Wednesday, September 27, 2017

American Fable ~ "...The darkness drops again..."

As mentioned in Tuesday's post, more on a recent film in which Yeats' poem The Second Coming is recited in full.

There's American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Hustle, American Gigolo, American Gothic....and on, and on.... many more. 2016 delivered American Fable, written and directed by Anne Hamilton- it's her feature film debut. Ms Hamilton had studied philosophy and law before turning to her first love - film. She acquired internship with Terrence Malick on the set of The Tree of Life, and as was quite likely to happen, some of that director's technique embedded itself into Ms Hamilton's new-minted style. I'd categorise it as pleasantly arty-farty but still accessible on several levels.

American Fable - the "fable" part of the film's title has to be highly significant, so should be kept in mind while watching the story unfold. A fable = a short story conveying a moral, message or lesson, same kind of thing as a parable or allegory, often containing supernatural or mythical elements. This tale is set in Wisconsin farming country in the early 1980s, when farmers in the United States were confronted by an economic crisis more severe than any since the Great Depression. Many of those who relied on agriculture for their livelihoods faced financial ruin. The epicenter of the downturn was the Midwest.
The film's story is told from the perspective of "Gitty" (short for Gertrude), 11-year old daughter of farmer Abe and wife Sarah, young sister of Martin (an absolute psychotic monster of an elder brother if ever I saw one!) The performance of Peyton Kennedy, 13 year old actress playing the part of Gitty, is something to behold - and worth seeing the film for that alone. She's in almost every scene, and carries the weight as effortlessly and as skillfully as any seasoned actor or actress.

Getting down to brass tacks, as my grandmother used to say: (spoilers ahead) Gitty's father's farm is in deep, financial trouble, many neighbouring farms have already failed, land has been bought up by developers, rumours of suicides become common, any remaining farmers are desperate, trying to hold on to their legacy, and their way of life. As a way of fighting back, and with the help of a shadowy female character, Vera, about whom I'm still puzzled, Gitty's father has managed to trap, and hold captive in an old crumbling silo on the farm property, an official (CEO?) of a huge agribusiness development company. We suppose that the intention was to use hoped for ransom money to save their farm...though quite how this could work out wasn't clear to me! Never mind, this is a fable, with a message.
The captive guy, Jonathan, is played by lovely Richard Schiff (who, for husband and I, will forever be known as "Toby from The West Wing"). Scenes between Jonathan and Gitty are some of the best in the movie in my opinion. It is in one of these scenes that Jonathan reads William Butler Yeats' poem, The Second Coming [see Tuesday's post] to Gitty from one of the pile of library books she has brought for him - to assist in his escape rather than for literary reasons.

The main arty-fartiness in American Fable, comes from many dreamy, mystical shots and sequences, also in some colour coding, a particular colour is associated with each character. For me, the colour thing, discovered only after having seen the film, seemed a wee bit superfluous, not to mention pretentious. Who has sufficient immediate insight to be watching a movie for colour coding?

There's a trailer HERE - but I don't see it as a good representation of the movie.

Without giving any more of the plot's detail away, I'll move quickly on to try to define this modern fable's moral message/lesson - nutshell-wise, as I perceived it:

The ages-old right versus wrong, good versus evil contest has shades of grey rather than being a sharp, clean black and white affair. Who, in this fable, is good; who has a good side and a bad side; who is bad, simply out of necessity, and who is downright evil out of no necessity at all? Perceiving the differences in these fictional characters, in these fictional circumstances, should assist us, in real life, to see the grey shades more clearly.

Others could well perceive the film, and its fable's lesson differently, it is left largely up to the viewer to decide. A brief review of the film in USA Today included that: The timing of its release, within weeks of Trump's inauguration as the 45th president, makes it all the more prescient, given its look at the hardscrabble Rust Belt. From the same piece:
No, we aren't revisiting the jolting results of last month's presidential election, in which Donald Trump successfully railed against the elitist culture and punched a ticket to the White House. Many have hailed his ascent as redemption for the forgotten American, the Rust Belt.

But a generation ago, in 1982, the situation was eerily similar: Ronald Reagan had been ushered into the presidency in 1980 through the overwhelming support of what Richard Nixon famously coined the Silent Majority. But his populist message also had a downside.

"Yet, we still have to choose what kinds of people we will be and what we will fight for — without certainty," Hamilton says. "American Fable is about a girl making that choice, and it's a very difficult one. Even she gets blood on her hands."


R J Adams said...

I noted your observation re the colour coding. Like you, I can't imagine it working in the cinema. In music, particularly opera, motifs to identify characters or scenes are quite common. Richard Wagner was probably the first to use them to good effect in his operas. His Ring Cycle is full of them, and they just work so well. Perhaps Hamilton felt the idea could be adapted for the cinema using colour rather than chord sequences? Inventive? Yes. Workable? No, I think not.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~ Oh..h..h yes....(the index cards in her creaky memory bank begin to flip ...and flip) - Got it! Leitmotif! I learned that word in 2013. Thanks for the

Ms Hamilton could well have done as you say, though she could also have learned and copied this additional arty-farty ingredient from other admired and experienced art-house directors she admired. I suppose it can work, if one has prior information about it being used - otherwise it'll simply get lost. Whether it actually adds anything to the proceedings, even when perceived, is another matter.

R J Adams said...

Ah, well done! Yes, Leitmotif! You may go to the top of the class - and have an extra bun for tea. ;-)

Wisewebwoman said...

Movies that involve mega-work for the viewer don't appeal to me. Same for books. I hope the ending was satisfactory and not too perplexing with unfinished knitting hanging all over it. There's a metaphor, lol.


PS I'm with you on Toby. CJ too. Loved West Wing.

Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~ I'm with you on that - I don't mind as much in the case of paintings and poetry - probably because less time and effort is (usually) required to tease out any lurking metaphor. It's getting to the point, now, when seeing a movie with a known arty farty director, that it's wise to read up about its foibles, online, before viewing.

Ending of American Fable was kind of as expected, but awkwardly contrived, we thought - a few "dropped stitches" were in evidence. ;-)

West Wing's CJ became my favourite character! :)