i. Let me tell you how bored I am with contemporary conventional Hollywood. I'm so bored that I yawned all the way through Tony Scott's Enemy of the State, and actually, as brainless, formula fare goes, Enemy of the State isn't half bad. Will Smith stars as Robert Clayton Dean, a high-powered Washington labor lawyer who is currently trying to get the mob out of a union election. (And don't forget this set-up because it becomes important later). Bobby is a Georgetown law grad whose wife Carla (Regina King) is an ACLU lawyer very much concerned about Fourth Amendment privacy rights. And wouldn't you know it, Bobby gets right in the middle of a big Congressional struggle over domestic intelligence powers for the National Security Agency's anti-terrorism unit. A big cheese Republican Congressman (Jason Robards) is assassinated when he won't cooperate with spy world's latest enforcement initiative. And in a progression of events that's only completely far-fetched, Bobby comes to possess a digitized video of the hit going down with electronic sleuth guru Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) caught red-handed. Meanwhile, in a development that's only entirely still more farfetched, Voight and his legion of computer Nazis discover the existence of the video and track it to our hero. You still with me? One way producer Jerry Bruckheimer tries to keep us from scoffing is to blitz us with so many developments we don't notice the hooey until we're on the way home.
The meat of the picture is run, run, hide, hide. The spooks do all the usual nasty stuff. They get Bobby's credit cards refused. (This is the Yuppie equivalent of bamboo shoots under the fingernails.) They destroy his wardrobe. (This is the Yuppie equivalent of a cattle prod to the genitals.) They leave him with only one ensemble, and it's three years old! (This is the Yuppie equivalent of being tarred and feathered.) They put bugs in all his remaining possessions except for his undershorts. (This is the Yuppie equivalent of a modesty panel.) Bobby will soon have to strip to elude the bad guys, but at least he won't have to go nude until he becomes the latest cast member on NYPD Blue. They get him in serious Dutch with his wife. (This is the Yuppie equivalent of getting him in serious Dutch with his wife.) They see that his wife gives him the boot. (This is just plain old Hollywood sexism, a way to have a woman in the picture without really having to have a woman in the picture.) Oh, and for good measure, they frame him for murder. We think this will surely become important, but it doesn't.
As is true of all action flick heroes, Bobby Dean is an uncommonly good runner and hider. When he's chased down a tunnel, he knows just which ladder up the side will lead to a manhole cover in the street and just the correct moment to push his head out without getting it squashed like a pumpkin by a speeding vehicle. Eventually, as is often required, Bobby acquires a sidekick, in this case a grizzled and embittered electronic wizard named Brill (Gene Hackman) who knows as much about using computers to mess somebody up as anybody working for Reynolds. Pretty soon, Brill is getting Reynolds' credit cards refused and getting Reynolds in Dutch with his own wife (Anna Gunn). Presumably Brill would also toy with Reynolds' wardrobe and cause him to strip except that Voight has negotiated a "no skin" clause in his contracts ever since he, Donald Sutherland and Christopher Walken agreed to alternate playing the villain in every studio movie this decade.
Cars smash. Buildings blow up. Helicopters swoop. Bullets fly. And heroes prevail. How they prevail in this particular flick boggles the mind. Save the most preposterous for last. Remember, I warned you not to forget about the mob and that union election. This film is like a meat processing plant: nothing goes to waste. Certainly not the cash a flick like this inevitably generates, the requisite $100 million plus since its release last December. And I hasten to make this clear. As blockbuster Hollywood goes today, this is the good stuff. Somebody has demanded that the plot make at least linear sense and has refused to allow Bobby to behave like a moron. But whatever the merits of the execution here, we've seen it all before. And we will, no doubt, see it all again. Soon.
ii. While I'm venting my spleen, let me pick on a picture some people took seriously enough to include on top ten lists and pencil in for year-end award nominations. Last May, Peter Weir's The Truman Show arrived at local theaters in the midst of almost unparalleled critical endorsement. Entertainment Weekly hailed the picture on its cover as "the year's best movie." Newsweek called The Truman Show "the number one film to see this summer. "But for the life of me, I can't figure out the reason for such inflated hullabaloo. The best film of the year? By my count it didn't rank in the top fifty. The number one film last summer? The Truman Show was better than Bullworth or The Opposite of Sex or Henry/bo/? The Truman Show was better than Saving Private Ryan? How to explain such-mindless hype? The best I can imagine is that The Truman Show was treasured by certain people in the motion picture and television industry because it proceeds from the premise that a man's entire life could be orchestrated as entertainment. Perhaps, even if people in Hollywood don't think such a notion is actually true, they wish it were.
Jim Carrey stars in The Truman Show as Truman Burbank, a now thirty-year-old insurance salesman who has unwittingly starred since the moment of his birth in a twenty-four-hour-per-day documentary about his life. Truman's wife Meryl (Laura Linney), his mother Angela (Holland Taylor), his best friend Marion (Noah Emmerich) and everyone else he knows is actually just an actor playing a role in a long-running television production. Seahaven, the picture-postcard of a town Truman lives in, is actually an elaborate soundstage with 5,000 cameras poised to capture Truman's every action. All of this is overseen by the documentary's creator and directory self-satisfied manipulator named Christof (Ed Harris). The picture's premise is that Truman's life has become a national obsession, with people watching videotapes of treasured moments from the past and gathering in bars to watch current developments. Given Truman's white-bread existence, I can't imagine why this might be true.
The narrative in The Truman Show is generated by Truman's sudden suspicions that his life is not normal. One of the lights from Sea-haven's dome falls from the "sky" and lands at Truman's feet. More seriously, the actor who played Truman's father and supposedly died in a boating accident when Truman was a child, sneaks back on the set disguised as a bum. At first Christof's minions try to hustle him away, but eventually they allow a reunion, and in parody of stock soap opera formula tell Truman his dad has been suffering from amnesia. Christof has long tried to invest Truman with phobias that would keep him from venturing outside Seahaven; now Christof fundamentally imprisons his star as Truman makes repeated attempts to flee.
My primary beef about all this concerns the film's weakly developed premise. Marion tells an interviewer that the show isn't really fake, just controlled. And that indeed must be the case. But if it has been so tightly controlled before, why is it breaking down now? Once we ask that question the whole concept starts to crumble. Just how is it that Truman's "father" manages to sneak onto the set? Long before that, how did Christof control all the child actors who played Truman's schoolmates? My neighbor can't keep her six year old from telling family secrets to people standing behind her in a grocery line. In a flashback scene we're shown studio thugs strong-arming a young woman named Lauren (Natascha McElhone) who, of course, is really an actress named Sylvia. Sylvia has committed the sin of flirting with Truman when Christof has scheduled a romance with Meryl instead. But given Sylvia's rebellion, why does Christof allow Sylvia to remain in the production long enough to warn Truman that his life is artificial? And for that matter, where's the camera when this warning takes place? Moreover, if Christof can get the warning on film, why does it take him so long to have Lauren/Sylvia's "father" arrive to announce that their family is moving out of town? Afterwards, Truman pines for the girl he knew as Lauren, but he seems to forget completely what she's told him. Why is that? In this episode and others, viewers seem eager for Truman to learn the truth and escape. Why then is there no public outcry at the cruelty of subjecting an innocent man to such an elaborate hoax?
Then there's the whole business of Meryl, an actress we're asked to believe who fully well intends to have a child with Truman even though she actually can't stand him. How much do you have to pay someone to take a role like this? And how does an actor in a role like this have a private life to enjoy her salary? How, for instance, do vacations work for her? Why indeed is Truman even married to Meryl? He doesn't seem to like her either. So how did Christof manage to arrange their marriage without Truman rebelling against it? Even though his life is fake, Truman thinks it's real. It's one thing for Christof to control Truman's environment down to the people with whom he lives and associates. But if he can't control Truman at age thirty, how has he controlled Truman until age thirty?
Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol presumably want The Truman Show to be a canny indictment of the pervasive role the television medium plays in our lives. But this picture doesn't offer any fresh insights, nor is it particularly clever. The film can't even make up its mind about the nature of its villain. Christof is deeply misguided, but he's neither as malevolent as he might have been nor quite redeemable. He's manipulative and selfish, but not nearly as ruthless as we at first suspect. A movie like this begs the viewer to contemplate its metaphysics. You don't name a character Christof if you don't want people to puzzle over the nature of God and God's relation to man. But there's nothing here other than a paean to human free will. Few of us have endured lives so utterly blessed as on some occasion not to have challenged God's authority by blaming Him for our misfortune. Thus we understand Truman's defiant cry of "Is that the worst you can do?" But I shudder at contemplating Christof as Weir and Niccol's concept of a weak, self-centered and inhumane divinity.
iii. Meanwhile, as Jim Carrey bests Tom Hanks for a best actor Golden Globe for a role in a picture infuriating for its marriage of artistic pretense and intellectual emptiness, a film that dares to challenge its viewers like Jonathan Demme's Beloved is widely dismissed as a failure. I grant that Beloved is both uncommonly difficult and otherwise flawed, but I think its precipitous fall from critical grace has less to do with its artistic failures and far more to do with a desire to take producer Oprah Winfrey down a peg or two.
At a Southern literature conference on the campus of Baylor University last fall, I heard African-American theologian Riggins Earl reflect on the stubborn persistence of forgiveness in America's black community. He pointed to the kind words spoken about George Wallace by such former civil rights activists as the estimable John Lewis against whom Wallace once sent attack dogs and about the astonishing support Wallace was able to garner among black voters during his last Alabama gubernatorial campaign. Elsewhere, Professor Earl pointed to the resistance African-American churchgoers have shown to removing images of a white Jesus from Bibles and stained-glass windows in their own sanctuaries. Sometimes, it would seem, black Americans find it a greater challenge to forgive their own transgressions than those who have sinned against them. This issue of forgiveness in the African-American community is one of the many and complicated themes examined in Beloved.
Adapted from Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, Beloved is as difficult a moviegoing experience as most viewers will ever encounter. It moves back and forth in time as if the boundaries between current and past event did not exist. And it introduces ghosts who interact with the living as if death were not inviolable. Both Beloved's strobe-light narrative and profusion of characters, some of whom go by more than one name, keep us off balance until the picture is nearly half over. Some puzzling passages are never clarified. In the end, faithful to Morrison's original, screenwriters Akousa Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks remain more interested in symbolic subtext than in accessible text. All that said, however, Beloved is memorable storytelling, well worth the hard work it requires of its viewers.
Beloved is the story of Sethe (Winfrey), an African-American woman who escaped slavery in early adulthood but has not been able to elude the myriad horrors of having been a slave. We meet Sethe as a woman in her early to mid forties in 1873 when Paul D (Danny Glover), an old acquaintance from her Kentucky slave plantation, discovers her living near Cincinnati with her eighteen-year-old daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise). Sethe invites Paul D to remain for a rest and a visit, but she warns him that her house is haunted, and indeed it is, dangerously so. And so begin the film's complicated mysteries.
Paul D seems to perform a successful exorcism, and the violent, invisible spirit seems to depart the house. But as Paul D begins to court Sethe and make gentle, paternal overtures toward Denver, the ghost reappears in human form, in the body of a twenty-year-old African-American woman who calls herself Beloved (Thandie Newton). Beloved is a disturbingly unearthly presence. She arrives at Sethe's house as if dressed for church but covered from head to toe with insects. Denver responds to Beloved like a loving sibling would to the arrival of a new baby sister. Beloved appears in a young adult body the exact age of a child Sethe lost to tragedy shortly after escaping from slavery, but Beloved is indeed like a baby. She speaks haltingly, smears herself when she eats, drools incessantly and lacks toilet training. Eventually we come to understand that she is Sethe's lost child, grown but stymied at the age of her death.
The combination of Beloved's appearance and Sethe's relationship with Paul D leads to revelations about Sethe's horrific plantation experiences in the ironically named Sweet Home. Some things are murky, but shortly before her escape in 1855, while pregnant with Denver and still nursing a baby daughter, the young Sethe (played by Lisa Gay Hamilton) is ravaged by a vicious gang of white men, led by the infamous Schoolteacher (Jude Ciccolella—the novel makes clear as the film does not that this character is the Sweet Home plantation overseer). Whether they sexually penetrate her is not revealed, but they certainly violate her, holding her down, stripping her naked and then taking turns suckling from her milk laden nipples. Afterwards, they beat her with a rawhide whip, permanently scarring her back. When she heals, the marks on her back take the vague shape of a tree.
Sethe's flight is dramatized, though not with any particular vividness, and the explanation for why her husband did not accompany her is relegated to a dialogue account delivered by Paul D. But quite clearly Sethe arrives in the free state of Ohio in an exhausted condition of justifiably paranoid confusion. There she takes refuge with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs (the magnificent Beah Richards), but she remains fearful that Schoolteacher will come for her and take her back into slavery.
We have no way of knowing whether Sethe is conscious of the national struggle being waged over slavery in the 1850s, but 1855, the year in which she escapes, is nonetheless of symbolic importance. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 has not only reasserted the right of slave owners to the return of their escaped slaves but requires the assistance in such return of all federal authorities. In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act has overturned the Missouri compromise and opened up the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. And in 1855 a federal appeals court (subsequently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) has ruled in the Dred Scott case that no free status attaches to a former slave by virtue of residence in a Northern state. So if Schoolteacher comes for her, even into the free state of Ohio, he will come with the law on his side. Indeed law enforcement authorities are required to assist in the capture and transportation back to the South of the slaveholder's "property." It is at first frustrating that the film fails to identify clearly the group of whites who do indeed make an appearance at Baby Suggs' home shortly after Sethe's arrival. But eventually we come to understand that what's both enduringly important and, devastatingly tragic is Sethe's now innate fear of white people. Her terror leads her to respond in a way that will in this case literally haunt her.
Morrison's Beloved is so distinctly literary a novel it was long considered ill-suited for translation to the screen and, strive mightily though they have here, the filmmakers' efforts cannot be judged an unqualified success. Fans of the novel will surely miss important scenes at Sweet Home which have not been included in the film. And in other ways the final cut sometimes proves disconcertingly elusive. Moreover, I don't quite understand why the ever youthful Winfrey chose not to play the Sethe in flight from Sweet Home (though Hamilton stands in for her ably). The acting here is uniformly fine, though few year-end honors have been directed toward such worthies as Glover and Elise. In fact, to my astonished consternation, Newton's work as Beloved has met with mixed reviews. I found her performance in a very difficult role astonishingly courageous and devoid of vanity, the very kind of selfless acting that great players rise to.
In the final analysis, though, Beloved is memorable for the daring, painful things Morrison says in her book and Demme and his collaborators bring to the screen. The horror of slavery lives on even after the slave is free and the institution is defunct. The license of slavery stole the milk of black generations to come. Sethe's children don't die of starvation; they die of second-hand trauma, of terror passed from mother to child. Sometimes they die of a spiritual malnutrition that manifests itself in shattered families, irresponsible pregnancies, fundamental lack of self-control. Sometimes they die of violence perpetrated by loved ones. This is why Beloved's time line is a soup of past and present. The past isn't dead when its implications carry on into an indefinite future. Beloved is a metaphorical horror story, but not one devoid of hope. Denver's agoraphobia is finally faced, and she takes her place in the world. There she will continue to face the indignities of racism, but there she will also be assisted by a black community selflessly skilled in nurturing across family lines.
And, of course, Sethe edges her own way toward the peace of self-acceptance. The choice of her name is no accident, a feminization of the Biblical Seth, third son of Adam, and after Adam the father of humankind as described in the fifth chapter of Genesis. Sethe is the metaphorical mother of African America. She lives with ghosts of slavery and ghosts of freedom. She is haunted both by what was done to her and what she did in response. Crucially, though, Sethe endures. She is not always clear-headed, she is sometimes guilty of misjudgment, and she does not always make the right choices. She suffers greatly, but in the agony of suffering she continues. In the face of calamity she invents herself as a free person. And in a world where slavery's past lives on in the stubbornly racist present, this perhaps sadly remains the challenge of all whose ancestors were brought to these shores in chains.
But a picture of such bracing insights and artistic daring stumbles at the box office and ends up in critical limbo, dismissed by some, faintly praised by others, championed by few. The public clearly prefers the escapism of Enemy of the State; the pundits endorse a trifle like The Truman Show. And my wife wonders why I'm so persistently grumpy.