Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Selma

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, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jan/08/selma-vs-history/; Ann Hornaday, “Film fact-checking is here to stay,” The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/film-fact-checking-is-here-to-stay-so-lets-agree-on-some-new-rules/2015/01/02/9698f87c-92a6-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html; Amy Davidson, “Why ‘Selma’ is More than Fair to L.B.J.,” The New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/selma-fair-l-b-j; Bill Moyer, “Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma,’” http://billmoyers.com/2015/01/15/bill-moyers-selma-lbj/; Dee Lockett, “How Accurate is Selma?,” Slate, Dec. 24, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/24/selma_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_ava_duvernay_s_new_movie_is_to_the_1965_marches.html 

 

 

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Butler.

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.

 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cape Fear (1991)

Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear adds complexity while retaining the essential storyline and even movie score by Bernard Hermann from the 1962 film.  In the original, Max Cady’s motive seemed to be revenge.  He was angry that Bowden’s testimony as a witness to his crime placed him in jail.  The circumstances are different in Scorsese’s version.  We learn that Bowden was Cady’s attorney in a trial for assault, and that Bowden suppressed evidence showing the victim’s history of promiscuous behavior.  Cady’s discovery of the suppressed evidence motivates his quest for revenge.  It also becomes the original sin at the heart of Bowden’s character.

Another difference is Bowden’s marriage.  In Scorsese’s version it is deeply troubled.  Bowden (Nick Nolte) has moved his family to New Essex, NC, from Atlanta to make a new start after infidelity led to a crisis in his marriage.  In New Essex, he and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) struggle to hold things together.  Leigh worries that he is having another affair.  The atmosphere is tense.  Leigh is trying to pursue a career as a designer.  She alludes to “lost years” in her life, and she’s probably referring to years she has lost to the marriage.  The daughter Danielle is a fifteen-year-old recently suspended from school for smoking marijuana. She feels the tension in her parents’ marriage, hears their arguments, and is unhappy.  Cady exploits all of these weaknesses.  Perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in the film comes when he lures Danielle into the basement of her high school, pretending to be her drama teacher.  This is essentially a seduction scene, where Cady convinces her of his sincerity by referring to private details of her life and her parents’ marriage.  He convinces her that they share much in common and asks if he can put his arm around her.  Even though she recognizes him as the man who has been stalking her family, she allows him.  He makes her suspicious of her parents and what they’ve told her. 

In the 1962 film, Cady reads legal books in prison.  We know little about his background other than the fact than he grew up in difficult lower economic class circumstances.  In Scorsese’s version, Cady goes to jail for 14 years rather than 8 and although he is illiterate when convicted he learns to read in prison and reads widely.  In addition to law, we know he’s read philosophy, including Nietzsche, and he’s a fan of Henry Miller.  He’s read Look Homeward, Angel (a novel whose attitude towards the past provides a faint undertone in the film) and talks with Danielle about it.  Cady’s an intelligent, self-educated psychopath, enamored of the culture whose art and literature and music he’s come to love, enraged that he can’t participate in the affluence of people like Bowden.  Like his predecessor in the 1962 film, he’s jealous of Bowden’s economic status.  He knows that, were it not for his jail time and the economic facts of his birth and upbringing, not to mention luck, he could live the life that Bowden lives.  This enrages him.

Scorsese’s film is more psychological in focus than the original, although in both films Cady understands how to inflict terror.  De Niro’s Cady is more aggressive, more violent, and more ingenious than Mitchum’s. 

De Niro is great as Cady, but you know it’s a role, a part he’s playing.  He never melds with it.  The same can be said for the other characters, with the exception of Danielle, who’s convincing as the vulnerable and psychologically damaged adolescent.  The Bowden family dynamics seem false, and the actors don’t convincingly inhabit their roles.  When the terror begins, the family behaves as if being stalked and threatened is normal.  They walk along the sidewalks of the town, talking to one another about their plans to resist Cady.  They suspect Cady has already entered their house, that he’s poisoned their dog.  In general he’s created a menacing atmosphere. Paranoia and anxiety ought to have set in much earlier than it does.

The 1962 film has simplicity.  It does not weigh us down with complicated information about Bowden’s marriage and past.  It does not draw out elaborately the character of Cady and instead works in reductive, simplistic fashion to conjure a narrative of revenge and fear.  Although, in a sense, the 1991 film gives us more to think and talk about, in particular with respect to Cady’s character, the 1962 film is a more seamless, more effective story.

While the South was a background in the original, Scorsese foregrounds it.  We see images of the Confederate flag, and Cady’s past is clearly one of fundamentalism and biblical literalism.  He’s covered with tattoos that use the Biblical language of sin and redemption.  Cady reminds me of the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back.” His frequent Biblical references suggest O’Connor’s character the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  The South is a center of fundamentalism.  Scorsese uses associations with the South of violence, religious mania, and the subjugation of women as a way of building Cady’s character as well as Bowden’s.

Fear of rape is an issue in the 1991 film, but it is not its heart.  We know Cady plans to have sex with Bowden’s wife and daughter, consensual sex if he can convince them, but the central horror in the film is not the prospect of rape but rather the total destruction that he wants to inflict.

De Niro’s Cady is a psychopath.  Bowden as played by Nolte comes close to becoming a psychopath himself.  Cady several times tells Bowden how much they’re alike, how they’re equals. One of his goals is to reduce Bowden to his level.  He succeeds.

 

Cape Fear (1962)

Fear of rape is the central terror in Cape Fear (1962; dir. J. Lee Thompson).  In jail for eight years because of the testimony of lawyer Sam Bowden, Max Cady seeks revenge through stalking, threats, and sexual violence against the lawyer’s family.  Cady has no other motives, perhaps other than class resentment.  (Of course, a psychopath doesn’t need motives).  Bowden and family live in a stylish upper-class home.  While he was in prison Cady’s wife divorced him and left with their daughter.  He blames Bowden for all that has happened to him.  He covets what Bowden possesses—happiness, a family, a beautiful wife and daughter.  But he doesn’t want just to possess these things.  He wants to destroy them, through what the film increasingly makes clear will be sexual violence, mainly against Bowden’s daughter.

In 1962, the concept of sexual violence against children, in this case a girl who appears to be twelve to fourteen years in age, would have been far more terrifying than it is today because at least today, when such violence is horrific enough,  it is at least talked about.  I can’t think of another film from this era that raises this fear as directly as this one.  When Cady confronts the mother and her daughter late in the film, you feel their fear.  In that regard the film hasn’t aged at all.

Given the historical context of the South and 1962, one can ponder the film’s underlying motives.  No one questions that sexual violence—rape—is horrible.  But was fear of rape in 1962 foremost in the Southern mind, even the national mind?  Why would Southern white people fear the violence of a lower class white male against an upper class white male and his wife and child?  Such violence is terrible enough that it can become the center of a suspenseful film.  But why highlight it at this time?

A primary argument in the South against racial integration during the 1950s and 1960s was that it would bring the races together and make it easier for black men to harass, molest, and rape white women.  The assumption (for those who thought in such paranoid racist terms) was that all black males wanted to do such things.  What if a black man took Max Cady’s place?  How much would the film change? There would be certain things a black Max Cady could not do in 1962 in the South.  He could not come and go as easily as the white Max Cady.  He probably would experience more interference from the police.  Fear of rape was already exaggerated in the public mind.  Does this film seize that fear and redirect it to Max Cady, a lower class white man?  Is this film an expression of the fear of racial violence against white women by black men, all the result of integration?  I must admit to doubting my own argument.  If the film were simply a text, the product of a single writer, especially a Southern writer, it might make more sense to me.  But the film is a product of many makers.  It’s based on a novel by John D. McDonald novel, who was from Pennsylvania.  The director J. Lee Thompson was from England.  The screenwriter James R. Webb was from Colorado.  So my speculation begins to fall apart.

Why isn’t Bowden given more protection against Cady?  It’s difficult to believe that Cady could threaten a family in the way he threatens this one and get away with it.  We’re told that he had read enough law in prison to understand how far he can carry his threats without breaking the law, and he’s careful not to go too far.  But is he really that smart?  Is there no legal recourse for the Bowdens?  It’s equally difficult to believe that the police and a private detective would conspire with lawyer Bowden to plot Cady’s murder.  Bowden completely compromises what one would assume (hope?) are his personal ethics: he first offers to pay Cady off if he will leave.  What has he done to pay Cady off for—what crime, what lapse?  This offer at the least raises questions about Bowden’s character.  He further compromises himself when he hires three men to beat Cady up.  When he schemes with a private detective to kill Cady, he seems completely lost. 

In the end, Bowden and Cady fight one another in the North Carolina swamps.  Bowden’s final decision not to shoot Cady, but instead to see him imprisoned for life, is supposed to indicate that he has, after all, retained civilized values, but this weakly redemptive moment seems unconvincing.

Although Cady rapes either Bowden’s wife or daughter, he certainly terrorizes them and one can imagine the psychological scars he leaves.  Yet the person most damaged at the end of this film is Bowden.  Are the measures he takes to protect his family justified?  Straw Dogs (1971; dir. Sam Peckinpah), in which a mousy graduate student resorts to savage methods to protect his wife, seems an analog. 

Bernard Hermann’s score is a major contributing factor to the suspense and fear in the film.

 

 

 

Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConnaughey is undoubtedly the center of Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013; dir. Jean-Marc Vallée).  I’m not surprised the film earned him the Best Actor Oscar, but I would not have been surprised if other recent films had done the same for him.  His role in HBO’s True Detective this past season was one of the best character portrayals I’ve seen on television, or in film for that matter.  Dallas Buyer’s Club is basically a character study, and once it establishes itself as a film about a hard-living lower class cowboy who discovers he has AIDs (he’s told he has 30 days to live), the film proceeds to detail how his struggle to deal with adversity makes him a better man.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with that often worked theme, and it makes for an entertaining film.  The film reminds us of what the early years of the AIDS epidemic were like—when few people understood the disease, how it was transmitted, who was most likely to get it, how it might be treated.  At first McConnaughey’s character Ron Woodruff refuses to see that he has anything in common with more conventional AIDS victims—gay men—he’s probably acquired the disease through using dirty needles--and he’s interested only in finding drugs that will cure him of the disease.  As he discovers outlets in Mexico and elsewhere that sell drugs not yet approved by the FDA, he sets up a buyer’s club that allows him, through a legal loophole, to sell those drugs to AIDS victims.  At first his motive is to make money.  Gradually his motives and sympathies shift, and he becomes a crusader for AIDS victims.  The film makes a strong and disturbing argument against how slowly things moved in the 1980s as scientists used well established painstaking methods to develop and test drugs for treating the disease.  The FDA’s conservatism, defensible in many situations, in the case of the fast spreading AIDS epidemic meant that many people died before drugs for treating it that were already available in other countries were approved.  The film isn’t insensitive to the fact that use of unproven drugs could be dangerous.  Woodruff’s developing friendship with the transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto) and with Doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner) are at the film’s heart.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Manderlay

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pretty Baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 09, 2014

Panic in the Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Angel Heart

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Friday, May 30, 2014

To Sleep with Anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outlaw Josey Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Beguiled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

School Daze

Spike Lee’s second film School Daze (1988) is set in a large Southern town recognizable as Atlanta, though it is never named.  It’s set on the campus of a historically black university, Mission University, a place like Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Lee studied.  On the one hand, this is an African American version of any number of mainly white films devoted to campus life, such as Animal House (1978) or Back to School (1988) or PCU (1994) or of those awful college films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s (Knute Rockne All American, 1940, comes to mind).  On the other hand, with its many comic moments, School Daze has a serious purpose: to explore political and cultural divisions in African American life by focusing on a college that is educating future African American leaders.  The film begins with a montage of images from the Civil Rights movement.  They connect the college campus the film portrays with African American history.

The “Daze” of the title suggests the unreality of college life, and the film spends a good bit of time showing us college students engaged in meaningless chatter about relationships, sex, fraternities, skin color, and hair style.  A central musical number is about a dispute between two groups of women who style their hair in different fashions—the light-skinned group favors 80s style hair and the darker skinned group prefers hair in a more revolutionary vein. 

The film presents more a pastiche, a montage of scenes from college life, than a coherent plot.  A character named Half-pint (Spike Lee) wants to pledge a popular fraternity.  He also wants to lose his virginity.  His cousin, Dap (Laurence Fishburne), is a would-be revolutionary who wants Mission College to disinvest all its funds from South Africa.  Dap hates fraternities and has a serious rivalry with Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), president of Gamma Phi Gamma, the fraternity Half-Pint wants to join.  School Daze sees fraternities as irrelevant and destructive.  Pledges undergo silly rituals.  They are encouraged to feel superior to other students, to abuse women, to feel contempt for people like Dap who want to change the world.  You can imagine many of these fraternity members headed for a conformist career in business.  It’s not in their interests to seek change in a world that they want to join.

Dap is loud and obnoxious in his ever-present advocacy for the causes he supports and in his hatred of the fraternity Dap wants to join.  He is not especially effective as an activist, but Spike Lee as director makes clear that Dap believes fervently in what he believes, and that he, as opposed to Julian or Half-Pint, recognizes that in a world where everyone’s attention is diverted by disagreements over affluence and skin color and hair styles and fraternity memberships, progress won’t occur.

On the night Half-Pint is initiated into Gamma Phi Gamma, Julian orders his girlfriend to sleep with Half-Pint because he can’t have a virgin in his fraternity.  She follows his command.  When Dap finds out what has happened, he is outraged at his cousin and at Julian.  The film ends with his commanding question “Why?” which seems to imply that while these students are whiling away their time on trivial, narcissistic irrelevancies, the world is suffering.  Dap’s “Why?” is a call for change of directions and for political action, both in the world at large, but on the campuses of places like Mission College, where future citizens are being educated.

Spike Lee’s method of introducing an array of characters and situations that he gradually interweaves through the course of the film is evident here.  School Daze is a major step towards one of his great films, Do the Right Thing (1989).  It also paves the way for a number of other films about African American college life, all centered in Atlanta.  Drumline (2002; dir. Charles Stone III), ATL (2006; dir. Chris Robinson) and Stomp the Yard (2007; dir. Sylvain White) are examples.