have careers. Encouraged to be creative and intellectual, Maynard and her older sister grow up in an environment that might have been idyllic had it not been for the frustrations of their parents and the tensions of their marriage. Maynard is preoccupied with how in much of her writing she was never able to write about the truth beneath the superficial veneer of her family’s life—she could not bring herself, for instance, to write of her father’s alcoholism or of problems in her own marriage. In this story, the daughters to some extent inherit the faults of their parents even as they succeed in escaping them.

The center of this memoir is Maynard’s account of how she wrote an article for the New York Times that caught the attention of J. D. Salinger. He wrote her, she wrote back, and following several months of correspondence she moved in with him and spent much of a year in his house. She was eighteen. He was fifty-three. Their relationship was strange and increasingly strained. Salinger practiced homeopathic medicine and diets, he counseled Maynard to share his bitter rejection of the world. He encouraged her writing and initially praised her work, though he warned her to be honest in her writing above all else. Although they discussed having children, they never had sex (her inability rather than his). Maynard discussed her uncomfortable relationship with Salinger’s daughter (about her age) and son. (Salinger’s daughter has written her own account of life with her father).

The end of the relationship caused a major crisis for Maynard. The rest of the book narrated her recovery, her marriage, three children, and divorce and a final meeting with a bitter and angry Salinger while she is writing the memoir.

Maynard writes well. But does she write well enough to justify this memoir? Does she exploit Salinger by violating his obsessive privacy and writing about their relationship? Perhaps. But she comes to believe that he exploited her, and there is no doubt that he did. She is shocked to learn that he had a correspondence with another young woman about the time he was writing her, and that in fact he had a number of such relationships with younger women. He is living with a younger woman the last time she sees him, when he is seventy-seven.

I found Maynard’s parents the most interesting part of the book. They were eccentric to a fault, yet they loved their daughters. Their family was dysfunctional, and Maynard grows up to raise her own dysfunctional family. What family isn’t dysfunctional?

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins

In The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Free Press, 2009) Richard Dawkins reviews systematically and with great clarity all the important evidence for evolution. The fossil record offers one small bit of evidence. Especially interesting is Dawkins’ explanation of why the so-called gaps in the fossil record do not amount to a weakness in the case for evolution. Also interesting are his explanations about DNA, the skeletal structure of mammals (all mammals share the same bones, however much they may differ in shape, function, and appearance), the interrelatedness of species, how the development of embryos reenacts the evolutionary process (this is the concept of embryology),the role of continental drift in evolution, and how the fact that all life on earth shares a common proportion of DNA means that life began on the earth only once, and that all life is descended from a single common ancestor.

For Dawkins evolution is a fact. We refer to it as a theory only because science defines a theory as a fact supported by evidence. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

Dawkins prefers the term natural selection to evolution.

Dawkins has no tolerance for evolution deniers. He refers often to the high percentage of people in the United States and England and the Middle East who believe that the earth is only 6000 years old and that all life is divinely created. He sees such people as threats to reason and education and enlightenment. There is no denying that. He is extremely effective at debunking and refuting their arguments, which at best are uninformed and at worst are deliberate distortions of fact, reason, and scientific evidence. Yet Dawkins often seems a bit too eager to deny religion and the possibility of any supernatural involvement in scientific processes. To me evolution (which I accept as fact) and God (whom I regard as unlikely but possible) do not cancel one another out. Natural selection seems a very logical way for a Creator to go about creating a world. On the other hand, natural selection is clearly the process that brought such a wealth of biological diversity in the world.

The only time in this book when my eyes glazed over (meaning that for a relatively experienced lay reader of science texts Dawkins’ explanations grew too technical) was in his discussion of various methods of dating—carbon dating, genetic dating, and so on. I also felt that his final chapter, a sentence by sentence analysis of the final paragraph of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was a bit tedious in its belaboring of the obvious.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows how a director can skew the perspective of a source narrative to reflect his own interests and loyalties. According to the essay that accompanied the DVD, the director Harry A. Pollard considered Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel as Northern propaganda and did not want to show the South in a negative light. He therefore made most of the Southern slave owners in his film gentle and enlightened masters. The evil characters are of indeterminate geographical origin (Simon Legree) or are lower-class scoundrels.

Pollard’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin clearly portrays slavery as an evil institution: slave families are split up and sold, bad owners whip and abuse their slaves, the existence of light-skinned slave women implies sexual exploitation and abuse, and the slave master Simon Legree is abusive to slaves in every possible way. Although enlightened owners may treat their slaves in a kindly way, if they die or go bankrupt less benevolent owners can buy the slaves and change their lives dramatically.

In its portrayal of slavery’s victims, Uncle Tom’s Cabin invokes numerous racist stereotypes; it presents most slaves as simple, easily misguided, susceptible to temptation, and unintelligent. With one exception, the most sympathetically portrayed slaves are so light-skinned that they are hardly recognizable as of African descent. The exception is Uncle Tom, played by a black actor named James B. Lowe. His love of his family and his fidelity to his white masters, and his love especially of Eva, makes him a paragon of virtue—where virtue is construed as fidelity to the white owners.

At the center of the film are Eliza and her husband George. Both are light-skinned. Eliza is raised as a daughter by her owners. George is “rented” from his owner as some sort of engineer. They are virtuous and highly intelligent and possess all the civilized values and behaviors of their white masters. In fact, what the film praises about them is how much they are like whites. Moreover, they are played by white actors made up to faintly resemble light-skinned slaves. (Eliza, played by Margarita Fischer, the director’s wife, is described as “yellow skinned” by a man who has been hired to track down and bring her back after she has run away). The DVD essay explains that the use of white actors was intended to make the portrayal of slaves in love more palatable to the mostly white audiences.

Almost as soon as George and Eliza marry, his owner shows up and takes George away. When bankruptcy threatens Eliza’s owner, who has treated her as a daughter, he agrees to sell her young son along with loyal Uncle Tom. George spends the entire film searching for Eliza and their son. Eliza for much of the film is searching for their son too (he is lured away from her by a slave dealer and sold to another slave owner). She also must resist the lecherous advances of Simon Legree.

Contrasted against the virtuous and light-skinned George and Eliza are darker-skinned slaves who are shown as ignorant and unenlightened, though usually good natured.

The film frequently shows slave children in various comical and stereotypical situations, their wide white eyes prominently displayed. In one scene a group of slave children runs after a horse-drawn cart full of watermelons. They steal a melon and ravenously devour it in the middle of the road.

The film’s real racial attitudes are most clearly represented in the character of Topsy, an adolescent slave girl attached to Aunt Ophelia and friend to the saintly Eva. Topsy (portrayed in blackface by nineteen-year-old white actress Mona Ray) is mischievous and uncontrollable. She constantly dances around, plays tricks on Aunt Ophelia, bats her eyes, steals, and otherwise acts like a clown. The white actress’ portrayal of Topsy is remarkable in that it doesn’t even approximate the racist stereotype it is apparently trying to represent. It’s just weird. When Eva asks Topsy why she is so bad, Topsy responds that she is bad because she is black and no one can love a black person. Eva responds that she loves Topsy, and this brings about a major change in Topsy’s personality. When Eva dies, Topsy is grief-stricken because she says there is no one left to love her. Aunt Ophelia, affected by Eva’s death and Topsy’s grief, responds that she will love Topsy. This is a genuinely moving moment in the film. Yet it is also a perfect expression of the film’s racial iconography: the virtuous and civilized white girl whose purity redeems the benighted and unrestrained slave. In general, this film argues that whites must care for the incapable blacks who suffer the consequences of slavery.