Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964)

Jesus of Nazareth was not unlike Uncle Tupelo. That might seem an obscure (misguided?) reference, comparing the son of God to a three-person band at the forefront of the so called alternative-country music movement of the early 90’s, but then Jesus was actually fairly obscure in his own era. It was what he preached, who he influenced and the legacy they and others engendered that we all remember. In their own era, Uncle Tupelo were also fairly obscure, but they came to be remembered more for their influence on the genre and their legacy. That legacy does not stretch quite as far as Christ’s, a statement which probably requires the most grandiose recitation of “but that goes without saying” in this blog’s history, but the point to which I’m building prevails – “The Gospel According To St. Matthew” is not necessarily interested in Jesus’s influence over the 2,000 years that followed, but what cultivated that staggering influence.

As an atheist, Pier Paolo Pasolini, ironically, turned out to be the perfect individual to helm a story about Christ. This is not to suggest Pasolini attempts to insert non-Christian ideology into his interpretation of a particular New Testament Gospel, far from it, but that he resisted preachy and point-making affectations. After all, this was 1964, in the midst of Italian Neo-Realism, and so Pasolini brings hardcore verisimilitude to the extravagant drama of the life and death and resurrection of the King of the Jews. Often it comes across in the vein of a documentary, a filmmaker on location in Galilee and Judea at the opportune moment when this man proclaiming the Kingdom of God was on its way turned up to minister.

Consider the angel who appears to Joseph in the earliest passages, advising the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. It is not a hovering, shimmering, harp-playing angel of the front-lawn nativity scenes to which many are accustomed, but a simple woman dressed in white, no different from anyone else, except that she suddenly pops up in Pasolini’s shots as if conjured by the snap of a finger. She says what she’s gotta say and then she’s gone. The heavenly hosts have never been so un-majestic. This goes for all the infamous miracles documented by St. Matthew, such as the walking on the water, a feat recorded by Pasolini’s camera with such pragmatism, it will likely make your jaw drop in the manner of the disciples, and drop further than if it had been ornamented with glossy special effects or a swelling score.

And while Pasolini does utilize classical pieces for a traditional accompanying score, he also serves Odette’s spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” at regular intervals, a bold choice that both underscores the suffering of Jesus and the hope his message would be heard. It also brought home, for me, a fairly clear-cut comparison with Spike Lee’s behemoth of a biopic, “Malcolm X”, at least if you discount the first act. Churches and homes for Christians are often adorned with the stock portraits of Jesus with flowing locks and a peaceful air, a presentation which does not necessarily jibe with his presentation in scripture. He’s not just a prophet, he’s a rabble-rouser, a rebel, a fiery orator on the street, not at all unlike Brother Malcolm, and Enrique Irazoquoi, who had never acted, his hair chopped short, is not at all passive, just aggressive. And just like Lee’s Malcolm X, who turns fatalistic by the end, as if expecting his martyrdom, this Jesus seems to know that the harder he pushes, the more certain his death becomes, a death that will only work to spur his message to greater heights.

That death, nailed to the cross, is much more delicately handled than the incendiary “Passion of the Christ.” That it’s happening appears more than enough to convey what it means, that he is glimpsed afterwards by the believers appears more than enough to do the same. Yet that glimpse is not unlike the angel who appears to Joseph in the early going – a snippet of a shot, lickety split, perhaps leaving open the concept of the resurrection being a spiritual reality as opposed to a reality reality.

The reality of Pasolini is that while he was an atheist, he was also a Marxist, yet he went on record as saying “My film is a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and death and suffering—and particularly of religion— is something which Marxists do not want to consider.” It’s not just that you have to commend him for venturing so far outside his wheelhouse, but that you have to admire him for not making that statement overt within the film. How could he have? All the dialogue is culled directly from Matthew’s text. Those who rejected the film on its anti-Marxist tone are also rejecting the scripture, which is fine, but those rejections go hand-in-hand.

One of the most telling passages is The Sermon on the Mount. It lasts for a full five minutes, quick-cutting from day to night to day to night, and the camera is pressed in on Christ’s face the entire time. His followers carried on the message and the writers of the gospels helped to spread and amplify it, and centuries passed and the message still moves and now Jesus is an institution, a savior and a Superstar. Once upon a time, however, he was merely an ornery man with a lot to say.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Best Eggs In Movie History

Eggs ‘round about this time of the year tend to be less about how you want them done and more about symbolizing that one Fella’s resurrection from way back when, and the idea of eggs connoting Christness has a small if storied cinematic tradition. Luke Jackson, or “Cool Hand Luke”, may have merely been an inmate, but he also willingly suffered through eating a grand total of fifty eggs and in the wake of doing so was laid out on a table like Christ on the crucifixion. Rocky Balboa waking up at an ungodly hour in North Philly, cracking eggs and eating them raw was amusing, but it also signaled his rebirth into the Italian Stallion, the man who nearly wrests the heavyweight title from Apollo Creed. Still, I would contend these cinematic eggs don’t have quite the same significant scope as others divvied up at the movies. Remember, not all of America – not to mention, you know, the world – practices Christianity, and so the egg whites and their trusty yolks probably mean something more universal to most. I’m talking about that to which so many patrons of so many churches will adjourn posthaste following conclusion of their forthcoming Sunday morning services. I’m talking about breakfast.

You know how in sitcoms characters are always sitting around a pristinely clean table, reading the paper, eating a full meal of toast, sausage links and perfectly scrambled eggs, sipping coffee and juice, and then inevitably looking at their watch and blithely noting “I’m going to be late”? Yeah, they’re never going to be late. Unless the plot dictates it, because it’s a sitcom and everything is perfect. But breakfast is never this perfect.

There are several notable motifs throughout the Coen Brothers memorable “Fargo” but among the most notable is Food. Over and over we see our lovable central couple, Marge and Norm Gunderson (Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch), helping themselves to heaps of Midwestern culinary delights. After all, Marge is pregnant and Norm must show solidarity, by which I mean he’s kind of a minor glutton. If there is a pre-eminent comestible moment, it involves Marge, police chief of the small Minnesota town where they reside, being summoned one very early morning by phone. As she rises from bed, Norm, still mostly in his slumber, mumbles, “I’ll fix ya some eggs.” She tells him he can go back to sleep. “Ya gotta eat a breakfast,” he says as a means to decline. “I’ll fix ya some eggs.” Again, she politely reminds him he can keep sleeping. Again, he replies “I’ll fix ya some eggs.” So he fixes her some eggs and they sit at their kitchen table, eating those eggs in silence, apart from the flat rhythms of their chewing.

What follows has become famous – that is, Marge departs and in a lone extended take we watch her in the background as she goes outside, climbs in her car, tries to start it, fails on account of the significant cold, walks back inside and advises Norm that she needs a jump. Just as intriguing, though, is Norm throughout the same shot, continuing to eat his eggs in the foreground, a Midwesterner just going about the most important meal of the day. And this is breakfast. This is how it looks. A little nook alongside a window. Two people sharing a comfortable and ongoing silence at the crack of dawn over some eggs. No jokes. No monologues. Heck, the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) of “Revolutionary Road” are a bit different. Johnnie Walker Red is a motif more prominent than food, and they prefer emphatic arguments as opposed to silence. They have, in fact, just the previous evening, had their most significant row yet. It would seem their marriage, their dream of fleeing to Paris, their everything has reached a tipping point.

Frank is dressed for work. April, newly pregnant, is in a maternity dress, smiling, content, the embodiment, one might say, of the Eisenhower-era suburban housewife. She says: “Would you like scrambled eggs or fried?” He smiles, almost taken aback at the calm. He decides scrambled. She says she’ll have scrambled too. They sit at the table and placidly eat their scrambled eggs, and she starts asking him questions. Questions about his “important day” and his “conference” at work and then she starts asking him about just what he’ll be “doing” in lieu of this “important” “conference”. And he explains. And she listens. And golly gee willickers, it just seems so swell. That's the word he actually uses. Swell. It’s the breakfast of sitcoms and happy pappy films. And it’s a lie, an utter lie, a smiley-face that's purposely bitch-slapping everyone in sight (April's line "It's really quite interesting, isn't it?" has got to be just about the most maniacal skewering of everyday America ever uttered). We'll save the specifics for those who have not seen it nor read the book, but suffice it to say that things take a turn toward negative town.

This is the dueling nature, the false ideal and the humdrum reality, of the Great American Breakfast. We yearn for the eggs to be done up in a perfect Monaco Omelet (tomatoes, red peppers and flakes of gold), a representation of our perfect life underscored by our perfect day which will kick off with the perfect breakfast. Instead, we are standard issue, sitting at a standard issue table, eating eggs to get our standard issue protein and face yet another standard issue day (and find out the Prowler needs a jump).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Han Shot

In “Veronica Decides To Die” Paulo Coelho wrote that “there is always a gap between intention and action.” If, however, anyone were capable of taking, say, a Navicomputer keyboard and wedging it between the intention and the action, thereby rendering that gap obsolete, it would definitely be the irascible spice smuggler Han Solo, which was what popped into my head when I read about Harrison Ford’s recent Reddit Q&A. He was inevitably asked for his thoughts on whether or not Han shot at Greedo first in “Star Wars: Episode IV.” Ever curmudgeonly, Ford replied (and you could hear the growl from Corellia), “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

To a certain breed of cinema devotees, the story is not merely familiar but probably played out – still, some may need context, and so we will provide it. In the original “Star Wars” of 1977, before “A New Hope” was woefully tacked on, we were essentially introduced to Ford’s Han Solo at the cantina in Mos Eisley where a bounty hunter named Greedo, his laser blaster drawn, sits down across from Solo to collect the mark on his head. Solo, coolly, draws his own laser blaster out of sight beneath the table and blasts Greedo down. Han not only shoots first, he’s the only one who shoots, most likely – as scholars note in their scholarly language – because he’s, like, a total badass, man. Unfortunately, upon the “Special Edition” release of 1997, Grand Chancellor George Lucas chose to make a notable change – that is, Greedo shoots first, somehow splaying his laser blast badly to the side of Han’s head and clearing the way for Han to get off his own shot. Or, to say it another way, Han Shot Second.

Aside from Lucas, grievous Lucas apologists and Skywalker Ranch Yes Men, no one cared for this revision, though some expressed their dislike for it more extravagantly than others. The creators of a website, for instance, with the expository name of went so far as to enact a petition officially calling for Greedo’s first shot to be revoked. The revision has been referenced with extreme distaste in Kevin Smith films and on the just shuttered “How I Met Your Mother.” Timothy Olyphant as Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (a man who knows a thing or two about drawing first) knew that Han shot first. Go to a comic con, bellow through a megaphone that Greedo shot first, sit back, and watch the righteous spittle fly. And hey, I’ve long been pro-Han Shot First, thinking that it crucially underscored his character’s laconic cool. Except that hearing the man who brought Han to life growl that not only didn’t he know who shot first but that he didn’t care who shot first, I realized that I too didn’t care who shot first.

Lucas has gone on record in the years since with some sort of marble-mouthed blarney about how even in 1977 he intended for Greedo to shoot first, but no one’s buying it and it doesn’t matter anyway. In spite of the laser blast addendum, what Lucas could not change in his “Special Edition” was Ford’s demeanor. That was baked in and it was everything, because ultimately what this scene comes down to is not its mechanics but its philosophical underpinnings. The only way in which Lucas could have altered the philosophy of this moment would have been to somehow CGI it so that Han kept his blaster holstered and Greedo’s laser magically ricocheted off the wall and hit himself in the face. (I fear I may have just given Lucas an idea for the “Star Wars Maxima Cum Laude Edition”.)

In other words, the point isn’t that Han shot first. Han’s intention and subsequent action, minus the gap that he brazenly rejects, was to shoot, and he would tell you in no uncertain terms that in the same situation he shoot again. Or as the green dude from Dagobah might have put it: shoot or shoot not, there is no shoot first.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Museum Hours

“How do you know Cradle of Filth?” This is what Johann (Bobby Sommer), a gentlemanly security guard at a Vienna art museum, asks Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a Canadian visiting an ill relative in the Austrian capital, over coffee. A one-time band manager, he has revealed his adoration of heavy metal. She, in turn, has referenced AC/DC, Judas Priest and Cradle of Filth, though she wonders if that last one is really more like “death metal”. We would likely not confuse either of them for having even rudimentary knowledge of metal music, let alone being genuine fans of it, but then a first look or cursory glance does not yield full understanding of the complete picture. This is the lesson which "Museum Hours" imparts again and again in a myriad of stimulating ways.

Jem Cohen's modest and intimate film might be described as a unique amalgamation of fiction and documentary. The foremost setting is the Kunsthistorisches Museum and Cohen is not shy about filling the frame with its assortment of famous and stylized paintings and sculptures - often literally filling the frame with them, as if the viewer him or herself is a museum patron, standing on the opposite side of the velvet ropes and taking it all in. This might make it sound like "Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, in which Werner Herzog more or less used a film as a wondrous excuse to show us something we might not otherwise get to see, but that under sells the central relationship.

Cohen connects the artistic dots with the simple story of Johann and Anne's easygoing friendship, their expression of ideas and desires and secrets becoming as integral as the art. Sommer, a non-actor, possesses a voice that sonically resembles a museum’s soothing tones and often the film simply stops to grant him his inner thoughts. He confesses to us, and to Anne, a life of growing solitude, online poker and stillness, a tourist not only in his own city but in his own life. Likewise, as Anne sits solemnly at the side of her friend’s hospital bed, companionship is shown to be as vital of love.

Eventually the characters depart the city for the countryside where the camera remains fixed for an extended shot, gazing out across an amber field. From a distance, Johann and Anne enter the frame, walking to their right, before exiting the screen, then re-appearing, meandering back to the left, and evaporating from view once again. The shot has, in essence, become a portrait, presenting a broad and beautiful canvas, effortlessly illustrating how the view can change.

At another point Johann discusses a painting of Christ, except that what has stayed with him is not Christ’s image but the color blue. The blueness of the sky. The blueness of the river. It made me think of a Lissie concert I attended last year, the way it rejuvenated and cleansed me, and how when I expressed this sentiment, an old friend, now a Lutheran minister, remarked that this was my own way of having fellowship with God. Maybe that thought seems absurd, but while the frame of a painting can seem so finite, not unlike the world itself, it never truly is. We see it from our own angle.

Monday, April 14, 2014


The ark has been erected. The animals have been loaded. The rain starts to fall. Thus, Noah (Russell Crowe) looks to the sky, and as he does, the camera pulls straight up above him. And it keeps going, up through the troposphere and the stratosphere and the mesosphere and the thermosphere and the exosphere and then, finally, into space, where the whole of Earth is revealed as covered in a colossal storm. It's a remarkable moment because we are more or less seeing The Great Flood as detailed in Genesis in the form of a satellite image that might be consulted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's creationism seen through the prism of science.

When I think of Biblical Epics, I think of the school of Cecil B. DeMille, the overt pageantry, uber-blocked scenes and VistaVision. That approach has been maligned, but, to me, it's always felt appropriate, apropos of the Bible's blocky writing. Then again, the Bible can be a pretty intense place and Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is not the whimsical doves and rainbows version of youth Sunday School lessons. Instead it is a genuine glimpse into the dark heart of the Old Testament, "real wrath of God type stuff", to quote Ray Stantz. DeMille is left in the dust.

The landscapes, as photographed by Aronofsky's usual accomplice Matthew Libatique, are rocky, burnt-out and apocalyptic. It's almost "Mad Max"-ish, an unexpected if appropriate comparison because "Mad Max" may well have opened with a title card that declared "And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt." As the film opens, Noah and his wife (Jennifer Connelly, who mostly stands by but occasionally is allowed to show gumption) and his sons, are essentially in hiding, holdouts of severe piety in a world gone wicked. Plagued by visions that he can't quite make sense of, though able to sense they foretell doom, Noah packs up the family and travels to see his aging grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). It is then that he receives clarity - the Great Flood is on its way to wipe the whole world clean of its impurity. He will pack an enormous ark full of animals two by two - all of whom curiously, if conveniently, spend most of the film asleep - and re-begin the world when the water recedes.

Noah's story as told in the Bible is surprisingly short on specifics, and while this film is true to some of those specifics, it is less apt to pay heed to others. It creates rock monsters, christened as "searchers", evoking more ornery Ents of "The Two Towers", BC-era "Transformers" that seem out of place, as if demanded by producers who needed toy figure tie-ins. And while Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone) is mentioned briefly in Genesis, "Noah" transforms him into William Fichtner of "The Perfect Storm", existing solely to add extra conflict aboard the wooden vessel and provide an explicit villain in human form.

So too does Aronofsky's script, co-written with Ari Handel, appropriate the story of Abraham and Isaac, re-purposing it through an invented granddaughter (Emma Watson) for Noah who becomes pregnant while at sea (snuffing out that whole 40 days and 40 nights thing). This invention, however, ultimately works to underscore the film's foremost and most interesting relationship - that is, God and Noah.

God Himself is never heard from in this movie. "Why won't you talk to me?" demands Tubal Cain. "Why won't you answer me?" cries Noah. In the Genesis passages that give birth to the film, God is a main character, speaking plainly ("So God said...") and issuing direct commands. In Aronofsky's film, both the audience and Noah's family are left to take Noah at his word. In this way, the character could easily (controversially?) be read as a self-declared prophet, an ancient twist on Harold Camping, one who claims to be in contact with The Creator and asking those around him to have faith.

That faith becomes more difficult to follow the longer the rains fall and the waves crash. Noah literally turns his back on humanity, ignoring screaming innocents who cling to rocks in the distance because he believes their sins have deservedly engendered their deaths. Yet, as the ark remains afloat and the less likely "Land Ho!" becomes, the more Noah cracks, becoming convinced God's intention was to kill off man entirely and give Earth back to the animals. Crowe plays this frightfully to the hilt, willingly alienating his family, convincingly demonstrating a prophet's emotional toll and illustrating how a prophet might seem demented to all those who can't comprehend what he claims to know.

Regardless of whether or not a film should be judged on the basis of itself alone, each audience member, Christian or not, is likely to bring pre-conceived notions to "Noah", not apart from how a reader of a novel adapted for screen might bring a certain amount of bias for and preexistent knowledge of the source material. If we grow up hearing this Bible story, as I did, we might assume that Noah is in direct contact with The Creator. But Aronofsky presents the material so as to leave that question open to interpretation.

Aboard the ark in the midst of the crushing, cleansing deluge of rain, Noah gathers his family together and recounts The Creation, a means to calm them much like an "Arrested Development" re-run might calm us in the face of a CNN-touted weather apocalypse. As he tells it, however, Aronofsky employs an incredible bout of time-lapse photography to illustrate it, the light and the darkness, the heaven and the earth, the water and the dry land, the creatures and man. It's akin to Terrence Malick's work in "Tree of Life", but more than that it's "Noah" combining legitimate Biblical passages with the sort of camera work that a proponent of The Big Bang Theory might utilize in a slide show. Evolution or Creationism? That's not the point. We're all invited into this $125 million ark and made to wonder whether such a catastrophic downpour is the work of meteorology or the divine.

The story of Noah is doubtlessly rooted in religion, but Darren Aronofsky's "Noah", spectacular, bloated and bold, is not so much ecumenical as it is universal.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Recap Vomit: Trophy Wife (The Minutes)

I confess, I may not have been the intended demographic for the latest episode of “Trophy Wife.” This is because “The Minutes” turns into a half-“Scandal” homage and I have not seen a single second of a single “Scandal” episode (unless Tina Fey and Amy Poehler dramatically saying “Scandal” at the Golden Globes counts). So, when the episode inevitably deviates from its “Trophy Wife”-ness to go straight “Scandal”, I had nothing to go on, nothing to gauge it against. For all I know, it was exactly like “Scandal”, though the attempts a rat-a-tat-tat dialogue seemed a little less potent than might be required. For me, it evoked memories of Harry Crumb and Nikki Downing, and I’m not certain whether that’s good or bad. Should it matter that I haven’t seen “Scandal”?

For instance, I never saw (and still haven’t seen) a single second of a single “Melrose Place” episode and yet one of my 127 favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is the legendary “Melrose Place” episode. I remember hearing about the latter all the time, and I remember it always being referred to as a “guilty pleasure”. It was something people loved to watch but didn’t necessarily admit they loved to watch because it seemed so trashy. And that’s what “Seinfeld” played to, and they played to because it was universal. We all have things we love but don’t want to admit to, don’t we? So rather than act as a straight homage, it featured Jerry denying that he watched “Melrose Place” – even though he loved it – and being forced to take a lie detector test by his policewoman girlfriend to determine the truth. It’s incredible. It’s hilarious. And it didn’t matter one iota if you didn’t know what “Melrose Place” was or who was in it because “Seinfeld” effortlessly made it relatable to everyone. That’s why “Seinfeld” was and still is the greatest.



NICK PRIGGE, infamous anti-Reality TV activist has been hooked up to a lie detector. A grizzly DETECTIVE stands above him. 

DETECTIVE: “Nick, have you ever watched Reality TV?” 
NICK: “No.” 
DETECTIVE: “Nick? (Clears throat.) Have you ever watched Reality TV?” 
NICK: (sweating) “No.” 
DETECTIVE: “Nick. (Dramatic pause.) Have you ever watched…… (Even more dramatic pause) ……‘Temptation Island?’” 
NICK: (Breaks down crying.) “Fine! FINE!!! I watched the first season of ‘Temptation Island!’ You wanna know why?! Because Reality TV is lewd and disgusting and EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH SOCIETY and ‘Temptation Island’ was the lewdest and most disgusting and EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH SOCIETY reality show of 'em all! And I loved it! Okay?! Are you happy?! I! Loved! It!" 
DETECTIVE: "And who was your favorite?" 
NICK: "Mandy! Mandy was totally my favorite! Yes, I remember her name!" (Falls to floor, writhing in a pool of his own tears.) 


This isn’t to suggest “The Minutes” is an eyesore for any non-“Scandal” fanatic. Marcia Gay Harden is too good, first playing up the part of a binge-watching “Scandal” fanatic and then showing Kate how to play dirty when Kate runs afoul of the PTA and finds that her inflammatory comments about Harden’s Dr. Diane Buckley behind Dr. Diane Buckley’s back have officially been entered into The Minutes. (Scandal!!!). The idea of a PTA-related Scandal!!! is simply irresistible, but the means by which the Scandal!!! erupts – Person A saying things about Person B without Person B present only for Person A to realize Person B might hear them after all – and the follow-up – having to do with a PTA mom’s devotion to the sport of squash – come across so much less than juicy. And I suppose that’s partly the point – that in the world of the PTA, a Scandal!!! would be less than juicy. But shouldn’t it still feel juicy in spite of its non-juiciness? Like, to a bunch of PTA moms this Scandal!!! is as skandalouz as the Scandal!!! shown during the commercial for “Scandal” in the midst of “Trophy Wife” where some dude puts his hand around Kerry Washington’s throat and says “You killed the President” (Scandal!!!). I dunno. It just seems to me that aside from Marcia Gay Harden, everyone is playing Kerry Washington dress-up. It’s a cutesy homage, an aw-shucks, gee-whiz, “we’re family friendly!” scandal, and it doesn’t do much to invite non-“Scandal” watchers into the proceedings.

And the episode’s biggest problem is that the “Scandal” homage runs counter to the tale of Hillary wanting to go to the semi-formal dance with a boy who is the son of the neighbors with whom Pete and Jackie have a long-running feud involving a garden hose. There is a hint of potential Scandal!!! here involving the feud but that mostly gets ignored to instead build to a moment of fatherly heroism on account of Pete. It’s rather sweet but at odds with the other half of the episode. So too is Warren’s woebegone quest to get in on the Ask-A-Celebrity-To-The-Dance-Via-The-Internet craze by asking Vanessa Hudgens to the semi-formal by pretending to be gravely ill a misfire on a potential Scandal!!! I mean, if you’re gonna go for the fellow-ABC-drama gusto then, you know, go for it. “Trophy Wife” doesn’t quite go for it. So let’s all just watch this instead.....


Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Wild River (1960)

Both literally and metaphorically, a small island stands at the center of the “Wild River.” The island and its aging matriarch is the lone piece of land the TVA – Tennessee Valley Authority – has failed to clear in advance of flooding that will be wrought by a new and necessary dam along the Tennessee River. It also becomes the symbol of progress, what is being left behind and all that is to come. It was directed by Elia Kazan, a noted cinematic social crusader, and while Kazan’s leanings are in no way unclear, the film itself never quite becomes a full-on rally cry for one side or the other. Everyone is wrong. Everyone is right. Taking a stand is brave and foolhardy, meaningful and pointless. It’s a film set in the 1930’s, made at the tail-end of the 1950’s, but it still feels topical and urgent, as necessary now in this pick-a-side America as ever.

Shot in majestic Technicolor, the Tennessee River seems to cut through the background of nearly every shot, always suggesting the battle lines, always reminding of the imminent flood that will tear through to bring about (force) change. Montgomery Clift, out-of-place from his first entrance into the frame in a stodgy three-piece suit, is the requisite idealist sent by the TVA to convince eighty-year old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her land and evacuate. His stance will be swayed, of course, but Clift was far too clever an actor to ever make an arc so dramatically obvious – that, and the writing paints him as a man of morals and realism. It’s not simply that he yearns to save Ella from certain death, but to help re-vitalize a dying region. Notice how in his first moments Chuck is already asking locals what they think he should do, not simply trying to enlist their approval but to demonstrate a willingness to listen.

Perhaps politicking over-consumes “Wild River’s” opening stanza, but then what else happens when a Government Man turns up? Ordinary conversation over a cup of coffee? Please. Policy debate is all they know. Ah, but the riverside beauty awaits, and here she is Ella’s granddaughter, Carol, played by Lee Remick in a grand performance of quiet desperation. Her husband has passed and the little house where they lived on the other side of the river, across from the island, sits empty and alone. She now tends to her grandmother and, as such, becomes the demarcation line between the past and progress. That is not to say she is simply an emblem. In one splendid moment she literally says each line of Chuck’s before he says it – a step ahead. A love interest, an adversary, an ally, a human being. She doesn’t save him, and he doesn’t save her. Rather, they help each other grow, as painful as that growth is.

As she inevitably falls for the TVA man and their relationship gradually goes public, the public turns against her, in one frightful scene forming a kind of lynch mob, reminding us this is the 1930’s south. “For a moment there,” says Chuck, “I forgot where I was.” That is, a place where whites are hired to clear away the land in advance of the flood, not blacks, because if blacks are hired, the whites will walk off the job. Chuck eventually hires blacks anyway, and it is just another evocation of Clift’s acting dexterity – a man maintaining efficiency while also acting ethically. Thus, the flood, just like the great one that sent Noah scrambling to construct his Ark, breeds progress of the social order, coming to wipe away outdated mores.

Then again, that’s not all the water is coming to wipe away. “Maybe in the days of the pioneers a man could go his own way,” declared Burt Lancaster in another Montgomery Clift production, “From Here to Eternity”, “but today you gotta play ball.” Ella is caught between those notions – a pioneer who wants to maintain their ethos of individualism and being forced (literally in the end) to play ball.

Anymore if you lament progress, just a little, you are instantly branded a Luddite who simply REFUSES TO GET WITH THE TIMES. Watching Ella dig in her heels and espouse her roots even as it all fades away, it’s not hard to detect echoes of the futuristic stunted factory towns and technological advances that are slowly eroding the middle class. Ella Garth’s no dummy. She knows she can’t stop what’s coming. She cut her teeth in a world that has left her ill-equipped to face the new one. And perhaps it’s technically a spoiler to say she is moved off the land and the dam goes up and the water rises and the island floods, but how on earth is that a spoiler? It’s what’s been going on since the beginning of time. Sink or swim. Adapt or die. Black or white. It’s never really that simple. But somehow, by the time the check comes, it always is.