The Dust Bowl PBS A Ken Burns Film

Dust Bowl 02In 2012, PBS aired this four part miniseries by famed documentary director Ken Burns that looks at the ecological catastrophe that occurred in America’s Great Plains between approximately 1931 and 1938. Written by Dayton Duncan and narrated by Peter Coyote, the film combines still photographs and film from the period with color film shot specifically for the program, interviews with survivors of the calamity, and voice-overs of writing from various victims.

The first part of the film, “The Great Plow-Up” looks at the land before the disaster, showing how the tough area survived the incessant wind and drought by evolving the sturdy buffalo grass that grew deep into the soil for hundreds of miles from Canada to the Texas panhandle. Native Americans were ideally suited as inhabitants because they did not depend on agriculture, but rather on the buffalo who roamed this great, free expanse of prairie.

When Indians were routed onto reservations, Anglos first used the grazing land for cattle, but the frequent droughts, long and difficult transportation to markets, and division of the land into individual, fenced parcels were but a few of the obstacles to successful ranching. The true changes in the land began to occur when Oklahoma was opened to homesteading settlers and immigrants and poor tenant farmers spilled into the territory on the promise of owning their own property. The wheat boom prior to and during World War I spurred further settlement. The tough buffalo grass was torn out by plows and wheat was planted in its stead. “Suitcase farmers” streamed in from cities, present only long enough to plow and sow before returning to cities and wait for the rain to grow the wheat before returning to harvest it. This “great plow-up” was aided by one of the wettest decades the Great Plains ever saw, during the 1920s. The boom carried through the stock market crash of 1929 and beyond as millions of acres were plowed up for cash crops.

“Dust to Eat” then chronicles the Great Depression’s effects on the wheat market as prices fell due to the excess of wheat and millions of tons filled grain elevators or were strewn out rotting on the prairie. At the same time, a periodic drought assaulted the land and the constant winds picked up the topsoil and circulated it in the sky. Beginning in 1931, simple dust storms escalated into gigantic billows of earth, born by the winds across the plains and dumped back onto the land as loose, dry pellets mixed with sand. As the 30’s continued, more and more of these storms assaulted the farmers, blossoming into deadly concentrations of tiny particles that worked their way into the lungs of human beings. “Dust pneumonia” became a common cause of death. These storms reached their apex on “Black Sunday,” April 14, 1935 when a wall of concentrated dirty air two hundred miles wide and ten thousand feet high swept across “No Man’s Land.”

The effects of this “end of the world” storm fell in Chicago, then Washington D.C. and New York, finally dumping the last of its dust over the Atlantic Ocean. Springing into action, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt started the work that would eventually reclaim the Great Plains, but it would take a long time.

The third installment of the series, “Reaping the Whirlwind” details the continued catastrophe through the late ’30’s and the final installment, “The Hardy Ones” covers the mass exodus to California and the farmers who stayed and eventually saw the land regenerate through improved farming techniques, such as terracing, planting of wind-break trees, and so forth.

Overall, the film is totally captivating and at its best deeply moving. Photographs by Dorothea Lange and other photographers who memorialized the face of the ecological disaster are stunning and deeply evocative, as are the voices of those who were only children when the dust clouds descended on them. The stature of the Black Sunday storm is fully realized in Burns’ beautiful camera movement and Duncan’s terrific script.

This film should be seen by all mid-westerners and most certainly by farmers and anyone intimately connected to the land. This catastrophe was not forced on us by nature, but we brought it about ourselves through excessive greed, lack of forethought, and our tampering with an ecosystem that was perfectly evolved to survive and continue on its own. This was mankind’s mistake.

It was a mistake whose lessons we should take to heart. Near the end of the film, as we see the effect of irrigation on miles of fields, we are reminded that the water comes directly from the Oglala Aquifer, whose capacity is dwindling, year by year, as we extract millions of gallons to dump on our crops.

What will happen to us when it is gone and our Bread Basket reverts to the windswept prairie of our past?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane EyreThis 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall. Her parents died several years earlier and she was taken on by her Uncle Reed as a ward of the family.  After her uncle’s death, she lives in misery as an obstinate, sullen girl and is mistreated by her aunt and her three cousins.  Her only friend is her governess, Bessie, who is also stern, but not malicious.

After a series of incidents, she is packed off to Lowood Institution, a school for girls run by Reverend Brocklehurst, a miserly man who starves and treats the girls to a form of discipline that would put him in jail today. She makes friends with a girl named Helen, who accepts her own punishments meekly, knowing that God sees that she is righteous and will reward her when she goes to heaven, which she does sooner rather than later when an epidemic of typhus ravages the school and she dies of “consumption.”  Under investigation, the school must change its practices and Jane receives a fair education and teaches at the school for two years after she finishes her six years as a student.

Now eighteen and wishing to find a place for herself in the world, she places an advertisement looking for work as a governess and is hired to work at Thornfield Hall. When she arrives, the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, informs her that she will be educating a French child named Adele, who is a ward of the master of the house, Mr. Rochester.

When Rochester finally arrives at Thornfield from one of his travels, he is abrupt with Jane, but comes to think very fondly of her. He tells her of his disappointment with the world and of his affair with a French dancer, who claimed that Adele was his child.  When the little girl was abandoned, he decided to make her his ward.  He seems a very tortured sort of man, but comes to value his time with Jane, seeking her conversation every evening.  She is honest and open with him, blunt at times, and he appreciates her manner.

During her stay at Thornfield, her Aunt Reed falls ill and summons her back to attend her while she’s dying. Jane finds out that her male cousin has himself committed suicide after failing to control his drinking and debauchery.  She finds a truce with her female cousins and forgives Aunt Reed before she dies.  She has learned this forbearance from her friendship with Helen at Lowood.  Before her aunt’s death, she learns of another uncle who wishes to contact her, but she doesn’t follow up on it.

Thornfield Hall is definitely a strange place.  When Jane hears laughter on the third floor, it turns out to be a most unusual woman named Grace Poole, who is employed as a seamstress.  Jane grows closer to Mr. Rochester, but one night discovers his room afire.  She puts it out and he counsels her to silence on the matter.  Rochester manipulates her into thinking he is serious about marrying a beautiful society lady in order to make her jealous.  It works and Jane grows to love him.  Finally, he asks her to marry him, but on the alter, another calamity occurs that turns the plot on its head and sends Jane off to an entirely different life.

The delights of this novel are plentiful, so much so that it is almost impossible to put down. The prose is stellar.  It carries one along as on a gentle English breeze.  The story is an utterly engaging Gothic romance, full of thrilling mystery and great characters.  It takes the time required to unfold a handful of prickly themes and it does so in a voice that completely engages the reader from beginning to end.  In all of these regards, it is an undisputed masterpiece.

For the modern reader, however, there are certain drawbacks.  The length is a serious issue.  As with most novels of the early 19th Century, it was published in multiple volumes, three to be exact.  It should have been edited quite a bit.  There are long, convoluted sentences, which were the style of the time (see Jane Austen) and at times one must exercise patience in riddling out their meaning.  The dialogue is, for the most part, completely unbelievable.  People simply don’t talk that way, then or now.

The major drawback for me was the constant pounding of the Christian message. It is a highly religious book and I find it laughable that the Quarterly Review, when it first came out, called it a “pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition.” Don’t believe it.  This book drips with religious messages.  I read the Norton Critical Edition and had to read each and every footnote just to keep up with the Biblical references.  It is also funny that one of the characters wants to become a missionary in order to stamp out “superstition.”  Toward the end of the novel, this  religiosity becomes a very serious problem indeed, interrupting the plot to such a level that the book stops dead to preach for pages on end.

Despite these drawbacks, I still found it a marvelous novel, certainly one of the best ever written. Some of the themes were quite revolutionary for the time.  Brontë gets into issues of class, morality, ethics, and feminism that were scandalous fare in 1847 and in that regard she was way ahead of her time, particularly in expounding the theme that a woman could be both independent and equal to men.  Each of the men in her life struggles to dominate her and Jane always asserts her own independence.  In addition, the writing style, especially the use of first person narration, creates a kind of inner personal universe for Jane that was a breakthrough in style and highly influential on other novelists through the early 20th Century..

It is a truly great novel, even now, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Jane Eyre 1996Read my review of the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli movie!

Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience. 

Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV/A&E movie!

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.

Jane Eyre 2011Read my review of the 2011 Cary Fukunaga movie of Jane Eyre.

This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

Quite a Year for Plums by Bailey White

Quite a Year for PlumsThis fascinating character study is called a “novel,” but, speaking as a novelist, I just can’t call it that. There are some characteristics it has in common with novels:  It is fiction, it has characters, some themes are examined, and things happen.  What is missing is structure.  It’s like spending a day fishing and not catching anything.

In a small south Georgia town, a group of strange people live their lives. The major characters are three older women, Eula, Meade, and Hilma.  Eula is the glue that holds them all together.  Her sister, Louise, is suffering Alzheimer’s Disease, and believes that sexually charged space aliens will visit her if she can only put together the correct letters and numbers to attract them.  Louise’s daughter, Ethel, herself sexually charged, was once married to Roger, a plant pathologist, but now goes through men like a knife through cheese.  Roger is a down-to-earth man who has been adopted by all of the women.  When he was married to Ethel, Eula’s husband taught him how to play old time banjo and he has mastered that talent.  Meade and Hilma, retired school teachers, worry about him constantly as they each work on their own obsessions.

An artist, Della, comes to the town to paint birds and becomes obsessed with chicken feet. A fragile, flighty person, she begins to leave her stuff at the dump, with little notes explaining, for example, what is wrong with the fan she’s leaving there.  This fascinates Roger and he begins a relationship with her.

Everyone, except for Roger, seems consumed with their obsessions (and even he does, to a lesser extent). Those obsessions, White seems to indicate, are what makes them unique individuals.  In spite of this, only two characters truly stand out as individuals, Roger and Della.  They are the only ones who are given enough of a physical description to delineate them from the others.  Unfortunately, their relationship never really develops or goes anywhere.  One of the most common complaints about this book is it’s hard to tell the characters apart and that lack of definition is a serious problem.  For example, there really isn’t any way to keep Meade and Hilma separate.  They seem to be the same character.  Honestly, I don’t think White did that to make a point.

Two things seem apparent in the book. First, the world is changing for the worse, and second, we are all ravaged by our own concerns.  Rich old woodland is being subdivided and suburbs are being built.  No one takes the time to learn the names of birds.  Some people are so concentrated on the little things that interest them that they can’t even carry on a normal conversation with others.  Romantic relationships appear to be impossible.

In other words, things have deteriorated and we will not be able to fix them.

If you have heard and like Bailey White’s commentary on NPR, you will probably like this book. It’s very funny in places and it is certainly interesting to lose yourself in this little community.  It feels like a series of her commentaries strung together in an attempt to create a novel, but the lack of any identifiable structure keeps it from being a successful novel.

Stories live in their construction.  Things don’t happen randomly, but are shaped by the author to a purpose.  White does this admirably in her short works, but a novel must have several arcs to it.  The main story arc develops from humble beginnings to reach a denouement and the main character arc does the same thing.  Events in a story shape the development of the character, who grows through their experience.  The events and themes must be shaped so that they work themselves to a fine point and if they don’t, then the reader feels like they’re sitting in a boat, rocking on the water, and not going anywhere.

Bring your bait and tackle.

Warm Bodies

WARM-BODIES_510x317There are few films that boast a truly original premise, but Warm Bodies is one of them.  What genre is it?  Well, it’s the only zombie romantic comedy I’ve ever seen.  Written and directed by Jonathon Levine, it was adapted from a Young Adult novel of the same name by Isaac Marion.  I haven’t read the novel yet, but the movie carries that “first person present” feel to it that is omnipresent in YA dystopian books.

The movie is narrated by a teenage zombie, R (Nicholas Hoult), who knows there’s something missing in his death, but just can’t figure out what. He lives in an abandoned airplane that he has appropriated for his use and stocked with lots of stuff that he has collected, including a stereo with a turntable and an impressive collection of disks, because he values the purity of the sound.  By day, he shuffles around the airport groaning, occasionally grunting with his “friend” M (Rob Corddry) and going out to eat with him.  The food, of course, is human and R cherishes human brains because they allow him to vicariously experience life by re-living the memories of the deceased.

Ultimately, the zombies turn into living skeletons called Boneys. Although the skeletons leave the zombies alone, they also exist by eating humans and they are extremely deadly.

In a city within the city, protected by towering walls, humans live under the authoritarian leadership of Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich). The Colonel’s daughter, Julie (Theresa Palmer), her boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco), and her best friend, Nora (Analeigh Tipton) volunteer to go outside the walls to search for medical supplies and this expedition coincides with a search for human food by R and M (the initials are all they can remember of their former names) and some of their zombie friends.

During the fight that ensues, R is attacked by Perry and kills him. As he eats the boys brains, he relives memories of Perry’s time with Julie and he develops a soft spot for her, so when the raid is over, he rescues Julie and brings her back to his airplane.  Unsure what to do next, he plays music for her and rescues her again when she tries to escape.  As he attempts to talk to her and finds a few human words, she wonders why he keeps saving her.  During the next few days, they talk, play games, and listen to music, but finally she convinces him that she must go back to her father.  When M and the other zombies see them holding hands, they begin to develop feelings, too, and allow them to go.  The zombies are beginning to regain their humanity.

If there are a few things here that seem a little familiar, it’s because there are some similarities to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Yes, R and Julie suggest that.  So does the story of “two houses divided” in a great city.  And yes, there is even a balcony scene, but that is where the similarity ends.  There is nothing tragic in this “feel-good” dark comedy.

Hoult and Palmer are splendid as the young lovers. Hoult’s voice and narration are both hilarious and oddly touching at the same time.  It’s the only zombie movie where you will find yourself identifying with the zombies.  Hoult is English and Palmer is Australian, yet they are perfectly believable American teens.  Palmer is beautiful and sexy, yet very down-to-earth.  They should both have terrific film careers.

Malkovich is a little one-note as Colonel Grigio, but the role was written that way. Tipton may be the big surprise in the film.  Although her role is fairly small, she seems consistently to get the best lines not given to Hoult and she is laugh-out-loud funny in places.  Corddry gives a very restrained and heart-felt performance as M.

It’s hard to do the movie the credit it deserves in a short review, but it is the kind of film that should have a big crossover audience. The characters are well-drawn, the situation bizarre and hilarious and the film-making is first rate from the beginning to the end.  At 91 minutes, it is the perfect length and that shows that director-writer Levine was really in tune with the material.  Many other directors might have cluttered up this charming film with all kinds of nonsense or overplayed the comedy, but he hits the right note in every scene.  The cinematography, art direction, costume, and make-up are all spot on.

I highly recommend this movie!

We Bought a Zoo!


We Bought A Zoo! is a friendly little movie released in 2011, based on the memoirs of the same title by Benjamin Mee, who bought his own zoo in England. The movie transports the story to California and changes history in other ways to make a good movie.  The always entertaining Cameron Crowe, (Almost Famous, Elizabethtown) directed the film and wrote the script from an earlier version by Aline Brosh McKenna.

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) struggles to raise his two children, a 14 year old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and a seven year old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) after the death of his wife (Stephanie Szostak) from some abrupt disease (cancer?). Dylan can’t seem to cope and acts out at school, eventually getting expelled from school for theft.  He is an aspiring artist and spends most of his time making violent and dark ink drawings.  Rosie is well adapted to the loss, although she misses her mom and frequently asks Benjamin to tell her stories so she doesn’t forget.  Like Dylan, Benjamin cannot deal with the loss.  Frustrated, he quits his job as an adventure and travel writer—over the objections of his brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church)—and begins to look for a house more isolated from the city.

After looking at a number of houses with Rosie, they are steered to a country property by a novice realtor (J.B. Smoove). There is just one catch: it is a zoo and ownership of the property includes continued maintenance of the zoo.  Benjamin is very reluctant, but seeing Rosie with a flock of peacocks changes his mind and he invests his entire savings in the project, with the goal of re-opening the zoo on July 7.

Rosie is enthralled and remarks several times with great charm, “We bought a zoo!” This zoo comes with attendants, of course.  The woman in charge is young Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), who is not professionally trained, but advanced through the ranks to get her job.  There is a designer, Peter MacCreedy (Angus Macfadyen), a carpenter, Robin (Patrick Fugit), and Kelly’s 13 year old home-schooled cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning), who takes a shine to Dylan.

There are, of course, complications, not the least of which is Dylan’s continuing funk and Benjamin’s own frustrations. An inspector, Walt Ferris (John Michael Higgins) adds to their woes by presenting an expensive list of improvements that must be made before the zoo can open.  Tapped out, Benjamin begins to think that the project might ultimately fail.

The movie punches all the right buttons. The potential overdose of sugary sweetness is balanced by Benjamin and Dylan’s conflict and their grief over the loss of Mrs. Mee, but there’s still a lot of sugar. And eye-candy. Matt Damon is terrific, handsome, likeable, and extremely empathetic and so is Colin Ford. Of course, there is also the great beauty of Scarlet Johansson and Elle Fanning.  Johansson is very believable and empathetic as Kelly.  Those who aren’t beautiful are odd looking goofballs, such as Church, Smoove, and Higgins. At times, a little directorial discretion regarding these comedians might have helped the film.

Crowe also indulges himself profusely in the “cute” factor, not only with the character of Rosie, but in a great many shots of the zoo animals. Maggie Elizabeth Jones is at times almost unbearably cute, but she never fails to delight and shows a great deal of acting skills for a child.

It’s a very good movie for kids and for the family. I love cute little girls, sympathetic plot lines, beautiful people, and animals, but I also have great sympathy for those who lose loved ones to cancer, so I bought the movie, hook, line, and sinker.  I would gladly see it over and over, because it is a really entertaining “feel-good” movie.

Just remember, “20 seconds of courage” can change your life!

John Adams HBO Miniseries

John and AbigailExecutive Producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman assembled a great team to bring Pulitzer historian David McCollough’s book John Adams to life in this seven part HBO miniseries.  It is a beautiful, gritty and moving account of the life of our second President, John Adams and his wife Abigail, beginning on the evening of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and continuing until Adams’ death in 1826.

Adapted by Kirk Ellis and directed by Tom Hooper, the lengthy film might have easily lost its audience, but brilliant performances by Paul Giamatti as John and Laura Linney as Abigail stir interest even in what might have been some long segments.

The son of a “shoemaker and farmer,” Adams’ keen intelligence made him one of the keenest attorneys in Boston. At first repelled by mob violence, he was forced to become a patriot by King George’s harsh measures against the Massachusetts colony.  When asked to serve in the first Continental Congress, he went unwillingly, but his commitment to the ideals of freedom gradually molded him into the “firebrand” that pushed and forced the difficult birth of a nation.  In all of this, his wife Abigail was the “ballast” that kept him on point, yet his long absences were extremely difficult for her as she raised their three children, sons John Quincy and Charles, and daughter Nabby on their family farm, Peacefield.

Working with Benjamin Franklin, Adams convinced Thomas Jefferson to author the Declaration of Independence. Once that great document was complete, he was dispatched to France to assist Franklin with obtaining French assistance in the war with England.  When Franklin found Adams’ direct diplomacy to be a liability, he wrote home requesting that Adams be removed from the mission.  Seeking assistance from the Netherlands, Adams became gravely ill and suffered from his separation from Abigail and his belief that he was a failure.

The end of the war saw Adams appointed as the first Ambassador to England and he had Abigail join him in Europe while their children were sent off to school. He and Abigail became close friends with Jefferson, who was the Ambassador to France.  Although living far away from the new nation, Adams grieved over the forming of political parties, which, he thought, divided the nation.  When he returned, however, he was elected George Washington’s Vice President and served in that capacity through two terms before he himself was elected President by a razor-thin margin.

His presidency was marked by the desire of the American people for war with France, which he opposed and during this time, Jefferson became his political enemy, along with George Washington’s adjutant Alexander Hamilton. The Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts and Adams, his political back against a wall, signed them into law, against his own better wishes, and clearly against the Constitution of the United States. It would haunt him throughout the rest of his life.

The heart of the miniseries rests with the two principal actors. Paul Giamatti is perfect as John Adams. Not only does he look the part, but his attention to detail is positively absorbing.  He ages over fifty years during the course of the show and you see the weight of his decisions on his shoulders, the weight of his separation from his family, and ultimately, his love of freedom.

Laura Linney has toiled virtually unknown for many years now and it is great to see her finally in a leading role that allows her to use all of her talents in the creation of a marvelous character. Most of the story concerns the relationship of John and Abigail and the brilliance of her acting lights the story.

The supporting actors are all pretty good and most of them look the parts they play, which is itself kind of a miracle, but there are some performances that are so understated that one might have wished a bit more liveliness. David Morse, for example, looks the part of George Washington completely, yet his performance is quite understated.  Stephen Dillane, however, not only looks the part of Thomas Jefferson, but his understated performance comes off as more studied and deeper.  Tom Wilkinson makes a delightful Benjamin Franklin.

More interesting, however, are the children of John and Abigail and the family that surrounds them in their domestic lives. The child actors who play them as children are believable and even affecting in their small roles.  Among the adult actors, Sarah Polley is extraordinary as Nabby (Abigail Adams Smith).

I tend to have difficulty with long films. There are notable exceptions, of course, and this is one.  The style of art direction, costume, and especially make-up set this drama aside from most.  In producing period dramas, the temptation is go overboard and to make everything beautiful, usually so far beyond reality as to be alienating.  In John Adams, the producers have labored to create a sense of reality and that is part of what makes this a great film.  The skin blemishes, the heat under the wigs, the decaying teeth, the stained clothing, the dirty, muddy streets, candlelight, oil lanterns, and what seems now to be brutal, primitive medicine all play a major role in this creation.

It is both excellent television and excellent film-making. Stick with it and you will be rewarded with an incredible little fact at the end, something that surprised me very much.  This is a deeply moving television experience!

The Cowboys

John WayneThis 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.

When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market. Among the boys is Slim (Robert Carradine), Charlie Schwartz (Stephen Hudis) and a Hispanic outcast, Cimarron (A. Martinez).  A gang of men ride in before they leave.  Led by Long Hair (Bruce Dern), the ex-convicts want to join the drive, but when Anderson catches Long Hair in a lie, he refuses to hire them.  A black cook, Jebediah “Jeb” Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) shows up and applies to drive the chuck wagon.

The boys learn about hard work, whiskey, and death along the trail and are forced by circumstances to grow up quickly.

The screenplay by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr., and William Dale Jennings, based on Jennings’ novel of the same title, is a little long. In fact, the movie begins with an Overture and contains an Intermission, like Gone with the Wind or Ben-Hur, but this film is not in the mold of those movies and it seems more than a little pretentious to present it as if it was an epic.  The music by John Williams seems like typical cowboy movie music, both self-important and overblown.

Roscoe Lee BrowneMost of the performances are very good, especially Wayne and the boys that make up most of the cast. Probably the best acting in the film was accomplished by Roscoe Lee Browne, who creates a completely believable, three-dimensional character.  Sarah Cunningham is very good as Wil’s wife Annie, but Slim Pickens gives us nothing more than his usual self as local bar owner Anse Peterson and Colleen Dewhurst has a short, wasted performance as Kate Collingwood, the Madam of a traveling cathouse.  The most disappointing performance, unfortunately, is Bruce Dern whose sneering, one-note villain is almost laughable.

The movie is pretty good, however, considering its drawbacks. Going in, I worried that the angle with the boys doing the cattle drive would be hokey (and some of it is), but for the most part Wayne and the boys carry the film.  It’s a fresh angle for a Western and would have been extremely successful if it had been cut to a decent length, without a pretentious Overture and Intermission, and Dern’s character had been more well-drawn.

A fun movie.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper LeeHarper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is not a novel about justice.  It is about something much simpler: right and wrong.

Engaging from the first page to the last, it is told in the voice of Jean Louise Finch, a girl from southern Alabama, looking back on the years between 1932 and 1935, when she was six to eight years old and had the nickname Scout. She plays and learns from her brother Jeremy, called Jem, who is four years older, in their hometown of Maycomb, the County seat.  Their father, Atticus, is an attorney and state legislator and they have a black woman, Calpurnia, who cooks, cleans, and acts as surrogate mother when needed.

Although Atticus was not college educated, he is a very thoughtful and well-read man and he ensures that both of his children strive to be as well-educated as possible. Jem claims that Scout has been reading since she was born and she reads to her father every night before she goes to sleep. Something of a tomboy, she has trouble controlling her temper, but she struggles to understand this little world she was born into.

The novel begins in 1932 when a boy comes to spend the summer with his aunt, Miss Stephanie, a neighbor of the Finches. His name is Charles Baker Harris, but he goes by the nickname of Dill and he has many outlandish stories for his new friends, mostly concerning his absent father.  As they play, Jem tells him to stay away from the Radley place because a maniac named Boo Radley lives there and never comes out.  His father keeps him chained to a bed and he only comes out at night to go around to look in people’s windows.  Naturally, Dill wants to see him and hatches various plans to make Boo come out, none of which ever come to anything.

A major portion of the novel deals with their fascination for Boo Radley and their father’s orders not to bother the man, but the most remembered scenes of the book deal with a trial in which Atticus must defend a black field worker, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a poor girl who lives with her redneck father, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell, and seven brothers and sisters behind the town dump.

It is apparent that Tom is innocent, that Mayella was beaten and raped by her own father. Although there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence that points to his innocence, a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion.  The testimony of Bob and Mayella, two white people, is weighed against the testimony of one black man by a male jury of white men.  Even though the result is a foregone conclusion, Atticus puts of the best defense he can.  Jem is perhaps the most crushed by the verdict.  He has a child’s certainty that justice will be done and his disappointment at the result is deep.

As Jem turns away to deal with this on his own, Scout turns to Atticus and to the women in her community and her Aunt Alexandra to find an explanation for the injustice. What she learns is that the important thing is to try to do right, even against overwhelming odds, and to trust that the world will always lean toward what is right.  The evidence is in the judge, who gave every advantage he could to Tom’s defense, the neighbors, who know that justice wasn’t served, and a community that is more aware of the injustice that either Jem or Scout might believe.  In the end, through the character of Boo Radley, justice is finally served, outside the courtroom.

The message is clear. Do right.  Trust in your fellow man.  Everything will equal out in the end.

Comparisons between the novel and the movie are inevitable, but it is difficult to find any great division to say one is better than the other. The movie more or less tells the essentials of the novel by focussing on the action and it is extremely successful.  One might only wish that all adaptations were as successful, but for me the book lives the story more successfully.  The voice of Scout is unique, engrossing, and deeply touching.  In the movie, we also hear Scout’s voice, but I have always thought that the girl playing Scout, Mary Badham, seemed a little too big for six years of age.  She has moments that are deeply touching, but at the same time, there are moments when it is quite obvious that she wasn’t an actress, when her performance doesn’t quite ring true.  In the novel, the reader always has the feeling of the adult woman Jean Louise getting back into that period of time completely, of being so much inside the head of her younger self that there is no mistaking the authenticity at all.

The other thing that really won me to the novel is that it works under no time constraint. You feel the long days of summer, of the children playing, of the frightening mystery of Boo Radley, and the incredible perplexity of life.  The movie seems to be almost entirely about the trial, but the trial is entirely secondary in the novel.  It takes place near the end and requires only a few chapters to reveal the entirety.  The novel is more deeply concerned with the children and what they have to learn from life and the trial is only another part of the great textbook of life.

If I were asked if one should see the movie or read the book first, I would advise most strongly that one read the book. Take the time to get that depth of voice and character that a novelist has the time to create for you.  Lose yourself in this childhood of the deep south between 1932 and 1935 and take Scout’s meditations and lessons deep inside you.  Then, watch the truncated version that consists almost entirely of action.

My review of the movie is at To Kill a M0ckingbird.

You’ll like both!

Lost in Austen

Lost in Austen trioThe general fascination with Jane Austen is continued in this 2008 four-part British television film, originally aired by ITV and released in the United States as a three hour film.  Written by Guy Andrews and directed by Dan Zeff, it has the feel of very bad fan fiction cranked out by professionals.  Barely worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time, three hours is far too much for this slim fantasy about a girl who switches places with Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

This review contains information about the ending of the movie, so beware.

Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) is a modern Jane Austen stuck in an unromantic relationship with a boozy, uncouth guy, Michael (Daniel Percival) and living in a flat in Hammersmith with a girlfriend, Pirhana (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). All she really wants is to be left alone so she can immerse herself in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

When she investigates a noise in her bathroom, she discovers none other than Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) who has somehow found a portal in the upstairs of the fictional Bennet cottage and gone to see where it leads, which is 21st Century film reality.  Lizzy is not freaked out at all by joining the 21st Century and invites Amanda to visit the fictional Bennet world.  Once there, Lizzy locks the door, sealing Amanda in the book.  I still cannot process this remarkable change in Elizabeth Bennet.  Such a thing goes completely against the character created by Jane Austen.  When the Bennets discover Amanda, they seem to have no trouble with her arrival and blithely accept that their daughter is in Hammersmith and Amanda is come to visit, wearing a leather jacket.  Magic.  No big deal.

Amanda proceeds to wreak havoc on her favorite novel. Inexplicably, Mr. Bingley (Tom Mison) fall in love with Amanda instead of Jane Bennet (Morven Christie).  She struggles to set things right, but things keep getting worse and worse.  And the characters and plot of the book change completely at the writer’s whim.  There is no effort at all to show natural deviations from the novel or the nature of the characters, but the plot is twisted completely so that the writer can effect the action he wants.

In this upside down fantasy world, Jane marries Mr. Collins (Guy Henry), Charlotte Lucas (Michelle Duncan) runs off to Africa to become a missionary, Elizabeth settles into her new life without a second thought as to her family, Caroline Bingley (Christina Cole) is a Lesbian, Mr. Wickham (Tom Riley) is actually a good guy, and ultimately Mr. Darcy (Elliot Cowan) falls in love with Amanda. When the movie ends, Lizzy and Amanda permanently change places so that Amanda can marry Mr. Darcy and Lizzy can continue her new life in reality.

As a Brit might say: Complete rubbish.  Top to bottom.

Lost in this hash are a couple of pretty good performances, most notably by Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Bennet.

Although the premise is not as bad as it seems, the movie really loses its focus by altering Elizabeth’s character so dramatically. Even as unbelievable as the premise of opening a portal from a fictional book to reality, it still has more believability than seen such a well-known and loved character act in total contradiction to what is known of her.  A better idea would simply have been to drop a modern character into the book as Lizzy Bennet, rather than having them exchange places.  Although that idea might work, it would still require strict adherence to what is already known of the characters, a tenet that Guy Andrews seems to have abandoned anyway.

The key to writing good fantasy is this: reality may be altered as long as the alteration is consistent within itself.  With all of the inconsistencies to Pride and Prejudice present in this movie, one may as well simply attempt to rewrite the novel as one chooses.

On the other hand, if you have no reverence at all for Austen or the novel, you’d may as well lose three hours on a kinky British comedy with no meaning or heart. Enjoy.