Thursday, March 24, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XIV: I want to talk to you seriously for a moment, and, on and off, for the next thirty-one years


The director stumbles into Oscarbait, but the good kind, and comes up with a movie that demonstrates that his powers can be used for edification as well as entertainmentwhile also showcasing a pacey and unfocused screenplay, for almost a full hour longer than it really needs to showcase it.  (The even shorter, snarkier version is, "Welcome to the Spielberg... of the future!")

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Menno Meyjes (based on the novel by Alice Walker)
With Whoopi Goldberg/Desreta Jackson (Celie Johnson, nee Harris), Akosua Busia (Nettie Harris), Oprah Winfrey (Sofia Johnson), Margaret Avery (Shug Avery), Willard E. Pugh (Harpo Johnson), and Danny Glover ("Mister" Albert Johnson)

Spoiler alert: moderate

One thing that annoys me about Steven Spielberg, even if it is a mild annoyance, is his ambivalence toward the "frivolity" of his early work.  But, it was this ambivalence that would lead him on a new path.  Notwithstanding, of course, the frivolity-laden would-be historical chronicle of The Sugarland Express, Spielberg's journey down the road of seriousness really began with the ambitious self-importance of his 1985 effort, The Color Purple.  And, yes, the director that Spielberg was now in the process of becoming would go on to hit some really high highshighs that I don't think I'd trade for anything, maybe not even more Indiana Jones movies.  (Okay, I'm lying.)  Yet it would take him to some some abysmal lows, tooespecially as he sought to hybridize his newfound taste for sourness with his dutiful sense of showmanship, which occasionally resulted in some of the most noxious films in his whole damn catalog.

But!  This is for the days to come; and, naturally, it's far too much of a burden to lay across the back of one film.  So, suffice it to say this: following the completion of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doomreceived by the public with a great deal of hand-wringingSpielberg realized that he had wearied somewhat of his role as the lord shaper of childhood dreams.  The worship of children, one supposes, is not the same as respect from adultsespecially those adults who fashion themselves as respectable, too.

And so it was time to make a Dramacapital "D" very much impliedthat Engaged with Social Issues and said Something Insightful about Something Important.  And, naturally, when Spielberg made it, it was bound to be made with that Spielbergian style.  Thus did the dour bildungsroman of a poor young black woman in the early 20th century find itself adapted into a walloping of Film 101 obviousness, on top of sometimes-bizarre flights of directorial fancy, accompanied by a score composed by Quincy Jones, the man who produced Thriller, yet which is indistinguishable from John Williams on autopilot, and by cinematography from Allen Daviau, Spielberg's collaborator on E.T. and "Kick the Can," which seeks to beautify the proceedings in a way that could easily strike one as being at cross-purposes with the outrageous cruelties of the story, and which therefore serves, at its best, as mean-spirited irony.

For many, it worked; for others, it did not.  But when it comes to The Color Purple, I think I might have had a unique reaction: the problem is not the way it's made, but the way it's written.  I have not, in fact, read Alice Walker's novel"I have not read the novel" is something I ought to program a keyboard macro forbut I am aware that it is a thing of scope and sprawl.  I fully expect that it is ribboned with all manner of detail and nuance, such thatwithin the confines of its pagesthe reader might make sense out of all the scenes which, in this adaptation, manifest instead as odd and occasionally even boring tangents.  You see, The Color Purple, the motion picture, is not the story of a community or a family.  It's the story of a woman.  Its biggest problem is that it doesn't seem to be entirely aware of it.

Anyway, that woman is Celie Harris, the oldest daughter of a family of farmers, born in the late 19th century in Georgia.  We meet Celie in the midst of the terrifying gauntlet of sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of her demented father, something she has more-or-less normalized for herself (making it all the more upsetting for us), and which has so far resulted in not one but two pregnancies.  One of the first scenes of the film is Celie being torn away from her newborn daughter, who is adopted out to spare the family scandal.  However, Celie's mother has lately become aware of her husband's depredationsand blames her.  Celie is thus cast out, and married off to a local landowner, whom she knows as "Mister" (his Christian name, we'll learn, is Albert).  You'll be unsurprised to learn that Albert only perpetuates her misery, adding frequent beatings to Celie's ever-expanding universe of pain.  We get the full taste of his cruelty when Celie's sister Nettie flees their father's home (you can easily guess why) to stay with Celie; Albert, of course, engages in an escalating campaign of rape-as-seduction, whichwhen it doesn't pan out to his likingleads to Nettie's exile, over Celie's tearful objections.

And, so, by the time we catch up with Celie againyears latershe has fitted into the role of dutiful, beaten-down wife, while Albert toms about the city, ultimately bringing his mistress home, as if Celie didn't exist at all.  Yet these are the beginnings of his undoing: for as Celie makes the acquaintance of the other woman, the fiercely independent Shug Avery, she learns by seeing, andas the long years passby doing.

For example, doing Shug Avery.

Well, the first thing you'll notice is that The Color Purple is an arch-feminist fable, rendered into life by an utterly fascinating, incredibly slow-burning performance by a youthful Whoopi Goldberg (a reminder that she once had skills other than "enjoyably broad comedy," although, at this point in the game, even being reminded that Goldberg had any skills at all besides "being Whoopie Goldberg" feels like a blast from the past).

In any event, The Color Purple's fable is by far the best thing it has going for it, both on the level of pure narrative, and on the level of pure cinema; and so it feels like a completely unwelcome injection of realism (not Spielberg's strongest suit) when, for example, Celie and Shug discuss Albert like he's some kind of human beingwhom Shug professes, in a moment of uncharacteristically reduced consciousness, to genuinely loverather than what he actually is, which is Patriarchal Evil, wearing a well-tailored Danny Glover costume.

Christ, for half the film he goes by a name that just means "MAN."

And the film will eventually reach a point, long, long after it should have stopped, where it seeks to re-humanize Albert, something it doesn't come remotely close to doing in a palatable or even believable way.  (It will do the same for his son, Harpo, a faded shadow of his father, who at least serves as some sort of vaguely-examined example of how terrible attitudes get replicated in each new generation, and who at least has a glimmer of light within him.  Yet perhaps this is only because his bullshit is often played for something like laughs"first as tragedy, then as farce," as they say.)

This is, however, just the most obvious flaw in the screenplay's overbuilt construction: there are subplots in this movieindeed, subplots within those subplots.  Yet they are serviced with almost no screentime, absolutely transparent in their intention to simply get as much of the novel as possible into Spielberg's allotted runtime of around two and a half hours.  And so even the title drop, which I have to imagine is handled with some amount of grace and poetry in the novel, comes to us in the form of a bizarre interstitial scene that appears to be comprised of a single insert shot, coming from nowhere, and heading right back.  Likewise, Oprah Winfrey's character, Alfred's daughter-in-law Sofiawhom, I should say, I generally likesoon becomes a severe distraction, essentially just wandering around in her own, self-contained film, largely unbound to Celie's own constrained perspective.  Sofia's film is less about feminism than it is racism; it has its moments; and if you expect them to impact Celie in anything but the most marginal of ways, you shall find yourself flummoxed to death by the eventual reduction of Sofia's role to that of a cheerleader in a (post-)climactic dinner table scene that, honestly, probably doesn't really need to be here in the first place.

Obviously, the arc we're really invested in is Celie's: it begins in rape, it continues as she suffers, and as she gains confidence from a mentor figure, and it concludesit decisively concludesin a mirror-image of an earlier scene, where she at last breaks free, emotionally, and finally musters up the courage to slay her dragon, figuratively.

And it's in Celie's scenes that The Color Purple absolutely soars.  As far as its more unsettling content goes, there's a solid case to be made that Spielberg was amongst the most qualified people in the business to film it: who else squirms like he does when it comes to cinematic sexuality?  It's a distaste that serves the nastiest material welland even Celie's one pleasant sexual encounter in the whole film, the tryst with Shug, is still compelling in its sweetness (it reminds me a lot of the childlike niceness of the romantic scene between Indy and Marion in Raiders).  If Spielberg excuses himself from the scene before it's consummated, it's not as if it's left on the table for "interpretation."  So give him some credit: Spielberg's hardly mustered up some Sirk-level passion here, but there's a rising energy to it that he frankly encourages.

Of course, where Spielberg shines the brightest is in the creation of consciously iconic visuals that dictate the living hell out of how we're supposed to identify with his movie's long-suffering heroines.  Thus, there are straining shots of Albert, from above and below, rivaling the Man with the Keys for their sensation of abominable tyranny; and, as crushingly obvious as they tend to be, they are (indeed, for that very reason) all the better for it.  Meanwhile, Albert's attempt to rape Nettie, particularly as presented within Michael Kahn's typically intense cutting scheme, is as attuned to the sensibility of horror cinema as anything in Spielberg's unsung career as one of our great horror directors: dressed in black, smiling a viscerally-discomfiting smile, rushing against the staccato interruption of a conspicuously-designed vale of trees, only to suddenly disappear, he becomes the Big Bad Wolf, the Headless Horseman, maybe even Death himselfmore than just some brute, but all brutes, the very image of their power on Earth.  It is broad-daylight horror of the severest conceivable kind, short of something like The Woman, which (tellingly) trafficks in much the same themes, and likewise suggests that this is a specific, public, tolerated kind of horrorafter all, in The Color Purple, that's exactly what it is.

So, if it ends with a stack of books to the nards... well, even that is as well-played as it could possibly be.

Then there is that climactic scene I mentioned, echoing what has come before: both it and its precursor are shaving scenes, which tells you just about everything you need to know already; both find Albert ensconced within a feeling of superiority so profound that he sees not the slightest risk in handing Celie a razor and telling her to separate the whiskers from his neck; each is played as a miniature thriller setpiece, the first as red herring, and the second... well, that would be giving too much away, wouldn't it?  For I intuit that, unlike many Spielberg films, The Color Purple has not found precisely the same kind of ubiquity that permits me to spoil, for example, Jaws with gleeful abandon.

But, like I said before, the film just keeps Goddamned going from this point, to incredibly diminished returns, tying up plotlines even the movie itself doesn't seem to care about.  Eventually it busts out into a full-fledged musical number that, like far too many things in this film, has nothing to do with Celie (nor is it a patch on the opening number from Temple of Doom, which does feel like it has some kind of point, even if it's not a strictly narrative one).

Forty minutes' worth of diminished returns is a lot for a movie to ask of its audience, and The Color Purple sacrifices Spielberg's claims to a mature greatness on the altar of its insufferable, minutia-hoarding attempts at "completeness."  Yet there is still a great movie within it: one that's about 100 minutes long, and focused like a laser upon the great star turn at its centerblossoming, like the flowers the film rather clumsily alludes to, over the course of a whole life.

Score:  7/10

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