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Archive for April, 2021


Mudbound: Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) handing the letter from Resl (German woman) meant for Ronsel t(Jason Mitchell) to his family; Laura (Carey Mulligan) alone on the Jackson porch

Friends,

My theme tonight is adequate movies or films. Over the last couple of months I’ve been watching a number of films adapted from books — I’m not sure what to call them any more as I reach them by different technologies, or software, all of which are accommodated by my computer or my TV (which is after all a computer too). They stream in, I use DVDs, I watch via YouTube. There’s vimeo. I am exploring what makes for excellent film adaptation, without which you have poor hollow movies — or travesties.


The two friends, Jamie and Ronsel

The most recent and one dwelling on my mind is Mudbound, streaming in from Netflix who produced it, a film by Dee Rees, adapted from a book by Hillary Jordan. It is a gripping tale, very hard to watch for me because I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, worried that the members of the Black family would be killed or maimed from the constant threat or menace from the cruel violent whites they (and other Black families) are living among, or that the whites themselves would turn on one another, as in the opening scene where two brothers are burying their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks playing evil man), and it’s not clear that the older brother will rescue the younger one who appears to be drowning, sucked in by the mud the grave turns into as it starts to rain hard. The movie and book show you how racism under Jim Crow worked a constant demand from whites on blacks that they kowtow, humiliate themselves, with an ever menacing threat, every once in a while made good — as at the end of the film and book. The story has been reviewed as a movie far more often than as a book (New York Times; Odie Henderson of Roger Ebert’s site, with the story told and retold. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison is breath-taking in its artful suggestiveness.

The book itself reminds me of Faulkner or Graham Swift crossed by Toni Morrison: it’s told in turn by narrators in deeply subjective ways, all of which add up to an eloquent rendering of the misery and deprivation, impoverishment of the best of the human spirit in a racist, deeply inhumane capitalist racist order — Mississippi in the 1940s. The women are utterly subject creatures — in a secondary white family the father beats his wife and rapes his daughter and they have no recourse. We see whites cheat whites; and the way the whites makes money is to exploit the Blacks. We see Laura, the white wife (whose husband takes the car keys from her as a punishment), and Florence (Mary J. Blige), the Black one (whose husband relies on her) create meaning and beauty for themselves through piano playing or doing for their families; they form a supportive friendship; Hap (Rob Morgan), the Black father is a preacher and kind to his family; two sons, Jamie, white, and Ronsel, Black, learn that life can be far more decent and rewarding even during the terrors of war in Europe, and through friendship almost bring upon themselves annihilation but also escape at the film’s end.

But my theme tonight is not the message about how racism and patriarchy work in the US even now (subtler except when it comes to the police), nor even the relationship of the book and film, nor even the splendid art of the film (patterned scenes at the core), but rather that element so hard to gauge, to measure, to explain: why a given film is adequate to the content it seeks to visualize, give sound to, human presences, life, realization.


Stuart Wilson as a viscerally deeply felt Vronsky

I’ve watched several of these over this winter into spring time which are as it were forgotten (not even an adequate wikipedia entry; a 1977-78 BBC Anne Karenina by Donald Wilson (who also wrote the Forsyte Saga), with Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson, Robert Swann; the 1979 Rebecca, directed by Simon Langton (the best of them all), with Joanna David as Rebecca, Jeremy Brett as Mr de Winter, Anna Massey. The 1987 BBC Fortunes of War, written by Alan Plater (from Olivia Manning’s masterpiece epics, Balkan and Levant Trilogies), with Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Ronald Pickup, Rupert Graves (among others.


Joanna David (her daughter, Emilia Fox, played the part in 1997) showing that the quiet second Mrs de Winter of the book, is the strong woman

We dwell on these actors but it’s the embedded film world that is made for them as much as the enactment of their characters in that matters. What is it that makes for this depth of apprehension and detailed lived realization? Faithfulness (as it’s called) to the literal surface of a book or psychologies of actors and mood are the means. Each of the characters on a separate journey within groups of characters in a situation. There is the jelling together of the actors as they make the story realized. But more central I find is the inner drive to maintain an integrity of thematic vision, truth to a complex moral on the part of the central film-makers (writer, director, cinematographer, producer).

I stay with my paper written so long ago, the importance of the screenplay — that’s why we should study. In all these cases, that’s what I’ve been paying attention to — as well as watching how the director elicited from the actors the emotions wanted moment by moment. Look upon this as an interim attempt to suggest what I might write more at length once again.

Re-watching Mudbound, reading the book and studying Martin Scorcese notes for his masterpiece Age of Innocence over the past few days too: I’ve been studying Martin Scorcese’s for his 1997 adaptation of Wharton Age of Innocence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel-Day Lewis, and there the give-away are the lengthy descriptions of setting, gestures — and the use of a narrator. And re-watching the magnificent 2004 BBC The Way We Live Now, scripted Andrew Davies, featuring David Suchet — I mention Davies in the same breathe as Plater — in both cases shooting scripts are often available. A signal of the same core resolution and good strong book which can be so parsed.


There is a beautiful still of the Black church open to the sky with stained glass window covering half the space and Hap preaching so movingly in front of it but I cannot find a still among those online

And watching Rachel Morrison discuss the cinematography of Mudbound tonight brought me to bring together these nightly experiences over these weeks and what unites them even if the only stills commercially available on the Net are the far shots of landscapes, medium shots of people and close-ups of actors.

Short tonight, but I hope adequate … Do see the six films I’ve cited and read the six books alluded to in this blog. I want to say stick especially with the BBC later 1970s and early 1980s serials but again and again since then, as in Mudbound, one finds the crew and film-makers doing it again. A sign of seriousness is the published shooting script and in it real essays and thoughts in the appendix about what inspired the people — in Age of Innocence it appears to have been other brilliant costume dramas. Read what Mary J Blige has to say where she discusses why the most horrifying scene in the film is her favorite.


How they all stay in character too: Jamie is to me super-handsome but he is not the actor; and Mary J Blige is Florence throughout

Ellen

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For a US person I infer an analogy to these South African trials is the present trial in Minneapolis of the murderer of George Floyd (who thinks he will get off).  I’ve learned (I watched only the briefest clips but have read what is said) that police protocols in Minnesota and in much of the United States are intended to intimidate and murder Blacks — to hold them in terror so as to bully them at will. Not as searingly cruel as So. African militaries, but very much the same behavior in principle. And it’s upheld: in the court no one questions the police protocol; the only question is did Chauvan “overdo” it.

An article in Guardian by Oliver Laughland describes how the trial of Chauvin is being conducted as a way of assuaging a traumatized community

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the last three or four nights I embarked on a journey through four films telling the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After Apartheid finally ended, and Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, in 1996 a commission of concerned and able citizens was set up to hold public trials where people could come and tell of the horrific wrongs they and their friends and relatives suffered during the long decades apartheid was imposed on South Africa.

It was mostly Black people who testified about such experiences. I notice in each case a second person sits next to the victim witness there to soothe — and control — them. The people telling what had happened grieve, and occasionally become hysterical. The people who had perpetrated the wrongs the specific Black people were describing were invited to come to the same trial and if they admitted the whole truth of what had happened (which before this had been egregiously lied about, not told at all, distorted and falsifying details presented) and could demonstrate convincingly they were actuated by a political motive, a jury might grant them amnesty. This is not the same as forgiveness: it means a court has pardoned someone for an offense, which he or she can then not in law be blamed for again.


Four young South African men who were brutally murdered (Long Night’s Journey into Day, produced, directed by Deborah Hoffman, Frances Reid)

It was expected that the perpetrator should show remorse and apologize, and most did; a few became genuinely grieved and talked of how they had not since the time they did these deeds been able to sleep or live with themselves easily, but at least four men justified what they were doing by saying that is what they understood to be effective and necessary deeds at the time to achieve “stable gov’t” — and two of these were clearly in their hearts fiercely angry at being forced (if they wanted pardon) to own up. One white woman who came to complain about the death of her white son at the hands of a Black man was livid with hatred, indignation, and not for a moment accepted his explanation that he was driven by the deprived life and ferocious punishments that had been visited upon him. Yet of the three men all received amnesty. The people who did not receive amnesty were the ones where the torture they inflicted on the people they were murdering was hideously in excess in pain and suffering of what was needed to say “extract information” subdue or kill them.

When I first read about these commissions and what they were doing (in the 1990s), and have come across articles since, I was dismissive of what they could achieve. I thought that in reality by telling these terrible acts to those who have been mortally wounded basically for the rest of their lives, those listening would and could never forgive but would generally be made more angry. I now realize I was wrong; I had not read deeply enough, not read any descriptions of these trials at length and especially not seen any enactment. After watching the fictionalized retelling, Boorman and his team’s In My Country (1994); the shaped documentary Hoffman and Reid’s Long Night’s Journey into Day; and a two part report-like documentary made in 1997 by the South African Truth Commission, I’ve changed my mind.


Langston Whitfield (Samuel Jackson), Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) in John Boorman’s In My Country (1994, scripted Ann Peacock, Antji Krog)

On my own behalf, as an excuse I suppose for my obtuseness, one problem was the aim of the commission and the results were not being told clearly: the point isn’t forgiveness. Most of the anguished people I’ve now watched over some six hours of film could not forgive the people who did what they did; there was hardly a human relationship between them. The aim was something far more practical and less personal. In In My Country, it was called ubuntu (if I’ve the word correctly), a word which refers to a recognition that all must live together in one community and are bound together as one people, and must live in peace side-by-side. The aim was to achieve understanding of what had happened by uncovering all the details no matter how painful. Catharsis.  I now see tha good was done.  The person who had been so hurt at least had his (or her) day in court even if by proxy.  Also a hand was held out by the Black people who had so suffered for decades to the whites to be reconciled.

Of the three movies I’ve watched thus far, only the SA Commission Documentary admitted that few whites were in the audiences of these trials, that many whites refused to believe that the trials were telling the truth. Alas, for the most part the only whites who showed were the police and other militarized men seeking amnesty, telling of their deeds, and the relative of a rare white murdered either by gov’t death squads (let’s call them all) or a sudden uprising of mob rage by Black people (uncommon because of the terrible reprisal policies).


From Long Night’s Journey into Day: a rare young white woman, Canadian, who came to South Africa to help work against apartheid was mistakenly murdered
in a hysterical mob action simply on the grounds she was white — we see her anguished parents come to the commission, describe what happened, listen to the Black men who did that deed admit it and say they were grossly wrong and apologize profusely.

There is a fourth film I mean to see, but find The Power of Forgiveness by Martin Doblmeier, yet another documentary, is available as a DVD to be bought. I must wait for it to arrive by regular mail from the post office or Amazon.  The film is said to explore the nature and examples of forgiveness, including personal stories about Northern Ireland, the Amish, 9/11 and the Garden of Forgiveness, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Weisel; to use scientific studies, and of course humanistic discourse. I’m glad I watched the others first, for the implied demand here (you must forgive) skews the nature of what these trials meant to achieve: the aim is not forgiveness of the people who committed such horrific acts by the people wronged; rather it is an attempt by a people to live to live with their past and with those who have inflicted hideous damage on them by asking them to tell the truth and ask for legal pardon.

What I concluded is that the tiny number of white people in South Africa determined to set up a white supremacist state with whites wholly in charge, with all the wealth at their disposal, took horrendous and just cruel weapons of all kinds and hired and kept active armies who treated all Black South Africans as if they lived in a concentration camp where gov’t thugs were free to arrest, beat up mercilessly, torture, desecrate Black people’s bodies at will – and did. They did this because they were such a tiny minority — they used Blacks too as part of their police and surveillance: these were collaborators.

Similarly in Minneapolis, the prosecutors are allowing all the Black people who were forced to stand around and watch a fellow Black person murdered before their very eyes are testifying to the world what they experienced. If this protocol of intimidation and terror forced on Black people and communities all over the is not being openly admitted to, we are seeing it. That this is the way it is being understood can be seen in a British reporter for a far away newspaper picking the reality up and explaining it. The people being reconciled are themselves also potential victims and victims’ families — not all of them are up to it — they are of course hoping that at long last some justice may be done, and if this protocol not be done away with, the man who used it excessively, exultingly, will be judged rightly guilty of gross murder. Many weep as they tell what happened and then have to listen to the excuses and insulting of them and the victim the perpetrator’s lawyer. Apparently the ranks are breaking and some police officers are coming forward to say Chauvan used excessive force.

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I’d like to offer a few details of the three films I’ve seen thus, and when I’ve seen the fourth, add my commentary on it to this blog in the comments.


Anna and Langston at a trial as a South African TV reporter and American reporter for the Washington Post

In My Country is a fictional film, or a historical film fictionalized by the story of an Afrikaner white poet-reporter, Anna (Juliette Binoche) who has come with Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), a Black African man to cover the trials for a TV station and Langstan Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) an Black American reporter who strikes up a relationship them. What conventional suspense we experience is worry for their safety and watching their relationships develop. Anna belongs to an Afrikaner family most of whom disapprove of the trials and her empathy with Black people; her husband supports her and she leaves him with their children to follow the trials as they occur around Africa.


Anna and Dumi

Gradually she becomes friends with the young Black South African man assigned to her as technician, and lovers with the Black American reporter: it is a witty and tender relationship, beginning in antagonism and ending in understanding. She does return to her family and there is tension and loss. Dumi in the one false note in the film at its end is made to confront his past in a brutal scene with other Black Africans.

Juliette Binoche is another actress who appears in films and plays with a social conscience which are beautifully well done; she was a moving Antigone at the Kennedy Center years ago. Samuel Jackson is a well-known multi-faceted star.

But we are also — I was — riveted by the stories told in the hearings and seeing the white men as portrayed by white and black actors.  What happened is I realized that the commissions did succeed in what they set out to do for many. In fact the point was to allow hundreds of Black people to confront their hideous oppressors and tell them to their faces in front of a crowd what they had done — the point was a kind of tranquil shaming. If a particular officer or person showed he was politically motivated (had to do it) and did not go about the job with disproportionate cruelty (which many did), he could achieve amnesty — and the Black person learned what had happened to their beloved relative, friend or heard it said aloud and believed. Brendan Gleeson played the white Afrikan officer whose crimes were so disproportionate and whose remorse so ambivalent he is not granted amnesty but must stand trial for 63 murders.

I have found the whole of In My Country and been able to link it in here, and hope the people who put it on YouTube do not remove it.

Long Night’s Journey into Day was much tougher because the four cases (out of 22,000) detailed were real and there was no sweetening romance.  You learn more seriously the horrors of what Black people were subjected to for decades in South Africa. What I came away remembering best was that there are still many white who are not only unremorseful but angry that either one of their relatives/friends were killed and see themselves as having no responsibility to other people. One white man who did horrific things clearly was as cruel and brutal as ever and he was granted amnesty – for telling the truth. I also saw so many Black people and especially the mothers of those murdered years later still living maimed lives. I saw their continuing poverty. And I saw one white Canadian mother, father and brother, attempting to live up to what their white daughter in her idealism had tried to achieve. I thought this emphasis on women was perhaps a result of having two female director/producers.


One of the mothers of the four murdered young men featured in the posters (see above)

It’s a vimeo:


A young Deborah Hoffman — I can find no image of Frances Reid

Last, the straight two hour documentary made by the SA Commission. It is here we most often meet and listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu — he speaks of the white people who refuse to participate as missing an important chance to admit knowing what happened, to become better by doing so, to function more effectively in the true worlds of South Africa. It is a powerful film; I’d see it over two nights.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_QZO_onxlo (50 MIN)

I regret I have read so few books by South Africans about South Africa. I keep trying to persuade my WomenWriters@groups.io to read Nadime Gorimer with me. As of tonight I’ve only read a couple of marvelous short stories by Gorimer. I have read much Doris Lessing, but most of it not set in South Africa. One exception is The Grass is Singing

Ellen

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