Tag Archives: America

Visualizing Words: The Adaptation of Intruder in the Dust From Novel into Film

Clarence Brown’s film Intruder in the Dust is a fantastic rendition of William Faulkner’s novel of the same title. Juano Hernandez delivers a powerful performance as Lucas Beauchamp. In my opinion, I think the film’s spotlight is centered on Lucas instead of Chick from Hernandez’s stand alone performance. This is a significant difference from the novel because in the film the world we perceive is not mediated through Chick’s dominating, narratorial consciousness. From novel to film, the focal emphasis has shifted from a white to a black racial perspective.


Chick Mallison is played by Claude Jarman Jr. Even though Jarman is a young actor and his acting skills may not have developed fully at the time, his performance of Chick is weak. At times it appears as though he is uncertain if he is on the correct filming set, which is a harsh criticism but honest nonetheless. What adds insult to injury is the outperforming of a white character by a black character. Hernandez’s Puerto Rican ethnicity, however, makes this a little less hard to swallow for the white audience. If he was an African American actor residing in the US then public reactions to the film-especially in the South because Southerns were apprehensive about having a film about lynching made on location-may have taken a turn for the worst. This is one of the many hints in the film of the race relations in the then current sociopolitical context of the American South.

Another example of the race relations that leaks through in the adaptation from novel to film is evident from Elzie Emanuel’s performance of Aleck Sander. In the novel, Faulkner depicts Aleck Sander as possessing practical intelligence, which is apparent from his closeness to nature, his ability to improvise when there is only one shovel present by using a plank of wood to dig with in the graveyard scene, his handling of the horse, Highboy, his ability to spot a mule coming towards them in the dark of night, and his knowledge of the presence of quicksand. Faulkner juxtaposes Aleck with Chick who posses intellectual intelligence. However, both characters compliment each other because the intelligence that one lacks is supplemented by the other. In this sense, they may be interpreted as alter-egos of each.

On the other hand, in the film, Elzie Emanuel was forced to perform Aleck Sander in the stereotypical manner of the comic, coon figure with bulging, bug eyes and dialogue that implies his dim-wittedness. Aleck’s give-and-take relationship with Chick in the novel becomes a give-and-give relationship in the film because of his subservient role as Chick’s black servant. This is apparent in the graveyard scene where Chick calls the shots and Aleck does what he is told in a passive, servile manner. Brown establishes the postion of Aleck’s social status in relation to Chick in the flashback sequence at the start of the film that recalls Chick’s African-American cultural experience at Lucas’s house after in fell into the creek. In this scene, Chick attempts to transform Lucas’s moral deed into a financial deed that is fulfilled by a monetary transaction when he offers Lucas money. Lucas refuses to subvert the decency of his hospitality by refusing to accept Chick’s money. Chick fails to realise the lesson-some deeds cannot be paid for- Lucas is trying to teach him. Chick retaliates by attempting to exercise his power over Lucas from his position in the racial hierarchy of the white hegemonic society of the South. Chick does this by dropping the coins he has offered Lucas. There is a close-up of Chick’s white hand as he drops the coins on the floor. The camera follows the trajectory of one of the rolling coins with a close up of it, which conveys the dramatic intensity of the moment. Lucas responds by demanding Aleck Sander to pick up the coins and to return them to Chick. It is in this shot, when Aleck is in a state of genuflection-a position of deep respect for a superior-that Chick’s superior status over Aleck becomes visually solidified in our memory.

The significance of the recurrent motif of hands in the film also reinforces Chick’s relationship to Aleck, which in many ways is a microcosmic depiction of America’s race relations. The close-up shot of Aleck’s black hand positioned above Chick’s as he places the money in to Chick’s hand suggests his aforementioned servile role and Aleck’s give-and-give relationship with Chick, but it may also be interpreted as suggesting the economy of slavery and black subjugation. The rise and development of the South may be attributed to slavery. Slave plantations were a capitalist enterprise, which were highly profitable. Owning slaves in the South was an advantageous strategy because slaves were used as field hands to pick cotton, the staple crop of the South and while cotton was not being harvested they were used to grow corn, which further supplemented their wealth. Therefore, the act of a black character putting money in the hand of a white character is reminiscent of the Antebellum South when slavery generated money.

In a similar vein, the hand motif is also indicative of Chick’s relationship to Lucas. In the second jail scene when Chick returns to Lucas’s cell to talk to Lucas alone, there is a close-up shot of Lucas’s black and Chick’s white hands clutching either side of the cell door. The rapid cross-cutting of the camera angles from inside and outside of the cell obscures one’s ability to differentiate between either one. This camera work implies the disintegration of the divisions between captivity and freedom and guilty and innocence. Therefore, despite being outside the cell, Lucas is imprisoned also because he is in a psychological prison constructed and imposed on him by the racist society he lives in.

Also the camera only displays certain parts of Lucas and Chick which implies that they can only see and understand each other to a certain extent. The cell door that divides them and disrupts their comprehension of each other could be interpreted as a physical representation of the social mores and codes preventing proper race relations.

Furthermore, Lucas’s prison does not only serve the purpose of incapacitation for societal protection. Instead, the prison cell protects him from societal retribution by means of lynching. This inversion of the main method of criminal punishment and justice suggests the perversion of justice in this society as innocent people are imprisoned to protect them from the guilty people who are free to orchestrate a lynch mob outside. Critics contend that the deflation of justice is conveyed at the start of the film from the flat tire of the sheriff’s car. This is evident in the film from the shot of Crawford Gowrie standing under the tree with a lit match in hand after Chick, Stevens and the Sheriff arrive at the prison. The cut to the inside of the prison establishes a juxtaposition between both. It is also apparent when the lynch mob has gathered outside the prison and Crawford approaches with a Jerry can of petrol in hand.

The stand-off scene between Crawford and Miss Habersham is wrath with a high level of dramatic intensity as the preceding camera shots focused on the Jerry can in Crawford’s hand and the trail of petroleum spilling from it as he approached the prison entrance. This trail of petrol that leads back to its source-the petrol pump-may be interpreted as the consequences of Crawford’s actions. In order to intimidate Miss Habersham, Crawford splashes petroleum at her feet, and strikes a match-a recurring action, which is visible in practically every shot of him in the film. The camera focuses on Crawford as he holds the lighting match in hand. If he ignites the petrol that would burn the prison and Miss Habersham then his actions would backfire on him, and the fire he ignited would burn back to its source, causing an uncontrollable chain reaction of events that would culminate in his own death by lynching for committing the unforgivable act of unlawfully killing an innocent, white woman. However, the fire of the match, which may be interpreted as Crawford’s masculinity or his source of power is extinguished by Miss Habersham.

Consequently, the climax of the film also differs significantly from the novel. The novel culminates with Crawford’s suicide, which has been interpreted by critics as an evasion of the law. The film, on the other hand, attempts to emphasize that justice prevails while the sub-text of the film suggests otherwise, as evident from the aforementioned, second jail scene. The filming of Crawford Gowrie in the backseat of the Sheriff’s car-the same position of Lucas Beauchamp at the start of the film- demonstrates not only the cyclical structure of the film, but also the cyclicality of the history of America’s race relations as society realizes that those who were thought to be innocent are guilty and vice versa.

 

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Call It Spectacular: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (16 November 2010)

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is a remarkable book, depicting a realistic chronicle of the Jewish immigrant experience in America, through the infantile eyes and stream-of-consciousness of David Schearl. With two intertwining stories, the novel immerses the reader deep in the world of New York’s immigrant ghettos, and David and his family’s daily struggle with attempting to acclimatize to their harsh and foreign milieu.

David’s first experience of America becomes a microcosmic specular reflection of every immigrants’ experience, which we as readers become part of. Reading this book is a willful, submission of one’s mind to the literary mediumship of David’s consciousness, which at first feels peculiar as one readjusts to a puerile perception of the world, but the further one reads the more one becomes enveloped in his state of consciousness. David’s struggle with America, its streets, languages and people become our struggle because as readers we are immigrants or tourists in the foreign world of David’s consciousness. We are reading this novel in our familiar tongue of English, but it is narrated from the perspective of a foreign narrator, who is attempting to comprehend the foreign language and world of America, in Yiddish. Roth turns the scales, by positioning the English-speaking reader in the role of a foreigner, akin to David.

The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is poetic English, while spoken English is portrayed with a Yiddish inflection. In the Introduction to Call It Sleep, Alfred Kazin claims that “Roth caricatures the terrible English […] in order to bring out the necessary contrast with the Yiddish spoken at home” (xv). This is true to a certain extent, but if we analyse Roth’s use of English closely then an alternative reading may be formed. The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is Yiddish, but it is translated and written for the reader in English. Therefore, it could be interpreted as not legitimate English or David’s English because he is not communicating his thoughts in English. They are translated into English for us, while the English dialogue in the text is not translated and is spoken in English with a Yiddish lint.

This interplay with language provides a glimpse of the struggle Roth and many other writers of immigrant texts face when attempting to convey a multi-lingual world with a mono- or bi-lingual means of expression. The difficulties of this is also implied further from the semantic ambiguity of the bilingual punning of David’s name, which means different things in Yiddish and Hebrew. In Hebrew, David means ‘beloved’, while in Yiddish David means ‘scissors’.

This role-reversal of native and foreigner is one of the outstanding accomplishments of Roth’s novel, which also evokes the use of these two binaries in American society. Can an American be considered a true native of America, if they are merely descendants of European immigrants who invaded the native land of the indigenous people? Are Americans not all in the same boat (pardon the immigration-connoting pun), with regards being foreigners and immigrants? I find this concept particularly interesting because my research interests include Native American literature and culture, colonialism and post-colonialism.

What is also worth noting about Call it Sleep, in comparison to other immigrant stories, is the juxtaposition of the old world with the new world. David’s infantile amnesia prevents him from fully remembering his country of birth and he is left with only vague memories. His experience of the new world, however, is still foreign, which situates him in the immigrant status as his parents. David’s conceptualisation of the old world is shaped by his parents’ and family’s recollections of it. The subtle contrasts between the old and the new world reveals Roth’s attitudes towards them.

Since the majority of the novel is communicated from David’s perspective, there is an absence of an omniscient narrator to provide us with a total view of the immigrant ghetto of New York City. As readers, therefore, we are provided with a fragmented and restricted view of America and American society.

From the culmination of themes towards the end of the novel, however, critics interpret the railroad tracks scene as a moment of transformation, rebirth or redemption. Hana Wirth-Nesher claims that “David becomes a naturalized American by becoming a Christ symbol (460). This is plausible to the extent that David’s fascination with Christian symbolism and ritual objects that litter the novel. If David’s near-death experience on the railroad tracts could be read as similar to Jesus’s self-sacrifice then this reading could be interpreted negatively as condemning Jesus’s actions. David’s actions if fulfilled could have resulted in his death, which may be classed as suicide, but he failed to achieve divine communion. Therefore, his actions were in vain.

Consequently, Call It Sleep provides an insightful depiction of the immigrant experience, especially the Jewish immigrant experience, in America. Although there are certain scenes in the book that could be edited because they are protracted, overall it is a spectacularly vivid read.

Works Cited

Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Roth Call It Sleep ix-xx.

Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep. New York: Picador, 1991. Print.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “Between Mother Tongue and Native Language in Call It Sleep.” Afterword. Roth Call It Sleep 443-462.


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Silent Star Breaks Sweetheart: The Irish-Immigrant Cinderella Story of Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley (1918) (12 October 2010)

Release date: 11 March 1918.
Director: Marshall Neilan (Irish-American).
Starring: Mary Pickford, Norman Kerry and William Scott.

Mary Pickford stars as Amarilly Jenkins, the Irish tenement dweller in the ethnic neighborhood of Clothes-line Alley, as the title of the film suggests. The linking of Amarilly with her ethnic neighbourhood is another example of conveying the ethnic geography of America, and the symbiotic relationship between urban setting and ethnic identity. In the film, the city is coded as a community, but it is also coded as a potentially dangerous place. This is conveyed by the exoticism and threatening nature of Chinatown where Terry gets shot at randomly, which is exemplifies America’s xenophobia from the influx foreign nationalities.

Pickford’s performance vindicates the vast fandom she attracted. Even though she is not performing as the American sweetheart, which is a persona molded by her fans, her star persona shines through Amarilly’s poverty-stricken veneer. Young observes that Pickford associated her Irishness with such virtues as hard working, resiliency, matriarchy and humour (65). These qualities are evident in her role as Amarilly and other characters she played.

The plot of the film is a fish-out-of-water tale with quasi-Cinderella overtones. The upper-class, gentleman falling in love with the poor, working-class girl is a familiar trope that has been rehashed many times since in movies like Pretty Woman(1990) and Maid in Manhattan(2002) to name but a few. Like the majority of movies employing this trope, an event occurs so the path of the poor, working-class woman converges with the upper-class man. This develops in Amarilly when Gordon is taken home by Amarilly after a fight breaks out. The fight scene that Amarilly engages with is comical because Pickford fully embraces the fighting-Irish stereotype. In a humorous and melodramatic fashion she pretends to roll up her imaginary sleeves and punches the air with her fist while jeering on Gordon and the other men as if she were one of the men about to engage in boxing.

This image of the rough-and-tumble, tomboyish Amarilly, which is a symptom of living in the dog-eat-dog world of the immigrant tenement, juxtaposes sharply with the image of the upperclass, social butterfly that Mrs. Stuyvesant Philips’ attempts to create, as part of her upper-class Pygmalion experiment. Amarilly’s make-over involves the washing away of the filth of the tenement, but this process is also an ethnic cleansing, as the defining, physiognomic features of her Irish ethnicity-her wild, frizzy hair-are cleansed, tamed and contorted in order to conform to the WASP stands of beauty and to see if she can be equated with upper-class society.

The differences between the two ethnic groups-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the poor, working-class Irish immigrants-is accentuated at the society dinner. The dance the Jenkins performed during the dance scene symbolise their Irish ethnic identity and implies the stereotype of the Irish as dancers, which is intermingled with the stereotype of the fighting-Irish from the ‘Round 1’ and ‘Round 2’ inter-titles that are displayed between each round of dancing. Their ability to dance is seen as an innate thing. However, the inability of the society matrons to perform the other’s dance suggests one’s inability to perform another ethnic identity. As can be seen, Amarilly’s make-over doesn’t make her an upper-class, WASP lady because it is inauthentic. Her true ethnic identity cannot be contained under the false facade Mrs. Philips has applied to her. Even though her previous Irish-American comic dress is striped off her and replaced with the frilly dress of civility, her ethnic identity prevails, which suggests that ethnicity transcends materiality, and is not something that can be worn and discarded like a piece of clothing.

This is also apparent from Amarilly’s family who despite having dressed up for the occasion of the dinner, cannot retain the demeanor of upperclass civility for long. Ma Jenkins inadvertently offends one of the matrons by questioning her about if she does laundry and her reaction suggests her working-class background (Young 72).

Ma Jenkins is performed by Kate Price. As well as Pickford, she is a truly amazing character because of her depiction of the stereotypical Irish mother-figure, which is both humorous and sentimental. Her ability to raise a family in a foreign country without a husband demonstrates her resilience and strength, but it is also a reflection of what some immigrant mothers endured. Shannon maintains that Irish immigrants had the “weakest family structure of any of the major European immigrant groups” (81).

Although seriocomic-romance films are not a part of my favorite genre viewing-list, I admire this film for its realistic portrayal of the Irish immigrants’ experience, the film’s setting, which replicates tenement dwellings and the depiction of the prejudicial treatment of immigrants by the upper-class, WASP community, which is predicated on their socioeconomic and ethnic status. In this film, however, Irishness is represented in a certain way, which stems from theatre and vaudeville. Despite the all-too-predictable happy-ending of the film that provides us a glimpse of Amarilly’s life five years into the future, where her clothes and the act of performing leisure time- as they appear to be on a Sunday drive in the country-implies the elevation of her social status from gutter-snipe to Bourgeoise, middle-class, and her assimilation into mainstream American society. Leisure time-the act of retreating to the pastoral-is associated with authenticity because one retreats to the pastoral in order to be renewed. This is apparent in other films such as Deliverance(1972), Grizzly Man(2005) and Into the Wild(2007). In Deliverance the retreat to the pastoral of the remote, Georgia wilderness is an attempt to reassert masculinity, which is a problematic goal as can be seen from the film.

Works Cited & Consulted

Barton, Ruth. ed and intro. Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. Print.

Shannon, Christopher. “The Bowery Cinderella: Gender, Class and Community in Irish-American Film Narrative.” em>Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 77-90. Print.

Young, Gwenda. “Funny Girls: Early American Screen Comdiennes and Ethnicity.” Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 61-76. Print.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wBTg-Qo378&feature=related%5D


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