I am a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles, but I’ll blame Tears of the Sun on my son, Colin. (Ok, I admit it was my money that rented it). Tears of the Sun falls in to the general time honored genre of films and novels that are set in the context of racial difference but really serve to obsess over the continuing moral drama of whiteness and its discontents. Think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, or Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, or Leonardo Dicarpio in Blood Diamond, or for that matter Conrad, Kipling, and Fenimore Cooper. What gets me about these films, and Tears of the Sun seems especially egregious, is that all the moral wrestling with the curse of whiteness becomes, SURPRISE, yet another occasion for championing the moral ascendancy of white people. As if we say to ourselves “Look how hard I’m trying to be good, and humble, and true, and right, and how hard I am trying to atone for past racial sins; I must really be better than everyone else after all.”
Ok, I will admit that I liked the shoot-em-up scenes as much as any good war movie, and overall I can’t complain about the entertainment. But basically this movie was The Searchers (or maybe The Last of the Mohicans) dressed up in anti-racist drag. Bruce Willis and his band of commandos go to save the white missionaries and doctors caught in a Nigerian war zone. Predictably the doctor is gorgeously beautiful (and apparently French, perhaps a gesture toward globalization but more likely a gesture toward cross-national white solidarity), and we know that she and Bruce Willis will sleep together when they get back to base (which they don’t, actually, but we see them fly off together into the sunset on a helicopter. Let your imagination go to work). The film tries to develop a moral drama in which Bruce Willis “does the right thing” by risking himself and his men to disobey orders and try to rescue the Nigerian refugees in the doctor’s charge, one of whom, SURPRISE!, just happens to be a Nigerian prince who is being sought by rebel leaders of the coup d’etat. (The coup d’etat, generally, is a trope for Africanity in the American cinematic imagination). American individualism and rejection of authority becomes the source for global redemption.
I can live with all this since I like a good hokey story as much as the next guy (witness my oft-stated delight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film’s moral center becomes not really despair that attends a decade long civil war in Africa, or even a meditation on the variously subtle ways in which Western powers have contributed to the violence and instability of African nations. It becomes instead a meditation on the gloriously self-sacrifical superiority of white people. When, at the end of the film, the lead African female actor weepily looks into Bruce Willis’s bloodied face and repeatedly tells him how much God loves him and will bless him, I half expected the Nigerian nationals to pull out their American flags and start singing God Bless America. The film seemed to suggest that moral and ethical choices are occasions for narcissistic self-display. It also struck me as a propaganda piece for American interventionism. Released in 2003, perhaps we were still on the edge of believing that our guns and our good intentions could make the world a better place. Cf Iraq.
These things aside, I still like a good shoot-em-up, and I’m still a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles. Against all my better instincts.
Several movies and DVDs with my astute and incisive observations so that I can keep up my hard-won reputation as a connoseur of film.
Lars and the Real Girl: This flick is so good it had me crying twice. At the beginning I laughed so hard tears were dripping down my nose. At the end I sniffled at the funeral of a life-size doll designed to be a
Lars and Love Interest in Church
sex-toy. Ok, this doesn’t sound too promising. Ryan Gosling is compelling as a man with a deeply disturbed psyche damaged by accumulated guilt at his mother having died during childbirth. His own childbirth. Ok, this also doesn’t sound promising, but the Gosling character compensates for his inability to connect with others by falling in love with life-size female doll he orders from an online sex-toy company. Ok, none of this sounds promising at all, but you still really have to see it. The film isn’t so much about sex-toys as it is about the need for love, the need to connect, and the redeeming possibilities of love. In some ways, though Gosling is astonishing, the center of film is the way the rest of the town responds to his need, the way it bucks up, overcomes its squeamishness, and helps Gosling’s character find the healing he needs. In some ways the film feeds that weird human response to crisis, our welcoming of crisis when we find in it that human beings can respond in ways that love and build up rather than tear down. The way a soldier, perversely, misses war because he or she remembers the ways others stood up for him, or the way she stood up for others. (Side note: I wonder if female soldiers experience this nostalgia for war in the same way that men do; I have a suspicion not since the crisis of war forces connection upon men in the way the rest of society seems to disallow). Gosling’s crisis is the occasion not only for his healing, but also for the rest of the town to become more human because they choose to care. A winner.
The poster is more interesting
The Happening–There’s a reason that M. Night Shyamalan is considered a has-been at the age of 38. This movie was atrocious. I kept hope alive as long as I could, but was tempted to look at my watch. Wait, I don’t wear a watch anymore. A metaphor that will go the way of the dodo bird, and M. Night Shyamalan. The acting is almost universally bad. Even Mark Wahlberg, who I normally really like, is bad beyond reckoning. Every line is delivered as if the actors are saying under their breath, “I really can’t believe I’m in this sucky movie saying these sucky lines. But, hey, it’s M. Night Shyamalan; maybe this will all work out.”
By the way, did you know that his real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan. I think that someone who would rename himself M. Night is probably just pretentious enough to be a bad film maker. Leave the name changes to the actors.
The Orphanage–This was also an astonishingly good film. I like well-made horror films, but this wasn’t even a horror pic, though it is often advertised as such. Yes, it is a ghost story, but that’s a little like saying Henry James’s Turn of the Screw is a horror story or a ghost story. The dismissiveness implied by the generic name doesn’t get at the emotional complexity of the film. It’s a horror story like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a horror story–Horrifying, but in the way humanity is horrifying and life can be horrifying, not because we make
up monsters in our brains. The film traces what happens after a boy’s disappearance as his mother seeks to find him, convinced that he has been somehow abducted by ghosts who inhabit the orphanage where she grew up. In the process of that search what she discovers is the relentless ways that human beings can be cruel and vicious to one another, and most especially to those who are most defenseless among us. In the end the film resorts to the cliche that a mother’s love transcends death, even her own, but that conclusion seemed compelling in the end. As with Lars and the Real Girl, the film offers hope that there’s a way to transcend our pettiness and mindless cruelties to one another. That we can give ourselves to others and be given to in return.
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.
I saw Atonement last night, the Oscar-nominated film based on Ian McEwan’s award winning novel. I’m kind of vaguely interested in what happens to novels when they become films, but more so in films and novels that are in some way about the process of reading and writing. I have no idea about McEwan’s novel itself—I hope I can get to it someday—but I found the conceptual interaction between visual and textual storytelling—between viewing and reading—very layered and complex in the film. To some degree compelling, but also troubling.
Because I get to these things about three weeks after everyone’s seen the film, I’m going to assume whoever reads this post has already watched the movie (fair warning if you think the ending is given away). The interplay between reading/viewing and writing/performing is there throughout the film, of course. The main character, Briony, is a budding novelist of 13 whose urgent hormone-driven plays are transparently presented as sublimated efforts to deal with her adolescent crush on a older young man, Robbie, who is in love with her older sister, Cecilia. This love of a young girl for an older man is perversely reversed when another young man about the age of Robbie rapes her young friend.
Briony has seen the rape, but using her well-practiced imagination, and perhaps revenging herself on Robbie for loving her sister instead of her, accuses Robbie of the deed. Briony’s decision to fabricate Robbie’s role is caught in the following clip. Too bad it doesn’t start just a bit earlier, where we see the two girls building a story based on their own fears, needs, and class stereotypes.
“Atonement” is, of course, about whether or not one can atone for the past. Can the past be repaired? Even to some degree, does Briony need to atone for the past? Can a young girl of 13 be held responsible for an act, however reprehensible, that can readily be understood as an act of immaturity rather than an act of adult malice? Even, can any action by a much older and much changed Briony count in any way for atonement of sins by the younger child she resembles but in no way repeats. Are our older selves, in so many ways discontinuous with the children that we were, even capable of repenting for sins that were in some very real sense committed by someone else? This distance is registered in the film by having actresses who are similar in appearance—at least in, implausibly, retaining the same haircut for approximately 60 years—but who are otherwise obviously very different people “playing” the same person. Again, this question of atonement is perversely registered in that the actual adult rapist “atones” for the past by eventually marrying the young girl he raped when she comes of age. While the true agent of brutality goes on to live out the Western mythology of human fulfillment in marriage, Robbie and Cecilia are forever separated by the sins of someone else.
For my purposes I’m interested in the layered question of whether writing and reading—whether an act of and engagement with the imagination—can atone for sins committed in the world. How does the imagination act on the world? This is most pronounced in the conclusion of the film where we cut to a latter-day television interview with an elderly and ill Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who has just written her final novel, final because she has realized that she has incurable and progressive dementia that is gradually destroying her ability to remember and to use language.
We immediately understand as viewers that the movie we have just been watching is this last novel—rendered visually. We have been the reader/viewers of the novel, which is supposedly autobiographical. However Briony/Vanessa Redgrave informs us that the story didn’t really end as she left it in the scenes we had just seen. Robbie did not return from Europe to be with Cecilia. He died on the beaches of Dunkirk from sepsis. Briony is never reconciled to Cecilia—as the film had just made it appear. Instead, Briony had been too cowardly to find her sister and make the attempt at reconciliation. Cecilia character died in the bombing of London, living alone and estranged from her family because she had refused to believe that Robbie was a rapist and had refused to renounce her love for him.
The elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony explains her decision to give the novel/movie a happy ending for two reasons—readers could not accept the reality, and because the imagined ending was an act of repair, giving Robbie and Cecilia a life of joy together—symbolized by life on Dover Beach—that had eluded them because of Briony’s deception.
The two reasons, I think, work in very different direction, and finally don’t completely hold together. I’m not completely taken with the notion of readers needing the happy ending. It’s true, of course, that Hollywood films and any number of romance novels make their way in the world on the hunger for uncomplicated fantasy. But is it the case that human beings are so unused to the idea that the innocent die while the guilty go free and live happily ever after that we refuse it in our literature? Indeed, isn’t it our literature that teaches us this repeatedly. It feeds the generally tragic sense of reader-geeks that their own nobility is tragically unrecognized in the world at large. It is played out by English professors who grump that their C students get jobs right out of college that pay more than they make as tenured professors.
Still, this notion does comport with the general tenor of the film. Briony’s sin is first and foremost an act of the imagination. She “sees” what she wants to see so that it will reflect her own story in the world. Her refusal to allow the world to be more complicated that her own seeing is the source of her original accusation. In a very real sense, Briony’s imagination is what she must atone for. Imagination is her original sin—her writing is, after all, a particular way of reading the world that refuses to let the world be what it is truthfully. Her imagination is a thirteen-year-old act of violence on the world, and results in very real violence to many people down the line.
And so, can we really buy the elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony’s assertion that she is somehow redeeming the lives of Cecilia and Robbie, giving them what they couldn’t otherwise have in reality? Something she wants to understand as an act of generosity and even love. I’m not sure. To some degree this could be connected with the work of someone like Ernst Bloch who insisted that the utopian function of art was to say “And Yet” to life, to insist that “reality” did not have the final say if that final say was understood to be beyond the act of human agency, human shaping, human imagination. In the same fashion, if atonement is possible, it seems to me that atonement must be an act that includes the imagination.
Still, is this an act that the imagination can carry out in reference to our own actions in the past? No human action is every finished in and of itself. Rather, it is read and reread, and its meaning accrues and changes by the means and contexts through which it is reread. I sometimes tell students I prefer to understand God as a reader than a writer. Redemption is an act of reading and discovering the possibilities in a life-text that could not have been imagined by those individuals and other historical agents who brought that life-text into being in the first place. But I guess what makes me leery of this particular act is Briony’s act of self-justifying imagination. Can Briony atone for the failures of her imagination by another act of the imagination that further falsifies the lives of those that she has damaged, however “innocently” or unknowingly? I tend to think that this isn’t atonement but self-justification.
On the other hand, what we finally get from Briony-Vanessa Redgrave is not imagination as atonement, but a very different secularized Christian practice—Confession. Briony apparently tells the truth to the reader at the end of the story, and the reader/viewer is the only person in the position to forgive. Briony’s confession of what actually happened is, at least putatively, something that removes her own imagination as an agent in her own redemption. She no longer writes someone different from who she is, but says who she is and what she has done and failed to do, and what the consequences have been. The production of art that moves a reader is no compensation for the evil that produces it. But the frank confession of the truth is a work of art in which we recognize ourselves. We forgive her because we see in her all the unthinking dishonesties by which we have harmed others and ourselves. In her need for us, we recognize our own need for forgiving readers.