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The “Southern” Project, Sneak Preview #2

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.

afaceinthecrowd

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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~ by Jared on May 15, 2014.

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