Martha Bayles: August 2007 Archives
Two entries ago, I mentioned that the fine Australian film with the unprepossessing title Japanese Story packed an unexpected wallop. Another film that does the same thing is The Man in the Moon (1991), about a 14-year-old Louisiana farm girl who falls in love with her older's sister's boyfriend. It is a gem, partly because of Reese Witherspoon's superb performance as the younger sister (her first film role), and partly because of the sudden blow it delivers to the viewer's solar plexis.
What's striking about both films is the way they avoid telescoping the punch, and what's interesting to think about (if you are a plot junkie like me) is the fact that most movies do telescope their punches, to the great detriment of realism. Anyway, if you are looking for a good film to watch over Labor Day, The Man in the Moon is easy to find and well worth it.
Somewhere between Dickens and Tolstoy stands British novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), whose pen name in the proper Victorian mode was Mrs. Gaskell. Little known in America, she is beloved enough in England to have inspired a BBC adaptation of North and South, her Pride and Prejudice-style love story between a minister's daughter from England's green, prosperous South and a textile magnate from its grim, industrializing North.
I haven't read the novel, but the film is gritty, compelling, romantic. And timely in this sense: it doesn't make one me about England, it makes me think about China. History's biggest industrial revolution is happening right now, and with it a gigantic version of all the problems depicted in this film. And Mrs. Gaskell's vision of rapprochement between management and labor is also oddly of the moment. At least the answer in China is not going to be Marxist-Leninist revolution. Been there, done that.
One thing I learned while visiting the PRC this spring is that audio-visual piracy (a major industry, make no mistake) is not just "theft," as the Motion Picture Association puts it; it also the lifeblood of China's independent film scene. It is not illegal to make indie films there, but very few are released. (The government prefers the blockbuster wuxiu films, in which exotically dressed super-heroes and heroines engage in gravity-defying combat.) So piracy - taoba - is also samizdat. Watch North and South and let me know if you agree: it would be quite interesting to see VCDs (cut-rate DVDs) of this film show up in the street stalls of Shanghai.
Like all chart categories, "country" is an arbitrary heading under which one finds the ridiculous, the sublime, and everything in between. On the sublime end, a track that I have been listening to over and over for the last six months: Wynnona Judd's version of "She Is His Only Need." The way she sings it, irony is not a color or even a set of contrasting colors; it is iridescence.
I've been away from SP for a couple of months, traveling around the world doing research for my book about how people perceive life in America through the lens of our popular culture and, to a much lesser extent, US cultural diplomacy. I interviewed 133 individuals in six countries and am now drafting the manuscript. But loath to let SP expire, I beg you to kill whatever fatted calf you have on hand and welcome me back.
I woke up this morning still thinking about an extraordinary film I saw last night on DVD. Its unprepossessing title, Japanese Story, does not begin to capture its power.
Set in the Pilbara Desert of Western Australia, the story is simple: Sandy, a female geologist (Toni Colette), is asked by her boss to be driver and guide to the son of a major Japanese investor. The young visitor, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) is as smooth and proud as Sandy is rough and humble, and were it not for a series of unexpected mishaps, they would never have connected. But connect they do, in ways as starkly beautiful as the rugged, red-earth landscape they travel through. The film also contains something exceedingly rare: a punch that knocks the wind out of you, and isn't at all telescoped.