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.