Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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.
Stark Young’s 1934 novel So Red the Rose describes the experience of two Southern planter families—the McGeehees and Bedfords--during the time just before, during, and after the Civil War. It focuses on a wide array of figures in the two families plus their friends and acquaintances. The novel largely limits itself to the planter class, but its horizons are relatively broad, and we come to understand not simply the members of the two families but their world—their awareness of the impending war and its causes, their differing opinions about the prospects of secession and of Lincoln’s election, the books they read, how they think, their childhood histories, people they know—who extend throughout the South and the North. Historical figures appear— William Tecumseh Sherman is headmaster in an academy where one character studies, while another character pays a visit to Jefferson Davis (family members disagree over his qualifications to be president of the Confederacy). The narrative shifts among the thoughts and conversations of various characters so that readers gain a rounded, detailed, fairly insightful sense of the characters and their world. So Red the Rose romanticizes and idealizes its subject, but it places the people and events it describes within a social and historical context. This clearly partisan novel takes pains to lay out the indignities suffered by the two families as well as all the arguments in defense of the southern position in the War. It views the Civil War from the home front, as the two plantation families experience it.
From a modern viewpoint the problematic element in the novel is its treatment of race and slavery. Several characters oppose slavery, Hugh McGeehee in particular, but that opposition is primarily a matter of principle. Everyone accepts slavery as a normal part of life. No one argues for the equality of the races or takes any position other than one that regards slaves as less than human. Northerners who appear and talk about the equality of the former slaves are viewed as clueless. The novel’s position is that slavery was a benign and necessary practice. The Bedford family names all the housemaids Celie so that they don’t have to remember their names. The families are especially outraged when black Northern soldiers come into their house, take their belongings, and in various ways cause them to feel menaced. They view former slaves who leave the plantations in search of a better life as ignorant and disloyal. They regard poor whites as little better. One of the points made late in the novel is that the loss of the Civil War will turn everything upside down, and that poor whites and former slaves will gain the upper hand. To the Bedfords and McGeehees, this is the gravest of indignities—the loss of social prominence, of power. From the novel’s perspective, this means the disappearance of their culture, their civilization.
The novel gives a convincing picture of what defeat might have been like for Southern planter families in Mississippi. It makes clear how violated they feel by the invasion of their plantations by Northern soldiers. It lays out the case in various ways for the virtues it associates with the Southern cause and the Southern way of life. In doing this, I think it is in fact presenting this information from the viewpoint of a Southerner in 1934, that the attitudes it expresses are more those of a writer looking back on the war rather than of one in the middle of it. It is difficult for me to believe that families who have watched their houses burned and whose sons have been killed in battle would be so stoic and accepting of the change that has come on their lives. The characters in the novel take a philosophical view of their loss in the war. But who knows what it would have been like? The historical accounts I’ve read—letters, journals—are mostly concerned with the day-to-day necessities of survival. There’s little philosophy involved.
At times the narrative seems disorganized and meandering, especially in the latter third. In its efforts to make clear the Southern point of view, it sometimes veers towards the didactic. The novel’s virtues are the fully developed characters, its relative intelligence, its delineation of the social life and the individual lives of the family members, and the ways in which it represents the Southern viewpoint, at least as Stark Young would have it.
What struck me about The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt, 2014) as I read it was that I wanted it to be over even as I was eager to continue reading. The chronicle of a 12-year-old boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but who gains possession of a certain painting, is richly detailed. The wealth of detail can be fatiguing. The main character Theodore Decker is a character difficult at times to care about. As an adolescent and later he is a habitual heavy user of drugs and alcohol, and at times his future seems dark. His good friend Boris, whom he meets when he goes to live with his father in Las Vegas, is a source of anarchy and self-destruction but ultimately as well of a kind of salvation. As he becomes involved in dealing and restoring furniture under the tutelage of the older man Hobie who takes him in, he sells as valuable antiques items that have been restored—they are fraudulent. And then there is the painting, Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch, which he takes with him everywhere, which hangs over him like a black cloud but which he can’t bring himself to return to the museum. But his imperfections, considerable as they are, help us keep things in perspective.
I like the fact that this novel concerns big themes and questions. In that sense it runs counter to current trends in contemporary serious fiction, and that may explain some of the negative reactions it has received. (A Vanity Fair article assessed these reactions, suggesting that a major factor behind them may be simple envy of Tartt’s success.) The themes are such questions as what is the purpose of life in an empty universe, and the value of art, which Tartt, or at least her narrator, regards as eternal.
In the last 40 or so pages of the novel, Boris and then the narrator himself bring it all to a conclusion by explaining what the events of the narrators life have meant, what conclusions they have led him to. This could be a tedious and post-climactic way to defuse a novel that has had a lot of energy, but in fact it makes for a powerfully moving conclusion.
Question: One reason I at times wanted the novel to end before it did may have had to do with the sense that it was going nowhere. It traces Theo’s life through his mother’s death, his time with the Barbour family that takes him in, his life with his father in Las Vegas, his years with Hobie in New York, his engagement, and then the fateful trip to Antwerp. We read through these pages interested in how Theo’s fate is going to work itself out, but without a sense that there is some underlying purpose or theme to it all. Tartt in masterful fashion does impose order and meaning on Theo’s life in the concluding pages of the novel, but I would have appreciated some faint hints of this resolution earlier in the book.
The great scene in this novel is the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo’s conversation with a dying old man he encounters in the rubble—from which almost everything else in the story develops—is powerful.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
I watched How I Live Now (2013; dir. Kevin McDonald) because it involved World War III. The cable TV description of it as a teenage romance interrupted by the Third World War seemed sufficiently weird and perverse that it drew my interest. Saoirse Ronan plays an American teenager sent to live with British relatives during a world crisis whose specific nature is never explained. It involves large explosions (we infer they are nuclear, and there is fallout, but no one sickens) and invading armies. Ronan and the family she lives with are separated from the parents, who are apparently killed in a London explosion. The children are sent to a work camp, then they escape and try to return home. Some of them survive and some don’t. This is really not a very good film, and it seems casually produced, but what I assume must have been a relatively low budget means that the filmmakers largely keep the world war and the explosions off screen. We see news clips on television before the power goes out and we see a few of the enemy soldiers but that’s all we know. So the focus of the film falls on the struggle of the children to survive. That they do survive at all is improbable, given the fallout and the hostile soldiers and the lack of food and water and electricity. This film demonstrates that if you have some relatively sympathetic teenagers stumbling around in the woods and the countryside for an hour or two you can actually make a halfway interesting film. Ronan’s character gradually evolves from a hostile teenager angry with her father for sending her abroad to a young woman determined to find the boy she loves and return to his family home in the British countryside. But I liked her better in her creepy role in Atonement (2007) and in her revenge fantasy film Hanna (2011).
His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940) is adapted from a stage play (Front Page), and it shows. The film is set in two locations, a newsroom at the local newspaper and a press room at the courthouse, with a brief scene in a restaurant. I have to say, despite this film’s great reputation, that I didn’t much care for it. The plot has to do with a recently divorced newspaper couple, played by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. She is engaged to be married to a dimly lit insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy), and Grant wants to find a way to stop the wedding. He convinces her to cover the pending execution of a man convicted of killing a black man, and through various hijinks, most of them on a slapstick level, Grant lures Russell away from the fiancé and the wedding.
The primary device here is fast-paced, scattershot dialogue. Characters talk at one another, two or three conversations take place at one time, and the volume level is high. No one simply talks. There’s yelling and self-conscious wittiness. The humor is corny and falls flat. The plot moves along at such a fast pace that you can miss the holes and the illogicalities and the bad jokes. The condemned man spends a good bit of the play hiding in a roll-top desk in the courthouse newsroom while people talk about and look for him. The woman who loves and is trying to protect him leaps out a window and is severely injured—no one cares.
This film is a contrivance. No one is supposed to believe it represents anything real. Instead it’s an excuse for Grant and Russell to strut their stuff, and to try to be funny. The outcome is obvious almost from the first moment. The film is dated, and a number of racist jokes or references help make this clear.
It’s a classic because everyone thinks it a classic.
What I noticed in The Silkworm (2014), and it was evident too in The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), the first of the Robert Galbraith novels (J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym) was how much time the author spends writing about nothing. I do not necessarily mean that as criticism, nor as praise. It’s simply an observation. The strength of both the Galbraith novels is the characters, especially the main character, private detective Cormorant Strike. If he were real, I’d like spending time with him. In both novels I found the mysteries, which revolve around murders, contrived, especially the ultimate way in which they’re unravelled. Galbraith handles the mystery in The Cuckoo’s Calling more effectively than in the first novel, and even though it still seems contrived it’s bizarre enough to hold our interest. But it’s curious how much time Galbraith spends describing where Strike is—the interior of a pub or of the city itself—or of what he is doing—he eats a great deal, overeats in fact, and at some point I suspect his overeating will become an issue in a later novel (as will I am sure his relationship with his secretary Robin) —the Cormorant series is sure to continue. These passages in which Galbraith describes nothing can in themselves be entertaining, but they don’t advance the plot or the concerns of the novel. In that sense they waste our time.
The context of The Cuckoo’s Calling is the contemporary literary world of London. The novel includes a prominent agent, editors, and writers, and one wonders whether any of them was based on actual personages.
It’s tempting to look for similarities between the Galbraith novels and the Harry Potter series. Galbraith writes for an adult audience, of course, and for the most part she made the transition from juvenile to adult writing well. But at the center of every Harry Potter novel is a mystery that the primary characters have to unravel. The plot usually involves discovering who among the Hogwarts teachers is acting for Voldemort. Evil does exist in the Hogwarts world. In Galbraith’s adult world, it’s more psychological deviation than evil. But the title of the novel at the center of The Cuckoo’s Calling is itself a puzzle that detective Strike seeks to decipher, as at the same time he’s solving the gruesome murder. The way in which we discover the nature of the book and the murder is similar to the way in which the mysteries are resolved in the Potter novels.
It’s difficult for me to empathize with the experiences of so-called millennials because I’m so far removed in time and age from them. Still, Frances Ha (2012; dir. Noah Baumbach) stirred my interest and empathy. Filmed effectively in black and white, it follows the plight of a 27 year- old woman in New York City. She’s an intern in a dance company and hopes to join the company as a full member, but it becomes clear that the director of the company doesn’t think she has the talent. She encourages Frances to try choreography. Frances has a close relationship with her roommate. They are almost like married partners, except that they’re not. When her roommate decides to move in into a better apartment with other friends, their friendship and Frances’ life are thrown into confusion. They quarrel, and though they later reconcile their relationship is never close again. The film basically follows Frances as she tries to make sense of her life, to form bonds with the people around her, as she visits her parents in California. Greta Gerwig makes Frances an awkward, endearing, but sometimes uncomfortable character. She doesn’t ask for help when she needs it, she seems in more peril that she recognizes, and we can see her gradually sinking—late in the film she is working at a summer camp as a kind of counselor. Her optimism and relaxed attitude towards life drive her forward. But gradually she discovers where her talents lie, and her personal prospects improve. The film is a charming character study.
Chapter 40 of Moby-Dick is a literal drama, with various crew members of the whaling ship the Pequod speaking their parts as if in a Shakespearean drama. Although other chapters suggest Melville was reading heavily in Shakespearean tragedy, as indeed he was, I remember the shock of this chapter the first time I read it. It’s what makes the novel such a revolutionary work, such an unexpected and untimely work, part of the reason it still resonates with me so strongly today.
Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga: A Novel (Random House, 1975) is written in the style of Melville’s chapter—less Shakespearean, more in the style of Miller or O’Neill, except with the impressionistic poetry of Tennessee William’s stage directions. The novel tells the story of a crew of turtlers in the Caribbean, on their last voyage on an old and broken down turtle boat, under the command of an embittered captain who is hunting for a full haul of turtles. The method is naturalistic. Much of the tale is told through the direct language of the crew, who speak in a heavy dialect inflected with English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, with a heavy dose of African words. The crew is mixed and diverse racially. The dialect is so rich and heavy that it takes getting used to. The end result is poetry of a deep and intense kind. Matthiessen introduces each chapter with a paragraph or two that describes the scene, the setting or the weather or the sky. But most of the novel is simply the language of the crew talking to one another.
Captain X is the Ahab of this novel. He’s cruel and bitter and contemptuous of the men on his vessel. He berates them without hesitation and at length. Several desert. His father dies. After an attack by a group of renegade Jamaicans, the ship founders on a reef and sinks.
The Far Tortugas is intense. It’s difficult because of its stylistic method. It’s also strangely distinctive and beautiful.