Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.12: Jonathan Demme's Beloved

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 53 (C+)

After the critical and commercial success of Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme did what any director at the top of his game might do: he did nothing. Well, that’s a bit hyperbolic: he did produce a number of strong, idiosyncratic projects such as Carl Frankin’s Devil in a Blue Dress and Tom Hanks’ directorial debut That Thing You Do!, and he also directed a handful of music videos and shorts, but Jonathan Demme the major American filmmaker was largely MIA. Demme finally resurfaced five years later with Beloved, an adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. Demme had certainly stepped up his ambition: the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is one of the most respected and lauded books of the last thirty years from a writer with vivid, often difficult prose. Demme’s adaptation is an admirable, ambitious work, but it highlights the challenge inherent in adapting Beloved: it is fucking impossible.

Sethe (Winfrey) is a former slave living in Reconstruction Era Ohio. Sethe’s home is terrorized by a poltergeist, which Sethe believes to be the ghost of her dead baby. The phantom’s terrors are so great that Sethe’s young sons run away from home, leaving only Sethe and her shy, withdrawn teenaged daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) alone. When Sethe’s friend Paul D (Danny Glover), another former slave who had been held on the same plantation, arrives and begins a relationship with Sethe, the ghost disappears.  Paul D courts Sethe’s heart and charms Denver, but the new family’s dynamic is upset with the arrival of Beloved (Thandie Newton), a grown woman who behaves like a small, needy child, who clings to Sethe.

If nothing else, Beloved reestablishes Demme as a master of tone and empathy, an unheralded technical genius, a socially conscious feminist and supporter of the downtrodden, and a director of great ambition. Demme and longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto create a mood of uneasiness and squalor with dark, simple lighting that doesn’t give a postcard quality to the harsh surroundings of the characters or minimize their pain. It’s like the anti-Color Purple, another ambitious film with a feminist take on African-American life, which saw director Steven Spielberg out-of-his-element, frequently oversweetening the compositions and undercutting the pain of the characters (Spielberg’s later dramatic works thankfully corrected this error). The world of Beloved is caked with dirt and dust; this is no postcard, and Demme never sells his characters’ pain short.

Fujimoto brings a typically fluid camerawork to the everyday scenes, using perspective and close-ups extensively to highlight the fear, pain, and anxiety of the characters. Fujimoto and Demme bring expressive lighting to the ghost scenes worthy of the most frightening horror films; the film’s opening throws us right in the middle of “what the hell?” weirdness, and with Paul D’s entrance (camera askew), he asks the question better than anyone else could: “What kind o’ evil you got in there?” It seems off base to lament that Demme and Fujimoto have to leave this element behind, but watching leaving territory where they’re completely assured for the No Man’s Land of adapting the rest of Morrison’s novel is like watching a good friend head into a profession he clearly respects and cares about but has no chance at succeeding at.

Demme had always wanted to make a film about the black experience; his previous films had a kooky 60s-inspired “One World” vibe, where characters of various ethnicities would help and support each other through the good times and the bad. Always a man who sided with the underdog, Demme finally had a chance to explore the darkest time in America’s past: slavery and Reconstruction. To his credit, Demme doesn’t skimp on the horrors of the time: Sethe and Denver are marginalized people with little chance of succeeding in a white man’s world, and they carry ghosts of the past with them, both literal and metaphorical. Paul D knows this all too well: “as long as the white man is in charge, we in chains.” Demme hits the mark at it’s best when dealing with the harrowing flashback scenes, which are shot in a different light and grainier film stock than the modern scenes, almost like they’re a strange documentary of the past. Sethe, Paul D, and others suffer intense emotional and physical cruelty at the hands of slaveowners and others without ever feeling exploitative or turning them into empty martyrs. These are difficult, complex characters dealing with difficult times.

Winfrey, Glover, and Elise deserve some of the credit as well for playing fully formed characters. Winfrey had made impressive debut in The Color Purple, but by now she was a major star who could have coasted on her part. She doesn’t do that; the film is too important to her. Sethe is more than a passive victim. She’s suffered an interminable amount of pain and injustice in her life, but she’s ready and willing to fight for what’s hers. Glover had played an abusive husband to Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, but here he’s a kind, decent man who understands the suffering of Sethe and her family. He’s another moral man of Demme’s (albeit an older one). Best of all is Elise in perhaps the most difficult role of the three: she undergoes the greatest change of any of the characters in the films, staring as a meek and timid girl pushed to the brink and ending as a strong, independent, intelligent woman.

There’s a lot to admire in Beloved, but that admiration unfortunately only goes so far. If the above descriptions make the film seem dynamic and alive, it only describes the film to a certain degree. The film is badly paced over three unending hours of men and women talking and talking to no end, often in somber tones. The scenes aren’t badly acted, but they never form a cohesive dramatic structure and feel strangely disconnected. There’s no dynamism, and after a while inertia sets in.  There’s too much time to cover and it’s often difficult to get a grasp on where we are and what’s happening and why. Minor characters flit in and out of the story with no explanation- Albert Hall is a great, underused actor, but his section doesn’t have much effect if we don’t know who he is. There’s too much material with the major characters to cover, and Demme’s strength with creating vivid minor characters is squashed as a result. It’s incredibly episodic stuff in a film that needs a solid through-line. It’s plain and simple: however vividly realized and well-acted, Beloved stubbornly refuses to be turned into a cinematic experience except in the more lively flashback sequences. This isn’t a film, it’s a book on celluloid.

Things get worse when Beloved arrives. Thandie Newton is a talented actress who doesn’t get the well-written roles she deserves to show off her talent. She often ranges from shrill (Crash) to one-dimensional (The Pursuit of Happyness) because of the material (there’s no one to blame but herself for her terrible Condoleeza Rice in W., though). Beloved is a juicy part and a unique character, and Newton give a fiercely committed, thoroughly unself-conscious performance. Problem is that Beloved doesn’t translate well onto film (great, if obvious, metaphor for the film right here): she starts out with a guttural voice that makes her sound like Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist and goes into an infantile character prone to childlike glee and childish tantrums. This is an impossible part.

Beloved is indeed the anti-Color Purple: where one film had too many characters and not enough time, the other seems inert from a lack of periphery. One is too sweet, the other is too somber. One was a difficult adaptation botched in the process, the other was doomed from the start. Quite a lot of Beloved is effectively directed by Demme, but to no avail. The director wanted to make a grand statement about the history of racism in America, and he got his chance. But he took on a Sisyphean task trying to adapt one of the most difficult novels of the past thirty years. A lot of work went into Beloved from Demme, Winfrey, and everyone else. There’s great moments littered throughout, but ultimately it just doesn’t work.

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