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The “Southern” Project, Sneak Preview #4

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 A few months later, they use a trip South to sign an artist as an excuse for her to finally meet his family: withdrawn father Eugene, outspoken mother Peg, high-school drop-out brother Johnny, and Johnny’s bubbly pregnant wife Ashley.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.

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~ by Jared on May 23, 2014.

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