Thursday, July 30, 2015


The best films about boxing intermix the personal lives of boxers with their struggles in the ring.  Boxing becomes a romantic metaphor for the struggles of life, especially when life belongs to someone who by mischance or misdoing has fallen low, or never risen above their low station to begin with.  The Champ (1931) and Rocky (1977) fall in this category. 
Southpaw (2015) is not particularly original, but it’s entertaining.  It follows the patterns of The Champ and Rocky.  Winning a prize fight becomes a way of regaining control of one’s life, of redeeming one’s sins and mistakes, of saving one’s family.  The film, however, is well made, generally, and the acting, especially of the child actor Oona Laurence, of Forrest Whittaker (always impressive) as the trainer, and of Jake Gyllenhaal as the suggestively named Billy Hope is excellent.  The film is well paced, and it methodically works its way through initial exposition, calamity, setback, and the slow struggle to recovery.  The boxing scenes are convincing, both because the average audience member (such as myself) does not know enough about boxing to recognize fakery, because of fast and effective editing, and because of the basic skill with which they are made.
Enjoyable as it is, the film has a certain hollowness.  As soon as I learned it was a boxing film, I became suspicious of the formula I feared it would depend on, and the audience manipulations it might involve.  Those manipulations are there.  In the pathos of a young child angry at and worried over her suffering father.  In the figure of the trainer who seeks his own redemption through the fighter he warily agrees to train.  In the manager who is interested in Billy only as long as he offers means of earning money.  In the friends and hangers on who abandon him once disaster strikes.  And in the unlikely and inadvisable last-chance match that offers him the chance to recover his footing.  All these elements are in place.  All the director Antoine Fuqua has to do is connect them plausibly together.  There’s no doubt he makes the connections successfully.  But the plot pre-dates the film, which is like a connect-the-dots puzzle as a result.

There is an obvious setup in this film for a sequel.  This is unfortunate.  There is no need for a sequel.  We’re satisfied when the film is over and the long redemptive arc is complete.  But certain significant plot details are left unresolved.  Despite hints at the possibility of neurological damage, Billy misses the opportunity to tell his daughter, or his trainer, or the reporters at the post-bout press conference, that he’ll never fight again.  And so, unless ticket sales are weak, we’ll likely see Billy in the ring again.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

North by Northwest

From 1000 Frames of North by Northwest, Frame 549
Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest is an exercise in style—visually and musically. The cinematography by Robert Burks emphasizes (at key moments) starkly dramatic shots from unusual angles and perspectives. One such shot comes near the end of the United Nations scene, when the main character Roger Thornhill flees from a murder.  Another is at the beginning of the famous scene in the middle of the American prairie when Thornhill disembarks from a bus on a deserted highway, prepared to meet a mysterious George Kaplan, only to be menaced by a crop-duster with machine guns.   This beautiful, bleak scene is shot from a great distance, looking down at the small bus and the figure who emerges from it.  The most famous scene of all, cinematographically, is the chase across the faces of the American presidents atop Mt. Rushmore.

Another stylistic element is the music by Bernard Herrmann, one of the great 20th century American film composers, who wrote music for Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (the good 1950 version, not the Keanu Reeve version).  The score for North by Northwest is some of Hermann’s best work, and it brilliantly characterizes and defines the film.  Music, cinematography, set design, and other elements elevate the relative banal screenplay, suggesting that more is at stake here--politically, morally, philosophically--than a mere plot of espionage and mistaken identity.

Cary Grant plays the lead male role of Thornhill, an ad executive whom a foreign spy mistakes for a government agent. Mistaken identity—a plot element we see in a number of Hitchcock films—leads Thornhill into an increasingly tangled and complicated set of Cold War intrigues. Grant’s acting swaggers from superficial businessman to romantic swain to bumbling comedian to adventurous hero.  In my opinion, it is incoherent and inconsistent.  Grant is more convincing as Cary Grant than as Thornhill.  Did he ever play anyone other than himself? In 2006 Gentleman’s Quarterly designated the suit he wears throughout much of this film as “the best suit in film history.”

More consistent, but shallow and rigid, is Eva Marie Saint, who plays Eve Kendall, the complicated and enigmatic female lead.  She had earlier won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in On the Waterfront.  She is of course one of the famous Hitchcock blondes.  When I first saw this film as a teenager, she held my attention. It’s interesting to consider how much she is the victim in this film, or the seductive ingénue, or the woman who takes her own path. The confusion that underlies her character—in how men see her, in how she sees herself--makes her intriguing.  But she’s not a very convincing actor—she carries off her role well enough.

The film features a wonderful supporting cast, including Ed Platt (best known for his role as the Chief in the Get Smart TV series; Leo G. Carroll as the CIA agent “The Professor”; a very creepy young Martin Landau as the evil sidekick Leonard; and Jessie Royce Landis as Clara Thornhill, who plays Roger Thornhill’s mother. James Mason is not bad either as the villain Vandamm.

Exactly why are there so many people in this film with British accents—Grant, Mason, Carroll?

The film ranks number forty on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.

There is also the famous scene involving a train and a tunnel.

Monday, July 20, 2015

All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

In the closing paragraphs of All the King’s Men, Jack Burden says, “This has been the story of Willie  For I have a story.  It is the story of a man who lived in  the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way” (656). The story of Willie Stark is also the story of Jack Burden. By telling Willie’s story, and by his involvement with Willie, Jack discovers his own story and comes to terms with the meaning of himself.  It’s a pattern of continuous return and release—Jack discovers how much akin to Willie he is precisely because he is so much unlike Willie, and so on.  They are opposites in character, but also twins.  We find similar parallels and connections between many characters--Judge Irwin and Willie, Anne Stanton and Sadie Burke, Judge Irwin and Cass Mastern.  Doppelgangers, dualisms, parallels define this 1946 novel by Robert Penn Warren. 
A few examples:  As a graduate student in history, Jack undertakes to study the life of his ancestor Cass Mastern, who betrayed his best friend Duncan Trice by having an affair with his wife Annabelle.  When Duncan learns of the affair, he kills himself but before doing so leaves his wedding ring on his wife’s pillow, a sign to her and presumably to Cass that he had learned of the affair. Cass spends the remainder of his life trying to make up for the betrayal of his friend.  He discovers his own culpability and corruption and takes action to make up for them.  Jack Burden, rather than take action for his disappointments with himself and his family and his assorted failures, gives in to the Big Sleep and the Great Twitch and does nothing.  Acting, and failing to act, are of high significance in All the King’s Men.
Judge Irwin’s best friend is Jack Burden’s ersatz father Ellis Burden.  Judge Irwin betrays his best friend by an affair with his wife, thereby engendering Jack.  In this relationship, Judge Irwin is the doppelganger to Cass, and Ellis the doppelganger to Duncan, but rather than killing himself he leaves his wife and begins to lead a life of piety and service to the poor.
Jack Burden identifies himself as a twin to Tiny Duffy, whom he holds responsible for Willie Stark’s assassination. 
These parallels and dualisms, between different characters and places, between the past and the present, between Burden’s Landing and the capital city, provide the structure of the novel.  In a sense, they are what the novel is about. 
All the King’s Men focuses primarily on the political and personal lives of white Southerners in the first half of the 20th century.  Black characters appear in the background but do not hold roles of significance.  None of the characters expresses views we would regard as racially enlightened, and all of them freely use the word “nigger” to refer to African Americans.  Once again, as in Welty’s The Golden Apples, although this word reflects the abiding racism of the time in which the novel was written, characters do not usually employ it with conscious racist intent.  It was simply a commonly available word deemed as acceptable for designating African Americans.  People used it without thinking about its racist meaning. It might seem that the novel is not at all concerned with race, that, like Welty’s The Golden Apples, is primarily about the affairs of white people who exist in a deeply racist world.
Two crucial plot points, however, stress the underlying importance of race in the novel.  One is the scandal that jumpstarts Willie Stark’s political career.  The company that files the lowest bid on the construction of a public school employs black workers.  This fact is used by officials of the local county government as a reason for turning down the low bid and awarding the contract to a company that filed a higher bid, a company that also happens to have ties with various politicians who will profit from the work.  The use of substandard construction materials leads directly to the school house fire escape collapse that sets the development of Willie’s career in motion.  Another major plot point occurs in the story of Cass Mastern.  Annabelle Trice becomes aware that her slave Phoebe is aware of her affair with Mastern.  She cannot “abide” the fact  of what Phoebe knows, so she takes her to another city and sells her at a slave auction.  Cass Mastern knows that Phoebe, who is young and light skinned and attractive, will be used in some way as a sex slave, and he tries unsuccessfully to find and buy her back.  To expiate his responsibility for what happens to her, and for his betrayal of his friend, he emancipates all his slaves.  Race and racism are underlying issues in the world of this novel. Racism is a form of economic discrimination.  Willie Stark bases his campaign on correcting the economic injustices that allow a few men to exploit the downtrodden and poverty-stricken citizens of the state.  His campaign against economic disparity is a timely reflection of similar political issues in our own time. So is his corruption as a politician.  Economic disparity represented through race- and class-based tensions lies at the heart of All the King’s Men.
Despite Jack’s claim that Willie’s story is his story, Willie’s is the more interesting.  Jack’s self-preoccupations, his bitterness, the high-toned folk of Burden’s Landing, can grow tiresome.  Perhaps Warren himself viewed the story from Burden’s perspective.  Thus Jack’s discovery of the imperfect world, of the imperfections in the important people around him, acquires a certain poignancy—this is a discovery Warren portrays in each of his first four novels, and which therefore must have been important to him.  It is a theme in his long poem Brother to Dragons, about Thomas Jefferson.  But the discovery of corruption, of sin, in the family tree or the parents or wherever is an old one.  At times, with all the discussion of sin and time and past and future, Jack’s narration can begin to sound like a Sunday School lesson—tired and tedious.  His self-indulgent romanticism, his lack of ambition (as contrasted to Willie’s), his failure to follow through with anything—his study of Cass Mastern, law school, Anne Stanton naked on his bed—make him an exasperating and not necessarily sympathetic soul.  Willie’s world is one in which ideals and virtues still exist, but they are not so indistinguishable from the muck and the mud.
Few of us readers have the privilege of having grown up with the wealth and privilege of Burden’s Landing.  Most of us grew up in Willie’s world.  Moreover, I think it is far easier to understand Willie’s ambitions and the factors that gradually lead to his corruption than it is to understand Jack Burden.  Burden, we are asked to believe, is damaged by the failure of his parents’ marriage—by his always unsatisfied mother, by his weak and ultimately absent father.  Despite all the privileges he has enjoyed, the wealth of his parents and the influence of the people around him, especially Judge Irwin, it is difficult to understand what goes wrong.  Jack’s unhappiness with himself and his world stems from his inability to reconcile the ideals supposedly embodied by Burden’s Landing with the realities of his parents and the real world in which they all live. Jack narrates his own story, and perhaps he lacks the distance, the objective removal from his situation, that would allow him as narrator to provide a clearer sense of the problem.  In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, there is no doubt as to the causes of Emma’s malaise, but for Jack those causes remain more abstract than concrete and thus difficult to understand or describe in a specific way.  Jack has to insist on his failures too stridently.
I have read All the King’s Men a number of times.  Most recently I listed to an audio recording while driving back and forth to work.  What I noticed in the recording was the beauty of the novel’s language.  It is lush, descriptive, and a major element in the novel.  I also noticed the often artificial cynicism of the narrator Jack Burden.  Sometimes it’s a bit too much.  It contributes to the generally melodramatic atmosphere of the narrative.  But in listening to the novel as a recorded experience, you discover how much the novel is a prolonged meditation on the meaning of existence and of self-consciousness and self-awareness.  What are the philosophical underpinnings of the novel?  Other than the New Testament, and the Calvinism which Jack and Willie both frequently invoke or at least reflect in their musings, I can’t identify the influences and mean to look further into them.
The language that is such a profound strength of the novel also seems to be, at times, a weakness.  Perhaps in the guise of Jack Burden, Warren (for he is, in the end, responsible for how and what Burden says) is often so caught up in the dense power and lyricism of language that it often may run away with him.  Language becomes its own end rather than a means of conveying the story.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

It’s possible to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird—it’s set some fifteen years later, many of the same characters appear, others are mentioned, and there’s a continuity in characterization of people like Atticus Finch and Jean Louise (Scout).  There are a few inconsistencies in plot—the major one being that in Watchman the black man whom Atticus defended against the charge of raping a white woman is found innocent.  If Mockingbird is about a child’s education in the importance of standing up for principles, Watchman is about an adult child’s education in the imperfections of the father she idolized. 
It’s also possible to read Watchman as a failed first novel.  I’d like to know more about when and how it was written and its relationship to Mockingbird—it’s difficult to view it as a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s too different from the 1960 novel.  If it was a rough draft, then Harper Lee almost entirely rewrote it.  As a first novel, it has many flaws—it lacks the dramatic tensions of Mockingbird, the polished prose, the developed characters, nostalgic narrative tone, the coherence, and the literary shape.  It is too discursive—there is too much lengthy lecturing and preaching by Uncle Jack and Atticus and Jean Louise (in this sense it reminded me both of Faulkner’s 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, where the character Gavin Stevens preaches and lectures too often, and of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949), a nonfiction work marred by harangues).   There are moments of awkwardness.  Uncle Jack is simply unbelievable.  He comes across as a stereotyped, eccentric, old Southern homosexual, until we learn that he is supposed to have been secretly in love with Jean Louise’s mother—and Atticus is aware.  (There are too many melodramatic twists in the novel).  It’s also too formulaic—Jean Louise comes home, discovers her father’s racist views, is outraged and angry, and is then reconciled to him despite their disagreements.  The manner in which Uncle Jack helps her reach this conciliatory attitude strains one’s credulity.  It’s easy to imagine an editor reading this novel, recognizing its potential, and advising the writer to go home and start over.  It’s also easy to imagine that in the process of reconceiving the novel Harper Lee changed her mind about characters and events and political attitudes.  From this perspective, it’s not surprising that Atticus in Mockingbird is different from the Atticus of Watchman because they are, essentially, two different characters.
Both Watchman and Mockingbird are written as if their author is drawing bits and pieces of the story—events, characters, situations—from a larger narrative already in her head.  It’s entirely conceivable Lee had devised the story of the Finch family before she ever began writing it down—many events in the two novels were based closely on her own life to begin with. Watchman seems to assume that the reader has a certain familiarity with characters from 15 years before—with Jem and Dill and Tom Robinson, for example.  It seems to make a point of explaining the absence of Dill (who is in Europe)—there is really no reason to do this—Dill has no bearing on this story, except as a memory, but the narrator of Watchman seems compelled to explain his absence as if expecting the reader to want to know where he is.  (Of course, the reader who has not read Mockingbird will not recall him or care about his absence at all.)  Lee dispenses with Jem in equally facile, if more unhappy, fashion.  In Mockingbird we learn that Atticus’ wife, the mother of his children, has been dead for several years.  In Watchman we learn more about when she died and how Atticus found her body.  (This is gratuitous information—we didn’t need to know how she died—her absence is the crucial fact). 
Atticus’ racism in Watchman is that of a Southern moderate in the 1950s.  In principle he favors civil rights for blacks, at some point in the future, but not until they have “earned” them.  He sees African Americans as needing to “progress” further before they’re able to vote and take part in community affairs with whites.  He objects to the intrusion of the NAACP and the Supreme Court into the affairs of Southern life—he wants events to move forward in their own time.  He’s not a rabid racist in the sense of a Klansmen, but his views from our current perspective are racist enough.
Is there continuity between Mockingbird and Watchman?  Does what we learn in Watchman affect how we view the characters and events of Mockingbird, particularly how we view Atticus? It shouldn’t, but it probably will.  Readers ought to be able to consider these novels as two separate works—related but not closely connected.  Watchman does provide us with a context, a prefatory sort of explanation of the world and ideas that were abroad in the American South of the 1950s.  But it is a separate work from To Kill a Mockingbird. 
The best sections of this novel are, not surprisingly, perhaps, Jean Louise’s recollections of her childhood with Jem and Dill.  An especially humorous recollection concerns a scene where the children pretend to have a revival service.  Another involves a high school dance.  
I had an extremely powerful and emotional reaction to the scene in which Atticus and Jean Louise have their confrontation about his racial views and her reactions to them.  On the one hand I was reading this novel with Mockingbird (both novel and film—the latter more strongly) firmly in my head, and to read Atticus’ statements about race and civil rights was painful.  On the other hand, Jean Louise’s fury, her expressions of hatred and disgust for her father, her comparing him to Hitler, seemed to mark a total rupture of the close and warm relationship between father and daughter that we saw in Mockingbird.  And added to this is that the author handled these scenes clumsily.  They had the effect of bruising my relationship as a reader (and a Southerner) to the novel and film.  I felt the disappearance, the brutal murder, of something I had taken for granted for many years.

Of course, I wanted this novel to be much better than it is.  And it’s worth pointing out that despite its importance to many readers, Mockingbird itself isn’t really a great novel.  It’s a good one, and an important one, but not a great work of literature.  It’s important to hold figures like Atticus in your imagination, especially if you’re a Southerner who was born into and who lived through the latter half of the 20th century.  You want to believe that there were in the deep South a few good white men and women of force and integrity who stood up against the racism of the region.  Undoubtedly, there were.  I can name a number of them.  In Mockingbird Atticus is one such figure.  In Watchman the Atticus we meet is a man of principle but also a man of his place and time—that is, not a racial progressive, but a moderate.  The two figures are not necessarily contradictory—I can imagine a lawyer whose devotion to fairness, the law, and the Constitution, even though he supports segregation and holds white supremacist views, leads him to agree to represent a black man.  This is called principle, and it’s what Atticus in Mockingbird embodies. Even the Atticus of Watchman says that he’d make that same decision again.  Even racists can be principled.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor

From the first sentence, Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood is serious.  It’s not a casual or lighthearted read.  There are many moments of humor and outright comedy, but the humor is directed at characters who are isolated and suffering—Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery, and many other faceless denizens of Talkingham.  The humor emphasizes their plight, and those who see the novel as yokel humor miss the point.  Humor is O’Connor’s means to a non-humorous end.  Hazel is abrupt, totally unsocial, and bordering on dementia.  Enoch often seems barely able to function.  O’Connor’s style is flat and descriptive, almost in a journalistic way.  Her sentences are crisp and flat, largely devoid of adjectives.  It’s an effective prose style but rarely does it seem distinctive in the way that Faulkner or Welty or Joyce are distinctive.  It’s devoid of ornamentation and stylistic flourish and not self-referential.
In general the novel’s vision of the world is harshly merciless.  Hazel returns from several years in the military to find his family dead or moved away.  Enoch’s father has thrown him out of the house.  Sabbath Lily’s father has no affection for her at all.  Mrs. Flood sees Hazel mainly as a source of income. Religion is hucksterism—it is sold in the same way that the peddler on the street corner hawks the  potato peeler, or the man in a gorilla suit promotes a film, or Onnie Jay Holy (Hoover Shoats) sells the church of Christ without Christ. In this world of absolute falsehood, Hazel searches for authenticity.
Although there are defects in the novel, moments of clumsiness, they do not prevent it from working.  In fact, I think it is a great novel—powerful, unsettling, unhappy, moving.  Its main attribute is in its characters, not only Hazel and Enoch but Asa Hawkes, Sabbath Lily Hawkes, the whore Leora Watts, the landlady Mrs. Flood, and the policeman who pushes Hazel’s car off a bluff.  O’Connor is especially adept with her physical descriptions of characters, but mostly she delineates them through what they say.
In her introduction written for the tenth anniversary of the novel’s original publication, O’Connor wrote about Hazel as a “Christian malgré lui,“ and of Christ as a “ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind” (she took this image from a moment early in the novel, where she also refers to Jesus as a “wild ragged figure motioning him [Hazel] to turn around and come off into the dark . . .”).  I wish she had not characterized the book so explicitly.  Not that she isn’t accurately describing it—she clearly is—but readers who read the introduction before reading the novel are deprived of the experience of discovery. But this is a small point.
Even when the novel’s concern with Hazel’s unwitting redemption is clear enough, the ending remains disturbing and mysterious.  Despite everything he has denied, his emphatic embrace of the rational Nothing (which is for O’Connor the characteristic faith of the modern world), there is mystery and unsettlement in Hazel’s demise.