Friday, August 26, 2011

Disney's "The Help"

I used to have this fond memory of going to the drive-in when I was 7 or 8 to see a Disney movie. I couldn't remember the name of it, only that it was a mix of live-action and animation and it was pure magic. In my late teens and early twenties, I tried in vain to find this movie, hoping I'd discover it someday and have a giddy nostalgia trip courtesy of Blockbuster Video. Not until I reached grad school did I find out what this movie was. For me, grad school was mostly about finding out that global media companies are evil. We were discussing said evilness in class one day when the subject of Disney's Song of the South came up, and I realized with dawning horror that this was the movie I'd remembered so fondly. Banned from distribution for decades for its vile racism, the movie had captured the imagination of this particular impressionable viewer. This realization brought up sundry troubling questions: Had I been indoctrinated by racist filmmakers? Was I beyond saving? Did the 8-year-old me want a happy field slave to hang out with, just like the little boy in Song of the South has Uncle Remus? Needless to say, I didn't like myself for a few days after that, the day grad school made me choke on my nostalgia.

Song of the South came out 65 years ago, and Disney's The Help represents nothing if not progress. (Yes, this is a Disney movie; the company now distributes approximately six DreamWorks pictures a year.) Based on the hit 2009 work of fiction by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is about an ambitious young journalist named Skeeter (Emma Stone), a well-off white woman living in segregated Mississippi in 1963. A natural-born rebel (when we first see her, she's driving with the top down and listening to "Jackson" by Johnny Cash), Skeeter encourages a dozen or so local black maids to tell their stories, even though by doing so they'll be violating quite a few Jim Crow laws. The script focuses on Aibileen and Minny, two maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Despite the flaws of the movie they appear in, I have no reservations about giving their performances unequivocal praise. If The Help turns out to be Oscar bait (and I have a feeling it might), then the Academy shouldn't overlook Davis and Spencer.

Stockett is a white woman who has clearly educated herself, as evidenced by the scene where Skeeter talks about how "Margaret Mitchell glorified the mammy figure." The film adaptation of her book sees the black Southern maids of the Jim Crow era for what they were: the descendants of house slaves who found themselves in a situation not very dissimilar from that of their grandmothers. But, I'm unhappy to report, The Help Disneyfies the solution to the problem. Skeeter is depicted as committing a revolutionary act, and so is Minny's new employer (Jessica Chastain), who crosses an invisible line by sitting down for lunch with her maid instead of eating at her dining room table. In contrast, Skeeter – and, by extension, the filmmakers – judges her mother (Allison Janney) very harshly for failing to show that kind of courage. The movie seems to think racial progress (or lack thereof) hinged on the courageousness of white people, not on the hopes, struggles and perseverance of blacks.

I mostly liked The Help. I don't think it's going to cause the kind of damage to the younger generation that Song of the South caused me. Still, I find its portrait of magnanimous whites to be a little... dishonest. The only truly racist major character in the movie is played by Bryce Dallas Howard. She's the villain of the piece, but what the filmmakers don't seem to understand is that in the Mississippi of 1963 her behavior would have been condoned by her friends and relatives, not derided. The Help reminds me of a funny bit in Timothy B. Tyson's great 2004 memoir, Blood Done My Sign Name. The author ridicules the idea that the South suddenly became a nice place to live for black people after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. In an imaginary scene, the owner of a whites-only lunch counter throws open his doors and announces, "Y'all come in now! Freedom done come."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"The Myth of the American Sleepover"

David Robert Mitchell's The Myth of the American Sleepover takes place in a small town on the last night of the summer before freshman year. It's a relatively minor effort, but like Richard Linklater's seminal teen film Dazed and Confused, Myth evokes vivid memories, and with its closing morning light scenes comes a sense of endless possibility for its large cast of characters. We follow Maggie (Claire Sloma, in the film's breakout performance), the Abbey twins (Nikita and Jade Ramsey) and many others as they attend a lock in party (those still exist?) and a few private mixers. The emphasis is on mood, not plot, so all you Tree of Life haters are advised to stay away. If you can get on the film's wavelength, then you'll find the search for connection embodied in these characters – a search conducted person to person, face to face, with no social networking in sight – to be refreshing and at times genuinely moving. A very striking film debut by writer/director Mitchell, The Myth of the American Sleepover is now available to watch on demand.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sally's theme

While watching the new Criterion DVD of Brian De Palma's Blow Out, I was struck by a piece of music from Pino Donaggio's score. It plays often in the scenes between Jack (John Travolta) and Sally (Nancy Allen). I couldn't remember where I'd heard it before, and then it hit me: this same theme plays in an early scene of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.

Nancy Allen as Sally in Brian De Palma's Blow Out
Tarantino is famous for this sort of thing: filling his movies with hyperlinks to other movies. Often, the references will fly right over my head. (His knowledge of film lore is formidable to say the least.) But when I know where he's coming from, rather than distracting me, the reference will serve to deepen my appreciation of the film and the experience of watching it. That was certainly true in this case.

In Death Proof, we hear Sally's theme in a scene at the Texas Chili Parlor. Austin DJ/would-be record producer Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) is texting the guy she likes, a movie director we never see named Christian Simonson. As the two flirt, the music blasting from the bar's awesomely eclectic jukebox fades away and Donaggio's score takes over.

Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike: "I ain't stalkin' y'all but I didn't say I wasn't a wolf."
If you happen to know the movie Tarantino is quoting here, then this scene works on a few different levels. Blow Out and Death Proof both feature sex killers who mercilessly stalk and butcher women: Burke in the case of Blow Out (played by John Lithgow, even scarier here than he is on Dexter) and Stuntman Mike in the case of Death Proof (played by Kurt Russell in his greatest latter-day role). But, at this point in Death Proof, the audience hasn't been let in on Mike's M.O. So on one level the music serves to build suspense: we wonder if Jungle Julia will share the same fate as Sally, Burke's final victim.

Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee's track suit in Kill Bill: Vol. 1
It's the same dynamic that's at play when Uma Thurman dons Bruce Lee's famous yellow-and-black track suit, thus solidifying our image of The Bride as an unstoppable killing machine in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Or when Tarantino quotes John Ford's The Searchers in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, depicting the Nazis as savage marauders and introducing themes like hunting, scalping and familial retribution that will recur throughout the rest of that scorching WWII masterpiece. Unlike many of the filmmakers who imitate him, Tarantino chooses his references very carefully.

On another level, the music brings an element of tragedy to the whole Jungle Julia/Christian Simonson subplot. Earlier in Death Proof, we heard Julia complain about how Christian is never around and he doesn't call her on her birthday. And, sure enough, he never shows up (as promised) to the Texas Chili Parlor. Things might have turned out differently for Julia if he had. He could have saved her – just like Jack could have saved Sally if he'd been there when she was in danger.

The savage marauder as polite Nazi in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds
That's fairly reactionary, and indeed much of the first half of Death Proof is shown from Stuntman Mike's POV. Tarantino indulges his villain's predatory male gaze, climaxing in a series of incredibly gory money shots where we see a head-on collision from four different perspectives, one of which shows Jungle Julia's leg being ripped off. But the director turns all of that on its head in the second half of the film, when the female victims become the perpetrators. De Palma never gave us Sally the Avenger, but Death Proof does. That's a major part of Tarantino's genius: not to borrow from the past, but to *expand* on it. His movies don't require you to be a film geek to enjoy them, but you'll certainly get a lot more out of them if you are one. And they encourage film geeks to keep the faith. There's another scene in Death Proof where Stuntman Mike is talking to a group of girls about the TV work he's done ("You know the show The Virginian?"). When he realizes the girls have never heard of any of the shows or actors he's talking about, his reaction is one of withering disappointment. It's the only moment in the movie where the filmmaker is completely sympathetic to his villain.