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?