A Perhaps Line — A Review

By Elizabeth Kropf

Gary Swaim’s book A Perhaps Line asks readers to not only wrestle with the division between the material and immaterial, but with the placement of the poems themselves. The poems are divided into two sections, “Poetry of the Material World” and “Poetry of the Immaterial World.” The first section, “Poetry of the Material World,” does contain poems rooted in the physical, especially “The Artist and the Model” and “Accordion Dreams.” However, the fifth poem in the book is the first of several about a six month coma, which masterfully addresses physical limitation, hallucination and the journey of the mind. The placement of these poems is striking, as it influences the readings of later poems such as “Nausicaa” and “Scaramouche.” Are these explorations of literary figures born from dreams and coma-induced hallucinations? After all, we learn in the poem “These Arms, These Shoulders” that the coma brought Milton, Rilke and Dante to the mind of the narrator (disclosed as Swaim in the preface).

Swaim claims an “arbitrary” placement of the poems in the book. However, the tension in the placement creates stronger meaning. The second section, “Poetry of the Immaterial World” holds a series of poems about Adam and Eve, which are so anchored in physical lust and dissension it makes the reader ask “what is immaterial in this?” The placement itself adds a layer of meaning and exploration that would be lost if the poems were in the first section. “Stations of the Cross” is rooted in the physical and unbearably graphic. The depravity creates an ache for an escape to the immaterial (or the immaterial described physically at least)–for Christ risen in heaven. Yet the poem closes with only the hope of the Resurrection.

Even an insightful arrangement of poems is not enough to carry the weight of a collection, and Swaim’s poems do not disappoint. The poems have strength individually and reach from life towards death, and create a yearning for life from death. The poems “What Night Questions” and “Three Penny Nails” accomplish mourning a father’s death without sentimentality. The reader is left with the concrete nature of loss (wood shim and window jambs) and the rising that echoes throughout the collection. The book travels through terror of near death, too soon death, the agony lust can bring, and yet the final poem “Nine-Eleven” ends with the assertion that “all things rise again.” We are left holding a book that looks at the frailty and evil in life and chooses to have faith. We are encouraged to do the same.

Gary Swaim is a Professor Emeritus of Perelandra College

 

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Red River

Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks, relates the story of Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and the enormous cattle ranch he has built up in Texas.  Unfortunately, there is no market left for cattle in Texas, so he decides to drive his cattle up to Missouri for sale.  During the drive, the people he hired to help, along with his adopted son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), become restless as food runs low and Dunson grows more tyrannical—he first whips then threatens to hang dissenters.  Finally, Garth decides to take the cattle himself to Kansas, an easier target than Missouri, and Dunson swears revenge against this mutiny.

Red River (the title refers to both a major river the cattle drive must cross and Dunson’s cattle brand) keeps its focus on the relationships between the characters, with infrequent action set pieces (Indian attacks, the cattle stampede) to keep things exciting.  The film’s most important relationship is that between Dunson and Garth; the son must prove himself worthy in his father’s eyes, and overcome Dunson’s hatred for ousting him.  Conversely, only Dunson’s forgiveness of his son can redeem him in our eyes for his despotic tendencies.  Critics often compare their relationship to that of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty.  This would all mean little if Wayne’s and Clift’s performances weren’t exemplary.

The women of Red River take more than the passive role usually afforded females in the male-dominated Western genre.  Dunson’s girlfriend at the film’s beginning (played by Coleen Gray) wants to accompany him down to Texas to start his cattle empire; he refuses and insists she go along with a wagon train, which ends up ambushed by Indians who kill Gray.  His refusal to see her as an equal partner in his adventure gets her killed.  The film’s second major female character, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), is part of a wagon train Garth encounters with his hijacked herd of cattle.  The train is under attack by Indians, and Tess has joined the men of the train in firing away at the attackers.  Tess, who becomes Garth’s love interest, exemplifies the “Hawksian woman” noted by critics as typical of Howard Hawks’s oeuvre, able to hold her own with the men in conversation as well as in action.

James Garfield, a graduate of the film studies program of the Claremont Colleges, is a Perelandra College administrator.

 

Although Wayne and Hawks’s next collaboration, the more suspenseful Rio Bravo (1959), is even better, Red River is still one of the greatest of Westerns.  The mix of action with character development makes for a superb balance, creating a trail-dusty cinematic epic.

The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) satirizes Adolf Hitler and the growth of National Socialism in Germany with Chaplin in a dual role as dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a persecuted Jewish barber.  Hynkel implements policies of strict control on the Jewish population of the country of Tomania, while planning the invasion of the nearby country Austerlich as a first step towards ruling the world.  The barber resists attempts by storm troopers to take over his shop, and winds up in a concentration camp.

The Great Dictator raises the question about whether it is possible to make a successful comedy out of such grim subject matter as Nazi totalitarianism.  Chaplin himself said later that a comedy would have been impossible if he had known the full extent of what was going on in Germany, how utterly beyond the pale events were even compared to those occurring under other dictatorships.  Here Hynkel and his storm troopers are bumbling figures (Hynkel falls down stairs, dances with an inflatable globe, and rants in German gibberish; the storm troopers are neutralized with a bop to the head with a frying pan), and nothing so funny would seem to pose a serious threat.  Must laughter then be disqualified as a weapon against evil?

Chaplin, apparently deciding that humor is finally not enough, forsakes it in the final scene, choosing to end the film with a direct appeal to viewers’ hearts as the barber makes a speech denouncing the ills of dictatorship and calling for unity and democracy.  However sensible the ideas are, the speech itself has been criticized as preachy and out of character for the mostly silent barber (this is Chaplin’s first full-sound film, the better for the audience to hear the speeches).  Both humor and earnestness have their pitfalls, but what else is there to do within the bounds of cinema?

Chaplin’s performances are so impressive that it is easily to overlook the supporting cast, but some in particular deserve credit:  Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s then-spouse, both feisty and touching as Hannah, an inhabitant of the Jewish ghetto in Tomania who helps the barber in his struggle against the storm troopers, and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini figure Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria.  Napaloni’s food-throwing quarrels with Hynkel are among the film’s comic highlights.

The Great Dictator is not your average comedy; it provokes thought about what are the proper limits of humor and when one can say what topics just aren’t funny.  Although that may not have been at the forefront of Chaplin’s mind, that is the effect of his film, and raising questions about the nature of humor itself is one of the many things makes Chaplin one of the greatest of comedians.

James Garfield, a graduate of Claremont College’s Master of Arts in Flim Studies, serves Perelandra College as an administrator.

Marty

In director Delbert Mann’s 1955 drama Marty, the title character (played by Ernest Borgnine) is an overweight 34 year-old Bronx butcher, unpopular with women, who lives with his mother.  One night at the Stardust Ballroom, he meets plain, shy schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair), and hits it off with her.  The budding relationship faces opposition from his mother (who is afraid of living alone) and his peers (who consider Clara a “dog”).  It’s up to Marty to resist the social pressure and follow his heart.

Marty is a modest, intimate film that wound up a box-office hit and Best Picture winner.  Dramas like this need strong performances to carry them through, and Borgnine anchors it all with his star turn as the romantic underdog, facing choices in love, employment, and family life.  Paddy Chayefsky’s script (based on his earlier teleplay) fleshes out this character study of a lonely man dealing with middle-class problems (his aunt moving in, his boss offering to sell the butcher shop to him), and his relations with friends and family–making this story of more universal interest, appealing to more viewers than just men who have troubles with women.  There are no villains in Marty, just flawed people (Marty’s crude friends, his mother who dislikes Clara because “she’s not Italian”) so everyone gets a fair shot at impressing their individuality and humanity upon the viewer.

The central romance is handled quite believably, not glamorized, just coming across as a logical extension of the two individual characters.  Marty is afraid of being hurt as he has in the past, but finds himself easily opening up to Clara, who is pleasantly surprised at finding a man who isn’t turned off by a shy schoolteacher, and they wind up having a wonderful time together.  (They have a better time of it than Marty’s cousin and his wife, a more conventionally attractive couple who fight all the time.)  Of course, it’s debatable whether in real life anyone ever lands a soulmate this quickly, but the relationship and the obstacles it faces still come off as more realistic than is typical for Hollywood.

The realism continues in Marty’s relationship with his friends.  They don’t lead lives of adventure—they find themselves confronted with boredom and indecision, hence the lines that have infiltrated pop culture: “Whaddya feel like doin’ tonight, Marty?” “I dunno, what do you feel like doin’ tonight?” Friends can hinder your dreams as well as encourage them; the theme of following one’s own way despite peer pressure is one many viewers can relate to.  Marty’s family drama, involving finding a happy place to live for aging relations, as well as his mother’s disparagement of Clara, again gives us relatable problems rather than high adventure and intrigue.  (The Italian accents of the older women do seem a tad exaggerated, if not in Chico Marx-land.)

A quiet but involving film, Marty is one of the highlights of 1950s cinema, with unforgettable characters and a subtly handled rise-of-the-underdog plot that earns its happy ending with little inauthenticity.

 

James Garfield, a graduate of Claremont College’s Master of Arts in Flim Studies, serves Perelandra College as an administrator.

The Innocents

Director Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote), The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a newly-hired governess of an English playboy’s country estate, watching over two children, one of whom has just been expelled from school.  The children, Miles and Flora, at first seem nice and charming, but their behavior grows increasingly strange.  Miss Giddens begins to see apparitions which correspond to what she has been told of the previous governess and valet, a decadent pair who wound up dead.  She quickly becomes convinced that the ghosts wish to possess the souls of the children, and tries what she can to save the children’s lives.

Ghost stories tend to be the most subtle and genteel of the conventional forms the horror genre takes, and The Innocents, though frightening, is quite restrained for a horror film, coming in between the more overt horror of the classic monster movies and the later splatter movies.  We are never told for sure whether the ghosts actually exist or are the byproduct of Miss Giddens’s madness—those who can’t handle such ambiguity should probably stay away.  Not all the complexity of Henry James can survive the transition to the screen, of course, but the characterizations in The Innocents admirably provide the film’s staying power.

This is helped by the terrific performances of Deborah Kerr and the two children, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin.  The film also benefits from the lush cinematography of Freddie Francis, showcasing the lovely estate and the terrors hidden not only in the darkness, but sometimes in broad daylight.  Highlights include Miss Giddens’s trip through the house during a game of hide-and-seek, using only a candelabra for illumination, and the appearance of the former governess, Miss Jessel, standing across a lake.  It is the influence of Miss Jessel and the valet, Mr. Quint, over the children which provides the film with its main theme, that of moral corruption.  From what we hear, the two servants, adored by the children, had a sadomasochistic relationship, and encouraged dissimulation and deceit in their young charges.  The behavioral habits the children picked up from the dead pair’s example represent the “haunting” of the living by the dead.

Whether or not anything genuinely supernatural is going on in the story, The Innocents is a creepy affair that will provide brave viewers with quite a treat for this Halloween season.

James Garfield

 

Gold Diggers of 1933

Reviewed by James Garfield

A 1933 musical comedy directed by Mervyn LeRoy and set during the then-raging Great Depression, Gold Diggers of 1933 stars Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers as starving actresses looking for a break on Broadway.  Dick Powell, as the singer-songwriter millionaire next door, puts up the money for a musical that will deal with people’s current troubles.  Powell and Keeler fall in love, and his brother and his attorney show up to put an end to the affair, thinking all chorus girls are “gold diggers” who will take Powell for his money.  The chorus girls must use their charms to save Powell from being cut off from his family.

Despite being light and comedic, Gold Diggers isn’t completely escapist like most musicals—there is plenty of material about the Depression (details like the actresses resorting to stealing a milk bottle from a neighboring doorstep, or their first show being shut down due to debt).  The musical numbers realistically occur within the context of stage shows, rather than the usual fantasy element of musicals where people interrupt their everyday lives to break into song and dance.  The most famous number, the opening “We’re in the Money,” seems to mock its own optimistic sentiment by including a chorus in Pig Latin.  The film’s self-hyped closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” takes off from a famous speech by FDR in paying tribute to people who fought in World War I and now can’t even find employment.

Busby Berkeley choreographed and directed the musical numbers.  I thought that none of the ones that follow “We’re in the Money” (sung by Ginger Rogers staring straight into the camera lens, accompanied by showgirls in skimpy coin-based costumes) quite match that charming production, although they are certainly watchable, with Berkeley’s trademark overhead shots of dancers forming kaleidoscopic patterns, and offbeat details like the neon violins wielded by dancers in the “Shadow Waltz” number.

The cast all performs energetically, although I wanted more Ginger Rogers, whose star was still rising—she disappears partway through, being peripheral to the plot, merely a friend of the three main actresses who share an apartment and thus are all entangled in the romantic complications when the brother and the lawyer enter the story.  As for the plot, well—who watches musicals for the plot, anyway? Watch Gold Diggers for the production numbers, the performances, and the unusual acknowledgement of reality—in the form of the Great Depression—in a musical.