Saturday, April 20, 2013

Beloved: A Comparison

** Spoiler Alert - this post contains spoilers about the story Beloved**

Here's your first spoiler folks.  This movie is LONG.  It clocks in at just under 180 minutes, or three hours.  In fact, it's three minutes longer than The Hobbit, and we all know how rough that was to make it through (time-wise, it was an AMAZING movie).  If you don't, even I can't help you.  Anyway, going into the movie I knew it was going to be a long one.  Now having watched it, I realize the main reason it is so long is because the filmmakers tried their best to stay true to the book, including as much relevant information as possible.  In fact, I'd say it's one of the best movies I've seen when it comes to that.  A good majority of the dialogue was taken straight from the book and for the most part they followed the story plot point by plot point.

That being said, there was definitely a different vibe to the movie than in the book.  Which didn't make sense to me at first, since it seemed the filmmakers tried so hard to align themselves with the book.  The only thing I could think of was that they interpreted the point of the novel incorrectly, or in a skewed manner.  Let me explain.

The movie opens on a graveyard with spine-tingling, eerie music playing the background that I wasn't able to distinguish as English, almost setting the direction of the movie in stone, so to speak (pun intended).  That belief is confirmed only a few minutes later when you witness the first "attack" by the baby ghost, the vicious and brutal torture of the family dog.  When the other screaming children finally convince the ghost to release the dog, his eye is hanging out of the socket and his leg is so badly mangled Sethe is forced to amputate it.  Assuming the dog never did anything personal to the ghost, the idea seems to be that she has no reason and it just attacking so heinously at will because she can.  The tone is much more sinister as opposed to the purely mischievous feel of the book.  Even the (terrible) effects they use shed Beloved in an evil light.  Like literally, they shower her in red light whenever possible.

It doesn't help that the movie is so campy it could be the first part of Deathly Hallows (get it?  Cuz they did a lot of camping.  Alright moving on).  They use an odd filming style, using strange camera angles. Especially during one-on-one conversations.  They point the camera directly at each person when they talk, as though they're talking to you.  Once I got over my initial confusion, I surmised this was to bring you into the movie, on a personal level.  If you felt you were actually a part of the story you could get invested, let your guard down.  I began to surmise this theory when they introduced Beloved.

That's her there with Sethe (Oprah Winfrey).  I spent an uncomfortable 30 minutes after she was introduced pondering over the filmmakers' interesting choices.  Basically, instead of the regular person she was in the book, Beloved in the movie is portrayed as a toddler in the body of a grown woman.  It's oddly disturbing and really hard to watch.  This makes it all the more horrific when she asks Paul D to "touch her".  And even more so when he actually does.  And even worse when she ends up pregnant.  But I digress.  As I was saying, I believe the camera angles were a way to bring us deeper into the story.  Portraying Beloved in this way (aside from the fact that it is very, very wrong) is a way to get the audience to let down their guard, be vulnerable.  That way you get slammed in the end when she goes completely insane and runs outside, pregnant and completely naked.  Which they show on-camera by the way.  Weird movie.  Very, very weird.

In the end, the stark dichotomy between the two portrayals of Beloved make the point of the story in general hard to reconcile.  In the novel, she is a manifestation of something that knows what it wants and is actually able to go about it.  In the film, she's a toddler who wants something, but her brain literally isn't developed enough to understand so she just throws fits.  The whole movie.  I think the choice of actors, the change-up of Beloved, and the overall theme difference caused a lot to be lost in translation.  In the movie, Beloved was literally a parasite.  She clung to Sethe, leeching the very life from her, as she demanded to be taken care of because she was in fact still a toddler on the inside.  In the novel, you are also given much more background information, explaining why the scene at the end with the ladies from town is so important.  What Beloved does to Sethe may kill her, but it heals her internal scars, as well as those caused by the rift between the family and the rest of the town.

So.  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Have you not read the book and/or seen the movie??  Well what are you waiting for?!
The novel can be picked up at your local bookstore or online (hint: I found a copy on Amazon as cheap as 7 dollars!)
The movie can be streamed from Amazon Instant Video to rent ($1.99) or buy ($9.99) or on YouTube for $1.99

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Skeleton Key and "Po' Sandy"

When I first read Charles Chestnut’s “Po’ Sandy”, I was instantly reminded of one of my all-time favorite horror films, The Skeleton Key.  They both revolve around slave/servant culture as well as the supernatural, chock full of Gothic imagery and thematic elements.  While the two stories contain several parallel plot details, there are various other ideas that are twisted and seem to run perpendicular to one another.  The foundation of supernatural conjuring and the torture of slaves is strong for both works, while the intent of such conjuring and the determination of the tortured slaves work at cross-purposes.  And as always, the Gothic symbol of the mirror is alive and well.

In “Po’ Sandy”, slaves Sandy and Tenie, husband and wife (in the common-law sense, as most slaves were not permitted to legally marry, as they were not considered full/real human beings), just want to be together.  In an effort to protect him, and to accomplish their goal of staying with each other, Tenie (a conjure woman) turns her husband into a tree, “rooting” him with her, literally and figuratively.  But they are ironically torn apart when Sandy is cut down to be used for lumber.  Her good intentions have inadvertently killed her husband, whose moans and groans are heard in the buildings made by his lumber.  His physical torture, hers mental and emotional, even those remembering the story years later are tortured by the memories left behind.  Julius, a black man in the present time of the story, can barely handle retelling the story to a young white couple.  Chestnut’s work illuminated the slave culture and shed light on the torture they endured.

The Skeleton Key, on the other hand, is set deep in the bayous of Southern Louisiana, a land overrun by hoodoo.  Hoodoo, as opposed to voodoo (more of a religion), is an Afro-American folk witchcraft, relying largely on the idea that “hoodoo cannot hurt you if you do not believe in it”.  A young nurse accepts a job as a private hospice caregiver at an isolated plantation home surrounded by swampland in the coastal Terrebonne Parish.  The house, as it turns out, has a sordid past.  A past of mistreated servants and hoodoo conjuring, one that is not so easily forgotten.  So hostile is the energy of the home that no mirrors are hung anywhere, for when you look into a mirror, you are confronted by the ghosts of the house.

Forgive the trailer, it's a bit campy and kind of makes it look like a terrible movie.  I promise it's not, and I highly recommend it!

I digress.  The past servants of the house in New Orleans, Mama Cecile and Papa Justify, grow weary of the constant mistreatment by the affluent white folk.  As conjurors, they devise a powerful conjuration, the conjure of sacrifice.  Essentially, they get to live forever by taking people who believe in hoodoo (hint: this part is very important) and stealing the years they have left, otherwise known as switching bodies.  And their first victims?  The two children of the family they work for.  They are discovered practicing magic on the children and are taken by an angry mob to be lynched.  The children watch from the house, Mama Cecile and Papa Justify now inhabiting their bodies, as the souls of the young girl and boy are hanged and burned.  Once they’ve had their revenge on the family that so mistreated them, they continue this practice with strangers.  As their current bodies age, they find fresh, young victims and maliciously take their lives for their own selfish purposes.
For Tenie and Sandy, the situation is entirely different.  Neither of them want to hurt a soul, all they want in the world is to be together.  Even when the love of her life is ripped away from her, Tenie does not seek revenge.  It is almost ironic to think about how the slaves (Tenie and Sandy) were less bitter and angry than the servants.  Even if Tenie and Sandy were the best-treated slaves in the world, they still would’ve been treated worse than the servants.  Yet Cecile and Justify are the ones wreaking havoc and taking revenge.

These stories bring up an interesting question about race and hauntedness.  Is that even a word?  Well, it is now.  Anyway, in "Po' Sandy" the white couple is told of the hauntings by a black man.  And as he relays the story, he reveals that the others servants, the other black servants are the one's upset by the hauntings by Sandy.  Similarly, the young people chosen by Justify and Cecile are all white.  It is even hinted at that the black people they've tried to trick always run before the switch can be made, because they are more likely to believe in hoodoo sooner and realize the situation was not safe.  There is a difference, however, in who is doing the haunting.  In "Po' Sandy" the ghost is that of Sandy, a black man.  But in The Skeleton Key, the ghosts of the house are those of the lives stolen by Justify and Cecile, all white.  I think with "Po' Sandy" the idea is simple.  In the days of slavery, blacks were haunted every day but the horrors they were put through, all the friends, family and loved ones who were lost.  They were haunted by freedom, or the idea of it, as they had never had it to begin with.
The Skeleton Key, on the other hand, is more complex.  While they were not quite slaves, Justify and Cecile were mistreated and oppressed.  Perhaps a sign of what minuscule progress had been made since the times of "Po' Sandy", the two servants were able to escape their lives.  They took the lives of those who had placed them in the shackles of inferiority, in turn trapping them in the very house where it all began.

Just as a little endnote in case you need more convincing to see the movie, this happens:

And if you need more than that-oh, what's that?  Stop?  I'm making it worse?  Well alright then. If you do in fact wish to experience these stories:
"Po' Sandy" can be read online, I believe it's the first result on Google
The Skeleton Key is available on Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video to buy ($9.99) or rent ($2.99), and on YouTube for $2.99