Like most of the American world, I take summer to catch up on all the things I didn’t have time for in the past year, or twenty years as the case may be. Books I haven’t read that I wish I had or know I should, or someone somewhere says I should. Movies no red-blooded American can appear at cocktail parties without having seen. Or sometimes just shlockey stuff–other than TV–that I never give myself the time to enjoy because it’s…well…shlockey. Thought it might be fun this summer as I drift in to my new job as interim dean at the college to blog a bit about some of this year’s guilty summer pleasures. Guilty either because I have to admit that I haven’t gotten around to some of these things until now (“WHAT!!! YOU NEVER READ MADAME BOVARY???” I admit, in fact, that I haven’t. Maybe I’ll get around to it this summer.) or guilt because I have to admit that I like every tawdry thing that tells me a halfway decent story. Guilt, I am good at.
Black Snake Moan with Samuel Jackson falls in to the latter of these I guess. But I can’t bring myself to describe it as shlockey exactly. On the one hand it’s a film that sells itself to all our most prurient desires. You know, the desire to see Christina Ricci in her underwear, or less…the desire to see Samuel L. Jackson dragging her around chains, which plays I guess to the lurking fetishist in all of us. And the title, “Black Snake Moan”? That speaks for itself, I guess.
Still, I found the film weirdly compelling for the way it commented on and reorganized our American obsessions with the combination of sex, race and violence…a combination that goes back in literature to, SURPRISE!, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Probably before, but UTC is the signature bit in American literature on this score as far as I’m concerned. And Black Snake Moan strikes me as a kind of revisionary commentary on Stowe’s masterpiece. The parallels are so obvious to me that I looked around on the web for a half hour or so but could find only one glancing comment on a blog that saw the connection.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in this case, is Samuel L. Jackson’s cabin on his farm in the depths of Mississippi. Christina Ricci is a perverse Little Eva, almost as if the repressed sexuality that made Little Eva saintly in UTC comes bursting out in rage in the nymphomaniacal performance by Ricci. It’s a testimony to Ricci’s performance that after a while you stop wondering about whether she’s going to remove the rest of her clothes and actually start to care about her character’s development and healing. Which may be part of the commentary on UTC I guess. One of the problems with UTC is that all the good people in the novel are too good for the world. They demonstrate this goodness primarily in two ways, by being asexual and by dying. The two seem to go hand in hand. Craig Brewer, the director, says in the special features on the DVD that he felt he was making a religious movie. It’s certainly a film about redemption and healing, and also a film about the saints of this world rather than the next. In other words saints riven, and sometimes lacerated, by desire but who manage after all to keep on living.
The film flirts more overtly with a barely repressed pedophelia that lurks around UTC, and with the cross racial sexual taboos that the novel merely hints at. Eva fainting evermore on Tom’s welcoming breast, he laying her ever gently into bed. The relationship between Legree and his mistress. Ricci, of course, is hardly a child, but her deeply damaged psyche as a result of child abuse, and her self-abuse through drugs and promiscuity render her weirdly innocent and vulnerable, tended to by Jackson’s inexplicable kindness. Indeed, I worried that Jackson was too much the Uncle Tom character in his resistance to Ricci’s sexual advances. The big hack on Tom is that he’s sexless, a reassuring white fantasy that black religion renders black men neuter. Still, I thought the movie negotiated that by having Jackson have a separate flirtation, and through his guitar playing and blues singing, which, for an actor who hadn’t played guitar before this film, I thought was absolutely phenomenal.
So I guess I thought this reading of UTC was actually really interesting. Building recognizably off of the themes and imagery of the original, but inverting all of them in a way that critiques them. Showing that the white mania with black sexuality is a perversion of both instinct and generosity, and not one that will be healed through sexlessness, but through a healthy embrace of life. One that Brewer finds equally in the blues bar and in conventional marriage–which may have been a too conventional way to end the film, but one that again replicates the sentimentality of a UTC original–equally in the steam of eros and the prayers of the church.
The whole earth is moaning, awaiting its redemption. Black Snake Moan, indeed.
Four points for your reading pleasure:
A) I’ve tried three times now to read Madame Bovary and I keep getting distracted by other books.
B) I have recently rectified one atrocity you bemoaned in some class you taught: I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have since gone on to read (or try to read, as in the case of Love in the Time of Cholera) other books of his. Great style, but it tends to make me daydream.
C) I loved this movie, and I think I’d watch it again just to hear that song SLJ sings in the bar.
D) I didn’t even come close to the analysis you display here when I watched the movie. My response was more along the lines of, “Cool. Like it.” Is that a bad omen for my future as a professor?
P.S., GREs in two weeks. Wish me luck.
A pleasure as always, Jon. A couple of comments. At least your choice of sleep aids (Love in the Time of Cholera) is high-toned. As opposed to this blog, for instance.
Also, a lamentable consequence of graduate school is that you will come to be incapable of watching movies without doing this kind of analysis (with luck you will learn to avoid analysis until after a film is over, which will leave you helplessly guilty in recognizing that every single one of your most basic pleasures is racist, sexist, classist and otherwise -ist. Avoiding analysis is an art, no, a kind of spiritual discipline. It also helps if you have a surgeon sever your corpus callosum).
However, you will truly know you have become an intellectual when you arrive at the point that you enjoy doing the analysis more than having pleasure in the film. Films exist for analysis and not the other way around. You will have then entered a form of Kierkegaardian despair, the most desperate kind because, as SK reminds us, the man who is most firmly in the grip of despair is the one who is note even aware that he is despairing.
Oh, and I forgot, wrapped up as I was in the peregrinations of my own keyboarding. Good Luck with the GREs. With standardized tests always remember that if you do poorly they mean nothing since standardized tests are poor measures of anything, especially human intelligence and creativity, and that graduate schools use them because they can’t afford to have enough talented people actually bother to do a careful review of who you are. Of course, if you do well, they obviously mean that you are as brilliant as I and your parents have always thought you to be!
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