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Warning: Anyone with a “silo problem,” anyone sensitive to the sight of careworn-but-still-beautiful women in flowered dresses and cardigans, anyone who reacts violently to the sight of achingly white churches, frame houses, or sheets flapping on a clothesline, or who becomes nauseated in the presence of “the blue dome of the sky” should consider himself warned. Then again, if you haven’t seen enough movies in which the hushed, slightly twangy narration muses, “We all knew that something important had just happened” that One Fateful Summer, A Thousand Acres is for you.
Jane Smiley’s novel may have won a Pulitzer Prize, but the film of her bookKing Lear on the farm from Regan and Goneril’s point of viewisn’t gunning for any honors in originality. Transposing Shakespeare’s enormous tragedy to the realm of here, now, and them risks coarsening it, and Laura Jones’ screenplay abandons grace and complexity for every cliché of countrified family sagas.
The devolution from King Lear, driven mad by his own mistakes and mistrust, to petty Midwestern tyrant Larry Cook may not do Shakespeare any favors, but Acres is ever so reverential about its milieuit opens like a cereal commercial, and the Cook troubles are so trendy and button-pushing you expect the movie to end with a public service announcement.
Larry (Jason Robards) is the owner of an idyllic farm somewhere in the mythical movie-Midwest. His two older daughters, Ginny (Jessica Lange) and Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer), tolerate his whims and cruelty not because they’re greedy but because they love the farm and the history it still breathes of a time when their mother was alive. Youngest girl Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) never knew her mother much; she left home young to pursue a law career in Des Moines and contributes nothing to the running of the farm but her neurotic presence every few weeks.
The Cooks’ troubles are movie-of-the-week: Rose, the brave truth-teller, is missing a breast from cancer (the girls’ mother died of it, too) and has two daughters of her own to fear for; plus, her immature husband (Kevin Anderson) beats her. Ginny is childless and childlike, covering up for Daddy and pretending not to understand people when the conversation gets real. The girls harbor a Terrible Secret that should be obvious from the fact that they still say “Daddy.”
When Larry offers to split the farm up among the three of them, Caroline asks to think about it, whereupon he turns her out. Ginny and Rose try to reconcile the two, but Dad and Caroline are volatile, intelligent creatures, supposedly more alike than they know. During a howling storm, Larry confronts the older girls, screaming that they’re whores, and they tell him to go homeeach of them lives in a separate house on the property. As this story gets around, the town decides the two girls were never any good to their father and humiliates them publicly at a church supper. Caroline sides with her father, and the whole thing becomes a courtroom drama, then an empowerment story, then a deathbed tragedy.
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Lear’s motivations were clear, and his misreading of his children’s motivations were understandable. But A Thousand Acres simply lets Larry go nuts so we can heap sympathy on the heads of the sisters who are so ill-used by their family and the community. Smiley’s POV tweak is mischievous: We’ve become so convinced of the rottenness of older sisters through centuries of legends and fairy tales that showing that Goneril and Regan are well-meaning but neurotic curdles forever the easy outrage of Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. But the easy outrage has merely been transferred, and there’s no complexity to Caroline, a wishy-washy little minx who sits out all the family hardship and then cashes in when there are goodies afoot.
When playing a normal person like Caroline, who has few scenes here, Leigh is lost; she seems to have become dependent on tics, prostheses, and weird vocal impulses to give herself character. Lange is luminous as always, and Pfeiffer may be doing the greatest work of her career in this thorny roleangry, vibrant, helplessly honest. But the surrounding movie has nothing to say that Days of Heaven didn’t say in glances and that a hundred sentimental farmer’s-family movies haven’t said in the very same words.
Spike Lee’s messy, moving documentary 4 Little Girls tries to tell us about the lives of those girlsthe four victims of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.but it ends up saying much more about the history of civil rights in that town. The biographies of the victims, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, 14, and Carol McNair, 11, are not particularly striking, although they’re all the more poignant because there is so little to tell; their chief qualitiesenergy, friendliness, vivacityare the uncomplicated assets
But Lee, who also co-produced, ranges far afield in his gleanings for talking heads, and he uncovers a spectrum of information and memories as wide as it is deep. Birmingham citizens recount not only what the lives of the victims were like but the life of the city, a fast-growing steel town that unaccountably became ground zero in the press for civil rights. Citizens’ private and public lives shimmer in and out of each other, as local meetings and socials turn into national affairs, and pictures of the popular Rev. Shuttlesworth being beaten with chains by a white mob made front pages everywhere.
The professional commentators fill in the shadows, usually to the movie’s benefit, although some of the celebrities are less than usefulBill Cosby is tagged “Educator.” But Howell Raines, the New York Times reporter who wrote about the bombing, uses his beautiful command of words to bring the horror and pain of that time alive and his newsman’s perspective to set the scene in a larger sense. Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters, is a lucid and terrifically informed participant, and even Walter Cronkite is worth hearing.
The camera isn’t above shaping the narrative through tricks and manipulations. It lingers sadistically in close-up on a childhood friend of one of the victims as she breaks down, unable to continue speaking. And for anyone still naive enough to be convinced of George Wallace’s generous Christian turnaround on segregation, the camera returns repeatedly to Wallace’s ostentatious desk. Again and again he insists (in subtitles; his throat is gone) on beckoning over his “best friend,” Ed, who stares resignedly at us while Wallace squeezes his handone finger is in a splintand meanders off when Wallace forgets about him.
But this story belongs to the people of Birmingham, the major and minor players who lived the absurd drama of Jim Crow every day and were punished so brutally for trying to bow out. Their memories of the complicated mental juggling that segregation forced on its victims are mind-boggling; it is awful to hear a parent say that his little girl died never really understanding why she couldn’t have a dime-store sandwich. Stories of living under Jim Crow may have been told before, but in a country so prone to moral amnesia, such repetition is necessary. The indirect value of 4 Little Girls is not in reminding us that their deaths were sad, but that they opened up the floodgates of freedom so that they could never quite close again.CP