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.