The Moviegoings Podcast #6: Attack the Block

•August 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Is it sci-fi? Horror? Action? Comedy? Coming-of-age drama? It’s all of those things and more! We’re discussing the fantastically-entertaining “Attack the Block” in the hopes of figuring out why not many people saw it and explaining why it should have been seen by everyone who enjoys a good time at the movies.

The Moviegoings Podcast #5: Brazil

•July 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In this episode, we’re discussing Terry Gilliam’s surreal dystopian fantasy, released in 1985 after an epic struggle with the studio to release a cut that he was happy with. Gilliam’s cut didn’t do particularly well in theaters, but almost 30 years later, it is widely beloved. Not universally beloved, though . . . Let’s just say one of us wasn’t as taken with the movie as the other was. But we had a great conversation about it anyway!

Godzilla

•May 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Godzillaposterstarring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, and Elizabeth Olsen
written by Max Borenstein & Dave Callaham and directed by Gareth Edwards
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.
90%

American engineer Joe Brody (Cranston) has spent years searching for answers about the true cause of a nuclear plant disaster in Japan that devastated his family. His obsession has kept him at arm’s length from his son Ford (Taylor-Johnson), a Navy bomb disposal expert. Meanwhile, Japanese scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe), a Japanese scientist, investigates an alarming sequence of events following a mysterious cave-in in the Philippines. The three are thrown together in a desperate bid to forestall disaster after a shocking, unprecedented cataclysm occurs.

Take heed Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, and yes, even you, Guillermo del Toro. This is how you construct and produce jaw-dropping spectacle without sacrificing narrative or visual coherence. This is how you tell a massive, blockbusting story on a monstrous scale while preserving meaningful human drama. In fact, there are a lot of directors (Peter Jackson, Jon Favreau, Gore Verbinski, et al.) who could use a reminder that hiring a computer animator to make something that looks “awesome” does not automatically make their movie “awesome,” or interesting to watch, or even good.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with this much large-scale destruction that didn’t have me checking my watch halfway through yet another interminable sequence of superheroes, monsters, or giant machines throwing each other into skyscrapers. Edwards never lets these scenes overstay their welcome, always pulling back after giving us just a tantalizing taste of the kind of action other directors throw at the screen in buckets.

He lets our imaginations do a lot of the work, producing a superior product while likely saving a fortune in production costs and time. Which isn’t to say that Godzilla doesn’t deliver. The climax is an incredible payoff, made all the more amazing and enjoyable without the wall-to-wall-action fatigue that lesser movies have created by this point. At the same time, it manages the difficult feat of creating real tension and peril around its characters, whose survival never seems like a foregone conclusion.

Certainly the best thing about it, and the highest praise I can give it, is that this movie delivered everything I didn’t even know I wanted out of a Godzilla movie. I’m going to confess right now that the only Godzilla I’ve ever seen is the execrable 1998 Emmerich version, which I am given to understand true fans regard with such contempt that it isn’t even considered a Godzilla movie at all. I never really got the appeal of watching a guy in a big rubber suit stomp around knock over cheap city sets, or fighting other guys in big rubber suits. Until now. Sitting there in the darkened theater, drinking in the massive awesomeness of Godzilla, something clicked, and I suddenly understood the whole “King of the Monsters” thing.

I could go on gushing like this for awhile, but that’s really all I want to say about this movie in a review. Because yet another impressive feat it pulled off was advertising a Godzilla movie that left me completely unprepared for the story that unfolded in this movie. I still can’t quite believe that the advertising campaign didn’t even hint at some of this movie’s fantastic surprises. So I’ve tried to respect that with a plot summary that is as vague as the movie’s trailer, and a discussion that is even more spoiler-free than I’m used to providing.

The movie’s weak point, unsurprisingly, is character development. During the first act, Taylor-Johnson’s character, Ford, emerges as the primary point-of-view/audience surrogate. Not the protagonist or antagonist, of course. That would be Godzilla himself. However, his performance, in fact his whole demeanor, is startlingly wooden and emotionless. This worked pretty well for me, making him something of a blank screen on which I projected my own emotions about his family and his circumstances. But I’m doing all of the dramatic heavy-lifting as the spectator, and he’s not doing much of anything.

Part of the problem, though, is in the writing. Ford doesn’t experience any growth as a character, and he doesn’t have an arc to speak of. My sense of these films is that this is all kind of built in at the genre level, but it’s the most significant criticism I had apart from a couple of the usual head-scratcher plot holes that don’t necessarily register until you think about the movie later. There are, by my count, 3 Oscar nominees, an Oscar winner, and a 4-time Emmy winner in this cast. But none of them are getting any nominations for this movie. And that’s okay. Godzilla delivered exactly what I came to see without treating me like a popcorn-swilling moron. I’d say that puts it at least two steps ahead of the average summer blockbuster.

The Moviegoings Podcast #4: Anatomy of a Murder

•May 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Join us for a discussion of Otto Preminger’s classic 1959 courtroom drama, still revered in legal circles today, and of the strangeness (but also, perhaps, familiarity) of American culture just a few short decades ago. Great writing and great performances unite to create a truly memorable (if maybe a tad overlong) film starring the likes of James Stewart and George C. Scott.

The “Southern” Project, Sneak Preview #4

•May 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

One year ago, I introduced a planned series on “Essential Southerns: Hollywood’s Forgotten Genre.” As I worked on it, though, the series continued to grow and grow in size and scope. Eventually, I knew it had passed well beyond the bounds of a mere blog feature and threatened to overwhelm everything. If I were to publish all of it here, I would have to rename this “The Southern Film Blog.” Tempting . . . but not what I want this site to be. But I promised you a list of films last year, and I aim to deliver a list of films. So, here’s a little preview of my “Southern” project in 4 parts. Enjoy!

Junebug

Junebug (2005)
Screenplay by Angus MacLachlan. Dir. Phil Morrison.
Perf. Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Amy Adams.

What it’s about: Madeleine, a Yankee art dealer, marries George, a Southern expatriate from North Carolina, after a whirlwind romance. A few months later, they use a trip South to sign an artist as an excuse for her to finally meet his family: withdrawn father Eugene, outspoken mother Peg, high-school drop-out brother Johnny, and Johnny’s bubbly pregnant wife Ashley. Madeleine soon realizes that George comes from a completely different world, and that she may not know him as well as she thought she did.

junebug posterWhy it’s essential: As a small, independent production, Junebug didn’t find an audience (or a lot of theaters to run in) right away. But it hit big with the critics, showing up as a nominee for a long list of awards (almost all for Amy Adams’ totally charming performance as Ashley), and winning several. That exposure, in turn, began to get this beautifully genuine portrait of a Southern family the recognition it deserved from a wider audience.

The characters in Junebug are startlingly life-like. If you live in the South, you personally know at least one character in this movie. You probably know them all. Nothing seems fake or phony, and there are scenes where it’s difficult to tell whether you’re watching something that was staged and scripted with actors and extras, or something completely spontaneous in a real location with people just going about their business. The result is an unusually personal window into the relationships within this small-town Southern family, whose sense of the importance of family obligation is matched only by their awkwardness with each other.

Even in a culture that values family loyalty above almost everything else, relationships require upkeep. This is not an unusually troubled family, but nevertheless they have accumulated their own little stores of private grievances and breakdowns in communication over the years. Junebug does not build towards some big showdown or revelation, it just quietly observes strained interactions and small gestures of affection as this family the day-to-day work of living together. It is intimate without feeling intrusive, and it leaves the viewer with no choice but to get emotionally involved.

But is it worth watching? You will fall in love with these characters. You’ll laugh with them and cry with them and feel everything that they feel. They will break your heart. The performances are beautifully understated, and the director never overplays his hand, maintaining a delicate balance between humor and pathos without ever veering into farce or melodrama. He never treats his subjects with excessive reverence or with contempt. This is not a feel-good movie, but watching it does make me feel good, every single time.

thegeneral

The General (1926)
Screenplay by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman. Dir. Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman.
Perf. Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender.
From memoir Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure (1863) by Lieut. William Pittenger.

What it’s about: Branded a coward by his fiancee when the Confederate Army won’t allow him to enlist, train engineer Johnnie Gray gets a chance at redemption when his girl and his locomotive (The General) are stolen in a daring Union raid. With no back-up and no resources, only his wits and his railroad skills, Johnnie sets out in hot pursuit to catch the Yankees before they can cross the front lines.

thegeneralposterWhy it’s essential: Buster Keaton was a silent comedy genius, and this was his favorite of his films. It was hugely expensive, but failed to connect with audiences or critics when it was released, forcing Keaton out of independent production and into a restrictive studio contract. History has vindicated his opinion, however. The General is now widely considered one of the greatest silents, nay, greatest films of all time, and was in the first group of films selected for the National Film Registry in 1989.

In April 1862, a group of Union volunteers who had made their way south seized The General, a locomotive traveling along the Atlanta-Chattanooga line, and proceeded north, cutting telegraph wires and sabotaging the rails as they went. The train’s conductor, William Fuller, gave chase for some 80 miles, on foot, by handcar, and via commandeered locomotive. The Yankees were caught, some were executed, several escaped, and the rest were held as prisoners of war. One of the men who escaped, a Union lieutenant, published an account of the raid the following year, and this account formed the basis for Keaton’s film. Except, of course, Keaton made a Confederate his protagonist, and gave him an every-man name (at least he didn’t go with “Johnnie Reb”) and a damsel-in-distress to rescue.

The General employs the classic plot device of a “coward” who must regain his masculine honor by proving himself the bravest of all. This scenario works particularly well transposed atop the violent honor culture of the Old South, and the regional obsession with Civil War exploits provides the ideal period setting. As is typical of these stories, the hero proves himself, not through extraordinary violence (of which he is usually incapable), but through extraordinary ingenuity and more than a little luck. Keaton’s dead-pan somberness lends itself perfectly to this requirement as he performs and survives incredible feats, seemingly by chance, without mugging for the camera. He never winks at the audience, and is always in deadly earnest, making him that much funnier, and more sympathetic at the same time. We laugh (oh, how we laugh), but we also desperately want him to succeed.

But is it worth watching? The incomparable Orson Welles called The General, “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.” It is the perfect introduction to silent film for a post-silent culture: Keaton is at his most daring and inventive, pulling stunts that still amaze, even nearly 90 years later. Its reputation is well-deserved, and I daresay it could hardly fail to entertain anyone, contemporary audiences notwithstanding. I’ll certainly never tire of watching Keaton’s unique brand of physical comedy in film after film, especially this one.

theapostle

The Apostle (1997)
Screenplay by Robert Duvall. Dir. Robert Duvall.
Perf. Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton.

What it’s about: Sonny, a passionate, volatile Texas preacher, takes a baseball bat to the man his wife is having an affair with, then flees to Louisiana. He changes his name to “Apostle E. F.” and goes to work for a mechanic, but soon finds that he can’t ignore the call to continue preaching, even if it draws unwanted attention.

Why it’s essential: Robert Duvall became a triple threat for this film, writing, directing, and starring in the production. Only his performance was nominated for an Academy Award. However, many critics recognized that his work behind the camera was something special, as well (though the film is still not widely known). Nevertheless, it remains a significant cinematic experience for those who have actually seen it. The film’s most striking quality is its firm commitment to authenticity and its understanding of people of faith, even as it focuses on their messiness.

Duvall plays a man who is not always a very good person, but whose faith and desire to serve God is completely sincere. Sonny is not a fraud or a charlatan or a monster, nor is he a saint, even though one of those descriptions can be applied to practically every other movie preacher ever. He is simply a sinner who cannot figure out what to do with himself when he is not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he struggles constantly with the tension between this irresistible calling and his own lack of self-control. He is a wild, broken figure desperately seeking redemption in a community of equally desperate and broken people. This is what religion is like in the South: messy and weird and full of contradictions, but also full of hope and forgiveness and sometimes healing.

There is a documentary-like quality to the movie, with many scenes that feel like the camera is simply a fly on the wall at an actual church service. Actually, sometimes it is. There is at least one scene where Robert Duvall preaches, in character as Sonny, at an actual revival. All the men behind him on the stage are real preachers, and he is standing in front of an actual congregation of de facto “extras.” This is a world that any Southerner will immediately recognize, and appreciate for its verisimilitude.

But is it worth watching? Duvall is an absolute powerhouse as the film’s driving force. His performance is electric and commanding. You can’t look away. The movie isn’t story-driven, it’s character-driven, which means there are plenty of scenes that don’t go anywhere in particular, they just are. The people on the screen feel like people you know, and you care about them (or, at least, you’re interested in them). Duvall’s command of every aspect of the production is strong, and yet it is surprisingly subtle, and even entertaining. It is clearly a labor of love, and a film that rewards thoughtful engagement.

thenightofthehunter

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Screenplay by James Agee. Dir. Charles Laughton.
Perf. Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish.
From novel The Night of the Hunter (1953) by Davis Grubb.

What it’s about: In 1930s West Virginia, an evil ex-convict-turned-preacher marries his dead cellmate’s widow, hoping to charm the location of a stolen fortune out of his children. When that fails, he murders their mother and relentlessly pursues the fleeing children through a pastoral dreamscape along the southern bank of the Ohio River.

thenightofthehunterposter

Why it’s essential: Charles Laughton’s directorial debut bombed with critics and audiences alike in 1955, bringing his nascent career as a director to a swift and sudden end. Later audiences have been more appreciative, and the movie is now widely recognized as an absolute masterpiece of style, marrying German expressionism to Southern Gothic for one of the most visually-striking depictions of the region ever filmed. Its unique charm has landed it on a variety of “great films” lists, including Cahiers du cinema‘s “100 Most Beautiful Films,” where it occupies the #2 spot.

It is essentially a morality play, where good and evil battle against a deliberately stagy backdrop. This is the South as Garden of Eden. That image dates back to some of the first colonists, but this is the Garden with the Serpent running loose. It’s not hard to imagine pockets of this storybook South existing in some forgotten corner or distant backcountry. It is a weird wonderland populated more by character types than people. Hunter’s South truly is a region of myth and allegory, where moral forces battle for supremacy.

Images of this duality abound in the film’s black-and-white world. Standing in for righteousness is a shotgun-toting, Bible-quoting Lillian Gish, 40 years after she appeared in The Birth of a Nation, but still three decades from the end of her absurdly-long film career. Her evil opposite quotes the Bible, too; a monster masquerading as a man of God. Robert Mitchum is spine-chillingly menacing as one of the scariest movie bad guys ever, striding implacably after the children as he belts out the chorus to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in his rich baritone. He has the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across his knuckles, props for a sermon he frequently delivers on these two primal forces locked in eternal combat. Hate will always triumph within him, and for a time it seems that it will overwhelm his victims, too, but of course it’s love that wins the day in the end, as his own sermon foretells.

But is it worth watching? It’s not hard to guess why audiences in 1955 didn’t like this film. One imagines they just didn’t know what to make of it. There is an unmistakable dreamlike (and sometimes nightmare-like) quality to the movie that is quite difficult to describe. It must be experienced. To my knowledge there’s no other film quite like it, either before or since. Still, even as deeply strange as the movie is, it’s difficult to understand how no one “got it.” The expressionist style is such a perfect fit for the material that it seems startling no one else had tried it before, and the images it produces will stay with you long after the movie is over. Mitchum is amazing, an embodiment of pure evil who will haunt your dreams, while Gish’s performance carries such strength that she’ll be there as well, standing guard through the night as she does in the film.

tokillamockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Screenplay by Horton Foote. Dir. Robert Mulligan.
Perf. Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Robert Duvall.
From novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee.

What it’s about: Scout Finch recalls her childhood in a sleepy, segregated Alabama town in the 1930s. One summer, Maycomb is rocked to its foundations by the trial of a black man who stands accused of raping a white woman. The Finch family experiences their own upheavals when Scout’s father Atticus agrees to represent the defendant and they, too, face the wrath and prejudice of the town’s white citizens.

tokillamockingbirdposter

Why it’s essential: Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a glorious masterpiece that remains firmly lodged on the required readings lists of America’s schoolchildren nationwide. This is that rare example of a film that matches its beloved source in both reputation and prestige. Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, it won 3, and if anything its reputation has grown in the 50-odd years since it was first released. It is frequently cited as one of the greatest American films of all time. The American Film Institute named it the greatest courtroom drama of all time, and selected Atticus Finch as the greatest movie hero of the century. Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance as Atticus is iconic, embodying American virtue standing tall in the face of American evil.

Atticus Finch represents everything America most aspires to be, standing in stark contrast with the America that existed in 1962, a nation that still harbored serious regional and racial divisions 100 years after the Civil War. Meanwhile, Scout and Jem experience a loss of innocence as they become aware of the generational evil lurking just beneath the warm glow of their idyllic and privileged Southern childhood. Their journey of conscience represented an experience that every white American of conscience faced: How to respond to the sheer ugliness of systemic racial prejudice when confronted with the brutal realities of its existence in every part of Southern society.

The sad reality is that there was no Atticus Finch in 1930s Alabama, or even in 1960s Alabama. Even if there had been, the lone brave man (or child) of conscience with the power to turn aside an angry mob is essentially a movie fantasy, which has led some to regard this story as little more than a feel-good fairy tale. However, to me the strength of Mockingbird, both the book and the film, is that it wields the power of fiction to expose the evils of racial prejudice to a white audience whose consciences have not been awakened to it. And, at the same time, it challenges that audience to aspire to do better, to be the better people they imagine themselves to be.

But is it worth watching? Elmer Bernstein’s hauntingly beautiful score immediately sets a tone that is by turns nostalgic and ominous, and practically every scene contains elements of greatness. The young performers who stand in as audience surrogates are wonderful, with their child-like clarity of vision, and the voice-over narration of an adult Scout reminiscing is sparing and non-intrusive. You also won’t want to miss the screen debut of Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, a small but important role that foreshadowed a magnificent career. Under the right circumstances, this could be (and has been) a life-changing film, full of moments that will stay with you forever.

The “Southern” Project, Sneak Preview #3

•May 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

One year ago, I introduced a planned series on “Essential Southerns: Hollywood’s Forgotten Genre.” As I worked on it, though, the series continued to grow and grow in size and scope. Eventually, I knew it had passed well beyond the bounds of a mere blog feature and threatened to overwhelm everything. If I were to publish all of it here, I would have to rename this “The Southern Film Blog.” Tempting . . . but not what I want this site to be. But I promised you a list of films last year, and I aim to deliver a list of films. So, here’s a little preview of my “Southern” project in 4 parts. Enjoy!

Easy Rider (1969)
Screenplay by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, & Terry Southern. Dir. Dennis Hopper.
Perf. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson.

What it’s about: With money in their pockets thanks to a drug run, a pair of free-spirited bikers set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, with some stops along the way. Enjoying the freedom of the open road, they meet a variety of people, including a rancher, a hitchhiker, and a whole hippie commune. Eventually they pick up a third and head deeper into the South, but soon run into trouble with the intolerant locals.

easyriderposterWhy it’s essential: Easy Rider was the surprise hit of 1969. Actually, it was the surprise hit of the whole decade. Shot on a modest budget, the film was a massive success, earning about 115 times what it cost to make. Because of its immense popularity, influence, and the fact that it was produced outside of the Hollywood system, it is credited with a significant role in kick-starting the “New Hollywood” renaissance of American film that continued throughout the 1970s. Looking back, critics and scholars have consistently identified its release as a watershed moment in film and in the counterculture.

Warren French, writing in 1981, predicted that this new type of film, the “Southern,” populated by its own unique character types and featuring motor vehicles instead of horses, would eventually come to replace the “dying” Western genre. Oddly enough, Peter Fonda originally conceived of Easy Rider as a sort of modern Western, where he and Hopper would ride motorcycles rather than horses. Of course, it is telling that these characters ride off away from the sunset, not into it, and that they express admiration for the simple lifestyle of the West, but ultimately reject it.

The film’s major theme is the failure of American ideals. As the movie’s tagline explains, “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere . . .” Over a century after the Civil War, the South still seemed like the logical regional setting for a film about the death of the American dream, even for a film that was first envisioned as a Western. After the protagonists’ unconventional clothes and hair invite abuse from the locals in a small town, Jack Nicholson’s character observes that most Americans are afraid of freedom (non-conformity, in this case), for all their talk about it. That fear leads to intolerance, and ultimately to violence. The film describes this tragic cycle as an American malaise, but contextualizes it in exclusively Southern terms.

But is it worth watching? Watching Easy Rider, it’s easy to see why it is so frequently identified as a cultural touchstone. The infectious, hippie appeal is obvious: men flying freely down long, empty stretches of highway atop awesome-looking choppers, their travels accompanied by some of the best music of the decade. Jack Nicholson is also excellent in the role that launched his incredible career. Worthwhile for either cultural or entertainment value alone, the combination of both makes this a must-see.

obrotherwhereartthou

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Screenplay by Ethan & Joel Coen. Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen.
Perf. George Clooney, Jon Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson.
From epic poem The Odyssey (700s BC) by Homer.

What it’s about: Slick-talking Ulysses Everett McGill convinces fellow prisoners Pete and Delmar to escape from the chain-gang with him in pursuit of false promises of buried treasure. The three men embark on an epic odyssey across the Depression-Era South, in which they encounter all manner of strange characters and have many adventures.

obrotherwhereartthouposterWhy it’s essential: Hardly anyone seemed to know quite what to make of the Coen Brothers’ comedic foray into the Deep South when it was released to mixed reviews at the turn-of-the-millennium. A couple of Oscar nominations aside, it got relatively little attention in the film world. In the music world, though, it caused quite a stir. The film’s brilliant soundtrack, produced by T-Bone Burnett, won three Grammys, including Album of the Year, and has been certified 8 times platinum to-date. It has since appeared on various lists of the greatest country albums of all time, and of the best and most important albums of its decade. Its success ignited a major revival in bluegrass music, and has been cited as a significant influence by bands like the hugely-popular Mumford & Sons.

Music aside, the brilliant conceit of transplanting Homer’s epic Odyssey from the Ancient Mediterranean to the equally weird and mythic world of 1930s Mississippi works in every possible way. The Coens spend the film weaving together Southern tropes and cinematic in-jokes, starting with the title (a sly reference to the classic Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels). Their heroes encounter a blind prophet, a gangster, a trio of seductresses that ply them with moonshine, a crooked Bible salesman, a couple of even crookeder politicians, a Ku Klux Klan rally, and more. Throughout it all, they are pursued relentlessly by a man who might be the law, or who might be the Devil himself.

Best of all is the way that the Coens play with the often-blurred line between Southern fact and Southern fiction, taking historical characters and events and cultural constructions of “Southerness” and tossing it all into the soup together in their own unique way. By evoking the culture of the period so strongly, they end up giving us a pretty good feel for the period itself, all while juggling the film’s deliberately tongue-in-cheek tone and working in major plot points from The Odyssey. It is a thoroughly audacious undertaking carried out with consummate style. But that’s the Coen Brothers in a nutshell.

But is it worth watching? O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of those rare and wonderful movies that can be watched over and over and over again without getting old, and I have watched it, innumerable times. Sheer entertainment from start to finish, with hilarious performances, whip-smart writing, totally bizarre and unexpected goings-on of all kinds, and a just too-perfect soundtrack, there simply isn’t anything not to like. It may not be the Coen Brothers’ best film, or even my favorite of their films . . . But, really, it kind of is at the same time.

astreetcarnameddesire

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Dir. Elia Kazan.
Perf. Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter.
From play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams.

What it’s about: Fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois flees her Mississippi hometown in poverty and disgrace, hoping to find refuge in New Orleans with Stella, her newly-married sister. Instead, her aristocratic sensibilities are scandalized by her sister’s living conditions, and most of all by Stella’s brutish husband Stanley Kowalski. Blanche’s fragile mental state threatens to unravel under Stanley’s prying questions about her past and about the misfortune that brought her to his squalid apartment.

astreetcarnameddesireposterWhy it’s essential: A Streetcar Named Desire made the careers of its author, Tennessee Williams, who won the Pulitzer for it, and its breakout star, Marlon Brando, with a highly-successful Broadway run in 1947. Both men, along with most of the Broadway cast, and director Elia Kazan, returned to fill the same roles for the tortured production of the 1951 film. I say “tortured,” though one would hardly know it to watch the movie now and reflect on its success. Streetcar won 4 Oscars, and was nominated for 12. It committed to film the definitive version of a raw, powerful drama that continues to appear regularly on stages across the nation today, and it remains a classic.

Nevertheless, its journey from stage to screen was torturous because its subject matter was so shocking and unprecedented. Critics and scholars frequently cite Streetcar as the first film exclusively for adults to be released under the strict guidelines of the infamous Production Code. Williams and Kazan fought censors and studio heads for years to see their vision brought faithfully to the screen, but they were ultimately stymied by the Catholic Legion of Decency, whose objections prompted the studio to secretly trim 5 minutes from the finished film. Decades later, that footage was restored, and today we can see this masterpiece in all its explosive glory. Marlon Brando, pioneer of the avant-garde school of Method acting, is full of raw, bestial energy, embodying the rough, urban modernity that threatens to crush the fragile, anachronistic idealism of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche.

A mere 12 years after she created the archetypal image of the antebellum Southern belle as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Leigh deconstructed that archetype as Blanche DuBois, Scarlett’s Gothic double. Where Scarlett is fiery and youthful, Blanche is meek, aging, and subject to headaches and fainting spells. Both women are survivors who seek to have their needs met primarily by manipulating the men around them. However, where Scarlett uses her sexuality and the chivalrous social codes of her day, Blanche has neither of those advantages to fall back on. Instead, she uses “manners” and “breeding” to attract men, but her appeals to chivalry fall largely on deaf ears in the modern South embodied by her brother-in-law Stanley. In the world of Streetcar, not only does Blanche’s South, the South of Gone with the Wind, no longer exist (if it ever did), but the New South is actively trampling what remains of the Old.

But is it worth watching? Reading A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s hard not to notice that the writing is a little too on-the-nose. The symbolism is obvious, and its quasi-allegorical themes threaten to overwhelm the actual narrative. In the film, all of that fades into the background, and there is nothing but the performances, the sultry New Orleans music, the grubby sets, the stark black-and-white cinematography. While the films more salacious elements seem positively tame now, there’s nothing tame about the way Brando tears up the screen. Leigh, Kim Hunter (as Stella), and Karl Malden (as Mitch) all won Oscars for their amazing performances, while Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart. He would go on to be nominated twice more before his first win, but it’s quite clear now that, as good as the rest of the cast is, Brando is head-and-shoulders above them.

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Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Screenplay by Kasi Lemmons. Dir. Kasi Lemmons.
Perf. Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Meagan Good, Samuel L. Jackson.

What it’s about: Eve Batiste is the younger daughter of a respected doctor in an African-American community in 1960s Louisiana. She idolizes her father, but her idealism is shattered when she catches him in a compromising position with a family friend, igniting a sequence of dramatic events that will change her family forever over the course of a single summer.

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Why it’s essential: Although it went completely (and bafflingly) unnoticed by most of the major awards shows in 1997, Eve’s Bayou won an armload of smaller awards, and was lavishly praised by critics. Roger Ebert named it the best film of the year, and more recently, TIME named it one of the 25 most important films on race. Not bad for a first time writer/director.

The movie is positively drenched in the spooky atmosphere of the Louisiana bayou, and makes excellent use of the narrative device of a child struggling to make sense of an adult world that she doesn’t fully understand. There are various Southern tropes in play here (buried secrets, voodoo curses, and a whole lot of Spanish moss), but they feel organic to the story, not like cliches or rote elements in a formula. Underneath it all is a haunting cinematic meditation on the ambiguous, constructed nature of human memory, and the role this inevitably plays in the drama of human relationships.

The characters in Eve’s Bayou witness events, overhear conversations, and repeat recollections. We see and hear what they do, often from multiple perspectives. This web of second-hand observation forms impressions that may or may not be correct. Throughout it all, Lemmons refuses to allow her audience the complacency of assuming the objectivity of what we can see, an extraordinarily difficult trick for a film to accomplish.

But is it worth watching? As the movie begins, an adult Eve intones in a quiet voice-over, “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” If you aren’t instantly hooked by that opening, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. The stellar cast all deliver riveting performances, and the film just sucks you in and never lets you go. To call it one of the greatest films of its kind is true, but a bit misleading, for it is truly one-of-a-kind.

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Gone with the Wind (1939)
Screenplay by Sidney Howard. Dir. Victor Fleming.
Perf. Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel.
From novel Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.

What it’s about: Spoiled, self-centered Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara sees her world turned upside-down during the destruction of the Civil War, and later, the turmoil of Reconstruction. In the midst of a brand-new social order, she does whatever is necessary to survive this sudden reversal of fortunes, getting by on her considerable charm and willingness to manipulate everyone around her. Rakish opportunist Rhett Butler is the one man who sees through her performance, sparking a tempestuous relationship.

gonewiththewindposterWhy it’s essential: Gone with the Wind is the title most likely to come to mind as the example of a Southern movie. Margaret Mitchell’s novel won a Pulitzer in the mid-1930s and became one of the best-selling American books of all time. Famed Hollywood producer David O. Selznick acquired the rights to film the novel before it was even published, and the production drew national attention. The film was the major motion picture event of 1939, winning 8 of its 13 Oscar nominations. One went to Hattie McDaniel, making her the first African American to win an Oscar, though she was segregated from the other attendees at the awards ceremony.

Mitchell’s novel has been criticized as an “encyclopedia of the plantation legend,” but it’s Selznick’s film that truly deserves that label. Mitchell’s novel contains all of the trappings of the Old-South-to-Reconstruction mythology, but it slips in ambiguities and subverts conventions throughout. The film version, looking to distill a thousand-page novel down to a “mere” four-hour film, stripped all of that ambiguity and subversion away, substituting widely-held contemporary beliefs about what the antebellum South was “really” like. Its immense, incomparable popularity has made it the standard by which all other depictions of the period are judged.

Running for years in some places, it remains the most successful film in movie history, with ticket sales in the hundreds of millions. It is one of only a few stories of its era to maintain an active fandom. Everything since either owes an obvious debt to Gone with the Wind, or is consciously attempting to answer it. It remains by far the most-cited cultural touchstone depicting plantation life, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. So, while Gone with the Wind certainly didn’t originate stereotypes of happy, singing slaves, noble, doomed Confederates, and Yankee abuse during Reconstruction, it is undoubtedly the most obvious culprit in their continued survival. But its level of influence is no fluke. Its story is powerful, populated with iconic characters, featuring all of the magic and opulence that the movies had at their disposal during the height of the studio era.

But is it worth watching? Gone with the Wind captured the imagination of an entire generation of filmgoers, but even though it still looms large in the cultural imagination, it no longer has the same power over modern audiences that it had in 1939. Still, everyone should see this movie, and if you actually do sit through all 238 minutes of the film’s epic running time, I think you’ll have experienced something that will not soon fade from memory. Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable delivered career-defining performances, and practically every second of the movie is a gorgeous and impressive product of its era, even when it is obviously being shot on a set. Watching Gone with the Wind will certainly transport you to another time, it just won’t be the 1860s.

The “Southern” Project, Sneak Preview #2

•May 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

One year ago, I introduced a planned series on “Essential Southerns: Hollywood’s Forgotten Genre.” As I worked on it, though, the series continued to grow and grow in size and scope. Eventually, I knew it had passed well beyond the bounds of a mere blog feature and threatened to overwhelm everything. If I were to publish all of it here, I would have to rename this “The Southern Film Blog.” Tempting . . . but not what I want this site to be. But I promised you a list of films last year, and I aim to deliver a list of films. So, here’s a little preview of my “Southern” project in 4 parts. Enjoy!

wiseblood

Wise Blood (1979)
Screenplay by Benedict & Michael Fitzgerald. Dir. John Huston.
Perf. Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Ned Beatty.
From novel Wise Blood (1952) by Flannery O’Connor.

What it’s about: Disillusioned veteran Hazel Motes returns from the Second World War and finds his family’s rural homestead abandoned. Having rejected his hyper-religious upbringing, he sets out for the nearest city, determined to commit as many sins as possible and preach his new-found anti-religious faith to anyone who will listen. However, a series of weird encounters with all kinds of strange people frustrate his intentions at every turn.

wisebloodposterWhy it’s essential: Even though Flannery O’Connor is a giant of Southern fiction, her work is the sort of thing that is often labeled “unfilmable.” After seeing Wise Blood, some viewers might be inclined to credit that assessment. It is certainly an odd and unique little experiment in adaptation that may or may not be working at any given moment. The screenplay was written by the sons of O’Connor’s literary executors, and they somehow convinced legendary director John Huston to tackle the material.

Huston, for his part, seems to have thought that he was making a country-fried farce about religious fanaticism. The comedy, underscored by slapstick banjo music, is extremely broad. But underneath all of that noise, some of his cast, most notably Brad Dourif in the starring role, seem to have truly understood the novel. In the end, O’Connor’’s Christian themes overwhelmed Huston’s absurdist direction, and this remains (for good or ill) a surprisingly faithful adaptation of its source. Perhaps that could only ever have happened by accident.

Wise Blood is a distinctly Southern story, populated by freaks, but what ultimately shines through is not the freakishness of the characters, but their essential humanity; that and, of course, O’Connor’s strong Catholic faith. The story is about Hazel’s determination to run in the opposite direction from faith in Christ, only to discover that all his efforts have led him directly to a moment of Christian redemption. Perhaps it is not so strange, then, that Huston’s determined attempt to make a comedy about religious mania turned out to be something else, as he grudgingly acknowledged.

But is it worth watching? Released in 1979, Wise Blood is one of the most unusual movies from an unusual decade of American films. The characters are deeply weird, but there is a disarming authenticity to the setting that grounds the movie, despite all the points where it veers off into shallow caricature. This is an unconventional classic, but a classic nonetheless, and not to be missed, particularly by fans of O’Connor’s work.

coolhandluke

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Screenplay by Donn Pearce & Frank Pierson. Dir. Stuart Rosenberg.
Perf. Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin.
From novel Cool Hand Luke (1965) by Donn Pearce.

What it’s about: Sentenced to two years on a brutal Florida chain gang, Luke Jackson immediately upends the established order of the prison camp. He soon inspires his fellow prisoners with his indomitable spirit and his seemingly limitless capacity to absorb suffering, but the prison warden is determined to break him.

coolhandlukeposterWhy it’s essential: One of the best-loved, most-acclaimed movies from a year that was full of great films, Cool Hand Luke was an immediate hit that remains popular with audiences today. This stands out as one of Paul Newman’s more iconic roles, out of a career that was full of them. Nominated for numerous awards in 1967, it continues to appear prominently on lists of “great movies” from time to time.

The themes in Cool Hand Luke dovetailed naturally with the anti-establishment movements of the late-1960s, with its central conflict between Luke’s stubborn free spirit and the oppression of The System, as represented by the warden, the chain-gang boss, and the seemingly-endless list of rules and consequences. Aside from his easy-going good humor, Luke’s chief characteristic is his refusal to back down from fights that even he knows he can’t win. His never-say-die attitude naturally achieves some minor, inspiring victories and wins the adoration of his fellow prisoners, but ultimately it dooms him.

Somehow, though, the movie manages to avoid being entirely downbeat. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Perhaps this has something to do with the religious elements that appear throughout the film, investing Luke with Christological significance. At various points in the story, Luke undergoes a sort of Passion, suffering immensely and ultimately dying. As the film ends, Dragline, Luke’s chief apostle, immediately begins to preach his gospel, and we can assume that his spirit of non-conformist resistance will live on through his fellow prisoners.

But is it worth watching? Cool Hand Luke is immensely enjoyable, although there is no obvious reason why it should be, based on a basic plot summary. The credit for this should probably go to Newman and the great supporting cast that make up his fellow prisoners: George Kennedy (who won an Oscar for his performance), Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, etc. The film’s most famous line, though, the one you’ve probably heard even if you never saw the movie, belongs to Strother Martin as Captain, the sadistic warden: “What we have here is failure to communicate.” His delivery is classic, and the rest of the film is, too.

thebirthofanation

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Screenplay by D.W. Griffith & Frank E. Woods. Dir. D.W. Griffith.
Perf. Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall.
From novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) by Thomas Dixon, Jr.

What it’s about: The fates of two American families, the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South, are inextricably linked by love and friendship. The bond between them will be tested by the tragedies of the Civil War, and later by the racial upheavals of Reconstruction.

thebirthofanationposterWhy it’s essential: The Birth of a Nation is generally regarded as the first American feature film of any real consequence. Certainly it is the first American epic, a work of grandiose scope and ambition employing cinematic techniques that propelled American motion pictures into a new era of storytelling. The film’s scale and length were unprecedented, and it was a massive success, commanding high ticket prices, drawing large audiences, and inspiring a new respect for movies as an art form. It also triggered a major revival of the Ku Klux Klan and helped sear a distorted, racist view of history into the collective national consciousness.

Thomas Dixon’s original novel was written as an outraged response to a “Tom show” (a stage production based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin) that he saw in 1902, and which he regarded as unjust in its depiction of the antebellum South. The book is essentially a screed in favor of white patriarchy and a polemic against “race mixing” wrapped inside a story built from a historical fallacy. As such, it’s not terribly effective. The film, on the other hand, “[wrote] history with lightning” (as President Woodrow Wilson is supposed to have said upon seeing it). Or, at any rate, it rewrote history in the sense that it invested Dixon’s bogus vision of the past with power and influence that it never had on the page.

Griffith manipulates his audience’s emotions, successfully creates the illusion of historical authenticity, and builds tension and excitement through clever editing and staging. He wisely jettisoned Dixon’s histrionic sermonizing (given that this was a silent film, he had to) and zeroed in on the simple nationalist theme that likely inspired the change in title: the brotherhood of all (white) Americans, forged in the expulsion of the African race. This idea certainly does not begin with The Birth of a Nation, but the film played a noteworthy role in popularizing it for a mass audience.

But is it worth watching? The Birth of a Nation will likely be the most appalling “great” film you ever see. And, as sophisticated as it is by comparison with movies even a few years older, it is still a far cry from the heights reached by the great silent films of the late 1920s. Griffith himself was a product of an earlier era, a 19th-century storyteller who was a pioneer of the art form of the 20th. Nevertheless, this is an important film to experience and confront. It casts a shadow across American culture that is likely longer than anyone would care to admit. Because of that, the proper impulse is to shed as much light as possible on its ideas and the society that embraced them, rather than succumb to the natural urge to bury it and forget.

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

12 Years a Slave (2013)
Screenplay by John Ridley. Dir. Steve McQueen.
Perf. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender.
From autobiography Twelve Years a Slave (1853) by Solomon Northup.

What it’s about: Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York in 1841, is trapped in an interminable nightmare when he is kidnapped by two white men and sold into slavery in Louisiana. His life a constant battle to survive, mentally and emotionally as well as physically, Northup watches endlessly for an opportunity to send word of his plight to his family and friends in the North.

12yearsaslaveposterWhy it’s essential: 110 years after the exhibition of the first motion picture to feature the Southern institution of slavery (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1903), someone finally produced a film about slavery in America that doesn’t soften, romanticize, or exploit its subject, or relocate the audience perspective to a white character. It would be trite and inaccurate to suggest that this film was somehow the first honest cultural attempt to “deal with” the topic of slavery, or even that it was the first successful attempt to do so. It is, however, the first film to be based entirely on the narrative of an actual slave, and one of precious few that manages to avoid the many persistent cultural myths about American slavery.

Critical and scholarly recognition of this achievement have already earned the film widespread praise, recognition, and awards (including the Best Picture Oscar). Furthermore, witnessing Northup’s life as a free man in the early part of the film, and finding it relatable, gives the audience an additional window of empathy into the experience of his loss of freedom. The film emphasizes the way that slavery defines the South’s entire abusive social order, from the top down, and the utter powerlessness of Northup’s position stranded at the bottom of it.

We see 12 years of almost unimaginable suffering experienced by one man in unbearable circumstances, condensed into a little over 2 hours. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that Northup’s account is a relatively happy one, because he made it out. The true horror, and true impact, of 12 Years a Slave lies in the inevitable realization of how small a fraction we have witnessed of the actual experience of millions upon millions of slaves who suffered and died during 250 years of American slavery.

But is it worth watching? There is really nothing pleasurable about the experience of watching 12 Years a Slave, despite the obvious skill of the film’s direction, of its talented cast, and of its excellent cinematographer. Even those scenes which involve a great deal of aesthetic beauty only serve to contrast with the ugliness of what is transpiring. By turns sickening and heart-rending, the film frequently urges you to look away while rendering you incapable of doing so. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly important film that cries out to be experienced by every American.

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A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Screenplay by Budd Schulberg. Dir. Elia Kazan.
Perf. Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau.
From short story “Your Arkansas Traveler” (1953) by Budd Schulberg.

What it’s about: Charismatic sociopath “Lonesome” Rhodes is discovered in a small-town drunk tank by a small-time radio host. Rhodes leverages his musical talent and folksy persona into a meteoric rise as a political media powerhouse, but as his influence increases, his ego threatens to destroy everyone around him.

afaceinthecrowdposterWhy it’s essential: A Face in the Crowd, though it is so very of its time in some ways, and so very timeless in others, turned out to be ahead of its time when it was first released. Andy Griffith’s performance as Lonesome Rhodes received some praise, but reviews for the film itself were mixed, and it certainly didn’t get the attention that its extraordinary prescience merited. More recently it has gained recognition as the forgotten masterpiece that it is, and it was selected for the National Film Registry in 2008.

The movie is a fable about the incredible power of mass media, particularly the brand-new medium of television, which had skyrocketed to dominance over the cultural landscape in just a few short years. Lonesome is a TV star with the homespun humor of a Will Rogers, the raw, sexual energy of an Elvis Presley, and the stentorian demagoguery of a Father Coughlin. In Schulberg’s short story, Lonesome is still an Arkansas native, but he is first discovered in Wyoming and his mass appeal is consistently characterized as generic “Amuricanism.” The film re-situates his sphere of political influence into a more obviously Southern context, morphing him into a populist redneck boogeyman.

Lonesome Rhodes has remained terrifyingly relevant in our age of 24-hour cable news punditry, mega-popular talk-radio personalities, carefully-engineered “grassroots” movements, and political firebrands who can create a national platform for themselves online. This is a tale that has played out again and again in the South (which has voted as a bloc more often than not) during the last media-saturated half-century. Broadcasters more notable for their volume than for the substance of their ideas achieve immense popularity, then fade away, and are replaced by someone peddling the same snake oil under the same banners of jingoism and calculated rustic charm.

But is it worth watching? The story is riveting and the writing is smart. You’ve never seen, never even imagined, Andy Griffith like this. This was his first film role, and apparently the emotional fallout of the awesome dramatic heights (and depths) he achieved was so destructive to his psyche that he left these sorts of roles behind forever. The following year he played an entirely different sort of country rube in the comedy No Time for Sergeants, and soon after that he achieved lasting fame and success on the long-running Andy Griffith Show, in a role that would define the rest of his career. Alongside his other characters, the Andy Griffith of A Face in the Crowd almost seems to be a visitor from a parallel universe, but Lonesome himself is frighteningly real.

 
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