Sunday, July 31, 2011

This Time, You REALLY Can't Go Home Again!

How many disasters does it take for the message to sink in?  From Japanese tsunamis to earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti, from flooding in South Dakota, to volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, there are times when Mother Nature's plans for your real estate don't match up with yours.

A peculiar brand of American optimism holds that it's easy to recover from any setback. Forget about depression, devastation, and financial ruin. As Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers explain in the following clip from 1936's Swing Time, all you have to do is "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again."

From John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, to 1993's Falling Down to the 2011 release of The Company Men to recent news items suggesting that it is futile for people who are unemployed to apply for jobs, the cheery messages from Depression era movie musicals have been replaced by darker, more dour advice.

In 1923 Jimmy Cox wrote a song about a millionaire who had lost his wealth as a result of prohibition. After it was recorded by Bessie Smith in May of 1929. Cox's song became an American standard. Why?  Five months later, Wall Street experienced the great stock market crash of October 1929. Here's the great Alberta Hunter singing "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

Some people perceive change as an enemy rather than an inevitability. Others are so wrapped up in their self-importance that they completely lose perspective. Consider the poor, beleaguered souls in the follow video:

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Based on Judy Pascoe's novel, Our Father Who Art in The Tree, a new film written and directed by Julia Bertuccelli strikes me as ideally suited to penetrate the independent and women's film markets. The story line is stark and simple. Tragedy strikes a rural Australian family (not once, but twice). And although home may be where the heart is, at a certain point it's no longer there and a person must move on in order to survive.

Peter (Aden Young) is a seemingly healthy truck driver who helps to deliver prefabricated homes using a widebody flatbed truck. As he returns home one day, he catches his eight-year-old daughter, Simone (Morgana Davies), and her friend Megan (Zoe Boe), playing beneath a railroad trestle as a train passes overhead.

Reminding Simone that he has told her that she should never play in such a dangerous location, Peter drops Megan off with her father and is just nearing home when he suffers a fatal heart attack. His truck collides with the huge Moreton Bay Fig tree that towers over their house.

Poster art for The Tree

Following her husband's funeral, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), sinks into a major depression, leaving her eldest child, Tim (Christian Byers), to cope with an increasingly unfair level of household responsibilities. In addition to routine bits of reality (like feeding her four children and getting them to school), Dawn must cope with unexpected terrors like a fruit bat that gets stuck in the kitchen toaster or the frogs that come up out of the toilet in the bathroom. A steady stream of news coverage about the devastating floods in Queensland doesn't help to lighten the atmosphere.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Dawn

Meanwhile, the tree's giant roots keep expanding, clogging drainpipes and inspiring Simone to believe that she can hear the her dead father's voice in the sound that the wind makes as it passes through the tree at night. At first, Dawn tries to humor her daughter, who is obviously having trouble accepting Peter's death. Only after she takes a job working for a local plumber does Dawn start to pull herself out of her depression.

Her new employer, George (Martin Csokas). turns out to be a handsome bear of a man with a sympathetic soul. But when a crisis erupts between Dawn and her neighbors (who want to destroy the tree's roots that threaten their property), Simone refuses to cooperate with George's work crew. Forced to choose between her daughter's insistence on protecting the tree and the necessary help from the new man in her life, Dawn reluctantly tells George to call off his work crew.

Martin Csokas as George

Just when it seems like nothing else could possibly go wrong, a huge storm destroys Dawn's house and inflicts severe damage on the tree. With her life completely in shambles, Dawn packs her children into the family car, says farewell to George, and heads down the lonely road toward an uncertain future.

Although Bertuccelli's film seems to take a long time finding its pace (and some of Simone's lines are just a little too precious), The Tree builds to a powerful climax as the storm demolishes any hope of Dawn staying in the same house, fixing the tree, or letting Simone keep on pretending that she can talk to her father.  Reality bites down hard. Here's the trailer:

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Sometimes a person has a unique reason for being unable to go home again. One really good reason is that you've very convincingly faked your own death. I had forgotten that part of Mark Twain's classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, until the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a restored print of William Desmond Taylor's 1920 silent film, Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn (Lewis Sergeant) and
Tom Sawyer (Gordon Griffith)

Using a print from the George Eastman House, this screening was co-presented by the California Historical Society and accompanied on the piano by Donald Sosin. For the purposes of the silent film, the story was bookended with scenes of an an elderly Mark Twain receiving a visit from the spirit of Huckleberry Finn (Lewis Sergeant). Among the curious bits of trivia that surround the 1920 version of Huckleberry Finn are the following:
  • Paramount Pictures never denied a rumor that the film was shot on location in and around Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain's home town). The truth, however, is that it was shot in the northern California towns of Rio Vista and Pleasanton.
  • Filming took place on the Sacramento River (which substituted for the Mississippi River).
  • George Reed (who played the role of the slave, Jim) was cast by William Desmond Taylor at a time when white actors were still performing in blackface in silent films.
A lobby card for the 1920 version of Huckleberry Finn

Some 90 years after Huckleberry Finn was released, it's fascinating to see how Huck's abusive alcoholic father (Frank Lanning) was portrayed at the time. Strong support in secondary roles came from Katherine Griffith  as Widow Douglas, Martha Mattox as Miss Watson, Gordon Griffith as Tom Sawyer, and Edythe Chapman as Aunt Polly.

Although it's been years since I read Mark Twain's novel, watching William Desmond Taylor's film brought back many fond memories. I especially enjoyed the performances by Tom Bates as The King and Orral Humphrey as the Duke (the 1920 silent film, alas, does not include the scene where these two characters are tarred and feathered).  Here's the trailer:

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