Friday, December 27, 2013

Dark Victory

A romantic melodrama about brain tumors and death, Dark Victory (1939; dir. Edmund Goulding) gives us fatal illness in a vein that makes it a welcome opportunity for proving one’s nobility.  With George Brent as a brain surgeon, a young Ronald Reagan as a perpetually drunk young friend, Humphrey Bogart as a horse trainer with an Irish brogue, and Bette Davis as the doomed young woman Judith Traherne, Dark Victory gives us death as only the rich can know it.  It’s a good death, too, one that involves no suffering, only a few hours of blindness until the final moment comes.  And it’s a kind and redemptive death too because Judy has the chance to win riding competitions, drink and smoke with abandon, offend all the people she doesn’t like, find love with the man she loves (not, surprisingly, the brain surgeon) and then to dump him bitterly only to seek his forgiveness and then to have a big wedding and then to run off to New Hampshire with him so they can live in a country cottage while he does brain research in an out building and she keeps house with servants and waits to die.

Davis apparently considered this film her favorite.  It was a great commercial success.  It’s not her best, however much money it might have made.  An actor is not always the best judge of her best work. 

A few random thoughts: the notion that a young woman can die happy and fulfilled with no pain and suffering from a brain tumor is offensively sappy.  When Judy realizes that her last moments are approaching, she hides her condition from her husband, who is about to leave for New York to present his research.  She tells him that she wishes to remain at home with her friend Ann, who has come to visit.  I don’t believe this.  So her husband leaves, and Judy lets him go, and Ann doesn’t let on that anything is amiss.  I don’t believe this either.  Then Judy orders Ann to leave too, so that she can show her courage and strength by dying alone.  But before she dismisses her, Judy orders Ann never to leave her husband’s side after she is gone, obviously setting her up for matrimony on the rebound. Ann weeps and runs hysterically away down the road, flapping her arms like a suffering bird (or so I imagined it).  What a friend. 

Davis’ acting is frenetic, nervous, and rapid delivery throughout.  Even when she isn’t insulting friends and behaving like a bitter doomed heroine, she isn’t particularly sympathetic.  This film was made in the days when doctors and patients could smoke together in medical offices, when everyone admired heavy drinking, when dying patients weren’t told of their condition, when the poor didn’t matter except as props for the rich, or as servants.

The lesson here is that everyone is going to die, some sooner than others, and that we all must use well the time we have remaining, so that we can die a good and noble death in the end.  We all should live the best we can.  No doubt there.  But if there is a good and noble death, I’d like to see it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, like all novels, is a work of imagination.  One reads it and creates within one’spersonal imagination a series of images that represent characters and places and events it contains.  Often these images may not connect with those provided by the writer, if indeed he has provided them (Tolkien did not, except in some maps of Middle Earth and surroundings).  I first read Tolkien in college.  On the wall of the places where I lived I kept a colorful and overactive map of Middle Earth, loosely based on Tolkien’s writings and his maps.  I no longer have the map, but it still colors my imagination when I read the books.

The appearance of the Peter Jackson films based on The Lord of the Rings and on The Hobbit, for those readers who were serious admirers of these works as novels, created a challenge.  Do we give up our personal images in favor of the film versions, or do we hold to our own vision and avoid the films entirely?  I was unwilling to miss the films, so I attempted a middle ground.  In many cases this was easy because of the inferiority of some of the films’ images, particularly of the orcs and trolls (who seemed cast-off monsters from Lost in Space or The Outer Limits television series).  But the powerfully evocative images of the hobbits and of the elves overrode whatever images I had developed of them.  In the case of the hobbits, I think Tolkien’s books and the films were fairly much in accord.

If we’re going to be purists, we have to be purists and hew entirely to the books or to the films.  I’m no purist.  I need both.

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films have the disadvantage of coming out after the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first.  It was a much simpler, more elementary, even more juvenile venture than the trilogy that followed it.  Moreover, the events that it narrated precede and lead up to the events in the trilogy.  It was thus natural that one would first read The Hobbit and then move on to The Lord of the Rings.  The case is reversed for the films of these works.  Jackson’s trilogy preceded his Hobbit films.  And, of course, he decided to make The Hobbit a trilogy as well.  We will have to see what difference this makes.  It’s certainly clear from the first installment in the Hobbit trilogy that he has inserted a lot of extra story, much of it from The Silmarillion, some of his own creation.  The film is much darker than the book, and part of the reason may be that the LOR trilogy itself was so dark—it’s difficult put aside that darkness and go back to the relative light and innocence of The Hobbit.

So it’s unfortunate that the Hobbit films were made after the Lord of the Rings films.  It would have been better if the Hobbit films had been made first.  It would have been better to move forward from innocence and light to darkness and evil.  The finding of the ring, and Bilbo’s decision to hold on to it, is the Fall that makes the latter three novels inevitable.

Yet it’s fortunate the films were made, and we have to live with the order of their creation.  I’ve noted the many reviewer comments about the slowness of the first Hobbit installment (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012; dir. Peter Jackson).  Yes, it is a bit slow.  Yes, it departs considerably from the monolithic plot of Tolkien’s novel.  But it many ways it preserves the basic events and spirit of the novel and embellishes and adds to them.  I look forward to the second installment.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Wretched Films I've Seen

Among the wretched films I’ve seen in the last six months, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013; dir. John Moore) is astounding in its cartoon exploitation of a worn out formula that was exhausted in the first three installments of the Die Hard series.  Here Bruce Willis seems to go through the motions.  We hear jokes about his age and about his bad relationship with his son.  Throughout the film, even at times of greatest peril, father and son argue with one another, hurling insults and jabs left and right. 

Pay no attention to laws of physics in this film.  What is good about it?  Loud explosions, helicopter crashes, fire, and cars hurling through the air.  And, oh yes, the shooting.  This is an NRA joyride.

Let us now consider Jack Reacher (2012; dir. Christopher McQuarrie.  Its hero (played by Tom Cruise) is interesting, but there is really not much of a plot. 

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013; dir. Tommy Wirkola)—instead of guns, there are flaming swords, or spells, or something.  The fact that Hansel and Gretel are siblings removes most of the sexual tension from the film, except for those viewers who are truly perverse.  Given the premise, which involves how Hansel and Gretel take revenge on witches because some old witch in the past tried to have them both for lunch, there’s not much of a place for this film to go.  As a child I was always bothered by how the parents in the fairy tale abandoned their children in the woods.  How cruel!  I could empathize with the abandonment the children must have felt.  My parents were good parents, they never abandoned me in the woods, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t worry about abandonment.  This film ends up explaining too much about that abandonment in the fairy tale.  In the film, it turns out that the children’s mother was a white witch, which means a good one, and that as a result all the other witches wanted to kill her.  So she gets burned at the stake, and her husband dies, but not before they take their children deep into the woods to ensure the bad witches don’t find them.  There’s not much imagination here.  It’s predictable and prosaic and pretty dumb.  Why would Jeremy Renner, the main actor in The Hurt Locker (2008; dir. Kathryn Bigelow), agree to appear in this one?  Maybe he was desperate.

If we don’t praise Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who played a racist African American stereotype in the figure of Stepin Fetchit through many films of the 1930s and 40s, or James Baskett, who played a lovable if stereotyped Uncle Remus in Song of the South (1946), why do we praise Melissa McCarthy for her comic portrayal of a bumbling, dysfunctional, sociopathic overweight woman in Identity Theif (2013; dir. Seth Gordon)?

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013; dir. Sam Raimi) features several well-known and even respected actors, including James Franco as the Oz character.  It’s produced by Disney Studios, renowned for achievements in animation and for a string of creative animated films running from Fantasia (1940) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Finding Nemo (2003).  Why, then, is this film such a travesty?  The story is lame, the acting is embarrassing, the special effects and animation are impressive, but they have no story to carry, and after a while they grow tiresome.  Were Baum’s novels as wretched as this film? 

Jack the Giant Killer (2013; dir. Mark Atkins) was actually entertaining.  Its wit and inventiveness raised it well above the level of the films mentioned above.  It had action, interesting characters, wit, and, most of all, big, dumb giants.


Sunday, October 20, 2013


When things start going wrong in Gravity (2013; dir. Alfonso Cuarón), one hardly feels capable of watching the screen.  There’s an awful inevitability to what occurs, brought on by the laws of physics and of, well, of course, gravity.  Every 90 minutes the heroine must face another onslaught of orbiting debris that has knocked out communications with earth, killed her coworkers, and made the prospects of her survival dim.

I am sure there are many elements that Gravity gets wrong, but the verisimilitude, the appearance of realism, the fine attention to detail, the effort to be real, can give one the sense of watching a live-action news report rather than a movie-created illusion.

Against the stunning backdrop of the earth, of the international space station, Gravity offers especially insipid dialog.  George Clooney, who plays a senior astronaut on the verge of retirement, is especially irritating as a somewhat self-absorbed space wrangler who’s convinced that romance with his colleague Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) is a great conversational topic during a spacewalk.  And there are elements of Gravity that seem entirely predictable—one catastrophe followed by another, survival and recovery and then more danger.  But Sandra Bullock’s character, who in her first time in space, sent to reprogram the Hubble telescope, must fight nausea throughout, not to mention fear and horror), carries the film.  The acting Bullock must do is not physically demanding--it manifests in how she reads her lines, the tones of her voice, her facial expressions)—mostly we see her face inside a space suit, in various stages of alarm and distress.  But she enacts her role deeply and empathetically, especially in an extended scene inside a Russian space station, as she thinks about her situation, her life, and the unlikelihood that she’ll ever return to earth.   Her character is introspective and wounded, and there’s a meditative, even spiritual quality to her that many reviews have missed. 

Bullock’s character Ryan Stone reminded me especially of Tom Hanks as the man lost on an island in Cast Away (2000; dir. Robert Zemeckis).

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) presented humankind as a species evolving forward into the future through technology, and Gravity offers a similar theme.  In both films technology goes awry, and human beings are thrown back entirely on the naked reality of human experience, human consciousness.  In Kubrick’s film technology develops its own agency and threatens to take over.  In Gravity disaster happens as an unpredictable manifestation of chance, and of the bad planning of nations that never stop to consider the consequences of throwing more and more junk into orbit over the earth.  In Kubrick’s film, technology is potentially transformative, even as it threatens to erase the humanness of its creators.  In Gravity, technology has the power to kill the humans who employ it, but even to the last moment something fundamentally human and self-sustaining persists.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Filmed in and around Athens, Ga., but not necessarily set in Athens, The Spectacular Now (2013) creates a paradoxical tension for the viewer who knows and lives in the places the film displays.  We want on the one hand to connect the events and people of the film with those places, but the film doesn’t necessarily encourage connections.  And although, according to director James Ponsoldt, filming in Athens allowed him to make use of emotional resonances stirred up by the images of his childhood and adolescence, the film isn’t really about his hometown.  It’s about a small and not always charming small town where the characters live and which most of them want to escape.

Ponsoldt has an impressive ability to create characters who don’t come across as Hollywood actors pretending to be normal people.  We saw this clearly in one of his earlier films, Smashed (2012), and there is little that is glamorous about the two main characters in this newer film.  Sutter (Miles Teller) has scars on his neck.  Aimee (Shailene Woodley) has bumps on her face, and she’s slender without the emaciation of a starlet model.  Neither is heavily made up.  Allie lives in a small, nondescript  home.  Ponsoldt, in an after-film question and answer session, credited the intelligence of the actors in understanding their characters and the importance of making them “normal.”  However, he clearly insisted on their normalcy, so that his film would give us characters we could be interested in, even identify with, not on a wish fulfillment level but on that of personal experience.

Let me be clear.  The main characters Sutter and Aimee are eighteen-year-old graduating high school seniors.  It’s been a long, long time since I was their age, or lived through the kinds of experiences they have. I don’t automatically identify with them, especially Sutter, who’s conflicted and complicated.  Amy’s innocence, her willingness to overlook Sutter’s failings (except, perhaps, in the film’s final moment) seemed to me a bit much.  But Ponsoldt makes these characters credible, and in the end you care about them because he’s made it possible on some level for you to understand and empathize with them as real human individuals.


Characters drive this film, just as they drove Smashed.  Ponsoldt is a gifted filmmaker.  His comments following the showing of The Spectacular Now at Athens Ciné (Athens, GA) made clear how steeped he is in film tradition.  He is highly articulate and his intelligence certainly comes across in the film.  Yet his background and training are not a hindrance in the film.  The only direct influence I saw in The Specatcular Now was Say Anything (1989, dir. Cameron Crowe).  Its two main characters—a goofball, directionless male and an intelligent, high-achieving young woman—are similar to Aimee and Sutter in this film.  Sutter resembled John Cusack of Say Anything in both appearance and personality.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar

Juicy and Delicious (New York: Diversion Books, 2012) by Lucy Alibar is the play that inspired the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Alibar knew director Benh Zeitlin, and years after she wrote the play, he approached her about adapting it as a film.  Together they wrote the screenplay.  There are several major differences between play and film.  One is the gender of Hushpuppy, who was male in the play and female in the film.  Another is the setting—Georgia in the play and Louisiana in the film.  The play is impressionistic, in the fashion of what we might call magical realism.  Certainly it is told from the child’s viewpoint.  It has the same sort of whacky, off-beat, fanciful humor as the film.  The film uses much of the dialogue in the play, some of it nearly verbatim, some of it changed.  The fact that Hushpuppy becomes a girl in the film creates an additional level of humor and irony, especially in the scene where the father tells Hushpuppy that “you are the man.”  The play creates the story in the child’s imagination, and uses the aurochs as well as the approaching “end of the world” presaged by Hushpuppy’s schoolteacher Joy as a metaphor or representation of how the child is working his way towards acceptance of his father’s impending death.  The storm (considerably more of an event in the film) and the boat on which Hushpuppy embarks after the storm, and after his father’s death, are also part of the play.  Essentially, the film fills in details of plot and character without significantly reducing the fanciful nature of the play.  And while the play probably didn’t work very well in performance—it is too slight (and too short)—the film works very well.  What is surprising is how fully the film incorporates the essence of the play, its underlying issues and images and characters and motifs, but most of all its tone and atmosphere.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Look Away, Look Away!, by Wilton Barnhardt

Look Away, Look Away! (St. Martin's Press, 2013), by Wilton Barnhardt) offers perhaps the most comical and painful account of a nightmarish Christmas dinner ever in American fiction.  A family undergoes a general breakdown and chaos erupts.  And if Barnhardt's account of sorority and fraternity life at UNC Chapel Hill in the early 2000s is remotely true, the NC governor ought to call out the state National Guard to subdue the depravity.

This novel about the decline of a Charlotte, NC family in the early 2000s, prior to the Great Recession, includes a vacuous college girl whose goal is to go to college and find a husband; her sister, of many appetites, especially gustatory and sexual, who against all expectations makes a killing in real estate; her brother, who hides his gayness from his parents by bringing his African American lesbian partner to family gatherings as proof of his heterosexuality; his oldest brother, a Presbyterian minister; their parents, a conniving and ruthless mother who resorts to every imaginable stratagem to maintain her place in the upper-crust social structure of the Charlotte community; her husband, a lawyer whose prospects as a political candidate inexplicably tanked some years before, and who spends his time puttering with his civil war relics; and his brother in law, a successful writer with real talent who squandered a promising career by turning to the writing of potboilers to make money, and who’s bitter that critics no longer show him respect, and so on.

This satiric novel traces the decline of the genteel Old South through the misfortunes of this self-absorbed family.  Barnhardt is never sure of his own attitudes towards his characters.  Early in the novel he treats them with merciless scorn, but as the narrative progresses his attitude softens, as if he feels sorry for them.  His targets are too easy and obvious—the vapor headed sorority girl, the puttering Civil War buff, the real estate maven, the brother who hides his gayness, the would-be Scarlet O’Hara.  It’s too easy to make fun of these figures, and because it’s easy, the satire often seems superficial. 

Too often Barnhardt's characters provide long histories of society in Charlotte or the real estate market.  In such moments the novel grinds to a halt.


Look Away, Look Away! is a comic melodrama that in the end shows too much fondness for its own characters, even as it lambasts them.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, by George Saunders

The stories in George Saunders’ Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella (Random House, 1996) are set in an indistinct future, a time advanced in technology, but in many ways as full of human difficulties as our own.  One long story involves a time in which mutant humans, apparently the result of environmental pollution, are the victims of relocation camps and general discrimination.  The story especially connects to contemporary issues regarding undocumented aliens and other marginal groups, and it summons up recollections of Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the American South pre-civil rights era.  (Is there a connection between this story and the X-Men?—the mutants in this story do not have special powers—they suffer physical malformations--for instance, misshapen toes).  Saunders takes a wry, disconnected yet engaged attitude towards his characters, for whom he expresses pity, empathy, and a certain I told you so attitude.  But the autobiographical essay at the end of the volume invested the stories, with their concerns about people struggling against unhappiness and economic hardship and personal failure, with a specific poignancy.  Saunders recounts his years of struggle to find a style and an approach that would work for him as a writer.  He says he often tried to imitate Hemingway.  But he discovered his true identity as a writer by channeling his own personal anxieties about failure and disruption in his family life—he had a good marriage, a family he loved, children he cherished, and though he was not financially secure at least in the early years of his career he had these things.  His worry about what it would be like to lose these reasons for happiness energized him, gave him a subject, and presumably led to the stories in this volume.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois

As a child I read science fiction constantly.  In the third grade the first adult novel I checked out from the library was Clifford Simak’s Step to the Stars, and for the next six or seven years I read as much sci-fi as I could find, before drifting on to other kinds of writing.  Recently, on the Facebook recommendation of Georgia science fiction writer Michael Bishop, I read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection (ed. Gardner Dozois; St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013).  It was interesting to find that in some basic ways sci-fi had changed very little over the five decades, and that in others it had advanced and matured significantly.  As standards of comparison, I should add that I have few, not having read widely in sci-fi for 45 years.  Maybe what seems significant progress to me is no surprise at all to other readers.  By matured and advanced I probably mean in prose style and quality.  Many of the stories in the anthology at least had literary qualities—strong prose, characterization, plotting, and themes.  But many of the scenarios in the stories seem similar, and they tend to replicate one another.  Many of the stories concern far-advanced civilizations, some human and some not, completely removed in time and space from earthly origins.  Writers go to extremes to describe the ecosystems of alien worlds, and the results are fascinating if sometimes not quite convincing menageries of creatures.  The stories have in common a concern with technology and how it can transform if not entirely distort or destroy the humans who create it.  Technology in many of these stories means bio-technology, or the fusion of silicate and bio-technology.  Writers imagine self-healing, genetically engineered humans who live for thousands of years, living starships, robots, androids, and so on.  Many of the stories reflect concern with the environment and with the ecology of alien worlds.  Most describe worlds in which attitudes towards sex, gender, and human relations have changed considerably.  A number of the stories seem to come to no particular end.  One of the most fascinating, the final story, “Eater of Bones,” by Robert Reed, goes on for too long.  Among my favorites was Michael Bishop’s “Twenty Lights to the ‘Land of Snow’,” about the settlement of a New Tibet on a distant planet.  “Old Paint,” by Megan Lindholm, is a humorous story about a family car that takes on a life of its own. “In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns,” by Elizabeth Burns, is a murder mystery set in a futuristic India in which a hybrid cat-parrot with amnesia plays a significant part.  Christopher Barzak in “Invisible Men” retells the famous H. G. Wells story from the point of view of a chamber maid who herself feels invisible.  I was interested in how many of the writers had day jobs in physics, and how many had studied Elizabethan literature in graduate school.  Women and writers from places other than the United States were well represented.  These stories were entertaining and diverting.  The best of them were intelligent and evocative.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

A paranoid, right-wing fantasy thriller, Olympus Has Fallen (2013; dir. Antoine Fuqua) imagines what might happen if a North Korean terrorist attacked the White House, killed virtually everyone in it, and took the president hostage. Well, the terrorist is not precisely North Korean—his family was expelled from North Korea, and his mother was killed by an American mine in the DMZ, and he’s angry that North Koreans don’t eat well.  It’s difficult to make out the logic of his motives, but then, hey, so what, he’s a crazed maniac.  What this film imagines is a highly adept group of North Koreans who have compromised all the nation’s security systems, stolen secret American weapons, and have a plan for blowing up all American ICBMs in their siloes, thereby causing the nuclear incineration of the nation.  They have the cooperation of an American accomplice.

Why is the film rightwing?  Because it glories in imagining what the evil North Koreans would do if only they had a chance.  It relishes images of American soldiers and diplomats and government officials being gunned down.  It trembles at the image of the top of the Washington monument crumbling, and the bullet marked White House in flames, and so on.  All of this is causes by nasty foreigners, evil Asians intent on mayhem.  (Recall George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil speech).  The xenophobic implication being that we should adopt militaristic, hyper-aggressive strategies to keep those verminous enemies out.  This is a parable of sorts, another version of September 11, 2001, a call for vigilance along with a dimwitted, heavy-handed, jingoistic, self-aggrandizing approach to foreign policy abroad and security at home.  Shades of the NSA.

The film takes its title at face value.  Washington DC, especially the White House, is Olympus.  Stirring music with a hushed chorus accompanies each iconic image.  When the President is wounded, the music suggests that Christ’s side has been pierced. 

Despite all the hoopla, this is just another action movie about people (the President) rescued from a tight spot by an unlikely hero (the disgraced Secret Service agent), with empathy and pathos delivered by the president’s young son, hiding in the captured White House, wanted by the hostage-takers who believe that by threatening his life they can force the President to give up a secret code.  The boy is saved, but for reasons I couldn’t discern the President gives up the code anyway.  The Americans win out in this conflict by brute strength rather than intelligence, and the evil Asians lose through their greed, lust for power and wanton destruction, and madness.  There’s no distinction in the action or the story or the scenario.  The film is mildly entertaining—you can sleep through half of up yet be caught up on the action as soon as you awake, because there is not much to catch up with--it’s got a lot of shootings and explosions and noise.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

School Daze

Spike Lee’s second film School Daze (1988) is set in a large Southern town recognizable as Atlanta, though it is never named.  It’s set on the campus of a historically black university, Mission University, a place like Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Lee studied.  On the one hand, this is an African American version of any number of mainly white films devoted to campus life, such as Animal House (1978) or Back to School (1988) or PCU (1994) or of those awful college films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s (Knute Rockne All American, 1940, comes to mind).  On the other hand, with its many comic moments, School Daze has a serious purpose: to explore political and cultural divisions in African American life by focusing on a college that is educating future African American leaders.  The film begins with a montage of images from the Civil Rights movement.  They connect the college campus the film portrays with African American history.

The “Daze” of the title suggests the unreality of college life, and the film spends a good bit of time showing us college students engaged in meaningless chatter about relationships, sex, fraternities, skin color, and hair style.  A central musical number is about a dispute between two groups of women who style their hair in different fashions—the light-skinned group favors 80s style hair and the darker skinned group prefers hair in a more revolutionary vein. 

The film presents more a pastiche, a montage of scenes from college life, than a coherent plot.  A character named Half-pint (Spike Lee) wants to pledge a popular fraternity.  He also wants to lose his virginity.  His cousin, Dap (Laurence Fishburne), is a would-be revolutionary who wants Mission College to disinvest all its funds from South Africa.  Dap hates fraternities and has a serious rivalry with Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), president of Gamma Phi Gamma, the fraternity Half-Pint wants to join.  School Daze sees fraternities as irrelevant and destructive.  Pledges undergo silly rituals.  They are encouraged to feel superior to other students, to abuse women, to feel contempt for people like Dap who want to change the world.  You can imagine many of these fraternity members headed for a conformist career in business.  It’s not in their interests to seek change in a world that they want to join.

Dap is loud and obnoxious in his ever-present advocacy for the causes he supports and in his hatred of the fraternity Dap wants to join.  He is not especially effective as an activist, but Spike Lee as director makes clear that Dap believes fervently in what he believes, and that he, as opposed to Julian or Half-Pint, recognizes that in a world where everyone’s attention is diverted by disagreements over affluence and skin color and hair styles and fraternity memberships, progress won’t occur.

On the night Half-Pint is initiated into Gamma Phi Gamma, Julian orders his girlfriend to sleep with Half-Pint because he can’t have a virgin in his fraternity.  She follows his command.  When Dap finds out what has happened, he is outraged at his cousin and at Julian.  The film ends with his commanding question “Why?” which seems to imply that while these students are whiling away their time on trivial, narcissistic irrelevancies, the world is suffering.  Dap’s “Why?” is a call for change of directions and for political action, both in the world at large, but on the campuses of places like Mission College, where future citizens are being educated.

Spike Lee’s method of introducing an array of characters and situations that he gradually interweaves through the course of the film is evident here.  School Daze is a major step towards one of his great films, Do the Right Thing (1989).  It also paves the way for a number of other films about African American college life, all centered in Atlanta.  Drumline (2002; dir. Charles Stone III), ATL (2006; dir. Chris Robinson) and Stomp the Yard (2007; dir. Sylvain White) are examples.  

La Grande Illusion

One memorable scene in La Grande Illusion, (1937; dir. Jean Renoir) comes when inmates of a German prison camp are rehearsing for a skit they will perform before other prisoners and German officers.  They are trying on costumes they will wear as they portray women dancing and singing on stage.  The slightest of them, who plays some sort of ingénue, puts on an attractive dress and blonde wig.  When he walks out in front of the other men, they suddenly fall silent, gazing at him in the dress and blonde wig with wistful regret for the women they miss at home, desire, and shame for the desire they feel for another man.  The scene is comic but moving, as this slender man in a dress and wig arouses conflicting emotions in his fellow prisoners.

In another scene the commanding officer of the French prisoners of war, Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) talks with the commanding German officer of the prison, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).  They are friendly acquaintances from past days; they both remember the same prostitute and the same restaurants in Paris.  They both feel trapped by circumstance and their class—both are members of a vanishing class of upper class nobility that will pass away along with the end of the war.

The scenes of this film are carefully photographed, full of authentic details, so that if any of them actually are filed on a set, it is impossible to tell.  Renoir, the son of the famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, composes many scenes as if they are paintings.  I especially liked the indoor shots of people in the immediate foreground, set against an open window that reveals another scene outside, in the background.  This is more sophisticated cinematography than we are used to in most American films of the 1930s.

La Grande Illusion directly addresses anti-semitism and German hatred of Jews.  Although it is set in World War I, it clearly is responding to contemporary events of the late 1930s, including the movement of Nazi Germany to go to war with the rest of the world.  Yet this film does not demonize the Germans.  Rather it emphasizes the arbitrariness of boundaries between individuals, social classes, and nations.

This must be the archetypal prisoner of war film.  Both Stalag 17 (1953; dir. Billy Wilder) and The Great Escape (1963; dir. John Sturges) echo it in different ways.  The film Casablanca (1942; dir. Michael Curtiz), with its scene of French patriots breaking into “Le Marseilles” in front of German officers in Rick’s Café, was probably inspired by a similar scene in La Grand Illusion, when French prisoners begin singing the same song in front of German officers when they learn of a French victory over the Germans.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Dictator

The Dictator (2012; dir. Larry Charles) observes few boundaries of political or moral correctness.  Its satiric story of a middle-eastern dictator who comes to New York to address the United Nations takes middle eastern politics and Muslim culture as its main targets—there is no doubt about this. In the course of this exercise, Dictator levels its aim at Jews, African Americans, Asians, middle-class white America, women, feminists, and probably other groups and categories I haven’t thought of yet.  The main character, Admiral General Aladeen Aladeen (Sasha Baron Cohen) is an utterly ruthless dictator who orders anyone who disagrees with him executed.  He hates Jews, women, and anyone who opposes him.  The wealth of his nation, Wadiya, what there is of it, goes towards maintenance of his opulent palace and lifestyle.  His nation is rich in oil, but because he promised his father that he would never sell it to outsiders, he remains true to that promise (one of the only promises he keeps).  His dying father appointed him dictator despite the older brother (Ben Kingsley) who was first in line of succession.  His brother is constantly plotting to assassinate or overthrow him so he can take control of the country and sell its oil resources to foreign oil interests (BP, Exxon, and so on).  

As with Cohen’s two previous films—Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), both directed by Larry Charles—this one skirts a fine line between satire and intolerance.  Is it attacking western stereotypes about the Muslim world, or exploiting them for comedy?  It’s both, I think, and these opposites aren’t always compatible.  Cohen rarely misses the opportunity for an outrageously inappropriate joke: when he delivers a baby at the food collective, he is genuinely moved, yet when he sees that the baby is a girl, he wants to throw it out with the trash.  When his new wife tells him that she is pregnant, he asks her whether the child will be “a boy or an abortion.”

In the course of this film, Aladeen falls in love with the owner of an organic food collective—she’s whole earth in every way, Jewish, and feminist—everything he hates.  He declares at the UN, after he sees her watching him, that he will restore real democracy to his country and not sell out to international oil conglomerates.  Yet the film makes clear, in the typical eye-winking, ear-pulling way of Cohen, that he’s not really serious.

While Arabic culture and politics suffer the main brunt of this film’s satiric attack, in his speech to the UN, Aladeenn outlines what he believes are the benefits dictatorships can bring—and they are all practices and acts that have characterized American democracy over the last 25 years.  The point is not to let Arabic culture off the hook, but to make clear that U. S. capitalism is guilty of sins and injustices of its own. 

Cohen may seek to soften somewhat the depravity that Aladeen represents by portraying him as an inept, incompetent, ignorant, and not very smart buffoon (every time he orders someone executed, his executioner helps the condemned victim escape to a Wadiyan refugee community in New York) who can’t open his mouth without making outrageous and offensive statements.  This in part may be a nod to another film called The Great Dictator (1940; dir. Charlie Chaplain) with Charlie Chaplain playing a clear parody of Hitler.  But Chaplain’s political and humanistic message in his film isn’t as compromised as it is in this one.

Last Night, by James Salter

I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for many of the characters in James Salter’s stories in Last Night (Knopf, 2005).  They seemed steeped in privilege, wealth, affluence, narcissistic self-absorption.  I’m not bothered by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wealthy coterie of characters, maybe because most of them come from humble origins (Gatsby, Dick Diver) or because Fitzgerald himself holds them at an ironic distance.  There’s not much sense in Salter’s collection of the history or background of his characters.  Some of these stories are maudlin: three women gather to discuss sex and romance past and present.  One of them listens but has nothing to contribute to the conversation.  She feels she has lived an unfulfilled life, a feeling encouraged by the stage four cancer diagnosis she had received earlier in the day.  She leaves the gathering and takes a taxi home, weeping in the backseat.  In another story, a husband assists his wife in committing suicide, then goes downstairs to have sex with his paramour.  The next morning his wife wakes up and wants to know why she didn’t die.  In still another story, a man’s wife asks him to stop having sex with his best friend—a relationship he hasn’t acknowledged to his wife for the ten years of their marriage.  Salter writes very well.  He knows and understands his characters.  But he doesn’t always succeed in making their problems interesting or representative of a wider experience.  Some of these stories seemed slight to me, or unbalanced, or unfinished.  The collection as a whole centered on people disappointed in their lives, guilty over their betrayals of others, bitter over how they have been betrayed.  There is adultery and sex or the promise of it throughout the volume, but mostly the promise leads to misery.  There are no fulfilled lives in these stories, and maybe that is Salter’s point.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Morrow, 2013), by Neil Gaiman, may be a classic of its type.  I just finished it, and don’t have much objective distance from it yet.  It impressed me with its originality, especially in passages that described fantastic events, and in its use of a seven year old’s perspective for telling the story.

This must be an autobiographical allegory of a memoir.  Comments Gaiman has made in interviews suggest as much.  He’s not telling the facts of his own life, but he admits to using recollections from childhood and family life to build the narrative.  Emotionally, the story seems intensely personal and important, as if it comes from the early time in Gaiman’s life when he had no sense of the enormity of the seen and unseen world around him, of the problems and difficulties he would have to face.  But I shouldn’t use the book to speculate about his intentions.

The seven-year-old who narrates doesn’t understand much that happens around him.  His innocence gives him a certain invulnerability to dark events, but also mark him as a potential victim, which indeed he becomes.

The premise is that beyond the seen world there is an unseen one that rarely interacts with the real one.  Sometimes, rarely, the unseen world can be the source of disastrous events.  One such event occurs in the novel, in the form of a governess who comes to care for the narrator and his older sister while their parents, who have suffered financial setbacks, work.  When a boarder commits suicide in the family car, the boy is befriended by a somewhat older girl who lives with her family down a narrow lane. She becomes his friend, protector, and entry into another world.

Events happen all the time in and around the lives of children that they cannot understand.  They have no way to apprehend the future that is coming for them.  It’s all just a big unknown, and occasionally it abrupts into their lives before they’re old enough to understand.—deaths, sex, unhappiness, hardship, calamities.  Parents divorce.  Friends move away.  The novel is full of metaphors, allegoric representations of such events.

This is the best book I’ve read in a while.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

The New Mind of the South, by Tracy Thompson

Tracy Thompson in The New Mind of the South (Simon & Schuster, 2013) provides an overview of the contemporary South.  As a native of East Point, Georgia, who grew up during the Civil Rights era, she is well aware of the many changes the South has undergone, of the progress it has made from older times, of the contradictions that remain.  Her tone is personal, and in ways her book offers more a personal commentary than a historical or sociological study.  She has researched her topic, but perhaps not thoroughly enough.  She cites scholars and historians, but offers no list of the works she consulted.  She has interviewed many Southerners, including leading scholars in Southern history.  This is all to the point of emphasizing that this is a commentary of substance but not really of scholarship.  Occasionally her prose lapses into trendy jargon. But the book is of interest nonetheless, and it is especially effective at discussing the agrarian origins of the South and their continuing influences, both among white and black citizens, and in the new urban movements emerging in large southern cities.  Her treatment of the demographic changes that have swept across the South in the past thirty years are excellent (her second chapter, “Salsa with Your Grits,” may be the best in the book).  She offers interesting observations about ways in which the South has changed as compared to how it thinks it has changed.  Her final chapter is about Atlanta, the megalopolitan city that in many ways incorporates all the issues and contradictions that she discusses in her book. 

Race and the heritage of slavery are a major focus.  Thompson points out that white Southerners have not always remembered events of past racial violence clearly.  Textbooks used in Southern schools, even until fairly recently, often glossed over the racial realities of the Southern past.  Racial reconciliation has occurred, to an extent, but she finds that it has further to go—no doubt about that, as recent events make clear. 

Occasional unevenness stems from Thompson’s desire to explain the South along with her compulsion to insist on its foibles.  Though she argues that the generalized conceptions of what the South once was no longer apply, she nonetheless herself sometimes indulges in generalities.  Much of the book in one way or the other documents the paradoxical persistence of racism in a modern South that still struggles to confront its racist past.  Thompson is absolutely correct that race and racism are major forces in the modern South, but it seems to me that she has approached her topic with certain conclusions apparently predetermined.

The New Mind of the South reminds me of Robert Penn Warren’s remarkable long essay Segregation, published as a book in 1956.  In that moving personal essay he recounts his travels around the South of the 1950s, interviewing people both black and white about the growing Civil Rights movement.  He feels morally drawn to the movement, even as he recognizes the sweeping changes it will bring.  His book is a struggle to define his own Southern identity, and Thompson‘s book reveals a similar struggle, though I don’t know whether she has read Warren’s essay.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cabin in the Sky

Ethel Waters as Petunia Jackson gives an outstanding performance in Cabin in the Sky (1943, dir. Vincent Minnelli).  Her singing is wonderful, and she is the entertaining heart of the film.  There are other good performances too, especially by Eddie Anderson as Petunia’s errant husband Little Joe.  Duke Ellington with his orchestra appears briefly.  Louis Armstrong makes a valiant try as a demon, though he never plays his trumpet.  Lena Horne makes her first major film appearance.

Cabin in the Sky gave these performers a welcome opportunity to showcase their talents.  On film in the 1930s and 1940s, at least, African Americans had few such opportunities.  Ethel Waters herself probably had the most significant film career of everyone who appeared in this film, with later appearances in Pinky and A Member of the Wedding.

When Little Joe is killed in a bar by a man whom he owes money, his own begging and his wife’s prayers convince the Lord to give him a final chance.  Rather than consignment to hell, he has six months on earth to mend his ways.  He is not a bad man, his wife Petunia explains, just a weak one who has sinned many times.  His weaknesses are gambling and a young woman named Georgia Brown (Lena Horne).  Petunia and Little Joe love each other, and she is constantly overlooking and forgiving his failings.  In the broad strokes of what almost seems to be a pageant play, the film shows us how Little Joe struggles to convince the Lord, his wife, and the Devil that he is a reformed man. 

The trouble is that the film shows African American life purely from a white director’s point of view.  The black people in this film are black people as stereotypes, black people as white filmmakers want to see them—simple, fun-loving, religious, superstitious, easily tempted, fond of ceremony and overdressing.  In this regard A Cabin in the Sky carries forward from such all-black films as Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1930) and Green Pastures (1940), and it doesn’t significantly advance the role of African Americans in mainstream films.  It doesn’t invite us to view its characters in the context of 20th-century American society, nor does it make any reference to the laws, racism, and constraints that oppressed African Americans in the early 1940s--there is a nary a white person in the whole story.  Worse still, the story turns out to be just a nightmare in Little Joe’s fevered imagination.

Three actors in this film—Eddie Anderson, Butterfly McQueen, and Oscar Polk--had roles as slaves in the Gone with the Wind (1938).  What one can say for Cabin in the Sky is that it allows these actors, and the others, to be viewed as characters living independently from the white world.  The film shows respect for its characters, even as it makes fun of their superstitions.  They have their own lives, the film does not treat them with outright derision, the stereotypes are mostly muted (no one, for example, plays the ingratiating and shuffling black clown in the style of Stepin Fetchit in the Will Rogers film Judge Priest, 1934).  But the underlying attitudes about black people are evident enough.

Viewed from the 2013 perspective, Cabin in the Sky is offensively anachronistic and patronizing.


Brave (2012; dirs. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell) begins hopefully: the lush, colorful, detailed animation you’d expect from Disney and Pixar; a distinctive range of characters; rousing music;  high production values; and excessive enthusiasm.  The main character is Merida, an independent young woman who loves archery and horseback riding.  She’s rebelling against her parents, especially her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), who is preparing her for marriage to one of the sons of clans with whom their kingdom has an alliance.  Merida takes more after her rambunctious oversized father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), than her mother.  The big crisis occurs when Elinor arranges a competition among the rival clans for her daughter’s hand.  Merida doesn’t want to be competed for, isn’t ready to marry, and she runs away.

Set in ancient Scotland (judging by the accents of the characters, and by the fact that the unnamed nation is divided into clans), Brave focuses on a royal family.  Although most of the characters are parodies and exaggerations, the servants (as is typical for a Disney film) come in for broad stereotyping, especially the cow-faced house servant who is easily frightened and befuddled. Disney certainly loves royalty and befuddled servants.

The plot up to this point is predictable—we can see where it is going, we know there will be a struggle of wills between mother and daughter, that probably the daughter will somehow manage to escape betrothal to a man she hasn’t chosen for herself. At last we have the female heroine many have called for in Disney and Pixar animated films, which have been dominated by male characters.  The trouble is that after a promising buildup, the film lurches to a halt and lumbers off in a different direction when Merida arranges for a witch to cast a spell that will “change” her mother so that she won’t have to be married. The witch changes her mother to a bear, and the rest of the film veers and jerks around as Merida struggles to make certain that her mother doesn’t remain a bear past the second sunrise, after which the transformation will be permanent.  The witch herself is quite amusing, vaguely ethnic, and like many Disney witches (many Disney adult women) an ugly hag.

The fact that five writers receive credit for the screenplay suggests there was difficulty with the storyline from the beginning.

There’s no doubting the entertaining nature of this film.  It was fun to watch, but frustrating.  The plot fails the animation and the characters, especially the voices of Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly.  And it fails as well the film’s supposed feminist ambition to show that an animated female protagonist can be as successful as the males.  Despite her independent assertiveness, Merida, a skilled archer, swordswoman, and equestrian, manages to reverse the spell on her mother through the feminine skill of sewing, with which she mends a tapestry she damaged with her sword.  She learns to control her temper and love her mother.  Elinor learns not to be so pushy. They all agree that the princess is not ready to marry, yet.  Clearly that day will come.  Is this victory for Merida, or just a stay of the Disney inevitable?

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Shotgun Stories

The director of Shotgun Stories (2007), Jeff Nichols, favors shots of his characters, either close up or shot at a medium distance, set in contrast against landscape.  We see relatively long, slow shots of two or more characters sitting together on a porch, or standing together on the verge of a field, or next to a tractor, or alongside a basketball court, or next to a truck, or by a riverbank, or even next to a tent.  They don’t do much in these scenes.  At most they talk.  Just as often they sit or stand and do nothing.  They ruminate.  These shots convey their inner lives, deep emotional and intellectual processes that wend their way towards some sort of action.  Most often such action means trouble.

One of Green’s mentors is, apparently, David Gordon Green, a producer for the film.  In turn, we know that one of Green’s strongest influences is Terrence Malick.  And so we come to understand where this film, Nichols’ first, stands in terms of filmic traditions.  Yet I find Nichols less derivative than I do Green, at least in his film George Washington (2000), where he seems to feel that shooting scenes of black kids looking lonely against a small-town setting constitutes some sort of aesthetic.  Nichols seems to understand the connection of scene to character, of setting to human struggle.  He is particularly effective in this film at making the atmosphere of a small town, with its old-time features, quaint architectures, and fields, seem like something that is both warm and nurturing and also entangling, entrapping. 

With its tale of two sets of brothers, all with the same father, but with different mothers, we have a narrative scheme that is both contemporary and Old Testament.  It’s archetypal.  The older brothers had as a mother a woman whom the oldest of them describes as cruel.  She has no interest in her sons, even when she is told that one of them has died.  The father married her before his religious conversion, and there are hints of abuse and mistreatment.  He abandons the three boys when he meets his second wife, an event that is also accompanied by a religious, born-again Christian conversion, so that the younger brothers are raised by a father who treats them well and a mother who loves them.  At the man’s funeral, the younger sons are grieving sincerely, while the older sons are simply angry.  The oldest of the boys,” Son Hayes” (Michael Shannon), arrives late and insists on speaking to the mourners: he tells them that his father was a cruel man who abandoned him and his brothers and that they shouldn’t forget that.  His comments spawn a series of events that make up the plot of the film.

Shotgun Stories is about guilt, anger, and, retribution.  Sin and redemption are in play as well, but only in a secondary way.  In the end, there is no satisfaction, no fulfillment of the vengeful moment the film seems to work towards.  There is only a suspension of action, and we don’t know where things will head from there.

Told from the viewpoint of the older sons, the Hayes boys, the film pointedly describes each of them as distinctive individuals.  Son Hayes carries the burden of his father’s abandonment most heavily.  He is married and unhappy with his job with a fishery.  He thinks he’s better than his $20,000 a year salary he makes, and the film suggests that he might be, if not for certain problems.  Such as his gambling addiction, for which he wife temporarily leaves him.  And his trouble with embittered anger.  Boy Hayes lives in a van (literally) by the river and coaches basketball for a group of boys who live in a trailer park.  He spends much of the film trying to repair the radio in his van.  He’s pudgy and uncertain and at a key moment backs off from a fight.  The youngest of the sons is Kid Hayes, a likeable but pugnacious young man who lives in a tent behind Son’s house and who is ready to propose marriage to a local girl. The generic first names of these boys (Son, Boy, Kid), who range in age from late 20s to early 30s, call attention both to how they think of one another, and (perhaps) the way in which their abandoned father once addressed them.  These boys are all drifters, none of them has settled, they continue to live and socialize as if they’re adolescents, and the words “drifting” and “worthless” and “ungrounded” all come to mind as apt descriptors.  Their rival younger half-brothers have actual names—Cleaman, Mark, Stephen, John—but they’re far less distinctive and individual than the boys of the first group.

The film does suggest that both groups eagerly pursue vengeance for the perceived slights they have suffered.  It is at least possible that, despite our willing identification with Son, Boy, and Kid, they are the parties at fault. Son declines one if not more opportunities to apologize, to make things right, and it is the hapless Boy Hayes, the most different of all seven brothers and half-brothers, who manages at the end to bring things to what appears to be a truce.

The title--Shotgun Stories--is consistent with the revenge theme, and with what appears to be a long-standing feud between the two sets of brothers.  It suggests not only their violence but also (perhaps) the culture of the small town where they live, where quiet and calm and tension are periodically punctuated (relieved?) by the blast of a shotgun and the anger and released tension that accompanies the explosive sound.  The shotgun is not simply the implement by which people die, but also the volatile nature of the boys themselves.  Ironically, the deaths that occur in the film result from knife fights and beatings, not from gun blasts.  But it signifies the violence that in one form or the other seems to be an ever-present potential.  The word “stories” implies a continuing pattern as well, a pattern that at the film’s end seems to be only suspended.

The strengths of Shotgun Stories stem from its portrayal of the local setting, the cinematography, the characters of the sons (especially the Hayes boys), and the acting.  A neutral, melancholic tone pervades the film and compels us at first to view them from a distance even as their lives and personalities and history gradually draw us in.


Monday, July 01, 2013

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone (2010; dir. Debra Granik) gives us a backwoods, off-road apocalyptic world in which methamphetamines have ravaged an entire culture.  Rundown farms, shacks, unworked farms, rusting trailers are visual icons throughout.  Blood ties that bind extended families (everyone seems somehow related) have deteriorated to the point that they mean very little.  Violence is always a potential, especially violence of men against women, yet women participate along with men in the criminal network that supports the meth trade.  Vestiges of old times are occasionally evident, in photographs, in two scenes where residents sit and play music together.  Even the farm where Ree lives is evidence of an earlier time when people made a living there.  But mostly the film shows us a devastated social and cultural landscape.

Jennifer Lawrence, in her first film, plays the oldest daughter Ree, in a family whose father has disappeared, whose mother is permanently disabled (probably due to meth use).  Ree cares for two younger siblings, struggling from day to day to find food and keep their lives going.  Crisis comes when Ree learns that her father has put the farm up to cover his bail.  If he doesn’t appear for a hearing she will lose the farm, and they all will be homeless.

Ree sets out to find her father, moving from one house or trailer to another, asking questions, gradually discovering that though people may know where her father is, they’re not talking.  The more she learns, the more people become aware that she is asking questions, the deeper in trouble she finds herself.

Poverty is abject.  Image on image of hopeless scenes accumulate.

How real are the scenes and the people in this film?  The poverty is authentic—I have seen places and people like those in this film.  And the drawn, emotionless faces of the people who pass through the film are authentic, though they are not drawn enough, and Jennifer Lawrence’s character Ree seems too healthy for a girl who struggles from day to day to find food.  Poverty in films such as this one—and Winter’s Bone is about as earnest in its realism as one can imagine—is never as poor as it ought to be.  Despite the worn and probably hand-me-down clothes characters wear, they don’t seem dirty enough, the human faces are too clean and unblemished.  On the other hand, the faces in the film remind us of the faces in the Walker Evans’ photographs of Appalachia.

Ree is saved by the vestiges of old times that faintly resurrect themselves.  Although a group of women savagely beat her for asking too many questions, they finally come to her aid.  The uncle who treats her so cruelly in an early scene finally rises to the call of family.  Played by John Hawkes, in a role that reminds me of Levon Helm as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coalminer’s Daughter, Teardrop is as much a victim as his niece.

Winter’s Bone is a film noir, though its ending is not as grim and hopeless as it might have been.   One is aware of the possibility, even the likelihood, that Ree may succumb to the meth culture like many others around her.  She resists that danger in the film, saving the farm and her family.  Her long-term prospects remain unclear.

The most gruesome scene comes when a group of women take Ree to a pond.  She is told to reach into the water, pull up her father’s corpse, and hold his arms while one of the women cuts his hands off with a chain saw.  The severed hands provide Ree with proof that her father is dead and that he did not jump bail.  They enable her to save the farm.  

Friday, June 28, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010; dir. Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov) is about the small town of Bakhta in the middle of the Taiga in Siberia, isolated by geography and weather from the rest of the world, accessible only by helicopter and boat during the summer, and much of the year completely inaccessible.  Here is another of Werner Herzog’s studies in humankind.  Though he narrates, this film lacks the characteristic irony of his other documentaries.  It takes a more sober and objective approach to documenting its subject than I’ve seen in his other films.  This does not mean that the film is uninteresting—it’s fascinating—but at the same time it may be more conventional in its method.  This may be because Herzog took a four-hour documentary on which the film is based and edited it down to 90 minutes and provided his own narration.  In doing so, he imposed his own sense of shape and form on the content.[1]  This means the cinematography, the choice of subject matter, the general documentary approach were set by the original Russian filmmakers.

The focus is mostly on a trapper who lives with his family in Bakhta and who spends much of the very long and cold winter making his way from one trap to another, looking for ermine pelts to sell and for food to keep himself alive.  It’s difficult to imagine the solitude, the severe conditions, the social and physical abnegation he and others like him suffer.  The film makes you feel it.

Interestingly, although the film shows people whom we assume to be the trapper’s wife and child, they are hardly paid attention to.  They seem ancillary to him, at least in the film’s view, willing to carry out their roles but otherwise to be faceless and unnamed.

Herzog’s interest lies in the pride the trapper takes in his work, the skills he applies, his opinions of what makes a good and bad trapper (greed makes a bad trapper).  He is an intelligent man who thinks in a fundamental but sophisticated way about his life and his fellows.  But his sphere of existence is limited.  There’s no condescension in this film’s treatment of its subject.  There’s also no suggestion that the people of the Taiga lead in any way necessarily better or worse lives than people in other parts of the world.  (We are free as viewers to reach our own conclusions).  What Herzog admires, as his voiceover explains, is their self-reliance, their independence.  Yet they’re not really independent after all.  The trapper uses fuel to power generators and lanterns and the snowmobile that takes him from one trap to the other.  The village Christmas celebration (which occurs on January 6) resembles in many ways an American holiday celebration.  The trapper himself is an educated man who came to the Taiga back in the 1970.  The outer world may be far away, but it is there, nonetheless, and the village depends on connections with it for survival.


Caveats:  Mud (2012; dir. Jeff Nichols) makes some unwelcome compromises.  As dark as it is, it ends in a way that allows us too much satisfaction--the visceral pleasure of watching the bad guys blown away, the happy discovery by Ellis that even though his parents’ separation may be permanent they still love him (sentimental).  Then of course there is the final revelation that Mud himself has survived.  The defeat of the Bad Guys in particular, a gang of hapless and ineffectual thugs hired to kill Mud by the father of a man he killed out of jealousy is unlikely.  They are heavily armed.  They know exactly where Mud is.  They blast repeatedly through the flimsy walls of the house where Ellis and his family live and no one (no one!) is hit.  Mud himself suffers injury only after diving into the water.  Conversely, all the gang members are shot to death by Mud or Ellis’s father or the old man across the river (reputed to have been a military assassin or sniper) with his high-power long distance sniper’s rifle.  It’s all just improbable.  And the final cliché—that of the ne’er do well Mud who finally asserts moral and physical heroism—well, it’s too predictable.

In the film’s larger context these reservations are minor.  Characters are the film’s strength, along with the Arkansas background, which changes back and forth between the seediness of a languishing small town, the riverbank life of fishermen still trying to earn a living by their catch, and the island where much of the film takes place.  Change infiltrates everything.  Ellis and his friend Neckbone are both entering adolescence and puberty.  Ellis is already attracted to older girls and shows signs of being a future ladies’ man.  His parents’ marriage is deteriorating.  People who live in rickety shacks and trailers along the river are gradually moving to town.  We find here the same static small town atmosphere evident in Nichol’s first two films, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011).  The atmosphere can be suffocating, closed in, and you sense that characters want to escape even if they’re not aware of it themselves.

As a young adolescent male Ellis is a passionate romantic.  He can’t understand why his parents would drift apart--because they are supposed to love each other.  He takes up the cause of Mud and his girlfriend because they are “in love.”  He’s unaware of complexities, and part of the poignancy of the film is the outer world of adult reality that the boys know little about.  Things are going on, problems being worked out, issues addressed—all beyond their ken.  Thus it’s difficult for Ellis to understand his parents’ breakup, or why Mud and Juniper, both of whom have put each other through the wringer for years, might need to part ways despite their love for each other.  In particular, it’s Mud who the boys understand and connect with on one level and who on another level they don’t understand at all. (I’m tempted to draw a connection with What Maisie Knew (2012) but will refrain (I haven’t seen it yet); however, the child characters of Faulkner’s early novels, especially The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying do come to mind).

Matthew McConaughey as Mud is as good as he’s ever been—certainly better than the Southern Bible-thumping preacher he parodies in Bernie (2011; dir. Richard Linklater).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Star Trek into Darkness

Waiting for Star Trek into Darkness (2013; dir. J. J. Abrams) to begin, I watched six trailers, each of them presenting a film about the apocalypse.  There was apocalypse by alien invasion (Superman: Man of Steel), by blowing up the White House and Washington Monument (White House Down), by war between planets of the 1% and the 99% (Elysium), by zombie takeover (World War Z).  I was exhausted and paranoid when the main feature began.

The new riff on Star Trek is a riff on the second film of the Star Trek franchise: Star Trek: Wrath of Khan (1982, dir. Nicholas Meyer), which a recent poll conducted by someone who had the inexplicably free time to carry it out revealed to be the most popular of all the Star Trek films.  This new film is not a new version of the older one, but it presents the usual array of beloved characters confronting a younger version of Khan himself, in a similar plot, but with unanticipated twists.  It carries forward, in a certain way, with a particular element of the 2009 Star Trek and echoes the 1982 film and the television series as well.

Star Trek into Darkness is certainly entertaining.  Kirk and Spock and the others work their way into one of those impossibly tight spots well known to the franchise and then, though hijinks and maneuvers that defy logic and the laws of science (at least 2013 science) manage to extricate themselves.  Certain scenes from the 2009 film are replicated—a free fall scene is one.  Khan crashes his space ship into San Francisco, an event which obviously kills thousands of people, but the film (as reviewers have noted) barely takes note of the carnage. 

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Khan, and as good as he is, he never quite measures down to the gloriously cheesy overacting of Ricardo Montalbán in the 1982 Wrath of Khan—the best Star Trek villain ever.  (I did not like how the 2013 film transformed Chekov into a bumbling clown). 

Most of these younger actors do a good job of inhabiting roles familiar from the television series and the early films.  Chris Pine as Kirk and Zacahary Quinto as Spock are especially convincing.  Those original actors are either dead now or well into their 70s and 80s.  I’ve enjoyed contemplating the possibility of a geriatric Star Trek film where all the old cast reunites in a final episode, cf. Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”  But no possibility of that now.

Fans of the Star Trek series, and especially of the 2009 Star Trek, will probably enjoy this new installment.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Remarks to the Dictionary Society of North America, May 23, 2013

I’m pleased to welcome the members of the Dictionary Society of North America to the University of Georgia and to say a few words of exhortation as you prepare for your 19th biennial meeting.  My field is literary studies, and though I have used dictionaries all my life, in paper and digital form, I can’t claim to know a lot about how they are put together and the thinking that lies behind them.  I do think of dictionaries as an original form of Big Data (with capital letters), a linguistic and cultural archive of information about how we think and talk and feel that contains the deepest substance and meanings of our civilizations.  Dictionaries are (and maybe this is an old-fashioned concept) archives of the most important sort. 

Many of you may think of yourselves as humanists, some of you may be social scientists, and some of you may be in other fields entirely, such as computing, but I think of all of you as humanists.  The process of putting together a dictionary is a fundamentally humanistic one because language is a basic feature of what it means to be human.

It is almost a hackneyed cliché these days to say that we are in a state of fundamental change.  I think that the change happening right now is more sweeping and fundamental than any of us realize.  Lexicographers and those who conceptualize and construct and talk about dictionaries face the same challenges that the humanities at large are facing: how is change going to change us?  How will digital technology transform us?  Are the boundaries by which we’ve traditionally defined ourselves becoming more destructive than creative?  How are constantly shifting cultural and national and linguistic and ideological boundaries going to affect what we as humanists, what you as dictionary makers, do? 

We can’t sit back and be passive as change happens. We have to take charge. We have to control the process of change.  Once we come out on the other side of whatever place it is we are in right now, however unfamiliar the new territory and its terrains and disciplines may be, we have to make certain that the values that have been important to humanistic studies since their beginnings survive.

Thank you for what you do.  And with that, I hope you will have a pleasant and productive conference here at the University of Georgia, where spring is fast becoming summer, that time of year when above all else air conditioners are king.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Comments for the Lamar Dodd School of Art Graduation, May 9, 2013

I am pleased to be here to offer congratulations and best wishes to those of you who are marking your graduation today from the University of Georgia with a degree from the Lamar Dodd School of Art.  You’ve worked hard, you have much to be proud of, you ought to feel good.  I extend these wishes to your friends, your parents and spouses and partners and special others, and to everyone in general, because at the end of the year everyone deserves a hug and congratulations.

I have two very brief but important imperatives for you today.  First, use your love of art, your creative and scholarly abilities, to do good in the world.  Don’t go back to your studio or office after this ceremony and close the door.  You haven’t earned the right to do that.  What you have earned the right to do is to use your education and your training and talent to go out and improve your society, serve your fellow human being, and do good for this planet.  This is what art is for—it serves the higher needs of humankind.  And humankind, in this day and age, really needs some help. 

Second, take every opportunity you can find to promote--among your friends, your family, the people you work with, and anyone else you happen to run into--the value of the arts.  A recent report from the Wallace Foundation found three intrinsic benefits of the arts:  one is pleasure and captivation.  A second is personal growth “such as enhanced empathy for other people and cultures, powers of observation, and understanding of the world”—these “cultivate the kinds of citizens desired in a pluralistic society.”  The third benefit is the sense of “communal identity” that comes from thinking and talking about the arts, the “expression of common values and community identity” that come from artworks that commemorate events important to individual, group, or national experiences.  And this report does not even begin to touch on the economic values of the arts, or their impact in providing a meaningful quality of life in our community.  Here’s my report to you: The arts are not a luxury, a convenience, or a casual pastime.  They’re an essential part of our daily lives, of our private selves, of what it means to be human and civilized.  Be sure to share that message.

Congratulations, and my best wishes to you all.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

In my blog postings about films and literature, I have always had Roger Ebert in mind. Although I didn't always agree with him, his passion for films, especially good ones, was always evident in his commentaries. He was a deeply empathetic critic.  He liked or found something positive to say about a surprising number of films, even ones that from my point of view were pallid. He was willing to give a weak film consideration if he found in it something reasonably ambitious, something human and genuine.  As a writer, he managed something most serious critics cannot achievehe expressed intelligent and sophisticated ideas in a clear, engaging style. He was usually interesting, and usually worth reading.  He wrote with integrity and intelligence. His opinions, about film and about life in general, were unpredictable and often surprising. He seemed an authentic human being. You can't say that about most public critics. Late in his life, besieged with illness, deprived of his voice, speaking only through the written word, he became something of a heroic figure.  Publishing and blogging on a wide variety of topics, he emerged as a popular intellectual.  I used his film commentaries to measure my own thoughts. I admired his public struggle with illnessthough to call it a struggle is perhaps wrong.  He lived with and adjusted to his illness and rarely seemed daunted by it.  His proclamation that he wasn't afraid of death impressed me. Few can make that claim.  He made a real impact on readers and film lovers of his time.