The Great American Novel Project: Absalom, Absalom!

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Absalom, Absalom!

This isn’t my first attempted Faulkner novel. It is my first completed Faulkner novel. (Related: It’s also the book that derailed my Great American Novel Project for the better part of a year and a half.) To me, reading Faulkner is like trying to wade through the most impenetrable swamp in the South for a year and a half straight, and while occasionally there are some cool things during your trek, and the scenery’s great, by the time that year and a half is up, you’re soaked through, miserable, and have been so focused on the task at hand that you’ve completely missed the signposts alongside the swamp telling you a) what’s ahead of you, b) why you’re in the swamp and c) how to get out. Normally I like dense writing–two of my favorite books are Possession and The Secret History–but apparently I’ve come to the outer reaches of my limit, and Faulkner is it.

Thank god for Shreve, Quentin’s roommate at Harvard, the ultimate recipient of the tale the Compsons are weaving in Absalom, Absalom!: his entire purpose in the novel seems to be to repeat back to Quentin what he’s been saying in plainer terms for the benefit of the reader. (There are actual points in the narrative where Shreve interrupts in order to say, “So what you’re saying is . . .?”–so the next time your writing instructor dings you on an As You Know, just tell them that Faulkner did it, too.) When you’re spending all your energy trying to figure out which character Faulkner is even talking about, it’s tough to simultaneously follow his metaphors. To be fair to Faulkner, that’s part of his goal–the obscuration of Absalom‘s events is a necessary part of his exploration of how we attempt to reconstruct the past. As always with Faulkner, the prose is incredible. The plot, once you sort it all out, is compelling. And the broader Southern themes of the novel–slavery as the downfall of the South, the region’s inability to come to grips with its own demise, the myriad versions of Southern history and what they all mean–are fascinating even now that many of them have been well-trod. (At the time Absalom, Absalom! came out and those themes were fresh, this novel–and particularly its closing lines, which are a neat summary of Faulkner and his entire oeuvre for me–must have been thrilling.) Intriguingly enough, Faulkner has said that the “true version” of his characters’ history is there in the pages, between the lines, for any reader conscientious enough to go back and look for it. All the same, I probably won’t be that reader.

Previously: The Great Gatsby
Next: the first book of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel

Love Me Tender

July 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

The most depressing thing about Elvis’s first movie is that it makes the wasted potential of the next thirty films very clear: Elvis could have been a solid actor. Sure, this is an amateur effort–but for the debut performance of a crossover star, it ain’t bad. If his films had stuck a little closer to this model than the Blue Hawaii one, he could have developed into a fine actor. Alas.

Confederate cavalrymen–three of the four Reno brothers–stage an elaborate attack on a Union train, and when it’s successful, they wind up with thousands of dollars in hand. They plan to take it to their leader, but unbeknownst to them, the war has already ended, their cause defeated. When they find out, they decide to keep the money for themselves rather than turn it over to the U.S. government. The eldest, Vance, uses a little bit of his portion to buy a wedding suit for his upcoming wedding to his fiancee, Cathy–but when he gets home, he discovers that his family had mistakenly been informed he was dead, and Cathy has married his youngest brother, Clint (Presley), instead. The rest of the film traces three conflicts: Cathy’s love for Vance despite her marriage to Clint, Clint’s all-consuming jealousy, and the government’s attempts to hunt down the Renos once they find out what happened to that money.

Setting a precedent for future films, Elvis takes a very 20th-century singing break in the middle of the action, which grinds the film to a halt. The songs–which include the smash hit “Love Me Tender”–are good, but entirely out of place. Elvis had once sworn that he never wanted to sing in his movies, but the enthusiasm of his fans–who attended premieres of the film in shrieking droves–made that all but impossible. Unfortunately for Elvis, that would set the model for years to come.

In the Heat of the Night

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recommitted to my goal of making it through the two AFI Top 100 Movies lists, and one of the most interesting thing about the two lists is how you can see critical tastes changing–especially in regards to race–even in the span of a decade. Movies like Dances with Wolves, Giant, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–initially regarded as racially progressive for their intersection-of-two-cultures plots–were now seen as overly sentimental, unrealistic, and heavily imbalanced towards the white side of the story. Movies like In the Heat of the Night and Do the Right Thing–presenting grittier, less rosy-eyed portraits of race relations–replaced them, alongside pictures like The Shawshank Redemption and Spartacus that had subtler themes of identifying with the oppressed. In perhaps the most blatant example, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was almost literally replaced with his later Intolerance, substituting a pro-bigotry message with an anti-bigotry one–and while Intolerance is certainly more palatable from a humanitarian standpoint, and more interesting from a storytelling point of view, it seems a little like cheating to pretend that its technological advances were anything compared to Birth of a Nation‘s. It’s not a fight I’m compelled to go to the mat for, but I do think this kind of historical revisionism ultimately does more harm than good–Birth of a Nation was a great film based around an awful story, period, and removing it from the list doesn’t make people in the early days of the 20th century any less racist than they were. Ultimately, cinematic superlative lists need to decide if they’re grading on technical innovation or artistic achievement (however you define that)–Birth of a Nation shows exactly why it’s so dangerous to grade both simultaneously, as the AFI list purports to do. Otherwise you might come across as tacitly condoning the acts of the Klan when, in reality, all you mean is that you think Griffith’s invention of “close-ups” was really neat.

Before watching, I was familiar with three parts of In the Heat of the Night already: the scene where the police officer arrests Sidney Poitier in the train station and repeatedly refers to him as “boy,” the part where he snaps, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” and the part where an older white man slaps him and he returns the slap full-force. I loved finally seeing them in their proper context; it’s like the experience I had reading Jack Gilbert’s “Michiko Dead” on its own and then reading it in the context of The Great Fires. That poem and those moments seemed less contrived, less trying to prove a point, more trying to tell a story when taken as part of a full work. This will sound ignorant of me, but I didn’t realize that they were making films like this in the 1960s, let alone that films like this were winning multiple Academy Awards–the depiction of racial tensions seemed more realistic to its time than many pictures’ being made today. It helped that the movie was set up as a mystery rather than a “problem picture”; it avoided a lot of the potential derailings into heavy-handedness while still managing to touch on some serious issues. I’m reading Donald Bogle’s wonderful book Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks right now, on the history of African-Americans in cinema, and I’m surprised that he gave this film what was essentially a sentence-long review of “Sidney Poitier plays another variation on the perfect black man,” because to me, there were several very transgressive moments in this film–including, but not limited to those I noted above–that pushed the (primarily white) audience to identify with Poitier’s character in the same way that horror movies often force the mostly male audience to identify with a female lead.

My favorite moment of the film occurred right after Poitier returns the rich white man’s slap and stalks out. The white man’s black servant, who’s been sent to the kitchen for a tray of lemonades, returns just in time to witness this exchange, and responds with a small, sad shake of his head. Its meaning is entirely ambiguous: Is he disappointed in Tibbs for stepping out of line? Pleased but knowing he has to play the part of loyal servant? Openly upset with his employer? Annoyed that he got all those lemonades ready for nothing? I’ll admit that I’m not the kind of person who usually notices small details in films like this unless I see them multiple times, but rarely has such a tiny moment been so perfectly played.

The Great American Novel Project: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain

When I first started this project, Huck Finn was in the news for reasons you wouldn’t expect: publishers had put out a new copy of the book where all of Twain’s usage of the n-word was replaced by the word “slave.” It reminded me of a 1955 movie made out of the book, where producers, hoping to avoid offense, omitted any references to slavery and turned Jim into a white man. To a modern audience, the problems with that approach are obvious, but apparently the word-replacement approach–just a less egregious version of the same thing–was less overtly troubling, because this isn’t the first time it’s been tried.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer–temperamental about my words, protective of them–that the whole thing sets me off. To a serious writer, the difference between one word and another is big. If Twain used the n-word, that’s because he meant to use the n-word. If he meant “slave,” he would have written “slave.” Don’t think it’s happenstance: Twain used the n-word repeatedly on purpose. He used it to make a statement about the society Huck Finn takes place in, that it’s so racist that even the characters we’re supposed to like use it over and over without regret, right up through the last chapter. Even minor changes to the text of the story can affect the author’s intention, and in the case of Huck Finn, those “minor changes,” the alteration of one word, seriously alter Twain’s intent: it makes Huck less ambiguous than he’s supposed to be, putting more emphasis on the “high-spirited scamp” side of his personality and less on the “product of his society (even though he would claim otherwise)” side. (It also shows that Jim is either patient or oppressed enough to put up with it, both significant aspects of the book.) The fact that Huck considers himself a loner, Dottie, a rebel is a major focus of the book; by changing the n-word to “slave” we significantly undermine the idea that this isn’t strictly true. At the end of the book, Huck claims that he’s planning on heading out west to rid himself of the burden of polite society, but since the ambiguous nature of his character has already been made clear, we can imagine that his future will end up quite a bit differently than he does. By changing just one of Twain’s words to something less offensive, we also change our conception of the book’s setting and characters. It’s not just a minor change.

Yes, Adventures of Huck Finn is a problematic book. Maybe as times change, we should examine the role it plays it the classroom–as a “classic” example of an anti-racist text–and look at other options that could fulfill similar functions. Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson and Toni Morrison can cover similar ground and allow black writers to speak for themselves rather than relying on a white author to interpret for them. Maybe because of Huck Finn‘s complexities and controversy and capability to offend, it’s a book that should wait until college, where lit courses are largely optional and everyone in the class is there by choice. And certainly we should think about the way teachers present the novel, how their use of (or their allowing their students to use) the n-word in class can implicitly condone the same prejudices that Twain was hoping we’d react against. But changing an author’s words–their story, their intent–and wiping away a tiny chunk of history is never an acceptable option.

Previously: Moby-Dick

Next: The Great Gatsby

Your Cheatin’ Heart

December 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hank Williams was an alcoholic and a drug addict. His relationship with his wife, Audrey, was marked by infidelity and abuse, physical and emotional, on both sides. Naturally, somebody decided his life story–centered around this relationship–made good material for a schmaltzy 1960s musical helmed by Gene Nelson, most famous for directing two of Elvis’s more insipid films, Harem Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins. Picture an insipid Elvis musical where the King plays an early country music star with a drinking problem, and Your Cheatin’ Heart is pretty much what you get.

Of course, not all of this was MGM’s fault. Audrey Williams, who controlled Hank’s estate and served as technical advisor on the film, had final say on what flew. The version of the story she okayed was highly whitewashed. While Hank’s alcohol abuse is shown, his drug abuse is not. It doesn’t explain the reasons for his death at 29, which were likely drug and/or alcohol-related–in the film, he’s supposed to be clean, refusing to drink anything harder than soda in the last few moments of his life. The film barely depicts any abuse and hardly hints at their separations–in the movie, at the time of Hank’s death, he’s still married to Audrey! (In real life, the two of them had divorced for the second time six months before, and he had impregnated another woman before marrying a third.) Audrey did allow a flawed picture of herself to be presented–she comes across as a profligate spender, buying new fridges to replace month-old ones, which stresses Hank out so much he turns to the bottle. But despite this, the film is still biased in her favor, showing her mainly as the driving force behind Hank’s stardom, pushing him to succeed because he had no faith in himself.

We think of the musician biopic cliches as being relatively modern developments–discussion of them flared a few years back as Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious were released in quick succession–and rarely anyone bothers to trace them back beyond The Buddy Holly Story in 1978. But almost all of them are in place here: opening with a tragic childhood event, the underprivileged upbringing, a whirlwind of newspaper headlines to denote a rise to fame, a slow descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, the rocky first marriage, using songs to comment on the action, the recovery from addiction (presented largely off-screen). Had someone told me that the script for Your Cheatin’ Heart was an early draft of Walk the Line, I would have no trouble believing them.

Audrey has been much maligned by Hank Williams fans over the years, and the fact that this film was released ten years late and presented such a varnished account of her relationship with Hank has–like many other things–been blamed solely on her. Maybe it’s my tendency to root for the underdog here, but I’ve got to go to bat for her, just a little bit. Being married to an addict is no picnic even under the best of situations, and when the addict in question is both abusive and untrue . . . well, that’s bound to put some stress on your relationship. Maybe the most interesting thing about Your Cheatin’ Heart was how it made me consider Audrey in a way that I hadn’t before. Here was a chance for her to rewrite history–not to completely alter the truth, just to massage it a little bit. To give herself the happy ending that she and Hank were denied in real life. She could write the other women out of the picture–not just the insignificant affairs, but his second wife and his unborn child with another woman. She could write away his addiction, putting him through a recovery that never stuck in real life. She could make clear her intentions for his life–that regardless of how it actually played out, she wanted the best for him. She could create her own ending: the two of them, happy together, with Hank sober and successful and appreciated, if only for a little bit. Wish fulfillment, all of it. But understandable.

There is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind.

June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Gone with the Wind is something of a cinematic Rorschach test, and its ability to be all things to all people is a part of its long-lasting appeal. It’s racist, except when it’s not: the horrors of slavery are glossed over, the semi-complexity of the novel’s characters is reduced to stereotypes in the film, and the black actors were treated poorly at the premiere and, on some occasions, on the set–but the film was one of the only ones of its time to actually give black actors something to do besides stand in the background and smile ingratiatingly, and it led to Hattie McDaniel’s famous first Best Supporting Actress win. The film is pro-Southern, except when it’s anti-Southern: the antebellum South is romanticized (knights and ladies fair, a dream remembered, et cetera) but it also very blatantly spells out the fact that the South failed because they were cocky, ignorant bastards who were too wrapped up in their ladies fair and their code of chivalry to see the forest for the trees. It’s sexist, except when it’s not: Scarlett and Melanie are extremely strong female characters in different molds, with Scarlett breaking all the confining conventions to which her gender is held, and the focus on how war affects women was quite revolutionary for its time–but there’s a definite Taming of the Shrew vibe, and demure Melanie is clearly set up as the ideal of Southern womanhood, with even Margaret Mitchell herself expressing wonderment (a little disingenuously, in my opinion) at why Scarlett turned out to be so well-loved by so many. And then there’s the little matter of that rape scene . . .

There’s only one small problem with that: there is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind–and whenever anybody describes the staircase scene as such, I have to fight the urge to tear my hair out, weep, beat my chest, et cetera. To be fair to them, it’s easy to mistake the staircase scene for a rape scene when Rhett carries Scarlett kicking and screaming up the stairs–but to be fair to the movie’s directors, too, there’s not much more they could have done with the source material to make the scene clear, short of slapping a voice-over on it. It’s a scene that essentially requires you to be in the heroine’s head in order to parse what’s going on–and thus it’s one of the few scenes in the book that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Here’s Mitchell in that deliciously purple scene:

“Up the stairs, he went in utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. . . . She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.”

And then, of course, the infamous morning after:

“Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee. . . . When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.

‘I’m nervous as a bride,’ she thought. ‘And about Rhett!’ And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.”

That’s not a rape. In fact, that this scene is not a rape illustrates the entire point of the 700-page story: that Rhett is Scarlett’s perfect match specifically because he’s the only one that can meet her on her level, beat her at her own game, turn her darkness into light. Does the scene start ugly? Definitely–and the altercation leading up to it, where (in the film), Rhett tells Scarlett to “observe my hands, my dear. I could tear you to pieces with them, and I’d do it if it’d take Ashley out of your mind forever. But it wouldn’t. So I’ll remove him from your mind forever this way. I’ll put my hands so–one on each side of your head–and I’ll smash  your skull between them like a walnut, and that’ll block him out” . . . is, in my opinion, even uglier. But an ugly, nasty scene though it is, it’s not a rape scene. Is Rhett a bastard and a half here? Yes–a drunk, emotionally abusive bastard, but not a rapist. Nobody has sex against their will in this scene. Scarlett is carried up the stairs against her will, but carrying someone up the stairs against their will isn’t rape, and she’s happily succumbed to the idea of sex long before they get to the top step.

While we’re on the subject of forgotten tropes, here’s another one: the forced seduction. While most common in romance novels, it enjoyed its heyday in movies, too, and Gone with the Wind is its prime example. Forced seduction stemmed from the pre-sexual revolution days when Good Girls Didn’t, which, for writers, raised the question of how to get a good girl (or, in Scarlett’s case, a wildly independent one) into bed with the leading man when she had no logical reason to be there. The admittedly imperfect solution they came up with? Have the leading man force himself on her. Of course, he can’t actually force her to have sex, as a real hero, no matter how unchivalrous, would never have to resort to forcing women to have sex with him–so a forced seduction is something that starts as a rape but transforms into consensual sex at some point before penetration. This was intended to take just enough culpability off the woman that her reputation remained undamaged, while still allowing the man to cling to the shards of his respectability–and whatever plot point needed to be fulfilled by the two characters coming together could still play out. This trope became mostly unnecessary after the sexual revolution and basically died off in the film world after that, although–oddly–it lasted well into the 1980s in the realm of romance novels.

I’m certainly not arguing that the story doesn’t showcase sexism in other ways, or even that the staircase scene isn’t plenty sexist in its own right–but it’s not rape. Blindly worshiping Gone with the Wind displays a lack of brain power, but roundly condemning it is just as easy, and often, just as wrong. Margaret Mitchell’s magnum opus, and the movie based on it, are two of the most morally ambiguous pieces of pop culture the 20th century produced. A little deeper digging is in order here.

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