Friday, December 30, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff (2010; dir. Kelly Reichardt) extends and subverts the grand tradition of American film westerns. Its point of view is that of three women traveling west with their families. Although the film is episodic after a fashion, it doesn’t offer a series of climactic encounters of crises that we have seen in such films as Stage Coach—attacks by Indians or bandits, internal squabbles among characters. Instead, the challenges the travelers face are mundane—repairing broken wagon wheels, searching for water, encountering a lone Indian who (apparently) becomes their guide, and, most of all, searching for the right trail—their expedition leader Meek (a self-styled Wild Bill Hickock, an Indian hater, and a teller of lies intended to make the group more reliant on his leadership) led them through a cutoff from the main trail that was supposed to be a shortcut, and instead they became lost. They are lost throughout the entire film.

The setting for this film (mostly filmed in Oregon) is beautiful, though it is always arid. There is no sense of westward-ho in this film, of mighty settlers moving ever westward towards a new land of plenty. The film avoids John Ford-like shots of glorious landscape and instead keeps the wagons in a middle ground. (As Roger Ebert points out, it’s photographed in a 1:1.33 screen ratio, which prevents spectacular widescreen panoramic shots).[1]We get a sense of what they can see, but even more we understand how they feel--tired, bored, increasingly hopeless. There is boredom, monotony, and walking. Virtually no one rides on the wagons, to reduce the load and strain on the animals—oxen and mules—everyone walks, unless sick or injured. The travelers and their clothes are dirty and worn (frankly, not dirty enough, given that if they can’t find water for drinking they certainly can’t find it for bathing or washing). The film is muted, low-key, understated.

The three women are distinct individuals. One, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), has a family, another is Irish and pregnant, a third is prone to hysteria. For the most part, the film doesn’t press the idea that the women are being dragged through the western prairies against their wills, but one can infer. The big decisions are made by the men, on their own, though the women may express their opinions to their husbands—still, the women do not have a say in what’s decided. There’s never any question they will refuse to comply with what’s been decided. Given their plight, of course, lost on the prairie with no water, they have little option.

The cipher in the film is the Indian whom one of the women discovers spying on their wagons. He runs off, but the men pursue him and bring him back. Meek wants him killed, and talks of various indignities that Indians will inflict on their group, especially the women. But the group decides to let him live, hoping he will lead them to water and the trail. The trouble is that they can’t communicate with him, nor he with them. They talk at one another. They seem at moments to understand each other, but one is never sure. Emily makes the greatest effort to talk with the Indian, and he talks back, in his own language, so that he remains to us (we see the film from the settlers’ viewpoint and can’t understand his language either), a mystery as well.

The final scene in this film is astounding, frustrating, unsatisfying, and magnificent.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Secret of Kells, Despicable Me, and Megamind

I saw Despicable Me (2010; dirs. Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud), Megamind (2010; dir. Tom McGrath), and The Secret of Kells (2009; dirs. Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey) all within a 24-hour span. Each was entertaining. Megamind and Miserable Me are really animated science fiction films about comic villains who want to take over the world and who, either through becoming a foster parent or falling in love, discover they have human and redeeming dimensions. They rely especially on digital effects and are in fact digital creations, and although some preliminary manual sketches may have been involved for the most part they were developed entirely on computers, as most animated films are today. I don’t deplore this. Digital animation is a major new development. It is only natural that animated films would make use of it. But The Secret of Kells shows that traditional styles of animation are still relevant. It won’t necessarily appeal to the same audience as Megamind and Miserable Me (there will be some overlap), but it is a better, more imaginative, more entrancing work than either.

The Secret of Kells is animated with hand-drawn images, in the style of Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1960s and 70s. It is a largely, if not entirely fictionalized account of the creation of the legendary Book of Kells in the eighth or ninth century. Its main character “illuminates” hand-copied bibles. In the film, he is assisted by a sprite-like wood spirit. The book comes to be through a combination of magic and inspiration. It is also seen as a product of discord, as it is created while the monastery is threatened by invading Vikings. The film’s images are simple and stylized, drawn with an intense palette of vivid colors. While Megamind and Miserable Me rely on cute children, super heroes, loud noises, and bombast, The Secret of Kells is quiet, allusive, elusive, fanciful, and subtle. It’s a magical film, while the others are entertaining and forgettable.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Viking Adult, 2006) contrasts and interweaves two themes. First, the struggle of the Pilgrims to find a place to settle and worship as their conscience dictated. When they decided that Leiden, in the Netherlands, was no better than England, they chose to go to the New World. The first group travels over to New England on the Mayflower. Other groups follow. Initially they live in terrible conditions. Disease wipes out half the group during the first winter, but they persevere. Their society evolves as it enlarges, especially as outsiders gradually join them. They are not religiously tolerant, they don’t like nonconformity, and they are devious and bloodthirsty in their dealings with the Indians. Of course, the Indians are more than capable of bloodthirstiness and deviousness themselves, especially since they are struggling to survive, especially as it becomes clear that to the Puritans the Indians are not a people to be accommodated but rather are a people in the way. The second theme, no surprise, is the changing, evolving relationship of the Puritans and the Indians to live with, accommodate each other. Ultimately, the native tribes of new England resist these new occupants of lands where they’d lived for centuries, and disastrous wars result.

Philbrick’s account of the Puritans is detailed and highly readable. The book’s narrative force is one of its great attributes. Philbrick is an elegantly descriptive writer of a straightforward, unadorned prose. He relies on other historians, journal entries, letters, and an assortment of primary and secondary documents, yet the book is not overridden with footnotes and scholarly references (these are documented in the book’s final section).

The Mayflower, the early Puritans, the first colonies in Massachusetts are the subject of a deeply engrained national mythology. This book brings welcome and chastening illumination to the story.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) seeks to remind us of our links to the distant past through images of the recently discovered Chauvet caves of Southern France, which contain the oldest examples of art ever encountered. Many of the images on the cave walls are so fresh they appear to have been painted yesterday, but more surprisingly many of them are rendered with a skill and style that make them seem almost modern. Herzog’s documentary films are his own meditations on the stories and pictures that interest him. In this film he meditates on the nature of the past and its connection to the present day. The cave is nearly pristine, virtually unchanged from the moment when some 20,000 years ago a massive landslide sealed off the entrance. Although no human bones have been found, it is full of the bones of animals—deer, cave bears, even a golden eagle. Some of these animals lived in the cave while others were brought there and consumed or used for ritual purposes by the people who visited the caves. The images on the walls have meaning, of course, but what exactly they mean or meant is beyond reach. Herzog speculates, with the assistance of archaeologists and scientists, that they may have had spiritual significance and that in some way they signify the prehistoric belief that the divisions between the worlds of men and animals were permeable and sometimes could be crossed. Men could change into beasts, or beasts could change into men, or beasts and men could share one body. Herzog speculates that in the Chauvet caves and surrounding regions the modern mind was born. It is inescapable that as modern intruders into this cave we along with Herzog would impose our own philosophical questions on the paintings. It’s natural to ascribe significance, maybe religious significance, to the images in the cave. But who knows what the cave’s residents believed about them? Maybe they just loved to draw. Maybe they were bored, and painting on the cave walls was a way of passing time, having fun. Herzog displays the images with reverence and awe. The film is especially worth viewing in 3-D, which is especially effective for showing the twisting, narrow passageways of the caves.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes clear that whatever we wish to make of it, however we strive to interpret it, the past is beyond recovery.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Emma, by Jane Austen

I listened to a complete text of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) on the treadmill. I find that it is easy to “read” books with strong plotlines on the treadmill. Not so with Emma. It is a novel about a closely bound social set. Much of it is conversation back and forth between characters, and it took me quite a while to grab hold of this book and be carried by it. The novel is first of all a book of social manners focused on the courtship of young women. Emma as the main character is self-absorbed and much concerned with the lives and business of others. She spends a good bit of her time trying to arrange matches for one person or another, especially Harriet Smith, whose illegitimate birth, virtually never spoken of, is nonetheless widely known and a primary reason why gentleman of the upper class would never seriously consider marrying her. By setting the young woman up with one gentleman after another, Emma causes her much embarrassment and pain. In believing that she knows what is best for people around her, Emma is largely unaware of what is best for herself. In Austen’s world, what is best for a woman is a good marriage—a marriage to a suitable man, a man of means, of her own social class or better, a man whom she chooses or who she allows to choose her. Much of the novel is concerned with Emma’s interest in people who are not interested in her, or whose interest in her is unwelcome. The obnoxious Mr. Elton, who Emma tries to set up with Harriet, is one example. Mr. Churchill, who seems to be interested in Emma’s company for much of the novel, is another. Emma’s misjudgment of character, her limited appreciation of the feelings of others, is at the center of many of her errors.-

Emma is also a comedy of manners, or, simply, a comedy. Satirical portrayals of characters such as Emma’s father and Mrs. Elton and others reveal Austen’s talent for caricature, for humor in general, and the vehicle for her satire of her society.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011; dir. Joe Johnston) offers one of the better film adaptations I’ve seen of a comic book hero. It’s set in the early 1940s, with the United States preparing to engage Hitler’s troops in combat. The United States needs a secret weapon, and a scientist has devised a means to turn ordinary soldiers into super-soldiers. The process involves needles and iron-maiden-like machines and green liquids and numerous other devices (most of which glow, make noise, and emit sparks), but it does work. That’s how our hero Steve Rogers, a puny weakling who begs and lies his way into the army because he wants to serve his country, becomes Captain America. None of this makes much sense, of course, unless you’ve read enough comic books (as a boy, I read them), in which case it makes perfect sense. The Nazis make great villains, of course, as do the public relations people who try to turn Captain America into a swill for selling bonds and recruiting soldiers.

There’s no real break-out moment of super hero glory in this film, as there have been at moments in the early Superman and Batman and Spiderman films, but noise, action, guns, military trucks, and fighting abound. The film is entertaining and never boring and requires no thought. In fact, it’s better if you don’t apply to much thought to the film—just watch it.

The end of this film, which moves Captain America from the 1940s to 2010, is a bit contrived and forced. The 1940s plot doesn’t really come to a conclusion. It just stops. Then Captain America, catapulted by some absurd 1940s contrivance into the future, finds himself in Times Square of New York City, all in preparation for another film, The Avengers (2012; dir. Josh Whedon) in which Captain America teams up with Iron Man and Thor and some other super fellows. Oh boy.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

Boundaries are at issue in Bangkok 8, by John Burdett (2003)—transgressed boundaries, American vs. Thai boundaries, colonial boundaries, sexual boundaries, racial boundaries, criminal boundaries. This murder mystery set in modern Bangkok and narrated by a half-American, half-Thai detective who is ridiculed by his colleagues for having scruples, has one of the most terrifying crime scenes I’ve encountered—it involves baby cobras, a boa constrictor, dry ice, and a Mercedes limo. American imperialism and its consequences are another issue. The years of the Vietnamese conflict transformed Bangkok, which became a self-made pleasure dome for American soldiers on leave. In the modern-day Bangkok sexual tourism remains a major source of income for the city. The Vietnamese war also helped create a new population of Asian Americans who are always, or at least in the case of our narrator, at some sort of odds with the rest of the population.

The narrator, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, loses his partner early in the book, and one wonders whether their close friendship is the reason he avoids falling into a relationship with an American CIA operative who is attracted to him. She’s been assigned to the murder investigation because the murder victim was a former American soldier, and for other reasons

I was never comfortable with this novel. It has the tone of tough-guy noirism, but its protagonist, who on occasion you might compare to Philip Marlowe, never makes clear exactly where he stands. He’s elusive and slippery. What you do realize is that his strong sense of virtue and of moralism won’t allow him to let the murder go unsolved, even when his life is at risk.

The novel imbues its scene and story with claustrophobia, from the tiny apartment where the narrator lives, to the sex shows, to the jade shop. And this is claustrophobia not simply of a spatial sort. Everyone is watching everyone else. No one moves or acts without someone else’s being aware. Corruption, human exploitation, deception are rampant. Bangkok in this novel suggests the Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1983; dir. Ridley Scott).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Source Code

Source Code (2011; dir. Duncan Jones) is one of those time travel films wherein the hero travels continually back into the past and triers to prevent an event from happening. In Source Code that event is the explosion of a bomb on a train where the pretty young woman that the protagonist gradually falls for is killed. There are wrinkles to this story, one in particular that changes our view of the protagonist Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a significant way. This is one of those time travel films wherein the viewer must constantly suspend belief in rules of logic, reason, and science. The film never explains how the protagonist is thrust back into the past, only that it is possible, in some instances, for an a person of the present to be thrust back into the consciousness of an individual in the past who is eight minutes away from death. (If you find this plausible, then this film is a holiday for you). When Colter travels back into time, he takes over the body of a young man whom the woman is planning to marry. By the end of the film he has permanently taken over the poor man’s body and stolen his fiancée, and when the film concludes and all is easy and well with the universe, no one pauses to think about him. He’s the real victim.

Source Code is a puzzle. As we return repeatedly to the past, we gradually gather clues about the bomber’s identity, and about the bomb he has planted. We gradually gather information about our hero. Time travel as a way of ordering the plot gradually becomes tedious, and only our interest in seeing how the pieces of the puzzle fall into place keeps us holding on.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan

Jake Marlowe, narrator of The Last Werewolf (Knopf, 2011) is an intelligent, literate soul whose laces his story with ironic observations, literary allusions, and historical philosophizing. He is the last werewolf, on the earth, supposedly, the others having been hunted down and killed by werewolf hunters. They pursue him throughout the story. He writes passably well (he narrates through journal entries), and it took me a while to put my virtual finger on the real problem with him and the novel in which he figures. There is a brittle, faintly artificial quality to his voice that competes with the novelty of his situation—novel at least for us readers—that situation being that he is the last of his kind.

Author Glen Duncan describes effectively how on a monthly basis Jake changes to a werewolf, and although I haven’t read too many of these novels he does a credible job of dramatizing the change. Marlowe does not welcome it. He spends the entire month dreading it, yet when the transition comes he has no choice about giving himself up to it. He has no control over the change or over himself once it has occurred. The novel wallows in such moments of self-pity and loss of control.

Ultimately, the conventions of werewolfery take over this novel, which is most interesting when Marlowe talks about what it feels like to be a werewolf, how he dreads the change, his world weariness, and so on. He is a sort of existential werewolf. He waits willingly to be hunted down and killed. He remembers the attack in the forest two hundred years before that led to his condition. He remembers the woman he loved, his wife, who became his first victim, an act that haunts him.

Sex and passion—of the human and bestial sort—are the real focus here, as becomes clear when Marlowe meets another werewolf (there really is another one, after all), and she is female. They have incredible sex, as werewolves and as humans, at least Marlowe says they do. Therefore the novel satisfies our prurient interest in the moment of human to wolf transformation and also in the sexual lives of werewolves. This is assuming we have such an interest. Glen Duncan assumes we do.

The main character’s name—Jake Marlowe—alludes to two important literary narrators—Jake Barnes of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, in such tales as The Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Jake’s mannered self-consciousness especially suggests Hemingway’s narrator, also trapped in a situation over which he has no control.

The novel awkwardly telegraphs its ending.

None of this was actually very satisfying.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Paul (2011; dir. Greg Mottola) is here because I am trying to record thoughts on each film I see. I am shamefacedly reporting that I did watch it, that I cannot remember why I watched it, and that the experience was without value. Paul is a stoner comedy about aliens. Basically, two nerdy and stoner UFO enthusiasts set out on a road trip to Roswell, NM, and other places of renown in the community of people who believe that alien visitations occur on a daily basis. Somewhere along the road, they run across Paul, a digitized alien with the standard shape and large eyes of aliens as envisioned by ET folklore proponents. Paul has lived among us for some time, and he is himself a stoner. Since he is voiced by Seth Rogen, there can be little surprise. The movie loosely parodies and satirizes ET and Close Encounters, but it’s real purpose is to elicit laughter through jokes and comic antics that have no bearing on Paul’s extraterrestrial origins. They are stoner antics, and this is a stoner movie, and not a very good one. There have been some entertaining stoner films, but the laughter and occasional warm feelings this film elicits are cheaply won.

Biological hubris has some bearing on the pervasive, wistful notion that aliens—if they are out there—would be basically like us. To suggest they would smoke dope, drink beer, and take on most of the less than savory characteristics of a pop-addled generation is something else, and difficult to name.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Hannah (2011; dir. Jon Wright) is a far removed version of The Tempest—a young woman raised by her father in the Arctic wilderness, with no opportunities for contact with other people. Her father is, as we learn early on, training her for guerilla-style, ninja influenced combat. The film quickly introduces several mysteries that it immediately sets to unraveling. What is Hannah being trained for? Who is her father, and why is he marked for termination by a secret security agency? What happened to Hannah’s mother? Who are the people who want to track Hannah and her father down?

These questions are more interesting than the answers. Saoirse Ronan is very good as Hannah, a perfect sort of combat machine. She is aggressive, combative, and strangely unemotional—she has been, as we learn, raised to possess these traits, and “raise” has two distinct meanings. We learn about Hannah from her actions, from what she does; we know little about her otherwise. She says very little, and she spends most of the film trying to elude pursuers.

This could be an interesting film about identity or about nature vs. nurture or about the extents to which governments will go in covert operations. Hannah could also be a suspenseful thriller, but it really fails to be any of these. It substitutes stylish camera work, frenetic editing, and rhythmic music for substance. After a time it becomes monotonous. The set-up is promising. The carry-through is disappointing. Saoirse Ronan creates an interesting character who doesn’t have much of a story.

Comments on Despy Karlas

I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words today about Despy Karlas. I did not know Despy at all until her later years, long after her retirement, when I would see her at social events. One thing I remember about her in particular is her keen, piercing eyes. She watched everyone around her and enjoyed conversation. I remember one conversation in particular when she talked to me about how she had returned to the piano after some time and was practicing pieces by Chopin. I did know of her reputation in the school of music, where her presence as a teacher and performer was part of the legendry of the School.

What do great teachers leave behind when they retire and pass from the scene? Where do you look for them? You might find their names in departmental histories, or their books moldering in the library, or in the names of old buildings. Former students may come asking after them. Speaking as a professor myself, I hope our impact on students is the most important mark we leave behind us. We hope our students learned from us, we hope we helped them grow and mature, we hope we helped them in some small way prepare for the rest of their lives.

Despy’s students are her greatest legacy. You will hear from some of them today. Today they are teaching and performing throughout the state and the nation. And the students of those students are her legacy too, for the example she set, the methods she taught, the discipline she instilled, the love of the piano she embodied—all of these are passed on to them. And of course another way Despy lives on is through the professorship endowed in her name and through her other generous gifts to Music.

I have the privilege of having had her legacy passed to me. I began to study piano as an adult student in 1989, under the guidance of Sue Baughman, who lives here in town, and who herself studied with Despy. Sue was a wonderful teacher and good friend. For the past 6 years I’ve studied under Despy’s final piano student, Joey Hokayem, who teaches many talented young students here in Athens. Let me hasten to say that I am neither young nor talented, but I enjoy the struggle to learn new pieces. Joey often speaks of Despy and her ways of teaching piano, her comments, her strategies, her ways of letting students know when they did or did not measure up to expectations. Here is what he said about Despy: “She totally transformed my approach to the playing the piano. She not only set goals for her students but showed us how to achieve them. She was a true pedagogue and was always very thorough in every detail of the music. She was also very concerned about the other areas of our life and how we were balancing them with the demands of our music education. I was her last student at UGA and felt very fortunate to have studied with her for over 6 years.”

It pleases me to know that in my labors as an adult piano student I am studying with teachers who studied with Despy Karlas.

Comments presented at November 30, 2011 celebration of Despy Karlas

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Help

In The Help (2011; dir. Tate Taylor) we experience the big events of the early 1960s indirectly-- through news reports about the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the Kennedy assassination of 1963. An exception is the murder of Medgar Evers—since the film is set in Jackson, characters learn of the murder on the street and from friends. This story of how oppressed black women working menial jobs find a voice to tell their stories, to contribute in their own way to the struggle for equal rights, is in reality a small chapter in a much larger narrative.

I watched this film with a mostly white audience. A few black people were present, but not many. My suspicion is that the readers who made the book a best seller, and viewers who made the film a commercial success, were mostly white. Black viewers will have to explain their reactions to the film. I suspect many may have enjoyed it, but that the scenes of black women working as maids for white families who at worst were racist and cruel caused discomfort. As a white viewer, I felt discomfort over how the women were treated, over the circumscription of their lives—this is a reaction the film intended. Another source of discomfort came from the fact that I lived through the times this film portrayed. I wanted to resist this portrayal of the middle-class white South, in part because I knew it was accurate.

Early in my life my family lived in an old duplex in College Park, Georgia. My father was struggling to make a start in the florist business. My mother was raising children. They were not wealthy. Our maid was a woman named Mary Lou. She lived a little more than a mile from our house, and every morning she would walk to work. I’d see her pass the side window as she headed towards the backdoor. We paid her two dollars a day at first. Eventually we raised her pay to five dollars. She worked for us for twenty years. My father helped her buy a house, a run-down wooden frame on an unpaved road where she and some of the other black residents of College Park citizens lived.

This was the segregated South we were growing up in, though as children we at first knew nothing of it. It never occurred to us to question the status quo or even to know what it was. It was just for us life. Gradually, as I grew older, I became aware of a racial divide. I heard my grandmother promising me that if integration came to the schools of Georgia and they shut down as they did in Arkansas, she would have school for us in our own house. I heard my grandfather promise to wash her mouth out with soap if she kept using a particular word that even then was regarded as impolite. I heard my father express his dislike for Sammy Davis Junior and his marriage to a white woman. I heard conversations among my friends and their parents. In general, my parents were inhabitants of their time and their place, but their opinions and manners of speech were moderate and moderating. My mother regarded the white mobs that attacked the Freedom Riders in 1961 as troublemakers, and I remember clearly her sadness over the murders of the four children in Birmingham, Alabama.

By the standards of the time we treated Mary Lou well. She kept good care of us children, seemed to love and enjoy us. But how can I know for sure? Like the maids in The Help, Mary Lou wore a uniform to work. We had a few other maids during my childhood. I remember only one of them well. When one maid left and another came to work, it did not matter much to us children. We did not care much about how these women felt about coming to work for our family. Some of them we treated badly—not in the same way as the racist woman in The Help, but in the way that four or five young children can run amuck and make life difficult for a caretaker. Mary Lou usually managed to maintain control and when she didn’t, she would moan, “I’m sick and tired.” This is the statement I can remember her making repeatedly. As she grew older, we began picking her up and taking her home each day. One day on the way to our house, several of us children quarreled, and Mary Lou moaned, “I’m already sick and tired.” That mantric refrain probably carried more meaning and weight than we could have known. When she was too old to work any longer, we occasionally visited her (at first) or talked by phone. Eventually our visits and phone calls for the most part ended.

In The Help the white character Skeeter Phelan provides the necessary entry to the world of the maids. Skeeter is a sort of nonconformist to begin with. She’s not noted as a beauty (despite the fact that she’s played by Emma Stone). She wants a career as a journalist, a writer, while most of her friends from high school are either already married or planning to be. And while her friends treat her as a member of their group, they also look at her as different. Skeeter’s first attempt at publishing was rejected by a northern editor, and she gets the idea that she ought to write about what she knows. So, ironically, she decides to interview maids to discover how they think and what it is like to be who they are. The first woman she talks to, Aibileen (Viola Davis), agrees to talk because she sees it as her small contribution to the movement. In fact, Aibileen wants to write her stories down for Skeeter rather than tell them out loud. Minnie, known for her careless tongue, is the next woman who agrees to talk. After the Medgar Evers murder, many women decide they are ready to talk. Although Skeeter is the conduit through which these women convey their experiences to the white viewers (and readers through the fictional book The Help that Skeeter goes on to write anonymously), the stories they tell are their own. The problem is that we hear only a few details of those stories. The film itself is anecdotal.

Even though the black woman are talking (and writing) of their experiences, it is a young white woman who records their stories and puts them in a book. Obviously there were limited ways for unlettered Southern black women in the early 1960s to get their stories into print. But it’s nonetheless true that The Help is another film about the black struggle for freedom told through a white person’s perspective.

By recording their stories Skeeter engages in her own struggle for a voice as a writer and an individual. Like the black women she talks to, she faces limited choices. Not only does everyone around her expect her to look for and find a husband, they are concerned that she may fail to do so. Marriage is fate, in her world. Geography is fate too. The citizens of Jackson white and black have carefully defined, predefined roles. They have carefully prescribed ways of thinking too. Allegiance to the South, which means allegiance to the codes of racial separatism and white supremacy, is a given for the white citizens of Jackson. When Skeeter begins to speak and act in a way that suggests she may not honor these codes, she provokes suspicion and, ultimately, castigation.

The Help makes clear that racism is not simply revulsion against a particular skin color. As the character of Celia Foote reveals (Jessica Chastain) it’s also a matter of social and economic class. Celia is the product of a poor white family, a “poor white trash” family. She doesn’t know how to act or speak in a way that would admit her to the circles of most of the white women in this film, and even if she did her lower class origins (not to mention her marriage to the one-time boyfriend of Hilly Holbrook) would probably leave her excluded. She’s an outcast, and her exclusion becomes one basis for her friendship with Minnie. The film is clear as to how we’re to regard Celia—she’s simple but good, misguided and errant but teachable. It’s therefore no surprise that she holds few assumptions about race. She welcomes Minnie into her home, talks freely with her, eats at the same table, and in general extends friendship. I must say that lower-class whites in 1963 were as racist as anyone else. If Celia is somehow supposed to suggest that coming out of poverty cures one of racism, then we have a problem in logic and fact—the middle-class Southern white folks in this film make that clear. Celia is a rare exception to the rule of early 1960s Jackson, MS, and the rest of the American South. The film absolves her of racism in order to make clear that she suffers from prejudice herself. Such distinctions were never so simple.

After Hilly fires Minnie, accusing her of theft, she becomes a social pariah. No one will hire her. She manages to find work with Celia, who along with her husband promises her a job for as long as she wants it. Aibileen also becomes a social outcast when her involvement with the interviews becomes known—Hilly makes sure that it does. Skeeter, of course, can leave Jackson and go to New York and have her career in publishing. Her book on the stories of the black woman not only lands her a best seller but also a job as an assistant editor for a New York publisher. Her mother is dying, so she has little left in Jackson to stay behind for. Aibileen is not so fortunate. She has to live in Jackson, and every white family that Hilly talks to will have nothing to do with her. Although she was Skeeter’s entrance into the world of the black women in the film, she’s left alone in the end with dim prospects.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Visually, Melancholia (dir. Lars Von Trier, 2011) is striking. This film opens with images of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) that at first appear to be random photographs but instead we discover they are slowly moving. They don’t make sense initially, but they gather meaning. One that struck me was of Dunst standing in the middle of a green field with birds falling from the skies around her. In another, trees and telephone poles appear to be radiating bursts of energy.

The film is cast in two sections, one concerning Justine’s wedding at a palatial mansion near a golf course, the other set at a palatial mansion near a beach, concerning a heretofore unknown planet passing close to the earth—the planet is named Melancholia and has supposedly hidden behind the sun until it appears at the time of the film.

Despite the fact that in its method and view of things Melancholia is distinctly different from The Tree of Life, there are links. Both regard major questions—the meaning of our lives, mortality, our place in the universe—in the context of personal lives set against major cosmic events—in Mallick’s film this means the birth and development of the universe, in Von Trier’s film it means the destruction of the earth. Mallick allows for some kind of life after death, while Trier does not. The end of the earth means the obliteration of human identity and all life, and as the film would have it the end of the only planet in the universe that harbors life.

Justine and Claire are sisters who have never gotten along. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has settled into a wealthy and conventional life with her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). She is nervous and fearful, and resentful of her needy, troubled sister, but she takes care of Justine when she suffers one of her numerous emotional breakdowns in the film. At points she seems catatonic, at others schizophrenic. She is also a kind of Cassandra who claims to know what others are thinking and that the end of the earth is approaching. Justine in the film’s first half seems to have accepted the prospect of life with an extremely wealthy man. Her wedding is ornately staged, an ostentatious displays of wealth by her new husband’s family. On the evening of her wedding, at the after-wedding dinner, she grows increasingly distracted and detached. She frequently leaves the room, wandering off to drive a golf cart or to comfort her young nephew or to nap or to have sex with a man on a putting green. By the night’s end she has viciously castigated her father-in-law, quarreled with her mother, and ended the marriage that has just begun. Virtually everything that could go wrong with this dinner party does, and Justine is the cause of much (though not all) of the trouble. It’s clear that she is troubled and, like her caustic, bitter mother, not suitable for conventional living.

The film’s second half, entitled “Claire,” shows Justine and Claire and their differing attitudes towards the approach of Melancholia. Claire is terrified the planet will strike the earth, and she frequently reads various prophecies of doom on the Internet. Her husband, an amateur astronomer who looks forward to the approach of the planet as a wondrous event, assures her that nothing will happen. Justine, on the other hand, says little, and tells Claire that she is glad her husband’s reassurance makes her happy. When the planet drifts towards the earth, John commits suicide in the barn, leaving the sisters and the child to confront the end on their own. It is Justine, acquiescent to obliteration, who doesn’t care that her life will soon end, who builds a shelter on a hill and invites Claire and the boy to enter in as the planet massively looms.

The final scene is intensely powerful. The planet is destroyed, the screen transitions into darkness, and the credits begin to roll. The end is the end. This film is aptly named.

In The Tree of Life recurrent images are a kind of symbolic, coded language of thresholds, of entrances and exits, of transformations. In Melancholia they are simply pieces of a puzzle that gradually fall into place.


Melissa McCarthy is the reason to watch Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig; 2011), just as Josh Galifinakis is the reason to watch The Hangover (2009). There are other reasons to watch both films, of course. This film about women in their mid-30s and 40s preparing for a wedding, written by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo, offers an array of women comedians and actors opportunities to play to their talents. But in its plot it is like any number of films about friends drawn apart by circumstances and then drawn back together. What we learn of course is the importance of friendship and of remembering your roots. There are numerous funny moments, along with some unfunny ones. But McCarthy’s portrayal of Megan is the center of the film. That she plays a plain and goofy overweight character who visually contrasts with the mostly thin and attractive cast is not the point. The point is that she plays a whacky, off-beat, perverse, hilariously unpredictable character who surprises in every scene. Unfortunately, Megan succumbs to sentimentality when she is the person who appears to force Annie (Kristin Wiig) out of her self-centeredness and depression by recounting her own problems. McCarthy plays the sort of quirky character that Wiig herself often portrays on Saturday Night Live. Wiig’s character Annie in the film is relatively conventional and bland. To show that women can compete with men for grossness, the film offers a food poisoning scene with vomiting and diarrhea. It culminates in a wedding dress in the middle of a Milwaukee, WI, street. This film is intermittently entertaining. I also enjoyed Maya Rudolph as Lillian, Annie’s friend.

Dazed and Confused

My oldest son Michael told me to watch Dazed and Confused (1993), Richard Linklater’s first effort at directing. Linklater has an uncanny ability to portray real and believable characters. I have especially enjoyed Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), about two would-be lovers and their relationship at different points in their lives. A Scanner Darkly (2006) was a truly innovative film using rotoscope, while The School of Rock (2003), with Jack Black, was eminently fun.

In Dazed and Confused we have teenagers on the last day of school before summer vacation. Some are graduating seniors, others are freshman, and at least one is a drop out trying to relive former high school days. (Played by Matthew McConaughey, he gives a creepy performance, which is I think the point). Some students are looking forward to their teenage years while others are looking back. They cruise around town and attend various parties and get drunk and smoke dope. The boys are looking for sex and the girls are not too far behind.

One thinks of American Graffiti (1973). In that film some of the characters were looking forward to a life beyond high school and their town. For the most part, none of the characters in Dazed and Confused look beyond their present lives. The idea that there is a life beyond the town has occurred only to a couple of them. Even though many of them complain about their town, none thinks about leaving.

There are certainly some characters in the film to dislike-- especially the senior boy (played by Ben Affleck) who over enjoyed initiating freshmen by slapping them with a paddle—most are in their own ways versions of people we’ve known. The pothead Slater (Rory Cochrane)and the sultry dew-eyes Michelle (Milla Jovovich) and the girl with explosive red hair (Marissa Ribisi) were especially memorable.

The young people in this film, living in the wake of the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnamese conflict, seem largely unaware of, or at least indifferent to, the problems of the outer world. They just drift, aimlessly, and one assumes that sooner or later reality and life will dawn.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Midnight in Paris

In the 2010 film Midnight in Paris Woody Allen again indulges his apparently unquenchable nostalgia for past days (in the case Paris in the 1920s), his romanticism, and his interests in the connections between life and art. We’ve seen this before, from Annie Hall to Zelig to Radio Days to “The Kuglemass Episode.” In Midnight in Paris the turf may have been oft-visited, but Allen makes it at least amusing and fresh. The film is light and entertaining and well done, but not very heady. The plot: a struggling writer travels with his fiancé and her wealthy parents to Paris. The writer and his wife often have diverging interests, and one night on his own he wanders out into the Parisian streets and finds himself in 1920s Paris, with Fitzgerald, Zelda, Hemingway, Picasso, and many others. These are people he idolizes, and he idolizes the Paris of the so-called lost generation in general. Traveling back and forth from past to present (the film never bothers to explain how he manages this), the writer explores questions of artistic and personal commitment, of the real and the fanciful, and so on. The film comes to a conclusion that will ring familiar to Allen’s fans, but at least it’s an amusing journey.

Allen has often shown his interests in intellectuals and in artists (some might say artistic celebrities). He admires as well as derides. In Midnight in Paris his particular target is a self-important art historian who never stops talking, over-interpreting practically everything he encounters. Allen’s treatment of the artists and writers is satiric, and we don’t get much from our encounters with them other than some humor. Hemingway in particular cannot speak without mocking his own famous writing style and code, and it’s clear that both Allen and Corey Stoll (who plays the writer) enjoy the fun. The appearances of these artistic luminaries is more a form of quotation than an effort to say something about art. Eliot and Gertrude Stein and Bunuel and Cole Porter and Salvador Dali pass through, and the audience says to itself (sometimes aloud in the case of the audience I saw the film with, which included many English majors) “there’s Eliot and Stein and Man Ray and Porter and Dali.” The thrill comes from recognizing those figures at the heart of our own romantic and self-congratulatory obsessions with the artists and writers we study.

Kathy Bates as Stein is memorable, but my favorite among the artists was Dali, as played by Adrien Brody, obsessed with the hippopotamus.

A more obscure film about 1920s Paris with more to say about authenticity and the meaning of art is The Moderns (1988).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Many of the characters in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) seem to be types. The first one I noticed was Helen Burns, the virtuous and consumptive friend Jane meets in the school for orphans. Helen speaks with the sort of prescient wisdom that some like to think a dying person would have. Another is Mr. Brockhurst, the cruel and unfeeling owner of the school, and then there is Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, who takes care of her dead brother’s daughter and despises the girl as a result. In fact, Mrs. Reed and her two daughters could be characters from a Cinderella tale. Many of the characters, most notably Mr. Rochester, are types. Even Jane herself is the kind of character who often appears in narratives about unfortunate orphans left in the care of cruel relatives. Yet humanizing, individuating elements within these characters bring them to life.

Jane certainly encounters a series of insensitive, doctrinaire, overbearing men, from Mr. Brockhurst to John St. Rivers (who wants her to travel with him to India to work as missionaries—she must agree to marry him for the sake of propriety rather than love), to Rochester himself.

One of Jane’s constant goals in this novel is democracy and equality. She is no activist crusader, but as an orphan abandoned by her aunt and whom many consider to be illegitimate (she isn’t), she occupies a low rung on the social ladder. She’s constantly reminded of her low social status, treated by some in the novel as hardly human. Her true state becomes clear when she leaves Mr. Rochester’s estate, after a shocking discovery, and travels out on her own. She loses her pocketbook and is penniless, wandering from one house to another, rejected. She almost dies of hunger and exposure. Her abject social state is never more clearly shown.

For Jane Eyre, equality and democracy have to do with social class and gender. She’s keenly aware that the problems she faces are largely a reflection of her low social standing and the fact that she is a woman. On a number of occasions she stands up for herself, even at the moment her rescue seems at hand. She wants to be treated as a human being. She refuses to allow Rochester to treat her as an “angel.” Once she comes to know him, his temper and ego don’t cow her. Bronte’s position on the British social class system seems clear: she doesn’t like it. Nor does she like the unequal station accorded women in 19th-century British life.

Yet what is undeniable about Jane is that rescue for her doesn’t mean life in a world without class differences—it means rescue from poverty and lower-class circumstances. It means rescue from “spinsterhood” (she is 19). Jane is highly educated, virtuous, well mannered—she has all the virtues of the upper class (and few of its defects). Hence, the upper class, so the novel seems to suggest, is where she belongs. Despite her “plain and marked appearance” she also deserves a suitable husband, as this will give her the freedom, the independence from care and work, she deserves. The husband she receives is the one she pined for, even after her unpleasant discovery, and despite his missing arm, missing eye, and generally disagreeable manner. But he loves her, and she loves him. So the rescue that comes to her is a life of unending service to a man who loves her, but whose needs given his condition are considerable. I suppose we are to see this as a willing life of servitude rather than the unwilling one which she’d previously suffered.

There are interesting elements of Gothicism throughout this novel—the strange noises in the attic, the unexplainable fire, the ghost or apparition Jane sees as a young girl, the cruelties she suffers in her aunt’s home, the hints of emotional unbalance in Rochester, in other characters, in Jane herself.

This novel really is a sort of hodgepodge of styles and modes and ambitions. But it’s an entertaining hodgepodge centered by the character of Jane.

Friday, August 26, 2011

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

The title of this 2006 story collection, the first by Florida author Karen Russell, is a good clue to the book as a whole. Russell’s world is easily recognizable even as it is weirdly bizarre. It combines the magical realism of writers like Borges Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the lush psychological realism of Eudora Welty (who herself is something of a magical realist). Each of these stories takes a surprising and new approach to its subject. Each story seems a kind of hallucination in which distinctions between dream and the real are blurred and sometimes simply not there.

An example is the first story, “Ava Wrestles an Alligator,” a young girl’s story of her life with her sister and father (Chief Bigtree) in a roadside alligator park called “Swamplandia.” The girl’s hulking older sister goes out into the swamps in the night to lay with ghostly lovers. Does the young narrator, naively uncomprehending, simply believe the stories her sister tells? Is her sister what she seems—a deeply disturbed young woman, or something more? The genius of this story is that it doesn’t allow the supernatural to be reduced to a matter of limited narrative viewpoint.

In “Haunting Olivia” a brother and sister search for their dead sister’s underwater ghost.

“Z. Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers” is about a summer camp for children with sleeping disorders. The two main characters dream about historical events that have already happened. The camp leader’s wife suffers from paranoid dreams about ravenous packs of dogs which she acts out in her sleep by killing her husband’s beloved sheep.

My favorite story is “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration.” A boy tells his family’s story of traveling west on a wagon train. They suffer storms, sickness, squabbles with other families, marital tensions. The story’s descriptive powers are considerable—I was reminded of Charles Portis and True Grit. As things grow more difficult, the boy’s parents’ marriage is increasingly strained, but finally they resolve their difficulties. The one unexpected element in this story is that the boy’s father, Asterion, is a minotaur.

In “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows” a boy talks about the ice rink where people from his hometown go to escape the heat of the summer and the tensions of their middle-aged and disappointed lives. The palace features a group of skating monkeys, a DJ who never takes off her Yeti costume, and an apocalyptic artificial snow storm with blizzard force winds. Inside the ice rink, the rest of the world falls away.

In “The City of Shells” a janitor tries to rescue a little girl stuck in a huge artificial conch shell at a New Jersey amusement park as a hurricane approaches. He ends up stuck in the shell himself.

“Out to Sea” describes an ocean-bound retirement community where each elderly person lives in his or her own private boat. Focused on an old man who falls in love with the young woman who’s assigned to be his companion (she’s doing community service), the story is sad. The final paragraph: “When he was a boy growing up on the swamp, Sawtooth used to know all of the constellations, but now he has forgotten how to find them. Overhead, the sky lurches in unfamiliar, opalescent swirls. All around him, the muted yellow lamps of his neighbors’ boats blink off quietly, one by one, until Sawtooth is left alone bobbing in the darkness.”

In “Accident Brief, Occurrence #00/422,” the Waitiki Valley Boys Choir flies to the top of a glacier once each year in a ceremony that is meant to cause an avalanche and that is also an important community ritual. The narrator’s befriending of a mute boy in the choir leads to dark tragedy after their helicopter crashes. The setting seems to be entirely fantastic—descendants of the Moa tribe and the pirates who overran them populate the story. The boy is angry because his father ran off and his mother has married to another man, Mr. Oamaru, whom the boy resents.

Most of these stories don’t end conventionally. They just stop, and the effect is unsettling. “Haunting Olivia” ends in a cave where a young boy is looking for his sister. “The City of Shells” ends with the girl and janitor stuck in a conch shell. “Children’s Reminiscences” ends with a covered wagon family headed for what seems a bleak disaster. The stories are set in or near a swamp in central Florida. Yet their world seems an alternative one to our own—place names, histories, geographies--all different and unfamiliar. A number of the stories involve children who have lost their parents, especially their fathers, or who in some way come from families in crisis. This collection, including its title, struck me as novel, whimsical, interesting, and off-kilter. Fantasy and nightmare commingle, but the human element in each story never falls from view.

Loneliness is a major theme—the loneliness of children forced into adulthood, lost or abandoned by parents, facing calamity in any number of forms, children who encounter too soon the void of the world.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

One of the interesting aspects of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) is its narration. The story is told through letters, journal entries, newspaper accounts, memos, and so on. The effect is of a first-person narration by a number of narrators, some of whom don’t survive the story. Another interesting element is the fascination with late 19th century technology: dictaphones, phonographs, typewriters, trains, boats (transportation in general), science, medicine. Countervailing against the modern, of course, is the novel’s fascination with the irrational—with demons, magic, superstition, vampires, the undead. What most surprised me about the book, which I have long avoided, was how melodramatically entertaining it is.

Stoker is continually telegraphing his readers about events soon to occur. His technique isn’t especially refined or sophisticated, but he gets the story told. Early in the book, when it’s clear that Lucy is being preyed on late at night by the evil Count, Professor Von Helstrom warns his associates that they must never leave her side. Someone must always be in the room to protect her. Yet whoever it is that happens to be there protecting her always finds a way of leaving, if only for a few minutes, during which time the Count gets his dinner.

Dracula is especially delicate about women, yet women are almost always Count Dracula’s victims, and an exorbitant Victorian eroticism infects the story surrounding Dracula and his female victims. Also evident, but not overly apparent (both Lucy and Mina Harker are Stoker’s versions of the saintly Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) is the xenophobia. Count Dracula comes from eastern Europe, Transylvania, and before that from Turkey. Fears of the East, of darker-skinned races, of Jews in particular, are often apparent. Dracula is an early reaction against globalism.


The foundations for the animated feature Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2011) lie in old films about the American west, especially of the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone variety, an essay by Joan Didion from the late 1960s, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Carlos Castaneda, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Early in the film we get a brief glimpse of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo speeding down a highway in a blue Cadillac. This gives us a clue as to what’s to follow. Not that the film concerns drug addled hallucinations, but that the desert landscape, the creatures who inhabit, are beyond the range of the usual documentary about western wildlife. Of course, Rango is no documentary.

Rango does a surprisingly good job of entertaining its viewers and of pointing out the impact of encroaching civilization on the American western deserts. The environmental dimensions of the desert are pitted against the demands of ruthless corporations for water and for replacing old ways with new ones.

This animated comedy depicts the desert landscape and its characters in a hyper-realistic yet comically exaggerated and caricaturish way. Even without a plot, Rango would be fun to watch simply as an exercise in animation. But it does have a plot: a lizard is thrust from the cage where he has lived all his life. He’s a tall-tale spinner, and when he stumbles into a desert town, his stories convince the townspeople that he is a great hero who will bring water to their parched settlement and vanquish their enemies. Rango must prove himself, win the female lizard who’s attracted his fancy, and defeat corruption and corporate greed.

I enjoyed this film.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Goals, Challenges, the Future

The Franklin College, after four difficult years of budget drawdowns, remains a strong and vital part of the University of Georgia.  With the national economy’s slow movement towards recovery, and state tax revenues beginning to grow, we now turn to the task of building for the future.  In some cases rebuilding means restoring faculty lines and programs lost to budget reductions.  In others it means focusing on new programs that build on our core strengths and meet strategic needs of the university and the state.  It definitely means working to improve faculty and staff salaries.  But it also means, in the broadest sense, building for the future.

While traditional departmental and disciplinary boundaries continue to define the superficial structure of the Franklin College, interdisciplinary connections and collaborations are fundamentally altering its shape.  These connections are evident across the College.  The sciences are now fundamentally interdisciplinary.  The developing Institute of Bioinformatics offers an example of a program that is being built across departmental and collegiate boundaries.  Another is the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences graduate program, which involves ten departments (six from Franklin) across five colleges and is administered by the Franklin College Dean's office. Faculty members in English have worked with the new School of Medicine to develop curricular modules for teaching humanities and arts to medical students, and Franklin has successfully recruited a number of jointly appointed faculty members with the UGA/MCG partnership campus here in Athens.  Franklin College faculty members make up the majority of UGA’s growing Faculty of Engineering.  The four arts units—Music, Art, Theatre and Film, and Dance—have begun meeting with the Georgia Museum of Art and the Performing Arts Center to discuss mutual issues and plan events that utilize their diverse talents.  The new Director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, Nicholas Allen (whose appointment begins in January 2012), has been charged with developing interdisciplinary connections among the arts and humanities at UGA.

Intra-college and cross-departmental initiatives in research and instruction are an essential part of the Franklin College profile.  As UGA’s oldest and largest college, the Franklin College appropriately must serve as a leader in breaking down boundaries and forging partnerships that benefit the faculty and students of the university as a whole.  The extent to which Franklin can accommodate and adjust to such new initiatives and lines of development in the immediate future will be a major measure of its success in providing students with the best possible education, and for faculty a teaching and research environment reflective of the best practices and finest institutions of  higher education in the nation and the world.

Franklin must therefore also look to create and/or strengthen its partnerships with other units on campus.  These could include (but not be limited to) the Grady College (film and television studies), the Terry College of Business (art and music business programs; economics; capitalism studies), the College of Education (teacher education), and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (genomics, bioinformatics, all the biological sciences).

As in the past, Franklin must continue to hire faculty of the first rank with proven reputations in research and teaching.  New faculty must bring to the College a record in research and creative activities that will enhance our research programs.  We must strive to increase external funding, even as federal support may diminish.  Partnerships with private corporations and foundations may offer new funding sources.  In any case the College must encourage faculty who seek external funding by providing a strongly supportive research environment.  This will include providing, when appropriate, staff positions that assist in the development and writing of funding proposals.  It will mean working with other offices on campus to improve resources for research computing.  (The College is considering a college-level research computing position as one part of that strategy.) It also means working to ensure that research space is appropriately allocated and shared, that funds are available for faculty whose scholarly work requires travel, and that faculty have the equipment they need, whether funded through private or external funds or through funds from the University, to conduct their research.  The development of a reasonable system that allows faculty extended periods for research is essential.  The best teachers in Franklin College are often the strongest researchers and artists.  An environment supportive of both research and teaching benefits everyone.

Current and new faculty must not only be able to teach well using proven methods, but must also be proficient in new and alternative methods of instruction.  Although the University undergraduate student body has a fairly traditional profile (most first-year students having just graduated high school), it is not unreasonable to expect new student populations to develop—adult students, distance students, disabled students, international students—whose needs faculty must be prepared to address.  The College has recently employed a college-level instructional technologist to help faculty take advantage of new technology-based instructional resources.  Other such positions may be needed.

Franklin has an excellent record in developing opportunities for students to study abroad.  Working together with the Office of International Education, and with other units on campus, Franklin must over the next few years continue to encourage and support study abroad.  We offer a number of excellent opportunities for study in Great Britain and Europe.  We have developed opportunities on all seven continents, but we need to deepen and expand our global reach. The strongest need for study abroad programs is in South and East Asia, especially China and India; and we must also expand our programs in Africa and South America.  A strong administrative interface that puts students in touch with programs sponsored by UGA and other institutions, and that facilitates their study abroad, will remain important.  So also will be courses and programs that promote literacy in international languages and cultures.  The Franklin College already offers an impressive array of language courses (more than two dozen languages, from Arabic to Zulu, are regularly taught) along with a growing number of internationally focused majors through our language departments and area studies institutes and centers.  New language sequences, sometimes using alternative means of instructional delivery, will be necessary as we move further into the global 21st century.  Recently Franklin College has worked with other units to develop a summer Intensive English Program, which is bringing more international students to UGA.

In the coming years external funding will become even more important for Franklin College.  It will be a source of support for academic and cultural programs, professorships, lectures, and scholarships, especially need-based scholarships that open UGA’s doors to students from diverse backgrounds who may need help in order to attend.  To make this possible, we must continue to define and convey the Franklin identity to the University’s many constituents, but most specifically to our alumni.  We must continue to build a strong, involved Dean’s Council and enhance our cadre of major donors to all areas of the College.  The future health of the College depends on a successful and vigorous development program, which in turn rests on a strong foundation of outreach, communication, and visibility of the Franklin College among alumni, friends, and citizens of the state and beyond.

All of these areas of growth represent tremendous opportunity, some risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit, and the prospect of organizational change going forward.  Faculty, students, and staff are naturally inclined to resist change.  We all tend to be comfortable within structures and programs we have known for years.  Franklin must continue to evolve, not just by fitting new ideas within old models of operation, but by creating new models to support state-of-the-art programs and practices with greatest impact and efficiency.  It must be receptive to internal and external proposals for constructive change.  It must plan to work in partnership with other colleges and units of the University and with the external community on a local, state, national, and international basis.  An important way to begin reducing resistance to change is to begin discussions among faculty, staff, and students about where the College should move in the coming years.  Such a discussion will of course be tied to the broad themes of the University’s strategic plan, but it may include new themes as well.  Franklin College must be a leader in implementing university-wide objectives while creating new areas of strength which advance the interests of the university as a whole.  In the coming year we will lay the groundwork for a college-wide strategic planning process, opening conversations with all of the College’s constituencies to generate ideas and proposals for the future of the Franklin College and the University.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The King’s Speech

I am not a fan of the British monarchy, an anachronism if ever there was one. But Americans, defenders of democracy, adore the British royals. The King’s Speech (2010; dir. David Seidler) feeds that adoration.

This film’s virtue is that its real interest is not the monarchy but the developing friendship of two men—one of them a shy man with a temper who happens to be second in line to the British throne; the other a failed actor turned voice coach whose controversial methods are said to help people who stutter. Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), doesn’t wish to be king, though he recognizes that his brother David, the Prince of Wales, is immature, shallow, and unprepared to lead. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) on the other hand wants to make a mark in some way. He fails at landing roles in the theatre, so he works as a speech therapist. His family lives in a shabby apartment, and he ekes out a living at what he does. The parallels between them extend into their families—the tawdry apartment and meager circumstances of the Logues and their sons contrasting with the plush, elegant surroundings of the prince, his wife, and their daughters—Margaret and Elizabeth.

Albert’s wife, Elizabeth, seeks Logue’s help for her husband’s stammering, and the voice coach and the prince begin working together. Both are aware of the differences between them in class—an impoverished teacher on the one hand and a member of the royal family on the other. Albert expects to be addressed by his royal title, but Logue insists on calling him Bertie, a name used only by family members. Logue requires that they work together on a basis of equality, a requirement Albert resists. At one point Albert’s objection to Lionel and his methods brings an end to their work together. But when brother David (King Edward VIII) abdicates the throne Albert finds himself King George VI of England and in need of speaking successfully to the British people on the eve of the Second World War. His relationship with Lionel resumes.

The title has multiple meanings. One is the literal matter of the king’s speech. Albert suffers a terrible stammer that prevents him from speaking publically without great difficulty and embarrassment. His stammer causes him to doubt his own worth, especially in comparison to his older brother , who makes vicious fun of his speech difficulties during an argument. Another meaning is the radio address Albert gives on the eve of the Second World War He needs to speak well enough to reassure and inspire the British people, who are about to enter a long and painful war. A third meaning derives from the power that derives from the speech of a king—as an expression of will, power, authority.

This friendship and the surrounding melodrama give The King’s Speech its interest. It doesn’t rely on the aura of glamour surrounding the monarchy. Nor does it show the royals as anything more or less than what they are—privileged, imperfect people. The acting of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush is excellent, and as a human story set in a mid-twentieth century historical context, the film works on every level.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Several reviews suggested that this film would be entertaining. I found the first Transformers film (2007) diverting. It had a sense of play, didn’t take itself seriously. The inevitable sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) cranked up the noise and mayhem. Despite some impressive effects, its story (even for a Transformers film) was weak, and its point seemed encapsulated in the giant toys, the explosions, and Megan Fox’s heaving breasts.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011; dir. Michael Bay) is far worse than I’d expected. It’s profoundly bad and doesn’t even function well on the level of the comic book characters it’s bringing to screen. The few moments of pleasure come from minor characters played by Frances McDormand , John Torturro, and John Malcovich (my favorite; he plays a raving Ayn Rand-inspired tycoon). The main character Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley—well dressed in every scene) seem basically to go through the motions.

Is it really possible that Sam, who has “saved the earth” twice and received a medal from the President, is unemployed?

Many of the Transformer robots have the quirky personalities of Disney or Warner Brothers cartoon characters—they’re types, some of them vaguely ethnic types.

The film briefly haunts us in several scenes with images of collapsing skyscrapers and sheets of paper wafting down from the skies--echoes of Sept. 11.[1]

The battle between the Autobots and Decepticons is a battle between the forces of freedom and its enemies. This film is far more violent than its predecessors, where violence against humans was mostly implied. The thin and illogical story, the often preposterous dialogue, the acting of the main characters, the Transformers themselves, the battles and explosions—none of it mattered.

[1] See Dana Stevens review of the film and its references to the events of 9-11 in Slate:

Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles (2011; dir. Jonathan Liebesman) has an ample amount of CGI special effects. Aliens attack the major cities of the earth, and Los Angeles proves to be the one place where resistance is not futile. A staff sergeant on the verge of retirement (Aaron Eckhart) finds himself called back to duty, and he and a platoon of Marines square off with the aliens. Much of the film focuses on the efforts of the soldiers to rescue civilians trapped in a police station. What sets this film apart from most films of this type is that it focuses more on characters than special effects and space creatures. It’s basically a battle movie, with all the standard clichés and formulas. The staff sergeant, Michael Nantz, of course, has a past—a decision he made a few years earlier in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of four men in his unit. His confidence is shaken, and this event helps convince him to retire. He finds in the platoon he’s assigned to the brother of one of the dead soldiers, who makes everyone in the unit aware of the sergeant’s past. So, in addition to fighting the aliens Nantz must battle his own self-doubts and those of the men he's leading. As is the rule in many battle films, we find our time occupied with wondering which soldier will die next, and how. We wonder whether the sergeant will overcome his self-doubt and win the confidence of his unit. We wonder how only a few men could possibly do anything to defeat the nasty and apparently invincible aliens, who have invaded the earth to harvest its water.

CGI spacecraft mostly hover in the background, with a few close-up encounters. We recognize some borrowings from other films-- Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) seems to be an influence on how Battle: Los Angeles shows alien weapons that disintegrate human bodies, and the appearance of some of the alien ships.

Like many battle films, this one is entertaining but in no way distinguished. There’s a lot of action, gunfire, and explosions, and the narrative moves fast. It’s fortunate the aliens hover mostly in the background. The one time we get to see them up close, they look like poorly made puppets. Staff Sergeant Nantz is the character who lends this film what virtues it has.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

You Think That’s Bad, by Jim Shepard

You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011) is a collection of stories linked by the style and ironic posture of the author Jim Shepard. A unifying theme is dysfunction in human relationships, especially dysfunction resulting from the conflict of a man’s job or outer interests (mountain climbing, secret operations for the government, avalanche research, filmmaking) with his personal life, specifically with his romantic entanglements with women. Many of these stories seem to argue that the male ego, while needing personal relationships, is prone to drive them away, to invest itself in outside activities that substitute for or destroy personal connections. The world Shepard describes is hostile to such connections.

In the first story, “Minotaur,” a secret weapons operative, compelled not to disclose the secrets of his work, even to his wife, finds himself in a marriage where his wife distrusts everything about him. The secrecy to which his work obligates him is in fact a fundamental part of his nature and a flaw in their marriage. Is their marriage just another pose—a constructed reality? Is her husband’s friendship with another man more serious than she had thought? The indirectness of this story makes it difficult to assay exactly what the issues are between husband and wife. A rereading makes these questions more interesting yet no less clear.

In “The Track of the Assassins” an unmarried wealthy British woman travels into the most desolate locations of the Mideast, searching for the location of the fabled assassins, “that sinister and ancient sect that for two hundred years held the entire East in its reign of terror.” Descriptions of her travels are mixed with her memories of her life as a young girl, and her relationship with her mother and her sister, who recently died. The travels are her expression of guilt and regret for having abandoned her sister. Is she seeking to obliterate herself from the human world? The descriptions of her young life in Italy, and of her travels in the desert, are precisely detailed. Shepard’s lyrical prose style is especially effective.

“In Cretaceous Seas” compares a husband and father to a prehistoric creature. He feels increasingly disconnected from everything: he is “a crappy son, a shitty father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband. As a pet owner he’s gotten two dogs and a parakeet killed.” As someone who answers questions for other people (his line of work is unclear), he can’t answer the most basic ones for himself. This is a stripped down version of the story John Cheever tells in “A Country Husband.”

In “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” the collapse of a marriage parallels the inundation of the Netherlands by rising seas. Meteorological disaster, global warming, parallels calamity in a marriage.

In Happy with Crocodiles” a World War II infantryman in New Guinea struggles to survive on a muddy mountain while he recalls his troubled girlfriend and her love for his brother. The battle scene descriptions are intense.

In “Your Fate Hurdles Down at You” a research team in 1939 perches on the side of a frozen, snowy Swiss mountain studying defense techniques against avalanches. The narrator and his team are obsessed with the mechanics of snow, of avalanches and their history. His twin brother is killed in an avalanche for which he feels responsible. The story is an exercise is self-reprobation, but it’s also about competition between two brothers for one girl. He is attracted to the girl, but she is attracted to his brother. The narrator’s has distanced himself from personal connections all his life. He is more content on the side of a mountain where he knows that an avalanche will one day sweep him away than he is in the human world.

In “Low Hanging Fruit” a particle physicist describes his fascination with his work and reveals the growing estrangement of his wife. Just as in “Minotaur” and “Your Fate Hurdles Down at You,” and in the story “Gojira: King of the Monsters,” obsessive involvement in work replaces the need for human relationships.

An especially disturbing story in the collection is “Boy’s Town,” about a former soldier recovering from a brain injury and dealing with PTSD going through a final downward spiral. The great element of this story is the narrator’s voice, with conveys his anguish and isolation as well as his irrationality—it’s both comic and frightening.

In “Classical Scenes of Farewell” the assistant of Gilles de Rais, notorious murderer of children in 15th century France, gives his confession and life story before his execution. The story is gruesome, and the author’s use of historical detail creates a sense of absolute authenticity.

Finally, in “Poland is Watching” a member of a Polish winter mountain climbing team talks about his vocation and his relationship with his wife. He’s part of a group attempting to climb Nanga Parbat, the 9th tallest mountain in the world, in the middle of a raging winter storm. Once again a man’s obsession with what he regards as his calling stands in tension with his personal life.

Many of these stories don’t end, or at least don’t offer resolution. We never know if the mountaineer makes it off the mountain, or whether the soldier in New Guinea survives the battle. In most of these stories one’s personal fate stands just beyond the confines of the story. We can sense it looming, we can guess what it is, but the story itself doesn’t describe the moment (the woman in “Assassins” will probably die of malaria and dysentery; the narrator of “Classical Scenes of Farewell” is about to be gruesomely executed; the narrator of “Boy’s Town” will die in a shootout with police). Shepard’s vivid prose style varies from one story to the next, but his use of detail and description imbeds us deep in the minds of his characters and the contexts of the situations his stories describes.

The Year of the Dog

The Year of the Dog (2007; dir. Mike White) is a light, airy film whose thinness is compensated by the talents of the lead actress Molly Shannon. She plays Peggy, a woman in her 30s who works as a secretary in a non-descript office. She listens to her co-workers talk about their relationships, and she feels that she should enter into that world. She has, apparently, never had a “relationship.” She is shy and tends to withdraw at social gatherings rather than to put herself forward. People sometime seek her out to talk, but they do so because she mainly listens and virtually never disagrees or criticizes. She instead devotes herself to her dog, whose death (she believes he was poisoned by a next-door neighbor) foments a crisis. Her attempts to bond with men invariably fail. The man to whom she is most attracted declares that he is not interested when she expresses her interest (he is probably gay). She becomes increasingly unsettled, depressed, and begins collecting dogs, numerous dogs, keeping them shut away from harm in her house. When she attacks her next-door neighbor (John C. Reilly) with a pitchfork, her mental breakdown is complete. She’s institutionalized.

She recovers and returns to work and again begins to feel the pressure to conform, to socialize in the conventional way. Ultimately she decides to pursue her interest in animals, announces to her coworkers that this is what she wants to do, and boards a bus to attend a SPCA to a protest about animal cruelty in another city.

The Year of the Dog wants us to feel good about her decision—she has discovered what makes her happy, she has accepted that she doesn’t need to be like other people to find contentment and satisfaction. The film is a gentle defense of individualism.

I don’t accept its conclusion. Not that I don’t believe in individuals—I do—and not that I am indifferent to cruel treatment of animals—I oppose it. But her rejection of human company, of the social life of people (which can be entered into in any number of ways) strikes me as a surrender.

The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia, by Mary Helen Stefaniak

In tone The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia (Norton, 2010), by Mary Helen Stefaniak, reminded me of Olive Anne Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree (1984). Both are told from a child’s perspective, both involve narratives about family life in the old days, both are tinged with a wash of nostalgia and tragedy. Califfs is deceptive. Its first half is a ten-year-old Gladys Califf’s account of her family seventy or more years in the past. They live in a small town called Threestep and are, compared to most in the town, more moderate and tolerant in their racial views. Gladys and her family are good friends with a black neighbor named Theo Boykin, a young boy whom everyone recognizes as brilliant and who shows talent in engineering. There is a nonconformist school teacher, an Arabian Nights pageant, a long-suffering big sister named May whose husband keeps her busy bearing children, and so on. Midway through, as the children wait to learn whether their friend will recover from a serious accident, May begins telling a story about Arabia, and about the Muslims who moved for a time to live on one of the Georgia coastal islands before returning to their native land. Although her story goes on too long, it meshes in an intriguing way the first half of the novel and shows than Stefaniak has ambitions above and beyond those of nostalgia. The Arabian Nights is a major influence in this novel, especially on May’s long narrative.

Among the points of this novel: inadequate or nonexistent opportunities for education were a crippling force to many African Americans in the early part of the century; segregation and racism denied American society the full use of people like Theo; and our ancestry individually and culturally is far complicated than we might imagine. There is an implicit argument here for racial and international understanding.

Though I find fault with certain issues of realism in the portrayal of the South in the 1930s, and though it tells its story through another instance of a Southern family that is exceptional rather than typical, The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia held my interest from start to finish.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Unknown (2011; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra) is an adult thriller in which a man awakens from a coma and discovers that everything he believed about his life is false. Although there are pretensions here of a drama about identity, essentially this is a mystery-espionage thriller whose hero, played by Liam Neeson, tries to discover who he really is. Car chases, gunfire, fights, bomb blasts and so on ensue. There are some significant non sequiturs in this film, but in general it moves inexorably forward in a way that engages the viewer to the end.

In many of John LeCarre’s novels the Cold War era of U. S./British relations with the Soviet Union provides the context for his stories. In Unknown we have a post-collapse context. East Germany is no longer separate from West Germany. The Wall is down. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and the old espionage networks no longer exist. Espionage and intrigue in Unknown focus on corporate interests. A man who has a product to sell that may revolutionize the food industry is marked for murder by corporate interests that see him as a threat . The film is aware of this post-collapse context. Two secondary characters are former members of Cold War espionage units—one of the secret East German Stasi, the other of the KGB. Neither survives the film.

Despite the adult (by which I mean “mature”) tone of this film (a modern-day take on a lesser Hitchcock), it is essentially formulaic, as the final scene in which the older man who gets the much younger attractive girl makes clear.

The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

Two figures loom in the backdrop of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904): Nietzsche and Darwin. These are the governing texts for this fascinating and ungainly novel: übermensch and evolution. Nietzsche is mentioned in the first paragraph, and Darwin is on the bookshelf of one of the main characters.

Early on this novel echoes a familiar story—a pampered literary critic, Humphrey Van Weyden, plunged into a difficult, hostile situation for which he is unprepared. Survival requires fortitude, manliness. He rises to the challenge. He is transformed. We saw something similar but less desperate in Captains Courageous, and the grand incarnation of this plotline is Heart of Darkness. And of course this is the story in animal form of The Call of the Wild.

Van Weyden is cast adrift when the ferry he is on sinks. He is rescued by a seal vessel, the Ghost. Its captain, Wolf Larsen, refuses to deliver him to the nearest port and instead enlists him as a member of the crew. He explains that he wants to save Van Weyden.

Wolf Larsen is the center of this novel. He is working class, formally uneducated, but he has taught himself, reading widely from great literary works and philosophers. He believes in nothing but brute force. Larsen is the übermensch of this story.

Ven Weyden represents moral and civilized values and believes in the human soul, while Larsen believes in an amoral world governed by Darwinian law. Larsen believes in achieving his own ends by whatever means possible, even when it requires brutal treatment of his crew. He believes in nothing but himself. Although Van Weyden argues for civilized values, the course of events in this novel make clear that it takes Larsen’s view.

And there is Maud Brewster, a poet and journalist whose own boat sinks and who is rescued by Larsen. Until her arrival, the story moves forward well enough. Van Weyden (“Hump” as Wolf calls him) is learning the ways of the sea, coming to understand if not accept the brutal methods of Larsen. He’s becoming hardened. But when Maud comes aboard, he melts into vanilla custard, fawning over her delicate femininity, gradually falling in love with her. He wants to protect her from the “horrors” that he and she both think Larsen represents for her (I think this means sex). Maud’s arrival interrupts the tone of the narrative and essentially breaks it in half. It’s as if London decided the opposition of Van Weyden and Larsen couldn’t sustain the story, and he had to introduce another element. And though the connection that develops between Maud and Van Weyden essentially demonstrates the truth of Larsen’s philosophy, it leaves the novel unbalanced.

When Hump and Maud are marooned on an island after they escape the Ghost, they have to struggle to survive and to overmaster Larsen when he arrives. Here we have an early kind of D. H. Lawrence story, wherein a man learns to be a man and a woman learns to be a woman. There’s deep Victorianism here—the closest to candor London can manage in describing Hump’s feelings about Maud is to tell us that he felt his masculine self stir: “I shall never forget, in that moment, how instantly conscious I became of my manhood. The primitive deeps of my nature stirred.“

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Color of Night, by Madison Smarrt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell’s The Color of Night (Vintage, 2011) uses the Manson murders of 1969 and the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 as a frame in which to consider the latter decades of the 20th century. The narrative comes entirely through the view of Mae, a member of the “Family.” The Manson family is fictionalized but recognizable. Manson is “D.” Mae’s story offers a sense of the cult mentality. Many of its members are damaged to begin with—Mae dislikes her mother and has had a sexual relationship with her brother since she was 12. She is not merely alienated from her family—it simply doesn’t exist for her. She inhabits a kind of void until she goes to work for a pimp in Los Angeles and later is absorbed into the “Family.” There she has a passionate relationship with another girl named Laurel but is also involved in numerous relationships with other members of the Family. “D” on occasion lends female members of the Family to other men for sometimes violent and abusive sex. Although Mae on the one hand is wholly committed to the Family, she fails to see, even to the end, how much she is a victim as well as a perpetrator.

In Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930) we are plunged into characters’ lives through their stream of consciousness narratives. But Faulkner was not exploring or commenting on historical events. Anse Bundren had, as far as we know, no historical basis. He was most likely an imaginative composite, a representation of a particular sort of farmer. I reference Faulkner’s novel because I often thought of it while reading Bell’s—especially in the way he reveals the mind of his main character Mae, who reminded me of Darl Bundren in particular. In The Color of Night “D” is clearly based on Charles Manson, while Mae is more loosely based on the young women who were members of the family and who participated in the Tate murders. This reliance on a factual model puts certain constraints on Bell—certain narrative points have to be touched on, especially the murders. I sometimes felt that this novel was laboring to evoke the Manson family even as it worked to fictionalize. Manson’s paranoiac fascination with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” becomes an obsession with “higgledypiggledy.” The popular singer who was briefly associated with the Manson family becomes “O.” One of the women whom Mae and other members of the family murder is pregnant and pleads for her child; she is hanged and stabbed to death, the same fate as Sharon Tate. Yet Bell certainly did not feel bound by facts and invented much of the story, which he used for the exploration of his own interests.

Chapters tend to alternate from southern California in the late 1960s to the California desert and finally New York City in 2001.

I was never fully drawn into this novel. A point of comparison is Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), whose main character is Lee Harvey Oswald. There the use of a fictionalized historical character works as well as it ever has in American fiction. In Bell’s defense, his character Mae is not based on any single individual. She is instead an imaginatively constructed composite. She never becomes recognizably real in the novel, always remaining vague, indistinct. This may have been Bell’s intention. Unlike the main female personages in the Manson trials, Mae escapes capture, never goes on trial, and lives out the rest of her life in hidden anonymity. Yet she is prepared for pursuers.

The chapters that describe Mae’s wandering in the dark nighttime desert reminded me of DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010) as well as Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949) and the essays of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). These chapters are deeply unsettling and show how completely isolated Mae has become. At the end, when she manages to find her way into the ruins of the Twin Towers and lies face down in the gravelly ashes, clutching a small piece of what might be human bone, we recognize the full extent of her wrecked and devastated life.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Over the past few months I’ve been reading books I should have read decades ago. Some of these were books for adults. Others were for younger readers. Kidnapped (1893) by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the so-called boyhood books I’ve recently read.

Kidnapped is constant motion. By motion understand travel. The narrator from the first page is on his way somewhere, first to find his uncle who he believes will give him work, then aboard the vessel that kidnaps him, then waylaid on a barren island, then fleeing pursuers through moor and forest. Whatever one might say of the book, its motion-wise attitude prevents dullness. Its main character Robert Balfour is a seventeen-year-old boy who goes to find his fortune after his father dies. He never seems quite that young, and though he does learn certain skills in the course of his adventures—fighting with swords, for example—he’s not that much different when the novel ends than he was when it began. I suppose his main lesson in this narrative is friendship. Balfour makes a friend in a Scotsman named Alan Breck Stewart who helps him escape the island, and who remains true to him throughout the rest of the book, even when Balfour mistrusts and insults him. These two men grow to like each other so much, constantly professing their love for one another, that we’re tempted to see a 20th-century dimension in their friendship that is not really there.

Try as I might in thinking about this book, I cannot conclude anything other than the fact that it is well done, full of excitement and interesting characters, and eminently shallow. There’s not much here beyond the adventure itself and the evocation of 18th century Scottish nationalism and clan conflicts . It’s fun, it’s readable, but there’s little to it. Maybe this is what a child’s book should be.

There is a historical basis for some of the events and people in the novel. The murder for which Balfour and Breck are suspects was modeled on an actual murder. The main character’s kidnapping and ultimate rescue were inspired by a historical event. Alan Breck was an actual figure in 18th century Scottish history, as were a few other characters in the book.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Swanee River

Swanee River (1939; dir. Sidney Lanfield) gives a sentimental and largely fictional account of Stephen Foster, the American composer famous for his ballads about life in the antebellum South. The movie follows Foster’s life from his courtship of his future wife, to his struggle to make a success of his songwriting, to his work with the Christy Minstrels, and finally to his death in New York City. Although Foster visited the South only once in his lifetime, the film suggests he was there often. It shows Foster composing songs off the top of his head after listening to slaves singing spirituals or attending traveling music shows. Don Ameche plays Foster. The other notable actor in the film is Al Jolson, who plays Edwin P. Christy of the Christy Minstrels. Jolson certainly didn’t have much range—loud is his normal style. He sings and dances as one would expect , and through much of the film he and his entire troupe are in black face. He often sings out of time with the music.

The Christy Minstels popularized the music of minstrelsy and singing in black face. The Minstrels are white men made up to look like slaves, including black face paint. Their performances of Foster’s songs made him famous. Today, the tradition of white men in black face singing minstrel songs seems preposterously racist, though it was accepted in much of the 19th century and even in the era that produced this film.

Foster’s songs, many of them still quite listenable, extoll the virtues of the Old South, of slavery, of “the old folks at home.” Their basic theme is nostalgia for a lost past, one in which Foster, his audience, and certainly the makers of this film largely believed. The film certainly doesn’t ever look critically at this aspect of Foster’s music.

Film biographies are problematic. Most of them mythologize their subjects. This one is no exception, though it suggests that love of fame, money, and success were perhaps too important to Foster, and that alcohol and alcoholism, which the film clearly refers to though never quite using the name, were the cause of his downfall personally and professionally.