Friday, May 30, 2014

Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle, by Allison Graham

Allison Graham’s Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle (Johns Hopkins Press, 2001) is full of provocative, insightful comments about the media and films about the South, especially their portrayal of the Civil Rights era.  A fundamental method of this book is to show that in the end, whatever the underlying premise or trope or intent of a film might be, the work often undercuts itself. The tendency of many Southern films, argues Graham, to steer away from difficult and complex topics in favor of safer, more marketable ones means that they don’t deal directly with such issues as racism and civil rights.  The context of such discussion is primarily one of failure—failure to engage racism directly.  By trying to understand the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which films are made and sold, in which people view them, in trying to embed films in that context, Allison Graham sometimes skews matters entirely, distorting and wrenching and ultimately leaving a film unrecognizable.  She sees the tendency in Southern films since the early 1960s to satirize, criticize, and otherwise portray the Southern redneck or hillbilly as an ignorant, benighted source of racist evil as a way of avoiding the reality of the institutional racism that lies at the heart of Southern society.  This is a good insight, but as a thesis it can overpower, narrowing rather than expanding the argument.  Her discussion of Forrest Gump, which she views as an apology for Southern racism, an affirmation of the innate goodness of the Southern white man, is a case in point.  She argues that the film (and many others) takes the position that the “southern problem has never been white people; it has, it seems, always been social class” (191). To me that assertion is too simplistic, but more than that, it does not account for what the film is.  It is more than a place in a larger context, more than evidence for a thesis and a formula. 

Examples of her comments:

“In Forrest Gump, the Hollywood South finally found its Homer.  The rise, punishment, and redemption of the white man is his tale” (15).  Elsewhere she calls Gump “an Alabama idiot” (14) and describes the film as “an homage to No Time for Sergeants(191). 

One of Graham’s primary contentions (one I endorse) in Framing the South is that many films make rednecks and hillbillies the villains in the battles for civil rights.  They express racist attitudes openly, says Graham, (“they roar the hatred that his betters will only whisper,” 13).  Such films showed racism as a problem associated with the lower-class and ignorant, not as an ingrained aspect of Southern institutions (14).              

“Elvis was a black impersonator” (128). Well, yes and no.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee placed the story in the 1930s as “a memory, a fantasy tempered by an acute awareness of its remoteness from present-day urgency” (160).

Cape Fear seemed to turn the liberal politics of the moment on its head for it argued that not only was vigilante justice the correct response of upstanding white men to those who threatened their security, it was the only possible response” (163).   I’m about to re-watch both versions of Cape Fear and will keep this reading in mind.    

In both Mockingbird and Cape Fear, Graham finds that the insistence on the inherent badness of the villain-rednecks (Bob Ewell, Max Cady) is an argument that racism stems from problems of social class—the lowest white social class--rather than a problem located in the deepest structure of Southern society and life. (164).

In The Heat of the Night: “by not implicating the white power structure in the major crimes of the story and by exonerating, in effect, the legal and economic institutions of the Deep South, [Sterling] Silliphant’s screenplay managed to create a ‘social realism’ that was both politically acceptable and commercially viable” (181).  My recollection is that this film does not exonerate those institutions but instead makes clear their guilt.  Though they may not have been involved in the crime at the film’s center, they are the source of the racism and hatred that Virgil Tibbs contends with throughout the film, and that the film constantly displays.  One does not leave this film feeling good about the Mississippi town it portrays.  This film presents racism as a force deeply engrained in Southern society.       

Graham’s knowledge of films about the American South is deeply impressive.  She has seen, it seems everything, including many films not easily available.

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre (Grove Press, 2002) uses the voice of an obnoxious sixteen year old for comic and pathetic effect.  Vernon is suspected of having colluded with his best friend Jesus in a mass killing that took 36 teenage lives.  Jesus did the crime.  When Vernon realizes what his friend means to do after being bullyied by classmates, he tries to stop him.  But too late.  As he manages through bad decisions and bad luck to make himself look more and more guilty, as others collude around him (rather improbably—his mother’s ex-lover produces a weekly television show that shows an execution—the American public votes on which convicted murdered will die next), he runs away to Mexico, thinks he is going to have sex with a girl he has fantasized about throughout his entire adolescence, gets arrested and put on trial, and ultimately finds himself on death row.  He ends up on the gurney, waiting for his lethal injection.

What troubles me about this book is authenticity, consistency, and moral appropriateness.  (That phrase “moral appropriateness” seems suspect to me.)  A review compared Vernon’s voice to that of Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield.  That comparison attracted me to the book.  Another review mentioned hilarious humor.  Actually, although Vernon speaks or narrates in a continual patois of insults, puns, and caricatures, he’s not that funny.  Are we supposed to laugh because he repeatedly uses the word “fucken.”  Is this how he thinks the word is spelled, or pronounced, or just an act of rebellion against good spelling?  Is this sight dialect?  Why doesn’t he spell it “fuckin’, which is how I hear it? Is that how the British spell it?  The deliberate misspelling is like a lot of the humor: artificial and forced.  The tone and rhetoric in which Vernon speaks varies considerably.  Occasionally he narrates with the intelligence and adult insight.  At other times he sounds like a halfwit.  What we do grow to understand is that he’s very intelligent, very damaged both by his family upbringing and by his friend’s murder of 36 schoolmates, very much alone.  The mood varies from comic to potentially tragic.  And moral appropriateness—well—exactly how appropriate is it to make comedy from the aftermath of the killing of 36 teenagers?  Or of impending death by injection?

Characters are portrayed as cartoons, Vernon’s mother in particular.  Although he loves her, he finds nothing positive about her.


The book seems a calculated sleight of hand, a deception, right down to the deus ex machina rescue from execution, Vernon’s mother’s new dish washer, and the beautiful young woman waiting for him across the street with the suitcase that he and she will take to Mexico.  To make it all seem even more like a trick, the novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. 

To Sleep with Anger

To Sleep with Anger (dir. Charles Burnett, 1990) is a comic melodrama about an African American family from Mississippi that has lived in Los Angeles for thirty years.  A family cousin (or friend—it’s not clear) whom no one has seen for decades appears at the door, and a happy reunion takes place.  In LA the family has established a comfortable if modest middle-class existence in what appears to be an African American neighborhood.  It’s not clear why they moved to LA three decades in the past, but one can guess that economic opportunity and freedom from discrimination and danger were the reasons.  The family does have a better life.  They don’t live in a word of rigidly enforced segregation.  To some extent, blacks and whites in the film interact in a friendly way, as an early scene of a Lamaze class shows.  But racial problems are not a direct focus.  Problems of middle class life for a Mississippi-born African American family are.  The husband and wife, Gideon and Suzie, are relatively content, but they worry over the things that many parents worry over—in this case, the resentment the older brother feels both towards his father as well as towards his younger brother.  The father worries over the distance between himself and his older son, and resents that he doesn’t show up at family occasions, such as his mother’s birthday.

Harry’s appearance brings back to Gideon and Suzie memories of life in Mississippi.  He brings disruption too.  At first Harry (Danny Glover) seems to be an inoffensive country bumpkin visiting big city relatives.  He wanders around their house, peering at and touching family photographs and possessions.  He opens drawers to see what’s in them, reads private letters.  This behavior gently characterizes Harry as an intruder, someone who means to intrude in a family’s private life.  He otherwise behaves in a generally harmless if aimless manner.

We gradually notice that Harry loves to stir things up.  His method are subtle.  When Gideon and Suzie are away at church, he plays cards with the older brother and his wife.  (Cards are forbidden in this churchgoing house).  He constantly puts his hands on everyone—at first this seems to be simple affection but soon becomes something different, though what I’m not sure.  When the younger brother slaps his wife and leaves a bruise, instead of encouraging him to apologize to his wife, Harry takes him on a walk over difficult rocks in a creek and then encourages him to leave LA and go back to Mississippi.  There, he says, the man will see wild women beyond imagining.  Improbably, the man is tempted.  He offers to help him learn how to make money playing cards.  He tells the man that the best way to get his wife back would be to find another woman—no man, he says, has only one woman.  Instead of helping the family deal with their problems, he makes them worse.  We also begin to learn things about his past, of people who, for whatever reasons, ended up dead after being around Harry.

Harry becomes the guest who won’t go away, who wears out his welcome.  He grows increasingly an irritation.  When he takes Gideon on a long walk, Gideon returns home exhausted, has a breakdown, and almost dies.  He lies in a coma for three weeks. 

The film focuses on the conflicts between life in the Deep South and life in LA.  It can also be seen as a film about conflicting generational values.  The parents retain many of the family and religious values they learned in Mississippi: Gideon loses his good luck charm early in the film; Suzie uses various folk remedies to treat him when he falls ill; they attend church regularly, raise chickens and garden, and place a strong emphasis on family togetherness.   Their sons don’t feel and live the same way, especially the older brother, whose life has wandered astray.  In subtle ways Harry aggravates these disruptions, brings people and ideas into the house that accentuate the differences: for instance, he brings into the house the high school boyfriend of Suzie, who later proposes to her when her husband lies near death.

When Harry dies suddenly of a heart attack, the family begins to recover.  The two brothers make up.  Father and son reach an uneasy truce.  Gideon wakes from his coma.  The county won’t send someone to retrieve Harry’s body, so the family and friends sit around, ignoring the body, talking and joking and feeling relieved and relaxed.

Harry is, literally or figuratively, the devil.  He describes himself to Suzie as having both good and evil sides, and says that he’s unwilling to declare which side he favors.  He embodies the growing family conflicts that come to a head in the film.  When he is, at the end, effectively cast out, the family’s problems are exorcised.

The use of a family drama in a comic way to address important issues in African American life we have seen in the films of a director who must have strongly felt the influence of Charles Burnett: Tyler Perry, who inclines far more towards slapstick, parody, and broad humor.

To Sleep with Anger is entertaining, but there are defects: the screenplay is not consistently well written, the dialogue can seem wooden, and the pacing can be awkward.  As Harry, Danny Glover is very good, but his performance is also unsettling, creepy.  Other cast members are not always as effective, and sometimes lines are delivered in a stilted, lifeless way, as if they’re being read.

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Revenge is the motive in The Outlaw Josey Wales (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1976).    The title character lives with his family in Missouri, a border state.  Border States were neutral in the Civil War, but the term can be misleading.  In this film neutrality means not merely neutrality in the North-South conflict, but also moral and civil anarchy, a region where neither North nor South is in control and the forces of chaos reign.  Guerilla activity was especially strong in Missouri during the Civil War.  As the war rages on, Wales farms in Missouri with his wife and son.  While he is plowing his fields, Union raiders burn his house with his son in it and rape and kill his wife.  When a band of Confederate soldiers passes by intent on taking revenge against the Union marauders, Wales joins them.  After they wreak havoc against Union forces, they are given the offer to surrender with amnesty, and all accept, except Josey.   He still wants revenge.  When the Union soldiers kill the surrendered Confederate raiders, Josey’s desire for revenge only increases.  He becomes, in effect, the last unreconstructed Confederate, and he begins heading west, intent on confrontation with his Union pursuers.

The fact that Union soldiers are the villains in this drama, which is told from a semi-Confederate point of view, is unusual.  The fact that the book on which the film is based was written by Asa Earl (“Forrest”) Carter, an ardent segregationist, Klan leader, White Citizens Council organizer, and George Wallace supporter/speechwriter during the 1960s and 1970s may account for the point of view.  (After the 1940s, most films about the Civil War South were told from a Northern point of view.  The one exception I can think of is Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, 1999, also about Civil War guerillas, but there must be others). But these Union soldiers are not after all the standard variety but brigands, deserters, and guerillas who use the war as an excuse to rape, kill, and plunder.  In this film, it just so happens that they ride under the order of a U. S. senator and a general, implicating the “union” as a concept on a much broader scale.  One point driven repeatedly home throughout the film is that no one has a corner on virtue and justice.  Everyone is corrupt, for the most part.  Although Josey devoted himself to the peaceful and hard life of a Missouri farmer, once his family is dead he reveals his capabilities as a cutthroat killer, always capable of shooting his way out of tight spots (there are a good number of them).  In fact, the plot of the film moves from one tight spot to another.

The interest of this film lies in how many scoundrels, Union soldiers, comancheros, and generic scum Josey will kill before he achieves the revenge he wants.  It lies also in the issue of personal redemption—will Josey ever move beyond his desire for revenge? 

Along the way, Josey picks up various vagabonds and victims.  An old Cherokee, an Indian woman, an old granny and her granddaughter, a bunch of ne’er do wells from a deserted saloon, and so on.  We find here the same interest in eccentric characters we have seen in earlier Eastwood films, including those directed by Sergio Leone.  Like many Eastwood heroes, Josey has a fundamental sympathy for victims, marginalized characters, the weak, but it’s not always evident until some moment of crisis. 

Chief Dan George plays Lone Watie, supposedly a Cherokee chief whom Josey runs across in Indian Territory.  He plays a character similar to his character Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man (1970; dir. Arthur Penn), though here he seems less wise and more loony.  His purpose seems mainly to be rescuing Josey from a few tight spots, serving as a source of humor, and spouting various absurd witticisms.  The Indians in the film, needless to say, are stereotypes, though at least Josey treats them well, and the film portrays them as rounded human beings.

The film loses steam when Eastwood and company arrive at a ranch in the far west where the granny and her granddaughter plan to settle.  By this time, Josey has started to wish for a different life.  He gives a bounty hunter who confronts him in a saloon a chance to back off instead of shooting him outright (when the bounty hunter doesn’t back off, Josey shoots).  When he knows that Comanche Indians are going to attack the ranch, he rides out and makes peace with the chief.  And finally, he passes up a chance to face down the man who betrayed his band of Confederate raiders to the Union raiders.

The film’s final scene, with a wounded Josey riding off into the desert, echoes the end of Shane (1953; dir. George Stevens), though it’s not as clear here that the wound Josey has suffered will be fatal (given the other difficult situations he managed to recover from, it probably isn’t).

Josey’s unwillingness to surrender to the Northern soldiers, or to show allegiance to any other source of authority, indicates his existential aloneness.  The fact that he has ridden with Confederate raiders and eluded Union pursuers only accentuates his isolation.  Josey is like Dirty Harry and the Man without a Name.  He’s an isolated man intent on revenge even though it may well mean his life. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s nostalgic longing for childhood, the past, for simplicity suffuses his films.  It’s the pull of the family idyll—pulled between what one would like to believe family was ten years or more in the past, and what it actually is, that gives The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) its strangely charming and painful touch.  We see this as well in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), where children flee from and towards the misery of adulthood (see especially The Royal Tennenbaums, 2001).  But for Anderson these complicated, disturbing pulls and tugs weave the matrix of the world he has repeatedly portrayed.  It’s adult world misery looming somewhere in the future that gives Moonrise Kingdom its poignancy.  In The Grand Budapest Hotel that misery takes form in the looming ominousness of World War II and the rise of the Nazis.  That looming reality is powerfully present in this film, even though it’s represented only indirectly, in camouflaged form, though there can be no misunderstanding about it.   

The Grand Budapest Hotel may be Anderson’s best film.  It’s a narrative within a narrative within a narrative.  At some point I lost track—a young girl talking about an author who wrote about another author living in a European country who wrote about a hotel.  But you don’t need to worry about keeping up.  Ultimately it’s the hotel manager, the protégé of the main character, who tells the story to the author (played by Jude Law) who writes it all down.

The usual cast of Wes Anderson ensemble actors appear here—briefly, flitting through—and I found myself wondering when and whether we would see them.  But they are not simply gratuitous appearances—everyone from F. Murray Abraham to Ed Norton to Bill Murray to Tilda Swinton make significant contributions.  But Ralph Fiennes as concierge Gustave H commands the film, with newcomer Tony Revolori as the lobby boy close behind.

This is both a comedy and a dark noir.  It’s fanciful and gruesome, although most of the gruesomeness takes place out of sight.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is highly creative, entertaining, weird, and deeply poignant.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)

The pleasures of Les Enfants du Paradis ("Children of Paradise," 1945, dir. Marcel Carné) come from the constant movement.  Seething crowds, carnival performers, plays, jokes, romantic imprecations, intrigues.  A film about performance, Les Enfants is itself a performance.  In the opening, we enter the film through theatrical curtains that part to reveal the world of 19th century France.  The very production of the film is a legend.  It was made during a two-year period in Vichy France. Some of the actors and crew worked under false names, some wearing makeup to hide their identities from the Nazis, who wouldn’t allow Jews and Communists to appear in a film.

In the film four men vie for the love of a beautiful and intriguing young woman named Garance (Arletty)--I write the word “young” wondering exactly how young she is supposed to be—she could have been 40—Arletty herself was 47 when the film was released).  She is beautiful, but also mysterious.  Only as we see more of her do we realize how corrupt, corrupted and corrupting she is (in part 2, she becomes less a mystery and more an unrequited lover).  The film brims over with good acting and overacting, and much of the latter relates to the carnival in which many characters play a part.  Everyone overacts.  Even the carnival’s proprietor, full of extreme emotion, overacts, constantly throwing comical tantrums and fining actors for mistakes or misbehavior on stage.  In one great scene one carnival performer offends another on stage during the middle of a performance.  They begin to fight and the entire cast and crew storm in to engage in the battle.

The center of the film is the pierrot character, Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault) son of the carnival owner, a romantic, anxious, willowy mime who falls passionately in love with Garance.  At least in part one of the film (“Boulevard du Crime”), she never shows emotion, except when she is accused of thievery.  When Baptiste has the chance to make love to her and instead flees the scene, she chooses the next man who comes along to sleep with for the evening.  Baptiste believes in love as an eternal commitment while Garance views it as a matter of the moment.  The other men vying for her attention see love as a commodity, a goal, moment of mastery, a means to some end.  Only Baptiste is the true romantic.

Baptiste suffers magnificently.  His face, whether made up or not, is a perfect emblem of suffering and sorrow, except in those few moments when he thinks he might win Garance’s love.  As the film moves forward, his suffering gradually wears him down, to the point where he attempts suicide in a montage series of scenes that might be part of his dramatic performances or might be real.  When he plays the figure of a pierrot, his suffering, formally stylized, still seems real.  When he suffers out of character, it is even more real.  He acts with his eyes.  He is a fascinating figure, and Jean-Louis Barrault’s acting in this role was the film’s best element.  Arletty as Garance is fascinating in a different way.  She plays the unattainable, marble beauty.  All men are attracted to her, but she keeps her own counsel, picking and casting off as she chooses.  In one scene she plays a statue.  Baptiste’s pierrot figure pays passionate court to her, but she never reacts.  Only when another man woos her, clearly a conniving man of the world, does she react, come to life, and leave with him.  This is one of the messages of the film, the dangers of idealization, of romanticism, though the film itself is intensely romantic.

Part two of the film, “The Man in White”) occurs some years after part one.  Pierrot, accepting the loss of Garance, has married and is the father of a son.  He appears to be happy with his family.  He’s also famous for his acting.  Garance returns to Paris and secretly attends his performances.  After all, it turns out, she really does love him.  When they are briefly reunited, Baptiste is perfectly content to leave his son and wife behind.  After meeting Baptiste’s wife and child, Garance rides away in a carriage, with Baptiste chasing after her.  There the film ends. To bring a close to the film by having a firm conclusion, one in which Baptiste leaves with Garance or remains with his family would violate the principle of motion that energizes the film.  


Maiden Trip

Maiden Trip (2013, dir. Jillian Schlesinger, with Laura Dekker) documents the nearly two-year voyage of a teenage girl, Laura Dekker, as she circumnavigates the globe in a 30-foot vessel.  Dekker shot much of the footage during her voyage.  She is 14 when she embarks, and 16 when she finishes.  She sails alone. No one accompanies her. It’s certainly remarkable that she did what she did.  The film coveys the isolation of long sea voyages.  We see Dekker change and grow more confident as the months pass.  At first, as she makes her way across the Atlantic towards the Panama Canal, she is easily bored.  But she makes friends along the way and celebrates when she crosses the equator.  When she enters the Pacific, she begins to feel the enormity of what she is undertaking. 

This is an interesting, impressive, and relatively short documentary about an unusual feat. But what interested me most was Dekker’s narration about her family, her parents’ broken marriage, her distant relationship with her mother, her relationship with her father, with whom she lived before the voyage.  Her attitudes towards her family are ambiguous, as one would expect of a teenager, but increasingly in the film it becomes clear that her sea voyage is not just something she wants to do.  It’s an escape--from her family, from the Netherlands.  Her vessel, the Guppy, becomes her home because she has no other home.  The sea voyage is also her assertion (somewhat precociously) of her entry into adulthood.  After it’s over, instead of returning to the father and the Netherlands, she sets sail for New Zealand, with a young man whom she calls a member of her crew but who may also be a romantic partner.  

Dekker struck me as lonely and as damaged by her family experience.  She comes to love the solitude of the ocean.  She’s not fazed by rough waves and difficult conditions.  She doesn’t like crowds or socializing, and is bothered by the people who treat her as a celebrity when the voyage is over.  Frankly, as a parent, I cannot imagine sending off a 14 year old to a 2-year sea voyage by herself.  It seems the worst sort of parenting.  Undeniably Dekker has great skills as a sailor.  Her father clearly loves her and helps her prepare for the voyage.  He must have helped to finance it.  Halfway through the voyage, somewhere in South Asia, he meets her and helps renovate and repair the boat.  But you have to wonder: exactly what was he thinking?  What would compel a parent to release a child to such a dangerous, difficult experience, one that most adults could not handle?  For me this film is not, as some might want it to be, a feminist assertion of self-hood, or a coming of age tale.  I see it as the document of neglectful parenting and a failed family.

The Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon

It’s difficult sometimes to know exactly what is happening in a Thomas Pynchon novel.  It’s not that his prose is difficult or obtuse.  It’s clear enough, but indirect, inferential.  It’s elusively allusive.  The Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), like his other novels, is deeply embedded in American popular culture and history.  The action takes place in 2001, the year following away from the dot-com bust, and moving fatalistically towards the events of September 11.  It’s also an early year in the development of the Internet.   All of Pynchon’s novels to me feel like they’re taking place in the 1960s, even if the actual time of action is the 1940s or 18th century.  There’s a deliberately subversive playfulness in the tone of his writing, his depiction of characters, his evocations of themes and paranoiac conspiracies.

Conspiracy is definitely at the heart of The Bleeding Edge.  It is rooted in secret government operations, Internet entrepreneurs, terrorist networks.   Money is passed back and forth.  Mysterious avatars are encountered in Internet chat rooms or alternative reality hangouts.  We never quite know what is going on, nor does anyone else, though they and we have inklings. We expect some sort of explanation, some revelation, but in the end, we never get there. 

The main characters, especially the private fraud investigator Maxine Tornow, are always under scrutiny by higher authorities.  She raises her children in a small New York apartment and puts herself increasingly at risk as she becomes more deeply involved in trying to discover the conspiracy she believes she’s detected.  People she knows are killed.  She is shot at.  You expect something to happen to her or her children or her ex-husband, who drifts back into her life in the course of the novel.

This is a detective novel, but a strange one that honors some conventions of the genre and completely manhandles or ignores others.  The identities of most of the evildoers never come clear, the nature of their crimes remains murky, the intentions of the developing conspiracy are uncertain.  There is no resolution or denouement or climactic ending that uncovers the culprits and explains all the mysteries.  It’s the network of intrigue that makes this novel compelling, interwoven with Maxine’s private life.  The narrative seems to be working towards some kind of heinous event: September 11. Once it occurs, a kind of post traumatic numbness sets in for the characters and the city of New York as a whole.  No one really comes to terms with the conspiracy, whatever it might be, whether it is at all.  It’s simply a hinted at possibility. Life continues, but different from before, in an altered state, an altered consciousness.

The constant movement and energy, the array of characters, especially Maxine, the burgeoning intrigue, the underlying irony that distinguishes the reader’s knowledge (that 9/11 will happen) from the knowledge of the characters, Pynchon’s persevering love for corny song lyrics (his own) and for the American language in general—I will reread this book.

The Beguiled

In the immediate background of The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971) is the American Civil War.  A union soldier (a self-described Quaker, though that is probably a lie) is injured in battle and with the help of a young girl makes his way to a school for Southern girls, housed in an old mansion in the apparent middle of nowhere.  There he is nursed back to health, almost.  In the foreground is a vicious sexual battle.  The Union soldier at first seems the predator.  Ultimately we discover that the entire school is full of predators.

Two images early on in the film announce that we’re in for an unusual experience.  As the 12-year-old girl, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) helps Eastwood’s character, Corporal John McBurney, stumble through the woods towards her school, Confederate soldiers ride nearby.  Amy and Eastwood hide in the wreckage of a fallen tree.  To keep her from calling out, Eastwood kisses her, a prolonged and extended kiss.  Once it’s over, she’s enthralled.  But there will be retribution.  The second image is of a raven tied to the rail of the upper balcony of the school.  Ostensibly it’s tied there so that its broken wing can heal.  The bird and Eastwood have symbolic linkages, of course.  In a final image near the film’s end, the raven hangs dead from the cord that pins it to the rail.

In The Beguiled we have a number of competing narrative lines.  One is a Civil War drama, though in fact the Civil War is only a backdrop.  We also have a Gothic Southern horror story.  We also have a psychological drama of sexual tension and repression.  As soon as Eastwood arrives at the school, grievously wounded though he is, tension starts to boil.  The black woman, a slave, who cooks and cleans at the school, mentions how dried up all the women of the school have become in the absence of a man.  One of the school girls, Carol (Jo Ann Harris) not of the same upper class origins as the rest of the group, talks about how much she has missed the company of a man.  The school mistress Martha, played by Geraldine Page, switches unpredictably between the demeanors of an ardent Southerner who plans to turn Eastwood in as soon as he recovers to a coy giggly admirer.  Then there is the young school teacher, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) an Ophelia-like woman, 22-years in age, inexperienced in love, who falls for Eastwood.  (She plays her role as a brittle Bette Davis kind of character).  The premise here is that of women hot for sex, with Eastwood as their object.

However, Eastwood returns their attention in kind, beginning with his prolonged kiss with Amy.  He’s a dissembler of the first order.  Although he presents himself as a peaceful, respectable soldier waging war out of necessity, he is actually the opposite.  As he tells of his love for the land and for farming, images flash through his mind of burning haystacks and a farmer’s fields.  He calls himself a Quaker who never toted a rifle and who was wounded while trying to save a fellow soldier, when in fact his memories show him carrying and shooting the rifle in battle.  It’s not clear what he was doing when he was shot and then injured by shrapnel.  He encourages the attentions of every girl and woman at the school, doing his best to make Edwina fall in love, reminding the 12-year old that he loves her, bedding Carol, paying court to Martha.

The women at the school are afraid of Yankee soldiers, of course, but there is a greater fear of men in general.  Fear of rape is always in the air, and at one point Martha faces down two Confederate soldiers who have come to the school because they know that young women live there.  Rape is clearly on their minds.  But contending with that fear is what the film portrays as the fierce, ruthless drive towards sex that affects everyone.

When McBurney’s deceptions are discovered (following a dream sequence in which Martha, Edwina, and others fantasize about him, at the very moment he is having sex with Carol), there is grievous retribution, even more so after he goes on a drunken rampage and kills Amy’s turtle (!).  Of all the weirdness in the film, the childlike Amy, always skulking about (she ties up the raven), takes the prize.  McBurney, of course, is a scandalous predatory cad without scruples.  The women are portrayed as repressed and ultimately murderous maniacs.

Eastwood’s rough but quiet monotone of a voice grows increasingly irritating as the film progresses, but it also contributes to a tone of dread, fear, and paranoia that penetrates the film (not unlike the pervasive mood of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, dir. Don Siegel).  His raspy, off-note, miserably mumbled singing accompanies the opening and closing credits of the film—he was much better in Paint Your Wagon, 1969, dir. Joshua Longan, but only by degree).  The film is full of shadows, shut doors, closed windows, people creeping along hallways, spying on others, not to mention the amputation scene.  The atmosphere reminded me of a Hitchcock film, of a Shirley Jackson story (The Haunting of Hill House), where the fear of unseen presences or revelations becomes the driving force of the narrative, even of such a film as 200 Maniacs, where ghostly residents of a ravaged Southern town resurrect a century after the Civil War to take revenge on Yankees.

The interest of this mess of a film is its creepiness, its distorted portrayal of gender wars, and the dreadful uncertainty of what’s to come next.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

My recollection of the 1992 film based on Marguerite Duras short novel The Lover (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1984) is hazy, but I recall that it focused primarily on a young girl’s first love affair with a young Chinese man in Saigon during the 1930s. The novel, published in 1984, also focuses on the girl (never named), her family, and their lives in Saigon before and after the affair.  The affair itself is part of the story, and certainly the title signals its centrality but I didn’t find the novel particularly erotic.  Maybe it’s the fact of my age.  More likely it’s the nature of Duras’ novel, which displays the narrator’s gradual emergence as an individual.  Part of that emergence includes her discovery of physical pleasure, of desire.  But the novel’s occasional descriptions of lovemaking are not detailed or graphic by any modern standard.  They’re certainly not prurient.  Yet the facts are disturbing—we’re not prone in our society to view a relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and a twenty-eight-year-old man as exploitative, as bordering on sexual abuse.  Yet do we accept the narrator’s assertion that she allowed, willed, the affair to begin on her own terms, or do we name it differently.  The mere fact that a fifteen-year old girl says she voluntarily had sex with an older man does not mean that their relationship is not abusive. 

An older woman (we imagine an old woman) narrates the story, looking back on her past.  What mystifies her is not the love affair, or the lover himself, but her family:  her mother’s brittle psychological state and gradual descent into madness, the emptiness of her brothers’ lives, her older brother’s sociopathic cruelty.  He takes advantage of his mother and sister, wastes his life, never holds a job, fritters away the family fortune, and dies alone in a small apartment in Paris.  Her younger brother dies of heart failure at 28.  She tells us she was close with this younger brother, that she grieved over his death, but there was distance between them as well, and after the family separates he writes her once in ten years.

I don’t have the proper vocabulary to describe the style of narration.  This is disturbing, since I teach literature.  But it’s also because the narrative style is distinctive and iconoclastic.  It reminds me of stream of consciousness, in some ways, though the narrator is clearly telling the story.  It is impressionistic, affected, and appropriate to the nature of the book.  She doesn’t narrate in linear fashion but instead follows a method of free association, moving from one topic to another, back and forth in time. This is how memory works.  This method conveys a mood of brittle indifference, of emotional numbness, as if she has concluded that she cannot change the events of her life and of those she loved, and rather than allow them to weigh her down she simply regards them at a distance whose gap she does not seek to close.  The one event that brings her story into focus is the love affair, which she returns to repeatedly, following its progress from beginning to end.  


Burmese Days, by George Orwell

In his novel Burmese Days (Harper & Bros., 1934) George Orwell’s displays his contempt for British colonialism and the diplomats and businessmen and citizens who seek to keep the British Way alive in the jungles of Burma.  Drawing from his own experiences there (e.g., “On Shooting an Elephant”), he describes the seven British citizens who see their posting in Burma as merely a step to somewhere else.  Most of them hate the local citizens, though they don’t hesitate to exploit and abuse them.  The one character who seems an exception is Mr. Flory.  He appreciates the culture of Burma, enjoys the people there, and has made friends with a local doctor (for which his British colleagues much abuse him).  He enjoys the arts and literature.  He has a large birthmark, of which is much ashamed.  He also has a Burmese mistress.  He has come to Burma as a way of escaping the small-time failures towards which he was destined in England.  He works for an English timber company, contributing in a significant way to Burma’s deforestation (though for Orwell this is not an issue).  He has lived in Burma for fifteen years when the arrival of a young woman awakes his interests and makes him hope, believe, that he might make a life for himself—he sees in this young woman the chance of a companion with whom he can share his interests, whom he can talk to. 

Unfortunately, Flory is so much centered on himself that he can’t judge circumstances very well.  The woman is entirely vacuous.  She wants to talk about riding and hunting while he wants to discuss literature.  She hates his interests and is repulsed by his efforts to discuss them.  The only thing that attracts her to him at all stems from his rescue of her from a water buffalo and, later, his success in killing a leopard.  But when younger, more attractive men come along, she doesn’t hesitate to go after them.

This is a book of miserable people living miserable lives in a miserable environment.  Flory’s misery gradually increases as he grapples with Elizabeth’s rejection of him.  He can’t believe in her rejection.  In the end, suicide is his way out.  No happy ending here.  Flory is dead.  Elizabeth has been abandoned by her most recent romantic interest.  Life and the British effort to impose British life on Burma continue on.

Orwell’s writing style is precise and effective.  His descriptions of the natural environment surrounding the village are especially impressive.  He viciously parodies British middle class life through the small array of residents at the outpost.  The book reminded me, of course, of Heart of Darkness, but also aspects of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The South and America since World War II, by James C. Cobb

James C. Cobb’s The South and America since World War II (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) argues that the characteristics that distinguish the Southern region from the rest of the United States actually are traits that conjoin the South with the rest of the nation.  Cobb uses the historian’s method of weaving a narrative around facts, anecdotes, and statistics (demographic and economic data, polls, and so on).  For those unaccustomed to reading accounts formulated in this way, the going at first can be slow, but gradually one adjusts.  I found the first four chapters the most interesting.  They trace the progress of race relations in the South since 1945, first by establishing their nature to begin with, then by tracing the legislative, cultural, and other changes that brought about the current uneasy but clearly improved state of affairs.  These pages are interesting because they present a compact, intense, and shocking account of race relations in the south from 1945 through the early 1960s.  They were shocking to me even though I lived through much of this period and remembered many of the events recounted.  I emerged from these pages understanding more clearly than before that one cannot remove the issue of race and racism in talking about what makes the South Southern.  To announce that one is a “loyal Southerner” is to announce (unwittingly or not) complicity with the South’s racial history. I don’t mean to suggest by highlighting the interest of the civil rights chapters that the rest of the book is dull—by no means.  I especially enjoyed the chapters on blues music, country music, and the rise of rock n’ roll.  The later chapters on the business economy of the modern South, political developments, locally and nationally, and on the literature and music of the contemporary South (the B52s and REM are not mentioned) are equally interesting.

A central theme is the distinctiveness of the Southern character.  What does distinctiveness mean?  Is it a description of the region, or of the individual who claims Southern identity as his own?  Cobb examines these questions.  During the Civil Rights movement, as he shows, many Southerners worried that the South would lose its regional character and become more like the rest of the country.  Such an argument takes as its premise, unfortunately, that the Southern character is inherently tied to racism and racial divisions.  That is, “How can the South maintain its special character if blacks have equal rights?”  Few people stated the question so blatantly, but such thinking often underlay their protests about the endangered South (read “the endangered racial hierarchies of the South”).

Cobb shows that the agricultural nature of the South was waning for much of the 20th century, and that the South was rapidly becoming a place with a mainly urban population (by 1960, he notes, the South had more urban than rural residents).  Agriculture became increasingly mechanized through the use of tractors, cotton pickers, and other machinery.  As a result it become more profitable to farm on a large scale, which made small-time farming less competitive.  One figure that reflects changes in agriculture is that the number of mules used by Southern farmers fell by 350,000 during the decade following the war.  Not coincidentally, the number of tractors skyrocketed during the same period. 

Cobb explores various arguments since the 1960s about how Americanized the South was or is becoming.  He finds the assertion that the South was losing its character questionable.  Rather, the rise of conservative values across the nation might seem to suggest that the rest of the nation was becoming more Southern.  (The popularity of Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace outside the South in the early 1970s supports this notion).  Cobb prefers to see the rise of such values as proof that the South and the rest of the nation had much in common to begin with.

Cobb is a good writer.  Clearly linked to, but not duplicative of, his Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford, 2005), The South and America since World War II is informative, provocative, and readable.  


Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, by Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell in Frankly My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited (Yale University Press, 2009) writes a personal and informal appreciation of the famous novel and film.  She recounts many of the well-known stories surrounding how the novel was written and the film made.  These stories are available elsewhere, in biographies and film histories, but Haskell’s fluid, relaxed, intelligent style of writing compresses them into accessible form.  She’s interested in the various people in Margaret Mitchell’s ancestry and life—her grandmothers, her cold and distant father, her stern and formidable intellectual and ambitious mother, her hotheaded scoundrel of a first husband, Red Upshaw, and her apparently dull and passive second husband John Marsh.  She argues both directly and inferentially about how these different people found their way into her novel either as fictionalized characters or as influences.  Haskell suggests that Mitchell after her twenties became a psychologically and physically fragile person who suffered from multiple auto accidents, breakdowns, depression, anxiety, fear of crowds, hypochrondria, and aversion to sex.  She portrays Mitchell as both a young rebel and, later, as someone who struggled mightily to comply with the social expectations of her day, especially after the novel and film made her famous, when honoring these imperatives became a way of avoiding fans, critics, and even, perhaps, the expectations of a second novel.  In effect, Haskell’s version of Margaret Mitchell is a basket case of a writer.

Although Haskell’s discussions are grounded in research and in her years as a film and literary critic, she indulges in what seems to me a good bit of inferential reasoning and speculation.  How DO we know that Scarlett hates sex, for instance?  How do we know that Mitchell felt the same way?  We can speculate based on the circumstances of her life (as Haskell does), by the fact that she and her second husband Marsh were so busy taking care of each other’s illnesses and crises that there was no time for sex, but in the absence of outright declarations by Mitchell, and because we were not there in the bedroom to see for ourselves, how can we know anything with certainty?  Leaps of faith, leaps of logic, can be exciting, but they don’t always provide convincing history.  In her reading of the novel and film, however, such leaps lead to interesting insights.

For Haskell, Scarlett O’Hara is a figure in which Mitchell works out, intentionally and otherwise, the contending elements of her own life.  Scarlett never compromises, but instead strategizes.  She is a cold rationalist who does what she must in order to survive and flourish.  She marries, three times, but she doesn’t like marriage—it’s always an end to a means.  She despises romantic entanglements, except for the one she cannot have with Ashley Wilkes.  In this sense she is a figure through whom Mitchell vicariously eludes the expectations of her class and times, as well as the formulaic characters and plots of popular romances and films.  Haskell claims that Mitchell never intended for there to be a happy reunion between Scarlett and Rhett Butler, either at the end of the novel or afterwards.  She argues that the traits that separate them, that will keep them separated, are evident in the scene when, having led Scarlett and Melanie and her infant out of a burning Atlanta, abandons them on the road to Tara and heads off to join the Southern army.

Only in the last few pages of this book does Haskell address the African American characters in the film, and the actors who portrayed them.  I was not entirely persuaded.  Haskell says that although Mammy and Prissy are stereotypes of one sort or another, they are also finely drawn characters, round and developed, rather than flat caricatures.  She sees evidence in Scarlett’s relationship with the family slaves of a subversiveness, an attitude that conflicts with the prevailing odes of racial hierarchy.  She finds the white characters of the film and novel, and the white inhabitants of the American South in general, more like the African American population than many would have wanted to admit.


Fully developed characters, an excellent cast (especially De Havilland, Gable, and Leigh), a slew of screenwriters (notably Sidney Howard and Ben Hecht and a list of both credited and uncredited writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald), two very different directors (George Cukor and Victor Fleming, plus a number of uncredited names) artful scenic design, attention to detail, epic sweep, nuance in character and scene and script, plus a seemingly impossible series of accidents, cast and staff changes, biographical details, and coincidences, combined to make this novel the monument that it is.  Haskell doesn’t think it is great literature (she thinks it’s “good”), and she never says outright that the film is a great one (though in the end she must think so).  She does find the film in general an improvement on the novel.  There are longer and more detailed books than this one on Mitchell and her novel and the production of the film, but none is as readable and personally centered as Haskell’s.  She places the novel in the American and British literary traditions, and the film in the context of American film history. Her comparisons of Gone with the Wind and Jezebel are particularly apt, as are her comparisons of Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis, who wanted the part of Scarlett.  Haskell’s critical insights as a film and literary critic make this an interesting and stimulating book.  

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Europa Report

Science fiction films make space travel seem either like a high-tech version of Stagecoach, with episodic problems, alien encounters, battles, and so on, or, less often, they try to simulate monotonous routine.  Space travel is mostly routine—checking data, preparing for predetermined events, communicating with earth, doing nothing.  I can imagine that long space voyages, ones that last months or years, will be dull and that part of the challenge will be to keep space travelers entertained and engaged.  Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) does a better job of any film I’ve seen of imagining the routine and monotony of space travel.  In fact, the trip to Jupiter it dramatizes takes so long that most of the crew is placed in suspended animation—to save resources, of course, but also to avoid the craziness that might result from endless months of doing nothing.

The Europa Report (2013; dir. Sebastian Cordero) demands that we think of 2001.  If we didn't know better, we could think of this newer film as a kind of sequel to Kubrick's masterpiece.  The Europa Report does a good job of presenting the routine of space travel.  A crew of scientists is traveling to one of the moons of Jupiter to investigate the possibility of life below a frozen ocean.  Unlike 2001, all the crew members stay awake, tending to their duties, socializing to an extent, sending messages home.  Most scientists, like most people in general, are not especially interesting, at least of the level of interest that would make them worth putting in a film.  The two astronauts in 2001 aren’t very interesting at all: they have the emotionlessness of bureaucrats.  Their circumstances are what become interesting.  They carry out their assignments and try to solve problems.  They don’t agonize or wax hysteric, even in extreme moments.  The travelers in Europa Report behave as scientific professionals but they all have personalities—there is the cute Russian, the driven and focused pilot, a young father who misses his family, an older man embittered by past experiences and haunted by a crewman’s death.  They are all interesting, in some way, and we grow to like them. 

Although The Europa Report at first seems to be a docudrama, gradually a terror plot unfolds.  Is one of the crew unbalanced, crazy?  Will human error lead to tragedy?  Something is out there beneath the frozen oceans of Europa.  Once they land, they begin the search for life, and it begins to search for them.  Through their own errors, or because the thing beneath the ice is outwitting them, they begin to die.  So this becomes one of those films where a crew of people engage in some sort of assignment or project and one by one they’re killed off.  The interest of the film becomes who will die next, and how.  And, of course, there is also the question of whatever it is beneath the ice that is killing them.

The deaths generally occur off screen or in a flashback.  A couple of them are still terrifying, and the final scene is intense and well done.  We get a brief glimpse of the thing beneath the ice.  We’re supposed to feel happy and exalted that life exists on another world, and sad that seven lives are lost.  But it all seems a bit contrived.  The faux documentary counterbalances the suspense film. The result is casually interesting, which is not enough.