Film 2010 #27 – Wise Blood


Wise Blood (1979, dir. John Huston)
Starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Dan Shor, Ned Beatty, William Hickey

I first became aware of the author Flannery O’Conner during my Freshman Comp II class with Dr. Greg Carpenter. We read the classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and was shocked and happily surprised at how bizarre and quirky the piece was. I would continue expand on my knowledge of the late Southern writer in American Lit II, Southern Lit, and a short stories class all with Dr. Greg’s wife, Dr. Dana. In her Lit of the South class I read Wise Blood, the novel that serves as the basis of this film and found some deep insights and themes that are woven into the fiber of everyday life here in the South.
So, how did Academy Award winning director John Huston do when it came to adapting the novel? Good and bad. If you are one of those people who hates for a film to deviate too far from its source material then I guess you’ll be happy. In my own opinion, Huston stuck so close to O’Conner’s novel that you see how poor of a film it truly makes. The book benefited from the omniscient narration of O’Conner to talk about the psychology of our characters and provide backstory. Here we just have characters speaking the author’s words but with no idea of who they are beyond that.
The biggest problem with the film are the stylistic choices Huston chooses to make. The Southern Grotesque that O’Conner brought to all her work is all but absent here. The film is so bright and the score is horrendous. The music definitely pulled me out of the film on multiple occasions. It’s a bizarre mix of synthesized folk tunes and doofy Hee Haw-esque musical cues. While watching, I couldn’t help but think how the film would have benefited to have been filmed in black and white and to have had no musical score at all. I anticipate a lot of people who love O’Conner disapproving of the film’s contemporary (late 70s) setting. While there are elements of her work that could be argued to be set in a specific time in the South, her stories are equally without grounding in a specific era. Huston’s decision to make it contemporary though, seems to reflect budget constraints rather than artistic choices.
The one character who was used terribly was poor Enoch Emery. The young man who steals a shrunken head doll and dresses as a gorilla is played in a strange way. We aren’t quite sure if he is simply a religious simpleton or has serious mental issues. My own opinion was the latter, but his portrayal in the film feels very uneven. Amy Wright does a great job as the Sabbath Hawkes and Harry Dean Stanton does an adequate job for the small role he is given. The weight of the film rests on Brad Dourif’s shoulders as Hazel Motes and I can’t criticize him too much. The problems with the film come down to a strict adherence to the novel and a lack of strong cinematography.

Film 2010 #25 – Thieves Like Us


Thieves Like Us (1974, dir. Robert Altman)

Starring Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall, Louise Fletcher, Tom Skerritt
Much like the rest of Robert Altman’s work, Thieves Like Us is a subversion of genre. The premise is that a trio of bank robbers, Bowie; Chickasaw; and T-Dub (Carradine, Schuck, and Remsen respectively) escape a Mississippi chain gang and go back to the old trade. They hole up with a gas station owner (Skerritt) and Keechie, his young daughter (Duvall) who becomes smitten with Bowie. As it is to be expected with men on the run, life become very complicated very quickly and the men must split up after a heist gone wrong. Bowie ends up in the care of Keechie; the two fall in love and decide to start a life together.
Altman loves creating a human universe that works in direct opposition to our expectations seeded by traditional cinema. The action in this film is incredibly muted and when violence does occur it is either off camera or intentionally unglamorous. Characters never undergo arcs and rarely behave as if they are somehow aware of the screenwriter’s intentions of them. These characters just exist and live their lives and Altman just happens to have a camera to record them. One way he achieves the sense of the mundane while stylistically flipping cinema on its head is by an absence of the standard film score. Instead, music is provided by the ever present radio of Depression-era America. For the most part, its standards of the day but in a few scenes the radio is used to underscore the action. As the men prepare to rob a bank a car radio plays the introduction of a true crime radio drama. In yet another scene as love blossoms between Bowie and Keechie, we can hear the a radio version of Romeo and Juliet.
Characters are never more intelligent than they would typically be in a comparably real situation. The three men never achieved much of an education and neither did Keechie so their dialogue reflects that. There’s very little conversation and what there is of it is intentionally inconsequential and uninteresting. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, where there’s meant to be a weight to the moment when authorities gun the pair down, a similar scene in the finale of this film has its drama emphasized but also a restraint is felt not to make it rise to any mythic proportion. The very final scene of the film also strips away any sense that Altman is making these men into heroes and ends up raising Keechie, who appears to be a dull girl, into the one character in the film with the strongest sense of honor and decency.

Film 2009 #185 – The Box

The Box (2009, dir. Richard Kelly)
Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella

It was October 2001 and had become intrigued with a film trailer I came across online. The film was Donnie Darko and the picture looked to have a quirky, creepy vibe that brought up memories of David Lynch for me. The film opened at the Belcourt, I convinced some friends to go to the opening night showing and was duly impressed. I saw it a few more times in the theater and bought it on DVD and listened through the director’s commentary multiple times. It was a film that was enigmatic but seemed to have an answer to its own puzzle if you paid close enough attention. This was the first and last time Richard Kelly would impress me.

The Box is based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button”, which was adapted for the various incarnations of The Twilight Zone and has one of those plots that seems very archetypal. It’s 1976 and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and Mardsen, respectively) live in Richmond, Virgina. Norma works as an English teacher for a private school and Arthur as an engineer for NASA. Their lives change one day when a mysterious box ends up on their doorstep. The box contains a large red button set in a finished wood casing and covered with a locked glass dome. Inside the box also contains a note letting them know a gentlemen will be by to explain that evening. Cue Mr. Arlington Steward (Langella). Steward explains that if the couple presses the button they will receive a million dollars and someone in the world, whom they don’t know will die. Steward gives them a day to decide.

You don’t have to have read the short story to know where this is going and it wouldn’t make for an interesting film if our characters chose honorably. And it is at this point that the movie goes completely off the tracks, but damn its beautiful as it does! Kelly is no slouch when it comes to cinematography, he knows exactly how to frame a shot and give us gorgeous images. With this feature, he’s evoking lots of classic Kubrickian techniques (i.e. tightly framed shot with action coming in and out of them, cold imagery). There’s the Twilight Zone vibe, that’s to be expected and interesting nod to Hitchcock, particularly in the musical score.

Kelly’s weakness lies in his inability to shape a tightly written, comprehensible plot. With Darko, he could cheat a bit and the film still stands as a nice piece of cinema. He displayed a considerable lack of restraint with his follow up, Southland Tales, a film I am fairly certain even the actors couldn’t have understood. Part of me admires Kelly for attempting such large, cosmic and transcendental themes in his work, yet I can’t give him a standing ovation till he shows he has the ability to pull it off semi-successfully. The Box ends up getting bogged down in, what are becoming, Kelly’s signatures (water imagery, portals, scenes intentionally left out). From an atmospheric point of view Kelly is a genius, but as an overall film this fails from a mixture of way too out there and a sort of adolescent allegory that clunks you on the head in the finale. A wonderful experiment, but a disaster in the end.