Thursday, April 23, 2009

"From Here to Eternity"--Revisionist Film History



Despite my earlier promise to have more book essays posted (these will be coming in the following weeks), this film piece is something that I've been mentally working on for quite some time. I read James Jones's novel From Here to Eternity in high school, so naturally, my memory of it is hazy at best; therefore, this essay will exclusively examine Fred Zinnemann's 1953 film adaptation. Perhaps the title of this piece is slightly misleading. I'm not so much going against the film as it is generally viewed, but taking another look at the inherent themes. Whether one is discussing books (Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut) or films (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), the general consensus is that the anti-establishment movement had its strongest presence in 1960s and 1970s American culture. This is absolutely true, but I feel that From Here to Eternity is an overlooked precursor to the independent boom of filmmaking in the following decades.

However, at first glance, this is a war film, set in the days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to Schofield Barracks for "personal matters." Almost immediately, he's under the scrutiny of Captain Holmes and Seargant Warden (Burt Lancaster). Prewitt refuses to join the company boxing team, coached by Holmes, due to the aforementioned personal reasons. The plot plays out literally, with the characters all connected to the events and emotions. Warden is of lesser rank than Holmes, but the obvious leader of the company. After Prewitt's cold refusal to Holmes's request to join the boxing team, Warden frankly tells him: "It's my job to keep him happy, see? The more he's happy, the less he bothers me, and the smoother I run his company." Prewitt's only friend is Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), a fun-loving, happy outcast (in his first scene, he's shown sweeping in front of the main office, undoubtedly a punishment for something). As the film progresses, Warden starts a sudden affair with Karen (Deborah Kerr), the cold, unhappy wife of Captain Holmes. Prewitt falls for Lorene (Donna Reed), a prostitute at a brothel frequented by Maggio (of course, in the film, it's a dance hall, but anyone can look past the mild censorship to gauge the actual setting).

This might seem to be a very quick, condensed summary of the major plot points, but in re-screening the film, it's amazing how quickly everything is established. Since this is a character-driven film, the best way to analyze the anti-establishment themes is to look at the characters individually.

Sgt. Warden: Especially portrayed by Burt Lancaster, he's the ultimate military character--strong, assertive, no-nonsense, and efficient (a wonderful word which is employed in his second scene with Karen). However, his hatred and dislike of Captain Holmes manifests itself in his affair with Karen; to put it bluntly, he has sex with her as a way to rebel against his superior, all while maintaining his assertiveness and professionalism while on base. To take this to the extreme, it's a grudge-fuck towards Holmes. His rebellion only goes thus far; he and Karen do not end up together, only because he's in love with the military.

Private Prewitt: He's the victim of extreme hazing, but steadfast in his duties ("I can soldier with any man"). He does his job as best as he can, despite the unfair obstacles placed in front of him, the hazing and "treatment" designed to make him look like a failed soldier. Despite this, he's vastly independent, or at least he should be, given his solitude. (Spoiler alert) Just in the same way Warden's affair with Karen can be seen as rebellion, Prewitt's decision to return to the base during the Japanese attack can be seen as proof that he really wasn't meant for the Army, but instead to be his own man. He returns, critically injured after a knife fight, to do his job, and ends up dying as a result. I'm not saying that his being a soldier ended up killing him. No matter where the film was set, no matter what the occupation, Prewitt never would have lasted in a place that required submission and conservative views.

Lorene: She's a prostitute, therefore immediately placed on the fringes of a conservative society. She fully realizes this, and claims that she's only doing it in order to save money to start a new life. However, in one of the most intense scenes in the movie, she angrily describes a "safe" and "proper" life: country clubs, a successful husband, and proper children. Her voice and the look in her eyes might suggest that she finds this unattainable, but in my view, she doesn't want to be part of what society expects of her. Granted, she obviously doesn't want to be a prostitute the rest of her life, but she strongly rebukes the notion of 1950s suburban America.

Angelo Maggio: Like Prewitt, he was never really meant to be a soldier, seeing that he spends his time looking forward to off-duty carousing with his friends, his women, and his booze. Without Prewitt, one gets the idea that he's a marginal soldier, doing just enough to not be dishonorably discharged, but not enough to be respected in his outfit. Given his free-spirited ways, and given the context of the film, he'd be a perfect fit amongst the beat generation. His desire to be free from responsibility leads to his going AWOL, therefore resulting in his death (after he's beaten and abused by Seargant Judson). It's the opposite of Prewitt, but with the same results. Prewitt returns to what he thinks he's supposed to do, and he dies. Maggio escapes to do what he's supposed to do, and he dies as well.

Karen Holmes: She falls into the anti-establishment theme by completely and unapologetically rebelling against her husband. Their relationship is purely for show, to create the image of a happily married couple in order to advance his military career. Their home life is full of resentment, bitterness, and the complete lack of any sort of intimacy. He sleeps around, but not because he's a great lover, but mainly to compensate the fact that he will never satisfy his wife, both sexually or emotionally. Even without knowing that she's sleeping with Warden, he knows that Warden is more of a man than he is, whether in the Army or in the civilian world. Karen is content to aid in Holmes's complete emasculation.

These notes would obviously be aided by screencaps or more plot discussions, but since From Here to Eternity is such a classic, the elements I've discussed should be understandable to anyone familiar with the film. I consider it part of the anti-establishment era of filmmaking, because of the characters. It doesn't measure as an "anti-war" film, because the war scenes are so fleeting, and come towards the ending. Therefore, we're looking at a film that's not Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, but a character study of people who do not fit the sanitized view of 1940s and 1950s America.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Record Store Day



Saturday, April 18th is national Record Store Day, celebrating locations offering vinyl, CDs, and an undeniable atmosphere of community through music. There are plenty of nationwide events planned for this, but the best way to celebrate would be to take a trip to a local record shop. Even if you don't shop there often, support them by dropping a few dollars on an LP or a CD (or two).

The fine folks at Treble have collected their lists of the best record stores around the country, from California to Delaware to a few stops in between. They were gracious enough to ask me for a contribution, so included is a small homage to the former Dr. Wax Records in Chicago (former in the sense of their Edgewater location). Sure, there are more prominent record stores in Chicago, but this one was always special to me.

Click here for Treble's Record Store Day collective. Also, as I've requested in the past, keep visiting that site for the best music features and reviews available. The cliche "labor of love" is perfectly appropriate to the Treble staff.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Peaks and Valleys


(First edition cover)

Note: One of the cited passages is Not Safe For Work.


In the coming months, I hope to read and write about more books, both old and new, that have eluded me thus far. This elusion, at least in the immediate sense, was highlighted by Facebook. Anyone familiar with this social networking site knows the sheer volume of lists and notes changing hands and inboxes with much fervor. Last month, several book lists were sent to me, in order to gauge what people have read of the classics, and I was chagrined to have read only seventeen out of one hundred books on one of those lists. While I'm normally pleased with the consistency of my reading, I figured that I needed to get some important works under my belt. This led to my picking up Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer.

Going in, my knowledge of the book was its infamy as a banned book (all the more reason to read it), as well as its role as a major plot point in an excellent episode of Seinfeld. In mentally outlining this essay, I wondered if it would be possible to get the "dirty talk" out of the way early, or if it was simply integrated into the story as a whole, essential to any look at any given passage. There is nothing puritanical in my reasoning. Much like the teenage versions of the Seinfeld characters, it's understandable that some people might want to jump ahead to the sexual parts in lieu of taking everything in. With this analysis of Miller, forgive the unintended sexual puns. In fact, the very title of this essay could be a pun itself. My reasoning behind the essay title is my view of Tropic Of Cancer as a whole. I'll get to this in a minute. First, let's talk about sex. Even for someone not familiar with the work, it's well known that Miller's effort was banned in the United States until 1961 under censorship lows, primarily due to its frank descriptions of sexual acts. Forgive the following gratuitous citation, especially coming from an explicit book that doesn't have the slightest air of gratuity:

"A young cunt doesn't have to have any brains. They're better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she's brilliant, even if she's the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss. All they can do for you is buy you things. But that doesn't put meat on their arms or juice between the legs. She isn't bad, Irene. In fact, I think you'd like her. With you it's different. You don't have to fuck her. You can afford to like her. Maybe you wouldn't like all those dresses and the bottles and what not, but you could be tolerant. She wouldn't bore you, that I can tell you. She's even interesting, I might say. But she's withered (Miller 114-115)."

Since Tropic Of Cancer is so influential, one can see how passages like these set the stage for any future author known for writing so bluntly--everyone from James Jones in the 1950s, Bret Easton Ellis in the 1980s, Chuck Palahniuk in the 1990s, and so on. Isolated, we can see the shock that would have greeted readers in the early/mid-twentieth century. Today, we can pick out the example of misogyny. However, when put back into the context of the whole novel, we as readers get used to it very quickly and we read sordid passages with the same eye as everything else. For any Miller novice, even one accustomed to novels with graphic sex, it's almost impossible to not read the opening pages like a ten year old, giddy over what the hype is about.

The novel is extremely autobiographical, almost to a fault. We're treated to a vibrant supporting cast, seen through the almost skeptical, tongue-bitten eyes of Henry Miller, the narrator:

"I am trying ineffectually to approach Moldorf. It is like trying to approach God, for Moldorf is God--he has never been anything else. I am merely putting down words...
I have had opinions about him which I have discarded; I have had other opinions which I am revising. I have pinned him down only to find that it was not a dung-beetle I had in my hands, but a dragonfly. He has offended me by his coarseness and then overwhelmed me with his delicacy. He has been voluble to the point of suffocation, then quiet as the Jordan.
When I see him trotting forward to greet me, his little paws outstretched, his eyes perspiring, I feel that I am meeting...No, this is not the way to go about it (8-9)!"

These supporting characters are well-written, but there's never any doubt that they're second to Miller. No matter how many pages are devoted to them, Miller is either right there with them or describing them with, at the very least, a heavy air of opinion. What they do, he often does; what they think, he often opines upon; and whom they sleep with, he often has the chance to do the same.

One of Miller's amazing strengths was the ability to write gripping, dream-like passages in the stream of consciousness style. This at times might appear to be easy, but it takes a great writer to place words,which are supposed to feel random, very carefully. I admire the writing of William S. Burroughs, yet I remember feeling bored with some of the drug-hazed passages in Naked Lunch. Miller writes streams of these random thoughts with skill, literary flair, and attention.

"Coming through the high driveway into the quadrangle a sense of abysmal futility always came over me. Outside bleak and empty; inside, bleak and empty. A scummy sterility hanging over the town, a fog of booklearning. Slag and cinders of the past. Around the interior courts were ranged the classrooms, little shacks such as you might see in the North woods, where the pedagogues gave free rein to their voices. On the blackboard the futile abracadabra which the future citizens of the republic would have to spend their lives forgetting. Once in awhile the parents were received in the big reception room just off the driveway, where there were busts of the heroes of antiquity, such as Moliere, Rancine, Corneille, Voltaire, etc., all the scarecrows whom the cabinet ministers mention with moist lips whenever an immortal is added to the waxworks (277-278)."

Despite all of these compliments, and my newfound understanding of Tropic Of Cancer as an American (or should I say French?) classic, I did find the occasional fault in the book. Since the best of Miller's passages are so memorable, these highs can make the connecting passages and pages unintentionally tedious. Granted, rare is the perfect novel that never stumbles. Overall, its brilliance and captivation come in varying frequencies, rising and dipping noticeably. These dips are simply stretches that don't hold attention very well. However, Miller's greatest skill is his writing on human nature and tendencies. He makes no apologies, does not elevate the good deeds, nor does he frown upon the bad ones. The characters are presented honestly, with any opinion left to the reader or anyone with the most basic understanding of said human nature. The best example of this comes toward the end of Tropic Of Cancer. These words might appear simplistic, but don't be fooled. It says everything we need to know about the lives presented in the novel.

"Human beings make a strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; close up they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space--space even more than time (318)."

Work Cited:
Miller, Henry. Tropic Of Cancer. Copyright 1961 by Grove Press, Inc.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Play Ball!

Since The Underrated Blog-a-Thon is completed (a final thanks to everyone who read and participated) and I have plans for quite a few book essays in the coming weeks, I figured I'd do a look at the upcoming Major League Baseball season. There's really no doubt that I'm part of a minority right now, being one of a handful of people feeling more excited about Opening Day than the current Final Four. Everyone who knows me well knows that I'm a baseball fanatic, caring and knowing more about it than any other sport. The more I think about the 2008 season, I realize that there weren't too many offseason plotlines drumming up excitement, other than speculations as to where (and if) Barry Bonds would find a team with whom to sign. Granted, everyone (myself included) wanted to hand the World Series trophy to the Chicago Cubs during most of the regular season. So far, there haven't been too many outlandish predictions for my favorite team in 2009, other than a general agreement that they'll take home another National League Central title. This is fine by me; they seem to perform much better without the entire country holding their history up, assuming that one hundred years without a championship guarantees one.

There were plenty of surprises last season, with the biggest one being the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays (note to Tampa fans: go to their home games consistently, even if they start the season 12-25; you have a special team that deserves attention). Other noted surprises were the emergence of the San Francisco Giants' Tim Lincecum, the 2008 NL Cy Young winner. Manny Ramirez carried the Dodgers to the NL Championship Series, headaches aside (this reminds me of a quote by Casey Stengel regarding team chemistry, something along the lines of "I don't mind a few oddballs in the clubhouse as long as they help the team.") In my only mention of the New York Yankees, owner Hank Steinbrenner managed to embarrass himself more in one season than his father did in thirty-five years.

I normally shy away from making sports predictions, but baseball is a game forever tied to both its past and its future. Since the 2009 season begins tomorrow, here are some probable happenings, at least in my mind.

At best, the Kansas City Royals will win 85-90 games and compete for the American League Wild Card: The chic thing to do this off-season has been to pick "the next Tampa Bay." This is silly, since nobody could have foreseen their wonderful season. However, of all the current losing teams with bright futures, one cannot be faulted for liking Kansas City. Third baseman Alex Gordon still hasn't hit his peak, and for some strange reason, a lot of people consider him a failure at age 25. However, since nobody is expecting a stellar season from him (after visions of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for 2008), he should have a more relaxed approach, and therefore a breakout season. He should lead a lineup that might not be the strongest, but plays with an emerging starting rotation. Last April, I had the good fortune of seeing pitcher Zack Greinke pitch against the Seattle Mariners. Even from the stands, it was easy to tell that he's a potential Cy Young winner in the future. He's getting better every season and will eventually be their ace. Even if Kansas City fails to make the playoffs, they will challenge other teams in the American League; they're no longer doormats.

Forget the Yankees and Red Sox; the best division race is now between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets: The World Series Champion Phillies return with more or less the same team, but with the excellent addition of Raul Ibanez (a definite upgrade over Pat Burrell). The Mets finally have a strong bullpen, led by new closer Francisco Rodriguez. Right now, it's hard to say which team will end up winning the National League East, but this season should be more exciting. Even if the Mets finish in second place, it won't be because they choke in late September, as they've done the past two seasons. 2009 should bring a division race that goes back and forth until the end of the season, and the National League Wild Card should come out of the East this season.

The San Diego Padres should not trade Jake Peavy, no matter what: During the off-season, Jake Peavy was nearly traded to both the Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves. The reasoning behind this is that the Padres are not going to compete this season, and they should trade Peavy for some strong prospects. Of course, I don't know the business side of baseball as well as actual general managers, and there's a good chance that Peavy is unhappy in San Diego. However, he's signed until 2012, and he's undoubtedly their staff ace. While the Padres are looking to cut payroll, trading their best player would obviously hurt their fan base, no matter how good the potential returns would be in the future. Peavy is the kind of pitcher you build a team around. Some low-key free agent signings or trades could make the Padres a lot better either this season or next, especially since there is no definite favorite to win the National League West division. Even as the lineup is right now, they have the potential to be better than most people predict. Especially after their poor handling of franchise closer Trevor Hoffmann, they should start fresh and build around Peavy.

Expect excellent intangibles from players returning to their original teams, even if their numbers aren't stellar: This season, the Seattle Mariners have Ken Griffey, Jr., the Oakland Athletics have Jason Giambi, and the Atlanta Braves have Tom Glavine. Nobody is really expecting any of these players to have seasons reminiscent of their prime years, but they should show the value of leadership to younger players. Griffey's return is a nostalgic boost to a very poor Seattle baseball team, and while they should improve somewhat, his occasional presence in the lineup is ceremonial as opposed to productive. If he stays healthy, he should hit around twenty-five home runs and maybe hit for a .275-.280 average. Giambi seems to have put his steriod scandal behind him, and returns to an A's team in need of a clubhose presence. He's not the venerable leader that Griffey will be for his team, but a little toughness and some dirty jokes in the clubhouse could ease what might be a long season for a team that has traded away their best pitchers. I've long hated the notion that players fail because of the New York (pick one) a.) media, b.) expectations, or c.) fans. Tom Glavine didn't fit well with the Mets due to injuries, and a quiet, steady season back in Atlanta should be what he needs to close out a possible Hall-Of-Fame career.

Fine, fine...how will the Yankees fare?: Yes, no look at any baseball season in the past thirteen years has been complete without excessive coverage of America's most hated (I mean, most beloved...wait, no, most hated) team. CC Sabathia has proved from his time with the Cleveland Indians that he can succeed in the American League. However, despite their early inconsistencies, the Yankees could have earned much more respect by giving chances to Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to succeed at the big-league level. Hughes could very well be a mainstay in the Yankee rotation, as he's shown flashes of brilliance. Of course, as it's been noted many times, the Yankees won their championships with strong play from lesser known players (Scott Brosius, Luis Soto, et. al). Since they've spent so much money for 2009, there's really no happy medium. They're either winning the American League championship or not making the playoffs at all.