TO EACH HIS OWN (Mitchell Leisen, 1946).
A small town girl (Olivia de Havilland) falls in love with a World
War I flier (John Lund). He dies, she has his baby out of wedlock, and
her scheme to adopt the child goes wrong, with her son ending up in
the custody of another woman.
In Hollywood, the "woman's picture" was a recognized genre, and a subcategory,
dismissively labeled "the weepie" had a long and successful history.
Women in these films suffer enormous losses, going to the limits of
their endurance. The idea of a mother having to love her child from
afar, without the child knowing who its mother is, had been mined before,
notably in Edmund Goulding's The
Old Maid (1939), with Bette Davis. The narrative material is
obviously shaped in order to wring the audience's melodramatic heart.
And yet, there has always been something in this idea that resonates
with the truth of women's lives - the experience of powerlessness, the
frustration of one's dreams by the imperatives of society, all the pain
- not always present to conscious awareness, certainly - of being in
a subordinate position. Combine all this with the unbending strength
of a mother's love, and you have a potent brew which can cause even
the jaded to weep.
The underrated director Mitchell Leisen, one of Paramount's finest
talents, provides the same smooth, precise style that he gave his comedies.
The story is by the veteran screenwriter Charles Brackett, who also
produced the film and co-wrote the script with Jacques Théry.
Despite the essential banality of the material, the film never stumbles
into a false tone or unearned bathos. It's entertaining and involving
from beginning to end. The treatment of illegitimacy is refreshingly
liberal. Brackett doesn't impute immorality to his heroine at all -
society's fear of scandal is seen for what it is, and no more. The film
affirms her choices as valid and doesn't punish her for them. In that
respect, the picture is quite modern, a step forward in the depiction
of women in film.
De Havilland's valiant legal battle against Jack Warner was about to
end in triumph for her - and great benefit for future actors who would
be free of exploitative studio contracts because of her stand. This
movie was her first effort to stretch beyond the sweet girl typecasting
she had been stuck with. It begins in World War II London, with de Havilland
made up to look fiftyish. A chance to see her son, who still doesn't
know she's his mother, evokes the flashback that makes up the greater
part of the film. She's rather good as a middle aged woman, and in fact
quite competent at playing her character at several different ages,
although she really hadn't developed the range that she would show in
some of her later pictures.
When her son appears as an adult, he is played by John Lund, the same
actor who played her doomed lover earlier. I found this rather strange,
even a little creepy, although I suppose it points up the similarities
in the quality of the heroine's devotion to lover and son. It doesn't
help that Lund's performance as the son is a bit awkward (this was his
screen debut). But it does help that Roland Culver is on hand as an
English lord who befriends de Havilland - in the plot he plays the role
of a fairy godfather, wrapping things up in a way that only a curmudgeon
could fail to appreciate.
I have to admit that I have a hard time opening myself up to the pleasures
of a "weepie" - the way the women in these stories suffer, suffer, and
then suffer some more, seems almost like a form of sadism. But as with
any genre, one needs to accept the conventions in order to appreciate
the real meanings that are there. In To Each His Own, the sufferer
is able to learn something from her mistakes and misfortunes, growing
past her grief and distress into a kind of wisdom. The picture has style,
but also a sincerity of sentiment that gives it distinction.
THE TALL T (Budd Boetticher, 1957).
Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) has just bought a piece of land to start
his own ranch, when he loses his horse to his former boss in a bull
riding wager. He hitches a ride with a stage (in which one of the passengers
is Maureen O'Sullivan), but they are then held up by a band of vicious
outlaws headed by Richard Boone.
For those used to the grand style of John Ford, or the toughness of
Anthony Mann, a Boetticher Western might come as a surprise. The tone
is quiet and thoughtful, with a pace that seems naturalistic in its
attention to ordinary details and ways of talking. Burt Kennedy wrote
the script from an Elmore Leonard story. The dialogue is laconic, direct,
sometimes drily humorous. And there's just something different about
a Randolph Scott hero. No tough guy stance, no menace, no white hatted
virtue either. He is an able, good-humored, compassionate man who is
capable of fear and admits it, and just does what he can to keep himself
and others alive.
I especially like the first section of the picture, which takes its
time setting up the main character and the story. The movie just rambles
along, perfectly at ease in its depiction of little conversations and
incidents, until you are lulled into a pleasant state of relaxation,
only to be rudely awakened by the sudden appearance of evil in the person
of Boone and his two henchman (one of them played by the truly psycho
looking Henry Silva). The plot, such as it is, then begins.
The situation is tense - Brennan and the two passengers held prisoner
by outlaws, who have already murdered three people and will probably
murder them eventually if they don't do something. I can't say that
the film gets as much out of the situation as it might have. The duel
between two views of life represented by Scott (fairness and honesty)
and Boone (cynicism and self-interest) is made interesting because of
the Boone character's charm and his reluctant admiration for Scott,
which speaks of a desire for redemption. The film's climax brings up
urgent moral questions. Unfortunately they are not faced, but sidestepped
in a narrative sleight-of-hand that left me unsatisfied. Nevertheless
The Tall T is a modest, well-made Western with a rare feeling
NOAM CHOMSKY AND THE MEDIA
(Mark Achbar & Peter Wintonick, 1992).
A portrait of the noted linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky,
focusing on his views about how information is presented through the
major media in the United States. Chomsky argues that the TV networks,
big newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and other
major media outlets such as the Associated Press, all select and present
the news in ways that coincide with the world view and interests of
the corporations that own them, thereby marginalizing ordinary citizens
and helping to control possible dissent from this corporate ideology.
This is conceptualized not as some sort of conspiracy, but as institutional
analysis, similar to the way one would say that a corporation such as
GM always seeks to maximize profits.
Chomsky is a persuasive speaker - articulate and even-tempered - and
the film succeeds very well in conveying his ideas. The filmmakers follow
him around the world on his speaking engagements, and they splice together
sections of talks in order to highlight certain aspects of his thought.
This technique, plus some creative use of visual demonstration (such
as, for example, showing how much print was spent on Cambodia in comparison
to East Timor by rolling two tape measures across a floor) helps the
film avoid the tedium of the usual talking head approach. Sometimes,
though, their flashiness gets the better of them. Attempts to make fun
of the quick-cutting, attention-getting devices of the media sometimes
come off as condescension. Overall, a lot of information is imparted,
and I would recommend watching the film (almost three hours long) in
two parts, if possible, the better to absorb the material.
Chomsky's criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, and his analysis of media
complicity, are of course controversial. The film does give time to
some of his opponents, and it also explores the notorious incident of
Chomsky's supposed forward to a book by a Holocaust denier. In the end,
though, the portrait is a positive one, and that's clearly and consciously
the way the film was intended. I happen to agree with a lot of what
Chomsky says, but I recommend the film to sceptics as well, if only
to stimulate thought and discussion. Questioning authority is a grand
American tradition. The notion, which has become dominant since the
end of World War II, that criticizing the government is unpatriotic,
is not really very American at all. It seems to have been adopted from
the Soviet Union - anticommunism mirroring the traits of its enemy.
If nothing else, Manufacturing Consent may induce a needed correction
in one's tendency to accept what we are told at face value.
THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT
(Peter Greenaway, 1982).
In late 17th century England, a noted draughtsman (Anthony Higgins)
reluctantly agrees to make twelve drawings of a great estate, intended
by the estate's mistress (Janet Suzman) as a present to her husband,
who is away on a journey. However, as a condition of employment, the
artist insists on having his "way" with the lady on a daily basis. The
work proceeds, but various details in the drawings seem to indicate
a pattern, perhaps clues to a murder.
Greenaway's first narrative feature, after over a decade of experimental
shorts and documentaries, is an intellectual puzzle, a satiric look
at the relationships between artists, patrons and audience. By setting
the story some three centuries ago, the director allows his points to
be made more simply, without the complex entanglements of the modern
art world. This is the age of the epigram, and the script (written by
Greenaway) sometimes attains the tone, if not the wit, of the Augustan
period, the time of Dryden and Pope.
The film's portrait of aristocracy is rather grotesque - the elaborate
costumes and wigs dresssing up attitudes of venality and malice. I think
an assured and vigorous style could have pulled all this off, but Greenaway's
rhythm and camera placement are dull and commonplace. Most of the time
he just frames the actors in medium shot and has them speak their lines.
The result is dry and spiritless - the only real interest is in listening
to the haughty declamations of Mr. Neville, the draughtsman, a character
whose total self-confidence, indeed his astounding arrogance, in the
face of all opposition, is sometimes entertaining. Higgins does well
in the part. He doesn't get much help from the director.
When the plot's elaborate mystery is finally solved, the viewer can
be forgiven for yawning. There is no reason to care. The film's misanthropy
is not really the culprit - I could imagine a production with more verve
that could portray the characters as equally contemptible and still
succeed. The Draughtman's Contract falters because its style
fails to live up to the potential of its story. Satire needs energy
in order to work. Perhaps some of the fault can be attributed to a low
budget. The production values - photography, sound - are decidedly middle
grade. But I suspect that it is also due to inexperience on the part
of the director, who went on to more impressive achievements later.
YAABA (Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1989).
In a small African village, a boy (Noufou Ouedraogo) is drawn to an
old woman (Fatimata Sanga), despite her ostracism by the village as
a witch. Defying his strict father, he makes friends with her, calling
her "Yaaba" (grandmother).
The film is from Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in West Africa,
and set in that country's great expanse of grassland. The village lives
very simply, in thatched huts, subsisting on grain and cattle farming.
It is a tight-knit community, but Ouedraogo's portrait is by no means
idealistic. Neighbors bicker; couples argue and blame one another; a
wife cheats on her alcoholic husband. In an atmosphere of control and
superstition, the boy is something of a rebel and misfit - going where
he shouldn't go, always testing the boundaries of what he's allowed
to say or do. It's an interesting view of life in a very small town
- and ultimately, in spite of obstacles, an affirming one.
The director was fortunate in his choice of the boy who plays Bila,
the main character. The young man is a most engaging performer - charming
and mischievous. (I don't know if he is Ouedraogo's son or relation
- the last name seems to be common there.) There are relaxed, humorous
scenes between him and his girl cousin, who is always vowing never to
speak to him again.
The picture is beautifully shot, edited and performed, with production
values as high as any film made in the West. It's a story about Africans,
for Africans, in the sense that it doesn't aspire to any overt political
statements, yet the tale and its import are accessible to anyone. Ouedraogo's
message is sweet and simple. Not only is it good for the health of our
culture to value the elders and the traditions they represent, it is
actually necessary for our survival. The child has not been hardened
enough to judge by appearances - he senses the goodness of the old woman
even though she is an outcast, and he is able to reach beyond the prejudices
of his environment, helping his village in the process. Simple, perhaps
even a bit simplistic, but in the end as satisfying as only the deepest
truths can be.
©2001 Chris Dashiell