Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Reader

                     
Powerful, riveting, encompassing, at times harrowing, The Reader is sophisticated and emotionally realistic to a degree rarely encountered in film. It demands intellectual and emotional maturity, and isn't entertainment in the conventional sense. It challenges us to think, evaluate and decide. 
    
                               
It's about secrets, truth and love warped by it, guilt, responsibility and abdication of it, judgment, kindness, and ultimate, difficult acceptance.


(Spoiler alert, for what follows is retold story/commentary hybrid. Please see this profound and unforgettable 2008 film for yourself. It will eclipse anything you read below.)



The film begins by showing us 52-year-old Michael Berg, played by Ralph Fiennes, in an upscale apartment preparing breakfast. Text on the screen tells us it's Berlin, 1995. He calls to a woman who's obviously slept over and leaves shortly after, trailing the question, "When will anyone stay long enough to know what goes on in your mind?"  



Michael gazes out a window into the rain and sees a transit bus passing.  Seeing an adolescent boy in the bus window takes him back in time and memory to when he, 15-year-old Michael Berg, brilliantly played by David Kross,  from an upper middle class family in Berlin, West Germany, crossed paths with 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz, a female transit employee played by Kate Winslet. Her performance as Hanna won her the 2008 Best Actress Academy Award and BAFTA.

 

Hanna finds a vomiting Michael, who's developing Scarlet Fever, in the alley entrance to her modest apartment where he's taken refuge from heavy rain. She takes him home, helps him clean up, and guides him back to his neighborhood. The encounter leaves an indelible impact on Michael and he later returns with flowers and thanks.

 

So begins a complex sexual and emotional relationship between them, one in which Hanna initiates Michael sexually, and in which we see Michael grow in years and maturity.  At Hanna's request, Michael reads to her, usually preceding intimacy.  As years pass, we see Michael's secret relationship, his stolen hours with Hanna, begin to impact and intrude upon his life.

 

Though neither focus nor intent of the film, Michael's emotional involvement and fallout over time speaks to an issue society is only now acknowledging, that power and/or age imbalance in early sexual encounters can adversely impact males as well as females.  To a much greater extent, the film speaks to the lasting impact early, powerful emotional relationships have on lives.  Though sexuality permeated and suffused Michael's early relationship with Hanna -- explicitly, sensuously depicted -- it grew far beyond sex for him, and arguably, for her, though to a much lesser degree.  We really never came to know Hanna to the extent we know Michael.
  

As time lessens sexual heat between them, Michael seeks to expand their relationship. He plans a bike trip, and they cycle into the countryside, eating at an inn where a female server believes Hanna to be Michael's mother, and while leaving and in her view, he kisses Hanna on the lips, wanting to correct the assumption.  Hanna sits in a church in that village in which a young choir is practising, strong emotion on her face.  Michael looks on from a distance, taking pleasure from an experience he's given Hanna.  It's a moment that symbolizes and foretells how little he/we may know someone, or about them.  



As Michael's peer-group activities begin to interfere with his secret time with Hanna, Michael's growing self-assertion and their differing maturity levels create conflict.



Then suddenly, without warning, Hanna is gone, her modest apartment empty.  



Michael is devastated, bereft, isolated in his secret loss and grief, unwilling, unable to share it.  He's always been distant from his family, from a father pictured as years older than we might expect, rigid, detached and formal; a mother subservient and austere, and siblings with whom he seems to have no relationship.



Time passes and 1966 finds 23 year-old Michael at Law School in Heidelberg where he's among a select few who voluntarily take a lecture series on The Question of German Guilt.  The professor, played by Bruno Ganz, and small group travel  to a high-profile trial where six former female Nazi SS guards are about to go on trial for Holocaust involvement.  It's twenty-one years since WWII ended.



While bending to retrieve something from his case, Michael is stunned to hear Hanna Schmitz's name among the six accused. As the trial progresses, he will often bend forward and down, both from the onslaught of horrific information, and to hide his emotion. 



Hanna is now 43 years old.  Through trial questioning we learn the extent of Hanna's personal responsibility and guilt. She was in charge of her Nazi guard component. We get brief insight into her rigid thinking, her stated reasons for acting as she did, her concern for order at horrific human expense, and how readily she surrendered and transferred ethical responsibility to others, despite having voluntarily joined the Nazi SS in 1943.  



In an attempt to reconcile the woman he loved, the person who'd had a monumental impact on his still-young life, Michael travels to the remains of a concentration camp, seeing for himself the barbed wire, the countless rows of rickety bare wooden beds, the 'showers,' the ovens, the overwhelming horror.



At this point I paused the DVD, wanting to write this before seeing how the story resolved. Powerfully moved and doubting there'd be a facile ending given preceding complexity, I still feared the conclusion might somehow alter or dilute. Whatever the medium, narrative shapes emotion.  Knowing doesn't make us immune.



With time to mentally analyze the movie conflicts, I thought of times in my own life, of much lesser importance and scope, when loved ones or friends demonstrated behavior and capabilities that were surprising, disappointing, even shocking and cruel, and how I've never been able to banish the incident(s) from memory, how it/they've impacted my relationship with them, often in secret within myself.  And also  to wonder how something I've done may have, may be impacting others. True for all of us to one degree or another, no doubt, but  an issue rarely confronted in society, apart from law.  Forgiveness is  talked and written about and recommended, but I've yet to read anything that delves into the magnitude of a wrong, and how it factors in. 



Collective German guilt is an exception that's received attention through art, plays and scholarly work.  Attention is currently being turned on Japan and what some believe is Japan's unwillingness to confront, expose and take responsibility for wartime activities, both publicly and through selective school curriculum.  It's a complicated issue, and always easier to point away from our own national wrongs. 



Canada is forever stained by how we treated indigenous people, our tearing of First Nations' children from their homes and families, forcing them into residential schools where they were emotionally, physically and sexually abused and neglected, in a smug, openly-declared government policy, often willingly executed through churches, to assimilate them, to "make them like us, white and proper." 




Our Canadian Prime Minister's official apology, a bureaucratic and insulting process for scant monetary reparations, and the series of national reconciliation forums broadly based on South Africa's, will never, ever compensate for what was done to a proud and noble people.  Victims and their families came to those public forums to tell their heartbreaking stories and have them recorded.  Unsurprisingly, I recall only one government agent of the day appearing, at least only one whose press coverage I'm aware of.  He appeared voluntarily, haunted by what he'd inflicted in his youth at the will of the state. First Nations people and Canada suffer from the travesty still, and will for generations to come.


We're aware of national and international controversies and alleged wrongdoing in the real world through global news coverage, but it's much more difficult to face and deal with grievous wrong that's up close and personal, rather than distant and abstract. 



Both were simultaneously thrust upon Michael in that German courtroom.  When he tells his professor about knowing Hanna, the professor asks Michael, "Have you spoken to her?" Michael answers, "Of course not." Professor Rohl replies, "Why, 'of course not' ? If people like you don't learn from what happened to people like me, then what the hell is the point of anything?!" 



Found guilty of murder in 300 cases, the five guards on trial with Hanna were each sentenced to 4 years, 3 months in prison. Because Hanna was their superior and responsible for the orders given, she received life.



Despite near-completed attempts to visit Hanna in prison, Michael was never able to follow through.  Truth was too overwhelming, too powerful, too daunting. 



Ten years later in 1976, while surveying books packed for moving as a result of his failed marriage, paging through The Odyssey, lost in reverie, he read a resonating passage he'd read to Hanna,                                                       

                                            
                      Sing to me of the Man, Muse
                      The man of twists and turns
                      Driven time and again off course
                      Once he had plundered the hallowed
                      heights of Troy
                                
  Sing to me of the Man, Muse
    The man of twists and tur





Haunted by her and memory of their past, an idea occurs. He begins to re-read books he'd once read to her onto audio tapes, imbuing them with  appropriate animation, indulging his love of literature, reliving golden hours. He mails them with a player to her in prison, adding countless others over time.  They and Michael's voice are a stunning, life-sustaining surprise to visibly-aged Hanna, who appears to be - to have always been - alone in the world, a solitary soul. Though not actually so, and despite now having a daughter, Michael is essentially still like Hanna, solitary, introverted, aloof, but with greater depth of humanity.  They were physically apart, both emotionally adrift, yet still connected by a timeless bond. 



Quiet, bitter irony overwhelmed me as Hanna is seen stating her prisoner number to claim her mail.  Her number wasn't burned into her flesh, nor did it promise starvation, torture and death. 


Hanna selects matching books from the prison library and uses them with the tapes to learn to read and write English.  Since the film's spoken language is English, this was momentarily confusing for me.  We'd seen Hanna defer to young Michael's food selection at a country inn during their cycling trip. It appeared Hanna couldn't read the menu, but what language was it in?  The underlying issue wasn't yet evident, at least to me.  



Michael receives an envelope addressed in rudimentary style, opens the envelope, unfolds the enclosed paper, reads it, places it on his desk in his refined, book-lined office, steps back from it, seemingly in shock, but what else?  ... distaste? ... unwelcome intrusion?  ... rejection?

                                                
                                                     
Screen capture, The Reader
                                 

There's no need of a signature.  Hanna always addressed him as "kid."


Hanna looks for a written response which never comes. As her vocabulary minutely increases, she writes



                                                         
Screen capture, The Reader
 
 

She'd taught young Michael the language of sex and love; now their roles are reversed. Indirectly, through his tapes, he's teaching her to communicate via the basic written/printed word, offering Hanna hope, an avenue through which to renew their relationship.  Will he?


He cannot.  He does not. He keeps the envelopes and their contents in a small separate cabinet, as if to symbolically isolate that part of his life.  We see him throw another of her envelopes into a drawer and kick it shut, as if to say, "Stay out!"

 

Years pass.  Hanna's been in prison for 22 years.  It's 1988 in West Berlin and Michael receives a call from a prison official asking if he's received her letter advising him that Hanna's due for release and she's listed him her only contact.  She adds that Hanna has no family and no friends.  He admits receiving the letter and confirms he's never visited Hanna.  Will he take responsibility for her, the official asks.  While listening, Michael's doodle is telling.  It depicts aspects of the courtroom where Hanna was tried and convicted, and the gallery where he sat. 


                                                   

Screen capture, The Reader




Michael hangs up without giving a commitment. He is troubled. His penchant for order, his insistence upon it, emblematic of German society and culture, subtly noted in both he and Hanna throughout the film, has been breached.  Finally, he summons the courage to go to Hanna's prison and is forewarned by the official, "For a long time, Hanna held herself together, she was very purposeful. In the last few years, she's different. She's let herself go."



Hanna is strikingly old now, grey-haired, haggard, vacant in expression, her 66-year-old eyes dull but aware. Successful lawyer Michael, now 45, smiles wanly at her, sits down across from her at their otherwise-empty table in a near-empty room.  There is little reaction in Hanna's face as she timidly reaches her hand across the table toward him and says, "You've grown up, kid."  Michael is visibly, though subtly, taken aback, possibly remembering her as he last saw her 22 years ago, possibly remembering other things. He slowly slides his hand across the table to meet hers, gently grasps it, then withdraws it and begins a recitation of arrangements he's made for her.




Resigned understanding appears on Hanna's face, and she quietly thanks him. Nothing of what they once had is evident in him, not even a superficial attempt to renew acquaintance. His manner is pained, perfunctory and obligatory, lacking in emotion and any sense of shared history.  In an exchange about reading, Hanna indicates she prefers to be read to, but sensing and seeing his rigid, non-response, follows it with, "That's over now, isn't it?"  Michael inclines his head, unwilling to meet her eyes.  That possibility vanished for Michael in a courtroom when she was 43 and he 23. 




Their relationship raises the real-life question for which answers will differ from person to person:  how much is forgivable and how much do deeds impact and irrevocably sever relationships?



 Michael deftly probes to see if the years have brought Hanna to terms with what she'd done.  Hanna is focused on their personal connection, reiterates her long-ago courtroom attitude and smashes his hope by stating, "... they were still dead," and what she's learned is "to read."  



Michael's tells her he's found her a "small, but nice place to live, near a library, and a job with a tailor." He'll be back to pick her up when she's released in a week.




They stand, Hanna desperately wants to reach out and embrace him, but he's rigid and remote, as if virtual stranger. Resigned, she simply says, "Take care, kid."  He replies, "You, too; see you next week," and walks away.



Outside, he is troubled.  We next see him decorating a bright apartment, we assume for Hanna, then going to the prison, flowers in hand, to pick her up. Perhaps the flowers signal a tiny degree of warmth, a minor acknowledgment of good in their past. She's still Hanna.



Again, a catastrophic event intervenes. The larger past, the important part they shared, and any future are all irrevocably sealed. 


 

Hanna is dead.  She's taken her own life.  


The official takes him to Hanna's cell where her pages are still posted and her effects remain.  She tells him Hanna never intended to leave, and reads him a section of requests she left.  It asks that a tin tea can containing money be given to Michael who's to return it to the daughter who testified at her trial, who escaped with her mother a fire in which they and other prisoners were trapped because of Hanna's order.  Michael collapses in bitter tears.  Hanna did take responsibility, felt remorse, and was trying to symbolically make amends in the only tangible way she could.  Words were not her language of choice; Hanna dealt in deeds, as was evident when she was hurt and angry with young Michael when he didn't sit in her specific transit car section.  Deeds spoke starkly and unambiguously to and for Hanna.




We next see Michael enter a luxurious American apartment in which a menorah is visible on a side table.  It's the now middle-aged daughter's home of Ilana Mather, played by Lena Olin, and their brief visit is uncomfortable and painful, possibly more so for Michael, though it evokes past trauma for Ilana.  Under blunt questioning, he reveals for the first time to anyone, his youthful history with Hanna.  The daughter understands his unspoken connection, asks -- though it goes unanswered -- whether Hanna ever understood the effect she had on Michael's life.  She is unforgiving of Hanna and unwilling to accept the money, but does want the tea can.  It replaces a childhood keepsake, one stolen from her in the camp.  




Michael tells her Hanna was illiterate and learned to read in prison, so she agrees with Michael's suggestion that the money be donated to a Jewish literacy program and leaves it to Michael's judgment whether it's made in Hanna's name. The daughter places Hanna's battered tea can on a dresser next to a picture of a family with young children, presumably her family before Nazi horror and the camps.




It's now January, 1995.  Michael takes his twenty-something daughter to a country church.  It's the same one in which Hanna sat listening to a practising children's choir during their joyous, long-ago cycling trip, the same one near which she'd told Michael not to tell her where they were going, responding to his offer with, "It's okay, kid. I don't want to know."


In the church cemetery he clears off a modest, square, flat headstone which reads
                                      
                                         HANNA SCHMITZ 

                                                1922 - 1988  

 

He begins to tell his daughter about Hanna.   



***************************************************************
 

It seems right and necessary to list those most responsible for a film so important, one of such power and grace. Many others contributed, though their names are absent below. 


The Novel
Der Vorleser (The Reader)
by
Bernhard Schlink
Published in Germany in 1995 and a textbook in German schools


The Film
(Shot in Berlin, Released 2008)

Directed by 
Stephen Daltry

Screenplay by
David Hare

Produced by, and in loving memory of
Anthony Minghella
Sydney Pollack
- and -
Donna Gigliotti
Redmond Morris

Executive Producers
Bob Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein

Directors of Photography
Chris Menges
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC

Production Designer
Brigitte Broch
From her own account in a DVD bonus section, Ms. Broch left her native Germany 40 years earlier in angry response to her country's war history and silence about it. Her first return since then was to work on this film, for which she did extensive and difficult research.

Edited by
Claire Simpson

Music by
Nico Muhly

Costumes Designed by
Ann Roth
Donna Maloney

          

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Interpreter

Africa. A continent so large it straddles three hemispheres:  two-thirds in the northern -- a north-western piece of that in the western -- and a third in the southern. Africa is second-largest in continent size and population (50% are 19 years of age or younger), yet what do we know about it, or care?  Yes, the horror of 1994 Rwanda, but on average, far too little other than the current Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa, and news junkies may be aware of conflict and atrocities in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Congo and Nigeria.                 
                                                   





I'm old enough to remember large Neilson-provided maps of the world hanging in classrooms, a time when history curriculum and geography were primarily confined to North America, and sometimes more intensely local.  How I disliked the literal and figuratively provincial history of maritime sailing ships, how they were built and the prestige they brought.  Aboriginals were largely absent, and if mentioned at all, their proper tribal names were misspelled in accordance with English imprint.  By implication if not actual words, areas studied became significant only after colonialism and arrival of the white man to convert, exploit or "civilize," though never presented quite that way, of course.

Sadly, colonial powers and modern-day corporations were/are not alone in pillaging Africa. Their own leaders have too often been  predatory and brutal.  This March 19, 2014 news article may interest; it's on a just-released report on the "maladministration, corruption and inefficiencies" that conscripted R246 million South African tax dollars [$25.4 million Canadian] to build an opulent home for South Africa's President Jacob Zuma.

http://newmail-ng.com/new/s-africa-president-jacob-zuma-slammed-23m-home-makeover/

Here's a powerful piece on it as well, though more from a philisophical, ethical perspective.  Details aside, the principles and issues raised apply equally to us in Canada, and to all democracies. It's fittingly titled, "The end of innocence, enter the period of consequences."

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-03-19-nkandla-report-the-end-of-innocence-enter-the-period-of-consequences/#.Uyr4pM7RfGZ



The Interpreter is about a corrupt leader of a fictional African state -- one of their own --  and about those who oppose him and his regime. It involves the United Nations, a body whose noble principles and purpose often fail in execution, and those who serve it, directly and indirectly.  As with all good stories, it weaves public and personal together, effectively and powerfully.  Though fiction, it draws from reality. It shocks, informs, teaches, sensitizes, engages and entertains.  It's complex and brave, both about politics and matters of the heart. 

The story:

Dr. (Ph.D. in education) Edmond Zuwanie (played by Earl Cameron) is President of the fictional Republic of Matobo, Africa. Once hailed as his country's savior, he's devolved into a brutal, corrupt dictator accused of ethnic cleansing. At the United Nations, France is proposing a Security Council resolution to refer Dr. Zuwanie to the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide.

Nicole Kidman gives her finest performance, in my opinion, as Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the United Nations.  Sean Penn is equally impressive as Tobin Keller, one of a  team from Foreign Dignitary Protection (branch of the U.S. Secret Service) assigned to cover Dr. Zuwanie's arrival and UN appearance.

Dr. Zuwanie has been given permission to address the UN General Assembly and returns to New York after a twenty-three year absence. His purpose is to announce reforms which he hopes will squelch the pending ICC resolution against him.

In an instance of art imitating life, as we in the real world watch Russia invade Ukraine and occupy and annex Crimea,  I was struck by these 2005 words in the opening scenes.  They're spoken by an interpreter translating words of a UN delegate:

We are presently in the throes of a great transition in humankind's affairs.  Modern technology is altering our world in ways that would have been impossible to fathom when the United Nations Charter was signed.  Peace, security and freedom are not finite commodities like land, oil, or gold which one state can acquire at another's expense.

UN Security Council - Wikimedia Commons
UN General Assembly - Wikimedia Commons



Director Sydney Pollack obtained first-ever permission, after initial refusal, to film at the United Nations once then Secretary General Kofi Annan was personally assured "the text and sub-text of the film would speak to the broader goals of the United Nations."  The UN scenes are wonderful.  They depict its architectural beauty, its grandeur, its powerful purpose and significance.  Pollack said  he liked the General Assembly best for "its scale, emotion and theatricality." Filming in the Security Council chamber was daunting since the Security Council can call a meeting on 3-hours notice, 24/7/365. Overall cinematography is stunning, and Darius Khondji, Director of Photography, said he included and considered the building a principal character.  Aerial views of New York are breathtaking.

Above all, this is a great story, suspenseful, affecting, brilliantly told.  It has multiple layers and storylines, and though fictional, it reflects actual geopolitical issues.  I write this after my third viewing over several years, and though I knew the story on subsequent occasions, I  loved each equally.  That won't be true for others, so I'll reveal no more of the plot here.  The film and first-time viewers deserve that.

Couple of points.  The film depicts backdoor UN manoeuvering by powerful countries; dispelling simplistic, idealistic concepts some of us may hold about what happens at the UN, and it makes brief, but powerful statements on class and race in snippets of dialogue:  "Can she cook?" was a female Keller colleague's retort, a put-down response to a listing of Silvia's extensive education; and "black or white?" was a question asked by Dr. Zuwanie's white Dutch mercenary security chief.

Beyond complex story, so well told it never confuses, is a component I've never seen elsewhere, a simple, yet heart-grabbing depiction of human grief and grieving that's as real as it is rare. Those of us who've lost mates will recognize it and relate.  Through the Silvia character, who has strong connection to Matobo and speaks its Ku dialect, we learn aspects of that culture's profound relationship with death and loss. ("Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.")

The story of two driven, secretive, haunted characters - UN interpreter Silvia and security chief Keller - who initially grate on each other; then slowly, gradually develop tenuous trust and eventually a unique bond, is as special and memorable as the film itself.  They're maturely written characters, beautifully interpreted by Kidman and Penn.


Durban, South Africa - Wikipedia Commons
Cameroon.setac.eu

                                                                    
National Geographic

August 2, 2014 Postscript

Helen Epstein, author of "The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa," and a former development consultant in Uganda for two decades, has written an opinion piece on Africa for The New York Times.

In a powerful, engaging manner, she summarizes conditions, politics and corruption and emphasizes the need for justice -- how responsibility for its promotion and adherence has been abdicated by the West -- and is now critically necessary.

"Africa's Slide Toward Disaster" is a welcome and urgent call to action.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/opinion/africas-slide-toward-disaster.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0


Sunday, May 5, 2013

This Property Is Condemned


Ever been haunted by a movie?  So touched that seeing it again evokes anticipation and apprehension?

This is my movie ghost.  It occupies a special corner of mind and heart, a swirling mix of tenderness, complex personal relativity, poignancy and truth, all embedded in the Natalie Wood, Robert Redford characters.  In my mind they're forever young and beautiful, as they are here, except reality intrudes, tells me tragedy took one too soon, though the other is still productively with us.  It's the dual magic of movies - eternal fictional characters / ethereally beautiful humans.  Both actors have been in other great films, yet for me this is the best of both.  It weaves emotion, behavior and society into powerful tapestry.  It portrays truths still barely acknowledged these forty-seven years later.

Based on a 1946 one-act Tennessee Williams play, the script was co-written by someone we'd come to know well in future years, Francis Ford Coppola, together with Fred Coe and Edith Sommer.  Director Sydney Pollack's unique and complementary ability put it on the big screen.

Will watching it again be akin to returning to a childhood home where we find everything smaller and out of sync with memory?  A disappointment?  Or perhaps informed, even enriched by the prism of time and experience?

                                                     ------------ // ------------ // ------------


It's now "after," and it's a mixed bag - some new and changed perceptions, along with renewed reverence for Tennessee Williams, why I love who he was and what he wrote.

Spoiler warning:  The ending is included, something I wouldn't ordinarily do.  Two reasons: it's essential to story and theme, and the movie is probably not on most folks' viewing wish list.  It's a forgotten gem

The April 2013 print issue of Esquire magazine has Robert Redford on the cover, authentically depicting his 76-year-old face as only digital technology can.  A quote from the piece:

 [ ... Seventy-six years old, sun-baked and wind-whipped and ungorgeous at last, he's a handsome sumbitch ...]

I disagree; he's still gorgeous, just showing his age, an unforgivable trait in today's youth-obsessed culture.  Esquire's feature-length piece by Scott Raab chronicles Redford's life and career, even showcases sixteen movie scenes from 1962 through 2013.  This Property Is Condemned is never mentioned, though Redford's almost fifty-year friendship with director Sydney Pollack is.
http://www.esquire.com/features/robert-redford-interview-0413

A June 2011 GQ article does list this movie among 10 underrated [Redford] classics you need to see
http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/comment/articles/2011-06/13/gq-film-best-robert-redford-movies/viewgallery/6
                                                                                                                                                  
                                                                             
Lightbox Image
The Story:

A slim dark-haired girl wearing a long, tattered, sophisticated dress, gaudy jewellery and faux hair flower, teeters along a train rail.  She sings Wish Me A Rainbow while holding a doll.  Her age is uncertain, maybe early teens.  A boy approaches, asks if she's seen his kite.  "No," but she asks him to hold Crazy Doll so she can use both arms for balance.  He does, but within moments she loses her balance, falls against him, and together they tumble down a steep hill.

Her immediate concern is for the 'diamond' she's lost from one of her many bracelets, not her skinned leg.


She:  "Principal damage done to my bracelet I guess, knocked out one of the diamonds."

He:   "Well, it wasn't a genuine diamond."

She:  "How do you know?"

He:   "Cause if it was, you wouldn't be out walking railroad tracks, not with a banged-up doll and a piece of a rotten banana."


Her name is Willie (because a boy was expected) and his is Tom.  She's not in school because she doesn't like it - school's not necessary - to be important and succeed in life she must be like Alva.  She remembers and reminisces about Alva; then, pointing to a ramshackle, boarded-up building in the distance bearing a sign reading   This Property Is Condemned   she begins her story.

Willie: Alva was beautiful, charming, magical.  She changed things so they were special; she attracted people and knew what's important in life.  I'm practicing to be just like her.


Alva (Natalie Wood) was her older sister, beautiful, flirtatious, possibly promiscuous, though that's unclear, the elder daughter of Mama Hazel who ran the now-derelict boarding house.  Filled with workers from the town's main employer, a railroad repair depot during the '30s, it was awash in male testosterone and social activity.  Alva was the main attraction, ensuring male income and interest, even romance that occasionally accrued to Mama.  All Mama's attention was focused on Alva - tutoring, exploiting, pimping Alva's femininity.

Willie:  Mama wanted Alva to be nicer to a much older man who really liked Alva and was paying Mama extra to get Alva to spend time with him.  He paid for a big 43rd birthday party for Mama, too.  But it was too much for Alva; she wiggled out of any dates and got away from him every time.  Mama's boyfriend, J.J., liked Alva, too.  A little too much. 


Ahead of his time, Williams was unafraid to depict what we now know is prevalent, inappropriate peripheral sexual interest and interaction within familial / romantic relationships.  Figures in a 2012 More Canada magazine article state:
More than 12% of girls report unwanted sexual acts before their 17th birthday, and the vast majority of victims still, despite public education, do not report their abuse.  Furthermore, among substantiated cases, apparently biological fathers are perpetrators in 9% of cases, stepfathers in another 13%.

Willie:  A good-looking, well dressed man arrived in town and rented a room from us.  He wouldn't say why he was here or how long he'd be staying.  He was different from the locals and seemed to like me.  He talked to me a bit, but seemed to dislike Alva.  She liked him though, as soon as she saw him.


Fictionally acknowledging Dorothy Nolte's Children Learn What They Live, Alva turns her charm and Mama-nurtured guile on this new man in town.  Owen Legate (Robert Redford) takes pleasure in rebuffing and subtly ridiculing her attempts to impress him.  He observes the interaction between Alva, boarders and Mama, and rebukes Alva:

Alva:   "Just because some people might think I'm beautiful, that doesn't mean I'm everybody's property."

Owen: "If you really thought you were beautiful, you wouldn't be anybody's property.  You'd be your own girl."
 
In spiteful response to a particularly painful interaction with Owen, Alva invites boarding house groupies to a communal moonlight swim where Mama's boyfriend makes a second, more determined, again-rebuffed pass at Alva.

Willie:  Dodson was a railroad town.  Our boarders had jobs at the train repair depot.  The town grew around it, and we all depended on it.  Wasn't long before we learned Owen was a hated "spotter" - someone sent by the railroad to lay off workers.  By this time Alva and Owen were friends, though she downplayed it to me.  Once Owen told workers their jobs were over, people didn't like her being with him, and they hated him - beat him up badly once.  The layoffs meant big trouble for Mama.  Without jobs there'd be no money and the boarders would move on.  Mama decided Alva should reconsider that older man she'd already refused to date, that he could provide a secure future for us.  You see, Daddy left long ago.  We were on our own.


In a signature scene, the one indelibly etched on my mind, beautiful Alva, wearing an exquisitely feminine, revealing white dress, meets Owen at the depot and walks with him toward an adjacent rail yard.  Intense, hate-filled stares follow them.  Owen questions why she came, noting the men don't like it.  She tells him she simply wanted to see and show him something.  At that moment Owen spots an abandoned passenger car with Miss Alva on its side.  Taking Owen's hand, she happily pulls him toward it.  They've become close, yet Owen is wary.

Inside the long-abandoned relic, Alva tries to envelop Owen in her imaginary world, a world of lilac-talcum-powdered train seats instead of dust, a sky of her preferred color, real snow in a snow globe, and an idealized concept of his job and travel.  She holds out a necklace she never removes, a gift from her father who made many promises and kept only one - writing Miss Alva on the exterior of the car and decorating the interior before leaving her a gift card that read  Hail my heart's delight, and farewell.                                                             

                                                                             
Alva asks Owen if he feels bad about laying off the men.  "No," he says grimly, he can't, he does it in every city he goes into, it's his job.  Alva senses he does and tells him so, then quickly reverts to fantasy, tells him he must smile on The Honeydew Express or the wheels won't turn.

With rising frustration, Owen thrusts reality at her, attempts to pierce her illusions - her "poetic nature," Alva calls it.
Owen:  "Why do you do that?  Why are you so fanciful?  Why do you make everything seem so special?"
Alva:     "Because it is."
Alva:     "What's your dream?"
Owen:   "I have no dream."
Alva:      "How terrible for you!"  

Owen is leaving for New Orleans next morning and wants Alva to acknowledge it.  Though she knows it's reality, she resists.  Her dream has always been to go to New Orleans on The Hummingbird Express, her name for the train that passes through. Owen's departure signifies both dream and love unrealized.

The scene crystallizes Williams' ability to reveal the lengths we humans go to survive confining, ugly lives, to make life tolerable, perhaps even beautiful, delusions that keep us sane and ward off the lonliness of being different.

It also depicts an aspect of arrogant cruelty and control, Owen's insistence that Alva adapt and adopt his matter-of-fact response to life and reality.  (Didn't see this as clearly years ago.)

Alva had two competing spirits - one that conformed and played out her expected/dictated role, a second that escaped into soul-comforting fantasy where the world existed more gently, beautifully.  But she knew and didn't disappear into the difference, unlike Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Laura Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie)

Mama finds Alva in Owen's bed next morning, sneers that Alva "didn't even lock the door," and dictates a newly-hatched plan.  They are going to Memphis where the persistent old and married gentleman-suitor will advance a loan to "set them up."  Implicit is Alva's attention and companionship.  Seeing Alva's shock and disgust, Mama responds scathingly, "If there's one thing I loathe, it's that innocent virgin look you put on your face!"  Encountering intransigent defiance, Mama first uses guilt - appeals on behalf of Willie, desperate finances, her maternal role - then, ultimately, emotionally-weighted character assassination, accusing Alma of being selfish, "just as your father predicted."

Meanwhile, Owen buys a one-way ticket to New Orleans, and while writing  "For Alva
                                                                                                                             To be used ... whenever"

on an envelope in the boarding house hallway, he overhears Mama on the phone giving details about their move to Memphis, emphasizing "Alva's just wild to go."  She hangs up and looks smugly, knowingly at Owen.  He bolts upstairs and confronts Alva in the shower.
            
Alva:    "Owen, don't say what can't be fixed."

Owen:  "You wonder about other things, other ways to live?  You wonder and you dream but you go on doing what you do.  That railroad carriage is enough for you.  That snowstorm, fake.  But it's enough for you because you're a fake, Alva.  You're a gyp.  You're not unique.  You're not even special.  You're just ...peculiar.  What in hell did I think was so magical or fanciful about a little whore who is just a little bit peculiar?"
 
Alva begs him not to believe Mama, but he has and does.  Unlike Alva who found ways to cope with her societal prison, Owen has completely surrendered to his. He and Mama have trapped Alva between two sides of the same moral coin.

We next see Alva at a club with the prospective old sugar daddy, Mama, and boyfriend, J.J.  Alva is drunk, hurt and bitter.  She thrusts ugly truth in Mama's face - that she's been the male attraction that benefited Mama financially and romantically, that even Mama's boyfriend lusts after her, stays with Mama just to be near her.

Mama responds with the jealousy and resentment she's always borne Alva, her beauty and youth.  Alva uses her currency, the one Mama created and nurtured, and offers J.J. intimacy in exchange for marriage.  He readily accepts.  Emerging from their first-night marriage bed, Alva takes J.J.'s money and leaves in darkness for New Orleans.

Alva wanders New Orleans, exploring, noticing, learning, absorbing -- gloriously free for the first time ever.  She finds herself, and heals her soul and spirit.   Owen finds her in a beautiful park one day.

Owen:  "I missed you, Alva.  Didn't know I would.  And New Orleans is not a place where a person needs to feel the pain of separation for long."
                              
They reunite and are blissfully happy with the kind of tender, considerate, passionate relationship every romantic imagines.  Together she and Owen explore the city, even the above-ground cemeteries that long intrigued her.

Alva worries about Willie and her whereabouts.  Owen encourages Alva's search, offering to take Willie with them to Chicago.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Mama arrives.  She's waiting as they arrive home together, scolds Alva for leaving the door unlocked.  She learned their address from Alva's cards to Willie.  She wants and expects Alva to leave with her, says the old sugar daddy is no longer in the picture, but she has other schemes and plans.  Owen wastes no time in telling her Alva stays with him; she's to get out.

Facing defeat, Mama responds, "Heard you're getting married."  Then, with cold, calculating, merciless cruelty, Mama chooses scorched earth.

                                 "Didn't she tell you?   That little girl's all wrapped up."
      
                                  "She and J.J. got married and the next morning, she went through his
                                   pockets and rolled him."

                                   "Tell him, Alva."


With hand to mouth, face contorted in horror and pain, Alva cries, "Oh, my God!"

Owen is dumbstruck, shocked, then with a look of disgust, says only, "What?!!"

Alva runs hysterically into teeming rain, having known, feared, and now experienced Owen's reaction.

Willie:  Mama ran off with a man named Sam and they're somewhere in Arkansas, I think.  Papa never did come back.  You know where Alva is now?  The bone orchard ... cemetery ... graveyard.  Her lungs got affected.  She died of the same thing as a heroine in a movie here recently.  It was beautiful, violins playing, old lovers come back.  I'm gonna live a long time like Alva, then die with all my jewellery, and someone else will inherit all my beaux.

                                                            
 
 aberdeennjlife

A fan named BadZKarma99 has compiled actual film clips into a perfect micro narrative at

                                                             http://youtu.be/iwXI14h3NqI

Wish me a rainbow
Wish me a star
All this you can give me
Wherever you are
And dreams for my pillow
And stars for my eyes
      And a masquerade ball where our love wins first prize
Wish me red roses and yellow balloons
 And black sequins whirling to gay dancing tunes
I want all these treasures, most you can give
So wish me a rainbow as long as I live
                                                               
 clipartof
     

                                                          
My words can't possibly  reconstruct or reflect the elements of poignancy, beauty, tension, youth, parental tyranny, dictatorial, unforgiving morality, love, loss and sorrow contained in the film.  There's darkness, and as I read the account above, I wonder that anyone would choose to watch it.  However, its genius is that all themes are submerged beneath an engaging story.  They require reflection.  On the surface it's compelling drama with exquisite cinematography and music.

Ultimately, it's a complex morality tale.  It depicts survival of the fittest, though it was never a fair fight.  It offers insight into the power of family dynamics, their enduring influence on all members, and the power of cultural morality to control and destroy lives.  It illustrates the power of the human spirit to adapt and cope, as well as the reality that love, even maternal love, can be twisted, manipulative, jealous and destructive. It depicts predatory lust that abuses proximity and trust.

Above all, it portrays truth - ugly, hidden, painful, and too-briefly, beautiful.  Like the boarding house itself, the characters were ultimately condemned property, compromised by life and circumstance.  Like the sign on the boarding house, the movie alerts and warns.

For some who personally relate, Williams says, "I see, I understand, and I will tell."

Dysfunctional motherhood and familial sexual misconduct were taboo in polite society forty-seven years ago, secret in all but  professional and  religious circles, and probably unimagined in the 1930s when the story is set. Motherhood was sanctified, still is unless crime or adultery are involved.  And still largely unacknowledged is a jealous resentment often borne by mothers toward daughters, a competition of sorts that simmers, bubbles up and is expressed/repressed in a vicious, recurring cycle.  Some mothers deny it exists, and perhaps for some it doesn't, others don't.  It's emerged occasionally in popular literature the past decade, and it's one of the last taboos. 

Williams served society best, in my opinion, and was again far ahead of his time, in not only depicting J.J's. lust for Alva, but his attempts to act on it, to embrace, paw and accost her in secret.  Though the movie was released in the sixties, heyday of free love and hippies, conventional society was still just that -- rigid, hidebound, disbelieving of much that was surreptitiously happening to young women like Alva.

A family friend suddenly appeared in my own dark teenage bedroom during those years, yet my mother didn't believe me twelve years ago (40 years later) when she demanded to know why I refused to talk with him when he called about a death in our family.  I was careful to never again get behind my first boss's desk after he ran his hand down my leg as I stood beside him, waiting for him to sign letters.  We young women were too often considered property, sometimes even by our parents. We weren't believed, even when we (rarely) dared tell.  "Mr. X wouldn't do that!"  Or, as is still shamefully the case today, "You must have led him on."  "What were you wearing?" We still haven't come as far as we'd like to believe.

Thank you, Tennessee Williams.  You knew, and you told.

Life has wonderful pictures and a great piece titled Tennessee Williams:  Portraits of an American Genius @  http://life.time.com/culture/tennessee-williams-portraits-of-an-american-genius/#3

                                                                                                                                                                   

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin



 Hallucinogenic scenes bathed in red, juxtaposed with an actual red-paint-splashed house, introduce us to a woman on the edge, a woman using pills and sleep in an attempt to sand off her interior pain the way she sands off the paint thrown against the stucco walls of her home.
                                                                                                                
We’ve just met Eva and we’ve no context, no clue on what’s happening.      

 Next we see her dressed professionally, getting into an old station wagon, also splashed with red paint, having what appears to be a job interview.  From the interviewer’s cryptic comment we assume there’s something important in Eva’s background, something she’s done, but she’ll be hired anyway, “as long as you can type and file.”  

 As Eva returns to her car, two women approach, one a 40-ish woman, her arm linked into a frail, elderly one’s -- her mother’s we assume.  As they move closer to Eva the younger woman says, “You’re smiling, are you?”  Then - now close - she raises her arm and slaps Eva viciously across the face, shouting, “I hope you rot in hell!”  

Eva remains there, unmoving, expressionless, without reaction, seemingly unaffected as though she’s operating in some parallel universe.  (Or, does she believe she’s deserved what just happened and accepts it stoically?)  The two women continue down the sidewalk, one’s arm through the other’s, supporting, protecting.
  
Thus begins We Need to Talk About Kevin:  harrowing and stunning, both in story and in perceptive, brutal honesty. 

 It reverses narrative so that a traumatizing, climactic event doesn’t overwhelm or permit oversimplification.                                 
                                            
My son characterized this film, from what he’d read, as impressionistic and non-linear with aspects of fantasy and horror.  He was right, and it’s exactly those perfectly applied elements that make it riveting, powerful and gut-wrenching. Sadly, they’ll also limit its audience.  So will its unusual camera angles and juxtaposition of past and present.

The film informs rather than entertains.  It took me to a place I’ve wondered about for years, a place that remains one of our last taboos, almost never mentioned or explored, at least not in readily accessible lay literature:  “How do parents of killers, especially youthful ones, cope in the aftermath?”

It’s eerily coincidental that I rented and watched this just before the horrific Colorado movie theatre massacre on Friday, July 20, 2012.  On The View a few days later (July 23rd), lawyer/journalist Chris Cuomo stated the 24-year-old shooter’s mother, who works in the mental health field, knew her son had psychiatric problems but was powerless to intervene or force treatment.  He was/is an adult, no longer subject to a mother’s control.  How sadly true of our mental health system and laws which protect civil liberties without providing adequate mechanism for preemptive intervention.  Mental health professionals can force it, but too often, too late.  

Strangely enough, I don’t recall hearing, “We need to talk about Kevin.” in the film.  Perhaps its absence symbolized the widening gulf of distance and denial that grew between Kevin’s father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), and his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton).   Teenage Kevin was played believably, brilliantly, with quiet malevolence by Ezra Miller. Toddler Kevin was played by Rock Duer, and Kevin from ages 6-8 was played by Jasper Newell, whose performance disturbed me most.     

Nothing in the film is over the top; its effectiveness is in witnessing Kevin’s behaviour within a quiet, realistic depiction of everyday life, year after year.  Our sense of foreboding increases with Eva’s, though she never imagines the horror to come.

I’ll be honest here.  I’ve waited days before writing this.  I was emotionally overwhelmed and needed time to decompress and reflect.

There’s much I admire about this film: its courage in tackling the subject; its style, which will conversely keep many away; its sophistication in believing audiences will hang in and ultimately understand; its spare but effective use of music and impressionistic images; and finally, that it’s not overtly set in any country; it can be anywhere, anytime.  It’s a BBC production, yet it wasn’t until a near-final scene that I noticed an American flag decal near the rear window of a police car, signifying it was set somewhere in the U.S.  Until that moment, I believed it was set in England, given its tone and style.  It doesn’t involve guns.

It takes us on a mother’s bewildered, terrified parental journey through the progression and aftermath of a horrific event.  We journey with her, witness her tormented, lonely psyche as she sees, loves and cares for a son whose behaviour has been difficult from birth, and which only grows worse with the years.  He cries incessantly as an infant, so much so that we see her standing beside a jackhammering worker, just to drown out the crying for a short time.  Kevin is adept at tailoring his behaviour, so a doctor dismisses Eva’s concern. Kevin defiantly refuses to toilet train by age four, is willfully, purposefully and selectively destructive, secretly cruel, killing a family pet and blinding his sister in one eye, though all deviously without obvious proof.  He bears his mother a virulent animosity and plays mother against father with the finesse of a champion chess player.  Typical of Brit-quality cinema, none of this is graphic.  

As the years pass, Eva, a pre-marriage adventurer and author, becomes more and more isolated in her singular understanding of what she sees and knows of her first-born.  She loves him despite, and struggles with guilt and anger that only a mother understands.  Her loving, close marriage fades away as husband denies, then proposes simplistic reasons and solutions, ultimately questions her maternal instincts, then her sanity, and finally bails. 

At pivotal points, two background music selections made powerful, thematic impacts.  The first is Buddy Holly’s charming 1957 release, Everyday.  For anyone unfamiliar, here’s a YouTube link:
The second is In My Room, released in 1964 by The Beach Boys

Brave, important points:

  • In showing that Kevin was difficult from birth, it suggests genes and biology play a role in disturbed behaviour, that nurturing isn’t the singular or paramount determinant --still a controversial, debated issue within the mental health field.

  • Because of the above and society’s need to scapegoat, blame, and understandably find reason for the incomprehensible, many blame parents.  This film illustrates it powerfully.

  • Some children are difficult, even mean and cruel.  Children come with personalities, certain traits we parents can try to shape or modify, but we don’t always succeed.  We don’t want to admit it, choosing instead to believe the more comforting, appealing myth that all children are angelic and that something dreadful must have happened to cause antisocial behaviour.  Often it has, but not always.

The latter feeds into parental soul-searching if and when negative, possibly even cruel and destructive behaviour is noted in a child.  Am I over-reacting?  How can I think this about my own child?  and the kicker is a mate who says, “Oh for God’s sake, he/she’s just being a kid!”  or “I think YOU have the problem, he/she’s just bored,” or as Kevin’s father said, “It’s living in the city, we’ll move to the country.”

Additional pain comes when a parent or parents muster up enough courage to admit there’s a problem, reach out and seek help from an idealized mental health system, only to find it underfunded, understaffed, overwhelmed, sometimes lacking in competence, and sometimes unsympathetic, casting total blame on parenting style.


Adrift in much of the above, movie-mother Eva soldiered on to a horrific movie denouement that changes lives forever.  Surprisingly, and again bravely depicted, least affected is Kevin. 

"There but for the grace of God go I” should run through any parent’s mind as the credits roll.  

This film has much to show and teach us.

March 10, 2014 Postscript
The New Yorker has published an 8-page article on Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed his mother, 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and eventually himself on December 14, 2012.  The piece is based on extensive interviews with Lanza's father and gives the reader a glimpse into how he copes with the impossible.  Here is the link:
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/03/17/140317fa_fact_solomon