Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Tuesday, Nov 7, 2006


There is a grand distinction between being antisocial and being insane. One does not necessarily follow from the other, and people who are psychotic often have their tendencies misdiagnosed as against society when they are really anti-everything. No, people who prefer their own company have reasons for the self-imposed exile, most of them very private and very prickly. They tend to see themselves as isolated, islands in a large sea of dissimilar personalities. Such a sense becomes a barrier, a constantly refortified buttress that must be maintained and rebuilt whenever anyone attempts to break through it. With each advance and repair comes psychological scar tissue, formed from the anxiety of interaction and the tranquility of evasion. It’s no more Pavlovian than that—people cause stress, the lack of same causes peace. As we are creatures of comfort by nature, the tendency toward unfriendliness is not unexpected. It is just not a state of being we usually relish.


But for those with a delicate artistic temperament, for anyone who has ever felt stigmatized or marginalized because they were different—physically or socially, for people who perceive the world as a great big playground that they are not allowed to enter, a desire to alienate and retreat from the human condition is part of the process. It’s art’s mandate. It’s emotion’s missive. Frankly, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be far from the maddening crowd, or lost in a world of your own devising and design. It’s when the outside realm not longer has meaning, when the brain confuses fantasy with fulfillment that problems occur. For the painfully shy Janet “Jean” Frame, a poverty-stricken existence on the outer edge of New Zealand was already about as removed from civilization as one could get. But with her wholly introverted manner and lack of interpersonal skills, tragedy and truth ganged up on her, leaving her vulnerable and violated. She would be hounded by claims of mental illness all her life, even hospitalized for it. But she always had a savior, a guardian at her side. As Jane Campion shows in her amazing film from 1989, Frame had writing. Her love of language and the written word saved her. It was an angel at her table.


Janet “Jean” Frame was the miserable middle child in a household constantly falling into financial ruin. Her father worked for the New Zealand railroads, and her mother was a mighty matron trying to raise four girls (Janet—or Jean—was one) and an epileptic son. As she grew, Jean’s childhood was a series of isolated instances: making and breaking friendships, scolding and holding blames. By the time she reached adolescence, she was socially stunted and emotionally crippled. Tragedy seemed to be eroding her fragile psyche when she least expected or wanted it, and there was never any support, either from peers or parents.


Still, Jean loved to write. She worshipped poetry and found herself humbled by prose. She would spend hours poring over books and filling her journals with stanzas and skylarking. While away at teacher-training college, her mournful, saddening sonnets got the attention of the faculty. One thought she needed help, and it wasn’t long before Jean was a resident of Seacliff, one of the country’s most notorious mental hospitals. She spent eight years in asylums, receiving over 200 electro-shock treatments to “cure” her misdiagnosed schizophrenia. Again, it was her words that saved her. An administrator discovered that one of Jean’s short-story collections had been published, and was the winner of a prestigious award. She was soon back home, and well on her way to becoming one of New Zealand’s, and the world’s preeminent authors. Jean eventually chronicled her collapse in a trilogy of insightful memoirs—To the Is-Land, The Envoy from Mirror City, and An Angel at My Table.


It was Harlan Ellison who once said, and this is pure paraphrasing, that one of the most important parts of maturity is learning to understand the difference between being lonely, and being alone. When you learn to stop feeling lonely, and learn to enjoy being alone, you enter the realm of true wisdom and earn a key to that most misunderstood of realms known as adulthood. Why people panic about being alone is an interpersonal mystery of many facets. Sometimes, it’s the way one was raised that affects this emotion. Individuals who enjoy families filled with love, those blessed with best friends and a substantial social calendar may seem lost without a constant stream of humanity humming about them. Others whom like the connection between people and places may appear alarmed when not surrounded by the pulsing and pushing of life. But when you can be by yourself, and not feel frightened or fidgety, that is a sign of development. It is an acknowledgment of individual mortality. It is recognition of personal worth.


Besides, being alone has its benefits. It is the catalyst for self discovery, and a way of learning about preferences and proclivities. We uncover much more about our own way of being when we are by ourselves than any amount of interaction with siblings or confidants. It’s like looking in a metaphysical mirror, and trying to see what’s beneath the forced facade of communal dictations and cultural signs. That journey, and the eventual discovery of the hidden human treasure inside, is one of the great voyages anyone can ever go on. Being lonely has its side effects as well. Alienation and isolation can come calling as companions to the state of longing, and without immediate gratification or the promise of a people fix, the addiction drives deeper and hurts harder. Soon, the need for another person becomes a plague, a tiny tendril of fear that eventually rages like a fever all over the body. Thoughts then become muddled, motives foggy and shrouded.


In Jane Campion’s moving and magical biography of New Zealand author Janet “Jean” Frame, we witness the cinematic expedition of one woman’s shift from painful loneliness to acceptable solitude. It’s a tragic tale of missed opportunities, lost loves, and many misconceptions. Frame found solace in writing, but it would not be an easy notebook to navigate. Throughout her growing years, Frame was an outcast, a lower-class bumpkin with an unruly mop of iconic red hair. Yet what we learn is that, once she understood that being different was all right, that there was nothing so terribly wrong about losing oneself in words and sentences, Frame found her own inner peace. That is why An Angel at My Table is such an epic undertaking. It moves from the miniature to the major, from a celebration of solitude to a statement about those wide-open personal spaces, both external and internal. Based on Frame’s own autobiographical trilogy and conceived for New Zealand television as a three-part miniseries, Campion reconfigured the long-form feature for a big screen release. And the results are resplendent.


This is indeed a movie in movements. Since it was conceived in segments, it is easy to view Campion’s command of the cinematic language in each and every phase. “To the Is-Land” is childhood as impressionism and rose-colored romanticizing. There is no real linear narrative in Part 1 of Frame’s life, just a series of shots and a collection of moments that begin to paint her person in broad, bravado strokes. We see Frame as a baby, wandering the overly green grasses of New Zealand’s farmland. Later, a more mature child walks down a long, lonely highway by herself, inner monologue working overtime about her outsider status among the community. Right from the start, Campion is emphasizing isolation. The young actress essaying the role of Frame is practically lost in the vastness of an opalescent Kiwi horizon. More parts are painted in—happiness and heartache, with everything being set up for the second section of the story.


“An Angel at My Table” shifts the focus to Frame’s college years, and does a more normative job of highlighting the girl’s tragic tale. The main focus here is Frame’s horrifying hospitalization. While avoiding Snake Pit-like proselytizing, we instantly recognize the indignity of placing a shy but talented girl who really only needs some attention and a kind hand into the barbaric restraints of the New Zealand mental health system. Seacliff is the most notorious of them all, a squalid place that we first view when a young Jean sees the city’s train station from a coach window. There, she witnesses the castoff mentality of the nation’s citizens as “loonies” wander freely, frightened and fighting their own angst-ridden demons. She immediately understands the reputation derived from a stay at such a place. Unfortunately, Frame stays for almost eight years. Campion depicts the passage of time in tableaus of decreasing conditions. The beginning phases are seen as almost tranquil. But by the end, Frame is in fear for her mental life.


Many may wonder why this sequence is not the heart of An Angel at My Table‘s story. After all, the horrors of the psychology industry are at the heart of many melodramatic movies. Yet this is not really what Campion wants to discuss. Certainly, Frame’s stay is important, but it is more empowering than entrapping. Prior to her commitment, Jean is seen as scattered and unskilled. She wants to be a writer, but can’t find the way to make anyone understand it. When she has her first breakdown (during a teacher’s evaluation), it’s a sign. It’s her mind telling her to quit this mundane masquerade and get on with the art. So Campion is out to show how the written word saved Frame’s life—and indeed it does. It is her prose that frees her from the institution. It is her poetry that questions the diagnosis of intellectual dysfunction. Once “cured” by the love of language, Frame simply has to find her place in the world. Once again, writing would come to the rescue.


“The Envoy from Mirror City,” the last act in the story, differs dramatically from the other sections in Campion’s film in many ways. Parts 1 and 2 take place over years, time having no meaning or place within the main narrative drive. Events are used as accents, highpoints in an overall personality profile. But by the time we reach Frame in her late 20s, she has already suffered through death and defeat, experiencing a hundred lifetimes in the unruly one she’s been given. So Campion concentrates on a single section of Frame’s later story—a fabled trip to Europe and, most specifically, Spain. It is during this holiday from hopelessness that Frame finally grows up. She experiences responsibility and rejection. She looks for love and finds it. Sex shows up and divulges its secrets. And Frame finally discovers that there is more to life than writing. Throughout the final phases of the story, we see her happy and content—or at least as happy and content as she can be—and we realize that somewhere inside her is the capability of solace without language. Luckily, at the end of her adventures, she has both to keep her sane.


This is why An Angel at My Table is unlike any biography you will ever see. Part character study, part carefully crafted human sketchpad, we are prompted to view our heroine from the inside out, not the circumstances in. Indeed, Frame’s life—aside from her stay in the asylum—plays out like most notable stories of growing up. Sure, this little girl ages to be a published author, but there is a significant lack of skeletons and scandal in her closet. The most iconic element about Frame, and something Campion uses consistently as counterpoint, is her brazen bush of hair. Flaming red as if her mind is constantly alight with fires of inspiration and anxiety, this girl is a body under a halo of follicle happenstance. There is one amazing shot, after the bomb has been dropped on Pearl Harbor, where a pre-hospitalization Frame goes walking away from a group of friends. As the camera stays put, we see her silhouette fade off into the distant. Once it loses its human form, the image becomes symbolic. Frame appears as an object with a large, domineering dome situated on its apex. It marks her as a woman with a head loaded with ideas and talent. It also argues for an unfortunate whose psyche is about to burst.


Another reason An Angel at My Table is so unusual is that it has the feeling of a fairy tale, of a story unstuck in real time. Though world events touch this tiny part of New Zealand, the Frame family appears lodged at the literal fringes of existence. Campion paints her native country in as many mesmerizing strokes as fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson would in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Within this realm of real magic, Campion places her characters, and allows them to interact with the landscape. There are dozens of shots of people set against the horizon, of fences climbing hills and livestock overrunning the land. This director seems to be saying that Frame’s story of growing up and maturing is almost in sync with the expansion of New Zealand’s national identity. Both are closed off and isolated universes. Both contain talents and terrors. Each has a rugged desire to endure, and both come out as survivors of a sort in the end. It is not easy to name another film that allows tranquility to so readily slip into fear as An Angel at My Table. New Zealand is still a wild and woolly environment during Frame’s childhood, much like the girl herself.


Of course, Campion requires more than just beautiful backdrops to make her points. She needs actors capable of transcendence, performers blessed with unbridled tenacity. Required to carry the majority of the movie on her back, Kerry Fox is fantastic as the adult version of Frame. Though the actresses playing her younger selves (Karen Ferguson as the childhood Jean, Alexia Keogh as the adolescent Frame) add equal amounts of depth to the portrayal, Fox is left with the most complicated part of our heroine. She must transport all the youthful issues locked up inside the various stages of her saga and let them flow across her in a constant stream of psychological unease. It helps tremendously that Fox has a perfectly fragile voice. When she speaks, in a low lilting tone, it’s like listening to lace disintegrate. As her doomed sisters, Melina Bernecker (as Myrtle) and Samantha Townsely (as the feisty and fiery Isabel) also leave lasting impressions. They argue for what a non-artistic Jean could have ended up being. They are girls of the game, promiscuous and proud, using their physicality and sexuality to crawl out from under the paucity around them. They can’t help their sad sibling just as she cannot save them. Everyone is doomed, yet An Angel at My Table also argues that, sometimes, we hold our own salvation in our hands.


Interestingly, this is not a feel-good fable. There is no major amount of emotional uplift at the end of this story, no five handkerchief histrionics where life is reaffirmed and melancholy mopped up. No, for Jean Frame, there is just a happy state of solemn eccentricity. Established now as an author and her own person, she lives alone in a caravan, existing in a kind of nominal no-man’s land where everything is calm and creative. She has the world when she wants (or needs it). The same goes for her writing. It is a credit to Campion that we don’t obsess over this idea. We see it for what it is—the natural result of Jean Frame’s arduous personal journey. It was hard to even doubt she would ever make it. After all, she had art to look after her, and there is no better angel at one’s table than talent.


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Monday, Nov 6, 2006


Believe it or not, there are only seven full shopping weeks before something called Santa Claus teaches the wee ones of the world a lesson in misguided materialism and hope-crushing gift disappointment. Of course, this means DVD marketers industry wide are stuck trying to find creative ways of pushing the same product back into your already bloated gift sack. As you venture into your local technology center, wish list gripped firmly in hand, you will have to navigate shelves filled with box sets, special editions, limited releases and the always aggravating double dips. Still, if you look closely, you’ll see some very worthy fare out there – as well as a horrid comedy from three months ago that, hopefully, will die the oversized death its undersized storyline so richly deserves. With such a diverse selection to choose from, the only advice SE&L can supply is select wisely – oh, and anything from Criterion or Something Weird Video is always welcome under the blog’s bountiful Yuletide tree. The possible prizes awaiting your wampum for 7 November are:


Cars

*
Why, exactly, did critics pick on Pixar and this latest example of their anthropomorphic expertise? Is it all just a matter of success-based jealousy, or was there something really wrong with this story about a spoiled stock car who learns valuable life lessons at the hands of some backwater automobiles. For all the claims that this ‘only average’ entry in the company’s creative canon could not match the magic of Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc., for SE&L’s money, this was some unbelievably fun stuff. Besides, the computer animation bar is set at right around The Incredibles for us, and all other offerings more or less pale in comparison. Still, Cars was a solid, sensationally realized effort that may have poured on the schmaltz, but still delivered an array of dizzying visuals that made the basic narrative explode with invention and wonder. If this is supposedly run of the mill animation, what does one label the frequently lame offerings from other cartoon creators?



PopMatters Review


Carousel: 50th Anniversary Edition

*
One of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s more inventive and evocative musicals, this forgotten gem gets frequently overlooked (along with the unworthy Flower Drum Song) when classic song and dance showcases are considered. And that’s too bad, since it features some of the duo’s more ambitions tunes and a pair of compelling performances from Gordon MacRae as Billy Bigelow and Shirley Jones as Julie Jordan. Granted, the subject matter here is much darker than in your standard Broadway show, and the operetta approach can throw some artform aficionados off their game, but this is still one of the best combinations of story, performance and melody the pair ever attempted. Long available on DVD, this new 50th Anniversary presentation promises commentary, cut songs and an overview of the production. Even better, you can round out your collection by picking up the Box Set edition which includes other timeless masterworks like The Sound of Music and South Pacific.



Cinema Paradiso: Collector’s Edition

*
What exactly, has happened to Giuseppe Tornatore in recent years? A look at his IMDb resume reveals a string of films since this 1989 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, but after the solid follow-up, Everybody’s Fine, his efforts have never really made an impact outside his Italian homeland. While his 1998 movie The Legend of 1990 is plastered all over some pay cable channels, few of his other productions have made it over to our discerning shores. And that’s too bad, since this love letter to cinema is one of the best nostalgic narratives the medium has to offer. Tornatore, using a flashback style storyline, expresses everything that’s magic, maddening, and moving about motion pictures, and does so with limited sap and just a small amount of pap. Previous DVD editions have revealed differing cuts of the film, as well as limited supplemental elements. This newest presentation promises to include all available versions, as well as a few complementary surprises.



The Fallen Idol: The Criterion Collection

*
Carol Reed, the British director responsible for several of cinema’s more outstanding milestones (The Third Man, Oliver!) delivered one of the most devastating takes on hero worship and shattered expectations ever attempted. In this classic coming of age tale, a young boy looks up to the family butler, a secretive man whose life appears both purposefully enigmatic and oddly clandestine. When a murder forces the child to confront his issues of loyalty and adulation, the truth becomes more difficult to decipher than the mixed messages from the adults around him. Long lost to the occasional revival by a classic film channel, Criterion steps up and gives this minor masterwork the preservationist’s polish it so richly deserves. With a brand new black and white transfer, and a documentary about the filmmaker and his fascinating career, there is more to this release than just a chance to own a remarkable motion picture. It’s a chance to celebrate a forgotten artist as well.


 


Little Man
SE&L is sick and tired of every review of this film pointing out that the so-called story for this anti-comedy atrocity is lifted directly from the Warner Brothers cartoon “Baby Buggy Bunny”. Granted, this horrible hackwork by the used to be talented Wayans Brothers did lift a few of its fetid gags from the 1954 animated short, but there is a far more disturbing source for much of this movie’s Apocalyptic awfulness. In 1932, the Our Gang/Little Rascals starred in “Free Eats”, a slapstick send-up of poverty and the orphaned featuring – you guessed it – a pair of midgets pretending to be babies. Their ruse? To rob a rich matron of her fancy jewels. Since the dowager is throwing a party for the star unfortunates, the crooks come along for the toddler carriage ride. All manner of racially insensitive, but still quite hilarious, hi-jinx ensue. It’s the only thing that separates the humorous efforts of the past from the laugh-free lameness of this Summer of 2006 cinematic hate crime.



PopMatters Review


Oh! What a Lovely War!
Political satire usually comes in one of two distinct packages: outlandish and obvious, or subtle and subversive. Oddly, this 1969 British effort – clearly timed as a rebuke of the US involvement in Vietnam - wants to be a little bit of both. With an approach that’s more like a musical M*A*S*H* than an actual attempt at lampooning the events of World War I, Sir Richard Attenborough follows the infamous Charles Chilton play rather faithfully. He also gets magical performances out of UK staples Maggie Smith, Ian Holm and John Mills, among many others. There was a lot of behind the scenes intrigue during the making of this movie, and with its absence from the DVD domain, the newly minted special edition promises to address some of the scandal. In this time of war, where questions are being raised regarding the nobility of dying for an unjust cause, this ripping roast of the insanity of armed conflict may finally find an eager and accepting audience.


Wordplay*
It’s a hobby that can count such diverse persons as Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls and Bob Dole as participants. It requires a knowledge of language, a skill at problem solving, and a mind that can strategize and extemporize equally well. Indeed, everyday, millions of people around the world sit down with their morning paper and don’t feel fully awake until they’ve had a crack at the crossword puzzle. This delightful documentary centers on the 28th Annual competition for “professional” solvers, and yet it’s the testimonials from the famous and the faithful that really resonate throughout. Watching people describe their ‘addiction’, admitting to themselves for perhaps the first time that their lives are undeniably linked to discovering a five letter word for “frequently indifferent” is truly enlightening. Bolstered by a wealth of added content, and a chance to see who actually wins the final round of the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, this terrific title is enough to make you grab a pencil and start deciphering for yourself.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 7 November:


Francis Ford Coppola Presents William S. Burroughs’ The Junky’s Christmas*
If you’re fed up of all the syrupy, saccharine holiday specials that seemingly clog up your TV screen about 30 seconds after Halloween ends, Francis Ford Coppolla and famed Beat author William Burroughs have the perfect antidote for you. This stop motion animated treat, based on the Burroughs’ story of the same name, centers around a recently incarcerated dope fiend desperate for a fix. When he finally scores, he’s forced into a position of either fending for himself, or helping out another in need. The work by director Nick Donkin is amazing, a kind of anti-Rankin/Bass approach where reality and surrealism are mixed together to form a unique combination of fact and fairy tale. Of course, Burroughs narrates this excellent adaptation, and his cracked, croaking voice adds just the right amount of seasonal cynicism. Presented along with a pair of short films that are equally evocative, here’s the perfect stocking stuffer for those who’d like to see the entire commercialized celebration blown up.



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Sunday, Nov 5, 2006


Ahh… politics. That creator of strange bedfellows. That seducer of the honest and the well intentioned. That corrupt bastion of bad policies, faulty execution, and spin doctored excuses for both. Every couple of years its seems the representative form of our government gets the grand idea that people actually believe that their vote counts, and so they set about pandering—sorry, CAMPAIGNING—to bring the citizenry to the issues that the lobbyists find most important. Outrage is amplified over insignificant social dicta while truth is tempered by ideological based perspective. It’s all in service of a sinister cabal in which power cannibalizes and feeds itself, a non-stop frenzy of false pride and implied dominance. In the end, the result is a malfeasant machine that manufactures its own magnitude and perpetually pleases only those who can provide its omnivorous fetid fuel.


But wait, you don’t believe that the entire electoral process is a lost cause? You think that a sincere and straightforward candidate can rise up out of the glad-handing quagmire that is the system and avoid the behind the scenes manipulation of his or her party’s protectorate to actually serve their constituency? Well, Mr. and Mrs. America, you need a quick lesson in the realities of the Republic, and there’s no better place to start than with the many movies made on the subject. Indeed, film has, over the decades, found many ways to highlight the hypocrisy and expose the evil boiling just below the surface of the scandal-plagued political process. No sour subject has avoided the cinematic vox populi, from nation altering atrocities like Watergate and the JFK assassination to the standard stratagem of dirty tricks and the always scandalizing subject of sex.


Perhaps the best example of such an anti-politico polemic is 1972’s Year of the Yahoo. What? What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this film? Perhaps you were expecting All the President’s Men? Primary Colors? The Manchurian Candidate? Well, if you took a smattering of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, mixed in a smidgen of standard exploitation, and sprinkled the entire enterprise with a heaping helping of hominy and hambone, you’d have Herschell Gordon Lewis’ long lost masterpiece of down home despotism and the media’s unpardonable ability to influence events. With a narrative fresh out of today’s headlines and a tone as cynical as a grad student’s weblog, Lewis lifts the lid off the muckraking ridiculousness that is our political process, and even provides a few toe-tapping musical PSAs along the way.


Our story begins when the incredibly liberal and virtually unbeatable Senator Burwell comes up for re-election. Angry over his left-leaning ideals, the sitting President of the United States wants Burwell defeated. He even handpicks his own rube for the job: strumming and grinning goober Hank Jackson, famous in both fields of music: country and western. Sending a triumvirate of trained pollsters and media men into the bumpkin’s backwoods barrio, the Corruptor in Chief hopes to help the honky-tonk hick win more than his fair share of the illiterate Appalachian vote. But the glad-handing Governor and his backside smooching sidekick think this corn pone crooner ain’t got a chance in Chattanooga of success. They fail to take his candidacy seriously, and spend most of their days giggling over the lopsided poll numbers.


It’s not long, however, before a sleazy, slick ad campaign and a constant play list of public pandering, philosophically fascist songs has Hank labeled a wholesome homeboy by the neo-conservative race baiters within his constituency. His TV appearances, complete with some finger snappin’, demographically accurate musical numbers, increase his image of earnestness and elect-ability. Indeed, it looks like Jackson will win the gerrymander, even when a rent strike divides his bluegrass bandwagon and unsettles his perfectly polished coalition. As Hank continues to tow the prejudiced party line, his hen pecker of a girlfriend sides with the agitators. It takes dozens of underhanded shenanigans, a sexual assault and a clear case of conscience—not to mention a lonesome ballad or two—to help Hank regain his integrity and to determine, once and for all, if it’s really The Year of the Yahoo.


Indeed, Yahoo is a real rarity amongst supposed skin and sin exploitation films, especially the one’s made by Mr. Blood Feast himself. Instead of some sleazy exposé in which naughtiness and nudity are the only salient selling points, what we have here is a really great movie with an incredibly well written script, a narrative that navigates the truths about government in a way most mainstream efforts would likely avoid. Existing outside the confines of an oppressive studio system, capable of saying anything and everything he wants, screenwriter Allen Kahn (which could just be a pen name for Lewis, by the way) creates an astute, perceptive dissection of the entire cynical candidacy process. It’s a plot that demonstrates how gaining elected office in the United States is not a matter of ethics or integrity but merely showmanship and selfless pandering to the public. Measuring up favorably against directorial heavyweights like Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, Lewis’ political potboiler about a podunk country singer candidate being mass marketed to his population of peons feels as new and astute now as when it was made.


Unfortunately, a hundred image consultants doing soundbite surgery at a suicidal rate would have a hard time getting the registered voter hyped about Claude King. Yes, he can carry a tune, but he can’t carry a movie. His “wish I was George Jones” persona filled with ‘golly-gees’ and hair cream just can’t seem to slink beyond the initial line reading level. He’s like any other non-actor trying to put on the performance. His halting, half-baked believability leeches every available drop of drama out of his dilemma.  Still, his “h-yuck yuck” yokelism works wonderfully within the movie. He comes across as a complete innocent made a meaningful man of the people. Actually, about the worst thing you can say about this production is that its low budget, non-professional cast aspects tend to show through more than usual. Funny how good writing will do that. Still, if you never thought that you’d experience high-class social consciousness and shrewd political satire in a surreal pseudo-grindhouse goof, then step right up and cast your ballot for The Year of the Yahoo. It’s no more ridiculous than the arrogant stumping that’s passing itself off as self-determination this midterm election cycle.


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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Country is the first in a long series of roles that Jessica Lange would become famous for: the farm-wife/mother. It also was, for those paying close attention, the first outspoken political statement Lange would utter. As time would go on to tell, it certainly would not be the last. Her cause in 1984 was the plight of American farmer and the unjust practices of corrupt government agencies that strong-armed them into submission. It is a somewhat straightforward story by cinematic means, but the subversive ideas are epic in scope.


Hot off the heels of her double whammy in 1982 (Frances and Tootsie), Lange was able to use her status to co-produce and star in this unfettered portrait of a family struggling to make everything work. She is Jewell, the matriarch of a small family that depends on their land for income, only to be plagued by bank foreclosures and violent twisters. Dutiful, tough and fired-up opposite real-life partner Sam Shepard (the second of several successful, heated on-screen collaborations), Lange is relaxed and cautious with her creation and her care shows most assuredly in a scene where the family is out in the field during a windstorm. Her son becomes trapped under a gigantic pile of corn and her fury as she digs him out is nearly as powerful as the gale. Then, the next morning, its back to serving up pancakes with rollers in her hair as if nothing happened. This detail is effective because it shows the versatility a woman who must be ready for anything if she is going to survive this kind of life. There isn’t much room to fuss over something that might have happened to her hard-working son the previous night when there are babies to be fed and chores to be done and records to be kept.


Country doesn’t really pull any punches when it comes to the negative effects of the hard knocks taken by the family. Jewell and Gil’s marriage begins to disintegrate when he starts drinking and stops fighting for the farm and starts fighting with their children, physically and verbally. The homespun film conveys a seemingly ancient sense of community strength and respect for tradition along with an un-ironic sense of earnestness. The characters depend on each other, neighbors, family, and all. In a scene where Jewel and Gil agree to do a simple favor for a friend who they know is about to be run off his land by creditors, the two principals take a “less-is-more” approach with an unfussy reverence for individual privacy. They merely help him without asking for too much information.  In the hands of lesser performers, these clichés would have come off inert, but in the hands of pros like Lange and Shepard the conventions are fresh.


Lange somehow makes this woman endearing and actually functional, rather than a weak stereotype. She even manages to endow the character (that might have been envisioned as a nervous wreck or a melodramatic sap) with a wry sense of humor even in the face of repossession and the farm being auctioned off. It is a master class in social crusading and self-sacrifice that upstarts like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich and Charlize Theron (North Country) likely obsessed over as part of their preparation to play similarly heroic roles.


Even though Lange may play the naïve, small-town woman up against crushing odds often, she makes Jewell’s confusion convincingly build to a cool, controlled rage. It is clear that the actress puts a unique stamp on her characters every time. By the time the town unites to stop the crooked auctions, led in their rallying by the wiser and empowered Jewell, the outcome is electrifying: she begins a climactic chant of “no-sale” that is so powerful it actually works. Pride and loyalty are two important values implied in the code of conduct for farmers used to this way of life. It’s a refreshing reaction of trust and kindness that make for the best kind of epics: the small ones that matter the most.


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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Since my obsession with Swedish film star Liv Ullmann has begun to, shall we say, blossom (or fester, depending on how you look at it) over the years, one film in her cannon has painfully eluded me: Jan Troell’s epic cinematic interpretation of Vilhelm Moberg’s novels, 1972’s The Emigrants (which has only been available to US audiences in a crappy dubbed video version or on laserdisc)
   
Happy days are here thanks to some anonymous seller on EBay, who happened to be unloading some strange, unauthorized version of the film, unedited, in its three hour-plus running time and complete with English subtitles rather than the English dubbing. I have truly found at least once facet of the Swedish film industry’s numerous Holy Grails!


Troell’s story beings in Smaaland, a rural community in southern Sweden, where the land has been farmed to its limits and prospects are dying out rapidly. Max Von Sydow’s Karl-Oscar has dreams of uprooting his large family to somewhere better, where the soil is good. Wife Kristina, played, of course, by Ullmann (who begins the film constantly pregnant, naive and deeply religious), is at first skeptical and then through a series of tragic events, decides a change is for the best. Joining them is Karl-Oscar’s brother Robert, who works as a farm hand for an abusive employer and his pal, Arvid. Kristina’s Uncle Danjel, a righteous man himself, his wife and his followers (including a bitchy former hooker with the proverbial heart of gold and her illegitimate child) soon decide to go with them as well.


The first part of the film, which details the brutal, infertile existence in Sweden is wrenching. The desperation, the hunger and the idea that only God can save them is depressing. When they decided to leave for America, I wanted to cheer. However, the decision was not without its consequences.


As the characters embark to what they believe will be a better life and world, the second half of the film takes off with a “can-do” spirit and optimism that is catchy despite the perilous journey that lay ahead for the poor, eager Swedes. They board a skiff bound for America and a treacherous, disease and famine-filled adventure begins. People drop from cholera and the plague. Food is contaminated. Oh, then comes the scurvy. It’s a bloody, barbaric trip to be sure. Several of the main characters come face to face with death. It’s amazing what people can survive and what they will actually endure to achieve what they desire – in this case, the freedom to farm on fertile land and the freedom to practice their religion unimpeded. You get the sense that this liberty is everything to them. The peril they put their families through is worth it though. It’s worth taking the chance to get to America. They have a purpose and will do everything and risk everything to fulfill it.


The third and final act of the film brings us to the US. Interestingly, part of this film was actually made here, shot on location in Wisconsin, Minnesota and in and around the Great Lakes. Once they get off the boat, the journey is still not complete. There are still trains to catch and more boats. When they finally reach the North, the viewer is given a sense that the Swedes have finally found a foothold toward their goal. Yet we also know that there is still much work that will have to be done.


The simplicity and straightforward storytelling makes the film seem very crisp and focused. I really got the feeling that this story was authentic, not embellished and cleaned-up. The characters fight with each other. They have some really ugly moments, but then they develop a wonderful sense of community and familiarity and there are some terrific, humane moments throughout. The photography of the film is just as direct: showing the natural elements of the journey (water, ice, earth, etc…) in their glory. The boat scenes show the water as being both menacing and gorgeous. The sets are quite minimal and this really highlights the acting and story.


Of course, the chemistry between Ullmann and Von Sydow is magical. Ullmann has that uncanny knack for building her characters from scratch. She begins as a sort of sheltered, fragile mother who isn’t strong enough to make it to the new world and she slowly weathers many terrible tragedies that make her stronger and wiser. She is supported wholeheartedly by her husband, giving the film a little romantic sheen.


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