When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE (1991)

I was surprised by how good the film version of THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE turned out to be.  I didn’t think I’d like it.

For regular readers of the blog, you may notice that I use two concepts that movie reviewers always use, but I never touch:  whether a movie is “good” or “bad” and whether I “liked” it.  Some of the films I write about are works I don’t care for, but still beg so many questions of the viewer or link to other significant points of cultural history that they are worth noting and scrutinizing.  Unlike most reviewers and critics, I am not mystified by movies, since I’ve worked on over 500 media productions.  A film to me is an anthropological study, an ethnographic document.  In thinking about a movie, the backstory of a film is equally as hallucinatory as the cinema-viewing experience; truth is stranger than fiction as the saying goes.  And backstory — the hazards and happenstance of production — is not just a bonus of enjoying a movie, but a door of perception to seeing integral factors in how and why a film was formed and completed.  The other way of looking at a movie — from a point of mystification — is like winnowing through a bag of semi-precious stones:  oohing and ahhing over the pretty ones, pointing out the flaws in the imperfect ones, and casting away the ugly ones.  In other words, saying what films are “good” and “bad” and which ones the viewer “likes.”

But, having stated my credo, I go on record that I was surprisingly impressed by the film version of Carson McCullers’ novella, despite credentials that initially kept me away from the film.  The first caveat was the knowledge that it was a Merchant-Ivory production.  I truly admire much of their work, but their clueless film version of Evan S. Connell’s MRS. BRIDGE made me think they should never again attempt to dramatize 20th century American literature.

The second danger sign was that the film was directed by an actor, Simon Callow, the skinnydipping minister from A ROOM WITH A VIEW and frequent Charles Dickens impersonator on BBC dramas.  Established actors rarely make good film directors (with the possible exception of Olivier or Charles Laughton).  Many directors begin as actors and soon realize their gifts are on the other side of the lens, but seldom has a venerated actor who turns director been able to create psychology by the use of visual space nor generate a worldview via light, color and shadow.  Yet Callow accomplishes a total visual story out of material that is primarily weighted towards narrative and performance.  (The screenplay is wrought from both the McCullers novella and the theatre adaptation by Edward Albee.)  You could watch this film with the sound turned off and still have an integral experience.

Thirdly, the story was set in Georgia (where I was born) and was shot in Central Texas (where I currently reside) — two topographically contrary locations.  Due to the great art direction and cinematography, the regional differences in colors of earth and sky, vegetation, and slant of light are negligible.  A large part of this illusion must be credited to Vanessa Redgrave’s seamless south-of-the-gnat-line drawl.  And credit must also be given to the local professional Texas actors in small roles who eschewed the Texas twang for an accurate Southern drawl.

Having a movie-loving mom, we used to go to movies when I was a kid and laugh at bogus Southern accents and mispronunciations or culturally-incorrect representations of the South.  She loved this book (it’s one of her few possessions I still have), and I think she would have liked the movie too.

The cinematography and the editing, indeed every aspect of filmmaking, was intelligently executed in this movie.

Like I said, I liked it.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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