Friday, April 29, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

Does To Kill a Mockingbird (1962; dir. Robert Mulligan), one of the most popular and revered of American films, show its age? Based on the novel by Harper Lee widely taught in virtually every American high school, the film has been seen by virtually everyone. When I polled students in a college film and literature class recently to find out how many were seeing the film for the first time, only two hands went up. Popularity and exposure are no reasons to dismiss a film. Indeed they may be signs of its centrality as a representation of crisis in the nation’s historical experience. They may also be signs that in helping its audience understand a shared moment it may also have obscured certain realities of that moment. Forty years ago films such as To Kill a Mockingbird might play on the local television channel once in a year, and if you were lucky enough to know the film was scheduled to be shown, you could watch it. Opportunities to see your favorite film were infrequent. Today, with cable channels, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, video rental stores, and other sources, it is easy to find that favorite film and to watch it over and over and over, or in the case of high school and college classrooms, to have it shown to you over and over and over. Seen too often, even the greatest works lose their luster. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least indifference.

The film version of To Kill a Mockingbird was released when the civil rights movement was fairly young. Desegregation was underway in some states, and still being resisted in others. Protests, sit-ins, lawsuits, marches—these were all the landmark identifiers of a tumultuous time. Passions and opinions were heated, divisive, hostile, and sometimes violent. To Kill a Mockingbird offered welcome shelter from the tumult. Set in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, it envelops its characters and readers in a warm and supportive community. Children play on the streets and range across the neighborhood even at night. Neighbors support one another. The interactions we see among social classes and between the races are amicable. Partially this is because we experience the film from a child’s point of view, a child who is the daughter of a Southern lawyer who teaches his children egalitarian attitudes. Partially also it is because the film is told from a middle-class white point of view, insulated to an extent from social and racial conflict. Finally, it is because class and racial lines in the town are clearly demarcated. Residents of Macomb know their place and seem content to occupy it without chafing against the boundaries. The conflict that does occur happens when people on the margins, people who worry over maintaining the boundaries of their own social and racial categories, transgress, or fear that someone has transgressed. No doubt there is much more discord and unhappiness in Macomb than the young narrator Scout is aware of, and the film in part records her gradual education in the way her world really is.

To the adults of Macomb, the social and racial boundaries are clear enough. They accept them because they have done so for generations. They live in a cultural inertia, immovably fixed in their positions because no one or no event has ever prompted them into motion. From Scout’s vantage point, nothing makes sense and everything makes sense in Macomb. The events of the film are a learning experience for her and her brother Jem: they learn their father is a man with some real talents (sharpshooting, for instance), that some people judge others purely on the basis of skin color, that right and justice do not always prevail, that personal and moral responsibility may entail personal suffering, that some men are by nature bad. But it is Scout’s vantage point, and the more general vantage point she shares with brother Jem and their friend Dill, that envelops the film with nostalgic innocence. In a way the film is a childhood idyll, a respite from the realities of the world of 1962. Atticus Finch, the self-sacrificing lawyer of virtue and integrity, is part of this idyllic constructed world.

The placid relations between whites and blacks in the 1930s era Macomb on the one hand must be meant as a counterpoint to the more disturbed relations of the late 1950s and 1960s. Yet it also is meant as a context, a parallel narrative to that of twenty-five years after the time of the story. In essence To Kill a Mockingbird argues for the importance of social and racial equality and also reflects a particular theory of social change. The argument for equality is irrefutable. The theory of social change is problematic, a product of the era of the novel and film, of how many enlightened Southern liberals—and American liberals—felt about the movement for civil rights in the 1950s.

As in Intruder in the Dust, To Kill a Mockingbird views the African American community of the respective small towns as circumscribed and threatened by a hostile white community. Racist attitudes are so thoroughly ingrained that any behavior by a black man or woman that threatens the stability of the community racial and social structure is met with swift retribution. Vigilantism, lynching, are real possibilities. In Intruder a black man is framed for murder and a mob of white men gather at the county jail intent on carrying out their own form of justice. In To Kill a Mockingbird a mob of men try to push their way into the Macomb jail where Tom Robinson, accused of assaulting a white woman, is held. Although both Lucas and Tom are presented as respectable men, in different ways, both are treated as victims. Lucas’ stubborn arrogance infuriates every white person around him. Even so three white citizens band together to try to save him. Tom Robinson, less problematic than Lucas from the town’s perspective, is shown as unsophisticated but hardworking, honest, and compassionate—in many ways distinctly unthreatening. Yet when he’s accused of rape, all the black community can do for him is support his wife and worry. The white community never doubts his guilt—just as it never doubts his white victim’s accusations. It takes the efforts of a white man, Atticus Finch, Tom’s lawyer, to stand up for and defend him.

Both films show enlightened white people as the agents of change for a black community that cannot bring about change on its own. It is in this light that Malcolm Gladwell in “Atticus Finch and the Limits of Southern Liberalism” takes on this hero.[i] Although he is writing about the novel, Gladwell’s argument can apply to the film as well. Gladwell compares Finch to 1950s-era Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom. Both believed, says Gladwell, in the equality of the races as a matter of heart and mind. But when it came to bringing about social change, to altering the system that relegated blacks to secondary status, neither was willing to go that far. When Atticus shows courtesy and respect for the old woman down the street who calls him a “nigger lover,” or for Walter Cunningham who leads the mob at the jail, he does so not as an agent of the law or a fomenter of change but as a member of their community. Different people have different beliefs, and all need to be tolerated. Gladwell takes especial exception to Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson. Because the case for Robinson’s innocence is weak, Atticus argues for innocence by attacking the rape victim, impugning her character, and implying her incestuous relationship with her father. The novel more clearly makes the allegation of incest, while the film merely hints at it. Atticus thus substitutes class prejudice and character judgments for hard and clear evidence. Gladwell writes, “Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.”

Neither the novel nor the film is a treatise in law or Southern politics. Harper Lee was not a lawyer (though her father was) nor a sociologist. She wrote as a liberal Southerner of her time. The film suggests that the case for Robinson’s innocence is strong, but as Gladwell suggested of the novel it also shows Atticus attacking Mayella’s character and arguing that she is being manipulated by someone, clearly her father. Why does Atticus do this? (I am thinking now purely in terms of the film). Atticus is clearly convinced of Tom’s innocence. He uses every reasonable strategy he can think of to defend him. Even when he believes he will lose the case in Macomb, he knows he has a “good chance” on appeal. He argues on the basis of Tom as a family man, a virtuous church-going man, a hard worker, a man with compassion, and a man with a withered right hand incapable of doing injury to the left side of Mayella’s face. And he appeals to the higher natures of the men on the jury (who are not swayed). When he loses the case, he understands that the white jurors could not bring themselves to find Robinson innocent against the testimony of a young white woman. That is, he knows he lost the case to culturally ingrained racism. But he trusts in the efficacy of the law and believes that at some point it will find in Tom’s favor. Whether this will happen we never know because Tom tries to escape from the deputy sheriff who is transporting him to jail, and is killed. This happens off screen, and Atticus seems to accept the story at face value as true. There is at least the possibility that Tom was killed intentionally rather than in the course of an escape attempt. In any case, Tom is dead and the law’s efficacy remains untested.

It may be a product of the film’s dated racial liberalism that the law and Atticus’ skills as a lawyer are never really the issue. The real issue is his moral courage in this case that puts him at odds not only with individuals (and mobs) in the community but with the fundamental principle of white supremacy that undergirds Macomb, Alabama, and the rest of the South. By championing Tom’s innocence, which he believes in both on the basis of evidence as well as personal conviction, he does challenge the racial codes of the South. He puts himself and his children at risk, he is criticized and ridiculed by people in the town, Bob Ewell repeatedly threatens him, and in the end his children are physically attacked. The fact that Atticus is a lawyer, apparently a good one, who has difficulty earning enough of a living to make ends meet, suggests that this is not the only unpopular case he has taken, that he often allows the poor and downtrodden to pay him in immaterial ways, and that this is why the judge comes to him with the case in the first place. (The judge himself believes Tom is innocent. He believes Atticus will do what is right). The film adds to these reasons the fact that Atticus is a widowed father trying to do his best to raise his children without assistance (of course, this discounts the black housekeeper, Calpurnia). He is lonely, it is hinted. And Maudie Atkinson from across the street may be a future helpmeet the film suggests (in a way the novel does not).

Basically, To Kill a Mockingbird presents Atticus as a virtuous man rather than as a racial change-maker. He believes in the law, in the principle that “all men are created equal,” and is willing to stand up for his beliefs. He’s not swayed by social pressures, threats, or other considerations. This is the basis of the argument the film makes for his stature as a hero.

[i] The New Yorker, August 10, 2009.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

Breece D’J Pancake’s Collected Stories (Little, Brown, 1983) are hard, dark stories of life in West Virginia coal mining country. All suggest circumscription, entrapment by social class and ways of life, by generations of defeat and exploitation. Pancake doesn’t highlight political themes in his stories, but one can infer them. Most of the young adult characters, most of them men, live in the troubled shadows of parents and their relationships with their children. In almost every story parents are missing or absent or dead. These characters have few options beyond the coal mines and the small-town jobs available to them. They don’t attend college—it’s not an option for them, and some of them are well aware of what this means for their future. Several stories suggest an awareness of the past through memories and images and relics: fossils in two stories, Indian mounds in another. Only one story has a humorous tone, while the others brim with varying tones of pessimism and bleakness. Only one story is set outside of West Virginia, but its two main characters are from there.

Pancake shows a certain versatility in his use of form. Many stories are in the third person, but two are first-person narratives. One, whose narrator seems to be a truck driving serial killer, is particularly chilling. In another, a young girl runs away with a man who vows to murder someone who has hurt her. She doesn’t believe he will carry through on his threat, and when he does she announces her intentions to leave him. The last sentence of this story speaks with disturbing irony: “’Then let’s talk,’ and his hand brushed against the revolver as he reached for another cigarette.”

Several of these stories are outstanding: “Trilobites,” “The Hollow,” “Fox Hunters,” “In the Dry.” Others are nearly as good. Pancake evokes an intense awareness of place and time, and of the self-awareness of his characters. His best stories plunge you deeply into his world.

The depression and emotional disturbance that led Pancake to suicide at age 27 are always evident in these stories, only four of which were published during his lifetime. An introduction by James Alan McPherson and afterword by John Casey muse over the reasons for his decision to end his life. Everyone seems convinced he was headed towards a brilliant career as a writer. These are the hyperbolic expressions one expects when talented people die early. We can never be sure of what might have been. Despite the promise of these stories, the entrapment they describe extends beyond Pancake’s characters. They suggest entrapment of a particular emotional and intellectual sort, entrapment in a subject matter, in a way of thinking. Pancake would have had to move beyond these frames of mind, the mountain-rimmed country of West Virginia, if he were going to build on and move beyond what these stories achieve. In some sense they dramatize his struggle to break out.

It’s not clear to me that Pancake could or would have moved beyond, and I wonder if his awareness of that entrapment contributed to his death. Such speculations are pointless, as are the ruminations of McPherson and Casey that try to find sense and pattern in his self-annihilation.

An additional afterword by Andrew Dubus III discusses the various merits of Pancake’s writing.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Facing the Music, by Larry Brown

Larry Brown’s first story collection, Facing the Music (Algonquin, 1988), for the most part is a dreary series of accounts of working-class middle-aged adult life. From a man who cannot bring himself to have sex with his wife who lost her breasts to cancer (the title story), to a divorced woman in her fifties who attempts to make connections with a handyman with his own problems (“Leaving Town”), to a man who loves his self-destructively drunken wife (“Kubuku Rides (this is it),” there is little lightness in these stories and no humor (with one minor exception). The prose is wooden, the structure static, the tones monochromic.

At the center of most of these stories is a working-class white male in his 30s or late 20s who is disaffected, alienated, unhappy. These males seem to be intelligent, but they are trapped by unhappy marriages and dull jobs. There seems to be no way out for most of them, no means of escape. The stories therefore have a decidedly male viewpoint, and women more often than not are oppressive forces. An exception is “Leaving Town,” which alternates in point of view between an older woman recently divorced from an abusive husband and a younger handyman whose girlfriend sits all day in front of the television. He would leave her but for her young daughter, whom he cares about. This story is particularly sympathetic to the older woman’s situation and the isolation she suffered in a long and unpleasant marriage.

Most of these stories have a domestic setting. There is little movement or action. Several of them take place in bars, an iconic frame of reference for Larry Brown, it would seem.

Brown experiments with a number of different narrative styles in Facing the Music—stream of consciousness, alternating points of view, clinically cold reportorial narrative, dialect. One of these efforts, “Kubuku Rides,” which attempts to mimic an African American street dialect, is not successful.  Another story, “Night Life,” uses moralistic sentimentality to justify the narrator’s decision to beat a woman for neglecting her young children.  The last story, “The End of Romance,” is little more than a sustained and not especially funny joke. In general Brown’s style seems minimalist and deadpan, in the fashion of Raymond Carver.

I would rank “The Good Samaritan”—an ironic title in a number of ways—as the best in the volume. Overall, Brown’s current reputation doesn’t seem to rest on this collection alone.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel (1852) is a complex and hyper-melodramatic chronicle of slaves and slave owners in the decades before the Civil War.

The true force of the novel lies in its dramatizations of the impact of slavery on both the slaves and their owners, especially those owners who have qualms about the practice but lack the moral resolve to address act on them.

Most of the characters are stereotypes: Little Eva, Simon Legree, Uncle Tom, Topsy, Chloe. The writing is florid and overwrought and often sentimental but the human story has force and energy, and we care about what happens.

Southerners claimed not to like the book because Stowe, who knew “nothing” about the South, did an injustice to slave-owners by impugning their honor with her descriptions of the indignities of slavery: in the course of the novel, she covers most of those indignities, which involve family members broken up and sold apart from one another, broken promises by owners, sexual exploitation of young woman, cruel beatings, and so on. Stowe distinguishes between various kinds of slave-owners—those who believe in the institution but are kind to their slaves, those who have doubts about slavery but are too cowardly to act on them, those who believe that slavery gives them license to do whatever they wish with their slaves, and those who are malignantly evil, like Simon Legree. She excuses none of these slave owners. She also takes issue with Northerners who turn their backs to slavery or who in one way or the other conspire in allowing it.

Despite her clear belief that slaves are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, she invokes numerous stereotypes in depicting them: heavy dialect, shallow thinking, easily tempted, superstitious. She clearly favors those slaves of mixed ancestry: they are more intelligent, more attractive, and more capable of managing their own affairs than slaves with a purely African genealogy.

Stowe sees Christianity as the way that slaves can survive and endure the cruelties of perpetual bondage. She doesn’t favor social solutions, though at one point she hints at the possibility that slaves will rise up against their owners. Uncle Tom, the novel’s paragon of loyalty, human kindness, and piety, remains loyal to all his owners—the one who sells him away, the one who makes the promise to emancipate him but fails to do so before dying, and the one who has him beaten to death. Tom tells Simon Legree that he will be a loyal slave but that he will disobey commands to inflict cruelty on another human being. Tom never tries to run away, even when he’s being mistreated. He counsels other slaves, such as Cassie, Legree’s former lover, not to act against him. When he knows he may be beaten to death for failing to submit to Legree, his faith that he will be leaving one life for another better one consoles him. Stowe holds up Christian faith and piety as the consolation that allows believing slaves to accept the life of pain and servitude.

The African Americans who survive to the end of the novel decide to go to Africa, to Liberia, to work among the African peoples there. This seems to be Stowe’s concession that the United States in the 1850s was not ready for freed slaves to live alongside white Americans. It must also be her concession that she is far more comfortable with the concept of human rights for slaves than she is with the realities.

Whatever faults it may have as literature, few novels can equal the power and moral intensity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Trailer Trashed, by Hollis Gillespie

Hollis Gillespie, author of Trailer Trashed: My Dubious Efforts Toward Upward Mobility (skirt!, 2008), has a biting wit, sharp sense of satire, and the ability to sum up a character with just a few concise details. This book is a collection of short stories that serve as a sequel to her first two collections, many of which appeared in Creative Loafing. Gillespie portrays herself as a former nonconformist and wild woman now trying to reconstruct herself, primarily because of her young daughter, who is the center of her life. Most of the humor in these stories—really, they are more like sketches—stems from the friends Gillespie has collected for herself—Grant, Lary, David, and Keiger, her intermittent boyfriend. They are wild and crazy—or at least they were in the past—and she portrays herself as constantly imposing on them for help, entertainment, and support.

I enjoyed Gillespie’s accounts of her family, especially of her sister who lives in Costa, and of the itinerant childhood she lived with her parents, a mother who builds missiles and bombs for the government and a sometimes inattentive, hard-drinking, and ultimately absent father. In the job he seemed to hold the longest, he sold travel trailers, which may account for the author’s habit of collecting trailers and storing them in her back- and front yards. These family tales, too infrequent in the collection, are poignant, whimsical, and sad.

One of the problems with these stories is that Gillespie is a bit too insistent on seeing herself as a former outlaw. There’s a good bit of repetition here, as the sketches move on, and a lack of focus. Deeply interwoven with facts and tall-tale exaggerations, these sketches do not always make themselves clear. Gillespie’s a bit too proud of herself, and in the final pages of the book, after assuring us for the previous two hundred that she doesn‘t care about much for anything other than her daughter and her friends, she spends a good bit of time dropping Jay Leno’s name (she appears on his show) and relishing the possibility that one of her books may be turned into a movie or sit com.

These stories entertained me. But it strikes me that Gillespie could be a much better writer if she’d dispense with the wild guy tall-tale bravado and just get down to work.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


In Skyline (2010; dirs.. Colin and Greg Strause) six young people in their 20s witness an attack on Los Angeles by aliens who land with huge ships that send out drones to capture humans. They take the humans to a mother ship where their brains are removed and reinserted in android devices (this is made explicit in the last few minutes of the film). Among the many fatal flaws of this effort are the six main characters—they are for the most part narcissistically dimwitted. They watch the invasion from an apartment building as the huge dinosaur-like organic robots tromp around the town, attacking anything that moves, especially humans. Their idea of how to escape is to drive through the city to the bay and sail away on the yacht of one of the characters. This is a decidedly unsuccessful plan.

Through much of this film the main characters do their best to escape the aliens, running, screaming, scampering up and down stairs. There are explosions large and small, burning helicopters, military jets knocked from the sky, smoke, fire, noise. Some of the jets are clearly models, and you strain to see the wires that hold them aloft. One by one these characters are killed or captured, stomped on, consumed, incinerated, harvested.

One could imagine such a film as a comic campy send-up of War of the Worlds or Independence Day, and indeed there are echoes of both those films here. Not echoes in the sense of homage paid to groundbreaking work, but instead the kind of echoes that occur when you borrow, knowingly or not, the plot devices of other films. This is no Invasion from Mars. This film is deadly serious, deadly dull.

There is no excitement in Skyline, no tension, no engagement with the characters, no comedy, no satire, no creative imagination, no nothing. You feel nothing when one or the characters is sucked up by an alien machine. The film’s most disturbing aspect comes in the last scene: it sets up a sequel.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling (1897) is a great adventure story about a spoiled rich kid, Harvey Cheyne, who falls off an ocean liner and is rescued by the crew of a fishing vessel named the We’re Here. Harvey’s parents believe him dead. On the vessel he learns the meaning of hard work, courage, and danger. He becomes friends with the captain’s young son Dan. Kipling tells a great story, but it’s all on the surface—nothing much beneath. Here we have a Horatio Alger tale in reverse: the spoiled rich kid befriended by the hard working fishermen who teach him how to be a man and help instill life skills. When he returns to land and contacts his parents, they are astounded at what he has done, where he has been, and how he has changed. The distant father recognizes his failures and seeks to bond with the boy. The values of this tale lie in its social point of view: it’s told from the rich boy’s perspective. Wealth is not his problem. His problem is that he is spoiled and doesn’t know how to carry his privilege, how to behave towards others (his inferiors). Underneath it all is the idea that this wealthy child was born for power and wealth, and that he must learn to become the sort of person who can assume his rightful position.

Strengths of this short novel include the colorful, diverse personalities of the men on the vessel and Kipling’s descriptions of the sea. One euphoric passage describes the journey of the boy’s father across the American continent as he travels to meet his lost son. Its breathless descriptions sets the boy’s father up as a Gilded Age tycoon, wielding economic power, standing down adversaries, manipulating workers all to the end of securing a fast and uninterrupted train ride to Boston. Another records the father’s story of his life.

One can’t complain about the story, the prose, the characterizations in Captains Courageous. It’s a grand children’s tale. I would want to have some conversations with young readers about the story’s class-based value system and stereotypical traits in a few of the characters. But these are not issues that need tending to the first time a child reads the story. They can be handled later.