Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Quiet American

The Quiet American.
Dir. Phillip Noyce, 2003.

I stopped reading Graham Greene many years ago because I thought I really must expand my repertoire.  But as I watched this adaptation I immediately wanted to pick him up again.  Not only is the story astonishingly, accurately prophetic about the doomed American adventure in Vietnam, but its sense of sad fatigue is drawn from that very clairvoyance.

The jaded narrator, shrunken and world-weary rather than easily cynical, is immediately recognizable and attractive.  His motives are of dubious integrity, but he is more innocent than he appears, and less a fool than others view him to be.  Michael Caine nails him with a single cock of the head, a single unblinking look from red-rimmed, hooded eyes below a deeply lined brow.

The plot structure itself now seems a bit stagy since the basic allegorical elements have been used in so many novels and films since (Indochine comes to mind) -- the naively ruthless American, the knowing French, the lovely young woman who symbolizes the country itself.  Even her name, Phoung, means Phoenix.  But when Greene did it this was all fresh, and still holds power.

Brendan Fraser is excellent as the American officer Pyle.  But somehow Do Thi Hai Yen (Phuong) doesnt have the emotional weight on-screen that she could.  Of course her lines are paltry, but she also lacks presence.  Worse, at this remove the sexual politics (quite aside from the national politics) of her relationship with the narrator made me queasy.  It almost feels too close to pedophilia, and not I am sure what was intended by the director or the novel.  In addition, she is too child-like to justify the narrator's devotion.  Similar heroines in Indochine or Lust, Caution display much more self-awareness and gather the viewer's respect, adding to the tension and credibility.  Without it the narrator seems more pathetic than he needs to be.

That apart, still remains an excellent film.   I wonder at how easily the story could be transcribed to Iraq, or Central America ... Graham Greene was far more prophetic than perhaps even he realized.

May 2011           

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sometimes a Great Notion

Sometimes a Great Notion
Dir. Paul Newman, 1970.

This was Ken Kesey's second novel, and centers on a tight-knit, redneck family of Oregon loggers, and their struggle to keep their family business going despite bitter opposition by striking unionized loggers.

Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda) is the crusty, stubborn patriarch, Hank (Paul Newman) his tough, admiring son, and Viv (Lee Remick) is Hank's beautiful wife.  The Stampers live in a rambling house on a river's edge, along with Henry's nephew Joe-Ben (Richard Jaekel), a born-again, sweet, and somewhat dimwitted lumberjack, and his family.  Into this mix is thrown Lee (Michael Sarrazin, who died last month).  Lee is Henry's son by his first wife, a long-haired, college-educated boy harboring bitternes and longing in his heart.

The characters are archetypical, the conflicts obvious and predictable.  Yet the acting is so good, and the scenes of logging family and work life seem so authentic, that you are swept along.  "Never Give A Inch" (sic) is the Stamper family motto, and Henry lives and enforces it with every breath.  You can't help but admire and root for the courage, the tenacity, the smartness, and toughness of the Stampers -- not to mention the stunning good looks of Paul Newman and Michael Sarrazin.

And yet ... the Stampers are scabs in a fashion, working during the strike despite pleas by the local union men and their neighbors.  The men are stupidly stubborn and treat their wives like chattel; Viv is unhappy and Hank is barely aware of it.  They are conservative and backward to the core.  They stick blindly to the family motto, and in the end pay a heavy lasting price.  Yet the film still ends by celebrating the fearless individualism, the contempt of hypocrisy and bunk, and the sheer up-yours rebelliousness embodied in Hank.  No wonder it is an icon in the logging industry.      

Friday, May 13, 2011

Back When We Were Grownups

Back When We Were Grownups
Ann Tyler

Tyler has worked this ground before, but more successfully, in Ladder of Years. Once again we have a middle-aged woman, comfortably ensconced in a large and loud family, who has an existential crisis and embarks on a quest to rediscover or reinvent herself.

In Ladder of Years the actual event is more dramatic -- she leaves her husband and childeren without warning and moves from Baltimore to a small inland town, taking on an administrative job and also becoming a live-in housekeeper to support herself. Here the journey is more muted and mostly internal, although Rebecca Davitch does reconnect with her first sweetheart, a man she had jilted thirty years previously to marry Joe Davitch.

We watch as Rebecca struggles with her lost sense of self, her need to be dutiful, and her ennui, through the lens of the minutiae of her daily life.  The struggle hinges on whether she made a mistake in marrying Joe, a man much older than her, in that she allowed her identity to be drowned by him and the demands of his family.  And Rebecca has indeed drowned  -- she caters to their every whim, soothes their quarrels and hurts, and is companion to their superannuated relatives, while being taken for granted, being dismissed, or being relegated to the background of their lives.  Not only has she been forgotten, but worse they cannot imagine that she has a life outside of their needs, and worst of all, she has forgotten herself.

This is a version of a compelling, universal question, and is what kept me going through the novel, along with the graceful, observant storytelling which I truly enjoyed.  But the struggle to answer this central question is dealt with so restrainedly, in such a matter-of-fact fashion, and is buried in so much detail, that it loses its true urgency, poignancy, and dramatic potential.  This should be a life or death matter.  In some sense, it is a life or death matter, since if Rebecca really made a mistake she has cheated herself out of thirty of the best years of her life.  Alas, Rebecca is not given to drama, and the potentially potent issues of misplaced loyalty, lost love and absent sex are dealt with obliquely if at all.

The story builds in a predictable fashon towards an ending scene that is a little surprising, in that there is no actual epiphany, but a gradual realization that gets cemented by a photo of herself taken at the party where she first met Joe Davitch, thirty years earlier.  She has been having a wonderful time after all.

In the end the book is a paean to the value of small goals and smaller accomplishments.  For what Rebecca does have is the amicable, unamorous companionship of Zeb, Joe's brother; the respect of those around her; and her own sense of compassion and decency.  And the very last line -- that she has indeed been having a wonderful time -- is almost a Zen-like notion, that a small life lived in the moment is ultimately more satisfying than the pursuit of grand ambitions.  But I fear I am reading too much into the novel.  These points, if they exist, are made so subtly and with so little emotional pull that they are all but lost.  This should be a mattter of life and death.  It is a matter of life and death; not simply a matter of how the dinner napkins are folded.

May 2011