Monday, November 29, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

I admired Where the Wild Things Are as a film (2009; dir. Spike Jonze), but not as a version of the 1963 Maurice Sendak story. The illustrations and the minimalist narration of the book make it a classic bit of story-telling. Illustrations that bring to life the few words on each page work on the imagination—imagination fills in the gaps. Each child reads the story in a different way. When I read the book to my sons we spent much time pouring over each page, each sentence and illustration, filling them in, wondering about them, speculating.

The film (which Sendak coproduced and apparently approved of) gives a specific reading to the original story. The images of the original—the wild monsters and their jungle—are better preserved in the film than the story itself, which becomes a tale of morose adult monsters who can’t get along, like small children just learning to play, but also like adults who have learned to play too well. The monsters in the film interact as if they’re living on the same level as the boy, but they also seem to have other lives that extend beyond the limits of the film and the story and the boy’s comprehension. The boy in the film has run away from home because of arguments with his mother. The film tempts us to think that the monsters have been banished to their island because of their own problems in the adult world—divorce, failing relationships, disappointment.

The film has its moments—the boy Max’s journey by boat across the sea, his first encounter with the monsters, the wild rumpus, his departure from the island and return home to his worried mother and warm soup. The visual imagery from the Sendak story, and the beautifully exotic settings, bring moments of recognition as the book occasionally comes to life in the film. But all the filler and emotional baggage drag it down. I can’t imagine it holding the interest of many young children.

But then it’s been a long while since I was a young child. What do I know?

How to Tame Your Dragon

Some plots are so common we ought to grow tired of them. Thus it is with How to Tame Your Dragon (2010; dirs. Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders), in which a young boy of around twelve, Hiccup, smaller than the rest of his peers, held in uneasy suspicion by his father (who also loves him), always clumsy and weak at physical exploits but intelligent and daring as well, has to prove himself. He’s a Viking, and the main activity of his clan is hunting and slaying dragons. Here we have the story, in another cloth, of Henry V or of (as I’ll explain in another posting) that of the fabled American racing horse Seabiscuit, in whom no one believes until he proves himself.

The boy in How to Train Your Dragon proves himself by befriending a dragon that no one else in his tribe believes can be subdued. He does so to the astonishment and eventually the support of his band of friends, one of whom is a young girl who aspires to be the first in their group to kill a dragon. Each person in the group is a different personality. They are amusing and help bring the story to life.

There’s excitement and humor here, along with excellent animation—scenes in which the boy soars through the cloudy skies on the back of his dragon are outstanding. How to Train Your Dragon is entertaining and a pleasure to watch, more for how it tells its story than for the story itself.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 2001), is another tale about an American underdog who confounds his detractors and finds glory and fame. I don’t mean to make the book seem trite. It is wonderfully written and reads as a novel, though it’s non-fiction, the story of an American racehorse who caught the nation’s imagination in the depths of the Depression of the 1930s.

The four main human characters are Charles Howard, a man who pulls himself out of poverty by selling automobiles after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the jockeys Red Pollard and George (Iceman) Woolf, and the horse trainer Tom Smith. The eponymously named horse, Seabiscuit, for some readers may seem the real main character. But if anything is fabricated in the book, it is Seabiscuit himself. It’s not that Hillenbrand makes claims for him that can’t be certified. All the races she says he won, he won. The facts of his life and career are clear. Where the fabrication comes in is not through Hillenbrand but through the humans who work with the horse—Howard, Pollard, Smith, Woolf--they’re often quoted talking about what the horse is feeling, what he is thinking, how he likes to taunt his opponents in races by slowing down just enough to let them catch up and then speeding ahead, out of reach. Seabiscuit was an actual horse. He physically existed. But the people in the book, along with the reporters who wrote about him and the fans who idolized him, never knew what the animal actually thought or felt. They invented him as the character at the center of this story, as the projection of their own needs and desires. That’s the horse at the core of this narrative.

The sub titular reference to Legend is no exaggeration. Hillenbrand deeply believes in the Seabiscuit legend, and she is willing to allow some of the mystique and mystery of the story to go unquestioned. She doesn’t try to provide a rational explanation for every aspect of her story. She believes in the mystical man-horse bond. She doesn’t always look deeply below the surface details. Although her book is full of social history from the 1920s and 1930s—indeed, this is one of its primary merits—social analysis is not profound or extended. For example, Hillenbrand points out that the jockeys have a hazardous occupation and few benefits. Owners are particularly worried about the jockeys organizing. When one jockey tries to take up a collection to cover the medical costs of an injured friend, he is accused of trying to form a union. Hillenbrand makes note of these facts but they don’t alter her basic contention that the jockeys are equal partners with the owner in the story she is telling. The fact that horse racing is an enterprise of economic inequality, in which the jockeys are little more than pawns in the ambitions of the men who own the horses they ride, doesn’t come into play here. Hillenbrand sees in the Seabiscuit story and the uproars around him the roots of the contemporary fascination with celebrity and fame. She doesn’t comment on the story as another instance of how in times of crisis Americans have a tendency to become entranced with meaningless trivial events and figures.

Where Hillenbrand excels is in how she builds the story, portrays her characters, and describes the build-up to the races. She narrates the races with uncanny suspense and tension. She makes the Seabiscuit rivalry with War Admiral a centerpiece of the book and builds towards their 1938 match at Pimlico through much of the book. When Pollard is gravely injured, and when Seabiscuit pulls up seemingly lame in a later race, Hillenbrand builds towards still another story of American resurgence. There’s genuine excitement here, and it comes not from cheap devices but from Hillenbrand’s prodigious research, her skills as a writer, and from the story itself.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Why this fascination with zombies? I suppose it could be an aspect of the adolescent mind, because adolescent males from 12 to 25 are a prime audience for zombie films. But the appeal of zombies is wider than that. This nightmarish fear that some biological or supernatural disaster could cause those we love and depend on most either to die horribly or to be transformed into ravening beings who want to kill and eat us suggests a fundamental anxiety about the stability of human institutions, about the stability of how we live, about reality. It suggests fear of losing control, of illness and death, of unexpected violence, of being overwhelmed by events wholly out of our power. Most of all it reflects a profound and existential distrust of human nature and of the stability of contemporary life, a suspicion if not certainty that sooner or later those we love and trust most will turn on us darkly and rip out our throats.

One of my childhood fears was that one morning I would wake up to discover that my entire life—everything I knew, my parents and friends—was a dream, and in their place I was left in an entirely new and horrific reality. This I suppose is one reason for my dislike of zombies.

I don’t understand why every film about a global epidemic generally involves a virus that, instead of killing its victims, turns them into zombies. Why zombies? But Zombieland (2009; dir. Ruben Fleischer) I liked. The zombies are a secondary nuisance. They bite you and infect you with the zombie virus. Or they eat you. But the film’s real interests lie elsewhere.

Zombieland is like an amusement park, a video game. Amusement parks, like the one at the end of this film, constitute a kind of picaresque narrative, a loosely connected series of rides, or episodes. You walk from one ride to another and then the day is done and you depart. Video games are structured in the same way, except that in many cases you don’t leave the park--you ascend to a higher level. Zombieland is built this way—we move from one encounter with zombies to another, and then, after successfully surmounting the obstacles of the amusement park, we move off for further adventures, outside (of course) the province of this film.

Zombieland makes no pretenses—it doesn’t take the zombies or the disaster that has befallen humankind or anything else seriously. It moves fast. It has its moments of melancholia, of humor, but mostly they’re subsumed in one character’s search for a Twinkie or in another’s hope of finding his family.

A great and ironic sense of humor runs throughout the film. The four main characters are named for American cities: Columbus, Tallahassee, Little Rock, and Wichita. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has made up a list of rules that he follows in order to avoid the zombies. He’s constantly adding to them. When a girl who has been pursued by zombies takes refuge in his apartment, he thinks that at last he is going to lose his virginity, but then she turns into a zombie like everyone else. Tough luck.

The highlight of the film comes when the characters make their way to Hollywood and the mansion of the actor Bill Murray. They assume he’s dead. Two characters go into his viewing room to watch Ghostbusters. And then the zombie Bill Murray appears. Except that he’s not what he seems. This is the postmodern, metafictional touch—a film about zombies in which real people appear—a film in which Bill Murray plays himself--the disconnect between the real and the imagined softens, becomes indistinct.

Zombieland lacks the vision and sense of space of I am Legend (2007), with its eerily deserted New York City, and the tragically alone figure of Robert Neville played by Will Smith. It lacks the hopeless horror of 28 Days (2000) and 28 Days Later (2002). Or the gross stupidity of the zombies in George Romero’s films (no, I am not a fan). But what it does have is humor, suspense and tension, funny and whacky characters, and surprising turns of plot. It’s all good fun. That is, as long as you don’t mind the zombies. (They still want to eat your brains).

Woody Harrelson is great in this film.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Men Who Stare at Goats

I wanted to like Men Who Stare at Goats (2009; dir. Grant Heslov). The title, the concept (a military unit assigned to investigate using psychic powers against the enemy), the actors (Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root, George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges), the promise of droll and satiric humor, the supposedly factual basis of the story—all of this stood in the movie’s favor. But I had difficulty staying awake. The humor was obscure, the settings were dark and dreary, the plot was torturously winding and forked and uninteresting. The characters were indistinct. The film never came to life. In ways it was a lot like The Big Lebowski (1998)¸ except that the latter film made sense, was hilarious, had wonderfully bizarre and distinctive characters, worked in every possible way, and remains engaging and entertaining after many viewings. Jeff Bridges almost seems to play a version of the Dude in this film. But in the end it is as disappointing and unrewarding as one might expect staring at goats to be.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I decided to watch Splice (2009; dir. Vincenzo Natali) because the New York Times called it “an intelligent movie that, in between its small boos and an occasional hair-raising jolt, explores chewy issues like bioethics, abortion, corporate-sponsored science, commitment problems between lovers and even Freudian-worthy family dynamics” (June 4, 2010), and because my son Charles and his friend Chelsey assured me it was the worst film ever made. It is a bad film, no doubt, much worse than the Times review suggests, but a core of intelligence does inform some of its themes. In this drama about two scientists who are genetic engineers working for a pharmaceutical company that seeks to create organisms that will excrete chemicals for use in treating disease, Splice considers such questions as scientific research with a profit motive, bio-engineering, gene splicing, artificial life, and human-animal hybrids. It considers what responsibility scientists have over life forms they might bring into being, including semi-human beings. The film gives special force to the latter theme by having one of the research scientists (they are lovers) use her own ovum to create a hybrid being. Her childhood with an abusive and disturbed mother comes to bear in particular ways.

The trouble is that Splice is a horror film, not a film about science. It’s a melodramatic horror film with a dash of sex and incest thrown in for good measure. It lacks essential understanding of how scientific research works, of how long it takes, of how many hits and misses are usually involved before a scientific experiment or project reaches a successful conclusion. It makes assumptions without investigating them first. The assumptions are reasonable—that profit-driven research might have a dark side, that creating human-animal hybrids might be physically and morally risky, that genetic experimentation and engineering might be dangerous. But it simply considers these assumptions as true. The film therefore operates on a foundation of vast right-wing paranoia and ignorance. The human hybrid the researchers create (secretly, without knowledge of the rest of their research team or the company they work for) has the legs of a deer, a long whip-like tail with a poisonous stinger, huge wings that come out when it is angry, and, of course, super human strength. It also changes gender in mid-adolescence. It’s a completely ridiculous creature. (I am wrong in calling it a beast—the film wants us to think of it as a human-like creature with big eyes and it grows up into an attractive young woman, uh, female (before it turns into a male)). Of course, the creature has to be fetching and lovable so we’ll care about it. Conveniently for the 90-minute length of the film, the creature grows and matures at an accelerated rate, so that the scientists don’t have to get older. They simply sit and watch. The woman researcher, to whom the hybrid is related, of course feels motherly towards it. The film suggests that although the scientists knowingly chose to splice together genes from various creatures in order to create just the type of creature they wanted they had no idea what they would really get. Thus the wings and the poison tail and the gender change come as a big surprise. Scientists advanced enough in knowledge and technique to splice genes will have a good sense of what they’re going to get in the resulting hybrid organism.

Why did Aidan Quinn (who seems to be choosing one bad role after another) and Sarah Polley (who once had a promising career as both actor and director) choose this film? Was it desperation? Or were they too drawn by the intelligence at its core, the intelligence that when spliced with large doses of digital effects, scientific confusion, and melodramatic Hollywood palaver came to naught?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Hurry Sundown

Released in 1967 during the later years of the Civil Rights movement, Hurry Sundown (Dir. Otto Preminger) is set in 1946, and its two main characters have just returned from service in the war. The film serves as a prequel to the movement, exploring through characters and their conflicts the ideas and themes that will bring the movement to national prominence in the middle 1950s. The audience views the film through the lens of the ongoing movement.

Hurry Sundown is a convoluted melodrama that exploits a Southern setting, Southern characters, family and racial relationships, stereotypes, and accents to flesh out and advance its narrative. At times it has force, as when Rad McDowell (John Philip Law) returns from Europe to reunite with his family, or when an old black woman who served as mammy for the rich landowner’s wife explains to her son that she grieves for the failure of her life. More often the film drags along, inert and lifeless. Only the performances of certain characters—Fay Dunaway, Law, Fonda (occasionally), Burgess Meredith (ridiculous as a stereotyped and racist Southern judge) give it some life. Michael Caine plays the corrupt Henry Warren, married to a wealthy landowner, ambitious to consolidate that land and make big money by selling it all to a land conglomerate for development. He’s devious, corrupt, and without scruples. His face is usually emotionless throughout the film. He seems happy only when he plays his saxophone (he’s convinced he could have had his own band, and that success and fame are awaiting him in Hollywood).

This film is so cluttered and busy that its 2 hour and 44-minute length is hardly enough yet also too much.

The score is by Hugo Montenegro, a successful film composer of the day. His most famous scores are for the Man without a Name films, but his work here is conventional, out of place, and hardly recognizable until a final climactic scene late in the film.

Hurry Sundown is structured around a struggle for land. Two young men, Reeve Scott (Robert Hooks) and Rad McDowell (Law) return from the Second World War. Rad is a poor white farmer who lives on land next to Reeve, a poor black farmer who lives with his sickly mother Rose (Beah Richards). Friends while growing up, Rad and Reeve have grown apart. Reeve lives on land deeded to his grandfather in 1866. No one seems to know about the deed but Reeve and his mother. It becomes a crucial piece of evidence, especially when Henry argues that no deed of ownership from 1866 made out to a black man could possibly be credible. If Henry doesn’t succeed in securing these two plots of land for sale to the conglomerate, he will lose a potential fortune and possibly his job too. He lusts for power and wealth, neither of which he has ever had until he married the daughter of a rich landowner. The film therefore raises questions about land ownership—who has a better right to the land, families and individuals that have owned it for generations, or a land conglomerate (that happens to be from up North)? Hurry Sundown explores this issue mainly through Henry’s struggle to seize Rad and Reeve’s land. It’s not really a struggle of North vs. South but instead of wealth and power against powerlessness. Does the power of money—directly tied to the local system of law and justice—trump the ownership of individuals without power or money? Does the fact that one of the small landowners is black affect the struggle? In the end, Henry does use race in his attempt to seize Reeve’s land. The film is more interested in the racial structure of the community that in any broadly defined struggle of North vs. South.

Family relationships in Hurry Sundown are complicated. Henry is Rad’s cousin. Rad has struggled to eke out a living throughout his life, while Henry had the good fortune of marrying his wealthy wife Julia. Julia was nursed as a child by Rose and feels kinship to her (up to a point). Henry pressures her to use that relationship to convince Rose and her son to move off the land. Although he never concedes that they own it, he offers to pay them $5000 if they move. Julia is convinced that Rose loves her and her family. Rose is convinced that Julia’s love will protect her land from seizure. Henry offers Rad $7500 for his land and seems to suggest that he will profit in other ways from handing over the land. Rad distrusts Henry on a fundamental level. All these familial interconnections enhance the melodrama and also underlie the film’s contention that in shared family and community connections there is hope for the future.

Judge Potter (Burgess Meredith) is a stereotyped, old-time corrupt Southern judge who rules over the community with the iron fist of arbitrary judgments. He’s the most racist person in the film, though Henry is not far behind. The Judge’s family does not occupy the same social status as that of Julia. His daughter Sukie wants Julia to serve as her matron of honor. This will be a sign of social status. Henry pressures Julia to agree, so that he will have the judge on his side in any land disputes, and at first Julia won’t agree. She regards the Potter’s as beneath her, as from a lower social class. Her cousin Clem de Lavery (Frank Converse) has just moved to town to serve as associate pastor of what appears to be a Catholic (maybe Episcopalian) church. He is open-minded, progressive, friendly towards the black community, and immediately an object of suspicion to conservative members of the community. When he offers Judge Potter communion from a cup that a black woman has just sipped from, the Judge is outraged, spits in the cup, and tromps out of the church with his wife and daughter. For this insult, and for further insults to her cousin at a reception she gives in his honor, Julia orders the Judge and his family to leave her house.

Judge Potter is disliked by most of the towns[people to begin with. They see him as too uncultured, too openly racist, and his wife reminds him that the only reason he gets elected in one race after another for the judgeship is that the people in rural regions of the county always vote for him (implying that none of the city voters do).

Obviously, class is a major issue—let us say a major thread rather than theme. The film isn’t particularly interested in exploring class differences so much as in using them to explain tensions and conflicts among various characters. By having Rad and Reeve live on farms next to each other, and by having them become partners in an effort to keep their farms going in resistance to Henry’s pressures, the film seems to acknowledge the fact that class prejudices and racism are closely linked. Rad is at first resistant to a partnership with Reeve. His wife worries that the family will be ostracized in the community. But their common plight—the threat to their land posed by Henry and the conglomerate, and their childhood friendship—finally overcomes these concerns.

Race is another major issue, but I am not sure this film can be accurately described as a film about race. As with class, race is an element of the Southern context that the film uses to enhance tension and the essential conflicts. Viewers born after 1970 may be surprised by the completely segregated society that the film accurately portrays. In reality, society was probably even more segregated and separate in 1947 than this film suggests. We see separate bathrooms for the white and colored races. We learn that the local Sheriff, an inept bumbler played broadly by George Kennedy, has an ongoing sexual relationship with a black woman, that he enjoys the company of black people in general, but that he doesn’t hesitate to back up efforts of Henry and Judge Purcell, and of the “hunting club” (Ku Klux Klan—not named in the film but its members wear white hoods) to deny Reeve and Rad their rights to their land. It shows how in a difficult and life-threatening moment the black characters behave in a friendly, ingratiating way as they talk to the Sheriff in order to protect Reeve. (This is a deliberate strategy—they know they must play the stereotype to get what they need from the whites). Reeve’s friend Vivian (Diahann Carroll) even ingratiates her way into Judge Potter’s favor so that he will allow her to do research in the county court records. (Vivian has lived in New York for some time, seen other parts of the world, had a previous relationship with Reeve. She has come home, for some reason, and wants to move away again—she is an exception to the general portrayal of blacks in this film as honest, good-natured, and uneducated. In general, the black characters in the film all have similar traits and behave in similar ways. When black children learn a song in the local school (where Vivian teaches) it is a blues song about catfish,. When they gather to congratulate Reeve on having successfully opened up an irrigation canal for his and Rad’s farms, they sing and eat in celebration. For a film that seeks to portray racism and discrimination in a direct and open way, its portrayal of black characters is flat and paternalistic.

The racism that the film portrays is undeniable. The film seems aware of nuances in racial attitudes of the time—the difficult relationship between a white girl and the older black women who raised her (her mammy), the vulnerable position that Rad puts himself in by agreeing to work with Reeve and by backing up his claim to the land up in court. On the other hand, racism was far more complex and pernicious than even this film makes it out to be, to have been. Yet all the black characters in the film are portrayed with a uniform brushstroke of goodness. There is little variation. That is, a subtle paternalistic racism permeates the portrayal of the black characters whom the film clearly means to support.

Hurry Sundown tries to maintain audience interest with a strong dose (1967 style) of sexuality. Although Henry gives Julia numerous reasons to hate him, he always manages to overcome her qualms with sex. One night, after she has made him mad by showing concern for their son, he locks her out of the bedroom. The next day she returns the favor, but he climbs into the room through a window and practically rapes her—she resists at first and then responds. In another scene Henry plays his saxophone rather than respond to his wife’s sexual overtures. She sucks whiskey from a bottle in a suggestive way. Then she takes the saxophone from him as he reclines back on a sofa, ready (I assume) for oral sex. She pantomimes oral sex in a graphic and obvious way as she takes the saxophone, holds the grip in her hands, and tries to blow a note. In another scene Henry receives oral sex from Judge Purcell’s daughter (the same daughter who is getting married). Sex here is one of the hot passions that govern the South (e.g., Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; The Long Hot Summer, Baby Doll). Frankly, Julia’s scene with the saxophone is the best scene in the film. Something real is happening there.

In the aforementioned saxophone scene, Julia’s pantomime is one of the few instances of subtlety in the film, and even in that scene the film strains to make clear what it’s suggesting. Most of the time this film uses sledge hammers. Everything must be made clear, repeatedly. It’s not enough to show that Henry’s ambition to acquire the land of Rad and Reeve is a major character flaw. To make sure we understand that Henry is a bad man, we must see him abuse and lie to his wife, commit adultery in a convertible, mislead his cousin, conspire with the corrupt judge, lie in court. The worst sledge-hammer blows come when we learn that Henry’s mistreatment of his son left the child emotionally damaged—an offense he repeats later in the film when he locks the child in a storage room while he goes to check on some business. The child pulls shelves over on himself and is left unconscious. Then Henry lies to the law enforcement folks that careless use of dynamite by Reeve and Rad injured the child. No doubt about Henry—a mean old bad man. Michael Caine never once in this film seems comfortable in the role.

It amazes me that Horton Foote had a hand in the screenplay.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Littlest Colonel

In The Littlest Colonel (1935; dir. David Butler) the border state of Kentucky is the Deep South. A white columned plantation house, an elderly colonel who refuses to accept defeat by the North, loyal black servants indistinguishable from slaves, courtly manners, Southern belles. The South is a setting for this tale of how a winning little girl brings reconciliation between an estranged father and daughter. The film also serves as a vehicle for the 1930s child star Shirley Temple. Her acting never varied much from one film to the next, except that over the decade she got older.

The North-South division is the crux of the event that tears father and daughter apart. The colonel wants her to marry a gentleman from the south. She plans to marry a northerner, aptly named Jack Sherman. Father and daughter are resolutely stubborn. She leaves with her fiancé and her father tells her never to enter the house again.

The strongest figure in the film is Lionel Barrymore, who plays old Colonel Lloyd. He struts and huffs and puffs and overacts and holds your attention. There are entertaining moments between the house servants and Temple, entertaining within the narrowly defined lives of the servants. Bill Robinson plays the head house servant, Walker. He knows and has opinions about everything going on in the house, but he usually holds his tongue. (This in is a stereotype—the knowing, avuncular house servant who doesn’t say what he thinks). He and Temple perform two dance numbers together, one on the inner stairs of the colonel’s house, another in a barn where he looks after horses. Robinson was a wonderful dancer, as the scene on the stairs makes clear. Hattie McDaniel appears in her stock role as personal servant, or Mammy, to Shirley Temple’s character. McDaniel played these parts well—she was human and believable despite the constraints of her roles.

The characters played by McDaniel and Robinson are important secondary roles, but none of the black characters in the film ever wanders outside the prescribed social boundaries. Nor would they in a film like this, that exists only to tell a story, to broadcast the talents of its child star, that isn’t interested in subverting or questioning or satirizing. The Littlest Colonel accepts the conventions of the Old South without question.

Other black characters in the film, in particular two children, and one house servant, provide comic relief. Children can be funny without much effort, of course. These two children—a little boy and an older girl--play roles secondary to Temple’s. They follow her around, obey her commands, and make comic statements and comic actions. The little boy can do little more than moan and groan and utter monosyllables. This film offers further confirmation of the fact that African Americans in the 1930s had virtually no choice of roles beyond those involving servitude and slavery and low comedy. I wouldn’t characterize the portrayal of black characters in this film as viciously racist, but instead as conventionally racist. Given the decade, that’s about what one could expect from an A-list film written, directed, and produced by whites for a mostly white audience.

The film shows whites and especially blacks as accepting of their positions in life, as masters and servants. It purveys the notion that within this range of acceptance blacks and whites lived comfortably together in a nurturing community, helping and supporting one another when circumstances called for it. It’s important to remember that the story takes place in the 1880s, long after the end of the Civil War, when the former slaves could have left the plantation for better opportunities. That they have remained with the colonel simply reflects the golden gaze of Thomas Nelson Page apologetics that underlies this film’s conception of historical reality.

I’m always a sucker for films that show reconciliation between parents and children. In this one there’s no question, from the earliest scene in which they argue, that reconciliation will come for the colonel and his daughter. What gives the film interest, beyond Barrymore’s wonderful overacting and Temple’s carefully managed talents and the merits of other actors is the question of when that moment will occur. It comes not a moment too soon. And then, except for a final scene in which all the characters, black and white, enjoy a barbecue together, a scene filmed in color (in contrast to the rest of this black and white film), the affair is over.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change in response to various kinds of injury, external stimuli, and therapy. For instance, when one studies piano, the neurons in the parts of the brain that govern sound and manual dexterity multiply to support the needed skills. Sometimes stroke victims can regain use of paralyzed limbs through physical exercises that stimulate growth in portions of the brain that “take over” for damaged areas. In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Viking Adult, 2007), Norman Doidge studies neuroplasticity. He describes the cases of some of his own patients and reports on the careers of scientists involved in neurological research. The result is a history of neurology and of brain theory, explanations of the physiology and anatomy of the brain, and a series of case studies that show how various therapies have helped stroke victims, people suffering from phobias and OCD, forms of addiction, and other mental or behavioral issues, to recover from and cope with their problems. Such therapies can be used to treat learning disabilities and to keep the brains of aging people vital. Doidge argues that psychoanalysis sometimes works because it compels patients to think and act in ways that change their brain structure.

For years traditional science held that the brain is hardwired. That is, certain portions of the brain control certain functions--Broca’s area controls speech, while other areas control facial gestures or mobility. If these areas are damaged, according to traditional thought, then the abilities they support are permanently affected or lost. Neuroplasticity has overturned this notion. Also overturned is the idea that neuroplasticity affects only the young—that in older people the brain loses its plasticity. In fact, while the brains of the young are the most pliable in their ability to change and rewire, the brains of older people, including people in their 70s and 80s, can still show plastic properties.

This was an encouraging book for me, a person who, at the age of 60, worries about the loss of cognitive ability that can affect older people. There are physical and mental activities, exercises and therapies, Doidge suggests, that can stave off the inevitable mental decline.

The social implications of neuroplasticity, of therapies that can treat mental disorders and restore function to stroke and accident victims, that can, conceivably, be used for behavior modification both on an individual and wider scale, are complex. The possible use of brain modification therapy for social programming should receive serious and wary attention. We’ve heard about groups that claim to “deprogram” cult members and homosexuals, for example. Should people who exhibit behaviors regarded by some as unacceptable be compelled to undergo modification therapy? Social programmers or governments could use similar methods to modify the behavior of entire populations. Doidge hints at these implications but doesn’t explore them fully. Some other writer should do that. As a psychiatrist, Doidge’s main interest lies in understanding how the plastic nature of the brain can lead to effective treatment of physical and psychological problems of patients.

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Were it not for the publication in 1920 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel The Side of Paradise, we might never have had The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night or any of those fine short stories (“Winter Dreams”) for which Fitzgerald is remembered. In these later works Fitzgerald was a beautiful writer. In his first novel, self-absorbed, forced, disorganized, pedantic, sophomoric—he was still learning to write. He was very early in that process.

Fitzgerald must have written his first novel under the influence of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Surely he had this book in mind as he wrote his story about the privileged yet burdened Amory Blaine and his struggles to discover his vocation, his struggles to become a writer. In the final paragraph we are told that Blaine has discovered his calling, that he knows who he is, but the novel—both in the story it tells and the way it is written--gives no assurances he will make good on this knowledge.

Fitzgerald devotes nearly half of the book to Amory Blaine’s experiences at Princeton University, where he makes friends, joins a social club, becomes a campus luminary, has numerous intellectual conversations, drinks often and long, and experiences various romantic intrigues. It’s difficult to conceive of anything less interesting than detailed accounts of one’s college days, and one suspects that Amory’s self-absorption is a reflection of the same property in young author who imagined him.

After he graduates from Princeton, Blaine goes to war, the first world war, and returns (we are to believe) a changed and chastened man. Yet Fitzgerald gives us two or three fairly broad pages about the war (which he had no role in) and then moves on. At the age of 24 or so he returns to the Princeton campus and feels nostalgic and so grown beyond those collegiate days gone by. This is self-indulgent nostalgia. Fitzgerald is a much better nostalgia artist in his later work.

Several romances mark the dramatic centers of this books—two with socialites, one with a strange girl in the rural areas of New York who seems to be an early version of Nicole Diver and is perhaps Fitzgerald’s version of la belle dame sans merci. Blaine’s most traumatic romantic experience is his rejection by a beautiful upper-class girl who leaves him because he hasn’t the financial means to support her well. (Shades of Zelda?)

I’d put this novel in the same category as Faulkner’s much superior Soldiers’ Pay—it’s a beginner’s novel. But not all first books are necessarily so flawed—consider Hemingway’s In Our Time.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

That Evening Sun

That Evening Sun (2009; dir. Scott Teems) foregrounds place. The setting is Tennessee. Intensely visual cinematography, a strong soundtrack of insect sounds and other ambient noises, mountains in the background, views of fields, houses, tenant shacks, pickup trucks, a nearly abandoned small town. These do not image a stereotypical American South but instead a particular one.

The South is not the subject or even the primary issue. Rather it is a context. The dramatic focus is an 80-year old farmer, Abner Meecham, who has been living in a retirement home for three years. It is a dreary, depressing place. We learn that after the death of Abner’s wife, his son Paul convinced him to move there. But Abner decides he cannot tolerate the home any longer and packs up to walk back to his farm. When he arrives, by walking and by taxi, he discovers someone else living there. He learns that as soon as he moved to the retirement home his son rented the house and farm to Lonzo Choat, a ne’er do well local citizen struggling to make his way. Although he lives only off the benefits from disability checks, he wants to make the farm work. The conflicts here revolve around class, age, and family. Lonzo is around 40 and holds Abner in contempt. Some years before Abner refused to rent a tenant shack to him. Abner hates Alonzo—he calls him white trash, accuses him of laziness, thievery, and worse. While Abner wants to return to his farm and live out the remainder of his life, Lonzo wants to make a home there. Both desires, the film gradually brings us to know, are not likely to be fulfilled. This is not a narrative in which two stubborn, resolute characters struggle and argue and finally come to an understanding. As the conflict between Abner and Lonzo deepens, each becomes more firmly set against the other. They are stubborn, yes. But Alonzo’s stubbornness may be fueled by alcohol and upbringing, while Abner’s may come from advancing age if not early senility. There are moments when it seems the gap between these men might be bridged, especially through Alonzo’s wife and daughter, both of whom are sympathetic to Abner, but they lead nowhere.

That Evening Sun is based on a story by Tennessee writer William Gay. The director and screenwriter Scott Teems is a native of Lilburn, Georgia. Ray McKinnon, who plays Lonzo, has appeared in a number of Southern films, including The Accountant, The Blind Side, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? His production company, “Ginny Mule Pictures,” which he co-owns with Walton Goggins, who plays Abner’s son Paul in this film and who also appeared in The Accountant, has produced several films about the South. Although Ginny Mule Pictures did not produce That Evening Sun, McKinnon was a producer. To some extent, then, this film is the creation of Southern writers, director, and actors. This may account to an extent for its realistic treatment of the Southern setting. The film shows us an old farm nestled in the mountains. It is instantly recognizable. We are not surprised that it is Southern. It is particular unto itself—it doesn’t seem constructed from preconceptions of what a Southern farm ought to be. It simply is what it is. The makers of That Evening Sun give us the South of their own experience. Of course, their Southnernness simply means that they bring their own preconceptions to the film. But compared with the treatment of the Southern farm in such films as The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this one seems quietly real.

Although Abner Meecham’s farm is near the small town of Ackerman’s Field, only a few scenes occur in the town. There is no real farm vs. city conflict here, though the setting makes clear that the town is a part of the rural South that has been left behind by modernization, urbanization, and homogenization. It is analogous to the small town in Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart, left behind when the highway passed it by, or Eula Springs in James Wilcox’s novel Modern Baptists. In a sense, all the characters live on the margins. Abner is old and isolated. He lost his wife (whom he remembers in occasional flashbacks and dreams) three years before. His only friend, Thurl Chessor, a nearby farmer played by Barry Corbin, has difficulty walking and cannot drive. Abner lives on social security and support from his son Paul. A long history of unemployment, domestic violence, alcohol, and an injury to his leg have given Lonzo the reputation of a terminally unemployed no-count. He is struggling, as his wife explains to Abner, to make something of himself, and he was (apparently) successfully managing to avoid abusing alcohol and his family, until Abner returns to the farm. The two women in the family are trapped by Lonzo’s domineering personality, his violence, and their love for him (though ultimately the daughter leaves).

Too many conflicts and struggles afflict That Evening Sun. The main one is Abner’ s struggle to come to grips with his age, the loss of his farm and his wife, and his difficult relationship with his son Paul. His son is a lawyer and while it’s apparent that he’s not a wealthy man he at least has money. He complains to his father at one point about how much it costs him to keep him in a retirement home, and it’s clear that he never had much of a relationship with the old man. Abner complains that all Paul has ever done is lie to him. In fact, Abner’s conversations with Lonzo and Paul are full of insults, rancor, and bitterness. He feels abandoned and betrayed by everyone, and the worst insult comes when he returns to his farm to find a man whom he has long disliked renting his farm (with an option to buy) from his own son.

Abner blames everyone for his misfortunes. Gradually events lead him to realize that to some extent he bears responsibility for some of the things that have happened, including his difficult relationship with Paul. He comes to see how cruel and difficult he has been, even to his wife. We recognize, even if Abner does not, that Abner is much like Lonzo after all.

Abner shows some sympathy for Lonzo’s wife Ludie (Carrie Preston) and daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowski). Ludie tries to be friendly with Abner, perhaps hoping to soften the developing tensions with her husband. She seems to understand Abner both as an old man with his own problems and also as a threat to the life she and her husband hope to build on the farm. It is Pamela, a sixteen-year-old girl, whom Abner at brief moments talks to and even behaves kindly towards. She seeks him out on several occasions simply for conversation, as if she is looking for a warmth and connection she cannot get from her embittered father. When Lonzo, drunk and angry over her being out late at night with a boy, beats her and his wife with a hose, Abner threatens him with a gun and turns him into the local sheriff. Later he warns and then demands that Pamela leave the farm, for her own safety (Ludie has encouraged her to leave as well). We see a dimension of Abner in these scenes that suggests he is not all gruffness and bitterness. In these two woman he may see something of his former life, of his departed wife. At the same time, Lonzo’s abuse provides him with a convenient excuse to escalate their dispute.

There is no peaceful resolution here. After Abner is injured in a fire, he wakes up in a hospital room to find Paul watching over him. They agree that Abner will go to live in a retirement community apartment near Paul’s home. Paul tells him he will have a backyard where he can grow tomatoes, and Abner, true to form, answers that he would rather grow corn. In the final scene we see Abner peering into windows of the abandoned house where he once lived. Lonzo and his wife have moved out, but, significantly, Abner does not enter the house. He walks around the front of the house, peers through the windows at vacant rooms and unused furniture, and then walks out of view.

Hal Holbrook is excellent as Abner Meecham. His is a one-note performance, of sorts, but then Abner is a one-note sort of man. McKinnon is effective as Alonzo, but then again Lonzo too is a flat character whose basic stubbornness only deepens as the film moves along. Preston, Wasikowski, and Corbin are a fine supporting cast.

Abner Meecham and Lonzo Choates are vaguely Faulknerian names. The struggle here between a displaced landowner and the lower-class white man who has supplanted him suggests Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy. The plot of the film as a whole, about a man displaced and struggling with his age and ownership of land, reminds us of The Field (1990), with Richard Harris in the lead role, an even darker and grimmer film than this one. The ultimate ancestor of both is King Lear, about an old man raging against age, betrayal, and abandonment.

That Evening Sun has comic moments but is not a comic film. Abner’s plight is sad and hopeless, as is Alonzo’s. No one seems headed towards a happy outcome. Abner and his friend Thurl will die soon. Lonzo will continue to falter in an ongoing downward spiral. Maybe his wife will put up with him a while longer. And who knows what will happen to their daughter?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

My Shtetl, by Robert Cooperman

My favorite poem in Bob Cooperman’s My Shtetl (Logan House, 2009) is “Machatonim,” his memory of attending a family reunion as a young boy and being approached and sloppily hugged by a distant relative. The poem begins:

     A friend defines
     that verbal mouthful
     as “the extended family stretched
     like a polite smile at a social
     function you’d almost rather
     be dead than have to attend.”

     They’re the distant kin we’d greet
     with, “It’s wonderful to see you again!”
     and wonder afterwards, “Who
     in God’s holy name was that?”

Everyone has experienced such a hug. It is the general appeal of the situation in this poem, and others like it, that makes these poems so readable and affecting, that allows us, whatever our heritage, to find ourselves and our own memories in the events and people and feelings described.

Cooperman tends towards short or medium-length poems. Most of the poems here fit individually on one page, so that each page of the collection encapsulates a discrete memory of a family personage or experience. As one reads these poems, individually, a page at a time, they take on a cumulative force, so that in the end one understands and feels the importance of these recollections. They are frequently poignant, often humorous, sometimes angry and biting.

My Shtetl is organized into sections, each with a loosely specific theme or focus. Many of the poems concern Cooperman’s parents, his memories of his father, who died decades ago, and of his mother, infirm but still living in NYC. He muses over the fact of his father’s departure from his life, and the prospect of his mother’s departure as well.

In Yiddish shtetl means my little village, or my home town. It’s a term that names Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe. Cooperman’s paternal grandparents immigrated from Poland, escaping the horrors of the Second World War, and in a quiet way Cooperman brings the impact of life in Poland, of the move to America, of the holocaust, into his own presentations of family memory and identity. Some commentators see the word Shtetl as associated with a sense of nostalgia, as something vanished forever. There is certainly nostalgia in these poems, not so much for a vanished way of life (one which in the literal sense Cooperman never experienced) as for a nearly vanished family existence. In writing about experiences from childhood, parents and other relatives, of people he knew when he was younger, Cooperman is indeed writing about a vanished reality, yet it’s a reality that is captured in his memory and embellished in the imaginative evocations in these poems.

The poems in My Shtetl are infused with comedy, sadness, longing. By looking back to relatives, family, and early experiences, Cooperman defines himself in terms of his religious heritage and also in the broad terms of a shared experience of memory and loss that is the curse of all human experience. He touches on the shared nature of this experience in “What I Would Sing for the Romany,” where he seems torn between the English and American traditions of the ballads and songs he loves and the

     Yiddish song
     my grandmother sang
     to get me peacefully asleep:
     a song of the Old Country.
     She escaped with her life
     and little else.

As with many of Cooperman’s other collections, his poetic biographies of Keats and Shelley, his collections set in the 19th-century Colorado mountains, even in his reminiscences of The Grateful Dead, whom he loves, the accumulative effect in My Shtetl is of a coherent narrative that is evocative, moving, powerful.

My Shtetl was named winner of the 2009 Holland Prize by the Logan House, given for the “best unpublished book of poetry in American English.” Cooperman lives in Denver, CO, with his wife Beth, a business professor at the University of Colorado/Denver.