Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Phenix City Story

The Phenix City Story (1955, dir. Phil Karlson) narrates in faux documentary fashion the events leading up to the murder of Albert Patterson (John McIntire), an elderly lawyer running for the position of attorney general in Alabama, with the avowed promise of wiping out corruption in the town. A crime syndicate runs the town by threat of violence and intimidation.  Patterson at first declares his neutrality and is willing to let things be in Phenix City.  He sees corruption as a regrettable presence that has always existed in the town.  He even has an uneasy relationship with the crime boss.  But when gangsters beat up his son and others opposed to the syndicate, and when the body of a young black girl is dumped in his front yard, he changes his mind and takes a stand.
The soldiers who patronize the bars, prostitutes, and gambling in Phenix City are stationed at Fort Benning, which lies directly across the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia.  The film was mostly shot on location, and some town citizens served as extras and minor characters.  This provides a sense of realism strengthened by the thirteen-minute news clip about Phenix City that introduces the film.  It is also relatively direct in its portrayal of violence, the murder of Ed Patterson, the killing of a black child, the bombing of a house with mother and children inside, and various other fights and beatings.  It portrays a brutal, violent, dangerous world.  Although the final scene tells us that crime has been driven out of Phenix City, the newsreel introduction, which gives practically all the events of the story away, implies that corruption is on the rise again.  Moreover, the film also implies that when voters have the chance to cast ballots to elect honest leaders, they fail to show up at the polls, either out of complacency or fear of violence or both.  After Patterson’s assassination, citizens form a lynch mob to kill those responsible, enraged that law enforcement has failed to maintain order.  John Patterson calms the mob with the argument that they should rely on the law to deliver justice, although he promises to kill the culprits himself if the law fails.
Although black people hover mostly in the background, they are vulnerable to syndicate crime as well.  Zeke, a black man who works at one of the bars, warns Patterson of threats to his safety and helps Patterson’s son John (Richard Kiley) and his friend Fred Gage escape a bar fight.  Zeke’s young daughter is killed both as punishment for him and as a warning to John Patterson, whose two children and wife live in Albert Patterson’s house.  When John Patterson is about to kill his father’s murderer, Zeke talks him out of violent revenge, reminding him of the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Patterson later replaces his dead father as attorney father. As flawed as it may be, the film therefore suggests that governance by legal institutions, flawed though they may be, is preferable to disorder and anarchy.
The Phenix City Story is straightforward and unrelenting.  Tension does rise as it approaches the moment of Patterson’s murder, but for the most it moves forward in a steady reportorial fashion. It ends shortly after Patterson’s death. This dark portrayal of the world does not call for a return to the early halcyon days of the pre-Civil War South.  It is a more general, more generic vision of post-World War II modern America. The director Phil Karlson reportedly tended to rewrite the screenplays written for his films. His vision of human nature and the world as expressed in his films was a grim one.  Crime and murder in Phenix City gave him a platform for dramatizing his view of the way things are in modern America.

The Cabin in the Cotton

The Cabin in the Cotton (1932; dir. Michael Curtiz) dramatizes a struggle between sharecroppers in the American South and the owners whose land they work.  The owners charge excessive fees to the croppers, who can’t get ahead or live beyond a subsistence level as a result.  In turn, the croppers steal cotton from the owners and sell it on the black market.  The film proclaims itself objective in the portrayal of this struggle (a message that scrolls down the screen in the beginning tells us so”: “it is not the object of the producers . . . to take sides. We are only concerned with an effort to picturize these conditions [of sharecropping]”), but in fact it favors the croppers.
The main character is Marvin Blake, played in a slope shouldered, hangdog manner by Richard Barthelmess.  He is the son of a cropper but is intent on getting ahead in life by attending school.  When his father dies, he faces having to drop out of school until the local landowner, Lane Norwood (Berton Churchill), offers him a job so he can continue his studies.  In a few years, Marvin keeps Norwood’s books, is a trusted employee, and appears to have won the heart of Norwood’s daughter Madge, played by Bette Davis in an early role. The croppers still see Marvin as one of their own and expect him to provide inside information and to help them continue stealing cotton.  Norwood expects Marvin to help him discover who is stealing cotton. Marvin is also torn between two lovers: Madge Norwood on the one hand and Betty Wright (Dorothy Jordan), a cropper’s daughter, on the other.  Poor Marvin is pulled back and forth throughout the film between Norwood and the croppers, between Madge and Lily.  In the end, a lawyer helps him organize a town meeting where he presents the complaints of each side to the other and ultimately declares himself on the side of the croppers.
Cotton is everywhere in the film, in the fields, the yards, and so on.  In the opening, cotton pickers are at work in the fields, white pickers in the foreground, black pickers in the background.  Strains of “Suwanee River” waft through the air, as do other songs associated with the South. 
The film focuses on white croppers.  Black sharecroppers rarely appear, and though they are victims of the system as well, they are barely acknowledged. The film suggests that Marvin’s meeting, which forces a contract on the owners which is fair to the croppers, has solved the problem, though we know the problem persisted almost to the present day.
Bette Davis as Norwood’s daughter Madge is all wealthy white Southern privilege, but she is more flapper than Southern belle, with her svelte dresses, cigarettes, flirtatiousness, and implied sexual looseness. Betty is ever-suffering in her unwavering and virtuous love for Marvin.
With a screenplay by Paul Green, The Cabin in the Cotton tries to evoke the folk life of Southerners early in the century.  There are several seemingly authentic moments where banjo players pick music.  In one scene, a blind black blues guitarist (Clarence Muse) plays his spiritual melodies that contrast with the upscale jazz of the band hired to play at the Norwood home. The implication here and elsewhere in the film is that modern ways have supplanted and blotted out the genuine folkways of the traditional South, which is being corrupted by greed and jazz (!). In general, the South of the film is entirely generic.  Southern accents are few and far between. 
Even in this early film, Bette Davis has her shtick down.  The film sizzles a bit when she’s on screen.  Churchill as Lane Norwood would be likeable were it not for his hostile indifference to the croppers, whom he cheats of justly earned income. The sharecropper farmers are mostly played for hillbilly effect: shiftless, dishonest, lazy.  They spy on the parties at the Norwood house.  They threaten Marvin when he doesn’t promise to give them his copy of Norwood’s books (which show how Norwood has cheated them). At the meeting, Marvin explains their tendency towards shiftlessness as the result of poverty.
It's difficult for the dramatic medium of film to convey the details and contexts of history.  As a result, partially, this film does not portray sharecropping as a product of history, of the ending of slavery in the American South and the collapse of the plantation system. Audiences in 1932 might have understood that the film shows an aspect of the post-Civil War economy and way of life in the South, but few would have recognized close causal links between sharecropping and the consequences of the Civil War.  The film is more aware of the economic disparities between the land owners and croppers, but it does not suggest that such fundamental economic inequalities ought to be remedied.  Rather, it argues that each side in its own place, the owners and the croppers, should treat the other in a fair manner. Beyond that, the film makes no overt or implied call for meaningful social change.
By its pious pledge of impartiality, Cabin in the Cotton hedges all bets. It asks its audience to appreciate the simple lives of the croppers and the luxurious surroundings of the owners.  Just as the croppers have their grievances against the owners, so do the planters have complaints against the croppers.  Only gradually does it make us aware that its loyalties fall with the croppers.  Never does it suggest that black sharecroppers faced equally difficult conditions.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Baby Driver

Baby Driver (2017, dir. Edgar Wright) is all motion, speed, action, and sound. The plot is hackneyed: our young man has a car wreck with a local crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby agrees to pay for the damage he has caused by driving cars for Doc to and from various heists and robberies around the city. It also so happens that the young man (played by Ansel Elgort), referred to throughout the film only as “Baby,” has tinnitus, the result of a car wreck when he was five years old that killed his parents.  He still mourns and loves his mother. Over the five-years since the wreck, Baby has earned his way out of debt and stops driving for Doc. He gets a job delivering pizzas. And he falls in love with a young woman named Debra at a local restaurant. She falls in love with him. Doc blackmails Baby into driving for him again, threatening Debra’s life and the lives of others close to him.

The film encourages us to see that Baby is basically a good person caught in a tight situation. He does good deeds for people. He takes care of an old black man who is confined to a wheelchair and who shares his apartment. He returns a purse to a woman whose car he has just hijacked. He warns another woman to stay out of the bank about to be robbed. Baby is good. The circumstances he finds himself caught in are bad. Baby might also be somewhat stupid, given some of the decisions he makes, though the film doesn’t consider this possibility.

There are a number of non sequiturs in this film, a number of questions one might want to ask. As good as he might be, Baby certainly makes a number of bad decisions.  Couldn’t he have found a way to extricate himself from Doc‘s control? Kevin Spacey seemed not quite right as the crime boss. (Of course, since I saw the film, he’s been revealed to be not quite right in more significant ways). Why do I not believe in John Hamm’s portrayal of a drug addict? These quibbles don’t matter.  The action matters: it is almost relentless. And Baby matters: he is the one we care about.

Excellent editing and camera work make this film what it is. Some scenes last only a few seconds. But over the course of the first half of the film through various maneuvers and edits the director builds a narrative that hurls itself forward.

Baby Driver is set in Atlanta. We see Atlanta streets and newspapers and buildings. However, the film really doesn't make much of its Atlanta setting, which it mostly takes for granted. That's okay. This is not a film about place, about a local region. It's about speed, motion, and Baby Driver.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Don't Kill It

Don’t Kill It (2016; Mark Mendez) opens with scenes of the Mississippi swamp where a man is hunting with his dog. Ominous music and thunderclaps provide the backdrop as the dog wanders off the trail and finds a strange looking object. That object, as we come to know, contains an ancient demon which escapes to terrorize the small Mississippi town where this film is set. The film makes use of the backwoods landscape and the comical, dimwitted citizens of the small Southern town as it shows us how the demon possesses one person after another, compelling them to kill anyone who comes in sight. The violence in this movie is considerable though not realistic -- in realism it reminded me of the original version of 200 Maniacs. We have several scenes of carnage, of families being killed, of teenagers being obliterated. A number of children are killed too, mostly off-screen. A demon killer named Jebediah Woodley finds his way to town. He's played by Dolph Lundgren. Jebediah teams up with FBI agent Evelyn Pierce to track down the demon. She has returned to the town after a long absence. The difficulty about the demon is the fact that it moves from one person's body to the next. When someone shoots the person whom the demon has possessed, the demon immediately transitions to the killer’s body. Hence the title of the film. If you kill the demon, he possesses you. Instead of being killed, he needs to be contained. No one can tell who the demon is, except for the way his or her eyes turn completely black and for the shotgun or the pistol or the machete that he or she is carrying and the roaring sound he or she makes as he or she runs towards the next victim – in other words, the demon is fairly obvious. The plot is slightly more intricate than I've made it out to be. We learn that the FBI agent Pierce is descended from an angelic lineage, a fact that plays conveniently into the plot, though it's not explained very well. Oddly, there's comedy in this film, which makes fun of the limitations of the people of the small town, many of whom are dead by the end of the film. This was a film so unlikely and so ludicrous that I found myself longing before the midpoint for it to end yet at the same time not willing to give up on it.

Dont Kill It employs a number of southern conventions:  Gothicism, religious extremism, small-town hokum, the supernatural, swamps. A fundamentalist minister in town is convinced that the demon hunter Jebediah is himself the demon. He musters the paranoid support of parishioners to try to stop the demon hunter and the FBI agent. I've already mentioned the small town and its dimwitted citizens. A bumbling Barney Fife-like policeman provides minor comic relief. Dolph Lundgren's character is eccentric and mysterious and crazy. Lundgren does a good job with his character. He's the only strong point of the film, in a relative way. But the major relief this film provides comes when the closing credits roll.
Why a demon in a small Mississippi town? Is there anything particularly southern about the demon in this film? I suppose demons, if you believe in them, can appear anywhere. One could argue that the demon in Don't Shoot It incorporates all the stereotypical worst traits of a small town southern resident: love of weapons, love of violence, pleasure in shooting or assaulting anything, whether animal or human, religious mania. This demon’s appearance in a Mississippi swamp is totally arbitrary, which is not to say that arbitrariness somehow invalidates its existence there. The appearance of the demon, which we can understand as a source of bad luck, terrible events, misfortune, random chaos, that is, as a supernatural explanation for anything evil that can happen in the world, is explanation enough. We’re always looking for explanations. Explanations for what caused the Deep Water Horizon disaster, what led to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what led to any number of terrible earthquakes or tsunami or volcanic eruptions or hurricanes or tornadoes, for plagues. We’re always grasping for explanations, and we’re always fearful of them. The demon in this film is one explanation and it certainly calls enough for fear. But I prefer to spend my time considering more plausible, rational, human, physical explanations.

Friday, June 02, 2017


Moonlight (2016; dir. Barry Jenkins) is difficult to categorize. It opens up to the casual viewer an unfamiliar world: the world in which a gay African-American young man must live. The film is divided into three sections, with each section focused on one period of the main character Chiron’s life (in each section Chiron has a different name). It shows us a young man whose mother is a drug addict, whose father is absent, and who doesn't understand why he feels a certain way. He's profoundly lonely throughout most of the film. The first section shows him as a boy around nine years old who is chased and tormented by a group of other boys from the projects.  Compared to them, Chiron is small and weak, and he runs from them. An older African-American man named Juan befriends him. It's not clear at first why this man is interested in the boy.  Juan sells drugs in the project where Chiron lives.  He keeps a paternal eye on goings on in the project, trying to make sure that nothing goes wrong.  Selling drugs for him is a necessary way of life.  The film never sees him as a negative social force.  If anything, at least for Chiron, he's the opposite.  Yet he also sells drugs to Chiron's mother. When the boy asks him if he sells drugs, and he shamefully admits that he does, their relationship ends (as far as I could tell). Chiron obviously makes the connection.

The second section shows us Chiron at the age of around 16. We learn that Juan is dead, but not why or how. Once again, Chiron is isolated and lonely. He is bullied by other boys in his high school who call him names. Only one boy, Kevin, seems interested in being his friend. It's with this boy that he has his first sexual experience. A few days later, one of the school bullies forces Kevin to beat Chiron up.

In the third section Chiron is 26. He's been working out, he's all pumped up, he wears a gold chain around his neck and sells drugs. He gets a phone call from Kevin, whom he has not seen or talked to in 10 years. Kevin now lives in Florida and Chiron drives there to meet him.  The film ends with a moving but uneasy and uncertain reconnection between Chiron and Kevin, who showed him affection in high school 10 years before, but who also beat him up.

The film is depressing. It's supposed to be. Such is the nature of the boy’s life at every age of his existence, from when he was nine with a drug addicted mother to when he was 16 and bullied to when he is 26 and lonely and selling drugs. It's also quite moving. Every element of this movie coheres almost seamlessly to give us a portrait of this man's life—music, cinematography, editing, screenplay (written by director Jenkins), direction. The acting is excellent, even though most of the people who appear in the film are relative unknowns. The actors who play Chiron at the three stages of his life are all wonderful actors. I would say this especially of Trevante Rhodes, who portrays Chiron as an adult. He says very little. The film shows us his face and his eyes and we can tell without being told how lonely and unconnected he is.

Friday, August 05, 2016


When I was a young reader, in high school and college, Thomas Wolfe was my favorite author.  I found Look Homeward, Angel an exciting and mysterious book, especially the penultimate chapter where Eugene Gant talks with his dead brother Ben.  I was entranced by the Wolfe legend, of the young writer from North Carolina, brimming with words and a compulsion to tell his story, who is discovered by a New York editor and whose first book becomes a best seller and an American classic.  I read everything by Wolfe, and everything I could find about him. I’m an older reader now, perhaps we should say, an old reader.  I don’t read Wolfe now and find him difficult to stomach when I try.  But as a writer who was once important to me, he holds a special place in my memory.
I found the film Genius (dir. Michael Grandage, 2016), about the relationship of Thomas Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins, jarring and inauthentic.  The image of Wolfe it presents—of a boorish, overbearing, narcissistic, hayseed young writer so fixated on publishing his work that he tramples on everyone around him—seemed to me entirely wrong.  Not that the basic outlines are wrong.  They’re just not right.  What we have in Jude Law’s portrayal of Wolfe is a caricature, a parody, including the fake Southern accent.  Law is actually good in the role.  He even manages to resemble Wolfe in a certain way (though Wolfe was actually a foot or so taller).  It’s the role itself that is flawed.  The film buys into the mythology of Wolfe, writing on the top of his refrigerator, drinking wildly, unable to curb and to bring into coherent form the outpouring of words he produces.  The film almost portrays Wolfe as a psychological case study—a writer who can produce torrents of words without being able to control them.
The film to me seems unaware of what it means to be a writer, of how a writer works, of the editing process itself.  It romanticizes, simplifies, obfuscates. And it seems uncertain what to make of the figure of Wolfe—was he a great writer helped by Perkins to bring his work to print, or was he a writer who needed an editor like Perkins to order and unify his inchoate (a word I associate with Wolfe) outpourings? 
Colin Firth makes Maxwell Perkins out to be an automaton.  He never quite divests himself of his British accent.  He makes Perkins a kind of cipher—attractive in ways, indifferent in others.
I didn’t care for this hyperbolic film.  But maybe I‘ll try to read Look Homeward, Angel again.

Monday, March 28, 2016


Following up on Thunder Road (1958) and in stark contrast to Deliverance (1972, whose murderous mountain men might be moonshiners), Lawless (dir. John Hillcoat, 2014) presents the mountain men of 1920s and 1930s Virginia who brew and sell illegal whiskey as fierce individualists trying to live their lives the way they want to live, and who react violently when political corruption pressures them to join a local syndicate and pay monthly “protection” to the county attorney.  Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) is the center of this drama, a stolid, unspeaking man who accepts interference from no one.  He reacts with violence to anyone who challenges him.  He’s also the object of many threats.  In the film his throat is cut and he’s shot multiple times, but he always manages to recover.  Some people who know him joke that he must be immortal, and it’s suggested that Forrest and his brothers Holland and Jack might believe that story.

Lawless believes in the Bondurant brothers.  It shows their lives together and individually.  It traces the develop of romantic relationships between Jack Bondurant and Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) , a local young Mennonite girl, and between Forrest and Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former nightclub dancer from Chicago.  Maggie is as hard bitten as Forrest.  But neither she nor Bertha look much like women who would have lived in the Virginia moonshine country of the 1930s. 

It’s not clear that Forrest is an innovative or forward-thinking man.  He’s stubborn and insistent on doing things his own way and he likes things organized and efficient, and that helps account for the success of his moonshining operations.  His youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) , on the other hand, is ambitious.  As the younger brother, he often isn’t taken seriously, even when he offers to step up his involvement in his brother’s business.  He wants a shiny car and snappy clothes.  He’s afraid of violence and confrontation, so he has to battle those inclinations.  He’s also careless and rash, and much that goes wrong in the film is somehow his fault.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Selma (2014; dir. Ava DuVernay) features as main characters people who actually lived and who in some cases are still alive.  I lived through and paid much attention to the Civil Rights movements and its leaders.  I know the faces of M. L. King, Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and others.  It was jarring in this film to see these figures played by actors who at best only slightly resembled them.  I often struggled to identify them.  This was a distraction, but not something the film could help.  Eventually I recognized that the actor in overalls was Hosea Williams and that the man with thick-rimmed glasses played Abernathy.  David Oyelowo’s work as King is excellent, and especially in the speeches he made he became a convincing simulacrum of the original.

Selma powerfully depicts the events leading up to and surrounding the march on Selma.  It’s clear, I think, that one of the purposes of the film is to remind viewers of the sacrifices and risks made by the many participants in the movement, and to pay tribute to its leaders.  The movie presents them as heroes, and that is what they were.  But it also portrays them as human beings.

The film’s intelligence is reflected both in the three-dimensional portrayals of King and his wife Coretta and in how it shows King and others in the movement strategically planning the Selma march in order to bring the greatest amount of national attention.  King is shown both as determined and hesitant, and when during the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge he pauses and then turns back, he receives much criticism from his supporters.  This moment of apparent retreat is never fully explained.  We hear various people attempt to understand it.  King himself tries to explain it as the result of his concern for the people who might be injured if the gathered police decide to attack.  Most importantly this moment contributes to the humanity and mystery of King as he is portrayed in the film.  He is rightly regarded as a man of moral vision—we see this aspect clearly--but the film also shows him also as a politician and a strategist.  It also shows him as a husband and father.  A short scene in the film alludes to his affairs with women, and to the unhappiness this caused in his marriage to Coretta.  It shows as well his anxieties over the welfare of his family, especially given how his leadership in the movement made him a target for violence.

Several scenes show the brutal abuse of Civil Rights protestors by white Southerners.  The central scene is in the first march on the Pettus bridge, where police and gathered white crowds viciously attached the marchers.  John Lewis’ skull was cracked.  We see several murders and are told about others.  It was painful to watch these scenes and tempting to view them as exaggerations.  However, newsreel footage, photographs, and numerous reports from bystanders and participants make clear that these portrayals of violence and hate are accurate. 

Malcolm X briefly appears in the film.  He played a small role in the events surrounding the Selma march, and his inclusion was probably a gratuitous acknowledgement of a man who was King’s leading critic among African Americans during the early years of the 1960s, and whose activism represented an alternative approach to the nonviolent tactics of King’s strategy for working towards civil rights.

There are historical inaccuracies in the film.  Many of them may be minor, but the portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson is a significant misrepresentation.  Johnson was responsible for pushing both the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights act of 1965 through Congress.  He was not an opponent of voting rights.  At worst he and King differed over the timing of the bill.  By the time of the events the film portrays, Johnson had already called for a voting rights bill to be drafted.  Recordings and transcripts of public and private conversations and comments make clear his support for the voting rights bill. Selma makes out Johnson to be the opponent who must be convinced by the Selma march of the bill’s necessity.  In fact, Johnson needed no convincing.  Another issue is the omission of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, including the murders in Mississippi of three civil right workers.  Those events together with the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention did as much as the Selma March to galvanize support for the voting rights act and to bring about its passage.[1]

Although these are serious flaws, especially given the focus on a crucial moment in the Civil Rights movement, they do not ruin the film, which is a dramatic, inspiring, and moving tribute to King and other leaders of the movement.

[1] For various opinions see Elizabeth Drew, “’Selma’ vs. History,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015,; Ann Hornaday, “Film fact-checking is here to stay,” The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2015,; Amy Davidson, “Why ‘Selma’ is More than Fair to L.B.J.,” The New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2015,; Bill Moyer, “Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma,’”; Dee Lockett, “How Accurate is Selma?,” Slate, Dec. 24, 2014, 



Friday, January 23, 2015

Child of God

James Franco may take the literary texts he has adapted into films too seriously.  His adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (2013) was interesting and, I thought, an admirable and creative attempt to render the novel into film.  Faulkner’s novel is primarily a series of internal monologues by his characters, fifteen of them.  In the film, Franco uses voiceovers, camera angles, various cinematographic ploys, and split screens to convey the inner lives and the poetic prose of the novel.  To some extent he succeeds in the effort, but to another extent he fails.  While the novel to me is intensely interesting and psychologically immersive, the film at times seems inert and lifeless.  Certain key scenes, most significantly the attempt of the Bundren family to cross a flooded river, fall flat.  But in general I felt the film was an authentic effort to convey intense literary experience in cinematic form.

It’s clear that Franco admires Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God, another novel that largely centers on a character’s internal life.  Franco preserves the essential structure of the novel and relies on voiceover commentary by members of the community where the action occurs to establish the basic focus on Lester Ballard. It has been a while since I read the novel, but my sense is that Franco is doing something different with McCarthy’s novel in the film than he did with Faulkner’s.  While I thought Franco was trying to translate Faulkner’s novel to film, preserving the essential aspects of the narrative, here I think he is using McCarthy’s novel as a source for a film that in some ways tells a different story.  The film is mainly what I want to consider here.  In tone it is significantly different from the novel.  Our sense of the main character is significantly different. We never see him at all in the novel—we hear people talk about him and we see the world from within his head—in the film, we see him constantly.  As often as we see him, as the camera follows him in doing what he does, we never get inside his head (although we may speculate about what’s going on there).  The film’s intensely visual depiction of Lester Ballard portrays him as a physically and mentally defective hillbilly degenerate, the kind of depraved stereotype who creeps up on the cars of necking teenagers on remote country roads we might encounter in folktales and films from the 1950s and 1960s (the story of “the claw” comes to mind—does anyone remember it)?  Lester is an extreme variation on some of the characters who terrorize the Yankee teenagers in 200 Maniacs.  Even though what Ballard does in the novel—kill women, have sex with their bodies, hide their bodies in a cave) is horrendous and depraved, because much of our knowledge of Ballard comes from within his own consciousness, we don’t immediately view him as a monster.  He is, after all, a child of God, and the novel challenges us to see him that way, in addition to seeing him also as an insane killer.  For all that he is, we’re compelled to see cause and effect, and we’re compelled to consider his humanity.  Given its subject, that the novel would make this demand of its reader in itself is remarkable, and one could argue that the novel goes too far in this regard.  Franco’s film doesn’t toy with our views of Ballard.  From the beginning—from how he behaves and talks, to how he holds his jaw, the uneven cast of his eyes, his slurred and often unrecognizable speech, we see him as mentally challenged and as potentially psychopathological from the beginning.    

The pacing of the film is uneven.  Ballard wanders back and forth across Tennessee farmlands, spies on the man who bought his father’s farm, and not all these scenes have a point.  In an early scene, we see Ballard defecate in the woods and then wipe himself with a stick—what’s the point of this other than to suggest his primitive savagery?  I didn’t see the need for this scene at all, by the way.  He goes into a town and buys a red dress for one of his victims and the young girl who waits on him—with his smelly clothes, his dirty and haggard appearance, his inarticulate speech—seems not to think anything is unusual about him.  Does she have customers like him every day?  (Others in the community, especially the sheriff, are very aware of what is unusual about him).

It’s difficult even in McCarthy’s novel to accept the meaning of the title—that Ballard is after all one of God’s children, marginalized, orphaned, abandoned, driven by bad genes and change in the circumstances of his own life and in the changing conditions of his world to become what he becomes.  In the end, perhaps, though we as readers want to maintain a great distance between Ballard and ourselves, though we want to be sure he doesn’t roam free to do what he does, we come to understand something about him.  In Franco’s film this moment doesn’t come—the resolution of the film differs substantially from the resolution of the novel, and as Ballard wanders across an empty field proud of himself for eluding his former captors, what we’re supposed to think or feel—other than confusion and disgust—is just never clear. Ballard remains a monster.

The rollicking bluegrass music that accompanies parts of the film, especially the opening scenes, doesn’t seem appropriate to the content.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Butler

The Butler (2013; dir. Lee Daniels) begins in perilous fashion.  A young black boy working with his family in a cotton field in 1927 watches his mother led to a nearby shack for sex with the son of the plantation owner.  Afterwards, when the white man emerges from the shack, the boy’s father confronts him and is shot dead.  The plantation mistress walks into the field, orders the boy to stop crying, and tells him that she is going to take him into her house and train him to be a “house nigger.”

I use the term "perilous" because the opening scene suggested I was about to watch a nightmarish melodrama of extremes lacking subtlety or intelligence, a film that compels us to view the players purely in terms of victims and victimizers, of clearly marked boundaries of good and evil.  Not so.  Although slavery was long over in 1927, many black Southerners still worked under conditions approaching slavery, especially black farm workers and sharecroppers.  The possibility of violence by white Southerners against blacks was ever present.  But scenes as extreme as the one that opens this film were rare.  As bad as conditions were for many Southern blacks in 1927, few young black boys witnessed crimes against their parents so heinous as these.  The Butler is a more balanced and nuanced film than its opening scene suggests.

The Butler is loosely based on the life of a man who served as butler for seven presidents in the White House. It chronicles the fictional life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the man who the young boy in the cotton field became.  After the plantation mistress teaches him how to serve, he finds a job in a nearby town and later in a posh Washington, D. C., hotel.  Ultimately he begins work in the White House as one of several butlers during the Eisenhower administration.  In the background, as one president succeeds another, history takes place.  The events of the Civil Rights movement serve as markers that carry us from the cotton field to the White House in a literal sense: in the final scene Cecil prepares to meet the first black president of the United States.  The Butler is a history of the nation during the Civil Rights movement, with its murders and demonstrations and achievements, and of the political disagreements and struggles in the black community during these decades.  Cecil observes these events from his post in the White House, while his son, Louis, participates in them.  Cecil fears for his son’s safety and disagrees with the activism of the civil rights movement, while his son doesn’t understand his father’s passive, conservative attitudes. 

The Butler shares similarities with Forrest Gump, which follows the life of a young Southerner as history unfolds around him.  Forrest Gump is more a pageant sort of play than this film, which, by dramatizing contrasting views of the struggle of African Americans for equality, offers a more analytical view of events as they occur.[1]  It employs a series of contrasting scenes that show Cecil Gaines at work in the White House, serving the white politicians who run the country, against scenes of his son Louis, who takes an increasingly activist role in the Civil Rights movement.  (A younger son is killed in Viet Nam).  At times the film seems to favor the son’s extremism.  Increasingly, however, it focuses on the butler Cecil.  Its attitude becomes clear in a scene where Martin Luther King is talking to a group of student activists, one of whom is Louis, who is ashamed of his father’s role as a butler to white men.  When King learns that Louis’s father is a butler, he comments on the importance of people like Cecil, who serve with quiet dignity, gradually changing by their example the attitudes of white Americans towards American blacks.  The Butler endorses both points of view, but when Louis faces the prospect of deeper involvement with the Black Panthers as they move to adopt violent tactics, he backs away.  Later we learn he has earned a graduate degree and entered politics.  Paralleling the film’s exploration of two different ways in which African Americans were involved in the civil rights struggle is the story of the father and son estranged from one another and ultimately reconciled.

Some elements of The Butler are predictable, and it can be overly simplistic and sentimental, but its encompassing view of the civil rights years seeks to reconcile points of view that were once at extreme odds.  Its efforts at conciliation extend beyond the African American community.  Most of the major white American figures in the film appear to struggle with their own attitudes towards race.  Ronald Reagan, well played by Alan Rickman, overturns policies supported by the movement but he also worries that he is on the wrong side of the struggle.  Only Nixon comes across as a one-sided caricature.

[1] Wikipedia notes reviews in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, St. Louis Dispatch, and Miami Herald that draw the Forrest Gump connection.  See

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.