15 August 2017

Contested history in films - "The Birth of a Nation"

British historian Suzannah Lipscomb was interested in how film makers did, or did not analyse hist­orical evidence accurately in their films. A review of David Rieff’s book In Praise of Forgetting was rightly scornful of the practicality of forgetting past atrocities, just for modern audiences’ comfort. Remembering, not forgetting, was im­por­tant in the pursuit of recog­nit­ion and restitution and, ultimately, reconciliation.

Two recent films were designed to remember histor­ical atrocities. Both were love stories set against geo­political events. Viceroy’s House by Gurinder Chadha told of the Partition that accompanied the granting of independence to India in 1947, in which a million people died and c12 million were displaced. Bitter Harvest by George Mendeluk recalled one of the least-known tragedies of recent history; the Holod­omor, the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine in which 3-9 million people died.

Both examples achieved one of the purposes of historical films: they left Lipscomb with the desire to know more. But each step has taken her into murkier territory, for both films told contested histories.

For a discussion of the British Raj, Jon Wilson’s fine 2016 book India Conquered, challenged the idea that there was ever a civilising mission. Shashi Tharoor’s new books, Inglor­ious Empire in Britain and An Era of Darkness, gave an even more damning verdict. Viceroy’s House played fair with its depiction of British divide-and-rule policies on one side and growing Hindu-Muslim tensions on the other. It dodged one allegation i.e the affair between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. But it made another i.e that Winston Churchill was personally responsible for the catastrophically shoddy division of British India into India and Pakistan.

Bitter Harvest told an even more charged interpret­at­ion of the past. As the first English-language film, it espoused many historians’ view that the Hol­odomor was genocide by starvat­ion, a man-made famine imposed by Stalin’s collectivisation policies. Soviet and Russian histories, by contrast, consid­ered it to be a tragedy, but not man-made or intentional. This historical interpret­ation was therefore politically loaded and tied to Ukrainian national identity. This film was motivated by a desire to get this atrocity ‘the recognition that history demands’.

The film depicted Stalin as the agent of evil, imp­os­ing starvation on millions because he is frustrated by dis­obedience. What made Lipscomb uneasy was that these things were almost certainly true, but the desire to tell the story in such piebald terms rendered the atrocity almost unbelievable.  Lipscomb wrote the way films remembered historic events was troubling. A film can convey a convincing interpretation that cannot be rebutted or it can make even the truest of events far-fetched.

Poster for the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation
Note the fiery cross of the Ku Klux Klan, in image and text

The Birth of a Nation was an excellent 1915 American silent drama, directed by DW Griffith, with actress Lillian Gish in the lead role. The screenplay was adapted from Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman. The film recounted the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era: one pro-Union and one pro-Confederacy. 

Despite African-American rallies against racism, the film opened in April 1915 to delighted white audiences. So how can we in 2017 know how controversial the film was 102 years ago, for its port­rayal of black men as unintell­ig­ent and sexually aggres­sive towards white women? Was the film’s por­trayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force truly believed back then? Apparently yes.

Certainly Rev Thomas Dixon's 1905 book The Clansmen paid warm tribute to the Ku Klux Klan. And the director DW Griffith was also an admirer of the Klan. As Griffith said in his auto-biography and as he championed in the film: “The members of the Klan ran to the rescue of the downtrodden South after the Civil War.” The actress Lillian Gish explained “The idea was to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn't been told accurately in history books”.

We have to assume from contemporary documents that the film's storyline was mostly accepted as histor­ically accurate. To reinforce this view, a message from Griffith flickered on the screen as the orchestra started: "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Recon­struction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today."

The KKK was delighted! The film's release was cred­ited as being a factor that stimulated the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain Georgia. Along with a 1913 trial and lynching in Atlanta, this film was specifically used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. To celebrate the opening of The Birth of a Nation, a dramatic Rev William Simmons took 15 racist whites up Stone Mountain, made declarations about purity and honour, then lit a cross and re-ign­ited the KKK. “The occasion will be remembered long by the participants,” the Atlanta Constitution boomed, “KLAN IS ESTABLISHED WITH IMPRESSIVENESS.”

To ban The Birth of a Nation, blacks could not just show that the film knowingly dist­orted African American history. Boston's National Association for the Advance­ment of Coloured People and newspaper editor William Trotter argued that the film was a threat to public safety, it heightened racial tensions and could incite violence. Boston’s mayor responded by holding a public hearing where the mayor claimed he could only censor the film if it was indecent and immoral, but not if it was racist. After the film­maker agreed to cut explicitly sexual scenes, the film opened in Boston.

Ironically the film had one empowering effect against the KKK. Across the country, blacks filed petitions, appealed to legis­latures, met with mayors, picketed theatres and organised protest marches, to ban the film. Even when they failed, the film brought national att­ent­ion to the NAACP and black Americans had an opportunity at least to be heard. And three states did eventually ban the film.

Did the writers of The Birth of a Nation not realise that their presentation of the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan was only one side of a vigorously contested history? I assume they deliberately chose to depict life after the Civil War in a way that glorified Klansmen as the "Saviours of the White South". Since the film makers wanted to attract a large white audience to cinemas across the country, it would have been financially counter-productive and ideolog­ically unsound for them to have remembered historical events more accurately. This 1915 film was therefore as politically loaded, and as tied to just one national identity, as the film Bitter Harvest later became.

12 August 2017

A River Runs Through It - a moving American book and film

Both the book and film A River Runs Through It were set in Missoula Montana. The Maclean brothers, Norman 1902-90 (Craig Sheffer) and Paul 1906–38 (Brad Pitt), lived a rural life in the fresh air of Montana, spending much of their childhood running wherever they liked. The sons of a stoic Scot­tish Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt) and stoic wife (Blenda Blethyn), the boys eventually separated when well behaved Norman moved east to attend college. When Norman finally returned after 6 years away, the siblings resumed family life again.

Maclean grew up in the western Rocky Mountains in the first decades of the C20th. As a young man, he worked many summers in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service. Jessie 1931–1968 (Emily Lloyd) eventually became Norman's pretty and energetic wife in 1931.

 Norman and Paul Maclean, and their father Rev Maclean
in the film A River Runs Through It.

The book, 1976

According to Rev Maclean, fishing provided spiritual education to men. And the natural world really did form an essential motif in the novel, symbolising spiritual power and healing fellow­ship. If you liked Robert Ebert’s view, fishing stood for Life in this film - the river, fish and the natural world were God's gifts to use wisely. I preferred to think that fly fishing stood for Male Bond­ing, esp­ecially where males were not verbally skilled or emotionally open.

A student of Norman Maclean,  Andrew Rosenheim, explained that after deciding to become a lecturer of English literature at the Univ­ersity of Chicago instead of a forest ranger, Norman bonded with his students. They’d walk in the Palos Park Pre­serve in Chicago, sharing literary conversations. But Norman had published almost nothing through­out his career. When his wife Jessie died, Norman was lonely, volatile and drunk. Then his children suggested he recreate their old bedtime stories of Montana.

Thus these Montana stories were written long after Maclean retired. The book, published by Chicago UP in 1976, soon sold very well. At 70 Maclean produced what became a classic C20th American novel.

In the book Paul Maclean was shown to be a talented fly fishermen. I agree with Rosenheim that the spectacle of man engaged with nature was not usually pretty, but Norman managed to show the extraordinary grace of his otherwise messy brother waist deep in the cold, surging waters of the Black­foot River. 

The film, 1991
Redford's film was set in the inter-war era. Serious Nor­man learned to write in to his father's study every morning. The good reverend sent his son back to rewrite the work, until it was correct. Young brother Paul didn’t seem to be burd­en­ed by study, so each afternoon they ran around the countryside tog­ether. A cute young man who drank and gambled too much, Paul was happy stay­ing in Montana all of his life, working for a newspaper. Norman want­ed to lecture in liter­at­ure in a big city university, far from Montana.

The cinematography reflected the natural, lush beauty of the Western states in the early C20th and the towns still looked Victorian. As the boys grew up, they did the shimmy with young flappers and plan­ned their futures. Paul’s rebelliousness was shown in his closeness to a young Indian girl, in defiance of town opinion.

Director Robert Redford said the two boys understood that Rev Maclean's lessons and sermons asked the congregants to behave well. The manual labour was hard, the drinkers and prostitutes cunning, the bushfires dangerous, the public racist and the climate untrust­worthy. But no matter what life brought, they should wade into the uncertain stream and greet events with courage and honesty.

The rural metaphors were not accidental! It was the tale of a male-dominated family in Montana, unable to ever fully express their love for each other in words or hugs. The mother was almost silent, busy making tasty food. The men were much louder and sporty, showing their familial bonds in the outdoors. And learning discipline.

Some of the men in the story looked hopeless. His brother-in-law Neal who was far worse than Paul – drunk, drugged, rude, self centred and a consummate liar. Paul and Neal’s mothers certainly loved their troubled sons, so it was difficult for the viewers to watch these men fall apart. Sometimes there was humour, but it was a sad humour.

Norman was unable to help his brother with gambling debts and alcoholism. The next May, Paul was beaten to death by a revolver handle in a drunken brawl. The whole family was devast­ated but given Paul’s history, no one was shocked.

Montana landscape
shown in the film

Many years ago I decided to never see a film first and then read the subsequent book second. Even if the film was well done, a film can never recreate the original author’s motivations and insights. It is not that I didn’t enjoy the film A River Runs Through It; I did! But I would have hated to not fully appreciate Maclean’s vision first.

Dan’s Reviews said that this was one of the most significant books in his life. It spoke to a subterranean level of spirituality that he believed all people possess, but men find nearly impossible to express. I would not use the word spirituality, but I agree the book addressed men’s yearning in a subtle, emotional way. Few films could manage that.

And another thing. I normally do not enjoy the use of the first person narrating books and films. The characters and events tend to be seen exclus­ive­ly through the eyes of the narrator, reducing the world. This film chronicled their intertwin­ing and often conflicting lives, focusing only on Norman's perspective. However Maclean won my heart at the beginning: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

Personal narratives are only useful when viewers/readers can share them. Older brother Norman was constantly filled with a frustrating sense of helplessness concerning his loved baby brother and with his unloved brother in law. I understood totally ☹

Paul was arrested for drunken­ness and brawling more than once, and the family knew he had large gambling debts. Norman tried to intervene, failing every time. Then in 1938 Paul was found murdered, his body dumped in a bar’s alley. Decades later the elderly Norman Maclean still needed to under­stand the tragedy of his brother’s death, to honour him, and to thank the late Reverend for his fatherly wisdom.

08 August 2017

"Hot Milk" by Deborah Levy - short listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize

Born in South Africa in 1959, Deborah Levy’s family exiled themselves to London in 1968 as opponents of Apartheid. She started writing poems, plays and novels in the 1980s. Her 2011 novel, Swimming Home, a dark fable about a famous poet holidaying in the French Riviera, was eventually published after having been turned down by mainstream publishers. It went on to be nominated for the Man Booker prize. Last year she published a collection of short stories, Black Vodka. Now Penguin is reprinting her old novels.

Swimming Home depicted a sun-bleached, Mediterranean setting; explor­ations of troubled familial bonds, of sexuality and an examination of exile. Hot Milk shared these themes and obsessions with Swimming Home.

Levy’s Hot Milk 2016 (publisher Hamish Hamilton) sounded like an ironic title, given the connect­ion with cosy and bland toddler food. Yet Sofia  Papastergiadis was spending a night­mare holid­ay in a rented beach house with her mother Rose, in southern Spain. Rose had voluntarily re-mortgaged her London flat to live in Spain, to be­come a patient at a famous clinic run by a man called Dr Gómez. But her daughter-slave Sofia involuntarily had to abandon her PhD in anthropology, to work instead as a barrista in a London cafe.

Image of a lithe young woman in a red bikini
on the cover of Hot Milk by Deborah Levy 
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, 2016

Despite Dr Gómez’s clinic being built from rich material, there seemed to be no other patients being cared for. So why did the doctor need more staff? His daughter worked just as intensely with the patient(s) as Gomez did.

Dr Gomez treated ailments by unknown means, perfectly sensible since Rose was an arrangement of rapidly changing ailments. But could Dr Góm­ez cure the mysterious paralysis that confined Rose to a wheel chair and bound her daughter with chains of control and dependency? There was no clear cure in the book – only strange assertions from a doctor who might have been a charlatan; a relentlessly noisy dog on the beach that was forever chained up; boiling hot sun and a sea full of medusas i.e poisonous jellyfish.

Only the sea offered relief from Almeria’s summer sun but the sea was infested with medusa jelly fish. Note that in Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster, a winged female with living, venomous snakes in place of hair. Gazers upon her hideous face would turn to stone. Did the elusive, alien jellyfish in Spanish waters (and in this novel) refer to the ancient and monstrous Greek Medusa? Sofia was badly stung on her very first day in the sea!!

The 25 year old threw a vase on the floor in Almeria. The vase was a replica of an ancient Greek krater, a bogus reminder of Rose’s ex-husband and Sofia’s Greek father, Christos Papastergiadis. He was the man who had aban­d­­oned mother and daughter when Sofia was a toddler. Sofia looked at the shattered vase and saw the ruins that were once a whole civil­isation, an image of her mother’s shattered life. And her own! Sofia’s trip to Spain with her mother marked a shattering of her life, a life that has been on hold because of her mother’s moment by moment demands. 

In Spain Sofia became closely involved with a German seamstress, In­grid Bauer, whose body was long and hard like an autobahn. I wond­ered why the enticing Ingrid was included in the story - to test Sofia’s sex­ual­ity, or to present more stinging of her damaged heart and body?

Medusa of Greek literature  (above)         Medusa jellyfish, Spain (below)

Sofia was floating through her life, like the slimy medusa jellyfish that drove the tourists away from the white-hot beach. When Sofia was stung by those despicable jellyfish, a young medical student called Juan looked after her injury – and her sexual needs as well.

It came as a shock when Sofia suddenly deserted her mother in Spain to visit her estranged elderly father in Greece. If her father had truly been a wealthy man, why did he limit Sofia to a storeroom with no window and a temporary camp bed? Why did he have to marry a second wife who was barely out of her teens and start a second family in economically impoverished Athens? If he couldn’t love his first daughter, was he going to love his second baby daughter?

I was sadder reading about Sofia’s negligent father than I was read­ing about her manipulative mother. While her mother’s relentless and demanding illnesses overwhelmed Sofia’s life, her father’s new family wiped out her own past. Erica Wagner added another thought. What Sofia had built in the present, with Ingrid, Juan and Dr Gómez, was unstable and could pour away like sand at any moment.

Sofia’s life had been on hold because of her mother’s incessant demands and her confusion of her mother with herself. So to me Hot Milk was a powerful novel of the interior life, using the mother-daughter relationship to explore the nature of the feminine. But I disagree with Helen Elliot that this novel is as luscious, cruel and funny as it is revelatory. It is cruel and revelatory, but not funny!

I read the book only 18 months after my beloved mother died. Thankfully the book was easy to read, as well as being rich with meaning, research with truth and identity. However I am still not sure that the terrible jellyfish stings that made Sofia’s Spanish life a misery were not equally as painful for the reader. If the female reader loved her mother, or even if she did not, be warned: it is difficult not to absorb the mother’s suffering, just as Sofia did.

I personally agree with what Deborah Levy said about her own love of swimming. “I swim every day. It's good for thought-drifts and suits novel writing”. Especially with emotional, and sometimes toxic characters.