Monday, December 31, 2012


To say that a film is reverent in its portrayal of a historical character is usually a criticism.  Stephen Spielberg’s great film Lincoln (2012) is reverent in its treatment of the nation’s 16th president.  But its reverence is embedded in a relatively careful and accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s character and times, specifically in its depiction of his interactions with his family and with members of the House of Representatives as he campaigns for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States.

Lincoln is the great national hero.  One can find other great figures from our history worthy of regard, but Lincoln stands above all.  As a film Lincoln does what every other portrayal of Lincoln has attempted—to give a realistic, compelling portrayal of the man.  No representation of a historic figure such as Lincoln can be wholly or mostly accurate.  Who knows what the man was really like?  We have no recordings of his voice, no video records, only written descriptions of him, opinions, his writings, accounts of what he said and did.  Spielberg’s film, and Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the title character, takes to heart descriptions of Lincoln’s voice as high-pitched.  Such a voice runs counter to what we typically expect of our heroes—we need them to speak in booming basso profundo.  But Spielberg’s and Lewis’ Lincoln is absolutely believable.  Cinematic and speculative portrayal though he may be, this Lincoln is the One. 

It is not so much what Lincoln actually was, what he actually believed and said, how he behaved.  It is what we project through him about ourselves and our nation.  Lincoln incorporates our own views of the ideals and virtues that animate the nation, at least the nation as we’d like it to be.  Spielberg and Lewis give us that Lincoln.

Spielberg at least twice in the film uses indirection to present several of the most famous events of Lincoln’s life.  One of these is the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln gives more than two years before the time span of the film (January to April 1865).  We experience it through Union solders who recite the speech back to Lincoln while he’s visiting a battlefield.  Another such incident is the assassination.  Rather than dramatizing it directly, Spielberg shows us another theatre, where an opera is playing, attended by the young Lincoln son Tad.  A stage manager runs on stage to announce that the president has been shot, and we experience the announcement and its meaning through the reaction on the boy’s face, and through the reactions of the people in the audience.

As radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as one of the film’s two best supporting actors.  I could never quite grow comfortable with him in the role, but his cranky version of the aging senator who was a master at invective and insult and who throughout his life was an ardent supporter of rights for American blacks—and who regarded Lincoln as too cautious and conservative—is very fine.  Sally Fields, as the depressive, sometimes histrionic Mary Todd, is good as well.  Her Mary Todd Lincoln understands how the public views her, and sometimes believes her husband feels that way as well.  On occasion she is completely irrational.  Despite her apparent illness and ill manners (she lambasts Stevens at a White House party for daring to investigate her spending habits), despite her excessive worry about the oldest son Robert’ desire to enlist in the Union Army, the film shows her as a devoted supporter of her husband, especially of his desire to pass the 13th Amendment, which will, if passed, she believes justify placing her son at risk.

Spielberg gives us a Lincoln with blemishes.  He yells at his wife in one scene, slaps his son after an insulting remark in another, is willing to offer federal appointments to House members in return for their votes.  He is so fast to tell homespun tales during tense moments that sometimes the irritation on the faces of the people around him is clear.  But overriding these negatives is the figure of the man who believed in the nation, in the Union, in freedom for the slaves, who took upon himself the weight and suffering of the thousands who died in the Civil War, North and South, fighting for what they believed.  This is the Nation’s Lincoln, the man of national legend and myth, however true or not he may be, and this is the Lincoln at the heart of Spielberg’s film.  In our own time of crisis, when everything seems in danger of tumbling down, this is a compelling figure indeed.

Big Bad Love


A moody tone piece about a man mired in despair and alcohol over his failure as a writer, a husband, a father, and a friend, Big Bad Love is full of misery. Filmed in the purlieus of Oxford and Mt. Holly, Mississippi, it shows us the South through dirt roads, rundown gas stations, bars, crazy behavior, and eccentric characters.  Its main character, Leon, is drunk through much of the film, and so depressed that he can’t distinguish his own fantasies from reality. Ostensibly he is struggling to succeed as a writer, and we often watch him opening returned manuscript and reading rejection letters, which he posts on a bulletin board over the desk where he writes on his old manual typewriter.  He’s a lover of language and of writing.  He reads the dictionary, remembers strange words, mounts words on the wall above his writing desk.  He declaims poems aloud, when he’s sober enough to remember them.  He does write, some, but mostly he drinks and gets into trouble.

Big Bad Love gives us the South of Mississippi writer Larry Brown, whose 1990 story collection of the same title is its source.  The film is based mainly on the third section of that collection, a long story entitled “92 Days,” about an unpublished and struggling writer confronting the same problems Leon in the movie deals with.  Brown’s stories in Big Bad Love are mainly about working class alcoholic men in their 30s on the verge of divorce, or recently divorced.  They’re lonely for love after deserting, or being deserted by, aging and incentive wives.  They’re like country music songs of a certain type—the George Jones type—that visit and revisit the same self-pitying and self-destructive themes from different angles over and over and over.  The film is loosely faithful to the story, but considerably less woman-hating.  My guess is that there is much of Brown in Leon (well played by Arliss Howard). 

Leon is more a struggling man than a struggling writer, and much of the film is made up of his memories, or himself and his wife (Debra Winger) early in their failed marriage, of their children at a younger age, of his childhood and especially his mother, of his apparently dead father (played in brief appearances by Larry Brown himself).  Memories and dreams interweave with a hallucinatory reality.  The film sometimes verges on making fun of Leon’s drunkenness, and indeed a mild patina of romantic admiration for his excessive living and suffering suffuses the story.

As much as this film’s moody nostalgia (for what?) entranced, it did seem to be working the old cliché that you have to suffer to succeed as a writer, and you also have to make people around you suffer and nearly drink yourself to death and wreak havoc in many other ways.  Everything that could go wrong does.  His daughter dies, his ex-wife reminds him about her restraining order, and he discovers that the brain injury his brother suffered while they were out together on a drunken spree left him nearly a vegetable. He spends two weeks in prison, but when his first story is accepted, and his novel is solicited with the promise of publication, everything turns rosy.  This change seemed too easy.

All the actors, especially Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Rosanna Arquette, and even Angie Dickinson are good.  My old teacher and friend Coleman Barks was moving and darkly funny as the preacher who gives the eulogy at the funeral.  The soundtrack, a collection of Mississippi blues and John Hiatt and Tom Waits and others, is finely tuned to the film.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Good-bye, My Lady

Good-bye, My Lady (dir. William A. Weltman, 1956) follows up on the formula of The Yearling (1946)—a boy moving towards adolescence bonds with an unusual pet, in this case a dog, a rare African Basenji that laughs, weeps, cleans itself like a cat, and hunts with unusual skill.  This film lacks the lyricism and subtlety of The Yearling.  It announces its themes ahead of time, through a deep-voiced singer announcing through song that it’s sad and hard when a boy grows up to be a man--with a harmonica wistfully making wistful music in the background.  (Both the man’s voice and the song are, for lack of a better word, creepy).  The twelve-year-old Skeeter (Brandon deWilde) and his Uncle Jesse Jackson (Walter Brennan) are the primary characters. I liked Brennan in Swamp Water (1941), but here he plays a bumbling, fairly inept, lazy, but kind old man we later came to know as Gramps in the TV series “The Real McCoys.”  One scene in particular is worth the entire film—Brennan’s character stopping and starting, trying to decide what to do, his feet dancing this way and that, as if he’s deep into some sort of country jig, except that he’s just supposed to be bumbling around in a comical way.  We typically see him dozing on the front porch of his shack when he is supposed to be cutting firewood.  His major virtue is his love for his nephew, entrusted to his care after his mother’s death.  (The father is nowhere to be seen, and Uncle Jesse refuses to talk about him, as if to suggest he was some sort of scoundrel who deserted mother and child).

The film purports to show us what life in the Southern backwoods swamps was like for people in the mid-20th century and earlier.  Skeeter and his uncle live in a ramshackle one-room shack, deep in the woods at the end of a long dirt road.  They eke out an existence selling firewood, mainly to their friend Cash Evans, who owns a store in the nearby town and is something of a friend and rival to Uncle Jesse.  Jesse is illiterate, though the boy is learning to read.  In fact, the stylized depictions of the cabin and its inhabitants probably have a limited basis in reality.  Poverty and good-heartedness are the main qualities of the poor in this film, while the more affluent Cash lives in town (Phil Harris plays this role in a peculiarly loud and wooden way).

Suffice it to state that the film revolves around how Skeeter finds the Basenji dog, names it Lady, loves it and trains it to hunt, and then gives it up when Cash shows him a newspaper ad placed by the owner, looking for the lost dog.  Skeeter decides he must give up Lady, and this is supposed to mark his coming manhood, his recognition that he must give up the dog that isn’t his.  Unfortunately, this message, fairly blunt to begin with, is blunted even more when Skeeter takes great pleasure in $100 reward money the dog’s owner gives him.  The loss of the dog hardly seems to matter.

The boy and his uncle are friends with a kind, hardworking black man who lives nearby, Gates, played by Sidney Poitier.  His wife is played by Louise Beavers, who starred for two years in the first TV show centered on black characters. It aired in the early1950s.  Gates and his wife are good-hearted, hard-working, extremely blessed with progeny.  Although both Gates and his wife are portrayed in a positive way, the film can’t quite escape the stereotype of the wise and kindhearted black folks who give advice to the whites.

The film makes a few jokes, mainly through Uncle Jesse, about the character of Yankees.  He tells a tale about how after a visiting Yankee got snake-bit the snake died.  The kindness of the man sent by the dog’s owner convinces Jesse and his nephew that all Yankees might not be so bad after all.

A few scenes of Good-bye, My Lady seem to have been shot on location, but most of the film looks like it was shot on a set, in black and white, on a small budget.

If this film aspired to be another The Yearling, it didn’t succeed.


Monday, December 17, 2012


Norman, the boy at the center of this film, sees ghosts all around him.  He’s like the Haley Joel Osment character in The Sixth Sense, except here he’s animated and the film is about how he must save the world from a witch wrongly executed two hundred years before.  There’s nothing remarkable about Paranorman (dir. Chris Butler, Sam Fell, 2012), but it’s entertaining.  Norman has clueless parents—his father is particularly irritated about his son’s psychic abilities—a sister who can’t stand him, a clumsy pudgy friend, and he’s bullied at school.  Various hijinks and adventures, a buildup to the appearance of the witch, and her defeat (by Norman, of course).  It’s really just a hi-tech Scooby-Doo episode.

I’m not a child, of course.  But how do children feel about this little boy surrounded by the ghosts of dead people?  How do they feel about the implication—that ghosts surround them as well?  I don’t believe in ghosts.  Nonetheless, the idea of them bothers me, especially when I’m in a dark house late at night, or when the floors creak, or some uncanny sound comes out of the woods.  I can’t quite reason myself out of apprehensions of the unreal.  But at the age of 8 or so, the age towards which this film is aimed, I would have been traumatized by this film or its adult ancestors such as The Sixth Sense and the Paranormal Activities series. Such films both animated and live action inundate today’s entertainment industry, and numerous 8 year olds are watching.  Do films like these desensitize their viewers about the supernatural, death, and violence, or do they simply suggest that illogic and nonsense are not that foreign to begin with? Everything in Paranorman is intended for children—everything comes out right.  No dogs or people are harmed.  But the more adult versions of films like these—films that obsess over violence and horror and random suffering—what about them? 


Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) is a loosely wrought and meandering (in the best sense of the word) fable about cultural interrelationships, mutual dependencies, and barriers.  It’s also about the initiation of three young individuals—a 17 year old girl, her little brother, and an aboriginal adolescent—into both the natural and human worlds.  The girl and her brother live in a posh apartment building in a large Australian city.  When they’re waylaid in the outback—their father takes them along when he goes to look at geological formations, he tries to shoot them, and then sets his car afire and shoots himself (the reasons are unclear)—they begin wandering in the desert. The aboriginal boy, on his walkabout, falls in with them and shows them how to find water, to kill prey for food, and to survive.  The film often contrasts the divergent backgrounds of the white children and the aboriginal boy.  He’s aware of the differences, as are they.  The plot is so loose that often consecutive scenes do not entirely follow logically on each other.  The children simply wander.  They develop a friendship.  They become more comfortable, more able to make their ways in the outback.  Then they stumble across a white settlement, and it’s over.  The white children survive.  The aboriginal boy does not. 

There’s little dialogue in this film, which relies mostly on visual images of the children wandering, of the aboriginal boy hunting animals, of their time together in the darkness.  A relationship seems to develop between the boy and the girl, but it ultimately goes nowhere.  When she fails to respond to his advances late in the film, he commits suicide.  The girl and her brother return to life in the city.  The cultural divide that seemed to have been bridged collapses.

I find Roeg’s style as a director in Walkabout self-indulgent.  Random shots of nature, of wilderness, of wildlife, signify the immersion of the city children in the natural world, suggesting a return to a primal environment where the distinctions of race and class and culture fall away.  The white children cross empty barren wastes, clamber up steep cliffs, stare off into the vast distances.  They are profoundly lost, isolated, these scenes suggest.  Cut-in shots of images from the city, or of their father’s burning car—remind us who they are.  The girl often listens to her radio, and the aboriginal boy learns to listen too.  Sometimes these moments seem random, and I can’t entirely say that they work.  They create a sense of disconnection, an unsettling rhythm that interferes with the otherwise pastoral tone.  But that may be their purpose.

My feeling that the film depends a bit too much on beautiful images culminates in a prolonged scene in which the girl swims naked in an isolated pool.  The aboriginal boy does not spy on her (though her brother does), and in fact the real voyeurs in the scene are those of us watching the film.  What does it accomplish?—it shows the girl’s comfort in an entirely natural setting, her symbolic immersion in the natural world, where she sheds all the trappings of her civilized background (her clothes, her modesty) but mostly it shows us her beautiful naked body, in a tasteful way, of course.

Walkabout almost seems to suggest that the white children are unaffected by their outback experience.  The aboriginal boy shows some signs of absorbing, adjusting to, white culture, while the white children seem to absorb very little of his culture.  The final scene, however, leaves us wondering how untouched the girl and her brother really were.

Cinematography is supposed to be one of the strengths of this film, but the colors seemed washed out in the version I watched.  I’d like to see a restored print.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott

Discussions of the economy, especially by all-knowing gurus like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, can be fascinating, or grimly unbearable.  The economy, the nation’s economic health, moves in ways that directly affect our lives, jobs, and national welfare, yet often the economy seems to function like some mystical force beyond the ken of mortal individuals.  Is it some globally based ecological force, like the weather, that moves with Nature’s intricate whims, or is it the manifestation of millions of individual wills that purchase, buy, sell, invest, save, earn, and squander, like a beehive?  Is the economy beyond the control of governments and economic experts, or can it be manipulated by controlling taxes and deficits and large-scale governmental surges of support?

Such questions have been debated for years, and they have certainly been at the fore since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, and during the recent presidential election.

The economy is mystifying to me, and, frankly, not the most gripping of subjects, but the recent book Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott, on the career-long debate between two rival economists, John Maynard Keynes and Freidrich Hayek, undertakes to offer some insight.  Keynes, a British economist, came to believe that governments could direct the flow of the economy, while Hayek, of the Austrian economic school, believed that governments could do only damage by such efforts.  Keynes believed that governments could protect the lives of citizens through active economic manipulation of the economy while Hayek believed in minimal government controls.  Hayek believed in balanced budgets while Keynes believed that governments could live with deficit spending as long as they could afford to pay the interest on their loans.  For much of the mid-twentieth century, from Roosevelt through Carter, we lived in a Keynesian economy.  Under Reagan, the first Bush, Clinton, and well into years of the second Bush, Hayek was in the ascendant.  But when the Great Recession began, Bush fils became a Keynesian, along with Obama, pumping billions of federal dollars into the economy, significantly increasing the national deficit, and probably saving the nation from a major depression.  We’re living now under economic controls and principles that combine aspects of both Keynes and Hayek’s thinking. 

As a person who tends to think in humanistic terms, I found the accounts of Keynes and Hayek as human personalities fascinating, perhaps more so than their economic theories.  Bitter rivals throughout their careers, they became friends and colleagues in their later years.  Wapshott’s accounts of the last thirty years in American politics and economics were especially illuminating.  In explaining finer points of economic theory, Wapshott is not always clear, but who could be? 


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) is full of post-World War II optimism, yet it’s dark too—dark in its portrayals of big landlord banking moguls such as Henry F. Potter (effusively overplayed by Lionel Barrymore), and dark in what it shows happening to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) when he thinks his life is about to crash and burn in the worst of ways.

In films like this one and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), director Frank Capra dramatizes his belief that the virtues and essential goodness of the common man (or woman) will inevitably prevail against evil.  We see here the stereotypical but well intended portrayals of ethnic groups such as the Italians and Irish (as well as a few glimpses of African Americans).  Capra gives us his idealized and earnest views of young love, family life, and the American Dream.  The film almost overwhelms itself with ebullient views of human character. 

Although the film for me has aged very well, I wonder how younger generations view it.  Last night at a local showing at the local arts cinema, Cine, I saw many parents and grandparents escorting their not entirely unwilling but not necessarily overenthusiastic children and grandchildren to see the film.  How did they view its portrait of marriage, with Donna Reed’s character submitting willingly and without question to Georgie Bailey’s job and to his sour disposition when things go bad?  How do they react to the patronizing view of immigrants like the Italians, or its notion that banks can serve the poor by playing fast and loose with their money?  Do they take seriously George Bailey’s telling his customers that if they trust him with their money (which has temporarily disappeared) things will come out right in the end? 

How do they reconcile the spirit of the season with this venerated holiday film in which a man so depressed and horrified by the apparent failure of his life that he mistreats his wife and children, drinks himself into a stupor at a local bar, and then tries to commit suicide? 

These are interesting questions, but the possible answers don’t overwehelm the good-heartedness and innocence and wonderful human force of the film.  George Bailey is the American hero who fails to achieve his life’s ambitions (traveling the world, building magnificent projects, escaping the provincial and limiting confines of Bedford Falls) and who allows himself to be retained by the small town savings and loan founded by his father, by the love of Mary, and the admiration of his townspeople—they admire him because he is at the heart of it as good a man as one might find—and that is all one might ask for in what may well be the greatest American Christmas film of all.

When I first showed this film to my children some years ago, they were captivated not by George Bailey’s character or his rowdy household or the lively array of comic characters, but by the angels discoursing in the firmament about his life and fate.  In a way, this film that pivots on the notion that a man can view his world as it might have been had he never been born really does examine the most cosmic, nay, existential of issues.

Without Mr. Potter, we would never have had Montgomery Burns.

Men in Black 3

Here we are in Men in Black 3 (2012; dir. Barry Sonnenfeld) with two familiar partners back in action.  The chemistry surrounding Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, as Agents J and K, helped propel the first two installments of the Men in Black series. Even their chemistry, and the special insights afforded by what amounts to an origins story, can’t quite energize installment three.  We encounter the same familiar aliens. The same situations in sordid New York dives and shops and cafes, the same hi-tech gizmos and special effects.  It just don’t quite work.  The film resorts to a time-travel gimmick, wherein one of the agents travels back to 1969 to save the other’s life.  It just so happens that the first American moon landing is involved, and there are the expected scenes of people in 1969 with 60s hairdos and dress.  Andy Warhol makes an appearance, as does, briefly, Howard Stern.  The time travel plot has a special twist that is actually quite poignant, and that casts new light on the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones partnership, but not enough to save the film.  The film is fun to watch, and does offer some ingenious moments, perhapos thinks to the script co-written by Etan Coen.

The Men in Black films are satirical and comic, so perhaps it is not fair to complain that many of the aliens are invested with certain recognizably ethnic features, or that when Will Smith travels back to 1969 there are predictable scenes involving his skin color and 1960s racism.  And the aliens themselves, many of them in gowns and armor and looking like refugees from a He-Man cartoon or a Battle of the Titans movie or a Lost in Space episode, are not convincing—they’re tired and hackneyed.  Should I expect them to be otherwise?

The funniest scene comes when the villain, Boris the Animal, travels back in time to commit mayhem and gets into an argument with his younger self about which of them is the meaner dude.  This is a hilarious parody of a so-called time-travel paradox that holds that if one could travel back (or forward) in time he couldn’t occupy the same space with his former or future self.  This is supposedly (I say supposedly because it’s never been tested) a physical impossibility.

The standout character is Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), an alien who can foresee and experience every possible permutation of events in the space-time continuum.  He’s essential to the plot, and the one true burst of imaginative and creative thinking in a film that needs both badly, despite the surprising moment of true human emotion in the penultimate scene.

And then there is Josh Brolin, wholly convincing as a younger version of the Tommy Lee Jones character.  He shares much the same chemistry with Agent J, and actually spends more time on screen than Jones.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Yearling

The Yearling (dir. Clarence Brown, 1946) is a soft spot for me.  Maybe it’s the Technicolor Maxfield Parrish Florida landscapes, or Claude Jarman’s self-consciously joyous face, or Gregory Peck’s young and upright fatherly ways, or the occasionally wooden dialogue, or any combination of these and other reasons.

Based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel, The Yearling attends to an infrequently noticed part of the American South—the post-Civil War Florida swamps, where pioneers go to settle and struggle to make their lives after the Civil War.  With its attention to the difficulties of small time farmers, it reminds us of The Southerner, Swamp Water, and even God’s Little Acre.  We sense the influence especially of Renoir’s films about the South here, as well as a touch of John Ford.

The Yearling is an episodic narrative of a boy’s education in the challenges of adult life.  It’s also about a dirt farmer trying to get a hold in the swamplands of Florida, and about his wife, scarred by the deaths of three children.  She’s cold and apparently unloving to her son, but the film gradually reveals that her reserve is her way of protecting herself against further hurt should her living son die like the others. 

Claude Jarman plays Jody in this film.  He’s not really a very good actor, but he’s a wonderful presence.  The film is in love with his broad smiling face and never misses an opportunity to linger on it.  Jody brims with optimism and open spirit, he’s in love with the natural world and its creatures, in love with his fellow human beings and the possibilities of his life, as far as he can understand them.  The Yearling offers up a worshipful, almost reverent cult of boyhood and the innocence and joys of preadolescence.  His father tries to encourage him in his interests, while his mother, at least at first, tries to discourage them.  It’s tempting to see her as a kind of real-life Disney mother, cold and evil like Cruella Deville, or the haughty socially self-conscious mother of the boy in Song of the South.  But The Yearling resists such a reading.  She is human after all.

This film and Jarman’s character really take off in a scene in which Jody and his deer Flag are running through the countryside, alongside the edges of the lake, through the woods.  They startle wild deer that begin running alongside, on the border of the woods, accompanied by music from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The result is a miraculous cinematic ballet that captures more than anything else in the film the joy that is the boy’s nature.

This film gives us both the frontier as a place of adventure and closeness to nature and also a place of cruelty.  The boy loves nature, stares for hours in reverie at running streams and forest creatures.  He has little awareness of the hard lives his parents live, or of the siblings he never met, who died before him.  Life for him is a long and ebullient romp.  This comes to a head when he finds and takes as a pet the little fawn of a doe his father killed for its liver—he’d been snake bit, and he wanted to use the liver to suck out the poison.  Even the way he came into possession of the fawn, which he names Flag, should have been a warning to the boy, but he is too young to recognize it.  He’s unaware that fawn will one day grow up into something much larger and difficult. Love of Flag, and responsibility to his family are the contending forces for the boy.  Up to a point his parents indulge his love for the deer, but when the animal repeatedly eats crops on which the family depends for survival, the decision is made.  His father orders the boy to shoot the door.  He obeys, in part because he knows his father is right, and then runs away for three days, floating on an old skiff through the swamp and down the river, until he’s found by a riverboat captain and returned home.  This is Jody’s dark night of the soul, and he returns from it, presumably, an older and wiser young man.

Because so much of the film comes to us from the boy’s view, it’s tempting to overlook the struggles of the parents—of the mother to deal with the loss of her children, her fear of losing another, of the father’s struggle to be a successful farmer and feed his family.  The fact that three children have died is evidence of the harshness of their lives.  Because we see her through the boy’s eyes, the mother may seem a cold and harsh person.  It becomes clear as the film moves along that the father understands the reasons for her apparent coldness. 

Frontier life in the film, especially once we’re off the farm, is a bit more hackneyed.  There are disputes with the neighboring Forresters, the death of the Forrester boy Fodderwing, Jody’s good friend, fights in town, rattlesnake bites, injuries, and so on.  The father trades one of the Forresters a worthless dog for a new rifle.  This leads to bad blood and the Forresters stealing from the boy’s family.  Such episodes come at us at an unrelenting pace, but they vary sufficiently so that the film retains its charm and never falters.  Fodderwing is especially interesting.  A frail boy of Jody’s age, he permanently injured himself in a fall while trying to fly off the top floor of his family’s house.  He speaks in poetic haunting phrases about animals and spirits and it’s clear from his earliest appearance that he is a fated lad.  His death is one more step in Jody’s cruel education.

All of these elements congeal in a vision of the Florida frontier and its past that is if not entirely realistic at least coherent and engaging.  Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman are excellent in their roles as Jody’s parents.  Both were nominated for Best Actor Oscars.  Director Clarence Brown won a nomination for directing.  The film won Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction Oscars.  Peck won a Best Acting Golden Globe award.  Acting, cinematography, the story itself, effective editing and appropriate music, all make this an entrancing and charming film of the sort we rarely see anymore.

In 1949 Brown directed Claude Jarman in another film about a boy’s initiation into adulthood: Intruder in the Dust, an adaptation of the novel by William Faulkner.



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Everyone in Moonrise Kingdom (2012; dir. Wes Anderson) wears clothes that are too small.  Their trousers ride up, and their skirts are tight.  The adults look foolish, especially the men, and the children, who are in transition anyway, look both young and older, two versions of themselves in single bodies.  Set in the 1960s in a small town near a lake always shrouded with fog and mist, the film presents us with a perpetual summer camp.

Moonrise Kingdom is a children’s romance, a romance in the sense that 12-year-olds would imagine for themselves, not one much aware of the world beyond their own circles of awareness, not one that will ever end.  This film treats its children as innocents.  You laugh at them and feel exasperated by them and love them.  (This is if you are watching the film as an adult.  Many younger viewers will identify with the children).  Most of all you remember and long for that same period of your life—the transitional phase of adolescence, when girls grow faster than boys, when boys resemble gangly and awkward buffoons, where everything lies ahead of you, where you’re not really aware of the constraints of your lives, where you have no real apprehension of mortal limits.   That point is where the two main characters of this film live. They are barely aware of the oncoming sexual transformation puberty is bringing them.  Because the film is set in the 1960s, before the sexual revolution impacts the small town where the characters live, even their budding sexual awareness seems innocent. 

The film takes its children with deadly seriousness.  The adults, on the other hand, are ineffectual and clueless.  We see them from the children’s viewpoint.  They are the Boy Scout leader (Edward Norton), the policeman (Bruce Willis), the mother with her bullhorn (Frances McDormand), the father (Bill Murray) wracked by his wife’s affair with the policeman.  They seem to have no real control over the children, but are committed to protecting them.  In some sense the children are hardly aware the adults love and care about them.  When the two main characters run away together, a major crisis ensues.  The Boy Scout leader musters his troops and sets out to find the lost ones.  The parents and policeman are constantly on the hunt.  Mostly their antics amount to chaos and confusion.  The children have little awareness of how their disappearance has affected the grown-ups.

Anderson has an interest in depressive young women with heavy dark eyeliner.  In this film, Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a 12-year-old version of Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).  One hopes Suzy doesn’t grow up to emulate her predecessor. 

Anderson relishes stereotypes: the over-zealous scout master, the Boy Scouts in general, the loud and brash mother, the nervous, earnest policeman.  Suzy’s beloved Sam (Jared Gilman) is an absolutely realistic embodiment of 12-year-old male nerdiness.  Anderson sees human beings as collections of foibles and failures and unsatisfied longings.  Neuroses is the human condition, even in the 12-year olds at the center of the film.  He seems to pity and to love all his characters.

Moonrise Kingdom is suffused with a perverse magic and discovery.  In another kind of film, missing 12-year-olds could spell tragedy.  Yet in this one their disappearance prompts almost a rote, tired response by the parents.  They are worried, but not excessively.  When the children are found, life returns to normal, almost.  There are small hints of more disorder, perhaps of darkness, ahead.

This film was charming and entertaining from first scene to last.


Monday, November 19, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

The great triad of American super-heroes—Batman, Spiderman, Superman—all have their origins in the loss of parents.  Batman/Bruce Wayne’s rich parents are killed by a robber, Superman’s parents die when the planet Krypton explodes, and Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s parents vanish under mysterious circumstances, and his guardian uncle is later killed by a hoodlum.  Each has an Everyman identity as Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent.  All of them struggle with the difficulties and challenges that normal people grapple with, and at the same time they bear the burden of their super powers which in one way or the other oblige them to serve the human race.  (One might argue, with good reason, that Batman’s super powers develop not from extraordinary origins but from the high-tech devices that his extreme wealth enables him to develop.)

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012; dir. Marc Webb, a new version of the 2002 original directed by Sam Raimi) uses the orphan motif as the basis for its central question: “who am I?”  Peter Parker struggles with the question throughout the film as he wonders over his parents’ absence, decides how to use his super powers, and mourns his uncle’s death, for which he feels responsible.  He is a normal adolescent in many ways, but he also has his father’s brilliant intellect, and these help him after he’s bitten by the fateful spider and is adjusting to his new reality as a man who can climb walls and swing through the city on a thread of spider filament as strong as steel.  But his struggles as an adolescent, his developing love for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), his reaction to the death of his uncle, his decision to serve others rather than to seek revenge for his uncle’s death—these make this film interesting.  Peter is bitten by the spider just at the time in his life when the adolescent question of identity looms most strongly, a fact signified perhaps by the hoodie he typically wears around his high school, hiding from himself and his friends.  Gwen drives this point home one day in class when she asks him, “Do you know your own name?” 

The special effects are great, and it’s exhilarating to see Spider-Man swing through the sky.  But, despite the updated high-techiness, and the high-minded intentions, one could argue that Lizardman in this new film is as ridiculous as Green Goblin in the original.  

Safety Not Guaranteed

A modest film that is just incidentally about time travel, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012; dir. Colin Trevorrow) is about characters in their 20s and 30s who are wandering, trying to discover what to do with their lives, coping with the sadness and disappointments of the years they’ve lived so far.  Set in Washington State, the film uses few special effects.  Two summer interns—one of them still in college with graduation in sight, the other at a loss over what to do with herself now that she has just graduated the previous spring—accompany a magazine writer in his 30s to a small town for research about a man who has placed a newspaper ad looking for someone interested in accompanying him in time travel.  They expect to find an eccentric individual and an unusual human interest story.  They find that, but more.

Everyone here has a story—of events they feel guilty for, of things they haven’t done yet, of lost romance, of uncertain futures, and so on.  The film explores the intersecting entanglements of their lives. 

Time travel for me is a fascinating and ultimately unsatisfying topic.  Because it is not possible in our age, because it is probably physically impossible in any sense that we humans could experience or appreciate, I am impatient with it.  I’d certainly like to time travel, undo mistakes, take different roads, relive my life with more intention and maturity than I originally lived it.  Everyone, probably, would like to time travel for such reasons.  But’s it’s not possible.  It doesn’t happen.  And time travel films such as Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985) irritate me because they show such things happening.  (Field of Dreams, 1989, dir. Phil Alden Robinson, not a time travel film, irritated me for the same reason—who wouldn’t want the opportunity to make things right with a dead parent?). The worst time travel film in my mind is Somewhere in Time (1980, dir. Jeannot Szwarc), where, as I recall, Christopher Reeve managed to travel back in time simply by thinking hard about it.

Safety Not Guaranteed uses time travel as a pretext for exploring its characters, so it didn’t bother me in the same way.  It’s more about the reasons why one might want to go back in time, or undo an old mistake, or reunite with an old flame.  It’s about regret over the inevitability of time’s passage.  It’s also about the willingness to commit oneself to an unknown, uncertain future (hence the title).

This film concentrates on human stories and emotions, its major characters are played mostly by actors from TV comedies, and it never shows its low-budget origins.

The final scene is intentionally frustrating and indeterminate.  On the one hand it confirms what the film has been working to make us suspect all along.  On the other, it shows two characters committing to each other and to the uncertainty of the future (or the past) without allowing us to know the outcome of their gamble.  But the outcome, this ending seems to suggest, is less important than the willingness to put oneself at risk. 


True Grit

Voice is all in Charles Portis’ overlooked 1967 novel.  If the story were told by an uninvolved narrator, we would have an interesting tale of adventure and revenge.  With the voice of Mattie Ross, we have context, personality, human perspective, attitude, youth, naiveté, a sharply critical tongue, a dark sense of humor.  Mattie is the central character.  Rooster Cogburn may be the focus of much of her interest, but without the varying attitudes of surprise and consternation and anger and admiration she feels for him, he would just be another colorful figure in a book about the Old West.

I made the mistake of reading the novel, which I had not read before (despite the good advice of my friend Max Childers), just before I saw the Coen brothers’ 2010 adaptation.  I don’t like to spend much time thinking about how a particular film measures up to its source text.  In this case I couldn’t help myself.  My first reaction was to find a certain lack of warmth in the film.  It was good, I thought, but not as good as the novel.  Maybe in the case of this story, no film could ever quite measure up to the source simply because the language of the written story, the psychological insights, the inner life, make up so much of the tale.  But gradually I changed my mind about the film.  The most important decisions the Coens made were to use the voice of Mattie Ross to tell the story, and to cast Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie.  Steinfeld preserves much of the idiosyncratic nature and orneriness of the novel’s Mattie, yet she never seems limited by the role.  She occupies it.  Beau Bridges as Rooster is sometimes difficult to recognize as Beau Bridges.  He is gruff and mean and not especially friendly. He embodies Rooster in a way that is barely softer, imperceptibly more endearing, that the novel’s Rooster.

A film must have its own character and identity.  Too many adaptations of literature seem entranced by their source texts and never establish themselves as separate artistic works.  True Grit does not have this problem.  It takes its identity from the southwestern prairie, the small frontier town in Arkansas where Mattie’s father is shot, the fastidious horse trader whom Mattie outwits and out deals, the beautiful landscapes, the gothic and episodic plot (several episodes of which the film invents and embellishes, though there is more than enough of the source novel remaining). 

Although the Coens do not give the novel their characteristic treatment of irony and sarcasm, and satire of local color characteristics, it’s clear from their approach that they are the Coens after all.  The combination of crudeness, hard talking, and just plain oddness in Cogburn’s character is an example.  Camera angles, the attention to realistic details of time and place, the formal, archaic speech of the characters, repeated images of violence and grotesqueness—all of these are Coen traits.  Yet they’re perfectly fine for this adaptation of the Charles Portis novel.

True Grit is a border state film in several ways.  Arkansas stands on the eastern border of the Mississippi River, at the entrance to the Great Plains and to Texas.  It is, especially in this film, the state where the South gradually transitions into the West.  In most ways this film is a Coen brothers take on the classic American western, and a parody, or response at least, to the first adaptation of the film in 1969 starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell (dir. Henry Hathaway).  Wayne’s performance has been praised for its force and vigor, but Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn seems definitive for now.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln is the great American hero and legend: the original rags to riches tale, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, rail splitter, martyr fallen in service to his country.  More books have been written about Lincoln than about all the other presidents combined, maybe excepting Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2012) takes the barest outline of the Lincoln biography, accepts at face value the Great Man’s heroism and legendry, and creates a parallel history in which Lincoln sets out from boyhood intent on killing the vampire who killed his mother.  After meeting another man experienced with killing vampires, Lincoln decides to become a vampire hunter, learns the skills of this secret vocation, and swears to live his life in solitude—a vow he commences to violate throughout the entire film. As we learn, vampires have invaded the nation and marked out the Southern states as favored territory.  They prey especially on slaves, ally themselves with slave traders and slave holders, and in the Civil War, at least in the Battle of Gettysburg, they fight on the Southern side. 

Early in his career Lincoln wields a silver-tipped ax against vampires.  (He chooses the ax, rather than a rifle, because he is so adept at splitting logs).  At first his quest to kill his mother’s murderer is purely one of revenge, but as he becomes aware of how vampires are preying on people, especially slaves, he learns more about the issue of slavery.  Lincoln in the film has progressive views about slavery from an early age, and the film gives no hint of the struggles and ambiguities in the real Lincoln’s mind concerning slavery.  His only real struggle in the film is when to declare slaves free.  He goes into politics because he realizes that he can wage the battle he wants to wage with words and puts the ax in the closet.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter builds parallel connections between the historical situation leading up to the Civil War and the one in the film.  In the real South, white men exploited slaves for economic gain.  To this the film adds the fact that vampires see in slaves easy victims, so they ally themselves with the slaveholders who are also exploiting slaves.  In one scene Lincoln is captured and taken to a grand Southern mansion where the head vampire lives.  The iconography of the great Southern mansion with its columns and moss-draped trees makes clear the connection between slaves, slaveholders, vampires, and the South.  Interestingly, only one brief scene suggests that vampires should have rights like normal humans and be permitted to live in the open (presumably with a good supply of slave blood at hand).  The film doesn’t exploit the notion of vampires as a marginalized victims as the HBO series True Blood does.

We never see, for the most part, the Band of Rivals whom the historical Lincoln enlisted as advisors and members of his cabinet.  Instead Lincoln relies on two main counselors, his childhood black friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who is waging war against the head vampire who killed his fiancée many years ago in the past.  He warns Lincoln against seeking revenge, but revenge seems to be pretty much what he is after.  On the night that Lincolns rides off to the Ford Theater and its fateful play, he even offers to make Lincoln a vampire so that they can continue their battle as immortals.  Lincoln declines the offer, explaining that there are other ways to become immortal.

The film distorts, changes, or ignores virtually all the facts about Lincoln’s life and presidency.  In particular, it makes Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) into the President’s sympathetic ally.  There’s not much of a hint of the sour, depressive Mary Todd who was Lincoln’s real wife.  She’s a flirtatious, attractive, heroic figure and in no ways the cypher that many find the historical Mary Todd to be.  In the film Lincoln vies with Stephen Douglass for Mary’s hand.  Later, she leads a band of escaped slaves through the woods towards Gettysburg, carrying loads of silver to be melted down into bullets.  You can guess what the silver bullets are for.

No doubt Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a silly film, in practically every way.  But I thought the lead actor Benjamin Walker impressive in his role as the Great Emancipator.  It will be interesting to compare his portrait of Lincoln to that of Daniel Day Lewis in the newly released Lincoln, directed by Stephen Spielberg.  But in this film Walker makes Lincoln an impressive comic book super hero.

The film is heavily laden with visual effects.  Often, scenes seem only partially rendered.  In others, film and digital effects seem to fuse in a visually confusing way.  The railroad trestle scene in which Lincoln and friends battle vampires on the top of a train speeding across a burning bridge that spans a deep gorge is over the top.

It makes little sense to complain about the historical inaccuracies in this film about a vampire hunting Abe Lincoln.  Its absurdity makes it worthwhile.

Schultze Gets the Blues

When Schultze and his friends retire from their jobs in the salt mines (one of them says they were kicked out), they are given as a parting gift a large rock of illuminated salt.  Schultze frequently spends time looking at his rock, and we cannot tell exactly what he is thinking.

The first half of Schultze Gets the Blues (2003; dir. Michael Schorr) examines the landscape of Schultze’s retirement.  The tone of the movie is quiet and unhurried.  It conveys monotony, uniformity, and routine.  It shows us scenes of German industrial landscapes, suburban housing sites where the houses (as in Pete Seeger’s song) never vary.  The film is especially fond of showing a particular field with power-generating windmills.  The contrast between the beautiful green field and the windmills is stark.  Schultze and friends often fish off a railroad trestle.  His routine never varies, just as it must never have varied before retirement.  He watches television, goes to the local bar to drink with his mates, occasionally takes part in contests and festivals.  If he ever had a family, we see no evidence of it.  In several scenes he seems to be trying to figure out what to do with his time.  His face conveys complete impassivity.  He is the least expressive character in the film, up to a point.  His one interest is the accordion.  Year after year in a local music festival he plays the same polka.  People know that he will play it and look forward to his performance.  The polka is who he is. 

None of the characters in this film look as if they have ever been near a professional acting studio, much less a Hollywood one.  Wonderfully quirky—they seem drawn from the streets, retirement homes, factories.  They are eccentric, physically imperfect, awkward, and real.  The film’s muted tone, the joy it takes in its odd array of characters—these may simply reflect contemporary German cinema in general, but they gave me great pleasure nonetheless.  

The film emphasizes the emptiness of the lives of these men without work.  Schultze strikes up friendly relationships with women. One is a flamboyant older woman who lives in the nursing home where his senile mother lives.  She encourages him to try new things and is especially enthusiastic about his musical interests. One evening he goes with his friends to pick her up from the nursing home so they can attend a music festival and learns that she has died.  Another friendship is with a younger woman who temporarily works in the bar where he and his friends are regulars.  She’s attractive, doesn’t wear a bra, and does a flamenco dance on the table in the café.  She fascinates Schultze and his friends—they don’t know what to make of her. 

One night Schulze hears a brief moment of Zydeco music on his radio.  He becomes obsessed with it.  He stops enjoying the polka music he’s played for twenty-five years and begins playing a version of what he heard on the radio.  He plays the music too fast and without much rhythm but it’s a departure from his old ways.  Everyone who hears Schultze play his new song is astounded that he has changed his tune.  The temporary waitress at the bar hears him play, seems to understand what he is going through, and gives him a book about Louisiana zydeco music.

The music festival in which he perform his new music (to virtually no applause—one person in the audience calls out that it is “nigger music”) chooses him to play in a festival at a sister city in Texas.  He goes, realizes he can’t play as well as the other musicians there, and rents a small boat on which he makes his way through the bayous of Louisiana, having different experiences, meeting people, until finally a woman welcomes him on to her house boat, feeds him, and takes him to a music hall where he hears the band playing the song he first heard on the radio.  Then he dies.

At his funeral, the German brass band that formerly would have played his polka instead plays the Zydeco song he played on his accordion.  This makes for a moment of absurd dissonance—the mourners in black, following along behind the German oompah-pah-pah band, which is playing Zyedeco.  In a final scene (reminiscent of The Seventh Seal) band members and mourners march in single file across the field with the windmill.

The American South in this film is a place of welcome difference for Schultze.  He knows virtually nothing about it, until he hears Zydeco on the radio.  When the waitress gives him the book about Cajun music, his imagination takes over.  When he cruises up the waterways of Cajun country, what is he looking for?  In some sense, he’s looking for the idealized South he has imagined based on the music and the book.  But he’s also looking for the music itself, the culture surrounding it.  He’s looking for acceptance and change, for a culture of which he can feel a part.  The film shows Cajun country as a place of friendly, sometimes wary people willing to accept Schultze as he is.  Sometimes they misunderstand one another—in a small dance hall, Schultze dances with a woman who goes off to get them both a drink.  He doesn’t understand (linguistic difficulties) and believes she has lost interest in him.  She returns with the drinks and he is gone.  Finally he pulls alongside a houseboat to ask for a drink of water.  He strikes up a friendship with the black woman on the boat, and she invites him to dinner with her and her daughter.  Later she takes him to the music hall where he hears the music he has been searching for.

Schultze probably dies of lung cancer, based on several hints in the film—his coughing, and a TV announcement he turns off in midstream about the risk of cancer among mineworkers.  Given his apparent vigor, his decline at the end is sudden and unexpected, but also appropriate given the closure it brings.  This is both a gently comic and poignantly sad film.

I’m approaching that time in life when many people retire.  Many friends and colleagues have already retired, or died, and I listen to the living ones talk about their new freedom, or their boredom, and what they are doing with their lives.  I worry over what will happen to me .  Will I find myself in the same situation as Schultze, faced with nothing to do, no choices, a succession of endless, weary, declining days?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Judge Priest

Judge Priest (dir. John Ford, 1934) is a small-town comedy set in Kentucky around 1890.  An introductory message suggests that events and characters are based on reminiscences of small-town life by Irwin S. Cobb, author of the stories that inspired and provided models for the film.  Many elements in Judge Priest might prevent it from connecting with modern audiences, and it would take some time to list them all.  The opening credits list among the actors Hattie McDaniel, the ever-present Mammy in films of the 1930s and 40s, and, in bolded type, Stepin Fetchit, the embodiment of offensive African American portrayals in film in the first half of the 20th century.  In the film he plays Jeff Poindexter, servant to Judge Priest.  He shuffles, walks in a slouch, mumbles almost incoherently, is lazy, covets fancy clothes, and seems not too intelligent.  He follows Judge Priest around like a loyal hound and shows little will or thought of his own.  He’s like a cartoon figure, and it’s difficult to imagine a figure more insulting to African Americans or to people in general who appreciate the dignity of humankind.  (In Cobb’s stories Poindexter is less of a clown figure—he’s literate, articulate in his light dialect, but possessed of many of the traits one might expect in the stereotypical figure of a 19th century African American male from the American South). The film plays Stepin Fetchit and, to a lesser extent, Hattie McDaniel’s character Dilsey, for comic effect.  Hattie McDaniel’s singing, her generally jolly demeanor, enliven the film whenever she appears, but she doesn’t seem to be acting so much as following directions, filling in the required elements of her role--she acts less in this film than in others I’ve seen her in—there’s no sense of the fully embodied character we see her play in Gone with the Wind

Judge Priest isn’t deliberately racist—that is, it doesn’t set out to embody a racist agenda (as we might argue such films as W. B. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation do).  It simply reflects the ingrained racism of its time, and of the Irwin S. Cobb stories on which it was based.  But the film certainly enforces the racist status quo of the times and the culture it portrays.

All that said, race is not a major aspect of the film.  We notice it because Stepin Fetchit appears early in the film. Because we are not accustomed to such blatantly racist stereotypes as the one he portrays, we are shocked.  In the 1930s, I suspect there was far less shock among white viewers, if any.  In a sense, the film’s racism is a reflection of its innocence—it gives no sense of the barest awareness that its portrayal of how African Americans live and act should be questioned.

In a similar way, the film doesn’t do much more than gently satirize the Confederate nostalgia that infuses it.  Set in a small Kentucky town that might be placed, because of the intensely Southern sympathies of its residents, in the depths of Mississippi or South Carolina, the film doesn’t explore any of the implications of the border state setting of Kentucky, which was not a part of the Confederacy.  Twenty-five years after the end of the Civil War, veterans sit around drinking and smoking and reminiscing about various battles and exploits they claim to have been a part of.  Some of them are blowhards; all of them are believers in the Cause.  The women of the town are no different.  As Judge Priest tells his sister-in-law, the women in the town have more war medals than the men.  Everyone is stuck in the past, except for a few, who represent the possibility of change.  These are a young man and woman in love (who could have guessed?) and Judge Priest himself, played by American humorist Will Rogers.

The Judge hasn’t necessarily abandoned his former Confederate loyalties, but his speech and actions show he believes the war is over, defeat was the outcome, and the town must move forward.  He brings this perspective to bear in the courtroom and in his advice to his young nephew, Jerome (Tom Brown), and the girl he loves, Ellie Mae Gillespie (Anita Louise).  Jerome has returned from the North with a law degree.  Ellie Mae is a school teacher and the daughter of a young itinerant woman who came into town, gave birth, and died.  She never identified Ellie Mae’s father, so the girl is not regarded by many in the town as acceptable in proper society, although the men leer at her because of her beauty.  (They never say the word, but they regard her as illegitimate and therefore as pariah).  She behaves in the prim and proper fashion of a young lady of her times, of course, and although she knows of the opinion others hold about her, she does her best to ignore them.  (She also speaks with a vaguely British accent meant, I think, to enforce her intelligence and good character).  Jerome’s mother Caroline wants her son to have nothing to do with Ellie Mae.  She stresses good breeding and respectability, and tries to interest him in Virginia Maydew, the daughter of a senator who is Judge Priest’s political rival.  The Judge clearly doesn’t approve of Caroline’s prejudices and does what he can to support and encourage his young friends.

The first half of the film establishes scene and ambience and character, while the second half focuses on the romance of Jerome and Ellie Mae and the courtroom trial of a man named Bob Gillis, who’s accused of attacking three men playing billiards in a local bar.  In fact, Gillis was himself the victim--the billiard players beat him with billiard cues because a few days earlier he had assaulted one of them in the local barbershop—he heard his victim joking about Ellie Mae’s attractiveness and punched the offender in the kisser.  Why does Gillis attack the man?  Because, unknown to her, he is Ellie Mae’s father, living under an assumed name, supporting her with the salary he earns at a local stable.  This revelation makes for much melodrama and pathos, of course.  Judge Priest withdraws from the trial when Senator Maydew accuses him of prejudice.  But behind the scenes, working with the local preacher and Jeff Poindexter, Judge Priest brings about Gillis’ release.  Ironically, he’s not released because he’s found innocent of the charges, but because the preacher, who fought with him in the Civil War, testifies to the courtroom about his heroic exploits.  Outside the courtroom window Poindexter assembles a band that begins playing “Dixie,” and all hell breaks loose.  The result is the trial’s collapse in a frenzy of hysterical hero worship and Confederate nostalgia.  What Judge Priest has managed to do is to play on the extremist Confederate sympathies of the townspeople to draw attention away from the crime Gillis is accused of.  As soon as they learn of Gillis’ Civil War record, they forgive him and his daughter everything.  All is made right.

Rogers doesn’t so much act in this film as pose.  He sits on his porch or in his courtroom bench smoking his pipe, sipping a mint julep, pondering the past, and issuing homespun witticisms.  Some of the most humorous exchanges come between him and Percival.  I remember my mother recalling how her grandmother, my great grandmother, wept at the news that Will Rogers had been lost in a plane crash involving aviator Wiley Post in Alaska in 1935.  My wife’s grandfather stopped watching movies after Rogers no longer appeared in them.  He was an important figure in the popular imagination of America in the 1930s.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot

In Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (Free Press, 2012), David Talbot reviews the history of San Francisco, that iconic American city, from its beginnings to the present day.  His main focus falls on the last 110 years, and most of the book is devoted to the 1960s, 70s, and (to an extent) the 80s.  Talbot focuses on the prominent personalities of the city, ranging from Janis Joplin and Jim Jones to Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, assassinated by White in 1978.  The traces the rise of the counterculture, which has roots way back in the early parts of the century, the origins of the city as an attractive community for gays, and the impact of the AIDS epidemic.  Talbot writes in the style of a newspaper feature writer.  He talks about the big points, never fails to drop a name or to emphasize the salacious or scandalous nature of some person or event. The San Francisco he describes is one of tradition and revolution in conflict, of whites vs. blacks, of tradition-bound conservatives against well-intentioned reformers, of hippies vs. the police, of gays against straights.  His is a world of good vs. bad, and for him the good is the liberal side, the reformers, hippies, gays, and so on.  The bad are conservatives, policemen, mainstream politicians, the city power structure.  He pays a lot of attention to San Francisco’s mayors over the years, from Joe Alioto to Dianne Feinstein. This is not a bad way of organizing the narrative, but it leads to a focus on exteriors, on major figures, and except in discussions where he writes about a movement or phenomenon in general terms, such as the Jim Jones cult or the counter culture or the AIDs epidemic, we do not get much analysis.  Either we return to commonly held ideas—for instance, that the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were a tragic turning point in the city’s modern history—or to superficial contentions—that the victory of the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl of 1981 helped bring about the city’s recovery from the assassinations.  He is capable of nuance, especially in his accounts of the mayors of the city.  The uneasy relationship that developed between Jim Jones and various city politicians, including Mayor Moscone, makes a story I’ve heard only in rumors.  With a few exceptions, the city political structure was in thrall to Jones, and as his behavior and the nature of his Temple grew increasingly ominous, city leaders either ignored it or benefited from it.  Even Dianne Feinstein fell under Jones’ influence.

One contention I’d dispute is that in the 1960s and 70s San Francisco was the crest of the American wave. No doubt San Francisco was an interesting city, and that several major national social movements had beginnings there, but certainly one could find America in other locations—New York, Chicago, the Midwest, the Southern coastal regions.  In these and other places Americans were living and struggling and experiencing their own version of the times.  It’s not as if those Americans who didn’t reside in San Francisco during the two decades somehow didn’t matter.


Prometheus was the mythical Greek Titan who, contrary to the orders of Zeus, taught the human race to use fire.  In western culture Prometheus and fire have come to symbolize the search for knowledge, especially dangerous knowledge.  For his crime, Prometheus is chained to a rock for eternity, doomed to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle.  The film Prometheus (2012; dir. Ridley Scott) uses this notion to frame a science fiction melodrama that is visually stunning and, in its operatic story of a search for our creators, flat and banal.  Interesting characters there are in this film, primarily an android played by Michael Fassbinder (he idolizes T. E. Lawrence as played by Peter O'Toole in the David Lean film) and a woman scientist, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), half of a husband-wife team of scientists who discover strange skymaps at ancient archaeological sites all over the earth.  Shaw and her husband interpret the maps as invitations from the alien creators to venture out into the galaxy to discover them.  The logic of that assumption is unpersuasive to me, but the movie rests on it.

What the venturing scientists discover is an ancient scientific experiment gone wrong.  The sequence of events is never quite clear, but at some point the alien creators decided to send the misbegotten results of their experiment to earth, apparently to get rid of them, but the creatures killed them before they could do so.  The reason for wanting to destroy the planet where these same creators apparently spawned life that eventually led to humanity is never made clear either.  Although explaining the backstory in too much detail would burden the film with unnecessary baggage, we could still benefit from some additional information as to how this big alien mess came about. 

This search for dangerous knowledge in Prometheus is twofold: the earth scientists discover something far different from what they expected, just as the aliens created beings who turned and destroyed them.  The earth scientists never get the answer to their questions about human origins—a good strategy on the director’s part.  The answer to such questions in films such as this one are always going to be too speculative, too fanciful, to satisfy, or to live up to the need such questions contain.  It’s better to be frustrated than hoodwinked.

Far more grand and epical in its ambitions than Scott's other science fiction film, Bladerunner, Prometheus never fully rises to embrace the grandeur of its creator's vision.  Bladerunner was a far superior film, full of vision and human understanding, exploring basic questions about human identity and what the overreliance on technology might do to us.  It was visually arresting too, but the strength of the narrative, and of its characters, made Bladerunner what it was.  It soars while Prometheus falls flat.

The Sound and the Fury (film)

The 1959 adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury chooses to tell its story through the frame of the fourth section of the novel.  This is the one of the four sections that narrates the 1929 novel from an “objective” viewpoint rather than through the first-person subjective view of a character.  This strategy solves some problems for the filmmakers, and creates others, in particular, how to convey information from the earlier chapters, without which the fourth one would make no sense.  It also causes a significant transformation in the story itself.  The existential confusion that marks Benjy’s narrative, the suicidal angst of Quentin’s, the fuming anger of the Jason chapter—all disappear, and the adaptation doesn’t seek to resurrect them.  Rather it makes the story one about a family in an advanced state of decay, attempting to adjust to its circumstances, set in contrast against the more modern setting of the town itself.  And it also becomes the story of how two individuals—Jason and Caddy--make their accommodation with one another and the world.  This is a reasonable approach to adapting the novel, but it carries risks.

In the fourth section of Faulkner’s novel, two absences are crucial.  One is the absence of Caddy, the only sister in the family, who disappeared some 16 years in the past, since then never seen again, except briefly.  Her absence is the haunting, melancholic force that gives the final section and the rest of the novel much of its force.  She’s the tragic absent mother and sister.  The other absence is one that occurs midway through the chapter: the flight of the young Quentin, Caddy’s daughter, who runs away with her uncle’s money.  Of course, there are other absences too, in particular that of brother Quentin, who committed suicide in 1910, and of father Jason, who drank himself to death some years before.  How can a film convey the impact of these absences, especially Caddy’s, when they involve characters who play no role in the novel’s final section?

Normally, I would not emphasize differences between the source novel and the film itself.  I want to consider a film in its own context.  I am pleased when a successful film is also successful in retelling the novel it’s based on—but a successful film need not be faithful to its source in order to be a successful film.

The changes made in the 1959 film to the story in Faulkner’s novel help to explain the film’s abject failure.  In The Long Hot Summer (1957), another adaptation of a Faulkner text, director Martin Ritt at least produced a film that had entertaining qualities.  The story as adapted was not really a Faulknerian tale, but the way the screenwriters Ravetch and Frank reinvented it, along with some wise casting decisions (Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick) and some profoundly bad ones (Tony Franciosa as Jody Varner, Orson Welles as father Will) made it amusing in ways they likely did and did not intend.  What one realizes about The Long Hot Summer, especially on repeated viewings, is that the screenwriters and director really had no interest in producing a film true to its source, no interest in fidelity to Faulkner.  Instead they wanted to use whatever elements they could distill from the original texts (the story “Barn Burning” and the novel The Hamlet) to capitalize on the public interest in Woodward and Newman and to make a film that would earn money.  The apparently true tale of Orson Welles mumbling his lines for the film with pebbles in his mouth, which necessitated that he record them again without pebbles, alone makes the film worth watching.
The Long Hot Summer is much more a Tennessee Williams tale—with its emphasis on father-son rivalries and on sexual repression—than a Faulkner story.

There are numerous similarities between the adaptations of The Sound and the Fury and of The Long Hot Summer.  Sexual repression and jealousy are a common issue.  Both films are centered in a plantation house.  Both feature a prominent young woman character attempting to find her place in life.  Both involve issues of patrimony, of inheritance, though in different ways.  Both occur in the same part of the American South in the late 1950s.  With all these points in common, what is curious is that one film works as well as it does and the other doesn’t work at all.  Casting certainly posed a challenge.   Yul Brynner portrays Jason Compson—his prominent Russian accent is noticeable whenever he speaks—the film had to come up with some way to explain the accent.  Joanne Woodward appears as the young Quentin[1] Compson in need of love, a mother, and womanly fulfillment—Woodward is too mature for the character she portrays, and it strains one’s credulity when the film suggests that her character would run off with a greasy haired carny.  To account for the odd casting choices, and to make accommodations for several missing family characters, the adapters make changes that fundamentally undermine, subvert, and ruin the story that might well have provided the basis for a successful film.

A major change is that the time of the novel’s story is moved forward from 1927 to the year (apparently) in which the film was made, 1959.  This is a problematic move, but not one necessarily insurmountable.  Pushing the story 30 years forward moves it further away historically from the time in which the older Compsons might actually have remembered their years of glory in the hometown.  The entire novel occurs within the shadow of that heyday and of its disappearance.  That shadow would have been considerably less visible in the late 1950s than in the 1920s, but at least the notion that older formerly well-established families in the town still mourn over their lost days of glory is plausible.

The film also engages in several strategies to compensate for the absence of the dead Quentin Compson (who’s described simply as a brother who shot himself) and the dead Mr. Compson.  First, it creates a new Compson brother, Howard.  He does little more than sit around on the veranda and drink and look miserable, literally (much like Uncle Maury in the novel).  He has no other function, other than to repeat a few lines once uttered in the novel by the deceased Mr. Compson and to act out with the middle-aged Caddy an encounter that in the novel takes place in their late teens. 
To explain Jason’s accent, and to achieve other goals, the screenwriters create a backstory in which Mr. Compson marries a woman named Caroline.  He adopts her son and gives him the family name and (given the suicide and drunkenness and idiocy of his other three sons) makes him his heir, or at least his namesake. Over the years, Jason has taken on responsibility for saving the Compson family name, as he explains to young Quentin.  Biologically Jason is not related to anyone in the film, except his mother.  Played by Francoise Rosay, and like the aging mother of the novel’s fourth section, Caroline is always calling out to Dilsey for assistance and complaining about humiliations imposed on her by the family, but in the film she does so with a loud French accent.  That still doesn’t explain Yul Brynner’s Russian accent.

Why did the film need to make this change?  Yul Brynner in 1959 was a popular actor whose star was on the rise.  Undoubtedly, the filmmakers hoped to capitalize on his popularity by placing him in the film.  It had to find an explanation for Jason’s accent.  This change accomplishes another result as well.  Every film needs a little romance.  Jason’s identity as the adopted brother allows the constant hostility between him and Quentin that creates much of the tension in the film gradually to develop into what appears to be the beginnings of a romantic relationship.  To make clear to those who have read both the novel and the previous sentence in this paragraph, allow me to restate:  the end of the film prepares us for a romantic relationship between Quentin II and Jason.  Since they are unrelated, nothing wrong there.  And, I suppose, even if one does consider them related, there is nothing wrong there either--this is the Deep South.

The most significant absence in the novel’s fourth section is Caddy’s.  The film solves her absence by having her come home, permanently.  In the novel, she passes very briefly through Jefferson and pleads with Jason to allow her to see Quentin.  He agrees, and Caddy gets her chance when he drives by with her daughter sitting in his car.  This is a terribly painful moment.  Caddy then vanishes, to appear briefly again in what many refer to as "The Compson Appendix” (1945), when she has, at least according to the local librarian, taken up with Nazis.  The plaintive sadness of the novel is, among other things, deeply tied up with Caddy’s absence, with the vacuum that her name evokes.  In the film, Jason allows Caddy to come home.  She moves back in and reunites with young Quentin and begins talking about the parties and dresses she’ll buy for her daughter, and how a woman has to capitalize on her best assets, by which she means her body.  In the film, Caddy is a faded, histrionic, drunk and probable former prostitute.  She’s the reality we never see in the novel, and because she is who she is—a faded Southern belle from a Tennessee Williams play—she destroys the illusion.
Ethel Waters appears as Dilsey, a long-suffering black Southern woman and servant, the mammy of the family.  She does as well with the part as the writing might allow, which is not much.  She receives less attention in the film than the novel, an ironic difference given that she is a central character in the novel’s fourth section.

Until the point of Caddy’s return, I was willing to give this film credit for at least making a failed try at adapting a difficult novel.  But with Caddy’s return, and with the promise of love between Jason and Quentin, I gave up.   A world of surreal absurdities had erupted.  Bruce Kawin, describing how the screenwriters undertook the adaptation of Faulkner’s novel, has observed:  “Their operating method was to retain as many of the novel’s scenes and characters as possible, rearranging and recasting them in the narrative present.  The problem is that they kept the surfaces and lost the meanings—and even this would not be so much of a problem if the new meanings they created had been dramatically interesting.”[2]  Alex North’s brassy, smarmy soundtrack, better suited for a Las Vegas story of sleaze and corruption, doesn’t help. 

[1] The name Quentin here refers not to the dead brother Quentin of the novel but to the Joanne Woodward character of the film (whom Caddy in the novel names after her dead brother).
[2] Faulkner and Film (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977), p. 23.