Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch (1955; dir. Billy Wilder) is billed as a classic American comedy of the 1950s.  It is so much a product of its times that it now seems a fossilized artifact.  It’s difficult to feel any affinity with either of the two main characters.  The film in fact wants us to identify with Richard Sherman (Tommy Ewell).  The pervasive view is masculine.  The underlying premise of this comedy is that during the summers in New York City businessmen hustle their wives and children off to the cooler mountains for vacation while they stay in the city to work.  Then they are free to prowl for other women.  Sherman is torn between relative boredom with his own marriage, his interest in the possibility of other women, and his love for his wife.  It’s difficult to identify with a film in which it’s considered normal for men to hoot and howl at attractive women, in which the tendency of men to have affairs with women other than their wives is a sort of game at which everyone winks and grins.  In essence, this film is about the sexual double standard: while the wives are away, the men will play.

Marilyn Monroe plays the 22-year-old bombshell who moves in the apartment upstairs from Sherman while his wife and child are in the mountains.  He fixates on her, becomes convinced that she is his target, and engages in a dance of attraction and repulsion (his desire for her, his wish to be loyal to his wife) to which she seems oblivious.  Monroe is very good at inhabiting the bimbo role, but it’s a role that is entirely dated.  She has no name in the film—Sherman doesn’t even know her name—she’s just the Girl.  She speaks with a soft, breathy voice, with the hint of a lisp.  She’s oblivious, largely, to just about everything.  But she is also young, fresh, and ostensibly innocent.  She boasts of a photo shoot on the beach that was featured in a photography magazine.  Sherman’s reaction to it is so strong that we assume it was a nude photo shoot, but when we finally see the photo it is comically and ridiculously chaste.

The film clothes Monroe in costumes that exaggerate her breasts to ridiculous proportions.  It’s as if they’re her defining characteristic, as if nothing else about her matters.  The iconic scene in the film, of course, is when she stands over a subway ventilation grate and the breeze from passing trains balloons her dress upwards.  Does the character know that she is titillating others around her, especially Sherman?  Or is she oblivious.  Or does she not care?

Sherman speaks to us throughout the film in prolonged asides in which he ponders his situation and his would-be wandering ways.  Although in the Broadway play that was the basis of the film Sherman does sleep with the girl, in the film there is only flirtation.  Sherman presents himself as torn between his wife and his lust.  He imagines outlandish encounters with women—his secretary, his wife’s best friend.  And of course his imagination works overtime on the possibilities of a relationship with Monroe’s character.  He comes across as indecisive, deluded, weak, and silly.  At the very end, Monroe’s character hints that she was more aware of Sherman’s longings than she had previously let on.  A classic this film might once have been, but no longer. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013, dir. Steve McQueen) takes place mostly in Louisiana. We see numerous scenes of open fields, of swamplands, of trees hanging down with Spanish moss.  The sounds of droning insects and piping frogs are almost ever-present.  These sounds and the lush vegetation suggest an environment of remote isolation.  The beauty of this film—the beautiful setting, the artful cinematography and filmmaking—contrasts with the dark reality it portrays.  At times I wonder whether slavery (like the Holocaust) is something film should try to represent.  Is it possible that personal testimonials, scholarly histories, lists of the dead, better tell us the story than someone’s attempt to represent and interpret it, to use it as the stuff of art when in fact the reality is so horrible that the risk of misrepresentation overrides the benefits of representing it accurately, if such is even possible.

Solomon Northrup’s narrative 12 Years a Slave, published in the year of his rescue, 1853, strikes me as unsettling for several reasons.  Its account of how a man can be kidnapped out of his life into slavery is disturbing enough.  The years of enslavement he endures are recounted in painful detail.   Solomon on several points pauses his narrative to explain the process of growing cotton and of sugar cane, so that his story has the impact of both a personal tale as well as a more objective account.  Solomon never fully comes to identity with his fellow slaves, and it’s clear that his education, his former status as a free man, in his mind places him in a status superior to that of other slaves.  He is more than willing to serve loyally the slave owners who treat him well, like Ford, and even at times seems to sympathize with them.  At times I sense two voices in the narrative, that of Solomon and of David Wilson, who assisted him in the writing of the account. The film offers an effective adaptation of the narrative, focusing entirely on Solomon’s situation.  It drops the accounts of cotton farming and instead integrates those details into the plot of the film.  Many of the events of the narrative find their way into the film.  It thankfully omits the legal proceedings following Solomon’s rescue, and it significantly abbreviates the process by which he is reunited with his family.  The narrative tells and explains Northrup’s tale, while the film dramatizes it.

In an odd way, 12 Years a Slave reminded me of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932; dir. Mervyn Leroy).  Both focus on a man suddenly and unexpectedly torn from his comfortable environment and plunged into a hostile atmosphere of confinement, imprisonment.  Both focus on that confining environment—prison life, slavery—but even more on the plight of the lonely and isolated individual unfairly and unjustly ripped out of his life.  As there as with the character James Allen in Fugitive, there’s an existential quality to the plight of Solomon Northrup, who clings to his identity even as in order to survive he must pretend to be someone else.  I found myself as focused on that aspect of the film as on the issue of slavery, which at times seemed almost incidental to his situation.  To imagine the possibility of what Solomon Northrop suffers, the loss of his freedom, of his family and friends, for twelve years, is nigh impossible.  Other connections come to mind as well—Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1842) in particular, along with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862).

As he tries to preserve his identity, Northrup at first resists being lumped in with the other slaves he works and lives with.  Gradually the common situation they share makes its mark on him and though he never gives up on being Solomon Northrup he ultimately accepts his kinship with them.  When they sing over the grave of John, an old man who dies while picking cotton near the end of the film, Solomon joins in singing with them.  This moment signifies his acceptance of his unity with them, of his identity as a slave. 

I do not know whether this film gives an “accurate” or “representative” account of slavery.  I can say about it what I said in another post about Mandingo: that I have no doubt that everything it portrays was true of slavery.  12 Years suggests a natural comparison with Mandingo.  Yet the tawdry and sensationalistic melodrama of that inferior film is absent in Twelve Years.  The most telling contrast comes in the relationship of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) with the slave girl Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o).   This is a relationship of force and rape, abuse and abasement, while in Mandingo we are asked to believe that the relationship between slave master Hammond and his “bed wench” Ellen is consensual and mutually loving.  Despite the attention it pays to the slaves on the Hammond plantation, Mandingo is primarily about the white slave owners. 12 Years is about the slaves--and one slave in particular.  It doesn’t romanticize or sentimentalize slavery, nor does it, with one exception, make slavery worse than it was. What it does achieve, on occasion, is its portrayal of the practice of slavery as a form of everyday normalcy.  We may think of slavery in terms of endless brutality and abuse.  But mostly what it must have been was a sustained and unremarkable succession of days, normal days, in the lives of both the enslaved and their enslavers.  The film evokes this normalcy through scenes in which slaves go about carrying out the tasks of their typical routines—picking cotton or chopping sugar cane, chopping and carrying wood, cooking, washing—routines that characterized the span of their lives.  Each day they carry their bags of cotton to be weighed. Those who do not pick more than 200 pounds are whipped—the film portrays the whippings mainly in the background.  There is nothing unusual about them--they are part of the daily routine—not punishment but instead what the owners regard as an appropriate way to train their slaves to increase the productivity of their cotton picking work.

In an extended scene, Tibeats, who works as a carpenter for Ford, tries to whip Solomon, who resists and beats Tibeats in turn.  Tibeats flees and returns with two men who commence to hang Solomon, with the full intention of killing him.  Ford’s overseer intervenes, chases off the three men, and leaves Solomon suspended from a tree branch, his feet just touching the ground.  As he struggles to keep his balance and avoid choking to death, other slaves carry on their work around him, seemingly ignoring him.  Eventually one slave woman brings him water.  The mistress of the house looks on from the porch, as does the overseer.  The other slaves can do nothing for fear of their own lives.  They cannot interfere with the punishment of a slave who has transgressed and attacked a white man.  The film lingers for an excruciating duration on the images of Solomon attempting to retain his foothold.  Throughout this scene there is no music at all.  The sound of the insects—cicadas, June bugs-- familiar to anyone who has lived in the summers of the Deep South, drone on and on, in this atmosphere of deadening normalcy and pain.  Only Mr. Ford has the right to save him, and eventually he arrives and cuts the rope with which Solomon is suspended.

(On occasion whippings become a form of personal revenge and punishment—one in a scene involving Solomon, and another when Patsy has run off to a nearby plantation to bring back a bar of soap.  The whipping she receives from Epps is the most brutal in the film.)

12 Years has its share of depraved and brutal white people, but it also portrays a number of highly civilized white characters who deal with slaves as a normal part of their existence.  In an early scene, the slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) shows plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist minister, a group of slaves that he is thinking of buying.  Freeman seems a likeable man.  He is calm and affable in his manner, speaking candidly of the attributes of various slaves on sale, comporting himself as would an insurance or car salesman in the process of trying to make a sale. There is nothing remarkable or depraved about his behavior, other than the fact that he is selling human beings.  When Ford decides to buy Solomon and Eliza, who is the mother of two small children, she begs him to buy her children as well.  He decides to purchase the daughter, but Freeman refuses to sell, explaining that in a few years her beauty will make her a valuable property. When Ford brings the two new slaves home, his wife asks why Eliza is weeping and unhappy.  Ford explains that she has been separated from her children.  Mistress Ford nods sadly as if to signify that this is an unfortunate but inescapable result of a slave sale.  She reassures Eliza that soon she will forget about her children.  In many ways Ford treats his slaves well, preaches to them every Sunday.  He recognizes Solomon’s talents and rewards his good work.  In the film, Ford seems the ideal slave master. Solomon Northrop’s narrative Twelve Years a Slave praises him highly.  At the same time, in neither the narrative nor the film does Ford question the institution of slavery itself.  He accepts it as part of the reality of his world, as a necessary practice.

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the obverse of Ford.  He is close to being a psychopath, both in how he treats his slaves as well as in how he treats his wife.  He spends much of his time drinking, threatening the slaves, molesting Patsy, insulting his wife.  It is difficult to think that he is truly representative of the normal slave owner. It’s difficult to imagine that he could have been productive as a plantation owner, as a farmer of cotton and other crops, because he apparently spends little time tending to these activities.  If most plantation owners had been like Epps, the plantation economy would have faltered early in its history.  Yet what the film makes clear through his character (this is true as well of the Hammond family in Mandingo, and of Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, and of Duncan Bedford in So Red the Rose) is that however kind or cruel plantation owners might have been in their treatment of their slaves, they exercised virtually complete control over their lives. They were able, within the broad limits of what Southern law and social custom would allow, to do whatever they liked with the slaves.  I have to confess that as much as I know about slavery, from books I’ve read and films I’ve seen, 12 Years left me scratching my head in astonishment.  We did this?  This is our history?  From this vantage point early in the 21st century, 150 years since Emancipation, it’s almost impossible to imagine. Therein lies much of the value of this film.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mile . . . Mile & a Half

I am 64 years old and in addition to all the things I regret having done there are many things I regret not having done.  Among these is not having spent more time outdoors, in the wilds, hiking and camping.  I’m no daredevil.  Hang-gliding and extreme mountaineering don’t appeal to me.  But hiking in the outback does.  I’ve always wanted to walk the Appalachian Trial, despite Bill Bryson’s assurances in A Walk in the Woods that it’s a bore (and I’m sure much of it is).  The film Mile . . . Mile & a Half (2013; dirs. Jason Fitzpatrick, Ric Serene) follows the walk of a group of adults in their 30s along the John Muir Trail in California and Nevada.  Their trip takes them 25 days along a 220-mile stretch.  The walking is difficult.  Most of it takes place above 10,000 feet.  Every day is another sequence of beautiful scenes.  There is nothing profound about this film, other than the intense natural beauty of the surroundings they walk through.  Along the way they meet other hikers, including two young painters, a Japanese girl walking alone, two young men with a ukulele and a xylophone, and married school teachers.  Although their purported purpose in taking the hike is to film a documentary (they talk a bit too much about this) they mainly want to prove to themselves that they can do it.  The tone of the film is light, never ponderous, not even introspective, though at times you can sense their moments of contemplation.  The fact that the John Muir Trail exists is amazing.  It would be a challenge for someone like me, but it’s now on my post-retirement list, along with the Appalachian Trail.

Particle Fever

Particle Fever (2013; Mark Levinson) is about the discovery of the Higgs boson by the scientists who worked on and in the Large Hadron Collider in Lucerne, Switzerland.  The subject is exciting but difficult, and this film succeeds in part by not taking it too seriously.  It explains well enough the importance of the Higgs and shows how scientists used colliding particle beams to detect it.  What it does best is convey the enthusiasm and excitement of the scientists working in the HLC, especially when it is turned on for the first time, and when the Higgs is at last detected.  The director relies on interviews with various scientists to explain the Collider and the Higgs.  Of particular interest is the mass of the Higgs.  If it’s discovered with one particular mass, then scientists will have a good chance of confirming super symmetry, a theory that has the potential to provide a unifying explanation for why the universe works as it does.  If it is detected with a different mass, then the possibility of a multiverse might mean the end of physics research, because whatever else there is to discover may be beyond the reach of scientists in this universe to detect.  The film makes clear the importance of the distinction and conveys how several of the researchers are deeply concerned that their lifetime of research may be for naught.  In the end, the Higgs is discovered with a mass midway between the two extremes.  No one quite knows what that means. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry

In their 1945 film The Southerner director Jean Renoir and screenwriter Hugo Butler drew their vision of the American South directly from the George Sessions Perry novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, published in 1941, and winner of the National Book Award.  The film follows the novel closely, though it simplifies the plot and reduces the cast of characters--most of the novel’s main characters are in the film.  The novel focuses on a sharecropper named Sam Tucker and his family.  Sam has tired of sharecropping and wants to try to make a go of it on a 66-acre plot of land that belongs to another farmer in East Texas, the setting of the story.  Told episodically, the novel describes how Sam moves his family, his first encounters with neighbors, the sickness of his youngest son from pellagra, the sowing of his crops, conflicts with a neighbor who allows his cows and hogs to run through Sam’s garden, and Sam’s ambitions to catch a large catfish.  In the novel, Sam is a distinctive individual, but he’s also cast as an example of a larger class of small farmers facing harsh economic and environmental conditions.  There’s a mild sentimentalism to the novel, and one is tempted to compare it with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  In the novel, Sam is no virtuous exemplar.  He operates by his own codes, whether or not they comply with the world around him.  But in general, I think, he is portrayed as a hardworking and virtuous man dedicated to farming and to earning his way.  He’s the model of the emblematic Jeffersonian farmer.  You can imagine him set in contrast against the sky in a Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton painting, or a John Ford film (and, as it happened, a Jean Renoir film).  He’s also the descendant, by a generation or two, of the Southern frontiersman, who carries on the tradition and individualistic values of his progenitors.  He hunts squirrels, fishes, gets into fights, gets drunk, considers lost property (such as a fishing net) his own, resists the entreaties of a local prostitute because of his love for his wife, cares about his children, makes good on his promises and debts, and so on.  (If his attempt at independent farming should fail, these traditions and values, the things he represents, are at risk).  He’s a little too good to be true, but in that sense he’s what an emblem of something larger than himself should be.  In fairly similar form the episodes of the novel find their way into Renoir’s film.  Both novel and film portray farming as a desirable alternative to factory work and city life.  The novel gives a more detailed, realistic accounting of the lives of poor dirt farmers than the film. It also casts the plight of the poor dirt farmers in a political context, comparing their plight to that of migrant workers in California, after the fashion of The Grapes of Wrath.  In the original ending of the novel, which Perry was dissuaded from using by his publisher, Sam Tucker gives up after a year of farming and decides to go to work for the factory in the city.[1]  The version of the novel that was published give no hint that Sam Tucker would ever give up. 

[1] Maxine C. Hairston, “Afterword,” Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry. Albuquerque, NM: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1975.  Novel originally published in 1941.