Come Home : Junebug : a Review

In Flannery O’Connor’s seminal lecture Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction she uses the expression “Christ-haunted” to describe the South. Since first reading this, I have been haunted by this idea of Christ-hauntedness. She goes on to say that the Southerner “who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” For the unbeliever this divine umbra can leap out at any moment and confront him with disastrous truths; you were made, he reigns on high, your life will never be the same. Southern filmmakers no less than Southern writers -if I may hazard a generality- are apt to cast the strange shadows and derelict numinosity of Christendom.

MCDJUNE EC009

Junebug (2005) is a Southern Gothic Drama about Madeline, an exotically educated art dealer in Chicago, who travels to North Carolina with her husband George to woo an artist and meet her in-laws. The meeting with the artist goes well, but her success runs dry as she encounters the pride and prejudice of her husband’s family.

Peg, George’s mother, who might be indelicately described as a battle ax in a broom closet, does not take a shining to Madeline. Put off by Madeline’s skinniness, Peg doesn’t even need to hear the British accent before turning the cold shoulder to her. At the end of the film the most she can muster toward her is that “she’s got beautiful hands,” which is a dig on her inability to work with them. Eugene, the father, is pleasantly anonymous and stands up for Madeline only so far.

The chief wound to the family is George’s brother, Johnny. Unhappily married to his highschool sweetheart, unhappily forced to move back in with his parents, unhappily compared to his brighter, better looking brother, Johnny labors mightily to show how nonplussed he is by his brother’s success and beautiful wife. He carries his old wounds and bitter jealousies as badly as the moustache on his face.

Madeline blunders through the various familial landmines, unaccustomed to the fine Southern tradition of letting sleeping grudges lie. If not for Johnny’s resplendently pregnant wife Ashley (the Oscar nominated role of Amy Adams), Madeline would have no allies at all since even George abandons her to the pitfalls. Ashley declares her love for her immediately and demonstrates it by taking the blame for a knickknack accidentally broken by Madeline. She is determined to not only win over the family for Madeline, but to win Madeline as her bestest friend along the way.

The director Phil Morrison provides an accurate picture of the South without the overweening grit and buttery oddness that mars most Hollywood films set in the South. Without belaboring accents or belittling the side characters, he pegs his setting with an array of well-wrought details; like a man in his workshop humming to let the bickerers upstairs know he can hear them, like the endless and aimless tinkering with a vehicle, like a wife needling and maneuvering her husband to “say something” but never overstepping her bounds or disrespecting his authority.

The story is about outsiders. Madeline is the initial outsider. She’s the agnostic, Japan born daughter of an English diplomat dropped into a fiercely southern Christian family. The artist she hopes to sign is David Wark, an outsider artist (a term for untrained artists) who paints violent, racially charged, Civil War themed battle scenes with soldiers shooting bullets out of their prodigiously large sexual organs. Above the carnage are banners with scripture that has been mediated to him by an angel only he can hear.

Johnny is an outsider in his own family. He is shown happy only at work where he jokes and laughs and talks about football. At home he broods, and barks at his wife, killing the day smoking and watching television. At some point the status of outsider is born by every character.

Throughout the film the camera has withdrawn from the action to fall into vacant rooms. We hear the sounds of fun or fighting, we hear life through the walls, along the outside, as though there’s a presence, a haunting. In these moments there’s a yearning to return. These regressions into an absence is like an invitation. Return. At the center of the film is a song that speaks to this very thing. At the potluck George is asked by the minister to sing for them. George takes up a hymnal and begins an a cappella rendition of Jesus is Calling.

Come home! come home!
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

The viewer is constantly called somewhere and here in the middle of this film Jesus is calling, “Come home, O sinner.”

junebugpic1

Peg’s eyes water, singing along, Madeline marvels at this unseen side of her husband. It is clear that George has not mentioned to her whatever shred of faith he still bears. She skips church. At the potluck when the pastor prayers over the family she observes the bowed heads with a mixture of interest and discomfort. When she finds Eugene’s lost screwdriver and he mentions that he’d done some screwing in that room, she laughs assuming a crude pun. She is an outsider in every way.

Crisis comes for Madeline when she finds out that someone is trying to poach her artist and Ashley goes into labor. Madeline must choose between family or her career, to join the family or reaffirm her outside status.

The same is true of Johnny, to whom she is implicitly compared with throughout the film. It may seem odd that the successful, brilliant and beautiful woman is mirrored in the sullen, stupid and insecure Johnny, but the connection to him comes in realizing that of everyone in the house only they fail to create. George is self-made wunderlad, Eugene is a woodworker, Peg has her crafts and sewing and then there are the two uber-creators David Wark and the pregnant Ashley. Madeline, as an art-dealer, and Johnny, who works in the shipping of a store called Replacements Ltd, trade the work of others, contributing nothing.

The question of Madeline’s fertility comes up numerous times; they sleep in what will become the baby’s room, between cradle and crib, they make love night after night, but it is clear that she’s not interested in having children. In a movie titled after the chosen name of Ashley’s unborn child, the act of creation through children is key.

The reversals come fast at the end. What has looked like a totally fractured family at the end is renewed, and it is Madeline and George whose fairytale romance is at crossroads. The honeymoon is over, after six months of sex and swooning they have hit their first rough patch. George confesses to his mother that his wife will “discover all [his] faults sooner or later.” Ashley’s counsel to her husband holds true for everyone in the film, “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way.” This call is stretched out over the whole film and the characters divide into those who will attempt to change and those who will remain locked in their prejudices. The trajectory for George and Madeline seems ominous. As they leave the Christ-haunted South the spell wanes and George says “I’m so glad to be out of there.”

large junebug blu-ray3x

Prince Avalanche : a Review

David Gordon Green, with his debut feature George Washington ensconced in the Criterion Collection, seemed poised to be the next great American filmmaker. His second feature, All the Real Girls, built on that promise, launching careers and further superlatives, and his third, Undertow, was produced by his hero and reigning American auteur Terrence Malick. His career as the next serious filmmaker seemed set until a string of studio pot-smokin comedies, Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter, befuddled those following his career. In Prince Avalanchehe has returned to his indie roots, eschewing the loud zaniness of the likes of Seth Rogan, James Franco and Jonah Hill for the more subdued antics of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch.

tumblr_m1lwv7ido71r8vcffo1_5001

Prince Avalanche, based on the Icelandic film Either Way by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, is set in central Texas in the summer of 1988 after a forest fire requires the repainting of traffic lanes along interminable and winding country roads. Alvin, played by Paul Rudd, has taken the dull task with aplomb, filling the hours with German language tapes and reflections of solitude. His partner, and potential brother-in-law, Lance (Hirsch) is far less enthused at being away from the city and its “fresh” parties and increasingly becomes an irritant to his sister’s boyfriend.

The movie is shot by Green’s collaborator Tim Orr whose eye is constantly being drawn away by rabbit trails: shots of charred forest, blossoms and bugs. This habit gives such a focused and simple story a wider scope, a beckoning to the grander scale. Hinting at a renewal of life all along the margins despite destruction.

The tale, ostensibly, is a coming-of-middle-age story, wherein the two characters grapple with love.; Lance, in his flighty post-teen adulthood, is keen on the physical act. At the beginning he complains how horny he is in nature. He questions his own ability to go the entire summer without having his “little man squeezed” whereas the slightly older Alvin is stoic in his abstinence. He is happy to spend his free time reflecting on himself, planning the future and “doing right” by those he loves. He diligently sends home money in the letters he writes to his girlfriend, supporting her and the child she’s had by another man.

The fire at the beginning injects a sense of loss that is carried throughout the film. Love, we know from ancient sources, is fire; whether destructive or constructive, whether cleansing or clearing, love sets us aflame. That the loss in fire signals the loss in love is depicted in a scene in which Alvin reenacts a homecoming on a burnt out foundation.

The ground is covered in ash, drywall, warped plastic and glass. Alvin looks dismayed. He ascends the stairs and opens an imaginary door. He calls for the wife, the quotidian comments: Honey? Sweetie? where are you? smells good in here…He opens the oven, he fiddles with charred knick-knacks, he jogs up imaginary stairs. As he does this there is a tension that grows. What started out as a cute bit of pantomime becomes ominous. At the beginning there was no house, his play began and a house leapt to life, but the wife was gone: had she left? was the marriage over?

He finds her upstairs, in the bedroom on the phone. He apologizes for interrupting her, tells her not to hang up and trots back downstairs. There is a relief, he’s found her, she wasn’t gone, she cannot speak to him, but she’s there. He finds a surviving chair and sits, the pater familias at rest, his domain secure, while sitting there he says, “That was nice.” And the home life so recently created comes down again.

ithkbta2n1axb2

Complimenting this is a quiet ghost story. Whether any real ghosts appear is debatable, but a woman moves through the film, a figure of loss, both seen and unseen, embodying love. The unseen love interests of Lance and Alvin also operate as ghosts. They are spoken of, but not seen. Early on Alvin concludes a letter to his girlfriend with: “True love is just like a ghost, people talk about it but very few have actually seen it.” Alvin talks about love plenty, whether he has seen it is debatable.

Paul Rudd throws himself into the serious work of stifling his own laughter in his role as the taciturn Alvin. Emile Hirsch, best known for his role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, is earnest and convincingly numbskulled. Their easy mirth as they interact goes a long way in driving the narrative forward, built upon the steady rhythms of the score from Explosions in the Sky, neighbors of David Gordon Green and fellow Texans.

The curious title, while haphazardly chosen by Green, draws together the Dionysian challenge of Apollonian order that Alvin and Lance embody. Alvin delights in the strict duty of lines and the manly outdoor activities, while Lance prefers wild parties and the presence of ladies. Like the threat of riot to rule and the cliff of hubris over humility, the prince of lines must be careful or else be buried under the hotmess of human conflict.

While the crisis is never resolved and catharsis comes through drunken revelry, the call of “doing right” has been sounded, and the movie ends with Alvin and Lance in high spirits and renewed vigor. Like the slow recovery from the fire, the lesson seems, that life recovers perhaps with scars, perhaps with regret, perhaps haunted with ghosts.

Grand Hotel Budapest : Thoughts

My one word review: Delightful.

Untitled_large_verge_medium_landscape

My five word review: Delightful delightful delightful delightful delightful.

[The first draft of my five word review: Grand Hotel Budapest was delightful.]

My More Word Review: The characters were delightful. The actors were delightful. The staging was delightful. The art direction was delightful. The cusswords were delightful. The violence was delightful. The fornicating, adultery and the defrauding of old ladies of their wealth was delightful. Everything was delightful and nothing was uncool.

Good & Evil : E.E. Cummings & Rae Armantrout

maybe god

is a child
‘s hand)very carefully
bring
-ing
to you and to
me(and quite with
out crushing)the

papery weightless diminutive

world
with a hole in
it out
of which demons with wings would be streaming if
something had(maybe they couldn’t
agree)not happened(and floating-
ly int

o

-E.E. Cummings

Theodicy has been too long in the hands of philosophers. Men with minds least likely to enter heaven are ill equipped to deal with the issue. Poets do better with their deep play. ”Amen, I say unto you, unless you turn and become as children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” saith the man from Nazareth. Here, Cummings, in the voice of a child, posits the  problem of evil and its resolution. Maybe god is a child’s hand bringing to us the world out of which demons would be streaming had he not placed his hand into it. [Here is a more full discussion of the above poem]

Easter-Egg-O-Gram

I was reminded of Cummings’ poem when I read the following poem by Rae Armantrout:

DEVILED

My dreams are cruel
children. They taunt me.
I dream I’m telling a story
the punch line of which
will involve deviled eggs.
                           I’m saying
some idiot
asked me where they originated.
I found that funny
or unfair.
Launched into this anecdote,
this dream, this poem,
I’m already worried. Now I see
the pair I’m addressing
have put their heads together,
hatching something,
over the crosswords.
A joke, of course, is a story that has a punchline, but what joke ends with deviled eggs? Perhaps: what does the devil eat for breakfast? or more likely: from where does the devil come? This is the question of the poem: whence evil? In the dream, the speaker is telling the joke and some “idiot” asks the origin of “deviled eggs” (the ole chicken or the egg dilemma). The speaker finds this funny/unfair; funny because the idiot is missing the point, unfair because the pursuit of theodicy is not for bullies.

Launched into this telling, the speaker records two people putting “their heads together” to solve a problem (perhaps butting their heads? there’s the idiot, but who is the other addressed?), “hatching” something over “the crosswords”. The scene is the kitchen table, the newspaper before them, and the idiot and the other are solving (resolving) a problem over over the crossword puzzle, but there’s more than that. In her economy Armantrout has excised ”puzzle” and rather than say “crossword” she uses “the crosswords”. So the idiot and the other entity are indeed opposed, using cross words, angry words, to solve this problem of evil. But perhaps even further these crosswords are the words of the Cross, the answer, perhaps the punchline to the problem of evil.

The speaker here, searching for answers, taunted by dreams (no doubt “chicken! chicken!”), feels the anxiety, feels the puzzle and gives us the yearning for these answers, the resolution, for the final waking.