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A Raisin in the Sun

posted by awelborn

There’s a new production on Broadway. Peggy Noonan reflects on a particular moment

An important moment in the plot is when a character announces she is pregnant, and considering having an abortion. In fact, she tells her mother-in-law, she’s already put $5 down with the local abortionist. It is a dramatic moment. And you know as you watch it that when this play came out in 1960 it was received by the audience as a painful moment–a cry of pain from a woman who’s tired of hoping that life will turn out well.

But this is the thing: Our audience didn’t know that. They didn’t understand it was tragic. They heard the young woman say she was about to end the life of her child, and they applauded. Some of them cheered. It was stunning. The reaction seemed to startle the actors on stage, and shake their concentration.



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Victor Morton

posted April 29, 2004 at 1:56 am


I had a somewhat similar experience at a 1993 film screening at Notre Dame of DAY OF WRATH, a 1943 film about witchcraft by the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. I went in doing the happy dance for a chance to see WRATH (one of my all-time favorite films and part of the European Arthouse canon) on a big screen (16mm, but still…). But it became the depressing filmgoing experience I have ever had. And I’ve seen close to 3,000 movies.
In one scene, lovers Anne and Martin (stepmother and stepson in the movie’s plot) are together at the church rectory of the husband/father Absalom. It was intercut with a visit by Absalom to the deathbed of a witch-torturer. There was a moment where Anne said to Martin something like “I wish him dead,” referring to Absalom. Then Dreyer cut back to Absalom crossing the moors on the way home, letting out a shiver and saying something like “I felt the cold hand of death brush my shoulder.”
At that line, the audience let out a big laugh. I was on the point of tears when I reflected on it. Here was a movie where clearly witches, the devil, God and the supernatural are taken deadly seriously. And yet the audience was too pomo hip, too knowing to take the possibilities seriously enough, even if only for 100 minutes of a VERY somber movie (fyi, Dreyer makes Ingmar Bergman look like Ben Stiller). And at Notre Dame, God couldn’t even gain a place as a fictional character in a movie about whom you suspend disbelief as though he were a crime-fighting space alien who flies and gains super strength because of our planet’s yellow sun.
“God is dead,” I thought as I left the theater.



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Karen Howard (Karen H.)

posted April 29, 2004 at 6:03 am


‘ “God is dead,” I thought as I left the theater. ‘
No. We are.



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Rod Dreher

posted April 29, 2004 at 7:43 am


What a fantastic piece by Peggy, and a moving reflection by Victor.
My own similar moment came in 1999, when I was the chief film critic at the NYPost, and sent to cover the Toronto Film Festival. The filmmaker Todd Solondz, a misanthropic little masochist, had the first showing of his film “Happiness” there. The film is a black comedy about unhappy people. One of those characters is a pedophile. Solondz has a long scene in which the pedophile tries to drug one of his young son’s friends and rape him anally. The scene is played for comedy. You do not see the rape, only the aftermath, but it was still perhaps the most obscene thing I’ve ever seen on the big screen (and like Victor, I’ve seen many, many films).
The final scene shows a family achieving some modicum of what feels like happiness to them, but the scene cuts to a dog out on the balcony of a Florida high-rise, licking the railing. What’s it licking? Why, semen that has just been deposited there by a masturbator. Ha ha!
The audience, of film critics and festivalgoers, gave the movie a standing ovation! Solondz came out to roaring acclaim. I left the theater, my head spinning. I ran into the critic for the Cleveland paper in the lobby. We both looked at each other with incredulity and disgust, like, “Did you f–king see that thing?” He said to me, “I’ve got to call my wife and make sure I’m still on the planet earth.” I knew the feeling.



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Oengus Moonbones

posted April 29, 2004 at 8:09 am


Amy: “It was stunning.”
Rod Dreher “it was still perhaps the most obscene thing I’ve ever seen on the big screen”
Sigh. The moral and spiritual dissolution of America continues. Ho hum. Same news, different day.



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Oengus Moonbones

posted April 29, 2004 at 8:11 am


Oops. I misattributed the quote to Amy. I apologize. It should be Peggy Noonan.



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Tom C

posted April 29, 2004 at 8:27 am


Rod,
I had a similar experience with Happiness back in my college days. I was still in my “Tear the Mother Down” phase, and the movie served as a rude awakening as to how totally depraved the hip youth culture I was a part of had become. Naturally, lots of my friends loved the movie. As cynical as I had become, I still found it shocking.
Thank God I finally made it into the Catholic Church.



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AB

posted April 29, 2004 at 8:27 am


Blame the Boomers
Well, not entirely. Even the young should have more sense than this, but these are the attitudes that they were raised with.
In the past people excepted without questioning things like public hangings, crop failure, dangerous seavoyages and the hardship and death of freezing cold winters with an attitude that we can scarcly comprehend. It was what they were raised with.
These anecdotes auger an unhappy future. Not only is this what today’s young were raised with, they probably scarcly know another view exists–and ideas have consequences.
_



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alias clio

posted April 29, 2004 at 8:31 am


Mr Dreher, for once I can agree with you without reservation. Watching _Happiness_ was a surreal experience for me too. Perverse, explicit without being in any way illuminating about the human condition, and preposterous, reactions to it had me wondering if I was living among creatures of another species.



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jeremy

posted April 29, 2004 at 10:30 am


I have to admit I rarely find myself agreeing with Peggy Noonan, but the loss of recognition of tragedy is something all too common these days.
When a fair number of filmmakers decide to reject liberal optimism regarding human nature, often times you get superficial nihilist by the numbers work like _Happiness_ rather than pieces that actually probe the nature of evil. Instead, you get mockery of ‘bourgeois’ stereotypes. Of course, it might help if one actually believes some acts ARE actually intrinsically evil and sinful, but how often do you see a sense of that in films these days?
Taking Noonan a bit further – could you imagine someone making some Flannery O’Connor pieces like “The Violent Bear It Away” into a film? Would a typical American audience look at the possiblity of not being baptised as a real tragedy? I doubt it, sadly.



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P-L L

posted April 29, 2004 at 11:59 am


I had “the moment” in a B’way theater as well – Valmont raped Cecile, and the audience laughed.
My only cause for hope was the knowledge from experience that different audiences will react differently on different nights to the identical moment. So maybe ALL is not lost (I did a play once where one Jewish character called another a “greenhorn kike.” Some nights the audeince reacted with disgust and some nights they laughed hysterically. We always thought it was something the actors were doing differently, but years later we found that a videotape of the scene could also elicit different reactions.)



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Julia

posted April 29, 2004 at 12:54 pm


My moment of jarring recognition involved a movie about a rape victim getting revenge. I can’t remember the name right now.
I returned home during the day about 15 summers ago to find my high school son and some buddies watching this film. I asked why they were watching a movie rape. The guys said it’s OK, the rest of the movie is about her hunting the guys down & doing them in.
I gave it about 30 more seconds and realized that the camera was leering and glorifying this rape that was going on and on.
I blew my top and told them all to get that “filth” out of my house and never bring it back. I tried to explain that the producer was trying to entice the audience with the rape. But I was so shocked, I just told them all to get out.
I later found out that the rape portion of the film took up about a 1/3 of the whole movie!!!!
Luckily, my son grew up with his sense of empathy entact and is a loving husband and father.
But I’ve never forgotten that day.
Just remembered – it was “I Spit on Your Grave”.



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craig

posted April 29, 2004 at 1:16 pm


One more anecdote: I recently rewatched “The Godfather Part II” (1974) on DVD, and there’s a climatic confrontation scene I had forgotten between Kay (Diane Keaton) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), in which she tells him that she had his son aborted. The scene does not shrink from emphasizing the inherent nihilism of her deed. When I saw it I couldn’t help but think that if the movie were shot today it would portray her as a heroine.



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John Farrell

posted April 29, 2004 at 1:26 pm


Well, how about something to cheer you up. See Mike Leigh’s underrated Life is Sweet (about 1990 or 1991). Leigh can be tough to take sometimes with his predilection for looking at the sleazier side of life, but toward the end of this family drama there’s a great scene when the mother, played by the excellent Alison Steadman, has it out with her younger daughter who’s basically going through a phase of self-loathing and who asks/taunts her sneeringly with why mum ever bothered to have her, why she didn’t abort her. “Because I don’t believe in it,” mum yells back at her. “That’s the easy way out.”
Worth renting.



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Victor Morton

posted April 29, 2004 at 1:42 pm


Rod:
Those Toronto audiences can really throw you out of a film — I still remember seeing the North American premiere of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE there, with Michael Moore present and a couple of seats away from me. I’ve never felt so alienated from an audience in my life, it was like being on the other party’s convention floor on the night they nominate the president — and I don’t categorically hate Michael Moore the film-maker and I think ROGER & ME a great film. I will also never forget seeing THE FOG OF WAR there and having a burst of applause break out when Robert McNamara said: “If we can’t persuade nations of comparable values of the rightness of our cause, then we’d better reexamine our reasoning.” Filmmaker Errol Morris thoughtfully provided a breath in the film right at that point.
Still, when I had my “God is dead” experience with DAY OF WRATH, I had seen the movie before on video and was knowledgeable enough about Dreyer’s style, so I knew to blame the audience, not the movie.
Now I think HAPPINESS is a great film (which I think I’ve told Rod before), but I saw it twice in near-empty theaters and once on home video. So I reacted to the film more or less independently of an audience, and I didn’t think I saw anything funny at all. Rather than a black comedy about sex, I thought I was watching a tragedy with no catharsis about sex, a film about people who try to find happiness in sex and without exception, though in various ways and degrees, they get screwed up by those efforts (Rod is right about the director being a misanthrope and masochist; HAPPINESS is definitely “the feel-bad film of the year”).
Still, I can’t imagine what my reaction would have been to HAPPINESS had I first seen it with the audience with whom Rod saw it. I might hate the film too if I’d heard people laugh along to the tuna-sandwich scene he found so objectionable. (I thought it was played for suspense more than comedy.) This is one side of the classic argument about seeing a movie alone vs. with an audience — that the audience inevitably colors the film experience for you, and to some extent even codes the objective content. And it thus sometimes does so wrongly.



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Victor Morton

posted April 29, 2004 at 2:11 pm


Yes John, LIFE IS SWEET is a great film and the scene you describe is the best one in it, partly because of that line.
But even apart from that, Steadman’s character really lets the daughter Nicola (played by Jane Horrocks from “Absolutely Fabulous”) know that parents are wiser than their children realize. Not only does she say abortion would have been the easy way out, but she says of her husband, whose business schemes are played for comedy throughout and whose silliness Nicola points out, something like “yes, they’re ridiculous, but at least he’s trying and getting up in the morning, rather than curling into a ball of self-pity.” When Nicola, who’s a sarcastic manic depressive, says something “you made me (do something or other as therapy),” the mother interrupts her and says “YOU WERE DYING … and I’m not gonna let you do that to yourself.” Even typing these words in and seeing Steadman in my mind’s eye cause my eyes to well up.
Another “abortion played as something bad” movie that I can now remember was in Ingmar Bergman’s AUTUMN SONATA (though like in LIFE AS SWEET, it’s an aside that if you blink you miss). Liv Ullmann blames her mother (Ingrid Bergman) for making her abort her baby and it’s the instant when she yells herself into incoherence.
And even apart from LIFE IS SWEET, there’s actually a pro-life thread running through the work of director Mike Leigh, a socialist whom I bumped into on a Toronto street and got to sign my festival guidebook after seeing his ALL OR NOTHING. In that film, a thread involving a teenager and her schmuck (at best) of a boyfriend results in an unplanned pregnancy that he wants to abort, but she decides to keep despite his saying that if it’s her choice, it’s her responsibility. This refusal of abortion is portrayed as a good thing and gets the support of her own mother. In addition, sterility and childlessness are often portrayed as something either tragic (SECRETS AND LIES) and/or self-indulgent (HIGH HOPES). And SECRETS AND LIES begins with a well-adjusted, capable woman who was given up at birth by a screwed-up woman who’s even more screwed-up now. There is a subtle hint in the two women’s first meeting that the daughter was the result of a rape.



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Mark R

posted April 29, 2004 at 3:07 pm


It was just weird to see the actor who played the paedophile in “Happiness” have a small role afterwards as a priest in Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry”.



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caroline

posted April 29, 2004 at 3:36 pm


Seems to me that you are all discussing “old” movies whose serious themes are largely greeted with laughs in today’s culture. It makes me wonder how Mel’s movie will be treated in subsequent generations.



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Victor Morton

posted April 29, 2004 at 4:11 pm


Caroline:
Or even today … (Amy’s already linked to this before, but …) as with Quentin Tarantino here where he compares THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to the Midnight Movie horror/yakuza gorefests of Japanese cult director Takashi Miike (whom I do think is great at what he does, but devout ‘on the knees’ films is not what he does).



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Mike Petrik

posted April 29, 2004 at 4:23 pm


Perhaps the audiance thought it was finally going to see the snuff film they always wanted.



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Lawrence Krubner

posted April 30, 2004 at 9:23 pm


My only cause for hope was the knowledge from experience that different audiences will react differently on different nights to the identical moment.
I know what you mean. The first time I went to see Secretary the whole audience sat there in sheer shell shock for the whole movie. Me and my girlfriend felt like we’d just been put that an emotional grinder. When I went back to see it a second time, the audience laughed quite a bit. Strangely, the second time it did, actually, seem much more like a comedy that it did the first time. The first time it just seemed a bit horrorifying.



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Gerry O' Neil

posted May 1, 2004 at 6:21 pm


It often feels to me like we’re living in a kind of Weimar Republic. Our enemies cannot defeat us militarily, but we may be undone by our decadence, our spiritual feebleness, our moral cowardice.



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Lawrence Krubner

posted May 4, 2004 at 10:18 am


O’Neil:
Your remark about the Weimar Republic reminds of something Hemingway wrote when he was still a journalist (before he became a well known fiction writer). In one of his articles from 1923, he wrote “Anyone who wonders if the Germans feel badly about losing the war should just visit Berlin and see the amount of cocaine in use.”
But still, I can’t agree with what you write about America’s decadence or moral cowardice. I can’t think of a braver nation, or one that strives harder to really live out its ideals.



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