Lost in the Movies: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

Lawyers and critics worth their salt must share a morbid fear of getting it wrong. The greatest of them plunge forward anyhow, recklessly risking ruin for the sake of their duty. Without too close a comparison to the prosecutor who has imprisoned an innocent man or the defense attorney who has acquitted a murderer, we can surmise that the critic lifts pen to paper or finger to keyboard with a biting sense of agony: did I miss the point? If the critic does get it wrong, after all, it isn't a client or victim who will suffer, but the critic himself. Or herself.

Case in point: 1962, when Mr. and Mrs. Critic, the estimable and ever-feuding Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, agreed on the demerits of Lawrence of Arabia. What looks today to be the great masterpiece of the year (if not of cinema history) was rather rudely dismissed by Kael as a spectacle with a zero at its centre. Sarris, who went further, looks even more foolish in ever-wise hindsight. Among other bon mots, in escalation of sheer missing-the-point: "dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal"; "In my cultural adolescence I associated the name Lawrence with the initials D.H. rather than T.E."; and "Perhaps I am just plain tired of all these 'serious' moral films with no women in the cast." Sarris, in failing to be moved or even awed by Lawrence of Arabia while dismissing it as yet another shallow big-budget historical epic, shows himself to be missing the movie for the ad campaign.

And yet, as decades of nobly defeated lawyers (at least of the dramatic/cinematic breed) could tell you, there can be a certain honor in miscalculation. A few months after penning his irritated pan of Lawrence, Sarris authored a far more thoughtful - and far more devastating - dismissal of To Kill a Mockingbird, now as then a beloved adaptation of a cherished classic of children's literature. While the film's reputation seems indestructible today, and often for very good reasons, Sarris' arrows more often than not hit their mark. If he's too harsh on the film stylistically ("Before the intellectual confusion of the project is considered, it should be noted that this is not much of a movie even by purely formal standards"), disallowing the quiet poetry of the movie because it is occasionally forced, his observations on the movie's intellectual confusion are withering.

Among others: "I daresay the Maycomb courtroom is still segregated thirty years [later], and so much for Miss Lee's cleverly masked argument for gradualism." "When the Negro is shot (off screen) for attempting to escape, Peck is so upset that, by some inverted logic understood only by liberal southerners, he deplores the Negro's unwarranted impetuosity." "This is a heartwarming resolution of the novel and the film. Yet somehow the moral arithmetic fails to come out even. One innocent Negro and one murderous red-neck hardly cancel each other out." And finally: "It is too early to tell [if the Negro and red-neck are brothers under the skin], but it is too late for the Negro to act as moral litmus paper for the white conscience. The Negro is not a mockingbird."

When I say that Sarris is "wrong" here, it is admittedly in part an ironic assessment - a juxtaposition of his view with what has become the canonical one (at least among middlebrow audiences, but also tacitly by intellectuals, who do not seem to view Mockingbird's reputation with much resentment.) But I do like Mockingbird more than he does, think it is a worthier film than he appreciates (not only stylistically), and ultimately, feel that the film may be more ambiguous than he perceives. Nonetheless, or perhaps therefore, Sarris' criticism is a good place to start looking at the movie.

Among other things, To Kill a Mockingbird is a portrait of liberal futility. Whether it knows this or not is a point of contention: does it embody liberal futility, or observe it? If the film's sanitized racial politics (excepting the brief materialization of a quietly foreboding lynch mob, virtually all the white men are clearly good folks - save one who singlehandedly embodies all the displaced violence and cruelty and ignorance of the Jim Crow South; meanwhile, all the blacks are noble martyrs) preaches to the early-sixties liberal choir, Atticus Finch does anything but. In his famous courtroom speech, making the case for the defense, Atticus appeals to the jury's conscience, flattering them with the thought that they are not racist (a flattery they would hardly consider complimentary, but never mind), and forswears idealism in paradoxically idealistic formulations (seeing justice as a reality rather than an ideal). The verdict? See if you can guess.

Atticus hardly seems surprised, and neither are we. Nonetheless, when he leaves the courtroom, the segregated balcony - where all the black townspeople sat to observe this farce of justice - stands to honor him. For decades now, this scene has been celebrated as a testament to the liberal conscience, to American idealism. Yet what is it really? A failure. Atticus' only important goal in this scene is not to contribute some small share to a rising consciousness (hence Sarris' rebuke of Lee's supposed "gradualism"), nor to set an example for his children, nor to suffer for the town's sins since it's hardly he but rather his client who will suffer. What matters is if Atticus gets Tom Robinson off on a rape charge that is patently fabricated (the victim's beatings were administered by a left-handed attacker - Robinson's left hand was maimed when he was twelve, and guess what hand the victim's father signs with? Talk about a stacked deck!). He doesn't.

Could he? The story automatically seems to assume that the answer is no, and this gives Atticus an excuse to play to the reader (and later the viewer) with noble appeals and airtight evidence which will sway an enlightened audience, if not a Depression-era Southern jury. What does it matter? If a tree falls in the wood and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If Atticus proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Tom Robinson is innocent and further that the racial mores of the community are abhorrent, all while Robinson himself is condemned and later rapidly dispatched offscreen, what does Atticus' firm rightness matter? Is the movie's assumption of futility (pace nobility) an escape hatch for the romantic in love with false causes - doubled as a hangman's drop-door for the condemned outsiders, whose ignominious fate it is to embody that cause?

Consider, as a contrast, John Ford's 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln. Here the heroic American leader, the lawyer who is respected by the community even as he stands up for the little guy, the intellectual with the common touch, is also a canny politician. The youthful Lincoln, as portrayed masterfully by Henry Fonda, always exists uneasily between worlds - the lofty ideals of his beloved law books (and more romantically, the aching beauty of his wilderness world, which seems to embody a kind of divine justice) and the grimy realities of unruly democracy (a hardscrabble Illinois town here contrasted with the rightness of the natural world). Yet he negotiates between the two, compromising and bending the rules, in the service of the greater good.

When Lincoln stands before a jail cell, guarding his clients against an unruly lynch mob eager to string them up, he defuses the situation with a mixture of folksy jokes, homespun wisdom, physical intimidation, and subtle guilt-tripping. True, he tells one man to go home and read his bible, but the bulk of his successful intervention relies on - among other things - the assertion of a personal connection to the individuals forming the mob, the feigning of unsentimental selfishness (he pretends to value the prisoners only as his first clients, rather than as human beings) and the threat of physical violence. As embodied by Gregory Peck, Atticus Finch is also an imposing individual, but he's too noble to resort to violence, too lofty to offer wisecracks in lieu of platitudes. He too confronts a lynch mob in front of a jail cell, but it's his daughter who (perhaps unconsciously) provides the Lincolnesque savvy necessary to chase the ghouls away. Playing the innocence card, she inquires after the son of one potential lyncher (simultaneously, and subtly, reminding him of a debt he owes to her father).

It is unclear how Atticus would have held the lynchers at bay if his wily offspring hadn't stepped into the breach (coupled with her rhetoric, Atticus' son attacks one of the mob; between the two of them they have Lincoln's tactics covered). Would he have feebly recited the Constitution on the veranda as they dragged Robinson off to the hanging tree? Perhaps I am being unfair, unnecessarily cruel towards the man's admirable stoicism. Within the context of the film, Atticus is virtually powerless to stop the forces of racism and oppression and injustice. All he can possibly do is stand tall and firm, set an example, and hope against hope that eventually his moral conscience will find an echo. But I question whether or not Atticus couldn't get a little more done with a wilier approach. If he appealed to the jury's racism, made more of an effort to integrate himself into their company, in other words if he was a better lawyer, might Tom Robinson be set free? It's a question of pragmatism vs. idealism, and if Young Abe Lincoln is Barack Obama, Atticus is Jimmy Carter.

Yet Harper Lee may be aware of Atticus' ineffectualness. She based his character on her father and while the portrait glows with poignant admiration, there is also a touch of sensitively-rendered pity, an awareness that Atticus, for all his tragic grandeur, is still a bit myopic and perhaps naive. This comes through clearest in the ending in which the vile father of Tom Robinson's alleged victim attempts to kill Atticus' children, only to be killed in turn by Boo Radley, neighborhood recluse and childhood myth made real. So well-planted that his appearance is dramatically successful, Boo is nonetheless a deus ex machina, swooping in to render extralegal justice when Atticus' well of willpower and wisdom runs dry.

For once in the film, Atticus seems shaken and uncertain, and when the sheriff tells him (in effect) to hang the law and let the dead bury the dead, he acquiesces. Now we see the efficacy of a different, less passive approach to aggression (one that Atticus notably only endorses when his own children's lives are on the line), even if it is conveniently displaced onto the ethereal Boo, ghostly presence not only in name. Though he may be above the community's rules, and hence absolved from Atticus' appeals to a transcendent justice and unspoken obedience to a harsh order, Boo's mute presence speaks louder than words: if unable to redeem the persecuted, at least he's allowed to punish the oppressor.

But, of course, this is only one reading, and I have my doubts even as I write. Atticus is one man, but could not thousands of Atticuses, each personally committed to what is right (regardless of the numbers on his side) achieve justice? Could not this army of Atticuses be formed and expanded by the example of first one Atticus, then another, then another? Is this kind of gradualism the highest pragmatism? After all, within a few years of Sarris writing his review, those courtrooms were most likely desegregated and it was thanks to men and women, white and (predominantly) black, who - like Atticus - let their enemies spit in their faces without striking back, who made their speeches and stood their ground and spoke in terms of the highest ideals.

I don't have much further to go in my speculations, observations, and (perhaps) accusations. However, I hope my readers will delve into the discussion, picking up where I left off in a relay that perhaps began with Sarris' critique in 1962.

Meanwhile, by focusing on the ideas present in Mockingbird, I have not been able to deal with the film's texture and mood. Ironically, given my attention here, I find the courtroom scenes to be the least successful in the movie, even as they are its dramatic centerpiece. The movie's strongest element is its air of nostalgia, of an intermingled childhood eternal and childhood past, tinged with a darkness both abstract (beginning with that pan from the silhouetted leaves of an overhanging tree) and all-too-real. Indeed, it is the mixture of the film's specific social context with its universal themes and rituals which render the movie powerful to this day. As this piece winds to a close, I can't discuss too many examples of this power, but one will suffice.

The film's climactic sequence, evocatively described by the narrator - a grown-up Scout - as "our longest journey" combines elements of fairy tale (the brother and sister evoke Hansel and Gretel in their passage through the woods), eternal childhood rituals (I remember reading the book as a kid and suddenly feeling, when I reached this scene with its school plays and walks home in the night wearing goofy costumes, that it was taking place in a present I recognized, rather than a distant past), Southern gothic (Boo Radley), even traces of a Peanuts cartoon (that Ham costume, which makes the scene). A milieu, eerie but comfortably familiar to children of any era, is infiltrated by a dark force from the adult world, a manifestation of social and historical and political concerns, dropped into the world of melancholy but contented childhood as a suggestion of the evil that lurks without - an evil which is not mythic, nightmarish as it may seem to the children, but which has a name and a source. Whatever the problems of To Kill a Mockingbird, this evocation of childhood - situated half in its own private universe, half in the real world - is one thing the movie doesn't have to worry about getting wrong.


Sam Juliano said...

Somtimes Sarris can be infuriating. But that was all in the past as he is now an 80 year-old mush, prone to issuing good to great reviews to just about everything, much like Ebert. Ah, but back in the old days......the renunciation of the beloved screen transcription of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (basically as perfect an adaptation as we are likely to see) because of pedestrian stylistics, is a case again of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The esssence of the film, while not cinematically embellished was retained in spirit and theme to create the same kind of emotional resonance found in Lee's Pulitzer prize winner. Peck's stately performance as Atticus Finch was flawless, and again what Lee intended. I have used this film a half-dozen times in a Jr. High School English class as the capper after assigning the novel, and it has always deeply enriched the experience.
It's a film that practically defies criticism, and Lee herself was overwhelmed with it and Peck's performance. They remained close friends afrewards for many years.
Some of the film's ,magic' include Robert Duvall's first screen appearance as Boo Radley, and one of Elmer Bernstein greatest scores, a lyrical and wistful component.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Movie Man, it seems a trifle unfair to hold To Kill a Mockingbird to a standard constructed ex-poste. At the time of its making it was as good as you could hope for. Film critics are not the final arbiters of a film's worth. Sarris writing is full of hubris, and I welcome your balanced and nuanced appraisal. For me the evocation of childhood is masterful and transcends the period and cultural boundaries. As for Atticus, strong decent people are flawed like the rest of us - they struggle each day to overcome the failings that make them human. Deconstruction is fine but if we lose sight of the gestalt we are not seeing the wood for the trees.

Joel Bocko said...

Wow, this was speedy. I left this page minutes ago to comment (and promote said piece) on Wonders in the Dark, and returned to find two comments nestled beneath the review. Thanks, both!

Sam, to be fair to Sarris he does focus more on the film's intellectual content than its pedestrian stylistics, decrying its form in a passing paragraph. But on the other hand, I don't agree with his dismissal of the style as pedestrian. He hits a few homers (the specific examples he cites of too-faithful adaptations to Lee's superficially "cinematic" prose - the approach of the shadow more so than the scuffle in the woods - are well-chosen), but the reason the film retains the book's spirit and theme is that its style is largely successful.

I think Peck is excellent as Atticus, though I think craft only goes so far in explaining it: a deep emotional identification on the actor's part overcomes any potentially over-calculated effects to sublimate performer and character into one persona. It is one of the best literary adaptations out there, albeit one that does not quite transcend the source (which is almost never done, of course, when the source is a classic in its own right) so much as embody it.

The score is wonderful. I listened to a bit of the commentary (director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula, both wonderful filmmakers, both sadly deceased) before writing this, and Mulligan (I think it was Mulligan) said that the melodramatic music late in the film doesn't really work for him, but the childhood theme is pure magic. The opening credits sequence is also wonderful - with its sharp, crisp, black-and-white, telephoto, almost abstract images, gorgeous sentimental (in a good sense, a sense which is rarely used) score, and vaguely eerie sounds (of a little girl humming) seems thoroughly modern; it's startling to realize this opens a 1962 Hollywood movie.

Funny that I am only know really discussing the film's form, in the comments section. Admittedly, this review could equally serve as a critique of Lee's novel, since my focus is on the text rather than the mise en scene. Which brings me to...


"Deconstruction is fine but if we lose sight of the gestalt we are not seeing the wood for the trees." Funny, this was EXACTLY my feeling after writing this review and then going to bed. I was even tempted to delete this piece in the morning, because it strays from my new aim on this blog (to immerse myself more in the rich, romantic aura of cinema rather than standing outside and commenting rationistically on the process) and because I feared it squelched the magic of the movie, which I still experience, for a too cold and harsh analysis.

But upon re-reading it, I found it one of my better-written pieces and worth keeping. Nonetheless, as I note in the final paragraph, my focus does not convey - or attempt to convey - the overall experience of the movie so much as one aspect, considering intellectually.

"As for Atticus, strong decent people are flawed like the rest of us - they struggle each day to overcome the failings that make them human." This to me was the redeeming quality of Atticus and that aspect of the movie - one which I reflected may have been intentional on Lee's part, a tender observation of her own father's humanity, following on the heels of so much warm-hearted worship. Much of the film reflects Atticus as seen by his little girl, but the final scene seems to reflect him as seen by his little girl grown up.

"it seems a trifle unfair to hold To Kill a Mockingbird to a standard constructed ex-poste." I don't think this is exactly what I am doing (other than in a brief aside or two, such as the one referring to the sanitized racial politics, a point which can be defended elsewhere). Rather, I am wondering if Atticus is sacrificing effect for affect - if by playing into the prejudices and mores of his time, however repugnant he finds them, he could save one man's life. Perhaps he couldn't, but the film doesn't even seem to allow this possiblity. And I don't think it's only hindsight that illuminates the shortcomings of Atticus' martyrdom - hence my analogies drawn to Young Mr. Lincoln, a much earlier film which mixes pragmatism and idealism in its hero, in a character whose ambiguity I find deeply compelling, and whose effectiveness runs contrary in interesting ways to liberal myths of nobility and radical myths of purity. And as Sarris indicates, many of these questions occurred to people in 1962 as well.

As to both of you and the admiration for the film's evocation you express, I agree and here I think is another area where Sarris misses the point. After snarking that "To Kill a Mockingbird relates the Cult of Childhood to the Negro Problem with disastrous results" (while I disagree with the results being "disastrous" his characterization of the film as a mash-up of genres is perceptive, and, I submit, the seams do show on occasion, particularly in the latter case)...anyway, after he writing that, he proceeds:

"What fools too many critics about a project like this is the trick of the child's point of view. The camera drops a foot, then darts and swoops with the child's erratic movements. The world opens up, and everything looks more profound and inventive." He's wrong, and yet he's right (or perhaps right, and yet wrong). Sarris is wrong in that Mulligan, Lee, and Foote do much more than just drop the camera a foot and swoop with the movements of the children. True, the movie takes a few scenes to fully get its bearings (was it shot in rough sequence?) though there is a magic present even in the rough and occasionally forced early passages, but by the sublime approach to the climax I cited, the film fully embodies a kind of magical ground between grand myth/specific recollection, a world of childhood capture on film.

But Sarris is right in that by taking the childrens' point of view "everything looks more profound and inventive." How true...and what exactly is wrong with this? If anything, the film stumbles less when it is fully immersed in the world of children than when it tries to take a mature, adult point of view (Lee and Mulligan are far above-average chroniclers of the pint-size perspective, while their facility with the courtroom thriller is adequate at best; yet which skill would you rather hold?).

If this is the Cult of Childhood, sign me up and please pass the kool-aid.

Tony Dayoub said...

I think in the previous comment, you make many of the points I wished to address myself. Namely, that I believe it intentional on Mulligan and Lee's part (in their respective masterpieces) to do a number of things that Sarris, and sometimes you, point to as flaws.

Because the story is refracted through a child's perspective, many of the racial themes are simplified, perspectives that view the players as representatives of good vs. evil are heightened, and much of the courtroom drama is heavyhanded... all deliberately.

The childhood-related anecdotes are more nuanced because they would be to the narrator, even an adult one remembering childhood impressions.

Ultimately, the story is not about Atticus failing to overcome racial inequality in a close-minded southern town. It is about Atticus finally attaining an elevated status as a hero in his daughter's eyes by the way he comports himself in this moment in time, despite his own limitations concerning race, because of the power of his decency. And Mulligan, Lee and Peckare all effective and successful in delivering that impression of Atticus.

It's almost more of a character study despite the strongly delineated plot.

Sam Juliano said...

I think it's BOTH Tony (Dayoub) No novel read and taught in today's high school classes is more acutely focused on theme, and none other suffused as much by 'conflict.' The characters of course, are representative of rural Americana during the time of the Great Depression, and are symbols, yet they function within the framework of a story and a setting that says easily as much as the human components.

Getting back to Sarris and Kael, Movie Man, I have always respected Stanley Kauffmann as being 'above' the fray between Kael and Sarris, even if I found myself agreeing with either. But Kauffmann panned THE GODFATHER, which today is seen as an act of near senility (Kauffmann though was only in his 50's then. He's 94 now and still writes reviews)
I enjoyed reading your segment there about LAWRENCE OF ARABIA'S initial reception.
Kael did once go at Kauffmann, and Kauffmann politely offered a postscript and that was with WEST SIDE STORY (1961), which Kauffmann rightly calls "the greatest film musical of all-time," a position he has stood by to this day. When chided in writing, Kauffman got a bit defensive and qualified his assessment saying "in spirit and in energy, and in successfully transfering the stage qualities to screen, it's the finest musical film I know."
Kael had her own musical moment that raised eyebrows when she heaped lavish praise on FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) and the performance of it's central star, Topol. Other critics gave the film mediocre or scathing notices, but Kael basically called the film a masterpiece. Of course her annointment of Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS as heir apparent to CITIZEN KANE (so to speak) has to be perhaps her most infamous moment as a critic.

Movie Man, your long response above is so excellent that I can say much, but would need to go in a number of directions. You were astonishingly thorough and superb, as always. I agree that as a literary adaptation, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is as perfect (and as literal) as we've ever had. I agree with your one disclaimer with Bernstein's score, as the whimsical childhood fantasy material is what really works. Melodiously, it's up there with his best work (his late career FAR FROM HEAVEN is in this category in its exceedingly-beautiful lyricism)

And of course you perfectly sasy what needs to be said, a position I agree with completely:

"the film fully embodies a kind of magical ground between grand myth/specific recollection, a world of childhood capture on film."


The courtroom scenes were bound to attract serious criticism, but again, they are necessary, even if the presentation was simplistic. Above all, the very moving novel, (one of the greatest novels ever written by an American in the twentieth century) lost none of its emotional resonance on screen, and that fact, (intellectualizing and all) is really the bottom line here.

Tony D'Ambra said...

I tip my fedora to you: Movie Man, Tony Dayoub, and Sam. Great writing and wonderful insights. You have definitely made me want to watch the movie again!

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, Tony (Dayoub), my criticisms of Atticus the character are not necessarily criticisms of Lee's writing, Mulligan's direction, and Peck's acting; in other words, though I do wonder if the story should allow for more ambiguity early on, I generally accept the presentation of him at face value (far more so than Sarris does, at any rate).

That said, I do think the courtroom passage of the film is its most flawed. In the book these scenes are still filtered through the perspective of the children, but in the movie we lose our focus on them, which disrupts the movie's mood and style a bit. I'm not sure how or if this could even be rectified, but it does add to the impression conveyed by Sarris that the film is a digest version of the book. Frankly, that's true of just about any literary adaptation of a classic, and far less so of this than of any other.


A few years ago I read a review by Kaufman which began, "In 1927 when I was 14 years old..." and I think I became quite giddy. God bless the old geezer.

Tony (d'ambra),

Thanks - and if you do revisit, I'll be interested to read your perspective. I think I saw on Sam's site that you have another (non-noir focused) blog, and I will have to check it out.

RC said...

I do love this film - i think if there were an army of Atticus' that could be a nice world.

Joel Bocko said...

This afternoon I was reading Peter Wollen's essay on the Auteur theory and discovered a passage which seemed to crystallize my ambivalence about Atticus vs. Ford's Lincoln. Wollen writes, about Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

"Ransom Stoddart represents rational-legal authority, Tom Doniphon represents charismatic authority. Doniphon abandons his charisma and cedes it, under what amounts to false pretences, to Stoddart. In this way charismatic and rational-legal authority are combined in the person of Stoddart and stability thus assured."

This distinction and tension, between charismatic and rational-legal authority, gets right to the root of my unease. There's no doubt Atticus represents rational-legal authority, but he does not hold charismatic authority in his community, no matter what liberals and other enlightened folk in the audience feel towards him. Lincoln, on the other hand, embodies both qualities, albeit with the charisma given the upper hand beneath the subtext, even as legal-rational arguments are given precedence in the text.

I'm wondering what other people feel about this distinction, if they prefer a film's protagonists to hold one authority to the other, if they feel that such different sources of attention bring up muddy issues of aesthetics and ethics (I'm generally of the opinion that aesthetics should be left out of politics, and ethics largely left ouf of art - but this may be an abstract inclination is idealistic rather than realistic), or what else is one their mind. Not sure if all of you still get e-mail updates on this thread, but I think this is a discussion worth continuing.

Anonymous said...

I may not consider Lawrence the greatest movie ever made, but I am “moved” and “awed” by it, and consider it a classic which I return to periodically. In hindsight, Andy & Pauline totally missed the boat on that one.

In The American Cinema, Sarris admits to loving the English cinema in his youth and then turning against it for some reason after discovering the auteur theory. How else to explain his underrating of Lean and Carol Reed, and the astounding omission of Michael Powell from that book?

Wollen's distinction between rational-legal and charismatic authority is interesting - especially when applied to T.E. Lawrence (in either film or reality) who had both, but distrusted his own charisma. The latter should never be trusted in isolation - as George W. Bush has taught us well.

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting point vis a vis Lawrence, who I hadn't even been thinking of when bringing up that point (despite mentioning the film in the opening paragraph of the review, a chronological connection rather than a thematic one).

The movies thrive on charismatic authority - which is why I am both suspicious of aesthetic incursions into politics (where far more damning examples than Bush make themselves abundant throughout history) and of ethical incursions into aesthetics - and why I can accept ethically objectionable characters and material and approaches as great art. Of course, charismatic authority has its place - it's less a question for the public to consider, I suppose, than for the leader himself/herself (though it does seem to be exclusively "himselfs" we're dealing with here; how the question pertains to female authorities, whose personalities are more frequently disparaged than male authorities, is a compelling question).

Joel Bocko said...

That should read "charismatic authority has its place in real life as well as in the movies..."

Anonymous said...

Actually, my first real exposure to the issue of "charismatic authority" and how one should hesitate to trust it was seeing Kazan & Schulberg's A FACE IN THE CROWD at age 10.

Anonymous said...


This is a very interesting article which I'm afraid I've only browsed, due to restraints of time. My comments below are mainly based on what you say in the opening paragraphs and an extension on your thoughts I guess..

I actually don't see why it matters at all, intellectually, whether a critic thinks the film is good or bad.. I know why opinions have become so important- because in practical terms people look at the newspaper reviews to find out what to go and see Friday night. Pure economics.. But I think this is a crying shame and completely limits the potential for writing on film since it makes the dominant element of the article a simple question of morals and generally aesthetic morals - was it 'good' or 'bad.' Unless it's a political point the critic is making, but this is less common. And even political morals are limiting, since they insist on the writer having already decided on their politics rather than taking a more open approach..

I think the interesting thing about the blog world is that it potentially allows new ways to discuss films- and encourages people to think about and put the emphasis on what is interesting about a film, book or whatever we choose to write about - rather than what is 'good.'

Joel Bocko said...

Manwithout, thanks for dropping by. I agree with you completely: without the expectations of a formal review, with requisite plot synopsis, overall opinion, etc. we're freer to zero in on what interests us most or what we consider worth discussing at the moment. This is possible to a certain extent in academic journals too, but with less restrictions in the blogosphere of course.

I would suggest that you return when you've got the time and read the whole thing - I elaborate quite a bit (in fact I hardly even get to the point in the first few 'grafs - another benefit of blog-writing!). I'd be interested to know your opinion, especially since it deals in part with the source material and on your blog you seem to be pretty interested in questions of adaptation.

Friendship SMS said...

I can't begin to describe the quality of this book. It paints a very clear picture of segregation in 19th century America using a child as the narrator. And it works like a charm. One of the best books I've read in recent times.

Search This Blog