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.

Swamp Water (film)

Setting is more interesting than story in Swamp Water (1941), the first of Jean Renoir’s two films set in the American South.  The film opens with a message explaining that the Swamp was once notorious as a place of dangerous alligators and cottonmouth snakes and that residents feared its “vast openness.”  Next we see a skull posted on a crudely constructed cross jutting out of the waters of the Okefenokee Swamp.  The camera pans over to a group of local residents in flat bottom boats hunting for two trappers who have disappeared in the swamp.  They find an overturned skiff and conclude that the men were “gator-et.”  Clearly the Okefenokee is a place of menace.  And in this film’s mythology, it is also a place of perdition, where the damned are consigned to suffer for their sins, hiding out from the civilized world that would bring them to justice.  The swamp thus occupies the same symbolic realm as it does in Hawthorne’s woods.

Swamp Water plies the same thematic territory as Deliverance (1972) and Southern Comfort (1981), both of which examined what happens when civilized individuals find themselves at odd with the natural wilds.  Those latter films take a distinctly Conradian view—civilized people lose their moral bearings in the wilderness and resort to primal means to survive.  Swamp Water doesn’t go so far, but it’s not necessarily in disagreement with the premise.   

The case in point is Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), framed for a murder he didn’t commit five years in the past and fled to the swamp to avoid being hanged.  Local folks assume he’s dead. But when a local boy named Ben Ragan goes into the swamp to hunt for his lost dog, he encounters Keefer.  Let me say first of all that Walter Brennan’s performance as Keefer is absolutely outstanding—it is the most important reason to watch this film.  But there are others.  Five years alone in the swamp have marked Keefer—he behaves when Ben first meets him almost as a mad man.  He sneaks up on Keefer as he sits in front of his campfire and clubs him.  When Ben comes to, Keefer has tied him up.  He threatens to kill Ben or at least never to let him go.  Keefer has a vacant, distracted stare, and speaks disjointedly.  He lives in a clearing and sleeps on the ground.  When a cottonmouth bites him on the face (!!), he immediately falls unconscious, and Ben assumes he’s going to die and digs him a grave.  But the next morning Keefer wakes up, explaining that he has learned how to will himself to survive snake bites.  When he learns that Ben has taken care of him, they become friends.

Keefer is full of Emersonian insights with vaguely mystical connotations.  He talks to Ben about the importance of all living things, looks distractedly at the stars (“I hear tell that stars is other worlds, too, big shining rafts a-floatin’ in the ocean of God’s night”), isn’t sure he can survive in the civilized world when Ben tells him he can return.  There’s otherworldliness to his character, not the otherworldliness of a saint but instead of a man wounded by isolation and hardship (“Living alone in these swamps is just like living on another star”).  Even in the film’s final scene, after he’s been exonerated and welcomed back to the community, sitting in a chair at a town dance, watching the action, he seems uncomfortable and out of place.  He’s similar to Tom Joad in John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but without a humanist or political agenda.

Another reason to watch this film is its portrayal of life in an isolated Southern village on the borders of the Okefenokee Swamp.  Without much condescension or stereotyping, Renoir shows the people of this town engaged in the normal affairs of their lives.  We see dances, courtship, various forms of work, recreation.  As in The Southerner (1945), Renoir exhibits a remarkable gift for revealing the nuances of a particular way of life. 

I’m interested in Thursday Ragan (Walter Huston) and his younger wife Julie (Anne Baxter).  Thursday is an older man who has married a younger woman, and the film gently plays with the connotations of such a relationship.  He’s often absent from home, hunting and tending to business, and she misses him.  She tells him so, and the implication is that she misses him sexually.  While he’s away a local no good named Jesse Wick played by John Carradine tries to court Julie with his guitar, and although she repeatedly tries to rebuff him it’s clear that she isn’t entirely uninterested. 

Another interesting character is Tom Keefer’s daughter Mabel.  With her father convicted and lost in the swamp, she’s been taken in by a local family and spends most of her time doing menial work.  She’s a wild Ariel-like character, always running to and fro, taking care of animals, protecting kittens, constantly in motion, more or less tolerated by the local community but without a real place within it.  She may be 14 or may be 18—it’s not clear—but after Ben grows tired of his one-time girl Hannah’s capriciousness, he turns to Mabel.

In its attention to an isolated small Southern community Swamp Water is akin to Thunder Road (1958) and I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (1951).  As with The Southerner, one senses the influence of John Ford.  But riding up against Ford’s tendency to idealize his characters is Renoir’s effort to see them as fallible inhabitants of their world.  Renoir’s characters are more three-dimensional than Ford’s, more nuanced.  Yet this is really only a matter of degree, for neither Ford nor Renoir (at least in his Southern films) plumb human character too deeply.

Although I find his father Thursday more interesting, and although Tom Keefer is the fascinating center of the film, Ben Ragan is Renoir’s protagonist.  He’s a young man just starting out in the world.  He’s intelligent and idealistic, and like his father a stubborn individual.  Stubborn willfulness brings father and son into conflict.  A major argument erupts when Ben announces his intention to go into the swamp to hunt for his lost hound.  When Ben returns after a two-week absence, the argument erupts again, and Ben moves out.  What Ben doesn’t see is his father’s deep anxiety for his safety.  What Thursday cannot see is the effect of his dogmatic temper on his son. Ben’s own stubbornness is a virtue as well—once he decides that Tom Keefer is a good man, nothing will alter his loyalty, and even when the two men who framed Keefer for murder try to drown Ben, he refuses to give Keefer up to the local people who want to bring him back to be hanged. 

Much if not most of Swamp Water was filmed on location in and near the Okefenokee Swamp.  The result is a film with a relatively authentic feel that lacks the claustrophobic atmosphere of a studio production.  Only one scene in the swamp seems to have been shot in the studio, and it sticks out like the sorest of thumbs.

In 1952, a Technicolor remake of the film entitled The Lure of the Wilderness was released, featuring the same setting and many of the same scenes and dialogue from the original.  Walter Brennan reprised the same role, though the other cast members and character names had changed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens

In Mortality (Twelve, 2012) Christopher Hitchens discusses in seven complete and one partially complete essays his feelings about death—his own.  They were written in the eighteen-month period between his diagnosis and his demise.  He describes the morning that led to his diagnosis:  “nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little.”   He takes us through his gradual diminishment of physical vigor, the weakening and then disappearance of his voice, the effects of chemotherapy, the loss of body hair.  He contemplates his family’s life after he has passed from the scene, regrets that his life will end prematurely and incomplete, mourns the books he will never write.  He maintains certain characteristic attitudes essential to his sense of integrity—he resents those who think he might have a last-minute religious conversion, is bemused by those who pray for him, and uses his oncoming death as a way to further confound arguments for the existence of a supreme being.  The very nature of disease he finds to be arbitrary and unintentional:  “If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random.”

The final essay is an unfinished series of thoughts and comments.  Hitchens died before he could complete it.

As I grow older and approach the date when either I drop stone dead, or a doctor informs me that the process is in motion (cancer, heart disease, whatever), I find it sobering and informative and sad to share in Hitchens’ experiences as he passes through his final weeks and days.  (“Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask . . .  It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.” Despite his religious sobriety, or maybe because of it, his accounts offer no reassurance about the final moment.  There are no wise insights, nothing we can cling to other than his dogged insistence on remaining himself.  And maybe that is the point—these essays testify to the power of human character and intellect—in these essays, and his other writings, they are what remain of Hitchens now that his body no longer lives.

After all, when Hitchens died, he was dead, the only fact truer than the others.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot

The Bionet is a biological analogue to the Internet.  A small implanted chip in your body tracks every aspect of your biological existence, interfaces with a central computer in the cloud, administers medication, adjusts hormonal levels, monitors blood pressure, cures diseases, corrects injuries, and so on to ensure that you lead a long and healthy existence.  Several characters in the novel have lived past 150 years and lead active lives.  But there are dark potentials to the Bionet—the possibility that hackers can gain access to your body and take it over, or use it to take over someone else, so that you’re no longer your own person.  It’s like drug addiction, except much worse, because you lose control of yourself without even knowing it.  Hackers in this novel who take over other people’s bodies are called DJs.

The Bionet is part of the nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world drawn by Ryan Boudinot in his novel Blueprints of the Afterlife (Grove Press, 2012).  Boudinot certainly holds one’s interest.  Moving from one character and time period to another, he changes his narrative style completely and often.  I was on the point of exasperation with the ne’er-do-well world champion dishwasher Woo-Jin Kan whose story opens the novel, and whose mind is as addled as the worst of Pynchon’s characters, when suddenly we switch in the next chapter to a young woman who never feels quite comfortable in her own body and wonders if she might be someone else.  Then there is Al Skinner, the veteran of the era of FUS, who discovers that his daughter has cloned his dead son.  Don’t forget the video game, in which Bionet developer Luke Piper has to jump up and touch a gold star to garner points, or his battles with hordes of zombies, or his being trailed by a Big Giant Head in the sky—a head that dies and begins to decompose.

The apocalypse referred to by the characters who survived it, or who were born afterwards, is the FUS, Fucked Up Shit, a time so horrific that we are told many survivors have purged the memories from their brains.  (It’s possible, in this novel, for an individual to save personal memories to a memory chip either to make room for new ones or to get rid of unpleasant ones—there are opportunities for corruption in the use of this technology as well).

Blueprints is in part a detective novel, though it’s difficult to figure out exactly who the detective is, or what the crime or question is that he or she is trying to figure out.  Boudinot offers his observations about developments and trends of the present-day world by drawing them out to their logical or illogical extremes in the future.  Technology, the Internet, capitalism, global warming and environmental pollution, human longevity—all of these come under scrutiny.

It’s not even clear what the FUS really was.  It’s clear that society collapsed, people ran amok and treated one another horribly, using extreme weapons and depraved forms of human behavior to inflict the worst imaginable horrors—for the most part in this novel we totter on the margins of these excesses, exposed more to their consequences than to the events themselves.  According to one account (I’m still not sure whether this is offered as the truth or as some wild prevarication) a glacier becomes sentient and instead of melting moves down from the Arctic towards large cities, systematically destroying them, driving society into complete collapse, until authorities in Los Angeles manage to melt it.  Yet in an interview with Luke Piper, it’s suggested that the FUS was only a metaphorical way of talking about the present.

I highly admire the imaginativeness of this novel.  Its intricate explanations for things that did or did not happen are sometimes astounding in their complexity.  Several characters morph into other characters, or discover that they’re not who they believe they are, or find that their memories of the past are entirely fabricated.  Nothing is as it seems.  In fact, seem, in the Wallace Stevens sense of the word, is the operative verb throughout this entertaining, funny, sometimes exasperating book.

IQ84, by Haruki Murakami

The inventive and playfully imaginative nature of Haruki Murakami’s narratives always impress me.  They unsettle conventional expectations.  They give us a world similar enough to our own that when small discrepancies creep in we at first don’t notice them and in the end are shaken and disoriented.  Of the Murakami novels I’ve read, Kafka on the Shore (2002, 2005)[1] has seemed to me most effective.  It was like a poem, an artfully woven verbal tapestry of words, characters, people, images.  It was as close to dreamlike as one might come in great literature.  Murakami depends on constructing interrelationships between random elements that we wouldn’t normally expect to link to one another‑‑but they do.

IQ84 (2009, 2011), heralded by many as Murakami’s greatly massive masterpiece, seemed to me an intricate, self-indulgent, sometimes perverse, sometimes pointless and tedious, sometimes entrancing and sometimes distracting and monotonous game.  It offered truly interesting characters, especially the novelist Tengo, the woman Aomame, and the weird, unsettling, erotic 17-year-old Fuka-Eri.  A novel of two separate but intersecting parallel worlds, it weaves what I take to be elements of Japanese religion and myth and interweaves them with a love story, sex, murder, intrigue, violence, incest, eccentric human characters, family trauma, and a deeply conspiratorial tale of a bizarre religious cult.  It builds towards a moment of revelation that will bring all the disparate strands together in an explanation that makes sense of the mystery.  But that explanation never comes.  What does come is another kind of resolution, one I won’t consider here so as not to ruin the book for anyone who reads it, but one whose intensity seems at least to justify, for the moment, the 1184 pages it takes to get us there. 

Search as I have, I can’t find substance in this novel.  Meaning, ontological content, signification.  I am wrong to expect this from a postmodern novel, maybe.  But the best postmodern novels are full of meaning.  Or does IQ84 belong to a genre more current than postmodernism, which is old in the tooth?

Norwegian Wood (1987, 2000) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1995, 1997) struck me as steps towards the mature and compelling narrative art of Kafka on the ShoreIQ84 is more an intricate puzzle than a novel.  Despite the final scene, it left me unsatisfied and a bit put out.

And, oh, by the way, there are two moons in the sky.

[1] The first date is the Japanese publication date; the second is the English language publication date.

The Avengers

The scene that for me best sums up The Avengers (2012; dir. Joss Whedon) takes place on the streets of New York City.  A huge evil force from another dimension is threatening the city.  It spreads in the sky above the city for miles in all directions—it’s huge and dark and it’s getting bigger and it looks mean and its target is New York.  Two super heroes look up at this menace.  One of them is the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose super power, as best I can tell, is skill at martial arts.  She looks up at the beast, squints, and pulls out her revolver, which she points up at the monster and shoots repeatedly.  Needless to say, this gesture has no effect.

This film lacks the energy and wit of Whedon’s Firefly series and Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.

I’m undoubtedly wrong and misguided to expect formal rules and conventions in a film such as this one.  It follows a comic book logic that would be familiar to anyone who read the DC and Marvel comics from the 1950s and 1960s.  In many cases that logic is translated to the films that are based on comic book superheroes such as Superman and Batman and all the others.  I don’t read those comic books anymore.  My only exposure to what I refer to as comic book logic is through the films that adopt it.  And for me as an adult it simply doesn’t any longer satisfy.

So where are the super hero films for adult viewers?  One might suggest Star Trek (2009; dir. J. J. Abrams), which was a reasonably intelligent film, full of improbabilities, but not any more so than any other action film.  There are moments in the first Superman film (1978; dir. Richard Donner), in the first Spiden-Man film (2002; dir. Sam Raimi), in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, where the adult world sometimes emerges and you can glimpse for a moment the possibility of a real world in which a super hero actually exists.  (The best such moment comes in the first Superman film, which describes Clark Kent’s youth on a farm in the American Midwest with his adoptive parents.)

In the real world, governed by laws of cause and effect, physics and chemistry, super heroes don’t exist.  But I would point to M. Knight Shyamalan’s second film, Unbreakable (2000), about a super hero who doesn’t realize that he is unusual, as coming close to providing us with a super hero in an adult context.  

The Hunter

Deliverance (1972) and The Emerald Forest (1985), both directed by John Boorman, loom in the background of The Hunter (2011; dir. Daniel Nettheim).  Several shots in The Hunter directly echo Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography in Deliverance, which contrasts construction work around a dam against the deep lush forest of the North Georgia Appalachian Mountains.  In the 1972 film the measure of the man lay in his silhouette against the trackless woods.  Here the forests are Tasmanian, and the contrast is between the logging companies that harvest the local timber (and give local residents jobs) and the environmentalists and scientists who want to study the forest and keep it pristine.

The specific nature of the contrast in this film is somewhat different, however. An unnamed corporation, represented by men faintly middle-eastern in appearance, are interested in finding the last surviving Tasmanian tiger, which supposedly contains a toxin of potential use in weapons.  The company hires a hunter, played by William Dafoe, to go into the mountains, trap the tiger, and bring its DNA back.  In the process, he meets a Tasmanian family whose husband and father, an environmentalist, has disappeared in the mountains.  Dafoe gradually becomes friends with the family, and undergoes the kind of conversion that one expects from this type of film.

In general much of the film seems not quite fully baked.  The mother has been sleeping, under the influence of drugs (apparently) since her husband’s disappearance six months earlier.  There is some hint that the man who has been assigned to serve as Dafoe’s guide (played by Sam Neill) has been administering the drugs.  But why?  To avoid having her stir up too much attention to her husband’s disappearance?  Because he loves her?  Dafoe is a man who has considerable hunting skills, apparently, but what has he been doing with these skills prior to his agreeing to trap the Tasmanian tiger?  And he apparently has only two hunting tricks up his sleeve—a steel trap and a snare.  He does a lot of walking and a lot of trapping.  He doesn’t mind solitude and sleeping in the forest alone at night.  Where did he come from?  What does he represent?

Obviously, the film asks us to regard Dafoe’s character in some sense as parallel to the Tasmanian tiger, the last of a breed.  This works, in a way, up to the point where he and the tiger come face to face.  The equation then grows a tad confused.

Tasmania is beautifully filmed, and the lush landscape, empty and vast, mirrors the inner mind of Dafoe, who comes to realize that he can no longer be the man he has always been—the hunter—without buying into the destruction of the wilderness that gave his life meaning.