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Andrew O’Hehir

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Gone Daddy Gone.

Well, admittedly, I’m probably much more of a City Mouse these days than I was back during my Carolina youth, so take that for what it’s worth. And I will fess up to having grim flashbacks to the stultifying experience of Sweetgrass in the “realistically”-portrayed opening moments of this film, so that didn’t help either. Still, I have to say, I just did not cotton to Debra Granik’s gritty Ozark noir Winter’s Bone like it seems a majority of critics did. (Some have even called it the “best American film of the year.” I reckon I’d seen a better American film not 24 hours beforehand.)

This “dark as a dungeon” Missouri folk tale is well-made, to be sure, and it includes both impressive, nuanced performances — most notably from the Zellweger-esque lead, Jennifer Lawrence — and some very likable actors (John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt of Deadwood; Sheryl Lee, nee Laura Palmer, of Twin Peaks) shading in the margins. But, for a couple of reasons, which I’ll get into a moment, I didn’t find the main through-line of the story particularly engaging. And, in its depiction of mountain folk living on the economic razor’s edge, I can’t help feeling that the movie veered dangerously close to stereotype, if not outright Precious or Slumdog Millionaire-style poverty pr0n at times.

First, the story. After a few minutes of soaking in the three R’s of life-as-it-really-happens in an economically marginal Missouri town — ROTC training, ramshackle cabins, and (jus’) regular folk — the young woman we’ve been following around, Ree Dolly (Lawrence), is approached by the local sheriff (Dillahunt) with some very problematic news. Apparently, her daddy — who, like all-too-many men in this poverty-stricken region, is a meth cook of some renown — has skipped bail. (Paging Heisenberg!) And if Pa Dolly doesn’t show up for his scheduled hearing a fortnight or so hence, the bond he posted will be taken by the county — in the form of Ree’s house. There isn’t enough money to go around on a good day, and since Ree is already neck-deep in raising her two little siblings and caring for her ailing mother, who’s not quite right in the head, getting turned out of the only home the Dollys have would basically be tantamount to a death sentence.

And so, with only a quick mind and sheer doggedness at her disposal, Ree starts trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the prodigal father, before this deadly eviction hammer falls. Trouble is, the extended community — who are more often than not related by blood ’round these parts — take none too kindly to Ree’s asking tough questions about a central participant in the local, lucrative criminal enterprise. Even Ree’s uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), her father’s brother, tends towards the unhelpful or abusive whenever she comes by for another round for questioning. But what can she do? Ree’s back is to the wall, and the only thing she can do to save her family from certain starvation is to push forward and find her dad, with all the ugly consequences that’ll entail…

Part of the reason Winter’s Bone didn’t work for me, I think, is I felt like I’d just seen a more engaging version of this movie — a regional neo-noir with a bleached-out aesthetic, involving working-class folks in a tight-knit community dabbling in crime to get by — in Nash Edgerton’s The Square. But even that film aside, and with all due respects to the wanderings of M. Lebowski, I get a bit irritated with noir-offerings that put a puzzle before you (in this case, where is Ree’s Pop?), but then don’t really give you the tools to play along.

Put another way: For all Ree’s gumption, only in the occasional scene here — like, when she’s shown a burned-out meth lab where her dad supposedly died — does she get to put two-and-two together in a way that moves the story forward. Instead, she’s more often relegated to being a passive figure in her own tale, at which point some other character will swing by her endangered home and dole out whatever info is needed to get the plot moving again. Perhaps this is by design — one of the best scenes in the movie is when Ree tries to sign up for the Army for an infusion of much-needed cash, and is very kindly told that her options right now are even more limited than they already seemed. Still, this passive tendency makes Winter’s Bone feel like a movie where this happens, and then that happens, and this happens, rather than an engaging mystery. There’s a sense of urgency, sure — the ticking clock of impending eviction — but there’s still no narrative drive to this story.

At which point a fan of this film might say: You’re missing the point. Winter’s Bone is less about typical noir plotting than it is about character, social realism, and establishing a strong sense of place. Well, convenient straw-man fan, I’m glad you got brought this up, because this actually gets to my bigger problem with the movie. From its Welcome-to-the-Real-America opening moments, Granik’s film goes out of its way to establish its versimilitude — but that’s exactly where the movie increasingly felt off to me. And while I think it’s uncharitable to say of Winter’s Bone that it’s the tale of Cletus (or Brandine) the Slack-Jawed Yokel told as tragedy — at times it really does feel like we’re hunting possum in that same hillbilly-stereotype trailer park.

Now, I won’t profess to be any kind of expert on what a life of grinding poverty in the Ozarks looks and feels like — I’ve never been to that part of the country, although I have spent time in some very broke regions of the Carolinas, West Virginia, and the Deep South. So, maybe I’m wrong, and Winter’s Bone is actually witheringly acute in its depiction of the ways of dirt-poor rural folk here. But when there are more scenes of hootenannies and squirrel-hunting in your movie than there are of people doing “normal” things like, say, watching TV or driving to Wal-Mart, I really start to wonder. And that goes double when your characters tend to speak in a near-Milchian poetic argot about their kin and the ways of menfolk and the like.

To be clear: I wasn’t offended by this Othering of them there Mountain folk, but I didn’t really buy into it either. And so the more the film strived toward versimilitude — look at how poor (and yet noble!) poor can be! — the more Winter’s Bone just felt like a hyper-stylized, and even downright artificial, Ozark requiem by way of Cormac McCarthy to me, and the more I disengaged from it. Call me uncouth (I blame mah upbringin’), but, without feeling much of either the story or the milieu, I basically spent the majority of Winter’s Bone — even its ostensibly shocking culmination — just dutifully waiting for it to end.

Emerald Dream. | Watching Watchers of Watchmen.

“It would be insulting to the genre and its readers, as well as fundamentally untrue, to say that Moore reinvented comics. Moore loved comics, in all their overheated melodrama and violence and passion and romance, and simply wanted them to fulfill their potential. He wanted comics to be better written (and more beautifully drawn; he has consistently brought out the best in his artists), to be more alive to the outside world and to other forms of culture, to be less imprisoned by the emotional ghetto of pre-adolescence.” On the precipice of Watchmen, Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir sings the praises of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.

As for Watchmen itself, the early reviews for Zack Snyder’s adaptation are coming in pretty poor, unfortunately. Still, I remain cautiously optimistic that, with expectations suitably lowered, there’ll be some things to like about Snyder’s version. For one, a lot of the worst reviews of the film wallow in exactly the type of insecure, i’m-too-cultured-for-funny-books douchebaggery I just noted in my review of A Christmas Tale. (See, for example, Anthony Lane’s spoilerish New Yorker review, whose good points — for example, that Snyder’s film revels in the same fetishizing of power that Moore was trying to subvert — are buried beneath his puerile sneering at both the author and fanboys in general. (“‘Watchmen,’ like ‘V for Vendetta,’ harbors ambitions of political satire, and, to be fair, it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear — deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation — is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along.“) Even for him and The New Yorker, which famously whined of The Matrix that we should all be reading Cheever instead, this review is a new low.

For another, and as I’ve said here many times before, Snyder isn’t my preferred choice of director for this project either. But, heck, even a stopped watch is right twice a day. So, here’s hoping there’s something salvageable from this long-awaited adaptation…I’ll know when the clock strikes midnight tomorrow.

A Tale of the First Age.

As noted here last September, Christopher Tolkien has completed one of his father’s earliest works, The Children of Hurin, for publication — It comes out tomorrow. “Already told in fragmentary form in ‘The Silmarillion,’ which appeared in 1977, the new book is darker than ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ for which Tolkien is best known…The story is set long before ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in a part of Middle-earth that was drowned before Hobbits ever appeared, and tells the tragic tale of Turin and his sister Nienor who are cursed by Morgoth, the first Dark Lord.

Update: “I came away from ‘The Children of Hurin’ with a renewed appreciation for the fact that Tolkien’s overarching narrative is much more ambiguous in tone than is generally noticed…What sits in the foreground is that persistent Tolkienian sense that good and evil are locked in an unresolved Manichaean struggle with amorphous boundaries, and that the world is a place of sadness and loss, whose human inhabitants are most often the agents of their own destruction.Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir favorably reviews Tolkien’s dark new tome.

FOX fire.

“Alas, poor Brit, it was too much for him to bear in the end, I’m afraid. You almost had to feel sorry for the guy…I said almost.” Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir evaluates last night’s election coverage on FOX News. I admit, I also switched over to FOX in the late hours just to revel in all the sweet, sweet schadenfreude. I’m forced to concede, though, that their graphics were much better than CNN’s — you could actually tell how many House seats Dems were picking up all night over the needed 15, while CNN dropped that ball as soon as the Senate got tight. At any rate, for angry right-wing teeth-gnashing, nothing on FOX topped Stephen Colbert’s hilarious speel last night at the end of the otherwise middling Midterm Midtacular (Click on “Stephen Quits,” in case you missed it.)

Bryan’s Song.

“Bryan inaugurated an era in which style and sentiment would trump substance, personal charisma would trump intellect or ideas, and pious moralizing would trump social consciousness. Politicians of the Gilded Age had remained aloof from the public, relying on printed broadsides, entrenched partisan loyalties and local organization. Bryan invented the glad-handing, ‘happy warrior’ style of the modern political campaign, crisscrossing the country tirelessly by rail and delivering countless speeches to crowds large and small. (It has often been observed that if radio or television had existed in Bryan’s day, he would have beaten the drab McKinley or pretty much anyone else.)Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir reviews Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, and argues that the legacy of the Great Commoner’s brand of populism is less sanguine than Kazin makes it out to be. Still, I’m looking forward to checking out Kazin’s book.

Fables of the Reconstruction.

Foner‘s field of special expertise is what might be called without exaggeration the crucible of American freedom: the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves and the ambiguous, myth-shrouded period that followed known as Reconstruction. He never puts it this directly, either in this new, somewhat compressed popular history or in his 1988 magnum opus, ‘Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,’ but he sees Reconstruction, with all its contradictions and unrealized possibilities, as the key to all of American history.Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir takes a gander at Eric Foner’s latest book, Forever Free.

E is for Football.

The groups for World Cup 2006 are drawn, and while there’s no “Group of Death” this time around, the USA will face some tough competition in Group E: Ghana, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Update: Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir sees trouble ahead for the USA.

Judging Judy.

“It’s not necessarily clear that a press engaged in a tabloid-esque race to the bottom, consumed by sensationalist pseudo-stories, nuggets of McNews and flag-waving rhetoric, is a free press in any meaningful sense of the term,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir in a thoughtful piece on the Judith Miller case. But, he concludes, “[c]ompelling a reporter to reveal his or her sources to the police turns that reporter into a police agent, and that’s not acceptable, even in unsavory circumstances like these.” Update: Salon readers poke some substantial holes in O’Hehir’s argument. Update 2: O’Hehir responds.

As a counterpoint, Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg argues the following: “To Miller and the Times, confidentiality is the trump value of journalism, one that outweighs all other considerations, including obedience to the law, the public interest, and perhaps even loyalty to country. This is indeed a strong principle, but it is a misguided one. In the Mafia, keeping confidences is the supreme value. In journalism, the highest value is the discovery and publication of the truth.

And one more view by way of James Fallows, who’s written quite a bit on journalistic ethics in his time: “So Time Inc’s Norman Pearlstein says he will turn over Matthew Cooper’s notes, because Time magazine is ‘not above the law.’…Matt Cooper, Judith Miller, and the New York Times have been saying something completely different. They have been saying that there is a conflict between what the law asks and what their professional values allow them to do. Therefore they will take the consequences. They will go to jail….They are not placing themselves above the law. They are saying that certain values matter more to them than doing what the law now (outrageously, in my view) asks them to do. Norman Pearlstein is a smart man. Can he really have missed this point? Or is he acknowledging that another set of values have come to count for more, in large-scale corporate-owned journalism?

Cajuns of Nova Scotia.

“The point I’m trying to make is that one of the roles I see for a historian in the United States — and here I separate myself from, let’s say, the Ward Churchills, who are only looking to tell stories about victims and villains — is to resuscitate those points at which people faced with the dilemma of a whole new world attempted to do something good, and achieved something that was worth remembering.” Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir interviews Yale historian John Mack Faragher on A Great and Noble Scheme, his new book about the Acadian “relocation” of 1755.

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