Lost in the Movies: To Sleep With Anger

To Sleep With Anger

Crafted near the tail end of the twentieth century, but with its eyes cast further back over the previous decades and centuries, Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger locates an ominous threat in the tension between modernity and tradition - only not where you'd expect. Youths are corrupted not by new fashions but old ways, blinding their elders to the risk (at least those elders who don't already represent the risk themselves). Although entirely urban, the film is replete with corn liquor, chicken coops, and totems like tobies and rabbit's feet; its chorus is provided by gospel fermented in long Sunday sessions and blues cultivated in backwoods juke joints. Anger's most iconic presence is Harry Mention (Danny Glover in a fantastically charismatic, nerve-rattling performance): a wily, destructive slow-moving Tasmanian devil who took a bus from Detroit to Oakland yet somehow ended up in Los Angeles. This implausible origin story is the first of many ruses, its absurdity the very point. Harry doesn't come from Detroit; he comes from the past, Hell, and the central family's own collective psyche all at once. Harry shows up to visit old friends and makes himself so at home that he practically sinks into the woodwork while their lives fall apart, using their hospitality as an opportunity to emotionally suck them dry. Donald Liebenson has compared this quality, and Harry's initial presentation, to that of a Hollywood vampire, noting the legend that such creatures can only invade a home when already invited. The movie's richness lies in the contradictory crosscurrents calling Harry in and resisting him at the same time.

Movies about city and country are almost as old as cinema itself (and stories about these two primal environments are much older), but few blur the lines and twist our expectations as cleverly as Burnett's 1990 quasi-fable. A tale of Southern bonds, habits, traumas, and superstitions, it just so happens to be set entirely inside South Central L.A. rather than the actual American South, although you might not notice at first. The film initially locates us inside of a surreal, spare opening credits sequence, scored to electrified gospel: a man in a light suit, sitting still as flames creep up around a fruit bowl, table and eventually his own chair, while he can only sweat in silence. This could take place anywhere but does have a particularly Deep South flavor, and the following scene, in which this man, Gideon (Paul Butler) snoozes in the backyard with a Bible drooping from his hands, also feels like a slice of rural life. (Here and elsewhere, the film is being coy but also playing upon a quality perhaps unique to L.A. among major American cities: a sprawl able to contain pockets of so many environments and lifestyles, from the high rise to the suburban bungalow to the family farm.) Residents of Los Angeles for what must be many years, Gideon and Suzie (Mary Alice) nonetheless follow old-fashioned values and rituals as their resentful son Babe Brother (Richard Brooks) and his wife Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) mock their countrified ways. "I haven't consulted this month's almanac," Linda deadpans, coiffed and clothed for the office but stuck on her in-laws' curb, when Babe Brother asks why she won't come inside for a quick visit.

Yet the young couple, trying to make their way as hard-working professionals in the money-hungry late eighties/early nineties (he's a loan officer and she's a realtor), don't hesitate to use his parents as perpetual babysitters for their own son, raising tensions long before Harry arrives which he'll be more than happy to exploit. While older brother Junior (Carl Lumbly) and his very pregnant wife Pat (Vonetta McGee) are immediately turned off by Harry's cheerful, passive-aggressive negging, Babe Brother is reeled in by the older man's sense of dangerous authority, making the young man more abusive and irresponsible in the process. For Babe Brother, Harry provides a dark father figure who paradoxically commands both a respect and a camaraderie that the young man can't find in his own parents. Meanwhile, Gideon and Suzie appear totally oblivious to Harry's threat, constantly complimenting his manners and his charm, indulging his every whim and even encouraging some of his most threatening moves (Suzie even allows Harry to take charge of Gideon's care after he suffers a stroke). This only underscores the extent to which Harry appears chimerical, as if he was unconsciously conjured - a displaced, free-floating manifestation of familial anxiety both reflecting and instigating the increasingly fraught dynamic. Only literal blood can restore these bonds when, in the film's climactic if not quite conclusive moment, Suzie grabs an ominous knife by the blade and brings the warring siblings together again in her dining - and then emergency - room care.

If Harry's "reality" is elusive and illusory, as a screen presence Glover conveys an incredibly lively vigor which can stand alongside Walter Huston's Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster and especially Michel Simon's Boudu in Boudu Saved From Drowning as one of the great domestic disrupters of the medium. And that domesticity which he disrupts is lovingly painted too - unlike other famous L.A. stories of the nineties, Burnett pointedly creates a whole world inside a very limited setting, mostly just the two-story house of this family (whose last names I don't think we ever learn). My favorite passage may be the party/reunion which emerges almost like a magic trick, summoned rather than planned, as if the latent energies of the laid-back day naturally coalesced in a late night spent dancing to blues in the parlor and drinking crystal-clear firewater in the pantry. Much is shot in close-up, with faces paramount (although props and decor are carefully chosen) as dialogue drives the plot in indirect ways, especially when delivered by the serpentine Harry. A recounted tale of old-time feuds, culminating in grisly deaths, manages to expand the narrative's horizons, stretching not just chronologically but sociologically as an old enemy of Harry's tries to figure out whether he, violent white racists, or some confluence of these two dangerous forces killed a relative long ago.

The whole film works like this, focusing in order to sprawl, amusing even as it unnerves, stitching together different textures and tones into a cohesive quilt of impressions. Early in Anger, there is something rough in the concoction: transitions are awkward and/or abrupt, as if these expository moments are hungry for some organizing force to give them direction - Harry, of course, will be that force. Just as he'll inadvertently draw together the very family he's helping to split apart, Harry offers Burnett's eager, adventurous spirit an ironical anchor at once ordering and destabilizing. As such, To Sleep With Anger makes a compelling companion piece to other Burnetts. Its proselike, leisurely momentum and subtle visual design offset Killer of Sheep's gorgeous black-and-white lyricism, while the clever conceit of its Harry hook both extends and contracts the restless spirit of My Brother's Wedding, which also documents a young man struggling under the weight of his father's and sibling's expectations. Clarifying and complicating the director's earlier work, the film is wry and poignant, making room for divergent sensations. These sensations include a vision of silhouetted men working a rail line, calling forth a weary, distant era in a fashion that implicitly asks if the past should be longed for as a familiar comfort or regarded wearily as a still-lingering threat (in the presence of Harry, the film leans toward the latter interpretation). These sensations also include the humorous sight of a blanket casually tossed across a dead man on the floor of a crowded kitchen, as if to suggest that even when you can't rid yourself of problems entirely, you can at least learn to carry on, enjoying the life that goes on around you and them in every moment good, bad, and in-between.

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