Sunday, October 31, 2010

Robert Mulligan | To Kill a Mockingbird / Peter Masterson | The Trip to Bountiful / Bruce Beresford | Tender Mercies

Horton Foote

from To Kill a Mockingbird

from To Kill a Mockingbird

from To Kill a Mockingbird

from The Trip to Bountiful

from Tender Mercies

from Tender Mercies

by Douglas Messerli

As I mention below, the death of Horton Foote on March 4th, 2009 sent me back to three screenplays he had written: To Kill a Mockingbird, based on a novel by Harper Lee, The Trip to Bountiful, and Tender Mercies, the latter two emanating from his own pen.

Foote is the kind of man who, as one of my favorite film guides, Time Out, describes him, is seen as "admirable." Harper Lee reportedly said of his face something to the effect: "He looks the way God should, only he's clean shaven." The films I selected to write about are immensely popular, most of them winning awards, two of them being mentioned recently in The Los Angeles Times in their list of 10 best "Comfort Films," films they claim to be as appealing in our economically hard times as comfort food.

Finally, I had enjoyed all three films on which I have chosen to write, having seen the first two of them several times.

How to explain, then, the essays that follow, in which I basically dismiss them for representing the status quo or, at least, a diminishment of life? Chalk it up, perhaps, to my curmudgeonly shift into older age. Or, perhaps, as I have aged I simply do not have as simple-minded notions about life and happiness as I did in my youth.

As I wrote early on in this series of My Year volumes: "I seek no agreement with what I put forth and often have skewered my perceptions of things in order to explore issues that most interest me."

Looking at that kindly face—he does sort of look like a god, if you believe in a white god—I am sure that Horton Foote was admirable, kind even, caring, loving, well meaning. But I still don't think I could live a world created by him.


Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960)
Horton Foote (screenplay), based on the novel by Harper Lee, Robert Mulligan (director) To Kill a Mockingbird / 1962

Almost every American school child and millions of adults know Harper Lee's American classic novel and the film, scripted by Horton Foote, based on the novel. As Joseph Crespino wrote in an essay in 2000: "In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism." Lee's novel and the film, moreover, are etched in American consciousness; the racial violence of 1936 in the small town Alabama it recounts dovetailed perfectly with the changes occurring in American minds and the radical challenges of Southern prejudice which became a major issue of the 1960s. And in this sense the book, perhaps, effected more middle-class Americans than any other of its time. Even at a personal level, I remember being impressed when my mother, who read primarily Romances, hosted a book club during this period; my father, brother, sister, and I were consigned to the basement, but I recall creeping up to the doorway, listening in as one book club member dramatically read the scene in which lawyer Atticus Finch is spat upon by the evil Bob Ewell on a downtown Maycomb, Alabama street. When the movie premiered, I was in attendance.

I believe I first read the book a few years later, in 1964, while living in Norway. I recall devouring it in a single afternoon, wiping away the tears as I completed its last pages. There was no question in my mind that it was extremely sentimental—for most of that year I had been reading the works of Thomas Hardy and Henrik Ibsen—but I recognized it for its high moral tone and its gentle nostalgia nonetheless.

With the news of the screenplay writer Horton Foote's death on March 4th, I decided to revisit both the novel and picture. For the most part, Foote's adaptation of Lee's book is successful, if far moodier and grittier than the more comedic original. Indeed Harper Lee was said to have been pleased with Foote's version. But that is not to say there are no crucial differences between film and novel.

Mulligan's black and white images, helped by Elmer Bernstein's brooding but lyrical score, creates a darker tone than the novel evokes. And Foote's decisions to focus the action on the Finch house, the courtroom, and the back country lanes where the Ewells and Robinsons live, along with his deletion of characters such as Aunt Alexandra and the larger role in the novel played by their childhood friend Dill (based on Truman Capote), further isolates the Finch and Radley families from what is clearly a highly bigoted community. It is almost as if, in Foote's version, Atticus and the children are not given leave to walk the streets of Maycomb. The children's two outings are a nighttime scramble to protect their father from a lynching mob and a hidden attendance in the Black only upstairs gallery of the courthouse proceedings. Even Ewell's open act of hatred, his spitting upon Atticus's face on a downtown street now occurs in front of the Robinson's shack. Given Atticus's moral separation and their neighbor Boo Radley's secretive ways, there is almost a claustrophobic quality to Jem and Scout's life in Foote's rewriting of the work.

That sense of isolation, moreover, changes everything by pitting the people on the Finch's street against the entire community (epitomized by Scout's several school yard scuffles), a fact emblematized in the appearance of a rabid dog, clearly wandering into their cul de sac from some other part of town. To the children's surprise, their father—who notably refuses to play baseball with the other city fathers—shoots the animal dead, amazingly protecting his loved ones.
Similarly, when Ewell attacks the Finch children (Ewell's attacks in the novel also include Tom Robinson's wife), their neighbor Boo, like the father, comes to their rescue. It is notable that the sheriff of this hateful town, argues against his lawful duty, proclaiming that the truth—the fact that Boo Radley has killed Bob Ewell—would harm the mentally retarded man:

I never heard tell it was against the law for any citizen to do his utmost to
prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did. But
maybe you'll tell me it's my duty to tell the town all about it and not to
hush it up. Well you know what'll happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb
including my wife will be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.
To my way of thinking, taking the one man who's done you and this town
a big service and dragging him with his shy ways into the limelight—it's a
sin. And I'm not about to have it on my head. ...Bob Ewell fell on his knife.

Like the figures of the musical Oklahoma! described in My Year 2003, the authorities of this southern town decide to bend truth, something very near to what Scout has earlier on defined (mistakenly, so Atticus insists) as a "compromise."

Frankly, given the outcome of Tom Robinson's trial, we may find it hard to imagine that the "good" ladies of Maycomb would award the murderer of Bob Ewell, who has evidently convinced their kind that his daughter has been raped by a Black man. Is it any wonder then that Tom Robinson, despite Atticus's advice to "not lose faith," runs "like a rabbit" to escape the police? The fact that he is shot and killed, despite the deputy's proclamation that he meant just to wound him, is, perhaps, inevitable.

Given the events of both film and novel, particularly the more enfolded fiction of Foote's script, it is clear that—despite any moral lessons and perceptions gleaned by the Finch children and the audiences of this film—the world to which Jem will awaken in the morning (the familiar last lines of both novel and film being the adult Scout's words about her father: "He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning") is no better than the one in which he was nearly killed that night. Atticus Finch may represent a hero, but his actions in such an isolate world, have little effect. And in that respect, the film embraces the status quo, and the moral indignation of the readers of Lee's classic and the viewers of the Mulligan/Foote adaptation can only represent a kind of righteous pat on the liberal back.

While it may be true that there were no real alternatives in 1936, and that both novel and the film merely reiterate the truth of that reality, it is the imitation of the facts, the bland realism boiled up with heavy doses of nostalgia and romance, that ultimately disturbs me. Perhaps a more passionate response might be a fantasy where one could celebrate change.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2009


Horton Foote (screenplay) based on his play, Peter Masterson (director) The Trip to Bountiful / 1985

Based on his 1953 television play, Horton Foote's film, The Trip to Bountiful is, as The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby wrote in 1985, "a richly detailed film," "exquisitely performed" by the great actress Geraldine Page, a role for which she won Academy Award for best actress.

The story, like most of Foote's writings, is a simple one: one day in 1947 Carrie Watts, an elderly woman now living in Houston with her detestable daughter-in-law Jessie Mae and her unimaginative son Ludie, escapes their constant admonitions—Carrie is told time and again by Jessie Mae not to run through her daily chores, to stop singing her "out of style" hymns, and to stop rifling through Jessie Mae's dresser drawers—and their attentive watch over her—more determined during the time of month when Carrie's social security check is due. As Jessie Mae goes about her daily chores, consisting primarily of shopping and sipping cokes with her friends at the local drug store, Carrie bolts, first to the train station (where she attempts to buy a ticket to the now-nonexistent stop at Bountiful) and then to the bus station, where with the help of a young woman rider, Thelma, she eludes her guardians and is able to get aboard the bus.

Thelma and Carrie's journey to Harrison, the nearest stop to Bountiful, is the perfect time to establish Carrie's character, and through a mix of garrulous historicity, shy inquisitiveness, and gentle poetic wonderments, Page displays her dramatic range in time for the bus to arrive in Harrison, twelve miles from her goal.

Carrie was born and lived most of her life on a farming community, where, it appears, the last of the inhabitants has recently died, a place where Carrie will be unable to reach before her son, in a rented car, arrives to return her to "civilization." Unlike most of the small town policeman we encounter in film and television, however, the Sheriff of Harrison is a friendly authority who agrees to drive her out to Bountiful. Carrie's encounter with the old homestead is a mix of pure joy and total dismay, as she recalls the "bountiful" life she lived there along with memories of the loss of a child and the hard times she and her family faced, all intertwined with her recognition that "when you live longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough."

Even the old cannot go home, and when Ludie finally arrives, it is with complete acceptance that Carrie readies herself for her return. Ludie, at first, is resistant to any notion of a nostalgic past, but perhaps because of Carrie's joy in simply having been able to accomplish her trip, he finally is able to admit that he too has some good memories of the place. Afraid of dirtying her shoes, Jessie Mae has remained in the car, and when she does trot out to demand that her husband and mother-in-law return to the city, she has nothing to offer but another litany of do's and don'ts.
With one final scratch of the hard soil Carrie is ready to return home to Houston. As in many of Foote's works, the status quo is restored. Once again, we have, along with the characters, experienced a mild catharsis in the form of small psychological revelations, but nothing has truly changed—except perhaps for an even more determined imprisonment of Carrie Watts, while her trip to Bountiful will no longer be a dream of possibility, but simply another remnant of a failed past.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2009


Horton Foote (screenplay), Bruce Beresford (director) Tender Mercies / 1983

Two years before The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote wrote and directed what was perhaps his most successful screenplay, which won him an Academy Award. Like the others of Foote's scripts I describe, the story of Tender Mercies is a simple one, and the actors, particularly Robert Duvall in the role of country-western singer Mac Sledge, are so laconic that at moments there seems to be no story to tell.

Famed country singer Sledge has fallen into an alcoholic chasm, destroying his marriage to fellow country singer Dixie Scott (played by Betty Buckley) and alienating him from his daughter, Sue Anne, whom he has not seen in over eight years.

As the film begins, Sledge loses even his drinking partner, and is left alone in a rural motel without money or means of transportation. The hotel owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widow with a young son, offers him two days and some food which he parlays into a part time job working in exchange for room, food and $2.00 a day.

Sledge befriends Rosa Lee's boy, Sonny, and a romance between the two adults develops—so quickly, indeed, that we hardly notice it until he announces his desire to marry Rosa Lee; before we have even assimilated that romance, moreover, the two are described as being married. Most of the "action" of this film, in fact, occurs offstage, with the major onstage movements consisting of Rosa Lee ironing and Mac repairing doors, gardening, and traveling into town to pick up seed.

Little by little, however, we piece together his tragic past: a successful singing career that ended in his alcoholically-charged near-murder of his former wife. His new relationship with Rosa Lee, however, is a sustaining one that allows him not only to overcome his alcoholism, but gradually admit that he misses singing and composing, both of which he has continued on the sly. It is clear that without accepting his past, his present identity is in question. As a town local shouts to him: "Hey, mister, where you really Mac Sledge?" His humorous answer reveals his dilemma: "Yes, ma'am, I guess I was."

As word gets out of his whereabouts, journalists and admirers seek him out. While he rejects the former, he accepts the friendship of four local singers, the Slater Mill Boys, to whom he gives permission to perform his song, and with whom he ultimately sings in a local gig. In the offing is a record.

When Dixie performs in nearby Austin, Mac attends the performance, hoping to get a chance to see his estranged daughter, but Dixie furiously sends him away. A few days later the daughter escapes her mother's guard to visit the father, but the silence between them offers neither much to go on. The next day, the daughter runs away with a singer from her mother's band, and soon after is killed, again "offstage," in an automobile accident triggered by her husband's drinking.

The film ends in two long distant shots of Mac and Rosa Lee digging in their garden as he discusses what he sees as the unfairness of life. "I don't trust happiness. I never did, I never will," he proclaims. A few minutes later, however, Sonny discovers a football Sledge has bought him, and the film ends with son and father throwing passes, Rosa Lee fondly smiling, basking in the glow of a normal and good future for her family.

If, as I have argued in my discussions of Foote's other two screenplays, that they end in the status quo, in Tender Mercies we witness a change—a change that the filmmakers apparently perceive as better than the past. Sledge ends up, indeed, as a kind of American Candide, a man who in his grand past suffered in his innocent pride, but who wisely turns to tending his own garden.

I squirm, however, when I think of Sledge basically sacrificing his musical talents and the appreciation that goes with them for the kind of nostalgically evoked America with which Foote rewards him. Although Australian-born Beresford, like the Germans Wim Wenders and Percy Aldon would do in the years following, poetically depicts the American southwest, it is hard for me to see the barren flats around Palmer and Waxahachie, Texas, where the film was shot, as representing a kind of new Eden. And, although, Rosa Lee's house seems to improve in appearance with every scene, it is still a grubby, unpainted shack in the middle of nowhere.

While I know many thousands of viewers will cry their eyes out (I admit it, so did I) at the very thought of father-and-son bonding in football heaven, I find it a long way from anything I might describe as my American dream. In order regain his peace of mind, I would argue, Sledge has had to give up nearly everything, including—the near impossible for a song writer—language itself. Rosa Lee's quiet smile at the end of Tender Mercies sends a shiver through my bones, for in order to survive in her world, Sledge has had to abandon the messiness of a creatively meaningful life.

Los Angeles, March 17, 2009
All three pieces reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2009).
Copyright (c) 2009 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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