Friday, June 20, 2014

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

The voice of Little Onion in The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (2013, Riverhead Books) is one of those essential American literary voices that defines and becomes the story it narrates.  It’s like Huck or Holden or Scout or Ishmael.  It carries personality, point of view, a vision of history.  Though the subject of the novel is serious—John Brown, abolitionism, slavery—Onion’s voice offers a new or at least distinctive way of viewing it.  Onion avoids the potential pitfall of exaggerating a historical figure into heroic proportions.  John Brown is already legend.  But he gives Brown to us here as a devout man obsessively dedicated to the eradication of slavery, often lacking good judgment, capable of murderousness, willing to sacrifice himself and others, willing to go to any extreme to achieve his goals, a man whose piety often seems blended with psychotic mania, but who to the end is true to his purpose.  The comic tone of the novel ensures that we don’t overlook the historical realities of its subject, that he becomes neither more nor less than what he was. Only at the end, does the tone veer slightly and briefly towards sentimentalism.

Comparisons of McBride with such novelists as E. L. Doctorow are logical— historical figures often appear in his work.  But I was most reminded of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), which, like this novel, is narrated by an old man about his exploits with various historical characters at a much younger age.  A similar comic tone characterizes that novel as well as this one. 

The Good Lord Bird follows John Brown’s skirmishes in Kansas against pro-slavery homesteaders to his unsuccessful seizure of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, where he hoped to prompt a slave uprising.  Onion’s narrative manner is comic and matter of fact.  Many if not most of the events he describes, many of them involving murders, all of them tangentially if not directly involved with slavery, are grim, but the comic voice offers an interesting perspective. 

The narrator masquerades as a girl for the entirety of the novel.  The masquerade serves as a way for McBride to explore the deceptions and masquerades that being owned as property enforces on slaves—how they must pretend to be one thing when in fact they’re something else. 

Onion is especially contemptuous of Frederick Douglass, whom he finds unequal to his fame.  In one scene Douglass becomes drunk and tries to seduce Onion.  Although Douglass encouraged Brown’s plans for Harper’s Ferry, he refused to take part, arguing (correctly, as it turned out) that the attack was doomed to fail.  More admiring is the account of Harriet Tubman, who also makes an appearance and who, but for illness, would have been part of the Harpers Ferry raid.




In Manderlay (2005; dir. Lars Von Trier) a young woman is traveling with his gangster father and his henchmen when they runs across a plantation in Alabama where slavery still exists.  The year is 1933.  She tells the slaves they are free.  Her father leaves, and she undertakes to teach the African American residents of the plantation how to live in a civilized community according to community, democratic principles.  She compels the white owners to live and work with the former slaves so that they too can understand their crime.  She lectures the former slaves about democracy, community, hard work, justice, and seeks to roust them from what she sees as their passivity.  She gradually finds her principles undermined.  First, though she is preaching democracy, the henchmen of her father, who have remained behind with her on the plantation to protect the newly freed slaves, provide armed enforcement and force the slaves to attend Grace’s educational meetings.  She makes some decisions that lead to problems—cutting down trees, for instance, that block an annual dust storm, causing crops to fail and a little girl to become ill with pneumonia.  When an old woman steals food from the girl who then dies, the plantation residents vote to execute her, and Grace has to inflict the punishment. 

In the end, Grace discovers that she has made serious misjudgments, especially concerning one of the residents whom she fantasizes about before actually having sex with him, only then to discover that he has gambled away the money the group earned growing cotton.  She is so disgusted with her misunderstanding and his betrayal that she decides to leave.  When she reveals her decision to the community, they inform her that the book that the former plantation mistress used to enforce slavery had been in fact written by the oldest of the slaves.  What she thought she understood about the book is turned upside down.  Rather than a handbook on how to handle slaves, it was a set of survival strategies for African Americans living in a country not ready to accept them.  In the penultimate scene, the film returns to its opening, where Grace stopped the whipping of a slave.  In this scene, she viciously whips him herself.  While she assumed the slaves were thoroughly unprepared to live in the world, it turns out in the end they controlled their lives.

As the closing credits roll, photographs of racial crimes, murders and so on flash across the screen, along with photos of black leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Von Trier’s point in this film is that white people created America on the backs of slaves, and that it is illogical and morally absurd for them to claim they know what democracy is or how to prepare blacks to live there.

The film takes place on a large stage, on which the outlines of Manderlay are painted.  There is virtually no set, just logs and props that indicate where houses stand.  The film is divided into 8 parts and is narrated by Malcolm McDowell, with compositions by Handel and Vivaldi frequently heard in the background, and with “Young Americans” as sung by David Bowie playing as the credits roll. McDowell’s narration makes sure we don’t misunderstand what is going on.  The actors read their lines in the most casual way.  The screenplay is so poorly written, so contrived and wrenched about, that the film is nearly unwatchable.  It’s a bad, overbearing Sunday school lesson with the moral depth of early adolescent anger.  I’ve enjoyed other films by Von Trier, but this one fails.



The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure, by Jack Handey

This odd novel is a series of one-liners about a trip to Honolulu.  It has little connection to reality or to a novel and certainly not to Honolulu.  The author, Jack Handey, a Saturday Night Live writer, is familiar with Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour road movies, but he’s familiar with a lot else as well. To say that this book is allusive is an understatement.  The narrator is an unlikeable, self-absorbed reservoir of bad jokes and he grows tiresome early on.  It became increasingly tedious to read this book.  Its jokes fell flat and interest proved slight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Annihilation: A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer

In the 1990s computer game “Myst,”  players wandered from scene to scene, picking up clues (if they recognized them), trying to figure out the nature of the mystery, to figure out what the real goal of the game might be.  In “Myst” you begin with no idea of what the point is.  You’re just in a a space, and you start moving around.  Annihilation: A Novel, by Jeff VanderMeer (Macmillan, 2014) reminded me of “Myst,” although it provides more exposition than the game did.  The narrator is an unnamed woman who is a member of a team sent to investigate Area X, an unidentified place apparently in the coastal area of the American Southeast—a place where “something” has happened.  What “something” is isn’t clear, but it may involve an alien invasion.  Eleven previous expeditions failed to discover the nature of Area X, where unknown forces can apparently distort human perceptions.  It’s never exactly clear what is going on in this novel.  There are long stretches where nothing happens, and then when something does happen you’re not sure what it is, or what it means, and neither is the narrator.  The novel evokes an atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty that is never dispelled.  Much of it involves explorations of a tower or tunnel that appears to be embedded in the ground, and a lighthouse.  Something is writing words on the inner walls of the tower/tunnel, and their vaguely Biblical meaning are frequently repeated.   The challenging aspect of point of view in this novel is that everything is suspect—the narrator, her understanding of what is happening, her identity, the past, the future.  This is the ultimate unreliable narrative.  The narrator’s involvement in the mysteries of the novel, which directly engages with the question of fate, identity, and the questionable meanings of reality, is deeply moving at times.  I appreciate the novel but don’t feel driven towards reading the second and the third volumes of the The Southern Reach Trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first part.

The Hunters, by James Salter

James Salter’s novel The Hunters (Harpers, 1956) is the best novel about fighter pilots I’ve read.  It’s the only novel about fighter pilots I’ve read.  Set in the Korean War, focused on a pilot named Cleve Connell, it describes the lives of the American pilots in the conflict.  Connell comes to the war with a promising record, so much so that he’s made the commanding officer in his flight wing, but he finds it difficult to succeed in the war.  He finally bags one plane, a kill, but other pilots surpass his record, and ultimately he comes to believe that other officers see him as a “safe” pilot, one who doesn’t take risks.   Long periods of waiting stand between missions, and actual encounters with the enemy are brief.  Success or failure depends on sharp eyesight, luck, and skill.  The novel follows the development of Connell’s character as he confronts his growing lack of success and the possibility that he lacks these needed elements.

Social interactions among pilots take up much of the book.  One’s social standing depends on success in the air.  Connell becomes especially fixated on a new and younger pilot named Ed Pell who, he thinks, puts other pilots at risk in his quest for kills.  He’s ambitious, eager to please his superiors, willing (Connell suspects) to bend the truth.  Yet he is, after all, a success while others like Connell are not.  Connell at first blames his lack of success on bad luck, but he does have an uncanny knack for flying missions where nothing happens.  He grows increasingly jealous of Pell, resentful of his superiors and fellow officers.  He becomes defensive, provokes arguments, and complains.

Connell defines himself by his success as a pilot.  As his sense of failure grows, he becomes isolated and empty.  In the end, he takes risks that he probably shouldn’t have.

Although there are moments when the characteristics of a “first novel” become apparent (occasional overwriting; one pilot’s unhappy fate is repeatedly hinted at), in general The Hunters is a tightly focused exploration of a topic most readers know little about.  The fact that Salter himself was a U. S. Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War suggests that it may provide an accurate account.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pretty Baby

Pretty Baby (1979, dir. Louis Malle) has the feel of a documentary, a supposedly neutral, objective account of the lives of prostitutes in Storyville, LA, just before the start of the First World War.  The lack of a conventional point of view, of clues that in some way would allow us to see this film through a lens of conventional morality or social analysis, makes it difficult and disturbing to watch.  We are confronted with the issue of a 12-year-old girl running around in a whorehouse, or of her virginity being auctioned off to the highest bid, or of her posing nude for an admiring photographer. We must also consider the very fact of the film’s having been made, and even more than that, of our act of watching the film.  Does Malle wish us all to feel complicit in the life of this 12-year old girl in Storyville, or in the use of the 12-year-old girl actress in the film itself?  Or is complicity for him not an issue.  Is his own private pathology at work here?  Or are all these forces at work?  Is morality (that entirely relativistic, subjective concept) not an issue at all?  Is he simply documenting history without passing judgment? 

The lens is narrow—the film is set almost entirely within a whore house, and it focuses on the lives of the women within it.  Only towards the end do we move outside the barriers that divide the house from the rest of the world, and even then it is to the house of the photographer whose obsession is photographing prostitutes.  The entire film takes place within a frame of apparent unreality.  When Violet throws a young black playmate to the ground and demands that he “do it” with her on the spot, a black woman comes out of the house and lectures her on the difference between the world outside the walls of the whorehouse and the world within, the white world and the black world.  This is a rare moment when the film moves beyond itself to stress the notion of the whorehouse as an isolated enclave of pretense, fantasy, and self-indulgence cut off from the reality of the world outside, where men are preparing to go off to war and die, where racial codes are in play.

The two slight plots have to do with Violet and her prostitute mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon).  Hattie wins the affections of a contractor from St. Louis who proposes marriage.  Hattie accepts, having told him that Violet is really her sister.  (The film suggests that middle-class respectability outside the whorehouse is what all the women who work there long for).  She promises to come fetch Violet after she’s able to tell him the truth.  The other plot follows the interest of the photographer Bellocq (Keith Carradine) in taking pictures of the prostitutes.  He’s especially interested in Violet, falls in love with her, and towards the end of the film marries her in a ceremony that turns out to be illegal because she is under age.

The film invites us to speculate about Bellocq and his interest in Violet.  She’s not entered puberty yet, and is boylike in appearance.  Does she attract him because she looks like a boy, because of her appearance of innocence (she is, after a fashion, innocent)?  Does the film mean to present him as a homosexual, or a pederast, or an innocent and sincere man, or what?  With our consciousness in 2014 of the sexual victimization of children, of child pornography, we view this film through a lens that might not have been available when it was made.  In fact, the film was made in pre-Internet days when pornography was not easily accessible to the masses, and the large and disturbing child pornography industry was much smaller and better hidden than it is today.  The film itself is not pornographic, though some might consider it so.  However, it does raise questions about the exploitation of children—both within the plot of the film and in the larger world where viewers sit and watch the performance of the 12-year-old Brooke Shields.

Although the whore house is a small portion of the larger landscape of the American South, it enshrines notions of Southern masculinity and gentility.  The prostitutes dress as if they are refined upper class Southern women.  They are, at least in the public part of the whorehouse, treated with respect and deference by their patrons (there are exceptions).  It’s all a pretense, of course, a manifestation of the sexual double standard that pervaded Southern life for decades.  The whorehouse provides a space where Southern gentleman can with their prostitute of choice subvert with impunity the codes of Old Southern gentility and respect for womanhood.

In the end, Violet’s mother and her husband come to fetch Violet.  They’ve made the transition to respectable middle-class life.  They dress as respectable middle-class citizens.  Hattie wants Violet to go to school and to have a proper rearing.  Bellocq protests, weakly.  The transition is sudden and shocking.  In the film’s final image, Violet’s new stepfather takes her photo in front of the train with a handheld camera (different from the old-fashioned one that Bellocq lugs around and laboriously sets up).  We see her in the frozen image both as a normal 12-year-old child and as a young women whose shadowy look of uncertainty, skepticism, doubt (whatever it is) suggest to us—what?

Time moves forward.  The epoch of Storyville, of old-fashioned cameras, of prostitution, of the lifestyle this film portrays—this all is coming to an end.  Money and a new set of clothes accomplish the transition. 

In one scene Violet’s virginity is being auctioned off to a room full of mostly middle-aged white men.  They’re portly, laughing, cigar-smoking men.  As they call out their bids, a black piano player stands nearby watching.  The look on his face grows increasingly dark and grievous.  The parallelism between this scene and that of a slave auction is too obvious, but the point is made clearly enough.


Sounder (1972, dir. Martin Ritt) documents the life of a rural African American family in Louisiana in 1933.  The film has a semi-documentary quality.  The main character is the oldest son in the family, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), who’s growing up and has a close relationship with his father Nathan (Paul Winfield).  The Morgans are sharecroppers, and when the film begins they are having a difficult time.  Nathan and David Lee are out hunting raccoons for dinner, but they miss an opportunity and go home late without supper for the family.  The film records in simple, straightforward form the lives of the family as they go to town, play baseball, work, and talk with one another.  There are no especially dramatic moments.  It’s not a series of crises or problems.  It’s just the life of the Morgan family.  Its purpose is to give a picture of what life was like for one black family during the 1930s.

When Nathan fails to bring home supper, he leaves late at night and returns with meat stolen from a local farmer.  As a result, he’s arrested and tried for robbery and sent to a work camp for a year.  David Lee and his mother Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) and a brother and sister must work the farm and bring in the crops so that the farmer who owns their farm can receive his earnings. 

David Lee decides to go search for the work camp where his father is living.  The town sheriff apparently knows where the work camp is but won’t reveal the information, he says because of rules, not even to a local white woman, Mrs. Boatwright (Carmen Mathews) who is friendly to the family.  She manages to get the information from his file cabinet anyway, and David Lee leaves on a long hunt for his father’s whereabouts.  The movie suggests it’s a long walk, and he passes through farm after farm, hardly seeing anyone.  He visits several work camps but never finds his father.  A school teacher befriends him.  She teaches an all-black school and talks to David Lee about important figures in African American history.  In the end, she invites David Lee to attend the school. (The film pointedly shows David Lee attending a class where the teacher reads from Huckleberry Finn, and of his reading with pleasure the novel The Three Musketeers.  These are both artifacts of white culture, while the school teacher who befriends him introduces him for the first time to figures from African American history and culture).

He returns home.  Sometime later, the father returns as well, and family life resumes, though Nathan insists that David Lee must leave to attend the school.  The family works hard to make their farm a success, but the film does not extol the virtues of farming, nor does it suggest that farming is the best way towards success and self-sufficiency for African Americans.  Nathan tells his son not to love the farm.  Nathan says he will miss it, but he will not worry about it.  Thus the film gives one reason why African Americans across the South began leaving their farms during the early decades of the 20th century in the Great Migration towards northern cities.

What Sounder does extol is the virtues of family.  That is the value in which all the Morgans believe.  They work hard on the farm for the betterment of the family.  At the same time, the film tends to idealize their lives and the conditions under which they lived, which on the average I would suspect were more difficult than portrayed.  Moreover, certain scenes don’t seem historically accurate.  Early in the film, we see David Lee going to attend school in a class taught by a white teacher and filled with white students, except for the last row, where David Lee and two other black students sit.  It’s highly doubtful that in 1933 in Louisiana any white school would have allowed black students to be in the same classroom with whites.

Sounder makes clear the difficult legal circumstances in which the Morgan family and other African Americans lived during the Depression era of the American South.  Some whites are friendly, others are not.  The family is subject to the requirements of sharecropping, of an economic system that allows them barely to scrape by, and a law enforcement system that is indifferent to why they may be driven to steal. It’s interesting to compare this film with Hallelujah (1929; dir. King Vidor), which argues that most of the problems black people encounter are of their own doing, and that the farming life is what they are best suited for.  The characters in Sounder are simply good and decent people trying to live their lives, trying to get by, in difficult circumstances.

Sounder is David Lee’s dog.  When the sheriff arrives to arrest Nathan and drives away with him, the dog follows, barking, and the deputy shoots him.  The dog’s return to David Lee and gradual recovery is a symbol of the family that unifies the film.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Panic in the Streets

Panic in the Streets (1950; dir. Elia Kazan)is more interesting for the ideas it presents than for its story.  Set in New Orleans, it is about an illegal immigrant who carries a plague infection.  He’s killed when he begs out of a card game.  When the autopsy reveals his infection, the public health inspector, Clint Reed, played by Richard Widmark, urges the city police and other officials to conduct a city-wide search for the identity of the dead man and for people he may have been in contact with.  The pneumonic plague is described as highly infectious and 99% fatal.  An early version of such later films as Outbreak (1995, dir. Wolfgang Peterson) and Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh), Panic works clearly in the American film noir tradition.  It’s a combination of police drama and disease drama. 

Immigrants play an important part in the film.  The film shows New Orleans as a place of diverse and multicultural populations, Asians, Italians, blacks, and so on.  The atmosphere if the city is often evoked, and the opening scene specifically recalls the opening of Streetcar Named Desire, also a Kazan film.  In bars, eateries, fishing wharves, warehouses, and elsewhere the film makes the atmosphere of New Orleans prominent.  The film specifically links the disease itself with immigrants, and the infected man is suspected of being East European. 

The film explores the origins of the infection—a vessel off the coast populated with crewmembers from various parts of the world.  Rats infest the ship, and they are suspected as the cause of the disease.  One crewmen has died, and another is infected when the officials manage to find the ship.

Reed as the health inspector understands how diseases spread, and he knows that if people exposed to the disease aren’t identified and inoculated (in this film, one simple shot protects you from the plague) it may spread to other cities and become a national and international epidemic.  He spends much of the film trying to convince others, especially a police inspector who doesn’t like government officials, of the importance of dealing with the situation.  Two tensions become evident here.  One is the relatively minor tension between local and government officials concerning who is best able and willing to deal with crises.  The other, a more significant one, concerns the idea that immigrants are a potential source of contagion, especially immigrants from less familiar parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America.  New Orleans is not only a multicultural center of culture and people in this film, but also a threat to the rest of the nation as a result.

Reed’s family life runs as a sub-current through the film.  It’s clear that he’s an ambitious man who wants success in his job and wants to be able to provide for his family.  In the opening scene, we see him painting a cabinet with his young so.  The boy talks admiringly about the man across the street who has taught him how to paint and has spent time with the boy.  The implication is that Reed doesn’t spend enough time with his son, and at the end of the film the neighbor comes out and says as much.  Reed’s wife is clearly also someone whom he needs to spend more time with.

Reed is aggressive and hot tempered because he’s worried about his own status in life, worried about failure.  He’s not an Annapolis man, and this may factor into his thinking, his subtle sense of inferiority.  His wife gently convinces him that he sometimes takes out his worries on other people, including her.

An interesting piece of sexual diplomacy circa 1950s style occurs in a scene late in the film when the wife reveals that she has “decided” to become pregnant with a second child.  This is something she and Reed have discussed before but they have delayed because of money concerns.  Now she has decided to “let” herself become pregnant. Her assumption is that Reed will be happy with the second child, and that somehow they will survive financially. 


This film about the threat of plague in New Orleans recalls Jezebel (1938, dir. William Wyler), in which city fathers discuss and ultimately decide against taking precautions against yellow fever, which has ravaged the city in the past and which, in the closing hour of the film, visits the city again.  

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Angel Heart

With characters named Lewis Cyphre, Harry Angel, and Epiphany Proudfoot, portentous allegory can’t be far behind.  Or not.  In this mystery about a smalltime detective hired to find a shadowy man who failed to satisfy the terms of a contract, atmosphere is everything.  Set first in Brooklyn and then in New Orleans, Angel Heart (1987; dir. Alan Parker) portrays through African Americans voodoo, mystery, the supernatural, superstitious, and dark religions.  None African American has a primary role—primary roles are for white actors, except for Lisa Bonet as Proudfoot, who has a modest but significant part.  I first saw this film in 1987.  I remember feeling disappointment with the final scene, which involved an elevator descending to, you guessed it, the pits of hell.  Much of the rest of the film had faded from memory by the time I watched it again this morning.  But I did remember the descending elevator, and it influenced how I saw the film.  Angel Heart telegraphs its storyline from almost the earliest scene, and astute viewers (I wasn’t one in 1987, and may not be one now) might guess at the twist that the movie hints at with growing insistence as it moves along.

An alternative title could be “I See Black People.”  Black people are everywhere in Angel Heart, and are essentially faceless.  They connote evil, the supernatural, voodoo, Santeria, devil worship, wild sexuality, and mystery.  They also, through their impoverished lives, represent Louisiana and the South. The film really never stops to question whether they might be anything else.  It isn’t especially forthcoming about how voodoo works, especially the version Harry encounters.  Chickens are involved, blood sacrifices, frenetic dancing, drums—practices beyond the understanding of Harry.  (He’s afraid of chickens--despite its darkness, the film has comic moments).  He interviews a series of people who might know about the man he’s been hired to investigate, yet after he interviews them, they turn up dead, in circumstances that make him seem the likely villain.  He’s certain he’s being framed and becomes convinced that the person he’s been hired to find, someone who disappeared twelve years ago, is the murderer and framer. 

Angel Heart builds suspense through the fairly effective performance of Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel, a private detective wary of getting too close to serious criminal activity.  Yet he finds himself increasingly drawn into a web of murder and dark mysteries.  

Clashing cultures are at issue here—North vs. South, but more specifically the rationalism of Brooklyn vs. the irrationalism of voodoo and African American culture in Louisiana (as the film conceives of it).  I’m not an expert on voodoo or Santeria, and although the writer of this screenplay obviously bothered to do some research, I don’t think he’s that informed either.  African Americans and their culture in this film are looming dark Others, used merely to inflate the suspense and uncertainty of a storyline that is fairly linear and banal.  There’s not much understanding involved in the portrayal of voodoo and other practices—it’s just all blasted at us as strange and mysterious.  Harry declares himself an atheist, and to the very end resists the truth: “I know who I am,” he insists, but of course he does not.

Aspects of this film reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), especially the pacing, mood, and the use of flashbacks and glimpses of mysterious imagery that hint at revelations to come.  As the final scenes approach, we have probably figured out the story before Harry does.  One nice bit of irony involves the film’s title, Angel Heart, which seems to suggest that Harry serves virtue in this battle with dark forces, but in the end it means something different. Epiphany Proudfoot’s first name is neatly accounted for as well.


From Harry’s slow-witted persistence to Louis Cyphre’s greased down hair to Lisa Bonet’s inviting glance to a baby’s lizard eyes, this film is heavy handed.  So is this review, carefully written to be 666 words in length.