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.

Let Me In

In the lives of parents and their children inevitably comes a time—difficult to measure—when parents discover they can no longer control and protect their children. It is not simply a matter of adolescent rebellion. It is more that as children become increasingly self-determined, they begin to make choices independently. Next to the influences of friends and the attractions of the world, the parents’ influence wanes. Parents who see this time coming may try to protect against it with advice and instruction. They may see what the child cannot—the dark possibilities of the world, troubles, predation, evil. In the end the child as an independent soul will stand or fall on his or her own.

Let Me In (2010; dir. Matt Reeves) is about this moment in the life of a child. His name is Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He is physically immature, and boys at school bully him over his small size and his trebling voice. His parents are recently divorced, and his father lives elsewhere. The boy is obviously disturbed by his parents’ split, but we see this mainly through the solitude of his life, and through one phone call he makes to his father. His mother is an ardent Christian who tries to protect her son against evil, but mostly she is wrapped up in her own miseries, and she leaves her son on his own. The boy is lonely and even depressed. He needs a friend.

Evil is one of the issues in Let Me In. Set during the years of the Reagan administration, the film offers an early scene in which the president speaks on television about the presence of evil in the world.

The boy strikes up a friendship with a girl his own age, Abby (Chloe Moretz). He meets her on the playground at night outside the apartment complex where he lives. She has just moved in next door. She is cold and distant at first, but gradually a friendship develops. Although Owen needs a friend, it turns out that she needs him even more. Abby appears to be in every way a young girl. She enjoys talking with Owen, she enjoys the Rubic’s Cube he lends her, and she tells him that she likes solving puzzles. She obviously enjoys Owen’s companionship. We rarely see the man she lives with, maybe her father, just as we rarely see the boy’s mother.

I don’t enjoy vampire films. The typical vampire film seduces with its appeal to adolescent and immature desire for otherness. In this film, vampires act as vampires usually do, but there is a significant twist to the standard formula. For one thing, vampire activity openly figures in only a few scenes. In fact, the vampires of Let Me In are incidental to the film’s interest in the loneliness of the boy, his need to reach out and take hold of whatever might give him solace and love, even if what he takes hold of is evil. He is seduced not by the vampire’s hypnotic attractions, but by his need for love, companionship, connections. Towards the end of the film, in a moment of despair, he calls his father on the phone and asks him if there is such a thing as evil. The father does not know what to make of the question. The boy’s parents can do nothing for him—they’re hardly aware.

Let Me In is a somber, moody film noir. It takes place almost entirely at night. The acting by Smit-McPhee and Moretz is very fine. The film’s point of view is Owen, and our concern for him grows throughout the film. Our concern might initially be that he will fall victim to a vampire, but finally what endangers him is something deeper and more disturbing , and the film’s ending confirms our anxieties. Even if you don’t relish vampires, this film is worth viewing.

Goya’s Ghosts

Goya’s Ghosts (2006; dir. Milos Forman) is a fanciful melodrama woven around the life of Francisco Goya during the late 18th- and early 19th centuries. Ranging over a fifteen-year span, from the reign of Carlos IV and the revival of the Inquisition to the Peninsular Wars, the film proposes that Goya’s muse was a young noblewoman named Ines (Natalie Portman). Her face, the film suggests, appears in numerous paintings and drawings and frescoes by Goya, played by the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. He refers to her as having the face of an angel. He also paints less angelic subjects, including satiric drawings and paints of Spanish nob les and members of the clergy, as well as more somber works. In the film he paints a large portrait of a Catholic priest named Lorenzo. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Ines is accused of heresy by the Catholic Church, tortured, and imprisoned for fifteen years. When she is released, she is close to insane and is obsessed with finding the infant daughter fathered by an archbishop, Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) while she was in prison—he approached her supposedly to offer consolation but one thing led to another. Both Ines and Lorenzo are fictional characters.

Goya’s Ghosts like some other films about artists wants to find the clue to the painter’s artistry in one story or fact: in this film, that clue is the fictional Ines. Such explanations seem to me in principle flawed. Goya himself in the film is portrayed as ambitious and often compromised—willing to work for or with whatever monarch is in power. When the family of Ines appeals to Goya to intercede with Lorenzo and to ask for their daughter’s release, he refuses to help. Even when Lorenzo, the center of evil in the film, returns from France after the French Revolution as a advocate of reason and power, Goya remains his friend. Lorenzo is the supreme Machiavellian of the film—willing to do anything that will improve his position. He has no conscience. He imprisons and sentences him to death the archbishop who banished him 15 years before. He’s responsible for Ines’s imprisonment—accusing her of heresy before the board of inquisitors. Her sin, it turns out, that her great grandfather had renounced his Jewish faith when he moved to Spain.

Is Goya in the film any less worthy of blame than Lorenzo? At least he has a conscience, and when he encounters the demented Ines after her release from prison, he tries to help her.

Goya’s paintings convey the chaotic change and depravities of the age in which he lived. The film conveys those meanings as well. Whatever the historical accuracy of the background against which the fictional story of Lorenzo and Goya and Ines takes place, one suspects that the chaos of his age, the unexplainable vicissitudes of change, genetics, and environment, are what made Goya an artist.

Inexplicably, almost unrecognizably, Randy Quaid portrays Carlos IV in this film.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Apostle

The Apostle (Dir. Robert Duvall) is a film about a religious man, not about religion. Much was made of the film’s respect for religious faith and religious people when it was released in 1991. The Apostle does portray religion in a serious way, without irony or undertones of sarcasm. It even indulges in moments of mystery—when Sonny “saves” a young man seriously injured in a car wreck, and when he “saves” an angry construction worker (Billy Bob Thornton) who has threatened to demolish his church with a bulldozer. Religion is more the context of the film than the subject. The subject is Sonny, a deeply flawed man who derives gratification from his ability to preach and save souls, and who’s also susceptible to more venal indulgences. it's suggested he womanizes, and he drives a Cadillac, and it’s clear that he measures his own worth by his ability to build and keep a church. Yet he’s also a man who wants to make amends, to be better than himself. His desire for fame and power conflict with his need for redemption, and the riddle of his character revolves around this conundrum.

Southern films rarely show religion in a realistic manner . Usually it’s simply an incidental element. We know in Gone with the Wind that the O’Hara family is religious because we see them holding a devotional early in the film. Intruder in the Dust opens with a church bell tolling on a Sunday morning in Jefferson as worshippers sit in church. Some recent films show religion as both a target of humorous jabs and as a dimension of Southern mystery. In the film Borat it’s an aspect of backwoods degeneracy—one scene focuses on a fundamentalist church of ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues. The documentary Searching for the One-Eyed Jesus offers a similar view couched in a respectful aura of soul-searching that is really just an invitation to voyeuristic spectacle. Of the few films that attempt to deal with religion in a realistic way, I’d Climb the Highest Mountain is notable. Based on an autobiographical account by Georgia novelist Corra Harris about her life with a circuit-riding Methodist minister, the film dramatizers the experiences of a young woman as she settles down with her husband in his first assignment in a North Georgia mountain church. The film is pious without being too sentimental, and it takes seriously the preacher’s efforts along with those of his wife to adjust to their assignment. John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is another film that pays serious attention to Southern religion, though with some satiric as well as serious intent.

The Apostle, written and directed by Robert Duvall, who portrays the main character Sonny, focuses on religious Pentecostalism of the Southern variety. Mega churches, speaking in tongues, tent revivals in which energy and yelling count more than fidelity to the Biblical text, the possibility of scandal, the admixture of faith and violence and sex and ambition—these are its setting. The Apostle inhabits and presents with respect the same fundamentalist world that Borat ridicules. The film seems to argue that outside the corporate mega churches of big-city religion is a genuine, simple form of worship that serves an authentic purpose. The Apostle presents us with a string of characters—a retired preacher, an auto mechanic, a disk jockey, a young woman separated from her husband, and others who have lost their churches or lost their way and who need the support that religion can provide. They are waiting there in in the small isolated Louisiana town of Bayou Butté for someone to arrive and start a church. Then Sonny comes to town.

Building a new church is Sonny’s way of seeking to expiate his crimes (which include the probable murder of his former wife’s boyfriend). Chastened by the loss of his mega-church (his wife and other church members vote him out of the pastorate for reasons that that probably have to do with misuse of funds or womanizing or both), his ambitions are now more modest. Any church will do. The Apostle chronicles how Sonny builds the church by befriending townspeople who have lost their own churches, or who need one. Always the entrepreneur, Sonny cooks burgers in a restaurant to raise money for the church. He finds an old bus, preaches on the local radio station, attracts a small congregation of both black and white worshippers. Yet he never makes known his past or his true name: he calls himself the Apostle E. F., and although one or two people ask him about his name he is evasive and it never becomes a real issue. Whatever Sonny’s conflicted reasons for building this church might be, the film does not question his sincerity for doing so, and even when the state police come to take him away, his congregation remains faithful. The last time we see him he is leading a chain gang in call and response song and preaching the Word.

Sonny is the center of the film. The conflicting elements of his imperfect self pose a puzzle that the movie exposes but does not solve. We’re left with an imperfect, sinful man who may have committed murder and who strives to make amends, to build a church that serves others. His new church lacks all the glitter and spectacle of his former church—there is no speaking in tongues, no luxurious building, no electronic guitars—just simple, authentic worship. Yet Sonny seeks to redeem himself on his own terms, rather than God’s terms, or the Law’s terms. He runs away from his crime. He drives his Cadillac into a lake so it can’t be found. He rebaptizes himself and gives himself a new name: the Apostle E. F.. The new name is of course a sign of his desire to make a new life. Yet it’s also an alias that hides his crime. His takes refuge in a remote and small Louisiana town where he hopes and expects that no one will know about him. The good that he does , the people whom his church there serves—all is built on the foundation of his deceit.

I have viewed The Apostle on a number of occasions. It initially left me deeply moved. Not religious myself, I nonetheless was taken with its straightforward and unironic presentation of people who are. Robert Duvall’s performance as Sonny is one of the best of his career, if not the best. The smaller characters whom he meets in Bayou Boutté are interesting and endearing. The story of this man trying to make amends for his life was impressive. On repeated viewings, Duvall’s performance remains strong, as does the wealth of minor characters, but the flaws and conflicting elements in Sonny’s character, and the relative formlessness of the film have begun to weigh on my reactions. The film is a bit too long. Some scenes are gratuitously inserted for dramatic effect and do not advance the plot. An example is the scene in which Sonny “saves” the bulldozer driver (Billy Bob Thornton) who threatens to push the church down. The scene is stirringly orchestrated, with members of the congregation arrayed around Sonny, protecting the church and also reacting to, supporting, Sonny’s ministrations to the man who threatens him. We see how zealous and effective Sonny is as a preacher, how the strength of his faith enables him to undertake actions that in themselves might seem almost miraculous. Yet there is the faint suspicion in this scene that the conversion is simply another hash mark on Sonny’s tally sheet, like the saved young man in the wrecked automobile early in the film. Increasingly I have come to feel that this scene is inauthentic, manipulative, and false. It contributes to the film in the same way as the car chase in Bullitt.

My students have had two predominant reactions to the film: one group of students felt that it was basically an invasion of privacy. They saw it as voyeuristic and intrusive. How a film can unfairly intrude on the private experiences of its characters is a question to ponder. (Literature does this all the time). What these students were really reacting against, I suspect, was the film’s intrusion on their own private religious impulses—the film delves into a territory rarely entered and it does so in a direct way. Another objection was that the film “is too religious.” This objection came from students who were not religious as well as from ones who were. Most of my students come from a large metropolitan Southern city. Their experiences with religion are through conventional mostly Protestant churches. Few of these students have experience with Pentecostal worship . They are mostly reacting to the otherness of what the film portrays, which is outside their experience.

An interesting division became apparent when I taught the film most recently. The class consisted of ten white students, one Hispanic student, one Muslim student, and three African Americans. The Muslim student paid close attention to the film but ultimately chose not to speak about it—as a Muslim, he said in a heavy Southern accent, he didn’t know what to make of it. The Hispanic student, a Roman Catholic, agreed with the white students (for the most part) , who were uncomfortable with the film’s portrayal of what they regarded as an extreme form of worship. The three African American students, all women, reported that they enjoyed the film. One student, the daughter of a minister, said that portrayal of religious worship in The Apostle was exactly what she had grown up with.

The Apostle attempts to show religious worship in a racially ecumenical way. E. F.’s church is open to all races, black and white, young and old, male and female. But of all the people who assist Sonny with starting the church, only one, a retired minister, is actually black. The others are white males. Many of the minor characters, members of the congregation, provide humor and detail. There are two black women who compete with one another for piety and attention. There are two little black boys, cute and mischievous. There’s an old black man who plays a trumpet. As a young child, Sonny’s first experience with a church is an all black church to which he is taken by the black woman who looks after him . Thus we are to know that Sonny grew up with a racially blind sense of religious worship. The film itself, however sincere it may be, relegates most of the black characters to secondary roles that often, though not consistently, show them in a humorous light.


The publication of Deliverance in 1970 and release of the film of the same name in 1972 inspired among young Georgians an interest in the Chattooga River and its rapids and the surrounding mountains. Located on the border of South Carolina and Georgia, a few miles from the small mountain town of Clayton, the river was the basis for the Cahoolawasie River of Dickey’s novel, and the location where much of the film was made. During the spring and summers, campers, canoers, and kayakers flocked to the river, with their money and gleaming new equipment and big city ways. They traded stories about their experiences on the river, using names like Bull Sluice, the Narrows, Woodall Shoals, and their encounters with local residents. To an extent the local economy benefitted from this sudden popularity, but many of the campers and river enthusiasts viewed the local folk in much the same way that Dickey’s novel and John Boorman’s film did: as backwoods exotics.

I was among these enthusiasts and visited the river a number of times, wending my way down section three, never daring section four, where the most challenging rapids are found. Once I floated down section three in a raft with my brother and a beagle, and when we went over Bull Sluice, a narrow and furious two-step drop of nearly sixteen feet, I was flung from the raft and plunged by the force of the water deep beneath the river’s surface. I remember telling myself, whirling around down there deep beneath the river, that eventually I would rise to the surface and breathe, and fending off the fear that I would not. After what was probably an interlude of only a few seconds, to me very long seconds, I rose to the surface, thereby making it possible, some forty years later, to offer these comments.

Deliverance was a city boy’s view of wilderness in the modern South. Zell Miller, lieutenant governor of Georgia when the film appeared, was incensed by its portrayal of North Georgians. In his recent book about the people and culture of north Georgia, Purt Nigh Gone, the Old Mountain Ways, he wrote about how “the false portrayal of mountain people as depraved and amoral cretins by writers like James Dickey in his popular novel ‘Deliverance,’ have done lasting harm in how the mountaineer is portrayed.”[1] When he was governor of Georgia in the 1990s, still smarting, he placed the novel on his list of “most hated” books.[2] As far as stereotypes go, the governor had a point. Both novel and film do stereotype mountain people, especially those who live in the remote regions alongside the upper reaches of the river. The people of Aintree are portrayed in a more chairtable way, though it’s clear we’re meant to see them as quaintly unsophisticated.

But Deliverance isn’t a documentary or a historical study. It’s a film based on a novel whose literary reputation seems to have endured and grown over the last four decades. Deliverance is a very fine film, one of the best films “about the South” ever made. Its virtues are manifold: it retains the core elements of the novel’s narrative, it translates the poetry of Dickey’s prose through remarkable cinematography, it uses the local setting of North Georgia’s Chattooga River to good effect, it foregoes a dramatic musical soundtrack and instead uses the sounds of the river and forest, it focuses the action largely on the interactions of the four main characters, and more specifically on the relationship of Lewis and his protégé Ed, the narrative consciousness of both novel and film. The rape of Bobby by one of the mountain men is graphic, brutal, and deeply disturbing—it was meant to be nothing less. And the entire film is shrouded, veiled, with ambiguity—from such minor details as why Lewis speaks to one of the mountain men in a rude and aggressive way, to the meaning of a random sound in the woods, to the configuration of the dead rapist’s body as the four men carry him upstream to bury him, to such major issues as why Drew dies (was he shot, did he fall from the boat, did he throw himself out) to the identity of the young mountain man Ed shoots (was he the wrong man), to the fundamental ambiguity of the rising hydroelectric impoundment waters that will rise and cover, obscure, obliterate the buried bodies and the truths of what happened (if truths they can ever be) on that fatal weekend. The film’s very title is an ambiguity: Deliverance. From what, or whom?

The reputation of Deliverance (both novel and film) as an icon of masculine swagger obscures the central interests of the story. Beyond and behind the macho bluster of Lewis and the middle-age lurching of his friends is an investigation of cultural imperialism, of the impact of the modern urban world not only on the rural outlands of the mountain South but on the very consciousness of Southerners, of Americans, of the modern individual. Two of the most difficult scenes in the film focus on encounters between the weekend canoers from Atlanta and the inhabitants of the mountains near the Cahoolawassie. One is when Lewis and crew stop at a mountain house to find men to drive their vehicles down to Aintree. The other is the infamous rape scene. One is implied violence and the other is explicit violence.

Boorman, guided by Dickey’s screenplay and his own inclinations, places a number of plot lines in uneasy relation to one another. One is the idea that civilization has deprived men of their essential animal humanity, separated them from what D. H. Lawrence would have called blood knowledge. Cut off from their natural origins, left soft and weak by civilized conveniences, they must relearn how to survive in the world. The character Lewis (Burt Reynolds) embodies these ideas, and he makes it his mission to expose his three companions to survival skills. He’s especially interested in mentoring his friend Drew (Jon Voight), who feels somewhat adrift in his life, dissatisfied. These ideas are expressed in one of Dickey’s best and most characteristic poems, “Springer Mountain,” where the deer hunter must lay down his weapons and shed his clothes in order to accomplish a true knowledge of his natural self. (There are echoes here of Faulkner’s “The Bear” and, more deeply, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.) Director John Boorman visited this theme again in 1985 in The Emerald Forest, about a young American boy lost in the Amazonian forest who is adopted by a local tribe. When his father finds him, he has taken on all the traits and behaviors of his benefactors. The larger theme of this film focuses on the pristine Amazonian forest, threatened by the construction of a huge dam that will, like the dam in Deliverance, inundate the forest when it becomes operational. In this film, however, the boy and his father blow up the dam and save the rain forest, at least temporarily.

The ethical debate at the heart of Deliverance centers on the argument of the four men about what to do with the mountain man Lewis has killed. Drew, the intellectual in the group (his glasses and guitar signify this), believes in the conventions of civilized society: he wants to take the body downstream to Aintree, explain what happened to the authorities, and accept the consequences. Lewis takes the opposite view, arguing that if they take the body downstream there will be a murder charge and a trial by a jury of local residents, some of whom may be the dead man’s relatives. Lewis takes the survivalist view—he wants to do what is necessary to extricate the group from the situation. It is a view indifferent to the law and the family of the dead man. It is also an argument based on convenience—he doesn’t want to waste his time trying to explain why he killed a man, especially a man from the backwoods who forcibly sodomized one his companions. Ultimately Bobby and Ed side with Lewis, and the group takes the body a ways upstream to bury it. In a pointed statement, it is Drew who is killed (or who dies accidentally, or who kills himself) while they are navigating rapids downriver shortly after the burial. Drew is so upset with the decision the group has made that he seems overcome. He furiously digs the grave with his bare hands, wheezing and panting. When they return to the river, he refuses to wear his life jacket and does not respond to his friends. Then he pitches into the water. Significantly, the only one of the four to argue for civilized ways of doing things, he dies soon after he loses the argument.

Lewis does not win the argument either. His attitude is that with learned skills and brawn he can tough his way through any adversity, especially in the natural world. Yet he has not been careful in scouting out the rapids and waterfalls of the Cahoolawasie, and when the remaining men come to an unexpected waterfall, they tumble into the water. One canoe is broken in half. Lewis emerges with a broken thigh bone sticking out of his leg—he’s rendered powerless, unmanned. Even when his protégé Ed crawls up the cliff by the river, waits through the night, and then manages to kill with a bow and arrow the man he believes shot Drew, he does not win either. The dead man does not look exactly like the mountain man they encountered in the forest—is he the wrong man? Now the three men do not bother to debate the ethics of tying rocks to the corpse and sinking it in the river.

The point is that neither Drew nor Lewis nor Ed nor the raped Bobby win the argument. Drew dies, Lewis is maimed, Bobby is violated, and Ed is left with haunting uncertainty and guilt over all their actions in the woods. Three dead men are left behind as the result of this weekend lark on the river.

Despite the stereotypical portrayals of the mountain folk, the film’s clear viewpoint is that the men from the city have transgressed. They have first of all come to the river unprepared for the rapids and falls they face, for the mountain folk they encounter. Their assumptions from the start are ones of cultural superiority—mountain culture is inferior and primitive--and they act on the conviction that education, employment, and income empower them to act without concern about consequences of their actions. This form of transgression is passive and unintentional—the city men simply are who they are, city men, in all their blandly sheltered homogeneity, and when they enter the foreign terrain of North Georgia, their indifference and ignorance lead to disaster. A second form of transgression is more pervasive and sinister. The four men from Atlanta are mere aspects of this transgression, embodied in the hydroelectric dam whose reservoir will flood and submerge the Cahoolawassie River and everything around it. An entire culture and way of life, not to mention wild forest and its ecosystem, will disappear. This change is already taking place as the film ends—cemeteries are being moved, churches transported to higher ground, people leaving Aintree. The dam is the agent of the modern world, of the growth of Southern cities, of technology and a world economy of ravenous capitalism. The dam will provide power and drinking water to the city of Atlanta. It brings progress, but at the cost of the mountain wilderness and the culture and community found there.

It’s easy enough to view the experience of the four men in Deliverance as akin to the experience of Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: they wander into the dark forest and discover their capacity for savagery, for murder. What Boorman’s film emphasizes, however, is also the destructive impact of modern commerce and technology on marginal yet distinctive cultures around the world.

[1] As quoted in http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/archives/18744/. See Zell Miller, Purt Nigh Gone, the Old Mountain Ways (Stroud & Hall Publishers, 2009).

[2] Dwight Garner, “’Deliverance’: A Dark Heart Still Beating,” New York Times, August 24, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/books/25dickey.html.